Wednesday, November 22, 2017


8 November, 2017. Prologue
Our travel blogs to date have focused on where we have been, what we saw or did and what we thought about it all. Given that this is our sixth trip to Japan, we thought we might take a different angle this time and write about how we choose to travel in Japan and how we go about it. Please note that this is about how we travel, not how others should travel. We hope that our experience may be of some help, if only as a way to show people how they might not wish to travel!

To be clear from the outset, we are travellers, not tourists. We don’t travel for a holiday or to relax, far from it. Many of our travels have been stressful and exhausting, but they have also been exciting and rewarding experiences. Wherever possible, we travel by public transport. We travel light, predominantly with carry-on luggage only. We stay in three star hotels, costing between $50 and $100 per night. We fly budget airlines, but we pay a little extra for better seats with more leg room. We eat out most nights, but very rarely frequent bars. We speak a smattering of French and can get by in Spanish and Italian, but other than that we can say “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “beer” in most Asian and European languages.

Our comments are from an Australian perspective, but we believe other Western and European travellers will find them of some use. Prices we quote are in Australian dollars and Japanese Yen. The exchange rate at the time of writing was AUD$1=0.80$US and 80 Yen.

Getting to Japan
Why Japan? Japan is one of the least challenging of the countries we have visited, is relatively easy to travel around, the people are extremely polite and helpful and the culture is both ancient and modern. We have always been able to find new and exciting things to do and experience in Japan and hopefully we will continue to do so.

Our trips to Japan are very rarely planned. They just happen. All it takes is an offer of a cheap flight to pop up in our email box and we are in. We have always flown Jetstar out of the Gold Coast, Queensland, which is an hour’s drive from home for us. Fares for our first few trips started around $500 return, but now the starting price is as low as $350 return - starting price, because everything else is extra on Jetstar. As an example, this trip was $350 starting price. We added extra leg room seats at $50 each; food can add another $10 and up each leg per person and booking fees, credit card surcharges etc. have brought this trip up to a total price of just under $500 return each. If you want to lump more luggage around, 20kgs will cost you another $20 each way. Off-site parking at Coolangatta airport is about $120 a week. We are lucky to have parking at a family member’s place, close to the regular Gold Coast 777 Airport bus route, which runs every 15 to 20 minutes to and from the airport.

Jetstar gets some horrible reviews and we are sure some people have had experiences that have put them right off the airline. We have had some flights delayed, more than six hours once from Hawaii, but the delays for us have been the exception, not the rule. Others complain about the service. We haven’t had a problem in this area at all, perhaps because we don’t expect five star service on a three star airline.
Our flight on this trip left ten minutes late, but landed right on time, just after 7pm. We were off the plane, through Immigration and Customs and on our way from Narita Terminal 3 to Narita Terminal 2 inside 20 minutes.

Narita T3 is a low-cost terminal, which is not served by reasonably-priced, direct transport to Tokyo. You must walk to T2, or take a (free) shuttle bus, both well-signed. This takes about 10 minutes either way. We walk rather than hang around waiting for the bus. 
Our next step is to validate our Japanese Rail Train Passes.

We would never consider travelling in Japan without a JR Pass. Passes must be purchased outside Japan. There are many different passes for different regions. We generally use the full JR Pass, which covers all JR trains, including Shinkansens (except Nozomi and Mizuho), JR buses and the Miyajima ferry. Price fluctuates with the AUD/Yen rate, but our latest 14 day passes cost just under $500 each. Don’t leave home without one! And don’t buy from RailPlus. Use HIS Travel. Way better service and much cheaper.

Narita T1 and T2 both have railway stations. Follow the signs to the T2 station, where the JR Service Centre is located. What HIS Travel gives you is really a voucher. This must be activated, by choosing a start date, at a JR Service Centre. We had our passports ready, had filled in the required form and were set to go, except for the queue which, this time, was rather slow moving because several people ahead of us needed to tell their life stories to the service staff! Even with these delays, we were on the platform, waiting for our train in just on an hour from landing. (We also picked up our pre-booked, on-line seat reservation for the Shinkansen to Sendai tomorrow.)

The Narita Express (NEX) train is our normal mode of transport into central Tokyo. Every other trip we have reserved our seats for the next Narita Express when we picked up our JR Passes, activating them immediately. This time, we had decided to overnight at Narita town rather than head into the city. This was because we were only going into Tokyo in order to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai. What a great idea that was! Narita Station is only small, so we could face the big station of Tokyo after a good night’s sleep, plus we didn’t lose a day on the Pass.

Narita town is about a ten minute train ride from the Airport, covered by the JR Pass, if activated, or 210 Yen if not. When we have caught the Narita Express in the past, we’ve arrived in the city as late as 10:00pm. This trip we were settled in our hotel, 5 minutes’ walk from Narita station, by 8:15pm. First time travellers could do worse than spending their first night in Narita, taking the morning to explore Narita town and then heading into the city in the afternoon. Trains from Narita town run about every 30 minutes in peak, a little less frequently off peak. Having chosen a starting date of 9 November, we could take either the NEX or the slower train, depending on the timetable. We use the great web site, HyperDia to check train times and to get the details of train number, destination and times that we need to book seats where necessary.

What may be obvious by now is that we travel by train in Japan. Is there any other way? No. Simply, no. That settled, let’s move on.
Booking hotels in Japan is fairly simple. Because we travel by train, we always book hotels near stations. This trip, as with all our others, we have booked just a day or two ahead. However, we always book our arrival and departure hotels before we leave home. We use online booking sites such as Agoda or The Japanese have a “thing” about hotel bookings. It is not generally acceptable to just walk in and book a room. Many hotels are clustered around the main train stations and the prices are very reasonable. We paid $90/night at Narita and we probably average $100 a night, including breakfast.

This morning, we took the train into Tokyo station, the busiest in Japan. Well-signed, in English and Japanese, like any other major city station in Japan, it is fairly easily navigated, though today we had a lot of trouble finding somewhere to sit down and have a coffee.
Caffeine fix finally satisfied, we found our platform and waited for our train to Sendai - not as simple as it might sound for the first time traveller. Shinkansen trains come in various lengths, or numbers of carriages. You need to know how many carriages your train has so you can line up at the right spot on the platform to board when the train arrives. All required information is displayed on the departure boards in Japanese and English. The carriage numbers are on the platform floor, also above, along the length of the platform. This is where you need to line up for your train. After six trips this even confuses us sometimes. Take care to line up for the right train. Shinkansens come so frequently, that there will usually be two queues, one for the next train to arrive and one for the one after that. If you don’t get it right, just get on the train and work your way through to the correct carriage. The trains stop very briefly.

Today was one of the most beautiful days we have experienced in Japan, with clear blue skies, a nice, crisp 15C temperature and a strong breeze, with autumn leaves swirling about. The two hour trip to Sendai was relaxing, with fantastic views and the now-familiar, yet still incomprehensible, burble of train announcements in the background. 

We actually arrived a few minutes late in Sendai, which is extremely unusual, but no real problem for us, as we had no connection to make. We only had to find our hotel. At this point, we need to disclose one of the secrets about travelling by train in Japan. Japanese stations, except in small towns, are the most disorienting places on earth. Many will spill you out into mega malls, with a maze of underground arcades; others will deliver you so far beneath the surface of the earth that your phone compass won’t work. We have no better advice than that you should know which exit will lead you in the general direction of your hotel. This can generally be worked out before hand, using Google Maps or Google Earth. There are also maps on the walls of stations, after you have exited the station proper, but before you commit to an exit, so you can (maybe) find your street. The Exit signs can also help, as they indicate which exit to take for a particular street or landmark. Today we were fine, but we have been here before. On previous trips to larger cities, particularly at night, we have roamed the streets for hours. But that’s part of the experience. The other little quirk is that Reception can be on the 2nd, or higher, floor of the building. Check the hotel’s reviews when booking as they will often mention this.

So here we are at our starting point for this trip. Sendai. Tomorrow we are heading off on a day trip on local trains and possibly buses, to see some of the autumn foliage that is the main attraction this time of the year.

10 November, Premier Green Hills Hotel, Sendai
Getting around on trains and buses
Our trip today was a logistical success, but a little disappointing from the foliage point of view. We had a leisurely start, kicked off by a fantastic breakfast. We learned a long time ago that most hotels in Asia provide substantial breakfast buffets, more than enough to sustain us for the whole day with just a sandwich from a convenience store to top us up.

At the station a little early, we took the opportunity to reserve our Shinkansen seats for the next leg of our trip. The Japanese rail system can be a little confusing, but you can be sure there is excellent logic behind it all. The classes of trains are fairly self-explanatory. Local, limited express and rapid trains; these make, all stops, a few stops and a very few stops respectively. Simple, right? However, some trains have reserved and non-reserved cars and some are fully reserved. This means you must book a seat if the train is reserved seats only. If a train has both reserved and non-reserved you should book a seat if at all possible. If you can’t book for some reason, get to the platform early, find the non-reserved queues and get on one of them early enough to score a seat. If you miss out on a seat, it is also possible to stand, usually at either end of the carriage.

Above all these are the Shinkansen trains, which run on a totally independent system with dedicated track and stations. Complex enough yet? Sitting alongside all these yet again, are the privately-owned railways. These trains are not covered by the JR Pass, so we just avoid using them at all, except for the subway systems in the cities, which we will deal with when we come upon them.

How we managed our trip today should provide some examples that may help.

With our JR Passes in hand we sought out the JR Ticket Office in Sendai station. These places are generally a picture of perfect Japanese efficiency. Long queues are common, but they move with surprising speed, until Westerners or other foreign types, gum up the works by tying up a few counter staff with dumb questions because they haven’t done any planning. To make life simple for ourselves, the counter staff and others in the queue, we use the HyperDia Japanese Railway timetable site to find out which trains we need to book. We then write down the date, time, origin station, destination station and train number. Today, with two scraps of paper with these details, we booked reserved seats for the first part of today’s trip and our longer journey tomorrow to Aomori, in under a minute. Booking these seats is free with the JR Pass, and most JR counter staff speak reasonable English and can help if there is a problem with what you want to book.

Sendai is only a mid-sized station, but by Australian standards it is huge. Once you get used to the signage though, finding your way around is relatively simple. We flashed our JR Passes at the manned gate (you can’t use the automatic gates), found our train details on the electronic board and headed off to our platform. Dead on time to the second, the train arrived and departed for our 12 minute trip to Furukawa, where we changed trains to a local line (no booking needed) for our destination, Naruko Onsen Station.

Most Shinkansen stops are linked to local and/or subway lines. At Furukawa, we simply exited the Shinkansen-dedicated area and linked to the local line for our, stopping at every station, slow haul to our destination. 
From Naruko Onsen Station, we had a leisurely 6 km stroll through mountain scenery in which trees were sporting the last of their autumn colours, to Naruko Gorge. We were just a week too late. Never mind, it was great to have the trails to ourselves and enjoy what passes for wilderness in Japan.

Our return trip was a good example of how things can go wrong travelling independently and just how easy it is to redeem the situation.
We had decided to walk from Naruko Gorge onward to Nakayamadaira Onsen Station, rather than go back over the same terrain, to catch the train back to Furukawa and then home to Sendai. As usual, we had screenshots of the relevant timetables on our tablet, the tablet that was back in our hotel in Sendai! We enjoyed the gorge and the walk, being away from civilization, out in the “boonies” you might say, but when we saw Nakayamadaira Onsen station, basically a shed, in a village of about twenty houses and a shop, we were a little perturbed. There was a timetable on the wall of the shed, in Japanese, so we were able to translate, with our basic knowledge of the symbols, the names of the towns we needed to get to and figured we had an hour and a half to wait. After an increasingly chilly sojourn, sure enough, to the second, round the bend came the 15:52 Local to Furukawa. A short wait on the Furukawa Shinkansen platform and we were on our way home.

11 November, APA Hotel, Aomori
More on bus travel
We arrived to a dismal, freezing Aomori around lunch time. Check-in time for our hotel was 3:00pm so we thought we might pursue some heated, indoor activity. Leaving our bags at the hotel, we headed off to the Aomori Museum of Modern Art, which our guide book told us was just a kilometre from the station, but we were instead driven into a warm-looking building by a howling gale, rain and, for a short time, sleet. Our refuge turned out to be the Nebuta Museum, that celebrates the local and apparently world-renowned, Aomori Nebuta Festival - yet another random find in Japan. The museum houses some of the most recent festival floats that truly defy description. Just check out the photos. We were also treated to a fabulous festival music presentation. Great fun and way better than being drenched and frozen outside.

The local tourist information office was nearby, so we headed there when the rain eased. These tourist services are universally excellent throughout Japan. In larger cities, or where there are major attractions, you will usually find good English speakers behind the desk. Information offices are generally located in stations or very close nearby. Even in more out of the way places, staff are extremely helpful. The lady who helped us today was able to give us a bus timetable, in English, direct us to the bus information centre for a bus day pass and point out the correct stop for the Modern Art Museum bus. 

We have only fairly recently gained a reasonable degree of confidence in using buses in Japan. The problem with buses is that you need to know where to get off. This is complicated by the fact that virtually every bus we have used outside Tokyo has had no English signs or announcements. Couple this with drivers with little or no English and a complicated, zone-based fare system and you can see why we have been shy of them. If somebody had explained what we are about to disclose, we might have gained confidence more quickly.
With the exception of Tokyo and some other larger cities, getting on Japanese buses is the first oddity for Westerners. You enter from the rear door. You don’t pay at this point, but you will either scan a travel card like a Suica Card, (see November 19 entry for more details) or take a small ticket from a dispenser near the door. But we have probably skipped a few steps here. You obviously need to know what bus to catch. Bus maps are available for most cities, but unless you can read Japanese, they are next to useless. Asking at the tourist or bus information counter has been how we have tackled this problem. Sometimes just wandering about bus stations looking lost will attract a willing helper, but we recommend being well-planned yourself.

Once you know the correct bus, you need to check the timetable. In larger cities, buses run so often that this is often not necessary, but if you need to know departure and return times, the tourist or bus services will help. Alternatively, once you get used to the system, you can find timetables at the bus stops. Next you need to know which stop to get off. We use two methods here, sometimes in concert. Firstly, we find out the Japanese characters for the stop we need. Remembering them and recognising them can be a bit tricky. We usually equate the symbols to things we recognize, like “chair with three storey building on it” or “man with funny hat”. The upcoming bus stops scroll through on a board at the front of the bus. Sounds insane, we know, but it works for us. Applying modern technology alongside this rather primitive, though effective method can also help. We use Google Maps and GPS to track our progress towards our destination. 

Getting off the bus and paying the fare is the next stress point. Remember the little ticket you took when you got on the bus via the rear door? Well that little ticket needs to be fed into the machine beside the driver and it will tell him, and you, the fare required. As well, you can see what you are up for on a board at the front of the bus. This had us stumped for a while. The way it works is that the number you take on boarding records the zone in which you entered the bus. That number and the relevant fare are shown on the board at the front of the bus. So if you got on the bus in the first zone, your number would be 1 and the fare against that number is what you owe on exit. You can generally pay your fare with notes or coins inserted into a machine, which gives change. On some buses there is also a “note breaker” machine that will issue you coins for notes. Got all that? If you neglected to pick up a ticket on entry, just act dumb and point to a fare that you think is reasonable in the screen above you and pay up. Drivers are used to dealing with foreigners.
Now for the easier way. If you are going to use a few buses in a city, you can usually buy a daily day pass, which gives unlimited travel, a Suica Card, (or its local equivalent) so you don’t have to worry about how to pay. You just have to know which bus to catch and when to get off. One last thing. You should always check where the return bus leaves from. Mostly, that will be just across the road, but not always, particularly, if you are dropped on a one-way street. Some buses do continuous loops, so they always drop-off and pick-up at the same stops.
Today we made it home fine, though chilled and wet. The bus trip was fun and yet another learning experience, but the museum was a little disappointing. We aren’t great fans of modern art, but we keep trying to “get” it. Today we were no more enlightened, except for confirming that Japanese modern art is close to the most bizarre we have experienced. Our prize for that goes to the Modern Art Gallery in Santiago, Chile. We did, however, like the enormous dog called Aomori Ken.

12 November, APA Hotel, Aomori
Japanese hotels
Another day trip today, to Hirosaki, for some more autumn colours, this time in an ancient castle’s grounds. We pounded a lot of pavement through this small (130,000 pop.) city. Very nice pavement it was too. The city was once the cultural centre of the province until it was surpassed by Aomori. The city fathers are fighting back with well-laid out streets, plentiful street art and a great park area around what is left of the original castle.

Back in our hotel with sore feet, we thought we might explain a little about Japanese hotels, a subject on which we have a reasonable degree of credibility, having spent sixty plus nights in Japanese hotels over a period of six years. Our first experience was with the Oak Hotel in Ueno, a couple of stations away from central Tokyo. Don’t worry, we don’t propose to examine each hotel we have used individually. The Oak is one end of the spectrum of the hotels we have booked. At $65 a night, it isn’t the cheapest hotel we have used, but it is probably the lowest star rating. So what do bottom of the range hotels in big cities offer? Small, no, very small rooms for one thing. The Oak’s rooms were so small that one reviewer joked that the TV remote was superfluous because he could change channels with his toes. We had no room to put our backpacks down. Would we stay there again? Yep. In fact we have. Why? The service was fantastic, the beds were comfortable, the room was spotlessly clean, there was a free laundry, the shower was hot, it was a three minute walk to the station and best of all, there was a vending machine, with beer, outside our room.
We have come a long way since the Oak, but the way we select hotels hasn’t changed. As with any real estate it is all about location, location. For us that means near a station or subway. Next, does the hotel offer pre-payment? Is there a fridge in the room? Are there eating options nearby? And finally, is breakfast included? 

Our view on hotels when travelling is that they are a place to sleep. They are not that important in the overall scheme of things. As long as they are clean and we can get a good night’s sleep and value for money, we are satisfied.
Proximity to a station doesn’t seem to cost more in Japan; in fact in many cities, the competition within walking distance from stations keeps prices reasonable. At this point we should also mention the importance of being able to find your hotel. We have learnt by experience to print or screen dump maps to our hotels. We even use Google earth to do a virtual walk to our hotel if possible. Our best tip for finding hotels is to know which exit to use from your arrival station. Take the wrong exit and you will more than likely get lost. Google maps can save you, but you might need to get back to the station and try again.
We prefer pre-payment as it is AUD and we can put it on credit/debit card.
Booking hotels online, generally only a couple of days ahead, is the way we prefer to travel. Others may be more comfortable booking a whole trip, but we find this restrictive.  Hotel booking systems are extremely sophisticated these days and they use pricing models that reflect a hotel’s demand and supply. This means that booking just a day or two ahead through booking sites like Agoda or can produce unbelievable bargain prices. However, there are some traps. There are often special events going on in Japanese cities - sporting events, festivals, even just weekends, which can cause prices to jump and availability to drop. We have been caught out more than a couple of times, but there is always a way out in Japan. Assuming you have a JR Pass, it is easy to seek accommodation in a nearby city. Silly as this might sound, moving between cities that are hundreds of kilometres apart is a bit like catching a suburban bus in other countries. On the topic of booking sites, we use Agoda in Japan and all over Asia. We have booked well over a hundred hotels with Agoda and only ever had one small hitch, which was solved by the reception staff at the hotel where the problem occurred. But that’s Japan all over!
So what are Japanese hotels really like? We don’t know about the Hilton or the Marriott, except that they are the same the world over. What we do know is that we have never had a bad Japanese hotel.
We have gravitated to some of the many chain hotels in Japan. There are too many to name, but the standards are fairly uniform across the board. Even the non-chain hotels we have used have been fine. So what do you get?  Real value for money. Dollar for dollar, yen for yen, pound for pound, Japanese hotels provide great value for money. Note we didn’t mention dong for dong (Vietnam), kyat for kyat (Myanmar) or even ringgit for ringgit (Malaysia). The hotels in these countries are in a different class altogether.

If the Oak was one end of the scale, what was the other? Two come to mind. A hotel just across the square from the station in Sapporo, off-ski season, a night-before booking, around $100 AUD for a Hilton-standard room and breakfast, plus a room where you could actually swing a cat without hitting the walls. The second was in a city, we can’t remember where, where we scored a suite upgrade for an original price of around $75!

In summary, book ahead, be prepared for small rooms, but expect clean rooms, great service, slippers to wear in the room, sometimes also slippers to wear in the bathroom, casual robes (sometimes pyjama-style sets to wear in the room, or down to breakfast!). Please don’t forget to include breakfast.

13 November, New City Hotel, Morioka
Hotel upgrades
Nice easy trip today to Morioka, another smallish city that we have passed through before but never visited. Our hotel was simple to find as we could spot it from the station. We have three nights here with a couple of day trips planned, so we took advantage of our early arrival and dumped our bags at the hotel before setting out to see the sights of the city.

We mean no disrespect to the city and people of Morioka. We are sure we will get to know and love them and their city over the next few days, but no matter whether it is a small town in western New South Wales, or a small city in central Honshu, everywhere needs to have something to attract visitors. In Morioka it is the famous Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree and the Park of the Site of the Former Castle. The park was very pleasant. The ruins of the castle walls have been beautifully landscaped and in the late autumn sunlight they made for a relaxing stroll. The Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree was something not to be missed. We had fairly low expectations, but yep, there was a very large cherry tree growing out of a very large rock. If you ever get to Morioka, don’t miss the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree. Otherwise you will die wondering. 
We have no real wisdom to impart based on today’s events, except perhaps for how to improve your chances of getting an upgrade in a Japanese hotel. We scored one today - a very nice, larger room with a King Bed! Who really knows how these blessings are bestowed? We think it is a little bit about being polite and respectful to the staff at the hotel. Smile when told you can’t access your room before the designated check-in time. Bow with a slight nod of the head in response to reception staff’s welcome. It all worked for us today. Oh and one other small matter. On tipping. You don’t tip in Japan. It is not part of the culture and not at all necessary. We just mention this in the context of room upgrades, because in our experience, the way to secure an upgrade in some countries is to tip heavily.
14 November, Morioka
Eating options
Bright sunshine greeted us as we headed off to the station this morning for a day trip to the historical town of Kakunodate, famous for its well-preserved Samurai District. About 20 minutes into our trip, the rain started and didn’t stop for the rest of the day. We can’t really complain as we have been extremely lucky with the weather to date.

We grabbed some lunch from a convenience store at the station, which made us think about eating in Japan. Again, not a very eloquent segue, but it will have to do.

Let’s start with breakfast. As we have already said, we are big fans of hotel breakfasts in Japan. Most hotels provide extremely filling, quality breakfasts, packaged with the room price. Breakfast offerings on the street are predominantly traditional, or increasingly, chain places like Yoshinoya, that serve quick (and filling) bowls of noodles and a bowl of miso soup. An emerging trend we have noticed is the self-serve bakery like Breadtop. These are popping up everywhere in Japan, as well as in other Asian countries. Finally, Western standards such as Starbucks and McDonalds are everywhere in the larger cities. And no, we have never succumbed. Not in Japan anyhow. 

We have to admit to knowing very little about lunch options, because we prefer light lunches on the move. Convenience stores are our source of midday sustenance. These gems are literally a stone’s throw away in any town or city in Japan. You can live out of a Lawson, 7-Eleven, Family Mart, or any of the many others. The prices in these shops are not all that different to supermarket prices and they sell alcohol as well. All will heat ready-made meals for you and many have small, sit-down, café-style areas.
Dinner options in Japan, particularly in larger cities, are virtually limitless. You can spend $5 each for a hearty bowl of noodles in a Ramen House or have a beer or two and a pub-style meal in an izakaya (like a pub) for about $25 each. Larger train stations have multiple, café-style establishments, serving traditional Japanese fare. Several hundred dollars will fly out of your pocket for a top-notch meal in an up-market Tokyo restaurant. Whatever your taste or budget there are options a-plenty.
Japan is famous for its plastic food displays which grace the windows of many eating houses. These displays are a great help for non-Japanese speakers as they give some idea of what is on offer. We have often taken a server outside and pointed at our preferred meal. Prices are also generally displayed with pictures of meals. We avoid any restaurant that is not at street level, particularly if they don’t have a menu available at the entrance. 

What we call “coin in the slot” restaurants are good value and a bit of fun. Sometimes it is a bit like “Japanese roulette” as the pictures on the machine, if they are there at all, are so small that you really have no idea what you are selecting. Once your selection is made, including beer, and you have paid, the machine spits out tickets, which you simply hand over at the counter, sit down and your meal and drinks are brought to you.

Final warning. If you have strong objections to things such as offal, raw meat or fish, horse meat or animal parts that are not part of your normal diet, be very careful when selecting a place to eat or picking something off a menu that you are not sure of.  Just a few nights back, we found ourselves in a tongue-only restaurant. As it turned out, beef tongue was fine, but a very new experience for us. We have also eaten raw mince, fish, horse and many other things that we still aren’t quite sure of. 

What should you never eat in Japan? Pizza. The Japanese have an even worse understanding of what real pizza is than Americans do!
15 November, Morioka
Being flexible and money
Another day, another day trip. Hiraizumi, a very nice little town of just under 10,000 souls, is about 100 kms from our temporary base at Morioka. Just outside Hiraizumi, a beautiful, wooded hill is home to a cluster of 16th century temples. To be more correct, there is a cluster of temples that have been progressively restored since the 16th century. We are a little further south here, so the autumn colours are far more evident than in the cooler north. We spent a good three hours either riding the rails, or waiting for trains today, but we have found that striking out from a base to see the sights is an effective way to travel in Japan.

Freed from concerns about the cost of travel because of the JR Rail Pass, we think nothing of travelling 300 to 400 kms round trip on a day outing. By Shinkansen, even the longer trips can take as little as two to two and a half hours return. As an example we can look at our plans for the next couple of days.
Tomorrow is Thursday and, as we approach the weekend, we know from experience that there is a high likelihood that hotel prices will start to rise and if there is something special going on, availability will also decrease. We don’t know what is happening this weekend, but hotels are so short on supply and prices are so high that we had to spend a couple of hours last night finding somewhere to go that wouldn’t blow our budget.   
Our initial plan was to go to Niigata, the largest city on the Japan Sea coast, foiled by booked-out reasonably-priced hotel rooms on our chosen dates, a downside to booking close to travel date. Undeterred, we instead chose Nagano, Japan’s fourth largest city and from there take a run down to Hiroshima or Himeji. We have visited both before but, on our previous trips, we had very little time in Hiroshima and Himeji castle was being renovated.
After pouring over maps, guide books, HyperDia and arguing about whether we had been to Nagoya or Nagano before (we always get the two confused!) we finally decided on a plan. We will go to Nagano for two nights and then zip down for Himeji, stay the night, visit the castle and head back to Tokyo for our last night before flying home.
This map of Honshu will give some idea of the distances such a trip will cover. 

The actual travel times are:
To Nagano:
Morioka to Omiya. (change trains) Omiya to Nagano. 10:50 – 13:56 (12 minute transit)
Two nights Nagano
To Himeji:
Nagano to Nagoya. (change trains) Nagoya to Himeji. 10:00 – 14:42 (8 min transit)
One night Himeji
Himeji to Tokyo. 11:06 – 14:40.

The cost of these last days’ travel would be over $300 each without the JR Pass. At a rough estimate, we will have had almost $700 in value out of our JR pass by the time we get back to Tokyo, for an outlay of just under $500. And we still have a full day around Tokyo and a trip out to Narita to add on.
This change of plans allowed us to book some more reasonably-priced hotels, but we still had to pay more than $200 for a night in Himeji, well above our usual $60 - $100 range.
Speaking of money, another smooth segue, we are running short of cash. We have no concerns about carrying large amounts of cash in Japan. On this trip we brought about 8,000 Yen, $1,000AUD for a two week trip. All our hotels are pre-paid as we book them online and our transport costs are mostly covered by the JR Pass, except for metro travel in Tokyo where we use the Suica card (still getting to that). 

Surprisingly, cash is still king in some sectors in Japan. With the exception of high-end restaurants, eating out is generally cash only. Convenience stores do seem to accept some Japanese cards and a range of stored-value cards like the Suica card (coming soon now), but they are also mostly cash only. Likewise, many entry fees are cash only, though, interestingly, the souvenir shops attached to these places will often take cards.
Unlike most other Asian countries, cash withdrawals from ATMs in Japan cannot be made from just any machine. Japan Post is one source we understand, though we have never tried there. There are a few banks as well. But why spend time searching out a particular bank, or trying to find a post office when 7-Eleven store ATMs do the job and they are everywhere! 7-Eleven ATMs have no fees, but your domestic bank will charge. They are, usually, flat rate, so take out large rather than small amounts. Any cash left over can be exchanged back home. If you do wish to use credit cards where they are accepted, for Australians, we recommend the 28 Degree Mastercard, which has no transaction fees and their foreign exchange rates are very reasonable.
A last note on currency. Please don’t try to travel in Japan using US$ or Euros. Except for shops in the larger airports and flash hotels, nobody will accept them. Banks and currency exchanges will take them of course, but our experience is that the best rates for cash exchanges are found at home. We once exchanged AUD100 at a bank in Sendai and lost about 20% on the transaction. Having said all this, nothing beats a good old $100US tucked away somewhere as a last ditch saver for when things go pear-shaped.
16 November, Nagano, Hotel ABest
Packing light and laundry
No trouble spotting our hotel this afternoon, as it was right across the square from the station and visible as soon as we hit the top of the escalator from our arrival platform.

Nagano is yet another rather small Japanese city, pop. 320,000. Silly as it may seem, these smaller cities have a country town feel to them. They are laid-back and easy-going, but hellishly difficult, sometimes, to find somewhere to eat. 
We thought we might deal with the issue of laundry tonight and then, as we are getting close to the end of our trip, have a go at answering some of the basic questions people ask about travelling in Japan.
Travelling as light as we do, doing the washing is fairly much a nightly chore. One of the oft-quoted maxims on packing is, select what you think you will need, then halve it. Carry-on luggage limits are 7 kgs on the airlines we fly, but it isn’t always the clothes that give us a weight problem. More often than not, it is the amount of technology that we drag around with us. We will look at how we use technology in our travels tomorrow night. Back to the more mundane - the washing - we have followed the above maximum on packing clothes and still, at the end of a trip, we find we could have shed a little more. The reason we can do without a lot of clothing, even in cooler climates such as we are travelling in now, (-2C to 8C on some days) is that we are prepared to wash and dry in our room. Every now and then in Japan we score a hotel that has a laundromat. Even more rarely we hit the jackpot and land in a hotel with a free laundry.

Washing in Japanese hotels is way easier than in other Asian countries where baths are a rarity. We buy detergent on our first day as there is less weight on the flight in. If we are travelling in summer in Japan, we have only lightweight items to wash and they dry easily overnight. At colder times, heavier items like jeans take longer to dry and they are harder to wash, but if we are sitting on a train or doing fairly limited physical activity, a pair of jeans can last two to three days. Light cotton shirts can also do a couple of days’ service if one day they are worn over a t-shirt or singlet top. Coats and fleeces are not washed at all. Undies, tights etc. are so light that, if you choose, more can be packed, but they are easily washed and dried, so it’s really not an issue.
One little trick that we have learned is to use the hotel’s bath mats, hand towels, washers and, if absolutely necessary, a bath towel, to roll and twist washed items to wring out excess moisture. We carry a few elastic, expandable clothes lines that we string up in our room. For drying, in summer we pump the air-conditioner up to freezing and in winter we hit the hot switch just before we go out for dinner.
Travelling in Japan, FAQ
Is English widely understood and spoken?
Understood, yes. Spoken, sort of. This is a complex issue. In big cities or places where there are tourist attractions, or in virtually any hotel, somebody will be able to speak and understand basic English at the very least.

Can you drink the water? 
Yes. Japan’s water quality standards are amongst the highest in the world. But if you know you have a weak stomach, or have had a history of reaction to different water, you should boil the water or buy it.

If we get sick, can we trust Japanese doctors and hospitals? 
Absolutely. Japanese health services are some of the best in the world. You will of course have adequate health cover in your travel insurance package.

What power outlets are used?
Japan uses the two-prong American-style outlets.

Can I use US$ in Japan. 
No and Yes. No, they won’t generally be accepted for everyday transactions. Yes, you can exchange them.

Is Japan expensive?
Depends on where you come from and how you travel. For Australians, Japan is cheaper by a factor of 10% to 20%. For Americans and Europeans, it is probably on a par. But these comparisons depend on how you wish to travel. It is easy to spend a lot of money in Japan if you are not careful.

Can I drive in Japan?
We haven’t, because we haven’t needed to, though driving wouldn’t be a problem, particularly for those with experience driving on the left. Traffic is well-regulated and drivers are courteous and skillful. Hire car rates are rather high, however.

Can we travel in Japan with children?
Yes. We have and there is a lot for kids of all ages to love about Japan.

Is Japan a safe country?
Yes. The safest we have experienced and we have been around a bit.

Would learning some Japanese before I travel be helpful?
Of course. But don’t get too concerned about speaking the language. If anything, put some time into trying to recognise the various Japanese scripts for the places you intend to visit. This will help if you are in areas where there are no English translations on timetables etc.

Are toilets clean and widely available?
Yes and yes. And they are free.

What is the best way to get around?
Train and sometimes bus.

Can we use taxis rather than public transport and are they reliable and metred?
Yes. Taxis are metered and extremely safe and reliable. But they are an expensive option.

Are there English signage and announcements in Japanese stations and on trains.
In most cities and on most main lines, yes. But, in smaller towns and more remote lines, no. However there are always people who will help you.

Should we go shopping for cheap quality clothing in Japan?
From our observations, you would do better at home and larger sizes are extremely difficult to find.

Where can I find information locally about interesting places to see?
Local tourist information offices are located in most stations. Even very small towns, where there is some attraction, will have a tourist information centre and they are uniformly extremely helpful and informative. Also try some of the online sources such as Trip Advisor.

What is the best season to travel in Japan?
A hard one! We have never travelled in Japan in full summer. Even in spring and early autumn it can be hot and sticky. We prefer March-April, for the cherry blossoms and September-November for cooler temperatures, smaller crowds and, in this period, the autumn colours. The thing about Japan’s climate is that it extends north-south, so while it can be snowing in Sapporo, it is T-shirt weather in the deep south. Many Australians also travel to Japan to ski in the winter.

18 November, Nagano
Travelling with technology
Another beautiful day today, in another extremely pleasant, smallish, Japanese city. The autumn colours are at their very best. We did a fair bit of walking today, some of it unnecessary, due to the inaccuracy of maps. We had trusted a town map over one of the many large-scale street information maps that abound in Japanese cities. Eventually, we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps, hit the GPS key and found our location in relation to our target, the nice little Nagano zoo. It is a free zoo with a small collection of animals and some rides for kids - a bit of a mix between an amusement park and a zoo. Animal liberation folk would freak, because the cages were small, with only minimal attempts at creating a natural environment for the animals. However, all the interns looked well-fed and healthy. There were even some snow monkeys that kept us amused for some time. We had actually come to Nagano to see the snow monkeys in the hot springs, but sadly, as it was put to us by the young lady in the Tourist Information Office, “monkeys not come down now, make babies.” This translates to – it’s breeding season and the monkeys are way too busy!

Today wasn’t the first time technology has saved our bacon, or made our travels easier. Truth to tell, we totally depend on it. We travel with a smartphone each, an 8-inch tablet and a bluetooth keyboard. With these we book our hotels, check opening and closing times of places we intend to visit, monitor the local weather, and continue to manage our home affairs, keep in contact with family and friends and even write this blog.
Google earth and Google maps help us plan how to get to our hotels. We screenshot the maps we need and the street views of the corner we need to turn to find our target. This may sound a bit silly, but if you have tried to find a hotel in Japan after exiting a major station, you will know why we go to this amount of trouble.
Our phones are pre-paid, non-contract, so we are extremely careful when using them anywhere overseas. We don’t bother with using local SIMs in Japan, because WiFi is so widely available. If we need to call anybody, we use Skype. We have an account that cost us 10 Euro (AUD$15) about 10 years ago. We think we may have topped it up once and we have used it a lot. Having an account lets us call phone numbers direct. An added bonus is the videos and audio books that keep us amused while travelling. All of these miracles may be self-evident and even passé to younger generations, but for many years now we have used and appreciated the benefits mobile technology affords the independent traveller. We constantly wonder how we managed all those years before there was an internet and smartphones. We are talking the 1970s, when, believe it or not, there weren’t even personal computers! 
18 November, Grandvrio Hotel, Himeji
Where to go in Japan 
We were on the train fairly much all day today, travelling through the Japanese Alps and out on to the coastal plain of central Honshu. Where we could see them, the mountains were at the height of their autumn splendour, showing green, bright yellow and many shades of orange and red. A heavy mist hung on through the valleys for most of the trip, but in some ways this enhanced the autumnal effect.
It is difficult to define what to see on a trip to Japan. As this is our sixth trip, we have again gone beyond the well-travelled tourist tracks and again found some wonderful and different sights and experiences. But what might a first time traveller in Japan plan to cover? 
To be clear, this is what we would do to best enjoy a first trip to Japan. You will probably have different ideas and enjoy different things.
Seven Day “taster”.
If time is short, we would suggest staying in Tokyo, exploring the city and doing a couple of day trips. We have rented an AirBnB apartment in Tokyo for just over $100 AUD a night. It was practically on top of Shinagawa station, one of the main stations on the JR Yamanote loop line that circles Tokyo and serves most interesting sights.
 Day 1. 
Arrive and either travel to central Tokyo or stay the night in Narita town (see above). Flights from Australia arrive in the early evening. From other countries the timing may be different.
Day 2
Tokyo sights. Try a trip to Harajuku, visit the Meiji Shrine and check out the trendy street as an easy way to orientate yourself to Japanese culture and the train system.
Day 3
Tokyo sights to suit your taste, but include a visit to Asakusa, the Imperial Palace and Ueno Park somewhere in your exploration of Tokyo. If you have kids travelling with you, Tokyo has not one, but two Disneylands!
Day 4
Day trip to Mt Fuji.
Day 5
Tokyo sights
Day 6
Day trip Nikko
Day 7
Easy day in Tokyo or hop on the train and visit Yokahama as it has some interesting and bizarre attractions. Flights returning to Australia leave around 8.30pm.

To manage all this, you should use a JR Pass (check pass details) and the Suica Card. Tomorrow we will explain the Suica card, promise!

14 Day Serious explorer trip.
Use the full JR pass for this trip.
See days 1 – 5 above and add.
Day 6
Travel to Osaka. Take AirBnB apartment or hotel
Day 7
Explore Osaka
Day 8
Day trip to Kyoto.
Day 9
Day trip to Himeji
Day 10
Day trip to Hiroshima
Day 11
Day off in Osaka – local sights
Day 12
Day trip Nara 
Day 13
Travel to Tokyo. Overnight in Tokyo
Day 14
Flight out

WARNING: Be aware that the JR Pass operates on a 24 hour day basis, meaning that if you activate the pass when you arrive in Japan at 7:00pm on Day 1 of your trip, you will be on Day 2 of your pass the next morning. This is part of the reason we suggest staying at Narita and going back to the Airport the next morning to activate your pass. (This may not be a problem for flights arriving in the morning.)

19 November, Hotel MyStays, Nippori, Tokyo
Suica Card
We were lucky enough to see Himeji Castle on a near-perfect day. Between us we probably have more than a score of photographs of the outside of this amazing place. Himeji is one of the very few Japanese Castles that were not destroyed in WWII. It is simply magnificent! We have been here before, but the castle was shrouded in scaffolding and in the middle of a major renovation.

So here we are back in Tokyo and the land of the Suica Card. Finally!
For the full details on how to use the Suica Card, including coverage, you should consult the Suica Card website. as it is the best English language source of definitive information on the card. In summary, this is another “don’t travel in Japan without it” essential . Increasingly, stored-value cards like this are becoming the norm in many countries and in some places we have visited, such as China, the technology is way beyond this, expanding into fairly universal use of smart phone payments and transfers using QR codes.

In Japan, the Suica can be used as a replacement for a JR Pass to some extent, as it is accepted on JR Lines. In Tokyo and some other cities, (check the web site) it can also be used on subways and buses. Tokyo buses all take the Suica Card and as buses in Tokyo are a flat rate, 210 yen, you only need to tap on as you enter via the front door (different from other cities). As an added bonus, the Suica Card and its several variants in other areas, can also be used for entry to attractions, at convenience stores, vending machines and numerous other transactions.
Tomorrow, we are off home. If readers wish to ask questions, we are happy to help. Use the email contact us.

Some Japanese characters that may be of use.

ホテル     Hotel
JR      JR Station
東京   Tokyo
バス停     Bus stop
西         West
チケット   Ticket
大人       Adult
チキン     Chicken
豚肉       Pork
牛肉       Beef
ご飯       Rice