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Japan - Be in the Know Before you Go
When preparing an escorted tour it is important to consider all eventualities before departure and ensure travellers are fully briefed on the culture and idiosyncrasies of their foreign destination. As the September 2013 departure date for Ffestiniog Travel’s rail tour of Japan draws near FT tour leader Bob Cable shares his personal observations of this Far East country. Those considering visiting Japan in the future, particularly those travelling around the country by rail, may find the following helpful.
Fear not! It is certainly true that Japanese is a difficult language for the visitor to master. However you will soon come to recognise a few words and indeed some that you did not know you knew. If you take just a little trouble to learn a few greetings you will find that many people are genuinely delighted you have made the effort. No more than 10-20 words of Japanese will cause much smiling and will enhance your meetings with the locals no end. English is widely used on street signs and sometimes in the most unexpected places. In tourist spots menus and information in hotels are always available in English. Equally all railway station signs have the name (in smaller letters) on the sign boards.
Once away from the main tourist spots you will find that English is less spoken, particularly by the older generation. It can sometimes be useful to look about for young people who are learning English at school and who are often eager to help. If you do get stuck however you will find that the Japanese are always very patient and unfailingly polite.
Food is often something that causes some concern to visitors before they visit Japan. Happily this is something about which you should have few concerns. We often think of the French as the great culinary masters (at least they think so!!) but the Japanese are assuredly even greater masters of cuisine. Much food is exquisitely prepared with subtle flavours and tastes even if the raw materials sometimes make us blanch. You really should try genuine Japanese cuisine a few times in your stay. However Western style food is widely available and very good. Some of the city centre hotels however can be pricey and you are much better off eating outside the hotel. Chains like ‘Royal Host’ (yes really!!) are entirely familiar and reasonably priced if you are nervous about local food. For lunches and snacks things are really easy. Japan has a multitude of convenience stores (such as 7/11 and Lawson Station) and medium to larger railway stations, like those in Europe, have endless retail outlets. Here you can buy sandwiches, baguettes, crisps, sweets and sodas just as at home. However it is a shame not to buy a ‘Bento’ box now and again. This is the traditional way Japanese eat ‘on the road’. These are beautifully presented with traditional Japanese snacks of rice, a main dish, pickles and/or a salad.
Alcoholic drinks are readily available anywhere and beer (biiru) is even available in vending machines!
Be aware that ATM’s are everywhere in Japan, but unlike the rest of the world many do NOT work with overseas cards (even when they show Visa and Mastercard signs). Look carefully for the Cirrus sign BEFORE you put your card in any ATM. The ATMs in Post Offices always DO work with overseas cards and Post Offices are frequently close to railway stations!
We suggest that you get a minimum of £100 (or better £150-200) in Yen in CASH before departure. The exchange rate is currently about £1 = Yen150. Hotels will change travellers cheques but at a less good rate than banks which can be a bit of a trial, so we recommend you only take a few travellers cheques (if at all) as a fall back.
Credit Cards are widely accepted at hotels in payment for extras with the possible exception of a few of the most far flung spots where you will need to pay in cash.
Tipping is rare in Japan and you are not expected to tip in most circumstances. In some hotels and restaurants in tourist areas a certain amount of tipping has crept in simply because visitors tip because they feel they have to and so now it has become expected. However you do not need to do so unless you really wish to and then only a relatively small amount.
Bargaining is almost unknown when shopping except in markets where a polite request might get you a small discount but not much else!
If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend that you buy a good guide book before you go. Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide are strongly recommended, as well as ‘Japan by Rail’.
Japan Rail Pass
If you plan to travel around Japan by rail a Japan Rail Pass gives the best value for money. You purchase the voucher prior to departing the UK and exchange for the rail pass on arrival in Japan. You will need your passport to obtain the pass and once you have it you should be VERY CAREFUL not to lose it as it cannot be replaced or reissued and you cannot even buy another one in Japan and thus you would have to buy individual tickets, at which point you would realise how cheap our rail fares are in Britain!!
Do note that the pass is not valid on every train. For instance it is not valid on non-JR private railway companies and is also not valid on ‘Nozomi’ and ‘Mizuho’ trains that are the fastest Shinkansen (Bullet) trains on the Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka/Hiroshima/Fukuoka mainline. Also, if you happen to take a JR train which uses a ‘3rd-sector’ line, a supplement is needed.
There are no restrictions on photography and you may readily snap away on the railway system without fear of trouble. However do NOT walk on railway tracks. If you do you will be reproached VERY quickly!! Note that stations are generally ‘closed’ ie with ticket barriers, so you need your Rail Pass to gain access to platforms. Otherwise buy a platform ticket from one of the vending machines (press the English language button to work out what to do).
At tourist sites a few temples and shrines restrict photography but not many. Look out for the signs to avoid causing offense. If you photograph people it is polite (as anywhere) to ask a person’s permission. You might well feel irritated if a group of Japanese tourists started clicking away at you when you are at home!!
You may have read about Japanese ‘squat down’ toilets. In reality you will find very few of thsese, but where you do, you squat with your back to the door rather than facing it as in Europe. It is obvious once you are inside!! Public toilets are quite common in Japan and their cleanliness generally is vastly better than the UK. There can always be the odd exception but in general you have absolutely nothing to worry about. Indeed you will come across some of the most advanced loos in the world. A visit to the loo can be a real adventure when it is bristling with dials and switches!! Electronic wonders that auto clean, heat the seat, spray bits of you that normally don’t get sprayed and even make flushing noises (when they are not flushing) to mask embarrassing noises you might make on the throne!! Many toilets in hotels and restaurants have toilet slippers which it is polite to use. Either slip on the slippers provided or put the plastic slippers over your own shoes.
This is such a vast subject that you need a book to cover it. One of the main guide books will give you most of the pointers you need as a tourist. So I will only make a few observations.
In general Japanese bow on meeting and leaving although people may shake your hand as they are making the effort to accommodate you as a Westerner. If you make the effort to bow it will be appreciated. You don’t need to make a big deal out of it. Just a little flex at the waist (rather than at the neck) will suffice to get everyone bowing back to you! The deeper you bow the greater the respect but bowing TOO deeply could be seen as sarcasm SO keep it simple and you can’t go too wrong!!
Shoes are removed if you enter someone's home (if you are lucky enough for this to happen), and also at many better restaurants. In general slippers are provided for your use. Hotel rooms also have slippers by the door although nobody will be surprised if you walk in in your shoes as Westerners do so all the time!! Just look out for slippers left at any entrance from the street!! See above regarding toilet slippers.
If you are offered a gift it is polite to decline at least a couple of times. The giver will persist and you eventually accept and everybody is happy!
You really do NOT have to worry about the availability of just about anything in Japan. If you forget anything or you need to buy something the choice is overwhelming and Shopping Malls and every imaginable retail outlet are readily available.
Prepare to be astonished at how clean and smart everything is in Japan. Whilst the trains are justifiably famous for their timekeeping, many people are not prepared for just how immaculately clean they are too.
Also you will be amazed how extraordinarily polite and helpful everybody is. You don’t have to puzzle over a Metro map or ticket machine for long before someone stops and asks if they can help you. If things ever do get difficult keep your cool!! Shows of temper and arm waving will cause genuine astonishment and hurt.
For those travelling to Japan with Ffestiniog Travel or independently DO HAVE A WONDERFUL TRIP!!