We Culture vs Me Culture

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Back from our big trip. It was an incredible experience and I confirmed (to myself) that I am really good at trip planning. Thanks again to tripadvisor for never failing me! There were no surprises. All hotels and activities were as expected and everything went well.

There will be a few blog posts about this trip since we visited 3 countries. This one is about Japan.

Prior to the trip I did some research to make sure I understood proper etiquette (tipping, bowing etc.) I came across an explanation of the medical masks that so many people wear, even though the SARS epidemic is long over, which said people wear them when they are getting sick to prevent spreading germs to other people. Another website talked about how Japanese culture focuses on what is good for the group/society, not the individual. I think the masks is one example of what I called the “we culture.” Other examples of this is the ban on talking on a cell phone on public transit. We rode a lot of trains in the week we were there and only once did I see a person talking on their cell phone, and they had their hand cupped over the phone and their mouth to be as quiet as possible. They are a cell phone obsessed society, everyone is on some sort electric device, yet no one talks on their phone because it’s loud and disruptive. Even when they talk, it’s hushed. It was bizarre being in one of the most populated cities in the world and yet it was quiet. We also saw signs that said there is a bylaw against “doing anything that will annoy other people.” Pretty incredible that this concept runs all the way up to the law.

One site I read said that Japanese high school students were asked what the biggest risk is to society in the next generation, and the top response was individualism. This is north american culture. We are all about me, not we. Japan has a real bike culture, but there is no fighting between drivers and cyclists because they ride on the sidewalk. People here panic at this suggestion talking about how dangerous it is, but in Japan it works. People on bikes are aware of the pedestrians and they just go around them or hit the brakes until they can get through. Would that ever work here?

Not that I am sure I would be able to put everyone else ahead of what I want, but it was very interesting to be in a place where you didn’t have people yelling in to their cell phones everywhere and anywhere because they don’t care who listens or who they are interrupting. It was fascinating to experience a cultural theory like this and think about how we treat each other as a society.

Japan is an expensive country to visit, but worth the splurge. Tokyo was cool to see, but it really is a city where people live and not so much a touristy place. The exception to this is Tokyo Disney. We went to Tokyo Disney Sea and it was incredible! It didn’t really feel like a Disney park as it isn’t based on the traditional disney characters but the detail in the design is amazing and the rides were awesome – with almost none of them being the same as the US Disney parks (they have a Magic Kingdom park with the traditional rides). This is the full size Tower of Terror building.
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Osaka has a crazy night scene at Dotombori and shopping at Shinsaibashi, the castle is nice on the outside but a modern museum on the inside. We enjoyed this Namba Yasaka shrine, once we found it.
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My favorite part of Japan was Kyoto. It’s beautiful! The tori gate picture at the top is from a temple that has a trail where you walk through thousands of tori gates. If you go to Japan, don’t miss Kyoto.

I’ll write about Thailand and Cambodia next.

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Hotels

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Following on my travel theme, I’ll share my tips for the other major part of a vacation – where to stay.

i mentioned in my post on road trips, that for traveling across the US, there really is no need to plan it all out in advance (except possibly the weekends during a busy travel time). We would arrive in a city, find some free wifi at a coffeeshop or fast food place, and use a combination of http://www.hotwire.com and http://www.tripadvisor.com to find a hotel. Sometimes I would book the hotel the night before if we knew where we were heading the next day.

The number of hotel booking sites and options have exploded since we started going on road trips. Now there are a number of great comparison sites. Tripadvisor used to only provide reviews but now they provide rate comparisons too! This really saves time and work. I am tripadvisor’s number 1 fan! I can say that I have never been surprised by a hotel because I take the time to read through a number of reviews. Just watch for people that complain about things that are out of control of the hotel. You’ll also see that hotels respond to reviews. If you see a bad review, read the response to see the other side of the story. Try for hotels with 90% or higher approval rate. Between 80% and 90% you should still be ok, but anything below 80% is a risk.

Other good hotel booking sites. Trivago is another good comparison site, and I find Hotels.com tend to have good prices. Sites like Expedia and Hotwire make you pay the full cost of the booking upfront and there is no option to cancel. http://www.booking.com has options to book now and pay later and the ability to cancel for free. I have never had an issue with paying upfront, but for my upcoming trip I tried to avoid it because I am booking so far in advance. If you do book through a site where you have already paid, the hotel will still ask for a credit card for incidentals. If you don’t use the phone, mini-bar, movies while you’re there, they don’t charge anything.

When you’re choosing a hotel, know your hotel preferences. For me it’s a comfortable bed, free breakfast and wifi. I am not a neat freak and really don’t care if there is some dust on a shelf. Obviously a dirty bathroom is unacceptable but my standards are not as high as some of the reviews I’ve read. I know people who are fine with hostels. We primarily stay in 3 star hotels. With 4 stars I find the public areas to be more opulent and the beds to be a bit better, but they also ding  you at every opportunity; you usually have to pay for wifi, and the breakfast is outrageously priced. Even when I travel for business, I rarely eat breakfast at a 4 star hotel. They also charge for parking, and some even go as far as forcing you to use valet parking. Occasionally it’s a treat to stay at a swanky hotel, but I don’t find them good value for my travel dollars.

If possible, try to find a bed and breakfast. These really add to the travel experience because the hosts are usually very friendly people that have great advice. Also the breakfast is excellent! I know I have a thing for breakfast but I find if we eat a good breakfast, we usually only eat one other big meal in a day, which keeps our budget down.

My last tidbit is on the mystery bookings that hotwire offers. I have done it a number of times and it’s always worked out well. You just have to know the area you are ok with (in more expensive cities, sometimes we’ll opt to stay out near the airport because the hotels are a lot cheaper and just drive in). They give you an approval or recommendation rating. If you stick to over 90%, you’ll get a good hotel. My only complaint was the last time I used this with a Vegas hotel, I didn’t save any money. The amount they charged me was the same as it would have been if I had booked with the hotel. Hotwire lists the prices for regular hotel bookings, so check those before you select a mystery hotel to compare prices. Otherwise, we have gotten some great deals including a 4 star in downtown Toronto for $90/night (of course we had to pay for parking and internet on top of that, but still a good deal).  This photo is the view from the patio at the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale, which was another 4 star treat and one of our favourite hotelsImage