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Stranger in a strange land

The decline of the yen has made Japan a much more affordable vacation destination for many tourists. But don't expect a vacation there to be a breeze. First, there's the language. It's difficult to speak; it's even harder to read. This is a country with at least three different ways of writing everything. And that's only the start. Our reporter Martin Stott put his Savvy Traveling skills to the test by spending a fortnight working in Tokyo.

Stranger in a Strange Land
by Martin Stott

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crawd in Tokyo Your problems start in Tokyo the moment you land. The first difficulty is getting around. The public transport system here is superb -- but only if you understand it.

I'm now at Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo. It's a nightmare. I'm standing in front of ticket machines -- the instructions are all in Chinese writing so I haven't a clue what they say or how to get my ticket, and even if I'd got it I wouldn't know what to do because there are 18 platforms here, 9 or 10 railway lines plus four or five subway lines. Which is which, how you're supposed to get from A to B I haven't a clue. I'm utterly bewildered but I've got to suss this out because it's so horrendously expensive using taxis here.

Fortunately an American ex-pat rescues me and explains the system. Before long I'm jumping on and off trains and subways like a veteran. I even start to chuckle smugly at the train driver who sounds like Popeye.

Unfortunately hour later I realize what he was actually saying was that the train was being turned round -- one station short of my stop. By the time this dawns on me we're back to where we started and my cockiness is dealt a mortal blow.

Transport is only the start of your problems here. You've also got to eat and drink. The traditional Japanese drink is rice wine -- sake. In Japan etiquette is essential. It's impossible to master, but important to try. So I found an expert to teach me the art of drinking, Japanese style. It was just as well. I'd never have guessed you needed a wooden box and a bag of salt.

Expert: "Sake is poured in a square wooden box and you enjoy the flavor of the wood and the sake. Sometime put a small pinch of salt on the corner and it makes it all the better. Let's have a go -- is this enough salt? More? Mmm...it's very nice actually, don't know how to describe the flavor though, salty!"

You can drink sake hot or cold. And a useful bit of Japanese to go with it is kahmpai - cheers! You don't have to stay long in Japan to find a favorite bar and your own Mama-san. She's the woman in charge. She greets you like the prodigal son when you enter. Her customers are her boys and she loves you all -- as long as you're drinking and paying.

You can eat in many pubs but it's cheaper to visit the little food bars where they specialize in traditional dishes like tempura, sushi and noodles. Strolling through the night markets on your way to one is great fun. At this market they're selling everything from dried food and fresh fish to knitted jumpers. Everyone's shouting and haggling. It's a wonderful atmosphere and a great smell -- all that raw fish right next to the clothing stalls.

At the cheap food bars the staff rarely speak English and the menus are mostly in kanji -- the traditional Chinese style of writing -- so eating becomes a real adventure.

I've come into this noodle bar I've ordered something based on price -- oishi des ne.

The highlight of this trip is a visit to the home of the Iritani family. I've been invited for Sunday lunch. The Japanese can be extremely hospitable -- though I suspect I'm also here to give some informal English coaching to Mr. and Mrs. Iritani's two daughters. First though, lunch.

On the table is a sort of electric griddle and around it bowls of vegetables and fish. You fill a little dish with your selection and some batter mix and then cook it on the hot plate. It's a cross between an omelette and a pancake. It's lovely and filling. But suddenly I discover the grandparents fiendishly mixing their own concoctions competing to make the best okonomyaki, as it's called. It seems I'm to be the judge. They're piling in the shellfish, which I'm allergic to, and concentrating so hard they fail to hear me choking in horror. Four platefuls later my lips are fat and swollen, and I'm full to busting and then Mrs. Iritani comes in beaming - with the main course.

After lunch 17-year-old Mao Iritani takes a rare 10-minute break from her studies to play the piano.

one-mask, many faces Soon though her parents are pushing her to practice her English on me. I think I learn more than she does, though. It seems Japanese parents are very ambitious for their children and they have to study incredibly hard. Mao attends two schools -- one during the day and another, private preparatory school, or juku, at night and on Saturdays. She doesn't close her books till gone midnight. It's a grueling schedule.

Mao Iritani: "I always get up at 6:30 in the morning and then go to school then I go to preparatory school and study there for three hours. I get home from preparatory school at 8:30 then I study till about 12:30."

If you're going to Japan always wear new socks. When you visit a home like the Iritanis' you have to take your shoes off in the doorway. It's as well to be prepared! Your hosts will then give you a pair of slippers to wear -- probably five sizes too small with a pretty floral pattern on. Also take plenty of business cards. Whoever you meet will greet you with theirs. You have to hold this with both hands and study it intensively. It represents the person's face so when you're finished, don't thrust it into your back pocket. Pressing their card against your bum doesn't go down well. Fortunately the Japanese are very forgiving of any social faux pas committed by a gaijin, or foreigner. If in doubt, smile, apologize and bow a lot and you'll be fine.

From Tokyo, this is Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.

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