Friday, December 31, 2010

Sticker Fun for Grown-ups

In addition to charms dangling from cell phones, embossed stickers on cell phones are becoming popular. Some of the stickers are good for personalizing your laptop or other gear. They come in a lot of uniquely Japanese styles, which make them great for souvenirs or omiyage. What's neat is about these stickers is that they're composed of multiple sections that are held in position until you apply them. You can find these embossed stickers in electronics stores such as BIC Camera. If you weren't looking for them, you'd probably never see them, so look for them hanging on a wall near the cell phones.

We got some for our laptops. Check out the rabbits viewing the moon on the Mac and the maneki neko with bells and coins on the HP netbook.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Loading Destinations onto Your GPS

This process just got a whole lot easier. I used to have to copy and paste latitude and longitude as waypoints from an on-line map into my Garmin Map Source application, export the waypoints to GPX format, use GPS Babel to convert the waypoints to points-of-interest (POI), and finally use Garmin's POI Loader to load the points onto the GPS.

The Garmin Communicator Plugin makes this task a lot easier. You just need to highlight a marker on a Google Map, right click, and select the Send option. If your GPS is plugged into your PC, it'll be discovered and allow you do download the location directly. The location is installed as a waypoint, rather than a POI, which is a little bit of a disadvantage because waypoints are limited to a shorter text strings than POIs on many GPSs.

I've found the Communicator Plugin works best when you've only got a single marker on the map. If you have multiple markers on the maps, as when you do a Google Map search, you don't get to edit the name of the waypoint. To create a single marker you can edit and download, it's best to either use Google's My Maps or enter the coordinates directly into the search bar.

I generally load my GPS with the locations of interesting stores and restaurants, sights, our hotels, and ATM locations near the hotels. Of course with any piece of electronic gear, you need a back-up, so I always carry paper maps in my knapsack.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What's for breakfast?

When we're traveling we like to get something quick, inexpensive, and most importantly delicious for breakfast. It's also fun to try something we've never had before.

When staying at a Ryokan (Japanese inn), or Minshuku (bed & breakfast) it's worthwhile to get breakfast if it's offered. The food usually comes in many small dishes, and the contents of these dishes varies from lodging to lodging and region to region. If there's something you can't figure out how to eat you can always ask your hosts 「これの食べ方はどうですか。」- "How is this eaten?". When you are done, don't forget to tell them - 「ごちそうさまでした」- "It was a feast".

Self-serve bakeries are another good place to get a quick breakfast. These shops are often near train stations, and usually don't have a place for you to sit and eat. If they do have a seating area and you wish to use it, you are sometimes expected to buy a beverage. You will know this because they will ask you 「お飲み物は…」- "and to drink...?" At the entrance there will be a stack of trays and a box of tongs. Grab a tray and tongs, then select what ever looks good to you. メロンパン - Melon bread and あんパン - buns stuffed with sweet bean paste are always good. For something more heartier you can get ウイナー - pup in a blanket.

If you don't mind your bread a little stale, you can sometimes get a big discount before the store closes. This usually takes place around 22:00. You can tell something is up because people start crowding around but nobody's buying anything. Then the signs come out reading 「30%OFFタイムサービス」or「三割引」and it's a mad dash for the best pastries. Both of these mean 30% discount. 割引 is a 10% discount, so 三割引 means 30% discount.

There's a chain of restaurants that I like called Yayoiken. All their breakfasts are under ¥500. They are typical Japanese light breakfasts usually consisting of some combination of fish, rice, natto, miso shiru, or (this always shocks foreigners), green salad.

Check out their breakfast menu under the 朝食 heading.
They are located in most major cities.

You first pay for your meal at a 食券 販売機(しょっけんはんばいき)- a meal ticket vending machine inside the restaurant. I can't recall whether or not the machine had pictures or words. I usually keep my dictionary handy in either case. You can buy your drink at the counter.

Unless you are going an a major hike first thing in the morning, you don't want fill up too much because there are always opportunities along the way for tourists to purchase and taste the 名物 - local specialities along the way.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Laundry is problematic. On one hand, we want to travel light, but on the other hand we don't want do spend our vacation doing laundry. We carry about six days worth of clothes. The hotel or ryokan may have a washing machine, but there is almost always a queue, especially in the evenings.

Most washers and dryers are similar to those in the west, except they are usually smaller. The dryer's lint trap is a plate shaped screen in the back of the drum. Be sure it's cleared of lint. Depending on your clothes, it usually takes at least two runs through the dryer, and if it's plugged with lint it will take longer.

There is almost always a laundry detergent vending machine in the laundry room.

One place we stayed at, Hotel Area One in Kagoshima, has a washing machine and dryer in one. You don't have to add soap either, as it's fed in from a tube. The strange thing about this washer is that it locks your clothes in until it's done.

If your place of lodging doesn't have a washing machine, an interesting thing to try is a local coin laundry. You can get a taxi ride from your hotel or ryokan. It might be best to take your clothes in a trash bag, rather than your suitcase, so your hosts don't think you're skipping out on the bill. Your hosts may also be able to recommend a near-by laundry. Sometimes coin laundries are located in covered malls and you can go shopping if it's not too late. You may also meet interesting people. While your clothes are in dryer you can study Japanese by reading the signs the signs on the walls. Try this one:

If you do wash at night and your place of lodging has a curfew, make sure you get back before the front desk closes.

Here is some useful vocabulary from Jim Breen's dictionary.

洗濯 【せんたく】Laundry
洗濯石鹸 【せんたくせっけん】Laundry soap
洗濯機 【せんたくき】Washing machine
コインランドリー (n) laundromat; laundrette
洗濯ばさみ 【せんたくばさみ】Clothes Pin
1000円札をくずしていただけませんか。 Could you change a Y1,000 note?

I especially like the word くずす - literally crush or destroy. Used here to mean "make change".

One way to stretch out the time between having to do laundry is to do it in your room. This is one reason to pay a little more for a room with a bathroom (some minshiku and ryokan have community facilities). Often the bathroom will have a clothesline in the tub/shower. You may want to bring your own line and some small plastic clothes pins or buy them at a 100 yen store. We travel with little packets of Woolite and wash clothes in the sink. This is why we wear synthetics almost exclusively. Although wool and cotton are comfortable, they take forever to dry, especially if the weather is humid.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Coin Lockers

As you travel you'll probably need to be carrying some luggage. When you arrive at your destination before check-in time, or you stop at a city en-route, what do you do with your luggage? The answer is to find a coin locker. Almost every train or bus station has some. They are easy to use. They come in various sizes. Just put your bags in, close the door, insert the indicated amount of money, and lock the door, taking to key with you. Just don't lose the key!

Finding coin lockers can sometimes be tricky as they can be located in obscure, low-rent areas of the station. You can ask a station employee, information desk attendant, or a passer-by who doesn't look to be in too much of a hurry: コイン ラカー は どこ ですか。Sometimes if the station is very small, for example, Juuniko Station on the Gono Line, there may be no lockers, but there may be a shop nearby that will hold you bags all day for a few hundred yen.

Airline type carry-on cases work pretty well, but may not quite fit in some coin-lockers. Even though the cases are basically soft-sided, many have some rigid pieces in the wheels or the extending handles. In most cases a 21 X 14 X 9 inch bag will fit into lockers designed for carry-ons, but in a few cases, the bags didn't fit and you'll have to pay for a larger locker. Don't give up to quickly on the smaller locker, though. Sometimes you can insert your bag horizontally, then rotate, applying some topological gymnastics to get it to fit.

Most lockers take 100 and 500 yen coins, so you'll want to make sure you have plenty of change on hand. In Tokyo I've seen large blocks of lockers that use Suica contact-less stored value cards. Someday we might all have to learn how to get a Suica card if the old-fashioned coin lockers become too scarce.

In large stations, it's possible to lose your locker. Tokyo Station has three central exits on each side, so sometimes it's not good enough just to remember that your bags are in the lockers by the central exit. Tokyo Station also has lockers on multiple levels, making it even easier to lose your bags. Since the lockers are almost always indoors or underground, marking the location with you GPS won't work. You could take a picture of the location, but above, you see a photo of us closing our locker, only to require the help of a police officer to find it again. I think the best way is to acquire a map of the station - these are available on pamphlets and fliers on racks or at information booths - and mark the location of your locker on the map. Another good location for 3D station maps is the Internet, but you generally have to print the map out before you go.

Finally, I don't believe it's permitted to leave your bag overnight in the locker, so include a trip back to the locker before heading to your hotel or other final destination.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nihongo on Ubuntu Linux

To read and browse Japanese on Ubuntu Linux, you don't need to do anything. The Japanese fonts are already installed. To be able to enter Japanese text it's a little more tricky. On newer versions, Ibus is the way to enter text with languages other than English. On the web you'll see lots of references to Scim - don't use it. It's obsolete. Ibus should already be installed. If not, get it from the Ubuntu Software Center.

You will need "Anthy" input method for Japanese. Get that from the Ubuntu Software Center.

The next step is to configure Language support under System, Administration. Click Install/Remove Languages to add Japanese. Then go to "keyboard input method system", select "ibus", and close the window.

Now start Ibus. That's under System, Preferences, Ibus. It will prompt you to start the Daemon - you will do this every time you log in, unless you edit the .bashsc file as indicated. To do this, copy the text, paste it into Gedit, and save it as .bashsc in your home directory. Be careful that you aren't overwriting an existing .bashsc. If there's already one, add those lines to it.

Once you've started Ibus the Preferences dialog will appear. Click the Input Method tab and Select the Japanese input method "Anthy" (It's got a little crown icon). Click Add, then click Close.

Now open a text editor or browser and put the cursor on a text entry area. You will see a keyboard icon in the top right tool bar and a strange white square in the lower right of your desktop. Click the keyboard icon, and click the Japanese - Anthy from the drop-down menu. Now the strange white square will become a bar that shows the Anthy options. A hiragana あ is displayed so now you can type hiragana and kanji. Click the あ to select katakana when you need it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Luggage - the Middle Ground

The way many Japanese deal with luggage is to use 宅急便 「たっきゅびん」 which is the trade-marked name of Yamato Transportation's express delivery service . You've probably seen it; it's the one with the black-cat logo. I've been able to use the phrase 宅急便 to mean express delivery and it seems to work, even though I may be using one of the other services such as ペリカン or ABC/JAL. It's like saying "I'm going to to Fed-Ex this package, even though you're using UPS."

The idea is that you send your luggage ahead to your next destination so you don't have to carry it on the train. From Tokyo to Kyoto, it seems takes about two days. We carry our small bags with a couple days of clothes and our "treasures" (souvenirs), and we send our large bags ahead. Most business hotels have the forms and a scale so can send your bags right from the front desk. If you are staying a small ryokan or minshuku, you may have to take your bags to a convenience store like a Lawson.

Here's a copy of a form we used to get our bags send from Kyoto to Tokyo.

You can start the process by saying 「荷物を宅急便でつぎのホテルに送りたいんですが。」(I'd like to send my bags via express delivery to the next hotel, but... ). They will give you a form to fill out. It would take me an hour to fill out one of these because I'd have to look up half the kanji - and then my Japanese handwriting is practically illegible. Here's where it come in handy to have the addresses of all your hotels written in Japanese. You can ask: 「住所を書いてくれませんか。私の漢字は下手です。」(Won't you write the address for me? My kanji is terrible).
Yeah I know the grammar's not quite right, but people seem to understand.

They'll usually fill the whole thing out for you. The top box is the "to" address. For the "from" address, I've seen them use their address (as in the case above), or they've asked me to enter my home address, or they've just put 同上 (same as above). Just make sure your name's on it somewhere so the next hotel will know what to do with it. You also need to give them the date that you want the bag to arrive. They will weigh it, and measure it, and then you will pay. Between Tokyo to Kyoto it's about $15 per bag, and well worth it. In most cases they will give you your receipt and tracking information right there, and you can be on your way. However, when we used ABC/JAL to send our bags to Narita they weren't able to give us a receipt until later that day when the truck came by for a pick-up. For this reason you may want to send your bags on the day before you check out, especially if you don't want to have to return to the hotel later the same day.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ultralight Travelling

When we observed the way the natives travelled, the first thing we noticed was that people never carry anything bigger than an airline carry-on size suitcase. The suitcases are generally hard-sided, and stand upright on omni-directional rollers. People are able to move easily through crowds and wickets because the suitcase is always close by. We've never seen suitcases like this in the States, but we got a couple soft-sided airline style suitcases with extending handles. These fit easily in the overhead luggage racks of most trains. We've travelled for two weeks like this. Including what we wear, we carry six days worth of clothes. This means we've got to do laundry twice. I'll say more about laundry in another post.

Since you are carrying everything, you may have to make more use of coin lockers if you are going to do any sight seeing en route. These are very convenient but we have run into a few issues. Coin-lockers will also be an topic for another post.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Luggage - How Not to Travel

On our first trip to Japan, people could tell we were Americans just by our luggage. We've noticed that many Americans attempt to travel with huge amounts of luggage. We had brought enough clothes for two weeks! One of our bags was a huge gray suitcase on wheels we called "the elephant". The other bag was a large suitcase to which I had added wheels. It had no tether with which to pull it, so I brought along a piece of dock line from my sailboat. This was gleefully referred to as "the hopeless rope".

This arrangement had many drawbacks:
  • We opted for the more expensive first class JR rail pass so we could ride in the "Green Cars" which had more room for luggage.
  • Some trains that we needed to ride didn't have a Green Car. Ordinary trains only have an overhead carry-on rack.
  • It was hard to find a coin locker which would fit our luggage.
  • Since only one pair of wheels was castered, getting out of small elevators was tricky because the suitcases only wanted to roll one direction.
  • It was a major effort to get the fifty pound suitcases up and down the narrow stairs in a small minshuku (lodging in a family home).
  • We were constantly in everyone's way. Crossing a stream of people at right angles, when your combined length is over 5 feet, is nearly impossible.
  • Getting on an escalator without losing control was always a challenge.
So, we observed and learned from the locals, and I'll post those findings in a later entry.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Japanese on Windows XP

If you are going to be doing any planning at all, you're going to need to be able to view and type Japanese on your PC. Here's how to do it for XP. More operating systems to follow!

Click "Start", "Control Panel" (change to classic mode), "Regional and Language Options", "Languages" tab, check the "Install files for East Asian languages" checkbox in the "Supplemental language support" frame, click Apply.

Now you can read Japanese.

Click "Details..." in the "Text sevices and input languages" frame. Click "Add" in the "Installed services" frame. Click the "Input language" drop-down and select "Japanese". Click OK, OK again, then OK once more.

Now a little EN icon will appear in your task bar. Click on it, then click "show the language bar". It's a little more clean to have the EN icon in the task bar, but I prefer to drag it out onto the desktop, even if it sometimes gets in the way.

Bring up a text editor or browser and put the cursor somewhere that you can type text. This is where I always get tripped up. You can't select a language if your cursor isn't somewhere that you can enter text.

Click the EN on the language bar and change it to JP.
Now click the "A" in the language bar. You can select hiragana or katakana. If you want to type kanji, enter the hiragana and press the space bar until you get the desired kanji. Press "Enter" to accept.

There are keyboard shortcuts to for switching between English and Japanese, and I find them easier to use when writing documents.

Alt-Shift: Toggles between EN and JP.
Ctrl-CapsLock: Selects hiragana when in the JP mode.
Alt-CapsLock: Selects katakana when in the JP mode.

Getting Around Town

Metro is to local travel what Hyperdia is to inter-city travel. This is a free application you can get from . It's pretty easy to use; just enter you departure point and destination and it will plan your route. Selectable transportation modes include buses, trains, streetcars, and even a ropeway. It will give you two routes: the fastest, and the one with the least connections. At least on the versions I've tried, it's not aware of departure times or fares, but buses and trains are usually frequent enough that it doesn't matter much.

There are versions for the Palm and Windows Mobile operating systems as well as iPod Touch. It also works on a whole list of mobile phones, but I won't list them here as most of them won't work in Japan anyway.

If you've got a PDA (Palm OS or Windows Mobile) that's configured to support Japanese characters, grab the "metro-int" version of the application. Take the Japanese city files from both the EN and JP directories, renaming one set or the other so you don't over-write anything. Use the Japanese version because it builds character, and the English version if you get stuck. Also, if you can't find what you are looking for in one file, you might be able to find it in another because the coverage areas of the English and Japanese files are slightly different. If your PDA is low on memory you can store the data files in flash memory if you PDA supports it.

The iPod version of Metro only gives access to the English files, even though the iPod supports Japanese. There are only eight instead of nine cities available in this version. The cool thing that it does do is that it points you to a Google map of each station. On and iPod touch, you'll need Wi-Fi access for this feature and that's not always easy to get in Japan.

There's an on-line version of the program, which of course requires internet access. This also has only the romanized stations, but like the iPod Touch version, it also gives you maps. There is a version for regular browsers and a mobile version. The mobile version doesn't give you a list of station names from which to choose, so you have to know the exact romanized spelling.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Japan Travel Quote of the Day

"Travel in Japan is pleasant because of the sense of accomplishment it gives". - Donald Richie, The Inland Sea

Planning Inter-City Travel

Hyperdia a terrific tool for planning your inter-city travel. It combines almost any mode of travel you might use - other than boat. It gives you transit time so you can optimize your sight-seeing time, and gives you fares so you can see if a Japan Rail Pass will save you money.

When using Hyperdia for planning travel using the Rail Pass, make sure to un-check the following boxes:

  • Airplane
  • Private Railways

The Rail Pass web site says that there is an extra charge for "Liner" trains, but I received tickets for the "Marine Liner" when requesting a ticket with a Rail Pass from Takamatsu to Okayama, so I'm a still little confused about that. You might want to un-check the "Liner" box just to play it safe. A handful of other trains may require an extra fare, but they are listed on the Japan Rail Pass site, so you may want to review the "Validity" page on the Japan Rail Pass site first.

When you first go to the Hyperdia web site, you won't see the options unless you click the "SearchDetails" text (not the icon). Thereafter the options will always be visible.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I Wanna Get Off!

You'll undoubtedly be riding some of Japan's notoriously crowded trains in the course of your travels. As more people get on, you may be pushed farther and farther from the door. Then suddenly you've arrived at your station and there there's a crowd of people between you and the exit. What do you say?

On our first trip to Japan, we rode Hokkaido's picturesque Hidaka line. This train was a two unit one-man which meant the entrance and exit were the front. I never would have expected to encounter a crowd on this rural line, but it was late afternoon and the train filled with schoolchildren, and we were pushed farther and farther to the back of the train. Our station was coming up so we had to push our way up to the front with our luggage. All I knew to say was すみません, すみません (excuse me, excuse me) as I bumped into one kid after another with my luggage. One of the kids said to his pals, with a clever rhyme, すみませんをわかりません。 (He doesn't understand the meaning of excuse me). Later, in Tokyo, where people are bumping into each other all the time, I realized that it would be kind of ridiculous for everyone to be saying "excuse me" to everyone else all the time. I also learned the word おります (I'm getting off), when I saw a elderly woman use it when exiting a crowded Yamanote line train with a shopping bag in each hand. It's like a magic word. Speak it, and the sea of people parts before you.

Stamp Collecting

Something that's fun to collect as you travel Japan are stamps. You may not notice them at first, because they may be hidden in a corner, but many tourist attractions, train stations, and even subway stations have a stamp. I carry a small (3.5 inch wide) unlined Moleskine notebook for this purpose.

This stamp is from the Naruto Station in Shikoku.
The stamp reads:

The station of famous roaring whirlpools.
Naruto National Park
Naruto Rail Line, Naruto Station

Along the bottom is a space for the year, month, and date.

You will find these stamps in various conditions. Sometimes the stamps are self-inking, or there may be a fresh ink pad, but other times the stamp may be worn or the ink pad dried out. If you're really a fanatic you can bring one or more ink pads with you. If the color you have doesn't match the color of the pad currently in use, you may want to wipe down the stamp before and after use, as a courtesy to others. Also, remember to close the ink pad lid when you're done, so doesn't dry out!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

I Have Some Reservations About This...

When planning such a major expedition as going to Japan, it's good to know in advance that you're going to have a place to sleep each night. It seems to me that most of the US-based travel web sites will only find luxury hotels in a handful of major cities.

If you can read Japanese well enough to use the Japanese travel sites, you will find that their on-line reservation forms won't handle international addresses.

The sites below work with lodgings that are willing make the extra effort it takes to host international customers. As you know, we foreigners can be hard to communicate with and tend to rely on our hosts for more assistance (e.g. Where's the nearest coin laundry? Can you help me fill out this form? What are the hours for such and such a park?)

These are the sites I like:

Welcome Inns -
This site is good especially if you want to stay in a Japanese style inn, sleeping on a futon in a tatami room. Some have meals available and they are usually really good. Prices are reasonable, too. The way Welcome Inns works is that they contact the lodging for you. They will then contact you by email with a confirmation number. If the exact dates or room type you want are not available, they may suggest an alternative and give you an opportunity to accept it.

Rakuten -
Although this site has a some Japanese style inns, their strength is in the number of listings of reasonably priced business hotels. Although business hotels offer only small western-style rooms and don't usually serve meals, they can be located very conveniently. It's good to be near a transportation hub so you can get to all tourist attractions easily. With many of the hotels on this site, be prepared to pre-pay for your stay. I rather like pre-payment, because I know that even if I lose my wallet, I've got a place to stay.

The Japanese National Travel Organization points to lots of other lodging reservation sites. I would trust site listed by the JNTO.

You Can't Get There from Here.

Riding the Tokyo Metro can be an adventure for the newcomer. Here's one mistake I made.

Most stations have two tracks - one for each direction. The platform is either between the tracks on or either side of the tracks. In the latter case, there is sometimes a tunnel between the platforms so you can get from one side to the other. Some stations don't have this tunnel.

After going to a hobby shop near the Ginza line's Suehirochou station, I went back to the station through the same entrance I used before. Without thinking, I bough my ticket, passed through the wicket, and then realized that the trains arriving on the platform were going the wrong way. There was not way to get over to the other platform! I suppose I could have gone to the next large station and hoped there was a crossover. The better choice was to explain to the station agent what I had just done: "I made a mistake. I just bought this ticket but I want to go to Kanda". He let me back through the wicket and told me to go up the stairs cross the street and come down on the other side. On the other side I started to repeat my explanation to the agent there, but he just opened the wicket and waved me through before I could finish.

The lesson here is, when exiting a station think of where you want to go when you return. Do you want to keep going in the same direction? If so, go back through the same entrance. If you want to go back the way you came, look around for a metro sign on another corner, cross the street, and use that entrance.

Friday, April 30, 2010


I'm never without my gadgets! All this gear helps me recall and document my travels. I'm sometimes surprised at all the experiences I can recall when looking a photo or video of my travels. I just can't trust my mind to store the sensory overload that is Japan. It's also handy to be able to take picture of signs for later translation.

On the subject of translation, an easy-to-use electronic dictionary is really helpful both for interacting with people and for re-enforcing your Japanese language learning. If you're able to learn a new word and use it right away in a memorable experience you'll never forget it. Likewise, sometimes hearing that magic word will recall a special experience.

Some sort of PDA or Ipod can be really useful for storing a list of all the places you want to see, things you want to do, and things on your shopping list. It's also a convenient place for addresses and phone numbers - if you can get one that does Japanese. If it's equipped right, you can also use it at Wi-Fi hotspots to send quick emails - usually with something like "guess where I am now?" in the title.

A small GPS - once you get it set up with a Japanese maps can really help you find your way around in a country where the streets often have no names. You can also use it to "geotag" your photos. This really helps you to re-live your trip. Also you can use it to get back to places you want to return to on the next trip, later find out the name of something you see from the train. It's often much easier to snap picture than to set a waypoint on the GPS.

I usually rent a cell phone, but it can be expensive expensive.

Finally I need to carry chargers and power packs for all these devices. I'm a fan of AA size battery powered products, but there are some trade-off that I'll get into on a later post.