Japan

Moving to…JAPAN!

As most of you already know, our next big step is Japan! We’ve spent the last year visiting with friends, getting back into old habits in San Diego (hello GOTR), and planning our next move.

As of this week, my ticket is purchased, and I’m off to Japan next month!!

Image Source: Daily Signal

Image Source: Daily Signal

Zac is not really interested in teaching English anymore, so he signed up for Japanese classes, and I’ve been looking for jobs nonstop for two months.

Finally, after lots of interviews, some okay options, and some really big corporate companies, I’ve accepted a job and will be leaving January 22nd! My feelings are slightly mixed: I’m very excited to have a plan, and I really like the school I’ve chosen, but I have to leave 2 months earlier than Zac (he has to wait in the states for his student visa), and the schedule will mean that we will go back to not having a day off together. Which is not my favorite thing. But, it might not be so bad, so we’ll just have to see!

We’re currently trying to figure out what to store/toss/sell/take, and we’re both in the market for warm winter clothes, and I’m trying to build up my business professional closet without spending a fortune. (Oh, how I’ll miss you running clothes, sweats, and slippers!)

And for those of you looking for the deets:

We’re heading to Yokohama (see weather details here), which is about 30-45 minutes by train south of Tokyo. It is the second largest city in Japan, with a population of almost 3.7 million. (Kinda around the same number of people as Los Angeles.) It’s on the water (a port), but surf is about an hour train ride away. (Poor Z Heis!!)

Yokohama January Weather

Plan is to be there for the foreseeable future (minimum 1 year!). I’m leaving in January, and Zac will follow at the end of March. Hopefully we will become super pros at Japanese!

I just wanted to share this with everyone who has been keeping tabs on us, and hopefully we’ll have some fun adventures to keep you guys entertained in the next year(s). Fingers crossed that it doesn’t rain inside our apartment in Japan!

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Categories: Asia, Japan, Teaching English | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Tokyo Part Two – LAST STOP

After spending a lovely day and a half in Mount Fuji, arriving back in Tokyo was quite a change! The fast-paced and overly polite (yet standoffish) concrete jungle comes as a bit of a shock. I must say, what the Mt. Fuji area lacks in nightlight, Tokyo delivers tenfold.

View from Jaime's Apartment

The very last leg of our trip was spent at my sister’s friend’s apartment in Akasaka (near Roppongi). Jaime has a lovely apartment, with an amazing view. On clear days, it’s possible to see Mt. Fuji from here, and he has an unbelievable picture to prove it.

We definitely got to see a different side of Tokyo this time around. The first week we were here, we did a lot of daytime sightseeing, festival-attending, and city walking. This time we got a taste of how locals and expats live as Jaime took us around to several local spots.

Tokyo Tower on Roppongi-Dori

This portion of the Tokyo trip was a ton of fun! We had a great group of people, we went to Karaoke, and we even stayed up until the sun rose (accidentally). It was a sushi-filled fun weekend, and I think we’re all a little sad to move on to the real world.

Crusing around the million-story club. Entry is pricey, but includes 2 free drinks!

After meeting up with Jayme and Jialeou on Saturday, we headed over to Shibuya for some more sightseeing, and I got a better shot of the Shibuya Crossing. (I think some people call it the Shibuya Shuffle.)

Shibuya Crossing - The busiest pedestrian intersection in the world!

We also wanted to see some of the Shibuya girls and the Harajuku girls. The Shibuya girls are either evil or angels and take turns hanging out around the station on Sundays – kind of like mall rats. The Harajuku girls are male or female, and dress up in costume just to walk around town and do normal things. Very entertaining to see.

Harajuku Girls

We also wandered around Yoyogi park again. It’s kind of similar to Central Park, and we got some pretty great shots of the Rockabilly dancers and shrines and stuff.

 

That's a pet meerkat!

Washing before heading to the shrine

We spent another night out on the town and had an amazing time at Karaoke! The Japanese just do everything better! They have these tiny, (creepy) little rooms that you rent by the hour. We fit 8 people in our room and sang/shouted to a variety of songs for two hours. It also included unlimited drinks while we were there.

Karaoke shot

We all planned to go home afterwards, but were having so much fun that we went to Jaime’s favorite club for the rest of the night. When they turned the lights on to indicate closing time, we headed out INTO THE SUNLIGHT. Yes, it was 5am. So surreal. When I finally went to bed at 6:30 I had to turn my alarm off 15 minutes later. What a way to end the trip!

We were all in better shape than these guys!

When our hosts headed to work, the four of us wandered around town some more and got to experience a traditional Tea Ceremony. Some people say it’s boring (and I could see why), but I thought it was kind of cool, and the tea was unbelievably delicious.

Tea Ceremony

On our very last day, Zac and I got up at 3:30am to see the largest tuna auction in the world at the famous Tsujiki Fish Market. I was definitely glad to experience it, especially since we’d recently watched a Vanguard documentary about it.

In line at the Fish Market

Afterwards, we had a fresh fish rice bowl for breakfast!

 

After a lovely lunch with the crew, we all headed our separate ways to start the journey back to the real world. It’s hard to articulate the experiences we’ve had on this trip, especially here in Japan, and my blog has not done this place justice. We’re all packed and ready to hit the road, railways, and skies for our respective journeys home. Don’t worry Jaime, we’ll see you soon!

The crew!! (Blurry, but oh well!) Jialeou, Caitlin, Zac, Jaime, Maya, Jayme

Jayme and Jaime - Namesakes!

Categories: Food, Japan, Tokyo, Travel | 3 Comments

Mount Fuji-San: Best Day Ever!

Mount Fuji is AWESOME.

We were up at 5am to make the earliest bus from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko Station at the base of Mount Fuji. The tour guide from our hostel picked us up and we went on the backpacker’s budget day tour of Mount Fuji and the Fuji Five Lakes. It was unbelievably cool!

Fuji-san, as the locals call him, is one of those things you’ve built up in your mind so much that you’re afraid it won’t reach your expectations. Much like The Great Wall, I’d say Fuji met and exceeded our high expectations!

We started off the day by visiting 5th Station. There are several “stations” along the Mt. Fuji trails to the top, and this one is located at the place that was once the very top of Mt. Fuji, before 2 more eruptions made it even taller. It’s about as high as you’re really supposed to go during the off-season. Mount Fuji can be safely climbed from July-September, so this was our highest destination. We were allowed to head along one of the trails a little bit and take in some amazing views. It was crazy to be in the snow!

Fun fact. There’s a Mount Fuji Song, and it plays when your car drives over certain spots on the road. No joke. You know those “bum-bum, bum-bum” noises on highways that are meant to wake drivers up when they are straying into another lane or shoulder? Well, the Japanese decided to enhance that same technology by altering the pitch of those safety bumps to play the Mount Fuji song. The song is most clear in compact cars and sedans, but we heard it perfectly from our 7-seater minivan. Way to go, nihon-jin.

Our guide took us on a little hike to a viewpoint, out to see all of the Fuji Five Lakes, and to two lava caves!The ice cave was formed by lava long ago, and was used as a refrigerator by locals for a long time. Apparently they used to cut out huge chunks of ice to bring to the Shogun in Tokyo (called Edo back then) as a gift. They had to cut the blocks large enough that there would still be some ice left when they arrived a day or two later, despite the melting.

The ice cave was pretty cool, and though they have manmade ice blocks on display, there are also some natural icicles in there as well. Apparently global warming makes some parts of the cave too warm these days so those parts no longer stay frozen.

After the ice cave, we headed over to another lava cave, called a wind cave. It was formed by the lava of Mount Fuji as well, but is called a wind cave because it is connected to several other caves underground and is the only place where you can hear the wind. Or something like that…

 

Bye-bye Mt. Fuji

For our trip to Mount Fuji, we stayed in K’s House, a famous backpacker’s hostel, and the only cheap accommodations in Fuji/Kawaguchiko area. It was really nice, one of the nicest hotels we’ve stayed in, and a good one to end on. It was probably our most expensive accommodation, but well worth it. We’re heading back to Tokyo for the last 5 days, but we’ll be staying with my sister’s friend (and namesake) Jaime.

I might post another quick update on our last day, but don’t expect to hear from me again until we’re on our way back to California on Tuesday, May 29th. Love you guys!

Categories: Japan, Mt. Fuji, Travel | 4 Comments

Tokyo Part One

First things first, this is the best sign I’ve ever seen in my life:

 

International ATM - a girl's best friend.

And now on to the rest of the blog. We’re here in the Tokyo area of Japan for about 2.5 weeks, but it’s time for an update, because I know some of you get sad when I don’t post for long periods of time. I’m flattered, really.

First things first, we don’t LOVE Tokyo itself quite as much as we loved Osaka and Kyoto. It’s definitely grown on us, but a combination of a more confusing metro, lots of stuff in Asakusa, but not much to do, and not as nice of a place to stay makes for a ‘less than’ experience.

For our first Tokyo stint, we’re staying in Asakusa, which is northeast of the center of Tokyo. The hostel is in a nice, sort of laid-back neighborhood. There are a bunch of pretty popular tourist attractions, including the Senoji Shrine, Kaminarimon Gate, and the Tokyo Sky Tree. The first few days of our stay, I thought that Sky Tree was a complete waste of space. It didn’t even light up at night!! How useless! Little did we know, the grand opening of the tallest tower in the world, the Tokyo Sky Tree, was scheduled for May 22nd. So not only could we see this massive tower from our hostel, but we could also be there for the grand opening…of the tallest tower in the world. Pretty cool, right?

Postcard-perfect by day

 

By night - after the Grand Opening

We wandered around the city, and checked out Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crosswalk intersection in the world. It was really cool, and I look forward to showing you all the video!

Shibuya Crossing

We were in Shibuya after visiting the Yebisu Beer Museum in Ebisu. Yebisu is my favorite Japanese beer (though Asahi is giving it a run for its money), and I’d read that they did tasting flights at the museum. The museum itself was pretty cool, but when we got to the tasting room, we learned that they no longer did tasting flights, and your only option was to  buy a full glass of beer for about $6.50. Instead, we walked across the street and got a can of Yebisu for $2.50.

Yebisu Beer Museum

As you all know, Zac is a bit of a fanatic when it comes to surfing. To the point where he gets all kinds of cranky when he doesn’t get in the ocean for a few weeks. It’s hard to blame him when I’m the same way with running, so we decided to make the 2-hour trek out to Chiba prefecture, and into the quiet beach town of Ichinomiya so he could get his fix. Unfortunately, it started raining as soon as we arrived, and there were no waves! We got one picture on the beach, then found shelter in a nearby cafe. As we were leaving, the owner gave us an umbrella (so kind), but the sun came out for the rest of the day. Dang it!

Ichinomiya beach in the rain

Also, we finally tried one of the other local specialties – Okonomiyaki. Definitely better than Takoyaki. This is the “Japanese pizza” but it’s nothing like a pizza in my opinion. (For one, there’s no cheese.) We went to this tiny little traditional hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we sat on the floor and had our food cooked on the grill in front of us. The old woman spoke zero English, but was all smiles. Our okonomiyaki was initially served in a plastic bag – raw eggs, machi rice gluten, sausage, onions, and god knows what else. Zac was then told to mush it all together as much as possible, but it’s harder than it sounds. The old lady grabbed it away from him, and expertly blended all of the ingredients together, then squished it out onto the grill. The final result was pretty good!

Okonomiyaki

And to top it all off, my lovely friend Jialeou informed me that there would be a solar eclipse on Monday morning, with perfect viewing from Tokyo. I got my lazy butt up at 6am, and found an old lady sitting on a bench down the street. She waved me over, and babbled on in Japanese about…how cold she was…how cold I must be (in shorts)…how silly I looked in a jacket and shorts…how much she liked my tea cup, and a whole lot of stuff I couldn’t understand. I sat outside watching the sun for about an hour, 6:45-7:45.

Solar Eclipse

Plenty of other Japanese families and businessmen found their way outside to view the eclipse, and we were soon joined by several others babbling away in Japanese. After graciously giving up my bench seat to another older woman with, “dozo,” they fussed over me like I was the nicest foreign toy they’ve ever played with.

Friendly Japanese women in the early hours.

Old Japanese man looking at his first eclipse ever!

They were sweet, and lent me their special solar film glasses for viewing the eclipse! It was so awesome! After it was just about over, I got the great idea to take a pictures through the glasses, and was actually able to see a little bit of the sun in the shot. Not too shabby.

Solar Eclipse Through Solar Film

We met a fellow hosteler, Tim, and headed out on the town with him a few of the days. Apparently Tokyo’s biggest festival was also taking place in our district the weekend we were there, as well as a Jamaica festival, and the final match of the Sumo tournament. So many things!

Nuggets tiredly drumming away at Tokyo's largest festival - Asakusa

We got up early to stand in line for general admission tickets to the Sumo match, but we were about 15 people too late. These colorful banners outside displayed the names of the wrestlers (rikishi). We stared at them for about an hour and a half while we waited in line, only to be turned away! Oh well, it probably smelled pretty bad in there anyway.

Banners with rikishi names.

We walked over to Ueno, which is one of the larger districts of Tokyo, and checked out the park, as well as some of the temples and a cool little shopping street. We were walking by a temple, when the older man locking the gate saw us looking in. They were obviously closing up, but he seemed excited to see us, and brought us in for a bit of a special tour. He told us some interesting facts about the place, and then gave Tim a picture of the woman that the shrine was inspired by, as well as a neighborhood map. The people in Japan are unbelievably nice! Oh, and we went to this crazy arcade with kids moving at unbelievable fast speeds to play the games.

High-speed drums

There was an entire floor of photo booths where girls were paying to get their picture taken, and then photoshopping it to their heart’s content. They all made huge, creepy-looking eyes. It was nuts!

Photoshopping for 11-year-olds. Whatsamatta with the world?

The day before we left for Mt. Fuji, we took a long trip to Kanagawa prefecture. Asahi has nine breweries throughout Japan, and we were determined to make it to one of them. We took the 3-hour adventure to get there, and found the tour well worth it. We had our own personal guide, since we were the only ones needing an English-speaking guide, and we were offered three free beers each, but we only had 20 minutes to drink them…so they’re generous, but not stupid! It was a really informative tour, and our guide was really sweet.

Asahi Brewery Tour

We really messed up the trains on the way back…and arrived tired, soaking wet, and incredibly cranky about 4.5 hours later. But, then again, this was the day that we got to see the Tokyo Sky Tree lit up for the first time, so it wasn’t so bad.

We’re now in Mt. Fuji, with some of the best views in the world! I’ll update again soon, I promise. :)

 

Categories: Japan, Tokyo | 6 Comments

Osaka – Kyoto – Kobe

Osaka is awesome.

The people are unbelievably friendly. The hostel is amazingly awesome. The food is great, the streets are great, and the metro system is even great. I think Zac and I agree that it’s been our favorite stop on the trip.

Our hostel definitely helped make it so. The owners/receptionists were really friendly, helpful, and generous. They spent significant chunks of time finding us discounted transit tickets, and making our stay as perfect as possible. And it was cheap, too! The hostel had a full kitchen, super clean showers, tons of maps, free bicycles, and a bunch of other free stuff to use that other places charge for. They even gave us snacks and chocolate! I love them. Hotel Mikado, if you’re ever in the area.

Osaka Castle

Our first stop was Osaka-Jo (Osaka Castle), which is apparently the most popular tourist spot in Osaka. We rode our free bikes there. Awesome, because we LOVE bikes, and love free.

The views were cool, and they even had an audio tour included in the admission price! Audio tours make every tourist attraction better.

Communicating with the secret service on our audio tour headsets.

We spent a few days wandering around Dotonbori and Namba, which is the downtown Osaka area. We got coupons for free coffee at McDonald’s, and we ate a whole bunch of free samples. Be wary of the local specialty though – Takoyaki – it’s not for everyone.

I ate 2 and then gave the rest to our receptionist/host at Mikado.

These little balls of batter are pretty gooey, and each has a piece of octopus inside. The octopus part was tasty, the gooey batter part, not so much.

The vending machine ice cream was a success.

We took a day trip up to Kyoto, about 45 minutes away, and loved it! We visited a nice temple, ate conveyor belt sushi, and did some geisha watching in the Gion district.

Conveyor belt sushi - better than you think.

I tried to snap some good pictures, but at the exact moment that a group of beautiful geisha walked by, my flip-flop, which had been hanging on by a thread for several weeks, finally broke completely, and I missed the shot! Ah, well!

I don't think these girls were real Geisha. Maybe apprentices, or just playing dress up.

Kobe is also super close to Osaka – about 25 minutes by train – so we took a daytrip there as well. And what do you do in Kobe? You eat KOBE BEEF! It was actually more delicious than I expected, and worth every expensive penny. (For lunch, this 4-oz piece cost about $30, with veggies, rice, and miso soup included.)

We also did some hiking up Mt. Maya (part of Mt. Rokko) and searched for the Nunobiki falls. The area we found was mostly dry though, so we didn’t get to see any impressive falls. Kobe was definitely really nice overall, but kind of difficult to navigate.

No clue why these girls were dressed up like dolls.

On our last day in the area, Osaka rained. Ame desu ne! We stayed inside most of the day, since we were catching a bus at 8:50pm, but we didn’t mind it too much. Rain or shine, we both had a really great time in Osaka and look forward to visiting it again!

Now, Tokyo on the other hand, is giving us some grief.

We took a relatively short, clean, quiet, and nice overnight bus from Osaka to Tokyo. Though we didn’t have high hopes for it, I assumed it couldn’t be any worse than the bus rides we’d already endured, especially since it’s Japan! Ya know, the land of organization and cleanliness.

Unfortunately, what we thought was a nonstop, 10-hour overnighter actually had about 8 stops, and arrived at 5:50am instead of 7:15. And at every stop, the driver turned on all of the lights, and then used the loudspeaker to announce the stop, as well as a bunch of other information in Japanese. So every time we stopped, he woke us all up. Try getting some shuteye with a loudspeaker and bright lights every 45-75 minutes.

Well, we arrived in Tokyo groggy and cranky, but in okay spirits, considering. We had to take a train to our hostel, but first, we need to find a bathroom. About 10 minutes and a stomach full of Listerine later, we still hadn’t found a bathroom. Screw it; we go buy our ticket for the Japan Railway, which is always cheaper than the Metro here. I double check with the clerk that we’re going the right way, but he just says “no, no, no,” and gets us a refund from some guy behind a mystery door. Then he points us to the Tokyo Metro.

We try to figure out the maps and signs of the complicated Metro system while our brains are working at about -50%. We made it through college all-nighters though, right? We can handle this. We finally figure out how to get our ticket, what line to take, and insert our tickets into the entry gate.

WHAM…denied access. WHHHHYYYY? Oh, this isn’t the Tokyo Metro, this is a private line that is separate from the Metro. And we overpaid, but can’t get a refund. Luckily, the guy who we got this time spoke English and gave us an English map of the Metro. We made it to our station eventually, with the appropriate transfer and everything.

It was a rough morning. We get to the hostel around 7:15am to find that the reception doesn’t even open until 9am. Apparently we’re locked out on the street until then. Fortunately, some guest lets us in, and we sit ourselves down in the computer room/sink area. We spend a good 20 minutes feeling sorry for ourselves, and another 20 minutes browsing the web. We decide it’s time to find some breakfast. Zac hides our bags away in a corner (very well hidden, might I add) and we head out.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m cranky, tired, sore, hungry, and frustrated, the comforts of home are most desirable. I don’t mean a shower, I mean an American Breakfast. Asian salty noodles and rice bowls just aren’t gonna cut it. The map says there’s a Denny’s nearby. On principle, (and on quality, taste, etc.) I’m really anti-Denny’s, but Zac is a huge fan. They have omelets, so I’m in. We wander for a bit, looking for cafes, and finally just ask a store clerk if he knows how to get there. He knows. Directions are simple. And we’re off.

FAIL again. There’s no Denny’s anywhere near the area to which we were directed. We find Jonathan’s Coffee and Café instead. We finally sit down, enjoy some greasy eggs, and help ourselves to the included juice/coffee/tea bar. Caffeine solves everything.

After we eat, we’re feeling significantly better, so we wander a bit, looking for an ATM. We’re a little low on cash, and only have enough Yen for one night’s stay. No big deal, there are ATMs everywhere, but we couldn’t find one that would accept our international bankcards. We finally get back to the hostel, store our bags in the appropriate place, so head back to waste a few more hours on the computer, and then it’s time to explore the city in our day-old clothes.

We hit a wall after two hours, and we head back to the hostel around 1pm. Apparently, the reception closes from 12-3, so yet again, we’re locked out. Zac throws on his jacket, sprawls out on the sidewalk, and naps like the homeless traveler he is, while I read for an hour or so.

This saga continues in the same manner. Eat – whine – ATM search – wait – eat – whine – ATM search until the day ends. It was just as difficult to find restaurants that take credit card. We went to about 20 ATMs and 10 restaurants. We even found the Denny’s while on our search. We asked the hostel, the tourist information center, and even the 7/11s where to find an international ATM, but none of the supposed international ones worked for us.

Currently, nobody wants to take our credit card, and nobody wants to give us cash. We’re currently hoping that we can get some money out tomorrow, or we’ll be stuck searching for an expensive hotel that takes credit cards, and spending our remaining Yen on Ramen. Whatever, we’ve got smelly roommates in this hostel anyway. THANKS FOR NOTHING, TOKYO.

Looks like our memories from Tokyo will be 100% priceless – cause we ain’t got no dolla bills to spend.

Wish us luck!

Categories: Food, Japan, Osaka, Travel | 7 Comments

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