A thousand Tori gates at sunrise

Sometimes you have to wake up at early to catch on location at the right time. This is especially true for the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

The location is perhaps best known for one of the iconic scenes in “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The path is lined with 1000 Tori gates. They are visually stunning in the early morning light. However, once the clock ticks past 9:30am, tourists descend upon the shrine. The path becomes crowded with tourists walking shoulder to shoulder, belly to back in what essentially becomes a tube. I was here at 5:45am, and it was completely worth it. If you’re planning on visiting Kyoto, I definitely recommend waking up early to visit the shrine.

Flying in to the Land of the Rising Sun

Having caught a red eye flight to Tokyo from Singapore, how appropriate is it that one flies into the Land of the Rising Sun at sunrise?

As an added surprise, my flight flew directly over a volcanic island about 30 minutes outside Narita airport. I’m told that this is Nishinoshima island, and it is an active volcano that appeared a few years ago.

My flight was right on schedule. It took me under 20 minutes to pick my luggage up from the conveyor belt, clear customs and immigration, and get booked onto the 8:56 Narita Express to Shinjuku. The Japanese take great pride in their efficiency and the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from their ethics.

I purchased my JR pass online. This 7-day pass gives me unlimited rides on all JR lines, and the Shinkansen (bullet trains).

A word of advice to future travellers… if you’re only planning to visit Tokyo and Kyoto, you won’t get your money’s worth and are better off paying as you ride.

Making friends in Japan

A few days ago, I was in Tokyo. It was mid-morning, when I’d visited Asakusa. I was shooting time lapse footage outside the Senso-Ji shrine. A young Japanese girl dressed in an elaborate kimono was trying to shoot a portrait of herself with her friend’s help. Even without being able to speak Japanese, it was clear that she was less than happy with the results. I called out to her, and asked her if she would like me to take a picture of her with my tripod mounted camera. I had a neutral density filter attached, and my intention was to keep her and the gate of the temple in focus while allowing everyone else to blur out. She understood, and obliged.

Once she saw the results, she was impressed and called out to her friend, who was also dressed up in a kimono, to see the results. Her friend immediately wanted one of her own. (No translations were required to convey the message). She happily posed for her shot, and was happy with the results. The two girls then insisted that I pose for a shot with both of them. They both went home with images that they were happy with!

This is a common theme that I came across in Japan, and something that I would venture to say, stems from both the low crime rate in Japan, and the homogenous nature of its society. Japan is one of the safest countries in world. This is perhaps why the locals here tend to have a low level of mistrust towards strangers, and are generally open to making new friends.

The trend followed even more strongly when I was in Kyoto. Unlike Tokyo, which is relatively cosmopolitan with a fair number of expats, and the vibe of a big, modern city, Kyoto is very traditional. My first encounter with another set of friendly locals was while I was on my first trip to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. A young couple were walking ahead of me, again, trying to take a picture together with their mobile phone with very little luck. Once again, I offered to shoot a portrait for them and transfer it across using my Sony A7R. They didn’t have a second thought about posing for the shot, and were immensely happy to have a shot for their memories that they were happy with.

Later that evening, after my tour of the forest, I was trying to make my way back to the train station, and had lost my way. It was already dark, and I hadn’t realised that I was walking in the wrong direction. I asked the first person whom I met, who happened to be a young lady, if she could tell me which way the station was. She actually walked me to the station – a good 10 minute walk (though it helped that she was catching the same train as well). She didn’t speak much English, and my Japanese is non-existent, but we managed to have a half-decent conversation using Google Translate on our phones.

The following day, I found my way to the Heian Shrine. I was taking pictures, when a group of 4 children asked me to take a picture of them with their camera, which I did. They said thank you, and then went away… only to come back 10 minutes later. They were a little shy when they asked me if they could take a picture with me, which I obliged.

Later that evening, I was at the Kiyomizu-dera temple, taking photographs, when a young Japanese gentleman began having a conversation with me, and then asked me to pose for a picture with him. It was a decent enough conversation where both of us had to work a bit to overcome the language barrier.

As I continued my tour of Kyoto, I went back to Arashiyama the following morning. While taking more photographs, I met another tourist – a young man from Germany – who wanted to get his portrait taken in the bamboo grove. I posed him in the image, and shot a few exposures. As he was standing there, a group of seven young girls in their brightly colours kimonos walked up and surrounded him. They wanted a picture with him, and then, asked us to change places so that they could get a picture with me too. The language barrier existed, but we overcame it using Google Translate, and a lot of hand gestures. At the end of it all, we all came away with a few laughs and some good memories.

This aspect of visiting Japan is not a trait that one is likely to come across in the Western world very much. I realised that as a foreigner, I’m somewhat of a novelty for locals. It was a refreshing sense of being able to briefly connect with complete strangers for long enough share an experience that left me with a sense of being both welcome, and valued as a visitor.

Visiting Japan Part 1: What you need to know

This is the first in a series of articles about travelling to Japan. I had originally planned to write up a single article, but realised very quickly that it was going to become quite large, and that it made sense to break it down into smaller chunks.

When I moved to Singapore in 2016, it put me closer to a range of Asian destinations that had been on my bucket list for ages. At the top of that list was Japan. As a child of the 80s who grew up in the UK, I’d been raised with my fair share of travellers’ tales that would make any make child want to experience Japan for themselves. In the fall of 2016, I finally made my trip there. I took a week off to visit Tokyo and Kyoto.

I was fortunate that I had some help planning this trip, both from co-workers who worked with me in Singapore, and an old friend who lives in Tokyo who was happy give me some advice to guide me.

Before I go much further on, I will say that Japan will capture your admiration. Their society has evolved over centuries of traditional values that are intertwined with a modern way of life. By the time I had finished my trip and was in the departure lounge at Haneda airport, I was already making plans of returning.

My 7-day itinerary involved three days in Tokyo, followed by three days in Kyoto before flying out of Tokyo. In hindsight, I would do a few things differently the next time I visit. These are my recommendations.

Groundwork

Before flying out, one should consider a couple of things that will help make your trip simpler.

Consider where you’re flying into when arriving in Tokyo.

Tokyo is a major destination in Asia and is served by multiple airlines from all around the world. It takes about 7 hours to fly from Singapore direct. Tokyo has two airports – Narita and Haneda. Edokkos (residents of Tokyo) will tell you that Narita is not in Tokyo. This is very true. Narita airport is a good two hours from Shinjuku Station in Central Tokyo by express train. You could hire a cab which will take you the better part of four hours to get into central Tokyo and about AU$200 in cab fare. If you’re visiting Tokyo, plan to fly into Haneda.

Now, I had flown into Narita, and I made the two-hour train ride, which is quite nice… but it’s another two hours of travel after an eight-hour flight, and essentially, two hours of your holiday that you could otherwise spend resting, or sightseeing.

Consider the need to get a Japan Rail Pass

Tourists to Japan have the option of purchasing a week, 15-day, or month-long Japan Rail pass that will provide unlimited access to all JR Train Stations during their period of validity. They also give you unlimited access to the Shinkansen Bullet Trains.

Japan has multiple rail companies who have different stations along different lines. The JR Pass will not get you into stations that are not run by JR. You can purchase the JR Rail Pass at their official website. They will deliver this to addresses in multiple countries.

Now, if you only plan to be in Tokyo and Kyoto, and plan on a round trip on the Shinkansen to Kyoto, the JR Weekly Pass does not make good value. You’re better off purchasing tickets at the stations as and when you travel. However, if you’re planning on doing more than two day trips to surrounding areas from Tokyo on the Shinkansen, the passes definitely make sense.

Internet Connectivity

Get a SIM card or a data device. If you are travelling from Singapore, you might choose to go with a portable Wifi Router from Changi through Changi Recommends. Alternatively, you could get a data SIM card from the Japan Rail Pass site.

I had opted to get a data-only SIM from b-Mobile. They offer a 5GB data-only SIM with 21-days validity for JPY3,480 (about AU$40) which you can order online and have delivered to your hotel, pick up at 7 major airports in Japan, or have delivered to your home address prior to your departure.

Visas

Japan is part of the visa waiver program, and allows tourists a 30-day stay, and then the opportunity to extend further if leaving temporarily. Eligibility varies for nationals of various countries, and is worth checking prior to travelling. In the past, I have used VisasDirect to run a check for visa waiver/visa-on-arrival eligibility.

Peak Seasons

Japan is a destination that appeals to visitors all year round, but there are two peak seasons which draw tourists more than any other time. The most popular season is in the Japanese Spring between March and April every year – the famed cherry blossom season. In reality, one can wait for decades to see the perfect cherry blossom. When the trees are in full bloom, they are susceptible to the weather, and in the event of strong winds, they may only last for a few days.

The other peak season is in the autumn, when the leaves turn red.

For both these seasons, book well in advance. Hotels tend to fill up quickly, and prices can jump by 5% every week as the season grows closer. Plan to have flights and hotels locked in three months in advance.

The Japanese summer can be very hot and humid. This is generally when tourists tend to visit other destinations. The winter season brings ski and snow sports enthusiasts to Hokkaido.

Destinations

Japan offers a range of destinations. I had originally planned on writing this as a single article, but realised that it would become too busy, cumbersome and overwhelming to read if I put everything in here together. The following are articles on destinations in Japan that I have been to:

I would also recommend watching my time-lapse short films from both Tokyo, and Kyoto.

The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.

Visiting Japan Part 2: Tokyo

Tokyo is a city that needs no introduction. As a nation, Japan is a country of contrasts and harmony; a technologically advanced nation that is built on centuries of tradition. It is one of the most densely populated nations in the world. In spite of this, it’s centuries of tradition have developed into a code of conduct that has allowed the Japanese to live in harmony among one another while competing for resources with limited space.
Continue reading “Visiting Japan Part 2: Tokyo”