Friday, November 6, 2015

Konichiwa! Lessons from my maiden Japan trip

This post is five months overdue. But I thought after this amount of time, it'll be good to revisit the one of the best trips I've had in my life so far, at least in memories.

Join me as I attempt to recount my journey (Taken at Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto)

Five months ago, I made the big decision to visit Japan with Dawn. Out of all the choices we had, we settled on the Kansai region, which included Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, mainly because Dawn wanted to visit the Harry Potter world at Universal Studios Japan and she's been to Tokyo before. For me it was because I get to visit three cities at one go, each with their unique charm and flavour.

BEST. DECISION. EVER. So far.

If you're planning to visit Japan for the first time, I would highly recommend the Kansai region. Osaka with its modern landscapes and nightlife; Kyoto and Nara with the cultural and historical sites (plus Nara's close encounters with deers) give you almost a complete experience of the different aspects of Japan.

Osaka has this urban feeling with its subway system and tall skyscrapers, while Kyoto and Nara bring you closer to the rural setting with their generally slower pace, surrounding greenery and the assortment of temples and shrines.

the skyline of Osaka (taken from HEP Five Ferris wheel)

We stayed a total of eight days for our trip, choosing one of the Airbnb places as our accommodation option. We were lucky, because despite knowing absolutely nothing, we managed to get an apartment unit at Tennoji, which is relatively central. There were 24-hour convenience stores, a giant supermarket just opposite our place and a transport hub (with the different subway and train lines) was just 10 minutes walk away.

The Airbnb place was much cheaper than staying at a hotel too and absolutely comfortable. I was a little skeptical about the whole Airbnb thing before the trip, but after our Japan experience I am now a converted Airbnb supporter. But then again, we may just be just lucky.

Our biggest pre-travel worry, however, was on getting around. I must admit that Singapore has made me a pampered boy with the relative ease of travel, and all the train and subway lines in Japan were intimidating. After all, they are notorious of that.

things might have been different if we had a ship (Taken at Tempozan Bay, Osaka)

Luckily again for us, we had access to Google Maps. Pro-tip to travel in Japan without asking too much for directions from other people: Get yourself a Japanese 3G SIM card. I managed to buy a SIM card for with data connection at the airport, costing around 50 dollars for a 3GB usage.

While not perfect, Google Maps had reliably given us directions to most of the locations we visited, especially in Osaka, telling us which subway line to take for example. The only problem we had was in Nara and Kyoto, where we had to rely more on buses. Some of them are confusing because Google didn't accurately display the route taken (instead of following the road the bus cut through buildings), and once we had to get down of the bus and hailed a cab because I panicked.

But generally, the app was reliable, even helping us to get a bus when we were stranded like god knows where in Nara, after visiting Hejio Palace (the oldest palace in Japan, if I'm not mistaken). or what's left of it. FYI Nara was the capital city before Kyoto, technically making it the "oldest" city in Japan.

the quaint little bus stop that Google directed us to

the literal view outside. we're like at the countryside and thank goodness there are still busses serving this area

But if you find yourself really, really lost, you can always stop and ask. One thing that I liked really much (and admire) about the Japanese people is that they're incredibly polite and helpful people. Even though 90% of the time we had numerous communication breakdown with the locals, they're still keen to help us when we had trouble. Just be prepared to master the art of finger pointing and trying to make your English sound like Japanese.

Speaking of getting to places, trains in Japan operate on a whole different system too. Rather than stopping at each stop (the only system I know of. like I said, I'm incredibly pampered/kampung boy), they have different types of trains (local, express, rapid, shinkasuperman) that serve different stops along the same line. Meaning that some trains will stop at Station A, B and C, while some will just stop at A and C.

It was terribly confusing at first, in fact the first train we hopped on from the airport was the shinkasuperman (okay they're actually called shinkansen trains) type, which is the most expensive with the least amount of stops. 23 dollars poorer later, we realised why no one boarded the train even though it was relatively empty.

a flying car would be nice (taken at Universal Studios Japan)

Still, it's something that you will get use to after a while.

To sum it up, despite the minor hiccups here and there, Japan has been a great experience. It's no wonder people always say they want to travel there. It's one thing to have great attractions and facilities, but for me the greatest pull was the culture of the Japanese people.

Being immersed in a totally new culture really opens your eyes my trip outside of Southeast Asia to Japan made me realise how much truth in the statement that you should travel the world to broaden your knowledge. Though I would really prefer it to be much cheaper.

I will be talking more on the culture (hopefully) in my later posts as I go into more details of the trip (like what I found awesome about Osaka) because I realise I didn't touch a lot on it. Stay tuned for the upcoming posts!

And did I mention that the toilets in Japan are absolutely gorgeous and comfortable, notwithstanding the fact that they warm their toilet seats as well?

*****

Read more on Osaka: LINK
Read more on Kyoto (Upcoming)
Read more on Nara (Upcoming)

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