Monday, May 11, 2015

A few Japan tips

(last update 14 Mar 2017)


Before You Go


Check to see what festivals and holidays are happening on the days you're considering. There might be some awesome things you don't want to miss, or giant crowds (e.g., Golden Week) that could complicate your plans. 

If the trip is far enough out, start planning how to get there in Business or First Class with points. My planning for our big 3 month adventure is here. Our points planning for the trip before that is here. Try to get on a Japanese airline if you can... ANA is in Star Alliance and is an Amex transfer partner. JAL is in OneWorld and recently added a partnership with Alaska Airlines. To quote my best friend who's originally from Tokyo, "I'd rather fly ANA in Economy that United in Business".


Consider getting a Japan Rail Pass before you go. (My detailed thoughts on which, if any, pass to buy are here) It gets you on any JR train in the country, including the urban JR trains like Yamanote and Chuo lines, as well as the Narita Express train from the Airport. There are a few region-specific passes available only in Japan so you're not completely out of luck if you didn't plan ahead. Bring your passport with you to the JR office. 
(Chase codes the purchase as 'Travel' so if you use a Sapphire card you should get bonus points)


Save big on train travel with a rail pass!


Staying


Not all hotel inventory is shared with big US travel portals like Kayak.com. We had several instances where we couldn't find any open rooms on Kayak but managed to find space in exactly the same "fully booked" hotels when we looked on Japanican.com. Further, Japanican often shows whole classes of rooms not visible on western websites – I booked a double-bed room for $113 when the cheapest room for the exact dates and hotel on Kayak was $172 Queen room. 
can't find a hotel room? try these guys :)

Many of Japan's "Business Hotels" (e.g., Dormy Inn, APA) have nice onsen spas on the roof or in the basement. The Japanican portal lets you filter by "Hot Springs" when searching for a hotel. The hotel hot springs are often nicer than any of the private spas I've seen in the US, and they're also more lax with the whole "no tattoos" thing. Business Hotels also usually have washing machines on site.

Gracery Shinjuku might not have a hot springs, but it does have a giant Godzilla climbing the building!

AirBnB can be tricky in Japan. It's now technically illegal in Tokyo (as of Spring 2017 it's been legalized). There's also a similar homegrown, fully-legal service called StayJapan.com, but I don't know anyone who's tried it yet.
In my own experience I watched two friends who spoke no Japanese attempt to interact with a first-time AirBnB host who spoke no English, who'd provided no google map, and who was trying to hide the fact that she was renting from her neighbors... I was able to help sort out the confusion, but if you don't speak Japanese and aren't up to speed on Japanese customs and wayfinding, you might want to skip AirBnB or pick a host with several positive reviews from English speakers.
AirBnB can be tricky…

Takkyubin


Another major downside to AirBnB is that it often prevents you from using one of Japan's greatest inventions: Takkyubin (aka Ta-Q-Bin)! Nearly every Japanese person uses this magical courier service to move bags between hotels when they travel. For $8 they transported my roll-aboard bag from one coast to the other, overnight. All hotels have infrastructure in place to send and receive the bags, so my bag was waiting for me in my room when I checked in. 

On the train, I bring a small carry-on with one change of clothes and a few toiletries in it. Make sure you have the phone number and the full postal address of your next hotel handy, and note that all Takkubin payments have to be in cash.  Given how crowded subways and train stations are, it's considered impolite to schlep giant bags around unnecessarily. Plus, you might even save money if shipping your bags lets you take the subway instead of a taxi. Many Japanese people flying home to Tokyo will go to the Takkyubin office at the airport and drop off all of their checked bags so they don't have to bother carrying them back to their house. 


Another great feature is that you can specify the day and time your bag will arrive, up to one full week out. This is super handy - you can forward all of your souvenirs and dirty laundry several stops ahead. 
With Takkyubin, bags are waiting for you in your room when you check in!
Seriously, don't be "that guy"


Getting Around


Japan's #1 challenge for visitors is finding their way to things. First off, Google Maps is pretty spotty with its Roman-character entries, so if you aren't finding something and can type (or cut and paste) the Japanese characters in, you might have better luck. Better: visit the website of the business you're looking for and look for the "Access" link (アクセス) and there's usually custom directions.

Even in fairly small cities, the native mindset is that you'll arrive by subway so directions are often given from that perspective. Train stations, subway stations, and giant malls all bleed together so you'll usually see directions given by which station exit they're near (all of them are named or numbered). Given the vastness of some stations, coming out the wrong exit can make it next-to-impossible to actually walk to your destination. Japan Railways has online station maps that can be helpful.
Most businesses will list their exit number

If you're looking for something outside a station, remember that Asians aren't nearly as biased toward street-level businesses as Westerners are. Look up! Lots of retail places (especially restaurants) are on the 3rd or 4th or 5th floor. Also, Japanese postal addresses provide insight into how they look at wayfinding: State, City, Ward, District, Block, Building Number, Apartment Number. Google maps is helpful, but GPS is really unreliable here due to tall buildings and to so much being underground.

Also, while you're walking around town: Keep Left! They drive on the other side of the road here and they walk on the other side of the sidewalk and escalator. (Though in the western part of Japan the escalator customs are sometimes reversed!)

Get a transit card (e.g., Suica). If you put cash onto the card you can spend it on the Tokyo Metro or JR urban trains in most any large city. The big "IC" logo indicates a machine or gate that handles the contactless fare cards. You can also use the cash on the card to buy drinks and food from many vending machines and convenience stores (called "kon bii nii"). Even some of the noodle shops (the ones where you pay for your food at a vending machine) take transit cards for payment. There's also interoperability between regions – I used the cash on my Tokyo Suica to ride the Nagoya and Kyoto subways, for example.

Suica!

Tokyo's mass transit is comprised of several completely separate companies and the Suica card lets you seamlessly pay for trips on all of these systems (Osaka's mass transit is structured similarly). Japan Rail runs the Yamanote and Chuo lines, which are free if you have a Japan Rail pass (just enter/exit through the staffed faregate and show your pass). Tokyo Metro runs the subway system. There are also a handful of other private railways (Odakyu, Seibu, etc) but they all take Suica.

There are some day-pass options, but they're quite expensive if you get one that covers all of the systems (¥1590 for an all-inclusive 24-hour pass), so maybe do a little planning and math before buying one. Google maps and Hyperdia both show the fares for individual trips.
Some of the various regional farecards

Get the Hyperdia app if you're doing any intercity train travel. It's only free for a two week trial so install it right before you go. It can help you find the best options for navigating the huge and often complex rail system. If you have the popular Japan Rail Pass, you can't use a ticket machine to book a free seat reservation, and since many trains require a seat reservation that means you'll be visiting a staffed JR office. Lines can be very long at peak times so I recommend going off-hours at least one day before your trip to reserve your seat. During popular times (e.g., cherry blossom festival, Golden Week) go even earlier – especially if you're going in a group and want to sit together. With your desired itinerary on-screen, hand your phone to the JR ticket agent at any station and ask for a reservation - they'll know exactly what to do.  TIP: today is "kyo" and tomorrow is "ashta".


And speaking of trains, just know that when the Shinkansen bullet train pulls into your station, you don't have long to disembark, even at the terminus. If you stay on too long, you might end up leaving your husband and your bags sitting on the platform while the train departs with you stuck inside. I may or may not be saying this from personal experience :)
A couple of other great apps: the JR East app shows you a system map, line status, and full station maps. It always tries to connect to the internet, but just ignore that and let it time out and you'll find most of its functionality is available in offline mode. The Tokyo Metro app is also good.

If you love Japanese trains and want to fill up a little station passport booklet, check out my Eki stamp post.


All reports I've seen indicate that Japan wants you to have an International Driving Permit AND your home state Drivers License if you're going to drive there. If you're near a AAA office you can just go down and get one in person (they even take your picture). You don't have to be a AAA member to do this. Even in very rural areas the concept of Taxis is very common, so you almost never need a car. 

Uber is in Tokyo now, but I've found that it takes quite a bit longer for them to pick you up than in the US (usually 15 minutes or so). Giving directions in a taxi is quite difficult, so make sure you drop that destination pin in the Uber app before the driver arrives.

Food

  • I made a short list here of my favorite places to eat in Tokyo. 
  • My Instagram account (@briankusler) is entirely food, with corresponding restaurant check-ins, so you can go browsing through there for some ideas. 
  • Some of the best restaurants are in the train station, so are some of the worst. Good luck!
  • Yelp is what Americans like – by definition it's not a guide to local taste. If you can read Japanese or trust Google Translate, you can use Tabelog.com, one of the most popular Japanese food review sites.
  • You don't tip in Japan. In fact, it's considered rude to hand someone uncovered money.
  • If you're planning on visiting a Ryokan (Japanese-style hotel), here's how you put on a Yukata
  • Draft beer is "nama biiru". 生 is the symbol for draft. Two other useful kanji: 酒 means alcohol, and it'll be on convenience store signs that sell it. 男 means "man", 女 means "woman" and in a nice restaurant it might be the only sign on the bathroom indicating gender.
  • Ordering in a restaurant with no English or picture menu can be tough. Don't forget that Google Translate has a picture mode where you point the camera at something and it tries to read it. It's come in handy quite a bit (requires your phone to be on the internet).
    Google Translate can read signs and menus with your iPhone camera!
  • When in doubt, you can always try おすすめ "oh sue sue may" which basically translates to "whatever you recommend", though this might be rough if you're a picky eater. Even if you're at the vending machine noodle stand, you'll sometimes see this phrase above the buttons for their most popular items.
  • Don't be shy about saying "sūmimasen" when you want something in a bar or restaurant, it's not the custom for the staff to keep checking in with you. Some places (esp. barbecue places) have a button on the table you can push when you need something.
Some tables have a buzzer for summoning your server

General Stuff


  • If you've studied Japanese at all, you might find my Twitter feed interesting. I basically tweet things that I have to look up while living in Japan, so hopefully it's useful... 
  • As a fat white American, I'm always hot in Japan. They seem to like room temperature around 26° and I like it more around 20. Air conditioners often don't even function until the hotel has decided "it's summer now" so if you have an unseasonably warm day in April, well you're just gonna sweat.
  • There's a little tray at nearly every cash register where you put your money or your credit card when it's time to pay. Do not hand cash or credit cards directly to the checker.
  • Yes there is sales tax in Japan, and it's just as annoying as in the US: unpredictably applied to certain things and with a nasty habit of filling your coin purse (go buy one if you haven't yet) with useless one-yen coins. I find I'm constantly loading my change onto the Suica card. 
  • If you're at more mom and pop store and feel like haggling on price, please read this guide on how to properly haggle in Japan
  • There are almost no trash cans anywhere in the entire country, despite the fact they have an obsession with over-packaging everything. Luckily there are Starbucks everywhere and they have trash cans. So do many public toilets, and those are also fairly ubiquitous and free.
  • Many public toilets are the squat style ones and many bathrooms don't have toilet paper or paper towels. You see all those people handing out free pocket tissues at the train station? Yeah, they're not really for blowing your nose :) Keep a pack in your bag just in case. 
  • If you're going to be out seeing temples and shrines, you'll be taking our shoes on and off all day. Wear slip-on shoes if you can. 
  • Speaking of shoes and other inside-outside things, your bag does not go on the floor. Most restaurants and bars will have a hook or a basket or some other option for you to put it someplace where it won't "get dirty". 
  • Since there's almost no crime in the country, if you lose something, you're very likely to get it back if you remember to label it with your contact info (include an email and/or a LINE ID so you give the finder a way to contact you that isn't an expensive international call in a language they might be too shy to speak). Make certain that your passport has your current info in the front of it, too!
  • Japanese "Onsen" hot springs (温泉 or often just this emoji: ♨️) have distinct hours for different activities. Take note of them before you get in, lest you be the lone naked white guy who's still in the springs after "women only, nude" hour has begun. ("Gomen" is the word for "sorry"). Some great onsen tips here. And yes, it's true, people with tattoos aren't permitted in most onsen
  • If you're a same-sex couple traveling together and you booked a western-style room, they'll assume you want separate twin beds, even if you booked a room with one. Make sure they know you want "ichi beddo." Many business hotels simply don't offer beds that sleep two. 
  • If you're gay and looking to meet locals, install the Jack'd, 9Monsters, and Line apps (the US apps are slowly catching on here). Given that the majority of gay bars (and even a few restaurants) don't admit unescorted foreigners, it can be very helpful to meet someone local before going out.
  • Speaking of cellular… Here's AT&T's Japan roaming plans. Honestly, don't go without at least getting the cheapest plan – $30 for 120MB + unlimited text + steeply-discounted voice is a great deal. T-mobile supposedly offers free 2G roaming in Japan, but I don't know what the coverage is like… Information about Verizon is here. Given Verizon's network differences, it's probably a good idea to call them ahead of time to see if your current smart phone will can connect to Japan's cell network at all. 
  • Renting a Japanese Mi-Fi is another popular option, but once you factor shipping, insurance, a supplemental device charger, and daily caps on high-speed data, "only $5 a day!" isn't such a good deal. If there's two of you and you'll be spending most of your time together, though, that makes the Mi-Fi math better since you can both share it. 
  • On an iPhone there are lots of great tricks to minimize your data usage, I made a list of my favorite ones here.
  • Renting a SIM card is another option, but then I need an unlocked phone, I won't be able to receive calls to my USA number, I can't tether with one, and Japan forbids you from having a voice line / Japanese phone number unless you are a resident, so I decided to pass. Some more good info over here.
  • Given the upcoming Olympics free Wi-Fi is finally starting to catch on. Most airports and large train stations now offer it, as do lots of businesses, including Tokyu Hands, Atre, Don Quixote, Bic Camera, Bicqlo, and 7-Eleven and Lawson convenience stores. The Tokyo Metro app shows which subway stations offer free Wi-Fi. Most of the Yamanote line stations have it as well. Most require you to enter your email address to sign up, so remember that if you're on the Wi-Fi but your apps aren't working, you might need to open Safari or Chrome first so you can be prompted for the login and "accept the terms" screens. The Free version of the Navitime App has an offline map just for finding free Wi-Fi.

    Tokyo Metro app shows which stations have free Wi-Fi

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