Japan travel blog

A Jet-setting Guide: Japan – The Pasmo and Suica cards.

Having talked about the Japan Rail pass in a previous post, I wanted to touch upon other public transport tickets which you can get to make your journey around Japan more convenient. Hong Kong has the Octopus card (八達通), London has the Oyster card, Japan as the Pasmo (パスモ) and Suica (スイカ) cards. I almost wonder if there’s a marine life theme to these cards, with the logo of the Suica card being a penguin.

The Japan Rail Pass works only on JR lines. So travelling around Tokyo is perfectly doable with the Japan Rail Pass if you’re going to be travelling along the Chūō-Sōbu Line (中央・総武緩行線), the Keihin-Tōhoku Line (京浜東北線), or the Yamanote Line (山手線). I am lucky enough to be have stayed, and will again be staying when I next go to Tokyo, in a guesthouse which is a couple of minutes’ walk from Asakusabashi Station (浅草橋駅), which is only one stop away from Akihabara Station (秋葉原駅) on the Chūō-Sōbu Line.

There are, however, plenty of other private metro lines in just Tokyo alone which does not allow the use of the Japan Rail Pass. To get around, get a Pasmo and a Suica card. Although both do the same thing, if you are planning to travel around Japan, you will notice that certain cities take both, where as some only take one or the other. For example, Tokyo seems to generally accept both Pasmo and Suica for travelling around, but Osaka only seems to accept the Pasmo. I would suggest buying both, and then top them up as you go along, pretty much like the pay-as-you-go Octopus card in Hong Kong, or the pay-as-you-go way of using an Oyster card in London.

The additional brilliant thing which you can do with a Suica card (and the Octopus card in Hong Kong) is that you can use the Suica card to pay for your shopping in certain shops! If you’re more familiar with a London setting, it’ll be comparable to your everyday contactless payment credit or debit card, except you have to top up.

Luckily, there is actually a wealth of information coming from official channels about the Suica and Pasmo cards. The JR East website has a page dedicated to the Suica card, which is an excellent guide to the Suica card. Click here for the dedicated JR East Suica card website. Equally, the Pasmo card website is a wealth of information on the Pasmo card, which you can find here.

Pasmo has a nice PDF guide on everything you need to know about the Pasmo here. Suica also has a PDF guide, which you can find here, but also do have a look at the video below from the Suica card’s website which gives a nice and simply overview of the Suica card.

A Jet-setting Guide: Japan – An introduction to maid cafés.

A massive part of Japanese Otaku culture is of course the famous maid cafés of Akihabara. So who better to help me with an explanation of maid cafés than Maids Of England‘s very own Maid Miyuu!

© MOE.

Maids Of England, or MOE for short, is a fusion English-Japanese style maid café. They have a pop-up café based in London, and have regular events. To keep up to date with upcoming MOE events, have a look at their website, the MOE Facebook page, or check out the MOE Twitter feed. They also have fun videos of what the maids and butlers are getting up to on their YouTube channel!

So let’s not keep Maid Miyuu waiting any longer, and find out what she can tell us about maid cafés!

Maid Miyuu. © MOE.
Hi there! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to have a quick chat with me about maid cafés! Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself?

Model number MOE07, Miyuu is a maid type android created especially for MOE on an order basis to serve at the café to assist the other maids and butlers!

What kind of things do you do as a maid for MOE, and what do you enjoy about being a Maid?

Miyuu serves Goshujinsama and Ojousama when they return home. Also we sometimes perform at anime conventions, and Japanese events! The thing Miyuu likes most about being a maid is being able to serve lots of different Goshujinsama and Ojousama, and being able to meet them and talk to them!

There are still a lot of people who don’t understand the concept of maid cafés. How would you describe a maid café to get people to visit one for their first time?

A maid café is a place you can go where you will be treated like a lord or lady of the manor by maids and butlers who will serve you cute food and drinks, and you can play games with them, and take souvenir instant photos (cheki / チェキ).

Are there any rules which your new Goshujinsamas and Ojousamas need to know about?

Make sure you listen carefully to the rules the doorman tells you!

Do you have any tips for first time Goshujinsamas and Ojousamas to make the most of their maid café debut?

Remember to keep an open mind and have fun!

I read that MOE are having their 7th anniversary this year. What events are there to celebrate this, and are you excited?

We are having a café event and also a concert to celebrate our 7th birthday! I’m very exited for them, it should be super fun!

Speaking of the concert, I saw on the MOE online store that there are LED penlights for sale to be collected at the concert. Why is this?

In Japan, it is customary to have light sticks at concerts to be able to cheer on your favourite idols! Wotagei (ヲタ芸) is done with the light sticks too, which we hope to see some of at the concert!

You mention wotagei. Could you briefly explain what is wotagei, please?

Wotagei means a wota’s talent, and usually refers to the cheer chants wotas do to support their oshi idols!

So, which MOE events would you recommend for someone who might want to get a feel of the maid cafés of Akihabara in Japan?

The anniversary café event would be the best to get an experience of Japanese maid cafés.

I think our time together is coming to an end now as you have all that preparation left to do. Do you have any parting thoughts you’d like to leave to the readers?

All the maids and butlers at MOE (especially Miyuu lol) hope to see new Goshujinsamas and Ojousamas return home for the first time soon, so don’t keep us waiting too long, okay!

The maids and butlers of MOE. © MOE.

Thank you so much to MOE, and Maid Miyuu for taking time out of their busy preparation period to have a chat to me and give that interview. Go and check out the MOE website and their various social media platforms and find out more about their upcoming events.

For tickets to MOE events, visit their online store where you can buy tickets to their 7th anniversary café event on 8 July 2018, and their 7th anniversary concert on 11 August 2018. There are other goodies which you can buy too like keychains and patches. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up a couple of light sticks from the MOE online store too, so you can join in to wotagei!

I’m very much looking forward to all their 7th anniversary events. Light sticks at the ready for some wotagei!

A Jet-setting Guide: Japan – Japan Rail Pass.

For most people, a visit to Japan isn’t going to happen very frequently, and it’s likely that the itinerary is likely to be filled with visits to a few different cities, such as Tokyo (東京), Kyoto (京都), Osaka (大阪), Hiroshima (広島)… the list can go on. There are of course internal flights which you can take. For example, you can fly from either Haneda Airport (HND / RJTT) or Narita Airport (NRT / RJAA) to Kansai International Airport (KIX / RJBB), which will get you to Osaka and Kyoto. Flight time from the Tokyo airports to Kansai International Airport is around one-and-a-half hours.

Alternatively, I prefer travelling by Shinkansen (新幹線), Japan’s high speed bullet train. The train journey is around three-and-a-half hours, but the benefit of travelling by train is that you can travel from city centre to city centre, and you don’t have to check-in. All-in-all, your travel time by train or by internal flights should be pretty similar.

A benefit of travelling by train, though, is that you can buy a rail pass which covers JR lines in either certain areas of Japan, or the whole of Japan. The whole Japan rail pass costs around £200 for seven days, which is around the same as one return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto / Osaka. Plus on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto / Osaka and vice versa, you can get quite a nice view of Mount Fuji (富士山).

You can buy your Japan Rail Pass before you leave for Japan. I bought mine from Japan Experience in London, as I happened to be passing by their office in Bloomsbury, and so simply popped in to pick it up.

You will be given (or sent, depending on your delivery option) an exchange voucher which looks something like this:

DO NOT LOSE THIS VOUCHER!

I would recommend that this go with you in your carry on bag, as you will need easy access to this voucher when you arrive in Japan. I exchanged my voucher for my actual Japan Rail Pass at Narita airport when I arrived. Your rail pass will look something like this:

As you can see, you will be required to fill in your name, nationality, and passport number. So make sure you have this along with your passport when you are travelling in case your ID is checked. Granted I was never asked for ID when I travelled, but sod’s law it’ll be you that’s checked when you don’t have your ID with you.

You can choose a rail pass for seven, 14, or 21 days. The prices are ¥29,110, ¥46,390, and ¥59,350 respectively. At the time of writing, this converts to around £198.06 / US$262.97, £315.64 / US$419.08, and £403.79 / US$536.13 respectively. You don’t have to start your rail pass on the day of collection, but you can nominate a day for this. I started mine a day after my arrival in Japan, purely because when I arrived, it was already past 17.00 or 18.00. Although I shall see how I feel, as I believe for my next trip, I will be arriving at something like 07.30 (I just checked… scheduled arrival is going to be at 07.35)!

When you look up your rail pass options, you may notice there is an option for what’s called a green rail pass. Unless you really want to waste money, I wouldn’t bother with this option. The green rail pass allows you to travel by first class. The prices for the seven, 14, and 21 days green rail pass are ¥38,880, ¥62,950, and ¥81,870 respectively. At the time of writing, this converts to £264.58 / US$351.23, £428.35 / US$568.67, and £557.12 / US$739.59 respectively.

The price difference is quite big, but having seen both first class and standard class travel in Japan, I am not convinced that the difference in price is worth the difference in experience. Standard class travel on the Shinkansen is pretty spacious already (although bear in mind I am a vertically challenged East Asian at 5ft 4in lol). And if you think that you’d prefer to travel first class because it’ll be quieter, don’t worry, it’s considered rude to be noisy or speak on your mobile phone on trains, even in standard class, so you won’t need first class travel to have a quiet journey.

So, how to use your rail pass if you have one? Instead of going through the barriers, each JR station will have a staffed window / counter to the side of the barriers. You show your pass to the staff, who will check it, and wave you on your way.

With the rail pass you can also get free seat reservations on journeys which have reservations available. If you are travelling on the Shinkansen, there will be coaches for reserved seats, as well as coaches specifically for non-reserved seating. Reserving seats just give you that piece of mind. Plus, you get cool stamps on your rail pass from the different stations where you made the reservation. If you have a look at the photo above of my rail pass (the side with the personal details), you can see at the bottom various stamps from the different stations at which I have made seat reservations before. You will also be given a seat reservation ticket with your seat number.

What I love about rail travel in Japan is just the sheer efficiency, timeliness (I mean, this is a country where train companies have to issue a national public apology for their trains leaving 20 seconds EARLY! See this article from BBC News, as well as this one also courtesy of BBC News), and watching the mesmerising point and call procedure which is carried out by Japanese railway staff to ensure the safe running of the railway. It is really an impressive sight to behold.

Having done the whole train travel last time I was in Japan, I would totally do it again!

A Jet-setting Guide: Japan – Basic food etiquette.

I first need to give a massive thank you to Nami and Hiro of Nécco, a Japanese café bar in London, for helping me with some of the ideas in this post. Nécco is a trendy, cute, and friendly Japanese café bar on Exmouth Market, just off Rosebery Avenue, in Central London. Do give them a visit at 52-54 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE, and savour their freshly made Japanese food, and sample their delightful cakes. For more information, visit Nécco’s website. Also visit Nécco’s Instagram and Twitter feed for mouth-watering photos of a sample of the amazing food served at Nécco!

Now then, as we all know, Japanese culture is steeped in ritual and formalities, and their approach to food is no different. The Japanese attitude to food is one of respect, and this is illustrated by the saying of itadakimasu (頂きます / いただきます) before eating. Itadakamasu translates roughly to “I gratefully receive“. This saying derives from Buddhist traditions of respecting life, including plants and animals, which have contributed to the meal you are about to eat. A book called the Koukou Michibiki Gusa (孝行導草 / こうこうみちびきぐさ) was published in 1812. This book was an etiquette guide for daily life, and one of the passages contained therein is as follows:

箸(はし) 取(と)ら ば、 天地(あめつち) 御代(みよ) の 御恵(おんめぐ)み、 主君(しゅくん) や 親(おや) の 御恩(ごおん) あぢわゑ

This translates roughly as “When you grab chopsticks, you should give thanks to all nature and living things, the Emperor, and your parents“. In going with the spirit of being thankful for food, it is customary to say Gochisousamadeshita (ご馳走様でした / ごちそうさまでした) after a meal. This is a way of thanking those who prepared, cooked, and served the food.

In line with the idea of reverence and respect to food, some commentators have noted that this may be a major factor in why it is generally frowned upon to eat whilst on the move, as it is considered to be too casual, and thus disrespectful to the food. Others note that there may be a practical reason for this, namely wanting to avoid dropping food in public, or onto other people. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, whatever the reason behind this social rule, it is probably better to play it safe than inadvertently be rude. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do“, or I suppose in this case it’s “When in Japan, do as the Japanese do“.

Japanese culture has a lot of other food etiquette rules which need to be remembered. The team at Nécco have put together the following video to help with Japanese table manners (posted at the end of this post), but I have summarised the key points also in case you are reading this on the move and need a quick reference.

DOs

It is okay to lift you bowl of rice or soup to your mouth to eat or drink in order to avoid bending down towards your food;

You can lift your donburi (丼), a bowl of rice with other food served on top of the rice, as this is considered a rice dish, and also not a formal dish;

You can (and should) slurp your noodles;

If your noodles come with broth / soup, you can lift the bowl to your mouth to finish the broth / soup.

DON’Ts

Do not stand your chopsticks into rice as this looks like putting incense into an incense urn, which is a customary act of respect for the dead;

Do not skewer your food with your chopsticks, as this is disrespectful to the food;

Do not lay your chopsticks across a bowl, or rest them on a plate. Instead, use the fancy chopstick rests. In the absence of chopstick rests, just leave them on the side;

Do not use your chopsticks to move the crockery;

Do not lick your chopsticks as if eating with more than just one person dishes are usually shared, without serving cutlery;

Do not pass food from chopsticks to chopstick.

There are a lot of rules and formalities, which obviously cannot all be covered here, but if you have time, casually observe what other people are doing in any given food setting. You can’t go much by doing the same. Alternatively, if it is grossly wrong, at least you won’t be the only one going wrong.