Joaquim Rocha
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Two Weeks in Japan, Part 1: The arrival

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    Joaquim Rocha
  • Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft

Ever since I can remember, I was always fascinated by Eastern Asian cultures. Like most kids, I loved martial arts movies, but I was also a fan of many other things. Before I had an internet connection at my parents’ home, and information was not promptly available, I would relish any movie, documentary or book about Eastern Asia; it didn’t matter if it was China, Korea or Japan. During Expo ’98, in Lisbon, the 13 years old me forced my parents to wait in line for several hours to visit the pavilions of Japan, Korea, China and Macau. Even nowadays my father mentions it (in a friendly “you owe me” tone 🙂 ) whenever we talk about those countries.

Then this attraction for Eastern Asia was “specialized” more in Japan mainly because of anime. I had access to the most known anime series in Portuguese TV. I was particularly a fan of Dragon Ball (like everybody else), Evangelion and Rurouni Kenshin. During those times, the magic of internet entered my parent’s place, with the nostalgic connection noise of dial-up, and I could search everything I wanted about Japan and eventually learned a bit of Japanese (most of which is now forgotten in some hardly accessible part of my memory).

During that time, I always thought that one day I would go to Japan (not discarding, at the time, living there). This visit finally took place during two weeks in August, 2012.

Off to Japan

As I wrote before in an other post, Helena and I had planned to visit Japan during our honeymoon in 2011 but due to the Tōhoku Earthquake, this destiny was replaced with Turkey whose series of articles you can read here. Finally, early this year we decided that this year’s trip destiny would be Japan and here is the first of the articles about this trip.

Since Japan is an expensive place and people always ask about the prices, I will try to mention prices more than in other articles. When we went there, the Japanese Yen value had risen in comparison with the Euro so 1€ was worth less than 100¥ but we kept this 1 € — 100 ¥ rate in mind for the simplicity sake.

We got our round-trip plane tickets in the end of May for around 850 € each (together with insurance), which means they could have been cheaper but still they weren’t much more expensive than their early purchase price. We flew from Barcelona as in Coruña there is only one international flight but we took this chance to visit Catalonia’s capital so the domestic flight’s cost was compensated this way.

The Flight

[Image of our flight's progress screen][2]
Our flight’s progress screen
We flew with Alitalia so the trip was Barcelona > Rome > Narita (Tokyo). Needless to say, it was a long flight, the longest I have ever taken: about 15 hours since we left Barcelona. We were excited for being in such a big plane for the first time and I was surprised that the small screen in front of my seat had video-games that could be played against other passengers. The only bad thing, apart from the time, was that my seat’s head cushion kept me in an uncomfortable position, making my back hurt.

The Train

We arrived at Narita on August 10 at 10:30, passed the passport control and, since we took our huge backpacks as hand luggage, readily proceeded to validate our JapanRail (JR) passes. We acquired our JR passes from the very efficient website; in 3 days we had our passes. We validated our passes at Narita Airport and asked the assistant how to get to Kyoto (our first destination in this trip), he was very quick, nice and helpful, and told us that we should change trains at Shinagawa Station instead of Tokyo’s because it was smaller and less confusing.

[Picture of Narita Express][4]
Narita Express
This was also the first time we witnessed the Japanese Railways efficiency. Many trains were cleaned as soon as they arrived at the stations. It was funny and impressive to see that the trains’ seats can be rotated so passengers always travel facing the destiny. Of course, the trains were very punctual, if it said that a train was arriving at 17:07 it would! Like everything in Japan, trains were neatly clean, no written tags, no scratches, no stains, no lost chocolate wrapping papers, the trains seemed like they were coming right from the manufacturer. Another nice thing is how silent the trains are, even moving between the trains’ cars, which usually is noisy, was much more silent than in most trains I’ve taken in Europe. Summarizing, I love to travel by train and JR trains are the best.

No Plastic Money

[Picture of sushi Lunchbox][5]
Our first sushi lunchbox
At Shinagawa Station, we took the first of many sushi lunches, from one of the station shops for about 500 ¥ (~5 €) after our first visit to the ATM to withdraw money. We didn’t take Japanese Yens from Spain and we also do not like to get money at currency exchange offices as usually withdrawing it from any ATM will give us better rates. In Japan one needs to carry money as many places do not accept cards so what we did was to withdraw a large amount every once in while. The ATMs that work with our VISA cards were the Japan Post (JP) ones, do not bother with trying others.


Around 16:30 we arrived at Kyoto. We were staying at B&B Juno which is a 30 minutes bus ride from Kyoto’s JR Station. The buses system is different from most of the places where I took city buses. Luckily, there was a “western” person in the bus and after exchanging the first couple of words in English with him, we realized he was Spanish and switched to this Romance language. He was from the Basque Country and asked us if we were Galician which is always funny when this happens to us; anyway, he explained how the bus system worked: In Japan, you hop on the bus through the back door and you pay when you leave the bus, not when you are entering. Also, the bus driver will not do the change for you, there is a machine next to the driver that will exchange money for you and after you got the right coins, you pay the exact amount on a different slot in the same machine. In the case of Kyoto’s city bus, a single trip was 220 ¥ (~2.2 €) and a whole day ticket was 500 ¥ (5 €).

Places are not easy to find in Japan. Turns out that houses are given a number by the order they were built, not by their place in the street which means that house #1 can be incredibly far from house #2, this explains why B&B Juno had such detailed instructions to get there. I brought all this info in my phone, so I asked the driver to tell us when to hop off the bus, followed the instructions as if we were on a treasure hunt and so it was easy to find the place in the end.

[Picture of our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto][6]
Our room at B&B Juno, Kyoto
B&B Juno was the best place we stayed during our entire trip in Japan. It is a Japanese house run by Ian and his wife Sybilla. Ian is a Canadian who moved to Japan more than 20 years ago to teach English at Kyoto’s University. He speaks and writes Japanese and was also the editor of a tourism/culture magazine in English about Kyoto so he kindly helped us plan our trips. During breakfast we would talk with Sybilla about different countries and cultures (she is Austrian and has lived in a number of different countries) which made things even more interesting. The house was very nice, located close to the Philosopher’s Path and many temples, it was also the first time I slept in a traditional Japanese room. With affordable prices (for Japan’s standards) of 5000 ¥ (~50 €) per person, if you are staying in Kyoto, I advise you to stay in B&B Juno, especially if it will be the beginning of your trip and you might appreciate the help of an English-speaking person.

Kyoto is an amazing city, with many things to see and to talk about so I will leave those for the next article.

to be continued…