Saturday, November 12, 2011

Land Of The Rising Yen

There are a number of eclectic skills that you pick up as a long-term traveller: you learn to memorise your passport number and issue date for filling out endless visa and immigration forms; you become adept at noticing good spots for sleeping rough, even when you don't need to; and your long multiplication, which is essential for currency conversions, greatly improves. The latter (as well as the sleeping rough one to a certain degree) was certainly needed in Japan. One pound is currently worth 120 yen. A relatively easy number to calculate with, but not one I particularly like. Only four years ago a pound would get you 250 yen, and the lowest the pound has been against the yen in the past 13 years (the furthest back I could get data easily) was less than a month before I arrived, at 117 to the pound - having lost more than half of its relative value in a very short space of time! The sharp appreciation in the value of the yen has been across the board against other currencies and is somewhat strange as the Japanese economy is not doing particularly well itself and hasn't been for many years now. Nevertheless international investors see it as a safe bet and keep buying yen, which is causing a great headache for the country's export-oriented economy. Needless to say I was not happy either, and neither was my bank account. Japan has always been an expensive country to travel in, but with the exchange rate skewed so heavily against me, every purchase, no matter how minor, was taking a significant bite out of my budget and I had to use every trick in the book to save money.

Standard budget food whilst travelling on a budget in Japan: super noodles. To make them even cheaper you should get the simple packets without a pot or bowl and procure your own receptacle. In this case it was a discarded cardboard coffee cup that surprisingly lasted for 3 days before I threw it away.

The greatest expense is almost always accommodation, and here I was very lucky in that I had three friends already in Japan who helped cover a large portion of the time I spent there. Actually they were also one of the reasons I went there as I hadn't seen any of them for several years, and one of them was an old classmate from school who I hadn't seen for over 15 years. The other two were friends that I had made on my previous travels in China and Djibouti, and had kept in touch with ever since. (I am particularly endebted to Yuriko who let me have her flat in Tokyo for an entire week while she was off on holiday in Nepal.) Of course my friends were not everywhere and so then I had to fall back on the old stand-by of Couchsurfing, and when that failed, to find a sheltered spot to sleep outside (which I ended up doing on five separate occasions: once under a bridge in Kyoto, another time in a park in the town of Nikko, once more in Himeji, this time under a railway viaduct (not a particularly good choice as I was to discover with the first train of the morning), behind a motorway service station, and finally on the porch of a youth hostel in Shimonoseki, which had closed for the season. There are countries where sleeping rough can be a risky proposition due to inclement weather and unwelcome attention from locals. Luckily autumn is the mildest season in Japan and perfect for travelling (and sleeping outdoors), and it is also without a doubt the safest country in the world and I felt little apprehension in rolling out my mat in relatively public spaces without fear of something happening to me or my bag getting stolen.

My temporary accommodation under a bridge in Kyoto that I shared with a local homeless man.

In fact sleeping rough was a golden opportunity to see a part of Japan that is often ignored and brushed under the carpet. Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, with high employment and an enviable quality of life, there is surprisingly little in the way of a welfare state to help you should you happen to lose your job. From talking with locals it seems that three months benefits is all you can expect from the state. And so, as the job-for-life concept has become eroded by modern economic realities, even in Japan many salarymen have found themselves unemployed and, unable to keep up mortgage and other payments, have found themselves on the streets. Of course, this being Japan, everything is very orderly. The homeless only become really conspicuous in the evening when they congregate in sheltered areas to set up for the night. I never saw any begging anywhere.

Other ways to save on money were with food and transport. Now for many people in the West calorie is a dirty word. For me it's the exact opposite: when travelling I am always hungry as I am continually active and on the move, so in Japan where money was tight I was constantly looking at the nutritional information labels so as to ensure that I got as many calories for my yen as possible. Which of course led to a rather bland diet of super noodles and mayonnaise sandwiches (full fat, naturally). Tea and coffee simply became a means to dissolve as much sugar as possible. Fruit, however, was way off my shopping list. It was not uncommon to see individual apples selling for $4 or more. I did, nevertheless, manage to try some typical Japanese dishes whilst I was there, since that is an essential part f travelling for me. And as for transport, despite my initial apprehension, hitchhiking worked incredibly well, despite the obvious language barrier, not to mention the cultural barrier, since hitchhiking is almost unknown in Japan. Actually it was a fantastic way of meeting an eclectic cross-section of Japanese society. Among the people that picked me up were: a Buddhist monk who was also a lecturer in sociology and spoke very good English; a twenty-something girl who was a funeral director; a retired couple in a camping van; a French expat who had cornered the Japanese market for pétanque paraphernalia; a local ski-bum girl; a number of travelling sales representatives; a couple of single, older women; two truckers; and the young couple from Saitama that I mentioned in my last post. I was particularly surprised by the proportion of women that picked me up, as they rarely pick up single male hitchers in other countries, but this is Japan where everything is safe and people don't even imagine anything malicious could happen to them.

My backpack and hitching sign for Hiroshima prefecture. It's good to make a sign that is somewhat vague so that I can be used several times.

Although it's undeniable that the cost of things did limit me to a certain degree in Japan, it did so far less than I had imagined. I was still able to travel quite extensively, try a variety of local foods, have some contact with locals, and visit an eclectic cross-section of places and attractions. In fact trying to save money became a bit of a game and I kept trying to think up ingenious ways to reduce my daily expenditure. In the end I am proud that I managed to get through almost 4 weeks of Japan, traversing half its considerable length (and back again) with an average daily spend of less than £20 a day, whereas the suggested budget for budget travel as suggested by my guidebook was £65. Not bad I think.

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