I met James Mundy last year at a dinner in London, and it was clear straight away that he’s a mine of information about all things Japan. So, having been there myself recently, I thought I’d pick his brains on travelling in the country if you’re thinking of going.
James, Japan still has a lingering reputation as being expensive but with the weak Yen, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Where do you think you can get the best value?
The ‘expensive’ tag is outdated. It really was pricey back in the ‘bubble period’ during the 80’s but now (with the weak Yen) value for money is plain to see when travelling around, especially eating and shopping. People from the UK (and the US) will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Japan is generally cheaper than their home country.
Most people will notice it mainly when eating out. Food and drink is often one of the big spends when on holiday. With so much choice in Japan, especially in the big cities, eating out is not expensive and it is generally delicious. Conveyor belt sushi sells plates of the stuff for about £0.70 per plate – beat that Yo!Sushi (Try Kappa chain). Ramen shops sell huge bowls of noodles and broth for about £3 – beat that Wagamama. (In Tokyo look out for branches of Hidakaya).
There our countless convenience stores selling good snack food with bento boxes selling from around £2.50.
For those that want to eat the best food that they will ever try, head to one of Tokyo’s Michelin star restaurants at lunch time for a set menu at half the price. For example in Shinjuku, try Nakajima that has dishes for around 800yen (about £4.50) before 2pm.
Make your way to a traditional Izakaya (Japanese pub) for good food and drink and look out for the tabi/nomihodai options (eat and drink as much as you like) which cost from around £17pp for 2 hours of gorging on the good stuff. Not only is Japan’s food generally of a better quality, it is generally a lot cheaper than it is at home. Try Zawatami.
Of course there are also discounts to be had on all the electronics that can be found at the department stores of Akihabara and Shinjuku in Tokyo <On my trip in March this year, an Apple iPad was like-for-like £110 cheaper than the same one in London: carry your passport because if you can show you’re just on holiday, they’ll knock off the 8% sales tax – WH>. You can also find all sorts of random gadgets at shops in Japan – priceless. One of our favorite places is the teccy-heaven of Yodabashi camera with multiple floors full of gadgets not far from Shinjuku’s West exit.
What are your “must do’s” in Tokyo, and perhaps some more quirky things that should be on your list?
1. Go to Tsukiji fish market in the morning (while you still can – it’s being redeveloped) and enjoy the best sushi brekkie you’ll ever have. Don’t bother going along for 4am. Go at 9am and stroll around the outer markets full of all sorts of beasts from the sea.
2. Stroll the serenity of the 17th century Hamarikyu Gardens and into the Shiodome district with its sleek modern architecture – a taste of modern and traditional Tokyo.
3. Head to Shibuya at dusk and watch Bladerunner appear before your eyes as you exit the station at the Hachiko exit of the station.
4. Make your way to an izakaya (a traditional Japanese pub) for a drink and a spot to eat, more often than not ending up drinking with salarymen wanting to test their English out after a few drinks. There are plenty of izakaya all over Tokyo, but try Ueno, Yurakucho or Shinjuku’s ramshackle Golden Gai distrcit for a fun night.
5. Depending on what sort of thing floats your boat, head to a themed café of some sort. You might like to head to a Shinjuku cat café or a rabbit café to stroke a pet, or a maid café in Akihabara. Maybe even an owl café to drink with birds or perhaps have your senses blown at the Robot Restaurant with its semi-clad girls, music, machinery and lights. All a bit different.
…and if it’s a Sunday, head to Harajuku, admire kids in their alternative fashions, wonder around Meiji Jingu Shrine and people watch in Yoyogi Park with dancing rockerbilly, dance acts, Taiko drummers, martial arts groups, comedians, local bands and more – a great day out in one place.
If it was someone’s first time to Japan, what would be your ideal week-long itinerary?
If you only had 7 days in Japan, then you could spend the whole lot in Tokyo. If this was your only chance though, you should head to Kyoto as the cultural capital and why not give a go at staying at a traditional ryokan (inn) too en route and the hot spring resort of Hakone, close to Mt Fuji.
Arrive into Tokyo – Tokyo – Tokyo – Hakone (1 night in Ryokan) – Kyoto-Kyoto- leave Osaka
These are the “classic” must visit destinations in Japan, but for good reasons.
And what are some of your favourite off-the-beaten-path spots in Japan?
Here are five places to start with –
Naoshima – Aka ‘Art Island’ sat in the Seto Inland sea between mainland Honshu and Shikoku island, this laid back rural island enjoys everything that is great about Japan: traditional rural community, rice fields, lovely beaches and impressive architecture combined with very cool art installations. Spend a day cycling around this small laid back island for best results.
Kinosaki Onsen – A small hot spring town about 2 hours from Kyoto sits between the mountains and the Japan Sea Coast. Stay in a ryokan, don traditional yukatta (robe – wrap it left side over right, as the opposite is only done for the dead) and join the locals walking from hot spring bath to hot spring bath stopping en route to enjoy a cold beer or hot bowl of ramen noodles from one of the local vendors.
Nagasaki – An underrated city known for its recent history, but with so much more to offer. This city was the only place open to the western world for a couple of hundred years back in the days of the Tokugawa Shogun and as such has obvious influences from China and Europe combined with traditional Japan. The city sits in a natural harbour and there are great views from the top of the city’s favourite mountain, Inasa yama.
Mt Koya – One of Japan’s most sacred spots, Mt Koya sits on the Kii Peninsula and is home to Shingon Buddhism. Stay in a temple lodging in this atmospheric town 800 metres above sea level, feast on Shingon style cooking – completely vegan and tastier than it sounds – and wake up with the monks for morning prayers and fire ceremonies. Walk through Okuno-in cemetery, which has memorials to all of Japan’s great historical figures and where Kobo Daishi (the founding father 1,200yrs ago) still sits in a state of meditation.
Ishigaki – A taste of subtropical Japan, about a 1000 miles south of Tokyo in the Yaeyama island chain. This island is full of palm trees, mangroves, mountains, white sand beaches and great diving. The waters are home to an array of coral and marine life including giant manta rays. The island is also gateway to smaller islands such as the jungle island of Iriomote with a huge variety of wildlife and great trekking.
Some people are put off by the language barriers – do you think that’s a valid point?
I think a lot of people to feel a bit uncomfortable about heading to Japan because of the lack of English spoken, or their own lack of Japanese ability, but they really shouldn’t use this as an excuse.
The Japanese are generally very friendly and will usually assume that as a foreigner that you will not be able to speak Japanese. Trying a phew simple words such as konnichiwa (hello) and arigato (thank you) will go along way.
A willingness to respect the culture, a smile and a bit of body language will usually warm people to you and the odd cultural faux pas will be ignored. People are keen to try and speak English to you but are often shy (not to be confused with rude). People will go out of their way to help you and many foreigners come back with tales of kind Japanese folk that went out of their way to help them. Being in a completely different culture and country, it is all part of the experience and one that should not make you feel alienated.
There are more and more English signs these days, especially in the big cities, but the for me (and with the right guidance from a specialist tour operator) the lack of English can add to the ambience and the adventure.
I found eating out to be a bit daunting in Japan, largely because of language – any tips? And some favourite spots?
Many restaurants/cafes in the cities will have plastic models of meals which are easy to point to and some places will have an English menu, although you should never expect to receive this. There are some basic Japanese phrases in Japan that will help you when eating out.
The easiest way to order is to use kudasai, which simply means “please”.
So if you want a hamburger, try hamburger kudasai
Not sure what to order?
What do you recommend? O-susume wa nan desu ka?
Are you a vegetarian?
I am a vegetarian watashi wa bejitarian desu
Without meat please niku nuki de kudasai
I don’t eat meat or fish watashi wa niku to sakana ga taberaremasen
“Gochi-so-sama-deshita” ごちそうさまでした. This literally means “thank you, it was a real feast.” Say this to staff as you leave and their eyes will light up!
One of my favourite experiences in Japan is to head to an izakaya (Japanese pub) and enjoy a night out rubbing shoulders with salarymen (office workers) letting their hair down after work – always an interesting night.
An Izakaya will serve a wide selection of foods both Japanese and non-Japanese and of course a wide selection of alcoholic beverages. Not really the place for an intimate night out but great for a crowd. The key Japanese phrase necessary for such an establishment is “Nama bi-ru onegai shimasu” give it a try and see what you get! Kanpai! = ‘cheers’ is another good word to use in these establishments.
The food at izakaya style restaurants tends to come in small snack-like portions and the key to ordering is to get a selection and share them. Most izakaya restaurants are fairly cheap. On the street, you can identify an Izakaya by the red lantern hanging outside.
…And there is no tipping in Japan!
Robot Restaurant, Tokyo
Sometimes the Japanese can be a bit…..different. What are some of your favourite examples of “quirky Japan”
There are many ‘quirky’ aspects of Japanese culture.
The liberal attitudes to sex in Japan often surprise people. There are red-light districts in most towns and cities across Japan and they are accepted as a normal part of society. I guess that this could also be linked to the love hotels where lovers are able to pay for what are often themed rooms by the hour to do what lovers do. Love hotels are quite discreet but essential for couples who often don’t leave the family home (with paper thin walls) until marriage.
I suppose its not a great surprise when the Japanese religion of Shintoism celebrates fertility festivals where huge phallus are paraded through the streets…
There are all sorts of themed cafes. The most famous of which are cat cafes which came about as many Tokyo-ites just don’t have the space for pets, nor the time to look after them. Most people have heard of the Cat café these days, but there are all sorts of offshoots. One of the most interesting is an owl café where you can enjoy a coffee and have an owl sit on your shoulder.
There are many more interestingly themed restaurants. The Robot Restaurant is one which is lesss of a restaurant and more of attack on all senses with strobes, robots, ultra-violet tanks and semi clad women.
Maid cafes are another quirky cultural highlight. In fact it grew out the Otaku sub-culture with women dressed as French maids, School girls and manga cartoon characters. Tokyo’s Akihabara is the home of the Otaku culture and there are plenty of maid cafes.
There are countless cultural differences that may be considered a bit odd: waiting at traffic lights for the green man when there is absolutely no sign of traffic. Stepping out of your shoes into slippers when entering a ryokan or restaurant and then toilet slippers when needing to spend a penny. There are also vending machines everywhere and all untainted by vandalism – even the alcohol vending machines….and yes, in some of the red light districts there are some dodgy vending machines, but you don’t see them too often. Japan is just a very different place to anywhere else in the world and that’s why we love it.
Thanks for chatting James – more information on visiting Japan through the Inside Japan website.
All photos provided by Inside Japan – please don’t copy & use without asking them
(C) Will Hide May 2015