Monday, January 17, 2011

Travel Tips: Japan

I'm breaking from my usual topics to share with you some knowledge which should make certain parts of the world less scary and more interesting.  In May 2010,  I traveled to Japan for a week (just to get away from Shrek: The Final Chapter, I joked).  Being as excited as I was, I researched the heck out of everything I expected to do and everywhere I expected to go.  Still, there were things I was not prepared for that struck me as interesting.  So before I forget too much, I would like to impart my wisdom onto you.  If you are planning to travel to Japan in the near future, good for you; if not, I hope I have inspired and/or encouraged you to do so.

Money & Shopping:
  • The currency of Japan is the yen.  For the best rates, exchange your money at a local bank before you go.
  • Both the international symbol (¥, written before the number) and the kanji (円, written after) are used to represent an amount of yen.
  • Expect to use a lot of coins.  The highest-value yen coin is worth ¥500, similar in value (as of January 2011) to US$5 or €5, both of which use bills in their respective markets.
    • Make sure not to confuse the ¥1, ¥50, and ¥100 coins, all of which are silvery in color.
  • When making purchases, most cashiers put out a small tray in front of them.  Put your money here.
  • If you need to stock up on food for a day or a couple, try shopping at a convenience store.  There are many chains in Japan, some found elsewhere and some not.
  • Don't buy disc-based movies and video games, unless you're sure you have the hardware to run them.  Besides, the prices are typically higher in Japan than for similar products in America and elsewhere.
    • Sometimes value differs greatly from one region to another.  For example, one disc of the anime Hetalia Axis Powers sold in Japan would cost about US$25, and only contain 7 or 8 episodes (35-40 minutes).  Meanwhile, the sets sold in America cost roughly the same amount but have the whole season on one disc (130 minutes).
    • This may be the reason why individual anime DVDs are so expensive even in America.  They're sold for about US$25 in Japan, but they don't lower the price in other markets to be fair to the Japanese.  ...Or something.
  • Games in video arcades, commonly known as "game centers" in Japan, typically cost  ¥50, ¥100, or ¥200 for games that would cost 25¢, 50¢, or $1 in America.  It may seem more expensive, but having a game cost ¥25 to play in Japan would be counter-productive since there is no ¥25 coin.  (It is theoretically possible, but you would either have to use two types of coins, or five of the same.)
  • Japanese is the only official language of Japan, no surprises there, but over the past 10 years, the use of English has increased greatly due to the number of visitors from America, Australia, and etc.  Chinese and Korean are also common, or at least in the airports.  You are more likely to see English the closer you are to the cities.  Highway destinations signs are also written bilingually.
  • If you know the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, but only a few kanji, then you can get pretty far.  For example, if you know the kanji for minute (分), hour (時), and yen (円), along with katakana, you should be able to tell if a sign is for a business or service, and maybe even what the business or service is.
    • Speaking of which, the Japanese use 12-hour (AM / PM) time and 24-hour time more or less equally, as opposed to always using one or the other like in America (12-hour) or Europe (24-hour).
  • If you see the the same kanji often, those would be good ones to learn.  You should also be able to recognize the kanji of places you visit often.
  • Even if you don't know the finer points of the language's grammar, spoken Japanese is an easy language to BS your way through.  The reason I'm thinking of is what would be considered sentence fragments in languages like English are perfectly acceptable in Japanese.
    • For example, "shinjirarenai" is understood as "unbelieveable" or "I can't believe it" even though it literally translates to "cannot believe".  Breaking it down, "shinjiru" is the verb "belive", and "-renai" is a suffix meaning "cannot".  Yet somehow Japanese speakers are used to filling in the blanks.
  • To get in from America, you will probably take a plane and arrive at Tokyo Narita airport, which is an hour east of Tokyo by road.  Options to get into the city include limousine buses (~¥3,000) and trains(~¥1,000-1,200), but try to avoid expensive taxis(~¥10,000-30,000).
    • There is another much closer airport serving the area, Tokyo International or Tokyo Haneda Airport.  It currently only serves Japan and other Asian countries, but that is about to change.  Direct flights from New York JFK, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Vancouver will begin in February/March 2011.
  • In the cities, expect to take the local trains and subways to get between places.  They are often the cheapest methods available.
    • Perhaps the most useful train line in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote line, denoted by a light green color.  It runs in a loop, hitting most if not all of the major districts of the city.  Fares range from ¥130 to ¥250, with the maximum length between stations being about 30 minutes and 10 miles/17 kilometers.
    • To buy tickets, look for a row of ATM-like vending machines with train line maps above them.  In Tokyo, at least, the stations have maps with Japanese and English place names side-by-side.  Find your destination on one of these maps; it will have a number next to it.  This will be your fare in yen.  Put your money into a machine, order a ticket worth the fare for your stop, and take the ticket and (if applicable) change.
    • REMEMBER to keep your ticket intact and on you during the train ride.  You will need it to get past the turnstiles at the other end.
  • The Bullet Train, known as Shinkansen (新幹線), is an option for crossing large distances in style, but it is expensive.  A one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka, the length of the Tokaido line, takes up to 3 hours and costs over ¥14,000.
    • There are three classes of Shinkansen trains: Nozomi (のぞみ, express), Hikari (ひかり), and Kodama (こだま, local).  Kodama makes the most stops and will, of course, be a little cheaper.
  • Yes, bowing is everything in Japan.  You might have to bow when you greet someone off the street, but in casual cases like these, it's just a little more than a slow nod.  More formal and/or intimate situations require a deeper bow.
  • You will have to take off your shoes if you go into a traditional Japanese building.  You can tell you have to do so if there are straw mats (tatami) about.  In these cases, you will instead walk in your socks.  If you can pull your shoes off without untying them, that's great.
  • If you're staying at a place with an onsen (hot springs) nearby, try it.  It may just knock you out for a good night's sleep.
    • You will have to be naked to take a public bath.  No one seems to pay attention, so neither should you.
    • As such, it should go without saying that, if applicable, you should make sure go in the correct baths for men (男) or women (女).  We wouldn't want a mess-up like the one from Love Hina!
    • Clean up in the shower stalls before soaking in the actual bath.  In the more modern places, these involve hand-held shower heads and stools or upside-down buckets to sit on.  Soap, shampoo, and/or etc. are provided.
    • The water temperature of the baths is at least 40° Celsius (105° Fahrenheit).  It's so hot that I, for one, could only last five minutes at a time.
  • Traditional Japanese restaurants use chopsticks for utensils, so practice with those before you leave home.

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