Metro Pass

Ticket Prices / © 2010 Emily Pensinger

Figured I’d better follow up the JR Pass info with this.  We usually rely so much on our JR passes that we pass up (he he) the Tokyo Metro system, which is not part of the JR system.  However, with the timing of our trip this year, our pass will expire a day before we leave Tokyo.  One option for us was to cover all the train fares by purchasing tickets individually.  This would have worked out alright.

However, I discovered that the Tokyo Metro system offers passes for tourists.  We can buy them at the airport and they will cover our return trip to the airport as well as use of the Tokyo Metro system.  I did have to do the math as it does not save us a huge amount of money, but it does save us a bit.  It will also give us the freedom to hop off and on the subway as we wish and we can plan the day without seeking the evasive cheapest route.

This is another example of Japan rolling out the red carpet for tourists.  They give travelers from abroad better deals. They understand economics.  The more they can do to entice foreigners, the more foreigners will choose to visit Japan and pump money into the Japanese economy.  That understanding makes Japan such a great travel option, and it’s why I keep taking students back to Japan.

Here’s a link for this pass.  We’ll be taking care of it for our travelers, but incase someone is googling…  I haven’t used it yet, but I’m sure it will work like everything else in Japan…with efficiency and precision.


JR Pass

JR Chuo line train slows as approaching Iidabashi Station / @ 2011 Emily Pensinger

Though our trip varies from year to year, we often see as many as 8 areas designated UNESCO world heritage sites, 6 cities that are among the 10 most populous cities in Japan, and a few world class museums.  All in 9 days.  With a airline ticket that can cost nearly half the cost of the trip, it seems impossible.  Surely we are making something up.  There’s no way we can do that for our price.

I would agree.  I keep tabs on various student travel groups.  We have come in as much as $1000 less than trips which offer less.  How do we do this?

I could talk about our commitment to low costs, our intense scrutiny of the budget and careful cost – benefit analysis.  I could brag about the way that we pass any savings on to the students.  Yeah, yeah, this is all true, but lots of trips can do that.

What makes Japan such an amazing value is this little card called the JR pass.  For one fee we can obtain a pass which will cover all of our travel on shinkansen (bullet trains) and the JR trains, which make up the major train routes in the country.  We can ride trains as much as we want while that pass is valid.  It pays for itself many times over.  It gives us the flexibility to order our trip as we see fit without worrying about ticket costs.  It allows us to move quickly through train stations, simply showing off our pass.  We easily save hundreds of dollars.

How can Japan afford to offer such an amazing deal?  Well, they are brilliant.  They offer JR passes on a limited basis.  You must have a foreign passport stamped “temporary vistior” to purchase and you must make arrangements from your home country.  They are only for foreign tourists.  These brilliant Japanese folks make it easy for tourists to visit the country while still charging businessmen and regular travelers the normal high rates.  It’s quite amazing.

The JR Pass won’t cover all of our train travel in Japan, but it will cover an amazing amount.

Here’s a link to JR Pass informaton in English.  Remember, we are taking care of this for our travelers, but this is a good explanation of how it all works.


Sushi bar

Sushi by conveyor belt / © 2011 Emily Pensinger

I know, and the Japanese know, that Sushi means “with rice.”  But we all know that when someone in Japan speaks of sushi, they are generally talking about something involving raw fish, well most of the time.  And those who have enjoyed fresh Sushi in Japan know that it is one of the worlds greatest delicacies.  The photo above was taken in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.  It’s not far from the Asakusa temple in Tokyo.  If I’m thinking clearly that day, I will offer to take travelers for sushi.  It’s sad how chicken American students are about raw fish. 

Anyway, food is literally served from a conveyor belt on color coded plates.  The color of the plate indicates how much each dish costs.  When you see something you like, you take it off and eat it.  If you don’t see what you are looking for, you can ask.  Well, you can sort of attempt to bridge the language barrier and see what you get.  I figured out how to get them to make me eel.  It makes my mouth water just thinking of it.  In the US, sushi eel tends to have a kind of rough texture.  In Japan it melted in my mouth like butter.  It’s true.  It was amazing.  Amazing.  Amazing.  All the rest of it is good too.  Fresh yellowtail, salmon, tuna, whatever that other thing was, etc.  It’s all so much better than the same thing in the US.  I think most of it has to do with the freshness or quality of the fish.

One difference I have noticed about American sushi restraints is that they tend to do all sorts of crazy thing to the sushi to get you to buy it.  It’s not just a tuna roll, it’s a tuna roll with all sorts of other things that is deep fried and smothered in a sauce.  The Japanese do love their sauces.  They make all sorts of food combinations that we would consider weird, but when it comes to their sushi, they tend to leave the crazy out of it.  Yes, there’s a bit of wasabi, but there’s much more emphasis on the freshness and flavor of the fish.  No need to come up with the craziest Dragon-Alaska-Rainbow thing.  So Americans do have some adjusting to do when eating sushi in Japan.  Can you enjoy a simple tuna roll?  Sashimi?  That seems to be the sushi that Japanese people actually eat.

Some thoughts on packing

As our trip nears, it’s time to begin to think of packing.  Over the years I have developed a system.  As anyone who travels much knows, everyone has the right way to pack for them, and no two systems are the same.  However, since I travel with folks who don’t travel as much, so I share my system.  Feel free to copy and adapt as necessary.

The first piece is the luggage.  My absolute favorite piece of luggage is a combination roller bag and backpack put out by osprey.  When I bought it I was rather nervous as I felt as though it was quite a bit of money to invest in a bag.  Especially since I am a poor teacher and I already had some luggage I could have used.  6 international trips later and I am happy to say it was worth every penny.  Here’s a link to buy one from Rock Creek.   The fact that it converts to a backpack is a life saver as we often have to schlep our bags up and down stairs in train stations or on streets that just don’t play nice with luggage on wheels. But the wheels are essential when we are moving through airports or for long distances on smooth streets.  The fact that it is somewhat squish able is quite helpful when we cram our luggage into lockers in a train station while we explore a town.

Whew, so what goes in my wonderful bag?  Lets start with the basics.  I include enough socks for every day.  I bring wool socks, but I like to wear them all winter long.  I do make sure that all of my socks are presentable and on the warm side as we will take our shoes off when entering some buildings.  The other thing I make sure I will have fresh every day is underwear.  Enough said.

Then I think about my base layer for each day.  This is often a t-shirt, though I will make sure to throw in a few long sleeve technical base layers.  Like these.  I’m sure you could get something less nice at Walmart and it would do the trick.  I also plan to use the t-shirts as pajamas once I’ve worn them.  I cheat like that.

Pants I rewear.  I know where we are going I will be comfortable in jeans so I simply pack 3-4 pairs.  I won’t look Japanese no matter how hard I try so I resign myself to being comfortable instead of attempting to keep up with whatever fashion.  They do tend to wear lots of black.  I don’t recall seeing khaki’s.  I have known some girls to want leggings or tights under their pants for some added warmth.  I haven’t ever done this, but it’s something to consider for Japan in winter.  I toss in a pair of sweats to sleep in and I’m done.

That brings me to my warm layers.  I will bring 1 sweater for church and 2-3 fleece mid weight tops.  I love these things because they are warmer than a sweatshirt and pack down much smaller.  Here’s another example at Rock Creek.  Then I will add a down vest.  This helps me add warmth without adding bulk in my arms, which I hate.  Real down is worth the extra money to me because it can be squished into just about any space.  On days I’m not sure, I can toss my down vest into my daypack just in case I get cold.  I might also include a regular weight fleece jacket, especially if we head into the mountains.  I will top that all off with a weatherproof shell.  I made sure mine was big enough to fit over my layers.  The key points  are waterproof, and that it has a hood so I can stay dry if we have to walk a ways in the rain.  I will throw in a beanie for my head and a scarf because it makes such a difference for the small amount of space it takes up in my bag.  And that is my tried and true way to stay nice and warm.  Notice there is no bulky parka type coat.  I find those to be the worst for traveling because, while they can be super warm, they are all or nothing and so annoying to deal with.

Toiletries are pretty specific person to person, but I do find that it is easier to bring what you like than to try to figure out what the Japanese bottle of whatever really is.  I do use smaller travel containers, but I don’t follow the TSA 3 oz thing because I keep them in my checked bag.  I know, someone who was super smart said you should carry on such things in case they get lost.  If my luggage gets lost, I’ll have a lot more to deal with than buying toiletries.  I think they gave that advice before the stupid 3 oz rule.  I do have all my toiletries in a toiletry bag.  This could even be a big ziploc bag.  It’s just nice to be able to have it all easy to grab when I go off for a shower.  A towel.  A towel is a must.  Don’t forget the towel.

Meds.  When I travel in the US I figure I’ll just hit a store for some Sudafed if I need it.  Not so in Japan.  The language difference means that I can’t be sure what I’m getting in a drug store.  I know what I like if I have a headache or a cold, so I toss a few of those things in a bottle just in case.  (I do make sure I know dosage for everything I’m bringing!)

Shoes.  I take one pair of leather casual shoes.  They are great for walking and don’t get wet like sneakers.  I might toss in flip flops for walking around the places we stay, but often don’t bother.

That brings me to my carryon.  I have a DSLR that takes up most of the space in this.  I add a small notebook for jotting down my thoughts, perhaps that’s my lot in life as a chaperone, but if you are one to write things down, it might be helpful.  Little things like chapstick and a pack of travel size kleenexes get tossed in.  I do bring my iPhone and charger.  I haven’t used service over there, but it’s nice to have when I have access to wifi.  I also use it for books, music, movies, and games on the plane.  I do not text people from Japan because I find it is better to tell them about my trip afterwards.  So I also bring a charger.  I haven’t ever needed to use a converter in Japan.  The current is different, but I think it just means it takes longer to charge stuff.

Another important thing to consider is where I will stash my JR pass which is about the same size as a passport.  Also need to know where I’m stashing my passport.  Both of these documents need to be secure, yet especially in the case of the JR pass, accessible.  A zippered pocked in my jacket works really well for me.  I also need to bring a different wallet because I use more coins in Japan.  They even have a coin worth $5, so you can’t just toss coins around like quarters here in the US.

That got pretty long, but it is pretty much it.  Maybe some snacks?  Definitely no laptop or homework.  There just isn’t time!




Hiroshima Dome (1)

Hiroshima Dome / © 2011 Emily Pensinger

A visit to Hiroshima is one of the non-negotiable stops on our journey. In case you forgot to listen in history class, it was the first city on which the United States dropped an atomic bomb during World War Two.

Today Hiroshima is a beautiful city. It is the southernmost stop on our journey, and thus it is often the warmest. Flowers are beginning to bloom in Hiroshima in February and the river and mountains are lovely. In the middle of the city, the site of the epicenter of the bomb, there is a memorial peace park with statues and monuments and trees and benches. A pleasant, yet sobering, stroll. The museum sits at one end of the park and the familiar memorial dome at the other.

I have visited several WWII museums – the D-Day museum in New Orleans, the Holocaust museum in DC, the Nanjing Memorial museum in China, and the Hiroshima museum. While a full review of each museum probably belongs on a different site, I can summarize. Most graphic – easily Nanjing; highest quality (read most expensive) displays – holocaust; most comprehensive – DDay. Most sobering – definitely the Hiroshima museum. It would probably fall right under the Nanjing museum for level of graphic content as well. It’s not a fun visit, but it is an important one.

There is some bias in the museum, as there is in every WWII museum. I don’t want to spoil it for a visitor, but I will say that their intent is to instruct the world on the horrors of atomic weapons and plead with citizens of the world to never allow another city to fall victim to an atomic bomb.

I think the most sobering moments for me are not in the museum, but in the city itself. We will ride a street car in Hiroshima. This is a unique opportunity in itself, and it will allow us to rub shoulders with the people of Hiroshima. What I was not expecting the first time I rode one was that those people would be senior citizens. It shouldn’t have been surprising as we visit during a work day. If the children are at school and their parents at work, it makes sense that most of the people who would be out and about would be elderly. Japanese people tend to ride public transportation in silence, so we do not strike up conversations. But it is the most awkward silence as all I can think of is “where were you?” When I realize that person was alive in 1945 I can’t help but wonder, “what is your story?”

The people of Hiroshima do a great job of welcoming Americans. They seem to understand that we had nothing to do with decisions made so long ago, just as we don’t hold them responsible for what their leaders chose to do back then. And the city itself is fully rebuilt and modern. I had read about Hiroshima many times, but nothing compares to being there. All the little moments. Encountering a volunteer in the museum who is willing to share his story, hopping in a taxi and listening to the wanna be tour guide explain what the city was like before it became “the A-bomb city”, these are the moments I’ll never fully recreate in a classroom.

This is our Japan trip. It’s why we don’t take a tour bus.

Construction – Curse or Blessing?

Construction at Himeji Castle Feb 2011

Construction at Himeji Castle Feb 2011

Construction.  Reconstruction.  Renovation. Refurbishing.  Rebuilding.  Call it what you like, it can be a real downer on a trip.  There is nothing as depressing as walking up to a UNESCO World Heritage site and finding it under construction. does a lovely job of listing all tourist sites under construction, and we check it before every trip.

Construction forces a decision.  Do you go anyway and gaze upon the artist’s rendering of the original structure under the construction cover?  You did notice that, didn’t you?  When the Japanese reconstruct a cultural relic, they cover it with a wind and rain proof structure that depicts the original structure that is obscured.  Which is kind of interesting to see.  And when you visit a town that is as centered around a single tourist feature like Himeji but don’t visit that feature you notice all the other things you may have missed.  This shot, taken from the back of the castle, which I would never have visited were the castle open.  A museum in the back featuring Samurai armor.  A photo with Samurai employed to entertain the tourists since the castle was closed.  A photo with Ninja’s dressed up for the same purpose.

But what if you don’t go anyway?  What if you take the opportunity construction offers to alter your itinerary?  Himeji was a no brainer.  A world class castle 15 minutes from the Shinkansen station.  How could you not stop?  But construction frees us from the expected to seek out the extraordinary.  To look at our itinerary with fresh eyes.  It was this fresh look that took us to Hikone Castle with it’s views of mountain and lake.  With Himeji off the table, the balance between travel time and quality of castle becomes complicated.  Will we travel 2 hours from Nagoya to visit “The Crow”, Matsumoto Castle?  Or will we go with the more accessible Nagoya Castle?  Or will we attempt both?  Could there be another castle lurking just outside our path waiting to be discovered???

Stay tuned…

A Japanese Commercial of a Different Sort

Japan is so often defined in Western minds as a fast-paced, crowded, urban country. Neon lights, video games, karaoke, bullet trains. That’s Japan, right? But wait. This video is Japan too. This certainly isn’t a stop on the tour, but it demonstrates the other part of Japanese culture so many aren’t aware of. The Japanese have a high regard for nature. A penchant for going to extremes to create a look or a sound. Yup. This is very Japan. And of course they are incorporating western music, because Japan loves to incorporate the best from around the world. So watch this. And if you join us in Japan, be on the look out for evidence of this aspect of Japanese culture mixed with urban life. This is what makes Japan different from other densely populated countries.

touch wood commercial