3 Myths About Japan Travel

Before my friend and I set off on our journey, many people told us to prepare for some difficulties. Every country has its good and bad points, so we were prepared to face the challenges. Turns out, all the warnings were false alarms. Allow me to explain.

Myth #1: No one speaks English in Japan

We were warned about the lack of English speakers in Japan, even in the hotels. We doubted this, seeing as most hotels require all front desk staff to speak two languages, one of which is usually English. Turned out that everyone at all of our hotels not only spoke English but were fluent. We also encountered help from kind strangers in Tokyo and Kyoto who all spoke English very well.

One woman in Tokyo station gave us a hand when we were looking confused, a pharmacy cashier also started conversation in English which proved quite helpful. In Kyoto we had dinner in a little restaurant called Tenkadori and were greeted by a lovely waiter who used English with us and was very helpful. Soon after we arrived, a regular customer came in for dinner and started up an English conversation too. We ended up meeting another staff member who had stopped by on his day off and the four us got on so well that we ended up going for drinks and dessert after dinner together. So, contrary to what you may hear, English is plentiful in Japan and the kindness of Japanese strangers was boundless. Of course, it is helpful to get a phrasebook and learn some Japanese words and phrases. I’m only clarifying what I thought to be an untrue assessment of Japan and their English abilities.

Myth #2: Hardly any shops will accept your Visa card (or other international major credit cards)

Many travelers warned us about the lack of international credit cards being accepted in most of Japan. Travel websites also warned of the issue, saying that even if there was a logo posted that said they took Visa or other credit cards, they often didn’t. Not because they didn’t want to, but because there was some sort of processing complication when it came to running international cards through their machines. This may be true in more rural areas of Japan, but I think that could be said for rural areas around the world, not only Japan. It is possible that those travel websites haven’t updated their travel facts for a while or that the processing issue was recently resolved but either way, credit cards were not a problem.

In almost all the tourist shops and shopping markets, they accepted our cards without issue. As long as your card has a four digit pin number attached to it, you should be fine. Even the Japan Rail customer counter took our cards so we were able to pay for our train ride to Kyoto without using our spending money.

Myth#3 Japan is really expensive

Not true. We found three different hotels during peak travel time between $90-$115. One hotel was 15 minutes walking distance from Tokyo station, one was 20 minutes walking distance from Kyoto station and the other was in Narita, near the airport.

Meals were between $10-15 if you took the time to walk around and evaluate the different deals. One hidden jewel of Japan is that the convenience stores like Lawsons and Family Mart are crazy stocked with awesome food you can eat on the run. They had a huge variety of triangle shaped rice snacks wrapped in seaweed (in Japanese they’re called “onigiri” and in Korean they’re called “samgak kimbap”) for around $1.50, sushi in little bento boxes with tofu and tempura for around $4, udon noodles, hot or cold for around $3, as well as a large selection of breads between $1-$2.  We ended up grabbing lunch on the go at Family Mart every day, then having something nice for dinner.

The other point of expense that is often complained about it transportation fees and I can see why people say this, but I have to disagree. It’s true that taxi fares start around $4-6 dollars, but if you consider the fact that you’re usually splitting the fee with a travel buddy, the fee is reduced by half.

Aside from taxis, the rest of transportation seemed reasonable. It’s true that the Japan Rail Pass can be pricey if you think of the cost you’re paying all up front, but when you break it down it’s actually a good deal. I won’t get into it as it could be a post of its own, but basically, if you’re staying in Tokyo for a minimum of three days and plan to do at least one round-trip bullet train ride to another city (like Kyoto as we did), then you are saving quite a bit of money in comparison to paying face value for each ride.

For more information, go here:  JR Pass Info

When we left Tokyo and headed for Kyoto, we were worried about getting around and how much it would cost. Turns out that for two days of travel around mostly southern Kyoto, including our one day city bus pass for approx. $5 each, we ended up spending less than $10 each in getting around by bus and subway. Not bad at all.

For those of you expats who may be overseas already and are planning trips to neighboring Asian countries, give Japan a second thought. From an updated, budget-minded traveler who just got back, I feel these myths were worth debunking. If you have further questions or concerns, feel free to leave a comment or connect with me on facebook. Contact info can be found in the “about me” tab above. Until next time, safe travels to all!

And Then This Happened…

You can dress us up, but you can’t take us out. Aside from the historical wonder and unfathomable beauty that is Japan, we managed to squeeze in some hijinks.

I’ll let the pictures tell the tale. Credit is due to my partner in mischief, Jennifer.

Enjoy :)

It started in Tokyo…






















And continued into the night…

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The next day we headed to Kyoto. We were civilized for the most part.

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Then night fell and we got a little kooky…

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The next day it was farewell to Kyoto. So tired…

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At Narita airport, we finally got to see a robot. Made the whole trip. The sign said “don’t touch,” so of course we had to test the boundaries.

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Such fun! Who says being a grown up has to be all class? In the words of G-Dragon and Shinee, why so serious? ;p

Adventure Kyoto! Its Kiyomizu Temple Time

Yet another beauty of Kyoto was the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, ranked #3  out of over 50 things to see in Kyoto by Japan-guide.com. Trip Advisor.com also ranked it at #3 of over 300 things to see and do in Kyoto.


One of the drinking stations, supplied by the Otowa Waterfall.

One of the drinking stations, supplied by the Otowa Waterfall.






Kiyomizu-dera Temple was declared a world heritage site of ancient Kyoto by UNESCO in 1994. Kiyomizu-dera means “pure water” and is named after the Otowa waterfall it was built near. The waterfall is at the base of the main hall of the temple and splits into three different streams. At various stations around the temple, there are cups on strings where each streams water can be consumed by visitors. Each stream is said to bring different boosts to the drinkers, such as long life, good fortune in love or in academics.

The main entrance to the temple.

The main entrance to the temple.

The temple’s first installment happened in 778 when the monk Enchin enshrined an image of the godess Kannon, the god of mercy, on a mountain overlooking the Otowas-no Taki Falls. Twenty years later, Japanese general Sakanoue no Tamuramaro built a Buddha hall in the same area. The Kiyomizu-dera Temple soon became officially visited by the Emperor Kanmu and gained a reputation for its beauty and royal patronage. During many years of war, the temple was repeatedly burned down and rebuilt again. Over hundreds of years, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple has expanded and now includes many different halls and gates that surround the innermost temple.

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The temple is currently one of the most popular temples in all of Japan. This is mostly because of its wooden stage that sticks out from the main hall, perched 13 meters (or 42 feet) above the hillside. Entrance to the temple grounds has no cost, but for 300 yen (approx. $3) you can walk the wooden bridge along the forest of trees and make your way to the viewing area on the stage. From there, visitors can take pictures of the garden below and see a beautiful view of Kyoto from afar. (We didn’t take the trail due to time constraints but it was extremely popular with most tourists.)

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Another point of interest about this temple is the path you take coming down from the temple mountain. There are many unique shops set up along the way down, including hand-crafted pottery, sweets, teas and traditional Japanese fans. The size of the temple grounds and all of its accompanying halls and pagodas make for a long time spent in the mountain. If you plan to see more than one temple a day, I suggest you leave early as many close up around 6pm.



To the left is the bridge and below is the garden. Further out you can see the shrine which is the other end of the bridge.

To the left is the bridge and below is the garden. Further out you can see the shrine which is the other end of the bridge.

A view from the entrance to the bridge. Kyoto at sunset.

A view from the entrance to the bridge. Kyoto at sunset.




















More shops in here!

More shops in here!

A shop selling hand-made hair pins.

A shop selling hand-made hair pins.

It's not Japan without some Hello Kitty.

It’s not Japan without some Hello Kitty.












This fan shop was located on the way up to Kiyomizu Temple.

This fan shop was located on the way up to Kiyomizu Temple. 



Specialized Kyoto pottery.

Specialized Kyoto pottery.  

The Geisha Shake Down: A Closer Look at Japan’s Women of Art

Many people around the world have misconceptions about what a geisha (or in Tokyo, geiko) is and what they do for a living. Most do not realize that girls who wanted to become a geisha in the 1900’s began their training from the age of four or five years old. They would live in the okiya (boarding house) with a senior geisha who would train them in the ways of the geisha. The okiya was run by a woman who acted as a manager and she was the one who paid for the young girl’s training. As the girls grew up, they would attend classes everyday to learn the skills of their craft.


The streets of the Gion district in Kyoto.

The streets of the Gion district in Kyoto. 

By the time they were old enough to work in the tea houses as a maiko (apprentice geisha) they were expected to be able to perform traditional dances, sing traditional songs, recite poetry and literature, play traditional Japanese instruments, be skilled in the art of the tea ceremony, calligraphy and also to know many games to play with guests if they wished. Seeing as the term “geisha” translates in “art person” or artisan, it seems fitting that these young women would have such an arsenal of talent ready for use.

One of many tea houses in the district.

One of many tea houses in the district.

The glowing lanterns indicate the shop is open for business.

The glowing lanterns indicate the shop is open for business. 

Over time the girls usually excelled at some of the arts but not all and would gain a reputation for the arts she had perfected. Patrons would request the presence of a maiko and/or geisha to their events often based on their talents, not only on their looks. (Maiko appearances cost less because they were still in training and had not debuted yet.) For example, if a business man was hosting a dinner party with a client who enjoyed reading, he would request a geisha who was known for her passion for literature and reading skills.

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The part that many people misunderstand is in regard to prostitution. Traditional and professional geishas were never prostitutes, but it is understandable that people were confused. Let us start from the Edo period, where things got murky.

The Edo period was from 1603-1867. Geisha evolved from the “oiran” women of the Edo period who wore similar hair, make-up and dress. At that time, prostitution was legal in Japan, but shortly after the fall of Edo, things changed. The Meiji Restoration took place in Japan in 1868 which restored the government and reset the country’s laws and social values. A few years later in 1872, Emperor Meiji and his government passed a law that made a distinction between “shogi” which were actual prostitutes, and “geigi” who were geishas, meaning women of art. The government upheld these strict distinctions between the professions and had geishas working in licensed districts (tea houses or restaurants) that did not enable clients who desired carnal entertainment.

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Even though this distinction was respected and maintained, many Japanese as well as foreigners continued to be confused as to what a geisha’s role was. It didn’t help that women outside of the licensed areas often promoted themselves as geishas to clients and had no problem selling their bodies.

A geisha with two customers.

A geisha with two customers.

Note the red collar which identifies her as a full geisha.

Note the red collar which identifies her as a full geisha.

It also didn’t help that until the 1950’s, young maikos celebrated their “mizuage,” or coming of age, with a wealthy patron paying for the privilege of taking her virginity. This was called being a sponsor and men who frequented the tea houses or restaurants of the time often watched maiko girls in training and chose with great care who they would later sponsor. This was a one-time sexual act and after the deflowering, the sponsor was expected to have no further relations with the new geisha. This practice was left over from the Edo period but was declared illegal as of 1959.

Another geisha, off to her next appointment.

Another geisha, off to her next appointment.

Okiya mothers who housed and trained the girls actually forbade their girls from performing sexual acts, as maiko and geisha were respected as refined, educated women who would not engage in such acts. Furthermore, girls in the okiya were expected to remain single while working in the industry and if they chose to date or marry, they had to leave the profession altogether. Although these women catered to the clients with charming wit and subtle flirtations, nothing more was ever expected of the girls who worked in the licensed district. Men who wanted more went to “machi geisha” who lived and worked outside of the licensed area and incorporated prostitution into their work. These women were performing illegal acts and were looked down upon in the community as a cheap knock-off of the skilled artisans who were their counterparts.

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The rise and fall of the Edo period, along with the tradition of mizuage and the outlying women who used the reputation of geisha to get business all led to the misconception of what a geisha did and still does. Although the geisha culture has reduced hugely in modern times, women still train to be geishas in today’s society. They mostly choose when they want to start training, after middle school, high school or even after university. If they enter into training over the age of 18, they are too old to be a maiko and will enter as a geisha. The tea houses and restaurants who host geishas still exist, but at a much smaller capacity. Kyoto is where the geisha women still flourish, in five different districts. The most popular area is called the Gion district. If you go walking the streets of the Gion district at night you may find a few geishas arriving at or leaving an event. I wandered the streets of the Gion district and saw around 8 geishas. Some were leaving tea houses, some were walking their customers to their cars or to their next engagement while others were hurrying across busy intersections, eager to reach their next appointment.

The first geisha I saw was in a royal blue kimono with a pearly white obi wrapped around her waist. She was walking down a cobblestone path with a client, her pace was steady and her head was bowed with listening concentration. I was going past in a taxi my heart leaped at seeing a real geisha for the first time. The next night my friend and I went walking around the district again and saw a few more. It was truly enchanting,  like seeing a unicorn walk through a modern day park. We were left feeling quite exhilarated with Kyoto; the streets, the people and the legends.

An Afternoon with the God of Rice

One of the many highlights of my trip to Japan was the time spent in Kyoto. As awesome as Tokyo was, Kyoto definitely stole my heart. Our first order of business was to see the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto, so off we went. Trip Advisor.com ranks the Fushimi Inari Shrine as #1 of over 300 things to see in Kyoto and Japan-guide.com ranks it at #7. With that in mind, we knew we would not be disappointed.

We got a Kyoto city bus pass for 500 yen (approx. $5) which covers you for all flat fare bus routes in the main city. Travelers with more time can also purchase a Kyoto sightseeing one or two day pass for 1,200 or 2,000 yen (approx. $12 or $20) which covers a larger area and also includes subway transit.

After a very long wait for the #5 bus to the base of Mount Inariyama, we arrived began our hike up the mountain.











The Fushimi Inari Shrine is  Shinto, one of the main beliefs in Japanese culture along with Buddhism. Shinto is the native faith of the Japanese people and has been around since Japan itself first came into being.

Today Shinto beliefs remain deeply ingrained in Japanese thought and culture. The interesting thing about the Shinto religion is that it doesn’t have a founder or holy scriptures as most religions do. They don’t promote propaganda or preaching either. Since it’s so deeply rooted in their culture already, there is no need. This religion believes in Shinto gods, or sacred spirits, known as “kami.”  These gods represent things like wind, trees, water, health and fertility.

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The Fushimi Inari Shrine is known as the most important of thousands or shrines that pay respects to the Shinto god of rice, known as Inari.  Ancient beliefs state that foxes were Inari’s messengers, so you will see dozens of fox-themed statues throughout the sacred grounds. The shrine and it’s foxes are truly ancient, having predated Kyoto becoming the capitol of Japan in 794. (The capitol is now Tokyo, but at that time the capital was wherever the emperor lived, so it was Kyoto back then.)

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The entire trail up the mountain is covered with Torii gates, making it seem like you are walking under a canopy of orange the whole way. Torii gates mark the entrance to a shrine and are usually made from wood. Fushimi Inari is famous for it thousands of Torii gates the line the mountain trail. Each gate on the trail was donated to the shrine by people or companies. Each donator’s name and date is written on the back of their respective gate and placed on the trail with the others.

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The hike up to Mount Inari’s summit can take up to three hours, but many visitors wander at will and turn back at their leisure. There are also restaurants along the way, so making a day out of Mount Inari is easy to do. Entrance is free although donations are encouraged if you stop by the prayer building and choose to offer your thanks to Inari and say a prayer of your own.

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