Friday, April 29, 2011

Best travel websites and guidebooks for researching Japan travel

Updated 6/23/11- I updated this blog post since we returned from the trip. All updates will be italicized and in pink.

For anyone planning a vacation, there is that excitement to read all about where you're traveling to since you know you're about to embark on an amazing journey- whether it's relaxing at the beach sipping a cocktail, backpacking through Europe, or scoping out a new city.

Then there is the international trip that takes planning a notch higher since you're now dealing with not only potential time zone changes, but currency exchange rates, train schedules (especially if you're from a Midwest town where pubic transportation is virtually non-existent), and cultural differences.

... And then there are those international trips that go a step beyond that where the language is completely different. Not only is the language different, but the alphabet is also different. While my Japanese is definitely not as strong as it used to be, I feel confident I can get by fine while we're in Japan. You would think I would remember a whole lot since I spent consecutive summers living in Japan, but reading through websites, guidebooks, blogs, and books re-iterated how much I had forgotten. Granted, it's been over a decade since I've been back to Japan, but it was a real shock to have realized how much I needed to re-acquaint myself with the language, phrases, maps, and pictures.

I want to dedicate this blog post to displaying the most helpful websites I've found on researching Japan. (When I return, I'll post a complete review of the guidebooks.)

Accommodations
There are many (upon many) reservation websites on the internet. The below lists what websites we found most helpful and why.
  • Rakuten Travel- We used this site to book the majority of our accommodations. We also felt it had the most discounted pricing amongst all the websites we visited
  • Booking- Another good website we used to book some of our accommodations
  • Japanican- One of the top 3 websites used
  • Trip Advisor- Trip Advisor has a lot of reviews and ratings on accommodations
  • Japanese Guest Houses- This site was recommended to us by numerous people to book ryokans (Japanese-style inns). What is great about this site is that you can choose several ryokans you like and get the pricing for your stay. They will email you back with pricing (and whatever else information you are seeking), but won't book the ryokan until you've given them approval. Overall, it is an all-conclusive site for all the major ryokans in Japan where it will research and communicate between you and the ryokan- for free
A more in-depth review of accommodation in Japan can be found here.

Note: Tokyo is a vast city, and reasonable hotels don't need to cost you an arm and a leg. If you're a first timer and trying to determine the best area to stay in Tokyo, many reviews recommend staying around Shinjuku or Shibuya area. Both areas have easy access to many train lines, many key attractions (read: touristy) are located around there, and plenty of shopping and dining options exist.


Train Schedule
Hyperdia is going to be your best friend!
It will tell you arrival and departure times for all the trains in Japan. I am using this to determine not only the departure/arrival times, but the length of travel time, # of transfers, distance, what train line to use, subway fare... basically, if you need to go anywhere, this is the website to turn to. And there is now a Droid app you can download! I know we will be using this website daily to help plan our vacation.
Update: Hyperdia was definitely our best friend in Japan. We used it constantly to determine how long it'd take from point A to point B, and get an idea of how much the train ride would cost. Luckily, we were always in a home or hotel room that had internet, so browsing Hyperdia was never a non-issue- but during those times when we couldn't get on Hyperdia, we just asked the agents at the train ticket area, and everyone was eager to help and were very friendly.

Maps
Google Maps is your next best friend.
We loved being able to type in the city and Google Maps did all the work for us. Since street signs and the street numbering system are confusing in Japan, we made close-up/zoom views of all destinations we planned to go to so we knew exactly how to get to our desired location.

Another good tip I learned is to Google Map your train station, and then go to Street View. This helped me get acquainted with the surroundings right outside the train station.
Update: Since we normally knew what train station to get off at (thanks to Japan-Guide.com), we tended to Google Map where we wanted to go after we got off the train. For instance, if we wanted to go to a specific store or restaurant, we'd enter the "From" (arriving train station) and "To" (store or restaurant address). Then we'd click on the "WALK" icon on Google Maps, and write down turn-by-turn directions. (Note- we made sure all the places we were looking at weren't far from train stations.)

Blogs
  • Honeymoon in Japan- There are a lot of blogs out there about Japan, but none of them were as conclusive and helpful to me as Jacqui's blog. She wrote 1 blog post daily to recap her adventures while she was in Japan on her honeymoon. She talks about places she visited, restaurants she ate at, and hotels where she stayed. Most of the information in this blog are a result of emails we've been sending back and forth where I've asked her countless questions
  • Update: Jacqui and her husband Erik are returning to Japan this year and are capturing their vacation on her 2nd Japan travel blog
  • Living Out Loud- This blogger did 4 entries on his adventures in Japan, and it has lots of pictures and reviews
  • Bon Voyage- This blog had a post that had some beautiful pictures of his 1-day excursion in Hakone (near Mt. Fuji)
Travel forums
I mainly visited 2 forums, and both were on Trip Advisor: Tokyo forum and Japan forum.
You will need to create an account (it's free), but it was a great way to post questions and answer threads with others either traveling to Japan, who'd been to Japan, or even locals or ex-pats who live in Japan. The group of regulars on these boards have been incredibly helpful and informative (as well as patient- I think I posted multiple questions daily.)
Update: The TripAdvisor forums for Japan and Tokyo were so helpful before and during our trip. No question is a dumb question here.

Sightseeing/Attractions
Other than reading blogs and asking questions on travel forums, the Japan-Guide.com website has been the most conclusive. It lists the top attractions by city, and then detailed information about each attraction- interesting facts, how to get there (from various train stations or cities), hours of operation, and admission fees. Granted, the layout isn't all fancy-schmancy and it looks kind of jumbled, but I used this as my one-stop sightseeing/attractions research shop. Once I found this site, I didn't look elsewhere. I didn't need to.
Update: Japan-guide.com is amazing! Although the website isn't fancy schmancy, it has a lot of background information, and I love that it shows you hours of operationwhat train line to take & what train station to get off at, the cost of the train fare, and how to get to your desired attraction after you get off the train... and it is totally FREE!

For Miyajima, I found the Miyajima Tourist Association helpful in regards to detailed information of attractions on the island, including the hiking courses, maps, hours of operation of major attractions, admission fees, and events.

Another tip I learned was to go to a travel agent and pick up tour books. While we had no plans on going on any paid tours, we used these tour books to determine what the most popular attractions are and how long to spend at each said attraction. If a travel agency is offering tours, then they're (most likely) going to offer tours based on the most popular attractions in the specific city, right?. This gave us a good guide as to what are the "must see" and approximate time at each attractions in each city. We went to AAA as well as JTB (where we purchased our JR Passes). Many tour companies also offer 1-day tours in Tokyo... this also helped us map out our Tokyo itinerary as well.
Update: When we picked up our JR Passes at our local JTB office, they provided quite a few books on the places we were visiting, and included maps of the cities as well. We ended up using these maps the most on our trip.

Restaurants/Dining Out
  • Bento- I found going to Bento was useful in that they listed hours of operation and used Google Maps to show their location. Some even show the store front so you can see what to look for when you're in Japan. This site specializes in restaurants within the larger metropolitan cities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka/Kobe
  • Another good one is Lonely Planet- If I couldn't find info on bento, then I'd come here (and vice versa)
  • For Hiroshima, I found this site to be particularly useful for hours of operation, address, and phone #
Guidebooks/Maps
If you're looking for a guidebook, I always head to my favorite online shopping destination: Amazon. The layout is clear and visually pleasing, and I love their vast selection, reading reviews of items, and they normally have the best prices online. And, a majority of their items qualify for free super shipper saving. With this in mind, I purchased a few books at Amazon for our travels:

Japan guidebook- I love DK Eyewitness Travel books. I love the layout of the information- it's clear and concise, and while there are a lot of pictures, there is a lot of information as well. It includes information about the various cities, but also suggestions on where to eat, stay, and sleep too.
Update: I used this book to plan and read about the attractions to visit, but I didn't use it once while I was in Japan. The book is quite heavy, and we didn't want to carry it with us. Also, there is just so much (free) information on the Web and I did a lot of research online before we left, so this book got tossed to the side. If you don't have a lot of time to do research before your trip, I would definitely recommend this book- it has lots of information, pictures, and good sightseeing attractions all nested inside this one book.
    • Price: $18.48
    • Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 39 reviews
    • Size: 8.6 x 5.1 x 0.9 inches (You can carry this in a larger purse, but it is a bit heavy)

Japanese Phrase Book-I bought this for Darin hoping he'd have some fun trying to pronounce various Japanese phrases. I think he tried twice, we both laughed, and it hasn't been opened since then. I could tell my Japanese was weak, so I plan to use it to help refresh some key phrases while we're traveling. The phrase book is categorized by "event" (subway, restaurants, etc), so if you're eating out (let's say) and needed to ask dining-related questions, just flip to the Dining section and there are the most common phrases listed out in Japanese (and pronunciations in English). I think it'll really prove useful to me and will definitely help Darin. This book is also coming from the famed international language school Berlitz.
Update: I used this a little, but barely any. I think I would have used this more if I didn't know Japanese, but I knew enough Japanese to get by. If Darin was on this trip solo, I know this book would have been helpful for him.
    • Price: $8.95
    • Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 14 reviews
    • Size: 5.5 x 4 x 0.5 inches (Lightweight and small- may even be able to carry it in your back pocket)


Tokyo City Atlas- This was rated very highly on Amazon. While I don't remember thinking the Japanese subway system was confusing as a child when I was living in Japan, every website I've read talks about how confusing it is. I may be an anomaly since I can read and speak the language, but I got this book just in case. I'll review it later and let you know how helpful it was for us.
Update: We didn't use this book. At all. While this book has all these maps in Tokyo, it isn't detailed enough where we could look at it and find turn-by-turn instructions to get places. I found it easier to know which train station to get off at just by looking at the train map at the actual train stations. Totally wished I hadn't paid money for it.
    • Price: $18.00
    • Reviews: 4.5 stars out of 69 reviews
    • Size: 8.3 x 5.9 x 0.5 inches (Lightweight, and you can carry it in your purse)
FAQs
Here are some websites that answers questions about traveling to and being in Japan:

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tokyo Lights- Before and After

I joined a Japan forum on TripAdvisor, and one of the posts includes a YouTube video that shows the before and after of the Tokyo lights. Since the 3/11/11 earthquake, all cities within Japan have been doing their duties to conserve energy and power.

Like NYC, Tokyo has a lot of "districts" and lights are everywhere. This YouTube video clearly  shows what the lights were pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. While it's disappointing not to see Tokyo at its best when we travel in a few weeks, you can tell people are still out & about, and are resuming normal activities.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Packing List- What to bring and wear on long flights?

A long domestic or international flight is usually exciting when you’re first on the plane. You’re excited to get to your new destination. You’ve got consecutive hours to relax, watch movies, eat snacks, and read. Whatever it may be, even to the most excited traveler, a few hours on a plane may start to seem like an eternity.

I’ve compiled a list of “What should I bring? What should I wear? What should I do?” on long flights to make it as painless and comfortable as possible for us on our 14+-hour flight. Yes, some are the no-brainers, but there are some items that were recommended to me that I hadn't thought of before.


Am I planning to bring everything listed here? Heck no! I’ve just compiled a list of items to consider bringing/wearing during a long flight. Pick and choose what is best suited for your needs and destination.

Update: I will continue to update this list as I get more recommendations...

What to bring on long flights

Water bottle tip: Find the biggest bottle of water you can find once you pass through security. Don’t you get free beverages on the plane? Yes, but not as often as I’d like to and should drink water. At least I can always have it within reach when I want it or need it.

An alternative to a water bottle is the Vapur- the "Anti-Bottle". This seems to come in especially handy when traveling since it's a refillable portable water bottle. Once you are finished drinking, you can roll it up and stow it away until you want to refill it again. A reusable, flexible water bottle that's foldable and BPA-free. (You can also buy it here on Amazon.)

Important Documents

  • Wallet, boarding passes, foreign currency, keys, passport, flight/car/hotel information
  • Phone, charger
  • Anything of value- for me, this includes: jewelry, camera, prescription sunglasses
  • Laptop, charger

Snacks
Tip: Eat a big meal before getting onboard (it may be awhile before they serve you). I’ve been reading airlines are getting more restrictive of free food/snacks on planes, but this is definitely dependent on which airline you fly on.

Thus, I like to bring a sandwich (Ham/Swiss on baguette, PB&J, etc) with me just in case I need something more satiating than just snacks. Airline food tends to be high in carbs and sodium, and low on protein. I like to bring snacks that are mainly high in protein and low in sodium (which has less tendency to make you feel bloated).
  • Almonds (filling, no bloating)- Have you tried these flavored ones? The Wasabi-flavored ones are like eating sushi without all the carbs. Seriously addicting
  • Oscar Meyer P3 (cubed turkey, almonds, and cubed cheese)
  • Dried fuit (filling, no bloating)
  • Cheese sticks
  • Granola bars (filling, no bloating)
  • Protein bars, Lara bars, Luna bars (filling, no bloating)
  • Trail Mix (filling, no bloating)- Target Monster Mix
  • FRUIT: Fruit strips/leather, Gummi bears, Starbursts
  • Snacks: 100-calorie snacks, Goldfish, Combos, Cheese/PB crackers
  • Mints, Gum, Listerine Pocket Mist (no one wants rank breath, especially going through security, immigration, or customs)
  • Dove Chocolates (I like to have a small piece when a chocolate craving kicks in)
  • Werther's Original hard candies
  • Sandwich: Ham/Gruyere/Baguette, PB&J
  • Laughing Cow Light cheese
Medicine
  • Low-dose Aspirin (81mg)- Take this to thin out blood as it will help with swelling and clots. This is especially important to take for those who are at risk for clots or who are taking birth control pills (since estrogen increases your risk of forming blood clots). Take the recommended dose 3 days prior, day of, and 3 days following long flight
  • Airborne tablet- Take morning of flight, and during flight before you land to stay healthy
  • Sleep aid- Melatonin, Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Ambien, Nyquil
  • Mini first-aid kit (including bandaids, blister bandaids)
  • Tums, Immodium AD, Lactaid, Advil, Birth Control pills (and any other meds you might need mid-flight)
  • Ginger Chews or crystallized ginger- Technically can be a snack, but helps with nausea/upset stomach
  • Alka Seltzer GOLD- Settles heartburn, indigestion, sour stomach (you never know if foreign food could upset your stomach mid-flight or mid-vacation)
Accessories
  • Neck/travel pillow (This was one of the best things I packed. Never will I fly without it again)
  • Travel blanket- I am always cold and like need having layers on me to sleep
  • Socks (I like to slip into comfy socks on the plane)
  • Compression socks- helps with circulation
  • Ear plugs
  • Portable folding fan (for summer months)- A/C isn't usually on while you're sitting on the tarmac (probably drenching in your own sweat). Take this to help relieve some of the heat/humidity while you wait before your plane takes off
Beauty
  • Eyeglass case (so you can take off your eyeglasses and rest easy knowing they are protected and safe), Extra contacts, Eye drops
  • Contacts, contacts case, travel-sized solution
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Makeup (any powdered cosmetics do they won't crack/break)
  • Travel perfume or body spray (must be within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Travel-size deodarant (must be solid and within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Travel-size facial moisturizer (must be solid and within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Travel-size hand lotion (must be within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Travel-size facial moisturizer (must be within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Olay Cleansing Cloths- These cloths are wonderful for traveling! I use them on my face to feel more refreshed mid-flight, and I also carry them with me when it's warm outside and I just want a wet cloth to wipe down my face from sweat/humidity
  • Wet Ones To Go- Perfect to wipe down hands (or dirty airline trays)
  • Colgate Wisps, Floss (or toothpaste/toothbrush) (must be within 3.4-oz requirement in a quart-size Ziploc)
  • Small hairbrush or comb, hair rubberbands, bobby pins
  • Pantiliners (change liner mid-flight to feel a little more “fresh”)
  • Chapstick
  • Nail file
  • Breath spray, mints, gum
  • Travel-size tissue paper
  • Eye mask
Entertainment
Note: Some airlines now have outlets at each seat. If so, make sure to bring your charger (laptop, iPad, DVD player, etc.) so you can continue your activity when the battery runs out.
  • Book/magazine (to read when electronics aren't allowed)
  • Tablet- iPad/Kindle & charger (pre-loaded with movies/TV shows, games, and books)
  • iPod/iPad, mp3 player
  • DVDs for laptop, mini-DVD player
  • Headphones (preferably noise-cancelling headphones)
  • Airplane headphone adapter- Many international flights now offer seatback entertainment with lots of music and TV shows/movie options. Most planes are now updated to a single prong, but you could be on one that still has a 2-prong port system. These are cheap, and can help pass time using the plane's entertainment system! Simple, inexpensive, and a must-have
  • Ninendo DS or other handheld games
  • Y-adapter or Y-splitter- This is handy when 2 of you want to listen to the same thing from 1 adapter. For example, I'll be bringing my laptop and intend to watch movies on it. This way, the Y-splitter will allow us to both plug in our headphones into the splitter, and we can connect it into my laptop to watch the movie together
  • Small notebook, pen
  • Games:  Deck of cards, Uno, crosswords, Sudoku
  • ** Any batteries for your electronics
Misc
  • Downy Wrinkle Eraser (Target)
  • Portable travel blanket
  • Shout Wipes (A godsend if you spill something since you can't put it in the wash immediately)
  • Extra pair of clothes, including underwear and socks (you never know if your luggage will get lost)
What to wear on a long flight
Tip: Layering is key!
Tip #2: Wear largest items you're bringing (so you have enough room in your suitcase)
  • SHORT: Comfortable dress, cardigan, flats
  • LONG: Yoga pants or leggings, Tank, Long-sleeved tee, Track jacket/cardigan/pashmina, Tennies (bring socks and/or flip flops as carry-on); I hate wearing jeans on long flights- not comfortable
  • Shoes: Easy to slip on/off (ballet flats, flip flops)- also good if you're running in b/w flights
  • Scarf is nice too (I've actually seen people bring/put on Snuggies too)
  • Socks- It is nice to slip off your shoes and put on socks for comfort/sleeping, and will keep you warm on those long flights
  • I love my North Face Masonic fleece jacket (warm and lightweight)
Misc. tips during a long flight
  • Try to stay away from alcohol
  • Drink plenty of water- more hydrated, less jet lagged
  • Try to get up and walk around every few hours (to help with circulation)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome, and 5 more weeks to Japan!


I've been hemming and hawing whether I should start another blog. I've been so busy lately with work, home renovations, and planning for our upcoming trip to Japan that I've really neglected my cooking blog. Unless it weren't for Blogspot's auto-posting option, there would have been a long drought of recipes. Have no fear though- I'll be continuing to post new recipes several times throughout the week!

And now onto why I started this travel blog. Not only does a blog take a lot of time and thought, I wasn't sure if I wanted to nor could dedicate the time to continue with it. When I first started the cooking blog, I devoted 1-2 hours per night on 1 blog post. I know it sounds like a lot of time for 1 recipe, but between taking and uploading pictures, writing down any unique cooking methods used, explanations of where to find unique ingredients, reviewing the recipe as a whole, and then listing the recipe ingredients and directions- the time really adds up.

For someone who goes to bed early and comes home late from the gym and then making/eating dinner, it was taking up valuable down time every evening. Would I be inspired enough to continue and maintain this blog? Eventually, I came to the realization that I could, I should, and thus I needed to.


What has really inspired me to start this blog has been two-fold:
1. I wanted a place where I could place all my research into 1 website- If you try googling "What to do in Japan?", there are so.many.websites. It's quite overwhelming! One website would include the full address and phone #, while another would contain the hours of operation, and then another has Japan forums, etc. It was tiring, confusing, and ultimately intimidating. I thought researching vacation ideas was supposed to be fun? Hopefully, you'll find my blog has good facts and tips, as well as lots of pictures, reviews, thoughts, and feeling. I am tailoring this blog based on information for my needs and where I will be located. It may will not have all the information for every traveler going to Japan, but hopefully it can still aid you in your planning.

2. Travel blogs give you information you can't find on any ol' travel website- I was inspired by a blogger who really helped me answer a lot of questions. I initially found her blog through one of the Japan forums I joined, and I loved that it went beyond a textbook explanation (unlike so many websites I went to). It had real reviews, real pictures, and real suggestions & tips throughout her and her husband's journey in Japan. Make sure to check her blog out. (Side note: Jacqui- your emails, suggestions, and help were invaluable in planning our trip.) Jacqui and her husband won a FREE TRIP TO JAPAN this year, so they will be traveling to Japan for their 1-year honeymoon (July/August 2011), and she'll be starting another Japan blog, so make sure to check it out too.

3. I also wanted a place where I could document our travels. I know I often look back at my cooking blog to get recipe ideas. The pictures help me refresh my memory of the recipe, and the notes help me remember tips and suggestions I had after making it. What's better to remember thoughts, feelings, and memories than writing about it while you're doing it?

I also want to give a huge shout-out to Rikki B and Adrian L. I know it took a long time to answer all my questions, and I can't thank you enough for your time and help.

My sister Naomi and her boyfriend are living in the Tokyo area now, and she has also started a picture blog of her adventures in Japan. Definitely check it out! Her mission is to take 1 picture daily of her stay in Japan.


I hope that this blog not only keeps the memories-to-be alive for us, but it can be used as a valuable tool for you- and one less website to have to do your research :) We hope that it is a fun read, a learning tool, and a way you can keep up with our adventures and journeys as we travel through cities, venture new food, and visit with family.

We leave for Japan 5 weeks from today!