Here’s a few tips for the bush-walker friends who wish to explore Japan in a unique way, or a least away from marked trails.
Japan for adventurers in 6 key points (plus 2 bonus points)
– Hitchhiking: (4 / 5) – Quite Doable
– General transportation: (5 / 5) – All places get served
– Camping: (3 / 5) – Wild Camping not recommended
– General cost: (2 / 5) – Expensive country
1. Transportation in Japan
Japan is a country divided in 3 big islands spreading on the North-South axis. Urban as well as inner-city transport is very well developed and it is very easy to travel from one city to another, even the smallest town. The problem comes from finding the right way of transportation and towards the right place, as most indications are written in Kenji. If you’re lucky, the city names will be translate using western font, but unless you take a major train line, you might keep asking yourself if you’re in the right bus.
- Hitchhiking in Japan
Japan is one of hardest country where to get picked up yet it’s also the most gratifying one where to hitchhike.
Foreigner’s fear is very real in Japan, so more than ever look clean. Take time to write your destination down in Kenji* (*little parenthesis: know that you will have to reconfirm your destination regardless once someone picks you up). Also know that a city name actually designates an entire area. If you want to reach downtown, add JR to the city name for the Japan Railway station (which is usually located downtown).
To pump your success rate up, remember to bow after EACH vehicle that passes you, regardless if it stops or not. 80% of the time, people willing to take you will first pass you to take a good look at you and then turn around to pick you up.
Lastly, know that the driver will insist to drop you off exactly where you want to, and will most likely offer you something to drink, one way or another.
ARTICLE: How to succeed at Hitchhiking.
- Traveling by train in Japan
An option that can quickly turn out to be expensive, even if you buy a train pass before you leave for Japan.
The idea, if you wish to make your pass affordable, is to use trains as your hotels. Just use your pass to take any night train and sleep in it (instead of taking a room in a hotel) – it doesn’t matter which train you take, you’ll take a train back once half the night’s done.
That aside, trains are a major way of transportation, clean and on time.
- Traveling by bus in Japan
Another good option, but expensive too, and not necessarily cheaper than the train. Compare prices.
In any event, almost any town can be reached by either a train or a bus.
- Traveling by car in Japan
No surprises here. Roads are very well maintained and there’s no need for off-road cars. Just remember to drive on the left side and to follow the local rules. Politeness is king.
- Traveling by bicycle in Japan
An option that seems easily doable. Road are in great conditions and drivers are very respectful of others.
- Traveling by plane in Japan
A very good option for long distances, especially from one island to another. There’s a few low-cost companies and prices can be even cheaper than trains or buses.
- Bonus: Public transportation in Japanese cities
For inner-city buses, be aware that you pay when you get off. You get on from the back and get down by the front door. Prices are either fixed (Kyoto for example) or depending on the ticket you grab when you get on (the Hokkaido island for example). In that case the price calculator appears above the driver, helping you to figure out how much change you’ll need.
2. Food in Japan
Whoever goes to Japan not to try local food might as well stay home.
Aside from being able to discover new flavors, do note that you can eat for very cheap in Japan. Indeed, most restaurants don’t price their menu based on the quality of the food but on the quality of the service. You can therefore eat delicious Rice Tempura with Udon noodle soup for barely 380Yens. Simply look for small restaurants with ticket vending machines on the outside. Since there’s no service (only cooks), you have to do it all yourself (including wondering what the hell is on the menu).
In other events, there’s 7/11 stores everywhere and you can buy precooked meals there.
3. Water in Japan
Water is drinkable in Japan.
Otherwise, there’s vending machine literally everywhere (literally, this is NOT a metaphor), offering coffee, sodas and water. You simply CANNOT die of thirst in Japan (unless you run out of change).
4. Sleeping / Camping in Japan
Camping must in theory be done in places made for that (and you usually have to pay), but with a bit of discretion in rural places, nobody will say anything.
Beware, the crime rate is so low in Japan, that any new element can quickly be assimilated as a danger: be very discreet and very clean.
If you like to sleep with a clear mind, camping places typically charge you 1000Yen.
5. Locals / Communication in Japan
The main language is Japanese. Very few people speak English, and those who speak it have a strong accent.
The Japanese written down is mostly done in Kenji. If you’re lucky there might be a western alphabet translation. You still won’t be able to understand what it says though.
Like any other country where you’d go, learn a few key words in Japanese (which it turns out, is quite simple)
Cultural clash: Japanese people are very welcoming but also very careful and suspicious. There is a real fear for the westerner, even if the new generation seems much more open. Direct confrontation is a no no. So be very polite, always smiling and friendly, and never get angry in public. In case of issues, Japanese will always look for a solution to your problems.
6. Places to see in Japan
If you like nature and mountains, go to the Hokkaido Island, which also offers the best Thermals of the country. Beware, brown bears are in the area.
You can then go to the Kansai region to see Osaka (and since all big cities look alike in Japan, no need for another one), Kyoto (for its traditional architecture) and any other small town with temples.
Anyhow, figure it out yourself!
7. Useful links for Japan
- 2 apps to learn Japanese:
- Japanese Lite
- Learn Japanese
8. The author’s review of Japan
A great country for those who want a bit of cultural freshness all while keeping the advantages of a developed country. The language barrier will make it seem like you’re living a new adventure everyday.
Japan has much more to offer than just Tokyo. The Hokkaido island is a paradise for all the nature lovers. It is also a country that offers a large variety of food, may it be from the streets or famous restaurants.
But Japan remains an expensive country and keeping the budget tight can only be achieved by determination and extensive efforts.