Getting Around in Japan — You Can Do it without Japanese

 

Guest blog by Ray Shortridge

 

Train Boards have enough information for English speakers

A commonly held view is that one has to be fluent in Japanese to get around in Japan. After our couple of weeks there, we felt confident that could navigate the train system to travel between cities and towns across the country and commuter trains within urban areas. Here’s why.

The flagship (to mix the metaphor) of Japanese Rail (JR) is the world renowned bullet train and connects the major cities in Japan.

JR owns and operates about 70% of rail mileage in Japan and provides local and express service.

Several private railroad lines complement JR’s service by providing commuter trains throughout the larger metro areas. (For an in-depth look at the railroad system, click on this link.)

Finding the train one wants in the station is easy. An large electric sign in the entrance hall provides the train number and destination in English, as well as Japanese, and the tracks are designated by arabic numerals.

Directional signage within the building are also in English, as well as Japanese.

At the track, the updated arrival and departure signs are in English.

The ticket indicates the number for the car in which you are seated,and markings on the platform show where the doors on the car are located. The trains stop exactly at the door markings. Passengers line up here and enter in an orderly fashion.

Sample tickets and a rail pass
Train car door markings. Note: the yellow raised strips help blind passengers find their trains.

Japan is an orderly society and respects queues, so cutting into a line or jumping one’s place is unacceptable. The passenger cars are spacious, tidy, and comfortable.

JR is in the process of implementing wifi service and outlets for ac/dc adapters on the bullet trains.

The commuter trains (and busses) in Tokyo and other metro areas use an electronic pass that is tapped against a reading device, rather than a ticket. There are several versions. The one we used is a Pasmo card which can also be used to purchase things like drinks from vending machines and items in some stores. Tickets can be purchased at machines in the station, and JR also issues passes for multiple trips.

The Japanese train network is extensive. Wikipedia provides an excellent overview.

Fortunately, once a tourist has used a particular type of train once, venturing forth again was straight forward and enjoyable. Foreigners should try to avoid peak travel times for local trains, however, to avoid uncomfortably crowded cars when train pushers are required.

Soba Students

The materials ready to make soba noodles (buckwheat)
Ray kneading the dough into submission
The instructor cutting the noodles

As you might imagine, our noodles weren’t done as quickly or as evenly as the instructor’s. It was a easy-sounding process in theory: lean the knife into the dough, cut, repeat. In reality, not so easy.

Finished soba noodle soup and accompanying tempura

The soup can be served hot or cold. In this case it was cold. While I much prefer it hot, cold soba soup and eels are considered cooling dishes for hot days.

Travel Time and Sanity Savers

View from airplane

I love to travel but I also get tired and cranky about the details from time to time. So these are some tips and apps that really help.

Often on foreign soil

If you do a lot of international travel, the Global entry program is definitely worth the money. For $100 for 5 years, a bit of paperwork, and a personal interview, you can breeze through US customs, and simplify security at lots of airports. You also have the option of expanding your pass. U.S. Citizens enrolled in Global Entry may use the Smartgate system when entering Australia without registration. With a little more work, U.S. Citizens may apply for the Dutch FLUX program, the Korean SES program, Panama’s Global Pass or the Mexican Viajero Confiable program for expedited entry into those countries. Additional fees and enrollment interviews will apply.

Usually a domestic traveler

Run, don’t walk, to get TSA Precheck certification. For just $85 for 5 years, you will minimize your security line hassles and time. You will have to go to a local TSA office for fingerprinting, but if you fly even 1 or 2 times a year, it’s worth it for the much shorter and simpler TSA Pre lines. You whiz through security without taking off your shoes, removing electronics or liquids bags from suitcases. It’s heaven. I’m notoriously cheap and this is a service I will continue to renew for eternity.

One caveat. If you fly a lot, you may occasionally randomly be selected to go through regular security. You’ll know, as your boarding pass won’t say TSA Pre. It will remind you of why you want to stay in this program. Also, some airlines don’t participate in the program. I flew American Airlines/Japan airlines in a code share to and from Japan. Since American was a TSA partner, I had Precheck for my American Airlines flight to Tokyo but did not have it for my return flights on a Japan Airlines plane. This was annoying, as Dallas/Fort Worth airport makes you go through security again after exiting customs to take your domestic flight. No TSA Pre might mean you don’t make your connection. Fortunately, we had plenty of time but we had to go through an extensive check of the sake we had purchased at duty free.

Not quite enough for Global Entry

If you don’t travel enough internationally to justify applying for Global Entry, you’ll definitely want yo download the Mobile Passport app. It will whiz you through US customs faster than you thought possible. I still think you should just commit to traveling abroad more, and get Global Entry, but this is a good stopgap.

Phone solution

As you probably already know, most US carriers charge an arm, a leg, and more for coverage in most foreign countries. There are several options to bypass that. 1) if your card uses a SIM card, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for your destination 2) rent or buy a cheap burner phone with data for your destination (downside: your information won’t be on the new phone unless you use Google and log in on the new device) or 3) my personal favorite – rent a Wi-Fi to go option. In Japan, you could reserve a Pocket Wi-Fi to be picked up at your Japanese arrival airport and returned as you departed. The fees were reasonable and it gave you great coverage in rural areas. Combined with leaving your regular phone on airport mode but turning on free Wi-Fi in hotels, metros, etc. it was a reasonable solution. Use Wi-Fi calling for phone calls and you’re all set.

Maps and more

When it’s available and not in beta, citymapper is my favorite app for getting around big cities. Here are the covered cities, but they are always adding more. It does a superlative job of combining all forms of travel: bus, train, subway, on foot, taxi, rental bike, and ferry.

For other places, like Japan, Google maps/navigator is a good bet. These tips will help you get more out of Google maps. And if you’re driving, you might check whether the Waze app has good coverage in your area. The social media input can be invaluable in a strange city.

Photos and social media

Usually, I carry a really good camera (a big bulky canon with several lenses.) This trip had such tight packing requirements that I opted to just use my smartphone (an LG G6 with really excellent camera optics.) I also opened up this blog, so I could share this adventure with friends and family who want to go to Japan but cant go right now. The smartphone was ideal for blogging on the way, and I was thrilled with the surprisingly good photos and videos it created.

When I want to play with the photos before posting, the Pixlr app is easy to use and has amazing options. Honestly, I didn’t use it as often as I should because we were always on the go and somewhat sleep deprived.

Another app, PicsArt, gives the option of creating collages with your photos. The few times I used this option, I really liked it.

Filmora Go was my video editing app of choice. And if you are starting a blog, WordPress is the blogger’s tool of choice for good reasons.

Travel light

I hope these tips help. The other key tips will be covered in future posts. Always travel light, and take a mini pharmacy along especially for countries with unusual alphabets (Greece, China, Japan, Morocco, etc.) But more on that later. For now, Bon Voyage!

Sake Splendors

Guest blogger Ray Shortridge

Rice is the basic element in Japanese cuisine, but it is also the principal substrate in brewing sake. An official of the ExcelHuman sake company guided us on a tour of their brewery and described the brewing process. For many centuries, sake has been a favorite alcoholic drink in Japan, and images on the walls depicted the pre-modern brewing process.

The brewery produced more than a dozen varieties of sake, and we tasted a few. Brenda preferred one with a slight taste of apple, pictured in the center of the right hand column.

The brewery’s high end variety, Donkura, was priced at 13,960 yen, approximately $120.

The apple flavored sake was far less. Hooray!

Paper Gods’ Shrine and Paper Adventure.

In Echizan, Japan, they honor the paper gods as it is a revered paper making village. Unfortunately, many of the talented papermakers are aging out of the business without young apprentices to teach the art. The Japanese government is funding stipends to encourage young artisans to move to the rural areas where the crafts are situated. They are also funding cross cultural programs with other countries to bring artisans to these areas. This is a U.S./Japan cultural exchange, for example.

The horse represents the area. clan and helps protect the shrine.

The horse plays an important role in Japanese culture and history, and hence also the history of papermaking.

We had a papermaking experience of our own in the papyrus papermaking studio in Echizan. We each made 4 postcards using tubs of prepared mulberry pulp and decorative natural elements.

Natural elements for inclusion in paper
The prepared paper pulp, with a color station in the background.

We could also “dye” the paper with watercolor paints. The lid fell off one if the colors I used, so it got more dye than I intended, but it still created a nice effect.

We also went to a great museum and papermaking studio where masters of the papermaking craft still work.

Making the large thin sheets of paper the area is known for.
Super fine, thin paper being manipulated
Paper sculptures by local artisans
A collect the stamp program to encourage young people’s interest in paper

Japanese Food as Art

Half the time I didn’t know what I was eating, but food was always presented beautifully. We did get a lot of seaweed and raw fish which was sometimes challenging. (I like variety in food everywhere except breakfast!) Still, even those meals were beautiful and usually delicious once I got over my cultural dissonance. Here are some of my beautiful meals.

Sushi and raw halibut topped with a local seaweed
Shrimp tempura and pumpkin and cheese balls
A fabulous beef stew. In Japan.
Raw fish and scallops
Ben to box meal. Note how red orange the egg yolk is
Opened Bento box. Lots of pickled foods here.
The closed Bento box is gorgeous