Tag Archives: Japan

Nature is Free: The Raw Beauty of Shirahama

I had never even heard of Shirahama, Japan before. But now its white sand beaches and rock formations are on my travel bucket list!

When we went to Japan, I was expecting to be in awe of the massive cities.

And I was.

What I wasn’t expecting was to be exposed to the inspiring beauty of the Japanese countryside. Fortunately, my friend and host knew what she was doing. She purposefully took us to some of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen in the world.

One of those places was Shirahama.

The Onsen Resort Town

resort town japan

During the day, my friend took us to one of her favorite places: Adventure World. The experience we had at the part-amusement-park-part-zoo was one I’ll never forget, but I won’t spend a lot of time on it because it is a bit expensive. In full disclosure, my friend insisted on paying our admission–for which we were incredibly grateful.

Adventure World is in Shirahama. While its’ a huge attraction, it’s far from the only one. This is a resort town built around onsens–or natural hot springs. You can visit the hot springs–like my sibling did–but keep in mind that you’ll be doing so naked per Japanese custom. Men’s and women’s onsens are separated for this reason.

Senjojiki Rock Formations

senjojiki in shirahama japan

While my sibling was at the onsen, I visited some rocky formations on the coast with my friends. These formations were unlike anything I had ever seen. They were truly other-worldly.

The outcrop of geology was formed by a combination of the collision of tectonic plates, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic magma and erosion. These processes happened over a period of millions of years, and resulted in what is known as known as Senjojiki–or One Thousand Tatami Mats.

shirahama in march

They’re simultaneously flat and steep, so you can walk out over them towards the sea–even standing on the ledge as the waves crash in on the rocks. But you do have to be careful as getting up on top of some of the formations requires more climbing than hiking.

For the part I visited, you didn’t need a carabiner and rope or anything, but you did want to check your footing and know where you were going to put your hands in some places.

Shirahama’s White Sand Beach

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

I have been told that “Shirahama” translates to “white beach.” As in looks-like-a-Carribean-white-sand-beach-with-crystal-blue-waters white beach.

It’s incredible, beautiful, and not at all what I expected in Japan. The fine, white sand stretches along nearly 550 yards of shoreline, and is as picturesque as anything you’ve ever seen. We were lucky enough to watch the sun set there over the Pacific Ocean.

Nature is Free

White sand beach in the distance.

Shirahama was one of the most transformative experiences I had while visiting Japan. It’s raw and wild beauty literally moved me to tears.

Don’t judge until you’ve experienced it yourself.

As I sat there crying, I realized that the old adage really is true:

“The best things in life are free.”

Though the onsen did cost my sibling a couple bucks.

Bonus Photos

Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram! I started an account specifically to share extra Japan pictures with you guys, and Shirahama is not a week you’ll want to miss!

How I Stayed in Tokyo for Free

She stayed at some REALLY nice hotels for free. Definitely pinning for the trip to Japan I'm planning!

Oh, man, guys. I just got back from a huge trip to Japan, and it was indescribably amazing. As one Belgian tech guru told me one night as some of us were sitting around a fantastic meal:

“I think coming here has changed me.”

I have so much I want to tell you, and I’m going to take several weeks to do just that. Every Friday, we’ll talk a little about saving money while exploring this breathtaking country. We’ll start with accommodations.

How I Stayed in Tokyo for Free

Originally, we were supposed to fly into Osaka, but that involved a long, complicated layover in Tokyo anyways, so I called and lopped off that leg of our flight. My sibling and I spent our first night and last nights in Japan in the capital of Tokyo, and we did it for free.

Westin Tokyo

westin tokyo review

I had built up some SPG points from business travel. I had enough for one free reward stay at the Westin Tokyo, which I was pretty psyched about.

Not nearly psyched enough. We took a bus from Narita to our digs. When we walked in the entry way, my sibling dropped their jaw and said, “Holy sh!t, Femme.”

The lobby was gorgeous. Dark wood lined the walls accented with gold. Our footsteps echoed off the sky-high ceilings as we walked back to the check-in desk, where we were greeted by the sweetest and most generous host ever. She treated me like royalty even as I stood there in my yoga pants and tee, surely reeking of the 29 hours of straight travel I had just endured.

Not only was she nice, she upgraded our room — which already would have cost hundreds upon hundreds of dollars without points — to a suite. A gorgeous, two-room suite with 1.5 baths. I took a rainfall shower that night before we went out to find some food, and soaked in a pink, cherry blossom bath the next morning before we set out on our journey.

view from westin tokyo

That night, we gazed out over the dazzling city with views of Tokyo tower gracing our window. The next morning, we grabbed some breakfast in the club lounge and kind of sort of talked, but mostly just sat there in awe as we took in yet another astonishing view.

The neighborhood, Ebisu, was super nice and just about my speed. There was shopping and dining, and a tasteful amount of nightlife. We walked by ice cream shops and bakeries as we stumbled upon gardens full of vibrant flowers — including one such garden directly behind the hotel.

Staying at the Westin was definitely the right way to start our trip.

Shinjuku Airbnb

shinjuku mural

Our last two nights in Japan, we stayed in the heart of Shinjuku. We found an Airbnb that would have run us about $200 for both nights if I hadn’t had Airbnb credits that cancelled out all the costs. If you’ve never used Airbnb before, I highly recommend it as a great way to save money when you travel. You can get your own $40 travel credit when you signup here.

I wasn’t as big of a fan of Shinjuku. I’m pretty sure most people would consider that blaspheme. Part of my disenchantment undoubtedly had to do with the fact that I spent a good portion of my time there holed up in the Airbnb as I had caught a cold.

But from the walking around I did do, it was full of high-end shopping, tons of night life and at least one series of hotels where people go to have sex. I get that all that excitement is enticing for a lot of people. I’m just not super into high-end clothing and clubbing.

Also, I may have missed massive parts of the neighborhood and be passing unfair judgement. Because sick.

Where did you stay the rest of the two weeks?

Great question! I was originally going to title this post, “How I Stayed in Japan for 2 Weeks for Under $400,” but I decided against that because it would be a little misleading.

This entire trip was spurred on by the fact that one of my longest friends is a native of Osaka. We went to Japan to visit her and her family. We stayed with her family in Osaka, Wakayama, and Nachi Katsuura. I hadn’t seen my friend in seven years, and her family in 22. They are such wonderful people *trying not to cry right now* and made us feel so welcome in their homes.

But most Americans probably don’t have a family friend waiting for them in Japan ready to open up their home to them, so my situation was unique and fortunate.

The Guest House in Kyoto

kyoto guest house

We were there for a while, though, and people gotta work. So we spent about five days in Kyoto on our own, exploring the ancient city. I was planning on using Airbnb for that, too, but it turns out that if you’re in Japan for cherry blossom season, waiting to book an Airbnb three weeks prior to your arrival in Kyoto is not a great idea. In fact, it’s a crazy expensive one.

After some panicked searching, I found something called a guest house through Hotels.com–where I’m currently only a couple nights away from earning yet another free stay.

Ours, the Yuraku, was Japanese-owned and geared towards Japanese guests. One room with bunk beds ran each of us $385, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t plan on getting that number down further by applying some of the credit card points I earned during our sojourn to that purchase in the next couple weeks.

When a guest house is geared towards Japanese guests, they will ask you to be very quiet. Everything will be super clean and peaceful.

We learned from our host that when the place is geared towards Westerners, it tends to be a bit more rowdy and sociable.

Different strokes.

We enjoyed our stay at the Yuraku. I had booked it because it was available and somewhat affordable, but I would book it again because unbeknownst to me, it was in a great location in a beautiful neighborhood with a ton of amenities–like good food, a famous bathhouse, and coin-op laundry–just steps outside the door.

Get more Japan Pictures!

A lot of people have asked me to post my Japan pictures on Instagram. Just one problem: twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t have an account!

But I got so many requests that I have now set one up so I can share all the beauty I beheld while I was away. I know I shared quite a few images in this post, but I’m going to be sharing more exclusively on that channel throughout the week.

Everyday at 1pm Eastern time, I’ll have a new one up there for you guys, so be sure to give me a follow!

Tokyo Travel Tips + Walking Tour

Are you still waiting to find out who is behind door number two on our Japanese tips tour?

Wait no more! Please welcome my friend Bethany from Wanderlust for Less. She has some amazing tips–many of which never would have occurred to me before I left! Read on for some veteran travel tips.

Definitely using this free walking tour guide when I travel to Japan next summer!

Japan is a truly incredible place to visit. My husband, Travis, and I visited friends who lived there 2 years ago. We were struck by the history and majesty of this beautiful culture. One of the things that really struck me about Japan is the low crime rate and the honesty the people showed. Let me give you an example.

Travis and I were recently engaged when we traveled from LA to Tokyo. We had an 18 hour layover in Beijing and took advantage of seeing a tiny bit of the city (fun fact—you can visit China without a visa if you are there less than 72 hours).

As a part of our wedding, we were going to have an ‘International Chocolate Bar’—one of those cutesy countertops filled with an assortment of candies that your relatives will blow through like a tornado.  Except, our wedding was travel themed, so we tried to put a little spin on it by gathering sweets from as many countries as we could muster.

Low Crime Rates

recover lost items japan

While we were in China, we found these adorable little panda bear chocolates with unique flavors and bought 3 boxes. We also got a little stuffed panda for our niece, and they put it in a big bag that had a panda decoration on the side.

It was perfect.

The plan was simple—we were going to carry that little Panda accented bag with us through the Beijing airport, on the plane ride to Tokyo, next to us on the Narita Express train from the airport to Shinjuku, then aboard the Chuo line toward Nakano to Mitaka station. What could possibly go wrong?

On the transfer from the Narita Express to the Chuo line, we left the bag. On the train.

As soon as we realized what happened, my heart sank.

But there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. My friend, Tori, who had lived in Tokyo for about a year, said there was a chance we could track it down. The crime rate in Japan is virtually nonexistent. Missing items on trains are routinely turned in and were able to be tracked down.

We just needed to find the right phone numbers, and people who spoke Japanese.

Fast forward several days, many phone calls both in Japanese and English, and jumping around the city, we were in a train station office signing papers and retrieving our lost items. An ancient Japanese man bowed as he scooted the bag across the counter, saying something in Japanese. We returned the bows as we scooted out of the room and went on our way. Tori paused a moment later, only just understanding what he had said in Japanese:

“It is lost no longer.”

Planning Your Trip to Japan

couple in japan

When planning what you will see, here are a few great neighborhoods, grouped close to each other:

  • Asakusa. Be sure to check out the Senso-ji temple while you’re there!
  • Kappabashi. AKA the kitchen district. If you want a Japanese knife, buy it here! I bought a few good ones from a knife shop to give my brothers as birthday gifts.
  • Ueno Park and the Yanaka neighborhoods are also fun to walk around because there are a lot of cool old buildings—this area was not destroyed in the war.
  • Akihabara is a crazy electronics neighborhood – this is where all the Manga stuff is. If you are into owls – they even have an owl cafe. Weird, but also, awesome.
  • Roppongi is a great place to go if you are looking for a lot of amazing restaurants, bars, clubs, etc. There are many foreigners here; English is spoken everywhere. Check out Roppongi Hills (there’s an amazing view from the observation floor) and Tokyo Midtown before you leave.

Shibuya is one of my favorite neighborhoods. Some must sees in the area include:

  • Hachiko statue in the Shibuya station
  • Shibuya crossing (AKA the busiest crosswalk in the world—go into the Starbucks on the second floor of the bookstore and sit at the counter for an awesome perspective of the crossing!)
  • Yoyogi Park with the Meiji shrine
  • Takeshita street (outside Harajuku station)
  • Kiddyland, and the Oriental Bazaar—more on those later.

Free Walking Tour Guide

japan train ticket

Speaking of Shibuya, if you are up for a walk, here is a walking tour of Shibuya/Omotesando/Harajuku/Aoyama.

Hop on the train to Harajuku.

Take the Yamanote line to Harajuku. Get out at the Takeshita exit and walk down Takeshita dori.

Turn right at the next main road. You’ll know you’re there by the stop light. This main road is Meiji Dori.

Meiji Dori

There are some good shops down Meiji Dori, past Omotesando Dori, like the UT t-shirt shop (lots of fun, cheap t-shirts.) It is just past the North Face store.

Then you’ll want to go down a few blocks, check out the shops, turn around and come back to Omotesando Dori. It’s the street with the Gap on the corner.

Omotesando Dori

Omotesando Dori is a great street to walk down, there are fun alleyways if you turn in by the Ralph Lauren store. You should check out Omotesando hills on the north side of the street, it has a fancy shopping mall and cool architecture.

This is where you’ll find a great shop called Oriental Bazaar. It is a red building that looks kind of like a temple. Definitely stock up on your souvenirs here. Any purchases like theses that are over a certain threshhold — currently 5000 yen — are often eligible for tax-exempt status.

You will have to keep your receipt and declare at the airport. If that worries you, it’s really simple. After you arrive at the airport, you put the receipt in a little box and move along.

I bought my bridesmaids Japanese robes for a really great price here, as well as some gorgeous pottery. They were a huge hit!

Shopping in Shibuya

If you go down the side street (kind of an alleyway) right near KiddyLand, closer to the Harajuku side, (it’s called Kat Street – or Kyu-shibuyagawa promenade,) then you can walk all the way down to Shibuya and do some shopping. There are some interesting stores down that way, like the Freak Store.

Yes, really.

Yoyogi Park & the Meiji Shrine

While you’re in the Harajuku area, check out Yoyogi Park. It’s on the west side of Harajuku station. From the station, walk out to the right and follow the sidewalk to the first right turn you can make. It’s a huge park and has lots of fun stuff going on, including a major tourist attraction: Meiji shrine.

You can finish this tour in a whole day or even a half day if you walk real fast. It can easily take longer, though.

I recommend you check out a map and break it down by area. If you only have a couple of hours a day, do one day at Harajuku station, another day at Omotesando station, and a third day at Shibuya station. Definitely try to check out Yoyogi Park on the weekend!

Japanese Eats

ramen at ichiran in tokyo

So, as we know, food is one of the best things to eat abroad! And yes, ramen and sushi are the most delicious things ever—especially in Japan!

My favorite Ramen place is Ichiran in Shibuya. You can order your ramen from your personal little cubby where the chef delivers your ramen through a curtain. Then, if you leave some broth in the bottom of the bowl, you can order some more noodles and meat to add to it. It is magical and delicious.

Though there are a lot of incredible sushi places around the city, Genki Sushi Co. is a conveyor belt sushi bar. You order your sushi on a little screen in front of you. It is then delivered to your seat on a mini train. That was one train we definitely didn’t want to miss!

If you like donuts, I highly recommend Mister Donut. They also have great coffee (with free refills!). Also, there are some vending machines with an assortment of delicious beverages—both hot AND cold—you can get in the train stations or on the street.

What to Do About Disposables

Another quick and important tip: there are no paper towels in the restrooms, so people walk around with little towels. They also don’t have trashcans, but the city is incredibly clean. People carry their garbage around with them until they can throw it away. There are usually bins on the platforms in the train stations.

Happy travels, friends and さよなら—Sayonara!

Destination Japan: Budget Travel Tips

I had no idea there were so many affordable things to do in Japan! Maybe a budget trip is in the future afterall...

Guys, I don’t know if I’ve been obnoxious as I possibly can be about it yet, but let me try: I’m going to Japan.

Japan.

Japan.

Japan!

I’m obviously very excited. I’ve wanted to visit for most of my life — ever since my childhood friend moved back there and I moved to Pittsburgh. But getting to Japan has always been cost-prohibitive for me. At somewhere between $1,000-$3,000 per ticket–depending on the year and where I lived–it was really hard for me to come up with that type of money when I had other basic expenses I had yet to meet.

On a note which I promise is related, a couple years ago a family member fell incredibly ill. The kind of ill there’s no coming back from. When we couldn’t afford a ticket to send my mom to visit, her friend stepped in and bought her a ticket with points she had banked.

In that moment, I realized I wanted to start travel hacking. Not for the traditional reasons of seeing the world at whimsy–though, Oh, how I would enjoy that, too. But because should another such occasion arise, I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to be able to grab more than one ticket; I wanted to be able to go myself and have my kids come with me.

How to Get Two Free Airline Tickets to Japan

I’ve used travel hacking the years since. We got a free hotel in Myrtle Beach during peak season thanks to points. We saved over $1,000 on Disney tickets thanks to rewards.

But all the while, I was quietly stashing away airline points, even converting hotel points to the airline currency. Just in case.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to draw on these points. I hope everyone I know and love stays incredibly healthy forever and ever.

Because I haven’t had to draw on those points, though, the initial stash has seen one devaluation. I’m getting to the point where I need to spend some. So in the near future, off to Japan I go.

To be honest, I’ve thought about using some points for this purpose for a while now. But it’s finally at the point where I really need to.

Japan Travel Tips from People Who Have Been There

My first wealth of information is my friend.

My second wealth of information lays with my Japanese instructors, many of whom are actually Japanese. I’m taking lessons for free at the library.

My third wealth of information is the one I’m planning on sharing with you today. It comes from two awesome friends who have been there themselves.

First, let’s check out these great money-saving tips from the fantastic Tanja from Our Next Life:

We spent a lot less in Japan than we expected to because, although you CAN spend a ton there, there’s plenty of reasonably priced things to do, places to stay and things to eat!

Pocket WiFi. Because your phone won’t work in Japan.

We reserved a pocket WiFi online that was mailed to our first hotel, and then we dropped it at the airport when we flew home. It cost a few dollars a day to have unlimited data, even on the tops of mountains in Hokkaido.

You can also buy a SIM card, but we liked the WiFi option better so we could connect all our devices anywhere.

Getting Around Japan

For transportation, use local trains and subways, and you’ll never spend much.

Taxis cost a ton, but the metro in Tokyo costs about a dollar a ride, and is easy to navigate with Google maps. If you’re traveling across the country, the bullet trains (shinkansen) look cool, but cost way more than regular trains, which will get you to the same places more economically.

If you decide you’d rather fly–like we did from Tokyo to Sapporo to go skiing–in-country flights can be expensive with cash, but cheap with miles. Flights on ANA, the largest Japanese airline, cost only 5,000 United miles each way, so for the two of us roundtrip it was 20,000 miles total for tickets that would have cost more than $1,000.

Lodging in Japan

For lodging, we stayed in budget hotels and paid about what you would pay in a big U.S. city. We could have gone cheaper by staying in hostels or capsule hotels, but decided we wanted a tiny bit of private space. (And I do mean tiny – rooms are quite wee!)

Affordable Eats in Japan

All of our favorite food was the cheapest anyway, so you can save big by avoiding the touristy sit-down restaurants and mostly eat street food.

We had amazing ramen everywhere (favorite was in Ramen Street in the underground mall at Tokyo Station), amazing sushi at Tsukiji Market, and assorted street food and casual food that made us super happy, all for under $10 per person per meal.

Of course, you can save even more by eating from the combinis (convenience stores) like 7-11 and Lawson, both of which are way nicer than convenience stores in the U.S. and have really high quality prepared food for a few dollars. We ate many meals of onigiri (rice triangles with filling like salmon or tuna.)

Japanese Entertainment

We really wanted to see Kabuki theater in Japan, but it was both super expensive and an all-day affair to go to Kabuki-Za–the main theater. But we found you could go to a single play or act and sit in the nose bleed seats for under $20 a person. There’s info on the schedule and how to do it online. It was totally worth it.

Most of our favorite things to do were free anyway – walking around Asakusa, Shibuya, Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku, Akihabara, the Imperial Palace grounds, Ginza, the fish market, etc. Just go and soak it all in!

And behind door number two…

Tanja’s tips were perfect and affected how I planned my trip. I was actually planning on getting a SIM card because I didn’t realize how incredibly cheap pocket WiFi would be. And it sounds like it’s going to be a whole lot less stressful getting it set up. Thanks, Tanja!

I know what you’re thinking.

“You said there were two friends!”

Don’t worry. There are.

But I’m going to keep you in suspense. Yes, I’m that evil! Look for another post chock full of Japan travel tips in the next couple weeks!