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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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 hotels.com. 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.
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!