The Stupid Tourist's Guide to Surviving Two Weeks in Japan
By PAUL LOUIE
Blast San Francisco Bureau
Day 1 - Japan
"Welcome to Japan," I said to myself as I exited the airplane on a late Sunday afternoon at Narita airport. Anticipation and anxiety swelled within me. Is everything going to be OK? What should I do if I get lost? What am I going to eat for dinner? These questions went through my mind as I waited to pick up my luggage with a few other travelers at the beginning of the conveyor belt. The questions ran in and out, up and down in my mind as I waited and waited and waited some more. A new question sprang up and it replaced all of the others. "Uh, where's my luggage?" I can tell that that was the same question that was going through a few other people when the conveyor belt stopped. Panic. This can't be happening. Who do I ask to report this? There were about five of us sharing the same facial expression and wondering what to do. Not saying a word, we looked at each other and wandered off looking if anyone can help us. It was only then that someone recognized their bag at the end of the belt that I found my own bag. The situation was resolved.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 1
At Narita, the luggage rides on the conveyor belt once and then they are taken off.
When I boarded a bus that would take me to my hotel, I struck up a conversation with two other travelers who were carrying bags with the same logo as my tour company. They were a grandfather and grandson. The grandfather spoke a little Japanese because he worked in Japan during the American occupation after World War II; therefore, I thought it might be better if I hanged around them. We checked into the hotel and really didn't want to deal with finding a restaurant, so we went to the hotel's coffee shop for a little dinner. I had a $15 club sandwich. The waiter who was helping us didn't speak English, which did not surprise me. We were in Japan. Apparently, the grandfather thought otherwise. When the waiter returned with our food, he lectured him in Japanese. I had no idea he was going to do this, but I knew enough Japanese to know that he was criticizing the waiter's lack of English. The waiter's smile disappeared. Afterward, I asked what the grandfather said exactly. To summarize his lecture, he told the waiter that his English skills should be better because he was working in a hotel that serves a lot of foreign tourists.
The next day, I'll just say that I tended to stay away from this pair. It was just too embarrassing if that was his attitude.
Day 2 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Meiji Shrine
Asakusa Kannon Temple
Today, after the morning tour, I learned the most important skill one needs when wandering around Tokyo. How to use the ticket machines for the subway and JR lines. Look up and see where you are and where you want to go. Not all signs have English, but there are enough if you look hard enough for them. If you need to, try memorizing the characters for your destination. Underneath the station where you want to disembark is the fare you need. Most machines serve one rail/subway line, but at transfer stations, you may encounter a machine where you can buy tickets to more than one train company. There are three companies: Japan Railways (JR), Toei, and Keisei, so a tourist might want to memorize the characters for each company.
If you're not sure what the correct fare is, simply buy the LOWEST priced ticket and board the train. When you reach your destination, insert your ticket into one of the ticket adjustment machines next to the exit gate. If you see a number on the screen, that is the amount that you owe. If the machine rejects your ticket, it means that you don't owe anything. I found this out the hard way.
One more thing, if you are at a transfer station, be careful of which gate you go through. If you want to go out, you might accidentally go through a gate that will take you to another train line. This needs a separate ticket. I did this once. Just go up to a ticket agent and act like a really stupid tourist and they'll let you go.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 2
When in Tokyo, take the train or subway as much as possible. They are the quickest method of getting around. Don't even think of grabbing a taxi. The traffic is too heavy and you have to pay for the time stopped in traffic.
Day 3 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Shibuya District
Yellow Submarine Game Store
Being Chinese, I almost fit right in with the crowd. I say, "almost" because of the stereotypical fanny pack that all tourists, including myself, carry. My Asian background has both positive and negative consequences while visiting Japan. It's positive because I felt safer. If people think I'm Japanese, I wouldn't really be targeted as a foreign tourist who would be totally lost if something went wrong. It's negative also because people think that I speak Japanese. On this day, two incidences stuck out vividly. In Shibuya, a girl was handing out flyers for something and stopped me in the street. I saw her from half a block away and everyone was avoiding her. No one would stop to listen to her sales pitch and I, of course, didn't want to hear it either. Not that I would have understood it. Anyways, I started to go around her, but instead of standing still, she cut me off and started her sales pitch. I had no idea what to do. Apparently, I was one of the few who stopped and listened and I could tell she was very excited with me as a potential customer. She gestured to different pieces of furniture in a brochure and she was talking very fast. I couldn't interrupt her anywhere. Finally, after about a minute she stopped and looked up at me with a smile. I smiled back and said, "Sumimasen, nihongo wa wakarimasen." (Sorry, I don't understand Japanese.) I think she got embarrassed because she was bowing, running, and saying, "Sumimasen" all at the same time.
In another incident, I was walking back to my hotel in Shinjuku when two young men with briefcases actually held out their hands and stopped me. They then began telling me a story which seemed to be exciting. At the end, the guy closest to me put his hand up as if he wanted me to give him a high five. So I did and then I said the same phrase as above. They then smiled, said excuse me, and walked away quietly.
One of the best things I liked about Japan is that the people are honest. Not once did I ever feel that I was ripped off while buying anything. Actually, there were numerous incidences where I got a better deal without even asking for it. For example, one of my hobbies is collecting trading cards. At a sports card show, I purchased 7,200 yen in cards. The person behind the table showed me the total amount on his calculator as 7200 yen. After he showed me, he took off 1200 yen when I didn't ask for it. Of course, I thanked his generous offer by buying more cards.
Now, back to my point. My trip wasn't entirely fun and relaxation. It was partially for business. I brought gaming cards from the United States to sell in Japan because I heard that a card game I play is popular and that these cards were in high demand. On my second day in Japan, I went to look for store that advertised in an American magazine. I was very excited that I actually found the store, because I heard it was very difficult finding places in Tokyo. I entered the store and I showed the clerk my cards. He didn't speak English, but he understood enough to know that I was trying to sell them. Eventually, after much pointing and guessing, I found that the person who did speak English had already left and he works only during the weekdays. I wrote a note saying that I will return in a week and then left. As I was waiting by the elevator, the clerk came up to me and showed me the cards I had accidentally left behind! I had no idea that I forgot them. I was only thinking about how much money I could make. Now, I just think how lucky I was. Could this happen in the United States?
Day 4 - Hakone
Itinerary: Mount Fuji (aka Fuji-san)
Fuji-san is one of the most scenic sites in Japan... when you can see it. My tour included a bus trip to a point halfway up the mountain, a ferry ride across Lake Hakone, and a gondola ride. However, the weather was miserable. The wind was howling and visibility was at 200 feet on the mountain. Because of the weather, the ferry and gondola rides were canceled. The tour guide took us to a museum to kill time. However, I don't think the museum was a very good choice given the circumstances. Inside, there was one exhibit that showed how days of clear weather Fuji-san has on average per month. For the months of January and December, Fuji-san is usually clear for 28 days. For July, Fuji-san is clear for only five days on average. I think the tour operator should change the itinerary.
My stay in Hakone was much better than my visit to Fuji-san. The hotel provided was actually an onsen (hot spring) resort and it had three places where I could enjoy the spring. At first I was hesitant about taking a bath with other men, but due to the encouragement I received from my guides, I did it. It wasn't as embarrassing as I thought it would be. Mainly because there was only one other person in the tub with me and that I repeatedly reminded myself that I wouldn't see this guy even again. The changing room was completely separated between the sexes, but the bath itself wasn't. From the women's side, one could look down onto the men's side and there was a stairway connecting the two. I was also kind of disappointed that the bath wasn't outdoors. I sat in the tub for fifteen minutes or so until I got tired of talking to myself. When I got up, I felt a little dizzy, but the experience was really relaxing. I promptly fell asleep when I returned to my room.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 3
As the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Just substitute the proper place names.
Day 5 - Kyoto
CyberNet Internet Café
Upon arriving at the hotel, I looked in the phone book for the nearest Internet cafe. My friend told me that they're easy to find and that they're everywhere. Well, I wouldn't say that they're everywhere. They're there, but you have to look for them. After visiting the shrines, I started looking for the CyberNet Internet Cafe located on the 8th Floor in the Kawabata Building. I knew the general location so I decided that when I get there, I would courageously ask somebody. It couldn't be that difficult to locate, would it?
I asked a young woman in Japanese where the building was located. She said something I couldn't understand. So she tried to say something in English, but cracked up laughing instead.
I was discouraged. I decided to go meet other members of my tour group because we agreed to see a show at Gion Corner, but I will try again tomorrow.
Day 6 - Kyoto
Itinerary: Sanjusangendo Temple
Kyoto Handicraft Center
The morning bus tour took me to the first three places. The Sanjusangendo Temple was semi-boring because taking pictures are not allowed. Daikakuji Temple was my favorite temple (or shrine) that I visited. The picture I took would look much better if the weather were sunny, but the temple was still very beautiful. The Heian Shrine was, to put it simply, just another shrine, but the garden surrounding it was exceptional. The guide said that the gardens are a quiet place to relax and enjoy nature.
After the tour I went to look for the Internet cafe again. I went back to the same corner and looked up at the buildings. I should have thought of this before. Immediately on the corner is a building with eight floors, so I entered and went to the top. From the decorations on the walls, I guessed the top floor had the offices of a newspaper or some sort of periodical. I entered and nobody seemed to even notice me. I walked further and stopped. I gathered some courage and said, "Sumimasen!" Three people turned around and one of them was the same woman I encountered on the street corner yesterday.
It was pretty funny. She started laughing and then her co-workers around her was apparently asking what was going on. They laughed, too, a few seconds later. Anyway, she came up to me and I showed her the address and my map. She pointed to the corner and motioned to the left on the map. I wrote the character for west and she confirmed I was correct. Then she showed me five fingers.
Five what? I said, "Five blocks?"
She nodded. Then I pointed to the map and counted five blocks. "Ichi, ni, san, shi, go" She shook her head and then she ran behind a counter. She pulled out a brochure with the street's buildings and pointed to a building. I pointed down and she nodded. She then counted five buildings away. With that I thanked her and I found the stupid cafe. Thank you again whoever you are!
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 4
If you can buy the same items at home, don't buy them in the country from it originated. Too much hassle carrying gifts.
Day 7 - Hiroshima
Itinerary: A - Bomb Dome
Peace Memorial Hall
Okonomoyaki is a specialty food from southern Japan. It can be described as Japanese pizza, but that would not describe it fully. I would describe it as a crepe with lots and lots of toppings. Anyway, in Hiroshima, my guide invited us to dinner with her for okonomoyaki -- Hiroshima style. The difference between Hiroshima style and regular style is that the Hiroshima style has noodle cooked in it. I ordered Micchan's special which had seafood in it. To tell the truth, I, personally did not like it very much because the only ingredient I could taste was the sauce. Everything else was bland. The other people in the group said it was delicious. When we left, there were about 20 people outside waiting in the rain. I guess you can't trust my taste in food.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 5
Don't ship packages from a hotel back home. In Hiroshima, the first kilogram would cost approximately $200 via DHL. Second class would only be a little less. The price might be because it's overnight shipping. I don't know about regular post office.
Day 8 - Hiroshima (Miyajima Island)
Itinerary: Itsukushima Shrine
Hiroshima Carp vs. Yomiuri Giants
According to my guide, the walk up Mount Misen takes a little over an hour and the walk down takes a little less than an hour. Or, there is a gondola that takes people to the top in about twenty minutes. I rode the gondola up, but decided to walk down with two other people. The ride up is boring, but once you reach the top, the view is glorious. At least, I assume that the view is glorious. I couldn't really see it since it was overcast, but I can use my imagination. Anyway, earlier in the morning, it rained in the area and water was everywhere on the mountain. Not realizing that the trail to the bottom would be slippery from the water, we started down. Maybe we were too careful, but it took us about 90 minutes to get back to the rendezvous point for the ride back to Hiroshima because I didn't want to slip down the mountainside. The trail was steep. I fell down twice and almost lost my balance numerous times. On the other hand, I was able to enjoy the lush greenery that I could not enjoy if I was in the gondola. It was more of an adventure than I would have liked it to be, but it put a thrill in my trip.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 6
If a native says it will take amount of time, multiply that number by 125% and you will find the actual amount you will need.
Baseball was introduced in Japan by the United States. The rules are the same as a National League game, but the "rules" when watching one from the stands is very different. I saw a game between the Hiroshima Carp and the Yomiuri Giants. The Giants are the most popular team in Japan and, according to my guide, the Carp has a strong following in Hiroshima because the municipality owns the team.
Assuming the game I attended was a typical game throughout Japan, the home team's crowd is separated from the visiting team's crowd. Not much is different if you only look at the people sitting in the best seats, but if you look at the bleachers, it would be something you can't find in the United States. Seated in the bleachers are bands, yell leaders, and people waving huge banners. The yell leaders coordinate the clapping and cheers of encouragement whenever their team is at bat. All of the clapping and the cheers followed the same rhythm. The cheer sounded like, "hokusai " and the surname always seemed to be three syllables with an "oh" sound used as filler. For example, the Carps' star third baseman is named Etoh. For him, the cheer would be "hokusai E-toh-oh."
At the beginning of the seventh inning, Carps fans started blowing up balloons. Two housewives, who were sitting next to my little group and had been sharing their snacks, were generous enough to give us balloons. Apparently, the fans brought balloons along with them because no one handed us any at the entrance. When the top of the seventh ended, instead of playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," an anthem of some sort about Hiroshima was played. The crowd sang along with the music and at the end, everybody let go of their balloons! Because of the sold out stadium, balloons were flew everywhere you look.
One reason cited for the decline of baseball attendance in the United States is that the game is too long. On average, an American game lasts nearly three hours. For the game I saw, the game took three hours just to reach the seventh inning stretch. So, I think Major League Baseball's team owners should just leave the game alone and forget realignment and silly rule changes. Baseball is supposed to be America's pastime. Yes, I'm a traditionalist.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 7
Make time for at least one baseball game while in Japan.
Day 9 - Kurashiki (via Okayama)
Itinerary: Korakuen Gardens
Bikan Historical Area (Kurashiki)
Day 10 - Osaka
Itinerary: Ohara Museum of Modern Art
End of Tour
Day 10 - Kyoto (via Nara)
Kasuga Shrine (in Nara)
Gion Matsuri Street Fair
The main reason I extended my stay after the tour was to see the Gion Matsuri (Festival) parade and street fair. I attended the street fair on the night before the parade with guests and workers from the youth hostel I stayed that night. On this night, the individual floats are displayed around the downtown area. The downtown area was closed off and merchants set up food and game booths in the street. Squid-on-a-stick, octopus balls, shaved ice, and pan-fried noodles seemed to be common snacks. Some games included catching goldfish with a paper-mache net, shooting at targets, and hooking floating balloons with a fishhook. I'm not sure what was the point of hooking balloons because I don't remember seeing any prizes around. I also saw my first Tamogotchi. I was looking for one for a co-worker since arriving in Japan, but I couldn't find any. Apparently, people have been hiding them for the festival because they were being given away as prizes at a lot of booths.
The youth hostel workers led the group and myself in and out of buildings. At first, I thought that they knew the owners of the places we entered because each one looked like the inside of a shrine and that they wanted me to make some sort of contribution. I assumed it was just another tourist trap. When I asked the worker why we were visiting such places, it turns out that the places that we visited were actually stores during the day and for the festival, the owners converts the store to a shrine at night. What dedication!
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 8
When riding a bus, try to sit or stand at the front. On the ceiling, at the front, is a message sign that will flash the upcoming stop in English letters.
Day 11 - Kyoto
Itinerary: Gion Festival Parade
Day 12 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Kyoto Tower
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 9
When traveling by Shinkansen (Bullet Train), don't worry about the schedule too much. The train you will most likely take is the Hikari and the trains are spaced about 10-15 minutes apart.
Stupid Tourist Lesson No. 10
Bring a compass. It helps in when you're lost and when you exit subway and train stations. It helped me.
My accommodations, when I returned to Tokyo, was the Tokyo International Youth Hostel. The place was clean and efficient, but the staff followed the rules very rigidly. When I checked in, our conversation was short and concise. The staff didn't seem to smile or laugh at all. It was all business. I should have expected what happened the next morning. The morning intercom wakeup call was at 7 a.m. sharp and loud. It said in Japanese, then in English that breakfast is being served and that you can buy a meal ticket at the front desk. At 8:30 a.m., the staff announces that breakfast is over and that everyone should vacate the premises by 10 a.m. At 10 p.m., they tell everyone that the showers are closed and everybody should hurry and finish. At 10:30 p.m., the staff locks the front doors, closes the front desk, and then turns off the hallway lights. You can guess at the announcements they make during the rest of the day. Overall, I wouldn't stay there again unless I wasn't looking for something fun.
Day 13 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Ginza District
Imperial Palace - East Garden
Normally, bars are the last place anyone can find me, but when I read about conversational lounges in "The Lonely Planet City Guide: Tokyo," I decided to at least look around in one. The book specifically mentions Mickey House near Takanobaba station. On Saturday night, I went with two of my roommates from the youth hostel. We were very surprised when we stepped out of the elevator and went through the door. The place was not like any bar I've seen. It was a well-lit hole-in-the-wall. There were five small tables, which were all full, and a bar with five stools. The lounge had a 1,000 yen cover charge, but it is waived if the person spoke English. Another perk is all-you-can-drink coffee for 300 yen. The owner said that they've been in business using the same format for fifteen years and judging from the crowd, they do good business.
At first, my roommates and I met a couple of English teachers from England and we talked about their transition to living in Tokyo. Eventually, we mingled a bit and started a conversation with two local guys sitting in a corner. We talked about our occupations and why we were here. One said that he wanted to practice his English for his job and the other said that English was his hobby and that he wanted to start learning it again. One lived in the neighborhood, but the other lived just outside Yokohama, south of Tokyo. Both were married with children. When I asked what their wives were doing, both responded that they were at home taking care of the children. I was not surprised when they said that because of what I've read about the culture. We left after a couple of hours because of the youth hostel's curfew, but I considered my visit a very educational experience.
Day 14 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Tokyo University
Tokyo Dome (The Big Egg)
Tokyo Municipal Government Building
Ginza District (night)
I thought that after my stay at the Tokyo youth hostel, anything would be better. I was correct. On this day, I checked into the Sawanoya Ryokan. Just like a youth hostel, bathroom facilities are shared, but for the few extra dollars, I get a private room. The room was small, though. The room was about 9 feet by 9 feet, with large tatatmi, a closet, an alcove, a low table, and a small television. Despite the tiny size and modest furnishings, the room suited my needs, so I was happy.
The ryokan is supposed to be the type of place where the Japanese stay if they are on a budget. During my stay, I honestly did not see any Japanese other than the owners. I talked a bit with an English couple, a Canadian, two Koreans, one French lady, and a German. I didn't meet anybody from the United States. During my stay at the youth hostel, I didn't meet anybody from America either. My various roommates were from Hong Kong, Korea, Australia, Germany, Great Britain, and Canada. Does anybody from the U.S. visit Japan and stay at hostels?
Day 15 - Tokyo
Itinerary: Ueno Park
National Museum of Science
Sumida River Cruise
English can be found everywhere. They are on street signs, in storefronts, and in background music. English seems to be common as a hobby. Aside from my visit at Mickey House, I've seen young Japanese go up to Caucasians and ask if they spoke English. I assume they want to practice. A couple of times, I wanted to just announce to everyone that I spoke English and see what kind of response I get just because I got kind of bored at the end of my trip. On a visit to a Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjuku, I saw a display for English language tapes and I assume the salesperson was attempting to get people to try it out. When I walked by it, they asked me to try it out. I was really, really, really strongly tempted to say something. Maybe I could have been paid just to stand there with them and become their "best" student. "See what can happen if you use these tapes!" Instead, I just waved them off.
Furthermore, I met one person on a train and she asked where I was going in English. She was a housewife from a town near Hokkaido and she was visiting relatives in Tokyo. She asked if I spoke English because she saw me reading my tour book. We talked a bit and she told me that she is learning English from a radio program that broadcasts three time a day. I was impressed with her English skills.
Day 16 - Tokyo and San Francisco
Itinerary: Tsukuji Fish Market
Tokyo JR Station
End of Trip
On my way to the airport, I wasn't sure if I was on the correct train platform for the JR Narita Express so I decided to ask someone. I saw a white man with a Japanese woman and I approached him.
Stupid Tourist: Excuse me. Do you speak English?
Idiot: Hey! You speak very good English. That's the first time in two weeks that I've heard someone speak English that good!
Stupid Tourist: What an idiot?!
Stupid Tourist: Uh, thank you. Actually I just want to know if I can catch the Narita Express here.
Idiot: No, it's the platform across these tracks.
Stupid Tourist: Thanks.
He didn't speak English with any accent so I guess he's from the United States. After he complemented me on my English, I had the very strong urge to say something in English with a very bad Chinese accent. Or, maybe I should have tried to impress him and give him my life story or something. I didn't, but now I wish I did. Stupid me.
Overall, I had a lot of fun on my trip to Japan. There were bumps, but overall, I really don't have too many complaints. The trip was expensive, but once I got there, I didn't think everything was that much more expensive than the United States. Just avoid buying things that are imported and don't eat in hotel restaurants. Also, avoid taxis as much as possible. It's easy to get lost, but I didn't have a hard time getting "unlost." I highly recommend seeing a baseball game and one thing I didn't try, but I wish I did is visiting a Japanese family's home. It's sponsored by the Japan National Tourist Association (JNTO). I also recommend contacting the JNTO to get maps and brochures. They're very helpful.
Paul would like to thank everyone he met on the trip.