Adventure in Japan

[Japanese] Copyright, 1996 Andrew Lucas. All rights reserved. [English]

This story of an Australian couple is a "MUST READ" for anyone planning to tour Japan. They were determined to tour Japan on their own on budget. Armed with a phrasebook and a guidebook, they went, and returned with tons of stories to tell.----Etsuko Ueda

In June of 1996, my wife and I toured Japan (Just the usual "tourist" trail). THIS was a culture shock. Neither of us speak any Japanese and my wife (who is from Hong Kong) was mistaken for a Japanese person everywhere we went. I have documented our whole experience...
If you have any question about this story, please send me a mail (Andrew Lucas).


Japan isn't the place that immediately comes to mind as one of the world's great tourist destinations these days. For one thing, it is perceived as expensive. For another, nobody knows much about what's there for the tourist. If people were asked on Family Feud to list things to see in Japan, it's my guess that they would respond, "Pass." I probably would feel much the same, but I do like investigating other cultures (without going too far off the comforts of home, rubbing shoulders with lepers or risking exotic diseases). Japan seemed as good as any, seeing as it was (a) not too far away and (b) foreign. On top of that, Australians get most of their information about Japan from Bruce Ruxton. I thought it would be interesting to gain my own impressions of our biggest trading partner. We drive their cars, watch their TV sets and sell them our real estate, yet the average Australian knows nothing about why this is or what sort of people have achieved such an important place in our lives without our really knowing it.

Another major factor in our choice of Japan was that it was one of the few places that Jacqui actually wanted to go to. If you asked her why, she would probably reply, "Because I want to buy a Japanese doll". If I was going to entice her away from her work, it looked like it had to be Japan.

The problem was the cost. The minimum package cost in the airline brochures was about $1,700, for something like four days in a Tokyo hotel. Value for money is always one of our priorities, so Japan was always struck off the list. Then we went to a travel fair and found some information about staying at "Japanese inns" for about $110 - $120 per night. This was pricey, we figured, but not exorbitant. The cheapest Japanese hotel in the airline brochures was $370 per night. The catch was that Japanese inns, or ryokans, seemed to involve public bathing, Japanese style. Some had ensuite bathrooms, but those that didn't (according to the pictures in the brochure) required you to wash seated on a stool (never stand up, it warned), before joining a bunch of beaming Japanese friends reclining in the lobster-hot bath tub with towels on their heads.

Anyway, it was evidently possible to travel around Japan without mortgaging your house to pay for it. The next stop was getting there. Flight Centre is the place to go for the cheapest means to far-off places. Sure enough, Garuda Indonesia could get us to Japan for about $1,150 - $450 cheaper than JAL or Qantas. Not only that, we could go via Bali, with a stopover. We could also arrive at Japan in Tokyo and depart from Osaka. It had everything - we could even add it to our collection of dangerous airlines. Back in the '70s Garuda was officially listed as the world's most dangerous airline, but they have been doing okay lately 1. Our previous adventures had been:

We signed on with Garuda. Then I selected a range of ryokans in places we thought would be good to visit - Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nara - and faxed off applications to them. I tried to get into places which were near a railway station, for easy access. Most faxed back confirmations the next day, which were pretty exciting to receive. The only one I didn't hear from was the Ryokan Matsumae in Nara. I faxed again. Still nothing. I decided I had to ring them. A lady answered. The conversation went:
" of incomprehensible Japanese"
"Hello? Do you speak English?"
" A rittle"2
"I'm calling from Australia"
" of incomprehensible Japanese"
"Ah. Osutoraria"
"My name is Lucas. L-U-C-A-S. I sent you a application, but I haven't heard back from you"
"When stay?"
"No, it's Thursday"
" of incomprehensible Japanese. When stay?"
"Oh. June"
"June? 1-2-3-4-5-6. June"
"Rucas. A-N-D-R-E-W."
"That's the one."
"Okay. Booking okay."
"Ah! Very Good! Could you confirm that in a fax, please?"
"No send a fax. Send a retter"
"Oh! right. Thank you very much."

The very next day, a really cute postcard arrived from the place. If I had waited one more day, the conversation and expensive phone call would have been unnecessary.

The only thing left was getting around. We discovered that Japan Rail had a pass which, for Y44,200 got us unlimited train travel for 14 days. We were lucky here. When we booked the plane, this translated into about A$580, but the $A kept going up against the Yen, so by the time I bought the passes the week before we left, the cost had gone down to $537.

since 96/08/28

1 A day after I wrote this sentence, a Garuda DC-10 crashed on take-off in Japan, headed for Bali, killing four passengers and injuring over 100 others. It could well have been the very plane we caught back from Japan, only three days before, which was also a DC-10.

2 Japanese don't always say their "l"s like "r"s, I discovered, but this one did.

3 Official phrasebook Japanese for Australia.