I was in Singapore for 2 days between the Philippines trip and the Japan trip. That was quite intense, I almost didn’t manage to wash my clothes in time. I was in Japan for around 16 days and it would certainly take a while for me to write about all my adventures. For now, I will just write about my impressions of Japan as a country. It is a rather unique country, cute and convenient in many aspects and it is certainly not as expensive as what many may think it is. I spent SGD$1800 in 16 days in Japan. And that is including my SGD$650 China Eastern flights. Well, unless you treat yourself with premium sashimi every day of course. For me, a meal in Japan typical is between 300 – 5oo Yen. While the transportation is certainly expensive, the highway buses (instead of shinkansen) and the one-day pass will certainly save you quite a bit of money. This will be how I will remember Japan:
1) Cultural dichotomy
One thing that really struck me in Japan is that there seems to be a cultural dichotomy in the country. On one end, the Japanese culture is about the age-old traditions such as green tea ceremony, geishas and fusumas. But on the other end, the Japanese culture is also about manga, anime, cosplays, pachinkos and everything “cute”. Both ends of the spectrum are so typically Japanese, you will not mistake them for another culture but they are so different from one another. I tried to imagine but I can’t conjure an image of a geisha who hugs soft toys and watches anime. From my point of view, I think that a Japanese can’t embrace both the traditional identity and the modern cute identity. It is pretty interesting I think, many people might have thought that since Japan is a more or less racially homogeneous country, it is common to expect that Japan is rather culturally homogeneous too. But it turns out that it is not so. Is it possible for these two distinct cultures to continue to co-exist in Japan or will they clash sometime in the future? I guess only time will tell.
2) Convenience shop
Convenience shops (e.g. Family Mart, Lawson, Circle-K and 7-11) are everywhere in Japan and they seem to play quite an important role in the lives of the Japanese. Many working adults buy bentos and sushis off the shelves for their meals. It is said that every Japanese has his/ her own favourite convenience shop even though the shops sell almost the same things. For me, Family Mart is my favourite because it has the 100 yen espresso and free 3 x 20 minute free Wifi a day. Free Wifi is really hard to find in Japan so it is quite nice to use Wifi while drinking coffee there. 🙂
3) Transport network
I heard a lot of good things about Japan’s transport network from people who have travelled there so I was a little surprised at the transport network when I was there. I guess those people whom I spoke to must have taken shinkansen everywhere. I don’t mean to say it is bad but it is definitely not too easy for a foreigner to figure out initially. But once figured out, it becomes quite easy. I took a mixture of city buses, highway buses, metro and inter-city trains. In Kyoto, I mostly got around with city buses. There is a one-day pass worth 500 yen and you can take unlimited number of rides on the city bus. I attempted to get around without the city bus map for a few days and boy, it was really difficult. Of course, almost every major bus goes to the Kyoto train station so you can essentially hop on any bus that goes to the train station and figure out where you want to go next from there.
Personally, I am quite a big fan of highway buses, I took a total of 5 highway buses during my short stay there. Highway buses are really affordable and comfortable. A German girl and I compared the prices of taking the highway bus versus the train from Hiroshima to Fukuoka and the train ride is 5.5 times more expensive than the bus ride! I know a JR Pass will save me quite a bit of money for train travels but I thought I could take the trains when I get older. Since I am still young, I should experience taking the night buses. One word of caution: the highway buses really depart on time so you cannot afford to be late. I almost missed my 6.10 am bus one morning and that was quite scary. The buses will make multiple stops along the way for people to use the washrooms and visit the convenience shops.
I mostly took the metro around Tokyo and that was really difficult. There are so many lines and the signs are rather sparse. After a while, I didn’t care what line I boarded as long as it was in the right general direction (towards/ away from Shinjuku). The trains are quite complicated in Japan because they have so many different types: all-reserved (tokkyu), semi-express, limited express, express, local. Some trains skip stations so you need to find out: does the train you that are taking skip the stop that you want to get off? Well, local trains pretty much stop at every stop but consequently, they will take the longest time to bring you to your destination. Generally, it is a good practice that once you get to where you want to go, check out the timetable for the return train at the opposite platform. On two occasions, I waited for almost an hour because I missed the train I wanted to take.
4) “Classification” of tourist sites
Kyoto has so many temples and it is funny how the Japanese “classify” and “rank” their tourist sites. The highest rank is UNESCO World Heritage Sites (17 properties in Kyoto Prefecture) and there are many more such as “National Treasures”, “Important Cultural Properties”. Well, many ancient buildings have its own historical significance and stories, I wonder how they rank the places. What are the criterion for ranking the sites? Apart from this ranking system, there are other classification such as the “Three Views of Japan” – Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima being one of them. I am not sure but perhaps tourists tend to feel overwhelmed by the number of beautiful temples in Japan and such “classification” systems help tourists to get started with their visit. I guess it might also help the Japanese authorities when they need to prioritize the preservation and restoration efforts of the temples.