Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Japan and Taiwan Trip 2018: Instances of Slightly Unexpected Spending

Photo via K, whose phone takes better photos than mine! I think this was at Tofukuji Temple.

At some points during our recent trip to Taiwan and Japan, I was starting to feel like we hadn't done a very good job of planning. It was a slightly more eventful, less smooth trip than we're used to, and that was a shock to me, as I pride myself on being somewhat well-traveled and pretty good at packing and preparing for my trips. Some of the complications were, of course, due to weather, and that was entirely outside our control. The biggest unexpected expense of our trip was, unsurprisingly, needing to book extra time at our hotel in Kyoto at the last minute when our trip was delayed by Typhoon Trami. There was no real helping that one, and the price was also a little higher than when we booked our original stay around two or three weeks ahead. (It was ~$250/night, as opposed to the ~$206/night we were originally charged.)

By separating out all my thoughts about the more troublesome details of our trip into their own post like this, I may run the risk of sounding like a huge complainer. That's definitely not my intention! I absolutely loved my trip, and already have a rather long list of ideas for a next trip to Japan someday,  which will hopefully not be too many years from now, though it'll likely be a while. I think I'm just not accustomed to needing to plan a big trip in such a hurry. We confirmed our travel dates and booked plane tickets and hotels within a month of our departure date, and I found that stressful. I'm definitely the type of traveler who strongly prefers to have tons of time to research all the options, and I wasn't used to such last-minute travel.

Also via K's phone, from our trip Fushimi Inari, where my shoulders definitely got tired of carrying my tote bag.

Plus, to my consternation, I found that I may now be someone who needs to, or at least strongly prefers to, carry a backpack if I plan to tote around much more than just my wallet, phone, Kindle, and passport for a full day of touring on foot. All I really added to those bare-minimum daily essentials was a water bottle, light jacket, small portable power bank, pocket wifi, a small folding umbrella on rainy days, and some of the small souvenirs we purchased throughout the day, but ack, things started feeling rather heavy, and my shoulders a bit achey, towards the end of each long day of walking! (If I ever get a professional backpack that's a bit smaller and sleeker than my gigantic North Face from law school, I'll probably be bringing it along on future vacations.) I wasn't fully prepared for how much walking we did pretty much every single day of our time in Japan, and carrying all my things in a tote bag probably added to how tired I got each evening.

Before I get started with my fussing, here is one more generally applicable and potentially money-saving tip (most of the other small issues that arose for us were idiosyncratic). Although many sources make it sound like a Japan Rail ("JR") Pass is something almost every international tourist buys for just about any trip to Japan, that might not actually be the case. For itineraries like ours, involving rather long stays in a small number of cities, with only a few not-too-far day trips to surrounding areas, a JR Pass might well be significantly more expensive than just buying separate train tickets for each leg of the trip. (I dabbled with an online JR Pass calculator and was able to quickly verify that we definitely did not need JR Passes.)

Oh and I must sing the praises of luggage forwarding services, though it's not, by definition, a money-saving choice. It cost us ~$15/large suitcase to send our luggage from our hotel in Tokyo to the one in Kyoto, which I found to be totally worth the price. It does require a bit of advance planning to factor in the time it takes for delivery (~36 hours for us), or if you're staying in an AirBnb, as you may need to do some research into drop-off and/or pick-up locations. I'll admit, I'm probably unusually wimpy about dragging suitcases around a crowded subway or train station or trying to find space for them on trains. Regardless, I found luggage forwarding to be indispensable for our shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I think most other people would agree it's helpful and worth it unless they packed very light. (Keep in mind that Tokyo Station is unusually large and extremely busy, enough that it was overwhelming and a bit stressful to someone accustomed to traveling through the likes of Time Square, Penn Station, and Grand Central in NYC during rush hours. Also, they schedule the trains so tightly and efficiently in Japan that, even in Kyoto or Osaka, train platforms were sometimes so crowded as to also have the potential to be a bit overwhelming if I had a heavy and unwieldy suitcase with me.)

Please follow the link below to read about the things I wasn't always good about planning ahead for!

Bad at Packing (and also at Minimalism-ish)

Alas, the thing I felt the worst about when it came to my trip-planning skills was that I needed to do a fair bit of extra shopping for clothes in Japan. Outside of the extra underthings and tops (plain men's tees) that I bought because of the storm-related airport closure that delayed our return home and caused us to run out of changes of clothes, there were also items I needed to buy because, despite having researched typical weather patterns and buying some new summer clothing specifically for the trip, I'd failed to factor in that Tokyo also gets pretty cold and rainy sometimes in September, in between those hot, humid days. I also didn't bring enough socks because I had no idea how much we'd be walking, and didn't expect to wear sneakers every day in Japan. In short, we ended up at Uniqlo several times. (K also needed to do some extra shopping, it wasn't just me!) The total damage for me was as follows: one light, packable rain jacket; two men's tees, six(!) pairs of socks, and some underthings. I'm... not proud of that, it's a rather large list of items to have bought mostly because of poor planning.

One thing about Uniqlo in Japan, the women's size chart is different than in the US, although the product line is otherwise essentially identical. K reported that there wasn't much of a difference on the men's side, and if items ran smaller than he expected from US sizing (he typically shops at J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, and Vineyard Vines) it was only by a narrow margin, less than half a size if he had to guess. On the women's side, however, it was a completely different story. I'm generally a size S in most Uniqlo tops and sweaters, but a size L "pocketable parka" was almost snug enough in the chest (while wearing just a tank top under it) for me to size up to an XL!* I ended up opting for the L anyway because I thought I'd only ever reach for such a thin, light water-resistant jacket when it's rainy, but not at all cold, so I didn't plan on ever needing to layer any heavier clothing under it.

*I suspect that I need to size up a lot more in Japan than most other women who are accustomed to US sizing. With my chest measurement, I'm supposed to be a solid M based on Uniqlo's US size chart, though in actual practice, a S often suits me better. 

Given how hard I try to buy less clothing, and how I generally think over and plan out my purchases for at least a few days or weeks beforehand, I felt pretty bad about needing to do all of that extra shopping because I hadn't packed correctly. For my other trips to Asia in the past few years (always to places with a lot of summer heat and humidity), I've always been very good about packing enough weather-appropriate clothes, and even end up bringing a little more than I need. So it was a bit of a shock to find I hadn't packed enough! And admittedly, many people in my shoes would have opted to pack less and do laundry sometime during a two-week trip instead, but that wasn't something we had planned for this time.

Food Pricing is... Different

One expense category that I think we may have been able to cut significantly with a bit more research and planning was restaurant spending. This wouldn't be challenging for most people. Japan is an excellent destination for good food, much of it quite affordable and delicious, and a great value (including at convenience stores, street food stands, conveyor belt sushi restaurants, and many other types of restaurants, I'm sure). Tokyo and Kyoto can both be expensive places, with a lot of fancy restaurants to try if that floats your boat, but it was far from the kind of uniformly costly and often disappointing food spending situations described by, say, Luxe in Iceland or YAPFB in Ireland. Especially in Tokyo or Osaka, I found that it's actually really hard to find a mediocre meal, much less one that feels like a bad value. It takes some real effort, or bad luck.

We had a few expensive meals by conscious choice, and the price felt fair, including at the ANA Intercontinental's teppanyaki restaurant, where we upgraded to the Prime Japanese Black-Haired Wagyu pictured above, along with some of the menu add-ons, and so spent nearly $140/person including tax and the restaurant's service charge. Though a photo of the steak may not be much to look at (it was very cool to watch the chef prepare it though, see the third video in my Instagram stories from Japan), the price felt well worth it for many reasons, including the impeccable service, high-quality ingredients, lovely setting etc.

And while we considered that meal totally worth it, it actually leads right into one of the main things that surprised us, and may have caused us to make less budget-friendly choices that didn't turn out to be worth it, especially in Kyoto, where we were eating in far more tourist-focused neighborhoods and may have chosen some restaurants that were kinda, sorta, tourist traps (and a bit overpriced accordingly). Menu pricing structures were pretty different from what we were used to, and the ANA Intercontinental's teppanyaki restaurant menu is somewhat illustrative of this. Even less fancy restaurants often offered multiple grades of beef, and the price increase for each upgrade in quality could be substantial. Because our first experience with upgrading at the ANA was so delicious, we tended to, er, often take the un-frugal step of upgrading at other restaurants too. Let's just say that some cooking methods showcase higher-quality beef far better than others (and shabu-shabu is  definitely not one of the better cooking methods for that, we generally enjoy it much less than the all-you-can-eat Chinese-style hot pot we get at home). 

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