Japan on the Cheap for 2007

Japan on the Cheap for 2007Happy Oink, Oink New Year! It’s the year of the pig in Japan and if you think Japan is an expensive travel destination, all I can say is: hogwash! Here are a few of Japan’s cheapest travel deals:

Hokkaido

Everything in Hokkaido is cheaper than Honshu, Japan’s main island. Hokkaido offers Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, as well as a plethora of outdoor sporting destinations for rafting, mountain climbing and skiing/snow boarding, all just outside Sapporo. The cities of Hakodate and Otaru that have a distinct Western feel. Check out the government-sponsored homepage.

Not exactly bringing home the bacon in your current job? No worries. Travel to all the same places the bullet train goes in Japan for a fraction of the cost. Most people know about the Japan Rail Pass where you can travel all over Japan on the bullet train for US$240 per week. But you can do it much cheaper by travelling on the local trains over two or more weeks with Japan Railway’s “Seishin Ju Hachi Kippu” (Youth 18 ticket). This ticket was developed as a cheap alternative for students, but these days, entire families travel on the tickets. You buy a book of 5 tickets for the set price of 11,500 yen (approx. US$97). Each ticket is good for travel anywhere in Japan (including Hokkaido) on the JR local trains (not high speed bullet trains) for a 24-hour period. The Seishin Ju Hachi Kippu is only good at certain times of the year, mainly holiday periods when students travel such as March, August and December-January. More information online at the JR East website.

If it’s your birthday while you’re in Japan, you can go whole hog and fly for cheap! Within 7 days on either side of your birthday, you and up to three accompanying passengers can get an air ticket to anywhere in Japan for 12,000 yen (approx. US$100). on Japan Airlines (JAL). More details on all kinds of cheap airfares, including the JAL birthday discount at Japan Guide.

If you think spending a lot of money on accommodation is like “throwing pearls to swine,” then Okayama prefecture has something for you. Okayama, a great stop-off between Osaka and Hiroshima, offers accommodation for just 2,500 yen per night (approx. US$21). per person in their “international villas” dotted around the prefecture (see photo). Choose from a villa on the coast, on an island, or in the mountains in a traditional-style Japanese house with a grass roof. These villas were built exclusively for visiting foreigners. See their homepage fore more information.

Pork out on Japanese food! Japanese food may be expensive, but you can’t go wrong eating in Japan’s ramen and udon noodle shops where you can get a hearty bowl of noodles, a meal in itself, for just 500 yen (approx. US$4.20). Noodles shops can be found everywhere around Japan. In addition 100 yen (approx. US$1.20). “Sushi train” conveyer belt sushi shops are gaining popularity.

Driving around Japan is expensive because of the toll roads, but nothing is cheaper than hoofing it! Pilgrimaging is a Japanese tradition since the 9th century and the country offers hundreds of walking routes that usually take you on a circuit of Buddhist temples. The most famous one is the Kobo Daishi 88-temple pilgrimage that circles the entire island of Shikoku. Over 1,000 kilometers long it will take you several weeks should you choose to do the whole thing, but bring a tent and be prepared to have the experience of a life-time as you meet the local Japanese people and learn about Japanese Buddhism. A good introduction to the pilgrimage by someone who has done it can be found athttp://www.mandala.ne.jp/echoes/jhguide.html.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sento

Tokyo DomeIn the last article, I told you about onsen, or hot springs, and explained how bathing in natural spring waters is a ritual in Japan, especially in the wintertime. Today I’m going to tell you about something even better, and something very few travelers know about the sento. A sento is a public bath. Of course, onsen are also a form of public bath. The difference between a sento and an onsen is that onsen use natural spring water (which is reflected in their 1,000 yen and up price) while sento use just hot tap water. In the old days, sento served the entire neighborhood as older Japanese houses were not equipped with baths or showers. These days, however, since all new Japanese houses have baths, sento are on the decline. In the not too distant future, sento will be extinct and their flashier counterparts, the onsen, will be the only public baths available. Sentos give you a rare glimpse into Japanese culture that you won’t find at an onsen which is full of tourists. Don’t miss your chance to get naked with the locals at a neighborhood sento!

Sentos are still numerous in old neighborhoods, so if you find yourself in an old shopping street or a street lined with older houses, you can be sure there will be one within walking distance. Sentos are time machines. They’ll take you back to before WWII when bathing was also a social time. Watch old men scrub each others backs; watch old Japanese ladies scrub their faces till they practically fall off; watch how people say goodnight to everyone when they leave the bathhouse. In addition, you’ll have fun in the locker room: weigh yourself on one of those ancient metal scales with the needle that spins around like a clock; dry your hair tornado style under one of those old hair salon dryers; sit in one of those old decrepit massage chairs that, for a price, will rake a set of wheels up and down your back. Ah, the good old days!

Details

Sento cost 350 yen, a price set by the government, and you have to bring your own shampoo, body soap and towel. These toiletries are always available for purchase at very reasonable prices should you not come prepared. Most sento open at 3pm and close between 10pm and 12pm.

You may be denied entry if you have a tattoo. This is because tattoos have long had yakuza (Japanese mafia) connections and this was a means of keeping them out. Of course, most sento won’t say that. They’ll just say that tattoos are unhygienic and therefore not allowed. (see photo)

Where to find them

What's Hot OnsenSentos are hard to find as even if you ask someone, they probably don’t know where they are since they don’t use them. Ask OLD people who look like they live in the area: “Kono chikaku ni wa, sento arimasuka?”

You can buy a map of any city that has all public facilities on it (laundromats, parks, etc) including sento.

Look for the sento mark (refer to previous article on onsen the mark is the same) or the sign fora hot water  mark which is the hiragana “yu”.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

What’s Hot: Onsen

What's Hot OnsenAs it gets cooler in Japan, Japanese people start heading to “onsen” or hot springs. Not just a mere soak in the tub, onsens have developed their own onsen culture. Many Japanese will take a weekend vacation to an onsen village and spend their time walking around the town in hotel yukata and testing the different hot springs. And they are HOT! Most onsen waters are 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). If it’s your first time to an onsen, you may feel it is too hot, as if the water is burning your skin when you get in. Rest assured, the water is not hot enough to burn you, so just ease in slowly. You may feel the same kind of trepidation felt when getting into a swimming pool of cold water slowly. After the initial shock, it feels great.

Onsens use real spring water with minerals, thus are believed to be good for the health. Some onsen waters are said to treat specific maladies (skin problems, arthritis, etc) but most Japanese people believe in the all over benefits of bathing in natural spring water as opposed to any magic qualities the proprietors may claim their onsen has.

A good hot soak in an onsen will keep your body temperature up for at least two hours after you’ve gotten out of the bath. This is sometimes the only way to truly feel warm in the wintertime in Japan as most houses do not have central heating. Thus the onsen culture. Some towns even have Onsen in their name, such as Nozawa Onsen in Nagano which has over 13 public hot springs.

Public bathing: how naked is it?

Most baths are segregated into men’s and women’s but if you search around, you can find a mixed onsen.

First, you change out of your clothes in a central locker room attached to the bath area, and walk out fully naked into the bath area. Head over to the showers and clean your body first before getting into the bath. Shampoo, conditioner, body soap, etc is always provided at an onsen. They will also issue you a small towel the size of a dish towel. Some Japanese people will hold this discreetly over their private parts. Observe and do what others are doing. Use the towel for scrubbing the body during your shower and once you are clean, you can get into the bath. Take your towel with you but do not submerge it in the bath. Women should tie up long hair so it doesn’t hang into the bath water. If you don’t have anything, tie the towel around your head. Many people do this anyway–a bit of onsen fashion. There will be several different pools to get into, ranging from regular pools with hot water, a pool with very cold water, herb-enhanced water pools, those with a weak electric current running through them (!) and outside baths called “rotenburo.”

Where to find Onsen

Onsens can be found all over Japan, often in the basements of big hotels (but also open to the public) Plan on spending at least 1,000 yen to take a bath and leave yourself at least an hour, if not more, to enjoy the ambiance. Many onsen also offer massage chairs and other relaxing side activities.

Links

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast and teaches Japanese online. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Budget Transportation: Bike Rentals In Japan

If you love sightseeing but hate tired feet, you’ll be happy to know that at most major railway stations in Japan you can rent a “jitensha” (bicycle) for about 1,000 yen per day. Many Japanese people travel to work and back by bicycle, so there is no need to feel self- conscious careening through crowds of pedestrians either. As there are no bicycle lanes in most cities in Japan, Japanese people are used to sharing the sidewalk, and the road, with bicycles.

A typical Japanese bicycle is a sturdy unisex bicycle with one or two gears. There will be a basket on the front to put shopping items or a back pack, and a rack over the back wheel to strap additional bags onto. They all come with locks so be sure to lock the bicycle when you’re not using it or you could be held responsible if it is “borrowed” and not returned.

The bicycle rental at Nara’s Kintestsu station is an especially good one. Used to dealing with foreigners, they have maps with recommended routes to the temples around Nara as well as some information in English. Bicycles are especially convenient during the hot and humid summer months when walking around places such as Nara and Kyoto can be unbearable.

Bicycle parking can be a problem in some areas such as those near train stations. Always park your bicycle in a designated bicycle parking area or a place where other people have parked their bicycles. Occasionally, the police will go around and collect illegally parked bicycles, and charge you to retrieve them from the bicycle jail which is always located in a faraway place outside of town. Usually, however, they will first ticket bicycles with a large yellow flier and give 24 hours notice before taking them away.

Two recommended bicycle routes outside of the big cities:

Okayama Prefecture

Kibi road (Kibi jitensha dori), a 15 km route through traditional Japanese villages, passes 15 ancient sites such as temples, shrines, gardens and pagodas. It is an easy ride with few hills. Rent bicycles outside Okayama Station.

Hiroshima Prefecture

“Shimanami Kaido” is a highway that spans 6 islands in the Seto Inland Sea, connecting Honshu with Shikoku. The islands are connected by a series of 10 bridges, and each segment is independent of the next. There are donation boxes at the beginning of each bridge where you are supposed to drop a donation of a few hundred yen for using the bridge. The highway is 60 km long, but you can do however much of it you’d like, stopping to rest at several places along the way. Some segments are more difficult than others. Rent bicycles outside of Onomichi Station.

“Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast and teaches Japanese online. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

The Best Holiday Ever

The Best Holiday EverHow does a holiday rise above the ranks of regular holidays to become the best? By existing just to give people a day off from work. Between Day is a holiday that doesn’t celebrate a historical event, a religious moment, or patriotic principles. It is, plain and simple, just May 4. And a Japanese national holiday.

If you work in certain industries, the week between Christmas and New Year’s in the United States is a dead zone. Workers save up all year to take vacation time during this week — though some employers help out by tossing in a few extra paid holidays. In Japan, however, the government realized that nesting two holidays around a work day made no sense, so in 1999, Between Day was established, rounding out the week of holidays known as “Golden Week”.

We like to call this the “Holiday With No Name”, mostly because, unlike other Japanese holidays, there isn’t really anything to call this day. The formal name, kokumin no kyujitsu, roughly translated to “citizens’ day off”, not the most glamorous of holiday names (though it does get the point across). And it is a day off, albeit a day most people would have taken anyway.

Basically, in 1999, the Japanese government created a law wherein any day that falls between two holidays is, by default, a holiday. Unless that day falls on a Sunday. A Sunday between two holidays is just a regular Sunday, though if you’re vacationing, the distinction is likely one of whether or not you get paid.

Now with such a great idea, surely there must be a catch. Alas, there is. Starting in 2007, Greenery Day is moving from April 29 to May 4 (Showa Day will replace Greenery Day). No more Holiday With No Name, no more holiday just because it’s needed.

We’re going to miss it.

Hanami Has Started

Hanami Has StartedThe harbinger of Spring in Japan is the cherry blossom. When the weather turns warm, the trees respond by bursting into flower — thousands of blooms cover branches and fill the senses. When the flowers appear, people engage in an activity known ashanami — flower viewing. Specifically, cherry blossom viewing.

Though hanami takes many shapes and forms — from a stroll in the park to the view outside a window — the most popular form of hanami involves picnics in the park with friends and family. Needless to say, the art of picnicking during cherry blossom season requires stealth and cunning. Popular viewing sites are crowded, requiring a bit of ingenuity, such as staking out a prime spot early the morning. Spots are marked with sheets and other identifying markers — some parties position a person onsite all day to ensure that the spot isn’t taken by someone else.

It isn’t just the viewing of the blossoms that is competitive — accurately predicting the season’s opening provokes much competition among meteorologists. Officials in charge of watching trees for the first opening buds is rough:

I have to look very carefully so I won’t miss anything? he [Eishin Murakata] said one recent afternoon as he examined the agency’s main benchmark tree at a Tokyo shrine. Our mission is so important I don’t have time to enjoy the flowers when we spot them?

  

Experts track the cherry blossom front, for lack of a better term, as it moves up the island chain. Weather plays a key role — the warmer the temperatures, the earlier the blooms. Since so many parties and events are planned around the season, making a mistake can cost money. There is no room for error.

So it’s easy to imagine the outrage among the super-punctual Japanese last year when the Meteorological Agency predicted the blossoms would open four days earlier than they actually did a triggering a wave of angry calls for greater accuracy. 

Warm weather in February and March lead to an accelerated sakura-viewing season. According to Japan Guide, the season officially opened in Tokyo on March 21 (see link below for schedule).

Urban Planner Fights Ugly Japan

Urban Planner Fights Ugly JapanIt’s no secret that Tokyo is not one of the world’s most attractive cities. Between wars, earthquakes, fires, and generally bad urban planning, Tokyo’s inner beauty has been largely buried under what appears to be a random jumble of concrete and steel.

Take the Nihombashi bridge for example. The ornate bridge is a monument of Japanese history. Constructed in the 17th century, the landmark is the central point from which all distances in the capital are measured. The bridge was instrumental in transforming old Edo into what we know today as modern Tokyo. You would think that a structure with that sort of history would be preserved for future generations.

Instead, an eight-lane motorway was built on top of the bridge in preparation for the 1964 Olympic Games, essentially burying the historic monument and blocking out all sunlight.

While the Nihombashi bridge may be an extreme example, Shigeru Itou, Japan’s foremost urban planning expert, sees similar architectural nightmares throughout Japan.

In a battle against the his country’s “hideous” architecture and planning, Itou has just released a report titled “Ugly Japan”. He’s hoping his report will generate public outrage that will ultimately lead to a more beautiful Japan.

Professor Itou is careful not to single out particular buildings as ugly, believing that his report is only useful if it deals with objective ugliness, not subjective dislikes? He does, however, reserve a private judgment on the glittering steel and glass tower of Roppongi Hills, one of Tokyo’s most famous new landmarks and a structure which he thinks “resembles an old Russian woman’s backside”. 

Nihombashi bridge tops Itou’s “list of the loathsome”, which also includes “Shibuya river where even the water rats fear to tread”, and “Omuta city the shopping arcade of a thousand bankruptcies”.

There are signs that Itou may be more than just an angry architect. His prominence has lead Prime Minister Koizumi to appoint Itou to head up a panel of experts to study the possibility of a “Japan beauty renaissance”.

Japan Braces For The Son of Cool Biz

Son of Cool BizIt seems like only yesterday that we were following the progress of the Japanese government’s energy saving Cool Biz initiative. As you’ll recall, this past summer saw Tokyo’s iconic Salarymen agonizing over the prospects of casual dress as thermostats in office buildings around the country were set to 82 degrees (F). Government sponsored fashion shows were no help. Instead, the Salarymen chose to grin and sweat it out.

Seasons change, and as autumn arrives those casual, tie-less summer days are but a distant unpleasant memory for the Japan’s Salarymen. Now they have Warm Biz to contend with.

As you might expect, Warm Biz is the winter counterpart to Cool Biz. The new program mandates that office building set the thermostat to 68 degrees (F). The irony here is that the name of these programs should probably be reversed. Cool Biz actually made workers warmer, and Warm Biz will actually make workers cooler.

While the overall goal of these programs is to conserve energy and reduce Co2 emissions, a desirable side-effect has been to boost clothing sales as office-workers around the country modify their wardrobe to accommodate the more extreme temperatures in their working environment.

Japanese retailers are expecting Warm Biz to produce a 10% increase in winter clothing. While Cool Biz prompted a moderate increase in spending on new wardrobes, the numbers weren’t as high as initially anticipated as there were some negatives — for example, men bought fewer neckties.

While the Japanese government took a clear lead in suggesting how the country’s notoriously conservative Salarymen should dress during the Cool Biz campaign, they aren’t providing nearly as many fashion clues for the winter months:

There are various combinations of dress that we envision, but thermal underwear is definitely going to be crucial,” an official at the Environment Ministry said. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll witness any government sponsored fashion shows with various department ministers modeling thermal underwear — or microwaveable fur bras for that matter.

While Cool Biz fashions were targeted towards men, the early indication is that Warm Biz will be more about women’s fashion. The first real Warm Biz specific apparel made it’s debut in Tokyo last week as Triumph unveiled the new Warm Biz Bra. The fur lined brassier with microwavable inserts and a long fur tail looks like something from a lost episode of Tenchi Muyo. We’re told that the tail also doubles as a scarf. Perhaps even more strange, the bra features a couple of faux jalapeno peppers mounted on the front.

Clearly, Warm Biz will be quite a bit more interesting than Cool Biz.

Some highlights of the Cool Biz initiative:

  • Saved enough energy to power 720,000 homes. 
  • ¥71 billion increase in clothing sales during the summer months. 
  • Prime Minister Koizumi was named the “best dressed Cool Biz politician”. An award that undoubtedly lead to his trouncing of the opposition in September’s special election. 

Read more about Warm Biz:

Budget Tokyo Becoming a Reality

Budget Tokyo Becoming a RealityMost people have a perception of Tokyo that can be summed up in a single word — expensive. The thought of $80 melons and $200 cab rides scares travelers so much that many simply avoid Tokyo entirely, mistakenly assuming the city is a destination exclusively for the super-rich and executives on expense accounts.

The truth is Tokyo has an alter ego that can be surprisingly affordable. Japan, well into it’s second decade of economic decline, has finally acknowledged the middle class. As a result, the market has evolved to offer greater pricing variation for the necessities of every day life.

While it’s technically true that Tokyo is still the world’s most expensive city, there are now bargains to be found almost everywhere:

  • Discount stores like the 100 Yen Shop offer the middle class a chance to trim the family budget. The concept has been well received in a country that boasts one of the world’s highest savings rates. 
  • Discount airlines are now offering rates that are frequently lower than US or European counterparts. 
  • Produce prices are dropping. A bunch of bananas that used to cost $8 can now be had for as little as $1.60. 

As one resident notes:

“Sometime in the last five years Tokyo turned into a shopper’s paradise, a rare place where you have the choice of buying very cheap or very expensive, luxury things.”

Surprisingly, Japanese tourists who used to travel to find bargains are now finding themselves shocked by prices in major western cities. Etsuko Akiyama, a Japanese native, noted of his recent trip to the UK:

“I had heard London was pricey but I was surprised at just how expensive it is. Breakfast is usually free in Japan but the hotel charged £10 for an ordinary continental breakfast.” 

If you are one of the few who can afford a luxury trip to Tokyo, you’ll find that high-end dining and accommodations are as expensive and extravagant as ever. If, on the other hand, you’re like the rest of us there are some general guideline’s you’ll want to keep in mind to cut costs:

  • Avoid taxis whenever possible. Public transit is reliable, fast, and affordable.
  • If you’re willing to sacrifice comforts like a private bathroom, there are a variety of cheap accommodations available in tokyo. 
  • You can buy just about anything from a vending machine in Japan. Avoid hour hotel room’s mini-bar and buy your Sapporo from one of Tokyo’s many mechanical bartenders.
  • Tokyo Free Guide offers free guided tours. 
  • Eat a melon before leaving home. Get it out of your system so you’ll be able to avoid the temptation when you finally come face-to-face with an unbelievably expensive cantaloupe (it’s strange how tempting incredibly expensive produce can be). 

Despite what you’ve heard it is possible to visit Tokyo on a budget. It just requires a bit of advance planning, flexibility, and a willingness to sacrifice some of the creature comforts you might take for granted.

Is Japan Heading Toward Only Three Levels of Politeness?

Is Japan Heading Toward Only Three Levels of PolitenessWe never thought we’d be old. Somehow, being the cranky old person who muttered under his or her breath about those rotten kids didn’t fit the image we had of ourselves. That being said, we have embraced crankiness to the point where we embarked upon the behavior far before our time.

Now we learn that demanding dignity and respect from young people comes with a price:

Japan has witnessed its first case of mascara rage at a subway station in central Tokyo.

In what is surely the result of the influx of Western culture, manners in Japan have declined. Oh sure, you still have your bowing and saving face and opening doors for people with large packages, but those kids…those surly, sneering kids…ah, to be young again. But we agree that this move toward Western rudeness needs to be stopped; if not, what else does the United States have to feel superior about?

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has taken the step of convening a commission of eminent experts known, without a hint of irony, as the Study Group Relating to the Prevention of Behaviour that Causes Discomfort Among Numerous People in Public Places.

. . .

How bad is it really? To the Westerner in Tokyo, the most obvious examples of bad manners are those common all over the developed world. Thoughtless cigarette smoking, bellowing into mobile phones and the enraging tinkle that emerges from headphones of a Walkman are universally acknowledged as irritants; but there are specific Japanese forms of rudeness.

Respect for personal body space is cast aside when getting on and off trains, and many Japanese men have no compunction about reading pornography in crowded carriages.

In related news, members of Parliament will no longer be treated with indulgence if they read comic books during floor debates.

(via Planet Japan, a great podcast about life in Japan. Also cows.)