Tag Archives: Japan

Cash, Cards & Money in Japan

So glad I read this before I travel to Japan! Otherwise I wouldn't have brought enough cash--and then would have had trouble getting money out of an ATM!

True story: I hardly ever use cash. Living here in the US, I use cards for virtually every transaction I make. I rarely run into cash, and when I do, it’s a pain in the butt to get deposited into my bank account.

We were going on this big trip to this super modern, super tech-y country: Japan. Before we left, I did exchange some dollars for yen. I wanted to dodge the poor conversion rates you usually find at the airports and have enough for the entire trip. I just assumed I’d be able to use my card pretty much everywhere, but I also knew it wasn’t the best idea to be in a foreign country with zero dollars in my pocket.

I was in for a surprise, though. Less than a week into our trip, my money was gone. We had to spend it at restaurants, at a hair place for my sibling, and overall just on little things at businesses that only took cash.

For example, in Kyoto we ate at several restaurants that were cash only. Sometimes they were the only thing open, too, when we grabbed dinner later in the evening!

Fun Fact: We found food to be the same price in Japan as it is in our home city of Pittsburgh. And, yes, the portion sizes were just as generous! The food was usually a lot healthier, too.

Delicious ramen and gyoza in Kyoto Japan

I also bought an umbrella at a store front across the canal from us; they also only took cash. Because I didn’t know exactly where would and wouldn’t take my plastic, I burned through the paper money relatively quickly. It was spending I was planning on anyways–I just didn’t expect to use cash as my medium of payment quite so often.

Finding an ATM in Japan That Will Actually Work

When I first had to hit up an ATM, I went to one run by Japan Bank. Supposedly these are compatible with US-issued cards.

That was not the case for me. And I had my friends interpreting for me through the process, so I know it wasn’t a language gap.

Eventually, we discovered that while my card didn’t work at the Japan Bank ATM in the grocery store, it did work at the same ATMs at the post office and 7-11. These were both quite prolific in the parts of Japan we went to.

If you’re at a bigger train station, that’s usually a good place to find both a post office and 7-11, though they were spread throughout the cities, too. You might just have to google where they are if you’re in a more rural area, as there wasn’t the same build-up of businesses around the rural train stations we visited.

You don’t have to tip in Japan.

money fro around the world

Money from around the world at my favorite restaurant we ate at while in Japan–they just happen to serve Mediterranean fare.

My friend’s family cooked us delicious meals and took us out a few times, too. But mostly we ate at restaurants while we were away. It felt really weird not tipping the first time we ate out, but you’re not supposed to in Japan. Apparently they actually pay their waitstaff a living wage.

Go figure.

Converting to Dollars is Easy

The following was true for me on my trip, but you’ll always want to check current conversion rates before you embark on your own journey.

When I went, though, the rule of thumb was to move the decimal point two places to the left to get an approximate conversion rate. So something that is 10,000 yen is about $100USD. Something that’s 2,000 yen is about $20.

The dollar was doing pretty well when we hopped on the plane to cross the Pacific, so we knew that every purchase would be slightly less expensive than what we had calculated using our ridiculously simple conversion formula above.

Remember the Cash

Japanese money

Ultimately, the biggest money lesson I learned while in Japan was the first one we covered: bring cash, and don’t walk by a post office or 7-11 with empty pockets without stepping in to use the ATM. Even in a place which had bathrooms so tech-y they blew my mind, paper money was still widely used and sometimes even required–even in urban settings.

What to Do in Osaka

Punk rock shows, baseball games, local fare...makes me want to go to Osaka, Japan! Loving the cultural differences in frugality and money-saving measures, too.

This post should probably be titled What I Did in Osaka–because there’s so much going on in this city it’s insane in a very awesome way.

We had such a great time in Osaka, and even found some frugal differences from what we were used to at home while we were there.

Go to a Baseball Game

orix buffaloes game

Our friend was super generous and got us some tickets to an Orix Buffaloes game. It was sooo much fun. When we got there, I had a water bottle with me. I was expecting to have to throw it away, but instead they took it and poured its contents into an open paper cup. Score for not having to buy another once I got inside!

In between innings, there were dancers that came out to perform and amp up the crowd. During plays, there were sections of volunteers who performed practiced cheers complete with arm movements and everything. These sections looked to be mostly or completely male, but I was across the field from them so I couldn’t tell for sure. If you watched the Olympics, it was similar to the cheerleading section North Korea had.

At one point, between one of the innings, a whole bunch of people in the crowd let go of these blue, phallic shaped balloons (not purposely phallic–I don’t think) and they scattered all over the park as the gas escaped its blue, plastic cages.

There was a woman walking around with a keg on her back, selling beer, but you could get the same thing for a little less money at the concession stand inside. Like everything else in Japan, the park was extremely clean, and they still have cordoned off rooms for smokers.

Our team didn’t win, but we had a great time. Aside from all the excitement of the cultural differences, watching a ball game live is one of my favorite past times, and it was really cool to get to do so in another country.

Another big team in Osaka is the Hanshin Tigers. From what I can tell, they’re a bit more popular than the Buffaloes–Ichiro played for the Tigers before coming to the US.

Punk Rock Shows at Namba Bears

NAMBA BEARS OSAKA

If you’re checking out any underground scene in Osaka, there’s a good chance it’s literally going to be underground.

That’s the way it was when my sibling and I caught a local punk show at Namba Bears. Beer was three yen and was stored in a cooler–like the type you’d take camping. Tickets were pretty much the same cost as they are here–somewhere around $20. I bought a t-shirt for someone back home and the artist was cool enough to throw in a free pin with the purchase.

So that’s the money side of things. The experience, though, was what really made the night. The music was amazing. In fact, I found a new favorite artist. I was totally digging the first act, though I wasn’t in a place where I could see the whole stage at first. My sibling pointed out that it was a one-man band. I moved so I could see better and sat there with my jaw on the floor for the rest of the act.

It was incredible. He had bells on top of the drums he was playing completely with his feet as he rocked his guitar and sang. And he sounded amazing–whether there had been three other people in his band or not. He’s currently recording–he only has one track out right now, but should have a full album up soon. You can check out USGKZ & The Equipments on Bandcamp.

The other two sets were amazing, too. But this guy was my favorite.

Disclaimer: My Japanese is horrible and I have no idea what the lyrics say.

Underground Comedy

funny in japanese

Outside one of the bigger comedy clubs.

Osaka is known for its standup. My sibling wanted to go to a show, but speaks even less Japanese than I do. Eventually they made the financially savvy decision to go to an underground show rather than to one with bigger comedians. It was super affordable–about ten dollars if I remember correctly.

We had no idea what these guys were saying, but it was pretty interesting to see some of the basics of how comedy differs from our culture. First, there were a lot more duos than single comedians. And pretty much all of them got into a character rather than just standing up there as themselves telling jokes.

My friend laughed particularly hard at this one comedian, and she said he was singing about all the little embarrassments he goes through in daily life. Like truly silly ones, and many of them were unique to Japanese culture–or at least completely new to me as an American.

As obvious gaijin, we got asked where we were from. When we said Pittsburgh, the comedians knew about our history with steel mills (which aren’t here anymore, but a lot of Americans don’t even know that,) and were excited about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Every Japanese person we met on our travels knew our baseball team–and we have a long history of sucking! (Our ownership actually makes money off of losing and it’s messed up.)

It was a fun experience. Worth the money, and–once again–literally underground.

Visit the Pokemon Center

pikachu japan

A couple years ago, I downloaded Pokemon Go onto my phone. I was a nerd child, and actually played in a Pokemon card league when I was younger. Augmented reality seemed cool, I thought my kid would have fun with it, and really I just wanted to play Pokemon again.

My child did get super into it, so I promised before I left that I’d catch all kinds of new Pokemon for them and get them some stuff from the Pokemon Center. There are multiple Pokemon Centers around Japan, but we went to the one in Osaka.

That place is expensive as heck. Super cool, but super expensive. I got a couple plates for the kiddos, blind boxes, a stuffed Squirtle, and–for myself–a notebook. And I spent too much money. And I wanted more.

I restrained myself, though! Even if you don’t spend any money while you’re there, it’s still a really cool place to visit if you’re into Pokemon even though it’s just a store.

Eat Kushikatsu

kushikatsu

Kushikatsu is the food Osaka is famous for. Essentially, they batter meat or vegetables and maybe other things–I don’t know–and then deep fry them. Ours came on a stick, and then you could dip it into this great sauce.

Our friend took us to Kushikatsu Daruma in Lucua Osaka. It looks and feels like a diner–though with completely different fare than what you’d be used to as an American. Daruma is celebrating it’s 89th birthday this year, so you know they’re doing something right! They have other locations around the city, and there are other places to get kushikatsu. But this was my only experience with it, and I absolutely loved Daruma.

Buy Candy

candy store osaka

I kid you not when I say that my sibling brought back an entire suitcase full of candy. It was kind of ridiculous, but also a little bit understandable, especially as a lot of it was for gifting when we got back.

But it was also ridiculous.

While in Osaka, we went into this huge candy store. And I mean huge. It was like the ToysRUs of candy. (Too soon?)

There were all kinds of new-to-us sweets–even from familiar names. Like:

  • Peach gummies (that had liquid inside which exploded in your mouth when you bit into them.)
  • Strawberry cheesecake Kit Kats.
  • Wasabi Kit Kats.
  • Five million other flavors of Kit Kats.
  • Meiji Horns (which remind me of Milano cookies except way better–yes, it is possible!)
  • Whatever is in those geisha containers in the picture.
  • So, so much more.

Osaka is fun.

Of the three major cities we visited, Osaka seemed the grittiest to me, and I mean that as a compliment. In Kyoto, I got to visit ancient sites and experience the natural beauty woven into the city’s fabric. In Tokyo, I felt like I was in an uber clean, uber safe, uber tech-y modern metropolis.

But in Osaka, with business after business stacked on top of each other, squeezed into shorter high rises than those in the country’s capital, I felt like I was learning about and experiencing what Japan’s culture is becoming.

 

 

Praying for Wealth at Fushimi Inari

Totes want to go here! Planning a trip to Kyoto, Japan right now!

You know those pictures you see of orange tori gates lined up one after another, creating a fantastic tunnel?

Those pictures are of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. Visiting there was a really cool experience for my sibling and I while we were on our trip to Japan.

What to Know Before You Go to Fushimi Inari

If you’re taking a JR train to Fushimi Inari, you’re in for a treat. It’s a super quick train ride away, and you’ll be met with the first orange tori gate when you step out of the station. You literally just have to walk across the street.

Once you pass through this first gate, you’ll enter a huge complex with places to pray and shops to purchase souvenirs. From there, you’ll enter the first tunnel of tori gates. Bear in mind that this path will take you up a mountain–wear appropriate clothing for your trek!

The gates get thinner the higher up you go up–the most condensed section is right there at the bottom.

The Story Behind the Gates

We were told that when you pray at Fushimi Inari, you are undertaking an obligation. The complex is set up as a shinto shrine dedicated to wishes for wealth. Should your wish be granted, you should use a portion of your money to donate another one of these orange gates.

That means that the tunnel created by the gates isn’t just a cool way to get people to come pray; it’s a manifestation of the success people and organizations have had since offering their prayers.

It’s also why the gates are closer together at the base of the mountain rather than the top; odds are that by the time you visit, there will be more gates up at the top than when I went as more wishes for wealth are granted!

Am I Praying for Wealth or Something Else?

When we made it to the main shrine, I threw in my go yen and prayed. I found myself praying for wealth, sure. Because that’s what you do when you’re there.

But I also found myself not so much desiring material gains for material gains’ sake. I found myself praying for the things money can grant: independence, freedom (hopefully to travel some more!), and the ability to be an actor in my own life rather than a passive vessel. To create my own path rather than being forced to walk upon one I had been told to travel.

Because it isn’t ever really about money. It’s really easy to fall into the numbers trap, measuring our success with a calculator in hand. But the reasons we pursue money are our true driving motivators, and we should never lose site of them. They’re what keep us grounded, and what can push us to keep going when things get hard.

I’ll be sure to let you guys know if they ever end up erecting an orange gate in my name.

 

What would you pray for at Fushimi Inari, besides the obvious request for cash?

 

Climbing Mountains at Iwatayama Monkey Park

Deep lessons! Definitely makes me want to visit this monkey park next time I travel to Kyoto, Japan!

When we wake up each morning, we have no idea what the day has in store for us.

Sure, we can have plans. Sure, we can set goals.

But along the way, plans can become derailed. Obstacles can pop up between us and our goals. Emergencies can happen, taking precedence.

While this all sounds rather negative and pessimistic, believe it or not, this fact of life can be a beautiful thing. We can make new connections with people we didn’t know existed. Sometimes those people become a big part of our lives. We can conquer those obstacles, giving us confidence in our own strength. And we can adjust our plans to include beautiful experiences we didn’t see when we were further back on the path, our view of the future obscured.

The Day I Woke Up Not Expecting to Climb a Mountain

mountain view kyoto japan

After our Girl Power Tour of Arashiyama in Kyoto, we had one more item on our itinerary: Iwatayama Monkey Park.

We followed the walking path down from the bamboo forest, by a beautiful river, and over Kyoto’s iconic bridge. From there, we were under the impression that we’d have a short walk to the monkey park.

It was short. We walked up some stairs and paid the 550 yen each admission fee.

I don’t know what we were expecting after that. We knew the monkeys weren’t this close to the base of the mountain. Maybe there would be a gondola to take us up?

Or maybe we just hadn’t thought that far ahead.

In the heat and humidity of Japanese springtime, we realized we were going to have to climb this intimidating mountain. I’m susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, even when I am incredibly fit. Which I am not at this point in my life, though I am working to change that.

It hadn’t rained in over a week, and the humidity clung to us like a wet blanket, making us sweat out of every pore. We weren’t the only ones disillusioned by the unexpected hike; I saw a woman in wedge-heeled sandals sulking up the mountain with her family. At every turn on the winding path, there were fellow tourists catching a breath. Stretching. Resting.

At a certain point my sibling asked if we should just turn around. This was going to take forever. But we already had sunk costs–the people who run this place were extremely smart to put the ticketing booth at the bottom rather than the top of the mountain.

We decided we didn’t want to let a mountain defeat us. So on we trudged. When at last we reached the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the city of Kyoto. I hadn’t known it was quite as large as it is until I saw the mountaintop view.

We were also rewarded with spectacular experiences we would have missed had we given up and turned around, taking the easy but far less enriching path.

Bonding with Monkeys

little monkey eating on perch kyoto

Okay, we didn’t so much bond with monkeys as much as encroach on their natural habitat. The animals allow you to do so because there is a feeding station set up in their home, and because of trained experts keeping their behavior in check at every given moment.

When we first rounded the final stretch of the path before reaching the mountain’s crest, there were some free-range monkeys messing around in the woods. It was honestly a little unnerving; these are wild animals, and this was their territory. Fortunately, one of the people working there came along with a clicking device–unafraid to herd them back to the safer area up at the crest.

When we reached the top, we stood feet away from monkeys searching the grass and floating sakura (cherry blossom) petals for bugs to eat. We saw them grooming each other. I paid a tiny fee to feed them some apples–by hand!

We got to see babies play fighting with their siblings. Adults expressing their disinterest with humans after they realized you were out of food. That one a-hole monkey that no one wanted to groom. I felt kind of bad for him.

It was a fantastic experience–unlike any other animal encounter I’ve personally had before. After a few minutes, the angst of being around wild animals subsides as you realize the trained and vigilant staff has everything under control.

Reading the Signs Along the Way

unhappy monkey

#NotADocileMonkey

Another big reason that we felt comfortable was that along our arduous hike, there were signs at every resting point, instructing you how to–and how not to–interact with the monkeys. They showed you the faces of docile monkeys, angry monkeys and scared monkeys. You got instructions to not bend down next to the monkeys, and to not look them directly in the eye or smile at them. And you definitely needed to turn your flash off for photography.

Unfortunately, some who hiked faster than we did appeared to miss these instructions. As they blew by the rest stops, they missed clues that would have told them not to look directly in these monkeys eyes, or not bend down next to one with their infant for an Insta-worthy photo op.

Luckily, the staff were on their game. The few situations that did arise were extremely minimal because they were excellent at their jobs and headed off problems before they really unfolded.

But it could have turned out a lot worse if even one of those situations had slipped under the radar.

Lessons Learned from Iwatayama Monkey Park

monkey without friends

I did not expect to learn so much from a tourist attraction, but I really did glean a lot of insight from our trip to Iwatayama Monkey Park.

Sunk Costs Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

We often like to talk about the sunk cost fallacy in personal finance. The most ubiquitous example is gym memberships. Often people will continue their memberships because they have paid so much for it already–even though they don’t use the gym they’re paying for access to. This leads to more money spent on something you don’t even use rather than calling it quits and accepting the losses.

That’s real.

But in Arashiyama, I came to the realization that sunk costs can also be a great motivator. Even though we had only spent about $5 for the privilege of our hike, the fact that we had already paid the money kept me going. Had we not spent that money up front, I would have been more likely to acquiesce to the idea of turning around, thus denying myself a fantastic experience.

Go Your Own Pace–And Read the Road Signs

monkey looking for bugs in floating cherry blossom petals

While I was determined to climb the mountain after we had gotten started, I knew due to past experience that I was going to have to take it a lot slower than some of these people passing us because I needed to avoid passing out. I was cognizant that this made my sweaty self look less than other people facing the same obstacle, but I also knew my own body and that things would turn out better if I paced myself.

By pacing myself, I didn’t rush past those important instructional signs along the way, teaching me how to interact with the monkeys safely. Sometimes being the first to the top isn’t the most important; sometimes it’s all about being as prepared as you can be when you get there–even if that means your journey takes a little longer.

The same can be applied to our financial goals. It’s rough when others get somewhere more quickly than we do, but they’re not facing the situation with the same set of life experiences and past financial baggage (or lack thereof) that we are. Everyone’s money journey is different, and getting to the top first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the one who enjoys it the most.

You Can Climb Mountains

There was a point at the beginning of the hike where I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Climbing a mountain was not something I had envisioned myself doing when I rolled out of bed that morning, and the monkey park might not have been on our to-do list if we had known what a Herculean task it would be.

But partially because of the sunk costs, partially by pacing ourselves, and partially through sheer determination, we made it to the top. We were rewarded with breathtaking views, a new perspective and enriching experiences.

You might look at that mountain and think it was nothing. But for me, it was a hard thing to conquer.

I’m nothing special, but I can do hard things. And you can, too. Your mountains might look different than mine, but you can conquer them. Once you do, you’ll find new perspectives and a sense of pride at the top.

 

Be sure to follow on Instagram for more pictures of monkeys and Kyoto in general!

A Girl Power Tour of Arashiyama

Definitely want to visit this part of Kyoto! And a day tour of powerful women in the area sounds pretty boss!

Believe it or not, while I was in Japan my friend who I was visiting had to work! We took the opportunity to spend some time in Kyoto. I’d have a hard time deciding on a favorite place I visited while in Japan, but I could definitely see myself living in that city. Even within the city streets, I found my soul once again moved by the immense beauty that can be found across the Pacific Ocean.

One neighborhood we knew we wanted to hit while we were there was Arashiyama. This is where you’ll find the famed bamboo forest among a million other cultural delights. I planned this part of the trip pretty strategically as I wanted to optimize our time without feeling rushed. As I did so, I also unintentionally planned a very girl power tour of Arashiyama–which ended up being a very cool thing.

Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple

Kanpai!

The first thing we did on Arashiyama day was hop onto a train crowded with tourists from central Kyoto to Arashiyama. The ride was pretty quick–only a few stops–but hot and claustrophobic.

Luckily, when we got off the train we were headed somewhere a little off the beaten path: Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple. To get there, we took a cab for the sake of time. It was part way up a mountain, and from there, we’d be walking downhill (almost) all day as the sites got progressively more crowded.

But I think we were the first visitors of the day at this temple, and only a few couples came in after us. It was quiet and serene and peaceful.

Oh, and littered with a ton of Buddha statues. Twelve hundred of them to be exact.

These statues were made by lay worshipers under the instruction of an artisan in the 80s, and are meant to demonstrate the many expressions of Buddha–or disciples of Buddha. It depends on which literature you read, and I probably should have asked which it was while i was there. Many of them are serious and spiritual, but then there are fun-loving ones, too.

Be sure to follow on Instagram to see more fun photos of these statues this week!

But those statues aren’t the reason Otagi Nenbutsu-ji makes the Girl Power list. First, the temple was founded by a woman: Empress Shotoku. Built in the eighth century, its been destroyed, rebuilt and relocated several times since its inaugural opening.

On top of having a female-led history, the temple itself is dedicated to two important bodhisittvas: the goddess of mercy and the goddess of space. There are beautiful statues of these bodhisittvas both inside and out, but you’re not supposed to take pictures inside of Buddhist temples.

Admission here was less than $3 each.

Tori Motto

historical road preserved road kyoto

When you’re done at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, you’ll turn right on the road closest to the temple–the one lined by trees on the right side.

About two to five minutes down the road you’ll see a big, orange tori gate leading to a stone road on which I saw no cars. This is Tori Motto, and it is an ancient and historically preserved street.

The architecture itself is beautiful, with thatched roofs covered with moss. But as you walk the road, you’ll be greeted by various shops and restuarants. We didn’t eat here, but I did do some shopping. Which, if you know me, is a little out of character.

But I was enchanted by the fans and origami. Blown away by the skill that went into making hand bags and jewelry. This is where I was going to buy traditional Japanese chatchkis to bring home to my kids. And a new purse. Because mine had not-so-conveniently broken on the the walk from Otagi Nenbutsu-ji to the Tori Motto.

All but one of the shops I went into was owned by Japanese women.

Gio-ji Temple

Moss garden temple Kyoto

Gio-ji was the temple I was most looking forward to visiting in Arashiyama. It was located just off the Tori Motto right where it tees. This temple is known for its moss gardens, which looked crazy serene and peaceful in the pictures. Heck, it looks serene and peaceful in my pictures.

But it had been very dry in the region to this point in our visit, and without rain the gardens looked a little, well, brownish yellow. With a little bit of green. It sounds super ungrateful to say something like that, but really what I think happened is that I made it so beautiful in my head that there was no way reality could keep pace.

It did rain a couple days later, and I’m sure the gardens turned lush and green at that point.

But this temple did not disappoint. While the gardens weren’t quite what I expected, the actual structure was a great experience. It’s humble in size, but inside you’ll find statues of four women, which I assumed were meant to pay tribute to the women who founded this site.

The primary leader, Gio, was a dancer who fell hard for a powerful chieftain in the country’s capital. He fell hard for her, too–until he didn’t. When he abandoned her, she decided to dedicate her life to Buddha, establishing Gio-ji.

She lived the rest of her life as a priestess, as did her mom and sister who came along with her. Someone else that came with her? Another one of that cheiftan’s ex-lovers!

Dude sounds like a piece of work.

But going in to pray in front of those four figures was something special. A reminder that strength and virtue don’t come from the value men see in us.

Admission here was less than $5 each.

Tenryu-ji Temple

garden path tenryu-ji temple

Okay, so technically, Tenryu-ji was founded by a male shogun in the 1300s. However, on this same site in the ninth century, Empress Tachibana no Kachiko founded Japan’s very first Zen Buddhist temple: Danrin-ji. Thus, it definitely counts for our girl power tour.

This is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Arashiyama, so it was very crowded. We weren’t really sure how much inner peace we were going to find inside at that particular moment, and wanted to save 500 yen each, so we opted to just do the gardens.

Just.”

Ha.

There is nothing “just” about the gardens at Tenryu-ji–especially at peak cherry blossom season. They’re beautifully manicured–simultaneously delicate and robust. Every corner we turned was breathtaking, whether we were walking alongside the temple or up a path in the adjacent mountain.

I’m sure the temple is amazing; there must be a reason it was so crowded. But definitely, definitely don’t miss the gardens.

Admission here cost us a little less than $5 each just for the garden. It would have doubled if we had chosen to go into the temple, too.

Bamboo Forest

CROWDS bamboo forest arashiyama

Throughout Arashiyama we found ourselves surrounded by bamboo, but the main alley that you see all the pictures of is right outside the gardens of Tenryu-ji. It’s amazing and magical, but also super crowded. The path is shorter than we thought it would be, but it’s definitely still worth a walk through. Especially since it’s free. Just make sure your expectations are matched with its actual length and the amount of fellow tourists you’ll encounter.

We cut through it on our way to our final destination of the day, which had nothing to do with girl power and deserves a post unto itself.

Stay tuned for next Friday…