Japan intrigued me so much that I asked John Bolen, Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy, to recommend a book to help me understand it. As Lonely Planet observed, “The Japanese are as varied as any people on earth.” His suggestion was The Japanese Mind by Roger Davies. It’s on order. Here are 10 tips that really helped me make the most of Kyoto, Hiroshima, etc.
1. The best way to get around Japan is high-speed train, the fastest being Japanese Railway’s shinkansen or “bullet trains”. Luckily, someone told us about the Japan Rail Pass before it was too late for Ruth and me to get them. They must be ordered before travel because they’re only available to sightseeing visitors from foreign countries. They cannot be purchased in Japan. Before use, we presented our Exchange Orders at a Japan Rail Pass office and received our actual passes, plastic cards to show every time we entered the system. JR passes cost us $276 apiece, which turned out to be a genuine bargain. When some citizens saw them, they expressed jealousy because train travel, especially on bullets, is quite expensive. You can also pay more and make seat reservations, but we weren’t in Japan during a big holiday so we never did. There were consistently 2 or 3 cars of non-reserved seats for travelers without seat assignments.
2. It took us a day or two to realize that JR was just one company among many and that our passes were only good on their trains, buses, ferries, etc. There are a great number of private railways operating in Japanese cities and from city to city, and it’s very easy to get on the wrong train. The Japanese are generally eager to help you buy a ticket, find the correct platform, etc. whether or not they speak English. Generally. I developed a rash and we sought a pharmacist. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “No,” he replied. I hoisted my leg up anyway and showed him the redness. “Does it itch?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He handed me a small tube of what looked like Neosporin. The rash was gone in 24 hours.
3. Japan can be expensive. If money is no object, you can enjoy the finest of meals in hundreds of restaurants. If you’re watching the yen, you will usually find many reasonable restaurant choices on the top floors of department stores, which are common. I love Tempura, soba (thin buckwheat noodles), udon (thick wheat noodles), etc. and I had my fill every day. If a bowl of noodles with additions costs, say, 1,000 yen, that was about $10.
4. If you’re facing dehydration by mid-afternoon in a hot Japanese city, you will probably be near a vending machine that dispenses Cokes, fruit juices, local variations on coffee, tea, etc. for reasonable prices. Always have plenty of coins on you that add up to about 150 yen.
5. People bow everywhere and Japanese deference takes some getting used to. Unlike the French, they really do seem to appreciate any attempt on your part to speak their language. Every time I said, “arigato” (thank you), I elicited smiles.
6. You sometimes still have the option of Japanese or Western Style toilets.
7. Tipping is not common in Japan. If you feel you must reward someone for service, give them a gift instead of money.
8. Those entering a restaurant are greeted like treasured guests and complimentary tea, often green, is brought to the table. It’s a lovely custom.
9. I had read some articles that talked about Japan’s aging population, so I was surprised that wherever we went Ruth and I were surrounded by literally hundreds of mostly well-behaved students. Most ignored us unless part of their assignment was to find an English speaking him or her to engage in conversation.
10. Prepare to be impressed by Japanese efficiency, intelligence, and work-ethic.