Welcome back to Nippon! If you follow me on social media, you’ll know I’ve been trekking around Japan since basically the start of the year. My trip is almost at it’s conclusion – it’s flown by. As much as I’d love to stay here forever, I am looking forward to going home and taking a few days to reflect on all I’ve seen and done. I have SO MUCH to share with you and a whole lifetime of memories (plus thousands of photos but let’s not think about the editing process just yet). Before we get into it, I thought I’d do a general overview post about Japan. It seems a lot of people aren’t sure what to expect…
The People Are Incredible
Kind, welcoming, and helpful to a fault. I find the Japanese people to be amongst the nicest and most hospitable worldwide! Incidentally, a lot of people speak pretty good English, but don’t use it due to fear of messing up. I found I’d get out one of my few Japanese phrases and then as I lost my way conversationally, we’d switch to English and 9 times out of 10 the Japanese friend would have great conversational English. At least compared to my stuttering attempts!
Buildings Get Chilly
Most buildings in Japan are designed to be “disposable”; that is, every few decades they are destroyed and then rebuilt from the bottom up. I think the average lifetime of a building is about 40 years. This means that they can get super-cold in Winter as buildings tend to lack double-glazing, internal insulation and central heating systems. If you visit during the Winter (holla) you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time huddled around the nearest kotatsu (an ingenious heated table thing).
The Transport System Is Incredible
The trains are simply outstanding; heated, clean, efficient. And always BANG ON TIME. Train drivers are taught to stop the train within inches of the doorway and carriage, so when you line up for your car, you are literally at the door. No hawking your suitcase through three carriages! I think the one single thing I might be able to find fault with is that the Metro and subway lines aren’t 24 hours. But then, we only just reached that point in the UK (and only on two lines) so hey.
The language barrier isn’t as bad as you might think
There definitely exists a language barrier, but you won’t be completely cut off unless you’re visiting a very rural area. If you speak zero Japanese, it’s not insurmountable to getting around – although, I wouldn’t advise visiting with literally no words or phrases memorised! I made sure to learn a bunch of basic phrases in my first couple days so I could interact, get around, buy stuff and so on. Most train stations have English names of stations printed on the map, plus there are English announcements on the majority of trains (excluding some of the local lines) and buses to help you out.
Learning to read Japanese is a bit trickier – there are three different character systems and the grammatical structure is very different to English. Luckily, it’s a lot simpler and more logical than English! I’m learning to read Japanese at the moment and will report back.
You will need to learn basic customs
A lot of people describe Japan as a culture shock. Yes, the culture is very different – but it doesn’t need to be a huge shock! Read up on it first. Most of the key customs are based around hygeine and general public decency, so add in a bit of common sense and you’ll have made a good start. I’m sure there were times I messed up and did something awful without realising, but there’s a big difference between attempting to fit into a different culture and just blatantly not giving a shit. Look around guys; if the locals aren’t doing it, then you shouldn’t be either.
I’m considering compiling my own blog of basic customs and cultural tips but there’s tons of material out there already. You don’t want to be that foreigner – like it or not, when you travel you are representing your country. This is especially true in a country like Japan which has a very small expat/Western community.
It’s not too expensive
People kept asking me how I was going to afford to live here for two months. Er, quite easily seeing as I normally live in London! I can’t speak for the rest of the UK, but food, alcohol, transport and tourist activities (museum entry and so on) is all cheaper here in Japan than it is in London. Even in Tokyo!
The one area that’s probably roughly the same costwise is accommodation and rent. I worked out accommodation costs; the average night in a hostel for Tokyo is around £20 a night and maybe £12-15 around the rest of the country. The one part of my stay where I rented somewhere it was considerably more expensive than my London house (although also a lot nicer than my home). My London rent is about £17 a day and it was £26 a night for me in a shared house in Tokyo. I should point out that I’m on quite low rent for London. Hostel and hotel-wise; I have no idea what a London hostel would cost but I expect it’s about the same as Tokyo. I’ve also found once you delve into “posh hotel” realm, it’s a similar price wherever you go. No such thing as a budget Hilton, is there?
I think where Japan gets expensive is when you start going shopping. Which leads me to my next point…
The Japanese LOVE shopping
There are shops and malls EVERYWHERE. I went to some really off-the-beaten-path areas and at no point was I less than 20 minutes from a 24 hour shop. You’ll find a shopping mall attached to every major station; often underground or 8+ stories high. Even if you’re not normally a big shopper, you’ll likely get roped in to some shopping at some point. I’ve learned that I am a total sucker for traditional wood-carvings, and also, there is no limit to the amount of Sailor Moon merch I’d like to stuff in my backpack. Curse you, feeble baggage allowance!
It’s incredibly safe
I don’t think I can name a country that’s safer for solo female travellers! The crime rate is exceptionally low in Japan and it’s consistently placed in the top 10 safest countries globally. Even without the statistics, you’ll feel a lot safer here. I realised after the first week I felt a lot calmer when I was walking around. Suddenly, I twigged that I’d stopped watching over my shoulder when walking home as I normally do in London! Male harassment is also non-existent here; it’s like taking a break from the normal slog of female existence. Hurrah!
Have you been to Japan before and what did you notice?