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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.