Nightborn Travel

Seeking Vistas Secret and Acclaimed

Category: International Travel (Page 1 of 5)

A Short Guide to Food in Japan

Eating while in other countries can be daunting for some people, so I put together a quick guide to food in Japan with picky eaters in mind. Learn about the most common traditional foods that you will find, as well as more familiar foods.

Traditional Japanese Foods

Here are some of the most common kinds of traditional Japanese foods that you will run into while visiting.

Tempura udon (c) ABR 2017

We ate udon EVERY DAY in Japan, and I learned to crave this salty dish after hiking. It is the best way to re-hydrate and get some energy after being outside. Udon comes with a few different things, but most common is shrimp, thin cuts of meat, and various kinds of veggies.

Ramen from the 5th Station on Mt Fuji (c) ABR 2017

Ramen is a thinner noodle than udon, and is common as well, as is soba, which is made from buckwheat! That colorful object in the picture above is naruto, which is made from cured fish.

Poke (c) ABR 2017

As a sushi lover, eating poke and sushi is #1 on my list of things to eat in Japan. However, you should be aware that the laws in Japan concerning raw fish are a bit different than in the US. In order to keep the fish as fresh as possible, most Japanese restaurants do not flash freeze their fish, while in the US fish must be flash frozen first if it will be eaten raw.

Katsu (c) ABR 2017

Katsu is breaded meat, most often pork, although that is steak up above. It is served with rice, and miso soup, and often sauce as well, because it can be a little dry otherwise.

(c) ABR 2017

While many restaurants have similar menus, if you keep your eyes peeled, you will find an endless array of foods in different places around the country.

Foreign Foods

For those picky eaters among you, or people looking for a little reminder of home, the cities have a nice array of foreign foods.

Italian pasta (c) ABR 2017

Italian food is really common, because Japan has a love for noodles!

Dumplings (c) ABR 2017

Japanese takes on Chinese dishes are also pretty easy to come by in the city.

Naan and curry (c) ABR 2017

Indian food was also something that we ran into more than once. They always made the naans HUGE.

Denny’s breakfast in Tokyo (c) ABR 2017

Of course, American food makes its appearance! Our style of breakfast is not the norm in Japan, so it was nice to eat some as a treat once in a while. Their style of scrambled eggs was a little runny, but I had to love the little breakfast salad. XD

Steak (c) ABR 2017

More American classics, which the Japanese chefs plated in a nice, minimalistic style (while maintaining the homey, American look).

Lunch from DisneySea (c) ABR 2017

DisneySea has food choices from around the world (including Latin America as seen above), but all have a Japanese spin that makes them pretty interesting to try.

Desserts

Japan does desserts VERY well, so I will provide the following pictures without comment. Enjoy and do your best to not run out for a sugar fix.

Banana and strawberry crepe with lots of whipped cream (c) ABR 2017

Tea time and cream puffs in Kyoto (c) ABR 2017

Cheese cake (c) ABR 2017

I don’t know what this was, but it was delish (c) ABR 2017

A treat for hiking a mountain (c) ABR 2017

Of course, CUTE desserts too! (c) ABR 2017

If you’d like to know more about where we’ve been in Japan and how to DIY your own exploration of this beautiful country, check out Nightborn Travel’s Guide to Japan.

Little Notes on Culture and History in the Netherlands

Dutch people are known for being forward, and practical. Only 39% of the country claims to be religious, which is one of the lowest in Europe, and they were one of the first European nations to legalize gay marriage, weed, and prostitution.

So, what is the deal with Amsterdam?

(c) ABR 2017

I’ve read plenty of blog posts that claim that Amsterdam is a chalk full of stoners and clouds of weed smoke, but that was not my experience. The central part of the city was the only place that I smelled the pungent plants, and we had more encounters with run of the mill drunk people, rather than stoners. In any case, it is the tourists that frequent the cafés that provide weed most, rather than the locals. So, yes, while weed and prostitution are legal in the city, it is really the bikes, canals, and brick buildings that characterize Amsterdam.

How is driving in the Netherlands?

(c) Wikimedia Commons

Overall, very similar to the United States. There is one major difference that I noticed while traversing the roads of this lovely European country, however, and that is in regards to the left or fast lane. In the Netherlands this is a passing lane in the true sense, particularly in the case of highways. If you sit in the fast lane without need, aka going too slow, you may get a ticket and you will definitely get tailgated. This is rude in the US (and illegal in some states), but you really can’t get away with in the Netherlands. Be polite and get over when you are done passing.

The Van Gogh Trail (c) ABR 2017

The other thing that you should be aware of is the fact that many Dutch drivers will change lanes with only a very small amount of room between vehicles. So, be ready to be cut-off and just get used to it. So many people do it that I don’t think you should even bother to consider it rude, but definitely drive defensively. Leave enough room between you and the people in front of you, just in case someone decides to pop into your lane suddenly.

Why do Dutch people love windmills so much!?

A tiny windmill (c) ABR 2017

Back in the day windmills helped the Netherlands become a world power by assisting them in ship building, and by allowing them to produce goods that were used around the world (in particular, paper). Windmills became so common throughout the Dutch countryside that people used the position of the sails to communicate with one another. In fact, this form of communication was utilized for warnings about Nazi movements in WWII. Newer forms of power eventually led to the disappearance of many windmills, but as we all know, wind power is making a come back as a renewable form of energy. Thus, they are a new symbol of hope for the Netherlands and the world.

What is Tulip Mania?

(c) Pexels

There are three souvenir staples in Holland- windmills, clogs, and tulips. Of the three, I think tulips will most likely color any trip you take to the Netherlands the most. Some of you lucky fiends will get to visit during Tulip season and see these flowers in their glory, but even if you are like me and miss it, there will be no lack of tulip bulbs and wooden baubles in the shape of the flowers. So, what is the deal with tulips and the Netherlands? Well, these beautiful flowers have an interesting history in Holland, as they created what some consider to be the first economic bubble that we have recorded accounts of. Basically, when these flowers were introduced to the Netherlands during the “Dutch Golden Age,” they became extremely popular and even more expensive. This funny “bubble” of worth and expense popped when the price and market for the flowers collapsed in 1637. Luckily, unlike the economic bubble that most of us have lived through, Tulip Mania had little to no effect on the overall well-being of the Netherlands at that time. Despite the popping of the Tulip bubble, the Netherlands is still in love with this beautiful flower, and this gives us the opportunity to see the country’s beautiful countryside carpeted with brilliant colors the likes of which only seem possible in fantasy worlds like Oz.

5 Things I’ve Learned from Getting Stuck at Airports

I’ve gotten stuck waiting at a LOT of airports, so naturally I’ve picked up a few things that have made it a little easier for me when faced with traveling inconveniences.

1) Travel delays are less of an ‘if’ and more of a ‘when’, so try to plan accordingly.

These days, it feels like a delay at some airport is almost inevitable, if even for a short amount of time. Unfortunately, sometimes even the slightest delay can throw everything off schedule. I know it’s not always possible, but for big events (usually weddings), it’s a good idea to give yourself a couple days leeway before the occasion to account for any hiccups.

For example, I was traveling from the U.S. to Manila for a cousin’s wedding. All of my connecting flights went smoothly, until the very last one at the Narita Airpot. I was supposed to board at six, which turned to seven, eight and nine and when we finally boarded the plane, they herded us back off because by the time we would arrive in the early a.m., there would be no crew to welcome us. Oh, and the next available flight? Not until 1 p.m. the next day.  I lost nearly an entire day, making me extremely glad the wedding was later in the week.

2) Travel as light as you can…

Good advice for when:
a) Your gate suddenly changes after your last flight delay made you late, and you have to haul your butt across three airport concourses to make it to you connection in time.
b) You’re traveling solo and need to drag your bags everywhere with you. There’s nothing like trying to cram yourself into an airport bathroom with a bunch of luggage.
c) Your connecting flight, for whatever reason, doesn’t transfer your bags with you and you have to go through the whole rigmarole of baggage claim and check-in AGAIN.

3) … But, bring back-up essentials in your carry-on.

This has come through for me AT LEAST twice. I mentioned my sweet stay at the Narita Airport up above – after spending more than 12 hours at the same airport gate, I’m SO glad I had clothes to change into and toiletries to refresh myself. The second time, having learned from Narita, I was flying to Manila again with maybe two or three days worth of extra clothing in my backpack. It served me well after my having to switch flights – I arrived fine, but my baggage took three days to find me, having flown on my ORIGINAL connecting flight.

Things to Keep Handy:
– Extra clothing (especially undies)
– Toothbrush/toothpaste (just remember to keep that tube small enough size for TSA approval)
– Face wipes (good for make-up removal/other face gunk and generally TSA-approved)
– Small stick of deodorant
– Portable phone charger/power bank (in case you’re faced with full or broken outlets)

4) Learn about the airport beforehand, especially if you have multiple connections.

It’s just a great idea to know the layout of the airport(s) you’re traveling to you’re not surprised by what you’ll find when you arrive. If you have the time, then you’ll know where you want to eat, shop and relax. If you don’t have time, then you can move around with ease and book it to your next destination. It also helps to know some other miscellaneous details like if the airport has wi-fi (and is it free?), what currency the airport will accept if you’re traveling to another country (Narita actually accepted USD, which was pretty convenient) and if they have places to stay inside the airport should you need a rest (Narita actually had hotel rooms available – but when I was delayed we were asked to remain by the gate – booooooo).

5) Don’t panic.

If delays happen, if you get stuck in an airport like I did, try your very best not to freak out, take a deep breath and then figure out your next steps.

When I ended up chillin’ like a villain in Narita I:
a) Used the wi-fi to use my messaging apps to see of my family members was online so I could get in contact with them and let them know what’s up and not to worry.
b) Didn’t get mad or berate the staff for a weather delay they couldn’t control, but stuck around, listened to what updates they had and did what they asked of us.
c) Made the best of it. I got to try consommé-flavored Pringles (which I didn’t even know existed) and learned how to make a curry MRE (which actually tasted pretty dang good), I talked to an extremely nice missionary couple that ended up watching out for me while I got some nap time in (still using my carry-on as pillow so I would know if anybody was trying to mess with it) and explored the Narita Airport while purchasing enough green tea Kit-Kats to keep me happy.

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Mmmmm. Soup.

Really, my hope for every flight and for you is that you don’t get stuck with your buns warming an uncomfortable airport gate seat for hours. However, if you do, remember my advice and perhaps it’ll make things a bit more bearable.

Bisous,
Katie

People First Tourism: Prioritizing Local People Creates Responsible, Authentic Travel Experiences

Nightborn Travel has provided information about ecotourism in the past, but today we have an exciting announcement! We are launching our new partnership with People-First Tourism – we’ll tell you a little more about their travel philosophy and look at why the experiences they offer are both unique and responsible.

What is People First Tourism?

(c) People First Tourism

People-First Tourism is a company with the goal of connecting local tourism entrepreneurs with the greater tourism market. They help supply authentic, sustainable experiences to travelers, while bringing better opportunities to local people around the world by giving control of tourism to the people that live in different destinations.

What is their philosophy and why should I support it?

(c) People First Tourism

People-First Tourism has an amazing manifesto that shows why traveling with them is a great idea if you are interested in being responsible and sustainable, but it also might inform your personal travel philosophy.

“All people have knowledge and experiences that they want to share with others.” This is at the heart of an authentic experience in any destination, learning the story that local people want to share with the rest of the world. Giving residents the ability to run their own tourism businesses, rather than massive, international companies, assists local people in telling their stories.

(c) People First Tourism

“Communities are complex with constantly evolving factions that use their various capitals to compete, complement, and collaborate with each other.” There are people in every community that are more able than others to benefit from industries like tourism. People-First Tourism helps extend this opportunity to more people in the community.

“Immersive experiences into other ways of living bring perspective on what is important in life and fosters tolerance towards others.” We live in an increasingly connected world, but one that is still plagued by misunderstanding and sometimes hatred. Having authentic experiences that are beneficial for hosts and guests can help us build a better, more understanding world.

(c) People First Tourism

“Visitors are guests in their destination communities.” This means that we travelers should appreciate the hospitality of the people welcoming us into their community, without taking advantage.

“Travel writers must act as ambassadors for host communities.” Whether we’re travel bloggers, visitors, journalists, etc., it is our responsibility to help share the stories that local people in the places that we visit want to tell. In this way, we can help share the lessons we learn with the rest of the world, and encourage more people to help support small businesses around the world.

What experiences do they offer?

(c) People First Tourism

Right now People-First Tourism is offering experiences with hosts in North Carolina, Costa Rica, Portugal, and Guatemala. They include things like exploring natural sites, and learning more about local art and culture.

These host experiences would be great additions to any trip that you might be planning to take to these destinations. The complete People-First Tourism Manifesto is on their blog page.

Trip Log: Around the World in Fourteen Days

This trip log gathers all of my live Facebook posts from my trip to the Society for Ecotourism Conference in South Korea, Stockholm, and through the Netherlands.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 1-3:

The past couple of days have been so busy! I flew from LAX to Seoul (13 hr flight- omg way too long). The next day I presented at the International Society for Ecotourism conference. And then today I spent the whole day touring the wetlands and ecotourism projects of Ansan, S. Korea.

One of the biggest tidal power plants in the world! Ansan, S. Korea (c) ABR 2017

Day 4:

Lots of times people tell me to “let go of my fears” and “stop worrying.” But today all that anxiety saved me. See, I was worried that Ansan was too far away from the airport, so the first night I was here, I booked another place two train stops away from the airport for my last night. That meant that today after lunch, it was time to get in a taxi and move to my new place. Only every taxi refused to take me! It was too far for them. It took me at least two hours by train to get over here. Thank God I didn’t need to do this tomorrow or I would have surely missed my flight.

 

Day 5:

No picture with this post, because you don’t even want to know what I look like right now. Hahaha. Anyway, I am in the middle of trying to get from Asia to Europe. I had a 5 hour flight from Seoul, a 12 hour (!!!) layover in Bangkok, and once that is over an 11 hr flight to Sweden. Thank goodness for transit hotels, that is all I am saying right now.

Day 6:

I finally made it to Sweden yesterday! We didn’t do too much (besides taking an accidentally long nap). Went close to downtown for some amazing vegetarian food, and stopped by the photography museum. It is beautiful but cold here!

Beautiful Stockholm (c) ABR 2017

Day 7:

We hiked through 9 verdant miles of forest in Tyresta National Park today and then rewarded ourselves with some delicious dinner in Stockholm. Now I’m falling asleep to the sound of rain on the windows.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 8:

Today we explored Stockholm. First, we stopped for some delicious chai before going to the open-air museum, Skansen. This place has lots of cultural exhibits, but due to how quiet it was, we hung out in the zoo section of the park. There were lots of active animals here, with great enclosures and lots of enrichment. Then we got lunch at the Spirits Museum where I tried some alcohol that “wrinkled my tongue” with its bitterness. Finally, because everyone said we should go, we went to the Vasa Museum to see the giant boat (it was worth it).

The famous Vasa (c) ABR 2017

Day 9:

We arrived in the Netherlands and in true Nightborn style we went straight to the Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park. Really cool to see dunes in the middle of the forest.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 10:

I went to the high point of the Netherlands, visited downtown Tilburg, and saw the Van Gogh bike trail in one epic, mini-road trip. I’m ready to sleep in tomorrow!

(c) ABR 2017

Day 11:

Today we explored the “Little Venice” of the Netherlands (Giethoorn) in a little blue and white boat. We had to navigate through a reedy jungle of a national park, and survive boat jams in the town waterways. It was quite the adventure.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 13:

We’ve done a ton in the past two days. We walked through Amsterdam yesterday and stopped by the Van Gogh Museum. We attempted to see the Anne Frank Museum as well, but we weren’t able to go because we didn’t have reservations. Today we rode bikes through De Hoge Veluwe National Park (saw more Van Gogh), and went to the beach at Noorwijk. The Netherlands is an amazing place. There are still things I wish we had time to see, but tomorrow we begin the long journey home.

Free bikes come prepared for families! (c) ABR 2017

Day 14:

We drove the 1.5 hours to Eindhoven this morning, said farewell to our trusty car, Sasha, and hopped on the plane back to Stockholm. We enjoyed an evening walking around the city, and finally got the waffles we have been craving this whole trip at a beautiful cafe in the old city.

Our trusty car from the Netherlands, Sasha. <3 (c) ABR 2017

A Quick Guide to Hiking Mt. Fuji

 

Summiting Mt. Fuji was at the top of my list of things to do on my last trip to Japan. There were a few things that made it seem a little difficult to plan for, and that’s what I want to talk about here, as well as some little tips that should be helpful if you want to make it to the summit yourself.

(1) Which trail should I choose?

Sign post on Mt. Fuji (c) ABR 2017

That depends on you! But you should know that this guide is for the Yoshida Trail. We picked this one because it is the easiest to access via public transit, and it had lots of mountain huts. Added bonus, it is real hard to get lost on this trail because there is great signage and lots of other people.

(2) When should I go?

The final station before the summit (c) ABR 2017

The season to hike Mt. Fuji is from early July to early September, and I would suggest that you go in the first week if at all possible. If not, aim for less busy weeks. There were already lines forming on the trail in the first week, when we went, and I would not want to be there when it was more busy.

Safety/Legal Note: You SHOULD NOT attempt Mt Fuji off-season. It is extremely dangerous.

(3) How the heck do I get to Mt. Fuji from Tokyo?

Torii gate on Mt. Fuji (c) ABR 2017

This seemed needlessly complicated when I was trying to figure out how to get there by train. What you really need, however, is a bus, specifically this one. This will take you from Shinjuku Station to the 5th Station on Mt Fuji, where most people start their hike. It is a liiiiitle hard finding the bus station if you come in from the subway, because Shinjuku Station is so big, but it is in a big, bus-sized parking structure across a major street. If you get your tickets early (which I would suggest, and which you can do from this website), there will be some directions there as well.

Pro-tip: Bring Dramamine if you get carsick because the road up the mountain is curvy.

(4) Do I really need to stay on the mountain overnight?

Sun set on Mt. Fuji (c) ABR 2017

I would suggest staying in one of the mountain huts for the night for two reasons.

  1. While Mt Fuji is definitely hikeable in a day if you get an early start and are an experienced hiker, this will give you a chance to break up your hike and enjoy yourself more.
  2. The mountain huts are not the most comfortable, but there are some seriously surreal views at night that made it worth sleeping shoulder to shoulder to people in a giant bunk bed.

We stayed at the highest hut on the trail (Goraikoukan, which was 8,500 yen a night with meals), and I think that this worked really well because we did most of the uphill hike the first day. Do try to get your reservation as soon as they open for the season, because Mt. Fuji is very busy. I will say, I found the website to be very confusing because parts of it are not in English, but if you spend some time looking through it, you can figure it out.

(5) What gear do I need?

Struggling up the steep trail with a crowd (c) ABR 2017

Again, this depends on you. What I would suggest that you bring or rent (gear is available for rent at the Fifth Station where you arrive via bus) are clothes for rainy weather, because conditions change rapidly on the mountain, and you NEED to have good hiking shoes that are properly sized and broken in. What is optional are hiking poles, which I think may be helpful on the way down, but a little dangerous on the way up due to the steep conditions. Some people also bring little oxygen canisters, which I really don’t think are necessary, because Mt. Fuji is not as tall as it looks, but again, this is up to you. There is food at the mountain huts if you don’t want to carry your own, but I do suggest bringing something to give you a little sugar rush when you need it on the way up.

(6) Some people say Mt. Fuji isn’t worth the effort? What should I expect?

Crowds at the last stretch of the trail (c) ABR 2017

Mt. Fuji can be very crowded, and if you are looking for a wooded hike, this isn’t the trail you are looking for, however, I loved Mt. Fuji and I think you will too if you go in knowing a few things.

  1. The trails up and down Mt. Fuji are very steep. Please train and prepare before coming. Build your muscles and endurance, and break those hiking shoes in! If you are afraid of heights, be aware that there is some scrambling on the way up. The way down consists of steep switchbacks that will most likely murder your knees.
  2. There will be queuing on the trails, and there will be LOTS of slow hikers. Be mentally prepared to take your time, and enjoy the views.
  3. There aren’t many trees above 5th Station. Mostly, you will be climbing up the cone of the mountain, which is fairly featureless. That being said, I love that desolate look of high mountains above the tree-line, and the views off of Mt. Fuji’s slopes are unbeatable.

(7) Anything I should know about being responsible while on the mountain?

The summit is sometimes awash in trash from visitors (c) ABR 2017

Mt. Fuji has had problems with litter in the past, and it is essential to avoid becoming part of that problem. There are no trash cans once you get started on the trail, so please be prepared to pack your trash out. I usually bring along some grocery bags to tie up any trash that I don’t want just sitting in my pack, and it is always good to keep a close eye on your wrappers, etc. when you are stopping to eat. It can get windy up in the mountains, and even accidental littering is detrimental for the environment.

As always, other hiking rules apply. Stay on the trail to preserve the environment and for your own safety, even if there is a line on the trail or an apparently easier way up the slope. Do not take anything from the mountain. There might look like an endless supply of volcanic pebbles, but if everyone takes some, it will be a really problem in the long-run.

Remember that you are a guest on the mountain, and enjoy yourself.

Explore, Grow, Thrive!

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.

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.

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