Howie visits Japan – Arriving in Japan.

I hope you all had a good Christmas and a Happy New Year. I had intended to post this sooner, but unfortunately I was taken unwell over Christmas and so did not get a chance to finish this post.

So, you’re on your way and about to arrive in Japan (or at any destination). Make sure you have your passport, and any landing cards and / or customs declaration which you may require to hand. Or in my case, make sure not to leave it on the plane before disembarking. I advise filling in any landing cards and / or customs declaration as required whilst still on the plane so you’re not fumbling around in the arrivals hall.

Speaking of customs declaration, as a side note: I just thought it might be funny to highlight that prohibited item number 5 on the list of examples of prohibited items is “Obscene or immoral materials, and child pornography“. I get the whole child pornography is bad thing, but to ban “obscene or immoral materials” when Japan exports some of the most extreme pornography and hentai featuring school girls and tentacles? Just thought it was a rather ironic thing to ban on a customs list.

So the plane has made its steady descent, the flaps have all been extended, landing gears down, and it had touched down on the runway, with the engines firing up in reverse and the armed spoilers engaged. The plane slows down quite rapidly before turning off the runway. You’ll probably notice that the seat belt light is still turned on, but you’ll also hear a lot of people taking off their seat belts. I would advise you keep your seat belt on.

Yes, you may think I’m being too much of a goody two-shoes, but let me put it into aviation context. The plane will taxi to the gate / parking spot at maybe around 20 to 30 knots (around 23 to 34 mph). Bear in mind that the airport is full of various moving vehicles, your plane may have to brake to allow other vehicles to pass, or brake suddenly in the unlikely event that all traffic has to stop to allow emergency vehicles to race to the runway because of a mayday landing. It can hurt being thrown into the seat in front of you due to inertia.

When the plane comes to a complete stop, I would recommend you simply sit back and relax, whilst everyone is rushing about getting their luggage. It’s easier to wait until everyone is gone so you have more space and time to pick up your belongings, and to check that you haven’t left anything (*ahem* like a stray passport). Follow the signs to immigration and present your passport to the immigration officer. You may be asked a few basic questions like where you are staying and when you are leaving, so try and have those pieces of information in mind.

After you pass through immigration, check for signs as to from which carousel to collect your luggage. Hopefully you’ll have put something bright and loud on your luggage so it gets your attention. Just make sure you check that it is your luggage you’re collecting before you leave the carousel and head for customs, where you’ll be asked to confirm that you have not brought any of the prohibited items listed. And then asked again just in case you didn’t understand the customs officer the first time.

You can start absorbing Japanese culture right here at the airport. In Japan, it is polite to hand things to other people with two hands, facing the right way up for them.  Start getting used to this, and you could even hand the immigration officer and customs officer the relevant documents like that, with a slight bow of the head.

Once you pass through both customs and immigration, it’s time to negotiate the airport terminal to work out where you need to go to get to your accommodation. Before you do that though, I would advise checking out the various vending machines you will find at the airport terminal which look like this:

SIM card vending machine. Don’t forget to look around for different offers and prices though, as prices can vary… a lot.

These vending machines will sell you SIM cards to allow you to use data whilst in Japan rather than using your own native SIM card and being charged an arm and a leg for roaming data. You will need to have a phone which is unlocked in order to use a Japanese SIM card in it.

The provider which I used was U-Mobile, buying the SIM card from a vending machine Terminal 2 of Narita Airport. The SIM cost me ¥2,500 (approximately £16 / US$23) for seven days’ use, with 220MB per day, which I found was enough to pick up some emails, check phrases, and look up where next to go. As always, I want to stress that there are other providers out there other than U-Mobile, so please do check out the different vending machines to find out which SIM card offer is best for you, and for the best price. One word of warning though: make sure you know what size SIM card your phone takes, because you won’t be able to get a refund if you buy the wrong size.

Alternatively, there are various SIM selling counters where you can talk to an actual person if you want to, although since you’re in Japan, why not go all out an have fun experiencing the vending machine culture. You should get used to using them, as the Japanese love them. You can find vending machines everywhere selling toys (gachapon / ガチャポン, or gacha / ガチャ for short), drinks, food… panties.

A wall lined with gachapon machines in Akihabara.

Howie visits Japan – Things to note pre-departure.

So now that you’ve booked your ticket and accommodation, you’re all raring to fly out. I’ve put together some things for you to consider. I’ve written this with first-time travellers in mind too, so apologies if it may read like I’m trying to teach you to suck eggs. Hopefully even if you are a seasoned traveller, you might find some helpful tips here.

Currency

This is another thing which you do not want to leave to the last minute. Massive disasters excepting, currency value does not tend to fluctuate that much, and so you shouldn’t necessarily worry about buying too early. Sure, it’s nice to know you have a little extra, but I’d rather have piece of mind over a couple of Pounds more to spend.

Make sure you leave enough time for your currency to arrive if you have to order it before hand, as most bureaux de change only tend to stock selected currencies, and it may be that the one you want will take a few days to arrive.

If you do enjoy shopping around, then have a look at comparison sites, such as Compareholidaymoney.com, which is what I use as a starting point, although of course there are many other price comparison websites out there to use.

As well as hard cash, you can use your cards abroad, but there may be a fee to pay for your conversion. Also, look at WeSwap.com, which allows you to have a pre-paid MasterCard with different currencies stored on it so you can simply withdraw cash without being charged conversion fees, as well as being held hostage to bank exchange rates. They do have some charges, so do check everything thoroughly to check that it’s right for you first.

Language

When travelling abroad, it may be that the native language of your destination is not English, in which case, you either have to hope that the locals speak English, or you can speak the local language. It’s not a bad idea to look up a phrase book before you depart, and even have one which can fit in your bag easily so you can bring it around for those just in case moments.

When I went to Beijing a good few years ago, I ended up having to speak very broken Mandarin because the immigration staff started asking me questions and did not speak English at all!

If you prefer the more digital approach, you can get many phrase apps now for your phone, although be aware that some of these apps may require data and roaming can be pretty expensive. If you do prefer to use your phone and an app, make sure it is fully functional offline.

In the context of Japan, despite its image being the international country it is, many people still do not speak good English, and therefore you may want to prepare yourself in terms of having a phrase book of some kind before travelling out. It would be helpful to have a phrase book with both Romaji and written Japanese so people can see what you are asking.

Clothing

You may think this takes less time than it would, but DO NOT underestimate how long it would take for you to pack your luggage and your carry-on bag! This is definitely a case of do as I say, not as I do, since I always pack the night before, but part of me think that it’s more due to the fact that I know quite well what I need, and where everything I need will be. Plus, I tend to like to stay up all night before the flight in case I miss my alarm. You’ll have plenty of time to sleep on the plane since a flight from London to Tokyo is around 11 to 12 hours long!

To decide what you need, make sure you check the weather forecast for the time which you are going. Don’t only check the immediate forecast, but also make sure you find a graph with the averages, maximums and minimums for the period of time you will be away.

Check whether there will be facilities to wash your clothing. If possible, this is better than bringing with you all the clothes you need for the entire period you’re going to be away. It saves space in your suitcase, and rather than using the super expensive hotel cleaning service, why not take the opportunity to explore the local area a bit more and find a local launderette?

When packing your suitcase, you may think the best way to get everything into a small space is to fold everything neatly. But in actual fact, the best way is to roll up your clothes.

Electronics

You’ll likely be travelling with a few electronic items, so don’t forget to pack your chargers! You may have multiple devices which have the same kind of connection head, so if the current (ampage) rating is safe across all your devices, you can think about bringing only one charger if you’re not fussed about your devices queuing up to be recharged. If you have a laptop, it may be an idea to bring a few USB cables without the plug head so you can charge devices from your laptop too. I would list all the electronic devices you’re taking and tick them off as you pack chargers / charging cables for them to make sure you have everything you need.

Also, don’t forget to check which plug head adaptor / converter you’ll need. If you’re going to Japan, you’ll want to go with the two parallel straight pins.

Also, make sure you visit the website of each airline to find out their general baggage policy. There will usually be guidance on lithium batteries and whether you can put them in your luggage, or have to have them on your carry-on.

Toiletries

What you may want to pack will highly depend on what kind of accommodation. Most hotels will provide towels and basic toiletries like toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and shower gel. If you are staying in some relatively more budget accommodation, you may need to bring toiletries yourself. Be careful when packing toiletries that you have them in a separate bag in case of leakage. Leakage can happen even if the container feels secure on terra firma due to the pressure difference between ground atmospheric pressure, and the atmospheric pressure at 30,000+ ft above sea level. Although cabins and the hold are pressurised, this will be pressurised to less than ground atmospheric pressure in any event. You can practically see the pressure differential at work if you open a plastic bottle at cruise altitude and then closing the lid tight. After landing, the bottle will be crushed due to the higher pressure as the plane descends.

If you don’t want to bring so much with you, you might look up before travelling the location of any convenience stores around your accommodation so you can buy your toiletries whilst there. If you’re going to Japan, find a ¥100 shop (post-tax, you’ll be paying ¥108) as they sell pretty much anything and everything. There is quite a popular chain called Daiso which you can find dotted around Japan. The Daiso store finder is a helpful map with pins, so you don’t need to worry about reading Japanese apart from finding your own location.

Luggage space for goodies

No doubt you’ll be wanting to do a fair bit of shopping when abroad, especially so if you’re into your Otaku culture, and going to Japan! You may want to think about what suitcases to bring with you. The airlines I have flown with so far tend to allow a maximum of two or three pieces of luggage to be checked-in, depending on what class I’m flying.

If my flight allows more than one piece of luggage, I often leave with one suitcase with all my things that I need, packed inside another much bigger suitcase. I know when I am re-packing to go home that everything I brought with me will fit back inside the smaller case, which will leave me with all the space in the bigger suitcase to pack all my shopping. Otherwise, bring the biggest suitcase you can find. It may be empty on your way there, but it’s actually rather easy to fill up the suitcase with goodies… especially if you’re out in Akihabara buying figures (or winning various figures from the arcades)!

Carry-on bag

I always try and travel light in terms of what I bring onto a plane. My carry on bag is usually my rucksack or satchel. You may want to pack a lot for “just in case”, but if you take a step back you’ll realise that you don’t need as much as you think for your flight. You’ll either be sleeping, or entertaining yourself with the in-flight entertainment system trying to sleep.

The best way to think about this bag is what you will need at the airport both flying out, and on arrival.

To give you an example, here’s what you’ll usually find in mine within the various pockets and compartments. I will be including things which might be in the pockets of my clothing because sometimes I do dump them all into my carry-on bag too, especially when about to go through security:

  • Passport;
  • Phone (with boarding pass if checked-in online);
  • Wallet (with home and foreign currency);
  • Medication (as an asthmatic, this is rather important for me as sometimes the air conditioning on planes can play havoc with my respiratory system);
  • Portable gaming device (which usually means either my PS Vita or Nintendo New 3DS XL);
  • Chargers (with detachable cable as some planes will have actual plugs, others just a USB socket); and
  • Book / Kindle.

Other things you might want to consider are a phrase book, and also tickets and / or documentation for onward travel from the airport to your accommodation, and more importantly directions and / or a map of how to get from the airport to your accommodation.

As mentioned above already, make sure you check the baggage policy of the airline with which you are flying. Also do check the hand luggage restrictions guidelines on the HM Government’s website for more information.

Flying out

Check with the airline with which you’re flying when you can check-in online. Most people do this now, so would recommend getting in there early if you have specific preferences as to seating, or if you want to sit together with someone. With international flights, you should aim to check-in two to three hours before the scheduled departure time of your flight.

Do make sure you are at the correct airport, and at the correct terminal for your flight. I have actually heard stories of people arriving at the wrong airport! Check your ticket: if you’re flying from a London airport, check whether you’re flying out from Heathrow or Gatwick. They’re not close, and you may end up missing the flight if you’re spending time stuck on the M25 getting from Heathrow to Gatwick, and vice versa.

When you arrive at the correct airport and terminal, check the screens to find out which check-in counters you will need for your flight. These are usually arranged by airline. If you checked-in online, you’ll likely have an online boarding pass which you could have printed, or most people will have their boarding passes as a QR / bar code on your phone (this is why you’ll be wanting a charger with your carry-on bag: so that your phone has enough battery for you to access your online boarding pass).

After depositing your baggage at the check-in counters, make your way through security to the departure area. Try to make sure you have no liquids with you at this point, as you’ll have to forfeit anything which is over 100ml. Security can be really slow, but this allows you time to get yourself all ready for being scanned. At this point, I usually start putting things which I would have in my pockets into my carry-on bag, just so that it can all be scanned at once, and when I am ready to leave the security area, I don’t end up with multiple bits and pieces to put away.

Past the security check is what people generally refer to as “airside”. Once airside, go crazy and enjoy your tax-free shopping, or the various lounges if you have access to them. Here’s a tip from experience: some lounges do not have the PA announcements, so ensure you keep an eye on the time and gate numbers to ensure you do not miss boarding your flight. There will again be various screens up around airside where you can check the status of your flight and the gate numbers. Otherwise though, enjoy the free food and drink at the lounges!

Actually, let me add a further tip from experience: don’t over-indulge on the drinks at the lounge. I once got so wasted at the lounge due to the free drinks that I forgot about my flight. Luckily I am a docile drunk and was allowed on when fetched from the airline’s lounge, but note that the staff CAN (and likely will since it may compromise the safety of the flight) stop you from boarding if you are rowdy due to being drunk before you even get on the plane!

Check those screens regularly, and I would recommend that you head towards the gate as soon as it comes up on the screen, as often the journey to the gates themselves can be quite a lengthy affair.

If you’ve got this far and managed to get to the gates, then all that’s left is to wait for your flight, and follow instructions of the staff as to the boarding procedure.

Bon voyage!

Howie visits Japan – Initial planning: accommodation.

There isn’t really very much for me to say in relation to looking for accommodation, as most of you will probably know about all your hotels / hostels price comparison websites on the interweb by now. As a starting point, I tend to look around the following:

The above are not listed in any particular order, and there are obviously more price comparison sites for accommodation out there, but it would take me an age to list all the price comparison sites around, but you get the idea!

The usual things to consider, such as proximity to public transport links, or proximity to places where you may visit the most, will apply equally to looking for accommodation for your holiday to Japan.

As well as the usual choices of hotels and hostels, Japan has at least two other forms of accommodation which I think is rather unique to Japan (or at least I’ve never come across anything similar in my travels so far.

Guesthouses – these are basically like hotels, but in order to save costs, you bring your own rubbish out during your stay, and you also make your own bed with the provided sheets. The guesthouse where I stayed also did not provide towels like in hotels, but you could if you did not have your own rent one from the guesthouse. They also usually have shared bathrooms and toilets. But if you plan to travel around and only need a place to sleep for the night, whilst wishing to have some privacy of your own room, then guesthouses are certainly a good compromise between a hotel and a hostel.

Capsule hotels – Now these are an interesting concept. The ultimate space saving hotel. I know it sounds kind of morbid, but the best way I can think of to describe these is that they are a bit like a mortuary, but for those sleeping temporarily rather than permanently. These are the ultimate in budget accommodation, and are often used by those who may have missed their last train, or just need accommodation for one night. The “room” is usually big enough just for a mattress and maybe a television, with luggage stored in a locker.

Although you may not like the idea of staying in a capsule hotel for the whole of your stay, their very low price means that you can actually have a “base of operations” (and now I have the “all your base are belong to us” cutscene sequence in my head) in one city having your room there to store your luggage, and carrying only what you need and stay overnight in a city slightly further away so you’re not travelling long distances return trips within a day, and going back again the next.

For example, I can have accommodation booked for the whole of my stay in Tokyo, which means that I can have the bulk of my luggage stored in my room in Tokyo. But if I feel like going to Kyoto for two days (staying there one night), I can simply bring what I need for the two days and one night in Kyoto in my backpack, and stay at a capsule hotel. This way, I can have time in Kyoto, but not drag all my luggage (which consisted of two suitcases: one medium sized suitcases packed with clothes, and a large suitcase which was slowly being filled with goodies from Akihabara, and goodies from Disneyland) with me from Tokyo to Kyoto just for a trip of two days and one night.

And look at pictures of capsule hotels, don’t you just want to try it out just so you can say you’ve had the experience of them? During the time of my holiday, around October / November 2017, I was able to find capsule hotel accommodation on price comparison sites for around £5 to £15 per night (approximately US$7 to US$20).

Howie visits Japan – Initial planning: travel arrangements.

Getting to Japan is probably the most expensive thing for which you’ll need to pay in relation to a holiday there. A London to / from Tokyo return flight off-peak should cost you around £400 to £500. To give you all an idea of seasonal variations I headed out during half-term holidays, and returned afterwards with my fare costing between £700 to £800 (although I will also add that I did stop off in Hong Kong for a couple of days as I had something to do there before flying from Hong Kong to Tokyo, but the airfare was only around £30 on top than if I just simply did London to / from Hong Kong alone, which of course made the added holiday a no-brainer).

Another thing to consider in relation to flights is whether you would like to visit other places in Japan, and how you would like to get there. For example, it is possible to travel from Tokyo to / from Osaka by both internal flight, or train.

If you are looking into train travel  within Japan, I would  recommend getting a JR Rail Pass. A JR Rail Pass allows for unlimited travel on the JR network within the duration of the rail pass’s validity. At the time of my travels in October / November 2017, a seven-day rail pass cost ¥29,110 (approximately £190 / US$260). If you wanted a seven day rail pass which allowed for green car (the Japanese equivalent of first class) travel, it would cost ¥38,880 (approximately £257 / US$340). Personally, I do not think it is worth the extra money to get a green car rail pass, as even standard class travel is pretty damn comfortable!

You can get rail passes for 14 days, or 21 days too. The cost of these rail passes for standard class travel are ¥46,390 (approximately £307 / US$409), and ¥59,350 (approximately £393 / US$523) respectively.

The two most important documents for me on my trip to Japan: my passport, and my JR Rail Pass.

To put the prices of the JR Rail Pass into perspective, a train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs ¥8,210 without the seat fee. If you have an unreserved seat, the seat fee is ¥4,870 on top of the ¥8,210, totalling ¥13,080, with a return trip costing a total of ¥26,160 (approximately £173 / US$230), which as you can see is actually not far off from the price of the seven-day rail pass. The great thing about the JR Rail Pass is that it also allows you to make seat reservations for free. But I will discuss more about the JR Rail Pass in later posts in the series.

I recommend working out a basic itinerary to begin with as it is worth comparing the price of the rail passes to the cost of any internal flights which you may be planning to take. I always find trains so much more convenient as train termini are usually in city centres, rather than on the outskirts, which cut out the city to / from airport transit times.

Plus, a trip from Tokyo on the Tokaido Shinkansen (for example from Tokyo to Kyoto) brings you hurtling along at 175mph past Mount Fuji, which is a humbling sight to behold.

Mount Fuji with orographic clouds, taken at 175mph on the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka.

Please do note that the JR Rail Pass only allows for unlimited travel on lines which are owned by JR. Whilst planning your holiday, have a look at HyperDia, which is a train timetabling website by Hitachi. You will want to click on ‘more options‘ to bring out a list of tick boxes. Untick the boxes which say “NOZOMI / MIZUHO / HAYABUSA (SHINKANSEN)” and “Private Railway” before you search so you can see if your intended journey can be done entirely on a JR Rail Pass.

For example, my journeys from Tokyo to / from Osaka, and Tokyo to / from Kyoto were covered entirely by my JR Rail Pass. However, my journey from Tokyo to / from Oarai wasn’t entirely covered by my JR Rail Pass. This is because to get from Tokyo to Oarai, I could only make the journey from Tokyo to Mito on my JR Rail Pass. To get from Mito to Oarai and back to Mito again, I needed to journey on a separate private line. A journey each way from Mito to / from Oarai only cost ¥320 (approximately £2.10 / US$2.80).

I paid for my JR Rail Pass before I left London, buying it from Japan Experience, which has an office based in Central London allowing me the convenience of collecting it in person. Please note that there are other authorised vendors of the JR Rail Pass, and my mention of Japan Experience is not an endorsement of that company against other vendors, but merely mentioned for information only as that was where I bought mine. You can easily find other vendors of the JR Rail Pass by going a quick search on the interweb.

When you pay for your JR Rail Pass, your vendor will provide you with an exchange order so you can collect the your JR Rail Pass when you arrive in Japan (I will talk more about the JR Rail Pass later in this series). Make sure when you place your order your name is correct, and matches your passport as it will be checked when you collect the real deal after arrival in Japan. Let me finish here with one final piece of wisdom: DO NOT lose that exchange order!!!

DO NOT lose this exchange order! You will need this to obtain the real JR Rail Pass after arrival in Japan.

Howie visits Japan – Introduction and contents.

Introduction

Some of you have commented to me that you found my idea of heading to Japan on my own for just over a week, with only a month’s notice, just to get away from HMS Brexit, to be slightly on the crazier side of things (even by my standards). But as promised in my blog revival post which I made earlier in the week, I thought I’d go through the step by step process of my planning (or lack of), and offer any hints and tips to anyone who wanted to head to Japan, but found it too daunting.

I want to add before I start bombarding you with my ramblings that I am writing this as someone who lives in the United Kingdom, and some of this series may be quite Anglocentric, but I will try and write this so that it is relevant to everyone who may be planning on a trip to Japan.

Contents

  1. Initial planning: travel arrangements.
  2. Initial planning: accommodation.
  3. Things to note pre-departure.
  4. Arriving in Japan.