THE landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo was anything but smooth, but I managed to catch my first glimpse of Japan. A sea of light emanated from the bustling metropolis below, drawing a rough outline of Tokyo Bay.
Thus began my 10-day backpacking trip across Central Japan early this month. I was travelling with four friends who share my love for the Land of the Rising Sun and anime. It was meant to be our post-Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) trip. Also travelling with us was my younger brother.
Since we were on our own, our trip had to be meticulously planned. And it was certainly well worth the effort. My cousin sister who is studying in Osaka helped a lot too as she was our translator and photographer.
Having recently returned from an amazing time in Japan, I have some takeaways for students keen on exploring the country.
Do your ‘homework’
There are a wide variety of useful applications available for free. Looking for cheap flights? Check out Skyscanner. Having trouble navigating Japan’s intricate public transport network? Use Navitime or Google Maps.
I also highly recommend referring to blogs written by seasoned travellers when drafting an itinerary.
If you prefer face-to-face conversations, then a visit to Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur will come in handy.
The travel agency staff will go to great lengths to explain anything from the best attractions to minor details like commuting routes.
To purchase rail passes, you may do so via travel ecommerce platforms such as Klook and KKday at a marginally lower price but buying from JTB guarantees immediate collection and instant enquiry service.
Generally, you can look for accommodations via applications such as Agoda, Booking.com and Airbnb. You can find rates as low as RM80 per person per night in city centres if you look for youth hostels.
The downside of these hostels is the lack of privacy and space, alongside the constant chatter in the background.
Another thing to note when preparing for the trip is to fill out the immigration and customs declaration forms, as well as upload your Covid-19 vaccination or negative certificate through Visit Japan Web. I can’t stress this enough: print or save a digital copy of “mission-critical” documents to avoid inconveniences at the airport.
Learning while travelling
Moving at a whopping 300km per hour on the bullet train is where textbook knowledge comes to life. Look out the window and you will realise that geography has been cruel to Japan.
As we sped past the concrete jungle of Kanto Plain, mountain ranges began to appear on the horizon while dense streets were gradually replaced by villages coupled with arable land.
Soon after, the Shinkansen whizzed through pitch-black tunnels as it cut across the vast, mountainous Japanese interior.
Despite being large and populous, less than 20% of Japanese land is suitable for farming and housing. The mountains of Japan have restricted its inhabitants to coastal plains along the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea, where great cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka rose to prominence. This explains why Japan has an urban population of around 90%, way higher than the global average of 55%.
The long, winding Japanese shoreline also contributed to urbanisation. When travelling from Haneda Airport to the central business district along the Tokyo Monorail Line, be sure to look to the right and you will notice countless factories, warehouses and ports lining the coast of Tokyo Bay.
As an export-oriented seafaring nation, Japan heavily relies on maritime transport to fuel her intensive export machine. Public transport in Japan is remarkably efficient to cope with concentrated economic activities and populations. Higher density also means that urban dwellers can lead car-free lives since most areas are within proximity and pedestrian-friendly.
Therefore, it is highly advisable to use public transport when sightseeing but beware of boarding the wrong train as commuter rail is generally differentiated between local, rapid and express trains.
Although packed like sardines during peak hours, Japanese trains are frequent, fast and fail-safe. Grab a map since the number of lines and companies might be overwhelming, not to mention underground links connecting stations to maze-like shopping centres.
City grids and tidy blocks stretch out as far as the eye can see, spanning hundreds of miles in all directions.
Colourful billboards, massive flyovers, boxy buildings and brightly-lit shopping districts fill up the labyrinthine streets and alleys.
Famous for its eye-catching neon light signage and moving shopfront sculptures, the Dotonbori district in Osaka is a prime example of Japan’s vibrant city life.
However, Japan is also a country where modernity intermingles with tradition. Cultural heritage is preserved with the utmost care, as shown by the breathtaking castles and shrines, as well as traditional craftsmanship.
The sunset over Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple built on a hillside, was a sight to behold. The golden-yellow sky acted as a backdrop to a towering three-storeyed pagoda overlooking the glittering city of Kyoto.
Despite housing the largest urbanised population in the world, Japan has mountain ranges which offer visitors an entirely different experience, a getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Our visit to Hakone-machi, a picturesque mountain town known for its famous onsen (hot spring) and views of Lake Ashi, provided much-needed peace and tranquillity after days of hectic sightseeing in touristy locations.
Everyone welcomed the change of pace, which gave us sufficient time to thoroughly explore the sleepy countryside and indulge ourselves in nature’s beauty.
And how can one not mention Mount Fuji after visiting Japan? Mount Fuji owes its allure to its snow-white icecap, best viewed from the town of Fujikawaguchiko.
We cycled along the shore of Lake Kawaguchi, enjoying the scenic and dream-like reflection of Mount Fuji on the crystal clear waters.
No wonder in the Canton classic “Under Mount Fuji”, singer Eason Chan expressed that loving someone is akin to loving Mount Fuji; you can only admire from afar.
Perhaps this impression can be further implied to Japan as a whole. After an exhausting yet eye-opening backpacking trip, our inner Malaysianness kicked in and we hankered for nasi lemak over ramen.
Qian Hung, 19, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For more information, go to facebook.com/niebrats.
Now that you have read the article, test your understanding by carrying out the following English language activities.
1. List five things you have just learnt about Japan after reading the article. Are your five items similar to the ones picked out by your activity partner?
2. What are three questions you would ask your partner to test his or her understanding of the article? List the questions and then, get your partner to answer them.
3. If you could go on a backpacking trip abroad with your friends, which country would you choose and why?
The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme promotes the use of English language in primary and secondary schools nationwide. For Star-NiE enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.