My sister, Jules, wanted to drive down from San Fransisco to Texas to stay for four months over the holidays. A road trip seemed like a much less Covid risky way to spend time with our parents than flying. I didn’t want Jules to drive all the way from San Francisco to Dallas by herself and, since our annual sister trip was canceled this year, it was the perfect excuse to make this our actual sister trip. We decided to spend a little bit more time exploring the US on our way back from San Francisco so, instead of driving south and then east to explore Arizona and New Mexico like we had done previously, we decided to go straight east through Nevada and Wyoming and down through Colorado and New Mexico into Texas.
A few days before we were going to leave, Jules noticed that the weather was going to be freezing! While it was 70 in Dallas, Yellowstone National Park was predicted to be between 0 to 15°! Thankfully we had time to prepare and fully pack with extra-warm, cozy clothes to bundle up with during our time in Wyoming.
I flew over to San Francisco after work on a Friday night. This was my first flight during Covid and I was a little bit worried. Thankfully everyone on the flight was wearing a mask and it wasn’t too full. I watched a few movies and had a very uneventful flight even though we were delayed by an hour and a half. The delay was problematic because Julia and I had a six hour drive to do after I landed in San Francisco! To prepare for the drive, Jules bought me a banh mi sandwich dinner before my delay. By the time I got to SFO around 8 PM, my dinner of was stone cold and the spring rolls Jules got were a really strange and texture. It was still delicious though because I was starving!
We took off in the dark to a little town in Nevada. We hadn’t seen each other in so long that we talked the entire drive! We didn’t arrive until 4:30 AM Dallas time, 2:30 AM San Francisco time and were exhausted and looked a bit rough.
We lugged everything into the hotel and quickly fell asleep. We had quite an early morning the next day to make the rest of the 10 hour drive to Wyoming. It was supposed to snow in Wyoming, so we got up a bit early to try and beat the snow! Jules had a all-wheel-drive Subaru (the “boobaroo”), which can handle this snow, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry.
Before we took off we went to the local coffee shop to get some extra tall coffee’s because we had such a short amount of sleep and a long day ahead of us. Fortunately for us, the view was absolutely beautiful and we had a scenic drive to our destination, Jackson Hole. We talked most of the way, with a few hours dedicated to listening to a audiobook. My job had been very stressful lately, so we had long conversations about how to distress, take deep breath‘s, and incorporate meditation into daily life. It was very refreshing to talk about those topics because I definitely need to find ways to destress and my sister had some wonderful recommendations.
We stopped a few times for gas and for some vegetarian jackfruit tacos for lunch. They were absolutely delicious. Because of our stops and the time change, we arrived at Jackson Hole around 6:30 PM. It was a very long day! Before we got to our Airbnb, we went to the local grocery store to stock up for the week since we were going to cooke most of our meals to save some money while we worked from our Airbnb. When we pulled up in the parking lot of the grocery store it started snowing!
It was a quick drive from the grocery store to Teton Village which is at the bottom of Jackson Hole ski slopes. It was a bit icy and we definitely used the traction control on the car to make sure we didn’t drive off the road. Eventually made it safely to the Airbnb. There was 4 feet of snow on the ground so it took a bit of effort to lug everything up to our adorable Airbnb. It was the perfect space to working over the next couple of days. We unpacked quickly, made a quick dinner, and then relaxed after such a long day of driving.
We had a really early morning for our tour of Grand Teton. Originally, we were supposed to be touring Yellowstone National Park today but, because of all the snow, the roads were too dangerous and the park shut down. We are a bit disappointed, but we also came without any expectations, so we let our disappointment go and were ready to explore and started the day with an amazing view of Teton Village.
The road down to Jackson Hole was foggy but not enough to hide the moose crossing the road! It was our first animal siding of the trip and we were very excited! We drove into Jackson and found a parking lot to meet our guide Mike. Mike was referred to me by a good friend that I used to work with who had absolutely raving reviews about his tour with Mike. Mike was really nice, wore a mask, and drove us so we could enjoy the views. He had a fascinating story of how he moved from Florida with his family to Wyoming after being so love with the State. Along our drive the mountains weren’t showing because of all of the overcast clouds but it was still a beautiful site with all of the snow. We found the Grand Teton National Park sign and took a photo at the beginning and end of our trip. The difference in visibility was crazy!
Mike told us all about the history of the area and how Rockefeller secretly bought up all of the land in Grand Teton National Park and then donated the land to the government for public use. How awesome is that! Mike also told us about his son Isaac who happens to be a fantastic wildlife photographer. His work was even featured in the Smithsonian Museum. Mike told us about how Isaac waited in a river one early morning to catch three moose right above the water’s steam looking at each other. Such an awesome story and incredible picture.
Mike then drove us to the Mormon Barnes. We had the whole place to our selves because it was so cold and in the off-season for tourism. It was so cool but we got very lucky with the timing of our trip. If it had been a week later the parks would’ve been completely closed! We were able to experience some really neat things without a lot of tourists.
We continue driving and the sun finally started to come out. The Grand Teton started peeping through the clouds and it made for an absolutely incredible view! The landscape looked like a painting, not real life.
We stopped quite a few times to look at scenic views vistas and just taking all the snow on the trees because there was also a unique and if itself. Mike was excited too as he had never driven this route with snow all around as the parks are typically closed by the time it snows.
We stopped at Jenny Lake, named after a Native American woman who married a trapper and had many children but tragically died. While her life was tough and cut too short, her legacy lives on in such a beautiful place.
My favorite viewpoint of the day was Snake River. It was the last stop of the day and we were getting pretty tired but the view made it completely worth it. I FaceTimed my hubby, Ryan, and he told me that the background looked like a painting. I could not agree more. We spent some time taking it all in and then headed back to town after a good eight hours of driving.
After our tour, we said “Goodbye” to Mike and walked around Jackson Hole to do some exploring. There were quite a few cute shops around the town square and we looked at all of the gadgets, gizmos, clothes, and jewelry that was on display. We even went to visit Isaac, Mike’s son, at the camera store to look at some of his pictures. The were are amazing and we followed him on Instagram to keep up with his work.
After looking at all the options for food we decided to go to a Italian place on the way back. We actually saw it while we were driving in the night before and it had really cute lights and a great set up so we were already leaning towards going there without even looking at the menu. When we saw that it was pizza we were sold! We enjoyed some yummy pizza, a charcuterie board, and some brussels sprouts that had a lot of potential but too much sauce. After dinner, we went back to the Airbnb, turned on a movie, and got ready for our next few days of working from the Airbnb.
With everything going on with Covid, our trip to Spain and Portugal, two trips to Mexico, and trip to SXSW this year were all canceled. By July, I was getting very restless. We have a few friends who work for different airlines, like Southwest and American, and both of them were traveling and gave us all of the details on how the airlines were staying relatively safe. With that in mind, we decided to take a trip in September for our three-year anniversary to Riviera Maya Mexico.
After doing tons of research on TripAdvisor, we found the Unico 20 87 resort in Riviera Maya. Unico was only running at 50% capacity and they had major deals on their typically $800 a night room’s so we booked an ocean front, all inclusive, adults only room for only $350! Flights were $1,600 to fly direct from DFW on American when I originally when they are usually $250! I was panicking at first, but after some additional research and waiting a couple of days, we finally got a flight that was reasonable for the dates we wanted.
I couldn’t contain my excitement leading up to the trip! I broke out all of my resort wear and packed it all into our carry-on bags. We booked a whale shark tour and I couldn’t stop imaging swimming with such incredible creatures. However, we were at the tail end of the whale shark season so I wasn’t quite sure if we actually get to see any. I wasn’t holding high hopes that this trip was actually going to happen in 2020, let alone the whale sharks.
Luckily, we got to the airport without issue and were of security within five minutes. Our flight boarded on time and we even landed 15 minutes early! We were through customs and onto the private Happy Shuttle ride to our hotel within about 15 minutes. Crazily enough, everything went super smoothly for probably the first time in 2020! The drive to the resort was uneventful and we passed a few of the resorts we stayed at in the past, as well as Xplor, one of the adventure park so we went to. Most of the adventure parks and quite a few resorts were closed due to Covid in different cities since City regulations vary from place to place. Technically, we weren’t even supposed to enter the country unless it was for emergency reasons, but Cancun was letting people in for vacations anyways as tourism has such a huge impact on the economy.
We drove up to the resort and it was absolutely beautiful and situated in the middle of jungle. Our driver told us that there were monkeys and jaguars in the jungle around our resort! I was wearing a jungle blouse with jaguars to match LOL.
We walked into the resort and immediately felt relaxed. Everything was socially distant and all of the staff are wearing masks. They even sanitized our shoes when we came in with spray to make sure that we are safe. Upon check-in, we met Carlos, our personal concierge for our entire stay. He gave us his details via WhatsApp so we could communicate and also booked all of our restaurant reservations for the week so we didn’t have to worry about it later on in our trip. We were then taken up to our ocean-view room and, wow, it was absolutely gorgeous! The view of the ocean was 10 out of 10 and our room was super modern and clean. I absolutely loved it.
We put our stuff down and decided to go to one of the lunch spots right by all the pools for a bite to eat since we hadn’t had anything since breakfast and it was already 3 PM. While we were eating, we saw three different couples from our flight were actually staying at the same resort! We are amazed at just how many Texans we ended up meeting on our trip.
We tried quite a few different dishes for lunch. I would say the food was a 6 out of 10 on the yummy scale but it wasn’t one of the main restaurant so I wasn’t too worried. After filling up, we hopped into our bathing suits and went back to the pool for a swim. We found some lounge chairs by another couple who were just married that Saturday. They were super nice and we talked to them for a while before they got up for the dinner reservation. We hopped in the water and another couple came down to swim in the same area so we started chatting. The girl, Kayla, was a CrossFit gym owner and her boyfriend, Jordan, was an engineer. They were definitely “feeling themselves” with some drinks and we ended up having a very lively conversation. After about 30 minutes, they got up to leave for their dinner reservation but Kayla was having trouble getting out of the water and we were all laughing so hard as she kept falling down! It was hilarious. It was her first time in an all inclusive and the drinks really snuck up on her! After they left, we swam for about another half an hour and basically had the whole pool to ourselves.
As we were getting out, my phone started ringing. I answered it and some one said “can we get a wheelchair?” I told the person that he had the wrong number but, as I hung up, I realized it was Jordan! I looked around and saw Jordan and Kayla about 30 yards away – they hadn’t made it very far! Kayla was sitting on the ground laughing hysterically and Jordan couldn’t get her up to move around. I ran over to the closest restaurant, knocked on the door, and typed “too much to drink drink, need a wheelchair” into Google Translate. The waiter read it and walked over to our friends to help them get back up to the room! It was so funny and quite a scene.
We went back to the room ourselves and got ready for a nice dinner at the Mexican restaurant. We sat on the patio and, of course, I forgot to wear bug spray. Oops! Despite that, we ended up having a lovely dinner. We got these duck taco spring roll things that were absolutely so delicious that we had to order more. Got a love all inclusives!
We also had guacamole with crickets, steak, bone marrow, and a pork chop which was all really good. At one point, there was a mosquito on my cheek and instead of saying “Hey, there’s a mosquito on your face”, Ryan just looked at me and blurted out “Eat it”! It was such a weirdly funny reaction that we used that phrase for “there’s something on your face” the rest the trip.
After dinner we went back to the room, got ready for bed, and had an amazing night sleep!
Day 2 –
We were supposed to go on the whale shark excursion on this day but, because it was the end of the season and the tour hadn’t seen whale sharks in a couple days, they canceled. I was a bit bummed, but it is 2020 so what can you do? We will just see them the next time we visit Mexico.
We got up and went down to the breakfast restaurant for a delicious breakfast. We probably ordered way too much but, at all inclusives, you have to try different things, right?! I tried one of the Mexican egg dishes and wasn’t a big fan but still enjoyed our morning.
After breakfast, we went back to the pool area we were in the day prior. At some of the other resorts we’ve stayed at in past trips, we’ve had to get up super early in the morning to reserve chairs because there are so many people but, with 50% capacity, we had our pick of all of the best pool spots!
We claimed some chairs and decided to go walk along the beach for a little bit. The sand felt great between our toes and the water was a perfect temperature. It felt so nice to get out and walk a little bit. There was barely any people on the beach too!
We went back to the resort and laid out for a while. The sun was so intense. Eventually, I got up to walk around and saw Kayla and Jordan! We ended up moving over closer to them and they were so excited that we still wanted to talk to them even after the craziness of the night before! I was so proud of Kayla for being such a trooper. She was much better condition than I thought she might be LOL. We ended up chatting with them pretty much the whole day in the water. It was a really nice time.
One of the guys working in the activities part of the resort told us we could go stand-up paddle boarding and kayaking. So, after lunch of Hawaiian pizza and pork tacos, all four of us headed to the beach. We tried to find the kayak area and were flagged down by this guy. He was hanging by the lifeguard stand so he looked pretty legitimate. He came up to us and, instead of kayaks, offered us cigars. When we politly declined, he said “how about cocaine?”! What?! That was definitely not what we were going for. We laughed as we say “no” and walked way into the ocean water to relax for a while. The water temperature was absolutely perfect and, while there were some rocks in the water, we found a great, sandy patch to float around in. The colors of the water was so blue and amazing and I was very happy.
We eventually ventured back to the pool area and said goodbye to Kayla and Joe so they could go to dinner. We had an 8:30 reservation at the Italian so we have some time to kill. We ended up going back to the room and decided to try out the hot tub bath on the balcony. As I like overindulge, I put both containers of bubble bath in tub and turned the jets on. Bubbles were flying everywhere! It was absolutely hilarious. The people at the pool below us could see us being goofy and there was bubbles flying all out of our balcony down to the pool. I can only imagine what they thought of our laughter!
After rinsing all the bubbles off, we got ready for our dinner at the Italian restaurant. Since our reservation was so late, we tried to go and get an earlier table but they were booked out. All of the restaurants were at half capacity so it was kind of hard to get reservations at decent times. We ended up going to the coffee bar for an espresso and then over to the reception bar for a couple cocktails and football.
8:30 finally hit and we walked over the pond area back to the restaurant. We ordered calamari and various pasta dishes that were all really tasty. I got raviolis for my main course but there were only three of them made of way-too-thick thick dough so I didn’t like them very much. We had a few glasses of wine and enjoyed the evening overall.
After dinner, we walked back to the room with full bellys and passed out.
Day 3 –
Day three of our trip started the same as day two, with a delicious breakfast trying all-of-the-things and getting a good spot at the pool. We decided to sit by the party pool today because it was a celebration of Mexican Independence Day. The resort put up these fun banners everywhere and hosted events and music throughout the day. There was a nice older couple that sat next to us and we ended up chatting with them for a good hour or so before Ryan and I decided to embark on a hard-core water basketball tournament. Mind you, he’s 6’2 and I am 5’2, but I still totally beat him (maybe with just a littttttle bit of cheating). We had a lot of fun with water basketball and were a little winded. Covid definitely got me out of shape, but after mudslide and a few strawberry margaritas, I got my wind back in my sales!
About 20 minutes later, the water volleyball tournament commenced and we ended up playing for three different games. No one wanted to play at first so we went over to just play each other and, after we entered the volleyball court, 20 showed up on each side! It was a bit crowded but really fun. Once volleyball ended, all of a sudden flamenco dancer started dancing. They did a great job and had wonderfully colorful outfits on. We enjoyed some alcoholic Popsicles while we were watching the show and then a guitarist appeared and played guitar alongside the DJ in this really awesome rhythm I’ve never heard before. It was quite entertaining.
We had another pizza for lunch and just relax by the pool until it was time to get ready for our dinner reservations at the sushi place at 5. The sushi restaurant was totally booked out and I had to check the Unico app every few hours to see if anyone had canceled just so we could get in.
I’m so glad we did! The sushi restaurant served some of the best sushi we’ve ever had, and we’ve been to Japan! The spring rolls were so crispy and delicious with so much flavor and the sushi was insane. We thought the portions were small so we ordered a hot pot of bbq pork ribs, pad thai, some steak thing and ended up with absolutely way too much food! But it was all sooooo good.
After dinner, we walked over to the breakfast restaurant located right by the beach where they were supposed to have live dancing and mariachis. We had some wine and churros while we waited. Ryan wanted to move spots to sit by the pool and, right after we moved the dancers started their performance where we were sitting. Talk about bad timing. We ended up just lounging in the dark, listening and watching the dancers run in and out of the bathroom as they changed into their numerous outfits.
Carlos, our Unico guide, texted us and said that there was a turtle release right before the fireworks at 9. We invited our friends Jordan and Kayla to go check it out and we all set off on an adventure to try and find the turtles. We walked on the beach and it was so dark! I turned on my cellphone light and saw a giant crab the size of a softball on the beach not 2 feet in font of me! There were bugs everywhere too. We kept walking into the darkness and thought we were going to get mugged but, eventually, we saw a group of three or four people crowded around a guy with a bucket of baby turtles. The bucket must have had a few hundred turtles in it and followed the guy down to the water’s edge. The guy who was in charge dug a small path in the sand and then tipped the bucket of turtles over and they all started running towards the water. It was absolutely wonderful to see. They were so cute and wiggley. Jordan had to pick one up and reroute it into the ocean because it was coming to hang out with us. Even though we didn’t get our whale shark experience, we still had a bit of nature love with the turtles.
Once all the turtles were safely in the ocean, we walked back to the pool area and relaxed on some lounge chairs facing the firework area. The fireworks went off with a bang (literally) and were right above us! It made for a wonderful view. The fireworks didn’t last very long but they were so fun to watch and made for an insanely great end to the night. We chatted with Jordan and Kayla for a while after the fireworks and eventually decided to call it a night.
Day 4 –
I finally got my groove down at breakfast and ordered Mexican eggs with red bell peppers, green bell peppers, onions, homemade flour tortillas, salsa verde, and bacon to make breakfast tacos! While it all took absolutely forever to come out of the kitchen and my eggs came out 15 minutes before everything else, it all ended up being really delicious.
After breakfast, we went to the pool and decided to try the infinity pool area. We grabbed some chairs for Kayla and Jordan and figured out we had the best view in the house. It was only place in the resort that had ocean view and the infinity edge was just amazing!
We were right by the party pool and I was ready to work when Victor from the athletic’s team came out for some “pool-aties”. We jumped into the water with about 5 other people and were stretching and moving and grooving! It was pretty fun! Kayla and Jordan came up to our spot and then invited some other friends they had met throughout the resort, so we had quite a group going. Although our new friends didn’t want to join, Kayla and I indulged in the pool spin class. While there was no resistance on the pool spin bikes, the water made it hard to peddle, especially when we were out of the saddle! It was quite a workout! You’d think with my Peloton I’d be OK at water spin but, boy it was tougher than I thought.
After “spool”, spinning in the pool, we relaxed and just hang out by the poolside chatting and enjoying yourselves. Around 3 o’clock it was time for us to go to the spa for the experience pools in massage! We walked over to the spa and we’re taking through a series of experience pools and showers. We first had to to shower off, then go in the hot sauna for 10 minutes, then the steam room for 10 minutes, then the cold shower, then a Jacuzzi tub, and then a cold plunge into a freezing pool. After all of that, it was time for a massage. The massage was absolutely fantastic, especially on oils and my sunburnt skin. I was soooo red even though we had been putting on tubs and tubs of sunscreen. Oops!
After the spa we went back to the room and felt super relaxed. Ryan wanted a nap but we had to go to the sushi restaurant early to try and change our reservation from hibachi to sushi again. We had such an amazing dinner the night before that we wanted to enjoy it again, especially since it was our three-year anniversary. We grabbed an espresso and walked over to the restaurant and they were, thankfully, able to accommodate us.
We even talked to the sommelier and ordered a bottle of port 20 year Tawny port. We talked to the waiter about how good the food was and he brought out the chef to chat. We had a really nice night talking about how this place compared to all of the wonderful places we’ve been able to eat at like Gagan in Thailand, Il Pagliaccio in Italy, Passion by Martín Berasategui. It was so nice to remember all of those very special nights.
Once we got to desert, we had some of our port and set two glasses over to Jordan and Kayla to enjoy as well. After dinner we grabbed the bottle and went to the bar lobby to drink the rest and chat with some of the new friends.
I ended up playing pool with this guy who was in the 60s and had moved to Mexico to DJ for 14 years before moving back to Florida to retire. He had led a pretty interesting life! While we didn’t do so well at pool, we had a good time playing.
Once Jordan and Kayla got done with dinner, we met up with their other friends and ended up going to one of the couples swim-up rooms to hang out. Eventually got kind of cold in right now headed back up to hit the hay.
Day 5 –
It was our last morning in Mexico and our checkout time was at 12:30. Boy did time fly! We went back to breakfast restaurant for another round of breakfast tacos and then out to the infinity pool for our favorite spot. Ryan was super sunburnt so he hid under towels and a big umbrella while took a quick walk on the beach to get one last look at it before we had to leave. Feeling refreshed, I laid out and absorbed some sunshine in the fresh air.
Eventually our group from the prior day trickled in and we all enjoyed each other’s company until it was time for Ryan and I to get ready to go. We went back to the room and ordered room service pizza intros for our “last meal” in front of our ocean view. We packed up, checked out, and were back in the Happy Shuttle van to the airport before we knew it. We were in the airport quickly, on the plane quickly, landed quickly, and were out a customs in no time. It almost felt like the entire trip it never happened as it went so fast. We were definitely relieved to have the time off to decompress.
After a quick and over priced breakfast of weird ham, egg, and lettuce finger sandwiches, we all met at 9 AM for our full Kyoto day tour. Unfortunately, our guide Mika had gone to the wrong hotel, so we had a bit of a wait before she came running into the lobby. Mika was very friendly and bubbly as she walked us down to the subway stations for our connections to our first stop, the Palace gardens.
We wanted to see cherry blossoms and Mika said there was a part of the garden with quite a few in bloom. She was so right! They were beautiful and my mom was super happy that we got to see some. We are right on the brink of all of them flowering so, every day, more and more are popping out.
The Emperor and Empress were actually residing in the palace we were at so we could not go look at the place itself. Instead, we walked to hop on a bus to get to the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji. There were tons of people but seeing the gold leaf temple reflecting in the pond below was so worth it. The gardens were also beautiful but the gold building stole the show.
We enjoyed the gardens as much as we could while staying in line with the flow of tourists. Mika told us that this was a light day for traffic too since we hadn’t yet entered the peak season yet! I couldn’t even imagine how crowded that would be! At least Ryan, being 6’2, could see over everyone to find me when I got sidetracked.
After the Golden Pavilion, we stopped for lunch at a very traditional soba house. We had to take our shoes off downstairs and had a short table on the second floor to enjoy our food. I had tempura soba and it was quite good but a little over priced. Everyone else felt the same about their meal and we had to pay for our guides food and transport during the tour. I get paying for our own food and transport but you would think the tour cost would at least cover the guide.
After lunch we had a 30 minute bus ride to get to Kyoto station. Lunch must have had sleeping pills in it because I zonked out on Ryans shoulder. I kept waking up thinking we had missed our exit but all was good. We took a few subway connections and would up at the entrance to the famous Tori Gate shrine (Fushimi Inari Shrine). There are over one thousand gates of all heights within the property. It was also very crowded at the start and there were so many girls dressed in their kimonos and taking photos. It made it hard to navigate. We all decided to make a few poses of his own haha!
The crowds did open up eventually and the walk through the forrest because much more enjoyable. Japan is, overall, just so crowded it takes away from the magic a little bit.
After the Tori Gates, it was back on the public transit and to Gion. We walked through some more temples and were getting pretty burnt out. We ended back at the main temple in Gion to check on the massive cherry tree and see if it has bloomed more before saying goodbye to Mika.
My parents took off in one direction and Ryan, Julia and I decided to check out Nana’s Café for a drink and to relax. I had this AMAZING drink with sweet black bean at the bottom. It was by far the best latte of any kind I’ve ever had! It felt so good to just sit and reflect after so much go, go, go!
Post-latte, we went back to the hotel to freshen up and meet my parents for a drink at the bar. Ryan needed some serious calories so he went to McDonalds for dinner and we took off to this famous gyoza place down the street. We waited about 20 minutes but it was so worth it! My sister and I tried an assortment of gyoza flavors from veggie to pork, curry, and shrimp.
Post gyoza, Ryan met us up for another ice-cream crepe before heading back to the hotel for bed.
To ensure we got to the train station on time, we had breakfast at the Hiroshima Washington Hotel. It was a mix of both Japanese and Western style dishes. I tried a whole host of dishes and was quickly filled up and ready for the day. We grabbed our luggage and were off to wait on our bus to the Hiroshima Station. We were waiting about 10 minutes before my sister and I realized that the bus didn’t start until 9:33 and it was only 8:55. We needed a different route so we quickly changed course to hop on the green line trolly. We had some difficulty figuring out how Pasmo cards, the preloaded public transit payment cards, worked to check in but figured it out after watching others for about 4 stops. I got stuck on the way out because I didn’t have enough money left! Oops!
I loaded up my card and we were off to JR line 13 to wait on our train. We got there about 20 minutes early to ensure Ryan, Julia, and I had seats in the unreserved section. My mom went to the bathroom as we were heading up to the platform and she came running back to us exclaiming she had lost dad! Oh no! I took her to the numbered area on the platform for her train car and told her to wait while I went to find my dad. After running around for 5 minutes, I found him patiently waiting right where she left him originally. When I told him we were all waiting for him he said “I thought she was taking a little longer in the loo than usual!”Phew! I brought dad back to the platform and told them to make sure to get off at the Shin-Osaka station for our train transfer to Kyoto. About 5 minutes later, we saw my parents attempt to get on the wrong train headed for Tokyo! Thankfully, they saw our panicked signals to abort and we all ended up getting on the right train. It is never easy!
It took us about 2 hours to get to Kyoto by train. The station was only a quick subway ride away from the main area where the Cross Hotel was located. Our hotel was situated right in the main shopping district and only a few blocks from the Gion district. We were not able to fully check in so we dropped off our bags and took off to explore the shopping area.
There were two main streets parallel to one another that were lined with shops and restaurants. The streets were pretty packed but we made our way around. I found a cute skirt at a boutique and my sister found a few items at a thrift store. We were getting pretty peckish but, with our impending late-night food tour in a few hours, we opted for something a little lighter. We found a fried chicken place and had that with some pork and gyoza.
After lunch, we checked into our hotel. It was so luxurious and our rooms were much bigger than our other hotels. My sister and I decided to continue exploring the shops for another hour before we met up with everyone for a drink. There are not a lot of wine / sports / regular bars or just places to just have a drink in Japan. Even our hotel’s bar closed around 3 PM and didn’t open back up until 6 PM for dinner service. We were lucky to find this “Liquor Museum” right around the corner. It was a small bar with tons of old, cool looking alcohol bottles. When we walked in, one of the patrons looked at me surprised and told me, jokingly, that I did not look old enough to drink! I will take that as a complement!
We had a few gin and tonics before it was time to walk to a designated subway station exit by the Gion district to meet our guide, Mardi, for our night food tour. Mardi was actually from the Dallas area and extended her year long study abroad into 5+ years in Kyoto! She started the tour talking about how the Gion area was for entertaining and had us try some delicious rice cakes with a soy glaze as she talked about the Kabuki theater across the street.
We kept walking up the main road until we got to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine Nishiromon Gate. The main hall is over 360 years old! Interestingly enough, Mardi told us a myth about a god who had 3 children. The first two, the goddess of the sun and god of thunder, were born from the god’s tears. The third and more meddlesome child was shot out of the god’s nose as a booger! No wonder that god felt he drew the short stick in life! Such a funny story.
We rang the bells of the shine for luck and to make a wish and then continued on through the grounds to a massive cherry tree almost in full blossom. It was beautiful in the evening light and there were a bunch of 20-something year olds picnicking around it and enjoying the evening.
We left the Shrine grounds and continued through the narrow streets of Gion. In earlier parts of our trip, especially in Tokyo, we kept seeing these weird posters of very feminine looking men. Mardi explained and pointed out these high rises with floors and floors of for mainly men, but also women, where hostesses worked and served drinks. There is not supposed to be anything sexual going on at these clubs, more like the hostesses incessantly complement and listen to all of the woes of the patrons. The hostesses also make themselves look nothing like their patron’s spouses in real life, thus the male hostesses look super feminine and made up and the females wear prom-fancy level dresses with full hair and makeup. The patrons do not tip the hostesses in cash, but they do buy them very expensive luxury goods, so there are tons of thriving pawn shops close to the clubs filled with designer shoes, bags, and clothes that the hostesses sell for cash and the patrons buy to give away. Such a strange and unique way of doing things. Apparently this is the equivalent to doing business on golf courses in the US.
We continued to wind down the narrow passages and Mardi also explained that every house / restaurant has to have a bucket of water out front incase of fire. Considering many of the houses had paper walls, I don’t think those small buckets would help too much but it doesn’t hut to be prepared?
Eventually, we got back to the main area and walked to our first, tiny restaurant on the river side for tapas! We were the only people in the restaurant and we tried a whole bunch of seasonally delicious dishes and drank some beer.
After we had our fill, Mardi took us to more of a bar styled restaurant for tempura fries, fried chicken, and sashimi, again all totally delicious.
We were stuffed by the end of dinner and thanked Mardi for such a great welcome to Kyoto. Even though we were so full, we somehow found room for ice cream filled crepes before heading back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.
We met around 8:15 AM for our morning breakfast hunt. Since the tea at the café the night before was so good, we went back for some ham and egg sandwiches and coffee. It was so yummy!
My parents wanted to go back to the hotel and brush their teeth so Ryan and I split to go find some Advil and decongestant since my mom and Ryan were feeling under the weather. Ryan downloaded this insanely great app called Payke to help ID products at the drug store. He just scanned the bar code of each box and the app gave him a detailed description in English of the uses of the product and reviews from people who tired it. SO HELPFUL! We were able to find just what we needed outside of cough drops. I typed “do you have cough candies for sore throats” into my Google translate app and showed the Japanese text to the shop clerk. She quickly nodded and brought me to the cough drop area! It was so easy to communicate! With our meds in hand, we walked back to the hotel, met up with my family, and headed off to the ferry for Miyajama island.
We got a bit of a late start to the island and it took about an hour to get there via train and then ferry. Thankfully, all of that transport was covered by our JR Pass. While the 14 day pass cost us roughly $450 each, it was totally worth it. We were able to travel so easily and so far!
Miyajama Island is known for its giant Torii gate in the middle of the ocean. At high tide, it floats above the water. At low tide, you can walk out to it on the sand and get a full view of how massive it is. The locals believe that God resides in the island itself.
There is also a floating temple to walk through on the island. While slightly crowded with tourists, it was all very beautiful and serene. There were even a bunch of deer walking around and unabashedly taking food from all of the tourists – even digging through their bags when unsupervised!
It was pretty cold and about time for lunch so we found a little spot up on a side street and devoured some very tasty food. There are a ton of oyster farms all around the island so mom and Ryan both tired fried oysters in various forms that were scrumptious! I had beef udon with eel rice – again, so good and warming.
After lunch, it was time to hike up to the top peek. There was a 2 hour each way hike to the top of the mountain, but we opted to take the cable car up and then do the 30 minute hike from there. The views from the cable car were great…But just a preview of the views from the top!
The hike was pretty strenuous, especially since were were moving at a fast pace to ensure we made the last cable car back down the mountain.
About half way up, there are a few shines. One that had a flame, called the “Eternal Flame”, that has been going for over 1,200 years! It also used to light the Flame of Peace in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima City. There were also some very cute little figures around the temple.
We continued upwards and got to this amazing rocky area. The views of Hiroshima from the peak were just unbelievable. The city is so huge!
The decent back down was much easier than up and we were back in 15 minutes. It took some time to get through the lines for the cable car since the number of people that can ride at a time is somewhat limited.
We finally got back down the mountain, walked to the ferry, got across the channel and to the train station, rode back to Hiroshima and then had to wait 20 minutes for the bus back to our hotel area. We finally arrived around 6:30 PM! What a long, but totally worth it, journey!
Since it was relatively cold and only going to get colder throughout the rest of this trip, Ryan wanted to grab a matching puffer jacket to the one I got from Uniqlo in Tokyo. My mom had been wanting to shop for the past 1.5 days in Hiroshima and wasn’t too impressed that Ryan got to shop first! Ha!
After grabbing a jacket, we met my parents and sister at a sushi place for dinner. My parents had discovered it the night before and couldn’t stop raving about how delicious it was. We waited about 30 minutes (just enough time to run to Starbucks for a potty break) before being seated.
We tried somewhat successfully to order a bunch of sushi and tempura and boy, were my parents right about how good it was! The Unagi just melted in our mouths and the raw crab and tuna was the freshest I have ever had. It was the best sushi of my life and we just kept ordering more and more! What a dinner for the books.
Our waiter was in his early 20s and studying English. He was so helpful and nice! I tried to thank him by writing “thank you so much” on my napkin in Japanese letters based on Google’s translation. He said I did a pretty good job!
After dinner, Ryan and Julia wanted another crepe but, since it was a Sunday night and past 9PM, everything was closed. Instead, we opted to go to Don Quijote, the most overwhelming store I’ve ever been in, and get a bunch of snacks. There were some really odd snacks in there too, (like dried bugs and sea creatures), but we kept it safe with chocolates and gummy candy.
We went back to the hotel and enjoyed our haul while getting ready for bed.