Russo-Japanese War, part II
April 14, 2010 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Please help me decide between Eastern Europe and Japan for vacation.

I have never been to Eastern Europe or to Japan. I have mapped out itineraries for each.

The Eastern Europe itinerary begins in Prague, takes a side trip to Cesky Krumlov, then goes to Krakow, Auschwitz, Warsaw, (Vilnius), St. Petersburg, Peterhof, and Moscow.

The Japan itinerary begins in Tokyo, then Nikko, then to Kyoto, Nara, Horyu, Himeji, and Hiroshima.

Am I missing anything I would regret? I think I might like to see the churches on Kizhi in Lake Onega, but this would involve drafting a new, Russia-only itinerary. Has anyone been? Is it worth changing my plans for?

Finally, which of these trips should I take first? Why?

Thanks so much for your advice/help in advance!
posted by jefficator to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've lived in Prague & been to several of the cities on your list -- can't recommend it highly enough! Cesky Krumlov is worth it alone for the Egon Schiele museum, if you ask me! Also... consider a side trip to Czestochowa in Poland, the Black Madonna is very much worth it. :)
posted by at 8:39 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have never been to Japan but have done your Eastern Europe itinerary up until Warsaw. I loved it and have been recommending it to everyone I can. One thing to keep in mind is that the Eastern Europe itinerary will be much cheaper overall. If you have a set budget you will be able to stay in nicer accommodations and eat more expensive meals than in japan.
posted by nestor_makhno at 8:46 AM on April 14, 2010

Have you been to W. Europe before? If so Japan is a no brainer to me. Not to say E.Europe and Russia are not totally rewarding, just that Japan for a westerner is just a totally different ball of wax.
posted by JPD at 8:58 AM on April 14, 2010

I've lived in Japan and been to all of the cities on your itinerary there. I adored it, to say the least. The old architecture mixing with amazingly modern and artistic structures is quite beautiful. The food was an adventure unto itself - try okonomiyaki! The people are beyond kind, you don't really have to worry about safety as much in Japan as other countries, people won't steal your things.

The ticket to Japan is the most expensive part, it's not hard to live and travel on a budget there, easy to pick up pretty tasty and non-junky foods at the convenience stores, go to the supermarket at the end of the day for discounted foods, and also find cheap restaurants/bakeries to eat at along the way - Bikuri Ramen had ramen bowls for less than $2. FWIW it's nice to adhere to the different standard of living there, the modest accommodations are just the way things are done. Hotels are usually priced per person, not per room, and I'd recommend finding ryokan rather than western-style hotels - the unique experience is cheaper too :) And souvenir shopping - just go to a 100-yen store, it's amazing what you can find there. Make sure to remember your own deodorant tho, those guys apparently don't sweat.

If you're already at Hiroshima, I'd suggest going just a little further to Miyajima and seeing the floating toori gate :)
posted by lizbunny at 8:59 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Each itinerary is great is in its own way, and not really comparable in terms of quality.

I've lived in Prague and have never been to Japan, so of course I will vote for Eastern Europe. However! This is only because I feel there will be a lot more variety in a trek through Eastern Europe than through Japan. The difference between big, squat, masculine Moscow and delicate, fairytale Prague is simply enormous, and you'll get an appreciation of how Central and Eastern Europe have evolved under various regimes and occupations. (Fans of Japan, feel free to dispute!)

Other suggested towns would be Krakow, Poland (much lovelier than Warsaw, in my opinion) and absolutely, positively hit up Budapest. I visited Budapest three times during my year in Prague, because in Budapest the people were so nice and the streets were wide as canals and the food was actually good, a rare treat in Central Europe.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:31 AM on April 14, 2010

I've never been to any of the cities on your European agenda but I think it sounds great. My general feeling for that area is that it's gorgeous but many of the cities seem so similar to me.

I have been to Japan and LOVE it. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world. I loved it so much I'm starting Japanese lessons so that I'll be more prepared next time I go.

For a Westerner I'll agree that it's one of those experiences that gets you so outside of your element that you wind up doing things you might never consider doing otherwise. I was there just last fall and I'm already planning a return trip.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:58 AM on April 14, 2010

Just from looking at your itineraries, I would go for the Eastern European trip. So many different countries and histories and culture. Japan is great but to be honest, a little boring for my own taste. Perhaps if you expanded your itinerary to more of East Asia, it may be as varied as your Euro trip.
posted by cazoo at 10:04 AM on April 14, 2010

It really does come down to taste. I would like to see Eastern Europe one day (I have been to most of Western Europe at one time or another), but I have really enjoyed Japan. When I last visited Japan, there was a tour (the Hato bus line out of Tokyo Eki (station) which had a day trip to Nikko and then to Chuzenji, a lake up in the mountains, which was not too expensive and a good way to mix a little bit of nature (of a touristy kind) with culture. I also did a bus trip of Nara, which saved my brain (although a half-day trip probably would have been better, honestly). I also really like Matsushima, a scenic bay north of Tokyo (assuming you like bare rock and pine trees).

If you decide to go to Japan, memail me; I'll be glad to suggest other stuff.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:20 AM on April 14, 2010

I met a lot of gaijin tourists in Japan, and I came to a general conclusion. If you aren't a highly flexible person, just forget it. Really, if you can't speak Japanese and you aren't loaded with money, just forget it. Japan is sufficiently alien that you won't be able to get around without expensive assistance from locals, who will presumably be professionals serving the tourist market for a fee.
I think Japan is incredibly tourist-friendly if you know the language. I think it's positively scary for tourists who aren't Japan-friendly. I've seen tourists just melt down under the stress of the alienness of it all. I mean really, I had people who whined at me constantly about the food, and ate all 3 meals a day at McDonalds. I ate at McDonalds once, and it was the only food poisoning I ever got in Japan. On the other hand, I love eating at depachika (department store food courts), I described it to one Aussie tourist, she astonished me by saying, "Oh yeah, I was in one of those yesterday, the smell was so awful, I thought I was going to puke!" Sheesh.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:57 PM on April 14, 2010

charlie don't surf - I have the exact opposite experience.

I don't, historically, consider myself to be very flexible and I don't much like feeling out of my element in social situations but there was something about being so completely outside of my element that I just went with it and absorbed as much as I could. The toughest thing for me was not being able to READ Japanese. I got by with a few spoken phrases but oh.. to be able to read Japanese would have helped.

I ate where the locals ate, I ate WHAT the locals ate and as someone who grew up on meat and potatoes and little else... that was an adventure.
posted by FlamingBore at 2:39 PM on April 14, 2010

Well that's my point, FB. If you are flexible enough to live as the locals do, you can have some great experiences. My last trip over, 90 days (including Golden Week) I spent $1500 for the whole trip, including airfare and lodging, but a lot of that depended on my language ability, which allowed me to live like a native, cheaply.

But then, I know people who are going over and ask me things like what they're going to eat because they're a vegan and can't eat fish. That's the kind of inflexibility I'm talking about. I tell them, be prepared to starve.

Still, I'll tell you, you are missing an entire world right under your nose if you can't read Japanese. You aren't even on the same planet.
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:52 PM on April 14, 2010

Gotcha. I'm guessing I'm a lot more flexible than I seem to think I am, but I'm also not fully local-immersed. I thoroughly enjoyed myself even without the readability. I found that a little effort went a long way. People were amazingly generous of their time and knowledge with me. Next time I'll be better prepared, but I still would do it again in a heartbeat with little to no knowledge of the language.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:20 PM on April 14, 2010

As I mentioned in your previous thread about Japan, Himeji Castle will be undergoing renovations for the next few years, so you won't be able to enter it nor see anything but scaffolding from the outside. I recommend skipping it in favor of Hikone Castle or Inuyama Castle.
posted by armage at 6:23 PM on April 14, 2010

[In Budapest] the food was actually good

Oh yesssss! Compared to some of the surrounding countries, the food in Hungary is awesome.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:28 PM on April 14, 2010

I have been to Prague, all over Hungary, and to Croatia, as well as to Japan twice.

If you can afford it, I would recommend Japan, because:

(1) The food is much better. You will have sushi of a quality you did not believe possible. You will have Kobe beef. You will have delicious, cheap ramen. You will have okonomiyaki.

(2) They have toilets that wash your butt in the 7-11s.

(3) The trains are amazing. The Tokyo subway is an experience in itself.

(4) Japan is just so weird.

That said, I'm not sure I would have had as good a time in Japan if I didn't speak some Japanese. I just used the Berlitz tapes for maybe 30 minutes a day for 6 months. This got me to "where is the train station", which really made traveling much easier.

If I could afford it, I would definitely go back to Japan a third time before I went anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:47 PM on April 14, 2010

Incidentally, when would you be going? Japan in June tends to be overcast and wet, while July and August can be uncomfortably humid and hot. Autumn and spring are the best times to visit. I'm not sure about summers in Eastern Europe, but it might be more bearable to visit.
posted by armage at 8:06 PM on April 14, 2010

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