Plans for this blog and other content

Thanks to everyone who’s been reading about our travels in Japan, I know I’ve had a few new followers and lots of nice feedback. Next time we travel, I’ll resurrect this blog but for now there’s maybe one more post (about my shoes maybe) and then it’ll be quiet.

My plan is to take these blog posts, edit them to add more information and some practical tips and tricks for travelers and then publishing it through Amazon. So I once I find some time to do all that, I’ll post the link here.

In the mean time, I’d be very much obliged if you’d consider buying my young adult paranormal novel, The Suburban Book of the Dead… for more information, see below.

If you’d like to follow my author blog it’s here.  That’s where I’ll be updating most of the time for the foreseeable future.

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No one expected the last night of the Summer holidays to be deadly.

Rain and her best friends Rachel and Jackie head to the carnival. Rain’s plan was to chat up Jake, who runs the Ferris Wheel, and maybe get a kiss or two.

But then Rachel’s killed in mysterious circumstances, and none of them will ever be the same again.

When Rachel returns as a ghost insisting Rain find out who killed her and why, she turns to Jake, who knows more than he seems to. In fact, he’s encountered weird stuff like ghosts and monsters before.

So now she just has to grieve for a friend who she’s still talking to, try not to fall deeper in love with Jake, keep her family off her back, decide who to trust, infiltrate the funfair and find Rachel’s killer. Piece of cake, right?

Day twenty-six – Meiji Jingu, the last day…

On our last day we slept late. Mostly because it’d been so hard to get to sleep on Friday night but also the bed was comfy and we needed it. We packed up and got out of the room, took our bags (all four suitcases!) to leave at the desk and went to Doutor for a final hot cocoa and cheese toast.

From there it was onto the old reliable, yamanote line, to get to Harajuku. But instead of hitting Takeshita St we went up the road and into Meiji Jingu shrine, a huge forest park with a big shrine complex inside it.

Meiji Jingu is a tribute shrine to the Emperor and Empress who died in 1912. Under their reign, Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world and consolidated their government structure. Lots of change, especially from learning about the Western World.

Last year, on Anna’s first visit to Japan, we came here first thing on our first day. Starting at Yoyogi Park to look at the cherry blossoms and then up to the shrine. It seemed quite fitting to visit it again at the end of this trip.

It turned out they were having an Autumn festival, so there were masses of chrysanthemums on display, which had been donated as tributes. Also bonsai and little bonsai scenes, which I particularly loved. There were lots of little kids in ceremonial kimonos, some of them taking it very seriously, some less so. One memorable little kid, maybe a four year old, was walking along in her kimono with a huge smile on her face and flapping the sleeves of it like wings.

Inside the main shrine was lined with tables of food and drink offerings to the shrine, and there were monks doing a ceremony in full ceremonial regalia. It was very festive, lots of people there to visit the shrine and see the sights. Although I say festive, it’s also very respectful. People were talking quietly, and the main sounds were the clapping and bell ringing of people praying.

It was a lovely way to spend an hour or so.

After this we went back to Shinjuku and visited another place we’d liked last visit: Alice in a Magical Land, a fantasy cafe styled after Alice in Wonderland.

Everyone who works there is dressed in a fancy outfit – there are some Alices, and some Hatters, but we were served by a girl in cat eyes and a striped dress like Cheshire Cat. She even made our bill adorable. The food’s pretty good, but it’s all about the decor. This little place is close to the Shinjuku train station West entrance, in the third basement level. The elevator doesn’t even go that low so you have to take stairs and go past some bar food places to get there.

We went to the hotel to pick up bags and both had an anxiety spiral. Here’s what happened. We had 15 minutes to pick up our bags from the front desk and go out the front of the hotel to catch the Friendly Airport Limousine bus. We had 3.15 tickets and as you know if you’ve been reading, you cannot be even a minute late.

We got into the line for the desk, and I was instantly anxious because there were about five people in front of us, and everyone at the desk was already busy with other people.  There was no one at the bag check side of the desk…

And for whatever reason, the people being checked in all had extra questions and time passed quickly and 3.15 got closer and closer. Anna went to lurk by the bag check and I stayed in line, and finally someone was free for us with two minutes to spare. We showed the staff member our tickets for the bus and she hurried to bring our bags out. I was sure we were going to miss the bus and be horribly messed up, have wasted the money we spent on the tickets and everything would be terrible. I don’t know exactly what this fear came from, we had a lot of time before the flight and there was also a train we could catch and in the worst case, a taxi, but I was freaked out.

When the first two cases came out I rushed them out to the bus, which was already there. Thinking I could delay things, I acted like I didn’t know what to do with the bus tags for the suitcases and the guys running the bus helped me out with them. In this time Anna came out with two more suitcases and a backpack, and the woman from the bus alongside her – she’d come looking for us. As we fussed with the bag tags another woman from the hotel came out with our other backpack and a large bag with our pokemon in it. So, even though we were panicked, running late and generally holding up the bus it went fine. They took our bags and put them on the bus, we got on the bus and sat up the front and the bus actually left right on time.

I did some breathing exercises but my heart still got a good work out.

The bus took some time to go through a couple of stops at the train station, which was like a nice little tour of our favourite area in Tokyo and then we were on the Expressway to Narita. We went right by the Disney Restort which hit me in the feels…

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We were at the airport around five, and our flight wasn’t until nine-thirty, so we tracked down the “repack station” which had a scales and a large low bench so you could sort out luggage.

Our first spare suitcase was just underweight, the new one was vastly underweight, mine and Anna’s were over, so we had some time to shift things around and get all bags under 23kg. It was quite fun, in a weird way.

We were too early to check in, so we took some time to sit and have some drinks, and I caught up a little on my physical travel journal. Once we’d checked our cases in we went around the Narita airport mall, which is a very, very good mall. They have a Uniqlo ❤ and we got some dinner as well. Sushi to say goodbye, I also got fried shrimps and fries. It was good. I also got emotional because leaving Japan sucks, but I also very much wanted to be home.

The flight home was similarly fancy to the flight over, but damn it’s hard to sleep on a plane, even in the fancy chairs. I got three hours of sleep and many episodes of Sharp Objects watched (more emotions, holy crap it’s a great show, just have one ep and ten minutes of the second to last episode to watch. Anna didn’t manage to sleep as much as me, and she watched all the Maze Runner movies.

 

Day twenty-five – Harajuku again

We’d been a bit slack on laundry so Friday started with washing and drying clothes, so that I’d have clean underwear. It seemed a little odd to do laundry the day before we left the country, but it was also nice to do such a small load.

I used the time to write blog posts and some of my new novel (NaNoWriMo started on the first, and my goal is to write 50k words in the month of November). Anna used the time to repack her suitcase and work out what needed to go in the planned new case.

Once we had clean, dry underwear we went out into the world. The plan was to visit the shiba cafe again and see if we could get in. The return time was within an hour so we booked in, and spent that time on Takeshita St buying some gifts, checking out the Disney store and trying not to buy too much.

The shibas were just as adorable the second time around, if not more so as this time we weren’t awkwardly rushing for it, and because of the early afternoon sun, the pups were all very sleepy.

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We did have a moment of shiba drama. One little one had been asleep under the table when we arrived, and I guess another dog woke it up, and there was barking, and every shiba in the place gathered around the table. One of the staff intervened and picked up the little one, and all the dogs just followed like ‘put him down, what’s going on??’

It was quite exciting. We went for Macdonalds for lunch again, because I have a serious french fry habit apparently, and was craving them. After that we headed back to Shinjuku and went shopping at Biqlo, which is a Bic Camera and UniQlo sharing a building. I wanted some more of the super comfy singlet I’d got in Hiroshima, but they didn’t stock the exact style, we both picked up a few things though.

At Bic Camera we got a medium sized suitcase from a very enthusiastic salesperson and then we went back to our hotel to rest and nap. It had got to a very particular level of sleepy and exhausted, like I was saying the wrong words and neither of us were any good at making decisions, but we got there. The suitcase was on sale and is very nice, a Japanese made brand.

After the nappening, we went back to Itamae sushi which we’d liked at the start of the trip. I didn’t want to order something very big, so I went with lots of smaller things. Hokkaido oysters, mackerel sashimi and tuna nigiri. They also gave us miso, green salad and a little bowl of something we couldn’t identify. It was like very tender meat, and it tasted fantastic. Anna thinks it could have been kidney.

Also I ordered a small beer, and they didn’t believe me. The Chef double checked ‘small?’ when I ordered, and then the waiter brought out the glasses to show me the sizes before pouring. They were right, I wanted medium, the small was very small. It was a really, really good meal. Excellent quality of everything.

After this, we celebrated with an hour at a karaoke place, where we belted My Chemical Romance, some Broadway hits from Les Mis and Cats, and Anna’s favourite belt top hits. It was a place which insisted you also bought a drink and their cocktails were really, really nice.

Back at the hotel, we got all our extra stuff into the new suitcase and some extra from our bags and had a rough time getting to sleep. Anxious about heading home, sad about leaving Japan, all the ‘return to the real world’ things.

Day twenty-four – Tokyo

Anna’s birthday.

Maybe because it’s a hotel we’ve been in before, or maybe just because Shinjuku is so familiar now, but I had a fantastically good sleep and woke up feeling perky.

We headed out to Shibuya to find Loft – a store I’d read about on pinterest which was touted as Tokyo’s best stationery store. Now, it was pretty good, but I don’t think it beats Tokyu Hands, honestly.

The sign was neat though, it’s all made of cogs which rotate and sometimes stop to spell out the store name.

Having stocked up on some more paper goods, we had lunch at Doutor and cringed as a group of  four tourists made more noise than anyone else in the packed cafe. Read the room, people! If everyone else is speaking in soft tones, you should too. It’s not that hard.

From Shibuya we caught a local subway out to the other side of town and went to Skytree. When I first visited Japan, Skytree was about a month off being completed, and we didn’t make it out there last year because of time constraints. I was determined to get there this time! Skytree is primarily a broadcasting tower and was for a while the tallest building in the world at 634.0 metres. There’s an observation deck at 350 metres, which we paid to get to.

The lifts from the fourth floor ticket counters to the observation deck go terrifyingly fast. They’re very smooth but just the fast changes in altitude meant my ears popped multiple times in the half minute or so the ride took.

The observation deck is a 360 degree view around Tokyo and Tokyo Bay, and I was very pleased to realise we could see the volcano of Tokyo Disneysea from there. Very cool. It was very busy with tourists and you could pay to have a photo taken on a plastic cloud with a little plastic skytree and the view behind you, or with the Skytree dedicated mascot, which is like a humanoid in a dress with a star for a head. They also had large interactive photo maps so you could zoom in on bits of the view and find out what they are, or it would show a timelapse of the view over a day.

It was a very cool experience. Heading down took a little longer as there was a backlog of people trying to leave. We went shopping after that. We received a little money from wedding guests for the Studio Ghibli museum, but it’s hard to get tickets to there on short notice. Instead we bought exclusive merchandise at a special Ghibli shop.

We headed back across town to Akasaka to the Ninja Restaurant, which our hotel had kindly booked us a table for. I’ve been once before in 2012, and it hasn’t changed too much, but I had forgotten some things. The menu is updated a little too, but just as incredibly delicious as I remember it being.

The Ninja restaurant isn’t just a restaurant where everyone is dressed as a ninja. It’s immersive, with the interior decked out like an ancient Japanese village, complete with waterfalls and streams. We were seated in a ‘house’, or private room for two with our own water feature.

There’s some fun surprises about this place, which I won’t spoil, but we were laughing most of the night. We were assigned our own personal wait ninja, and he was having a lot of fun telling us “ninja jokes”. Anna ordered a ninja special cocktail called Black Bubble which tasted like delicous fruit slushie and had gold flecks on it. I ordered sake and it came in a fabulous bamboo jug which I was tempted to steal.

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But aside from that, the food and drink is really, really good. We had a delicious ten course meal that was part Kaiseki style Japanse dining and part Western influenced. It was all delicious.

Grissini throwing stars and pate, ‘treasure box’ seafood salad (with jelly), escargot with garlic butter and pesto

Rice croquette, soup with black crab dumpling, ceviche and a gingery ice lolly

Meat course two options: lamb or beef, we each had a different option. Sushi course and dessert featuring a cheesecake frog and ice cream and pastry bonzai, plus a bowl of fresh fruit each.

At one point we also had a master ninja do a ninja magic show for us. Coin tricks and then card tricks and there’s two tricks we can’t at all work out how he did. Ninja magic, indeed.

Well lubricated by sake (me) and worn out from the day (both of us), we headed back to our hotel to crash out. The day was declared a good birthday by Anna, and we both felt so much more relaxed being back in Shinjuku.

Day twenty-three – Tokyo – Daiba to Shinjuku

We had planned to get up and get breakfast at the fish market, but we were both so much in need of rest that we didn’t get to the fish market until mid morning.

The last time I hit the fish market it was the old style one, and we kind of just wandered in and were politely asked to leave. Since then, Tokyo’s upped its game and made the fish market both a workable area for the fishers and buyers, and a tourist destination.

Basically it’s a huuuuuuge building now. Like, imagine a building as long as a few blocks, and as deep. The ground floor is all the fish market, the serious fish sellers, the crates of fish, etc etc.

Upstairs from that is the visitors observation gallery, where you can peek through windows at the people walking below with no danger of getting in their way. You can learn stuff, like what fish are in season, or see one of the little zoomy vehicles the people in the market zip around on. Upstairs from that is the adjacent or intermediate market. It had cooking related items, mostly. Lots of people selling knives, or dry ingredients or vegetables. By this time we were both getting very hungry, so we went to find the restaurants zone.

It’s like a food court but everyone’s selling the best sushi in the world.

But how do you pick a place? There were some stores obviously beloved by locals because there were long lines outside them. There were some with no lines at all. Some of them we could discount right off as they were selling curry and rice, or various hot donburis or dishes. We were there for fresh, raw fish.

In the end we rolled the dice on this place, because it said since 1800s and it had no line. Unfortunately we became the line. The place was small and only a certain number of people fit around the bar, so we had to wait. It was twenty minutes or maybe half an hour? it felt longer because we were both so hungry and also smelling food, but finally they let us in.

It was worth the wait. I got the sashimi platter and Anna got the sushi and sashimi set. They were both exquisite. The tuna especially was so good and fresh it melted in the mouth. And the flavours… urgh, there’s nothing like it.

So you don’t have to get up a sparrow fart to get the best fresh sushi, but I would suggest aiming for mid morning – past breakfast rush and before lunch rush. We were just at the start of the lunch rush and it was full on by the time we left. And save the fish market sight seeing for after you’ve eaten.

Once that was done, we took the monorail to Daiba proper and tracked down an art exhibition my friend Jay had found out about and sent us the link to. Teamlab Borderless which is an interactive, immersive, digital and three dimensional exhibition where each art work interacts with each other, and may move between rooms, and is affected by the presence of viewers. If that description doesn’t make sense, or is hard to imagine, then you’re right. Even inside it there was so much we didn’t understand.

There’s minimal guidance inside the exhibition space, there are wall signs encouraging you to interact, explore, investigate and in a couple of rooms staff advise on safety – don’t touch the LEDs, for example. But overall it’s an experience you have to immerse yourself into.

The first room we went to was the butterfly house, where if you stand still long enough, butterflies (colourful projections) manifest in your body and fly away. Also as you stay still flowers bloom from under your feet. The longer you stay in one place, the more flowers.

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In other rooms the flowers would happen under our feet and if we touched the walls long enough.

In the forest room with falling water we discovered that if you stayed against the wall where there was running water, it’d ‘bounce’ off you. It thought I was a little taller than I am, but you can see the effect here in a before and after which also shows me generating flowers. The water on the ground would also divert around your feet, and all of this was projected somehow. It was breathtaking stuff.

I won’t do a blow by blow of all the rooms, especially as it turns out we missed at least one, but here’s some examples of what we experienced.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t overwhelming. At once point I jumped at the roar sound effect of a tiger made of flowers walking past me, and my heart wouldn’t stop racing. My mind and my eyes were so overloaded with sensation, so many new incredible things that I started to get… not a headache exactly, but a spacey sensation. There were a couple of rest rooms and a quick break in a plain, normally lit room did help. It was an amazing place, but I sort of wanted to leave in a hurry as well. In places the floor was uneven or there were mirrored walls which you didn’t realise were mirrors until you were almost up against them. The LED lights was a maze, and although beautiful it was also disconcerting.

I loved this exhibition, and I’d have been keen to see some of their other stuff, but I came out of there quite exhausted. My brain had been well wrinkled.

To recover we went to local fancy mall VenusFort for drinks and cake directly out of anime. it was a nice afternoon tea.

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I was feeling pretty out of it, but we managed to take the subway to Shinjuku and get to the Sunroute, where we stayed previously right after Disney. It felt like coming home, a bit.

Slept very, very well in the more familiar place.

Day twenty-two – Nara to Tokyo

This was another one of those transit days. I was at least comforted that it was our last time switching cities. Our last time on a shinkansen.

To get from Nara to Tokyo we took three local trains from Nara to Kyoto, because the shinkansen doesn’t go there, and we got on the local which requires a transfer, and then we got on a regular local line and after a few stops the conductor suggested we switch to a rapid. Once in Kyoto we secured reserved seats on the Mt Fuji side of the shinkansen to Shinagawa station, Tokyo.

I tried to use the 2.5 hour trip to catch up on my physical travel journal, which is somewhat neglected because of this one but I’m still keeping it all the same. But once again I got motion sickness… I think maybe I’m too old now to shinkansen and write? I’ve never had trouble before, and I was sitting right at the window, so I don’t know what else it could have been. Staring out the window helped, and I saw a collection of neat things out the window…

  • a dirt path up a low hill into the forest, with a stone Torii gate on it
  • a toddler and parent meeting school kids on the raised path in the middle of a field. The toddler was running towards a kid with a school bag, who had crouched and opened their arms
  • a daring soul who had extended their balcony washing line out over the street, past the railings of their balcony (no one does this)
  • a woman who had just got off the train doing the ‘oh god do I have my glasses?’ panic dance, patting pockets, head, sides, and then finding them in her bag
  • Mt Fuji playing peekaboo

 

By the time we got to Tokyo I was feeling pretty wretchedly tired and over it all. Too much dragging suitcases, too much trains, too much feeling grimy from travel, etc etc.

We got a taxi from the station to Ariake, and the driver got lost a couple of times and I had that ‘oh god is he scamming the gaijin?’ but when he dropped us off he apologised profusely and took a third off the price of the fare, so I think he just genuinely didn’t know the area. Tokyo is so huge, it must be easy to have places you’ve just never gone before, even as a taxi driver.

Our hotel in Ariake was gigantic, it had a convention centre in it, two different restaurants, a big konbini and a package sending service. We had dinner at one of the restaurants, and made use of the giant bath in the room.

I got to the ‘overtired and emotional’ stage when I couldn’t get to sleep instantly, but thankfully Headspace for sleep sorted me out eventually.

 

Day twenty-one – Nara

We slept in today. In part because our room at our Nara hotel basically doesn’t have a window. I mean, it has a window, but its view is to the wall of the building next door and very little light comes in. Also Anna didn’t sleep well overnight, and needed as much rest as possible. We had a quick breakfast at our favourite, hit a post office for more stamps and went back to Nara Park.

Unlike Sunday when the deer were overfed and bored of people, today they were excited to see us and very, very keen for biscuits.

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I married an actual Disney Princess ❤ #AnnaJamieHoneymoon

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When they realised we had deer bikkies, they’d mob us. Some of the males would get quite rough, giving a butt with their horns or shoving against you. Some would bite at our t shirts or try and get in pockets in case there were bikkies there. My plushie Pooh Bear and Tigger from Disney which have been steadfastly hanging on my backpack since Disney got nibbled and deer slobbered.

We quickly learned that the deer understand that an open palm with spread fingers means ‘none left’. Even though I’m sure they could smell the bikkies in my backpack, they took the hint and would leave us alone if we made that gesture. (You can see Anna doing it if you scroll through the instagram photos above.)

Deer are such big animals that it did get a little scary when they’re all coming at you, especially when it’s the males with the new horns coming through, but we also loved it. The deer would put up with a bit of an ear rub or a neck scratch while you were eating, and most of them bow to you to ‘earn’ a biscuit, so that was neat too.

Once we’d spent a little more on deer biscuits than we intended to, we walked further through the park and tracked down the big bronze Buddha in Tōdai-ji, or the Eastern temple.

I find it really hard to grasp the age of ancient objects. We saw a lantern which dated back to the 8th century and I look at it and go ‘yep, that seems old’. Maybe it’s because I never studied classics or history, but it’s also in part I think because of growing up in New Zealand where stuff just isn’t that old. We don’t have the same history, we’re a very young country, especially in terms of human settlement.

Still I was happy to tourist it up in front of the house of the great Buddha.  Because I’m a nerd.

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The Buddha was great though. I’m not religious, but I did feel a kind of awe, or desire to be quiet around him. Something like that. He’s very, very big. There were also some other really neat statues and stuff around, possibly of Gods? but the signs were all in Japanese so we weren’t sure what was what.

I was really glad to have done it, anyway. It was something new, and something Nara is known for besides the deer.

I bought a really great Nara t shirt on the way out too. We walked slowly back through the park and got another soft serve (I had mango and vanilla, it was delicious), and sat down next to an older lady who smiled and nodded when I asked if it was okay. She asked us a couple of the standard questions ‘where are you from?’ and then launched into ‘have you read the bible?’ and tried to sell us on … I dunno. She gave me a postcard with a bible verse on it in Kanji. There were a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses around Nara for some reason, maybe she was one of those. Thankfully Anna saw her reaching for something else from her bag and suggested we needed to get going.

We went back to the hotel and rested for a couple hours, then went out for dinner to a place called The Terrazo opposite our hotel. It was Italian, and really really good. We had some beef and it was so tender and so good, and then a pasta main each.

After that we went to Karaoke for the first time in our trip, and it was amazing. The range of My Chemical Romance songs was off the chain.

(having some wifi patchiness so more photos to come)