China or Japan? Impressions and travel experiences

Last month, we had a great trip to China, so we finally can compare this country with Japan that we visited 2 years ago. The structure of the two trips was quite similar: in Japan we visited Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and had few days in a beautiful natural surrounding, around Fuji mountain. While, in China we covered the famous triangle: Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an and we spent few days in a really amazing area in Guangxi region. So, how was our travel experiences and how the two trips compare to each other?  And more important, what is our impression about the two countries in the light of those trips:
Planning easiness:
Both counties are fairly easy to plan. There are lots of information in English about both of them as they are quite popular for travelers. The regular photography websites that we used as source for our location scouting has lots of images from both countries, so we had no issue to have a large amount of locations to visit and photograph in both of the trips. One small disadvantage for China is that google maps can be quite inaccurate, so we had few issues founding some places, but nothing really major. Just a bit more walking.
Local transportation:
Japan is very easy to travel in. Pretty much everything is translated in English, all the public transportation means are punctual and follow the schedule in real detail. We used the JR pass (Japan railway) for two weeks and that covered most of our train trips and some of the local trains/metro. China is supposed to be more random and chaotic, although we were lucky not to experience that. We had a mixture of flights and bullet train rides and we cannot really complained about any of them. The flights were almost spot on (one of them 10 minutes earlier and another 10 minutes delay) while the trains were fast, reliable and absolutely on time. The only thing that we liked more in Japan comparing to China is that you don’t really have to spend much time in the train station. We were coming to the station, used the JR pass to make a seat reservation to the next train, go to platform and 1 minute after we were in the train.
While in China the time spent is much longer due to complicated process of security check (one check in Xi’an and even two in Bejing) and ticket check at the gate, after waiting in a long queue. Purchasing wise, we cannot really compare the two experiences: in Japan we booked everything on the spot, just checking the itinerary and schedule on the hyperdia app and showing to the ticket office to get a seat reservation; in China we booked everything in advance, using app/website. The two countries a similar, but I would give a plus to Japan due to a much easier and less stressful process.
English level:
The English level was fairly bad in both countries and we found it quite similar. However, given the fact that in China we stayed in 4-5 stars hotels while in Japan mostly in regular 3 stars hotels, we were expecting a bit more from China. It was not the case. We had some very ‘interesting’ experiences trying to communicate with the hotel stuff about very simple issue and getting that blank look that makes you absolutely sure that everything was just lost in translation. I also remember a similar encounter with a kind but emotional dude in Kawaguchiko hotel. He was sweating exclusively during our 2 minutes discussion about how to get to Chureito pagoda and calling us a taxi for that. Therefore, I would say the two countries are pretty much on par in this matter.

In general we are quite ok with Asian food, although Thai food is our favorite among this large family of cuisines. Eating Chinese or Japanese in Europe is a different story from what you get in the native countries. And even though both countries feature amazing cuisine, with various choices and ingredients, we had a quite a mixed experience in terms of food. In Japan: we tried various things but we enjoyed the most Tempura. We definitely did not enjoy Sushi/Sushimi and some other foods looked fairly unattractive. The Western style food we tried was quite awful. Apart from that, we tried many snacks both street food and packed. Hack, we even tried fried maple leaves.

In China: there was something about the water that made our stomachs uncomfortable, therefore we didn’t really enjoyed the food. The local dishes we tried were hit or miss. We had really great food when dining with friends, but some mixed experiences when picking up restaurants and dishes by ourselves. We discovered as well some pretty good Western food restaurant chain called Blue Frog that had really great soup and some nice burgers; and it was a choice on convenience when located in our vicinity around lunch time. Again, the conclusion is that food wise our experiences were similar in the two countries.
Challenges for a photographer:
This is a quite broad topic to discuss and the opinions can be quite mixed. The major challenges were the crowds and air pollution. Beating the crowds is a very difficult task for a photographer. In Japan, we had quite a few morning sessions especially in Kyoto. We waked up really early and were just before the sunrise at Arashyama bamboo forest (we almost missed the chance for this one as we went in the wrong direction), Fujimi Inari (here we were just us and a few locals that came to pray at the shrines) and Gion old street. However, it was an elbow business finding a spot for sunset at Kiyomizu-dera Temple; other temples we could not properly photograph them due to being closed for sunrise/sunset. At Chureito pagoda we were there 2 hours before the sunset, giving us a chance to pick the spot when other photographers showed up.

In the 5 lakes district around mount Fuji we had no issues finding spots due to the vast area around the lakes and multitude of foreground subjects that could be used for complementing the majestic mountain. In China, the crowds were more numerous and somehow more professional. Despite climbing well before sunset at Xianggong hill, we barely found a spot on the forth lowest platform, as more than 100 people were there way before us. This one we could blame it on our guide, as he should have foreseen this and started earlier from our hotel. Another famous spot, the Bund in Shanghai is always full of people, but you can find a spot for sure.

The pollution is unfortunately an issue in most of the large cities and both Japan and China feature some really huge and high populated metropolis. The air pollution, apart from the unpleasant effect for the lungs, tends to make the images more hazy and the colors grayish and less vivid. We were thinking about purchasing clear sky filters to that eliminate some of this effect, but we ended up dealing with the problem in post-processing. Again, the two countries come very close on this topic, maybe a sightly advantage for Japan.
Beauty and number of photo opportunities:
While we really enjoyed our time in Japan and we photograph some really nice places, the overall impression is that China is a more beautiful country. The nature is simply breathtaking with some many out of this world landscapes. We visited only Guangxi region with its Li river and Karst mountains, so we still have at least half a dozen amazing places on our to do list. The architecture in Chinese cities in more impressive, shinier and newer overall. So China comes first in terms of the number and the quality of the photographic opportunities, and we will probably need at least 3-4 more trips in order to experience just the most famous locations. It’s somehow normal when thinking about the size and the varied clime and nature of the country.

Safety and how stressful was the trip:

Traveling in Japan was a charm. No security issues, never had to worry about anything in this area. We left our tripods for 15 minutes outside a store, and they were still there. Before starting the Chinese trip we read a lot about the dangers in China. The pick-pockets were high one the list and this gave us quite a bit of stress. We had to think about various measures to protect our stuff. We carried a small amount of money in a small wallet and kept the main one in a separate location; have zipped pockets at trousers or kept everything in the chest pocket inside the jacket. I was a bit paranoid in the first few days in Shanghai, I must admit. But in the end, everything went fine. We had no incidents and we are very happy about it.
As a conclusion, it is not as bad as some people were describing on the internet. With a bit of care and few common sense measures you can avoid unfortunate events that can spoil the holiday. I must admit, although Japan scores higher in this area, we will have less reasons to be stressed for a future trip in China.
Comfort and price of the hotels:
This is pretty difficult to compare as in China we chose higher end hotels, while in Japan we got some pretty basic ones. Our rule of thumb when travelling is to get decent hotels, clean and having private toilets, but also conveniently located. We don’t go for luxury as we only care about a good night sleep to give us the energy for the next day.
Lesson learnt about hotels in Japan. Lots of them have really tiny rooms with even tinier beds. It was probably definitely our mistake. We picked some business chain hotels, rather designed for business people spending a night in a single room. Our hotel in Tokyo had a double bed a bit wider than 1 meter, while the room overall was not larger than 5-6 square meters. While not a problem in itself, a really tiny bed can be a nuisance when you try to get a proper rest after a full day of walking or hiking with a heavy backpack on your shoulders. Price wise, the hotels in China were far more cheap than in Japan, this is why we went for better quality once. We got a really nice 5 stars hotel in Xi’an with free drinks and an afternoon snacks/tea/coffee lounge for about 75 euros per night. So hotel wise , the experience in China was much better than the one in Japan.
Read also our first impressions and some of the obstacles we encountered while photographing in Japan.


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