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  • Andrew
  • May 14, 2017 03:04:17 AM
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A Little About Us

Travels with Andrew, Heide and Lachlan. Stories, photos, tips and recommendations for family travel.

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RTW Preparation

While the fun part of planning for a trip is coming up with an itinerary, there are many other no less important RTW preparation tasks that must be done before you can set off on a grand adventure. This post is by no means a comprehensive how-to. I’ll share some of the issues we faced […] The post RTW Preparation appeared first on Airports and...

While the fun part of planning for a trip is coming up with an itinerary, there are many other no less important RTW preparation tasks that must be done before you can set off on a grand adventure. This post is by no means a comprehensive how-to. I’ll share some of the issues we faced and how we dealt with them. Different circumstances may require a different approach on any or all of these issues. Just like itinerary planning, there are no one size fits all solutions here.

For context, we are a middle-aged couple with a middle school kid. The decisions we make about how to organize our affairs ahead of a RTW trip are very different from the approach a single twenty-something would take. We also have a specific timeframe for our trip as we are planning to be back in Houston in time for Lachlan to start high school. This may lead us to make different decisions from a family who is heading off to travel indefinitely.

This blog is coming from the final stop before we leave the country. We’re staying overnight at Heide’s parents’ house. Heide’s mom will drive us to the airport tomorrow afternoon and we’ll be off on our adventure.

House

If you own a house, what to do with it will probably be your biggest RTW preparation issue. The big decision is whether to sell it or rent it out. There are definitely pros and cons to either approach, so your individual circumstances will dictate which way is best. Then you have to consider the market. We went back and forth about selling vs. renting. We finally decided to sell the house, mainly because we plan to move to a different part of Houston when we return.

After listing the house and getting a number of showings but no real interest except a lowball offer, we listed the house for rent. Straight away we had some good tenants offer us more than our asking rent, so we changed direction and signed a lease with them. Although things didn’t end up the way we planned, it seems like things worked out well. When we return from our trip we’ll decide then whether we want to sell the house, continue to rent it or move back into it.

Our lovely house in Houston, Texas

Cars

The next biggest issue for most people’s RTW preparation is what to do with your car or cars. Most often it’s going to make sense to sell them. We ended up deciding to keep my car, as it’s very low miles and I won’t be able to find another one like it when we return. It will stay at Heide’s parents’ place while we’re away.

We did sell Heide’s car as she wants something different when we come back from our trip. Also, keeping two cars would be ridiculous, one is bad enough. As Heide’s car was a lot bigger than mine, we needed it right through all of our RTW preparations. We were hauling stuff all over the place, so we needed the space. This made it difficult to try and sell the car privately, so we dropped it off at Carmax on the way to Heide’s parents’ place. They give us a decent price, it was no-fuss and didn’t take too long.

Pets

This is another big RTW preparation issue for pet owners who want to travel. The ideal solution is for a friend or family member to look after your pet while you’re away. We found this solution for one of our dogs, Peach will be spending a year with a family who adores her (particularly the little girl of the house). This family has a farm that they spend some time at, so that will be an exciting new experience for Peach.

Our other dog, Axel, is a different story. He’s a rescue and has anxiety issues so he doesn’t do well with anyone other than our immediate family, and the kennel that he has boarded at while we’ve taken vacations. So he’s going to stay at the kennel while we’re away. They know him there and kinda like him, even when he growls at them.

Peach and Axel

The Rest of Our Stuff

This is not one of those “we sold all our stuff to travel the world” posts. Much as I admire people who can do that, because we have firm plans to return to Houston and are at a stage of life where we have accumulated some things that we really want to keep, we couldn’t take this approach. We did try to get rid of as much as possible. First, we held a garage sale and got rid of many things that we had forgotten we had. We made more than a thousand dollars, so it was definitely a success, although hard work.

After the garage sale we donated a bunch of stuff to Goodwill, gave some things away to other people and threw lots of things in the trash. We filled up our wheelie bin every week for a couple of months, then mad a trash pile in the driveway which was picked up after the movers had cleared the house out.

We rented a storage unit before we put our house on the market, and filled about a third of it with things we took out of the house to declutter so it would show better. When we finally moved out of the house, we filled the rest of the unit … and had to get another small unit for things that wouldn’t fit in the main unit. So, don’t look to us for advice on how to downsize your stuff, we are apparently not very good at it.

Too much stuff …

Luggage

This is a big obsession with people in the midst of RTW preparation as evidenced by the number of blog posts and youtube videos on the subject. The first big decision is carry-on only vs. checked bags. We have managed to do carry-on only for all of our vacations over the last few years. It is great to walk off the plane and not have to join the crowds waiting for baggage to appear. However, for our RTW trip we have to pack for a range of weather conditions, and take some supplies that we don’t need to take when we’re traveling short-term. After a couple of trial packs we realized there was no way we could do carry-on only for this trip.

The next decision was backpack vs. roller bag. Heide and I decided that our middle-aged backs would be better off with roller bags. We found a good deal on a previous year’s model of the Osprey Ozone 75 lightweight rolling duffel which is (just) big enough to carry all of our stuff without being ridiculously heavy. We have managed to stay under the 23kg limit that applies to most of the flights we have booked so far.

Lachlan decided he preferred a backpack. Having seen the havoc he can wreak walking through an airport dragging a roller bag, we agreed with this decision. We initially bought him an Osprey Farpoint 55, which is a very popular travel backpack with a zip-off day pack. After doing the final pack a couple of days ago, we realized that this wasn’t quite big enough, especially the day pack. We picked up an Osprey Porter 65 which has more room than the Farpoint’s main pack, and a separate day pack which has much more space than the Farpoint’s zip-off version.

Travel Clothes

Another RTW preparation obsession in the blogosphere is travel clothes. It is amazing what’s available out there these days compared to previous year’s when “travel” clothes were all very synthetic and not very stylish. These days you can get merino wool clothing and even the synthetic options feel much more like natural materials while being quick-drying and lighter.

Here are some of the clothes we bought for our trip that we think will work well. We’ll have to come back and update this post after we’ve been traveling for a while to report on how well they worked out for us.

  • Royal Robbins Merinolux Tee Shirts
  • Prana Stretch Zion Pants and Shorts
  • WoolX Hoodie, Tee Shirt and Tank Tops
  • Smartwool Socks
  • Ex-Officio Underwear
  • Eddie Bauer Puffy Jackets
  • Eddie Bauer Destination Tee Shirts
  • Chaco Sandals (Traditional for Andrew and Heide, the new Odyssey for Lachlan)
  • Astral Water Shoes

Technology

Another difference between travel these days and say twenty years ago is the amount of technology we carry these days. It’s great that we can stay connected while traveling, and use apps and maps to help while traveling, but it all adds to the weight that needs to be hauled around. Also, we’ll be maintaining the blog as we go and Lachlan will have online schoolwork.

Between us we will be carrying:

  • Two MacBook Airs
  • Two iPads
  • Assorted cell phones
  • Lachlan’s Nintendo Switch

Camera Gear

These days you can take pretty decent pictures and video with your cell phone, but as a photography enthusiast they still don’t replace real camera gear for me. As will as pics for the blog, I want to capture video along the way. An action cam will be a must, especially for snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands and adventure sports in New Zealand.

I’ve tried to rationalize and buy small or lightweight equipment, but by the time you include lenses, accessories and batteries and charges, a pretty significant part of my load will be camera gear:

  • Nikon D5600 DSLR – about as lightweight as you can get for a DSLR.
  • Panasonic Lumix GX85 mirrorless camera – for video and situations where it will be better not to carry around a more conspicuous DSLR
  • GoPro Hero 7 Black – for underwater and above ground adventures
  • Manfrotto Befree Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod – this is probably the biggest indulgence, but really helps with landscape and night photography
  • Joby GorillaPod 5K flexible tripod – mainly for the GX85 and GoPro, but also will work for my DSLR

Hopefully I’ll be able to capture some photos and footage good enough to make it worth lugging all this stuff all around the world.

So that’s all the boring RTW preparation stuff out of the way. Let us know in the comments if you’re curious about any further details. From now on, the posts will be about the fun stuff – the destinations we’ll see as we travel around the world.

The post RTW Preparation appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW Itinerary

I’m writing this post from what is effectively the first AirBnB stay of our Big Trip, although we haven’t left Houston yet. We moved out of our house about a week and a half ago when our tenants moved in, and we leave for South America in a few days to start the adventure – […] The post RTW Itinerary appeared first on Airports and...

I’m writing this post from what is effectively the first AirBnB stay of our Big Trip, although we haven’t left Houston yet. We moved out of our house about a week and a half ago when our tenants moved in, and we leave for South America in a few days to start the adventure – 14 months of travel. In the midst of all of the things we have to do to get ready to leave, I have just enough time for a couple of posts about planning and preparation for our round the world (RTW) trip, starting with this post about our RTW itinerary.

Our RTW Itinerary – an Overview

Below you can see a map with our planned route around the world. You can use the + and – buttons to zoom in on specific parts of the route and click the “pancake stack” at the top left to see a list of destinations.

Create your own travel map

Read on for some more details on our RTW itinerary. I’ll also note some highlights we are especially looking forward to.

South America

Our first stop after leaving Houston is Bogota, Colombia. Unfortunately, this is just an overnight stop on our way to Ecuador.

After arriving in Ecuador we have two nights in Quito, the capital. We’ll have one full day to check out the sights before heading to the Galapagos Islands. There we’ll do an eight day cruise around the islands in a small (16 passenger) vessel. We can’t wait to see all of the wildlife in the water and on the islands. After the cruise we’ll have a few days to relax and hang out on the beach. We may do some land-based tours if we haven’t had enough nature from our cruise.

Our next destination will be Peru, and we’ll be here for about a month. After a week in the capital of Lima, we’ll be following the so-called Gringo Trail to see Peru’s major attractions, ending up in Cusco to see the Sacred Valley and the must-see Machu Picchu. We’ll be using the backpacker bus service Peru Hop to get around, easing our way into the long term travel lifestyle.

Following Peru will be Bolivia, spending some time in La Paz before a three day tour of the spectacular Uyuni Salt Flats. After the tour we’ll cross the border to transfer to the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile.

After that we’ll take a bus and cross another border into northern Argentina, for a driving tour of the area around Salta. Because Argentina is such a huge country, we’ll take some domestic flights to save some very long bus rides. From Salta we’ll fly to Iguazu Falls, then to Buenos Aires.

From Buenos Aires we’ll fly to Santiago to get a more urban Chile experience.

Island-Hopping Across the Pacific

Our final South American experience will be Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s actually a part of Chile, so we’ll fly there from Santiago.

The feat of RTW itinerary planning that I’m most proud of is figuring out how to juggle schedules and mix and match frequent flyer miles from different programs to island-hop across the Pacific. This will be much more fun than flying all the way back to the Chilean mainland from Easter Island then taking a long trans-Pacific flight to Australia.

From Easter Island we fly to Tahiti, we’re we’ll spend a few nights on the island of Moorea. This island is not as expensive as the more famous Bora Bora, but even on Moorea it was a bit of a challenge to find budget-friendly accommodation. We did eventually find a reasonably priced bungalow right on the lagoon, where we’ll spend some time relaxing after our South American travels.

Our next hop will be to the Cook Islands. After landing on the main island or Raratonga we’ll make an even smaller hop to the tiny island of Aitutaki. This is a real get-away-from-it-all kind of place. We’ll explore the spectacular lagoon and get in some more quality beach time.

After a few days in Aitutaki we’ll make our final Pacific hop to Sydney.

Australia and New Zealand

The next phase of our RTW itinerary will be a couple of months in Australia and New Zealand. We’ll land in Sydney, but won’t spend much time there as it’s a destination we’ve been to many times.

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night
The obligatory Harbour Bridge pic, required at the mention of Sydney

For the first three weeks in Australia we’ll travel to a variety of destinations, seeing a range of what Australia has to offer.

First, we’ll head to the Northern Territory and do a couple of short camping trips. We’ll visit Kakadu National Park, then Uluru and the Red Centre. After that we’ll head to Hobart, Tasmania, which will be quite a contrast from our Outback experiences. Finally, we’ll visit Australia’s capital, Canberra.

After playing tourist in Australia, we’ll spend a few weeks at our house in Brisbane. As well as catching up with friends and family, we’ll take some time to relax and do some travel planning for the rest of our RTW itinerary.

After Brisbane we head to New Zealand. We’ll be there for the month of November, starting in Auckland and working our way south. On the North Island we’re looking forward to Hobbiton and the thermal attractions in Rotorua, and also spending a few days checking out windy Wellington.

After taking the inter-island ferry we’ll explore the natural wonders of the South Island. As well as the mountains, glaciers and lakes, we’ll try some of the adventure activities that New Zealand is famous for. Nothing too crazy, though – no bungee jumping for us. We’ll probably try our hand at some white water rafting and Lachlan definitely wants to try zorbing. Our final stop in New Zealand will be Queenstown.

South East Asia

Although a lot of RTW itineraries include a lot of time in Southeast Asia, we’ll be spending a limited amount of time in this region, just less than a month. From New Zealand we’ll fly to Singapore. We’ll only spend a few days there, as it’s an expensive city.

After Singapore, we’ll head north through Malaysia, which is a Southeast Asian country that we haven’t been to before. We’ll cross the border to Thailand either by land or sea, then make our way to Bangkok. After spending Christmas in Bangkok, we’ll move on to the next big adventure – India.

India

We are planning for two months in India, to give us time to acclimate, and also to see a good part of the country. Two months is really only enough time to scratch the surface, but we will get to see some of the highlights.

The plan is to start in Kerala in southern India. This should be a good introduction to the country without the maximum craziness we will surely encounter elsewhere in India. After some time there, we’ll start to make our way north, with stops in Mysore and the ancient ruins of Hampi before visiting Mumbai.

From Mumbai we’ll head further north to the famous sights of Rajasthan – forts and desert and camels. Next we’ll get to a couple of must-see destinations, Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Varanasi.

After a short time in Delhi we’ll head to the northwest region of India. We’ll start in Rishikesh and spend some time in the slower-paced cities and towns of the Himalayan foothills. Our last stop in India will be Amritsar, and we’ll fly from there to our next destination.

Uzbekistan

The Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan are places that we were always going to include in our RTW itinerary. We’ll spend just over two weeks here, visiting the fabled cities of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand as well as the capital Tashkent. We also plan to visit the vanishing Aral Sea.

Turkey?

After Uzbekistan, our plans are more fluid. We would like to spend a few weeks in Turkey to get to places like Cappadocia, Ephesus and Gallipoli. However, this will depend on the political and security situation at the time. We may skip Turkey and head straight to Europe after Uzbekistan, or limit Turkey to a stopover in Istanbul. We have just found out that friends are now living in Moscow, so we may go and visit them.

Europe

Our plans in Europe are also flexible. How much time we spend in eastern vs. western Europe may depend on how our budget is holding out. We’ll also have to keep track of which countries are in the Schengen zone. We’ll only be allowed to spend 90 days total in these countries. This is complicated by the fact that there are some countries that are trying to join the Schengen zone, so we’ll have to keep an eye on whether any of them are successful. However, there are some places that we definitely intend to work into the plan.

We plan to be in Italy in April, to beat the worst of the summer crowds. After that we’ll head east to Croatia, then Romania and other Balkan countries. We’d like to then work our way via Prague and other places along the way to Berlin. The plan is to rent a car for a driving tour of Germany from Berlin to Munich.

From Munich, the plan is to make our way to Geneva. Finally, we’ll hit the highlights of Paris, Brussels or Bruges and then Amsterdam before flying back to Houston.

RTW Itinerary Planning Tips

Actually, I don’t really have many generally applicable tips, as planning a trip like this is very personal. The process and the outcome could look different for everyone. It depends on your interests and resources available for the trip (in both time and money). So I guess that’s a tip of sorts – plan your trip for you. Don’t include destinations just because everyone else goes there. As an example, we aren’t spending much time in Southeast Asia, even though it’s a great (and budget-friendly) place for long-term travel. Other places are a higher priority for us.

RTW itinerary planning used to be based on routing rules for round-the-world air tickets sold by the major airline alliances. With increased airline competition, these days it rarely makes sense to buy one of these tickets. It’s usually much more economical to mix and match one-way tickets from different airlines. Different airlines may be more competitive on different legs of your trip. This is especially true when you’re using frequent flyer miles and credit card points for a lot of your flights like we are.

Further Information

For RTW itinerary planning I like the “Pillars” approach where you first decide on a number of places that you absolutely must include in your itinerary. The next step is to build a plan around that. For us there were some “bucket list” activities we wanted to include (e.g. the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu, Kakadu National Park, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan), and also some countries that we have been putting off going to until we had time to really do them justice (e.g. New Zealand and India).

For more details on this approach check out this post which does a great job explaining it. The same website has another post that is a great overview of the factors you need to consider to do your more detailed planning once you have decided on your Pillars.

Let us know in the comments if you have been to any of the places we are planning to go and have any “must-sees” that we should check out along the way.

The post RTW Itinerary appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


Japan Family Travel

This post is an overview of our two week Japan family travel experience. Japan is one of our favorite places, and one we keep going back to. We saw a good mix of traditional and modern Japan. We also ate some great Japanese food – it’s one of our favorite cuisines. Each section below includes […] The post Japan Family Travel appeared first on Airports and...

This post is an overview of our two week Japan family travel experience. Japan is one of our favorite places, and one we keep going back to. We saw a good mix of traditional and modern Japan. We also ate some great Japanese food – it’s one of our favorite cuisines. Each section below includes a link to a more detailed post about each part of our trip.

Narita

JAPAN – A NARITA STOPOVER

We arrived at Tokyo’s Narita airport a day before our friends who were traveling with us. This gave us the chance to explore the small town of Narita near the airport. We checked out the Narita-san Shinshō-ji temple, and ate our first (of many) sushi meals for the trip.

Japan Family Travel
Pagoda at Narita-san Shinshō-ji

Eastern Kyoto

JAPAN – A WALK THROUGH EASTERN KYOTO

On our first full day in Kyoto, we explored the temples and shrines of eastern Kyoto. We also spent some time strolling the famous Philosopher’s Walk that links many of them. Some of our group even got to try their hand at making a bowl on a potter’s wheel.

Japan Family Travel
Temple Guardian at Otoyo Shrine

Traditional Kaiseki Meal in Kyoto

JAPAN – A FAMILY KAISEKI MEAL IN KYOTO

On our second day in Kyoto we experienced one of the highlights of our Japan family travel. This was a traditional multi-course kaiseki meal in a restaurant that has been in business for more than three hundred years. We also braved the rainy weather to do some sightseeing in the area around our AirBnB accommodation.

family kaiseki
Harise kaiseki restaurant, Kyoto

Western Kyoto Walking Tour

JAPAN – A TOUR OF WESTERN KYOTO

On our last day in Kyoto we went on a guided walking tour. We started at Nijo Castle, then made our way to some iconic western Kyoto sights. These included the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji, the famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji and the bamboo grove at Arashiyama. We stopped along the way for an okonomiyaki lunch. It was great having a guide along to give us background information on the things we were looking at.

Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Hiroshima

JAPAN – HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL PARK

After Kyoto, we headed south on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. We spent a day exploring the various monuments in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We also visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which provides an overview of the atomic bomb blast that occurred there and also the impacts on the people of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima
A-Bomb Dome – Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Himeji Castle

JAPAN – HIMEJI CASTLE

While traveling between Hiroshima and Osaka, we made a stop at the town of Himeji. The main attraction here is Himeji Castle. This is widely regarded as Japan’s most beautiful castles, and is well worth the effort to see. We explored the castle grounds then made our way all the to the top floor of the castle. The views of the surrounding area were superb. We also had time to check out the nearby Koko-en garden before heading back to the train station to continue on to Osaka.

Japan Family Travel
Himeji Castle

Osaka

JAPAN – A FEW DAYS IN OSAKA

Osaka is one of our favorite places in Japan. It’s a great city for wandering the streets to see the random sights of modern Japan, and the food is incredible, in variety and quality. We recommend at least a couple of days in Osaka in any Japan family travel itinerary.

On our first day in Osaka, we spent a few hours at the excellent Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, then took a ride on the nearby ferris wheel for some spectacular views of Osaka. The next day we did a DIY walking tour, starting with Amerikamura, Osaka’s youth culture center. We then walked down Shinsaibashi, a covered shopping street, before ending up in Dotonbori, where we enjoyed seeing the lights and the crowds before finding somewhere to eat. On our final day in Osaka, the rest of the group went for a day trip to Nara, while Lachlan and I explored the attractions in and around the mammoth Osaka Station building.

Dotonbori, Osaka
Dotonbori, Osaka’s famous restaurant district

Tokyo Neighborhoods

JAPAN – TOKYO NEIGHBORHOODS

The final stop in our Japan family travel adventure was the capital city of Tokyo. We started our time in Tokyo exploring some different neighborhoods. Nihonbashi, Sugamo, Akihabara and Shinjuku all have different atmospheres and attractions, but are all worth checking out.

Sugamo, Tokyo
Vendors setting up for the monthly festival – Sugamo, Tokyo

Two Tokyo Museums

JAPAN – TWO TOKYO MUSEUMS

We spent our second full day in Tokyo visiting two of the many museums that can be found throughout Tokyo. First we visited the Ghibli Museum which showcases the famous Studio Ghibli animation house. Displays there featured characters and scenes from their films, as well as an insight into how they are made. There is also a special short film that you can only see at the museum.

After lunch we visited the Yayoi Kusama Museum, featuring the work of Yayoi Kusama who is experiencing a surge in popularity late in her life after some highly popular exhibits in art museums around the world. It was a great experience to see examples of her early work as well as more recent examples in Japan. Both of these museums require some advanced planning to visit as they are small and very popular. Click through to the post for more information on how to get tickets.

Yayoi Kusama Museum

Modern Tokyo

JAPAN – EXPERIENCING MODERN TOKYO

Our last day in Japan was spent experiencing modern Japanese culture in Ikebukuro and Harajuku. We visited the largest Pokemon Center in Japan, a cat cafe and a crazy dining experience at the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku. We did see have one more traditional experience, visiting the Meiji Shrine and marveling at the grand scale of the buildings and grounds.

Floor Show – Kawaii Monster Cafe

Japan Family Travel Tips

Although our blog is more about sharing our experiences than “how to” guides for the places we’ve been, we do have a few tips to share.

Itinerary

Consider starting your trip somewhere other than Tokyo. This could mean flying in to a different city, or taking the train from Narita airport and connecting to a train to Kyoto or some other place. Tokyo can be a bit overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time in Japan. You may get more out of your visit to Tokyo if you leave it until last.

Getting Around

Trains are the best way to get around Japan, and you should get a Japan Rail Pass. If you are staying a week or more and visiting more than one place, it will almost always save you money to use a JR pass – you can enter your itinerary into an online calculator to confirm this. Although you need to buy your JR Pass before you travel to Japan, you generally don’t need to make specific train reservations in advance, unless you are traveling at one of the specific times of year that many Japanese people are traveling (e.g. “Golden Week” around the end of April). It’s actually better to avoid travel to Japan altogether at these times, as accommodation will also be booked up or expensive and sights and attractions will be very busy.

Food

Don’t be afraid to try different types of Japanese food. Japanese cuisine is not usually spicy or strong-flavored, so you’re unlikely to get an unpleasant surprise. Pay attention to prices though, or you may get a different kind of unpleasant surprise. While there are many opportunities to spend a lot of money, there are also plenty of budget options. Conveyer-belt sushi is generally very good quality and cheaper than ordering from a menu (although sitting at a small sushi bar and watching the chef make your sushi to order is a classic Japan experience you should try at least once). Food stalls around temples and attractions are a good source of budget eats. Japanese convenience stores are also a great source of quality budget food, and worth visiting in any case to check out the amazing array of things available there.

The post Japan Family Travel appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


Japan – Experiencing Modern Tokyo

We mostly spent our final day in Japan experiencing modern Tokyo culture. This was a bit like our first day in Tokyo as we wandered a few different neighborhoods seeing what we could see. Ikebukuro We started our day in the busy shopping district of Ikebukuro. This is the home of Sunshine City, the first […] The post Japan – Experiencing Modern Tokyo appeared first on Airports and...

We mostly spent our final day in Japan experiencing modern Tokyo culture. This was a bit like our first day in Tokyo as we wandered a few different neighborhoods seeing what we could see.

Ikebukuro

We started our day in the busy shopping district of Ikebukuro. This is the home of Sunshine City, the first Japanesee example of a “city within a city”. This concept has become a staple of modern Tokyo, and areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya feature more modern and feature packed examples of this phenomenon. This leaves Ikebukuro as a slightly slower-paced area which still has plenty to see and do.

Most importantly for us, Sunshine City is the home of the Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo, the largest Pokémon Center in Japan. Lachlan carefully rationed his spending money throughout the trip to make sure he had some left to spend here.

Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo
Lachlan and friend – Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo
Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo
Pokémon Center Mega Tokyo

There is also a store in Sunshine city selling products related to Studio Ghibli. We skipped the gift shop on our visit to the Ghibli Museum because it was very crowded, So this was a chance to see if there were any Studio Ghibli souvenirs that we had to have. Everything was fairly expensive, so we settled for a photo op outside the store.

Outside Donguri Kyowakoku, the Studio Ghibli store

After our visit to Sunshine City, Heide headed off to do some solo exploration while Lachlan and I stayed in Ikebukuro to experience some more modern Tokyo culture, starting with a cat cafe.

We soon found out that Nekobukuro is more of a cat playground than a cat cafe, as no food or drink is served. This does make it a cheaper option than some of the fancier and newer cat cafes in Tokyo, where the overpriced drinks don’t actually enhance the cat experience.

Lachlan and friend at Nekobukoru Cat Playground
Nekobukoru Cat Playground
Nekobukoru Cat Playground

Ikebukuro – the Wrong Side of the Tracks

Before leaving Ikebukuro Lachlan and I wanted to go for one more arcade gaming session. After consulting Google Maps we thought we would try a smaller arcade on the west side of Ikebukuro Station. We hoped that this would be a less noisy and crazy option than one of the larger arcades.

The west side of Ikebukuro was a bit grittier than the east side. It didn’t seem dangerous (it’s still Japan after all), but we found it definitely less touristy and a little bit edgy.

West Ikebukuro

We eventually found the arcade we were looking for. However, it was scattered over a few floors of an entertainment building that included a bowling alley. On the ground floor there was a pachinko parlor section which we accidentally wandered into.

We didn’t find any games we wanted to play in any of the scattered arcade sections. However we did find a vending machine that serves hot dogs and fries. We did not buy anything from this machine.

Ikebukuro Vending Machine

After our west side adventure, we headed back east of the station to a different arcade for one last gaming session for the trip.

Meiji Shrine

We headed to our next stop, Harajuku Station. The train was pretty crowded, I just managed to get my arms free to take a photo.

Modern Tokyo
Riding the Yamanote Line, Tokyo

We met up with Heide at a cafe on Yoyogi Park and spent some time there drinking coffee and resting up. After a while our friends met up with us and the whole travel group was together for the last afternoon’s sightseeing for the trip.

Before diving into Harajuku (the center of modern Tokyo fashion), we checked out Meiji Shrine for a last dose of traditional Japan. Meiji Shrine is not particularly ancient by Japanese standards, having been built in 1920. However, the sheer scale of the shrine and it’s surrounding grounds is impressive. The shrine and surrounding Yoyogi Park provide a peaceful respite from the noise and buzz of modern Tokyo.

The torii gate at the beginning of the path to the shrine is huge. It also stands out because of it’s natural wood finish rather than the orange color you see at most Shinto shrines.

Meiji Shrine Torii Gate
Meiji Shrine Torii Gate

Continuing the large-scale theme, on the way to the shrine we saw a wall of sake donated by sake producers to ensure good fortune for their businesses.

Donated Sake – Meiji Shrine

Just before we got to the central shrine complex we saw a Shinto priest scurrying off, presumably to attend to his priestly duties (or maybe he was done with those and was headed home for the day).

Shinto Priest – Meiji Shrine

As it was fairly late in the afternoon, there weren’t all that many people there. It was nice to be able to take photos without teeming crowds in the background.

Heide and Lachlan – Meiji Shrine

Harajuku – Peak Modern Tokyo

Our last experience in Tokyo (and Japan) was spending some time in Harajuku. This is the center of modern Tokyo fashion, although we were there in the evening so we missed the peak of the teeming crowds of young Japanese fashionistas who wander the streets of Harajuku to see and be seen.

We did see some of the crazy Harajuku style expressed in shopping center architecture.

Modern Tokyo
Harajuku Shopping Center

We saved one of the most amazing Japanese experiences for last. Dinner at the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku was a feast for the senses. Firstly, the decor is amazing.

Kawaii Monster Cafe
Kawaii Monster Cafe

Even the bathrooms are spectacularly decorated.

Bathroom – Kawaii Monster Cafe

The food isn’t particularly amazing to taste, but the visual presentation is right on theme.

Spaghetti – Kawaii Monster Cafe

The tentacles reaching over the bar were one of my favorite design elements.

Bar – Kawaii Monster Cafe

Just when our eyes and brains were beginning to adjust to these crazy surroundings, a floor show featuring a dancing girl and a giant cat took things over the top.

Floor Show – Kawaii Monster Cafe

This was a great option for our last dinner in Japan, one of those experiences you can only have in Japan.

Farewell Japan

The next morning we packed up and took the train out to the airport.

Narita Express – headed to the airport

We caught some last glimpses of the Japanese countryside before arriving at the airport to catch our ride back home to Houston.

View from the Narita Express
Our ride home

In our two weeks in Japan we managed to see a good cross section of what Japan has to offer. From the ancient temples of Kyoto to modern Tokyo sights and experiences, Japan has a great range of things to see and do. Even though we’ve been there a few times now, there is still a lot more to discover. We’ll be back again some day for sure.

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Japan – Two Tokyo Museums

Our second full day in Tokyo was a lot more structured than our first day spent wandering various neighborhoods. We had tickets for two Tokyo museums that we had bought well in advance before our trip. This meant we had a very specific plan for the day. Of course, Tokyo’s public transport ran flawlessly, so […] The post Japan – Two Tokyo Museums appeared first on Airports and...

Our second full day in Tokyo was a lot more structured than our first day spent wandering various neighborhoods. We had tickets for two Tokyo museums that we had bought well in advance before our trip. This meant we had a very specific plan for the day. Of course, Tokyo’s public transport ran flawlessly, so we didn’t have any trouble getting to, from or between our two major activities for the day.

Ghibli Museum

The first of the two Tokyo museums we visited was the Ghibli Museum. This museum showcases the work of Studio Ghibli, producers of some of the most popular Japanese animated movies. Audiences around the world have enjoyed their films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro.

The museum was designed as a whimsical journey through the world of Studio Ghibli, and the architecture reflects this.

Tokyo Museums
Ghibli Museum

You can’t take pictures inside the museum, to enhance the immersive experience. There are some displays that give an insight into how the Studio Ghibli films are developed and made. Other displays are artwork inspired by the films.

One place you are allowed to take photos is the rooftop garden. This features a five meter tall robot soldier.

Ghibli Museum
Heide and Lachlan – Ghibli Museum rooftop garden

Unfortunately, it started raining while we were checking out the rooftop garden, so we didn’t spend much time there.

If you want to visit the Ghibli Museum (which we would definitely recommend), you need to buy tickets in advance. From outside Japan you can buy them from JTB agencies (e.g. JTB USA). If you’re already in Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson convenience stores. For more details, see the Ghibli Museum website.

This museum is located outside the major tourist areas in Mitaka. However, it’s pretty easy to get to Mitaka Station from Shinjuku, and then there is a shuttle bus to the museum. Again, the museum website has directions that are easy to follow.

Yayoi Kusama Museum

The second of the Tokyo museums we visited was the Yayoi Kusama Museum. We saw a Kusama exhibit in Houston a couple of years ago, and especially loved her “infinity rooms”, which use mirrors and lights to make enclosed spaces seem limitless. We were excited to see a broader range of her work and learn more about her at this newly opened museum in Tokyo.

The rain continued while we made our way between the two Tokyo Museums, so we were glad to make it to our second stop for the day.

Tokyo Museums
Yayoi Kusama Museum

The building itself is not very big, but impressively modern. It sits in a fairly quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Shinjuku.

Yayoi Kusama Museum building

Tickets are sold to the Kusama Museum for specific entry times, so we had to wait a while before we could start our exploration of the museum. When the appointed hour came, a staff member gave us an introductory talk, then set us loose to explore.

Exhibits

Some of the works on display rotate periodically. We were lucky enough to see some of Kusama’s earliest works, which are smaller in scale and have more muted colors than her later and current paintings. It was interesting to see hints and motifs in small scale in the early works that showed up in larger scale and vibrant colors in Kusama’s later work. You can’t take photos of any of the paintings, but you can see a few of them on the museum’s website.

The museum’s infinity room installation occupies one full floor of the museum.

Infinity Room at the Yayoi Kusama Museum

With some careful attention to angles, you can even take an infinity room selfie.

Infinity Room Selfie – Yayoi Kusama Museum

At the top of the museum we found a rooftop courtyard featuring a giant pumpkin, one of Kusama’s trademark forms.

Yayoi Kusama Museum

From the rooftop, you get a nice view of the quiet neighborhood surrounding the museum.

The view from the Yayoi Kusama Museum rooftop courtyard

The Yayoi Kusama Museum had one more surprise in store for us. When we got in the elevator to return to the ground floor after we had seen all the exhibits, we discovered that it had been set up as an infinity room.

Infinity Room Elevator, Yayoi Kusama Museum

Logistics

Tickets for the Yayoi Kusama Museum must be purchased in advance on the museum’s website. They sell out very quickly, so I recommend buying them as soon as they go on sale for the date you want to visit. Calculating this advance timing is a bit confusing, to quote the website:

Tickets go on sale at 10 am (Japan Time) on the first of each month for entry in the month after next (for example, tickets for December 1 through December 24 go on sale from October 1).

The Kusama Museum is not quite as easy to find as the Ghibli Museum. There are two subway stations you can use, depending on where you are coming from. As you can see from the museum website’s access map, there is a bit of a distance to walk from either one. It’s actually nice to walk through this quiet part of Tokyo, away from the hustle and bustle of the busier parts of the city.

Summary

We had a great day visiting two Tokyo museums. They are both relatively small and focus on specific aspects of Japanese art and culture. This makes them a more manageable and less overwhelming like bigger museums such as the Edo-Tokyo Museum or the Tokyo National Museum. While these bigger museums can provide a good overview of Japan’s history and culture, I definitely recommend also seeking out some of the smaller Tokyo museums such as the Ghibli Museum and the Yayoi Kusama Museum when you’re in Tokyo.

The post Japan – Two Tokyo Museums appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


Japan – Tokyo Neighborhoods

After enjoying our time in Osaka, it was time to head to our last destination in Japan – Tokyo. In our first day and a half we managed to cover a few different Tokyo neighborhoods. Nihonbashi After arriving at Tokyo Station, we had some time to kill before we could check in to our AirBnB […] The post Japan – Tokyo Neighborhoods appeared first on Airports and...

After enjoying our time in Osaka, it was time to head to our last destination in Japan – Tokyo. In our first day and a half we managed to cover a few different Tokyo neighborhoods.

Nihonbashi

After arriving at Tokyo Station, we had some time to kill before we could check in to our AirBnB accommodation. We decided to store our luggage in lockers and explore the area around the station, Nihonbashi. This has been a commercial district for hundreds of years.

Very early into our visit to Tokyo we had an encounter with Godzilla.

Godzilla Tokyo
An encounter with Godzilla on the streets of Tokyo

After surviving our run-in with the famous monster, we made our way to Nihonbashi Bridge. A wooden bridge across the Nihonbashi River was built in 1603, and the area has been a thriving commercial district since then. The current stone bridge has been in place since the late 1800s.

Tokyo Neighborhoods
Nihonbashi Bridge

The bridge is somewhat overshadowed by a freeway that was built in the 1960s. This makes photographing the Nihonbashi Bridge a bit of a challenge. However, it’s possible to take pictures there that capture the mixture of history and modernity you can experience in Japan.

Tokyo Neighborhoods
Nihonbashi Bridge

Nihonbashi continues to be a major commercial district, home of some of Tokyo’s largest department stores. It’s also the home of Sembikiya, where you can buy that crazy expensive fruit that Japan is famous for.

Watermelons at Sembikiya
Watermelons at Sembikiya
Cherries and Mango at Sembikiya
Cherries and Mango at Sembikiya

Sugamo

After a couple of hours exploring Nihonbashi, it was time to make our way to our AirBnB, in the Sugamo neighborhood. We chose to stay here because it was less expensive than other more famous Tokyo neighborhoods. However it was a fairly short walk to a station on the Yamanote Line, which made it convenient to get to the places we wanted to see in Tokyo. You can use your JR Pass on this line, so if you have one you can save money over using the subway lines.

We had a quiet night settling in to our accommodation, which was in a very quiet residential area. It was nice to be out of the hustle and bustle of the busier Tokyo neighborhoods. We found a local convenience store to grab some food to take back to our AirBnB for dinner.

In the morning, as we walked through Sugamo to take the train to explore some more Tokyo neighborhoods we saw vendors setting up stalls for the monthly market on the Sugamo Shopping Street.

Sugamo, Tokyo
Vendors setting up for the monthly festival – Sugamo Shopping Street, Tokyo
Aquarium fish for sale on Sugamo Shopping Street
Aquarium fish for sale on Sugamo Shopping Street

The Koganji Temple next to the Sugamo Shopping Street has a fountain that produces water that is said to have healing properties. This attracts many older Japanese people to the temple. The nearby shopping street features stores that cater to these older folks, which gives the area its nickname of “Grandma’s Harajuku”.

Koganji Temple
Koganji Temple – Sugamo, Tokyo

Tokyo Station

From Sugamo, we took the Yamanote Line back to Tokyo Station. We exited the station on the opposite side of the building from the Nihonbashi side we had explored the previous day. This western side of the station features the original station building from 1914.

Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station
Tokyo Station

Akihabara

After Tokyo Station, Heide headed off to do some solo shopping. Lachlan and I headed towards a place he had been looking forward to visiting – Akihabara. Originally starting as the home of Tokyo’s biggest electronics stores, it’s now also the center of Japan’s video game and anime cultures. As soon as we stepped out of the Akihabara train station we knew we were in the right place.

Akihabara
Gamer kid in Akihabara

Our first stop was an arcade, for more Japanese-style video gaming.

Arcade in Akihabara
Arcade in Akihabara

After the arcade it was time to go shopping. Despite the temptations of the multiple Pokemon Centers we had visited earlier in our trip, Lachlan had kept some money in reserve to spend in Akihabara. The first store was the amazing Super Potato. This place is a treasure trove of retro gaming gear, with many rare items as well as reminders of video game history. Lachlan is a student of retro gaming, but I lived through it, so I may have enjoyed browsing here even more than he did.

Riding the elevator up to Super Potato, Akihabara
Riding the elevator up to Super Potato, Akihabara
Game & Watch collection, Super Potato, Akihabara
Remember these? Super Potato, Akihabara
Trying out a Nintendo Virtual Boy, Super Potato Akihabara
Trying out a Nintendo Virtual Boy – Super Potato, Akihabara

Super Potato was an awesome place to browse, but the prices were expensive. After much searching, we managed to find a smaller retro game store with better prices where Lachlan was able to find a couple of cool Japanese games in his budget.

Retro Game Store, Akihabara
Retro Game Store, Akihabara

Shinjuku

The last stop on our day exploring Tokyo neighborhoods was Shinjuku. This is one of the major entertainment districts of Tokyo, with lots of restaurants, bars and attractions. We were there to try out some virtual reality games at the VR Zone Shinjuku. Unfortunately, Lachlan was too young to try VR Mario Kart, but there were plenty of other games to try. It was a bit expensive, but a lot of fun.

Fighting Virtual Reality Aliens
Fighting Virtual Reality Aliens

VR Zone Shinjuku has since closed due to a redevelopment project, but there are other Tokyo neighborhoods with places you can try virtual reality games, like VR Park Tokyo in Shibuya.

After almost being overwhelmed by the dining options in Shinjuku, we finished our day with a great sushi meal.

Sushi Restaurant, Shinjuku
Sushi Restaurant, Shinjuku

Tips for Exploring Tokyo Neighborhoods

Tokyo is a city of neighborhoods, with different parts of the city having very different characteristics. You can explore busy, modern districts like Shinjuku or explore traditional sights in areas like Asakusa. Some districts specialize, like Akihabara’s focus on electronics and gaming culture or Harajuku’s youth culture.

If you’re adventurous and willing to tackle the language barrier, wandering Tokyo’s less-touristed residential areas checking out neighborhood temples and restaurants can be very rewarding. You never know what you’ll find around the corner while wandering Tokyo back streets. We found a lovely little incense store on this trip, and on previous visits have run across random neighborhood festivals.

If you get hungry or thirsty while wandering Tokyo streets you’re usually not too far from a convenience store to garb a snack and a drink. If you need a meal then you can almost always find a selection of restaurants near any train station.

Hopefully this encourages you to get out and explore some Tokyo neighborhoods when you visit Japan, it’s a great city to wander and explore.

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