Let’s Go Exploring! Japan: Tremendous and Terrifying

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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When I think of my favourite country in the world (second only to Thailand), two words come to mind:

Tremendous and terrifying.

WHAT WAS THAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER ALL THIS SUBTLY!

Tremendous because of the tremendous effort the Japanese put into EVERYTHING.

Terrifying because everything, literally EVERYTHING they touch (be it an Airbus 320 or a bowl of ramen soup) is executed with so much surgical precision it blows my mind. I’m TERRIFIED  they’re going to take over the world.

*giggles* Your skull looks too intact.  Don’t worry. This will fix everything.

Picture this:

The gentle meowing of your hello kitty alarm wakes you up.

You yawn and walk into your gerbil-sized bathroom. While you brush your teeth, your bathtub automatically fills with water, warmed to a perfect 41 degrees.

You soak your muscles, laughing at the hilarious gameshow hijinks broadcasted from the TV screen, perfectly positioned  at eye-level.

You dry off and hang up your towel. The entire bathroom transforms into a dryer, ensuring your towel is perfectly warm and fluffy for your next bath. All this while you fry up some eggs on your compact stove-top, which with the flick of a button, reveals a hidden compartment containing a mini-toaster and oven.

You head into the subway after breakfast. Each staircase is neatly labelled with footstep patterns, showing the exact direction you need to go.

You marvel at how everything runs like a perfectly rehearsed ballet even though the subway is stuffed like the inside of a Mexican piñata.

At lunch, you order (what you think is) a simple bowl of soup.

Turns out it’s not a bowl of soup, but a whole production. Not only can you customize the ingredients to your exact liking, each customer get their own booth–a private bubble of serenity where you can slurp to your heart’s content.

When you take that first sip, your head nearly explodes. The blissful concoction of savoury, umami, garlic, and spicy elements makes you discover tastebuds you didn’t even know you had.

At that exact moment that you realize that everything you’ve eaten and everything you will eat after leaving this tremendous and terrifying country, will be a disappointment.

Because in Japan, food isn’t just sustenance. It’s art.

We ate lots and lots of art during our time in Japan.

Like these beautiful, tender cuts of Kobe beef:

Or this sublime Chirashi bowl:

Or these perfectly orchestrated plates of sushi:

Or this juicy, plump, seductive portion of Yakatori:

Or this adorable, “melty and yummy” cheese tart:

Their motto literally says: “melty and yummy”. I have yet to encounter a more accurate slogan.

And after coming to the conclusion that Japan had single-handedly ruined all other food for us forever, we decided to distract ourselves with some of the most outrageous entertainment Tokyo had to offer.

I had no expectations going into the show known as “The best show I’ve ever seen in my life” according to Anthony Bourdain.

All I knew was that it involved robots and lasers and costs well over 10 Million dollars to build.

Now, normally I’d say more money doesn’t mean better quality, but in this case it TOTALLY does.

And as someone who thinks Lord of the Rings is boring and fell asleep watching Cirque De Soleil’s acclaimed “O”, I’m not easily impressed.

But I can honestly say, the time I spent watching this show was probably the best 45 mins of my life.

Here’s a little taste to give you an idea:

If you can still feel your eyeballs after this, you aren’t human.

Which is why we needed to recharge with some exercise and green spaces after all that food gorging and pupil wrecking.

So we decided to climb Mt. Takao.

One thing we discovered in Japan was that while the food and accommodations weren’t expensive ($56/night on average for a studio apartment on AirBnb, $5-6 for a bowl of ramen at the train stations), cell phone data was.

It would’ve cost us $50CAD for just 1 week of data, so we decided to look up everything with the free wifi at our AirBnb and just wing it with offline maps when we’re out and about.

Turns out, the best free wifi was actually at the top of Mt.Takao.

Go figure.

And I guess the views weren’t bad either.

Neither were the ones at the traditional gardens we visited after we hiked back down:

Let us never forget the brave sacrifices ofBLAM! GOT ANOTHER ONE!

Oh Japan. Is there anything you can’t do with absolute perfection?

(No. The answer is no)

So how much did Tokyo, supposedly one of the world’s most expensive cities, cost us?

Category Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $59/night Surprisingly, I was able to find quite a few studio apartments on Airbnb under $70 in the popular Shinjuku area of Tokyo."
Food: $40.50/day $32 for eating out, $8.50 for groceries. We managed to find a lot of good cheap restaurants using Japan Cheapo and Tokyo Cheapo. One of our favourites is a conveyor belt restaurant with daily special sashimi plates for as low as $1.30 CAD a plate"
Transportation: $15/day The subway was pricier than other places in Asia, but we were able to save money by walking a short distance to the circle line so we wouldn’t have to switch lines so often. We also realized that if you’re staying for a month like we were, it didn’t make sense to buy the rail pass. It was expensive ($200/person for unlimited travel) and only limited to a week, so it makes no sense for long term travellers. Also, there are budget airlines like Peach that had better deals.
Entertainment: $18 There were lots of free attractions in Tokyo, like parks, mountain hiking and the government tower where you can see the entire city. There is even a free waking tour around the royal palace. So even thought we spent $77CAD/person on the robot show, spread over the 9 days we spent there, it didn’t do much to our budget.
Total: $132.50CAD/couple/day

Japan was SUPPOSE to be crazy expensive, but we only spent $66 CAD/person (or $50USD/person) in Tokyo! And this is including pigging most of the time and the robot show! ($77CAD or $58 USD per person).

View from the balcony of our $59/night Tokyo studio apartment

The more we travel the world the more we realized that there are a lot of misconceptions about travelling. Regardless of how dangerous or expensive your friends tell you a place is, you won’t really know until you actually get there. Because what we learned is that so-called “expensive” places aren’t really that expensive when you consider the 2 economies that exist:  local and tourist. Once you become FI and location independent, you can access the local economies because you no longer have to spew money at the tourist one.

And as for dangerous, our friends were completely wrong about Thailand and Mexico.

As it turns out, the most dangerous place and the only place I wouldn’t go back to without a suit of armour resides in a deceptively serene, sweet little forest in Nara, Japan….

Which I will tell you about in the next travel post.

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38 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Japan: Tremendous and Terrifying”

  1. Good thing you know how to read Chinese, otherwise you’d get lost when trying to understand that thermostat thingy. 🙂

    1. Yeah, being able to read Chinese was surprisingly helpful in Japan! (though it’s been a while since Chinese school so my reading comprehension is pretty limited)

  2. Just an FYI, in Japan you can rent something called MiFi which is basically a mobile router that you can put in your pocket or bag. I did that while I was there earlier this month and I got unlimited data everywhere in the country for around $100 over two weeks. And since it’s a router you can share it with your travel buddy for no extra cost.

  3. Surprisingly affordable. Thanks for the breakdown as usual. Looks like a blast.

    I’m not sure I agree with you and Bourdain regarding the robot show though. I would have to see it in person I suppose. However, it looks like a Philadelphia Mummers parade gone more wrong than it already is. I suppose the ridiculousness of it all is what makes it so fabulous 😉

      1. That’s more of a Tim Burton “nightmare”, involving crazy costumes. The robot show was more about impressive technology. Like how many robots that shoot lasers can you fit into a room? And also, holy shit is that REAL fireworks coming out of that robot dragon? Can’t really describe it. You’d have to see it in person.

    1. Seeing it in person is an entirely different experience. Very immersive.

      Though it’s more likely because I’m ridiculous so I like ridiculous things 🙂

  4. I love your trip reports! Good stuff. When I was in Tokyo, I went on an all-day bike tour. That was one of the best parts of my trip. Plus the free hikes. Very interesting country.

    1. Nice! I loved the free hikes as well. Especially how they have little fountains to watch your hands every few steps. So well thought out.

  5. Believe it or not, Japan is also one of my favorite countries to visit. We travel to the country fairly frequently!

    Japan is quite affordable if you don’t mind “normal” accommodations. Normal being modern and clean, but lacks opulence, servants and marble floors.

    The food of course is *divine*. As long as you aren’t trying to eat some super-rare special treat, it’s reasonably cheap. Really not that different than North American prices despite all the “Japan is expensive” hype.

    But you’re right…the level of quality (even in pedestrian stuff) just blows the mind.

    We’re heading there this fall for our family vacation. Should be loads of fun!

    1. Enjoy!

      The only bad thing about visiting Japan is how disappointed you get with food after you leave. I’m constantly searching for quality Ramen noodles outside Japan and haven’t found any yet. Ditto with sushi.

    1. I know right? That bathroom had everything…though I am terrified that all that technology will go sentient on us one day and kill us all. Oh well, at least I got to enjoy the perfect bath before hand ;P

    1. Awesome! Hope you will go there some day. Compared to all the other places I’ve been too, Japan is truly unique and special

  6. Cool post and really glad to read that you like Japan as much as I do. I in fact moved back to Tokyo last year. As this is only my second post (but read most of your posts), we could have met up in crazy Tokyo. All the ever present consumption seductions rather drive me to the FIRE approach 🙂

    Two remarks for JP travelers: When you are lucky with your AirBnB, the host has a wifi router ready for you guests. Communication is only expensive for tourists bu that is due to regulations and you can’t benefit from the Discounters unless properly registered in Japan.

    My minimalist/frugal/convenient approach to the city: I use a Brompton folding bike which perfectly interacts with public transport once your routes get longer. By cycling on the other hand you realize how compact the super metropolitan Tokyo really is ;)!

    … and of course I have pictures of all the amazing stuff, in case anyone wants to know anything..

    1. Awesome tips! Are you currently working in Japan? I know their immigration laws are pretty tough (from what I heard, immigrants make up only 2% of the population) but I wonder know how easy it is to get a permanent residence card or a worker’s visa.

      1. Hi FIRECracker,
        yes, I work as a lawyer in Japan. The administrative part to is like all things in Japan: Many little steps that are in a dependent sequence. So when you your employer likes you they will easily fill out the relevant form for a certificate of eligibility which is kind of the first step of a chain for visa, bank account, credit card, etc. and ultimately local sim card (interestingly). I followed the “one challenge (step) a week” approach over the first months.
        Just recently Japan changed their approach to highly skilled immigrant and made a permanent residence more achievable:
        http://www.immi-moj.go.jp/english/tetuduki/index.html#sec_02
        Explained: https://blog.gaijinpot.com/japans-new-permanent-residency-rules-explained/
        Now everyone can play around with the questionnaire.

        BTW- with respect to prices. Due to deflation the cost of living has been stable for over 15 years now (was somewhat identical when I was first here as a scholar in 2000). As all other countries have inflated, Japan stayed stable making it very affordable nowadays keeping in mind that it is THE industrial country if not beyond 😉

        1. Interesting! I knew that their birth rate was going down, causing havoc with their economy and work force but I had no idea they would actually make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to get permanent residency. Wow. Shocking.

          Yes, the deflation is the reason why I found it very affordable even though its reputation says otherwise. Hm…very interesting. Maybe we’ll use our engineering skills to immigrate to the Japan. But first I’d have to learn how to speak Japanese…

          1. FIRECracker – come on… I guess you have some Chinese characters around… if not neatly sorted in your RAM at least easily accessible through your genes!?
            It is actually fun learning Japanese and I wish I were already FI and could dedicate time to it… as a personal pro bono programme 😉

            Btw – when it comes to cost of living… obviously rent is not cheap in central Tokyo nor is utilities, but all things come at a price…

            When were you travelling Japan? I always wonder what is the time lack between your travel experience and the blog posts?

  7. with the way you describe Japan makes me understand why my daughter is infatuated with the country we have yet to visit. and I have heard from quite a few travelers that the world is relatively safe place. I hope one day to make that step forward into travel.

    1. I thought it was all hype before I went there, but once I went there I became completely infatuated. So I can see where you daughter is coming from.

      Travel teaches you a lot and helps you step outside your comfort zone. Hope you can get out there some day!

  8. Wow, that kobe beef looks amazing!
    I also heard that Japan is super expensive; it’s good to know that an affordable version exists with good food and programs.
    I love the idea of the duck memorial. I might initiate building a small cow shrine next to the local slaughterhouse 🙂

    1. Airfare was $54.16 per person for the tax because we used frequent flyer points. That exact person’s AirBnb is no longer available, but after a quick search for a room in the Shinjuku area I found a bunch of rooms for 50-60CAD/night. Just search for “shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan”, set the room to private, ammenities to “aircon and wifi” and price range to less than $60.

  9. Well there ya go! We had pretty much scratched off Japan from our list of countries to visit in 2020 because of the perceived price. But looks like we will have to reexamine this. We are 5 so that will obviously raise the price but still… I was there on my own for three nights in the late nineties and have been dying to visit again.

  10. Re: “The best show ever”: What in the world was that? Looked like a sort of indoor Mad Max on crack with horses. The music sounds like something out of an old WW2 German propaganda film.

    Hardest thing I had to do when over there was figure out what the buttons on the convenience machines actually did (can’t read hirigana, or katagana, or chinese). It was fun….

  11. When are you folks heading down to my favourite places: namely, Angola (Luanda), DRC (Kinshasa baby) and everyone’s favourite Burundi (Bujumbura)?

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