By Kemi Onabanjo
For years, I had been craving an Asian experience (and no, Dubai is not in Asia according to me) but justifying the long travel time from Nigeria to Asia had been tough. I also told myself that the language difference could be a barrier (this is the same person who has been to France multiple times o!) and so I kept postponing the day of ‘glory’.
I finally got the opportunity to join a group of 30 classmates on a trek/culture trip to Japan in February, and to date, it has been both the highlight of all my travel experiences, and my MBA experience at the same time. It was a nine-day trip covering 5 cities – Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Nara and Hiroshima – as well as a quick stop at Japan’s highest mountain, Mount Fuji and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread across the country.
As a Nigerian, I need a visa for almost everywhere. Japan was not an exception. Thankfully, it is one of those countries where you don’t have to be in your home country to apply for a visa, so I could apply from France where I am currently completing my MBA degree.
The application process was fairly straightforward and they didn’t need too many documents. I downloaded the form online, completed it and went to submit at their consulate in Paris. Trust me, I have applied for many visas in my life, and this one was relatively easier than a lot of other places. One interesting document I was asked to complete was a form asking for a detailed itinerary of my trip, including information on which city and where I would sleep each day of the trip. Be prepared to have that info ready so you don’t have to go twice or reduce your chances of getting the visa.
The visa was free for most countries except for about 10 countries for which the cost was €21(N7,875). You can be sure that Nigeria was on that list and so I paid the fee.
I am a sucker for direct flights, as they are fastest way to get to my final destination. Although I love to travel, I don’t exactly enjoy being confined in a box for many hours, except of course, there’s an interesting person sitting next to me. Although it is slightly more expensive to take direct flights, the joy and benefit of arriving at my desired destination ‘sharply’ and starting my adventure quickly (while avoiding the tempting trap called duty free) always outweighs the cost of lost time spent playing the waiting game at airports during layovers.
Flying Japan Airlines from Paris to Tokyo was a delightful 13-hour experience. Best believe me when I say that the Asian hospitality experience begins in their aircraft’s. I mean, how many airlines serve Haagen Dazs ice-cream as part of snacks? Have I just exposed my sweet tooth? The in-flight entertainment was also very up to date and the crew provided exceptional service. I was nursing a cold and the air hostess kept coming to check up on me, offered me a mask to help manage the dry air and was very nice to me. These things matter, especially when you are not getting any pepper soup medication from your mama for the cold. Oops, I digress!
Given that we covered five cities in nine days, we moved a lot. Airbnbs were not a good option for us as we were a large group, so we stayed at a combination of boutique hotels and hostels. I found the hostels in Japan to be more comfortable and better managed than hostels in Europe. Our hosts were savvy enough to negotiate group discounts for us, and ensured we usually stayed on the same floor in the hotels so room-sharing was much easier. All our rates were also bed and breakfast rates, which was great and cost-effective. On average, we spent about €50-65 (N 18,750- N 24,375) per person on daily accommodation.
I was not a sushi lover but Japan converted me for sure! Every meal was a hit back-to-back! Whether it was sushi, miso soup, udon or soba noodles, ‘okonomi-yaki” (a type of pancake that’s an Osaka or Hiroshima delicacy), rice noodles or vegetables, every meal was freshly made and bursting with flavor. I am usually watching something, either my weight, height, complexion or hair texture, but on this trip, I didn’t have to watch anything.
The meal portions were adequate and I felt nourished (not stuffed) after every meal. In Japan, there is no going wrong with food, and that’s coming from a picky eater like me. You have the option of keeping it local or being fancy in several Michelin star restaurants, depending on your wallet size or color of your credit card. On average, I spent about 25-40 Euros on my main meals.
On beverages, there are two must-drinks when in Japan – matcha which is green tea and sake which is the Japanese rice wine. Matcha is served hot, cold, unsweetened, sweetened, concentrated, and diluted and so on. There are dedicated matcha houses that serve just green tea – absolutely beautiful.
Now, I have been told that sake is special. As I am a teetotaler, I can only speak about what I have been told. Sake is usually served warm, so it’s easy on the throat and stomach. Although the impact creeps up on you subtly, when you start manifesting, it’s not so subtle. Don’t say I did not warn you! There are a few other fun drinks for team teetotaler such as Calpis, lemon+vit C rich ramune and so on. And if all else fails, coke and water will always be available. There is no Chapman in Japan, thank you.
Things to Do
Japan is the land of ancient and modern, and so there is a wide variety of things to do. Regardless of what your interests or preferences are, there is an abundance of sites and activities to keep you engaged.
The beautiful thing about Japan is that every city has its own history and appeal, and you will enjoy each city differently.
Tokyo is home to the big, shiny, skyscrapers and there are several restaurants that have live robot dance shows after dinner – spectacular! There are also a lot of themed cafes that are better experienced than described. Karaoke bars are on another level and if you like to hear your horrible singing voice like I do, it’s more fun hearing it on hi-tech sound systems. There is also a beautiful bay area in Tokyo that’s great for day or night cruises. Anime and Manga lovers will be excited to know that Tokyo is also home to the center of the geek universe, located in a district called Akihabara.
Kyoto is a different story – temples and more temples and even more temples! There is a lot of history curated in each temple, and as museums are to France, so are temples to Japan. A few must-sees include the golden Kinkakuji temple, the Sanjusangendo temple which is home to a thousand buddhas, and the Toei Uzumasa, which is the Japanese Universal Studios and home to most Samurai productions.
Hiroshima is popular for the peace memorial commiserating the 1945 atomic bombing, and Nara is home to deers which are seen to be holy animals and hang around temples a lot. In addition to these big cities, there are a good number of smaller villages that have been commissioned as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and are special in their own way.
Public transportation is very efficient for getting around within and between cities. There are also cabs on almost every corner, just waiting for you to get in. The bullet train which goes between the major cities is extremely fast and more spacious than the Eurostar. It’s very comfortable and you feel like you’re flying. If you are staying for about a week or an extended period, I recommend that you get the PASSMO (equivalent of the UK’s Oyster travel card) as you can use it on multiple trains/metros and it reduces time spent at the station trying to buy a ticket. Besides, if you are a JIT (just-in-time) girl like me, you definitely don’t want to risk missing the train because Japanese trains are on time, always!
In summary, Japan is a delight, a fusion of old and new, the past and the future, tradition and sophistication, and an all-round amazing place that kept blowing my mind every day of my trip, and even till now. Japanese people are another breed, for sure. They cannot be described in just a few words – that would be doing them injustice.
I hope with these few points of mine, I have been able to convince you to visit and get your own dose of Japanese awesomeness – its better experienced than described.