April 1st brought about big changes in Japan for residents with the raising of the consumption tax from 5% to 8%. It’s already had an impact on our personal budget, making everything from restaurant meals to gas to highway tolls just a little bit more expensive than normal. As travelers in the next few months, you might not feel the penny pinch but you’ll definitely notice the signs reminding all of us that things aren’t quite as cheap as they used to be.
But as tourists, what WILL you notice? Things are in constant change here in Japan and it’s hard as short-time visitors to know what’s up. I try to post updates and changes to the Uncover Japan facebook page but I thought I’d gather some of those noteworthy tidbits here for those of you who may have missed them.
1. Himeji is still under reconstruction
Oh the horror! When will it end?? Himeji is arguably one of Japan’s most stunning examples of original feudal architecture and she’s been under wraps for several years now. Up until this year, you could actually take a tour of the castle’s renovation project and learn about the techniques used to fix castles of this age. Now, however, the main keep is off limits for at least several months, if not longer. Until then, Matsumoto Castle in the Japan Alps is a great alternative.
2. The shrines of Nikko are under reconstruction
Nikko is a great day trip from Tokyo, both for lovers of hiking and the outdoors and for those interested in seeing the resting place of the first shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu. But next year (2015) marks the 400th anniversary of Ieyasu’s death and the shrines of Nikko are getting a good cleaning ahead of that notable year. You can still visit but expect some scaffolding and covered portions.
3. 7-11 ATMS once again accept Mastercard
Huzzah! For those of us with Mastercard-linked foreign debit cards, this has been a LONG year of searching for Japan Post ATMs. A disagreement between the worldwide financial institution and the convenience store chain meant quite the headache for expats and travelers who couldn’t quite figure out why they couldn’t get their money. It’s all good now, so when in need of some cash, both 7-11 or Japan Post will do.
4. Bidding farewell to the Suica N’Ex combo
I’m probably most saddened by the passing of this travel deal. As of March 31st, 2014, Narita Airport travel centers will no longer sell the Suica N’ex combo ticket, an amazing deal that got you a Narita Express train ticket (normally about ¥2900 – ¥3100) AND a Tokyo debit-style train pass preloaded with ¥1000 or ¥1500, all for just slightly more than the standalone N’Ex ticket. As of right now, the only deal replacing it is a half price Narita Express ticket to most major Tokyo stations (Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, etc). It’s still a good deal (don’t forget to present your passport) but not as good as it once was.
5. Cruises to Japan are on the rise
Considering Japan is made up of nearly 4000 little (and not so little) islands, it should come as no surprise that cruises to Japan are on the rise. Ports of call include stops outside Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and my old stomping grounds of Okinawa.
6. Yoshino Baigo Plum Grove to be cut down
One of my favorite off-the-beaten-track days in Japan was my trip years ago to the Yoshino Baigo plum orchard near Mt Mitake in western Tokyo. Hundreds of plum trees with different colored blooms graced the hillside there, resembling a candy floss Impressionist painting. It was lovely and a sight I hoped to return to someday. However, plum pox took a good number of the trees last year and despite best efforts, the rest will be cut down later this spring.
7. There’s a new yokozuna in town
Sumo wrestler Kakuryu became the newest – and 71st – yokozuna just last week, joining two other Mongolian-born heavyweights in sumo’s top spot. It’s been a long time since three men have shared the title of yokozuna, but Kakuryu’s recent championship wins assured him a unanimous vote into the prime position.
I”m sure there is much I am missing here so keep checking the Uncover Japan facebook page for up to date information. And happy traveling!