I thought backpacking Japan would go just as smoothly as in New Zealand. Just going with the flow and see how it goes. Well, that might not have been the best idea in retrospect. Most of the time I am utterly confused and my favourite line that haunts my thoughts is “I just don’t know… I’m confused”. It’s no secret that my favourite way of travelling is to just get lost in a city I don’t know. I usually get lost without that deliberate decision but with an insane intuitive compass I magically always make it back to my hostel. Even in the weirdest and same looking suburbs. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know.
But what my compass can’t steer me through is all the rest when backpacking Japan. People, conversations, socially expected actions and maps. Don’t give me a map I’m screwed. But what I find with maps as well as the real view of streets is that they all look disorientatingly the same and relying on public transport is not such a bad idea after all. The only problem is, sometimes it is well hidden and especially in Tokyo, it gets complicated.
So the deal with Tokyo is that there are different rail and metro companies running the place but not interconnecting in a way that would be convenient for your purse. The best option is to get a Suica card, which is rechargeable and can be used on either line. It’s like the London Oyster card or the Sydney Opal card.
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However, there are fees for using each and within the ride on each company’s lines there are different fees per number of stops. So you might pay double even if you just drive two stops in case you have to change lines inbetween. For instance, if you wanted to get to Roppongi you would definitely use at least 2 different company services or walk for 20 minutes to the next best stop. Convenience is different.
What most Japanese people do and you can do cheaply as well is get a bike. Most hostels rent bikes out for the day for about 300 YEN and there are bike lines as well, cars are used to bikes and cyclists are just as relentless as in other countries. So always watch out for those. And while we’re at it, be aware that Japanese people have a tendency to walk in the way, according to my perceptions. It is so much harder to walk around people or through crowds than anywhere else I’ve been. They don’t really make way or walk closer together (groups take up the whole width of streets) unless you announce yourself with “sumimasen”, excuse me.
I say it bluntly, I am disappointed. The only real luxury you will get in Japanese hostels are the high tech (Western style) toilets. And even those are sometimes disabled so that the buttons won’t work except the one that flushes. Australian hostels were alright and Japan usually has high standards but so far I am just shaking my head constantly in disbelief. But then again, I wasn’t staying at the higher end hostels when backpacking Japan. Tokyo has quite some options for different stays. So if you have time on your hands when backpacking Japan, then I recommend trying capsule hotels, quirky and theme stays and locations in different areas.
I know Japan is a relatively small country with a high population but having no or super small lockers, a comparatively small hang out space and kitchens that are basically non-existent is just a no go. Wall plastering seems to unravel, there is always a draft and there is a tendency to hoarding in corridors and on the rooftop. The bathrooms are also pure stone coloured over rooms that are insanely cold and far from comfortable. I will visit more hostels throughout my journey and hope this impression will change. But for now, that’s my opinion.
While I was in Australia, I lived in fear of Japan being even more expensive. Newly made Japanese friends reassured me it would be cheaper, especially food. And food is a vital part for me. What they failed to mention is that because the food is so good and diverse, I would spend double the amount of money on it than in Australia. I haven’t encountered farmers markets either and so I rely on finding relatively cheap supermarkets. Those are rare because most shops are 7/11s on every corner and the medium priced Family Mart on every second street. Then there also are speciality shops.
One good thing about the many 7/11 stores is that they have good food. You can get whole cooked meals to just reheat at home or hot snacks, such as fried chicken, dumplings or hot dogs. The prices range between 100 and 200 YEN , which amounts to 0.80 to 1.60 USD or 0.77 to 1.50 EUR. That won’t fill you up, though and will whet your appetite even more. Your bills will rise noticeably if you rely on them with your backpacker budget.
So what should you look for when backpacking Japan, then? I recommend asking locals or the hostel reception for the cheapest supermarket and 100 YEN shops. These will be a go-to place for you. Unlike tacky 100 something shops I have encountered in other countries, the Japanese ones have everything. Snacks, microwave food and even toilet seats. Those are an obsession with the Japanese, who apparently can’t stand cold toilets. That aside, you can basically stock up your cutlery, get all your DIY needs and buy gifts for your beloved ones at home. Every item is 100 YEN plus tax, which makes 108 YEN.
Speaking of tax, this is something that will mess with you. A lot. It did with me. Sometimes the tax is included in the listed price and at other times (especially when you thought it was a good deal) you will realise your mistake at the cashier, when everything is scanned and a queue has formed behind you. After a while you will notice the double pricings or small letterings reading + tax. You are certainly well advised to expect a higher price and can only be positively surprised if it stays the same. such as in McDonalds or small manga shops.
This one is super tricky and hard to just summarise. But to give you a broad overview, you should not eat in public unless right next or in the place where you bought the food. There won’t be bins anywhere else, either. Don’t blow your nose, but suck it back in, regardless of the noise. Walk on the left unless you want to overtake people on an escalator. It’s like in England.
More noise rules relate to public transport. There shouldn’t be any sound coming from your phone and talking on it is not allowed either. Most people type instead or read mangas. Eating noises are a special issue as well. When eating soup, instant noodles or the like as well as when drinking hot beverages, people use a lot of noise to slurp everything in as fast as possible. To be honest, it is driving me crazy.
And remember the shoes. When you enter a house or temple, for example, you will see an wooden elevation or carpet and possibly already a line of shoes. That means you have to take off yours as well and put them there neatly. If there are house slippers provided you may use them, otherwise stay in socks. For the bathroom, use the special slippers provided.
One last thing during your backpacking Japan trip, whenever you are walking past a store, walk into or around a store, the store assistants will instantly be upon you, greeting you with “irasshaimase”. Sometimes they will yell it out repeatedly regardless of whether you have just entered or are still around. Ultimately, it is just a greeting but should also entice you to come in and purchase something. So a good idea is not to reciprocate everyone with a smile or nod, as rude as it sounds, because your head muscles will be sore after an hour.
I think this is a good start for getting a clearer idea of things that might take you by surprise and make backpacking Japan more comfortable. Have you ever been to Japan and experienced or read up on some things that are not listed here? Let me know in the comments.
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