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?

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.

Packing

So you’ve picked flights, booked a hotel or two, and it’s almost time to go.  We should pack those bags of yours.

Or rather, that bag.  For short vacations to Tokyo, I take one bag, and it’s just a carry-on. Whether it’s a backpack or a suitcase, it’s fine, so long as it’s small enough to fit in the overhead bins.

Why take just one carry-on bag all the way to Tokyo? Here are five great reasons:

  1. The TSA can’t break into your bag and steal stuff, because the bag is with you.
  2. You don’t have to wait for baggage claim, so you can head to the front of the customs line while everyone else is still waiting.
  3. You have less weight to carry around Tokyo. 
  4. You’ll look really silly if you take a gigantic suitcase and another huge bag onto a busy Tokyo train.  I speak from experience.
  5. All of the above reasons work for your return trip, too.

With that in mind, we’ll be cutting out a lot of the things you might have thought you need to bring.  Keep in mind that Tokyo is a big, civilized place.  Even if you have to buy something after you land, consider this: a $5 bottle of shampoo is cheaper than checked bag fees for two flights, and may be worth the peace of mind knowing you’re the only one handling your bag.

So, here’s a list of things you should not bring:

Half of your clothes: Bring enough clothes to last half of your trip and do laundry once while you’re there.  It takes a couple of hours, less than $5, and gives you a good chance to relax with a snack and perhaps your travel buddy.  We’ll cover doing laundry later on.  And while we’re at it, is it really going to kill you to “recycle” that T-shirt for a second day?  I admit, I’m a guy, but still I keep pretty clean.  Think about it.

More than two pairs of shoes: One comfortable pair for traveling and sightseeing, and one (optional) pair that’s a bit nicer for things like going out, going to nice restaurants, or nightclubs.

Your laptop: Unless you have some pressing professional need that specifically requires your laptop, leave it at home.  You can check your email at an Internet cafe, which we’ll discuss later. Or on your smartphone, which we’ll also discuss later.

Your cell phone (maybe): Unless you want to bring your smartphone and pay for roaming data, you’ll rent a phone once you land.

Shampoo, conditioner, soap: Your hotel will supply this, unless you’re staying at a hostel.  In which case, there may be some to mooch, or you can get it cheaply at a nearby pharmacy.

Toothbrush: Again, your hotel will have these, unless you’re staying in a hostel.

OK, with that space freed up, these are the things you should make sure you bring:

A small notepad: Go to a grocery store or office supply store and get the smallest pocket notepad you can find.  Mine is smaller than a business card.  You’ll use this to write down hotel addresses and phone numbers, flight and train information, and contact information for people you meet along the way.  Keep it in your pocket, not in your bag.

41NJx1yVeZL._AA280_ Space Bags: Get a set of the travel-size vacuum bags that you can shrink down without a vacuum cleaner.  I find it easiest to put small clothes like socks and underwear in them.

$100 in cash: Save this for after your arrival.  Don’t spend this money at your home airport, because we’ll be changing this into yen. Why just $100?

Medicine: Bring your own kind of the following medicines: allergies (non-drowsy!), stomach, cold/flu, and pain relief.  Expats generally consider Japanese medicine to be worthless.  If you take prescription medicine, bring the medicine and the prescription. 

A special note on medicine: Do not bring the behind-the-counter Sudafed or any medicines containing its generic form (pseudoephedrine) as it’s considered an illegal drug in Japan.

Toiletries: Bring deodorant, toothpaste (the Japanese stuff isn’t that good), and whatever hair styling products you like.  If you’re a girl, bring your girly stuff if you’ll need it.

Shaving stuff: It’s the most convenient to pack an electric razor, but if you manually shave, bring a safety razor and leave the shaving cream at home.  Buy some at a pharmacy after you land.

Make sure your toiletries fit TSA’s carry-on rules.  Nothing over 3 oz, and everything fits in a sandwich bag.

Got your bag all packed up and ready to go?  Let’s get you cleared for take-off.

Introduction

You can go to Japan.  Really, it’s easy.

I’m Blake.  I’ve lived off and on in Japan for the last five years. And I’ve found that it’s easier than most people think to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The torii at Miyajima. Image by Kyoji "Jake" Arita. Here are the three biggest myths about Japan and why they actually don’t get in the way of  your visit:

1. You can’t do anything if you don’t speak Japanese, right?
Actually, it’s pretty easy to get around speaking English.  You just have to use Japan-friendly keywords, based on what the Japanese learn in school.  We’ll work on those keywords later.

2. Isn’t Japan the most expensive place in the world?
It’s not as bad as you’ve been told, I promise.  Now, it’s not a super-cheap place like Thailand or Vietnam, but you can eat a good, filling dinner for under $10 and get a big Japanese beer for $3 if you know where to look.  Expats – the foreigners who live in Japan – know all the tricks to find inexpensive hotels, good meals, and even the occasional all-you-can-drink bar.  I’ve been an expat in Japan on and off for the last five years, so I can help you book a hotel, pick out a delicious dinner, and have the night of your life – all in English.

3. Doesn’t Japan have really weird food?

To answer your question, yes, there are weird foods.  But here are all the ingredients that go into my three favorite Japanese foods (in no particular order): Pork, onions, green onions, cabbage, chow mein noodles, fish, rice, soy sauce, and a couple of sweeter, soy-ish sauces.  (That’s one list for three separate dishes, mind you.)

But none of those ingredients are too scary, right?  Japan has plenty of “weird” things, sure, but a lot of foods are really popular with expats, and we’ll talk about those.

Learn from the expats

In this guide, we’ll discuss every angle of your trip to get you up and running quickly and easily:

Planning: Cheap airfares, cheap hotels, and where to find them.  You save the most money before leaving your door.
Packing: Bring the smallest suitcase you can find.  Leave your laptop at home.  Bring medicine and a miniature notepad.  We’ll talk about why.
Flying: Beating jet lag, reducing the stress from airport security, and relaxing in coach class with Airplane Yoga.
Arriving: How to get cash and a cell phone.
Getting around town: Using the trains, speaking universally understood Keyword English, the best places to find tasty things to eat, and why you should always know where the nearest post office is.
Things to do: Tokyo is quite possibly the most diverse and fun city in the world.  We’ll just scrape the surface.
Worst-case scenarios: These things aren’t likely to happen to you, but it’s good to be ready.
5 ways to save more money: On a college budget?  Japan’s still doable. 
Leaving Tokyo: Riding bullet trains, climbing Mt. Fuji, and visiting places like Kyoto.

So have a look through the guide.  When you’re done, you’ll be a seasoned pro.

How to get started without leaving your chair

You can get started right now. Here’s how to plan a trip.