I'll continue with the recap of Kyoto next week but wanted to take a break and talk about general travel stuff.
Getting to Japan
We started the journey flying from Kansas City to Chicago. In Chicago we boarded our 15-hour flight on ANA (a Japanese airline). We had just booked through expedia and picked the best deals and weren't sure what to expect on this airline. As we lined up to board in Chicago we were definitely some of the only non-Japanese people getting onto the flight. That flight ended up being one of the best I have ever been on. The flight attendants were amazingly sweet. Part way through the flight they asked if this was our first trip to Japan. We said it was and then watched as all of the attendants gathered in one of the common areas and talked for a while - one of them occassionally looking up at us and smiling. A little while later they came over with postcards they had filled with all of their favorite places to go in Japan and things we couldn't miss.
The food was wonderful. Airline food. Wonderful. Our seats each had a tv that not only had movies and TV shows (both Japanese and American) but video games to learn Japanese! I don't know how anyone was hungry after the meals but if you were there was a snack bar set up in the common space.
On the way home our flight was a jarring, crowded mess on United. The staff was unfortunately some of the least friendly I've ever seen, the food was typical airline food etc. Completely unpleasant compared to our ride to Japan.
If you can fly ANA, I absolutely recommend it.
Getting around Tokyo
As I mentioned in my first Tokyo post, we took the Narita Express from the airport into Tokyo. While we were in Tokyo we walked alot - but the city is huge and we used the train to get from one major area to another.
Tokyo subway map
At first glance, theTokyo subway was by far the most confusing I've ever seen. At the same time it is also the cleanest, most promt and organized I've ever seen. Once you get a hang of the map it's fairly easy to get around - just be patient and leave yourself a lot of time to get where you're going. Especially if you go through stations like Shinjuku (where we would go in the station and by the time we got on our train we had walked -underground- to an entirely different station)
Getting around Japan
After reading quite a bit about the national trains and taking into account all of the trips we'd be making in between cities, it definitely made sense for us to purchase a JR (Japanese Rail) Pass. These are only available to people that live outside Japan and you MUST purchase them ahead of time, outside the country. Once inside Japan you exchange a voucher for your pass (we did this at the airport) and then activate your pass on the day you want to start using it. We were in the country nine days and had bought a seven day pass that we didn't want to start using until the third day if that makes sense. At one point we tried to figure out how much we saved using this pass and it was definitely at least half of what individual tickets would have cost - if not less.
The JR Pass website is extremely easy to use and made it clear how to use the pass, it's limitations etc. Hand in hand with that website is Hyperdia, a timetable/trip planning website that allows you to put in your current location and destination and it will give you the trains, times etc. This is a great video on how to use Hyperdia with your JR Rail Pass. I downloaded the Hyperdia app on my iphone and it was really useful as we made our way around.
We used the Shinkansen (bullet train) between a few of our major locations and smaller trains between others. We had an excellent experience with the trains and would absolutely do the same thing if we go back to Japan.
I will say that packing lightly (we backpacked) was nice on the trains. Some, like the Shinkansen, were spread out with assigned seats and plenty of room for bags. Others ended up being fairly crowded and I was grateful we didn't have large wheel suitcases to drag along.
my travel tool (iphone) and my husband's (obsessively precise maps)
iphone in Japan
Speaking of apps, I did bring my iphone with us. We didnt plan on using the phone for calls or texts but absolutely thought it'd be valuable to have along for google maps etc. We purchased an international data plan from our carrier (AT&T) that had a limited amount of data - we went with 125 mb. They showed us how to monitor the usage to be sure we didn't go over (it'd be a very pricey mistake!) When we arrived in Japan I turned my phone on and it took a few minutes but finally found the network and was all set. For the first few days we were careful to use it as little as possible but once we realized we weren't using that much data, we used it as a map (holla gps, I love you) and to email some photos back to our families every few days. We also used it to look up the occassional Japanese word we wanted to learn. And maybe I checked facebook a couple of times. Maybe.
Granted we stuck to pretty major areas and cities, but we always had a great signal and no problem using the gps.
Other apps we used -
JPhrases Free I used this language app before we left to lean some key words and phrases. There are alot of similar apps out there but I liked the way this was set up.
trains.jp We only used this a few times in Tokyo if we were unsure about the subway map. We could put in our current station and where we wanted to end up and it tells you the most direct way. It doesn't have timetables, which would be helpful.
Currency Ok, this one is frustrating. We downloaded this ahead of time - a quick calculator to change yen to dollars. When we arrived in Japan we attempted to use it and it never worked (despite saying it did not need any internet connection etc - which we had if it did need it!) Basically a waste, if you can find a better one I'd recommend whatever that is:)
Before we left my husband went a little nutty on google maps. Worried that the iphone wouldn't work, he printed out maps for all of the major sites we were going to. He highlighted the paths we should walk and used the satellite street view to create landmarks for himself. Most of the maps would have English spellings for the major streets but not the smaller ones (and some places had very few street signs) so the landmarks helped. It was almost bizarre walking around with him because despite never setting foot in the country he'd say things like 'we're going to need to turn right up at that orange sign and then there will be a wood building around the corner'. Personally, I would have hated doing what he did because it's like a preview of everything you're going to see! But I won't lie, it was handy to have those navigation tools around.
The Japanese people were so, so friendly and absolutely helpful. In more than one train station we had people approach us and ask if there was anything they could help us find (apparently the blonde and the 6'-1" guy stood out?) When we were a little turned around we never hesitated to gently ask a passing local if they could help. Even when the language barrier was a problem, they were always very polite.
It's intimidating to try and get around a whole new country but I definitely say don't worry, do your research and you'll have a great experience.