We chose to visit Japan in the winter so that we could combine it with our annual ski trip. As we’re currently based in the Middle East, we didn’t want to ‘waste’ a holiday going back to Europe in search of snow; neither did we want to travel as far as America or Canada. Japan will probably never be as close to home for us as it is now, and having heard some rave reviews of their ski areas, it seemed like a great choice.
Winter is definitely off-peak for Japan: most tourists are attracted there by the famous springtime cherry blossoms or the warmer summer temperatures. The snow was essential for us- but of course we wanted to take the opportunity to explore a bit as well, so we incorporated a few days in Tokyo beforehand and a few in Kyoto afterwards.
As with any country-wide trip, beware of trying to fit too much in. I’d say the four nights we spent in Tokyo, and three in Kyoto/Osaka, were the bare minimum for these two areas. I’ve learned from our recent travels to choose which areas you want to focus on and accept that there may be sacrifices. Otherwise there’s a danger that you’ll spend the majority of your time in airports and train stations rather than taking in the sights.
Speaking of airports and train stations- a word on public transport in Japan. We’d been told that it was difficult to navigate, with a lack of English signage and plenty of room for confusion. I tried to research as much as I could before we went, but in all honesty, it made a lot more sense when we got there. All of the major train stations have manned ticket offices with English speaking staff, and even the smaller ones have English options on the automated machines and signs in English.
For getting around the city, Google Maps was our best friend, giving us the nearest station to our destination, and showing us which subway, rail, bus routes or combinations we needed to get there. We also used the Hyperdia app for timetables and prices once we knew which stations we required – and if you have a JR pass, it allows you to filter your results to account for this.
Japan Rail (JR) passes are essential for visitors planning to bounce around multiple destinations in Japan. Because we flew to our ski resort it wasn’t necessary for us, so I won’t be covering JR passes in any detail, but make sure you do some research on this before you go as I believe you have to pre-purchase.
In Tokyo, we got the Narita Express train from Narita airport to Tokyo station. There was plenty of luggage space on the train. You can buy tickets by credit card and reserve seats at the airport train station on arrival- we didn’t pre-book any of this. Trains run every half hour from about 6am.
We also purchased a SUICA card – a re-chargeable universal ticket which is valid on trains, buses, subways and taxis as well as in some shops, much like London’s Oyster card. This came in really handy as it meant we didn’t have to spend time getting tickets for the numerous individual journeys we made. You can use it in other cities, but as it is issued by JR East you will need to return it in the JR East region (e.g. Tokyo) to get your ¥500 deposit, plus any remaining credit, refunded.
In Kyoto, we got the equivalent which was called ICOCA. The transport in Kyoto isn’t as straightforward as in Tokyo, and we had to take a lot of buses, so having the card is great as you don’t have to faff with exact change for the bus driver or worry about having cash all the time. We had a couple of minor fails (not being able to find the correct bus stop; getting on the right bus in the wrong direction) but the buses are clearly labelled and the bus stops have timetables at them so we really had no excuses!
I’ve already mentioned our reliance on Google Maps- this wouldn’t have been possible had we not purchased a two-week data only sim when we arrived. Wi-Fi is available in a lot of public places, but as you’d expect, it’s not the quickest. Pocket Wi-Fi routers are popular and widely available – there are kiosks at the airport selling these as well as sim cards.
We had a dabble with most of the traditional Japanese foods we could get hold of (I think sea urchin might have been the exception) but if sushi makes you squirm and pickles are not your thing for breakfast, then rest assured there are familiar western options available in a lot of places, including, if you’re really desperate, the famed golden arches. (We may have called in for an emergency hangover breakfast)! If you’re off the beaten track and can’t find anything you fancy, steamed buns are usually a safe bet- kind of like sweet bread rolls stuffed with anything from pizza to Kobe steak. I’m planning a separate post all about the yummy Japanese food we ate, so watch this space!
Culturally, I’m not aware that we made any faux pas… We found the Japanese people to be quiet and respectful- although we never experienced the Tokyo subway at rush hour! All of the stations we went to had orderly queuing systems marked out, which people diligently adhered to. If you go into any traditional restaurants or houses you’ll be expected to take your shoes off- often slippers are provided, but if it’s summer and you’re wearing sandals I’d take a pair of socks just in case.
When booking accommodation, you might find options for ‘Western style’ rooms or ‘Japanese style’ rooms. The Japanese style rooms will have a traditional aesthetic, featuring tatami- matted floors, sliding wooden doors with rice paper panels, and minimal furniture. Rather than a bed frame and mattress, a futon will be rolled out when needed. We stayed in a traditional ‘Ryokan’ (Japanese inn) for two nights in Kyoto, which was a great experience, but found the Western hotel beds more comfortable overall. Make sure you check whether your accommodation is en-suite or not, as we noticed a lot of hotels and Ryokan didn’t have this as a default.
Bringing me nicely on to Japanese toilets. Yes, that’s right, I’m going to write about toilets! Firstly because, when you’re busy out and about doing touristy stuff all day, chances are you’ll need one- and I can happily report that we found public toilets to be abundant and well maintained. Secondly, because I have never seen anything so over engineered! Each new toilet was full of surprises (and not in the gross way) – from automatic lid raising, to heated seats, and even a button to make a flushing noise without actually flushing. In many cases, ironically, the only button missing from the fancy pants electronic panel was the flush itself!
Hopefully this post will be of some use to anyone planning a trip to Japan. As well as my foodie favourites, I’ll be posting separately about what we got upto in our four days in Tokyo and three days in Kyoto, so stay tuned.