Snapshot Sunday: The Yuantong Temple

[ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”The Pavilion at Yuantong Temple – Kunming, Yunnan – China” position=”center”]

With a history of more than 1,200 years, Kunming’s Yuantong Temple is the most important Buddhist temple in Yunnan Province. In addition to its elegant octagonal pavilion, the grounds are also home to two thirty-foot tall dragons – symbols of an emperor in Chinese feudal society.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Japan Costs: $150 a Day

Japan isn’t the best place for budget backpackers like us, but it’s such a great country we ended up spending six weeks there anyways. Cities like Kyoto and Tokyo can be prohibitively expensive, and at the one-month mark our daily average was up over $170! Strangely enough, spending a couple of weeks on a tropical island in Okinawa brought our daily average down and by the end we squeezed into our planned budget of $150.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

[ptcPhoto filename=”IshigakiBeach.jpg” title=”IshigakiBeach” caption=”Sunset Beach in Ishigaki was all but deserted – and free to visit.” position=”center”]

Given the steep price to travel in Japan, we had to find some ways to cut back. As always, we would have done better budget-wise had we focused on cutting food and lodging costs. But who wants to eat instant noodles when there’s delicious sushi everywhere? Actually the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are usually a great deal, with plates (two pieces of nigiri) starting at around ¥150 ($1.50) each. Malls and department stores will generally have a handful of really good, reasonably priced restaurants tucked away on the basement floors, and ramen shops like Ippudo aren’t a bad deal either.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ConveyorBelt.jpg” title=”Conveyor” caption=”A conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyoto” position=”center”]

Also make sure you check out local grocers. They’ll have a large selection of tasty prepared foods, and prices are marked down in the evenings around 7:00 (sometimes you’ll find items up to 75% off!). Everything is prepared fresh daily, so there’s no need to worry about spoiled meals if you eat them within a day or two. Most hotels will have a fridge you can use, either in the room or in a common area. Worst-case scenario, do try their instant noodles – they’re surprisingly good. We also got into the habit of buying frozen packs of edamame (soybeans) and letting them defrost in the fridge or our backpack for a few hours. They make for an affordable, healthy snack.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraEel.jpg” title=”Eel meal” caption=”One of our splurge meals – an eel restaurant in Nara” position=”center”]

Lodging is another thing that’s pricey in Japan. On average we spent more than $60 a night, so in retrospect it would have been a good place for couch surfing. We’ve heard that people sleep overnight in internet cafes but didn’t try it ourselves. Also, some deals can be had on capsule hotels but many of them are for men only (and none of them are quite big enough for Eric’s 6’4″ body). Like in Korea, they also have Love Motels but we didn’t get a chance to stay in one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Tatami.jpg” title=”Tatami” caption=”Traditional tatami rooms are sometimes more affordable.” position=”center”]

To save on transportation, stay far far away from taxi cabs. The flag will drop at $6 and climb with alarming speed. Countless articles will tell you that the JR (Japan Rail) pass is a good deal, but there’s no way it would have been a bargain for us. I won’t go into too much detail, but the cheapest rail pass (good for only seven days) is ¥37,800 ($378), and we only spent $354 each over the course of six weeks. You’d have to be moving VERY quickly and take the Shinkansen (bullet trains) everywhere to get your money’s worth out of a rail pass.

If you do want to take the Shinkansen without a rail pass, look into what is called the Puratto Kodama, a discounted ticket that can be purchased at some major train stations. We bought a ticket a few days ahead of time and paid $98 each to travel on a (slightly slower) bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo – a savings of almost $40 each. Our transportation figures don’t include getting to Okinawa since we left Japan for a couple of months and then used miles to go back – flights from the mainland would have increased our in-country transportation costs considerably.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BulletTrain.jpg” title=”Bullet train” caption=”Shinkansen trains go up to 320 kilometers (almost 200 miles) per hour.” position=”center”]

It’s not hard to find free entertainment in Japan. During our time in Okinawa we borrowed snorkels from the guesthouse and hung out on the pristine beaches, which didn’t cost a thing. The cities are full of good deals too, though. For example, if you want to go to the Osaka Aquarium (highly recommended), grab a Kaiyu Pass for $26 a person. It covers entry to the aquarium and unlimited metro rides for the whole day. Tokyo in particular is packed with fun neighborhoods where you can just walk around snapping photos.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shinjuku.jpg” title=”Shinjuku” caption=”In Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood” position=”center”]

Some attractions in Kyoto will cost more during autumn when the leaves change. I imagine it’s worth the extra cost to get up close to the Japanese maples in the traditional gardens – the rainbow of fall colors would make for some fantastic photos. Shrines are usually free, although some temples will charge a small fee to enter.

One great thing about Japan is that there’s always something to see even if you’re just wandering around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Chest.jpg” title=”Chesty” caption=”Some things are entertaining because they’re confusing.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Escarator.jpg” title=”In Kyoto Station” caption=”This too – do you see it?” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $149.71 (or $74.86 per person per day), so we came in just under our goal of $150 a day.

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which include a $200 ferry from South Korea the first time around, and a couple months later, a $40 flight from Taipei, Taiwan (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 41 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $2,520.86 $61.48 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $33 in Ishigaki to $86 in Kyoto.
Food $1,964.63 $47.92 We could have prepared more meals at the hotels, but Japanese food is way better than our cooking.
Transportation (within country) $708.70 $17.29 You can save a lot if you take slower trains and buses – traveling between cities can be pricey.
Entertainment $237.80 $5.80 Includes the Peace Park and Memorials in Hiroshima, the Osaka Aquarium, Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Sangusagendo Hall and the Silver and Golden Pavilions in Kyoto, karaoke in Tokyo, and bicycle rental on Taketomi Island.
Alcohol $537.25 $13.10 Large cans of beer are about $2 in convenience stores.
Incidentals $168.95 $4.12 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $6,138.19 $149.71 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥2500 ($25)
Entry ticket for a traditional garden – ¥600 ($6)
Metro fare in Tokyo – ¥160-300 ($1.60-$3.00)
A good cup of matcha green tea – ¥500 ($5)

Snapshot Sunday: Ishigaki from the Air

[ptcPhoto filename=”Ishigaki640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”View of Ishigaki from the plane – Ishigaki, Okinawa – Japan” position=”center”]

Late typhoons in Okinawa prevented us from scuba diving during our two weeks in Ishigaki. But as we left we saw some beautiful views of the reefs that surround the island. We’ll have to save the manta rays for next time!

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

A Love Letter to Osaka’s Takoyaki

Dear Takoyaki,

I was reminiscing today about our time in Osaka and thinking more about the concept of kuidaore (eating oneself into ruin) – something so many people experience in this culinary city. I was going to write an article about all the reasons we enjoyed Osaka: The massive aquarium with whale sharks,

[ptcPhoto filename=”whaleShark.jpg” title=”Whale shark” caption=”These things are huge” position=”center”]

manta rays,

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaManta.jpg” title=”Osaka Manta” caption=”As are these” position=”center”]

and octopus.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaOctopus.jpg” title=”Osaka Octopus” caption=”She was saying hello” position=”center”]

The fabulous neighborhood around Dotonbori Street

[ptcPhoto filename=”Dotonbori.jpg” title=”Dotonbori” caption=” Dotonbori Canal and the Glico Man” position=”center”]

with its giant animatronic crabs.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaCrab.jpg” title=”Osaka Crab” caption=”Kani Doraku crab restaurant” position=”center”]

The grand temples with five-story pagodas,

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shitennoji.jpg” title=”Shitennoji Temple” caption=”Shitennoji, the oldest temple in Japan” position=”center”]

and that ramen shop that was so satisfying on a rainy evening.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaRamen.jpg” title=”Osaka Ramen” caption=”You’ll know the Kinryu Ramen shop by the huge dragon out front.” position=”center”]

I was going to write about the various other “Yakis of Osaka” like yakitori skewers and yakisoba.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Yakisoba.jpg” title=”Yakisoba” caption=”Yakisoba in Dotonbori” position=”center”]

Even okonomiyaki, a savory “as you like it” pancake – delicious with bacon, squid, and green onions – is second only to you, Takoyaki.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Okonomiyaki.jpg” title=”Okonomiyaki” caption=”A decadent okonomiyaki pancake” position=”center”]

Why do I love you so? Let me count the ways.

You don’t play hard to get – I can always find you when I’m looking for you. All I have to do is find a giant octopus perched over a shopfront, and there you are.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShopFront.jpg” title=”Shop Front” caption=”The mark of a takoyaki place” position=”center”]

It takes mad skills to make you so good, from the pouring of the batter, to the adding of the diced octopus, ginger and onion, to the precisely timed somersault that ensures you’re evenly browned all around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TakoMaker.jpg” title=”Making Takoyaki” caption=”Getting ready for the first turn” position=”center”]

Do you remember the time I watched you being made? I took a little video to mark the occasion:

And it only costs a few dollars to be with you – it’s not like the aforementioned animatronic crab restaurant where we spent $60 for an appetizer.

After you’re plucked out of your sizzling hot grill dimple, placed into a paper tray nestled alongside seven of your friends, slathered with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and dried fish flakes, you’re just perfect.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Takoyaki.jpg” title=”Takoyaki” caption=”The finished product” position=”center”]

I try to eat you but your molten-hot magma burns my entire mouth. It reminds me that love hurts sometimes, but it’s always worth it in the end.

If I’m going to eat myself into ruin, I want you to be a part of it.

Hope to see you again soon.



Snapshot Sunday: Star Sand in Okinawa

[ptcPhoto filename=”StarSand640.jpg” title=”Star sand” caption=”Star sand on Taketomi’s Kaiji Beach – Okinawa, Japan” position=”center”]

We spent most of one afternoon searching for this “star sand” on a beach in Taketomi, Okinawa. Each piece consists of the exoskeleton of marine protozoa that once lived on the ocean floor, and measures barely a millimeter across. Sand stars are some of the oldest fossils known to humankind – there is evidence of them dating back 550 million years.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.