Thursday, September 30, 2010

Exploring Japan

Japan has a lot to offer if you are here for a longer duration. Castles,Waterfalls, ski resorts, hot water springs, natural wonders, beaches, islands, Shrines, Temples, historical places, Nature parks, Amusement parks, name it and you have it all. It is justified to say that Japan is definitely a traveller's delight.  

The most popular way to explore Japan is to take a train. Trains are convenient and there is connectivity and most travel maps or guides indicate the nearest station and the access from the nearest station. Not to mention, Shinkansen is a good choice if you are short of time and don’t mind the cost. Unfortunately for us, Iwaki is not on the Shinkansen route so we don’t have this option most of the time. If you are taking the train from Iwaki station, you can park your car at the station parking lot and then get an endorsement at the station counter that you are traveling out of Iwaki by train and this means you can park the car for free till you return to Iwaki. Very convenient as you do not need to rely on taxi or buses if you have an early morning train to catch or are likely to arrive in Iwaki late in the night .   

Road travel by bus or car can be time consuming considering the traffic and the narrow roads in Japan. Buses connect Iwaki to major cities and there are buses for Tokyo and Fukushima  or Koriyama leaving from many parts of the city every day. Most buses however originate from or pass through  Iwaki station in central Taira. There are direct buses from Iwaki to Universal studios in Osaka, Kyoto and offcourse Disney resort in Tokyo. We still haven’t traveled by bus to places outside Iwaki but as I am told buses do take a lot more time than the train . As such locals recommend taking the trains to save on time.

We mostly travel by car. Offcourse to visit places that are far off from Iwaki like Hiroshima or Hokkaido, we will have to take the train or the shinkansen but as of now we haven’t ventured that far.

If you happen to drive to most places , then a navigation system is a must. Unfortunately for foreigners like us, good English navi is rare. Our friend had one but I am told it was not good enough . We have an Alpine Navi wherein the voice guidance and display is in English , but the input is in Hiragana-Katakana. We find our way mostly by looking up for the pincode or telephone number of the destination or some place close to it and input it. Since the display and voice guidance is in English we know that we will be guided to the correct destination.

If you are planning to drive around in Japan, it is best to purchase an ETC card. This is for the road toll on the expressways. There is a separate lane for ETC card holders at the toll gates. Currently ETC cardholders enjoy the benefit of a subsidized flat toll rate of 1000 Yen on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays regardless of the distance traveled. This is definitely a big boon for people like us, who love to travel every single weekend. I have heard that this subsidy is given for encouraging more and more people to travel during holidays and weekends and boosting the tourism industry which was badly hit during the country’s recent recession. Our local friends say that this subsidy is for a limited period and is likely to be discontinued though the likely date is still not known. The toll rates on the expressways is quite high and as mentioned in one of my previous blogs, a one way drive from Iwaki to Narita airport costs about 6000 Yen on a regular working day.

As we travel around Japan, I will try and put up some information of places that we visit along with the address and phone number or postal code

Parking is highly expensive and in some places the rates start at 100 yen for 15 minutes. Offcourse in major tourist and commercial locations, finding a vacant spot close to your destination could be a difficult and time consuming task too. In some cases they have flat rate for a certain hours and we have usually encountered a rate of 1000 Yen for 3 -4 hours between specific time slots during the day. In tourist spots the rates on weekend are higher and though the rates displayed in bold may not appear too high, be sure to check for the fine print which has a disclaimer that the rates differ during the weekend. Usually this is written in a combination of Hiragana-Katakana and Kanji and foreigners have a hard time seeking help from locals in trying to decipher this. Our first experience came in July when we visited Tokyo and we stayed in a hotel in the Asakusa area. We asked locals for help and 3 or 4 people helped us by even calculating the amount that we would have to pay for 24 hours parking. They said we would have to pay about 2800 Yen for the entire 24 hour period. Though not cheap compared to other countries, it still seemed like a good deal. We parked our car and went around Tokyo and stayed the night in the hotel. The next day when we went to our car to leave for Iwaki, we had a shock. The amount we had to pay was Yen 7500. We took a picture of the parking charges board , paid the charges due and came home. Next day my husband happened to show the picture to his colleagues and they too calculated it at 2800 Yen. Then my husband asked them to read the fine print and they realized that a different rate was applicable on weekends and the weekend calculation came up to Yen 7500. It was an eye opener for us and now whenever we plan a long distance trip we also lookup for a parking lot with reasonable rates and if possible select a hotel that has a parking lot attached. Usually hotel parking lots are not as expensive as compared to other parking lots.

Accomodation :

Hotel rooms can be expensive in popular places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido etc. There are certain business hotel chains like Toyoko Inn or Route Inn which have various room options. There are western style and Japanese style rooms. Japanese style rooms typically do not have beds but they have futons ( which are mattresses spread on the floor) and have tatami mat flooring. The prices are usually within a certain range of Yen 8500 to Yen 17000 for a twin or double non smoking room. This usually includes a breakfast. In some cities, parking is also free if you are a guest at the hotel. In bigger cities offcourse they have limited parking lots and this too comes at an extra cost. More or less there are paid parking spots near these hotels so it should not be a problem, except that you could end up paying quite a bit for parking . Also in most cases the Route Inn and Toyoko Inn hotels are located quite close to the railway stations and in some cases both these hotels are also in close proximity to each other. Most of them do not have a regular restaurant and you need to find other options for lunch and dinner. If you prefer a non smoking room, you need to indicate at the time of reservation. Getting a changeover later is next to impossible.

Japan has a unique kind of accommodation called Ryokans. They are Japanese style inns and quite often they are family run guest houses. They could at times be more expensive compared to a standard hotel room. This is usually because they are located near onsens and away from the hustle bustle of the cities.  Moreover traditional breakfast and dinner is provided to the guests. Sleeping is usually on the futons spread on the tatami mat flooring . They also usually provide separate inhouse footwear and yukata for use during the stay. In some cases the bathing and toilet facilities are common for all guests. Offcourse the baths are gender segregated. It would be best advised to check beforehand when making a booking rather than discovering it when you check in. A one night stay at a ryokan usually costs between 15000-30000 yen per person.

Whatever the choice of transport and whatever the choice of accomodation, travelling in Japan is the best way to explore this wonderful country. Enjoy the customs and traditions and you will feel at home. Like James Michener puts it -
 "If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home."

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