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WHAT to KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL to JAPAN

This post is the first in a Japan series.

Hi there.

It’s 4:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake and crafting (to use the word liberally) this missive because In 20 years of traveling I’ve never succeeded in overcoming jet lag and my body still thinks it’s 6:00 p.m. Japan Standard Time. About nine hours from now and I am going to CRASH. Left for Tokyo two weeks ago. Just got back.

Ok, so here’s what you need to know if you’re going to travel to Japan.

Kyoto Orange Temple

HOW TO TRAVEL TO JAPAN (ONE TRAVELER’S ADVICE BASED ON ONLY ONE TRIP TO JAPAN)

PICK YOUR DATES

Here’s a detailed guide of weather in Japan by month. April appears to be the best month to travel to Japan because the cherry blossoms are blooming (although you’ll contend with many other travelers), followed by mid-to-late May and September. Winters are cold. Summers are hot and humid.

My travel to Japan included Tokyo, Takayama, Kanazawa, Mount Koya and Kyoto the last week of June and the first week of July, Japan’s rainy season. I was happy with my timing. I didn’t share the country with hordes of other tourists. I encountered rain in Tokyo but it wasn’t anything an umbrella couldn’t handle, I ran into intermittent showers in Kanazawa but preferred them to the alternative of oppressive heat, and the weather my few days in Kyoto was perfect. A gray drizzle actually added to the atmosphere in moody Nikko (a day trip from Tokyo) and mysterious Okunoin Cemetery on Mount Koya.

Shibuya Umbrellas Travel to Japan

WHERE TO GO

I can comment only on the cities I visited during my two weeks (and I will elaborate on each of them in this series of posts). With the exception of getting to/from Mount Koya (which entailed riding a subway, a funicular and a bus) my Japan rail pass was all I needed to travel easily between cities and within Tokyo.

  • Five nights/four days in Tokyo, including a day trip to Nikko was one day too long. I thought I would love Tokyo as I loved compact Hong Kong, but it was so massive that I couldn’t get my arms around it, or feel like I remotely understood the city. I’m happy with my day trip to Nikko though
  • One night/one day in charming Takayama was perfect
  • Two nights/two days in Kanazawa was a little long, but one day would not have been enough. I’m happy that I visited this city but never experienced a “wow!” moment
  • My one night/one day on Mount Koya was the highlight of the trip
  • Four nights/four days in Kyoto was one day too long. Sure I missed plenty of temples, but by this point in the trip I was templed-out

P.S. I do tend to travel wide instead of deep and I realize that’s not everyone’s bag. Also, when I travel solo (as I did this trip) I need to keep moving or I grow a little sick of myself.

VISAS

Click here for visa information. U.S. citizens can travel to Japan for 90 days without a visa, although I had to show proof of return to the Japan Airlines ticketing agent at O’Hare before I left.

ELECTRICITY

The voltage in Japan is 100 volt (U.S. is 120V and Europe is 230V) and the outlets are identical to ungrounded (2-pin) American outlets. I had no problems with using my curling iron, MacBook, and iPhone/camera battery/headphone chargers without a converter. I used only hotel hairdryers.

WHAT TO GET BEFORE YOU GO

  • Buy a Streetwise map if you’ll be navigating Tokyo
  • Download the Google Translate app, which translates both the written and spoken word in your language to Japanese (and many other languages) and vice-versa. I didn’t end up using the app in Japan because it requires WiFi service (and I usually left my MiFi back at the hotel), but a Japan Railway ticket vendor once successfully used it to facilitate our transaction
  • If you’re traveling much between cities buy a Japan Rail exchange voucher to redeem upon arrival for a Japan Rail Pass before you go (you can’t purchase it in Japan). My JR East pass cost me $444. I will write an entire post later in this series on using Japan Rail
  • Rent a pocket WiFi (MiFi) from Global Advanced Communications. WiFi was available at most or all properties at which I stayed (including the Buddhist monastery on top of a mountain) but I don’t feel secure using hotel networks and I wanted coverage when I was traveling on the train or dining at a restaurant. For $100, Global Advanced Communications shipped a MiFi, charger, and back-up battery to my hotel in Tokyo and I enjoyed interruption-free service for two weeks. Postage-paid return packaging was provided so I left my equipment with the front desk when I departed
  • A travel umbrella if your travel to Japan is in June or July
  • Have directions to your hotel, or the name of it, written in Japanese

CASH

ATMs and banks are not as plentiful in Japan as they are in the U.S. but ATMs can be found in 7-Eleven stores in cities of any size. Many restaurants, shops and even train stations will not accept cards. Stash some cash on you — Japan is extremely safe.

CUSTOMS, ETIQUETTE, & OTHER STUFF

  • There’s no tipping (and yet service is excellent), which is refreshing
  • The Japanese rarely jay-walk. I curbed my impatience around them and waited for the lights to turn green
  • Eating is permitted on long-distance trains, but no one eats (or talks on their cell phone) on the city trains. Pick-up after yourself on the long distance trains before exiting
  • When paying, place your money on a tray. Your change will be handed back to you
  • Avoid traveling on the city trains with luggage during rush hours
  • Shoes are usually removed when entering a temple, home, monastery, ryokan or any room with a tatami (rice or straw) mat. In most cases  you would then change into slippers that are provided, and if you use the restroom you would change again into the slippers provided at the restroom door

Have recommendations from your own travel to Japan? Please share.

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TURKEY PROTESTS, TURKEY PROTESTATIONS

TURKEY PROTESTS

2013

But what about the war?” asks an ill-informed friend, referring to my upcoming visit to Turkey.

“You mean the Turkey protests?” I ask.

The Turks have been protesting against their government this summer, and the government has responded with excessive force. A few people have been killed, but the clashes can be avoided. Of course our American news outlets have overplayed the events because drama = viewers and many Americans — in their typical xenophobic fashion — can’t bother to distinguish between the Turkey protests, the Egyptians’ attempt to overthrow their government and the Syrian civil war.

Turkey, Egypt, Syria, protest, overthrow attempt, civil war … they’re all the same!

I explain that the Turkey protests are not synonymous with Egyptian government overthrow attempts and Syrian civil war.

“Well, I don’t think you should go.” Ok.

Turkish Flag

IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING

It’s always something with travel. Seriously, in my case, it’s almost always something. One month prior to my trip to Peru this year the Shining Path threatened Americans traveling to the Sacred Valley. The year prior — same time — the Gaza-Israel clashes occurred right before I headed off to Israel. I flew in and out of Suvarnabhumi Airport multiple times mere weeks after it was shut down in 2008, the 2004 Madrid train bombing nearly coincided with my visit to the city, I diverted my destination from Prague to Budapest in 2002 when floods overtook the Czech capital, and I canceled what would have been my first trip to Turkey in response to the Cyprus Missile Crisis. My unlucky timing has become a joke.

I’m not about to let some Turkey protests stop me.

BUT WHY NOT ANDORRA?

So why travel to Turkey? Why not travel to some place benign and conflict-free, like Switzerland, Lichtenstein or Andorra?

I’m sure Andorra is lovely, but I have my reasons for returning to Turkey.

Reason Number 1: The Universe seems to be pushing me in that direction. I was unfamiliar with Cappadocia until summer, 2012 and then suddenly I heard and read of no place else (a phenomenon known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon). My sister and her family visited Cappadocia that year and loved it.

Reason Number 2: I visited Istanbul in in early September, 2001 and did not especially like it: I perceived an unwelcomeness from the locals that bordered on animosity. Having heard others rave about the city since, I had wondered frequently over the past decade if the problem had actually been me instead of it. How did I dress back then? How did I project myself? What was my frame of mind? My not having liked the city feels like some sort of personal failure to me.

So that’s why I’m going to Turkey. Despite the Turkey protests by the Turks, despite the Turkey protestations by my friends and family.

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QUIRKY WALK along LONDON’S SOUTH BANK

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LONDON’S SOUTH BANK

The South Bank area of London is bordered by the Thames to the west and north, Blackfriars Road to the east, and Lambeth Road to the south. A business acquaintance in Manchester tipped me off to the quirky walk along the river. Excluding stops, the walk is less than a half-hour.

THE LONDON EYE

Start your South Bank walk at the London Eye, the 443-foot tall observation wheel towering over the city.

London Eye South Bank

Buy London Eye tickets ($30) in advance online, or when you arrive. I visited on a mild Sunday morning in January and waited in line only a few minutes to purchase a ticket, and was in a rotating capsule less than ten minutes later. The peaceful ride lasts 25 minutes and provides views as far as 25-miles on clear days.

London Eye from Below

SOUTHBANK CENTRE

Continue your stroll through South Bank along The Queen’s Walk Promenade, and you’ll soon reach Southbank Centre, a world-famous collection of art venues that hosts multiple literature, music and dance performances, major art exhibitions and various events and educational forums.

Venture up the Queen Elizabeth Hall steps for a glimpse of this heartwarming mural (which bears a distinct resemblance to a striking piece of rodent street art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood).

London Street Art Rats

I especially like these soulful, long-limbed creatures painted by an artist who goes by Phlegm.

Queen Elizabeth Hall Creatures

Bizarre London Street Art

Head downstairs again, where you’ll find a colorful graffiti-covered skateboard park.

THAMES RIVER GUITARIST

The quirkiness continued with Flame Proof Moth, who entertained the other South Bank walkers and me singing from the cold comfort of his Thames River lawn chair.

Thames River Singer

TATE MODERN

Moving onward, the Blackfriars’ Bridge to your left, you’ll leave South Bank and enter Southwark, where the massive Tate Modern museum lies to your right. Entrance is free.

A sucker for surrealism, my favorite painting was Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism, which depicts the conflict between countrymen during the Spanish Civil War.

Dali Autumnal Cannibalism

The museum also featured neon exhibit when I visited in January.

Neon Lights Tate Modern

BEYOND SOUTH BANK

Having finished the quirky South Bank walk, if you’re ready for more London sightseeing, keep walking north along the Thames and cross London Bridge to London Tower, or immediately cross Blackfriar’s Bridge to West Smithfield and get an eyeful of St. Bartholomew the Great Church, London’s oldest church (next post).

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