Overall, I'd have to say my trip to Japan was an enjoyable but not particularly exciting vacation. Expo was something of a letdown because the heat and crowds were annoying and I just didn't see anything that blew me away. Tokyo is too big and modern and not really different enough to be truly satisfying. On the plus side, I really enjoyed Kyoto, Nara and Kurashiki. My suggestion is that, unless you're particularly into big cities, you could skip Tokyo, fly in and out of Osaka, base yourself in Kyoto (or Osaka, which is cheaper) and see the best of Japan via day trips.
But this chapter is also something of a catchall for things I couldn't find the right place for elsewhere. First, let me say that, in general, Japan is a reasonably easy place to travel. The infrastructure (transit, hotels, restaurants) is well-developed and there are helpful tourist information offices all over. (Or, at least, everywhere I went.) The biggest barrier is the language.
I don't suppose spoken Japanese is all that much worse than any other language. Certainly, the lack of tones makes it simpler than, say, Chinese or Vietnamese. But, since my Japanese vocabulary is limited to a handful of basic phrases of the "hello, please, thank you" sort, I'm not exactly qualified to speak. I've heard that the syntax tends to be particularly confusing for speakers of Western languages. But, as in most languages, you can sort of make yourself understood by ignoring all rules of grammer. If, for example, you know that "yakyu" is baseball and "kippu" is ticket, saying "yakyu kippu" in an inquiring tone of voice will usually let people figure out you want to know if the line they're in is the one for tickets to the baseball game.
As for speaking English, most younger Japanese people have studied English but very few speak it. In general, you can expect people at tourist facilities (mid-range and up hotels, tourist offices, train station ticket offices, etc.) to speak reasonably good English and everybody else to speak little to none. The written language presents even greater challenges. The Japanese use four different writing systems, all mixed up together. Kanji are symbols, borrowed from the Chinese. Hiragana apparently originated as a syllabic alphabet used specifically by women, but is now used for writing various grammatical participles. Katakana is another syllabic alphabet and is used for writing words borrowed from other alphabets. Finally, romaji is the Latin alphabet and shows up for words like DVD, as well as being used on street signs in major cities. It also has the distinction of being the only one of the four that I can read. Fortunately, that's sufficient for most tourist purposes.
By the way, computers with public access generally have a button to click on to switch to English. Machines for buying subway tickets and some ATMs have buttons to push to get "English guidance." Major post offices are particularly likely to have ATMs with this feature.
Another significant challenge is finding your way around. I've already mentioned the lack of useful addresses. Street signs are often similarly frustrating. For example, you can exit Ginza Station in Tokyo and look at a street sign that says "Ginza 4-chome." Which is all well and good, until you notice that the sign on the cross street also says "Ginza 4-chome." I usually want to know what street I'm on, not what intersection I'm at, but this concept appears not to have caught on. The one ray of hope is the nearby koban, or police box, which will have a map with some possibly recognizable landmarks. The catch there is that the Japanese don't necessarily use consistent map orientations. That is, up could be north on one map and east on the next one you see. The only solution I found was resigning myself to being lost.
The good news is that public transportation is fairly simple to figure out. In Tokyo and Osaka, the subway lines are color coded and there are signs in romaji for pretty much every station. Some of the trains in Tokyo even have announcements in English. (This is also the case with some of the buses in Kyoto, by the way.) The challenge comes when you get to the station you want. Most stations have multiple exits (as many as 20, though 4 -6 is more common) and getting out at the wrong one can put you quite a ways from where you were going. About all you can do is hope your destination is one of the places listed on the signs which tell you which exit to use. By the way, it's often good value to buy a full day pass. For example, a Tokyo metro day pass costs 710 yen, which is roughly the cost of three or four individual rides.
As for longer distance travel, the Japan Rail pass is a good deal. The bullet trains are quiet and reasonably comfortable. Local trains are slower but are still not bad. However, there are a number of private railroads and the rail pass is not usable on them. The other thing that is nice about the Japan Rail pass, by the way, is that you can take shortcuts through some large stations (e.g. Shinjuku in Tokyo) and not have to walk around them.
Regular readers might notice that I didn't have much to say about food. The reason for that is that most of the places I ate at had signs only in Japanese, so I can't tell you what their names were. And few of them had English menus. I resorted to pointing to either the plastic models in the window or to pictures on the menu (or, in a few cases, to what somebody else was eating). That was something of a mixed bag since I wasn't always entirely sure what I was eating. I will also mention that my strategy for eating at reasonable prices was to have my main meal at lunchtime. That lets you order set menus of two or three dishes for about 1000 yen. For supper, I found the noodle shops to be good value. In a few cases, I picked up takeout from a convenience store. For example, you can get a three piece plate of inari sushi for under 300 yen. Supermarkets and the food halls of department stores also have a wide selection of takeout meals.
Which brings me to the more delicate subject of toilets. All of the hotels I stayed at had Western style toilets. In fact, most of them had washlet toilets, with built-in bidets. Public toilets are mostly Asian style (i.e. squatters), but there is often one stall with Western style toilets. There was pretty much always toilet paper, though it's also easy to have tissues with you since packets of tissues are given out on the street as advertising. What they don't have is anything to dry your hands with - no towels, no hot air devices, no nothing. The Japanese solution is to carry a small washcloth, which can also be used for wiping sweat off one's face.
Finally, I want to add a note about planning. I used Frommer's Japan, which was quite good on hotels and on the big picture of where to go (e.g. I'd never even heard of Kurashiki before reading about it there) but was not all that comprehensive on sightseeing. I'd have been better off leaving it home and just using the free info from local tourist offices. I also used several web sites in planning and here are links to a few of the more useful ones. Note that I didn't include the Expo website since I'm not sure how long it will be around now that Expo has closed.
Japanese National Tourist Office - lots of information, organized by region, including suggested walking tours
Quirky Japan - includes lots of off-the-beaten track tourist items, including strange museums. This is where I first found out about the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.
Japan Ball - everything you need to know about Japanese baseball, including schedules, directions to ballparks, baseball vocabulary.
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last updated 28 September 2005