2013 to 2014: Three Things that have changed since I was last in Japan

Amy, from Inside Japan‘s US office has been travelling back in Japan, visiting colleagues and seeing new places. Japan is one of those countries where traditions are strong and don’t change at all for years and years, but at the same time, things change so quickly. Amy reflects upon just three changes in Japan since her last trip in 2013. 

Smartphones

I have to admit that I called this one wrong when I told people that smartphones hadn’t quite caught on yet in Japan. They are EVERYWHERE, or at least everywhere I happen to look. There are still a few holdouts, of course, or people who prefer the flip-style cell phones (older folks, elementary school children, etc.), but it seems that if you want to be cool and hip now, you’ve got to have a smartphone. And it certainly is more entertaining when riding the train to watch your neighbor play the Japanese version of Candy Crush than it is to wonder if you were supposed to get off at the last station.

Softbank iPhone on Display by Women in Traditional Japanese Clothing

IC Card Credit Meters

Granted, I’ve only seen this device once at a “konbini” near JR Kamakura Station, but what a GREAT idea, as in why hasn’t someone thought of this sooner! Most of our customers are given IC cards as part of their package as they are convenient when travelling on local train in Tokyo for example. You can also use the cards to buy food and drinks at some vending machines.  However!!! Don’t have any cash on hand but also can’t remember if you have enough credit on your IC card to pay for your onigiri? Just hold your IC card to the back of the meter, push the black pad, and bam! Instant credit check. If this doesn’t become standard in every konbini in a few years, I’ll be shocked, simply shocked.

Technology in Japan

On-Call JR Operators

I went to JR Kyoto Station to reserve a seat on the Shinkansen using my JR Pass and was resigned to waiting in the long, long line when a station attendant asked me why don’t I use the automated ticket machines instead. I explained that I had a JR Pass and had to use the ticket office only to be told that that wouldn’t be an issue since they had an on-call operator. “An operator?” I thought. “What could that possibly mean?” So I followed the attendant and was surprised to see that several ticket machines did indeed have an intercom/phone system where you could place your JR Pass under the camera, request a train reservation, and the operator would take care of it for you. This service is very new—from February, actually—and currently only in Japanese, but according to the station attendant they may offer it in English if there is enough demand. So everyone with a JR Pass, use this machine!

Japan Technology

Enjoying Tokyo for Free

Tokyo’s reputation as an expensive place to visit is slowly changing. The word is out that the hedonistic days and astronomical prices of Tokyo’s “bubble period” are a thing of the past. In their place is a city that is more interesting, more diverse and more inviting then ever. After the bubble burst, prices of things fell and standards of living have gone on steadily rising.

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These days, Tokyoites are more interested in their free time than they are in lifetime employment. And it’s hard to blame them when they have both sandy beaches and scenic mountains at their doorstep. Not too mention the fact that residents and visitors alike enjoy access to some of the world’s best cafes, shopping, museums, architecture and cuisine anywhere in the world. Indeed, even on a small budget, Tokyo’s delicious street food gourmet, extensive public transportation and endless shopping can feel like a bargain. But those in the know might be tempted to ask, why spend money at all when so much can be had for free? Here are some of my favorite free things to do in Tokyo (with plenty more to come in the future!).

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Tokyo has fantastic museums of nearly every kind. From modern art and photography to emerging science and national treasures, there is truly something for everyone. Unfortunately, while free museums have become the norm in many of the world’s major cities, many of the Tokyo’s best museums still charge for the privilege of admission. However, if you’re willing to visit slightly lesser known museums, you will have a plethora to choose from. Places like the Tokyo Water Science Museum and the Japanese Stationary Museum are sure to show you something that few travelers to Japan’s capital ever see.  Or, you could check out the Japan Police Museum.

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Even though it’s short on English explanation, exploring these hallowed halls makes for a fascinating hour of browsing. As you go through the building floor by floor you glimpse of what crime fighting in Japan is all about. Computer games, a driving simulator and plenty of cool vehicles make this a great place to visit with kids. The museum is just a two minute walk from Exit 7 of Ginza-Itchome Station and equally near from Exit 1 of Kyobashi Station.

Alternatively, if the Police museum is a bit too mainstream for your tastes, how about checking out a museum dedicated entirely to parasites! The Parasitological museum near Meguro Station is the world’s only parasite museum, somewhat unsurprisingly if you ask me. Nevertheless, it’s more interesting than it probably sounds and the gift shop is fantastic!

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The Mitsubishi Ichigokan is only a two or three minute walk from Tokyo station and the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ginza and Marunouchi. A faithful reconstruction of one of the first Western style buildings in Tokyo, the Ichigokan Museum has a beautiful courtyard with popular and well-known restaurants and ever changing exhibitions of art, usually from overseas. But instead of paying for the temporary exhibits, you can head in to the ‘archive room‘ to learn a bit about the history of Japan’s Marunouchi district – an area whose importance dates back to when this city housed the powerful Shogunate and was still known as Edo. Models, videos, and state of the art touch screen tours await.

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Of all the free activities in Tokyo, it’d be hard to beat an afternoon taking in some of the cities eclectic but always talented street performers. From the rockabilly dancers of Yoyogi to the popular Ani Zo, there’s always a free show to be had. Many of these relatively unknown groups have small cult followings that come to see their favorite performers on a regular basis and sing along with every chorus – my personal favorite is a rock and roll shamisen player! The best places to catch live performances tends to be in Shinjuku and Harajuku. In Shinjuku, wait until after the sun has gone down and then have a wonder around the station’s West Exit. In Harajuku, you’re better off waiting until the weekend to catch the many performers that gather in Yoyogi Park, adjacent to Harajuku Station. Midday on Saturday tends to be the best.

If it’s works of art that you’re after, Tokyo has plenty to choose from. While museums like the Mori are well worth a visit, if you want to check out work by lesser know artists, have a look at some of the city’s many galleries. Both plentiful and well-curated, Tokyo’s galleries have plenty to impress even the most demanding connoisseurs. The following are just a few to get you started but rest assured, the list of world class galleries in Tokyo is a long one.

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SCAI The Bathhouse is everything that you could want from a contemporary art gallery – the work of some of Japan’s most intriguing up-and-coming artists exhibited in a traditional Japanese bath house. The Fuji Film Square Photo Salon stands as a reminder that photography remains an art form that goes far beyond the point and shoot world that most of us live in. In the heart of Ginza lies what is often referred to as Japan’s oldest gallery, at the Shiseid0 gallery, a wide range of art goes on display for any who care to visit. At AKAAKA, a more avante garde selection of artists is on display; my personal favorite raises money for the victims of 2011s tsunami – see the video below to learn more about Munemasa Takahashi’s ‘Lost & Found Project’.

 

And finally… I saved the best for last. On you next visit to Tokyo, how about stopping by the Yebisu Beer Museum? While there is little doubt that the so-called tasting salon tends to be peoples’ favorite, the history of the beer is fascinating. Not only does it give a glimpse into Japan’s uneasy fascination with the West, it gives a very good sense of how beer came to flourish in what was once a sake drinkers dominion. Don’t miss it!

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5 things you didn’t know about Japan

I recently put this together for a good travel agent of ours, but thought I would share it on our very own blog…

IshigakiFact 1 – Japan is made up of over 6000 islands

There are four main islands, but the country is actually made up of 6852 islands (big and small). The main island of Honshu is home to the Tokyo Metropolis and the cultural capital of Kyoto. The ‘wild frontier’ of Hokkaido sits in the far north, with rural Shikoku and historical Kyushu in the south.
Mt Fuji
Fact 2 – Japan is 70% mountainous

Japan is certainly not just big cities. Most people envisage big neon lit cities such as Tokyo, but approximately 70% of the country is covered in lush green mountains. A tenth of the worlds active volcanoes are also in Japan. Perhaps the most famous of these is the 3776 metre Mt Fuji.

Niseko Skiing
Fact 3 – Japan has tropical beaches and great skiing

Japan is a country of contrasts which can be seen everywhere in its architecture and culture. It also has a contrasting landscapes and environments. Okinawa in the far south (approximately 1000 miles from Tokyo) consists of a string of tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungle islands and some of the best diving in the world, Meanwhile the far northern island of Hokkaido has some of the best skiing in the world with almost guaranteed buckets of powder snow everyday during the winter months.

Tokyo Sushi

Fact 4 – Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world

You think of Japan and you probably think of sushi, but it is not all about the raw fish here. There will be dishes that you will have not seen anywhere else in the world adding to the cultural adventure, but there will be a lot of things you do recognise too, suitable for every palette. Tokyo also has the most three star rated restaurants in the world and more Michelin stars than Paris. Japan is a foodie paradise.

…and last but defintely not least….

Taxi

Fact 5 – Japan is not expensive

Japan is not expensive. It was expensive in the 1980′s during the economic boom, but is now generally cheaper than the UK. In the last year, the yen has dropped considerably in value against the pound/dollar and Japan is now about 30% cheaper than it was back at the beginning of 2013.  You can buy a three course lunch for approximately £6, buy a plate of sushi from about 60pence or have an eat and drink as much as you like session at a Izakaya (traditional Japanese pub) for approximately £15. And, one of the best things about Japan is that you get some of the best service in the world, but there is no tipping! – it is almost offensive to do so. Japan is not only cheaper than it was, it is great value meaning more bang for your Yen.

50 years of the Shinkansen – The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Bullet Trains

Shinkansen Mt Fuji

They’ve been clocked at up to 200 miles per hour, their tracks cover about 1,500 miles of the country and they safely and reliably transport hundreds of millions of passengers each year around Japan. The Shinkansen is better known simply as the “bullet train,” (a nickname it gets from its bullet-shape nose and fast speeds) was launched for the Tokyo Olympics way back in October 1964. In 2014, the Shinkansen will be 50!

Trains of the future

Things have changed a bit over the last 50 years. The original 320 mile stretch of track from Tokyo to Osaka now extends across mainland Honshu to Kyushu. The original 0 Series train travelled at 210kph, which was considerably faster than the steam trains that were still in service in the UK in 1964, but now travels at speeds of up to 200mph. The ‘bullet train’ has also changed appearance over the years with the classic 0 series spawning all sorts of super sleek train designs.

The o series has given way to the N700 series on the Tokaido line with the 800 series running all the way down to Kagoshima on Kyushu island. The Joetsu Shinkansen lines in Nagano have the impressive double-decker E2 and E4 series MAX (Multi Amenity eXpress) trains and the Tokoku line to the far north has the very impressive looking green E5 ‘Hayabusa’ and the more recent E6 ‘Komachi’. Whether you like trains or not, you cannot fail to be impressed with the Shinkansen.

Here are a few points about using the bullet train in Japan -

  • They run on a tight schedule. If you’re planning to take the train, be on time. Japanese bullet trains are rarely late and often run within a minute of the planned arrival and departure times.
  • No language barriers: Signs in terminals and on the trains are typically in both English and Japanese, so there’s no language barrier to worry about.
  • Buy a rail pass: One-way tickets aren’t cheap, but a rail pass can save you big bucks wherever it is that you’re going.
  • They are very spacious, comfortable and a delight to ride.
  • Standard class is considerably better than standard class in the UK or US.
  • The ‘Green class’ or first class has a different seat configuration meaning more room for passengers along with a blanket and newspaper.
  • Like the rest of Japan, service on the Shinkansen is first class as standard and ‘Bento Box’ meals are served by well dressed staff.

If you travel to Japan, the chances are that you will ride one of these beautifully engineered carriages to one of your destinations.  However, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen, we thought we would develop a trip travelling from north to south around Japan, touching on every Shinkansen track across the country, sampling several different styles of this wonderful train and a whole host of cultural experiences. We have designed the 15 night ’50 years of the Shinkansen: Bullet trains and temples’  bullet train bonanza. The trip retraces the original journey from 1964, takes a sand bath in the shadow of  the puffing Sakurajima Volcano in Kagoshima, the Shinkansen depot in Fukuoka via Kumamoto castle, stays in Buddhist temple lodgings in the Japanese Alps, stops in a samurai town in the north of Japan and visits the new Maglev Museum in Nagoya to name just a few of the experiences.

Why not gallop along on the Shinkansen in 2014 – the Year of the Horse. You might say that you “are not into trains”, but you will be after a visit to Japan.

For more information on riding Japanese bullet trains, contact Inside Japan Tours.

A Guide to Staying Connected in Japan

In today’s wired world a question that we get asked frequently by our clients is, “will we be able to access the Internet during our vacation”. Whether it be for work, play or a bit of both, being connected on a daily basis is of utmost importance to many. Most western style hotels in Japan do offer connection to the Internet via a wired LAN cable, but Wi-Fi, surprisingly, is still not the widespread norm. This causes an issue for those who prefer the portability of a smartphone or tablet to a laptop.

The answer to this problem is simple; rent pocket Wi-Fi! This is a small, cigarette packet sized device that envelops your vicinity in a bubble of wireless Internet. It allows you to connect throughout most of the major areas of the country, and as well as giving you access in your hotel, ryokan or minshuku, you can also log on whilst out and about, on the train, wherever you need or want it. Our website gives further details of the options available, as well as links to the provider’s websites, but as I have just landed in Japan and picked up my PuPuRu device here is a simple guide of what it entailed:

1) After filling in the on-line form, and sending a scan of my passport page I received a confirmation email, including my booking number and details of where in the airport to pick up my device (at Narita there is a pick up point in both the North and South Terminal).

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2) I exited into the arrivals lobby and found the booth. This was a little tricky at first as you pick up the device from the QL Liner baggage delivery counter.

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3) Once the friendly staff has checked your passport they hand your kit. As they know when you should be arriving they are ready and waiting! The contents are nice and simple: Wi-Fi device, charger, travel case, pre-paid addressed envelope and instructions (in English).

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4) The instructions are easy to follow. You look up the available Wi-Fi connections on your computer/tablet/phone. You select the designated connection as stated, pop in the provided password (just once) and Bob’s your uncle, you are off and running!

You do need to remember to charge the Wi-Fi device each night as it suffers from battery drain but if Wi-Fi is important to you then it is an excellent investment. Once your vacation has come to an end you simply pop it all back into the case, slip that into the pre-paid envelope and hand it in to your final hotel to drop in the mail.

Easy!

The Importance of Travel Insurance While Traveling in Japan

While travel insurance isn’t anything new, it’s still as essential to international travelers today as it was years ago. Specifically, travel insurance is designed to cover you abroad were you to get sick or become injured. Yes, many travelers already have healthcare plans, but each country’s healthcare system works differently, so there’s no guarantee that the insurance plan that covers you in the U.S. will cover you in Japan. Travel insurance, on the other hand, has you covered, both in terms of major medical situations, emergency evacuations and minor medical cases that need treatment.

Medical coverage is just one reason behind the importance of travel insurance, but there are other areas of coverage as well. Here’s a look:

Trip cancellation:

Aside from coverage for medical situations, trip cancellation travel insurance is the most popular type of policy. Specifically, it protects policyholders in the event that they need to cut a trip short, for whatever the reason. When you’re traveling in Japan – let alone anywhere abroad – things can change quickly, whether it’s the weather, your medical condition, your business schedule, etc. Trip insurance makes sure that you’re not on the hook financially for changes made to your plans.

Accidental death/flight accident:

Nobody ever thinks they’re going to die on a trip or – God forbid – be involved in a type of travel accident. But the accidental death/flight accident type of travel insurance is essentially a life insurance plan that pays a designated beneficiary benefits should you meet a tragic fate on your trip. It’s nothing that anyone likes to think about, but it’s an option for travelers who would rather be safe than sorry.

Travel insurance can typically be purchased on a per-trip or annual basis, although about 80 percent of all travel insurance is purchased on a per-trip basis. In terms of cost, travelers purchasing it on a per-trip basis can expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 9 percent of their total trip cost on such insurance.

For more information on travel insurance and to book your Japanese adventure, contact Inside Japan Tours today or view more Japanese travel tips.

Tomonoura – The Real Japan

Tomonoura
“Have a nice…memory…in Japan”, said the smiling bus driver as I stepped off the bus from Fukuyama station, at the charming port town of Tomonoura. I had just spent a week working in Nagoya, so my overnight trip to the sea was something I had been looking forward to for a while.

Soaking up life
Tomonoura does not feature much in the major guidebooks to Japan, and part of me wants to keep it that way. Perhaps I should not tell you about the winding narrow lanes, lined with traditional wooden buildings.

The old streets

I should maybe keep quiet about the various viewpoints over the town from the surrounding hills, where you can watch the ships go to and fro.

Pretty port

And I should certainly not say anything about the fresh seafood and the friendly locals who welcome you as a rare foreign visitor.

Tomo in Tomonoura
I guess the cat is already out of the bag though, as Tomonoura features in the latest Wolverine movie, and is also considered the inspiration for the Miyazaki animated film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. So do stop by Tomonoura next time you are in Japan. But promise me one thing – don’t tell anyone!

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Do you Tip in Japan? Japanese Tipping Etiquette

do you tip in japanIt’s customary in many countries to tip your waiters, cab drivers, hair dressers, doormen, luggage handlers and more as a token of extra appreciation. But tipping isn’t customary everywhere. So with that being said, do you tip in Japan?

The answer: As a rule, no!

Tipping is not customary in Japan. In fact, it can be considered rude and insulting in many situations. Most Japanese restaurants require customers to pay for their meals at the front register, rather than leave money with the waiter or waitress. Tipping also isn’t required for cab or bus rides and many hotel services. You will probably receive some of the best service in the world here…but this about people doing their job with pride rather than hoping for a tip.

However, while tipping is, for the most part, not customary in Japan, that’s not to say there may not be a few exceptions on your trip. The first exception is nothing more than a service provider who accepts your tip, either in an effort to not offend you by refusing it or because they want some extra cash (just because tipping isn’t customary doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur). Another tipping exception in Japan is when you’ve just taken a tour or received a special service. You may wish to tip on these occasions, but you certainly don’t have to.

If you do tip a guide, don’t just hand the service provider a few bills and be on your way. Be sure to put the tipping money inside of a decorative envelope and seal it before handing it to the recipient with a slight bow. Pulling money out of your wallet to use as a tip is generally frowned upon in Japan.

For more information about tipping customs, and food culture in Japan, contact Inside Japan Tours today.

It’s Impolite To… Your Guide to Basic Japanese Etiquette

Japanese Etiquette Tips

Eating noodles

  • Slurping of noodles is not only polite, it is almost expected. Forget what your Mom told you -  Never eat noodles without slurping!
  • Public restrooms have a code of etiquette. Often you will find slippers at the doorway to a rest room. Use them as failing to do so is quite rude….and embarrasing if you are not wearing the right shoes….or someone elses shoes!
  • Likewise, lookout for a ‘Genkan’ entrance in some restaurants, ryokan, hotels and homes. You will see a raised floor and probably pairs of shoes neatly lined up. You should assume that you also need to take your shoes off and step out of your own footwear directly onto the raised floor, so not to bring in dirt from the outside.
  • Experienced travelers to Japan know to carry a small clean towel with them at all times, as Japanese restrooms typically do not have them.
  • Never blow your nose in public as this is considered a highly offensive habit and spreads germs. Sniffing is a polite substitute.
  • Best not greet a Japanese person by kissing or hugging them (unless you know them extremely well). While Westerners often kiss on the cheek by way of greeting, the Japanese are far more comfortable bowing or shaking hands. In addition, public displays of affection are not good manners.This is an amusing video looking into the bow in detail….kind of…
  • The Japanese place great consideration on the elderly, persons of high position, cleanliness, and observing someone’s privacy. A foreigner planning a vacation or business trip to Japan whom on arrival is always respectful when dealing with native Japanese people will most likely never really offend them. But, if you are unsure if you are about to make a major faux pas it is perfectly all right to ask about etiquette. If you do make a mistake, learn to laugh it off – this will minimize the impact and soften or end any affront.
  • Whether you are a first time visitor to Japan for business or pleasure, or an experienced traveler, perhaps pack a pocket etiquette guide to use during your trip to Japan. Good manners are of utmost importance to the Japanese, but what might be considered good manners in western society may be considered rude in Japan. Likewise, what the Japanese view as proper etiquette, Westerners may find offensive.  Being prepared with simple rules of etiquette is the best way to avoid embarrassment.
  • People will see that you are not Japanese and will understand that you do not know local etiquette and will understand if you make little faux pas or two. Just be polite, smile and look around. You will pick the basics up…

I’m Traveling to Japan, and I Can’t Use Chopsticks … Help!

Traveling to Japan provides the opportunity to try new foods and enjoy a unique cultural experience. Although using chopsticks is not a requirement, it is helpful because it offers the chance to try foods at unique venues.

Identify the Problem

Traveling to Japan does not mean that chopsticks are a requirement, but some restaurants may not have forks and knives available. When chopsticks are a problem, the first step of learning to use them is identifying the problem.

If arthritis is the primary concern, then using a shorter set of chopsticks might help because the shorter set will provide greater control and fewer complications. Short chopsticks are designed for the small hands of children, which do not yet have the fine muscle control required to hold the chopsticks properly.

By using a shorter chopstick, it is easier to control the movements and pincer the food so that it is easier to hold.

If the problem is simple skill, then practicing the use of chopsticks before traveling to Japan will help. Practice is ultimately the best way to become skilled at the use of any utensil.

how to use chopsticks

Basic Form for Holding Chopsticks

The proper method of holding chopsticks will make it easier to learn the muscle control that is necessary for eating. Place one chopstick so that it rests on the ring finger of the primary hand and the other side rests between the thumb and pointer finger. This chopstick will not move.

Hold the other chopstick like a pencil in the same hand so that the thumb and pointer finger are controlling it. Move the top chopstick up and down with the pointer finger and thumb.

This pincer-like movement is the basic method of using chopsticks. Picking up foods will take practice, but it is possible.

If it is hard to hold the chopsticks properly, then rest the bottom chopstick on the middle finger so that the movement is not as large. It provides better control.

You’ll want to hold the chopsticks close to the top, as it is considered rude to hold too close to the food and bottom of chopsticks. When you’re finished using the chopsticks, set them across the plate parallel to each other. Crossing your chopsticks like an “x” is also considered impolite.  Practice is the ultimate method of learning to use chopsticks. Although many restaurants will have forks, knives and spoons available after asking, chopsticks are the main type of utensil used in Japan.

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