Geisha and (inset) Ruth Hubbard (Photo by Shadowgate)
Leader interview: Ruth Hubbard - Japan tailor made tour on a shoestring
Ruth Hubbard is a product manager and huge fan of Japan. Be it Hello Kitty, hot springs, temples at sunrise or cakes made from green tea. She also particularly loves Kyoto, having taught English there for two years, which set her up perfectly to working as a travel expert in all things Japanese. And if you want to find a bargain vintage kimono at a Japanese flea market, Ruth is in the know.
The Golden Temple in Kyoto is just really beautiful and probably one of my favourite viewpoints on this trip.
It is also in front of a flat pond which reflects the temple, so you have two halves of the temple. It really is gorgeous. You can go round the back and they sell green tea in a little tatami mat room, so it is like a very simple tea ceremony really. Going there early morning is lovely as it is a bit quieter, because it is a very popular temple. The really special time of year to see it is winter, if it snows. It doesn't snow that often in Kyoto, maybe only for one, two or maybe three days a year, because it is quite flat and near sea level, not in the mountains. But if it does snow, all the Kyotoites themselves flock there to see it with the snow on the roof. So, it is popular even with the locals who might have seen it lots of times.
There is a piece of music in the film 'Lost in Translation' by Air, called Alone in Kyoto which always makes me think of Japan.
It's the bit where Scarlet Johanssen does a day trip to Kyoto, and goes to some of the temples. You can hear all sorts of things, with the sound of the trains in the background, but also traditional Japanese music, so it's a mixture of many Japanese aspects in one piece of music. I have listened to it myself walking around Kyoto in a nice quiet moment on my own, walking around a temple or something. It sums up Kyoto quite well, I think.
My colleagues in Japan were better cooks than me, and used to make amazing sponge cakes using the green tea powder, called matcha.
The cakes were green tea and cream flavour, with cream in between the layers of sponge. They are delicious and a lovely kind of East meets West recipe. There is a place called Uji , just ten minutes south of Kyoto station on the train, and it is green tea central. There are tons and tons of cafes there and they all sell green tea desserts, green tea ice cream and so on. And you can certainly get green tea cakes there. I always buy green tea as presents when I am there. And you can get those lovely canisters, with traditional Japanese paper around them. They sell them in Habitat as well, at vast expense, but in Japan they are everywhere and really pretty.
In Kyoto, the local schools take the children to one of the temples, and the kids are tasked with going up to visitors to ask questions in order to practise their English.
So, quite often when I have been wandering around a temple, I have been hunted by a group of kids with a clipboard and a questionnaire, and one by one they ask me a question in English. I think the teachers sometimes feel a bit bad about interrupting the foreigners, but I love it and find it really nice to talk to the children and encourage them with their English. It is so sweet. And our clients really enjoy it too when they are 'hunted down'.
My Mum, when she came to visit me in Kyoto, kept making the same mistake in restaurants.
Often in traditional restaurants you take your shoes off at the door and put them in lockers, and then you pad around in your socks. But when you go to the toilet, there are slippers to put on to go into the toilet. You are supposed to take them off when you come out of the toilet and leave them at the entrance, but every time we went to a restaurant my Mum would keep forgetting and walk back through the restaurant in the bright pink toilet slippers. Luckily all the Japanese in the restaurant just laughed at her, and my Mum just laughed back at them. It was all quite hilarious, especially as she kept doing it everywhere we went!
Up in the Hakone National Park, they boil eggs in the naturally hot water. Which turns them black.
They say that eating one of those eggs lengthens your life by five years. They only sell them in bags of five or six, so I end up eating quite a lot of them! Even though they are black, they taste just normal.
Eggs are boiled in the sulphurous hot spring water (Photo by Aapo Haapanen)
One of the tackiest and cheapest souvenirs to buy on this trip is Hello Kitty key rings.
Every destination in Japan sells different Hello Kitty key rings. So you can go around Japan and collect ones that are relevant to each place you visit. So, in Kyoto there are a lot of Hello Kitty things where she is in a geisha outfit with a parasol. In Hakone, you get Hello Kitty's face poking out of a black egg, and there must be lots of different ones in Tokyo, especially with the new SkyTree, the tallest skyscraper in Tokyo.
My parents really got into the hot springs or onsen when they visited me, which I didn't think they would because you have to go naked.
But my Mum, my sister and I were all in one together and it was fine. My poor Dad had to go off by himself. He made friends with some Japanese business men who, although they couldn't really communicate, showed him what to do. This particular onsen had a vending machine where you buy towels before you go in. My Dad didn't know what to do, so just followed the man in front, but ended up with a towel that was pretty much flannel sized, and he had to use that to dry himself after his bath. But he coped.
Even though this is a budget trip, in Hakone you get to stay in a traditional guesthouse.
It is a little unusual because it has a hot spring bath that you can book in time slots, so you can use it privately. Which is lovely for couples or families, because normally the hot spring baths are single sex only. It is usually quite difficult to find a budget way of having a hot spring bath like that, so this is a lovely opportunity.
There are a couple of things that make me want to scream 'no!' at tourists in Japan.
First of all, never speak on your mobile phone while on public transport. It's considered so rude in Japan! And don't eat while walking along a street - also a big faux pas. It makes me cringe when I get back to the UK and I see people shovelling crisps in their mouths while walking.
I wouldn't really recommend this shoestring vacation for someone who wants luxury or really big rooms.
The hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo are pretty tiny rooms, because they are budget hotels and that is what you get for your money. They aren't particularly exciting, but they are perfectly clean and comfortable and well located, all in really easy access of train and subway stations. But if you were looking for luxury, I'd be pushing you towards a different trip, for sure.
It is a common misconception that Japan is expensive.
It is expensive to get here, with long haul flight, and accommodation is not that cheap, but once you are on the ground in Japan, it is pleasantly cheaper than in the UK. So you can get a really good meal for £5, entrance fees to sites such as temples might be £2, and many are free. And local transport is pretty cheap, so £1 a journey on the subway in Tokyo. So you really don't need to spend that much to have a good time.
A useful Japanese word to know is kawaii (pronounced ka-why-eeeeeee) which means cute.
It is exactly the right thing to exclaim while browsing for Hello Kitty keyrings.
Japan is so safe, and I have travelled by myself around Japan a lot, and as a single female traveler it is just so easy.
You are never threatened or anything. I have taken taxis home late at night, I have walked home late at night, and it is just never threatening at all.
I probably wouldn't go into a bar on my own in Japan however, just because I might be the only woman in the place, and certainly the only woman on my own.
No harm would come to you, but it would just be really socially awkward. Japanese women don't really drink loads, generally, so bars can be pretty male focused. If I was with another female friend, it would probably be fine, we'd cope. But the bars are often quite small in Japan, with only a counter and five or six seats. So you are kind of expected to talk to all the people in the bar, and if you are on your own that can be a bit trickier. That is the one time when I really appreciate a tour leader or someone who can speak really good Japanese because it helps the communication really.
I would recommend three things for everyday use when in Japan.
First of all, we give all our clients reusable chopsticks, so you don't have to use all the disposable wooden chopsticks. And I love it when I see tourists master their chopsticks. On your feet, I would make sure you wear shoes that you can take on and off easily, as you have to take your shoes off all the time. So you don't want big lace up hiking boots, because that would just be a pain. And also, often in public toilets they don't have hand towels, so most Japanese people would always carry a tiny little flannel in their handbag, so they can dry their hands easily in toilets. And they sell these everywhere in Japan, so you can just buy one quite easily. Oh, and also your info pack, which has everything you need to know including the address of your hotel. We print out a separate page with all the hotel addresses in English and Japanese, so you can keep it in your wallet. And that is so you can find your way back to your hotel or ask someone for directions.
The toughest bit about this trip is the fast pace. You also need to get up early to make the best use of your short time in Japan.
It is pretty whistlestop, but you can see a lot and see all sorts of contrasts of Japan, with cities, Hakone National Park, hot springs and a tea ceremony and the bright lights of Tokyo. So you see a lot in a week, but it is exhausting.