Date of Trip: October 2007
Dear Fellow Independent Travelers —
Fall 2007 Trip
I returned to Japan after a 10-year layoff in the fall of 2007(!). I’m a senior citizen plus a few years! And let me say it was my 9th trip; average length of my trips are 30-35 days. I’d estimate I spent around US $200 ($1 = 114 yen) a day for the 35 days of my last trip. That includes airfare, railpasses, food, lodging, medical insurance, and everything else you can think of. I don’t buy much of anything because I don’t want to carry it around. If buying something, I go to the post office and buy a box to ship it home by sea mail. Travel as light as possible and don’t borrow anyone else’s clothing. You generally can buy whatever you had decided not to pack. I stay well but not luxuriously or sumptuously. I’ve stayed in hostels and ryokans but prefer businessman’s hotels (see more on this later)
It’s an Understatement to say I Enjoy Japan
Yes, I enjoy Japan immensely. I’m active in some civic (sister cities) programs and other similar exchange programs that bring me into contact with local people. Over the years, I’ve come to know Japanese (Jpn) fairly well. I have stayed in their homes and I’ve invited them to stay in my home — some experiences more than once. Let me add it is not easy to be invited to a home in Japan. It isn’t because they don’t entertain at home — and they usually don’t — but because their homes are small. Per the tourbooks, they tend to be sensitive about that, feeling we North Americans will think their homes are like animal hutches. Staying in Jpn homes was interesting however I prefer so-called businessman’s hotels. Actually, anyone can stay in them; they usually surround railroad stations (“eki” in Jpn). They are many to select from but use the information desk in the eki for help. They can be very helpful to nice people.
If You Homestay
Going back to homestays, as I said, I like them. However, as a guest in someone else’s home, you observe their rules and smile. No frowns, ever, if you know what is good for you. Leave a good impression for those who will be following you, is what I’m saying. Americans have a bad enough reputation as it is, why confirm or corroborate that reputation. Show you aren’t from that crowd. Distinguish yourself by your self-pride and not your ability to be or act arrogantly. Sorry, I see lots of rude Americans.
One of the fast tracks to be on the outside in Japan is to disturb the harmony in human relationships. Think about it. You are on someone else’s turf.
Water and Food Situation
First off, the water is safe to drink anywhere. For a homestay, you sort of eat what is placed in front of you. Jpn food isn’t for everyone! I suggest you go to a local Jpn restaurant in North America. Try the food here before you go there. Maybe you won’t like Jpn food. And, please, don’t go to Japan to eat McDonald’s burgers — just stay at home and do that and make believe you went to Japan. If you are fortunate enough to live near a Jpn grocery store in North America, buy yourself some “natto”.
Natto is common breakfast food in a home along with maybe frozen fruit concentrate juice, Jpn tea (cha) or coffee. Cooked but now cold fish with bones in place is another common food. Miso soup. Rice. Maybe a hard-boiled egg. Yes, I ate this food and told them it was delicious. I was a welcomed guest, one of “them” as a direct result, i.e., they didn’t have to prepare or make special arrangements for me. And well, I did get to like the stuff although after being a good sport, cold boney fish was something I would to skip by saying I was (already) full. However, once accepted as a “good” person, “good” guest, I would say I didn’t like that fish and it was not seen as my being persnickety or too finicky.
Western versus JpnToilet
Oh yes, I’ve never gotten the slightest sick when in Japan. It is a very clean country but always have a packet of Kleenex in case you run into a public toilet without toilet paper. Which reminds me, know the difference between a Western toilet – the sit down kind we are used to – and a Jpn toilet. It could avoid a major cultural difference from what you are used to. In a Jpn toilet, you squat to do your business into an oval, even-with-the-floor toilet with a flush mechanism to use when finished. Some sit down toilets in Japan are quite fancy. I’ll let you be amazed if you run into them, as you will in hotels and homes.
I almost exclusively stay in hotels. Most serve a Western and / or a Japan breakfast. I much prefer that arrangement plus staying in a hotel gives me freedom of movement. This way if I want to take off my shirt and be real comfy, I don’t have to make sure it is OK to do so. And it probably isn’t OK to do as a guest in someone else’s home. As a “free spirit”, I love my freedom of movement. But…I always observe and honor the local mores, customs and ways to do things. To do this, I check with the front desk (fronto) when in a hotel. “Fronto” is the Jpn word for “front desk”. Checking with the fronto wins me friends simply because I do it.
Try to Get to Know the Locals
Also, I get to know the employees (by face or name) and them, me. Once I came in after a hard day’s grind, suitcase in hand and asked for a room. I was tuckered out. The Jpn-speaking-only manager happened to be at the fronto and without so much as acknowledging my presence, said there were no rooms available. I spied an employee whom I had gotten to know and asked her if for help. Her English was very good. She turned to the manager and must have explained I was a “good gaijin” and they found a room for me – that manager never made a facial expression and I acted my part to be very humbled that they did find a room – in reality my ratty appearance caused me to be selected “out” as a guest of that hotel. My point. Get to know the staff where you stay. A “gaijin” is a word meaning “foreigner” in Jpn.
Maximizing Japan, Learn Some Nihongo
After my first visit (1982), I went to my local community college and took Jpn (nihongo) 101 and 102. Languages don’t come easy for me. I get around good in Spanish but not fluent. However, the sounds of the letters in Spanish 95% parallel the transliteration of Romanized Jpn. Once I see something in Romanization, I can easily pronounce it clearly and distinctly. I’m well understood although I may not always understand the answers I get! I wish to convey the more Jpn you know, the more you will deeply enjoy your travels in Japan. Japan has a lot to offer if you are open-minded.
Good Guide Book
As I roam all over the landscape in describing an independent traveler’s experiences, I did find the Lonely Planet book on Japan as good as any. I’ve probably read over 100 tour books and books in general on Japan. The best non-travel book was “Japan, the Fragile Superpower”. However, that book may be 15-20 years behind the time. Check-out any revisions. It was written by Frank Gibney, a trained journalist and observer with excellent credentials to write on Japan. He was fluent in the language as well as married to a local person. For a Romanized language text, I like the Univ of Hawaii’s “Learn Japanese” by John Young and Kimiko Nakajima-Okano. These texts were used in the mid-1990’s. I don’t know if they are currently being used in Jpn college classes in the USA. Whatever textbook you get, try to get one which uses the Hepburn Romanization system modified for long sounding vowels, i.e., instead of having a line written directly above about the “o” (macron, as it is called), to convey a prolonged “o” sound. This sound is better represented in my opinion by “oo” and no macron. The vowel “u” when held for two sounds of “u” is written “uu” instead of a macron. And if you know the sounds in Spanish, Jpn (nihongo) should come easy. I have managed to have a survivor Jpn and a little more. However, I can read some kanji; kanji are Jpn characters.
As for the Lonely Planet guidebook and others, they will tell you, get a railpass if traveling to Japan for a week and intending to move around. There is a two week and a three week railpass. They even bigger bargains. If you intend to “see Japan” and can spare three weeks’ time, by all means get a 3-week railpass – or don’t speak to me again! Pardon my attempt at humor. This pass can only be bought outside of Japan. There is a JR East Railpass and that one can be bought in Japan but only covers from Tokyo to the northern part of Japan. There are other railpasses and special area discounts – too much to get into in this report but I just want to alert you to them. Generally speaking, if you are going to be moving around Japan a lot, the three-week railpass is unbeatable.
Biggest Reward is Independent Travel by Rail
I can actually read the Japan railroad timetables book (jikokuhyoo). This book is loaded with transportation info. It numbers about a 1000 pages. Includes bus, ferry boats, and airline schedules and prices. There is one in every Japan eki (remember, that’s the word for “train station”). The first page of each itinerary has each stop written in hiragana. That is like the Jpn Japan alphabet. There are 47 basic hiragana symbols. Easy to remember, easy to learn to write. On the first page of every train itinerary in the jikokuhyoo is the hiragana is the train’s eki’s name in kanji. I can travel anywhere in Japan because I can read the kanji through hiragana. I found only a handful of foreign tourists who could do so. You can get a 20 or so page summary of the train schedules in English but it is only the major rail lines. I like going into the boondocks and riding all kinds of local trains to meet the people.
Bullet Trains and Non-Bullet Trains
Don’t be confused. There are many rail lines besides the bullet train (shinkansen). They are far better to ride to get to know Japan than a train whizzing by at 175 mph (approx 300 kph). Why? Because you get to meet the local people who ride these trains. There are private lines – not JR lines – for which a railpass is not good. You must buy a ticket to ride these trains.
The shinkansen get you from place A to B in the shortest time. People are interested in getting to A or B. On the non-bullet trains, people generally ride short distances. The seating may be bench seating such as on the local milk trains. On off hours the trains are not crowded and a chance to strike up conversation with your little knowledge of Japan is good You are also — like them — learning a little more of the their language, they of our language. I have had instances of people inviting me to stay in their homes based on chance meetings along the way — that’s plural. They were interesting times.
JETs and Others can be Very Helpful
You might even meet a JET, a native English speaker from North America, Australia, New Zealand or England. A Jet is an English teacher assigned to assist a Japan teacher at a local high school class in English. JETs can be very helpful besides they want to know what is happening “back home”. You might even run into Mormon missionaries. Same feelings. These fellow North Americans probably have Jpn Japan friends (tomodachi). If they think you’re OK, you might really get to enjoy Japan more than you ever thought as they introduce you to their friends, native English speakers and their Jpn friends.
Be Culturally and Linguistically in Sync
In summary, read a few tour books, learn as much Jpn as you can and come with an open mind no matter what happens. The cultural gap is wide. Simply accept it. Neither we nor they are right or wrong. Simply accept the differences. And gauge yourself. If you think you are rebuffed for any reason, first look to yourself before thinking someone didn’t treat you right.
I ran into a person you told me how he was taken by a Japan taxi cab driver. Thanks to him, I was now aware you could be taken by a cab driver. The next day I was taking the same trip, e.g., from a hotel to an eki (remember, this is “train station” in nihongo). The driver made all sorts of zigzag signs with his index finger in the air as he outlined the route. Then I got it having walked the streets, having some understanding of Japan and looking at the signage on the streets I had walked. Of course, it was a round about way to the eki because of the one-way streets all over Kyoto! That fellow thought he was taken but his ignorance it is what he was displaying. Could happen to anyone who doesn’t know anything about where they are at. Other than this guy — who was so wrong, no one has ever told me he was taken by a Jpn cabbie (that covers 25+ years)!!
Can’t say that about the cab drivers in my country!!
Honesty and Personal Security
Speaking of that, Jpn are very honest people. I’ve randomly experienced it personally so many times I can say with certainly it is one of the most honest lands I’ve ever had the good fortune to be in. Crime might be 10% as much as it is in the USA. Prices are the same at the airports and as in the cities, again, unlike my country where airport prices for things are sky-high compared to non-airport prices.
Exchanging Dollars for Yen
Do be aware once you exchange money in hotels for yen, the transaction can’t be altered. Hotels aren’t allowed to buy dollars or any other currency. Banks are. I recommend banks. The rate of currency exchange at the bank’s airport branches inside the airport are the same rates in the banks in the cities. I’m not so sure that occurs in my country. In contrast, airport rates in my country are less favorable than banks in our cities. You can buy and sell currency at major airports. I think all Jpn banks can buy and sell dollars on the spot. In my country, few banks engage in foreign currency transactions.
Look, I can write a book. Please consider these suggestions and govern yourself accordingly if you want to have one hellavu good time in Japan. And here’s wishing you do!
Pasadena Bob [if I missed any misspellings, please forgive me]