May 12, 2014

My return trip to Japan was long overdue. After 12 years apart, my language knowledge had weakened. There were many places, attractions, and types of restaurants I had never visited in 2002. I hadn’t even stayed in a hotel at all.

This trip was made much more fun and worthwhile with the help of my friends, a few key pieces of technology, and some invaluable services.

First of all, thank you to everyone who offered advice on places to visit in Japan based on your own experiences. I have enough suggestions to get me going on many more adventures. Particular thanks to my friend Deanna, who graciously immersed me in the world of Japanese baseball fandom, and to my friend and study-abroad classmate Kaipo, who now lives in Japan and has a family of his own. Kaipo provided a lot of info and tips about Japan, particularly Kyoto, where he has lived.

Global Advanced Communications lent me a portable wifi hotspot for about $65 for 9 days, unlimited data included. It worked so well that, honestly, it felt like cheating. Being able to look up anything on the web and to get Google Maps transit directions made my trips around Japanese cities extremely easy. I could even stream live Yankees game audio during my morning train rides both above and below ground. I would recommend bringing along a portable cell phone charger, though, as both my cell phone and the wifi hotspot had trouble lasting a full day. (If you don’t have one, any convenience store in Japan can sell you a USB charger that takes AA batteries.)

I left my old electronic dictionary at home and installed Midori on my phone instead. At $9.99 it may seem like a pricey iPhone app, but it does everything my $100 Casio dictionary does and then some: lookups by handwriting and radicals, bidirectional translation, multiple word lists to save frequently-needed words, and offline support for those times when my portable wifi wouldn’t work. It’s lightning fast and it never nags users to buy any extra features.

If you’re not using OneNote, you’re missing out on the best notetaking service on the market. Yes, this is a Microsoft product, but it’s available for free and there are clients for Mac, iPhone, and even Android as well as Windows. It handles sync, printing, and rich content like embedded images beautifully. I could pull up saved maps and reservation info on the spot. I also used it to collect notes for these articles.

The Japan Rail Pass is a great deal for any foreign tourist. It saved me some $80 on train travel. You can price out your trips using Hyperdia, which has more current and detailed travel information than even Google Maps does. Its iPhone app is a mixed bag, though, mainly useful for highlighting routes that are free with the Rail Pass. There are many retailers that sell Rail Passes; I used and I recommend Japan Experience, who overnighted the Rail Pass’s exchange order and a lengthy book of travel suggestions.

Japan-Guide is an exceptionally useful free travel guide for places on and off the beaten path. There’s a tremendous amount of information available in English about everything from what to see in Hiroshima to how to use a Rail Pass to what kinds of restaurants you can expect to find. The site is very thorough and the writing is both very informative and sensitive to local cultures. This is the kind of travel guide that treats Japan as something to experience firsthand, not to watch from a safe distance.

Lastly, don’t be fooled by those business-oriented surveys that name Tokyo as among the world’s most expensive cities. By dining at modest restaurants and staying at business hotels, my daily expenses were a lot lower than a lot of visitors might expect. My friend Deanna turned me on to Toyoko Inn, a ubiquitous chain of utilitarian hotels with a handy English-language web site. By signing up for their membership program and opting for their “eco plan” to have the room cleaned only every other day, I did a double-take when I received my hotel bills. After taxes and discounts, I paid about $58 (Hiroshima) and $67 (Tokyo) per night. These aren’t capsule hotels, either; I had a small but functional room with a private bathroom in an elevator building, free Internet access (wired and wireless), free Japanese-style breakfast every day, and coin laundry machines in the lobby. My tourist-oriented hotel in Kyoto seemed only slightly more expensive than Toyoko Inn, but when they asked if I wanted to buy breakfast for 1,000 yen (about $10 U.S.), I just smiled and declined.

Thanks for reading these articles. You can find all my photos from Japan on Flickr.