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Budget travel in Japan

I always listen with an attentive ear to your stories on budget travel in Japan. I travel there about once a year, on a very low budget, and I take 6-8 people with me who want to do the same.

Every April, for the past 2 years, I have escorted a small group of travelers on a 12-14 day trip for around $2500, including round-trip airfare on Delta from Portland, a Japan Rail pass, most local transportation and all accommodations. How do we do it? We stay in youth hostels, inns (ryokan, pronounced "yoo khan," not "ree o khan") and minshuku (bed and breakfast and dinner). Hostels run $20-32/night, and at Higashiyama YH in Kyoto you can get a room for two and two meals for $56/person.

Yes, Tokyo is expensive and a struggle to survive in without knowing how to do it on the cheap. But once in the countryside it gets a lot cheaper. On the "Traditional Crafts Tour of Japan," the April tour, we fly in and out of Nagoya, then go by train to Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, on to some small towns in Toyama Prefecture (on the sea of Japan, and Oregon's sister state), then to Kanazawa (southwest of Toyama, on the Sea of Japan)and end up in Kyoto before returning to Nagoya.

Is local transportation expensive? A one-day bus pass for Kyoto is only Yen 500, or around $4.80. Other inexpensive options are available. Planning is everything in getting the most out of these bargains.

Back to youth hostels, they are great in Japan, and vary widely. Some are in temples, like my favorite one in one of my favorite towns, Takayama. Takayama is a warm, friendly, traditional craft-intensive town of 60,000 in the Hida Mountains about 2.5 hours north of Nagoya. The hostel there is in Tensho-ji temple and it has dorm and private rooms and one of the friendlist "wardens" you will ever meet, Daien-san, who also happens, naturally, to be a Buddhist monk. One night for two in a private room comes to Yen 3465 or around $32. per person, including tax. Breakfast is another $5. I have stayed here five times now, once with my wife and 13-year-old daughter, and the place feels like home.

For slightly more, all things considered, you can stay in a minshuku (bed, breakfast and dinner) there for $65 per person per night, with breakfast and a dinner to die for--local mountain vegetables and tender Hida beef as well as Sake, a local and delicious extra. The same meals alone would cost $30 or more in a classy restaurant on the street. So, since you have to eat someplace, your pillow is only costing $35/night. Bath and toilet (both styles) are down the hall.

Yes, Japan can be traveled in quite cheaply, but study and preparation are everything, for destinations, transportation, culture, manners and so on. There is much to learn before traveling there if one is to have a truly enjoyable time. You should (always, everywhere) travel with an open mind, be flexible and relax. You aren't in Kansas anymore, for which I am always grateful.

I have traveled in Japan seven times since 1990, always at a "grass roots" level, a continuation of my hitch hiking, backpack travels in North Africa and the Middle east in the mid-1960's (I am 56 years old and a photographer/videographer by profession). To me the things I enjoy most about Japan are its people (always friendly and helpful if you carry a smile), food, culture, traditonal crafts, transportation systems (so easy, and on time), history and scenery. In fact, there is little I don't enjoy in Japan. By the way, I speak limited Japanese and can't read a symbol or letter of the written language, but by some miracle I get along just fine. A warm, sincere smile helps, along with a good dictionary and just being relaxed about the whole thing. Body language counts a lot when communicating with Japanese.

My next trip won't be until June of 2002, for potters interested in visiting the heartland of Japanese ceramics in Saga Prefecture on the island of Kyushu--the ceramics communities, and artists, of Takeo Onsen, Arita, Imari and Karatsu. Like my other trips, this one will be limited to 8 participants. Cost will be around $2700, incl. airfare, from Portland, Oregon, for ten days. I am also contemplating an onsen (spa) tour for late October of 2002, beginning with crossing the Japanese Alps from near Nagano on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, to the Kurobe gorge to stay in an onsen in the mountain canyon, then to Takayama, Kanazawa and possibly Kyoto, for 10 days. The price is to be determined, but I can guarantee spectacular fall foliage scenery.

I never miss your show. Domo arigatou gozaimasu.

Jack Sanders Traditional Crafts Tours Portland, Oregon



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