Hotel Deal: Room for Two in Shinjuku, $100

Hotel Sunlite Shinjuku Want some peace and quiet but still want to be near where all the action is?  Try the Hotel Sunlite Shinjuku, which is in Shinjuku Ward but is in a quiet neighborhood away from all the chaos that comes from the Skyscraper District and Kabukicho.

The deal for single travelers is OK but not great – $79 a night – but at 10,000 yen ($100) for a double, it's a pretty nice price for couple travelers or others who don't mind sharing a bed.

By the way, Shinjuku is one of the most active spots on the west side of Tokyo.  If you still need to know where everything is, check out the Konnichiwhoa guide.

You can check the Hotel Sunlite website for info on the hotel, but you'll get cheaper rates by going through Rakuten to do the booking.

Things to Do: Street Performance Madness, May 2-3

Acrobatic duo G-Choco Marble. Image courtesy Koenji Daidokei. The upcoming bunch of holidays known as Golden Week marks one of the biggest special occasions of the year, and lots of businesses trot out their best festivities.  The neighborhood of Koenji, on the west side of Tokyo, is marking the occasion with a ton of street performers.  The skinny, from Tokyo publication Metropolis Magazine:

Hordes of performers
will be taking to the streets for two days of carefully orchestrated
mayhem to mark the opening of the new Za Koenji theater (well, that’s
the excuse, at least). Expect everyone from circus troupes to
magicians, mimes and musicians to pop up at various locations around
town over the course of the weekend. There’ll be balloons and
face-painting for the kids, too, and tie-in promotions are promised at
shops and restaurants in the area.

There's a website for the festival, and while it's all in Japanese, there are some cool photos to give you an idea of what to expect.  You can get to the Koenji area by going to Shinjuku Station and hopping on the Chuo Line Local Service out to Koenji Station.  Need to learn how to use the trains?  There's a guide for that.

As soon as you leave the station, your adventure will begin.  Be sure to read the rest of Metropolis' guide to Golden Week 2009 – it's full of great things to do.

Flight Deal: Cheap Tickets from D.C., $481 + tax

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Image courtesy Golden Week, one of the three peak travel times for Japan, is almost upon us.  But that hasn't stopped a few enterprising travel agencies from offering super-cheap tickets, like this one out of Washington, D.C.

If you can hop on a plane next week, you'll pay just $481 and tax.  That figure does include the fuel surcharge, which for most airlines has just recently gone way down.

Once you get into the real Golden Week holidays, that fare goes up a bit, but it's never more than $606 plus tax – still a steal, given the season.

The catch is that the name of the airline isn't published, but it's probably American, given the route and their recent tendency to slash prices on East Coast flights to Tokyo.  They're not renowned for their service, but that's how I honed the art of Airplane Yoga.

The cherry blossoms have already faded from central Japan, but the weather is absolutely beautiful.

Get the details from H.I.S. New York, or call them directly at 1-800-275-4447 to make a reservation.  If they answer the phone in Japanese, don't panic: they speak English.

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
Japanese police box. Image courtesy
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/ 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?

Things to Do: 10 Spots for Gamers

Akihabara. Image courtesy Kotaku.
As one of the senior editors on the excellent game blog Kotaku, Brian Ashcraft gets asked a lot about what's cool for gamers to do when they visit Japan.  He finally submitted to the deluge of emails and wrote his very own list of tips for die-hard fans of Nintendo, Final Fantasy and Solid Snake.

Unsurprisingly, the requisite pilgrimage to nerdy district Akihabara is on the list, but there's a lot of solid places to visit to be amongst Japanese gamers instead of tourists getting ripped off.  Here's a taste:

Hey Akihabara is the game center that leaps out of the mouths of arcade
developers like Cave and SNK talk about where they want to test their
big titles. The arcade is gaming's equivalent of Mann's Chinese Theater.

Among the places worth visiting are game wholesale warehouses, a famous game chain called Hot Potato, the 8-bit cafe in Shinjuku, and Sony's showroom.  Sadly, fans of Mario will be disappointed that Nintendo's headquarters in Kyoto has nothing to offer visitors off the street.

Ashcraft includes detailed information on how to reach each destination, so gamers who don't speak Japanese will be just fine (though they won't get as many cool points with other gamers).  His guide even has the same advice as the Konnichiwhoa guide – when you're tired and need to recharge, find an Internet cafe!

Read Ten Spots Gamers Should Visit in Japan at Kotaku.

Things to Do: Not Roppongi

Roppongi Crossing. Image by Guy Bowerman
Roppongi is a tempting, crazy place.  Many expats love or hate Roppongi clubs for its bizarre demographic mix unseen anywhere else in Tokyo.

It's also brimming with punks – really persistent ones, and oddly usually Nigerians – trying to pull you into their clubs.

But it's also possible to have a really memorable night, if you have some Japanese friends to show you around (or you just happen to be down with the more low-brow kind of party).

Or you could wake up not knowing where you are and short a few thousand dollars.  And not in a good way.

Continue reading “Things to Do: Not Roppongi”

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.

Find airline tickets with fees already calculated

A website has surfaced that finally takes a lot of time out of planning your own travel.  TripAdvisor has been around for a while, but it's taken on a new life of its own after unveiling a very cool trick: calculating all your additional fees for you and showing you the real price of a plane ticket while searching online.

I gave it a whirl and planned a test trip from Dallas/Fort Worth to Tokyo and TripAdvisor came back with $610 for the cheapest flight.  After clicking that flight, I was taken directly to the American Airlines website with an open reservation awaiting confirmation. 

The real price?  $609 after fees and taxes.  Pretty impressive.

If you need speed above all else in your airline reservations, give TripAdvisor a whirl.  But don't be afraid to come back and check Konnichiwhoa's flight deals

Read more about the site at the New York Times.

Keyword English

Japanese people often understand English, but only if you say the right words.  There are a couple of reasons behind this.

The first reason is that everyone is taught the same English in public schools.  Secondly, the Japanese “borrowed” words from English without consulting any of us, so the result is like an alternate-dimension version of English.

I used to teach English at a Japanese middle school. Lucky for me, I used to be an English teacher in Japan, so I got pretty good at this alternate language.  There’s a list of words below if you want to dive right in to the vocab, but you might consider reading these communication tips first:

Use as few words as possible.  Put important words up front.
Don’t ask, “Can you tell me where the hotel is?” because it’s too many words for your average Japanese person to process.  Instead, make a polite face and ask, “Where is the hotel?” 

Use gestures to augment your speaking.
What someone sees can be just as valuable as what they hear.  Nod your head in agreement or disagreement.  Point in directions.  Make an X with your hands to either say “Not doable” (or “We’re finished,” if you’re in a restaurant).

Give speakers the impression that you’re following very closely.
If you’re listening to a longer bit of speech, like directions to someplace, acknowledge every clause with “uh huh” or “OK.”  If you stay quiet and let them speak, they’ll start thinking you’re not paying attention. 

Repeat things often.
Japanese speakers do this all the time.  Upon being told a place is closed: “Oh, it’s closed?”  Upon being told that the neighbor’s daughter is getting married: “Oh, really?” If you receive directions from someone, it’s normal to run through them to confirm them.
*Fun fact: This is where the “ah, so” stereotype comes from.  Emperor Hirohito was trotted out of the imperial palace to meet the people after World War II.  But after all that time in the palace, he had no social skills.  People were eager to meet him, but all he could manage to say to anyone was “Ah, so?” (Oh, really?)

The vocabulary list

Keyword English is easy.  It’s just a short list of word substitutions, and the whole thing is printed below.  When you’re done, you can move on to changing hotel reservations on the fly.

Instead of: bathroom
Say this: toilet

Instead of: hang on
Say this: please wait
Notes: Gesture this instead by putting your hands near your chest, palms facing outward (as if making a “stop” or “whoa” motion)

Instead of: I’m ____.
Say this: My name is ____.

Instead of: I have a [headache / backache / etc.]
Say this: My [head / back / etc.] hurts.

Instead of: Huh? / What? [in case of a difficult accent]
Say this: I don’t understand.

Instead of: arcade (video games)
Say this: game center

Instead of: cyber cafe
Say this: Internet cafe, or just “comic”
Notes: People often read manga (anime-style comics) at Internet cafes, hence the “comic.”

Instead of: carry-oh-kee
Say this: kah-rah-oh-keh
Notes: This is the correct pronunciation of “karaoke.”  I still say “carry-oh-kee” around my Western friends, but I say “kah-rah-oh-keh” around Japanese speakers.

Instead of: sah-kee
Say this: sah-keh
Notes: Like “karaoke,” this is a pronunciation thing for “sake.”  “Sah-kee” sounds like “saki,” which means a variety of other words unrelated to booze.

Instead of: notebook
Say this: note

Instead of: laundromat
Say this: coin laundry
Notes: The Japanese pronunciation of ‘laundry’ sounds more like ‘laun-do-ree,’ so be careful.

Instead of: laundry detergent
Say this: soap
Notes: “soap” still applies to ordinary soap, as well.

Instead of: conditioner (hair)
Say this: rinse

Instead of: one’s own [car, bag, house, any noun really]
Say this: my [car, bag, etc.]
Notes: This one’s kind of backwards.  The Japanese use the word “my” without associating it with “me” – so as a result you might have a “my car,” or a “my bag.”  Just be aware of that, because it really confused me a few times.

Instead of: Information Center / help counter
Say this: information [just that word]
Notes: For the Japanese, the English word “information” refers to a place with guides, not knowledge or facts.

That lesson wasn’t too bad, was it?  Now you’re ready to communicate with Japanese people!  Isn’t that cool?  Why not put your new skills to use and book a better hotel room?