Japan - Survival guide for the whisky drinker
First off, let me explain the title. It might sound as if Japan is a harsh and hostile country to visit. That is not true! I love Japan, and I encourage anyone to go there, if you can! There is so much to experience, so much to enrich your life, and to give you a vacation of a lifetime. Then why do you need a survival guide, you might ask. Well, Japan is different, very different, in many ways. And it is always better to go prepared, I find. It is easier to just relax and enjoy the experience, when you have a nice foundation preparation Here it is then, Whisky Saga's list of "survival" tips for your upcoming trip to Japan!
Tip #1 - JR Pass
If you plan on travelling outside of Tokyo, consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). You can choose either one for all of Japan or one for the eastern or western part of the country. The pass will also let you travel on all JR subway and bus lines in Tokyo, including the Yamanote line.
There's huge savings on Shinkansen (bullet train) with the JR Pass, especially if you travel around a bit. You have to order the JR Pass before you go to Japan though, and it is only available to buy for foreigners. More details here.
We ended up buy the two week JR Pass Green 1st Class. The cost was around € 440 per person. This gave us access to the green cars as well, which have more room and better service than the regular cars on the trains.
When you get to Japan, you need to go to a JR Service Office, which you find at most JR subway and train stations in Tokyo. There you activate your JR Pass. You also have to order the green car seats before each trip. There is no cost to this, but it reserves a number seat for you.
Tip #2 - mini router
If you want to stay online, and you do not want to spend your time hunting for wifi coverage, rent a mobile router. We rented a tiny, but powerful, 4G/3G Dual LG LTE Portable WiFi Router, with 7 Gbps of data included for our entire stay (17 days). The cost was a mere 230 USD. We could connect up to 10 devices to this router, and it had good coverage all over Japan.
This way we were online at all times, could use IP phone to stay in touch with family and friends, and were free to use Google Maps as much as we needed - all the time (see more below).
You order the router before you go to japan, and arrange to either pick it up at the airport, or have it delivered to your hotel. When you are ready to go back home, you pop the router into the supplied return envelope, and deliver it to the hotel reception. Very easy! We rented our router here.
Tip #3 - mini towel
In the summer time it is very warm in Japan, and very humid. Especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, where we spent a few days. What saved me then was my trusty mini towel, bought at a Daily Yamazaki store. It helped me feel better and look half decent as I hunted for the next air conditioned area.
Tip #4 - ATMs
Getting your hands on cash is not as easy as one might think. There are plenty of ATMs about, but most will not accept European/non-Japanese credit cards, even if they are listed on the machine itself. Your safe bet for finding ATMs you can actually use is finding a post office, a 7 Eleven or a Lawson store (similar chain to 7 Eleven).
Tip #5 - credit cards
Credit cards are more widely accepted as payment in taxis, shops and restaurants than we were led to believe. Not all bars accept credit card though, so make sure you have cash as well (see tip #4).
Tip #6 - addresses
Addresses are difficult, and attempting to pronounce even simple words like 'Suntory' can be an insurmountable linguistic hurdle. Great tip then is to have the name or address in print or on screen, preferably in Japanese.
Note that many taxi drivers do not know how to operate a smart phone, and/or are old so handing them your smart phone running Google Maps is not necessarily a viable solution!
See also the tips given in the article on our visit to Chichibu Distillery.
Tip # 7 - train transfers and luggage
Train transfers are in general a lot simpler and quicker than you would expect. 15 minutes should be more than enough in most cases, unless you have a lot of heavy luggage. Speaking of luggage, it is not a problem travelling with lots of luggage on the train. The staff at the JR Service Office warned us that there was very limited room for luggage, especially on the Shinkansen. Luckily that was not the case. We traveled with one large and one small suitcase each, and we had no problems whatsoever.
Tip #8 - finding that bar/shop
Do not blindly trust guides and books when looking for bars and shops. In many cases the bar/shop does not exist anymore, or it is not exactly where you expected to find it. Even using Google Maps can confuse rather than help. Therefore, always try this:
- Circle the block. In many cases it is on the other side of the block from what Google Maps indicates
- Look up! Especially in Tokyo and Sapporo, many bars are to be found on high floors, and you will only see a sign high up on the side of the building, or a small sign near the elevator/entrance on the ground floor.
- Look down! In many cases the bar/shop is hidden down a narrow passageway or down a half-hidden flight of stairs.
- Ask strangers for help! In some cases the name of the bar/shop is only written in Japanese.
Tip #9 - that drinking book
I can strongly recommend the book "[easyazon_link asin="4805310545" locale="US" new_window="default" nofollow="default" tag="whisag-20"]Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan's Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments[/easyazon_link]", by Chris Bunting. It covers drinking in Japan in general, and goes in depth covering whisky, sake, shochu, awamori, beer and wine. It also includes reviews of quite a few bars. Some of the reviews are slightly outdated by now, but in general this book is an excellent guide.
Tip #10 - have fun!
The easiest tip to give, really. Go to Japan, and have fun!
Here at Whisky Saga we will provide reviews of all the bars and distilleries we visited on our recent trip to Japan. Stay tuned!
Sláinte - Thomas