Colourful street at night in the rain in Japan

Japan Travel Guide

Japan is, on the outset, an orderly country, where trains are never late and everyone is polite. With a long-standing history of pride and resilience, Japan is known throughout the world for its Samurais and Geishas, Japan is a place where people work hard and obey the rules…or do they?

Each city in Japan offers a wildness that entices a whole array of visitors from the traditional tourist, to the computer geeks, from the fashionistas, to the far-out travellers. On offer could be an endless choice of restaurants, temples, dancing all night, neon lights, singing in a karaoke box or shopping all day long.

Step out of the city and you are still spoilt for choice. Mountains, lavender fields, rice fields and hiking trails galore let you explore the country and see more than you would ever expect. Small country villages let you share quaint history, while bustling towns strive to show you their modernity.

Wherever you go, expect a warm welcome – everyone is so proud and happy to share with you the speciality of their region of the stories of their hometown. Language is never a barrier when there are smiles and sake!

Japan is unrivalled for its diversity of food, scenery and outdoor activities and any season is a great time to visit. In the springtime, there are hanami parties everywhere. (Hana means flower, mi means to see or watch). Trees are abundant with cherry blossoms and the new season is welcomed with delight.

In the summer, the cities are HOT, but there are plenty of beaches to escape to. If you’re not a fan of sun baking, you can always hide in one of the many forests or climb a mountain to find the ultimate crisp, fresh air.

In the Autumn, the leaves change and in the right location, you will be blessed with a blend of yellows, reds, browns and oranges, leaving you with that fuzzy feeling that the summer might have passed, but the season ahead is still divine.

Winters in Tokyo and the south are never usually that cold, but if you want a real taste of the frost and the snow, there are plenty of locations within a short travelling time from the big city. Japan is BIG on its winter sports and every resort is of top quality for even the most professional of skiers and boarders.

Japan mountains

The Capital – TOKYO

Distance from Bangkok – 5hrs 35mins – Search cheap flights now

The most densely populated city in the world and don’t you know it!! At Shibuya Crossing, grab a coffee at Starbucks and sit and watch what feels like the whole world go by…in about 10 minutes! From art galleries like the Mori art museum and the Suntory art museum in Roppongi, to nightclubs and climbing tall buildings and towers and seeing the urban spread, you can’t help but fall in love with all the grey buildings, the noise and the hubbub that is genuinely one of the greatest cities on earth.

Visit the Imperial Palace for some culture and history, chill in Yoyogi park to watch the mystery that is the Tokyoite, shop all day long in Harajuku, say a prayer at Meiji Jungu shrine, end the day with your own version of lost in translation with a cocktail at the Park Hyatt Hotel Shinjuku.

Top tips  – the new sky tree is worth a climb for the highest viewpoint over Tokyo, but the old Tokyo Tower is still a favourite amongst tourists too! However, for a FREE view over the city landscape, head to Shinjuku’s Government Building on the west side and take the elevator up to the 45th floor!

For cheap accommodation, look in areas in the old town (Shitamachi) of Ueno and Asakusa.

Things to do / see in Tokyo

  • Harajuku (Takeshita Dori shopping street, Meiji Jingu shrine)
  • Shibuya (Crossing, shopping)
  • Roppongi (Art galleries, Shops, restaurants)
  • Asakusa (Sumida river, Sensoji temple)
  • Otemachi (Imperial palace)
Tokyo Japan

Day trips from Tokyo

  • Mount Takao
  • Nikko
  • Yokohama
  • Kamakura
  • Mount Fuji

Top 10 Japan Experiences for the Backpacker

  1. Climbing Mount Fuji
  2. Visiting Fuji Q Highlands and being thrown upside down and inside out with Mount Fuji as the backdrop.
  3. Snowboarding / Skiing in the powder in Nisseko.
  4. Swimming in tropical Okinawa.
  5. Visiting Himeji castle.
  6. Feeding the deer in Nara.
  7. Learn about the past in Hiroshima.
  8. Say hello to the snow monkeys in Nagano.
  9. Take a boat across Yokohama bay.
  10. Step inside a Buddha at Kamakura


A story by Karen Farini

Culture shock in Japan

Before I went to Japan, I thought I was adaptable. I even thought I was a traveller. Well, it turns out I was deluded… and humiliatingly so, at that. Because Japan is meant to be ‘easy’. I know people who have lived there. For years. In fact, now I come to think of it, I know more people who have lived in Japan than anywhere else in the world. Two of them are inclined to such dizziness that you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering how they manage to find the milk in the morning.

How they managed in Japan, I still can’t fathom.

I managed with difficulty. Although, with comparative ease to my travel buddy. He booked the hotels, he read all the maps, he figured out the metro. For my part, I only had one task, and even that was self-imposed: to stick to Colin like glue at all times. I also picked up an extra safety net, just in case, which was the act of breaking into the same monotonous drone of a mantra whenever he stepped outside what I believed to be an acceptable personal radius.

“Where are you going?”

“To unplug my phone.”

“Ok. Don’t be long.”

“It’s just there by the light switch.”

“Ok. Don’t be long.”

We were on the bullet train. Colin was entranced. He was looking out the window at the towering buildings. So many of them everywhere, he kept saying. There are just so many everywhere.

Here’s a little secret: If I’m in a bit of a fret, then I like to get involved. I prod it about, feel it out, then step right over and down between the sides, right into the middle of it, and sometimes to such a depth that I can’t see back out over the top. If I end up making the leap before that last bit’s really possible, I’ve sometimes even known myself to consciously start digging holes. I’ve started so I’ll finish. It’s a bit like persevering with your cigarette one month after you’ve quit, and just after you’ve grown to really hate the taste. I’m told that this has got something to do with self-destruction, and that may be so. This, though, was different. Choosing to hide in the depths of my head on the bullet train was borne of quite the opposite intention. Preservation:  To close my observation deck…‘til we land back safely in Laos.

Japan article 2

In Japan, it is not out of the ordinary to see fully grown women (and some men) walk about with cuddly toys attached to their backpacks. There is shop upon shop filled with strange plastic toys – such as a baby with just one eye sitting in a bathtub of green gunk – and which are also minuscule: ie, only as big as your thumbnail.

There are pet shops in the Roppongi (party) district in Tokyo that sell puppies and kittens at 4am. There’s also a park in this city where everyone goes on Sundays to dress up like a Manga cartoon, and a dog park not far from it where the dogs have got on more clothes than their owners. (Several pooches wear trousers.)

There are no familiar brands to look out for. Breakfast in hotels is finished by 9am.  Everything seems to be flashing, or pink, or features fluffy bunnies. There are restaurants where you choose your meal from a vending machine. There’s another where the waiter and waitress are monkeys. Lollipop men rule the roads with their giant flashing glo-sticks.

The nation is addicted to Pachinko, where you try and win as many tiny silver balls as possible from the machines before exchanging them for money. (The machines are a cross between pinball and those old-school coin machines; we go to a parlour, where the balls are bouncing everywhere, and a very old lady is banging on her machine whilst holding it in a necklock and trying to tip it sideways. The noise is deafening.)

Japan pachinko machines article

So on the bullet train, I didn’t really pay much thought to the buildings. I didn’t see what Colin saw, nor what he was trying to say. (Maybe if he’d asked what the hell they’d done with all the fields?) Although I’m sure that on a deeper level, I did acknowledge that strangeness of no empty space, those built-up, crammed, futuristic neon tableaux shooting backwards from their springs. 

On a deeper level I must have acknowledged it, which is probably why – on the surface – I was able to ignore it. In fact, during the whole two weeks, I only seemed willing to snap back to this, our unreal new reality, whenever we found a familiar reference point. THIS IS LIKE CAMDEN. THAT’S LIKE LONDON BRIDGE. IF IT RAINS, IT’S LIKE BLADERUNNER. Only then I’d be hopeful. Only then I’d peep my head up. Maybe I’d understand? Obviously, this didn’t get even close to happening, but at least it drew me out just far enough to join in and play. But still it felt weird. I kept feeling lost. And even that was weird, and not at all like I remembered it should be.

The feeling of being somewhere new and different in Japan was, well…completely new and different. It was all just generally overwhelming, like I was a toddler again, and learning to be human. This feeling of disconnection was dreamlike; surreal. My world through the looking glass. And I could see it all reflected, my confusion of Japan; I could see the glint bounce straight back into me. If I didn’t know who Japan was, I didn’t know who I was anymore, either. This city had come as such a culture shock, I’d lost all sense of ‘self.’ No more confidence. Gone was my strut.

I tell Colin this as we’re sat having dinner that night in a gorgeous little restaurant in Osaka. We have a tiny little private booth to ourselves, which we can only enter barefoot. The food is fantastic; beautifully presented, and we even get our very own stove to put the potatoes and the meat on when they arrive. I find this touch extremely cute, though not as cute as the waitress. There’s a buzzer on the table, and unless we ring it, she doesn’t come in, not even to ask us if everything is ok, so as not to disturb us, probably…the assumption must be that if something is not ok, then we will ring the buzzer, at which point (as we soon discover), she will come through the little curtain and say “it’s meeee,” somewhat apologetically (although not as deferentially as our other waiter earlier, who had backed out, bowing).

“Listen,” Colin tells me, “Japan is safe.” I’m about to add that I just don’t feel it, when I realize he does actually want me to listen. “What are we listening out for?” – “Listen.” – “To what? There’s nothing.” – “Exactly,” Colin tells me, sagely. “We haven’t heard a police car since we got here.”

I started to think I had problems. Japan, I could see, is polished. The people are so polite. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe I don’t fit in? But, come on! What Westerner fits in here? No-one really speaks a word of English, and the alphabet gives you a migraine.

Of course, no signs are in English either, so the tubes are a nightmare – just a load of Japanese writing on it, and the prices. But that’s only half of it; I mean, the language is hardly the problem – the problem is that things in Japan just don’t seem to make sense full stop. Whether words are in the picture or not is really quite irrelevant. And that observation is literal, by the way.

The first time we get on a tube, Colin and I immediately discover a brand new game to play. It involves staring at adverts – around 90% manga – in the vain attempt to work out what in God’s name they’re trying to market. We call it What Is That? – and it’s so intriguing it keeps the pair of us totally committed for the length of the journey, although of course, we don’t bother keeping score because neither of us are really sure about any of them, and some even leave us speechless.

Japan crazy toys article

We discuss Japanese manners. At the main bus depot in Tokyo, we see a woman at a luxury hotel who’s been paid to stand at the lobby door and bow at all those who come through. Do you think, we ask ourselves, that bowing might be the national pastime? We watch the stewards helping tourists board the bus; they also bow when a driver trundles past, even though the fact he’s trundling past implies he’s never been scheduled to even slow down at it. Times like these I roar with laughter, but not so others.

I don’t like the times I think I’m being understood. I’m nodded and smiled at; my map is looked at intently – then ten minutes later, I realize they’ve been bluffing. Confidence gone. No more strut. (Also, no more Colin. That was the day I had to choose between safety and a haircut, and finally – yes! I’d felt brave, so help me God. And I’d done it all alone – and it had taken me till evening, with roughly five attempts in each direction).

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Japan is a country of ‘paradox’. The national politeness is such that you almost feel you could do anything here and get away with it, which doesn’t seem to fit. But what the hell, I try it. When in Rome… I jump over the tube barrier twice the day I’m out alone (because of course, I’ve bought the wrong fare), and I don’t even feel like I’ve done something wrong.

Furthermore, all those in close proximity seem to share the same consensus. I’d even go as far as to say that here in Japan, it might even be deemed ruder for a member of the public to impinge upon another person’s freedom than virtually anything that person might actually try and do with it. For a seemingly repressed nation of workaholics (so polite I feared at one point they would have happily stood there going grey before admitting they couldn’t decipher our map), they are certainly happy to allow their indulgences…

Want to dress like a cartoon? No problem. Want to dress like a cartoon, but you’re almost 67? Go ahead, no-one is looking at all (except the ones holding cameras). Want to have sex with cartoons? Well, they’ve probably almost got the technology, but for now, while you wait, there’s a shop nearby full of Manga porn. Or rather, here’s some Manga from that shop, and look, it’s tucked really tightly in that businessman’s hand, on the train during rush hour (yes, in the middle of the day!). I note it’s open on the centrefold, so I lean forward to try and get a better look but, “What do you think you’re doing? If he turns round he’ll see you!” Colin pulls me back.

“Yes, but I can see him?”

“And we’re not supposed to notice. It’s rude.”

“Colin,” I say, suddenly, “do you think that’s the reason we’ve not heard any police sirens?”

“What, because they’re not supposed to notice?”

I shrug. I say it like it’s truth, but so what if it is? What is truth, anyway, if no-one acknowledges it? It may as well be nothing; just buried in the deep, like those constant slides of neon that I didn’t really see slip past our bullet train. Having no point of reference is like losing all your senses. No wonder I feel disorientated. It occurs to me that the barrier I feel will probably always remain, no matter what resources the skies pull together to help us; even if we become numerous heads on one single body and we all speak English, faultless Japanese, and are degree-level fluent in cartoon promotions…

My friends who have lived in Japan have all heard this stuff before. I’ve since told Japanese friends and they’ve also thought it hilarious. (Either that or they’re just being polite.) And, as the last two years have slipped by, even I’ve started to wonder if I wasn’t just ‘having a moment’? Like a full two weeks of them..?

So, on that note, one day I’ll go back. Now I know what to notice, I won’t disengage. (Hello Kitty!) And, if I don’t disengage, then I won’t feel lost – and if I don’t feel lost, the weird feelings should stay just as they should. Shouldn’t they?

By Leonora Sophie

Photography by Colin Purchase

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