Trip Coach: November 18, 2008
Chris Rowthorn, a Lonely Planet author and a private tour leader in Kyoto, answered your questions about Japan.
Chris Rowthorn: Hi everyone! This is Chris Rowthorn and I'm excited to talk with you about Japan. So let's get started!
Petoskey, Mich.: For my last child's spring break we are considering Asia. This would be a two week trip (March 14-28, 2009). Is Japan going to be prohibitively expensive with the economy tanking? My family of four includes two teenage boys (18, 19) who enjoy the outdoors and active vacations. What will the weather be like and what part of Japan would you recommend for an outdoor experience? What is the best way around the language barrier? It seems like there will lots of deals available in the world and I don't want to choose one of the few places that won't have them. —Melanie
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the great question, Melanie! I am glad you raise the issue of costs, as it's something we all have to think about now. First off, I want to note that Japan is far more reasonable than most people think. Images of Japan as the most expensive country in the world date from Japan's so-called "Bubble Economy" of the late 1980s. Until the middle of this year (before the Subprime Crisis started wreaking havoc with exchange rates), Japan was actually the cheapest country in the developed world and it still may be so. This sounds counterintuitive, but this past summer I did some searches for hotels, transport and meal prices in Japan, Western Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand, and I found that the facts bore this out. Japan was indeed cheaper than any of those countries. When I did this quick survey, the euro was very strong relative to the dollar and the yen was trading at around Y110 to the dollar. Now, the yen is about Y96 to the dollar, so the picture is slightly different. That said, Japan is still a great value, and it is still definitely cheaper than Western Europe, the United States and Australia/New Zealand. You can get very good twin hotel rooms for less than $100 in the big cities if you don't mind staying in business hotels, in which the rooms are small but clean. Budget ryokan rates are similar. You can rent cars for about $60 for a full day, as long as you have an international license, which you can get from AAA. The Japan Rail Pass is always a good deal. And you can eat full meals at lunch and dinner for about $8 per head at rice and noodle restaurants and shokudo, which are the Japanese version of your standard diner (tea is included and there's no tipping at Japanese restaurants). And there are two final points I'd like to raise on the issue of costs: Japan has had almost no inflation in the last decade, so prices are what they were 10 years ago; you cannot say that for Europe or North America. And, you get incredible value for money in Japan, because of the country's incredible service ethic. I just finished traveling for almost two months around Okinawa, and there wasn't a day in there where I didn't think to myself, "I can't believe how reasonable this all is!" Finally, I should add that the Japan's Central Bank does all it can to prop up the US dollar, so I wouldn't be surprised if the dollar gained back some ground versus the yen in the coming months.
As for where to go, if you're coming in March, you should be looking at places south and west of Tokyo, as northern Honshu, the Japan Alps and Hokkaido will be too cold (unless you want to go skiing). I think Kyoto should be at the top of any itinerary, and there is great hiking in the hills right around Kyoto. You should also visit Nara. Tokyo is good if you want to see the modern Japanese urban phenomenon. The cherry blossoms sometimes start to open in Tokyo and Kyoto in late March (sometimes they wait until early April). You will be sure of seeing cherries further south and west, if you head down into Kyushu. If you like hiking and onsen (hot springs), you might consider heading to Yakushima, an island a few hours south of Kyushu by high-speed ferry. It's got great hiking around its peaks, stunning Yaku-sugi (cedar) trees and several good onsen. There is also good hiking in southern Nara in the Omine Range, in Shikoku, and in Kyushu. Note that the peaks may have snow on them in any of these areas during March, but lower elevations may well be warm.
Finally, regarding language, I wouldn't worry too much about communication in Japan. In countries like China, the language barrier is just that: a barrier. In Japan, you will find that you can get around quite well with no Japanese at all. All train stations and airports have English signage, more and more restaurants have English menus (and we note those that do in Lonely Planet guides to Japan), and many Japanese speak some English. Just speak slowly, choose people who are likely to speak some English (educated people in their twenties and thirties are a good bet, particularly women, who seem to do better with English than their male counterparts), and be prepared to write down your question (Japanese people tend to do better with written English). I hope this helps!