Monday, May 4, 2015

Beginner's Guide to Traveling to Japan - Part 1

Hi Everyone! It's my first travel post! I have been meaning to blog about some of my recent travels, but laziness and a busy schedule seem to get in the way...

Anyway, let's talk about Japan! I just returned from a 2 week trip to Japan, specifically Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone, with a brief trip to Kobe. It was my first time there, and it was ahh-mazing! Look at some of these beautiful sights!

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Tsujiki Fish Market, Tokyo

So many beautiful flowers...

Tsukemen Ramen

Cherry Blossoms

Sensoji Shrine, Asakusa

Fushimi-Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
Let's start with Travel Tips:
1. Moola - We converted USD to Yen at our local bank before we left. We also brought extra US cash to convert there in the event we were to run out. Japan is largely a cash-based society, and many places do not accept credit card. Notable exceptions would be their many (huuuuge) department stores, major drugstores (oh so much to see and buy there!), hotels, and some random restaurants and shops. The exchange rates were similar. You can exchange cash at the airport (we flew into Narita Airport), at banks ,and apparently at ATMs in some 7-Eleven's. 

2. Rail Pass/Transportation - Japan has an awesome network of trains, subways, and buses. The best part is that everything runs on time. On - freaking - time!!!! If you show up expecting to catch your train (referring to bullet trains) at the time its listed to depart, you will be late. You must show up early or else you will not make your connections. Trains open their doors to load passengers at least 5-10 minutes prior to the time of departure. And they leave on the minute - or even a minute earlier than scheduled. Delays on high speed trains are very unlikely, so just make sure you set aside enough time to get to your trains. 

a) Between cities - Japan is connected by a dense network of high-speed "Bullet trains" or "Shinkansen". Depending on your itinerary and how many cities you plan to see, buying a rail pass may be super convenient and economical. 


I won't be able to go into specifics, because the rail system in Japan is very complicated, but basically Japan Rail ("JR") covers most of Japan with high speed trains. They have different divisions depending on which part of Japan you are in (JR East, JR West, etc), and you can only use the pass on JR trains and buses (with some exceptions). There is a special JR Pass which you can purchase and must purchase ahead of time (prior to arriving in Japan) which will let you ride most JR trains all through Japan. The Japan Rail website gives detailed instructions on purchasing the pass and its conditions of use. It's actually a very useful resource for planning your travel. As mentioned, you have to buy this pass in advance (online or at a travel agency), and then pick up the physical passes at the JR station when you get there at any JR office. There are different levels of trains (Nozomi, Hikari, Kodama)- the fastest being the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which the JR pass is ineligible on. However, the non-express trains which you can ride are still super fast - the trains travel anywhere from 160-200mph. The difference between them besides actual operating speed is that the Kodama, for instance, is a local train and has more stops, than say the Hikari, which has less stops. You order the pass up to 3 months prior to use, and they come in 7, 14, or longer day increments. The pass is activated the first time you use it, and is active for the duration of your purchased usage.

b) Traveling in Tokyo - Tokyo deserves its own section simply because like the rest of the country, the subway and bus system in Tokyo is complex. But - don't fret - it's really easy to get around. There are 2 major subway systems in Tokyo, the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. Pretty much all the subway stations in Tokyo have signs in English, so as long as you know which station you want to go to, you will be able to find your way. The best and easiest way to use the subway is buying a Suica or Pasmo card. You can buy a Suica card at any JR ticket office and you can buy a Pasmo card at the airport (at designated Pasmo kiosks), and at many subway/rail stations. They are virtually interchangeable, and they are basically a form of debit card. You pay a small deposit (500 yen) to buy the card, then load as much money on it as you want. It's easily recharged at any Pasmo/Suica kiosk, and then when you use the subway, there's no need to calculate fares. In Japan, fares are usually based on distance traveled, there are electronic gates that you just touch your card to to enter, and touch your card when you exit, and it deducts the appropriate fare. You can also use the card at many convenience stores, and restaurants. We mainly used the Tokyo Metro, and we had the Suica card. If you're traveling with more than one person, it is easiest for each person to have their own card, even though you can technically share the card. The Suica card is valid for 10 years, so if you know you are returning to Japan, you don't have to cash your unused yen up if you don't want to, but if you are cashing it back in, there is a deposit fee of 220 yen to cash out. The best is to use up the card completely, and you still get your 500 yen deposit back, even if the balance on your card is zero. 

c) Traveling in Kyoto - Kyoto Station really deserves its own post, only because it is a huuuuge train station, complete with department stores and several food courts/floors of restaurants and shops. The subway system is not as intricate as Tokyo's, and I would say the main form of travel in Kyoto would be via bus. It's a little trickier getting around in Kyoto because not all the buses have clearly delineated routes, but your JR pass can get you around on some of the trains (the JR trains), and you can buy a 1 or 2 day tourist pass that gives you unlimited travel on buses and two specific subway systems, the Karasuma line and the Tozai line. There are probably 15 other subway lines that run through Kyoto, but the tourist pass is not valid on those lines, and we did not use any of those other subways while we were there. You can see the Kyoto subway map here.

d) Other - We didn't take any taxis, but if you do the driver opens the doors for you automatically, so don't go trying to pull open the doors...apparently they are not impressed when you try to do that. We also visited Hakone, which is a beautiful area close to the base of Mount Fuji, for 2 days, and traveling there is best with the Hakone Free Pass. No, it's not free, but it does allow for unlimited travel for 2 or 3 days duration. 

3. Shopping - Japan, and Tokyo specifically, is brimming with shops and immense department stores full of beautiful, cute, and innovative items. There is a "consumption tax" of 8% charged but many of the large stores there offer "Tax Free shopping" for visitors. Depending on how much you spend and what you purchase, you may be eligible for tax exemption. For example, on the purchase of a consumable item such as food, medicine, or cosmetics, you have to buy at least 5400 yen of goods before you are exempt on paying tax. Non-consumables, like electronics, must be a purchase of at least 10,800 yen. You must show your passport at the time of purchase. Some places have you bring your receipts to a tax redemption office located on the premises (ex in some dept stores), and they will refund you any tax you paid (in cash). 

4. Food and Eating out - Many restaurants, especially most ramen joints, utilize vending machines for order placement. The vending machine is located outside the restaurant, there is a menu, often with pictures and prices, and you are tasked to find your particular choice on the machine. Expect that the vending machines will not have any English, and be prepared to try and match Japanese characters and prices with the appropriate button. 

Put your money in, press the button, and out comes a ticket that you hand to the host/server. You find a seat and shortly thereafter, your food is delivered. Challenging? Yes...but it's kinda fun despite the initial intimidation. The other helpful thing is many restaurants have plastic models depicting the dishes, and most dishes come out looking exactly as they look in the window! 

Your check is usually placed on the table after your food is brought out, and once you are done bring your check to the register to pay. As mentioned in the being on time part in the transportation section, if you have a reservation at a restaurant, go early, not just "on time". Japanese people are very punctual and you could lose your reservation if you show up late. Also note there is no tipping in Japan - in restaurants, bars, taxis, etc. The price is the price is the price. Done. 

5. General Etiquette - Especially in Tokyo, you will find people do things en masse. Go with it, don't fight it people! You stand on the left, and walk up on the right on an escalator. On the stairwells, just follow whatever everyone else is doing. If you're confused look for the signs telling you which way is what. 

See the arrows?

Up...Down. Got it?

Note that there are a lack of trash cans in Tokyo. Don't litter! Persevere. You can usually find a trash or recycling receptacle in train stations but the city is exceptionally clean because people are good about keeping their city that way! Having some hand sanitizer is also very handy as many public restrooms do not have soap. Don't be alarmed that some restrooms have "squatters"...they'll be self explanatory when you see them, and it won't be too hard to figure out how to use them either. 

In case you get confused, the Japanese are very helpful people

Don't worry...most restrooms have some combination of squatters and super fancy electronic toilets. 

6. Conbini or Convenience Stores - While you may be used to shlepping to your local 7-Eleven when you need to get your Slim Jim or Slurpie fix, the 7-Elevens in Japan are an entirely different animal. They are your everyday stores there, convenience to a tee. People routinely buy food, pay bills, and pick up everyday items at "conbinis" such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart. Don't be shy and try a trio of inari (sweet tofu pockets filled with rice), or onigiri (rice balls/triangles) to start your day off! It's delish and cheap. Pay with your Suica or Pasmo card and you will feel like a real local. 

7. Connectivity - Many areas of Tokyo and Kyoto advertise "free wifi", at hotels, restaurants and even subway stations. However, these may be harder to navigate on your smartphones as most of these sites are in Japanese. The easiest thing is to pre-order a pocket wifi that you can pick up at the Post office at the airport or have sent directly to your hotel. We rented our pocket wifi from this website. There are a variety of companies that offer unlimited data plans and prices vary according to how long you need the device for. It was invaluable for our trip as we used it to get everywhere and look things up on the fly. Google maps is spectacular for getting around as it lists train stations/times etc. Sometimes it shows destinations in Japanese, but for the most part we were able to figure things out. We had our pocket wifi for 11 days and it cost $70 usd. When you are done with it you just drop it off at the post office with a pre-paid envelope that they provide when you pick it up. If you don't want to go that route, buying a SIM card would be an alternative option. But, the pocket wifi was really really great and convenient and small enough to carry in a pocket no matter where you are going. You can also connect up to 10 devices on it, and we had pretty great signal in most places that we went. 

Kabukicho, Tokyo

Nanzenji, Kyoto

Getting our Ryokan on

Beauty by the name of fish
That's enough for one post...More to come. Have you been to Japan? Tell me about your experiences and your tips!