Traveling to Japan: FACT vs. FICTION

Back in 2014, before we travelled to Japan for the first time, we read and heard many different things about the country. Once we arrived there and spent some time exploring, we found that some of what we expected turned out to be true, and some of it really wasn't true at all. 

Now, when people find out we've been to Japan multiple times, they often ask questions about it; and we still hear some of those "facts" or "myths".

So, we've put together the following list, to inspire you and to help work out whether your next travel destination could be the Land of the Rising Sun...


1. "Japan is REALLY expensive!"


This is definitely one of the most frequent lines we have heard, and still do.

Cost of travel is always a really hard topic to compare between destinations. People travel differently, and what one person might spend money on, another person may not.

However, the biggest expenditures on a trip are usually the following: 

Flights - This really depends on where you are travelling from, and at what time of year. We have flown into Japan each time from New Zealand, and found that there were frequent sales, so our flights were in the range of $600-900NZD per person. This was for a direct, return flight with baggage included (we flew with Air New Zealand). We mostly travel outside of major and school holidays, as that is when we could get time off work, so this may help to lower costs a little.
Flights are a necessary cost when travelling, so if you're concerned, look out for sales or take your chances with more budget airlines (JetStar). In our opinion, what we paid wasn't unreasonable; we have spent more than that just flying across Canada.

Accommodation - In Japan, we have mainly stayed at hotels or apartments, and mostly stayed at places where the cost was between $100NZD to $200NZD per night. This is a similar cost to what we have found in Western countries such as NZ, Australia, Canada and the U.S.A, but we found the standard consistently higher than Western equivalents of the same price. We always found the hotels to be comfortable, clean and extremely well-stocked, with all the toiletries you need (even toothbrushes and razors). And the staff are always extremely helpful and professional. Occasionally the room may be a little on the small side (this is common in Japan) but it was never small enough to be an issue, particularly as we tended to spend most of our time out exploring and just came back to our hotels to rest and sleep. 
Location is something you don't have to worry about much in Japan, as most accommodation you will stay at will have food options and convenience stores nearby, and will also most likely have a Metro/train station very close. 
NOTE: This is mostly based on our experiences in larger cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka and some other smaller cities such as Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Mt. Fuji area. Experiences may differ in smaller, more remote areas. Also, we haven't used Hostels, Airbnb or other options in Japan, so we didn't want to comment on that; you might find some good, cheaper options there.

Transport - Japan has an amazing train system, that will get you anywhere. Unless you really wish to go somewhere that requires it, it would be unnecessary to hire a car (and good luck reading road signs if you can't read Japanese!). The trains are extremely efficient, clean and busy but orderly. The stations are dotted all over cities, and the system extends into rural areas as well. If a train doesn't quite get you where you want to go or when, a bus will. The costs are pretty reasonable; getting around a city is pretty cheap (a few hundred yen for a few stops in Toyko). To save transport costs, loosely plan to explore 1-2 areas in a day so you're not going back and forth on trains.
Catching a train between the big cities is obviously going to cost you a little more. For instance, it'll probably cost you around $160+ NZD to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, domestic travel is rarely cheap between major cities of any country, and the bullet train is FAST and convenient and a really nice way to see the country.

Don't forget, if you are able, your legs are also a great way to get around! We always walk A LOT when in Japan; for the most part the main cities are quite flat, and it's a great way to see different parts of the city and work up an appetite for more local delicacies. Most days we walked 20,000+ steps, and one of our highest days was 40,000+ steps (thank you Tokyo Disney!).

Food - There are so many food options in Japan! To be honest, the 'Food in Japan' topic warrants an entire new blog post, so we won't talk about it too much here, but we will give you a general idea. 
Yes, some food options will be costly (we're talking Kobe Beef, Very Fatty Tuna sushi, Kaiseki dinner etc.), but the great thing about Japan, is that there is also a huge amount of really good, more affordable options too. And unlike many Western destinations, cheap doesn't have to mean bad or "junk" food. Some more cheaper options can include ramen, donburi (rice bowls), Japanese curry and street/market food like fruit sticks, gyoza (dumplings) and takoyaki (pancake balls with octopus). There are also lots of non-Japanese food options on offer, like pizza, burgers, sandwiches, pasta, cafes and more. Many food places will have breakfast and/or lunch "set meals" or "specials", where you will get a meal and possibly a drink at a reasonable cost. Some will also have this available for dinner as well. So, with all this in mind, a casual/cheap daily food cost for the two of us, could be approximately ¥4000/$50NZD.
Another thing to keep in mind, is that Japan has the BEST CONVENIENCE STORES! You can find a wide range of food for inexpensive snacks or meals. For instance, you can find sandwiches, fruit, cup noodles, yogurts, drinks (including hot and iced coffee), hot food, onigiri (rice ball with filling), sushi and more. You can also find toiletries, magazines, sun screen, ATM's, printing and a lot of other helpful (convenient..) things. 

Attractions - Many attractions are free or will only request a small donation, such as temples and shrines.  Most other attractions, such as museums, galleries, zoos and the more popular temples and shrines, are still very reasonable; the cost will usually range from a couple of hundred, to a couple of thousand yen per person. 
The attractions that we spent the most money on in Japan, were theme parks; Tokyo Disney and Osaka Universal Studios will cost around ¥74,00 - ¥76,00 for 1-day-admission per person.

Overall, we don't find Japan noticeably more expensive than other places we have visited so far. We found that once our flights and accommodation were sorted, we could get around and enjoy the culture, sights and amazing food the country has to offer without spending too much money. 

2. "Japanese people are really polite!"


It is a big generalisation to describe all of the people from one country in one word, be it "polite", "friendly", "rude", "stand-offish" or anything else. Wherever in the world you visit, there will be a huge range of people and personalities. In some places that will be more apparent, in others, you may not notice unless you spend more time with the locals. 

Nevertheless, we CAN understand where this generalization has come from; most of the Japanese people we have interacted with have been really polite!
This could be due to Japan being a collectivist society, meaning people are encouraged to think of others around them, and put the needs of the group before their own as an individual.
You will usually find service (shops, restaurants, cafes, train stations, hotels, attractions etc.) to be very professional and courteous. Japanese people can also be shy though, so they won't necessarily interact with you as a foreigner unless there is a reason. This is particularly the case in busy cities, like Tokyo, where the locals are more used to tourists.

Don't take the politeness of the Japanese people for granted though! Please be mindful you respect their practices and act politely around them too. Yes, if you are obviously a foreigner or "gaijin" they will let certain things slide, but you may be seen as rude if you don't follow along with certain expectations. 


3. "Most people will speak English"


Before going to Japan, we took a night class for about 8 weeks, to learn the basics in Japanese language and culture. We really enjoyed our classes; our teacher was lovely, the information was helpful, and it was also a nice way to prepare for, and get excited for our trip. Even with a small amount of basic language under our belts, we still expected a little more of the English language to be present in Japan, but once we were there, we didn't always find this to be the case. 

You can take a trip to the main cities of Japan (i.e. Tokyo or Kyoto) fairly easily without speaking Japanese, but we highly recommend you learn at least a little bit before you go! It will help you get the most out of your trip and will make the whole experience a little smoother. It will also give you a deeper understanding of the country, people and culture.

Yes, some Japanese people are able to speak English very well, particularly in common tourist spots like hotels and attractions. But there are also a lot of people who speak very little or no English at all.
As the locals can also be quite shy, if you try to talk to someone, they may just say they don't speak English so as not to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.
Whether you speak Japanese or not, the shop assistant, waiter, or local who you are interacting with will usually be very polite and will try and help you as best as they can. 

Occasionally, you may also come across people that will want to talk to you to try and improve their English. We have had a young man come up and talk to us in a Burger King once! He was very excited to meet English speaking travellers and make friends.
A few times, we have also been approached by school kids; they often have assignments to find English speaking foreigners and ask them a few questions, i.e "What is your favourite Japanese food?", "Where are you from?"
Don't be alarmed! They are not looking to cause any trouble, they are just getting their homework done.

The further you go out of the main cities, the less chance you have in coming across people who speak English, so just be aware of this if you are heading to smaller towns, or "off the beaten track" without a guide or some knowledge of the Japanese language.
The same goes for written English; in bigger cities you will find signs, maps, brochures and even audio announcements available in English, but if you head out of the main tourist areas, that will decrease. 
The great things about menus in Japan is they often have pictures! So if there is no English menu available, you can always try pointing to the picture of what you want and hoping for the best.
In supermarkets, the labels will mostly be in Japanese, so you might end up like us; suddenly realizing that butter and cheese can look quite similar in a foreign country when there are no English words to tell you the difference! 

Food tokyo.jpg

4. "I love Sushi! So I will love to visit Japan!"


When asked about Japanese food, a lot of people will automatically think of Sushi. While sushi IS delicious, it is not as much of a common, everyday food as you might expect in Japan. Out of the 3 times we have visited the country, we have only had sushi about 2-3 times.

Japanese food and cuisine is SO MUCH more than sushi, so make sure you keep your mind open to trying new tastes and experiences. There are so many flavours and varieties of Ramen, and you can find it everywhere. Udon and soba noodle dishes are also great options. Try some authentic Tempura, Pork Katsu and Japanese Curry. Also, don't be afraid to try non-Japanese food too. Like many countries, Japan has food from all over the world. We have had great burgers, pizza and even delicious Indian food there.
And if you want something easy and familiar, they have all the Western Restaurant chains too (McDonald's, Burger King's, Starbucks). 

Of course, make sure you treat yourself to some authentic and fresh sushi. You can try going to a Sushi restaurant, or head to Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It might be a good idea to have a quick read-up on Sushi eating etiquette before going though, just so you know what to expect, and how it is recommended to eat. 
Other places to find sushi are at convenience stores, in food courts (often in the bottom levels of department stores) and in the food/shopping markets in and around train stations (e.g. Tokyo Station). 

If you are a fan of sushi in your home country, keep in mind that the sushi you are used to is just a variant of traditional Japanese style. So, if you are used to "california rolls" or various types of sushi with chicken, avocado etc., you are less likely to find that in Japan. Traditionally, sushi will mostly be made with fresh, raw seafood (fish, eel, roe, sea urchin etc.)
If that doesn't sound like something you would enjoy, TRY IT anyway; the sushi we ate for breakfast in Tsukiji Fish Market (Outer Market) in Tokyo, was fresh, simple and easily the BEST sushi we have eaten. It helped us to really appreciate the taste and texture of raw fish. 
*NOTE: For good sushi, expect to pay, it is prepared with extremely fresh and premium ingredients by highly skilled and experienced chefs. At the Sushi place we went to in Tsukiji, we payed around ¥300-800 per piece (that's about $3-10NZD!).

Lastly, don't miss out on the cakes, pastries and desserts in Japan. You will see Tea Houses, Cake shops (e.g. Ginza Cozy Corner), Pastry shops, Crepe stalls and Cafes with beautifully presented treats; TRY THEM! They are often as good to eat as they are to look at, and they are not overly sweet. This is to suit the palette of the locals, who don't eat a huge amount of sugary food. 

5. "The subway is really crowded, I've seen the Videos!"


We have all seen the videos of the Japanese subway, when attendants will push a few more business people into an already packed train so it resembles a tin of sardines. The first time we caught the Narita Express train from the Airport to Tokyo Station, we arrived at rush find a sea of heads bobbing back, forth, left and right in the rush to catch the train home. It was intimidating, but also amazing to see so many people moving about with minimal bumping, tripping or altercations!

Even with over 120 million people, the roads are not as busy as you might expect in Japan. The train system is extremely efficient, so people don't really need to use cars. A majority of people, particularly in main cities, will use the train/metro on a daily basis, or ride bikes (you will see lots of bikes around!).
Remember that Japanese society is collectivist; it's better for the community and environment to support public transport.

When you visit Japan, you will probably have to ride a few busy trains; it's inevitable when travelling to a small country with such a huge population. However, you can avoid the sardine-squash fairly easily: by avoiding trains at peak times. Trains WILL be packed when people are on their way to work, usually between 7-9am. The evening is not as bad, as end of day times vary between workers, and people will often go out to socialize after they have finished. However, you may find it gets busy again between 5-8pm.
At any time of day you might happen upon a busy train, but if you're lucky, you'll get a seat, and if not, there's plenty of standing room. Being a tourist, time is usually not on as tight a schedule, so sometimes if you wait a few minutes for the next train, you might get lucky and catch a slightly less busy one. You can also try scanning an incoming train and making a bee-line for the quieter carriages (hint: they are usually further from the stairwells or escalators leading to the entrance/exit). Another trick, is to avoid busier stations, and taking alternate routes to where you are headed (e.g. in Tokyo, Shinjuku and Tokyo stations are the busiest).

If you do have to get on a crowded train, don't worry too much! Follow train etiquette by keeping relatively quiet, turning your phone on silent, and giving your seat (if you have one) to others who need it more. Be prepared to stand up and get close; this isn't so bad as everyone is usually quiet and respectful, and there is a steady turnover of people getting on and off the train. Practice patience! You'll get to where you need to go.
*NOTE: in point 8, we talk about safety on busy trains.


6. "I love Anime, so I will love Japan"


Although it is often related to 'geek' or 'otaku' culture, a lot of people enjoy anime and manga, regardless of age, gender, race, occupation or social standing. This is apparent when you visit Japan; you will see lots of different people reading manga on the train, watching anime on their phone, or buying anime figurines in Akihabara. Even Tokyo Tower now has a whole themed area based on the popular anime "One Piece".  

If you are a fan of anime, manga, video games and/or technology you should definitely check out the Akihibara district of Tokyo. Even if you are just a tourist wanting to explore, it's worth a visit. It feels a bit like venturing into the future, or an alternate reality; flashing neon signs, 3D billboards, shops full of figurines, multi-storey electronic stores, themed cafes and restaurants, retro video game stores, an infamous 4-storey sex shop, waitresses dressed as maids handing out flyers in the street, and more. 

Travellers from other countries who are fans of anime (Dragonball, OnePiece, Naruto, Evangelion, Studio Ghibli etc), are often attracted to visit the country where it all came from.
It is great to have an initial interest in something that draws you to a country, and by all means follow that and enjoy it while you visit; just make sure you don't limit yourself to experiencing only that part of Japanese culture, use it as a stepping stone to see all that the country has to offer.

And for those who haven't experienced the world of anime and/or manga before, Japan could be a great place to introduce you to it. If you're in Kyoto, a visit to the Kyoto International Manga museum is well-worth it for manga fans, and anyone who is interested to find out what manga is all about. In Tokyo, the Ghibli Museum is a truly wonderful place to visit, particularly if you are a fan of the Studio Ghibli films (get in quick, there are only limited tickets that sell out quickly!). There are also plenty of themed cafes, restaurants and bars - so if you've got a favourite series, see if there's a themed place to check out! 

7. "Tokyo is over-crowded and full of people"


We've already touched on the fact that Japan has a huge population for such a small country (over 127 million!). Over 13 million of those people live in the prefecture of Tokyo alone.
In certain places, and at certain times, there will definitely be crowds (and lots of long lines), but in general, it doesn't feel too crowded when you are exploring the city of Tokyo. Japan is very well managed and organised as a country and society. Walking down the street, people will move to avoid bumping into each other, even with suitcases, umbrellas, travel bags or young children. If someone does happen to bump into you by accident, they will often utter "Sumimasen", meaning "Pardon me/Sorry". It is polite for you to do the same in return. 

As with the trains, you can always try to avoid busy places at peak times, but some spots will be busy no matter when you go, so be prepared to wait in line. One example is Tokyo Disney; it is busy regardless of the time of day, time of year, season, or weather. Fast passes for the most popular rides will sell out for the rest of the day, so get in quickly for the ones you don't want to miss out on. We also visited another popular theme park, Fuji Q Highland, and some of the wait times for rides were up to 4 hours long! Japanese people have mastered the art of waiting in lines. Even in Harajuku, there is a popular store that people line up outside of just to buy gourmet popcorn. 

Some crowds and lines are inevitable, but they will usually be fairly well-ordered and fast moving. For places you are expecting to be quite busy, research the best times of day to visit, and make sure it isn't a special holiday. If you are expecting a big line (e.g. a special event like Tokyo Game Show) go to the bathroom first and make sure you take water (and maybe even snacks) with you. 

In our experiences, we've never found it so crowded that we didn't enjoy ourselves; if anything it taught us to be a little more patient.

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8. "Japan is very safe"


Walking around many areas of Japan, you feel pretty safe. Their crime rates, particularly involving tourists, are pretty low, and you can feel comfortable walking around and not worrying about pick pocketing, mugging or violet crimes. You will most likely never come across Yakusa, or other gangs/criminals. 

There are a few light scams to be careful of, for instance we fell into one trap where a man dressed as a monk came up to us, gave us a prayer bracelet and asked for a donation. He didn't appear to speak much English, and we thought he was a legitimate monk, so we gave him ¥2000. We later found out it is a common scam in areas near shrines or temples where tourists frequent. Be sure to look out for people posing as monks; we should have known this man was suspicious, he had a pair of Nike kicks on underneath his monk attire...
Authentic monks will be seen in shrines and temples, but they will not come up to you and ask you for money.  

We have also heard of solo females occasionally being touched inappropriately on crowded trains, so be aware of this. We are always traveling together, and tend to avoid busy trains, so we have not experienced this. However, this is not to say it doesn't happen. If it does occur, talk to a train attendant or police officer, or grab the perpetrators arm, and yell/cause a commotion if need be. At certain times of day or night, there are also women-only carriages on many popular train routes, so if you are a female traveling alone, you can always keep an eye out for those. 

Walking around the cities, you will see little police huts/stations called "Kobans", with 1-2 officers inside or standing just outside. You can always go and talk to them if you are concerned about something, or even if you are lost; they can help you find where you need to go. 

Don't take the "safe" feeling of Japan for granted though; like anywhere you travel, practice general common sense and safety.

Another thing to be mindful of, is getting on the other side of the law. There are a few small minor infringements that tourists can sometimes make without realising it. One common mistake, is smoking while walking down the street, which is illegal in Japan. If caught by a police officer, you will most likely face a small fine.
*NOTE: If you want to smoke, find a designated smoking area, or look to see where the locals are smoking, this is usually an acceptable area. Malls, trains and hotels will often have smoking compartments/rooms too. 

Before traveling to different countries, you will likely hear and/or read good things, bad things and everything in between. Take all this advice with a pinch of salt, particularly when it's coming from people that haven't actually been to the country. 
Do your research; read travel guides, articles, books, have a look on the internet and talk to people you know that have travelled to the destination you are wanting to visit. Thorough research will help you to make the most of your trip and to stay safe. 

Most importantly, if you want to visit somewhere, and it is viable to go, MAKE IT HAPPEN, and don't let other people put you off somewhere you dream of going!

Have you heard any other tips, rumours, facts or fictions about travelling to Japan? We'd love to hear them! And if you have any questions about travelling to Japan, let us know!