Japan Is Efficient, but Not Necessarily Easy

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Somewhere in between China and sailing across the Pacific, we made a five-day stop in Japan. It was rainy, and we had booked a room in Kyoto, so the first order of business was taking the train there from Kobe. Easier said than done—particularly if you’d just offloaded from a ship and didn’t have any Japanese yen on you. You see, it’s ridiculously hard to find banks that accept American bank cards, and no one told us that in advance.

I wandered the streets of Kobe aimlessly in the rain, bumping into handfuls of Semester at Sea students and staff here and there, as we each tried to take out currency, every one of us failing time and again. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m one who usually uses her credit card before ever carrying cash, but the catch is that none of the machines at the train stations would take U.S. cards either. A conundrum, truly.

Japan tip #1: Take out yen before you leave your home country, or else make straight for the post office if there’s one nearby. Once we figured out this little nugget of information—er, on day four—taking out cash was a breeze.

The next barrier we ran into was language. As native English speakers, we take it for granted that in most countries we visit, we can find someone who speaks our language if we’re in a bind. This proved difficult in Japan—something that shocked me, given how educated and progressive the country is. While I didn’t expect to find English speakers in China—and I was not wrong there—I only assumed everyone in Japan would be bilingual. (You know what assume does? Yeah, yeah, you know where this is going…it makes an ass out of you and me.)

The difference with China and Japan is that in Shanghai, non-English speakers who we approached in the streets for assistance would ignore us or walk away. In Japan, they didn’t care that they couldn’t communicate with you verbally; by God, they were going to help you at any expense. We had men gesticulating wildly to get their point across or draw us a map of where we were trying to go or even escort us there personally. The Japanese people are some of the kindest, most helpful and accommodating people I have met anywhere.

Japan tip #2: If you can’t find an English speaker to talk to directly, try gestures instead. You’d be surprised how far that can get you.

From Kyoto, we took the famous bullet train to Tokyo. We had been told by a handful of people that we didn’t need to book tickets in advance, as they depart so frequently. This was not our experience.

We arrived at the Kyoto train station at 10am on a Saturday morning and proceeded to the ticket office to book our seats. When I reached the front of the line, I found a cute little Japanese girl who didn’t speak English (again…this was a theme) but, boy, she was going to do her best. I asked for the next Shinkansen leaving the station, and she wrote 11:05 down before writing “TROUBLE” beside it, crossing it out with conviction, then rewriting 13:45 beside it. (Cute, right?) I asked for the next time and the time after that, and in each incident, there was “trouble” on the train; all seemed to be running two to three hours behind. Funny, I didn’t think the Japanese were ever tardy.

There were two or three open seats on earlier trains, but inevitably, they were all middle seats in the smoking car. There’s little I can tolerate less than smoke. We decided to hold out for one of the TROUBLE trains and booked our seats for 11:05 13:45. As it happened, we got to our track a little early, around 11:45, as the 9:45 train was just rolling in. The whole thing was empty—the Japanese are also extremely rule-abiding citizens, so they wouldn’t dare and use a ticket for a train time they hadn’t booked—and I asked the ticket collector if we could use our 13:45 tickets to take the earlier one; he just waved us on. From there, it was smooth—and fast, bone-rattling fast—sailing.

Japan tip #3: Don’t listen to your friends; you do want to book your bullet train seat in advance!

Then, we arrived in Tokyo, and the rest of the trip was a breeze. We stayed with my childhood best friend Tracy, a foreign service worker, and she and her boyfriend led us around the city blindly, ordering all of our meals for us and translating whenever we needed them to, which was often.

I have never had better food in my life on a consistent basis, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have a full Japanese spread at one restaurant, only to head to a ramen house after dinner for a noodle nightcap. As luck would have it, one of my San Francisco friends Miles happened to overlap with us in Tokyo for a couple days, so he shared a meal with us, too.

We also spent a glorious afternoon with Fidel—who lives on the U.S. Navy base nearby and whose darling girlfriend is native to Japan and tagged along to show us her country—and the pair took us all over the city by metro, to Shibuya, Harajuku and beyond, something I would have never attempted had we been flying solo.

Japan tip #4: Have local friends who speak the language. If you don’t already have friends in Japan, well, then by all means make some!

While the Tokyo portion of our trip went pretty swimmingly, to be honest, those first two days in Japan in all their frustrations were actually a welcome change from the rest of our voyage. In the more challenging countries to travel—India, Cambodia and Ghana, in particular—we’d been on Semester at Sea trips, meaning all details were organized for us and we weren’t necessarily challenged (which is what I wanted at the time…I was so tired by the time we’d get to port each time that the last thing I wanted was to have to figure out things on my own!). I felt like until Japan, we hadn’t really been pushed to our limits, while ironically going into the trip, Japan was the place I thought would be the easiest of our 14 ports (excluding Hawaii, of course). But travel is all about removing yourself from your comfort zone and realizing what you’re capable of when removed from all familiarity.

And yet sometimes, you just want what you know.

 

COMMENTS
  • February 1, 2012

    I like your post. I lived in Tokyo for 6 years, and am going back for a visit next week. One of the fascinating (IMHO) reasons you encountered so many people who could not speak English is actually rooted in the Japanese language. Japanese can be spoken casually, and formally, but there is a pretty strict understanding of which is which. Japanese assume that this is also the case for English, and rather than possibly make a mistake and say something wrong/too caasual (embarrassing themselves, or maybe angering someone), they claim they cannot speak English.

    In truth, all Japanese study English for 6 years in school. During my time there I literally knew people for several years before they ever spoke a word of English to me… too fearful they would make a mistake or say something wrong. If you were stuck in an elevator with one of those train employees, you’d find out pretty quick that they could speak some English.

    I believe Japan is the most underrated “foodie” destination in the world… if you ever head back, I’ll let you know my pick for one of the (if not THE) best restaurants on Earth… I’m going there at least twice during my upcoming visit!

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Agreed on the foodie destination bit. I was blown away by both the quality and the variety of food available there (it’s definitely a lot more diverse than what you’d find at a Japanese restaurant in the US). I wonder how the Japanese are all so tiny, as I wouldn’t be able to resist seven-course meals nightly! And the bakeries and pastries…don’t even get me started!

      You make an excellent point about the language barrier possibly being less about a lack of English knowledge and more about being timid. That theory fits in well with what I experienced of the Japanese.

    • January 14, 2013

      Yes, they have 6 years of English training at school but only starts when they’re 13. The English language is not used in their daily lives so it’s difficult to take out those sentences and words (tango) when they serendipitously meet an English speaker on the street! 🙂

      I lived in Japan for more than 10 years. There was no way one could survive without speaking the language. But I agree, the Japanese must be one of the kindest people on Earth, they were patient with me when all I could muster were gestures and strange body languages to convey what I meant!

  • February 1, 2012

    Aww, I loved this post. I studied abroad in Japan twice in high school and did my semester abroad in college in Tokyo. Actually, worked in Shibuya three days a week while I was studying! Love the insight into the friendliness, and the rule-abiding citizens. Such a riot and so true. I miss it, need to go back soon.

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      What an amazing experience (and far different from the countries you’ve lived in in recent years, no?). I would love to go back for longer (er, when I win the lottery) and fully experience Japan. I loved everything about it, frustrations and all, and am eager for more.

      • February 1, 2012

        Indeed. I used to say I went from the Jetsons to the Flintstones, after having studied abroad in the center Tokyo in college, and then going to a mud hut in Senegal after college for the Peace Corps. Quite a change, but both were just as amazing. Japan is absolutely fascinating. It propelled my love of travel. I was a mere 14 the first time I studied alone there, and could not believe that despite how DIFFERENT everything was, their methods achieved the same things as they did here in the U.S. It was the first time I realized the West isn’t more progressive per se, we all have different methods and perspectives.

  • February 1, 2012

    Who da’ thunk. Seems like with tourist coming into port money exchange would be a little easier. Maybe they don’t really care about our worthless $$$s. Then, cross cultural assumptions can get you in trouble. Nice to have locals to show you about.

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Yep, you’d think I’d know better by this point, no? It was an amazing five days regardless. Japan is just so ridiculously beautiful and nice.

  • February 1, 2012

    alex said he found it pretty easy to get around tokyo – can’t speak for the rest of japan. i am terrible with directions anywhere so that’s something i leave up to him.

    i was surprised at the lack of english as well – so ethnocentric of me. but, like you said, hand gestures go a long way and i found (generally speaking, of course) that the people in tokyo were so incredibly friendly and accommodating.

    that ramen looks amazing. i can’t wait to go back!!

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Actually, once we took the Tokyo metro, it was pretty easy. It was more the rail system throughout the country–and more so, the purchasing of tickets when our cards didn’t work in the machines–that was the challenge!

      I have dreams about that ramen.

  • February 1, 2012

    Great tips about finding local to guide you. I think that’s the best way to explore the city. And yum… I can’t wait to try out the real ramen. We have been craving Tonkutsu ramen lately. Oh! you make me rethink my summer trip and wonder if we should have a stopover in Japan. Right now the choices are South Korea or Singapore. Hmm…

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Hmm, I’m not sure how far out Narita airport is from the city itself, since we arrived/departed by ship. I would pick my stopover based on that, if you’re just going to have a day or so on each end!

      • February 1, 2012

        Having done the trip about a dozen times myself. The trip from Narita to Tokyo takes an average of about 1.5 to 2 hrs.

  • February 1, 2012

    Ahhhh! Japan! On my list of places to go. Cannot wait for that day to come.

    http://sushiandstrudel.com

  • February 1, 2012

    HAHAHA I always use that ‘assume makes an ass out of you and me” saying. Everybody just rolls their eyes at it but I love it. Nerds.

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Birds of a feather. I love cheesy jokes, so it sounds like we’d get along swimmingly 😉

  • February 1, 2012

    Your wonderful post brought back a lot of great memories from our Tokyo family trip last summer. How lucky that you had locals to show you around – always a major plus. We did a lot of gestures too while asking for some directions. While eating at most places, it was great they had those plastic food displays and all we had to do was point to the ones we wanted.

    For the most part, we relied on our Iphones to help us navigate the very busy Tokyo transportation (only managed to get lost a couple of times). We have that same picture by Shibuya crossing.

    No matter where we went though and as you experienced the Japanese go out of their way to help. They bring customer service to a whole different level. We hope to return soon but Kyoto this time and I’m glad you’ve prepared us on its apparent contrast to Tokyo. We didn’t use this service but thought about it: http://tokyofreeguide.com/

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      We actually didn’t have a phone with us–went the entire four months without! Talk about a technology/social media diet =)

      Thanks for the link!

  • February 1, 2012

    I agree that Japan can be a really difficult country to travel in if you don’t speak some Japanese — and this is coming from a girl who lived there for a year without learning a single thing besides “Excuse me” and “I’m excited!” When I returned to Japan after my first year of acting like an idiot, I did make an effort at learning the language and it totally made a difference. In fact I used to wonder how I even got by without any Japanese.
    Oh, and don’t get me started with the ATMs. They can do amazing things those ATMs (transfer money home? no problem! transfer money to a different account in Japan? Okay!) but they can’t do the simple things (like, umm, accept foreign cards or stay open past 9 PM). Gah!

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      It’s such a cool language, too–I imagine if I lived there, I’d like to learn some conversational Japanese, as well. The ATM situation, however, BLEW MY MIND. At first, I just thought it was me and my cards (Bank of America, Citicard, Capital One), and then realized that everyone from the ship was having the same problem!

  • February 1, 2012

    Cracking post laden with plenty of handy tips, the language one it probably the best known, but things like the bullet train and the various elements related to money are good to know. Nice writing style by the way, just imagining every one who gets to Japan wishes they have a locals/semi-locals to help them on their way.

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      Thanks for your kind words! Before I had so many friends abroad, I frequently used CouchSurfing as a way to find locals who were willing to show me around (or give me a place to crash).

  • February 1, 2012
    Cookie Hart-Thomas

    How fabulous your trip sounds…..so glad that you go the chance to meet my Son, Fidel….Isn’t he just wonderful? He is as nice as his photos and his travel blog….how excited I am for all of you young people…..Live Life….Godspeed

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      He is an absolute delight! Good-looking, charming, kind…all the positive adjectives you could think of! You did good =) Scott and I hope to repay the favor if Fidel ever decides to come to Tennessee for a visit.

      • February 7, 2012

        Our family on my mom’s side is originally from Tennessee- well Africa technically, lol. I know my mom wants me to visit my roots there. Maybe this year.

  • February 1, 2012

    Great read. I feel sorry you encountered so many barriers, especially with the Shinkansen, which is very unusual. Taking out money is definitely always an issue, Japan is a cash-based society but ATMs have VERY limited service hours- I learned my lesson. As for the English level, Japan has to be one of the lowest in the world. Surprisingly Japanese know a lot of English, mostly grammar, but are usually too shy to use it.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Tokyo, and having local friends is the best way to see it. I love Tokyo so much, please let me know if you ever come back!! xx

    • February 1, 2012
      Kristin

      Oh don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved Japan and had a blast while there, I just thought it might be helpful for future English-speaking travelers who might be going there to know about the language and cash situations! I will undoubtedly be back—when I can afford a longer stint there =)

  • February 1, 2012

    You met Fidel, I am so jealous. He wont be in country when I am there. Maybe I can borrow his girlfriend. haha. I’m heading there alone Feb 19th. So I am a bit nervous and excited. I’ll be there for 2 whole weeks. Noting the money thing, thanks for the heads up
    I’ve done some networking, I typically do this when I travel solo. So I hope to meet some cool people.
    How expensive was eating there?

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      To be honest, our friends picked up the checks for every meal before we could even protest, so I’m not all that sure! I think accommodation was where Japan was the priciest, and I’m sure, like anywhere, you can find affordable eats. I know the ramen place we picked wasn’t too pricey…

  • February 1, 2012

    How great that everyone was so helpful. And lucky to have friends in town! But I’m surprised too that there wasn’t more English spoken. I guess that says something about us as English speakers…

    • February 29, 2012

      I went to Japan for 9 days last July and loved it. I would reoemmcnd Tokyo Tower, I found it good to visit the Tower before it gets dark then go up the tower, see darkness fall and enjoy all the lights of the city. Also the views from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku are good and the observation decks are free. (The building is pretty cool too). Ginza for the Apple store, a look at the department stores and the Sony building. Just around the corner from Ginza is the Imperial Palace which is worth a visit. Akihabara of course. Depending on what you find interesting the Tokyo Stock Exchange could be worth a visit. I found it very informative and they do offer a English tour (bear in mind you do need to book this in advance). If Museums are more your thing go to Tokyo National Musuem or the Communications Museum. The Rainbow Bridge is also pretty amazing. Shibuya crossing is impressive and while there check out Takashimaya Times Square. Also when you are out and about look out for the 100 yen shops where you can stock up on essentials. In terms of accomodation business hotels can be more cost effective. I hope that helps and you have a great time!

  • February 1, 2012

    I had a really thoughtful and excellent comment planned, and then you posted a picture of Goldfish and Gushers and now I’m in the corner weeping.

    I MISS AMERICAN SNACK FOOD!

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      Grrrrrl, we bought all of that at the American store on the Embassy compound, and I won’t even embarrass myself by telling you how quickly we consumed it.

  • February 2, 2012

    The tips are great!

    I am shocked by the ATM thing. Thanks for saving us from an unwelcome surprise.

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      Apparently, you can get cash at the 7-11s, too. Wish I’d known that when I was there!

  • February 2, 2012
    Jennifer

    We spent several weeks in Japan last January and we had an amazing time (besides being nearly 30 weeks pregnant and uncomfortable!). We had no problems getting cash out, as 7-11 ATM’s accept US cards. Whenever we saw a 7-11 we stopped to get cash regardless if we needed it just so we would be prepared for an emergency.

    The Japanese people we met were THE nicest I have encountered in all my travels around the world. When asking for directions a lady tried her best in broken English to help us, even stoppiung in several stores to get help. We took her advice and walked along for 10 minutes or so until we heard someone running and hollering behind us. It was the same lady and she was worried she told us the wrong direction and wanted to double check with someone else before sending us on our way. I don’t ever think I’ve met an American who would go that much out of their way to help a foreigner!

    We did have trouble finding food to eat as my husband and I are both vegetarian, but we survived!

    • February 2, 2012
      Kristin

      That’s good to know about the 7-11s! There were none around the port where we docked in Kobe; however, they were a dime a dozen in Kyoto and Tokyo. I guess you learn things by trial and error, huh?

  • February 2, 2012

    Tokyo is one my absolute favorite places to go and I have been lucky enough to always have friends there. But I want to get out of Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka and will make sure to heed your tips when planning my next trip there.

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      I couldn’t believe we were in Kyoto and only got to stay one rain-soaked day. it was SUCH a gorgeous place.

  • February 3, 2012

    I miss Japan!!!! When I was living in the Philippines, we travelled to Japan frequently during school holidays. So, it seems like very little has changed since my last trip there in 1986 (!!!). People still don’t speak English, but are still very eager to help (resulting in wild hand gestures and lots of shrugging shoulders). Oh, and the food? Still amazing? The ramen, sushi, yakitori…aaaahhhhh, I miss my Japan 🙂

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      Uh, when I was in school, we traveled to Alabama or Florida for school holidays, HA. Your childhood was so much more glamorous than mine =)

  • February 3, 2012

    Ah, Japan. I missed this one through my trips here in Asia. I have to make a separate trip out again for it. It’s so prohibitively expensive though. I had similar issues in South Korea — a lot of people learn English but are too shy to speak it. And since my Korean includes “hello” and inexplicably “get out, Grandma!”, it was quite a conundrum.

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      I was quite blown away by the cost of everything there. Thank God we had free accommodation (and arrived by ship so no airfare needed). I lived in Denmark and had no idea it got much more expensive than Scandinavia, but Japan proved me wrong!

  • February 3, 2012

    “In Japan, they didn’t care that they couldn’t communicate with you verbally; by God, they were going to help you at any expense.”

    That made me crack up! And the adorable girl on the train who kept signaling trouble… Japan sounds awesome, if less than straightforward. It’s definitely one of the countries we’d love to visit, but the prices are outrageously expensive. We keep holding out hope for a housesit there….

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      We were lucky to have my friend to stay with; otherwise, we would have most definitely been sleeping on the ship the whole time. Without a doubt the most expensive country I’ve ever visited!

    • February 28, 2012

      We just got back from two weeks in Japan, maliny Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kamakura. I can’t tell you where to stay cheaply as we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental (as in Lost in Translation) and it was simply fabulous (and fabulously expensive). But I can echo a few other commenters.1. It is hot. It will be hotter than Florida or Southern California. It will be humid. You will sweat buckets. That is why the Japanese carry washclothes. They wipe the sweat off their faces at every opportunity. Japanese airconditioning will not be able to cope. Sometimes it is cooler, but never as cool as San Francisco is naturally.2. We spoke no Japanese. We could get around in the stores by pointing and in the train and subways by reading the Katakana (Roman) characters on the stations. You will not be able to read Kanji. It is very complex. The hardest thing for us was food. You might think you like Japanese food, but when you get to Japan you will eat food that you can only guess whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral. Some of it is very good (I loved the Tonkatsu), but breaded, fried things can contain anything. I got a Yakitori I thought was beef, but it was liver. I did love buying food in the department stores as sometimes I had samples and sometimes I could tell I what I was buying (eel!)3. YES! Get a Japan East Rail Pass. You should be able to buy one here before you go. It was well worth it for us, although we also rode a lot of subways. At Narita go to the JR (lower) level and get a Narita Express RESERVATION (they can get you one for the next train out). Be sure and get a JR East Rail Map (I printed one out from the JR website). Also get a Tokyo Metro Subway map (also printed from the web). But be aware THERE IS MORE THAN ONE SUBWAY SYSTEM IN TOKYO and your day/trip pass may not let you transfer from one to the other. We found this out the hard way. But even if you need to buy another ticket, it is not too expensive (170 yen, about $1.50). Going back to Narita you can also go to any main station (like Yokohama or Toyko) and make a reservation in advance on the NEX for your return trip.4. Yodabashi Camera in Akihabara is definitely a trip to visit, but I don’t recommend buying electronics there. I bought a tiny portable mouse for my MacBook Pro and IT DID NOT WORK. Luckily I got the concierge to call the company and tell me how to return it. She even wrote me a letter to take to them. No one in the store speaks English. What I did buy there that I love is tiny, tiny Japanese plastic food. It comes in sets of boxes like Cracker Jack toys. The box tells you which set this is for, but not which exact food items are in it. We bought three boxes and luckily for us, all of them were different. I guess it is like collecting game trading cards. The eighth floor there is full of restaurants. We went to the sushi boat one and it was good.4. For something completely different than Tokyo, I suggest Kamakura. It is a little less than an hour from Tokyo and full of temples. We got off the train at Kita-Kamakura and walked around two temples, then caught a taxi at the train station and took it to the large Buddha. I love cats and found a cat store (many of the stores in Japan are very small and very specialized) just a block or so from the Buddha and bought a bunch of fabric cats holding one paw up. We were going to take a taxi to the main Kamakura station, but the locals (speaking no English, us holding our JR Rail Passes out) told us to get a bus. Get a ticket when you get on the bus and pay when you get off. It was only 160 yen to take us down the hill over a mile. And they give change.5. Speaking of change. You might want to bring a change purse. The smallest yen bill is 1000 (less than $10). You will end up with a LOT of coins (500, 100, 50, 10, 5, and 1).6. We spent most of our time in museums Contempary Art, Modern Art, Crafts, and Photography and shopping. Brought back sake cups and chopsticks and handmade books. Lovely.Have a good time. It is clean, safe, and lots of fun.

      • February 28, 2012
        Kristin

        These are all awesome tips! Wish I’d had you for guidance prior to our trip there, but I’ll keep this advice on hand for my next jaunt to Japan 😉

  • February 3, 2012

    I’m sooo jealous you got to meet Fidel!!! I found the Japanese to be so ridiculously helpful too.

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      I have no doubt you and he will cross paths very soon with all the globetrotting about Asia that both of you do!

      • February 7, 2012

        We would be next month if she weren’t leaving Hong Kong so soon 🙁 A week before I get there. Going to have to call HK immigration and have her detained for a week. She can do hard labour in a dress. I’m sure of it. LOL

        Thank you for the kind words, Andi!

  • February 5, 2012

    I’m really surprised that it was so hard to use US cards! I definitely would not have expected that, and like you, I assumed that most educated people and/or people in places that tourists go like train stations would have some English. I guess that’s why we travel though, to learn just how wrong our preconceived notions really are.

    • February 7, 2012
      Kristin

      Even weirder is that you have to go to the POST OFFICE to take out cash. I don’t think we even have ATMs at any of the USPS offices…

      • February 7, 2012

        I actually wasn’t shocked by that part because in England you can get foreign currency at the Post Office – I didn’t realize that was weird until you just said it.

  • February 7, 2012

    Well happy to have been a part of Scott and yours great day in Tokyo. There is so much to do and see here, and we only got to show you a small part, but like they say- it’s the quality not the quantity. And I had a quality day that day.

    Don’t forget to tell all your friends who visit here about the great pizza in Nakameguero.

    I’m glad you got to see the 50’s greasers in Yoyogi Park. My friend wrote a post about them, detailing why they meet there. http://www.loneleeplanet.com/2011/05/the-tokyo-rockabilly-club/

    You and Scott are a great couple and it was wonderful to meet you and continue to follow your adventures.

  • April 17, 2014

    Having spent a quite of bit of time in Japan, I never thought getting around Tokyo or another big city was difficult – as long as I didn’t have an emergency. Unfortunately, despite having worked in Japan twice my Japanese is very mediocre but I survived. It would have much worse if I didn’t speak English.

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