Journeying to Japan: some options you might not have considered

Many travelers who would think nothing of touring Europe alone might hesitate before attempting to do the same in Japan. Japan seems dauntingly expensive, a country not geared for any but Western group tours (the way most Japanese themselves travel), and one with an unusually formidable language barrier. Businessmen, of course, come here in hordes. This year the Tsukuba Expo 85 Science and Technology Fair, held between March 17 and Sept. 16, should bring more of them than ever. But single travelers here are a relative rarity.

And yet it is a delightful country to visit, a modern and sophisticated place with a rich -- and to a Westerner -- very different past still visible in temples, palaces, gardens, and general behavior.

The fact that, as a solitary foreigner, you are a curiosity works in your favor. So does the fact that many Japanese enjoy practicing their English. Six years of it is required in school, but as the emphasis is not on conversation, few people really speak it.

But rest assured, should you find yourself stranded on a street corner, lost and exhausted, someone will stop and help you in a moment or two. In fact, to hurry things along, pull out a map and stare at it, looking woebegone. The JNTO `travelphone'

A specific aid for travelers set up by the Japan National Tourist Office is the ``travelphone.'' The way this works is: Dial 106 and say to the operator ``Collect call TIC.'' The operator will connect you with someone from the tourist office who will not only answer questions but will interpret for you. This number is good for the whole country except for Tokyo and Kyoto; in Tokyo dial 502-1461; in Kyoto, 371-5649. The charge for local calls in Japan is 10 yen for 3 minutes. This service is available every day, between 9 and 5. The Japan Rail Pass

Japan can be very expensive -- just stay in a big hotel and eat all your meals there -- but you can travel inexpensively the same way you can in Europe, by staying in pensions and using a rail pass. The Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited travel throughout the Japan National Railways rail, bus, and boat system. For tourist class, this costs $98 for the seven-day pass, $161 for 14 days, and $208 for 21 days. In first class, the seven-day pass is $137, the 14-day is $227, and the 21-day, $298. Passes may be obtained from a travel agent; you must purchase them before you leave for Japan. Inexpensive lodgings

Pensions are called minshuku in Japan. Just as in the United States, some inns have taken to calling themselves ``B&Bs'' (bed-and-breakfast accommodations), in Japan the name minshuku has become so popular that many less expensive ryokan (inns) have taken the name.

If you wait until you get to Japan, the tourist office (same numbers as for English-language assistance) can help you find a minshuku. Also, there is a travel agent, Ieji Kanno of Japan Value Inc., in Rye, N.Y. (914-967-8919), who will book you into what he calls ``inexpensive ryokan which still maintain a family atmosphere.'' Often these are large Western-style buildings but with Japanese-style rooms. The rate will be less than $20 for the room, per person, double occupancy. Breakfast is $3 to $5 and dinner, $7 to $15. Mr. Kanno will also put you into ``businessmen hotels'' -- extremely small and plain facilities -- for $25 a night, with the purchase of a Rail Pass.

Japan Air Lines has a similar program called ``JAL Room and Rail.'' A seven-night book of coupons for a twin room is about $156 per person; for a single room, $184 per person. This package must be purchased at a JAL office.

Cleanliness is a national passion, and the crime rate is low, so the two strongest arguments for not staying in inexpensive places do not apply in Japan.

To get a ``real Japanese atmosphere'' -- in other words, a small and exquisite Japanese-style inn -- you should expect to pay $90 per person (includes 2 meals), according to Mr. Kanno. Weekends in some accommodations may be noisy if a large group has hired the place for a banquet; ask about this beforehand.

Another possibility for the traveler wishing to stay in Japanese-style accommodations: rooms in the Japanese wing of a big hotel. Most major hotels have them, although they tend to be more expensive than other hotel rooms. What to do in Tokyo

``People say you can't learn about Japan in Tokyo,'' commented Ruth Stevens, an American who lived in Japan. ``Tokyo has everything that Japan has to offer. It's just a little harder to find.'' On the other hand, if you're going on to Kyoto or one of Japan's other older cities, you might want to enjoy the modernity of Tokyo. Both approaches are valid.

If you'd like to track down old Japan in Tokyo, everyone recommends going to the Asakusa district to see the Senso-ji temple and the little stores that line the way to it. An interesting guide, though ``not for the boutique- or disco-goer,'' Ms. Stevens says, is a book called ``Kites, Crackers, and Craftsmen,'' by Camy Condon and Kimiko Nagasawa. Another, for those who like to understand a city by poking around odd corners, is ``Footloose in Tokyo,'' by Jan Pearce. Both are available from the Traveller's Bookstore, 22 West 52nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

Tokyo's very modern Harajiku area offers boutiques of Japanese designers. For instance, Issei Miyake's Issei Miyake Boutique and Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garons are both in the From First Building (3-10 Minami-aoyama, 5-chomo, Minato-ku, tel. 03-499-4370; open 12 noon-8 p.m., closed Mondays). Not far away is Yohji Yamamoto's Boutique, Ys (2-7 Minami-aoyama, 6-chomo, Minato-ku, tel. 03-498-3404; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily).

A more conventional way to spend a day in Tokyo might be a visit to Ueno Park, which offers the national museum, a concert hall, a zoo, and a temple.

For entertainment listings, look for the Tokyo City Guide, a weekly guide in English available at the desks in big hotels and at the tourist offices.

The subway is the best way to get around Tokyo, and, fortunately, most station names are in roman characters. Get a subway map at your hotel. Recommended day tours

For those who, because of an unfortunate quirk in their schedules, do not have time for Kyoto, there is Kamakura, the old capital where the shoguns lived. A useful guide is ``Exploring Kamakura,'' by Michael Cooper (available in the US from Charles E. Tuttle & Co., 28 South Main Street, Rutland, Vt. 05701).

Other recommended day trips are a visit to Mt. Fuji or the famous pottery town of Mashiko. And many people enjoy the waterfalls and shrine at Nikko. Kyoto

For those who do get to Kyoto and its famous gardens (arguably one of the world's most interesting places), two books to read in advance are ``Kyoto: a Contemplative Guide,'' by Gouvernour Mo- sher, and ``A Guide to the Gardens of Tokyo,'' by Marc Treib and Ron Herman. These are available from the Traveller's Bookstore.

If I were going back to Japan, I would spend a week or more in Kyoto, even if that meant skipping Tokyo altogether.

Many people visiting Kyoto take a day trip to Nara, which is known as the originination point of the Japanese state (660 BC) and for its remarkable temples. Nara has too few accommodations for large groups, but small groups could stay overnight there. Mr. Kanno recommends staying over, then exploring the city after 3 p.m. or so, when the tour groups have left. He also says that Nara offers two groups of volunteer guides for English-speaking travelers. One program is the YMCA's; the number is 0742-44-2207. Another is called Nara Student Guides, which can be reached at 0742-26-4753, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. In both cases, call at least a day in advance. Farther-flung excursions

For the traveler who has been to Japan before, two delightful excursions are Kanazawa, a city not far from the Inland Sea, and Tohoku, Honshu's northern ``point,'' which offers a taste of traditional Japan. Kanazawa takes a day-and-a-half, while Tohoku would take at least 3 to 4 days. Indispensable guides are ``Kanazawa: the Other Side of Japan,'' by Ruth Stevens, and ``Exploring Tohoku: A Guide to Japan's Back Country,'' by Jan Brown. I used the Stevens book in Kanazawa, and it made the difference in my stay. Both are available at the Traveller's Bookstore. Useful brochures

The Japan National Tourist Office has some matter-of-fact brochures on a number of worthwhile subjects: minshuku, ryokan, traditional sports (such as aikido and sumo wrestling), climbing Mt. Fuji, walking tours of Kyoto and Nara, gardens, and camping. For information, write JNTO at 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111, or stop by at the public-information office, 11 West 50th Street, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Air fares

Japan Air Lines, Northwest Orient, and Pan American have nonstop flights from New York. The APEX fare on JAL costs about $1,229 (30 days' advance purchase). Those who live near Toronto might try Canadian Pacific, now offering a rate of $1,063.

Some bargains being offered now: A small travel agent called Sudo Tours in New York is offering a round-trip fare from New York of $699 (230 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017). Another New York agency, Nippon Travel, is offering a rate of $1,072, New York-Tokyo (212-986-7393).

Some experienced travelers suggest that if you live near a city with a large Japanese population, you might try finding a travel agent who specializes in travel to Japan for Japanese-Americans. Sometimes these operators can arrange special deals with the airlines, because they do a large volume of business. The name of the agency will be your clue. I found one in Boston called Japan Budget Travel, now offering a Boston-Tokyo fare of $835. A few last hints

There is no tipping in Japan, and you will embarrass people if you offer. You do need a visa; send a photo, your passport, and confirmation of your reservation or ticket by registered mail to the nearest consulate. It's done overnight, and it's free. A self-addressed stamped envelope is a good idea.

A last odd bit of advice: Wear warm and respectable stockings and socks when you go to Japan. Many places have tatami mats on the floor, for which the frequent removal of shoes is required.

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