Tips and Observations For A First Time Traveler To Japan
I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the thought of traveling to Japan. Even though I’m fairly well traveled in Asia, I knew things would be different. There’s the language issue, etiquette, unfamiliar food and even with the research I did, I found myself confused by how certain things would work. So I thought it might be helpful to include some tips and observations for the first time visitor like me. Keep in mind these are from my own personal experiences so they might not be the same as other people and I’m not making any blanket statements about a country or culture.
Earthquake after effects:
I’m going to start with this because this is the first thing people asked us about when we got home. We felt no aftershocks or earthquakes the entire time we were in Japan. We experienced no power outages, or saw any signs of shortages of food or water. The only things we noticed were some efforts at saving power; many escalators and moving walkways were shut down in Tokyo and possibly some building lights were off at night, though it was hard to tell. We saw a few cracks in our hotel’s hallway and some lost plaster on the Imperial Palace’s outer wall but that’s about it. Radiation was a non-issue where we were.
Everyone was incredibly friendly, polite and seemed genuinely happy we were there. People asked us if we had been afraid to visit and when we said “no” all we got were big smiles.The loss of tourism has had a big impact. We did a ½ day tour of Tokyo (included with our package) and our guide said she would usually have up to 80 people on it. There were 12 people on the day we did it and she said there had been days with no one, or just one or two people. While there, we saw a report on CNN which said that tourism in Tokyo was still down as much as 70% in some places.
Tokyo: The metro system can be very confusing at first because there are multiple lines; Subway/Metro, Japan Rail Commuter lines, and private rail lines. Just because there is a train station where you are, doesn’t mean it will go where you want. We had Suica cards given to us by friends to which we added value when we arrived. These are travel cards which can be bought, loaded with money and used to ride the subways and even pay for items in convenience stores and vending machines. In fact, at the end of the trip when they still had money on them, we used them to pay for drinks at a 7-11, and a beer at an airport restaurant.
To use them, just tap the card on the subway turnstile and it will let you through. Tap the card again when you leave and it will debit the card the value of the trip. Ride costs vary depending on length. We added value in an office in the station because we did not know what to do at first, but later we added money at a ticket machine in the subway. The minimum value to add is 1000 yen. Our rides averaged about 190-230 yen each.
People are very quiet on the train, most reading or sleeping. Some texting on cell phone, but not one person ever talked on their cell phones on the metro. Train cars are very clean, and there is no graffiti anywhere. No one eats or drinks on the subways (apparently this is a major faux pas).
Kyoto: The same rules apply as in Tokyo, but the system is much smaller. There are only 2 lines which cross the city. Fortunately for us, our hotel was on one of them. On one day, we bought a 600 yen daily pass which paid for itself because the minimum cost for a ride was 210 yen.
Shinkansen Trains and the JR Pass:
We opted to buy the 1 week JR Pass before leaving home. The cost was about the same as a R/T ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto, but it also allowed us to go to Nara and use the local JR commuter lines in Tokyo which we did in our last two days. See my Japan Resources post for helpful links regarding JR trains. We bought our pass from the ANA travel office in Torrance CA and because I happened to be in the area, I picked them up, saving myself the $10 delivery charge and the worry about their arrival because we ordered them right before leaving.
You will get a voucher for the pass and then must take it to a JR office in one of the larger stations to have it activated and get your actual pass. Remember to bring your passport when you do so. The office in the Shinjuku Station does not open until 9am. One you have your pass, treat it like gold. They are not replaceable if lost. When you have the pass activated, it’s a good idea to make seat reservations if you know when you want to travel. You can travel without reservations, just get on the train, but seats are not guaranteed without them and reservations are free with the pass. Some cars are reserved seats only, so if you don’t have seat reservations, make sure you go to the right cars. When getting seat reservations, select sides D and E seats if you want two seats together (in ordinary, not green/1st class). A, B, and C seats are 3 across.
To use your JR Pass on the local lines just go to a manned gate and show your pass and they will let you through. It was always easy and there was never a delay.
The Shinkansen are the bullet trains. The ones called Nozomi are slightly newer and faster, but are not included in the JR pass. If you have a reservation ticket it will tell you the train, car, and seat numbers, but in Japanese. The JR agent will write it in English for you on the ticket. Go to the track for your train (electronic signs are in Japanese and in English) and there will be signs above the track which show where each car will pull up so you know where to stand to get on. It’s a very good idea to be there waiting because the train is not in the station long unless it originates there. Our Kyoto train to Tokyo pulled in, we were first to get on in our car, and we had not stowed our luggage completely or sat down before it began to pull away.
When the train gets up to speed it goes about 270 km/h. The ticket conductor will walk to the front of the car, bow, and then walk down the aisle asking for tickets. You will need to show your passport along with the JR pass and seat reservation tickets if you have them. Bulkhead seats at the front of the train car have larger tray tables and power outlets. Regular seats have no power, smaller tray tables which do not slide forward toward your seat.
Food on the train: We did not see a dining car, but there are ladies who walk around with a coffee/snack cart. A very small coffee (which we bought on the morning from Tokyo to Kyoto) was 300 yen. If we’d had time, I would have looked for a Starbucks or other coffee place in Tokyo station. We did find some very good pain au chocolate at a French bakery there. The Kyoto station has lots of food options. We bought bentos boxes in convenience store and sushi place. Upstairs where the Shinkansen depart are even more food offerings.
As you approach a station, music will play over the loudspeakers, an announcement will come on in Japanese, then in English, stating which stop and which connections can be made at that station. Be ready to get off if the train if it is continuing on after your stop.
Bicycles, cars, walking, and theft issues:
Ok, we didn’t ride any bicycles but since they are a form of transportation, I thought I’d put them here. Basically, I wanted to point out that they are left on the street, not locked to pole or a bike stand. People just leave them parked on the sidewalk, but put a lock on the bike’s tire so they cannot be ridden. Everywhere. Here at home those bikes would be tossed on the back of a flat bed truck in a hot minute. But aparently there is very little theft here. Items left on subway are all turned in.
Also, if you do want to ride a bike (we saw some for rent), bikes are ridden on the sidewalk and pedestrians need to keep to the left and out of the way of the bicycles. Keep to the left on escalators and stairways as well. Cars drive on other side of the road here from US so people typically walk on the left side of the sidewalk too. Make sure you look right before stepping off the curb to cross the street!
Costs, Food, and Water:
You’ve heard all about how expensive Japan is, but if you’ve never been, you won’t believe it until you see it. One of the things which shocked us the most was how expensive the beer was in restaurants. We were told this is because it is heavily taxed. A glass of beer was 400-750 yen when sometimes some of the meals were only 900 yen. This can really add to the cost of a meal. Starbucks is expensive; an afternoon break of a couple of coffees and a scone set us back more than $13. A bowl of noodles can be 600-1200 yen depending on location and ingredients and size. This is a far cry from the $1 bowl of pho on the street in Hanoi.
It’s easy to spend 3000-4000 on an “moderate” meal for 2 people and very expensive meals can get up into the stratosphere. Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than any city in the world and in those the cost can get above 20,000 yen per person. However, if you do your homework, it is possible to eat very well for 1000-1500 yen per person.
The Japanese take their food very seriously. They respect their ingredients and sometimes it seems as if they can be borderline obsessive about certain foods. I can get behind this. Take a walk through one of the market areas in the basement of any of the big department stores or through the Tsukiji fish market and you will see what I mean. Not only is the food itself pristine but so is the packaging and the presentation. Where else in the world will you find the most perfectly ripe melon, wrapped as an important gift and costing over $150?
We drank both tap and bottled water. We ate everything, everywhere, raw and cooked. I tend to have a weak stomach did not have one moment of tummy trouble on the entire trip. If you are uncertain how to eat something or protocol, watch your fellow diners for clues. For example, in one udon noodle place I noticed that when finished eating, everyone put their bowl up on the counter with their glass, and then wiped down the counter in front of them with a damp towel provided at each place before departing.
I am a fan of all types of tech gadgets and try to get the most out of what we use for travel. On this trip, we brought a netbook, both of our Android Smartphones and a Kindle. The cell phones are locked, and with our carrier (Sprint) they only have the option to make and receive voice calls in Japan at the insane rate of $2 a minute. However, they do have a wifi option, so we rented a MiFi (a mobile wifi router, more below on this) for our time in Japan. Where ever we could get a signal on the MiFi, we could use our phones to send/receive email, browse the internet and even make calls home via the Skype app which worked VERY well. In fact, I called home using Skype credit for only 2 cents a minute. I also used the Kindle app on my phone to read my book (without my kindle) when I was on the train or a long subway ride. The Kindle’s 3G access connected just fine in Japan, and had I wanted to, I could have used it to download books or even check email. I used the netbook to download photos every night, upload photos to FB, email, surf the web, and write up notes for my trip report.
Portable Wi-Fi Device:
I rented from Rentafone Japan (http://www.rentafonejapan.com/) and selected their BIC Wimax pocket WiFi (aka MiFi) which was waiting for us at the front desk when we arrived at the Hilton. We took it up to the room and fired it up and…it did not get a signal. But we discovered if we put it in the window we could get enough of a signal to get it to work. In fact, most of the time it worked quite well, allowing us to use a phone and netbook at the same time to get email, look at things online, etc. We took the MiFi out with us during the day so we could connect to our phones and use the GPS to find restaurants and look up train schedules. We used it on a slow train ride back from Nara to Kyoto with our cell phones and it helped the long ride pass much faster. The only downsides were that the battery only lasts about 4 hours (so we just didn’t leave it on all the time) and the signal on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto was poor and we were unable to use it in either direction. For us, the $90 we spent for 9 days was well worth the expense.
Three squats and a commode
Toilets in Japan can be anything from a squat toilet or a western style commode loaded with electronic gizmos which will do just about everything for you and to you. One thing that is almost guaranteed is that they will be sparking clean no matter whether it’s in a subway station or fancy hotel lobby.
Higher end hotels have these fancy toilets in every guest room and the most popular brand is Toto. Some places you go will have traditional Japanese squat toilets but usually one traditional western commode too. Airport and train station restrooms seemed to always have both, as do the subways and most of the sightseeing spots, many with the type of toilet indicated on the outside of the stall. I was surprised at the fact that every subway station had multiple restrooms and they were clean, graffiti free, and had toilet paper. They are all beyond the ticket area however, so you can’t just use them from the street side.
Most of the restaurants we ate in had Toto toilets has well. I would always report back to David the quantity and quality of what was in the restroom which ranged from “Three Squats and a Commode” in the subway, to “heated seats” at the Tokyo Tower to the “Full Monty” of heated seats, wash and dry, and sound effects in the hotel lobby’s restrooms. If you are in the toilet and can’t find a mechanism or lever to flush, look for a large silver push button on the wall.
Public restrooms often have a spot in the stall to put a small child in special seat while the parent uses the facilities. Women’s restrooms also often have small, lower urinals for boy children. Smaller public restrooms are often co-ed with a urinal and a stall toilet.
There’s a very distinctive style going on here; shorts and short skirts with over the knee, thigh high stockings. Lots of layers of dresses over pants or tights. Younger salary men seem to favor tight suits with slim, pegged pants and pointy shoes. But those suits are all the same shade of blue as every other man on the train. Everyonehas a charm or four hanging off their cell phone. Most cell phones are in a flip phones style and we saw a few iphones and touch screens but not as many as in US.