Author: Eric Overn
Date of Trip: July 2013
My first attempt to write about my trip to Japan ended up being a small book. I’m putting aside some of the site seeing details in this version and entered the comments in Trip Advisor. Let me start by saying that I had a great time and travel in Japan is easy, but can have its adventures. I went twice last summer to Japan on business. I hadn’t been to Japan before. I read a lot and thought I was well prepared. The one big difference here is that cash is king. Breaking a 10000Y ($100) note at a Starbucks is routine. Small shops may not take any plastic. The biggest fallacy in what I read is that English is spoken at transit centers, especially JR ticket offices. Maybe in Tokyo, but in the towns of southern Japan where I was staying English was not spoken and time schedules were in Japanese. My independent travels were in Osaka and Hiroshima. Both of these cities have very good English web sites and I made copies of bus and subway routes and schedules before I left. The best “find” for me was the luggage delivery desk at the airport. My business hotel was in Tokuyama, but I didn’t want to carry my suitcase through Osaka for the days I would be there for site seeing. I went to the delivery desk after customs, gave them the hotel information, they called to confirm I actually had a reservation there, I paid about $17, and it was bye-bye suitcase. Not having to lug that suitcase on the Kansai or Bullet trains was awesome. The suitcase took about 24 hours to arrive according to what I think was the waybill. My backpack was big enough for my CPAP, camera, and some clothing.
Another fallacy: Bullet trains have space for luggage. “Guess again Bond-san.” The newer trains have space behind the last seats only if the people in those seats haven’t reclined. The racks above the seats on almost all trains will fit a 25” with no problem. If you have a large suitcase ask for an aisle seat so you can be by your suitcase on the floor. The movie The Wolverine has good shots of the bullet train and it’s restrooms. The summer storms did cause delays with the trains and caused the JR ticket offices to be very crowded. Luckily the company asked an employee to meet us at the airport and take us to the hotel. We missed the Bullet due to delays in the Kansai trains, but our host was able to read the boards quickly and got us seats on the next train. Do not discard any of the tickets you’re given, including the reservation ticket as you need to feed all the tickets into every machine to get out of and into the Shinkansen area of any station. The machine will keep the ticket of the last trip. Ask for a receipt, if you need one, because you should have only the reservation ticket at the end of your trip. If you must get to your destination after being delayed and the train is “full” ask the agent to check for cancellations and Green Car seats. I think most agents assume If you had a standard reserved seat and that is what you want. I’m not sure after seeing a Green Car that it’s worth the extra cost and would take it only if I had to. I took the local JR train from Tokuyama to Miyajima (Hiroshima) for about $12. The Shinkansen (Bullet) train would have been $40, more comfortable, and 40 minutes faster. The local trains use a small simple machine with price buttons. The wall map showed Miyajima (in Japanese) in the 1200Y zone so I put in probably 1500Y, pressed the 1200Y button, and received change and a small ticket. The local tickets are sometimes stamped at the entry gate and almost always collected at the exit. We only used a JR agent for the Kansai and Shinkansen trains.
It helps to learn a Japanese character of the city you’ll be staying at or going to, if using the local trains. Knowing just one character will help you locate your city on the route map. “yama” looks like a square “W”. Toku-yama, Yama-guchi. The small yellow sidewalk tiles making a line around the city and stations are for guiding people with a vision handicap using a walking cane.
The people of Japan are so friendly. Not once was I shined-on because we couldn’t understand each other. I was traveling back on the local from Hiroshima on what I was told was a no transfer train. I think it was at Iwakuni that everyone got off and luckily a kind Japanese gentleman that knew English told me that I needed to transfer to the train on the other track. We had both gone to museums in Hiroshima and we talked all the way to his stop. There’s a big interest in Japan about the life of the Japanese people in the WW2 internment camps. We went to the same exhibit. I stayed at four of the small- room hotels that are typical in Japan and loved their hard beds. If I was over 6’ I’d have issues with the beds as at foot of the bed is sometimes against a wall. My hotel reviews are in Trip Advisor. Post offices: Some have late night windows for mailing letters and most have international ATMs. 7-11s: Sell postage stamps “kitte.”
Summer means rain and lots of it. I learned after everything in my backpack was soaked going to the Osaka Castle that the packages of plastic bags sold in most stores in Japan had a very useful purpose. My hotel had umbrellas for their guests to use. I also carried a towel that I bought at the store to wipe off the rain. I found purified (no distilled) water for my CPAP in 500ml bottles at most stores for about $4. I think every block has at least one drink vending machine. You may starve, but you won’t be thirsty. If you smoke the vending machines require a government issued ID card with a chip that the machine reads. The hardest transportation for me to understand was the bus lines as there were no English versions and the translations didn’t work well. I saw buses going by the factory, but trying to explain to the Japanese host that I wouldn’t mind taking the bus rather than a taxi was an impossible feat. Reminds me of the kids laughing on the local train when I asked if it went to Hiroshima. Why take a bus when there’s a taxi and why take a 2 hour local when there’s a bullet? Dumb tourist I guess. I saw a bus near the Tokuyama train station at 20:30 that had a Tokyo sign and when I said “Tokyo” to the bus ticket agent the next morning he pointed in his book and the price was 12000Y. I also saw the relief driver crawl into the lower luggage compartment and close the door. Oh, how I love to travel.
Food: Not sure why I lost weight as I ate and ate some more. Must have been all the walking. I ate some sushi, but not much. Sometimes I ate with company employees, sometimes at multi-course fancy restaurants, and sometimes at BBQs. I un-screwed and ate a sea snail, ate pieces of the chicken that I normally throw away, and didn’t eat parts of the pig even though there were arrows pointing to them. Salads for breakfast are normal. One of the hotels I stayed at charged for the breakfast buffet, 900Y, but the others it was included. The Toyoko hotel I stayed at had a small charge for the evening curry bowl. It was delicious. Near the A-bomb site in Hiroshima is an underground mall with many shops and restaurants. The large grapes are a treat. One store charged a dollar each, but one small shop had them at 4 for a dollar. My favorite new food was a sweet dessert that was simply a mound of ice chips flavored with green tea and topped with a red bean sauce. Final suggestions: Have alternate plans printed out as well as your primary. Leave plenty of time to get to your train platform. Train station elevators may be very small and have a line. The hotel chains have multiple hotels in the same area so print out the exact reservation for your stays. If I had this much fun on a business trip weekend, then I know you’ll have a blast on your week long vacation. Enjoy Japan.