Whenever I hear the word Japan, the first thing that comes to my mind is the word “expensive”. Being a 1st-world country, Japan is listed as one of those most expensive places to visit in the world. And living in a 3rd-world country (Philippines) makes it even more impossible for me to attempt to visit the land of the rising sun. Just the thought of preparing the needed visa requirements would give me enough reason to loose interest in applying for one.
However, the most unexpected thing happened last August 2013. I got an invitation to visit my close friends in Japan. And with the help of Cebu Pacific’s promo fare, I scored round trip tickets from Manila to Osaka and back for only Php7,983.76. I also booked tickets during one of AirAsia’s ongoing promo fares last last January 2014 and only paid Php1,594.56 for a round trip ticket for the Cebu to Manila trip.
Seven months later, after the gruesome preparations to make the trip possible, I found my feet hoping on the Limited Express Haruka 44 bound for Kyoto. That charming city is where I will meet my companions and where we will start our journey to discover Japan.
the Ltd. Express Haruka 44; mistook this for a Shinkansen when we arrived in Japan, already fast but not quite
There were 4 of us who travelled to Japan. Two of them left 2 days before us and I travelled with my Otaku friend, Wena, who loves Japan so much. I am also grateful that she speaks a little Japanese as her skills came super handy whenever we got lost, which happened almost all the time.
As soon as our welcoming party fetched us at the Kyoto Station, and after ordering our 1st Japanese meal, which turned out to be just the usual burger meals from McDonalds, we headed to our hostel, Piece Hostel Kyoto, where we comfortably stayed for 3 nights at their spacious dorm rooms. To cut on our travel expenses on this trip, we made sure we booked at the cheapest accommodations whenever necessary. The great thing about our hostel in Kyoto is that free unlimited breakfast is served, which consists of different kinds of bread, potato salad, rice, miso soup, jams, peanut butter spreads and coffee. For 2,300 yen (~$22.5 or Php1009) a night in their 18-bed mixed dorm, we had the best deal anyone could ask for during our short stay in Kyoto.
Moving within Japan
Japan’s cultural heritage is so rich and colorful. In fact, in Kyoto alone, you will tire your eyes and feet if you attempt to visit all the temples that are spread out within the city. But if you insist on going, you need to be prepared as it will involve a lot of walking.
In Kyoto, you don’t have to endure the long walks as there are buses available. For 500 yen a day, you can secure the One-Day Kyoto Bus Pass for unlimited bus rides within the confines of the city’s bus routes. However, in other places like Nara, Osaka, Tokyo and more, you’ll have to brace your feet for visiting other places would involve long walks. There are still buses within the area though and in fact, there are taxi cabs too. But if you are travelling on a budget, you’d know better. Minimum bus fares cost 170-190 yen and I think maximum bus fares cost 220 yen. In Hiroshima, they have streetcars, which charge a flat rate of 150 yen.
walking underneath to reach Todaiji Temple
Going on each tourist destination also involves a great deal of train rides. Some train rides last for 5 minutes while others last for an hour or more. And if you get unlucky, you might miss your stop once you doze off to sleep. We’ve actually done this and just laughed our way out of our unexpected train joy rides because we either fell asleep or failed to understand what stations we were supposed to get off .
The worse thing that happened probably while commuting during our stay in Japan was getting charged an extra 600 yen on top of the regular train fare of 480 yen because we boarded the wrong train (those ‘Limited Express’ trains), which collects extra fees for each passenger. I don’t even want to start talking about how we had to run out of the Kyoto station to get our things in our hostel in order to catch our bullet train bound for Kanagawa. It was on that fateful day that I realized that running up and down stairs while on a 4°C temp will brutally kill one’s lungs. (Will talk about that on a separate post.)
long train rides are best for taking short naps or when you just want to admire the city view
Visiting Tourist Attractions
Although it may be tiring to move from one place to the next, what’s great about travelling within Japan is the anticipation to see what’s waiting for you when you reach your final destination, not to mention what happens before reaching the place.
on our way to see Osaka Castle
I’d have to say that our stay in Kyoto was quite remarkable and very memorable too. It is where I had my first snow experience. And it’s not even those regular snow where the snow falls continuously, which I also didn’t wish to happen. It was more of the I-want-to-annoy-these-tourists-kind-of-snowfall. But how can snowfalls be annoying when those little falling icy specks were what you’ve been wanting to witness all your life? They’re so damn pretty! White ice falling from the sky, except that it’s causing the entire place to be sooo freakin cold! But I still loved every moment of it though.
It was also in Kyoto were I had to silently cry in pain while I wiped my tears of agony as we hurry to get to the train platform to avoid missing our train because sometime before that, out of nowhere, you’d suddenly hear a loud “BLAGHHHHH!!” That was me, by the way, when I stupidly walked through a glass door upon entering the Kyoto Station. Gazillion ouches!!! At that moment, I was super thankful for having a short nose or I would have jeopardized my travel funds had I been rushed to the ER because of a broken nose. I could still feel a small bump on my nose bridge, actually.
Although our adventure in Kyoto were so full of slip-ups, it is by far one of the best cities to visit in Japan. It would be a pity to skip this on anyone’s itinerary when visiting the country.
visiting the beautiful Plum Grove in Osaka; seeing cherry blossoms bloom at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo with Ada
Japan is also best known for sakuras blooming almost everywhere when in season. However, we were too early for the cherry blossoms and we didn’t see the cities we visited transform into one pink and white giant flowerbed. We got lucky though for there were a few places where we got to see those pretty flowers bloom.
looking over Osaka City from the top of the Osaka Castle
The highlight of our Japan adventure was our trip to see Mt. Fuji up close. It had to involve a great deal of snow just to get near the magnificent mountain. Honestly, I never thought I would see Mt. Fuji that close. All I know was that we were supposed to go skiing ‘near’ Mt. Fuji. But I never imagined that ‘near’ would be almost at the foot of the mountain. We were so blessed to have the perfect weather to see the snow-capped giant showing off its alluring beauty complete with that wafting dry ice ensemble for that dramatic effect. Show-off!
the magnificent Mt. Fuji
But seriously, patience is definitely a virtue if you wish to see the almost perfect-shaped volcano sans clouds looming above it. And clearly, our patience paid off as we got to witness how amazing it looked from our vantage point.
Japan as a foodtrip haven (or not!)
For budget travellers like me, Japan is the worst place to go on a food trip. Not that their food sucks, because no they don’t. You see, I love to eat. Every time I travel, I make it a point to taste every delicacy in each place. However, if I keep up my vice for tasting all the different dishes I could find in Japan, I would probably not make it till the last end of our journey. The food in Japan is so expensive that I had to constantly make an effort to stop myself from being tempted to buy any food I see. Hence, no rice cakes, pastries and other adorable food treats for me. Maybe next time…
How expensive is expensive? A 500ml bottled water costs 105 yen (~Php46 or $1). Skewered rice cake balls cost 100 yen. Fried potato with sakura filling costs 200 yen. A bowl of ramen costs 500-900 yen. A McDonalds burger meal costs 650 yen. You’d probably get the gist by now. It’s like eating in restaurants all day, everyday with how each establishment priced their food.
I am just thankful for BelMart, 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart and all the other convenience stores we came across for our daily fix of onigiri and those weird sandwiches with noodle fillings. Buying packed meals also helped us curb our budget.
But being stingy with our Japan travel budget didn’t mean we never tried eating any Japanese dishes. Actually, we tried most of them – ramen, soba, sushi, fried stuff, siopao 😆 , parang leche flan na hindi leche flan – pudding as what they call it, and more. It’s just too bad I failed to try takoyaki, teriyaki, okonomiyaki and all the other yakis out there because of our limited time [and budget].
Getting to know the men and women of Japan
I learned in school that the Japanese are so punctual and that they always bow because it is an important part of their etiquette to show respect. These were some of the things I remember from my history class eons ago. When I first met an ‘authentic’ Japanese, (not that I haven’t met any back home) those that actually live in Japan, I was blown away by how polite and courteous they are. They are super helpful too. Try to ask for directions from any Japanese when you seem lost and they will walk with you and show you the right way or point you to the right direction. When you buy something at Lawson, GU or Uniqlo, you’d get the impression that they have these super long spiels that they have to say when they start tending your purchase and then another long one before finishing your transaction and just as you turn around and head for the exit. Although you wouldn’t understand anything they say, you’ll find yourself smiling and bowing your head constantly to show a sign of approval with whatever they are saying because you don’t want to offend them.
some Japanese women, proudly wearing their kimonos
Majority of the Japanese people does not know how to speak English. Whenever you ask for directions, all you have to do is say the magic word – insert the place where you will go – and when they hear that familiar name, they’ll start giving you instructions…which is in Japanese, by the way, not English. And you’ll end up more lost and will forever wonder what the whole conversation meant. But still, you’ll just bow your head and nod in agreement to whatever they just said, then slowly walk away and try to find the place on your own or find someone else again to ask, this time silently sending prayers to the heavens that your next prey knows how to speak English.
There’s actually a trick in understanding and knowing how to communicate with a Japanese. That’s by approaching Japanese students and asking them for directions instead. Since English is being taught in school, most students know ‘basic’ English too. However, there are still some of them who doesn’t know how to speak English or are just too shy to even try.
the beautiful people of Japan
But the language barrier would never hinder anyone’s enjoyment when they visit Japan. Whether they speak English or not, there’s always a universal language that will help people understand each other. Although getting lost in translation would frequently happen to any non-Japanese speaker who travels to Japan, the warmth of the Japanese people and their helpful nature will make you love Japan and its people the more you stay and discover their culture and way of life.
Staying in Japan for 9 days gave me so many things to ponder including how disciplined the people there were. I couldn’t help compare how totally different our country is in so many ways. I wish I could have stayed longer but like all journeys, everything must come to an end. I’m hoping though that I‘d still be given the chance to go back and explore more of this awesome country.
As for now, I’d be forever grateful for the generosity of my friends – Debbie and Carlo – for allowing us to peek into the place they call the land of the rising sun.
Domo arigatou gozaimasu! Ja Mata Japan Japan!!!