Monthly Archives: August 2015

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 8: Massage Parlors]

For part of the latter half of our Japan trip, we stayed in the neighborhood of Kamata (蒲田) within Tokyo. We chose the Urbain Hotel (アーバイン東京), whose small rooms were compensated by a reasonable price of about 12000 yen a night, or roughly $100. I don’t think Kamata is a particularly famous region, and there wasn’t any major tourist sites nearby that I know of. But there was a large shopping area within walking distance, plus many other restaurants and stores. The short distance to the train station was also convenient and allowed us to travel easily to some nearby areas like Akihabara.

After over a week of walking, my legs had gotten pretty tired and my wife suggested I try out a massage from a shiatsu massage place nearby the hotel, titled “蒲田マッサージ指圧院”. It was on the first floor of a building complex and the small room, packed densely with beds and simple curtain dividers, somehow reminded me a hospital in a third-world country.

Payment was done via a machine at the entrance which takes 1000 Yen bills and returns a ticket. If I remember correctly it was around 3000 Yen total, roughly $25 dollars. I put my shoes in a box by the door and was led to one of the beds by a older woman who appeared to be in her 60s, far older than anyone I had seen in a massage place in America. There was something unique about this woman’s eyes which were an aquamarine/bluish color, very rare for a Japanese person. She closed the curtain around my bed and I quickly changed, after which I called her over to begin the session.

She asked something along the lines of “どこが痛いんですか?” (What hurts?) to which I responded that my calves felt tight (“ふくらはぎがすごく硬い感じです”). There was a few more words exchanged but she started shortly after, working her hands into my back muscles at first very lightly, and then gradually with more pressure in waves. Though I had asked her to focus on my legs she still did much of the rest of my body, including shoulders, neck, and belly, which I appreciated greatly.  Also I remember she did a special thing to my fingers which somehow made them pop with a small pull. By around 30 minutes (the total session was 45 minutes), I started feeling so comfortable and had to force myself to stay awake, since I felt it would be awkward to fall asleep midway through.

I wish I would have written down in more detail exactly what techniques she used, but I remember thinking that it was very different than any massages I’d had in the US. There was a few times it “hurt good” but nothing where I had to interrupt her to back off the pressure. (Note: I have seen several places titled “shiatsu” in the US but haven’t tried any yet)

All in all it was a great massage, and most importantly my leg muscles had loosened up significantly. When I asked her how long she had been doing this job (この仕事は何年くらいやってるんですか?) the answer caught me a little by surprise: over 40 years.

A few days later I tried a different style of place, this one considered more of a chiropractor (整体). It was also near the hotel, on the second floor of another tall building. The nicely decorated, professional-looking reception area was very welcoming, and we paid with credit card. I forgot the exact price but think it was a little more expensive than the first place.

I was led off into another room deeper into the building, this one a bit more spacious than the first massage place. After changing I had a conversation about the condition of my legs with a man who appeared to be in his 30s who would be taking care of me. His massage was a little more similar to what I’d experienced in America, with various techniques such as pounding and rubbing. I remember one of the places on my feet he gave pressure to hurt pretty bad, and he said that might be related to a heart problem, though I don’t have any known heart issues.

The massage was so-so, and didn’t feel me leaving nearly as relaxed as the first one, but I still had an enjoyable time. Another difference was that this man was more talkative, and we talked about a few light subjects while he worked on my body. Since my wife wasn’t with me at the time, it was a good experience to have a 1-on-1 conversation in Japanese with a Native without any backup. Though I had some difficulty getting my point across a few times, overall I was able to communicate enough to keep the conversation going.

A few days later when we discovered another massage place in the Yodobashi Camera building in Akihabara (which I wrote about previously), I decided on trying that one out. It was even more expensive, but the interior was significantly more oshare (お洒落、fashionable / stylish) than the other places, and each little mini booth was fully blocked off from the others for total privacy. The robe I was made to change in to where Thai-style, where you tie the belt around your waist, and they sold similar outfits there well.

Here I asked for a ~45 minute foot massage, because the shorter one didn’t include the calf, only the bottom of the foot. It started out with a foot bath in warm salt water, during which the masseuse (a girl probably in her late 20s to early 30s) massaged my feet lighty. After a few minutes of that she dried my feet and then gently wrapped them in some cloth.

She proceeded to work on one leg at a time, beginning with the foot and slowly massaged one muscle group at a time in a very systematic way. There was little heavy pushing or pounding, mostly just sliding over the surface of my skin with moderate pressure.

During the massage I sat in something like a reclining chair with a pillow placed behind my back. For some reason I wasn’t able to get comfortable, even after readjusting several times during the session. The other massages I got were all on a flat table (with a hole place to put your head) and these allowed me to relax to a greater extent.

The service was quite good, with the masseuse very polite and asking several questions during the process, like “Would you like an eye mask?”, “Do you want a warm cloth or a neutral-temperature one?”. I had a little conversation with her, but less than the second massage guy. When the treatment was done, she treated me to a cup of tea which was a nice final touch.

Overall, it was a comfortable and interesting experience, but not nearly as relaxing or effective as the first older woman. I guess nothing beats 40 years of experience (:

Featured Image: A cute little Totoro display that we found in the lobby of the hotel in Kamata.

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 7: The paradise of electronic products that is Yodobashi Camera]

On our recent trip to Japan, we planned to spend a morning in the district of Akihabara (秋葉原), within Tokyo. This area, sometimes called simply “Akiba” is known for it’s many shops of electronic items, games, and maid cafes (cosplay restaurants).

Having an interest in robotics, I had planned to visit the Tsukumo Robot Kingdom store, which is one of the only stores I know of that specialize in robot kits and parts. However, after arriving in Akihabara around 9am, it seemed that most stores were not open yet, which I confirmed by asking someone familiar with the area. I was told one of the only stores open this early was the nearby Yodobashi Camera, which was to open a few minutes later at 9:30am.

We waited at the towering entrance and watched as the crowd gradually built up. I took a picture while waiting which you can see as the featured image of this post. The three words above the store’s sign read  安心 (peace of mind)、定額 (constant prices)、and 全国 (nationwide).

When the doors opened I stepped into to what was the most amazing electronics store I had seen in my life, 6 full floors or pretty much everything you can think of: TVs, coffee machines, appliances, and of course cameras and related equipment. The 7th floor, technically not part of Yodobashi, contains a nicely sized bookstore, a massage parlor, and a CD store. The 8th floor contains a bunch of restaurants (I had the best dish of Ma Po Tofu my life in the Chinese restaurant there).

When I say they have cameras and related equipment I mean they nearly everything from many different models of each manufacturer (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony, Fujifilm, etc.), to almost every lens you can think of, even the super giant ones for sports photography. Where I live it’s difficult to find a camera specialist store, and the ones I have been to have a small fraction of the goods. I guess Best Buy is the closest match, but it really doesn’t compare in terms of scale and product lineup.

Next to the camera section is the digital scale area, where there was probably at least 30-40 different scales. Next to that was an oddly placed sections of products which are harder to classify, like toothbrushes and special chairs.

One of the upper floors is all toys, including more adult toys like detailed train models and collectable figures. There is also a large section of trading cards, toys for younger children, educational toys, and a huge section of Tomika stuff (known for their detailed car and train sets). My son got quickly addicted to a large aisle containing displays of Power Ranger toys (sort of like transformers) that are free to be played with by anyone.

Of all the places we visited (with the exception of the airport) Yodobashi Camera had the highest ratio of foreigners walking the floors. Electronic gadgets and toys are clearly understood and enjoyed universally, and this store is ideal for any travelers who have some extra cash to spend.

We ended up hanging out in this building for  3 to 4 hours, and only saw a small fraction of the goods available. If you are into electronic gadgets, appliances, or toys, this is a must see place for you. There are 20 other Yodobashi stores in Japan, though I have not visited them and not sure if they are equally massive.

I’m sure there are many retailers that carry these products, but Yodobashi has the rare benefit that you can shop by looking at goods in person, and in some cases try them out, before purchasing. In this day and age that is becoming increasingly hard to do for some things like high-end electronics like cameras.

Before leaving we purchased an English to Japanese portable translation device, which I may write an article about in the future. One thing to keep in mind is that you can get a discount on some of the products which are tax free (免税, menzei), however you need to bring and show your passport at checkout time. I think the tax rate is around 8%, which can be a big chunk of money for more expensive items.

http://www.yodobashi.com

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 6: integration of the roman alphabet and English into everyday life]

One thing that caught me somewhat off guard in our most recent trip to Japan was the frequent use of the roman alphabet throughout the country. By this I mean the alphabet you are reading now, called romaji (ローマ字) in Japanese.

Nearly all location names on road signs, as well as on signs in places like subways or train stations are written in a combination of Kanji and the roman alphabet, and as a country that wants to facilitate travel for foreigners this completely makes sense. But when you enter a train and look at the advertisements pasted all around, you may notice that most, if not all, have at least one word written in romaji. Sometimes that is just the name a company (like “Meisan” which is written on a candy I purchased in Japan), or there may be an entire phrase written in English.

For the featured image for this post I used a picture I took in Akihabara (within Tokyo) of a Vie De France Cafe, where the entire  place name is written out just like I wrote it in this sentence, without any furigana to Japanese people who are less comfortable with romaji.

One might think that this is reasonable in a place like Tokyo where foreigners are not that uncommon, but even if you get to smaller country towns, where you aren’t likely to find many foreigners, you can still find the roman alphabet and English used on billboards, paper advertisements, and even restaurant menus. Even when the word is repeated in Japanese (like “Coffee / 珈琲”), the portion in English is often bigger.

What might be the cause of this phenomenon? Some of it may be explained using the same reasoning for why there are so many loanwords in Japanese (which I wrote about in detail here), for example how the Japanese actively try to import new cultures and languages to stay modern. Also, I’ve been told that basic English, which includes the roman alphabet, is taught to children in mandatory education at a pretty young age, so pretty much anyone from the new generation should be at least able to read these phrases and sound them out. This isn’t to say that all young Japanese people are fluent in English, which is clearly not the case. What about for older people who may not even be able to read romaji? I would guess that they are just declared out of the target audience of such advertising.

One reason international brands might use roman characters is to keep their logo consistent across countries, and improve name recognition. So if a Japanese person sees a sign for a Subway restaurant in a western movie, he or she can easily match that with a Subway in Japan which is written exactly the same way.

Also I feel that using English in places like advertisements has a certain dramatic effect that can’t be achieved within the Japanese alphabets (even though there are three), in some ways giving a “cool” or “modern” atmosphere. You can see this idea extended to westerners themselves, which are sometimes used in commercials to give a funny, sexy, or cool vibe. For example, one commercial I saw frequently in Japan was about a car navigation system (カーナビ), and the navigation computer was represented by a funny looking western guy wearing green clothes. I’ve also seen some Japanese comedians (お笑い芸人) who were caucasian. Several jewelry advertisements I came across used western models to showcase their products.

Since Japanese isn’t a top world language, it has to make extra effort to stay modern in a fast-changing world, and this gradually import of western language is a great way to do this. It will be interesting to see how this process proceeds over the next decade or two.

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 5: Game Centers]

For some time now Japan has been one of the top countries for manufacturing of electronics and automative products, evidenced by the presence of several Japanese companies in this list of top manufacturing companies by global revenue. For automotive, Toyota and Nissan are in the top 10, with Toyota topping the list at #1. Honda comes in at #18. For electronics, we see many well-known companies such as Hitachi, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Fujitsu.

Though Samsung of South Korea grabs the #3 spot on this list, becoming an acknowledged name for everyday products such as washing machines and TVs, there are only two other companies from South Korea in the top 50 manufacturers. China has only 4 companies in the top 50, all companies I’ve never heard of (the highest is Sinochem at #28).

Turning to the business of video games, a related industry I have a great personal interest in, we see that Japanese companies dominate the market for both TV-based game consoles (テレビゲーム機) and game-specific mobile devices. According to this list of worldwide sales for video game consoles, Sony and Nintento dominate 9 of the top 10 with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 #6 on the list.

Given this background of superiority in the fields of electronics and gaming, one might be curious about Japan’s video arcades, called game centers (ゲーム・センター or shortened as ゲーセン). I definitely was and decided to check out the latest state of the art at Japanese game centers on our 2015 Japan trip.

Put simply, they’re totally amazing.

In America, arcades were booming in the 1980s with games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, but declined significantly by the late 1990s, facing competition from home video game consoles and networked gaming on home PCs. In Japan, for whatever reason (possibly because of less PC gaming) video arcades retained their popularity. Put this together with cutting edge technology and you end up with something that would blow the mind of most American gamers. Japanese game centers are superior in their size, variety of games, and leverage more of the latest hardware and software technologies.

Here is a list of a few game genres to give you an idea of what these game centers are like.

Rhythm games

Japan has been at the foreground of rhythm games, with the original Dance Dance Revolution released in 1998 by Konami. This has expanded to other games such as Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko master) where you beat a classic Japanese drum in sync with the rhythms shown on screen. In our trip we discovered a similar game using a set of digital drum pads arranged up like a traditional kit, complete with hi hats and kick drum. I played this game and completely loved it, partially because the fact it used real drum sticks which were not connected via wires. In America, peripherals for games like this are usually tied down with a rope or cable and I was surprised the sticks (ばち) for this game were not.

There are other games where you touch a piano-like surface in time with music which look pretty fun. I’ve seen a vaguely similar game in American arcades, but the keys were much bigger, more awkward, and it seemed to be targed more at a younger audience.

Driving games

There are many games that derive from a Japanese Anime or Manga series, and I played a driving game based on the classic Manga Initial D. The graphics were pretty good but the great thing about this game was it had a full story where dialog frequently appears on the screen during the game as you race, something I’ve never come across in America. At first, it was tricky to read and drive at the same time, but as I got used to it I become even more immersed into the experience.

Free trial games

I was surprised that several games allowed a completely free trial without putting in coins, with no commitment. I’ve never seen a game in America like this, at least not in recent history.

Sports games

While I think America has some games like horse racing and fishing, Japan takes these games to the next level with a bigger scale and better graphics. For example, one arcade I entered into had a who room of networked horse racing (競馬, keiba) games.

Giant Robo games

Japan will never give up their love of Giant robots as the many modern arcade games in this genre proves.

Innovative games

A few games I saw in Japanese game centers struck me by their creativity. One of these was a game where video was superimposed on top of ‘magic sand’, so children could play with the sand while bugs and other things ran around. This game was actually free to play with the sand without the video component, without any time restrictions! The game is called ‘edel sandbox’ and you can see more about it here.

Another game was a hybrid of the typical American games where you throw balls to hit a target. This game adds a large screen and you have to throw balls to hit enemies during a castle raid. You can throw as many balls as you want and I really enjoyed grabbing four balls at once, hammering the enemy with two hands at once while my son ‘battled’ alongside me.

One of my favorites was Gunslinger Stratos, published by Square Enix, which is a shooting game that uses two physical prop guns. The awesome thing about this game, besides the graphics, is that you can physically connect the weapons together in several different ways to change the type of attack. The game has a bit of a learning curve, and for your first play it steps you though a detailed 13-step tutorial. After I started getting the hang of things I felt like the main character from Hellsing. You can see a video of this game in action here.

Card Games

Japan has a whole class of games that don’t seem to be available in the US – those which use physical cards (think Yu-Gi-Oh!) in conjunction with a screen. Because I didn’t have any of these cards I didn’t try out any myself, but these look to be a great extension of the collectible playing card genre.

Cutesy Games

Japan has a plethora of games where you play a princess or some other cute young girl. I haven’t tried these either but they seem to be pretty popular.

Purikura

Japanese Purikura take photo booths to the next level and allow extensive garnishing of these group pictures, plus special effects that modify the faces of everyone to make them look like they have makeup on. At least I think that is what they are supposed to be – when I see these modified faces they remind me of aliens.

Networked Games

I saw at least one game in Japan that allowed you to play against someone in another arcade anywhere in Japan.

Crane Games

Crane Games, where you guide a robot arm to grab an item of your choice, are super popular in Japan. You can get items from popular Anime or Manga series, like One-Piece, or some other cutesy figures. It’s not uncommon to find a game center with a large portion of it dedicated to these games, 30 or more.

I’m sure if you do enough hunting around in the remaining arcades in the US you can find a few, if not many, of these games. But the amazing thing is many of the above games are pretty common in Japan, at least within the game centers in major cities like Tokyo and Sendai that we visited. There is also many other games I haven’t mentioned here – this is just a small sampling of what Japan has to offer.

There are some other differences between American arcades and Japanese game centers. In Japan, some places still allow smoking which is not too great if you are concerned about second hand smoke. I also didn’t spot any places that used the ticket system to buy toys as is so popular in the US. Some of the games in Japan had support for some type of digital card, either to track your character, for payment, or both.

Sure, some great games available in US arcades, like Fruit Ninja, are missing in Japan, but there are similar games where you swipe your hands across the screen in a frenzy. While I can’t say that Japanese game centers are necessarily better for everyone, they are definitely different enough to make a pilgrimage to one a necessary mission for any gamer or anime/manga fan visiting Japan.

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 4: Edo Wonderland and Toushouguu shrine in Nikkou]

Edo Wonderland

Besides hanging out in our hotel’s onsen in Nikkou, we spent some time at two other places in the area. The first of these was Edo Wonderland (日光江戸村), a theme park based on the Edo period in Japanese history (1603-1867). This is where much of popular Japanese history comes from, including things like Samurai warriors which you might see in a classic jidai geki (時代劇, period film).

The admission is quite expensive, at around $37 for adults, but the park does have much to offer for the money. Most impressive to me was the overall visual design of the park, including many buildings which look as they if they came right out of a movie. I am not sure how accurate things are historically, but just strolling through the streets and viewing the sights is a joy.

There are three types of attractions at this park: restaurants, shows, and exhibits to experience history. This latter category includes displays of lifelike full-size models of warriors and other figures, as well as miniature models of cities. There is also several gift shops which have a variety of interesting items. You can see a full map with English descriptions here.

I can’t vouch for the entire set of restaurants (there is over 10), but the one we tried had food that wasn’t particularly impressive (I ordered Udon noodles). One of the more memorable experiences was daruma doll painting where my son was able to participate, and we took home the finished product for a small price (around 500 yen). We saw a few shows and the “Hinomi open air theater” one was fairly entertaining. It involved a story about a shopkeeper who was in trouble since he couldn’t pay his gambling debts, and was in danger of loosing his wife and store to the debt collector. The Japanese was fairly advanced with a classic feel to it and quite hard to understand, but by partway through I got used to it enough to follow the basic plotline. There was another show which took place on an outside stage involving ninjas fighting and running around which was great fun to watch.

One of the hidden gems of the park is a place where you can take off your shoes and wash your feet in a running stream that passes under one of the Edo-styled bridges. It’s refreshing and a good way to rest tired feet.

We only saw a fraction of the shows and other experiences in our 3-4 hour stay, and if you are dedicated enough you could probably spend an entire day at the park exploring everything. There is even a place where you can dress up in period-garb and walk the streets to get your picture taken, though this was very pricey (around $100).

All in all a very fun experience, highly recommended to lovers of classical Japan.

Toushouguu shrine

Nikkou contains several shrines, including Toushouguu (東照宮) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and was dedicated to the emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). Tokugawa was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokugawa_Ieyasu).

Toushouguu shrine was built in 1617 and is a beautiful monument of Japanese art, craftsmanship, and Shintoist ideas. Like other shrines in Japan there are many steps to reach the topmost part, here over 200. This is actually relatively few, since there are some shrines with over 1000 steps to traverse. When exploring the shrine be careful to avoid slipping, since the stone ground can be slippery, especially after rain.

This shrine closes early at 5pm, so be sure to factor that into your plans. We arrived around 4pm and were able to see most the grounds in around an hour, though we moved at a pretty quick pace. If you take your time to explore every building you can easily spent several hours here. There are several places to buy omamori (religious amulets) or other shrine-related items which make nice gifts.

You’ll probably want to take a taxi since it’s over a mile from the nearest station.

Toushouguu is a great place to stop by if you happen to be in Nikkou for other matters, or if you are a fan of Japanese history you can make a special trip just to see it.

Pictures

Edo Wonderland

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Toushouguu shrine

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Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 3: Nikkou and Marukyou hotel]

During the first half our of trip we stayed in the small city of Nikkou (日光) in Tochigi prefecture (栃木県) for a few days. Our hotel was the “Marukyoo” (丸京), a small Japanese-style inn (旅館、ryokan) that only had 12 rooms. The price was a bit expensive at around 20000 yen (~$160 dollars), which is even worse when you consider they charge this price for each adult. It is close walking distance to the train station (鬼怒川温泉, kinugawa onsen), which saves taxi fare.

Fortunately, the price is actually (debatably) worth it because this hotel has a special bonus – an on-site onsen (hot spring, 温泉) which has no extra fees and can be used any time in the morning and evening hours. When I first entered the onsen I was a bit surprised since I expected a small lake out in the countryside somewhere, like I had seen in movies. The water in Marukyou’s onsen comes from a natural source just the same, but is directed into four different rooms, an inner bath and outer bath for both the lady’s and men’s sides.

The inner bath is a bit like a typical Japanese public bath (銭湯, sentou), where there are showers along the walls, with the bath itself mad of stone and sitting in one corner. Unlike America, the custom in Japan is to fully clean your body with soap and warm water at the shower stations before entering into the hot spring bath. Marukyou provides several different shower products, such as shampoo containing charcoal (炭、sumi) which is sort of the theme of this hotel. In fact, all the baths are infused with charcoal which contains minerals such as magnesium, and is claimed to help keep the skin smooth along with other benefits. The mini gift shop in the lobby is stocked with some unique gifts made of charcoal, like dolls.

The outside bath has the same type of water, except it is partially exposed to the elements with no roof and a high fence to prevent anyone from looking in. There is a train track directly above this area, to really make you know you are in Japan.

This was my first experience with a real, geniune Japanese onsen, and one thing totally caught me by surprise: it was really hot.

Sure, in retrospect I guess it’s obvious for a “hot spring” to be “hot”, but it was so hot I had to accustom my body by first putting in a foot or hand for a few seconds and then removing it, and gradually exposing more of my body to the heat until I could get fully immersed. Once in, I was able to enjoy the experience and relax, but eventually the heat got to me and I had to get out. Unfortunately, my body didn’t get accustomed after the first time and I had to go through this tedious process each time.

One inconvenience of this style of bath is you have to put on a bathrobe (also supplied by the hotel) to get between the onsen and your room, and by the time you get there you’re likely covered with sweat since your body is still red-hot. To reduce this undesirable aftereffect, you can try to take a cold shower after you leave the hot water and wait a few minutes before putting on your robe. Fortunately, all onsens are not this hot, and I’ll cover another one I visited in a future post.

Even though the hot spring bath was a great experience, Marukyou had a few problems so we will probably not be returning there again. One of the annoyances was that often when we entered the lobby there was nobody waiting there and it was dark, with the staff hanging out in a back room somewhere – a big contrast from what we expected of Japanese service. The layout was also far from ideal, since going to and from the onsen requires passing through part of the lobby. We were charged a fee for our 3-year old son in addition to the adult rates, even though this wasn’t told to us at the time of booking, and we didn’t receive anything special like child slippers. Finally, there was an awkward misunderstanding with the staff because they called us on the second day to say breakfast was ready, even though it it clearly stated our package came with a single breakfast for two days. Even though we pointed it out with printed proof they said that really meant two breakfasts. We would have normally been happy to hear this except we had already eaten a bit breakfast somewhere else that day. In all fairness, the breakfast on the first day was great, with excellent selection of fresh Japanese-style dishes and friendly staff.

When walking around the neighborhood, we stumbled upon another hotel “Mikazuki” (三日月), which is significantly larger with many more types of baths, and even a mini light show. It’s quite pricey, but not that much more than Marukyou, and we spoke with someone who had personally been there recently and highly recommended it, so we will probably stay there next time we head to Nikkou.

The surrounding area is quite nice, with some beautiful scenery including a river that is used for rafting and luscious greenery. There is also a series of shops on a street right next to the hotel, but we were frustrated the first day when most places had closed around 5pm. One of the shops was supposed to be open later, but we heard from someone that they closed due to lack of customers. One of the Chinese restaurants in that area served one of the worst Mapo Tofu dishes I’ve ever had. If it’s early enough, you can find some things at the gift shops there but don’t expect much more than that.

We visited two other interesting places on our trip to Nikkou, but I’ll save those for my next post.

Pictures

Beginning of article: Marukyou lobby

First below: Breakfast at Marukyou

Second below: Marukyou from outside

Third below: Scenic path in the neighborhood next to a deep ravine, not too far from Mikazuki hotel.

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Marukyou from the outside

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Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 2: Transportation]

In this installment of my “Travels in Japan 2015” series I’d like to talk about our experience with various means of transportation we used to move throughout the country, including trains and taxis.

Air travel

We began our trip at the Miami International Airport in Florida and landed in Japan’s Narita airport (成田空港) with a flight transfer in Houston, Texas. The total flight time was around 15 hours with a price of around $800 per person which we purchased a few months in advance. We had been investigating ticket prices for some time and were discouraged by prices of $1400 and upwards when we stumbled on this amazing deal for nearly half the cost. I’m not sure if it was a limited time sale or a long-term price adjustment, but the lesson here is to buy tickets in advance and start checking prices as soon as possible once you’ve decided when you want to go.

The international portion of the flight was on ANA (“All Nippon Airways”, often pronounced just with the initials as “エイ・エヌ・エイ”) which generally has great service, good meals, and nice in-flight entertainment. Most of the stewardesses were reasonably bilingual which is very convenient, although this means that if you are a foreigner they will probably speak to you in English even if you know some Japanese unless you are aggressive about showing you know the language. There is also nice Japanese touches like passing out shibori (warm wet towels used for hand wiping) before meals.

When entering the Japan you’ll have to provide information about yourself and your trip to the Japanese customs area in the airport. This consists of basic information like your name, passport number, date of birth, plus some information about where you will be staying (hotel name and address, etc.). These forms are typically passed out on the plane before you land, but if you forget you can get one at the airport right before you need to present it. You’ll need one form per person, including any children you have with you.

I’m not sure about other countries, but when arriving back into the US you’ll need to fill out a simpler form about what sort of things you are carrying that you bought in Japan. For example if you buy a camera in Japan you’ll have to report that along with the price. There are restrictions on things like bringing animals, certain plants or fruits, and large amounts of cash, but for the average person this shouldn’t be a problem.

If you are coming from the US you have to deal with at least a 10 hour time difference, and the jet lag experienced from that is usually pretty rough. For me it takes a few days for my internal clock to get reset. On the plane the cabin will be darkened in accordance with the time zone of the destination, so it’s best to try and sleep when the lights are off to help you get synced to the new time zone. One of my friends said that if does some vigorous exercise (for example, jog a few miles) after landing he is able to accommodate to the new time zone pretty quickly, though I haven’t tried that myself.

Trains

Japan has an extremely extensive system of trains, both above and underground, which allows you to travel through the country relatively inexpensively. Minimum fair from one station to the next nearest starts around $1-$2. In some ways it is similar to the train systems of major American cities like New York, though it is generally much cleaner and well lit in Japan.

Riding trains in Japan does take some getting used to, especially if you have no prior train experience before. The most basic way to purchase fair is to go to an automated ticket machine (きっぷうりば) where you purchase a ticket for the total amount of your trip from start to destination. You can calculate this price by using one of the large maps that is typically above the bulky ATM-like machines. This includes train transfers (乗り換え, norikae), which are one of the tricker things to master. The most important thing is to make sure you verify both the direction you are going as well as the train. If you happen to hop on the wrong train, it may not stop at the station you want, in which case you’ll have to get off at later station and see how to get back on track. Besides the normal trains which stop at many of the stations there are faster ones that go only to a few stops, such as the 特急 (tokkyuu) or the Narita express train, the latter which goes to the Narita airport much faster than the normal trains. (See the next section for the information about the Shinkansen).

Once you buy your ticket, you’ll need to insert it into the machines at the gate (改札, kaisatsu), where it will get spit out at the far side. Make sure you grab it there and keep it safe since you’ll need it when you leave the gate at your final destination (but not for intermediate transfers). If you want to avoid having to buy tickets each time you travel you can look into getting a Suica card, which is sort of a debit card for train fare, and can be used for other things like certain buses and vending machines. There may be other special deals as well, check the website for the train company you will be riding on.

Like many places in Japan, paying with cash (現金, genkin) is sometimes the only option at stations, though if you go to the attendant you may be able to purchase tickets directly from them using major credit cards.

If you are confused on how to get from point A to point B, you can ask a station attendant (駅員, ekiin) for help. We spoke with them in Japanese, but they should have basic English skills as well, so feel free to try asking them. As with other Japanese employees that interact with the public, they are generally extremely polite and eager to help.

Depending on your destination, you may have to switch to another train company of even a bus, and these things are not usually listed on the main train maps. Attendants may be able to help you with this situation as well, and we were given help  once when we had to change to an underground subway train midway through. It’s a good idea to plan our your train routes before you get to the station, with either a special purpose mobile app or a map search site, like Google maps, which will tell you which transfers you need to make and how much the total cost will be.

If you are traveling with a stroller or have difficulties with steps, many of the stations have escalators or elevators. Sometimes the elevators they are not in the most obvious places, so feel free to ask an attendant. You can use a simple phrase like “エレベータはどこですか?” for this purpose. When riding on an elevator it’s best to stand on the left side unless you are in a hurry in which case you can progress up the right side. This makes sense once you remember cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road.

There was at least one station we were in that had only steps, and traversing those with several large suitcases was an experience I’d like to quickly forget. So if you are carrying any heavy bags, I’d recommend taking a taxi when you first arrive to your hotel, and then after that you can canvas the nearby stations (with a lighter load) to see if they have escalators or stairs.

Some of the bigger stations have large shopping areas, with many restaurants and shops. These are usually away from the tracks on a higher floor, but I found one station that had a few small restaurants right next to the tracks on the train platform (ホーム).

Trains can get pretty busy during rush hours in the morning and evening, especially between high-traffic stops, and in some cases I’ve seen attendants actually pushing groups of people into trains in order for the doors to close. This can be described by the expression “ぎゅうぎゅう詰め” (gyuu gyuu zume) which means something like “packed like sardines in a can”.

Trains and stations are generally non-smoking, though there are special smoking rooms in many stations for smokers to light up. There are also special cars just for women (these apply only to certain routes and times), and also priority seats for pregnant mothers, the elderly, or the injured.

Fortunately, nearly all place signs are shown in both Japanese and English (ex: 東京 / Tokyo), and often in Hiragana (とうきょう) as well. The in-train announcements may be repeated in English, Chinese, and other languages, depending on the train.

Shinkansen

The Shinkansen (新幹線) or “bullet-train” is a faster version of the 特急 that goes up to 200 miles an hour and can save you a lot of time depending the distance you are traveling, in some cases an hour or more. It has an amazing smooth ride and I highly recommend riding it at least once, though it’s a bit expensive. Our ride from Tokyo to Sendai on the Shinkansen was over $100 a person.

Other advantages of the Shinkansen are bigger and more comfortable seats, better equipped bathrooms, and the ability to buy various products on the train, including food, drinks, and toys. There is a booklet in the pocket of each seat showing available products, and a cart circulates through the train cars carrying these for purchase. They only take cash, however.

There are two types of seating on the Shinkansen, free seating (自由席) and assigned seats (指定席), make sure you know which tickets you have purchased and sit accordingly.

Taxis

If you are lucky to find lodging near a station you can walk directly there, but it’s not uncommon to need a taxi to get from the closet station to your hotel. There are designated places for Taxis to wait in standby, like in front of stations, hotels, or major shopping areas. Some large temples even have such places nearby their entrances.

Like in the US, Taxis are generally significantly more expensive than trains (I’ll make a very ballpark estimate at 5x-10x the price), though of course you pay for convenience and a guaranteed place to sit. You can also use the taxi driver for Japanese practice, starting with basic questions as “この辺に本屋さんありますか?” We didn’t try speaking to any of the taxi drivers in English, but I get the feeling that most of them aren’t very fluent, so unless you are somewhat fluent yourself in Japanese I’d recommend printing out the name and address of where you are going and showing it to them. Or if it’s a well known place you can just try a basic phrase like “「浅草神社」までお願いします”。One or two of the taxis I was in had a sign on the door advertising a book of phrases to help communicate with the taxi driver, but not sure how common those are.

Most taxis we rode allow payment with Visa or American Express credit cards, though be sure to ask before you commit to anything. You can use the simple phrase “クレジットカードで払えますか?” to check this. Don’t forget that there is generally no tipping in Japan, which includes Taxis. You can expect the Taxi driver to help with your luggage in and out of the truck, however.

Many of the Taxi cars in Japan have doors that automatically open and close, so watch out for that. If you see the door automatically open before you get in, when you are leaving just wait for it to open on it’s own, and then close when you get out. You can also look for the word “自動” (jidou) which means automatic and is usually printed on the inside of the taxi car.

Taxes are usually non-smoking, but several times there was a scent of smoke lingering from someone who had nevertheless smoked recently. We even had a taxi driver smoke in the car during the entire trip.

Other transportation

Pretty much any other form of transportation you would expect is in Japan, including tour buses, hotel buses, ferries, and even aerial lifts.

Walking

However you plan your trip, odds are you’ll end up doing a great deal of walking. I’ve heard that Japan is the country with the largest number of steps in the world, and I’ve walked up and down my share of steps in my trips to Japan. Temples and Shrines   generally have a large number of steps, so if you are planning on visiting any of those be prepared.

Travels in Japan 2015 [Part 1: It’s been a while]

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been very active on this blog for several weeks. Fortunately, this isn’t because I was slacking off on my Japanese practice – rather the opposite. I just came back from an extensive 2-week long vacation to Japan with my family, where we toured all over Japan while jumping between 6 different hotels.

For someone who spends a large portion of my time on Japan and Japanese-related things, this is only the third time I’ve been to Japan and 8 years since my last visit. I think the distance, cost, and other difficulties (long flight, etc.) in visiting Japan are one of the reason it’s culture still attracts me after all these years. If Japan happened to be close enough to visit via a quick 1 hour boat ride I’d likely not be into it’s culture nearly as much.

Our first priority on this trip was to see some relatives there and we spent much time on that in first half our our trip, saving the second half for exploring and enjoying all Japan has to ofter (including Japan’s famous onsens, for which I’ll write a detailed review of).

Due to the amount of *traveling* on this trip (both on foot and other means of transportation) it was quite an effort both physically and mentally, but it was totally worth it. I got to learn more about Japan’s culture, cities, countryside, and get some needed Japanese language practice by speaking with a few of the natives there. Regardless of how many TV dramas you watch or Manga books you read, there are things you can only pick up by interacting with the people of Japan.

I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts to this trip, focusing on things I found especially interesting, or things I feel might help  others considering visiting Japan. I’ll also try to include some relevant Japanese terms or phrases when applicable. We took over 2000 pictures and a few short videos, and I’ll try to post a few of these as well.

(Featured Image: Part of a building at the Toushouguu (東照宮)temple in Nikkou)