The Four Islands
A trip to the land of the Rising Sun
From 23 to 30 May 2006, Charles and I took a very uncertain venture across the (other) pond to Japan, a country neither of us had visited before. To say it was an adventure would possibly put an unwarranted spin on things, even though we did end up enjoying parts of the journey. In summary:
No two ways around it, I simply was not prepared for Japan, despite the months of planning, and as a result the trip became much less enjoyable than it should have been. The short of it is--to start--I am not a good traveler by any means of the word. Excessive motion by means other than my own [cars, planes, etc.] aggravates my nausea, and those in combination with claustrophobia and nausea triggered by certain smells/staleness in the air means I get very ill very fast while traveling. The silver lining is that I'm usually better on the return trip, both because I am more recently anticipative of what I will endure and because I am more adapted to the ill effects--for instance, how smoke is more tolerable after standing in a cloud of it for an hour than when first getting hit with it.
There is a secondary problem in myself of regularly being forgetful of something, regardless of how careful I think I'm being. It usually works out that if I'm being too relaxed about something [in general], I'll totally overlook something important, though when I'm being too thorough and triple-checking every little thing, I get too strung up to enjoy myself--and I may end up overlooking something ANYWAY.
Suffice it to say, I ended up both forgetting my credit/bank cards at home in the process of deciding what to take, and I ended up losing an expensive subway ticket during the trip, both of which made Charles quite exasperated with me. This is another reason I don't travel well, that I'm more careful and less paranoid in the security of relatively familiar territory, and, for that matter, there really aren't a lot of places that I want to go out and see firsthand to merit spending the time and money traveling anyway.
Luckily, a friend from the Shmups forum [NTSC-J] came to our rescue when I used the hotel's coin-op Internet to post of our troubles. He took us to a Citibank in Shinjuku that allowed international ATM transactions, which saved our desperately needing to budget every yen. [Others recommended post offices as well, as the Japanese typically conduct many financial transactions there instead of at banks.]
However, with this experience under our belts, I expect a smoother ride during future vacations. If anything, the trip served to further cement my admiration of Charles's levelheadedness even in unknown territory.
Especially as we were on a budget for most of the trip, we actually didn't spend much on food--that's not why we went. Most of our fine dining was done relatively cheaply, buying under 500-yen obento from the 7-11 beside the hotel. Some of them are pictured here, where I remembered to take photos, and all of them were quite decent for about the price of a combo meal at any major fast food chain here in America. The only times we ate at a restaurant were with NTSC-J, who took us to a kaiten sushi place and a tempura place.
Kaiten sushi, for those who don't know, is "conveyor belt" sushi. The sushi guy stands in the middle of a big round conveyor belt and makes plates of sushi and puts them on the belt, and you take whatever plate of sushi you want. It's very cheap--about $1 for two pieces for most plates--and you pay for how many plates of sushi you've eaten. For the three of us eating our fill of sushi, the total was under $30, which is a fourth of what we would pay in America for the same amount. Of course, a lot of the cost is cut from the fact that seafood is cheap in Japan, plus that it's unrolled sushi [no seaweed], but it's delicious all the same.
We spent most of our time in Akihabara [Akiba], which was in very short walking distance of the Hotel Ochanomizu Inn, where we were staying. There were at least three worthwhile game centres/arcades there, possibly more we didn't know about, but we spent most of our time in arcades in either Hirose Entertainment Yard [Hey] or S@Y [Sega arcade]. In terms of shopping, we ended up scouring roughly the same strip of Akiba each day except for two outings with NTSC-J, once to Nakano and once to Ikebukuro [the latter of which we were told simply to visit, though we had no idea what to find while there].
Charles, naturally, browsed the game titles and systems to shop around for the best deal. I predominantly looked for things I absolutely wouldn't be able to get [easily] back here in the states, sadly having to pass on things I'd love to support, like the Hikaro no Go and second Hagane no Renkinjutsushi ["Full Metal Alchemist"] artbooks, because I knew they'd eventually make it to the States, where I have more available spending money than we did at the time. The bulk of what we ended up bringing back [and a few things we would have liked to bring back had they not cost an arm and a leg] is pictured here, minus a few odd things that went missing [a Gashapon catalogue, I think] and/or that were gifts for others.
Should you decide you want to attempt this venture as well, I recommend a few things based on our own experiences:
- Take a LOT of on-hand cash, exchanged in advance for the best rate. I mean, we didn't exchange any money while actually in Japan, but common sense holds that doing it through your own bank will be cheaper than going through effectively a convenience store variant. Plus, you are less likely to really lose anything should you get mugged if you're carrying a lot of foreign currency than if you're carrying a lot of your native currency. [I doubt criminals really want to go through the hassle of finding a place to exchange it, particularly if they're uneducated enough to know how much it's worth.]
- Check your bank/credit cards in advance to see if there are any locations it will be accepted where you're traveling, and don't rely on them solely as a means of payment. Also, check with your bank/credit union/etc. to see if there is a limit to withdrawals/purchases on your card(s).
- Bring toilet paper and possibly soap [and a small backpack to hold them], because a lot of the bathrooms can't be counted on to have them, unfortunately.
- Speaking of toilets, you may encounter squatting toilets--be warned. If you have no idea how to use one, you may want to hold it in until you can get to a hotel or airport...
- Pack lightly for your trip, particularly if you plan to buy a lot of gifts/souveniers, since the less you take, the more you can bring back. Shopping around for luggage that will fit inside luggage will help as well, for large shopping sprees.
- If you find yourself short of cash, look for a major bank [like Citibank] and/or a post office.
- With the exception of people working at the airport and international businesses like hotels, don't count on anyone speaking English, much less good English. Cashiers are pretty happy with not having to actually converse with you, with the exception of "Would you like it heated?" at the 7-11 or wherever.
- Thankfully, there is enough English that you shouldn't need to read kanji to read maps and menus and so on, but it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the basic geography anyway. If you can't read even a single character of Japanese, I recommend you find a Japanese-ready partner and/or tour group, instead of going solo.
- Even when your trip is almost over, it's a good idea to keep some travel money on-hand, particularly if you're taking the subway to get to your airport.
Speaking of which, the subways work by paying a specific price to go from your current location to your desired destination. It doesn't really matter how long it takes you to get there, since people can miss trains or transfer all over the place, but the price should match your point of exit. That is:
To get from Point A to Point B costs 500 yen, so you buy a 500-yen ticket. You can go anywhere you please once you enter at Point A, so long as you don't leave the station, and you can decide to exit, for instance, at Point C instead, so long as it costs 500-yen to get from Point A to Point C.
If you buy your ticket, then change your mind and want to go to Point D, but it costs 600 yen to get there from Point A, you will have to use the Fare Adjustment machine to adjust the cost of your ticket. If you LOSE your ticket, you will have to talk to an attendant, and you'll have to pay up to three times the cost of your original ticket[!!!]. This is what happened to me--luckily, they said I only had to pay the original cost of the ticket, as that was already about $12.
As a light-hearted closing, I made an exaggerated effort to capture as much Engrish as possible on the trip, even the Engrish that's grammatically correct [which was actually most of it] but was situationally odd or funny. Unfortunately, most of them got away, but I photographed what I could. Here are the ones that got away:
- Blue Collar Hero
[bubbly black text on a pink shirt, written over the back of the shoulders]
- BLUE COLLAR HERO
[this time, large black text embossed on a black shirt, with the Tommy Hilfiger logo beneath it]
[reverse side, picture of a skull]
- UNITED STATES OF PARADISE PARK
[worn by a television personality]
- Fighting with Spirit
- DRUG STORE'S
- Heaven and Hell are just a breath away
[this is true with much of Japan smoking like chimneys]
- THE ROSE GOD GAVE ME
[white text on black shirt--that's all]
- Hot For Action
[worn by a forty-year-old man]
- TAKE AWAY
...go in an air plane
- Home of Boobies
- Ready to Surf
[worn by an elderly woman]
- LINCOLN SIX-ECHO
[bar code underneath]
- Baby don't cry for nothing
[worn by a mother of an infant!]
[baseball cap, actually in several different styles, including an Old English font face!]
There were also a few small things I noted that don't really fit anywhere else in this write-up. For instance, my Japanese sensei told us once that Japan drives on the left side of the road but people tend to walk on the right side. I didn't see any of this at all when I was there--people tended to walk wherever and not really care, so I'm not really sure how she arrived at this observation, except that it happened in the video we were watching at the time.
Also, at least for the Hotel Ochanomizu Inn in particular, we learned that we were to turn in our hotel key to the front desk as we were leaving, rather than taking the key [a normal door key on a big stick with the room number] with us. Keeping this in mind, should you go, it's a good idea to not only keep your passport on you at all times but also your hotel receipt. Furthermore, expect space in general in Japan to be about half as much as you're used to occupying [in America--I'm fuzzy on space in other countries]. We reserved a "double" room, which was one rather stiff full-size bed in a room very much like a closet with a desk. It's really difficult to appreciate how small even the stores are in Japan until you're actually there, but this is something to note before visiting--that is, by all means pack lightly.
I may add further notes here if I remember any, as I seem to have forgotten a few things and shouldn't really just continue sitting here until I remember. The most I can do otherwise is direct you to the rest of my photos and let you imagine for yourself.