Tokyo Traveler Tales – Part 1: Motivation and Preparing for the trip

We just got back from a week long trip to Japan and as requested by friends, I am writing down as much as possible about the overall experience. This is far from comprehensive and there are many excellent articles and websites devoted to this.
Why should you read this?
Here are some reasons that come to my mind. We are a small family looking to make a budget-conscious trip to a far-away land where people have different customs and etiquette, not to mention a language that we quite don’t understand. We are also vegetarians and as I will explain later, it is quite hard to get good vegetarian food in Japan. We have a nine year- old who we had to consider when we made specific plans on places to visit and things to try and many of you have young kids and understand that problem. With all that in mind, I am putting to words, all that we could think of about this spectacular trip.
Why Japan?
Japan has been on top of my bucket list for a long time. The reasons are varied – I have heard and read about their approach to simplicity as a philosophy. Zen is quite fascinating. They also offer a stark contrast of two cultures- a technology driven economy that has been at the forefront of many of the very pillars of innovation we lean on today. But yet, they are also one of the largest purveyors of analog habits with pens, pencils and paper. From movies to books, I had heard about the legendary honor that Japanese have long lived by and wanted to see it in person. Beyond all of that, the cherry blossoms have been calling to me for a very long time. With that in mind, and with the help of friends who travel to Japan periodically on work, we set out planning this trip.
I will now share all that we did to prepare ourselves for the trip and the things we learnt later that we should have done in advance of the trip. In future posts, I will share specific experiences visiting places.
Preparing for the trip
  1. Japan, as mentioned before is different in many ways and it all starts with the visa process. For citizens of US, a visa is not required. For everyone else, a trip to the Consulate is the best way. We went to the Consulate in San Francisco. The form is super simple. Only requirement is that you have a planned itinerary with a flight ticket. You can get away with blocking a ticket and then cancelling it after the interview but we ended up just reserving our actual ticket prior to the Embassy trip. Visa costs are very affordable ($7 if you are an Indian citizen). It takes a week to process the Visa and you need to get back to the Consulate to pick it up.
  2. We reserved all the hotels via Orbitz. Things to look for while making a reservation – if you prefer a non-smoking room, make sure you confirm you are booking one. Unlike the US, many Japanese hotels offer smoking and non-smoking rooms. Locations can be tricky. Look up the Japanese public transit maps (Google Maps is pretty good with it) and try to pick a place close to public transportation. Given how much you will rely on it, it helps to be close to a station or a bus stop.
  3. Take cash. Lots of it. Unlike most other countries, many, many shops and vendors in Japan still take only cash. Trickier still, we couldn’t use our US credit cards to reserve train tickets especially Shinkansen which tends to be around $100/person/trip (Tokyo to Kyoto for an adult on Shinkansen was ~$130 on an unreserved coach). Cash is the king. We observed that the Travelex booth in airports was offering a much lower conversion rate (94 yen/ $) than the hotel we stayed (104 yen/$). So I would recommend picking up dollars from the ATM machine(103 yen/$) and converting it at your hotel. Another alternative we used was directly use our ATM cards in 7-11s and Japan Post ATMs. The conversation rate offered was pretty solid.
  4. Pack nice walking shoes, a small umbrella (or buy one in Japan- the options are insane in terms of size, quality and prints), your basic medicines and a nice backpack. We walked a lot and it rained on and off during our trip. We packed light since we were going to be checking out of hotels in the morning and off sightseeing during the day. We couldn’t lug heavy luggage around town.
  5. Make yourself familiar with all the public transit options in Japan- especially Tokyo. While the system is super friendly and simple to use- some background research helped. We had to change trains going from point A to point B and knowing where to switch and what line to take in advance was super helpful. Large signs are in Japanese but there is English in smaller print. Metro maps are also offered in English.  Also pack a nice camera- Japan has so many remarkable places to see that a camera is a must.
  6. Make sure you can get WiFi on your phone. I am on ATT and utilized their Global WiFi service ($40 for 30 days) which allowed me 200 MB of cellular data but more importantly, access to ATT’s partner WiFi networks in Japan which was hugely useful. Most hotels offer free WiFi but when you are in the streets trying to navigate from one place to another, having WiFi on your phone will be super useful.
  7. We opted to fly into Narita airport which is a good one hour away from Tokyo central. If you get an affordable option to fly into Haneda instead, take it. Haneda is much closer to the city locations. Also, if you are vegetarian make sure you request the meal choice in advance. We made the mistake on one leg of our onward journey on Asiana Airlines and they had absolutely nothing for vegetarians.
  8. One thing we didn’t get to do was to stay in a Ryokan, which is a Japanese style Inn. They are usually a little more expensive than hotels, but since we were going during the cherry blossom season and did our booking late, rates were quite high and so we had to skip this.
In the next post, I will talk about all our experiences in Tokyo with trips to Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akhihabara, and Ginza.
Other Posts in this series

India Journal 05- The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Our India trip of 2013 came to an end earlier this week. This was my last journal entry for this trip written just before I left town. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I could not publish it earlier. An early warning- expect this post to be a tad disconnected. I am trying to squeeze in all my unsaid thoughts into one catch-all post. My earlier journal entries are here- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

It has as always been too short a trip. Home warrants more time- something that never seems to be available. That said, it was a fantastic trip- fun, relaxing and rejuvenating. Work beckons and I am ready for it. India has changed a lot in the last 30 months since my last trip but the one thing that strikes me is how little it has changed in so many ways.

Let us start with what is around me. There are new shops by the hundreds. Malls, eateries are everywhere. But around me, things are still the same. I had a haircut today at the same place I have had it since I was about 10. It cost me less than $2. I have used autos and taxis for many trips around town. The guys who drive them are the same ones who we have used for a couple of decades now. For a very long time, I used to go to this makeshift playground to play cricket and later badminton. The wonderful gentleman who started this local playing group is now old. But Somu Sir as we call him continues to drive 45 minutes on a two wheeler to watch young boys play, every evening. He does not play anymore. But he is there goading 10 and 12 year old kids to play harder- just as he did to me when I was that age.

I had the opportunity to go to my old school 10 days ago. I was fortunate enough to participate in the morning assembly. The school building has changed. The school uniform has changed. But for the most part, the sleepy eyed yet prayer reciting kids at 7 am manage to elicit the same reaction from me- one of respect and dedication to education.

I had food in all sorts of places. And juice and tea and snacks. I liked most of them and thankfully all of them agreed with my veliyoor vayaru (outsider’s stomach). But the one that gave me the most pleasure was the tea at the roadside stall and the piping hot bondas on a rainy evening. Fast foods and fancy names are common these days. But nothing to take away the original and still unbeatable simple charm of chai and bonda.

Finally, the one thing that always remains the same to me is my house. It is my refuge. The only place that is more personal to me than anything else. It offers me a sense of comfort and security that nothing else does. Our TV has changed as have the curtains and the bed spreads. But the warmth and comfort of the house is always the same. I still miss it as much as I miss my family and friends. It has a life of its own and something that communicates to me. It is to me, the ultimate manifestation of everything that I love about my country.

Until my next trip to India and the accompanying journal entries, I sign off with some interesting photos from the trip. Enjoy.