Elegant geishas, super-futuristic cities, weird robots, snow-capped mountains, ancient temples, spiritual awakenings - phew! Japan has more awesomeness packed into one small island than you can shake a chopstick at (although that would be considered very bad table manners anyway). So where to start? Here’s a quick guide to get you going.
1. Do all the things
Do you want to go on a spiritual journey and discover your inner zen? Are you keen on epic hikes up lush mountains and relaxing soaks in hot springs? Or is high-tech, neon-lit nightlife more your vibe? In Japan, you can have it all! Explore Tokyo where you’ll find a mind-blowing mix of stuff you’d expect to see in a sci-fi film mixed up with traditional Japanese culture. Go shopping in ultra-chic Harajuku. Browse the frenetic Tsukiji Market. Grab a drink at the Robot Restaurant. And take a selfie with Godzilla in Shinjuku. Slow things down in serene Kyoto with its spiritual temples, sublime gardens, traditional tea houses and shy geishas. Traverse the Yoshida Trail to the snowy peaks of Mt Fuji. Sink into steaming thermal baths or go skiing in the surrounding mountains in scenic Hokkaido.
2. Om nom nom
Sushi, sushi, sushi. That’s what comes to mind when most people think about Japanese food. And they're not wrong! But there’s a whole menu of other delicious local dishes waiting to be discovered too. Ramen (noodles floating in tasty miso soup) is super popular too. Tempura is everywhere, a Japanese snack made with pretty much any type of battered and fried veggies or meat. Soba noodles, shabu shabu (a hearty hot pot stew) and onigiris (rice balls) are also local favourites. The awesome thing about Japanese food is it’s super seasonal and regional. So whatever time of year and wherever you go, you’ll get a totally different taste of Japan!
3. Know your budget
Let’s get something straight: Japan is not as pricey as you probably think it is. Sure, you’re not going to coast along on a few bucks a day, but you can still make it work if you’re smart about it. If you’re backpacking, plan to budget about (take a deep breath) R1000 a day. This will get you a spot in a hostel dorm room (or one of those nifty sleep pods), cheap and cheerful street food, entry into museums and temples, and local transport.
4. How to stay thrifty
Sure Japan is pricey. But there are ways to save some Yen if you’re careful. Spending a day in Japan’s many gorgeous parks is free. Buy a temple pass that’s valid for a day so you can see as much as possible and only pay once. Transport in Japan is very expensive – especially if you take the bullet train. Rather take the bus (or get a JR pass for the train if you’re planning to do lots of travelling across the country). Feeling friendly? You could hitchhike too. It’s totally safe, and you’ll get a chance to hang out with some locals. Stock up on all the stuff you need at the many 100 Yen stores that offer set meals, groceries, water bottles, toiletries, and other useful stuff. Don’t mind getting your hands a bit dirty? A lot of hostels in Japan let you work a few hours (usually cleaning) in exchange for your room. Sweet deal!
5. Keep safe
It really doesn’t get much safer than Japan. There is no crime. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Not even petty theft. Solo female travellers should keep their wits about them though, as Japanese men have been reported to behave inappropriately on trains. Many train companies offer “women only” cars during rush hour – so you can avoid getting too close. Last (but never least), get good travel insurance. Even though there’s no crime, you could still get sick, your flights cancelled, luggage lost or other less-than-awesome things. Better safe than sorry.
6. What to pack
What you pack depends heavily on the season you’re travelling and where you go. Hot and humid in the south, icy cold in the north – do some research before you go so you can pack the right clothing. Since shopping in Japan is expensive, bring along as much of your own stuff as possible. Especially when it comes to toiletries. It’s cheaper and you can be sure they’re brands you prefer. Chargers and adapters, copies of your ID and passport, chronic medication (if you use any) and a small medical aid kit are all must-haves too.