Best travel reads on Japan

Best Travel ReadsSo, which books are they? Here are three classic books I’d recommend if you’re planning on traveling in and around Japan.

The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie(Originally published in 1971, re-released in 2002 by Stonebridge Press).

American Donald Richie, is a prominent Japanese film critic and a long-time book and film reviewer for The Japan Times. He has published over 40 books on Japan. During the 60’s, traveled by ferry to various islands in the Seto Inland Sea and wrote about his experiences. An eloquent writer, his book captures scenes of island life in the Seto Inland Sea in the 1960’s.

The Roads to Sata—A 2,000 mile walk through Japan,Alan Booth, (Weatherhill, 1986)

Alan Booth, who passed away in 1992, walked the length of Japan from northern Hokkaido to Sata, the southernmost part of Kyushu in 1985. He wrote about the villages and the people he met from the perspective of a British foreigner in Japan. Booth wrote a sequel to this called Looking for the Lost: Journeys through a vanishing Japan (Kodansha Globe, 1997).

Lost Japan, Alex Kerr (Lonely Planet Journeys 1996)

American Alex Kerr bought an old traditional Japanese house in the countryside of Shikoku and through the process of fixing it up tells stories about the local Japanese people in the Shikoku area. Part memoir and part his own struggle to understand the country and culture, Kerr’s knowledge of Japan deepens along with his own interests in Japanese art, antiques and kabuki. In this book, which covers a 30-year period, he also talks about how Japan is slowly destroying itself environmentally. This theme he further expands upon in his latest book Dogs and Demons.

Dogs and Demons has been widely read by lovers of Lost Japan, but many readers have complained about his negative attitude in this second book. Dogs and Demons is what I call Kerr’s “angry book” about Japan. He definitely has a few bones to pick. Perhaps that’s why he eventually moved to Thailand.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Cheap Guesthouses for longer stays

tokyo-featuredOnce you find how affordable a long-term rental guesthouse in Japan can be, you might find you want to extend your stay in Japan. International guesthouses, colloquially called gaijin houses(foreigner houses) can be very affordable if you’re staying in Japan a month or longer. For example, you can get a room for 48,000 yen (includes electricity and gas) with a shared bath, kitchen and living room. That’s what five nights in a Japanese-style minshuku or ryokan would cost you!

The advantages of staying at a gaijin house are numerous. They are short term, and allow you to live in a furnished apartment-style setting without having to pay large sums for key money and deposits. Instead, you merely pay your rent up front via credit card and you can come and go as you please, or even leave for a few days and come back “home” at the end of the week. Your gaijin house can act as a home base from which you can leave some of your belongings so you can travel lightly on day trips outside of Tokyo, a weekend trip to Mt. Fuji or even a week-long trip to other parts of Japan on your JR Rail Pass. Gaijin houses can be found all over Japan, but most are concentrated in the Tokyo area.

These guesthouses are set up for longer stays and thus offer internet access, a TV/recreation area and English speaking staff. They tend to attract students and other budget travelers seeking longer stays. It is no frills accommodation, but unlike youth hostels, gaijin houses are usually close to train lines and convenient to all parts of the city. Gaijin houses are hubs for travelers to meet, share stories and get the lowdown on what to do and where to go.

Gaijin houses have been around as long as gaijin have but were previously only accessible to travelers after they had arrived. In the past, many foreigners used gaijin houses as a temporary residence while they searched for a job. But recently, they have seen the potential in advertising gaijin houses online to get advance reservations. This movement has been headed up by Sakura House, who owns 190 properties in the Tokyo area which are rented out on a monthly basis. Gaijin House Japan lists properties all over Japan, including Okinawa, and has a comment system where you can read about other traveler’s experiences.

The deals at gaijin houses are so good, even Japanese people are said to be taking up temporary residence in them!

Gaijin House Japan lists gaijin houses all over Japan and offers more upscale offerings. See their English website.

Sakura House has a website in English.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Japan is still cheap!

Best Tokyo Blog 2011Because of the current high value of the yen, Japan may not seem such a cheap destination anymore. But don’t worry, you can still get by very cheaply in Japan, as long as you are armed with some inside information. Here are some tips the guidebooks won’t tell you.


Japanese inns, mainly minshukus and ryokans, rent Japanese style rooms with tatami mat and futons. The rates include two meals: dinner and breakfast. In bigger cities many inns will cater to Westerners, who generally prefer to go out on the town to eat. Such inns will just charge you for the room and no meals. But if you are off the beaten track in a mountain town or someplace with few foreigner tourists, the inns will cater to Japanese tourists who like to have their meals included. You may find the price of 9,000 yen or more per person per night a bit prohibitive. So, try asking for sudomari, which means just the room with no meals. The sudomari price is never advertised, because most Japanese tourists don’t want it. Sudomari will cut the per night rate by about half.

In addition, you can always add breakfast (Japanese style only) for an extra 500-700 yen. These are usually quite elaborate, so be ready to eat a lot, even early in the morning.


Many casual Japanese restaurants have a set meal called teishoku. These are especially popular for lunch but many places still offer them for dinner too. The teishoku is usually the best deal for your money. typically costs between 700 and 1,000 yen (for lunch) and includes several courses. You’ll usually be presented with a cluster of dishes on a lacquer tray: pickled vegetables, fish, rice, miso soup and an array of vegetables making for a nutritious and balanced meal. Not only teishoku economical, but it’s a great way to try out lots of different Japanese foods. There are several different kinds of teishoku, such as pork or fish, but the higawari teishoku changes every day and is equal to “the special of the day.” It’s also an easy way to order if you can’t read the menu!

Convenience Stores

Ready-made food at convenience stores in Japan is amazingly cheap. And it is usually far healthier than the fast food you’ll get in a convenience store in the U.S. Here are a couple things to try.

Onigiri rice balls (100 yen). These are actually rice balls formed into triangles and are wrapped in seaweed. They are easy to carry in your pack for a quick meal and they can be eaten with your hands. Onigiri comes in different “flavors” which refers to the small bit of filling inside each one, such as tuna, sour plum or chicken.

Oden soup (Pictured) (100 yen for each ingredient). Oden is a clear soup stock which is then filled with ingredients such as a boiled egg, a fish paste finger, a boiled radish, or a boiled potato. Everything is already cooked and you simply help yourself by taking a Styrofoam bowl and filling it up with liquid, then adding each item as you like. This is a quick, filling meal for about 500 yen.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

The Inland Sea Islands

Seto NaikaiJapan’s Inland Sea, called “Seto Naikai” in Japanese, is one of Japan’s best kept secrets. While most people only know the bigger islands (called “shima”) such as Awajishima and Shodoshima with extensive ferry services to bring people, cars and trucks from the mainland, the smaller islands are accessible only by the occasional ferry or private boat. As the smaller islands become more popular even among Japanese travelers, the options for getting around to them are increasing, but tourism along the Inland Sea is still in its infancy.

Unfortunately, the ferry services do not cover inter-island travel. You can take a ferry from the mainland to most any island, but you’ll have to go back to the mainland each time and catch another ferry to take you further east or further west. This is expensive and time-consuming. Although hiring a private boat to get around the Inland Sea is not cheap either (20,000 to 50,000 yen per day per person depending on if you want meals and accommodation included) it gives you a chance to see things that other tourists would never get to see.

Here are the top four Inland Sea destinations:

Awajishima, Hyogo Prefecture

Awajishima is the biggest island in the Seto Naikai. It has only been accessible to the masses since they built the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in 1990, the longest suspension bridge in the world. The island sits right in the middle of Honshu and Shikoku. You can take a train, bus or ferry there from Kobe.

Shodoshima, Kagawa Prefecture

Shodoshima is the second largest island in the Seto Naikai and resides in Kagawa Prefecture. Shodoshima is famous for its olives and you will find olive trees everywhere there. There is an olive picking season and the island thrives on sales of products made from olives and olive oil. There is a high-speed ferry from Osaka to Shodoshima for approximately 5,800 yen.

Naoshima, Okayama Prefecture

Fast becoming a very popular island among foreigners, Naoshima is also called Benesse Art Site. The island features modern art in many forms from a traditional art museum, to gigantic sculptures situated around the island and the “Art House Project” that puts art exhibits in old, once-abandoned Japanese houses. Anyone who loves art should spend at least a day here. Access by ferry from Okayama.

Shiraishijima, Okayama Prefecture

This small island of 700 people has been on the foreign tourist map for 20 years now because of promotion by the Okayama Prefectural government. It is still largely undiscovered, however, as tourism has been limited to those who live in Japan and are “in the know.” Years of prefectural backing have resulted in a user-friendly, English-speaking infrastructure. Once limited by the number of tourists the prefecture would accept, the island is now opening up and is able to accept more visitors. Shiraishijima is best known for its beach and traditional Japanese island culture. Accessible by ferry from Kasaoka.

More info:

Awajishima and Shodoshima



Private boat charters
Kazenoto Luxury Cruisers

Shiraishi Island Tours
Sailing and motorboat tours

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at


AkihabaraIf you’re young and hip, or just want to act like you are, then Tokyo’s Akihabara district is the place to be. And luckily now, as it is becoming somewhat of a tourist-attraction (I say somewhat because if you catch it now, you can still see it before the tourist hordes discover it) you can even get a tour of Akihabara in English.

But first, what exactly is Akihabara? This is the district in Tokyo that is famous for its maid cafes, anime and pop culture stores and electronics outlets. This is where the geeks, or otaku in Japanese, hang out. And in today’s Japan, being a geek is super cool! If you find Aki-ha-ba-ra a little too long to remember, just say “akiba” and you’ll be with the in Japanese crowd who have nicknamed it so.

Akihabara is a vibrant and exciting shopping district with lots of people milling about all day long and into the evening. Dress up as your favorite anime character and join in the fun! Or shop till you drop finding the latest in Japanese anime software, CDs and DVD’s at domestic prices in the numerous Duty Free shops. Previously known as “electric town,” when Akihabara was more famous for its electronics outlets than anime, don’t miss the chance to pick up a new camera or other electronics (dictionaries, iPhones, etc) while you’re in Akihabara.

Akihabara can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not used to Japanese cities with floors and floors of shops stacked on top of each other inside high rise buildings. As a result, there are a couple of places to get a tour of the area in English. These people will help guide you through the shops and buildings so you can get a handle on where everything is. A good place to start is the Tokyo Anime Center, which offers maps of the area, guide services and other information in English.


Tokyo Anime Center

More info on Akihabara at Akibanana

Welcome to Japan page for Akihabara and free English tours at

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Free Guide Services

Free Guide ServicesJapan can be a difficult place to get around if you don’t speak Japanese. If you stick to the big cities, you’ll have no problems as information in English is available, but for anyone who wants to get off the beaten track a bit, you just might want a guide who can communicate in English, show you around town to some of the sights and take you to a regional restaurant known for it’s local specialty.

Professional guides can cost over US$200 per day, but if you are willing to use volunteer guides, you can get by quite cheaply and you may even have a more local, cultural experience.

The one thing about using volunteer guides is that most of the guides volunteer because they want to practice their language, and guiding, skills. As a result, you may find that some of the guides do not speak very fluent English or that they cannot answer your questions in much depth. But Japanese people are very sincere and very proud of their culture, so they will always try their best, and often go above and beyond what is expected to make sure they give you good service.

Volunteer guides do not make money from their guiding. They get paid by the experience and their chance to improve their linguistic and guiding skills. You are not expected to tip them but you should pay their expenses for food or entrance fees to the places they take you. If you want to tip, Japanese people would feel more comfortable receiving a small gift, perhaps something from your country, than receiving money. If you feel you must give a monetary gift, always put it inside an envelope. To receive cash in public, or front of other people is always embarrassing for Japanese people. An envelope always leaves the possibility that the contents could be just a letter of gratitude.

For a list of contacts for “Goodwill Guides” in various areas throughout Japan, see the JNTO website

If you cannot find a guide for the place you are headed to, you can always ask at the information desk of any train station.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Japan’s Rainy Season

Japan’s Rainy SeasonFrom the beginning of June to mid-July is “tsuyu” Japan’s rainy season. However, it is a misnomer in some ways. Most Japanese agree that the rainy season used to be a far more significant event than it is now, mainly due to global warming. The rain isn’t as heavy or frequent as it used to be. Sometimes it hardly rains at all during the rainy season.

There is a saying in Japanese: Three days rain, four days sunshine. Even if the weather doesn’t follow this pattern anymore, it is still telling of typical rainy season behavior. During the rainy season, you will still have days of sunshine, and when it does rain, it is a very steady rain. It can be heavy at times, sometimes even all day long, but there is usually no wind associated with hard rains during the rainy season.

My first trip to Japan was during the rainy season and it left a lasting impression on me. The foliage was extremely green and fresh and the smell of earth and flowers permeated the air. Snails sauntered along sidewalks while flower petals dripped with moisture. I was touched by the beauty of Japan’s small moments.

The rainy season is also a good season to feel Japan’s strong relationship with the seasons. Walls will be graced with framed paintings of Ajisai flowers (Hydrangea), a symbol of the rainy season. Zen meditation is best performed while listening to the rain fall outside. Japanese gardens have lily ponds that thrive in the rain and frogs express their approval of the rain by croaking all night long.

The downside to the rainy season, besides having to slog through lots of puddles, is the pervasive dampness that allows mold to grow and build up, especially in concrete structures. Wooden structures, such as temples and shrines offer better opportunities to enjoy the atmosphere of the rainy season. Indeed some places, such as Kyoto and Nara, are considered better to visit during a good rain to really soak in the mood. Traditional Japan takes on a romantic and spiritual sense during this season.

Although it is extremely humid during the rainy season, Japan is always humid in the summertime and at least the weather is cooler because there is more cloud cover.

But if you really hate rain, you might want to skip this season altogether, or head to Hokkaido (which has no rainy season) or to Okinawa, where the rainy season is earlier, from May through June.

Yahoo Japan Weather:

Choose the prefecture you’d like the forecast for

For the weather-obsessed, see Weather Underground which includes all-Japan maps for temperature, humidity, wind and the jetstream, among others.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Baggage Courier Services

Baggage Courier ServicesOne thing you’ll notice while you are travelling through Japan is that the Japanese never seem to have any luggage. You’ll meet Japanese people travelling all over Japan by train, but they’re not schlepping around large suitcases through train stations, up and down stairs and through train car aisles. No, the Japanese are too smart for this.

Instead, they send their luggage ahead with a baggage courier service. These services are extremely safe and efficient. The most popular service is Takkyubin offered by the Yamato Transport company and Pelican from Nittsu (Nippon Express). For a small fee, they will transfer your bags from, say, the airport to your hotel, or from your hotel in Tokyo to your hotel in Kyoto. You can send your baggage to any address inside Japan. Unless you are travelling a great distance, such as from Hokkaido to Kyushu, these couriers offer next day service. A suitcase from Tokyo to Osaka would cost approximately 1,900 yen and arrive the next day.

With no luggage to worry about, taking public transportation in Japan suddenly becomes much more convenient. It also means that you do not have to stop and find a locker to store your things while you go off to explore some sights while en route to your destination.

Then, when you are ready to leave Japan, you can send your luggage from your hotel to the airport the day before. When you arrive at the airport departures section, your bag will be there waiting for you. Simply walk it over to the check-in counter at the airline and you’re finished!


If for whatever reason, you should still have to muscle your luggage through Japan’s busy train stations, remember that wherever there are stairs, there is either an escalator or a lift nearby. Look around before you drag that ball and chain up that flight of stairs!

In the airport, the courier service counters can be found at the Arrivals Hall. Just take your trolley over to the desk and tell them you’d like to send your luggage. They’ll be happy to take it off your hands.

All hotel reception desks as well as convenience stores can arrange luggage transport for you. If you are attending a conference, the venue will have a courier set up a temporary booth so that you can send your luggage from the conference venue. This is great for when you have extra luggage for presentations.

Skis, snowboards, golf equipment and surfboards can also be sent by courier.


Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at

Benefits of a falling yen

The Japanese yen and the US dollar are losing ground on the world market. The Euro and the Australian dollar are getting stronger. What does this mean to you as a traveler to Japan?

If you’re from Europe or Australia, I don’t need to tell you, as you already know that Japan is becoming more and more affordable as a result of the weak yen. But for those wishing to travel to Japan with US dollars, how is a weak yen, paired with a weakening dollar, helping them?

Japan is not as expensive as it used to be

Although Americans won’t benefit from their currency getting stronger against the yen, Japan is still much cheaper than it used to be. Despite the US annual inflation rate of around five percent per year, Japan has had no inflation for a long time. Accommodation and food, for example, haven’t gone up in price since I first came here 15 years ago. So even a weak dollar is buying more today than it would have five years ago.

No longer Made in Japan?

Not only have prices not changed, but many things have actually gotten cheaper. As the Japanese can no longer afford to spend money as they could 20 years ago, Japan has turned to importing goods from China where the labor is much cheaper. Everything from daily necessities to food now comes from China at a much reduced price.

Budget accommodation abounds

Budget accommodation is still especially cheap. You can still get basic accommodation for 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen per night in many of the smaller tourist towns. You may find that the decor in these accommodations is a little quaint and outdated, but you can still expect the rooms to be clean and management efficient. After all, if they did update, they’d also have to charge a higher price.

The most expensive part of your trip in Japan will be transportation. Trains and taxis are still expensive. So choose cheaper ways to get around, such as long distance buses and ferries, for the longer parts of your trip.

For many people, it still may be hard to imagine Japan as a cheap destination. Being able to get by on so little money in such a first-world country with all the mods and cons is a nice contrast if you ask me.

Keep an eye on daily currency conversion rates at

You can also type in yen amounts to find out their values in your currency.

Currency Calculator offers exchange rates, a calculator and historical graphs of changes in currencies.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at

Camping In Japan

Ever considered camping in Japan? It’s a cheap, fun way to travel around and an easy way to meet Japanese people. Not only that, but you get to meet Japanese insects up close and personal. Don’t wrinkle your nose! The Japanese love their insects. Everything from the sound of cicadas and crickets to the sighting of a giant stag beetle are prized occurrences in Japan. So get out there and get to know your smaller neighbors!

Campsites in Japan vary from primitive to deluxe campsites with all the amenities. If you’re traveling around Japan, be ready for anything, because you may not always be able to find a campsite with all the comforts. But due to the numerous public baths and hot springs in Japan, you’ll never be far away from a nice, hot bath.

Fall is an ideal time to camp as it is the season for Autumn festivals all around Japan. These festivals celebrate everything from Autumn vegetable planting to worshipping local Shinto Gods. Festivals are community events, so even visitors can usually join in the fun, helping to carry the “mikoshi” (portable shrine) and taking part in drinking the local sake. Choose a festival, then look for a campground near it, and you’ll have a fun, hands-on vacation.

If you are not concerned about finding a campsite, in certain parts of Japan such as Shikoku, it is legal to set up your tent anywhere on public land (parks, etc). Hint: If no park is available, find places near train stations or even bus stops as they are most likely to have toilets and running water. Even if you know it is legal to camp somewhere, it is always polite to ask anyway.

If you are a seasoned camper, consider bringing your own tent to Japan. Japan offers all kinds of camping gear, but they tend to sell mostly larger size tents for 6-8 people, which can be heavy to carry around when you only need a tent for two. Everything else can be bought at the large camping stores in the cities.

Typically, there will be a charge of 1,000 yen per tent, and a surcharge per person. Amenities may be extra.

Remember to take your Guide to Insects.


Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at