How to Prepare for a Trip to Japan

My wife has likely just sipped her coffee, logged onto the blog as she does every morning, and is now rolling her eyes. It is she who has to endure three weeks of my wondering aloud, “If I pack carefully and don’t take too many shoes, I probably won’t have to check a bag.” I frequently remind her that I can do 10 days in Asia on a mere 12 kilos of luggage, and not look like a rumpled sot. At this point, she usually finds something else to do, somewhere else in the house.

Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san) isn't the only cool sight in Japan. But it's still pretty cool.

Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san) isn’t the only cool sight in Japan. But it’s still pretty cool.

What can I say? I still get excited about my business trips to Japan. We rely heavily on Skype and email, like a lot of multinational companies. But sometimes there’s no substitute for being in the same room, seeing a process demonstrated in the factory, going to dinner, squeezing in a round of golf. I like the people I work with, and I love the country where they live.

But Japan takes a certain amount of preparation, whether it’s your first time or your tenth. It is a culture that presents itself in western clothing and modernity, but has not completely — or in some places, not even a little — turned its back on ancient ways and manners. And then there are the challenges of just knowing how to get around. Here are some random tips.

Prepare Your Body. Get rest in advance. Westbound from North America is not too bad, but the eastbound jet lag on the return will be awful. Count on about a day per time zone to feel completely normal again. That’s nearly two weeks; Japan is 13 hours ahead of eastern time during the summer.

Prepare for the Flight. Hydrate like water is on sale. You can’t drink too much. Wear comfortable clothing; you will expand during the flight. That goes especially for your feet. Wear shoes you can retie loosely. No big heels….nearly every international airport has a huge walk from the arrival gate to customs; I know this to be true of both Narita in Tokyo and Kansai near Osaka.

Prepare Mentally for the Journey. Going to Tokyo from the eastern U.S.? Count on 24 hours door to door, home to hotel. Unless you or your company are very wealthy, you’re not touching a bed all that time. Even if it’s a business class lie-flat bed, you’re in a room full of strangers. If, like me, you go on to central Japan, you have four more hours: train or bus to Tokyo Station, then bullet train (Nozomi) express to Himeji. If you’re on the west coast, it’s better; the typical Vancouver-to-Tokyo flight is about nine hours instead of 13 from Toronto. If you can find some business to do in cities on the way, do it. You get a night’s sleep and you break up the 28-hour sojourn into manageable chunks. It’s kind of like a decompression chamber for jet lag.

Gardens such as this one at Matsuyama Castle on the island of Shikoku are good for the soul.

Gardens such as this one at Matsuyama Castle on the island of Shikoku are good for the soul.

Slow your mind. Don’t yearn for the end. You know all that reading you’ve been meaning to do? Here’s your chance. Watch movies. But: important: don’t watch five in a row without a break. I did this once, and my eyes got so used to looking at the screen 14 inches away that when I stopped, the visual change made me suddenly and deeply nauseous. It took everything I had not to yark in the aisle. Take breaks; vary the activities. Listen to music, stare into space and think, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Be calm, find ways to be comfortable. Do not let ATP (aluminum tube panic) get a foothold.

Prepare Some Language. It is inaccurate to say that there is no individualism in Japan. There are plenty of individuals; they simply put the interests of the group first. This affects behavior everywhere, ensuring politeness everywhere from subways to men’s rooms to taxi cabs. Learn two key expressions: gomen nasai (GO-men nah-SYE) means “I’m sorry.” Use it quietly if you might have inconvenienced someone, even if you think you may not have anything to be sorry about. Related: summimasen (sue-me-mah-SEN), which means “Excuse me.” Very useful for the same reasons you would use it in English. You may hear it shortened to something like “zmasen.” A slight bow or nod with either of these shows some sensitivity that is often not expected from westerners.

Speaking of which, any effort to speak the language will be taken as a compliment. Thank you is arigato gozaimasu (ah-ree-GAH-toe go-zye-mahs; don’t worry about that final u), or arigato gozaimashite (past tense); just say arigato if this all seems tongue-twisty.

I can say without qualification that you will find the Japanese to be some of the kindest, most generous people in the world.

Prepare for Smaller. You don’t need as much room as you think. Your hotel room is not defective or substandard. It’s just smaller than you’re used to. Japan’s 128 million people have learned to live efficiently in 377,900 square kilometers, not all of it habitable. That’s an area smaller than California, which has about 38 million people.

Also, almost everyone you meet is going to be smaller than you. You will feel like the tallest, fattest person in the country. Don’t let this bother you. Your hosts don’t care.

Prepare to Be Amazed. There may be some slackers in Japan, but I haven’t met them. Even when people don’t particularly like their jobs, they try their best. The culture expects it of them. Many of them do like their jobs, and it shows. This is particularly true for food service. Your food will be diverse and fresh, prepared with great care.

Sooooo many tastes in here: noodles, vegetables, fish, broth, spices, all delivered in a hot stoneware bowl.

Sooooo many tastes in here: noodles, vegetables, fish, broth, spices, all delivered in a hot stoneware bowl.

If you have an intolerant palate, I feel sorry for you. But at least there is rice (gohan, pronounced GO-hahn), and many hotels have western breakfast buffets. If you have an adventurous palate, you are in for numerous treats. Amazing sushi that will ruin you for almost anything you will find in the U.S. is available nearly everywhere. Vegetables are abundant and tasty. Noodles are ubiquitous and come with tangy sauces. I could go on and on.

Know your limitations, though. You may encounter raw things, such as egg yolks, that you don’t eat at home. Proceed carefully. You haven’t lived until you’ve visited a drugstore and tried to explain diarrhea to three well-intentioned but confused clerks who don’t speak a word of English.

Make time to walk around. People walk in Japan. Public gardens are popular and peaceful. Most neighborhoods are very safe, too. Try to peel away a day for a quick train trip to the country, to a national park, to a seashore. Rent a bike. Ask people questions about the onions growing in their front yards. If they don’t speak English, smile, thank them, wave, bow, and pedal on.

Be courageous. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll end up at the end of a train line and have to go back. Well, O.K., you might need a room if there are no trains until morning, so make your nighttime mistakes in big and medium cities.

But make them. You won’t be sorry. Modern Japan is technology and temples, manufacturing and mochi candies, karate and kimono, looking forward and looking back. There is no place quite like it, and I am always glad to go back.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

Photographs by Adam Barr except for Mt. Fuji

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