Scarf’s Japan Survival Guide
Scarf’s Japan Survival Guide:
Advice from an Expert Veteran Seasoned Average Traveler
For anyone planning to go to Japan (aka Mr Cat Dog) here is some helpful reading.
First, a lot of people will speak rudimentary English. Many will know at least enough to help lost travelers. Airports, train stations, and big places like that will be the least worst places to get lost. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help wherever you are though. You never know who might be able to help. Lots of signs will be bilingual, but the further you get from airports and train stations and other large areas the less likely you’ll see any English (at least any English that makes sense to you). It would be great if you could at least learn your hiragana and katakana so you could read signs and know what the building you’re walking into is before you go.
Second, bring your camera. Make sure you charge it every night and/or keep batteries handy. You will see things that you’ll want to take pictures of everywhere you go.
Travel is pretty convenient for most places you’d want to go, with trains and buses all over the place, so you won’t really need a car, especially if you’re in an area like Tokyo, but be prepared to do a lot of walking since Japan is a pedestrian country and trains will often only take you to the general areas you’ll want to go.
Trains and Subways
To ride a train you need a ticket. You get them from a wall of machines usually all located under a large map of the train lines that are connected to whatever station you’re at. There will be a “you are here” spot on the map, and every other stop will have a spot on the map and a price underneath it. You pay whatever the price is for the stop you want. The ticket machine will (usually) have you pick a price rather than a destination so your ticket will just have your price on it.
Sometimes there will be round-trip tickets options. Sometimes you’ll have to buy two tickets to get to a destination (like, say, if you want to take the express train that skips some of the in-between stops). If you find you’ve slipped up in buying tickets, such as entering the train platform on a 210 yen ticket when you needed a 420 yen ticket, you can ask the ticket-checker-person who walks up and down the train for the right one and just have to pay the difference. If there isn’t a person like that or it’s too crowded for them to reach you, just go to the ticket window when you reach your stop and they’ll help you there.
Sometimes your train will stop at a small station that has no ticket booth or anything. When that happens the train will have someone on it who you’ll buy your tickets from. You won’t see this unless you’re leaving metropolitan areas and even then you’d have to be going to some small stations. Also, some other times you’ll be going from a large, ticket-booth’d station to a middle-of-nowhere station and there will just be a box to drop your ticket in when you get there. You could be sneaky and buy a cheap ticket since no one at the other end will know, but then the ticket checker may notice before you get there and get mad at you. Do this at your own risk. (Don’t do it.)
Some trains, particularly ones that travel between cities instead of just around a city, will have free seating cars and reserved cars so just keep an eye out for that so you don’t end up sitting where you ain’t supposed to.
Be careful if you’re in a large city because they may have more than one company operating train lines and you won’t necessarily be able to get to every train stop without transferring. Plan ahead if you’re going somewhere you haven’t been before.
Buses are usually for more remote places you might want to go to, like some temples and such, but there are often regular get-around-town buses if you want to get closer to your destination than a train or subway will get you. However, buses aren’t as frequent as trains and I find them to be a bit more confusing to navigate so my advice is to stick to trains when you can.
Buses work a little differently than the ones I'm used to and maybe the ones you know. You merely step onto one (from the middle doors, not the front one) and grab a ticket from a dispenser. It’ll have a number on it, and at the front of the bus will be a little electronic board with numbers and prices that will gradually increase as you drive past more stops. When you get to your stop you’ll pay at the front whatever price matches your ticket number and then get off there. Needless to say, have exact change on you because the driver won’t be able to give you any.
Some bus services are there to take you to and from a specific destination, like a theme park or zoo, so if you’re looking to go to a specific place on your trip look into what kind of services they have just in case there’s a convenient bus that picks up at the main train station.
I don’t want to get into air travel since that’s the same general information wherever you’re going, but at airports there will be a train line that will take you to the nearest major station and it will come pretty often. There might be bus services depending on what airport you’re at, but if you’re arriving in Japan after a long flight you’ll probably want to take the train anyway.
There is one important thing about airports in Japan. There aren’t many that handle international traffic so if you aren’t going to a major city (or sometimes even if you are) you might have to change planes. Normally that’s not a problem, but if your flight says you’ll be arriving in Narita airport and then leaving from Haneda airport before arriving in some other airport then you have to take the Narita-Haneda bus that connects them. It’s not part of the airfare or anything so you’re responsible for getting to the connector bus desk (which is in the airport), buying a ticket, and making sure you get to the other airport in time for your flight.
Japanese people love food. You’ll never have trouble finding something to eat. It may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but as long as you’re not on top of a mountain there will be a restaurant, grocery store, or convenience store somewhere close by.
If you have certain dietary needs/restrictions it’s sometimes going to be a challenge to find the right foods. There is also always the surprise flavor you weren’t expecting so in general if you’re worried about what you might be eating you should stick to what you already know or learn to read the Japanese words for the specific thing you have to watch out for. That's more a challenge for the vegetarians/vegans since there is no end to the names of fish that might sneak their way into your food. At the very least, if you're vegan you can usually be sure that anything with gelatin in it that comes from Japan is made with seaweed and not animal parts.
Also keep in mind that portions could be different from what you’re used to. You might find you’ll need to supplement your meals with snacks and other foods because the meals you get will be smaller and leave you a bit hungry.
Japan has its fair share of Western style food and restaurants, as well as some familiar chains, but in general I’d recommend you stick to the most Japanese styled places for your sit-down meals. Or Korean, or whatever is something you can't find at home. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go to a place that serves burgers (Freshness Burger and Mos Burger are both good), just that you might want to make the most of your trip and have as much “new” food as you can.
Sushi is very cheap compared to what you’re used to. Even the cheapest places will probably be as good as what you’ve had before, but your mileage may vary depending on the particular restaurant. By far the best part of eating at a sushi place is the conveyor belt. (If the restaurant isn't the kind that has this, skip it.) Most of the seats will be right next to it and hundreds of plates of sushi will be slowly making their way around. If you see something you like, you just take the plate off the belt. You can also order if you don’t see what you want and there are some staff standing in the center area who you can order with.
There are a few things to look out for. Unless you want to impress people, avoid ‘kani miso’. It’s not the miso you know. It’s crab brains. You can sometimes find horse meat at sushi places, or more rarely whale meat. There are some strange ingredient combinations, like roe with mayonnaise. The sushi places I’m familiar with have a system where the plates are color-coded so you know how much they are. It’s a basic price scale with the more expensive or exotic things being more expensive. You keep the plates you take from the belt (Do not put it back on the belt! Never put anything on there.) and when you’re ready to pay they just count your plates. It’s a great way to eat with lots of different people who have different tastes and you can have as little or as much as you want.
For making your money stretch I would recommend ramen shops. They aren’t limited to ramen of course. You can get somen, udon, and soba, too. They usually come in big heaping bowls and you will walk away feeling full, if you can still walk that is. You can get a lot of different toppings and flavors, and if you’re going all the way to Japan you really should. My favorite is curry udon. Messy, but oh so tasty.
Lots of family style restaurants, the kind that look like normal Western places, will serve a variety of Japanese and Western style foods. Donburi is common, simple, and good. It’s a bowl of rice with… something served on top. Could be beef, eggs, or fried and breaded shrimp. They have their own take on soup, steak, pasta, and deserts. Ever had squid ink with your ice cream? Not a bad place to go if you're burning out on all the Japanese food, but then if you're at that point you may just want to step into a McDonalds. I wouldn't hold it against you if you did.
Convenience stores in Japan are like nothing else. They're all over the place and the food they carry is actually pretty good. Most of the things you can get there can be found in larger grocery stores or other places, but these stores really are everywhere and that’s just so convenient.
I find that konbini make for great breakfast stops on a busy day of being a tourist. My go-to item there is bread, which comes in a bunch of varieties. I recommend the melon bread, curry bread, and anko-filled breads, but there are many others that you might like. I also recommend getting your bread from any of the bread shops all over the place because they’re fresher and have more options, but if there isn't one on your way then konbini bread is still okay.
You can also get onigiri, fun flavors of potato chips like seaweed, seasonally flavored buns (like an anko-filled, sakura blossom flavored bun), prepackaged sushi which isn’t bad, drinks (try the lemon and melon flavored sodas), and all manner of candy and snacks. It’s all very cheap, at least for Japan.
Other Food Info
Avoid anything with ‘shiso’ in it (a bad tasting mint-ish flavor) unless you’re adventurous. Same for natto, which is a sticky bean mess that I happen to like, but a lot of people don’t. There is a lot of “seasonal” food and flavors can change every few months. This is mostly with chain stores, but anyone might have a seasonal something or other on sale. Try them. Some are even good. Among the things to try if you get the chance and the season is right is soft serve ice cream flavors (my favorite is ‘goma’ – sesame flavored). Most places in Japan have regional dishes or food items. In Osaka there’s okonomiyaki. Kagoshima has purple sweet potatoes. Hokkaido has soup curry. Try out the local flavors in addition to the pan-Japanese flavors.
Lastly, you should go to a Mister Donut. Just go. To my mind it’s a quintessentially Japanese place. They serve a non-native food (donuts!) with a Japanese twist. Their donuts are healthier and lighter than most other donuts, and they come in great flavors like matcha, fun shapes and designs, and interesting textures (like mochi). All in all, a good place for any time of day.
For added fun you can act like some Japanese tourists and take pictures of all the meals you eat so you can show them to everyone.
Note that there are usually no public trash cans. If you have food wrappers or something similar you have to carry it with you until you can find a place to dispose of it. Train stations and convenience stores are the most likely place. Just make sure you separate the trash into the proper receptacles.
Where you stay is usually going to be a matter of convenience, or even desperation, rather than preference. Especially if you go during peak travel times you’ll find it’s not always possible to get a room somewhere unless you book in advance, which can be a bit tricky if you aren’t already in the country and/or don’t speak the language. I think it’s best to have a hotel room which is the center of your travels (a.k.a near a train line) for however long you plan to stay in an area. So if you’re going to Tokyo, for instance, find a cheap hotel and make that the place you stay each night as long as you’re in the city. I recommend Toyoko Inn as they are cheap, clean, and in all the large cities.
I’m afraid I can’t be much more help on what to do if you want to stay in a ryokan as they are often small / local / family-run businesses and contacting them isn’t easy unless you can call them and book reservations which, as I said, requires at least some language skills unless you get lucky and the person you speak with knows enough English to help you. There quite a number of hotels which have Japanese style rooms, however, so if you would like to sleep on a futon and drink tea while sitting on the floor you should be able to find places like that pretty easily if you look around. In particular if you stay at an onsen (hot springs) hotel you’ll probably have only Japanese style rooms, so that’s a plus. It also reminds me of something else important to mention.
Probably best to ask for a non-smoking room. Japan is full of smokers and even though they clean the rooms you can't get that lingering smell out completely.
So if you do end up going to an onsen either for a night or a day trip (which you can do for a lot cheaper than staying over, but you have to go only during daylight hours) there are a couple of rules you’ll be expected to follow. Public bathing is generally done au naturel so if that disturbs you you’d better not go in the first palce. (Only rarely will they offer something for you to cover up with, and even then only for the gals.) You’ll want to bring your own towel just in case the place doesn’t offer any. Before you get into the bath you have to wash everything. They have little stations with soaps and shampoos where you sit on a stool while you scrub everything. You know, just like in that anime you watch. You have to be clean before you get in the water. When you do get in the water you’re not supposed to play around, splash, or put your head in the water. If your hair is long you’ll need to keep it up so it doesn’t get in either. Basically, keep the baths as clean as you can and the atmosphere and peaceful and relaxing as you can.
If you are unlucky enough to be going to an area that doesn’t have many onsen (they’re concentrated in the comparatively more geologically active northern and southern ends of the country – sorry, Tokyo) you might still go to a sento (bathhouse) and have a similar experience, but without the natural hot springs water. This would be kind of a novelty though, and I don’t think it would be worth doing without someone who knows the area / has gone to a public bathing house before just because there’s plenty of potential for the place to be sub-par since it wouldn’t have to be as competitive. But again, if you're adventurous give it a shot.
Keep in mind that if you have tattoos you'll most likely need to cover them up. Nobody will honestly think you're with the Yakuza, but you don't want to cause a fuss.
This is one of the big reasons I like Japan. There are some things that you can only really find in Japan. Want a sponge shaped like a block of tofu dressed as a pirate? Yeah, I thought so.
100-yen stores are a great, great, great place to buy just about anything from some useless trinkets to actually useful things like maps, sandals, shampoo, cups, pens, chopsticks, fans, reading glasses, and a lot of fun and novelty decorative things. I love the notebooks you get at these places, all cute and colorful like they are. The big name one is Daiso and they’re all over the place, but any 100 yen store will have good stuff. You’ll find things you didn’t even know you wanted in them and it won’t break you to buy a few things on a whim.
Bookstores are another great place even if you can’t read a word of the language. If you’re like me you’ll hit up the used bookstores for their manga sections where you might find an old series (and by old I mean 4 or 5 years – hardly any time at all) for 100-200 yen a volume and they’ll be in good condition. You can find things that go back decades, too, if you really have to have that copy of Yamato or Cutie Honey. Artbooks, too, can go for pretty cheap if you’re lucky enough to find ones you like. In the non-used bookstores you’ll find lots of photo books and magazines so you can still find something you can enjoy, especially if you’re interested in the fashion of the country or any of the subcultures. It’s worth looking at the children’s books as well. I have a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Japanese and it amuses me to no end (and teaches me a few words).
Music stores are great, but used music stores are even better. The same 5 year rule applies to music so if you want to pick up an artist who isn’t at the top of the charts (or even one who is, but has albums from a while back) you can get them for pretty cheap, maybe 500 yen or so depending on where you go. If you just want to sample some music without buying there are still CD rental stores in Japan, crazy as that is in this day and age. Tsutaya is a big chain that does this. You won’t be able to actually rent anything on account of being a non-resident, but you can still go to their listening stations.
If your thing is figurines, cards, electronics, old video game systems, or musical instruments you might want to stop in a Hard Off if you find one since they carry used stuff in all those categories (and more). If you can’t already tell, I’m a big fan of shopping in the used stores since things are generally cheap and in good condition.
If you want to buy clothing you’d better hope you can fit into Japanese sizes. Clothing is rather expensive on the whole and unless there is something specific you know you want you might want to consider using your money elsewhere. But there are stores all over the place and something might catch your eye. There are also lots of places you can buy accessories: hats, scarves, headbands, pins, hair clips, and so on. Some are even exclusively for accessories even to the point of carrying wigs and hair extensions.
A lot of the shopping you might do will depend on your interests and where you happen to go. If you’re in a large metropolis you can find pretty much anything. Me, I like gothic lolita fashion so I could go to Tokyo and be in the heart of that in Harajuku, but would be lucky if I could find one store if I went to Hiroshima. If you really don’t know what you’re looking for or just want to be surprised then go to a large shopping area. Large cities have large outdoor (but covered) shopping arcades with blocks and blocks of stores lining the sides of the pedestrian walkways. There are standard things you can find, like pachinko parlors, salons, restaurants, and so on, and then the odd “gem” of a store like one I would pass by in Sapporo that sold replica military uniforms including Nazi paraphernalia. :/
All the while you’re shopping you should keep in mind the people you’ll be seeing when you get home. It’s customary to buy ‘omiyage’ – souvenirs – for people back home when you go on a trip. Airports and train stations will have lots of shops selling premade gifts. The most common types are food, usually a box of 12, 20, or some other number of individually wrapped cakes, biscuits, or something similar. Tokyo Banana, little banana flavored cakes, is one of the most famous. Just be careful about the food since it’s mostly aimed at Japanese tastes and they may not jive with the tastes of your friends and families. You may want to skip this altogether unless you actually know some Japanese people back home. Your folks will probably appreciate a Domo-kun or Hello Kitty plushie more anyway.
Scarf’s Random Suggested Cheap(ish) Things to Buy:
- Plushies. So many are quirky, cute and unique to Japan. They pack really easily.
- Phone straps. For the same reasons as above, plus they are cheap and many sport local mascots that you can’t find elsewhere.
- Notebooks. They have cute cover designs. That’s enough of a reason.
- UV protection glasses. They come in fun styles and colors and you’ll look more ‘Japanese’ wearing them than you will with your dark sunglasses and their unfortunate Yakuza association.
Other Things to Do
There can be no exhaustive list of the things you can do in Japan so I’ll just name a few things I hope you’ll find interesting.
Get a Haircut
You will find salons absolutely everywhere and I am not exaggerating. In Japan hair is serious business. Even the cheapest barber there will be on par with the higher end salon you’ve been to. (Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration, but not by much.) You can look through magazines and get a customized cut to your liking. They’ll shampoo and massage your head and all in all it will be very relaxing. You might have trouble making small talk or explaining exactly how you want the sides to look like this, but the back to look like this, but if you feel adventurous then have a go.
See a Show
If you want to see a kabuki or noh play, or Takarazuka (the all-female stage actors troupe), or anything fancy and formal you’ll probably be out of luck since you need tickets well in advance for those. The same is usually true for music performances. If you happen to know someone in the area you’re going to be traveling in and you know someone you’d like to see in concert you might want to drop that friend a line and see if they can’t get you some tickets. Failing that, there are usually street performers who come out at night in the shopping areas and you can see them for free. Some are even fairly good.
See the Sights
Most cities have specific places that they are famous for. Tokyo has Akihabara and Harajuku, Osaka has Doutonbori, Hiroshima has the Peace Park, Kyoto has Kinkakuji, and so on. They can sometimes be crowded tourist traps, but if you find yourself without a plan for an afternoon and you’re in the area then why not go? Bring your camera and ask strangers to take your picture next to the statue of Hachikou or in front of Osaka Castle.
Sit in a Park
In general parks are nice places to sit and rest. There are some large parks, too, and lots of people go there. In Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park you might happen upon a Yosakoi performance or a guy playing bagpipes (both happened when I went there). They are great places to people-watch while you eat your konbini lunch of curry bread and Calpis soda. You might see some yankees or gothic lolitas or cosplayers hanging around, too. Some parks are sights all by themselves owing to their size or design. Sapporo’s Moerenuma Park is like a sculpture and a park combined.
Visit a Shrine
Get yourself some culture and visit a shrine or temple. You can throw money in the box, ring the bell, clap your hands and make a wish. They also have fortunes available so you can find out if you’re going to have good or bad luck. The places are very pretty just to look at so the photographer in you might want to go just for that reason. There are many which are large and famous, but there are also tiny-to-medium sized ones in the middle of towns and cities, sometimes right in the middle of shopping areas even.
These are the photo booths that you'll see in arcades that let you draw all over the images before they print out. You can give yourself a makeover (from adding blush to enlarging your eyes), add stars and sparkles, or just doodle. Probably only a good idea if you're with someone else otherwise you'll look strange, especially if you're a guy. Not that I would expect many guys to want to do something that makes them look like this. Still, if you find yourself somewhere without a plan and a few yen in your pocket...
Things Not to Do
Japan’s only form of gambling: pachinko. These parlors are everywhere, but you don’t want to go near them. When you step into one you feel like you just stuck your head into a bucket of cigarette ash. These places are so noisy the staff there have voice amplifying headsets so they can speak loud enough for you to hear them.
Animals don’t get the same kind of love in Japan that they do in other parts of the world. It might seem like fun to see the penguins and the bears, but they’ll likely live in small cement cages and it’s very sad to see them.
People in Japan are nice and helpful. Be kind and respectful and no one will bother you. As a foreigner you might even get people going out of their way to make you feel welcome. Accept anything anyone offers you and you'll ingratiate yourself easily.
Japan is pretty safe if you don't do anything stupid, but still be careful and don't leave your passport in a large public area (like I did once). Even though there's a great chance someone will find it and rush to bring it to you, you don't want to tempt fate.
Oh, and speaking of passports, there are some store which will give you a duty-free discount on things you buy. The one store that comes to mind is Don Quijote (ドン・キホーテ) which is a grab bag store of all sorts of weird things.
So... if you want any more of my unsolicited advice or knowledge, just ask. :D
So I completely forgot a couple of things, mostly that revolve around drinking in some way. Drinking is a big social thing to do in Japan. Coworkers go out do drink after work when someone new joins, or someone leaves, or just because. There are a couple of places people typically drink aside from normal restaurants and bars: izakaya and karaoke parlors.
Izakaya are Japanese style bars. Some will have booths and tables and and bars, but many will have sit-on-the-floor rooms and low tables. In these places you're expected to order little dishes like bacon-wrapped-asparagus (アスパラベーコン) or agedashi dofu (揚げ出し豆腐). You often go to these places at dinner time, but you don't really get whole meals since you're there mostly to drink. Typically when you're all done you split the cost of everything evenly, regardless of what you yourself ordered. That's the way it goes. So if you are in this situation be ready. Also, the typically have a seating fee on top of everything else.
The other place where much drinking happens is at karaoke. You can order quite a few things from these places, including meals. They will typically ask you how large your group is before they stick you in a room and will ask if you want one of the drink/meal menus as well. You decide beforehand and the hourly rate you pay is increased based on how expensive of a meal plan you want. The cheaper ones will have limited choices, but the food and drink free of charge. That's usually how it works. You have a phone in your room from which you can order things and if they're a good place they'll bring things in more often and you can get your money's worth. Of course the food and drink is not the main reason you go to karaoke, although the alcohol is there to help the more reluctant people get up the courage to sing in front of people.
Most of the music is going to be Japanese, of course, but they have large numbers of English songs (and sometimes Chinese and Korean), usually in the realm of big hits from big name artists. The more obscure the artist the less likely they'll be any songs, but even big name ones can be hit-and-miss since different karaoke systems will have different rights to songs.
The rooms typically give you a book with all their available songs, one organized by artists and one by song. They'll probably be in Japanese alphabetical order though, so you might have some trouble finding the ones you want, especially if the song is older and goes by a different name in Japanese.
You get a little machine where you type in the songs you want and they queue up. They'll have microphones, of course, and often some tambourines or similar instruments so you can play along when your friends are singing. Fancier places will have machines that rate how well you sing as well.
Oh, and when you're with people you should always be encouraging. Clap for them when they're done with a song and all of that. If you want some extra fun you might be able to go to one of those 100 yen stores and find a small deck of karaoke cards. Each one tells you to pick a certain kind of song (mine does so in Japanese and hilarious Engrish) so that will add some random enjoyment to your singing.
I think that's all for now.
Posted March 13th, 2012 at 12:51 PM by Mr Cat Dog
Posted March 13th, 2012 at 1:21 PM by Kura
Posted March 13th, 2012 at 1:26 PM by Kura
Posted March 13th, 2012 at 1:52 PM by Gold warehouse
Posted March 14th, 2012 at 9:04 AM by Esper
Posted March 14th, 2012 at 2:25 PM by Kura
Posted March 14th, 2012 at 5:16 PM by Truality
Posted March 15th, 2012 at 1:28 AM by Misheard Whisper
Posted March 15th, 2012 at 9:02 AM by Esper