Christian Heilmann

Chris’ travel tips – Tokyo, Japan

Saturday, November 14th, 2009 at 6:17 am

Some time ago I asked people on twitter if I should start writing about my travel experiences here in addition to the technical info I am giving. As my job right now consists mostly of traveling it would be fun to give some very personal insights about what you can do where. So here goes.

I went to Tokyo on a quick trip to meet with Yahoo Japan office and be a booth babe for us at the Web Directions East conference. I also ended up giving a presentation at a Pecha Kucha night.

All in all my experience is a bit tainted as I was sick and couldn’t do much, but here are some things that might be of interest for you if you ever go here.

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  • There are no flying cars – sorry, but my Bladerunner inspired impression of Tokyo is off. No flying cars, no robot dogs. The area we stayed in (Asaka, the Ana Intercontinental Hotel in between the US and the Russian embassy) actually reminded me a lot of Hong Kong.
  • You are off the grid in terms of mobiles – neither my personal T-Mobile HTC did a beep nor the company Vodafone 3G Blackberry. American colleagues have working iPhones though but I shudder to think how much the roaming costs.
  • Japanese mobiles are totally different – for starters, a lot of people watch TV on their phones.
  • There is no way to pay with credit card or cash machines – you can get money in the hotel though and it is totally normal to carry a month’s UK rent in cash Yen with you all the time – nothing gets stolen here.
  • Connectivity is good – In the hotel you have to pay for internets (but that is like in America – to my mind it should always be free) but cafes have free wireless. Wireless on the other hand seems to be not that common in offices and hotels.
  • Public transport is ace – we arrived in Narita airport and there is a good train connection to the city. The undergrounds is pretty easy to navigate and not too expensive. Still, Hong Kong beats it :) Taxis are ubiquitous but pricy – they start at 710 Yen and then go up quickly. Taxi doors in the back are opened by the driver, so wait for it. Marvel at the awesome GPS they have – like an animated Google street view.
  • Everything is ridiculously expensive – deal with it. It is like coming to London for the first time, just more painful.
  • There are coffee vending machines everywhere – hot and cold canned coffee and soft drinks are available on almost every street corner.
  • You can get along with English, but some Japanese sentences will help you a lot – taxi drivers for starters will not speak any English, bring a Japanese print out of the map you want to go.
  • The food rocks – you can eat anything and your body will not hate you for it.
  • Opening hours are odd – whilst you would expect the hotel to be the safe haven for the end of the evening you are sadly mistaken. Ours had no bar and after 9 the small shop and bakery inside it was already closed. You come back to the hotel to sleep, not to party (or if you got lucky, both).
  • Don’t blow your nose in public – which was a bitch with me having a bad cold. You do see a lot of people with face masks. This is not as we expect to stop the bearer from getting germs but is actually something people do when they have a cold to prevent others from getting infected. OK, whoever knows a bit about the efficiency of these masks can dispute the whole idea, but it shows just how much Japanese people care about not bothering others with their respiratory problems.
  • People are terribly helpful – even if they don’t understand you they consider it a flaw on their part and won’t ask for more details. This can be very confusing and I myself feel very uncomfortable with this.
  • The streets and public places are safe – you see a lot of cops hanging around and I for example saw people falling asleep in cafes with their money and their mobiles on the table. In the UK they’d have woken up naked as people would’ve nicked the lot.
  • Chopstick skills are needed – you’ll hardly find forks and knives outside of hotels. Eating sushi with your hands is expected though. You will get a hot towel before every meal.
  • Toilets are high tech – you have heated seats (very much loved by every woman I talked to about this) and spraying facilities in almost every toilet. With spraying facilities I mean bidet-style fountains that wash your bum. They can be adjusted both in angle and strength and don’t stop automatically – you need to press the stop button. I was confused by this the first time and waited for quite a while for the flood to stop which it didn’t. Not all are labeled in English, so some experimentation is necessary. Some toilets even have fake flushing noise generators to cover any flatulence. Again, this is a hint what not to do in public.
  • Finding an English speaking doctor can be hard – I just came back from a trek to 3 hospitals as the international SOS centre gave me the address of a nearby hospital but there was no English speaking doctor present. As professionals, they won’t touch you without being able to give a proper examination (you know half of the job is asking the patient what the issue is). In the end I found a service that provides translation on the phone for you. Any hospital knows that number so ask them to talk to the doc and you over the phone to work out. An examination plus medication was 4800 Yen, so not too bad.
  • There are a lot of all-night shops – offering drinks, pretty decent prepacked food, magazines, toiletries, magazines and even medication. Seven Elevens are the most common ones.
  • You do stand out – no matter what you do. Whilst people don’t stare (as I found to be a very common thing on my travels in India) you can try as you might but you will always be a Gaijin which used to be a rude word about foreigners but has become quite normal by now.
  • Hotels are very comfortable and high quality – like anywhere in Asia (at least I have been) US and especially UK hotels could learn from the stuff you get here in your rooms. Great beds, good TV set, mini bar, dry cleaning, iron, towels, pajamas, good shampoo+conditioner+body wash – all of these are normal.
  • Bring business cards – I collected them by the bundle here and managed not to bring mine which was quite a boo boo.
  • Public transport and lifts can be very packed – but don’t worry, even if you feel that you might crush people around you it will not happen.
  • People are beautiful – Japanese people have a very high standard of clothing and personal grooming. It is very easy to look scruffy here. Having said that, club-gear and young folk might dress in things that confuse you but just you wait – sooner or later all of that will come to the west, too. Then again the T-Shirts with random English or German sentences you see on can be found, too.

That’s it for my first impressions. Check my flickr photos for some impressions and hopefully this is of use for you. Also feel free to comment with things I have done wrong if you are a local :).

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