I recently returned from my first ever visit to Japan, the country that for as far as I can remember has been at the very top of my travel bucket list. Friends who have visited before have always told me that I would immediately fall in love with Japan, and after a brief 2-week visit, I am already yearning for my next opportunity to return.
Yet prior to my departure, people at home regularly quizzed as to why I had chosen to go to Japan. “No-one will understand you”, “You will get lost” and “It is too busy” was the advice I was given most regularly. Without doubt, for the majority who look on from the West, a cloud of mystery still hangs over the islands of Japan, a cloud that even the era of rapid globalisation has failed to clear. For me, I found this mystique as alluring, and perhaps the greatest reason for my long-held desire to travel to Japan. However, for many others, the so-called ‘unknown’, is viewed as the principal barrier to a trek to the Land of the Rising Sun.
In an attempt to provide clarity, I have drawn from my recent journey to report on what about Japan is fiction, and what is fact.
Myths and truths of Japan
Myth #1 – Nobody Speaks English
Not once during my visit did I encounter anyone who did not speak good or basic English. Yes, I must caveat this by adding that my fortnight within Japan centred around Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, which are the most popular tourist destinations within the country. However, for the majority of first time visitors, the itineraries will be similar for a 2-week stay.
The truth is that there is an insatiable appetite amongst the Japanese to learn and speak English – in part due to globalisation and in part as a result of the influx of Western media and culture into Japan during this Century. This desire was most evident when we met with 2 Japanese ladies, aged in their 50s, who were filled with excitement to give us a voluntary tour around Shinjuku. The tour would provide them with the opportunity to practice their conversational English with Gaijin (Japanese word for “foreigner”). The ladies told us that they had been on a 2-month long waiting list to take the tour, such is the willingness of Japanese people to improve their English skills.
Myth #2 – You won’t understand the signs/You’ll get lost
Fear not. On all public transport, whether it is the bullet train, city metro or local bus, for every Japanese sign, a reciprocal English sign accompanies it. For every announcement in Japanese, an English announcement follows. For every Japanese menu that is placed on a restaurant table, there’s an English equivalent available (on request), often translated with humorous consequences.
Initially, you may feel daunted on approach to some smaller Japanese ramen shops or conveyor-belt sushi joints that do not display any English signage on the outside. Often you are greeted by a ‘noren’ (traditional fabric curtain or veil which conceals the entrance) illustrated only with Japanese characters. Do not let this initial sight intimidate you. Once beyond the noren, you will be greeted as warmly as the locals are and occasionally the entire restaurant staff will unify in chant to announce your arrival. Eateries such as these can be the most rewarding in terms of value and authenticity, with delicious, hearty and homemade recipes served up at half the price of a more western-centric venue.
Myth #3 – There’s too many people/It’s too busy
Currently housing 38 million people, Tokyo is the world’s most populous city – by some margin – and there is no shying away from this. However, this is not news, and has been the case for many decades, decades in which Japan’s capital has had the opportunity to adapt to cope with the increasing numbers and build the appropriate infrastructure. Stations are vast and pedestrian crossings can be wider than some American highways. By enforced design, Tokyo flows.
Yes, there may be occasions during rush hour when there is a bit of a squeeze within the carriages of the subway, however this is nothing that I have not endured before in London or Paris. If you suffer from enochlophobia then the place may not be for you, however many visitors will find that the best way to experience the city is to sit on a park bench or at a coffee shop window and watch the thousands of faces pass by.
Myth #4 – It’s too expensive
Google “is Japan too expensive?” and the number 1 result is an article written by Japan’s most prominent English-speaking newspaper – ‘Japan Today’ – in which – frustratingly – the author endorses the common misconception that the country is too expensive for potential tourists to visit. Interestingly, and thankfully, many of the article’s commenters have challenged this view, and I will do so too.
Let’s start with flights. A present-day flight comparison search reveals that a return journey from London to Tokyo, over a 2 week period in November 2016, prices at £363 ($514). By direct comparison, the cheapest flight from the similarly distanced Los Angeles on the same dates costs £511 ($723.26).
Accommodation. During the same November period, a mid-week night’s stay in a double room within a 3 star hotel in Shinjuku can be found for as little as £59 ($84). For those on a more extreme budget, the same night within a hostel dorm in Shinjuku, will cost you £15 ($21).
Food. Glorious ramen, whether found in a backstreet nook or in a commuter hub chain, rarely exceeds the cost of 1000 Yen (£6.21/$8.79). Even with a delicious side of gyoza and a frosty Japanese beer, you will unlikely break through the £10 barrier. Mouth-wateringly fresh sushi can easily fall into the same price bracket, as can the traditional offerings of yakitori (meat skewers) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake). Your main dish will be accompanied with a water, green tea, or miso soup (or all 3) free of charge. As a pointer on etiquette, only when confronted with exceptional service and hospitality is it deemed acceptable to tip in Japan.
The renowned Japanese convenience store, found on more or less every street corner, offers alarmingly good value ‘pick-up’ food such as sushi rolls and rice cakes for as little as 300 Yen (£1.86/$2.65). For those who need the occasional Western fix, the traditional McDonalds 99p menu found in the UK, exchanges to less than 99p in Japan, based on current rates.
Transport. Prior to entering Japan, visitors can purchase the famous ‘J-Rail Pass’, allowing unlimited travel on all Japan Rail trains throughout the country. A weeklong pass currently costs £181 ($255). This may seem a large cost to pay up-front, yet the price can quickly be recouped with a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train and a side trip from the capital to Nikko. For those willing to pack in as much as Japan as they can, the J-Rail Pass offers a great deal.
Inner City travel also offers good value, with the average price of a metro trip across town at 200 Yen (£1.24/$1.75). An affordable commuter pass, equivalent to London’s Oyster Card, can be purchased by visitors who intend to base themselves in one of the major cities for a consecutive number of days.
Attractions. Senso-Ji Temple, Tsukiji Fish Market and the Government Metropolitan Observatory Tower, voted as top tourist destinations in Tokyo, are all free to visit, as is the spectacular Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Meanwhile, the revered Kinkaku-Ji Temple charges an entrance fee of just 400 Yen (£2.48/$3.52). The above may provide only a snapshot of the country’s vast cultural offerings, yet illustrates that the Japanese are keen that their visitors do not have to dig deep into their pockets to witness Japan’s most awe-inspiring sights.
Is Japan too expensive to travel to? No. It will almost certainly be cheaper to visit Thailand, Cambodia or the Philippines, however, largely as a result of the decreasing value of the Japanese Yen in recent years, scaremongering reports that Japan is too pricey to even consider a trip are far wide of the mark.
Myth #5 – As a Gaijin (Westerner), no one will interact with you
You will be heavily outnumbered by Japanese, and you will stand-out (especially, if like me, you are over 6ft 1 tall and pasty white). However, the view that Japan is a nation filled with xenophobia, as is often reported by the Western Press, is dated. Personally, pre-trip, discrimination had never been a concern for me. I had met with Japanese people before, albeit outside of their country, and each of them had struck me as incredibly warm, excitable, and charming. My friends who live in Japan had echoed these sentiments.
I can happily report that my view of Japanese people and their hospitality towards visitors remains un-changed, and, if anything, strengthened to the point of anger and sadness that there remains somewhat of a Western belief that visitors to Japan will not be made to feel welcome. Of course, I can only report on my experience from a tourist’s point of view, and speculate as to whether any xenophobia exists within the Japanese career ladder. However, I can confidently state that I have never met any other nationality of people who have gone out of their way to make you feel ‘at home from home’, and shown such great interest and enthusiasm in your trip, as the people of Japan.
Born on the wet and wild West coast of Scotland, Gary Amstrong has always been keen to seek adventure in sunnier and more exotic climbs. Close to scratching off 60 countries on his world map, Gary cites his trip as an 18 year old in Hong Kong – and his first to Asia – as the most eye-opening, and his solo journey driving around New Zealand in a family saloon car as his most rewarding.
For the meantime, Gary resides in Glasgow, Scotland. However, inspired by the beautiful places he has visited and inspirational people he has met across the globe, his passport is always kept at arms-length as he plans his next journey.
To join Gary on his adventures, please follow @themazyrun on Twitter and on Instagram, and view his blog at www.themazyrun.weebly.com