Interview with Itinerary Designer James Mundy - Japan golden route tour

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Traditional kimono under cherry blossom and (inset) James Mundy
Traditional kimono under cherry blossom and (inset) James Mundy (Photo by gwaar)

Interview with Itinerary Designer James Mundy - Japan golden route tour

James is a PR Manager and a huge devotee to Japan. And West Ham. Which are worlds apart, let's face it. James' love of Japan began in the mountains of rural Gunma Prefecture where he worked as an English teacher. From there he went to Tokyo where he became a tour leader. It is clear from the itinerary of this trip that his love of Japanese culture, food, people and also modern and early modern Japanese history are well and truly catered for. Meanwhile these days, James stays closer to home these days, being PR manager for the company and a busy dad to his two boys.

We like to put our guests up in the Asakusa district in Tokyo on the first night, as it isn't the full on neon in your face side of Tokyo. And so it eases you into the city.
And you have a lot on your doorstep, and so when you arrive half asleep through jetlag, if you want an easy day, you just take a stroll out of the hotel and you come across the Kaminarimon Thunder Gate, and the Senso -ji Temple, where people are soaking up the incense, and it really gives you a sense of atmosphere straight away.

Asakusa district
Asakusa district (Photo by Yoshikazu TAKADA)
Kyoto always has its jaw dropping moments, with the hundreds of years of history mingling with what is essentially a modern city.
When you arrive at Kyoto station, it is an extremely modern, impressive building. And yet, just around the corner, literally around the corner, you have all these ancient wooden temples and shrines tucked away between buildings and down alleyways. Many of which have beautiful ornamental gardens attached. There is world heritage just all over the place really.

Torii at Fujimi Inari Taisha shrine
Torii at Fujimi Inari Taisha shrine (Photo by Moyan Brenn)
You do really stick out as a foreigner in Japan, even in Tokyo. It is not the cosmopolitan city that you might think it is, like London. That is part of the charm of it.
And because you stand out, people really do go out of their way to help you. They always want to make sure that you are enjoying their country. So it is not uncommon for our clients to tell us that, if they get a little lost, someone comes up to them and asks them if they need help and even lead them back to wherever they wanted to go. Then they bow, turn around and go on in their way. That is the way of things in Japan.

You can buy little wooden boxes in Hakone, which are very specific to the area. They are called Himitsu-bako in Japanese.
They have little secret compartments and like a puzzle box really, and are lovely things to buy along the Golden Route. They come in various sizes but you can buy little dinky ones that are easy to pack.

Himitsu-bako puzzle boxes
Himitsu-bako puzzle boxes (Photo by David Mertl)
Anyone traveling to Japan should stay at least one night, or more, in a traditional ryokan or inn. It is an experience you won't have anywhere else in the world.
And, to get in the spirit of things you will slip into a yukata, a cotton version of a kimono, like a dressing gown. This is what the Japanese do when they come to a ryokan to relax. So, people wander around in these, and their slippers, going between the bath, the gardens or the dining area as well. Or if there is a hot springs nearby, they put on some outdoor wooden shoes, called geta, and walk from ryokan to hot springs, still in their dressing gowns. Everyone will wearing them, it is very normal.

A lot of people find it hard to get their head around taking their shoes off, for some reason. It is quite a natural thing in Japan.
When we stay at the traditional guesthouses or ryokans, there is an entrance called a genkan, usually with a raised floor, and you are expected to step out of your outdoor shoes, straight up onto the genkan, and step seamlessly into slippers and then walk around the ryokan. But some people get in a panic about it and start taking their shoes off halfway down the road, and stroll in in their socks. Which sort of defeats the object.

Toilet slippers are also a feature in Japan.
So, even if you are in your slippers as you wander around a ryokan, when you go to the toilet, whether it is in your room or not, you have to step out of the slippers that you are wearing and put on the slippers in the toilet. Even in restaurants, there might be slippers that you are supposed to use for the toilet, which sit inside the toilet door. And when you have done your business, you are meant to slip out of those slippers and back into your other regular slippers. So, often if a foreigner has had a drink or two in a restaurant, they completely forget that they have changed slippers when they went to the toilet, and they can be spotted walking across a restaurant floor in a pair of pink Hello Kitty toilet slippers.

Toilet slippers
Toilet slippers (Photo by macknz.smith)
Japan is on the Ring of Fire, so occasionally you do get a little earthquake, although sometimes our customers aren't quite sure what it is, because they are just little tremors really.
But you do get a lot of seismic activity in Japan, so the chances are you will experience a little something. It might shock people at first, but in my experience they are actually quite fun.

Hakone, in particular, is famous for its hot springs, and there is a whole set of rules when it comes to taking a hot spring bath in Japan.
In Japanese they are called onsen. You wash before you get into the onsen, and contrary to what a lot of visitors like to do, they are done in your birthday suit. A lot of Brits want to wear a bathing suit, but this is very much part of the onsen experience to wash before you get in the bath, and then sit in the bath and enjoy the waters and surroundings.

Onsen (Photo by Japanexperterna)
Okonomiyaki translates literally as 'fried what you like', and it is a bit like a Japanese savoury pancake really. You can eat these all over Japan, but there are some areas that are famed for their Okonomiyaki, such as Hiroshima and Osaka.
You often make it yourself in a restaurant, and your table basically becomes a hot plate. It is a batter mix, which is prepared for you and put in a bowl, and you can stick whatever you want in it - bits of meat, cabbage, seafood or whatever you want. You just mix it all up, stir it and cook it in front of you. You can add a bit of mayonnaise, seaweed, ginger or fish flakes to top it off. It is easy to make, very tasty and cheap to eat in Japan too.

Okonomiyaki (Photo by SteFou!)
One of the most useful Japanese words to use in Japan is definitely oishii, meaning delicious.
Japanese people really do appreciate you expressing this, as part of the culture in Japan is that you don't take anything for granted. And as a foreigner, if you throw the odd Japanese word out now and again, that counts for a lot really. It shows that you are trying and it will really be appreciated, whether you are in a tiny backstreet ramen bar or a Michelin Star restaurant, the word oishii and also arigat?, meaning thank you, will mean a lot.

People worry about doing the wrong thing in Japan and making cultural faux pas.
I don't think that as a visitor you need to worry about that so much, so long as you respect the people around you and don't shout your head off and you appreciate that things are done differently, and you try and do a little bow here and there, or speak the odd word of Japanese, then that counts for a lot, and will help you roll through Japan quite nicely. You will always stick out as a foreigner in Japan, and even if you have lived there for twenty years, they still expect you to be a silly a foreigner who doesn't know any better. So, they are very open to you potentially doing things wrong, but really appreciate it when you try and do things right.

This vacation definitely isn't for a beach loving, fly and flop sort of person.
Traveling around on various local transports, side by side with families and businessmen, it is a trip for someone who wants a cultural adventure. They are going to see something different every day. For me, that is one of the fantastic things about traveling in Japan. As a 10 year old, 20 year old, 40 year old or 60 year old you will have an experience every day that you wouldn't have back home.

New experiences
New experiences (Photo by Carlos Castillo)
Local people do like to joke about the fact that you are a foreigner in Japan, especially when it comes to food.
Japanese are often intrigued as to how you will react to different foods. One of the standard test foods is natto, which is like a fermented bean curd and is sticky, guey and a bit smelly. And if you are at a ryokan when this is on offer for breakfast, the local people will often watch your reaction to see if you will eat it, or pull a funny face. If you go into an izakaya, or pub, in Japan, you get people in there who have had a couple of drinks and have lost the usual inhibitions and keen to talk to you. They often order a couple of bits of food and, again, are interested to see how you react to them.

Fermented bean curd
Fermented bean curd (Photo by JD)
There is a healthy rivalry between the Kanto and Kansai regions on the Japan's main island of Honshu.
So, Kanto has Tokyo and the surrounding areas, and Kansai is Kyoto and Osaka. And there is definitely a rivalry between these regions. Osaka is considered a bit cooler than Tokyo, for example, not as stuffy. All the standup comedians come from Osaka and they have more of a sense of humour down in Osaka apparently.

One of the big misconceptions about Japan is that it is really expensive.
Actually Japan is cheaper than the UK in terms of traveling and eating out. You can buy meals very cheaply, such as sushi for 60 to 70p a plate and okonomiyaki is great value too. The misconception goes back to 20-30 years ago during the economic boom when it was much more expensive. But since then, there has been virtually no inflation, and so now it is starting to look like a good value destination for UK travelers, and about 30% cheaper than it was a couple of years ago even. You get a lot for your money there now.

I associate the smell of burning incense with Kyoto.
Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of temples and shrines there, with incense always burning there. Which, combined with the scents from all the beautiful temple gardens, is lovely.

Incense burning at the temple
Incense burning at the temple (Photo by John.E.Robertson)
One of the most important things to have in your daypack in Japan is your IC transport card.
It works across different transport networks, not only in Tokyo, but across Japan, so you can use it on the subway in Osaka, for example, if you are down there, or on daytrips from Tokyo. There is a certain amount of credit on it, and then you can top it up. It is also important to have a bottle of water, as it can be 30°C plus in summer. The water throughout Japan is safe to drink straight out of the tap, so you can just refill your bottle when you need to.

Train (Photo by David Lovejoy)
A lot of people have a craving for fruit when they are in Japan, because there isn't a lot of it on offer.
So, if you pop into one of the supermarkets, or convenience stores which are everywhere and known in Japan as konbini , you will see some but otherwise it isn't offered in restaurants, cafes or on the breakfast table. If you are staying at a traditional ryokan, you will have rice, some fish, miso soup but not usually fruit for breakfast.

Occasionally you do meet tourists who aren't patient or open to that cultural shift that is needed in Japan.
This is disappointing really. Because most tourists go to Japan with open eyes and mind, wanting to embrace the culture and get involved, go with it and accept it. They need to be prepared for the fact that once you go out of the main cities, many people don't speak English, but not be afraid of looking like an idiot by making various hand gestures to describe what they want. It is all about being patient really.

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