Travel to Japan – Tips (I hope to Re-Learn)

I simply adore Japan.

Dotonbori, Osaka at night

I traveled there twice for work in August and September 2019: One week in Tokyo, with a bullet train to Osaka, and a second trip to mostly Osaka. In late December 2019, I was asked to provide some tips to some folks that were going to travel there and were quite nervous.

I wrote the following blog post…and then a month later the Pandemic hit. Their trip got canceled, and my work travel halted and hasn’t resumed since. At the time I figured it wouldn’t be proper to post this.

Just this week, I re-read this, and wanted to post it anyway. It gives me hope that travel is soon on the horizon…and a glorious destination like Japan is something I long for.

Here are some tips I learned and I hope they help you.

Here we go!

Airport

If you’re anywhere close to Minneapolis, take the non-stop to Haneda. I’ve taken that exact route twice, and is quite nice. 12 hours…just enough time to watch a movie or two, have dinner, and sleep. AND, the airport is located in Tokyo so it’s a quick cab ride to your hotel, rather than long 1+ hour train ride from Narita.

I recommend you kick off your adventure properly and take the train straight from Haneda into the city for about 500 yen ($5 bucks). It’s fast, you’ll immerse yourself in the culture, and it forces you to learn how to work the train system 🙂

Of course the train only works well if you pack lightly. I highly recommend a backpack and a carry-on. International travel is so much easier that way. (and if you pick up souvenirs, just buy a dumpy little carry-on and check it in on the way home).

Funds

Cash

I usually travel with around $50 USD just to be safe. For Japan, I use ATM at the Haneda airport to get cash. I rarely get any country-specific cash in US before I leave. My bank cash card works great for that. (I also have a credit card I can get cash from…there is a fee to get cash from a credit card but in an emergency, it’s worth it. You’ll see a theme….I usually have 2 ways to do most anything so when one fails I have a backup).

$1 USD is around 100 Japanese Yen. So I get 20,000 yen (~$200 USD) to get by for local food/market. Of course you can always get more if you plan to buy things in smaller stores/markets.

Is there a fee? Sometimes. But, in the end, there are fees for everything so just plan to blow $10-$40 on various fees. (luggage, cash, card, etc). Travel isn’t cheap, but the fees are just a drop compared to flight costs so I just accept it and enjoy each moment!

Most stores in Japan all accept credit cards, but if you want to go somewhere small (or anywhere local like the fish market), or get a quick lunch at a Ramen shop, it’s cash.

Local market are cash only. But even here it’s hard to miss America’s influence

Credit Card

I use credit card all over (taxi, etc). just ask if they take it to ensure. The train system accepts card as well to pay for tickets.

Regarding international fees for credit cards. Some bank cards are dumb. In fact, most VISA’s are dumb in that they charge a fee for international purchases. EXCEPT the following:- Amazon Prime Visa. I use that all the time because it has zero international fees- Apple Card: I’ve started to use that physical card (and Apple Pay) because it’s zero international fees and tied right into my phone  (it’s my backup…always have a backup)

WiFi – Connectivity

I’ve traveled for work for quite some time (20+ years), and have been fortunate to explore 28 countries. Only in the last year have I had a phone plan that connects world-wide (and that’s only because work pays for it…i’m too stingy to pay for an international plan). In general, there’s enough wifi in airports and coffee shops to connect when you need. I used to practice a “buddy breathe” system, where I would get wifi, use Google Maps app and download map details to my phone in case I want to explore. I then put my phone in airplane mode, had more battery life, and still had maps. (I had my daughters do the same for their Europe adventure).

If you need connectivity, then I suggest the per-day. Some days you may need connectivity. I’ve never used the Pocket Wifi and may be great, but seems like another piece of tech to lug around.

One thing I truly enjoy is to feel disconnected. I love taking a long walk-about where I’m not having my phone buzz and blip as I explore a foreign land. It seems that these are the times I get the most joy out of these moments. Oh, and it gives me an excuse to buy a coffee to use a local wifi.

Part of the trick is just preparing. Arrange your travel from airport to hotel, use google maps on your phone and download for “offline” use, print out things on paper that you may need.

Which reminds me: Print out any hotel name or your important address in Japanese (the hotel/business web site will have info for you) so that if you need to get a taxi to take you somewhere you can just hand them in their local language.  I usually find the location on my phone map app and hand it to the driver…but even then, it’s in English and not many Japanese locals speak English.

Culture

Japan is a great culture. Everyone is kind and quiet. Therefore I try to be quiet. They drive on the “other side” of the roads, so when crossing streets ALWAYS look both ways. Cars will whip by next to the curb going “the wrong way” and can be quite surprising. For me I just wait for the crosswalk. Because of that, they also usually walk on the left, so first time I found myself walking the ‘wrong way’ as well…takes a while to remember, but just stay on your left. Also escalators. Stay on left because right side of escalator is “passing area” (same in Europe but opposite side 🙂  )

Toilets: Most us modern toilets but some are just holes. Adventures await!  If modern toilet, then it’s REALLY modern: heated, streams of water for cleaning, all kinds of craziness. Curious how it works? Give it a whirl!  You might be surprised how much you like them! I know a guy from US that loved Japanese toilets so much he spent 4K installing them at home. His wife said he was crazy until she tried it…”best investment ever”, she said 🙂 

Some Japanese don’t like their photo taken. Also if touring (Kyoto for example), there are “acceptable times” when to take photos, and some not. In general I shy away from taking people photos unless I ask. If you take a photo of a performer, tip them.

The Subway/Metro system is outstanding. I used it all the time (in combo with Google Maps which was key in helping me around).  it is initially confusing at big train stations since there are many train companies that overlap service. My trick is to find the nearest stop at my destination and that becomes the train line I take. If you have a guide, great. if not, just buy a bunch of one-way tickets. It’s rather simple: Walk to the train board: look at board to see where you want to go, it says how many Yen it costs to get there from the station you’re currently in, and you buy a ticket for that amount. Put ticket in to get through AND get out at end of trip (it ensures you paid properly).

Explore

Even though my trips were for work, I dedicated time to explore. Most nights I would walk to the nearest Metro station. Adventures await there! In the days (weekend or morning before flight) I would walk early. There’s something about seeing a city wake up that shows you its spirit. If I have a spare day, I’ll pick a train route and hit the main spots in Tokyo. It took me 4 or 5 hours but I got to see most of the major sites (and some small back-alley unique Tokyo scenes) because I was willing to wander.

Explore all there is to eat!

Of course, wandering has its moments of anxiety. Once I was with a business colleague who brought us to a delightfully vintage restaurant in Osaka. Later he told me that the nice gentlemen waiting outside were members of the Yakuza (I only knew that name from Hawaii-5-0!)…this was after he said the restaurant used to be a brothel (and that the craft was still practiced on that street). 🙂 We ended up walking 20 minutes down some pretty shady alleys to get to a street big enough where taxi felt safe to drive. Adventure!

Airport Customs

Haneda is a smaller airport so quite nice. Good choice! Customs isn’t scary. Just make sure you have your passport handy and only speak if asked. Don’t offer more info than they ask for. “Reason for visit” – “visiting my cousin”. or “a business meeting”  should be short and sweet. You both can approach customs agent at same time.

On your way back, US will ask if you’ve been “near livestock” and other wilderness stuff. just don’t pet any cows. US Customs doesn’t like that. You can’t really bring any food through, so don’t take airline snacks/fruit through customs. If you want to bring back bottles of saki or whatever, that’s fine, just check it, wrap it in clothes. All good. I’ve brought back many bottles of special brew/spirits over my years of travel and have never had one break.

Summary

Hope this helps! Feel free to ask questions in the comments.  I can’t stress enough to just give yourself time. Enjoy all the moments, and use all your senses. The smells, tastes, feels sights, sounds, and a sixth “muse”, it’s all great.

I can’t wait to get back there!

IBM PureFlex Anniversary – Thoughts From The Demo Guy

Exactly one year ago today…

I am in the heart of New York City participating in the biggest product launch of my career. I am back stage surrounded by video and stage production equipment of all kinds and have carved out my own ‘nest’ filled with computing equipment that I’ll be using today.

On stage are two of our leaders announcing the capabilities of PureFlex. I am responsible for the live demonstration during the announce so while I won’t be on stage today, my work will be.

From the FOH speakers I hear “Now I would like to show you the value of PureFlex”.

Here we go!

For the next four minutes we perform a technology-filled 3 person dance: the live demo appears on the stage-right jumbo-tron, the ‘behind the scenes’ animation appears on the stage-left jumbo-tron. Me? I’m playing ‘OZ’ behind the curtain. Leader #1 picks up the iPad that I’ve configured to show the demo to the world. It is connected to our SmartCloud Entry software through a private WIFI to show how easy it is to deploy new workloads into PureFlex systems. “4 clicks” he usually says. But not today. The software was design to run nicely on iPad so today he says “4 taps”.

Leader #2 talks about ‘what happens behind the scenes’ during those four taps…from image deployment with built in expertise…to optimizing resources based on workload needs and real-time performance.

I am monitoring the live demo…and running a redundant live demo on a completely separate iPad and system. AND, I’ve got a backup recording running…ready to switch to either backup instantly in case there’s a problem on stage. I’ve been gigging for years so I know that in a live situation you always need a spare guitar (or demo system) or two as backup.

In the middle of the demo I hear “Oops”. My heart stops. I am about to switch to live backup demo when I hear “Ah…there it is”. My heart is still stopped but a smile of relief appears on my face as the live demo continues to run perfectly.

Before I can breathe the demo is done. I hear applause. Our announce of PureFlex is a success! I mingle with the VIPs and enjoy a small portion of the 35 cases of vodka. The audience files out and after some souvenir pictures I help strike the set.

IMG_4077

Today is a day to remember and has exceeded all expectations! I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

From that day to today I’ve traveled around the world (literally) and performed dozens of pressure-filled live demonstrations showing all that PureFlex offers…from SmartCloud Entry deploying multiple images across multiple hypervisors to a single PureFlex system…to showcasing our latest Flex System Manager user experience on our desktop UI and mobile app. The response? Enthusiastic applause, requests for more, and stories of how our user experience is truly having an impact on customers and partners alike.

It’s been quite a year and I can’t wait to see what the next year brings!

Travel Tip #237: Share The Power

An airport is really a kingdom of its own…unique in its inhabitants, food, culture, and currency.

The most valuable currency at an airport is…

…power.

Yep, the glorious 3-holed wonder that gives your devices the chance to charge before you take off in a metal tube to your world-wide destination. Sure, you can hope for a seat with power on long flights (or plan ahead with seatguru.com), but those are virtually nonexistent on domestic flights.

I, like most other travelers, regularly scour the airport for an open outlet…usually defeated since there are so few available…until 2 years ago when my seasoned travel buddy showed a magical currency-generating object…

The mini-power strip.

PowerOutlet

Now, with mini power strip in tow, I casually walk with my coffee looking for an outlet. When I find one, almost always fully used, I sit down, tap on the shoulder of an currency-rich member of this crazy kingdom and ask: Mind if we share the power?

“Sure!”, I usually hear back.

“Wow, what a great idea!”, I sometimes hear back.

“You must be a genius inventor!”, I never hear back.

The mini power strip not only reduces the stress of your travel, it lets others experience your resourcefulness and preparation since the mini power strip usually allows for not just you to share already-used power, but possibly one or two others nearby.

Oh, and it only adds an ounce or two to your bag.

Give it a try!

Question: What hidden gem do you bring when you travel that you find useful?

4 Ways to Kill Regret (and Enjoy an Adventure)

When it comes to traveling for business, I have two primary objectives: 1) Bring my A game for business, and 2) Find time to explore the city/country I’m in. To me, these are equally important. Even if I only have a few hours between business and the airport, I always try to find time to explore.

Why? I think this stems from my one regret I had during my year-long tour in Up With People (Cast D90 Rocks!)…

We were in our 2nd month of touring and we were performing all aross northern Italy. One afternoon in this delightful country, we gather and the cast director announced, “We just scheduled a side trip to Rome. The train leaves in 3 hours, we wont sleep much, we’ll soak in Rome for a day, and return 29 hours later…it will cost you $100. Who wants to come?”

At the time, as a 4th year college student, my instant reaction was, “$100? No way…that’s two months of utilities once I get home”.

That was 22 years ago, and I’ve never been to Rome. If I want to go now, it’ll cost a good $5000. Imagine if I could have gone back in time to whisper, “Idiot, do it now, or the next time will cost 50x more”.

Ever since, I take time to explore a city, experience the culture, even sign up for a local adventure…I may never get the chance again.

For me, here’s what I’ve learned:

Sleep When You’re Home
You may only get one chance to see that New York jazz club (The Iridium…Monday nights…get a front table and order the bread pudding), or wander through Budapest. Don’t miss out because you’re tired.Yes, you have to bring your A game for business, but you’d be surprised how energizing a walk across the Danube or hot spiced red wine outside the Louvre can be.

Explore To Purge Jetlag
When I went to Sydney, I arrived at my hotel at 8:30am after a 23 hour journey. Instead of trying to rest, I walked. All day. Until 4pm. I saw amazing things, and by 8pm, I had no problems getting to sleep and slept 12 hours!

Spend Your Own Money
I’ll never forget my NYC helicopter ride, my Eiffel tower elevator ride, nor my South African safari ride. Yes, they cost me money, but dang, were they worth it!

Get Out of the Hotel District
Many cities cater to travelers around the hotels. I hate that. I want to explore the city as the locals live it. I find a city map and make a bee-line for a local market (like Bangkok, Prague, Trieste, Singapore’s ‘little India’…) and see what the locals sell, but especially…buy and eat! (Just be careful about eating everything they do…you may not live to tell of your adventure 🙂   )

There ya go. Don’t regret missing out on an experience…it’s just outside your hotel door.

Question: How do you sneak away from work to explore your travel destination?

 



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