29 Nov

Using The Japanese Railway To Get Around

Japanese RailwayFor us the primary mode of transportation while in Japan was the Japanese railway system; a combination of trains and metros (subways). For people who aren’t train geeks, the differences can be subtle; I’ll just refer to them universally as trains going forward.

What is more important is the difference between the national Japan Rail (JR) system and private systems. The various companies of JR operate a vast network across the country including the wonderful high-speed Shinkansen. There are also many non-JR or private companies operating trains in popular areas. Why is this important you ask? The JR Pass!

Train travel is not cheap, but foreign nationals can purchase an unlimited JR travel pass voucher before they arrive in Japan and exchange these for JR Passes when they arrive. It is important to note that you cannot purchase these in Japan! The small catch is these are only valid on the JR system. For most travellers this won’t be a problem as JR services most popular destinations including a complete network of trains around Tokyo.

If you are heading off the beaten path, some planning with tell you if it is a private or JR service you need. Details about JR pass options and purchase can be found on the Japan Rail Pass website.  For train trip planning on either JR, or private, lines we used the Hyperdia online schedule tool.

One of the things that is awesome about Japan (there are many awesome things about Japan!) is that all train stations are uniquely named. If you know where you are and where you need to go, you just put those locations into the search and pick the date and arrival/departure time. Additional search filters include service type, and JR versus private companies. As expected, results focus on travel efficiency; this may not accommodate a break for lunch if you are a leisure traveller. Good news again – the full schedule for each train on a multi-train routing is accessible and you can pick an earlier or later train and add a break for yourself, which we often did on longer legs. Train stations offer up all kinds of dining options; from stand up noodle stands to full on restaurants and bento box options. It’s worth it to take a break and grab a meal, especially when you know that it’s more than just grotty sandwiches on offer!

Japan Railway Noodle Stall

Stand Up Noodle Stall in a Japan Railway Station

Old fashion paper maps or online maps will help to identify the name of closest train stations to you or your destination. All of the guesthouses, apartments, ryokans, and minshukus we stayed in provided information about closest train stations and often included information about surrounding attractions and temples and how to get to them using the trains.

Even if you opt for a JR pass you will still need to reserve a seat if you are taking Limited Express or Shinkansen trains as these can fill up more than the local service. Most train stations have staff that can sell you tickets or arrange reservations. The level of spoken English will vary significantly so help yourself and the agent by writing down the information before you get to the window. Important bits; date of travel, train name and number, departure station, departure time, destination station and destination time.

Of course, In the land of vending machines, you can bypass the person and go directly to ticket machines. Each one I encountered had an option for English instructions. Fares are based on the travel zone concept. Think of wider and wider circles on the map centred from where you standing. The fare is the same for all destinations in each circle and there are big boards with the likely stations and fare cost above the ticket machines. Buy a ticket for the fare value you require and you are good to go.

Japanese Railway Ticket Machine

Train ticket vending machine. Not as scary as they look!

Information about which platform your train will be arriving on is available past the gates on large signs posted overhead. The signs will flip between Kanji and English so be patient. On the platform, you will find signage to indicate where your car will stop if you have a reservation. The signage will either be on the ground with directions for lining (queuing) up or suspended overhead; find where your car will stop and line up with the locals.

Japanese Railway Destination BoardRemember the trains are incredible efficient. Some may only stop for less than a minute to allow passengers off and new people on. Be ready when the train arrives at the station; you’ll have to board quickly. If you are a rock star and want special treatment, you’ll have to hire a car.

Waiting for the Japanese Railway trainI love traveling by train. The Japanese railway system takes it to a whole new level; impeccably clean, efficient, and reliable. There is no better way to get around the country.

26 Nov

Monday Moment: Perfume Pagoda Pilgrimage , Vietnam

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam

Hundreds of boats, loaded with thousands of pilgrims, make their way toward the Perfume Pagoda outside of Hanoi.

Families come to pray for luck and good fortune. Couples come to pray for fertility.

Men come to pray for prosperity and good luck.And test that faith by playing cards on the way back down. I wonder if they turn around and head back up if they don’t do so well in the game.

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam


14 Nov

On Letting Go

It’s my last official day of W.O.R.K tomorrow. The last day, in my foreseeable future, that I will trek to the office to do a J.O.B.

I don’t think I’ll miss it, but I worry a little that I will. I think it’s about defining success; learning what that looks like in a new light when all the past success parameters don’t measure up any longer. I’ll have to develop a new scale…or…just stop trying to measure up.

What’s really been interesting the past few weeks is getting rid of all our stuff.

We started Kijiji-ing like mad as soon as we decided to leave and things have  been selling pretty well. We’re down to sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room with a filing cabinet as a coffee table/night stand/dining table. It’s almost like camping – only I’m warm.

As we go through things, deciding on the few items to keep and where to send the rest, a few patterns have emerged that re-enforce the underlying force behind all of this; things don’t matter, it’s the experiences that matter.

All the furniture, serving sets, wine glasses and things we purchased when we bought our first home were the absolute easiest to get rid of.

I didn’t blink an eye as the cabinets we so carefully chose walked out the door. The bedroom set I so coveted so I could be a ‘grown up’? Bye-bye.

That beautiful, perfect, dining room table I spent a fortune on is now mocking me in the corner as I am unable to sell it for even a fraction of what I paid for it. I had a niggling feeling when I bought it, obsessed over not scratching or marring it whenever we used it, and now it is making me pay. Making me learn the lesson that spending great amounts of money for something is not the way to happiness.

The pieces I struggle with letting go?

The first piece of furniture I ever bought once I graduated school; it reminds me of swelling with pride that I could afford something comfortable to sit in.

The candle stick wall sconce that Jason brought to my teeny tiny apartment when he moved in – we still try to dine by candle light as often as possible.

My bike. So many memories of so many years churning up trails with the Fat Bastards.

A cheap, French-inspired, poster bought from a hole-in-the-wall shop after a few beers on a rainy, fall afternoon many years ago. It was my first piece of ‘art’ and started a motley collection of which each piece reminds me of a time and place.

The things I am most connected to are those that remind me of times and experiences that are most important to me. I look back fondly on the early days of my relationship with Jason. We lived in a teeny tiny apartment, enjoyed ourselves immensely, and didn’t have many things. The things we are most easily getting rid of now remind me of following blindly down a path without checking in with myself.

It’s about looking back, letting go, and moving forward. Easier said than done. But. Done.


12 Nov

Monday Moment: Sari Salesman, Kathmandu, Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Wandering the streets of Kathmandu my head swivelled constantly as I peered into shops, studios and restaurants. It was sensory overload.

I happened to look in this sari shop just as the shopkeeper was unfurling this beautiful turquoise sari for the ladies. Looking at all of all the material at their feet, and the looks on the men’s faces, I would guess they have been at it for some time!

07 Nov

Travel To Japan: What Does It Cost (Part Two)

**Click Here to see Travel To Japan: What Does It Cost (Part One)**

There is no doubt that Japan is an expensive country to travel in. Our travel to Japan was, in fact, the most expensive trip we’ve ever done.

It was also the best trip we’ve ever had. It changed our lives; it was here, during this trip, that we finally decided to take the next GiantStep to leave Canada. It was worth every single yen.

We broke our expenses down into five basic categories:


This wasn’t a backpacker trip so I wasn’t necessarily looking for the cheapest option but I was cognizant of price and wanted to get the best I could for the money I was willing to spend.

We stayed in a mix of accommodation styles; apartments,  Tokyo hotels, guesthouses, traditional ryokans, local minshukus and even a temple. I placed links in the spreadsheet next to each entry – I recommend every place we stayed. Some were very reasonably priced (an apartment in Tokyo for $100/night!) and some were very expensive ($300 for a ryokan stay…but it included an amazing dinner and breakfast).

On average we spent $123.80 per night. If I factor out the meal costs of the two most expensive stays (that included meals), the average drops to $112.88; we would be hard pressed to travel in our own country for this cost!


Shinkansen, JapanFlights and trains were the big budget items here.

Our flights from Calgary to Tokyo (return ticket) cost $3128.24 – that’s quite the chunk of change out of a budget! I’m glad we were able to spend a month in Japan because I would be hard pressed to think that paying that kind of money for a two week holiday would be worth it.

The three week JR Rail passes were the next biggest transportation expense at $749 each – $1498 for the two of us! They turned out to be worth it – although just barely.

We spend just over $400 on other non-JR train tickets, subway rides, bicycle rentals, and the occasional taxi.

Food and Drink

Ramen There really is nothing Jason and I enjoy more than spending time over a meal, or whiling away an afternoon in a pub so it’s no surprise that our food and drink costs were high.

We stayed in apartments for half our trip so were able to self cater breakfast most of the time. We love spending our mornings lounging around, catching up on the interwebs, drinking coffee, and snacking on whatever we could find at the grocery store so apartments fit the bill nicely. It turns out that going out for coffee in Japan is an expensive affair, sometimes costing as much as $5 per cup for regular coffee so making it at ‘home’ was very budget friendly!

After a day of sightseeing we usually head back to our room to enjoy an early evening cocktail before dinner. Alcohol is fairly inexpensive and widely available in shops so we could just pick something up on our way. Going out for a drink, however, can be fairly pricey; probably no more expensive than the places we frequent here in Calgary, although Japanese beer is a little lacklustre and, at home, we don’t go out every night.

We really didn’t think too much about the budget when looking for a place to eat. We tend to enjoy middle-of-the-road establishments and knew there was room in our budget to accommodate what we like so we weren’t out to find the cheapest meal at any point. A few times, when in particular areas that were known for a certain meal, we would splurge but mostly we stuck to ramen houses, kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shops, and izakayas (pubs). A few times we picked up some sushi from the grocery store but that was more about wanting to stay home than worrying about the budget.

We almost always had a drink (or two, or three) with a meal; these are not broken out in the budget sheet but you could probably half all the costs there to determine a non drinking budget – often our booze bill the same as the food bill. Definitely would be much cheaper to travel as a tee-totaller but it’s just not our style.

On average we spent $105.58 per day on food and drink.


Golden Temple, Kyoto

We went to Japan to be in Japan. It was a tiny expat experiment whereby I wanted to really pretend that I lived there. Sure, we visited temples and shrines, took a tour and a cooking class, and revelled in the Sumo Grand Championship, but what I really enjoyed was just riding the trains, going for dinner, cruising the grocery store aisles, and wandering around the streets imagining that this neighbourhood was my neighbourhood.

I think our attractions/activities costs are fairly low at an average of $20/day.


Miscellaneous holds all the other stuff. We needed some toothpaste. We did laundry once. Luckily, we are not souvenir people so this category usually stays quite low. In fact most of this category is taken up by the pocket wifi device we rented to stay connected the whole time.

We traveled through Japan for 27 days. It cost us $11,965.52 – I had budgeted $12,000 so I’m happy to be under budget.

Here is the entire OneGiantStep Japan Budget should you care to see more of a breakdown.

Our trip to Japan was everything I wanted it to be, and more. It was worth every single penny.

04 Nov

Monday Moment: Carnival Street, Rio de Janeiro

Carnival Street, Rio de Janeiro

Ever been to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro? Yeah, me either, but check out these wild costumes we were able to try on while touring around Rio. Then we had our very own private parade on Carnival Street!

I’m sure it would have been so much better to actually be there during Carnival but this certainly gave us a taste of the pomp, circumstance, and hilarity that must go on during the actual parades.