It may come as no surprise that I’m a bit of a fan of Japan. It’s a country with an interesting relationship to technology and the future. You can find Japanese culture in various spaces in the UK and I believe the two countries have a bit more in common than you might think. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Japan again after 14 years, only this time I’ve learned a few things about retro consoles and computers, finding vegetarian food and how to get around. I hope some folks find this helpful.
Tokyo to Osaka
Just to frame things, we did a lot of travel on this trip, starting in Tokyo, heading towards the islands of Naoshima, Miyajima, moving back inland towards Hiroshima, Nara, finishing in the Kansai region with Kyoto and Osaka. It’s a pretty classic trip. Tokyo is a big draw for a lot of folks, but Kyoto and Osaka have a lot to offer too.
Let’s get Retro (computing / gaming)
On this trip I was really keen to find as much retro computing and gaming related tat as I could. I was especially interested in any computers that compare to the Commodore Amiga, ZX Spectrum and similar. I recommend the IPSJ Computing Museum as a good place to start. It’s a bit oldschool in it’s design, but the information they hold is comprehensive. I was also pretty keen on the older consoles and games, with a mission to find the most Japanese of items. Things that were never released outside of Japan, or Japanese versions of popular machines.
Ojamakan is a new, small chain of shops. They have shops in Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and maybe a couple of other places. They tend to be in the less travelled areas of these towns. Certainly the one in Osaka took a while to get to witha few buses and a lot of walking. However, you won’t be disappointed! If you want the largest selection of NES, SNES, Megadrive, PlayStation, Dreamcast and many other games, look no further than this place! Ojamakan is pretty cheap in comparison to other places. They stock newer items such as PS4 games and hardware but do a pretty good line in retro stuff. They also stock non-working gear for repair and tested second-hand devices with a 1 to 3 month guarantee. Ojamakan is really the place to go.
Super potato, on the other-hand, was a big let down. If you have all the money in the world then do go. You’ll find what you are looking for, but be prepared to pay over the odds. For example, I found a Gameboy Colour for about £60 in one store. On ebay, in the UK, you’ll pay £30. Wonderswans and NeoGeo Pockets were double what they were in Ojamakan. Honestly, I can’t really recommend Super Potato unless you really, really want a particular thing and are prepared to pay whatever it takes. I can’t fault their selection. It’s clear they’ve gotten wise to the tourist trade, bought up all they can, then selling it at massive market to these who’ve only heard of Super Potato.
Book-off is a large chain of secondhand stores, dealing with books. However, they do sell retro games and hardware. Typically, their oldest hardware runs to the Gameboy advance or SNES (in some cases) but you can find games for devices as old as the PC Engine. It really depends. It’s clear games aren’t their main ticket, but the prices they charge are pretty low. Lower in some cases, than Ojamakan. I found some real gems in several Book-off branches, so if you are serious, check out every single one you come across. Like charity shops in the UK, it’s hit and miss but still worth a look.
Other, one off stores are worth a look. A-too in Kyoto is a good example, with prices a little high in some areas but not in others. Game Tanteidan in Osaka is another. For some reason, Kyoto seemed better than Osaka (oddly) for retro games and kit. Not sure why. I suspect Osaka has just gotten wise to the tourist lust for such things.
Sadly, aside from the MSX and a few other personal computers, I didn’t find anything similar to the UK personal computers of the 80s and 90s. It’s a real shame. I suspect the computers I did see in places like Super Potato were there because they took cartridge games as well as disks; half computer and half gaming console. It seems the place to get retro computers is on Yahoo auctions.
Yahoo auctions ordering to hotels
Yep! It’s not eBay over in Japan. Yahoo auctions holds dominion! Seems odd to me but there you go. I noticed that one could get hold of a Sharp x68000 fairly easily. I say fairly easily, you need a Yahoo Japan account and some method of payment. I never got that far but I understand that not everyone accepts PayPal. What I did notice is there seems to be quite the cottage industry of proxy bidding and posting. You pay a Japanese person (sometimes using services a bit like Task Rabbit) to order and post on your behalf. You have to really want your x68000 if you go down that route, and I wasn’t keen enough.
One thing I did try and order was a HyperkeyboardPi. A lovely little idea by a chap going by the handle of Jinson on Twitter. I navigated the various forms on his agent’s site, only to be told the next day that they wouldn’t deliver to my hotel. Really quite annoying. Not only that but after they refunded me, they charged me again, starting a serious of email back-and-forwards and several messages to Monzo. Fortunately we got it all sorted out. Jinson was pretty good about the whole thing on Twitter which was nice. So if you want anything specific from Japan there seems to be little advantage to actually being in the country. You’ll just need to take the hit on proxies and international shipping.
Cards, Passes and getting around
As a tourist, you have access to a few options for travel, some of which require ordering before you enter Japan. The most well known perhaps is the Japan Rail Pass that gets you unlimited travel around the country for a number of days, depending on how much you pay. Do check how many trains you’ll be taking as it’s not always the cheapest deal. You need to purchase the pass from a travel agent. I got mine from the Japan Centre in London. What you actually get is a coupon that you take to a train station when you get to Japan. There, they will check your passport and exchange the coupon for a pass. Make sure you have a stamp in your passport to show you are a tourist.
Planning the train travel is a bit more tricky. There are many train operators and options. The Shinkansen has a few different trains, such as the Nozomi, Sakura, Hikari and others. Some passes are valid on certain Shinkansen and not others. In addition, there are many local trains to various out-of-the-way places, different metro systems in each city and so forth. The app is pretty good for planning train travel. Despite it’s 3.5 star rating (at time of rating) it was very handy. Combined with Google, you won’t go wrong.
Inside the larger cities, you’ve got the usual bus and metro options. With buses, get on through the middle door and exit at the front. You must use exact change in the hopper or one of the various travel cards. Typically, all the stops are announced well in advance by the driver and on the board at the front so it’s pretty hard to get lost.
The metro system in places like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are pretty extensive. Sometimes, the metro system will be underground, other-times, it’ll be a local train. This can be problematic if you have something like a metro one day ticket or similar as not all operators accept all cards. However, like many places around the world, RFID style travel cards exist. Suica and Icoca are the two main ones for Tokyo and Kansai respectively. Definitely get one of these.
Travel isn’t that cheap sadly. I found it was mostly 210 Yen per trip with no upper limit, so plan ahead. If you get caught out though, there are fare adjustment machines available in every station.
Speaking of Google and travel, the internet is an absolute must! Japan has internet in most places you’d expect. Every hotel and Ryokan we stayed in had internet. Some cities have areas with free wifi, as do the airports.
The real trick however, is the portable internet. One option is the portable 4G hotspot device, the Ninja Wifi. It provides a 4G hotspot so if you are travelling with multiple devices it’s all taken care of. However, it is also very expensive and you need to return the unit at the end of the trip. This isn’t really an option if you fly into one airport and out of another.
A better option, I think, is a data sim. Much cheaper and available from Klook. You order online and pick them up on arrival at Narita airport or wherever you fly into.
I had a lot of trouble with my Fairphone, mostly because Japan doesn’t use the same bands as the UK. However, we have a spare iPhone 5 kicking around that works fine in Japan. So all you need to do is slap in the SIM, turn on personal hotspot and boom! — you’ve got your portable internet.
Google does a pretty good job of directions in Japan I found, as much as I hate to admit it. Figuring out which platform your train is on, which exit to take from a station and many more little time saving options is made quite easy with Google on your phone. I’d also recommend Maps.me — although slower, it will work offline with dropped pins so you can plan out your day in advance.
Money, money, money!
Japan is still, strangely, cash based. I found that few places wanted to take cards. In the UK we are quite used to contactless, let alone chip and pin.
We had three cards we wanted to try: Revolut, Monzo and your standard Visa credit and debit cards. I found that Monzo didn’t work very often at all. Their support when things went wrong however, wasn’t too bad at all. A couple of times, I had to use the mag-stripe and sign. Very odd. Revolut fairs a little better. Most normal cards work but you do get a worse rate on the exchange to Yen.
The 7/11 chain of shops tend to have ATM machines that work with international cards. They have an English language setting but they only seem to dispense a minimum of about £100 (10,000 Yen) in 1000 Yen notes, so plan accordingly. It’s a bit annoying but it’s the best we could find.
My suspicion is that Japan just has it’s own payment systems, based around RFID cards and the like. Travel cards like Suica and Icoca can be used in shops and vending machines.
I’m not a veggie but my wife is. You’d think Japan would be an easy place to cut out the meat but that’s really not the case at all. Fish stock is used in various places, bonito flakes in others. It can be very tricky. Vegetarianism just doesn’t seem to be as big a thing in Japan as it is in the UK.
If you need a quick snack I heartily recommend onigiri. You can find these in Lawsons, 7/11 or even on station platforms. Cheap and cheerful, these triangles of rice surrounded by seaweed, contain various fillings, many of which are meaty but some are not. It’s a good lunch option when you are on the go.
Sushi is another option and there are many that are suitable for vegetarians. Conveyor belt sushi, whilst different from the sushi restaurant, seemed to offer several things such as egg, sweet potato, aubergine and the like, so you can enjoy the fun and not have fish.
Lots of restaurants offer vegetarian versions of their dishes. The iPhone / Android app Happy Cow is quite useful. Get the paid version and you’ll get access to a lot of good vegetarian suggestions. I’d also suggest Google searches and a good guidebook. Quite often there will be a good suggestion. In Osaka, you should totally check out Okonomiyaki if you get the chance. It’s the best!
If Japan does mark allergens, I couldn’t read them. There isn’t the friendly graphic logo with accompanying text saying “suitable for vegetarians”. I think this is something we can be proud of in the UK. A small but important thing. However, plenty of food in Japan has English text next to the Japanese. Being coeliac, I suspect, is very hard in Japan, if you plan to eat Japanese food. Soy sauce and flour do get stuck in many things. It’s not something I’ve researched personally, but from what little I’ve seen, do be very careful if this affects you.
Going vegan is a lot harder, but there is one saving grace. Buddhist cuisine in Japan is vegan all the way and quite interestingly flavoured and prepared. It’s called Shojin Ryori and you can get it in various temple style ryokans. Definitely seek it out if you fancy some tasty vegan food.
Booze and fags
For these who like a tipple, sake is perhaps the most well known of Japanese drinks. It’s fairly cheap and you can buy it in most places, including 7/11. From a small jar, up-to massive cartons, it’s a nice drink and it’s cheaper than beer.
Speaking of beer, Japan has a few cheap lagers such as Suntory, Kirin, Sapporo and the like. They’re fine — nothing special but nothing terrible either. You can find all that in most convenience stores and often on draft. Sadly, Japan has adopted the American pint so don’t expect a lot of beer for your 600 yen!
Indeed, beer is expensive and craft beer doubly so. Japan makes some really tasty beer though. Places like the Kyoto beer lab make a fine pint, but expect to pay around 1000 yen for the privilege.
Oddly, whisky highballs seem to be quite popular, and often cheaper than beer. So if you like a whisky and soda, give that a shot instead. Other strange drinks exist including a weird preserved plum thing I had once.
Japan still loves it’s cigarettes it seems. Really not sure why. Although many places are designated non-smoking it’s still quite prevalent, much more so than the UK. Inside some arcades and bars, you’ll see folks lit up. Certain areas within arcades and restaurants will be marked as smoking spots.
A quick note about vending machines. Japan is a pretty hot country, least from Honshu down, so vending machines selling cold coffee, soft drinks and the like can be a godsend. However, don’t get your hopes up if you expect to see beer vending machines on the street. It’s pretty rare these days and even if you do, they tend to have age restriction locks, using the Japanese driving licence. A better bet is inside hotels. Typically cheap Asahi and the like can be found in these, around 220 Yen.
Gacha machines are odd things. They dispense cheap plastic tat in a small plastic ball-like package. You can occasionally find cute or silly things in them and they are everywhere. Japan does seem to have a love for the plastic tat. I can’t say I approve of that (waste of plastic be damned) but it’s worth engaging with at least a little as it’s a peculiar little cultural item.
I used to study Japanese a while back, and it does help when getting around. Simple phrases like “this please” or “where is the toilet?” are always handy. I’ve found duolingo, akebi and Google Translate to be very useful apps to have on your phone. However, you can get by without knowing any Japanese these days. Many signs have English subtitles. Many announcements, such as these on trains, are in many languages.
One thing that I found different on this trip is that folks seemed to be happy to talk back to me in Japanese if I gave it a bit of a go. Most Japanese who work in places like restaurants and hotels speak pretty good English we found. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to try at least bit, even if all you say is oishii!.
Arcades and Game bars
Japan is quite famous for it’s arcades too. In the UK, arcades are effectively dead, replaced by the (possibly better?) barcade style setups. I suspect, because personal space in Japan is at a premium, conveniences are pretty good — they have to be. In the UK, we’d invite people over to play on a console, whereas in Japan, folks would go out to an arcade.
A friend sent me this map of arcades around the world where Street Fighter 2 can be played. It’s not a bad benchmark actually. It’s a classic game and quite good fun. I explored a few arcades in Osaka and Kyoto and I found some of the cabinets to be pretty extreme and interesting. There’s usually a mixture of retro cabs, new fancy sit-down full immersion affairs, driving games, rhythm games and strange games played with both controls and actual collectable cards.
Overall though, I was somewhat less impressed this time around. You can’t take alcohol into arcades, few if any offer food like they used to and although some of the games are quite impressive, I feel like we are spoiled these days with things like VR, all the indie games on the Switch and experimental PC gaming. For me, I found the arcades didn’t hold my interest quite as much as they used to.
Japan does have a few game-bars though. Similar to a barcade but smaller, and featuring home consoles as oppose to cabs. Most seem to be run by American immigrants from what I can tell. Space Station Osaka isn’t a bad one at all. Sadly, like most bars, it only takes cash. In addition, I went in twice and it was mostly full of tourists like me as oppose to Japanese folks which seemed a shame. Still, it’s worth going in one or two, especially if you fancy a beer whilst playing ChuChu Rocket in two player!
So many resources, webpages, books, youtube videos and what not exist out there for Japan, I could never list them all, even just the really good ones. But here are few that helped us:
- Abroad in Japan — a great YouTube channel with a British sweary man with my kind of humour.
- Lonely Planet Guide to Japan — pretty comprehensive resource and well worth a read.
- Super bunnyhop on Game bars — a interesting account of why game-bars in Japan might not be around for much longer.
… and finally
Japan is a great place to visit. I think it has a lot of similarities to the UK which aren’t obvious at first glance. I’d recommend visiting to anyone, but especially the computer nerds and cyberpunks out there.