Happy New Year, folks!
I trust that you also had an aiight Christmas and were sensible enough not to drink too much.
I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions but one of my goals for 2015 is to see more of the world. Of course, achieving this goal is going to be a challenge because 1) booking international flights out of Gold Coast is a pain in the arse and 2) I’m trying to save up for a house deposit. Ultimately though, I’m the happiest when I’m away from home and exploring unchartered territory. Plus, who says you can’t travel while you’re saving up for a house? For the next month or two, this blog will move away from Australia and into Asia, more specifically Japan, Singapore and Indonesia.
First up: JAPAN.
Just in case you haven’t heard me talk about it enough on social media, during social gatherings and in my sleep, I went to Japan for two weeks. And as clichéd as it sounds, it was the best trip of my life (so far); there is no doubt in my mind that I’d happily do it again and again. It goes without saying that Japan is a wonderful country with so much to see and do, however it is also a confusing place for first-timers like myself. With that in mind, here’s just a small sample of the many things I learnt about the beautiful country during my very limited time there.
1. Train or plane? If you’re planning to explore a few different cities during your time there, the best way to do so is via Shinkansen (bullet train). It is not cheap; for example, it costs ¥14720 to do the Tokyo to Osaka dash by bullet train (so, roughly AUD$140). Given that domestic flights between the two major cities are cheaper, many people choose to fly instead. However, there’s something cool about admiring the picturesque Japanese countryside while travelling at speeds up to 320km/h and what is three hours on a train compared to the time it takes to commute to and from the airports? Plus, if you’re organised enough to order a JR pass exchange order before you leave for Japan (and swap it for an actual pass once you’re there), you’ll cover a lot of Japan in a relatively economically-efficient way. I paid AUD$300 for my seven-day pass and used it to get me from Tokyo to Osaka and back again, all while seeing Kyoto, Nara, Nagano, Nagoya and Yokohama along the way.
2. Get to know the subway system in Tokyo (this also applies to other major cities such as Kyoto and Osaka). Taxis are ridiculously expensive in Japan (for example, a taxi ride from Narita Airport to Tokyo proper left my friend AUD$240 poorer) so it’s best that you got to know the subway system. For one thing, riding the subway is a lot cheaper and trains run every few minutes (and on time, even during the busy times).
The Tokyo subway system can be initially daunting at first what with all the different colours and criss-crossing lines but it’s easy once you figure it out (plus, signs are everywhere in case you get lost). If you have a smartphone, Google Maps and apps such as HyperDia are your BFFS – not only will they tell you what trains/buses to take to reach your destination, they will also give you a rough fare estimate too.
3. Generally, English isn’t widely spoken in Japan – and this is more apparent the further away you get from the major cities. You don’t have to invest in a yearlong Japanese course to prepare for your holiday but learning a few words will get you a long way. Useful phrases include sumimasen (excuse me), arigato (thank you), arigato gozaimasu (thank you (more formal)), Nihongo ga wakarimasen (sorry, I don’t understand Japanese) and oishii (delicious).
4. Following on from 3, booking restaurants can be hard so it’s advised that you get a Japanese-speaking friend to make bookings for you. If you happen to stay at a hotel though, getting a concierge should do the trick. That said, the concierge at Hilton Tokyo were hopeless (promised they’d make the bookings for me, then heard nothing from them despite repeated follow-up emails). Conversely, Piece Hostel in Kyoto booked me spots at Kikunoi and the Yamazaki whisky distillery tour with no issues. Expensive does not necessarily mean the best service (although the bed sheets and Tokyo city views at Hilton were, to be fair, pretty nice).
5. One yen coins are a pain in the arse.
6. I found that being an Asian female in Japan can be a good and a bad thing. People assumed I was Japanese which meant that I was able to blend in easily amongst crowds. However, this also meant that I was the ‘go to’ person when someone needed directions or when old men got lonely and wanted to talk to someone. More often than not, a ‘nihongogawakarimasen’ (‘I don’t understand Japanese’) from me resulted in looks of disappointment/shock/disgust from the other person. An American I met in Osaka said that if you’re in Asian in Japan and can’t speak Japanese, you’re stupid; if you’re a white person in Japan and can speak one line of Japanese, you’re a genius.
7. I normally carry a small bottle of hand sanitiser or baby wipes when I travel anyway but nowhere is this more important than in Japan. A lot of public washrooms (especially in shopping malls and major train stations) surprisingly don’t stock their washrooms with soap and paper towels. This is where a bottle of Dettol or a packet of baby wipes will come in extremely handy. If you’re pressed for luggage space and can ONLY carry one or the other, then I’d recommend the wipes because at least you can wipe your face with it after a night out drinking and you’re too lazy to wash your face completely before crashing into bed (may or may not be speaking from experience(s)).
8. Japan Tinder is full of:
1. Nice and well-meaning but socially awkward and shy Tokyo boys
2. French guys on working visas (either teachers or engineers).
3. Oddball westerners.
4. And downright angry westerners.
9. If you regularly do squats at the gym, you’ll find that using a traditional ‘hole in the ground’ toilet is MUCH easier than if you’re a pleb who just does cardio. Of course, you still have a choice between those and western toilets when you’re in major cities. If you’re at a country train station or pub, however, you’re pretty much screwed so suck it up, princess.
10. I’m a planner and I found that organising most things before I left Australia made things a lot smoother. However, there are some things that you can’t plan for. Things I had not planned for included organising transport from Jigokudani to Yudanaka (forcing myself to hike 10km to civilisation gave me a lot of thinking time and I got to admire the beautiful Japanese forest) and a night at a seedy love hotel after several rounds of beer at random izakayas and family-run karaoke bars. Those moments were unplanned and undoubtedly the highlights of my Japan trip.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of all the restaurants I ate at in Japan. Brace yourself for lots of raw fish, photos of cheap whisky and snide Tinder-related remarks.