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Traveled extensively, but never before Japan! Help!

Traveled extensively, but never before Japan! Help!

Jun 3rd, 2015, 05:14 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 17
Traveled extensively, but never before Japan! Help!

We are a retired couple, who have enjoyed the luxury of traveling extensively over the past decade---mainly in Europe, South America, and Australia/New Zealand.

Next spring, we are booked to depart Tokyo on a trans-Pacific Silversea cruise to Vancouver, via Russia and Alaska. We would like to spend 7-10 days in Japan beforehand, but we find the prospect more unsettling than when we travel to “western” countries---

Language---most of the travel world where we’ve been speaks English, and we can manage French and Italian, a bit of Spanish, and can decipher signs in German or even Greek. BUT, are there added difficulties in Japan??

Safety---obviously, one has to be wary in any crowded city situation, but, alert and cautious, we like to wander and explore on foot, in cities and in villages and in the countryside. How does Japan safety compare to other advanced, civilized countries?

Train travel---we would like to leave our main luggage at a hotel in Tokyo, and explore by train with light luggage for a week or so. Safe, convenient, and easy to understand??

Suggestions on where to go???---we enjoy being physically active, exploring, and observing life as it is now, or perhaps hints of how it was. We prefer countryside, smaller communities and villages…..or cities with “old-town” character in spots. Museums, historic sites/monuments, temples, etc. are not as interesting. (We prefer a day walking the hills of Cinque Terre to a day of tours of the Duomo or Pitti Palace in Florence; we’d rather a pubic footpath in the Cotswold’s to a tour of Westminster Abbey; we’d rather get lost in the streets of Paris than spend the afternoon at the Louvre.)

Any comments or suggestions will be greatly appreciated!
cobyblack is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 06:18 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 10,085
First of all, let me give you a bit of reassurance. You will have no problems in Japan. It can be a bewildering place, but it's one of the safest places on earth (day and night, city and country), and everyone seems to be (though practically no one speaks English) is unfailingly helpful and polite.

I made my first trip to Japan recently, speak no Japanese, and had no idea what I wanted to do. The country seems built for convenience. It couldn't have been easier. It's a bit expensive, but now that the yen is lower, costs seemed very reasonable to me as a New Yorker.

Here are some practical tips I learned:
--If you have a smart phone, buy a simple Japanese language translation app. It can help when you really need to ask a simple question but can't find a Japanese speaker. I used it successfully quite a few times, especially in taxis.
--If you use the internet, rent a cellular Wi-Fi mobile hotspot. Having constant access to the internet is invaluable. While every single hotel I stayed at had Wi-Fi (as did the trains), it was often very slow. I was able to use Google maps to find directions, use my translation app, and do everything I needed to do online with the hotspot. It costs less than $10 a day for unlimited service.
--If you want to travel extensively, get a Japan Railpass, but choose it carefully based on your itinerary and needs. We had a green pass, but I don't know if that's really necessary, but depending on the time of the year, it's easier to make train reservations (which are free with a pass) in the green cars, which cost more and are moderately more comfortable.

I did a very basic itinerary and have no previous knowledge of Japan, unlike a lot of posters here, so I don't think I can help you plan your itinerary, but I can reassure you that it's very easy to get around in Japan, the food is wonderful almost everywhere, and you don't have to spend a fortune on fancy hotels to be comfortable.
doug_stallings is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 06:20 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 10,085
One more thing. Getting cash from ATMs can be a chore at times. Most Japanese ATMs don't accept US debit cards. I bank at Citibank and was able to find a couple of Citibank branches in Tokyo and Kyoto that served my needs, but all Japanese post offices have ATMs (and are banks); they have convenient hours, their ATMs work with US debit cards, and they give good rates without charging fees.
doug_stallings is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 06:43 AM
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 24,448
Japan is one country where you should have no worries about safety - either for you or your belongings.

For trains, use http://www.hyperdia.com/ - you will need to price things both ways to see if a Rail Pass is worthwhile, for my trip is was not.

Language should not be a major issue, I traveled solo and speak no Japanese. The only thing I found confusing was the Tokyo subway system.

If you want to get out of the biggest cities you could head into the Japanese Alps from Tokyo, aiming for Kanazawa.

You might find my TR useful:


or here with pix:

thursdaysd is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 07:03 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 32,628
Let me chime in with some reassurance. Japan is one of the safest countries to travel in... it is MUCH safer than the US in terms of petty crime.

The Japanese people we encountered were unfailingly polite and helpful.

The train system is remarkably efficient. If you want to have your Tokyo hotel hold your luggage, you can. But you can also send your luggage on to your next destination using the amazing luggage delivery service.

I'd say that the one must-visit place is Kyoto. Another place to consider is Kanazawa - we loved it. I found Tokyo much less compelling than these other places.

Here is my trip report: http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...s-of-japan.cfm

And you may find photos helpful: www.marlandc.com We were there during the koyo (fall colors) and it was absolutely spectacular. I hope you will be there at a time to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) - just stunning!
Kathie is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 08:13 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
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Yes, what Kathie said about luggage delivery is very true. I used it two times (Tokyo to Kyoto and Kyoto to a hotel at Narita).

We actually traveled with small duffels, which fit in the overhead racks on the trains and were light to carry (a small wheeled bag would also fit, or a small wheeled duffel), but the racks aren't large, even in the green cars.

The second time, I had the service hold my luggage while I was in the Philippines for 4 nights, and it was waiting for me at the hotel on my last night. I paid about $20 per bag for the service and arranged everything through the concierge desk at the hotels. The forms are in Japanese, so you do need some help filling them out. But it was one of the best things ever.

You can even use the service to transfer your big bags from Narita to your Tokyo hotel with same-day delivery for about $10. But if you are taking the airport limousine bus, it's easy to put your bags underneath. Less easy if you are taking the NEX.
doug_stallings is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 08:41 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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Doug, don't you wish we had that kind of luggage delivery service in the US? I sure do!
Kathie is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 09:37 AM
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 10,085
If someone would open up such a service at JFK or LAX (and actually get it to work), I think they'd make a fortune. If I had an entrepreneurial spirit ....
doug_stallings is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 11:08 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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Japan is easier and safer many countries. than A couple more japan tricks:

Don't start a conversation with "do you speak English?" The person will almost always say "no". If they are totally fluent in English, they may say, "oooh, only a little". Say, "Excuse me. Ticket to Kyoto?" Most of the time, they will answer you in English. Carry a notepad, as writing your request in block letters also works very well, since many Japanese read & write English better than they speak it.

Subways usually have a person standing by the gates or inside a little booth at the entrance to to platforms. Just say the name of your destination. They will help you buy a ticket. If there is no person, go to the machines and press the button for the cheapest fare. When you get to your destination, the exit gate will not open. The employee there will not shame you. Just hold out a handful of coins and they will collect the right amount.

Also in the subway: When you are getting directions, like from the hotel or restaurant, ask them for the subway station and exit number. It's easy to find the exits, and once outside, people can point you to your destination. Japan is a country of neighborhoods, so people know their own well.

There is usually an information center in, or across the street, from rail stations. They not only can book hotel rooms, but will have information of hikes, festivals, etc. FREE.
lcuy is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 04:49 PM
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Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 17
Fantastic help!! Very reassuring and the replies collectively eased our concerns and have us eager and looking into the various places mentioned, as well as others mentioned on other sites.

Thanks to you all, who have been so helpful with your thoughtful responses!!
cobyblack is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 06:51 PM
Join Date: Jan 2010
Posts: 421
Great advice above. Will chime in reassuring you about safety, and that you don't have to be fluent in Japanese to get by.

I wrote a trip report and some practical tips for Japan after coming back from our first time trip in April. You can click on my name to find them if it will help.

Good luck!
leslieq is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2015, 08:59 PM
Join Date: Nov 2009
Posts: 882
Regarding safety, I checked my purse at a museum with $300 cash in it (no problem), and that same day, I used a bathroom in a dark alley at 10 PM. I am an extremely cautious lady. Does that indicate to you how safe Japan is?

Regarding your itinerary, given your interests, I would skip Kyoto for now. I took my younger son there, who dislikes temples, and he acted like he was being tortured. Can you stretch it to 10 days, 9 nights? If so, I suggest heading down to the island of Kyushu, because of the nature stuff there. How about 3 nights in Nagasaki, 3 in Kumamoto, and 3 nights near Mt. Aso? The trains on Kyushu are the best anywhere in Japan--they have new wooden floors, and fancy leather seats.
CaliforniaLady is offline  
Jun 4th, 2015, 02:47 AM
Join Date: Oct 2012
Posts: 210
Expect a language barrier. On the plane ride over, look over one of those pocket language guides (LP makes one), and learn a few handy phrases, especially 'excuse-me,' and 'where is.... (fill in the blank).'

Subways are easy. Train stations can be confusing. Leave plenty of time.

Japanese does not use an alphabet, so of course if something is not translated into English, there is no way to figure out what a sign or menu says. Taxicab drivers will not understand English. They will need written instructions in Japanese. To get back to your hotel by taxi, you need to show them the business card of your hotel. (I learned how to say the name of my hotel in Japanese, but I have a pretty good faciltiy for accents).

Addresses do not use the same system as in the West. You can't find an address just by knowing the street name and number like in the US or Europe. You need maps in Japanese to show you (or anyone else) where you are trying to go.

Be prepared, expect some frustrations, and have fun.
shelemm is offline  
Jun 4th, 2015, 07:26 AM
Join Date: May 2015
Posts: 196
"How does Japan safety compare to other advanced, civilized countries?"

As others have already said,Japan is one of the safest countries to travel in. I've been to the country several times and have even been in Japan during an earthquake. Everything is orderly, clean and tourist scams are virtually non existent. Japan is far more advanced and civilized than most countries!

The biggest safely concern for a traveller visiting visiting Japan is how to cope if a massive earthquake hits. The earthquake I was in was a 6.9 and did little damage, this is when the language barrier was notable as instructions were all given in Japanese. I'd left Japan the day before the massive earthquake hit in 2011. Obviously, I was saddened by the news of the quake and the situation effected how I reflected on my trip.

The reality is that I will continue to visit Japan regardless.

The best advice I can give any traveller to Japan is to get detailed directions from the hotel prior to setting out for a day of sightseeing.

Go, get yourself lost in the big cities of Tokyo, Kyoto (a definite must see on a first trip to Japan) or relax in the smaller more traditional towns such as Takayama. Enjoy!
planningtravel is offline  
Jun 5th, 2015, 11:20 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 17
Thank you again, you have all had such welcome observations and suggestions....plenty to look into!

Just one more very practical question....the common dilemma of many who have wandered the streets of cities around the world.....availability of public restrooms??
cobyblack is offline  
Jun 5th, 2015, 07:29 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 15,140
They are generally available. Easier to find than a trash can, I think.

Railway stations, parks, etc. have them. There are restrooms on shinkansen and limited express trains. Have also seen tiny compartments with urinals on a train, a shinkansen I think. I found a squat toilet at a restroom in a small park in Tokyo.
mrwunrfl is offline  
Jun 6th, 2015, 04:12 AM
Join Date: Jul 2010
Posts: 400
If a large department store is in sight, walk in to find restrooms. A Japanese department store usually has a basement floor full of ready-to-go food, as well as a higher floor with many restaurants.
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