TRAVELLING JAPAN WITH LIZ WIBLE
Liz Wible is on a round the world adventure. She downsized from her studio flat into a suitcase and took off to discover new places and new cultures with her partner, Conrad. One of her most recent (and most favourite) destinations has been Japan, a country they spent six weeks exploring earlier this year.
So why did Japan make it on to the list? “I’d been intrigued by Japanese culture for quite some time,” says Liz, “They are dedicated to their crafts – from ceramics to coffee the details are intricate and mindful which I really appreciate. I also love Japanese food and had wanted to try the real deal for years. And then the country’s amazing architecture, temples and shrines had long been on my bucket list as well – there were just too many reasons to count.”
Arriving just before New Year’s Eve – which was surprisingly quiet and reflective in comparison to celebrations back home in the US – the couple embarked on an exciting itinerary. One that included walking through bamboo forests, attending a ramen noodle cooking class, exploring the Kuromon Ichiba Fish Market, and eating homemade tofu on a family vegetable farm in the Kyoto mountains.
Here Liz explains how they planned the Japanese leg of their journey. And shares some tips for getting the most out of this ancient but modern, complex but beguiling island nation.
Planning the Itinerary
Since we’re traveling for such a long time, we like to base ourselves out of one city for a longer duration and take day trips to surrounding areas. This means we don’t have to constantly pack up and move our luggage. We chose to spend six weeks in Japan in five different areas: Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Kurokawa, and Osaka.”
“Our plane landed in Tokyo and we departed from Osaka so that made those two choices quick and easy. We’ve long been drawn to historic Kyoto so that had to go on the list. We also knew we wanted to experience a traditional ryokan (a Japanese inn) and onsen (a Japanese hot spring). So we used Fukuoka as a gateway to beautiful Kurokawa - a tiny, mountainous town renowned for its hot springs.”
Finding Things to Do in a New Destination
We always wing it on our first day in a city. It’s an exciting way to get a feel for our new neighborhood and the local culture. But prior to visiting a new place, I always search “alternative guide to _____” on the web. I also browse the geotag function on Instagram. Conrad and I share a Google Doc where we then compile all of our finds into different categories: Coffee, Food, Attractions and Shops. We then colour code each place according to the neighbourhood it resides in.”
“This might seem a bit extensive. But planning in this way has saved so much time. We don’t have to return to the same area twice because we’ve missed something we really wanted to see. And we’ve found the best furniture stores in Osaka. And the best Tokyo coffee shops. And made it to occasional events like Kyoto’s monthly flea market.”
Travelling on a Budget
“We definitely travelled Japan on a budget. But we found ways to make our money go further. Every morning we ate a simple bowl of oatmeal with banana. More often than not we cooked our own dinner. Wherever we are, we always fly budget. We choose to walk a mile with our luggage rather than pay for a taxi. And we share every treat we buy.”
Overcoming the Language Barrier
“Japan has been the most difficult country I’ve experienced in terms of communication. I don’t speak Japanese, very little English is spoken and most writing is in the form of characters. I always learn a few key phrases when visiting a new country. But I have to say the Google Translate app came in handy several times.”
The language barrier made the experience more exciting in some ways. And we were always warmly welcomed – the locals don’t let it stop them from communicating. We had chefs bring whole ingredients to our table in order to explain a dish and others pull out a translate app themselves so they could ask us questions.”
Getting to the Heart of Japanese Culture
“Want to get to the heart of Japanese culture? Eat. Everything. So much effort and precision is put into the food in Japan. And it shows. Some of my favorites were cold soba, teishoku (a traditional Japanese set lunch comprised of small dishes) and taiyaki (a fish-shaped pancake filled with sweet red bean paste).”
“But this is the kind of place where even the most mundane experiences are impactful. The first time I saw a geisha was just that kind of moment. I was eating udon with new friends next to Kyoto’s famous Pontocho Alley when one of us spotted her getting out of a taxi. We quickly paid the bill, ran out of the restaurant and stood in the lantern-lit alley while about 15 or so geishas walked by us over the course of an hour. Each one absolutely took my breath away.”
A Few Practical Tips
- "If you are visiting multiple cities in a short amount of time, the Japan Rail (JR) pass should save you some money."
- "Carry extra yen on you because most places only accept cash. Luckily you can find a 7-Eleven or a Lawson store on just about every corner and they usually have an international ATM inside."
- "A slight head bow followed by “arigatou gozaimasu” after an interaction will take you far."
Liz is now on the 13th country of her journey – Australia – and has her sights set on New Zealand for early April. But what has she taken with her from Japan? “Japan is a country and culture that embraces tradition but pushes towards the future,” she says, “Respect, mindfulness, and slow living feel like key principles of life there. Japan had a deep impact on me and it’s a place I remain completely enamoured with.”