This post will probably be very boring if you have been to or live in Japan, but I wasn't blogging during my last trip to Japan, so I wanted to kind of document some of these things for myself!
For this entry, I want to write about how we traveled around, important things I want to remember for the future (in terms of traveling in/to Japan), and highlight some things that really worked for us. I'm not a frequent traveler (especially internationally), so some things that may seem common place to others may actually be quite exciting to me lol.
What I carried in my purse every day:
Notebook/pen - in case I needed to write down directions,etc to be remembered, or a quick way to help spell out or draw something to another person if you don't speak the same language
Bandaids - blisters, sigh
Passport - essential for international travel, should be on your person at all times; can also be used at certain shops to get out of paying taxes
Train maps - helpful if you're not already familiar with where you want to go and how to get there
JR Rail Pass - great deal if you are staying at least 7 days and catching the shinkansen (see below for more information)
Handkerchief/small towel - some public restrooms don't have paper towel dispensers or air dry machines so carrying one means you don't have to walk around with wet hands or wipe them on your clothes lol
Fan(s) - during the summer it's really hot. Used actually quite a bit by myself (who didn't want to be sweaty for even a second) and my bf who was probably already sweaty by the time he asked for the fan lol
Umbrella - for rain or sun!
Cell phone - wasn't used much besides quick snap photos while not in wifi area
JR Rail Pass
here. The small catch is that you can't catch the fastest (Nozomi category) shinkansen, but the Hikari one is only a bit slower and wasn't problematic for us because half an hour didn't really make a difference to us and the convenience of having the pass was worth the relatively small sacrifice.
We used the website advertised on japan-guide to purchase our National Japan Rail 7-day Pass (vouchers), and it arrived by FedEx very quickly. It should be noted that you'll be charged in a foreign (I think French?) currency equivalent for the passes. Please be sure to enter your name exactly as it is listed on your passport because they only send you vouchers which you have to exchange at a ticket office for the actual pass when physically in Japan. They carefully check your passport against your voucher as not everyone is eligible for the Rail Pass. The process to exchange the voucher for your pass is fairly easy, all you really have to do is state what date you want your pass to start. It doesn't even have to be the day you are exchanging your voucher (but it can be). They will then process the voucher and print your pass with the specified start/end date on it and you're all set to catch the train at any time from 12:00am on your start date until 11:59pm on the end date.
You can't go through the usual automatic ticket gates, but rather show your pass to the staff at each of the gates (often near where there is handicap access). It's a little bit troublesome if they're already helping someone (or several someones) and you have to wait, but it's only a slight inconvenience compared to buying tickets each time you want to catch the train.
The 7-day passes are $276USD each which might seem like a lot, but we were planning on catching the shinkansen twice (from Tokyo to Osaka and then from Osaka back to Tokyo) which would be around $280 by itself, so it was already paying for itself! We used the JR lines quite a bit besides the shinkansen, so my family really thought the passes were worth purchasing + there was the convenience of it.
With the JR Pass, we were also able to reserve shinkansen seats for free (usually there is a small charge). There is a fair amount of information that needs to be provided to the person at the ticket office which isn't very easy if there's a language barrier, but basically you should just write down this information in advance and provide it to the ticket person: reserved seats - # of people/seats, date of departure, from what station, to what station, ordinary or green car (green car would be extra $$), train name (Hikari or Kodama if you are using the JR Pass since Nozomi is not applicable) and other time info if you have it, and your non/smoking car preference. The paper for us looked like this -
There are many other perks to having a Rail Pass, but unlimited JR and the shinkansen + reserve seats are the ones we mainly took advantage of.
Catching the train
This is probably not a big deal for most people, but I particularly like catching the train when I'm in Japan. It's very convenient and efficient and not very difficult if you know how to interpret the train maps. Besides that, no opportunities for train catching in Hawaii wtf, and traffic always sucks because everyone loves to drive their cars here.
If you're going to be catching the trains, especially in Tokyo, my best advice is to either print out or ask your hotel for maps! I relied on the Tokyo Subway and JR maps below a lot.
In the train stations, there are lots and lots of signs in both Japanese (kanji and hiragana) and English. Even my mother and father, who can read 0 Japanese, were able to find their way to Tsukiji market by themselves (with a map but without me) on our third day there. Plus a lot of the lines are color coded, so you can keep looking for the red Midosuji line signs, etc. There are also a lot of maps in the stations as resources if you're too shy to ask someone if you need help. The Japanese/English availability also goes for a lot of the display screens and announcements in many of trains in Tokyo. Some of the smaller lines in Osaka didn't have any English, but if you know what stop to listen for, it's really not very hard.
Even if you get on a train going in the wrong direction, it's no big deal. Just get off at the next stop and find the track for the train for the same line going in the opposite direction. As long as you don't leave the station, it's no charge! (Sorry if this is common sense, but since we don't have trains here, I thought this was great lol.)
I was nervous that we would have some trouble catching the train (Keiyo Line) from the airport (Haneda) to our hotel (Shinagawa) with our luggage, but since we arrived somewhat late at night (around 10:30pm), the train wasn't very crowded, and besides a lot of other people were catching the train from the airport with their luggage as well. However when we were on our way home, we each had quite a bit more luggage, and it was heavier too. Not wanting to inconvenience other people with our multiple bags and surely being slow-moving, we decided to take a shuttle instead. In many of the busy/popular stations, there are often people with smaller, carry-on size rolling bags trying to get from one location to another to catch the shinkansen, etc, so, in general, I wouldn't say having luggage on the train is a big deal as long as you can manage it up and down the stairs quickly and it won't bother others while you're actually on the train.
When we went from Tokyo to Osaka on the shinkansen, we only had our personal item (like a backpack/tote/purse-type thing) and one rolling suitcase each. (We left our other luggage at the hotel because we were returning there later.)
|Going back to Tokyo from Osaka, my purse didn't fit in my tote anymore so technically I had three things|
I don't really have much experience staying in hotels in Japan, so the 2 hotels we stayed at were picked purely based on the online reviews lol. No one we knew had recommended these to us or anything like that so we were kind of just going for it blindly. I was basically looking for hotels within our price range that were in (what I interpreted at the time as) good locations.
Prince Shinagawa Hotel (N Tower)
Location: Shinagawa, Tokyo
Convenient location! A very short walk from the Shinagawa Station Takanawa exit. Cross the street and walk through a small conglomeration of shops called Wing Takanawa, and you're right at the entrance to the N Tower. Main Tower is a short walk away. There's a small 7-11 right outside the N Tower and a McDonald's quite close by as well. Shinagawa is one of the main stops on the JR Loop Line in Tokyo which made getting to many other locations on the loop line incredibly convenient (for us foreigners) even after our Rail Passes expired, and also reasonably close to Haneda Airport through the Keiyo Line. Shinagawa was also great because we were able to catch the shinkansen from the station as well (otherwise we would have had to go to Tokyo station).
We stayed here for 3 nights after our flight from Hawaii into Haneda Airport, checked out when we went to Osaka and then checked back in for the last 2 nights until we left from Haneda Airport. The lobby is on the second floor (N Tower has its own reception desk), and you need your room key in the elevator to access the guest floors.
Bathroom (sorry didn't get a picture, was pretty small lol) was also seemingly very clean with nice amenities, a "fancy" toilet, and a short, but high walled (typical for Japan) tub.
Wifi is available in the lobby as well as in your room but you need a password (expires after a certain amount of time) given to you by front desk personnel to access it.
There is a food court and many small shops as part of the hotel complex, as well as a 2-floor bowling alley and an aqua stadium and movie theater. We only went to the food court on the last day, but there were a reasonable amount of choices, and the prices didn't seem overly inflated. Didn't really experience any of the other things there.
One of the things we took advantage of at this hotel was the "Greener Cleaning Service". I don't know if it's common, and I'm just behind the curve because I don't often travel or stay in hotels, but basically the hotel is giving you the option to opt out of room cleaning in exchange for a 500yen (about $5USD) voucher per night for at most two nights consecutively (room must be cleaned for sanitary purposes on the third day) that can be used at the 7-11 just outside or a number of the shops in the complex. It can't be applied to your bill. We opted for this service as much as allowed and received 3 vouchers over the two periods that we stayed there that we used at the 7-11 each time lol.
Staff spoke English reasonably well although there was some small confusion at times. Regardless, I don't think there were any real problems that arose from a language barrier. They were nice enough to hold our baggage while we went to Osaka for 4 nights until our return. They also helped us arrange seats on an airport shuttle bus to the airport when we were leaving, and they were able to hold our luggage after we checked out and before the shuttle arrived (about a 9 hour period).
Overall, we all decided that we would definitely consider staying there again. I think the N Tower is typically the choice for domestic traveling businessmen - a room without a lot of frills, but convenient location and clean, but it also worked for us. The Main Tower is more expensive than the N or Annex Tower and a lot busier (plus bigger rooms I think), but we were happy enough to stay in the N Tower.
Hotel Monterey Grasmere Osaka
Location: Namba, Osaka
We arrived at Shin-Osaka via shinkansen, and then I planned for us to catch the subway to Namba (no transferring necessary besides getting from the shinkansen tracks to the subway line obviously). I'm a bit more familiar with Osaka than I am with Tokyo, so I didn't think it would be that hard to navigate. What I forgot/didn't realize because I hadn't spent very much time in the station before was that the subway station is not exactly right next to the JR Namba station where the hotel was located. In fact, when we left the subway part of the station and entered the chaos that was the middle of Namba station (which does NOT include JR Namba), I felt completely lost and didn't immediately see any signs that said "JR Namba". It took a few minutes for me to realize that the hotel was probably not on the 22nd floor of where we were currently standing (a small tidbit I remembered from the online reviews) and that we somehow had to find JR Namba. With all of our luggage, and feeling a little lost, we started down the "Namba walk" area of the station after getting short directions from staff at the station. It felt like the longest and hottest walk (even though it was indoors) ever. After a while, I did start to notice "JR Namba" on some of the signage which helped guide us a bit better. When you're approaching the JR station, there's a big sign to direct you up an escalator towards the hotel.
This hotel didn't end up being as easy to find or as convenient as I thought, but not too bad once we figured it out. When I was reading the reviews, it was mentioned that this hotel was basically in the JR Namba station. Reviewers mentioned that we needed to up to the 22nd floor to get to the lobby, but you don't just go straight up from the station which is how I interpreted that. You are pretty much in the JR Namba station when you're in the hotel though - but like a 5-7 minute walk from "Namba station" (where the subways stop).
The lobby has an interesting atmosphere. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, and I didn't take a picture because I didn't find it particularly important at the time, but when we arrived, it was definitely really quiet and maybe a little European feeling? (Tbh I've never been to Europe tho.) Anyway, you can connect to wifi immediately in the lobby - no password or fancy stuff needed. Our rooms were on the 29th floor. You need your room key to access the hallway to the guest rooms (not in the elevator though).
When you enter the room, there's a slot for your room key. In order for the electricity to work in your room (TV, lights, etc), your key card needed to be inserted into the slot. When you left, you were expected to take your room key with you and the electricity would be shut off until you returned the card to the slot.
There was an AC panel in the room, but we never figured out how to use it. It was never super hot or super cold in the room, and it seemed to be stuck at 16 Celsius though. It also didn't seem to shut off with when the room key was removed from the slot, but I'm not sure.
For some reason, this hotel was kind of weird. It didn't feel as clean as the Prince Shinagawa (there was some stains of who-knows-what on the walls) and the cleaning service wasn't always consistent with what services they provided. It didn't really affect our stay, but just something to note.
I picked this hotel because I thought it would be good to be in walking distance to Namba and Shinsaibashi. However, JR Namba is like a 15 minute walk to those areas and we were going through a somewhat confusing station to get there. I kind of got the hang of it by the 3rd night we were there, but it was already kind of late lol. There are a LOT of places to eat inside the station though. What was great about this hotel (location) though is that there's this huge grocery store/multi-story WalMart-like store connected to it, basically like right downstairs. It has a bakery as well as a Mister Donut. Super convenient for grabbing something in the morning or late at night. On the second floor, they also had a pet section in the back with super cute puppies and kittens and other animals that we don't usually see in pet stores in Hawaii such as owls, piglets, flying squirrels, snakes, chipmunks, meerkats, ferrets (or was it a weasel?) and hedgehogs besides the usual fish, birds, rabbits, hamsters and mice.
Anyway, back to the location in terms of getting to other places...We liked that the hotel was next to the JR station because we had the Rail Passes and wanted to catch the JR line as much as possible, plus conserve our energy and walk as little as possible whenever necessary. However, JR Namba is not part of the JR Loop Line in Osaka. It's just one stop inside the loop. We would have to transfer lines if we wanted to go to Osaka station or Shin-Osaka using the Rail Pass. Not a huge deal, but not as convenient as I would have hoped. The JR line that services JR Namba is the Yamatoji line, and JR Namba is the last or first stop for it. After the first day, we figured out that it was probably faster to catch the Yamatoji line to one of the more frequented stops along the loop line (like Shin-Imamiya or Tennoji) versus the closest stop (Imamiya) because the Loop Line train didn't stop at Imamiya as much as the others. This meant going backwards a little bit every so often, but meant less waiting at the train station. While this location wasn't great for going to Osaka station, it was very convenient for going to Nara! I'll write about the deer park in another blog entry, but the Yamatoji has a special rapid that goes straight to Nara - takes around 35 minutes and no need to transfer at all.
Considering all of that, I think I would hesitate to stay at the Hotel Monterey Grasmere Osaka again. It's wasn't particularly bad or anything, but I just think it would be better to stay somewhere near one of the stations that's actually on the Osaka Loop Line. Perhaps near Osaka/Umeda station or Tennoji. In contrast to the business travelers we saw at Prince Shinagawa, we saw a lot of tourists at this hotel in Namba, particularly Chinese/Taiwanese tourists. Not a good or bad thing of course, just something that was incredibly noticable. I think we saw a lot more Chinese tourists in Osaka in general.
When I was last in Japan (Summer 2012), I went as part of a study abroad program. My previous visit before that was back in 2003 as part of a school field trip as well. I had never gone completely on my own without help from someone to arrange travel or set a schedule or anything. That being said, we (the students) were able to be reasonably independent once in Japan for the study abroad so I felt I had a reasonable understanding of how to catch the train, slight knowledge about general social interactions/expectations (put your payment in the tray, stand on one side of the escalator, don't tip, don't be an "Ugly American"), etc and wasn't too nervous except for the language barrier. My parents don't speak any Japanese really, and although my bf has taken Japanese language courses, he refused to review anything before we left and besides, he's not that great of a student anyway. I think I was more nervous than I needed to be, and although there was some confusion every once in awhile, we were able to make it through 9 days without a huge mishap that we know of. Basically, if you know elementary Japanese, you'll probably be fine, and even if you don't know any, you'll still be okay but probably confused every once in awhile.
Although we agreed to some extent that 9 days seemed a bit long, we all enjoyed the trip.
I look forward to blogging a bit more about what we did when I have more time. Unfortunately, I didn't take as many pictures as I'd have liked (don't want to be seen as "that" tourist who gets in the way because they have to take a picture of something seemingly inconsequential), but hopefully I'll be able to piece together future entries with less walls of text lol.
Japan trip Summer 2014 posts -
Part 1: Getting around/Hotels
Part 2: Liz Lisa shopping/items
Part 2a: Liz Lisa coordinates post
Part 2b: Liz Lisa coordinates post cont.
Part 3: Other shopping
Part 4: Sightseeing & Food