A non-cycling friend sent me an email the other day asking for Japan travel tips. I’ve also had people, cyclists, ask for similar advice, and I understand why. I lived there for ten years, I speak Japanese, I follow the Japanese news, my wife of thirty years is Japanese, and I’ve traveled there a bunch, not to mention having logged tens of thousands of miles in Tochigi, Ibaraki, Gunma, Fukushima, and Tokyo.
Unfortunately, I’m a terrible trip adviser. My data is, sadly, way out of date in a country that changes more quickly than any other. The last time I visited, in 2016, I barely recognized the city I’d lived in for a decade. And of course places to see, things to do, joints to eat at can be found with astounding accuracy on the Internet.
However, there are some aspects of Japan travel, whether on a bike or otherwise, that are immutable. They don’t have so much to do with logistics as they do with the essence of visiting Japan and, to some extent anywhere else. I can’t think of a more interesting country to visit, and here’s why.
Wanky’s Japan Travel Tips
- The difference between an adventure and a tragedy is the outcome. Travel to Japan, if you let it, can be a great adventure by which I mean a place where you can sally forth on various expeditions and have no idea of the outcome. The corollary is that you can plot out every step, research every restaurant, and simply spend your time there seeing and doing what you thought you would see and do. I’m not judging, but if you want an adventure you can’t know the ending.
- Dispense with fear for your physical safety. Although you could probably get mugged or murdered if you put together a really thorough plan, people in Japan are simply not going to fuck with you. You’re safe. Relax.
- Dispense with your fear of getting ripped off. They won’t steal your wallet, give you change in fake currency, jack up the price because you aren’t Japanese, or cheat you on the exchange rate. In general, prices are reasonable for the good/service provided, and no one is going to bargain with you about it.
- Observe first, judge later … if ever. Things in Japan are different. That’s why you’re going there, remember? I know that you don’t put mayonnaise and pineapple on your pizza back in Des Moines, but you know what? They don’t put strawberries on their sushi, either.
- Embrace the confusion. At home you’re in command, in charge, in control. In Japan you may still be in command, but of what? Instead of treating a wrong train as an obstacle, use it as a chance to get off and learn about the place you’re now in that you didn’t intend to be. Do you really HAVE to be anywhere? If so, maybe you’re doing it wrong.
- Ask. Many people may be frightened by you or ignore, but many will not. Your best memories will be the people you meet and your interactions with them. I will never forget the kind man who, on January 15, 1987, as I stood lost and bewildered in Tokyo Station, bought my train ticket for me on the Chuo Line and gave me patient instructions on how to find Kichijoji.
- It should only go to about 5. Even though your U.S.A. voice goes to 11, however loud you’re talking, it’s too loud. Speak softly, carry no stick, and then speak even more softly.
- Count to ten. You know all that time you’ve spent on the Internet searching out flights and accommodations, and reconnoitering the lay of the land? Take an hour out of your life and learn to count to ten in Japanese. Then tack on ten expressions and swear on pain of death that you will use them no matter how stupid, awkward, and inept you sound. “Thank you,” “Please,” “I’m sorry,” “Excuse me,” “You’re welcome,” “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” “I like it,” and “Yes, it’s okay,” sound beautiful no matter how awful your pronunciation. And when you bring that handful of phrases with you to Japan, you’re bringing something else as well: Respect.
- Location, location, location. Travel is all about movement, which is all about direction, which is ultimately about knowing where you are. Understand three things about Japan and your trip will be so much better: 1) Where Japan is relative to other Asian nations. 2) Where your city is relative to other Japanese cities. 3) Where your accommodations are relative to the city/town you’re staying in.
- Ride yer fuggin’ bike. Japan is bike friendly, motorists are respectful, and some cities offer bike share rentals that can be rented through your smartphone. So … enjoy!
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