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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Mt. Fuji with Gate 1

Mt Fuji from our lunch-stop parking lot

One does not go to Japan and skip Mt. Fuji if one has the chance to see Mt. Fuji! And so we booked the optional day tour with Gate 1, and got on the bus early in the morning.

So we went to Mt. Fuji! Fun fact: In October, there is no snow on the mountain. In all the photos I recall seeing, it is a snow-capped beauty! But: not in October. Because, ya know, it’s right after summer? When all the snow has melted? As happens in the summer.

The bus took us as far up the mountain as it could, to station 5. There are 10 stations, but vehicles only go up to the 5th: you take the rest of the path on foot. But only during July and August.

The view from the 5th station? Seriously underwhelming.

If you want to see Mt. Fuji, but do not want to hike it, skip the Mt. Fuji stations. It’s a long drive for minimal payoff.

After driving half-way up the mountain, we headed back down again and ate lunch. I wish I could remember the name of the hotel we ate at, because it was an amazing buffet. It had stations from around the world, and it was awesome. I ate some French thing that involved cheese and poached eggs, I think? The husband loaded up on pizza and german potatoes. Then of course I had miso soup and two bowls of steamed rice. And the dessert spread! Even tried matcha ice cream, which I had been curious about, but not enough to actually buy a whole cone. Tasted like … ice cream? Some people really, really like it though, so don’t be afraid to give it a try.

Next up was the best part of the day: Lake Ashi and Mt. Hakone. If you want beautiful views of Mt. Fuji, then Lake Ashi is the way to go. Well, Lake Ashi and hope for clear weather? Which we had, but I understand it’s pretty hit or miss.

There was some snafu that day, where some of the group was late to the bus at one point, which meant we didn’t get to the lake cruise on time, which meant we missed our original cable car time slot, which meant we didn’t get as much time at the top of the mountain as we would have liked. That’s the downside of guided tours, you can be at the mercy of the other tourists.

But it was gorgeous!! A quick ride on the lake took us to the cable car station (with a zoo?? I think we passed signs for a zoo?), where we rode up to the top of the mountain. It was incredibly windy, but breathtakingly beautiful. There was a small shrine at the very top, but we didn’t hike up to it because we didn’t have time. We needed to get back in line for the next cable car back down the mountain to get to the bus in time.

Oh, and here are some gems from the gift shop while we were waiting for our cruise:

Then it was back on the bus for the drive back to our hotel. I had started a hat at the commencement of our trip, and finished it on the bus:

Hats. It’s what I do. Love how this one matches my glasses and perfectly contrasts the purple hair!

Then it was back to the hotel, dinner from Lawson, and the husband promptly crashed again. I thought it odd that jet lag was hitting him so hard this many days later, I’m usually the jetlaggy one. But, eh, I supposed it was his turn.

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Tokyo with Gate 1

Zojoji Temple and Tokyo Tower!

Short on time? Guided tours are a great way to see as much as humanly possible, as quickly as humanly possible, and Gate 1 Travel is a pro at it. I can’t compare them to other tour companies, as they are the only ones we have ever used. One thing I LOVE is that all of their tour guides are local. Seeing Italy? Your Roman tour guide will be accommodating but slightly aloof. England? A tweed jacket every day, seat assignments on the bus, meal stops are quick and comprised of recommendations for pre-made sandwiches. Scotland? Northface jacket and hiking boots, a lot of trust that since the tour group is comprised of adults, people can take care of themselves. Ireland? So much cynicism and distrust of the government.

And in Japan: our Japanese tour guide was very possibly the politest person we have ever met. But also, passive-aggressive and a little rude if you actually knew what she meant. It was hilariously awesome.

But I digress! Our first day with the tour group was a full day of seeing all the things in Tokyo. ALL THE THINGS.

First stop was right next door to the hotel, Zojoji temple. One of the beautiful things on the grounds were the Jizo statues: each statue represents a child who has died. These statues are often adorned with red hats and bibs, and they are protectors of the children who have passed.

Next stop was the imperial palace! Which you can’t get close to at all … so it makes for an odd choice for a tourist stop. Beautiful park and grounds, though. Complete with an ice cream shop! Very reminiscent of the DC mall, now that I think about it. (But no eating while walking in Japan! Also, no ice cream on the bus.)

Then it was back to the bus to head to Asakusa, with the Sensoji temple and Nakamise street. This stop was way worth it! So much so, we made sure the in-laws checked it out later in our trip. The temple was beautiful, and there was a lot of great tourist-shopping on Nakamise street. We only had an hour, so we went with a Conbini lunch.

Next stop, Meiji Shrine!! This one is a serious shrine, massive and beautiful grounds. It was a little bit of a walk from the parking lot to the actual shrine. This one is also well worth it, and a great example of a Shinto shrine (vs. the Buddhist temples we had seen previously.)

In Japan, people follow Buddhist AND Shinto traditions. Our tour guide, Katy, explained that the traditions are so blended, in fact, that the average Japanese person often doesn’t know where one begins and the other ends. She only really learned about the differences in her tour guide training. But quick summary: you get married in a Shinto shrine. Funerals are at Buddhist temples.

Our last stop of the day’s touring took us to another one of Japan’s sacred traditions: shopping! In stark contrast to Nakamise street, Ginza district is very up-scale shopping. We ducked into the Nissan concept store, and also the Sony concept store. Where we saw a $3000 robot dog. A seriously awesome $3000 robot dog. And people were coming in, with their $3000 robot dogs, for $3000 robot dog play dates. Japan, man. Something for everyone.

For dinner, we stopped at a very. fancy. Lawson. And bought pretty much the same stuff we had been buying. Plus, an Olympics 2020 pin! Which … I guess now isn’t going to be a thing … does that make it worth more?

And then it was back to the hotel! Where the husband promptly crashed from exhaustion. Into his twin bed. At 7 pm.

Oh. you. guys. Our twin beds! So our first room at the hotel, I booked through It had a queen or king-sized bed, appropriate for two people. But while we were out and about in Akihabara, they moved our bags to our new room. With two twin beds. Because in Japan: it is more normal for traveling couples to have separate beds. So most hotels are set up that way! We had requested a double bed for all of our accommodations on our tour, but … they are only able to do that when there are rooms available. Which there were not at the Prince Tokyo Hotel.

And so … twin beds. (We had this happen to us before on a guided tour on our 10th anniversary and … it was the best sleep we got that trip. So … separate beds? Not the worst thing …)

So I probably wandered around the hotel, stocked up on snacks at Lawson, and played emoji blitz till I was ready to call it a day.

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40th Birthdays and 15th Anniversaries

On top of the world! Or at least Mt. Hakone

40th birthdays are kind of a big deal. Add in a 15th anniversary, and 2019 needed to be celebrated in a big way.

The husband turned 40 in February. Not time to celebrate.

And then April marked our 15th anniversary. Time to celebrate a book launch!! But … not yet time to celebrate the anniversary.

And then October came, my 40th birthday, and we hopped on a plane to Tokyo.

Now THAT’S how ya celebrate.

Before the trip, we did a little research, booked our plane tickets, booked a guided tour for part of the trip, and then did more research. Booked some hotels, more flights. Invited the in-laws who were living in that half of the world at the time. Did some more research, and filled in my infamous travel google sheet.

(Seriously, I make a google spreadsheet for all of our trips. They are pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.)

Now, we’ve done a fair bit of traveling, had some great trips, but this was our best one yet. I’m writing all this down 8 months late, so I won’t remember everything, but I’m sure gonna try.

We booked a guided tour for the first part of our trip, but arranged to arrive a day early in Tokyo, something we did with our last guided tour and I highly recommend. Gives you an extra day to deal with jetlag, and do a little sight-seeing before the rest of the adventurers arrive.

Our guided tour was with Gate 1 Travel, which I also highly recommend, especially for first-time world travelers. It’s a really good bang for your buck, and you don’t have to worry about a thing after you make it to the airport. Seriously, you don’t even know how much decision fatigue you suffer from until you take a guided tour.

And then after the guided tour, we met up with the in-laws in Okinawa for a few days, then back to Tokyo for a few days.

Tokyo, man. You could spend a lifetime there and not see it all. (We’ve been researching ‘how to move to Japan’ as an American … turns out there’s lots of hoops to jump through … so, uh, I guess we’ll have to just keep playing tourist!)

So that’s just the overview!! Don’t worry, there’s 20 more posts to go!