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!
Seattle, Wash.: Hello! We will be in Kyoto over New Year's Eve and are interested in finding out about celebrations and gatherings that locals take part in. We are also interested in learning more about private tours in both Tokyo and Kyoto. —Wendy
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the great question, Wendy! Shogatsu (New Year's) is a great time to visit Japan. This is the biggest celebration of the year and the time when Japanese families gather together. It's kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah rolled into one. Japanese people usually visit a shrine on New Year's Eve, and sometimes on one of the first three days of the New Year. This first shrine visit is called Hatsumode. In Kyoto, the three most popular (and crowded) shrines for Hatsumode are Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Yasakua-jinja, and Heian-jingu. I like the atmosphere best at Yasaka, and it's right above Gion, so it's convenient and near some good strolling. If you can't stand the crowds, choose a quieter shrine, like Yoshida-jinja. Some Japanese people also visit temples on New Year's Eve. Temples in Japan ring their bells as New Year's approaches. The big bell at Chion-in is a good place to see this, but it gets crowded. If you want to see this done at a local temple, I recommend Kurodani (also known as Konkai Komyo-ji). These will be your main options. It is difficult to join other celebrations, because Japanese people tend to celebrate at home with their families. Also, I should note that most restaurants close from December 31st until around January 4th, so you'll have to eat at your hotel or ryokan, at fast food restaurants, at chain restaurants or by buying food at convenience stores.
As for private tours, I offer private tours of Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo through my website at chrisrowthorn.com. We specialize in small groups and walking tours that take you through the backstreets and into secret temples and gardens. Please contact me at any time via the email link on the website. I hope to hear from you!
Dover, N.H.: We're flying into Tokyo in June and only have 3 days. What would you suggest we do? Should we stay in Kyoto or Tokyo for a real Japanese experience? Thanks.
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the excellent question! Sounds like you've got your flight plans already fixed If you want a real Japanese experience, I STRONGLY recommend that you spend as much time as possible in Kyoto. You might ask your airline if they can tack on a domestic roundtrip from Narita to Osaka's Itami Airport, which is less than an hour from Kyoto by regular airport limousine bus. If that is not possible, then you could take the Narita Express to Tokyo Station and the shinkansen (bullet train) from there to Kyoto Station. The total travel time would be about four hours each way.
Kyoto is very relaxing and it has the things that most Western travelers are seeking: temples, stone gardens, quaint preserved neighborhoods, etc. There are also many great ryokan, hotels and excellent restaurants. It's also compact and easy to explore, something which can't be said of Tokyo. I hope this helps!
Wailuku, Hawaii: My husband and I would like to go to Japan during the snow festival in Sapporo. We thought it best to attend the festival for 2 days (is this enough time?) and then leave Sapporo and the extremely cold weather conditions. We would like to visit Hiroshima/Miyajima, but wonder if it's too far away for this trip. Would you recommend staying more in the "northern" area (we do not like the weather if it's too cold). We have been to Japan just once before (October/November 2007) and went to Shinjuku, Ginza, Hakone and Takayama. We would plan on being in Japan for about 12-16 days. Thank you for you assistance. —Sandra
Chris Rowthorn: Hi Sandra. Thanks for the great question! I think two days will be sufficient for the Snow Festival. And, if you don't intend to ski, then I think it makes sense to head south immediately after you see the Snow Festival, since it will be cold in Hokkaido and Northern Honshu in February. There are direct flights from Sapporo to Hiroshima and they cost around $450 right now. You could also fly to Osaka, which is convenient to Kyoto, which I highly recommend, especially since you have not been here yet. Frankly, Kyoto should always be at the top of any Japan itinerary. If you see nothing else, you should make a point of seeing Kyoto. You can reach Hiroshima in about two hours by shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto. If you crave warm weather, you could also consider Kyushu or even Okinawa. I hope this helps!
Seattle, Wash.: Hi, Chris. My husband and I want to travel from Seattle to Japan at the end of March with our baby daughter. We will be able to stay for free at a friend's place in Tokyo but would also like to take day or overnight trips to other parts of the country. We would like to know what kinds of short trips you recommend with Tokyo as a base? Also, what kinds of Cherry Blossom activities/festivals will take place in Tokyo or elsewhere at that time?
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the excellent question! Good day trips from Tokyo include Nikko, Kamakura and the Fuji Five Lakes area. If you're willing to do an overnight trip, then your options expand considerably. Kyoto, which as you can tell is my favorite part of Japan, is a little over two hours from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train). It's well worth the trip, as is Nara, which is about a half an hour from Kyoto by Kintetsu express train.
As for cherry blossoms, they usually start to open at the very end of March in Tokyo. The main cherry blossom events are called hanami (flower viewing parties). In Tokyo, the best place for this is Ueno-koen Park, but you'll also find quieter and more secluded spots in the temples and gardens around the city. In Kyoto, Maruyama-koen Park is cherry blossom central, but, again, you'll find quieter spots around the city, including along the banks of the Kamo-gawa River. I hope this helps!
Novi, Mich.: Are there any vegetarian ryokans in Japan? I would love to stay at a traditional inn and I know food is a very important part of that experience, but being a vegetarian I am not sure if ryokans are able to provide vegetarian meals. Thank you.
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the interesting question! Most ryokans will be happy to prepare vegetarian meals provided you give them a few days advance notice. Also, you might consider doing a shukubo (temple stay) at one of the temples at Koya-san, which is a collection of Buddhist temples high in the mountains of Wakayama-ken Prefecture. It's about two hours south of Osaka by train. These temples specialize in traditional Buddhist vegetarian fare known as shojin ryori and the accommodations at the temples are similar to those in a good ryokan. Also, please note that Kyoto has several excellent vegetarian restaurants and we list some of them in the Lonely Planet guides to Kyoto and Japan. I hope this helps!
San Diego, Calif.: We're law school students and have a 48-hour stopover in Tokyo over Christmas Eve. What must we do that won't break the bank...or even bend it?
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the question! I understand your concern about not bending or breaking the bank! Please see my earlier reply re general costs in Japan. I want to point out that you can spend two days in Tokyo for way less than it would cost to spend two days in New York, Paris, London or Sydney, and you'll have a much better time and you won't have to stay in "challenging" accommodations. First, the cheapest way from the airport into Tokyo is the Keisei express, which costs just over $10 each way. You can find decent accommodations in several guesthouses in Tokyo for less than $50 per person, or you can get a twin room in a business hotel for less than $100 per room (you might consider booking in advance during this season). I'd go for the business hotel, and I might choose an interesting neighborhood like Shinjuku, Shibuya or somewhere near Ginza or Tokyo Station. Meals will run less than $10 per person if you eat where the salarymen eat. Buy yourselves a Tokyo Combination Ticket for about $15 and you can travel all day on the subways, JR line and buses. Tokyo is more about strolling than any particular sights, so admission fees won't eat up too much loot. I hope this helps!
Castro Valley, Calif.: Besides your own books, what is a good source of detailed (e.g. lines, names, etc.) information on the public transportation systems within Tokyo?
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the great question! Undoubtedly, the best source for transport information in Tokyo is the Tokyo Metro's site at tokyometro.jp. I hope this helps!
Brooklyn, N.Y.: I want to know about a nice "onsen" or hot springs near Tokyo, Fuokuoka and Hiroshima. Thanks!
Chris Rowthorn: Thanks for the great question! You've homed in on one of my favorite topics: onsen. I recommend that anyone who visits Japan try an onsen at least one time. There are many good onsen near Tokyo, including Takaragawa Onsen and Jinata Onsen (on Shikine-jima Island). You could also try Azabu-juban Onsen, which is in Tokyo itself. If you're going all the way to Fukuoka, it makes sense to travel just a bit further to try to famous onsens in Beppu. And, in Western Honshu, I recommend Okutsu Onsen in Okayama-ken, Sekigane Onsen in Tottori, and Tamatsukuri Onsen in Shimane-ken. You can get more onsen picks in the most recent Lonely Planet guide to Japan, which includes a special onsen section. I hope this helps!
Chris Rowthorn: I'd like to thank everyone who participated for some really great questions. For more ideas on places to visit, you might have a look at my blog at insidekyoto.com. I post pictures of the places I travel in Japan there, including a lot of pictures from my recent trip through Okinawa. I also offer consulting about Japan, trip planning, and private tours of Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo through my website at chrisrowthorn.com. I hope to hear from you! Thanks again! —Chris