Visiting Japan – Things you might want to know

There are so many things I learned in Japan this summer while on Vacation (and while I lived there from 1993 – 1996). I will share those with you.

Japan can really be (and in my opinion is) one of the most fabulous places on earth to visit. I was able to spend 3 years in Japan in the 90’s (while in the Navy) and 14 days this past summer (2014). I would go back right now if asked. I have always considered moving back there to live. Japan is just one of those places that always felt like home to me.

I would encourage you to visit Japan and take it all in. While Europe seems like a nice place there is nothing over that way that tugs at my heart like Japan does.

Of course I am open to anything you want to know and will be happy to answer any questions.

Take time and read what I have and enjoy Japan! – David

Summary of Japan

It’s an island off the coast of Korea. You know this already but I had to start some place. The people of Japan make Japan what it is today. They are kind, quiet and considerate. They are also very shy. It’s not uncommon for them to spend much of their day dedicated to one thing and doing it well. They are masters of whatever they do. Take time to respect that and embrace it. The country is filled with traditions and expectations.

For this reason see all you can but be very observant. See Manners Section

The First Hour

The first hour in Japan can be a blur. Know this now. It’s going to be hectic and it’s going to be confusing. I have flown into Japan at least 4 times now in my life, into the same airport and almost the same gate and it’s still a bit confusing each time. Stop take a deep breath and look around….YOU ARE IN JAPAN!

When you arrive (in Narita) and get off the plane take a second to look around. Stop and look around please. It’s the first few seconds in Japan and this moment will never exist again in your life. Celebrate it and take a deep breath. Ahhhhh…… JAPAN! Nippon!  Land of the First Sun! We are all jealous of you right now….look you are in JAPAN!

Gather your bags and get them all through customs. This may take a little work. The baggage claim seems to be in the basement of the airport, not sure why but it’s kind of an odd place. Customs in Japan is really pretty easy. In fact it is one of the easiest customs I have been through ever. After you do that make sure you read all of the signs and get heading in the right direction. Start getting used to reading all of the signs. Even ones that don’t mean anything to you but might have information you may need. It will also help you stay alert as to what is around you. Japan has done a great job putting English sings up when they can. Most are well done and some will make you laugh.

Next my guess would be to take the NEX from Narita to Tokyo . The cost is about $15 USD but if you have your JR Rail Pass like I suggest then you need to go get it now. The JR Rail Office in Narita can help you get your pass. Note the times they are open please. If you are going to be in Japan get the train pass. It’s awesome, but now is the time to pick up the pass and get that one item done before leaving the airport. There is a section below about the JR Rail Pass.

This will take about 30 minutes to an hour but is not crazy. The reason it takes a bit long is because the Japanese are so very careful and thoughtful when working that they double check everything.  Get used to being treated like you are special in Japan. It’s something you will miss when you leave.

Manners in Japan

I can’t stress this enough…manners. You don’t have them. I assure you! Go look at yourself in the mirror and say this;

“I am an American and I don’t have any clue what manners are!”

Now that we have established that you don’t have any manners you will need to find some on the flight over. I am going to be honest with you and tell you that in Japan you will do something that is 100% stupid and you will not know it until about 3 minutes after you have done it and you hear the word “BAKA” and at that point you will know they have called you a “FOOL”. This is going to happen. You will not be able to stop it. You will walk into a place you are not supposed to be, leave your shoes on in a place where you are not supposed to have them or just talk to loudly on the train.

Japanese people are very polite to each other even people they have known for a very long time. They clean up after themselves and are very conscience of each other and everyone around them.  They expect you to do the same. They also know you are an American and you are known to be loud and walk around like you own the place…

You know absolutely no one in Japan and even if you do act like you don’t know them until you have greeted each other and formalities are out of the way.

The Japanese are a very quiet people. They are very orderly and soft spoken unless their job calls for it. Learning to walk  and move around a store or train station without being a bull in a china shop. Always make a little (too much is rude) eye contact and bow. These are very simple things. Learn the few phrases that can help you greet people and use them. Even using them wrong is OK.

Next if you don’t have anything to say this is constructive to a Japanese person , even friends, sit quietly and listen. The more you listen and the more you interact when asked to interact the more respect and consideration they will offer you when you do mess up. They expect you to listen to them and you don’t have to say anything. Just shake your head and say “UMMMM” with your mouth closed. You will pick this up very quickly.

Always bow and hold your head down just a little when seeing someone for the first time. Its like giving someone a “hello” when you meet them.

While you may know very little Japanese there are people in Japan who do speak English. They know it rather well and many times will not tell you they know it in order to keep some distance from you the big American baka. So like I have said before… listen. Open your eyes and look and if everyone in a room is quiet then you should also sit there quietly. Don’t think that quiet is your queue top start running your mouth. I saw this a lot from who think that quiet is a bad thing and it’s time to make as much noise as possible or be sarcastic.

Sarcasm is indeed lost in translation and very difficult for some Japanese to understand. Do not use sarcasm as it can be misunderstood as insulting behavior. It’s not that they are incapable rather it’s not something the deal in so it’s just not acceptable…again….manners and quiet will help here.

Keep the question simple and direct without using too many confusing words. The better you communicate with them they more they will bend over backwards to communicate with you.

I really wish I could explain this to every person visiting Japan. Yes Japan can be noisy and yes the Japanese are just people but you are a guest in a very large country with tons of traditions and they still show respect for each other no matter what. Unlike Americans they show each other respect first and always.

After you learn to listen then you will need to learn to speak directly and clearly not wasting any energy with lazy speak or useless words. Be efficient with your words and conversations. It will take you very far and people will be willing to listen to your poor Japanese or even might try speaking to you in English if you are lucky.

A little Japanese for your Travels

In Japan, greetings are given great importance. It is considered rude to fail to greet someone or even to greet them in a lazy or offhand manner. The most common ways to greet someone in Japan are:

  • Konnichiwa (Hi; Good afternoon.)

  • Ohayō gozaimasu/ Ohayō (Good morning [formal/informal])

  • Konbanwa (Good evening)

    Say Ohayō gozaimasu to your superior instead of Ohayō. And don’t forget to bow when you greet him.

How are you? How’s it going? How many times a day do you hear or say these brief greetings at the beginning of your conversations? So many times, in fact, that half the time, you don’t even pay attention. These pleasantries are common in Japan as well. The Japanese phrase equivalent to “How are you?” is Genki desu ka, which literally means “Are you well?”

Other common ways to ask how someone is doing are

  • Hajimemashite. (How do you do?)

  • O-genki desu ka. (How are you? [formal])

  • Genki? (How are you? [informal])

  • Maiku-san wa? (How about you, Mike?)

As you’d expect, when someone asks you how you’re doing, there are many possible responses.

  • Hai, genki desu. (Yes, I’m fine.)

  • māmā desu. (Well, so-so.)

  • Hai, watashi mo genki desu. (Yes, I’m fine, too.)

    The particle mo in Watashi mo genki desu means “also.”

There are also many ways to say goodbye.

  • Mata ashita. (See you tomorrow.)

  • Sayōnara. (Goodbye.)

  • Oyasumi nasai. (Good night.)

Link to above Information

Trains

Japan is known for it’s train system and it is by far the best way to get around Japan period. The trains are never late and are amazing, clean and awesome. Like most of Japan pay attention in the train stations to the perfection that is the Japanese train system. It’s remarkable. You will wish you could have a Japanese train system when you return home. It’s that amazing.

If you can walk a few miles (and frankly it’s the best way to see Japan) and are able to navigate you can use the trains for everything. Start understanding the train system before you get to Japan as it will help you out. Know where you are going to be staying and know the train station that is nearest the hotel. Know the train station you are starting from and where you need to end up in to make your trip that day work.

Coming from the US you can pick up a train or rail pass from JR. This is by far the best thing ever when traveling to Japan.

JR RAIL PASS SITE

Do yourself a favor and since you are on vacation get the GREEN PASS. This will allow you to travel in the green car on certain trains. This also allows you to take the train pretty much anywhere JR runs using this pass.  You just pass through the manned gates at each station and get on your train. You don’t have to pay since it’s an all day all inclusive pass. This also included the Shinkansen as well…. All of them!

You will want this is you are moving between cities using the Shinkansen. The JR rail pass will pay for itself the first time you make a round trip on the Shinkansen. This pass will allow you to ride an JR train in Japan and in the Green Cars. The Green Cars are the reserved cars. So before you travel that day (on the Shinkansen Only) you will need to book your trip in the train station with the JR Rail staff. This is very easy and they all seem to have a working knowledge of English as well.

Photo of a JR RAIL PASS

With the JR Rail Pass you will not go through the normal entry points like everyone else. You will have to pass through the JR Staffed glass windows and show them your pass. You would think that they would just put a chip in the pass and let you use it to go everywhere but it’s not the case. There are some things in Japan that make sense and others that are confusing. This is one of the confusing things. The upside is you get to use your Japanese greetings while showing your pass to the JR Rail Staff….bonus!

Caution : Take something with you to keep your rail pass in. I would suggest a zip lock bag or a holder of some type. If it gets wet or destroyed (like mine did in the wash)  you have to go back to the office that issued the pass to get a new one. I was in Hiroshima at the time and the ticket back to Narita would have costed over $300-400 and would have taken an entire day. Take care of your pass!

There are local trains/rails in some cities so a Suica card will help with that. Get one early and start getting used to loading it and using it. There are Suica machines in every train station and they are in English. Most local train companies will accept the Suica card and if not YEN will always work. Places like Hiroshima’s city street cars just take YEN and it’s cheap to get around. I think 100 – 200 YEN tops. The Suica Card is almost like a bank card that you load over and over again. It can also be used for food and such in the train station and other places in Japan. It’s really pretty handy and I think it deserves more attention.

iPhone App – Using HyperDia while in Japan on your mobile phone is a huge help.  The app is by Hitachi and is 100% awesome! You can put in where you are and where you want to go and it will lay out the entire trip for you with the times and all kinds of info. Do not download it until a few days before you go. You only get 1 free month, after that you have to pay for the service.Download the app and play with it as if you were in Japan.

Manners on the train :: The train is a public place and unlike American where people spit, urinate, barf and talk loudly on their phones in Japan you get on the train and you ride the train and that is it. You can read a book, you can play with your phone (in silent mode) and you can talk softly but that is it. Do not talk on your mobile phone. Do not talk loudly, Do not be a big rude jerk. Give your seat to women and children and be as polite as you can.

Suica Card 

Everything you need to know about a Suica card is on the site. It’s a simple little card that can be recharged at any train station. It’s easy to use. I kept mine in the outer pocket of my day bag that I carried everywhere so I didn’t have to pull it out.

Suica Card Site

The site shows other cards but they are all one big system and share the same back end. So if you have any of those cards you can use them all in the same place. When you arrive in Japan and head to the train station just get a card first thing and load it up with about 3000 to 5000 YEN and be done with it.

Hotels

Hotels are thought to be really expensive and while yes a hotel that is very “AMERICAN” can be, an nice Japanese Hotel is pretty reasonable. There was even a really nice Hotel in Hiroshima that was right next to everything and had some really big rooms for a decent price. If you plan ahead and do some looking you can find really good hotels rates. I used Booking.com for all the hotels.

There is a new chain in Japan that has hotels just about everywhere now…even the smaller towns and the rooms usually run about $50 a night for one person.

Toyoko-Inn

Stayed at one in Utsunomiya and it was really nice and they put them right next to the train stations for easy access. They do offer breakfast but it’s a traditional Japanese breakfast so it might not be perfect for everyone.

Cities in Japan

This section will cover the cities I have visited and what I think is good to share. I don’t think there is a bad city in Japan. They all have something to offer. Some more than others.

Tokyo

Tokyo is HUGE. Can’t tell you how large it is.

Most will tell you to visit the Sky Tree but we avoided it and went to the Tokyo Tower. it’s just as nice, on the harbor and a bit cheaper. There is also a very large temple right in front of it so from the train station to the tower you can pass through this temple. Both are worth the time to see.

360 Degree view from Tokyo Tower

10 Things to do in Tokyo

Fussa

I had no idea where is was or that Fussa was that close to the Yokota Air Base (which is the first place I ever set foot when living in Japan – 1993) and with that said it was one of the best trips while using Tokyo as a base.  I wanted to see a SAKE brewery and what we got was a whole lot more.

Ishikawa Brewery – Sake

SAKE Breweries do not operate fully in the summer. This is something you will not be aware of but are now. They are very busy during the winter, that is when they brew the sake.

Fuss Brewery Details & Links:

Link to CNN Story

Location on Google Maps

Utsunomiya

The Home of GYOZA! GO THERE!

Here is a little map of the area around the train station

Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture - Google Maps

In the map there are a few things to pay attention to. Like any place in Japan the train station is a busy place. It’s a nice little town with a very quiet personality. There is a nice hotel and bike shop North West from the train station but the real treat is on the other side or east of the train station. The little gyoza restaurants. They are famous and good! I was not a fan of gyoza until I went there and now I am. There are three of them over there but according to the locals this is not the best gyoza in town. This Location is the best in town and I wished it would have been open.

Utsunomiya Minmin Honten

It’s a nice day trip from Tokyo with lots of good food and the hotel was about $49 a night. There is a “sort of” castle there but it’s not that great.  It’s not really a castle at all rather what is left of an after thought of a castle that was and will never be. Just some walls and sound guard houses. Still of you want to get a long hard look at the architecture and no one to bother you it’s fun and a nice walk. Plus it’s free.

Lots to see there

Osaka

Osaka is a nice place but I did not enjoy it as much as I think I could have. Might have been the way it feels or I might have just been in the wrong area or Osaka. I described it a the Japanese New Jersey. Kind of industrial and kind of dirty. It has a big city feel and it’s not the Japan I was hoping for.

I would like to give Osaka another chance when I go back. I think there are some really go parts I just did not have to to visit them.

Kyoto

OK there is no way to really describe Kyoto. It’s am amazing city and just a quick 30 min Shinkansen ride from Osaka. Kyoto is Japan’s original capitol and they have done all they can in the last 30 years to bring it back up to par.

A little thing I figured out. Tokyo was not called Tokyo before it was the capitol. It was called EDO. After WWII the capitol was moved to EDO and was renamed Tokyo….where did the name Tokyo come from….KYOTO of course!

Tokyo is 東京 or TO KYO
Kyoto is 京東 or KYO TO

They just reversed KYOTO to make TOKYO. Pretty cool!

Hiroshima

Everyone goes to Hiroshima for one reason. It’s a historical place. It’s quiet and private. There are many other things to see. There is the remains of one of the largest castles in Japan there. Baseball and the city is very modern. It’s a very nice place. Enjoy it and see all of the historical monuments.

Kofu

Fantastic little town with a fantastic castle in it and other really great landmarks all around the city. I spent a few days here and really enjoyed it.

Link to details about Kofu

If you are going to KOFU then please stay here. It’s awesome and really in the middle of town. I wished I would have had more time in Kofu.

Hotel Sunpark

So some notes about the hotel. It is very Japanese. The hotel is dead in the center of town and right next to the castle and the train station. The hotel has WiFi but last time I was there you had to check out a personal WiFi repeater for your room from the front desk. Make sure you ask about it.

Train Station

It’s a really nice station since Kofu is the capital of the prefecture. There is a really good Katsu Don restaurant on  the top floor.

Nirasaki

This would be about as good a city as Sasebo. It felt like home. I really liked how easy it was and just pretty. I did pick up some of the best sake of my trip here as well in a part of the city that was clearly a few hundred years old.

Sasebo

Sasebo is a Military town with the US Navy there. While all those dirty sailors can make it a pretty crazy place there is lots to do and see in what is really a very medium sized fishing town with a pretty small population but growing. It’s a rather pretty place and I enjoyed living there for about 3 years. It’s come a long way since 1996 when I left.

Food and Eating

This is a two part section. Eating out is one and eating at someone’s house is another.

Japan is full of food. Food is yummy and I believe they have one of the freshest and best food supplies in the world. The country is so small and efficient that the food is on your table faster with less “stuff” in it like in the US. Enjoy the food there, it’s some of the best in the world.

Eating Out – Restaurants & Bars

Chains

Just like in the US there are chains in Japan. You can find KFC, McDonald’s and others. I avoid them but they are quick and the service is always top notch. Curiosity will of course get to you and I understand. Both have things on the menu that are not in the US. That said don’t eat there unless you are just being curious. There are far better things to eat out there.

There are chains in Japan that are pure Japanese inventions. I stay away from the overly colorful or circus like chains. MOS Burger is one of them. I ate there once in 1994 and never again. it was not that epic. There are some local beef bowl places that are quick and you can get a lunch for under  $8 USD (700 – 900 Yen) and yummy.

Yoshinoya was one of my favorites. Good, cheap and fast. Much like the 7-11’s they are everywhere and are really good.

OKONOMIYAKI  – You can’t say it but you can eat it and it’s just flipping awesome! It’s scary at first with all the things going on but have no fear it’s one of the finest things you will eat. Each city and area of the city has it’s own flair or taste. Try to find one place they sells them everywhere you go.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okonomiyaki

Eating at someone house

Eating at someone’s home is a huge honor. I can’t stress this enough and you may want to gather all of your manners as well. I am going to try to help you with this as much as I can but to be honest I stumble through it as well.

I was allowed to stay in someones home while in Japan and that was amazing. To make it even better they fed me. Again I could not have been more thankful and I hope it showed. When you arrive make sure you remove your shoes. Pay close attention to your hosts actions and words as to not miss any queues. When you arrive at someones house you should start by appetizing saying “Gomen kudasai”. MORE HERE

Most Japanese will eat around a small table that has a sunken pit in the middle for your legs if needed. The host will guide you to where you will sit down, do not assume you know where to sit…you don’t have any clue and it’s not your just to just find a place and plop your big American ass where you like. Some homes might have western style seating like a couch or chair and I would refrain from using them until you get to know them better and are allowed to sit there.

Sitting at the traditional table is beneficial as it creates an equal seating arrangement.

I did look over something. Do not show up without a gift of some type. They are opening your home so a gift is always nice to offer and should be presented with both hands while you bow to the recipient.

When the meal is served allow the host or woman of the house to serve you. This will feel very odd and might make you wonder a bit but this is 100% OK in Japan. Let them offer you food. The hosts will make sure you are well taken care of. As the meal starts going I would only conversation to explain how good this the food was and I would listen. It’s very polite to mention you like something and that something is OK or “ma-ma”. This is OK. They know your western tastes are not going to enjoy everything in Japan and by saying ma-ma it will clue them into what you like and don’t like so they can be better hosts.

As a rule I did not grab everything I wanted and start eating like a pig. I waited and watched to see what everyone liked. There were 5 of us eating. The host or woman of the house. Her father and he son. Then two Americans. I paid very close attention to what the her father took and always accepted the bowl of food from him and then took the same amount if not less.  This paid off in the end as the father ended up offering me things first and seemed to enjoy hosting. When he stopped eating I stopped eating and so on. I seems rather foolish bit these things are very serious over in Japan and being respectful of people is very important.

To this day spending time in a Japanese home and sharing a few meals with them was a huge treat and honor and I will always remember it as a wonderful and educational experience.

YEN

Paper Money or YEN in Japan is very popular. I say this as it will become very apparent to you after you have been in Japan for more than a few hours. Everything is done with paper money. This will shock you at first as you did not expect this in Japan of all places. The technology country it is YEN is still king. The Japanese do not use Credit Cards like we do…they use YEN. So get used to using it and make sure you have a plan for the change. You will need a place to keep it so that it’s not a mess. A small pocket or dedicated pouch will make you feel more prepared.

If you run out of YEN while in Japan there are places you can exchange it. Banks will exchange it but they are trying to make money. If you look around you will find places to exchange money that will give you a better rate than the banks.

Where can I exchange money?
Doko de ryougae deki masu ka?

Where is an exchange counter?
Ryougae-jo wa doko desu ka?

Also know which credit card or bank account will not charge you to death for shopping or getting money out of them while overseas. Capitol One has a card that will lessen the impact of getting money while in Japan and cuts down on all the fees while in another country. I would call your bank and your credit card companies to find out what fees are involved and only use the cards you need to while in Japan. Depending on your spending you can eat on about 2,500 – 4,000 a day ($25 – $40). There are times when you can hit the 7/11 and save a bit. So think about using about 5,000 YEN a day on average for stuff like eating and other things. While in Japan for two weeks I spend about $600 USD to pay for pretty much everything except hotel costs. So you can go there and do things cheap but plan ahead and take money to exchange. Do not exchange money in the US at the airport. You can get a $100 or so to carry over but exchanging it in Japan will give you a better exchange rate.

I needed these while I was in Japan so I figured I would share them here.

Mobile Phones & Hotspots

While in Japan you may want to keep your mobile phone in Airplane mode as ROAMING and calls can be expensive. You can run up a $200 bill in about 2 or 3 days. But you know all the information you need is on the internet. While you can search for open Wifi in public places and there are plenty of places that have free Wifi it’s not always where you need it to be. So while in Japan you can rent a mobile hot spot to take with you everywhere, even on the train at 150 MPH.

Rent a Mobile Hot Spot for Japan

This is a perfect way for you to get to the internet no matter where you are in Japan all for about $3 – $7 per day for really fast internet access. You order it before you go and have it sent to your hotel. Pick it up and start using it. When you are about to leave drop it in a red mail box and it’s done. Order this a few weeks before you depart so that it’s at the hotel when you arrive.

I will warn you the batteries in these devices are not built to run 24 hours a day so you will need to do a little planning ahead. Either have two of them on you, which I have seen done or have a USB batter charger that you can take with you. Charge that up at night. Drain the hotspot and then charge it up using the USB Battery. I assure you this will make your trip so much better. I also took my iPad Mini with me and that made for a very good tool when I needed a bigger screen.

7-11

The 7/11 and Family Marts are everywhere and unlike in the US where they are not pleasant places to eat from, in Japan they are really pretty good places to eat and stock up on stuff. These stores are competing with vending machines in Japan so they have to be reasonable and they have to have value. There are some really good things about these places when you are moving and don’t have time to stop for a sit down lunch, you can pause into a small store and pick up something really tasty. The cost for everything is really good and you should at least stop and wander in them for a bit. They have a lot to offer and it’s nothing like a 7/11 in the states I assure you, plus it’s a good value for what you are getting. 2 liters of water for 100 YEN, that in the US would cost you $3 – 5. Little lunches for 300 – 700 YEN too….so don’t over look these little gold mines of hospitality and goodness!

The Japanese People

This could be 100 posts but I will keep it simple…standby

Links that might help

English Friendly Japan

Things I want to try next time…..

Tokyo Cycling Tour

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