So you’re going to Japan… (a collection of tips and experiences)

Just a collection of things I learned while traveling in Japan that hopefully you’ll find useful if you ever decide to go.

Shibuya

1.) Communicating

Know basic Japanese. This is even more imperative if you’re actually Japanese, Korean or Chinese (or look the part), because everyone will then assume you are Japanese and begin talking to you in the language. Taking at least an intro course to Japanese would be ideal. That should give you more than enough to get around. You can get around without knowing any Japanese as I did, but just knowing the basics would’ve made the trip much easier. Failing that, I found the following phrases most often used (and helpful)

  • Ohaiyo gozaimasu (good morning), konnichiwa (hello), konban wa (good evening). In reality, I rarely heard the latter two phrases, although it’s perfectly fine for you to go around saying it.
  • So “why?” to the point above? Because I was usually in a customer situation, I was often greeted with "Irraishamasen!" which is basically, "hello, how can I help you". Just about every store you go in will welcome you with those words. You don’t need to acknowledge the greeting – at least, I rarely saw the Japanese natives acknowledge it – but I often responded with a slight head bow or "konnichiwa" for politeness sake
  • Sumimasen (excuse me). I mentioned this in a previous post, but I rarely heard "shitsuree shimasu" used. Instead it was sumimasen everywhere, whether I was trying to get someone’s attention, or just trying to get by.
  • Eigo ga dekimasu ka? (Do you speak english?) Sadly, often times the answer will be iie (no), and they might start talking to you in Japanese whereupon I’d respond "nihongo wa hanase masen" (I don’t speak Japanese)
  • Wakari masen (I don’t understand) – I used this all the time. On the other hand I rarely used "wakari mashita" (I understand)
  • Watashi wa (America) kara – I’m from (America) – fill in with your country of choice
  • … wa arimasuka (is there… ?) – In my case, I used in the sense of "coin laundry wa arimasuka?"
  • Ippaku dake/ni san nichi… tomari masu (I’d like to stay 1 day/a few days) – used in cases where I was looking for a hotel to stay in
  • Ikura desu ka? (How much is it?)
  • … wa doko desu ka? (Where is…?) – used in the case of toiree wwa doko desu ka? (where’s the bathroom?)
  • niku means meat and is often combined with another word gyuu niku (beef), tori nuku (chicken), buta niku (pork)
  • … o ippai kudasai (I’d like a cup of…) – used like mizu o ippai kudasai, because the water cups in every Japanese eatery are tiny and I was always thirsty.
  • Beer is biiru. Not biere, which is what I kept calling it for some strange reason. (For whatever reason, probably because I couldn’t communicate with the people, I started conjugating Japanese verbs in my head. I blame my high school French classes)
  • o-kanjoo onegai shimasu (Can I have the bill). You can also put your fingers and make an X sign and they seem to understand that as the same.
  • Katamichi (one-way), oofuku (round trip) – used when talking to someone to try to reserve train tickets. In practice, I found it easier to just use the machines because they almost always have an English option. You never know if the person you talk to will know any english.
  • Shashin o totte ii desu ka (Can I take photos?) – In actuality I never used this, because I wanted to be able to use the "I’m a dumb tourist card" if I was ever caught taking pictures in places I wasn’t supposed to… like I did in Gamers. But if you want to be polite, be my guest.

2.) Staying in Japan

Business hotels can be found cheap. Less than $90 a night in Tokyo. They’re small, but clean. It’s not like you’re going to be spending much time there anyway.

Youth hostels are cheaper, probably around $30-50, but I didn’t end up staying at one.

Capsule hotels are around that price as well and are a good option if you didn’t make a reservation elsewhere, or got caught out late.

You can also stay overnight in Internet cafes, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. I visited one to actually use the Internet, and a.) the computers are slow and sucky and b.) the tiny room (it’s like 10′ x 4′) reeked of cigarette smoke. The capsule hotels end up being a similar price and come with showers/baths. On the other hand, you do have easy access to all sorts of fapping toys in the Internet cafes.

Love hotels may actually be the best value. They’re similar in price to business hotels, but you get a larger room and you can check out later (most business hotels check out at 10am, love hotels are 11am). You can also bring in guests (since that’s what they’re for), and you get free porn. On the downside, the people who run them usually speak no english, and you usually can’t check in for the night until 8pm or so. Also, don’t expect them to have Internet access or other amenities like laundry machines.

3.) Staying connected

Take your laptop, make sure it has an ethernet connection. If you’re in a business hotel, you can rent a computer, or you can visit the aforementioned Internet cafes, but the computers are slow and sucky. I rarely found wireless networks while in Japan, either in Kyoto or Tokyo or anywhere in between.

4.) Getting around

Most train station signs have English translations. But there were actually plenty of stops in Tokyo, of all places, where the subway map was completely in Japanese. The best thing to do is get an English copy of the map and keep it with you. The subways are great, really clean and really efficient. Every single stop has coin lockers, so don’t lug your stuff around if you don’t need to.

Reserving tickets isn’t difficult, but like I mentioned above, try to use the machines where possible, because there’s a good chance the human staff won’t know English.

I would recommend avoiding the subway during rush hours though (8-9.30am, 5-7pm), especially if you’re carrying bags. You’ve never seen a packed house until you’ve been in a Tokyo train stuffed to the gills. People swaying back and forth in unison and then everyone pushing to get out at each stop. It’s shocking that more people don’t get trampled.

Taxis in Japan are expensive. Avoid them where possible, or use them only for short trips. Also, I noticed that street addresses are pretty much useless in Japan. While all the taxi drivers that I met were really helpful, each time I showed them a street address of the hotel I was going to, they just ended up calling the hotel to get better directions. So if you’re going to specific places, yeah, have the address with you, but better yet, make sure you have the phone number, because otherwise you’re probably going to end up going in circles.

5.) Money

Everything costs money. From getting into gardens to using coin lockers. So carry lots of it. Particularly, keep those 100 yen coins handy, because many coin operated machines (like the gachapon machines and coin lockers) don’t accept anything but them. To use an international ATM card, there are 2 choices: Citibanks and JP Bank. You can pull more money out at once in the Citibanks, but they’re few and far between. The JP Banks are much more prevalent, but you can only pull out 10,000 yen per transaction. And from my experience I could only pull out 20,000 yen total from one machine.

16 Replies to “So you’re going to Japan… (a collection of tips and experiences)”

  1. Ah, thanks for the tips.

    I wouldn’t say I’m confident in my Japanese since it’s not great but I’d have a general idea of what they’re saying, at least recognize what the subject and verbs are. Reading those books help quite a bit. Don’t ask me to speak it fluently though, I’d probably do a terrible job. I’m disappointed that the Japanese you met didn’t know that much English. They do teach it at their schools and they are pretty through about their studies so I’d think they’d be better at it. Anyway, don’t mind!

    or you can visit the aforementioned Internet cafes, but the computers are slow and sucky.

    Pretty much this around the world I think. For what I’ve read Japan takes its service to a different level as usual lol
    .-= keikakudoori´s last blog ..I doubt Katanagatari is meant to be taken as much of an action show =-.

    1. I think where studying really helps is that it breaks you out of the fansub framework. I found that it’s one thing to watch an anime, recognize some words and lean on the translations for the rest of the words. I mean, even when you watch RAWs there’s some sort of visual context to help frame the language, but when you hear it for the first time in the real world from real people, totally unfiltered, it was like “whoa.”

      I do think you adjust and start picking up on it better, at least I felt myself doing that – I got really good with numbers, but that first time is just sort of shocking.

  2. Welcome back, glad you enjoyed the trip. Wow, I can’t imagine having gone without at least a semester’s worth of Japanese classes, good job managing to get around like that. Did you have any friend with you who spoke Japanese to help out or were you completely on your own?

    Just a little note on ATM’s, the Post Office ATMs were my ATMs of choice. Didn’t run into any limits (though I never took out more than 40,000 or so at a time.) Also worth mentioning to other prospective tourists: carry cash, debit and credit cards are rarely used by most Japanese people and many stores won’t take them.
    .-= ExecutiveOtaku´s last blog ..House of Five Leaves episodes 01 and 02 – Down and Out in the Tokugawa Shogunate =-.

    1. Just went around completely on my own. Lots of sign language, speaking slowly and trying to make up Japanese words along the way. :p Eventually, I thought I settled into a nice groove… although to know at least even a conversational level would’ve been nice. I’m pretty sure many people thought I was a mute or something. 😀

      The post office ATMs were the JP network ATMs I think (I probably shouldn’t have referred to it as JP Bank above). Strange, those were the ones that I ran into limits on. I wonder if that’s a new thing.

      Good point about carrying cash. Besides the hotels I stayed in and some department stores, card usage can definitely be a little tough.

  3. 1. Lonely Planet has a decent little phrasebook.

    2. Tokyu Stay is a chain of business hotels in Tokyo that lets you book online, in English. Most of their locations are within a few minutes of a major subway line. That’s the plan for my next trip.

    4. Warning: the shuttle service from Narita to a Tokyo hotel (common in tour packages) can take more than three hours, depending on the traffic.

    For taxi rides, business cards or maps of your destination are very useful. Going out to a restaurant in Kyoto one night, I named our destination, and the driver answered (in Japanese) “which one?”. I didn’t know there were three of them, in different parts of the city, but I had a piece of paper with the address and a small map. Google Maps printouts would be good for this.

    If you’re going to be wandering around much, get a real map. There are decent folding maps for the major cities, as well as detailed bilingual street atlases for Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. We went outside the coverage of the Streetwise Tokyo pocket map several times, but it was better than nothing. The Little Tokyo Subway Guidebook is quite useful for getting to the right part of the city.

    5. Get some yen before you leave for Japan, at least enough to get around for a day or so. Most banks have a location that handles foreign currency, and American Express partners with a lot of travel offices.

    0. Have fun. Take lots of pictures.

    -j

    1. 1. I had a Berlitz phrasebook which was pretty helpful. But I also used the Lonely Planet guide to get around. Definitely agree that some sort of phrasebook would be helpful in getting around.

      2. For reserving hotels, I almost exclusively used Japanican.com. Although I used http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com to reserve the stay in Shirakawa-go.

      3. Ah, that’s a good point. I actually took the train from Tokyo station to Narita airport. The ride was about an hour, but the problem is the trains are not as frequent as you’d think. I think it was like 2 an hour. Which almost caused me to miss my flight. I had to run across the airport and be specially escorted onto the plane. But the airport employees were really helpful throughout. :p

      4. Actually, I’d recommend not exchanging any money until you get to Japan, just because I found that the exchange rate when exchanging at an American bank, or a place like TravelEx was so much worse compared to when you get to Japan. But you can make the switch as soon as you arrive at the airport, so there’s not too much worry. I haven’t done the math, but if you have a bank that doesn’t charge ATM fees, I think the exchange rate is probably best when withdrawing from an ATM compared to using an exchange service.

      1. I think the stress-reduction value of having $20 in local currency when you land outweighs whatever minor difference there might be in exchange rates. In my case, though, the US bank had competitive rates and plenty of bills and coins on hand, so I landed with enough yen to last the whole trip.

        -j

        1. Hmm, yes, if stress reduction is a priority then yeah, having some money exchanged in advance is worthwhile.

          Heh, I had no problem scads of money during the trip, but for whatever reason I get really hung up about exchange rates which probably differ by $5 per $100 exchanged. Not huge sums. :p

  4. Pedantic note: what the shopkeepers say is irasshaimase (“come in” using a very polite verb form.) Irasshaimasen would be more like “you aren’t coming in” or maybe “you aren’t here”, neither of which seems appropriate.

    Another place to look for international ATMs are the 7-11 convenience stores, which are everywhere. Not the other chains, just 7-11 (a.k.a “7&i Holdings”)

    1. Whoops, good point about irrashaimase. Thanks. 🙂

      Ah, I did not know that about 7-11’s! That’s great to know for the next time.

  5. Very good tips! Would you recommend hostels over hotels? Or is it not worth the difference in money?
    Anyways, I’m planning another trip to Japan some time later with just a few friends, so this is really helpful. ^ ^
    .-= Yi´s last blog ..The Dolls of Kimi ni Todoke =-.

    1. Mmm, if you don’t mind paying an extra $20-40 a night, I’d go with the hotels. But one of the benefits of hostels is that you may have a chance to meet other people. But I valued the additional privacy and having my own bathroom more. :p

      If you’re going with a few friends, you might not care about meeting other folks. And actually if you split the room cost amongst yourselves, it might end up costing about the same as staying in a hostel (or maybe even slightly cheaper).

  6. I always thought “shitsuree shimasu” was used when you’re trying to squeeze by someone, or something, or in other very specific situations. It’s like a very specific “excuse me,” isn’t it?

    Kind of like “o-jama shimasu” is also a kind of “excuse me” (rather, “I have troubled you”) but it’s mostly said when you leave someone’s house.

    1. Yeah, I thought so as well. And that’s probably correct. But oddly, I just never heard it. Even in cases where I thought it should’ve been used.

  7. Great tips there, good to see that your trip was also very eventful and fun.

    Pity that I won’t get to go to Japan for at least another 5 years….

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