In December 2013 I spent about a week in Tokyo, Japan before heading for a wedding in Seoul, South Korea. We took thousands of pictures, so sorting through them will take a while. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be dividing my trip into the following blog posts for both countries:
Part 1 – Surviving or aka how to survive with language barriers
Part 2 – Food & Lodging on my trip
Part 3 – Sights, cultural stuff we saw on the trip
Part 4 – Shopping, retail and what to expect
Post release dates:
Jan 6, 2014 – Tokyo Part 1
Jan 13, 2014 – Tokyo Part 2
Jan 20, 2014 – Tokyo Part 3
Jan 27, 2014 – Tokyo Part 4
Feb 3, 2014 – Seoul Part 1
Feb 10, 2014 – Seoul Part 2
Feb 17, 2014 – Seoul Part 3
Feb 24, 2014 – Seoul Part 4
Now let’s start with a post about Tokyo, an amazing city!
Tokyo Part 1 – Surviving!
As with any Asian trip, there is always some culture shock upon arrival because…well, everyone looks Asian! Also, for some reason, people think I am Japanese or Korean although I’m Chinese. My Viking husband was amused that people always seem shock when I open my mouth and then I start getting the “she must have a mental issue” looks.
I knew some basic Japanese since I studied the language 10 years ago, but it really wasn’t enough to get by with any conversations. I could ask a question, but would pick up only 10% of what people responded with.
Anyhow, there were a few things that made our trip a pretty good one even though we didn’t have much language sills and below are a few tips I compiled that would help anyone with no understanding of the Japanese language. We relied on the Lonely Planet guide book which was pretty good and they have a website with lots of basic info: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/tokyo/
Pictures at end of blog post (scroll down).
1) Wi Fi hotspot & Google Maps
Prior to leaving Canada, my Viking had made arrangements for a Wi Fi hotspot device to be delivered to the hotel upon our arrival. It’s basically a portable internet wi-fi spot which we used for our phones. This was a life saver as all the street signs are in Japanese, so we relied heavily on Google Maps to tell us where we were going.
Sometimes we didn’t know how much a fare was on the subway system, but Google Maps would tell us the amount and list all the stops before we were suppose to get off as well. Also, just on the street, with Google telling us, turn left, right, etc., it was enough for us to avoid getting totally lost. Amazing technology!
Cost of Wif Fi hotspot – about $5/day
While many places use credit cards, the basic denomination taken by all vendors is still cash. So carry some around and look for international bank ATMs to get more cash if required. We found such ATMs in post offices around Tokyo.
I travelled with my laptop which has 3 prongs. In Tokyo, things only have 2 prongs, but the hotel was nice enough to lend me an adaptor.
4) Google Translator
On our 14 hour flight, my husband offered to buy me diamonds as he realized he had forgotten our Studio Ghibli tickets at home. Like any good anime fan, I said I didn’t want diamonds but wanted to see Totoro and the Cat Bus. Since the Japanese travel agency took our names down, I decided to write a short message with google translator to see if we could talk our way into the museum. It turns out we had to buy another set of tickets, but having a translated message made things a lot less confusing.
It cost money to print out the message as we didn’t have a printer, so I just emailed it to myself and used the wifi hotspot we were carrying to let people see the email that was already translated into Japanese.
5) Buy a subway card
There are 5 lines in the subway system owned by different companies. The first day we were schooled when we kept buying wrong tickets as it was confusing which machine we were supposed to buy for. The “THIS MACHINE IS IN ENGLISH” announcement was super loud every time we used a machine in English and it was a bit embarrassing because people would look at us oddly.
Anyhow, to save a lot of grief, please buy a subway card as you just load it up with money and all the lines will take the card. There are a few kinds such as PASMO or JF IO card which are interchangeable on the lines. We bought the PASMO and beeped our way through instead of trying to figure out how much we needed to pay for a ticket per every trip as the price depends on distance.
The subway maps are all in Japanese although when you get on the train, the stops are sometimes announced in English. There is also a little tv above the doors which has the stop names in English and katakana as well.
6) Hotels are big enough for big people
Prior to visiting Japan, I had lamented on Facebook about the size of my husband and how I worried if he would fit into the tiny hotel rooms in Japan. Someone recommended The Prince Park Tokyo Tower hotel to me and I booked it. The rooms are huge! Bigger than some NYC rooms we had stayed in. OK, fine, my husband’s feet sticks out a bit on the double bed, but 98% of the length of him fits on the bed, so it’s good enough!
Before going, do take a look at travel review websites to see pictures of the room and to make sure they are big enough for your use. My husband is 6’4” and he was fine with the size of the hotel room.
7) Basic Manners
My Viking husband likes order in general, so he was pleased that people followed the rules in the city:
- Walk on the left – If you want to avoid being run over by bicycles on the sidewalk, pedestrians should walk on the left. My husband watched in amusement as I was like a deer in the headlights, uncertain which way to dive to dodge the bikers.
- No garbage cans – After attacks from over a decade ago by terrorists, there are no garbage cans on the streets or in the subway. People are expected to carry their garbage until they reach a bathroom.
- No eating or talking in subways – the subways are super quiet and clean. People don’t talk and are usually on their cell phones texting.
- Follow arrows on subway stairs and platforms – yes, there are lots of arrows for up/down in the stairwells and arrows to let you know where the doors will open to board the train.
- No tipping – restaurants & taxis do not require tipping. They will run after you if you tip and give back your money!
- Bow a lot – it’s a sign of politeness to nod your head and bow when you greet someone or thank someone. They will be bowing back at you too.
8) What else to expect:
- Super service – we had never experienced such fantastic customer service before! People will go out of their way to help you and thank you, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use Google Translator to ask for more complicated things and they will do their best to solve your problem. Although had to re-buy my Studio Ghibli tickets, the guide at the museum called the Lawson (convenience store) ahead of time to make sure there were tickets available and gave me dates to chose from before directing me across the street to make the purchase.
- Amazing retail – Just Skytree (tallest tower in Tokyo) alone has 33 floors with most of them retail. There are convenient stores everywhere open 24/7 and you can buy anything you want with a hundred styles to choose from. Even my Viking husband who hates shopping, was tempted to buy stuff. The several food floors alone in Skytree amazed him as he had never seen so much food in his life and they all looked so good!
- English brochures – at our hotel there were stacks of brochures in English. If you are not staying at a hotel, you can visit one as local brochures often includes coupons and other tips to help save money.