Lost in Translation, Dazed & Confused both film names spring to mind when it comes to getting to grips with Japanese Culture, it is not weird as some sites say it is just totally different and it takes some time to get used to, even for seasoned travellers. However some tips on what to expect and how to make the experience easier will I hope be welcome. There are however a few conundrums that I have to mention.
In a country where in cities bars are open till sometimes 5am and restaurants are often open 24 hours a day the public transport stops by midnight……….
7-11 shops are a necessity, it is one of the few places that visitors can use foreign currency or debit cars, thank you 7-11 Bank. For Japanese salary men who have had a very late night of beer, highballs & sake followed by karaoke they can buy a new white shirt & black tie for going to work………..
You do not smoke in the street but you can in bars and restaurants…………….
The list is endless so let’s start on the information you need
One thing that is difficult is addresses, there are not street names and numbers as such, addresses comprise the prefecture (think county), then municipality (city), then district, followed by city block and building number. Given the added fact that restaurants and bars can be in basements or on upper floors this can make finding a specific place hard unless it is a major site. Get an app for your phone such as CityMaps2Go by Ulmon, load the cities at home, add hotels, restaurants etc. and you can then check them when you are out and about without using data roaming. Invaluable when you are trying to find your hotel on arrival after a long flight.
Travel – Train
If you are travelling around the country a JR Rail Pass is essential, it has to be bought before you go, can be for one, two or three weeks. You then exchange it when you arrive at a JR office, you must have your passport with you, decide what date you want it to start and which trains you wish to take and staff will make the bookings. You cannot travel on the Nozomi, the fastest bullet train, but you can travel on the Hikari which in most cases is the same model train, as the Nozomi it just stops more and does in fact travel at the same speed. You should reserve a seat as although there are un-reserved carriages on all trains they are not as comfortable as the reserved. If you are exchanging the Voucher at Shinjuku Station, the worlds busiest, the office is at the New South Gate a ten minute walk from the main east & west entrances. Shop around as prices can vary for the pass, not by much but some give free guide books etc.
Stations are huge, but in most cases there is plenty of signage, make sure you know what line you are using as there are the Shinkansen, Bullet, lines but often many other local lines. Check the type of train, usually a Hakari, the train number and the time, as there are frequently a number of trains going to the same destination around the same time, from the same platform.
Check your carriage number and queue up at the appropriate number on the platform, the trains, usually 16 carriages long, come in and go out within a few minutes so it is important to be a the correct place. There is limited luggage space and it is always at the far end of a carriage, there will be two queues for say coach 11 one at each end. Work out the direction of travel, always shown on the platform, and you want the queue at the rear of the carriage – simple.
Your JR pass also works on local JR lines and ferries such as on a trip to Miyajima and on the train to Naoshima and Kurashiki, and the Hiroshima tour buses.
Travel – Bus & Subway
There are a number of travel cards you can buy to simplify travel in Tokyo on Subway, JR Yamanote line, buses etc. We chose the Suica which can be bought at main stations, there is a Y500 deposit and a minimum top up of Y1,000. They are essential and make travelling around the city so easy, they can be topped up at any subway or train station. In addition they can be used in Kyoto on bus & subway although day bus tickets are better value and in Osaka. They can also be used to pay for luggage lockers at stations, very handy.
Subway & train etiquette is fascinating, people use mobile phones but DO NOT talk on them at all, also people routinely sleep on the subway and wake up just at their station, probably after a very late night out.
Subway stations are vast, trains very long and many exits so finding the correct way out is very important. Stations have all the information you need to make sure you find escalators, lifts and the exit you need, very important with luggage. One station in Osaka required four lifts to get from street level to the correct platform with suitcases.
Escalators are another minefield, stand on the left at all times, EXCEPT when you get to Osaka, then you stand on the right.
Buses and trams can be a great way of getting round, particularly in Kyoto and Hiroshima but again you need crash course in where to board and what fare to pay. Most do not board at the front, some are flat fare, some you take a ticket which has a stop number and then you pay depending the number of stops you go, shown on a screen, when you get off at the front. It is all part of the fun of travel in Japan.
Accommodation does not have to be expensive and if like us you do not fancy capsule hotels then business hotels as mentioned in the city pages are the answer, however there are some things that you need to know.
Rooms can be incredibly small, check out sizes when you book, also check the bed size, a double can in fact be a large single bed. There is limited hanging space, buy plastic hangers from a pound shop before you go, essential if you are away for a few weeks.
The rooms however are usually packed with things you do not need, trouser presses, kettles, humidifiers etc, when what you want are a few drawers for your clothes. The bathrooms always come with shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, plus a toilet that has so many controls you always fear pressing the wrong button !
Check-in times are usually strictly adhered to, rarely is there a chance that if the room is ready you will be able to check-in, 3pm means 3pm. You can always leave cases on arrival or when departing, we also found reception staff spoke limited English, fine for check-in etc. but other information was more difficult to obtain.
First of all models of food in windows is good and not to be avoided as in other countries, they also help you decide what delights to choose. Be brave if a place looks interesting go in, ask if they have an English menu and if not decide if pictures will do instead. We had some wonderful food and found that in the main the simpler places were better and of course far cheaper and less daunting than some of the upmarket ones.
Stations and Department Stores are great sources of eating places, everyone seems to eat out all the time and in most department stores the restaurant floors seemed to have queues at many of the choices. Lunch time set meals are a great way to try the variety of food on offer and are great value.
It is also common to queue at other restaurants and there may be a line of seats which you move along as the queue gets seated, sometimes there is a list of names to which you add your own, all part of the Japanese queue addiction.
These are a minefield in Japan, the Japanese like to go out and enjoy themselves and colleagues going out after work is commonplace, as is consuming large amounts of alcohol. I have mentioned the main options for types of drink on the city pages and prices can vary from incredibly cheap highballs in stand-up bars to cover charges and incredibly expensive drinks in up-market bars. Ask if there is a cover charge if in doubt, as paying the same again as for a beer if you are only popping in before dinner is a rip-off. Also there are many small bars where visitors are really not wanted, this may sound anti-social but there are always lots of other places where you will be welcomed, bought drinks and sometime given small plates of food.
A must to visit in Japan, the best department stores are truly incredible and the food halls are fantastic to wander around, take note of the price of some of the items such as certain types of fruit which will leave you amazed. £100 for a melon, £15 per apple and as for the grapes !
Beware of cyclists, not in Tokyo but in other cities such as Kyoto and Osaka an amazing amount of people cycle, but they cycle on the pavement so beware when stepping out of your hotel or a restaurant or shop. They seem to mage to avoid pedestrians very successfully, cycling around people, but be aware.
No one J-walks they all wait for the green light, even when it is a narrow street with no traffic in sight, the possible exception is Osaka where rebellion seems to be a trait of the citizens.
Amazingly clean in stations, shops and restaurants but so complicated it is not true. Automatic seat lifting and closing, background noises while you are using the facilities to avoid any embarrassment, sprays of every sort and every pressure that photographing the amazing varieties can become an addiction.
If you visit Japanese homes or of course a temple you will have to remove your shoes, if however you then visit the bathroom you will have to put on a pair of bathroom slippers.
Too many to mention but vending machines, Pachinko arcades where since gambling for cash is illegal winners exchange tokens or prizes for cash at places nominally separate from the arcade – only in Japan.
If you are going – enjoy, thinking about it – don’t hesitate, or not even thinking about it – start ! It is an amazing country, with fantastic culture, great food and some incredibly friendly people.
PS There is a book called Japan by Kiriko Kubo a Japanese cartoonist who lives in London, the book is intended for Japanese students but is full of fascinating information and drawings about Japanese culture it answers many of the questions that will strike you during a trip to Japan. We enjoyed it so much when we saw it in Osaka that we bought a copy when we got home.