Whether your planning a trip to Japan to see vibrant Tokyo, go skiing or take in the cherry blossom, here are some travel tales and recommendations!
Visiting an onsen
Traveller: Shamus Sillar
I was feeling smug after waking early and beating the other hotel guests to the first onsen session of the morning. There’s nothing like an entire piping-hot pool to yourself – especially after too much sake the previous night. I also impressed myself by following Japanese etiquette to a tee. After pushing through the vertical hanging curtains leading to the men-only onsen, I placed my clothes in the available basket, performed the rinsing-off ritual at the shower, then slid into the steaming 42-degree water.
Once sufficiently cooked, I rose from the water. At that point, I noticed another hotel guest – stark naked like me – approaching the pool. She (yep, she) gave a high-pitched yelp on seeing me. Then she raced back to her basket, grabbed her clothes and fled the scene. My initial thought was, “What on earth was that lady doing?” My second thought was, “Hang on. She’s Japanese. Why would a Japanese person come to the wrong onsen? Only a stupid foreigner would do that…”
Surely, I hadn’t made a mistake? No – impossible. I’d been in this same onsen just the night before.
Holding cupped hands in a strategic position in case any other females decided to wander along, I tiptoed to my basket, quickly dried off, and threw on my clothes. Then I pushed through the curtains at the entrance. The woman, also clothed again, was standing against the wall. Seeing me, she bowed deeply several times, then slipped back through the curtains and into the onsen again.
And it was then I noticed the curtains themselves. They were red. The night before, they’d been blue. Blue is for men. Red is for women. It was a case of the ol’ “switcheroo”. Overnight, the hotel staff had rotated the male and female onsen areas. Presumably, this gives guests some variety in their bathing routines (a common procedure in Japan, I discovered later). I’d been in such a rush to get there first, I hadn’t noticed.
So, to the poor woman who stumbled upon a flabby, bearded, 40-something male in the female onsen at the Matsushima Century Hotel in northeast Honshu: Gomen’nasai. (I’m sorry!)
Visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka
Traveller: Rebecca Bisset, British
When I asked my mum where she wanted to go for her 90th birthday, she said “Japan, to see Mount Fuji and go on the bullet train.”
Here are a few things I learnt about visiting Japan with an older traveller. Although public transport is fantastic, especially the trains, the stations are fairly large and busy, so try to travel off-peak and give yourself plenty of time. We ended up having to get a pretty expensive taxi ride (S$320) from Osaka airport to Kyoto as I hadn’t realised the distance when I booked. The alternative was changing trains and getting a taxi, and that would have been too much for mum. (Note that normal taxis are much cheaper than the ones with English-speaking drivers, and they still seem to understand you and get you to where you need to go.)
In Tokyo, many of the touristy suggestions on markets and fashion sectors didn’t interest her, and some, like the Imperial Palace, would have taken a lot of walking that she wasn’t up to. The hotels we stayed at in both Kyoto and Tokyo booked us a taxi driver to take us around for three hours to see as much as we could in that time, rather than trying to focus on one or two places that needed loads of walking.
Mount Fuji can be elusive; we unfortunately didn’t see it either on the train ride or from the special breakfast lounge at the hotel that looks to the mountain.
A wheelchair was provided at airports, hotels and some attractions, including Tokyo’s Yushukan War Memorial Museum and the Yasukuni Shrine, and it was fabulous. We covered a lot more ground that way and mum still got to get around and look at things.
We used these SLH hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo.
Visiting Japan in sakura season
Traveller: Jacqui Young, British
On our recent Easter break in Japan – timed to coincide with the popular sakura (cherry blossom) season – we used Changi Recommends. This is a Singapore-based one-stop travel concierge that helps you prepare for overseas trips by offering an extensive range of services for you to pre-book.
For example, we made use of the extremely handy ChangiWiFi service, which allows you to access the internet anywhere and anytime with a portable router that connects up to five devices at one time. The router is small enough to slip into your pocket, and has eight to twelve hours of battery life, depending on usage. Rates start from just $4 per day. There are eleven Changi Recommends counters across Changi’s four terminals, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, where you can collect your device en route to your flight.
The booking of our Japan Rail tickets was very easy, too; we were able to buy the JR exchange orders in advance, which we simply activated at any JR Rail ticket outlet in Japan when we were ready to travel. We opted for the seven-day pass that gave us the convenience of travelling on trains to cover our amazing journey from Tokyo to Osaka, then to Kyoto, and back to Tokyo. We had dreams of chasing the sakura route, and it fit perfectly with our dates. The spectacle of the cherry blossom didn’t disappoint – it’s just stunning.
JR passes also include travel on the Hello Kitty-themed bullet train, which travels on selected routes on certain days; for example, you can hop onto the Hello Kitty Shinkansen to explore the less-known San’in region in southwest Honshu, with the JR Sanyo San’in Area Pass.
We also pre-purchased tickets to must-see theme parks Universal Studios Japan (Osaka) and Tokyo Disneyland. This meant we conveniently received e-tickets for both. At Universal Studios, we scanned our tickets at the gate, avoiding the school holiday queues. For Disney, we were allocated a meeting point near the entrance to convert the voucher to a physical ticket.
Traveller: Melinda Murphy, American
If you want to truly immerse yourself in Japanese culture, check out the Takayama Sakura Festival (aka the Sanno Festival). For four hundred years, thousands of onlookers have turned up in Takayama to see the highly-decorated carved wooden floats. There are two processions. The daytime one sees people dressed in native costumes pulling the incredible structures through the old town. The streets are also lined with cherry blossoms. The whole thing repeats itself at night, with the floats decorated with glowing lanterns, adding to the charm.
When we went, there were very few non-Japanese in sight. It’s truly a glimpse into Japanese culture that most Westerners may not get to experience. The city itself is nestled in the mountains and the old town really does feel like it must have been there since centuries ago. There’s also fabulous food and upscale shopping. In the autumn, there is a sister festival. Go – it’s magical!
Visiting Tokyo and Hakone
Traveller: Lindsay Yap, Singaporean
My family and I visited Tokyo in November last year. We stayed in Shinjuku, which is full of malls, shops and great restaurants. It was loads of fun exploring the bustling Takeshita Street in Harajuku where we snacked on cotton candy, tornado potatoes, crepes and choux. If you want to escape the crowds, head to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. This serene city park has three types of gardens: traditional Japanese, French and English landscape.
We also made a trip out of the city to see Mount Fuji in Hakone. It’s about two hours away from Tokyo. I highly recommend taking the round course that takes you on five modes of transportation. (Train, cable car, ropeway, boat and bus!) Places you’ll visit along the way include Lake Ashi, Öwakudani (an active volcanic crater) and Gora Park (a French-styled garden with a lovely café). Get the Hakone Free Pass that gives you unlimited access to transportation around the area.
While you’re there, drop by the Fuji Five Lake region. We were fortunate enough to catch beautiful views of the mountain!
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This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!