Cramer’s Guide to Visiting Japan

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Japan twice so far – once in 2007 and then again in 2008, both times with my friend Ryan. The following are my closing thoughts on our second trip as well as a few tips to anyone who wants to try visiting Japan for themselves. These are based on my experiences mainly in Tokyo and not necessarily Japan as a whole, so it is akin to judging all of America based on a visit to New York City. Still, I think my impression of Japan would be similar regardless of where I had gone.

Hmm, where to start? I guess by thanking the people of Japan for tolerating us two Americans who are largely ignorant of Japanese language, culture, and etiquette. Everyone we came across in Japan, save possibly one waitress, treated us with respect and politeness. One almost expects store clerks and hotel staff to be polite, which they were to the 10th degree, but I was amazed at how courteous and thoughtful even the general population was. I think this is largely the result of their traditional upbringing, which teaches them that to lose your temper or to be discourteous to others takes away from your honor, in other words you lose face. This idea of status and honor is exemplified by the Japanese language which has different levels of politeness that are used in different circumstances depending on how familiar you are with someone and your relative social status versus theirs. Status is usually determined by position in a company, education level, and age. I tend to call these politeness levels casual, polite, groveling, and ass-kissing. As a foreigner, it is highly recommended to stick with polite Japanese. There are circumstances where the other levels are more appropriate, but as long as you aren’t visiting on business you should be safe. Unfortunately, more polite equals more words or longer words. Most language courses and phrase books are going to teach you phrases based on this level of politeness.

My guess is that some of this politeness has to do with the fact than many Japanese are Buddhists, but most religions teach people to treat others the way that one wants to be treated, so I think that religion is a variable we can probably eliminate. I think it is more a matter is upbringing. It may also, to some degree, have to do with law; many of which are courtesy laws such as not smoking when walking down the street or not talking on your phone and shutting off the ringer when on the subway.

Speaking of laws, the people of Japan seem to be very law abiding even when it comes to “silly” things such as “Cross / Don’t Cross” lights at street crossings. I’ve witnessed many Japanese people waiting patiently to cross even small side roads that clearly had no traffic on them. I’ve even watched someone plainly in a hurry running down the sidewalk, only to wait for a light at a small side road. The light is the law, and they obey it. Not much jaywalking there. In fact, if you jaywalk you can seriously hurt people because they don’t expect anyone to do it, so when they see you crossing they will sometimes follow you under the assumption that it is safe, and then promptly get hit by a car. It may seem silly, but they must have their reasons so when you go to Japan, don’t be the ugly American – just wait for the light. Besides, traffic directions are reversed there so you may screw up and get hit by a car yourself by not expecting a car to come at you from the right as you step off the curb.

This pride, this honor, and perhaps law abidingness was also shown in the way the Japanese treat their environment. In all our travels through the mega-city of Tokyo, we very rarely saw any graffiti. I don’t think I ever saw litter. Whenever there was construction going on, the work site was surrounded by a white plastic wall for safety, and I never saw any graffiti on those walls. One time, I even saw pockets built into the wall which contained potted plants to make it look nicer. They also seem very keen on recycling, even more so than here in the States. If you eat at a fast-food joint like McDonalds or whatever, you will consistently see (a) a place to dump your unfinished drink and/or left over ice (b) a place to put your straw and the lid to your drink (c) a place for the rest of your (paper) trash. So the general protocol is take your lid off with the straw, put it in the plastic side, dump out your drink, put the cup and all other trash in the paper side, leave the tray on top. The hotels also have many signs and suggestion on conserving water, sorting garbage from recyclables, etc. Also, on the rare times that you see a garbage can in public, it will be accompanied by glass, can, and plastic recycling bins. Here is a tip, when you see the word PET on a trash can, it is not a place to store your dog or cat – It’s for plastics. As another side note, I think the reason for the lack of public trashcans is because public eating (while walking down the street) is considered rude or discourteous. There are, however, always trash cans or recycling bins wherever garbage can be generated, like next to a vending machine for instance. We even saw a place to put “indecent flyers” when we went to a crappy part of Roppongi. You will, however, find yourself carrying some trash from time to time. Man it up and don’t litter.

Eating in Japan is fun and daunting. It’s fun because you get to try new foods, but daunting because you are usually completely surprised but what you get because, of course, the menus are usually in Japanese. However, some (10%) of restaurants will give you an English menu. Most (90%) will have plastic renditions of the food they serve on display in front of the restaurant, or pictures of the food on the menus. This will do you some good but you are still usually guessing wildly at the ingredients. Also, portions are almost always smaller than American meals, so you will find yourself eating a lot more frequently. Ryan and I usually ate four meals a day with snacks in between because of the small portions and the amount of exercise we got from walking everywhere. In a pinch, there are some fast-food joints and the food is not half bad. You will be doing so much eating in Japan that I highly recommend that you focus your vocabulary and reading lessons on Japanese food. We didn’t, so it was often McDonalds, Wendy’s, or Burger King for us out of hunger and frustration. We also seemed to eat a lot of Italian-style food because it was easiest to figure out by pictures. It is easy to pass judgment and say one should take a chance at something new, but when you find yourself starving and needing quick relief, you may change your tune. Still, we proved that you can keep yourself fed in Japan just by pointing at pictures.

Speaking of eating, if you are going to learn any of the Japanese language, learn Katakana. This is a phonetic symbology that is usually used to spell out words borrowed from other languages, and is surprising prevalent and handy to know. For one, you can read fast-food menus. Even at other restaurants, some of the foods are written in Katakana. Also, many store/company names and some signs are written partially in Katakana. Since Katakana is phonetic and many words are from English, you can derive their meanings.

The trains, subways, and taxis in Tokyo are awesome. Trains and Subways work about the same. There will be machines to buy a ticket just before the entrance to the line that you are going. Over the machines there is always a big map showing all the lines of the station along with the stops that they make and the associated price to go to each stop. These are usually all in Japanese, so it is vitally important to bring an English subway map with you so that you can count the stops on the English map, and then count them off on the Japanese map to get the price. You then feed the money into the machine and push the button (or screen choice) for that price and it will spit out the ticket. Most machines will handle the reverse, i.e., pick your price first and then pay. The ticket consists of a machine readable magnetic side and a printed side for (Japanese) humans. You feed this into the gate as you walk up to it and keep walking. By time you make it to the end of the gate your ticket will be waiting for you further down (on top of) the gate. Take it! When you exit the subway, you will have to stick it in a gate again to get out. If you lost your ticket or didn’t pay enough, back up and take the ticket over to the guard that will be sitting at a both on one side of the gate or the other. He’ll look at the ticket and figure out what to charge you. If you lost your ticket, he’ll just ask you where you are coming from – it’s on the honor system for you to give him the correct answer. A couple of tips on buying tickets: Don’t pay twice as much and hope to use it for the return trip as the exit gate will always take the ticket and keep it. Also, don’t buy two tickets from the same station in hopes of using the second one for the return trip. The tickets are keyed to the starting station. The funny thing is, the system will let you in with the wrong ticket but it won’t let you out, and the guard guy will be very confused when you hand him a ticket originating from the station you are currently trying to exit – I know this from experience. Taxis are interesting. You will usually see them lined up in front of a hotel, along a popular street, or in front of a subway/train station (especially at closing time – most lines are closed from midnight to 5:00 AM) Always go to the taxi at the front of the line or you will be told to do so by whatever cab you pick – they have some sort of gentleman’s agreement to take turns. Also, the doors are usually automated, so watch your hands after you get in! Oh, and one last tip on taxis: Carry a book of matches or stationary with you from the hotel in which you are staying so you have something to show the taxi guy when you are drunk out of your skull from drinking too much at a “snack shop”.

This leads me to nightlife. Ryan has probably been more observant than I on this front, but I will give you my impressions. At some point you may find yourself in search of tits and beer, i.e. a strip club. Unfortunately, most of the strip clubs will not let a gaijin (other person, foreigner) into their establishments. Some will let you in if you can speak Japanese well. When you are turned down, be polite and leave without a fuss. It is just the way things are. As you walk in a frustrated funk down the seedier parts of Tokyo, you will be inundated with inquiries as to whether you would like to see tits and get some free beer. When you inevitably say yes, they will take you to a “snack.” These places are not just tourist traps, but many Japanese will go to them voluntarily. They are places where pretty woman stroke your ego, and maybe rub a few other parts over your clothes. Essentially, you are paying for a flirty date. You don’t actually pay the girls, though. And your drinks are free. But, the girls will ask you to buy them drinks, and being the gentleman (sucker) that you are, you will buy them one or two or five. You may even buy some champagne for the table, since you are Mr. Big Shot. Believe me, the woman are trained to make you feel like a high roller and then drain you dry. Egos can be expensive. Broke and frustrated, you will leave and be asked either directly (Do you want sex?) or indirectly (Do you want to come to my massage parlor?) if you want some, uh, release. We never went down that path, but I’m sure you could get some at a price. In fact, it might be cheaper just to start down that path to begin with. If you are feeling frugal, Ryan recommends Gaspanic, a famous bar with locations scattered around Tokyo in which the occupants must actively drink to stay in the bar, so morals get drowned rather quickly. You can probably hook up with someone for free there. A fun place if you can still handle hangovers with grace.

If you carefully avoid the trappings of tits and beer, you can spend some time burning out your retinas by walking around Shibuya, Shinjuku, and many other major sections of Tokyo. There are so many lights, neon signs, and television screens in parts of Tokyo that if you don’t look up you will swear that it is daytime. It is awesome and exciting. After some time in the city, however, you will probably get a headache because your brain is always scanning the signs that it sees and trying in vain to decode them.

During the day in Tokyo, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a temple or a park or a park surrounding a temple or a park surrounding some other important building. Parks in Japan are more like gardens in that they are usually pruned, preened, manicured, landscaped, and always breathtakingly beautiful. I highly recommend checking some out. There is also plenty of shopping of all kinds. If you like looking like you are bat-shit crazy, I suggest going to Harajuku and buying some stuff there. If you are a high-level geek, you will absolutely love Akihabara, where you can find shops that sell just capacitors, or just switches, or just spy-cameras. Many other stores have comic books, or porn, or both. Tons of them have computers and other electronics. The prices aren’t great, but you are guaranteed to see the newest stuff on the market. Ryan and I made several trips to Akihabara, go figure.

Before you can buy stuff, you will need money. Japan uses the Yen, and it is very roughly equivalent to 1/100 of a dollar (please check current exchange rates). Think of a Yen as one penny. Yen comes in coins and bills. The coins are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 (equivalent to 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 50 cents, $1.00, and $5.00) Yep, a five dollar coin. You can pay for whole meals with pocket change. Bills are 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 ($10.00, $20.00, $50.00, $100.00), although the 2000 yen note is a rare novelty like our $2.00 bill or our $1.00 coin. You can change in your dollars for yen at the airport, or you can simply use an ATM at the airport, some convenience stores, or a post office. I don’t think the associated fees for using an ATM are that bad, but I don’t have the hard numbers.

Lodging in Tokyo ranges from the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku to the Capsule Inn in Akihabara (no longer there I’m afraid), and Ryan and I stayed at both during our trip. Whatever your price range, you can find a place to stay. I would suggest that you don’t plan on staying at a capsule the whole time you are in Tokyo, but one night is interesting. You can read about the Hyatt and the Capsule in posts for Day 7 and Day 8. If you have God money, or massive hotel points, I highly recommend the Park Hyatt. Ryan and I also liked the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental and the Tokyo Intercontinental ANA, both of which you can stay at with Holiday Inn points if you have them. The Holiday Inn Nobu Narita is OK, but you will probably get cancer from the radar dish of the airport across the street.

Getting lost in Tokyo is a possibility for sure, but you have several options if you plan ahead a little. Before venturing out into the great unknown, you should take a second to remember the name of your hotel and what it looks like from the outside. You should also note the tallest building in your vicinity and any other interesting landscape feature such as an overpass or a certain shop, or a park. Take a digital camera with you – one with a screen on it. If you want, take a picture of the above just to jog your memory or maybe to show someone if need be. Also, remember the nearest subway entrance to your hotel and how to get to and from it from your hotel. The staff at your hotel can give you a map of the immediate surrounding that will contain this info. Get it and keep it with you. So, you are lost; what do you do? Don’t panic. You have some options. One is to look around for the tall building that you took note of. Another is to walk around a bit until you stumble on a map of the area, which are plentiful around Tokyo. The maps will have major landmarks on them, one of which may even be your hotel. Take a picture of the map! Use it to get you back to the hotel. If you have no luck with a map, you can walk until you find a subway or train station and take that back to your hotel. You did remember the nearest station to your hotel, right? If you don’t want to do that, you may also look for a cab. Ask him to take you to your hotel. You did remember the name, right? If not, you hopefully took some matches or stationary from it. Failing all of those options, Look for a police box (Koban). There is usually one every few blocks and the policeman inside is very familiar with his area and is more than eager to help you out. They usually have maps of the area right on their desks. Not all speak English, so you will have to get resourceful sometimes, but they will work with you. Ryan and I even found a small statue of Godzilla just be reciting some stock Japanese phrases for “Where is X?” to a policeman. A phrasebook is not a bad thing to have with you too.

Well, that’s probably enough info about Japan for now. I’d highly recommend that anyone with some spare cash and free time and a sense of adventure take a trip there at least once. Definitely don’t go to Japan for the first time alone, not because you will get mugged or something but because you will go nuts from not being able to talk to anyone and also so that you will feel a little more confident and willing to try new things. It just helps to have someone there to get through the tough parts, and also to share the good parts. To that end, I’d like to thank Ryan for being silly and adventurous enough to go back there with me, and also for burning all of his hotel points on our lodging! Arigatou gozaimasu, Ryan-san.

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