In just a few days, Kate and I are leaving for Japan, for a couple of weeks of tourism before Worldcon. Most of the important things have been done-- we've got tickets, and hotel reservations, and JR Pass vouchers, and that sort of thing. Things remaining to be dealy with (a partial list):
- Medication. What a drag it is getting old-- when I went in 1998, I didn't take anything other than Advil and Aleve, but now, Kate and I rely on a variety of prescription medications. We need to pick up refills of our various drugs, and copies of the prescriptions are supposed to be in the mail to us-- I'm told it helps in clearing Customs. Of course, nobody can tell you exactly what medicines are difficult to import-- does anybody know anything about bringing Nexium, Protonix, Zantac, Flexeril, and Allegra into Japan?
- Flipping great wodges of cash. There are still a lot of places that don't take credit cards in Japan, so one way or another, we're going to want to have a substantial amount of cash. I'm not entirely sure whether it's better to take a large amount of cash on the plane in dollars, and change it in the airport, or just hit cash machines. Probably a mix of the two, but I need to spend a little time shuffling money around our various bank accounts and so forth.
- Portable maps. We've got a stack of guidebooks, but they're kind of bulky, so I need to spend a little time locating good bilingual subway maps for Kyoto and Tokyo/ Yokohama, and printing copies to take with us.
- Language skills. Listen to more JapanesePod101 podcasts to try to remember what little Japanese I ever knew ("Eigo ga hanashimasu ka?"). In particular, I need a refresher on timekeeping, for things like reserving seats on the shinkansen. Also, I need to find a compact printable katakana cheat sheet-- I used to know them pretty well, but I'm way out of practice.
- Tourism planning. I sketched out a really rough itinerary months ago, when we were deciding where to go, but I should really flesh that out with more details now that I know where we're staying, and figure out things like what attractions are open what days.
- Packing. I'm not going to attempt to drag three weeks' worth of clothing on planes and trains, because God, that would suck. I figure 8-10 days worth of stuff, and then we'll pay for laundry service in one of the hotels (we're staying in big, fancy, Western-style hotels for most of the trip). I need to figure out what clothes I'm taking, and how I'm going to get them into reasonable size suitcases.
That ought to keep me occupied for the rest of the week...
I don't know what Japan is like, but in Europe hotel laundry service is incredibly expensive -- we're talking 20 euros a shirt. On our 7-week trip to Europe we did an unbelievable amount of hand-laundering in hotel sinks. You could also do the whole lanudromat thing....
Can you keep us posted on when you find these things?
I'm going in a month, and some of these things could be useful :)
August in Japan ?
Very hot and humid - make sure you bring a sunhat and drink lots of liquids.
Have you got a JapanRail pass (a real MUST for tourists - cheap shinkansen tickets) ?
Keep and eye out for weather forecast as its currently the typhoon season, its not a good idea to be outdoors during a storm.
As for cash machines, I think the ATMs at post offices will work with international credit cards - most ATMs in Japan don't!.
Most shops will accept your credit card however, if you show some ID.
I went to Japan earlier this year, in May. You have most things covered, however, here are some of my thoughts/tips:
1) Exchange some money beforehand, if possible, just for a cab, maybe some food, etc. If this is not possible, then you can always exchange at the airport or your hotel. You'll want to get yourself to a bank ASAP, for the best exchange rate. I think the bank is closed on either Saturday or Sunday (or maybe both), but I forgot which day(s).
2) ATMs - it's hard to find one that works with your credit card or debit card. however, you can order special ones that will work from Travelex. However, since you are leaving in a few days, it might not be worth it.
3) Credit cards-- most places that take credit cards will also take your credit card. Visa and MC are the most accepted; some places will take Amex. Call your company and notify them you will use it overseas so that your card won't be denied when you try to use it.
4) English. Most will NOT be able to speak English. Believe me, I asked the same thing and they'll reply back "iie, hanasanai". I've only taken about 3.5 semesters of Nihongo, but it was enough to get by. Worst case, you can always write down what you say. I've heard that they can read English better than they can speak/listen to it.
I'm sure you're not the first person to have visited Japan without knowing the language that well, so relax and try to enjoy it.
5) Katakana -- it will help sometimes, but most of the stuff is written in kanji, w/very little hiragana and katakana.
6) Locals -- just try speaking the language, and they seem to be a lot more helpful. Perhaps one of your guidebooks has basic Japanese in it? This should help you to get around.
7) JR Pass -- it was smart to get this. I didn't get one beforehand, and traveling by the JR got very expensive, very quickly.
Hope this helps, and enjoy your vacation!
Congrats - middle of the hot season (as MartinC says above), with temperatures over 30 even at night. If you want to save some money and have a cultural experience, there's quite a lot of both self-service laundromats and quick-turnaround laundries around. For your underwear you either wash in a sink - or just buy new stuff; there's even cheap lines in some convenience store chains.
Maps showing the location of each hotel where you will be staying. If you don't already have one, ask the hotel to fax it to you. Even if somebody doesn't understand English, they'll understand the concept of "I want to go to this place on the map." And in Tokyo especially, the taxi drivers will often need to see the map to get you to the exact location.
As Ken says, you will want to exchange some money before leaving the US if you can. Granted, this may not cost effective (if it's even possible) in Albany, but your connecting airport should have a currency exchange.
Try to avoid taking a taxi all the way from Narita Airport to the Tokyo city center as this is very expensive. Better to take a train into the city and then if necessary take a taxi from the train station to your hotel.
As long as you stick to JR trains and local subways, language should not be an issue--the relevant signs are in romaji as well as Japanese. But if you ever need to take a private train company, get a map and be prepared to count stations; the private train lines are generally signed only in Japanese.
I wouldn't worry so much about the Kyoto subway -- there's only a few lines and it's very easy to figure out. A bus map would be more useful, especially for getting to many of the temples and shrines. I think I was easily able to get one when I was there, though.
Tokyo, of course, is another story.
Just to second what Dave Munger said above: unless you've already looked into it, it might be a bad idea to assume you can use hotel laundry services. I spent much of this summer in Europe, and while one smaller hotel sent laundry out to a cleaning service that charged per load of laundry, the others charged per item of clothing, so that doing one load of laundry would have cost me hundreds of Euros. Instead I found laundromats, which were still more expensive than what I'm used to but far cheaper than the hotel services.
Shout "Does anybody here speak English?" This works especially well in parts of London, though not in Detroit or California. Nothing of value in your checked luggage will make it past Homeland Severity search and seizure. All bottled carry-on substances are explosives. If you travel as Wahhabite Muslims wearing suicide vests you won't be racially profiled.
Remember what Firesign Theatre said: "Shoes for industry! Shoes for defense!" "DON'T TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES!" What do you think of your country when jackbooted armed thugs are enforcing a stoner comedy album?
For what it's worth, I arrived in Miyazaki with no exchanged currency on a Saturday evening, after the airport international ATMs had closed for the night (ATMs in Japan mostly keep banker's hours). It made things more difficult, but we were still able to find a cab and restaurant that took plastic, and got cash at the post office the next day. And Miyazaki's considerably more backwater than where you'll be headed.
Our credit union has just told me that we want ATMs with the Plus logo (or NYCE, but that's less common), which are apparently in the post office network and also in the airport, according to the online location. Or, I could go to a bank and get a "cash advance" (withdrawal) off my Visa debit card.
Our first hotel, in Kyoto, definitely has laundry services. The second, not sure, but it's Yokohama so there will be landromats or something. And the ryokan in Takayama is only two days.
Printing out maps to hotels is a good idea, thank you.
Take some yen with you (maybe $100). You can exchange dollars to yen as you go along. Also, consider taking the bus from Narita to your hotel in Tokyo. The bus stops at various hotels and is more reasonable than a taxi and easier than the train.
August is hot and humid as well as monsoon season. On the other hand, it is also peach season so be sure and try the peaches!
One tip about the heat. You will see many people using something that looks like a small washcloth to wipe off the sweat. Suprisingly, it did seem to help when we were there (three years, left two years ago). You can take a couple, or pick them up in almost any store. I bought one in a 7-11 type store once. Doing sightseeing type stuff, you might want to change shirts during the day.
To clarify a couple of points:
1) We're flying into Kansai International Airport (Osaka, basically), not Narita, so the post-airport transportation situation is a little different. We've got JR Pass vouchers that we'll exchange at the airport, and take a train to Kyoto.
2) I spent three months outside of Tokyo about ten years ago, so I'm confident that we'll be able to get around without knowing all that much Japanese. Since, well, I've already done it...
3) I'm aware that Japan in August is fairly unpleasant, weather-wise, but they didn't ask my opinion before scheduling Worldcon for Labor Day weekend. We'll find some way to cope with the heat.
4) Thanks for the hotel-laundry warning-- we'll be sure to check the rates before sending them a big bag of stuff. If nothing else, we can probably find a laundromat, and wash stuff ourselves.
(Buying new anything is not an option for me-- I'm 6'6", 240lbs. They don't carry a lot in my size...)
One thing worth checking is the exchange rate that your bank uses on ATM transactions. As I recall, it tends to be a lot worse than you can get at a currency exchanger.
I took the train into Kyoto from Kansai on my trip, too. I'm still not sure how I managed to end up on the right train, but it worked out. The train station in Kyoto is pretty cool, actually.
If you go to Kyoto make sure you take a trip across to Nara, a small city about 30 minutes out of Kyoto that has some fantastic temple sites to visit.