The Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is ahead of the rest of the world in more than just time (they are winning the race for the fastest shrinking population too). Sure the Japanese have sushi, sumo, samurai, and shiba-inus, but the country has much more to offer than stereotypes (but karaoke is fantastic).
QUICK JAPAN FACTS
- LANGUAGE | Yes, Japanese is scary. Not only can you not speak or understand, but now you can't even read the names of things. Japanese consists of two different alphabets (katakana and hiragana) consisting of 48 characters each, used in conjunction with kanji (or characters). Good luck.
- GETTING AROUND | A beautiful (and complex) system of rail lines connects Japan, allowing you to easily navigate both within cities, and between them. Japan's discount airline, Peach, offers flights as cheap as $30 within Japan, and has great deals on flights to Taiwan or Korea as well.
- BUDGET TRAVEL | Japan may be home to one of the world's most expensive cities (Tokyo), but Japan does not have to be expensive. Just like many other countries, cheap food, accommodation, and transportation can be easily found by those looking for it. Save on rice and ramen for your big night out at the infamous Robot Restaurant.
- THINGS TO DO | Personally, my favorite thing to do was go to karaoke (especially nomihoudai karaoke). However, Japan offers plenty of outdoor activities from hiking volcanoes to getting naked with Japanese strangers at onsens. However, the complete list of traditionally Japanesey things to do is quite extensive (everything from tea ceremonies to taiko drumming).
- WHEN TO GO | Japan has seasons, but Japan also spans an impressive latitude making when to visit the country a complicated decision. Summer on the beaches of Okinawa? Skiing the mountains of Honshu in the winter? Maybe the autumn leaves of Kyoto? Prefer cherry blossom viewing in the spring? You really can't go wrong.
WHAT TO EAT
- SUSHI | Largely synonymous with “Japanese food”, sushi is as popular as one would expect in Japan. The country is littered with sushi bars ranging from $1 rotation sushi restaurants to some of the highest regarded restaurants in the world. The best part? It's all delicious.
- RAMEN | Not all the ramen in the world is of the “top” variety. Almost every region of the country has its own “specialty” ramen, but you can rest assured that no matter where you are, it will be plentiful (and affordable). And remember, slurping is 100% allowed when eating, so go wild (you pig).
- BASASHI | More a specialty dish in the southern prefecture of Kumamoto as opposed to a national dish, basashi, or raw horse meat, is something to be tried for anyone out there wondering what happens to all those failed racehorses.
- SNACKS | Japan grocery stores and supermarkets sport one of the most fantastic snack collections I have ever seen. Despite everything being individually wrapped, once you master the process of quickly unwrapping your caloric goodness, you will no doubt be determined to try the full array of snackage.
- SHOCHU | Chances are that you have heard of sake, but have you ever tried shochu? Distilled from barley, potatoes, buckwheat, or rice, shochu typically has an alcohol content around 25% (stronger than sake) and is one of the cheapest beverages of alcohol one can find in Japan. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the taste.
Note: smoking in restaurants is permitted in many places across Japan, so be prepared to face this fact when eating out.
JAPAN TIPS & TRICKS
- RAIL TRAVEL | If you plan on traveling extensively within Japan then you may want to invest in a JR Pass prior to arriving in the country. Only available to foreign tourists, and only available before you arrive in Japan, this pass (which can be purchased by regions and by time) will save you hundreds over the price of paying for individual tickets. JR Pass official website.
- CARRY CASH | I am a fan of paying with my credit card, but in Japan, I found this notoriously difficult to do. Not only must you pay with cash at many smaller venues, but even some of the large supermarkets and department stores do not accept credit cards.
- 100 YEN STORES | The Japanese equivalent of the dollar store, 100 yen stores (¥100 ~ $1) put their American counterparts to shame. You can find practically anything in these places, a lot of which has no business costing only ¥100.
- NOMIHOUDAI | What does this mean? Well, it means “all you can drink”, and it can be found at everywhere from karaoke parlors to bars and restaurants. As cheap as 2,000 yen (~$20), nomihoudai has to be one of the greatest deals available in the country. Always remember to nomihoudai responsibly.