Japan is definitively different. It was hard at the beginning: I have never been in a country, where I understood so little of the language, couldn’t read any signs because of a different alphabet and where people did understand so little English. Or in short: My communication got very limited. That got intensified by me traveling solo. However, I got used to it over time and had to plan a bit more a head than before. And I stayed a few times at hostels for not getting too lonely.
Japan is also culture wise different, e.g. I had to get used to the bowing. Neverthless, it’s also getting very interesting if you really try to get into the culture. It probably would be the easiest, if you would get introduced to the culture by a local Japanes person you know. Unfortunately, I didn’t and I have a feeling, that I missed a lot therefore. But I got adapted still enough that I almost had a culture shock when I arrived in Australia. And I also kept bowing there a few times…
This time, I would like to not separate the rest of my conclusion into positive and negative. I would like to write about some important topics instead and tell you there my findings. I think that this is more useful at the end. Please add your hints as a comment by using the form at the end. Thanks!
People: The Japanese (and there aren’t a lot of other people in Japan) are very friendly and helpful. But they are also pretty shy and sometimes stubborn. Because of that, most people won’t start a conversation with you. You have to be the active one here. If you need help, you have to ask. And because most Japanese don’t speak English, you will have to use body language and other tools as well. And if something is prohibited to do, it doesn’t make sense to discuss it because it won’t change.
Rules: Japan is the country of rules. There is for almost everything in daily life a rule. Some of them are followed very strictly (like bicycles in trains). And it doesn’t matter if this rule is useful or not. Other rules (e.g. the prohibition of cycling on some sidewalks) are completely ignored. The best thing is to use common sense and to be considerate. As foreigner, you have the advantage that you can do a lot of things which would be inappropriate otherwise. However, you shouldn’t go to far and leave a good impression. Friendliness and harmony are very important in Japan. For preparation, I can highly recommend the following book: Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference! (Link to Amazon.com).
Security/Crime: Japan is a very safe country. There is probably no other country, where you can leave a Swiss knife for almost 24 hours on a bench next to the street and it is still there afterwards. This is of course very pleasant, especially if you are a solo traveller and can’t pay attention on your stuff all the time. However, you should still pay attention and hide your valuables… You never know. Maybe a non-Japanese person will pass bye ;-).
And yes, you don’t see and hear that much about the the tsunami and the atomic catastrophe of 2011, except some notes about saving energy and donating for the casualties of the earthquake.
Transport/Traffic: Train and bus are very well developed in Japan. You can get almost everywhere. Unfortunately, bicycles are not getting transported, except if they are packaged. For that purpose, you can get special bags at bike stores. The question is only, if your bike will fit into it… I didn’t try it out. Couldn’t motivate myself to take the bike apart…
Transportation, especially in the Shinksansen bullet trains is pretty expensive. If you are traveling a lot by train, it would maybe make sense to get a JR-Railpass. It’s only available outside of Japan.
Streets are mostly well paved and car drivers are very careful with cyclists. So it’s pretty safe. However, streets are also frequently very narrow and that can get dangerous with trucks. And those don’t pay a lot of attention… On the side of the street, there is often a open water channel. A fall into it can be very painful. So attention on those.
Food: Food is in general very good and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Personally, I enjoyed the chain Sukiya a lot. They offer a rice and beef bowl for around 500 Yen (around 6 USD). Rice has the advantage, that it won’t lay heavily in the stomach, opposite to Burger and Fries. I don’t recommend those. Sushi for lunch wasn’t really my choice either… In almost every city, you can find a convenience store. Those offer the most important food items and also some prepared meals. They are more expensive than normal supermarkets but they are frequently open 24 hours. Additionally, you can find a vending machine on almost every street corner. I have never seen that many… So you for sure won’t die of thirst.
Accommodation: Japan is offering everything from free camping up to luxury hotels. If you can’t read Japanese, it can be difficult to find an accommodation. Street signs are not that helpful anymore. For finding campgrounds, I used the Touring Mapple maps. A lot of campgrounds are marked there. However, depending of the saison, they can be closed already.
In bigger cities, hostels can be found as well. Those can be booked through e.g. Hostelworld. I had a few time the unfortunate experience that they were already full booked. So booking in advance can be helpful. Additionally, there are more hostels which are part of the Hostelling International chain. However, most of them can’t be booked online.
A alternative to hostels are business hotels. Some of them can be found through e.g. booking.com. They are more expensive than a hostel but must cheaper than normal hotels.
The cheapest way is of course wild camping or stealth camping. However, I found it difficult because Japan is so densely populated, you have to camp in parks in cities. Japan is very safe and the risk is pretty low that the police will send you away. Neverthless, everybody has to decide for her and himself, if it is the right thing. Some advice can be found here.
Cash/Credit cards: Credit cards aren’t that widely accepted in Japan. Most places still only accept cash. Unfortunately, the standard ATMs do not support foreign cards. However, It should be possible to get cash at the post offices (I didn’t try this). The ATMs of the convenience store chain 7i (also known as SevenEleven) do accept foreign cards as well. Because you can find 7i more or less everywhere, I always got cash there. If you are going to more remote regions, e.g. the mountains, you should bring enough cash with you.
Maps/GPS: Outside of the bigger cities and sometimes even there, most signs are written in Japanese only. If you don’t speak Japanese it’s getting difficult to navigate. An alternative is to use GPS. I used a combination of both. The Touring Mapple maps are probably the best ones you can get. Those are available in some bookstores e.g. in bigger malls. They are also mainly in Japanese but some city names are also written in our alphabet. Additionally to those maps, I used Google Maps on my Smartphone. This way I always knew where I was and could check e.g. for campgrounds in the Touring Mapple maps. However, Google Maps needs a mobile Internet Access (see Internet/Mobilphone).
Internet/Mobilephone: Most hostels as well as some hotels are offering free wifi. Sometimes you only get wired Internet access. Otherwise free wifi is difficult to find. An alternative is mobile Internet (UMTS). I used a prepaid SIM card of B-Mobile for that purpose. It was with 3’900 Yen for two weeks pretty expensive. But that way I had almost everywhere Internet access and could use Google Maps for navigation. This SIM card did not support SMS and telephony service (except Skype). Another possibility would be to rent a phone. Check this for more information.
Hot tube/Onsen: One thing you definitively shouldn’t miss, is to visit an Onsen (Japanese hot bath). They can be found almost everywhere and in all price ranges. And it’s not as complicated as it is sometimes said. Just use your common sense. The most important thing is to wash your self thoroughly before entering the hot pot. A swim suit is not used but most baths are segregated.
Japan is definitely worth a journey. The longer, the better. If the bicycle is the right way to travel there is another question. Japan is densely populated. And that means, you are frequently cycling through cities with a lot of traffic. It’s better in the mountains or on the less populated islands e.g. Kyushu. Additionally, I wouldn’t travel solo because you really can get lonely (Except if it’s that what you were looking for…). I don’t regret at all to have traveled across Japan by bicycle for six weeks. Also if it wasn’t always easy.
PS: The best website for cycling touring in Japan is the following: http://www.japancycling.org/