Primer: Travelling Japan / places to go, getting around, accomms, culture, etiquette and geography

A rather rough overview originally compiled in advance of friends coming to Okayama for wedding. Re-purposed in slightly more general terms for logistical convenience as needed.

See also: “Travelling to and Around Okayama, Japan,” “Japanese Culture and Language Primer” and other resources in this archive including video guides. 

Japan Ramble Primer

Japan can be intimidating, even for seasoned travellers. You arrive to massive sticker shock, tiny octopi in soup, and 30 kinds of hot canned coffee (which all taste moreorless the same) in ubiquitous vending machines. 

Japan is a long country with 80% mountains – covering several climates, from frosty Hokkaido in the north, to tropical Kyushu giving adventurous folks much opportunity to head to the outer provinces for exploration of the heady scenery of this varied archipelago. With some planning, politeness and persistence, combined with a little zen, you can find big adventures.

Indeed, it is easy to get lost in the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka – crowded with skyscrapers and twisted alleys, piled high with screaming neon clubs pumping techno, reggae or karaoke and shops piled with futuristic technological gadgets that won’t make it to North America for another decade – but, far away from the expensive hotels and talking toilets of the huge Pacific metropolis, you may find yourself soaking in alpine hot springs on a starry night, drinking sake with strangers crammed into a mountain hut after a backcountry dinner of rice, seaweed, miso and green tea.

Geography Basics

Japan has 4 main islands (and loads of others). Most of Japan’s big cities are on Honshu.

While looking at Japan, seems intuitive to divide North/South, however Japanese (who call their country Nihon or Nippon btw) divide East/ West – the ancient capital of Kyoto is roughly the dividing line.

Tokyo/Yokohama are in East (Highasi) Japan and Osaka + Okayama are West (Nishi) Japan.

There are 47 jurisdictions (states/provinces, most of prefectures (ken) (some are different classifications like city-state but whatever…,) each with something which makes them “special” or famous. The people will tell you for sure.

The other main islands are:

Hokkaido (all the way north with Sapporo as main city and traditional home of indigenous Ainu peoples)

Kyushu (southern big island with Kagoshima and Nagasaki)

Shikoku (close by Okayama, rural and beachy)…

you’ve also likely heard of Okinawa which is waaaay south and cultural shares characteristics with its Polynesian cohorts.

Thousands of more little islands! Pick one or more… keeping reading

Trains, Planes, Transport etc.

Keep in mind, you can go just about anywhere on the east coast of Japan very quickly by Shinkansen and most places in Japan efficiently by some sort of train (see this map for overview and below for train types). Also, keep in mind, trains (especially the fast trains) are not cheap and can eat up a lot of cash in a hurry. Slow trains are cheaper but, well slow… that said, can take you to more remote and interesting areas (note: ask as i have lots more ideas about these types of excursions –  oh and a video of rambling slow trains.

If you plan to do a bunch of rambling, then purchasing a JR (Japan Rail) pass is probably a good idea. These passes MUST be purchased outside of Japan before you leave (from an authorized vendor of which there are many) including Green (1st class) specific service, must match your passport name EXACTLY and are available for different regions (i.e. West Japan if you wanna stay around Osaka/Kyoto (including back and forth to KIX airport) or East Japan for Tokyo / Nagano / Japan Alps) and for 1 or 2 weeks blocks. Also for paying for local subways in Osaka/Kyoto or Tokyo, there are various discount card programs or combinations with your JR pass, and also prepaid IC electronic money cards for many purposes from vending machines to transport like for Kansai-region travel in various modes from one card.

Great plan for train travel if flying into the preferred Kansai/KIX airport: 

Use the 1 day JR West Kansai Area pass to go from Airport to Kyoto for ¥2200 plus will get your around locally in Kyoto for sightseeing/acclimating for a day or two.

Then use the Kansai Wide pass ¥9000 for 5 days which gets you from Kyoto to Okayama and covers all your local transport, day trips etc *plus*  gets you back to KIX which is ¥7800 alone.

Or vice versa.

 There are loads of tourist info sites which explain the options in extensive detail. Note: while most trains are JR (national train service brand), some areas have other private operators operating on same tracks and/or different stations. Also, figuring out your train route can be confusing to just about everyone, not just foreigners. Google Maps and Rome2Rio are great tools to get you started and others like Hyderdia go into more detail and may include long-distance busses too

Train types / vocab

  • Local (kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha) Local trains stop at every station.
  • Rapid (kaisoku) Rapid trains skip some stations. There is no difference in the ticket price between local and rapid trains.
  • Express (kyuko) Express trains stop at even fewer stations than rapid trains. JR charges an express fee in addition to the base fare, but other railway companies do not.
  • Limited Express (tokkyu) Limited express trains stop only at major stations. A limited express fee usually has to be paid in addition to the base fare. It is typically between 500 and 4000 yen. JR always charges this fee, but some other railway companies do not.
  • Super Express (shinkansen) Shinkansen are only operated by JR and use separate tracks and platforms. A limited express fee has to be paid in addition to the base fare. It is typically between 800 and 8000 yen.

Domestic Flights

ANA has a special “Visit Japan” fare scheme offering any domestic flight for 13,000 Y but must be purchased outside of Japan as well as discount flights on their related cheaper service Vanilla Air.

Note: Because you are awesome and friendly, you’ll likely make friends who may well be eager to take you on adventures or direct you to their favorite places which can add some fun spontaneity to your journey. 

There are also domestic flights around Japan to regional hubs which can be cheaper than train but must factor in getting to/from airport, and there are “night busses” which do long haul runs all over country in relative comfort (this ain’t the Greyhound :)). 

Accommodation Types

You have Guest Houses / Minshuku, Ryokans, Capsule, Love Hotels of so many kinds to choose from! Each unique and beyond the “usual” western-style / business hotels which you can find via your usual preferred app. If you seek a fancy hotel situation, you can find the finest in the world are available in big cities so fill your boots and max out the card.a

Ryokans are the traditional tatami mat, kimono-service, fully-pampered experience – most of which have operated for hundreds of years and have life-long hosting staff. These are NOT CHEAP but are supremely Japanese. Usually include some wondrous hot bath and kaiseki (small plates of magic) meal. The room is transformed from a lounge-y room to a sleeping room magically while you rock the included yukata (light kimono) and sip saké. The aforementioned town of Kurashiki has loads of great options.

Capsule hotels come in the “stacked-like sardine next to snoring drunk salary-man type” but have also evolved into sorta hip backpacker hostels often with actual headroom and cafe/bar or bookshop downstairs. Sometimes they are hybrids type venues with tatami rooms (with bathroom down the hall). There are also some which label themselves as “business or executive” hotels and are quiet clean version of these sleeping pods. Good news is crime is very low in Japan so don’t have to worry much about your stuff or safety, plus these rooms always have a safe.

Love Hotels are often listed as “adults-only” on booking-com etc., these are automated (as in you never see a person and order room from a touch screen type board) hotels with (often outlandishly garishly) themed rooms. Usually out of downtown (to be discrete) and rented in hourly blocks so not ideal for a “homebase” stay. If you want to see a unique Japanese environment, fun to check it out on your ramble. Also usually cheaper than other options (and still spotlessly clean) and don’t require advance reservation.  

Minshuku / B&B / Guesthouses of all kinds are available too and can be so great with home-style hospitality, communal local-sourced meals, and activities if this is your kinda thing. Also Airbnb is available and regulated for booking accommodations and experiences like exploring Kyoto wearing a kimono or making sushi…  endless options.

Directories for Japan-specific accommodations (much of which you won’t find in Booking-com or other common sites:

Restaurants and Food

Most restaurants have realistic plastic/wax models of their menu items on display outside with prices so you know what you are getting in for. Tip: snap a pic of what you want to eat if language barrier. 

Izakayas are the pubs of Japan but IMO far better most pubs as they feature small plates of (usually affordable) deliciousness (instead of greasy chicken fingers and nachos) and Nihon-shu (saké), beer (Japan legalized small/craft brewing in 1996) and friendly goodtimes. You will likely make friends here whether you want to or not.

Curry restaurants are often a good place to fill up if you find Japanese meal sizes not quite enough and need a solid feast. Some are all you can eat (dangerous!)

Konbini (convenience stores) unlike North America, Japanese versions (including originally US brands 7-11 and Circle K and Lawson Market) have fresh, handy, quality food ready to go from sushi sets to fried croquettes to handy onigiri (rice balls), plus the most incredible assortment of beverages including dozens of varieties of can coffee/tea.

Vending machines are everywhere too for a handy bevvie at any point for ¥100-200 – don’t be afraid to choose something you have no idea what it is – won’t kill ya ;) Make sure to dispose of your bottle in the appropriately marked bin.

Bento boxes are pre-packed lunches in cute divided trays and are easily available and always fresh and usually cheap – especially at stores in or around stations.

Malls and department stores have shockingly great food courts (seriously) and grocery stores put their pre-packed meals on huge discount after 5PM. Handy when on the go. 

Cultural Nuance  & Etiquette

Passport: You always have to carry this. Very unlikely you are ever asked for it but if you are and don’t have it, it’s a huge hassle. Plus at many stores you can get a tax-rebate when you show (they even stamp in your passport oddly enough) and checking into some hotels they as for it (though by law they aren’t supposed to but what do ya do…?)

Paying: When you buy something at a store, don’t hand the cash to the cashier, instead place it evenly and carefully on the little tray you will notice. Your change will be counted aloud (even though you don’t understand) with some crisp flicking of bills pageantry and handed back on this tray. Don’t rush the process, look engaged and smile and say “domo artigato (Mr. Roboto”) as though they just performed an important act – you will never be ripped off unless you end up in some dodgy hostess bar which you shouldn’t be at anyhow. Also, don’t tip, Ever. Even when you want to, don’t.  

Bowing: Yes everyone bows all the time, but not some big-time genuflection, more of a quick but distinct nod but from the waist. This is different for the wedding ceremony at the shrine but don’t worry about that quite yet. Because you are obviously foreign, some people will try to shake your hand, don’t do your “big time tough guy” handshake as they are in no way prepared for your bone-crushing strength and avoid the back-slapping hugging (tough i know) and stick to a simple bow and everyone will be happy.

Smoking: Used to be you could smoke/buy cigarettes everywhere (even in non-smoking areas) in Japan but now ya gotta pay attention. This means being sequestered in hideous smoking rooms in airports and trains. The only places in Japan which are dirty and nasty it seems. Don’t walk with your smoke, find a bench, and don’t ever pitch your butt, stash it and dispose of properly. When you buy smokes, you have to touch a touch screen verifying you are of age. Kinda cute really. Also, smokes can be purchased from vending machine sometimes and are cheap, really cheap. 

Drinking: Alcohol however is acceptable just about anywhere in public (i.e. parks) as long as you don’t get loud and sloppy (getting loud and sloppy is very disrespectful in Japan which loves quiet/respectfulness except for obnoxious political campaign vans, pachinko parlours and a few other odd exceptions in which ear-splitting volume is the norm) anyhow, you can buy beer, saké at konbini (or sometimes via vending machine), find a park bench with a view and enjoy your bevvie, consider pairing with the bento box mentioned above. Dispose your can properly, all the time. Never ever litter.

Shoes / slippers: The foyer of a house or hotel room (called a genkon) is where you take off your shoes, then you’ll be offered a pair of house slippers which are comically too small for you. Squeeze your toe into them anyhow and walk around like a crippled duck. Tip: bring extra socks so when you ditch the slippers you aren’t the obnoxious foreigner with stinky feet. Importantly! When you go into the toilet (toilet and bath and sink are in separate places), change from the tiny house slippers to the small plastic slipper by the toilet door which are even more clumsy. Then (you will forget at least once) change back into the house slippers before trodding back on to the tatami mat floors. It’s strange at first then your realize that wearing shoes on the house is gross and socks in toilet room is weird too. 

Tattoos: Traditionally associated with Yakuza organized crime gangs, and as such, are best not to be displayed publicly and often barred access to public baths, however this attitude seems to be changing significantly, especially for gaijin (foreigners). Still, for coming through immigration or any “serious” occasion, best to cover up (sorry) to make life easier. If you aren’t doing anything “bad” it should be no problem but makes you are object of curiosity and bit of a target for the actual yakuza. (note to self: find more resources about this). Ironically, Japanese tattoo-ing is probably the best in the world.  

Hot Springs, Baths etc. 

Guide to taking a bath (seriously)

There are many types of baths (besides the holy o-furo in every house which is filled once and shared cause you scrub and shower before and only get in to relax your aching muscles). These baths are a core part of Japanese culture and are always done nekkid and usually with strangers – making for a bit of a change from the usual serious Japanese personality. 

Sento: public bath houses – cheap (¥500 – 1000) with lockers, separate sides and in most every neighbourhood. An area with washing stations and stools and then a variety of soaking tubs. From small neighbourhood ones to almost-theme-park ones. 

On-sen: refer in general to towns which feature a hot spring source, the hotels (ryokans) with natural hot water fed baths, and the baths themselves (think Harrison Hot Springs where the term refers to the town, the hotel, the source, the public bath) As such, these locations have various options from pay-as-you-go, to full hotel stays and sometimes…

Rotenburo: refers to an outdoor pool – sometimes these are (my fave) are a free bath in the middle of a town, usually alongside a river, or sometimes the outdoor pool at an hotel or on-sen facility of its own. 

Note: Whatever the name, on sen are magic places – just ask noted afflicted novelist Natsume Soseki, author of Kokoro, one the finest novels written in any language.

Excursions (from Okayama)

Note: Keep in mind if travelling in spring time, you may run into  Golden Week which is a series of 4 national holidays (old Emperor day, Children’s day, Constitution day, and Green (eco) day) which take place within a week. So this is when maaaanny Japanese families take a couple more days off work and travel together (think Thanksgiving x Spring Break). The downside is trains and hotels can be packed and make reservations rather important. The good news, people flee the cities so Tokyo/Osaka etc can be much less hectic (especially for lineups to attractions and notable restaurants). 

Anyhow, this means more people travelling, maybe certain business / attractions closed (or maybe open more). This train pass vendor shares some tips for this hectic time. 

Okayama is in a great part of Japan which most foreigners don’t put on their itinerary – close to varied sites for culture, outdoor adventures, history as well as contemporary life and loads and loads of sunshine. 

Regardless you will carry on intrepid traveller! Here are some great handy ideas for excursions either using Okayama as a base, or as an overnight, or carrying on for parts afar:

Seto-ki & Shikoku

Shikoku is the smallest of the 4 main island and located quite close to Okayama. In between in the “inland sea” (Seto-ki) and loads of little islands (not unlike the Gulf / San Juan islands of the Salish Sea). There are ferries which connect many islands and a massive lovely bridge for cars and trains to the island. The island itself hosts the 88 sacred sites (ohenro-san dori) Pilgrim’s Path – kinda like Japan’s Camino de Santiago. Along the coast a short trip from Okayama are many cute seaside towns with minushuku guest houses and easy access to visit various little islands like Naoshima. Super cute. If you wanna see more Japan surf culture or go on pilgrimage, this is your island. 

Check out Uno Port Inn (FB) which has a bakery and easy access from station and to Naoshima island and makes for a great jumping-off stop.

Reading:

National Geographic (NatGeoTraveller.co.uk) named the Setouchi area including/around Okayama as Top Place to Visit in 2019 (narrowly beating out Antarctica and Pittsburgh, seriously), so y/our timing is fortuitous. Namechecks in the article for several places listed below. 

Japan Times published a great article by Amy Chavez who lives in the area about the changing demographics and economics in the area vis a vis tourism. 

Himeji

There are many castles in Japan from the Edo (feudal Shogun) period, however most are rebuilt/reconstructions after WW2. The mightiest of the originals is Himeji which is an easy trip from Okayama. Can get crowded and keep in mind, the castles were not built for tall/big folks and require a lot of walking up, up, up…  Okayama has a smaller, handier castle too :).

42 mins east from Okayama $35-55 CAD train

Hiroshima

While noted in history books for the Atomic Bomb and of course the “dome” which survived at the epi-center and the related museum is powerful to witness, Hiroshima is also a fun-loving city featuring food culture including okonomiyaki (savory pancake) stacked on top of yakisoba (saucy buckwheat noodles). If you are starving after many Japanese sized meals, dig in and do your best.

40 mins west from Okayama $50-70CAD train

Kyoto and/or Nara

These two cities are the ancient capitals of Japan and were relatively unscatched during the war. As such, feature so many temples, shrines, pavilions, residences and like full-on traditional Japanese culture. Kyoto also is home to Gion District which is the traditional art, culture and geisha quarters – this is NOT a red-light district but rather charming laneway streets filled with tourists dressing up in kimono moreso than actual ya know, *actual* geisha / maiko (apprentices), plus… incredible riverside patio restaurants hundreds of years old (unforgettable and pricey), endless alleys and arcades of izakayas (sort of hangout pubs with small plates of food, more below on this), craft beer bars (map), coffee resto lounges of supreme quality and service, artsy shops and all the theatre arts of kabuki, noh, so on. Considera tranquil stroll on Philosopher’s Walk/Path (tetsugako no michi), the stunning and literary-ily renowned Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as well as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion which no one ever talks about despite its charm and a visit to a good-sized Tokyu Hands the “creative life store” (where dave spends all the money, everytime).

1:13 west from Okayama $67-90CAD for train

Nara is a much smaller, quieter city/town and filled with even more temples(!) and deer wandering the parks, streets and anywhere else they want. They will steal your food and you will let them. Overall serene and all the “zen” you can handle as well as all the traditional arts/crafts cultural experiences you desire. 

1:49 west of Okayama (with 2 train switches in Osaka)  or 1:45 by slower train from Kyoto

Osaka / Kobe

Note: this general greater area is called Kansai (like the airport mentioned above) and general info about Kansai Tourism including suggested itineraries into the true soul of Japan is abundant. 

Osaka is Japan’s second largest city and as such, a bit more laid back and fun-loving than its full-on big-time sibling of Tokyo. So much shopping, like whoa… electronics and gadgets and swords and knives and clothes and gadgets and… streets filled with restaurants enticing customers with giant moving crabs and other oddities on Ebisu higashi rd. which in part gives Osaka the nickname Tenka no Daidokoro (the nation’s kitchen) and Tsutenkaku Hondori shopping street will melt your head as you can buy anything and everything – seriously. 

Aside: Our friend farmer Mac sometimes goes to participate in an artisan Farmer’s Market on weekends. Plus you can find absinthe bars and all the decadent nightlife i frankly don’t understand – i.e. consider yourself warned if you wander into second floor hostess clubs, you will come out confused and likely broke :) and don’t ask me to sing karaoke. There’s also a Universal Studios and other similar attractions if that’s your thing.

NOTE: A good hotel by Okayama Station (different than Shin-Osaka which is the bullet trains station) is Monterey Hotel (right next to Ritz Carlton but ya know, way cheaper) which has an Austrian chapel rebuilt on an 8th floor courtyard and nice pyjamas.

Note: most hotels include pyjamas as well as toothbrush, razor and the like.

Kobe is next-door-ish in the Osaka mega-opolis and noted for Kobe beef but really not an agricultural place so more of a brand (note: Wagyu beef is widely available and though pricey, fun to splurge on in the “grill your own” yakiniku place). Again loads of shopping, beach/seaside life and fancy stuff. Little bit Beverly Hills/LA vibe here. 

:57 east of Okayama to Shin-Osaka $58-82CAD for train

Tokyo

Note: the Tokyo/Yokohama meggggaoplois and related general area is called Kanto. 

OK, what can you say about the biggest dang mega-opolis with more people in the Tokyo/Yokohama area than Canada or California? I can’t say much because i spend almost no time there – too much stimulation for me! But… So many eclectic neighbourhoods and most all the sights / stories you’ve ever heard about Japan. Rather expensive, massively crowded and entirely unforgettable. More lights than you thought possible. More Michelin starred restaurants, more bars, clubs, shops,… crazy crosswalks in Shibuya, famous shops in Ginza, fashion craziness in Harajuku, street markets/fairs, cos-players – like all of it, all at once, all the time.

Yokohama is the more industrial, but still entirely massive and varied, co-joined twin. Reason suggests this area is a trip in itself but if you can handle the big city, do it up. Suggest much more research and planning and significant budget. 

3:17 east of Okayama $170-220CAD by train (prob wanna get a JR pass if you do this journey) or 9+hr by night bus which is $70-150CAD

Nagano

Home of the Japan Alps and host of 1998 Winter Olympics. Main cities are Nagano city, Matsumoto and Omachi but Hakuba in the heart of the mountains is the jumping off point for skiing (prob too late for that), climbing, hiking, hot springs and general rambling in nature. Bit of a trek to get to as you head west from the more populated eastern seaboard but if you are seeking mountain life and wanna stay in awesome huts and soak in tiny mountain hot springs under stars, this is the place but this requires some logistical savvy to get to via a few trains and so on… but so worth the trek for outdoor / mountain goodness (and the highest life expectancy in the country!)

6:40 from Okayama by train with a few switcheroos

Tottori / Shimane – San-in coast

Not far away from Okayama but take a big of adventurous spirit. This is the “lost coast” of Japan and the location of Dave’s fabled mushroom farm as well as giant sand dunes, perfect pears, remote hot springs, Lafcadio Hearn (early days western writer immersed in Japanese culture becoming Yakumo Koizumi) house and museum, and the Matsue Art Museum. If interested, custom info will gleefully be provided. Start the idea with this special train service on the Romantic Route. This area also has a manga museum and Conan O’Brien recently visited with his TV program to “Conan-town”. More about Tottori tourism. Oddly, and somehow legally, you can rent mario carts and carouse through the streets.

Bonus > dream rambles

More Logistics

Communication, Insurance Etc.

Phone/wi-fi – if you are US and use T-Mobile, add global roaming and you’re all set. Otherwise buy a pocket wi-fi gadget at the airport (note: find more article about this). Free wi-fi is common but often requires absurd registration hassles. Again 7-11 is awesome source for wi-fi in a pinch.

Resources:

Flexiroam Local Data

Okayama Free wifi (pdf)

Wiman Okayama wifi

JNTO Japan Free wifi maps

Medical Insurance

Good news is Japanese medical care is great but language barrier is a bit tricky (don’t worry right), but (again Travel 101) make sure you have appropriate travel medical insurance – in BC, BCAA is fine, in USA, consider something like World Nomads (you can sign up on-line).

More Art, Literature and Culture

Movies

A few ideas to load up on your device for plane viewing to get ya in the spirit: 

  • Lost in Translation – Bill Murray is a confused actor promoting whiskey in Tokyo, hijinks ensue
  • Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson’s stop motion about well, dogs and friendship
  • Zatoichi – classic Edo-period-set films about a blind masseur/master swordsman (YT)
  • Tanpopo – not a spaghetti western, a ramen western and ode to food and love – See also Minba, a film lampooning the yakuza which got director Itami killed (yikes!)
  • Seven Samurai – before the Magnificent 7, came Kurosawa’s B&W masterpiece
  • + TV dramas like Long Vacation, Tokyo Love Story, Pride, Beach Boys are subtitled all over Youtube for cheesy fun 
  • Amazon has a few quirky series like Ramen Loving Girl, Sunshine, Sento, Sake, Tokyo Girl (subtitled) for a funtime

More General Travel and News Sources

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