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japan travel guide: updated for 2019! @ 06:13 pm


I've been in Japan for a week now, and I'm getting used to how things work again. I hadn't spent any appreciable amount of time on my own here for... a decade, I guess? When I was visiting with my sister, I spent a lot of time focusing on what to do with her next. Anyhow, here's what's new since previously.
  • New on the list of "do not bring": meat and cheese. I got an official warning letter about my little package of beef jerky; they let the cheese curds in after inspection, but seemed kind of iffy about them.
  • Many of the more complex ticket machines are now touch screen and have multiple languages available.
  • Many/most of the train ticket vending machines now have PASMO/Suica/ICOCA/etc "IC" cards; no more having to ask "スイカは買いますか?" of random kiosk dwellers.
  • Data SIM cards are now widely available! You can't make phone calls or send SMSes, but you can at least have internet data. (BrasTel claims to have a VOIP app you can use with their SIMs to call locally, but I haven't tried it.) I suggest buying from Yodobashi Camera or Bic Camera rather than from one of the airport kiosks or vending machines; they're far cheaper, and depending on your particular model of phone, some networks may have many more usable bands than others. (I got the IIJ SIM, 1GB/30 days, for around 2200円. One big caveat is that while you can recharge the SIM for more data, you can't extend the time period.)
  • If you don't want to get a data SIM, there are lots of free WiFi points around... but you have to register with them each and every time; it's supremely annoying, and bad enough that there's even a "Japan Wi-Fi" app that automates things slightly.
  • The little map books are now less useful, since everybody uses their smartphone or navitime or whatever, and the curation of landmarks on the maps seems to have gotten worse. This is especially unfortunate, because...
  • Gmaps can be really really sketchy, especially if your phone isn't set to use Japanese by default. In Kyoto, things seem to be extra bad. it randomly boops around your location AFAICT (even if you have local data and WiFi). Even worse: by default, about half the Japanese map entries are transliterated into English, but sometimes they're wrong. For instance, gmaps told me to exit at Karasuma Mujo Bus Stop. That's all well and good, but it's actually Karasuma Rokujo Bus Stop; in Japanese, they would both be written as 烏丸六畳 - but gmaps only shows the English for me, not the Japanese.

    In addition, searching in maps in English can be very problematic. If you search for a generic thing (e.g. "coffee") sometimes it'll get the category of shop wrong, whereas searching for the term in Japanese (i.e. "コーヒー") is much more reliable. Sometimes businesses will show up with localized or transliterated names; sometimes they won't; sometimes they'll use "kunrei-shiki" so they won't appear at all like you expect. An example of the last one: there's an onsen in Kyoto, 天翔の湯. This would most often be transliterated as "tenshou no yu". What gmaps shows is "tensyonoyu" - which is both a combination of kunreishiki and wrong - proper kunreishiki would be "tensyounoyu".

    Entering the specific address is still the most reliable method, alas.

  • Japanese maps are often Not What You Think. I've previously mentioned about how the orientation of the map is usually "the way you are facing is up on the map", but that's usually pretty straightforward to figure out. The more complex situation is that of multiple connected buildings and maps of those. Usually, if there's a map it'll only list out the businesses/spaces that are in the particular building owner's area. So, if you're in an underground area where the subway abuts a shopping mall owned by one company and a second mall from another, the map may a) depict all the physical concurrent space but only show the shops for the current area; b) only show/list the building owner's space; c) show the current building AND the subway train area; d) some other variation. You are expected to know what the delineation between areas is, and many times that isn't obvious at all.
  • Drugs and electronics are still absurdly expensive. Either buy them at home, or you might be able to get them for cheaper on amazon.co.jp.
The greying of Japan seems to be continuing apace.
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