By Andrea Beattie and Cathy Anderson
Before the global recession and an influx of cheap-deal airlines you’d have to live on two-minute noodles for six months and sell your prized collection of ’60s vinyls to afford a decent holiday to Japan.
But now the Land of the Rising Sun is just as affordable as other Asian hot spots such as Thailand and Vietnam.
A whirlwind 10-day break can cost as little as $2000, in which time you can surf the crowds under the neon lights of Tokyo, stumble over centuries-old temples every five metres in Kyoto, weep at the atrocities of nuclear war in Hiroshima and soak your travel-weary bones in the natural hot springs of the Japanese Alps.
Stay longer and you could visit the snowfields of Hokkaido or dive with manta rays in the southern islands.
All seasons are great for travelling, but if you want photos under the cherry blossoms, plan for spring.
BIT OF A SQUEEZE
Japan has a network of budget accommodation, but even three- and four-star hotels in major cities can be as little as $100 with buffet breakfast.
Sure, you may feel like Gulliver (the rooms are tiny), but Japan is a small country with a population of 127 million – that’s 336 people per square kilometre compared with Australia’s 2.9 – so space is a luxury.
Japan’s quick-stay business hotels offer good basic rooms. But if sleeping on the floor is more your thing, try a ryokan – a traditional Japanese-style inn.
Older ryokans are wooden buildings with plenty of history (and a higher rate). Modern ryokan hotels offer Japanese-style rooms without charm, but also without creaking floorboards.
Both usually serve dinner in the rooms; your low, chairless table is moved to the corner when the futons come out of the cupboard.
VEND YOUR SPLEEN
Eating out doesn’t have to be a five-star experience. Even Japan’s multi-level train stations offer fine restaurant dining as well as burger joints and noodle bars. Convenience stores stock a massive range of ready-made meals and snacks.
And there’s always the road-side stands with vendors preparing an array of tasty treats, such as squid balls, which are a lot nicer than they sound.
If all else fails, head to your nearest vending machine – in major cities, some noodle chains have a machine out the front where you order and pay for your meal, take the voucher it spits out and head inside to wait a few minutes while your meal is prepared.
You can either take it away or eat in the busy restaurant amid the high turnover of satisfied customers.
FAST AS A SPEEDING BULLET
Japan’s rail system is arguably the best in the world. Whether it be the Shinkansen (bullet trains), the slower Japan Rail lines or the Tokyo metro, efficiency is of the highest order. The old ‘‘my train was late so I’m late for work’’ excuse doesn’t wash here.
Shinkansen lines between major cities is a speedy, dream run.
These high-speed bullets can travel at up to 300km/h, meaning you can travel from Hiroshima to Tokyo in less than four hours (a distance of 821km).
An army of cleaners ensure the trains are spotless, and a trolley lady delivers drinks and snacks for sale.
If you’re in Japan for longer than a week, get a rail pass. These are for tourists only and must be purchased outside the country.
A seven-day Japan Rail Pass will set you back $345 and a 21-day pass about $700, but it’s well worth it convenience-wise and it’s cheaper than buying individual tickets if you’re travelling around.
With the pass, you can reserve a seat free any time in the lead-up to your trip, meaning you don’t have to stand up in a general car for hours if the train is packed.
Passes for specific regions are also available for slightly less, but the full rail pass gives you access to most JR Shinkansen lines as well as buses and some ferries all year round.
Original article appeared in mX newspaper