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Visiting Japan

General

The best time to visit Japan is anytime

Japan has four very distinct seasons, and each season has its own beauties and attractions. Well known seasonal features include cherry blossom of spring (March-April), highland hiking in summer (June-September), autumn colours (October-early December) and winter snow wonderland (December-February). This means you can visit the same place in different seasons and get a completely different experience. Japan is also geographically and climatically diverse and you can find good places to visit at any time of the year.

Tipping is not generally expected.

Tipping is not customary and not expected in Japan although some people leave a few coins on the pillow in hotel rooms for housekeepers, as well as handing over a gratuity in a little envelope to ryokan staff who look after their room. Other service providers such as tour guides and drivers will also appreciate your gesture as a sign of your satisfaction but it is not an expectation as in other parts of the world.

Less than most other destinations in Asia.

You will see some signs and menus written in English in large cities, however, English is not an official language and not everybody speaks English. Apart from tour guides (who should obviously speak English), if you are mentally prepared for travelling in a non-English speaking country with different customs then it is a bonus (rather than expectation) to find an English-speaking person or English documents; you will also naturally be less frustrated.

Varies.

Western restaurants and cafes in cities mostly have tables and chairs. If you go to Japanese restaurants, you will sometimes see tatami matt floor rooms. Some of those rooms only have a low table and flat cushions (zabuton) around, where people sit with folded knees or cross legged. The other type of tatami floor seating is called “horigotatsu” which has a hole under the low table where you can put your legs down. Horigotatsu is easier to sit compared to sitting directly on the floor, popular and common for small parties at Japanese restaurants. We do not select the zabuton type of tatami floor seating for our tours, however we use the latter type (horigotatsu) sometimes.

Restaurants, Food and Beverage

Wide variety but it is seafood heavy

In large cities, you can find all kinds of cuisines and food products from sushi, tempura, noodles, Italian, Indian, French, burgers, sandwiches, Chinese, Korean, Mexican, etc. Ubiquitous convenient stores are a great source of snacks and drinks including coffee and alcohol.

However, regional and remote areas are a different story. You will find more traditional Japanese food than western food, and the meals usually consist of plenty of seafood including raw fish (sashimi). Especially if you stay at a ryokan or minshuku, their meals are quite seafood heavy.

Wide variety in terms of range, quality and price.

By far, the most common alcoholic drinks are beer, sake and shochu (Japanese original spirit made of sweet potato, buckwheat or wheat). Wine, spirits such as whiskey, gin, brandy etc. and cocktails can be found in mostly western restaurants and hotel bars. It is useful to bear in mind that Japanese people started drinking wine casually only in recent years, and volume of consumption is still limited, which is reflected in the quality and price. You may find that in rural areas where wine is not commonly drunk, it is fairly pricey and only sold by the bottle (and of subjective quality).

Non-alcoholic drinks are readily available at vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants. You can find bottles of water, green tea, black tea, coffee, juices and soft drinks.

Not necessarily.

Although increasing numbers of eateries are becoming non-smoking or at least having separate smoking area, it is not yet a legal requirement in Japan. The non-smoking law was recently amended and is to be introduced in April 2020, however, small businesses are exempt in the initial period. So, it is still possible that when you visit small restaurants and bars, you will see other patrons smoking. The law does not apply to hotels and ryokans and they can provide smoking rooms.

At Journey to the East we try our best to select non-smoking restaurants wherever possible. However, in rural and remote locations, it may not be always possible.

Varies.

Western restaurants and cafes in cities mostly have tables and chairs. If you go to Japanese restaurants, you will sometimes see tatami matt floor rooms. Some of those rooms only have a low table and flat cushions (zabuton) around, where people sit with folded knees or cross legged. The other type of tatami floor seating is called “horigotatsu” which has a hole under the low table where you can put your legs down. Horigotatsu is easier to sit compared to sitting directly on the floor, popular and common for small parties at Japanese restaurants. We do not select the zabuton type of tatami floor seating for our tours, however we use the latter type (horigotatsu) sometimes.

Transport

Suica is the prepaid IC card by JR East for JR trains in the Greater Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai regions. A special version of Suica, called Welcome Suica, is available to foreign tourists. The special cards are valid for only four weeks, come without a deposit fee, but do not allow for refunds.

Pasmo is the prepaid IC card of Tokyo’s railway, subway and bus operators other than JR. A special version of Pasmo, called Pasmo Passport, is available to foreign tourists. The special cards are valid for only four weeks, come without a deposit fee, but do not allow for refunds.

Accommodation

There are wide ranging types of accommodation available in Japan. Following are the main ones.

Western style hotel – Size and standard vary from 5-star large international chains to regional small business hotels. Generally, in Japan twin rooms (two single beds) are more common than double rooms (one double bed), and some hotels in regional cities only have twin rooms. Room sizes are generally smaller in cities. Also beds and pillows tend to be firmer than those in western countries.

Ryokan is a Japanese style accommodation, mostly consists of Japanese style rooms with tatami matt floor and futon bedding, and private ensuite. Some ryokans have a western style room with beds. A Japanese style room always has a low table and flat cushions to sit on, but the room may or may not have chairs. Most ryokans have an additional large public bath for guests and includes kaiseki style dinner. Breakfast can be Japanese style (rice, miso soup, fish etc.) or western style buffet.

Minshuku – Equivalent of guesthouse where you will have a private room, but bathrooms are often shared. Rooms are in Japanese style (tatami matt floor and futon bedding) and sometimes only divided by fusuma (thick solid paper panels) sliding doors with no lock. Often a host serves home cooked dinner and breakfast.

Shukubo (temple lodging) – The vast majority have Japanese style rooms and shared bathroom although there are limited number of temples with a western bedroom with ensuite. The stay at shukubo includes Buddhist vegetarian dinner and breakfast. Dinners are served early, around 5pm. They are run by monks, and facility and services are basic. Guests can attend morning service in the main hall.

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