ALWAYS buy a JR rail pass. It will save you money if you make even ONE
long distance trip. You can buy a rail pass at designated travel agencies or from the JTB
directly. They have a set price (in yen) so the cost varies depending on
the exchange rate at the time of purchase. You HAVE to buy the rail pass
BEFORE you leave for Japan; you cannot buy one in the country, and you have
to use your passport to get the voucher so no one else will probably be
able to buy you one and send it to you. When you arrive in Japan, you'll
exchange the rail pass voucher for the rail pass (when you're ready to
activate it). It starts that day and lasts until the day of expiration
listed within (they come in one, two, and three week increments). If you
want to use a pass in different time periods, for example at the beginning
and end of a trip, you can buy two passes, then use each one at separate times.
Using the rail pass, you can reserve seats on any long-distance JR train,
including Shinkansen (bullet train) and normal trains.
To reserve seats, find the reserved seat counter (NOT the one with the
green seat sign, that's GREEN CAR, which costs extra) and ask to ride a
specific train to a specific location, They'll give you tickets for each
train you have to ride.
Note, you will NOT get a gate entrance pass, which means you can't use the
automated entrance gates. You'll have to find the manned gate, then show
them your ticket and rail pass. Keep your passport handy in case they ask
for it. However, I've only ever had to show it once out of about 60
trains. Typically they'll point out your gate.
You can also reserve GREEN CAR seats and the superfast shinkansen seats,
but it costs extra. Not really worth it in my opinion. The normal seats
are really comfy, and you don't save enough time to warrant the fast
trains unless you REALLY have to get somewhere fast.
Taking a bath:
Call in advance to reserve a room.
It's ok to reserve a room the night before or even the day of. They'll
tell you right off if they don't have any.
When reserving a Western-stye room:
- A single room ["singuru"] means one twin bed.
- A double room ["duburu"] means one double-sized bed
- A twin room ["chin" or "chuin"] means two twin beds in a room
Find a hotel close to the station so you don't have to lug your luggage
very far if possible (cost permitting).
Business hotels are typically clean and low-cost.
In a pinch, you can stay in a love hotel, which is just as nice as a
normal hotel. They're usually cheaper, too. They have two rates: rest
and stay. The rest is a two to three hour rate (for you-know-what) and
the stay is overnight.
Many Japanese hotels and ryokan lock their doors at a specific time, i.e. 12am, and
don't unlock them until morning. Make sure and find out if the doors lock, and
if so, what time. If you don't, you may get home late only to find yourself stranded
outside all night!
I'm SURE you've heard this before, but if you haven't ever done it, a
Japanese bath consists of two parts, bathing and soaking. You wash
OUTSIDE the tub, then get in the communal water to soak. They may also
have a shower nearby that you can use. Often the bathing nozzle will
stick on the wall and act as a shower.
BRING a towel to a hot spring. They dont' have any to use typically, and
you'll have to buy a bathing towel, which is about a double washcloth.
Travelers' checks are the safest form of currency you can bring. While
crime isn't much to speak of in Japan, take into account human nature -
the nature of losing things. If you lose your wallet or purse, you can
(relatively) easily replace the checks, as opposed to totally losing
all your cash. In addition, travelers' checks also return some of the
best exchange rates.
You can exchange cash and travelers' checks at many big banks and hotels.
Watch the exchange rate and exchange a little more than you need if you get
a good rate. Exchange rates vary a lot, even from place to place, so if
you have time, shop around.
Some hotels will only exchange money for hotel guests, so keep that in mind.
They'll let you know right off, or ask you if you're a guest.
Banks close EARLY (3PM I think) so do your exchanges in the morning if possible.
It's relatively easy to find food everyone likes, although vegetarians and vegans
may have some trouble. "But aren't a lot of Japanese Buddhist [and therefore
vegetarian]?" Yes, but Buddhists usually don't consider fish to be meat, so many soups
If you get homesick, hit a McDonalds. It may not sound great, but the fries are just
like home. :) Italian restaurants are pretty faithful too (although closer to
authentic Italian cuisine, rather than US-style).
When you eat at a restaurant, you rarely pay at the table. They'll bring a check, which
you typically carry to the cashier.
There's no direct tipping in Japan, so don't leave any money for the server.
They'll think you forgot it!
Snacks we like and think you should try:
- Happy Turn - crunchy sweet rice crackers. Painfully addictive.
- Mitsuya Cider - sweet carbonated drink.
- "Peach Drink" - I don't know the name, but it has a big peach on the label
in a clear bottle.
- C.C. Lemon - "Refreshing lemon soda with a lot of vitamin C."
- Pocari Sweat - kinda like Gatorade with a funkier name.
- Grape Mentos - Don't know why these are hard to find in the US.
- Kirin Fire coffee - Three flavors: Bitter (blue), Regular (Silver), and [forgot] (Gold)
Food you should try/eat while in Japan:
- Okonomiyaki - Japanese "pizza" as people call it. Many styles, but we like Hiroshima and
Kansai style best. Hiroshima has more cabbage, Kansai more batter. More like a pancake than a pizza.
- Ramen & Udon - there are more ramen stands out there than can be counted.
You absolutely should not miss the experience of standing and eating the delicious soup
and noodles! Try more than one place, because flavor varies. :)
- Kaiten zushi - if you like sushi, you'll be in heaven. So called "conveyor
belt" sushi, it rolls by on plates and you take what you want. You pay by the plate, which varies
for each type of plate. It's not the best sushi in the world, but it's fast, cheap, and lots of
You'll see several types of pay phones. The most useful are the grey phones, which
allow local/international calls and also have an ISDN/analog modem jack. Green phones
may or may not allow long-distance calling.
There's no such thing as a local call in Japan; every call costs by the time you're on the
If you need to use the phone at all, buy a phone card (just about anywhere, basic unit of
1000 yen). To use it, put the phone card in the "in" slot (triangle facing in to
the machine) and pick up the receiver. Dial the number, and hang up when you're
done. It will show you the credits remaining while you call. When you hang up, it will
beep to remind you to take your card.
To use the grey phone modem jack, hook your phone cord from your modem into the
covered modem jack (the smaller one for analog, larger one for ISDN if you happen
to have an ISDN modem). Insert your card, then press the button next to the jack
for a dial tone. Dial your modem from your HPC/PPC/Palm/Laptop/Whatever and end the
call from the computer. The card will eject when you're done.
"Yeah, but what do I connect to?" We used Global
both of the times we were wired in Japan. They have some really low-cost dial-in options
that you can activate and cancel from overseas, and instructions in Japanese and English.
One type of account is only about $5 US for a month of access, provided you don't stay online much.
Plus they have dial-in numbers all over Japan. Bring the list with you and set your
equipment to use the most local number to save on connect fees. Regular US-compatible
modems work fine on Japanese lines with regular RJ-11 phone jacks. Some older modems may
not detect the dial tone, however. In this case, disable dial tone detection in your modem.
All of the text of the trip account in this journal was written on a Palm Pilot, and sent via
a portable 2400 baud modem over email to a server in the US. There are much better options
these days, though. :) The 1999-2000 trip was
done on a Philips Nino and Sharp HPC, sent on a 33.6 built-in portable modem.