A Few Tips and Observations About Traveling in Korea and Japan

As we get ready to leave Japan I realize I’ve accumulated a few items that don’t deserve a full blog entry, so I’ll run through them here. Then a post or two about our last excursions.

Elevators in Korea and Japan  Unlike the US, every elevator bank we used required you to push the button per elevator. Not realizing this, we had a few undue delays thinking that a single up or down request would apply across all the elevators in a bank. So remember—push every “up” or “down” to speed the arrival of what you want.

Japanese Tourist Maps  We had forgotten this little quirk from our last visit–one of the oddest things about using the little billboard maps that are posted in many neighborhoods, train stations, and in other tourist-heavy areas. You know, these are the ones that have the red You Are Here circles to show you how to get to the next place or out of where you are. There are many of these around Kyoto and the often appear just when you need them.

However, first check is which way the North arrow is pointing. For some, to us, unfathomable reason, N is not always up as it is in the US. It can be to the left, to the right, or pointing to the bottom of the map, requiring you to completely reorient yourself.  It is surprisingly difficult to figure out what’s what when N is pointing to the right, so there you are twisting your guidebook and your head around to make sure you are not heading in the exact wrong direction. As many times as we looked at these maps, and knew about the N issue, we repeatedly started to read the map incorrectly.

Disability Access and Using Escalators  Accommodations for disabled or simply tired (or old!) folks are spotty, and there are places where there is escalator service but no elevator when an elevator seems called for.  Getting to the JR train platform at Kyoto Station, where many folks are going long distance or to the airport, there is an escalator and no elevator. Other places have signs forbidding using the escalator if you have a suitcase (similar to the US), and in one department store signs stated no walking on escalators. We also found elevators quite slow and/or tucked into corners. Plan accordingly.

Since we were last in Japan about five years ago we did see many, many more disabled people out and about. It was great to see that people who obviously were always there were now in public without incident, even several severely disabled in fully motorized chairs. On the subway we saw a man in a motorized chair, and the moment the train stopped a train employee (there are many around who give directions or, more often instructions) put a small ramp in the doorway so this fellow could drive off easily across the gap. Twice I saw a train employee accompanying a blind person across the station, chatting away. (I say train employee, but I am not sure who they work for—perhaps these are public employees. They wear uniforms and they are in transit stations.)

We saw no wheelchairs or other disabled people in Korea which could have been chance or an indication they are still kept out of the public spaces. There isn’t much sign of accommodations there.

Rules and Worries and a Few Inconveniences  It is cliché that the Japanese have traded conformity and safety for some kinds of American-style freedom as we like to think of it. It is true that people are expected to follow rules and instructions, and our first taste was when we landed in Osaka and proceeded to the train platform. Two uniformed men were checking each ticket and then telling us exactly how to line up for the train. This line, not that one. Put your baggage here, not there. Line up in an orderly queue. Do not step on the yellow barrier. It was quite lovely for us tired travelers because we knew for certain we were in precisely the right place and would end up in the correct car (the queuing lines were by car number for trains, bus number for buses) and subsequently in Kyoto Station. Even when the instructors seemed a little bit severe and unsmiling, we were continually grateful that we weren’t allowed to make an unfortunate mistake.

There are also a lot of signs in Japan, both official and handwritten, which even when a little alarming (“Bears have been sighted in this region.”) were helpful. My favorites were warnings were combined with seemingly unnecessary instructions.  A cute example was at a neighborhood Shinto shrine, a rather raggedy and charming set of very small shrines and statues and figurines of animals, with a few flowers and teacups set out in honor of woodsy fauna. At the small entry there was blue tape and sign: “This barrier is to keep wild boars out. Please step over the barrier to enter.”

Both countries are seemingly free of petty crime. Bicycles are everywhere, and lots of bicycle parking lots in Japan. While there were bike locks, we saw many bikes leaned up or on kickstands outside of stores and houses as in the picture below taken from our hotel room of the alley behind the building.

IMG_E1225We never for a second worried about making sure a bag was zipped up, or walking around with a phone in hand, or putting down a package for a minute to get organized. It was common to see bags left along the paths in shrines and temples while the owners took photos or walked around.

Both Japan and Korea seem bereft of trash cans. In Korea we finally asked—where do you throw anything away? A few times we traded a small purchase for an excuse to ask a shopkeeper to let us throw away a bag or beverage container. It seems the custom is to use the public restrooms (they are everywhere) to find a trash container, but even many of those had none, as they have either air dryers or nothing. Carry something to dry off with if you prefer not to shake off the drops or (as we did) use your jeans. In both countries every sit-down food place starts with a plastic-wrapped damp hand towel; we accumulated them when we didn’t need them right then, so we had them ready when we were sweaty or just a little greasy. In Korea, street food is usually served in a paper sleeve of some kind, sometimes even a sliced paper cup. While this is convenient for immediate eating it is messy and those extra hand towels were great.

In Korea, all the public restrooms I used were western style. In Japan, women beware that there are still many toilets which require very strong knees and sense of balance—they are porcelain troughs (in private stalls) which I could neither get down to or get up from I am sure. Some public restrooms had both, but a few only the troughs. One of the last I used had western toilets (this was in Arashiyama) complete with instructions. See photo below and note Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. In general, in both countries there are many more public restrooms than you see in the US or Europe (where in some places I have learned to march into large hotels like I know where I am going, because there is always a restroom near the lobby).

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Re public smoking, it’s pretty much gone though the isakaya we went to did have a couple smoking in a corner. We may have seen one or two incidences of smoking in public in Korea, but this scourge of international travel is clearly on the wane, thank goodness.

Traditional Clothing  Both countries have many, many traditional clothing rental places, mostly around hanok neighborhoods (Korea) or clusters of shrines and temples (Japan). In Japan we also saw many younger men and women in kimonos in shopping areas. As we had noticed last time, it seems to be rather hip to dress traditionally. In Japan we occasionally saw older women in what seemed to be their normal go-to-work kimonos compared with the very colorful styles worn by younger women. Two or three times we saw westerners dressed in hanbok or kiminos. They looked very odd and were clearly enjoying themselves.

Vending Machines

Both countries have gazillions of drink vending machines, and in both countries cold coffee in various versions and brands are ubiquitous. When you order coffee at a stand or in a bakery or cafe (cafe=coffee) you must state whether hot or cold, unlike in the US where coffee is hot, and iced coffee is iced coffee. In both places you find drink vending machines in out of the way corners, at public parks or shrines and temples, and in Japan we started noticing that prices varied quite a bit with the same drink, same size, sometimes as cheap as a dollar and sometimes as expensive as two dollars or more. Occasionally there was also a place to put an empty drink container near the machine.  At the top of Inari there is a vending machine and next to it in the little wooden shop (where you can buy shrine-related tokens and offerings) there is a sliding glass door and a wooden table inside on which to put your empty. This is where I discovered Pokari Sweat, a sports drink that was perfect for a sweaty American on a hot and humid day, and was especially grateful a woman showed me where to stow the empty can.

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In Japan we started noticing that in the row of machines there is often one with beer and perhaps other liquor. We didn’t see any note regarding age restrictions, not that they could be enforced anyway. Nor did we ever see public drinking or rowdiness.

Convenience Stores  Go to Youtube if you want an education about convenience/7-11 type stores in both countries. These stores have everything and then some, especially food of all kinds including hot soup, croquettes, and in Japan fish cakes in various forms in tubs of broth or hot water (not sure—didn’t want to try). They are fun and inexpensive—and we found that if you go away from the main street a few blocks prices drop. They also all have ATMs, not just 7-11’s as in the past. We use a bank that reverses the service charges so we used them regardless. Just check for the Visa/MC/Cirrus stickers—not all ATMs have them but those that did worked for us 90% of the time and at about that same rate we were able to find the “English” button.

Public Transit  We like BART. Multiply BART by 100, or even the NY subway/bus system by 2 or 3 in convenience and reach, and you have something approaching the public transit options in Korea and Japan. Korea wins by a mile for English guidance—almost all subway cars and buses have full English stop information—but even in Japan it’s not at all hard to figure out where to go, how to get a ticket, and so forth.

In both cities, Seoul and Kyoto, the subway seems at first much easier, but because the subway maps are schematics that do not conform to actual geography you never get much of a sense where you are going or how one place relates to another compared with taking the bus. Also, most of the subway trains are almost entirely underground, so no scenery. With just a little practice the buses are more convenient and better educationally for finding your way around.

In Kyoto a few bus routes (e.g., #100) are oriented to tourists, and announce all imminent and upcoming stops displayed on the big monitor up front as well as by announcement, in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, with advisories as to what sights or major destinations are nearby. It was comforting to know the stop we wanted was the third one after this, and great to see and hear confirmation in English.

The one-day and other passes are a fantastic deal if you plan just a little bit. In Kyoto a one way bus fare was $2.40 or so, but the one-day bus pass was $5.00 so you are ahead with just 3 trips.   There are several information counters at Kyoto Station and we got 100% accurate advice even if the English was incomplete. Also, the buses depart from numbered queues which also have (as in Korea) full “next bus” information at the stops. At Kyoto Station there are uniformed men who tell you where to go, or when a bus coming into an adjoining queue will get us there faster. And, of course, they tell you exactly how to line up, with individual bus numbers on marked queue lines in case you are a complete idiot. Do not fear—Japanese people were asking as many questions about which line/which bus as we were!

In Seoul public transit, including taxis (which we never used), is extremely cheap, too. We hopped on and off without a care to the cost.

If you thought American youth are obsessed with taking selfies  The selfie craze, with sticks 95% of the time, is overwhelming and funny and annoying. Just be prepared to get out of the way!

Coffee and Food in Kyoto  Yes, Japan is expensive but with a little care you can eat for less. First, breakfast and coffee—if you go to a good coffee place (there are many, but our fave by far is Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto Station) you can pay $5 for a latte. Look for a place with a “breakfast set” which is coffee and what was for us plenty of food to start the day. At Ogawa the breakfast set was $5.80, which includes coffee, a fantastic croissant, and a small dish of unflavored yogurt (yeah!!) with a drizzle of honey and a few frozen berries, usually a mix of currants and a black- or raspberry. It was quick, delicious, and perfect fuel to start the day.

Eat sushi! We found the conveyer belt sushi, Musashi, in Kyoto Station was incredibly inexpensive and very high quality. Inexpensive—most plates with 2 pieces of nigiri, most as in almost all, were $1.46. The fancy stuff was 1 piece for that price, or $3.46 for 1 or 2, depending. We ate there 3 times in one week, and with beers the total bill was about $44…and we ate, each time, 22 plates’ worth.

Eat noodles! And shop for price/quality. We had several quick lunches of udon or somen for about $7. The ramen at Karako, which is on a busy street a few blocks from the museum neighborhood, was about $7 and the best I’ve ever had. Get the kotteri. The ramen at Ippudo, which is right next to Nishiki Market was very good, not quite as exciting but a fancy as opposed to old (OLD) lunch counter style ambiance, and was about twice that. In Arashiyama, right on the tourist trail (an exquisite walk that I write about on this blog) were two noodle places with very similar appearing menus where in one the price was $12 and the other $7. Directly across from each other—point being, do not assume the prices are generally the same regardless of where you are.

Isakaya! For very reasonable prices (about what we spent for sushi) we got nice and high on sake and ate more than we should have.  Plus it was comfy and fun and super casual.

Takeout! See the lower floors of any big department store—if you are smart and are staying near Kyoto Station, go to Isetan. There is an unbelievable array of takeout food, putting Harrod’s to shame in variety and price. Wander around for 10 minutes before you make a choice, and if you are hungry for good bread go up one floor to the sweets department and visit the Danish bakery. Grab a basket and tongs and get everything from unidentified bread-like concoctions to good old fashioned baguettes and hard rolls.

Convenience stores! (see above)

 

 

 

 

 

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