Jet Lag and Train Life

In a somewhat mischievous way, Chris was eager to see me encounter two things upon my arrival in Japan – jet lag and culture shock.


Dude, where’s my lost day?

While a 15 hour time difference is staggering, great advice from Rick Steves (a man whose life I’d love to have – he makes a living traveling to Europe and telling the tales in fantastic guide books) helped me get jet lag under control :

Leave home well rested… use the flight to rest and reset… on arrival, stay awake until an early local bedtime…

Rick Steves : Conquering Jet Lag

Rick is right – staying up is the key to getting off on the right foot.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t feeling hungover on my first full day in Tokyo, but at least I didn’t want to sleep while I supposed to be awake (and vice versa.)

What time is it in Tokyo?  Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.
What time is it in Tokyo? Take the current time in Saskatchewan, add three hours, and flip AM to PM or PM to AM.

Adjusting to being awake while North America sleeps surprisingly wasn’t hard at first.  The only time the 15 hour gap was hammered home was when I would post something to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram only to get zero interaction. Afternoon coffee in Tokyo is a little lonely when everyone else around you is texting up a storm and your entire social network is just hitting its REM cycle.  It wouldn’t be until I was sound asleep (and North America was just getting to work) that my phone would start vibrating, gyrating and flashing like a strobe light.

As for the culture shock, I thought I was pretty well prepared.  I mean, I read the guides and had an idea of the social niceties that I needed to adhere to in order to not make a fool of myself – with possibly enough etiquette tips under my belt to wow locals who’ve seen the crazy gaijin do abhorrent things.

And overall, I passed with flying colours on the Miss Manners test (save for wearing my shoes in to a change room at an H&M – that had the young woman who was showing me in frantically trying to explain – in the most pleasant way possible – my clodhoppers needed to be removed.)

Where the real culture shock came in Japan was in the daily life – how Japanese people go about their day versus what we know as a typical day here at home.  Let me explain one example.

Train Life

Sure, there are corridors of North America where the train is a major part of daily life – whether it’s on the GO Trains in the Greater Toronto Area, or the various transit systems that link parts of the US eastern seaboard.  Even in Europe, London and Paris move at the pace of transit

But in Japan, the experience is so much more intense.

Train life is synonymous with work life in Japan.

Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station - near Chris' place - for the daily commute in to work.
Commuters stream in to Musashinodai Station – near Chris’ place – for the daily commute in to work.

For some “salarymen” in the big cities like Tokyo, work starts early, work ends late, and work can be very, very stressful.  After-work socializing is part of the daily cycle, and depending how late that goes is sometimes dependent on how stressful the day has been (just like here.)

The difference is that the train lines that criss-cross the greater Tokyo area turn in to a giant pumpkin around 1:00am.

If you miss the last train, there are options.  Cabs exist – but are expensive.  You can stagger to a capsule hotel, but the desire to be in one’s own bed is often paramount.  As a result, the party starts (and ends) early.

Train commutes can take over an hour to get from where one works to where one lives.  As the night goes on, the number of people trying to get out of the city and back to the “burbs” grows.  Exponentially.  And the trains become more and more packed like sardine cans.

White glove-clad railway employees – called pushers – staff platforms at most of the major train stations.  Their job is to cram every last body inside the train cars, and ensure that when the doors close, no one is left dangling outside.  Any aversion you have to people entering your “personal space” is best left on the luggage carousel at Narita, because in Tokyo personal space is limited to the physical area your body takes up (and even that can be negotiable.)  Taking the train in Tokyo can be like a gigantic group hug that you’ve just paid ¥300 for.

A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.
A crowd of commuters disembark the Keio Line at Shinjuku Station.

Inside commuter trains during peak periods in the early morning and late at night, it’s a surreal scene.

The first thing you notice is the dead silence (at least during the morning and midday – at night, salarymen who have “kampai”d one too many times can sometimes get a little giddy, especially if they’re in groups of two or more.)  Silence is treasured – so much so, most major train companies have instituted “quiet zones” on cars where no talking is allowed and cellphones are verboten.

Across the rest of the train, you find that people have their own routines when it comes to keeping themselves occupied during commutes that can range anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes (if not longer) to get from home to work.

Paperback books sell for about ¥500 (C$5) and are very popular as a way to kill time. Also very popular – privacy covers which wrap around the outside of the book to keep prying eyes from seeing whether the reader is thumbing a crime novel or a smutty romance.  eReaders, as it happens, are more uncommon on trains as the price point of printed novels is much cheaper than eBooks, especially at used book stores like Book-Off.

Some people load up Android phablets or iPad Minis with their favourite TV shows and binge watch on the commute to work.  Some with Android phones and older “Galapagos” flip phones can even watch live TV as they make their way from point A to point B.

Enjoy some Japanese TV commercials

Cell phones help distract in other ways on the commute.  Cell service is alive and well – even in the depths of Tokyo’s subway network – meaning people can chat back and forth on a cross-platform messaging service like the popular Line, or keep up to date on Twitter and Facebook.  Talking on the phone is a massive etiquette no-no.

Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.
Line is a popular instant messaging application used by young and old in Japan.

If you aren’t keeping yourself occupied with some form of entertainment, there is always the alternative – sleep.  It’s amazing to see how people sleep on Tokyo trains and subways.  Sitting down.  Standing up.  Holding on to handrails.  Standing against train doors. Squished between total strangers. (It’s not uncommon – nor is it unacceptable – for someone’s head to fall on to your shoulder as they doze off.  You just roll with it.)

I actually saw one guy standing int he doorway of a train car, and I was certain he was going to fall out on to the platform (he stayed upright.)

Sleeping on the train is not hard to do – the gentle rocking of the train lulls you in to a daze, especially after a long day of pounding the pavement.  My eyes closed many times and it was relaxing.  Surprisingly, people seem to wake up just before they reach their destination.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. There is something oddly relaxing about sleeping on a commuter train.

And all of this goes on while people are often packed shoulder to shoulder on trains – often shifting their weight on the balls of their feet (and for the real pros – without hanging on to a train strap) as the trains rumble down the line.

Train culture gives you great insight in to a lot of the other dynamics of Japanese culture.  You gain an appreciation for how people move, how people interact, and the discipline people have about them – all things I’ll talk about in other blog posts.

For a prairie boy (who – mind you – has been on public transit in London, Paris, New York, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles), it was all a little overwhelming at first and definitely something to soak in.  Culture shock?  Yep!  But a big part of the Japan experience.

Planning for Japan

Planning for a trip is one of the things I love to do.  It puts me in my happy place.  It makes the idea of going somewhere real.

I love researching sights and destinations, collecting thoughts and opinions from others, and pulling together an itinerary that I think is going to give me as real of a taste of normal-everyday-life in the place I’m traveling to.

Of course, once on the ground you need to be flexible to make changes to your itinerary, otherwise you risk missing out on those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you could never plan for.

But even though it’s all subject to change, planning for a trip gives me as much of a rush as when I step foot on to the skybridge to the jet.


While not an exhaustive list of planning advice (there are guide books and websites for all of that), here are some tips from my trip to Japan that you could apply toward a trip there (or anywhere for that matter.)


Plane Tickets

I pulled the trigger a little early on my tickets – costing me about an extra $300 in the process (I missed out on a seat sale about four weeks before leaving.)  Total cost of the flight was just over $1300, although I was willing to spend up to $1600 for a roundtrip ticket.

Getting ready for takeoff.

From Saskatchewan, it’s a bit of an exercise – having to end up in Vancouver before AC3 takes off direct to Narita.  I lucked out with the fall timetable, but might have to book a full day off to make the connections come spring 2014.



If you’re going to Japan on a tourist visa from Canada, you don’t need to get any prior permission from the Japanese government.  Like the US or the UK, you acquire your visa upon arrival in the country if you are a Canadian citizen.  Customs was a breeze – you fill out two landing cards, with part of one of them being stapled in to your passport.  You are photographed and fingerprinted upon arrival.

Leaving Narita, your departure card is removed from your passport and you are stamped out.

The big “must-do” thing when it comes to being a foreigner in Japan is keeping your passport with you at all times.  While I wasn’t hassled for it, police can request to see it and you need to be able to produce it.  Also, it’s needed when you are checking in at hotels (just like in Europe.)


Plot It Out!

One of the things I learned on our trip to London and Paris was to use Google Maps to create a custom map plotting out the location of the attractions I want to see.

View Japan 2013 (Classic) in a larger map

Doing this will help visualize which roads/transit lines things are located along, and can help in grouping attractions when planning an itinerary.  It can also help in choosing a hotel.


About Hotels…

Because I stayed with Chris for most of the trip, hotels weren’t as big of the planning process this time around as they have been in the past.  But, I still stuck with my tried-and-trusted method of trying to find places to stay that are close to the action, within budget, and that have decent photos on TripAdvisor.

I’ve reviewed the hotels we stayed at in Utsunomiya and Osaka (both were very good!) on TripAdvisor if you’re curious about where we stayed.


Getting Around

Understanding how transit works before you get on the ground is important for any destination – and doubly so for a place where language can be a barrier like in Japan.

Public transit is the way to go when it comes to getting around in Japan.

For travel to Japan, there is one discount pass that gets a lot of buzz – the JR Rail Pass.

A 7-day JR Rail Pass will cost ¥28,300, or roughly about $300.
A 7-day JR Rail Pass will cost ¥28,300, or roughly about $300.

It provides unlimited travel on JR Rail-owned trains for a specific period of time (7, 14 or 21 days.)  It’s handy, and can easily pay for itself if you end up making long distance trips outside of Tokyo (or wherever you end up spending most of your time.)  When you consider a one-way ticket on the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo costs roughly C$200, the C$300 price of a 7-day pass makes a lot of sense.

However, the catch is that in Tokyo (and other cities), not all trains are operated by JR Rail.  Subways and some suburban lines around Tokyo are operated by different operators who will not accept the JR Rail Pass.  As a result, getting the pass for the period of your adventure where you’ll be traveling long distances is probably the smartest thing to do. Use it when you can in Tokyo (or other cities) when taking local JR trains, but be ready to ante up when using services offered by other companies.

For the rest of those public transit travels, do as the locals do and get one of the two local smart cards that are used for transit in the Tokyo area – SUICA and PASMO.

PASMO and SUICA make transit easy.

You don’t need to know much other than they are interchangeable with each other, can easily be refilled with cash at ATM-like machines.  Because transit fares are calculated by distance traveled, it’s really handy that SUICA and PASMO automagically figure out the fare for your trip on a train, bus, or other form of public transit when you tap-in and tap-out of a transit station.

Another benefit to using the cashless cards is with recent changes in Japan, your transit smart card you bought in Tokyo can be used in other cities – like Osaka – when you go to use forms of transit like the subway.  (It can also be used at vending machines, convenience stores and other retail outlets as a form of cashless payment – which is handy when you’re thirsty but don’t have a ¥100 coin on you!)

For my two week stay in Japan, I ended up spending about C$100-120 filling up my PASMO card for travel on private train lines like Keio (which connects Chris’ part of the city to downtown Tokyo) and other lines.

There are times where other forms of transportation might be cheaper than taking the train.  For our trip to Osaka, we booked with the airline Jetstar – which is a no-frills, low-cost carrier in Japan and Australia.  For about C$70 one-way per person, we were able to fly (with one checked bag) from Narita to Osaka.  Even with the C$30 Narita Express train from Shinjuku Station, Jetstar still came in much cheaper than taking the Shinkansen to get there.

JR Rail’s Narita Express makes travel to the airport easy.

Once you know your itinerary and the cities you plan on traveling to, figuring out your mix of transportation becomes clear pretty fast.


Like I said, this is by no means an exhaustive list of the planning I did for my Japan adventure (and Chris has way more background on his blog about the things he had to do in order to make his working holiday a reality.)  But it is a starter guide if you’re looking at embarking on a similar trip.

“A trip of a lifetime…”

My Dad caught me off guard the other day when we were talking about my recent 17 day stay in Japan – he called it a “trip of a lifetime.”  It was startling because in so many ways, travel is one of those things to me that is no different than picking up milk from the store – it’s on the shelf waiting to be purchased and experienced… one just has to do it.

But Dad has a point – even if I go back to Japan (and I’m planning to in the new year), it won’t be the same as the first time.  It never is the same.  And, given the circumstances around my travel, it truly is an experience that will be hard to replicate in 10 or 15 years.

Chris – fearless adventurer!

At the start of November, Chris did something that I think a lot of us dream about doing.  With the calendar not willing to pause, time was running out on his ability to make a dream come true – living in Tokyo.  Ever since the first time we met for coffee, it was on his bucket list.

“I want to have an apartment in Tokyo,” he told me.

Well, making that dream a reality was something he had been researching for the past 18 months.  At the end of September, he left the company he had been working for over the last three years to embark on an adventure of his own to set up shop for the next year in Tokyo on a working holiday visa.  The proverbial clock was ticking – you need to be under the age of 30 in order to obtain the visa, and he was on the wrong side of 25 when it came to putting things off.

So, on November 1, he ditched many of his possessions (with the keep pile ending in partially at my place and partially at his mom’s), packed his bags, and hopped on an Air Canada flight bound for Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.  (I make it sound so simple, but there was a good 12 months of planning that led up to it that you can read all about on his blog – and I highly encourage it!)


Six days later, I also hopped on an Air Canada plane bound for Narita.  However, my adventure would not be as long as his will be – 17 days versus 365.  And what an adventure it was.

I’d experience a whole host of new things – from gorging on sashimi at a neighbourhood sushi bar (the mom of one of Chris’ Japanese friends invited us out), to naked bathing at a traditional hot spring, to being in two magnitude 5+ earthquakes.  Japan would push my comfort zone to its limits, and open me up to a new way of looking at the world.

And the “never to be repeated” quality to it all?  Well, the time is ticking on Chris’ stay in Japan.  And while the planes will still fly there 10 to 15 years from now, being able to stay the way I did – where I did, it won’t be replicated.

“A trip of a lifetime,” indeed.


Since I’ve been home, some people have rolled their eyes or scoffed when I bring up Japan.  I’m unapologetic about relating my time there – it is an experience that has left an indelible stamp on me.  It’s something I can’t shake.  Like the humidity in your clothes, it kind of lingers for a while.  Blogging about it will help me collect my thoughts about the whole experience.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing my notes from Japan – it’ll range in tone from traditional “trip reports” you’d find on any other travel blog, to some practical information for people thinking about embarking on a similar adventure.

I can’t wait to share it all with you.