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Japan Travel Tips:
Get off the train/expressways. You will never discover the real Japan until you get out into the small villages and off the tourist beaten path. Rent a car, bring your own or ride a motorcycle. Explore small roads. Get lost at least once a day. Eat in the smallest places you can find. Avoid anyplace where you see other gaijin (non-Japanese). See how long you can go between contacts with other gaijin. Try one new food every day.
Start early. If you are driving or riding in Japan, you won't see anything on the expressways. In order to make time on the small roads in the valleys, you need to get out at 5 or 6AM. The country doesn't really start to move until 9AM, so you can make quite a bit of progress in the early hours of the day.
Bring music. Once the traffic starts, all you can do is take it easy and take your time. If you're on a bike, you can lane split and pass a few cars at stoplights, but it won't make much of a difference in the big picture. Having an iPod or other source of programming to take your mind off the slow traffic will help.
Stay out of the valleys. The mountain roads and the small, non-national highways along the coasts are pretty empty of traffic. The valley and plains highways are clogged.
Use the Shinkansen (bullet train) for the Tokyo/Osaka/Nagoya/Hiroshima corridor. This is one long urban mass that stretches down the east coast of the country. You might as well ride the train though this section or use the expressways.
ATMs in Post Office. The post offices in Japan also provide financial services (savings, life insurance). They also have ATMs that support non-Japanese debit and credit cards. They are located in most towns and every city in the country.
Center on the stations. Use the train stations as your target and point of reference for each city you visit. Get directions to your desired hotel from the station. Go to the station to find the local information booths. Go to the station to hire a cab to lead you to your hotel. Stay in hotels near the station when splitting up to send your passenger on the bullet train so you can ride the expressways (until the new law allowing two-up travel on the expressways takes effect.)
Road Atlas Japan - ISBN 4-398-20104-1 - Detailed road atlas of Japan similar to the DeLorme series for the U.S. Published by Shobunsha. I purchased mine from the back list dealers at Amazon. Don't come here without it. Major downside is that it does not have numbers for any of the smaller roads. You can figure out what they are by counting intersections, but this is a major shortcoming of this atlas.
Japan Road Map - Nelles Maps - ISBN 3-88618-542-7 - Of the three folding road maps that I brought along, this one has proved the best balance of clarity and detail.
Bilingual Road Map - Kodansha ISBN 4-7700-1621-2 - essential when communicating with locals.
Touring Mapple - If you read Japanese, there is a series of seven motorcycle touring guides (Touring Mapple) for the country which include listings for Rider Houses (low cost hostel type lodging). These guides do include road numbers for the smaller roads, and can be used in conjunction with the Road Atlas Japan to figure out routes and locations.
Japanese A Rough Guide Phrase Book - ISBN 1-85828-920-3 - All the essentials you'll need for communication and understanding menus.
A quality tour guide book. We have had good luck with the Lonely Planet series in the other countries we've traveled in, but cannot recommend their Japan edition. It is riddled with inaccurate information throughout and a persistent negative tone, at least in the northern sections.
Things that help:
Motorcycle Vagabonding in Japan - ISBN 1-884313-16-7 - A helpful series of motorcycle trip vignettes written by a gaijin (non-Japanese).
Ability to use chopsticks. You should be able to pick up a bean and eat a bowl of noodles. It's easier than it sounds. The secret is that only the top stick moves.
Flexibility to try new foods. If you come here and eat nothing but American food you will restrict yourself to the big cities and miss out on a large portion of the local culture. A lot of it will look strange, but the local food tastes great.
Patience on the roads. If you want to see anything, you will need to take the secondary roads, where the national speed limit is 50 KPH (about 35 MPH) and most vehicles run about 60 KPH (about 40 MPH). With stops for gas, meals, photos, traffic and stoplights, you will average about 25-30 MPH. You need to factor that into your route planning. We've found that a 200 mile day is about the limit.
Things you will notice:
There are no trashcans, but there is no litter. The country looks like London, not a trashcan in sight, but the entire place is essentially spotless. Cleanliness and order here is as much a cultural obsession as Northern Europe.
All retail exchange of money is done on trays. Put your money or credit card on the tray and take your change from the same.
People seem uptight. Japanese, especially the older generations, are very reserved. Once you get to know them, they have a great sense of humor. Don't be put off, and don't be afraid to ask them for help or ask questions. The Japanese are very helpful and unfailingly polite. Learning a few key Japanese phrases goes a long way towards breaking down the barriers.
There's English everywhere. Practically every key road sign in the country has the English name in conjunction with the Japanese characters. English is extensively used in advertising. Most people, even in the very rural areas, know a few words of English. If you learn a few words and phrases of Japanese, the combination of your Japanese and their English will usually carry the day.
Things are expensive. You can travel inexpensively in Japan, but it takes some work. It cost us $30-40 USD to fill our motorcycle with gas, and that was usually about 3/4 of a tank. Lunch can cost $60-70 if you're not careful about where you are eating. Conversely, you can buy very tasty and fresh Japanese food at 7-11 for $2-5 USD.
The county is incredibly developed. After visiting 35 countries, I found Japan to have by far the world's most developed infrastructure. In the most remote locations, you will find beautifully paved and maintained roads. On the tiniest gravel path in the high mountains, you will find mirrors on hairpin corners. We even found a spotless public toilet in the mountains with a heated, butt-showering toilet seat. They ran electricity all the way up a mountain just to power that one bathroom.
There is construction everywhere. The government has invested heavily in public works projects to pump money into the economy to fight off the 14 year recession. Consequently, what seems like every postal code in the country has a local public infrastructure project underway. From new freeways to new playgrounds, you will find work in every nook and cranny of the country. Some claim they are make-work projects, but the sewer line being laid down a gravel road in the high mountains that started nowhere and ended nowhere was the only example I saw of that.
The kids are allright. The younger generations of Japan are very western in orientation and mindset. They will seem more "normal" to you in that they are more boisterous, open and communicative than their parents and grandparents. They also seem less disciplined, focused and driven. The long term implications for the country of this will have to be evaluated over time.
What a waste of horsepower. One day I saw two Lamborghinis on a small two lane highway, stuck in traffic, crawling along at 20 KPH. I saw countless big sportbikes in the same conditions. Nothing is more wasted than horsepower in Japan. The only place where you could begin to use it is the expressways, but most people only run 80-85 MPH there, and you really don't need much engine to run that speed, as anyone who has driven in Europe can attest. As a friend commented in Tokyo, "expensive cars in Japan are like dogs in Tokyo, they are used for ornamentation."
It was all bought with dollars. After a few weeks, you finally figure out that all of this hyper-developed economy and world's-best infrastructure were mostly paid for with the American dollars that flow into Japan. While we have bought decades worth of depreciating assets from the Japanese such as televisions, stereos and automobiles, they have taken our money and invested it into their country, building spanking new bridges, canals, highways, hydroelectric dams, 200MPH railroads, etc. The stuff we bought from them all ended up in junkyards. The stuff they bought with our money will pay dividends for their society for generations.
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