There's More to Life than Being Happy - Emily Esfahani

Oct 1, 2017 -

Like Emily Esfahani, I also used to think the whole purpose of life was to pursue happiness.

My initial pursuit of happiness had led me to search for the ideal job, the perfect companion, and the best house or condo. However, when I finally got all of that, I was still left feeling empty. What was I missing inside that I couldn't explain?

I turned to books and would spend countless nights reading books on how to become happier. These books ranged from topics on Psychology of Optimal Experience to books written by the Dalai Lama and even a book written by arguably the "happiest person in the world" in Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill. While I did learn a tremendous amount from reading these books, I didn't feel any happier than when I first began reading. How ironic. 

So what truly makes people happy then? 

It turns out that the data shows that chasing happiness can actually make people unhappy. The suicide rate has been rising around the world. Even though life is getting objectively better by every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, depressed and alone.

Sooner or later we all wonder, is this all there it is? According to research, what predicts this despair is not a lack of happiness. It's is a lack of having meaning in life.

What's the difference between being happy and having meaning in life?

1. Being happy often means being in a state of comfort and feeling at ease in the moment.

2. Meaning is deeper. Meaning gives a sense of belonging. You end up serving something beyond yourself. Seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path. It helps you become more resilient and do better at school/work and has shown that you can even live longer. 

Q: What is the power of having meaning?
A: When life is really good and really bad having meaning gives you something to hold on to. 

How can we live more meaningfully? 

Here are the four pillars to a meaningful life that Emily Esfahani had described in her TED talk (linked at the end of this post)

1) Belonging - Being in a relationship where you are valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well can create a sense of belonging. If you are valued for who you hate and what you believe those do not create a true sense of belonging. True belonging springs from love. You can choose to cultivate love. Lead with love and you'll create a bond. 

2) Purpose - Finding your purpose is not the same thing as finding the job. It is about less what you want, and more about what you want to give. The key to purpose is using your strength to serve others. That's how we contribute and feel needed.

3)  Transcendence - These are the rare moments where you are lifted above the sense of self and you feel connected to a higher reality. It happens through being at church and sometimes you feel in the zone. Again it's less about you and more about others.

4) Storytelling - Creating a narrative from your events of life helps you create meaning. You can edit and interpret your story. You can reflect on your life and what you lost and what you've gained. You won't change your story overnight. Embracing your painful memories and defining the good that sustains you.

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8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo

Aug 21, 2017 -

Day 8 in Tokyo

Key Highlights

- Check into Emblem Hostel Nishiarai
- Eat Ramen at Ichiran Shibuya
- Shopping at Don Quijote
- Eat Delicious Yakitori in Shibuya
- Flight back to the States

We checked out of our hostel in Osaka at around 6:00 AM to get to the Osaka train station. We headed back to Tokyo for our last night. Originally, the hotel that we booked was in Narita, but we realized that our flight was out of Haneda. At the last minute, we ended up booking a cheap hostel at Emblem Hostel Nishiarai. When you first enter in, there is old carpet and old rusty lockers to your right. There was a stench about the place, but it wasn't dirty just worn. I knew immediately that it was a smoking hostel, which made it a huge turn-off for me.

Ramen at Ichiran Shibuya
First order of business was to grab food at a nearby 7-11, which we immediately regretted because there were better options for pastry and coffee. In any event, we then went to find the individual ramen stalls at Ichiran Shibuya. This was one of those quick order places where you would use a machine to pick your ramen and toppings. Then find an open booth and then hand the ticket you got from the machine to the person behind the booth. You don't ever see their face, but in a matter of minutes they push through a bowl of delicious ramen and your side orders. The broth was super flavorful and the extra meat and egg were incredibly delicious. On the way out of the restaurant, they sold boxes of their broth flavoring and ramen. But we figured it wouldn't taste as good when we got it, so we passed.

Our next order of business was to go shopping for souvenirs and things to bring back to the States. My friend who lived in Japan for two years recommended that we shop at Don Quijote, which is a huge Walmart like store. We saw a boat load of different snacks, yakitori sets, and even furniture. We ended up buying over $100 USD worth of snacks. We had just finished all of our shopping when it was time to meet up with my travel partner's friends.

At the train stations, they have lockers that you can rent. The lockers' pricing is based on how much space you need. The larger the locker, the more it costs. I believe the rentals are for the day. In any event, we locked our stuff in a locker which cost 400 Yen, but it was okay. We ended up eating at a delicious yakitori place where the food was exceptional. Unfortunately, I didn't have any cash on hand, so it was embarrassing to have my travel buddy's friends prepay for us. But luckily enough, there was a 7-11 ATM where I stopped by and withdrew money to repay our friend.

Last Sushi Meal in Japan
We said our goodbyes and took our souvenirs out of the locker. Then we headed back to the hostel where I would attempt to convert my sleeping pattern to Pacific Standard Time. I definitely could not sleep at all due to the smoke filled pods. Yuck!

Our flight back to the States had a layover in Shanghai, but this time there wasn't enough time to explore. By the time we woke up and go to the airport, it was around 8:00 AM, so you can imagine how early we woke up. We stopped by a Uniqlo shop within the airport where I bought a couple T-shirts. Then I went to the shops to pick up a couple more Japanese Kit-Kats. What is incredible about the Haneda airport is that they have all the good typical Japanese food including but not limited to ramen and sushi. We got both to share, which was reasonably priced.

The flight back was long and slept through most of it. The highlight was the eel fish meal. We had a layover in Shanghai and had to get our luggage checked again.

After like 15 hours we made it back to the states where my brother picked me up.

8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
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Seven Tips on How to Act and Become an Alpha

Aug 17, 2017 -

An alpha is the dominant figure in a social or professional setting. The main role of the alpha is to be the leader of the group and with it comes responsibilities to protect, inspire, and motivate the group.

What does it take to be an Alpha?

First things first, it is no surprise that as an alpha you need to be confident in yourself. After all, how can you expect others to look to you as a leader, if you yourself are not sure in yourself.

Confidence comes from believing in yourself. But there is a difference between blind confidence and true confidence. Blind confidence is a false belief in your abilities, which can also be construed as overconfidence. True confidence is when you exude the will, persistence, and have the ability to instill confidence in others.

Why is the person with the most knowledge rarely the alpha?

The reason is because you have to have the ability to lead. To put it in another way, you have to have the influence to protect, inspire, and motivate the group. Suppose you know what to do in a pressure situation, but can not get your team to help you do it. What good does that do if you can't rally the team? Compare that to a motivator or influence, who can determine who is good for what role and get the team to the end zone. If you know what needs to get done in the group, you have the knowledge and know how. Then you just need the presence and influence to become the alpha.

What are ways to show you are more confident in yourself?

1. Hold your head up high 

If you look down that shows you are giving up your "dominance". Why do you think people used to bow in the presence of kings?

2. Place your hand on top when you shake

This one can come off a bit rough, so use this with caution. If you look closely at Donald Trump's handshakes, more times than not, he places his hand on top showing he is "in charge".

3. Keep steady bold eye contact

Don't confuse this with and deep creepy stare. When you talk to someone, look at them in the eye. If you look elsewhere, people will think you are not paying attention.

4. Take oversized steps

Small steps are associated with cute things. Small puppies take small steps. Take big steps like a big gorilla does.

5. Take up more space

What position does a kid assume when he is afraid in the dark? He or she cowers and rolls up in a "fetal position". Do the opposite. Spread your wings and take up more space.

6. Use a deeper tone 

Are you afraid of a mouse that squeaks or a 400 lb lion that roars?

7. Fake it till you make it

Studies have shown that expressing the victory pose actually lowers cortisol stress hormones and helps you react differently to stress. You are more calm under pressure.

[Continue reading...]

Summary of 2017 Elon Musk TED Talk

Aug 13, 2017 -

Elon started a company called the Boring Company with the goal of accelerating underground tunneling speed. The hope is to build an underground infrastructure to alleviate the traffic above ground. He spends about 2% of the times on this side project. 

The goal for Tesla self driving cars is to take a trip from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York without having to touch the wheel by the end of 2017. In fact, Elon believes that we would be able to dynamically change the route say from Seattle to Florida and it would still be able to take you there.

Self-driving cars will never be 100% safe as traveling in a car lends itself to at least some kind of probability that it will crash. But if autonomous driving can get to something like it is unlikely to crash in a hundred lifetimes or a thousand lifetimes, people may be okay with that. 

Elon is working on a Tesla semi-truck and has already test driven it on a track. He was impressed with the nimbleness of the vehicle given the size of it. It is said to have enough torque to pull a diesel or gas truck up a hill.

One gear Tesla semi-truck will have more torque than any diesel or gas powered truck
Solar glass roofing will be less than the cost of the roof plus the cost of electricity. Therefore economically it will be a no brainer. Supposedly even when the house is long gone, the glass will still be there. 

Solar glass panels will cost less than regular roof + electricity
The Gigafactory is producing lithium ion batteries already and eventually it will get to a production level of  hundred gigawatt hours of batteries a year. When fully completed the Gigafactory will be the shape of a diamond. 

Space X had a reflight of an orbital booster making it the first to accomplish this feat. Elon has the idea of sending people to Mars. Supposedly the rocket would have a thrust equivalent of 120 747s with all engines blazing. The rocket would be able to take a 747 with maximum fuel and maximum passengers and cargo as its cargo. 

Space X rocket to Mars vs a human (small speck to the right of the rocket)
On why Elon is doing all of this.."I think it is importing to have a future that is inspiring and appealing. There ought to be reasons you get up in the morning and want to live. Why do you want to live? What is the point? What inspires you? What do you like about the future?"

As humans use up our finite resources, the world will move towards utilizing and creating sustainable energy. That Elon believes is inevitable, but he wants to accelerate it even if it is by a decade or whatever.

Technology doesn't happen automatically. It takes effort to improve it. By itself it will degrade. For example in 1969 we sent someone to the moon and the space shuttle went into orbit. Then for a time nobody was going into orbit. Take for example Ancient Egypt and the pyramids or the Romans and the aqueducts. They stopped innovating.  

0:31 Boring
7:00 Hyperloop
11:11 Self Driving Cars
13:34 Model 3
18:40 Car Sharing
19:34 Tesla Semi
22:11 Solar Roof
26:12 Gigafactory
29:06 Advisory Councils
30:32 SpaceX
32:08 Mars Rocket
35:31 How Progress Happens
[Continue reading...]

8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka

Aug 1, 2017 -

Day 7 in Kyoto, Yamazaki, and Osaka

Key Highlights

- Breakfast at 7-11
- Self-Guided Tour at Yamazaki Distillery
- Dropped off luggage at Osaka Guesthouse Hive
- Lunch at Okonomiyaki Momji
- Being touristy at Osaka Castle
- Dinner at Okonomiyaki Chitose
- Experiencing Japanese Nightmarket at Dōtonbori
- Finally eating Okonomiyaki dinner at Ajinoya
- Second dinner at a takoyaki stand

My travel partner and I left our glorious Prime Pod in Kyoto at around 9:00 AM. We had a 10:30 AM reservation at the Yamazaki Distillery, so we needed to make haste. Yes, alcohol before lunch. We picked up two pieces of bread for breakfast at a 7-11 near by the Prime Pod. It was an hour ride from Kyoto to Yamazaki via the Shinkansen.

When we got to the Yamazaki station and exited, we made a sharp right. Then we followed the Yamazaki street signs to the Yamazaki Distillery. It was about a ten minute walk from the train station. When you cross a set of train tracks, you'll see the check-in center and just beyond that is the white visitor center. Luckily for us, there were storage lockers for our luggage. You'll have to put in a 100 Yen coin, but you get it back when you leave.

Yamazaki Distillery Guest Entrance
The actual visitor center is a small while building. Unfortunately, we didn't sign up early enough online for a guided tour of the Yamazaki Distillery. Nonetheless, with the self guided tour, we saw plenty of history from how Shinjiro Torii started the company in 1923 to the company winning world's best whisky in 2015. The visitor center featured a lot of unique whiskeys, but most importantly there was a tasting area. While you did have to pay for the tasting, they were very affordable. At less than 1000 Yen, we were able to taste three different Japanese whiskeys. All of which were only available at the distillery. At the gift shop, I stopped to pick up a Yamazaki glass, a coaster, and then a bottle of their straight whiskey. All for less than $20 USD. What a steal!

By the time we left the Yamazaki Distillery, it was just past 1:30 PM. Both my travel partner and I were hungry and had just drank three glasses of whiskey without having more than just the 7-11 bread in our stomachs from the morning. We made our way to Osaka via the train, which took us another hour.

Hibiki 30, Hakushu 25 and Yamazaki 25
The first thing we did when we arrived in Osaka was rush to our Osaka Guesthouse Hive to drop off our luggage. What we noticed was that this hostel was small and cramped. It was not as nice as the place we stayed at in Kyoto or Tokyo. While it was still livable, instead of capsules or pods, it was one room with bunk beds. At least smoking indoors was prohibited and we were only going to be there for one night.

We went back to the station and headed towards Okonomiyaki Momji in search of food, or so I thought. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "how you like" or "what you like", and yaki meaning "grill". After crossing the street underground and coming up on the other side, we were lost. The Google Maps GPS was throwing off our location. We must have put in the wrong location. I don't even remember if we ate lunch that day.

Osaka Castle from the outside
The Osaka Castle was closing at 5:00 PM and we wanted to make it before it closed. So, we rushed back to the station and hopped on the Osaka Loop Line. After one or two stops, I noticed we were going the opposite direction away from Osaka Castle. We jumped off and took the right one. After what seemed like a 25 minute walk from the station, we finally made it to the Osaka Castle. It is a remarkable castle, built in 1583. We paid the fee of about 600 Yen per person to go inside. There were relics and battle paintings, sculptures, and documents. While I would like to say it was well worth it, I was a bit disappointed as everything had been remodeled for tourists. From the top, you can see a good view of the city and sky line.  

A co-worker of mine had just came back from Japan two weeks before and recommended that we eat at Okonomiyaki Chitose. The restaurant is located in the outskirts of the city and in an older part of town. I zig zagged left and right and walked about 25 minutes with a hangry girlfriend only to arrive at Okonomiyaki Chitose to find it out it was closed for the day. I was ready to just pick a place nearby and eat. The place was run down and there were a lot of drinking pubs with old people singing karaoke. Definitely not the part of town that you want to spend a nice evening at.

Dontonbori! We found it!
We were determined to eat good food that night. In fact, we walked all the way back to the station and looked for the famous Dōtonbori nightlife. We ended up at Ajinoya for okonomiyaki, which is a Michelin star guide restaurant. There was about a 20 minute wait. But when we sat down and saw the food, it was well worth the wait. We've had okonomiyaki near Culver City, CA, but this was on a different level. They made their own sauce here and the flavor was just incredible. We ordered some grilled noodles and then a okonomiyaki to share. There is a great deal of other food places in Dōtonbori including restaurant that served crab and even fugu (Japanese for pufferfish). We wanted to take advantage of being in Osaka for only one day, so we found some takoyaki. Supposedly, Osaka is famous for takoyaki. After our second dinner, we were exhausted. It was time to head back to our hostel and retire for the night.

Ajinoya's Okonomiyaki
My travel partner had booked all the hostels and hotels for the trip. Day 8 is the last night in Japan and we were going to spend it in a hotel. Or so I thought. When I asked her where we had booked the hotel, she said near the airport. Then I looked at the hotel reservation and it said Narita airport hotel. Oh boy, our flight was out of Haneda. Although we were not able to get a refund for the hotel reservation, we did find a cheap hostel to stay. Stay tuned for day 8 to see how that went.

8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka

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8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara

Jul 25, 2017 -

Day 6 in Kyoto and Nara

Key Highlights

- Breakfast at Nishiki Market Sukiya (Not Recommended)
- Hike up Monkey Park Iwatayama
- Break time at Sagano Bamboo Forest
- Lunch at the JR station
- Take the JR Line to Nara
- Walk to Nara Park
- Stop by Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple
- Drinking at Harushika Brewery & Sake
- Dinner at Katsukura at the Kyoto Station

This would be our last day in Kyoto, but we would end up spending half of it elsewhere. Breakfast at the hostel was hot dogs, so we decided to pass and search for more traditional Japanese food. We left the hostel at around 9:00 AM and walked about a mile to Nishiki Market with hopes of finding breakfast there. The marketplace was relatively small, but we realized we were really early. The vendors were just setting up and nothing was really for sale. We did find a convenience store and since we were going to be out the entire day, we picked up some high quality sunscreen. It doesn't feel oily and is very light on the skin. Much better than the stuff we get in the states.

Nishiki Market - Had we stayed until it was fully opened
We figured instead of waiting around for the market to open, which looked less than spectacular compared to the Tsukiji Market, we decided to stop at a Japanese fast food place called Sukiya. This place was terrible because it was understaffed and they gave us the wrong order. We had ordered a large bowl and they gave us a normal bowl, but charged us large. They were inattentive and dismissed what I said. Needless to say, the Sukiya meal was a wasted meal.

Anyhow, onwards! Our next destination was Monkey Park Iwatayama. Rumor is that you hike up a steep mountain and at its peak there are wild Japanese monkeys that you can feed. Because they are wild animals, you have to feed them while you are caged in and they are "outside". It was quite an experience and one that I would most certainly do again.

Monkey Park Iwatayama Entrance!
After coming down the mountain, about two miles away we stopped at Sagano Bamboo Forest. It's a fairly touristy spot and easy to spot with signs pointing in the direction of the forest. Imagine bamboo to your left and right and that is literally what it is. The walkways are paved, so you aren't walking through something like an Amazon jungle.

Amazing View of the Sagano Bamboo Forest
By the time we finished both the hike up to Monkey Park Iwatayama and visited the bamboo forest, it was just past 1:00 PM. We decided to make a half day trip to Nara, which is about an hour away by rail towards Osaka. But not before we grabbed a bite to eat at the station.

When we arrived at Nara, the first thing we did was walk toward the Nara park. It is about a thirty minute walk from the station. One of the best things about Nara is the wild deer. The wild deer are a bit aggressive if you feed them, but you can get up close and personal with them. Just make sure to be firm, put your hand out against them, look big, otherwise they will walk all over you.

Yes! There is wild deer all around Nara
Just about a mile away from the park, is the Tōdai-ji Buddhist temple. It was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples. The world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocanais is housed in the Tōdai-ji temple. The temple was has since been remodeled and is a huge tourist attraction. If you make your way there you'll see a lot of large Koi fish in the lakes around the temple. For 100 Yen you could feed the Koi fish bread sticks. My travel partner and I had our fair share of temples and decided to forgo going inside due to the fee they charged of 500 Yen per person.

What is visiting Japan without visiting a sake place? About forty minutes walking distance away from the temple is Harushika Brewery & Sake. For a small fee of about 400-600 Yen, you can sample a variety of Nara's famous sake along with traditional Japanese tsukemono pickles pickled in sake lees (a by-product of the brewing process). The Harushika Brewery & Sake are English friendly. We sampled 5 different kinds of sake. They even let us keep a sake cup at the end of the experience! Before leaving the place, I bought a bottle for only 600 yen, which ended up being a souviner for my brother.

It was getting dark and we were chasing daylight. We decided to head back and find a place to eat dinner. Back at the Kyoto station, we found a Katsudon place called Katsukura at THE CUBE on the 11th floor. It was a delicious experience with sesame seeds your grind and crispy fried pork coupled with a delicious sweet and BBQ sauce. Oh they even had authentic Japanese miso soup!

Katsudon for Dinner at Katsukura
After dinner, we made our way back to the hostel to retire for the night.

8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
[Continue reading...]

8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto

Jul 17, 2017 -

Day 5 in Hakone, Ashigarashimo - Kyoto

Key Highlights

- Breakfast at Aura Tachibana

- Take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto
- Check into Prime Pod in Kyoto
- Walk to Gion District
- Lunch at fast food Japanese place
- Visited Otowa Waterfall at Kiyomizu Temple
- Shrimp tempura udon dinner at Sanshiki
- Matcha shaved ice dessert

The night before, Aura Tachibana gave us a choice of a 7:30 AM breakfast at or sometime earlier. My travel partner and I decided that we would take the last possible breakfast time because we wanted to enjoy the Japanese hot springs (onsen) more. We went to the meal in traditional Japanese clothing provided by the hotel. Again every dish was introduced to us and the food was amazing. There were pickled vegetables, squid sashimi, rice, miso soup with a crab claw, a whole fried fish, and some vegetables that we could dip in delicious sauce. By the time we had finished our meal, everyone else had left. The entire hotel staff was waiting for us. As we left they all bowed. It was then that I made use of my Japanese and thanked them for the meal. Check out was at 10:00 AM and we were definitely sad to leave.

This time instead of having to lug our luggage all the way to the metro station, we hitched a ride with a hotel driver. He dropped us off in front of the metro train station. Now that is service! Our next destination was about 5 hours away via the Shinkansen (bullet train) in Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868. It is known for its deep history in its Buddhist temples, imperial palaces, shrines and traditional houses. Geishas and female entertainers are often found in the Gion district.

Prime Pod Entrance
We purposely booked our stay at Prime Pod in Kyoto because it was only about a 5-10 minute walk from the metro station. The Prime Pod is a hostel located on the 9th floor of a skyscraper. Across the street are a bunch of street vendors and small shops catering to the large tourist crowd. In Japan there are a lot of these indoor restaurant malls except there isn't a door to get it. It's really just a huge open entrance. You are walking on the road and then next thing you know you've stumbled upon an indoor restaurant mall. Cars actually drive through the area, so it can be quite dangerous if you don't keep your eye out. One of the first things we noticed about Kyoto was that there were a lot more English friendly places than we saw in Tokyo. Maybe because the Olympics was held in Kyoto a couple decades ago?

After we checked into our hostels and dropped off our luggage, we went on a search for food. Lunch hour had passed and it was about 3:00 PM. Most of the restaurants we saw on the streets were closed or on break. Incidentally, we spotted a Japanese fast food joint with a lot of people. My travel partner made it seem like she wasn't hungry and didn't want to eat inside the fast food joint. So we decided to take the meal to go. After ordering an eel and egg with rice dish from the ticket machine, I handed the chef the ticket. We got our food in about 7 minutes.

My brother had warned me that people in Japan don't eat and walk at the same time nor do they eat on the streets. At the time, I didn't see any seats around and I forgot what my brother had said. So, we plopped down outside the restaurant and started to chow down in the middle of the street. Yeah, we got a couple glances here and there. Nobody said anything because they probably recognized that we were foreigners.

One of the things to do in Kyoto is to watch a geisha show. We made our way towards Gion district of Kyoto, but were disappointed as we only found super touristy geisha shows. They didn't get good reviews online, so we ended up passing on it. With no geisha show to watch and a couple hours to fill, we decided to head over to the Otowa Waterfall at Kiyomizu Temple. The temple was a finalist in for the New Seven Wonders of the World.

To get to the Kiyomizu Temple, you hike up a fairly steep paved road. It isn't a difficult hike because you are surrounded by touristy little shops selling Japanese souvenirs. When you get to the temple entrance, you'll see a ticket station to the right where they charge you about 400 Yen per person as an entrance fee. Once you get into the temple area and make your way to the other side of the temple, you can take stairs down to the outside lower level. There you will find three "waterfalls". Popular local belief has it that one is for longevity, another for love, and another is for knowledge. Supposedly you are to make a wish behind the falls and drink one cup. The courtyard was so large, we ended up staying until the temple closed.

Otowa Waterfall at Kiyomizu Temple
By this time the sun had set and we were chasing daylight. We decided to head back and look for a restaurant along the way. My partner was hangry. Yes, the wonderful combination of angry and hungry. Eventually we stumbled upon a small tempura udon shop at Sanshiki and since we hadn't eaten tempura or udon in Japan yet, we settled. I had the largest shrimp tempura in an udon at this place. The tempura was crispy and delicious. We decided that the tempura udon was not enough, so we got shaved ice and ice cream at a matcha place near our hostel. Both places didn't take credit card, so my cash balance was drained, but my stomach was satisfied.

Shrimp Tempura Udon 
Eventually, we wore ourselves out with walking around the touristy shops near our hostel. At that point, we decided to head for the hostel where we retired for the night.

8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
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8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone

Jul 11, 2017 -

Day 4 in Hakone, Ashigarashimo

Key Highlights

- Arrived in Hakone via Metro
- Checked into Aura Tachibana Hotel
- Pirate Ship ride around Lake Ashi
- Public Onsen at the Hotel
- Dinner at Aura Tachibana
- Private Onsen

At 8:30 AM, my girlfriend and I left the Nihombashi Bay Hotel. We made our way to the metro station and were on our way to Hakone, which is about two hours south of Tokyo. Hakone is a popular tourist destination to experience Japanese hot springs. Originally we had decided to hike part of Mt. Fuji, but the weather suggested it would be too dangerous. Our back-up plan was to visit somewhere close enough to Mt. Fuji where we could see it.

When we arrived at the station, we used Google Maps to navigate to our hotel. Although we passed a couple restaurants and small shops, we knew we were in the country side. It was about a 10 minute up hill and side-winding walk to the hotel. The moment we started to walk up to the hotel, we were surprisingly greeted by a westerner. He started speaking English to us! The whole trip up till our Hakone visit, everyone started off by speaking Japanese to us.

Pirate Ship at Lake Ashi with a view of Mt. Fuji
My girlfriend and I were ready to check in, but they were still cleaning the hotel. One of the hotel ladies said that we could keep our luggage at the hotel. Luckily we had made alternative plans to visit the nearby lake. When we figured out which bus to take, it was relatively easy to follow the plan. We took one bus all the way to a small town with a large lake. I stepped out of the bus and saw this huge lake. Lone behold, we had the opportunity to ride a pirate ship around the Lake Ashi. Although it was a bit pricey at about $15 per person, we did it anyways. One side tip, I would recommend buying the tourist package deal at the metro station. It saves you money on bus and also you get to ride the pirate ride. Individually, we probably would've saved like $20 bucks had we done that.

To offset the costs we spent at the Two Michelin Starred Omotesando Ukai-Tei, we decided to grab lunch at the local 7-11. Actually, there weren't that many food options, so we had to settle. Ramen and a rice ball were the two things we paired with two cold tea drinks for lunch. We probably spent about two and a half hours near the lake. There isn't that much to do other than taking a ride on the pirate ship. At the gift shop, they sold cheesecake Kit Kats!

One of many dishes for dinner at Aura Tachibana
We eventually made our way back to the hotel via the bus. Either the Japanese bus driver didn't really like the fact that we couldn't speak Japanese or he disliked that we didn't load our Suica cards with enough money to pay for the bus. We had enough cash to cover the bus right though, it just wasn't loaded on our cards. In any event, when we got back to the hotel, we were given a brief tour of where the public hot spring was. Then we got to our hotel room and saw a private onsen!

Private Onsen at our Hotel
Dinner was served at 7:30 PM, which was an incredible 2 hour experience. The meal was different from the Teppanyaki place in that it consisted of more traditional dishes. We were definitely full when we finished eating. Not only did we have a great view during dinner, but the server introduced each dish. After dinner, we just chilled and relaxed in the private osen.

8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
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8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo

Jul 4, 2017 -

Day 3 in Nihonbashi, Chūō - Shibuya - Taito - Asakusa - Tokyo, Japan

Key Highlights

- Breakfast Japanese Pancakes at Shinwase no pancake Omotesando
- Walking around Uenoonshi Park
- Tourist shopping around Ameya Yokocho
- Japanese Curry Lunch at Bondi jinbocho
- Visiting the Emperor's Imperial Palace
- Exploring Sensō-ji Buddhist temple
- Dinner at the Two Michelin Starred Omotesando Ukai-Tei

My travel buddy and I woke up and the first thing she wanted was Japanese pancakes. The Japanese pancakes are known for their fluffiness and lightness. We found a place in Shibuya at Shiawase no pancake Omotesando. The underground metro took us about twenty minutes from the hostel and then we walked about ten minutes to get to the hidden cafe. When we got to the pancake place, we noticed that you had to take the stairs down to get to the cafe. Luckily for us we came early enough around 8:00 AM to escape the line that would form just after we left. They were delicious to say the least and definitely not something I've found back in the United States.

We then backtracked and made our way to Uenoonshi Park in Taito, which probably took about 40-50 minutes from Shibuya. When we arrived at Ueno station, we noticed a huge shopping area across the street in Ameya Yokocho. There were a lot of street vendors trying to sell cheap stuff or touristy things. We passed by a crepes place that we sadly did not get to try. There were tons of little adorable Japanese trinkets, which I presume would've made good souvenirs. We even stumbled upon a small bakery selling animal shaped pastries near the Ueno station.

This is the Imperial Palace where the Emperor lives!
Uenoonshi Park itself was huge. We walked through the temple area and passed by a couple gardens. As with most high traffic places, there were street performers. I watched a westerner play a huge cello on the side of the street. Unfortunately, we didn't get to explore all of the park, I would have definitely loved to strolling around longer.

By the time we was finished exploring Uenoonshi Park, it was getting pretty close lunch time. We had some hungry bellies to feed. So off we went to look for our next food adventure. We had made plans to meet up with a buddy of mine in Chiyoda at around 1:00 PM. He is from the States, but lived in Japan for almost three years. We picked that spot because we also wanted to see the Tokyo Imperial Palace. This is where the emperor and his family lives. Nowadays the emperor and his family are largely figureheads much like the King and Queen in Britain. The family's palace was enormous and surrounded by a body of water, which created a huge moat. At every entrance there were multiple guards surrounding the premises. The grounds were immaculately kept. I can only imagine how much of the Japanese tax payer money goes to ensuring the place is secured and maintained.

Let's not speak of the bill, but enjoy the memories that came with the experience. 

In any case, our stomachs made the case for food. Luckily, we found a hole in the wall curry place that locals frequent. Bondi jinbocho was hidden just above an old bookstore where the entrance was in a back alley. We had difficulty finding it, but was able to ask a local couple on the street for help. Actually, my travel partner found it before they had a chance to figure out what I was saying. When we arrived it was around 1:00 PM. We were already late in meeting our friend. But he had to run some errands so he encouraged us to continue with our quest for food. The wait was about 20 minutes and well worth it as it was by far the best Japanese curry I've had anywhere in the world. Though you have to take that statement with a grain of salt. I've only eaten Japanese curry in the U.S. and now Japan.

We met up with my friend close to the Imperial Palace and circled around it to take pictures. There is a famous spot where you can take a picture of the water and have the backdrop be one of the palace's buildings. The Japanese do not allow people inside the Imperial Palace without being in a tour group and there wasn't that much to see outside, so we left after about 30 minutes. Our next stop was Sensō-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyo via Tokyo Station. Tokyo station itself was remodeled with a 1920s kind of theme. This was around the time when they were trying to westernize Tokyo.

Sensō-ji Buddhist temple with a bunch of people
Sensō-ji Buddhist temple is Tokyo's oldest temple and a famous touristy location easily recognized by the large lantern dangling at the entrance. Once you enter the temple grounds, there are a lot of different vendor stands to the left and right leading up to the temple itself. We spent some time at the temple just walking around and admiring the architecture. The crowds were enormous and there were a lot of school children on field trips.

By the time we finished at the temple, it was starting to get close to 7:30 PM. Another friend of mine had helped us make a dinner reservation at one of Tokyo's two Michelin starred Teppanyaki places. This would be our splurge meal and let me tell you it was quite the experience. Omotesando Ukai-Tei was located on the top floor of what looked like a shopping mall. My friend was kind enough to walk me to the door because he was also curious what the restaurant entailed. When I arrived at the door, I said in my broken Japanese that I had a reservation. The hostess replied quickly in Japanese and I was left befuddled. When I turned to my friend who was still standing beside me, he said, "she is asking for your name".

She welcomed us in and I bid farewell to my American friend. We were taken to a waiting area just past the hostess podium. I asked in Japanese if shoes were okay to wear at the waiting area, which they were. Immediately, I did a 360 view of my surroundings and noticed the high quality Japanese luxury decor. What have I gotten myself into? Am I going to have to pay an arm and a leg after we are all said and done? 

Within 5 minutes of sitting down, we were taken to our seats in another room. I could see the chef lined up and people from all sides were greeting us as we made our way to our seats. I'll have to admit, I was a bit nervous, so I asked to use the bathroom to gather myself. I asked in Japanese of course. To my surprise, the hostess led me straight to the bathroom door. When I came back to my seat, they started asking me in Japanese what would we like to drink. I was thrown off and told them I didn't speak Japanese. So, they started to speak English and asked if English was okay. Of course, I replied in Japanese yes. They got really confused when I answered them in Japanese, but told them that I don't speak Japanese. 

Anyways, when we finally ordered our drinks, they started pushing out the dishes. Now I am not a huge foodie, however there were some great dishes in front of me. My friend who made the reservation had already put in our orders. We had the abalone and Ukai selected beef course. The meal started with a small prawn marinated in jelly followed by foie gas roasted with eggplant and bonito marinated. When they made the Ukai-Tei's specialty abalone, it was steamed in its shell covered in a mountain of salt. The salt doesn't season the abalone, but instead was used to keep the abalone fresh and juicy. After the abalone, we had corn cream soup. The Ukai selected beef steak followed shortly after. I will tell you this is by far the best steak I've ever had. The steak melted in my mouth and had rich flavorful natural taste. It was cooked to perfection. We were then served steamed rice with small shrimps. By the end of the meal we were full.

Kobe Beef! Look at that meat marbleization!
When I was about to ask for the check, they insisted on taking us to another room for dessert and coffee with baked confectioneries! We were led to another part of the restaurant where we were allowed to select two desserts from a list of five or six. Then they brought out a cart with a bunch of desserts. We were in heaven. All in all, the meal took about 2 hours. Let's not speak of the bill, but enjoy the memories that came with the experience. 

When we finished our desserts, the hostess escorted us out of the 5 stories shopping mall. I thought she was going to walk me to the entrance and then just leave us. But, she literally walked us out to the street! I thanked her for the meal and left a satisfied customer.

We somehow found our way back home and knocked out in our pods.

8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
[Continue reading...]

8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo

Jun 26, 2017 -

Day 2 in Nihonbashi and Tsukiji, Chūō - Harujuku, Shibuya - Tokyo, Japan

Key Highlights

- Metro to Tsukiji Fish Market
- Wakaba Ramen Stand
- Tsukiji Sushisei Honten
- Shibuya Crossing
- Silkream Ice Cream
- One Piece Anime Gift Shop
- Meiji Shrine
- Harujuku Department Store and Window Shopping
- Menya Masashi Ramen

Lucky for us the flight wore us out the night before, so we knocked out at a reasonable time. Therefore we were not jet lagged at all. In the morning, we took advantage of the Nihonbashi hostel providing coffee and two croissants for breakfast.

After which, we immediately decided to head to the famous Tsukiji fish market where there were over 400 different types of seafood. Tsukiji fish market was a couple of subway stops from our hostel and less than half a mile of walking from the nearest subway stop. Along the way we passed a lot of skyscrapers and a couple of small restaurants. If you get to the Tsukiji fish market early enough say like 3:00 AM you have an opportunity to see the famous tuna auction. Evidently, we did not make that time.

Tsukiji Market Tuna with Head
At around 7:30 AM, we made our way down the outskirts of the fish market and stopped at our first food adventure. For the record, if you see locals line up, it is a good sign that the place is good. We had a second breakfast and this time it was a small ramen stand called Wakaba that barely fit the old couple running it. By the time we made it to the ramen shop, there was already a small line forming! I used my Japanese to ask for one bowl. The lady asked me to wait. Once the previous round of noodles was served, she took my order and I gave her my money. Apparently the ramen stand was featured in the New York Times as an article was taped to the side of the stand. Needless to say, the ramen was perfectly cooked and broth was flavorful, but not overly oily or salty. Definitely worth the 900 Yen or so.

Wakaba Ramen
By around 9:00 AM, we started to see random lines form in front of what looked like restaurants. Some of these restaurants just blend in with the building and look like people's houses. The Tsukiji marketplace had a tons of people trying to usher you into their restaurants. One booth purposely put out a large tuna head just to attract attention. When in fact they were only selling small pieces of the tuna for expensive prices. Other vendors would stand on a stool and pretend to be sorting out dried squid. One vendor had white strawberries, which were about 1,500 Yen or $15 USD. We hadn't seen anything like it before and had heard they were super sweet, but we resisted at the time.

The whole marketplace was about half a block. There were so many booths that we didn't know where to have our third breakfast. After circling the place about three times, we stopped at Tsukiji Sushisei Honten where it appeared to have a lot of locals lining up. We decided to line up as well not knowing if the place was good or not. After about a 30-40 minute wait the door opens and they start seating people. We were close enough to the front of the line to become one of the first 12 to be seated.

Sushi Restaurant with only 12 Seats. Best Sushi we had in Japan.

Not knowing what to get, we defaulted to the infamous omakase or meal selected by the chef. 12 pieces of sushi from the freshest fish market in the world ran us 3,600 Yen per person. The small and intimate sushi restaurant had 3 chef serving 12 people. I'm not sure if it was the fact that we were in Japan eating sushi or the fresh fish that made it good. But, every piece of sushi was incredible. You get different kinds of seafood in Japan then you do in the States. The toro part of the tuna is a lot better quality in Japan. We had a squid that was exceptionally smooth and tasty not chewy at all. We finished our third breakfast satisfied and ready to head towards Shibuya.

Exotic Fish and Delicious Mouthwatering Toro Sushi
Our next stop was Shibuya, Tokyo, which was made famous for the Shibuya crossing. Shibuya is also known for its fashion and nightlife. There are literally tens of department stores filled with people. After browsing through 9 floors of all women clothing and accessories, we found a department building with 8 floors of just men's clothing. All this walking meant we were ready to get some cremia ice cream. Creamia ice cream consists of Hokkaido milk and heavy whipped cream served in a thin cookie twisted into a cone shape. If you are looking to try this, we found ours at Silkream was where we spent $500 yen on one cone.

Cremia Ice Cream
One of my favorite stores was the Mugiwara store where I spent about an hour before purchasing three pieces of One Piece anime mugs and cups. We also stumbled upon a fruit store that sold some outrageously priced fruit. Something like a $50 USD (translated from Yen) cantaloupe. Ultimately we held off on buying any big purchases and the day was spent browsing because we didn't want to have to carry it throughout the trip.

One Piece Anime Shop in Shibuya
Next on our list was the Meiji shrine, which is also in Shibuya. The shrine itself is located in a forest consisting of 120,000 trees and over 360 different species. On the way to the main shrine up the hill, there are a couple touristy places to visit such as the cultural hall and large stacks of sake wine barrels.

When you do get to the shrine, it is important to respect the Shinto religion. You can do this by bowing at the entrance gate each time you enter and leave. Also by rinsing your hands and mouth at the temizuya and offering coins at the shrine. There is a certain way to do all of this, but it is easy enough to learn from others or by reading the instructions located near the temizuya. We witnessed two weddings ceremonies while we were at the shrine.

Near the Meiji shrine is the Harujuku metro stop, where we went down yet another busy street. We passed by a candy store with locally made candy. It was almost like a Sugarfina, but not as fancy. They made children's candy packaged in small pouches. Further down the street, we stumbled upon yet another department store. This one had a Starbucks on the top floor and then a Coldstones that served cotton candy surrounding ice cream in a cone.

More Ramen for Dinner
By the time we finished all of that, it was close to dinner time. We met up with a couple friends from United States who happened to have moved back to Japan after elementary school. Their English was not great, but we made it to Menya Musashi Ramen for our dinner. This was the first time in Japan where we saw a ticket machine. Instead of having a server take the order, there is a machine who does it. Basically what you do is put money into the machine and select the type of ramen you want. Then a ticket pops out and you give this to the chef. In any event, Menya Masashi Ramen is famous for there Tsukemen which is their dipping ramen. We ordered a couple bowls of that. All of us agreed the broth was a bit fishy, but still tasted great.

For the after dinner, we struggled between going to a bar for drinks or just doing something more low key. We learned from our Japanese friends that the Japanese love to drink and unwind after work. First we ended up at a loud drinking bar/restaurant. When we noticed that the crowd was college freshmen, we decided to go to some where quieter and get shaved ice. A lot of the department stores have specialty restaurants on the bottom floors. The malls close around 10:00 PM, so we decided to retire for the night after the scrumptious matcha shaved ice.

8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo
[Continue reading...]

8 Days in Japan - Day 1 in Tokyo

Jun 19, 2017 -

Day 1 in Nihonbashi, Chūō, Tokyo, Japan

Key Highlights

- Exchanged USD to JPY at a 7 Bank ATM
- Activated JR passes at Haneda Airport
- Metro and Walked to Hostel at Nihonbashi Muromachi Bay Hotel
- Ate Dinner at Ginza Noodles Clam Ramen at the Coredo Shopping Mall

It was Thursday night and I was rushing to the Los Angeles airport at 9:00 PM to catch my 1:00 AM flight. This would be my first experience in a foreign country in just over a year. My last international trip was ten days in Australia. We had planned a 9 days 8 nights vacation eating fest in Japan. This post documents our arrival and first night in Japan.

The flight to Japan was not direct as we had a 7 hour layover in Shanghai Pudong Airport. When we finally arrived at Haneda airport it was already two days later and nighttime. Aside from using the restroom in the airport, the first thing we did was to find the nearest 7 Bank or 7-11 ATM. The 7-11 ATMs don't charge my Capital One 360 bank account any fees. The best thing about them is that they will translate fairly close to the latest foreign exchange rate. After the ATM, we went to activate our Japan Rail passes in a nearby information center. We took the first metro rail out to our hostel. The reason why we chose this location was because it was fairly close to the famous Tsukiji fish market, Shibuya crossing, and metro stop.

Knowing my first day in Japan could've been my last, I thanked her in Japanese and then headed towards the direction she pointed. 

What you will notice in Japan is that the street signs mean nothing to foreigners. They are hard to read and it is even more difficult to figure out what street you are on and what the building address is. The street lighting at night was extremely dim. It made hauling our luggage difficult. All the while, I was trying to navigate us via Google Maps to our hostel. After walking back and forth for about ten minutes, I was at a loss.

Hostel Bay Hotel Entrance
It was time for me to go into a Lawson (common convenience store in Japan) and ask for directions. I had heard the Japanese were extremely helpful. Here was my chance to put my broken Japanese to the test and see if the rumors of helpful Japanese were true.

"Konnichiwa, kore (pointed to the hostel name) doko desu ka?" (hi, where is this?), I said to the lady working the register. She started firing off a bunch of Japanese, which I had no idea what she meant. She saw my puzzled face and started to walk outside of the shop and pointed in the direction of the hostel. All I could see was pitch black in the direction she pointed. I replied in English, "That way?". She nodded. Knowing my first day in Japan could've been my last, I thanked her in Japanese and then headed towards the direction she pointed.

We arrived in front of the Nihonbashi Muromachi Bay Hotel, the entrance was clearly labeled Bay Hotel. We had to enter two automatic sliding doors before getting to the lobby. One thing about Japanese hostels is that most of them make you take off your shoes. Call it an Asian thing or whatever.

We proceeded to take off our shoes and to the left of us there were lockers with keys. The idea was to swap out your shoes for the slippers in the lockers. We locked our shoes in the lockers and then took the key to the receptionist and told him that we were checking in. He then asked for our passports. When everything was said and done, I had a towel, toiletries, my room and locker key, and was on my way to the second floor where I would be staying for the duration of my visit.

A view of 4 Hostel Pods at the Nihonbashi Muromachi Bay Hotel
My room key let me into the men's locker room. Luckily enough, my carry-on was able to fit in the luggage locker. The hostels we stayed at in Japan had sleeping pods, which were individual rectangular shaped sleeping areas. Japanese hostels are extremely clean because they typically make you check out at 10:00 AM and spend the entire day until 3:00 PM cleaning. You aren't allowed back to the hostel during that time.

Finally it was time for the first meal of the day. Again we asked in broken Japanese, where was the nearest restaurant. He said down the street. We used Yelp and was able to find a tempura place, but found out that it was about to close. Then we went to a Japanese shopping mall nearby called Coredo. It must have had at least four floors and was connected to the subway. Our first meal of the day was ramen with clam at Ginza Noodles Clam Ramen.

Clam Ramen from Ginza Noodles Clam Ramen at the Coredo Floor 2
After dinner, it was getting pretty late, so we headed back through the dim lit streets of Nihonbashi and knocked out in our sleeping pods.

8 Days in Japan - Day 2 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 3 in Tokyo
8 Days in Japan - Day 4 in Hakone
8 Days in Japan - Day 5 in Kyoto
8 Days in Japan - Day 6 in Kyoto/Nara
8 Days in Japan - Day 7 in Yamazaki/Osaka
8 Days in Japan - Day 8 in Tokyo

[Continue reading...]
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