Nina and I have been to Japan many times. But always to Tokyo, which we love. But on this trip we had a special situation going on. We are working on a significant project related to Fon in Japan, one of these complex deals that takes many people and significant time to pull off. And while my work was done by Monday I felt that it was wiser to “stick around” Tokyo in case something went wrong and my presence was needed again. But Fon has a very able management team that is in Japan as well so I also knew that it was possible that I would not be needed anymore. And that´s when the idea came about to stay in Japan but not in Tokyo. We chose to come to the Northern Island of Hokkaido following the recommendations of Joichi Ito and Joshua Ramo, two dear friends one who is Japanese and the other who knows Japan very well. The objective coming here was both to have fun and to be within an hour of flying time to Tokyo if we need to go back. But what we thought would be an easy driving around to get to know Japan turned out to be quite complex. Over the last two days we found out that Japan is really very inaccessible to foreigners. As we go around Hokkaido we feel that traveling Japan is like “hacking Japan”, hacking in the sense of building a “code” that helps you accomplish a task, but also hacking in the sense that it is very difficult to travel around Japan.

I don´t speak Swedish but I can rent a car and drive around Sweden, or Holland, or many countries in Europe whose language I don´t speak. But renting a car and driving around Hokkaido is something else. Almost everything here is in Japanese and very few people speak English. So here is our little story since we left Tokyo.

We were able to check in at Haneda airport and most procedures were normal but on the plane announcements were in Japanese only. Interestingly we were the only non Japanese on the plane and fortunately we liked the Japanese food they served as that was the only choice. No cutlery, no western food. I don´t know if you know this but the Japanese food that the Japanese normally eat has very little to do with the typical sushi restaurant that you are familiar with and probably love. The Japanese food that the Japanese eat is heavy on pickles and fish with very strong flavors. But the Japanese being Japanese, meaning extremely kind and considerate, as the stewardess spotted us she would stand by us and translate the announcements for us, and as she saw how I stared at the Japanese dessert in desperation she showed up with some cookies (I love most Japanese food but invariably dislike their desserts).

When we landed we went to rent a car at Nippon Rent a car and that was extremely complicated. It´s not that it would be extremely complicated if we had understood Japanese but as it was, we had a very hard time. There was nobody at the Nippon booth but they had a phone. I picked it up and the person on the other side of the phone did not understand me until I switched to what I discovered is the English that the Japanese understand which is basically me imitating their accent while trying to keep a straight face. I know this sounds absurd but in order to speak Japanese with the Japanese person you have to speak like they do, for example adding non existent vowels here and there, rolling the r´s in a peculiar way, changing the intonation to theirs, and only then do you begin to communicate with most Japanese. Because it´s not that the Japanese know no English, it´s that they never had a chance to practice it and mostly learned it from a Japanese person who spoke it like they do. So the lady on the phone who could not tell I was Martin Varsavsky on a first try, realized that I was Maritini Varisaviski on a second try. When she tried to explain to me how to get the bus to their car rental lot I struggled and as a result we lost a quarter of an hour until we were rescued by another kind Japanese person who saw my Japanese written leaflet and took us there. And once we got there, what was worse is that they would not rent me nor Nina a car without an International Driver´s license. The rules were incomprehensible. With a US license you need an International Driver´s License given by the AAA. With a German license you need to go to a public translator in Japan and get the German translated but surprisingly you don´t need an International Driver´s License. As you can expect we did not have any of those. But I had once asked for an International Driver´s License and managed to have it faxed from Spain. Even though it was expired, by 11pm the Nippon Rent a Car employees took pity on us and gave us the Toyota.

But our troubles did not end there. The car had a GPS as we wanted but the GPS was only in Japanese. In Japan btw even Windows comes only in Japanese. But we got over that one as well and by showing the map we managed to get somebody to program the GPS for us. In all these things I must say that the Japanese combine the inaccessibility of visiting their country with an unparalleled kindness that almost always gets you ou whatever mess you are in. Still it is tough.

And even with the programmed GPS if you are British you are Ok but for the rest of us another challenge begins in Japan and that is to drive on the left side of the road, listening to a GPS that talks to you in Japanese, with a toll system where the letters ETC do not mean etcetera but the exact opposite and where the normal roads are very narrow by other standards (in general I must say Japan is a “tight” country, everything is smaller than you would expect).

So getting around in Japan renting a car is very complicated. But as we discovered today there is another barrier if you want to film your very own Japanese road movie and that is that when it gets to be time to sleep hotels are CRAZY expensive. First of all there are very few. You can see that Japan is not a country in which people drive around. Or at least not Hokkaido. But when you find them it is unbelievable what they charge. We found 3. One had no rooms, the other one was $900 per night and the one in which we are staying is $600 per night. And our room is smaller than that of the average US motel by the road. Yes that price includes dinner and breakfast but interestingly meals in Japan are not expensive. Last night we had an amazing Miso Ramen and gyoza dinner for only $25 for 2. Today we had great Italian lunch for $30 for 2. So what is expensive is to sleep in Japan not to eat in Japan. And maybe Japanese people can read some Japanese signs that say hotel only in Japanese and that cost less. But we did not see any buildings with cars outside that looked like hotels after driving for one hour in the Furano area except the three that I mentioned. We are staying at one called Orika. So with a rental car that costs $120 per day plus tolls that frequently cost $15 and hotels that cost over $500 per night is is hard to recommend to anyone to “drive and explore Japan” as nice as people are.

So by now you know that it is extremely complicated to drive around Japan, that driving is on the left, places are hard to find, GPSs talk to you in Japanese and only come in Japanese and so are most signs, that people however are incredibly nice in sharp contrast with say, the French, that food is outstanding and affordable, that rooms instead are insanely expensive and hard to come by, now what about sightseeing? Is Hokkaido worth the detour as the Guide Michelin likes to say? And that is what I am not sure of, I am sorry to say. Especially not considering that anyone who wants to visit Japan from most places in the world has to spend half a day on a plane and that when you drive around Japan you must do it at the slowest speeds on the planet. In all roads that we were on except the highways the maximum speed was frequently 40km (not miles km) per hour or sometimes 60km. When we could not take it anymore we went at 80km in a deserted, straight road only to find that the only people there were the police who jump out of a bush and stop you. Japan is probably the only country in the world in which when you exceed the speed limit they can stop you…by foot. Of course they were very nice and did not give us a fine. They just scared us a bit cause when they jumped out of the bush with their flags I thought they were simply…crazy people.

So here´s a collection of pictures that I took today. In these pictures you find the only two places that I found worth photographing, the abandoned gigantic Buddha with a still functioning elevator inside that I am still trying to find out what it was, and a random kids fair. The rest is not exciting. As far as nature is concerned USA, Argentina, Spain are much better. As far as architecture is concerned it is not only that anything that you may think of Japanese is lacking. Unfortunately is is also that whatever you consider poor taste in home design wherever you are from is unfortunately frequently present in the Japanese landscape. I can show you random pictures of average homes around Japan and you will go back home to wherever you are from, USA, Italy, Spain, even Germany and kiss your own home town. And on top of this the Japanese suffer from a landscape that in Europe I have only seen in Switzerland and that is that they try to put everything in the same place probably because they have no room, even in Hokkaido. Whatever is not mountains must house everything else. So it´s hard to see a landscape without a power line, a factory, or a green house. But what is worse is that even when they do have nature, like in this hotel where we are staying tonight they build a high rise building. You can see it in their website. What is the point of building a high rise building smack in the middle of a forest. And here is another one around 20km from here. You look at the picture and you think it´s in the middle of Tokyo and not in the middle of a forest. So all this may explain two things. Why there are no foreigners in Japan but also why it is practically impossible to go around Europe without seeing Japanese tourists. It is probably as hard for them to come to see us as it is for us to come and see them and yet they make the effort. But they make the effort to come because it´s worth it. For the same reason we eat Japanese food, because it´s probably the best in the world.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter:

No Comments

Blogsmdmm on August 26, 2009  · 

Well, a very good friend of me was in Hokkaido and in Tokio last year and enjoyed very much: cheap hotels (30 euros), excellent public transport and amazing landscapes. He is a good traveller: Armenia, British Columbia…So travelling is a very individual experience….

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 26, 2009  · 

I love Tokyo. But I can´t say the same about Hokkaido so far. I have only been to the Sapporo and Furano areas. Maybe the rest is great. And the mistake maybe to try to do it by car. Renting a car. And improvising. But that is how we like to travel.

Luis on August 27, 2009  · 

I can totally relate to your experience because I have traveled extensively in Europe, America and Japan (which by the way, I love)

Japan is not a place to improvise… Europe and America are.

Next time:
1. Don’t rent a car… travel by train, as you know they’re fantastic.
2. Don’t try to find hotels on the spot… search and make reservations in advance on the net (expedia, kayak, etc) You can do that from your hotel in Tokyo.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

3.0 rating

Zeina on August 27, 2009  · 

Vaya plomo que has soltado ! Te habras quedado a gusto…

3.0 rating

Charles Hamel on August 27, 2009  · 

Sounds like from your posts, you are the typical foreigner who travels to other countries only to complain incessantly that is not like your own. My what a boring world we would live in if all countries were exactly the same.

My suggestion is, that if you don’t like a place… Don’t go!! It’s much better to save yourself the stress, and your readers the whining!

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 27, 2009  · 

It sounds to me that you never read my blog cause, if you did, you would have seen that I have said nothing but praise for Japan in my other trips to Tokyo.

Jordi Diaz on August 27, 2009  · 

I found this post very interesting for many reasons. For starters it shows the other side of improvised travelling, which greatly complements that post in Morocco where you found Castle out of nowhere.
The explanation of why there are so many Japanese tourist in Europe and “so few” Europeans in Japan sounds a bit of a stretch to me. But anyone who reads your blog Martin knows that your are a great observer and even better generalizer, as most Argentinians are (I am being generalizer myself). What matters to me though is that, once again, you call it how you see it, and you are not afraid of telling your opinion. That’s what makes this post so genuine and that is why I read it.
I am traveling to Japan next Saturday for the first time, and your post just scared me to death! 🙂
Do I have to practice my English with Japanese accent? You’ve got to be kidding!

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 27, 2009  · 

Yes you do. Keep a straight sound as much as you can like them and you will be doing everyone a favor.

Paul RODTS on August 27, 2009  · 

Dear Martin.
Thanks for sharing this special experience with us, it’s quite interesting.
But when hotels are so very expensive and cultures are difficult to navigate in…
I have a simple backpack solution : share and get a local guide for free….
We already share our internet connection with total strangers, why not going one step further and sharing our houses ?
Thanks to FON we don’t have to pay for internet while travelling the world…
and thanks to CouchSurfing we don’t have to pay for hotels or hostels anymore….
Bye the way : there have about 3.600 free sleeping places around Japan also…
Maybe FON should team up with CouchSurfing and offer the router at special prices at this community…basically they are doing the same as us…sharing !
Let’s think outside the box and let those two sharing based communities work together !

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 28, 2009  · 

Couchsurfing sounds great.

Erik Huisman on August 27, 2009  · 

Hey martin, nice post.. You should invest in a real time augmented reality (+ocr) translating app before you leave to Japan the next time 😉

3.0 rating

Gere Ruffatto on August 28, 2009  · 

I have lived and traveled in Japan on and off for 12 years. Business hotels in japan are the cheapest bet coming in around $25-$50/night depending on what city you go to. In Osaka I often pay only $18 a night for a business hotel in the Shinimamiya district. Of course to find these places it helps to speak Japanese. As for toll roads in Hokkaido I wouldn’t recommend them too much as Hokkaido is mostly farm lands and it is both easy and more scenic to take the normal prefectural high ways, which dont cost tolls. Toll roads (called “kosoku doro” in Japanese) are fast but blocked in by 4m walls on both sides in many places, thus not very scenic, and can be expensive unless you have another person to split it with. Trains are an excellent mode of transportation for most of Japan but I wouldn’t recommend it for Hokkaido as it is mostly open country side and it is better to have a car to explore.
My recommendations for anyone coming to Japan for the first time are Kyoto, onsens (“hotsprings”) and to try as many kinds of food as possible because Japan has some of the most delicious and healthy food in the world. If you do decide to go to Kyoto and you are on a budget, I would recommend staying in Osaka because lodging is quite a bit cheaper there, the night life is better (try Shinsaibashi and Namba) and it is only a 30 minute train raid to Kyoto from there. However, if you have the cash definitely try to stay in a traditional machiya in Kyoto: these are 100+ year old house in Kyoto that you can rent.(usually about $150-250/night (cheaper for week rentals). Also, try to make it out into the nearby countryside for a dip in one of Japan’s many hotsprings (“onsens”). I guarantee that anywhere you go in Japan there will be a excellent hotspring within an hour train/car ride from where you are.
Well I wrote alot more than I thought i would but I hope it helps. Just remember Japan has something for every budget: a $1000 for a night of luxury in Tokyo to $5 for a simple cooked meal on the side of a river in your sleeping bag. Good luck!

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 28, 2009  · 

I should have had you as a commentator before we went to Hokkaido!

Jose Luis on August 29, 2009  · 

I am married to a woman from Sapporo, so I travel quite often to Hokkaido. I am writing this note from my home in Madrid, after a week spent at my political family home and another week in Thailand. I can relate to some of your experiences in Hokkaido, especially in my first visits. English is not widely spoken in Japan, but people are always helping. I think their public transportation system is excellent, but to use in efficiently it is true you need the help of Japanese friends to read the signs. I have notice Japanese people feel awkward if you speak to them in English and they are unable to help you. As for hotels, Japan has a wide offer of accommodations, even “pensiones”, at pretty reasonable prices. I don’t feel you are a foreigner complaining but with the knowledge I have of Japan I wouldn’t have planned a trip to Hokkaido expecting my English will lead me everywhere. I regularly read your blog and your comments on Japan and the Japanese people have always been nice…but sometimes you tend generalize based on your very particular experiences.

By the way, moving around Thailand was significantly easier than in Japan with regard to rent a car or shopping. In any case, Martin, is a small world…

3.0 rating

Martin Varsavsky on August 31, 2009  · 

The problem that readers sometimes have in my blog is that they read my blog as if it was a news article. But it is only my blog, based on my experience. My articles are about my life and those around me. I am not a travel guide, nor the New York Times. My experience is different from others. In my case I love Tokyo every time I go, I loved Kyoto, but I did not especially like what I saw in Hokkaido.

Leave a Comment

Español / English

Subscribe to e-mail bulletin:
Recent Tweets