Your only guide for cramming (almost) everything into one (medium) budget week in Japan
You've read my travel guide tips when it comes to Vanuatu culture shocks, so how about Japan? While the two might be on opposite ends of the spectrum, the differences from my Australian lifestyle were equally dismaying. Fortunately, my travel partner (aka sister) had been in 2018, and still held a tiny bit of useful knowledge. I will preface this post by saying she had warned me and I simply did not believe her. Rest assured, I will never take the 18-year-old's 'Nihongo' advice for granted again. And aside from these soon-to-be revealed shocks, I may as well give you some of my (our) own tips for getting as much done on a tight budget and even tighter timeline - paid leave friendly might I add.
THE 9 Shocks to keep in mind
ONE - The see-through bathroom
We only came across this once, but that was once too many. Our first hotel - for all it's fantastic ammenities - lacked a little bit of key privacy in the form of a bathroom wall. There was a wall in existence of course, but there was also a round window smack bang in the middle that you could see in and out of from the bed head.
TWO - Cross walks
Not only are they twice the width of Aus zebra crossings, people actually follow the little flashing man. I'm talking at every street - even the side alley's that only go one way. In some cases the crossing will go diagnally, which is not unheard of, but certainly way more common and busier in Japan.
THREE - What's with the no bins?
Apparently Japan doesn't believe in rubbish bins. I saw maybe 1 a day - and they were all at Starbucks/ restuarants where it's a basic necessity for wrappings. Anywhere else you go will be virtually impossible to find a bin. Instead, people carry plastic bags with their rubbish until they reach home and can use their own private bin. I cannot express how confusing this was, or how frustrating when we would need to walk for HOURS (as all tourists do) before coming across said restaurant.
FOUR - Children (and grown ups) staring
I'm going off a hunch here when I say being a 6'1 female with maroon hair, blue eyes and fake tan was the reason for most of the stares I received. Although, my 5'5 brown hair, brown eyed sister copped a few squints as well. Mostly from either the elderly - who more likely than not were baffled by me having to duck on the train - and children who had quite possibly never seen a foreigner before. I'm talking like full. On. Stares. Babies in prams who stop crying, toddlers in their mums lap who haven't quite learned to whisper, and even school kids perplexed by a tall woman. It never got old, but it certainly got awkward when we caught one guy staring while we took a selfie.
FIVE - Delays but no delays?
Hear me out. Everytime we were on the train/ shinkansen/ etc, there were reports of several tracks experiencing delays due to 'accidents.' Yet, they were never late. I'm talking about how the Tokyo Station may announce someone had been hit and there would be delays, but every train would arrive and depart almost on the dot. And another thing, everyone seemed so... Non-chalant about these accidents.
SIX - Plastic, plastic, plastic?
Despite an absence of bins, the entire country is still obsessed with plastic. Not the fancy, futuristic, planet-saving plastic. Just plain old plastic. Bags, wrappers, double wrappers, cups, bowls, cutlery, hotel room slipper wrappers. Literally everything came with complimentary plastic. And still, next to no litter. It leads me to believe plastic is NOT the enemy and people really are just shit at throwing their trash in a bin (bins that actually do exist).
SEVEN - Size charts
It's no secret Japan (and most countries in Asia) have horrible body standards for all genders. As a much taller than average and more muscular than average female, this was something I prepared for. While I'm glad I travelled AFTER recovery, I cannot admit that it wasn't humbling to try on a 'medium' skirt - as a size au 8/10 - and feel suffocated. But more often than not, clothes were 'F' sized. Now please do not cancel me ... But I genuinely thought 'F' stood for 'fat.' Why would you think that, you ask? I had recently ended up on PlusSizeThailandFashion-Tok, where 'curve' shops donned names like 'Fatty Fat Girls' and 'I Love Chocolate.' I came to find out the 'F' actually stood for 'free.' So much better ... And so much more sense.
Oh, by the way: shoes are commonly sized in XS-XL, but XL is actually a size US women's 9/10 so I think that's a bit of a scam.
EIGHT - Dress up or give up
I mean it. Ava and I went in Summer, but you wouldn't know it by looking at people's outfits. Long socks, layered skirts, silk sleeves ... Everything. We could not even pretend to fit in with me donning those basic white girl Lorna Jane pants and a Cotton On singlet. A full face of makeup was also standard, which made my fake lashes, foundation and filled-in brows look like a weak effort.
NINE - Platform shoes
I kid you not these were EVERYWHERE. I'm talking at Disneyland, Universal, on the train lines, the deer park, in gardens, temples, everywhere. Girls rocking them all-day in the heat and seemingly unbothered by the no doubt golf ball sized blisters they'd be dealing with for the next week. While the average height of women in Japan sits at 5'2, those shoes meant most were strolling around at 5'6.
They looked ridiculous, so I bought a pair. And painted flowers on the platform when I got home. And really enjoy walking around at 6'5.
HOW to get it all done
Everyone travels differently and has a different idea of what a holiday should look like, so don't take this as the be-all end-all of itinerary options. This is just how Ava and I conquered as much as we could in the short week of paid leave we had available (with a few changes to accomodate what we learned).
DAY ONE - Land into Tokyo
It's an eight hour flight (from Brisbane) direct to Tokyo, so to make the most of your time I suggest leaving early in the morning or late the night before what you consider your first day. Catch public transport (taxi or cab) to your hotel and check-in as you would anywhere. Ava and I used a private charter service, GT-Transport, through Viator to get from the International terminal to our hotel in Tokyo. If you're arriving in the PM, make the most of a nearby dining hotspot - something easy and familiar to avoid stomach problems. If you're arriving in the AM, use the day to explore nearby following a similiar mindset about food.
DAY TWO - Disneyland
No better way to start a holiday that at the happiest place on earth, right? Which is why beginning at Disneyland is top tier. You may feel a little tired from the day before, but all that disappears when you're packed with adrenaline and $15 nuggets. Be wary of the school calender at your time of travel - Ava and I got stuck at the beginning of school holidays so wait times were 40-70min on every attraction. Don't get me wrong, totally worth it, but not ideal when combined with summer heat.
DAY THREE - Harajuku
A shopaholic's dream, Harajuku is quite literally a huge shopping strip. You'll find socks with toe slots, anime balloons, plush toys, hand bags and everything in between. Every type of food included as well. Ava and I went towards the end of our trip and ran into some spending issues, so if you do go at the start make sure to budget for the end half of your week. Also keep your bags protected - we didn't run into any drama but it was super packed and definitely an easy pick-pocketting spot.
To get to Harajuku, hop onto the local tracks (depending on if you're using a JR Pass) and make your way straight to Harajuku on the Yamanote line.
DAY FOUR - Nara Deer park
Take the Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto then switch to the local Nara line to Nara station. It is about a 2-3km walk from the station exit to the park with ponds, shops, temples and food along the way. This was the day Ava and realised we needed an umbrella. Pronto. So we bought a way overpriced one from an elderly lady who spoke at max volumn and swore she spoke no English - though did so by telling me "I don't speak English" as soon as she saw me.
If there's one thing I learned from the deers, it's that they can't tell the difference between a cookie and a coochie. Don't say I didn't warn you. You can buy the cookie packets from stands nearby for relatively cheap. Once you feed one though, it's hard to avoid a flood of ears and hooves. Be respectful of their grounds and do not persist if they seem disinterested. I can assure you they are well fed and probably just need to recharge their social battery after hearing 'bambi' on repeat.
DAY FIVE - Travel to Osaka (Universal Studios)
It may be different throuhgout the months, but the earliest Shinkansen (bullet train) when we travelled (July) from Tokyo left at 7:30am. You will get to Shin-Osaka station, then will need to change to the local tracks. Check ahead for what trains you need, depending on if you carry a JR Pass or not. Once you get to Osaka Station, you will practically be on the Universal doorsteps! There are plenty of hotels in the immediate area, so look around for the closest within your price range. Once checked-in, you can either spend a half-day at Universal Studios, or explore nearby temples and gardens. Ava and I opted for the former, mainly because it gave us the opportunity to make the most of our time.
Note: You can purchase 1-day, 1.5-day and 2-day Universal passes on the Universal website. If choosing 1.5 or 2-day passes, you can use the ticket within 3 months of the date you select for your 'first' day - but the 2 days you enter must be consecutive and within the 3 month frame. A half-day begins at 3pm on the first day, followed by opening time on the second day.
Packing in advance for option 1: Pack LIGHT. I'm talking two shorts, two shirts, underwear, and basic toiletries. Remember your Osaka hotel will have body wash and hair materials so that is not necessary. Packing light will allow you to travel easier and quickly both during your time at the park, and on your commute back (you'll see why).
DAY SIX - Osaka (Universal Studios)
Spend a full day at Universal Studios, Japan! Stay a second night to make the most of your evening hours.
DAY SEVEN - Hiroshima
While you're down south, take the time to visit the Hiroshima memorial - and I mean TAKE YOUR TIME. It is emotional, powerful, heartbreaking but equally beatiful. Every second of the museum will have you immersed, no matter how much you k new beforehand. There are also memorials surrounding the museum to view.
The station is about a 45 minute walk to the memorial, so you can either explore on your way - which Ava and I did - or take a local bus - which we did on return. Be warned however that during summer, it is NOT smart ot wear long light-coloured pants. There will be sweat marks.
Once you're done, make your way back to Tokyo following the relevant JR Pass or non-JR Pass lines.
Remember: This is the reason for packing light. With the capsule packing method, you'll be able to travel through Hiroshima with a backpack rather than a suitcase. It may feel heavy after a long day, but doing it this way ensures you make the most of every day.
Stay in Hiroshima overnight.
DAY EIGHT - Fly home (either from Tokyo or Hiroshima)
This is self explanatory in both cases. If your flight is PM, make the most of your morning before starting the check-in and secuity process. If it's in the AM, please set an alarm and be packed the night before. There is nothing worse than missing your flight in a foreign country. Use private transport to get to the airport, like you did on day one.
Helpful links for your trip
JR Pass - For using select tracks to get around (works out cheaper than buying fares for every trip, and can be bought for a range of duration depending on your length of stay).
Hotel Ryumeikan - The hotel Ava and I stayed at in Tokyo.
Singulari Hotel - The hotel Ava and I stayed at in Osaka.
Universal Studios - Tickets. You can purchase tickets 2 months from the date you plan on visiting the park.
Tokyo Disneyland - Tickets. You can purchase tickets 2 months from the date you plan on visiting the park.
Nara deer park basics - Know before you go
Visit Japan Web - Visa, vaccination, agency information and etc before entering Japan
Travelex - Check currency exchange, purchase and load a travelex money card and/ or transfer money internationally