Nara is the capital city of the Nara Prefecture. It is home to a number of shrines, temples and ruins but is probably most well known outside of Japan for the deer that walk the city freely.
Below is a list of places that we visited during our stay in April of 2016.
While hundreds of tame sika deer (also known as the spotted deer or the Japanese deer) roam the city the majority of them are located in Nara Park. Inside the park you will find dozens of vendors selling "deer crackers" that you can feed the deer. Most of the deer have actually learned to bow to anyone holding a cracker to ask for a treat.
Nara Park is barely a 10 minute walk from Nara Station and is a place you absolutely must visit. Not only is seeing deer up close and feeding them crackers fun but the park itself is beautiful and home to a number of shrines and temples that are also worth seeing.
In Nara Park resides the Tōdai-ji temple. It is the world's largest wooden structure and houses the largest bronze statue of the Buddha. It is a beautiful sight to behold and should be visited by anyone going to Nara Park.
Wata Wata Owl Cafe
Sanjō-dori is the main street that connects Nara Station to Nara Park and on our walk back to the station we came across an owl cafe called Wata Wata. Naturally we could not resist going inside and neither should you.
We got to see and pet over 13 different owls and even hold one. It only cost 1300 yen for an hour and admission came with a free drink. I would highly recommend checking out this owl cafe if you are in Nara.
Also along Sanjō-dori is a mochi shop called Nakatanidou. What is special about this shop is that you can actually watch the mochi get made and I promise you it is an absolutely draw dropping experience. That video doesn't do the process justice. When you are there in person and see how fast their hands and hammers are moving you honestly cannot believe your eyes. I was constantly on edge just waiting for some gruesome incident to occur.
Osaka is Japan's third largest city and is a part of Japan's second largest metropolitan area so there really isn't any one thing tourists come to Osaka for. Attractions range from the more modern like the aquarium or Universal Studios to historic castles and temples. There are all sorts of shopping and entertainment centers as well as world class dinning including Michelin star restaurants. There really is something for everyone who visits Osaka.
During our visit in April of 2016 we got to see a fair number of sites and they all left lasting impressions on us. Except Dōtonbori. That was an absolute tourist trap. I don't know why everyone talks about that place like it is a must see attraction. Yes, the massive neon signs were cool but it was super cramped and dirty (which was rare for Japan) and there were massive lines for everything. It felt like the Las Vegas strip.
When we were planning our trip to Japan we watched a lot of Mark Wien's videos and came across this article he wrote about an izakaya bar in Osaka called Maguroya Nakatsu.
I am a massive fan of tuna sushi. The way it just melts in your mouth is heavenly. I can say, without hyperbole, that the tuna I had at Maguroya Nakatsu was the best I have ever eaten. It was so good that if you could only go to one place during your visit to Osaka, Maguroya Nakatsu should be it. There is no doubt in my mind. I guarantee that I will go back to Osaka at some point in the future primarily so I can eat at this izakaya bar again.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one of Osaka's greatest tourist attractions.
The centerpiece of the aquarium is a massive four story tank in the middle of the building that houses the main attraction, a whale shark. It is over 12 meters in length which makes it the largest sea creature I have ever seen in person. Visitors walk down a ramp that wraps around the central tank allowing them the see the animals from all different elevations and angles. Along the outside of the ramp are a dozen smaller tanks that showcase specific species or habitats.
I have been to the Ripley's Aquarium in Toronto and I remember being completely blown away by the size of it. Having now been to the Kaiyukan, Ripley's seems tiny in comparison. Standing in front of that central tank as a whale shark swam by is not something I will soon forget.
Tempozan Ferris Wheel
Next to the Kaiyukan aquarium is a giant ferris wheel called the Tempozan. It gives an amazing view of the Osaka skyline including the aquarium. We went during the day but have heard that at night, when the city is all lit up, the views are amazing as well.
Pokémon Center Osaka
Osaka Station City consists of two massive buildings that flank the Osaka Station. You could easily get lost inside here for hours looking at all the cool shops and entertainment but there is one specific place I would point out.
Inside Osaka Station City's south tower is the Pokémon Center Osaka. A portion of the thirteenth floor is set up to to sell only Pokémon merchandise and I guarantee you that you cannot fully comprehend how much merchandise there is to sell until you see it. If you are a Pokémon fan this place is a must visit but I could also recommend it to the average tourist just so they could get a sense of how big Pokémon is in Japan.
Universal Studios Japan
We were planning on visiting Universal Studios Japan but unfortunately the timing just didn't work out and we had to cut it from our trip. We have heard nothing but great things and the attractions will feature themes that you would never see outside of Japan. Stuff like Monster Hunter, Final Fantasy, Godzilla, Hello Kitty, Nintendo, Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, etc. There is also stalwart attractions like Jurassic Park, Sesame Street and Shrek. They even have a Harry Potter attraction which has live owls.
The most unique attraction I've heard of is Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular, a live action show actually based on the Waterworld film that is full of water stunts and pyrotechnics.
To most people outside of Japan when you say "Kobe beef" they think you mean any beef from Japan but actually Kobe beef is a specific type of wagyu beef. While the wagyu (literally "Japanese cow") is raised all over Japan, specific regions have their own way of raising cattle and strict rules about what qualifies beef from that region. Kobe is one of those regions and they are so renowned for how they raise their wagyu that we undertook a pilgrimage to taste this amazing beef.
Our visit to Kobe in April of 2016 was unfortunately marred with rain but we still visited two places that I would recommend for anyone who is visiting Kobe.
Kobe beef is the reason you should come to Kobe. Full stop. There are dozens if not hundreds of places that will serve you Kobe beef. The restaurants near the train station seemed a bit like tourist traps to us so we expanded our search and lucked out in finding an absolutely outstanding place called Koushiya. It is a yakiniku style restaurant and we got our own private room where we spent two hours grilling up some of the best beef that any of us had ever tasted. The place was expensive, about $400 for four of us, but I would go back to this restaurant in a heartbeat.
Kobe is home to the Oji Zoo and I will recommend it to anyone visiting Kobe for two reasons:
- They have a giant panda named Tan Tan.
- They have red freakin' pandas!!! When are you ever going to get the opportunity to see red pandas again?
There were also sea otters, flamingos, koalas, owls, penguins and even polar bears. All in all it was a very good zoo with a much more diverse set of animals then I was expecting.
We actually had a better experience because it was raining and the zoo had absolutely no other visitors. We had the entire park to ourselves. So if the weather is looking a bit down one day you could do a lot worse than checking out the Oji Zoo.
Kyoto is the capital city of the Kyoto Prefecture and one of the best hub cities if you are vacationing in Japan. It is home to hundreds of shrines and temples, dozens of museums, renowned for its local cuisine and hosts a number of traditional Japanese festivals. Kyoto Station is also one of Japan's largest railway stations and has Shinkansens connecting it to Tokyo and other train lines connecting it to great tourist cities like Osaka, Kobe and Nara.
Like I said in my planning your stay article you really should consider visiting multiple cities when you visit Japan and Kyoto is one of, if not the best, hub cities to visit.
In downtown Kyoto, right beside the Kamo river, is a little alley called Ponto-chō and it is where you should go to eat dinner on your very first night in Kyoto. The alleyway is packed with restaurants and bars on both sides and features a wide range of cuisine. If you've never been to Japan before and have no idea what options are available you should go walk up and down this alley to see all the possible food that you can eat during your stay. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
I really don't want to prescribe any restaurants you must try in Ponto-chō because half the fun is just wandering around. However, at 六傳屋 先斗町店 I had some absolutely delicious black sesame dan ban noodles that I would recommend to anyone looking for a safe meal before broadening their palette with some of the more exotic dishes that Japan has to offer.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
I don't know about y'all but I haven't seen many monkeys in my life so when I heard that there was a park where monkeys roamed free and you could hand feed them I knew we had to beeline for it. The Iwatayama Monkey Park was easily one of the most fun activities we did during our whole stay in Japan as well as one of the most unique.
The park itself is located a 20 minute hike up a mountain that also happens to have a breathtaking view of Kyoto as well. At the peak you simply walk amongst a colony of Japanese macaque monkeys that are just going about their day. You'll see them wandering around, bathing themselves, suntanning on the roof of buildings and a number of them hanging onto chicken wired windows where you can go and buy some peanuts or apple slices to feed the monkeys.
If you are not afraid of some tiny primates I would highly recommend checking out the Iwatayama Monkey Park. You've probably never experienced anything like it in your life and probably won't ever again.
Ginkaku-ji Temple and the Philosopher's Path
If you are in the mood for a little walking the Ginkaku-ji Temple and Philosopher's Path are right up your alley.
Ginkaku-ji is beautiful temple located on the western edge of Kyoto about a 30 minute bus ride from downtown. Its landscaping is absolutely out of this world and is home to a sand garden and moss garden that you have to see to believe.
Just outside of the temple is the start of the Philosopher's Path, a 90 minute pedestrian path from Ginkaku-ji that follows a canal down to Nanzen-ji temple. There are lots of great sights along the path including a number of temples and shrines as well as a bunch of little holes in the wall where you can eat. It is a major tourist attraction during cherry blossom season because of the large number of cherry trees that line the path.
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a shrine that sits at the base of a mountain. It has a trail that runs up to the mountain's peak and down the other side which is about 4km in length and takes about two hours to traverse. Along the trail are over 10,000 torii gates.
Fushimi Inari-taisha is a popular tourist attraction so be prepared for the crowds. If you go early in the morning or as the sun is setting you can probably beat the crowds. We arrived just as the sun was setting and it made for a really interesting hike because by the time we got to the peak everything was pitch black except for the lights directly on the trail and in Kyoto in the distance.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
I feel that I am constantly falling into hyperbole here when I say "you've never seen something like this before" but Japan really has so many unique sights and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is no exception. There really isn't much to say here except look at this picture and watch this video and if you aren't interested in walking through bamboo stalks that reach a hundred feet into the sky then I don't know what else I can say.
A heads up though, this place is an incredibly popular tourist attraction and felt like we were walking through a herd of zombies from The Walking Dead. Just set your expectations correctly or show up super early in the morning to beat the crowds.
The Heian Shrine is worth seeing because of the sheer size of the grounds. Everything there is larger than most other shrines you will see while you are in Japan. The shrine's torii gate is one of the largest in the country and the garden is over 30 square kilometers and home to all sorts of wildlife.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn and we decided to stay in one for a single night during our vacation.
We found Yadoya Kikokuso by searching the Internet and we could not have been more happy with our choice. It is impossible to overstate how quant staying in this ryokan was. It was run by an elderly couple and their children who were incredibly welcoming and accommodating. They spoke the best English out of anyone we had encountered but in true Japanese fashion they would not stop apologizing for their "poor" English.
We had a Japanese tea ceremony performed for us, ate a traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast, bathed in an onsen and slept on futons (good Japanese bedding not those shitty fold out sofas). We went the whole nine yards and it was a wonderful experience. I highly recommend that anyone going to Japan try staying in a ryokan and I can vouch for Yadoya Kikokuso being absolutely top notch.
If I don't put this here Jarques will kill me. If you are looking for a great cup of coffee Arabica has some locations in Kyoto and they really are a high quality coffee shop. One of the places we visited actually had an barista who had immigrated from Los Angeles and not only brewed a solid cup but was fun to chat with as well.
Completed multiple V4 bouldering problems, defeated the aliens in XCOM 2, started reading an epic book series, memorized hiragana and katakana, wrote articles for my Japan Travel Tips series. All while babysitting two different cats. Not a bad month.
Everything continues to go well on the health front. I exercised every day of the month again. Did six V4 bouldering problems in a single session. Continued to drink Soylent almost every weeknight for dinner with a couple exceptions where I got food from the grocery store downstairs and I cooked at least one dinner every weekend. Looking back there really isn't anything to complain about health-wise this month. I am impressed with how consistent I was.
My weight and body fat are as stable as ever and because my bouldering is improving I am going to give it another month before I consider making any drastic changes. In the last couple retrospectives I have said that I am fairly content with how I look and because I am seeing progress in other areas I am under no pressure to change anything. My goal was not to drop 20 pounds and get a six pack. My goal was to be healthy and looking back at all the positive steps I have taken this year there is no doubt in my mind that I am getting healthy.
Read a book
I started The Way of Kings (the first book in The Stormlight Archive series) and have really been enjoying it. The world building is absolutely phenomenal. Far more expansive and detailed then I imagined it would be. You can tell the author, Brandon Sanderson, put a ludicrous amount of thought into how he could make the world feel alive and real. Every chapter pulls the curtain back a little bit more and exposes another interesting piece of the backstory of the world or the characters that inhabit it. I heard great things about this book series but, to be honest, I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I am.
The Way of Kings is a massive book (1007 pages) and I am only about a third of the way through. It will easily be my book for November and if I am not careful it could become my December book too. Regardless, the moment I finish The Way Of Kings I will be moving onto the second book in the series, Words of Radiance.
Play a video game
I fell off the PUBG train hard this month. Near the end of the first week of October, my life was completely overtaken by XCOM 2. I became obsessed with beating my War of the Chosen campaign on Commander Ironman difficulty. After nine attempts totaling over 60 hours and some insane luck with research breakthroughs and experimental ammo in the early game I finally was able to defeat the aliens on October 15th. I immediately proceeded to uninstall the game and began my wait for XCOM 3.
Last month I ragged on War of the Chosen for being a bad expansion to XCOM 2 and after beating the game my thoughts haven't changed. I absolutely dreaded fighting the Chosen and essentially broke the game by simply focusing on beating them as soon as possible and forgetting about everything else. By the time all three Chosen were dead I was probably only 25% of the way through the campaign but I was already a god because of the equipment I had. I was just going through the motions to get to the end. I still believe War of the Chosen makes XCOM 2 a game that depends much more on chance which is a direction I hope the series does not continue to follow. I will say that the faction classes were an outstanding addition to the game. They really did spice up the tactical layer.
I am a huge board game fan so I backed the Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5 Kickstarter many moons ago and it finally arrived. This is the first game that I have purchased where you actually need to assemble the miniatures before you can play. I spent a lot of time this month researching and buying all of the necessary tooling and after about seven hours last weekend I assembled the first seven miniatures of the game. Apparently what I have built should take me about 8-10 hours into my first campaign which I hope to start this upcoming weekend.
Destiny 2 finally came out for PC this month and I have already managed to beat the campaign after about 15 hours. It was subpar quality for a triple A studio that has decades of experience but Bungie's amazing gunplay still remains and that was more than enough to pull me through the campaign. Also Bungie dropped support for the PS3 and Xbox 360 for Destiny 2 and you can instantly tell how much of a limiting factor those platforms were on the environments in Destiny 1. They are so massive and varied in Destiny 2 that even after 15 hours I am still constantly being surprised by new parts of the world. I am going to try to max out my light level and beat the first raid but I am not yet sure how long Destiny 2 will be able to hold my attention.
One of my most anticipated games of the year was released in October and I have yet to find time to play it. Super Mario Odyssey was released on Friday October 27th and I somehow managed to spend the entire weekend playing Destiny 2 and building Kingdom Death: Monster miniatures. But no more excuses! Mario will be the first game I play and beat in November. There is no ifs, ands or buts.
Speaking of November games, I managed to preorder an Xbox One X which will be arriving on November 7th. I am going to pick one game that will showcase the 4K, HDR capabilities of the platform and make it my second game of November. I think it will be either Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Forza Motorsport 7 or Gears of War 4.
Become conversational in another language
Holy crap, the Kana flash cards Elsie bought me are absolutely amazing. I memorized all of hiragana and katakana in a matter of days. The pictogram that each flash card associates with a symbol was absolutely instrumental in helping me memorize them all.
Each flash card also comes with five words written in either hiragana or katakana. I am now focusing on translating every word and hope to more on to memorizing the meaning of them by December. I should easily be able to have a vocabulary of over 400 words just through these amazing flash cards.
Move on. Nothing to see here. Please disperse.
Do not indulge in time killing activities
October was probably my best month for this. Every day I spent the majority of my time involved with something that was on my list of goals.
Elsie and I still spent time watching TV but I would say it was a perfectly reasonable amount. We finished seasons 4 and 5 of Breaking Bad. I was impressed to see a TV series that actually had a very cathartic ending and didn't try to leave a lot of threads hanging. Stranger Things season 2 was also very good. It was essentially just more of the same which I don't think was a bad thing because Strange Things definitely left me wanting to learn more about this monsters in the Upside Down. We even watched The Accountant which was a very pleasant surprise. I was not expecting it to be such a good action film. It had some John Wick vibes to it.
On the whole I think I had a great mix this month between these "time killing activities" and my more productive ones.
I need to do a better job picking these goals because it seems like I either focus on one and kill it or completely forget.
Continue to exercise and boulder. Complete four V4 problems in a single bouldering session.
Destroyed this one. I actually got six in a single session and one very generous V5 that was probably a V4.
Cook dinner one day on the weekend and cheat the other.
Steak and asparagus or pasta are always fun to cook and eat. No problems here.
Read The Way of Kings.
I only got about a third of the way through the book but it so good and I will definitely be finishing it.
Memorize all of Hiragana and Katakana.
I literally cannot believe I did this. Those Kana flash cards are amazing.
Write the rest of the Japan Travel Tips series for my blog.
I wrote two articles for my Japan Travel Tips series. One on everyday advice for when you're in Japan and one on the local cuisine. But I have drafts for six other articles that I would like to post.
However, when I came up with this goal I only had topics for two articles in mind so I am going to count this as a win.
Add photos to Japan 2016 articles. I want to be able to blog during my Japan 2017 trip and a big part of that will be showing pictures and videos.
Unfortunately all of the work on my blog this month went towards writing articles for the Japan Travel Tips series. I never did look at adding photos to my blog engine.
Stream Monster Hunter XX.
I did not play a single second of Monster Hunter XX and unfortunately I do not think I ever will. Not that it is a bad game but there are just so many other types of games coming out right now that I am more in the mood for.
Build script for generating iOS framework projects.
I didn't even open up Xcode on my personal laptop this month.
Other than my standard lapses at not programming anything in my spare time I look back at this retrospective and am really happy about how positive it is. I have a tendency to focus on the negative things and it seems like this month that everything was moving in the right direction so yay me!
Elsie and I are actually going on vacation in November (Finally! First one in over 18 months.) and so my goals for month are going to be much more subdued. Also I am going to try to be much more realistic and set goals that I am 100% confident I can set. Let's try completing all of my goals one time and then try pushing the limits again.
So, without further ado, my goals for November.
- Complete eight different V4 problems. Let's move away from stressing myself out during a single bouldering session and instead go for breadth.
- Do not use UberEats or TryCaviar. Vacation is fast approaching so let's save our money and also eat healthier.
- Finish reading The Way of Kings.
- Beat Super Mario Odyssey.
- Start a Kingdom Death: Monster campaign.
- Continue using the Kana flash cards. I don't have a real measurable goal here at the moment but I want to force myself to keep using them.
- Add photos to Japan 2016 articles. This will involve figuring out how I want to be able to add photos to my blog engine.
- Publish some more articles to my Japan Travel Tips series.
- Blog every day while on vacation.
I thought I said I was going to be more subdued and realistic with my goals for November? Oh well. Let's work hard during the first part of this month and then vacation hard the next half!
One of the major reasons tourists flock to Japan is because of the local cuisine and it was no different for our trip in 2016. Over the 14 days we were in Japan we tried numerous types meals and barely scratched the surface on what Japanese cuisine had to offer. We had a couple of places that we knew we absolutely wanted to try but picking where we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner each day was usually an adventure in its own right.
Below are some of the most delicious and/or interesting dishes we had while we were in Japan:
Sushi is probably the prototypical example of Japanese cuisine in the western world and it was hands down my favourite thing to eat while we were in Japan for two main reasons:
First, I had never eaten such high quality fish in my entire life. It was always extremely fresh and the variety was out of this world. I ate several kinds of fish that I didn't even know existed. If you have sushi in Japan I highly recommend you step outside your comfort zone and do not hesitate to try fish you've never had before.
Second, the preparation was top notch. The sushi chefs in Japan are really in a league of their own. The amount of care that went into each piece of sushi we ate was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Little things like varying the ratio of fish to rice, to the amount of wasabi that was added (if any), to the the number of brush strokes of soy sauce made such amazing differences to the taste. Over the trip I started to see these subtle differences in every chef that we ate from.
If you go to Japan you must absolutely try sushi at a restaurant where the chef literally makes it in front of you and hands you the pieces. I do not care if you are not a fan of sushi, you haven't really tried sushi until you've tried it in Japan.
Ramen was hands down my second favourite dish to eat in Japan. It consists of noodles served in (or sometimes alongside) a hot broth seasoned with a number of toppings, usually chāshū (braised pork), scallions, a boiled egg, bean sprouts, nori (dried seaweed) among other things. The types of noodles and the stock for the broth vary so radically across Japan that not only does every region usually have its own ramen speciality, it isn't uncommon for ramen shops inside the same city to have their own unique variations.
Check out this video to get an idea of what owning a ramen restaurant is like and to see how much effort goes into every bowl. This will be a recurring theme throughout your time in Japan. The amount of figurative blood, sweat and tears that goes into the preparation of every piece of food is really beyond anything you've probably experienced before.
If you are a beef lover than you absolutely must try yakiniku while you are in Japan. Yakiniku means "grilled meat" in Japanese and nowadays refers to a cooking style where bite-sized pieces of meat (usually beef) and vegetables are grilled over gridirons. The catch is that the meat is given to you raw and you cook it for as long as you want.
I would recommend watching this Mark Wiens video to see yakiniku in action or read about our meat pilgrimage to Kobe where we did yakiniku at one of the greatest restaurants I have ever been to.
My favourite meal in the whole wide world is schnitzel, especially pork schnitzel. A pork cutlet that has been perfectly tenderized, breaded and fried is impossible to beat.
That being said, Japan made a very worthy attempt with tonkatsu which is a pork cutlet that is salted, peppered and breaded with panko before being deep fried. It is much thicker than schnitzel, because the pork cutlet is not tenderized, and therefore retains so much more moisture and juices. The incredibly light panko bread crumbs also create a more airy, crispy texture on the outside of the cutlet which really lets the meat shine through. All of that combined with the typical tonkatsu sauce makes this dish incredibly appetizing.
Okonomiyaki is basically a pancake (or omelette) full of whatever ingredients you like. Its name literally translates into okonomi, meaning "how you like" or "what you like", and yaki meaning "grill". It was the first truly unknown dish we stumbled upon during our second day in Japan.
The batter consists of flour, eggs, nagaimo (a type of yam), dashi (stock), cheese, green onions, shredded cabbage and then your choice of protein like beef, pork, squid, etc. It is then grilled up, usually right in front of you, and then topped with condiments such as bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise or okonomiyaki sauce.
Like most old recipes in Japan this one has a lot of variations from region to region so what I described above may not match exactly what you eat but I ensure you it will be tasty nonetheless.
Taiyaki is a delicious little Japanese snack that you will find for sale at dozens if not hundreds of street food stands during your stay.
It is made using pancake or waffle batter that is poured into fish-shaped molds for each side. The filling is added to one side and then the mold is closed and cooked until golden brown. The filling is usually sweet with the most common being red bean paste but sometimes custard, chocolate, mochi, etc are used instead. However, some shops will put more savory fillings like cheese, sweet potato, gyoza, sausage, etc.
Onigiri is the quintessential conbini (convenience store) food you will find in Japan. It is boiled white rice formed into a triangular or cylindrical shape, stuffed with some filling and wrapped in seaweed.
It is not worth listing all of the possible fillings for onigiri because there is just far too many. Simply keep your eyes peeled while you are out and about in Japan and if you find yourself a bit peckish pop into your nearest conbini and pick up whatever onigiri catches your eye.
Many, many more
Even after taking over 6000 words to write about seven different dishes I am still barely into the list of all the food I ate while in Japan.
There is karaage (deep fried bite-sized pieces of protein), tempura (deep fried vegetables), gyozas (dumplings), takoyaki (deep fried balls of octopus), yakitori (skewered grilled chicken that you'll find from both street vendors and izakaya pubs) and shabu-shabu (hotpot). Not to mention Japanese snacks like pocky or hi-chew and their delicious whiskies or sweet sake wine. You could even see the Japanese's take on the hamburger by going to a place like MOS Burger or McDonald's which is actually amazing in Japan.
The main takeaway from this article shouldn't be that you have to try what we tried, but that the cuisine in Japan is so amazing and varied that you owe it to yourself to constantly be taking risks while you are here. I don't wanna hear any stories of what the food was like at American Town.
Having grown up in Canada and now residing in America, Elsie and I have all the typical western social norms drilled into us. We've visited parts of Europe and the Caribbean and in those other countries things really did not feel that different.
Japan is the first trip I have ever taken where culture shock really affected me. I had heard about it but being in a place where your language is spoken by a sliver of the population and the social norms differ so much it is a incredibly humbling and eye opening experience which makes you remember "oh yes the Earth is fucking huge and I've barely seen any of it".
So here is some advice for any would-be Japan travelers that we gathered after our first trip there.
Be super polite
Most people are going to think this is super obvious. If you are a tourist in another country you should always be on your best behavior right? In my opinion you should knock it up a notch when you visit Japan because it is a collectivist nation in many ways and it is very easy to do things that go against the social norms which will offend the Japanese people around you. Simple things like pay attention to who is talking around you and how loud you are being a public space. In the west, groups of people don't mind being loud or boisterous on trains because they are just having a good time but in Japan this can be considered very offensive and hammer home the stereotype of disrespectful foreigners (you may hear the pejorative term "gaijin" 外人).
The individualist nature of North America and Europe mean you can usually travel between those nations and the social norms expected are roughly the same but this is not true for Japan. While the rest of this article is going to touch on some of those faux pas I could easily write tens of thousands of words about all the differences. So my advice is just be hyperaware of your actions and compare yourself to the people around you. Let's do what we can to stop adding fuel to fire that all foreigners are loud, boorish, selfish people.
Expect people to be extremely helpful and subtly prejudice
This ties into the collectivist nature I mentioned above but in general we found Japanese people to be some of the most friendly and helpful people on the planet. I obviously stood out as a westerner and multiple times I had people walk up to me and offer to help me find my way or figure out something and this was with no prompting. One of the waitresses we had actually went and looked up how to greet us in English! I attempted to use Google Translate to thank her in Japanese which went horribly but it is the thought that counts. The bartender we found in Golden Gai tried to speak English while plying us with whisky and it was a delightful encounter. 95% of my memories of interacting with Japanese people are about how much they went out of their way to make me feel better.
Then there is the other 5% who really don't like foreigners. 98+% of the country is Japanese so foreigners are really unique in some parts of Japan and some Japanese people just have to quantify us as "other" and treat us differently. We got turned back from a couple bars because they said they didn't serve foreigners. We got "forgotten" about in some restaurants until we explicitly got the waiter's attention. Very subtle digs because it is not the Japanese way to make a scene so they do what they can to inconvenience you to either get you to give up or leave. Again this is not the majority of Japanese people but it is just something to be aware of while you are visiting because I am fairly certain you will experience it.
7-Eleven stores are crazy useful in Japan
When most people think of 7-Eleven they think of shitty convenience stores next to gas stations manned by a single teenager who wants to be anywhere but there.
In Japan it could not be more of the opposite. 7-Eleven's in Japan have almost everything you need. Standard convenience store fare of groceries and drinks? Of course. Medicine? Tons of it. ATMs that accept foreign debit cards? Check. Delicious hot food including fried chicken? No problem. Beer? You got it! Individually wrapped ongiri that are impeccably fresh? They got you fam. You can even pay off your bills, get mail delivered there or even buy tickets for concerts or baseball games. 7-Eleven has become a one stop shop for everything you would need to get by in your daily life.
On top of all of this the level of customer service you experience at 7-Eleven's in Japan is bonkers. Usually at convenience stores in the USA you get the feeling that the person behind the counter is barely standing your presence. In 7-Eleven they will go out of their way to help you. The Japanese concept of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality is a incredible oversimplification of it) is on full display at every 7-Eleven store.
The point is do not come to Japan with any preconceived notions of what Japanese 7-Eleven stores can do for you because you will undoubtedly be wrong. Accept that they could be the lifeblood of your time in Japan and you will be much happier.
Conbini's in general are outstanding
Japanese convenience stores (conbiniensu sutoa - コンビニエンスストア) are often referred to as conbini (コンビニ) for short and are worlds better than their counterparts in other countries.
The big name ones are 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart but don't be leery of any mom and pop convenience stores you come across because they all strive for a level of customer service that you thought only existed in the movies. No matter what store you walk in to you'll walk out happy.
They are clean and they are serving up great food that you shouldn't hesitate to eat it you are hungry. We would routinely hop into a conbini to grab a quick snack to keep our energy up.
I mentioned in my planning your stay article that Japan is not very big on credit cards but that doesn't mean they prefer to use cash for everything. Japan is ahead of the western world in the adoption of a lot of technology and one of the coolest ones is contactless smart cards. These cards look similar to credit or debit cards but behave more like cash. In the western world they are typically used for public transportation in only the biggest cities but in Japan they are ubiquitous and used to purchase all sorts of goods and services.
In Tokyo they have the Suica Card system and we used it to pay for subway rides, get drinks from vending machines, get hot food from conbinis, play arcade games and much more. Wherever we saw the Suica logo we could just tap the card and be on our way. Since the cards behave more like cash (if you lose the card, you lose the money on it) they have a limit of ¥20,000 (approximately $180 USD) so they are not a replacement for using cash or credit cards for large purchases.
We got our Suica cards at one of the ticket vending machines inside Tokyo Station. It cost ¥2000 of which ¥500 was used as a "deposit" so people wouldn't request multiple cards. I would recommend watching a YouTube tutorial for how to get a Suica card from one of the machines but, to be honest, you can switch a large majority of the machines to English so we didn't have much difficulty. Just be aware of how busy the stations are when you go because you will end up manipulating a vending machine for several minutes and perhaps blocking some Japanese commuters from buying a ticket for their train home.
Suica cards are even compatible with the iPhone 8 and X. You can add it to your Apple Wallet and then just tap your phone wherever you see the Suica logo.
No public garbage cans
Supposedly there used to be a lot of public garbage cans but after the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway there was a lot of political pressure to remove them. Also, cleanliness seems to be so ingrained into the Japanese culture that they all do their part to keep their garbage until they get home so that you aren't overflowing garbage cans in public places. Regardless, the point is that in Japan you will have a difficult time finding a place to dispose of your garbage.
The recommendation is to bring a plastic bag with you at all times as your portable garbage bag that you can either empty when you do finally find a garbage can or just wait until you get back home. Conbinis usually have garbage cans at their entrances (although they are intended for paying customers) and vending machines usually have recycling bins in front of them so you can drink and then dispose of the can. This actually segues perfectly into my next tip...
It is rude eat/drink while walking
In Japan it is considered rude to walk while eating or drinking something. While there are the obvious hygiene reasons of dropping crumbs, spilling something, the possible odors, chewing noises, there is another reason that is not so obvious. In Japan there is a large respect for food and how it is prepared. When you are walking and casually eating food you are not showing the food the proper deference and acknowledging who prepared it. You'll notice in restaurants Japanese people saying itadakimasu (いただきます, literally, "I humbly receive") and thanking the chef after they've finished their meal. This is all out of respect for the arduous process that went into making their meal.
This is also why you'll often hear slurping when someone is eating a dish like ramen. Making that noise is another show of respect.
Rice is another weird thing in Japan. In places like Canada people would eat the rice first because they love the taste. In a place like Japan rice is so common that it is used as an indicator that you are done your meal and eating rice is more to fill you up then for the taste. Also dipping rice from sushi into soy sauce is another faux pas. You are supposed to slightly dip the fish portion into the soy sauce and not let your rice soak it all up. That makes the rice and soy sauce overpower the taste of the fish which is sign of disrespect.
Don't rub your chopsticks together
This is another subtle sign of disrespect. The question to ask is why do you do this? It is to remove any splinters that may be on the chopsticks correct? So if the chopsticks were of high quality why would they have splinters? But doing this you are subtly indicating that you think these chopsticks are of poor quality.
Long distance trains can have reserved cars
Long distance commuter trains in Japan typically have reserved cars that require you to have a ticket. There are also some railway lines that are only have reserved seating.
During our first trip to Japan we had a Japan Rail Pass so there was always a train that we could hop on at no charge. However, when we started to look more closely about our travel options we realized that there were other trains we had access to for free with our JR Pass that we just had get a reserved seat ticket ahead of time.
So whenever you are planning a long distance trip on a train do a bit more digging and see if there is a reserved seat option. It shouldn't take much time to pickup and then you'll be certain you have access to a nice comfy seat for your stay. You may even be able to go and pickup your ticket a day or two in advance so you can be certain you'll have a seat.
Also there is a difference between city trains and commuter trains. As well as cars. So if you are going for a long ride you can usually find a car that has seating designed for long trips rather than the standard subway seating for people who are getting off soon.
tl;dr I completed a good number of my goals but played way to much PUBG.
I exercised every day of the month again. It really has become a habit. I wake up and one of the first things I am think about is how am I going to exercise today? I also managed to boulder twelve times as well so I'm very happy that I was able to keep that up again. I thought getting up at 6:20am during the week would wear on me but I've been pushing forward.
Speaking of bouldering I actually am getting better. In my August retrospective I was complaining about how I was hitting a plateau and not really improving but that doesn't seem to be the case. I was able to complete a number of V4 problems this month including some that I was really convinced I wouldn't be able to do. My goal for October is to try to complete three to four V4 problems in a single session. I really want to push myself because I have been completing a V4 and then retreating to the safety of V3s that I know I can finish.
Foodwise, Elsie and I have eaten a bit more from the grocery stores around us for dinner during the week but we aren't gorging on bad stuff and are still drinking our Soylent. Even if we also eat dinner that night, drinking a Soylent is a good step because it makes you not want to buy or prepare as much food as you normally would. I cooked steak and asparagus once every weekend as well so we did cut down on our usage of Try Caviar and Uber Eats. Breakfast and lunch have still been eating healthy so I am quite happy with where I am with respect to food. I think being more active or working on gaining muscle is the next step before I try to cut down on what I eat.
My weight and body fat are still the same. I am fairly content with how I look for the most part so I am not worrying too much about it stabilizing. I knew losing fat would be hard and since I am not trying to gain muscle there really isn't any impetus for me to be burning fat unless I am starving myself. Because I am getting better at bouldering I am going to continue to push forward and see if that improves things before taking another hard look at weight training.
Read a book
I finished The Fall of Hyperion and was not impressed. The world and characters that were built up in the first book seemed to just fall by the wayside so they could be replaced with a story about sentient mass murdering computers and time travel (which may sound good but I found rather unimaginative). I really didn't care about anything in the book and finished it out of a bizarre sense of obligation. I probably should have just stopped reading earlier.
The Fall of Hyperion is the second book in the four part Hyperion Cantos series. After I finished it I immediately read the summaries for the third and fourth books and continued to be not impressed. I really did love Hyperion (as you can see in my July retrospective) but the series just took a sudden sharp turn that I was not expecting and lost all of my interest.
I purchased The Way of Kings, the first book in The Stormlight Archive and will make that my book of October.
Play a video game
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle started out strong but fell apart about halfway through the game. The first world was very fun and the tactical elements were engaging against the first type of enemies you fought. But as the game went on it mostly just added health to the enemies without really changing anything up or adding much to your arsenal.
Party composition was another issue. There really was no impetus to change party members. You had a limited amount of resources to buy equipment so when you sink so much into one character it is hard to change away from them. If you experiment with new characters and don't do as well it could result in you getting less resources so the game really pushes you towards to picking a team you are comfortable with and sticking with them.
The game also has some of the cardinal game design sins like multi-part battles where if you lose you have to start from the beginning or boss battles that rely on a combination of luck or dying to them once so you can memorize their movements.
On the whole I would not recommend this game because I think most people are going to get frustrated by it. It is decent but games like this survive on their gameplay and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is simply too rough around the edges of a tactics game. The further you get the more strategy takes a back seat to randomness and luck.
Oh, also fuck those stupid teleporting Peek-a-Boo enemies!
On the same day Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was released another tactics game came out, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. X-COM is one of my favourite game franchises of all time so I had high hopes for this XCOM 2 expansion but unfortunately it is not what I was looking for.
The majority of the additions to the game seem to be designed to just drag the game out longer and make it more boring or frustrating.
- The Lost (XCOM zombies) are enemies that die in one hit and show up en masse to make a mission take 5X longer than it should.
- The Chosen are named enemies that can show up randomly during any mission and perform moves that are able to maim/kill your soldiers with little to no recourse available to you. Because of this if the Chosen show up on a timed mission you are almost all but guaranteed to lose a solider or miss the timer.
- Missions can have random scenarios applied to them that can actually make them impossible to complete. In one of my failed campaigns I got a mission where I could only take three soldiers in a timed fight against Sectopods and Andromedons. I physically wouldn't have the damage to be able to defeat those enemies in time so I just had to accept the mission was a failure.
- Soldiers can be affected by negative traits and get tired so they cannot be taken on missions and drag out the campaign.
- Covert Ops missions can have a "ambush" side affect where the small number of soldiers you sent on the op have to fight The Lost and Advent. They are empty calorie missions that you never want to do because they only eat up time.
All of this adds up to what seems like Firaxis' new design philosophy for XCOM which is randomness results in more gameplay and it is something that I just don't enjoy from my tactics games. I prefer these games to be more like a puzzle that I am coming up with a solution for but when the rules can change randomly, the time you spend strategizing seems more and more pointless. Even when I had the Shadow Chamber and could see what enemies I was going to be facing and picked what I thought was the perfect team composition, it did't matter because the game chose to pull the rug out from under me.
Also, like Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen commits the cardinal game design sin of requiring you to die to learn. They add all sorts of new mechanics and missions and don't explain anything up front and expect you to fail so you can memorize the pattern and regurgitate it next time.
The parts of War of the Chosen that are great are the things that are concrete. The new Resistance classes are great. I love their unique abilities and they really do help spice up the combat. The addition of ability points is great because you can choose specific soldiers to improve with specific abilities. Soldier bonds are great because the game specifically shows you how compatible soldiers are and as you improve their bond you get rewarded with more abilities. Even some of the new enemy types are cool because they bring unique abilities which you have to be prepared to counter. These are the type of additions I want to my tactics game. Concrete game mechanics with fixed rules that are explained and you can adapt to.
Honestly if Firaxis removed the Chosen from the game I think it would be better which is insane since the expansion is literally named after them. Even if they removed the Chosen randomly appearing in missions and instead had set missions where you knew you were fighting them would have made the game better. Of all of the "new" XCOM games I would still say that XCOM: Enemy Within was the best and that I really hope Firaxis realizes this before they make XCOM 3.
Finally, I got back into PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS because a bunch of friends I used to play games with on the east coast finally got into PC gaming. I'm not sure what else to say about PUBG except that it is still incredibly addicting and fun, very rough around the edges and I wish it had some way to practice shooting. The developers have made some nice additions like a first person only mode and fog weather effects but the game still is progressing slower than I would expect from a developer that has taken in over $300,000,000 in revenue.
I have also realized that I get angry or frustrated really easily when I play video games (particularly multiplayer ones) and it makes people not want to play with me. I have been making a conscious effort to not be as negative and be more positive whenever I am communicating in multiplayer games.
Become conversational in another language
I didn't do this at all because of PUBG. It was just too easy to come home, eat dinner and find someone playing the game.
I am going back to Japan in 2017 and I really need to step this up because being able to read the most basic things does make life a whole lot easier.
I am not sure why I keep this section in here. Probably out of a sense of guilt and hopes that public shaming will make me change things but it is still the same old thing where after work I am just not in the mood for more programming.
I did add the ability to link directly to a webpage from my blog so that should fit under here but it really wasn't that much work.
Do not indulge in time killing activities
I think Elsie and I have continued to minimize this. We still watch an hour or so of TV a day (this month was Game of Throne season 7, Narcos season 3 and Breaking Bad seasons 2 and 3) but it is mostly as a some downtime between other activities we planned to do.
You could look at the crazy amount of PUBG that I played as a "time killing activity" and I agree the line is blurry but since I am trying to ensure I play video games every month it is very much a grey area.
So how did I do?
Exercise every day of the month
Nailed it again 🤘🏻
Cook dinner one day on the weekend and cheat the other
Cooking steak and asparagus never gets old.
Read The Fall of Hyperion
Much to my chagrin I did this.
Start XCOM 2: War of the Chosen campaign
Yup. I started and failed two campaigns and am in the early stages of a third. If this one fails I will probably stop playing the game.
Stream Monster Hunter XX
While I got MHXX working on my Switch I unfortunately didn't play it and instead streamed a ton of PUBG instead.
Memorize all of Hiragana and Katakana
Add the ability to link directly to a webpage from my blog
I did do this but it still isn't perfect. The Ubershaders article was the test but I still don't like how I indicate it is an external link and what anchor tags actually use the external link. Daring Fireball was my goto template for this sort of thing but because he posts more links than original content I'm not sure his method works for my blog.
I'm definitely going to explore this more and tweak it.
Build Observables framework
Write one article for my blog
I started my Japan Travel Tips series and plan to write a few more articles about that before I head back to Japan later this year. It is good to look back and see what worked and what didn't so I can hopefully have a better experience.
Other than not programming or studying Hiragana and Katakana I am happy with how this month turned out. Sure I played a ton of PUBG but I also got a lot of other things done and did not waste time like I usual. I am definitely going to try to tone down the amount of PUBG I play in October and sprinkle that time out amongst some other hobbies.
My goals for October (in no particular order):
- Continue to exercise and boulder. Complete four V4 problems in a single bouldering session.
- Cook dinner one day on the weekend and cheat the other. It was good that I did this for one month so lets keep it going for another and then look at improving on it.
- Read The Way of Kings.
- Memorize all of Hiragana and Katakana.
- Add photos to Japan 2016 articles. I want to be able to blog during my Japan 2017 trip and a big part of that will be showing pictures and videos. Currently I don't support either of those so I gotta add them in October.
- Write the rest of the Japan Travel Tips series for my blog. I have all of the ideas up in my head I just need to get them onto paper.
- Stream Monster Hunter XX.
- Build script for generating iOS framework projects.
When Elsie, Jarques, Tina and I were planning our trip to Japan we really had no idea what to expect. A couple of friends who had been to Japan before gave us some helpful pointers but for the majority of the time we were flying by the seat of our pants.
Elsie and I are in the process of planning another trip to Japan and so we looked back at what worked well during our first visit and what didn't. We thought about what advice we could give our past selves to make the trip easier and more fruitful.
So, based on our experiences, if you are thinking about traveling to Japan here are some things that you absolutely should consider while making your arrangements.
Getting a Japan Rail Pass
This is easily the most important thing you should look into before you visit Japan. If I was only allowed to give one piece of advice to someone traveling to Japan it would be look into buying a Japan Rail Pass.
Japan Rail maintains transportations services across all of Japan and you can purchase a pass that gives you unlimited access to the vast majority of them. Train, bus, ferry it does not matter. If it is run by the JR Group and not on an extremely small exemption list you are allowed to use it. To put that into perspective, over the span of our 14 days in Japan we never once encountered a JR transport that we could not use.
The pass is also not just for traveling long distances on trains like the Shinkansens (bullet trains). We used our passes at least a dozen times per day during our seven day stay in Tokyo. To access the Tokyo subway all we had to do was show our pass to an agent beside the ticket gates. It was sometimes faster than going through the actual gates themselves because there were so few people who wanted to see the agent.
The major catch with the JR Pass is that it must be purchased before you enter Japan. It is meant for foreigners who are visiting Japan to go sightseeing. You must prove to an authorized sales agent that you are not a resident of Japan and you will receive an exchange order that you use to redeem for your pass once you arrive in Japan. For us this meant visiting a JTB USA Office in San Francisco and then picking up our passes at the JR East Travel Service Center in Narita International Airport. The process itself was painless but required some time and energy a couple weeks before we left.
What about the cost? A ticket on a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka can cost anywhere from ¥13,000 to ¥20,000 depending on the quality of the train which means a round trip would cost ¥26,000 to ¥40,000. At the time of writing this that would be approximately $230 to $360 US dollars. A seven day JR Pass can be purchased for as low as $260. That means you could not only do a round trip between Tokyo and Osaka for less but you would also have unlimited use of local transportation in both of those cities.
For our 14 day JR Pass we spent $410 and not only did we take the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto but we also took local JR trains to Kobe, Nara, Osaka as well as making judicious use of the Tokyo subway system. We would have spent over $800 per person based on all the traveling we did. We also had the peace of mind of knowing we could just flash our JR Pass and and get wherever we needed to go.
The long and the short of it is that the JR Pass will be useful for nearly every second of your stay in Japan. Perhaps if you are not traveling too far from where you are staying the JR Pass will not be cheaper than purchasing tickets/passes inside Japan but that perfectly segues into my next tip...
Visiting multiple cities over at least two weeks
There is much more to see in Japan than just Tokyo. Every prefecture is unique and has a wide variety of attractions that could undoubtably take up multiple days of a trip. Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo each had their own unique quirks that made visiting them an absolute pleasure. I know most people plan around visiting Tokyo but I highly recommend getting outside of the concrete jungle and experiencing Japan's other cultural centers.
We spent seven days around the Kyoto region: four days in Kyoto proper, one in Nara, one in Kobe and one in Osaka. I could pick any of those cities and have spent another day or two there with little effort. There was so much to see and do.
There were easily a dozen or so other cities we could have chosen from to visit such as:
- Hakone for their hot springs as well as the breathtaking views of Mount Fuji.
- Hiroshima, the City of Peace, to see how this beautiful city was rebuilt after the atomic bomb.
- Hatsukaichi for its historical shrines including Miyajima.
- Himeji for the magnificient Himeji Castle.
- Hokkaido is the perfect way to escape the concrete jungle. Awe-inspiring hikes in the fall to amazing mountains for skiing in the winter.
- Sado Island for its annual Earth Celebration, the Sado gold mines or to see the Crested ibis.
- Kutchan is one of the snowiest towns on the planet whose mascot is a skiing potato. Enough said.
- Sendai to try their famous beef tongue.
- Okinawa Island for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
and that is just a short list of all the amazing places you could visit. The point I am trying to make is that Japan is much more than just Tokyo so please don't only focus on it. There is so much else that you can do. However if you do end up in Tokyo don't forget...
Tokyo is absolutely massive!
At the time of this writing Tokyo is the 8th largest city in the world. It has a population density of 6,224 people per square kilometer and is almost 2,200 square kilometers in size. That is just the city proper. The Greater Tokyo Area is over 13,000 square kilometers. Basically you could live in Tokyo your whole life and not see the majority of it.
We spent seven days in Tokyo and barely scratched the western side of it. We could have spent another week and limited ourselves only to traveling north east and still have only seen a fraction of the city.
Tokyo is comprised of 23 wards where you could effortlessly spend a day per ward and not see everything. We went back to Akihabara on three separate days because there was so much we wanted to see and do. We barely got 200 meters from the subway station on our first time there.
My advice for tackling Tokyo would be to try and not let the size and number of options overwhelm you. Do not get bogged down trying to plan every minute of every day. Half the fun of Tokyo is wandering around it and being surprised by all the interesting things you stumble upon. Have one (maybe two) tentpole attractions you want to see in a day and use them as a springboard to explore the area around them.
Get Internet access on your phones
This may be a no-brainer in this day and age but I really want to hammer home its importance in a place like Japan. Do not think you're going to survive by having physical maps or printing out directions ahead of time. Cities and streets in Japan are probably not organized like you think and having a way to look up directions to the places you want to visit as well as quick access to up to the minute public transportation will be a godsend.
But the most important thing is that since you can't speak the language you can use the Internet to translate nearly everything you encounter.
Because we were visiting from the US we had a number of options for getting Internet access:
- American telecoms usually have some form of international data roaming plans that are cheaper than you think. Our T-Mobile Simple Choice plan actually gave us it for free and Japan's telecommunications infrastructure was outstanding.
- Skyroam is a mobile WiFi hotspot that works in over 100 countries for just $10 a day. We made judicious use of Skyroam in Japan since our traveling companions did not have international data roaming.
- Rent a WiFi hotspot from the airport. I have not done this personally but I know multiple friends who walked up to one of the kiosks in the airport and rented a hotspot for like $10/day. You could also look into Airbnbs that offer these for people who stay with them. They are very ubiquitous in Japan.
Install Google Translate on your phone
Seriously, just stop reading now, go to this website on whatever phone you are taking to Japan and install the app.
Its killer feature is you can take a picture of any Japanese writing and it will translate it for you which is an absolute godsend when the vast majority of the people you encounter on a daily basis will not speak your language.
Learning a little Japanese isn't a bad idea either. Simple phrases like "excuse me" (sumimasen - すみません), "sorry" (gomennasai - ごめんなさい), "thank you" (arigato - ありがとう), "water please" (mizu o kudasai - 水をください), "no problem" (mondainai - 問題ない) will help you immensely throughout your stay. I would recommend Googling for "Japanese phrases for tourists" or "simple Japanese phrases" because this article would go on for far too long if I tried to cover them all.
Tokyo has two international airports that are actually quite far from one another
We thought Narita International Airport was the airport to fly to if you were visiting Tokyo. For some reason we were under the impression that Haneda Airport was some bumpkin airport mostly for domestic travel. We could not have been more wrong.
If you are planning on staying in the southern or western parts of Tokyo it would probably be in your best interest to fly into Haneda. For our Airbnb it would have only been a 20 minute ride from Haneda versus the almost an hour and a half ride it was from Narita.
So wherever you are planning on staying, first figure out which airport is closer to you. They are both massive international airports and the number of flights to both should be comparable and getting through customs in both should be no issue.
Airbnbs are typically better than hotels
At least in our experience. We've had middling results with Airbnbs in America but Japan was amazing. The sheer selection, the price, the quality were miles above the US. We found that they were cheaper than hotels, gave us more space and allowed us to live closer to places we wanted visit.
You could pick any major train station in Japan and you would get dozens of Airbnb results within a 10 minute walking radius that were of top quality. The hosts are also typically very friendly and courteous and will help you throughout your stay.
This is not to say that hotels are bad or expensive in Japan. They are very good for the price you pay and the variety of hotels is quite astounding, ranging from capsule hotels to the typical five star ones. The major benefit of hotels is that you have access to their concierge who can help you make reservations for restaurants or attractions. A lot of places in Japan do not like to make reservations with foreigners that don't speak Japanese but they will deal with hotel concierges.
Credit cards are not as prevalent as they are in places like North America or Europe. Definitely bring them because big box stores or high end restaurants will typically take credit cards so you don't need to use cash for all of your big purchases but the general rule of thumb is assume credit cards are not accepted.
Elsie and I decided that 10,000 Japanese yen (¥) a day would be a decent budget to ensure we could pay for all of the food, transportation and entertainment we wanted. That translates to $80-100 USD obviously depending on the exchange rate at the time. I would recommend taking your number of days you are staying in Japan, multiply them by 10,000 and add 10-20% for random expenses you aren't accounting for. Guaranteed there are going be some random things you have to spend money on ranging from medical supplies if you get sick to impulse purchases because you really needed that foot tall Gundam figurine.
In an very technical blog post, the Dolphin emulator folks detail their solution to "Shader Compilation Stuttering", a problem that has been plaguing their emulator for years.
There was some frustration and even antipathy from the developers toward shader compilation stuttering. It was something that was deemed unfixable and was garnering a lot of ill will and frustration within the community. Ironically, we hated the stuttering as much as anyone else, but the sheer insanity of the task was enough to keep most developers away. Despite this, some still privately held onto a glimmer of hope. It started out as a theory that had a chance of working. A theory that would take hundreds, if not thousands, of person-hours just to see if it was possible.
That hope is what fueled an arduous journey against seemingly impossible odds. A journey that would take multiple GPU engineers across two years. All in an effort to emulate the full range of the GameCube/Wii's proto-programmable pipeline without falling victim to this pesky stuttering.
This is the dawn of the Ubershader era.
I love this blog post so much because it is a quintessential example of how you can become so tunnel visioned with a solution to a programming problem and then one day someone comes at it from a completely new angle and your mind just explodes.