The Last Year

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As an old fuddy-duddy wrapping up another year, it’s hard not to feel that particular wave of anxiety every time my birthday approaches.

OMG, what have I done with my life? I haven’t accomplished anything! I’ve wasted a whole year!!!

…You know, that.

That was me yesterday, the last day of what could be called, at a stretch, my mid-20s.  I had a sharp sense of disappointment in myself, about not doing, seeing, experiencing more.  I’m almost 30, dammit! I don’t have much time left! ::sniff::

Thankfully, I saw a few fortuitously-timed tweets by my pal @bkroz_, who, aside from catfishing me, is also wiser and more articulate than I ever was at his age.  They read as follows:

@bkroz_: This is weird, but today I realized my 2013 travels include Orlando, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Williamsburg, NYC, Philadelphia, and Puntarenas.

@bkroz_: In other words, I’ve had a pretty great year and I’ve seen a lot. I’m proud and thankful for what I’ve seen and done! I’m a globetrotter!

…And those got me thinking.  It’s always easy to think about what you don’t have or haven’t achieved.  It’s easy to never be satisfied, to not put things into perspective.

I’ve done a lot since my 27th birthday.  I traveled (a lot!): Walt Disney World and Dollywood at Christmastime, Chicago to see my favorite singer, New York to see some amazing shows.  I went to Hawai’i (twice!) and Kaua’i stole my heart.  Lance and I spent a day with new, awesome pals at Hersheypark and I almost threw up.  Oh, and we went to freaking Japan (!!!) and rode the shinkansen and ate udon in a tiny little shop in Kyoto and made a traditional Japanese meal in a family’s home.  We went to Tokyo Disney and have no regrets (except not spending more time there.)

I got to go back home to Michigan several times this year…oh, and I went skydiving!

I earned a promotion at work and have been able to work on some really great, challenging projects.

We were lucky enough to meet some amazing people because of this blog, in person for the very first time!

And, of course, I got to do all of the above with friends, family, Ripley, Kitty Boo, and especially Lance.  Even though I have the itch to do more, I’m incredibly fortunate and grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.

It’s been a good year.

Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part IV: 24 (and 9) Hours in Kyoto

If you’re just visiting for the first time, you’re probably experiencing a little bit of cognitive dissonance as to how the two whitest white guys you ever did see ended up in Japan.  You’ll obviously want to review Part I (Chicago!), Part II (Jetlag in Japan!), and Part III (“The Happiest Place on Earth.” How do you say that in Japanese?) to bring yourself up to speed.

The day after our visit to DisneySea, we’d planned on taking the “bullet train” (actually called the shinkansen) from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan’s former capital and anagram of “Tokyo.”  We were only going to spend about 24 hours in Kyoto, per the original plan, and I wanted to make those hours count, mostly because the shinkansen tickets were hyperventilating-ly expensive: around $250 roundtrip, per person…and that was with a discount through Japanican.com! I fretted for awhile over whether we should spend that kind of money at all for such a short period, but when planning this trip, we were both operating under the understandable assumption that we’d never have the opportunity/resources to come back to Japan, so we figured we might as well do what we wanted.

It was around this point, though, some 60% or so of our vacation over, that I couldn’t ask either Lance or myself to keep pushing ourselves, dragging our luggage all over Japan, sticking to a rigid plan and feeling exhausted from lack of sleep and an overly ambitious itinerary.

See, I originally hoped to be out of the hotel and on the shinkansen to Kyoto by 8:00 or 9:00AM, but Lance took a late check-out opportunity as a sign that maybe we should just spend the morning relaxing and trying to catch up on some sleep.  I begrudgingly agreed–not that I wasn’t agitated about taking things slow, but I knew in my heart of hearts that if we kept pushing ourselves, one of us was going to break.

The view from our room at the Hilton Tokyo Bay.

As part of my membership level with Hilton HHonors, we were comped breakfast, and their buffet spread was enormous: your normal Western dishes, like oatmeal, eggs, bacon, and Japanese fare, and then…spaghetti.  Can somebody tell me which culture eats spaghetti for breakfast so I can thank them?

Around 11:00, we finally left the hotel.  Though I try to keep my tricket-y junk purchasing to a minimum these days, I was feeling a little light on souvenirs from Tokyo Disney, only having purchased the 10th Anniversary DisneySea book, so we stopped by Bon Voyage, the big Disney store near the main rail line in and our of the resort area, to see if I could find anything else:

I eventually purchased a little Chandu, the tiger cub in the bejeweled turban from Sinbad’s Storybook Voyages, and a lenticular postcard which I spent about $4.50 and have subsequently lost track of.  Ah, souvenirs!

(more…)

Jeff and Lance, Big in Japan Part III: Tokyo Disney Resort

Okay, folks, Part III of our Japan trip report awaits below! Still a lazy bum and haven’t caught up on Parts I and II? Check ’em out now before venturing on…to the photo dump…err, I mean, “Tokyo Disney Trip Report!”

[Side note: I am in tremendous debt to Carrie from Disney Travel Babble, whose 2010 Tokyo Disney trip report was a huge inspiration (and blueprint!) for our Tokyo Disney…and Japan in general!…trip. Thanks, Carrie!]

Here’s a little bit of Lance+Jeff trivia for you all out there: Tokyo Disney was the first thing we ever decided to do during our initial Tokyo planning discussions waaaaay back last winter.  In fact, we’d actually planned on going to Tokyo Disney long before the opportunity presented itself for us to go to Walt Disney World this past summer.

I’m sure plenty of you are asking (as I have myself, many times): why fly halfway around the world to go to a Disney park? (Because I wanted to, you dumb jerks! Don’t judge me! ::runs away to cry in a corner::)

Actually, there are good answers and there are bad answers to that question, and it really depends on what sort of traveller you are.  I’d like to think that I enjoy experiencing local culture, but I also love Disney.  I guess that’s the bad answer, since Disney isn’t Japanese, so therefore not local culture.

However, I would push back a little bit on the idea that Tokyo Disney is not Japanese.  First of all, for those in the know, Tokyo Disney is not owned or operated by the Disney corporation as we know it.  Instead, while it’s designed by Imagineers, the park is actually owned by the Oriental Land Company, which licenses the rights to Disney likenesses from the Disney corporation.  So, there’s a technical reason why the park is Japanese.

[The Oriental Land Company also spends what seems to be a bajillion dollars in elaborate theming, rides, and shows, so you could argue that the park is also more “Disney” than Disney-owned parks, since they are more likely to match in cash what the Imagineers dream up. They apparently spent $4 billion on Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disneyland’s neighboring park, before opening day.]

The monorail taking us from Bayside Station (where the official resort hotels are) back to Tokyo Disneyland Station!

There’s also an emotional reason why this park is Japanese: I know I’m generalizing, but many, many Japanese people are crazy about Disney.  The photos below don’t accurately capture just how into the experience our fellow park guests were.  Now, I know it was right around Halloween when we visited, but so many people were wearing costumes, Disney hats, Disney sweatshirts, Disney changepurses and backpacks and carrying around Duffys in different costumes…there is a passion for Disney, especially in the teen/twenties set that you just don’t see in the same volume at the American parks.

Lastly, I wanted to visit Tokyo Disney for one specific reason: Tokyo DisneySea. This is the only Disney park that you can’t find some version of in the United States (thanks a lot, Santa Monica!) Ever since I stumbled upon its Wikipedia page years ago, I’ve been drawn to this park, a watery mix of Epcot’s World Showcase with the fantasy of the Magic Kingdom.

I didn’t and still don’t care that we spent, like, 20 percent of our trip at Tokyo Disney.  I loved it.

Well, maybe not all of it…

Due to some sort of Tokyo law where transportation has to charge a fee (so I’ve read), it costs about $3 USD to take the Tokyo Disney monorail one way!

Given our tight schedule on this first day at Tokyo Disney (remember, we’d already gone to the Ghibli Museum and seen the Shiki Theatre production of Beauty and the Beast), we purchased the After 6 PM Passport ticket to Tokyo Disneyland.  We did this for a few reasons:

  1. I read that lines in the morning at the Tokyo parks get really bad, so I changed around our hotels at the last minute so we could stay in an “official” Disney hotel the night before we went to DisneySea instead of taking the subway 30+ minutes from a Tokyo hotel
  2. Well, now that we’re going to be in the resort area that night anyway, why not spend the $40 to spend four hours at Tokyo Disneyland?  I hadn’t originally planned on visiting Disneyland at all, but this afforded us the opportunity to at least see a little bit of that park, too!

Above: me, introducing the escalator from Disneyland Station down to the park.

I’m ridiculously happy that we were able to visit during the Halloween season when everything was decked out for the holiday.  Above: scary coach which looks to have repurposed the horses from Cinderella.

Yay! We’re here! (more…)

Jeff and Lance, Big In Japan Part II: Let’s Lose Our Way Together

Didn’t read Part I of our trip report? You should be embarrassed! Go read it right now before all your friends point and laugh at you.

I will admit that my first impression of Tokyo-Narita Airport was not favorable.  Where was the futuristic Blade Runner design everybody was telling me Tokyo had in abundance?  Narita was gray and plain–did we just fly halfway around the world for a carbon copy of Philadelphia International Airport??

Thankfully, once you get past customs, you truly enter the Japan of your dreams: efficient and multiple modes of public transportation connect the airport to Tokyo, there’s new and exotic candy at the airport shop, and most importantly of all, seemingly crazy and elaborate vending machines!

I never did have Pocari Sweat (ick!). Thankfully, the Asian market close to our house keeps it in stock!

I love how nearly all of the drink vending machines actually have these displays in the door so you know exactly what you’re getting.  I’m not sure if it’s really that big of a deal and is kind of a space-killer compared to American vending machines, but having the actual product showcased to us consumer whores is somehow very appealing.

Above, Lance enjoys the peach tea concoction for which we never learned the actual name.  We instead referred to it by its slogan: HAPPY UP!

…We then proceeded to spend the next seven days checking every vending machine we stumbled across (and man, there are a ton.  Seriously, vending machines just in the middle of city blocks, on every train platform and inside every home!) for Happy Up! (more…)

Jeff and Lance, Big In Japan Part I: The Chicago Opening Act

It begins here, folks…our super-sized report of our trip to Japan!

Why Japan?  Well, it sort of became a question of, “Why not Japan?”  I had spent two years amassing enough frequent flier miles to get Lance and I to Europe for free-ish (those pesky fuel surcharges’ll get you every time!), but suddenly we were significant over the amount we needed, and within striking distance of enough miles for two roundtrip tickets to Japan.  We scrambled to liquidate our hotel points programs to transfer those points into miles so we’d have enough.  Finally, right after Christmas 2011, we were able to book our two round-trip tickets to Japan for the hefty price of…like $180 total (taxes be damned!).

Of course, this gave us PLENTY of time to plan.  Or, more accurately, it gave me plenty of time to plan.  I researched hotels and transportation, did language audio lessons, booked tours and classes, etc., etc., and then rearranged everything a dozen or so times.  Lance admitted a few days before the vacation, “Wow. I have no idea what we’re doing on this trip.” All the while I’m panicking trying to keep everything straight in my trusty day-by-day planner/binder full of confirmation e-mails, train passes and so forth.

Finally, the big day came: October 20, 2012! We drove to the airport bright and early that morning:

Is Lance smiling, or is he just about to sneeze?
Requisite airplane photo!

Since we had a frequent flier mile award ticket, the routing from Philadelphia to Tokyo was not fantastic, and meant that we had to stay overnight in Chicago before connecting on to Japan.

Problem? NO!  We both love Chicago.  It is my super-favoritest place in the United States.  I so badly want to live there it’s not even funny, so when we had the chance to actually get a “free” day in the city, I did not complain. (more…)

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!