Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair! read more

Off the ship: Tokyo and a favorite boat ride to Asakusa

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Nijubashi Bridge at the Imperial Palace

As David likes to describe it, after 15 days on a ship, we’re like a couple of baby birds kicked out of the nest when we land: What?! We have to figure out where to eat on our own?? Kind of pathetic. Despite the initial adjustment, we were more than ready for some time ashore on our own. Cruises are fun, but it was time to dig in a bit deeper.

We lucked into sunny skies our first day in Tokyo, the only real weather problem being a bit too much heat and a haze that made tower viewing of Mt. Fuji a nonstarter. We spent the first night onboard, so only baby steps required: taking a train from Shinagawa station (the station nearest the industrial port where the ship berthed the first night before moving to the nicer Yokohama cruise port). The ship shuttled us to Shinagawa, so all we had to do was catch a train to Tokyo Station. Easy, right?…Except for the total lack of English on the signage. Thankfully, helpful young ladies in uniform are stationed throughout area train stations and we were soon on our way. read more

Using Google Maps and Google Translate to navigate Japanese transit systems (and other useful things)

Our first full day truly off the boat with luggage in tow, we made our first travel error by hopping on a train going in the wrong direction. So much for my travel wiles! It’s not something I do often, but I’ve definitely done it before. Usually, I catch it sooner, though: It took me 30 minutes before I noticed we were getting more rural instead of the expected Tokyo skyline. A personal “best.” Aaargh. Oh well, easy enough to get on a train going the other direction; just an annoying waste of time and some extra schlepping of luggage. But, this was when I discovered a really great trick for navigating Tokyo trains, metro and bus: Google Maps combined with Google Translate. [Both require Internet connection (although there’s an offline option for Google Translate where you download a specific language; see below), so get a SIM card if you can. See my earlier post about NTT Docomo card. It’s been great for us.] read more

Hakodate, Japan – Trying out a bargain tour guide

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I arranged a private guide in Hakodate through the Hakodate Goodwill Association. http://www.hakodategoodwill.com/indexeng.html The Association offers tours for up to 6 people on a pre-arranged basis for an unbelievable 3000 yen total ($29.41) plus any expenses of the guide which was explained to be a day-pass for the tram (600 yen or $5.88) and maybe some entrance fees, although those might be free for the guide. How could I resist?

A few weeks before our departure, I posted on our Cruise Critic roll call and 4 shipmates quickly jumped on this deal. In about a week, I got an email response to my online application to the Hakodate Goodwill Association from a local named Kensuke (“Ken”) who agreed to be our guide. He responded promptly to my few email questions about payment and again the day before we arrived in Hakodate to give me a weather forecast and assure me he would meet our shuttle bus from the ship. read more

Otaru, Japan – The Carmel of northern Japan?

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Rickshaw in passing mode, Otaru

I was totally charmed by Otaru. The old buildings of Sakaimachihondori Street, the main shopping area, are almost achingly picturesque…reminding me, in some ways, of a Japanese Carmel. We began our explore of the area at the Otaru Music Box Museum in a 3-story wooden building across from the towered post office. The “museum” is really more of a large souvenir shop selling every kind of music box imaginable. A tall clock outside the music box museum surprised us when it blew the half-hour on a train-like whistle, emitting a gray puff of smoke. read more

Japanese Docomo SIM cards

I’m posting onboard ship in the port of Otaru using a Japanese data SIM card I bought on eBay before leaving the U.S. I bought 2 of these cards which are by the Japanese company, Docomo, which my research showed to have the best coverage in Japan. The cards are for 8 days each, so we plan to use them back-to-back during our stay in Japan, using my Galaxy S7 phone as a hotspot for David’s Galaxy S7s and our laptop. Each card is described as “4G LTE, 3GB/8 days, unlimited.” The cards cannot be used with HTC, Blackberry, dual SIM phones or any smartphones made in China. read more

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck! read more