Lost in Japan - September 24, 2018 to October 8, 2018 - Part 2

Part 2 is a continuation of our story as we left Osaka before Typhoon Trami made landfall in Japan. If you’d like to know what our trip was like before we made it to Kyoto, please read Part 1 in my blog posts.

Day 7 - September 30, 2018 - Osaka to Kyoto, Japan - CONTINUED

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As I mentioned in Part 1 of Lost in Japan blog post, our hotel advised we stay put in Osaka and not travel to Kyoto due to the approaching Typhoon Trami. However, we made a collective decision to pack quickly and give it our best try to make the 30 minute JR train to Kyoto before all transportation was stopped in anticipation of the typhoon.

We drove via taxi on deserted streets to the Osaka train station. And, we made it onto one of the last trains before the train station was closed. Upon arrival in Kyoto, we took a 10 minute taxi ride to our hotel, the Kyoto Ryokan Shoei, a traditional 8-mat tatami Ryoken. The lobby was full of baggage and people. Our hotel in Kyoto was in the same situation as we had in Osaka. People were waiting the arrival of the approaching typhoon and unsure if they should venture to their next destination. Thus leaving us without a room to check into. The very pleasant staff said it would probably be several hours before our room was ready since we arrived around 10:00am. We made the decision to walk around the neighborhood and find a place to eat. This would prove harder than we anticipated. Thank goodness for Family Marts!

Lunch at Family Mart during Typhoon Trami.

Lunch at Family Mart during Typhoon Trami.

Family Marts are like 7-11 here in the States, but way better. They have really fresh food, snacks, drinks, travel necessities, clean bathrooms and a counter to eat your lunch at. Since everything was closed, we had no other option than to eat our lunch and grab more supplies from the Family Mart. The selection was good and affordable. I purchased a selection of fresh finger sandwiches (egg, tuna and meat & cheese), potato chips (like Pringles), a rice and bean snack and chocolate. The selection of drinks was also really interesting. Zachary really liked a milk soda and I enjoyed the sparkling water with lemon and also a Sprite-like carbonated drink. Grammy found herself enjoying the coffee cold brews. All of which could be found in vending machines throughout Japan.

After lunch we slowly wandered back in the direction of our hotel. And, tried to view a shrine or two, but they were all closed. Since it was pretty quiet on the streets, we thought it would be a good idea to head back to the hotel and check the status of our room. The staff said it would probably be another hour or two. We charged our phones then off we went again to venture to a local park nearby to get some air and kill time before we could check in.

It was hot and muggy but it was better than sitting inside the packed hotel lobby just waiting. We walked about 15 or 20 minutes toward a park near our hotel, and just enjoyed being outside. There were families enjoying the park and no one seemed particularly concerned, so we did as the locals did.

After a couple of hours of wandering around we headed back toward our hotel. Along the way, Zachary found a barber and decided to get his hair cut. We left Zach to his haircut and Grammy and I walked back to the hotel. On our way back we saw “preparation” for the typhoon that was going to come inland later that same day on several homes. Nothing too extensive from what we could tell. When Zach came back to the hotel, he said his haircut and service was the best he ever had. It consisted of warm towels, attention to detail and a huge language barrier. But, he said the experience and price was worth it.

Once we arrived back at the hotel we were finally able to enter our room. It was our first opportunity to stay in a ryokan with a traditional 8-mat tatami room with three futon beds on the floor. Our ryokan also had an onsen. We were brought to our room by one of the staff and so happy to finally be in our room. Grammy and I were hungry and wanted to try the onsen. Zach decided to rest in the room while we gave the onsen a shot. We then had dinner at our ryokan’s restaurant. The English was very limited, but we got by and enjoyed a nice dinner and relaxing evening soaking in the indoor and outdoor natural hot springs as it finally began to rain.

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Onsen etiquette for the inexperienced:

An onsen is a shallow pool with a natural hot water spring and due to a lot of volcanic activity in Japan, you’ll be able to find them around the country. There are various types both indoor and/or outdoor, attached to hotels or ryokans. And, some are independent of hotel or ryokans. As a foreigner, I was excited to experience a natural hot spring, in theory. And, we were all for it before we traveled to Japan and made sure we were going to stay in a few on our trip. After a long day of sightseeing, what would be better than a hot water bath to soak in? Doing it completely naked in front of strangers or with my mother was another thing to consider. As long as you follow a few basic rules, keep your eyes to yourself, you’ll be fine. Onsens have been used for centuries socially by families, friends and businessmen alike.

First, only enter the side of your gender. Be aware, establishments will usually switch it up every other day to give patrons an opportunity to have another experience. Once inside, you’ll enter into a locker room with baskets or lockers. Undress, put your clothes into the basket or locker, take your key, if applicable, grab a washrag for modesty and head into the shower room. Don’t worry about your belongings, Japan is safe and honest. But, do not bring anything of value, just incase as there are foreigners there as well. Sit on one of the stools in front of a shower stall and wash your entire body while sitting, including your hair. There are products there to be used, use them and not your own, as they are environmentally friendly. Once you wash all the suds away and clean all your bits you can now enter the hot spring pools.

The washrag you grabbed earlier, should never touch the water of the pool, it will cross contaminate it. Place it on the side of the pool or fold it and put it on top of your head like the locals do. Most onsens have several pools of varying temperatures, so enter gently and only stay as long as you can handle. On average, we stayed about 5 minutes per pool and then cooled off. Some even have an ice bath and sauna. Once you are done, head back to the locker room to towel off. The natural hot springs have minerals, etc in the water and typically people do not wash off after using the onsen. There are lotions, blow dyers, etc to make yourself beautiful, if you so desire. The best part is just getting dressed and going back to your room to relax and sleep.

One note about tattoos and onsens: I have one and it’s not easily covered up. Know that if you have a tattoo you can be turned away from an onsen. Traditionally they are looked down upon in Japan and associated with gangs and anti-social people. Since I was a guest in another country I wanted to respect their traditions and I covered my tattoo up with natural skin tone colored KT tape, which stayed in place in the water. I did receive a few looks, but thankfully I was not asked to leave. Just know Japan is deeply traditional and values respect so you be the best judge in your own situation while you are a guest in Japan.

Day 8 - October 1, 2018 - Kyoto, Japan

Overnight we heard the wind and rain, but nothing too crazy. By morning Typhoon Trami had blown out and we went back to our itinerary. After tea and a bean paste pastry at our ryokan we walked to Nijo-jo Castle & Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The castle was built in 1603 in the middle of Kyoto. The grounds were huge and we spent a few hours viewing the buildings and taking in the views.

After we had our fill at Nijo-jo Castle and Gardens, we worked our way over to the Nishiki Market via city bus. Nishiki Market is a marketplace in downtown Kyoto, near the train station. It’s rich with history, tradition and the market is known to obtain many of Kyoto’s famous foods and goods. We sampled food, bought gifts and just took in the many sights and sounds of the market.

Dressed in our traditional kimonos and samurai outfits and ready for our traditional tea ceremony with Maikoya Kyoto in Fushimi Inari.

Dressed in our traditional kimonos and samurai outfits and ready for our traditional tea ceremony with Maikoya Kyoto in Fushimi Inari.

We had originally booked a Traditional Tea Ceremony with Maikoya Kyoto in Fushimi Inari on Saturday. However, we had to reschedule it for the next day due to the storm. We took the subway to the Fushimi Inari neighborhood. And, after getting lost we finally made it to the location. We were taken to a dress shop where we were able to pick out kimonos and samurai outfits. We even had our hair done. Poor Zach had to wait for us to be dressed, in several layers of clothes, by the shop helper. Once we were finally ready, we walked about five minutes, slowly, to our appointment.

We were met by our host, Chikage, who was a wonderful host and teacher. She taught us the meaning and purpose of a tea ceremony. We were able to watch her as she explained the process. Then we were invited to join in and participate ourselves. After the ceremony we took lots of photos. It was a really great experience.

After the tea ceremony we could have walked around the town and up to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in our traditional outfits. However, we thought we’d be more comfortable in our own clothes climbing the shrine since the outfits were a little restrictive. So we went back to the dress shop and changed back into our own clothes. It was truly amazing how many layers we had on. Again, it was a really great experience.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Since we were so close to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, we decided to venture up some of the path to view upwards of tens of thousands of torii gates.

Torii gates are commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the mundane everyday life to the sacred.

The Fushimi Inari Shrine is about a three mile hike up into the mountains as you cross under the torii gates. We did not climb all the way to the top, but we did walk about a mile in.

Since the shrine is very popular, you have to wait until the path is clear for a photo without someone in it. But, the wait is totally worth it.

We stopped for a snack of street food before heading back on the subway to our hotel.

After a long day of sightseeing, we had dinner back at our ryokan’s restaurant. Then enjoyed another evening relaxing in the onsen.

Day 9 - October 2, 2018 - Nara, Japan

Collectively we decided to take a day trip from Kyoto to Nara. Nara is a short 50 minute ride on the high speed JR Miyokoji Kaisoku Express train. The cost is included in the JR Pass. We considered visiting Arashiyama where there is a bamboo forest and lots of monkeys, but opted for Nara instead. We didn’t feel we could do both locations in one day as they are located in opposite directions from Kyoto and wanted to give Nara a good visit without cutting it short. We’ll have to visit Arashiyama on another visit in the future.

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710-794 AD in the 8th Century and is located in south-central Honshu. It is known for free-roaming deer, one of the largest wooden structures which houses a bronze budda and a shrine dating back to 768 AD.

Upon arrival at the JR Nara train station, we took a short taxi ride to Nara Park. As we were driving into the park we could see deer in the street, on sidewalks and just roaming around. We were let out of our taxi and were amazed at all the deer just hanging out everywhere. You can buy special biscuits, called shika senbei, for a few Yen and then almost immediately you’re swarmed by the deer. Most of the deer were pretty tame and bow three times before you feed them. Yes, even the deer are polite in Japan!

We walked further into the park toward the World UNESCO Heritage site, Todai-ji Temple. Todai-ji Temple was the largest wooden building in the world until 1998. Inside it houses one of the largest Budda’s in Japan. We paid five Yen to have a local guide explain the significance of the grounds, the temple and overall history. As we approached the shrine with our guide, we had it explained to us what the fountain outside the shrine was for and rules for visiting a shrine.

Zach and Grammy being taught how to visit a shrine and use of the purification fountain by our guide outside Todai-ji Temple.

Zach and Grammy being taught how to visit a shrine and use of the purification fountain by our guide outside Todai-ji Temple.

How to visit a shrine from the website www.japan-guide.com:

Behave calmly and respectfully. Traditionally, you are not supposed to visit a shrine if you are sick, have an open wound or are mourning because these are considered causes of impurity.

At the purification fountain near the shrine's entrance, take one of the ladles provided, fill it with fresh water and rinse both hands. Then transfer some water into your cupped hand, rinse your mouth and spit the water beside the fountain. You are not supposed to transfer the water directly from the ladle into your mouth or swallow the water. Do not return any water from the ladle into the fountain, but dispose of it next of the mountain. You will notice that quite a few visitors skip the mouth rinsing part or the purification ritual altogether.

At the offering hall, throw a coin into the offering box, bow deeply twice, clap your hands twice, bow deeply once more and pray for a few seconds. If there is some type of bell or gong, use it before praying in order to get the kami’s attention. Photography is usually permitted at shrines, except inside the buildings. Watch for signs.

After we listened to our guide, we entered the shrine on our own to view inside. Looking up at the large bronze budda, it’s hard to get the scale of how large it actually is. For scale, the open hand of the Big Buddha, or Daibutsu, is as tall as a average-sized human being. We took our time wandering around and taking in just how old the wooden structure and budda were. It was pretty awe-inspiring.

Inside the shrine toward the back, there is a pillar with a hole in it. People were lined up waiting to go through the small well-worn hole in this massive pillar. Kids of course had no problem going through the small hole. But, there were also adults waiting to go through as well, which was questionable. We waited and watched a few folks go through. My nephew, Zach, is a tall 6’1, but svelte. After standing there a few minutes with adults and children alike egging each other on, Zach decided he’d give it a try. He squatted down and looked at the size of the hole. He laughed nervously and then quickly figured out the best way to attack it. He dove head first and shimmied his way through. I quickly moved to the other side of the pillar to capture him coming out the other end. People clapped and were excited for him. We later learned the well-worn hole is supposed to be the size of one nostril of the large budda statue. And, those who pass through are supposed to achieve enlightenment. Here’s to your enlightenment, Zach!

After lunch near the shrine, we walked about 10 minutes further into the park to Kasuga Taishi Shrine of 10,000 lanterns, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site. It was deeper into the woods and less crowded, except for all the roaming deer. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid August. And, I bet it’s a sight to see when they are all lit up. This location was magical.

After we enjoyed the peaceful surroundings of the shrine, we walked about 30 minutes through the neighborhood alongside Nara Park to the bus stop. Then took a city bus about 15 minutes to the JR Nara Station for our 50 minute ride back to Kyoto.

When we arrived back in Kyoto, we took a taxi to Gion, Kyoto’s Geisha District. We wanted to arrive around dusk so we could attempt to see geisha or maiko (apprentice) hurrying off to an evening engagement, but we were out of luck.

Instead we visited Yasaka Shrine, wandered around the Higashiyama District and enjoyed a nice dinner in Gion.

Geisha misconception:

Geisha, or geiko and maiko, are professional entertainers who accompany guests during meals, banquets and other occasions. They are trained in various traditional Japanese arts, like dance, music and art of communication. Their role is to make guests feel at ease with conversation, drinking games and dance performances. They are not prostitutes.

Watching the MLB Post-Season on our phones during our train ride. Let’s go A’s!

Watching the MLB Post-Season on our phones during our train ride. Let’s go A’s!

Day 10 - October 3, 2018 - Kyoto to Kanazawa, Japan

We could have stayed in Kyoto for another day or two, but we checked out of our ryokan and proceeded to take the JR Thunderbird Express train from Kyoto to Kanazawa as planned. During our two hour train ride, we watched the MLB Post-Season on our phones. Our home team, the Oakland A’s were playing and we were rooting them on any chance we could. 

Kanazawa was the 2nd largest city, behind Kyoto. And, during WWII it somehow escaped bombing raids by the U.S., therefore preserving many of it’s districts in original form. Kanazawa is known for having the best sushi, well preserved Samurai & Geisha districts, Kenrokeun Gardens and anything gold leaf, a speciality of the city.

Upon arrival in Kanazawa we took a taxi to our hotel, the Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel Sanraku, which is located in the Higashi Chaya-gai area and near Kenrokuen Garden. Our hotel was very nice and classy, which was also a good value. It is styled in vintage Taisho era style. The service was exceptional and they also had an onsen, which was different than at our last hotel. It was smaller, but still very nice. They had a very good all-you-can eat buffet style breakfast is a blend of local dishes and Western style breakfast foods. Plus they offered a restaurant onsite, Mahoroba, serves the local Kaga style cuisine. Kaga-ryori is an original cuisine which utilizes seafood, vegetables, and ingredients from the local Kanazawa area and served in multiple courses in beautiful dishes. If you want to eat at the hotel restaurant, I’d highly recommend making a reservation and be prepared to pay on average around 100 yen.

After a short rest, we walked about 10 minutes to a small sushi restaurant, Kourin-sushi. We had to wait a few minutes for the guests before us to finish and exit before we were invited inside to three seats at the bar, in front of the sushi chef. I will admit, I’m not a big sushi person, however, this meal was delicious. I’ve never had sushi melt in my mouth the way that meal did. And, it was very affordable as well. Both Grammy and I did 5 nigiri pieces each, which came with soup and hot tea. Each of our meals were only about five to ten yen! It was very good.

After lunch we walked a short distance into the park to view the Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen, Japan’s most celebrated landscaped gardens.

The Kanazawa Castle was the former seat of the powerful Maeda Clan, lords of Kaga. The Castle and the gardens of Kenrokuen are massive and beautiful. The gardens are part of the three Perfect Gardens of Japan.

Japanese BBQ at Hana-Link Midouen in Kanazawa

Japanese BBQ at Hana-Link Midouen in Kanazawa

After a little rest back at our hotel, we went out to dinner at Hana Link Midouen for more Japanese BBQ.

After dinner, we enjoyed a night cap at a bar nearby. Then Grammy and Auntie ended our evening back at our hotel in the onsen. The perfect way to end a day of sightseeing.

Day 11 - October 4, 2018 - Kanazawa, Japan

After breakfast at our hotel, we watched our Oakland A’s play in the MLB post-season American League Wild Card game in our hotel room. Unfortunately it did not go our way.

We then went out for the day and started at the Higashi Chaya District, one of the well preserved Geisha Districts. Overall, Kanazawa is well preserved due to escaping any bombings in WWII.

We saw many shops where they sold gold leaf items in knick knacks and even on top of ice cream! None of us were tempted to try it, as I’m sure it was more of a novelty then really gold. I think?

After trying to figure out the bus schedule and no buses stopping for us, we opted to walk about 20 minutes to the Oyama Jinja Shrine, which was built in 1599.

And, then walked another 15 minutes or so the Omicho Market to have a look. It was nothing like the market in Kyoto, but a nice pit stop.

Cheeseburger and fries made to perfection.

Cheeseburger and fries made to perfection.

Speaking of food, we worked up an appetite and found a hamburger place called, the Godburger, in the Naga-machi Yahiki District, the Samurai District. We were really impressed by the one chef, his helper and the 14 seat restaurant. We were asked to wait outside until there were seats for us to enter the restaurant. The wait was worth it.

Some might question us ordering a hamburger while in another country. But, sometimes eating the same food for two weeks, you need to mix it up and have something familiar. At that moment, we all wanted a hamburger. And, in Japan, every item is always prepared with the utmost precision. It was nice to have something familiar yet, prepared different than we expected.

After lunch we walked maybe five minutes to view Nomura-ka, a restored Samurai home with beautiful gardens. This former home was beautiful and peaceful. I easily could have moved in and been happy here.

From Nomura-ka we wandered in and out of shops and museums in the Naga-machi Yahiki District enjoying the quiet and less crowded hustle and bustle of the larger cities. It was a small glimpse into what life might have been like in the past here.

We enjoyed dinner near the hotel and the onsen one last time before heading to Tokyo the next morning.

Day 12 - October 5, 2018 - Kanazawa to Tokyo, Japan

The bathrooms on the train.

The bathrooms on the train.

Today we traveled via JR train Hokuriku Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Tokyo about two and a half hours. There had not been a JR high-speed train to and from Kanazawa until just a year or two before. Otherwise, it could have taken us a lot longer to get to Tokyo. This would also be our final high-speed train between cities. The trains were always clean, quiet and prompt. Traveling via high-speed trains are a great way to travel around Japan.

Upon arrival in Tokyo, we arrived in the Central Train Station. The station is huge, over whelming filled with large amounts of people, good food and shops. Our hotel was one stop past the main station and we had to walk about 10 minutes from one end of the main station to the other to transfer to our regional train that was included in our JR pass. One more note about the Central Train Station, it was one of the few buildings / structures to survive WWII and the Kanto Earthquake.

Arrival in the Central Train Station, Tokyo.

Arrival in the Central Train Station, Tokyo.

Hotel Sardonyx Tokyo

Hotel Sardonyx Tokyo

After we arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Sardonyx Tokyo, located in the Chuo-ku District, we rested a bit before going out for the night.

I remember watching Anthony Bourdain on TV and seeing his travel log about Japan. He talked about this insane experience watching a show as his jet lag set in. He was talking about the Robot Bar in the Shinjuku area. I just had to see it for myself if I was going to be in Tokyo. And, since Anthony had just passed away a few months before, I felt like it would be a tribute to him. So I convinced my nephew and mom to share in the craziness.

We bought our tickets on a website called, Klook. The discounted tickets were a little still a little pricey for the bizarre experience, but we received a better deal for using Klook. I mean, how much should one really pay for crazy costumes, loud music, robots, yes I said robots, barely dressed women and horrible acting? Of course we didn’t know to what degree how bizarre it would be, but we were willing to give it a shot.

When we arrived we checked in and were put into a holding room with lots of mirrors, pre-show drinks and snacks plus some weird robots playing Michael Jackson on guitar. Then after some time, we were led down several flights of stairs to what must have been the basement. Then placed in seats that were uncomfortably close to the stranger next to you. Thankfully, we were placed at the top row of the tiny arena and not near the floor as they said some of the robots may swing into the seats. And, then the show started.

Yes, it’s true. The whole Robot Bar experience has changed and there are a lot of Americans who want to see the show. So, it’s probably not as authentic as it once was. But, in my opinion, it’s the epitome of Tokyo with bright lights and bizarre antics. It was crazy! And, we loved it. Would we do it again? No, probably not. But, we can cross it off our weird-things-to-do-in-Tokyo list.

There are other bizarre opportunities in Tokyo to experience if the Robot Bar is not your thing. There are such things as Puppy Cafes, Owl Cafes, Maid Cafes… if you think about it, it’s probably in Tokyo. So, do your research and see what tickles your fancy.

After the end of the hour and a half show, we worked our way up to the street level. It was still raining but it was good to breath fresh air again. We were hungry and and heard about an area called, Golden Gai.

Golden Gai is mainly known for it’s nightlife. It has well over 200 bars, however, most cater to locals only. The tiny 5-8 people establishments are fun to see. But, beware, if the sign on the door says, “Locals Only”, respect the owners wishes and find another place to spend your money. It’s not that they are not friendly, they just feel tourists will go in for one drink and move on. Where the locals will sit and have several drinks which is more beneficial for the establishment.

We found a sushi restaurant for dinner and played a few games at the local arcade. The arcade had interesting contents to win, everything from stuffed animals, to food to electronics. It was harder than it looked, even though some young adults figured out how to win and they were going home with some cool prizes.

The rain started to get to us and we decided to head back to the hotel for an early start the next morning.

Sidenote: Tokyo has over 226 Michelin Star restaurants. So, it’s hard to find a bad meal. So, EAT!

Day 13 - October 6, 2018 - Tokyo, Japan

Today was amazing! We reserved Sumo wrestling practice tickets at Sumo Keiko Stable through Klook. Since we were visiting after the regular tournament season, we opted to watch the wrestlers practice at one of their stables. After an early breakfast of the typical Western and Japanese style at our hotel, we took a taxi to our reservation.

Upon arrival, we checked in outside and were handed a list of rules we must follow before entering the stable. The biggest rule was to stay seated and remain quiet for the duration of the hour long practice. I was allowed to take photos, without flash, as long as it did not disturb the wrestlers.

When the whole group arrived, we were led inside. We were seated on cushions on the floor of a raised platform over the small arena. Slowly but surely the wresters began to enter the arena and began to stretch and warm up. Eventually there were mock fights, but mainly with a younger and smaller wrestler paired with older and more experienced ones. We assumed he was in training, but honestly we had no idea what was really going on. However, we didn’t care. We felt like we were flies on the wall to something really special. At the end, we were allowed to take photos with a few of the wrestlers then led out of the stable. It was such a cool experience and we were so glad we got up early to witness it.

After sumo, we walked down the street to the Kiyosumi Gardens to view the beautifully groomed gardens and have a little rest.

Japan has these amazing gardens in the middle of cities for all to experience. The gardens are a nice break from the itinerary, with good bathrooms.

Sidenote on Tsukiji Fish Market:

We wanted to visit the famous fish market for the best fish in the world, but during our visit it was closed. And, we learned that on October 6th, 2018 it was moving to a new location and reopening on October 11th, 2018. With the new location, there were going to be new rules in place for visiting tourists. Please look up the hours and new restrictions before you attempt to go.

After a nice rest in Kiyosumi Gardens we took the subway to the middle of the city to see Tokyo Tower, the cousin tower to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Tokyo Tower was built in 1958 and the 2nd tallest structure in Tokyo. It is 1082.35 feet tall and of course we had to go up and see the view. Zach and I took the elevator up to the first level with observation tower, I was too nervous to go all the way to the top. Grammy decided to stay on solid ground at the bottom and enjoy an ice cream until we got back. Zach and I walked around and took photos of the views, thankfully it was a clear day. After, we worked out way back down through several souvenir shops before we met up with Grammy at the bottom.

It was time for lunch and we found a ramen shop nearby for a simple lunch, which was very good.

After lunch we worked our way over to visit the busiest pedestrian crossing in the Tokyo, Shibuya Crossing. We got a tip online from another traveler to view the crossing from the Starbucks or the mall near the intersection. We opted for the mall view and then decided to cross the intersection ourselves. We viewed the neighborhood and shopping around Shibuya Crossing before heading back to our hotel.

We stopped by Family Mart on our way back to our hotel to see if we could purchase baseball tickets for a game from a kiosk, but it was hard to understand. So, we decided to buy them in person the next day. This would prove to be a bad idea.

Day 14 - October 7, 2018 - Tokyo, Japan

On our last full day in Tokyo, we went shopping in Harajuku on Takeshita Dori and surrounding streets. Zach had wanted a nice pair of raw denim jeans and Grammy and I were along for the ride. I kept seeing sukajan jackets everywhere. And, after going inside high end and boutique shops we finally settled on items we wanted. We were able to get Zach his raw denim at Pure Blue Japan. And, I bought a sukajan jacket at Sukajyan Dept.

Later that night, we tried to go to a Swallows baseball game, but tickets were sold out. We should have bought tickets ahead of time as it was their last game of the season. And, with us being big baseball fans, and Japan a big baseball country, we thought it would be a fun way to end our last night in Japan. Unfortunately, we just didn’t know that the weather would cooperate or if we’d be up for it. Next time, we’ll be sure to purchase our tickets ahead of time.

A bit bummed, we took the subway back to our hotel and packed for our flight home to the U.S. the next morning.

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Day 15 - October 8 2018 - Tokyo, Japan to Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.

After a late breakfast, we checked out of our final hotel and took a taxi to the Tokyo-Haneda airport for our 3:15pm 10-hour flight back to LAX.

Japan was amazing. And, offered everything from it’s culture to cleanliness. The beauty of it’s country was hard to capture on camera, but the memories will last a life time. The organization and respect of it’s people. The quality of the food plus so much more. Japan is one of those places you hear other people talk about but, nothing compares until you experience it for yourself.

We will be back.

Until then. Thank you, Japan.

Lost in Japan - September 24, 2018 to October 8, 2018 - Part 1

If you’ve never been to Japan, book your plane ticket today. No, really. I admit I pretty much fall in love with each place I visit. But, honestly Japan took my breath away. Japan offers everything from long history and deep culture, extreme cleanliness, amazing cuisine with the utmost quality, it’s kind people, prompt schedules and some of the most beautiful landscapes a camera will have trouble capturing. It’s one of the safest places you can visit. And, if you take the time to learn some of the basics in the Japanese language and customs it will give you so much more in return.

Traditional Tea Ceremony in Fushimi Inari, Japan.

Traditional Tea Ceremony in Fushimi Inari, Japan.

Several years ago when my niece graduated college, my gift to her was a plane ticket to a destination of her choice. She chose Spain and Portugal, but that’s for another blog post. My reason for a plane ticket was I wanted her to have an experience before she began her whole life of grinding away working like the rest of us. And, ever since that travel bug bit me back in 2001, I know each time I travel to a new place and meet new people in different cultures my world continues to open up. I wanted the same for her. After my nephew graduated from college a couple of years ago I knew I had to do the same for him. He finally settled on Japan, as he is a much different traveler and human than his sister. And, since my mom is retired and my travel buddy, she tagged along for the ride. So, the three of us, Grammy, Auntie and my nephew, Zach were off to Japan.

We opted for fifteen days in total, the main reason was my nephew’s work schedule and about two weeks is a good amount of time to miss your own bed and pillow. Plus you lose a day of travel on the way there and one day on the way back, making it thirteen full days in country We were lucky enough to find decent flight prices out of Los Angeles on a round trip to Tokyo. Surprisingly, it was cheaper than flying out of the San Francisco Bay Area, where Grammy and Zach live. Our original thought was to fly into one city and out of another for optimal travel time around Japan, but the round trip ended up being best economically. Thankfully we did that as there were some pretty bad storms during our planning which affected Osaka airport and the city of Hiroshima. So we had to remove Hiroshima completely from our itinerary, which we were bummed about. Once we bought our round trip tickets six months before International departure, the detail planning began.

I am the designated family trip planner & photographer. My job is to read, research, consult my travel companions, book hotels, flights, make the itinerary, etc. They help along the way, but they pretty much let me work my process. My go to trip planning guides are Rick Steve’s books. I really like his tips, ease of information, etc. as he’s been traveling to Europe for years. However, he doesn’t have any guidebooks for Japan, so I was on my own. I tried the typical books like Eyewitness Guides and Lonely Planet plus some independent books, but nothing was really working for me. So, I went online to blogs, Pinterest, TripAdvisor and good ‘ol Google to plan the upcoming trip. Pinterest and blog posts from previous travelers really helped me where the other guidebooks were falling short. It helped us plan experiences, in addition to, the typical tourist things. Overall, we were really pleased with the outcome. Here’s what we ended up experiencing on our trip to Japan.

Day 1 - September 24, 2018 - Grammy & Zach travel to Los Angeles from Oakland, CA

Slippers provided for the long flight to Tokyo-Haneda.

Slippers provided for the long flight to Tokyo-Haneda.

They flew into Burbank from Oakland on a 5pm flight. We had an early dinner and we all went to bed relatively early in preparation for our morning flight to Tokyo.

Day 2 - September 25, 2018 - Travel Los Angeles, CA to Tokyo-Haneda Airport, Japan

We departed LAX at 9:50am and flew direct 11 hours and 55 minutes into Tokyo-Haneda Airport. Since Japan is seventeen hours ahead of California, we definitely lost a day traveling there.

Day 3 - September 26, 2018 - Arrival in Tokyo I Tokyo Disney & Disney Sea

Upon arrival and once we were through customs and immigration at the airport we took care of business. We picked up & validated our Japan Rail passes at the JR East Travel Service Counter. Please note, you have to purchase your JR Train passes before you leave your country of origin. You can not purchase your discounted JR Train passes once you are in Japan. We also picked up our mobile Wi-Fi device at another counter in a different part of the airport. Since Japan does not work with our mobile provider, we opted to rent a mobile Wi-Fi device when we purchased our JR Train passes online. They charge a small fee per day and up to 10 devices can be connected for you and your travel companions. The company also provides a pre-stamped envelope for you to put your mobile Wi-Fi into the mail before you leave Japan. The efficiency in Japan is amazing. Once we had all our tickets, devices, luggage and a bathroom break we made our way to the bus departure area and bought a bus ticket from Friendly Airport Limousine Bus company for about 9.50 yen per person for our 55 minute bus ride to our hotel.

Subway train during commute.

Subway train during commute.

One note about travel and public transportation in Japan. People will cue up and wait until all people have loaded out of the mode of transportation (trains, buses, anything) before loading. Generally the Japanese are quiet and not loud. They do not eat on public transportation and always take their garbage with them. When an older person loads onto, say the train, younger people will get up and offer them their seat out of a sign of respect. Phones are set to silent and you’ll never hear anyone speaking on their phone or being loud, even children. It’s a vast contrast to America and public transportation here.

After the hour long bus ride from Tokyo-Haneda Airport, we arrived at our first hotel, The Disney Celebration Hotel. We wanted to ease into Japanese culture and what better way to do that than to visit a Disney property half way around the world. It was a different, but yet so familiar as well.

We were pretty tired and it was raining steadily outside so we walked a few blocks to a local restaurant for a quick bite, then off to an early rest. Tomorrow we were heading into the parks, rain or shine.

A typical bidet. This one also played music with running water to cover any noises in the restroom for privacy.

A typical bidet. This one also played music with running water to cover any noises in the restroom for privacy.

A quick note about bidets: They are everywhere! Love them or leave them, I personally love them! You can find them in public parks, train stations, malls, restaurants, hotels! While most of the bidets were written in Japanese, we had to just push buttons until we figured it out. Some have seat warmers for those colder days and others play music or other pleasant sounds like chirping birds to hide any personal noises you or others might have. One more example of Japanese efficiency. Have I mentioned how much I love Japan yet?

Day 4 - September 27, 2018 - Tokyo Disney & Disney Sea

Disney Celebration Hotel offered both a traditional Japanese breakfast (mostly fish, salads, rice and fruit) in addition to, a Western breakfast (loose scrambled eggs, pastries, etc.).

Disney Celebration Hotel offered both a traditional Japanese breakfast (mostly fish, salads, rice and fruit) in addition to, a Western breakfast (loose scrambled eggs, pastries, etc.).

Unfortunately, we were all wide awake at 4:00am! So, we had an early breakfast and into the parks we’d go. We purchased our tickets through the hotel since it was a Disney property and we were able to gain early access. Grammy benefited with being a senior throughout most of our trip with discounts on many entrance fees to parks, museums, transportation, etc. The older generation is highly respected and cared for in Japan. Park Fees were 1-Park Adult 7,400 yen = $66.00 US / 1-Park Senior 6,700 yen = $60.00 US. They recommend only one park per day because there is so much to see and do, but since we only had one day to do Disney we did half the day in Disney Sea and ended our day at Tokyo Disneyland.

It was still raining pretty heavy that morning, but we didn’t let it stop us. Especially during the Tokyo Disney 35th Anniversary Celebration. We hopped on the free hotel shuttle for the 20-minute ride to Disney Sea and then entered 10 minutes early before the park opened. As we walked into Disney Sea it seemed like the entire park’s cast members were out waving to welcome us. We followed the massive crowds running toward Toy Story. And, decided to get fast passes for later. Then quickly made our way over to Tower of Terror for Zach. We heard that the lines in both parks could be upwards of 2+ hours so we took advantage of faster lines while we could.

Disney Sea is huge and has some rides that are familiar, but some areas are completely new and fun to experience for the first time. We worked our way around the park and road rides that we don’t have in California. Even in the rain the lines were about an hour long each. The people watching and cosplay is top notch. We saw groups of friends dressed at Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. A couple of friends dressed as Donald Duck among many other costumes. One other thing we noticed is how well the Japanese dress. Even in the rain most people were dressed very well from heels, suits, dresses. Not many jeans and t-shirts or tennis shoes like we’re used to in our parks.

Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom

Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom

Zachary

Zachary

Chocolate, Vanilla & Strawberry Mochi.

Chocolate, Vanilla & Strawberry Mochi.

At about 3:00pm we made our way over to Tokyo Disney as the jet leg was starting to set in. We took the monorail and entered the park. It was beautiful with the decorations for their 35th anniversary. The castle was much larger than Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in California. But, the crowds were the same.

Disneyland Tokyo Castle

Disneyland Tokyo Castle

Just like in Disney Sea, Tokyo Disneyland had some familiar rides but with a twist. We enjoyed ourselves just walking and enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and people watching.

We ate dinner in the park, rode a few rides and did a little shopping too. We finished just in time for the evening’s fireworks show. After the fireworks, we headed back to our hotel for a well deserved full night’s sleep.

Day 5 - September 28, 2018 - Travel to Osaka, Japan

Today we traveled from Tokyo Disney to Osaka, Japan for about two hours on our first high speed Shinkansen JR train. Upon arrival in Osaka, we walked about 10 minutes to our hotel. Passing lots of shopping, restaurants and our first real city life.

Japan Rail Pass.

Japan Rail Pass.

Inside the high speed Shinkansen JR train.

Inside the high speed Shinkansen JR train.

Our hotel, the Karaksa Hotel Osaka Namba, was located a short ten minute walk to the nearby popular Dotonbori Street in the Namba District, which was a great area. We were just far enough away from all the hustle and bustle, but close enough to get there in a short walk. Around our hotel there were plenty of options for street food, restaurants and bars.

As with most hotels in Japan, the rooms are on the smaller size with not a lot of extra space. They are compact and efficient. Most have a separate room for the toilet and another separate room for the shower and sink. Additionally, most hotels will provide you with pajamas, slippers (as shoes should not be worn in the room), shampoo, conditioner, body soap, body sponge, lotion, toothbrush, toothpaste, blow dryer, and hair brush or comb. Which was very convenient. So, don’t pack too much as it’s provided. After we checked-in and had a short rest, we got cleaned up and walked over to Dotonbori Street to explore the area and find dinner.

Dotonbori Canal.

Dotonbori Canal.

Osaka is the 2nd largest city in Japan where old meets new. And, known for their great street food. Eat here! They are known for being Japan’s food capital. Some of the must try street foods in Osaka are Kushikatsu (deep fried skewers), Takoyaki (fried battered octopus), Okonomiyaki (savory style pancake).

Unfortunately, the Floating Garden Observatory at the Umeda Sky Building was closed due to a previous storm. It’s supposed to be a great view of the sunset and has a food court in the basement of the building. So, instead we ate at one of the many restaurant choices around Dotonbori Street. Zach suggested we try Japanese BBQ at Gyu-Kaku.

When we entered the restaurant we were asked to proceed up to the 3rd floor for our table. Once we removed our shoes, we sat at traditional tables, on the floor around our grill. Our table was next to a window overlooking the Dotonbori River and we watched the sunset from our table.

The service was excellent and since I have a soy allergy, the Google Translate app comes in handy explaining I needed my meat without any marinade containing soy. I hate being ‘that person’, however, I know my health and not getting sick while on vacation in a foreign country is more important than my pride. Every place we ate at in Japan was very understanding and accommodating. Google translate was my savior.

When in Japan, try the sake. Hot or cold, your choice. But, the alcoholic fermented rice wine is like table wine for the Italians. Personally we enjoyed the hot sake a little more. And, we introduced sake to Grammy which she enjoyed, on more than one occasion.

After dinner we wandered around the streets until we found the Honzenji Yokocho Alleyway. The alleyway has the Honzenji Temple at the end of the Edo-era alley which is surrounded by 60 plus restaurants. Take the time to find the alley and snap a photo or two. It’s crazy to think this quiet alley is just a few steps from the insanely crowded, loud and flashy Dotonbori street.

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Honzenji Yokocho Alleyway

Honzenji Yokocho Alleyway

Entrance to the Shinsaibashi Suji Shopping Arcade.

Entrance to the Shinsaibashi Suji Shopping Arcade.

Zach is all about fashion and knew that Japan was the place to buy clothes. And, Osaka has some great places for shopping including the Shinsaibashi Suji Shopping Arcade, near Dotonbori Street. Plus the Amerika-mura (AKA American Village or Rinku Town). Since we were already near Dotonbori, we decided to visit the Shinsaibashi Suji Shopping Arcade that has over 600 meters in length of shopping options from glasses, clothing, shoes, beauty stores and more. Good place to walk off a meal and window shop.

Day 6 - September 29, 2018 - Osaka, Japan

When we woke up and ventured down to breakfast in the hotel, we learned that Typhoon Trami was due to hit Osaka, and Japan, the following morning. We didn’t really understand what that meant so we continued with our breakfast which was a mixture of both Western and Japanese style. It was raining, but no one seemed worried. They just grabbed their umbrellas and off they went.

Western and Japanese style breakfast.

Western and Japanese style breakfast.

Intended path of Typhoon Trami.

Intended path of Typhoon Trami.

After speaking with the front desk to get more information they suggested we stay inside the hotel and off the streets by that evening as it wouldn’t be safe to be outside. Our current plan was to travel to Kyoto the following morning, but the front desk advised we stay put in their hotel. The hotel helped me call appointments we had scheduled for the next day in Kyoto so we could reschedule them. Since the typhoon was still several hours away, we thought it was best to get out and see as much as we could before everything closed. Our first stop was Osaka Castle.

Osaka Castle is probably one of the most iconic attractions in all of Japan. Osaka Castle began construction in 1583 and was rebuilt in 1931 after wars and fires. However, it did survive bombing raids from WWII that had destroyed most of the city. The castle is surrounded by huge park grounds, called the Nishinomaru Gardens, where many visit in both rain and shine. We walked through the gardens to the entrance of the castle and did a self-tour viewing paintings of war and artifacts.

After we viewed Osaka Castle, we stopped for lunch and to warm up at a restaurant on the grounds called, Landmark Square. We enjoyed a nice and warm lunch before we took the subway to our next stop, Shitenno-ji Buddhist Temple.

Shitenno-Ji Buddhist Temple is one of Japan’s oldest temples, which introduced Buddhism to Japan and dates back to 593 AD. Although the temple's buildings burned down several times throughout the centuries, they were carefully reconstructed to reflect the original 6th century design.

Shitenno-Ji Buddhist Temple.

Shitenno-Ji Buddhist Temple.

We arrived with about an hour before closing and walked through the grounds. We tried to pay to see the inner grounds and pagoda, but since we had only about ten minutes left, they left us visit without paying. We quickly viewed as much as we could before they closed. We wanted to also visit the Instant Noodle Museum on the outskirts of the city, but we thought it might be a good idea to head back toward the hotel and check on the typhoon.

The hotel told us the typhoon had slowed down and would hit first thing in the morning and they would extend our hotel room if needed. With the update, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, stocked up on supplies, like water and snacks at the local Family Mart, and did laundry at the hotel.

Drying our laundry in our hotel room. The dryers did not dry like we were used to and we ran out of coins.

Drying our laundry in our hotel room. The dryers did not dry like we were used to and we ran out of coins.

Day 7 - September 30, 2018 - Osaka to Kyoto, Japan

We woke up early and turned on the news. Even in Japanese we could understand that the approaching Typhoon Trami was getting serious. But, from what we could tell, we had a little more time. I quickly got dressed and went down to the front desk to ask them for an update. They said the typhoon has slowed down and would most likely hit sometime around 11:00am local time in Osaka.

On the JR Train from Osaka to Kyoto before the trains stopped working ahead of Typhoon Trami.

On the JR Train from Osaka to Kyoto before the trains stopped working ahead of Typhoon Trami.

However, they still advised we stay at the hotel and not try to travel to Kyoto, like we planned. I asked if all the transportation was still working and they confirmed it was. I went upstairs to our room and told Grammy and Zach the update. We made the decision to leave quickly on the JR train before all the trains and taxis stopped working, which would be very soon. If we stayed, we could be stuck for a day or more. We quickly packed and hopped in a taxi which drove on the very quiet streets to the train station. We made it on one of the last trains out of the city before all public transportation stopped for the day. Thankfully, it was only a quick 30 minute JR train from Osaka to Kyoto.

Come back soon to read more about when we arrived Kyoto, the Typhoon and beyond.

Photography + Tanya

Tanya Cabral

Photography has always been a part of my life.  My family and friends have joked about me always having a camera to document their life moments over the years. And, upon our return from vacations, I promptly make us a photo book showcasing our travels.  Although I has never published any of my work professionally, I promises to remedy that in the near future.  Until then, I will continue to take pictures for my enjoyment and others.

I love to travel for pleasure and work.  I use a Canon T3i DSLR camera to take most of the pictures you see (aside from my iPhone for quick shots). 

Some of the places I’ve been lucky enough to travel to are:  Japan, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and London.  I also have traveled within the U.S. both for work and pleasure are Oregon, Nevada, Monument Valley, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, New Orleans, Nashville, Gettysburg, Washington D.C., Boston, New York, Virginia, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Aspen to name just a few.

Rustic & Simple Pasta

I'm all about ease when it comes to cooking.  However, that does not mean it lacks taste.  I got the idea for this recipe from Chef, Jamie Oliver on an old Oprah show.  He loves using fresh herbs and other healthy ingredients from his personal garden.  Being I live in the middle of Los Angeles, growing a garden is next to impossible due to lack of space.  However, I've been utilizing my local farmer's market and Trader Joe’s for simple and inexpensive ingredients in these tough economic times.  Choosing just a few fresh ingredients really does make this dish and your pocket book go a long way.

Ingredients:
-1 package of wheat pasta (store bought or fresh from your local farmer's market)
-1 basket cherry tomatoes - mixed variety.  Or 2 medium to large tomatoes fresh from your own garden.
-5-6 medium cremini mushrooms or baby portobello. (Optional, for you non-mushroom lovers)
-1-2 fresh garlic gloves, minced
-6-8 medium shrimp (per person) fresh or frozen without shells. (Optional, for you non-seafood folks)
-1-2 leaves fresh basil, torn by hand or chiffonade
-2 Tbsp Olive Oil
-Fresh Parmesan cheese
-Salt and Pepper to taste

Begin by bringing a medium to large pot of water to a boil.  Add salt to the water to personal taste.  Cook pasta as directed on package or until al dente.

While water is heating up and pasta is cooking begin to: 
-Mince your garlic and set aside
-Clean your mushrooms with a damp cloth.  Roughly chop to bite size pieces and set aside
-Rinse your thawed or frozen shrimp (make sure your shrimp are properly cleaned)
-Rinse your cherry tomatoes. Crush by hand into bowl or roughly chop and place tomatoes into a medium bowl.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over the tomatoes, add the basil and mix then set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat:
-Add 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
-Once pan is hot, add minced garlic.  Stir for 1-2 minutes.  Do not let the garlic burn.
-Add chopped mushrooms.  Stir for 3-5 minutes until mushrooms are soft and shrink down.
-Add shrimp and cook 3-4 minutes per side until they pink up.  Do not overcook, or the shrimp becomes rubbery
-Add tomatoes and basil and mix everything in the pan together.  
-Let the juices from the tomatoes simmer and combine all your flavors together.

-Once your pasta is al dente, spoon directly from the pot of pasta (do not rinse pasta under water) into the skillet with your other ingredients and mix.  It's okay to add a little pasta water to your skillet, it adds flavor.  Turn off the heat.  Top with fresh Parmesan cheese and serve hot.  

Total Prep and Cook Time:  No more than 30 minutes total
Serves:  1-8.  Depends on amount of pasta and shrimp you make

Overall, you can add whatever you like to this dish, try asparagus or whatever is fresh and in season.  Sometimes for a twist, I'll squeeze 1 fresh lemon into the tomatoes for a little added flavor.  Also, if you like a bit of spice in your food, sprinkle red pepper flakes during the garlic stage of cooking.  But, remember just a few red peppers go a long way. Using what is in season is key to keeping the costs down and the flavors up.

Enjoy!

Thanksgiving Cranberry & Apricot Sauce

Thanksgiving Cranberry & Apricot Sauce

Thanksgiving Cranberry & Apricot Sauce

I LOVE trying new recipes.  And, with the holidays behind us, here is a recipe inspired by my niece and nephew who requested something other than the congealed cranberry sauce out of the can.
  
This is super easy and what I've come up with after I gathered ingredients from different recipes and approached several older women in the grocery store.  My niece and nephew love it and it's become apart of their holiday tradition.

Ingredients:
1 bag of fresh cranberries. (Rinse and discard of bruised cranberries)
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1 cup sugar (just do it!)
1 cup orange juice (no pulp)
1 zest of medium orange
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon

*Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
*Stir with wooden spoon constantly until most of the berries have popped.
*Remove from heat and place in clear bowl (for presentation).
*Let cool in the refrigerator until solid (About 2-3 hours) or make the night prior to the meal.
*Served chilled.

Serves 8-10 big helpings or a few days of left overs.
Enjoy!
Happy Thanksgiving