Do’s and Don’ts for Travelers to Japan

How to Respectfully Experience Japanese Shrines and Temples

Nikko shrine (c) RDB 2017
  1. There are wells (purification fountains) on the way into shrines and temples, and if you rinse your hands, try to avoid touching the ladle anywhere but the handle, and pour used water into the gutter. You can also pour some water into your hand to rinse your mouth (don’t drink).
  2. If you want to worship at a Shinto shrine, when you get to the offering hall toss some coinage into the offering box. If there is a bell, ring it, bow two times, clap your hands twice, and then bow one more time.
  3. Don’t eat or drink anything other than water in the shrine or temple.
  4. Be quiet and respectful; these are holy places.

Being Polite In While Traveling by Train in Japan

The shinkansen (c) ABR 2015
  1. When waiting to get on the train, pay attention to the lines painted on the sidewalk, and be sure to stand in line.
  2. Don’t talk on your phone; if chatting with a pal, try to be quiet.
  3. If it gets crowded, take your bag off and hold it in front.
  4. If you have an assigned seat, make sure that is where you sit.
  5. Don’t be pushy, and make sure that you leave room for other people to get on and off the train.

How to Avoid Annoying Japanese People

Crowds in Japan (c) RDB 2017
  1. Read ALL the signs, especially when you are in a shrine or temple. Many will tell you where you can and cannot go, and what you need to do while in any area (e.g. take off your shoes, etc).
  2. Stand in line. This goes for lots of different places that you might not expect depending on where you are from. We even stood in line while hiking, and while that ad hoc happens in the US sometimes, it was not ok to move up in the line in Japan.
  3. Learn and use please (“sumimasen,” which really means excuse me) and thank you (“arigato”) in Japanese. When you are in a restaurant, it is not impolite to hail your waiter by saying “sumimasen.”
  4. Be quiet if you are in an Airbnb, because people live very close to one another, and the Japanese work day/week is very long.
  5. Be quiet and respectful in Onsens and follow all rules while bathing.
  6. Watch other people, and take note of their behavior. This can serve as your guide for how to act when you are uncertain.

Other Japanese Customs You Might Want to Know About (But Which Visitors Aren’t Expected to Understand)

Tokyo (c) RDB 2017
  1. Bowing. In Japan, there’s a complexity to bowing in which people of different standings bow to different depths. Bowing can also be casual or formal. Luckily, visitors aren’t expected to know how this all works.
  2. Gift-giving is another important but complicated aspect of Japanese culture. Generally speaking, people don’t open their gifts in front of the gift-giver, and whenever you receive a gift, you are supposed to return the favor. Again, however, travelers aren’t expected to do this all properly.

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The National Parks of Japan Have It All

Map of Japan’s national parks from https://www.env.go.jp/en/nature/nps/park/

Japan has a total of 33 national parks, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spread out across its major islands, they showcase the vast variety of ecosystems and unique landscapes that characterize the natural world of Japan. These parks are also home to many important historic and cultural attractions, making them the perfect places to experience the multifaceted wonders of Nippon. I’ve only seen a small fraction of these special places, but they deserve a post highlighting how amazing they are.

Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

As you may be able to tell from the name of this park, Fuji-Hakone-Izu has three distinct sections, one of which is home to Mt. Fuji (the highest mountain in the country), one is for Hakone, and one for the Izu islands south of Tokyo. Of these, I have visited Hakone and Mt. Fuji.

That’s boiling hot water running down those steps in the geothermal area of Hakone (c) ABR 2017.

When I went to Hakone, it was my first time in Japan, and I wanted to have the chance to see Mt. Fuji, since we wouldn’t be able to actually visit the mountain. We heard that the journey through this part of the park would give us the best chance for a glimpse of the crown of Japan (although we didn’t actually get to see it that time due to cloud cover), so we bought a transportation value pass (for details click here). This takes you from Toyko via multiple different modes of transportation (train, funicular, cable car, boat, and bus) through the Hakone area. This includes a stop in a geothermal area where you can see some hot springs and buy special black eggs cooked in the searing hot waters of the mountain. You will also get to ride an oddly pirate-esque boat across Lake Ashinoko. Not included in the pass, but well worth the extra cost, is the Old Hakone Check Point, which was used during the Edo period to monitor people moving through Japan.

Old Hakone Checkpoint on a cloudy day (c) ABR 2017.

On our second trip to Japan, I did summit Mt. Fuji, which was a just-as-memorable-as-you-would-think two-day experience that I will devote an entire post to later this month. I will say that this mountain is busy, but makes up for the crowds with unimaginably beautiful views and a uniquely spiritual experience.

Torii gate near the summit of Mt Fuji (c) ABR 2017.

Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park includes a huge complex of shrines among a wildly beautiful, mountainous countryside. This is one of the most spiritual places that I have ever been in my life, but it is also very popular. So, the real moments of still and introspection are those that you can steal in a crowd, or find on a quiet trail among the trees. This National Park is also home to Mt. Nantai, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji. After Mt. Fuji, Mt Nantai is one of the best places for a visitor to get a challenging hike in, but you will need to plan ahead if you are going to make it up the steep trails of this mountain to the summit.

The crowds in Nikko make it hard to find that spiritual moment, but you will find it in this national park (c) ABR 2017.

Setonaikai National Park

I visited this park while staying on Miyajima island of Hiroshima Bay, which is home to the ocean-side Itsukushima-jinga and Mt. Misan, in the western side of the park. For anyone like me, that isn’t super fond of snorkeling, the island is your best destination for this part of the national park, because the rest of Setonaikai is marine, complete with finless porpoises and beautiful forests of ocean plant-life.

Man-made, anti-erosion waterfalls on Miyajima (c) ABR 2017.

Whirlwind Tour of Japan (Part 2)

For Part 1 click here.

Day 11: Pit Stop in Nara

Giant Buddha in Todai-ji temple (c) ABR 2017

It’s quite a journey from Miyajima to Nara (around 4 hours if you catch the right trains; could be a bit longer if you end up on a local train from Kyoto), but there are some special sites here that make the travel time worth it.

Todai-ji is one of my favorite shrines/temples in Japan (which is really saying something, because I have been to a lot of them). It houses a massive, beautiful Buddha statue, and hosts a healthy population of Nara deer as well (the town’s mascot). I have three pieces of advice for this area. (1) Make a point to visit the temple; it is a work of art. (2) Stop by Buddha’s “nostril,” a little hole in a giant, wooden support beam of the temple, and see if anyone tries to climb through. The experience is said to grant a bit of enlightenment, but it looked far too small for me to try (and most other people). But a few kids went through and it was adorable. (3) Please DON’T feed the deer, for your safety. The first time I visited, I bought some food for them at a shop and they bit my legs as soon as they saw I had something. Not worth it.

A Nara deer (c) ABR 2017

Yagyu Kaido is also accessible from Nara, and although I have not gone myself, it looks to be a great place to hike through one of the older forests on Japan. I would suggest staying an extra day if you’d like to give this a sufficient amount of time, however, because the trip from Nara to Nikko is considerable and the temple deserves at least an afternoon/morning to explore, if not more.

Day 12: Survive the Train to Nikko

Today shall be a day of trains, so I’ll add a few tips on finding food and keeping your sanity during train travel days in Japan.

First, when it comes to seating, I would highly suggest that you reserve yourself a seat on the shinkansens. This may mean that you have to wait a bit, but the non-reserved cars tend to be more crowded. Reserving a seat is free with a JR pass, is done the day-of at the JR station, and may allow you to sit next to your travel partner(s) if you have them.

For food, there is no lack of snacks inside the train terminals, but if you aren’t a fan of cold bento boxes and convenience store food (or just get tired of them), your best bet for a good meal is outside of the ticket booths. In the big cities, like Kyoto and Tokyo, you are likely to be near a department store, with lots of options, and many of the smaller stations with shinkansen stops have somewhere to get a hot meal.

The red bridge in Nikko (c) ABR 2017

Anyway, in order to make it from Nara to Nikko, you will need to take a train back to Kyoto, and then take a Shinkansen to Tokyo, and another from Tokyo to Utsunomiya, and finally the special train from there to Nikko. All of this in included on the JR pass.

Suggestion for accommodations: Minshuku Narusawa Lodge – the owner will pick you up from the train station and help get you oriented. There is also a nightly trip to an onsen (for extra cost, but very enjoyable).

Day 13: Temples, Temples, Temples, Oh My!

Some crowds among the temples (c) ABR 2017

            Today is the day to explore Nikko’s many temples! According to UNESCO, there are 103 religious buildings in Nikko, and when you get there, you won’t doubt that number. From the lodge (if that’s where you stay), it is about a 30 minute walk up to the area, but I would suggest getting two-day bus pass down at the JR train station. This will be handy today and tomorrow, and get you all around town; there is a ton to see, so you don’t want to waste too much time walking between sites.

I have two favorite places to visit in the complex itself. Tosho-gu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the major Japanese historical figure, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was VERY busy when we went there the last time, but the intricacy and vibrant paintings/carvings of this shrine are well worth the hordes of children and tour groups that you may need to brave.

After the swarms of people, my personal favorite spot in this area is a short hike north of the main complex to a set of three small shrines along a creek. There aren’t many people that come here (due to the walk and its relatively small size), so I have found this place to be extremely peaceful and more spiritual than almost anywhere else that I have been. I’m not going to just throw the name at you though, because I’d hate to see people crowd this area. If you are really interested, you will be able to find it on a map of the complex. The hike is only 15 minutes or so from Tosho-go, to the north.

The many Jizo along the river (c) ABR 2017

After you’ve had your fill of temples and shrines for the day, walk over to Kamangafuchi gorge to take in the powerful beauty of the river as well as the watchful eyes of the 70 Jizo statues that are lovingly clothed with caps and aprons here.

If you’re staying at the lodge, I would highly recommend taking a trip to the onsen tonight. It is affordable, friendly to foreigners, and a must-do, cultural experience for Japan. (But you will be bathing naked with strangers, so be mentally prepared and go with an open mind).

Day 14: Up Into the Clouds at Mt. Nantai

The steep trail up Mt. Nantai (c) ABR 2017

If you are a hiker, I would suggest that you wake up early today and take the bus up to Mt. Nantai. This is a serious, uphill trek, and if you want to hit this, get as much of a mountaineering start as you can. This also is not as developed as Mt Fuji, so expect more along the lines of US trails in terms of bathrooms (ie there aren’t many). Also, please be aware that this trail is pretty undeveloped and rugged; I would only suggest this if you are in shape and have experience on the mountain. Even if you don’t have time for the hike or don’t want to risk it, be sure to visit the shrine at the bottom of the mountain and send up good thoughts/prayers to the mountain spirits.

Kegon falls (c) ABR 2017

Mt Nantai is also near a lovely lake, a waterfall, and plenty of food. So, we made a day of it when we went up here. Afterwards, we tuckered ourselves out by taking the train all the way over to Sendai (Nikko-Utsunomiya-Sendai).

Day 15: Restful Urban-cation in Sendai

Zuihoden (c) ABR 2017

After all that you have done, take a day in Sendai to get some rest. There are a few little things to do here, but we’ll get to the best attraction tomorrow. If you get antsy, go check out the giant statue of Sendai Daikannon. It is the 6th largest statue in the world, and absolutely beautiful. There is also Zuihoden Mausoleum, but I would prioritize the statue, because it is unlike anything else you have done so far in the Japan (if you follow this itinerary).

Day 16: Temple of the Mountains in Yama-dera

Temples in the mountains at Yama-dera (c) ABR 2017

Yama-dera is the best attraction in the area near Sendai, and if you ask anyone about what to see while you are there, this is the place that will pop up. It is about 1.5 hours on a JR train over to Yama-dera. Once you arrive, you will take a stroll through the small village at the base of the mountain. If you are going to need some energy in order to climb up 1,015 steps, stop by one of the restaurants here and grab some grub.

Otherwise, follow the signs to the base of the staircase, and purchase your ticket for the temple, then get huffing up the hundreds of steps. Luckily, the struggle is worth it for the beautiful views of the valley, and opportunity to visit some of amazing shrines that are perched on the edge of the mountain cliffs. There’s no better reward for making up a steep incline than all this Japanese beauty (except ice cream, which you can get when you get back down).

After this, take the afternoon to get back to Tokyo. That will involve taking the train back to Sendai, and then a shinkansen back to Japan’s capital.

Day 17+: Exploring the Urban Jungle of Tokyo

Rainy day in Tokyo (c) ABR 2017

Depending on how much you love cities, gauge how many more days you’d like to spend in Tokyo. If you haven’t see Akihabara, Shinjuku, or Harajuku yet, check them out. Otherwise, you may want to catch a train to one of the surrounding cities. Yokohama has a really cool Chinatown, and Kawasaki is home to one of the most special arcades you will ever see which has a couple floors modeled after Kowloon the Walled City.

Once you are happy with your city experience, head home!

Whirlwind Tour of Japan (Part 1)

Preparation:

Get a 21 day JR pass. You will need to plan ahead to do this, because your paperwork will be sent to you via mail. You won’t want to do this last minute.

Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo

Once you get to Tokyo, pick up your JR pass at the airport. You can then take the monorail and JR trains (subway lines will cost you extra, but when you get tired of walking you will likely end up taking them) to get to your accommodations. Just show your pass to the staff at station entrances when entering JR stations. Google Maps can help you find your way via trains and by foot if you pick up a pocket wifi at the airport as well, or if you have international data.

I would suggest taking a rest today. Walk around near your Tokyo accommodation, and eat some good food. (But avoid scam restaurants like this one!).

 

Day 2: Tokyo DisneySea

Little Mermaid world in Tokyo DisneySea (c) ABR 2017

If you are a Disney fan, take your second day in Tokyo to visit a park that’s only in Japan, Tokyo DisneySea! There are some totally unique park environments here, and some familiar rides as well, including Indian Jones and the Tower of Terror. There are also some interesting food combinations/interpretations here, including Mexican food with a Japanese twist. The park isn’t huge, so it is likely that you will spend around a half day here.

If you end up having some time to explore other parts of Tokyo in the second half of your day, consider shopping in Harajuku, or checking out the anime capital in Akihabara. The JR train will get you everywhere that you need to go.

 

Day 3: Exploring the City

Meiji Shrine entrance (c) ABR 2017

            Spend the day seeing some of the different areas of Tokyo. I have mentioned a couple above, but some other neat locations are Meiji shrine and the park surrounding the temple. There is also a beautiful garden in Shinjuku that is a great place to spend an hour or so, and escape the crowds for a bit.

 

Day 4: Journey to Mt. Fuji

A mountain hut close to the 5th Station (c) ABR 2017

Mt. Fuji’s hiking season is from early July to early September; it is illegal and extremely dangerous to attempt the summit outside of the hiking season. So, if you plan on including this in your trip, make sure you plan accordingly. I would also suggest that you try to get out on the trail during the very first week of the season, as it will only get more and more busy once school lets out.

In order to get there, take a bus from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji’s Fifth Station; note that you should plan on buying your tickets for this ahead of time so that you are guaranteed a seat. You can do this online here. The ride takes around 2.5 hours and is on a mountain road, so take some motion sickness medicine if you struggle with that.

The fifth station is a pretty big tourist stop, so it can be quite busy there, but it is also a great area for resources for those of you trying to travel light. They have rain gear that you can rent, along with some other equipment options if you need trekking poles; never rent hiking boots, as you NEED to hike in shoes that you have already broken in. There are also a bunch of options for a hot meal before you set off.

When we did this hike, we decided to just make it to the hut where we were staying for the night on the first day, and since this was the highest hut on the mountain where you can stay the night (Goraikokan), I think that this worked really well. Although, be aware that this is a popular place to stay, and you will need to be proactive about reserving yourself a spot there. Also, Goraikokan is at a relatively high altitude for most of us, so be sure to plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness one way or another (here are some tips).

 

Day 5: Summit Mt. Fuji and Return to Tokyo

Getting close to the summit! (c) ABR 2017

If you are a strong hiker, summiting from Goraikokan will most likely take longer than you are expecting, because there is a good chance that you will be forced to queue up near the summit. When we went, I think we spent about an hour in line, and we were lucky that it had cleared up a bit when we started down, because there were times that the line was in both directions.

Depending on how early you get to the top, how much energy you have, and when your bus home leaves the 5th station, you may want to walk the trail that circles the summit. Otherwise, enjoy the top and then start the long hike downhill. This part of the trek destroyed my legs, whereas, I was just fine hiking up. Be ready for a long, steep walk down the mountain.

We caught the bus back to Tokyo once we got down, and then we basically just ate dinner and fell asleep (you probably won’t sleep well at the mountain hut, unless you enjoy sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers).

Suggestion for accommodations (budget): Khaosan Tokyo Samurai Capsule – This is the first capsule hostel/hotel that I have ever stayed in, and I wish all hostels were like this! You had your own space, and the staff here are great!

 

Day 6: Traveling to Kyoto

A beautiful doorway in Gion (c) ABR 2017

After our adventure on Mt. Fuji, and a night’s rest in Tokyo, we hopped right on the Shinkansen (or bullet train) to Kyoto (my favorite city in Japan!!). It takes about 3.5 hours to make it from Tokyo to Kyoto, and that’s not including the city trains you may need to take.

This may be a an all day affair, depending on when you leave, but if you get to Kyoto and have some time, try walking around the Gion area. The architecture and atmosphere in this area is absolutely beautiful, and there are some beautiful canals that you can walk along. Plus, plenty of food.

 

Day 7: Kyoto

The trail up Mt. Inari! (c) ABR 2017

Take the train over to Inari-Jinja (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html). This shrine here is one of the coolest locations in Kyoto, and will be familiar if you ever watched Memoirs of a Geisha. Here, you can hike through tunnels of torii gates, and if you are so inclined (which I highly recommend), you can hike up Mt Inari to the shrine at the top of the mountain. The trail to the summit is really unique, and it is a great place to experience some Japanese forests (which surprisingly, you don’t get much of on Mt. Fuji).

After Inari, head back over to the Gion area. There are plenty of shrines to explore there, but I would suggest Kennin-ji, the oldest zen shrine in Kyoto, and where you can see a HUGE dragon mural. Afterwards, consider catching a performance at Gion Corner, which has a nice little show with six different traditional Japanese preforming arts, including Geisha dances.

If you didn’t have the chance yet to enjoy the canals in Gion by night, please do so tonight. I absolutely love this area.

 

Day 8: Kyoto

AMAZING dragon mural (c) ABR 2017

            Take today to visit some of the other shrines/sites in Kyoto that you haven’t seen yet.

You may be tempted to visit the Bamboo Forest, which is in a ton of pictures and blogs, but I thought that it was too busy and the forest was so small that it really wasn’t worth visiting. The area surrounding the forest is pretty nice, however, so if you really feel the need to check it out, you can spend some time in the area.

I would suggest that you brave the crowds to check out Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion, however. It is a really unique spot, so I think it is well worth the lines and hordes of people. But if neither of these is on your list, there is plenty to do and see in Kyoto; I think you could spend a full week in this city and still not run out of things to do.

 

Day 9: Hiroshima and Miyajima

Beautiful Miyajima (c) ABR 2017

            Take the shinkansen to Hiroshima; it takes about 2.5 hours, but it is likely that you will need to transfer, so give yourself some time by getting an early start. Once you are in the city, be sure to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This is absolutely one of the most moving places that I have ever been.

After a sobering afternoon, take the train over to the Miyajima ferry terminal. It is a short ride over to the island, and is covered by the JR pass. If you get there before it closes, check out the Itsukushima Shrine, which has a massive torii gate in the ocean. It is a wonderful place to unwind. If you get in too late for that, feel free to stroll around the town in Miyajima. Lots of things will close early, but the views are beautiful, and there are also deer that mingle among humans here, so it is a very cool place. Please don’t feed them anything though, especially things that aren’t edible (like maps… seriously, people feed them maps.).

Suggestion for accommodations: Hotel Sakuraya– this is a small bed and breakfast with traditional Japanese baths and a prime location on the shore.

 

Day 10: Miyajima

View from Mt Misan (c) ABR 2017

            Sleep in, have a nice breakfast in town, and then take the gondola (or trail) up to the top of Mt. Misan. Not only are the views from the mountain absolutely stunning (you can see the ocean in both directions as well as the big island of Japan surrounding the island), but there is a complex of shrines on top of the mountain. These ancient buildings are home to a sacred fire, and are perched in some of the coolest spots just about anywhere. If you enjoy hiking, definitely take the trail down, because it is a great way to see the forest, as well as some famous anti-erosion landscape engineering. Specifically, there are dams and artificial waterfalls meant to prevent flooding and erosion on the island here, and they are all very sensitive to the nature of the surrounding forest.

For Part 2, head over here.

How to Avoid Scam Restaurants in Tokyo

Yummy spicy dumplings- department stores in Japan are great places to find nice restaurants. (Not from the scam restaurant).

(With mostly pictures of yummy food in Japan- see specific section below for pictures of the scam).

Signs that you are falling for a Tokyo restaurant scam (aka what happened to me when I got swept into a basement restaurant in Skinjuku).

(1) A man with a menu catches you on the street; when you express interest in the menu, he ushers you very quickly into the restaurant.

(2) Your waiter asks you if you speak Japanese first thing, testing you. In every other restaurant, people just spoke Japanese to us and gave us an English menu when they had it.

Most Japanese restaurants have AMAZING food. Beautiful and delicious. (Not from the scam restaurant).

(3) When you ask for water, you are informed that there is only sparkling water, in other words, only water you have to pay for. Every other place that we went served us free water or tea right when we got there.

(4) The “Kobe” beef on the menu is only priced at 1600 yen. But everything else looks insanely expensive.

(5) NONE of the pictures on the menu match what you get (e.g. sashimi picture has 5-6 pieces, but the waitress informs you that there are only four when you go to order; picture of gyoza has 12 pieces but they only serve six; your soup looked like it had meat, but it comes out meatless). This is very odd for Japan, as most places have pictures that reflect what they will serve.

Japan loves whipped cream. (Not from the scam restaurant).

(6) Every thing that you order is tasteless and seems to have come from the frozen aisle at a second-rate grocery store.

(7) When you get your tab, you are slammed with the most expensive meal of your trip (by far). If you are lucky enough to get a hold of a menu to calculate how much you spent, and try to contest the cost, the waiter will tell you something about added taxes. In EVERY other restaurant that we visited, the price on the menu is what you paid.

(8) You will notice the staff treating Japanese customers and foreigners differently. They will give their Japanese customers wet clothes, but you, a foreigner, will literally get a toilet paper roll to use as napkins.

Want to know where we got scammed? Here is the address, name and pictures. I would love if you avoided this thieves’ den.

Doracon Asian Dining  (Link is to Tripadvisor, where you can see other people’s experience with this place.) 3-21-2 Shinjuku | B1F Nanae Bldg., Shinjuku 160-0022, Tokyo Prefecture (Formerly Panda Kitchen)

Sign for scam restaurant doesn’t tip you off at all.
Entrance to the scam restaurant, along with the waiter (owner?) who is very snide about stealing your money. I didn’t even realize that he was in this picture when I took it, but he did know that I was pissed about his little scam.
Look out for anyone carrying this with them.

 

How to avoid getting ripped off:

(1) Avoid any place that fits this description.

(2) Don’t be afraid to just get up and leave if you are brought into a restaurant, and you end up not feeling right about the menu or wait staff.

(3) If you start to feel worried, you can ask about taxes and extra fees as this was the preferred method of this scam house to triple or quadruple the cost of what you are eating (and which is already overpriced). Take note of all prices.

Of course food from Base 5 Mt Fuji needs a little Mt Fuji naruto! (Not from the scam restaurant).

(4) Don’t be afraid to contest the receipt. Japanese law states that menu prices should include taxes, and furthermore, there are laws against misrepresentation and false pricing. That being said, I have heard that the Japanese police will not really help you out if you bring up a problem like this to them. Best thing is to avoid or leave the scam restaurant before you order anything.

Sometimes a restaurant only has ONE item, but that just means it is extra delicious. (Not from the scam restaurant).

HOW TO AVOID.png

10 Day Itinerary for the National Parks of South Island, New Zealand

Day Zero: Travel to Christchurch

Some awesome street art in Christchurch (c) ABR 2017

Manage to get to Christchurch, and let yourself rest. Be sure to note that if you are traveling from the US, you will lose a day when you fly to New Zealand.

If you’d like wi-fi throughout your trip, pick up PocWifi which is available at the Christchurch International Airport.

Pick up your rental car, and be ready to drive on the left side!

Depending on the time of the day and your energy level, you may consider dropping by the grocery store to pick up food for the rest of your trip.

STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH

Day One: Mt. Vernon and Recovery

The view from Sugarloaf (c) ABR 2017

Mt. Vernon is a great park for hiking (and bike-riding) just outside of Christchurch. There are some excellent views of the city to be had here, as well as the lakes on the other side of the mountains.

I did the Sugarloaf Loop when I visited, which took me a little less than a hour, but you may take longer or shorter depending on your hiking ability. The Sugarloaf Loop passes through some beautiful bushland, with plenty of birds, but also through grasslands offering you different views of the surrounding territory.

For those of you looking for longer hikes, there are many trails out in Mt. Vernon. Spend the day exploring and picnicking. Recover from the flights to New Zealand.

STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH

Day Two: Mt. Cook National Park

Mt. Cook (c) ABR 2017

Head out of Christchurch and up to Mt. Cook National Park; it is about a 4.5-hour drive.

If you haven’t road-tripped in New Zealand before, be aware that the roads are single lane in either direction, so expect to be patient.

Hooker Valley is a well-known and popular trail in Mt. Cook National Park, because it leads to the base of New Zealand’s highest mountain, with a beautiful view of a lake and several river crossings as well. Signs say that it is about a 3-hour trek, and while it is somewhat crowded, it is well worth it.

STAY IN TWIZEL
Twizel Holiday Park (Budget)

Day Three: Mt. Aspiring National Park

Thunder Creek Falls (c) ABR 2017

Drive over to the Makarora side of Mt. Aspiring National Park, this will take about 2.5 hours. If you want to stop by the visitor center, it is in Wanaka, which is only slightly out of the way.

Driving through the park will take some time, so budget a few hours. I drove into Thunder Creek Falls and then turned around and hiked on the way out. Thunder Creek doesn’t have much of a hike, but it is has a waterfall that’s worth seeing.

Some of the short hikes that I did that day included Haast Pass Viewpoint, which gave you a nice little workout, since the trail is fairly steep. Blue Pools is another short walk that I did while here; the trail is flat and well-maintained, so this is quite easy. There are also a couple trails that continue on past the pools if you’d like to tack on something longer.

In fact, there are many long trails in Mt. Aspiring, for those of you with the time and energy to look around. As with all trails, just be sure that you have enough water, food, and clothes for the journey and the conditions. Avoid hiking above the bushline if there is any chance of bad weather.

Wanaka is a great place to grab dinner! Protip: Eat by the lake for good views.

STAY IN WANAKA
Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park (Budget)

Day Four: Checking Out Queenstown

Mountains of Mt Aspiring National Park (c) ABR 2017

It takes about three hours to drive from Wanaka to Te Anau (your base camp for Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound). Queenstown is along the way, amidst absolutely gorgeous mountains and at the edge of an alpine lake. Ben Lomond is one great (4+ hour hike from the town), but it would be worth walking around Queenstown a bit as well.

After spending a relaxing, lovely afternoon in Queenstown, finish off your drive to Te Anau and mentally prepare yourself for one of the most beautiful places in the world. Fiordlands!

STAY IN TE ANAU
Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (Budget)

Day Five: Fiordlands National Park

Gertrude Valley in Fiordland National Park (c) ABR 2017

If you want to see Milford Sound via the water, plan ahead and book a tour for once you get down there. It is about a two-hour drive from Te Anau all the way to the sound. Be prepared to drive behind very slow buses, and I would suggest not trying to pass, the roads are very curvy and busy. This is one of the most beautiful drives of the trip though, so just enjoy the views. Stop at the Chasm on the way in.

If you see the Sound early in the morning, consider going on a walk on your way out of the park. I hiked Gertrude Valley (which is dangerous in avalanche season, so stop by the Visitor Center in Te Anau to get some up-to-date information on the trails before heading out). Whatever trail you end up choosing, Fiordland won’t disappoint. This had some of the best views I have ever seen in my life.

STAY IN TE ANAU
Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (Budget)

Day Six: Stewart Island

Hiking on Stewart Is. (c) ABR 2017

Wake up early and make the two-hour drive down to Bluff, where you can catch the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I would suggest buying your tickets ahead of time for this, just so you know that there is space for you, and when to arrive.

The ferry is about an hour over to the island; check out the town and national park visitor centers when you land to pick out what you’d like doing. There are some GREAT day trails here, but be careful walking them. I almost broke my hand out there because of the stairs on the trails, which can be extremely slippery.

I ended up doing Golden Bay, Ryan’s Creek and some of the smaller trails around town. All of them were beautiful (sans slipping and hurting myself). But I would have liked to have planned ahead to do some of the longer trails out there.

Also, if you are interested in some backpacking there is a three-day Great Walk that you can do on Stewart Island. I wasn’t able to, but I heard some really great things about it.

STAY ON STEWART ISLAND
Stewart Island Backpackers (Budget)

Day Seven: Return to Christchurch or Stop Over in Dunedin

Catch the morning ferry off of Stewart Island, and get ready to head north again. It is a long but doable 7.5 hours straight up to Christchurch from Bluff. Dunedin is on the way, so if you aren’t into driving the narrow, slow roads of New Zealand for almost 8 hours, spend a night in Dunedin.

STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH OR DUNEDIN

Day Eight: Christchurch City Central

The fountain in Christchurch’s Botanical Garden (c) ABR 2017

Check out Christchurch’s botanical gardens and the free Canterbury Museum. Both are wonderful! If you’d like to see the city’s downtown, consider buying a tram or walking tour.

STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH

Day Nine: Head Out

Say see ya later to beautiful New Zealand!

How To Handle A Migraine While Flying

(Complete with funny stock photos to help us cope, cause migraines suck.)

I’ve suffered from migraines since sixth grade (that day has left quite an impression on my memory), and since then, getting a migraine while flying somewhere has been my nightmare. While traveling home from a work-related trip to NYC recently, my nightmare came true, and unfortunately, all the online resources that I could find were on how to prevent migraines while traveling, rather than what to do when it happens!

Migraines suck!

So, I wanted to put together a resource for other travelers with this problem, just in case any of you too find it too late to prevent this debilitating event on a travel day. Some of this comes from my own experience with this problem, but some of these tips also come from responses that I got when I was desperately looking for advice and support while I tried to figure out how to get home despite the migraine that hit me.

Going for a walk helps me alot.

First off, do what you need to do to treat your migraine. The number one thing is to be sure you have whatever meds work for you, be that prescription or over-the-counter. For me, what has been helpful has been taking Excedrin right away, then chugging a ton of water, eating some protein immediately, and then going against all advice and NOT laying down in the dark. Instead, keeping myself extremely hydrated, I put on my sunglasses and tried to go for a walk. I know that sounds super weird, and I doubt it will work for everyone (or anyone else?), but it has been extremely helpful for me to experiment with combinations of other people’s strategies in order to find something that works. I’ve listed more ideas at the end of this post, coming from people’s suggestions from the group that supported me through this experience. You can give these a try.

Follow this birb’s example and HYDRATE!

Second, decide if you should fly or not. InternationalCaty reminded me that flying can make headaches (and thus, probably migraines as well) worse, and that it was worth asking the airline if there was a chance to move my flight to the next day. While I didn’t end up doing this, I think this is great to keep in mind. You may want to keep a little extra money in your budget for a last-minute rest day near the airport if it will give you some peace of mind. Furthermore, on this note of deciding whether you should wait a day to fly if a migraine hits you, some former/current flight attendants mentioned that if you look too sick to fly, you may be kicked off the plane. This makes sense, for everyone’s safety.

Eat some protein!

Third, if you do decide to go, or the migraine hits you mid-flight, you should let the flight attendant and the people sitting around you know what is happening. For one, this will let everyone know that you aren’t contagious, and I think it will put you at ease to some extent if things really go downhill, because your row mates will already know what’s up. Furthermore, the flight attendants will appreciate the heads-up and they might also be able to help make you more comfortable.

Some caffeine and sleep can help out.

THINGS FOR MIGRAINE SUFFERERS TO TRAVEL WITH

  • Migraine meds
  • Sleep mask
  • Earplugs or headphones with some calming white noise (I personally love the sound of rain and it really calms me down while blocking out other sounds)
  • WATER! (If you have a reuseable water bottle, you can drink from it before security, dump it out, and then refill on the other side)
  • Protein (I always try to carry protein bars with me, and this is just helpful in general, migraines aside)
Garlic is magic… probably not available in the airport, but… you never know, I guess.

SUGGESTIONS FOR SIDE TREATMENTS FOR MIGRAINES (After you take your meds, or if you are stuck without them) AS SUGGESTED BY SOLO WOMEN TRAVELERS ON FACEBOOK

  • Chug water, eat protein, go for a walk
  • Drink a Coke (the person who told me that this helps her says this HAS to be a real Coke and it cannot be diet), lots of people suggest drinking caffeine in general
  • Drink something with electrolytes
  • Put salt on the palm of your hand, lick off, and drink 12-16 oz of water
  • Head/neck and foot massage
  • Try to meditate or sleep
  • Eat garlic
  • Try sinus/allergy medicine (as long as it doesn’t interact with your other meds or any allergy, etc that you may have)
  • Notes on Accupressure from Jackie Monkiewicz:

    “I primarily use the ones on my temples, the base of the skull, and between the webbing of my thumb & forefinger. Sometimes I’ll supplement with the sinus trigger points, because those can be involved.

    But other migraineurs use other points.

    A trigger point is “active” if it hurts when I squeeze it. Sometimes there’s a little knot of balled angry muscle.

    I actually can’t find these points when I’m not having a migraine.

    The book I first read about them in said to squeeze the absolute shit out of them. That the more it hurt, the more likely it was that they would provide relief. I’m not sure that’s 100% true, but based on trigger point therapies I’ve had for other issues at physical therapy, I can report that generally the therapist who really whales on the trigger points does get the best results.

    The temple points actually make me feel nauseous when I’m really pressing on them in the middle of a migraine.

    The base of the skull ones are hard for me to get, because I have a lot of muscle back there. But I can also feel this huge band of angry muscle bulging across the top of my neck, so I know when they are active.

    Airplane chairs actually provide decent purchase for reaching them, but I’ve also stopped at airport massage places and basically begged them to just please fix my neck.

    And I assume acupuncture on these points would be beneficial, but alas, it’s not practical for air travel.”

    For more info on this: http://www.wikihow.com/Use-Acupressure-Points-for-Migraine-Headaches