In 2018, AVO Magazine began with a new series where we interview readers of AVO Magazine about their first trip to Japan. In the meantime, a couple of readers were interested to share their experiences. Every experience is different and that makes it extra interesting. In the interview of today, Hanneke talks about her first trip that took place in 2018 and she shares how she prepared for her trip, her impressions and her best memories.
AVO: Let’s start with the most important one: when, how long and with who did you go to Japan for the first time?
Hanneke: I went to Japan by myself and I was there for about 2 weeks, from April 27 to May 10, 2018. In these 2 weeks, I’ve been visiting Tokyo and Kyoto, with day trips to Nikko and Nara.
AVO: How did you prepare for your trip to Japan?
Hanneke: I bought Lonely Planet travel guides, downloaded the app and searched the internet for things I certainly did not want to miss out on. Especially the Lonely Planet guides were useful to see which sights were close to each other, so they could be visited on the same day, and tips for day trips. I also used Google Maps a lot during planning, which is especially convenient for planning trips with public transport if you can’t read Japanese. With every journey, I make a notebook beforehand with all the information I need. Like the hotels, I stay in (with their address in the local language), time of check-in, but also different options of travelling for a certain day. When it comes to stops for public transport I copied the Japanese and the romanized names of the stops to my notebook. So no matter the sign I’d see, I would be able to see whether or not I was at the right (bus)stop.
I also received some very useful information (which food to try, to buy a Suica card for public transport, etc) from a friend who is originally from Japan. The concert tickets for Super Live Spirits were bought through the service of japanconcerttickets.com They continuously kept in touch with every step of the ordering process and also discussed where to send the tickets to, with the advice to have them sent to the hotel I was staying at so I’d surely receive them in time.
AVO: What made you decide to go to Japan? What attracted you?
Hanneke: I had wanted to go to Japan for quite some years. I love the culture, the history, its legends, its art. And most especially the way all of this is intertwined with modern society. Kyoto is a great example. The scenery was also a huge reason for me to visit. The reason I decided to visit Japan the time I did was that I really wanted to go to Super Live Spirits, so I guess concerts/music must be added to the list of reasons to visit as well.
AVO: After you arrived in Japan: what was your first impression?
Hanneke: My first thoughts at Narita were: ‘I am finally here’, followed by ‘Help, where should I go’. It was huge (especially for someone like me who can get lost when you only have to walk straight on), but, even though I don’t speak Japanese, easy to navigate with all (street)signs romanized and/or in English. But most of all, everyone is so polite and friendly! I remember that an older lady came up to me while I was searching for my hotel. She didn’t speak English and after showing the address she couldn’t help me. But she brought me to another hotel and the clerk from said hotel literally brought me to the entrance of the hotel I was searching for, which was a couple of hundred meters down the street.
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?
Hanneke: In Tokyo, I stayed in a hotel, but for Kyoto, I had booked a Ryokan. The hotel in Tokyo was almost on top of the metro station, which made it a good place to easily travel to every spot in Tokyo. Another reason to choose the hotel, was because it was close to Odaiba, where Super Live Spirits were taking place. The hotel itself was great. Friendly personnel and it wasn’t any problem to store my backpack with them before check-in time, so I could discover Tokyo without having to drag it around. And to top it off, they were also okay with receiving and storing the tickets for Super Live Spirits.
The Ryokan in Kyoto was quite an experience as well. The room was more traditional, with of course tatami mats. The owner was once again really friendly and accommodating. Upon arrival, you immediately received a map of Kyoto and a self-made map with local restaurants that were ‘foreigner-friendly’ (they had an English menu). Also, the address in Japanese and the closest bus stop were printed on it. That way you could just show it to anybody if you got lost and they could point you in the right direction. Apart from the maps, an entire welcoming set was given with information about things to do and visit while in Kyoto.
AVO: What did you do to get rid of your jetlag? Or to prevent this entirely?
Hanneke: I never had a jetlag… Guess it’s because I have a job in healthcare with night shifts, so I before my trip I already found a way to handle a change in biorhythm. What works best for me was staying awake the entire flight and the day of arrival (I arrived at 8.40 AM at Narita airport). Then I went to sleep early that day, and that’s about it…
AVO: Did you pick a route to take during your first trip to Japan, or did you stay in one place? And why?
Hanneke: For this trip, I decided on not travelling around, as my Japanese is, unfortunately, sort of non-existent. I love to end up in small villages and places not every tourist visits, but in my experience, it’s easier to get there and find your way around when you know the language. I’m working on it, so someday I’ll be travelling around and visit more rural places that don’t have a tourist information office.
So to stay safe I ended up with Tokyo and Kyoto as places to visit for this trip. I had one place to stay in each city, from which I travelled to everything I wanted to see by public transport. I loved the trips by train and bus, as it gave me extra time to enjoy the scenery. I got off at an earlier stop a couple of times because I saw a place/temple/etc. that looked interesting enough for an impromptu visit.
AVO: How did you handle your budget? Did you set a budget beforehand and did you manage to keep it?
For my trip to Japan, I hadn’t set a budget. I had skipped the Summer holidays a couple of times the years before, so I had some savings in general. I did the things that I truly wanted to do and didn’t mind the costs that much, seeing as I probably wouldn’t return for a next holiday soon.
AVO: What stood out to you the most during your trip?
Hanneke: What stood out was how easy it was to go from the city bustle to serenity at the temple grounds. I’m not one for staying in the same city for longer than 2 days. I prefer to travel around to different cities and see someplace new every day. But most of all, I prefer woods/lakes/parks/etc over a city. So I feared all of the concrete and staying in one city for a week would drive me crazy and would get boring after some days. But there are so many temples, even within a city, and most of them have temple grounds that are impressive in their own way. And even the city itself, both Tokyo and Kyoto, were full of life. They weren’t dull for a moment in the week each that I was able to visit them.
Another thing that stood out was the readiness to help. The moment you seemed a bit lost, the Japanese were already next to you to help you find the right direction.
AVO: What is your best memory from your first trip to Japan?
Hanneke: Let’s just say I got zero talent for crane games and stuff like that. However, while in Japan I felt I should visit an arcade and try my luck. Well, luck wasn’t with me in the crane game. Another visitor took pity on this clumsy tourist and decided I could use some advice. Turns out there are quite some strategies to a mere crane game. At some point, even some of the personnel of the arcade took pity and joined in on the giving of tips and tricks. So yeah, I’m sure I was labelled as a lost cause and I’m also quite certain I spend more than the plushie’s actual worth. But in the end, after lots of fun, I got the plushie! (And lots of new strategies to try at a next crane game)
And, of course, Super Live Spirits. I mean HIDE with Spread Beaver, Oblivion Dust, Hotei, Buck-Tick and Zeppet Store all in one place. And to top it off some really nice girls who took me under their wing during those two days.
AVO: Was there something that (really) disappointed you about Japan?
Hanneke: Disappointing? No. Everyone I met was friendly/polite, so I haven’t had any trouble. Even walking as a woman alone in the dark hasn’t been a problem. There hasn’t been a moment where I’ve felt unsafe. Something to get used to as a Dutch traveller: the trains and metro departed according to schedule. So no complaints. If anything then maybe the bamboo forest in Kyoto, which was less impressive than expected after reading about it in travel guides.
As for something surprising, I figured the younger generation in Japan would be more used to English, which wasn’t the case. At least not for the people I met. But it was a nice challenge and everyone was patient enough to try and help me out with my limited Japanese.
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?)
Hanneke: There wasn’t much of a culture shock for me, culture-wise. As for preparing well enough, looking back, probably not. I mean, I did make sure to be familiar with the culture and checking out how to enter a temple with respect for example. But I normally plan a lot and long before the start of the holiday (even more than I did now), so I can visit lesser-known places that are not packed with tourists. This time it was only a couple of months since I actually started planning the trip, therefore I visited the more known tourist spots. Doing more research now shows I haven’t even seen half of all the interesting spots in Tokyo and Kyoto. On the other hand, everything I did visit was absolutely amazing and, with the schedule I followed, there wasn’t enough time to visit more places anyway.
AVO: Which place is THE place everyone should visit according to you, and why?
Hanneke: The Kiyomizu-dera temple. Unfortunately, when I visited renovations were going on, therefore I wasn’t able to see everything. However, the architecture of the main hall is really impressive with its Kiyomizu stage, supported by multiple wooden pillars, hanging over a cliff. Apart from the architecture, the temple grounds are beautiful as well with the Otowa waterfall and a great view over Kyoto from different spots in the temple grounds. All in all, it’s truly a sight to behold and a must-visit when in Kyoto.
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?
Hanneke: Don’t be afraid to travel to Japan by yourself. Most of all: don’t be afraid to get lost! Wander around, check out that tiny alley you find along the way. Find places that aren’t mentioned in the city guides you buy. For me, those unexpected finds are at times the best part of my holiday. Oh, and when in Nara, don’t buy deer food. You’re safer from being chased around by headbutting deer without it.
AVO: What was it like to come home after your first trip to Japan?
Hanneke: Coming home was more of a culture shock for me. It suddenly felt like everyone was so rude when I returned to The Netherlands. And compared to the Japanese Spring, it was cold! I was more than willing to take the first flight back to Japan. It all went by so fast and still felt a bit surreal that my holiday was actually over.
AVO: What do you miss the most now you’ve returned from Japan?
Hanneke: Mostly it is the small things that I miss about Japan. For example the politeness of the people you meet and the willingness to help you out, the food stalls with traditional specialities… But also, the trains that run on time. Every time the train I need is delayed, it kind of makes me wish I was back in Japan again.
AVO: Do you plan on going back to Japan?
Hanneke: Absolutely! I’m already putting money aside and searching for where in Japan I want to go next. I’m sure I haven’t even seen half of Tokyo and Kyoto, so I’d love to go back. But maybe first travel to parts of Japan that I haven’t seen before? So currently I’m looking into Osaka and Hiroshima as possible destinations for my next trip.
I would like to thank Hanneke for her time to answer the questions extensively about her first trip to Japan, but also for the photos she provided that could be used in this interview.
Keep an eye on AVO Magazine, because there will be more interviews like this!