Friday, January 22, 2016

Going to Japan: What Travel Sites Generally Don’t Mention

There are a lot of great websites you can go to for information for a Japanese holiday. Japan Guide and even the previously mentioned Shopping In Tokyo have a lot of useful stuff. However I found on my first trip that there was a lot of things I came across which I thought were quite essential to know that surprisingly weren’t even mentioned on travel websites. If you’re not going with a tour group (certainly they’ve never been my thing), the following might be helpful to know;

Keep Your Passport on You at All Times
It’s amazing that this is barely mentioned on most travel websites as it’s really important. Japanese law requires that foreign visitors must carry their passport at all times. It’s relatively rare that you’d be asked to show your passport, but it can happen. Police have the power stop, search and detain anyone. If you are caught without your passport, you’ll have to ring your hotel or get a friend to bring to your passport to the police station before they’ll let you go. Police can detain people for up to 23 days without charge, so it's also best not to act like a yahoo during your visit as well.

Very Few People Speak English With Any Great Skill
Though English has been taught in schools for decades, most Japanese don’t know how speak simple English sentences. Of course in touristy places and in most hotels and Japan Rail (JR) train stations you’re going to find people who speak English. However proficiency varies wildly, from being barely able to speak a few words to people who can converse at a very high level. If you do find yourself speaking to someone who doesn’t know a lot of English, simple, clear and short sentences are best.

Learning Some Basic Practical Japanese is a Good Idea
This segues into the previous point. It is rather useful to know some Japanese. Going to your local collage might be a good idea to get some of the basics and more importantly the pronunciation. However, a lot of those kind of evening courses aren’t geared around tourists (and it baffles me why they aren’t). I went to one course a couple years back and the teacher was hell bent on teaching us how to tell someone in Japanese about an appointment at a restaurant. Seeing as around 95% of the participants were going over there as tourists, why focus on something that is no real use to them? In most situations you won’t really have to speak to anyone or know much Japanese. However you will probably need to know how to ask for tickets, how to ask which platform a train is on etc. Think about what you’ll be doing over there and what you’ll need to say to people, then harass your teacher on how to say it. Amazingly a lot of basic level phrases aren’t in Japanese phrase books which is just baffling to me.

Dealing With the Barrage of Questions from Convenience Stores Clerks
And this also segues into the previous two points. Convenience stores are pretty much ubiquitous. Unlike their western counterparts they live up to their name, have a wide variety of food, services and merchandise. Due to fact there are several chains vying for the consumer’s yen, prices in convenience stores can be pretty cheap. You probably will be going into these places a fair bit for food and drinks. The problem for the uninitiated is the rapid fire questions convenience stores clerks will spring on you once you’re at the counter. Of course none of this is mentioned in any guidebooks or in my Japanese language course which I found odd. I found it extremely difficult to find examples of actual phrases used in these situations. The following are examples are probably the most common you'll be asked at the counter by staff (swiped from Maggie Sensei Japanese language blog);

Okimari no kata kara douzo! - If you are ready, please come to the cashier!
Fukuro wa irimas ka? - Do you need a bag?
Fukuro ni oire shimas ka?  - Would want it in a bag?
Atatame mas ka? - Do you want us to heat this up?
Ohashi wa irimas ka? - Would like chopsticks?
Supuun wa otsuke shimas ka? - Would like a spoon?
Touten no point caado wa mou omochi des ka? - Do you already have our point-card?

The clerks do fire off these phrases pretty quickly, so if you’re not up to speed with the Japanese language, just try to keep an ear out for the main words like “Fukuro” (bag), “Atatame” (to heat up), “Ohashi” (chopsticks) etc.

Having Train Station Names Written in Japanese is Good Idea
This is especially important if you’re travelling on private railways (i.e. non-JR lines) where most of the staff are unlikely to speak Japanese. The other reason for doing this is your pronunciation of station names might not be the correct way the locals say it. I usually use Hyperdia to plan out all of my rail trips and stick the name of the station I’m going to into Wikipedia to get the station name in kanji. I also get the name of the train line in Japanese and attempt to get the platform number. Especially on private railways, the names and destinations aren’t always Romanised or are in English. Several trains running on different lines can arrive and depart at the same platform at some stations and destinations on signboards may be in Japanese only, so be aware of that as well.

The Further You Go Out in the Suburbs and in Country Areas, the More Difficult it is To Get Where You Want To Go
Something to be aware of. While generally you can get around via public transport quite easily (mostly by train), surprisingly once you get deep into the suburbs of Tokyo or any other large city, you may find that the place you want to go to is more than 15 minutes by foot from the train station. It’s worse out in country areas where some tourist attractions are quite far from train stations or indeed any public transport. The only real options in these cases are bicycles (finding a bike rental place can be trickier than you imagine), car rental (requiring an international licence) or taxi (a little expensive and fraught with language difficulties). It’s always best to pre-plan trips that are a bit out of the way and find out how to get there so you're not stuck, unable to get to your final destination.

Rail Passes Are Generally a Waste of Money
Unless you are taking trips on Shinkansen (bullet trains) every second day or so, JR rail passes are a gigantic waste of cash. Sure, they do cover almost all JR lines, but it might just be cheaper to use cash. The best way to figure out if a pass is worth it is to check the cost of all your train trips you'l  be taking on Hyperdia and compare with the cost of the passes at your local travel agent. Another thing to be aware of with JR rail passes is the inconvenience of transferring between JR lines and private railways at the same station as the pass won’t be valid on non-JR lines. In that case you will have to use a travel card (i.e. IC cards like Suica and ICOCA), and there will probably be a transfer gate for those coming from the JR line, which means you might have to exit the station entirely or find the main gate in order to use the IC card to continue your journey.

The Options For Food (Price and Variety) Are Much Wider Than You Think
It’s quite common to hear people say that Japan is expensive. It’s not true, especially in terms of dining options. If you’re on a tight budget, premade convenience store bentos (lunches) are amazingly cheap and surprisingly tasty (an example of the range here at 7-Eleven). Generally you can get a meal for less than ¥500.The store can even heat it up for you if you don’t have a microwave at your accommodation. Restaurants are pretty cheap for the most part. The best way to research local eateries in the areas you are staying at is to use Tabelog. In most large cities there will be a wide range of restaurants too; Italian, French, Korean and Thai, from little pubs to Michelin stared restaurants. If you’re sick of Japanese food (or rice) and dining on the cheap, there’s always Family Restaurants like Saizeriya, Gusto, Jonathan's and Coco's. Yes most of these places are westernised, but do have some Japanese options. Most have picture menus or English translations on the menus as well. While they may not be gourmet meals, they are quite tasty and are good value for money. I’ve generally never been able to spend more than ¥1,000 at one of these places.

As I said before most of the basic stuff including important etiquette tips can be found on websites such as Japan Guide. I think the most important tip I can give to people planning the trip themselves rather than going on a tour is to plan as much as you can. Plot out all the places you want to go on Google Maps, then find out how long it takes to get (there using Hyperdia). This will save time and make travel hassle free as possible. Personally I’m not a person that does stuff on a whim. I really hate wandering around wasting time, especially on overseas holidays. I want to make the most of the limited time I have. Next time I’ll be taking a general look at shopping for anime merchandise.

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