Japan 2012 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kyoto, Japan)

I decided to go back to Japan since I found some cheap tickets from Air Asia (Kuala Lumpur -> Osaka) and Spring Airlines (Tokyo -> Shanghai). The only problem is due to deflation in Japan and inflation in the US, everything costs 50% more than when I was here in 2007. Five years ago, I stayed three weeks. This time, only five days. This meant I had to plan quite a bit and schedule a lot into a few days.

Currency exchange rates aren’t the only thing that changed. I almost didn’t make it on the airplane to get into the country because I needed to prove I had an onward ticket. At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I showed the woman a piece of paper where I wrote down my booking number and flight information but she didn’t believe it. Then I showed her the email on my phone and she said “hardcopy!” I looked around and asked where can I print it? The plane is boarding in a few minutes. She said go to the premium passenger lounge and print it and then she would let me on the flight. So I go there and they say they have no printer. I decide to try my luck with someone else. I ask a man to check my documents and after some questions he believes the electronic documents. Then at the gate, another man asks similar questions about what I’m doing there, how long I’m staying.  I got through both checks and made it on the plane just in time.

Arriving in Japan immigration, there was another change. Forced fingerprint scanning. The only other time this happened to me was when I was leaving Singapore a few years ago. After immigration, I had to pass through customs. Another change here was hand searching of the luggage of every foreigner. I thought the USA was the only country that would do this, but not anymore. I’m not sure what happened.

My next step was to get some cash. I tried a Japanese ATM. I quickly realized there is no English option and it must not accept international cards. I asked the information desk and they said there is a Citibank ATM, so at least that one worked well.

Next, I had to figure out how to get to Kyoto where I had a reservation. There are a lot of options. There is the state owned Japan Rail (JR) line and there is a private rail line. I knew JR had the fastest train (1.5 hours), but I would need a rail pass to make it a reasonable price. I didn’t have a pass, but there was an office that sold them. I stood in line and waited. When I got to the counter I had the same trouble as before with proving an onward air ticket. No one trusts me. Email is no good, but email on paper is good? I had to walk away.

Next I tried the private Nankai Electric Railyway line since they had a good price. The man in some very broken English said it would take 3 hours and I’d have to change trains two more times. I said I’d think about it.

The last option is to buy a normal ticket from the ticket machines. These machines had 53 buttons and I would try pressing a button and nothing would happen. I gave up and then tried a couple more times. No response and no English. Finally, I found a sign explaining how to use it in English. My mistake was the first step. I wasn’t supposed to touch anything but instead insert money first. Once I put in money, the buttons lit up. They were prices like 230 Yen, 450 Yen, 900 Yen, 1160 Yen. There was a map above the machines showing the ticket price to each station, so I pressed the button with the price that matched where I wanted to go. Once I did, my ticket and change appeared. At least the ticket machines don’t say “no” to me.

My plan was to take the train from the artificial island created for the Kansai Airport to the main train station in Osaka. From there, I could change to another train to Kyoto. It would be cheaper than the direct train. After a few minutes on the train, it stopped. I’ve heard that Japanese trains are very punctual. In fact, I noticed the driver of the train had a sheet of paper showing the exact times he must stop at each station at eye level. The train was delayed about 30 minutes. I’m not sure what caused this delay, but I’ve heard one big cause in Japan is train suicides.

I did make it all the way to Kyoto and my reserved bed was still there. Right now is the worst time of year to find a place to stay in Kyoto because the cherry blossoms are blooming. I was lucky I made a reservation a month ahead of time.