Japan 2017: Osaka
Visiting Japan during cherry blossom season was one of our vacation goals. We have traveled to Tokyo and wanted to visit another part of Japan with Osaka at the top of the list. Osaka is also close to other cities we wanted to visit, Kyoto and Nara. We stayed in Osaka for six days but we could have easily stayed another week.
I purchased a SIM for my wife’s phone at the arrivals terminal of Kansai Airport. Look for a large sign that says SIM on it or ask the information desk. The SIM card was ¥5,000 for 2GB of data and unlimited local calls. It was a bit expensive but we needed a way to contact our AirBnb host in the event we needed something. Thankfully, our AirBnb booking came with a portable WiFi.
We purchased two ICOCA and Haruka bundles from the JR office in the airport. The total cost was ¥8,400. The ICOCA cards come pre-loaded with ¥1500 with a ¥500 deposit. These are the tap and go cards for the subway and JR rail stations. The Haruka ticket was a round trip ticket to the city. You can stop at Tennoji station or Shin-Osaka station. If you have an ICOCA card, you can buy the Haruka pass into the city for ¥2,200. We only used the rail systems while in the city.
We stayed in Ashihara at this AirBnB. I was a bit disappointed with the location since it was outside of the “blue circle” on the neighborhood section of AirBnB. We wanted to stay closer to the subway or closer to Namba station. We didn’t want to cancel, so we made it work. We definitely got our steps in.
The Fun Stuff
I did not take a lot of pictures because I was using my GoPro. A lot of video was shot using the GoPro and will be compiled into a video at a later date.
The Osaka aquarium was amazing. It houses many different animals ranging from dolphins, penguins, whale sharks, otters and other aquatic animals. The aquarium is laid out like a screw. An escalator takes you to the entrance, a few floors up and you walk down looking at exhibits. The outer walls have various exhibits from different parts of the world while the center exhibit houses the main tank. The main tank houses a few species of sharks including whale sharks, a few species of rays, and a few species of fish. This was the first time I’ve seen whale sharks in person and they were amazing to behold. Overall, this is one of the best aquariums I have visited.
My wife suggested this park for our cherry blossom viewing. She read about it in a few blogs and heard about it from friends who have visited previously. The park was huge and we walked about 1.5 kilometers taking pictures and videos along the way. It was overcast but the trees looked beautiful.
Osaka has a lot of shrines and temples. It seems like every few blocks we would see one. We observed a few rituals, especially the flinging of water on Buddhist statues.
Japanese cuisine, awesome. Japanese pancakes, awesome. Japanese versions of western food, awesome. I didn’t have a bad meal in Osaka.
Ramen – Hanamaruken
Sushi – Harukoma
Breakfast – Eggs ‘n Things
CrossFit and Game Stores
We checked out CrossFit Hommachi A+ and CrossFit Minami while in Osaka. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures while inside A+ and CF Minami was closed for a private class. A+ has a few rules if you want to drop it. All tattoos must be covered or they will not let you workout. It’s a Japanese custom since tattoos are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese crime group/gang). Also, dropping weights are not allowed. The coach at CF Minami however said dropping weights is allowed in his gym. We didn’t get to drop in but we did purchase a few shirts.
Iconoclasm was on my list of stores to visit in Nipponbashi Denden Town, the anime/toy district. The front of the building has a small Warhammer 40k diorama which was a great eye catcher. The shop is not large but it is packed full of wargaming stuff. The main games featured were Warhammer 40k and Warmachine/Hordes.
Universal Studios Japan
My wife and I love visiting theme parks, especially American ones in foreign countries. We look for different foods in concession stands and if rides have changed. The main draw for us was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The lines were not too long and each ride was worth it. This was another great Japanese theme park experience.
Nishinomaru Garden is located west of Osaka castle. Entrance into this garden is not free, we payed ¥350 per person. The garden has a large lawn, a large number of cherry blossom trees and great views of Osaka castle. We did not explore most of the north end of the garden but we did stay until evening. At night, the garden lights up with some spotlights on the cherry blossom trees and other lights lining the paths. If you’re willing to pay the entrance fee, this is a great spot to hang out and enjoy the cherry blossoms.
Thoughts on Osaka
We did a lot more stuff in Nara and Kyoto but that’s for a different post. I was not able to list everything we did but we had a great time. We met up with a few friends and enjoyed the city together. I’m not sure where we are going to next, maybe the Philippines or Korea. Look out for the video.
Lift Heavy and Level Up!
Amsterdam was our last stop on our European honeymoon and also the shortest. Three days were not enough to fully explore this amazing city.
Since this was the last leg of the trip and the shortest, we didn’t purchase a new SIM. We decided to use our SIM cards from the previous countries until we used up all the minutes and data. We would switch to WiFi whenever possible to cut back on data usage.
We picked up a three day Amsterdam Travel Ticket for €26. This Smart Ticket or (OV-chipkaart) is easy to use and you can choose a longer duration, up to seven days. Getting on a bus or train is easy, you tap it on a pad on trams and buses. It also comes with a transportation map which was helpful. The ticket covers the train from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Central Station. This is convenient since you do not need to purchase separate tickets for the public transport in the city. We used the Citymapper app to navigate around the city. It’s a lot better than Google maps for transportation schedules.
We stayed in Amy’s Blue Room on the historic Haarlemmerdijk. It’s a short distance to central station, two stops on the bus. You can easily get to the other parts of the city from Central Station. It’s about one kilometer to the Anne Frank House and the city cente, and it’s a nice neighborhood to walk through.
The Fun Stuff
The Canal District
We loved walking through the canal district. The clean streets, iconic architecture and fresh air were a welcomed break from the busy streets of London, Rome and Paris. While not many places of interest are in the canal district, the scenery and architecture is well worth the stroll. We would buy pastries and hang out along the canals which looks great at night as well.
Anne Frank House and Museum
The Anne Frank house and museum was a short walk from our place. I did not read her diary growing up but the museum gives a great history of her life. The museum did not allow pictures to be taken inside which was a relief. The wife and I were able to just immerse ourselves in her story without trying to take pictures. I was able to read excerpts from the original diary which was a great experience. We picked up a copy of her diary in the gift shop, which I will read soon.
If you are a Heineken drinker, this is a must visit. The Heineken Experience is a tour through the first Heineken brewery in Amsterdam. You learn the history of Heineken and how their beer is made. Beer is no longer brewed in the building but kegs are shipped in from their closest brewery. Two glasses of beer are included with the ticket.
Van Gogh Museum
My wife and I decided to visit the Van Gogh museum instead of the Rijksmuseum. We wanted to visit both but we were limited on time. She’s a fan of Van Gogh’s work and wanted to see more of his paintings. If you’re a fan of Van Gogh, this visit is worth the trip.
Thoughts on Amsterdam
I didn’t mention everything we did in Amsterdam above. We went to the red light district, coffee shops and two CrossFit gyms (they were closed). We had a blast and we wish we spent more time here. In retrospect, we would have cut two days from Paris, and stayed the extra days in Amsterdam. I hope you enjoyed my recap of our honeymoon. If you have any questions feel free to comment or use the contact form, safe travels.
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Euro Trip 2016: Rome Video
Rome was the third stop on our European honeymoon. My last visit to Rome was 25-26 years ago. I was around four and do not remember much. My return to Rome was with my wife and I couldn’t have asked for a better travel partner. Main points of interest on this trip was the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
We picked up a new set of SIM cards from TIM. It came with a few gigs of data and costs about $30.00. The coverage was great and data speeds were fast. We would switch to WiFi once we got home which made the data last about five days.
From the airport, we used an airport shuttle that was offered at the airport. It was about €10.00 per person. We used the same service to transport us back to the airport for our flight to Amsterdam. The subway system in Rome is small compared to Paris and London. It contains only two lines that run near the center of the city. The bus system is your go to for public transportation. We picked up the three day pass and a two day pass from a local convenience store. They also sell passes at kiosks around Termini station.
We stayed in an AirBnB on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Aside from the awesome name (my first name is Emmanuel), it’s within walking distance of many tourists spots. We walked to the Vatican, Pantheon and Trevi fountain. Unlike Paris, we booked a room but it had a bathroom which was a plus. The person checking us in was very helpful and gave us directions to laundromats, popular eatery’s and tourist spots.
The Fun Stuff
The Colosseum is an iconic Roman structure. It’s featured in most if not all films that portray ancient Rome. It’s also the setting for one of my favorite films depicting ancient Rome, Gladiator. The structure is large but not as large as I imagined. If naval battles were fought in the arena, the ships would have to be really small. We walked around the ancient arena and then headed towards the Forum.
The Forum was a short walk from the Colosseum. The Forum contained ruins, churches and other buildings. Some of the churches were old temples that were converted when Christianity became the national religion of the empire.
My wife and I are both Catholic and the Vatican was at the top of our must visit places. We visited St. Peters Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museum. Like Paris, we were able to attend mass in St. Peters. While there Pope Francis give his weekly address in St. Peters square. We were able to view great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as well as the Pieta. Some of the papal tombs were open and we were able to walk through them. Unfortunately we were not able to see the tomb of John Paul II, but we were able to view St. Peters tomb.
The Pantheon is one of the more famous churches in Rome. It was a former temple that was converted into a church. Two famous tombs can be found in the Pantheon. The tomb of King Victor Emmanuel II (pictured above) and the tomb of the famous artist Raphael.
CrossFit Villa Albani
A trip to Rome wouldn’t be complete without visiting a CrossFit gym. Simonetta, the owner, was very welcoming and asked us to sign her wall in the lobby. We picked up a few shirts after taking a tour. We didn’t get to workout but hopefully we will the next time we visit Rome.
Our trip to Rome was amazing and we were sad to leave. We had a great time wandering streets and eating amazing Italian food. I’m going to miss the pizza and I’m sure my wife will miss the gelato. This will not be our last trip to Rome.
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Paris 2016 Video
Paris was the second stop on our European honeymoon and the top pick on my wife’s list of cities to visit. She was very excited and so was I. I couldn’t wait to see the churches, museums and eat in the different cafes. She couldn’t wait to see the Eiffel Tower. After London, we were ready to take on the most romantic city.
We narrowed the list of cell service providers to SFR and Orange. After reading many reviews and talking to a few locals. SFR and Orange were the best providers. We went with Orange since it was the closest store to our apartment. We payed €40 each. It was more expensive than a London SIM but it was slightly cheaper than a pocket WiFi. The service was great and we didn’t lose signal while in Paris. We made use of the data and talk time by calling each other when we ventured off on our own. I would recommend them if you need cell service in Paris.
We arrived at Gare du Nord and was planning on calling an Uber for transport to the apartment. I wasn’t able to get service so we decided to find a taxi service. Here, is where I screwed up. You should always go with an official taxi to avoid getting ripped off. We went with an unmarked cab and it costed us €75! The fare should have been about half that. It was an expensive lesson but I’ll be more cautious next time.
While in the city we purchased five day passes for public transportation. The total cost for zones 1-3 was about €40. This was a great deal since we spent a lot more than that in London. It came with unlimited use of both bus and metro. We also used Uber for a few late night commutes, which were great. We also used Uber to get to the Orly airport which was about $40.
We used Air BnB and stayed in the 4th arrondissement. It was a small apartment but it had everything we needed. It was close to a lot of different attractions. The Lourve, Notre Dame, Musee d’Orsay and Sainte Chapelle were about one to two stop on the metro or bus.
The Fun Stuff
Notre Dame is one of the churches that I have always wanted to visit. It’s pictured in many movies especially in the Disney classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dam. After visiting churches in London I was eager to see the churches in Paris. We were able to attend Sunday mass at this cathedral and it was beautiful. The choir was amazing and even though we didn’t understand French we felt the presence of God.
Not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral is the Sainte-Chapelle chapel. It is a small one room chapel but it has beautiful stained glass windows. Information detailing the restoration of the chapel is also on display
The Louvre is one of the worlds most famous museums. Within it’s three wings it houses priceless art pieces. The Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the winged victory are on display as well as other famous works. The Louvre is was on my bucket list and I couldn’t wait to explore.
I was able to see the Eiffel Tower during the day and night. They had an awesome light show at night.
Arc de Triomphe
Paris was amazing but we should have stayed for a shorter time. Five days was too long, since we saw all the things we wanted in three days. We still had a great time and would love to visit again.
Lift Heavy and Level Up!
When I was discussing our European honeymoon my wife and I picked out four cities. My first choice was London. I wanted to visit London after watching BBC shows like Sherlock, Dr. Who and Luther. One of my favorite holiday films is Love Actually, set in London.
We were able to purchase Lebara SIM cards at Heathrow airport for £25. They also had other options in a vending machine but a Lebara representative gave us a good deal. We were able to get 5gb of data and 500 minutes of talk time.
We got into the city on a train from Heathrow to Paddington station. It was about £10 each person. From Paddington we purchased an oyster card to use on the Underground/Tube. We didn’t buy the all day passes and instead opted for a pay as you go. The train and bus system was easy to navigate, especially using the City Mapper app. We would also take Uber rides if we stayed out too late or had to go to a place that was out of the way.
London was the most expensive place for travel. The daily cap for fares were £9.40 but I’m sure I paid more than that in fares based on credit card statements. London is the worst in public transport cost if you’re staying under seven days.
We stayed in North Peckham in the Southwark borough. London has great public transportation and we were able to get to any area of the city fairly quickly using the bus system.
The Fun Stuff
During the planning of the trip, we picked places we had to visit: Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abby and the London Eye. We also strolled through neighborhoods like Soho, Covent Garden and Notting Hill. There were a lot more places but it would be boring to list them.
The Tower of London has a lot of history. The former fortress holds the crown jewels of the monarchy. Crowns of past kings and queens are also on display as well other royal regalia.
We were able to get tickets to the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at Palace Theater. It was my first large theater production and it was a great experience. I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series but I didn’t want to read the screenplay for the Cursed Child. I was hoping they would make it into a movie or I would watch it live. Thankfully, the theater had tickets for sale. We didn’t realize how fortunate we were until we talked to people at the Harry Potter store in Kings Cross Station.
Before heading to London I researched some stores I wanted to visit. Orc’s Nest is a famous game store in London that has a large selection of table top games and accessories. They had a small wargaming section but no Warmachine or Guild Ball models. I wish we had a game store like this back home.
Final Thoughts on London
Europe 2016: Honeymoon Edition
We purchased SIM cards in London, Paris and Rome. We did not purchase SIM cards in Amsterdam, instead we used our previous SIM cards and roamed. This lasted about three days into our trip to Amsterdam which was enough.
Airfare and Transportation
I booked my tickets using Kayak and my train ticket using Eurostar. Each city has a different system for public transportation which we picked up after landing. We also used Uber for a few rides in London and Paris. This was the first time using Uber and it took a few rides to get used to using it and the etiquette when using it. The app didn’t update numbers when switching SIM cards which I found out the hard way. Overall, I had a great experience with Uber and the drivers I interacted with.If you plan on using taxis to get to your accommodation, use a legitimate one. Their will be people asking you if you need a taxi in the airport terminals and some of them are not legitimate. Make sure they have a meter and a taxi sign or licence. They prey on tourists and will overcharge you.
Another great app to download would be City Mapper. This app was a lifesaver on the trip. It requires an internet connection but you can use it offline if you save routes. You pick a starting point or use your GPS location and pick a destination. The app then calculates the quickest route to your destination including all forms of public transportation. It also calculates driving, walking and rider sharing apps like Uber. This made navigating the city that much easier. It doesn’t have all major cities so check the website to see if the one you’re visiting is on there.
Some currency exchanges have commissions and the trading rate was higher than the bank rate. Make sure you inform your bank before traveling. Most banks will lock your account since withdrawals from a foreign country looks suspicious.
My wife and I have a travel friendly credit card. We do not get charge foreign transaction fees and we get the best dollar to euro/pound conversion rate as opposed to cash. The rates are made by Visa which is close to the bank currency exchange rate.