What I Packed Was Perfect

(yeah I said that last post was the last post, but...)

and I am never traveling with more than a carry-on again

For 14 days:

  • Rain jacket (unlined)
  • Umbrella
  • flip flops (which, actually, I only used at the ryokan, because the slippers they provided would not stay on my feet)
  • visor
  • walking shoes (Dansko) and a pair of Skechers
  • 2 dri-fit type capri pants
  • 2 dri-fit type long pants (one converted to capris)
  • 5 dri-fit tees of various types
  • 2 light cotton tees
  • 2 sleeveless shirts (never wore them)
  • pjs
  • 1 dri-fit type very light hoodie (from Uniclo!)
  • 1 denim jacket
  • assorted underwear items, about a week's worth
  • 7 pairs of socks
  • clothesline (most hotels already had one in the shower)
  • bath kit (shampoo/lotion in 3 oz bottles, toothbrush/paste, meds, comb, makeup, etc)
  • gallon ziploc with various meds - laxative, anti-diarrheal, colds (never used)
  • woolite (perfect for handwashing)
  • adapter (never used)
  • small messenger bag (never used)
  • small travel hair dryer (never used)

I'm sure I am forgetting something. If so, I probably didn't use it. In my main messenger bag, I had my iPad mini with Bluetooth keyboard (which I left in the hotel during the day), phone, passport, JR Pass, wallet, various charging cords plus a power pack, passport, wipes, kleenex, pens, etc. 

 

 

 

Last, but not least, that Google Translate thing

I downloaded Google Translate and Waygo, a translation app that got some decent reviews on various travel sites. Neither were accurate, but I tossed Waygo after the first few days.

This was Waygo's translation of a Japanese sweet:

You know, maybe it WAS fatty tuna? Seems doubtful...

You know, maybe it WAS fatty tuna? Seems doubtful...

Both apps worked the same way. Open the app, position your phone over the text and click the little camera icon. "Live" translation appears on the screen, and I use the word "live" purposely - the translation changes as you move the camera around, and is, overall, not especially accurate.

If you are connected via wifi or cell, you can click the camera icon and a shot of the text is sent...somewhere. And you get a much more accurate translation. Here's part of a receipt:

Here's the "live" Google Translate:

I especially like the "underwear earth" part

I especially like the "underwear earth" part

And here is the final translation:

"deposit fishing"

"deposit fishing"

Useful? Kinda? But, hey it's free.

Japan - Food

I've had a few people ask me about food, because they don't like seafood or sushi. After my initial "what the hell is wrong with you" reaction...it's not raw fish, all the time. But fish is a mainstay of the Japanese diet, and you'll have to work pretty hard to avoid it completely. Vegan and gluten-free folks will have a more difficult time, although I did see a few menus mentioning those two restrictions. I have to say though - I never saw anyone who seemed to be requesting any dietary accommodations. I think this is a uniquely American, certainly first-world, demand.

And unless you know Japanese, I'm not sure how you would even make the request. We had a hard enough time figuring out what, exactly, we were eating sometimes. While ALL of the restaurants had picture menus (this is a thing in Japan, and not just in tourist areas - menus with pictures, and cases displaying the various dinner options), the English translations were...interesting. I was never sure that "offal" really meant what I thought it did. And were "tendons" really tendons, or did they mean tenders? Other than pickled vegetables - also a thing in Japan, and not my favorite - and some of the jellied sweets (again, not a favorite), we never had anything that we didn't like. It was all good, filling, and beautifully presented, even in the tiny diners and bars.

Noodles are common (udon, soba, ramen), rice of course, tempura and other breaded fried preparations. "Hot Pot" is a soup or stew, usually cooked by you, with ingredients brought to your table. In addition to fish and seafood, you will always find chicken and pork, and usually beef. Other foods are also easy to find - and as Vonn pointed out, we don't eat one type of food at home every day, ever, and neither do the Japanese. Italian and French cafes are easy to find; Chinese, Thai and Indian; and of course, McDonalds, Starbucks and other international chains can be found. Even Denny's.

About the sushi. We did have mediocre sushi once, at a chain called Sen Zushi in Tokyo. Otherwise, it was all excellent, even at the conveyor-belt sushi place. And "sushi" in Japan is a slice of raw or seared fish on a rice ball. A "roll" is a different category here, called "rolls" (duh) and the list is often very small, unlike in the States. 

Green tea. I hate green tea. And "tea" is almost always...green tea. To compound the issue, they have green tea flavored everything. Sweets, ice cream, Kit Kats, you name it. I don't get it.

Some photos:

"mixed noodle soup" - udon with veggies, shrimp, chicken and that lovely flower thing is squid

"mixed noodle soup" - udon with veggies, shrimp, chicken and that lovely flower thing is squid

Soba

Soba

Tempura with rice and some udon for lunch in Hakone

Tempura with rice and some udon for lunch in Hakone

One of several hot pots we had - this one with chicken meatballs

One of several hot pots we had - this one with chicken meatballs

melt-in-your-mouth sashimi course

melt-in-your-mouth sashimi course

Well-deserved bakery break in Hakone -  a mix of savory and sweet

Well-deserved bakery break in Hakone -  a mix of savory and sweet

Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style. Cabbage, veggies, meat and noodles stuffed between a Japanese pancake and an egg, slathered with sauce. SO GOOD.

Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style. Cabbage, veggies, meat and noodles stuffed between a Japanese pancake and an egg, slathered with sauce. SO GOOD.

Yakitori, Japanese grilled skewers. Cheap and delicious.

Yakitori, Japanese grilled skewers. Cheap and delicious.

Pizza, in Nara. Not bad!

Pizza, in Nara. Not bad!

Japanese French bouillabaise in Kyoto

Japanese French bouillabaise in Kyoto

Yakatori appetizer plate

Yakatori appetizer plate

Japan - Hotels

We used Expedia pretty exclusively for research and booking, and also stayed at two Comfort Inn properties. So, don't overlook your favorite chains while traveling - they often offer good accommodations at reasonable prices.

TOKYO: We stayed here at both ends of the trip, at Comfort Hotels. Either they do not have family rooms, or they were already booked - we needed 2 rooms for 3 people. Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kiyosumi Shirakawa was located right next to the Kiyosumi subway station, so that was great. Rooms were extremely tiny though, for two people. Location was a little out-of-they way, and dinner options were very limited. Comfort Hotel Tokyo Kanda Hiragashi had larger rooms, and a better location about 1/2 mile from Kanda Station. At both locations beds were comfy, pillows were awful (but you could get extras, so that helped). Sizable breakfast buffet was included and featured Japanese and western options. Average per night cost per room was about $93.

HAKONE: We stayed at a ryokan, a Japanese hotel that usually features Japanese style sleeping rooms and onsen, the hot baths. Although not always more expensive, ryokans tend to cost a more and you can add all kinds of extras like traditional Japanese dinners, etc. We stayed at Mount View Hakone (you can read more about it in the Hakone post), and added breakfast both mornings and dinner both nights. It was excellent, but not sure I would do two of each again, just from the variety and price-point perspective. This was an Expedia booking, held with my credit card but cash upon checkout. $360/night including meals, for 3 people.

HIROSHIMA: We stayed at the Hotel Century 21, in a room that had not been updated since the late 20th century. Location was excellent, just across the river from the train station with lots of access to the bus loop and restaurants. Hotel was very nice, but our room was an odd combination called a Japanese Western Style room that featured a small Japanese sleeping room and a very tiny sitting area. The futons were simply another quilt on the tatami mats, and I pulled out a couple ratty-looking futons from the closet to add a little more cushion. Luckily we were only there one night. Another Expedia find (this one charged to my card via Expedia), $135/night for 3 people.

KYOTO: You can check out an entire post on this hotel, but this is a classic example of how spending just a bit more than your usual can pay off big. Average price at the Kyoto Brighton Hotel was $250/night for 4 people and did not include breakfast but the other amenities made our Kyoto stay so much more efficient and comfortable. Huge room and bathroom, quiet residential location. Free shuttle to the subway, taxi stand right at the hotel, concierge desk with good English speakers, all kinds of maps including walking tours and area restaurants. Another Expedia find.

KANAZAWA: We tried to find a ryokan here but nothing really came up in our price range, so we ended up at the MYSTAYS Kanazawa Castle, which is not really anywhere near the castle. MYSTAYS is a Japanese hotel chain, and this hotel was in a great location just a few blocks from the train station and all the bus loops, plus lots of food options. Room was a little cramped with 3 beds and luggage but hey, it was $103/night for 3 people.

Japan - Staying Connected

If you are with Verizon for cell service - as we are - well, the sad news is their global plans kinda suck, especially for data. Their plans top out at 100 MB for a month's data allowance, which is about the equivalent of 3 Facebook posts. For this trip, I decided to go with their Travel Pass plan, which allows you to access your current plan allowances. You pay $10 for a 24-hour period, which starts as soon as you access cell service. Don't use it? Don't pay. So while you are essentially paying to access a plan you are already paying for, at least you can get at all that data you aren't using back home, for a relatively small fee.

And you may not even need it. I think I used it twice. The rest of the time, I was on free wifi (yes, security friends, I can hear you squealing right now). It's slow, and a bit of a pain (takes a while to show up, then sometimes you have to "log in" via browser, which usually consists of hitting a button "Use Free Wifi.") But it's everywhere - Starbucks (naturally), 7-11, rail and subway stations (but interestingly, NOT on the shinkansen), most stores, cafes, restaurants, and of course hotels. We had a couple of apps to help us find free wifi (Travel Japan and Japan Wi Fi) but honestly, mostly I just went to settings on my phone and scrolled through the list of available networks.

Related: your devices will charge - a little more slowly at 100V - without a converter or adapter. You only need an adapter if you are bringing a laptop or other appliance that requires a 3-prong plug.

Japan - Transportation

We used a travel agent to book our flights on Delta, although if you are doing a simple in/out of Tokyo, you can probably book on your own (also, it is a long-ass flight, and I use the word "ass" purposely, as in, it will be numb at the end of 12 hours or so)(your mileage may vary).

We also bought Japan Rail Passes, which may or may not save you some money but more than makes up for any not-so-great-deal in convenience. You can get these through a travel agent, but it's super easy to do it yourself online at a number of sites, including jrpass.com (which is what we used). You must do this prior to traveling! The pass is available in Japan at times for a limited time period, but these deals seem to come and go, with expiration dates.

You will receive a JR Pass voucher - not the actual pass - which then has to be redeemed at a JR Travel Center - so allow some time to do this when you arrive.

The JR app is, for some unknown reason, called Hyperdia and Hyperdia Voice. You can get a free trial (30 days I think), otherwise it's about $3. And it's a great app. Advice - go into the app settings and make sure you turn off the air travel option (unless, of course, you plan to travel within Japan by air!). Also, make sure you turn ON the Japan Rail Pass Search option, which will restrict your searches to routes that accept the pass (some local trains, and two shinkansen lines, don't).

We screen-shot (is that a word?) several schedules for each travel day, in case we had no wifi. In addition to times and train names/numbers, you can see if you have to reserve a seat (mostly, no), what platform the train leaves from, trip duration, train transfers and more.

Also. shinkansen. 200 mph hour, man. We were able to cover a lot of ground because of the bullet train.

If you are going to Tokyo, I cannot say enough great things about the Tokyo Metro app, simply called TokyoSubway.

Also, the subway system is SIMPLE. Color-coded, stops are numbered, signage in the station indicates exactly which direction trains are going in. Inside, most of the trains have displays showing where you are, where you are going, and there are announcements for each stop in English. Ticket machines have an English option. The whole thing is awesome. Also, CLEAN. If you like your subways with trash, bad smells and graffiti, you'll be disappointed.

Google Maps also works, although in some cities the public transportation options do not show up. We used Google quite a bit to find the walking routes between places, using just GPS (open the map while connected, plug in your directions, then refer back to it as you go).

Things to look for at stations: tourist information offices, usually well-marked, usually have some English-speakers. Exit signs list major tourist attractions and even hotels to help you find the right exit out of the train or subway station (NYC could really get some lessons here).

We used several taxis in Kyoto, where the public transportation is not very comprehensive. I would not hesitate to recommend them as a more efficient way to get places, and the prices were not outrageous. Most drivers have a little English, but it helps to have a map, or a card from your hotel, or a note in Japanese (provided by the hotel). Buses can be a little confusing, but aren't a bad option at all. You'll need exact change (it's a great way to get rid of all the 10 yen coins you'll end up with), usually 200 yen per ride. Many cities have tourist loop buses that are hop on/off at the major sites, and offer single or multi-day passes.

WALKING. You will do many miles of it. Break in your good walking shoes before you leave.

 

 

Japan - Planning Tools

After looking at some tour options, we decided to handle all our own arrangements, and so did a ton of planning. Our main tools:

www.japan-guide.com: this is an excellent resource. Well-designed, comprehensive, easy to use. Includes a good list of cities/regions, and top suggestions on what to see in each. Also covers lodging, tours, how to get places.

The Lonely Planet - Japan (Kindle version): a little more geared to backpackers and budget travelers, but includes lots of information and tips.

Expedia (website and app): this is my go-to travel site generally, and my favorite for hotels. Good selection, good (and sometimes super good) pricing, easy to use, free cancellation, decent guarantees. Very clear on when you have to pay cash at the hotel, etc.

Trivago: this was a new one, recommended by our travel agent friend because it has a filter option for "family rooms." I like this site and will be adding it to my trip planning arsenal. Clean design and easy to use, and the family room filter was super useful. Similar to Kayak, it jumps you to other sites for booking.

Trip Advisor (website and app): good for reviews and recommended things to do. I also like it better than Yelp for restaurant recommendations.

We did sit down with a friend who is a travel agent (and also an advisor for the local high school student exchange program) to discuss some options, and to book flights. Travel agents can sometimes get better deals through consolidators, and we were able to save several hundred dollars on airfare. And we were being a little complicated, as we were bringing Vonn from New York and wanted to coordinate his flight with ours if possible.

Japan is a cash economy, surprisingly. Most hotels, and pretty much all the restaurants, shops, temples, parks, etc. are all cash, all the time. So we made sure we had yen before we left, and also took our Charles Schwab cards (ATM withdrawal fees are waived) to access additional cash. Make sure you know the terms of your cash withdrawals! Note: not all ATMS will take your card. BUT International ATMs are NOT hard to find - all the 7-11s have them. Yes, 7-11s. And they are everywhere.

 

And now for the Final Round

The next few posts will be about logistics - hotels, transportation, apps, etc. But before we get to that, have some amusing day-to-day signs and such

This was the Google Translate image of a gadget on our table at lunch one day. 100 yen to for psychological testing fortunes.

This was the Google Translate image of a gadget on our table at lunch one day. 100 yen to for psychological testing fortunes.

You should do your squats before you go - this is a Japanese-style toilet. Luckily, most restrooms have Western-style toilets.

You should do your squats before you go - this is a Japanese-style toilet. Luckily, most restrooms have Western-style toilets.

Speaking of toilets - I don't know how we resisted the urge to go in. I mean, they have toilets AND Pokemon!

Speaking of toilets - I don't know how we resisted the urge to go in. I mean, they have toilets AND Pokemon!

We never did figure out what, exactly, this was. Homeless shelter/lawn area? Disaster gathering area?

We never did figure out what, exactly, this was. Homeless shelter/lawn area? Disaster gathering area?

Vending machines are EVERYWHERE (and I do mean everywhere - inside buildings, in parks, on the sidewalks even in residential areas). And they all have this deliciously-named Pocari Sweat drink (something like Gatorade, apparently).

Vending machines are EVERYWHERE (and I do mean everywhere - inside buildings, in parks, on the sidewalks even in residential areas). And they all have this deliciously-named Pocari Sweat drink (something like Gatorade, apparently).

Italian Tomato Cafe Jr.

Italian Tomato Cafe Jr.

We went over there. There was nothing to see.

We went over there. There was nothing to see.

Kanazawa

Just a little time here - not enough really. Would have liked to get to the coast, and the fish market, and tour a geisha house...but maybe next time. We did get to the gardens (of course) and walked through another castle park. But most importantly, we finally had conveyor belt sushi.

It was super good.

We also went to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art to catch an exhibit called The Pen, which is the art of IKEDA Manabu, which is amazing (think Studio Ghibili, with 1000 times the detail). It takes him years to finish one large piece, using pens and acrylic inks. Here's a small sample:

Nara

This town south of Kyoto was on the list primarily for the famous Buddha and temple complex, but all the guides placed the "deer park" pretty high on the list of must-sees. Which, being from Michigan, we did not understand at all. Why the hell would anyone want to go to a deer park?

ell, they had this Buddha of deer, for one thing:

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And as it turns out, you can't avoid it. You walk right through the herds on your way to the temple. Vendors sell "deer cookies" so you can feed them, and man, do they know when you have cookies. Saw more than one guy get bitten in the butt because they walked away, or ran out of cookies.

So, of course we fed them. These little kids were offering pine cones, and the deer is all "What?"

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The draw here - Todai-ji Temple Complex - is the Buddha "Daibutsu" the world's largest bronze Buddha and it is impressive at 50 ft  tall.

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There is a hole at the base of one of the pillars, that if you can squeeze through it you are supposedly granted enlightenment in the next life. It's so small that mostly, we only saw little kids going through.

So, of course Ryne had to try it - and I would LOVE to post a video of it except stupid squarespace (which I otherwise love) seems to require that I upload video to YouTube before it will load it. And Google will only send my 2-step authentication code via text, which of course won't come through via wifi for some reason. "So secure you can't use it!" Is going to be their new motto. 

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In case you were wondering, the hole is supposed to be the size of the Buddha's nostril. Not sure how that relates to enlightenment in the next life, but it seems about right. Also, the family you see inn the photo applauded Ryne' successful exit.

On our way back to the train, we passed up this opportunity to have a drink with owls - 14 different species, making it a cafe with "the best selection of owls in the world!" Which makes me want to find all the other owl cafes.

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However, the allure of pizza was not to be denied (and it was decent):

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More terrible Japanese food for dinner - plus a traditional sake pour:

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Friday in Kyoto

Kyoto was the capital of Japan from the late 700s until mid 1800s. Unlike many of the major cities in Japan, Kyoto escaped complete destruction during WWII. A a result, the city features a mix of old and new and a high concentration of historic sites. Suffice to say, we are suffering from a bit of "temple fatigue."

Ryne made his way down from Hikone, dropped his bags at our hotel (more on the hotel later) and went off with some Japan Center buddies until meeting us for dinner Thursday evening.

Vonn was scheduled to leave for Tokyo and his return home on Saturday, so we packed a lot in on Friday. And it was hot. We headed first for the Bamboo Forest, in Arashimaya.

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From there we walked to, and through, Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple that is home to one of the best examples of kare-sansui, the raked gravel landscaping. It's hard to capture with the iPhone camera:

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Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion was next on the list, and it really is gold (as opposed to the Silver Pavilion, which is not silver). The top two floors are covered in gold leaf, and the structure was originally a retirement villa for a shogun, and converted to a temple in the early 1400s.

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This loop entailed a LOT of walking - we really should have had a fitness tracker on, we were probably at about 30,000 steps....so, we recovered with a trip to a yakatori izakaya in the Pontchoro district (across the river from Gion).

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We all look very tired. Because we were. 

We all look very tired. Because we were.