Two months ago we came back from our holiday in Asia. We spent a little over three weeks in Japan and a short week in China, where we visited family. It’s about time that I start sharing our summer impressions with you here. If I wait much longer, I might forget some of the details.
I’ve been mulling on how to chop up the holiday in clear pieces and I’ve decided to focus the blog posts around the cities or villages we visited. This will mean that some posts will be short and others will be much longer depending on how long we stayed at one place.
This first post will be an introduction, to give you some context of the trip. How we travelled, why we travelled, how we prepared the trip and so on. I hope you enjoy reading along with us as we re-experience our summer holiday while writing it up.
So let’s start with the reason we chose to go to Japan last summer. While Japan was definitely on our long list of places that we wanted to visit one day, it wasn’t perse on top of our list. But, as with many of our journeys we take, it fitted well into other aspects of our life at this time. You see, Eduard had a conference he wanted to take part in this year. This conference would take place in the middle of summer in one of the most southern parts of Japan: Kurume. And so we decided to stick a longer holiday to it. If you have to travel to the other side of the world anyway, it makes sense to make the most out of it. Both economically and time wise. And as we were already at the other side of the world, we decided that we had to visit Eduard’s sister and brother-not-in-law that live in Beijing, China. Because, well, we were so close, in theory that is.
Where in Japan?
Following the story above, we had a clear starting point for our trip: Kurume, Japan. And it was very clear where we were going to end, in Beijing, China. In between those two cities we wanted to create a journey that would give us a good impression of all that Japan had to offer. That desire was easy to express, but more complicated in execution. Mostly because we had no idea what Japan had to offer to begin with and because we were severely constraint by time. Japan is big people, I think I never realised this before planning out this trip.
With these initial restrictions of our travel, we started searching for information and inspiration all around the internet. We also bought our usual travel book. We started pinning onto our Google Travel Map with a long list of places that sounded interesting. And at the same time we also opened up a Google File which would show the time we had and needed to travel from and to places. We made the real progress in this file by setting out the most important places we wanted to visit, which left us with blanks or days that we could fill in later. I can really recommend this kind of trip planning to everyone.
Very early in the process we came to the conclusion that we would only visit places south of Tokyo in our journey. Although we really wanted to see the north of Japan and the region around Nagano, we really couldn’t fit it into our itinerary. This decision gave us lot more focus and with this we started adding and removing spots on the map. I started searched for inspiration on Pinterest. I also asked around on Instagram if people knew must-see places. I used Pinterest mostly to connect images that I already had in my head of Japan to names of places. And Instagram provided me with more personal experiences of people. Which in the end is obviously more interesting. But together they were complimentary.
THE PLACES WE VISITED
We ended up with this map of places we wanted to (and in the end) visited. We would land in Fukuoka, after a long stop in Seoul. Then we would take the train to Kurume, visit Nagasaki from there and then after the first initial week of conference, we would start our real holiday and do Naoshima, Teshima, Kyoto, Koyasan, Osaka, Nara, Takayama, Shirakawa and Tokyo. From there we would fly to Beijing via Seoul and then back to France.
As I continue writing my travel journal, you will be able to click on the different places and visit the connected blog posts.
How we travelled
How did we travel in Japan? We didn’t have to think this one through very extensively. We love travelling by train and Japan is very equipped for this. I won’t be telling you something new probably by introducing the Japan RAIL Pass to you. This pass gave us the freedom to use the train wherever we needed it during 21 days. The costs were €446 per person. This sounds like a lot of money, but believe me, it isn’t. Most Japanese people we met were jealous of this arrangement. You can only use this type of card if you aren’t a Japanese inhabitant. Also all the trains were very comfortable. It happened only rarely that we couldn’t find a seat, and then it was only because we were lazy to search for a seat.
Travelling to and from Japan was more stressful for me. The anticipation period, that is. I hadn’t flown in a very long time. Due to my weight I don’t find travelling with airplanes very comfortable. I had lost about 30kg since the last time I travelled though, so I felt a bit more confident this time. It turned out to be with good reason, since I could fit into a seat more comfortably this time and I didn’t need a belt extender for the first time in ages. So hooray for that! In the first flight I asked for one at the flight attendant as soon as I entered the plane. As I tried out the belt, I realised that I didn’t need the extension, so I gave it back to her, and she replied happily with: “Now that’s a good feeling, isn’t it?”. And it was, on all the seven flights that we took during those four weeks.
Where we stayed
Although our spreadsheet and map might give you the idea that we are very organised, in reality we actually aren’t. Not so long before our departure we still had to book all the places where we wanted to stay. We mostly booked hotels and resorted to the more modern house-sharing websites only in case of emergencies. Our first stay was in a pretty shabby (and expensive) AirBnB, due to a festival that took place in the city. And then we also chose to book one temple stay, as it was recommended to us by others. We booked everything in advance.
In Europe we normally don’t book everything in advance. We feel more at ease when we are on our own continent, and as we speak or understand most of the languages, we never have the idea that we have to fear a night without a bed. But for Japan we chose to book everything in advance, because we didn’t speak the language, we hadn’t visited the country before and we also didn’t have a lot of time during our travels to waste it on searching for hotels. In retrospect we are happy that we chose this route. As I write all the different posts, I will definitely mention where we stayed and what our experience was.
We ordered a pocket wifi for 21 days. This is a mobile wifi receiver that offers you pretty fast internet wherever you are. As I took my laptop with me and we had two phones with us, we thought it would be a good idea to rent this device. We paid €86 for those 21 days. We found that our pocket wifi was much better than all the wifi that was offered to us in our hotel rooms (when it was available), so we were happy to have one on us all the time. It helped us also by guiding us through the country when we weren’t in our hotel rooms. If you are going to Japan, I can highly recommend this device. We ordered ours at the same place as the JR Pass. It was ready to be picked up at the Airport where we arrived and we could post it back to them in Tokyo. The return envelope was delivered to us when we picked up the tiny device. Very customer friendly. Like most of Japan!
I touched this subject briefly above. We didn’t and don’t speak Japanese. We didn’t prepare much before we left. I did print out a small piece of paper, with a Japanese sentence that explained that I’m a vegetarian and what kind of things I don’t eat (meat, fish) and eat (eggs, cheese). During our travels we found that our limited language skills didn’t pose a problem. In the south, where there are less tourists, it was a bit more complicated to get our thoughts across, but as we moved more towards Kyoto and Tokyo much more information was available in English. Sometimes even in French. Probably because there were lots of French tourists around!
I’m pretty sure I will complain a lot about the weather in the upcoming posts, so I won’t bother you here too much with it. It was humid and warm. On the first day I had a real existential crisis when I went out on my own without any cash on me to buy a bottle of water. We both felt that it was doable to visit Japan during this time of year. You just have to make sure that you have the right clothing with you and that you drink enough water. We sometimes drank four liters of water per person per day. Our idea was that mostly tourists from warm countries visit Japan during this period of the year. We didn’t see a lot of Dutchies (and they are normally everywhere) and we came across lots of French people and Italians. Our interpretation of this observation was that people from warm countries are less afraid of these abnormally high temperatures. The temperature isn’t in any way comparable to European temperatures that I know. This is mostly due to the crazy humidity.
I lost 4kg during four weeks. I know most people start drooling over Japanese food, but as a vegetarian I can tell you that you won’t be very well served in Japan. Sure, you can eat tons of vegetarian fast food. They have all kind of ways of frying vegetables. But if you want to eat a bit more healthy and not always the same thing, it’s much more difficult. Fresh fruit for example is super expensive (compared to France). I often bought an apple (next to my daily banana) and a simple apple costs €2 per apple. And these weren’t very tasty apples.
The first few days I was really disappointed and wondered whether I could find any normal food during our stay, but as time passed by, we slowly found a routine and a way to find healthy, affordable vegetarian food. I felt this was very important as our heavy travel schedule and the warm temperatures asked for good food to keep us on our feet.
Ok, let’s wrap this introduction up, so that I can move on to our first real adventure of this trip. If I have missed introducing a subject above, I’m sure it will come up somewhere along the way, as I write the rest of the pieces. As said above, I hope you enjoy reading our travel story and if you are planning a trip to Japan, it will hopefully give you inspiration and insights on how to plan your journey. This island is well worth visiting!