Resources For First Time Visit to Japan

Fushimi Inari Torii Gate - Kyoto, Japan (flickr:tombricker)

I am starting the final preparations for my trip to Japan.

I have been wanting to make this trip for a long time, so I made it one of my big goals for 2014.

The itinerary for the trip is going to be pretty straight forward. I am traveling during the last two weeks of July. My plan is to travel through Central Honshu between Tokyo, Kyoto, Kananzawa and back again to Tokyo. There will be other stops and a little bit of backtracking, but for the most part it will be a loop through those main cities.

I have done so much work preparing for the Japan trip that I thought I would share the resources that I have found most useful.

Travel Guides

The Rough Guide to Japan is by far the best overall travel guide to Japan. It provides over 800 pages of material in the kind of detail that I look for in a travel guide. I plan my own trips, routes, and destinations. Cities of all sizes are covered with recommendations for lodging, food and fun. Maps and insets with special interest topics are plentiful.

As a supplement, I also like Ben Stevens’ A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan. He organizes a couple hundred cultural touch points in a A-Z format starting with the infamous mistress Sada Abe and ending with the Japanese born Buddhist sect of Zen. The randomness and variety of Stevens’ anecdotes provide nice insights a Westerner would appreciate ahead of their visit.

On the even more niche side, as a fan of microbreweries in the US, I was concerned that I would be limited to Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo while I was in Japan. It turns out a ji-biru (micro beer) revolution underway and Mark Meli has created a wonderful English-language guide to the movement called Craft Beer in Japan. The guide starts with an explanation of how the craft movement has evolved in Japan and then a directory of breweries and specialized tap rooms by region. The beer themselves are rated by Meli and each has a short description. For me, this guide will be in heavy use on my trip.

My last mention is a few digital walking guides that I have found. White Rabbit has produced an outstanding audio tour of the otaku-geek haven of Akihabara. On iOS, you can download Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara inside the GuidGO app. Also on iOS, City Maps and Walks has over 450 GPS enabled walks with sight descriptions. I downloaded the set of Tokyo tours they have available.

Language

Being able to communicate in Japanese while I was there was important to me. What I didn’t know was the rabbit hole of language learning that I was fall into. There are so many products and opinions on the topic and I spent considerable time sorting through them to figure out what would work for me.

In the short term, I wanted to be able to speak for my trip, and I had a longer term goal to be able to read Japanese text in a variety of situations.

Here are few thoughts before I share what worked:

  • I wish the first thing that someone told me when I started was that languages are designed to be learned by listening to them. Think about how you learned your first language. The flash cards and grammar books came later attaching the symbols and structures to the language you already knew. So, find as many ways as you can to listen to the language you want to learn and follow that with finding lots of opportunities to speak it.
  • Whatever method you choose, you need to commit time to learning. It is like anything in life, you are going to make progress when you dedicate yourself. Whenever I did, I could see the improvement.
  • There are methods that you can use to accelerate how fast you learn. Do some digging into spaced repetition and its many flavors. It is amazing and it works.
  • There are a variety of opinions on how to approach learning a new language. For myself, I intend to only focus on Japanese. I also had only a hour or so a day to dedicate to the effort.

The first resource I would recommend Master Japanese by John Fotheringham. There are a lot of info products out there to help you learn a language. Most of them are a generalist guide to learning any language, full of motivation, goal setting and simple techniques to acquire the knowledge faster.

Master Japanese has all of that and much more. You get a 540 page ebook that is the most complete document I have been able to find on learning Japanese. The value for me was in the compilation and curation of resources available to learn Japanese, but the resource itself contains over 250 pages of instruction on the language itself. Most of what I suggest in both approach and resources came from John.

For me, I started with learning the Japanese alphabet. This is strongly supported in the Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever system. I decided to learn both the sounds and symbols found in hiragana and katakana. The best tool to for this is Anki, an open source flashcard system with built-in spaced repetition. The community has a huge catalog of free decks on everything from state capitals to multiplication facts. Hiragana with audio and Master Katakana (with audio) are the best decks to download and use for learning the alphabet. Each card has the symbol on one side and on the other side, the romanji (English) and audible sound for how it is pronounced. Anki will tell you automatically when you need to see a flashcard again based on how well you know them.

If you are like me, you will have a hard time associating those sounds with the symbols you are being shown. The first thing to do is visit Tofugu.com and download their Hiragana42 ebook (it is also available as a webpage). Seeing a wide range of mnemonics gave me a huge jumpstart in committing hiragana to memory. The master of this technique is James Heig and you might find his book Remembering the Kana a great resource. I also like The Hiragana Song by MissHanake.

At the same time (and I want to stress at the same time), I started listening to Pimsleur Japanese. The course is outstanding. They also uses the spaced repetition to improve recall over time and all of the material is built in the context of a conversation or exchange you would have with another speaker. There is a lot of call and response like you find in other audio programs.

Pimsleur has an extensive catalog of lessons. The complete course is 90 thirty minute sessions and costs around $300 for digital and closer to $700 for the discs if you buy direct. I was able to find the entire series at our library here in Portland.

Even with the other resources, I still felt like I needed a written guide to work from and I found the perfect companion in Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. The package I bought had a written guide and audio material to support it. This book was clearly written to teach language and the context for how to apply the language. The biggest benefit is material in the TYCJ matches well with the order in which material in presented in Pimsleur. The guide also uses conversation as the primary tool to teach vocabulary and usage.

The last piece of my language training has been listening to Japanese whenever I can. The language learning experts always recommend immersion and if you can’t visit the country, you can surround yourself with media that matches the language. I created a YouTube playlist of japanese music. I started renting Japanese anime on DVD from Netflix and watching with Japanese audio and english subtitles. If you are considering that route, I recommend Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Planetes as good place to start.

So, as I head into my trip, I would say that I am still at a very basic level of Japanese. When I started back in January, I would able to dedicate a significant amount of time to the alphabet and starting through the Pimsleur series. As we got further into the year, it was hard to trade-off language lessons with other commitments. In these couple weeks prior to the trip, I am focused back on it to see what else I can add before I leave.

Travel

Plane

We are incredibly fortunate to have a direct flight from Portland to Tokyo daily. The ticket price was only 10% higher than traveling through the alternative hubs. I am not much of a travel hacker, so I paid for the ticket outright. What I did do though was sign up for a Delta American Express card during a special promotion that got me a 50,000 mile signing bonus. I am already at 78,000 miles in my account and I should earn enough miles in the next 12 months for another ticket to Japan.

Train

Everything you read will tell you to get a JR rail pass before you get to Japan. If you plan to do travel between multiple cities, that is very good advice to follow. Start by checking out HyperDia, which is a a great English language timetable for Japanese trains. Check out the major legs of your trip and pay careful attention to the overall cost of the ticket. The total cost is the fare + the seat fee. The seat fee is the piece you might miss (I did) and it can be close to half the overall cost for the ticket. Also remember, the JR Rail Pass can also be used on local JR bus lines, the Tokyo monorail, and the Narita Express from the airport.

Lodging

I am mostly staying in hostels and ryokens while I am in Japan. Hostelworld was a great resource and had listings for most of the popular lodging choices in that market segment. I booked a number of locations using the site. The average cost is around $50/night for a private room with a single or double bed.

Technology

The biggest question was how to keep connected overseas. I wanted a better option than relying on computer cafes and hostel wifi. Having done regular international travel, purchasing a plan of any sort from your US based phone carrier is limited and expensive. The other options include renting phones or buying SIM cards with minutes and bandwidth if you have an unlocked phone.

I went for the Pocket MiFi option to give me more options with my phone and my iPad. I reserved mine with Global Advanced Communications. The unit I rented75 Mbps and 12 hours of battery life. You pick the unit up at the airport and they give you a prepaid envelope to ship it back when your trip is done. The 14 day rental works out to around $5.50/day, which seems reasonable for an always-on connection that you can carry with you.

I am bringing my iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. I am trying to travel with one bag and reduce weight as much as possible with the tablet while taking advantage of its longer battery life. As a test, I used this combo on a recent business trip to New York and it worked pretty well. The most important thing I found was that you have to have all of your needed files in the cloud. Evernote was a nice solution that let you both upload and create documents. Dropbox is also an option for files that you want to reference. The Logitech keyboard is a little smaller than normal but I found it very easy to work on.

The other miscellaneous recommendations I have are:

  • I love TripIt. You email all of your reservations to them and they organize in one place in an easy to read format. The app put the details on your phone and only a couple touches away.
  • I find I use my phone more when I travel and end up short on power by the end of the day. With an iPad, Mifi, and an unpredictable schedule, I decided to bring a backup battery – IntoCircuit Power Castle 11,200 mAh, a recent recommendation on Wirecutter.
  • My iPhone is going to be the primary camera on my trip. I like using other apps besides the standard camera.
    • There are bunches of apps that apply filters but Hipstamatic is still my favorite. I know it is a little slow. I know the skeuomorphic camera UI make is harder to take pictures. It doesn’t matter, I love the results. My favorites combos are Tejas with Ina’s 1969 for color and Watts with AO BW for black and white shots.
    • Camera+ is just nice to have for the easy control over focus and exposure. The number of ways you can edit is crazy.
    • On this trip, I am going to be testing a couple of apps for night time photography. SlowShutter and AvgCamPro are the top contenders.

If you find yourself making a trip to Japan, I hope these tips help a little with your planning.

P.S. Some of the links in the article are referral links to Amazon and other sources. The recommendations are what worked best for me.

I ♥ Kickstarter

Kickstarter’s cultural currency continues to rise. In the past few weeks, The crowd sourcing site announced it has collected over one billion dollars in pledges. The most highly funded movie in Kickstarter history, Veronica Mars, was just released. And with the Facebook’s two billion dollar acquisition of Kickstarter darling Oculus this week, questions are being raised about whether backers should compensated for their early support.

I believe I feel like most backers: I don’t pledge to take ownership in a project; I pledge to enable it. I consider myself a patron, someone who can validate an artist’s idea through declaring my interest and provide monetary support to bring that idea into the world.

I have backed over 70 projects in the last five years and it has been amazing to be a part of so many great ideas. Here are some of my favorites:

This is not a Kickstarter shirt

Kickstarter Shirt

Creating a Kickstarter shirt using Kickstarter was the brilliant idea of CEO and co-founder Yancey Strickler. The image came from the campaign itself. Of course, I was going to get one.

The Crabby Wallet

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Along with my iPhone and car keys, this is a part of my everyday carry with its ability to hold five or six cards. Love it.

The WINGstand

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Before my kids took primary ownership of my iPad, it was great to use the tablet with WINGstand to create another screen to work from.

Realizing Empathy

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This project is a little more special than most. Not only was I a backer, but I also served as the editor for the book. Slim put out a call to backers for help bringing the project from his RISD master’s thesis to a more accessible book for a wider audience. I am so happy with how it turned out and proud to have contributed in a small way.

The Bluer Denim Project

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There were several factors that drew me to this project. First, Bluer Denim is designed in Portland, one of the most active cities on Kickstarter. The second was their commitment to end to end manufacturing in the United States. The final piece was the direct connection to the maker as I bought my first pair of raw selvage jeans.

The Icarus Deception

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Seth Godin went to Kickstarter with his latest book project, Icarus Deception. I have been a fan of Seth since the Purple Cow milk carton, so there was only a split second of thought before I pledged at the No-Brainer level. This package included 8 copies of the book, a 12 pound book called THIS MIGHT WORK, an alphabet book illustrated by Hugh MacLeod, an audiobook LP and a handcrafted coffee mug.

The Smartest Shirt on The Planet

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I loved this project from the moment I heard out it. Garment veteran Steven Sal Debus developed a new fabric that uses eucalyptus trees rather than cotton. This result is less water used, virtually no chemicals added and the creation on a shirt that is naturally wicking and odor free. Even with the great pitch, the project didn’t get funded, earning only $8,000 of the $30,000 needed.

I was so impressed I tracked down the company in Canada and bought four of their prototype garments. I have been using two of them and they are as great as advertised.

It’s often said that many good ideas never get the traction they deserve. I can’t think of a better example.

Elevation Dock

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As another Portland based project, I bought into Elevation Dock along with the other 12,500 backers. This is a great product that is everything that it advertises. The trouble was I upgraded to the iPhone 5 and haven’t been willing to buy the upgrade kit for the lighting connector. This can be the tricky part of backing technology projects.

TRIMR Water + Shaker Bottle

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This is the latest project I backed and I already have the bottle. I like the mixture of features (though I have poured water on myself more than once while getting used to the straw nozzle).

Here are a few of my other favorites…

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And today, I supported another project.

I can’t wait to see it.

The 100 Best, Five Years Later

I walked into my local bookstore, Powell’s, recently and found a copy of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time on the shelf. I always appreciated the happy coincidence that since my co-author’s last name was Covert, the book was shelved between Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I like to think our book’s popular location helped its sales over the years.

This paperback copy had a small black mark on bottom face denoting its remaindered status. Powell’s had bought the copy from a company that specialized in overstock inventory. Publishers printing too many copies and selling off the excess might bother some authors, but for me, I always saw an opportunity. Not the first time, I tracked down the company and bought up all the copies I could find. At three dollars a piece, remaindered copies work great as gifts, marketing tokens, or a 300-page business card.

The existence of extra inventory might give you the impression the book didn’t do well. In the sum of its many forms – hardcover, digital, paperback and audio – The 100 Best sold over 45,000 copies. In foreign markets, we sold eleven deals for translation rights. In the first year, we earned back the six figure advance we had been paid and started earning money for both the publisher and ourselves.

The book is five years old now and it is hard to think of another project that had a larger effect on my life. Professionally, my career as an editor, an agent, a literary scout, and now a publisher, all materialized around the expertise shown in writing The 100 Best. People still marvel at how quickly Jack and I chose of the books (it took about 24 hours). They still measure themselves against the list, counting the titles they have read (the record is 92).

The first lesson I learned was that book concepts have to be simple. Our initial proposal was titled “Monday Morning: An Executive Guide to The Business Ideas That Matter.” The project was ambitious. Neither Jack and I were writers, so brought in a writer to develop the concept. The idea was to construct a series of chapter length essays that examined a topic like time management or customer relationship by a method of compare and contrast. We wanted to see if we could put Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey and David Allen in a mixer and say something interesting about results. When we completed the proposal and shared it with one of the top literary agents in the business books, his answer was very clear, “I don’t get it.”

We were pretty disappointed, I more than Jack. From the start, he thought the concept was too complicated. From the man who had been reviewing business books since 1981, I should have listened more closely to those early hesitations.

To be more accurate, I was devastated. I had put a lot of work into the proposal and put even more hope into the possibilities the project would open up. It took more than a year before we returned again to the idea of a book.

In December 2006, we gathered a wonderful group of authors and publishing professionals at 800-CEO-READ’s first Author Pow-Wow. Over dinner, I told Will Weisser, the associate publisher at Portfolio, about our crazy idea to write a book and asked him if he would read the proposal. He wasn’t sure about the concept either, but he agreed.

The holidays passed and Will came back with a familiar sentiment – “I don’t get it,” but he followed with a better question – “Why don’t you just do the 100 best business books of all time?”

I groaned aloud as I read his email. My response was “That’s already been done, multiple times.”

Will wrote back, “You are right, but almost all books have been done before. Just remember the iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player. If you get it right, you get to own the category.” I felt like the gauntlet had been thrown down.

We could do a book on the best business books but it was going to have to be different and interesting. The book would be based around reviews but the richness would come from connecting the books to one another. We would recommend books beyond the list of 100 books. There was be a choose your own adventure feature when you got to the end of each review. There would be “easter eggs” with suggestions for movies, novels and events that readers would also be interested. The book would more resemble a magazine more than a book with multiple points of entry for the reviews. I think it worked. The compliment we received over and over again was “This is better than I thought it would be.”

The 100 Best also showed me a hidden love for writing. In college, I prided myself on only taking two English classes enroute to getting my engineering degree. Looking back, I missed an opportunity to learn to express myself, to share my ideas, to determine what I believed. I would find my way to blogging almost ten years later as the way to finally start writing and that would lead to my job at 800-CEO-READ.

I was a hack though. I didn’t appreciate active verbs, the rhythm of a finely constructed sentence, or the drafts it takes to create good writing. We were so fortunate to have Sally, a wonderful editor, on staff who helped Jack and I through the dozens of reviews that needed to be written and rewritten. In the book’s acknowledgements, we described Sally’s multifaceted role as “editor, cheerleader, psychologist, humorist, and referee.” I would add “teacher” to that list. I am not the writer I am today with the book project or Sally’s involvement in it.

The most common question I get asked now is whether I would change anything. I tell people who ask I wouldn’t change a thing. I know they are asking about the list of books but I like to pretend that they see the bigger picture – the sweat, the missteps, and the joy that come from having created something that helps people just a little. 100BestBusiness150

My Three Goals for 2014

I talked with a friend the other day and she called me on how I had not posted my 2014 goals as I promised.

So let me fix that…

My three goals for 2014 are:

  1. Take a Trip to Japan and Learn Japanese – I have an inexplicable desire to go to Japan for years and this year I have decided to do something about that. The plane ticket to Tokyo has been purchased and I am going to be going for two weeks in July. When I get there, I want to be able to navigate in the native language, so my secondary goal is to be able to communicate in common situations.
  2. Publish Version 2.0 of Every Book Is A Startup – With the sad disbanding of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change effort, there was one small glimmer of opportunity. As the publisher for Every Book Is A Startup, they approached me about returning to me the rights to the book. I decided to take the opportunity, update the book, and republished it more widely.
  3. Launch a Publishing Company – This is the biggest project of the year, something I have been working on for over a year.

I will have more to say about all of these goals as the year goes on. Each one is very interesting to me. I am going to share my process and the learnings as I go.

#YearInReview 2013

In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped that year. I did the exercise in 2010 and 2012 and decided to do it again this year. I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for solopreneuers to see what they have accomplished.

  • The Phoenix Project (1/15/13) – We spent much of 2012 building on this project and I spent most of 2013 launching and spreading word of this book. We have sold 28,000 copies of The Phoenix Project and learned so much about shipping. We used Google Adwords to test titles and subtitles. We followed up with SurveyMonkey gathered invaluable feedback on the book and how we were promoting it, which lead us to a 3-day Free Kindle giveaway and 20,000 downloads. We have more planned for this book and another in 2014.
  • Year Two at NCNM – My wife spent the last 12 months in school full time studying Chinese Medicine. It was a lot of work
  • 1000 Lunches – With my wife in school, I am the primary person shipping three kids off to school every day and picking them back up. 200 nights of homework. 250 loads of laundry. This is a nod to everyone who is doing the same.
  • Monster Loyalty (5/2/2013) – I helped my friend Jackie Huba find a home for this project at Portfolio. It was great to see Jackie take her passion for Lady Gaga and expertise in marketing to create a great book.
  • Teaching Publishing at Wizard Academy (9/4/13-9/5/13) – I was honored to teach a wonderful group of authors in Austin. I shared the stage with my good friend Ray Bard and got to spend two days talking about what make book succeed.
  • I started a Zen Buddhist practice when we moved to Oregon in 2010. This year, I decided to take the next step in my practice and take a teacher. The most visible part of that choice was the three month process of sewing of a rakasu.

2014 is shaping already to be a big year. I’ll start to share those goals next week.