Tips for Making your First Time in Japan more Comfortable

The Kasuga shinto shrine in Nara

Going to Japan was haunting my dreams for more than a decade. Japan is a long distance flight; I should thoroughly prepare my trip, I thought. What if people don’t understand English and will be unable to help? Perfection paralysis made me postpone for years my decision to book a plane ticket. Then, on the spur of the moment and with little preparation, I was finding myself in Tokyo and it turned out to be the best decision !

There are numerous excellent resources on Japan, on its culture, food…So this post only gives some tips on what you can get from a 7-day trip to Japan with visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara.

The easiest way to travel in Japan is by train with a Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass currently costs about 280 USD for 7 days for an unlimited personal use on JR network. It is a gesture from the Ministry of tourism to promote Japan, so only non-residents are eligible to buy it. It is already worth buying the JR Pass If you plan to travel at least once to a big city outside Tokyo. The pass also works with the Narita Express train from the Tokyo airport and the Tokyo circular Yamanote metro line, so not only will you save money with it, but you will save time on not having to buy a ticket each time.

Trains in Japan are second-to-none: clean, fast and reliable. The bullet train Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto makes the 450 km in only 2h40.

Public transport in Japan may be a bit confusing the first day, but don’t worry: It is easy to get free maps, and everything is well explained and indicated. In Tokyo, deposit metro passes (Suica, Pasmo) are bought in automatic sales points.

Free Wifi Internet is widely available in public spaces, but if you feel the need of being connected all the time, you can grab a eConnect wifi hotspot at Narita.

It is considered that the best time for coming to Japan is springtime for cherry tree blossom and autumn, when maple trees redden. This is also when hotels are busy and more expensive. Japan has 138 million inhabitants with one of the highest GDP on earth, so the flow of national tourists makes room rates to fluctuate greatly. Avoid coming during the last week of April and the first week of May due to national holidays, when Japanese people travel all around Japan at the same time. Beware of Japan’s strong contrast between seasons. I suffered a 36 degres heat in July. August is usually as hot.

Eating in Japan is not difficult at all. In all the cities I visited, there are restaurants or cafes at every corner. Very often, you can see in restaurants’ windows exact replicas in plastic of the dishes served, with the price.

To make your choice easier, menus in Japanese restaurants usually show pictures. Even if these photos and samples are typically in “tourist-friendly” restaurants, quality is always good. Japanese people are not careless when it comes to food – you are not in Montmartre! (*)

For making sushi, rice preparation and cutting fish take years to master.

Tokyo fish market: Fresh fish is ubiquitous and not expensive in Japan. And yes, saying that sushi in Japan are really awesome is like saying nothing!

Just one thing to remember when eating out – Payment cards are far from being accepted everywhere and ATM are not as frequent as in Europe. As a rule, caring at least 5,000 yens in cash is a wise option. Coins are widely used, so a solid purse will also help.

The encounter with Japanese people.

Japanese people are extremely welcoming towards foreign visitors, polite and prompt to help you in case of necessity. In Tokyo, English is widely spoken by most passersby. To make the first contact easier, it greatly helps to learn some words in Japanese: konitchiva (hello), arigato (thank you), sumimasen (excuse me, I beg your pardon), or Kudasai (please).

A second feature that makes Japan clearly stand out from most countries I know is organization. Japanese people are experts in clear work procedures and instructions.

There is a clear procedure in Japan for everything.

Everything seems in control and works properly. There are many reasons for this. For example, Japanese people have a mindset prone to visualization. Japanese writing system is partly made by Kanji symbols, which are read as pictures. The worldly adopted working method “Kanban” also heavily relies on visualization techniques.

A Russian joke says you can endlessly watch water, fire and… men working. This scene illustrates perfectly Japanese sense of right working methods: Teamwork, fenced workplace, signs “Do not touch”,  wooden plank in order not to step on the fresh cement…

Japanese people, as it is often said, have a different relationship with their work than we, Europeans, do. They don’t see their work as a mere material result, but as the fruit of their working process. The proper way or art, Do, is a long path to follow. People learn it, and are not expected to criticize it. This influences their work as well.

Another peculiar thing in Japan is that people consider cleanliness and unclutteredness as a respect for the harmony on Earth and one of the principles of Shintoism. Their living place must be neat, kami.

The traditional Japanese house can illustrate this:

These workers did these cement works the same way. The result was perfect!

Japanese professionals are concentrated at work, but from times to times, they go for a drink with their colleagues after work, and then they manage to behave in a less formal way. This is nomikai hour! Japanese even have a word for speaking more openly after work, honne.

Pedestrian streets in Tokyo are not as common as the picture below:

Tokyo, with its skyscrapers, motorway bridges, plenty of department stores and vibrant nightlife has everything of a modern city.

If you like a more relaxing stay, then go to Nara. Situated 45 km from Kyoto, Nara was Japan’s first capital during the 8th century. The city managed to keep its historic atmosphere, with small streets, temples, parks.

The park around Kasuga Shrine is home to more than 1,300 deer that roam freely and are not afraid of humans.

The Kofukuji five storied pagoda, in Nara, is situated on a hill, from which you have a nice view on the city. Nearby there is a pond, where you can observe turtles and red carps.

Why not indulge yourself with some sweets at Mr Jiochiro Kita’s famous pastry shop in Nara? His cooking is a pleasure for both the palate and the eyes.

A sumo fight in Nara. Sumo fights are very popular in Japan. Sumotori, or sumo wrestlers, have very strong legs. They train themselves by squatting down and standing up on one leg.

Kyoto hosts hundreds of temples and old monuments. It is a big city, where landmarks are not within walking distance. Besides, Kyoto by itself is made mostly of concrete apartment blocks, so walking in it is not a pleasant experience. You can easily manage to visit Kyoto using public transports, but given the fact you don’t visit Kyoto everyday, it’s worth using taxis (25 USD for a 10 minutes’ drive) or private tours.



Rokuon-Ji, the Golden Temple

Rokuon-Ji, the Golden Temple, is often ranked as Kyoto’s top landmark. If for some reasons you missed it, do not have any regrets. The truth is it is packed with tourists, walking along the pathway as a herd and ending into shops selling postcards. You will enjoy far more Kyoto in less crowded places, such as the Philosophers’ pathway or in the gardens of the Eikando Zeirin-Ji temple.

Above, Eikando Zeirin-Ji gardens

Above, the Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, in Kyoto, surrounded by lovely gardens, is not too busy if you go at opening time.

Seven days eating Japanese delicacies and being constantly surprised by some new models of automatic toilet went by like water in open hands. Before my departure, a Russian friend told me:  -“ If you fulfil your ultimate dream, so what will remain to you?”. Actually, these few days only aroused my desire to come back to Japan. Only I would go further off the beaten tracks into the great variety of spiritual experiences Japan may offer.

(*): Montmartre is a picturesque place in Paris, where restaurants usually leave tourists with the feeling that French food is bad and expensive.


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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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