What’s it like to visit Japan after the pandemic? My friend Sheila recently visited and is kind enough to share her experience as the country finally re-opens!
Visiting Japan After the Pandemic
As most of us know, Japan is finally open after being closed to outsiders since the beginning of the pandemic. I suppose we should be thankful – the last time Japan closed, it lasted 200 years!
This is (mostly) good news to us Japan-lovers but – like everywhere else in the world – things have changed a bit.
I recently returned from 3 ½ weeks where I spent some ‘me’ time, some ‘visiting friends’ time, and two weeks leading my first cherry blossom tour. I had never visited during cherry blossom time and – I must say – it was incredibly beautiful! There were a few places that were uncomfortably crowded but most weren’t bad at all.
Pro tip – if it’s raining, grab your umbrella and head out to the popular places. We walked through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama in Kyoto and Rikugien Gardens in Tokyo and both were nearly empty. And umbrellas look great against cherry blossom trees in your photos!
Are signs in Japan in English or Japanese?
There are more signs in English than ever before, particularly in the cities. The ill-fated 2020 Olympics surely had an impact on this (particularly in Tokyo). And when I say ‘In English’, I actually mean ‘In Roman letters’ (romaji) which is really all that you need.
And, for the situations that are completely in Japanese (some signs, menus, etc.), Google Translate has upped its game considerably in the last few years. I was able to take a photo of a menu through the app and it would translate it on top of the static picture. This is SO much better than trying to hold the phone in place so that whatever is in the frame will be translated! I’m not a super-user tech-whiz so maybe there was a way to do it before, but I hadn’t been aware of it until this trip.
Is Japan Cash-Only?
Japan has been one of the last holdouts in the ‘Cash Is King’ camp. There are still places that only take cash (such as small stores and restaurants, food stalls, etc.), but it has changed a lot from my previous visits. You can use cards for hotels, most restaurants, and even taxis – although if you want to add money to your Suica/Pasmo card, it can still only be done with cash. To my surprise, I found that a number of museums only accept cash for admission so don’t figure you’ll be able to get by with only a credit card or two just yet.
Do you still have to wear a mask in Japan?
Masks are not required in most places. You will, of course, still see more people wearing them there than you do here in the U.S. or Canada, but that was true before the pandemic. Like most people, I usually wore a mask when I went inside stores. I didn’t wear a mask outdoors and found that very few other people did either. Certainly, if you feel sick (even if it’s just a cold), please DO wear a mask. That’s only polite!
Hotels in Japan
If you’re looking to stay in a Japanese hotel rather than a Marriott or Hyatt – I’d recommend Dormy Inns. They all have in-hotel onsen, also known as hot-spring baths. Their breakfasts come at an additional cost but have a lot of options and I think they’re good value for money. The hotel provides both toiletries and pajamas. Outside the onsen, you can get a free ice cream after your evening soak and a bottle of Yakult (Japan’s famous probiotic beverage) after your morning soak. Another great freebie – between 9:00 and 11:00 pm, steaming bowls of ramen noodles are available. How cool is that??
Hotels to Avoid When Visiting Japan
One chain I refuse to patronize is the Apa Hotels. Yes, their prices are good, and they are *everywhere* – but they are owned by a right-wing couple who created controversy in 2017 by defending Japan’s military aggression in World War II. There was a lot of backlash and, although they seem to be keeping a lower profile now, they haven’t changed their views. As travelers, we need to spend our dollars (or yen) wisely.
Unique Places to Visit in Japan
When I travel whether by myself or for my tours, I love finding unique/offbeat places to visit, eat, and experience. Here are some of my new favorites – and a couple of old ones.
Needing a place for lunch on one of my tour’s Tokyo days, I asked my host daughter to see what she could find. It’s then that we discovered Yakuzen Curry Jinenjo! This curry restaurant delivered both delicious food and a fun experience! The chef was hilarious and so enthusiastic that it made it more than just a place to eat. This stop has been permanently added to my tours from this point on! The restaurant is at 5 Chome-9-25 Yanaka, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0001.
A must-visit since I first went to Japan in 2018 is the Theater Puppet Show. My wonderful Tokyo guide, Naomi, took me there when I was on a scouting trip, and I loved it.
The puppeteer, Mitsuaki Tsuyuki, was first a children’s art teacher but found his true passion in finger puppets. He makes all his own puppets and has been performing the shows since 2000. I was so happy to see that he’s still doing it even after Covid! The venue is small and a bit out-of-the-way spot with limited seating. The 30-minute show is completely in Japanese but so visual that you don’t need any language skills to enjoy it. It costs just 500 yen – a bargain indeed! It’s located at 3-2-6, Yanaka, Taito 110-0001 Tokyo Prefecture which is a two-minute walk from Sendagi station on the Chiyoda line or a ten-minute walk from Nippori station (JR or Keisei line).
Within walking distance of Sensoji Temple, the Wanariya Indigo Dying is an inexpensive, and fun experience!
The process is explained by their entertaining English-speaking staff. You start with white material (whether it’s a simple square or rectangle – or something more complex like a t-shirt). You are shown how to prepare it for dying, then you go to the vats to do it yourself. Your clothes are always well-protected. The whole process takes about an hour (unless you choose something more complicated) and you will leave with a personal and– easily transported! – souvenir and happy memories. They are located at the Kurosawa Building 1F, 1-8-10 Senzoku, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0031.
Visit the Asakura Museum of Sculpture
This museum is located in what had been the home of artist and sculptor, Fumio Asakura. The building is filled with his artwork but it’s nearly a piece of art in itself. My favorite part is the peaceful courtyard full of plants, water fountains, and birdsong. There’s also a rooftop garden with great views of Tokyo. It’s located at 7 Chome-18-10 Yanaka, Taito City, Tokyo 110-0001. (Note – you need to remove shoes in order to enter the museum – so be sure to wear nice socks!)
When is a cat café not a cat café? When it’s the Cat Diorama café! Disclaimer: I LOVE cats! I have two in my home and would be in grave danger of becoming a crazy cat lady if my space wasn’t so limited. I have visited a number of cat cafes in Japan, and also in the US, Scotland, Spain, Hungary, and Poland. You’d think that it would be heaven for me, but I often find them quite disappointing. The cats are bored with all the attention and, rightly, seek out high spots for some peace and quiet. This is completely understandable but doesn’t make the whole cat café experience very much fun for those who have paid for it.
Enter the Cat Diorama Café in Osaka.
It started as a restaurant with a miniature train diorama in the main dining area. Then, Covid hit and hard times for restaurants followed. Naoki Teraoka, the owner of the cafe, rescued a starving kitten he found near his restaurant. Soon the mother cat and her other kittens followed, and he took them all in too. He began taking photos of the cats interacting with the trains and posting them on Instagram. More rescue cats followed and now – in addition to his restaurant – he runs a cat rescue operation. After my tour ended, my best Japanese friend and I spent the afternoon there. This is my idea of heaven. You can find the restaurant here: 2-5-16 Terada-cho, Tennoji-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka 543-0045.
You can read the whole story and see lots of photos here: https://www.boredpanda.com/stray-cats-saved-diorama-restaurant-japan-naoki-teraoka/
Le Paris Bistro in Hiroshima offers a French twist on Japanese favorites. The prices are reasonable, the atmosphere is nice, and the food is delicious. On my last visit, one of my clients ordered the chocolate mousse and we were all surprised when her dessert arrived shaped like a puppy and with a sparkler stuck into the accompanying sorbet! It’s located at 3-1-29 Otemachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0051.
When you visit Hiroshima, the Peace Park is also a must-see but reflecting on those sobering events can create a desire for some serenity. If so, take the short walk to Shukkeien Gardens. On my last tour, my clients stated it was their favorite place in the city.
What to do in Kyoto
When I take a group of ladies to Japan, one of the highlights is wearing kimono in Kyoto. First, let me assure you that every Japanese person I’ve talked to is very positive about it. My degrees are in Cultural Anthropology so ‘cultural appropriation’ is something I take seriously.
If you happen to be plus-sized, choose your kimono rental place carefully. The first time I tried it, more than half of my ladies weren’t able to get kimonos to fit them. I was MORTIFIED but, thankfully, my Japanese host son was with us, and he found us a place that could accommodate everyone. It’s Yume Kimono Kyoto, the only company I use now – their prices are reasonable and they have several locations in Kyoto.
Whenever you go to Japan, be sure to embrace the culture, the people, and – of course – the FOOD! Happy traveling!
Spring Cherry Blossom Tours in Japan
My spring cherry blossom tour was so much fun that I decided to do something similar next year. This time we’ll start a bit later in the season so we will get to experience not only late-blooming cherry blossoms but also azaleas, tulips, peonies, and wisteria. Sound interesting? There are still some spaces left! Japanese Gardens in Springtime – April 14-28, 2024. Women-only, no more than 10 on each tour, everyone gets her own room at no extra charge. Details, itinerary, and pricing information here: https://www.wetravel.com/trips/japanese-gardens-in-springtime-sheila-stone-tours-japan-59330831
I hope you’ve enjoyed this wonderful insight from Sheila as she brought a bit of Japan back to us here in the States! Sheila Stone loves travel so much, she even started her own tour company for women when she was 60. She creates and leads tours to wonderful places like Japan, England, Scotland, and various US cities, including her hometown of Los Angeles. The groups are no larger than 10 and everyone gets her own room at no additional charge. She specializes in travel that appreciates history, culture, and – of course – delicious food! Being of the firm belief that the best part of travel is the people you meet; she loves connecting local women with her clients.