Tokyo-matic: The ease of fending for oneself in Japan.
Hi-tech, automatic, advanced, convenient. This is how one would describe Japan and its do-it-yourself philosophy. Since the cost of labor is high, technological achievements allow individuals to fend for themselves in daily activities that in other countries would be put in the helping hands of a salesperson.
After landing in Narita airport, most traveling groups would pick up their rental wifi devices from the designated desks at the terminal. However, since we were expected to land at 8:00 pm and with such pickup points closing at half past eight, we decided to buy a visitor’s sim card instead. After all, Philippine carriers are infamous for being not only minutes, but hours late, as the national philosophy behind EDSA traffic also applies to NAIA traffic (that philosophy being a general lack of urban planning to account for population expansion and an equivalent lack of political will, exacerbated by corruption, to implement any concrete solutions), but I digress.
So yes, a tourist sim card. Based on our research, we wanted to get a IIJmio (I have no idea what that stands for) sim card which would have offered 1 gigabyte of data over 30 days for under 3000 Yen. Unfortunately, the konbini in Narita only carried the more expensive (at less than 5000 Yen) 2GB/3 month sim card. We instead purchased, via vending machine, a U Mobile sim. For 4000 Yen, we got a nano sim that offered 15 days of 200 MB a day of high speed internet (around 40 mbps), with speeds going down to 256 kbps after reaching the cap. So the speed goes down to what is already considered above average for actual mobile data performance in the Philippines. No problem. In retrospect, the IIJmio 3-month sim would still have been worth it. A pocket wifi rental for 15 days would have cost at least JPY6000-7000, and we would have had keep both our cellphones and wifi device charged throughout the day. A single sim is highly recommended for a family traveling together, even more so if one will have wifi where they will be staying.
Even the issuance of train tickets is automated. Instead of purchasing single journey tickets and worrying about fare adjustments every time we would exit train stations, we instead purchased Pasmo IC cards. Pasmo, under Tokyo Metro, and Suica, under Japan Rail, are valid at practically all train stations and buses throughout Japan. They can even be used to pay at convenience stores (konbini), vending machines, and even for locker rentals (see below). There is a refundable deposit of JPY 500, so you can surrender your card (remember, Metro for Pasmo and Suica for JR in Tokyo) at the end of your trip. However, the card is valid for ten years, and you will surely be back anyway, right? The machine also prints your name in Roman or Japanese, so you can also choose to keep the card as a souvenir.
All in all, we spent less than 7000 Yen on IC card load on our 15-day trip, confining ourselves to Tokyo and nearby Yokohama and saving the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe) for another time. We charged an initial 5000, inclusive of the JPY 500 deposit, and added another one or two grand (I can’t remember) close to the end of our stay. I zeroed out my load by using my remaining balance to pay for part of our last konbini purchase, and my wife still has a few hundred left in her card.
Of course, Japan would not be Japan without its vast array of vending machines. On literally every street corner, one would find a machine that would dispense their favorite drinks such as water, soda, juice and coffee in bottles or cans. This row located outside Tsukiji Market was one of the more unique sets, with machines for hot and cold drinks, beer!(macro, though), hot coffee in cups, with the one around the corner dispensing cigarettes. Sadly, were not able to see those which dispensed the more obscure items like ramen, phones or underwear.
This row of vending machines, painted with a Marvel comics theme was in Ameyoko Yokocho in Ueno, the “last black market in Tokyo”. Next to the vending machines are the capsule toy dispensers. For 100-300 yen, drop in your coins, turn the knob and get a surprise toy! Each dispenser has a different selection of toys, from the popular Pokemon to even Harry Potter, so you can ideally get the entire set if you burn enough money at one machine.
A lot of restaurants also had machines to dispense tickets for your orders. That way, they don’t have to hire extra staff as a cashier. Insert your money, select your orders, pick up your ticket/s and get your change. Hand your ticket to the line cook or receptionist (depending on where you are eating) and wait for your number to be called for your to pick up your food. Some joints will have someone bring the food to your tables. Easy peasy, except some (okay, maybe most) eateries, especially the non-tourist ones will not have English menu translations.
This machine was at the Takoyaki Museum in Odaiba, where several stalls from all over Japan, each with their own twists on the Osaka favorite, also had their own respective vending machines. Not all had English translations.
Another convenient way of ordering, most commonly seen in kaiten sushi (also known as conveyor belt or sushi train) restaurants, is via computer touch screen or tablet. Tap on your order and wait a few moments, and you get freshly handmade sushi express-delivered by conveyor belt to your seats. The screen will inform you when your order is arriving, and if necessary, which conveyor belt it will be arriving at. Once it arrives, tap on the confirmation button on the screen. Repeat until obscenely full and the stack of plates in front of you gets embarrassingly high.
If you’re going around with a lot of luggage, you can leave your luggage at one of the lockers at the train station for up to three days (be sure to double check this duration). You can then come back for it on your way back. Lockers come in different sizes and corresponding prices, with larger ones at around JPY 600-700. We were able to stow our umbrella stroller and a large backpack in one of the roomier lockers while we scoped out Akihabara after spending two nights in Yokohama. You can buy by IC card or cash. If you use your card, you will need the same card when claiming your luggage (no problem, since you’ll most likely be using it to enter the station anyway. If you pay by cash, you will be given a receipt with a pin number. Be sure to keep your receipt and take note of your locker number as well. The screen will also show which locker opens when you input your pin, and a helpful red light turns on as well. English instructions are available, as well.
Speaking of Yokohama, we were able to use the self-checkout machine at the Washington Hotel Sakuragicho. Since we had no other incidentals, all we had to do was insert the room keycard and pick up the receipt. Super convenient! No long lines, no waiting, and no dealing with inefficient hotel front desk staff like we do here at home. It doesn’t even take twenty seconds, as evidenced by the video above.
Another accomodation option in Japan, albeit one which we did not try out, is the capsule hotel. This is the facade of one in Ueno. For around 3000 yen, a drunk salaryman left behind by the last train can spend the night in cramped, but comfortable enough lodging. They have capsules right at the airport as well, for those with long layovers, or perhaps those Filipino passengers whose flights get cancelled due to storms or airline ineptitude and are not compensated by the companies for the inconvenience (disclaimer: this still has not happened to me, but I’ve heard stories).
Even clothing stores have automated checkout machines. GU, Uniqlo’s more affordable sister store, has staff that assist you with your payment without doing it for you (weird, I know). Just dump all the clothes you are buying into the cabinet below the screen. Make sure you took out the hangers, though. The computer magically scans the items no matter how jumbled they were as you threw them in (that, or the little Japanese elves rush down and check the price of each one). The item breakdown and total amount due will then be displayed on the screen. Insert your bills and/or coins to pay, pick up the change, and retrieve your purchases. You will then have to bag everything yourself.
This is also done in grocery stores and supermarkets such as local favorite, OK. If you are of the more environmentally-conscious sort, bring your own eco-bags as plastic is still the preferred shopping bag of choice in many establishments in Japan.
Advances in technology and a do-it-yourself philosophy also extend to toilets in Japan of course. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the “presence of mind”, if you want to call it that, to take photos or even videos of the magical self-warming, automatic-spraying, push-button flushing toilets. I have no idea, though, why some toilets (such as this one in the Shin-Okachimachi Metro station are monitored by camera, and where these cameras are located. Eep.
Traveling with a technically-still-an-infant-but-with-the-limitless-energy-and-temperament-of-a-toddler child made me appreciate how a growing number of men’s rooms feature baby changing stations! This was in Venus Fort in Odaiba.
Cozy, comfortable and convenient baby rooms are available as well in all major department stores. They tend to have everything from drink vending machines, cushioned changing tables, and of course, separate nursing rooms. Dads are generally welcome inside, up to the changing tables, and most rooms have waiting areas outside. This baby room in a department store in Akabane even had a bed for measuring baby’s height/length and a scale. A helpful chart for monitoring the baby’s healthy growth was even posted above for good -measure- (get it?).
They even have high-tech diaper disposal machines (at least I think I remember this being one of those). Just be sure to put your soiled nappies in one of the plastic bags provided, usually located right above the machine. I didn’t see the plastic bags until after I had dumped the diapers, and this happened at least twice. Oops. Sorry about that.