Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Living in Thailand Taught Me

A friend of mine was lamenting about the language challenges of visiting Japan. As a result, he did not enjoy his travels to Japan. On the other hand, despite my lack of Japanese language skills, I loved my trip to Japan. I pondered about our two different reactions to the same circumstance.

My conclusion? Living in Thailand has made me more open to visiting a foreign country where English is not the first language and is not widely used by a wide majority of the locals. I admit it was tough going for me the first couple of months living in Bangkok. I remember my frustration during my first grocery shopping trip. I could not figure out the laundry detergent to buy for my top-loader washing machine because all the packaging was in the Thai language. Thankfully, I later found another supermarket that had small English labels on the shelf. There was another time when we were eating at a local open-air restaurant. As we were not well-versed with the Thai language at that time, we pointed to a dish that another patron was eating, thinking it was fried squid. When our dish came, it turned out to be fried intestine!

There are probably a dozen or more such stories - driving on an unfamiliar highway interstate and not being able to read the Thai detour directions, having to memorize a few local Thai dishes names so we could order at local shops when we travelled out of Bangkok, not being able to understand the commentaries when watching a Thai performance, etc, etc. As a result of having experienced first hand the language challenges of living in a foreign country, I think that I have become more accepting of people who don't speak English and perhaps, even more adaptable when visiting a country like Japan.

Live and learn!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Top 10 Tips for travelling in Japan

I just came back from two weeks in Japan - travelling the recommended route from Tokyo to Kyoto, with stopovers in Hakone (the land of Onsen) and Takayama (the land of Hida beef). It was one of my best holidays. Despite the language challenges, travelling in Japan on your own is very do-able. Here are my tips for travelling on your own in the Land of the Rising Sun:

View of Tokyo city from the Metropolitan Government Building

Lake Ashi, Hakone

Hida Folk Village, Takayama

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Before the Trip
1) Do your research before hand! This will help you decide on your itinerary and keep you posted on latest events.
- Go online to the travel websites - Frommers, Lonely Planet, Fodors,Japan National Tourism Organization,Japan guide
- Buy a travel guide book (it's worth the investment!)
- Visit the travel forums on the travel websites. You will find useful tips from the questions posted and answers provided by the regulars

2) Get accomodation reviews from Trip Advisor
- So far, I've not been disappointed by my hotel choices based on the reviews provided by Trip Advisor users.

3) If travelling by train, use Hyperdia to plan your travel times and budget.
- Note that the Japan Rail Pass may not be worth it if you don't make a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. Use Hyperdia to help you evaluate.

During your Trip
4) Use the Takkyubin (luggage forwarding services)
- If you have a big luggage bag, make use of this unique service to transport your luggage from the airport to your hotel and from one destination to another. This will save you the hassle of lugging your luggage up and down the stairs in the train stations and to your hotel. We used Yamato or Black Cat on our trip. Very reliable. You would need to pack one day's clothing with you as delivery is often the next day.

5) Buy a Japanese language pocket book
- This will help with basic communication. It came in handy for us in asking about food!

6) Wear comfortable walking shoes
- You will be doing lots of walking - Apart from walking for sightseeing, some of the major train stations like Shinjuku and Tokyo Stations are huge! So be prepared for lots of walking.
- If possible, wear slip on shoes and make sure your socks don't have holes. Some temples, shrines and even accomodations, especially Ryokans and inns require you to take off your shoes before entering. Slip ons are just more convenient.

7) Speak softly on trains
- The Japanese are by nature soft-spoken and polite. On trains, most Japanese don't carry out conversations. Instead, they read or play with their phone. In fact, we discovered that the Japanese love to use the flip phones, the reason being that the the longer phone allows them to speak closely (and hence, softly) on the phone!

8) Bring a large suitcase, if you're a foodie
- We came back with one suitcase filled with Japanese delicacies, ranging from soba to mochis and green tea Kit Kat! In fact, the food markets was one of our favourite places to visits - Tsukiji Market and surrounding shops in Tokyo and Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

Tsukiji Market surrounding area

9) Buy your duty free Japanese whisky and sake on your way in if you don't have a direct flight home. We found out the hard way and missed out on the Japanese whisky (which can only be bought in Japan) because we were transiting in another country.

10) Go with an open-mind!
- Be open to the culture, food and people. Visit the temples and shrines, markets and department stores. Go for a cultural performance and enjoy the street fashion of Harajuku. Try some unagi and black bean tea.

- Don't be afraid of the language barrier. You'll be amazed at the generosity and graciousness of the Japanese people. Sure, we had challenges in asking for directions at Shinjuku Station as not many people whom we asked could speak English well. But we also encountered a well-spoken Japanese young man who approached us whilst we were trying to decipher the map at Shinjuku Station and went out of his way to take us to the Metropolitan Government Building.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.

James Michener