Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

Japan on a Night Bus

October 10, 2010
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Transportation in Japan is generally expensive, and traveling around Japan could be a big part of your budget. If you are up for it, a good way to save both your money and your time is using a night bus. Night buses are popular with travelers who are on a limited budget, or backpackers. It’s cheaper than bullet trains, but more importantly, it saves hotel expenditures, as well as the time spent lodging statically.

For the luxury traveler there are executive night buses as well. These provide reclining seats that are very comfortable to sleep in. Every seat is also equipped with a private television, and some buses facilitate internet access. These buses are not as cheap, but remember that you would still be saving on the hotel and time.

However, if you are looking to hang on to every penny (after all, Japan is not a cheap destination), and wish to keep transportation expenses at a minimum, there are less expensive night buses too. After all, sleeping in a night but is not that different from sleeping in an economy seat on a plane – think about how long your flight is to Japan. If you are good with economy seats on airplanes, and do manage to somehow fall asleep, you do not need to worry about missing your stop. The night buses have 4 to 5 scheduled stops in the area before reaching their final stop. The bus conductor informs the passengers which stop it is as well.

Booking tickets in advance and/or online could provide further discounts – usually up to two percent. Ticket sales often begin one month prior to the departure date. It’s usually a good idea to book in advance anyway, since these buses can fill up quickly.

“Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice. And she said..”

July 19, 2010

When traveling in Japan you will naturally need accommodation, and therefore seek out some form of hotel. There are, however, hotels that serve a different purpose all together: Love hotels.

Love hotels, though sometimes named differently, are short stay hotels found in many parts of the world, and especially popular in Japan. The primary purpose is to provide couples some privacy for a short period of time to…satisfy their biological urges. It’s not necessarily sleazy, however. These places are just like regular hotels and are priced similarly, easily passing the 100$ mark per overnight stay. The idea with love hotels is privacy. They have discrete entrances to conceal the identity of the people who use them. The selection of rooms, settlement of bills is all done by selection from a panel and automatic cash machines – vacant rooms are lit, occupied rooms dimmed. At times clerks from behind a frosted glass attend to the needs of a customer.

Although the cheaper hotels are purely utilitarian, there are higher end types too with rooms decorated in various themes, rotating beds, ceiling mirrors, jacuzzis, and bizarre lighting. They are at times very garish, with the building in the shape of a castle or UFO. The more contemporary love hotels look like ordinary buildings. Besides the neon signs and usage of heart symbols, you can recognize love hotels from their small covered windows, or at times from having no windows at all.

Mostly love hotels are found in areas nearer to railway stations, industrial areas or on highways outside the city. The rest time may vary from one hour to an entire overnight stay that starts after ten at night. There are also rooms offered at a cheaper day time rate. No advance reservation is possible. Note that as soon you leave the room the hotel does not allow you to get back into it. Although these places are sometimes used for prostitution, it’s a legitimate accommodation choice for those of you traveling as a couple and are looking for an experience that is, well, unique.

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

Okonomiyaki – The Japanese Pancake That Has It All

May 13, 2010
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An attractive, prosperous and busy city, Hiroshima is the home to a plethora of sightseeing destinations and so attracts thousands of travelers from all over the world. Your visit to Hiroshima, Japan is incomplete without enjoying several of its regional food specialties. Okonomiyaki, literally meaning “fry what you like,” is the most flavorsome item of Japan, specifically in Western parts of the country. Though it is not easy to describe how it exactly looks like, you can view it as something sandwiched between pancake and pizza.

The pancake mix is based on spring onion, flour, cabbage (the secret ingredient), and egg, but the best thing is that you are free to add anything that you like – hence the name. Most often, you will find squid and pork Okonomiyaki in Japanese restaurants, but a few also offer special toppings like rice cake, cheese, shrimp and beef, or all of the above. It’s definitely a low-budget food so go ahead and pig out.

Japanese Okonomiyaki Mix

Japanese Okonomiyaki Mix

You can prepare this extremely luscious item in two ways – Hiroshima style and Osaka style. While the more mainstream Osaka style fries the mixture and toppings all together inside the pan, in Hiroshima the constituents are not mixed up, but rather cooked separately and only then combined. In Hiroshima, each and every constituent is first piled in order and then noodles are placed in between.

Japanese Okonomiyaki Bacon

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Bacon

Sauce has its own importance in the food item. The sauce color is dark brown and the taste is crisp, which many add on the Okonomiyaki together with mayonnaise. When the dish is all ready, an egg is sometimes cracked on a griddle and it gets rolled over the top of the Okonomiyaki. To add more to the taste, it is recommended to sprinkle dried bonito flakes and nori (seaweed) at the end. Noodles make an important ingredient of the dish, and so are included usually as well.

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Sauce

Japanese Okonomiyaki with Sauce

Most interestingly, Okonomiyaki is more of a cultural thing than a Japanese culinary treat. Since Okonomiyaki cooking is entirely free-style and involves a central pan into which anybody can throw practically any topping, “Okonomiyaki Parties” are quite popular. These normally include a good amount of alcohol, Okonomiyaki till you pop, and some Japanese entertainment:

Japanese Okonomiyaki Entertainment Usavich

This was our entertainment at the Okonomiyaki Party - Check out

When traveling in Japan, make sure you never decline an invitation to an Okonomiyaki party, or at least order one of these Japanese pancakes at a restaurant (the cheap price without doubt underestimates their heavenly taste). Or, just hop on a Shinkansen bullet train and have some of the famous Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki. There’s actually an entirely multiple-story building dedicated to it, packed with small, budget-friendly Okonomiyaki shops.

Japan Travel Destination: Sapporo

May 9, 2010

Most of you who want to visit Japan must find it difficult choosing between all the cities, sites and tourist destinations that need to be toured. The capital city of Hokkaido known as Sapporo is one place worth visiting.

Since Hokkaido is Japan’s northern island, the best time to make a visit to this place would be during the summer season, unless you are from Canada and you don’t mind the frost. Summer is the peak touring season and you would find many fellow travelers arond you, including Japanese.

Sapporo’s city museums are a great place to visit. Ainu Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art are worth a peek, and getting to these places is not a hassle as you can travel by train or even hire a taxi, which are much more affordable than in Tokyo. Some other important sightseeing spots that you must visit are the botanical gardens, clock tower, Ishiya chocolate factory and the entertainment district. For all you sport fans, the local baseball team that only recently relocated to Sapporo is a powerhouse worth watching at the Sappporo Dome – try to catch Yu Darvish pitching.

When it comes to Sapporo, however, there is nothing like the beer. The summer festival at Odori Park is your red carpet to world-class beer gardens and probably the best beer in the world – yes, of course better than Carlsberg! As for the food, this part of the country is known for the most relished cuisines of barbecued mutton, noodles and many more mouthwatering speciality dishes that complement Sapporo Beer so seamlessly that it makes you want to cry.

If your Japanese vacation is in the winter, worry not because Sapporo during the cold(er) seasons is just as spectacular. You could visit the same Odori Park that is then transformed to a big snow sculpture gallery. This snow festival is famous all over by the name of “Sapporo Snow Festival” and showcases excellent, professional work.

In case you are planning to travel to Japan and to Sapporo in the summer, make sure you book your accommodation in advance, because otherwise it may turn out to be an extremely expensive expedition. Getting to the northern island is quite convenient as it is connected to Honshu by rail, air, ferry, and even road. Your trip to Sapporo could be a very memorable one as long as the travel, accommodation, and other basics are preplanned.

By the way, as long as you’ve made it all the way up there, don’t shy away from venturing outside the capital city to take in some of the island’s stunning natural beauty and to soak in the country’s best natural hot springs.

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    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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