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22. Backpacking (& some of my experiences in Japan)

22. Backpacking (& some of my experiences in Japan)

By Alena Lien, 

3 May 2021

Transcript:

Hey! How're you going? This is Alena and welcome to the Along Came English podcast.


If you're new here, this is an English learning podcast where I talk about a variety of different topics, share some stories from my life and explain some English stuff along the way.


Well, for this episode, I thought it was time that I finally talk about backpacking, and my overall experience backpacking in Japan.


I'm sure I mentioned in a previous episode that I took a year off in 2019 to go backpacking. I had always wanted to travel around Japan so I started off with that. I spent about 3 months there according to what the tourist visa permitted. I then spent 4 months in Europe, which I'll eventually get to.


So why did it take me over a year to finally talk about my travels? Well, 2020. It just wasn't the right time to talk about travelling. I'm actually not sure if it's the right time now either but things are getting back to normal here in Melbourne and there are travel bubbles now. And if I'm not mistaken, there're people still travelling in different parts of the world - just not in this part of the world.


Now if you don't know, a "travel bubble" is an agreement that allows for travel between two countries without restriction. The idea is that these countries have successfully dealt with the pandemic and therefore limit the risks to travellers and countries visited whilst their borders remain closed to visitors from other countries outside of their bubble.


I think Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are in a travel bubble. Singapore and China also formed a travel bubble not that long ago. Australia and New Zealand's travel bubble will launch soon. I've heard that travel bubbles... I've heard of travel bubbles in the works between Australia and Singapore, and Hong Kong - not sure... not sure when though.


We'll see how it goes. I can only hope for the best.


Anyway, Japan.


Look, I'm not sure how the pandemic will change tourism in Japan. I believe there were businesses that were affected by the lack of tourism - both international and local.


So yea, it might be a good idea to consider what I share here as my own experiences rather than travelling tips.


So in this episode, I'll explain what backpacking is and what I think about it. I'll also talk about my overall backpacking experience in Japan, and what the hostels are like and share some stories.

Because of time, I won't be able to talk about my entire Japan trip here. So I might talk about my itinerary in another episode - maybe.


Now there are transcripts on the website - alongcameenglish.com. Or you can read along if you're watching the video on YouTube.


And if you find this interesting or helpful, please like, subscribe or follow. And also please consider supporting Along Came English on Patreon.



What is backpacking


Okay. So I'm going to explain what backpacking is first.


So "backpacking" is a form of low-cost, independent travel, which often includes staying in budget accommodations and carrying everything necessary in a backpack. You might have seen travellers with those massive backpacks at the airport or on buses.


Anyway, I had never heard of backpacking or a gap year until I came to Australia. It's kind of a coming-of-age thing for people who graduated from university here. I've actually met backpackers who did it after high school, but over here, it's usually university graduates.


"Coming of age" is a common term used to describe the age or occasion when one formally becomes an adult.


It's also a fairly popular genre of films and literature that focuses on the growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood. So Harry Potter is an example of this. And more recently, The Queen's Gambit on Netflix.


Of course not all backpackers are young and doing a long trip. Backpackers vary largely in age. Most of them were on a short vacation. Some took a year off, some longer. I actually met a few that were travelling full-time - either they would do freelance work intermittently, or they were living off their savings.


Anyway, I actually got my first travel backpack when I decided to go on this trip. Personally I didn't get a massive one. I've had pretty bad back pain in the past, so I was quite weary about carrying so much. Instead I opted to get a smaller one that doubled as a carry-on and then a small wheelie carry-on. So in the end, I kinda had 2 bags.


Looking back now though, I carried too much. By the end of my travels in Europe, I ended up with my travel backpack, and then a smaller day backpack that had my essentials and stuff at hand. So it was so much easier not having to lug around a wheelie luggage even though it was a small one.


Now I had never gone backpacking until I did it in Japan. It was very different from my previous travels. My previous holidays were about splurging, going shopping, eating good food, relaxing. I mean I didn't go overboard, but you were expected to splurge a little.


"Splurge" means to spend a lot of money freely or extravagantly.


Backpacking, on the other hand, is about restricting how much you spend, finding cheaper alternatives, either because you don't have a lot of money to begin with or to try to make the money last longer.


Backpacking can also be quite intensive because people are usually moving from place to place every few days, sometimes daily. So I wouldn't call it a relaxing type of vacation. Often backpackers will take a break from travelling after several months, like spend a few weeks to recuperate and relax before they continue their travels.


"Recuperate" means to recover from illness or exertion.


There's also something called "travel fatigue," which is basically fatigue from travelling so much. This hit me pretty hard when I was in Europe actually. I was really glad to get back to Malaysia afterwards.

Although backpacking is a form of low-cost travelling, it can actually cost quite a bit depending on the country you go to.


After paying for the air tickets, you have to think about costs of travelling around the country, the cost of accommodation and cost of food, and other expenses like visiting museums or historical sites, seeing shows, going on tours, etc. It... it all adds up.


And long distance travels within Japan can also be quite expensive compared to other places. I've met other travellers who are quite wary of how expensive food can be in Japan, and cost of living there is kind of high.


Now you can get by on a relatively low budget in Japan if you stick to cheap meals and there are plenty of budget restaurants and convenience stores. The thing about Japan though is that they have really awesome food, from budget to fine dining. So unless you have strict dietary restrictions, you're... you're missing out if you don't at least try their fine dining from time to time. In my opinion, of course.


Now because I also went backpacking in Europe, I've come to realise that backpacking in Japan is not that cheap. In certain countries, backpackers could camp out and even stay in backyards of hostels or people's homes, which is significantly cheaper and not something I ever heard of in Japan. So Japan's not the ideal country for backpackers who prefer to camp out.


I dunno, I guess you could say there are different levels of budget travelling and people have different philosophies or approaches to how they travel. Backpacking is often associated with meeting different people, experiencing the local culture of course, and even self-discovery.


"Self-discovery" refers to the process of learning about yourself, your beliefs, how you personally feel about spiritual issues and priorities, rather than following the opinions of others.


And... yea, it's... it sounds very cliched, but I'm sure there's some truth to it. So Eat, Pray, Love comes to mind. This is a memoir that became a movie, starring Julia Roberts. It's based on a woman who embarks on a journey around the world on a quest for self-discovery. Now I've never seen the movie or read the book, but it was very popular when the movie came out.


Personally, I decided to go backpacking because I wanted to and I could. It... it sounds very entitled saying it out loud for some reason. I was at a crossroads in my life. I was in my 30s. I wanted a career change. And I thought that this opportunity would never come around again, so I decided to take advantage of it while I could.


I know a lot of young adults go backpacking in their gap year fresh out of high school or university. However, as an adult, it's quite different to just pluck yourself from your life and responsibilities and just go travelling. I actually sold my car and put all my belongings in storage. I also had no permanent address in Australia - a friend was kind enough to let me forward my mail to her place.


Honestly speaking, I don't feel like I "found" myself in my travels and that was never my intention anyway. There seems to be this weird association that travelling around the world is supposed to be life-changing.


Now don't get me wrong, it can be for some people, it just wasn't quite like that for me. I wanted to go places and see things with my own eyes and that was all. It was pretty awesome and I had a really good time.



I travelled all over Japan


When I said I wanted to travel around Japan, I actually travelled all around Japan. I went to over 20 cities and towns over two and a half months. I went to most of the famous cities - Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Sapporo, and Okinawa.


Now I missed out on Kobe. I didn't realise that this was a major city until I looked on Wikipedia while preparing for this episode.


Other places I went to included Kamakura, Nagasaki, Kanazawa, Aomori, Asahikawa, and more.


Of the 5 main islands in Japan, I only missed out on Shikoku. I mean, I would've gone there, but there didn't seem to be very good public transportation getting in, unless you had a car or a bike. Oh well.


I'd say I did a pretty thorough job. I probably visited more places than the average Japanese. I think I missed out in terms of experience however because of my lack of Japanese skills. Yea, Japan has really good access in terms of public transportation, but not every place is accessible because of communication barriers.


I mean, that's the same with every country, right? You'll never really get the true local experience because of language barriers but also just being an outsider.


As a tourist, you can spend up to 3 months in Japan. The interesting thing though is that it doesn't specify how often you can go back. Technically, you could fly out of the country and back within a day and stay for another 3 months, but... I'm not sure how often people take advantage of this.


Also, when I arrived at the airport, they asked to see an onward ticket and bank statement, which is not surprising - I actually had that all prepared. But yea, I'm not sure how many people they refuse to let in because they didn't book an onward ticket or have enough funds.


Now an "onward ticket" just means a proof of a booked train, bus or airline ticket that shows you'll eventually leave the country you're entering.


In comparison, the Schengen visa allows you to spend up to 3 months in select European countries, but it explicitly says within a 6 month period. So you can go back for 3 months every 6 months.


Now I didn't realise until I started meeting other backpackers that many would plan their travels a day at a time. So they would book a night at an accommodation, and then decide the next day if they want to spend an extra night or move to the next city or town. A little precarious but that was how some people did it.


Here, "precarious" means dependent on change or uncertain.


But yea, I planned my entire trip - for the entire two and a half months. There were times where I wished that there were some flexibility, but yea, that's how I did it.


In Japan, there is something called a Japan Rail Pass, which is a pass that can only be used by international tourists that offers unlimited train rides for several weeks. I say a pass, but in fact, there are a number of different types that covers different regions of Japan.


However, they only last for several weeks. So to take advantage of this, I planned out my entire trip.





What backpacking is like in Japan


Backpacking in Japan is kind of a mixed bag.


I found it a bit difficult to meet people. People who stay in hostels are not always travellers, sometimes they're locals who missed the last train, or people who are in transition while moving to another place. I met a few who were staying in hostels as a form of cheap accommodation before moving to their next home.


Travellers also often stick to themselves and don't mingle particularly if they're travelling in groups - which is... which is pretty common.


And it kind of felt like hostels are just places for sleeping - you know, a bed to rest after working or a long day of sight-seeing or shopping. A lot of people would just head out early to go sight seeing and they often didn't come back until late at night.


And the sense of community in a hostel also depends on the person who runs the place, and most hostels I went to made no attempts to get people to mingle.


Out of all the 20 plus hostels I stayed at, only one place managed to do this successfully and that's because the person who ran the place lived there as well and offered to make local dishes in the kitchen for people to share.


Experiencing the local culture has its ups and downs as well. Now the tourism industry is a huge part of their economy, so it's kind of expected that some of these services are catered to foreigners as opposed to offering an authentic aspect of their local culture.


And I'm sure this is the same with any country with a tourism industry. As tourists, your experience only extends as far as language translations are available, and then when you move beyond that, that's when things get interesting.


I noticed this when I travelled out of Tokyo. I was on the train to Kanagawa, which is a prefecture south of Tokyo. And it suddenly went from regular English translations, both written and audio, to only Japanese. Yea, it was a... it was a pretty stark contrast. Thankfully though, I've come to realise that most train stations have at least one staff that can speak some basic English, which is very helpful.


There're many restaurants I've been to where their English menus are significantly smaller than their Japanese ones. Or they don't have English menus but they might have a Japanese menu with pictures. A few places have even turned me away.


Now not having English menus is fine to me. It's kind of a bonus, but I don't feel entitled to it. I've been to restaurants where I just picked a nice looking photo, or I've tried to Google translate and hoped for the best, and it still tasted pretty good. Thankfully Japanese businesses are pretty honest, so I don't think I was ever cheated or overcharged for meals.


Getting turned away though... not very nice. And these happened in places where there were less international tourists. Otherwise, most were really accommodating.


There was this small ramen shop I went to with another backpacker in Osaka. No English menu, but they let us sit down anyway. We probably took way longer than usual trying to order food because we were trying to Google translate the menu. But it was... it was delicious though.


Now some significant tourist attractions I've been to have some English translations. Most of them don't. Actually, I went to the Nagoya City Science Museum, which is a massive tourist attraction in the city. No English translations whatsoever. And it was funny because when you lined up to buy tickets, the ushers held up English signs stating very explicitly that there're no English translations inside.


I even booked a ticket to go to the Planetarium at the museum. A "planetarium" is a large room with a dome-shaped ceiling where you can see what the night sky looks like. And the entire thing was in Japanese and... yea, I just sat there pretty clueless admiring the stars.


Now most tourist attractions I heard of in Japan are because somebody wrote about them in English. I'm sure there're plenty of others that only Japanese-speaking people know about.


I went to a... I went to a pretty rural place called Jumonji, and met another Japanese tourist who told me about some local tourist attractions that I was completely unaware of. And it would've been nice to tag along, however I don't know how to ride a bicycle, and that's how he got around. So yea, it was definitely a missed opportunity.


I also have a Japanese friend who did not join me on my travels but would give me some tips if she was aware of the region that I was visiting. Actually, she was the one who brought me to an izakaya for the first time and I had my first highball.


Now an "izakaya" is basically a Japanese pub or informal bar. And I love them because they usually serve really good food with drinks. Foods are similar to Spanish tapas, so you often order a few dishes. And it's very common to see crowds of Japanese businessmen going after work, so it can get quite loud and busy, and smokey.


Now a "highball" is a very popular drink in Japan that's basically a whiskey soda - or Japanese whiskey mixed with soda water. You can go to any Japanese pub or bar and just ask for a "hai-bo-ru." They also sell highball in cans at any convenience stores, so I would often get one if I was having dinner at the hostel I was staying at.


I had a really good time at one izakaya in... I think Sumida, in Tokyo. This was a recommendation from the host of the hostel I was staying at. And their entire menu was translated into English. The bartenders and servers were really nice as well. And somehow the people sitting next to me starting talking to me when they found out I was a foreigner. We used Google translate to communicate. They even bought me drinks, it was great.



Japanese hostels


I had never stayed in a hostel before this trip. Hostels for backpackers are set up like dormitories, so you book a bed in a room full of other beds that you share with other guests. Thankfully I brought ear plugs in case of snorers.


Now in most of the hostels I went to in Japan, their beds were actually cubicles with curtains or even roller doors, so you had plenty of privacy.


Now in Japan, most hostels offered gender segregated dorms or floors. I sometimes stayed in mixed dorms but yea, it was also my first time sharing a room with other males that I didn't know.


A "cubicle" is a small space with walls or curtains that is separated from the rest of the room. So you could use "cubicle" to describe an office cubicle, or shower cubicle, etc. So I say "cubicle" to describe the beds because it actually is a box with a bed, with a socket to charge your phone or laptop, and a small safe to keep your valuables.


Of course, the size of the cubicle is subjective right? I'm a pretty small person, so I was quite comfortable but I wouldn't be surprised that these cubicles might be claustrophobic for taller or larger people.


Now the quality of Japanese hotels can vary quite a bit. Basic amenities were usually toiletries like shampoo and shower gel. Coffee and tea if there is a kitchen. Often they would give you fresh bedsheets to make your own bed when you check in. The better quality ones would offer daily fresh towels, sandals, a locker for your luggage and 24-hour service.


One of the first ones I stayed in, in Tokyo, was like an office space where they installed sheets of wood to create cubicles and ladders. They only had one dorm that was mixed. The mattress was a little thin. They had an area where they installed several sinks and shower cubicles. They had a small kitchen space and communal space. It looked a bit makeshift, but it was clean and I was relatively comfortable.


"Makeshift" means temporary and of low quality, usually because of a sudden need. But yea, this one looked like a converted office space.


There was a hosel I stayed in, in... Hakodate in Hokkaido, and that one was a whole building. Each floor was gender segregated with its own bathroom. The cubicles looked properly built. Daily fresh towels and robes. High quality toiletries. The beds were really comfortable. And they even had a washing machine and dryer for you to do your laundry.


And there were a few places that were just bunkbeds that were kind of the exception in comparison to most Japanese hostels. And usually they would have privacy curtains.


Now one place I stayed in... I think this was in Nagano... looked like a bedroom that was converted into a hostel space. It was such a small space and the person who ran it managed to fit 2 bunk beds, with a temporary kitchen and a shower cubicle. He installed curtains with clips where you could change in front of the shower cubicle. And this was a mixed dorm as well. It was very clean though.


Out of all the places I stayed in, only one had no privacy curtains in a mixed dorm. So that was the odd exception. This was in Kyoto and it was the cheapest place I could find in the area, even though it was a lot more expensive than places in Tokyo.


In my entire trip, I didn't stay in a capsule hotel. Now considering the quality of services and amenities available at some of these hostels, I'm not really sure what the differences are, to be honest. From looking online, it just seems that capsule hotels are more spacious and aesthetically pleasing, futuristic-looking even, and... and that's really it.


But if you've tried a capsule hotel, let me know what you think.


Now I had also always eaten out on previous trips, so it was definitely interesting trying to save money on food expenses and having to share a kitchen with other guests.


I actually didn't cook that much but I liked to use the kitchen because I brought oats along with me for my breakfast. Yea, I like having oats for breakfast.


Supermarkets in Japan usually had a takeaway section where you can get really cheap food. And I would often get sushi from supermarkets, and they were usually better quality than sushi from convenience stores.


Convenience stores are really awesome in Japan because they sell ready-made meals that they can heat up for you and you can eat in-store in their seating area - although... although I wouldn't recommend the sushi. And they're often 24 hours and they're everywhere. Even in rural areas, there's a Lawson, Family Mart, or 7-11 in the middle of nowhere.


I actually booked a few nights at a hostel in Ishinomaki, which is about an hour from Sendai. I thought it was a place next to the beach where I could chill and relax. But then I found out it had the word "beach" in its name because of the name of the road, not the actual beach. I think it's meant to be a stopover for local tourists that were travelling by car, which I... I didn't have. But yea, it had a 7-11 right next door.


And while I was staying there, I met a local traveller who could speak English that told me about a festival at a nearby Shinto shrine that she was attending the next day. So I went along.


Now I don't know the context of the festival, but basically they were having a festival where volunteers would carry a "mikoshi," or a portable Shinto shrine, around the town and visit different houses along the way. This is a pretty common festival in different parts of Japan but apparently they had revived this tradition in this area after it was affected by the Tsunami in 2011.


I ended up spending the entire day with them. It is probably the most amazing coincidence I ever experienced in Japan.


Interestingly though, there were some phalluses at the shrine that had apparently washed up during the Tsunami. And they have no idea where they came from.


Anyway, I should finish the episode here.


Don't forget to like, subscribe or follow if you found this interesting or helpful.


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Well, thank you so much for listening. Stay safe. Have a good day and I'll catch you later. Bye.