Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tips on Travel: Ready, Set, Go, Time to Visit Japan

Japan is wonderful. The people are friendly. The landscape is beautiful. The food fantastic. The history fascinating. The culture captivating. In the past year I have had the good fortune to visit several times. As I traveled in large cities and out in the heartland, I jotted down some tips to help when you travel to Japan.


ENGLISH LANGUAGE FRIENDLY

As Japan prepares for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics, English language signs can now be found in the subway and railway systems. In busy transit centers in the cities, uniformed guides are also available to help English speaking travelers.


That being said, if you want to explore the heartland outside of the major cities, Japan is not especially easy for English-speaking travelers. If you have the resources, it is best to hire an English speaking guide and, if possible, a driver. 

When looking for a guide, understand there is a vast difference between “English proficient” and “English fluent” guides. Ideally you want a guide who has lived in the U.S. and is fluent. Without that proficiency, your guide might be limited to using simple words or phrases the way you do in a sushi bar when you are presented with a menu in Japanese.

MONEY, CREDIT CARDS AND PASSPORTS

Many shops, restaurants and bars take credit cards, but not all do, so you will need the local currency (the yen ¥) while you are in Japan. The best exchange rates are available at the airport at bank kiosks which are located in the transit area after you exit Customs. 


In the last several years, the dollar has gained against the yen. The exchange rate is in flux, but roughly speaking $1 U.S. dollar equals ¥100 Japanese yen. So ¥500 yen for a cup of coffee equals roughly $5.00 U.S. dollars.


As a general travel tip, be sure you notify your bank that you are traveling. Also, because mistakes happen and you do not want to be without credit and/or cash while you are traveling, carry two debit cards and two credit cards, all of which you placed on travel notification. That way, if there is an issue with one card, you have backups.

Before you leave home, make color copies of your passport and credit cards (front and back sides), so that in the unlikely instance they are lost or stollen, you can contact the authorities to obtain replacements. Carry the copies separately from your passport and credit cards.

TOKYO & NARITA

If you have not traveled extensively in Japan, you can have a wonderful "bite-sized" introduction to Japanese culture by visiting the city of Narita, five minutes from Narita International Airport and twenty-five minutes from Tokyo by train. 

Narita has one main street so it is easy to navigate. Most importantly and one of the things I love about Narita, English is spoken in most businesses because this is where international flight crews stay and the language of flying is English.


Arrival in Narita is at the train station at the top of the mile long main street Omotesando Street. Walk down the hill to explore shops selling sake, local handmade items, kimonos and souvenirs There are cafes and restaurants. Japanese food is, of course, exceptionally good. Most importantly, there are a dozen or more restaurants serving grilled fresh water eel (unagi)


I once asked a good friend who was born in Tokyo but has lived in Los Angeles most of her life what was the first food she ate when she visited her parents. She didn't hesitate a moment. "Eel!" she said with a big smile. "Grilled fresh water eel."

In Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles I had eaten eel before. I enjoyed it but I usually ordered ramen or sushi. Only when I ordered eel in Japan did I understand what she meant. The sweet-salty glaze perfectly compliments the tender, fragrant, delicate charred meat. Now, when I return to Japan, when I am asked what I want to eat, I say, "Eel!"

Tokyo was built on a swamp. Today in the area surrounding Tokyo and Narita, there are still swampy lands rich with aquatic life, including, of course, lots of fresh water eels.

A culinary specialty in Narita at restaurants like Surugaya, the fresh water eels are kept live in barrels and filleted to cook on fiery hot natural gas or charcoal braziers (Surugaya uses bintochan, high temperature charcoal)

You can't miss the eel restaurants, many of which have their grills facing the sidewalk. The smoke from the charcoal braziers floats across the street enticing diners. Served on freshly steamed rice, with a side course of pickles and clear soup, unagi is addictively delicious.


Eel and flying are so much a part of the character of Narita, the town mascot is Unari-kun, an eel with wings and jet engines.


Another aspect of Japanese culture on display in Narita is the reverence for nature. Walk to the bottom of Omotesando to the Buddhist Temple Naritisan and walk the expansive, well-landscaped grounds. 

Take a moment to purify yourself with smoke from the brazier at the entrance and do your ablutions at the temizusha with bamboo ladles and fresh water.  If you are going to visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines on your trip, which you should do, buy a goshuin, to carry with you. At each temple and shrine, you pay a modest fee to have a monk stamp and inscribe your goshuin with beautiful calligraphy.


Allow time to walk around the grounds and inside the temple. The quiet of the park is refreshing and calming. 


TRAVEL WITHIN JAPAN

Flying to either Narita or Haneda International Airports is convenient and easy. Getting to your hotel from either airport is also easy. On my last trip when I landed at Narita, I used the Airport Limousine bus, which was inexpensive, comfortable and modern. 

Travel within Tokyo has been facilitated for English language speakers. The free Tokyo Subway app makes travel around Tokyo easy. Downloaded from the App Store, the app senses where you are. Enter a destination and you are given routes and choices. 

Bilingual signs have also been added to aid English-speaking visitors, When you are in a subway car, the stops are announced over the PA system and electronically in English and Japanese. 

Buying a ticket is a bit tricky, because the Tokyo metro system is a mix of public and private railway lines. At some stations, uniformed, English-speaking guides will help you make a decision about which ticket or day-passes to purchase.

Japan has a very well developed public transportation system. Within the cities there are comfortable buses and subways. Taxis are available but expensive. Uber operates in Japan, but the rates are the same as taxis although that might change, so check.

Travel between cities by the Shinkansen, the bullet train, is fast and efficient. Even though the trains travel at high speed, in your seat you will not have a sensation of the speed. It is best to buy a ticket online well before you intend to travel. Some routes at peak hours are booked. On my last trip, we missed our scheduled train because my flight from Los Angeles was delayed. As a result we had to buy a ticket at the last minute. We stood almost the entire time.


Before boarding, take time to buy a bento box from one of the many food stands at the train station. Nothing passes the time better on a train than a nice Japanese meal and a good book.

LOCAL PRACTICES & CUSTOMS

You do not need electrical adapters because Japan uses the same plugs as used in the U.S.

WiFi is readily available in hotels. Discounted cell service is offered in Japan. Verizon, for instance, offers a flat roaming fee ($5-$10) in many countries around the world, including Japan.

Politness is very important in Japan. People bow to one another when they meet. When business cards are exchanged, the card is offered with the thumb and index finger with both hands, bowing at the same time. If you expect to meet with people on the trip, it is worth bringing business cards with you.

Learning a few Japanese phrases can be helpful. Japanese Up is a useful website for phrases and pronunciations. 

When you meet someone or enter a store or restaurant, "Kon'nichiwa" means "hello."

In a sushi bar if you are sitting at the counter, say "Omakase" which means “I’ll leave it up to you."

"Dōmo arigatō" means "thank you."

"Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita" means “thank you very much."

Japanese culture prizes cleanliness, which is why the bathrooms can be so amazing. The toilets are electronic/mechanical marvels. Some toilets raise their lids when you enter the room. Toilet seats are often heated and the toilets clean you after you do your business. FYI: If you see a faucet on the top of a toilet (below), that water is not for drinking. 


Public bathrooms are cleaned frequently. The Japanese appreciation of cleanliness extends to public spaces. It is uncommon to see litter or graffiti in public spaces. You will also rarely see trash bins. 

When you are out and about, you are expected to dispose of  your own trash. Say you stop for a bakery treat. You enjoy a yummy, sweet red bean mochi (pounded rice pastry). Now there is the matter of the wrapper. Don’t even think about littering. People will yell at you. My suggestion is always carry a small plastic bag in your pocket so you can shove the sticky bakery wrapper into the bag and dispose of the trash back in your hotel room.

Unlike Americans, Japanese rarely eat while they are walking on city streets. 

If you see shoes lined up at the entrance to a restaurant, house or museum, that means you will have to remove your shoes before entering. Which is why when in Japan you should always wear easy-to-remove shoes and wear good socks, without holes.


In restaurants where you leave your shoes before entering the room, you will be requested to wear a pair of slippers supplied by the restaurant. When you go to the restroom, there may be a second pair of slippers. You are expected to slip off the slippers you were given when you entered and slip on the “bathroom” slippers which you will wear while you are doing your business. 

If you stay in a hotel or country inn (ryokan), there will not be a Western style shower where you can luxuriate under steaming water for ten minutes. Instead, in resource-conscious Japan, you will sit on a low stool in front of a faucet with a hand-held showerhead. You will spay yourself with water and then lather with soap before rinsing off. Also, in traditional bathrooms, the water stays on for a brief 10-15 seconds, enough time to rinse off with the showerhead or fill a bucket to pour over your head and body.

The Japanese are very big on gift giving. While you are on your trip, if you are being entertained by a business acquaintance or by a friend-of-a-friend, think about bringing small gifts (not money) as a way to say thank you and good bye. If you are hiring a guide/translator and/or a driver, you will be expected to give a tip. In that case, money is appreciated.

Curiously, at most restaurants napkins will not be provided. You should carry a supply of paper napkins with you.

If you love coffee, you will be mostly out of luck in Japan. You will find exceptionally good tea but not coffee. If you enjoy decaf, you are doubly out of luck. In Japan when decaf is available,  “decaf” is often labeled as “weak coffee.” There are a few Starbucks in Tokyo and they serve very good coffee but you cannot pay with the Starbucks App.

HOTELS AND RYOKAN

If you stay at a ryokan, a Japanese country-style inn, breakfast or breakfast and dinner will be included depending on the package you selected when you booked the room. A word about ryokan, which are not technically hotels, which is why they are not usually rated as 3, 4 or 5 stars. Ryokan come in different sizes and qualities. Some are small, boutique sized, with half a dozen or a dozen rooms. Others are large, with as many as a hundred rooms or more. The accommodations and amenities can be budget or luxury and the room rate will reflect the level of service. Many ryokan have onsen, hot springs baths, with separate men’s and women’s facilities.


Staying in a hotel or inn that has an onsen is a treat. When you check in, you will probably be offered a yukata, a kimono-style gown and slippers to wear in the hotel, in your room and in the public spaces. Kimonos are traditionally made of silk. Yukata are made of cotton. 

Don’t be shy. Accept them happily and ask to be shown how to wear the separate garments that are worn together. Yukata and kimonos are very comfortable. They do not have pockets so be prepared to carry a small bag (usually provided) with your phone, money and ID.


At breakfast, most hotels offer Western style dishes along with Japanese dishes. At very large hotels, Chinese dishes will also be served. Japanese breakfasts are delicious. At a buffet or a breakfast served at the table, you will be offered dozens of choices that can include many kinds of vegetables, pickles, curries, fish, meat, soups, noodles and steamed rice. 

At high-end restaurants serving beef, you will have the opportunity to order Kobe beef. If you eat meat, you should do so. The beef is extraordinarily delicious. But check the price before you order. At celebrity restaurants like the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, an 8 ounce Kobe steak can cost $250.00 U.S. a la carte.

FLYING HOME

When you fly home, on international flights there are usually meals, although the quality in coach can vary from ok to not-so-good. In the U.S. it is customary to ask for a take-away box at a restaurant or buy a to-go container of food to bring on the plane. In Japan, airport restaurants do not usually have take-away boxes.  

Bringing a Ziploc-style sealable container from home might seem overly-fastidious, but if you have ordered a fried chicken plate (karaage) in a restaurant at Narita or Haneda International Airport and they do not have take-away boxes, secure the food in your own plastic container. You will be ever so happy when you are snacking at 35,000 feet and everyone else has many hours to go before they eat again.

Ready. Set. Time to Pickle - Kosher and Moroccan-Style Pickles for Thanksgiving and Anytime

Pickles are delicious anytime of the year. For many years I have made my two favorite kinds of pickles for Thanksgiving. Kosher dill pick...