As with any trip, it's always good to look back and see how much this whole shindig has been costing compared to other places I could have visited. I've actually been really surprised at how affordable Japan has been so far, breakdowns and thoughts below.
Housing: I've been spending around $25 - $40 a night on housing. Most hostels are less than $30, but in several places I've gotten single rooms in hotels for $40 - $45. I suppose at scale they are essentially pretty similar to hostels.
Food: Most of the food I've eaten is less than $20. Breakfast is usually bakery treats or an american breakfast. I'm just such a fan of big breakfasts that I've been a little disappointed with the selection here. "American breakfast" tends to be just toast and maybe an egg. I've started to move to the 2-meal lunch with a main one at 1pm and a snack/secondary at 4-5pm (pre-nap). It's usually $6-10 for a rice bowl or udon or something. Dinner I've tried to do better with, but it's still sub-$20. I can't justify the set meals alone, which are usually $40-50 and when I find friends to go out, we usually end up at conveyor sushi or something for $10-15.
Transit / Out and About: I feel like this is the biggest unknown. I find myself regularly dropping $3 on temples and gardens and subways. A lot cheaper than most of the attractions elsewhere I've been, but I think I generally spend less time at each one and go to more, so it adds up quickly. Public transit might be the most expensive thing relatively speaking, but it could be there are cheaper ways of going about it too (like day passes in Europe) that I just haven't figured out.
All told, based on my withdrawals, I've been keeping it under $100 a day in terms of costs. Averaging about $90 or so, and I haven't been going out of my way to spend a lot or a little either way. Anyways, while on vacation I think you tend to forget about money a little bit, but looking back I've kept it under my baseline which is the better side to be on
In addition to those, there's obviously the fixed costs of the rail pass and the flight which would add another $80 or so per day. But those don't really count. You just gotta get the most out of the flight by staying for as long as you can :-P
Surprisingly for everyone who told me that it was really expensive here, I've been pleasantly surprised to see that it's slightly cheaper than most of western Europe, partially due to the exchange rate and partially just because it is. Still no Prague, but at least I haven't lost it all to Pachinko gambling yet!
Well it's been a few days since posting, but I've spent the entire time, 5 days, in Kyoto including one day on a trip in Nara. It's honestly been a whirlwind of leaves, temples and shrines.
I can't say enough good things about the leaves here. Like...colors are real guys; Colors I forgot existed in the drab existence of San Francisco. Sometimes the sun hasn't cooperated. On the way home today there was a beautiful mountainside, but as the clouds were out, the colors just weren't as vibrant at they might have otherwise been. Nevertheless we got some winning photos today, one in particular I'm really excited to see how it turns out in post. There were two shrines (out of around 10-15?) that were simply stunning.
The first had a bridge and a pond that would have made Monet weep (not out of depression I should clarify). Red bridges tend to go well with red leaves it turns out. The second today was perhaps even better: I walked under one of the gates to enter, and as I looked up, I saw basically every hue of leaf I've seen so far summarized in one view. It's definitely primetime for fall colors here! I might have been a few days early, but pretty good for having no idea when to come.
A lot of the temples have been doing night time lighting, but the lines were at least half an hour, and given that I'm doing 9-5 sightseeing, I'm usually too tired to go back out again. Even with the 8 hour days, I've been having trouble keeping up with some of the day itineraries around Kyoto. Getting about 80% done, but I keep wandering into random gardens off the plan and getting behind.
I had one cleanup day after a errrm, late night, where I went to that famous shrine with the tunnels of gates you've probably seen before. And it turns out it was way bigger than expected. After running through the tunnel, I kept wandering up the mountain and it was amazing how quickly you forgot you are in a massive city. Shrines and temples line the street every 50 feet, and the tourists were nonexistent. That's perhaps one of the coolest things about the Shrines is that they are so numerous they are often quite secluded. Of course Kyoto has become a madhouse this week as people from all over Japan come to visit, but still.
Aside from that, I want to apologize in advanced for being totally incompetent at capturing photos of the fall leaves. It's really one of the most beautiful sights I've seen and it just seems like I can't get it to translate the way I want which sucks. I got a few I've been happy with, but I think I'm starting to burnout and just snapping pictures of anything that is red at this point. I've nearly gone though another memory card already and am starting to dread actually going through all these haha.
Temple fatigue is real. They are all starting to blur together, but the nice thing is that unlike Europe, you can sort of just peruse some of the smaller ones in 5 minutes and hop out. To keep it fresh, I also try and keep an eye out for other cool things. This morning I visited a monkey park, and Nara has just thousands of deer roaming the park there.
Side note: Got the hostel to go to karaoke again here. Way better than the first time. Turns out it's $20 for two hours of karaoke and open bars...so that's most definitely a thing.
Anyways, sorry for the lack of updates, but rest assured that I'm making up for them in photos! Tomorrow I'll be reconsidering my life choices at a temple, so I'll have a bonus post about the cost of traveling here. Hope everyone had a great weekend!
Leaving Kanazawa was sad. After a great hostel experience and a fun time exploring the city, it was mid-morning when I finally headed home.
The trip to Takayama wasn't terribly long at just under 2 hours, but despite that I only made it through about 40 minutes of anime. After we got out of the transfer station we headed directly into the mountains, and instead of heading into tunnels as I had on the first leg, we carved our way through one of the most incredible river valleys I've ever seen. No doubt in large part due to the fall colors in full bloom complemented by the "golden hour" trip, this was probably one of my favorite train legs I've ever been on.
An incredible several hundred km long rapids wound its way through a narrow valley with fiery, tree-covered mountains on either side. We crisscrossed the river a couple times through various small villages along the way. I really wish that my camera could do it justice, but shooting through a window and the sharp light contrasts just couldn't capture how incredible it was. It reminded me of the random drive to Arches National Park I took years back. Totally different environment, but something about traveling those valleys with rivers and high-rise beauty on either side is just unreal.
Anyways, with that introduction, Takayama was kind of a let down. It's a medium sized, "gateway to the alps" town, but lacked the truly majestic landscape I'd seen earlier. I wandered the old town, but apparently almost everything was closed on Wednesday, so it took all of 15 minutes. I took a short nature walk up a ridge and got a nice sunset view of the town, but when the sunset is at 4:30pm in a sleepy town like this, the night felt a tad wasted.
The following morning I did another long walk to several shrines and temples. On the 4 mile walk through town, I saw zero other people visiting. This may have been due to the 5 degree celsius weather coupled with the overcast rain showers. This reminded me of Stockholm, which again I'm sure is a fine city, but when the weather is that bad...blegh. I almost made it to the fold village, but the bus only left every 40 minutes and I wanted to get into Kyoto at a reasonable hour, so I simply headed to the train and grabbed some delicious Hida beef on the way out.
The ride to Kyoto was almost as nice as the previous day's. Close but no cigar! I'll be here for another few days checking out temples and so forth, so look for another less journalistic post soon :-P Happy Friday!
NOTE: Lost my charger for a bit, so got behind. But as I catch up, here's some bonus meanderings about navigating everything here!
Since I've been doing a lot of whistle stops I wanted to talk about getting around Japan a bit and how that works. It's actually pretty similar to Europe in that I have a 21-day rail pass which works on almost all JR (Japan Rail) lines. And it turns out most of the lines are JR lines. Twice I've deviated, once I was in a hurry and paid extra for a direct private train who's schedule lined up with mine, and once I had a surcharge for a line which used private tracks for a portion.
So far getting good value though. In general, I just look up the connections on a website, show up at the stations and grab a ticket. So far none of the trains have been nearly as crowded as they were in Europe (knock on wood), so no trouble getting a seat. On the main line (Tokyo - Osaka) there were huge trains every 5 minutes during rush hour, so it seems like trains are really only close to "full" during the high tides, otherwise very comfortable
In most of the stations,( including subways) there's a ridiculous bird noise that comes from some of the signs (maybe for the blind?), but the sound of fake birds is constantly present. IN addition, it seems like each train or station has a jingle it plays before the doors closing sound. Everything from traditional Japanese music to some type of ragtime. Again, no idea why, maybe just to spice your commute up a bit.
From the stations, I generally stop at the information desk in the station which always has a map and usually someone who speaks English and tells you what to see/do. In one case (Nikko) I got a sheet with the full bus schedule, and a note that just said go see stuff at stops 24, 32, and 9. The info kiosks have been a life saver and are incredibly useful especially at the half-day stopover cities.
Buses seem to be pretty frequent from the stations out to the sites, every 5-10 minutes in most cases. The cost varies, sometimes it seems cheap (200 Yen, $1.80), but sometimes it's up to 600 ($5.50) for a simple fifteen minute cross town ride. Really varies by city.
Subways are sort of the happy medium. Usually every 10 minutes and pretty cheap at $2-4 depending on distance. They are basically like BART and usually fairly large trains, so again, capacity hasn't been an issue yet. I suppose I've been throwing a fair amount of money at public transit, but that's sort of the way it goes when you travel.
The navigation has always been super easy. Almost all signs have english subtitles (or romanji for the names) so I've had almost zero issues with navigation. In addition, the subway stops are numbered (i.e. A-01 - A-20) making it really easy to figure out if you are going the right way.
The one tricky thing is maps. I know what you are thinking, Charlie, maps are easy, and they are. But for some reason, every map you get or see on the street or in a station has a different orientation. One the one hand, it's easy on the street to figure out which way you are facing, but since north is never up, it's really hard to make a mental map in your mind of a city. That means I end up navigating sort of by waypoints instead of cardinal directions, and I often have no idea which way to go. A little slower, but I see the benefit and it probably means more street maps which is useful.
All in all it's WAY easier than I thought it might be to navigate around. The automated works-almost-everywhere card means I just throw money on it and don't have to worry about tickets, and the rail pass is similar (A lot of 2 hour train rides that would otherwise be $40 - $80). In addition, the frequent service of basically everything coupled with the low competition for seats means that I can be pretty flexible and don't have to plan that far ahead.
Definitely one of the easiest countries to navigate so far.
Kanazawa was sort of off the beaten path (Tokyo - Osaka corridor), but proved to be one of the more fun stops. Hostel was one of, if not the best hostels I've stayed in. Just a really fun experience that sort of made the trip. Also went on a great walking tour which was really informative (and I found out had only started the previous week). Just two of us from the hostel on it but still fun. Closed off the night with a tour of the main gardens and the best sushi and sake so far!
One thing that set this hostel apart was that it only slept around 12. So as each person came in, the owner would give a personal tour of the place and introduce you to each guest, and since people literally had to walk through the entire house to get out, it was easy to catch people and set up dinner plans with a group.
I really love hostels that have simple night events too, bar crawls or just general meet ups, because it gives a target for everyone to hit. We did paper origami one night which I obviously struggled at and hated, but ultimately it's just a good way to hang out with the few other people in the small town. I spent the day touring with another American who was staying there which was also fun.
At sushi, someone asked me what my least favorite place I'd visited so far was and honestly couldn't come up with an answer. I always sort of think of Venice, but it's not that it was a bad city, but maybe it just wasn't the right city for the timing and tone of that trip. Overall though, I really couldn't come up with a good answer. So far anywhere new has always been fun!
I've been pretty happy with the mix of places so far. Big, medium and small all have advantages, but the ultra-small is always such a tight community. Plus it's almost entirely solo travelers since it's impossible to book multiple people when there's only space for a handful of beds.
Off to another whistle stop in Takayama and then finally several days in Kyoto. The weather finally shifted towards sunny which I hear is rare, so I'll try and redouble my efforts to capture the gorgeous fall colors starting to appear now!