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The Only Japan Travel Guide You'll Ever Need
Welcome to Japan!
If you're thinking of going to Japan in the near future, you're in for an unforgettable experience. The sun never seems to set in Japan. You feel younger, full of energy, light-hearted and strangely liberated like bird, let out of a cage it never knew was there. The people are warm, the crime is non-existent and there are new opportunities and experiences waiting to be had. Quite fitting that this country is an island on the other side of the world.
Whether travelling for business or pleasure, you will need to know a few things before you depart. Your first trip may seem a bit disorienting otherwise, as it's not immediately obvious how to function properly once you get there. Thankfully, I have some valuable information to share that I hope will make your stay less of an orientation and more of a memory you'll hold on to for years to come!
Preparation and Getting There
If you have the option of choosing when to go and you want to save some money, there are a few ways to do this. First, travel in late October or early November. The weather is still very nice and dry with daytime highs at around 20 degrees C. This tends to be the cheapest time of the year for airfare as well. Another benefit is that nobody at work will have booked time off so you won't have to fight for a chance to leave the office.
Now you can fly direct to Japan but I don't recommend it for 2 reasons. One, longer flight (16+ hrs) and 2, it's more expensive by a healthy margin. There are plenty of airlines that make 1 stop on the way, you won't lose more than a couple of hours, if that and you can get your flight for around $1000 all in rather than having to pay almost double that for a direct flight some other time of the year. I would keep an eye on United Airlines. They tend to have the cheapest fares. With 1 stop, the main leg of the journey is about 14 hrs. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you depart early Saturday morning you'll arrive in Japan Sunday, mid-afternoon because of the time zone shift. You lose a day going over but you gain it coming back.
I've found 2 ways of nearly eliminating jet lag on the way over. The first one is to simply not fall asleep. Keep yourself awake the whole entire time until the night you arrive, if you can. It will be hell on Earth but you'll be grateful the next day and every day after that. Option 2 is to calculate your total hours awake from when you wake up to when you plan to go to bed the day of your arrival, split the difference and count 3 hours back and 3 hours forward from that point. This will wedge a 6 hr sleep period in the middle of your trip, coinciding with your plane ride and the idea is to sleep the bare minimum so that your body doesn't quite think it's a new day when you wake up. You want to survive your trip but not screw up your internal clock. This "nap" will help minimize your jet lag if you can't stay awake the entire time.
Now... where do you want to stay in Japan? Have a look at the following map:
Areas of Interest In Japan
You will land here!
An excellent place to make your base of operations if staying in Tokyo.
One of Japan's most exciting urban centers, a great alternative to Tokyo.
Hakone is where you want to go to relax and enjoy the popular "onsen" (hot springs) and "ryokan" (traditional Japanese style inn).
This is the center of the nuclear exclusion zone resulting from the tsunami. You may want to avoid lingering in the surrounding contaminated areas.
There are many temples and shrines here as well as an abundance of cultural and historical artifacts. This is a great place to learn and explore.
This map highlights some of the major areas of interest but if you've never been to Japan before you would do well to start off in one of Japan's main metropolitan areas where everything you are likely to need is readily available... including help ;) Tokyo and Osaka are equally suited to the novice traveller and offer a number of options for food, accommodations, entertainment, business centers and transportation. Also ask yourself what you plan to get out of the trip. If you are in it for the cultural and historical learning experience, Osaka might be a better choice because Kyoto and Hiroshima are nearby. If you're on business or desire more flexibility in your day to day activities, I find Tokyo has a bit of everything.
When you arrive at the airport you'll want to grab your "Narita Express + Suica Card" combo deal for about $35 and then hit the JR to pick up your train. Look at your ticket for the car number and seat number. Alternatively, if you purchased a JR Rail Pass, you can redeem your voucher at the JR Kiosk for the actual pass itself but remember, if you're not taking a train that belongs to the JR lines you'll still need to supplement with a local transit pass or tickets.
What's your purpose in Japan?
Where to Stay
If you are used to staying in typical Westernized hotels and you'll be staying in either Tokyo or Osaka, there are plenty that will suit your needs. However they tend to be very expensive. I can't appeal to everyone's budget but for myself, I wasn't going to spend any time in the hotel except to sleep so as long as it was functional and clean, I was willing to "economize". Location is critical to enjoying your stay to the fullest so I found the 2 best hotels which are smack in the middle of everything, are cheap and offer basic amenities without being "sketchy" or unpleasant.
Check out Shinjuku's Washington Hotel. It's a most excellent hotel for a number of reasons:
1) There's a long underground walkway that goes straight to the train station and many other places of interest. It just happens to terminate at THIS HOTEL and this one only. How perfect is that?!
2) At ground level you're spitting distance (5-10 min walk) from Shinjuku station, THEE biggest train station in the world. You can get anywhere from here.
3) Shinjuku is the perfect place in Tokyo to stay because it's almost equidistant from any other part of Tokyo.
4) This hotel can be had for less than 100 bucks/night, it's clean, has a bed, fridge, TV/computer, shower, internet, all that stuff you can't live without. The only con is its size. It is SMALL. You won't be unpacking your luggage. You'll walk in, toilet to your left, bed in front of you, that's it. Drop your stuff on the floor and go to sleep.
5) It has an international desk and a place to put luggage after you check out.
6) It has a built-in convenience store and several restaurants.
Try the APA Hotel Midosuji-Honmachi-Ekimae. Once again, you're looking at prices under $100/night, the location is perfect in every way, there's a train station outside your front door, and it has almost the same exact accommodations as Washington. Again, it's really tiny but if you're a couple or can't stand the lack of space, you can upgrade for $20 or something and still get a great deal.
The Rooms are Small but Functional
The Language Barrier and Other Cultural Differences
Japanese people are very nice but they are also indirect and rely on cues to gauge a person's intentions. Some may be intimidated by your very presence let alone your mannerisms and behaviour. Try to be more tolerant than you normally would be, give others the benefit of the doubt, humble yourself and show respect at all times. If you offend someone, you may not even be aware of it and if they offend you, you should assume there's a misunderstanding and let it slide. About the worst that'll happen is someone on the street you ask for help will ignore you. Don't worry about it, they're just shy or busy or jaded because of other A-Holes who have been giving them a hard time. Other tips include not pointing at things with your finger (use an open palm), subtly bowing when you greet someone instead of reflexively going for their hand or hugging, not taking very strong or directly opposing points of view when a more evasive approach would suffice, bringing a small gift when you visit someone and avoiding the use of sarcasm, as this tends to be taken literally (thereby offending the person) far more often than in the West.
Be aware that although English is taught in schools, most Japanese have only a passive knowledge of it, if that. They may pick up on some words as you talk but may have no ability to respond or no confidence to respond in English. They may run away or stare vacantly at you or say yes over and over with a smile. It's not easy to communicate outside of your western hotel if you don't have some basic Japanese skills. So here goes:
BASIC Survival Japanese
Hello - Konnichiwa
My name is John - John toh moshimasu. (masu is pronounced mass)
Thank you - Arigato
Help me! Please! (emergency) - Tasukete! Onegai!
I need a doctor - Isshasan ga irimasu.
Is there a phone? - Denwa ga arimasu ka?
Where is the Washington Hotel? - Washington Hoteru wa dochira desu ka? (desu is pronounced dess)
Where is the train station? - Eki wa doko desu ka?
How long? / How far? - Donogurai?
Where is my luggage? - Nimotsu wa doko desu ka?
Do you speak English? - Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka?
Is there anyone who speaks English? - Dareka eigo o hanasu hito ga imasu ka?
What time is it? Please show me your watch. - Nanji desu ka? Anata no tokei o misete onegai shimasu.
Credit card - Kurejito Kaado
How much is it (How much does this cost) ? - Kore wa ikura desu ka?
0 - zehro
1 - ichi
2 - ni
3 - san
4 - yon
5 - go
6 - roku
7 - nana
8 - hachi
9 - kyuu
10 - juu
This is by no means going to cover you for all your needs while staying in Japan but it may get you out of a bind and a hub is hardly the place to learn a new language so if you want to spontaneously converse with people about any arbitrary topic I recommend Pimsleur as a means of actually learning Japanese. Prior to that though you should search the web for some basic grammar so that the spoken material makes some sense when you first hear it.
If you find yourself in a jam and for some reason need to articulate to someone a street name or something on a sign or anything else in writing, here's a handy little matrix that will help you transform the cryptic Japanese characters into english syllables that you can then, hopefully, speak to a Japanese person so that they know what you're talking about.
Japanese Characters to English Syllables
What to Do
If for no other reason than to relax while trying something new, go to Hakone, only a short jaunt from Tokyo by Shinkansen. It is a sort or resort/retreat type place where you'll not only find Mt. Fuji but also a ton of hot springs and traditional Japanese style inns. If you're staying in the inns or "ryokan", you'll need to book in advance because they fill up quickly and you can't just show up. In most cases you can however just show up for the hot springs and a few of the good ones have daytime usage fees so you can spend a couple hours there and leave when you want to.
In order to get to hakone you first have to take the Shinkansen to Odawara station, get off and board a local train or bus to one of the various popular destinations. There's an info booth at Odawara station once outside the platform so you can get directions and specific route and price information. I recommend having a look at this map and doing specific research on which sites you want to try.
Try Hakone's Famous Onsen and Ryokan
If you want to cheat the hot spring experience without leaving the city, Tokyo Dome has a hot spring that's very nice and you get all sorts of other spa-like perks too. I've been there a couple of times and quite enjoyed myself.
There are so many other ways to spend your time too. If you are into temples, shrines, history, etc. check out Kyoto and Hiroshima, both easily accessible if you're staying in Osaka. If you love to party and want to enjoy the nightlife, Roppongi and Shibuya are 2 of the best prefectures in Tokyo to find a plethora of bars, nightclubs and other forms of entertainment although by no means are they the only places. Osaka (Minami in particular) has many great bars. One of my favourites isn't geared for co-ed pick-ups or anything but it's just a great place to have fun if you're a video game nerd. It's called Game Bar Continue and it's the only place I've ever seen that lets you play any kind of video game that exists (with other strangers if you like) while drinking. Also check out Blarney Stone, Zerro, Rock Rock and Hub. If shopping is your thing, check out Ginza or Akihabara, both littered with clothing, electronics, cars and goods of all types. Shinjuku and Roppongi Hills also have some popular department stores and malls with high end merchandise.
How to Move Around
Once you're nice and comfortable in your hotel you'll want to go exploring. Automatically you might think "rental car". I would advise highly AGAINST that. There are several reasons:
1) The cars drive on the other side of the road to what you're likely used to.
2) The roads themselves can be confusing and sometimes too small for your vehicle.
3) You'll need an international license to even be allowed to drive. Not difficult to obtain but it costs extra and you have to deal with it before you leave. It also only lasts for 1 year.
4) Parking is not only expensive but very hard to find.
5) If you're an American or from a country that uses the Imperial system, everything is in Metric. This may seem like a non-issue but when you're concentrating on using your signals instead of the wipers every 2 seconds while trying to merge into the correct lane and in the correct direction AND avoiding toll roads AND reading the street signs AND reading a GPS that's in Japanese, monitoring your speed and distance suddenly becomes more challenging.
Taxi is another option but in my opinion it's prohibitively expensive. Truly, your best bet is the most excellent transit system of trains and busses. You'll get where you want to go faster in most cases anyway and it's cheap. I hate transit where I live but it was quite pleasant in Japan and the trains are always on time.
In order to use the transit system you can either buy tickets or use a magnetic card (Pasmo, Suica). Again, I'd stay away from tickets because it's just wasted time finding an English map and computing the fare from it. Travellers to Japan can get a great discount on the Suica magnetic card anyway, which uses a credit based system. You can recharge the card at Suica kiosks and just wave it over the turnstaisle as you enter the station. The station calculates and deducts the appropriate fee at your destination when you leave. You can purchase this card at the airport at a discount if you combine it with the "Narita Express" train ride which carries you to most major cities of interest, including Tokyo.
Tokyo Subway System Map
Osaka Subway System Map
For long distance rides between cities like Tokyo and Osaka, local transit won't cut it. You'll have to take the bullet train or "Shinkansen". There are a few different flavours of this train depending on how many stops it makes (and therefore how quick it is). Since the bullet train is very expensive to take (you could blow a thousand dollars easily if you use this more than half a dozen times) you should buy a Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass. You can purchase one before you leave. It's actually a voucher you're purchasing and you redeem it at the airport for the pass itself. You can get different durations (like a 7 day pass for example) and it allows unlimited use of all but the very fastest bullet train (the Nozomi, 300km/hr). That's ok though because the "slow" ones are 270 - 300 km/hr ;) You are advised to book a seat in advance when you use the train but honestly, I never did and I was always fine. Also, if you have money to burn you can pay for the "green car" which are cars that have better seats and service. Again, I'm not impressed enough to pay for that but it's up to you. The voucher you buy will say whether you opted for the green car option or not. Don't lose this pass! You need to show it to the station employee every time you enter the JR terminal at the train station or they won't let you through.
JR Shinkansen System Map
About the Radiation
As far as I can tell from internet sources, the radiation that would be hitting you just standing out in the open, if you're in Tokyo or Osaka is actually lower than in many other cities around the world. In other words, there's apparently nothing to worry about in that regard. Having said that, what should concern you is the food. There seem to be indications that food coming from certain parts of the country have higher than normal radioactivity and pretty much all the sea life is radioactive. You have to take this in perspective though because everybody is exposed to radiation sources all the time, everywhere so it's a matter of DOSE. If you have a genuine concern that your health is at risk then you can avoid fish and eat a lot of imported food items although this is not a guarantee that the food is totally clean but it tends to limit your exposure to foodstuffs coming from the area where the nuclear fallout was greatest.
Once again, as far as I can tell, the tap water is safe and regular checks are being done to monitor the isotope levels in the water. Some stores advertise the radiation levels of the food they are selling because they know citizens are concerned about this but for the most part, you'll have to take your chances. I didn't worry too much about it but I stayed away from fish and occasionally would ask where a food product was imported from. The Caesium that still lingers in the soil (and food) will apparently be eliminated from one's body in less than 3 months according to some articles I read on the net and I never noticed any changes in health during that time so there's really no need to be alarmed in my opinion. It's just something I figured would be worth discussing.
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert, have not taken any measurements and do not claim to know anything about the radiation situation in Japan. I'm only sharing internet sources of unknown reliability with you for reference and educational purposes.
Radiation: Threat Level by Region
Radiation: Reading Labels
There are a ton of things to do in Japan, which is why you should allow yourself at least a couple of weeks if not more, to properly explore everything. If you've never been to this country before you'll end up wasting much of the first week just figuring things out anyway so might as well spend as much time there as you can so you can enjoy all the country has to offer. There's something for every type of traveller, whether you want to go sightseeing or get wasted with your new friends. The best advice I can offer is to do your homework now, not when you get there. Believe me, a little work before the trip will pay dividends when you don't have to waste half a day figuring out how to get to your destination.
Hope you have a great trip and good luck!