Discovering the unique world of Japan

I have wanted to go to Japan since I was a child. I frequented sushi bars since childhood and was given the nickname of “sushi baby” by the chefs. I brought sushi for my class on international food day and even hosted a high school Japanese exchange student despite not knowing one word of Japanese! I’ve watched movies and read books about the art, the history and the unique culture of this island but was intimidated by rumours of high prices and never planned a specific visit. 
While I was recently living in Hawaii for 3 months I saw a round trip ticket for under $400 and knew I no longer had an excuse. The one week train pass was expensive, but I could also access most subway rides and it allowed for reserve seating on longer train journeys. If you take time to research, many hotels are more beautiful and cheaper than anything you can find in North America. The food was pricey if you wanted great sushi but everything else was very affordable. 

Over the 10 day window I visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and visited all three theme parks- DisneySea, Tokyo Disney and Universal Studios. It was a unique cultural experience  to visit these parks since everything was in Japanese and we were the only Western travellers there for the most part. 

I’m so glad I visited and am already planning a return trip because there are many more parts of the country that I would like to see. These are my top 10 travel tips from my first 10 days experiencing the Land of the Rising Sun…

 

1) There are a bizarre amount of restaurants underground at the subway stations. Tokyo Station has hundreds of amazing restaurants, while Shibuya has a crazy food market where you can buy both prepared food and raw produce. When in doubt look for signs indicating restaurants within the subway station and take your time to explore the variety of gems. Try not to get overwhelmed by the options and your ability to quickly get lost and disoriented.

2) Not all sushi is created equal. Despite what you might have read, the better sushi bars get the better fish, make the better rice, make the better sauces, etc. Chances are, Japan might be a one time trip for you so save some extra money and go to some of the nicer looking sushi bars that seem authentic. Be prepared to spend more on nigiri than you are used to, but if you are at one of the nicer sushi bars, it will more than likely be the best sushi you’ve ever had in your life and completely worth it.

3) Being a vegetarian or even a pescatarian is difficult. There is a bizarre amount of meat focused dishes across Japan, from the soup broths, to the curries, to most of the yakitori and tempura items. You find that for the most part you can only eat sushi or pastries because it’s not a vegetable or fruit centric culture. To combat this, and help yourself not get sick of the food, bring some healthy snacks from home. I brought a ton of RX bars and almonds. However, I would recommend and wish I had brought- Justin’s Nut Butter packets, powdered coconut milk and my usual protein powder and raw oats. Find grocery stores where you can and pick up some fresh fruit as well!

4) Many of the museums, gardens and other attractions not only have a small set window of time in which they operate, but often require reservations well in advance so its best to do your research when you buy your ticket, see what requires advance reservations, and make those.

5) Bring comfortable walking shoes because even if you buy the JR train pass, (which you basically have to unless you plan to never leave one city) you will walk miles. We averaged 11 miles a day with taking the metro often. Also bring a comfortable backpack (This Onsight Bag was the perfect addition to my trip) for your water bottle, camera, wallet and the many things you will inevitably buy.

6) There are plenty of businesses and metro ticket kiosks that do not accept credit cards, at the same time there are many ATM machines that do not allow non Japanese credit cards. Get yen out at the airport or search for a 7 Eleven so you can have the money you need. You can also pre-order from your bank before you arrive.

7) If you buy the JR pass to travel amongst different cities, realize that within the central system of the cities the JR pass will also often work. We did not know this the first day and spent a lot of extra money that was not necessary. This is especially the case in Tokyo.

8) If you decide to visit Tokyo Disney or Disney Sea, it’s very easy to do both in the same day as they are smaller than the USA versions. You can also buy a combo ticket to save money and your JR pass will get you to the park. Keep in mind the food options are somewhat grim at both and mostly include turkey legs, odd flavoured popcorns, odd flavoured churros, sausage and ice cream. However they do allow you to bring in your own food and drinks! If you don’t want the street food, the restaurant lines might take you well over an hour so having your own options is nice. You can pick up drinks and snacks at any of the subway stations along the way, including the Tokyo Disney stop. For those of you not used to the Disney parks, definitely get the Fast Passes and look into the best way to do this. The narration on all rides will only be in Japanese but it’s actually quite entertaining and it feels a little like being on a Japanese game show. Also, many groups of friends and couples dress alike- as different random characters but mostly just in matching outfits. I wish I had known this because it would have been fun to dress up!

9) Weather is unpredictable. While I was there in June it was only sunny and warm one day and every other day required pants and a sweater so don’t assume the weather will be one way over another and be prepared. You can buy a super cheap poncho from most shops, same with umbrellas and many hotels will let you use umbrellas for free.

10) It is worthwhile to wander. Yes look into the major sites you want to visit but walk as much as you can, turn down as many side roads as you can because you never know what you will discover. Bring a camera or have a great phone. You will definitely want to take pictures!

Learn more about author Alexandra Kahn here.