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Author: Alisha

An Intermediate Guide to Eating in Tokyo: How to Book a Course Meal

It occurred to me recently while speaking with a person visiting Tokyo for the first time that the city has some dining-related concepts that are perhaps unique or unfamiliar. “I booked the course” has a rather golf-ish ring to it (apparently). Cash-on? Tachi-nomi? A “set”? Teishoku? All-you-can-eat…and drink?

Vikings?

In an effort to introduce some approaches to eating in Tokyo that some may not be familiar with, I’ve put together an intermediate-level dining guide that I hope can help visitors to Tokyo (and maybe expats too) go beyond making meal decisions based on guidebooks and/or plastic food models in shop windows. The aim is to help people make their own decisions about where and what they want to eat. This will likely be old hat for mid- to long-term expats, but perhaps there’s something in here for everyone.

I’m planning this as a three-part series; part 1 will be about courses and how to book one via Tabelog (with or without Japanese skills), part 2 will be an overview of three popular food and dining-related websites in Japan, and part 3 will be an overview of some key dining vocabulary perhaps unique to Japan.

With that, let’s dig in to Part 1: Courses!

What’s a Course?

Do a search for “course meals Japan” and you’ll get result after result about kaiseki. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal. There is an enormous amount of knowledge and tradition surrounding the culture of kaiseki. Methods of preparation, presentation, and use of ingredients all factor in to the experience; kaiseki dinners can be enormously expensive. There are also kaiseki lunches, which are more affordable. There is “casual” kaiseki, where dishes are all brought out together (you may see this at a ryokan). 

But if you book a “course” (spelled コース in katakana, pronounced koh-su), you likely won’t be getting kaiseki (unless you’re booking at a kaiseki restaurant).

“Course” as referred to in this guide refers to a predetermined menu of a series of dishes provided by a restaurant (served in sequence). Course menus may vary by season or ingredient availability. Sometimes restaurants have several different course options (in terms of number of dishes offered or types of food included). Some course options will have an all-you-can-drink option included in the price.

Advantages of Courses

  • All of the dishes in your meal have already been determined. No need to look at a menu. Everything will be brought out in sequence.
  • The price is fixed, so you go into the meal knowing exactly how much you’re going to pay (though drinks may be additional, in some cases).
  • You can sample a series of dishes from the restaurant (can be helpful if you’re unsure about what to get).
  • Everybody in your party gets (or perhaps “shares” is a better word) the exact same thing; can help reduce bickering.

Disadvantages of Courses

  • No changing your mind allowed (unless, of course, you want to pay extra). When you get to the restaurant, if you decide you’d like to order an item that is not on the course menu, you’re going to pay the regular price of that item (an additional fee on top of the course fee).
  • Drinks are typically sub-par. If you choose an all-you-can-drink option to go with your course, there’s a very high chance you’re not going to get the best drinks the restaurant has to offer. You’ll get a standard list of cocktails, house wine, and lager beer.
  • If a person in your group has food allergies or other dietary requirements, some restaurants may not be flexible in dealing with requested changes to their course items.
  • If there are any last-minute changes to the number of people you have reserved your course for (people drop out, for example), you may still be responsible for the cost to the restaurant, as they prepared for a set number of people. This varies from restaurant to restaurant.

Which Restaurants Offer Courses and How Do I Book One?

This is the tricky part. If you’ve got zero Japanese skill, it’s gonna be tough (but not impossible). If you’ve got some Japanese (we’re talking katakana here), it’ll be easier. If you’re intermediate-level (JLPT N3-4), you should be fine. If you’re fluent, I assume you already know everything I’m about to explain.

The following guide assumes you are starting your restaurant search from scratch. If you have a restaurant in mind, start from there. 

In this part of the guide, I’m going to use a website called Tabelog. Tabelog is a popular restaurant review website that is widely used in Japan. It is one of a few types of website like this (I’ll talk more about these types of sites in part 2 of this series). I have chosen Tabelog for this section because the English version of the site is more faithful to the Japanese version than other food search websites. Also, users can search for places by moving a map around, an enormously helpful function for people visiting the city. 

I’m going to use a couple of different restaurants throughout this guide, as they illustrate some key points I want to mention. The information you find relating to the restaurants that pique your interest may vary to some degree. 

GUIDE: How to Book a Course Meal with Tabelog

Before we begin, there are a couple of requirements that we need to meet in order to successfully complete our booking:

1) The restaurant must accept bookings online
2) The restaurant must have a course available

We’ll be able to find all of this via Tabelog. Let’s get started.

1. Find a restaurant that interests you

From the homepage of the English Tabelog website, click the applicable city. We’ll use Tokyo for this guide, so click the big “Tokyo” banner. Of course, if you want to use one of the other multitude of search methods provided by Tabelog, go for it. 

tabelog english homepage with arrow pointing to tokyo, eating in tokyo

From here, you can search by restaurants according to popularity (their “ranking”), by area (which is mysteriously labeled “attraction” in the subheading), by sightseeing spot, by type of dining experience, type of food, price, or purpose. Click on whatever you’d like to find. You’ll be taken to a page that looks something like this (I clicked on the “Omotesando” link in the “Attractions” section).

english tabelog map of omotesando area in tokyo, eating in tokyo

You can further make adjustments to your search by selecting a genre, budget, area, etc. Alternatively, you can move the map around to find a location that’s convenient for you. This is INCREDIBLY useful if you’re trying to find something within walking distance of your accommodations.

TIP: Because there’s such a high density of restaurants in Tokyo, the map function oftentimes won’t display all the results in the area. If there’s a particular area you’re planning on visiting or a specific location where you’d like to get something to eat, try zooming in on the area to see if there are any places hidden from the zoomed-out view. You may have to zoom multiple times. Be sure to hit the green “refresh” button at the top of the map so your results refresh as you zoom!

Use these search functions to identify a restaurant you’re interested in (and might like to book a course for). Below is the restaurant I want to use (identified on the map). Of course, you may find one you’re interested in from the list on the left. Click on the title of the restaurant (in blue) to go to the restaurant page.

english tabelog map showing location of w omotesando the cellar grill, eating in tokyo

The restaurant page will give you some basic information about the place. You’ll find a budget estimate (referring to how much customers can expect to spend), contact information, business hours, user reviews (in Japanese), a photo gallery, and other information that may be helpful for your visit. But we need to see if the restaurant offers a course. This is information not provided on the English page. In fact, there’s no menu information at all. Here’s one place where any Japanese skills you have will come in handy.

2. Switch to the Japanese version of Tabelog

To switch the language of the page to Japanese, you’ll need to click the link in the top right corner that says “日本語” (にほんご, nihongo). It’s in the red rectangle in this graphic.

tabelog english page link to japanese language

Clicking that link will take you to the Japanese version of the page. You’ll likely immediately notice that there is considerably more information here than there was on the English page.

3. Can You Make a Reservation Online?

Once you’ve switched to the Japanese version of the restaurant page, you’ll be able to determine if the restaurant you’ve chosen meets one of the  two requirements for this guide: you’ll see whether or not an online booking is possible. Look to the right side of the screen, just below the menu bar. You’ll likely see a phone number. You also need to look for a button below the phone number that will allow you to make a reservation online. Unfortunately, not all restaurants accept online reservations via Tabelog, so we need to choose one that does.

To determine if the restaurant you’ve chosen accepts reservations, take a look at the space below the phone number. Does it look similar to one of these images? Key words to look for are ネット予約(net reservation) and 予約申し込み (apply for a reservation).

reservation application button on tabelog 1

tabelog reservation calendar

The second image shows a calendar; you can choose your desired date (at the top), the number of people (the first drop-down box at the bottom), and the time. For reference, circle marks mean “available,” triangles mean “limited availability” and X marks mean “no availability.”

If you see something like this on the main page of the restaurant, you can make a booking online. You have to check one more thing (see step 4 below). If the restaurant does not have this function, sorry, you won’t be able to make an online booking. You can try looking for another restaurant (or can ask someone to call and make a booking for you, if you can’t speak Japanese).

4. Does the Restaurant Have a Course?

If your restaurant passed the first test, we now need to determine if they have a course available. Remember the word I mentioned at the beginning of this post? コース?It’s on a button on this page (next to the word for menu, メニュー). Click that button (outlined in red below). Of course, if you’re comfortable, you can just hover over that button and click on the コース link directly. 

If the restaurant you have chosen does not have a course available for booking on Tabelog, this is the point where you’ll realize it. When you mouse over the button below, you’ll see コース in the drop down menu. If that option in the menu is greyed out, sorry. Go back to step 1 and find yourself a different restaurant (if you’re bound and determined to book a course, anyway). Of course, you can always visit the restaurant and order from the regular menu.

japanese tabelog page link to menu and course

The course result page shows us one course is available for this particular restaurant. If there are multiple choices, you’ll see a few links on this page. 

tabelog japanese page with course information for omotesando w the cellar grill

You’ll see a price for each available course (in this case, 4,500 yen). In grey below the blue link is the number of people you can reserve a private room for (if the restaurant offers that). The little grey icons to the right of the blue link also have meanings. 9品 means 9 dishes. 品 means dishes in this case, so that means booking this course will get you 9 things to try. The beige icon says 飲み放題、nomihoudai, which means all-you-can-drink. 

This particular course, therefore, is 4500 yen for 9 dishes and includes all-you-can-drink (hey hey, pretty good). Click on the blue link for more details.

japanese tabelog course page for w cellar grill omotesando

I’ve added the English equivalents for the items on the left because you’ll see this information on most course pages. 

Course fee: The price (per person) of the course

# of dishes: The number of dishes included in the course

Permitted length of stay: Most places have a maximum amount of time guests are allowed to sit in the restaurant. Common examples are 90 minutes, 2.5 hours, and 3 hours. This is especially important for restaurants offering all-you-can-drink options. There’s no number listed in my example image. If you see a number, it’ll probably be followed by 分 (minutes) or 時間 (hours). This particular example says 店舗にお問い合わせください, which means “please inquire at the restaurant.” For 9 dishes and an all-you-can-drink, though, it’s pretty safe to bet that this is a 2.5 hour deal.

All-you-can-drink: yes/no. If “yes,” you’ll see あり here. If “no,” you’ll see なし. The above example says あり、so this is included in the price.

Course items: The restaurant can write information about the kinds of things they’ll offer in their course. Sometimes this is quite detailed. In this example, we get very little information. 

If you can read Japanese, you’ll be able to have a look at the items included in the course and make your judgment call about whether or not you’d like to go ahead and book it. If you can’t read Japanese, you have a couple options: 1) learn Japanese, 2) get someone who can read Japanese to help you, 3) use an automatic translation tool. While options 1 and 2 are probably going to be more helpful in the long run, I’m going to assume option 3 is most viable for the majority of non-Japanese speakers reading. So, let’s look at what our friendly Google Translator has to say about this particular listing:

google translate of tabelog course menu

Ah. That’s troublesome. What is a wine curve? And 2H Friedlink?

(I actually started laughing when I saw this result; this was totally unplanned for this guide. We clearly still need translators.)

Google Translate has given us some very limited information. If you can’t read Japanese, you may see a result like this. 

To clarify (and give a rather casual, non-direct translation):

A wine cave-like private room is also available.
Great spot for a group of adults to have a fun time
9 dishes
2 hours free drink
*Details change in accordance with stock/availability
*Please make sure to discuss any issues with us/make your reservation in advance.

Just to compare this translation with a restaurant that offers a more specific menu for their course:

google translation of tabelog course menu

Much better, right? If this menu sounds good to you, by the way, this is a place called Osteria Kikuya that’s on my list of spots to check out (but they don’t accept reservations via Internet, sorry).

Your mileage may vary. If you’re totally stumped, try taking a look at some of the photos posted to the Tabelog page to get an idea of what kinds of things you might be eating if you make a reservation at the restaurant. 

For the sake of this tutorial, let’s say you’ve found a place you’re cool with. To make the booking, you’re going to need to input your information on a reservation form. Of course, you can always make a Tabelog account and save your information that way (note: at the time of writing this guide, you cannot make a Tabelog account on the English site).  

Unfortunately, not all restaurants accept reservations booked online via Tabelog. You need to find a restaurant that offers a course and Internet reservations to make the most of this tutorial, as we talked about earlier in this step-by-step process.

If you’ve found a restaurant you like that has a course and accepts online reservations, great! Let’s move on to the next step: making the booking.

5. Making a Reservation

Let’s refer back to the two images we saw in step 3. There are slightly different approaches to your reservation depending on the way the restaurant requires diners to book. Let’s begin with cases where the reservation button looks like this:

reservation application button on tabelog 1

Start by clicking on the button (with the OpenTable logo).

opentable reservation application step 1

There are really only three things on this page to consider, and they are all to the left of the pink button. From left to right, the fields are: number of people, date, and time. Choose accordingly, then hit the pink button (the button says “search for available seats”). You’ll get a series of times to choose from (near the time you searched for):

step two of making a reservation with open table

Click the time that you’d like to reserve for. You’ll then go to a page where you need to enter some information.

translation of opentable reservation guide

If you want to book the course advertised on the Tabelog page, copy and paste the course title into the “other notes” section. Follow the title of the course with this text:

をお願いします。

This is an expression we can translate as “please.” It’s used when making requests. You’re putting the name of the course before your request, so you can think of this like a pattern that means [course name] please.

If you want to/don’t want to receive emails, alerts, etc., check/uncheck the boxes beneath the fields. When you’re done, click the pink 予約する (reserve) button. Done! You’ll get a confirmation email.

Let’s look at one more way of doing this. Let’s refer back to the other image from step 3:

tabelog reservation calendar

Select the date, number of people, and time you’d like to reserve for. Then, click the yellowish 予約する(reserve) button at the bottom of the box.

tabelog reservation page with english translations

Make sure the course name listed in the “details” section matches the name of the course you want to reserve. If it doesn’t, click the 変更する (change) button on the right and choose the correct course from the list. There’s one more field at the bottom of the reservation page for any notes to the restaurant about your reservation. Clicking the green button at the bottom completes your reservation. Note that when you do so, you agree to all the applicable terms and conditions (which is beyond the scope of this post). But that’s it! You’re done with your reservation!

You’ll get an email confirming your reservation; this will come in handy for the final (and most fun) step.

6. Visiting the Restaurant 

The last step in this process, of course, is to actually go to the restaurant and (hopefully) enjoy your meal. When you walk in to a restaurant and have a reservation, all you have to say is:

[time]時からの予約ですが、「your name」です。

If that’s beyond the scope of your abilities, however, just make sure you have that reservation email handy (printed or on your phone, for example). Show it to the person at reception; find the part that shows your name and the time.

After you’ve been seated, your course will begin. Please note that although your food has already been determined (and staff may provide explanations for each dish as they bring it out), you will still need to make decisions (to some degree) about what to drink. If you don’t speak Japanese and there isn’t an English menu available, stick to simple cocktails (gin tonic, rum coke, etc.), as more complex drinks are usually not permitted in all-you-can-drink settings. Typically a house red wine and a house white wine are available, as is beer. Soft drinks are of course also included, but selection will likely be limited to a couple of types of soda or juice. 

But that’s how to reserve a course using Tabelog! While this is certainly not a perfect system (and it will by no means grant you access to food in every restaurant in Tokyo), I hope that you can use this to enjoy a meal you otherwise might not have been able to.

One note: There are SOME cases where restaurants will ask you to confirm your reservation by clicking a link in the email you receive. I’ve personally had this happen only once (for a very large group). If you’re worried about this, you can try running your email through Google Translate and taking a look at the text that comes before the links included.

Hope you found something of value in Part 1 of this series! Part 2 will take a look at the three most popular restaurant information websites in Japan: Tabelog, Gurunavi, and Hot Pepper!

Karuizawa Dash

It’s been a while.

Since I had a vacation, I mean.

I had grand plans a couple of weeks ago to take an international trip somewhere. I had arranged for some time off of work, had been looking into flights, and had been perusing accommodations for a few days of much-needed relaxation. I was serious. “I’m really going to do it,” I would say to myself, promising that yes, indeed, I would actually give myself some honest enjoyment, even for just a little while.

Of course, as luck would have it, as soon as my body sensed upcoming relief from my responsibilities, my immune system decided that it too would take some time off from defending me from all the plagues I had encountered over the year. On my last day of work before my intended vacation, I lost my voice quite suddenly. Two days later I developed a terrific bout of congestion. Shortly after that came an extraordinarily irritating cough (and thus, an inability to sleep well).

Vacation plans off.

I, however, having still arranged time off, was bound and determined to do SOMETHING for myself. If not an international trip, then what? I’d wanted to get outside Tokyo. I’d wanted the sensation of really traveling; of going somewhere new and doing something out of the ordinary (for me, anyway). I’d wanted to put myself in an environment where I knew close to nothing; where I’d get to be all nooby and touristy again. If I couldn’t do something international, then I was going to take the bullet train somewhere, GOD DAMNIT.

Enter Karuizawa. Admittedly, Karuizawa only fulfills a few of those highly ambitious vacation requirements I listed in that last paragraph, but it was worth a shot.

Karuizawa is a small resort town located in Nagano prefecture. It’s about a 90 minute shinkansen trip from Tokyo, and it has a reputation for being a bit swanky. I’d heard nothing but pleasant things about the place, and I thought it might be good to finally check it out.

So, I did. Sniffles and cough and face mask and all. I picked out a nice looking place (thanks, credit card miles) and booked a hotel room two days before I left. The morning of my departure, I threw a few things into an overnight bag and headed out.

When I arrived at Karuizawa station at around 3:15, it was…brisk. I couldn’t smell anything because my nasal passages were out of commission, but I just knew that the air was probably great and I was MISSING IT. I walked to my hotel, about 10 minutes from the north side of the station, marveling (as I always do when I leave The Big T) at how much SPACE there is in the world.

I checked in, paid a whopping 150 yen fee to use the onsen, went to my room, and excitedly opened the curtains to reveal a patio area that looked out onto a courtyard full of trees in varying shades of beautiful autumn colors.

I took a little time to review my very tentative itinerary for my time there (I did actually have some semblance of a game plan, believe it or not). The first order of business, of course, was food. The hotel had a very nice dinner buffet, but I was more interested in exploring.

Karuizawa has lots of restaurants that are kinda Westerny-fluffy fluffy. I wasn’t really into that; I wanted to eat something local-ish…something I might not otherwise be able to find back at home. I also wanted to eat something extraordinarily unhealthy.

Because vacation.

There was only one answer, and it was ramen. I found a place via Tabelog. I set out from my hotel and took a stroll through the quickly darkening area north of the station, poking around into a few of the shops as I headed toward my dinner spot.

north side karuizawa station nagano japan

I found a place doing desserts and cheeses and beers within about a five minute walk of my hotel. Excellent. The place had a lot of delicious-looking cheese, and I resolved to pick some up before leaving town. I learned there are also a couple of breweries making beer in the area. One, Karuizawa Kogen, is produced by Yoho Brewing, a larger brewery, which is a subsidiary of a resort company. The other is Karuizawa Asama Kogen.  

My ramen shop was south of the station. I passed through the station building itself and emerged on the south side. When I did, I had a few moments of joy followed quickly by a moment of “meh.”

You see, in that moment, I realized that the south side of Karuizawa station is a shopper-friendly sort of place. I am not the type of person who thinks to shop when she travels. In general, I typically hate buying anything that is not consumable, especially when traveling, because it means I have to carry that shit around with me.

No thanks.

When I emerged on the south side of the station, then, my initial moment of joy was caused by the shinyshiny Christmas lights I saw set up over a huge, open lawn. This initial joy was replaced by my “meh” feeling when I saw that the lawn was actually just a giant open space in the middle of an enormous outlet mall. That’s right. Stretched out before me in the midst of all the brisk mountain air and lovely autumn colors were Ralph Lauren and adidas and Coach. But my ramen was in there somewhere, so on I went, accidentally taking the longest possible route to my destination.

christmas lights illumination karuizawa outlet mall nagano japan

It was your typical vending machine-operated ramen shop. It’s advertised as a place that uses local ingredients, and it had good reviews online. It was suspiciously chain shoppy, but by this time, I was hungry, and I was happy to get warm and enjoy something delicious with a beer. I chose not to question its authenticity, submitting myself to the simple pleasure of a deeply unhealthy and deeply satisfying bowl of pork and noodles.

pork ramen and beer karuizawa nagano japan

Thoroughly underwhelmed with the shopping surroundings, after dinner I headed back to my hotel (stopping at aforementioned cheesebeershop for tiramisu and a couple of local beers) for some quality onsen time. Glorious. But alas, my traveling and congestion and ramen and bath had worn me out. I was fighting to stay awake at around 9 PM. Dessert and a beer, then bed it was.

autumn colors leaves trees karuizawa night nagano japan

When I woke in the morning, I enjoyed a cup of green tea on my terrace, headed to the hotel buffet for breakfast, and solidified my game plan for the day. I am well-accustomed to walking EVERYWHERE, so I plotted a route I felt I could manage before heading back to Tokyo that afternoon, and set out (leaving my bag with the hotel reception desk).

I started off at the Karuizawa New Art Museum. It has a free ground level exhibit (rotating) and also has a paid exhibit on the second floor (1000 yen entry). I opted for the full experience; the artwork on feature in the paid exhibition at the time was surrealist. 

Following the art museum, I took another 10 minute walk to nearby Kumoba Pond, which had been described as a good sightseeing spot. When I arrived, I was greeted with some nice trees and…yes, a pond. I spent only a few minutes here before deciding to try for my next location, a historic church, about a 20 minute walk away.

autumn colors trees karuizawa nagano japan

The forest walks were the best part of this experience. Beautiful golden leaves had fallen everywhere, creating a blanket of autumn colors over everything. There was open space and there were mountain roads; I found myself oddly reminded of Oregon. The houses in this part of Karuizawa are huge. People with money build summer homes here and hide from Tokyo’s muggy-sweaty season in comparatively cool Nagano. It was fascinating to see these massive dwellings amidst the beautiful trees; I found myself thinking, “wow, this is really something you don’t see at home, is it?”

Perspective is kinda funny.

I arrived at the church indicated on my sightseeing map (St. Paul’s Catholic Church). Hilariously, directly opposite the church is ANOTHER shopping center (very creatively named Church Street). The sign in front of the church noted that it was for serious churchgoers only (and presumably not a photoshoot location), so I dusted off my Catholicness and went inside, sitting down in the warmth and quiet for a few minutes, alone with my thoughts.

A quick look into the history of Karuizawa shows that the place was popularized by a Canadian missionary in the late 1800s. Many of the sightseeing locations in the area are church/wedding-related, so perhaps this is the reason why. This particular location was small. I sat on a pew, getting warm for a few minutes, and tried to think back to the last time I had voluntarily entered a church.

This stop on my itinerary signaled the end of my morning; it was time for lunch. A quick search pulled up a list of restaurants all concentrated in one area on the opposite side of the intriguing Church Street, so off I went.

There I found Karuizawa Ginza, an old-timey shopping area with lots of local goods, antiques, and some food from the area. My place for lunch was a restaurant that was making a very curious dish; polenta karaage. Not bad.

karuizawa ginza shopping street nagano japan

polenta karaage karuizawa nagano japan

Unfortunately, at this point, it had gotten quite cold and had also started to rain, which was not meshing well with my already less-than-optimal body condition. I, however, not wanting to conclude my trip to Karuizawa without getting at least ONE more spot in, high tailed it up the hill at the end of the shopping street to get a look at one more church (Shaw Chapel) before making my way back down to my hotel. By then, it was raining properly. I was ready to be done. There were a few other things I had hoped to be able to see, but given the weather, I made the executive decision to throw in the towel. Just then, as if on cue, my phone started notifying me that work indeed still existed.

Alas. Me time over.

By the time I got back to my hotel, the rain had really started to come down, and I was feeling pretty low. A taxi took me to the station, where I spaced out for a bit before picking up some souvenir snacks for friends (as well as a few souvenir beers for yours truly). I got on my train and headed home, glad that if nothing else, I had at least spent 23 hours doing something solely for myself.

My takeaway from Karuizawa is that it is a lovely spot, particularly if you are the shoppy-shoppy-travel type. I am not, but was perfectly happy with my experience because I got what I wanted out of it: a shinkansen ride, some good food, an onsen, to see something beautiful, to see something new, and to go to a place I had never been. The trip, in some ways, did what it needed to do. Am I gonna go back? Eh, maybe. It’s not high on my list, but if I’m in need of a little mountain getaway, sure. Thinking about it now, though, I suppose I have to go back at some point.

I totally forgot to buy cheese.

Photo Post: Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Hello reader, long time no blog. Today I’m posting a series of photos I took this spring. I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in West Tokyo. As the name suggests, the museum is an outdoor experience where visitors can check out a series of different structures. Admission is cheap (400 yen for adults, free for children), and it’s a great day trip from central Tokyo. I had the good fortune of visiting on the anniversary of the museum’s opening, which meant a free bus from the station was available and admission was also waived. The museum is roughly a 20 minute ride on the Chuo line from Shinjuku. After that is a short bus trip from Musashi-Koganei station.

When I arrived, I initially thought I’d be wandering between buildings, admiring them from the outside. I was pleasantly surprised to find that visitors are meant to enter structures and poke around. Note: visitors must remove shoes if they wish to enter a building. If you’re planning on visiting the museum, I highly recommend wearing shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Most visitors chose to leave their shoes in the entryway of each building, but if you’re worried about someone stealing them, the museum also provides a plastic bag (at the entrance of the museum building) so that you can carry them with you as you wander around inside the homes.

The museum has some signage available in English, but the volunteers and activities throughout the museum seem to be Japanese only. At certain times of day, there are viewer participation events, such as story telling, volunteer lectures, old-style photo shoots, etc. The pace of the museum is very relaxed. On the day I visited, it seemed most visitors were either retired folks or families with young children. A handful of tourists were also there as well. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the explaining for me. All images were edited in Adobe Lightroom. Hope you enjoy!

BIG TICKET (IC card series #5)

Hello again, and welcome to post 5 of 5 of the magical IC card series. This is part of an effort to help educate people visiting Japan on the magic of the IC Card. In East Japan, we use cards called PASMO and Suica. I’ve loved my Suica for years, so I’m here writing about how to get it and use it! If you missed them, part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 are all available for your viewing pleasure.

As promised in the beginning of this series, my last post on this subject (for now, I guess) will be a somewhat embarrassing story that will hopefully help you understand why you ought to get an IC card. Let us begin the tale of “Big Ticket.”

In July 2009, my awesome grandmother and I had flown in to Narita together and had taken the “Airport Limousine” to our hotel. In an attempt to put something nutritious in our bodies, we went to the hotel restaurant right away. I, horribly jet lagged from my first ever international flight, was delirious and somewhat nauseated. I ordered something and stared at it, willing my body to eat it. My brain was in overload from all the new things and I could feel myself shutting down.

My grandmother asked me to ask the cook (who was in front of us at this particular restaurant) if there was any meat in the spaghetti.

I have absolutely no idea what I said. It was, I think, my first ever interaction with a local Japanese person with very little experience speaking to international people. I was exhausted. My grandmother ended up getting the spaghetti, but I don’t know whether or not there was any meat in it. Following our dinner, we went up to the hotel room. I promptly went to bed.

The next day was my first ever day in Japan. I, at 22, was a ball of excitement, terror, jet lag, and sweat (it was July; summers here are brutal). My grandmother and I headed off to our first day of HATO BUS tours. We had a fantastic day. This is an actual picture from that afternoon, taken from one of my first blog posts. I am all that is tourist.

July 20 2009, Alisha at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo

When it was time to go home, our tour guide showed us the nearest subway station that would get us home. My grandmother and I headed inside, went right to the nearest ticket machine, and bought tickets. I remembered what I had read online about fares for tickets in Tokyo. Many resources suggested, “If you don’t know the exact fare you need to get to where you’re going, just buy the cheapest ticket and then adjust your fare when you get there.”

This was what we did. I bought us a couple of the cheapest tickets possible from the ticket machine. We then walked to the subway line we needed to take, pushed our paper tickets into the turnstiles, and got an error. We took the tickets over to the station staff at the window. I, still seemingly in an “I haven’t wrapped my head around how to communicate effectively in another language” daze, offered no explanation other than a confused stare. The staff guy, looking bored and somewhat irritated, grabbed these large, boarding-pass sized pieces of paper and hole-punched them in a few key places before handing them to my grandmother and I and waving us through the ticket gates. I was quite puzzled, but it seemed we were through, so we headed on our way.

Upon arriving at our station, we headed for the exit to our hotel. It was there, at an unstaffed ticket gate, that my grandmother and I became stymied. We had only our large scantronlike papers to show that we had, indeed, paid a fare, however, we could not use these papers in the turnstiles, nor was there a human to speak to. We stood there at the exit, wondering what to do. I began considering throwing my body through the barrier as fast as possible. While we were standing around, however, a voice suddenly rang out from a nearby intercom in a wall.

I do not remember what the voice said. I only remember being utterly baffled by the whole situation. I had never read about this online and had never been told what to do if a voice suddenly began speaking to you from a wall. Looking back on it, it was not unlike several of the scenes in Labyrinth where Jennifer Connelly’s character has to negotiate with various wall-bound creatures to continue on her quest to retrieve her little brother.

In this case, however, I, hopelessly confused, jet lagged, tired, and sweaty from international travel and a day of touring, failed miserably. The voice from the intercom said a number of things I didn’t understand and don’t remember. Finally (after what I assume were repeated “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”s on my part), the voice paused before booming in English,

“BIG TICKET?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed.

More chatter followed, of which I processed zero. After a couple minutes of this hopeless exchange a man appeared in his station uniform to rescue my grandmother and I. He kindly collected our BIG TICKETS and let us out of the gates. I, mortified, and wondering what the hell I had been doing for the last four years “studying Japanese” at university, trudged with my grandmother back to the hotel room for the night.

It’s only now, reflecting on this experience, that I realize what must have happened. I believe the station my grandmother and I departed from had two different subway lines running through it operated by two different companies. If you visit Tokyo, you’ll find that there are public and private train and subway lines. There’s JR, Tokyo Metro, Keio, Toei, and Seibu, to name a few, and each of them uses their own ticketing/fare system. Paper tickets are not interchangeable between service providers.

I’m guessing that when we entered the subway station and headed for the ticket vending machines, my grandmother and I purchased tickets for one line and attempted to use those tickets on another line. That prompted the “error” upon using the regular paper ticket at the turnstile and the exchange for the BIG TICKET. Then, we had the misfortune of choosing an exit at our destination where there was no staff window. Instead, we had an odd exchange with a station staffer through an intercom.

If I’d had an IC Card, none of these things would have happened. In fact, hopping around the city in general would have been a much easier process for my grandmother and I. I wish we’d had the convenience of a Suica or PASMO during that first week. While yes, it did force me to learn currency denominations, train routes, and ticket purchasing quickly, I did it through a series of somewhat embarrassing situations.

So, reader, if you’re planning to visit Japan, do yourself a favor and pick up an IC card. Don’t let BIG TICKET happen to you.

This post concludes my five post series about IC cards in Japan. I hope the information has been useful, particularly for people visiting! I even learned a few new things myself through some research I did for these posts. If you have any questions, feel free to comment here, check out the JR websites, or explore the internet for more resources! The system is very handy and is something I rely on literally every day. Thanks very much for reading. May your travels in (East) Japan be “sui sui”!

CHARGE! (IC card series #4)

Hello again, it’s time for Post #4 of my five post series about IC cards! If you missed them, Parts 1, 2, and 3 are all available for your viewing pleasure. Today’s post will be short and sweet, much like charging an IC card. This is something you have to do periodically if you expect to continue using your card and enjoying your “sui sui” life.

Whenever you make a purchase or use your card for transportation, you can check the balance on the card. If you’re shopping, you’ll see the card balance at the bottom of your receipt beneath the prices of the items you’ve purchased.

If you’re using your card for transportation, you can check the balance on the panel on the subway/train turnstiles as you enter and exit the platform area.

If you just want to check your card without using it, you can just stick it in any ticket vending machine and wait a few seconds. Depending on the machine, you may be asked if you want to “charge” your card (say yes), or you may just be automatically taken to the “charge” screen. On the screen, below where all the “charge” options are, you’ll see your current card balance.

If, in any of these cases, your balance is starting to get a little low, congratulations! You have to charge your card.

If you’re paying attention, I’ve already told you two thirds of the things you need to do to accomplish this task.

1) Stick card in ticket vending machine at any station. The slot you want to put your card in should be on the left. It is often marked with an IC card logo, as below. You only need to be at a JR station when you BUY your card. You can charge the cards at just about any ticket vending machine at any station anywhere. Just look for a “PASMO” or “SUICA” symbol on the machine (or your local IC card logo).

A ticket vending machine in Tokyo

2) If you are not taken there automatically upon inserting your card, push the “charge” button (use the English function if you like, but this button is usually the big button on the top of the screen that says チャージ)

3) Choose how much you’d like to charge your card with. You’ll have a number of options on the screen.

4) Put your money in the vending machine.

(4.5) Print a receipt if you want to.

5) Take your card. Continue to frolic throughout the country.

That’s all there is to it.

The only times I have encountered problems are due to technical difficulties. I had an old Suica that was getting rather worn out. When I inserted the card into the machine and initiated the charge, the machine wouldn’t spit it back out. A staff guy opened up the little door behind the vending machine within a few minutes to let me know things were being taken care of and I’d have my card back soon. They used a highly technologically advanced process in an attempt to repair the damage to my card (scotch tape).

The other time I ran into a problem was simply because the machine was out of change. I used a 5,000 yen note to charge my card with 1000 yen or so, but the machine was out of 1000 yen bills. Again, staff guys suddenly appeared to fix me right up. Should this happen to you, chances are you can just nod and smile and you’ll be good to go within a couple minutes.

A few more interesting little notes about charging your card: there is a limit. 20,000 yen (around $200) is the maximum amount you can charge an IC card with at any given time. I suppose this is to prevent serious headaches should people (like me) drop their cards and need a refund.

Another good thing to keep in mind is that the balance on the card is good for up to 10 years. That means if you’re planning on traveling to and from the country multiple times a year, or know you’ll be visiting a lot in the future, you can pick up your card once and use it long term.

If you know you won’t be back, or simply don’t want your card anymore, you can turn your card in with the station staff. There is a 210 yen charge for doing this. You pay a 500 yen deposit when you initially purchase your IC card,so if there’s no balance on the thing, you’ll pay the 210 yen fee from this 500 yen deposit, I believe. If there’s any balance left on the card after this, you’ll get it back in cash.

To my understanding, it is also possible to link a Suica card with a Japanese credit card, but I do not have personal experience with this system. It seems pretty handy; never having to stop to recharge your card, always having money at the ready wherever you go, a bit like a touch-debit card. I imagine most tourists will not be carrying a Japanese credit card, so it seems unlikely this service will be available to visitors. Long term residents, however, might have more luck with this. You’ll have to explore that one on your own.

Okay! That means the next post on the topic is my last post in the series! I hope you read it and learn from a mistake I made on my first day in the country. It wasn’t such a huge mistake in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly stuck with me. Maybe it’ll stick with you too as a good thing NOT to do.

 

IC Card Shopping (IC card series #3)

This is post #3 in my five post series about the magic of the “IC Card” (parts 1 and 2 available for your viewing pleasure as well, of course). Although this post series focuses largely on the “Suica” and “PASMO” cards commonly used in East Japan, there are other cards throughout the country!

This post will focus on the use of the IC card for shopping!

I’ll admit it. I rarely use my IC card to shop. There are two reasons.

1) I always have cash.

2) I never have much money on my card because I am always afraid I’m going to drop it.

I DID drop a Suica once in Ikebukuro station. As best I can remember, the card escaped from my purse as I was pulling my phone from the same pocket where the Suica was stored. The Suica came out at the same time as my phone and dropped to the floor. Ikebukuro is a noisy, busy station, so I didn’t noticed until a few minutes later (I think) when I approached the ticket gate and couldn’t find my card. I immediately inquired at the nearest station desk about any very recently found Suica cards, but was out of luck. I swore loudly at the $20 my clumsiness had just cost me.

I’m now more careful with my Suica (it’s kinda like a super fast debit card), but I still only keep around 1000 yen on it at any given time. I’m just sure that when I finally do charge it again I’ll drop the thing and then be out money.

People say “Get a case! Then you can attach it to your bag!”

 I have a case. It was a gift from a place where I worked for a couple months on a short term project. I…cannot seriously see myself using this.

Pink IC card case from Samantha Thavasa

Also, getting the card in and out is NOT easy. Perhaps there is a better case out there for me somewhere. I digress. Kind of. If you’re anything like me, perhaps you should get a card case.

So, shopping. Last week I headed to Tokyo station with a charged-up PASMO card with 10,000 yen. It came from a magical land about which I am not permitted to write.

While at Tokyo station, myself and the lovely Vivian (of lost in seoul) were taken to a shop I had never seen before: The “Pengsta” shop.

Pengsta, the Suica Shop in Tokyo Station

As I mentioned in post 1 of this series, Suica’s mascot (GOTTA HAVE A MASCOT) is a penguin. Apparently, according to Suica’s wikipedia page, penguins move smoothly through water, much like the smooth way passengers and shoppers use their IC cards.

Come on, JR. You picked a penguin because it’s cute. I’m on to you.

Additionally, the wikipedia also states that “sui sui”, the onomatopoeia which translates roughly to doing something “smoothly” or “swiftly” figured into the naming of the card. This suggests that users can “smoothly” use their card in a number of places.

My experiences were all “smooth” and “swift” and “penguin-like”. I even probably waddled a few times.

Now. Let us begin. Here are some things you can buy.

NOTE: IF YOU LIVE IN AMERICA AND KNOW YOU ARE GOING TO BE RECEIVING A PACKAGE FROM ME, STOP READING NOW AND WAIT UNTIL YOU GET YOUR PACKAGE. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. MOM.

(happy birthday)

BEGIN!

First! A Suica Penguin hotpad. I chose him for his somewhat reserved expression. I look forward to using this hotpad in my kitchen. I’m sure I’ll create some very disturbing penguin-torture dialogue when I have to use it to interact with very hot items.

IMG_5172[1]

Next!

INSIDE Tokyo station (you have to pass through the ticket gates to enter) is Gransta, a shopping area where you can buy food, souvenirs, flowers, and…beer.

Iwate Kura Stout Beer, Tokyo Station

I’d heard of this little standing bar a few times before, but I’m rarely on the east side of the city, so I’d never had the inclination to come and check it out. A few minutes of poking around and I located the place behind some bread/confectionary sellers. They advertise more than 100 different kinds of craft beer! I was thrilled. This little counter is standing only. It’s like the airport bar of train stations. When I walked up and ordered, the woman next to me chatted with me briefly for a few minutes before heading off to catch her train.

With a beer in me, I then set out to pick up a few consumable goodies for some special folk back in the states!

Behold.

Animal Themed Chocolate Boxes
Rose Dessert Cakes
Chocolate Crunch Bars

Finally, I also picked up a hunk of rosemary foccacia bread because I am weak.

Rosemary Foccacia Bread

With that, I scurried out of the Gransta shopping area and off to my subway home.

In addition to using my card at the station shops, I used it at a nearby family mart to pick up some things. The JR East website has a big list of places where you can use your card for shopping and dining both inside stations and outside stations (in Japanese, but you can look at the logos for quick reference). This includes bookstores like Kinokuniya and Book off, Bic Camera, and Yodobashi Camera. I was also informed that the restaurants in Lumine EST (a popular shopping location for young women in Shinjuku) also accepts IC cards.

If you’re ever unsure if a place will take an IC card, just look next to the register for an IC card reader. Alternatively, many places also have a sticker near the register with a Suica/IC card symbol to show that the cards are accepted. Here’s one I spotted at my local supermarket.

IC Card reader at a supermarket in Tokyo

One more thing that amazes me is the HOME IC Card reader. I do not have experience with this, but I know it’s possible: if you buy an IC card reader (yes, you can do this), you can use an IC card for internet shopping (with merchants who accept them). Some computers in Japan also come with built in IC Card readers. I often read about expats in Japan who face online-shopping related struggles because credit cards can be difficult to get (that’s a whole other topic). IC Cards COULD be a good solution, provided the online place you’re shopping will accept that form of payment.

I made a pretty big dent in my PASMO balance in Tokyo station, but still had more to spend! I used the rest over the following week for transportation and drinks/snacks here and there. It’s a time saver, for sure. Be sure to take advantage of this handy feature. Shops inside stations will all accept IC cards, so go crazy! If you run out of money…Post #4 will be a quick tutorial on arguably the most important part of being an IC card owner: charging your card.