Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

Taking the Plunge, Naked

June 11, 2010

At Japan’s communal bathing houses, you need to keep your humility aside and take the plunge – literally – into the large, steaming pool. Entering a “sento” for the first time may be a nerve wrecking experience for the unsuspecting foreigner, but for the well accustomed Japanese, communal baths proffer a lively prelude to an invigorating soak after a long, hectic day.

Historically, public baths in Japan simply have provided those with extremely small living quarters and bathrooms incapable of supporting the entire family, with an affordable place to leisurely wash up. Nowadays, the Japanese continue this tradition, regarding it as a social and/or family event. Yes, it does seem odd that they are suddenly willing to strip off their clothes in front of strangers, considering their usually introverted behavior and strict social norms. Nonetheless, there is wisdom in their understanding that sharing the primal, trivial act of bathing strengthens social bonds, which they regard as “skinship.”

Those who are uncomfortable parading around completely naked in front of strangers, can find the whole sento experience a bit challenging. Entering the bath house, you normally step into a line of shower hoses and faucets along the walls. Pick an empty spot, crouch on the low wooden stool (again, this may be challenging for some) and scrub yourself thoroughly using the shampoo and liquid soap from the dispensers. It is imperative to rinse the body well, in order to enter the public bath when absolutely clean; any remaining soap trace in the bathing pool is a serious breach of protocol.

Now, proceed to the bath itself where you will need to lower yourself into the pool delicately, as sometimes the water is so hot that it takes a while to get used to. The feeling is really ecstatic, once you get in. You can stretch out in the water, which could be as shallow as knee level or deep enough to easily submerge. For the ultimate experience, soak a small wash-towel in icy cold water from the showers and tidily fold it on top of your head as you soak in the soothing water.

Traditionally, Japanese bathe in the evening, but public bath houses remain open for many hours during morning hours also, so that you can wind down at any time of the day. These places are very affordable, and you don’t have to worry about shampoo and soap, as these items are provided, in addition to hair dryers, cotton swabs, moisturizing lotion, and towels for rent. Some modernized sentos include saunas and other facilities. Just be certain to wash yourself first at the showers, rinsing off all the soap before dipping in the pool.

By the way, when these sentos use natural spring water they become “onsen’s” or hot springs, but that is a story for another day.

National Japanese Pastimes: Pachinko and Smoking

May 19, 2010
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According to the website, 38.9% of men and 11.9% of women in Japan smoke today. Although the percentage of smoking amongst Japanese men has dropped from its 83.7% peak in the 80’s, Japan still remains one of the heavy-smoking industrialized countries. The numbers for women are even more alarming, as they have not dropped at all in the long-term. In fact, I have personally observed that while there may not be more Japanese females who smoke, they certainly smoke much more, now that it is significantly less taboo for them to do so in Japanese society (and perhaps because they now occupy similar stressful job positions as men).

The continuous drop in smokers probably has to do partially with strict enforcement of laws prohibiting smoking in office buildings (except designated smoking rooms), train stations, and other public areas – including entire streets! Yes, you could find yourself walking down an ordinary, quiet street during your travels in Japan and be asked to turn off the cigarette in case you tried to light up. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other place.

Although I firmly believe that the way to combat smoking is in creating alternative positive incentives, images and role models (mostly sports-related) instead of taxing and banning, the almost ridiculous price of cigarettes in Japan could be playing a significant role in the Japanese smoking epidemic – especially teen smoking. Despite recent tax surges, a pack today goes for around $4, which in the Japanese economy is still very affordable, and allows easy access to almost anyone.

That being said, every Japanese cigarette vending machine offers a vast selection of smokes, in terms of nicotine content. If we accept the conclusion of studies that negatively correlate the addictiveness of cigarettes with the amount of nicotine in them, it’s fantastic that you can find 1mg cigarettes as opposed to only the regular 4-6mg and up. (The addictiveness depends, according to these studies, on genetics as well, meaning 1mg could be just as addictive for some.)

Cigarettes may be harmful physically, but many Japanese lose their souls to gambling. Certain polls ( show that 60% of the Japanese have tried Pachinko in the past, and 12% still play regularly (18% in other polls). Pachinko is a legal gambling game, in which you insert small metal balls into a vertical pinball-like machine, where they jump around until they fall at the bottom. (See Pachinko Photograph.) Pachi-Slot is a cross between Pachinko and slot machines – 8% of the population in Japan is currently addicted. The image of people glued to their plastic chairs, hours on end, inside huge Pachinko parlors with endless rows of these machines, deafening cacophony, and suffocating cigarette smoke, is something to be witnessed by every Japan traveler. There are over 12,000 of these places throughout Japan!

Stress is a part of the Japanese way of life just as Starbucks is for New Yorkers (though it could be that the Japanese are catching up on that one). They work long hours and have strict etiquette and societal norms, but take pride in their way of doing things. Some steam, of course, must be blown off. Whether cigarette smoking and Pachinko are national pastimes and simply part of who the Japanese people are, or instead harmful and unwanted epidemics, are for you to decide.

Japanese Pachinko

Japanese Pachinko

Unorthodox Japanese Accommodation: Capsule Hotel vs. Internet Cafe

May 7, 2010
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In case you are new to Japan and looking for some cheap Japan accommodation then you need not worry as multiple living options are available to choose from. Many of the travelers have already discovered some cheap ways to get lodging. Capsule hotels and internet cafes are some of the most common alternatives to hotels available for travelers who seek to pay less and/or wish to experience something special. Though the space in these places is limited, they give you a sense of security and privacy.

The cost factor is greatly reduced in case you are looking forward to staying in capsule hotels. Earlier, these small hotels were designed for traveling businessmen or drunks who needed a place to crash until public transportation would recommence. However, these are now popular spots for people who cannot afford to pay the heavy price of living (temporarily) in major cities. These cheap Japan accommodation capsules may be 6.5 inches long and width wise they may measure around 4 to 5 feet. The space is pretty comfortable to sleep as they provide clean bed sheets, a pillow, and to top it all you get your very own Japanese television set.

Capsule hotels are a viable cheap Japanese lodging option, especially for those who would be staying in guesthouses that have shared bathrooms anyway. Capsule hotels provide public baths and sinks, and private lockers are also available for rent. Did I say that you get a TV in your little egg shaped room?

Apart from the capsule hotels the Japanese internet cafes, called “Manga Kissaten” due to the practice of coming there to quietly read from a vast collection of manga books, are another place that could be used to catch some sleep – affordably. However, these are meant for people who want to have some time out from home and want to relax surfing the net, or as mentioned above, reading manga.

Japanese Internet Cafe

Japanese Internet Cafe

Although these internet cafes do not have beds to offer, you would certainly find booths with a reclining comfortable chair or even sofa to rest your head on. They also offer some additional benefits like an all-you-can drink coffee, tea, and soft drinks bar, as well as food you could order. Not to mention the Playstation games, high speed internet, and DVD movies (also in English). Even if you are not looking for budget accommodation, be sure to try these Japanese internet cafes out for a couple of hours, perhaps on a rainy day.

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    About the Author

    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" -

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