Japan – General musings so far

Currently I have something on my mind I’m trying not to think about, so I’m going to try and distract myself by writing up some general thoughts and observations on Japan.  Just a quick note these views are based from living in Kyoto, and spending time around the Kansai area, mostly Kyoto, Otsu / Shiga areas.

Things to know about Japan.

What I’ll try to do is cover a mixture of things that will be useful to know about Japan.  Now this might be quite a long post without any pictures, so I’d probably only recommend it if you are planning to visit Japan, or if you just have a general curiosity about things.

I’ve broke this into sections with bold headers so if you are after information on a certain topic then just scroll till you see it.

WiFi

Ok lets get this one out of the way first as it was my biggest surprise when I arrived in Japan, I had heard that public WiFi wasn’t generally around, but didn’t believe it till I landed.  At Osaka international I couldn’t find public WiFi through the arrivals part, the nearby JR station claimed to have free WiFi but due to the amount of people connecting for more than 5 seconds was lucky.

Now around Kyoto city there are lots of signs advertising Kyoto Free WiFi, I have found this hit and miss, mostly miss! The idea is you have free WiFi city wide (I think hubs at bus stops and subway stations), you can log in with Facebook and are required to log in every 30 minutes.  I often have the signal around as good strength, but can never actually seem to get internet from it.  Occasionally I have got it to work, but mostly nothing seems to work.  Someone else staying her has told me they use it fine though, but I wouldn’t advise relying on it.

Some JR stations again offer WiFi, but again due to the amount of people you’ll be lucky to stay connected for long.

Reliable WiFi – Gotta love 7/11!

Through Kyoto I have found 7/11 stores to be my safe haven for WiFi, they offer free WiFi (limited to 1 hour use per day), and at night they are easy to see as their glowing beacons of light guiding you to a reliable connection!  I officially love 7/11 stores just for this! (they also sell things which is nice).

The great thing is also once you’ve connected to one store it will auto connect to any you stop at.  In addition the range is good enough that you can use it outside without even going into the store, meaning no purchase needed.

I have also found some department stores around the Gion area to offer reliable WiFi, useful to note if you are that way shopping.

Starbucks, the ones I’ve been to have supplied a good WiFi connection (amazing considering my local one sucks for this!!!).  The only real downside is you pretty much have to be in the store, so generally a purchase is needed.  Not really a problem, but it’s not the most Japanese place to get a coffee or eat if your trying to avoid doing western things while in Japan.  Though the Sakura ice latte is something worth drinking for something a bit different.

Surprisingly the other WiFi hotspot I found was at Arayashima Monkey Park, being that it was at the view point on the mountain this was indeed a welcome surprise.

Japan WiFi App

This app called Japan WiFi is supposed to constantly seek out and connect to the nearest available WiFi networks, I’ve attempted to have it running twice and so far again it seems to say it’s connected, but then not actually allow an internet connection.  I will try this again and look at it closer as I find it hard to believe an app like this would be made and not be reliable, so maybe it’s my device or me.

Trains

Getting trains here is really, really easy!! You can buy tickets from the automated machines, many of which have an English option.  However all you need to do is look at the chart above to see where you want to go, then select the fare for that price, some machines let you search by station but it’s not a feature I bother using anymore.  I don’t even bother putting the machines in English, it’s easy to work out in Japanese.

The trains themselves are easy, the departure board on the platform shows times and each train has a shape next to it (eg triangle, circle etc), on the platform floor there are corresponding symbols and these are where you que for that train.  Generally there are local and rapid trains, local stopping at every station, rapid only at some (a chart on the platform shows which).

The subway trains are similar, except for when a line splits further on, trains are colour coded to the corresponding line.  So for where I got a train with an orange strip on the side goes down one branch, while a train painted blue goes down the other line.

Generally the trains are very comfortable and clean, I have found the rapid service JR trains to be a bit nicer than some local line trains.  Subways aren’t quite as nice as JR line trains, but better than the UK underground trains.

The last thing with transport is that it’s time to debunk the myth about delays.  I had heard of the efficiency of trains running to the second on arrival times, however I think this is more likely applicable to Shinkansen trains (which have an annual average delay of just around 35 seconds!).

The JR trains though do get delayed, I have had a few run 10-15 minutes late, and seen notifications of other trains on the platform delayed by similar amounts.  Mostly they are on time, but delays on the JR line do happen.

Buses

I’ve only actually used one bus since I’ve been here, so can’t really comment to much on these.  Other than again it’s easy to see from the information at the bus stops which number you need.  You enter at the back and put the money in the machine next to the driver as you exit at the front.  The bus I used was clean and on time, the only thing to note is bus machines don’t have change, so you need the exact money for the fare.

Vending machines

This might be a strange thing to mention, but the vending machiens here are great! So many drinks hot and cold in them and there is honestly one every few meteres! I am not exaggerating about the frequency which you see these!

Now what’s worth bearing in mind is that most drinks machines are 120-140 yen for a canned drink, however keep walking and sooner or later you will come across 100 yen machines or ones with drinks on a sale price of 100 yen.  Also worth noting with things like coke/pepsi some machines have cans with 50% extra at the same cost as a standard (again even 100 yen machines sometimes have 50% extra ones).

There are even machines as cheap as 80 yen drinks, sometimes these have random drinks which is fun.  By random I actually mean there is a button with a question mark and a fruit (say an orange), and this means you will get some form of random orange soda!

Coffee from these is a great cheap option, most of it tastes pretty good.  There is a lot of choice with coffee, I can’t go into all of them, but personally I prefer the Fire branded coffees as my best choice, Boss are generally good, but some of their range are bad.  Wonda tend to be not great, any general Café Au Lait labeled ones are good.

Worth noting that food vending machines don’t really exist around here, I’ve seen some ice cream ones and at one temple a hot food one for noodles (like pot noodles).  But they are very rare, and crisp / chocolate bar machines do not exist either.

Shoes

One thing I read when looking up things to take to Japan, was that you should bring some slip on shoes as you would find yourself constantly having to take them off.  Now I brought two pairs of shoes with me, a pair of good Karimore hiking / walking shoes, and a pair of slip on black work shoes for if I needed something more formal for the school I would teach in.

Generally if there are tatami on the floor it’s shoes off time, most temples that require shoes off will have signs, at the school I teach in we have carpet which again is shoes off time.  As I don’t wear shoes at the school I teach in, I haven’t worn the formal slip on shoes since I’ve been here.

Now based on my experience so far, if you plan to do a lot of exploring I would just stick to decent walking/hiking shoes.  When I have a day off to explore I tend to cover a lot of ground, on average 5 miles upwards on a day (plus walking around temple grounds etc as well).  True enough at a lot of temples you do have to take the shoes of to go in, and certainly slip on would be easier for that, but it doesn’t exactly take long to take shoes off and put them on again, and the areas that require you to remove shoes are always undercover so rain isn’t an issue either.

Having good walking shoes and taking 30 seconds longer to put them back on is better than trying to walk all day in shoes that won’t really be doing your feet any favors after a few miles.  In addition to that slip on shoes are pointless if you plan to go on any rural hikes or mountain hikes, even sites like the monkey park in Arashiyama and the shrine at Fushimi Inari wouldn’t exactly be fun walks in normal slip on shoes.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when it rains chances are you will end up stepping in puddles, and with slip on shoes they are generally going to mean water gets over and into your foot.  This would mean that a) your walking with wet feet/socks for the rest of the day, and when you take shoes off somewhere you’ll be treading damp socks around the floor! Hiking/walking boots generally will protect your feet better, even if you step in a puddle (which I have many times and always had dry feet!)

I so far haven’t gone into a single restaurant that has required me to take my shoes off, I think maybe in some higher end restaurants in traditional buildings they would do, but if you plan on doing a lot expensive / fancy dining places then maybe take some slip ons for just those trips.

Price and costs

So I’ve been living here for a little over a month now and have to say it’s a lot cheaper than people would have you believe.  Now what I mean by that is comparing it to living at the same level I did back in England.

Of course like any country you can really cut back on some things and stick to really low budget options for things like food, or if you have money you could throw money around and eat at the finest restaurants every day.  I tend to live mid range, the occasional treat without spending to much, but not keeping the budget so tight that I don’t enjoy myself.

I’ll split this topic into sections as there’s a lot to cover.

Cost of eating out

In terms of eating out you can get a really big portion of a filling meal like, a pork rice bowl, duck ramen or udon for around 450-650 yen, so around as little as £3-4! And though you may imagine portions to be small over here, they really aren’t!  I’m on the larger side of things when it comes to my build, and one of these fills me up.  There aren’t many places you can go in England to have a really nice cooked sit down meal that will fill you up for that same price.  Oh and in the middle of a city to!

Should you want smaller meals there are smaller bowls around for about 350-400 yen, and likewise if you want to spend more then there are high end resturants where you can spend as much as you like.  Fresh water is normally ready at the table for free and often free green tea is available.  I have also been to some places that offer free green tea refils, as well as sometimes free rice refils!

If sushi is more your thing then there are even 100 yen sushi restaurants, with these it’s 100 yen a dish (some dishes cost more, but there is plenty of choice at 100yen, or rather 108 yen as tax is added), each dish has generally 2-6 pieces on, and by the way this is nothing like sushi you buy in the UK or USA, it’s so different and so much better!!  I might do a whole article about the difference later.

If you want a western fix as your craving something then chains like Starbucks, Mcdonalds, Burger King and KFC are around, these actually are basically the same price as they are back in the UK.  Which makes eating Japanese food a more cost effective option most of the time.  I have had a Mcdonalds and Burger King here, they taste like they do back home, only the burgers actually look like burgers, not like someone has sat on them before giving them to you!

Dominos exists here, but is on the more expensive side of things, especially the sides.  In the UK it’s not exactly cheap, but here its a few quid more for each thing.  Pizza LA is also around, again pizza seems generally expensive.

The one thing to note is that bacon is very different here! So if you order a bacon double cheese burger expect the bacon to be thinner and not like bacon back in the UK.  A bacon roll doesn’t exist here, neither does anywhere doing fried bacon of any kind, and if you have a hangover bacon mcmuffins are not a thing here!

If you are in the mood for just a quick warm snack then convenience stores like 7/11 and Family Mart have a good range of snacks form a heated counter, bits of fried chicken, corn dogs, frankfurters, tempura, rice buns etc can all be found warm for cheap.  Ready meal trays can also be picked up for 400-500 yen, these can be eaten cold or heated up in the store (the sales clerk will normally ask if you want it heated, if you don’t understand Japanese they’ll probably point to the microwave).  The ready meal trays are really great and filling, lots of choice to, anything from spaghetti dishs to rice dishes with either chicken, fish, tempura etc.

Around some temples there are often lots of street food stalls, these sell anything from fishballs, to takoyaki (octopus balls) and are great for snacking as well, though being more tourist areas the prices are about 150-500 yen depending on how many pieces etc, for a snack their great, if your hungry and what to eat a lot then a meal elsewhere is the cheaper option.

Another thing you won’t tend to find is any form of pastry based hot food, so sassuage rolls, pasties and the like won’t really be seen.  If you ask for a hot dog you are more likely to get a frankfurter in a roll rather than a sassuage in a roll.

Fruit is expensive in Japan, so if you want one of those fancy glasses with ice cream topped with fruit then expect to pay around 800-1200 yen, which is about £10 give or take!

When it comes to bars and pubs I haven’t really been to any, but I’m told half pints are the normal here, so expect to pay the price of a full pint but receive a half pint.

Grocery shopping

As I’m living here I’m not eating out all the time, I’m making use of the supermarkets and buying food to cook at the house.  Aeon seems to be the main supermarket around here, most things are on par with UK prices, some a little cheaper.

There are some things that are more expensive.

Bread is sold at UK price but often only available in half loafs.  Beef this is generally more expensive, but often its because it’s a higher standard.  Cheese, this is not easy to make in Japan, hence being imported it often costs quite a lot.

And fruits! This surprised me, but fruit is very expensive here!  Oranges and bananas are not to bad, but anything else costs a lot.  A punnet of small strawberries for example is around 500 yen, that’s about £3.50 for a small portion, no 2 for 1 deals or anything like that on them either.

As a result any fruit based dessert is either expensive or doesn’t exist.  So if you want a fruit based cheesecake or pot of fruit then forget it.  If you want a fruit based thing then it’s best to get fruit flavored things.

Alcohol doesn’t seem to bad, beers are of course mostly Japanese beers, but they taste great.  Western beer is generally more expensive.  Also with beer there are some ‘fake’ beers, which are just beer flavored, these are a bit cheaper but not worth bothering with.  You can buy a variety of highballs ready mixed in cans to, I had some canned vodka lemon highballs the other day these only cost around 200 yen each for bit cans (about £1.30), a pack would be cheaper.

Spirits are on par with the UK for price, Saki I don’t know enough about all the types to tell you if they are good cost or not. However one brand I noticed I tried in London is more expensive here.

Fruit drinks like orange juice are still reasonable, with 1L of orange juice being around 160 yen (£1ish), though I haven’t really seen any fruit squash drinks available.

Near where I live there is a smaller frozen foods store, which is a bit like a Aldi store, lot’s of cheaper foods but perhaps of slightly lesser quality.  However things I’ve brought from there have been fine, so shopping around can save money.

Things like shower gel, toothpaste etc are pretty much normal prices, of course you can pay more for designer brands etc.  Kitchen roll, sponges, toilet roll, bleach etc is all normal costs.

Transport

JR trains are reasonably price, and the system is great for getting around.  I took a train from Otsu to Nara and this was around 930 yen one way, that’s around 30 miles via train for under £7.

The subway around Kyoto I think is run by a private company but prices are still reasonable.  Each stop from where you are is a higher cost the further away it is, to be fair a lot of Kyoto can be walked anyway.  However to give an idea of cost I took a trip using the subway to go about 6 miles from where I was, this was about 560 yen (about £3.70ish).  From the main Kyoto station using the JR line would have been cheaper (200yen), but I was about a mile from the station.

Buses I haven’t used enough to say  yet, they seem to run a flat fare for the route far as I could tell.  For example from near Kyoto main station I took one to near Kinkaku-Ji temple about 3 miles away, this was 240 yen (under £2), but it would have been the same cost if I had got off at any other stop along the way.  So for long distance it seems good, but there isn’t any point if you just want to go two stops down the route.

It is worth bearing in mind that Kyoto day or two day travel cards are available for the bus, subway or both.  If you want to make 3+ trips a day then this will most likely save money, as I think the passes are from 600-1200 yen depending on the pass and days.

For long distance travel I can tell you that I looked at prices to get from Kyoto to Tokyo, and a night bus is about 6000-8000 yen one way, a shinkansen was about 15000 one way I think, and a flight from Osaka to Tokyo was about the same by the time you’d traveled to Osaka.

Attractions

Chances are most of the attractions you will pay to see around Kyoto are various shrines and temples.  These typically have a entry fee for adults of 500-600 yen, I haven’t so far come across any that are more than that, likewise even smaller temples are generally 500 yen.  So expect about £3ish for each entrance, pretty cheap compared to entry fees to places in England.

I plan to visit Toei Studio Park, the entrance there is about 2500 yen I think, plus extra costs for certain things inside the park.  Kyoto tower cost me 700 yen to go up to the top, however I later found out I could have got a ticket for 500 yen from the tourist info center at the train station.  So check out the tourist info center at the station before exploring Kyoto as you might find some cheaper ticket options.

If you visit any amusement parks or arcades then machines are generally about 100 yen a go, so about 70p.  A pretty cheap way to burn some time and potentially win something while doing it.

Should you end up in Nara then deer cookies are around 300 yen for a pack of six, it’s very easy to overspend here because the deer are so cute you keep buying the cookies for them!

Shopping

Now I can’t say much about this as I haven’t got around to shopping yet.  My students have told me that clothes shopping can be as cheap or expensive as you want, with there being stores like Primark for cheap clothes and there being high end Japanese designer labels where a coat can be 200,000 yen! (That’s about £1350!!)

Naturally gifts you buy around temples and tourist areas will cost more than if you venture off the beaten track a bit.

There are second hand stores which sell a range of things from furniture, to electronics to clothes and shoes.

The weather

So I’ve been staying in the end of the winter months, for the most part it has been sunny, however I have had a night of snow, and a few days of heavy rain.

Temperatures in the morning have ranged from 0-10 degrees, living in a traditional house my room has often been 4 degrees in the morning when I’ve woken up!  On the sunny days it’s been great, the suns been warm and a slight breeze has been refreshing.  It hasn’t really been windy around here, I think the mountains shield a lot of it, however near the old imperial palace in Nara where there was a large open area it felt quiet windy.

Snow only lasted for one night and although it settled it wasn’t all that cold, and at times of coldness there is always a coffee machine nearby to warm the hands.

Rain is something that caught me out, it can become very heavy very suddenly! My first day out in Kyoto I got soaked to the point where I had to lay out my money on the floor in front of a heater to dry it! Umbrellas are useful here, they can be picked up for cheap and you might even find a free one at the side of the road, as some people just leave them where they are when the rain stops.

The people

Everyone I’ve met here has been really friendly, cheerful and helpful.  Speaking a little Japanese helps with daily life such as buying things and asking things, if you don’t know the Japanese for something they will still try to help as best they can.  Some vendors near tourist areas speak a little English, but don’t expect everyone working around a tourist area to be able to speak English just because it’s a tourist sight, after all you’re still in Japan!  That said even a monk I spoke to on a remote mountain shrine spoke reasonable English.

You will find everyone is polite, very few people seem in a rush to get somewhere, and even on busy station platforms there is a level of organisation with no pushing and shoving through crowds.

I haven’t seen any signs of trouble anywhere, even going through the drinking districts late at night.

I have been trying my best to observe how people act and live like a local myself in order to get further immersed in the culture and respect their ways.

The great thing as well is that no one seems to judge you based on appearance, I can go into even nice looking stores in jeans and a t shirt and the staff will be happy and friendly to me.  In the UK I could walk in to stores where the staff will ignore me because I’m not in a suit and don’t look rich.  In addition a few weeks ago in the UK I tried to stop someone to ask directions and the was met with a response of ‘I don’t want to buy whatever you’re selling’! (Even thoughI actually asked ‘do you know how I can get here’)  In Japan people actually stop and help!

Traffic

There are a few differences with traffic laws over here, firstly if you are waiting to cross a road you wait till the light turns green, even if there isn’t anything coming! This confused me at fist as I found it strange there were no people darting across roads through traffic or running out in front of cars like we do in the UK.

When I first got to crossings I just walked across if there was a gap in traffic or if the road was clear, often getting a strange look from people waiting to cross.  I was then told by someone that apparently crossing when the lights aren’t green is prohibited! I don’t know what happens if a cop sees you.

I now wait for the lights like everyone else does, again part of my living like a local, but it feels strange waiting when I’m used to running through gaps between cars, my foot keeps twitching at crossings wanting to step out when there’s nothing around.

The other thing to note is when lights are green to cross, cars turning left into a road can still go round the corner and cross if no one is on the crossing.  This will mean that you can start to walk across and see a car still coming towards you, they will of course wait though.

The other thing is that car park entrances and roadworks etc will often have people with glowing battons directing you across, I always nod and smile, or say thanks to them, but it seems a bit odd when there’s basically a traffic light there doing the same thing.

Rubbish

The cities and areas here are very clean, no graffiti, no rubbish on the floors, it’s a great system they have here, cleaning and recycling are well done.

At my house here there is a different rubbish collected each day, split into burnable, non burnable, plastic, bottles and something else which I’ve forgotten.  Recycling really works here.

The strange thing is there are very few public bins! Don’t expect to find a bin for general waste, unless at a JR line station or supermarket.

Most vending machines will have recycle bins next to them for the drinks you buy from them, so plastic bottles or cans.  This is great as you can either stand beside one to drink what you’ve brought then bin the bottle/can straight away, or just keep it till the next machine.

But if you do end up buying a snack wit wrapper, or have a take away burger, or even a Starbucks coffee then there isn’t anywhere to throw the packing away, you are meant to just take it home with you.  So it may be worth taking a small carrier bag around just for rubbish to take back.

Toilets

This is probably my last entry for tonight as it’s getting late here.

This is worth mentioning as there are of course many public toilets around while your out and about, however don’t expect all to be western style toilets.  Some public ones even at large tourist parks are still Japanese style squat toilets, as well as standard urinals.

At the house I’m in I have a western toilet, and I think most hotels will do also, even hostels I imagine.  But Japanese style ones are still quite commonly in use for public ones and in more traditional buildings or rural areas.

Some places like the school I teach have one of these electronic toilets, even a tourist temple I was at the other day had one.  You can use these as you would any other toilet, but they seem to have an arm panel with a selection of controls for water pressure and jets, even music on one of them (called a ‘privacy mode’!).

Now there is a sensor on them so they can’t accidently fire water everywhere, do not under any circumstances do what I did and cover the sensor then press a button to see what happens, the result it s nozzle appears and fires a jet of water which shoots out of the bowl and hits the wall and floor! (It is clean water as it’s designed to clean you).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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