There’s nothing worse than someone hijacking their own blog for weeks after returning from a trip with tales of their adventures: travel tales wither quickly on the vine. And so I’ll shut down the Japan-trip-travel-tale operation with a final few observations:
- I continue to be facsinated by the fact that in Tokyo metro escalators people stand on the left and walk on the right, whereas in Kyoto and Osaka they stand on the right and walk on the left. We never really did figure out which side of sidewalk to walk on, nor the proper pedestrian-yielding technique at scramble crossings like Shibuya.
- Because so many people have asked me: we had no problems whatsoever with language. Outside of “hello” and “goodbye,” we didn’t know any Japanese; through a combination of English-speaking Japanese people (in hotels, trains, larger restaurants, and on street corners) and effective pointing, we made our way without incident. Almost every restaurant we visited had some semblance of an English menu, and it’s very common to have pictures or models of food in restaurant windows.
- If you’re looking for a clean, relatively inexpensive, well-located hotel in Tokyo, we recommend The B Akasaka. We paid about $110 a night for a twin room (the rate varied from night to night), which included a very nice buffet breakfast (number one tip for successful travel: eat a good breakfast every day). The staff was friendly and helpful. The room was clean and well-equipped (robes, toothbrush and toothbased, shampoo, soap) and had a space-age toilet. There’s a coin laundry on the first floor. The key to accessing the hotel is to walk out of the metro (Akasaka station, exit 3B) and around the back of the Akasaka Theatre beside the TBS building and then take the outdoor TBS elevator up to the fourth floor: this saves walking up the hill to the hotel, and makes the hotel about 5 minutes from the metro. It’s really easy to get anywhere from The B Akasaka: it’s within 15 minutes walk of three different metro lines. And there are a lot of places to eat in the neighbourhood, from fancy restaurants to the 7-11.
- Speaking of the 7-11: many Japanese ATMs don’t accept North American cards, but all 7-11 stores seem to have machines that do, and it’s always really easy to find a 7-11 store, as they’re everywhere. 7-11 is also a good place to pick up a quick bite to eat, especially if you’re catatonic after a trans-Pacific flight and you’re not prepared to decrypt a restaurant experience quite yet.
- We snagged a last-minute weekend rate of $123/night, which included a lavish buffet breakfast, at the Hyatt Regency Osaka, and it was a great hotel, the likes of which we could otherwise never have afforded. The hotel seems out of the way, as it’s located in the port district and to reach it from the Cosmosquare metro station requires a 15 minute walk or a free hotel shuttle (every 15 minutes from the top of the escalator at the metro); for all practical purposes, though, it’s as central as anything else in Osaka, and we found the location suited our purposes well. The ATC mall across the street (take the pedway for easy access; ask the concierge for directions) has a good selection of outlet stores and restaurants, and you can also catch the “new tram” metro line there if you’re heading south.
- To pay for something in a shop or restaurant, place your money on the tray you’ll find in front of the cash register. Your cashier will take your money, count it, ask you to confirm the amount, and then give you your change in two parts, bills first (counted in an interesting reverse-over-the-hand move) and then your change. This ritual makes the Canadian way of paying for things seem barbaric and prone to error.
- Make sure you visit a so-called conveyor belt sushi restaurant; you can get a filling meal for a good price, you can see what you’re going to eat in advance, and the technology (race car models that deliver special orders placed on a touch screen, for example) is very neat. Each has its own particular system for special orders – sometimes it’s on a touch screen, sometimes you order from a server who’s roaming around – but in our experience the payment system is common: plates on the conveyor belt are colour-coded and when you’re ready to go they are tallied up and you’re given a receipt and take it to the cashier.
- There are vending machines everywhere: metro platforms, building lobbies, street corners. It’s easy to tell what you’re buying because there are models of the cans or bottles displayed and you just press the button under what you want to order. You can get both hot and cold drinks (look for the word “hot” on the bottle in the display).
- It’s very easy to find public washrooms: every public building and restaurant has them, they are universally clean, and generally have modern fixtures. We only encountered the older “squat” toilets in a few metro stations and at a mountainside shrine; you’ll figure out how to use them (and note that in some older buildings you’ll find a few stalls with squat toilets and a few stalls with modern ones). In facilties catering to children there are often excellent diaper changing rooms, special in-stall highchairs in one or two stalls if you need to take a baby in the stall with you, and tiny toilets for kids.
- If you’re going to take the metro — and you are — then invest in a Suica or Passmo card. These are pre-paid rechargable cards that you wave up against the “IC” logo at metro and bus turnstiles on both the way in and way out. If you’ve got sufficient balance on the card to cover the cost of the trip you just took then it’s deducted; if you don’t then you can top-up at a touchscreen that’s generally located right beside the turnstiles. We found the staff in the metro stations very patient and helpful in explaining the ins and outs of all this. Note, too, that transit isn’t the “pay one price to go anywhere” that you might be used to from North America or Europe: you pay a different fee depending on the length of your trip. Which is another reason why having a card is helpful, because it saves you from the burden of having to calculate this in advance: just keep 1000 Yen or so on your card at all times and you’ll be set to go anywhere.
- This might be obvious, but it took me a while to figure out: if you’re searching the web for something – a cinema, a restaurant, a museum, whatever – use Google Translate to find the Japanese word first, and then search for that. If you search in English you’re artificially limiting your search to information that happens to be in English; you’ll find a lot more if you search in Japanese.
- There are coin lockers in every train station and in a lot of metro stations (post 9-11 they’ve been removed from almost everywhere in North American, so this was novel for us). They’re not cheap – $4 or $5 seemed to be the rule – but they’re a great place to stash your stuff if you’re between hotels. Most museums also have lockers at the entrance, and it seems common to have “umbrella lockers” too public buildings.
- People take pictures of their food in restaurants even more than they do here in North America, so you won’t stick out if you do this. And everyone has a mobile device. Just be sure to turn off the ringer in the metro.
- We found poster advertising – in metro stations, mostly – to be a really good source for information about things to do. It’s how we found our way, for example, to the “House Vision 2013” exhibition. And the “Design Ah!” installation. And the “TECHNE” digital art show. Posters were generally in Japanese-only, but we just jotted down the web address or took a photo of the poster and then Google Translated the result back in our hotel.
- If you’re looking for airfares from Canada to Japan, look at routings that go through the USA, as you can avoid $500 or so in fuel surcharges that you’ll pay on Air Canada. They routings this way are a little less convenient, but you can save a lot, especially if you’re flying a family.
I loved Japan, and I regret not having visited sooner: the country was a feast for the senses, and a wonderful fountain of new ideas in design and behaviour and culture. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s a very child-friendly place to travel, and it’s hard to say whether it was me or Oliver who enjoyed the trip more. We only scratched the surface of the country – we never left the big cities, and even then we only visited a small cross-section of neighbourhoods. I think you could happily spend years in Japan and never lack for something interesting to see or do.
All told it cost us about $4000 for two people to spend 13 days in the country: $1500 to get there and back (assisted greatly by having 100,000 Aeroplan miles to contribute to the cost), $1300 for hotels, and about $100/day for food, entrance fees, metro fares and sundries.