Visiting Japan on the Cheap

Next year's World Science Fiction Convention is being held in Yokohama, Japan, the first time a Worldcon has ever been held in Japan. With this year's Worldcon out of the way, we're starting to see some discussion of who's going, and whether various US-based fans will make the trip or not.

If I pass my tenure review, Kate and I are planning to go, and probably spend a couple of weeks doing touristy stuff before the convention as well (as a Worldcon in Japan is probably about the only way I'll get her to go...). A lot of people are, understandably, somewhat concerned about the whole idea-- it's a long way to go, and a very different place than the usual run of Worldcon sites. (The sushi is a whole lot better, though...)

Over in LiveJournal land, Rachel Manija Brown has an excellent guide titled "How to visit Japan without losing your shirt. As she points out, it's not actually that scary a place to visit-- I was there for three months in 1998, speaking nothing more than phrasebook Japanese ("Eigo ga hanashimasu ka?"), and not exactly blending in with the locals, and I had a terrific time. I've got a somewhat idiosyncratic set of stories from Japan posted on steelypips (these were originally sent as emails to a bunch of friends and family), and I'm definitely hoping to get back there. I would encourage any SF fans who are wobbling about whether to go to make the trip-- you won't forget it.

Some specific comments on Rachel's points below the fold.

1. People I've spoken to who have never actually been there tend to obsess over two things: $200 melons, and unsuspectingly ordering a meal, only to find that it cost $1000. Let me explain those phenomenon.

a. The $200 melon. Yes, this is for real. No, it is not representative of the cost of groceries. That is a status symbol, used when you need to give someone a gift of a certain value. Kind of like giving your boss a Prada purse. You can't buy one by accident, because 1) they are clearly labeled, 2) the seller will see that you are a confused tourist and warn you.

This is not to say that fresh produce isn't ridiculously expensive. Every now and then, when I went shopping, I'd wander through the vegetable department, just to laugh at some of the prices-- they had midsize canteloupe for something like $40. Fruits and vegetables cost a lot more than they do here-- they're just not outlandishly expensive.

b. "I walked into a bar and had two drinks, and now I owe the yakuza one meeelion dollars!"

This urban legend is all over the place, and also appeared in a Lewis Shiner story in Wild Cards. This is not going to happen to you. Do you accidentally walk into exclusive gourmet restaurants where an appetizer costs $50 in your own country and eat an entire meal, thinking all the while that you're in a neighborhood joint? Well, you're not going to do that in Japan either. Excruciatingly expensive places look excruciatingly expensive; neighborhood joints look like neighborhood joints. Also, prices are typically listed on menus outside, and if not, they'll be listed inside. If you're really worried, ask.

This is also dead-on. You're not going to mistake a gourmet restaurant for anything but a gourmet restaurant. Outside of the really high-end places, the prices for food and drink aren't usually outlandish, at least on a per-portion basis. You get less food in a portion than you do in the US, but we eat too damn much as it is.

I did have a couple of really expensive evenings in Tokyo, of the sort where I had to reconstruct my spending based on the tattered handful of banknotes left in my wallet the next morning. That had more to do with the number of drinks than the price of the drinks, though...

I never stayed overnight outside of my apartment in Komae, so I have nothing to offer on the lodgings front. We're hoping for a good travel agent here...

3. Food.

Many restaurants do "set lunches." These will be posted outside, probably with plastic models. They are complete meals with a drink and several dishes, usually with two or three choices of meal, for about six to ten dollars. These are excellent value.

Otherwise, look around. Go to neighborhood joints. Try new things. Places that look inexpensive will be inexpensive. If you don't know how to order something, point to the thing you want out of the plastic food in the window.

The plastic food thing really is a lifesaver. It's also worth learning the names of a few basic dishes that you can get almost anywhere ("katsudon" is pork cutlet with fried eggs over rice, and better than it sounds).

I also heartily agree with the recommendation to try new things. If you don't have food allergies, or religious or cultural dietary restrictions, just try whatever looks interesting. Authentic Japanese cuisine is really excellent.

(Their efforts at Western food are sometimes a little... off, though. As a woman I met there pointed out, when they're not sure what a Western dish is really supposed to be like, they tend to just add cheese indiscriminately...)

4. Drink.

A lot of places only serve one brand of beer. Just say, "biiru."

The beer is all pretty similar, too-- Sapporo and Asahi and Kirin are all light lagers, and all very drinkable.

Trying to order sake is a little more dangerous-- it's sort of like getting a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, only you don't have any idea what the rules are for matching it with food. There are an amazing variety of different types of sake, some served hot, some served cold, many served in overflowing highball glasses placed in little wooden boxes, for no discernible reason. I never learned much about sake, but I drank a fair bit, because people kept buying it for me.

The beverage to really be wary of is a thing called shochu, which comes in several varieties. Sometimes, it was served mixed with tea, which was ok, but I also had it straight up a few times, and it was pretty harsh. It tasted sort of like really cheap tequila. I don't really recommend it.

5. Transportation.

If you're not going to leave the Tokyo/Yokohama area, don't bother with a rail pass. If you're going to city-skip, you'll need one. They are expensive but necessary if you're planning to travel long distances.

The subways and trains are confusing, no way around it. Stops are announced, but it's still confusing. Get a subway and train map, and frequently ask for help.

I didn't find the trains all that hard to deal with, but they do seem intimidating the first time you enter a station. In Tokyo, the stations all have signs in Roman letters, and most of the trains have labelled maps as well. The Tokyo subways also provide really excellent tourist maps, though I forget exactly where I got mine.

6. Getting lost in Tokyo.

Tokyo is the most confusing city in the world. The streets have neither names nor numbers. The numbers on buildings are not sequential. You will get lost. Don't worry about it. It's part of the experience. Ask for directions frequently. Draw yourself maps.

If you're interested in seeing major tourist attractions, Japan is actually remarkably easy to get around in. The foolproof method for tourism: Take the train to the stop closest to whatever you want to see, and when the doors open, just follow everybody. The vast majority of the people getting off the train are probably there to see exactly the same thing you are, and they can read the signs.

If you want to see off-the-beaten-path stuff, that's a little trickier, as you don't have to get very far off the path before it's not beaten at all any more, but if you want to see major sights-- the Meiji Shrine, the big temple in Asakusa, the Imperial Palace-- there'll be ten thousand people headed that way, and you can just go with the flow.

The single most important item on the list, though, is this:

7. People.

I found that people were kinder to strangers in Japan than any other place I've ever been. If I merely stood on a corner and looked lost and hapless, someone would often stop to help out. This will work better if you are not Asian, as you are more obviously a tourist. Some Asian-American friends have mentioned that this didn't work as well for them, as people apparently thought they were Japanese and merely upset for personal reasons. If you want to make sure people understand the problem, take out a map and regard it in a frantic manner. That works even if you're Japanese-American.

People were really remarkable nice to me when I was there, especially considering that I was a gigantic, blundering foreigner with basically no Japanese. When I got lost, total strangers were happy to help out. When my Japanese and their English weren't up to the task, they would resort to sign language, walk with me to wherever I was headed, or even flag down other random strangers in hopes of finding someone with a better command of English.

That was the one thing I really didn't like about Lost in Translation-- the scene where Scarlet Johansen goes to the hospital, and the doctors babble away at her in Japanese with her not understanding a word just didn't ring true-- with the exception of a couple of drunk guys in bars, nobody I met in Japan approached that level of rudeness. If they couldn't make themselves understood, they found somebody to translate for them.

If you're lost, just stop somebody and ask them for help.

All in all, I highly recommend visiting Japan, and if you're a fannish sort of person, Worldcon is a great excuse. Yokohama has some attractions of its own, and it's a short train ride from Tokyo, which is one of the world's great cities. And if you go in the other direction, you're a short ride from Kamakura, one of the ancient capitals of Japan, and home to some spectacular temples. And, of course, there's the con if you just want to retreat into fandom.

(When it gets closer to the time for such things, I'm planning to suggest a "How to Survive in Japan" panel for next year's Boskone...)

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The beverage to really be wary of is a thing called shochu, which comes in several varieties. Sometimes, it was served mixed with tea, which was ok, but I also had it straight up a few times, and it was pretty harsh. It tasted sort of like really cheap tequila. I don't really recommend it.

There are now slightly more classy types of shochu, which taste like something between tequila and vodka. I also recommend a cocktail of shochu, hot water, and ume (the sour plums)...

My one big piece of advice for Japan would be to be prepared for life without ATMs. It might be better in Tokyo, but where I was (Miyazaki, the South Carolina of Japan) ATMs on American networks were only at the airport and the post office, and they kept banker's hours, turning themselves off after 5. It made for an interesting first night, trying to find a place to eat that takes plastic.

I can't recommend going to Japan enough, though. Be sure to try the Pocari Sweat.

My one big piece of advice for Japan would be to be prepared for life without ATMs. It might be better in Tokyo, but where I was (Miyazaki, the South Carolina of Japan) ATMs on American networks were only at the airport and the post office, and they kept banker's hours, turning themselves off after 5. It made for an interesting first night, trying to find a place to eat that takes plastic.

That's a good point-- places accepting credit cards were much rarer than in the States. The ATM situation wasn't that bad in Tokyo-- there was a giant Citibank branch in Shinjuku, with lots of 24-hour ATM's that I used to hit once a week or so.

Also, there's essentially no street crime in Japan, so you can carry a huge wad of cash without much fear. I used to take $300-400 out every time I hit the ATM, and carry a lot of bills with me.

That specific instance may have changed. According to comments a buddy of mine over at Citigroup has made, some financial scandals have essentially driven them out of Japan entirely.

Be prepared to have more cash on hand, with the ATM situation. While it's better now than it used to be, only the largest stores - or stores with expensive merchandice - ususally take credit cards. On the other hand, street crime, even in Osaka where I live (notorious in Japan as a dangerous city), is very low even by European standards, so you're not taking a big risk by carrying cash.

Cheap meals are really cheap. You can get a bowl of udon from 100 yen at the cheapest chain restaurants (a meal that will actually fill you up will take 300 or so). Ramen, while not the cheapest noodles, is universally excellent - please forget the freeze-dried packs of student fare - and will set you back 600-1000 yen depending on the place and kind of bowl. At lunchtime on weekdays, there'll be people at many street corners selling boxed lunches for 400-600 yen that are usually excellent value.

For hotels, aim for "business hotels". They are relatively inexpensive (from 5000-10000 yen per night depending on location and season) hotels meant for businessmen on travel. Small rooms but usually clean and efficient.

"Capsule hotels" - coffin hotels of fame are actually more expensive, usually. They aim for the "too drunk and missed the last train" crowd, and compete with the cost of a long taxi ride, not with regular accomodation.

For the adventurous, love hotels often have quite reasonable rates for an all-night stay, and it would make for a good story afterwards. Love hotels out of the seediest parts of town usually actually aim for a female clientele, and so are not nearly as seedy as you'd think. Just beware; some hotels take their room themes very far - there's one hotel in Osaka with a "Hello Kitty Bondage" theme room, complete with a large Kitty-chan in leather and chains hanging over the bed. You just have to decide how adventurous you want to be.

The cheapest possible accomodation is probably an internet and manga café. They are usually open all night, and you can rent a booth with a reclining chair all night for just a couple of thousand yen. Free drinks (coffee, tea, soda) is included, and lately many of them also have showers so you can fresh up in the morning.

I also heartily encourage folks to visit Japan. My one trip a couple of years ago was too brief and I'm looking forward to going back for worldcon.

I had no trouble at all navigating the subway in Tokyo. The situation of the trains and the subways using the same stations but being different systems was a little confusing at first. One evening as we were on our way to dinner we got off the subway at one of the stations in a huge crowd. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and, when I looked around, an elderly man handed me an origami bird and disappeared into the crowd. It's one of my favorite memories.

MKK

I've been living in Japan over the last couple of years, so I can offer a couple of updates:

5.Subways and trains in Tokyo

- It's safe, it's also air conditioned from the stations to the trains

- Avoid travel b/n 8 and 9 in the morning. The morning rush hour is everything you've ever heard. Other times of the day are fine.
- Make yourself small when you sit. No crossing of legs:- you take up too much room.

- Get an English map. There's one here: http://www.bento.com/subtop5.html. You probably won't be able to
find an English one in Japan apart from the airport and Tokyo main station, so grab one when you get the
chance.

- No map is complete in itself, you may need two (see below)

- All lines are named (Oedo, Keno etc), and a station can be on two lines. eg Roppongi (don't ask, you'll

find out) is on both Oedo and Hibya lines (ie. a crossing)

- But, about 3 years ago all stations got numbered (as in Roppongi is "stop 4 on the Hibya line", "stop 3?

on the Oedo line").

- The map above is great because it has both English and Japanese on it - very useful if you need to ask

directions- but it lacks the numbering system, so you may want another that does. But you may find that a a

numbered map doesn't have Japanese.

- The maps can be a little misleading as a single colored line is used to represent *both* the internal

metro line *and* the outer-suburban line that it runs into. So a single line on the map sometimes represents two

lines joined together and known by different names. The rule is that any line on the outskirt of the map is

probably a train line not a metro and will be known by another name. eg. see the dark green line running through
the map? On the left hand side it is called the Odakyu rail line - the stations in the middle are actually on the

Chiyoda *metro* line. Don't worry, in this case the trains just keep on going and there is no need to change.

Other maps are also clearer in this regard and you'll get used to it.

- Tickets are sold in machines and are reasonably cheap. Don't worry about not understanding Japanese, just

hit the numbered buttons.

- Ticket pricing is confusing. Either buy a daily travel pass, or better still do what all foreigners do:-

buy the cheapest available and if the gate at the other end won't let you out, go to the attendant, show him and pay

him the extra. It's perfectly normal (the Japanese have machines to pay the extra - but I don't understand them)

- Most lines are private and owned by different companies. While the ticket machines may not always

recognize another companies tickets, the companies will. If your ticket is refused at the machine show it to the

attendant nearby (they're always there) and they'll exchange it for one you can use. You may have to pay more

money.

- As a rough estimate of travel time, count on about 2-3 minutes per station

6.Getting lost

- BUY an English street atlas. You'll often find that 2 or 3 metro stations are walking distance apart on

different lines but requiring several changes to get there by train. Get out an walk - it may only be 30 seconds

or so.

There is an excellent one (small too - fits in a handbag) that is widely available with a blue cover.

Try the English language bookstore in Roppongi, open to about 9pm, 7 days a week. From Roppongi crossing,

walk west (towards Shibyu) for about 100m on the main road.

- ALSO the street atlas is *vital* with taxi drivers, and for figuring out addresses.

- Tokyo addresses are structured:

x-y-z

The x-y-z is the vital bit. They are numbers representing:
z District number within the suburb
y Block number within the district
z Building number within the block

eg.
Me
ABC Apartments 101
2-2-12 Roppongi
Minato ku

Means apartment 101, in building 12 of of block 2 of district 2 in the suburb of Roppongi, which
is in the local government council of Minato.

Here's the good bit:- your atlas will mark everything down to block number.

Here's the better bit:- a taxi driver can punch these addresses into his GPS/Map computer and get
on screen directions

Outside Tokyo, addresses aren't as complicated but they follow similar principles.

- TAXI's. Expensive, but not as bad as you might think unless you need to go a long way. Always have
your destination written down in Japanese, or failing that know where it is on your atlas.

- Also on taxis: Don't be too confident about getting one after midnight in a nightclub district. They'll

often just go past foreigners at that time of night ('cos we're barbarians who drink too much and don't know how to

behave)

7.People

Couldn't agree more.

But learn some basic Japanese manners and you'll get on like a house on fire:

- bow (just nod your head) and smile when saying hello and goodbye (and often during conversations too)
- if you learn only two words of Japanese, learn 'arigato goziamas' [thank you very much]

Avoid some basic taboo behaviour that gross's out the locals (you can get away with most other stuff, you're

a barbarian and cannot possibly be expected to know how to behave properly; but these ones can upset people):

- don't blow your nose. Sniff. If you really must, turn your head away and try to hide your face while
you blow.

- don't leave chopsticks standing up in your bowl, put them down next to it. Chopsticks in a bowl is a

funeral tradition ("the plate set for the departed").

- take your shoes off when entering a house. It's unclean, Japanese houses are spotlessly clean, and your

shoes have dirt from the street on them

Some other points:

A.Money

Outside of Tokyo your credit card may not be accepted in many places (even if it's on a local bank).

Japanese don't use credit much, and even those establishments who accept them won't take them from tourists.

Citibank has only about 27 branches (read ATM's) in the whole country and they are really the only bank with

English language ATM's. (You can alledgely get money from a Post Office Bank machine via cirrus, but you have to

negotiate a Japanese menu first).

Citibank has ATM's at Roppongi (24 hour), Shibya (24 hour), Akasaka (banking hours only), Shinjuki at a
couple of other places in Tokyo.

B.Tokyo is *big*. Unimaginable actually. Have fun.

A few addendums to James:

The tickets are really easy - no need to bother an attendant. As he said, if you don't want to figure out how much to pay, get the cheapest fare. Then, right next to the exit gates are always one or a few machines (the signs say "ã®ããã" - norikoshi) with a monitor on top. At least in Osaka you have an "English" button on the screen. But if not: you walk up, and put in your ticket in the slot with the blinking lamp. The screen will show three numbers: the value of your ticket, how much the trip actually cost, and how much you need to pay. Just feed it coins or a bill until it's happy, and it will give you a new ticket and your change. Use that new ticket to get through the gate. Don't forget to take your old ticket and throw it in the tiny waste box on the machine.

The chopsticks in a bowl thing really is mostly for rice (part of the funeral tradition is that you serve a bowl of rice for the deceased as well as for the guests, with the chopsticks stuck in the bowl). You'll see people leaving their sticks in noodle bowls all the time. Another thing you should remember is to not pass anything between each other from chopsticks to chopsticks - it's another funeral thing.

Oh, and when you eat any kind of noodle, it is not only polite but expected to slurp the noodles, and doing it noisily is fine.

Most ATM's, especially for all the large banks, do handle English. My bank (the romantically named Tokyo-Mitsubishi-UFJ - there's ben some consolidation going on), for example, has a button on the welcome screen letting you choose between English, Mandarin and Korean, and one from another bank I used at a major department store in Kyoto had German and Italian as well.