Japan recap

Japan was every bit as cool, bizarre, exhausting, and amazing as I imagined it would be. It’s unbelievable how much history and culture is packed into a cluster of small islands. I could have devoted at least ten more blog posts to Japan, but I’ll spare you for your – and my – sanity.

Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, and transport from my time in Japan. [NB: hostels in Japan are immaculately clean. A few of the hostels I stayed at had white sheets, which normally makes me nervous. However, I never found stains or hair on these sheets. Unless I say otherwise, you can assume that all the accommodations listed below were spotless.]

Tokyo (September 19 to 24, October 14 to 17)

  • Accommodations:
    • Hostel Bedgasm (September 19 to 24). Fantastic hostel. Staff members Tam, Jong, and Tomo couldn’t do enough for guests. They gave great recommendations for sights and restaurants. Guests got a free drink every night at the hostel bar, which was an easy way to meet other travelers. The hostel is located in a quiet residential neighborhood, so it’s perfect if you want to get a good night’s sleep. It was also fun to get a glimpse of local life in Tokyo. However, you might want to stay at a different hostel if you want to bar hop in Roppongi or Shinjuku until sunrise.
    • First Cabin Akasaka (October 14 to 15). I chose First Cabin for a pod hotel experience. My pod was spacious enough that I could stand on my bed without any problems. I placed my valuables in a roomy cabinet, although it wasn’t large enough to store my backpack. Pajamas and slippers were provided, and the bathrooms even had straighteners and curling irons. The divider for my pod didn’t reach the floor, so I didn’t have total privacy, but my pod was still cozy. First Cabin was in Akasaka, a nice neighborhood that was a quick metro ride from more touristy areas like Roppongi, Shibuya, and Shinjuku.
    • Kaisu Hostel (October 15 to 17). Just a few blocks from First Cabin, Kaisu had a cool vibe and aesthetic. A cafe was on the ground floor, so it was convenient to be able to nurse a latte while working on my computer. My bunk was spacious and comfortable, and my dorm room had eye-catching wooden beams on the ceiling. The hostel was quiet, but travelers still socialized in a small common area on the ground floor.
  • Transport to Tokyo:
    • For my first stay in Tokyo, I took a three-hour flight from Taipei.
    • For my second stay in Tokyo, I took a 1.5-hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Nagano.
  • Transport within Tokyo:
    • The Tokyo metro is as punctual and extensive as everyone says. No matter how crowded a station is, everyone will line up to wait for the next subway. If you only do one thing in Japan, get an IC card for public transportation. It will make your life so much easier. I bought a PASMO card from a machine in a metro station and had my name engraved on it, which made me feel really cool. I could top up the balance on my PASMO card whenever it was running low, and I could even use the card for public transportation in other cities like Osaka and Kyoto.
    • Tokyo is huge, so walking usually isn’t the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. However, I still walked whenever I could. Not only was this an attempt to burn off the five snacks I was eating per day, but it was an excellent way to see the city. Tokyo – and Japan in general – is very safe, so I never felt uneasy walking anywhere.
  • Blog posts:

Hakone (September 24 to 26)

  • Accommodation: K’s House Hakone
    • Outdoor and indoor onsen. That’s all you need to know. But, if you want more info, this hostel was perfect for a mountain town like Hakone. Like many hostels in Japan, my bunk had privacy curtains. Unlike any other hostel I visited in Japan, my bunk had a small window with a view of the mountains. And, let me say this again: outdoor and indoor onsen.
  • Transport to Hakone:
  • Transport within Hakone:
    • I took trains, a cable car, a ropeway, and a sightseeing cruise on Lake Ashi, which were all covered by the Hakone free pass. The town center of Hakone is compact, so it’s easy to walk around.
  • Blog post:

Nagoya (September 26 to 28)

  • Accommodation: Glocal Nagoya Backpackers
    • This was another hostel with a cafe/bar on the ground floor. I didn’t eat or drink in the cafe, but it looked like a typical hipster joint (i.e., it looked like it served good food). The hostel had a small kitchen and common area that contained informative books about Japanese culture.
    • Honestly, what I remember most from this hostel was rooming with the loudest snorer I’ve had the misfortune of meeting. There was no pause in the snoring, and music and ear plugs were no help. The following morning, the snoring traveler, a Canadian in his 50s, had the nerve to ask me if I slept well. He was a perfectly nice guy, but at that moment, he was the most diabolical person I’d ever met.
  • Transport to Nagoya:
    • Two-hour shinkansen ride (my first bullet train!) from Tokyo
  • Transport within Nagoya:
    • Nagoya is a fairly large city, but I was able to walk to all the sights I wanted to visit. Nagoya also has a metro system, but I didn’t use it.
  • Blog post:

Kanazawa (September 28 to 29)

  • Accommodation: Good Neighbors Hostel
    • The hostel served free plum wine every night, which was a fun way to meet other travelers. The wine came in a carton and was so sweet that most of the group had to put a couple of ice cubes in their glasses. We were a classy bunch. The bunks were huge, and each had a hanger. The hostel offered a free bike rental, which was a pleasant way to get around Kanazawa.
  • Transport to Kanazawa:
    • Three-hour train ride from Nagoya
  • Transport within Kanazawa:
    • I mostly walked in Kanazawa, but I also used a bike for a couple of hours.
  • Blog post:

Osaka (September 29 to October 2)

  • Accommodation: Guesthouse Sun
    • The hostel had a cute common area with an OG SNES. Sadly, no one played any games while I was at the hostel. Guests could help themselves to free instant ramen and fruit-flavored water throughout the day. It was raining heavily on the morning I checked out of the hostel, and a staff member said I could take and keep an umbrella. Such a lovely note to leave on.
  • Transport to Osaka:
    • 2.5-hour train ride from Kanazawa
  • Transport within Osaka:
    • I used the metro a few times, which seemed just as efficient as the Tokyo metro.
    • In Osaka, I mostly stuck to Dotonbori, which was easily walkable…as long as you managed to squeeze through the crowds.
    • To get to Nara, I took a 30-minute train ride from Osaka.
    • To get to Koyasan, I bought a World Heritage ticket, which covered the two-hour train ride to and from Osaka and public buses within Koyasan.
  • Blog post:

Kyoto (October 2 to 6)

  • Accommodation: Guesthouse Ga-Jyun
    • Free breakfast isn’t really a thing at Japanese hostels. Ga-Jyun seemed to try to make up for this by serving an immense breakfast buffet with multiple types of fruit, pastries, bread, eggs, and soup. It was ridiculous in the best possible way. The hostel had a welcoming atmosphere, and I was fortunate to be treated to a home-cooked dinner one night. On certain nights, guests get free transport to the owner’s public bath a few minutes away. As if that weren’t enough, Ga-Jyun had a silly resident Shiba Inu named Jiro.
  • Transport to Kyoto:
    • 30-minute train ride from Osaka
  • Transport within Kyoto:
    • I often used the metro, which didn’t seem to run as frequently as Tokyo or Osaka’s. I would usually have to wait a few minutes for the next subway in Kyoto, while the subway would usually arrive within a couple of minutes in Tokyo and Osaka. Don’t get me wrong: the Kyoto metro was still reliable. I’m just splitting hairs here.
    • I used a public bus to get to Kinkakuji.
    • Kyoto is a nice city to walk around, and I took advantage of this whenever I could.
  • Blog post:

Hiroshima (October 6 to 9)

  • Accommodation: K’s House Hiroshima
    • OK, truth session: if I had to choose the least pristine hostel I stayed at in Japan, K’s House Hiroshima would be it. It wasn’t dirty by any means, but I was in a private room that was noticeably worn. This might have just been an issue with my particular room. The common areas were clean and modern, and I later switched to a dorm room that looked fresher. [NB: I didn’t switch to a dorm because of the state of the private room. I would have been happy to stay in the private room, but it wasn’t available for my last night in Hiroshima.] The staff was friendly, and the common room had a stash of games and activities. The first floor had a vending machine with beer and canned vodka lime drinks. In theory, this was a great amenity. But take my word for it, and learn from my mistakes: the vodka lime drinks are deadly.
  • Transport to Hiroshima:
    • Two-hour shinkansen ride from Kyoto
  • Transport within Hiroshima:
    • I walked everywhere in Hiroshima. It’s also possible to take a tram to get around the city.
    • To get to Miyajima, I took a 25-minute train ride and then a 10-minute ferry ride from Hiroshima.
  • Blog post:

Sapporo (October 9 to 12)

  • Accommodation: Guesthouse Yuyu
    • The common room on the main floor was beautiful, and blankets were available in case you got chilly. A smaller library was on the second floor, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend time there. Yuyu provided free bread and mini croissants for breakfast. A variety of free teas were available throughout the day. I’m usually not a tea drinker, but I enjoyed sampling them.
  • Transport to Sapporo:
    • Five-hour shinkansen ride from Hiroshima to Tokyo, and then a 1.5-hour flight from Tokyo
  • Transport within Sapporo:
    • If you’re visiting Sapporo outside of summer (i.e., when it’s freezing), you can seek shelter in the metro, which contains a network of well-heated underground walkways. I used the metro only a handful of times, but I constantly retreated to the walkways to escape the cold.
    • When I wasn’t underground, I mostly walked at a quick pace to try to warm up.
    • I took a subway and bus to Moerenuma Park.
  • Blog post:

Nagano (October 12 to 14)

  • Accommodation: 1166 Backpackers
    • I liked hanging out in the common area, which had a large communal table. The hostel didn’t offer as many amenities as some other places I stayed at, but the staff was very friendly.
  • Transport to Nagano:
    • 1.5-hour flight from Sapporo to Tokyo, and then an 80-minute shinkansen ride from Tokyo
  • Transport within Nagano:
    • I walked within the city center.
    • To get to Togakushi, I bought the Togakushi Kogen Free Kippu from the Alpico ticket office across from Nagano Station. The ticket covered the hourlong bus ride to and from Nagano and public buses in Togakushi.
  • Blog post:

Expenses

I knew Japan would be my priciest destination in Asia and expanded my budget accordingly. My goal was to spend no more than $150 a day. During my 29 days in Japan, I spent about $3,495.83, or $120.55 a day. While it would be difficult to travel to Japan on a shoestring budget, it’s possible to travel there without emptying your savings account.

My expenses were categorized as follows:

  • Transport: $1,229.78
    • This category includes my flight from Taipei to Tokyo ($157), my roundtrip flights between Tokyo and Sapporo (30,920 JPY/$273), trains, metro rides, and buses.
    • A 21-day Japan Rail Pass (65,000 JPY/$587) was my single largest expense in Japan and consisted of about 48% of this category. Although the pass was expensive, it ended up saving me money. Individual shinkansen rides are pricey: a one-way trip from Hiroshima to Tokyo costs about 19,080 JPY/$168. Instead of having to shell out money for each individual trip, I could take as many shinkansen rides as I wanted in a 21-day period with the rail pass. I ended up taking five shinkansen trips, which cost about 58,270 JPY/$515 total. In addition, the pass covered JR Group’s vast rail network in Japan, which was valuable since the shinkansen reaches only a limited number of cities. I took about 18,130 JPY/$160 worth of train rides in the JR Group network. Finally, JR Group offers local transport in cities like Tokyo, which the pass also covers.
      • JR offers seven-day, 14-day, and 21-day rail passes. Ultimately, your itinerary will determine whether a rail pass is worth the cost. If you plan to stick to just one or two cities in Japan, buying individual rail tickets might be a better deal. However, if you’re visiting multiple cities, a rail pass may end up being a steal. This fare calculator can help you decide if a JR Pass is right for you.
      • Previously, travelers could only purchase a rail pass outside of Japan; in other words, visitors had to buy the pass before they arrived in Japan. When I visited Japan in September and October 2017, JR Group was conducting a one-year trial (beginning in March 2017 and ending in March 2018) that allowed visitors to buy a rail pass at certain locations in Japan. This was a godsend, as it would have been difficult to buy a rail pass while I was country hopping in Southeast Asia.
  • Food: $958.76
    • Go figure that food was my second largest expense in Japan. My most expensive meal was the chef’s set at Daiwa Sushi in the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (3,880 JPY/$35). My cheapest non-breakfast meal was an udon bowl from 7-Eleven (430 JPY/less than $4).
    • I’ve already talked a lot about Japanese food in other posts, but here’s a quick list of my favorite meals and snacks, many of which – unsurprisingly – consist of noodles:
      • Margherita pizza at Seirinkan in Tokyo (1,500 JPY/$13.50)
      • Kaisen don at Tsujihan in Tokyo (1,980 JPY/$18)
      • Cold soba and chicken tempura at Sobakiri Miyota in Tokyo (600 JPY/$5.50)
      • Takoyaki at Takoyaki Wanaka in Osaka (450 JPY/$4)
      • Cold udon and tempura at Nokiya in Hiroshima (850 JPY/$7.50)
      • Cold soba and mushroom tempura at Ita Soba Kaoriya in Hiroshima (1,188 JPY/$11)
      • The best(!!!) cheese tart (183 JPY/$1.50) and soft serve (388 JPY/$3.50) at Kinotoya Bake in Sapporo. OMG, this was so good. Just go. I’m Kinotoya’s biggest hype girl now.
      • Cold soba and tempura at Uzuraya in Togakushi (2,200 JPY/$20)
  • Accommodation: $825.70
    • I stayed in private rooms a couple of times.
      • Tokyo: 6,700 JPY/$60.50 per night for a pod hotel
      • Hiroshima: 7,900 JPY/$70 per night. I wasn’t looking for a private room, but it was one of my only options. Accommodations in Hiroshima were almost fully booked for the weekend I stayed there.
    • Otherwise, I stuck to dorm rooms.
      • Tokyo: 2,940 JPY/$26 per night for a ten-bed dorm in Iriya, and 4,100 JPY/$36.20 per night for a 14-bed dorm in Akasaka
      • Hakone: 3,900 JPY/$34 per night for a six-bed dorm
      • Nagoya: 3,240 JPY/$29 per night for a five-bed dorm
      • Kanazawa: 2,000 JPY/$18 per night for an eight-bed dorm
      • Osaka: 2,650 JPY/$23 per night for a 12-bed dorm
      • Kyoto 2,000 JPY/$18 per night for a six-bed dorm
      • Hiroshima: 2,800 JPY/$25 per night for a four-bed dorm
      • Sapporo: 3,000 JPY/$26.50 per night for an eight-bed dorm
      • Nagano: 3,000 JPY/$26.50 per night for a four-bed dorm
  • Entertainment: $252.68
    • This category includes entrance fees, a ticket and a drink at Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, a few hours of karaoke, a baseball game, and a bike rental in Sapporo.
  • Miscellaneous: $228.90
    • When I arrived in Tokyo, I got a tourist SIM card with 1 GB of data for 15 days, which cost 4,500 JPY/$41. When the package expired, I bought another SIM card, which cost 4,298 JPY/$39.
    • I was freezing when I landed in Sapporo, so I headed straight to Uniqlo to buy a sweater (2,145 JPY/$19). Toward the end of my time in Japan, I was tired of looking like a disheveled backpacker, so I bought a dress and tights at a Uniqlo in Tokyo (5,375 JPY/$48.50).
    • I bought and mailed some postcards (1,620 JPY/$14.50 for ten postcards, and 630 jPY/$5.50 for postage). Friends who haven’t received a postcard yet, I promise I haven’t forgotten you. They’re coming…eventually.
    • Other miscellaneous costs include laundry, towel rentals, and spa treatments.

Finally, some general observations about Japan, organized by topic.

Sightseeing

  • Japan Guide was my bible. The amount of information on this site is astounding; major props to the people who contribute to the guide. Japan Guide provides thorough and accurate information about sights and how to get to destinations. Without Japan Guide, I never would have known about transport passes like the Hakone free pass and Koyasan World Heritage ticket.
  • One of the most beautiful things about Japan is the wide availability of clean restrooms. Just head to your nearest mall or train/metro station, and you’ll find a restroom with the smartest toilets in the world. Automatic flushing is child’s play for these bad boys. Heated seats, air fresheners, and water-rushing noises (to drown out unpleasant sounds) are among the features you may find.
  • If you get thirsty while sightseeing, don’t worry: a vending machine will be within a 100-meter radius.

Weather

  • Everyone hyped up the rain in Southeast Asia (“Aren’t you afraid it’s going to rain every day in Vietnam/Thailand/the Philippines/etc.?”), but man, no one warned me about the rainy season in Japan. It rained way more frequently in Japan than anywhere I visited in Southeast Asia. I saw at least a drizzle in every city I stayed in except Hakone. Fortunately, hostels had their own stash of umbrellas, which guests were free to use.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, Sapporo was freezing – no surprise there. Tokyo also cooled considerably between my first visit in mid- to late September and my second visit in mid-October.

Backpacking

  • The backpacking scene in Japan was quieter than Southeast Asia. Guests tended to be older; I’d say the late 20s was the most common age group, as opposed to the 18 to 24 year olds tearing up Southeast Asia. I saw a few salarymen and families staying at hostels. Domestic travelers consisted of a sizable portion of hostel guests.
  • Shampoo and conditioner were available at most hostels I stayed at. I’m picky about toiletries, so I used my own, but this was a nice perk for most backpackers.

Cultural norms

  • I had heard that eating and walking at the same time is a taboo in Japan, and I was so nervous about breaking this rule. I have no idea why I focused on this out of all the other faux pas I could have committed. Things got tricky when I bought snacks like ice cream cones. Seating wasn’t always available, so I stayed glued to one spot when eating outside.
  • As pristine as Japan is, people are still allowed to smoke inside. In fact, smoking is frequently prohibited outside. This doesn’t quite compute for me, but I suppose this cuts down on outdoor litter.
  • Everything – from toilets to escalators to snack packages – comes with instructions (“press here,” “stand here,” “open here”).
  • When visiting convenience stores or cafes, I never interacted with a bored or disinterested employee. “Purposeful” might be the best way to describe employees in the service industry. They were alert and attentive. This was a big change from New York, where I constantly hesitated to approach a scowling, grumpy cashier.

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