Japan Itinerary: Our Two Week, Kid Friendly Japan Guide

This Japan itinerary contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. All opinions in this Japan itinerary are my own.

Japan itinerary

Our Route from Osaka to Tokyo

When we travel with our son we take a slightly slower pace than we did before we had kids. If we try to fit in too many activities in the day, it is a surefire way to overwhelm him. So, we usually head out fairly early in the morning (he’s an early riser) right after breakfast and come back to our hotel around lunch time. He’s 4 now so he doesn’t usually need a nap anymore but quiet play time still helps him to recharge his batteries. The in the late afternoon or evening we head out for a while closer to our home base.

For this Japan itinerary we visited Osaka, Koyasan, Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo and Narita. So we didn’t have to double back we flew into Osaka and out of Narita. Our visits to Koyasan, Nara and Narita were just day trips but longer overnight stays would be fantastic for longer itineraries.  Our son enjoys visiting temples and traditional sites, especially if he can have ice cream! He’s also HUGE fan of technology, vehicles and robotics so this Japan itinerary was a balance between the old and the new.

Do You Need a JR PASS for Your Japan Itinerary?

Whenever there is talk about traveling to Japan people of course recommend the JR Pass. The 7, 14 or 21 day JR Pass allows visitor to ride many JR group trains, and buses but there are limitations. It is a good idea to enter your Japan itinerary route into a Japan Rail Pass Calculator like this one (there are others available online as well). We found that for our Japan itinerary we would not save any money getting the JR Pass. We also chose to take the Nozomi Shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo and at this time it isn’t covered under the JR Pass.

Days 1 to 3: Osaka Plus a Daytrip to Koyasan

Osaka Castle

The 5 tiered Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and a must visit for anyone coming to the city.

Not only is the castle beautiful but it is surrounded by large grounds and Osaka Castle Park. It is a great place to stretch your legs after a long flight. There are also a fair number of food trucks set up inside the gates as well. You can also find people feeding the pigeons which our son thought was great.

Dotonbori

Best seen at night, Dotonbori is Osaka’s well known downtown area. It is full of great places to shop but most people come to see the brightly colored neon billboards and quirky signs of giant sea creatures which line the canal.

It is also home to quite a few well known restaurants. The lines to get into these restaurants can be incredibly long so it is best to get there early or try your luck at one of the less known places. We ducked into a small ramen restaurant and it was great as well! There are also sometimes free concerts along the canal in the evening. The day we visited we happened to catch Kamen Joshi.

Koyasan – Day Trip from Osaka

The UNESCO world heritage site, Mount Koya is home to more than 100 temples as well as Japan’s largest cemetery Okunoin. More than 200,000 monks have found their final resting place in Okunoin. This incredibly sacred place is also hauntingly beautiful. Green moss covers the grave marker and thousand year old cedar trees tower overhead.

Koyasan is approximately 2 hours from Osaka so it is an easy day trip. In bad weather though, it is best to check that the cable car is still running. We ended up traveling during one of the heaviest snowfalls they had seen in ages and ended up with more excitement than we bargained for!

Other Fantastic Sites in Osaka to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Osaka Aquarium
Universal Studios Japan
Shitennoji Buddhist Temple
Osaka Science Museum

Day 4: Nara Daytrip between Osaka and Kyoto

Nara is close enough to both Osaka and Kyoto to make it a daytrip from either location. We decided to stop over in Nara as we traveled from Osaka to Kyoto. There are places to store your bags in the train stations and at the Nara City Tourist Information Center.

The ancient city is home to some amazing sites such as Todaiji and Yakushiji temples. Nara is best known for the more than 1,200 deer that roam freely in Nara Park. I was a little worried about bringing a very excited 4 year old to see the deer but they were perfectly gentle. Vendors sell crackers that you can feed the deer but expect to get swarmed by a group of deer if you bring out a snack for one.

Days 5 to 8: Kyoto

Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple

As pretty as the Golden Temple is we felt a bit underwhelmed because there were massive crowds. We just happened to arrive exactly when several tour busses pulled up. You enter the gates and everyone must follow the same route shuffling along with the group and leaning over to take photos the best they can. It was just our luck that the sky completely clouded over when we went through. We stopped to grab some ice cream and suddenly the sky was bright blue and the crowds had cleared.


I don’t know if going back in a second time is allowed but I was able to duck back in and get a few more photos.  There isn’t much else to do at the Golden Castle but it is an iconic site so worth the trip. It is best to arrive early or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Or you can try your luck waiting for a break in the tours because as quickly as they come, they are gone just as fast.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Along with tourists to this popular site, worshipers have been visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha since around 711.  Inari is the patron of businesses and the god of rice. The shrine is well known for it’s bright orange torii (arches) and fox statues (messengers).

Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine was so much bigger than I ever expected! We arrived early and made our way to the first set of torii (the red orange arches). Everyone around us was getting frustrated trying to get a great photo. Little did we know that there are pathways all the way up to the top of the mountain with torii galore! We tried to make the two hour hike to the top of the mountain but turned back about 30 minutes from the top. We realized that we were going to have to make it back down with a 4 year old in tow and we were all getting tired. The assent is gradual though and it is easy to explore.

Gion and Geisha (Geiko)

The reason I wanted to go to Kyoto was to try to see a REAL Geisha (or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto). We were successful our second night! You can read more about how we were able to find Geisha in Kyoto here.

geisha
It takes a lot of patience though so we made sure to allot several nights to exploring the Gion which is Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Even without Geisha, the Gion has many beautiful old buildings and is very atmospheric at night especially in the Shimbashi area.

Kyoto Train Museum

The Kyoto Train Museum is the largest railway museum in Japan with a stock of 53 trains and train cars. It is a 3 story museum with lots of interactive displays and hands on exhibits.


It also has Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional fee you can take a 10 minute ride on one! It is by far the most memorable museum we have visited in Japan.

Other Fantastic Sites in Kyoto to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Nijo Castle
Monkey Park Iwatayama

Mount Fuji

On past trips to Japan we had seen Mount Fuji from a distance on clear days in Tokyo but we wanted to see it more closely. We also had no desire to climb it and how long can you spend looking at Mount Fuji with a 4 year old really? We found the perfect solution! The Nozomi Shinkansen which we had also been wanting to experience goes right past Mount Fuji on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can see Mount Fuji for about half of the trip and the train passes by closely enough that you can get a pretty decent photo.

Days 9 to 13: Tokyo

Odiaba

We love Odaiba! During our visit to Tokyo we visited nearly every day. The Odiaiba area of Tokyo is a man made island which has been developed as a shopping and leisure destination. The Yurikamone elevated train ride across to the island is quite fun itself as there is great views of the harbor and Rainbow Bridge as the train track loops over the water. If you are really lucky, try to get the first seat in the first car for a drivers view!

Once in Odaiba there is plenty to keep you busy for days. Odiaba is perhaps most well known for being the home of the life sized Gundam statue which was taken down on March 5th 2017. A new one will be erected in the fall of 2017 but until then there is still plenty to do and see on the island. At Decks Tokyo Beach you can find a Legoland Discovery Center and Madam Tussauds wax museum. Toyota Mega Web is a Toyota showroom, and museum with attractions including test drives.


Right next door is one of the world’s biggest Ferris Wheels. The National Museum of Emerging Science (Miraikan) where the robot Asimo puts on daily displays is also in Odaiba. The list goes on and on so click here to read more!

Tsukiji Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market really isn’t kid friendly. It’s a busy and active wholesale market and it really isn’t set up for tourists. The famous tuna auctions happen very early in the morning and are limited to 120 people per day who have applied in advance. Danny is a chef though and wanted to at least check it out. After 10 am when the majority of the sales have been finished the public is allowed to enter into the wholesale seafood area. By noon though most vendors have packed up and gone home leaving a very short window of time to visit.


I’m glad we went just to be able to say we have been. The vendors were very nice to us and we were given some free samples as they were cleaning up for the day. The area is wet, messy and there are forklifts and such rushing about so we opted to carry our son on our shoulders. The outdoor market is open to the public any time and is easier to navigate with little ones.

Asakusa District

Nakamise shopping street lines the way through the Asakusa district of Tokyo to Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple). The shopping street is primarily made up of souvenir shops and little snack places. This is where we ended up trying black sesame ice cream! The dark grey color was awesome and the taste OK but it’s not going to end up being on my top 5 list.


At the end of Nakamise shopping street you’ll find Asakusa temple which was built in the 7th century. Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) is probably the best known image of this temple with its giant lantern. This is a very popular site so during holidays and weekends it gets incredibly busy. Kannonura Street in Asakusa is also one of the few areas where you may be lucky to spot a Geisha in Tokyo. If luck is not on your side when you visit, Konnonura Street is still a beautiful and historic area.

Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree

There are two towers in Tokyo which you can visit to get a great view of the city. The original bright orange Tokyo Tower is 333 meters high and is the tallest self-supported steel tower in the world with observation decks at 150 meters and 250 meters. The newer (2012) Tokyo Skytree is 634 meters tall and has observation decks at 350 meters and 450 meters.


We chose to visit Tokyo Tower. Though the views at the Skytree are of course more impressive it was the cost that made us decide to visit the original Tokyo Tower instead. To visit the first observation deck at Tokyo Tower it only cost us about $8 USD each, whereas the Skytree was going to cost us about $18 USD each.

JAXA Tsukuba Space Center – Half Day Trip From Tokyo

About a 45 minuet train ride from Tokyo is JAXA Tsukuba Space Center in Tsukuba city. You can join a tour of the KIBO (the Japanese science module for the International Space Station) Flight Control Room and the astronaut training facility. Advanced reservations for English speaking tours are recommended.


There is also a nice Space Dome museum on site. It is small but it has some nice mock-ups of real space equipment.

Other Fantastic Sites in Tokyo to Add to a Japan Itinerary

Tokyo Disneyland
Ghibli Museum
Tokyo Imperial Palace
Sanrio Puroland

Day 14: Narita

Narita Omotesando and Naritasan Temple

A lot of people go to Narita only for the airport. Just by chance we stayed at a hotel one night a bit away from the airport because we had an early flight. Bored and wanting to just get out and walk a bit we were suddenly walking along Narita Omotesando (path leading to a temple).


The narrow one kilometer street is lined with old buildings now housing souvenir shops including traditional foods and handicrafts, and restaurants. It twists and turns until it reaches Naritasan Temple (Narita-san Shinsho-ji ). Built around 940 the temple is and grounds are quite large and very popular. It’s a great place to spend a few hours before your flight!

Check out our other Japan Guide on the best places to find cars, trains, robots and rockets here!

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Bagan Travel Guide: Travel Tips for Your Next Trip to Myanmar

This Bagan travel guide contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. All opinions in this Bagan travel guide are my own.

bagan travel guide

Much of our trip to Myanmar was focused around trying to find a connection to my family who had once lived there as part of the British Colonies. We visited Bagan though purely as tourists. We have traveled to Borobudur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia but there is something uniquely special about Bagan. There are more temples to explore than at Borobudur and it currently is much less touristy than Angkor Wat. Find some great tips in this Bagan travel guide.

family atop a temple in bagan

Tickets

Before we went to Myanmar we read a lot of posts from people online suggesting that tourists should not buy the entrance tickets to Bagan. The writers offered tips on how to avoid paying and they promised that no one would ask to see your ticket when you traveled around the city.

monks at a temple in bagan using cell phone

It’s still true that you probably won’t be asked to show your ticket. In 5 days we were only asked to show it once. There are now ticket booths before the exit from the airport in Bagan though so skipping out on paying the fee is not as easy as before. You would need some careful planning to avoid it and at a reasonable 25,000 Kyat or $22 USD per person (our 3 year old son was free) it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. We lined up, got our ticket and were out the door in less than 5 minutes.

ananda temple bagan in the mist at sunrise
Pagoda Phya That Gyi at sunrise bagan myanmar
small white temple with flowers bagan myanmar

Temples

Throughout the desert landscape of Bagan there are more than 2000 temples and other religious structures still standing from the 11th to 13th century. Some of the smaller ones can even be found in the backyards of homes with kids playing soccer around them. The atmosphere around the temples is pretty relaxed and visitors can climb up or go into, nearly any that they wish. But these are still places of worship and religious significance for many. Therefore, shoes must be taken off before you set foot on or in a temple out of respect and to help preserve the monuments.

sunrise temple bagan myanmar

Ananda Temple in bagan myanmar

On August 25th, 2016 a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Bagan damaging many of the temples. Restoration is underway and looks like it will continue for quite some time to come. With the devastation a bit of a silver lining has emerged for the city. Much of the damage that occurred was actually restoration work from the 1990’s which had been done quickly and not using original materials. As a result, Bagan did not qualify for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Aung San Suu Kyi has insisted that the process of restoration be taken slowly and under the guidance of UNESCO. Hopefully when the work is done Bagan will be better than ever and will hold the much deserved status!

shwezigon pagoda at sunset father carrying son with manduca baby carrier bagan myanmar

Temples in the mist bagan myanmar sunrise

Getting Around

Getting around Bagan is pretty easy and economical. We stayed in the Nyaung U area which is within walking distance of quite a few restaurants, shops, and some smaller temples.  You will need some sort of transportation to visit the big temples though.

cows and cart in bagan myanmar

Many places rent bicycles for less than $2 USD a day and some accommodations proved them for free. The area is very flat and so it is an easy ride if you set out early in the morning or late in the afternoon. When the sun is high in the sky the city is incredibly hot and options like e-bikes (around $6 a day) or a car with a driver (around $15 for half a day or $35 for the whole day) may be better options. There is even the popular option of taking a hot air balloon ride over the temples as the sun rise!

Many tourist sites recommend that you spend around 2 days in Bagan but we were there for 5 and we left wishing for more time to explore!

Htilominlo Temple hot air balloon bagan myanmar

Hot air balloon crew bagan myanmar

Hot air balloon crew returning after a morning flight

Bagan with Kids

We found Bagan to be really kid friendly! The side streets were quiet and our son joined other kids chasing bubbles and playing. People in Bagan love kids and they went the extra mile to make sure we were all ok. A group of men even showed him how to play a board game during their lunch breaks. Some hotels in the area have swimming pools as well so kids (and adults!) to cool down a bit from the afternoon heat.

board games street men

Going into and around the temples with kids is very easy but climbing up them is much more of a challenge. The many of the steps are very narrow and you have to walk down some of them sideways! We used our Manduca baby carrier to get our son up and down some of the more steep temples. Even then it was a bit precarious. Not all of them are this difficult though and it is completely doable especially if you just take it slow and steady.

temple stairs bagan myanmar

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Our Family in Faraway Places


You may be wondering how a Canadian woman and Filipino man working in South Korea ended up getting married, having a son and traveling all over most of Asia and beyond. It’s a bit of a long story but here is how we got to where we are today!

Family in Faraway Places

Our first photo together

How we Ended up in Gwangju, South Korea

Danny

After two years of living and studying in Japan, Danny had returned to the Philippines and was working for a Japanese company in Cavite. He wasn’t planning on going abroad again but his older sister had paid a recruiter to find her a job in South Korea. Nearly a year went by and the recruiter wasn’t able to find any jobs for women, so Danny agreed to go in her place. He joined the Employment Permit System (EPS), and studied Korean for 10 days. He passed the language test and training programs and in October 2006 he was off to Gwangju, South Korea.

Family in Faraway Places

First Christmas together

Jessica

In 2005 I had finished my university degrees. I had planned on teaching in high crime, low income neighborhoods in Toronto, Canada. My brother and his wife were living in the Middle East and my family encouraged me to try working abroad for a bit. I sent my resume out all over the world with no set destination in mind and was contacted by an art and design university just outside of Seoul. The job was to teach English but I figured it would be a way to combine my degrees in art and education so off I went (I never ended up teaching any art there!).

It was a fantastic job but the program shut down after just the one year. I had enjoyed my time in Korea though and decided to come back for another year. My next job was in Gangnam, Seoul the famous wealthy neighborhood that Psy sang about in the viral video Gangnam Style. The school started losing money though, there was a bunch of drama and I moved in April 2007 to Gwangju, South Korea to start a new job.

How We Met

I went home to Canada for my summer vacation that July. While I was away on vacation a group of Filipino migrant factory workers had started visiting a local expat bar. When I returned in August a group of friends and I went to that same bar to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We walked in the door and I’m told I said something along the lines of “There are a lot of hot guys here tonight, but that guy is mine!” It’s not the kind of thing I had ever said before but I walked right up to Danny and introduced myself.

We danced all night and just before he was about to leave I gave him a quick kiss. Danny was already pretty worried about his English skills and nervous about speaking to the second Caucasian woman he had ever met. The little kiss completely shocked both him and his friends. We completely forgot to exchange phone numbers! The next weekend he returned to the bar though, and we exchanged numbers properly this time. About 4 months after meeting we were officially engaged.

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

We were young, naive and in love. When I met Danny I knew nothing about the Philippines, or any restrictions its citizens might have. This was the man I loved and I didn’t care where he came from, or how much money he had. Immigration Canada on the other hand did.

We planned on getting married in Canada in August but a month before the wedding Danny’s visa application was denied. As a migrant worker Danny had been sending most of his paycheck home to his family each month and immigration felt that he did not have sufficient funds to visit Canada.

Family in Faraway Places

Getting ready for the wedding

Family in Faraway Places

 

Wedding at the courthouse

Upset but determined we decided to get married in the Philippines instead. Since we were only in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, there was not time to plan anything big. We were married in a courthouse with around 5 witnesses. A $10 wedding dress, his family cooked the food and we all ate in the backyard of Danny’s brother’s place. The majority of the guests were family and neighbors and we had a surprise visit from 2 of Danny’s best friends from college. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Wedding dinner in the Philippines

Newly Married Life

Before getting married Danny had lived in a small shared room at the factory where he worked on the other side of the city. I had my own apartment near my school so it just made sense that he moved in with me. He was being asked to work from 8am – 10:30pm every day though. When he got off work the busses had stopped running so it would be a $10 taxi ride to come home. In the morning he would get up and leave by 5:30 am to get to work on time by bus.

At one point he worked 14 or 15 hours a day, Monday to Friday and 8 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday for 3 weeks straight without a single day off. I contacted the labor board about it. They told us that he was only legally required to work 16 hours of overtime a week but we should not say anything to them because if he refused his boss might beat him!

We decided to just see each other on weekends. For 5 months we saw each other Saturday night and Sunday during the day. The arrangement was wearing us down. Danny tried to find work someplace else but couldn’t find anything with better work conditions. We thought that maybe he should just quit his job and go back to school. He decided to continue studying Japanese.

Family in Faraway Places

Newly Weds

We spoke with the foreign students’ department at a local university and they told us that to enroll he would have to take both a Korean speaking and written test. The speaking test was done informally and he passed. He would have to come to the university at a set time and date to do the written test. There was no way his boss would let him have time off work to write the test. He would have to quit his job to take it.

Once he quit his job he would have only about a month to find another job, enroll in a school or leave the country. The university assured us that the written test was only a formality and he would be admitted to the university. With that promise Danny quit his job. (The man who replaced him in the factory lost his fingers in the press machine a month later)

Danny did the writing test and the university told him he failed. They would not let him attend unless he first took Korean language classes from them for an additional $4,000. We felt completely betrayed! They knew we would be in a very difficult position if he quit his job without a backup plan. We didn’t have that extra money to spend and we felt tricked so we decided that he would not attend the university.

With only a month and a half before he would be required to leave the country, we made a plan to change Danny’s work visa to a dependent spouse visa. We contacted immigration and at that time dependent visas in South Korea were not as common as they are now. Our local immigration office wasn’t exactly sure what we needed to do. We were running back and forth to the immigration office and on the phone with them constantly. They kept asking us for paperwork from our home countries which doesn’t exist.

Family in Faraway Places

Weekend chairlift ride up the mountain

We also had difficulty getting through to the Philippine embassy in Korea. I would call and say something along the lines of “Hello, I’m calling to get some information about getting a spouse visa.” The woman on the other end would scream at me “YOU CANT JOIN YOUR HUSBAND IN KOREA!” and hang up. After several tries I called back and quickly yelled “I’m Canadian!” before she hung up the phone. She had thought I was a Filipina wanting to go live with my migrant worker husband who worked in Korea which is not allowed.

We had to leave Korea and come back to get a dependent visa. Our approval from the immigration office came only a couple of days before our flight. We would end up celebrating our 6 months of marriage back in the Philippines.

Before we left I called the Korean immigration office in the Philippines to make sure I had everything I needed. The switch board put me through to an officer and she started to list off things I needed. I paused for a moment as I wrote the information down and then the phone went dead. I called back and the switch board put me through again. I explained that the phone had gone dead. The woman said “I know. I hung up on you because I didn’t hear you.” I had paused for only a second.

She started to list off again what we needed. She said that I needed an invitation letter from my place of work. We had never been told this. I asked her what the letter had to say. Her response: “Just an invitation letter”. But what does it have to say? “They just have to write an invitation.” I could just imagine us going all the way to the Philippines to find it had been done incorrectly!

I asked her if there were instructions in Korean that I could give to my boss. She started to get rude with me. I told her I didn’t understand what was required. She said she already told me. I asked if I could maybe speak to someone else because I was confused. She said I couldn’t speak to anyone else because she had already told me.

She was being very rude and I asked to please have her name. She replied “What’s your name?” and hung up on me. I called again, explained what had happened and they put me through to another person. The first woman had been telling me the wrong information. An invitation letter is only required if you don’t have the visa number and you are applying from the Philippines.

Family in Faraway Places

Christmas together

When we finally got to the Philippines we went to the Korean immigration office. You needed to fill out the paperwork one day and the visa is ready to be picked up the next. It was a madhouse in there and a worker gave us the paperwork to fill out. A pile of 6 papers (3 for each of us) and told us to go fill them out…Except mine were all in Korean! I asked her how I was to fill them out and she just shooed me away. So we asked again and she told us to just ask some Korean.

We asked a woman who was there to do some visa stuff herself and she helped us out. She helped me fill out two forms and then she double checked the title. We were filling out the wrong forms! We were filling out the ones to apply for the visa and we had already been approved back in Korea. The woman who gave us the forms hadn’t bothered to look at our paperwork or listen to what we said when we came in.

So we went back to the front desk and the lady who had been helping us told them that they had given us the wrong form. She then gave us the right form. ONE PAGE! We filled it out, but when we went back to the counter and they told us “You’re too late. We only accept applications for visa’s from 9-11am. You have to come back tomorrow”. Coming back tomorrow would mean that we would have to wait until Monday to get the visa and have to stay in the hotel 2 more nights.

I explained that we had been on time but she gave us the wrong forms. She didn’t care and she left. I was at my breaking point. We asked everyone we could for help, the volunteers, security guards, immigration officers etc. and eventually someone from the visa department. They took the paper and the passport and told us to come back tomorrow. Except for a long wait, we got it the next day without a hitch.

You may think that we were now free from visa problems but that was not the case. We came back to Korea and went through immigration. I went through first and then Danny was to go through. The immigration officer kept looking at his visa. Because I had already gone through they wouldn’t let me come back to help out. For the next 5 years or more he would always go through immigration before me because of this.

The man eventually called me back and asked Danny if I was his mother (possible language problem). We said “no wife”. I showed him that my name on my passport was also on his visa. He looked at it, smiled, laughed and then sent me back out and sent Danny to be interrogated.

They took Danny into another room and I couldn’t see what was going on. There was the immigration officer for pilots and diplomats near where I was waiting and he asked why I was there. I told him that they had taken my husband in for questioning. He asked where he was from. I told him the Philippines. He asked if it was his first time to Korea. I told him he had lived here for two years. He assured me that they were just double checking and not to worry.

In the meantime an immigration officer was looking at Danny’s visa. She then asked to look at his ear. We have no idea why. Then she asked who I was. He told her that I was his wife. They continued to look through his passport for about 20min more. I was out in the immigration area of the airport crying and asking anyone I could to please tell me where my husband was. Finally all the immigration officers came in to where he was. A young officer asked those inspecting Danny’s passport what kind of visa he had. They said “F3”. The officer told them “It’s fine! Let him go through” and that was it.

Now What?

Once we returned home Danny decided that he would study Japanese on his own at home. This “studying” was often turning into hours of video games. We realized that this wasn’t going to work long term so we looked into formal education opportunities again. I asked him what he would like to “be”. This was something he had never had the opportunity to consider before.

Eventually he decided he liked cooking. Our friend found a two year Hotel Cooking and Nutrition program locally. Despite being past the application deadline they let him apply and in March he began his classes. At the end of the year when they held a program wide cooking contest, Danny won!graduation photo

Our First Real Vacation Together

When we first got married we planned on going to Canada the next summer to celebrate with my family. During all the changes for Danny’s new visa, our visa renewal date in Korea had gotten changed as well. When we went to apply for Danny’s tourist visa to Canada we found that he couldn’t get one. For him to apply for a Canadian visa his Korean visa would have had to have been valid for more than 3 months past the month we would have been traveling. His Korean visa expired in August and we were going to Canada in August so it wasn’t 3 months. We could only renew our Korean visas one month in advance so we wouldn’t have gotten our Canadian visa back in time.

Visa Troubles Lead to Vacation Plans!

We were very depressed because we couldn’t go to Canada yet again because of visa issues and decided to use the money that we had saved up for Canada to travel to another country. We chose Cambodia because we had just seen a great Discovery Channel program on Angkor Wat, our friends loved it when they visited and because though I needed a visa to go, Danny FINALLY didn’t! All of our visa troubles lead to the beginning of our travels.

Family in Faraway Places

Visiting the temples in Cambodia

We went for 3 weeks and traveled right across the country for about $20/day including accommodation and food. We stayed in some really interesting places. Some good, and some bad. It was a really defining point in our relationship as this was the first place that we had traveled to together for no reason other than just to travel. That same year I started to study Tagalog (Filipino) and in January I started my Masters in Education with a specialization in TESL online. Danny completed his degree.

To Canada Finally!

The summer of 2010, we attempted yet again to go to Canada. An immigration officer at the Canadian embassy had told us that in the eyes of Immigration Canada, Filipino citizens are viewed as guilty of wanting to stay in Canada illegally until they could prove they were innocent. He would have an easier time immigrating to Canada than getting a tourist visa they said. With that in mind we created our case and submitted a tourist visa application an inch thick…and were finally approved! We renewed our vows in Canada and had a lovely pot luck lunch with many of my family and friends.

Opening wedding presents in Canada

The highlight of the trip (other than seeing family) had to be visiting Niagara Falls. Karaoke (videoke) is incredibly popular in the Philippines. There you can find machines everywhere! Often on these machines they show a background video of Niagara Falls. Growing up it was the only place Danny ever dreamed of visiting and it finally came true!

Family in Faraway Places

Finally to Niagara Falls!

The Next Big Trip

Since I was working on my degree we stayed close to home for the next little while. In July 2011 we made a small trip to Palawan, Philippines. We were talking about starting a family as I finished my course requirements in the winter of 2011. As a reward for all our hard work and as a last trip before we “settled down” we headed off on a trip of a lifetime to Northern India. My grandmother’s family had lived in India for generations as part of the British Colonies and so I had always wanted to visit. We visited Delhi, Varanasi, Arga, Jaipur, Johdpur and Jaisalmer in a little over 2 weeks in February 2012. By March I was pregnant with our son.

Family in Faraway Places

Varanasi India

Family in Faraway Places

Studying Korean drumming while pregnant (We cleared it with our doctor before we went!)

And Now There Were 3

Family in Faraway Places

​Being new parents in a foreign country with no help from our families was harder then we could have ever imagined. Traveling with our son though was surprisingly easier than we thought! In August 2013 when our son was 8 months old, we took our first trip together as a family to Phuket, Thailand.

Family in Faraway Places

Being blessed by a monk in Phuket, Thailand

We wanted to take advantage of infant ticket prices while we could so we traveled to Japan in January 2014 to visit Danny’s sister and her family. That summer we visited Canada in July and later the Philippines in August. We introduce our son to as many family members as we could before his ticket cost would increase when he turned 2. It quickly became clear that rather than ending our travels, our son was contributing to our travels!

Family in Faraway Places

Meeting lolo in the Philippines

Our son grew to be an incredibly active little guy who loves to explore and be outdoors and our life in Korea was starting to feel like it wasn’t the best fit anymore. The air quality was getting increasingly worse each year and we often had to keep him inside. The school system in Korea is also notoriously stressful. We looked at moving to the Philippines but in the end decided against it. If something were to happen to Danny there we would all be in a difficult position.

We then looked at moving to the Middle East but again Danny’s visa issues made it all but impossible. All of the visa problems over the years had made me very worried about what would happen to our family if something were to happen to me or Danny. We ended up choosing to move to Canada where there would be more safety nets. Danny could eventually apply for citizenship which would provide another layer of protection. We made one last big trip together to Indonesia before we would submit Danny’s permanent residency application in March.

borobudur temple sunrise tour

The Last Time is Never the Last

If you haven’t noticed there is a bit of a pattern with our “last big trip” not being our last big trip! There was a mix up at my work in the spring and we weren’t able to submit our application in March 2015 as planned. Having a bit more time in Asia we headed to the Philippines again in the summer and submitted his permanent residency application in August. While waiting for approval we headed to Myanmar to visit the country where my maternal grandmother had been born and grew up.
family atop a temple in baganAt the end of June 2016 Danny’s permanent residency application was approved but he was required to go to Canada to officially “land” before August. There was no way we could pack up a decade of our life in Korea and just go with such a short timeframe so he went alone, officially landed and then came back to Korea. We decided to make the move together the following year and set off on a trip to Vietnam in the summer.

Now that a year is getting closer though it looks like it will be another year. Eventually we do need to move or he will lose his permanent residency so we are trying to visit all the places we still want to visit in Asia. Then, someday in the near future our adventures will shift to North and South America. In the meantime, I guess we are just a family of accidental travelers heading out on our next adventure together.
Family in Faraway Places

Borobudor Sunrise Tour in Beautiful Yogyakarta, Indonesia

borobudor sunrise tour
Before we traveled to Indonesia I knew embarrassingly little about the country. I knew about Jakarta because we know some people from there. I had of course heard of Bali but actually hadn’t realized for the longest time that Bali was part of Indonesia. And I knew about the fantastic Komodo Dragons. I had never heard of Borobudur. We came across it while planning our vacation and instantly knew visiting it was going to be the highlight of our trip. Amazing as the 9th century Buddhist temple is, it’s eve
n more amazing at sunrise so we decided to plan a Borobudor sunrise tour.

borobudur statues temple

 

Options for Seeing the Sunrise

There are a large number of tours that go to the temple from Yogyakarta which is around an hour from Borobudur. They tend to start off from your hotel around 3:30 am and arrive at 4:30 am at Manohara Hotel within the grounds of the temple. Another option is to stay at Manohara Hotel itself so you just wake up and go. Since we were traveling with our son we decided to stay at Manohara Hotel. He’s an early riser (he was getting up at 4 am most days then) but we thought that waking him up at 3:30 am and then driving for an hour to the Borobudor sunrise tour would be pushing it.

There are also some smaller guesthouses that have been popping up just outside of the temple. If you stay in one of them you can wake up closer to the start of the Borobudor sunrise tour, bike over to Manohara and join the sunrise group. In hindsight, I wish we had done that. Some visitors try to be there right at 6:00am when the gates open and then make their way up to the temple without the sunrise tour. Depending on the time of year, the sun may not be completely up yet and it is possible to climb the temple in time to see the sun rise in all its glory. When we visited, “blue hour” occurred around 5am. Then around 5:50am there was a pastel light of dawn, followed nearly right at 6am by a brilliant orange sky. The dramatic colors only lasted less than 15 minutes though, so on the day we went you would have really had to run from the front gate and then up the stairs to catch it with a 6am start.

Hotel Options

We flew from Bali to Yogyakarta and stayed at the Hyatt Regency for a night. The hotel was a bit beyond our price range for the trip but considering it is a Hyatt hotel, the price (around $70 USD a night including buffet breakfast) was very reasonable. We did have an issue with a double booking that was eventually cleared up when we got back home but we were there for the pool and the pool is spectacular! This was our peace offering to our son for dragging him around to a bunch of temples. There was a huge winding pool in a garden setting accented with buildings in the style of Borobudur.  The waterslide even came out of a temple! There were stone bridges, a basketball net, and even a waterfall. The pool alone is worth the visit!

hyatt regency yogyakarta pool

The following morning we were picked up by the driver we had arranged to take us to Manohara Hotel. It was pouring rain. Absolutely pouring down and we were starting to feel a bit worried about our sunrise tour. The streets were flooded and it didn’t look like the rain was going to give up any time soon. Our driver assured us though that we had nothing to worry about and that after a big storm, the sunrises were always spectacular.

We arrived at Manohara Hotel and were checked in quickly. The grounds were beautiful and there right outside the dining area was Borobudur in all its glory. It was still raining so we didn’t explore the temple much that day.

Borobudur Manohara Hotel Rain

The hotel itself though was less than spectacular. They have a monopoly in the area and it seems like the owners are taking advantage of the fact. Our bathroom was filthy with hair and dirt everywhere. Our shower had hot water for less than 2 minutes. I’ve since read other reviewers have mentioned this as well so it wasn’t the first time it had happened. The staff acted very surprised and said they would come and fix it but never did. There were ants everywhere in the room. I left my toothpaste out on the counter and when I woke up in the morning there were hundreds of ants covering it. We continued to find ants in our luggage for days after we left the hotel. The food in the restaurant was also overpriced and poor quality. Our stay at the Hyatt outside of Yogyakarta had been cheaper so we were really quite annoyed.

Borobudor Sunrise Tour

The convenience of just being able to roll out of bed and go straight to the Borobudor sunrise tour was fantastic though. We got out of bed around 4 am, gathered our things and met the people coming from other hotels joining the Borobudor sunrise tour at the front desk by 4:30. We were given flashlights, put our son on my husband’s back in our Manduca baby carrier and followed our escort to the temple. There was nearly no light at all as we walked up to the temple but luckily there are railings going along the steps that you can hold on to. 

Borobudur Sunrise tour

It stayed fairly dark for about 15 minutes more until blue hour came and we started to take photos. While there is plenty of room to get a great photo without anyone in it, the light from all the people using their phone’s cameras can get really annoying when you are trying to set up a shot.

Borobudur temple blue hour   Borobudur temple blue hour

Blue hour faded into a pinkish dawn as we listened to the morning prayers being broadcast on loudspeakers and watched the mist roll through the trees.

borobudur dawn temple statue
mist fog borobudor sunrise tour
We had been up at the top of the temple for about an hour and the sun was quite high in the sky. People were starting to make their way back down the stairs and though it was pretty we were feeling a bit let down. Our driver had promised a spectacular sunrise. Suddenly at almost precisely 6:05 am the sky changed to brilliant oranges, reds and yellows! We were told that it was the most spectacular sunrise they had had in a month.borobudor sunrise tour temple   borobudur temple sunrise tour

The brilliant colors lasted less than 10 minutes but we stayed for another hour just watching and listening.

borobudur temple sunrise tour   borobudur temple sunrise tour


Hours

Open hours:  6 am – 5 pm

Cost

Foreign Visitor: 280,000 IDR per person
Domestic Visitor: 30,000 IDR per person

Borobudur Sunrise Tour or Sunset tour (via Manohara Hotel)

Foreign Visitor: 400,000 IDR per person
Hotel Guests: 250,000 IDR per person
Domestic Visitor: 270,000 IDR per person 
Kids 1-5: Free
Kids 6-10: 50% the adult price


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Mysterious Unjusa Temple of 1,000 Buddha and Pagodas

unjusa temple hwasun

View of Unjusa in the Spring on our first visit

The South Korean temple, Unjusa in Hwasun County is a bit of a mystery. No one is quite sure who the founder is but it is estimated to have been built sometime between 57 BC and 935 AD. Originally the temple had more than 1,000 Buddha statues and 1,000 pagodas but today only 91 stone statues and 21 pagodas of various sizes remain. They can be found around the temple grounds and in the surrounding fields and mountains.
child looking at buddha statue unjusa hwasun korea temple
small statue unjusa hwasun temple korea
pagoda in mountain at unjusa temple
Buddha statue under large stone hwasun unjusa south korea temple
multi cylindrical pagoda unjusa south korea hwasun
A few years ago when our son was only a few months old we took a trip to Unjusa. We hadn’t researched much before we went. We enjoyed our time but when we got home we found out that we had completely missed the giant statues of Buddha lying down. We knew we would need to return!
Painting on the temple roof
many little gold colored buddha
Temple door carvings and painting lotus

We have just returned to Unjusa and were pleasantly surprised! Since our last visit they have invested in creating beautiful trails and stairs to the main attractions in the mountains. The stone or wooden paths are steep in parts but are some of the best I have seen in my 11 years in Korea! When we visited before my husband and son had to wait at the bottom of the mountain as I climbed to get a good photo because the trail was rather slippery when wet. This is no longer a concern!

walkway at unjusa temple
Stairs going to the reclining buddha
This visit we were sure to get a pamphlet (in English!) and checked the maps so we knew where we were going. The paths are well labeled and there are signs at the major monuments in both Korean and English explaining the significance. We had missed the giant reclining Buddha statues the first visit because we had taken the trail up behind the temple rather than the trail to the left. It is clearly marked and was entirely our mistake.

We didn’t make the mistake again though! After you climb the stairs to the top of the hill there is no missing the reclining Buddha statues. Carved out of the stone in the ground, one is nearly 42 feet and the other around 34 feet. The carvings are rather crude but it is still impressive. I have never seen anything else like it in Korea.

Buddha lying down carving from rock
reclining buddha unjusa temple

The hikes around Unjusa are easy and not very crowded. It’s quite far from the city with few restaurants or other services around. It’s best to bring your own food! Some guided tour groups do make it out to the temple but with such a large area to explore it never felt busy. With so many treasures to search for it’s easy to discover something new each time you visit Unjusa which is why it’s one of our favorite temples in the region.

Cost

  • Adults 3,000 won / Teenagers 2,000 won / Children 1,000 won

Hours

  • Summer 08:00-18:00 / Winter 08:00-17:00

Transportation

  • From Gwangcheon Bus Terminal (USquare) in Gwangju take city bus number 318 or 218. The ride takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Confirm with the driver that the bus will stop at the temple (운주사). 

Manila, Philippines for your Next Family Vacation!

Manila is a great place for a family Philippines vacation …really! I know what you’re thinking. It’s busy, crowded and the traffic is bad. There are no beaches. When I told my husband I was going to write a post on why Manila is a great place for a family Philippines vacation he made that same face that you are probably making right now! Which is exactly why I had decided to write this post.

We’ve spent a few days here and there in Manila on several occasions over the years and other than the shady taxi situation at the airport we have never had any problems. On our last trip to the Philippines though we actually planned some vacation time in the city with our son and we had a fantastic time (which my husband DID end up remembering)!

The Manila Jeepney

Thanks to the Tagalog for Kids Flash Card set we have at home “Jeepney” was one of the first vehicle words our son learnt along with car and truck. On our first trip to the Philippines to meet his lolo and lola we arrived around midnight in Manila. We pulled out of the airport in our taxi and there it was: “Jeepney!” He was only 21 months old at the time but it was a dream come true. Everywhere he looked, there they were. The taxi driver found it more than a little amusing that there was this little boy pointing out and yelling in excitement “Jeepney! Jeepney!” over and over. The next year when we visited we kept our eyes open for the brightly painted icons of the city, added additional toys to his Jeepney collection and even got to “drive” a Jeepney.

DRIVE

Driving a Jeepney on display at Manila Ocean Park

Kids love Jeepneys and so do tourists on their Philippines vacation! The Jeepney is to Manila like the streetcar is to San Francisco. Though you can still track down some fantastically styled Jeepneys for your little car lover to marvel at they are becoming increasingly less common. Or at least the painted ones are.

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The most impressive Jeepney we saw in Manila. They are becoming less common.

I’ve heard two different takes on why this is. In the media I read that it is getting too expensive for drivers to decorate their Jeepneys. This may be true but I find it hard to believe. There are companies out there that offer to sponsor decorations and the more attractive Jeepneys tended to get more business in the past. When we were in Manila several different taxi drivers told us that the real reason was because of tension between the drivers of the decorated and not decorated Jeepneys. They said that the drivers of the non-decorated vehicles were unhappy that they were getting less business and that rules may have been put in place to discourage the decoration to create a more equal playing field. Whatever the reason, our son loves the Jeepney and the decorated ones even more so. Hopefully measures are taken to preserve this part of the Filipino culture and tradition.

Hotel H2O and Manila Ocean Park

On the way to the hotel our son fell asleep. We checked in, went to our room, placed him on the bed and waited. When he woke up he slowly sat up in bed and looked around unsure of where he was and then…fish! An entire wall of our room was a giant aquarium! We couldn’t have planned the surprise any better.

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He doesn't know yet that he's sleeping in an aquarium!

Located in Luneta, Manila behind the Quirino Grandstand and actually situated on Manila Bay, Hotel H2O features aquarium themed rooms. There are rooms that have beautiful views of Manila Bay but what we were after was the “Aqua” themed room. In the Aqua rooms an entire wall of the room is an aquarium. The fish are not confined to your room but rather the aquarium goes between the rooms so your visitors are always changing. We spent ages excitedly waiting for “Dory” to make her appearance in our room again. Twice a day the fish are fed in your room so each guest gets to see a great display of fish gathering at that time.

philippines vacation

Feeding time. We found Dory!

On the same grounds of Hotel H20 is Manila Ocean Park. Ocean Park is an 8,000 square meter oceanarium which features a 25 meter long underwater walkway, the tallest musical fountain in the Philippines, numerous tanks of fish and other underwater sea life, a penguin exhibit and a sea lion performance to name a few.

When we stayed at Hotel H20 we had just returned from a trip to Apo Island and Oslob to see the sea turtles and whale sharks so we were not very interested in visiting Ocean Park. I have heard mixed reviews of Ocean Park. Some people love it and others not so much. It really seems to depend on what you are expecting and which exhibits you attend.

Manila Ocean Park, Birds of Prey Kingdom

We did though check out Ocean Park’s newest attraction the Birds of Prey Kingdom. Our son loves birds and we thought it would be a great opportunity for him to see some up close. I think perhaps we didn’t read the description properly but when we saw that it was BirdS of Prey we thought there would be a variety of birds. Instead there is only the Brahminy Kite (the Lawin or Banog). The enclosure was also smaller than expected and we lost interest after about 10 minutes. We only bought tickets for that attraction. If you have purchased a pass it is worth checking out. A great chance to see a beautiful local bird up close and they seem healthy and well cared for.

Rizal Park and Intramuros

Probably about a 5 minute walk from Hotel H2O is Rizal Park. Traveling with a VERY active child we went there many times during our trip to Manila just to run and play. The thing that really struck me about this park is how alive it is. Early in the morning as the sun is rising, joggers run around in the cooler morning air and around noon people from local businesses gather to have their lunch. You can catch a ride around the park on a kalesa (horse drawn carriage). In the evening the park is full of families playing together, students practicing their dance routines and couples on dates. It was one of our favourite places to go as a family in Manila. In the evening they also have a fairly impressive light and music show at the fountain. FAQ.ph has an interesting post on some of the historical and national highlights at the park.

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The kalesa ride 

The light and music show at the fountain at night

A 15 minute walk from Rizal Park is Intramuros though you might want to opt for the 7 min taxi drive instead. The walking route was poorly marked and whenever we asked for directions the people in the area surprisingly didn’t seem to know the way or sent us in the wrong direction. Our walk ended up taking us over an hour!

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Intramuros is the oldest district of Manila and the historic center of the city. Once you get there though there are ruins, old churches and buildings, walls, and prisons to explore and discover. Kids (and parents!) can get swept away pretending they are soldiers of Fort Santiago and imagining where the gold from the legend of Yamashita’s Treasure might be hidden!


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