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Advice for Travelers

Author: Christina Willis, Issue: February 2007, Topic: Travel

When you’re traveling in a foreign country you are bound to have a little bit of confusion and trouble along the way. That’s just part of life: you make mistakes and learn some lessons along the way. Well, recently I learned some valuable lessons about traveling in Japan. Perhaps by sharing these lessons I can help others avoid some of the same mistakes. At the very least, maybe someone will find the story amusing.

It all started when I decided I wanted to go away to an onsen for Oshogatsu (New Years).

Lesson No. 1: Unless your grip of the Japanese language is a good one, don't leave home without a pocket dictionary.

With the help of a native Japanese speaker, I booked a room for two nights at a small onsen in Gunma-ken. From the phone conversation, it became apparent to me that the staff at the ryokan spoke little to no English. So I packed a pocket dictionary. The dictionary turned out to be useful not only at the inn, but also in getting to the inn and, more importantly, getting back. Before the trip was over I would realize that I would have been lost, quite literally, without it.

Three trains and a bus later, I got to the ryokan without much trouble and settled in for two days of sleeping, eating and bathing.

Lesson No. 2: Bring a ring and invent a spouse.

The next morning I visited another onsen, Shiriyaki, which was a short walk from my ryokan. Shiriyaki (lit. bum burning) is free, open-air, and konyoku (mixed bathing). When I arrived for a bath it was homogeneously occupied by Japanese men who, if they were wearing anything at all, had bath towels atop their heads. I was determined to let nothing stop me, and I hadn’t remembered to bring a bathing suit anyway I just climbed right in.

What’s that saying? “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Only, it was Shiriyaki onsen.

The men were, of course, very friendly and chatty despite the language barrier. We talked about Japanese food, beer, our homes, jobs, etc, but predictably conversation veered off to places I wished it wouldn't. "Do you have a boyfriend?"

I didn't really want to talk about that with naked male strangers. Belatedly I realized that the best solution would have been a husband. I don’t actually have a husband, but these guys didn’t need to know that. If I were wearing something that looked like a wedding band and claimed to have a husband (who was sleeping peacefully back at the ryokan), I would’ve saved myself from some unwanted attention. But at the time I couldn’t even remember the word for “husband” (should have brought the pocket dictionary to the bath!).

Lesson No. 3: Always bring more cash than you think you'll need, and have a second option.

The first real bump in the road was when I discovered, at the train station, that I didn’t have enough money to get home. I couldn’t by the express ticket home because I had underestimated my expenses by approximately 1500 yen. Because it was during oshogatsu my Joyo bank account had been frozen solid, no transactions (I didn’t know this at the time). So even if the ATM that I found had been open (which it wasn’t, oshogatsu again) I wouldn’t have been able to get money anyway. I should have just brought a lot of extra cash. Japan is so cash-based and generally safe that you don’t need to worry about carrying large amounts of yen on your person.

Additionally, I could have bought a ticket at the station with a cash card, but again my Joyo bank account was frozen. And while you couldn’t buy a ticket with credit, a lot of credit card companies will allow you to set up a pin number for your card so you can use it as a cash card. While the interest rates for cash withdrawals on credit cards are not favorable, having that as a second option would have saved me a lot of trouble.

Lesson No. 4: Local trains are cheaper than express trains.

Lacking the money I needed to for the express train back to Ueno, I began asking the station attendants for alternative ways home (pocket dictionary to the rescue!). A helpful station employee suggested that I buy a ticket on the local train, which was about 1500 yen cheaper than the express train. Admittedly local trains take longer, but they are cheaper, which saved me when I was in a pinch.

Lesson No. 5: Always ask for help.

Never underestimate how friendly and helpful Japanese people can be. I took the local train, but I nearly had a heart attack when I realized I would have to change trains, and that I would have five minutes at the station to do so. I was anxiously looking at the train map when the man sitting near me, bouncing a little girl on his knee, asked me where I was going.

The man had been at another onsen with his whole family: his parents, three brothers, wife, and two children. They were going my way and helped me switch trains at the right place. Along the way they chatted with me, Grandma started referring to me as onechan (older sister) to her granddaughters, and they fed me sembe, mandarins and beer. It was a bright, relaxing interval in an otherwise stressful day.

Lesson No. 6: Carry both a phone card and a list of phone numbers.

Thanks to the family I made it to Ueno without at hitch, and then to Kita Senju on my own. But when I got to the TX station in Kita Senju, I discovered that I was 200 yen short of a ticket (1000-yen) back to Tsukuba.

Still no access to my bank account, and this time no cheaper local train either. I was exhausted, I considered begging Japanese strangers for money, had a quick cry for my mommy, and wished I could call someone for help or comfort. No cell phone, no money to waste on public phones, and besides, I didn’t have anyone’s phone number with me.

Later when relating this story to my friends they gave me lots of good advice on what I could have done. That aside, a little bit of moral support would have gone a long way towards making me feel better. But I didn’t have the means to reach anybody at the time. So keep in mind that you can’t spend a phone card on anything but phone calls, and having contact information for friends and family in case you need help is always a good idea.

Lesson No. 7: There is an official IOU book at the Tsukuba TX station.

Finally it occurred to me that I could use my last 800-yen to buy a ticket, and then just ride the train all the way to Tsukuba anyway. Once at the Tsukuba station I went to the information desk to beg for mercy over my 200-yen shortage (out came the pocket dictionary). I gave the attendant my 800-yen ticket and explained my situation the best I could in Japanese. To my surprise she just nodded. She got out the official IOU book, wrote down my 200-yen debt, and had me fill in my information.

Yes, The Official IOU Book.

Ironically enough it was more difficult to pay my debt back later than it was to borrow the money in the first place. The word that I thought meant “debt” only confused the station attendants, who seemed ready to lend me more money rather than let me pay it back. I finally got my message across and got my debt paid, no interest.

So if you’re ever short for your fare home to Tsukuba, don’t fret, they’ll just write you down in the IOU book. Everyone should know about the IOU book, but please don’t abuse it.

Fortunately none of my lessons were very expensive or dangerous, and they will certainly make my travels easier next time. Perhaps they might make your travels a little easier as well.

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