I’d wanted to go to Japan for a long time, probably since high school. Thanks to Captain Tsubasa II, I’d already learned the syllable alphabets by then, and the language fascinated me. But my interest in Japanese culture peaked during my university years, when I had a really idealised image of Japan. It was then that I took some online Japanese lessons and learned some more basic phrases. Anime also helped. Back in those days, I listened to JPop a lot and watched JPop videos, and feeling a bit strange, but in a positive way, about the cultural differences between Japan and Western countries. Needless to say, actually being in Japan and getting a real feel of the country quickly became my dream.
Fast forward 10 years… Having already met my soulmate, we were to get married, and wanted to choose a destination for our honeymoon well in advance, so that the costs wouldn’t be insane. Peru was actually our first choice, but the dates and prices we could find weren’t exactly to our tastes. Thus, when a good offer for our second choice, Japan, surfaced, we jumped at the opportunity immediately. My mega hype for Japan had long died down, my expectations were rather modest. I knew Japan was a pretty developed country, and, given today’s globalised world, it’d probably be similar to Western Europe in many ways. I did look forward to the crazy technology we’d inevitably come across, as, to my knowledge, Japan was usually 5-10 years ahead of the rest of the world in that department.
After the trip, I’m convinced that Japan should’ve been our top choice in the first place, and we’re definitely going back in the future.
Needless to say, all pictures in this article have been taken by me and my wife. You can click on them to see them in bigger size.
In a nutshell, Japan exceeded my expectations. Beautiful nature, different, fascinating culture, polite, nice people, great technology, excellent food, adorable quirks. If you wonder just how much globalisation has affected Japan, the answer is “not that much.” There’s something about being an archipelago pretty much closed off to the rest of the world for many centuries that a mere 150 years of being open cannot undo. A whole lot of things made me think “only in Japan…” The majority of them positive ones. It’s hard to write this, it’s hard to put so many emotions into words, and thinking of Japan inevitably invokes a sadness that will stay with me until the next time I’m there.
The one big question mark regarding travel to Japan nowadays is the radiation levels due to the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant failure. We made sure not to travel to the regions closest to it, but there’s certainly some radiation outside of them, too, including in Tokyo. Obviously, nothing that’s stopping the Japanese from going on with their daily lives, and we won’t know of the long-term effects for a while now. Once you’re over this fear, though, Japan’s nothing but a treat for the traveller. Aside from everything I mentioned above, the weather in early-to-mid September is really nice, too – it felt pretty much like a European summer most of the time, aside from a couple of rainy days, one of them caused by a typhoon.
Crime rate in Japan is really low, and you needn’t even think about petty details like potentially getting your shoes stolen during the many occasions you have to leave them at the door of a public spot like a castle or a temple. Tipping is almost non-existent in Japan, taxi drivers and restaurant staff will return your change to the last yen and refuse if you try to leave some extra money.
We got to Japan using Qatar Airways. It was a marathon flight – first from Sofia, through Bucharest, to Doha, and then finally a direct flight from Doha to Tokyo’s Narita airport. First flight took 6 and a half hours – the Bucharest mid-stop being completely out of the direct way and prolonging it a lot, but it was necessary for the airline to have a viable flight, as many of the passengers came from there. Second flight took 10 hours – 16 if we add the time-zone difference. Adding the 3-hour wait in Doha, we got to Tokyo 19 hours and a half after we left Sofia (over a day with the time-zone difference in mind).
Nevertheless, I must praise Qatar Airways for making this long flight quite comfortable and even enjoyable to a great extent. They made sure we were well-fed, with pretty good food, too, by in-flight food standards. One nice touch was that they had a Japanese dinner with sushi, soba and teriyaki chicken on the Tokyo flight, letting us start enjoying the Japanese cuisine already before even having landed there. There was also pretty good in-flight entertainment – every seat had a screen in front, and lots of music, movies and games to choose from. While the IFE devices on the Sofia – Doha flight only had touch screen controls and the corresponding games, the Doha – Tokyo ones also had a remote that doubled as a controller, and had some 3D games to take advantage of that.
The games were generally quite poor, though, with Tetris and Zuma being the highlights. There was a first-person shooter on the second flight that wasn’t completely awful, but sadly it crashed after a couple of levels. Thus, I mostly listened to music and watched a couple of movies during the flight – in the time I didn’t eat or sleep, that is. Another neat touch by Qatar Airways was providing each passenger with a pillow and a blanket to keep warm and comfortable.
Once in Japan, transportation still plays a major role – if you want to make the most of your time there, that is. And transportation in Japan is very comfortable, too – aside from the occasional inability to find seats on the Tokyo metro and Tokyo-area trains because Tokyo is generally overpopulated. While you’re in Tokyo, you can rely on the metro, and there is a nice JR (Japan Railways) train line that circles the city, too. When you need to go outside, the trains are impressively fast, with the Shinkansen travelling with an average speed of 160-170 km/h (including stops!). Of course, regular trains aren’t that fast, but they’re still obviously much faster than what I’m used to in Bulgaria, and above the level of what I’ve seen in Italy, too.
If you pay good attention, you really won’t get lost while travelling in Japan – almost everything announced on the trains is repeated in English afterwards, and announcements are very frequent. English maps of the metro and train lines are readily available, though you may not find them absolutely everywhere. Most major stations have information bureaus, where the staff speaks decent English and will help you. Sadly, my expectations that major trains would have free Wi-Fi were not realised, but they do have a Japanese lady moving through cars and selling food and drinks, for what that’s worth.
One very important prerequisite for travelling in Japan without getting broke is the JR Rail Pass, which must be bought before you actually go to Japan, and lets you travel for much less money than you would normally have to pay. There are several kinds of these passes, depending on what you want to do, and I’ll get into more details about them in the “Costs” chapter later on.
Another invaluable thing I must mention is the Maps With Me Pro software – as most GPS programs do not offer maps for Japan, this little piece of software, priced at the humble $5 or so (8 leva in the Bulgarian Android market), proved incredibly useful for our stay in Japan, and was helping us find our way around almost constantly.
Quite naturally, Tokyo occupied the most of our time in Japan. It’s just a gigantic megalopolis, practically many smaller towns linked together, right next to each other. We were actually in a guided tour for most of our stay, organised by a small Bulgarian operator called “Exotic Travel Club”, which allowed us to really make the best use of our time and go to as many places as possible, thanks to the well-prepared program by our guide Martin Syarov. Once we landed and passed through immigration (which took some time, though I was really half-asleep), we took the train from Narita (which is a good bit away from Tokyo), and headed to our hotel, First City Hotel in Ueno (上野).
Once off the train (at the Ueno station), we were really in Tokyo… Already while waiting for taxis, we were taking pictures like crazy being struck with the first typically Japanese things like chopsticks holding spaghetti in the air, and the plastic representations of food at restaurant windows, which were incredibly close to the real thing. Aside from that, there were Japanese high-school girls chatting, a restaurant employee inviting people inside, neon signs in Japanese everywhere… It was around 7:30-8 PM, and already dark (typically, it gets dark around 6, while it doesn’t get dark before 8 in September in Bulgaria).
After we left our stuff at the hotel, we were out to have our first dinner in Japan. It was already a bit late, after 10 PM, and a lot of restaurants had already closed (this is another typical thing in Japan – most smaller-scale shops close around 5-6 PM, and most restaurants close around 11, taking last orders by 10). So, we went to a fast food-like place (but with typically Japanese food like soba, udon, curry rice (yes, I know curry comes from India, it’s just quite popular in Japan), not burgers), where we had to first choose what to eat and buy tickets from a machine, which we’d then take to the chef who’d whip us up our food in an impressively quick fashion. Chef Nakanishi (なかにし) did a fine job and we were soon enjoying some curry and Japanese Asahi draft beer. The food tasted quite nicely, too (although some members of our group just couldn’t take Japanese cuisine. Their loss :)), and this was merely some third-rate place. We’d be in for a culinary treat for the rest of our adventure.
As we eventually went back to the hotel and entered a nearby convenience store, a pleasant surprise expected me – the well-known Bulgaria brand yoghurt (ブルガリアヨーグルト), made with genuine Bulgarian yoghurt bacteria under license, also one of the two things Japanese think about when you tell them you’re from Bulgaria (the other being the Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu (琴欧洲), who holds the second highest rank after yokozuna, ozeki)! Immediately, I bought some, along with the dessert that would prove to be Japan’s finest – purin (プリン), or crème caramel/pudding! Bulgaria yoghurt is really quite close to our own, perhaps a little bit less sour, and purins are just unbelievably tasty, and really cheap, too, at 100-120円 apiece.
The next day was to be fully dedicated to Tokyo, and we started in the neighbourhood, with the large and relaxing Ueno park. We encountered quite a few groups of schoolkids, instantly recognisable with their uniforms, which are all within certain general guidelines, but each school’s are different (for instance, one school may have students wear ties, another may have them wear sleeveless sweaters). The “Japanese schoolgirl” stereotype was played out right in front of my eyes, and it was rather remarkable how similar their uniforms made them look. Perhaps uniforms are a major reason why we encountered so many “oddballs” in terms of clothing and hair style in Japan – once they grow up a little, the Japanese, and especially the girls, are very eager to show their individuality using whatever means that make them stand out they see fit – hair often dyed blonde, extravagant clothes, hats (especially tall winter hats worn during all seasons).
We went to the zoo, which was pretty large, and even had a little train going between the two sections which were separated by a bridge. There were plenty of schoolkids in the zoo, too, not to mention little children with their parents and grandparents. Some tourists like us, too, most notably Chinese ones. Having been to several zoos around Europe, there were hardly any animals that could impress me, aside from a little arctic bird normally living in Svalbard (well, the pandas, which the zoo is quite proud of, were cool, too). But there was a big lake with giant, fascinating flora, the first hint at Japanese “garden with lake” style that would prove quite prevalent on our trip.
Afterwards, we went to Shinjuku (新宿), and marvelled at the skyscrapers as we took a walk around. We had tasty tonkatsu (deep-fried pork) for lunch (it’s funny how the Japanese slice everything in pieces so that it can be conveniently eaten with chopsticks), and then headed for Shibuya (渋谷), a really crowded district where young Japanese like to recreate. It’s actually famous with its crossing where cars in all directions are stopped so that people can cross, and it gets crazy, especially in more busy hours. There’s also a diagonal walkway, with its own traffic light pointed diagonally, no less – though we’d see more of this in Japan later. We came across several arcades in Shibuya, but were in a bit of a hurry and decided not to try them out.
In the evening, we headed to Akihabara (秋葉原), known as Tokyo’s electronic district. To be honest, I expected it to be even more crazily technological, and was a bit let down by its overall appearance which wasn’t that different from Shibuya, except there were shops for electronics everywhere. There were plenty of game stores and many arcades, much more than in Shibuya, and we played a taiko (drum) game in one of them. It was quite fun, similar to Guitar Hero, except with a drum instead of a guitar. As we walked around, a couple of cute Japanese girls in maid uniforms invited me to “the best maid café in Akihabara.” While it’s a generally interesting concept (a café where waitresses are dressed as housemaids and act like you’re their master), I thought going to a one would be a waste of money and didn’t do it.