Happy Chinese New Year!

DragonKonnichiwhoa wishes readers a very happy Year of the Dragon.

Today isn't a holiday in Japan like it is in China or Korea, but Japan does follow the Chinese zodiac, where there are twelve years each representing animals.

If on your birthday this year you're turning a multiple of 12 (12, 24, 36, etc.) then you are a Dragon!

In Japanese, that's ryu. The Kanji symbol, derived from Chinese writing, can be seen in the picture right over there.

So get to it, Dragons. Tradition dictates that this should be a very good year for you!

Yeah, Yu Darvish is totally sporting a marijuana leaf

Ap-201201200535201465526Eagle-eyed watchers spotted a marijuana leaf on Yu Darvish's t-shirt as he landed in Dallas today for his official introduction with the Texas Rangers. 

The "explanation," at least in the city's local news, was that the shirt (pictured right) showed a Japanese maple leaf.

Nonsense. It's weed. But, it doesn't necessarily mean that Darvish may be your next smoking buddy.

In Japan, the marijuana leaf is a popular symbol without any real smoking context. Plenty of native Japanese have leafy t-shirts, or necklaces, or air fresheners in their cars, and don't really know that they're symbolizing a drug.

Marijuana is highly illegal in Japan. It's considered a hard drug, and that's why we recommend in our Japan travel guide that you leave it at home.

The Japanese justice system doesn't resemble the American one. In short, you're guilty until proven innocent and there's a 90% conviction rate in the country. A marijuana arrest would be a long, exhausting and expensive way for you to leave the country, so really, please leave it at home.

However, do feel free to buy any of the weed bling, weed posters, or Bob Marley goods you find at Japanese gift shops like Village Vanguard.

3 Must-Read iBooks About Japan

Apple announced today an overhaul of its iBooks offerings. While we're still waiting for that Japanese 101 textbook to appear online, here are three great iBooks about Japan that you can buy right now for your iPhone or iPad (or iPod Touch):

Tokyo Vice
Id419968301Editor's note: For adults only.

Publisher's blurb: Jake Adelstein is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where for twelve years he covered the dark side of Japan: extortion, murder, human trafficking, fiscal corruption, and of course, the yakuza.

But when his final scoop exposed a scandal that reverberated all the way from the neon soaked streets of Tokyo to the polished Halls of the FBI and resulted in a death threat for him and his family, Adelstein decided to step down. Then, he fought back. In Tokyo Vice he delivers an unprecedented look at Japanese culture and searing memoir about his rise from cub reporter to seasoned journalist with a price on his head.

Blake says: The occasional self-indulgence aside (really? Do we need to know about your sex life, Jake?), the book is the best example of a gritty life intertwined with the yakuza. 

Continue reading “3 Must-Read iBooks About Japan”

5 Ways to Save Money in Japan

Congratulations on completing your first Japanese lesson! You deserve a reward for that.

Saving more money on your trip to Japan is always welcome. With that in mind, here are five of my best ways to shave the most money off the cost of a trip:

1. Save on the hotel. 
The hotel costs add up the quickest since your nightly rate is multiplied by however long you stay in Japan. Even in Tokyo, it’s possible to find cheap hotels or student hostels. You’ll feel like a backpacker, but it’s a great way to go cheaply.

Check Konnichiwhoa’s cheap Hotel Deals to see if there’s anything cheap for the time you want to go.

If there isn’t, try our favorite reservation sites. The JNTO is particularly good for hostels and the like.

My personal record is 2,800 yen per night. The room was tiny and the bath was shared, but it was great for a college trip.

2. Save on the flight. 
You can knock off several hundred dollars in one fell swoop if you book your flight cleverly. 

Like we mentioned on the Planning page, Japanese travel agencies will have what are called ‘deep-discount’ tickets that airlines themselves don’t publicize. They’ll acquire fewer frequent flier miles but they’ll be cheaper than the airlines’ own prices and they’ll frequently go on sale.

3. Save on trains with (or without!) a JR Pass.
The JR Pass is an unlimited-use train pass that lasts 1, 2 or 3 weeks. There’s a simple test for whether or not you need one:

If you are traveling out of Tokyo on a bullet train, you should get a JR Pass. It’s a complicated process, so pick one up in your home country before you leave.

4. Eat and shop at low-cost places.
Need sushi? A conveyor belt sushi shop could have you in and out, stuffed full of good sushi, for about $15. 

Need a quick snack? Try Lawson 100, the discount version of the popular convenience store that lowers prices because of deflation

Need a beer? Try a standing bar, where you could pay as little as $3 for a full draft Japanese beer because the bar can save money on space.

Need cheap tourist activities? Skimp on the expensive national museums and do temples instead. They’re much cheaper and very often free. Besides, the museums often have lots of Western art, and you came to Japan to see Japan

Avoid department stores – Japanese full retail price is often much more expensive than the same store overseas. I once saw my own $12 t-shirt on the rack at Tokyo’s only Banana Republic. It was selling for $86. That’s an extreme case, but you get the point. 

If you want Japanese fashion, shop at Uniqlo

5. Extreme saving: the Seishun Ju-hachi Kippu
The Seishun Ju-hachi Kippu, also known as the Seishun 18 Ticket, is a massive student discount that’s only available in July, August and December (to line up with various national holidays). For 11,500 yen (roughly $140) you get five days of unlimited travel that does not allow fast trains, so you travel much slower. That’s the price you pay for the crazy discount.

Here’s a quick comparison for a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto:

Bullet Train
Time: 2 hours
Price: 13,000 yen (one way) 

Seishun 18
Time: 9 hours
Price: 2,300 yen (one day of the pass) 

You can also split up the pass and give five people one day of unlimited travel. There are also regional passes that have similar offers to get around smaller areas of Japan, such as the northern Hokkaido island. 

If you’re seriously considering a Seishun 18, read the Wikitravel page for the ticket for full details.

Swine Flu Hits Japan

Quarantine officials at Narita Airport. Image (c) The Associated Press It's arrived!  Swine Flu is officially Big in Japan. 

The first cases were confirmed on Friday when three Americans arrived in Japan shortly after a trip to Canada.  

Flights arriving from afflicted countries are being quarantined and health inspectors are stepping on board to examine everyone on board.  Those exposed to the virus are being quarantined in "a facility near the airport" for 10 days, reports the AP.

If you're going to Japan soon, expect to be held on board your airplane for a short while, and be able to list a contact person or hotel for where you'll be staying.  Without this info the health officials at immigration may be hesitant to let you into the country. 

It's probably a good idea to pack a pocket-size notebook with phone numbers and addresses for the places you'll be staying.

By the way, the Keyword English for hand sanitizer gel is "alcohol gel," and it's normally sold at pharmacies, but supplies might be short right now.  Highly recommended.

Read the full story at the New York Times.

Happy Golden Week!

Okinawa beach This week is Golden Week, a string of national holidays in Japan.  It began this last weekend and continues through Wednesday.  Many Japanese get to take additional days off around Golden Week, so some people may not go in to work at all this week. 

Major tourist spots are full of native Japanese visitors, which makes it fun to check out big landmarks like Senso-ji Temple or the Mori Tower.  And it's crowded!  When a metropolis of 35 million people goes on vacation, things get a little crazy.

Lots of people take their big vacations now, like to the beaches of Okinawa (pictured) or to Korea, Taiwan or Hong Kong. 

Still, there are plenty of people left in the city, and thankfully there are tons of local festivals and events to accomodate fun-seekers in every neighborhood.

I, for one, found a deal on an airline flight I couldn't refuse.  So, hello from Tokyo!  The weather's beautiful and the food is delicious.

Big in Japan: Colonel Sanders Curse Broken

The Col. Sanders statue. Image by Kyodo Photo. Japanese baseball has its own curse, the 24-years-running Curse of Colonel Sanders, but with the discovery of a Colonel Sanders statue at the bottom of the Dotonbori River, fans of the Hanshin Tigers suspect their team is poised to make a comeback.

Back in 1985, the last time the Tigers won a championship, dedicated fans jumped into the Dotonbori dressed as the team's players.  But there wasn't a fan who looked like big white guy (and team MVP) Randy Bass, so they grabbed the nearest Col. Sanders facsimile and threw him in.  The Tigers haven't won a championship since.

Just last month, an Osaka construction crew found the statue, with its arms broken off, and the Colonel was quickly put back together again.

Bass, now a state senator in Oklahoma (and family friend of this guide writer, luckily enough), was enthusiastic about his likeness's rescue: "Now that they’ve found the Colonel, the curse is over and it’s time to put your money on the Tigers."

Many thanks to the excellent TokyoMango for the lead.

10 Essential Kanji

The Japanese language sure looks funny, doesn’t it?  It’s complicated, even for native Japanese.  There are three “alphabets,” one of which is kanji, or Chinese characters.  Everyday Japanese uses roughly 2,000 different characters, and there are close to 5,000 all together.

The good thing about kanji is that with just one “letter,” you can convey a whole word.  There’s a character for “car,” another for “large,” and another for “self.”  One way of saying “bathroom,” for example, is to string together the characters for “wash,” “face,” and “place.”  Makes sense, right?

Travelers can make use of some of these characters and find some things more easily.  With that in mind, here are the 10 that I think are most valuable.

Before we start: if the characters look like boxes or question marks, you need to install Japanese on your computer.

  1. 男: male
  2. 女: female
  3. 薬: medicine
  4. 酒: alcohol
  5. 入口 and 出口: entrance and exit
  6. 円: Yen
  7. 子: child (you may see this character in other places, like names of foods)
  8. 小: small
  9. 中: medium (or middle, center, etc.)
  10. 大: large

Great, so you wrote a bunch of funny stuff on my screen, now what?
Try to learn them!  At least get a feel for what they look like, even if you can’t write them yourself.  If you need to, crank up the text size.  Make flash cards.  It’ll come in handy when you want to know the price for a large sake!

Bonus kanji!
焼: yaki (like teriyaki, sukiyaki, yakiniku, and so on)
yaki means ‘cooking’ or ‘grilling,’ so a restaurant with this character will serve something delicious!

On to saving money!
Read our 5 best ways to save money on a Japan trip. 

Worst-Case Scenarios

There are a lot of unfamiliar things that could cause you a problem in Japan.  Things are written in funny letters, and it’s easy to get lost in an incredibly crowded city like Tokyo.  Worse still, bathrooms might have a surprise or two.  Don’t worry.  Travelers have ways of dealing with these problems.  So in the words of the greatest travel guide ever, don’t panic.

Squat toilets
We might as well start outside our comfort zone.  Squat toilets aren’t that common in Tokyo, but you’ll occasionally find one in a public restroom, particularly near parks or in train stations.  I’m no expert with squat toilets, but I’ve made it work when necessary.  Here’s the plan of attack:

Stand over the toilet, facing the little “hood” thingy.  Unbutton/unzip and pop a squat.  Use one hand to grab your pants by the beltline and pull them forwards.  You’ve still got one free hand, and this assures you won’t make a mess on your own pants.  This method is a bit juvenile, I admit, but my pants are totally clean.

No toilet paper
Some public restrooms won’t stock toilet paper.  This is on the decline, too, but if you come across such a place you’ll get a warning: a vending machine selling tissues or toilet paper.   Be sure to check a bathroom for TP before unzipping.

Another easy solution is the little packets of tissues handed out on the street.  If you keep one in your pocket or bag, you’ll always be prepared.

No way to dry your hands
Most native Japanese carry handkerchiefs which they use for a number of purposes, like wiping off sweat from their brow or drying their hands after washing them.  My preferred solution is to buy some alcohol-based hand sanitizer at a pharmacy. 

A European pharmacy sign. Image by Neil Lukas (c) Dorling KindersleyMedicine
Japanese medicine is comically bad, which is why I recommend that you pack your own for common problems.  But if you’re stranded, you’ll be able to find something at a pharmacy.  On city streets, they’re commonly labeled with the international green cross sign, but in other places they’re labeled only in Japanese, so be prepared to ask a taxi driver or policeman.  You’ll find medicine for colds, stomach pains and various aches, but be warned that most Japanese medicines are weak and loaded with caffeine.  Try to find a medicine without the word カフェイン (caffeine) in the ingredients list (don’t worry, that word stands out more than you might think).  You’ll be amazed at how many medicines will jolt you like a double espresso.

Your group got split up
Being separated from your buddies could be a really jarring experience, but it doesn’t have to be.  Just think of it like the military would: there’s a procedure for what to do when you lose your team. 

The first thing to do is establish contact with the people you’re missing.  This is why I recommend getting cell phones before leaving the airport. If you’ve got a phone, call your amigos and work your way back to the last place you were together.  If you lost each other while in transit somewhere, pick a place to meet back up, either where you started or at your destination.

It’s important to put your actual travel on hold.  If you get split up in a train station, bus depot or airport, delay your trip (even if it costs money) and head to the office.  Tell the staff that you’re looking for your group.

If you have no way of contacting your teammates, return to your hotel.  Or, if you just checked out, go to the one you’ll be staying at next.  Japanese koban insignia. Image courtesy http://www.sonic.net/~anomaly/japan/surv05.htm
Japanese police box. Image courtesy http://www.sonic.net/~anomaly/japan/surv05.htm
If your situation is more extreme, find a police station.

Police stations, by the way, have two signs to signify them.  The old one is a gold star with a special design, and the new one is a green sign with the gold star on a police hat and the word “Koban,” which is Japanese for ‘police box.’

You missed the last train

Japan, for all its futuristic ways, is totally behind the times with trains.  They stop running just after midnight and don’t start again until about 6:00AM.  This makes nightlife a unique challenge: do you call it a night when things are still picking up, or do you commit to the all-nighter?  You have several options once the trains have gone to bed:

  • Taxi: Expensive, but available anytime and will take you exactly where you want to go.  You can get pretty much anywhere inside central Tokyo for under $100, but after that things get crazy.
  • Internet cafe: Internet cafes have something to do (computers and video games), free soft drinks, and a chair that might even be serviceable for sleep.  Japanese people commonly take refuge in Internet cafes after hours, and most offer an “all-nighter” discount which makes the whole night cost something like $20.  Many cafes even have a shower, so if you’re really in a pinch you can try here.
  • Love hotel: These hotels are usually rented by the hour for couples seeking a little privacy.  After about 10:00PM, they can be rented out for the whole night. The rooms are clean and safe, though the staff may turn away solo and other non-couple travelers.  The overnight price will be labeled as “stay” on a sign out front.
  • Capsule hotel: The infamous hotels with morgue-like sleeping chambers are actually a typical remedy for drunk businessmen who can’t make the last train.  While the sleeping quarters are too claustrophobic for many, the hotels are usually loaded with amenities like saunas and are very cheap.
  • 24-hour restaurant: The typical 3AM refuge for clubbers who couldn’t quite go all night, 24-hour restaurants are good places to rest up, sober up, and maybe get a little quiet.  Personally, I like the chain Saizeriya for their $4 margherita pizzas, but it’s also a great time to try the Japanese McDonald’s if you haven’t already. Locals often go to ramen shops.

A Japanese pay phone. Image by maryellenpower2/travel.webshots.com Pay phones
If your cell phone is unavailable, you can still use a pay phone to make an important call.  Instructions are written on the phone in English.  The Japanese phone system has a few oddball kinks, so here’s how to make certain calls from a payphone:

Dialing in the same area code:
1234-5678 (leave off Tokyo area code 03)

Dialing long distance:
03-1234-5678 (calling Tokyo from elsewhere in Japan)

Dialing international:
001-010-1-212-123-4567 (calling New York from Japan)
Not all pay phones can make international calls.  Look for a green phone that says “International and Domestic Card Telephone” or a gray phone with a digital screen.

Like the over-the-counter medicine, the Japanese medical practice is strangely behind the times, so any elective stuff should wait for your return home.  In an emergency, English speakers are common at hospitals, so don’t worry about needing a translator.  But if you do have a friend who’s bilingual, bring them along just to make sure.

Japanese hospitals have a central check-in and triage counter near the front.  Check in and answer questions as needed.  The hospital may be hesitant to treat you if you lack Japanese health insurance, but you should refuse to leave until you’re treated.  You may have to pay cash, but if you’re in enough of an emergency to go to a Japanese hospital, payment is likely the least of your concerns.

A quick note on insurance
Many credit cards offer some form of travel insurance which will cover medical treatment while abroad.  With some cards, the travel insurance automatically kicks in when you purchase your tickets with that card.  Have a look through the paperwork for your credit cards to see if you’re covered.

I highly recommend travel insurance because it’s so cheap to get these days and covers a lot of potential problems ranging from health to baggage.

Police trouble
Japanese police have a great deal of power, and while it’s rarely seen in action, the nation’s justice system is a thing to be feared.  Here’s what you need to know about encounters with the police:

  • They’re helpful.  Japanese police officers will go to great lengths to help you find your way around Japan or give you other information or assistance. 
  • You can be asked for your passport at any time.  Not having your passport on you can get you arrested, so carry it safely at all times.
  • You can be questioned at any time for any reason.  The Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply in Japan, so refusing to answer a question may come across as suspect.
  • Self-defense is not a justification for a fight. If someone tries to start a fistfight, you could get deported, even if you fight back in self-defense. 
  • Marijuana is seen as a hard drug and will get you jail time and deportation.  Leave it at home. 
  • If you are arrested, go peacefully.  The police have an agreement with the American Embassy to notify the Embassy of American citizen arrests within 24 hours.  If you are questioned in Japanese, say that you will answer questions when given a translator.  You are presumed guilty until proven innocent.  90 percent of Japanese criminal charges result in conviction or confession.  
  • An example foreigner arrest involves drug possession.  (I’m painting with very broad strokes here, but this is just to give you an idea of the experience.)  The overwhelming majority of those arrested are held for a few weeks before either confessing (whether guilty or not) or being found guilty.  In either case, it involves strict discipline and harsh treatment by Japanese prison guards, dealing with a Japanese lawyer, and deportation upon conviction.

Women’s Safety
I’m not a woman, so I’m not too good at the women’s safety issue.  I will say, however, that while Japan is a safe country and Tokyo is a safe city, there’s no good reason to let your guard down.  Lock your doors, avoid really dark alleys, move in groups, and so on.  Absolutely trust your gut – if a situation seems shady, it may well be. Never be afraid to say no.

The most common problem women face is wandering hands on crowded trains.  The appropriate response is to make a scene in order to shame the perpetrator.  If you’re on a train with frequent stops, hop off at the nearest stop and inform a station worker on the platform.

OK! Now you’re really, truly, honestly ready to travel like a pro.  Why not celebrate by picking up 10 words of Japanese?

Handling Hotels

We covered getting your hotels set before you leave home, but it’s perfectly reasonable that you might want to change your plans.  It’s pretty easy to change your hotels if you have a computer and a cell phone, so I hope you picked up a phone at the airport.  If you did, head to an Internet cafe and we’ll get started.

Scoring a hotel room is an easy process:

1. Make a list of potential hotels
This is why we’re at an Internet cafe.  Hop on your favorite hotel listing website.  I’ve listed two on the Planning page of the guide if you need someplace to start.  Both of those sites work all across Japan, so if you’re leaving Tokyo they’ll still work.  Browse for hotels that fit your price range and write down the hotel’s name, price and phone number on some scratch paper.  You should make the list as long as possible, especially if you’re scrambling for a last-minute hotel on a busy weekend or holiday.  I often call 15 or so hotels just to make a one-night reservation for a Friday night.

2. Go call your hotels

If you’re in the middle of an Internet cafe, you may not be able to use your cell phone without getting yelled at.  This is why we wrote down a list of names and phone numbers.  Go to a spot where you can use a phone (you can try asking the Internet cafe staff where’s a good place), break out your list, and start dialing.  Hotel phone lines will be answered by front desk people in Japanese, so you need to establish a conversation in English.  The quick and dirty way is to say “Hello.. English?” 

Once you get someone who understands English, you need to get the conversation onto reservations.  You can say “I want a reservation,” or you can make things easy for the guy on the other end of the line and just say “reservation.” 

3. Making reservations
The Japanese make hotel reservations using a check-in date and the length of the stay in nights.  Also, you need to mention what type of room you want: single, double (two people, one bed) or twin (two people, two beds).  So if you just need the room for yourself for tonight, say “single, today, 1 night.”  If you need it in the future, say just the number of the day of the month (like “April three” instead of “April third”).  Ordinal numbers are hard for Japanese learners of English.

If the hotel doesn’t have room, the person on the phone will make that clear, at which point you can say “OK, thank you” and hang up.  Try the next one on your list.

Find a hotel that’s got your room?  Go ahead and reserve it.  Write down the hotel’s information (name, address and phone number) in your pocket notebook. 

The hard part’s over, because you now have a place to sleep.  But you should keep trying the rest of the hotels on your list to try to get the cheapest (or most convenient) hotel you can.  It’s OK to make multiple reservations, because we’ll cancel all the ones we don’t want.

Canceling hotels
Once you’ve got your hotels set the way you like, you might need to cancel a few reservations.  It’s easy: just call the appropriate hotel, get an English speaker on the phone, and say “I want to cancel.”  You’ll be asked for your name, and then your cancellation will go through.  At that point, you can say “OK, thank you” and hang up.

Fantastic!  Now that you can handle all your own business, you’re really beginning to travel like a pro expat.  In the next section, we’ll finish up your training and prepare you for a few worst-case scenarios.