Visit Japan – Tips on Japan Rail, Language & etiquette

I find myself on the Shinkansen (what we call the ‘Bullet Train’) from Tokyo to Kyoto with a few hours to spare. With the world whizzing past at a rapid speed this honestly feels more like an aircraft than a train. Fast, comfortable and quiet. Oh, and in case you didn’t know talking on mobile phones is prohibited on Japanese trains – it’s actually considered quite rude. It’s a terrific experience!

Anyway, I thought this would be the ideal opportunity then to blog some tips and experiences of our first few days in Japan.

Firstly…

JJ TRAVEL TIPS:

1. LANGUAGE

I recommend you learn a few basic words and sentences in Japanese. It’ll make your time here a lot easier. If you’re expecting everyone to be able to speak English, you’re wrong. Even in train stations, restaurants and so on there were staff there that couldn’t speak any English.

I focused on learning basic greetings (good morning, good day, good evening) and saying please and thank you. I also learned how to ask if we were getting on the correct train, where things like the toilets were, how much something costs and how to ask for a non-smoking table for two at a restaurant. Words like map and ticket are also useful to know.

I used an audio book called Survival Phrases Japanese, lessons 1-30. I practiced it over a period of a couple of weeks and it’s been very helpful.

2. JAPAN RAIL

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If you’re foreign to Japan then you can buy a discounted Japan Rail ticket. It’s a significant discount and well worth it if you’re planning on travelling around the country by Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Buy it before you travel, then on arrival go to a train station and tell them what date you want it activated for. Once activated you can book as many tickets on Shinkansen as you require – if you want reserved seating – or you can take the risk of unreserved seating and just hop on any one you wish.

At time of writing a weeks unlimited Japan Rail pass cost approximately 25,000 JPY per person.

3. CLOTHING

Dress for the weather. Things to take note of though; the Japanese generally don’t wear shorts. It’s almost always trousers. Nor do they wear sunglasses.

As a westerner you’ll probably get some funny looks. My fiancée and I certainly did. Wear shorts and sunglasses, as I’ve been doing because it’s more comfortable and affords eye protection, and it you may get a few extra strange looks. In the evening time consider changing into light trousers for dining to look a little smarter.

5. WIFI

Available in hotels and on some rail services (such as Shinkansen). Generally more readily available than I’d been led to believe.

6. CASH V CREDIT CARDS

I usually like to use credit cards abroad because they’re safer and more secure than carrying around large sums of cash. However I’d read that even in Tokyo many places don’t accept credit cards.

I must say that looking around at many shops and restaurants in Tokyo a lot of them DO seem to accept cards. Cash does still seem to be be King, for now, which is a strange twist for a country that is so technologically advanced.

OUR JOURNEY SO FAR

So, I arrived with my fiancée four days ago, flying into Tokyo Narita Airport. Our flight was delayed by three hours, which meant we landed about 2040hrs on a Monday evening.

We flew with Emirates from Glasgow to Tokyo Narita via Dubai. The in flight service was faultless and their chicken curry was the best in flight meal I’ve ever tasted- the sort of thing I’d be happy to order at a takeaway!

We subsequently learned that the reason for the delay was a typhoon that hit Narita was the worst in eleven years. Apparently it was so bad it forced the Airport to close the control tower for the first time in several years. Eighty inbound international flights were cancelled, and those that weren’t were delayed. This caused some problems.

NARITA AIRPORT

All the delayed flights arrived at the same time. There was no stand available for the aircraft to park at, so we sat on board it for 40 minutes after landing in the middle of nowhere, engines running and unable to move out our seats. Not great when you’ve been travelling for close to 24 hours.

Then clearing immigration took around three hours. The process itself can only be described as total chaos. There was no proper queueing system and the thousands of passengers queueing ended up pushing and shoving each other, growing increasingly frustrated and short-tempered in the stifling heat (no air conditioning was on). No explanations were offered by Airport staff and no water was available.

I’m surprised I didn’t see anyone faint and felt particularly bad for those travelling with children.

NARITA EXPRESS

After the three hour wait to clear immigration we collected our bags and headed to take the Narita Express from the Airport to Tokyo. As it transpired because of the delays we’d missed the last train to Tokyo. So we asked staff if there were any buses to Tokyo. They didn’t seem to know, made a few phone calls and eventually informed us we’d missed the last bus too and we’d have to take a taxi.

We knew a taxi would set us back around seventy to a hundred pounds, but we felt we’d little option as we’d been travelling for near enough a full day and had just spent several hours standing in hot, stuffy, humid air. We walked to the taxi rank and saw a queue several hundred people long and no taxis. There was a news reporter too and some TV cameras. For a brief moment I even considered hiring a car. How hard could it be anyway, they drive on the proper side of the road?!

Things were starting to look grim when staff started handing out sleeping bags, packs of crackers and bottles of water to passengers. Many of whom had clearly opted to sleep the night on the floor and take a train in the morning (first one was 0400hrs)

DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

It’s at times like these that you have to make the best of a bad situation. I reminded myself how lucky we were to be alive, to be in Japan and that in the grand scheme of things being stuck at an Airport isn’t worth getting too angry or upset over.

So we got speaking to a lovely family of five from the Windsor area of London. We shared some sweets and stories with them and exchanged our travel ideas – we made the best of a bad situation. They had been on our flight and seemed remarkably calm.

ITINERARY

As it turned out they were heading to mostly the same places as us; Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka.

A woman from the family we got speaking to nipped into the terminal building after we’d been queuing for a taxi for around an hour. She came back out with the news that the Airport had arranged to put on one more train for stranded passengers. We were grateful she had told us, because staff at the taxi rank didn’t bother telling anyone.

A train eventually came to take us to Tokyo. However it took three hours to complete a 55 minute journey, stopping at several stations for 30 minutes at a time. Apparently the railways had taken a typhoon battering too.

TAXI

Eventually we arrived at Tokyo. We hailed a taxi, knowing that the ones with the red lights in the front windscreen are available for hire.

The door opened automatically and we got in. The comfortable seats and air conditioning made it the most pleasurable part of our journey to our Tokyo hotel. We were at the hotel a few minutes later. Finally.

Tired, sweaty and sore – but excited for the day ahead!

The first destination for us lay in wait.

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