As I mentioned in my previous post, I visited Japan for the seventh summit of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7).
I had only visited two other countries prior to this trip and for both, getting a visa was extremely easy. I got the visa on arrival at the Antananarivo International Airport in Madagascar, while for my visit to the United Arab Emirates, I obtained an e-visa just a day and a half after submitting my application via a visa agent.
Acquiring a visa to Japan – Pretty easy process
Getting the visa to Japan was quite an easy process as well, mostly because I had been invited by the Japanese embassy, which was also sponsoring all aspects of my stay in Japan. However, even excluding my circumstances, the Japanese visa application process is pretty straightforward and hassle-free.
Since I was visiting for nine days and for official purposes, I went on a short-term business visa, which is usually valid for up to 14 days. In my case, I only submitted my passport, two passport photos, an introductory letter from my employer and a filled-out visa application form. The rest of the details were submitted by the inviter.
The visa guideline provided by the Embassy of Japan in Kenya is pretty straightforward. The requirements for a short-term visa to Japan are few and fairly reasonable as you can read here.
While my application fee was waived, a short-term visa to Japan is generally cheap. The embassy only charges Ksh. 2,800, which is payable on collection.
My visa was ready within four days of application, although the embassy advises that applicants submit their applications at least a month in advance just to be safe. This is because even though the processing time is just four to five days, some applications may require consultation with the headquarters in Tokyo, increasing the processing time from the usual brief period. In case you need more information about the visa application process, you can check the embassy’s website.
Getting to Japan
Since my trip was fully sponsored by the Japanese embassy, I don’t know the cost of my airfare. However, due to the long distance, flights to Japan are generally expensive, with the most affordable economy flight being $920. Most flights to Japan cost over $1,000. More than 15 airlines fly from Nairobi to different Japanese cities, mainly Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
I traveled to Japan using Qatar Airways, stopping over at the Hamad International Airport in Doha. My longest flight prior to this was five hours, so taking the 16-hour flight to Tokyo was extremely draining.
The flight to Doha was six hours, with a layover of around two and a half hours in Doha, then 10 hours from Doha to Tokyo.
It’s important to be sure of the airport you will use in Tokyo. International flights land at two airports in Tokyo, the Narita International Airport (New Tokyo International Airport) and the Haneda International Airport (Tokyo International Airport).
Qatar Airways has flights from Nairobi to both the Narita and Haneda Airports. In most cases, travelers leave Nairobi on the same flight, then take separate connections from Doha, so it’s important to ensure your luggage is labelled correctly so it’s not sent to the wrong airport. On the day I was travelling, I boarded the same flight from Nairobi with someone landing at Haneda Airport. However, travelers landing at Haneda Airport had a layover just short of six hours in Doha, but my flight to Narita involved a layover of around two hours.
However, Haneda Airport is closer to Tokyo than Narita. It takes around an hour to get to Tokyo from Narita, while it is just half an hour to Tokyo from the Haneda Airport.
As I stated in my previous article, I visited four main cities, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto and Osaka. Each Japanese city is distinct, but my favorite was Kyoto because it’s so vibrant and rich with culture and history, comprising 17 UNESCO-recognized world heritage sites.
Here are a few activities you should consider if you’re ever in Japan.
The best thing about Japan’s tourist zones is that their entry fees is standard for both locals and foreigners, while certain places like shrines do not charge any entry fees at all.
Ride on the Shinkansen (Bullet train)
I had been looking forward to riding the bullet train even before my trip to Japan. I rode on the Shinkansen (bullet train), twice, from Yokohama to Kyoto and again from Osaka to Tokyo.
The train travels at unbelievably high speeds, up to 320 kilometres per hour, which means you can travel between Nairobi and Mombasa in just an hour and a half. However, the trains can easily accomplish much higher speeds if unregulated.
The metros that operate within the cities have significantly lower speeds, for obvious reasons. Also, the metro, as well as the Shinkansen, does not operate for 24 hours, unlike in many other developed countries. Like I explained in my previous article, Japan is not a 24-hour economy.
Many of the bullet trains are automatic and, therefore, unmanned. In many cases, the trains stop only for one minute at the stations, meaning passengers have exactly 60 seconds to board and disembark the train, so you need to be extremely alert and fast.
This is one of the reasons why the Central Japan Railway Company, which operates the railway, advises passengers against carrying large luggage onto the Shinkansen. Only cabin-approved luggage is allowed on the train.
The group I was travelling with was lucky as our hosts sent our large luggage directly from the hotel we were staying in Yokohama to our hotel in Tokyo, so we didn’t need to stress.
Also unlike Kenya’s SGR, where there is usually just one train leaving or arriving, the trains operate on multiple routes, so you need to be alert so you don’t get on the wrong train.
The routes used by the Shinkansen between Yokohama and Kyoto and between Osaka and and Tokyo are mostly countryside regions. While the sights are quite scenic, there is not much to see aside from rural villages, rivers, rice fields and greenery in general.
However, the Shinkansen is extremely comfortable as the seats are big and they recline, in addition to having charging sockets.
Drinks and snacks are also sold at boarding stations and on the train, although I did not enquire about the pricing.
Visits to Shrines and Temples
I’m not sure whether the Japanese are generally religious. However, the country is populated with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
The two most popularly practised religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. During my trip, I visited a few Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, running into crowds of tourists each time.
Shinto shrines have large orange entrances called ‘toriii’. Before going through the torii entrance, you should bow down to pay respect to the god. You are also advised to enter from the right or left, never the centre, because the middle path is for god to pass.
Some shrines also have water fountains outside, where worshippers can wash hands so they are pure when entering the shrine.
There are certain points in temples and shrines where it is forbidden to take pictures or videos and tourists are required to remove shoes before entering the main sanctuary.
One of my highlights was the stone garden at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto, which is just one of the many world heritage sites in Kyoto.
The stone garden comprises 15 stones, but only 14 are visible to the normal human eye. No matter how keenly you look, you can’t see the 15th stone, even though it is there – just hiding in plain sight.
I also visited the Shimogamo Jinja Shrine in Kyoto’s Shimogamo District, another UNESCO recognized world heritage site. The Shimogamo shrine is over two millennia old and enshrines Kamotaketsunomi-no-mikoto, Kyoto’s creator and guardian.as well as the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavillion)
Even though Kinkakuji was crowded with thousands of tourists, my visit was worth it. The pavilion is actually a Buddhist temple but is surrounded all the way by a pond and is located inside a strolling garden.
Kinkakuji is termed as the golden pavilion because its top two floors are entirely covered in gold leaf.
The temple was originally built in the 15th century but has burned quite a few times since then. The existing structure is, therefore, not the original one, but i still carries a lot of history. Unfortunately, tourists are not permitted inside the actual pavillion and can only view it from outside.
Ride the Ropeway and Enjoy Views of Mt. Fuji from the Nihondaira Yume Terrace
One of my highlights on the entire trip was the ride on the ropeway car at the Nihondaira Yume Terrace in Shimizu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
From the Nihondaira Observatory you can view Mount Fuji in the far distance if the weather favors you.
The terrace is located in the same location as the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, from where you can get breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.
Attend a Japanese Tea Ceremony
Although a simple tea ceremony can last less than an hour, it is quite complex, entailing several rituals, etiquette and precision (the measurement of the ingredients has to be precise).
Basically, the tea is made using ground tea leaves in precise measurements, and taken without sugar. The participants are expected to sit on the floor during the entirety of the ceremony. After the tea is ready, the guests are expected to drink from a particular side of specific small handle-less bowls.
Usually, it is taken with a sweet like the one shown in the photo below.
You can read more about the Japanese tea ceremony here.