When offering advice, I try really hard to actually give advice that's suited for the person I'm giving it to. I make an extra effort to do this, because I know that I have a tendency to think that my way is the best way for everyone, and to just advocate my way of doing things. But that effort to tailor advice goes out the window when I'm giving suggestions on where to travel to. My answer is almost always Japan.
I was thinking about this a couple days ago, as I found myself recommending Japan for the billionth time, and I realized that there are some interesting properties of Japan that make it a really ideal place to travel to, especially for people who want something more than a typical vacation, but don't know where to go.
1. It's Extraordinarily Interesting
Of all the places I've been, Japan is one of the most interesting. What makes Japan so interesting is that it's very different from anywhere else, mostly because it's so resistant to direct outside influence. If some external trend or business makes it to Japan, it doesn't arrive unscathed; it's first transformed into a thoroughly Japanese experience.
Most of what I like about traveling is exposure to different cultures, ideas, and perspectives. Japan has that all in spades. Japanese culture is a strange blend of old tradition and cutting edge trends that are fused in a way that only the Japanese could accomplish. In a day you can easily see an old temple occupied by women in kimonos, and then for dinner have sushi served to you by robots. Yeah, robot sushi.
2. It's Easier to Get Around Than You Think
Japan intimidates a lot of people because the language is so foreign. While you shouldn't expect to be able to read or understand any Japanese, unlike Spanish, where you could maybe cobble a few things together, Japan is still very easy to cope with. In Tokyo there's enough English on all of the signs, particularly the all-important subway signs, that you will have an easy time. Many people speak English, or at least bits of English, making it possible to communicate at any hotel or restaurant.
But the ace in the hole for accessibility is the insane level of hospitality that most Japanese people show. If someone detects that you may possibly need help, there's an excellent chance that they will take it upon themselves to figure out exactly how to resolve your situation. The first night I was in Tokyo, a woman noticed that we were looking for something, and then proceeded to sprint around the train station, clicking away in her high heels, trying to find the right office for us. When we found it was closed, she bowed, apologized, and wrote down information for us to come back the following day.
3. It's Safer Than... Anywhere
As far as I can tell, Japan has roughly zero violent crime. It's one of very few cities where I would happily encourage my sister to walk around at night by herself, knowing that no matter where she went, she wouldn't have any trouble. You could have a thousand dollars hanging halfway out of your pocket, and no one would try to steal it. You could leave your laptop in a corner of a train station and it would almost certainly still be there hours later.
All of this means that you can get lost, wander around, and not worry about anything at all. It's pretty amazing.
4. It can be very cheap
Tokyo has the reputation of being a really expensive city. There is certainly truth to that, too-- if you want to spend thousands of dollars per day on your trip, you could do that with ease. But you can just as easily spend next to nothing. A good meal can be had for under ten dollars. A subsistence level meal can be had for a third of that. There's a huge range of places you can stay, including capsule hotels for $30-40 or Manga Cafes for $20. Those places will be small, but they'll also be comfortable, clean, and fun.
This huge range in cost allows you to spend money on things that matter to you, and save when it comes to other things. There are also some incredible values, like a fantastic sushi place where $20 will pretty much fill you up with very high quality sushi from the local fish market.
5. It has the Almighty Train Pass
The subways in Japan are around the same price as subways anywhere, but the inter-city trains, especially the bullet trains, can be very expensive. Going back and forth between Tokyo and Kyoto, a manageable day trip, costs around three hundred dollars.
But... if you're a foreigner, and you buy it in advance, you can get a train pass for less than three hundred dollars that grants you unlimited use of pretty much all of the trains in the entire country. You can go all the way up to Sapporo, all the way down to Kagoshima, and everywhere in between. On average I use $1500 to $2000 worth of tickets every time I get this pass (which is every time I go to Japan).
If you go outside of the major cities (or to Osaka, for some reason), you'll find English in shorter supply than in Tokyo. However, given how safe Japan is and how helpful everyone is, you should still be able to manage pretty easily.
I try to go to a lot of new places (I'm in Bucharest right now!), but Japan is the one place I keep going back to, almost every single year since 2007. The things on this list, plus many others, make it my favorite place to go, and my favorite place to show to other people. If you're looking for a place to go, even if Japan holds no special appeal to you, consider it!
Photo is an old one from my second or third trip of Ginza Station's sign. See all the English?
I was really psyched to see so many people get into the Bitcoin thing from last post. I almost didn't post it because I thought it might be too far from usual topics to be of wide interest. Glad I was wrong. Also, thanks to the people who sent me bitcoin!
This is literally a post I've verbalized a thousand times. Crazy how we've both come to the exact same conclusions for the exact same reasons.
1 thing though... give Osaka a chance!! It's actually my favorite place in Japan and one that really grows on you the more time you spend in it (I'm learning Japanese as well, and it's where I plan to live when I do a planned few years there). It's very distinct from the rest of the country in such a great way.
Yes, Japan, one of the upcoming destinations, maybe internship placements as well. Cost of living being one major concern am glad to hear that there is a chance to duck the bullets of most expensive. The safety aspect does feel surprising, considering the density of the cities, but I guess the people are then either in a high level of inner peace among themselves and others or keep up the working pace too high for concentrating spare energy to fighting (;
I've always been interested in Okinawa and this coming December I will have the chance to enjoy a week there. Any recommendations? I'm not especially interested in cities and *do* like the outdoors. Any recommendations would be welcome. I'll probably get a car for ease of accessing hiking trails and the like ...
Hi Tynan, could you give a bit of insight in how much travelling through Japan costs? Let's say I would spend three weeks in the country, low budget style.
I totally agree. My wife is Japanese, and we go there about 3 times a year typically for a month at a time. Please give yourself at least a week to enjoy Japan, longer if it is your first time. It is very diverse, with a lot to see and do in each region. Tynan recommends Pimsleur training, and I agree, but if you really want some immersion training, consider a Japanese language school in Japan. They often have homestay arrangements. I went to GenkiJACS in Fukuoka and now they have a sister school in Tokyo as well.
Some basic iphone apps include 'Human Japanese' (very basic) and 'sticky study'. A good dictionary is 'Midori'.
The other important consideration which was touched on in Tynan's post is that the people are incredibly sincere and honest. They are socially 'programmed' from a young age to behave considerately, and think of the other persons perspective, almost to a fault. Of course it varies from person to person, and in major metropolitan centers will be different than in a rural setting, but the common denominator is that people are selfless. To borrow a well worn cliche, the cultural icon of Japan, the Samurai, exemplifies loyalty, honor, commitment, and self sacrifice. People were far less motivated by material things than by relationships in my experiences there. The safety mentioned in Tynan's post appears to be a product of this.
Great advice. I just got back from a month long trip to Japan. I kept a <$10 phrasebook in my back pocket at all times and it really bridged the language gap. If you take it out and say one word in Japanese (which is very easy to pronounce) you will usually get a lot more english back then if you try and start with english.
Next month I fly into Osaka and have ten days free before flying out of Tokyo. Any specific recommendations for places to see? Skip Osaka, I guess?
I was in Tokyo just for a couple of days. During my whole time there I was talking to natives. I know several people, and know about many, who had visited Japan. They all spoke marvels about their visit to Japan.All of them, spent lots of time speaking to natives, and many of them visited local people in many towns. All of us, same the visitors as those locals, were speaking in Esperanto, the easiest language to learn.If you think Japan is marvelous ... you would like it plenty more when you can share plenty of time with natives. And when you visit with locals, most of the time you don't need to use hotels.Anybody can learn Esperanto in a short time ( 20 - 50 hours), and then go on enjoying traveling, and not only in Japan.Please visit these web pages:http://esperantofre.com/faktoj/http://en.lernu.net/
As a woman, I dont like number 3 without an edit Tynan. Japan is not a "city" and can't be safe EVERYWHERE. Should it say 'Tokyo' has zero violent crime? -- You also likely, have not been "everywhere" in Japan. --- just sayin'
Overall, I would agree with Tynan. You have to have been there to realize how different it is. I was very surprised my first time there a few years ago. Littering is something we take for granted here in the US, but fairly rare in Japan. It is a very safe country. Just look at the composure with which most Japanese dealt with the Tsunami. Crime was minimal to non-existent. But to be cautious you might best avoid Shinjuku and late at night alone, probably because of unscrupulous and rowdy foreignors rather than Japanese.
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I had better write an article today. The pressure from the family is mounting and we're about to take a mammoth train trip that will probably leave us internetless for a few days.
We got our train passes and immediately headed out on our pilgrimage to Shikoku. It was awesome. We'd never seen rural Japan before, but it was beautiful. There was a constant wind, which was the only thing you could hear once the train left. It sounded like a ghost town.
Some of the houses were built in such a traditional style that I mistook them for temples on more than one occasion.
Every time someone sees me studying Japanese Kanji（漢字), characters the Japanese borrowed from the Chinese, and then used to represent Japanese ideas and pronunciation, I always get one or both of the following responses
1. Are you studying Chinese?
2. Is it hard?
In response to the first I always teach them and let them know that Chinese is significantly different than Japanese because Japanese people use three "alphabets" (they are in fact more like syllabaries), katakana, hiragana, and kanji, and because the grammar is substantially different.
The second though, is always a mixed bag. The U.S. Government states That Japanese, along with Arabic, and Chinese (and some other languages I forgot) are the languages that require the most time to learn for English speakers. But in my opinion, after having spent years studying on and off, Japanese is definitely one of the the World's toughest languages (at least considering it is actually spoken by over 100 million people) to become really fluent at (watch comedians, read adult-level literature, understand and differentiate slang and homonyms),but one of the easier languages to learn the basics to ( denoting location, modifiers, people, adjectives)