Travel in Japan — Part 1.


Since we have been on this assignment here in Japan, we have had a lot of opportunities for international travel. We have gotten used to the routine of getting ourselves and our luggage to the airport, finding our flight, and managing ground transportation at our destination. Most everywhere we travel from here is at least a 10 to 13 hour flight. Those long hours on a plane are tedious, but we have figured out how to deal with it.

But, in this blog I’ll talk about shorter trips, and the modes of transportation that are available to us here in Tokyo and in Japan. In the US, we had cars that we depended on daily to take us where we needed to go. Here — with no Japanese driver’s license (and the unlikelihood that we will ever get Japanese driver’s licenses, as it is such an arduous and expensive process for Americans) — we have had to explore the other options for transportation:

On foot. Not exactly considered to be transportation, but we use this mode of travel the most. Even with all the other forms of public transportation here, this is the easiest and most convenient for us for shorter distances. We are, after all, just over a kilometer from the closest train/subway stop, so any trip we take always begins and ends with walking on foot. True enough, taxis abound, but should I make that daily trip to the supermarket in a taxi? I think not.


Bicycles. Bicycles are a popular mode of transport here, but we don’t have one. Most bicycles here are the very utilitarian style… meant for commuting and transporting packages and/or children. “Mamachari” (mommy chariot) bicycles are very commonly used by young mothers, and I have seen women in dresses and high-heels taking kids to school/daycare on their way to work — a baby in a front-pack, a toddler in the front kid-seat, and an older child in the back kid-seat. These are the “mini vans” for urban Japanese mothers! They are large, heavy, and sometimes have a power assist option with a battery powered motor to help get them started. Most bicycles ride on the sidewalks, so they compete for space with the pedestrian traffic. I have often been sideswiped and nearly flattened by sidewalk bicycle riders. “Sumimasen… Gomenasai!” (Excuse me… I’m sorry!)


Taxis. I will be brief here because my husband and I just don’t really take taxis very often, and generally prefer other forms of transport. But, the taxis here are numerous, and fairly reasonable in cost. There are many taxi companies, and you can find a taxi at just about any train station or major street corner. The cars are all very clean and maintained, and the drivers are usually wearing suits and white gloves. The taxi doors open and close automatically, so don’t yank on the door handles. Wait for the driver to open the door for you. And the best part? You pay what the meter says — NO tipping.

Buses. There are many buses in Tokyo, and all over Japan for that matter. City buses, tour buses, and regional “highway buses” traveling between cities. We don’t often take the buses because we prefer traveling by the trains, but buses are a very popular option here. Train/subway routes can take you to a general area within Tokyo, but buses fill in the gaps. Some bus lines have a “per-trip” fare, and some charge by distance. Most will take the same IC rechargeable fare cards — and in fact, most of the buses and trains in Japan will all take the same IC cards, so when we travel to other cities, we can usually use the same cards as here in Tokyo. Cash is also accepted, and some buses have change machines on board.

Trains. There are myriad types of trains in Japan! Here in Tokyo, the two major types are “densha” — above ground electric trains — and “chikatetsu” — below ground subway trains. But, in addition, there are monorail trains (one runs right by our apartment, and connects Haneda Airport with Hamamatsucho train station), the Narita Express to Narita Airport, and other express or limited express trains traveling to suburban Tokyo. Between the cities, are regional trains, and the high-speed “bullet” train, the Shinkansen. All of these trains make travel around Tokyo — and around all of Japan — easy, convenient, and (for the most part) pleasant. The trains are clean, and well-maintained, and run (always) on schedule. It is a very dependable mode of transportation in Japan… with the only possible downside being that at rush hour, they can be very, very crowded. So crowded, in fact, that some of the stations employ white-gloved “pushers” to shove people into the train cars so that the doors can close.



Shinkansen. I know that I already mentioned the Shinkansen above, but I feel it deserves a little more attention. It is without a doubt the premier mode of long-distance travel inside Japan. The trains are fast — about 200 mph. The cars are clean and comfortable with plenty of legroom and space for luggage. They don’t go to all locations in Japan, but connect most of the major cities. True, airplanes fly faster, but with the Shinkansen, you don’t have to get to the airport 2 hours ahead of your flight to check-in and go through security. You can, actually, arrive at the station just ahead of your train time… forget security lines! But, don’t dare be late, because you WILL miss your train. They run ON SCHEDULE. Some stops along Shinkansen routes are very brief, so be ready to grab your luggage and get out the door. No dawdling here! Alas… the major downside of the Shinkansen is that it can be pretty pricey. Yes, it is usually cheaper to fly for the longer distances inside Japan.


Air Travel. I will leave this for Part 2 of the blog. There are many differences here between domestic air travel and international air travel. My husband and I just flew to Fukuoka and back, last week, and I will devote the next blog to talking about that trip.

Visiting Nagasaki

Nagasaki is a city rich in history that dates back hundreds of years.  We recently had an opportunity to visit this fascinating Japanese city. Here’s a quick look at this coastal city.

We arrived in Nagasaki via expressway bus from Hakata Bus Terminal in Fukuoka. Bus travel is a good choice in Japan. Buses are clean, convenient, and almost always on time. Buying bus tickets at the station was an easy process, with most signs in English. The friendly staff person spoke a little English, and with our limited Japanese, we purchased tickets with no problem at all. Our bus was a “Super Express” – only one stop between Fukuoka and Nagasaki Station, a trip of about two hours.

Our hotel was the JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki, just steps from the bus and train station. As usual in Japan, the hotel staff was friendly, and spoke a little English. Rooms are a little bigger than typical Japanese hotels, and we found it to be a comfortable and convenient place to stay.

Getting around Nagasaki is easy. We bought a day pass for the street car, which at 500 yen provides unlimited use. The street car has routes convenient to many attractions in the city. There are also a multitude of buses and taxis available, which we didn’t find a need for.IMG-4561

There are many things to see in Nagasaki. Of course, there is the Peace Park, atomic bomb hypocenter monument, and the Atomic Bomb Museum. These provide a powerful and sobering view of the human tragedy of the atomic bombing on Aug. 9, 1945. Perhaps if everyone could see this, there would be more willingness to abandon the weapons that can cause this kind of suffering.

Aside from the Peace Park, there are more uplifting things to see and do. We enjoy seeing temples and shrines, and there are a multitude to visit in Nagasaki. Fukusai-ji Temple is home to the world’s third longest Foucault Pendulum. Sanno Shrine has a one-legged torii gate and huge camphor trees that survived the atomic bombing. Many, many others provide historic perspective. There is also the Meganebashi (“Spectacles” Bridge), and other stone bridges across the river. And Mt. Inasa, with a 333 m peak offering spectacular views of the city and the sea. A ropeway cable car to the top is about 1200 yen round trip.

Nagasaki offers a friendly, amazing experience for visitors. It’s another great place to visit in Japan.

Running in Tokyo.

My husband an I are both fitness runners, and have been for many years. I have wanted to do a blog on running here, so this morning with camera in hand, I went for a run. Apologies for the phone camera photos.

This blog will mostly be photos of my usual running route. Since we live close to Tokyo Bay on one of the artificial islands, we usually run along the walkways that go along the canals between the islands. It is a pleasant — and less crowded — place to run than the sidewalks. Take a look…

Not all the canals have walkways, and not all are connected, but this is where I start my run. The man under the bridge is fishing. There are many huge fish in the canals.
Considering that Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world… this is pretty empty.
Lots of ducks and other water birds live on the canals.
This is a floating bridge under the roadway bridge, and goes up and down with the tides. 
I usually run about 2.5K down to this park, then take the pedestrian bridge in the photo to turn back toward home. More ducks and cormorants… 
This park was one of our grandson’s favorites when he visited with his mom and dad last month. It has a “river” that the kids all like to splash around in. 
We call this the “Miffy Park” because of the sculpted topiary, and today I got to see the woman who keeps the bushes trimmed!
Such a pretty little park to run through.
Across the bridge and past the baseball fields…
This part of my route runs along the street… with an elevated highway on one side, and the monorail tracks on the other.
There is another park between the apartment high-rises. All the parks here have functional drinking fountains, and CLEAN and well-stocked restrooms… but no trash cans… And no trash.
Day-cares and preschools bring the kids to the parks and along the canals almost everyday for playtime. The railings along the canals are all “kid-safe” so no one ends up in the canal.
The monorail passing overhead at the park. This train goes all the way to Haneda Airport, and passes by our apartment every 4 minutes during the day.
After running through the park, I cross the street and run along this sidewalk back to the canal. Pretty azaleas today…
Back on the canal (the other side) and heading toward home. The Japanese are very sun-conscious, and tend to cover up more when they run… even in the warm weather. All  the sunscreen I have seen here is SPF 50 or higher.


The walkway on this canal ends here in this pretty garden. The hydrangeas are all starting to bloom.
A construction wall along the street… with a nice mural.
I really like the attitude that the Japanese people have toward nature and the environment. I wish everyone was so respectful of nature.
One last loop around one of the smaller islands and then home again. I can see this spot from my apartment window. Under the monorail bridge they have nesting and roosting platforms for the water birds. Not many ducks stay here during the warmer months though. It is crowded with several species of ducks — and many cormorants — during the winter.

There are lots of places to run in Tokyo besides the canals where we usually run. Running is very popular here. We often see “running clubs” out and about on the weekends. There are many large parks and gardens to run in, and the outer perimeter of the Imperial Palace is almost exactly 5 kilometers, so it is often used for 5K runs and races (future blog post!) Down near the Imperial Palace, which is close to the Ginza and Shimbashi areas of Tokyo, there are actual running stores that provide shower and changing facilities for people to use during their lunch hours or after work. These stores will even rent shoes and running attire if you don’t feel like bringing your own from home. It is a nice fitness/exercise option for those workers who commute in from outlying parts of Tokyo.

So if you plan to visit Tokyo, make sure to bring your running shoes and try it out!


Nihongo ga wakari masu ka?

Nihongo ga wakari masu ka — Do you understand Japanese?

Japan, written in Kanji, one of three character systems use in Japanese writing.

After living in Tokyo for two-and-a-half years, I can answer sukoshi — a little. Far less than I would like. I somehow had the idea that if I were immersed in the culture, with a little study the language would just come to me.


Learning any foreign language is hard, particularly for someone like me who never really studied another language before. I grew up in the midwestern United States in the 1960s. My parents never traveled internationally…they seldom left our small midwestern city. I never considered the need to learn any other language. I was an American, and I spoke English. What more could I need? With some careful planning and scheduling, I managed to go all the way through college without ever taking a foreign language course. A fact I have since come to recognize as a huge mistake.

When I started to travel internationally nearly 20 years ago, I tried learning a little of the language where I would travel. Je parle un peu francais.  Ya nemnogo govoryu po russki. Hablo un poco de espanol. Perhaps because I once was pretty accomplished in music, I could memorize phrases fairly well. So I’ve learned to say a few things in several languages…just nothing that lets me have a reasonable conversation with a 5-year old in any language.

Then I came to Japan. A chance to study a bit more seriously. Actually be in the culture and use what I learn. And I have learned a lot. But still can’t have an intelligent conversation with a 5-year old. Maybe some day.

What I have learned is how to adapt to not being conversant in a language. I know enough Japanese to survive at the grocery store, restaurant, and occasionally I do have short and conversations in Japanese. Fortunately, the Japanese people are very patient with foreigners, and by mixing my limited Japanese, their limited English, and a lot of pointing and gesturing, things usually work out. Through this experience, I certainly have a lot more empathy for people who go to the US and don’t speak fluent English.

I’m still studying Japanese, and making slow progress. It’s an interesting language, and certainly challenging. Before I leave here, I hope to be able to have that conversation with a 5-year old. Just as long as he or she speaks very slowly.

How to be (a little) less Gaijin.

Simple rule in Tokyo — Stand on the left, walk on the right

In Japanese, the word for a “foreigner” is Gaikokujin, a somewhat formal term used by the government and news media. More informally, you’ll sometimes hear the term Gaijin, often used in connection with a foreigner who is mindlessly doing something that contradicts Japanese etiquette.

As a temporary resident of Japan, I try to avoid having Gaijin moments. Trying to understand the culture and avoid social faux pas is important any place, and particularly in a country that places such high value on manners and respect.

The following are some observations I’ve made to help avoid being labelled as a Gaijin.

  •  Escalator etiquette. In Tokyo, it’s customary to stand on the left of an escalator, leaving space on the right for people who want to walk. It’s a sure Gaijin sign to stand on the right, or, more egregiously, to stand on one side and allow your luggage to block the other. But note that in Osaka and Kyoto, everyone stands on the right. I’ve read various reasons for the difference. When in doubt, be observant and follow the crowd. And also… be mindful of the queue. Don’t cut in line.
  • Train talk. The trains in Tokyo are often very crowded. But even with space at a premium, you’ll notice that the trains are very quiet. Seldom do you hear loud conversations, and there are signs that request that you mute mobile phones and avoid talking on the phone. Usually loud talking is coming from some Gaijin group, clueless that they are the only ones making noise.
  • More about trains. With space at a premium, you’ll see that locals in Tokyo do their best to be space-efficient. People sit in one space, and keep hands, feet, and other body parts from slopping into the next person’s space. That said, there are times during rush hours when your space and the next person’s space does tend to merge. I’ve found that there is never a full train in Tokyo. Just when you think another person can’t possibly get on board, five more people will push themselves in. At rush hour, there are actually official “pushers” – all wearing white gloves – stationed on the train platforms in order to “push” people into a crowded train so that the doors can close. About the only non-Gaijin way to react is to take a deep breath and try to think as skinny as possible… and try not to complain about being more up-close-and-personal with your fellow passengers than you might ever want to be.
  • Eating and drinking. Japan has a wonderful selection of food and drink. DSCF0981That’s the good news. For Westerners, the bad news is that it’s frowned upon to eat and drink while walking down the street – and smoking and walking is a definite no-no! Unless you’re at a festival, most of the time you don’t see people eating at places other than in restaurants, or just outside of a convenience store – and smoking is prohibited except for designated “smoking areas.”  And almost no one ever eats or drinks on the subways and city trains, which is probably one reason the trains stay so clean.
  • And speaking of clean… It is rare to find a public trash receptacle in Tokyo. They are almost non-existent. Yet, there is very little trash on the streets of Tokyo. Japan, overall, is probably one of the cleanest, least trashy countries you will ever see. Part of the culture here is respect for others. Throwing trash on the ground or in the streets is disrespectful to the millions of other people inhabiting this city – and this country – and hey… this planet! People take their trash with them until they can find a proper place to dispose of it. This would be a good lesson for the rest of the world… seems to me.
  • Schedules. The Japanese tend to be very prompt, and everything works on schedule. I once saw a news article where a train company was apologizing because a train left the station 20 seconds ahead of schedule. It’s a definite Gaijin moment if you arrive late to a meeting or other scheduled event.
  • Hashi (chopsticks). Chopsticks are the normal utensils for eating in Japan, and they really aren’t hard to learn to use. But, it’s considered rude to pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another, or to grab a bowl with chopsticks and move it. Pointing at someone with your chopsticks is also bad manners. And don’t ever stand chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, or make an “x” with them, as it is similar to a ritual performed at funerals and considered quite inappropriate.


In the course of your time in Japan, you are bound to have a Gaijin moment or two. For the most part, Japanese people are tolerant and polite, and almost never criticize or vocally reprimand Gaijin behavior. As I continue to learn about this fascinating culture, I hope to learn some of the less obvious customs and practices. And with thought and a little good luck, I’ll keep the Gaijin moments to a minimum.


Ramblings on travel…

Recently, I’ve had an opportunity for several international flights. Although it’s always interesting to be in different places, the travel to and from can sometimes be tedious. Here are some random observations I’ve made during my recent travels. IMG_0223

  • Boarding an aircraft doesn’t have to be traumatic. Some airlines seem to delight in having a complicated, multi-phased boarding process. As a result, boarding seems to take forever. Others keep it simple, and people just get on the plane.
  • Business class is really nice. IMG_4258Normally, my company pays for the least expensive economy class tickets, and for our trips back to the US, we get premium economy. On rare occasions, when there are back-to-back international trips with no rest time in between, my company will provide business class tickets. It is much more comfortable. More space. Better food. And you can actually totally recline the seat to sleep. Very nice, but worth the thousands of dollars in extra costs? I’d have to say no.
  • Some people just can’t seem to avoid being annoying. When you jam several hundred people into a small cylindrical space, having common courtesy and respect for your fellow travelers is important. But for some, it is seemingly impossible. On a recent flight, one passenger talked incessantly from the time he was in line to board, throughout the 13-hour flight. His voice was several times louder than necessary to reach his seatmate. Even noise cancellation headphones — and the annoyed glances of his fellow passengers — didn’t stop the drone.
  • Flight attendants, by and large, do a good job. You sometimes hear about incidents where flight attendants have been real jerks. But in my experience, they work very hard to make flights as pleasant as possible. Crews on Asian airlines — JAL, Korean Air, ANA — are particularly courteous and hard-working.
  • Sometimes, the best travel choice isn’t an airplane. For travel inside Japan, the Shinkansen is a fast, smooth, and comfortable (although notIMG_4513 inexpensive) means of travel. We’ve also had good experience with the high-speed trains in Spain and South Korea. Using the train avoids all the inconvenience of airport security, and the trains tend to run right on schedule, particularly in Japan. Once on board, there is a lot of legroom and comfortable seating. One lesson we learned is to buy Shinkansen tickets a bit in advance on holidays. For one trip, we bought tickets with no reserved seats. Because it was a holiday weekend, there were no seats and we stood for an entire 90+minute trip across the countryside.

Travel often poses challenges, surprises, and downright inconveniences. I’ve found the best approach is to plan ahead, then be flexible and keep a sense of humor.  Things don’t always go as planned, and that can be annoying. But if you have the right attitude, you’ll find that the surprises and adaptations often make for the best stories to tell in years to come.


Baby Ducks…

It has been a busy spring and we have been away from the blog for a few weeks. My husband was gone on business for a couple of weeks, and after that we had friends and family come to town, so we played tour guides. Our kids and our grandson visited, and we got in some fun babysitting time and playground time while the grownups did… grownup things. Then we had a week back in the US for our youngest daughter’s graduation. Now as the schedule settles back to normal for awhile, we are heading from early spring toward another hot and humid Tokyo summer.

One of our hobbies here is bird watching. Something that I also enjoyed back in the US, but it is a new hobby for my husband. Living so close to the bay, we mostly see water birds here — ducks, gulls, and cormorants. In the winter, we have many different species of ducks that live sheltered along the canals. But these ducks start moving on to their breeding grounds in early, early spring, leaving behind a contingent of Spotbill ducks that prefer to hatch and raise their babies along the canals.

And so it is that we are now seeing the first ducklings on the canals. I went out for a run earlier this week, and spotted two batches of baby ducks sitting on the riprap where the effluent comes in from the water treatment plant. The ducks love this location so much, that we have come to call it the “Duck Bridge” during the summer months. (Although, at night we call it the “Bat Bridge” because so many bats fly and swoop around it, and in the winter — along with the many species of wintertime ducks — it is the “Seagull Bridge” because of the huge flotilla of gulls that like to hang around there.)

We always look forward to baby duck season on the canal, and we see babies of various ages all through the summer and even into early fall. Lots and lots of little Spotbills get their start along these canals. The two batches of babies I saw on Monday, were probably about a week apart in age. There were four in the older bunch, and nine(!) freshly-hatched babies in the younger group.

Alas — nature can be cruel, and on Tuesday, I could see there were fewer babies in the younger group. I couldn’t count them accurately, because they were still sheltering under mama duck most of the time. Such tiny little babies often fall prey to the predators along the canal. There are Black Kites flying among the high-rise buildings, and cormorants that could easily snatch a tiny baby duck or two. Also, we see many large fish in the canal, so the tiniest baby ducks often have a tough time surviving.

Today, as I walked along the canal, I found the older group of four baby ducks sitting on the rocks, but only one of the younger ducks was out on the rocks. Maybe they were there somewhere — resting on the rocks in a sheltered place where I couldn’t see them — while their one brave sibling sat all alone on top of the rocks. I hope they were still there somewhere, but I am doubtful.

Life can be harsh, and I am sad about the loss of this first batch of babies, but I am sure we will be seeing many more baby ducks here this season.