Ok, so what did we pack for 16 days in Japan? The 16 days were spread across Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Okinawa in October. The first 3 cities: average 56-73 degrees during the month of October. Okinawa? The stats say 72-81 during October but … it’s a HOT 81 degrees. High humidity and unrelenting sun make it unbearably warm during the day, if you are out and about trying to see as much as you possibly can. Which is kind of our thing.
So we had to pack for pleasant tourist weather and also a few days of seriously hot and humid weather.
First up: the husband packed every single item of clothing he owns into a bag.
But for me, I spent a long time putting together the perfect trip wardrobe. This list is based off of memory, photographs, and my packing list. I wish I had taken pictures of myself every day, but, alas, I didn’t. So this is close-ish:
Bottoms: 2 pairs of jeans 1 pair of Eddie Bauer travel pants 1 skirt/swimsuit coverup
Shoes: Flip-flops (Clarks: so super comfy) Casual ballet flats + Gekks inside (Clarks again: super comfy) Ankle boots (Earth: again, super comfy, great support)
Outer: Hat Eddie Bauer windbreaker Multi-way cardigan (Love, love, love this thing) Travel scarf/dress (Have not yet gone on a trip where I’ve made serious use of it; but I love the multi-use idea of it – I do LOVE this for wearing on the plane, it makes a great wearable blanket, that you can quickly turn into an infinity scarf or cardigan)
Other: Bathing Suit Yoga pants (for lounging around the hotels) Jewelry Purse (Love, love, love this bag! I love Baggallini bags for their practicality, but this one might be my favorite. This isn’t my favorite color, but I like it well enough: I jump on their site every couple of months to see if they’ve added something more my speed. But still: 8 months later, this is STILL the bag I am using.)
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.
Our last day in Tokyo, we rode the Airport Limousine Bus to the Narita airport. It picked us up right in front of our hotel, made a couple of stops to pick up other passengers, and then we were on our way.
At the airport, we spent the last of our cash in gift shops and vending machines. The husband had been considering trying Coolish and he finally took the plunge. And then he was so sad he missed out on 16 days of coolish fun: It’s soft-serve ice cream in a toddler applesauce pouch. So … the presentation leaves a little to be desired, but I understand the actual product is quite delightful.
I loaded up the snacks I wanted easy access to on the plane in my furoshiki, all flipped and folded and knotted up as a bag. And I wore my new shirt!! (First time I washed the shirt … it shrank. A LOT. Turned into a belly shirt. I guess Japanese ladies aren’t generally as tall as I am … so they don’t need shirts as long as I need them? It’s a shame, though, I really loved the color.)
And then we got on a plane and made it home, and were so sad to not be in Japan anymore. But … super happy be back in our not futon-mattress bed. The end!
Our last full day in Tokyo started off with our standard Shinjuku breakfast: cornflakes for me (these guys are frosted, a very nice surprise for the lady who eats butter-sugar-rice), and a protein bar and coke for the husband. I opted out of the breakfast buffet when I booked this last hotel because it was like an extra $20 per person. And, well, I can eat quite well out of a conbini, thank you very much, for less than $20. Maybe not bacon and butter-sugar-rice well, but, ya know, well enough.
On our way out for the day, we bought our Airport Limousine Bus tickets in the lobby of our hotel for the next day. We opted for the bus this time around because our departing flights were out of Narita, which is much further away than Haneda, and a taxi would have been … very expensive. It was incredibly convenient, and they helped us by making sure we picked a bus that would get us to the airport in plenty of time for our flights. With a paper time table. Most technologically advanced country in the world ($3000 robot dogs, man) and they used a paper time table.
This last day was wandering around Shibuya to catch the famous Shibuya crossing (the in-laws saw it in its true madness on Saturday night: in the middle of a Monday, it’s less manic) and to check out some malls. We also wandered around the Shinjuku train station malls, which there seem to be no end of.
Once we were sure we were done with the trains for the day (it was a sad moment, to be sure), we traded in our Suica cards to get our remaining money back. We played around with one of the automated machines for awhile, but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. As we were struggling, a local stopped and asked us if we needed some help, and walked us to the customer service line. As it turns out, you cannot return your Suica cards to the machines. At customer service, we traded our cards in and got our $15 back or whatever. Not a ton of money, so it wouldn’t have been the worst thing if we hadn’t been able to figure out how to cash them out, but, still, it was nice to get back.
As we were packing up that night, I realized I had no clean shirt to wear the next day. I had lost a shirt to a toiletries mishap on the flight over, and had just figured I’d pick up a t-shirt in my shopping adventures, but I never quite did. “So just wear a dirty one?” I hear you think to yourself. But: one does not simply wear a dirty shirt on a 12 hour flight. That is too much, even for me.
So I did some googling, and found a department store at the more affordable range of the spectrum: Uniqlo. So off we went, across the street from our hotel to … Times Square? Where we ran into a Shake Shack! If we had known that was there, then maybe we wouldn’t have eaten so much Wendy’s First Kitchen! Next time. We’ll know for next time.
So we found the mall, and rode the escalator up and up and up and up till we found Uniqlo. (Seriously, it was on the 12th floor. At like floor 8 I made us get off the escalator and pick up a paper mall-map from a stand, I was beginning to think we were in the wrong building.)
And then we found it! So crazy thing about this store: there are no cashiers. There are rfid tags on all the items. When you check out, you just put all your stuff in a bag, then a machine tells you what you owe, and you pay it. It was magic! A far-cry from the paper time table of busses we saw that morning.
I picked up a beautiful blue t-shirt, we paid for it without talking to or interacting with a soul, and then we were on our way back to packing for the trip home.
The fitbit tells me this was our day of the mostest steps: we passed the 20,000 mark. It was our last day, and we wanted to make the most of it! Besides, we had a 12 hour flight coming up, we could recover on the plane.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
The thing on my Okinawa must-see list was the WWII Peace Memorial Museum. WWII, very specifically in Okinawa, is central to my very existence, and so I wanted to pay proper respects.
I was not prepared.
In the US, we learn about WWII from the European perspective. The Asian front is just a footnote.
Growing up, I had learned that my Okinawan grandmother was raised by an older step-brother in a cave. I had assumed that they were just really poor, and that it was happenstance that they were orphaned.
In the time leading up to WWII, and during the war, every Okinawan lived in a cave. All of them. Before the war, the Japanese military ruthlessly stripped all the resources from their Okinawan territory in order to support their own expansion efforts into Korea and China. There was no food. There was no peace. There was no safety.
If you were an Okinawan in that time period, you sought refuge in the caves.
And then WWII arrived. Japanese soldiers learned that if they also sought refuge in the caves, the Allied forces were less likely to attack if they knew there were civilians there.
If the Japanese soldiers felt that there was no way they could win, they committed ritual suicide. After first ensuring that all of the Okinawans first committed ritual suicide. Women. Children.
So this was my grandmother’s reality: she grew up in a cave. And she survived.
I had always been amazed that my grandmother would marry an American soldier and move across the world, not knowing English. But now, I get it. If you’ve lived through hell on earth? That’s not scary. Not even a tiny bit.
It was a heavy morning, for sure. Incredibly hot (sensing a theme, here?) so we didn’t see all the various memorials on the grounds. We did walk through the walls of names (like the Vietnam memorial, but so. many. more. names). There’s a computer, to look up names to find on the walls. I wanted to see if there were Tokumotos represented, but … you have to pick a language to search for names in, and once you pick English, you can only search for English names. Aaaand I don’t read Japanese. So that was a bust.
I would highly, highly recommend a stop at the WWII Peace Memorial sites. It is a sobering experience: it showcases the horrors that humans are able to inflict on each other. But it’s also a reminder that we can come back from that. We can heal. And, hopefully, we can learn from our past so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it.
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.
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.
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!
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.