The following is not a definitive guidebook by any means. It is intended to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the trials of a gaijin (foreigner) trying to make sense of Japan. This “guide” is based on two years living in Japan and several vacations there before that. Admittedly, it’s hardly enough time to become aquainted with a culture of such incredible depth. To be honest, I enjoyed the time I spent there and would go again in a minute if the opportunity presented itself. Don’t construe anything you find on this page as so-called “Japan-bashing” because it’s not.
In response to several requests, I have now added a page of places to see that I would recommend for first-time travelers. This is not by any means meant to be a complete list but it might give you an idea of where to start. For a more comprehensive list of links to Japan-related sites, be sure to visit my Japan-related links page.
When to come
In my opinion, any time is a good time to travel to Japan. However, some times are definitely better than others. It is said that Japan has four distinct seasons. I think there are many more mini-seasons but they generally fall into three distinct categories: too cold, too hot, and just right. There are also certain times of the year to avoid in order not to be travelling when two thirds of the population will seem to be tagging along.
For example, unless you really like huge crowds and long lines at the airport, you would be better off avoiding the week of the 3rd 4th, and 5th of May. This is known in Japan as ‘Golden Week’. There are three consecutive National Holidays in the first week of May which, along with the 29th of April, provide a week-long break for most salaried workers from the rigors of their usual gainful employment. Needless to say, many folks take that as an opportunity to travel. Oddly enough, if your destination is Tokyo or another of Japan’s larger cities, you will find the crowds on the local trains and subways far less than usual.
Likewise, you may wish to avoid the middle of August because of Obon (a time when many Japanese travel to their hometown to visit relatives and pay respects to the family grave). There is generally one specific week when many companies give their employees time off for Obon. The exact time often varies by region. For that reason, travel during most of August is two or three times as expensive as at other times. On the other hand, if you have the time and you can arrange your travel on either end of that week, there are many festivals, both local and large, accompanied by fireworks, etc.
As for weather, I would have to suggest avoiding June, July, and August if at all possible. From early June until mid-July, you’re looking at nothing but rain. This is not the kind of rain where you just stay inside for an hour or two until it stops. This is sometimes days-long rain where your umbrella never really dries out completely the entire time. Once that’s over, there is a week or two of relatively nice weather (punctuated by the occasional storm) and then in August the heat and humidity become almost unbearable (at least for me). It’s interesting that August is the time of frenzied festivals during the day and Bon-dancing at night but I suppose in times past that level of activity was nothing compared to working the fields. Still, in these days of air-conditioned homes, it would seem more practical to cancel all non-essential activity for the entire month and stay at home.
For those who don’t thrive on cold weather, it’s probably best to avoid January and February as well (unless you’re going to Okinawa). It gets pretty cold even in Tokyo and colder still in the northern areas like Hokaido. Snow in Tokyo is not unheard of but it seldom lasts more than a few days before it’s mostly gone. In the mountains surrounding Tokyo, I hear it’s a whole different story.
My personal favorite has always been late Autumn (October/November). Since there are few major holidays around that time and the Japanese kids are all in school, travel is usually cheap. The weather is nice across most of Japan during that time, albeit a bit chilly in the evening. If you catch the right time and the right area, you can see the same kind of color changes in the foliage that occur in most of the Northeastern US. I used to make it a point to travel late in November. Not only could I take advantage of the extended Thanksgiving holiday (at least in the US), but one of my favorite festivals happens to occur on the 3rd of December every year in the mountains of Saitama-ken somewhat Northeast of Tokyo, the Chichibu Yomatsuri.
Lately, however, I’ve come to like Spring, primarily because that’s when the famed cherry blossoms make their appearance. Planning a trip around the cherry blossoms, however, can prove challenging. For one thing, the local weather conditions in any particular year can cause the actual appearance of the flowers to change by as much as a week or two in either direction. The weather forecasts during cherry blossom time include a forecast for when the flowers are expected in different areas. Also, once the blooms appear, you have about a week to see them before they start to fall off the trees. Fortunately, if you have some spare cash for domestic travel, the line of blooming moves from Northern Japan to Southern Japan over the course of several weeks so even if the trees are not blooming where you are, you can take the train to wherever they happen to be blooming with little trouble.
When you arrive
Things you definately do not want to do:
Don’t mistake your 100 yen coins for quarters when making a local phone call. They are about the same size but 100 yen is more like a dollar (US), making your call more expensive than you expected. Your best bet is to buy a phone card, which is a thin plastic card that can be used in almost any phone in Japan and from which the call charges are automatically deducted.
Note: most international phone booths no longer accept phone cards for international calls, because of the problem with counterfeit phone cards being used to scam the “expensive” international calls by (you guessed it) foreigners1.
Don’t take a taxi into Tokyo. Most people do not realize just how far Narita airport actually is from the city. Imagine taking a cab from New York City to Delaware. Not a cheap ride. Besides, now that the trains come straight into Narita there is little need for cabs. (Personally, I’d avoid the bus as well, unless it’s going directly to your hotel. Depending on the time of day, there can be some pretty bad traffic on the highways coming into the city.)
I once wrote a letter to my step-daughter before her arrival in Japan. While some of the information is a bit naive, it makes for an interesting read and has enough tips to make even the most insecure traveller feel at home.
Hotels range in price from the affordable to the ridiculous. Unless you’re traveling on business, your best bet is to stop by any office of the Japanese National Tourist Office (or is it Organization), one of which is conveniently located in the JR Travel lobby at Tokyo station, and get their list of inexpensive hotels. I found that the smaller and harder-to-find a hotel was, the less expensive it tended to be.
One thing to remember. If you’re staying at a Japanese hotel, find out before you go out to party what time the lobby closes. I never missed ‘lobby closing time’ but I am told that if you are not inside when they lock the doors you don’t get back in. A word to the wise.
Unless you plan on staying with a friend or sleeping in Shinjuku Park, you should bring at least Y6000-8000 per night – and that’s at a cheap place.
The primary mode of transportation in Japan is the train. The entire country is laced with trains and in Tokyo itself you can hardly find a 4-square-block area which does not have at least one train or subway station. In fact, I once got lost wandering too far from my hotel. Rather than panicking, I just walked in one direction along a fairly major street and, sure enough, before I had walked another four blocks there was a subway station. Imagine my surprise when I found that I was only one stop away from where I wanted to be (don’t trust the streets to be laid out in any pattern – Tokyo is not like Manhattan).
One thing that makes the train great is that you don’t have to worry about a ‘designated driver’ if you go out to party. You can get as smashed as the rest of the salarymen and still be fairly sure of making it home in one piece. But for all the convenience of the train, there is still one major problem. They stop running completely between midnight and 5am (approximately). So you better get to your train before it stops running or look for an all-night coffee shop.
If you have a choice, try to avoid the hours of 7am-9am and 5pm-8pm. These are the times when the bulk of the workforce rides the train. Some lines are less crowded than others but you can bet that if you’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry during those times, you will encounter at least one sardine-can packed train along the way.
I recall once when the train was so packed that three people were standing by the door with both feet on the platform and one arm each clutching to the inside of the train above the door. Aparently, if you have at least one body part inside the train your place is reserved (even if the rest of you won’t fit). Now, what really made me laugh was when a chubby school kid ran up to the door, just as the door-closing buzzer was sounding, and stuck his hand in the same door. Did he really think he could get in when three other adults could not? Well, two of the platform agents ran up to that door and shoved all of those people into the train and finally got the door closed. I still have the image of that poor, twisted kid plastered up against the window on the door of the train. And, as the train pulled out, I noticed that the last few cars had plenty of room. Go figure.
Busses are pretty convenient, too, for those places the train doesn’t run. You can get a card now that works on nearly every bus in the greater Tokyo/Yokohama area, except the one you want to take. And the busses don’t run late at night either, although there are a few double-price “night busses” that run out to the more populous suburban areas.
Finding your destination
One of the first things you might notice about Japan is that very few of the streets have names. Some of the major streets were named by American Occupational Forces after the war so as not to confuse the GI’s. But most of the smaller roads and residential streets remain unnamed. In Japan, a different scheme is used for identifying locations.
Let’s take Tokyo for example. The city of Tokyo is divided into 23 different wards, or ‘ku’, each of which maintains its own governmental bureaucracy and some degree of autonomy. It is with the ward office (ku-yakusho) that most foreigners must register during an extended stay in Tokyo. Each ward is further broken down into districts which have various names. For example, Roppongi is not only the name of a famous night-life area and a subway station but is also the name of a very specific part of Minato-ku.
From there, things get stranger. These districts are divided into a random number of ‘chome’ which are numbered consecutively. These, in turn, are divided into blocks (most being composed of a single city block but some encompass more then one block) and these too are numberd consecutively. The address of Asahi TV (the only Roppongi address I was able to find) is ‘Minato-ku, Roppongi 1-1-1’. If you just think of the big-to-small division process, this address is easy to read: In Tokyo, in the ward known as Minato-ku, in the Roppongi district, the first ‘chome’, the first block (and, in this case, the first address in that block).
Now, you might think this is easy. After all anyone can count. But the layout of the blocks in the chome, and the chome in the district, while consecutive, is not always obvious without consulting a map. Think of the numbers on a telephone dial. Two is sandwiched between one and three but six and seven are on opposite sides of the dial. So it is with the addresses in Japan. And, to make matters worse, the buildings within a block are generally numbered in the order they were built, making the use of a map absolutely essential.
Fortunately, you are not alone. Even the Japanese get lost when going to a new area and it is customary to meet someone at the station to guide them if they are coming to your area for the first time. Also, there are maps hung up all over the city (at least in Tokyo) so it is hard to get lost for long. Of course, the maps are all in Japanese so you should have your roman-character map book with you at all times. I used to carry the ‘Tokyo Metropolitan Atalas’ put out by Shobunsha but I’m sure there are other maps just as useful.
By the way, if you’re used to living in a big city in the US (I can’t speak much for conditions in other contries), there is one important difference to remember while walking around any of the larger cities in Japan. Unlike back home, you should refrain from trying to walk ‘around the block’ in an unfamiliar area. The streets here are, for the most part, neither straight nor perpendicular. You may think that three right turns is the same as a left turn but (in Tokyo, at least) this is seldom the case and I’ve gotten myself right confused thinking I could take a different route back from my destination to the train station. Getting around in Tokyo is really easy, actually, so long as you don’t try to mentally impose a grid on what is simply not a gridded city. (It should go without saying that the same is true for the subway maps you find in the stations – just because two unconnected dots are drawn close together, don’t assume that you will end up in the same area when you come out of the respective stations. Stick with the route you know and all will be well.)
And, if all else fails, stop at one of those police boxes you see all over town. But first make sure you’re carrying your passport (which, as a tourist, you should have on your person at all times) or you may have to find someone to go fetch it for you from the hotel while you write your letter of apology to the police (no kidding!).
Despite modern advances in technology, Japan still relies primarily on a cash economy. Credit cards are becoming increasingly popular but checking is virtually unknown, even in the big cities. Fortunately, Japan is a relatively safe place to carry large amounts of cash (that is, once you get beyond the airport where all the foreigners are hanging out). Anyone contemplating travel to Japan should consider the following1.
Change a significant amount of money (enough for your first several days, minus hotel) into yen either before you leave your country or, at least, before you leave Narita airport. Do not expect to be able to change money easily once you hit town (unless you are staying in a high-class hotel, in which case you should be able to use the exchange services of that hotel).
[Note: The law on this has changed recently and it’s now possible for just about any business to offer to change your dollars into yen. But, despite the change, I’ve seen few businesses actually willing to offer this service and those that do generally charge pretty stiff fees.]
Do not expect to be able to change your traveler’s checks, even if they are denominated in yen, without a hassle. Checks in general are not widely used in Japan and many stores and banks branches will not handle them. You may have to travel to some other part of town to find an “authorized exchange bank”.
Do not depend on credit cards when you run out of cash. This is especially true outside of Tokyo or on weekends. If you insist on using a credit card, get an American Express card. The other major credit cards are sponsored by private US banks and even if you find some store or ATM that accepts a Visa card, there is no guarantee that they will accept your Visa card. American Express also has several travel offices around Japan where you can change money, cash personal checks, or draw money from your bank back home. Be sure to contact them well before you leave to get yourself set-up to use the AmEx ATM machines to withdraw cash directly from your home account. There are not that many AmEx ATM machines around (mostly airports and large urban areas) but they are available 24 hours a day.
The ATM situation is gradually changing. It used to be that if your money was in a Japanese bank, you could not access it from about 4pm on Friday until 8am the following Monday. However, it seems banks are now actually trying to compete with each other in customer service. As a result, many branches of the major Japanese banks (Sumitomo, Sakura, etc.) have begun to offer 24-hour ATM access. Those that are not 24-hour (which includes most small neighborhood branches) are at least open until 7pm on weekdays and until 5pm on weekends and holidays.
And, the number of English-speaking ATM machines is also on the rise. Most Dai-ichi Kangyo machines have been English-capable for many years. Now even many Sumitomo and Sakura branches in major cities have English as an option. Still, the time to run out of cash is not early Sunday morning in the middle of some farming town. Perhaps this, too, will eventually change.
When they are open, most Japanese ATM machines offer services that you would never see from an ATM machine in the US. (Note, however, that in order to take advantage of most of these services, you would need to open an account in a Japanese bank.) For example…
- you can withdraw large amounts of cash (often up to 99 10,000 yen bills, which amounts to close to US$ 10,000)
- deposit cash, and have it instantly credited to their account
- do direct account-to-account transfers (even between different banks – this is the reason checks have never caught on here)
- automatically update your bank book
- dispense coins (they used to be able to receive coins too, but that feature has been phased out on most)
Most vending machines don’t accept 500 yen coins anymore, because an Iranian coin with similar charactaristics as a 500 was used to scam the machines out of change. (by inserting the virtually worthless Iranian coin, turning the reject button, and getting a 500 yen Japanese coin back).
You may want to open an account with Citibank before you leave home. Get an ATM card from them. There are not so many Citibank machines around, but they are also open 24 hours a day, they speak English, and they can be used to withdraw money from your account back home in a pinch (and at pretty decent exchange rates). For that matter, if you are going to be around for a while, consider opening accounts at both Citibank Japan and Dai-Ichi Kangyo. The former for cashing checks and for emergency weekend ATM access and the latter for transfer of funds to other Japanese accounts, auto-payments for utilities and such, and city-wide ATM access. Citibank cannot do auto-payment to some smaller Japanese banks.
Banking in Japan
Your best bet will be to avoid using Japanese bank tellers if at all possible. Why? Well, unless the purpose of your trip is to research the interior of your financial institution, you will probably not be too happy with the bank’s casual attitude toward your precious time. Even otherwise tolerant Japanese don’t go to a bank unless they have to.
But if you simply must see for yourself…
When you first enter the bank, take a number from the number dispensing machine. Then find a magazine in the racks provided, sit down, and pretend to read.
When your number is called (in Japanese, of course), walk up to the window where your number is displayed. Place your money/traveller’s checks/etc on the little tray, along with the form you should have already filled out (oops… Did I forget to tell you about filling out the form? You could have been doing that during the 15 minutes you were waiting for your number to be called.).
Go back and sit down again. Don’t continue to stand around the window or the teller might think you have something more to say. You want her to get started on your transaction right away so you ought to leave her to her business.
When the teller calls your name (you’ll know, since it’s probably the only name on which she will stutter and hesitate), go back to the same window and pick up your cash and/or receipt.
I used to like to tell stories about the Japanese Pizza Experience. As a matter of fact, I suppose that Westerners eat some pretty odd things over bread but we do not call many of them ‘pizza’. What’s in a name, anyway.
Besides the general fare of pepperoni, green peppers, and onions, there are certain other popular pizza combinations you shoule try while you’re in Japan. Like the ‘tuna and seaweed’ special. Or the ‘Potato Queen’ with potatoes, corn, and mayonaise. If that weren’t enough… Well, thank goodness someone has already scanned in a Japanese pizza menu for your enjoyment.
Since my very first visit to Japan in 1989, I have been trying to pick up as much Japanese language skill as possible. Unlike many other “gaijin” (foreigners) who take up residence in Japan, I had no formal training in Japanese prior to my arrival. Fortunately, there are a great deal of Japan-related resourses on the Web. For example, check out Forest Linton’s extensive Japan Web Guide , NTT’s Japanese Information Page , or many of the other web resources I have listed on my Japan-related links page.
Anyone who takes up the study of Japanese will appreciate the following resources:
- Japanese <-> English Dictionary Server
- Jeffrey’s Kanji Lookup
- Japanese Language Information’s Kanji Dictionary
And check out these other sites:
The following sections are mainly for general interest and probably do not have much to do with traveling to Japan. But, you know, the more you know about a culture and it’s unique features beforehand, the more you can get out of the trip.
In Japanese, ‘matsuri’ means festival which, in my book, means huge party. My personal favorite is the Yomatsuri (Night Festival) in Chichibu. Now, Chichibu is a very small town so you can imagine what happens when, oh… say 20% or so of the population of Tokyo converges on this quiet town. It’s called a ‘Night Festival’ because most of the really fun stuff happens at night. Six huge wheeled shrines (‘mikoshi’) are pulled through the town by what looks like every drunken young male they could find. Seems each of these shrines represents the deity of the particular section of town from which the shrine originates and on Dec 3 each year they all meet at the main shrine to discuss godly things.
Of course, just consider the logistics of pulling a shrine nearly two stories tall and built with plug-and-play pieces, on a serpentine course through town. And, despite the wobbly nature of these contraptions, there are people actually riding inside and even on top of the shrines. To make matters worse, they streets are not cleared like in an American parade, oh no… Instead, nearly everyone in town crowds into the street, making the whole scene look like brightly colored ships sailing down a human river of black hair.
This is definately not a trip for the faint of heart. The effects of such a large crowd are interesting. Once, I got stuck on a side street, off the main route, and as the next mikoshi passed the side street got more and more crowded until I was pressed up against the other people so closely that I could literally not move my arm to get my camera out from inside my jacket.
The real challenge is to stand around one of the places where the parade route turns and try to catch a glimpse of the ‘rotating of the mikoshi’ (it’s such an involved process that surely there must be a name for it in Japanese). The problem is that the wheels on these shrines do not steer but the parade route does. Not to worry. The pullers of the shrine pull it right up into the intersection. Then they take two long poles and two sawhorses and jack the thing up onto two wheels. Then they put a round pedestal under the center and let it down so all of the wheels are an inch or so off the ground. Remember, though, that the pieces of this shrine just slip into place. No nails, no glue (it has to be taken apart and stored every year). So the people riding inside and on top hold on for their lives as the pullers grab this thing and rotate it by ninety degrees. The whole sawhorse ritual is repeated in reverse and they are again ready to go. Believe me, the thrill of standing less than ten feet from a very wobbly rotating two-story structure compares to nothing else I have ever experienced.
Then, there’s the fireworks. Just about the time you think you’ve seen the whole show, they announce the sponsor of the next round (yes, the fireworks are sponsored by various local and national businesses) and the show continues. Nearly all night! The usual caveat about ‘last train’ doesn’t seem to apply here – there are sardine cans leaving Chichibu all night. Of course, unless you live somewhere on the train line that services this small berg, you’ll end up in Ikebukuro (in Tokyo) with no way home. My advice: Rent a room in advance on the night of the 3rd of December in the Holiday Inn in Ikebukuro. The lobby is open all night and it’s a short walk from the last stop on the train back from Chichibu.
Japanese National Holidays
Original list taken from NTT’s Japan Information page.
|Japanese Name (English Translation)
|Ganjitsu (New Year's Day)
Most offices will be closed from Dec 31 to Jan 3.
|Seijin-no hi (Adult's Day)
Used to be there are only two vacation (off-duty) times for Japanese workers in old days. They were called "Yobuiri" and [employees] were allowed to leave work on Jan 16 and July 16 for "obon". Business owners used to give some money or goods to the workers to take back to their family in countryside usually a day before "Yabuiri".
Even now local government celebrates the sons and daughters of their residents, who became 20 years old during past year, even if they actually live in other cities for years. Since it is hard for [a] city worker to come home only for this occasion, some local governments celebrate "new adults" right after the new year's day while they are still around. And then 20 year olds will be celebrated at the cities they actually live.
|Kenkoku Kinen-no hi (National Founding Day)
This is the day, the first Emperor Jimmu declared the independence of his country "Yamato", old day Japan, according to Japanese mythology.
|Shunbun-no hi (Vernal Equinox Day)
|Midori-no hi (Greenery Day)
Emperor Showa (Hirohito)'s Birthday. Japanese start expecting the ever-increasing [list of] national holidays, whenever an emperor [has] passed. See Culture Day, also.
|Kenpou Kinenbi (Constitution Memorial Day)
The day, current Japanese "Peace" Constitution was declared under the US occupation, or MacArthur Regime.
|Kokumin-no Kyuujitsu (National People's Day)
The week bunched by three national holidays and May Day (May 1st) is called "Golden Week", and most workers take this [week] off. Based on the international pressure for workholic Japanese, Japanese government started adding new national holidays, and this is one of them. Just adding one more holiday during Golden Week, since they don't work this day anyways.
|Kodomo-no hi (Children's Day)
"Tango no Sekku", traditional Japanese holiday to celebrate boy's day and healthy future for boys. Now it's a national holiday to celebrate all children and pray for their health, both physically and mentally.
|Umi-no hi (Marine Day)
This is a day Emperor Meiji came home from Hakodate to Yokohama by a ship after visiting northern Japan in 1876. This holiday was set in the year of Pearl Harbor, and added in 1995 as the 14th national holidays to appreciate sea and ocean, based on the pressure by marine workers and marine- related business owners.
|Keirou-no hi (Respect-for-the-Aged Day)
Used to be called "rojin no hi" but renewed and added to national holidays in 1966 with "Taiiku no Hi" and offically called "Keiro no Hi". Some people visit local nursing homes and give a performance and gifts to the senior citizens.
|Shuubun-no hi (Autumn Equinox Day)
|Taiiku-no hi (Sports Day)
This holiday is the day of [the] openning ceremony for Tokyo Olympics in 1994, and added as a new national holiday to celebrate and pray for people's good health. Representing so-called "Sports no Aki".
|Bunka-no hi (Culture Day)
Emperor Meiji's Birthday. It's used to be called "Meiji Setsu". After the WW-II, Japanese government changed the name to "Bunka no Hi" to celebrate academic and artictic activities. Representing so-called "Geijutsu no Aki". Japanese Government chooses several scholars and artists to be honored by [the] Emperor at Imperial Palace with "Bunka Kunsho" a medal, a Japanese government's version of Nobel Prize for Japanese citizens.
|Kinrou Kansha-no hi (Labor Thanksgiving Day)
Used to be called "Niiname Sai" a Shinto festival to celebrate a newly harvested autumn gifts. Emperor gives a ceremony in his private Shito shrine in Imperial Palace in traditional (but actually the manuals were written in Early Meiji Era) way. This holiday probably represent "Shokuyoku no Aki".
|Tennou Tanjoubi (Emperor's Birthday)
Besides the official holidays, there are other important times during the year. Most of these are attached to seasons or to particular legends and myths. In some cases, there is about a month difference between the traditional date and the observed date because of the gradual slip of the lunar calendar compared to the solar (Gregorian) calendar. For example, Tanabata occurs on the 7th day of the 7th month of each year but it’s celebrated in early August across most of Japan. Likewise, different areas will celebrate Obon in either mid-July or in mid-August (the latter being the most prevalent) depending on which calandar is being used.
Days of the week
It’s interesting that so many cultures have named the days of their week for occult or religious principles (well, maybe not so strange after all). Here is a simple table showing how the Japanese names for the days of the week stack up against Western names.
One of my favorite pastimes for the past several years is listening to and singing Japanese Karaoke songs. For anyone learning the language, it provides a fun way to practice reading Kanji and to get used to hearing the sounds. For some reason, music (and repetition) seems to act like a lubricant to help information slide down into the depths of one’s brain and thus makes a very good learning tool.
What I do to learn a song (since I am not yet proficient in kanji) is to convert the lyrics into roman characters (a, b, c, etc) and practice until I can sing the song from the kanji lyrics using a combination of memory and character recognition. I have several songs converted and will be slowly putting them as I have time. There is also a database of romanized karaoke lyrics online somewhere but I have lost track of who currently maintains the site.
If you are interested, check out my own list of romanized songs (note: this list and the song therein are in the process of being converted from EUC to HTML and some may not yet be in a useable state).