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Trudy 03 Aug 2009

Japan for beginners!

No, this column is not about Turkey. All my travel experiences within Turkey are already published as essays on this site. But I was asked to write about my other travels. So here is the first column!

Japan for beginners!


 My latest trip was to Japan. This is a good reason to write my first column about that country, I think.


To start with a popular misconception:


Japan is not expensive. Of course, prices are always related to one’s own budget, but compared with countries in the Euro zone, Japan is cheap or at least moderately priced. Your air ticket to Japan will probably be the most expensive part of your complete journey. From Amsterdam I paid around 800 euro for a return ticket including taxes. Just check several sites for airline prices and compare.


To give you some examples for comparison:


One night in a business hotel (business hoteru) for a small room en-suite including breakfast will cost you between 5000 and 6000 yen average. Some chains of business hoteru offer you free use of internet (Toyoko Inn, Comfort Hotel), free non-alcoholic drinks after 15.00 PM (Comfort Hotel), a wide range of free toiletries (Alpha 1, Toyoko Inn, Super Hotel, Comfort Hotel). All business hoteru have amenities such as trouser press, pay phones, pay TV (for those with erm… certain needs). Some have laundry service for 200-300 yen when you do-it-yourself or (and this is expensive) the laundry-per-piece including ironing (APA hotels, Comfort Hotels). A few hoteru have a communal bath (onsen or rotenburo), and some, like APA Hotel in downtown Kanazawa outside on the 14th floor, a bath with a view! Most business hoteru are conveniently located near the railway station, so no long journeys from arrival to your room. Most hoteru have 16.00 PM as check-in time but of course you can leave your luggage earlier.


A Japanese hotel or B&B (though often with dinner) has several ranges but for 6000-8000 yen you have a decent place with two meals. These hotels and B&B’s are called Ryokan and Minshuku. Top ryokan can cost you as much as 40.000 yen per night.


A lunch will be between 500 and 1000 yen, a dinner between 800 and 2000 yen, excluding drinks. Sure, you can go crazy and up your bill to amounts of far over 10,000 yen, but those are not the normal dinners Japanese people will have regularly.


Using a city bus will set you back150-200 yen, and in many cities you can buy a day pass for unlimited use for 300-500 yen. To visit a museum you have to calculate 400-1200 yen, with a couple of exceptions that exceed 2000 yen. A temple visit – if not for free - will cost 300-600 yen, burning a candle or some incense costs 100 yen each.




 (On August 1st, 2009 the rate was: 1000 yen = 7,42 Euro = 10,5 USD)


(On August 1st, 2009 the rate was: 1000 yen = 7,42 Euro = 10,5 USD)


Ok, enough about money so far. You know now that prices are NOT a good reason to omit Japan from your list of countries-to-visit.


Two steps are necessary even before you think of booking anything. First: buy a good travel book. There are many on the market, choose the one you like. Myself, I have always used Lonely Planet because they are accurate, show prices and don’t avoid critical comments either. Second: be sure you have a good travel insurance including coverage of medical costs. Japan has a national health care system but if you are not a member of that, you have to pay cash! It might be wise to ask your insurance company upfront what a doctor or hospital has to do for billing them instead of you. A short translation in Japanese – there are several sites with people willing to help you – would be handy because not many people outside the tourist areas speak decent English. That brings me to the next subject:




In Japan people speak Japanese. What else did you expect? Sure, in high schools and colleges they are taught English but it might happen that you are at some place no one will speak English at all or at least they are afraid of speaking it. For Japanese people failure is a shame, so making mistakes is something they will try to avoid. This diminishes the chance of being laughed at. A lot of them, however, can read some basic English. So if you can’t speak, try to write your question down and show the paper. By the way, simple drawings can be useful as well. And use body language, like everywhere in the world.


Japanese has three different alphabets. The first is Hiragana, 46 letters used for more simple words, nouns, particles, ending of verbs. It is the first alphabet taught to children of 6 years old at school. In theory you can write the whole language in Hiragana. The second one is the Katakana, also 46 letters, used for loan words, geographical places and names mostly. As you see below Hiragana is more cursive and Katakana is more angular. The last one is Kanji, the Chinese characters. To understand Japanese at basic level you need to master the first two and know at least about 2000 kanji. Most tourists will never manage that level, it’ll take you years. Still, like in most countries, people are very pleased when you are able to say a few words and sentences in Japanese. Japanese pronunciation is not that difficult.


Hiragana alphabet.





Katekana alphabet.




 Kanji - most commonly seen ones





Language guide for dummies (like me!)



·     an A at the end of a syllable is pronounced long, but NOT as an English A. Ask a local and repeat.

·     an A elsewhere is pronounced short, like in answer

·     an E is mostly pronounced short like in pen, sometimes (like in ei-go – meaning English language) as the English letter A

·     an O at the end of a syllable is pronounced long, like in most

·     an O elsewhere is pronounced short, like in coffee

·     a U at the end of a verb is not pronounced at all

·     a U elsewhere is pronounced as double OO, like in book


Yes - Hai

No - Ii-è

Please (when asking) - ……… kudasai.

Please (when giving) - Dozo

Thank you - Domo arrigato gozaimasu (but the u you do not pronounce at the end of a verb)

Good morning - O-haiyo gozaimasu

Good day (hello) - Konnichiwa

Good evening - Konbanwa

Good night - O-yasumi nasai

Where is ……? -  …… wa doko desu ka?

Have you ……? - …… arimasu ka? 

No, we haven’t have .......  -  …… arimasen

How are you? - O-genki desu ka?

I am fine - Genki desu

I am from … (USA / England/ …) - Watashi wa … (Amerika-jin / Igirisu-jin / ………-jin) desu.

My name is …… - Watashi wa ……… desu.

Do you speak/understand English? - Ei-go dekimasu ka?


So, now you speak fluently Japanese, according to the locals! ;)


Some facts


Japan has about 127 million inhabitants. It consists of islands only, the main reason why it was so secluded until half of the 19th century. Before that only the Dutch – yes, we again! – were the only foreigners allowed at a very little piece of Japan called Dejima, a then island near Nagasaki solely for trading purposes. Japan has 48 prefectures called ‘ken’ and their capital is now Tokyo.


The following subjects I only comment on briefly because they are worth much more explanation.


Transport in Japan is fantastic. Buses are not common or widely spread and, like everywhere, depend on the traffic so are sometimes late. But if that happens, expect a driver or conductor bowing and apologising! Trains are on time. For me, used to regular delays of over 30 minutes, that is a miracle. The average delay of a Shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan is 12 seconds per year! There are several possibilities of cheap (well…) travelling for foreigners.



Shinkansen - the bullet train that can get to 300 km per hour!!



Accommodation in Japan is like everywhere: hotels, sometimes big international chains such as Hilton, affordable business hotels (business hoteru) for workers who drank too much and/or missed the last train home, youth hostels and camping. But there are also special Japanese hotels such as ryokan, Japanese B&B’s - minshuku, capsule hotels with rooms of the size of a big coffin and love hotels (and that you would like to know about, I bet!),. I have had several very nice experiences in my chosen accommodation, I will tell you later about them. Still, almost every Japanese will tell you that reservation of a room is necessary, it is my experience that it is not. Many times I did not know upfront where I would stay that evening and I never had any problems finding accommodation within my budget. Maybe if you travel on a shoestring a reservation might be handy, but if you can afford just a little more then go!




A bedroom in a ryokan or minshuku.



Outside the crowded cities as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe you can find as much nature as you like. Forests, lakes, mountains, volcanoes, you name it. Japan is a mountainous country so almost everywhere you can find natural hot springs called onsen. If it’s outside the name is rotenburo. Several villages are dedicated to these onsen, filled with ryokan and mostly Japanese tourists.


Food. I think almost everyone has heard of sushi or maybe has tried it, but there is so much more. Just a few names of delicious dishes: sashimi, tempura, miso, mochi, tonkatsu, udon, soba, somen, Kobe beef, yakitori, okonomiyaki. Recipes and pictures will follow.


Ok, just one picture to make you hungry…. ;)




One of my favourites: Delicious and easy to make Zaru Soba (cold buckwheat noodles).


What to do and what to visit?


That all depends on your personal taste. A few things are really must-sees and must-do’s. Two of them are temples and onsen, the Japanese public bath. About the latter there is so much to write that I might do a separate column about that.


Temples can be divided into two categories: Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Sometimes however they are mixed, as religion is not a separate part of Japan’s daily life but mixed in as well.


Shinto shrines


Shinto shrines are places of worship dedicated to the kami, the Shinto gods. The objects of worship that represent the kami are sacred and stored in the innermost chamber of the shrine where they cannot be seen by anybody. People go to shrines to pay respect of course but also to pray for good fortune, health, marriage, love and luck. On special days like New Year and around August 15th, O-bon – the Japanese festival of the death, almost everyone visits a shrine. According to tradition, newborn babies are brought to get blessings and many couples celebrate their marriage in a shrine.


There are several, typical buildings or statues at Shinto shrines that makes them very recognisable.


At the entrance, and sometimes at more places in the temple grounds, there is a torii, a mostly red/orange painted wooden gate.





The famous floating torii of Miyajima.


Near the entrance you will find at least one pair of guardian dogs, sometimes foxes as well, often ‘dressed’ with a red cloth around the neck. Also near the entrance there is the purification fountain. You are supposed to clean your hands and mouth before entering the main hall. Take one of the spoons provided and rinse both your hands – preferably starting with the right hand. Then pour some water into one hand, take a sip and rinse your mouth. Spit out the water onto the floor, not into the basin! Then rinse your hand again and finally clean the spoon by holding it vertically so that water can go downwards. You are not allowed to drink directly from the spoon!





Purification fountain.


The main hall (honden) of a shrine contains several altars, statues, golden ornaments, paintings and more. In one room the sacred objects are kept and this room is not open to visitors. The offering hall is open for anyone, even if you do not offer. Before or after praying people throw some money (sometimes as little as 5 yen) into boxes, sometimes also followed by lighting a candle or burning incense. Wave some of the incense smoke towards you, for people think the smoke has healing power. At most temples you have to remove your shoes and store them in a box next to the building’s entrance. Sometimes there are (green) slippers provided and sometimes you get a plastic bag to take your shoes with you, though that mainly only happens at very large or busy shrines. In most shrines it is forbidden to smoke but taking pictures is ok. (I don’t think it is respectful to take pictures of people’s praying.)


Every shrine has a little shop where you can buy souvenirs, o-miage, like lucky charms or fortune telling paper slips. Some shrines have blank cotton or paper slips so you can write down your own wish. Tie it to a tree nearby and hopefully your wish will come true.




 Omikuji - write your wishes!



Every town, city, village and neighbourhood has its own shrine or shrines, dedicated to a local kami, the kami of rice (Japan’s main food) or a person or period from a long time ago. The most famous shrines are in Nikko, Kyoto and Miyajima near Hiroshima.


My next column will have more about places to visit, onsen, food, transport and/or cultural specialities.



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