Monday, January 14, 2019

Japan Recap : Tokyo Basics

Hi everyone!  I have a couple of really exciting posts to share- recapping my recent trip to Japan!  I was lucky enough to be able to go for about two and a half weeks in December, and it was the trip of a lifetime.  This has been the longest trip I've ever taken since I started working, and it was amazing to feel like I was really immersing myself in another culture!


I have so much to share about my trip, so I'm going to be breaking it down into a bunch of different posts.  First up, I'll be talking about our first stop of the trip- Tokyo.  This was a HUGE city and we spent four days there, so first I'm going to talk about some basics and give a couple of tips and general observations.  Next I'll talk about what we actually did and ate in Tokyo, then move on to the rest of the cities we visited (eight others!).  I hope that this is useful for anyone who is planning a trip to Japan, and if you have any questions please feel free to email me or leave me a message on Instagram.  Let's go!

Stay

Hyatt Regency Tokyo
I want to start out by saying that we stayed at some AMAZING places during our trip to Japan.  These were all probably the nicest hotels that I've ever stayed at (and I will talk about each one individually).  However- we were lucky enough to be able to use credit card points and cash in Hilton points as well.  Even though these places were nice, they were definitely on the expensive side, and if we were paying everything out of pocket, we would have been staying in either Airbnb's, added some capsule hotels, or less expensive hotels.  Not sponsored- but if you're looking to start earning points for travel, we've really liked the Chase cards which have a high trade in value for Hyatt hotels.


Moving on to the actual hotel- I loved everything about this place!  The location was right in Shinjuku, across the street from the Metropolitan Government Office, and within walking distance of Shinjuku station.  The hotel offered a free shuttle service to the station, but we were able to find an underground tunnel within steps of the entrance, so we always walked and could get ANYWHERE in the city (and country) from this gigantic station!


The rooms in the hotel were really nice and spacious, and had a "wet room" of a combined shower and tub (which we had in every hotel, must be a Japanese thing!).  We also had an upgrade to get breakfast every morning, as well as complimentary happy hour at night.  Both were great, and helped us to save a little big of money on food and drinks.


Transportation

One of the main things that I heard before this trip was how difficult public transportation was to understand.  My experience couldn't have been further from that though- I found it extremely easy to get around!  I do have a few pieces of advice that helped us a lot-

- Download the Hyperdia app.  With this, you can enter in your starting station and ending station (make sure you know the exact name, you can't search for locations), and the app will tell you exactly which line to take, which platform in the station, and the cost.

- Remember which line / letter you're taking.  It may seem confusing at first, but there are a few different companies that have subways and trains in Tokyo.  On a plus side, each company has their own logo, and area of the station.  When we were looking for our platform, we first looked for signs that directed us to the company, then looked for the letter and color of our specific line.  It was pretty simple once we did this a few times- we mostly used JR lines since we purchased the JR Pass, and could easily find our platform once we were through the turnstiles!



- Pick up an IC Card!  This definitely makes travel easy- all transportation takes IC cards (either Pasmo or Suica), and all you do is touch the card to the turnstile when entering and exit the station.  I've heard that there are no differences between the cards, and they can also be used in most vending machines and convenience stores.  One note though...


- Japan is very much a cash society.  We only used our credit card (maybe) three times in the 18 days we were there.  You need cash to buy IC cards, buy food, etc.

- JR Passes make travel so easy!  If you're planning on visiting multiple cities in Japan, I would recommend ordering a JR Pass.  This lets you travel on any JR line in the entire country for free, including most bullet trains!  We were even able to reserve seats on bullet trains.  There are a lot of calculators out there to figure out if the pass is worth it, but I found it useful just for the convenience of not paying for individual tickets or constantly checking the balance on our Suica.


Food

I would say that one area that I was really surprised about Japan was the food.  I expected everything to be really expensive, and to eat a lot of sushi.  While this may be true for some people, I found the food to be really reasonable, and only ate sushi twice on our entire trip!  We mostly ate from street vendors, got quick meals to go from 7-Eleven, or put together picnics from department stores.  Here are a few other tips:

Practice using chopsticks.  We were never given forks or knives outside of our hotel, so make sure you know how to use chopsticks before going.  Also, most chopsticks were found in little boxes on your table.

- Convenience stores and department stores are the BEST.  You might have been surprised to read that I did most of my food shopping there, but the experience is completely different from in the United States.  The main convenience stores- 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson- offer amazing food for really cheap prices.  I liked picking up onigiri (rice balls with different fillings), sandwiches, bento boxes, pastries, and hot drinks.


They also have hot food sections, where you can get fresh yakitori  (skewered meat).  Department stores all have food floors (as well as a restaurant floor), where you can get groceries, food presents, fresh bread, and sushi to go.  It was just an experience to walk around the floors, even if you don't buy anything!  One of my favorite ones was Tokyu Food Show in the Shibuya station!



At restaurants, you're usually given a wet towel.  No matter where we went, from fancy sit-down places to convenience stores, we were always given some kind of towel.  This is to wipe off your hands (not your entire face/body!), and then you neatly fold the towel and place it back on the dish.  It might seem obvious, but we were a little confused when we went to our first restaurant!

- Ramen/udon vending machine restaurants are amazing!  Not only are they cheap, but it was much easier to order for us, and was a unique experience.  All you have to do is put your money in the machine, make your food selections, and hand the ticket that spits out to the chef.  Once your food is done, it's handed to you and that's it!  Most of these shops were tiny with only a few seats, so usually you have to eat quickly to get the next person in line your seat.


- Tipping is not a thing in Japan.  I've heard that servers will chase you down if you leave money!  I also found that most places don't even give you a receipt- if you ask for the bill, they will bring over a calculator with what you owe, and you usually have to pay with cash.


Language

Before we went to Japan, we learned a few (emphasis on FEW) phrases.  Even though we weren't able to hold a conversation, we found that being able to greet people and say thank you was really helpful, and everyone was EXTREMELY nice to us.  I usually use the app Duolingo to help me learn the language- makes learning easy and fun!

When looking at restaurants, we looked for places that offered English menus, or used vending machine places to make it easier.  I've heard that some places will even turn you away if you aren't Japanese, but we never faced this.

In Tokyo, there were a lot of signs in both Japanese and English (especially in train stations).  There weren't a ton of street signs, and those that I found were always in Japanese, so I just relied on Google Maps to help me navigate.


Random

- Get a pocket wifi.  I have never done this in any other foreign country, but I would say it is a necessity (or at least makes travel a lot easier).  We were always able to get transportation directions, use our translator app, and look for places to go!

- Tokyo is VERY crowded.  We were there in December, which is supposed to be the low tourist season, and it was still packed everywhere.  Get used to battling through people constantly and being on crowded subways.  On a plus side, everyone kind of keeps to their side (typically on the left) and moves quickly.

- Japan is VERY clean!!  I seriously did not see any litter or even a random piece of trash during our stay.  Even weirder is the fact that you don't find public trash cans anywhere!  Instead, people will carry their trash home with them.  I usually saw trash cans at convenience stores and vending machines (which are seriously everywhere), so if I wanted a quick snack or drink, I would buy it and immediate eat/drink it so I could toss it right away.

- Bowing is a big thing.  We saw it everywhere, and started to do it as well.  I found it to be equivalent to a wave or a handshake.  You also bow when visiting shrines (you can read about the "proper" way to visit shrines and temples here).


I'll be back to share more specifics about what we did and what we ate, but I hope this was a helpful guide to some things that I noticed in Tokyo.  It was a city that I fell in love with quickly, and I can't wait to visit again.


Have you ever been to Asia?
What has been the biggest culture shock in your travels?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Happy New Year!

Can anyone believe that it's the year 2019?  I was going through some old pictures this week, and came across one from my freshman year of college when I went to the Rose Bowl in California.  After doing some math, I realized that was ten years ago.  How is that even possible!?

Every year, I like to make resolutions.  I started this blog as a way to track goals and keep myself accountable, so it's no surprise that the biggest goal-setting time of the year is one of my favorite times to set new challenges for myself!  This year is no different, but instead of making huge year-spanning goals, I'm just going to focus on January.  Without further ado or intro (since I'm a bit rusty and haven't been writing much lately), here is what I hope to achieve this month!


Write on the blog more

Can already tick this one off!  I miss blogging and writing, and feeling like I'm creating something (as insignificant as it may be).  I have so much to share, from my highlights of 2018, to my trips to Toronto, Golden Isles in Georgia, Chicago, and Japan!  I am also going to be training for another half marathon, so I want to document my training again and make sure I stay on track!  Which leads me to my second goal..


Start training for the Capital City Half Marathon

My big goal of last year was to complete a triathlon (which I did- you can find the recap here!), and after that I kind of took a break from training and running in general.  I somehow managed to run two official half marathons later in the year, but didn't have any goals or followed a plan at all.  I'm excited to start training hard again, and maybe even set a goal to PR!  More to come on that!


30 Days of Yoga Challenge

This is something that I do every year- complete Yoga with Adriene's 30 Day Challenge.  Every year has a new focus and theme, and this year is Dedicate.  These videos focus not only on making your body (specifically core) stronger, but also strengthen your mind.  It's always my favorite way of starting off the year and I can't wait to get started.


Read Two Books

I was not very good about reading in 2018, but I finished the year strong by reading two books in December (An American Marriage and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo).  I'm planning on doing one book for fun (whatever comes available first in my Overdrive wait list), and another off of the Time's Best Novels list to work on my 30x30 goal of reading 25 off of that list.


Work on Japan Scrapbook

I used to be really good about finishing scrapbooks for every trip that I went on, but have been slacking lately!  It all started when I made a scrapbook for each year of college, and it's something I've always enjoyed doing.  I already organized the ticket stubs, train tickets, and other small paper souvenirs that I acquired on my trip, so next I just have to print out papers and get to cutting and gluing!  I'm not going to make a promise to finish it in January, but I at least want to make progress so that this one gets completed before I forget all the details of my trip.


There you have it!  I think this is a completely do-able list, but will definitely get my year off to a good start.  Here's to a happy and healthy 2019!



Do you make resolutions?
What are your goals for January / 2019?

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Hawaii Big Island Day Four : Helicopter!

Hi everyone!  I'm excited to share my final post on my trip to the Big Island, which included one of the top experiences of my life.  When Dan and I were trying to decide what island to visit, we knew that we had to go to the Big Island while the volcano was erupting.  Not only was this a once in a lifetime thing to see, but the economy was also really hurting due to visitors cancelling their trips (even though the volcano only affected a very small part of a BIG island..as the name suggests!).

We decided to splurge and take a helicopter ride in order to really see and experience the powerful volcano.  I also saw recommendations to go on a boat tour, where you can get really close to where the lava enters the ocean, but I also wanted to see other areas of the island (especially waterfalls)!  So, we purchased the Big Island Spectacular through Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.


Before the tour started, we made our way to breakfast near the heliport (the other helicopter companies operate out of the two island airports, but Blue Hawaiian actually has their own private heliport right by Waikoloa Village!)  We went to Daylight Mind, where I had the most delicious macadamia nut milk latte and their specialty Niu Pancakes (with coconut and haupia syrup).  


Then, we made our way over to the heliport to get checked in and watch safety videos.  We got to meet our pilot, Marco, and the other 4 people on our helicopter.  I was lucky and got a window seat and a great view!  (Pro tip- make sure to wear dark clothes if you're on a helicopter!  Otherwise, you'll see your reflection in the windows.)


Soon, we were taking off to the soundtrack of James Bond and were souring above the island!  We started on the west coast of the Big Island and flew over Kona.  In the Hawaiian language, Kona means leeward, or dry side of the island.  In ancient Hawaii, each island had a district called Kona!  You might also recognize the name because this is a very famous coffee region, with some of the most expensive beans in the world.  This region has an ideal climate and mineral-rich volcanic soil, which comes together to create great coffee growing conditions!


After going up the coast for a bit and seeing a lot of dry land and old volcanic flows, we made our way to the Kohala Coast, where we were treated to the incredible view of the Waipi'o Valley.  This is actually where Dan and I hiked a few days earlier, so it was great to see the same sights from the air!


We were lucky to go on a clear day with just a few clouds-


How amazing are these views!  You can also spot lots of waterfalls all over the coast line, tumbling down the ridges.


We also got to see the Big Island's tallest waterfall- Hi'ilawe Falls.  As you can tell, these falls are only able to be seen from the air, and are 1,450 feet tall!  Since it was raining a lot recently, there were also a number of other waterfalls that Marco said aren't usually flowing in that area.  It was really magnificent!


After we circled around the waterfalls and valley a bit more, we started our journey over to the active volcano in Volcanoes National Park and went by Hilo.  Like I mentioned, Dan and I picked the Big Island because of the opportunity to see flowing lava.  While it definitely was an incredible, awe-inspiring sight, it was also sobering to see the devastation that it caused.  The flow of lava takes out everything in its path- houses, farms, buildings, cars, and more.  At the same time- the islands are all formed by volcanoes, so the Big Island is actually expanding.


Just seeing the volcano constantly erupting moments after seeing hundreds of waterfalls on the opposite coast really put into perspective how powerful Mother Nature is, and how inconsequential we all are.  As you can probably tell, this was really a moving and emotional experience for me!


After making a quick stop at the Hilo Airport to refuel, we made our way back to the heliport, cutting through the middle of the island.  After seeing the volcano in person, it was hard to take anything else in!  I was happy that we ended our trip here, because it would have been impossible for anything else to top this experience.

Have you ever been on a helicopter?
What's the most amazing thing you've seen in person?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Hawaii Big Island Day Three : East

Good morning everyone!  I'm back today to share part three of my Big Island recap.  This was definitely a busy day- starting out with a race and ending on top of a mountain.  This was also our final full day on the island, before heading over to Oahu.  Read on for what we did and where we ate!




Kona Quarter Marathon


One of my 30x30 goals is to complete a race on each birthday (starting at 25).  I turned 28 while we were in Hawaii, so I knew I had to find a race!  Luckily, there was one nearby, in the resort area of Waikoloa Village.  I ran in the quarter marathon, but there was also a full, half, and 5k.  With so many races going on at once (and different start times) I was really impressed with how organized everything was, and we started right on time!


The race itself was ok- we ran a loop around the resorts and then had an out-and-back on the highway.  The weather was beautiful, sunny, and hot, so my goal for the race was to just enjoy it!  I was still sore from doing a bunch of hilly hikes the previous day, so my legs were definitely not ready to race anyway.  I was surprised to check my results later and find out that I won an age group award, but luckily they were able to send it to my hotel in Oahu since I missed the award ceremony!  If you're ever on the Big Island, I would definitely recommend this race (unless one of your requirements is an ocean or jungle view).



Hilo

After the race, I got cleaned up and refueled, and we made our way east to the town of Hilo.  Fun fact about the Big Island- it is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world, with 8 different climate zones.  Hilo is a tropical rain forest climate with lots of rainfall, so unsurprisingly we got to see some rain on our daytrip!  It was interesting too, because it would be sunny and warm one minute, then the next there would be a downpour.


While we were in the town, we stopped at Conscious Culture Cafe for lunch.  This is definitely a hipster, crunchy granola type of place (which of course meant that Dan and I loved it!).  There were so many vegan options on the menu, and they make their own kombucha.  I got the tempeh street tacos, which were super filling, and some kind of kombucha mocktail.  Perfect lunch!



Akaka Falls


One of the main stops I wanted to make in Hilo was to Akaka Falls, which are supposed to be the most beautiful falls on the Big Island.  There is a paid parking lot at the trail head, and after a short hike in the jungle you are able to view the spectacular falls.  The entire area is so beautiful, so we spent some time here just walking around.




Lili'uokalani Gardens

In the heart of Hilo is a garden- the largest ornamental Japanese garden outside of Japan!  Everywhere you go in Hawaii, you see influences of Japanese culture, and this is no exception.  The park was named in honor of the last reigning monarch in Hawaii- Queen Liliuokalani, and was dedicated as a tribute to Hawaii's first Japanese immigrants that worked in the sugar cane fields on the Big Island. 

The park is over 20 acres, and has ponds, banyan trees, structures, and lots of pathways to explore.  Like many of Hawaii's other botanical gardens- this one is free to explore!


Coconut Island


After walking around the gardens, we ventured across a pedestrian bridge to visit Coconut Island.  There were lots of families on the island, enjoying the beautiful day and having cookouts.  There were lots of places to sit and relax and swim.  Dan and I enjoyed taking pictures of the waves crashing against the walls of the island and taking a minute to relax and enjoy a bit of sunshine!


Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots


While we were making our way out of Hilo, we stopped at a few more waterfalls.  The first was Rainbow Falls- aptly name because you can see rainbows in the waterfall when you visit on a sunny morning.  Since it was later in the day and not sunny, we didn't get to see any rainbows, but enjoyed the view all the same!  We also explored a few paths that took us through a massive banyan tree (I might have actually enjoyed that even more than the waterfall!) and a view from the top of the falls.


We also quickly stopped by the Boiling Pots, which is further upriver from Rainbow Falls.  This area isn't as much of a waterfall, but more of a stream with ponds of "boiling" water collecting in the eroded lava tubes.  We didn't spend much time here, because it started to rain really hard, and we had to make it to the top of a mountain before sun set!


Mauna Kea


Our final stop of the day was visiting Mauna Kea, which is a huge dormant volcano between Kona and Hilo.  A lot of people visit for stargazing because of the amazing views, and there are a ton of telescopes set up at the summit (including some of the largest in the world!).  Before making our way to the top, we first had to stop at the visitor's center to acclimate to the elevation.  We also put on more layers, since it gets below freezing at the top!


We slowly made our way up the treacherous roads (you have to have a four wheel drive to get past the visitor's center) and were soon above the clouds.  It was so beautiful at the top, and we spent plenty of time walking around and exploring.  We also took a short hike to Lake Waiau, which is the highest lake in the Pacific Basin, and the only alpine lake in Hawaii.


I have one more special post to share about the Big Island, and then it's time for more adventures in Oahu!  



Have you ever gone star gazing?
Do you like to run races for special occasions?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Hawaii Big Island Day Two - North

It's time for day two of my Big Island adventure!  This day, we ventured up north for a day full of hiking and some beaches thrown in.  We got to see some of the most famous and beautiful Hawaiian sights.  Like the other days we were on the island, the weather cooperated and we got to do so much!


Here's a look at how we spent the day:

Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District

Dan and I started our second day on the Big Island by traveling up to the resort area of the island in Waikoloa to pick up my race packet (coming to my next post!).  I heard about a short hike that we could go on, where we see one of the largest collections of petroglyphs (rock drawings, or in this case lava flow drawings).



The walk was short and easy, and it was fascinating to see all of the petroglyphs that were still in impeccable condition, despite being hundreds of years old.


Holoholokai Beach Park

After we finished up the walk, we stumbled upon the most beautiful beach area, just off the main parking lot.  There were some people getting in the water to snorkel, and it's easy to see why- the water was one of the clearest that I've seen anywhere, there were lots of beautiful fish, and there was coral galore!  This is definitely a hidden gem and ended up being our favorite beach that we saw (we went back right before we flew to Oahu!)

Hawi Town
Next, we were off for the northern coast and Hawi.  You might have heard of this little town, because it serves as the turn around point for the bike route in the Ironman Championship!  While we didn't do any biking, we enjoyed walking the streets and visiting adorable gift shops.


We also stopped for some food at a restaurant that came highly recommended to me- Bamboo!  The food was delicious (I got a tofu Cuban sandwich) and the drinks were amazing.  They make traditional tropical drinks, but add in lilikoi (passion fruit) to pretty much everything!  It takes everything up a notch, and our drinks were very refreshing.


Pololu Lookout
We continued on through the town until we reached the Pololu Lookout!  Just a heads up- this is a very popular area and hike, so it gets VERY crowded.  We went in the afternoon and had to park about a quarter mile from the trail head and overlook, so I would recommend getting an early start.


The trail is really easy to follow, and zig-zags down a steep hill to get you from the overlook, all the way down to the beach.  It was a fun hike down, with lots of photo opportunities and chances to enjoy the view.


Once we made it down, we explored the area a bit and took it all in.  It was so beautiful down there, with a beach area, a little runoff lake area, and towering mountains surrounding us.  Luckily there were lots of clouds out, so the weather felt perfect.


Such a beautiful site!  Luckily for us, in just a few days we would be able to see all of these areas from the air, which was even more breathtaking.


Fresh off the Grid Fruit Stand
There's nothing better than some refreshing fruit after a hot hike, and luckily there was a fruit stand right outside of the outlook.  Dan and I both got smoothies (which tasted amazing and fresh) and visited the horses roaming the fields before we went for our next hike!  Side note- there are so many fruit stands everywhere in Hawaii, so make sure you get as much fresh fruit as you can!


Waipio Valley Lookout

For the final hike of the day, we drove around to the other side of the valley and the Waipio Valley Overlook.  This side looked pretty similar to Pololu- just as beautiful, and we got treated to a sunset.


The beaches down there were beautiful, and features miles and miles of beautiful black sand.  This is a very popular spot for surfing, and we saw tons of families out there having a blast!  I heard there were waterfalls too, but we hiked and climbed for a while and couldn't find them unfortunately.


While it might have been fine heading down the hill, the hike back was definitely a challenge!  The road has an average grade of 25% and up to 40% in some places.  In fact, this is the steepest road of its length in the United States!  While you can drive on the road, it was highly discouraged if you're not a local because tourists have been known to get stuck and have to be towed to the top (which can be VERY expensive and clog up the narrow road).