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.