Mom was Ready to Fly

So a little history about our family. Mom has a son (yes, my brother) who is in the Air Force. He and his family had been living in the San Antonio, Texas for a few years, but then in 2014, they moved to Fussa, Japan. Every year prior to that move, we spent Christmas or Thanksgiving together in either Atlanta, GA or San Antonio, TX. Mom, Dad and I considered going to Japan the first year they moved, but not only was it an expensive trip, but Mom also hated flying. Mom and I had never even really been out of the country, especially not to Asia up until that point. Dad, being an ex-Marine, was used to flying all over the world.

In 2015, Mom finally decided she was ready to brave the flight to Japan so we booked a Christmas vacation for around 10 days to Japan. One monkey wrench in the entire plan was that I found out I was pregnant in November 2015! There went my plans to drink all the saki and try all the sushi in Japan.

Staying with Family or Friends Makes an International Trip Affordable

One thing is for sure, it’s a hell of a lot easier to go on an international trip when your accommodations are not of any concern. Flights are always very expensive for an international trip unless you find some amazing bargain through one of those membership sites like Scott’s Cheap Flights or something. The plan was to stay on the military base at my brother’s house for the first 5 days since my father and mother had military IDs. I was allowed a visitor’s pass that covered me for the duration of the trip. The last 5 days of the trip we decided to spend in Tokyo at the New Sanno Hotel for military families which had a scheduled New Year’s Eve party (that’s my birthday!) and came with a huge discount! The one caveat was that you have to book that hotel a year in advance to guarantee a spot.

Our family (from left) Dad, Mom, niece, brother, me, sister-in-law

Travel Tip: If you are affiliated with any group like Military, senior citizen, a public company, or mileage program, be sure to ask around about discounts for those affiliations.

Traveling to Japan from Atlanta

We flew Air Canada from Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal to the Toronto Pearson International Airport. That was really the easy part of the flight as it was only a little over a 2-hour flight. We had the unfortunate experience of having to fly the rest of our 13-hour flight to the Haneda Airport in regular class seats. This is one of our biggest regrets in hindsight. Now that I have flown in Delta Comfort + seats on my flight to Bali, I now know that there is something much better than regular class seats, and yet more affordable than first class. Check with the airline you’re flying with to find out how to upgrade your seats.

The food on international flights from the US/Canada is usually good and the themed to fit the country you are traveling to or from. Unfortunately, Mom is such a picky eater, and I was newly pregnant and could not stomach the food on the ride there. I spent the entire flight kind of miserable and I’m certain Mom starved, lol.

The family picked us up at the Haneda Airport and it was a long hour drive from there to Yokota Air Base in Fussa, Japan. All of the people drive very calmly and slow compared to Atlanta, and all the vehicles are compact.

What’s the First Thing We Did When We Visited Japan?

Well, we went and had ramen at a local restaurant, of course! Real, authentic, delicious ramen! It was late, we were starving, and we wanted to live like locals. This restaurant was the equivalent of a late night Diner in America, but with ramen instead of breakfast foods and greasy burgers.

What to do Outside of Tokyo, Japan

Please keep in mind that this is a trip that involves my Mother and me so the first thing we did the next day was to go to the Aeon Mall around the corner from the base. One of the first cultural things I noticed was that there were so many bicycles parked outside the mall and NONE of them had a bike lock on it. Naturally, as Americans, we know people steal things that aren’t protected by an alarm, lock, or barrier in our country, so this was a complete shock.

My brother told us about how safe it is in Japan, but I didn’t realize it until I saw all those unsecured bikes. There are also very narrow roads and alleys, and women walk in them at night alone without a care in the world. I would recommend solo travel in Japan for women.

So what the hell is there to do in a city outside of Tokyo? So many things! Firstly, we spent time around Fussa just eating at the local joints, going to the mall, going to the movies. Nature wise, we could see Mt. Fuji from Fussa. Where I live in Georgia, you only have Kennesaw Mountain and Stone Mountain, and believe me, those mountains pale in comparison to Mt. Fuji. Although we didn’t make it to Mt. Fuji, we did get in some fun nature and culture. Before heading to Tokyo we enjoyed visiting Kamakura.

7 Things to do in Kamakura, Japan

1. Kōtokuin Temple– It is impossible not to become interested in the Buddhist religion and culture when you visit Japan. You will find so many Buddha statues and things throughout Japan, but the Kōtokuin Temple, in particular, has the famous Great Buddha statue which sits at roughly 13m high. For a very small fee, you can actually walk around inside the statue (of course I did!). Historically, much of the temple has been destroyed after a 15th-century tsunami, but of course, the statue survived.

2. Zuisenji Temple and Kenchōji Temple– First of all, the zen garden at Kenchōji Temple is so amazing, no wonder it’s the #1 Zen temple in Kamakura! Everything about Japan’s temples is peaceful, but their Zen temples are so special, you have to experience them. We hiked from the Tenen Hiking Course from Kenchōji to the Zuisenji Temple.

3. Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine– This shrine is actually the most important Shinto shrine in the city of Kamakura because it’s not only 800 years old, it’s also the cultural center (heart) of Kamakura.

4. Hasedera Temple– This temple was worth paying an extra entry fee to see the huge wooden sculpture of Kannon (The Goddess of mercy) which stood over 9 meters (29 feet) high. If you aren’t familiar with Kannon, she is extremely popular in Japan, mostly because of her efficacy at answering prayers and the many miracles attributed to her. In the Kannon Museum, you weren’t allowed to take photos of the Kannon sculpture.

5. Yuigahama Beach– One bonus of hiking all the way to the top of the trail at Hasedera Temple is the gorgeous view of Yuigahama Beach in the distance below. We didn’t actually visit this beach (it was winter), but it looked amazing and is known for being an excellent surfing spot for the locals.

6. Farm For You– I love a good organic establishment, and this place was certainly the millennial, hipster heaven I expected it to be just based on the style of the shop. It’s divided into really 3 focuses; coffee roastery, bakery, and restaurant. I wasn’t really into having coffee (being newly pregnant and all), but my brother and his wife, obsessive, avid coffee drinkers, loved it. So did this blogger, so I think it’s worth a visit.

7. Mimi Lotus– As the resident preggo of the trip, I wanted something light and delicious to eat. While walking around Kamakura, we spotted this cute looking cafe named Mimi Lotus. I had some tea and their chocolate covered waffle and it was to DIE for!! That may have just been because I was pregnant at the time, but hot damn! Also, one cultural thing about Japan is that they really take pride in their tea. The tea that I ordered came in a personal teapot with a pot cover that was meant to keep it hot. It looked like an oven mitt for your teapot.

10 Things to do in Tokyo

The 2nd leg of our trip was all about Tokyo. There’s just so much to do there, but we had so little time. Below is what we made time for:

At the summit of Mt. Takao

1. Mount Takao– You may hear Tokyo and automatically think the city and lots of people, but Mount Takao is the closest natural recreation area to the center of Tokyo. It is technically still in Tokyo city limits even though it’s on the outskirts. With my new pregnancy came my difficulty breathing early on. Although it didn’t last long, at the time I wasn’t accustomed to it, so we took the cable car which takes you halfway up the mountain. The summit is 599 meters (less than half a mile), but it is a winding trail up the mountain so the trek will actually take you upwards of an hour to 90 minutes to get to the summit. It’s worth the walk for the views. Mom wasn’t about that hiking life, so I took this hike with my sister-in-law and my niece. This mountain had so many cultural goodies to see along the way, as you can see from my millions of pictures.

Can you spot the Jizo? Statues of Jizo, a monk known in the Buddhist culture for helping the souls of deceased children to reach paradise, can be found all throughout temples and on hikes around Japan. I found so many statues of this guy throughout my visit that I had to take a picture with him. So often he was wearing a scarf (the locals knit them and put them on the statues) since we were there during the winter. BONUS INFO: There is a Jizo shrine at Hasedera Temple with hundreds of Jizos lined up.

2. The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace– Otherwise known as Kōkyo Higashi Gyoen, was the former site of the Edo Castle’s innermost circle of defense. The gardens themselves are open to the public, and around them, you can see great views of the moat, guardhouses, walls, and entrance gate still stands today. I enjoyed visiting the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace because I really felt like I was walking among history even though I was clearly in the middle of a developed city.

3. Dean and Deluca– Ok, so any New Yorker or a fan of the old TV series, Felicity, knows what the hell Dean and Deluca is. Since I am the latter of the 2 types of people above, I had to stop in there and have a pastry. None of my New York family members had been nor had the coffee lovers in the group so naturally, we all went in. Sometimes it’s fun to visit a foreign country and have McDonald’s, Starbucks, or in this case, Dean and Deluca (Tokyo Garden Terrace location). Personally, I’ll never say no to an Oreo muffin. It was absolutely divine.

4. Homework’s– A burger is as American of cuisine as it gets, so of course, we had to try a burger from one of Tokyo’s oldest burger joints, Homework’s. The meat they use is from Australia and New Zealand, and after visiting Bali, I now realize that the Australian beef they use in Asia is top quality. Some of the best burgers I’ve had in the past few months were made from Australian beef.

5. Tokyo Tower– A tower reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, glass floors where you can see the ground from the top, and string lights? Yes, please! Leading up to the new year, Tokyo Tower was quite festive with holiday lights and music to boot. It’s also 332.9 meters (1092 feet) high so the view of the city is unbeatable from the top. Before we left the gift shop, we grabbed some ice cream for the ride down.

6. Odaiba– This cute island in Tokyo can be reached via the bridge or this cool, futuristic-esque train. We took the train, but the view of the bridge from the island is amazing. Here we found another replica, this time it was of the Statue of Liberty. Odaiba is an interesting place with shopping and lots of robots. There was an AI robot woman in the lobby that would hold an entire conversation with you. It was pretty freaky, lol, but cool. Shopping in Japanese shopping centers is easy if you don’t speak Japanese, because not only do they play American Pop and Rap music (welcome to Japan!), but the retail workers typically speak English. When we were there, they had a huge robot in a courtyard. We have no idea why it was there, it just looked like a huge Transformer in real life. Oh, and we found another American classic, Red Lobster! We ate there for my birthday. TRAVEL TIP: Be sure to take off your shoes before entering a dressing room. Also, always opt to spend the Japanese version of money over the American version of money when you swipe your credit card. Our money was worth more when we were there so we always saved money.

7. Cat Cafe Nyafe Melange– I’ve heard about all the fun, themed restaurants and attractions that Japan had to offer, and one I was dying to see was a cat cafe. We don’t have many cat cafe’s in Atlanta, and Mom would never venture into one. There was no way I was leaving Tokyo without seeing one, so my niece took me to Cat Cafe Nyafe Melange in the Ebisu area of Tokyo. Before you ask, yes it was clean, no I wasn’t there eating, yes the cats were friendly, no I didn’t get scratched, no I didn’t have hair all over me, no, they were not all happy for guests, but most were. It was honestly, adorable to see them walking around freely hoping you pay the money to feed them food. Yes, they provide food for a fee for you to feed the cats. Those little guys were not shy about coming up to you to ask for the food.

8. Harajuku– Again, any time my Mom and I are involved in a trip, you better believe we want to visit that town’s shopping district. Harajuku Street is a well-known shopping area. We braved walking down Takeshita Street, which is known for its heavy pedestrian traffic. We found some awesome shopping boutiques down in that area. If you venture to some of the side streets off of Takeshita, you’ll find it to be more manageable and quiet, but still with all the boutiques and cafe’s to try. Even if you don’t want to go to a boutique, you can always go to one of the upscale, name brand stores like Ralph Lauren while you’re there.

9. Shibuya Crossing– If you’ve been to New York and love Times Square then you must check out Shibuya Crossing, the Times Square of Tokyo. There are SO MANY pedestrians in that area, yet in true Japanese fashion, they all follow the rules of pedestrian and car safety so when it’s time to cross the street (you have to see this from up above to get the full effect) they do so in an organized X pattern. There are also dozens of LED signs on buildings and it stays bright in this area, even at night because of all the lights.

10. New Sanno Hotel– Of course, we ended the trip at the New Sanno Hotel for their New Year’s Eve party. I love to drink so it was a big change to bring in the New Year sober, but for the BEST reason there is. They had live music, great food, and a balloon drop.

Final Thoughts About Our First International Trip

As a first international experience, Japan was a great way to pop our international traveler cherries. The people were kind, the culture was something very different, and very interesting to learn about. The cuisine is very palatable no matter how picky of an eater you are. It’s very easy to navigate the city without knowing the language. It is also a very safe place to travel solo as a woman or with a family, as we did in this instance. As an investment, it is an extremely affordable trip, because of the conversion rate from USD or Euro. This is definitely a trip I will make again. Japan is a fantastic place to visit and you should stay for at least 5 days. Now that I’ve been there I am sharing 8 things nobody tells you, but should, before you visit Japan in this blog post.

To learn more about Japan, check out their official tourism website.

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10 Places You Must Visit in Tokyo

7 Things to do in Kamakura, Japan

You don’t have to go to Tokyo to have fun in Japan

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