Update: Japan

(This is an update from a 2012 post. Look out for future posts, where we’ll give more detailed information on our trip to Japan!)

Hey there everyone,

I’m getting ready to leave for Japan in the next few hours and am getting so nervous for my flight…I LOATHE take-offs, especially when I’m stuck in a middle seat, as so happened on this particular flight.
Regardless of my fear of flying, I’m really looking forward to this trip. I haven’t been to Asia yet and I can only expect that it is drastically different from anything I’ve experienced before.

(As of this writing, I’ve now traveled to four countries in Asia. It has become my favorite continent, hands down! It’s just so different, so amazing, and so interesting. It was everything that I expected, in the sense that it was so different than anything else I’d experienced before. It was a true culture shock in the best possible way! The flight over to Japan itself was not bad. We flew Delta, and had a great movie selection, good food, and I slept most of the way.)

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I’m most excited to go to Harajuku and see the crazy and wild fashions. I normally am not a big fan of “kawaii”, or “cute” culture (like Hello Kitty), but I think once I’m in Tokyo and it’s everywhere around us, I might catch on to it. I’m also very excited to travel to Hakone, which is famous for its hot springs and location near Mt. Fuji. Alex and I are staying in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. Our room has a private hot spring bath and we will be sleeping on futons. I am nervous about the food, however. At the ryokan, we are served a traditional Japanese dinner along with breakfast in the morning. I don’t like not being in control of my meals, so I’m nervous that I won’t like the food and will starve overnight. And what happens if I’m served octopus or eel? I MIGHT try some, but I don’t know that I can eat either as my main protein and keep it down. We’ll see.

(Harajuku was fun. We went there on our first day. It gave us great insight into Japanese pop culture. We did see some crazy fashions, but not as many as I expected. My favorite part of Harajuku was seeing all of the the crepe stands! Yum! And yes, I DID in fact, become obsessed with “kawaii”. I can’t describe why, but I “get it” now! I’ll eventually have to do a post on kawaii culture.

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Visiting our ryokan was awesome. At the time, I felt like we were roughing it, and we were a bit miserable sleeping on hard floors in a cold room. Also, the hot spring bath was WAY too hot! But looking back, it was one of my favorite experiences over there. Being uncomfortable really serves for some amazing memories! And the food? Yes, it was a bit of an issue! The ryokan served totally traditional food, which is nothing like Westernized “Japanese” food, and we didn’t recognize half of the ingredients. No one spoke English there (and we didn’t expect them to), so we weren’t able to get translations of what everything was! I’m pretty sure we did, in fact, eat eel at some point. We ate the dinner, my favorite thing being the first course of shabu shabu (beef cooked in a broth). I will admit that we skipped breakfast the next morning, though.) 

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Planning this trip has been incredibly time consuming and somewhat difficult compared to other trips. First, many US credit cards and phones don’t work in Japan in particular, so I had to contact both companies to make sure they worked and then to set up my international plan.
The easiest part of planning this trip was deciding on hotels and locations. First, deciding on a neighborhood in Tokyo seems intimidating, but it was relatively easy for us. Because Tokyo runs on an extensive subway system, we looked at what neighborhoods we would be frequenting the most, and then decided on the largest nearby station. In our case, we decided to stay in Shinjuku, which is apparently the largest station in Tokyo, and is therefore the best starting point to connect to any part of the city.

(Japan is an incredibly well organized country, and planning everything in advance really paid off. For the most part, everything went smoothly and we had no issues. At one point, we did have a problem accessing our debit card. The machines couldn’t read it for some reason. Eventually we found a “partner” with our bank that accepts our card, but it did take about three hours out of our day. 

As far as hotels, we were incredibly happy with our choices. We stayed at Hilton and Starwood hotels, which are always pretty nice. Shinjuku was a great area to stay in. The station itself is very busy, but the area near the hotel wasn’t, so we didn’t feel overwhelmed. For us, it was the best location both for comfort and convenience.)

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Deciding what towns to visit while we are there was pretty easy as well…I cannot stay in one city longer than a week because I just get bored, so we decided to visit Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto on this trip. All three cities are accessible by the JR System, which is set up specifically for foreigners to travel throughout the country.
The JR system is a bit of a nightmare, and has been the worst part of the planning process. If you are a foreigner traveling to Japan, you can purchase a JR pass which allows you pretty much unlimited public transportation throughout the country. This is great to use if you will be traveling to more than one city because the price of a round trip ticket to and from Tokyo is the same cost as a 7 day pass. They cost around 350USD pp for 7 days. The thing with the JR Pass is that you MUST purchase an exchange order in the US…they do not sell them in Japan. I don’t know why this is, except maybe to weed out the number of people that are able to use it. Only “temporary visitors” to Japan are eligible for this ticket, and you must turn in the exchange order for a JR pass at a major Tokyo station. It is just an incredibly complex process that can be a little bit confusing, not to mention time consuming.

(The JR system is definitely complicated, and we got a bit confused when picking up our passes at the station. But once we did, the pass was explained to us and it was easy to use. The trains run ON TIME, which for us was awesome. I planned this trip down to the minute, and it made our plans really reliable.)

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Speaking of trains, I have heard nearly everywhere that there is limited space for luggage on trains, which is why Japan has an incredibly efficient and reliable system of luggage delivery service that is called “Takkyubin”. Basically, you can have your bags delivered to anywhere in the country (i.e. to your hotel or to the airport) for a small fee. Many travelers use this, and it basically involves sending your luggage the night before. It will then arrive the following day for you to pick up.

(I think people exaggerated a bit about limited luggage space. Alex and I brought one big bag to share between the two of us for this reason. I learned to pack lightly, and will continue to do so in the future, but the trains were not usually full. When they were, baggage space wasn’t an issue. There are luggage spaces in the back of the train for large luggage. That being said, we did use the Takkyubin service. We shipped our bag from Tokyo to Kyoto so that we didn’t have to bring our luggage to Hakone, which is on the way. Our bag arrived at our hotel, and was waiting for us when we arrived. It arrived in one piece, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again. It was really affordable and convenient to not have a large bag to lug around.)

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The language barrier may be a bit of an issue while we’re over there, because a lot of people do not speak English. This is why it’s essential to learn basic phrases such as Hello, Thank you, Please, etc. I don’t like to learn phrases that are questions such as “Where is the bathroom?” because what happens when they respond in Japanese? They can always point, but if the bathroom is not within eyesight, you’re SOL. You don’t speak Japanese and knowing basic questions becomes useless and you won’t have gained any new information from asking that question. So I think that the one essential question to know is “Do you speak English?”
Japan also uses a different alphabet from English…in fact, they have three different alphabet systems. The easiest to learn is Hiragana. It is basically simplified Japanese. You can see it fairly often over there, so it can be helpful to learn as much of it as possible. I taught myself half of the alphabet so far, and will try to learn more on the flight over, in addition to carrying a little note card with me that has the characters and their English sounds. I feel like this is an important thing to learn. While you won’t be able to understand everything you read, it can be incredibly helpful when ready subway names or menu items, etc. For example, すし is pronounced “su-shi”. There you go, you have your first word, sushi! Or こかこーら is “Ko-Ka-Co-La”, or Coca-Cola! You already know some Japanese now.

(It was great to know how to say “Do you speak English?” A lot of people did in Tokyo, but not so much in Kyoto. Despite the minor language barrier, people really tried! Even when they didn’t speak English, they said they did and made an attempt to talk to us. I thought this was so awesome, and really reflective of the overall character of the people I met. 

Knowing Hiragana was only somewhat helpful. It was more fun, than anything. Most signs were in both Japanese and English, so it wasn’t necessary to learn. Also, many things were not written in Hiragana, so some things were impossible to read without the English translation anyway.)

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Alright, well I’m off to finish packing, get some work done, and start ourselves off on a great trip!

(We had an amazing time in Japan. This was Alex’s favorite trip to date, and we can’t wait to go back one day!)

–Jordan–

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