Pansea Beach, Phuket Island, Thailand. (Photo by John Phillips)
By Joe Meadows
1. Plan ahead.
This cannot be stressed enough. Pretty much everyone in the entire country goes on vacation at the same time during winter vacation, Golden Week, and Obon. If you don’t plan at least three months ahead of time it becomes more expensive and more difficult to do whatever trip you want to do. You should also plan far in advance if you want to attend a famous festival, such as the Sapporo Snow Festival in February, because hotels can fill up fast.
2. Get your re-entry permit.
This is essential if you want to come back into Japan after your trip. If you do not have a re-entry permit, you are surrendering your visa (the thing that allows you to work and live in Japan) when you leave. Now, if you leave without getting the re-entry permit you could get back into Japan on a 30-day tourist visa. You can’t legally work on a tourist visa, though, and you would have to reapply for an instructor visa. How this affects your salary is up to your contracting organization, but they would be within their rights not to pay you for the time you are without the proper visa.
3. Let people know where you will be.
It may seem like a pain or like you are being babied by your contracting organization, but you really should leave accurate contact information with your school. It’s not that they really want to keep tabs on you, but there are times when they will genuinely need to contact you in case of an emergency (such as the case of the 2004 tsunami).
4. Rent a car.
If you are planning to travel domestically in the more rural parts of the country, then having a rental car (if you don’t have your own car) can really make traveling around Shikoku a whole lot easier. You can get around using public transit, but this results in a lot of early nights and long waits. If you got an International Driver’s License before coming to Japan, remember that it will expire after one year, so plan accordingly if there are trips you want to take around Japan that will require a car.
5. Make copies of important documents.
Western travel documents can be quite the prize in some countries. If yours come up missing, having a copy of your passport can make getting replacement documents much easier, which leads into the next tip.
6. Know where your embassies are.
If you are traveling outside of Japan (heck, inside Japan too), know where your embassy is just in case of an emergency. If your country doesn’t have an embassy in the country where you’re traveling, then find out which country’s embassy assists on behalf of your country’s interests.
7. Take care of your money.
Try leaving the bulk of your money in a hotel safe whenever possible. In some countries 10-man is several years worth of wages. If you can, try to pay for some of the big-ticket items before you go, such as hotels, transportation and any classes or tours you plan to take.
8. Protect your health.
Last year I made it through our entire trip to Thailand without ever suffering the dreaded Bangkok Belly. My wife, on the other hand, spent a good bit of the time sick. If travelers are advised not to drink the water in the country you are visiting, be cautious about eating or drinking anything that might have water added. This could be anything from salad greens washed in the local water to orange juice that’s been watered down, so be careful. Having a few medical phrases handy for when things really go south can be life saving. Also try to take steps to prevent getting sick in the first place. If you are going to a country with known infectious diseases, then you can usually get a few shots before you leave to help fight them off. You should do this about a month before hand as some of the shots can have side effects.
9. Eat local.
I can’t recommend this enough. Sometimes the local dishes may seem a little weird, but hey, they can’t be as bad that regurgitated snot mess they call natto here.
10. Keep the seasons in mind.
Southeast Asia is great place to be during winter vacation, but on average it rains 25 out of the 31 days in May due to monsoons. Beijing is lovely in the spring but quite cold during the New Year. For all those from the northern hemisphere, remember that August is a winter month in Australia and New Zealand. If you want to visit a place, a quick Internet search for that location’s weather patterns can save you some big headaches in the long run.