EATING, SHOPPING, GETTING AROUND: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 2)

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TRANSPORTATION

Japan is famous for its reliable public transport network, and it really works very well.

Metro: In cities the metro and urban rail systems are the easiest way to get around. There are plenty of trains and signage is good. Rush hour (which seems to be from 6pm until forever) is insanely busy, but you can always get on a train as people push themselves in.

Bus: Buses are very good and easy to use when you are on board. You pay with your metro card and there are usually digital displays showing upcoming stops. The tricky thing is to find the right bus to take, as there are sometimes many stops next to each other with only Japanese signs.

Google Maps: I did pretty much all of my journeys with Google Maps, and it worked really well. You get options of different lines and cost of the trip, as well as train times (which is very useful when more than one line stops at the same platform). The only difficulty was with some buses as Google Maps wasn’t very good at showing bus stops. But overall I’d have spent a lot more time thinking of how to get to places if it weren’t for Google Maps.

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The best way to pay for your trips is to use a metro card (Pasmo or Suica) which you can get at ticket machines. Journey prices vary depending on the distance, but with a card you just top up a few thousand yen and recharge when you run out (they even have machines inside the barriers in case you run out of credit during a trip).

TOKYO TRANSPORTATION

Tokyo has an intricate metro and train system, but it’s not too difficult to navigate. The stations are often huge (Shinjuku receives 3 million commuters every day, making it the busiest station in the world), with lots of shops and restaurants both in and outside the barriers.

Most popular areas will have a few metro stations, and the JR Yamanote line is a circular line that goes around many of the main areas of Tokyo. The city is very flat so you can also cover a lot on foot, which is a great way of discovering little streets off the beaten track.

There is no weekly or monthly pass covering all types of transportation, so topping up a metro card is the easiest option.

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JR PASS

Buying a JR Pass is the best option for those travelling around Japan. It is a train pass that covers all Japan Rail (JR) trains, some Shinkansen (bullet trains) and some urban trains. There are options for 7, 14 or 21 days. I bought the 21-day option at £387 because I was doing two long Shinkansen trips and that in itself already covered the cost of the pass.

I also used it in shorter trips and lots around Tokyo (it covers the Yamanote line which is very useful). It is definitely a good thing to buy if you’re doing any Shinkansen trips.

You need to buy it before you get to Japan (although at the moment they’re trialling selling it in some places there), and you exchange it once you get there. It’s very easy to use an you can find all the info here.

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GETTING ONLINE

Having a data plan on my phone from the moment I arrived in Japan made a huge difference for my trip. You can buy different plans on arrival at Narita Airport.

I bought the Docomo SIM for Y6500 for 30 days including 5GB, and for me that was a good option. There are many kiosks with different offers so I kind of chose randomly, but there’s a good guide here.

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Some hotels and Airbnbs give you portable WiFi devices which are also an alternative, but from my experience these aren’t always reliable so I was happy to have my own data plan as a backup.

Tokyo stations, large shops and convenience stores often have WiFi spots.

Because Japanese addresses are tricky to understand, if you’re looking for specific places such as restaurants you definitely need reliable access to the internet, so I wouldn’t risk going without to save money.

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MAKING LIFE EASY: CONVENIENCE STORES, VENDING MACHINES, COIN LOCKERS

Given how different Japan is from Europe, they really make it easy for you to do things.

Vending machines are everywhere (most selling soft drinks), as are convenience stores – locally known as combini – which are great places to find unusual snacks and drinks. They are open 24h and sell everything you may need. After a while you start to prefer specific snacks from specific shops (Lawson, 7 Eleven and Family Mart are the most common).

Coin lockers are another great Japanese ubiquity. Available in most stations, it is the simplest way to store your luggage (or shopping) while you explore the city.

All of the above can often be paid with your metro card, which is a nice and easy thing to do.

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MONEY

Japan is famously expensive, but you actually don’t need to spend that much to do things once you’re there.

My main expenses were plane tickets (cheap at around £450), my rail pass (21 days for almost £400) and accommodation (between £20-£35 per night, which is not a lot but I did stay there just over one month). So I spent most before I actually got there.

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On the day to day I found things pretty cheap: a metro ride will cost less than £1.50, entrance to temples and museums is usually around Y500 and food is cheap at combini or restaurant chains. Things to buy are also usually cheaper than in the UK.

Tokyo Cheapo is a great website with lots of tips on how to save money and free things to do.

I spent a lot of my time in Tokyo just walking around and taking it all in, which doesn’t really cost anything. So I found that Japan wasn’t a particularly expensive country and you can definitely save money – but of course there are plenty of options to splurge if you want to.

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SHOPPING

Japan is a shopping paradise, and even though I’m not one for shopping, I still visited tons of shops, bought some things (mostly pens and bath salts) and was fascinated by the insane amount of things to buy. You often walk into a shop only to discover it actually covers many floors.

There are countless articles and videos about where to buy stuff, but my favourite shops were:

  • Tokyu Hands and Loft: both had tons of all sorts of products and particularly great stationery supplies;
  • Muji and Uniqlo: even though you get these in the UK, they have different products in Japan (Muji has lots of yummy snacks) and are worth a visit.

Discount shops such as Daiso and Don Quijote are good for the prices, but they are often very busy and chaotic – not the best shopping experience.

Things are overall reasonably priced and good quality, and you can find lots of interesting things to buy.

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FOOD

I knew that Japanese food wasn’t going to be veggie-friendly, so I did a lot of research in advance. The fact that Japan is also full of amazing restaurants, street food and cafes makes it harder – it’s just not a place that lets you forget about food.

Restaurants in Japan often specialise in one thing, so a sushi restaurant may really only serve sushi – which means it’s best to look for places that specialise in something which usually has veggie options.

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Self-catering was a huge help, as were Happy Cow’s recommendations. We did find quite a few great options for veggie places all over Tokyo and Kyoto, and although they weren’t particularly expensive as compared to the UK, these were not everyday options.

Some cheap restaurants do have a few veggie options: Coco Ichibanya, a popular Japanese curry house have a full vegan menu (curries for about Y700); Saizeriya, an Italian-ish family restaurant has veggie pizza and pasta for as little as Y299 and a small glass of wine for Y100; Tenya Tendon has veggie tempura (a bit greasy) for around Y500.

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Combini have plenty of veggie snacks (but not many meals), including onigiri (rice balls) which are often labelled in English and a good selection of baked goods. I also found that Muji had a great selection of yummy snacks – a bit more expensive than at combini, but also better quality.

One thing about buying snacks is that in Japan you’re not supposed to eat in public transportation or while walking – so you need to find a place where to sit and eat your food too.

Also useful was Google Translate, which gives you the option to look up images and translate them, which allowed me to check ingredient lists with a good success rate.

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But despite Japanese food not being particularly veggie-friendly, I did find they had an enormous amount of options for coffee and pastry places – from cheap cafe chains to fancy bakeries. These are great for a break and were reliably good, so I preferred to look out for dessert places.

A great find was Milk, that has a stall at Shinjuku station serving the creamiest soft-serve (for Y500). I also tried itayaki (a fish-shaped sweet pancake filled with custard or bean paste) and mochi (a sweet made of rice flour filled with different flavours – the traditional ones like red bean paste are vegan). And Harajuku is full of sweets and snack places.

So although veggies and vegans do miss out on some of the impressive array of Japanese food, doing some research makes it easier, and you definitely get to try a good range of different things.

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THE BEST GELATO IN ROME: 4 of the best places for a treat

Gelato is always a highlight of my trips to Italy, so in my last visit to Rome I did some research and tried a few of the best. Here are four great places for the perfect gelato stop:

1. Tre Scalini

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This place is famous for its delicious chocolate tartufo, a frozen ice cream dessert. And it was really good indeed. Tre Scalini is located at the heart of the very touristy Piazza Navona, but the tartufo is worth battling the crowds (and the 10€ it costs).

2. Venchi

Venchi is famous for its delicious chocolate, but in their shops you can also get gelato (they even have shops at the airport so you can have one final treat just as you board the plane). I tried hazelnut and fiordilatte (simple milky ice cream which is perfect if you like traditional flavours) – creamy and delicious!

3. Giolitti

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Giolitti is a nice cafe not far from the Pantheon, with amazing pastries and a salad bar on display. But it’s mostly popular for its great ice cream. I tried lemon (refreshing and juicy) and Disaronno – yum!

4. Della Palma

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Della Palma serves over 150 flavours of gelato, which is not normally a deciding factor for me as I tend to stick to the basics. But this really is an impressive display, and you can spend quite a while trying to settle on the perfect combination of flavours. I had creamy pistachio and lemon – both just so delicious! I’m not sure, but this place my actually be my favourite!

I didn’t have time to visit all the places in my list, which also included Fatamorgana, San Crispino and Carapina – another reason to go back!

Where are you going for the perfect gelato break?

WALLET SHOPPING IN EDINBURGH (and other weird travel traditions)

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When you go to a new place you’re probably interested in the local attractions, culture or atmosphere. But often the most memorable part of a trip is about something much more personal, which may not be relevant to anyone else.

The first time I went to Edinburgh was in the middle of the winter, and the weather was horrid the whole time. At some point me and my friends stumbled upon this nice shop (Ness, still a favourite) and I bought a wallet.

Six years on, I’ve been to Edinburgh many times, and so far I’ve bought three other wallets while there. In fact, ever since I moved to the UK, I’ve only ever bought wallets in Edinburgh – how weird is that?

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Travel traditions can start anywhere – maybe you have a Royale with cheese every time you’re in Paris because of that scene from Pulp Fiction; maybe you always go back to the cheapest restaurant in Marrakech because that funny waiter is still there many years later; or maybe you’re a Shakhtar fan because of that time you spent ten days in Donetsk.

And you don’t necessarily need to travel to the same place many times to create a tradition. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding your favourite restaurant on your first evening in a new city and coming back again and again.

But mostly, the little traditions you create on the road can make wherever you are a little bit your own, and make a trip that little bit more special.

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I can’t wait to go back to Jordan and have labneh for breakfast every day!

VEGGIE TRAVELLING: How to make the best of food on the road

It’s not always easy to get veggie food in unknown places, but I’ve actually had lots of great meals abroad. And as my boyfriend is a vegan, food is always at the top of our mind when we travel.

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Here are my top tips for making the best of local food while travelling:

1. Do your research:

I always stop at Happy Cow before going abroad. It’s a really comprehensive directory for veggie places everywhere, and it includes not only restaurants but also health food stores. We’ve found some amazing gems through this website and it never disappoints!

2. Know the local fare:

Ah, the Balkans! We had the best time travelling across the region last year, but veggie food really isn’t that popular over there. Doing some research in advance makes life a lot easier in tricky places – locals may not be used to veggie diets, but most places offer dishes which are naturally veggie. If you know what you can eat in advance, you can simply look out for that on the menu.

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3. Consider self-catering:

Eating out is great, but making your own food can be easier sometimes – plus it’s a lot cheaper! This way you can make sure to get a good selection of food everyday. Then choose a good restaurant that caters for your needs and make it a special night out!

4. Choose the destination by the food:

I didn’t go to Rome this month because of the food (I promise!) but that wouldn’t be a bad option. Many places, from India to Jordan, have great veggie food and other places are catching up nicely – veganism is all the rage in Germany these days!

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Where are you going for that special dinner?