Before the Trip
You must have a passport to enter Japan. Confirm that yours is active and has an expiration date at least six months after your departure from Japan at the end of our trip.
A 90-day tourist visa is automatically granted to U.S. or Canadian citizens. If you are a citizen from another country, please check with the Japanese consulate about visa requirements. If necessary, I will be happy to write a letter on your behalf for the purposes of obtaining a visa. However, you are responsible for securing a visa in a timely manner prior to our departure.
Guests are not easily accommodated during our trip. As an educational experience for credit, participants must enroll with the Learning Abroad Center, and pay the necessary fees and obtain international health insurance as other participants. Japan is an incredibly dense country, making travel with large groups and finding large blocks of hotel rooms difficult. If you would like to a family member or friend not enrolled in the trip to join you, I recommend that your guest arrange to meet you after the conclusion of our class.
You are responsible for purchasing your own round-trip ticket. Please arrange your flight to arrive on the scheduled day (see Schedule for details). Your departure date should be on or after the scheduled class conclusion (you may travel further after the completion of the course, however, the university will no longer be responsible for your welfare). After you have purchased your ticket, please notify me of your airline(s) and the dates and times of your flights.
The Japan Rail Pass is an incredibly economical way to travel long distances in Japan. The rail pass is only available to tourists, and may not be purchased in Japan. Therefore, you must purchase an exchange voucher prior to your departure from the U.S., which you will exchange for a rail pass in Japan. You may purchase a 7-day rail pass voucher from a company like Kintetsu International—please buy the Tourist (Ordinary) Class pass and not the Green (First) Class pass, which is unnecessary.
At least one day before our cross-country trip in Japan, you will need to exchange your voucher for the actual rail pass. Take your voucher and passport to one of the larger JR stations (Ueno being the closest to our hotel), and find the Travel “view” office. Make sure to confirm the start date of your pass with me.
As the common travel wisdom dictates, lay out everything you think you will need for the trip, then remove half of it before you pack. If there is any destination that merits packing light, it is Japan. Even a medium-sized suitcase will feel gargantuan when boarding a crowded subway, and a large suitcase might not fit in your hotel room closet. Take extra time to pack smart, opting for travel-sized toiletries or compact products whenever possible. Make sure your luggage conforms to international flight weight limits (to avoid surcharges), and remember to leave room for souvenirs as shipping is very costly. If you are worried about running out of something, keep in mind that Tokyo is the largest city in the world—meaning you can probably get more there.
In addition to weather- and walking tour-appropriate attire (see “Dress” below), I recommend having a pair of lightweight flip-flops for the shared shower facilities. Most hotels will provide robes for your use. Most hotels (including the Andon Ryokan) will also have coin-operated laundry facilities, and you may purchase laundry soap at local convenience stores.
Due to the high-cost of travel and limited space availability in Japan, it is expected that you will have at least one roommate for the duration of the trip. Please select your roommate early, so that you may quickly get settled in your room together once you arrive. Some of our accommodations will redefine the meaning of cramped—remember that Japan is the home of the capsule hotel!
In order to complete the class assignment, each student will need the following tools:
- Digital camera (video capability optional)
- Sketchbook with pencils, erasers, technical pens
- Laptop or tablet computer
- CAD software, such as SketchUp or AutoCAD, to make measured drawings (other digital drawing software is permitted if it has adequate file-transferability)
- Presentation software, such as Acrobat, Keynote, or Powerpoint
- USB drive for transferring files
Japan uses the same-style electrical plug as the U.S., and most electronic devices will work fine using Japanese outlets. Three-prong (grounded) outlets are rare in Japan, however, so if your computer requires one of these you will need an adapter.
I recommend the following travel guides and maps:
- Tokyo City Atlas, which includes a subway map
- Japan Atlas, which includes a railway map
- Map of the Andon Ryokan environs (free at the hotel)
- General sightseeing guides
- A Japanese language phrasebook
You may plan to arrive at either Narita or Haneda Airport in Tokyo. If my flight arrives in a similar time-frame as yours, I will be happy to escort you into town. (I will share everyone’s flight info prior to our departure so that we can coordinate plans.) In the event that you arrive substantially earlier or later than my arrival and need to get to the hotel by yourself, however, please follow the instructions below (these are for Narita airport only).
Despite its complexity and airline traffic volume, Narita airport is surprisingly simple to navigate. When you reach customs and immigration, your picture will be taken and your fingerprints recorded by a machine. After claiming your bags and passing through duty inspection, I recommend the following steps:
- If you haven’t already exchanged U.S. dollars for Japanese currency, get Japanese Yen at an ATM. I recommend at least 30,000 JPY as a good base.
- Apply for a rental mobile phone at one of several booths if your mobile phone carrier does not provide service in Japan. Mobile phones can be critical means of communicating when someone is lost or running late.
- Reserve a seat on the Keisei Skyliner to Ueno station.
- Navigate the signs to the Keisei train platform below the airport.
- From Ueno station, you may either a) take a taxi to the Andon Ryokan, or b) rough-it with your luggage on the subway from Ueno to Minowa station on the Hibiya line, then walk several blocks to the hotel (you will need definitely a map if you choose this route). If you plan to take a taxi, please print out and hand this bilingual map to your driver.
During the Trip
What to Expect
A first-time journey to Japan can be a mind-expanding experience. Upon arrival, one cannot help but notice stark departures from the U.S. in terms of physical order, space allocation, materiality, and infrastructural connectivity, not to mention the obvious culture and language differences. The best approach is to keep an open mind and learn as much as possible from the experience, even if it conflicts with your own sensibilities. Despite the brevity of our trip, it will likely generate some lasting memories for you.
By most Western standards, Japan is dense, crowded, clean, and meticulously-detailed. Cities like Tokyo can appear incongruous and disorganized to the westerner—while Kyoto and Nara conform to clear and orderly grids. Compared with the ample personal space we take for granted in the U.S., you will likely experience the “bull-in-a-china-shop” phenomenon often, and should look out for fast-moving bicycle and motorcycle traffic when navigating city streets. Traffic runs in the opposite lane from that in the U.S. (as in the U.K.), so pedestrians walk on the left side of the sidewalk.
The Andon Ryokan is quite nice for a hostel, but space is very tight, with communal bathrooms, laundry facilities, and dining area. Like most hotels we will encounter, the Andon serves breakfast at a reasonable fee, and has a Japanese-style hot tub (ofuro) that may be reserved later in the day. Most buildings in Japan have a “shoe threshold” past which you must remove your shoes—in the Andon it is at the door to your room. You may use slippers provided by hotels at this threshold.
If space is available, you may store luggage at the Andon prior to our cross-country train trip. The Andon offers internet service via ethernet, so I recommend bringing your own ethernet cable, as well as your own personal wifi router if you wish to share internet access with a roommate. For other internet needs, the Andon has one public internet terminal, and there is an internet cafe (free if you buy drinks) in Ueno station.
Travel in Japan
Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, making travel as a tourist an empowering and invigorating experience. In Tokyo, travel will consist mainly of train travel—on the Tokyo Metro, Japan Railways, and other private lines. I recommend purchasing a Pasmo or Suica card once in town for quick access to the trains (I can help you with this). These cards may be loaded with currency and even used at certain vending machines and restaurants. You will need to insert your card (or ticket) both when entering and exiting the train system.
Trains generally run from around 5:00 am until midnight, so if you are far from the hotel after hours be sure you have enough cash for the more expensive cab ride home.
Although most department stores, hotels, and large restaurants in Japan accept major credit cards, Japan is primarily a cash society. Because theft is so rare in Japan, it is not uncommon for individuals to carry up to $500 (U.S. equivalent) in cash. ATMs that accept international cards are fairly easy to find, and there are a couple inside convenience stores near our hotel in Tokyo. Citibank ATMs are generally the best for accessing U.S. accounts. I also recommend carrying a coin purse due to the proliferation of coins you are likely to inherit. Before departing the U.S., I suggest notifying your credit card companies of your travel plans, and I recommend using cards that charge low or no foreign transaction fees.
Health and Safety
Certain prescription medications are prohibited in Japan, so be sure to check the U.S. State Department website and obtain a doctor’s letter of permission if required to bring your prescriptions into the country. For basic needs, there are drug stores near our Tokyo hotel, and a health clinic is about a ten-minute walk away. Be sure to bring your international health insurance card distributed by the Learning Abroad Center.
Crime is especially low in Japan, but be careful when frequenting districts populated by all-night bars (and more foreigners) in the wee hours.
Japan does not have the legally-charged environment we are used to in the U.S.; thus, you will notice situations that might be considered dangers or liabilities here. However, if you are cautious and vigilant you should remain out of harm’s way.
Tokyo is located in an active seismic zone, and you will likely experience a tremor or two during our trip. With rare exceptions (the Tohoku disaster being one of them), these tremors cause little damage and are an accepted part of life on the Pacific Rim.
Japan has five seasons, with a rainy season between spring and summer. Here are the following conditions you may expect for either a January Term or May Term trip:
Tokyo in January is similar to Minneapolis in early November—cool with clear skies and low precipitation. Weather in the Kansai area (Osaka is listed below) is similar. We may encounter snow flurries, although the chance of accumulation is low.
- Tokyo: average high 50 F, average low 36 F, 15% precipitation, 75% sunny days
- Osaka: average high 48 F, average low 37F, 20% precipitation, 60% sunny days
Tokyo in May is similar to Minneapolis in June—warm with a mix of sunny and rainy weather. Be aware that during this period, Japan is transitioning from Spring into its rainy season in mid-June. Weather in the Kansai area (Osaka is listed below) is similar. I recommend a compact collapsible umbrella in addition to a light raincoat.
- Tokyo: average high 73 F, average low 59 F, 35% precipitation, 50% sunny days
- Osaka: average high 75 F, average low 59F, 30% precipitation, 60% sunny days
While the Japanese are generally tolerant of foreigners wearing a variety of clothing, I recommend aiming for the “nicer side” of casual. Japanese people typically dress more nicely, and less sloppily, than westerners—even when they are in “casual mode.” I highly suggest bringing shoes that will support your feet for long days of walking, and are also easy to slip on and off when entering buildings.
Expect to encounter a range of rest room types, from space-age toilets to holes in the ground. Most public rest rooms will not have towels or even soap, so I recommend carrying a handkerchief and small bottle of soap or hand sanitizer with you. Also, keep in mind that the traditional Japanese toilets require special “balancing skill” (enough said).
We will be traveling in a large group by Japanese standards, so it will be very easy for stragglers to get lost. It is best if you study maps and try to learn the subway system early, so that if you do leave the group it will be easier to catch up (mobile phones come in especially handy here, and pay phones are available if your phone battery has run low). We will take breaks when traveling, and I will announce a designated meet-up time. Please try your best to return to the group before this time; otherwise, I will assume you opted to leave the tour.
Except for our planned dinners, it may be difficult at times to find restaurants large enough to seat our entire group. Therefore, we may need to break up into smaller groups for some meals.
Public rest rooms are often difficult to find, so we will stop at restaurants and cafes at strategic intervals. In genreral, be prepared to do a lot of walking.
There are too many cultural points to cover here, so I recommend you study a book or website on Japanese etiquette. However, I will include a few important tips to remember. In general, Japanese are very gracious and respectful people, so do your best to be gracious and respectful in return. Get used to bowing, as you will do a lot of it. Refrain from talking on your phone while riding a train or bus (you can text-message, however). After 10:00 pm, be extremely quiet when returning to our hotel, as sound carries well in the small street.