Excuse Me, USA, But I Think We Need Some Time Apart.
It’s not you, America. It’s me. I need some time to grow.
My significant other and I decided last year that maybe we should go on a little adventure outside the good ol’ US of A- just the two of us. But, to where?
Since Richard Branson hasn’t quite perfected space travel for tourists (come on, Virgin Galactic– get it together), the final frontier is out for now. I like feeling safe, and I’ve been in enough middle-of-nowhere near-catastrophes to know that I like having access to cell phone service at all times, or at least that there are people nearby if I find myself in a quandary. I love big cities and being inundated in a wealth of culture. I’m pretty sure I’m positively photo/phonotactic because I mindlessly gravitate toward things that light up and produce sound, clapping like a seal, idiotically laughing like Patrick Star. Plus, Hendricks happens to be a quarter Japanese with family in Japan he’s never met, and we can’t wait to make that connection.
Stuff to do… check. Things to see… check. Music to hear… check. Good times to be had… super-ultra-omega-fun-go-time check. Sounds perfect. Japan it is!
While on vacation, I’m not one to have every minute of my day planned. However, when traveling to a country with signs written in characters I couldn’t begin to interpret, I figure I’d better do some planning. I’m 26; Hendricks just turned 27. We’re cashing in most of our vacation time for the year to travel over three weeks with a combined budget of $10,000 for airfare, hotel, food, train/subway, and other expenses.
Itinerary: We will travel from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) on a Thursday to NRT (Narita International Airport), arriving on a Friday. We will stay in the Ginza district in Chūō, Tokyo, for seven days, including a day trip to Yokosuka to visit family, before traveling by train to Kyoto, where we will stay for three days before traveling by train to Osaka. We’ll be getting weird in Osaka near Dotonbori for another three days, with day trips to Nara and Kobe, before returning to Tokyo to stay in Shibuya for six nights, including a day trip to Hakone. For those of you who are visual learners, that looks a little something like this:
It’s reasonable to assume $10,000 isn’t just sitting in most people’s bank accounts, waiting to be expended over a short 20 day spurt. But, who knows? Maybe for some of you it is. We’ve definitely been slowly putting money aside for this trip over the last year… into a shared savings account. Here’s a quick aside: I don’t understand how people share checking accounts. The variability is far too much for me to process. I feel like an ENIAC trying to run the Matrix. It’s not necessarily that I have a problem with sharing a checking account; it’s that I like earning money, depositing it, and seeing my balance. Seeing extra/missing digits in there throws me off. The look on my face upon seeing my statement overtly displays the confusion with which I would be staring at a rabbit in a hat trick- “Well, how’d that get in there? Wait… Now where did it go?” Asides aside, $10,000 is definitely a chunk of change, but considering how busy we intend to be whilest abroad, it’s really a tight budget.
I hate planes. I hate turbulence. I hate sitting in one position for more than 45 minutes. Albeit, flying is a necessary evil when traveling overseas, lest I intend to endure sea sickness for 14 days straight, deteriorating tooth enamel as I suck on lemon wedges to combat scurvy, hoping my ship isn’t capsized and subsequently eaten by a kaiju. No, I’ll weather the eleven hours in the clouds. We’re flying economy class with ANA (All Nippon Airways) because (a) it’s financially irresponsible (for me) to spend $3,000 plus per seat for eleven hours of my life to be slightly less uncomfortable in business class, (b) it’s ranked as a 5-star airline with Skytrax, and (c) tickets were relatively inexpensive. Two round trip tickets from LAX to NRT leaving on a Thursday afternoon and returning on a Wednesday morning will set you back approximately $1702.80, $1342.80 of which is classified as “taxes and fees.” That’s right, the flight cost, only $180 per ticket, is marked up 473% by taxes and fees. All I can ask is that these are the reason planes aren’t colliding mid-air on a daily basis.
Airfare- Total Cost: $1702.80
Hotels don’t have to take up a significant portion of your budget. Some travelers happily stay in hostels for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room, but I like my own space and am a little hesitant about sleeping in a room with strangers. Staying in capsule hotels will not do for me: imitating a shoe in a preschool cubby would no doubt exacerbate my irrational fear of small spaces. Some travelers are happy to find a good vacation rental, and it works out great. I was once burned on a vacation rental pretty badly, and I’m not quite ready to give it another go. I’m not looking to stay in a Ritz Carlton or a St. Regis, nor could I afford it; I would simply like a clean, comfortable, non-sketchy place to sleep for the night close to public transportation, accessible to nightlife, and with free wi-fi.
Keep in mind, it’s very uncommon to find a king-sized bed in a Japanese hotel. Actually, I’m not sure if that even exists in Japanese hotels. Japan is a constitutional monarchy, and their monarch is an emperor, not a king. Ohhh, so they have emperor sized beds? No, no they don’t have that either. They have twins, semi-doubles, doubles, and queens if you’re lucky. I don’t mind because I like to snuggle. Hendricks does too, but let’s be honest. Although I’m only 5’4”, I’m a former professional dancer, and I sleep in the most awkward positions imaginable- usually with my right leg in his ribs, my left leg fully extended toward the ceiling, and both arms somehow hyperextended behind my head. All the while, he’s 6’2” and forced to fold into himself like a praying mantis. Needless to say, he generally likes to get away from me at 2 a.m. so he can get some sleep. I really put in the time and effort to find hotels that would best suit my and Hendricks’ preferences for travel. These are the hotels booked for our stay:
Ginza Creston, Chuo: 3 ½ Stars. $1240.20/7 nights. Double.
Pros: High rise views, location, free wi-fi (in public areas), subway proximity (5 minute walk), English-speaking staff, a massage chair (because normal chairs are so boring).
Cons: Only hard-wired internet in rooms (limited free wi-fi ports available from front desk), subway to nightlife, carpet is evidently old- which is fine as long as it holds up under a black light test; otherwise, we’ll plan to wear plastic slippers.
Sakura Terrace, Kyoto: 3 Stars. $529/3 nights. Queen with balcony.
Pros: Brand new hotel, free wi-fi, proximity to Kyoto Station, Kujo metro station entrance 10 meters from the front door, English-speaking staff, proximity to restaurants, on-site hot bath, on-site coin laundry, lots of foreigners.
Cons: Small rooms. You have to take the metro to anything interesting, unless you plan on playing Pachinko all day, which is right down the block. Open window privacy- some room windows are at a 90° angle from one another.
Hotel Vista Grande, Osaka: 4 Stars. $370.26/3 nights. Double.
*Side Note: After I stopped laughing about the hotel name, I immediately began to wonder if they serve carnitas.
Pros: Location (near Dotonbori), spacious rooms, a very sexy window between the bedroom and shower (so I can watch Hendricks read a book while I take a shower), English-speaking staff, nightlife, proximity to restaurants, free wi-fi.
Cons: The JR Station isn’t in the immediate vicinity, but it’s only about a 15 minute walk; the metro is a 10 minute walk. Street noise, which I actually really like, unless it’s the sound of some street rat yelling about how he’s not the baby’s daddy because that baby has asthma, and he don’t make no sick babies.
Dormy Inn, Shibuya: 3 Stars. $1421.61/6 nights. Queen with breakfast included.
Pros: Location, nightlife/nightlife/nightlife… did I mention nightlife? Free wi-fi, breakfast included as well as a nighttime noodle snack. Allow me to emphasize that Love Hotel Hill is very nearby- just sayin’. A profusion of extra pillows of your choosing: Evidently there is a shelf of pillows with at least five different categories of softness. Subway proximity (5 minute walk). I’m not a shopper, but there’s lots of shopping, especially since it’s near Harajuku/Omotesando.
Cons: Tucked behind the main street along the JR track. Open window privacy- some room windows are at a 90° angle from one another.
Hotel- Total Cost: $3561.07
Japan Rail Pass
If you haven’t heard, Japan boasts the third fastest train network in the world behind China and Germany, with Shinkansen traveling at speeds up to 200mph. And, if you have heard, that changes nothing… it’s still third fastest. Japan Rail lines connect cities all over the main island of Honshu, and because Kyoto and Osaka are separated from Tokyo by roughly 288 and 330 miles, respectively, a quick and reliable form of transportation is necessary to get around. JR (Japan Rail) passes are sold online from numerous sources. They are sold only to foreigners, and they are only available outside of Japan. So, if you decide while you’re in Japan that you suddenly would like to grab some passes, hold off on the seppuku, Samurai Sam; you’re just going to have to book your tickets like a Japanese native. Though, I hear regional passes are available in Japan.
Vouchers are sold as 7-, 14-, and 21-day passes, the days used during which you may travel throughout the country freely on most JR lines. The passes, if used correctly, can provide for extensive savings as an alternative to purchasing individual tickets. For instance, I’ll be staying in Tokyo for one week, traveling for one week, and returning to Tokyo for another week. The trip was planned in this way to save from spending extra cash on a 14-day pass because the passes may only be used on consecutive days. Hendricks and I got our 7-day JR passes from a UK-based company, Japan Experience, for $266 each. To compare, a one-way ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen will run you around $130. Though not available domestically, the obtainability of JR passes by visitors really opens up the door for more affordable travel nationally, which seems to be a solid technique for encouraging tourism and, therefore, bolstering economies outside of central metropolitan areas.
Japan Rail- Total Cost: $532
I’m an American girl with knowledge of about twenty words in French, usually used at theme parks to tell pushy photographers I don’t speak English: “Je ne pas parle anglais,” I passively state, shrugging my shoulders as I walk away. I’m somewhere between a novice and intermediate level Spanish speaker, but I’m an expert in the language’s expletives- yayyy, gold star for me! Nevertheless, I really think I ought to learn, at the very least, some basic phrases. And, here’s why: it’s considerate. Instant Immersion offers decent language software for around $50. And, Lonely Planet‘s pocket-sized Japanese Phrasebook & Dictionary should save me while I’m there. I’m really just trying to learn enough to get by without acting like too much of a gaijin.
Money: USD to Yen Conversion
Americans aren’t great with conversion. Case in point, do you remember when NASA lost its $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter back in 1999 because engineers failed to convert from the English measurement system to the metric system? That is, 0.8% of NASA’s $14 billion annual budget was squandered because Americans can’t cross multiply. This is why we’re not on Mars. Well, have no fear, American travelers. The current conversion rate for USD to Japanese Yen approximates a 1:100 ratio. Meaning, all you have to do is take away two zeros from a number to determine its value; there’s very little math involved. Easy!
Using Your Phone Outside the US
I can go without using my cell phone for calling and texting for three weeks, but it would be really nice to have access to data. And, no, I’m not talking about Brent Spiner. I’ve previously found mobile internet connectivity to be advantageous in places to which I am not accustomed. It’s helpful in finding places to go, hours of operation, addresses, etc. I’ve narrowed the best options for international phone use. These are as follows.
Option 1. Use your phone abroad with an international calling/texting/data plan.
Rates will be different between carriers, but let’s use my carrier, AT&T, as an example for what it might cost. The following are AT&T’s current international rates per phone, regardless of whether you have multiple lines on a single account:
Calling: Pay per use is $2.50/minute. Calling plans are as follows: $30/15 minutes, $60/40 minutes, $120/100 minutes, and $240/250 minutes, each plan charging $2 per minute for overage.
Texting: I actually didn’t get these rates because I have no interest in texting whilst abroad; however, incoming text messages are free to receive. It’s the outgoing messages that are billed.
Data: Data plans are as follows: $30/120mb per month, $60/300mb per month, $120/800mb per month, each plan charging $30/120mb for overage.
Option 2. Use your phone abroad with a visitor SIM.
These 1 GB 14-day prepaid SIMs are sold in Japan by a company called b-mobile for ¥3,980 plus an additional ¥210 for Airport Pickup Service. Delivery to hotel and residential addresses is also available. The SIM comes in three sizes: standard, micro, and nano. Additional 1 GB recharges may be purchased for a 10-day extension past the original 14-day plan. There are limitations on device compatibility, and b-mobile lists supported devices on its website, WP8 devices of course not being supported- lucky me.
Option 3. Use your phone abroad with a rented portable wi-fi hot spot device.
These are generally available to rent through travel sites. Expedia rents these devices from Telecom Square Inc. for $11.83 per day for up to 10 days, after which the device must be returned and can be re-rented. Airport pick-up and return is available as well as, for an additional fee, hotel and residential delivery. Up to ten wi-fi enabled devices may be connected to a wi-fi hot spot device at one time, making it an appealing option to groups traveling together. These can also be rented directly through Telecom Square Inc. for $12.95 per day for an unlimited number of days. Batteries only last for 2-4 hours without recharge. Extended batteries are available for an additional daily rental fee.
Option 4. Rent a phone abroad.
There are numerous phone rental companies in Japan. Rentafone Japan charges ¥3900 to rent a phone for one week, after which they charge ¥300 per day for between 7 and 20 days, and ¥100 each day thereafter. This does not include the rates for calls, texting and emails. And, rental phone use will still require rental of either a wi-fi hot spot device or a SIM chip for mobile internet.
Option 5. Put your phone in airplane mode and use in wi-fi hot spots.
One would think there would be free hot spots aplenty throughout Tokyo, but, evidently, one would be mistaken. Most are available, but for a fee. Those free wi-fi locations that do exist can be found on hot spot maps at wificafespots.com.
And, in the event that these options don’t pan out for you, it’s probably wise to map out your planned destinations on paper. I know, I know… this is 2014. You may as well be scrawling hieroglyphics onto papyrus. Here’s a tip: Do not rely on map applications if you don’t read kana/kanji. Most maps are not in romaji (romanization of the Japanese written language). *Editors note: map applications have REALLY improved since 2014. These are now a viable option!
…And, that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with planning. I leave the rest to incident. See you in a few weeks, USA.