Welcome to the second instalment of our guide on how to survive in Japan. You can find the first instalment here.
So by now you’re a pro at whizzing around Tokyo on a train… but where should you stay, where should you eat, and how do you actually find stuff when you’re on foot? We’ll cover these questions in this instalment.
By all means, book a room at the Hyatt in Shinjuku. You can even ask for the room they used for Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (for a not-insignificant extra cost of course!). But there are lots of much cheaper options, and let’s face it, you’re not going to Japan just to hide out in the hotel all day.
There are lots of hostels which cater for western tourists, and they can be as cheap as $25 a day. Being Japan, they’re usually spotlessly clean, have honest and English speaking staff. Try to pick one that is relatively in the middle of Tokyo, it’ll save time when you’re travelling, and that can make a big difference. The hotel above is in Jimbocho, which is perfect for getting around.
But before you leave your hotel to check out that GT-R parked down the road (and take it from us, Japanese car owners don’t like it when you start licking their cars), you’re going to need a primer on the Japanese address system. Firstly, it’s awful. Even Japanese people will tell you that.
A typical Japanese address looks like this: 〒124-0022 東京都葛飾区奥戸7-15-8
The first batch of numbers after that T-shaped thing is basically the post code. The last set of numbers are the most important, because Japanese addresses are not based on street and numbers, they use a grid system. The 7 is the house number on a particular block. The 15 is the number of the block in that suburb. The 8 is the suburb. The problem is this…the numbering is not sequential, ie no.7 is between no.8 and no.9, etc. The numbering is based on when that particular building was built. So no.7 is actually between no.26 and no.45. The same thing applies to the block number, they are not laid out in any particular order and unless you have an overhead map that shows where block no.15 is, you’re screwed. So the western practice of walking down a particular street, looking for a particular building isn’t going to work, because Japanese addresses don’t use the street as a reference, and most streets don’t even have a name as a result.
So, rather oddly, in Japan the actual address of a place is not of much use. Which is why all Japanese businesses have a pictorial map of their location, like so. What it actually says, is that the shop is right next to a Volvo dealership, across the road from a petrol station and a hardware store, and is a few hundred metres near a bridge that crosses a river. The idea is that you get yourself into the general vicinity, and then use the map to narrow it down. This is not just for tourists, the Japanese often print a map like this on the back of business cards and as you walk around Japan you will often see businessmen walking around, staring at the back of a business card wondering where the hell it is that they’re supposed to go. So if you don’t have any English instructions on how to get somewhere, then you really do need to figure out where you want to visit, and print these maps out beforehand. This is what you hand to a taxi driver, and it’s a great idea to ask your hotel staff to translate some of the landmarks for you too, and while you’re at it, ask them to figure out what the nearest train station is. There are lots of Japanese websites they can look up for you and they can even print out a list of which trains to take and where to swap lines for the fastest route.
So getting around isn’t difficult, but you do have to be organised. And (unfortunately!) it really isn’t as simple as jumping in a taxi and saying “take me to Re Amemiya!”
Ok. Let’s eat. At train stations and on the street, you see a lot of lunch-type joints where you eat at a counter. These are really popular and great for travellers since they often open late, and you will find katsu curry and rice joints, ramen joints and beef-bowl joints. They’re pretty cheap at about $6 for a meal but a lot of people find the ordering system confusing. But you gotta eat, right?
Most of these joints in the cities will have a machine like this. Sometimes they will have pictures of each dish, but sometimes they will just have text (in that case the popular dishes are usually at the top left!). Pick your dish, pop in some money and it’ll spit out a ticket. Wait until a seat frees up at the counter and hand over your ticket, and your food will usually be served pretty quickly (Japanese lunch breaks are pretty short).
Lots of people work late and then eat at these places so often they have the nicest food, and especially if you like your ramen, you will have to use these machines a lot. Especially in the eating places close to a station. Also one of the things that will strike you when you walk around is the preponderance of drink vending machines. They are everywhere, on every train station platform around every street corner and generally if you are more than 200metres away from a drink vending machine, then you really are in the middle of nowhere!
They sell hot and cold drinks, and the range on offer extends from the usual fizzy soft drinks to hot and cold coffee in a can (remarkably good) and even hot soup. Spending way too much money on vending machines and overdosing on shots of canned coffee is part of the whole experience, and it beats Starbucks anyday!
The one on the left is corn soup by the way. And yes there’s tons of corn kernels inside. And it comes out of a vending machine.
Generally speaking, food in Japan isn’t too expensive (the tonkatsu meal on the left for example was $13 per person). As a rule of thumb, any place that looks like you’d conceivably go there for lunch won’t be more than say $25 (usually a lot less). The only food that generally tends to cost more than expected, is Yakitori (below). It’s barbequed food on a stick, and usually marinated in a tasty bbq sauce. It’s the perfect food to go with beer, and yakitori joints come in all shapes and sizes, from back alleyway holes in a wall, to quite fancy restaurants. The one thing they have in common is that a Yakitori meal tends to drag on and on as you order more sticks of food and more drinks, and so while the food doesn’t look expensive, space is at a premium in Japan and so you do pay for the privilege of clogging up their restaurant for so long!
But if all this talk of food doesn’t turn you on because you plan to maximise your car parts budget by living on water and air as much as possible, then we can understand. If this is the case, then the friendly neighbourhood 7-11 is your friend. You can find snacks like sushi for as little as a buck (the triangular kind has varieties with fish and meat inside and it does a great job of filling you up) and JDM convenience stores sell beer too, for only US$1.50 a can. So even if you end up malnourished, at least you’ll be hammered.
Finally, money. For some reason the currency exchange counter at Narita airport never gives you a good rate. So now, we don’t bother buying Japanese yen at the airport, and instead we make a beeline for the ATM at a western bank (same PIN and everything). You should check with your own bank before coming to Japan, but we found that most ATM’s currency rate was usually about 10% better than the airport. Of course, we could only withdraw as much money as our regular bank daily account limit will allow. You also get to feel really rich for a short time, as the ATM gives you your bank balance in yen!
So now you’ve got yourself somewhere to crash, you’re cashed up, you’ve mastered the art of the train, you can find even the most fiendishly hidden-away tuner in a back alley, and you won’t starve.
In the next instalment we’ll cover the car stuff: how to buy parts, visit tuners and car shows.