I really enjoyed this trip. It was much more fun than my first one, perhaps because it was longer and covered more ground. But every trip has lessons learned and things one wants to do better and random observations. These are mine.
Japan Rail Pass
A must-have, if you are going to be there for a week or so, and are not in a tour group. A number of vendors sell the Exchange Orders, all at about the same price. I used Japan Experience. At the time I’m writing this, a week-long general seating pass is $275, while a reserved-seat green pass is $365 for an adult. You have to buy it before you get to Japan (they FedEx the order to you so it arrives fast), and you have to be there as a tourist. Some hints on use:
- Its primary function is to get you past the JR train station turnstiles and onto the platforms. You have to show it to the guard coming and going, so you don’t go through the turnstiles themselves. Then you are good to go on any JR car with general seating.
- If you have a green pass and you want a reserved seat, you have to go to the Midori-no-madoguchi (Green ticket window).
and make a reservation. Then you show your JR pass to get on the platform, and you show your reservation (it’s a small, green ticket), and your pass, to the conductor on the train. NOTE: Midori-no-madoguchi is also where you go to swap your JR Exchange Order for a real JR pass when you first arrive.
- The pass works for Japan Rail trains only. There are many private train lines in Japan, and they don’t take the JR pass. For example, there are two ways to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Ueno station. The JR train is free (with the pass) but is about 15 minutes slower. The Keisei Skyliner runs just between those two locations, and is faster, but it will cost you $15. In Tokyo, the JR Yamanote line runs a big loop around the heart of the city, but most of the suburbs are fed by local lines. Plus, you may find you have to pay an extra $5 or so on the train, when it runs over non-JR rails.
- It pays to plan ahead. I had a first class green pass, but couldn’t get a reserved seat on half the JR trains I travelled on, because I booked the individual tickets too late. That was my fault, because I kept changing my travel plans. If you need flexibility, the green pass is probably not the way to go.
- The company that sells you your JR Exchange Order may also offer some other products. I rented a portable Wi-Fi unit for about $10 a day. It was worth it. I’d turn it on, turn on my Nexus 7 tablet, and I had maps and translation services pretty much wherever I was. They also sold me a Pasmo card. More on that in the section on money.
Even if you are travelling the length of Japan, the JR pass can save you a lot of money on the long distance routes, at the cost of a little time. For example, the standard recommendation from the HyperDia train schedule site, for a trip from Sapporo to Tsu (equivalent of going from Portland, ME, to Charleston, SC), is to fly from Chitose to Nagoya and take the train from there. Time is 5 hours (plus security, which, admittedly, is a lot more efficient than TSA’s), and the cost is $470. If you take the shinkansen, it’s 12 hours and $360, but JR pass saves you $350 of that, and you get to look at the scenery, instead of the tops of clouds.
Bring cash. Yes, the hotels and big restaurants in the big cities will take credit cards (check with your card company before you go), and yes, many shops (mostly combini), and the train stations, take money cards, like Pasmo and Suica, but a surprising number don’t. I took $400 in cash, burned through that, borrowed $120 and spent most of that, all in 10 days of not living extravagantly. Meanwhile, less than $1000 went on the credit card, mostly for hotels. The crafts shop I visited in Iga on Day 9 sold goods that were in the $30-$50 range, and took only cash.
Exchange your money before heading off into the hinterlands. In 2012, my hotel in Kobe had no trouble turning dollars into yen. In 2016, the drug stores I saw in Sapporo had a machine that would do that for you automatically. In Tsu, a somewhat provincial city — about the size of Spokane, but on the unfashionable side of Ise Bay — the only place to change dollars to yen was the main bank, and it took three people and twenty minutes to do so.
There aren’t any. Japanese friends of mine say there’s two reasons. First, the Tokyo subways were subject to a nerve-agent gas attack, back in 1995, and many of the devices were placed in trash cans. Bureaucratic solution, remove all the trash cans. Second, Japanese cities are big on recycling. They do this by forcing residents to buy multiple trash bags, one for each kind of recycling. For those who resent this, the easy solution is to take a bag along when they go to work, and drop it in some public trash can on the way. Shop owner solution, remove the trash cans. Workaround for foreigners, go into a combini and ask them to dispose of it for you.
A note on children in Japan. They have remarkable freedom of movement, unthinkable to US helicopter parents. These five boys were doing the equivalent of taking the train from Washington DC to Portland, Main. No parents, no conductors checking up on them, they just got on, found their seats and sat down. Presumably their parents dropped them at the ticket turnstile and let them find their own way two levels down to the shinkansen platform, but having seen younger children navigating the system, they might have just bid their mothers goodbye at the front door and headed out.
There’s an anime currently running called Sweetness and Lightning, about a young child and her single parent father. In one episode he gets sick and she goes to a friend for help. The friend’s house requires a trip across a good chunk of the city, not just to a neighbor. Here is how Michael Vito, over at Weekly Review of Transit, Place and Culture in Anime characterized it. The article is pretty far down a pretty big page, so when you get to the link, hit <Find> and search for Sweetness.
The point is, she’s a pre-schooler, walking alone in an urban environment, and nobody is bothered, nobody is worried. It’s a normal thing. For all our talk of independence and spirit of adventure, that would never fly in today’s America. I note that in the first half of an earlier century, I was allowed to ride my bike anywhere, with the only requirement being that I had to make it home in time for dinner.
In November of 2012, Kobe was cold and damp, but not freezing. In August of 2016, Tokyo and Tsu were around 90 and humid, and Sapporo was in the upper 70s. Not sure how much of the humidity was due to the two typhoons that pounded everything from Tokyo, north while we were there. My conclusion is that August is not the time to be visiting Japan, unless it’s the far north.
You really need to know some Japanese phrases, and being able to identify some key kanji also helps. Much of the time, only one person in a shop speaks English. At the hotel in Sapporo — big hotel, right next to the central train station — nobody at the desk spoke any. If you have a little Japanese, it gives them something to hang their answer on.
Japanese TV is, to my western taste, terrible. Every program, even the news, seems to have a panel of C-list actors commenting on it, with their pictures in little inset frames off to the side. Here’s the reporting on the typhoon-induced flooding on Hokkaido
And here is what is available in my hotel room at 8:30 on a Sunday night.
1. An infomercial for some sort of cleaner
2. Coverage of some boat race that took place in January with a male sportscaster, a male color commentator and another fat male commentator who looks like me might have been an entertainer of some sort, and then a woman who was another sort of announcer.
3. Some police procedural documentary with shaky cams and hidden cams and all kinds of discussions of evidence, and real life chase scenes and so forth with faces blanked out.
4. A reality show where it looks like they have taken a family of New Guinea Aborigines and have brought them to Japan to see how they react to modern life. Right now the aboriginal father has just had his first experience with with chopsticks and what he did was put them through his nose.
5. Another reality show where we see cars crashing on security cameras and shots of race cars turning over right out of the gate.
6. what might be coverage of the Sapporo Marathon, with the news announcer and a support group or running along in the rain and the usual collection of commentators is looking at them from the from the corners of the screen.
7. Some sort of historical artistic docudrama like you might see on the History Channel. Looks like it was a perhaps a history of Christianity in Japan and finally
8. Another historical docudrama with lots of replays of things that went on in the samurai era and now we’re looking at everybody’s gravestone to the modern era. When I first saw it I thought it was a regular Samurai Western if you will but it appears to be educational instead.
Only 7 and 8 did not have the Greek Chorus off to the side.
This is Part 4 of 4. Here’s links to them all:
Part 1 Days 1 to 3
Part 2 Days 4 to 6
Part 3 Days 7 to 9
Part 4 Final Impressions