Tokyo Christmas Market

Nothing gets me more into the spirit of the holidays than Christmas Markets. I spent several years in Europe, and now Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the taste of warm, spiced glühwein and marzipan filled stöllen. Luckily, you can get both, and festive, Yuletide cheer, in Tokyo!

There are several Christmas markets scattered throughout the city, but my absolute favorite is the Tokyo Christmas Market in Hibiya Park. I visit every year on Christmas Eve. My friends and I meet at Hibiya Park donning our most cheery Christmas sweaters to sample every flavor of glühwein available (there are many), browse and buy handmade crafts, and eat way too much.

The market surrounds the fountain of Hibiya Park. More than a dozen traditional wooden huts offer visitors a variety of tempting German fare and one-of-a-kind ornaments. Christmas music plays in the background. A stunning 14-meter Christmas Pyramid brought in from Germany twirls slowly. And musical guests entertain the crowds inside a large-ish tent. All together, it creates a perfect holiday vibe. 🎄♥️🎅🏼✨

The mulled wine and hot cocoa are served in little mugs with the market’s logo on them. You have to pay a deposit for the drinks (¥1000) because of them. You get your money back when you return the cup, but I like to keep them. They come in different shapes and colors and have the year on the design.

Admission to Tokyo Christmas Market is free. It started December 14th and opens daily from 11:00 am to 10:00 pm every day through Christmas day. To get there, take the metro to Hibiya Station and leave the station through Exit A14. Just make sure you dress warmly; it gets cold. 🥶

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Twinkle Twinkle Little Tokyo

ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS about Tokyo is that there’s always something new to see and do. This summer, TeamLab Borderless launched a new way to spend an afternoon in Tokyo that made me feel like I was on another planet. The Mori Building Digital Art Museum features works displayed through projection mapping and lights, and it’s designed in such a way that all the artwork moves in and out of spaces freely, forming a completely borderless world. One full of color, curiosity, and wonder.

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The exhibit has several spaces with different themes that are constantly shifting and evolving. A lot of the pieces interact with one another, so it sort of feels like one fluid work of art. It’s really cool because many of them look different each time you visit. So it always feels new. And it’s always thrilling to see the lights and images dance around the rooms. Also, many of the pieces are interactive, which is super fun. 😁

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One of my favorite areas is the Athletics Forest. This world is full of spaces and exhibits that you can play in. It really brings out your inner child, or in my case, my outer big kid. 😜 I really enjoyed bouldering the light forest, climbing through a display of vivid, moving birds and playing with colorful balloons. This part of the museum really makes you feel like you’re one with the art, or at the very least a part of it. You get to be in the middle of the artwork, touching and moving in it, and in some case creating it yourself.

All of the works are impressive. They’re enchanting and delightful, making it easy to spend a few hours marveling at the transformation of the exhibits and feeling like you’re in a whole different, light-filled galaxy. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Getting tickets is quite difficult. Don’t expect to get in by showing up and buying a ticket on site. They’re often sold out. I bought my ticket two weeks in advance ( I went shortly after it opened; it might be less busy now). To make sure you get in the day you want, I recommend you buy your tickets online here. Tickets cost ¥3200 (about $30) for adults 15 and older and ¥1000 ($9) for children 14 and under. It’s a little expensive but completely worth it. The museum is open weeknights and Sundays from 1000 to 1900 and on Fridays and Saturdays from 1000 to 2100. Last entry is one hour prior to closing, but I recommend you go with enough time to spend about three hours. This way you have enough time to really see and enjoy the art.

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Getting There

Getting to the Mori Building Digital Art Museum is pretty easy. Take the subway to Shirokanedai station (I took the Namboku line), and leave the station through exit one. That’s the closest exit to the museum. From there it’s a short five-minute walk. Look for the Ferris wheel and walk toward it. You’ll have to walk through Toyota Mega Web, a car theme park; the museum is on the other side. If you’ve bought your tickets in advance, you just have to scan your QR code from your phone or your printed ticket when you go in.

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Capsule Hotels… Yes or No?

Capsule hotels (also called pod hotels) are very popular in Japan. You see them in most cities, and a lot of people really like them for overnight stays because they are relatively cheap (¥3000 – ¥4000). I’m claustrophobic and never really had any interest in staying in a tiny space only big enough for a bed. Also, I’m not really a fan of communal bathrooms. But I just couldn’t leave Japan without experiencing it at least once. It’d be like visiting Japan and never eating sushi or ramen. So on a recent trip to Kyoto, I decided to try one out.

I did my research before selecting my capsule. I’m picky about hotels. I’m very particular about cleanliness, and I really like to make sure the location meets my travel goals. So I checked all the hotel travel sites (Hotels.com, Agoda, Kayak, Booking, Trivago, etc.), Trip Advisor and Google. I read reviews, mapped the locations, and looked into amenities for each capsule hotel available. After several hours, I decided on the First Cabin Capsule Hotel in Kawaramachi Sanjo.

Capsule Hotels vary. A lot. They’re like hostels in that you share all facilities except the bed. However, the pod itself and types of common areas differ from hotel to hotel. Some are more like fabric-covered bunk beds while others are like stacked cubby holes with mattresses in them. The pods at First Cabin are not stacked, so you have more room than a lot of the other capsule hotels I saw online. The one I stayed in was as wide as a twin bed (the walls of the pod surrounded the mattress on all sides) and maybe six feet tall. I could sit up completely in my bed and even stand on the mattress with only having to duck just a tiny bit (I’m only 5’2″). The room also includes a TV, temperature control, two plugs, and a secure compartment to store your valuables while you’re out. The pod doesn’t have a door, but it has a shade that slides all the way down for privacy. This hotel also offers mini-suites (they refer to them as first-class cabins), which are slightly bigger spaces that offer more than just a bed but don’t have private bathrooms. All capsules provide guests with disposable slippers, pajamas, and a towel and washcloth.

The two major concerns I had about staying in this kind of hotel were safety and noise. Neither was an issue here. Rooms and floors are separated by gender for safety reasons at First Cabin. This isn’t the case at all capsule hotels, though, so if it’s something you’re interested in, ask before booking. Japan is a relatively safe country, but I prefer staying in all-women dorms when traveling alone (as a peace of mind thing). At this hotel, the sleeping areas are accessed with key cards so not just anyone can get to the pods. And it’s a completely noise-free zone. Guests are not allowed to listen to music or watch television without headphones. They’re not supposed to talk on the phone and, honestly, I didn’t even hear travelers talk to each other in the capsule space.

The shared spaces at First Cabin exceeded ALL  my expectations. The lobby features a few sofas, a big table for travelers to sit around and socialize, and a bar with a variety of beers and cocktails available for purchase. The hotel also hosts special events in the lobby on some nights that offer guests free food or drinks. The bathroom situation is also quite good. Each floor has sinks, toilets, and vanities, and there’s a shower area for each gender on one of the floors. The spa (shower area) has several private shower rooms, one or two secluded bathtubs (complete with body wash, shampoo, and conditioner), and a few vanities stocked with everything you could need, to include curling irons, facial care products, and even toothbrushes. There are also irons, steamers, and humidifiers in the dormitories and a spot to store your luggage.

From what I saw, most capsule hotel guests only stay a night or two. I stayed for five, and felt completely at ease and comfortable. The small space didn’t bother me at all. It felt way more private than I thought it would, the amenities were great, and the hotel staff was wonderful. I managed to get a business-class cabin for only $20 per night; a terrific value! I can’t imagine a better accommodation for the price. I would definitely try a capsule hotel again. I highly encourage you to try one too. 😉

Life’s a Beach in Shimoda

When you think of Japan, sparkling, blue-water beaches are probably not what come to mind. I didn’t think that kind of beach existed here. I’m aware that Japan is an island, but up until last week, all the beaches I’d ever seen here were more of a dark green, murky water sort of beach. Continue reading Life’s a Beach in Shimoda

Summer Nights in Ginza

Summer nights are made for ice cream and sunsets, and in Ginza, Tokyo’s upscale shopping and entertainment district, you can get the best of both. This neighborhood houses all the top luxury brand stores (Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc.), a plethora of gourmet restaurants, and the famous Kabuki-za Theatre. I like visiting Ginza this time on the weekends because the city turns Chuo Dori, one of the main streets in the area, into a huge pedestrian space from noon until about 1800. Visitors can walk around without the worry of traffic and really take in the window displays, enjoy the summer weather, and people watch.

The iconic Wako Department store and the Hattori Clock Tower (pictured here) are located in the heart of Ginza. It’s one of the most popular stores in the area, known for its jewelry and housewares selection and the art gallery located on the sixth floor (it’s really cool). I took this picture of the famous building while enjoying a cool and refreshing ice cream sundae from Ramo Frutas Cafe. It’s just across the street, and if you’re lucky, you can get a table on the balcony with an unobstructed view.

Ginza is known for being one of the ritziest neighborhoods in Tokyo. The real estate is actually the most expensive in all of Japan. And that means most things here are pretty pricey, so be prepared. My ice cream, while delectable, cost me a whopping ¥1500 ($13 U.S.), and I’ve heard of cafes selling lattes with price tags higher than ¥700 ($6.50). But don’t let that stop you from checking out this part of Tokyo. You don’t have to spend a ton to enjoy the vibe and energy here. ✨

Stop & Smell the Roses in Ashikaga

If you’re a fan of roses, gardens or just flowers in general, Ashikaga Flower Park is a must-see when you’re in central Japan. It’s located in the Tochigi prefecture, about two hours away from Tokyo. One of its most popular attractions is the Wisteria Festival in April and early May, but there’s still plenty to see and enjoy if your timing doesn’t sync up.Roses-4I went at the end of May hoping to catch the end of the wisteria season. I’ve heard it’s truly amazing, and since I’ll be moving soon, I didn’t want to miss my chance. But… I was too late. By the time I got there, most of them were gone. I didn’t get to experience trellis after trellis of colorful dangling blossoms. But I did make it in time to examine countless roses of all varieties in colors I’ve never seen.Roses-5The park has several different flowering seasons that they refer to as stories; I went during the Rainbow Garden Story. There were thousands of vibrant blooms covering almost every inch of the 20-acre park. Most of them were roses, but there were many others as well. I’m not a flower connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination. Not even close. But I   do love flowers. And all the ones I saw there were enchanting. I especially loved the single rose-covered gazebo that housed one small table with only two chairs overlooking one of the ponds in the park. It’s a perfect spot to stop and smell the roses. And enjoy the view.Roses-3My second favorite feature of the park is the ice cream. Yes, you read that right. Ice. Cream. Not only is Japanese soft-serve ice cream the best I’ve ever had anywhere (very creamy and not overly sweet), but the park offers flower flavors. I imagine the flavors are based on the park’s flower story of the moment because when I went they offered rose and wisteria-flavored soft serve. If that isn’t the case, and they just offer both those flavors all year round, it’s still pretty great. They aren’t flavors I’ve ever seen anywhere else. I tried the wisteria, and it was DELICIOUS.IMG_1572My experience at Ashikawa Flower Park was pretty great. The flowers were exquisite, and the grounds were extremely well-kept. And the gift shop was full of unique and interesting snacks like rose-flavored popcorn and wisteria soda. Not to mention, it had a great number of seasonal blooms and plants for purchase. 😊

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Flower Seasons/Stories

Visitors can appreciate an array of flowers throughout the year at Ashikaga Flower Park. The park changes its displays about every six weeks. It presents eight exhibits, or stories, throughout the year, highlighting certain plants when they are at their peak. The eight seasons are listed below.

  1. Heralding Spring  (Pheasant’s Eye, Christmas Rose, & Winter Clematis): early January to late February
  2. Spring Flower Festival (Tulips, Crocus, & Thunberg’s Meadowsweet): early March to mid-April
  3. Wisteria Story (Wisteria, Azaleas, & Peonies): mid-April to mid-May
  4. Rainbow Garden (Roses, Clematises, & Rhododendrons): mid-May to early June
  5. Blue and White Garden (Hydrangeas, Irises, & late-blooming Clematises): early June to early July
  6. Water Nymphs (Lantanas & Tropical Water Lilies): early July to late September
  7. Purple Garden (Amethyst Sage & Pansies): late early October to late November
  8. Bejeweled Flower Garden (Pansies, Violas & Flower Fantasy Nighttime Illumination): end of October to late January

The Flower Fantasy illumination is quite spectacular. Millions of tiny LED lights light up the special displays throughout the park. It’s one of the most popular winter illuminations in Japan.

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Getting There

There are a few ways to get to Ashikaga depending on where you’re coming from. I drove. I live in Tokyo, and the drive wasn’t terrible. It’s only about two hours away (traffic was pretty light the day I went), and the tolls weren’t too expensive. However, the train is also an option if you’re coming from Tokyo and either don’t have a car or license to drive in Japan or don’t want to spend the money on tolls.  There are a variety of routes and trains you can take. Taking the Shonan-Shinjuku Rapid to Oyama from Shinjuku Station and then transferring to the Ryomo Line toward Takasaki until you reach Tomita Station is the fastest and the easiest way to get there.  It takes two hours and costs about $17 USD (¥1,944) each way. Another choice is to take a reserved seat train. It takes about the same amount of time but costs a little more ($30/¥3390 each way). Once you get to the station, it’s about a ten-minute walk to the park.

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Admission

Park admission varies on the season and event with adult prices varying from ¥300 to ¥1800 for adults. The park’s two most popular and expensive events are the Tale of Fuji No Hana (Wisteria Festival) and the Flower Fantasy Illumination.

 

 

Sunset From Sunset Beach

There are fewer things more beautiful than watching the sky change colors. It looks a little bit like magic. Seeing it turn shades of pink and orange before finally transforming into a deep, midnight blue is fascinating. It happens every day, yet somehow, it amazes me every time I see it. This sunset was extra spectacular because of the swaying palm trees, quiet ocean waves, and light, fluttering breeze.  I captured this while enjoying a cocktail after a day of exploring the outer islands and beaches of Okinawa. I couldn’t think of better way to end an already perfect day than with an ice-cold pina colada and a stunning sunset.

This photo was taken from The Calif Kitchen in Mihama, a restaurant in the shopping complex next to the Vessel Campana Hotel. It overlooks the sea wall and Sunset Beach. I usually stay there when I visit Okinawa because of its central location. There are lots of wonderful places to stay on this island. Where you choose to stay should really depend on what you want to do, and where you want to go while you’re here. Because I like to do a little of everything, I feel like this location works best for me. Plus, there are lots of restaurants, shops, and bars within walking distance, so you aren’t limited to only what the hotel has to offer. And the sunsets here never disappoint. ✨