All posts by Mick West

Skinkansen Tokyo Kyoto and back

I wrote about buying the ticket, but what’s the actual experience of taking the train like?

First up, look at the ticket:


Not a lot of concessions there for the non-reader of Japanese. This is actually the ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo, although pretty much the only way I could remember was to look at the date. But really the ticket is quite straightforward. The first two lines are not important, the bulk of the information is in the middle four lines. Which say:

(date) 3/30 (time) (12:06) (arriving)(14:26)
(train number) 304 (car) 8, (row) 6, (seat) C, nosmoking
18,160 yen, 7980 for the ticket, 5,030 for reserved seat, 5,150 for green class. Continue reading…

Lest I forget

I’m in the airport right now, with about three hours to go before the plane leaves. On the way here I was thinking of some of the odd things that I might simply forget if I left it a few days.

The Japanese seem very organized. At Starbucks in Shibuya there were people working the line, handing out menus in advance, the taking them off you, as they were also on the countertop, then when they took your order, another little line formed, and someone managed the whole line, looking at your reciept, and getting your drink when it was ready and shuffling you off.

Traffic organziation is highly manpower intensive. Every little building or site entrance has at least one person with a red illuminated baton who will stop pedestrians to let out cars or trucks. Sometimes there are several of these, and they rotate to form little corridors to alternately let pedestrains or cars through. Sometimes you see life sized screens with an animated figure of a flag waving man. On the way to the airport I saw an animated wooded figure that was waving a familar red baton back and forth.

ISO 9001 seems a source of pride. Companies hand banners outside their offices or factories, proclaiming “ISO 9001!”

As you depart on a bus, they bow to you.

I forget the rest.

April in Shibuya

So a few days ago, we passed by the famous Shibuya crossing, where there is this famous statue of a dog called Hachiko.  This statue appeared in the Amazing Race, so we were keen to see it ourselves.  It’s quite easy to find, here it is behind us.

Then this morning, we were were reading the morning paper, and were horrified to discover Hachiko had been stolen! 

It took us quite some time to figure it out. But then I remembered the date: April 1st

Random Japan

I’m very tall in Japan. The only people taller than me are other gaijin. But nobody ever looks at me oddly. I feel like the tallest person in Tokyo, but I’m only 6’2″.

Taxis seem very expensive. It’s 660 Yen for the the first 2Km, but all our trips seemed around 2000 Yen. The drivers seemed fond of taking obscure back streets.

During the day it seemed hard to get a drink. I’d just want a beer. The best bets would be hotel bars.

Food is generally quite reasonably priced. You can get a very nice lunch for 1000 Yen.

It helps to think to 100 Yen = 1 dollar, even though it’s more like 115. It just makes it easier to visualize how much things cost.

The weather was very variable. It was hot and cold, sunny and rain, all within the last nine days. Today was really hot. Yesterday was freezing.

Cherry blossoms are cool. People take tarpaulins to the park and sit under them. The blossoms start falling almost as soon as they arrive, so you are in a little snowstorm of pink.

The Shinkansen was not very crowded. Nearly empty on the way to Kyoto, and less than half full on the way back.

We should have got a JR pass.

It would have been better if we stayed another two days in Kyoto, and used that as a base to visit other places.

Walking is a good way to get around, but really it’s a bit a waste of time and energy to walk anything over a half mile unless there is something on the way. Get a taxi. Your time is valuable here, and we got too tired too often.

The trip on the bus from Narita Airport to the Hotel is no fun. A taxi would be very expensive, but would at least leave immediately, and not have to go to other hotels first. The train might well be a lot quicker, but I’ve no idea how much fun it would be.

Museums were hot. Like very hot, like they had the heating turned up to 80. This is no fun when you come in from the nice cool outdoors wearing a coat.

The Shibuya area is a lot more fun than the palace/Ginza area. If you want a brief intense Tokyo experience, stay in Shibuya or Shinjuku.

Ginza is boring during the day, much more fun at night. The same can be said for many areas.

Take lots of photos! You will forget half of what happened if you don’t write it down or take photos. Take a photo of everything! We took 1,200 photos, about 1000 of which are not particularly good, but they still help document the day, so when you come to attempt to recall what you did, you have these useful points of reference.

Buying Tickets for Shinkansen Tokyo to Kyoto

Firstly some photos:

So anyway, I knew we had to get tickets to go to Kyoto from Tokyo on the train. I had no idea how to do this. Today our plan was to go up north a very short distance to Nippori, where we were planning to explore some graveyards and shrines. This meant we were to depart from Tokyo station, which seemed an ideal opportunity to buy those tickets.

In preparation, I wrote down all the words I though I would need, since I had no idea how much English the ticket guy would speak. We wanted to go on the Nozomi train (the fastest), in “green” class (First Class), with reserved seats in non smoking. This extravagance was why we did not get a JR pass, since I though you could not go in green class. However it turns out that you can get a green-class JR pass, which is valid for all trains except for the Nozomi. Drat!

So, I wrote the following on a piece of paper:

Ofuku (round trip)
Futatsu Kippu (two tickets, although I’m not sure if I’m using the right counting words)
Tokyo -> Kyoto (luckily the names are the same in Japanese :)
Shinkansen, Nozomi, (The bullet train, the fast one)
Gurinsha (green class = first class, about 50% extra)
Kinensha (non-smoking, very important)
Shiteiseki (reserved seats – although I suspected gurinsha was reserved anyway).
I then wrote the dates of travel, 3/28 and our hoped for time of departure 08:30
Suiyobi (Wednesday)
I then added the day and time for the return trip.
Kinyobi (Friday)

With this piece of paper in had we strode to the Tokyo station, a short walk from our hotel. There we spotted the “Ticket office”, and entered. When our turn arrived I approached and said “do you speak english?”, and the ticket guy said what I assumed was the Japanese for “No, but let’s see what we can do here”.

So, plan A (speak english) failed, and plan B (speak Japanese) swung into action. I pulled out my piece of paper and basically just said all the words above in order, pointing at the date and time. This worked slowly, but quite well. There was some initial difficulty as he indicated something to do with the time was a problem. This turned out to be that the train departed three minutes later than I asked, at 8:33. So I okayed that. Then he asked if I also wanted the the return trip gurinsha, and I said “hai“. Actually I said a lot of “hai”.

So, it seems arranged. I whip out my credit card and say “credito carto?”. He says “Oh! Credito carto!”, and punches a few buttons, swipes my card, and apparently it does not work. I get out another card, that does not work either. He says something about a “travelo office” an gesticulates elsewhere. But after ten minutes of building up to this point I was not about to go elsewhere, so Holly and I pool our cash and pay for our tickets the old fashioned way, leaving us with very little money. But we have the tickets!!! Nice ticket guy point out the date and our car and seat numbers. We say “hai” a lot. The tickets are entirely in Japanese except for numbers, which is basically the date, the train car and the seat numbers. I stick the tickets in my wallet, and we are off to try to get to Nippori.

Advice for fellow travellers: don’t expect any English speakers at the station, not even slightly. Figure out exactly what you want before you enter the ticket office. If possible figure out the train times. Take cash – I’ve no idea why my credit card was not acceptable, I used it at the hotel later to buy some drinks. Write everything down before you go. If possible get someone to write it down in Japanese. Do it in advance of your trip, or you may miss your train while buying the tickets. And really you should have a JR pass if you are doing a trip like we did. It’s a lot cheaper, and only limits your train choices slightly.

Here’s what happens when you actually come to ride the train.

First Day in Japan

Holly blogged, so I don’t have to!

Holly posted the good photos, and there’s some more here.

The tempura place was intersting as they spoke NO english (at least our waitress didn’t), so I actually had to use japanese to ask for some water. I’d remembered “mizu kudasai”, but my phrase book had “o-mizu o onegai shimas”, which made me break out in a cold sweat as I muttered it to myself. When she finally arrived I sumimasened her, and actually said it quite well. Water duly arrived. This was the most Japanese I had used so far. Mostly just “sumimasen” and “arigato gozimas”. “Two” seems to be well understood everywhere. I was actually ready to ask for the bill “o-kanjo o kudasai”, but we already had it, and just had to pay up front.

Shinjuku is crazy busy. We did manage to find an ATM, which is good as the cash flow rate is quite high so far. Food is quite expensive, as are taxis. The trains are very cheap.

Running a Mile

Holly started running long before I did, and she got very good at it. I’d tried to run with her before, but my knees flared up and so I stopped. I always had problems with my knees. If I walk down a mountain they turn into balls of fiery pain (no problem going up). So I’ve always assumed I had bum knees, and hence assumed I would never run more that a few yards

The thing that began to turn this belief around, rather oddly, was grippers. Yup, those hand exercise things that you squeeze to make your grip stronger. I got a set of them from Iron Mind, and they come in various strengths, 1,2,3 & 4, with 1 being the weakest. They also have an even weaker “T” (for “Trainer”) gripper. So I started on that. First attempt I could not even close that.

But closing grippers is a nice simple exercise, one you can do sitting at your desk, which is what I did. The goal with these grippers is to squeeze them closed. After a few weeks I could close the #1, but thought that the #2 was basically immovable. #3 and #4 were for the gods. But I kept squeezing away, and eventually I got the #2 closed.

I also noticed something odd. My hands hurt less than they used to.

I type a lot, and I move a mouse a lot. This used to cause me some occasional pain. But since I’d got much stronger hands, they really don’t hurt at all (except for when I over-train, but that’s another story).

So this got me a-thinking, what if my knees were not “bad”, they were simply weak. I just needed to ease into the running gradually, perhaps with some other low impact leg exercises to build up the strength in the surrounding muscles, and I could move my knees from weak to strong, and run again.

So I did. I started out doing a run to Old Muscle Beach, Santa Monica. A distance of 1.1 miles. I started doing this sometime last August (2006). My first attempt I only managed to run half way there before having to stop. I walked all the way back. But over time I improved, first being able to run all the way there. Then there and back. Then the time started dropping. I probably started around 13 minutes. By October I was doing it in 10:34, then just three weeks later I did 9:28, then the times continued to steadily drop.

There were setbacks. My knees (particularly my left knee), are not yet strong. If they get pushed too hard, they push back with pain. Sometimes I’ve had to stop because the knees hurt. Sometimes I’ve been almost unable to walk the day after because of the pain. But I just give them rest, (and, more recently, ice,) and they come back. My time has dropped and dropped, and I’ve now done it in 8:09. That’s 1.1 miles mind, so that’s actually one mile in 7:25, or if you believe the Garmin’s tracking, I’ve run a mile in 7:16. Not bad for a guy with bum knees.

The grippers taught me just how straightforward it is to build up strength in one part of your body, just with gradual exercise. It’s simple, and it’s obvious. The gripper training also comes in handy at the turning around point of my run, Old Muscle Beach, where I stop for thirty minutes and do various exercises on the bars and the traveling rings. I’m gradually strengthening up those other muscles that though they were in for an easy life.

Nihongo oh no!

Drat! The Japan trip is now a week away and I’m not really progressed a significant amount.

I have learned that the most important work is word 5, “Sumimasen”, which means the equivalent of “excuse me” and “I am sorry”, and can be used in the sense “Sumimasen, can you tell me where the train station is?”, or “Sumimasen, I’m so clumsy”.

I think I will probably learn far more on the plane, and during the trip, than I have done up to this point.

Watashi Ni

11. Watashi ni “to me” or “for me”.

Now this bugs me, “Watashi ni” is word 11, but the book really tells you very little about it, and I could not find a single example in the book that actually uses it. “Ni” is a particle meaning the preceding word is the indirect object of the sentence.

Some examples off the internet:
Watashi ni tasukero! – Help me!
Watashi ni doitsu-go ga hanasemasu. – German can be spoken with me.

12. Watashi no – my, mine
That’s more like it, now I can work towards a full translation of “My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Terrible!”. Dog, is “inu“, so would it start “watashi no inu wa (nose) arimasu ka” – probably not

Konnichi Wa! Words 1-10

We are going to Japan in six weeks, for my birthday. It’s the ideal opportunity to actually force myself to do something I’ve been wanting to do for decades – learn basic Japanese.

I’ve bought various course in Japanese over the years. I had one that I listened to in my car every day for several weeks. A few phrases stuck (“ginko wa doko desu ka?” – where is the bank?), but I never really practiced, and so thing did not really sink in.

But now I’m actually going to Nippon (Japan), I really have to learn some Nihongo (Japanese). To this end, Holly and I went to the bookstore and bought a few books on Japanese. The one this I like the best is a little blue book called “Instant Japanese”, the premise of which is that you need only learn 100 words, and with that learn 1000 things to say with those 100 words, and that will give you a solid basis for communication. This sounds like an excellent theory to me, and since I’ve got six weeks I have very high hopes of getting those 100 words down solid. I’m going to use my blog here to write about the words as I learn them, in hopes of making it stick.

The first ten words I was mostly familiar with already, here they are:

1. ohayo gozaimasu – good morning
2. konnichi wa – good day (your basic hello during the daylight hours)
3. konban wa – good evening
4. domo arigato – thank you very much
5. sumimasen – sorry/excuse me. Something I’m sure I’ll say a lot. You use it to stop people in the street when you want to ask for help in some way, and probably pretty much during every interaction.
6. dozo – please, as in “please do”, or “please, go ahead”, usually before the subject
7. kudasai – please, as in “some water please”, kudasi goes after the subject
8. mizu – water, important stuff, you need to know how to ask for water. mizu o kudasai = water please
9. watashi – I, the most common form of I
10. watakushi – I, a more formal version. Must be an important distinction to have the two version in the first ten words

There’s another word there: “o“, which is a particle used to indicate the preceding word is the object of the following action, so “mizu o kudasai” is kind of like “Water. (about which) Please.” I suppose you would summon a waiter with “sumimasen” then ask for water “mizu o kudasai“, and then thank them “domo arigato“.

domo” by itself literally means “very” or “many” or “very much”, and you can say “domo” as an abbreviated way of saying “domo arigato”. But “domo” alone is not really “thanks”, “arigato” is “thanks/thank you”

domo arigato gozaimasu = Thank you very much indeed! A more polite way of saying thank you. “Gozaimasu” seems to be just stuck on the end of things to make them more polite. Note back to word #1 “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning). “Ohayo” is actually “good morning” and “gozaimasu“, is the polite word (meaning what?). Don’t say Ohayo to anyone you are not friends with. It’s kind of like the difference between “morning” and “good morning” used as greetings. Or perhaps “how are you?” and “wazzup?” :)