A low pitched whining noise filled my ears as I booked the flights to Japan. Why wasn't I travelling to Thailand, India, Mozambique? All places my pocket could afford, at a pinch. But years ago, before the recession, I made a promise to my daughter. When she was 16 we would take a trip to a destination of her choice.
Japan didn't even cross my mind. But, after years of reading Manga (stupid parenting mistake number two), it was top of her list. I tried to suggest alternatives, complaining about how long the flights would take, how travelling there would eat into our holiday time. She concurred but I could see she really wanted to go to Japan and a promise is a promise. Deep breath. What's a credit limit for anyway?
So we set off for Tokyo, via Dubai, for the start of the cherry blossom season in April. Known as sakura in Japan, the cherry blossoms are a seriously big deal symbolising renewal and the fleeting nature of life. It's also party time across the islands. Families and businesses have large picnics under the blossoms, enjoying the brief moment of beauty. An office junior will often be sent to secure a good spot under the trees and spend the day there until the office closes early and hanami begins. The ancient tradition of hanami involves watching the blossoms while consuming good food and drinking sake. A lot of sake.
Functionally illiterate, lost and broke? Wrong!
I had made plans, as I do. I had worried about the trip endlessly, as I do. I thought I would be functionally illiterate in Japan, I would get lost, I would feel broke. I was wrong on all counts. Arriving at Haneda Airport, just outside Tokyo, at 23:30, we were picked up by a hotel shuttle that arrived exactly on time. The hotel staff understood enough English to check us in swiftly and give us directions to the closest train station the next morning. No drama, no angst. We didn't even have to unpack our luggage as toiletries and pyjamas were provided.
Online booking sites offer plenty of rooms at no greater cost than hotels in South Africa. Breakfast is often included and breakfast is a large meal in Japan. You can often select a Western-style breakfast if you choose, but the Japanese breakfast of rice, rice porridge, fish, vegetables and fruit provides a good start for days of exploration.
Getting into the city was easier than expected. Jetlag meant we were up early and got onto the streets before the crowds. Our wifi device was only arriving that day so we downloaded the area map using the hotel's super-fast connection and set out to find our way the semi old-fashioned way. Station ticket machines have an English version and the interface is so well designed that we had two tickets in our grasp within minutes. A 30-minute trip took us to Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest in Tokyo. Busy but not chaotic. Everything works just as it should, from the public toilets to the platform signage.
Everything just works
Too early to check in, the hotel happily took our luggage and gave us tourist maps. We had no plans for the first day except to explore the city. For 600 Yen, a day ticket for the Tokyo metro provides unlimited travel. Taxis are expensive, but the rail system is cheap and easy to use. Divided into the metro or underground system and the JR railway, the train system is a thing of beautiful efficiency. JR tourist tickets provide access to most parts of the country, including the Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry and the legendary bullet train, the much revered Shinkansen. No trip to Japan is complete without using the bullet train. Punctual, comfortable, clean and super fast it became my favourite means of transport, anywhere, ever.
The food is reason enough for visiting Japan. It is possible to spend a small fortune on Fugu (pufferfish) or Kobe beef, but it is easy to eat well for much the same as you would pay at home. Ramen or noodle bars are popular, cheap and tasty. For less than 700 Yen each we had more noodles than we could eat, helped down by sake and a soft drink. Alcohol can be expensive in restaurants but most eateries provide free green tea and water with meals. Whisky - Japanese whisky is fabulous - beer and sake can be bought more cheaply from convenience stores or even vending machines. Vending machines are everywhere, and like everything else in Japan they work, providing both hot and cold drinks, both sweetened and unsweetened.
Specialities in tourist spots can be expensive
Specialities in tourist spots can be expensive but reasonably-priced sushi is easy to find. On the other hand, drinks and donuts at Starbucks and fresh fruit can cost almost as much as a full lunch. Major train stations have places to buy bento boxes for lunch and all sorts of delectable and strange confectionaries. Hot buns are popular, with a choice of sweet and savoury fillings, while onigiri are rice balls covered with seaweed and hiding a filling of your choice, from tuna to curry. Padkos with a difference. Street food found near most tourist attractions can be delicious or interesting, sometimes both - octopus balls, fried chicken better than KFC does it, skewers of shrimp cake and lots of ice-cream and pancakes.
Entrance to museums and gardens is often free, and will seldom cost more than 500 Yen per person. Some expenses just need to be embraced. No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to a hot bath or onsen. These are segregated by gender and require comprehensive cleaning with a hand shower before entering, which is done in the nude. Entrance cost varies but expect to pay 1500 to 2000 yen per person. Tattoos are usually prohibited as these are associated with the Japanese mafia.
Plenty to see and do that costs little
There's plenty to see and do that costs little. Shrines are everywhere and department stores are tempting with the quality and variety of their goods, often not as expensive as you might think. We also visited a Zen monastery for a meditation and calligraphy session, spent an afternoon with the descendants of the Samurai class learning swordplay and visited the Tokyo fish market. Perhaps the most valuable thing to see in Japan is the way things are done differently. The streets, public toilets, trains and buses are all spotless. Japanese children clean their own classrooms after school and a this practise seems to ingrain a deep respect and responsibility for their facilities. And then there's Hiroshima. A city bombed to oblivion less than 75 years ago. It is a thriving, modern city that operates efficiently and is beautiful too. All things are possible.
Japan is crowded, trains are busy and the locals work against stereotype, being not only consistently courteous as expected, but often very funny too. Instead of breaking the bank, Japan provided a glimpse of a different way of life, providing valuable lessons I won't easily forget.
Good to know:
Don't pack too many toiletries. Most hotels will provide what you need. Also pyjamas.
Pack slip on shoes, you will have to take your take your shoes off when entering many places.
Many hotels don't offer coffee in the rooms. Pack a few sachets if you want some before you leave your room in the morning. Tea is plentiful.
Rubbish bins are hard to find so take a plastic bag for your day's litter. The streets are unlittered and clean.
Attractions will be crowded. Set a time and place to meet your companions if you get lost in the throng.
Many restaurants have English menus or plastic examples of the food on offer.
No tipping required or desired.
20 May 2017: Exchange rate 1 Yen equals 0.12 Rand.
20 May 2017: Exchange rate 1 US Dollar equals 13.23 Rand.
Hotel rooms on booking.com R500 - 1200. Dormitory rooms are less
Subway pass in Tokyo and Kyoto 600 yen/R72 per day
JR rail ticket for 7 days: US$257/R3401 - local, commuter and bullet train rides.
Meals: Lunch R70, Dinner R120, Street food R30 to R40
Hire of wifi device - data and rental of device: 5700 Yen / R677 per 10 days
A typical day (costs for two):
Bakery and lunch for the train: 1380 Yen/165 Tand
Ice cream and whisky: 900 Yen/107 Rand
Dinner (for two): 3410 Yen/ 405 Rand
Coffee from vending machine: 200 Yen/ 24 Rand (one coffee)
Garden entrance Fee (for two): 620 Yen/74 Rand
Souvenirs: 1540 Yen/185 Rand
Total: 8050 Yen/Rand 957
What to read next on Traveller24: