Skip to main content

Guide to Entering and Surviving Japan and Tokyo

When I arrived in Japan eight years ago, I was an idiot. I still am, but I've become a slightly more sophisticated idiot, which means I tend to make more complicated mistakes.

Let me explain that: I know how to use an ATM, but I still manage to forget my Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ internet banking password, and then I have to go to the bank, provide fingerprints, a DNA monster and a sworn affidavit from Sadakazu Tanigaki¹ that I may be a criminal from Africa, but I'm relatively harmless. NB relatively.

Anyway, when I arrived in Tokyo for the first time, I confidently assured The Hero that he wouldn't have to fetch me at the airport, since I was a seasoned war zones traveler. It should be added that he was a salaryman at the time, and the end of the universe itself is no excuse for a salaryman to neglect his work duties.

I caught the Narita Express to Tokyo Station, and then … I lost it. "It" being myself, my self-assurance, my independence, my sense of direction. Tokyo Station was a labyrinth, and the flood of humanity overwhelmed me. I pulled my suitcase into a corner, sat on it and stared. I was petrified. It took me an hour to get out of the station.

That station isn't a war zone! It's Cocytos!²

What I should have had, but didn't, because he was a newbie himself at that time, was Hinomaple's e-book Guide to Entering and Surviving Japan and Tokyo.

You should get that book if you ever travel to Japan. Heck, get it even if you live here. You're guaranteed to discover a few new things.

Now, before I continue: Dru, who manages Hinomaple, is a friend, so this review isn't neutral; as a matter of fact, I was biased against him when I started reading his book. When I review a friend's work, I tend to be more critical, since friends have a moral duty to tell you to stop acting like a jackass.

Dru, however, is not a jackass. He does have a strange interest in F1 cars, but that's another story for another day. He knows Tokyo well enough to arrange guided tours, he's familiar with its unfamiliar but fascinating places, and he knows the tricks of the trade.

Added bonus: he loves the shitamachi and has an encyclopedic insight into sake bars.

This isn't Dru's photo and it doesn't come from his book, but I don't know
how to copy photos from PDF files. It's an arbitrary photo of Sensō-ji.

His e-book does what printed guidebooks don't do: it provides with photos very clear, very logical, very simple guidelines about all those things that bedevil a tourist's daily life: how do I buy a train ticket, what do I do with taxis with self-opening doors and drivers who can't speak English, how do I open a coin locker?! (I didn't know how. Did you?)

Other useful tips about things that sound arbitrary but baffled me when I arrived: 
  • You need to return your own dirty dishes in many restaurants; waiters don't collect them.
  • Women, don’t forget to tie up your hair before you enter an onsen. (Dru, what were you doing in the women's onsen?)
  • This is what every single button on Japan's Space Station toilets actually do. Illustrations! Push this button and Noah's flood will ensue. Is there one tourist in Japan who has NOT pushed the wrong button at least once, with excruciatingly embarrassing consequences?
  • Wi-Fi is scarce! Tip: Starbucks has free Wi-Fi and you can sign up prior to your arrival at the following link:

See? You get real information that actually really helps you, as opposed to a guidebook that tells you the Japanese phrase for booking a hotel room with two extra camp beds for you dogs and a cute yukata for your cat.

Another arbitrary roof. Ru loves roofs.

I don't know who did the book's layout – I don't think Dru's talents stretch that far – but kudos to whoever did it. It's just like the text: clean, simple, logical, easy to understand, enough white space.

Despite my scepticism about e-books, I think an e-book is perfect for tourists. You don't have to lug along a heavy book that’s inevitably outdated, and our mobile phones have become our fifth limb, so … it works.

I received my copy about 10 minutes after I ordered it online, but that could've been because Dru knows I have an AK-47. You may have to wait 11 minutes.

Congratulations, Dru! You done good.

If you want to read more about this book and how to order it, follow this link.

A captive audience!

1) He's Japan's Minister of Justice.
2) Cocytus is the ninth and lowest circle of the Underworld in Inferno, the first cantica of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …

over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!

Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.

It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?

Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.