Planning for Japan: 2017

It looks like we have a bit of an itinerary for this year’s trip to Japan! To avoid overloading ourselves with too many destinations, we’ve narrowed it down to splitting our time between Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa.

I’d like to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass and arrange some day trips out of both Tokyo (Mt. Fuji, maybe?) and Kyoto (Arashiyama and its marvellous monkeys!). Last year’s visit to the snow-monkeys of Nagano reminded me how much I like to watch primates at play – always mindful of the slim chance they’ll attack an idiot tourist who gets too close, while I capture it all on camera.

Kanazawa is brand new to us, so I’m looking for how to enjoy it and not over-commit to venues and activities.

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Kanazawa Station

This morning’s win was finding a new (to me) onsen to visit in Tokyo. It looks amazeballs and very, very luxurious. Over the years, I’ve experienced onsen ranging from the very basic to the quite modern and interesting. Every one of them has been a pleasure, one way or another. And seeing as we’re unlikely to every replicate the onsen experience here in London, I’ll rely on my brief visits to Japan to take advantage of the facilities.

I may also get another item off my bucket list by arranging a brief stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before we fly on to Osaka and then bus it to Kyoto.

Let me explain: I’m only human. After 14 hours on a plane – even going First Class – I need a shower, some clean clothes and a lie down. This will make the onward legs of this outbound journey so much easier. And I’ll be less likely to act like a toddler needing a nap by the time we get to Kyoto.

I’ll be honest – I’m also thrilled at the thought of staying in a quintessentially Japanese capsule hotel. It helps that I’m hobbit-sized and have no fear of shared bathing facilities. I’m also aware of how much my mental state is dependent on adequate sleep along with the extent to which jet-lag utterly rips my wellbeing to shreds.

Hotels are arranged for Kanazawa and Kyoto, while we look for the best possible bargain in Tokyo. I don’t think we’ll get the same awesome free upgrade at the Hilton again (but you never know), though Tokyo isn’t short of excellent hotels. It’s all about getting something central and close to a Yamanote Line station.

I tell you what, though – you can tell Sterling as taken a hammering when you check Japanese prices online. But who knows what state it’ll be in come September – maybe we’ll experience another rebound and Tokyo will once again seem cheap compared to London.

Maybe not. Though I’ve realised that the best things about Japan are the experiences, not the shopping. Even though I seem to do quite a bit of the latter every time I visit 😁

Heading to Japan, 2017 edition

You know, it’s never too early to plan our annual trip to Japan. At least that’s what we were saying when we started looking for flights to Tokyo on this cold and wet January Sunday morning.

After last year’s amazing trip, it was pretty much inevitable that we’d have to come back. So we searched for flights around the same time of year and, with @FrankDJS‘s usual skill and a gazillion BA frequent flyer miles, we have a two-week trip to Japan all booked. Well, the flights, at least.

Well, the flights, at least. At, due to some diligent and focused collecting of BA miles via every route known (and unknown) to humanity, we’ll be going and returning First Class. A guaranteed excellent start and end to the holiday – based on previous experience, at least.

While it’s not until September, that won’t stop me making lots of plans for where to visit. We fly in and out of Tokyo – literally my favourite place on earth – which gives us amazing opportunities to plan day-trips out of the city on the most fantastic form of public transport in the world: the Shinkansen bullet train.

Right now, I’d love to spend a couple of days back in Kyoto, but also visit Kanazawa. We dropped it from last year’s itinerary, as it was turning into a bit of a mission. Less holiday, more gruelling tour. So maybe we’ll get over there this time round.

The other key activities will obviously include:

  • Geeking out: on Shinkansen trains and Akihabara in Tokyo
  • Chilling out: in various onsen hot springs
  • Filling out: by eating far too much, but enjoying every mouthful

I’m determined to make 2017 another epic year of travel. So far, we have two trips to Spain booked (April and June), which will include Barcelona, Sitges, Mallorca and Alicante and now Japan in September.

That leaves plenty of space across the summer for some time in the sun. And plenty of time to pull together an exciting itinerary for Japan.

Remembering our last trip to Tokyo this morning…

…such great memories of a fun week in our favourite city. This was located just down the street from our hotel in Shinjuku and we walked past it at least twice a day on our way to and from Shinjuku station.

It’s time to plan a return visit, I think! Something amazing to look forward to towards the end of the year. Tokyo will definitely be on the list, but I’d love to go back to Kyoto this year – it’s always a nice contrast to Tokyo’s madness.

My Japanese stationery haul

One thing I always enjoy about my visits to Japan is seeing what interesting and unique stationery I can come home with. In all my international travels, I’ve never encountered stationery stores like the ones in Japan – it appears to be a bit of a national obsession!

I have two favourite places to pick up paper, pens and suchlike: Tokyu Hands and Loft. And of course, this time round, I got to visit the Traveller’s Factory in Tokyo (see my earlier post for a description of this).

Tokyu Hands doesn’t just sell stationery. In fact, I’m not sure what it doesn’t sell. It’s a chain store and every outlet seems to have at least two floors of paper and stationery, but it also sells excellent luggage, household goods and gadgets. Just my kind of place! These stores seem to be everywhere! And their familiar green logo is easy to spot when out and about. The Tokyu Hands outlet near Shibuya is simply mammoth and very easy to spend a morning in. It also has ‘half floors’ in between the main floors, so it’s very easy to get lost in.

Loft seems to specialise more in paper goods, luggage and travel goods. It’s more like an upmarket office supplies store, with luxury pens, leash-bound notebooks and the like. But it also has a healthy supply of uniquely Japanese paper goods (speciality calendars and planners).

I didn’t have one specific day when I splurged on paper goods, but instead picked things up as and when I spotted them. I did get a little overwhelmed by the choice in Tokyu hands and it ended up being difficult to choose between options. Given sterling has lost so much of its value since our last visit to Japan (thank you, Brexit) I needed to be slightly more careful when how much I was spending on things like this.

To put it in context for you stationery fans: I spotted Filofaxes on sales in the Loft store in Shibuya, Tokyo. The ‘Original A5’ Filofax models go for about £85 in London. This time around, their cost translated into £190. So… I tended to use the calculator on my iPhone while shopping, just to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes like that.

So…what did I get?!

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I got the above selection on my first morning in Osaka. Some Traveler’s Notebook inserts for my Midori (the lined notebooks with the brown cover and the sketch paper notebooks, with white covers). I’ve never used the latter, but love the fact that the pages are perforated so you can remove and share them.

I also got some (wait for it) washi tape. I’m a bit of a convert in that regard. I used to wonder why anyone would put coloured tape into their organiser or notebook, thinking it was time-consuming and pointless. But I picked up a roll on my last visit to Tokyo as it was covered in Japanese images and actually found it very useful to keep with me while traveling. For sticking in random pieces of paper and photos, but also to cover the edges of more fragile pages or covers. Using a strip of washi tape on the covers also makes it easier to distinguish between otherwise identical notebooks. The rolls I picked up here had little images of Most Fuji, Sumo Wrestlers and ‘Maneki-Neko’ lucky beckoning cat figures.

I spotted a handy little tape-dispenser device for cutting the washi tape neatly, and also a tiny, tiny roll of paper glue (top left in the photo). Both went into my shopping basket at some speed. These, along with the washi tape, were great for adding scraps of paper and momentos to my traveler’s notebook for the trip to Japan and Korea. I’ll write a separate post about that, as it was quite a new thing for me to write so much about my holiday in one of these notebooks

Finally, you can see a very handy multi-pocket folder for loose leaf paper. My days are spent thumbing through reports and reading journal articles while on the move. Folders like this are great for keeping them organised. Honestly, I didn’t need another one – I just liked the colours!

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What next? Oh yes. While in Loft in Ginza (it’s a really great one, next door to a massive Muji store), I was almost all shopped out! But in the middle of the Hobonichi Diaries section (which is a stationery cult all of its own!), I spotted these handy little stencils.

Each is about the size of a credit card and light as air, so I can easily pop them into the plastic pocket of my Midori. Very handy for outlining shapes clearly and for drawing straight lines. One thing I seem to do a lot in these notebooks is create mind-maps when I’m planning a new article or designing a workshop or training course for my business. I thought these little stencils could help me keep these mind-maps slightly more organised and easy to decipher,  especially when writing on the go. They were a steal and worked out at about a pound each.

I also picked up quite a few A4 plastic pockets from various shops. These seem to be very popular in Japan and come in an amazing array of designs. Being a massive geek, I bought quite a few that were train-themed. No, I’m not a train-spotter, but I loved the design and iconography of the various Shinkansen bullet trains. And I’m a sucker for a metro map, so I bought several different folders featuring train company icons and maps of metros.

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The two pockets above represent the Yamanote Line within Tokyo (on the left, in green) with which I am very familiar after all these years, and the entire Tokyo rail transport system on the right. The latter map is spread over four sides of the folder, as it’s so complex. It looks a little ‘busy’ in this photo, but I love it!

Speaking of railways, here’s a photo of the Shinkansen folders I got. I don’t remember which store I bought them, but it was in Akihabara, which is actually known for its technology and gadget stores. Each of the five folder is dedicated to a different Shinkansen model. I’ve taken the photo with them in ‘landscape’ orientation to fit them all in, but they’re actually A4 size.

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My final couple of these folders was picked up at the Cup Noodle Museum (yes, there is such a place), down in Yokohama. I loved these because one sets out a nice mission statement of positive, motivational phrases, while the other has a very 1960s kitsch feel. (We didn’t actually visit the museum! We were waling past when I spotted the museum shop and all the various things I thought would be perfect for gifts for people back home. I’m not, in fact, a fan of cup noodles!!).

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Above is a photo of the items I picked up when I visited the Traveler’s Factory store in Meguro, Tokyo. In all honesty, I could have bought three or four times more, but it was coming to the end of the holiday and I had spotted just how much I had bought (not just stationery, but gifts for others) and was getting slightly concerned with the weight of our suitcases. And paper is heavy!

So, you can see I got some more notebooks: lined, sketchbooks and another new one for me: the undated diary. This is a neat little design that includes numbered pages, an index at the front of the notebook and undated diary pages throughout. I thought these would be great for work.

I also got some lovely brass paper clips / books marks, some stickers for my folders and a great binder to store used notebooks (bottom left). Finally, Traveler’s Factory has been selling ‘Pan Am’ branded goods for a while. They have a nice retro feel and seem to be pretty popular with customers. Just check out how much their Pan Am stickers are going for on eBay! I got this little cotton bag (just slightly bigger than the notebook) to store my notebook when in my backpack. Yes, it’s already scratched, but I’d prefer to avoid any further damage.

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So that’s the summary of my Japanese stationery haul. I could have bought SO much more, but other purchases meant we had four suitcases between us, weighing 23 kilos each. And even a British Airways Gold Card has its limits. So, there wasn’t much more room.

And you know what? Leaving things behind in Japan means I always have an excuse for a return visit!

My trip to the Traveler’s Factory, Japan

It may sound strange, but one of my highlights of last month’s visit to Japan was getting to visit the Traveler’s Factory store in Tokyo. They stock the (formerly Midori) Traveler’s Notebook products that I’ve been obsessing about over the last year, so I was determined to visit their ‘HQ’ and see the various products in the flesh.

I was using one of their notebooks to journal our trip to Japan, so it felt apt to spend some time there on a Sunday morning and stock up on new notebooks and accessories. The shop itself is hidden away on a backstreet in Meguro.

We were staying in Shinjuku, so just hopped on a Yamanote Line train and then walked from Ebisu station – about a 15-minute stroll. There is a closer metro station, but our JR rail passes didn’t cover that and we’re well used to walking around Tokyo. Plus, it allowed us to take in some of the neighbourhood – and it’s basically hipster central! Lots of quirky coffee shops and a steady stream of Japanese hipsters made it fairly easy to find.

The shop is surprisingly small, yet they manage to pack in quite a range of products. It was a little overwhelming, to be honest. It took me a few rotations of the store to get my bearings and find everything I came to buy – as well a several over things I had no intention of buying until I saw them beautifully displayed. I’m a sucker like that.

It was a marked contrast to many of the tech stories I’d already visited in Tokyo. Soft lighting, the smell of coffee and leather and a distinct lack of loud announcements over a tannoy. It was inviting, calming and more like someone’s home. The perfect place to pursue some stationery.

I’ll detail my Japan stationery haul in another post, but in brief, I picked up some notebooks in various formats, a binder to store complete notebooks, some lovely brass bookmarks, some stickers and a great bag to store my notebook. I also got @FrankDJS a few bits and bobs – he was particularly attracted to the Pan-Am branded goods 🙂

After paying for my purchases, I got talking to the sales assistant – whose name I never got, much to my annoyance – and we had a great chat about the notebooks, her travels to Dublin (my home own) and our visits to Japan. I snapped a quick selfie with her before taking a few pics of the shop interior. Many had to be discarded due to the number of people in-store. It’s quite a popular little store!

I could easily have spent longer (and a lot more money – seriously!), but we had quite a few things to see that day. I almost missed the various stamps they had by the cash register, but after checking they could be used (and weren’t just for show) I got some souvenir stamps of my visit in my own notebook.

For reference, they also have a store in Terminal 1, Narita Airport in Tokyo, but we flew out of the other terminal.  Maybe I’ll get to see it on our next visit. You can also get their products in both Toyku Hands and Loft stores across Japan, but for me, nothing was better than visiting the real thing.

Soaking up some Shinjuku sunshine

Just an hour until we need to take the bus to Narita Airport and we’re soaking up some sunshine in Shinjuku Chuo Park, opposite our hotel. 

The skies are so blue and the sunshine so strong, it doesn’t feel like November at all. This evening, we fly to Seoul for an overnight at the airport hotel, then home to London (via Helsinki!).

It’s been a fantastic two weeks. While I love home, I’m genuinely sad to be leaving Japan again. Time to start planning a return visit in 2017. 

Leaving Tokyo

It’s our last full day in Japan today. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll leave Tokyo to fly to Seoul for a brief overnight stay at the airport before our flight back to London. 

To call this a disappointment would be an understatement. Yes, we’ve been away for coming up to two weeks and it’s been fantastic, but Japan is one of those destinations I’m never ready to leave. On reflection, we’ve packed in an enormous number of experiences, which probably explains why I’m a little bleary-eyed typing this post this morning…

I fully intend to write up my key memories, with photos, in the coming weeks. This year, I was more realistic about how much I’d be able to blog while traveling and didn’t want it to turn into a daily chore. I’ve also found in the past that it’s useful to have some time to reflect on travel experiences before writing about them in detail. 

But at this point, I just know I’ll be writing about:

  • Our day trip to see the snow monkeys
  • My efforts collecting JR train station stamps in my Midori notebook
  • Japan’s apparent fascination with paper
  • Our morning in Yokohama and the terror of the ferris wheel
  • The lure of the executive lounge
  • Why Google Maps and some data are all you need to find your way around
  • My mega-exciting fan-boy trip to the Traveler’s Factory store in Meguro 
  • Our experience of traveling to Japan via Helsinki 
  • Making use of the JR rail pass, the Shinkansen experience and JR in Tokyo
  • How South Korea and Japan are similar and yet very different 

I’ll write these up as and when time allows, though I know I have a ten-hour journey back from Seoul ahead of me, so plenty of time on a comfortable Finnair flight to ponder and create. And until then, you can have a look at what I’ve shared about our travels so far on my Instagram feed.

A Seoul Sauna Surprise…

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some significant sauna time during my stay in Korea and Japan. Our hotel in Seoul had a super sauna and hot baths, where I soaked and poached myself quite a bit. I find the process incredibly relaxing and, when done in the evening, it guarantees me a good night’s sleep. 

Just like in the onsen setting in Japan, the Korean set-up was gender-segregated and prohibited any form of clothing. Rather than stress me out, I was comforted by the overlap in rules, minimising the opportunity for me to commit a massive cultural faux pas. In other words, naked spa-time without any worries. 

The first step was to strip out of my clothes and then clean myself thoroughly. These spas have a special area for this, where you sit (or squat) in front of a waist-height mirror and hand-held shower. You’re basically required to lather up and rinse off before you go anywhere near the shared spa areas. The saunas and hot spring baths aren’t about washing yourself and it’s viewed as very bad form to try and get yourself cleaner in either. 

Scrubbing my little form didn’t take too long, but as I was in the company of some Korean gentlemen, I made sure I scrubbed for all I was worth. 

Next, I eyed up the baths… There were three, each labelled in Korean but helpfully also with the temperature clearly marked in numerals. There was a 20C pool, which appeared to be for cooling off. There was a 40C pool which sounded very appealing. And a final 43C pool, which looked like I could poach eggs in it. 

As I obviously don’t have any photos of the set-up – mobile phone use is strictly forbidden, for a whole host of reasons – let me describe the baths. If you can picture water that’s deep enough to sit in and have come up to your neck, while also being big enough to fit about ten men in at a time, you won’t go far wrong. Sometimes they have clearly defined sitting areas, so know exactly where to sit. Sometimes not and, if it gets busy, you’re expected to budge up and make room for someone else. 

As the 40C bath was pretty busy, I opted to turn to the right and gingerly ease myself into the 43C one. I wondered how much of a difference there could be between them. Surprise #1. Oh was I glad I eased in! It was, without doubt, the hottest bath I’ve ever experienced. There was also a ‘shelf’ all the way around the bath, where you could sit and keep your chest and above out of the water. I sat there for some considerable time, slowly adjusting to the heat. 

I could tell from the looks on the guys one bath over that they were enjoying my discomfort. Obviously, I should have started with a lower temperature and worked my way up…

Yet, after just a few minutes, I was comfortable. I slowly slid the rest of my now-pink body into the water and closed my eyes. There’s an interesting effect this kind of heat can have on you. Once you get past the feeling of ‘oh my god, my heart!’ And ‘I can feel my blood pressure in my head!’, it’s possible to move to a more relaxed state where all of this fades into the background and all you have to deal with is not falling asleep. Seriously. I saw this happen in an onsen here in Tokyo, but that’s a story for another time…

After ten minutes in that bath, I eased myself out again, marvelling at the red colour of my feet and ankles and stepped under a freezing cold shower. This was bliss, but just for a moment. Then it was time to take a step back away from the water, which was beginning to feel like needles. I thought it best to move onto a sauna next. 

Again, there were three rooms to choose from, all facing out onto a ‘relaxation area’ which had cool water and some easy chairs. The first room had a steam room, the second a sauna set at a very high temperature, the third resembling something closer to hell itself. 

I opted for the middle sauna and experienced surprise #2. 

I walked in on a naked Korean guy doing energetic push-ups in the middle of the floor. Fast, pumping push-ups where you keep your feet on a bench and clap in-between. The kind I see demonstrated on Men’s Health videos on Facebook but have no intention of trying to replicate. 

I’m not sure who got the bigger fright. No, I am. It was me. Having said that, he quickly jumped into a standing position and walked out of the sauna, leaving me to wonder what it was all about and if I’d inadvertently broken a rule by walking in like that. But there was no ‘do not disturb sign’ that I could see and the sauna itself was big enough for about 12 men, so I didn’t believe it was possible to keep it just for one person. 

Still wondering what I’d just witnessed, I experienced surprise #3: I sat down without using a towel. 😬

Now. Here’s a basic rule of most spa facilities where no clothes are allowed: you need to use a towel before you sit on anything. In many places, this is about hygiene. In a Korean sauna, it’s about protecting your body from third degree burns. 

Thankfully, I leapt up before I could do any serious damage and memorised a new golden rule for onsen use: never sit on anything when naked unless you’ve checked its temperature first. 

Despite all of the above, my first experience of a Korean spa/onsen was incredibly relaxing. I slept so well that evening and was keen to sample more on the trip. I’ve since experienced two more, very different, spas on this holiday so far, with a third scheduled before we fly home. But I’ll cover those in other posts – this one is getting long and I’m keen to go and have some breakfast 😀

Inching closer to Japan…

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In 11 days, I’ll be hopping on the first of our flights to get us to Japan (with a lovely little stopover in Seoul on the way!). Yesterday, we got one step slower when we picked up our JR Rail Passes here in London.

These passes are fantastic – we’ve used them before and can thoroughly recommend them to anyone considering doing a bit of travel in Japan. We can basically go anywhere in the country by rail – even using Shinkansen – with makes for lots of day trips out of Tokyo, as well as covering our journey from Osaka to Tokyo.

The pass also includes use of railways within Tokyo (as opposed to metros), including the extremely handy Yamanote line. It’s a massive circular railway line that takes in several of Tokyo’s most interesting neighbourhoods.

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We found it incredibly useful on the last visit, as our hotel was located really close to one of the stations (Meguro) and it made it very easy to get to Shibuya, Harajujku and Akihabara – to name just a few places we visited.

We still need to pick up the actual passes once we get to Japan. You have to buy them before you arrive, while proving that you’re not Japanese or a resident in Japan, and then exchange a token for the real pass once you get there, in one of the main stations.

I still have my last one, pasted into a page of my Midori Traveler’s Notebook from last year. That and a bunch of ink stamps from some of the stations on the Yamanote line.

There’s still a lot to be done before I’m definitely ready to leave, including making a packing list, a shopping list (duh…), a plan for Seoul (the last-minute decision to fly there still makes me smile) and actually pack some bags. But Japan is once again within sight and I’m getting really excited at the prospect.