Thinking about visiting Japan, but not sure where to start?
Here's a message from our supporting co-host, Amy Walker, on our upcoming retreat to Japan:
Look no further! As a seasoned world traveler, I can confidently say that Japan is one of the most fascinating and unique places I have ever been to. During our recent trip to Japan in February 2023, my students and I had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the country's rich culture, sample its delicious cuisine, and explore its many beautiful sights and attractions. In this blog post, I will share 7 things I think you should know before visiting Japan, with a focus on some of the most memorable aspects of our travels.
1. Getting Around Japan
One of the first things I noticed about Japan is its incredibly efficient and reliable transportation system. Trains and buses run on time, and stations are clean and well-maintained. As a traveler, I found that the train system was the most convenient and cost-effective way to get around Japan. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a marvel of modern technology and can take you from one end of the country to the other in a matter of hours! 2. Japan's Unique Culture and Customs
Japan is a country that places a high value on respect, order, and harmony. This is evident in many aspects of Japanese life, from the way people bow to each other to the meticulous attention paid to detail in every aspect of daily life. Japanese people are incredibly polite and welcoming to visitors, and we always felt safe and well taken care of during our travels. One of the things that I was most impressed with about Japan's culture is the emphasis on cleanliness and quietness. Littering is virtually non-existent, and people speak in hushed tones in public spaces. This creates a calm and peaceful atmosphere that is unique to Japan. 3. The Food
Japan is known around the world for its delicious and diverse cuisine, and our trip was no exception. From savoring a bowl of steaming hot ramen in Tokyo to tasting fresh sashimi in Osaka, every meal was a delight for our taste buds.
No trip to Japan would be complete without trying some world-renowned sushi. Sushi is a dish that originated in Japan and is now enjoyed all over the world. The quality of sushi in Japan is exceptional due to the use of fresh, high-quality ingredients and the skill of the sushi chefs. Salmon, yellow-tail, and tuna are three popular types of fish used in sushi rolls. Salmon is a buttery and rich fish that is often served raw in sushi. Yellow-tail, or hamachi in Japanese, has a mild flavor and a tender texture that pairs well with wasabi and soy sauce. Tuna, or maguro in Japanese, is a meaty and flavorful fish that can be enjoyed both raw and cooked. These three types of sushi rolls are delicious and a must-try for any sushi lover visiting Japan. In addition to the ramen noodles and fresh sushi, Lawson's and 7-11 are two convenience store chains that can be found all over Japan. While they may be commonly associated with snacks and basic household items, these stores are also great places to grab a delicious pastry or snack. Lawson's and 7-11 both offer a wide variety of fresh pastries, such as melon bread, cream-filled buns, and sweet rolls. These pastries are baked fresh daily and are a popular choice for breakfast or a mid-day snack. In addition to pastries, these stores also offer a variety of hot food options such as ramen, fried chicken, and onigiri (rice balls). These convenience stores are a great option for travelers on a budget or those looking for a quick and easy meal. Don't let the convenience store stigma fool you, the pastries and food options at Lawson's and 7-11 are not to be missed! 4. Sightseeing
Japan is home to a wealth of historical and cultural attractions that are a must-see for any traveler. From the iconic temples and shrines in Kyoto to the bustling streets of Tokyo, there is always something new and exciting to discover.
In Tokyo, some of the must-see attractions include the iconic Tokyo Tower, the bustling Shibuya Crossing, and the tranquil Meiji Shrine. Additionally, Tokyo is home to some of Japan's best museums, such as the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art. In Kyoto, you can experience the city's rich history and culture by exploring the many temples and shrines, such as Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha. The city's traditional district, Gion, is also a must-visit, with its charming streets lined with old wooden buildings and geisha performers.
In Osaka, visitors can indulge in the city's famous street food and take in the city's modern architecture, such as the Umeda Sky Building and the futuristic Abeno Harukas. Additionally, Osaka Castle and the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan are popular attractions that should not be missed.
Finally, a trip to Japan is not complete without a visit to Mt. Fuji, one of the most iconic symbols of Japan. Visitors can take a day trip from Tokyo or spend a night at one of the many hotels near the mountain to fully experience its beauty. Whether you are interested in history, culture, nature, or modernity, these destinations offer something for everyone.
5. Cherry Blossoms
One of the most beautiful and highly anticipated events in Japan is the blooming of the cherry blossoms or Sakura. In late March to early April, cherry trees all over the country burst into bloom, creating a breathtaking display of pink and white flowers. The tradition of Hinami, or flower-viewing, is an important cultural event where friends and families gather under the cherry trees to enjoy food, drink, and the beauty of the blossoms. Popular spots for cherry blossom viewing include Tokyo's Ueno Park, Kyoto's Philosopher's Path, and Osaka Castle Park. The cherry blossom season is short, lasting only a few weeks, but the beauty of the blossoms leaves a lasting impression on visitors and locals alike. 6. Money & Tipping
Money and tipping in Japan is a topic that often surprises first-time travelers to the country. Japan is a cash-based society, and while credit cards are accepted at larger businesses and hotels, it is a good idea to always carry some yen with you for smaller transactions and purchases.
One of the unique aspects of Japan's culture is the lack of a tipping culture. In Japan, it is not customary to tip waitstaff or service providers, as the price of goods and services includes all necessary fees. This is a refreshing change for many travelers, who are used to tipping being an expected part of dining out or receiving certain services.
When it comes to exchanging money, Japan has a reputation for being an expensive destination; however, with a bit of planning, it is possible to keep costs down. For example, using a Japan Rail Pass for transportation can save a lot of money on train fares, and there are many affordable accommodation options available, including capsule hotels and guesthouses.
7. The Language
Japanese is a beautiful language. Hearing it spoken around you while eating at a restaurant or visiting a public space is very enjoyable. While major tourist destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto may have more English speakers than other parts of Japan, it is still common for many Japanese people to only speak Japanese. This can create a language barrier that makes it challenging to navigate public transportation, order food at restaurants, or even ask for directions. To overcome this challenge, it is recommended to carry a pocket-sized phrasebook with basic Japanese phrases or to have a translation app handy on your smartphone. We found that Google Translate was quite accurate, and we utilized its camera functionality often to help translate signs, menus, and more. Additionally, many Japanese people are incredibly kind and patient, and will often go out of their way to help foreigners despite speaking different languages. With a little bit of patience and preparation, the language barrier can be easily overcome, and traveling to Japan can be an incredibly rewarding and unforgettable experience. To experience Japan fully, check out my upcoming Japan Retreat!