Jeff And Lance, Big In Japan: Preparing For An Adventure In The Land of the Rising Sun

After a blustery roadtrip back from Chicago (thanks for driving, Georgie!), Lance and I have finally returned home from our whirlwind week in Japan.

We’ll begin our trip report tomorrow, but we wanted to share some insider tips to help you, dear reader, to properly position yourself for your first trip to the land of Pikachu and rice balls.

Tip #1: Japan is still a very cash-based society. This is something we had anticipated, but the amount of places that didn’t take credit cards was astounding for Americans who never carry cash around on them.  For example, the Sheraton Tokyo Bay, a huge resort which is part of a major international hotel chain, only takes credit cards to pay for the room; the restaurants, the gift shops, everything else is cash-only.  The other frustrating thing is that most Japanese ATMs will not take American debit cards; thankfully, the ATMs in 7-Elevens and the handful of Citibank branches you’ll see can accept your card.  Order some yen through your bank at least 5-10 business days before your trip to make sure you get the best exchange rate, as they most likely will not charge you a fee.

Tip #2:  There’s, like, no Diet Coke anywhere.  Soda is (surprisingly? not surprisingly?) not as big of a deal in Japan as it is in the U.S.  Most convenience stores will stock three or four different kinds of soda (Coke, Coke Zero, Fanta Melon, and maybe Kirin Cola), but everything else is a flavored water, coffee-in-a-can, or tea-based.  Load up on aspartame before you leave!

Tip #3: English is majority incorporated into Japanese culture, but don’t except everybody to speak English.  While nearly all public transportation, like the Tokyo subway lines and the shinkansen (“bullet train”), have signs and announcements in both Japanese and English, and most advertisements and store names will include English, we definitely ran into a bit of a language barrier.  Most people we interacted with outside of hotel staff knew very little, if any, English.  Thankfully, 6 hours of Japanese audiotape lessons and lots of pantomime will get you pretty far.  Still, trying to describe that you want the dining room behind the bookcase at Magellan’s in Tokyo DisneySea is…a challenge.

Tip #4:  Just like we butcher Asian food, American food in Tokyo is just not the same.  Apparently, hot dogs are big in Japan, and are even served at Mister Donut and Starbucks during breakfast hours.  However, these hot dogs are super-skinny and wrapped in a doughy gouza bun, not the dry buns that you have here in America.  That, and we had a real hard time finding white-meat chicken anywhere.  With the exception of pink-ooze Chicken McNuggets, all of the chicken we had during the trip was dark-meat. Ick.

Tip #5: Make sure to have a currency converter.  We used the XE Currency app for the iPhone, and it was immensely helpful.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that 1000 yen is $10.  It’s not.  1000 yen is actually like $12.48, and that difference adds up quick.  Japan (at least Tokyo and Kyoto) is also not cheap.  Thankfully, coming from the East Coast, the prices didn’t seem too out of the ordinary, but not everybody is used to spending $4.50 on an iced coffee.

Tip #6: Let some things go.  You’re just not going to get to everything, so don’t bust your ass until you’re in miserable pain trying to hit up every shrine or cat cafe, only to be ornery because of your disappointment in missing this or that.  Prioritize, like, three things you want to see/do each day and feel fortunate if you can squeeze in anything else.

Tip #7: The Japanese know how to do donuts.  The donuts we had in Japan, even at Mister Donut, were WAAAAY better than any donut we’ve ever had in the States.  That, and for whatever reason, these donuts don’t feel all that bad for you; I have no scientific proof for this, but I assume a different oil or something is used in making fried sweets.  Don’t miss out on the donuts; they’re fab.

Tip #8: Don’t rely solely on your guidebook.  Now, I found a lot of value in the Lonely Planet guides for Tokyo and Kyoto.  The guides had great recommendations, good overviews of landmarks and restaurants and local history/culture.  But, OH MAN, the maps are really lacking in detail.  There are hundreds of tiny little side streets in both cities that just aren’t on the Lonely Planet guide maps.  Not only that, but most street signs, especially in Kyoto, are written only in the Japanese kanji symbols and not in Romanic characters, even though they’re only listed in the Romanic characters in the guidebooks.  Get a more detailed map when you get in country.

Tip #9: Don’t look cab-drivers right in the eye or they will get out of their cab and intimate you in a language you don’t understand. Me: “Eek! Wakarimasen! Sumimasen!”

Tip #10: There aren’t any trashcans in public spaces.  As Americans, I guess we’re just used to throwing trash everywhere, but you become really conscious of how much garbage you produce when there’s no where to dump it.  The only trashcans were were able to find were in our hotel rooms and in Starbucks. Yet, everywhere we went in Tokyo and Kyoto was so clean!

…Okay, those are our some of our most important tips! We’ll reveal more tomorrow when we begin our megazord-sized Japan trip report!


Legends of the Fall


Friends, it’s fall! Fall is here! Hip hip!  So long, summer, you horrible, humid beast! (Keep in mind that it’s currently, like 110% humidity in Philly and 85 degrees. It’s all psychosomatic.)

There isn’t a time of year Lance and I love more than this increasingly crisp stretch of reds and oranges and yellows, of sweaters and fingerless gloves, hot cider and college football (okay, maybe that’s just me) leading up to Christmas, than fall.  It’s our element.  Maybe it’s because our birthdays are both soon approaching (hint hint) and we’re therefore just biologically predisposed to this time of year.

Even eclipsing our birthdays (wink wink nudge nudge) is our anticipation of fall products, the very items that evoke a sense memory every time you sip or sniff (because, I mean, what’s tradition without buying consumer goods? Yay capitalism!):

  • Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Duh, this one is pretty obvious, and although they released them toward the tail-end of August this year, we both had to wait until today, the first unofficial day of fall, to get one.  Much like the Gingerbread Latte around Christmastime, the PSL is an amazingly rich fall explosion in your mouth.  I’m a cheapsake, though, so I’ll spend the $6 once to get one, then resort to the spice-less pumpkin latte at Dunkin’ Donuts for half the price for the remainder of the season.
  • Cider and donuts from the orchard. Getting them from the grocery store is not the same!  That’s why you must spend the extra $5 in gas to get to the orchard and then pay whatever upcharge applied by the orchard.
  • Sweetzels Spiced Wafers.  Though these are available year-round in the Northeast (at least), they become omnipresent starting in August. I love chucking one or two of these into my mouth at once and sucking the ginger flavoring out of them until the wafer dissolves from a rock-hard cookie to a mushy mess. Evocative!
  • Pumpkin Pecan Cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory.  The Cheesecake Factory is kind of a gigantic mess, a cacophony of menu items served in a weird, pastel Egyptian/stencil-paint theme.  Nevertheless, the food is solid and this cheesecake is bangin’.  It’s only offered from mid-October on (and I missed it last year since we were in Hawaii and Hawaiian Cheesecake Factory doesn’t believe in pumpkins!!!) and I will move mountains to gorge myself with it this year.
  • Bath and Body Works’ bajillion fall candles.  Don’t ask me to justify the difference between the Autumn and Autumn Day scents, but I do admit there is a difference.   One probably has notes of “cider” and “cool breeze through the orchard,” while the other is mixed with “the sound of leaves crunching underfoot.”
  • Little Debbie Fall Party Cakes.  Actually, not only the Party Cakes, but anything fall-themed, regardless of how loose the theming or how awful the actual product, is something I will probably enjoy.

This is understandably the time of the year when Lance and I both gain about 10 pounds each through pie/dessert coffee consumption. But that’s okay, since it’s also the time of year when you move away from shorts and tees and into more forgiving sweaters and hoodies.

Kitchen Catastrophe: Pizza Dough(nuts) Interlude

Okay, okay, so I haven’t really been keeping up with the Kitchen Catastrophe Challenge.  This isn’t so much due to lil’ pup Ripley as it does to all of Rip’s indirect costs: dogwalker and vet visits and the like.  At this point, it seems like the dog is eating better than either of us (my Kitty Boo is exempt from The Fido Finance Effect: she will always be pampered).

So, in terms of food, we’ve had to be creative, foraging the cabinets and refrigerator for items, making do with what we’ve got (not unlike this dude from TLC’s “Extreme Cheapskates”).  Here’s what I’ve been able to make recently:

Homemade Pizza Dough

Mark Bittman’s pizza dough recipe from the New York Times has seen better days:


The Donut Compromise

As you may recall, Friday is when we let our hair down and GO CRAZY at Ruby Tuesday.  While, as the designated driver, I enjoy a nice pomegranate tea, Lance prefers to imbibe on such put-hair-on-your-chest concoctions as the Georgia Peach and the Sunset Oasis (check Lance’s chest hair to see if this statement is accurate).

Now, as anybody who’s had a couple of dranks will know, the urge to munch is strong, practically impossible to overcome.  That’s why we made a pit stop at Yum Yum Donuts on the way home last Friday.  Lance purchased, then inhaled, a buttermilk stick and a raised sugar donut.

As I was to find out the following morning, I apparently broke the golden rule of DD’ing. No, not “drinking,” but instead, keeping those slightly tipsy away from diet-busting pastries.  Lance was, to put it nicely, not pleased that I turned a blind eye to this human tragedy.

So I did what any rationale person would do in order to maintain peace in their household: I offered to eat two donuts myself, thus cancelling out Lance’s caloric consumption with my own (do the math, it works. I think).

Yes, friends, I’m like the fabled 19th century congressman Henry Clay, otherwise known as “The Great Compromiser”…except without the whole “capitulating to human slavery” thing.