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On The Oddities of Japan

In May and June 2019, I spent two and a half weeks on holiday in Japan travelling between a number of villages, towns and cities mostly on the east coast. Having heard and read a lot about the country but not having been there before, this is my techy take on some oddities I saw and experienced. There are a few rants in here, but that shouldn’t detract from what was an excellent trip that I would highly recommend to others.

Payments

For such a technologically advanced nation with smart toilets, trains timed to the second and soy sauce vending machines, you’d think payment card acceptance would be nearly ubiquitous. Not so. I know we’ve all read on blogs about the importance of cash in Japan, but I was still startled. Only the larger shops, restaurants and chains accept payment cards, mostly in the larger cities, and even then it’s mostly only Visa and MasterCard (sorry Amex users) and no support for contactless (and also therefore Apple or Android Pay).

It’s normal to have hundreds of pounds worth of Yen in your pocket and to hand over a 10,000 note for a couple of thousand bill. Over in the UK, payment for any bill of that size in cash is almost weird in itself. But contactless, chip and PIN and general payment card acceptance is very widespread here - even buskers and chuggers now accept payment this way.

Understanding of English

Although it’s always useful and courteous to learn a few phrases of the local language of wherever you’re going to, you’re normally safe with some simple English to get around. Not as much in Japan. There are many places where people have either no or very little English comprehension, even for very simple phrases or words. Some universal sign language works but in my view, for anything more than the simplest idea, some kind of translation tool is invaluable and necessary.

For example, I used Google Translate both to translate text on signs and packets, but also to type out sentences and phrases I wanted to get across to shop owners and waiting staff. Once, we even used the speaking feature to allow the waitress to speak in Japanese and have her words translated in real time to English text. It worked flawlessly and demonstrated an amazing piece of technology, but it shouldn’t be this way.

I often wonder how my parents, for example, without their smartphones and apps, would have been able to survive. Similarly for Google Maps which I used daily to get around when road signs and street names were only in Japanese.

Travel

I mentioned using Google Maps, which I did to great success for walking and bus directions, and I also used the official Japan tourist travel app to get train times and platforms, which also worked very well (especially the option that only shows transport that the Japan Rail Pass is valid for, although it did fail once when it told me to both use the Nozomi Shinkansen (which is not covered by the pass) and a private railway (which is also not covered)).

The fare system for trains, however, is Byzantine. The Japan Rail Pass, available to tourists only, claims to cover most rail travel in the country. Your first mission is to jump through the hoops to actually obtain it. Apart from a trial running until 2020, you can only buy it from outside the country. Once you do this, you get an “exchange pass” that you need to take with you along with your passport to an exchange office to get your actual pass. If you forget it, game over. If you use the automated gates to enter the country and therefore don’t get a stamp in your passport, game over (unless you remember to ask an immigration officer to stamp it manually).

Then you need to read the exceptions. Since rail travel is privatised, there isn’t a single company that runs all trains. So far, so good; this is also the system in the UK. However, what we do have is an overall brand (National Rail) as well as contracts awarded by the government that mandate certain things (like some fare levels, ticket types, ticket acceptance etc) to provide some uniformity and consistency.

In Japan, none of this is true, and the tourist suffers as a result. The Japan Rail Pass covers travel on most JR trains, which are the predominant trains in the country. However, it inexplicably doesn’t cover Nozomi trains (which are generally the faster ones with fewer stops), nor does it cover JR trains that travel over private rails, or the variety of regional private railways such as Keihan, Keikyu or Hakone Tozan. It covers a lot of JR buses but not those travelling on expressways. It covers normal stopping trains, but some “limited express” services require a supplement.

Let’s not even start with the sheer number of “IC cards” (smart cards) similar to London’s Oyster card or the OV-chipkaart in The Netherlands. At the last count, I saw Suica, Pasmo, Icoca, Pitapa, Toica, Manaca, Kitaca, Sugoca and Nimoca. These all do the “same thing” fundamentally (store money to be used for transport and sometimes other things), but are named differently, look different, work in different places and are maintained by different organisations. Goodness only knows which one can be used where to the average tourist who is looking for a handier and cheaper way of frequently using transport not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

Having said all of this, the Japan Rail Pass is excellent value if you expect to use long-distance trains more than a few times.

Timings

Japan is well known for general timeliness in all areas of life. With one exception (due to an earthquake), all trains ran and arrived exactly on time, and this was also mostly true for buses except if they were stuck in traffic. This is an excellent display of how timeliness works in practice, and I would love to be able to take a bunch of National Rail managers over to Japan to show them how it’s done and how woeful their own service is in comparison.

However, in certain places, this also serves to frustrate tourists. One personal example is trying to visit Kyoto Imperial Palace. We’d spent most of the day visiting other places and were tired. I decided to go out of the hotel later in the day to try to steal a quick glance of the palace before dinner. I’d read that last entry was at 4.20pm and therefore left in a bit of a hurry. There was no public transport that would get my there on time, so I decided to walk.

I got to the park gate as Google Maps had indicated only to find that the actual palace was some distance inside. So I started to walk more quickly and then jog, but there were no signs and I spent some time basically going around the building trying to find the entrance. As a result, I ended up at the entrance at 4.23pm, only to be told basically that it was closed and I couldn’t enter. Another couple also got the same response. It’s important to note that the palace itself is open until 5pm and is free to enter, so there would have been no issue apart from a shorter period of time if I had entered after 4.20pm.

In this case, an overzealous enforcement of a somewhat nonsensical rule meant that at least two sets of tourists were stopped from visiting a tourist attraction.