Preparations

Preparations… normally I don’t like to prepare too much before a trip because you know there are always things which will occur spontaneously, however, in Japan, you have a language barrier, it’s not like going to Germany without knowing German, you can always make assumptions with the languages you know, at least there is the common Latin Alphabet, something familiar:) Japanese alphabet not only separates into three major groups (Hiragana, katakana, and kanji) it can also take years to be able to read most basic things. We both knew French, English, and Turkish of course. Erhan has a sense in Spanish, and a bit in Dutch. He told me he once took a course of Japanese but that was too little.

Erhan’s note: I knew the basics such as the Hiragana alphabet, some conversational templates (e.g. hello, what is this, where is it, and where are you from). I could answer basic questions as well such as ‘We are Turkish, we come from Istanbul.’ I also knew basic words like numbers, school, work etc.

So we had to prepare our whole trip beforehand, I mean really beforehand.

Why summer? First of all, we were really excited for the trip. I quit my job on May 1st and we didn’t want to wait until September to start the journey. Secondly, we knew that we wished to see the Festivals in Japan and the biggest Matsuri (festivals) like Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri or Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, all are happening in summer. We knew and I read it many times that summer is very hot and humid in Japan, but we come from Istanbul which is also very hot and humid all summer, so we thought that it’s manageable for us. 

Erhan’s note: We were wrong.

In the middle of our preparations an election in Turkey had been announced, so being dutiful citizens, voting first, travel later was the plan. 

So what we did for planning if we summarized it, is as follows:

  • took the dates of Matsuris we wished to attend, these were our main points for the dates.
  • we read the known Japanese guideline books, some of the blogs I found about Japan.
  • I searched many blogs, watched many videos to find out where we should go, and draft a little book with notes separated for every city
  • then I marked all the places we wish and may visit throughout all Japan in Google Maps, believe me it looks insane (yeah I know 😅) because it was a huge list, but it was really helpful during the trip
google maps

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  • then we made a list (a normal one;) ) for the cities/towns etc. we wish to visit
  • we drew a map of Japan on our blackboard in the house. This visual map helped us see the distance between the places and to draw an actual route
  • we planned 3 different versions at first
  • then started to create a timeline: where to go and when?

– made very heated arguments about what to do? More nature? Temple emphasis? Or more cities?? How many days, and where

Erhan’s note: this went on until the last days before we left. I pressed for some specific nature locations, temples, and trekking areas. Mine pressed on spending more time in cities as she wanted more time to photograph there. Also, our priority in early weeks were the matsuris, so we had to sync for that. We spent long hours researching each and every city in detail to see if they were worth a visit. Should we go to Okinawa? What about Sapporo? What about a tiny island there or a mountain village here… So on and so forth.

  • decided on a a basic route out of three, we started to make bookings (in next posts, I’ll tell about them more)
  • we calculated the type of the JR (train) Rail Pass (the temporary one) we need and bought a 21 days ticket (the most days available to buy) and a 7 days ticket for each, while we were in Turkey (because it was not possible to buy it in Japan, they were talking to change it because of Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but I don’t know if it would be temporary or not, the best is to buy it beforehand in your country) (ps. JR Rail Pass is a ticket only available for tourists which allows access to trains much cheaper than their actual price. It’s very expensive for Japanese normally)
  • no visa is required for Japan up to 3 months for Turkish citizens, but don’t forget to check the situation for your country
  • and finally buying some stuff : some filters for the camera, special boots for nature walks, some summer outfits especially for nature walks again etc.

Bookings

Hotels, hostels

For small or chain hotels there is always Booking.com. For example APA hotels are well known throughout Japan and situated in almost every city and these are easily booked by the online booking sites. 

The biggest advice I can give after the whole trip, is to be careful of the square meters of the room, especially if you are not traveling alone and are a tall person like Erhan 🙂 We never checked it in Europe, but in Japan some rooms are so tiny, it was really hard to move around. We faced this fact in our first hotel in Tokyo and started to be careful about it.

Not our first hotel but certainly one of the best we stayed in with Godzilla watching over the lobby.

Erhan’s note: We spent hours arguing if the bed advertised would be big or tall enough for the both of us, or if we could fit in the room given we were traveling with enough luggage to support our entire excursion. It turns out some beds in Japan are only barely enough for two relatively slender people.

Japanese hotel rooms are full of equipment, even the tiny ones, everything you need is either in the room or in the lobby of the hotel (where you can pick your needs yourself and go to your room). In most of the hotels, you can choose your pillow type (In Europe this service is only in the expensive hotels but not in Japan!)

Erhan’s notes: It was also a different experience to pick which pillow to sleep with. It turns out some pillows had plastic beads in them to provide better support and some had soba (buckwheat) husks. Regardless they all helped me stop snoring (which is also beneficial for the hotel I suppose)

For hostels, Booking.com (or similar ones) is again the site you should go for. For capsule hotels, again same thing.

Ryokan

There is another concept in Japan called “Ryokan”. A Ryokan (旅館) is a type of traditional Japanese inn that has traditionally furnished and arranged rooms often with tatami mats, 99% communal baths, and other public areas like onsens, gardens etc.  There are some ryokans in Booking.com but not all of them are there. For more rural areas, we used the site https://www.ryokan.or.jp/english/ . We emailed many of them with our dates and book through this site. Beware that ryokans have limited rooms so these are mostly booked very early (especially during the Japanese vacations like Golden week etc.) Ryokans were really expensive in our experience so we had to hand-pick them and stayed there only where we should. Another property of the Ryokans were that a fixed dinner and breakfast are served to your room, or you need to leave your room so your bed/table can be set up, so you had to abide more or less by the rules of the ryokan. For us in all cases it meant that you slept on the floor. (I’ll give more details in the future posts about this)

The onsen towns and onsen hotels

The onsens are very important in Japan ( for more information, Japan guide). Mostly, there is an onsen or hot bath in every hotel. To be considered an onsen it should comply with some rules, therefore some of them are called hot baths instead of onsen.

Erhan’s note: Some hot baths were artificially minerally enriched.

Some towns were based on hot springs entirely with several ryokans or hotels in an area with their own onsens as well as more public onsens that are accessible and equally enjoyable.

Erhan’s note: We spent a good deal of time deciding which specific onsens to visit. A major hurdle was the rule of “being naked” in the onsen. I knew we could overcome that when the time came, but initially the idea made us relatively uncomfortable to the point where we looked for onsens where people can bathe with swimming suits or trunks. There were some, but we opted for the more “authentic” experience.

The concrete jungle view of our first hotel ever. It was comfortable enough but really cramped.

Airbnb and rental homes

In June 2018, Japan introduced new home-sharing regulations that affected Airbnb listings in all the country. So we have been affected by this change because there weren’t many listings and it wasn’t easy to understand what it is ok legally and what’s not. We had 2 airbnb experiences: one in Kyoto, one in Osaka, both very different from each other. Nowadays, I learned that Airbnb removed non-compliant listings, so I think that if a property in Japan has a listing on Airbnb, it’s legit. But again check yourself with the owner, and see if they have a license to rent.

Erhan’s note : How to stay in cities was a major point of our planning. Since it was planned to be a long trip staying in a hotel for 2 months would be expensive. The status of Airbnb was shaky at best in Japan. What about expat long stay options? Should we rent a house as a base of operations and make excursions from there? Provided how inexperienced we were and how alien Japan was with respect to what we were used to deal with, we ended up meticulously planning a string of continuous hotel stays, ryokan reservations and a few Airbnb locations. What bothered me was that I thought the  plan was doomed to fail provided the length of the trip, and we ended up researching alternative locations in case a hotel or Airbnb failed us. 

Spoiler: our plan stayed true almost to the end with only a few revisits thanks to Japanese having mastered local travel, hospitality, and cargo services. We had some trouble with Airbnb that cost us considerable time and money but we kind of saw that coming. It is entirely understandable why Japanese officials are not very keen on Airbnb given how many people are taking advantage of the online service and providing a false sense of cheap accommodation while it drives down the quality of the visit as well as the neighborhood which is often not very touristic with an influx of foreign tourists. (not all tourists are equal, regardless most end up being noisier than the average Japanese resident.

Who we are

Hi Everyone,

We are Mine and Erhan, a couple who spent 2 months in Japan from July to September 2018. We wished to tell our story sooner but life happened and we had to postpone it. Still, today we are writing this blog  since late is better than never, and there are still good memories and stories to pull from our adventure.

This blog is all about our experience in JAPAN.

I like to start telling our journey by introducing myself and my husband Erhan. If you don’t care about it, please go to the next post (bookings) or jump right into our adventure (Day 1, Tokyo) because the story might take a bit long.

First of all, even though it is a couple’s journey, I (Mine) will tell the story and Erhan will make some extra notes for you.

Erhan’s note: Mine’s name means mountaintop in Japanese. My name means nothing whatsoever and is quite difficult to japanify.

I (Mine) studied Chemistry in University, I even earned a Masters degree in Science. After graduation, I realized that I wasn’t into laboratory stuff so I found a job in the patent industry, became a Turkish patent agent and passed the exams for being a European Patent Attorney except the last one. I worked for 11 years as a patent attorney. I was happy about it except all the exam fuss but was it my dream job? I was always interested in photography, I started to make money and got a DSLR but didn’t make time to learn it too much until 2013. I was traveling for business and for leisure so I started to take photos more and more and it became a passion to me. Around 2017 I realized what was my dream job: being a photographer!

Japan was always a country that I wanted to explore, especially in terms of photography and I came to realize working full time, this wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to go there for a week or two only to leave with a brief experience much like the package deals tourists get. Together with some other factors this strengthened my resolve. So, I decided to quit my job and pursue my dreams.

Erhan studied Computer Science in the USA, then went to the Netherlands for Masters but ended up starting his own company with his brother there: Gray Lake Studios (http://graylakestudios.com/). He is an indie game developer and they have an app for TTRPG’s http://prodnd.blogspot.com/. We were lucky since he is able to work remotely. He is an amateur photographer too. You can say that he was always enthusiastic about Japan by looking at his collection of Manga and his Youtube history of Begin Japanology of Peter Barakan ( btw, if you haven’t watched them, I highly recommend it, it is informative and really really relaxing!).

We were high school friends who spent many years without each other after graduation but always kept in touch. We got married after dating for 6 months at the age 35 🙂 It’s a long story which may become a post in future.

Japan was a dream to both of us, so after quitting my job, we started to make our big plan.

All the photos in this blog are taken either by me or by Erhan. Erhan’s speciality is architectural photos, while I’m into street photography. We both used during the trip Fuji X-H1 as the camera, and as phones me an Iphone 8plus and Erhan a Samsung 8.

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