So first off, why this blog? Well, it’s for my relatives, who want to make sure I’m still breathing, and not lying in a ditch somewhere when I travel, but it’s also for the same reason everyone else blogs– because I like to talk about the things that interest me. I have a lot of things I’m interested in, so I have a lot of things to say about a lot of random topics.
I can’t guarantee any sort of regularity on posting. I’ll probably post more when I’m traveling than when I’m not, or post when I have something to say.
I tend to be wordy, so posts tend to be long.
I also tend to edit the stuff I write over time. A lot of my training is in reporting and editing. I believe in getting it down, then getting it right, then going back and fixing it some more. So don’t be surprised if the content of a post changes a bit over time as I look back in horror at my writing.
Off to Japan– Wait, Gotta Prep First.
Now that that’s out of the way, on with the first story:
I decided to go to Japan, and I needed to prepare.
How did I prepare? Well, I’ll tell you.
I started in late August, by going to Mt. Mitchell, the tallest mountain in North Carolina, and also the tallest mountain East of the Mississippi River. I wanted a moment on a place that’s really high up, with nice scenery to help me get psyched up for the trip.
I slipped on a wet rock and fell and bruised the heck out of my hand and tweaked my ankle.
So, I was successful… ish.
Next came the books. If was going to Japan, I needed to learn about Japan, right?
Well, yes, but, the first thing I needed to learn was how to travel, since I haven’t done any international travel in a while.
The first book I bought was Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door.
Wait, a book on Europe for a trip to Japan? Yup. Because Rick Steves is a font of travel tips and advice. Granted, it’s not all applicable, but some general concepts really do carry over.
I also picked up a bunch of different travel guides for Japan, but to be honest, most didn’t do much for me, with a couple of exceptions. I liked Lonely Planet: Japan and Time Out: Tokyo. But even these two books had problems.
The problem with Lonely Planet: Japan was it was a little over two years out of date. (It was also too big and heavy.) The link leads you to the new version of it.
Time Out: Tokyo is good, but it doesn’t go into detail about Akihabara, and Akihabara is a huge draw for a lot of people who go to Tokyo these days.
I read the other guides, but I didn’t consider taking them with me. Frommer’s Japan was okay if you’re just going to hit the highlights in a large group. Japan by Rail was okay, but both books are more library check-outs than purchases.
The problem with any guidebook is weight. What I would probably do now is scan the relevant pages and store them electronically, or follow Rick Steves’ advice to just rip out pages you need, and leave the rest behind, and throw them away as you travel, because weight kills you.
I’m going to say this again, because it’s really important. Weight kills you when you travel. The more crap you carry, the less you can do. Why? Because you have to waste energy carrying the extra weight, or spend money to get help carrying it, and then there’s the added worry about someone taking your crap. Weight adds all kinds of weight when you travel. So don’t bring so much crap.
Better Sources for Travel Info
The other big problem with all of the guidebooks was incomplete lodging information. I’m not exactly sure how they chose places to put in their books, but the few hotels they list for Kyoto don’t even begin to scratch the surface, and you can bet that every single one of them will be jammed full if you decide to divert over to Kyoto for a few nights.
That “charming guest house” they mention in the book will always be jam-packed when you try to book it on a busy weekend, because every other tourist with a copy of your travel guide will try to stay there.
I found the best advice for Japan travel came from JNTO, the Japan National Tourist Organization. It was usually the most up-to-date. You need the best current info you can get your hands on, because situations change daily.
Another site I really like is japan-guide.com. They have a bunch of information on travel there, and the message board is full of good tips. I plowed through a lot of posts to get information on things like Japan Rail passes, places to go, places to avoid, etc. And by looking at other peoples’ proposed itineraries, I could get ideas for stuff I had no idea I might want to do.
Travel writers have a very difficult job, but I found some great info from talking to Japanese people and looking for Japan-specific travel agencies. I used Japan Travel Advisor in Raleigh, NC for help getting my Japan Rail pass and for advice on places to go and things to see.
Sorting It Out
There’s a monstrous amount of information out there. The next difficult task is sorting/sifting through all of it to come to meaningful decisions about what you want to see/do in Japan in the limited time you have. I skimmed through a lot of stuff to get a sort of general idea of what I might want to see. I went to websites with photos, because I wanted to see if it was going to be one of those “wow” sights or one of those “meh” sights, because sometimes the book/brochure spins a better tale than the actual place yields.
Check the photos that your fellow tourists have taken, not ad agencies! It amazing what you can remove from a promotional photo with Photoshop!
You have to figure out how much time you have to visit Japan, and then you have to figure out what you have to see. You know, the stuff you’ve always wanted to see. Stuff that if you don’t see on this trip, and if the plane back home nosedives into the Pacific, you won’t die with some lingering regret and end up haunting your travel agent over it. So make a list. All the other stuff becomes negotiable. The list of must-sees will help you plan the rest.
Take It Easy
I am building some rest days into my trip. Rest days are very, very important if you’re going on a long trip to Japan. You’re going to need a few days off here and there to just noodle around and take care of administrative tasks, and sometimes just to rest.
I don’t just build in rest days into my trip, I also plan days so that I’m not trying to do more than three big things in a day.
That means if I’m going to Kyoto, I might plan on going to Kinkakuji, Ryoanji, and the Heian Shrine. That’s it. Anything else is gravy.
If I finish at Heian Shrine and it’s still 3 p.m., that’s great– I’ll go to my list of other places I want to see, and find the closest one if I have the energy. If not, then I don’t sweat it. And if I don’t make it to Heian Shrine, well, that’s just something to either see tomorrow or leave on the plate for next time.
Learning to leave places “on the plate” is important. Odds are that if you really want to go to Japan, you’re going to want to go back again when you can. So be mentally prepared to leave stuff “on the plate” and just accept that you won’t see everything.
Wait. Didn’t I just say before not to have any regrets, and now I’m saying don’t do everything? Yeah, I am. It’s a balancing act. You have to strike a balance between seeing as much as you can and not crashing and burning because you used up all of your energy trying to meet some unrealistic goal. Also, if you leave a couple of places here and there to see again, odds are that you’ll go back. If you feel like you’ve seen all of it, then you probably won’t.
There are a lot of places I want to see in Japan. Since I’m staying in Okazaki for two weeks, and it’s near Nagoya, I’m planning on making a few day trips to Nagoya. Kyoto is an obvious choice. I also want to visit Nara, since it’s close to Kyoto, home to the big Buddha, as well as a center for making excellent calligraphy brushes. I have to see Osaka, too, and maybe Kobe. I want to see Hiroshima. I want to see the A-bomb Dome and the Peace Museum, and I want to visit Miyajima. I’d also like to see Kyushu, but I’m not sure what I want to see there yet. Maybe Beppu? Of course, there’s also Nagano and Sendai, too. I want to see Sapporo– I’d love to see Hokkaido.
Getting Medications Sorted Out Before You Go
So now that I’ve done my research, and I have some ideas for places I’d like to visit while I’m over there, it’s time to take care of more mundane issues, like taking my meds into Japan for 30+ days.
If you’re on prescription meds of any kind, and you’re going to be in Japan for more than 30 days, you need to get a yakkan shoumei. What is it? It’s a kind of import license to bring in large quantities of prescription meds for personal use. How do you get one? Call the Japanese Embassy or Consulate nearest you.
Give yourself a full month to get it done, in case there are snags. I sent my forms off 3 weeks before I left, and got my yakkan shoumei about a week before I left. But there are still issues I had to work out. Namely, you can’t take more than a certain amount of certain meds without a doctor’s certificate.
I brought my doctor’s certificate with me to Japan, and it was fine after some explaining in a broken mix of Japanese and English. But you should go ahead and send a doctor’s certificate with your yakkan shoumei application, stating that the medicines are medically necessary, so you don’t have to spend 10 minutes trying to explain what’s what to the customs officials there. And if you don’t speak any Japanese… well… the difficulty level just went up a notch or two.
So get it taken care of ahead of time. If you’re going for less than 30 days, you’re okay without it… probably. Check ahead just to make sure, because laws and regulations are subject to change without notice.
Japanese Cell Phones: Rent or Bring Your Own?
Getting a cheap cell phone that would work in Japan was very annoying, but worth the trouble. Japan’s cell phone system is even more annoying than the U.S. cellular system, in that it uses an oddball frequency nobody else uses (except for one GSM carrier… sort of…), and because you can’t buy a cell phone there unless you have some sort of proof of residency in Japan.
Anyway, there are a few ways around it. I hit the howardforums website for information. It’s full of all kinds of useful info on cell phones, and I even found threads that discuss using them in Japan. The problem I ran into was that buying an unlocked phone that works in Japan isn’t cheap. But after some digging, I found that the Motorola V3X does work in Japan, and can be had on eBay for pretty cheap. I got mine for $120 with shipping, because I picked an ugly color. Not bad.
You have to get a SIM card for the phone. I bought one from Travelsimshop.com, and while it’s a good SIM card, it isn’t without faults.
- Fault 1: the phone number I got is in Estonia. That’s a biggie, because if anyone wants to call me, it’s going to be very expensive for them. I think it worked out to almost $1/minute for my family. Yikes.
- Fault 2: minutes are based on Euros, so U.S. people get hit hard by the weak dollar.
Other than that, it works fine. All of the “global” SIM cards are going to be a collection of trade-offs. The main reason I picked this one was its free incoming calls policy. There are cheaper SIM cards out there, but they tend to have hidden fees, and sometimes they have fees for receiving calls. No thanks.
The other thing I did was plan to rent a SIM card from Softbank. Softbank is one of the major cell carriers in Japan, and they have a deal where you can rent a SIM card from them while you’re in Japan for 105 yen a day, which is about $1. Renting an actual phone is much more expensive, and really not feasible unless you’re only going to be there a short time. Incoming calls are free (yay!), and outgoing calls run 100-200 yen a minute. (Ouch.)
If you’re going to rent a SIM card, you can reserve one in case they run out when you arrive, but you need to do it a few weeks in advance.
I just showed up and took my chances. It worked out fine.
The trick I used to avoid getting gouged on calling out was to have an arranged time/number of rings for the people I wanted to call. I’d call, let the phone ring twice, and hang up. That was the signal to call me. It was always cheaper for them to call me than for me to call them, no matter which SIM card I used. Usually I had them call me on the Softbank SIM, because it was much cheaper, and on those few occasions when I had to conduct business, I would call out on the TravelSim SIM, because it was much cheaper than the Softbank SIM.
The other alternative: find a friend or relative who is a resident who can help you get a real SIM card there.
Other Travel Stuff
So with the cell phone bought, I went about securing other travel-related things. The best things I bought are:
1. The Sony PRS-500 eBook reader. Hands down, the best thing I bought. Why? I can store tons of books on it, so I don’t have to carry them with me as I go.
2. The carrying cases from Waterfield Designs. I love their iPod case because it’s not only good for carrying an iPod, it’s also good for carrying a digital camera kit. Their PSP case is also awesome, as is their Nintendo DS case. They also make pouches that are cheaper and handy for holding cables, chargers, and such.
3. Nikon Coolpix 5100. This is a very nice little 12MP digital camera. It cost me ~$400, but so far has been worth every penny. I would have loved to take my film cameras with me to Japan, but they just weigh too much.
4. Motorola V3X. Perfect for what I needed as a cell phone. Doubles as an alarm clock. I cannot emphasize how important it is to find things that multitask. Unitasking items should remain at home. (Well, except for maybe underwear.)
5. Bose noise-canceling headphones, because I want to keep ambient sounds low when I travel. Great not only for the airplane, but also for trains, screeching subways, screeching children, hotels, ending unwanted conversations, you name it. Only downside: it eats batteries.
6. My Eagle Creek monstrously huge backpack. It’s a camping-style backpack that meets carry-on regulations. Very nice. And it has a smaller backpack that detaches from the “main body” for day trips. It’s very light. I tested it out at the store with 30lbs. in it, and it felt fine. Main downside: if you fill it up, you will suffer, as will the people you carelessly clobber with it.
The only other really useful thing I can think of off-hand that I got was the iGo charger system, and I’m still on the fence about that one. It’s very useful to have all of your chargers in one bag, but it’s unwieldy.
Anyway, that’s most of my travel prep. Here’s a condensed list of links:
- Europe Through the Back Door A great travel primer for those with little experience.
- Lonely Planet: Japan A solid guide, but heavy.
- Time Out: Tokyo Has everything but Akihabara.
- Japan National Tourist Office Great travel info.
- japan-guide.com Great place for basic info, check out their forums.
- Japan Travel Advisor Raleigh, NC travel agency that specializes in Japan travel
- Japan Rail pass Information.
- howardforums Specializes in information about cell phones. More information than you need.
- Travelsimshop.com Offers global SIM cards for unlocked GSM phones (shop around!)
- Softbank SIM card rental in Japan.
- Waterfield Designs Great gear bags!