Expectations Vs. Reality: Japan



March 2017 - Mt. Fuji, Japan
A view from Mt. Kachikachi ropeway

Japan never really made it on my travel priority list. I find it as one of the tourist-trapped, stereotyped countries every one wants to go to especially during the Sakura season. I can't blame them. Apart from the Sakura, Tokyo has a lot of touristy, instagrammable spots to see. 


But because of a dear friend's invitation, I had to visit Japan last March and I am going to take back most (if not all) of the things I thought about what it would be like.


Expectation: Japan is all about the Sakura.


Reality: It is way more than just the Sakura.

While most people go there during Spring for the picturesque cherry blossom, this country has a lot more to offer. Traveling to Lake Kawaguchiko and seeing the majestic Mt. Fuji was definitely the highlight of my trip. If given more time, I would have loved to explore more of the outskirts of Tokyo and see its more scenic views that you wouldn't even expect are in Japan.



Lake Kawaguchiko

Tip: Take the Kawaguchiko Sightseeing Bus. It costs 1,340 Yen for 2 days and
will take you around Kawaguchiko with various spots to stop.

at The World Heritage Fujisan - one of the stops of the sight seeing bus.


Tip of the Mt. Fuji as seen from our sightseeing bus.




Expectation: Japanese food is all about ramen and sushi.


Reality:  Japanese Street Food is what everyone should try. 




As I have mentioned on my previous blogs, I am not a foodie when traveling and would gladly settle for cup noodles if need be. However, Japanese street foods have piqued my appetite. The most exciting part of trying a few of these is that I don't exactly know what they are! All of those I have tried had a very rich flavour to them and were cheap too. Believe it or not, I didn't even have the opportunity to eat sushi and only had ramen once during my 7-day trip.



 




the locals making Takoyaki

Expectation: Shopping in Japan is expensive.

Reality: There are cheap shopping place options like Daiso and their street markets.


I don't usually shop when traveling except for souvenirs, but I had fun just strolling around their shops especially Daiso. They just have the cutest things you don't even need but you will be tempted to buy.



                                                           
                                             Ameyayokocho - a street market
                                         near Ueno Park
Souvenirs at Asakusa Temple Market


Expectation: Complicated Train System


Reality: Complicated Train System (Metro)


Daimon Metro Station

It is inevitable not to compare the ease of Singapore transportation system when traveling and that quite frustrated me having to use the metro in Japan. Most of the stations we had to go to don't have any lifts to be used especially for tourists with large luggages! The flight of stairs was not easy as well (could be three floors or more). It didn't make things easier for first time travellers like us that some of the train stations' ticketing system were reliant on prices and not on the actual station name! So as a tip, you have to know the price of the station where you will be alighting to make it easier for you. 



An example of a typical Japanese metro ticket counter
photo credit: https://randomwire.com

How are their toilets more improved than their metro system?


Taxi was very expensive so it was already out of our options to choose from. They don't use Uber or Grab as well, and even if they did, having asked the locals around, they are not familiar with these life-saving-apps.



Expectation: It will be difficult to communicate because of the language barrier.


Reality: It was difficult to communicate with the locals.


I was already expecting this having read on my research but I was still culture shocked having to experience first hand with the locals. While most of them were very polite and would gladly help you with directions even if you do not ask them directly, I still had a rude experience with a tourist information officer who couldn't understand my query. She can speak english but really couldn't comprehend well.


On our first night, we lost almost an hour trying to find our accomodation because the taxi driver had it mistaken to another hotel. The frustrating part is they will still speak in straight Nihongo while giving me the impression (based on their tone) that they are frustrated with tourists who don't know a thing about their country. 


Still, with hand gestures and broken English, we survived.


Typical street in Tokyo where most of the signages are in Nihongo

Even though it was a brief vacation, I still enjoyed seeing a side of Japan. Most of my expectations of it were not really met and I would probably be back to explore the other prefectures.



Enjoying the scenic view at Lake Kawaguchiko.

Iceland Travel Tips

October 2016- Road Trip in Iceland

Planning a trip to Iceland could be very challenging especially when almost every blog you have read about it have something very in common to say - "Travelling to Iceland is expensive". And I thought living in Singapore, which bagged the 'most expensive city in the world' title, would actually prepare me for this trip. Apparently not.

Travelling to Iceland is indeed expensive but doable if you don't mind going for the cheaper and more practical options to get around.

Flights




There are direct flights from Singapore to Reykjavik but because we wanted to save more money, we searched for an alternative route. 


* Prices may vary on the month you are travelling.

This may not be the most efficient way to travel due to long hours of layovers. We made the most out of it anyway and explored Copenhagen during our 8-hour layover. If you manage to find shorter layovers via any another European city, go for it or perhaps make the most out of the long hours and explore the city you'll be at.



On our 8-hour layover at Copenhagen, we had a chance to visit the famous Nyhavn canal.


Accommodation


Surprisingly, Air BNBs were more expensive than hostels in Iceland. This may vary according to the area you want to stay at. To make it easier for us to roam around, we chose to stay near the city area. This also saved us transportation money and we got a chance to wander around easily.




Reykjavik Hostel Village at SGD 72 per night

Reykjavik Hostel Village has a good location, pretty close and within walking distance from grocery stores, souvenir shops and the Hallgrímskirkja Church. It also has a kitchen where guests can cook instead of dining out, another cost-saving tip.


DIY or Guided Day Tours

Our original plan was to rent a car and do a DIY trip, which is actually the most recommended way to go around Iceland. But since it's only my friend who can drive, it will be unfair for her to be just the one driving around.


So for the most part of our trip, we did day tours.



The Traveling Viking was our tour guide at Akureyri.



DAY TOURS - Pros:

(1) Comfort
     Driving around Iceland can take long hours. Having someone to drive you around, who knows the places by heart, can save you time and energy. You will also get to just sit back and enjoy the scenic views, which could be distracting if you are the one driving and concentrating on the roads and directions.

(2) Added information by tour guides
    We were quite lucky with the tour operators we have booked such as Iceland Horizon, Goecco and GreyLine Tours. They have very informative tour guides which made the long drives bearable with facts and folk stories they told about Iceland. Not only you get to marvel at the scenic views, you'll also get to learn more about Iceland.

 

Driving through the highlands of Iceland
Video courtesy of Goecco Tours 


DAY TOURS - Cons: 


(1) Time constraint 
    Since it was only a day tour, the time to see every place was very limited. To drive from and back to Reykjavik can already take 6 hours in total. This also makes the trip rushed, not much having enough time to appreciate the scenery. 

(2) Early Pickup Time and Drop off
    The usual pick up time was 7 AM which felt like more getting up for work than being on a vacation. Drop off to the city varies, latest was around 9 PM. Although it was an arranged tour and all you have to do was show up and follow the time diligently, it was still tiring especially keeping up with a tight schedule.

(3) Limited options of what to see
    Most of the day tours are prearranged - which means the operators have already planned beforehand what places to go and see. There were quite a lot of times we drove by interesting places which are not part of the tour. We could have stopped by but because of the strict schedule, we can't.



For our last 2 days in Reykjavik, we decided to rent a car and drive by ourselves. If only I knew how to drive, we could have done this from day 1.

Ring Road, Iceland





SELF-DRIVE - Pros:

(1) Flexibility of Time
     We had no schedule, no time table to follow - free and easy literally. It was more relaxed and exciting. We also didn't have to worry about waiting for other travelers in order to move along.

(2) More interesting places to see
     We searched for places that are not on most of the day tours. With only a GPS as our navigator, it was fairly easy and far more better discovering sights by ourselves. We can also stop by freely if we spot good views along the way.

(3) A great experience
    There is the thrill of getting lost and discovering different places along the way. This made the trip more memorable than already knowing what to expect to see on day tours.


We drove ourselves to the site of the DC3 Plane Wreckage at Vik.


      
SELF-DRIVE - Cons:

(1) Tiresome
      Iceland is all about long drives and it could be physically tiring. Although the roads are really good and directions are easy to follow, getting from Point A to Point B can take hours.

(2) Limited Information
     There are a lot of attractive sights to see as you drive around Iceland which will not be on any travel books or maps. Having a local tour guide to tell you more information about those will make you appreciate it more.


If you are going for a Day Tour...

1. Research, read reviews of previous travelers.
    There are a lot of tour operators in Iceland so it is important to read recent reviews of travelers. Tripadvisor would be the best portal for this.

2. Choose smaller groups.
  There are options for smaller groups of private tours although it will be expensive. Bigger groups tend to take so much time in waiting for everyone to be complete before moving along.

3. Have rest days in between.
    Some people tend to plan trips in a very compact schedule to maximise their time. We did this on our Eurotrip two years ago only to realise we were more tired than actually enjoying the trip. Although you won't be driving, travel time back and forth to Reykjavik can be exhausting so consider putting rest days in between. This will give you enough time to rest and enjoy your vacation more.
    

If you are going to Self-drive...

1. Bring a physical Map, don't rely only on GPS.
    Based on our experience, our GPS died on us in the middle of driving. We didn't have any physical map with us as an alternative. Although driving in Iceland was smoother than what we anticipated, it's always best to have maps to guide you.

2. Semi-plan ahead.
    It's good to drive around and be lost in the beauty of Iceland! But it's better to get an idea of at least one place you would want to drive to and take it from there.

3. Check out CityCar Rental in Reykjavik
  This Filipino-owned car rental was by far our greatest discovery. It has better rates and we were welcomed warmly by Filipinos working at the 4th Floor Hotel, also managed by the same owner.

I would strongly encourage self-driving if traveling with a big group. Car rental and gas expenses won't be that too much to share among a larger group and most of the sights have no entrance fees. 

Food

Dining out in Iceland is expensive. Probably one of the reasons why Mcdonald's shut down their business because of the high taxes in place. I would strongly recommend to buy from the grocery and do home cooked meals or sandwiches to save money. That is why it is also advisable to look for accommodations with a kitchen installed. Tap water in Iceland is very safe to drink so bringing a water bottle would be very handy and cost saving. 



Our usual meal.
SGD 6

To give you a more detailed breakdown of how much I spent on a 14-day trip to Iceland:
Prices from September-October 2016
Flight prices are 2-way

This is almost the same amount I spent on a 15-day Eurotrip for 7 cities! 
This breakdown excludes the outdoor clothing I had to buy.



Clothing

It is vital to consider the investment to be alloted in buying high quality and waterproof outdoor wear such as Tri-climate jackets, hiking shoes/boots, hiking pants, thermals and gloves. I could have just bought cheap, non-branded jackets but because I wanted to invest on durable outdoor wear, I opted to buy well-made outdoor wear from trusted brands. Heavy rains and strong winds in Iceland should not be underestimated so high durable waterproof and windproof outdoor wear are mostly recommended. Umbrellas won't stand a chance with the strong winds so better always carry a good quality raincoat with you.


My not-so-waterproof-wear at Skogafoss.
'Waterproofed' at Lake Myvatn.
(except for the beanie)


These are all based on my experience and recent trip to Iceland last October 2016. Different travelers have different preferences. What might have worked for me might not work for you. Happy planning ahead!