Categories
Architecture Tips

Japanese architecture, sign up for free courses

The Japanese architect Tadao Ando has been asked to work on an extension of the Kröller-Müller museum in The Nederlands. Internationally, Ando is probably the best known figure in Japanese architecture. “Ando designs extremely meticulous buildings that show respect for nature and are enormously spacious”, said the spokesman for the Kröller-Müller museum on Architectenweb.

Tadao Ando Endeavours poster

For me, urban architecture is one of the motivations behind my little love affair with Japan. In 2017 I went to Ibaraki (near Osaka) to see Ando’s world famous “Church of the Light”, his museum on the island of Naoshima and the incredibly impressive retrospecitve exhibition “Tadao Ando: Endeavours” at the National Art Museum in Tokyo. This Spring I will take a guided tour of buildings in the Omotesando neighbourhood. 

“Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture” 

Are you interested in modern architecture? Then maybe you’ll enjoy the “Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture” course designed by Tokyo University. Ando and other en andere luminaries in Japanese architecture are featured in this course. You can do the course for free on the edX website. 

History of Japanese contemporary architecture

In this course you will learn about the history, ideas and concepts of contemporary architecture in Japan. The course covers four subjects and five generations of architects. Part one is all about theory. The course teachers are, among others, Professor Kengo Kuma who designed the beautiful “Culture Tourist Information Center” in Asakusa and the famous Starbucks at Dazaifu Tenman-gū (with its 2000 wooden batons creating a diagonally woven lattice stretching out beyond the building’s facade) and Professor Yusuke Obuchi of the faculty of architecture at the University of Tokyo.

Via the medium of video they teach you about the grandfather of Japanese modern architecture, Kenzo Tange. Other architects, like Arata Isozai and Terunobu Fujimori are interviewed on location, showing their impressive buildings and talking about the way they work and their influences inside and outside Japan.

One of the most fascinating notions discussed is that Japanese architects aren’t bothered by European prejudices or rivalry: French architects are supposed to ignore Von der Rohe, and German architects pretend they don’t know Le Corbusier. Japanese architects are therefor said to be more objective about Western architecture.

Architecture courses

At the time of writing, the University of Tokyo is offering three different architecture courses on the edX website. Some of the material is archived, but you can still review it.

Sign up for a course

To sign up go to the course page on the edX.org website. You will have to register first to be able to see the course material.

Read more about Japanese architecture in out article about Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Enoura Observatory.

The picture above this story is the entrance to the Chichu museum on Naoshima designed by the architect Tadao Ando.

Categories
Tips Travel Gear

Renting a pocket wifi in Japan

In my article “My seven tips for your first trip to Japan“, renting a 4G – LTE pocket wifi also known as portable wifi came in second place. It is one of the most practical things you can do before you embark on your journey. I usually order one the same time I order my JR Pass.

Some people opt to buy a sim card, but I always rent a pocket wifi because you can connect multiple devices to it. Your own mobile phone and laptop and your travel buddies’ devices.

What is a pocket wifi

A pocket wifi, MiFi or portable wifi router is like your internet hub at home, but portable. It contains a sim card and creates a private network that can connect up to 10 devices concurrently. They are super convenient and easy to work with. Connecting to them is just like connecting to your own or public wifi network. The connection can be very fast: 4G/LTE. The batteries of recent models of pocket wifi devices lasts about 10 hours.

Why rent one

Apart from being able to connect multiple devices at the same time, a pocket wifi is convenient because it can be difficult to find a free, open wifi network in Japan. You’ll find some, but logging on to them can be complicated – often you are required to hand over your email address. Some Shinkansen trains now offer wifi, but local trains don’t.

What does renting a pocket wifi in Japan cost

Take care choosing your vendor. Prices vary. Sometimes you are charged per day at around 70 euros for 2 weeks, but some companies charge double that amount. There are various different types of plans with different speeds, coverage and data limits. Compare before you choose.

How do I order one for Japan

Some travel agents can arrange your device for you, and you can order one while booking your JR Pass from some vendors. I have been using the services of Japan-Wireless for the last four years. They provide 4G – LTE, unlimited data and (a maximum of) 187Mbps speed. Fill in their form, you’ll receive email confirmation and instructions.

Delivery

Japan-Wireless has various options for delivery. I’ve made use of two of them and they have never failed me. You can have your order delivered to your hotel. They’ll make sure it’s there the day before you arrive.

Tip: It’s a good idea to let your hotel know in advance that a package will be arriving in your name.

Or you can have it delivered to the post office at the airport you’re arriving at. At Narita, the post office is easy to find: from the arrivals hall take the elevator to the 4th floor. Staff at the post office will hand you your package without fault. The envelope looks like this:

Envelope containing pocket wifi, ordered in Japan and delivered to your hotel room

What do you get when you rent a pocket wifi

In the envelop you’ll find:

  • a case containing:
    • your pocket wifi device
    • a power bank
    • USB cable and AC adapter (plug-in)
    • instructions
  • a stamped and addressed envelop

The device is about as big as a packet of cigarettes and will easily fit on your pocket. It will arrive pre-charged. Using the pocket wifi is a matter of switching it on and connecting to it with your device (mobile phone, tablet, laptop). In your device’s wifi settings choose your pocket wifi’s network. It’s name is listed on a sticker on the device (“SSID”).

LTE pocket wifi

Problems with your device

I’ve never had any problems. These newer 4G – LTE versions are super fast, sometimes faster than the connection I have at home. You can easily download large files. The great thing about 4G in Japan is the connectivity: even on the fast bullet trains, the connection is almost continuous. It may drop while you’re going through tunnels, but unlike in Europe where providers tell tall tales about trains going too fast for them to be able to guarantee network coverage, in Japan telecom companies don’t seem to have that problem.

If you use the device for extended periods, sometimes your pocket wifi will fail, and you’ll have to reset it. The instructions on how to do that are in the package you received, at least that’s what japan-wireless does.

Because I make a lot of use of the internet when I travel, after a while I’ll get a message on the screen (in Japanese) that I’ve used too much data, but that’s never had any consequences. The connection does not get any slower and I’ve never been charged any extra fees.

Order your pocket wifi
After clicking this link you will land on the Japan-Wireless.com website. This is not a sponsored link. For now.

Categories
Destinations Tips

Tsukiji Fish market, worth a visit or not

Update: Late 2017 it was announced that the current Tsukiji fish market will close on October 6,2018 and will be demolished immediately after. That means the inner market, including the tuna action will move away from Tsukiji, but the outer market will stay. The new Toyosu market (Toyosu Shin Shijō 豊洲新市場, Toyosu New Market) will open on October 11, 2018. Visitors will be able to view the tuna action from behind glass on the second floor of the building.

Is the Tsukiji fish market, one of the great tourist hotspots of Tokyo, worth visiting or not? Jesse, of the YouTube-channel AnnaleeAndJesse says it’s overrated and not worth going to. Because why would you want to look at fish? That’s what he says in his vlog Tokyo Top 3 Must See & Tourist Traps.

Professionals at work

tsukiji vismarkt japan tonijn verkoper

Why would you want to look at fish? Well, because it’s fun watching professionals at work, Jesse. It really is a treat. Fish is such an important part of Japanese culture. More so than the number 1 on Jesse’s list, Shibuya. Not everyone stays interested in teen fashion for their entire life. Personally, I’d rather watch fish. Bright red crabs. Slippery octopuses. It’s endlessly fascinating.

Reasons not to go to Tsukiji

That doesn’t mean I don’t understand Jesse. I sort of agree with him about Tsukiji. Yes, it smells of fish out there. And you can eat ‘fresh’ sushi anywhere in Japan. Yes, you’re in the way of the people working there. Yes, you have to get up really early. These are all reasons not to go.

Tsukiji tuna auction

tokyo tsukiji vismarkt tonijn veiling

The fish market in Tsukiji has an inner and an outer market. Inner is for wholesale. Outer is for everyone. Generally, guide books advertise the inner market. Those same guide books tell you to see the Tsukiji tuna auction, you’ll have to get go join the queue at 5am. That’s bad advice. Make it 3am to actually have a chance to get in. The auction starts around 5.30am, and only 120 people can go in, in two groups of 60. First come, first serve. Due to the growing number of tourists in Tokyo, come at 5am, you’re out of luck. That’s my experience.

My visit to Tsukiji

I’ve been to the fish market twice. The first time I arrived at Narita airport around 9.30 in the morning. I booked a hotel near the market and stayed awake for most of the day. Eventually, I joined the queue at 3am and was number 35 in line. In front of me was a group of drunk Canadian frat boys. Behind me, the queue grew every minute.

After a while we were allowed into a waiting room and were given coloured vests to wear. After waiting for two hours, sitting on the cold floor, cheeks red with embarrassment due to the trouble the Canadian gaijin were causing, we were herded into the building.

tsukiji steward vismarkt tokyo

We were told to stay inside the visitor passage and were given 15 minutes to take picture and watch the auction. Staff wasn’t very friendly, but taking into account the frat boys, I was mildly sympathetic. During the auction they were all standing in front of me. Before I knew it, it was over. I was tired and pissed off.

Pro-tip: skip the auction. You’ll get a better idea from watching the thing on YouTube. Like here: Abroad in Japan’s Tokyo’s Freshest Sushi – Tsukiji Fishmarket.

Inner market opens at 10.00 am

tsukiji inner markt

For my second visit to Tsukiji I skipped the auction. At 10am, the inner market opens for the general public. There’s more queueing and herding involved and you are supervised by staff. That’s not a bad idea, because there are people working there ride mini-fork lifts. (Watch a video.) If you are not careful, they’ll hit you. But you’re allowed to stroll through the many stands and watch the fish mongers closing up their businesses. With a bit of luck you’ll catch some of them filleting tuna with their impressive knives.

Tokyo tsukiji vismarkt japan tonijn snijden

Tsukiji outer market a worthwile visit

It is the outer market that’s really worth a visit. Here’s where you can buy and taste stuff as an ordinary customer. In the outer market you will find shops and restaurants selling grilled scallops, for example. Other stuff, like wasabi roots and kitchen appliances like knives.

Tsukiji fish market is moving

The market is supposed to be moving. It should have been done already, but there are all kinds of problems with the new area. For now the move is planned for winter 2017/2018. It is unclear whether the new market will be accessible for tourists. The outer market, however, will stay at its current location in Tsukiji.

See my pictures of Tsukiji

NB. For those of you who watched Jesse’s vlog mentioned at the top of this article, I agree with him that Akihabara isn’t that exciting. For action figures and other merchandising such as unopened Star Wars merch from the 80s and 90s, go to Nakano Broadway.

Categories
Activities Tips

Walking in Japan – download walking guides for Tokyo, Kyoto and more

Walking in Japan without Google Maps on your smart phone can be a bit of an adventure. You can’t read the signs, nobody speaks English, your Japanese sucks. With a pocket wifi (or a data sim card), Google Maps will guide your way. Even the public transport suggestions that Google Maps provide are useful and reliable. The last time I was in Kyoto, where public transport isn’t as logical as it is in Tokyo, I was able to cross the city without problems. Jumping on buses and local trains I very easily found my way from one shrine to the other.

Trails and walks

But if you want to get to know an area a little better, Google Maps may not be enough. How do you know the route you choose is the most interesting? What you want is a mapped out hiking trail or city walk. JNTO (Japan National Tourism  Organization) can help you with that.

Walking guides of Japan

The walking guides by JNTO are written in English and have one or more little maps. They explain all the sights you’ll encounter on your way. Some of them have extra information. The Tokyo walking guides have a list of all the antique and flea markets. The Kyoto guide contains the opening hours of all the temples.

What’s in a walking guide

To give you an idea of what you get: the Tokyo walking guide is 10 pages, with 7 walks in 7 different areas.

JNTO Tokyo Walks

Walks in Tokyo 

  • Imperial Palace and Kitanomaru
  • Ueno-Onshi Park and vicinity
  • Asakusa
  • Shiba & Roppongi
  • Shibuya Koen-dori to Meiji Shrine
  • Shinjuku
  • Rinkai-Fukotoshin (Odaiba)

Every neighbourhood has its own map with a route marked on it and a legend that tells you what you will see. It even tells you how long it takes to walk from one point on the route to the next. There’s a description for every sight and some information: its history, opening hours, ticket price, links to websites, etc.

As mentioned earlier, this Tokyo guide also has a list of all the antique and flea markets, and how to get there, as well as a list of all the local tourist information offices.

Download free walking guides

With these walking guides, hiking and walking in Japan is easy and educational. You can download them from the JNTO website. They are free. A4 formatted (pdf) so you can print them yourself. But it’s not easy to find them on the website. So here are two tips on how to find them:

  1. Download de walking guide of your choice:
    Go to the JNTO Practical Travel Guide-archive. In this archive you will find all of there walking and travel guides and brochures. There are voer 60 of them. This is a good option if you don’t know where you want to go for a walk, you may find some inspiration in seeing all the titles. If you already know what you are looking for, use option 2:
  2. Google the place where you want to walk like this:
    [plaatsnaam] walks pdf

    Example: Kyoto walks pdf

    In your results, look for the url  www.jnto.go.jp. It usually is the first result you get.

Have fun walking in Japan!

Categories
Language Tips

Kanji read a bit of Japanese

This post appeared on the previously Dutch version of this website in 2017. I am still taking Japanese lessons and still haven’t learned anything close to 2000 kanji.

Since a year and a half I have been taking Japanese lessons at Nichiran – Japans Taalonderwijs in Amstelveen, near Amsterdam. I just didn’t want to be completely helpless on my travels. 36 lessons in we started learning Kanji. Kanji are Chinese characters, one of the three scripts used in Japan: hiragana, katakana and kanji. A long time ago, Japan didn’t have any script at all. Stories were not written down, but told. In the 5th century, Chinese characters were introduced to Japan, probably via Korea. To make a long story short, the characters were adopted and here we are, suffering the consequences.

Kanji pronunciation can be Japanese and / or Chinese

We are learning five kanji every lesson. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but every character has various readings and interpretations, pronunciations based on Japanese as well as Chinese. We also learn in which order to write the strokes that form the character. That’s important. I don’t know why, very few people write by hand these days.

To be able to read a newspaper, you need to learn some 2000 characters. I’m going to make that school very rich one day when I finally manage to memorise all 2000. The kanji I will teach you know are ones we haven’t even learned yet. But they are useful to know if you are in Japan, looking for the exit or entrance of a building. You’ll also see these characters near the counter in shops. They’ll tell you where to join the queue. They’re easy to remember.

Kanji for entrance and exit

Iriguchi – Entrance

入口

Deguchi – Exit

出口

入 means to enter. 出 is to exit. That square thing ( 口 ) you see in both words is a mouth: “kuchi”. It’s an easy to remember visual, right? Ok, now you are one step ahead of most people who can’t read Japanese.

How well do the Japanese know their own kanji

To end this post, a funny video by “That Japanese Man Yuta”, who does all kinds of little interviews and social experiments on YouTube. Here he asks people in the street whether they remember how to write the 2000 kanji they would have had to learn in school.

Categories
Tips

My 7 tips for your first trip to Japan

Are you going to Japan for the first time? Here are 7 tips that can save you from a lot of trouble.

1. Buy a train pass, but only if it really saves a lot of money 

You can save hundreds of euros with a  JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) but only if you travel beyond the classic Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo trip. Use Hyperdia to find out what single tickets would cost. Or use the calculator on japan-guide.com.

Take note: Since 2017 there’s been a trial that lets you buy your JR Pass in Japan rather than outside. You can only do this at certain train stations and it is cheaper to buy it in your own country!

2. Rent a pocket wifi 

No, not just to put selfies on Instagram. Renting a pocket wifi huren in Japan is especially useful to be able to use Google Maps everywhere at all times. Because you are going to get lost, you can count on it. Pocket wifi internet is super fast, even the cheaper 3g version is better than you’d think. LTE is really fast. Order your pocket wifi in advance and you can pick it up from the airport when you arrive, or have it sent to your hotel. At the end of your journey, you put it in the stamped addressed envelope that comes with it and send it back.

Update 2018: the 3g version is now more or less obsolete, LTE is the standard.

3. Learn some words of Japanese at least

If you stick to the premise that nobody speaks a word of English, you may end up pleasantly surprised. But really, you should know how to thank people and how to say sorry at least. This is the absolute minimum:

  • Sumimasen (suu-mie-mah-sen) It means sorry and excuse me. Use it to call a waiter in restaurants. Or before you ask somebody the way.
  • Arigatou gozaimasu (a-ree-gah-toe go-zai-mas) This means than you. Just ‘arigatou’ isn’t enough, really. It’s not polite enough. The ‘gozaimasu’ makes it polite. Go ahead, go crazy, use the full ‘Doumo arigatou gozaimasu’.

4. Book hotels close to public transport, but choose a smaller station 

Take it from me, avoid hotels in the vicinity of larger stations such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo Station. Not because they are expensve, but because you can’t imagine how big these stations are and how hard it is to navigate them which all of their floors and so many exits. Pick somewhere like Asakusa, for example, a small station in a nice area. Akasaka is also a convenient area to stay in, it has several smaller stations. Further out, Otsuya and Sugamo are good options.

5. Got lost in a station? Go outside first!

If you do get lost in a station and can’t find the way to your exit? Do the next best thing, ANY exit will do. At least it’s easier to navigate: you may recognise buildings and other landmarks outside.

6. Book a hotel with a view

At least once book a hotel with a view of the city, whether it’s in Tokyo, Yokohama or Osaka. These are all cities with interesting sky lines. Take note: some hotel rooms have very small windows and aren’t much use. The Royal Park Hotel in Yokohama is great for a view of the Minato Mirai area and Yokohama bay. It’s expensive and a little past its prime, but the huge windows and sublime view make up for it. In Tokyo, Shibuya has the Excel hotel which has a view of the ‘scramble’, the famous crossing.

7. Get your cash from a convenience store

It’s hard to find an ATM in Japan that works with your bank card. These are certain bets:

  • The 7-Eleven “konbini” stores and their 7-Bank atms
  • Citibank, but they close around 3pm
  • Postoffices, but they are often hard to find

… so: de 7-Eleven is your friend. Get some money from their 7-Bank ATM, then fill your basket with snacks. Coffee. Breakfast. A full meal. A clean shirt, if you want. 7-Eleven and other konbini’s are super useful.

Update 2018: Japan is changing. You’ll find 7-Bank ATM machines in train stations now. Family Mart are also said to be accepting foreign bank card, but I haven’t tried them yet.

Three extra tips, for free:

  • Always carry cash. Japan is as credit card unfriendly as the Netherlands. In other words, it’s not too bad, but they really not as accepted as in many other countries. Smaller hotels and ryokans expect you to pay cash.
  • FFs, tone it down a bit. We Westerners are very loud compared to the Japanese. Don’t talk out loud on public transport.
  • Shoes off. Slippers on. Slippers off. Other slippers on…. it’s confusing.

So, these are my first 7 + 3 tips. I hope you have a great time in Japan. Let me know if you have any tips of your own.