Japan: Bullet trains and blossom

Japan offers a mix of hyperactivity and sheer relaxation – and spring is the most colourful time to visit. Andrew Littlejohn highlights the options
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The Independent Travel

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Although the star of Japan's economic power has been eclipsed by China, the country which brought the world geisha, robot dogs and sushi still remains one of the most fascinating destinations for the discerning globetrotter. Japan offers a wide range of options for limited budgets, and thanks to British Airways launching non-stop flights to Tokyo's Haneda airport earlier this week, the country is getting more accessible.

They say

"The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness." Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar, 1975.

"Japanese people are very positive about enjoying life; in particular, they are passionate about food. They often eat out three or four times a week, so there is an abundance of different types of restaurant." Richard Hills, proprietor, Tokyo Diner, London.

Spring into action

Just as New England celebrates Fall, so Japan makes the most of spring – when the archipelago turns pink with sakura (cherry blossom). This is a deeply rooted phenomenon for the Japanese, because it signals the end of an often-harsh winter and the arrival of warmth and light. The key variable is the sakura zensen, or cherry-blossom front, whose northward progress is tracked by TV stations across the nation.

Japan Journeys (020-7766 5267; www.japanjourneys.co.uk) has a holiday to make the most of it, taking in the former capitals of Kyoto and Nara, the city of Hiroshima (destroyed in 1945 by the world's first atomic bomb attack) and a stay in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The 12-day trip, departing 29 March, costs £2,495 including hotel accommodation and some meals. The price may look high, but bear in mind that this is peak season for domestic tourism, leading to high prices and full hotels.

BA Holidays currently offers a week in springtime Tokyo from £1,417.50 including flights. Good deals are also available from the Japan Travel Centre (020-7611 0150; www.japantravel. co.uk). Fares for connecting flights – changing planes anywhere from Helsinki to Dubai – are generally significantly cheaper than non-stops, and also offer a wider range of destination options in Japan.

Avoid "Golden Week", a cluster of national holidays all falling in the first week of May, and the O-Bon festival in mid-August. As the general practice is to travel during the former and visit family during the latter, the country grinds to a halt, with roads gridlocked and air fares skyrocketing.


For those looking for an alternative to Val d'Isère, the combination of high-quality snow, world-class resorts and hot springs for soothing tired muscles makes Japan's slopes ideal. Britain's biggest ski company, Crystal (0871 971 0579; crystalski.co.uk), will take you to resorts on the northern island of Hokkaido. Another possible destination is Nagano, venue for the Winter Olympics in 1998.

On the rails

If you plan to travel widely by train, the Japan Rail Pass is the only sensible option. Prices range from Y28,300 (£210) for a week to Y57,700 (£426) for three weeks, allowing travel on most Japan Rail services, including most of the Shinkansen "Bullet" trains and also some buses. Given that a single trip from Tokyo to Kyoto can cost as much as Y13,000 (£96), the Rail Pass represents great value for money. See www.japanrailpass.net.

Less well known is the "Seishun Juhachi Kippu", or "Youthful 18 Ticket", available three times a year during school holidays, which gives five days of unlimited travel nationwide on Japan Rail's local and express trains for Y11,500 (£85). Despite the name, the pass is available to travellers of all ages. Tickets for the 1 March to 10 April period are on sale from now to 31 March and can be purchased from Japan Rail stations and major travel agencies across Japan.

Manners maketh man

Get familiar with a few essential rules. Always take your shoes off before entering a Japanese home or ryokan (traditional inn). Bathing is communal, so remember to shower thoroughly before stepping into the tub.

For those looking to explore Japanese etiquette a little more, try De Mente's Etiquette Guide to Japan. For an example of its labyrinthine complexity, try taking part in a tea ceremony. A proper Japanese tea ceremony takes several hours, but for a quick "taster", take the Tokyo Metro to Shiodome station and aim for the tea house inside the beautiful Hama Rikyu Garden. A modest Y500 (£4) buys an exquisite cup of tea and a cake, which are served in serene surroundings.

Love hotels?

While the cost of some hotels and traditional inns in Japan would cause a banker in bonus season to break a sweat, there is also a wealth of options for the budget traveller. Japan has a well-developed circuit of hostels. Hostelworld ( www.hostelworld.com), Rakuten Travel ( www.travel.rakuten. co.jp/en) and Japan Youth Hostels Inc. ( www.jyh.or.jp/english/index.html) will get you started, with rooms available from as little as Y2,500 (£19) per night. Quality in rural areas can be variable.

Most cities also boast low-cost "business hotels", aimed at travelling "salarymen". Booking online, you should be able to find prices as low as Y4,000 (£30) including a (basic) breakfast.

The more traditionally minded should try minshuku, which are similar to a B&B and where a night's accommodation starts at Y5,000 (£37) ( www.minshuku.jp/english/etop.html). An even cheaper option available for male travellers is the notorious "capsule hotel", where Y3000 (£22) will get you a locker and a suppository-shaped hole in the wall just big enough to sit up in.

Finally, if you end up roofless, consider holing up at a "love hotel", where you can get a bed from Y6,000 (£44), even if it is revolving and covered in leopard print.

The raw and the cooked

In urban areas you will find inexpensive chains offering budget versions of regional specialities (such as beef tongue in Sapporo), as well as curry, ramen and gyu-don (marinated beef on rice) from as little as £2; note that a single beer can cost more than the meal itself. Local favourites such as yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) and takoyaki (octopus in batter) can be had cheaply from street stalls and the tiny restaurants that cram city centres.

Conveyor-belt sushi shops – kaiten zushi – are the least expensive option, with some offering two pieces of nigiri from as little as Y100 (75p).

For those who find Japanese food difficult to stomach, relief can be found in nationwide Italian chains such as Saizeria (www.saizeriya.co.jp), which serve generic pizza and pasta dishes. Department store food halls also offer a wealth of high-quality prepared meals at reasonable prices.

What Google will tell you

If you are planning to stay for some time, consider renting a room in a guest house where "tenants share some facilities, such as bathroom, kitchen, living room, and so on", advises www.gojapan.about.com. Rooms are available from around Y40,000 (£296) a month. In a country where living costs can be high, this can be a great way for long-term visitors to save money.

What Google won't tell you... until now

Do you have a tattoo? Keep it concealed, and avoid locations – from onsen communal baths to swimming pools – where it would be exposed. Tattoos are a mark of the Yakuza underworld; most ordinaryJapanese people would never consider using their skin as a canvas.