I was reflecting on my experiences in traveling around Japan, and why I enjoyed traveling here so much. I’m a pretty experienced traveler over thirty years of conducting international business, so I’m no international travel newbie.
I used to appreciate more the challenges of traveling in the developing world. I still do enjoy that but over the years it has worn on me a bit, and now the chance has come to rediscover Japan and I have found it very refreshing. While travel here does have it’s unique challenges (I will write about that later), I have identified some of the factors that make travel here a pleasant and rewarding experience.
Japan’s train network is truly amazing. I think it is safe to say that without its extensive train network, Japan would not be the first world economy that it is. The sheer densities of the major cities would be impossible without a very efficient public transit network. As well, the rural areas are served very well with essential services. As the USA was building its cities and transport infrastructure to support cars and air transport, Japan took the traditional route and built one of the world’s most extensive rail networks.
Train travel to me is by far the most civilized way to travel, especially today with all of the hassles of security, and fun of air travel is long gone.
I think that JR is a national treasure. It is affordable, clean, safe and runs on time. There are very few areas that cannot be reached by train. So strong is the commitment to essential services, this train line kept running to serve one passenger.
In addition to JR, Japan also enjoys may private line in the larger cities, as well as extensive bus networks that feed from the rail hubs.
Despite a popular perception, traveling in Japan is really not that expensive. Yes, you can find cheaper countries to travel in, but given the economic level of Japan, it is actually comparatively very inexpensive.
One of the problems in traveling in less developing countries is that there is often a tradeoff between cost and safety – while you can save some money, you put your personal safety and valuables at risk. To overcome this, it is often necessary to stay in a higher grade accommodation, one that is “international” standard in order to minimize risk. This is not necessary at all in Japan.
Despite this, staying in the larger cities in a five star international branded hotel can be very expensive, but so is New York and Paris.
The Japanese islands very mountainous – are about 73 percent of Japan’s area is mountainous. The plains and basins where population cover only about 27 percent of the total area. This means, if you are a fan of mountains, Japan is a paradise of natural beauty.
What I have found out in my travels is that most cities have a mountain park and hiking trails. These trails tend to be very well maintained and offer the perfect safe and manageable weekend workout and an excellent way to escape to the seclusion of a forest. On nearly every one of my trips so far, I have been able to schedule a short hike. Now, I have built it into my trip planning as I find it so enjoyable.
In addition, Japan has a strong sense of respect for the environment. Not only are environmental protection laws comprehensive, they are also well enforced. People also are very conscientious of their own personal impact, and public littering is very uncommon.
Sure, Japan has its share of tourist traps, but Japan is also one of the places where you can easily avoid them and appreciate true authenticity. Whereas many other Asian countries have torn down the old to make way for look-alike glass and chrome towers, in Japan, you can easily find a city with structures and traditions going back hundreds of years, without the necessity of a pre-packaged environment to experience them
One of the things I hate most about travel is the necessity to be constantly on the alert for touts and tourist scams. How many times have you had to feel like a total jerk by being constantly on guard for someone to offer you a special tour or some fake trinket that you have absolutely no interest in? Or, you have been in a restaurant or bar and have been cheated with paying a price that is ten times the local price? In Japan, with a very few exceptions, there is really no such worry. You can pretty much trust most people that you come in contact with.
Japan is safe. For the most part, you don’t have to worry about being robbed or assaulted. There are some exceptions though, such as Asakusa where there are warnings about pickpockets (often by foreigners), but outside of these places that are densely packed with targets of opportunity and if you take some basic precautions you won’t have any problems.
Also, you will see very few homeless or beggars in Japan. If you do, they are the exception as Japan a 100% safety net for any citizen that cannot provide for themselves.
I will use the slogan from the Singapore police – “Low crime does not mean no crime” – but overall Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.
A Culture of Minimalism
It’s totally OK to be frugal, in fact it is respected. In many other places I have been in Asia, there tends to be a hierarchy of travel – tourists stay in fancy hotels – the exception being backpackers – and if you don’t fit into the stereotype of the rich foreigner, something must be wrong with you. Sometimes it can take a bit of bravery to step into the local world and it can bring stares of disbelief. Some people are better at this than others, but if you are like me, even though I do it, it can sometimes be uncomfortable.
In Japan, it is totally OK to “do more with less”, in fact, it is part of being Japanese. I can’t think of any accommodation as minimal as a traditional ryokan with a 10 square meter room and shared bath facilities or a very simple meal of ramen in a small neighborhood shop. Yes, you can do all these – it takes a bit of background research first to really enjoy, but Japanese people will respect you for it.
There are a lot of things that make travel here really convenient:
- Public restrooms. They are everywhere, and they are clean and safe. If you travel like I do, you are constantly out and about, and I drink a lot of fluids as well for health reasons, so access to restrooms is important. Just about every public place as easy access to restrooms – especially train stations and parks. It seems as if you are never 100 meters from a clean public restroom.
- Convenience stores. They are everywhere. 7-11, Lawsons, Family Mart, and a host of others. Prices are not that far off from a normal supermarket, and the choices of prepared foods are really impressive. Some stores now even have seating areas where you can enjoy your snack or lunch. It is very convenient if you need something to eat and you don’t have time for a full restaurant experience, or if there are not many options.
- Coin lockers. Just about every station has coin lockers available. From ¥200 to ¥500 a day, depending on location and size of the locker, you can leave your stuff behind and walk around unencumbered. You can strategically use coin lockers if you are only in the city for a day, or if you have bought something to take home and don’t want to carry it around with you all day. I really had to carry stuff so coin lockers can be really liberating.
- ¥100 shops. You might be familiar with the Japanese chain Daiso, but they are just one of many ¥100 chains. Other two big ones are Can Do and Seria, but there are also others. With these shops available, there are so many things that you can leave behind, or pick up if you forget. For ¥100, you would be surprised at the good quality underpants, socks, knit cap or gloves that you can get. At this price, they are practically disposable – no need to pack your dirty underwear around. Also, if you stay at a guest house and you forgot a towel, you can get a nice one for ¥100. There are many other things that you can get in a pinch so you can pack light without fear.
- Vending machines. No need to pack drinks along with you, because vending machines are literally everywhere, even in mountain-top parks. Need a quick snack? You can even get corn or onion soup warm in a can from a machine.
- Cashless payment cards. I hate carrying coins, and I don’t like managing cash in general. I find the payment cards you use for trains and busses – Suica and Passmo, are widely accepted at stores and even at attractions. It really saves a lot of fuss not having to fish for coins.
Japan has one of the oldest populations on the planet. This and a very low birth rate has become a problem that has negatively impacted economic growth, but the health and longevity of Japan’s senior citizens is something that should be admired – it is a result their healthy lifestyle and universal access to healthcare.
When you get outside of the big cities, and in many countries, you can witness stagnant or negative economic growth. The youth generally leave the small towns and rural areas in pursuit of opportunities in the larger metropolitan areas, so will undoubtedly see an over-preponderance of seniors when you travel in the small cities and rural areas.
But this is a good thing. Japan’s seniors are generally very active and are hospitable and friendly. If you visit a small family run establishment, chances are it is run by a senior. Often, it could be a business that was in the family for generations, and they are the last that are holding on what their family has built and they are very proud of it. As long as you have understood some of the basic fundamentals of communication and show some respect, they will go out of their way to help you. It’s also not unusual for them to approach you and want to know more about you. It ok to do so, because of the trust factor that I mentioned earlier.
There you have it! It is not all that I could think of, but just the ones that stand out of me right now.