Around Tokyo: Internet, Laundry

You’ve been busy getting around Tokyo and embarking on culinary adventures, so you might need a little bit of time to relax.  Or maybe you need to email Mom and let her know that you’re doing OK.  Internet cafes are a great way to do both.

Finding a cafe might be the hardest part, because they’re usually advertised only in Japanese.  You’re looking for signs with the word インターネット.  They’ll look like something like this:

Internet cafe sign courtesy http://masa0718.iza.ne.jp/blog/entry/860546/ The 2F in the sign means that the cafe is on the second floor of that building.  Internet cafes are usually on higher floors, so keep your eyes open for signs hanging high on the sides of buildings.

This particular sign also has a price schedule laid out.  You pay for bits of time at a cafe, starting with smaller increments of 10 or 15 minutes.  Discounts are common for 3 or more hours.

When you enter a cafe, they’ll make a copy of your passport and give you a ticket attached to a little clipboard.  That clipboard is your tab, and it has your internet time logged on it as well as any snacks or anything else you purchase.  Take your clipboard to your booth, sit down, and let Mom know how well you’re getting along.

And don’t forget the drinks!  You’ll find a well-stocked soda bar near the front.  In Keyword English it’s called a “drink bar,” and while there’s no booze involved, it’s still a nice thing to relax with some coffee, or tea, or cocoa, or funky Japanese soda while you do your Internet thing.

You may see lots of manga (Japanese anime-style comic books) on the shelves, too.  They’re free to read, so take a look if you’re curious.  Just make sure you put the book back in the right spot.

When you’re done Internetting, drop off your drink cups at the appropriate spot and take your clipboard to the front to pay. 

All out of clean clothes?  That’s likely to happen when you follow the packing guide.  Fear not, because we came prepared for this possibility. 

A laundromat is called a “coin laundry” in Japanese, and after the accent it’ll sound more like “coin laundoree.” 

Japanese laundromat image courtesy http://stepper.naturum.ne.jp/e84696.html Your hotel’s front desk should be able to point you to the nearest coin laundry.  Take about 500 yen in coins, and laundry will be pretty straightforward.  A vending machine will sell you detergent (“soap” in Keyword English) and fabric softener.  Buying the smallest size of detergent will be fine.  The rest should be straightforward: clothes and “soap” go in the washing machine along with the required coins.  When that’s done, clothes go in the dryer.  You pay for small increments of dryer time, and I usually dry my clothes for 25 minutes.

I know that doing a mundane chore doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time in Japan, but there are two reasons why it’s a good idea to go for it:

1. It’s a great chance to unwind.  Tokyo’s a hectic place and chances are you’ll want to give your legs a rest for an hour or so while you munch on some convenience store snacks.
2. This actually saves you time.  That was the whole point of the one-bag packing trick.  Not having to check your luggage saves you from waiting forever at baggage claim and in the customs line.  Not all time savings are obvious.  Some are like ninjas – you don’t know they’re even there until they’ve already happened.

When you’re done laundering, you can just pack your bag right back up and go on your way!    

Now that you have some clean clothes, maybe you want to go find some fun things to do in Japan.  Or, you can get a lesson in Keyword English.

Around Tokyo: Food

Got some cash?  Now you can afford to eat, hooray!  You can’t throw a stick in Japan without hitting a restaurant serving something tasty.  As such, you’ll be left to your own devices, but there are a few tricks to enhance your dining experience:

-Follow your nose.  It will probably lead you to some of Japan’s best foods like grilled chicken or okonomiyaki.
-Raw eggs are safe in Japan.  Eggs are handled differently in Japan, so don’t panic if you’re served undercooked eggs.  Many places will sell you raw eggs for 50 cents a pop.
-No substitutions.  Japanese food comes as it comes, and you can’t even change what comes on a burger at McDonald’s.  Izakaya lantern. Image courtesy stardog-champion.blogspot.com
-Keep an eye out for samples in windows.  Lots of restaurants have realistic-looking samples sitting in their front windows, along with prices, so you know what you’re getting into.
-Quick recommendation: You can’t go wrong with izakaya, restaurants that specialize in beer, sake and foods that go well with them.  A red lantern (pictured) marks an izakaya.
-Need beer? Say “nama.” That word will get you a large mug of whatever’s on tap (it’ll be Japanese) for around $5 or $7.
-Adventurous? Try “omakase.” That word will let the chef make whatever he wants, and it’ll be what he thinks is the best of his restaurant.  Be careful because blindly ordering omakase might be expensive.  You can try offering a budget with omakase, like 3,000 or 5,000 yen, but be liberal with the budget to be nice.
-Vegetarian?  You’re in for a challenge.  Lots of places don’t quite get the idea of vegetarianism (even if there are plenty of veggie restaurants in Tokyo), so make it clear to your servers before ordering anything.  Tokyoites understand the word “vegetarian,” but not “vegan” – so if you are vegan or have another alternative diet, it’s best to just go for “vegetarian” and work from there.  After you receive your order, check your food for non-veggie ingredients.  
-If you’re offered something, it’s not free.  If you’re given something without asking, that’s free.  “Service” is the Japanese word for “free,” but with the accent it sounds more like “saab-ees.”
-Patience will be rewarded.  Don’t just duck into the first place you come across.  Walking around looking for the right place is a fun and stress-free adventure.  Enjoy it!
-Careful eater?  If for any reason you’re very careful when ordering food (vegan, allergies, just plain picky), consider getting a Japanese food guidebook and reading up before leaving.

If you’re hungry between meals, convenience stores are your friends.  They have plenty of snacks, drinks, and fried food to keep you going with all that walking you’re doing.  If they ask you a question you don’t understand, they’re offering to heat up your snack in the microwave.

So now you’ve got some cash and a full belly.  You’re getting good at this travel thing!  If you need some time online, read about Internet cafes.  Otherwise, jump straight into Keyword English.

Around Tokyo: Money

At this point you’ve been in Tokyo for a couple hours.  Maybe you’ve found your hotel, someplace to eat, or maybe you’ve taken in that drink that you’ve earned for all your hard work.

But your fun will be short-lived unless you get some cash.

Here’s the thing: Japan works on cash, not credit cards.  Unless your only expenses come from five-star hotels, most places you come across won’t take plastic.  You will need to get some cash to keep the wheels greased on your trip.

Yucho_logoYou get cash from postal ATMs.  The Japanese postal system also runs a huge bank, and you’ll be using their ATMs.  ATMs also give the best exchange rates.  It’s safe, and normal, to carry large amounts of cash in Japan.  So normally you’ll get cash at the post office.   There’s also a postal ATM at Narita Airport, and it’s near the currency exchange counter.  It’s marked with the Japanese Postal Bank logo, which is the green thing on the right.

Japan Post symbol. Image and illustration courtesy http://www.sice.or.jp/~massforc/APMF2009/atm.htmlPost offices on the street are marked by the signs in the picture you see here.  The circled red-on-white symbol is the old-school post office symbol, and the orange sign beneath it is the new logo. Every neighborhood in Tokyo has a post office, so you’re never very far away from one. 

When I visit I take out around 50,000 yen ($500) to make sure the cash lasts several days. It’s safe and normal to carry around that much money.

You’ll take out cash directly in yen, and the equivalent in your own currency will be what’s withdrawn from your account, plus a small fee (like $5, or 3%) for changing the currency automatically.

Warning!  ATMs are only accessible during business hours and only on weekdays.  ATMs close – yes, close – at 5:00PM on weekdays and may not be not open on Sundays.  Japan is weird that way.  Plan your cash withdrawals in advance.

Taking money out in large chunks may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s perfectly safe, convenient, and reduces the transaction fees that might hit your credit card.

Now that you’ve got some cash, why not celebrate with some tasty food?

Getting Around

Congratulations!  You made it to central Tokyo.  You got everything done before leaving the airport, right?

Getting around Tokyo is easy and convenient.  The only problem is the bigness of Tokyo, which can make train maps look like a bowl of noodles.  But with a basic understanding of Tokyo’s general shape it’s easy to get from point A to point B. 

Once we get the basics covered, we’ll throw in a few shortcuts from the expats that get you around quickly.

To get started, you need to know the three basic ways of getting around:

A Japan Rail train. Image courtesy Bon Voyage http://gutereise09.blogspot.com1. JR
JR stands for Japan Rail, and it has most (but not all) of the above-ground train lines running around Tokyo.  You’ll use this for long trips to major hubs around the city.

2. Tokyo Metro
As the word ‘Metro’ might suggest, this is the subway.  It’s best used for short trips from one neighborhood to the next.

3. Taxi
Taxis are expensive, but very convenient.  They’ll get you from point A to point B with no transfers and even few stop lights.  They’re best used when you’re too tired to stand up, when you have a lot of luggage, or when it’s late at night and the trains have stopped running.

Yes, the trains stop running between midnight and 6:00AM.  Keep that in mind in case you go out late at night.  We’ll discuss that later.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the transport you’ll be using, let’s give you an idea of which one’s the best to pick.  It’s basically a matter of how far you’ll be going, so it’s time for a super-quick lesson in navigating Tokyo.  You can boil down central Tokyo to three words:

It’s a clock.  One of the JR lines, the Yamanote, is circular and is so integral to Tokyo that it’s often called just “the JR Line.”  Almost every famous spot in Tokyo lies on the Yamanote, so let’s have a look around the clock:

Yamanote Line Clock, courtesy Yamanote Line Clock Sim http://9den.ms11.net/yamanote_clock/sample/yamate_clock_w.html 1:00: Ueno (and Asakusa nearby)
2:00: Akihabara
4:00: Tokyo Station (and Ginza nearby)
6:00: Shinagawa
8:00: Shibuya (and Roppongi nearby)
9:00: Shinjuku (and Yoyogi, Harajuku and Ichigaya nearby)
10:00: Ikebukuro

These are just the major stops.  There are lots and lots of minor ones, too.

You need to know where you are (roughly) on the clock because the Yamanote Line runs both clockwise and counter-clockwise.  Pick the train that’s headed in the direction you want on the clock. Train stations will have separate platforms for Yamanote trains headed in opposite directions, and the platforms will be labeled according to the next major stop on the clock.

Switching to subways

Plenty of subway lines stop at the places on the clock, so from these major hubs you can branch off into smaller neighborhoods by way of subways.  Hotels are commonly at smaller stations one or two subway stops away from the hubs on the clock.

For example, my favorite cheap hotel is near a subway station called Inaricho.  To get there, I take the JR trains to Ueno, then switch to the subway (still at Ueno) and go out one stop from the clock. 

Switching to taxis

If you’re going to a new place (like a hotel) and have the address for the place (you wrote it down, right?), you can go to the nearest stop on the clock and from there take a taxi to the place.  If you’re just leaving a train station, you’ll probably find a line of idle taxis waiting to pick someone up.  Take the one at the front of the line.

Don’t take a taxi across town.  It’s expensive.  It can cost upwards of $70 to get across Tokyo in normal traffic, and it’ll cost more if traffic is bad.

Making trains convenient

A Suica card for Tokyo trains Get a Suica card before you ride your first train, JR or Metro.  It’s a pre-paid fare card that’s rechargeable, and it makes riding any train easy and cheap.  You can buy a card at any JR station from blue ticket machines.

Once you have your Suica card, just walk through the turnstile and touch the Suica card to the shiny spot with the Suica logo.  You’ll do that on the way to and on the way from your train.

Based on where you enter and where you leave, it charges you the cheapest fare possible.  Recharge your card at any green electronic ticket machine.

Shortcuts in the train station
A train station in Tokyo might seem like a confusing place that’s moving at a million miles an hour, but there are a few helpful resources inside the station that can make your life much easier:

1. Train station staff
Virtually any train station staff person can tell you what to do next in the train-riding process (like “OK, you need a ticket,” or “Go over there to swipe your Suica and exit”).  They can also help you navigate, and they’re good at making it easy.  Shibuya?  “Track number 12.”  Ueno?  “Track number 3.”  They wear uniforms and are easy to spot.  You’ll find them on platforms and near ticket counters.

2. The manned turnstile booth
You’ll mostly use your Suica to swipe in and out of train stations, but if you have problems you can talk to the guy in the booth at the end of the row of turnstiles.  If you enter a train station and decide not to go anywhere, you’ll need him to clear your Suica and let you back out.  Try not to ask him navigational questions – he’s one of the busiest people in the station.

3. The ticket office
The ticket office has everything that can’t be done anywhere else in the station.  If you’re out of cash and need to buy tickets with a credit card, or if you have problems buying your own Suica, it’s best to go here.  They could answer your navigational questions, but you’d have to stand in a long line.

Information counter. Image copyright 2007 Blake Ellison. 4. Information counter
The information counter is good for everything you need to do above, but they’re especially good at helping you with things outside the station.  The staff there tend to speak more English and are good at directing you to places like hotels and post offices.  If your station has an information counter, it’ll be marked with the universal “?” sign.  If the station doesn’t have an information counter, don’t worry.  The places above will get the job done.

Notice that all of the shortcuts involve human interaction.  The train station staff that you come across will speak enough English to get you where you need to go.

Advanced train lines
The Yamanote Line should be your transportation bread-and-butter, but there are a few expat-favorite routes that will save you time.  Be careful using these, as it’s easier to go the wrong way.  Here are a few of my favorite shortcuts from my time in Tokyo:

  • The left side of the clock (8:00-10:00): Try the subway Fukutoshin (F) Line.  On JR, try the Shonan-Shinjuku Line or the Saikyo/Kawagoe/Rinkai Line.  All those JR lines usually stop at the same platforms.
  • The right side of the clock (1:00-6:00): Try the subway Ginza (G) Line.  On JR, try the Keihin-Tohoku Line.
  • Crossing the clock: The JR Chuo Line goes from Tokyo Station (4:00) to Shinjuku (9:00). 

When taking a shortcut train, check the time estimates on the thin vertical signboards attached to the pillars.  If your stop has a time estimate, then you’re facing the right train.  If not, turn around and try the other side.  Also, some shortcut trains land at platforms that serve other lines.  Double-check the name of the line you want with the line marked on the train that comes.  You may be waiting for the next one. 

Taxi. Photograph by yamuhaton/flickr Shortcuts on foot
Are you near someplace (say, your hotel) but just can’t find it?  Ask an idle taxi driver!  Taxi drivers navigate very well and commonly give out directions (for free!) to natives and fluent expats.  The downside is that most taxi drivers don’t speak English very well. 

Not near a taxi?  Try a convenience store.  This doesn’t work as well as taxi drivers, but in a pinch it’s worth trying.

Now you’re ready to go.  Your Tokyo navigational bootcamp was a bit long, but you need to be well-prepared to take on such a big city.  We’re starting to get into the fun part, and in the next chapter we’ll cover all kinds of delicious food and where to get it.

But we’ll start with the most important thing: cash.

Did you miss the Naked Festival?

P1015051hl2
The annual Naked Festival just went down in the town of Yotsukaido, just east of Tokyo.  Did you miss it?

If so, you missed out on roughly 3,000 dudes – ladies are only observers – wearing nothing but loincloths and playing in the mud.

The mud actually comes from a rice paddy before it gets planted in the spring.  Even though it's the beginning of March, it's very cold out there.

A lot of attendees say it's a refreshing experience after it's over.  I can only imagine as much, considering just looking at that picture makes me want to take a warm shower…

Read more at news.com.au, with thanks to Samurai Dave for the image.

Flight Deal: American from Chicago, $768 + Tax

Fancy a cheap flight from O'Hare?  Fly on a weekday in March and you'll be paying $818, plus tax, minus a $50 discount.

Travel agency JTB is offering the flight (and the discount) on "Airline A" from its Chicago office, where there's a non-stop flight on American to Tokyo.  And don't forget, non-stop flights are a good way to go.

The fare is good through all of March, but the $50 discount ends March 13.

See more and make reservations at JTB Chicago.

Hotel Deal: Convenience in Tokyo, $79

2127-2
If you're thinking about leaving Tokyo for Kyoto, Osaka or Hiroshima, consider a hotel convenient to the Shinkansen, better known as the bullet train. 

The Shinagawa Prince Hotel is right outside Shinagawa Station, which is convenient for both the bullet train and the ordinary train loop.  And because Shinagawa is at the bottom center of the loop, it's easy to get to both the east and west sides of Tokyo.

And there's a lot of convenience in the hotel, too.  "The complex features 15 restaurants, a range of cinemas, an IMAX
theater; the sporting facilities include indoor pool, tennis court,
indoor golf range, and even an 8-lane bowling alley."

You can reserve a room at the Shinagawa Prince for $79 per person per night.  It doesn't get any cheaper as you add more people, but it's still a reasonable price for the neighborhood and the convenience.

Check out the hotel and make reservations at NTA.

Landing

Welcome to Japan!  Your plane has arrived, you’re well-rested thanks to Airplane Yoga, and you’re in Tokyo.

Wait – you’re not in Tokyo.  You’re at a Japanese airport, which is over an hour away if you’re at Narita.  You need to get to Tokyo, but first you need to take care of a couple things before you leave the airport.

Get some cash.
Yucho_logoThere’s an ATM right around the corner from the currency exchange, but we had you pack $100 just in case your flight was delayed and the ATM was closed.  Yeah, it’s weird – Japanese ATMs have operating hours.  We’ll cover the ATMs in more detail later, but for now just find the ATM with the little green logo on the right and withdraw a few hundred dollars.  It sounds like a lot, but don’t worry, it’s safe.

If the ATM works out, you can save your $100 to re-deposit when you get back home, if you like.  If the ATM is closed (say, you land on a Sunday or late at night) then you should exchange your $100 for Japanese yen so you can get some food and a ticket into the city.

No smartphone? Rent a cell phone.
These days, you can bring a 3G or 4G smartphone to Japan and have it roam on a domestic Japanese network. If you’re not a data hog, this is usually worth it for easy access to email and navigating public transportation. As long as you don’t need to make a lot of calls, this is the way to go.

If you need to make a lot of phone calls, however, you should leave the cell at home and rent a phone while at the airport.

Phone rental counters counters are easy to find. Feel free to pick any one – the prices are all about the same.  Before you leave the rental counter, add your travel buddies’ numbers to your phone or write them down in your little notebook

Got some yen and a cell phone?  You’re ready to head in to the city.  There are a couple of ways from Narita into central Tokyo, and we’ll start with the easiest. Landed at Haneda instead?

1. Narita Express, aka N’EX
This fast train heads straight from Narita Airport to central Tokyo with just a couple of stops.  If you’re staying on the east side of Tokyo (near Ueno, Asakusa, Ginza or Akihabara), hop off at Tokyo Station.  If you’re on the west side of Tokyo (near Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Roppongi or Shibuya), hop off at Shinjuku Station.  The ticket costs about 3,000 yen ($30) per person.  To save money, buy the combined “Suica + N’EX” ticket.  You’ll use the Suica card around town.

There are a couple of alternatives to the N’EX, if you’re staying in certain parts of town or want a more scenic introduction to Tokyo:

2. Limousine Bus
There’s nothing “limousine” about it; it’s just a bus.  It costs about the same as N’EX and takes just a little more time.  But you’ll see nice scenery above ground, and if you’re staying in a nice hotel, the bus will take you straight to the hotel’s front door.  Check here for a list of hotels that the bus serves directly. Use the Please select your alighting point drop-down menu (and no, I don’t know what that means either.) Make sure you’re reading the Pick me up from the airport section.  

3. Keisei Line Skyliner
If you’re staying specifically in the Ueno area, you can take the Skyliner instead of the N’EX to get to Ueno Station.  It’s faster and cheaper than N’EX, at 2,000 yen ($20) a ticket, but it only goes to Ueno.

Landed at Haneda?
You’ll take the Tokyo Monorail all the way to its final destination, Hamamatsucho. Or you can take the Limousine Bus described above. Here’s your hotel list.

By now, you’re off the train and you’re… somewhere.  In a train station.  You could be anywhere.  We still have to get you to your hotel, so now’s a good time to learn how to get around town.

Flight Deal: JAL from Los Angeles, $544 + tax

Losangeles2
If you're ready for a cheap JAL flight leaving Los Angeles, and you're available to go on March 4, then this deal is for you.

The fare is $514, but it's a fare that's only open to members of JAL's "Family Club," which costs $30 to join.  You can join and book a flight right away.

That price does not include tax, which could be around $200.  Still, paying roughly $750 for a non-stop flight on JAL – which has excellent service – is a bargain.  The fuel surcharge is included, however.

The deal only applies for flights leaving on March 4, though you can come back whenever you like.  Flights are offered to Tokyo (which is recommended by the Konnichiwhoa guide), and you can get the same price for flights to Nagoya and Osaka if you want to head in that direction.

Get the details and make reservations at IACE.

Flying

It’s flight day!  You’ve got your ticket, a place to stay, and you’ve packed your one bag.  Time to get on that airplane!

Now, it’s fair to assume that you’re reading this guide before the actual day you take off, so here’s something to do in the days before you leave:

Screw up your sleep schedule as much as you can while you’re still at home.

The closer to nocturnal you are, the better off you’ll be.  If you can manage to stay up until 6:00 or 7:00 AM (US time), you’ll be in good shape to fit with the Japanese clock as soon as you hit the ground.

Now, once your actual flight day arrives, there are lots tricks that will make your life easier in the airport and on the plane.  We’ll start with the airport, where there are three potential hazards:

  1. Security.  Your goal is to get through security like a mouse running through a house: quietly and sticking out as little as possible.  You’ll have an easier time if you follow the packing guide, because one bag packed properly is really easy to get through security without undoing and redoing all your careful work.  For more details on making security easy, read Wired Magazine’s how-to guide.
  2. Expensive food.  I suck it up and pay out the ear for food, and it’s for psychological reasons.  It’s a good way to pass time while you’re waiting, and a satisfied you will be in a better mental state for the long flight ahead. Eat things that you know won’t cause trouble for your stomach. Also, grab some extra snacks, like bananas and cookies, and take them on the plane.  Don’t rely on airplane food.
  3. Delays. Delays can happen, and sometimes they get extreme.  If strange things happen, don’t cancel your trip and go home.  A delay may be a rare thing for you, but it’s everyday business for the airline.  Let the airline work out its problems, but don’t be afraid to speak up if you’re about to be stranded. FlyerTalk has a vague guide to help you manage your expectations.  Just relax and try to enjoy the downtime.

Made it this far?  Congratulations, your plane is on its way! Time to begin your journey into Airplane Yoga

The truth is, a 10-hour-plus flight in coach is actually a war between you and insanity.  So, we’re going to clear your mind with Airplane Yoga.  It has five major principles:

  • Stretch your legs every hour.  It wouldn’t be Yoga without stretching, right?  Sitting still for several hours will leave your legs very twitchy.  Every hour, find some space and stretch your hamstrings and your quads. If you annoy your seatmates, too bad for them.  You’re a pro traveler, and with that comes the responsibility to stay loose.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.  It’s tempting to be able to get loopy off of one or two drinks, but abstain.  Alcohol exhausts your body, and your body is already under lots of stress from an uncomfortable seat, the weird pressurized cabin, lack of nutrition from airplane food, and tons of germs.
  • Don’t drink caffeine.  At all.  For the same reasons that you shouldn’t drink alcohol, you should avoid all caffeine, even tea or soda.  If one or two drinks can make you tipsy, one soda can leave you tweeked out on caffeine, which means you won’t be able to sit still, which will make you much more twitchy and uncomfortable for what will feel like a very long time.
  • Drink orange juice.  Your stressed-out body needs nutrients, and OJ encourages you to go to the bathroom, which means you can get up and stretch.
  • Focus on remaining calm.  If ever you begin to think “I can’t sit here like this anymore!” you should try to cancel that thought from your mind.  Distractions like in-flight movies and sleep are good for keeping your mind clear and achieving coach-class nirvana.

There is one shortcut in Airplane Yoga: noise-canceling headphones. Airplane engines are very loud, and the constant noise is tiring for your brain.  A good pair of noise-canceling headphones, the kind that cost $200 or more, do work as advertised. That’s why airlines offer them for free in Business Class. I use Bose QuietComfort headphones. They’ve let me relax on every flight I’ve been on, and I’ve often stepped off of international flights feeling just fine.

Get your own noise-cancelling headphones from Amazon.

The flight is over!  You’ve landed in Japan, and your adventure can truly begin.  We’ll start with a couple things to do before you leave the airport.