October 8th, 2015


Japan travel, part I: getting the lay of the land

edit: more info on the drugs.
Slightly reformatted and expanded for 2015! Huzzah! "Stuff to do" will be in its own forthcoming post.

Getting there

  • Japan is extremely wiggy about drugs.

    • Super-duper wiggy. I saw pot there maybe once or twice in two and a half years. Don't try to bring or smuggle anything in, srsly. However…

    • (edited) Do not bring in any medication containing opiates, narcotics, ephedra-like substances, or stimulants. Even if it's OTC. Though neither pseudoephedrine or its wussy replacement phenylephrine are directly stimulants, both are banned, and they will search for it.

    • OTC drugs are hella expensive, and are often at lower dosages than ones from the West. If you think you might need painkillers or antihistamines, bring them from here. (500 tablet ibuprofen bottles make great gifts! HHOS.) Note that you are theoretically prohibited from bringing in more than 30 days' supply of any given drug.

  • If you're flying into Tokyo:

    • You don't want to use a cab unless you really can't avoid it (i.e. it's past midnight) or you have a very large travel budget; it's probably around $100 to get to downtown Tokyo from Narita during the day, and it wouldn't surprise me if it were double that at night.

    • From Haneda, you have the monorail which then connects to the rest of the rail network. There are a few airport buses, but not many.

    • From Narita: there are more airport buses (which are certainly the easiest if it goes right to your hotel); otherwise, the N'EX and Skyliner are the two main train lines. The Skyliner is cheaper and somewhat faster, but goes fewer places and doesn't connect to the rest of the trains as easily. There are a couple of kiosks in the airport that sell Suica cards (see below) for 500円; I recommend getting one.

  • Try to arrive before 10pm, if possible; the trains start to shut down around 11 and it can be difficult and/or expensive to get into town past then, especially if you're not familiar with Japan.


  • Japanese vowels are very similar to Italian. They're produced way back in the throat, and they don't change based on position in the word or surrounding consonants. tonkotsu and tonkatsu refer to very different things; resist the tendency to slur vowels into a schwa. And vowel length can matter: "meshi" means 'food', "mēshi" (with an extended e) means 'business card'.

  • Japanese people are not used to people speaking bad Japanese. Bad pronunciation and bad grammar will often confuse the hell out of them.

  • Did you take high school Spanish? Do you remember much of it? Do you know what "piso mojado" means? How's your accent? Yeah, well, it's like that for Japanese folks and English, except they were even less likely to have native speakers teaching them. And an awful lot of people would be too embarrassed with their language ability to admit to knowing any English at all.

  • If you write something down, it's often much more likely to be understood than if you speak it aloud. Phrasebooks can be helpful for this, so you can point at the phrase you're speaking. In particular, http://www.amazon.com/Japan-Toshiya-Enomoto/dp/4795818436 and http://www.jlist.com/product/APA257 are really good - but any English-Japanese phrasebook that you can point at will help.

  • The single most useful thing to learn before your trip is not Japanese per se, but the katakana syllabary. There's a whole lot of English words that have been imported for everyday use and they show up on a lot of signs. Take a look at https://www.narita-airport.jp/jp/inquiry/ ; the first two boxes have 'フライト' ("furaito") and 'セキュリティチェック’ ("sekyuritichekku"). If you know that the "r" and "l" sounds are interchangeable, it shouldn't be too hard to recognize those two as "flight" and "security check".

  • 円 is the way "yen" is written most often; it's pronounced "en" without the y sound. People know what ¥ means, and occasionally use it, but it's not nearly as common.

Getting around

  • Get ready for stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. You can usually find elevators eventually, but they're often not terribly convenient, nor are there often multiple elevator banks.

  • If you're going to be spending a fair amount of time in cities, get a Suica stored-value card or the local equivalent. It's a supreme pain in the ass to figure out what the train or bus fares are going to be, which magic turnstiles you have to use to transfer between lines more cheaply, and so forth. By getting one, you can just slap $10 or $20 on there, and just tap it at the turnstyles, and all the calculation and deduction and transfer stuff will be done for you, pretty much.

  • With the exception of Kyoto, the trains (subway or aboveground) in big cities are usually going to be cheaper and more convenient than buses. They're on-time, they're cheap, they're reliable; if the train schedule says they're going to leave at 09:45, by golly, it's going to leave at 9:45. This goes for local trains, the shinkansen, pretty much everything.

  • Most cities will have more than one transit vendor, and it'll be far cheaper (if sometimes much slower) to use only one vendor's transit line than to switch back and forth between them on any given trip.

  • Almost all businesses will have little maps showing where they are, along with their address. The address is good for computer navigation or looking something up in a map book, but almost useless for actually navigating somewhere on foot. If you're at "1-23-4" and trying to get to "1-24-4", it doesn't mean you're necessarily anywhere near, and even local residents are unlikely to know where a given address is. See the fine Wikipedia article for more details. If your hotel has a map on its webpage, print it out along with the address.

  • Get used to navigating by landmarks or notable features (e.g. "500m from the Family Mart"). Particularly common landmarks: convenience stores (7-11, Family Mart, etc) and fast food chains (McDonald's, 松屋 [Matsuya], Lotteria, MOS Burger). They usually get little icons of their own in the printed map books.

  • In a lot of major cities, the trains shut down midnight-ish and the cabs go into super usury mode. If you're going to go out late, be prepared to hoof it back, wait until 5 when the trains start running again, or shell out $50 for a cab.


  • Most ATMs have hours, because why would you ever need to withdraw money past 7pm? Your foreign ATM cards are most likely to work in either a Japanese Post Office ATM, or a 7-Eleven ATM. (Supposedly Citibank, too, but I've seen all of two Citibank ATMs over there, I think.)

  • Be prepared to use cash. A lot. Some places will accept credit cards for over a certain amount, but it's often a minimum of $50-$100. Many places don't accept credit cards at all.

  • If you've got a Suica, some vending machines will let you use it to pay.

  • It's way too easy to end up with $20 of change at the end of the day if you're not paying attention, since the 500円 coin is the largest denomination, and that's $5.


  • The single most useful word: "sumimasen". It's roughly equivalent to "excuse me" and all the connotations associated therein; you can use it to get somebody's attention, to apologize, etc.

  • Second most useful word: "arigatō", 'thank you'.

  • Use the above two a lot. Looking abashed and apologizing will smoothe over an incredible amount of social awkwardness and/or impropriety.

  • Don't be loud. Watch where you're going. Be on time.

  • Most of the food is great. I've heard the country referred to as "A nation of obsessive gourmands." Don't worry too much about what you're eating.

  • More than once, I've referred to Japanese culture as being "Minnesota nice crossed with rigid hierarchy"; I'm actually somewhat serious.