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food travel

Japan: A Collection of Hopefully Helpful Tips and Observations

Osaka

Ok, so maybe you want to go to Japan and don’t care about all my hilarious anecdotes? Here’s a collection of random tips:

If you have an unlocked phone, order a sim card and swap it out! You’ll have internet everywhere.

If you are going to use the local trains, get a Suica card. (You may be able to order a card online before you get there, if you really want to hit the ground running.) We used ours on different lines in Tokyo, and in Osaka. If we had taken the train anywhere in Kyoto, it would have worked there, too. We found the trains fairly easy to navigate. You can trade in your Suica card at the end of the trip to get any remaining money back. They can also be used at some vending machines? We did not try that.

Google translate is a lifesaver! Not sure what the menu says or what you are buying in a conbini? Aim your phone at it (internet required, see the tip above), and it will translate enough bits of things that you can sort of tell what it is you’re considering.

Need cash? Conbinis have ATMs.

Oh, you’ll need cash. Weirdly, not all places take credit cards.

Hungry? Conbinis have surprisingly good food!

What’s a conbini? A convenience store. Family Mart, Lawson, 7-Eleven. Yes. 7-Eleven. I have no idea why they all have ‘L’s in the name, but … they do.

Wendy’s First Kitchens have machines to order at, so you don’t have to interact with other humans (for ordering at least) if you don’t want to.

McDonald’s has handy laminated menus at the counter so you can point at what you want.

No eating and walking on the street. It’s rude, I guess? No one will stop you, but if you pay attention, anyone eating on the street has stopped walking and is standing off to the side.

There are drink vending machines everywhere, but food vending machines are few and far between.

The Japanese are all about the seasons! Including in their snack foods. We managed to get Apple Coke and White Peach Fanta because we were there in the fall. If you are a junk foodie, keep an eye open and you’ll get to try all kinds of weird stuff. (But Apple Coke and White Peach Fanta? So good.)

Japan (and Malaysia, too, so maybe it’s in all of Asia? Unsure) is all about random flavored Kit Kats. We tried all kinds of flavors. All kinds of flavors – many of them probably seasonal.

Stop in at a Don Quijote store. You’re welcome.

Also, check out the Robot Restaurant if you are in Tokyo. No locals attend the show, so it’s not really an authentic Japanese experience in that regard. But it is something unlike anything you’ve ever done, I can almost guarantee that.

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Tokyo: Harajuku Style

Shopping in Harajuku

So another stop on the husband’s list: Harajuku! I really wanted to pick up some new duds, but they seemed to only have size medium out on display.

(In America that would work pretty well for me … but I am no Japanese medium. I’m a large or more? Unsure.)

I did find some “pants” that looked like they may have been long enough for me! If I extended the buckles fully. Though, maybe shorts plus … leg tubes? Don’t quite qualify as pants? Again: unsure.

There were plenty of crepe and sweet shops to be found, but the husband knew there was something even better to be had: freshly made potato chips with ice cream. So good.

Calbee shop in Harajuku. WORTH IT.

We got there pretty early in the day, before crowds got too insane, but it was already pretty crowded. Fun shopping – mostly window shopping, really. There are some odd finds, to be sure. But, I did come out ahead with a giant hair claw for my giant hair! Really, I should have picked up a few more. I guess I’ll just have to go back.

One thing of note: there don’t seem to be public bathrooms on that main shopping street. So we headed to the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku mall nearby: where I waited in a really. long. line. And the husband was in and out quickly. We did a little more window shopping (this place had … regular stuff) and enjoyed some time on the rooftop.

That evening we had “tickets” for the Robot Restaurant, so we made sure to make it back to the hotel for a break before our wild night out.

So: Robot Restaurant. We had seen an Anthony Bourdain where he was in Tokyo and he made a stop at the Robot Restaurant. He … had trouble finding words, for what, exactly, this place was. And so, of course, we put it on the list.

Before we left for Japan, the husband found their website. The … apparently geocities website. And filled out a form. And got an email, with confirmation of our tickets! That we would pick up and pay for before the show. Because, ya know, Japan and e-commerce? Not quite a thing. (Except for the Hip Hop Bus! Those guys figured it out!)

We read everything we could about the show from their website, and found a cryptic note about a dress code … but not what the dress code actually was. So I asked b2 to take a look at the Japanese version of the site, and he also found nothing about the dress code. So I asked him what the typical Japanese dress code for restaurants was. He thought long and hard and came back with: “Don’t be naked?”

So we decided to not go naked! Which is what everyone else also went with! So we made the right call. Disaster averted.

Night of the show, we found the ticket place and picked up our tickets, then headed down the street for the show. Right in Shinjuku! We were able to walk from our hotel.

One thing to know: this isn’t really a restaurant, per se. It’s a show. You are paying to see a show. You can reserve a sushi dinner box when you order your tickets, if you so desire. And they do have a cash-only snack stand before you enter the show. (We got sodas and fried chicken … bites? Actually pretty good.) And during the show, they roll snack stands in during intermissions. We got more drinks and popcorn during the show itself.

But the show! I don’t know if I have the words.

What I do know: It’s a really, really good time. We all walked out smiling. It is bright and loud and above all cheerful and fun. My FB post after walking out of it: “Pretty sure I was just some molly away from a rave.”

I’ll just let these pictures speak for themselves.

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Back to Tokyo: Shinjuku

I had grand plans for our last morning in Okinawa: a walk to some gardens (Naha Fukushūen) and a beach (Naminoue Beach), as they were close to our hotel.

But we were just so tired. And so we slept in! Had a late breakfast. Shared a cab with the in-laws to the airport. And thus our Okinawan adventures were over.

We all made it safely to Tokyo. The husband and I were meeting an old exchange student of mine for dinner, so we were too short on time to take the Limousine Bus to our hotel. Luckily for us, it was a domestic flight so we had flown into Haneda airport, much closer to the city. And so we got a taxi! Er, two taxis. We waited a few rounds for a taxi large enough for the four of us, but eventually gave up and took two regular cabs. And then we raced each other to the hotel! (Ok, or maybe we both just eventually made it there.)

We checked into the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, a recommendation from the dad because: the hotel is on the Limousine Bus route, it is affordablish, and it’s in Shinjuku, right near the train station. And again: it’s in Shinjuku!

This was perhaps our smallest room on the trip, and the futoniest of beds. (The mattress was very firm. So very firm. Laying on my side meant my arms fell asleep.) The bed was against one wall, which meant once I was in, I was in for the night! There’s a fridge under that tv, we made good use of that!

This is pulled from their website, but this was our room!! Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku

But the location! The dad was so right about the location: right at the edge of all the Shinjuku action, super close to the train station. Busiest station in the world (millions of people go through it every day. EVERY DAY.) And also it’s a massive mall and has tons of restaurants. And outside it, there is so much shopping, and so many restaurants.

If you want to go to Tokyo but don’t know where to stay, stay in Shinjuku. You’re welcome.

So, anyway, we got all checked in, and met Miyuki with her family in the lobby. I made sure to give her a description of us (me: purple hair; the husband: big guy, red beard), and she spotted us right away.

They had picked out a restaurant for us that matched the husband’s specifications (meat! not fish … not vegetables), The Old Station Bar and Grill. Miyuki ordered family style, and they all (including her 8-year-old daughter) put the husband and I to serious shame with their chopstick skills. But we tried!

Looking at the menu online, I recall that she ordered us the dynamic grill (a giant platter of meat), grilled cheese curry (it was soooo good), neapolitan spaghetti (the husband quite enjoyed it, I was low-gluten at the time so I opted out), and the “Melt! Cheese dumplings!” and simple pepper dumplings (which I totally had, I figured that wasn’t that much wheat? I didn’t die or anything, so it’s fine).

It was all soooo good. I’m so glad we had a local doing the ordering, it made the whole restaurant experience way less scary.

And it was a really fun time! It’d been over 20 years since Miyuki had been my exchange student, and it was fun to catch up. Her English is flawless (thanks to an NPR habit) so it made for easy conversation. If you ever have a local offer to take you out to dinner, do it! They are so accommodating, she really went out of her way to find a place the husband would love. He liked it so much, it was kind of a bummer the rest of our days were too busy to make it back.

They walked us back to our hotel (good thing, too! Shinjuku is a big place) and we bid farewell.

And so started our second round of Tokyo adventures!

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food travel

Okinawa World

Okinawa world

After a sobering start of the day at the WWII Peace Memorial, we caught a taxi over to Okinawa World.

First up, we walked through some caves: cooler than the outside. But also: they were damp. Lots of places submerged in water. Beautiful to walk through, but not exactly the kind of place I’d want to grow up in.

There was an impressive gift shop that the husband and I raced through: we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the, ah, important stuff. We thought we’d have a chance to circle back if there was time, but, alas, Okinawa World is set up in a sort of linear fashion.

There were a few shows that we just happened to miss, but the craft village was fun. The mother-in-law and I wove our own bookmarks! The father-in-law tried his hand at some leatherwork.

We had a very late lunch: the husband had a wagyu pizza and I had some wagyu skewers. Very possibly the best beef I have ever put into my face. The in-laws were there, too … I … think I stole one of the mother-in-law’s beef skewers. Because, again: the best beef I have ever put into my face.

The husband and I watched a snake show … there was a race between a snake and a mongoose? But the animals didn’t cooperate, I think they were kind of over the whole performing for an audience thing. As we were leaving the show, we saw that they had headsets that would have explained the show to us in English. I guess we’ll know for next time!

I wish we had been able to spend more time in Okinawa World, it’s another one I’d add to the list! It’s a fun tourist trap that’s got a little bit of everything: natural wonders, cultural shows, hands-on craft workshops, museums, food, souvenir shopping and even a zoo. (Snakes. Mongooses. Giant Okinawan bats!) Japan, man. Something for everyone!

From there, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. I think that may have been the night we got “room service”: which was very cheap, but also turned out to be microwave dinners. I’d recommend running down to the corner for some conbini food, if you’ve got any energy left.

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food travel

Okinawa: The Hip Hop Bus

Toes in the Okinawan sand

One of the husband’s MUST-SEE items in Okinawa was the aquarium, which was nowhere near our hotel in Naha. Before we left, I tried my darndest to figure out the best way to get there, but didn’t have much luck. So the husband, in completely non-husband style said: We’ll figure it out when we get there!

So I … decided to just go with it. It was his must-see item, he was ok waiting till we got there, so I let go of the planning.

And, lo and behold, we figured it out when we got there.

When we landed at the Okinawa airport, we picked up all of the English fliers from the tourist flier stand. When we checked into the hotel, we again picked up all of the English fliers from the tourist flier stand. In our hotel room, the husband studied all of the fliers, and decided upon the Hip Hop bus.

I do not know why that is their name. But I do know that I quite enjoyed it!

We bought our tickets online the day before our Hip Hop adventure. The bus picked us up right outside our hotel in Naha (it stops at about 5 Naha hotels; so if you aren’t staying exactly at one of their stops, you can probably walk to a nearby hotel pretty easily), and took us to the Churaumi Aquarium and American Village! Both items on our list, and both things not anywhere near Naha. There were a few other stops in there, but I think they probably just made for nice bathroom stops?

Our guide spoke several languages, including English. They are all set up with headsets that support a multitude of languages (I think there were like 20 different options?) so everyone got to enjoy the ride learning about Okinawa in whatever language they so desired. Er, well, among the 20 choices.

On the way to the Aquarium, we stopped for a bathroom/photo stop at the Kouri bridge, where I took the opportunity to get my toes in the sand. They had a paid-foot shower station to get cleaned up … took me a minute to figure it out, but I managed to get all cleaned up and back on the bus.

Kouri Bridge

And then the aquarium! This is the aquarium to beat all aquariums. Whale sharks! This is the only place you’ll see whale sharks in a ginormous whale shark tank.

The Hip Hop bus gave us 3 hours there, which is enough time to get through the aquarium itself, but there is soooo much more there to see. There is the emerald beach that the in-laws made sure to see, and they assured us it was gorgeous. We opted for more aquarium time – and I really wanted to see the Okinawan village they had in the Ocean Park Expo area, but we took a wrong turn, and it was so hot, and uphill and then we gave up and hung out in the very air conditioned gift shop at the top of the hill. 3 hours is enough time to feel like you got your money’s worth, but, honestly we coulda spent all day there.

But, back on the bus!

We had a brief stop where we all ran to an underwater observatory thing, climbed down a bunch of stairs, looked at some fish through tiny windows, climbed up a bunch of stairs, and then ran back to the bus.

It was … I think just a good time to get off the bus for a bit? It sounded way cooler in the description than in actuality … especially after having just been at very possibly the world’s best aquarium.

Next stop was the American Village for dinner. Which is a very American feeling place, imagine that! We stopped at a spam-burger place, where I got a spam and egg sandwich and some melon fanta.

We had some time to kill in the shops, so we wandered around and did some window shopping. If you can make it, I’d recommend a visit to the American Village.

Then it was back on the bus for the ride back to the hotel. It made for a very long day, but it was a day we didn’t have to drive for hours in a foreign country or worry about our itinerary, and we got to see some very cool places.

So Hip Hop Bus? A resounding yes! There was no Hip Hop to speak of, but it was still a very good time.

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food shopping travel

Okinawa: Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle

On this glorious morning: we slept in. I scheduled us a sleep-in day, half-way through the trip because that is what you need half-way through a trip like ours. Okinawa is a tropical kind of place, so it would have been more practical to go out in the cooler morning and siesta away the afternoon, but … that is not what we did.

The in-laws had also arrived in Okinawa! They had flown in from Kuala Lumpur, so no real jet lag: maybe an hour or two time difference? We got together to make arrangements for the Hip Hop Bus the following day, and then headed out for our afternoon adventures.

Shuri Castle is listed as being on the monorail, so we bought monorail tickets and headed on our way. Got off at the Shuri Castle stop … consulted the google maps … wandered a bit … and oh. my. gosh. Okinawa is so humid and so hot, and the castle wasn’t particularly close to the monorail stop. We eventually found the castle walls, but then there was so. much. walking. to find the actual entrance.

And I am so glad we did! A month after we got home, the whole castle complex burned down.

Which happens all the time in Japan: the castle we saw was a rebuilt version from 1992, I think? But, still. It burnt down?? How crazy is that?

We toured the castle, it was nice and cool inside, and they had some nice museum-y displays. In one of the buildings on the grounds, we caught a show of traditional Okinawan dancing! Also, it was nice and air conditioned.

And I found some more Fanta!

Super tart. Did not finish.

We headed back to the hotel, and chilled for a bit before heading out for the evening (so much cooler once the sun goes down!!) on Kokusai Dori street.

We introduced the in-laws to Don Quijote, which is where we left them for the evening. It was their first exposure and so they needed some time to take it all in.

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Onward to Okinawa!

We took a bus with part of our group to the Osaka airport, where they all promptly went to the international wing, but the husband and I were flying domestically to Okinawa.

The flight was fine, the husband fit on the plane (always dicey on non-Amurrican flights, we were especially worried for an Asian domestic flight), and we started our adventures in Okinawa!

If you are an American looking for a place to stay in Naha, I recommend the Double Tree Hilton in Naha. American mattresses! (Japanese futon mattresses are fine by me, but hard on the husband.) Also the best hair dryer I had all trip. It was right across the street from the monorail. Walking distance to Kokusai Dori street. Quick taxi ride from the airport.

We got all checked in, and walked down to Kokusai Dori street for some dinner. A&W burgers. I kid you not. They are everywhere in Okinawa!

Kokusai Dori is full of (much better) restaurants and shopping. Even has a Don Quijote!

I had been working on a hat for the sister, and finished it up that night!

Perfect match for my hair and glasses! But, alas, twas not for me.
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food travel

Kyoto with Gate 1: Day Two

We had the morning to ourselves in Kyoto, so I looked on the google maps and found us some options. Within walking distance: the Kyoto aquarium! And so off we went. On Health and Sports day? Which is a holiday. So all the locals were out and about too!

We started off with the Dolphin show, La La Fin Circus? Turns out, if you don’t understand the language, the dolphin show is less enjoyable. It was mostly just hoping it was finally time for something exciting to happen. There’s a lot of down time in dolphin shows, turns out. So: while I do love dolphin shows, I’d say you’d be ok to skip this one if you don’t understand Japanese.

The rest of the aquarium is pretty charming. I wouldn’t say this aquarium is a must-see, but if you’ve got a free morning and you’ve seen all the shrines and temples your brain can hold, it’s a nice change of pace.

Lunch back at the hotel, with sodas we’d picked up on our adventures. Japan is all about seasonal flavors: if you are there in the fall, pick up some White Peach Fanta and Apple Coke. The best sodas we tried on our trip.

The afternoon was a visit to … a temple! Bet you didn’t see that coming! But this one: this one was surrounded by deer! And also houses the largest bronze Buddha in the world.

Outside the temple is Nara park, home to, oh, about a gazillion deer. Who all love to eat crackers that you can buy. Oh, and they know when someone buys crackers, they will swarm until you’ve given up the goods.

This guy knew I didn’t have any crackers

Also, this picture just cracks me up: I’m pretty sure someone in the group was doing something stupid:

But then, we were inside with the giant Buddha! Daibutsu, in the Todai-ji temple. It is something to behold.

This is definitely worth a stop. I know I said we were all templed out, but this one is on whole different scale. There are little windows in the top of the building that they open … once a year? And the Buddha peeks through them.

The Buddha shutters: that is where his eyes are!

Next stop, some absolutely stunning Japanese gardens. Our tour was supposed to do something else, but it happened to be closed for renovations or something … and so we went to these gardens instead. I’m actually glad whatever it was got cancelled, these gardens were beautiful and peaceful.

We had a farewell dinner with our group that evening at the hotel, and thus ended part one of our trip.

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food shopping travel

Osaka in a Typhoon!

Covered markets. On Typhoon Hagibis day.

So the hugely-slowed-down Hagibis arrived in Osaka. We had signed up for the optional tour to Hiroshima, but the bullet trains were down (because, hello, typhoon?!), so that was a no-go.

Which … the people on our tour just would NOT get. They were so complainy, and kept asking questions like, “Well, if the train is down, could we charter a bus?”

Now, the Japanese are not a fearful people. They are not known for backing down in the face of danger. But they are imminently practical. If there is a major typhoon with associated flooding happening? How ’bout you just all stay put till it passes?

Once Katy started using the word “hurricane” for all the Amurricans who didn’t understand what a typhoon was, they all seemed to get it. And then they flipped into the opposite direction, and were scared to leave Katy’s side. Ya can’t win with some people.

So in Osaka, the local trains, all running. Osaka was just … mild tropical stormy. Lots of rain, windy but not knock-people-over windy, and it was deemed safe enough by the local officials for the trains to keep running.

Katy offered to escort people to the train station, help them buy tickets, and take them around to see stuff.

Knowing that the people who needed such … attention … were the ones driving us bonkers, we opted to strike out on our own. We had our Suica cards, after all! So I found some covered markets: perfect for a rainy day! And off we went.

Unfortunately, the entrance to the covered markets: a few blocks from the train station. And so we walked with our new umbrella, got thoroughly soaked, and made it to the market!

Which was covered and dry! But also: all the shops were closed. Because, hello, typhoon? If the shop-keepers were coming in from out of town, it was likely their train lines were shut down.

And so we stopped in at a Don Quijote. Always a good time.

Discouraged that things seemed closed (and also a little worried, that if the locals weren’t out and about … should we be?) we headed back to our hotel.

Our hotel train station had a McDonald’s … so very probably it was a chicken nugget kind of night? Oh the fun of recording your trip 8 months late.

As a plus: the local trains in Osaka are super easy to navigate. I would love to go back someday! On a not-typhoon day.

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Osaka with Gate 1

Bullet train!

We woke bright and early in Tokyo, and headed for the train station to ride the bullet train to Osaka.

On October 11, 2019.

Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on the eastern side of Japan – in the Tokyo area – on October 12.

I know it was a pre-planned guided tour, but we got really, really lucky with the timing of everything. (Had we been in Tokyo during the typhoon, we would have been safe and fed in our hotel: we just would not have been able to go do or see anything.)

So the bullet train!! Super fast, super smooth. Comfy, American-sized seats. Clean bathrooms. Would do again.

Traveling to Osaka on the bullet train!

Made it to Osaka, and had a quick stop at Kuromon market for lunch. Famous for takoyaki, deep-fried balls of dough with octopus. Probably like hushpuppies? But with more octopus? Do not know, did not try.

Instead we ate at Wendy’s first kitchen! A fusion of Wendy’s and … fast food Italian pasta?

Very sweet. Too much, even for me!

On a whim, I asked the husband to look up yarn stores nearby. Jackpot! The google tells me Masuzakiya is now permanently closed? Which is a shame, this place had gorgeous Japanese yarns. Like this beauty, made of linen, flax, and something that translates as “Japan paper.” No idea what I’m going to make with it, even still, but I had to have it! Still waiting for more of this stuff to show on up Ravelry so I can be inspired by others, but, no such luck. One day, this will be the perfect … something.

Next up: Osaka Castle, which is now a history museum. Take the elevator to top and work your way down. Great views of the city from the top of the castle.

Dinner stop was Dotonbori street, probably got some conbini food? More importantly, we stopped in Bic Camera for an umbrella. (In Japan, “camera” means … department store? As far as I can tell?) We had our eye on one umbrella, but after asking a helpful saleslady about what would be best for a typhoon, she redirected us to something a little sturdier.

Spoiler alert: It was not sturdy enough.

Last stop before the hotel was the Umeda Sky Building. Just a 5 minute photo stop, as the light was on its way out.

Our hotel was right next to the Shin-Osaka train station, the Courtyard by Marriott. Nice room in a good location, for our adventures the following day.

Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me that the husband was not jet-lagged. He was not eating enough! Not being an adventurous eater, we had stuck to McDonald’s (chicken nuggets taste the same everywhere, y’all) and conbini food. Which had consisted of very carb-heavy snacks, mostly.

I run on carbs. Give me a western breakfast of bacon and fruit, PLUS a bowl (or two?) of butter-sugar rice and I am good to go until I get some lunch onigiri (ahem, more rice) and gummy candies, followed by dinner onigiri and chocolate.

This is Not Husband Food. From here on out, we made sure McDonald’s or Wendy’s was on the menu. And conbini purchases started including jerky. And cashews. And … fried chicken patties in a paper sleeve? Japan, man. Something for everyone.