In going from Honolulu to Tokyo, one of my bigger travel worries, other than the language barrier, was the transit barrier.  Regarding mass transit, I spent a number of years both living and commuting to San Francisco on weekdays.  It's definitely a learned skill and one that most people in Hawaii are unfamiliar with.  Top that off with the fact that San Francisco transit pales in comparison to Tokyo transit, which is immediately daunting in its scope and area.

 It took several friends to break it down for me.  Ultimately, there were just a few components I needed to know, and the rest was learning by doing.

Japan Rail Pass - Is it worth it?

 You'll hear everyone rave about the most well-known one, the one that can take you from one end of Japan to the other.  It is an incredible value -- IF you plan on going long distances.  The seven-day pass costs ¥29110, or in current exchange terms, about  $290.  On average, that's about $41 a day.  There are a lot of advantages to this rail pass, including the fact that if you can reserve seats ahead of time, and it's good on nearly all JR lines including the expensive Shinkansen (bullet train).  For those not familiar with going long distances on mass transit,  fares are calculated by distance.  The further you go, the more the ticket costs.  A one-way ticket reserved from Shibuya Station in Tokyo to Nagano Station is ¥7100.  Double that for the round trip, and you can quickly see how a rail pass is quite useful.

IF you are going long distances on a regular basis, the touted rail pass is worth it.  Otherwise, you can probably skip it.  After doing some quick math, our travel party settled on a happy medium.  We ended up getting a JR East Rail pass for the Niigata and Nagano areas.  This allowed us to travel inside of Tokyo using the pass, as well as taking trips outside of the city.  The Niigata/Nagano pass was also good for Shinkansen reserved seating to selected areas in the travel zone.  The price of this pass was ¥18000 and was good for five days within a 14-day period.  The days did not have to be consecutive.  Seeing as how our trip was one week long, this worked out perfectly.  On the few days we stayed in the Tokyo area, we didn't use the pass, opting instead to pay approximately $6 for local round-trip transit.  On the days we took longer sightseeing trips, we used the pass.  We also saved the pass for ths first and last day so we could use it for the Narita Express airport train.


Japan Rail Pass: visitor options for Tokyo
  Adult Price # of Days Notes
Japan Rail Pass - Nationwide ¥29110 7 Must be purchased ahead of time outside of Japan and used on consecutive days. U.S. price may vary depending on vendor and exchange rate.
JR East Rail Pass - Niigata/Nagano ¥18000 5 Use valid for any five days during the 14-day period starting on the date of issuance. May be purchased in Japan.
JR East Rail Pass - Tohoku (Sendai) Area ¥20000 5 Use valid for any five days during the 14-day period starting on the date of issuance. May be purchased in Japan.
JR Tokyo-wide ¥10000 3 For use on consecutive days.  May be purchased in Japan.


The link at the top of this table will take you to the Japan Rail website so you can view your options.  Each of the passes has different benefits as well as different restrictions.  The child (6-11 years) price is half ot the adult price, and all of these passes require a passport and foreign permanent address.  You should also note that some passes have reciprocal arrangements with other companies and may also be used on their train lines.  Check the detail on the webpage.  Otherwise, the pass is good on JR train lines only and excludes buses.

Think BIG, then think even bigger

It is important to note that Tokyo train stations house many different transit companies, not unlike how airports have many airlines.  It's a concept hard to grasp coming from Hawaii where we don't have that massive scale.  A wise piece of advice I received was to be sure to add enough time to get to the platform.  As an example, 2.7 million people pass through Ikebukuro Station daily.  That's the equivalent of every person in Hawaii going through the station twice.  AND, that's not even Tokyo's busiest station.  Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in Tokyo, and for that matter, the world.

You'll find everything at the train station.  At the Ikebukuro Station, smack dab in the center of it is an 11-story department store with two more basement levels to boot.  

As a traveler, Japan Rail (JR) trains go nearly everywhere, although you may end up transfering to another company for short distances.  You can pay for fares, JR or other, using a prepaid-transit card like [Suica] or [Pasmo].  In the Tokyo area, there is virtually no difference between the two cards other than that are managed by different companies.  Not only are these prepaid cards interchangable among transit companies, you can also use them on vending machines and at many convenience stores and restaurants.  You buy them at train station kiosks and they can be recharged if necessary.  For more information, visit the respective cards' website.

A Transit Map that Looks Like Spaghetti

I had a lot of help figuring out our Japan trip.  When my friend took out her Tokyo area transit map, I was floored.  It looked something like this:



Fortunately, two pieces of important advice completely simplified the transit process for me.

1. Hyperdia

2. Yamanote Line



Put out by Hitachi Systems, this website and the site's corresponding Android and iOS apps are easy to use and intuitive.  Simply plug in the departure location and the destination, and it will map your route.  You can also modify the search results for just certain lines or by the number of transfers (e.g. least).

On the advice of my seasoned Tokyo friend, I mapped out the routes ahead of time while I was still in Hawaii and had access to a printer.

While in Japan, I also used the Android app and found it was just as easy as it was from a laptop.


Yamanote Line

If you remember just one line, remember the Yamanote line.  It's a circular route that runs both clockwise and counterclockwise, with trains in both directions arriving at approximately 5 minute intervals.  At the Ikebukuro Station, there are two rail lines on each platform running in the same direction.  In other words, there are four sets of railtracks dedicated to the Yamanote line alone.



Trains which run clockwise are known as sotomawari (外回り?, "outer circle") and those counter-clockwise as uchi-mawari (内回り?, "inner circle")  Check to see which direction will get you to your destination the fastest.  On the whole, most of tourist Tokyo is accessible by Yamanote line.  The hghlighted stations are larger transit hubs.

Every person who has experienced Japan transit will say the same thing: All trains run timely and frequently.  It's almost amusing for Americans to see notifications when train lines are on those rare occasions, running late.  Sometimes the notification is for just a few minutes delay.  Just recently, CNN highlighted a story where a snake was found aboard a Japanese bullet train.  Prominently noted, even after a few minutes delay to remove the snake, the train still arrived on schedule.

US Smartphone Coverage in Japan

If you're currently on either T-mobile or Sprint's phone plan, you're in luck.  For most plans, both companies offer free text and 2g basic data roaming  in Japan.

Sprint also offers a 3g unlimited data + text + phone plan for $5 more a month.  Our family is on Sprint, so the choice was a no-brainer.  We tacked on the add-on (which, for the record, they tell me is not pro-rated but monthly) for the mere cost of a few dollars each.  As far as I can tell from our first bill after use, it's exactly as advertised.  Everything was covered.  Before leaving, I thought I wouldn't need phone services, but after departing, found that the ability to call either Japan or the US without charge was a real plus.  I probably made a half-dozen calls within the country in the span of one week, as well as a few more back to the US.

If you use Sprint's add-on, you'll receive instructions for changing from CDMA to GSM, the international standard.  You'll then connect to Japan telecom powerhouse Softbank, which, in 2013, acquired a controlling stake in Sprint.  Softbank's coverage of Japan is ubiquitous.  Even in Kamikochi, a remote mountainous region of Japan, we received clear signal.  The only real adjustment I needed to make was to conserve more battery than I normally would: roaming takes extra energy.

As far as other cellular carriers, our traveling companions checked with Verizon, whose $40 plan included a scant 100kb of data alongside an equally scant 200 texts received or sent.  AT&T has a $40 passport plan that includes unlimited text, 200MB of data and access at hotspots in urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka.  As with all phone plans, terms are subject to change, so be sure to inquire directly.

Other Options

A friend recently commented that it seemed everyone from Hawaii was going to Japan in the near future.  As it so happens, in addition to our own traveling party, another group of friends was also in Japan.  They used a hotspot rented in Hawaii.  Hotspots are portable internet-connected units; you use wi-fi on your phone to connect to it.  On their smartphones, they connected the app "line", for texting and voice.  As it also so happens, a Tokyo-based friend mentioned the free app's popularity in Japan. I didn't personally research the cost of the hotspot, but Don Quijote and vicinity have stores specializing in them, which they advertise at a cost as low as $4 a day.  A big benefit of hotspots is that more than one phone can connect to it at once.

You can also rent SIM chips while in Japan, but my own personal inclination would be to forego this option.  You'd have to look around for a chip once you got there, complete the transaction in a foreign language (for most of us), and hope that it worked.  I also did not think that the cost was less than that of using a service purchased ahead of time.  If you are planning to stay for several months, perhaps the SIM option would make more sense for you.

Japan Travel Apps - Top 5

We're mostly an iOS family, with the exception of me, Ms. Android.  Most of these apps, with the exception of the offline Japanese dictionary JED, are dual-platform.

1. Hyperdia - Transit Navigator

If you're planning to go anywhere by mass transit in Japan, you need this app.  Type in the departure place and the arrival destination to get your choices.  By default, it assumes you're leaving now, but you can always change the time by pressing the detail button.  If you're limited to certain types of travel, say Japan Railway (JR), or Shinkansen, you can also select just the modes you want.  Likewise, the results default to time as being the most important, but again, you can also choose between least transfers or money expended.  This is a very flexible app with excellent functionality.

2. Pokémon GO - Game (& Navigator)

I don't play, but the kids do and they saw a number of landmarks they wouldn't have if they weren't playing the game.  At least it made them look up and appreciate the natural wonder of (1) A Mario pipe, smack dab in the middle of Ikebukuro (2) A giant robot building, and (3) genuine natural wonders that showed up on the map as landmarks.  Additionally, the app's GPS is pretty good, often kicking in where Google Maps didn't.  We were occasionally able to navigate our way from lost to found via Pokémon GO.  Sadly, however, no one caught the region-exclusive Farfetch'd.

3. Google Translate - Character Translator

I didn't use it as often as I thought I would, but for those difficult Kanji, it's a quick and easy way to research the character.  The translation isn't always right, but the meaning of the character almost always is.  Just point, shoot and translate.  Given the level of noise in Tokyo, I have doubts that sound-based portions of the app would have worked.  Still, for visual recognition, it's helpful.

4. ATM Navi by Seven Bank - ATM (Money) Locator

Money exchange is amazingly easy through 7-11 ATMs in Japan.  The Hawaii State Federal Credit Union only charges 1% for VISA debit card use, and Seven Bank doesn't seem to have a surcharge.  Additionally, 7-11 ATMs are ubiquitous.  Seven Bank's highly functional app for finding ATMs works well even in the middle of Tokyo city, where GPS can often be spotty.  As both a money finder and street finder, this is a five-star app.

5. JED for Android - Japanese/English Offline Dictionary

Apple lovers, you're out of luck.  JED is strictly for Android.  If you're on iOS, use through your browser for translation.  If you're on Android, use JED for speed and simplicity.  Offline apps are reliable, even where internet access is not available.  Additionally, it's faster to load and uses fewer resources (i.e. battery).  I used this app more than a few times.  It's good to be able to look something up right away while it's still fresh in your mind.

 Finally. a couple of notes

City-dwellers will tell you not to count on GPS in the midst of tall buildings.  Tokyo is no exception to this rule.  Different apps seem to have varying levels of accuracy, and sometimes more than one app is needed in order to figure out exactly where you are.  Throughout the course of our trip, we used a number of GPS-enabled apps, including the ones above.  We also used Google Maps from time to time, but found that because the text was usually in Japanese, inputting a desired location in English wasn't as effective as it is here.

Another point to make is that certain sites are region-restricted, meaning you may not be able to access all of the US sites while in Japan.  Keep this in mind when you travel and don't expect that your bank, etc. . . will allow you to conduct business as usual.  I'm a fan of VPN for both encryption and for masking originating location, but not all smartphone users will have access to a VPN service.

Lastly, don't forget to look up from your smartphone from time to time.  Japan is a beautiful country, and a smartphone is just a tool.  





I give myself a low B-

Earlier, I had written about why I thought world language in high school was a questionable endeavor. To prove my point, I spent an entire year actively studying Japanese to see how far it would take me.  The "final exam" was a one-week trip to Tokyo to see if my studies allowed me to communicate effectively.

I surmised that 30 minutes a day of study would give me reasonable proficiency to communicate.  Throughout the year, everywhere I went I took my app-loaded smartphone so I could steal a few free moments from each day to learn Japanese.  Our trip recently concluded and I'll give myself a B-. My traveling companions give me an A.  My son gives me an A.  Maybe that's all that counts to me.  For him, having seen the results of my studies gave him the proof he needed.  He's had to drop his "it's impossible" attitude when it comes to the subject.

As for me, there is a little disappointment because 30 minutes a day just wasn't enough to be as proficient as I had hoped.  I thought I would be able to get through all 36 lessons on Japanese audio flashcards by year's end.  Instead I only got through 16 and I still feel as though I need to review the last five of those.  It helps that the Japanese people are so patient.  It also helps that they can empathize with me because English is a mandatory subject in Japan.

Perhaps the point about empathy may be the strongest argument for learning a foreign language.  With teens, however, I doubt it has much impact.  Growing up, I recall being somewhat xenophobic and making fun of foreigners' English.  I never really drew the connection between that and the fact that I struggled through both French and Japanese as a high schooler.  Maybe as educators, we need to press the point more.

Getting around Japan

For what it's worth, I surprised myself.  On our arrival, we got lost.  I was able to stop in at a 7-11 convenience store and ask for directions.  Importantly, I was able to understand those directions.  With a combination of that information and Google Maps, we found our ryokan (Japanese-style inn).

On the second day, I didn't use as much Japanese as I would on the rest of our trip.  Instead, we eased our way into the Country by meeting up with a American friend living in Tokyo.  Still, that morning I did use some Japanese at the restaurant we had breakfast at beforehand, and I did use it to read signs.  As it turns out, learning both hiragana and katakana is a tremendous help in Tokyo.  I'd say that a great number, perhaps even a majority, of signs can be figured out using just kana (character-style writing).  Additionally, the transit systems all include the use of hiragana and katakana in addition to traditional kanji.  These days, they often provide English translations as well, but some of the station signs remain in Japanese only.

By the third day, I was much more comfortable speaking Japanese.  Words came out without the usual hesitation.  On this, I definitely credit the free audioflash card series.  Honestly, I can't say enough about Roger Lake's amazing learning tool.  Throughout the day, I would use Japanese to communicate with others.  For instance, at dinner, I was able to ask what certain sushi items were, and I was able to request other items not visible on the menu.  It was the first time I had tried tsubugai (whelk) and it was certainly useful to know what it was I just ate (especially because it was incredibly delicious).

On the fourth day, I had a much better idea of what I was and was not capable of communicating.  I used my new skills at the Midori Madoguchi (train service center) to ask, in Japanese, for directions to their foreigners' service center.  I needed to request reserved seats on a limited express train to Matsumoto, a train station several hours outside of Tokyo. I preferred to do it in English to be sure I got it right.  The next day, however, I would use Japanese to figure out how to get back after having missed our train back from Matsumoto to Tokyo. 

On the sixth day, I was tired of following my husband and son to their favorite restaurant.  I can't say my son is a prodigy when it comes to foreign language, but he is a smartphone prodigy: he quickly figured out how to use Pokemon Go to get to his preferred food choice.  That day, my daughter and I ate across the street at a restaurant where not only was the menu in Japanese, there were no pictures accompanying it.  Still, we were able to order soba and I was also able to ask one of the patrons what his meal was called.  As it turns out, "asa soba" is a morning special.  You get one of four choices of soba dishes for the amazing price of ¥330, or approximately $3.  I'm not sure if was the actual meal that tasted so wonderful, or the sweet taste of victory.

asa sobasoba storefront

You must have a natural gift for language

I've uttered these words before to others.  Now, I'm mildly insulted by them.  Still, those that say "You must have a natural gift for language," are people who just don't fully understand the dynamics behind learning a new language.  You don't just wake up one day and know words.  You need to be exposed to them in context over and over again before they make sense.

Instead of being hurt however, I see these conversations as an opening to convince people that if you really want something bad enough, you will figure out a way to get to it.  I also reflect that we live in an amazing world where our phones can be everything from toys to tools.

It helps to have had others blaze the path before.  Perhaps most inspiring for me was my son's former Japanese teacher at Niu Valley.  She learned Japanese in college by constantly exposing herself to every opportunity for listening and speaking.  My son's current instructor is also a second language learner and inspiring to him.  There have been a few others too: friends who learned after several less successful attempts before.

Still, the majority of people I speak to are those who took the usual Japanese language school curriculum: the afterschool program every hopeful nisei parent enrolls his child in.  These same students are the ones who go on to take high-school Japanese, get an easy A, but are no closer to speaking and communicating than before.  That in itself serves as a "lesson" for those that are reluctant to apply themselves to begin with.  Firstly they don't get that opportunity at an easy A because of those that have more background, and secondly because it doesn't seem to have amounted to much anyway.

Ambivalence plus a word to International Baccalaurate coordinators

 I'm still on the fence over whether foreign language should be a high school subject.  In a world where there is so much to new to learn, does it make sense to spend time on a subject many will never use even if taught at a level where it can be used?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) program prides itself on world scope.  World language is a requirement.  Might I suggest that the IB school year be divided differently?  Perhaps 5/6 of the school year can be dedicated to traditional teaching with 1/6 of the year dedicated to language immersion.  Surely that would be more beneficial to the goal.  Further, perhaps only one language -- the foreign language most prevalent in the area -- ought to be taught.

Logistically, such a proposal is a nightmare.  Where would you get instructors for the language portion of the year?  What about the regular curriculum instructors?  Should they also be required to interact in the world language unit?  Yet, in the grand scheme of things, 1/6 of the Hawaii public school year dedicated to foreign language immersion amounts to the same amount of time I spent last year learning rudimentary Japanese.  In week terms, 1/6 of the school year in Hawaii is only slightly more than four weeks.

What now?

Returning to the subject of my own learning, where do I go from here?  Do I continue my studies or do I end them?

 I have at least a few opportunities to use Japanese in Hawaii.  My own mother who gave up on me learning Japanese many years ago, has been helping out lately by speaking to me in Japanese.  It is grossly inefficient, but I'm glad she's willing to do it.  A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to join in on the conversation between my mother and my uncle and aunty.  They were surprised, to say the least.  Yet, sometimes I feel as though it's the equivalent of David Letterman's stupid people tricks: nifty but not necessary.

Ultimately, I think I will continue on with my Japanese language studies.  It's a great mind exercise, not unlike crossword puzzles, which some would also argue serve no purpose.  Perhaps I may -- not this year, but next -- attempt the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) for no other reason than the famous mountaineer credo, "because it's there."

Niu Valley Middle School has a world language core requirement, either Mandarin Chinese or Japanese.  Once that language is selected, if your child goes on to Kaiser, they must continue in that language unless that language is spoken regularly outside of school.  It's all part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum the two schools are a part of.

It drives me crazy to no end because one of my children has absolutely no interest in learning Japanese: it's just a "dumb" requirement that he struggles with and doesn't excel in naturally.

Short story: I'm determined to show that it can be done with just a minimal commitment.

As part of my learning plan, I committed 30 minutes a day to some form of learning Japanese.  I use the term "committed" loosely because I'm willing to give myself credit for nearly anything involving Japanese language.  That includes things like quizzing myself on my phone while standing in line at the supermarket or passively listening to language tapes in the car.

So far, I'm doing better than I expected.  Here's what has been the most effective for me:

Read more: Learning Japanese in Hawaii: what is working

The more I work at trying to learn Japanese, the more I think that schools shouldn’t make world language mandatory.  It’s not that I’m not progressing; I am.  In fact, more so than when enrolled in formal classes.

It really boils down to the learning curve and the amount of time students have to focus on all of their studies.  Foreign language is an exaggerated version of the typical learning process.  Think about all of the time you had to learn your first language.  You had probably heard no less than 10,000 words before you first uttered your own.  To illustrate,  I found a graph from James Ryan, via LinkedIn. 

graph of the learning curve

Essentially, it boils down to the space between “you can’t know what you don’t know,” i.e. “unconsciously incompetent” and the next phase, “consciously incompetent.”  This particular graph is drawn somewhat how I expect for a foreign language.  There is a very long period between the two and nearly no progress.  I fear this is where most of us get stuck.  As a toddler, you had no choice but to continue.  As an adult, you do.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously made the 10,000 hour rule a household phrase among tiger moms.  Essentially, Gladwell provides empirical evidence to support his idea that it takes no less than 10,000 hours for someone to become proficient at what they do.  Those that get a head start -- for example, kids in Little League born earlier in the recruiting group -- are often given more encouragement and are more likely to continue to practice and to grow.  Ultimately, however, it is the actual application of practice that makes them “prodigies” and not any special inherent talent.

That’s another shortfall of foreign language in the classroom.  Looking back, didn’t you hate how some of the kids had vast exposure to the language while others did not?  It’s enough to make you not want to start your 10,000 hours at all.

For me, I failed at foreign language proficiency over and over again.  First at Japanese language school as a kid, then in middle school and high school while taking French and even a bit of Japanese again in high school -- which I honestly took just because my mother speaks Japanese and I would be one of those kids you hate in class.  When I say failed, I don’t mean my grades.  I mean the final result.  Taking Japanese in high school did serve its purpose.  I got good grades, but that’s because I had a stronger foundation to begin with.  I just couldn’t be trusted to communicate effectively with anyone in Japanese.

I’ve often wondered how people become proficient in foreign language.  This time, largely inspired by one of the Niu Valley Japanese instructors who was successful, I’m determined to give it a consistent effort for one whole year.  To be realistic about whether or not this is something anyone can do, I’ve dedicated a reasonable amount of time to doing so, an average of 30 minutes a day, about 183 hours for the whole year.  

So far, it’s going better than I anticipated.  I’m planning on sharing some of the techniques I think are working, and some that are not.  Not surprisingly, the current method of teaching world language in schools ranks low on the effectiveness scale.


I'm in heaven.  Today I stopped by at Don Quixote on Kaheka Street and discovered that Book Off used bookstore has opened inside the supermarket.  I bought a set of Karuta from them.

Karuta is a child's game for learning the Japanese alphabet.  Players race to find the right card as the leader (who has a separate set of reading cards corresponding to the alphabet) reads a passage containing the letter the kids are looking for.  It's a great game concept I've adopted for other learning tasks too, like for teaching the kids multiplication.

Book Off sells used books and other media such as videos, CDs, and video games.  A little more than half of their stock is Japanese.  Book Off has been in business for some time at Shirokiya.  However,  with the new renovation they opted to move to both the Don Quixote store and Ward Warehouse (next to Hakubundo),  

My great news is that I scored a practically new karuta set for me and the kids for just $5.  I'll have to read and understand the cards before using them, and that will help my Japanese studies.  The kids will learn from the game itself, where they will race for the right card.

Book Off is not the only source of great printed material for learning Japanese.  Hawaii Kai Library has a used bookstore in their basement   It is run by the Friends of Hawaii Kai Library and it has a plethora of material, mostly in English but with a handful of Japanese books as well.  Of the Japanese books, a good number of them are children's books written primarily in hiragana and katakana.  Kanji is usually accompanied by alphabet script known as furigana, essentially clues for the reader.  Amazingly, these books usually cost no more than a dollar, with some as inexpensive as 25 cents.

Another great source of printed material is NHK's "easy news" website.  This site contains a lot of Kanji, but it's all accompanied by furigana.  Additionally, it's also a transcript of audio which you can play while reading along.  For adults like me, it's a good way to learn relevant material you might actually get a chance to use.  As much as I like reading children's books from the Hawaii Kai Library bookstore, I doubt I'll ever have to discuss talking dogs, cats, and mice with other adults.  This site takes me a bit longer to translate because the vocabulary is mostly unfamiliar to me.  In any case, it's completely free and there are usually 3-4 current event pieces for every weekday.  

(For translation, I like  I just cut and paste the Kanji from NHK to find what I need to know.  A word of caution on Japanese translation, Google Translate isn't a very good source and I would never use it to directly translate from English to Japanese and send it out.  For individual words, Google will work in a pinch, but I still prefer