This interview is part of a new series where I interview readers of AVO Magazine about their first trip to Japan. A while back I posted a message that asked for those who are interested to be interviewed about their first Japan trip, and I got a message from Elli from Germany. Read how Elli got interested in Japan and what kind of tips and tricks she has for the firsttimers.
AVO: Let’s start with the most important one: when, how long and with who did you go to Japan for the first time?
Elli: I flew over with one of my friends that time. “That time” because we aren’t anymore. It’s a long story why it all ended, but I could say that Japan took a deep part in it as well. All in all we went three weeks. It was Tokyo and Yokohama only.
AVO: How did you prepare for your trip to Japan?
Elli: From the point of view I have now I can say that we didn’t really prepared at all. The only thing we had a look for were hotels and stations to sightseeing spots and concerts we wanted to visit – but that was mainly all. We didn’t even had a look into Japanese etiquette or else, what I now clearly regret. Really, people, if you go to Japan, look up everything beforehand! It will make your life easier and you have so much more time to explore and enjoy.
AVO: What made you decide to go to Japan? What attracted you?
Elli: I think most of the people would say, that Anime is the main reason they got attracted to Japan. I can say nearly the same – at least that Anime got me interested into Japan. But the main reason I wanted to go to Japan was to see how the culture worked there, taste original japanese food and, my most important point, go to concerts of my favorite bands there and finally see my favorite one live at least once.
AVO: After you arrived in Japan: what was your first impression?
Elli: To be very honest: My very first impression was the smell. Every continent has its own smell in my opinion. Next to that it was hot and humid so that you had the feeling you got stuck in a hot summer thunderstorm. But since we needed to go through security checks and customs and all the “first-time arrival” stress with also asking which train we need to take and were (as I said, we were super unprepared) we totally forgot we were actually in Japan. But after finally managing everything, we took Keisei Sky Liner from Narita Airport to Motoyawata station. The train first drives underground, but then gives you a clear look what Japan is looking like. You cross rice fields in Chiba, seeing beautiful landscapes, and people that enter the trains are schoolkids with typical Japanese school uniforms. You realize: I am in Japan. I still remember, that I somehow started crying the first time we passed by a typical traditional Japanese house with all the electricity poles in between the streets. It all felt so unreal but so beautiful.
AVO: Did you choose a hotel, hostel, guesthouse, ryokan or a different place to sleep; why did you choose this option and how did you like it?
Elli: Since the main reason I wanted to go to Japan was the concert of my favourite band, we were searching for a hotel that was located near the venue of that concert, so that we could walk back by foot instead of taking the train. We were searching by Google, not even booking sites, for a cheap accommodation and found a hotel directly located in the middle of Tokyo. It was two stations afar from Tokyo main station and metro lines were taking you to Shibuya or Shinjuku within ten minutes. The hotel itself was more like a hostel – super small rooms, shared bathrooms and toilets were there instead of having a big private place for yourself. But since both of us were minimalists, we didn’t really care. Up until now, I’ve been to Japan six times. My seventh time will follow in October and whenever I fly over, I still always stay in this hotel. Why you may ask, when rooms and conditions were kinda that low? Well, in that hotel everything felt like family. The guests, the businessmen dropping by the cafe – and even the hotel workers. Every single one of them I consider calling my friend now.
AVO: What did you do to get rid of your jetlag? Or to prevent this entirely?
Elli: For the first time being there, my jetlag seriously was huge! That was, because I kinda was so excited to Japan, that sleeping on the plane wasn’t possible for me at all. I wanted to sleep the first day, since we haven’t really planned anything instead of staying at the hotel all day, letting the impressions just hit us from time to time. But the person I travelled with, found out that there was a concert of her favourite band in Yokohama, and wanted to try to go there, maybe getting a ticket at the door. I hated the idea. We just arrived, had no real idea of the train system and even going to concerts, and were tired as hell. But when she insisted to go alone, I needed to go with her, since I know her sense of orientation was shit. It was the first day and kind of the first fight we had. We had a hard time in Yokohama finding the venue, or even asking for directions. If we wouldn’t have had met some foreigners, we may still wander there. Since we came back home to the hotel super late, we already forgot about jetlag. When the night had hit Japan, we just fell to bed and slept fifteen hours straight before we got up.
AVO: Did you pick a route to take during your first trip in Japan, or did you stay in one place? And why?
Elli: Since it was my first time, and I kinda knew for myself that I wanted to go back, I only stayed in Tokyo for three entire weeks to explore everything in there without missing a single inch. It really somehow worked out, since after week one, we nearly managed to see all tourists spots and visited all shops we wanted to explore. In week two and three we started to stroll around areas that are not really mentioned in tourists guides so we could also see some “suburbs” of Japan’s biggest city.
AVO: How did you handle your budget? Did you set a budget beforehand and did you manage to keep it?
Elli: I have saved buckets of money so that I could spend a lot in Eastern Asia. Since I am a listener of Japanese music, most of my money went out for merchandising of bands, as well as CDs and DVDs. Since my credit card had a limit, I surely had a budget limit but was forced to keep it (because otherwise, I’d not only have to starve for days, but also wouldn’t have had any money to go back to Narita airport 😉 ). If you don’t go to super high-class restaurants but choose the small, street restaurants or restaurant chains, you save a lot of money for food. We also only rarely bought drinks at vending machines, but went to the convenience stores or supermarkets, which saves money as well. You may realize this not in week one (if you come unprepared as we were), but after you realized, you will save definitely not pay as much for food in Japan, as you do in your home country. After being there for six times already I can say, that Japan really is kinda cheap.
AVO: What stood out to you the most during your trip?
Elli: The variety of the people’s characters, I would say. Many Europeans say “Japanese people look the same” or “Japanese people always behave the same”. But oh boy, you are so wrong. I’ve met so many people, elderly and young, and even they may behave the same on the surface, they were so different it was kinda scary. I’ve met people that were shy, people that were friendly, even unfriendly people. Met people that were direct, met people who were really shrewd. To be honest, even everyone would say, that Japan is one of the countries who is the most respectful – you are so wrong! They may be respectful to Japanese, but to Westerners, even they give you a smile and be friendly towards you they may hate you with all they’ve got. All in all: Japanese people are really sneaky. And even if you think you know them – you don’t really know them.
AVO: What is your best memory from your first trip to Japan?
Elli: That definitely was also the reason I came: the concert of my favourite band. I was ridiculously standing in the venue, were super excited and my head was completely empty. I still remember how much I cried, when the intro began and the band came on stage (I still do when I watch the DVD they made out of this show). Honestly saying, that was one of the most emotional points in my life, as I thought I would never have the chance to see the band live once in my life. But then suddenly I did.
Normally I am a really chipper person, always talking, having good moods and stuff – but after the concert ended and we went back to the hotel I was totally speechless. I couldn’t say anything until the hotel people asked me how it was. But remembering now.. when they asked me I didn’t say anything at all again – I was crying again.
It’s strange having such an emotional depth between a band and yourself, right?
AVO: Did you feel like you experienced some kind of a culture shock during your first visit to Japan, despite all the knowledge about Japan and all the preparations you took for your trip? (Do you think you prepared well enough?)
Elli: The only thing I remember I found really strange was the fact, that regardless who was sitting opposite to you in the metro – EVERY person had a mobile strap on it. Small children, a mother, businessmen and even elderly people. All of them had sort of strap at their phone. I loved it.
Something I would not really consider as a culture shock but more like something I miss in other countries was the general behaviour. Standing in lines, speaking clearly and slowly, being nice everywhere, rules nearly everyone followed. Japan was strict – but that was good.
AVO: Which place is THE place everyone should visit according to you, and why?
Elli: My recommendations are now not coming from the first vacation I had there but from overall vacations, I’ve ever experienced. First, let us come to food: Nagoya based chain “Sekai no Yamachan” was one of the best food places I’ve been to in Japan. When you love chicken you should definitely check this out! Even it’s based in Nagoya the chain is now going through the whole country so you definitely find some restaurants in Tokyo as well (Jimbocho or Ikebukuro for example). It’s not as advanced as other restaurants where you are using an iPad to order, but super delicious. I’ve never met unfriendly waiters and the atmosphere is really nice as well. It’s a typical Izakaya I would say but I always spend a lot of time there.
Another food recommendation if you love sushi would be Kura Sushi. It’s a running sushi where you can either order, or take the food that is coming on a belt. After five eaten dishes, you are able to take a gacha and may win some prizes – it’s super fun! But please now, that if you don’t reserve your seat beforehand you may have waiting times of two hours.
For the entertainment, I want to point out that you should have at least visited one Japanese concert or theatre play – just for the atmosphere. It’s really something! Especially theatre plays now hook up to me totally and I really enjoy going to them – even I understand only half of it.
Another entertainment thing would be Fuji Q Highland. It’s a theme park located directly next to Fuji which has a lot of Guinness World Records drives. They also have the most scariest and longest haunted house of the world – and I can tell you: that one really IS super scary and worth every penny!
For sightseeing, I would recommend going to Enoshima. It’s an island next to Kamakura and is super beautiful. Since it’s kinda build on three floors (hard to explain) you can buy escalator tickets – but when you want to explore Enoshima fully, use all stairs and be totally worn out at the end of the day enjoying Enoshima don (most favourite dish there) in one of the small, lovely restaurants.
If you are someone who is looking out for something to go all nuts, go for a jog around the Imperial Palace Garden in the middle of the Tokyo. The course is 5km long, and even if you are jogging alone – you will never be alone!
AVO: What tip(s) do you want to share with everyone who still wants to take a vacation to Japan and have never been to Japan before?
Elli: As I was someone who wasn’t prepared at all when coming the first time I can only say: PREPARE YOURSELF! If you already know where you wanna go, which shops you wanna visit or what you want to try, it will make your life there so much easier. Already have a look at train maps to know in advance where you need to go and change and what’s the right way to go to anywhere. Buy a rail pass if you wanna see the country – Buy a “Passmo” or a “Suica” card when exploring Tokyo area, as it could make your life so much easier using metro or JR. You can even use them as a payment card in some convenience stores or at vending machines or restaurants!
And the most important part: Don’t be shy asking for something! Everyone is willing to help you there!
AVO: What was it like to come home after your first trip to Japan? What do you miss the most now you’ve returned from Japan?
Elli: It was kinda lonely, to be honest. Since most of Japan’s cities are full of people you feel really alone in your own homeland. It seems that the spirit that the country has is completely gone and also the easiness is vanishing around you. You come home and all trains are late (thank you Germany). You don’t see any vending machines, and your so-called “convenience stores” are not open for 24 hours straight. It’s the small things you will start missing. The beeping sounds of the traffic lights, advertisement everywhere, the Family Mart Chicken (called “FamiChiki” in Japan) when you don’t know where to eat out. You’ll miss the karaoke booths on every corner, miss the shops you were recently shopping in. You’ll miss the concerts you attended, the people you became friends with. It doesn’t matter how often you come home from Japan – you’ll always miss at least one thing. But still, I am always happy to be back home.
AVO: Do you plan on going back to Japan?
Elli: I always plan on going back as long as I have an interest in this country, which will, most likely, never fail to amaze me. My next vacation will be in October and even it will be only one week, I’ll enjoy it to the fullest. I love this country and I’ll always miss its spirit. I’m always glad to be a guest of this country. Hopefully, it’ll shine to me again, as it was always doing.
I want to thank Elli for her time to answer all these questions extensively, while her trip has been a while ago. If you have any questions, you can follow Elli on Twitter.
Keep an eye on AVO Magazine, there will be more ‘First time in Japan’ interviews coming up!