Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Sending a letter back home from Japan

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

If you are in Japan on holiday you may well want to send a letter or postcard back home. Here are some simple tips to help you out if you aren’t sure how to do it.

japanese red post box

Addressing the letter

Address your letter as you normally would in the language of the country you are sending it to. I’d suggest writing the country name in block capitals as joined up hand writing isn’t usually taught in Japanese schools. Next to the country name write the country name (again) but this time in Japanese.

letter to england from japan stamps

The best list of Japanese country names I’ve found so far is the list at The countries are listed by ISO codes, and although you may not be an ISO code expert, I’m betting you’ll recognise the code for your own country.

Some of them are much easier to write than others! So don’t worry if you can’t write the Japanese version, as long as you have the country name in block capitals they will probably work out where to send it at the post office.

Finding a post office

You should find post offices in most towns and cities. Look for the symbol that looks like a ‘T’ with an extra line on the top.

outside of japanese post office

You can ask for the post office by saying:

‘yu-bin-kyo-ku wa’? (ゆうびんきょく は)


‘yu-bin-kyo-ku wa doko des ka’? (ゆうびんきょく は どこ です か)

What to do in the post office have got a post office lesson on their website. You can easily get the job done using much less Japanese then they are teaching you. But it is worth looking at their lesson, because it has audio files for some of the words you might need.

Go up to a counter and say:

[country name] o-ne-gai-shimass. ([country name] おねがいします)

e.g. to send a letter to the UK you might say:

igi-risu o-ne-gai-shimass. (イギリス おねがいします)

Then hand them you letter or card. You’d usually hand it to them using two hands, and with the address rotated correctly so they can read it. If they haven’t quite got what you said you could point to the country name and they should know what you want.

They’ll then weigh the letter and tell you the price. The price should also be on the till so you can just read the price if you don’t understand Japanese numbers.

Pay them the money and get your change. Like in most shops and restaurants you don’t hand the staff member the money directly. You would put it in a tray, or on the counter for them to pick up. They will however usually give you the change back into your hand with the receipt.

Then they will get the stamps and the airmail sticker and put them onto the envelope. If there is a choice of different stamps they might ask you to choose one. You could just point at which one you want.

To finish off they’ll either take the letter away and say “ari-ga-tou gozai-mashita”, or hand it to you for you to post yourself.

You can thank them by saying “ari-ga-tou gozai-mass” (ありがとうございます) if you want to be extra polite.

Shionoe Firefly Festival in Takamatsu

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Every year Shionoe (塩江) hosts a festival in honour of the glowing firefly insects which appear in the area. Shionoe is in the outer Takamatsu (高松) area of the Kagawa (香川) prefecture in Japan. The fireflies are found around the river area where the festival is held. In 2010 it was held on Saturday 12th June.

shionoe firefly festival figure

This map shows the rough locations of Takamatsu’s Kawaramachi 瓦町 bus station (North pin on the map) and the Shionoe-cho 塩江町 firefly festival (South pin on the map).

View Shionoe (塩江) Firefly Festival in a larger map

shionoe bus there and back

To get there we could either take the 53 bus from stop 4 of Kawaramachi bus station, or the same bus from stop 10 of the Takamatsu bus station (near the train station). The journey is about an hour, and for almost all the buses Shionoe is the last stop (be careful if you get on a bus where it isn’t!).

When you get to Shionoe make sure you check how to get back – the buses back to Takamatsu usually finish quite early (around 7pm) but they should run later on Firefly festival day.

Near to the bus stop were loads of pictures that local children had drawn of the fireflies.

firefly festival children's art

The festival area is only a few minutes walk from the bus stop. Just follow everyone else. You’ll need to go over the river on the small foot bridge.

river in shionoe

Inside the festival are lots of food stalls (plenty of meat, fish, ice cream, drinks, toys). And there was some kind of stage show, with what looked like people dressed as power rangers!

shionoe firefly festival

shionoe festival food

One of the highlights of the festival is a chance to see some fireflies. They have a darkened tent that you can go in to see them. I think the tent opened at about 6pm, so that might be a good time to arrive at the festival. There was a big queue but it moved very quickly.

First you go through one set of tent flaps, where it gets dark. And then you go through another set where it gets even darker. In here the fireflies are kept behind netting. You can see them flashing on and off with a green luminescence. They look a bit like little LEDs turning on and off.

You certainly aren’t allowed to use flashes in here (I think it scares them – and it would ruin the atmosphere), but I was able to take some non-flash photos (I turned off the viewfinder so that my camera wouldn’t give out any light).

Most of the photos were completely black, but in a few of the shots were small green dots. I’ve blown one of the dots up so you can see the colour!

firefly in dark tent shionoe

This is a fun little festival if you want to get outside the main city. I’d say you can see it all in about an hour – but you could stretch it to two hours if you ate some food, and did things slowly.

Air France VLML vegetarian in flight meals

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

After booking a long haul flight with Air France I used my booking code on the ‘Manage your reservation’ section of their website to try to select vegetarian VLML meals for my flights. Their website allowed me to select a vegetarian meal for one of the flights, but not the other.

I therefore called up their customer services centre, and after managing to navigate my way through their menu system got to speak to a real person.

I asked for a VLML vegetarian mean for all my flights, and after she asked if I wanted a VGML meal, we managed to get the right VLML one booked.

The VLML code if you aren’t familiar with the airline meal codes stands for vegetarian lacto-ovo meal. It is vegetarian (no meat, no fish), and dairy products are allowed.

VLML meal 1 – Dinner

When it was time for dinner the flight attendant brought my VLML meal straight to my seat. I didn’t need to ask – and I got my meal before everyone else (I think they do this with the special meals to make sure they go to the right person).

air france vlml vegetarian in flight dinner

The main item was (I think) two rolled omelettes with tomato sauce. It was very tasty. There was also a salad with camembert cheese, an orange, apple compote, a stick of bread, and a chocolate cake. The omelette was the highlight, followed by the chocolate cake.

VLML meal 2 – Breakfast

When it was time for breakfast I again got the correct VLML meal brought straight to my seat (if you order a special meal you are probably best off sticking to your allocated seat rather than changing at the last minute). And again I got my meal before the other passengers in this section.

air france vlml vegetarian in flight breakfast

For breakfast they had given me an ordinary piece of bread, a croissant, some canned fruit, and a caramel Alpro Soya. The bread wasn’t very exciting – and the Alpro Soya was the highlight of the Air France breakfast.


In terms of getting the VLML meal orders correct Air France did a perfect job. You can’t get much better than having the right meal brought to your seat.

In terms of content, they could do a bit better. The portions were quite small and the breakfast lacked imagination – two types of bread (although as this is a French airline multiple types of bread is to be expected!). If they doubled the amount of omelette for dinner, and gave something like corn flakes as an option for breakfast, it would be a better VLML experience.

Working holiday visa for Japan – how to get one

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

A working holiday visa for Japan will allow you to holiday in Japan for up to a year. You will be allowed to work to fund your holiday (for example by teaching English). But of course you don’t have to work if you already have enough money for your whole holiday.

united kingdom british passport

I’m applied from the UK so my advice is UK centric, but the scheme operates in a similar way in other countries where it is available – at the time of writing this includes Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and others. The Japan Association for Working Holiday Makers has a complete list of eligible countries.

If applying from the UK you’ll want to read the guidance from the Embassy of Japan in the UK.

There are a few unofficial links giving good general advice. This one from Guillaume Erard has a great account of what he did to apply for the Japan working holiday visa. This YouTube video is also a good watch.

As there is good information out there, I’m going to add extra information that I have, rather than just repeating what has already been said.

The Japan visa application form

You need to fill in the standard Japan Visa application form. There isn’t a separate form for a working holiday visa. It isn’t quite clear from the website but the form you need is this one.

For purpose of journey I put ‘Holiday (working holiday visa application)’.

For route of present journey I filled in all three parts. It doesn’t matter if your change your port of entry, date of entry, or flight later on. I think they just want to make sure you know you are trying to go to Japan!

In the passport section I circled ‘ordinary’.

For the ‘guarantor or reference’ I put the name and address of the friend I was going to stay with. Exactly the same as what I put in the ‘where / who are you going to stay with’ section above it.

I glued a 45x35mm passport style photo into the photo space on the form.

The CV

For this I produced a cut down version of my CV. I didn’t think they’d want the same level of detail a recruiter would want, so I made it fit on a single side of A4 – with a bit of space to spare!

I started with the basics – name, address, email, telephone number. I put a run down of my jobs and responsibilities. There was a section with my qualifications, and a final section talking about hobbies.

Proposed itinerary

This was by far the most difficult part of the application to do. It is made more difficult by the almost complete lack of guidance on the Japan embassy website.

In order to write a good itinerary I decided to plan the whole year out. The where, when, what, and how much. I looked at tourist information for where I wanted to go, planned it out on an Excel calendar, and worked out a budget on another Excel spreadsheet.

This I then condensed into a single side of A4. I’ve heard that other people such as Guillaume Erard have had to re-write their itineraries in the Embassy as theirs were too long. Mine was more detailed than his but they were fine with the first version I gave them. When I went to hand it in I had actually brought an even shorter version with me just in case!

I believe what they are looking for is that you are serious about having a holiday in Japan and have done some planning. They aren’t interested in exactly what you are doing. There is no reason why you can’t change you plans later – you don’t have to stick to the itinerary. What I think they want to filter out is people who are just going to go to Japan, stay in one place, and work full time, instead of having a holiday.

The written reason

For this I again stuck to a single side of A4 paper. I’m sure they are very busy in the Embassy and don’t want to read any life stories.

I wrote about what a good time I’d had on my previous visit to Japan, and about what I wanted to do if I was given a visa to spend longer there.

I’m guessing they want to see some genuine interest in going to Japan. Again this part of the application is probably there to dissuade people who just want to work full time from applying.

Bank statements

They want to see evidence that you have enough to get started in Japan (and get back to your home country). If you apply from the UK they’ll want three months worth of original bank statements showing a certain level of cash.

This is a pain for anyone who has swapped to paperless statements. Fortunately I knew I wanted to apply over three months before I needed to so I switched back to paper statements.

Going to the Japan Embassy in London to make the application

Having got all the necessary material together I headed off to the Japan Embassy which is opposite Green Park.

embassy of japan in london

Outside the embassy is a security contractor. You’ll have to tell him or her why you want to go inside. You might have to show some ID or your application forms to get in.

You’ll then go through airport style security. Any bags will be x-rayed and you’ll need to go through a metal detector. So don’t bring unnecessary metal with you unless you enjoy being scanned in more detail!

Then you go up the stairs to a little counter. There was a Japanese lady behind the glass and I told her I wanted to hand in my working holiday visa application. She asked to see the visa form. She didn’t want to check it – she just wanted to make sure I’d filled in the right form before going through.

She told me to go through the glass doors and press the bottom green button on the ticket machine at the end of the room.

On doing this I got a numbered ticket. An electronic board above flashes your number up and tells you which counter to go to. I’d only sat down for a minute and my number came up. Efficient!

I went to the counter and a British guy served me. I told him I wanted to hand in my application. I gave him the visa form, the CV, itinerary, written reason, bank statements, and my passport.

He looked through them and re-confirmed a few details such as my intended length of stay, and the fact that I had no criminal record. He also asked about my job plans in Japan.

He signed various bits of the application form, photocopied the bank statements, and then stamped the form.

He gave me back my bank statements and also a receipt for my application and passport (which you have to leave at the embassy). He said to come back one week later to collect the result of my application.

He said that he couldn’t promise anything but everything on my application looked fine.

One week later – do I get a working holiday visa?

Yes! I was in the embassy for less than 10 minutes. I paid my £6 (Update 2010/11/08: this has now gone up to £20) and I got my passport back with the working holiday visa stuck inside.

japan working holiday visa

It was dated from the day they approved the visa which was a few days before I collected it and valid for a year. So from this date I have one year in which to enter Japan.

Yen and flights

I bought my Yen from the Thomas Exchange Global foreign currency shop in London, and booked my flight with Finnair (flying from London to Osaka via Helsinki).

Getting into Japan with the working holiday visa

When you arrive at the airport in Japan you need to go into the normal foreigners queue. When you get to the counter you’ll need to give the immigration staff member your passport and immigration (embarkation/disembarkation) card. I handed him the passport with the visa visible, but I’m sure you don’t need to as the fact you have a visa should be on their computer system already.

There is a machine to take the finger prints of your two index fingers, and there is a camera as well which takes your photo.

They can give you a short interview at this point as well. On my previous visit to Japan where I didn’t have a pre-arranged visa (I was just going via the normal tourist visa-waiver scheme) I was asked quite a few questions about what I was doing in Japan and how long I was going to be there.

This time though the guy didn’t ask me anything. He stamped the visa to say ‘USED’. Then he printed off and stuck in a landing permission sticker. This is dated from the day you enter Japan, and expires one years after you enter Japan.

To be clear the validity of your stay in Japan is from entry to Japan. It is not the dates which are in your visa. The dates that are in your visa are the dates between which you can enter Japan, to start your one year stay.

He also removed the disembarkation part of the immigration card, and stapled the embarkation part of the card into the passport. I had left the ‘Flight No.’ part of the embarkation card empty, as I didn’t know what flight I would be getting back to the country at the end of my travels.

Whereas a tourist landing permission sticker gives the status as ‘Temporary Visitor’, the working holiday landing permission sticker says ‘Designated Activities’.

He handed the passport back, and gave me a small leaflet reminding me that I would have to register as an alien within 90 days.

Finally don’t forget the visa is single entry and is marked as ‘USED’ the moment you enter Japan! So don’t even think of making a short break to South Korea, or back home without sorting out a re-entry permit first.

If you leave without a re-entry permit your one year landing permission will be invalidated, and then your only way to re-enter would be under the normal tourist visa waiver scheme. Which they might not let you do if you have already been in the country for a while!

Can I stay in Japan longer than a year?

A one year working holiday visa for British citizens can’t be renewed. However you can get your residence status changed to a normal working residence status from within Japan if a company is willing to give you the necessary paperwork. This will give an automatic extension to your period of stay by one or three years from the day the status change is granted.

There is a lot of conflicting information on the internet about this, much is out of date, and there is a big difference between what embassy/immigration officials might informally tell you, and what can be done if you actually submit the application. It is probably not worth asking anyone if this can be done as they will probably say ‘no’. Definitely don’t ask about this when applying for your working holiday visa, as with the working holiday visa you are only supposed to be intending to stay for a year.

The actual situation that I have found as of 2011 is that you can submit a ‘change of status’ application in Japan before your working holiday visa expires, and this will (if approved) convert your visa to a normal working visa and give you another year (or three) in the country. There is no need to leave the country to get this done. All you need is a company who is willing to sponsor you. I may post more about this topic in a future post.

So if you want to change a working holiday visa into a work visa, don’t ask – just submit the application and it will probably be ok. I managed to get my Working Holiday designated activities residence status changed to a three year Specialist in Humanities a few weeks before it expired so it can be done!

Thomas Exchange Global in London

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Where do you go when you need foreign currency for your holiday? Do you go to your bank, post office, a high street currency dealer, or order online?

Before deciding where to get your holiday money I highly recommend you check out Martin Lewis’s He’s the guy who runs the Money Saving Expert website, and is regularly on UK TV giving advice on saving money.

On the TravelMoneyMax website you enter how much of what currency you want, and the site will tell you the best place to get it. One of the places that is always near the top of the list is the Thomas Exchange Global currency dealer at 402 Strand, WC2R 0NE in London.

View Larger Map

I’ve been to the Thomas Exchange Global quite a number of times to get various currencies. Here is my review of what their service is like when you visit the exchange in person to buy currency. I’m not reviewing any of their other services.

The shop itself is on the North side of the road on the Strand. It is a very small premises so you’ll have to be careful not to walk past it.

Thomas Exchange Global foreign currency exchange London

There are about three counters in the shop, but this seems to be enough as they are very quick. Ask them what price they will give you, and if you are happy with the rate, give them your money.

Once you tell them how much foreign currency you need, the person serving you passes this information onto a backroom member of staff. The backroom staff get the foreign currency ready while the counter staff member counts up your own money.

When I’ve requested smaller denomination notes they often haven’t been able to get them for me. But as long as you are happy with whatever denomination bank notes they give you Thomas Exchange Global do a good job.

They always count your original money out in front of you. If you give them a reasonable wad of notes they’ll then put it through a note counting machine to count it again.

They’ll then bring your foreign currency over, and count it out in front of you. They’ll do this at least twice. They don’t accidental want to give you too much!

To finish up they’ll give you a receipt, and give you your foreign money in an envelope.

If you are exchanging a large amount of money then I’d recommend you carry your money in a money belt to make sure you don’t lose it. And to make it less likely that it will get stolen. This is a very busy area of London and you could easily get mugged if an opportunist thief saw you walking out with a big bundle of bank notes.

Thomas Exchange Global official website.

Virgin Trains standard vs 1st class

Monday, March 8th, 2010

When booking a recent two hour return train journey I spotted that I could take 1st class on the return leg for only £5 extra. I thought I’d give it a go to see if it is any better than standard class.

The standard class outward journey

If you are taking a Virgin Train from a London mainline station like Euston and are in standard class, one of the first things you’ll notice is that you have quite a long walk to your carriage.

The 1st class carriages are nearest to the building entrance. The standard class carriages are at the other end so you might need a minute or two of walking to reach them.

virgin trains standard class

Above is what the seating looks like. There are four seats across in standard class. The train itself is quite narrow so there isn’t a lot of space.

Don’t bother bringing luggage with you, especially at busy times, there’s hardly any space. The luggage rack above the seat is a joke. The space starts off fairly small in the middle of the carriage, and gets smaller and smaller as you get to the ends of the carriage. At the ends of the carriage you’d be lucky to get your coat in there.

There are some luggage spaces in the carriage, but competition for this space can be fierce. If you’ve ever been in standard class before Christmas you’ll know that bringing anything bigger than what you can fit on the floor in front of you, or on your lap is a bad idea.

At quieter times you won’t have problems, but it is sometimes hard to know whether it will be quiet or busy.

If you book on the Virgin Trains website you’ll get an automatic seat reservation. There is a display above each seat which says whether it is reserved or not. If you are lucky then you’ll find your seat unoccupied. If not you’ll have to ask a grumpy looking passenger to move on.

In standard class you’ll find a carriage where you can buy drinks, snacks and magazines. The shop closes about half an hour before reaching the final destination (they seem to need a lot of time to check the stock and count the takings).

There is also usually a quiet carriage in standard class where you are not supposed to use your phone, or play music at audible volume. People still do though, and I’ve never seen a ticket inspector do anything about it.

The 1st class return journey

First class is a bit more spacious. There are only three seats across in 1st class. Other than the extra space there isn’t much different about the interior of the carriage.

virgin trains first class

During the weekdays they’ll serve you a complimentary meal if you are travelling at the right time.

At the weekend you’ll have to make do with a complimentary tea, drink, and snack. I got a bottle of fizzy water, and a pack of two cookies.

In 1st class there is free WiFi. It is also available in standard class but you’ll have to pay for it there. As with most public WiFi the connection is unencrypted so be careful what you look at, as other (bad!) people could intercept your internet traffic if they wanted. Stick to standard website browsing, and only enter login details, or send sensitive information if you are using an encrypted (HTTPS/SSL) website. Ideally you should use VPN software to keep your sent or received traffic confidential.

On arriving back in London my carriage was very near to the station exit so I got out fast, whereas those in standard class had to walk much further along the platform.

Normally 1st class is much more expensive than standard class so I’d say it isn’t worth it, but if you can get a 1st class ticket for just a few pounds more than your standard class ticket then it is worth a go.

Managing holiday money with an Excel burn down chart

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

If you go on a short holiday then it should be pretty easy to manage your holiday money. It isn’t too hard to track how quickly your foreign currency is running out when you are only abroad for a week or two.

If you are going on holiday for a number of months then it becomes a bit harder. When I recently went on holiday for three months I thought being able to record my available currency in the form of a burn down chart would be a useful thing to do.

I ended up creating an excel spreadsheet which when filled in gave me three lines on a graph.

holiday money burndown chart

  1. The first straight line (pink) goes down from the total amount of foreign currency on the first day of my holiday to 0 on the last day of my currency. This line shows where my currency reserves should be on average each day in order to spend all the money I took with me.
  2. The second line (blue) is the actual amount of foreign currency that I have left. A few times a week I would count up how much money I had left, and enter the data into the Excel spreadsheet. This would then update the second line. If this line is above the straight line then I’m under spending (on average), if the line is above the straight line then I’m over spending. The concept of under or over spending is of course ‘on average’. There may be good reasons why your spending during your holiday might be unevenly spread.
  3. The third line (yellow) is plotted against the axis on the right of the chart. This shows how much currency I have left per day on average.

Using the holiday currency burn down spread sheet

To make it easier to see how to use the spread sheet I have put a load of example data in the yellow cells. When you understand it you will have to remove the example data and enter your real data. Don’t delete anything in the red cells as these cells contain the formulas which will make it all work.

holiday money burn down spreadsheet

I have put comments in cells A2, B2, H2, I2 and I3 explaining what you need to put into these cells to get the spread sheet setup for your own holiday.

Then all you need to do is update it every few days and you’ll be able to see how fast your holiday money is burning down.

Download the holiday money spreadsheet from here (12kb).

How to be a vegetarian in Japan

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Out of all the places you can visit in the world, one of the hardest for being vegetarian must be Japan. In Japan you will find it hard to find restaurants where you can get vegetarian food, and you will find your options for vegetarian food in supermarkets more limited then they will be in most other countries.

thali spice restaurant takamatsu chana masala

The Japanese vegetarian problem

The problem for vegetarians in Japan is caused largely by the Japanese love of fish. You will find fish, fish extracts, fish sauce (dashi), or other fish derivatives in all kinds of food. Most Japanese food will contain some fish, even if it does not look like a fish dish. Many restaurants serving foreign food will sneak fish into their food as well to make the taste more appealing to the Japanese.

A fishy tale

To illustrate how difficult it can be to avoid fish listen to this. I went to Tokyo and found a review of a vegetarian restaurant that sounded good on a vegi website. It was a restaurant serving tofu – a popular choice for vegis! On getting to the restaurant my friend and I thought we’d double check what was in the food. We asked in Japanese and it turned out that they put fish dashi (fish sauce) in ALL their tofu dishes :( That’s right, even a tofu restaurant which had been recommended by a well know vegetarian website turned out not to be vegetarian.

Ground up beef

There are other difficulties. The Japanese sometimes put ground up meat into their food. For example you may find that a tomato pasta dish which looks perfectly innocent actually contains ground up beef inside it. You won’t find it on the menu. You’ll only find out if you can talk to the waiting staff in Japanese.

Even bread isn’t safe. Some wholemeal breads in Japan contain Gelatin!


Another difficulty is caused by the unwillingness of Japanese restaurants to do custom orders. In most other countries, if you ask for your food to be prepared without a certain ingredient (something you have to a lot as a vegetarian) the restaurant will agree to do it.

And why shouldn’t they. If there is a pasta with bacon on the menu it is pretty easy to prepare it without the bacon isn’t it? Well not always to the Japanese. You’ll find that if you ask for a modification to be made to a dish on the menu, they will think for a moment and then say ‘muzukashii’. This is the Japanese word for ‘difficult’. This is their way of saying they can’t do it.

I don’t understand why it is so difficult not to place one of the ingredients onto a dish which has to be prepared from scratch, but if you are in Japan you have to get used to it.

That is not to say that it can’t be done. I’ve been in many restaurants that were happy – or at least willing to make changes to items on the menu. You just have to ask them politely and then explain very carefully.

So what can you eat as a vegetarian in Japan?

Your range of vegetarian options in Japan will depend on where you are in the country, how much research you have done, and whether you can communicate in Japanese.

If you don’t speak Japanese then you will be safest eating in foreign restaurants. I found that real Indian restaurants offered the best vegetarian food throughout Japan. Note that I’m talking about foreign Indian restaurants such as Nepali Indian restaurants and not the Japanese style Curry restaurants where you are unlikely to find any options.

Indian – the world’s safest vegetarian food

India is the world’s most vegetarian friendly country and this becomes obvious when you go to a real Indian restaurant. You will usually find multiple vegetarian options in an Indian restaurant. You will also find that the staff in these restaurants that are from India will often speak English. This is a double bonus for the hungry vegetarian in Japan. If the chefs are Indian then it is unlikely that any fish sauce or flakes will be put into your food.

Italian – an often safe option

After Indian restaurants the next best option is the Italian restaurant. You will usually be able to find a margarita pizza, or a tomato pasta in the menu. Sometimes you might even find a mushroom pasta. If there is no margarita pizza then you might be able to get them to remove the meat from a bacon or ham pizza.

Something a bit more authentic

Of course if you come to Japan it is nice to try something more authentic than Indian and Italian. If you want to do this however you’ll need to speak enough Japanese to explain your dietary requirements, ask what food is suitable, discuss modifications to the items on the menu, and you’ll need to understand what your waiter is saying! Or if you have a Japanese friend bring them along.

If you handle the Japanese language then you may be able to get them to make you a vegetarian okonomiyaki (a sort of savoury pancake), or a vegetarian yakisoba (fried noodles). These dishes aren’t usually vegetarian, pretty much always containing some fish dashi and fish flakes, but some restaurants may be willing to make them vegi for you. You can ask them to leave out the fish flakes, and put soy sauce in the dish instead of fish dashi – if they have soy sauce, sometimes they don’t.

Another good option is yudame or zaru udon. These types of udon are boiled in water and will be served plain. You’ll probably get a fish dipping sauce with them, but can just leave it. You can add soy sauce, tofu, and spring onions to your udon to make them taste good.

The lunch ‘set’ menu

‘Set’ lunches are very popular in Japan. Unfortunately if you are vegetarian you won’t like them! At lunch many restaurants do these set menus which offer a very limited set of choices. If you do manage to find a restaurant that does a vegetarian option, you can bet that it won’t be there on the set lunch menu. And when it comes to set lunches the Japanese are even less willing to make modifications to the food than at dinner time.

Whereas Italian restaurants can be a good choice for dinner, they may well have nothing to offer you at lunch. The one place that might have a vegetarian option for lunch will be Indian restaurants.

Katakana and Kanji

If you want to stay vegetarian you will find it very useful to learn the Japanese katakana alphabet, and selected food kanji.

Katakana is a phonetic alphabet. Each ‘letter’ makes a sound. The good thing about katakana is that it is used for imported foreign words – usually English words. That means if you can read the katakana you may be able to understand the words without having to know any Japanese vocabulary.

If an English menu isn’t available at a foreign food restaurant such as an Italian or Indian you will probably find that much of the menu is written in katakana.

Katakana isn’t difficult to learn and you should be able to learn it in a few weeks if you put your mind to it. Below is an example menu snippet, mostly written in katakana, with a few kanji thrown in too.

katakana italian menu japan

Learning selected food kanji will also help you out, both with understanding menus, and knowing which food in the supermarket or convenience store is vegi safe.

The two main ‘danger’ kanji to avoid are the ones for meat 肉, fish 魚, and a bug/insect 虫.

You will find that many types of meat, fish, and seafood words in Japanese contain these kanji.

Here are some examples of non-vegetarian foods.

牛肉 – Beef. Did you spot the meat kanji?
豚肉 – Pork.
羊 – Lamb / sheep.
鶏 / とり – Chicken / bird. Here bird is written in the hiragana phonetic alphabet rather than kanji.
蝦 – Shrimp or prawn. Look very carefully at the left half of the kanji. You should be able to spot the kanji for bug / insect (虫) in there.
海老 – Shrimp or prawn. The first kanji means ‘the sea’.

Food ordering going wrong in Japan

Here are some examples of what could go wrong when you order your food in Japan. I include them so you see just how easy it if for Japanese waiting staff to get your vegetarian order wrong.

No meat please – You get given a meal with fish. Japanese people do not usually see fish as being a type of meat.

No meat or fish please – You get seafood in your dish. Such as prawns, prawn flavouring, fish sauce, fish flakes. In Japan seafood is often seen as being different to meat or fish. Even if you say no fish they might still think that fish sauce or fish flakes are fine.

No meat, fish, or seafood – You get a dish with bacon on it! Yes I have seen this happen. How could the Japanese possibly think that bacon is not a type of meat. My theory is that it is because bacon is written as バーコン which does not contain the meat kanji. Therefore some Japanese people don’t think of meat when they think of bacon.

Research your restaurants

If you don’t do research in advance you will just have to take your chance wherever you are. If you are lucky you’ll find Italian or Indian. If you are in Japan for a long time then this will get boring. Therefore you should do research into vegetarian restaurants before you go.

Find vegetarian places that sound good, and make sure you know where the restaurant is on the map. Also make sure you know the opening days and hours, as restaurants in Japan can sometime be closed at unexpected times. The one place to research your restaurants is on Happy Cow. There you’ll find vegetarian restaurants (or at least restaurants with a few vegi options) in all Japan’s big cities. Many smaller cities will have a few vegi friendly restaurants as well.

If you should happen to be going to Takamatsu on Shikoku Island, then I have a guide to Takamatsu’s vegetarian restaurants. You’ll also find a Japan survival guide on this blog.

Japanese survival phrases and Japan survival information

Monday, February 1st, 2010

If you live in a Western country such as Britain, America or elsewhere in Europe then Japan will seem a very alien country when you first arrive. They language, writing, alphabets, foods and customs are so different to ours that Japan can be a big culture shock to the system.

Japanese survival phrases

If you look on the internet or in a book shop there are lots of guides on Japanese survival phrases. However it is hard to find a guide with just the right words that you need to get you started in Japan – or even worse there are guides that give you direct translations without proper context of when to use or who you can use these phrases with.

Japan is a country of complex etiquette so a simple translation of words without understanding the context may not get you the results you need. For example many guides will tell you ‘Good Morning’ is ‘ohayo gozaimasu’ or that ‘Thank You’ is ‘arigato’. Are these translations good enough? No they’re not – you need more context to know if they are suitable!

I’m only going to explain a small number of phrases – these are ones you are very likely to use – they won’t help you to have a conversation but they may make you visit to Japan easier.

Whatever country you are in you should always know how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Very important for getting you out of trouble and so that you don’t seem rude!

If you only learn five Japanese phrases make it these ones.

1. Arigato gozaimasu

Pronounced ‘ari-ga-toe goh-zai-mass’, this means ‘thank you very much’. It is what you would say if you want to be polite to the waiter when they bring you your food, or to the shop assistant when you have completed your purchase transaction. Normally you would do a small bow or nod at the same time as saying this.

You may notice when in the country that many Japanese people do not say thank you to shop or restaurant staff. This is not considered rude. But as a foreigner it is best to be politer than you need.

Many books will list ‘arigato’ as ‘thank you’. While this is correct – ‘arigato’ is a casual ‘thank you’, you would normally use the more formal version when dealing with shop, restaurant or other staff. ‘Arigato’ by itself is suitable for use with close friends.

An ever more polite ‘thank you’ is ‘arigato gozaimashita’. This is something that you may hear shop, restaurant or other staff say to you. You wouldn’t normally say it back to them though – ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ is the more appropriate response.

Normally when you have paid in a shop or restaurant the staff will say ‘arigato gozaimashita’ to you first. Then you can say ‘arigato gohzaimasu’ to them before leaving.

2. Sumimasen

The full pronunciation would be ‘sue-me-ma-sen’, however when you hear Japanese people saying it the word sounds squashed into something more like ‘suei-ma-sen’.

This is quite a versatile word. You can use it to say ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘thanks’.

If you bump into someone then you can say ‘sumimasen’ to apologise.

If you want to get past someone you can say ‘sumimasen’ to say ‘excuse me’.

If you want to say a very small non-final thanks – for instance the waiter hands you a towel to clean your hands you can say ‘sumimasen’. You’d still say ‘arigato gozaimasu’ when he has completed doing whatever he is doing at the table or when you have been given your food.

3 4 & 5. Ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa and konbanwa

After having learnt ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’/ ‘excuse me’ the next essential phrases to learn are good morning, good afternoon, good evening.

Although ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ is generally translated as ‘Good Morning’ it can’t be used interchangeably with ‘Good Morning’. It is only valid until about 10am in the morning.

After 10am you must use ‘konnichiwa’. Note that in pronouncing this word there are two ‘n’ sounds. Don’t merge them together. It is kon-nichiwa. You can use konnichiwa from 10am, through the afternoon and into the evening until the sun sets.

Konbanwa is good evening and you can use this after the sun has set until the early morning when you start to use ‘Ohayo gozaimasu’ again.

Do I need other words?

Although more words are useful you can certainly survive in Japan for a holiday with just those phrases. I’ll give you some more survival tips below.

English in Japan

English is not very widely spoken in Japan. In Tokyo you will find basic English spoken at hotels, tourist sites, and tourist friendly restaurants. In other cities English is less spoken, and if you get off the usual tourist trail you may find that almost no English is spoken.

If you need ask a question in English then your best place to get an answer may well be the reception of the nearest hotel. Reception staff in hotels often can speak English – or there will be someone around who does. Reception staff are great if you are lost and need directions. If no hotel is available then you may find that young Japanese women in their 20s or 30s have the best spoken English.

Because of the way English is taught in Japanese schools you will find that written English is much better understood that spoken English. If you are not getting anywhere with your spoken English but you realise that the person you are talking too knows some English then try writing the question down. But don’t use joined up letters as joined-up writing is not usually on the syllabus in schools!


Kanji are the Chinese characters used in Japan. There are thousands of them and obviously you can’t learn kanji for your holiday.

However I do recommend that if you are travelling around you learn the kanji for the place you are staying. For example if you are in a hotel in Osaka then learn the kanji for Osaka (大阪). You will find knowing your ‘home’ kanji very useful if you are trying to get a bus or train back. Signs outside of tourist areas may not have any English.

Knowing that the kanji for weekday is 平日 will help you know which section to look at on a bus timetable. If you know the kanji for where you are going then you might even be able to work out which timetable to look at.

japanese bus timetables

There are a few other kanji in this post that you may find useful.


There are many kinds of restaurant in Japan. Some are fairly Western, others are very Japanese!

You have to be a bit careful to judge the kind of restaurant before you go in so you don’t make a bad faux pas!

If there are people in front of you observe what they do on entering the restaurant. In particular you may need to know what the etiquette is regarding shoes. Walking on a shoe free area with your shoes still on is very bad!

Many Japanese restaurants and other establishments require you to remove your shoes. You’ll generally be able to recognise these places as they will have slippers on the floor near the entrance and then you will have to step up onto the raised wooden floor. You can either wear the slippers or walk in your socks

There will generally be a rack to put your shoes, or sometimes there may be a locker.

In a more Western restaurant (if you go to an Italian for example) you’ll probably be keeping your shoes on.

If you take your time entering the restaurant rather than striding in have a quick look around then you should be able to see what kind of system they are operating.

You can indicate how many people are in your group by using your fingers. A small bow and ‘konnichiwa’ can be said before this if you want.

Menus generally have lots of pictures in them so you can order by pointing to what you want and indicating the quantity. In larger cities in Japan the staff may speak basic English. In more remote areas you might just have to get by with hand signals.

When seated you can get the attention of the staff with a nod, or saying ‘sumimasen’, or sometimes they may give you an electronic buzzer to call them. Japanese waiting staff are very attentive so you should find it very easy to get served.

‘Arigato gozaimasu’ is the appropriate way to thank the waiter when your food is brought. A small bow can be used too.

After bringing your food the waiter will probably put the bill on your table. If you order more food, they’ll bring you an updated bill.

When you have finished you take the bill to the counter and hand it to them. You don’t tend to pay at the table as you might do in America or England. They’ll press some buttons on the till and tell you the price again – it will be the same as on your bill.

Usually there will be a tray to put your money in, and they will then give you any change.

You shouldn’t give tips in Japan. It is not expected and may even cause confusion. Good service is included without requiring extra bribes – as it should be!

If you are vegetarian I have a separate guide about being vegetarian in Japan.


Ordering in a café is similar to ordering in a restaurant except that you may be ordering at the counter (unless it is a very posh café where they may take your order from the table).

If you order at the counter you’ll pay them at the counter. If they take your order from the table they’ll give you a bill and then you’ll go to the counter to pay after you have finished.

Vending machines

Japanese vending machines are pretty self explanatory. But you might not have noticed that there are red and blue boxes below the buttons. The blue boxes will get you a cold drink and the red boxes will get you a hot drink.

japan vending machine 07


As in restaurants and cafes you usually pay in a shop by putting the money in a tray.

Receiving your change

Whether in a restaurant, cafe, or shop there is a certain etiquette that the staff follow when giving you your change.

First they will count out the notes in front of you. Then they will hand the notes to you using both hands.

Next they will count out the coins and give these to you.

The notes and coins are always given to your separately so don’t worry if at first you think you aren’t being given enough change!

Japanese Trains

If you want to book a specific train at the ticket counter then don’t count on the member of staff speaking English. Your best bet is to write your destination, and the date and time of the train on a piece of paper. This should ensure you get the right ticket.

Japanese Buses

On most regular buses in Tokyo you will enter (入口) from the front door and exit (出口) from the middle door.

But through much of the rest of the country it is the other way around – enter through the middle door and exit through the front door. Make sure you check before getting on.

When you enter through the middle door the system will probably be that you’ll take a ticket from the dispenser by the door. It will have a number on it. On a screen at the front of the bus will be a list of numbers and the prices for your journey. The prices will increase as the bus goes further.

When you have reached your stop put the ticket and the correct money into the container at the front. Watch what other people do. If you don’t have the correct change there will be a change-maker at the front of the bus which will accept 1000 Yen notes.

inside Japanese bus

Not all buses have variable fares though. Some buses have a fixed fare no matter how far the bus goes. A fixed fare bus will have no tickets in the machine, all the prices on the board at the front will be the same, and there may well be a sign in the bus saying it is a fixed fare bus.


People drive on the left in Japan. This will be intuitive for English and Australians. Maybe not so intuitive for Americans!

Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked – usually with black and white stripes – and often have counters telling you how long it is until the lights will change. You shouldn’t cross unless the light is green – it can be an offence to illegally cross the road.

Crossing places without pedestrian green/red lights are marked with black and white stripes. You can cross when it is safe – cars have the right of way.

On roads without pavements you should just be careful.

You will see lots of cyclists in Japan cycling along the pavements. They don’t usually go too fast, and will cycle around you. Don’t make sudden movements when you are walking or they may crash into you!

At railway crossings you should keep your ears open – there may not be a visible sign that the gate is about to close.

Japanese Toilets

Signs for toilets are usually in English, but sometime in katakana. In this case look out for the sign saying トイレ (to-i-re).

The symbols for male and female are usually self explanatory unless they are written in kanji.

男 is the kanji for male.

女 is the kanji for female.

Many larger toilets have a map near the entrance which shows you which types of toilets are located in which cubicle. In Japan you have squat toilets, standard western sit down toilets, and the high tech Japanese toilets.

If you can’t work out where the flush is (if it is a high tech toilet) you can look for the large 大 / small 小 kanji to find which button to press. Can you find the flush on the toilet control panel below?

Japanese toilet control panel

On long distance coaches the toilets often have two buttons on the wall. The yellow one is the flush (you can see the small toilet picture). I’m guessing the red one is the emergency alarm – but I’ve never tried it!

Japanese coach toilet buttons red yellow

Power adaptors

If you want to save on wear and tear of your own power plug adaptor (especially if you are in the country for a while) then it might be a good idea to buy a cheap multi-socket adaptor from a 100 Yen shop (it will cost more than 100 Yen!). Plug your own adaptor permanently into the multi-socket one and only plug the multi-socket adaptor’s plug in and out of the mains sockets.

More Japan survival information

I have some other posts on various Japan survival topics that you might be interested in. I have written about iPhone apps for learning Japanese, how to get a working holiday visa, setting up a Japanese WiFi router, how to translate Japanese for free with OCR software, sending a letter from a Japanese post office, and the Japanese alien registration process.

Finnair vegetarian VLML in flight meals

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Recently I took two Finnair flight. One was 10 hours and one 3 hours. I wanted the vegetarian (VLML Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo Meal) meals. It was not possible to request them when booking the flight tickets on the Finnair website so I had to phone their call centre.

I told the lady that I wanted the VLML meal. It is best to be specific and say VLML rather than ‘vegetarian’ if you want this specific meal as there are several other types of vegetarian meal available (such as VGML Vegan and AVML Asian vegetarian). She confirmed that she had requested the meals and I should shortly receive an email confirming this.

A minute later I got the email. I printed this out so I could take it on the flights as proof of my request just in case there were any problems.

Meal 1 – Flight 1

This first meal (maybe lunch but it is hard to tell when you are travelling through timezones!) was pasta, mushrooms, carrots and some kind of tomato sauce. There was also a salad, some fruit, and some lemony mushrooms. As always on these flights is a roll of white bread. It tasted pretty good for an airline meal.

finnair vegetarian vlml in-flight meal

Meal 2 – Flight 1

Dinner was gnocchi in tomato sauce (with a whole tomato as well) and broccoli which all tasted good. A slightly odd jelly and the usual bread roll finished it off.

finnair vegetarian vlml in-flight meal

Snack – Flight 2

The snack on my second flight was falafel in rice, with some kind of tomato sauce. A bread roll and a boiled sweet was given as well. I noticed that this meal was both VLML and VGML – meaning it was vegan.

finnair vegetarian vlml in-flight meal

General experience

Over the past year I’ve had 6 vegetarian VLML meals on Finnair flights (all economy BTW). On 5 of those meals the VLML meals was brought to me without them having to remind them. They obviously have a record of which seats have ordered the special meals (if you stick in your allocated seat you are more likely to get your requested meal). On just one of the flights did I need to remind them that I had ordered the VLML meal.

The quality of the meals is pretty good for an economy airline meal. It was easy to order the meals over the phone – but it would have been even easier if the option was integrated into their ticket booking system.