5 Tips for Visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival

The Sapporo Snow Festival is an annual event held in the city of Sapporo, the largest city on Japan’s Hokkaido island. The Japanese name for this festival is Yuki Matsuri, with yuki meaning snow and matsuri meaning festival in the Japanese language.

The Sapporo Snow Festival brings around 2 million visitors to the city each February. Visitors come from all over Japan — and from all over the world — to experience this winter wonderland. The festival is spread throughout three locations in Sapporo:

The Odori Site

The Odori site, located in Odori Park, is the main festival site. This is where you can see the huge snow and ice sculptures that the Sapporo Snow Festival is famous for. Don’t miss Odori Park at night, when the sculptures are lit up. This park is huge and is filled with different areas to explore. It is where you will (most likely) spend the majority of your time during the Sapporo Snow Festival.

The Susukino Site (SUSUKINO ICE WORLD)

The Susukino site is where you will find the festival’s ice sculptures. Susukino is in downtown Sapporo and is easily accessible by subway. When you’re done admiring the intricate sculptures, be sure to duck into Ramen Alley for some famous Hokkaido ramen!

The Tsudome Site

The Tsudome Site is the second largest site of the Sapporo Snow Festival and is where you will find numerous outdoor activities: snow and ice slides, snowrafting, snowball target practice, and more. This site is a 10 minute walk from Sakaemachi station, which is a 30 minutes ride from Sapporo Station. There is a shuttle bus that will take you from Sakaemachi station to the Tsudome site. The cost of the shuttle was 100 yen/person each way — cash only.

It was difficult to find useful information in English when we were planning our visit to the 2017 Sapporo Snow Festival, so thought I’d share a few tips here. I hope they will be helpful for your future Yuki Matsuri visit!

5 tips visit Sapporo snow festival

Tips for Visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival

If you are planning to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Tip #1: BOOK EARLY

We travel a lot, and it’s not unheard of for us to book a big trip a trip the month before we leave. For example, I started planning my solo Bali trip about six weeks before I went. This strategy (or lack thereof) will not work for the Sapporo Snow Festival.

In fact, we tried to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival in 2016. I started looking into flights in October 2015, and they were completely full. This was quite a shock when we’ve gotten used to showing up at the train station, buying a ticket, and arriving in a new city in Japan within the span of a few hours.

Needless to say, this year I had it marked on my calendar to book this trip in early August. I wasn’t going to miss out two years in a row!

Moral of the story: book your flights and accommodation at least 6 months in advance. This advice isn’t only for the budget travelers out there. Even if you aren’t necessarily concerned with the cost, you will need to book early because flights and accommodation will fill up.

Tip #2: Plan Around the Crowds

To experience the festival with fewer crowds, plan to visit on a weekday if possible.

We visited the main site of the Sapporo Snow Festival, Odori, just after arriving in Sapporo on Friday afternoon and found the crowds to be quite manageable. Keep in mind that we have lived in Japan for nearly two years so our tolerance for crowds may be a little skewed.

Even though we have gotten used to crowds, we know our tolerance level is still set at “American”. We purposely avoided the main Odori site on Saturday and Sunday for this exact reason. Thankfully we decided that an afternoon and evening was plenty of time to enjoy the Odori site.

If you think the crowds will affect your enjoyment of the festival, I recommend visiting on weekdays only.

Tip #3: Stay Near the Festival Sites

As you can imagine, accommodation near the festival can be quite expensive, even if you book early. If staying near Odori Park isn’t within your budget — or simply isn’t available — then I suggest that you stay as close to a subway station as possible. This would be my advice for traveling to any major city, obviously, but it’s especially important when visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival. February is cold and windy in Sapporo, so you will appreciate being able to get back to your accommodation to thaw out as soon as possible after you’re done with the day’s activities.

I’d also suggest booking your accommodation through Airbnb. <– use this link to save $37 off of your first Airbnb stay! We paid considerably less for an apartment than it would have cost us for a hotel room, and we had an entire apartment to ourselves including a full kitchen and laundry.

Another thing to consider:

The sidewalks in Sapporo can be extremely slippery and snow-packed. This was the case everywhere we went with very, very few exceptions. Don’t assume that the sidewalks near your accommodation will be completely clear. We’ve gotten quite used to walking everywhere since moving to Japan, but what may be considered to be a normal, easy walk in Japan (and beyond) may not be safe in Sapporo. Because of the condition of the sidewalks, it also was quite difficult to use our rolling suitcases on the sidewalks in Sapporo, so keep that in mind as well. We ended up carrying our suitcases most of the way from the subway station to our accommodation, which is another reason to stay as close to the station as possible!

On this note, I saw very few strollers at the festival and around Sapporo, which I assume was due to the snow-packed ground and the crowds. Most people were wearing their little ones in a carrier, which seems to be the most common method of child transportation in Japan anyway. With this in mind, if you are traveling with small children you will probably want to leave the stroller at home.

Tip #4: Don’t just visit the Snow Festival

Sapporo is such a cool city and the surrounding area is stunningly beautiful. It would be a shame for you to travel all that way and only see the 3 festival sites. Plan to take a day trip out to the mountains to ski, visit one of the charming towns nearby, or simply rent a car and hit the road to admire the scenery.

Don’t believe me? Check out this video we took of the Hokkaido coastline with our drone:

Tip #5: What to Wear

One of the biggest concerns I had about visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival was about what to wear. That may sound a little silly, but hear me out:

I knew that we would be spending a substantial amount of time outdoors, but I didn’t want to be uncomfortable when going inside. If you are a Westerner who has spent time traveling in Japan, especially in winter, then you will know exactly what I am talking about. When it’s freezing outside it will be sweltering inside. You can not escape blasting heaters! This includes being inside buildings and while riding the train. I assumed that I would be peeling every layer possible each time we ducked inside to warm up. I was right.

My suggestion is to dress in thin, warm layers. On the bottom, I layered leggings under my jeans. I wore wool socks and warm boots on my feet. On top, I wore a moisture-wicking tank top, a thin cashmere sweater, my down jacket, a hat, and wool gloves.

This wardrobe formula kept me perfectly comfortable while walking around outside for hours, but at the same time I wasn’t too hot when ducking inside a steamy ramen shop.

A little more on footwear: any pair of warm, well-soled boots will be perfect. I wore my Ugg boots and they were great. However, if I wasn’t a hardy Midwesterner who grew up walking around in the tundra all winter, I may have opted for something with a bit more grip. There’s an art to walking over snow and ice without slipping, and if you’re not accustomed to it it can be quite treacherous.

Enjoy your trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival!

If you stick to these 5 tips for visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival, you’re sure to enjoy your trip!

I want to hear from you: if you’ve visited the Sapporo Snow Festival, do you agree with these suggestions? Please leave your tips in the comments below!

 

 

The Sapporo Snow Festival

Like most expats, we have a long list of places we want to visit before we repatriate. Many of the destinations that are on our list are outside of Japan, but there are still many places in Japan that we want to check out, too. In fact, we’ve spent so much time (and money) focusing on our trips abroad that it’s been awhile since we took a trip within Japan. I’m happy to report that this (unintentional) travel break was remedied last weekend with a trip north to Hokkaido to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, has been on our list of destinations since before we moved to Japan in 2015. Jason has wanted to visit Hokkaido ever since he started traveling to Japan for work back in 2013, and he put The Sapporo Snow Festival on his bucket list as soon as we found out that we were moving to Japan.

I am happy to report that we officially crossed this trip off of the list last weekend!

The Sapporo Snow Festival SeeLayne

Day 1: Friday, February 10

On Friday afternoon, we all flew to Sapporo from Nagoya via SkyMark Airlines. I’ve heard horror stories from people traveling on budget airlines, so I want to take a moment to gush about SkyMark. Our flights cost $130 round trip per person and included 20kg of checked luggage each (you can check skis, snowboards, and surfboards as part of your 20kg as long as they are shorter than 280cm) for no extra charge.

The direct flight from Nagoya to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido was 90 minutes, and was the smoothest flight we’ve been on in a long time. My expectations for comfort were quite low, but decided that it was worth it for the low price and short flight. Boy, was I wrong! This is the first economy flight I’ve ever been on with extra legroom. One thing to note: they charged for refreshments on the flight, even for water. They did give out complementary Kit-Kats, which definitely made up for it. Chocolate > water. Duh.

skymark airlines japan kitkat

After our uneventful flight (the best kind!), we made our way into the city. It took us about an hour by train to get from New Chitose Airport to our accommodation.

Our Accommodation

We almost exclusively use Airbnb when we travel, and this trip was no exception. Our Airbnb apartment was in the perfect location: only steps away from Nakajima Park and Nakajima Koen subway station. The apartment was huge, especially for Japan: two bedrooms, living area, full kitchen, laundry, balcony. Much more comfortable for the three of us than a hotel room.

Note: you can use one of the Airbnb links above to save $37 on your very first Airbnb stay!

After getting checked in to our apartment, we turned right around to venture out. Right outside our building was a man selling Amazake, a hot drink made from rice — kind of like warm, sweet, sake. Jason enjoyed it, but decided that he wouldn’t have been able to drink more than one small cup.

amazake seller sapporo snow festival hokkaido japan

Sapporo made us feel right at home with the snow and the cold. We didn’t realize how much we missed it until we got here!

bike buried snow sapporo

Odori Park

Our first stop was the main festival location: Odori Park. Like (pretty much) everywhere else in Japan, the subway is the most efficient way to get around Sapporo. We walked about a minute to get to Nakajima Koen station, got on a train, and were at Odori park in less than 10 minutes. We came out of the station and were at the festival. It was busy, but the crowds were still manageable at this point. I was happy that we were able to visit the festival Friday night rather than waiting until Saturday because of the expected weekend crowds.

I didn’t get too many photos of the festival as I was Snapchatting most of the time (follow me on Snapchat: seelayne).

Odori Park is home to the festival’s huge snow and ice sculptures. This is the main location for the Snow Festival, and the enormous sculptures draw the most visitors of any of the three locations. Here are some of the photos I took from Odori Park:

sapporo snow festival hokkaido japan

sapporo snow festival japan

I wish someone had been standing in front of this one so you could see how big it was! It was nearly 20 feet tall:

cup noodle sapporo snow festival hokkaido japan

donald trum sapporo snow festival hokkaido japan

We spent a few hours admiring the sculptures, people watching, trying not to slip on the ice, and sampling the festival food. We were ready to warm up at this point, so we decided to search for some dinner.

Next Stop: Dinner

The three of us had a difficult time agreeing on where (and what) to eat, so we finally wandered into Bacchus Meat Cafe near Susukino station.

By this point we were cold, hungry, and cranky — a terrible combination for our first evening in Sapporo. All was forgotten as soon as we looked at the menu! We ended up sharing a huge platter of assorted grilled meats, a Caesar salad, and Racklett, a slab of melted cheese you pour over potatoes, vegetables, and bread. The food was DELICIOUS. We are usually happy to try local Japanese restaurants whenever we travel, but sometimes you just need to go for the meat and cheese!

Day 2: Saturday, February 11

We all wanted to do slightly different things on this trip, so we split up for the morning hours on Saturday. Jason loves Japanese whiskey, so he made plans to visit Yoichi distillery. The distillery is located about an hour by train from Sapporo.

yoichi distillery hokkaido japan

yoichi cafe tasting hokkaido japan

yoichi distillery tasting set

Em and I went to Shiroi Koibito Park for a tour of how they make the famous Shiroi Koibito cookies.

shiroi koibito factory tour

shiroi koibito park hokkaido

Susukino

We met up again in the afternoon to do some shopping and to visit the other downtown location of the festival: Susukino. The Susukino site is where you can view the festival’s ice sculptures. Some of the sculptures were so detailed!

sapporo hokkaido snow festival ice sculpture susukino

This site was a fraction of the size of the Odori location, so it didn’t take as long to see everything. There were tons of ice sculptures here, as well as an Ice Bar where you could get a hot drink (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). We also saw an ice slide that looked like it was a lot of fun for the kids in the crowd!

Ramen Alley

After walking around for about an hour, our hunger led us towards Ramen Alley, a famous Sapporo alleyway filled with, you guessed it: ramen restaurants. We walked up and down the alley for about 15 minutes before deciding on the winning ramen shop. It was so hard to decide! There were so many great options, and in the end we chose the shop with the longest line.

We waited for about 20 minutes before we were invited in. We took up 3 of the 8 seats in the shop. The shop was cozy and warm, and the ramen was tasty. It was the perfect remedy for spending too much time out in the cold!

ramen alley susukino sapporo hokkaido japan

With full bellies, we decided to head back for a relaxing evening.

Nakajima Koen

We thought we were done exploring for the day, but we were wrong! When we emerged from the subway station, we saw a glow coming from Nakajima Koen (koen means park in Japanese) across the street that stopped us in our tracks. We were so excited to see that the park was lit up with hundreds of lanterns and snow sculptures! It started to snow while we were exploring the park, which only added to the atmosphere. It was magical.

Nakajima Koen Sapporo snow festival

nakajima koen sapporo

nakajima koen sapporo snow festival

ice lanterns nakajima koen sapporo snow festival

After spending about an hour in the park we were finally ready to head back. But not before stopping at the conbini (convenience store) for a bottle of wine and some snacks first!

Day 3: Sunday, February 12

Sunday was our last full day in Sapporo. In the morning, we decided to make our way out to the third location of the Sapporo Snow Festival: Tsudome.

Tsudome

This location was not in downtown Sapporo, but about 30 minutes away. The site is a 10 minute walk from Sakamachi station on the Toho line, but there are shuttle buses ready to take you there. The shuttle bus isn’t free (100 yen per person each way – cash only!), but taking the bus was totally worth it to stay out of the cold and off of the icy sidewalks.

This location was more for families with younger children. There were ice slides, sledding hills, a chance to ride in a raft behind a snowmobile, snowball throwing challenges, a snow blower station (where you can operate huge snowblowers) and much more.

Growing up in the tundra of northern Minnesota, these activities weren’t all that appealing to us. Plus, there were lines of at least 30 minutes for the hill, slide, and the snow rafting. I could see that others were REALLY excited about all of this, though! We only spent about 30 minutes here before making our way to our next activity.

We wanted to get out of Sapporo for the afternoon, so we made plans to visit Otaru, located about an hour away by train.

But first, Asari

On the way to Otaru, we had to make a pit stop at Asari station so that we could fly our new drone!

We were excited to find a secluded location on this trip so that we could take it out for a flight! You have to be super careful about following the local laws when flying, especially in such a densely populated country like Japan. For example, there is only one place we found that is easily accessible by public transport near Nagoya where we can legally fly.

This drone is so compact that it fits into a case the size of a lunchbox, which means that it will be coming with us wherever we travel from now on. I can’t wait to share future videos with you all!

Here is the footage we were able to capture in Sapporo:

We were in awe of the scenery here, especially since this was the first time I’d ever seen the sea and snow at the same time. It was seriously incredible.

Otaru

After our pit stop, we got back on the train and soon arrived in Otaru.  We were there to see the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, when the town glows with thousands of flickering candles and illuminations. In addition, they float candles on the canal each night at 5:00 PM.

otaru canal hokkaido lantern festival

It started snowing pretty heavily as soon as we arrived in Otaru, and it didn’t stop until we left. The snow made us northerners pretty happy, especially since we hadn’t gotten to enjoy the snow much so far this winter. Otaru was lovely, but it was PACKED with tourists. We saw the canal, did a little shopping, and ate some (more) ramen to warm up. At this point we were all getting pretty tired. We decided that were were done being outside and got on the train back to Sapporo.

Day 4: Monday, February 13

Time to go home! We checked out of our Airbnb at 10:00 AM and went straight to the airport.

We knew that the New Chitose Airport has its own ramen alley, and we couldn’t resist checking it out. The restaurants are before security, so we got checked in for our flight, dropped off our bags, and went in search of the perfect bowl.

ramen alley new chitose airport sapporo

At this point I decided that it would be a shame to leave without having some seafood ramen! I tried a seafood ramen piled high with crab (which sank to the bottom of my bowl by the time I got my camera out!). Delicious.

After lunch we flew back to Nagoya. After a busy weekend, we were happy to be home again! We really enjoyed Hokkaido and the Sapporo Snow Festival! We would definitely go back to visit — perhaps during the sweltering late-summer months to escape the heat?

Do you like seeing trip reports like this? Want to see something different? Have a question about Sapporo or the Sapporo Snow Festival? Leave me a comment to let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

What I Read this Month: January 2017

I love to read. LOVE it. I love nothing more than reading for hours, accidentally staying up until 2:00 AM because I can’t put my book down. There have been multiple occasions where I have been known to read a book cover to cover in less than 24 hours.

I know what you’re thinking…it must be nice to have all of that time to read. Well, it is. But the truth is that I have (almost) always been able to find time to read. I am a firm believer in making time for the things that make you happy. If you love something you will give something else up to make time for it.

Like sleep, which I don’t necessarily recommend.

Many of the very best people I know share my love of books. Since some of you also read this blog, I thought you all might be interested to hear about the books I read in January. I also set a goal to read at least 30 books in 2017, and thought this would be a great way to keep track of my progress.

4 down, 26 to go!

What I Read in January

January started out with me lounging on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef, which allowed for ample reading time. I love taking my Kindle (which just happens to be $20 off right now!) with me on vacation, and often add at least one travel-related book to it when I am getting ready to go on holiday.

Here’s what I read last month:

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

This is the travel book I added for our Australia trip. It has been on my list for a few months but I can’t remember where I first heard of it.

Side note: I tend to collect random book titles on “to read someday” lists and haven’t really had a great way to organize them until now. With my reading goal in mind, I decided it was time to finally create a Goodreads account. If you are unfamiliar with Goodreads, it allows you to track and review the books you’ve read, as well as create a list of books to read in the future. You can also get recommendations based on what you loved. You can add friends to see what they’ve read and loved, too. Leave me a comment with your username if you’d like me to add you as a friend!

Okay, on to the book: Instead of settling down and having babies in her late twenties and early thirties, Newman was traveling the world (often by herself) for multiple weeks each year. This is a great book if you want to live vicariously through her travels. It was interesting to notice how her personality changed when she left the country. I was also interested to hear the lessons she learned about being a good travel partner. Finally, I enjoyed getting to peek into her life since it is so different from my own. She talks about traveling solo because she didn’t want to wait for others to be ready and willing to travel with her, and I can definitely relate to that. If you like hearing peoples’ travel stories or just like reading memoirs in general, I’d definitely recommend.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim

I have been intrigued by North Korea for a long time, even more so now that we live in close proximity. We are planning to travel to South Korea later this year, and are hoping to make a trip to the DMZ when we do. You’ll see that I tend to follow my curiosity when it comes to my book choices, and in January I wanted to learn more about North Korea and the people who live there.

Unfortunately, the only way we outsiders will ever learn about the people of North Korea is if brave journalists like the author of this book put their lives at risk to bring their stories to us. I have such respect for Kim, a journalist, who posed as a teacher and a Christian missionary (she is neither a teacher nor a Christian) in order to investigate the lives of the North Korean elite. She was given permission by the North Korean government to teach at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and along with her position came unprecedented access to the students there.

She was able to fool everyone, but was constantly worried about being found out by the government — or her fellow teachers. I found this story fascinating, and it piqued my desire to do more research. If you are at all interested in North Korea, I consider this a must read.

Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-sung

Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-sung

I told you I was on a North Korea kick this month! This incredible story follows the author on his journey to defect from North Korea. Jin-sung, an elite member of the North Korean government, escaped via China in 2004. This book tells the story of his escape, along with what he saw while working for the government. He also delves into the history of the country, detailing Kim Jong-il’s (and consequently, Kim Jong-un’s) rise to power. It’s a fascinating look in to the world’s most brutal regime. Reading about the methodical way the regime controls absolutely everything was equally fascinating and terrifying. I couldn’t put this book down. Another must read for those interested in this mysterious country.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Sadly, I considered this psychological thriller to be light reading after my previous two books.

This story follows Rachel, a divorced alcoholic who rides the same commuter train each day. One day, she sees something shocking during her commute and becomes involved in the investigation of a local missing woman. If you like psychological thrillers, chances are that you’ll like this.

What are You Reading?

I think I need to add some lighter reading next month, what do you think?

What have you been reading? I’d love some (fiction or non-fiction) recommendations!

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links

 

Platt Kodama – Discount Shinkansen Tickets in Japan

Platt Kodama Discount Shinkansen Travel Japan

It’s no secret that traveling by Shinkansen — aka the bullet train — can be an expensive way to travel in Japan. But it doesn’t have to be so expensive! You can get discounts on Shinkansen tickets by using Platt Kodama.

Platt Kodama Discount Shinkansen Travel Japan

As I shared in my 2016 Travel Highlights, I did a lot of Shinkansen travel last year. I personally took 17 one-way Shinkansen trips, but the total number of Shinkansen tickets we purchased in 2016 was 43! This number reflects the number of tickets we bought for our family of 3, but also includes any tickets we purchased for our visitors.

At around $100 each, that’s a lot of money spent on train tickets!

We rarely pay full price for our Shinkansen tickets, however. No, I don’t have an in with someone in the JR office. I wish! We were able to save hundreds of dollars on Shinkansen tickets last year simply by using the Platt Kodama (aka Puratto Kodama) program offered by JR Tours.

What is the Platt Kodama?

First of all, let me say that this post is not sponsored. JR has no idea who I am, unless my name is on a list because of how much money I gave them last year. Ha. I am simply sharing this information so that you can save money, too.

The Platt Kodama program offers savings on Tokaido Shinkansen tickets between Tokyo and Osaka. This allows travelers to save big on travel between Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo — cities that happen to be the most popular destinations for Japan travelers.

Platt Kodama Benefits

The Platt Kodama program is an easy solution to saving big on one-way Shinkansen tickets.

Discounted Shinkansen Tickets

As I said before, traveling by Shinkansen can be expensive! The Platt Kodama program is a great option for saving money on train travel in Japan.

For a trip from Osaka to Tokyo, the savings is ¥3,840 (about $33 at the time of this writing) over the cost of a regular ticket. For the green car, the savings is ¥7,120 (over $60). This is depending on the route and the exchange rate, of course. Those savings add up quickly!

For example: We bought 4 tickets for a trip from Nagoya to Tokyo last spring. With the Platt Kodama discount, we were able to save ¥11,120 (almost $100) over the regular cost of ¥43,520 (nearly $400). All because I bought the tickets ahead of time and purchased them from the JR Tours office instead of the usual ticket counter.

Free Drink Included

When you buy your Platt Kodama ticket, you will get a voucher for a free drink. This voucher can be redeemed for a soft drink or a 350 ml can of beer/Chu-hi at one of the convenience stores in the train station. This voucher CAN NOT be redeemed on board the train.

Platt Kodama Drawbacks

The Platt Kodama isn’t necessarily the best option for every trip. You need to weigh the options to make sure that it is the best choice for you.

You Must Plan Ahead

One of the benefits of train travel in Japan is being able to turn up at the train station 30 minutes before leaving, buying your ticket for the next train, and hopping on the train — after grabbing your bento box + chu-hi, of course.

With the Platt Kodama, you can not buy your tickets on the same day of travel. You must buy your tickets in advance. You can buy your tickets the day before you plan to travel, however, I recommend getting your tickets at least a few days before. Especially if you are traveling with multiple people or need to get on a specific train.

The Kodama Train is Slow

The Kodama train is the slowest option for Shinkansen travel between Tokyo and Osaka. For example, I can get from Nagoya Station to Tokyo Station in about 90 minutes on the Nozomi train. However, on the Kodama train, this same journey will take me over 3 hours. This is because the Kodama train stops at every stop between Nagoya and Tokyo. This generally isn’t a problem, but I usually choose to buy the more expensive ticket if I need to be somewhere early or if I want more time at my destination.

For example, if we are planning to weekend in Tokyo and can’t leave until my husband gets home from work at 5:00 PM, we will probably choose the faster train out of Nagoya in order to get to Tokyo in time for dinner. In this case the time savings is more important to us than the lower cost.

You Can Not Change Your Kodama Ticket

Another thing to note is that, unlike a regular Shinkansen ticket, you can not make changes to your Platt Kodama reservation. If you miss your train or can not travel, you can not get a refund. Like most rules in Japan, there are NO EXCEPTIONS.

For this reason, I very rarely choose the Platt Kodama when returning to Nagoya after flying into Tokyo (Narita or Haneda) or Osaka (Kansai). The ticket savings is not worth the potential of losing the entire purchase price due to a delayed flight. In these cases I opt to buy a ticket at the airport after I land instead. I’d much rather pay a little more than miss the Kodama and still need to buy a Shinkansen ticket.

I also make sure to plan for more than enough time to catch the train, especially if I am not traveling by myself.

Even with these potential hassles, we tend to choose the Platt Kodama about half of the time.

How to Buy Platt Kodama Tickets

Platt Kodama tickets need to be purchased from a JR Tours office. Since we live in Nagoya, we generally buy our tickets from the JR Tours office located in Nagoya Station. The purchase procedure may differ between each JR Tour office, but this the procedure for the JR Tour office at Nagoya Station.

JR Tour Office Nagoya Station

You do not need an appointment to buy your Platt Kodama tickets. Simply walk in to the office and take a number from the machine located right inside the door.

Buy Platt Kodama Tickets JR Tours

Selecting English will tell the JR Tours employees that you would like to work with an employee who speaks English. If you feel comfortable with Japanese, you can skip this step. I recommend asking for English the first time you visit the JR Tours office, or if you are trying to plan a multi-person or multi-destination trip.

As you can see in the photo above, you can also book other tour packages through the JR Tours office. We haven’t ever used this service to book travel in Japan, but I would love to hear from anyone who has!

Fill Out the Platt Kodama Form

To make buying your Platt Kodama tickets easier, fill out the Platt Kodama form. I’m sure you can buy tickets without filling this form out at all, but I haven’t ever done so.

You do not need to fill this form out ahead of time. They will have a stack of these forms in the JR Tours office, along with clipboards and pens for you to use. Filling the form out at home is especially helpful if you are buying tickets for multiple people (or multiple trips) at the same time.

You can find the Kodama timetables on the Platt Kodama website. I write my first choice (train number/route/time) on the form, but it’s also a good idea to have at least a couple of backup trains that you would be willing to take as well in case the train you want is full.

Buying Your Platt Kodama Tickets

Once you have taken your number from the machine, have a seat in the waiting area and wait for your number to be called. They will announce the next number over the loud speaker, and your number will flash on the screens located around the waiting room. The attendant who will assist you will also raise their hand. You will not have any trouble knowing when it’s your turn to buy your ticket(s)!

When your number is called, you will go to the counter and hand your form to the employee. They will then look over your information and confirm the date and train times with you. They will check to see if there are tickets available for your requested train. After the employee has confirmed your tickets, they may either ask you to wait while they print your tickets or they may print them when while you wait at the counter.

You can pay with cash or credit card. I always use my Chase Sapphire Preferred* card so that I get double points on travel purchases.

It’s that easy!

Traveling with your Platt Kodama Ticket

Traveling with your Kodama ticket is easy! On the day of travel, you will turn up at the station, go get your free drink using your drink voucher, and then go to the Shinkansen wicket. Instead of putting your ticket through the machine, simply hand your Kodama ticket to the attendant. He or she will stamp your ticket and then you’ll be on your way.

When you get to your destination, simply hand your Kodama ticket to the attendant when you exit.

Other Ways to Save on Shinkansen Tickets

The Platt Kodama program isn’t the only way to save money on Shinkansen tickets in Japan. Here are a few other ideas:

Book an Unreserved Seat

If you are traveling alone — or don’t mind not sitting with your travel partner — you can save some cash on your Shinkansen tickets by purchasing an unreserved ticket. You can save about 700 yen per ticket by booking an unreserved Shinkansen ticket, depending on your route. It’s not a huge savings per ticket, but for three people round trip it can add up quickly. We have done this a few times and have always been able to find seats together.

However, there is always a chance that you won’t find seats together — or you might not get a seat at all. This isn’t a huge deal if you’re going from Nagoya to Kyoto (about 35 minutes on the Nozomi), but standing for even part of the trip from Osaka to Tokyo could be a pain. Buy an unreserved Shinkansen ticket at your own risk.

Buy the Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass is a popular option for foreign visitors to Japan. Passes are sold for different lengths of time and, depending on travel plans, may or may not be worth the cost.

Expats in Japan can not take advantage of the JR Rail pass, unfortunately. However, if you have visitors coming, it could be a great option for them. You can find more information about the Japan Rail pass here.

Please note that the pass must be purchased outside of Japan and the voucher needs to be exchanged at a Japan Rail Pass exchange office upon arrival. However, they are experimenting with a pass that can be purchased after arriving in Japan! This program will begin on March 8, 2017 and will run for one year. You can find more information here.

I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever used the Platt Kodama program? Do you have any other suggestions for saving money on Shinkansen tickets?

* referral link

 

 

 

2016 Travel Highlights

I realize that 2017 is well underway, and many of you may have already broken all of your New Years resolutions. I meant to have this post up before the new year, but I couldn’t be bothered to open my laptop while we were traveling over the holidays. Oops!

2016 Travel Highlights Seelayne

2016 was overflowing with new experiences, and I took some time to gather my favorites to share with you. Even though it’s a little late, I still wanted to take a few moments to share my 2016 travel highlights. I hope you enjoy!

2016 Travel Summary

Cities visited – 21 total, some multiple times

Flights taken – 17

Miles flown – 41,945

Countries visited – 6

Continents visited – 3

AirBnb stays – 35 nights

Hotel stays – 22 nights

Shinkansen (bullet train) rides – 17

2016 Travel Highlights

Thailand

We spent Golden Week (a week full of Japanese holidays at the end of April/beginning of May) in Thailand! The first 3 days were spent in Bangkok (at the Conrad Bangkok – gorgeous!), then made our way up to Chiang Mai. We finished our trip with 6 days on Ko Samui.

Bangkok

One of the highlights on this trip included the food tour we took that started at 9:00 AM on our first morning in Bangkok.

Historic Bangrak Food Tasting Culture Tour

We took the Historic Bangrak Food Tasting and Culture Tour with Bangkok Food Tours and would definitely recommend it! It was a perfect way to begin our Thailand trip.

Chiang Mai

After Bangkok, we flew north to Chinag Mai. The purpose of visiting this city was so that we could visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai:

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai Thaliand

This was a must-do experience for me in Thailand, especially after reading Diana Edelman’s blog post titled The Truth About Riding Elephants. Reading the truth about this gorgeous creature’s mistreatment in Asian cultures was utterly appalling, and I knew that I wanted no part of it. I was happy to visit this inspiring park and see firsthand the great work that they are doing to save elephants (and tons of other animals!) and educate others about why it’s a terrible idea to use animals for human entertainment. Seeing these animals roaming free on the property and hearing their rescue stories is not something I will soon forget.

Honarable Mention

I can’t talk about our trip to Chiang Mai without mentioning the interesting meal we had one evening.. We don’t often sit down without checking a restaurant’s reviews (and usually never even go inside unless a place has 3.5 stars — there are just too many great dining options to waste one!), and I guarantee that we would have passed had we taken a moment to see what previous diners had to say about this place.

The food was decent but the service was terrible, albeit hilarious. The owner was rude but highly entertaining. Thankfully (for us) there was a German couple who ended up getting the brunt of the owner’s antics, and all we could do was watch. We didn’t dare leave without eating all of our food. I don’t think my writing can do justice to the craziness, but I will leave you with this (terrible quality) photo Jason snapped while it was happening:

Chiang Mai Dinner

We also enjoyed our time on Ko Samui. We basically showed up at our hotel (the Baan Bophut Beach Hotel for anyone interested) and relaxed. Jason took a dive course that had him walking down the beach for a few mornings to catch the boat out to the reef, and returning happy and tired just before dinner. He took some awesome video during his dives at Koh Tao. Em and I joined him for a day snorkeling trip, and it was some of the best snorkeling we’ve done…anywhere. Our relaxing week ended with Jason and Em renting a scooter for $5 and venturing around the island while I planted myself with a book, a cocktail, and this view from our room:

Ko Samui Baan Bophut Beach Hotel Room View

Which is pretty much the best way to spend a vacation in my opinion!

Family Visits

We were lucky enough to have a flurry of family visits in the spring of 2016. We traveled all over Japan in April, but one of the highlights was getting a chance to rent and be dressed in a kimono in Kyoto. This was something I had wanted to do ever since my first visit to Japan. We visited the Okamoto Kimono Main Shop, and everything from making a reservation to returning our kimonos at the end of the day was perfect. After we were dressed, we walked over to Kiyomizu-dera temple to snap some more pictures:

Okamoto Kimono Rental Kyoto

Another highlight was a trip to Hiroshima. This wasn’t my first trip; we visited the previous summer, but this time the spring weather was a lot more enjoyable than our sweltering trip the previous July. I made the trip to Hiroshima with my sister-in-law, and was happy to have a second chance to experience the city as well as a mini girls’ getaway! 

Hiroshima Dome

{Photo by Megan Blakely}

We also hopped on the ferry to Miyajima Island to see the famous torii gates, the deer, and Istukushima Shrine:

Miyajima Torii Gate

Istukushima Shrine Miyajima Island

Solo Travel

Towards the end of 2016, I decided that it was time to start traveling on my own. I booked two trips: one to Bangkok and the other to Bali.

Bangkok

I spent 4 days in Bangkok at the end of November to attend the 7 in 7 conference. The conference gave me a chance to learn more about the digital nomad/remote work community of which I find myself a part of now that I am freelancing. The conference was a great excuse to take my first trip solo, and it was inspiring to meet other people who are working on cool projects. This was my second trip to Bangkok, and it was fun being able to experience a different neighborhood. I stayed at the Beat Hotel Bangkok, and it was an artsy hotel next to the Conference venue: the coworking space, E88 Bangkok.

Beat Hotel Bangkok

Bali

About a week after returning from Bangkok, I left for Bali! I had such an amazing time in Bali and fell completely in love with it. Seriously, I am sure everyone I know is sick of hearing me talk about how much I love Bali. I am constantly checking flights to figure out how/when I can go back. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from my trip:

Bali Beach Seelayne

Satay Bali Seelayne

Tegalalang Rice Terrace Ubud Indonesia

Christmas Holidays

The Christmas holidays were a little different for us this year: instead of heading back home to the States during Em’s school break, we decided to make a proper holiday of it and booked a trip to Australia.

Hong Kong

We had to have an overnight stopover in Hong Kong on the way, so we decided to extend it for a few days in order to explore the city. The highlights of Hong Kong included a taking a food tour where we explored the Central and Sheung Wan neighborhoods by stopping at markets and local eateries to sample dim sum, barbecued pork, wonton soup, and more. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures to show of the food tour as I was too busy eating! Jason took a lot of video, so hopefully I will have more to share soon.

I can share this plate of barbecued pork — we sampled this dish during the tour and loved it so much that we stopped by on our way to the airport to get another fix:

char siu pork lung kee restaurant hong kong

We also took a day to check out Hong Kong Disney since Em and I are on a mission to visit all of the international parks. 3 down (Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, Hong Kong Disney), and Disneyland Paris and Shanghai Disney to go! We were some of the first people in line that morning and we practically had the place to ourselves for the first 4 hours after the park opened.

Front of the line Hong Kong Disney

Hong Kong Disney Christmas

 

Australia

After Hong Kong we made our way to Australia. We spent 6 days in Sydney, and enjoyed the sights, the vibe, the beaches, the food, the coffee, the….everything! Here’s my favorite photo from Sydney:

Sydney Harbor Opera House Bridge

After Sydney, we flew up to spend 7 days in Cairns, of which 4 were spent on a boat with this view: 

morning view reef encounter cairns

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we booked this part of our trip with Reef Encounter (we did the 4 day/3 night Top Deck Club package and would 100% recommend it), but I went along because doing a liveaboard on the Great Barrier Reef was on Jason’s bucket list. I (wrongly) assumed that we would get antsy being stuck on a boat for 4 days. This part of our trip turned out to be both incredibly entertaining and relaxing. Jason dove, Em and I snorkeled, we met other world travelers, we ate amazing food, and we relaxed. It was the perfect way to ring in the new year. 

As you can see from the highlights, it was an incredible year. I feel very lucky to be able to discover so many new places and most of all, to visit said places with the people I love most.

Here’s to more adventures to come in 2017!

My Solo Trip to Bali

Tegalalang rice terraces Ubud Bali

This fall, I finally got a chance to travel solo. I spent a few days in Bangkok, Thailand for my first trip. My second destination for solo travel: Bali.

Tegalalang rice terraces Ubud Bali

I’ve touched on this before, but lesson #1 of the expat experience (at least for me) is that you need to figure out how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

When you learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, you can do anything.

Some days, this looks like me trying to ask a stranger a question while butchering the Japanese language.

Other days, it looks like getting lost and then finally finding my way back home.

Lately, it looks like me going ever farther outside my comfort zone and traveling internationally…solo.

I finally realized that waiting until someone has the time/money/inclination to travel with me is actually holding me back from exploring some of the many countries I can easily access from Japan.

Don’t get me wrong, traveling with my family is one of my favorite things to do. In fact, we have had some pretty epic adventures so far (with many more to come)!

But I can’t sit around and wait for them to have time off work and school to join me. I mean, I could….but life is way too short and there are simply too many places I need to see in this world. Thankfully I have a partner who agrees and is happy to see me go off on an adventure without him now and then. And as for the teenager? I’m pretty sure she barely notices when I’m gone — unless she’s out of clean laundry or needs some lunch money. Ha.

There was a time when I would have been too afraid to travel to an unfamiliar country by myself, but that is precisely why I needed to do it.

So his has been my new mission.

I want to go places…so I’m going.

I wanted to go to Bali this fall.

So I did.

I will write about this trip in more detail later, but for now I want to share this recap with you. I hope you enjoy it!

-L

Permission

elizabeth gilbert permission quote

So it’s been a little quiet around here, eh?

Well, that’s about to change. You see, I’ve been doing some thinking.

Some soul-searching if you will. 

And I’ve made a decision to come back to this little corner of the internet.

I bet you’re wondering what has been keeping me away. Actually, I know you are — because you’ve asked me repeatedly.

Well, it’s a little hard to explain. But here goes: I seem to have been struggling with a little something called permission.

Permission

What’s permission you ask? Well, permission is something that many people struggle with, but I think that some people are just better at hiding it.

I am not one of those people.

I mean, you might not be able to tell by looking at me that it is something I am struggling with, but if you look closely it looks like this:

….

Yep, it looks like nothing.

Literally nothing. Doing nothing.

Are you wondering what I’m blathering on about?

Let me help you to understand:

You know that voice in your head that tells you that you have no business doing the thing that you kinda (or REALLY) want to do?

That voice that interrupts you when you think, “Yeah, I could totally do that thing!”

The voice that says something like, “Ugh, there are already ten thousand other people doing that exact. same. thing. No one wants to see another person doing that thing. That thing is already covered, thanks.”

Well, I hear that voice, too. And, like many people, I listen to it more than I should.

I take it to heart when I hear that voice saying that I can’t really be a writer because I don’t actually have any formal writing education. That there are already so many other people talking about the things that I want to talk about. That I don’t really have anything of value to add to the conversation that is already happening.

So that’s all well and good, but for some reason I just can’t I simply leave it at feeling like I’m a fraud for wanting to be a writer.

Noooo, of course not!

When I start feeling like I have no business doing the thing, I take it one step further and feel guilty for even thinking about actually needing permission to do the thing.

I mean, permission is a pretty privileged concept to ponder, no? To sit an dwell on whether or not you have the right skills to even consider telling your story seems a little pathetic when there are so many other things in the world to worry about.

For example, do you think the person delivering your mail ever ponders the consequences of delivering said mail? Do you think they ever turn up to work in the morning and question how people will view them if they don’t do it well? Or even worse, if they DO do their job well? And do you think they ever walk into work one morning and turn right around because there’s probably someone out there who can do their job better than they can?

I’ll give you the answer: Nope, they don’t. They don’t have the privilege to sit around and wonder whether or not they’ve got permission to do the thing they’re doing; they’ve got shit to do, man.

So this is where I’ve been for the past year. No, I haven’t been under my covers hiding out. I have been out in the world, happily living an incredible life that I am extremely grateful for. The problem is that I have been (mostly) keeping it to myself because I’m worried that I won’t write well enough to do it justice, or that it will seem like I’m trying to brag about the things I get to do, or simply that there are people more talented than I who are already covering this expat experience better than I ever could.

And I don’t want to do that any more.

I want to write.

So I’m going to.

I’m telling permission to go you-know-what, and am just going to do the thing.

Novel concept, huh?

I hope you’ll join me while I try my hand at doing the thing.

In the wise words of Elizabeth Gilbert:

elizabeth gilbert permission quote

– L

 

Home.

Home

I was writing an email to my sister-in-law this morning, when I suddenly realized that I used the word home in reference to three different places: Minnesota, Texas, and Japan. I had to go back and edit my typing in order to not completely confuse her.

I’m pretty sure I said something to the effect of: I can’t wait until we get home (to Minnesota) to visit!!! (I use a lot of exclamation points.) Then I am sure I rambled on about something else that you all don’t care about before telling her that we are planning to make a stop at home (Texas) for some barbecue before heading home (to Japan).

I told her that I am really looking forward to going home…and then stopping at home…before heading home.

Seriously.

The hard part is that each use of the word home felt 100% appropriate. It wasn’t until I did a quick skim to proofread my email before sending that I realized that I made absolutely no sense.

Side note for context: 

We are spending two weeks in the US in December/January. Yes, we are planning an overnight layover in Texas in order to get our barbecue fix before heading back to Japan. We’ll see some friends in Texas, too, so we’re not completely food-obsessed. Scratch that, we totally are. But so are the people we are going to see, so it’s all good. These are people who don’t bat an eye when you invite yourselves to stay at their house for one night so that you can eat amazing food together before jetting off. And this is why we call them our friends.

But the thing is that all of those places really are home to me.

Where is home? Where are you from?

Anyone who has called more than one city home can relate to this, but when you jump from state to state or even country to country the answer to that innocent question tends to get more and more complicated.

So when people ask us where we’re from, the answer looks a little different each time.

From my point of view, it tends to go something like this:

“I’m from the United States.”

“Oh, where specifically? Well, we moved (to Japan) from Texas. But we’re actually not from Texas, we’re from Minnesota.”

“No, not, “like, Minneapolis”…from a tiny town about 300 miles north of there.”

“Nope, not Canada, but almost!”

“No, Fargo isn’t in Minnesota. That would be North Dakota. I lived there, too. Yeah, I guess some people talk like that. Hmmm…I’m not sure why I don’t sound like that, too. I guess my accent has faded a little. It comes back when I’ve spent a bit of time back there, though…”

Basically I tell my geographical history backwards until the person seems satisfied.

The most important gifts you can give to your child are roots and wings

Have you heard that saying? I am not sure who originally said it, but I get it. I think we’re all doing okay on the wings front over here, but what happens if you raise a kid who can’t look back to see her roots in exactly one place? What if her roots are in lots of places? We’ve had 7 homes – in 4 states, 5 cities, and 2 countries – since Miss E was born. She has become an expert on saying goodbyes and on making new friends, and I am certain that it has made her a stronger and more adaptable person. But at the same time I’m sure it’s given her a lot to discuss with her future therapist.

Feeling Guilty

Sometimes I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt because we haven’t given her a life where she could give a one-word answer to the question of where she is from. When someone asks her where she is from (pretty often now that we have moved overseas), I can see the wheels turning in her head when she tries to make out the best way to answer. I can see the tiny flicker of panic that comes from not knowing if you can get away with telling this particular person which country you come from and leave it at that, or if they want your entire life story. Since she is more like her father than her mother when it comes to talking to other people, I know that she is always hoping for the former rather than the latter.

So even though I feel guilty for not giving my child a simple life where a one-word answer would suffice, I am pretty sure I would feel guilty if we had stayed in the same place for the past 13+ years and hadn’t taken the risks that we have in order to give her the life that she has. Parent guilt is real, and I have found that it’s pretty much going to be there no matter what I do. So here’s hoping that the places she’s been, the people she’s loved, the experiences she has had, and the memories she has made will make up for the feeling of being from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Hopefully she will come to discover, as I have, that home is a lot of different things rolled into one:

Home is a location.

It can be a town/city/state/region/country/continent/hemisphere. It can even be a different place each time you picture it, or it can be the one place you picture over and over again, no matter where you actually live.

Home is a feeling.

It is the comfort you feel when you return from a long day, or from a trip. It’s where you want to pull the covers over your head when you’ve had a rough day. It’s where you walk around without any pants on, and where you give yourself permission to drink juice out of the carton because you’re too lazy to grab a glass.

Home is the people we surround ourselves with.

It is those people whom we have the privilege to miss when we leave. Home can be family, friends, and those friends who become your family; and it is the people who we become in each place that we make a home.

It is our little family, wherever we’re together.

 

Why Did We Become Expats?

reasons for becoming expat

Why Did We Become Expats?

Expats become expats for lots of reasons. Some people are lured by the promise of adventure, travel, and an upgraded lifestyle. For others, it’s the money and the career bump that can come from gaining valuable international work experience.

For us, it was a combination of all of those reasons. And the decision to move overseas wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine. Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t a decision we made hastily, but we didn’t spend any sleepless nights trying to figure it out, either.

When we made the decision to make the move to Japan, we got lots of questions from people.

Why would you uproot your family and move to another country?

Won’t you miss your parents/extended family/friends?

Won’t it be difficult to be gone for two whole years? You’ll miss so much!

I got the impression that most people who asked me those questions didn’t actually care about the answer. In fact, it seemed as though they were just asking to have to opportunity to tell me that it’s something that they could never, ever do. In a way I understood. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would ever move abroad I probably would have laughed in your face. We’re not that different from anyone who asked us those questions. A little crazier, maybe. But different? Not really.

Making the Decision

The opportunity to move abroad came up in April 2014. At that point we had already been living in Texas for four years. We were more than 1,000 miles from our extended family. For four years we had been spending almost all of our vacation time and money traveling back and forth to see them, and we had gotten pretty used to saying our goodbyes a few times each year.

We were missing out on their daily lives, and they weren’t there for ours. We were pretty much on our own. It wasn’t ideal, but we had been making it work. So being away from them hasn’t changed with our move abroad. Sure, visiting now requires a passport and a flight across the ocean, but other than that it hasn’t changed things much.

What has changed the most is our lifestyle. Not necessarily our financial lifestyle, although that has changed pretty drastically, but the way we were living before the move versus how we live now is the biggest change.

Expat life: Before

When we first started discussing a potential move abroad, my husband was spending more and more time traveling for work. At one point he clocked almost 100 days away in a period of six months. Yes, I counted.

Note From Author

This is where I interject to say that I know that I probably sound like a brat. I know that lots of people, including military families, make much more difficult sacrifices with spouses/parents away from home for longer stretches of time. And I realize that single parents are on their own 100% of the time. And I didn’t have little kids at home – I had it relatively “easy” because my one and only child was older and could pretty much take care of herself. I also didn’t work at the time, which made things a lot easier for sure.

But knowing all of those things didn’t help at the time, honestly. It was a pretty lonely time for me and a difficult time for us as a family. It’s not something I really talked about at the time, probably because of all of the reasons I just listed. But after being away from that lifestyle for a little while and looking back, I am able to clearly see how not great it was. For all of us.

As if having my partner away from home so often wasn’t bad enough, contributing to my discontent was the fact that he was traveling to some amazing places…all while I was back at home, holding down the fort.

I was getting pictures from him like this…

Jason Work Sunset Jason Work 2

…while I was driving carpool, taking care of the house, the yard, the dog, and combating the wrath of a tween girl * on the home front. We were communicating through email and Skype. Actually, barely communicating is perhaps a more accurate statement. I was jealous of the adventures he was having, and I am pretty sure he was sick of hearing me complain about it.

He was exhausted when he was home and I couldn’t seem to muster up much sympathy for him. He was working so hard at the job he loved, but the stress of lifestyle we were living clouded the successes he was having at work. To say it wasn’t easy on us would be an understatement. It was rough.

Something Had to Change

We were all over it. I was over being a single parent. I was over being by myself most of the time. My daughter needed her dad, and I needed my husband. He was burned-out. Even though it looked and sounded glamorous to travel the world, it was actually just a lot of hard work for him. It was late nights, early mornings, long days, and a lot of time spent alone in a hotel room.

The lifestyle of having a traveling spouse started out fine for all of us. We made it work for almost 5 years. But eventually it wasn’t worth it any more. To any of us. And – as with all things in life – it is easy to start out on board with something only to find the situation to be much different once you’ve actually spent some time doing it. We got to the point where things had to change.

So when the job in Japan became available, we were so ready for it. We needed to be together, period. And if it took moving overseas to do it, so be it. What would have been a difficult decision for many people was actually pretty easy for us in the end.

Expat life: During and After

So when people ask me why we made the decision to become expats, I can tell them all of that. That the lifestyle we live here, while exciting and scary, is actually kind of boring in the best way. My husband has a job that is infinitely less stressful than his old one. He usually walks through the door by 5:00 PM each night.

If he travels it’s because we’re on holiday. We’re doing better financially than we ever could have dreamed. The words financial independence actually mean something to us now.

We don’t have a house, a yard, cars, or stuff to take care of. And that means that our evenings and weekends are filled with whatever we want to do, not what we have to do. And those benefits outweigh any difficulties we face by being away from our families and our home country.

It’s a little crazy that we have to move so far away to find the lifestyle change we needed. It’s not like moving abroad was the only option available to us. But it was an opportunity that came up at the exact right time, and it just goes to show how taking big risks can lead to big rewards.

 

* That’s not a very fair assessment. She’s an awesome kid! But having her dad away for long stretches of time was not easy for Miss E, and not having him around to act as a buffer when needed made it hard for us to get along all the time. I’m sure she would have an equally unfair assessment of her mother during that time as well.

 

36 Hours in Tokyo

36 Hours in Tokyo

J and I were able to get away by ourselves last week, just the two of us. Miss E was out of town on a school trip, so we found ourselves with a couple of days to do whatever we wanted. Rather than spending it relaxing at home, we decided to hop on the Shinkansen (aka the bullet train) and spend that time in Tokyo! We ended up having only 36 hours in Tokyo, but we were up for the challenge.

36 hours Tokyo travel itinerary

Returning to Tokyo

This wasn’t the first time I had been to Tokyo. We actually stayed in Tokyo on the day arrived in Japan, before traveling on to Nagoya. I don’t know that I really count that as a “visit to Tokyo” because we were kind of a mess and weren’t in any condition to experience the city.

We landed late in the afternoon, took a train from the airport to Tokyo station, and then took a taxi from there to our hotel. If it had been up to us girls, we would have called it a night and face planted into our beds. But since that’s the #1 worst thing you can do when attempting to combat jet lag, J dragged us we ventured out. And we were cranky, hungry and on sensory overload. So much so that after a mini-meltdown (I’m not going to say whose meltdown it was), we ended up eating dinner —our very first meal in Japan—at….McDonald’s. Yep. Judge away.

My second time in-Tokyo-but-really-not was this summer when Miss E and I took a last-minute trip to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. It was a last-minute trip: I happened to check the crowd calendar one day in June only to find that later that week would be the only (yes, the ONLY) week during the summer that the crowd levels would be under 50% capacity – and so off we went. And it was an awesome girls trip! But since we didn’t actually make it into the city, I don’t really count that as a trip to Tokyo.

So, third time’s a charm, yes?

Because we had already been to Tokyo before, there are some pretty obvious stops missing from this itinerary. We did not visit Shibuya Crossing, the Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower, Sensō-ji Temple, just to name a few. I will cover those in future posts, but if you are trying to plan your first trip to Tokyo, those definitely need to be on your list.

Tokyo Trip: Day 1

We took off last Wednesday afternoon, and after a quick 90 minute trip on the Shinkansen we made it to the city. We made our way to our hotel, dropped off our bags, and headed out to dinner.

Ramen at Afuri

We made up for our first meal in Japan by visiting a nearby ramen restaurant, Afuri. We were able to sit right down at the counter after purchasing our meal via the vending machine located right inside the restaurant’s entrance.

The ramen was so different from ramen varieties we had previously tried. The chicken, fish and seaweed-based broth was served with pork, seaweed, an egg, and yuzu (a type of citrus fruit) peel, which sounds a little strange but ended up being delicious.

As we sat at the counter slurping our noodles, the restaurant filled up, making us glad that we got there when we did! There was a line about 7 people deep when we left — a pretty good indicator of a great restaurant in Japan. We would definitely go back again.

Afuri Ramen Tokyo

Tokyo Trip: Day 2

Since we really only had one full day to spend in Tokyo, we wanted to pack as much activity in as we could on Thursday. Our plan was to do a few of the super touristy things (especially the things Miss E probably wouldn’t enjoy) so that we won’t feel need to do them the next time we visit:

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji market is one of the largest markets in the world. It is a wholesale market; whole fish and other goods are bought at auction in the early morning hours and are then cut up and packaged to be sold to restaurants, catering companies, and the public afterward.

Each morning, a small number of tourists are allowed to witness the tuna auction, which happens to be the most famous. Reservations are not available in advance; If you want to witness it you need to wait in line and hope you’re one of the first 120 people there. Each group is taken to see the tuna auction for about 25 minutes. We decided to forego the tuna auction on this trip because we didn’t want to be up at 3:00 AM for the 25 minute experience.

Even though we missed the earlier auction, the market itself was quite an adrenaline rush! Everyone is buzzing around, the energy palpable. You can both hear and feel the the motorized vehicles as they sped by. It is important to listen for the sound of a vehicle backing up in case you happen to be in the exact spot it needs to be in. Don’t forget that there are actually people working and shopping at the market — not just gawking at the scene. You have to constantly watch where you step, because there are puddles of water and…other stuff…everywhere.

We were most definitely in the way no matter where we walked or stood, and I couldn’t help but think about how annoying it must be for the people trying to do their work and shopping with all of us clueless tourists in the way.

Tsukiji Market Tokyo

Kappabashi Street

One of the items on my Japan bucket list is to invest in Japanese knives. I did some research before we left and found that the best place to find a knife in Tokyo is Kappabashi Street.

Kappabashi Street, or Kitchen Town, is an area in Tokyo where you can find any type of restaurant or home kitchen equipment: dishes, cookware, display cases, uniforms, the plastic food you see outside of every restaurant in Japan, and so much more. We walked up and down the street, ducking into a store here and there. But I was on a mission to find a knife so we didn’t spend too much time browsing.

Kamata Knife Shop

I ended up buying my knife at a store called Kamata. The store was packed with shoppers when we arrived. The woman who helped me choose my knife was very attentive and patient while I went back and forth trying to choose. She was able to give good suggestions in my price range, and she spoke near-perfect English. I probably held about 10 knives before finding the right one.

I ended up choosing a santoku knife, which is a Japanese-style, all-purpose knife that is most often used in home kitchens. It is made from Damascus steel with a polished wood handle. And it’s gorgeous. After I made my decision and paid for my new knife, they engraved my name — in Japanese — on the handle.

Kamata Knife Shop Kappabashi

Sushi Lunch

For lunch we stopped in a random sushi restaurant. We had grand plans to have a sushi breakfast while we were at Tsukiji market earlier, but we weren’t hungry and the lines were pretty insane. The good news is that even a random sushi place in Tokyo is pretty awesome. We each got a sushi set and split a small bottle of sake.

Sushi

Harajuku

After lunch, we did some more exploring. We ended up in Harajuku, and decided to take an afternoon break at Double Tall Cafe. The coffee I had was perfect. I haven’t found great coffee in Nagoya yet, so it tasted especially great. The cafe also had outdoor seating on the second level overlooking the main street, which was perfect for people watching. While we didn’t see any stereotypical Harajuku girls (worth a Google), we did see some pretty great fashion. Miss E would have been in her element for sure. I can’t wait to take her back to check it out!

Yoyogi Park

After our afternoon dose of caffeine, we walked over to Yoyogi Park. It wasn’t very busy since it was a weekday afternoon, but there were some people out and about. Yoyogi park is known for attracting some interesting characters. It’s a great place to sit and do some people watching. We watched a bartender practicing his tricks and a group of kids rehearsing a dance routine. It was a beautiful fall day, perfect for enjoying some green space in the middle of the city.

After that we were ready to stop back at the hotel to unload our purchases and freshen up a bit. All of our exploring had worn us out…and we were starving!

Yakiniku Dinner

We headed out on foot to find some dinner. Armed with a recommendation and a map from our hotel, we went in search of a yakiniku restaurant. Yakiniku is a Japanese word for the style of cooking small pieces of meat and vegetables on a tabletop, often charcoal, grill. I hadn’t tried it before, and it was actually pretty fun!

Our dinner was delicious, especially the beef. Besides some chicken, pork, and vegetables, we also ordered a set plate with various cuts of wagyu beef. The beef was a splurge, but it was worth it. We left full and happy.

Tokyo Trip: Day 3

The next morning we slept in and ate breakfast at our hotel. Since we had been so busy the day before, we took our time checking out and getting to the train station. We found a storage locker for our bags and then bought our tickets for our afternoon train before venturing out again. We didn’t have much time, but we wanted to fit at least one more attraction before leaving Tokyo.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

The TMGB has free observation decks that give you a view of Tokyo (and beyond) from 45 stories up. It really is incredible to see just how enormous the city really is. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when it takes a 30 minute ride on the subway to get from one part of the city to another, but to actually see it from so high up is really, really cool.

I’m sure the view isn’t as great as the Tokyo Sky Tree, but we decided to save that for the next trip. We only ended up with one non-blurry picture from up there, but you can still get an idea of the size of the city. You can also see the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Burgers for Lunch

We only had about two hours left until we needed to get on our train and head home, so we went on a mission to find some lunch.

We headed back towards Harajuku to hunt down a burger place that seemed to get great reviews online. Sadly, the burgers ended up being pretty disappointing. I don’t think we realized how spoiled we were while we were living in Texas, and apparently we have become pretty picky when it comes to burgers.

In our experience, the beef that they use for burgers here in Japan just isn’t great. And adding interesting toppings it doesn’t change the quality of the burger much. It only took us six months of trying to hunt down a great burger in Japan to figure out that it’s just not worth it to us. Lesson learned. Another thing to add to the list for when we’re back in the US!

Heading Home

After lunch, we started back to the station to catch the Shinkansen. Less than two hours later we were walking in our apartment door, about 20 minutes before Miss E got home. Perfect timing!

And as great as it was to get away, it’s even better to come home! I’m glad we were able to spend a couple of days enjoying Tokyo, but spending so little time there makes me just want to go back!

 

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