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.

Kyoto with Gate 1: Day One

Beautiful blue skies after Hagibis

The day dawned bright and clear! It was a shame we couldn’t stick around Osaka for another day, but, alas, we had to get on the bus and head to Kyoto.

First up: another temple! The Kiyomizu temple, to be exact. Gorgeous temple with amazing grounds. And the water: there is a waterfall with three streams of water. Legend says you can pick one to drink from: long life, success at school, or success in love. We opted out of it because it seemed unsanitary, but after we passed by we saw that all the ladles come from a UV-light bathed bin, so they had that covered!

Next up was a tea ceremony, where we all watched a tea master prepare tea … and then we all had a chance to make some ourselves! The husband made a perfectly frothy cup of tea, while the rest of us looked on, sad at the state of affairs in our own cups.

At the shop attached to the tea ceremony stop, I picked up a book on furoshiki that the husband noticed. Katy had given us a demonstration on the bus and it. was. magical. I’m all about the origami, but furoshiki is a whole ‘nother level. It involves fabric, and you use folding and knots to turn it into a bag, or a bottle carrier, or a neat little book parcel, or gift wrap.

Lunch time took us to a street of shopping! Where I picked up some gorgeous furoshiki … scarves? Fabrics? And also a conbini lunch, where the guy behind the counter microwaved it for me! Seaweed-wrapped rice balls, half a medium-boiled egg, katsu, there was more in there that I can’t remember. It was all delicious, is what do I remember.

Next up, the Kitano Shrine, which was full of cows (bulls?) in red bibs. And that’s about all I can remember of that one …

And then the Golden Pavilion! That one is impossible to forget. It is intensely gold. We passed by some pot that it’s good luck if you can get a coin into. Which, the husband totally did! Guess I’ll keep him around.

And then the last stop of the night. The worstest, unnecessariest, stop of our trip. Geisha-hunting at Gion corner. It had been a long day: we started the morning in Osaka, rode the bus to Kyoto, saw two temples and a shrine, learned to make tea, and had a quick shopping stop. It was dinner time, we were all tired, and here we were, stopping to hope we’d get a glimpse at some geisha.

We did not see any geisha.

We *might* have seen some on a bus that passed by, but they may also have been tourists playing dress-up for the day.

So that was a bust, and we headed to our hotel. Which was not terribly close to a train station, but did have a shuttle that would have taken us to one, had we desired. (Like for dinner: train stations = restaurants.)

But we were tired, so we picked up some conbini food and called it a night. Note: I made sure to get jerky and cashews … actual protein sources … for the husband.

There was surprise chocolate in the bread!

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.

Getting to Japan

October the 6th dawned bright and early, after we got on our first leg of the flight to Houston. Very quick hop.

At the Houston airport, we got some yen at a terrible exchange rate. Got breakfast … I seem to recall the first one didn’t work out … we may have eaten two breakfasts? Just pulled up the google maps of the IAH international terminal: Custom Burgers took a really long time and gave us random breakfast sandwiches we didn’t order. So then we headed to Pappasito’s Cantina for breakfast tacos … which I think we quite enjoyed. Google rates Custom Burgers at 1.9 stars vs. Pappasito’s at 4 stars. Checks out.

At any rate, back to the trip: we had premium economy seats! Premium economy on United, so, eh, but the husband wasn’t completely sardined in. The seats were arranged in a 3/3/3 configuration, so we picked D and E in the middle: an aisle and a middle seat. With no one to climb over us, because seat F is also an aisle. (These are important things to consider when on a 12 hour flight.)

Plane food was mediocre. (Seriously, United: other airlines give their premium economy guests the business class food. Just saying.) We arrived in one piece! Yay!

Made it through the checkpoints in our bleary eyed state, found our luggage, then on to find our driver.

Ok, so weird thing about Japan: you don’t book tickets for things on the internet. Like, there’s no e-commerce. Most technologically advanced country in the world, and there’s no e-commerce.

So to get transportation from the airport to our hotel, first I looked at the Airport Limousine Bus, as it came highly recommended by the dad. Their website is … well, not super helpful. They do list some hotels on their site, but apparently not all of them. I asked b2 to take a look at the Japanese version of the site and he confirmed, he did not see my hotel on the list. (Which they TOTALLY cover, I saw their bus at our hotel later. So *shakes fist*.)

Ok, so that was a bust. I then tried to google private car transport in Tokyo and … didn’t really find what I was looking for. I happened upon a message on Trip Advisor recommending this place. Where you enter your ‘massage’ in their contact form.

So … I filled in the form. Expecting a quote? I guess? Got an email back with a confirmation. Also a quote. But a confirmation? And … I never gave them any money. But they promised a driver who would be holding up a sign with my name on it.

I decided to roll with it. Worst-case scenario, there’d be no one there and we’d just get a taxi once we got there. No biggie.

The day before we left, I got another email with our driver’s name. Seemed like it might actually work!

Sure enough, once we were headed out of the airport with our bags, we indeed passed “a low fence where people are waiting. Our drivers & guides wait there also, with the passenger’s name on a board.” Ms. Kisugi was there, in her white gloves and sensible pumps, with my name on a board. And so we followed her to a car.

I had a brief panic that this was some kind of scam, that she’d charge us twice as much once we arrived.

But, nope, we arrived at the hotel, paid her with a credit card, and it was even a few yen cheaper than we were quoted.

So, yes: in Japan, you totally book things via email, and then pay for it later.

Checking in at the Tokyo Prince Hotel was a bit of an adventure. In Japan, people are very polite. But also: there is no customization. No “the customer is always right” philosophy. Our guided tour started at that hotel, and I tried to add on an early arrival through Gate 1, something they usually do. But … not so for this trip. So, eh, I booked my own room through hotels.com, and figured when I checked in, I’d get them to put us in the same room that we’d be in for the guided tour portion.

Not so. They would have none of that. But they did offer to transfer our bags to our new room for us while we were out and about sight-seeing. And so we took that option.

And then, they took us to our room with our bags! Which was a highly confusing affair.

First confusion: Our room had a main door, then a little vestibule? with a door to the bathroom and also a door to the bedroom. I know shoes inside in Asia is a huge no-no, and so I thought perhaps this was where the shoes needed to be removed? But also, the vestibule was tiny, not meant for two Americans and a Japanese lady, so as I paused to ask if I needed to take my shoes off, I really slowed down our progress. Some back and forth later: no, no I did not need to remove my shoes. So I continued into the room, she brought our bags in and explained the tv remote (there’s a language button! To switch all the shows into English? It’s magical!)

Second confusion: the tipping. I tried to tip. She was … embarrassed? Refused the tip. So I apologized, kept the money, she left, and we had the evening to ourselves!

Dinner was from Lawson’s in the basement. Yes, a convenience store. But don’t knock it till you try it! Conbini’s are all the rage, and their food is actually really good. Seriously. You are gonna hear a lot about conbinis.

Surely I forced the husband to stay up till 7 or 8 pm? That’s the typical travel-fight we have: I can sleep on the plane, he never can, we make it to the hotel and I force him to stay up till bed time. He’s always glad the next day, but man, that first night is pretty rough for us, not gonna lie.