How to take a trip

By Lawrence I. Charters

At Your Leisure, March 1986, p. 11

There is a credit card company back in the U.S. famous for its commercials. According to these ads, their credit card will make anyone welcome almost anywhere in the world, so “don’t leave home without it.” While this may not be a bad idea, in Japan there is something far more valuable: cash. Specifically, yen.

Some months ago, an entire bus load of sailors from a visiting ship came close to starvation on a trip to Tokyo. They were well supplied with credit cards, but businesses in Japan rarely accept such cards. Personal checks are virtually unknown, so were also useless. They had lots of dollars, but found them about as welcome as ¥1,000 notes would be back in Detroit. A few had converted $15- $20 into yen, but with shops charging ¥400 for a cup of coffee or a Coke, this didn’t quite add up to a good time in Tokyo for 40 sailors.

Travel Tip #1: take plenty of yen. Virtually everything costs more in Japan than the U.S. , so double or triple your estimate of how much you should carry (and use the excess for goodies). Note, too, that base clubs will convert dollars to yen, and are open on weekends and nights, so don’t despair if the bank has closed.

If you do find a place that accepts credit cards, keep in mind many card companies have special service charges for overseas transactions. One card holder discovered an ¥ 8,000 wood block print cost over $90 by the time the bank included all service and currency conversion charges. Cash – yen – is cheaper.

Knowing where you are going is always a big help. If friends talk about visiting Nikko, or seeing a festival in Nagasaki, it helps if you know these are not local attractions. True, China Pete’s, Pony’s and Yokota Air Base may all be within 40 miles of Yokosuka, and even at 55 m.p.h. this wouldn’t be much of a trip back home. But you can’t travel at 55 m.p.h. , and this certainly isn’t “back home.”

Travel Tip #2: visit the Intercultural Relations (ICR) Office in the Family Service Center, and check out the maps for sale in the Stars & Stripes Bookstore and Mini-Mart. The ICR has a limited number of handouts describing how to drive to local attractions, and the bookstore and Mini-Mart sell nice English-language maps of places around Japan. In particular, the maps of Tokyo and Kamakura (which includes Yokosuka) are good for figuring out where things are located, though they don’t pinpoint the inevitable traffic jams or show the ”back road” to Atsugi.

Knowing what to expect is not a bad idea, either. If you sign up for a Mt. Fuji climbing tour, it’s a safe bet this is more strenuous than an evening of bowling. Fuji-san is the tallest mountain in Japan, so wearing sandals and carrying an 80-pound boom box probably would not be a good idea. Similarly, a ski trip to Kusatsu or a trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival is probably not the best time for short-sleeve shirts and leather-soled shoes.

Travel Tip #3: read. Virtually all tours offered by MWR includes a handout describing what you should bring. These handouts make excellent paper airplanes, but they make even better reading. If the handout states a tour will be staying at a traditional Japanese inn, don’t act surprised when you have to share your room, sleep on the floor, and use communal bathroom facilities. If you don’t understand something — ask.

Trips to cultural sites can be even more rewarding if you do some additional research. Both the Stars & Stripes Bookstore and the Mini-Mart sell a variety of inexpensive books on Japan, and the base library has an extensive collection of books on Japanese history, culture and language. One of the library’s gems is the Encyclopedia of Japan, a massive nine-volume reference set packed with short descriptions of shrines and temples, historical figures, and other cultural tidbits. Touring almost anywhere is more fun if you know something about the place, and it takes very little effort.

Travel Tip #4: develop an appreciation for time. Don’t be in a rush when you’re taking a trip, since you should be concentrating on enjoying yourself, not winning a race. On the other hand, if you are on a tour and the guide says “The bus will leave at 3:00 p.m.,” you won’t make any friends if you force the bus — and everyone on it — to wait.

Time is different in Japan than the U.S. Things 300 years old can sometimes be considered “modern,” and the pace of life is different. Learn to appreciate the differences, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding — and enjoying — this ancient nation.

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