One of the most appealing things about travel is noticing little details that are different from one country to the next. Bathrooms and hotel amenities fall into that category in Japan.
Most Americans and Europeans fear the hole in the floor toilets seen occasionally at restaurants and department stores, simply because we’re unsure of how to use them. But the Japanese also have some of the most high tech plumbing on the planet, as is shown by this toilet menu from our hotel.
Also at the airport, I went into the bathroom marked “women” and immediately panicked when I saw all the infograms of a male figure using the various types of toilets. No need to fear, they are just there to indicate the type of toilet inside each cubicle. And unlike our toilet stalls, Japanese cubicles do not–at least so far– have spaces where the door closes that one could look into. They are very discreet.
Other fun amenities from our hotel include a tea pot (instead of a coffee pot), an earthquake torch (flashlight), and hooks and hangers on the wall to minimize space use. And of course, slippers and free toothbrushes and hairbrushes. And for those who are wondering about my toothpaste tablet experiment (from Lush). You chew the tablets a little bit and then brush. They taste a bit like a minty, baking soda, charcoal mix. Not bad and less for the TSA bag.
My favorite amenity at this hotel is a pre charged, preloaded cell phone that you can use to get around town with. It was a joy when we went off by ourselves.
The robes were a nice touch too. Well off to bed again to see if a can get a little more sleep. I slept 6 hours at my first stretch so the jet lag hasn’t been awful.
One other surprising aspect of. Japanese bathrooms is that all the toilet paper is one-ply, without perforations. It works fine but somehow the Japanese are able to tear it off in a perfect line. Mine looks like my dog Owen has been chewing on it.
Some of the Japanese bathrooms have music playing so others don’t hear your process. Itoya’s bathroom had nature sounds music. It was lovely. And one held one’s hand up to a wall panel to flush. Really slick. The hand dryers actually work perfectly here, and the bathroom stall locks are an engineering marvel. They swing smoothly into place to lock the door securely.
Our airport parking lot, On Time Airport Parking at Gibson and Yale has a Ghostbusters car much like this one at the entrance. They also have a slew of beautiful vintage cars under covered parking. If you have extra time and love cool old cars, take a few minutes to wander around the lot.
Once at the airport, we managed to sleepwalk our way through the airport and get on the correct flight. Note to international fliers: American airlines now has you present your passport a second time when boarding. So keep your passport handy till you are in your seat in each flight.
At Dallas/Fort Worth, we got to walk through this cool castle to get to our gate. We had a quick turnaround, especially as we had to gate check our carryon bags, so we hopped on the sky train to get to our gate more quickly. I certainly didn’t want to miss my flight to Tokyo.
The airplane itself had fun high tech goodies, especially if you were in first class or business class, which unfortunately, I wasn’t. (They got super cool sleeping pods!) Still, there were some great features even at our economy level. I loved being able to plug in two devices at my seat. They also offered between seat chat messaging, which would be a fun way to distract the kids. And of course, they offered a ton of movies with free earpods. I always find the background noise of the jet makes the movie hard to hear at safe levels. If you like to watch movies, you might want to bring your own noise cancelling headphones for the best experience.
The food at lunch was pretty decent for an airline but not spectacular. It was an Americanized version of a Japanese main dish, some fun edamane treats and a churro cookie that bore no similarity to New Mexico churto. Later snacks were good enough and a welcome break from the monotony of sitting on a plane for hours on end (our two flights totalled 16 hours). They did serve free wine as a beverage choice, which while not recommended if trying to avoid jet lag, was quite tasty. A later salted caramel ice cream was another welcome break.
The view out the window was lovely but usually we were told to keep the shades down so a window seat wasn’t much of a plus on this flight. Ray and I had adjoining aisle seats, which felt less crowded, especially as we got lucky and each had an empty seat next to us.
Ray always loves the flight map and our seats had a personalized version with all sorts of cool options including a preview of the flight track. One really cool thing that I hadn’t encountered before was the “sunrise” lighting, which went from dark, to a dusk- light blue to pinks and then to brighter yellow and orange tones. It did make an easier transition than just going from dark to light.
We made it to Narita airport! Customs was a smooth, high tech process. The only glitches were caused by me filling out my form with a dark reddish purple ink. Only blue or black are permitted so I had to redo the form. They scan both index fingers for fingerprints and do a retinal scan. Both Ray and I took our fingers off the scanner when it went beep. Wrong! One must wait for the staff person to give you permission to remove your fingers.
Narita airport isn’t as crowded and overwhelming as I expected.
For my anime loving friends, there is a separate anime tourism business here.
Despite two months of Japanese on duolingo, I don’t speak Japanese. I can read it sometimes, even write a little but saying the words is terrifying. I’m certain that instead of saying hello, I’m saying “You are a walrus.” Or perhaps I uttered something even more offensive.
So I did what any teacher’s daughter would do. I made flash cards! One side has the Japanese and English translation, the other has my best guess of how I’m supposed to pronounce it. For example, Good morning in Japanese is pronounced a bit like Ohio, our state. And English sounds like a bit like Eggo (the toaster waffles) so that’s my cue.
So my plan is to point at the Japanese for whatever phrase I’m mangling so that the recipient can read it and realize that I didn’t mean to insult him. I made an extra set of cards for Ray. Now we’re just a couple of days away from testing the strategy. Fingers and flashcards crossed.
Airplanes- how we love to hate them. Tight spaces, miserable food in those rare instances when it’s served at all, and the fun of sharing space for hours with a load of strangers. At times, serendipity places you by a fascinating person but other times you get the toddler kicking your seat, the arguing couple slinging insults, or someone who insists on discussing politics.
While those are certainly nightmare situations, most of my airplane trips have been bearable at least, and many more were delightful. It helps to reframe the situations. On my first flight to Greece, a bunch of folks at the back of the plane were literally having a party. Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep so I wandered back to use the restroom and perhaps ask them to tone it down a bit. I encountered several Greek families heading home for a family wedding. They were brimming over with happiness. Despite my abysmal, nonexistent Greek language skills, they pulled me into the family group and by the flight’s end I had invitations to several homes in Greece. (I didn’t go, mainly because I was traveling with my teenage son and our plans were already set.) But despite a sleepless night, it was a memorable flight with memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Airplane Survival Pack
Assuming you’re an adult traveling by yourself or with other adults, there are a few things you can pack that will make your flight easier. Parents of small children will need a much larger emergency pack tailored to their children’s needs.
Earplugs. I never travel without them. They muffle all sorts of unpleasantness.
Tiger balm. It can be used on the temples for headaches, under the nose for sinus congestion, and on complaining joints or muscles for pain relief. And the jar is small enough for your tiny tsa bag.
A lightly scented scarf or handkerchief. You don’t want to give your seat mates headaches with a 90s style power perfume, but a light scent that you can bring near your nose if the stale airplane odors start to make you queasy can be a lifesaver. Vanilla or lavender scents are especially soothing.
Eyeshade. This is especially good for long flights when the lights are often on when you should be catching shut eye.
Melatonin. For international multi- time zone flights, I take a pill at bedtime in the new zone. Does it help? Maybe. But I’m up for trying everything to minimize jet lag.
Ebooks. As an avid (and speed) reader, I love ebooks! I used to have to buy 5 or 6 books at the airport to get through my flight and give them away as I left the plane. Ebooks are much lighter.
Swimsuit. No, one cannot usually swim on the plane, but a quick dip in the hot tub at my destination can unkink my sore body.
Plugs for electronics. Many planes now have plug ins at each seat. This is especially wonderful for long flights.
A pre-charged no-plug charger for my electronics. If your plane does not have plug-ins, this will ensure you aren’t left hanging in that thriller you’re reading.
A small selection of any medications you might need while on the plane. It is much easier to get items out of your purse or daypack than your wheelie that is crammed into the overhead bin. So plan ahead.
A sense of humor. Things will still go wrong. If a tired toddler is kicking your seat (and the parents are asleep), try pretending that he’s giving you a vigorous massage.
While the food on airplanes is often minimalistic, you have options. And international flights still offer full meals.
For domestic flights, I generally find appetizing options in the concourse that are tastier than meals purchased from the airline. If I have time, I eat my meal before my flight and just have juice or water on the plane. And trail mix, jerky (there are even vegan versions), and fruit are good carry on snacks.
For international flights, a lot depends on the carrier. One of the best meals I had aloft, was the Korean option on Korean airlines–some sort of spicy bulkogi. So here are some tips:
Special needs meals. If you need these, don’t forget to pre-order them. If you don’t need them, they’re still sometimes worth pre-ordering, as the options are often more interesting, especially for the vegetarian meal. One downside, you may have to wait longer for your meal.
If you’re adventurous, choose the cuisine of the country flying the plane when the flight attendants offer a choice. It will almost always be better than the “American” choice.
Think food when booking. If you have a choice of carrier, Korean airlines, Singapore airlines, and Japan airlines are known for having especially good meals. Obviously, one wouldn’t pay a huge amount more just for the food, but if you have a choice between these carriers and others with less-tasty food reputations at about the same price, choose these.
This is critical in a long haul. Do stretching exercises at your seat, get up and go to the restroom more than absolutely necessary, and stand at your seat whenever you’re awake. Thrombosis would ruin your vacation, so exercise.
When all else fails, close your eyes and imagine all the fun you’ll be having at your destination in just a few short hours. Happy flying.
American tourists are often somewhat unsettled by Japan’s almost totally tip-free culture. One doesn’t tip cab drivers, doormen, hairdressers, the list goes on and on. An attempt to tip your server at dinner or a bartender at a bar could be offensive and puzzling to the recipient. Needless to say, this should be bliss but cases angst and guilt for Americans coming from a must-always tip environment.
One also doesn’t usually tip maids but there is one exception, at a higher-end ryokan (Japanese style inns often found in hot spring resorts.) In that situation, the tip is more of a “thank you for letting me stay here” than a tip’s “thank you for excellent service” meaning. For one thing, the tip is given at the beginning of a stay, not the end, and must be a clean, crisp bill in a nice envelope. I took it a step further and added little thank you cards in japanese with my envelopes.
We will present one of these card and envelope sets with a clean 10-2000 yen bill inside to the maid who shows us to our room. The amount depends on length of stay and the current currency exchange; we’re only staying one or two nights.
If you’re visiting through a tour, you might give a tour guide a thank your envelope at the end.
I made extra because we can always pull out a card (no envelope) and leave it the table after a super nice meal when the server couldn’t understand my mangled Japanese.
While tips are unwelcome, gifts for hosts are required. More about that later.
Most U.S. phones don’t give free phone calls and data in Japan. So what is a data addicted traveler to do? If you have a 3g/4g phone you can almost surely use it over Wi-Fi, especially in large cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.
A basic plan Step 1:
Turn your phone to airplane mode which eliminates the risk of unexpected and pricey roaming charges. When near a free WiFi location, turn on Wi-Fi and GPS/location while staying in airplane mode.
Leave your phone in airplane mode but manually turn on Wi-Fi and location when you are close to a known free spot. Get familiar with all the places that offer free Wi-Fi. Tokyo and Kyoto metros offer free Wi-Fi, which combined with Google maps will guarantee you get off at the right subway stop. Since the map is still available after you exit the station, you will still have the steps
The luxury solution
If you’re spending a lot of time in rural areas or need to be always connected, whether for work, or your facebook addiction, you can rent a pocket Wi-Fi at the airport. Definitely order one online in advance as they are popular. Here is basic information to get you started if flying through Narita airport. https://www.econnectjapan.com/blog/pocket-wifi-rental-at-narita-airport/
Actual phone calls
Most 3g/4g phones have the option to make calls over Wi-Fi. Unless you make a ton of calls, this should be adequate. If you’re a phone call person, and have a removable sim card, you can get a new sim card for Japan. Check on whether it includes text messages. If not:
Text message savvy
Use something like Facebook messenger that can avoid text messaging fees when used over Wi-Fi.
Obviously, I’ll be a lot smarter about this after our trip. If I have more tips, I’ll add them then.
Crazy as it may seem, high tech Japan is a cash economy so heading to the country with only credit cards in your pocket is an imprudent idea.
Here are some tips we discovered in our research:
Make sure your credit cards have low or better yet, NO transaction fees. Right now, my chase Amazon card offers 0% fees but check your cards rates before you leave. Also, check on your ability to withdraw yen from atms. You’ll need a 4 digit pin (check again on transaction fees) and will need to use an international credit card friendly atm. Japan post has a ton and they even have an atm finder (search in play store under Japan post atm finder app). Another good option for atms and free internet is their version of a seven 11 (http://www.sej.co.jp/in/en.html)
If you can, it’s wise to exchange some) dollars for yen before hitting the country. Banks in Albuquerque mostly don’t offer this service. Wells Fargo does (as of right now) but only for their bank account customers. Charles Schwab has a good travel credit card as of today–these things change overnight. Dallas Fort Worth airport has an exchange service but 1) we have a super short turnaround there and 2) exchange services tend to have less advantageous exchange rates. Still, we’ll have to either find an international card friendly atm at the N. arita airport or exchange a small amount at the airport currency exchange. Some bigger hotels will do exchange but at a not-so-great rate. So most of our exchanges will be at post offices, or 7-11s, many times through the ATMs there.
We are going to the Japanese alps where we will be visiting rural areas, onsen, and farms. We will get plenty of cash before venturing there!
In Tokyo and Kyoto, we’ll be more likely to be able to use our credit cards some of the time. Surprisingly, stores that support credit cards often also support android pay and apple pay. Go figure.
If I find any cool tips and trips during our trip, I’ll update this blog.
I ran across this excellent video which is worth clicking on. It was designed for the vlogger’s Canadian friends but the information applies to anyone.