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Strong U.S. Dollar Makes Japan Travel Affordable

Strong U.S. Dollar Means Japan Is On Sale, Too

I love a sale, and I’m never one to pass up a bargain, especially if the item is one that I’ve had my eye on for years. So I was thrilled to see, starting a few months ago, that Japan is on sale.

Two years ago, the Japanese yen was trading at 85 to US$1. It has now stabilized at about 120 yen to US$1, meaning that, at last, Japan is an affordable country to visit for us dollar-holders. My husband and I made our reservations, planning our trip to coincide with the autumn colors.

What struck us most about the experience is how different things are in Japan. This country bears little resemblance to China and is culturally different from other countries in Southeast Asia, a region where we spend a lot of time. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say that Japan is reminiscent of Singapore, though the climate is certainly different.

Like Singapore, Japan is spotlessly clean. Buildings are freshly painted, yards are tidy, litter is nonexistent, and recycling containers are everywhere. Also as in Singapore, signs are posted everywhere reminding citizens to be neat, courteous, and orderly.

The public transportation system is unbelievably efficient—another similarity with Singapore. We saw this not only in Tokyo, which has one of the most efficient mass transit networks in the world, but everywhere we went in Japan. Traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, for example, was a simple matter of showing up at the railway station, buying a ticket, and hurrying to the platform to catch the next train, which arrived on time and within moments. In Kyoto, subways and efficient city buses were waiting to take people onward. We visited several towns and cities in Japan, and this was consistently our experience. Public transportation was fast, efficient, clean, comfortable, and affordable.

Japan, like Singapore, is quiet and orderly. People wait patiently at the crosswalks for the light to change before walking, and cars unfailingly yield to them. Horns are rarely heard. In fact, it was very unusual even to hear someone talking on a cellphone in public; public service signs were posted to discourage the practice, and most people made it a point to have their conversations in private.

Like Singapore, Japan is a fully developed country. The vast majority of Japanese seem to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Though there was some new construction, we didn’t hear jackhammers or see dozens of cranes when we explored the major cities. Men wearing suits and ties and smartly dressed women crowded the subways on their way to and from their jobs. Children dressed in tidy uniforms filled the school playgrounds. It seemed that nearly every city worker wore a uniform of some kind; even road crews were dressed in clean and pressed work clothes.

As much as Japan reminded us of Singapore, it was vastly different in some ways. Outside Tokyo, the population density was far less than we are used to in Southeast Asia. We saw a surprising amount of farmland, many single-family homes with yards, and lots of parks and open spaces. Expansive gardens, even in the largest cities, offered carefully sculpted trees, tranquil lakes, and well-tended pathways. For us, this was one of the joys of visiting Japan. It seemed that every plant, every stone on the footpath, and every rock was hand-picked and placed with great care and forethought, everything carefully designed to offer an atmosphere of serenity and tranquility.

We saw a surprising number of traditionally dressed people in Japan. It was common to see people of both sexes wearing kimonos. In Kyoto, we saw geishas, beautifully adorned in full face makeup, ornate headdresses, and stunning costumes. At the Shinto temples, parents dressed their young children in kimonos and gave thanks to the gods for making them grow and be healthy. Rickshaws, powered by energetic young men in spotlessly clean traditional garb, took tourists down ancient Kyoto streets.

Not everyone dressed traditionally, though. Tokyo might be the best place in the world for people-watching. A trip on the Tokyo metro might reveal an eclectic mix of cosplay girls dressed as fairies, Little Bo Peeps, or other fictional characters and young men wearing studded black leather jackets and Mohawk haircuts.

Although there are many ancient temples and castles, little in Japan has not been rebuilt or extensively renovated. This is due to Japan’s history of devastating earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and fires. Few buildings on the main island of Honshu have survived these disasters untouched. Like Singapore, most of what we saw was relatively new.

Art is everywhere in Japan, from fantastic museums to public sculptures. Nowhere is art more apparent, though, than in the restaurants. Numerous dishes were served at every meal, carefully chosen to blend flavors with aesthetics. Sometimes we had to wait a few minutes for our food to arrive while the chef took care to prepare and arrange our plates precisely. Singapore may have a more diverse cuisine, but it lacks the artistic presentation and creativity that we found in practically every Japanese restaurant.

Although many Japanese, especially in the cities and at the tourist sites, spoke some English, we found that English is not spoken nearly as much as in Singapore, where the majority of people are fluent. This didn’t present too much of a problem for us, though. Many restaurants have plastic representations of their food displayed in the window. We simply took pictures of what we wanted to order and showed them to the server, which worked perfectly.

Unfortunately for us world nomads, Japan shares one more characteristic with Singapore. It is very difficult for foreigners to retire to Japan. Unless you are Japanese, married to a Japanese citizen, or are in Japan to work, run a business, or study, your visa expires in just three months, and it is difficult to extend without leaving the country, which is a relatively expensive proposition even at today’s favorable currency rates. However, Japan is an immensely interesting and quirky country to visit and would be ideal as a part-time retirement destination.

And, right now, it’s all more affordable than it’s been in a long time for those of us traveling with U.S. dollars in our wallets.

Wendy Justice

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