(This is part 1 in a series about my recent trip to Japan)
For self-taught learners of Japanese, there is no better teacher than actually living in Japan itself; even from just traveling there you can learn so much. Of course, even if you aren’t learning Japanese, there are so many things about Japan that make it an enjoyable place to be.
While I have never lived in Japan, I do try to travel there every few years, and after moving to Oregon (from Florida) it’s much easier to make the trip––so much that I decided to go again with my family this March, despite having been to Japan just last year.
Having already been to Japan four times, some of the initial awe has worn off and been gradually transformed into a deeper appreciation of Japan’s culture, language, and scenery. For example, whereas before stepping into a convenience store was like entering an amazing new world, now I have a pretty good idea what to expect (although I still enjoy the great variety of products they have to offer). Also, travel generally involves a lot of shopping, often for stuff you don’t really need, but my family found and I ourselves gradually doing less shopping and more exploring.
While I may not give as detailed reporting on this trip as I did for prior ones (like this one last year), I still wanted to give some details about my experiences during this trip and talk about some things I learned. I’ll mix in a little travel advice when appropriate.
I have put a bunch of pictures from this trip on Instagram (here), most with locations and/or details about where each picture was taken. Please note that I will be discussing topics in a different order and will not be covering all of the pictures.
Nothing Beats Cash
I mentioned this in a previous article, but I think it is worth repeating: in Japan there are still many places that do not take credit cards. One of the most important is in train stations, where you generally need to physical money (現金, genkin), basically metal coins and paper bills. There are also train passes you can buy ahead of time, probably with a credit card, but I haven’t tried those before. Many restaurants and stores do take credit cards, but it’s not hard to find those that take only take cash (even if they are part of a large chain). Others will take certain Japanese credit cards, but not common international ones like VISA or American Express.
So make sure you bring enough cash with you. Don’t expect ATMs will work for your debit or credit cards since in my experience only certain ones work with American banks, and they may be hard to find. I recommend converting nearly all your cash to Japanese Yen as soon as you land since it may not be easy to find places to exchange currencies in the middle of your trip.
Planes and Hotels
Our travel plans were pretty similar to previous trips. This time, however, we managed to get plane tickets for only around $2,000 (for three people), significantly cheaper than some of our other trips. I’ve seen cases where tickets from Oregon can be $2,000 per person.
From Portland we flew to Los Angeles, and then from there took JAL (Japan Airlines) to Haneda Airport (羽田空港). On the way back we took American Airlines, whose service (and food) was noticeably lower caliber compared to JAL.
I think there were several factors that contributed to the low pricing. One was that we got tickets pretty far in advance (4+ months) and spent a long time comparing various options. Another was that we settled for times that were a little inconvenient: leaving during the week instead of the weekend, a pretty long wait time between flights, etc. While traveling during April is not exactly off season, it should be much cheaper than one of the peak times like New Years or Golden Week.
In order to hit a lot of places in a relatively short time, we stayed in six different hotels. While there is the extra overhead of having to check-in/out every few days, we have found the flexibility it gives us is generally worth it. Experiencing different hotels in itself is quite fun, too. To keep from having to lug around too many things, we try to pack light and utilize post offices during the trip to send stuff to the US.
One of the other advantages of the multi-hotel approach is it allows you to get hotels very close to the airport on the beginning and end of the trip. This reduces stress and allows you to sleep later (or get to sleep sooner after arriving).
A “Strange” Hotel
We stayed one night in 変なホテル (hen na hoteru), which literally means “strange hotel”, though they claim the naming is more about being about keeping pace with modern changes (“change” is described by the word 変化, henka). Sadly, their official name seems to be spelled incorrectly as “henn na hotel” with an extra “n”. The reason is clear: when typing in Japanese on a western-style keyword you have to hit “n” twice in order to get a ん character (that is done to distinguish it from characters like ‘na’).
This hotel chain is famous for having robots in the lobby to automate things, without even a single human being. Being a big fan of robots, I was eager to see how they would achieve this.
Unfortunately, the way things were done was pretty disappointing. The lobby did have three robots (two dinosaurs and one young woman) with excellent visual design, and they moved around in a somewhat lifelike manner. What I found most disconcerting was how whenever I saw the woman robot in my peripheral vision I thought she was a real person. The check-in process was mostly automated and involved a few quick taps to the screen after which you receive your room card(s).
But the robots only spoke a few words during the check-in process, and the mouth synchronization was pretty rudimentary. Furthermore, even though there was a microphone in the lobby, the robots didn’t seem to respond to anything we said, and were completely quiet most of the time. Compared to the cutting edge robot Pepper (that we have spoken with on several occasions), these robots were like toys.
Japanese hotels (and the service industry as a whole) are known for their great hospitality, but this hotel actually managed to achieve sub-par hospitality. For example, we saw an employee working in a side room and asked them if they could help us check in our luggage. This was necessary since there was no automated option for it in the lobby, and it was too early for us to check in anyway. To our frustration, the person said we had to use the phone in the lobby to talk to (a different) real person. When we picked up the phone and described our need, someone appeared from a tiny side door and checked out luggage. Later, when we had to get change for the laundry, we had to again call using the phone and wait for a real person to come help us.
I think the idea of an automated hotel is nice, but the level of automation they managed did not surpass some other ‘normal’ hotels. For example, one of the other hotels we stayed in allowed payment through a kiosk during check-in, which then dispensed keycards in a similar manner.
The room itself was pretty typical for a Japanese lower-/mid-end hotel, with barely enough room to move around. The only thing that really seemed to fit the theme of “keeping up with modern changes” was the presence of a high-quality projector in the room, and the ability to control it (as well as the lighting) through a dedicated tablet in the room. The room was quite clean and modern-looking though.
The checkout also was simple and required to human interaction, but again other hotels offer the same thing.
I’d suggest you wait a little while longer for this hotel chain to “change” before trying it out for yourself.
(Note: after writing this I did a quick search and found out that other people were not too happy with the robots in this hotel chain, and as a result they are reducing them and adding more real people)
Learning in Japan
This is another topic I have written about at length in a previous article, but I wanted to touch upon again here briefly. While I said that Japan is the best teacher of Japanese, you really have to put forth enough effort in order to have much of an improvement to your Japanese ability.
Whenever I am Japan I am generally spending almost every moment of my time looking around and trying to read billboards, signs, printed messages, menus, you name it. For cases where there is an English translation, I’ll try to read the Japanese first and then check my understanding afterward. Also, while listening in to other people’s conversations isn’t the best manners, it’s a good way to get in more listening practice. Media like Japanese TV and newspapers can technically be consumed outside of Japan, but when you are in the country it’s a good opportunity to use those to help with immersion. There’s more of a immediacy to news when it might actually impact you, and that helps with focus and comprehension.
In this trip, I tried to be more active about interacting with people like hotel staff, restaurant servers, and people on the street in order to practice Japanese. For example, I might ask someone in the street if there was a bookstore nearby, or ask a waiter where the bathroom is.
I also tried to do more of the payment at registers (instead of having my wife do it) so I could get more experience there as well. While the process of paying is fundamentally simple (hand over credit card or cash, get receipt, done), there are always little things that come up like being asked about a point card, if you want a bag, or the product wrapped as a gift. I find it educational just hearing the different expressions used by staff to say they don’t take credit cards. For instance, one person told me something like “クレジットカードのご利用は。。。” and I took their pause, plus the “wa” particle often used with negative statements, to mean that they didn’t take credit cards.
One of the most awkward (and memorable) moments this time was when we walked into a store called コーヒーの樹 (“The Tree of Coffee”) and assumed it was a coffee shop. I asked the old man behind the counter if he could make me ice coffee, but he just stared at me in silence with a long, awkward gaze. A few seconds later, after looking around we realized there were only jars of coffee beans with little else, and figured out that he only sold coffee beans. I would have preferred he just came out straight and told us, but maybe the man didn’t feel comfortable about telling me my question was totally off base.
When speaking in a foreign language, I’ve found that having the courage to have a conversation is a very different thing from raw linguistic ability. In other words, just because you can ask something doesn’t mean you’ll be willing to. So I suggest taking as many opportunities as you can to practice speaking with different people in Japanese so you can gradually build your confidence. On this trip I got in a lot of speaking practice with people I don’t generally talk with (some conversations were over an hour, or in a very small group) and I felt it really helped level-up my Japanese.
On a final note, try to be aware of the response of the person you are talking with, whether it be a verbal response or simply a change in facial expression. If pronounce something badly, some people may not be able to figure out what you are saying, and by observing their response you can learn what areas you need to work on. People are not likely going to say “I don’t understand you”, though they may use a simple “hai?” which can indicate that.
I had that happen once or twice to me, specifically with the phrase “コインランドリー” (coin laundry), so later that day I double checked that I was using the proper Japanese sounds instead of cheating and using English sounds (which can be easy to do for loanwords like this).
(See this page for a full list of articles in this series as they are added).