Day 123 – Houston, Texas

And just like that … I’m home. The 12-hr flight from Japan to Houston was pretty smooth. I was lucky enough to have an exit row seat so I had plenty of room to stretch out my legs. I didn’t sleep much on the plane, only an hour here and there, but mostly passed the time by watching a couple of shows and the latest Blockbuster movies. When we touched down on the runway, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I’ve never been a nervous flyer, but there was something about being back in Texas that was very comforting.

Customs was a breeze. (Thank you, Global Entry!) And after I collected my bags from the conveyor belt, my mom was already waiting for me outside of the terminal. Everything felt … normal. Perhaps I haven’t been away long enough to feel the “reverse culture shock” of returning to the US that all the other travelers talk about. The biggest shock was probably finding out about all the car problems I’ve suddenly inherited. My lease had ended in February, most of my furniture was sold. The only thing that I really left behind was my car. I hadn’t had to worry about it for the past couple of months, as walking and public transportation became the new normal. However, the last thing I was expecting to return to was a mess of problems and the very real possibility of purchasing a new car to replace it. So much for that cushion budget.

The other huge reality that I had to face, this one I had been expecting, was the need to find a job. I briefly started my search in the last week or two, browsing the available positions online. It’s one thing that I was hoping to have a clear answer to at the end of this trip. But that just didn’t happen. There was no almighty sign from God to point me in the correct direction upon my return. No ultimate epiphany on the road. I was back to where I was four months ago, with lots of possible directions and no idea which way to turn.

The biggest thing I’ve realized upon my return, though, is that I am happy. Like truly happy. I feel like I have lived so much of my life in the past four months. I am both proud and amazed at what I have accomplished. I’m glad I stuck through the hard times and never gave up. The best thing that this trip could’ve ever given me was clarity. Although not in the way I originally thought. Clarity in a sense that I was able to look back at my life, my work, and my relationships with others, and really seeΒ them. A good friend and fellow travel blogger once wrote,

To take a step back from everything that causes you stress and take care of yourself and your dreams is healthy. -thefreshstarttraveller

So I come back renewed. Feeling refreshed and ready to tackle life and all the stresses that come with it. There’s no clear path ahead, but that’s all part of the adventure. If travel has taught me anything, it’s that the future is always going to be unclear, but just keep moving forward. It’s all you can do.

Postscript, thank you to everyone that has supported me up to this point! Thank you for all the readers and people following this blog. Whether it was one post or every post along the way, I am truly thankful for your time. The last 123 days have been a blessing, and I’m glad I was able to share them with you. As for me, travel is still going to be a huge part of my life. And who knows, my nextdextination might just be around the corner.

Day 122 – Narita, Japan

That’s a wrap! The last day of my trip came up so fast. Looking back, I’m still in awe at everything that I’ve been able to accomplish since Day 1. From Thai temples, cooking classes, pampering elephants in Chiang Mai, a half-moon party, learning to SCUBA dive in Koh Tao, to beautiful beaches on the West Coast.

From the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, to the perfect bowl of chili pan mee, to a week in Bali and yoga in the rainforest.

From diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, a Whitsundays live-aboard, a camping trip on Fraser Island, my first surf lesson, cuddling a koala and feeding kangaroos in Brisbane, the lighthouse in Byron, the Sydney Opera House, road-tripping the Great Ocean Road, to the week in Melbourne.

From Cathedral Cove, digging a geothermal spa on the beach, experiencing Hobbiton, learning the haka at the Tamaki Maori Village, lots of day hikes, my first helicopter ride, hiking a glacier, picturesque lakes, a week in Queenstown, a cruise down Milford Sound, to snowboarding in June.

From the Supertree Grove in Singapore to a floating rainforest. From my birthday in Boracay, parasailing, ATV rides, stand-up paddle boards, sunset dinner on the beach, an upside down museum in Manila, an unforgettable day island-hopping in Coron, renting motorbikes, rope swinging into a waterfall, to jumping off a 10 meter platform in Siquijor.

From the perfect bowl of ramen in Japan, to a beautiful shrine, a ride on the world’s fastest bullet train, staying in a capsule hotel, walking through a series of torii gates, Osaka Castle, the crazy Tokyo nightlife, to a trip to DisneySea.

The ride has been truly amazing. The people along the way have been the best. I am so lucky to have made so many new friends along the way from all over the world. I’m blessed to have been able to go on a life-changing trip like this one. I wanted to explore the world, to see new things, to do things that scare me. I feel like I accomplished so much in the past four months, and looking back I just think … WOW. I can’t believe I did all that.

Thank you.

The Millennials Kyoto – Hotel Review

Disclaimer: I have not received any services or compensation from The Millennials Kyoto for writing this review. All opinions are solely my own based on my experience at the hotel.

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Overview. First and foremost, this is NOT a hostel. The Millennials Kyoto is a capsule-style hotel geared towards the younger generation known as “millennials.” It’s perfect for anybody that has come to Japan seeking to experience the infamous “capsule hotel” without sacrificing comfort. The hotel doubles as a coworking space, open to the public based on an hourly fee (or daily pass).

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Location. The hotel is located on the busy street, Kawaramachi, in Kyoto, Japan. The best way to find the hotel from Kyoto Station is to take a local subway to Sanjo Station and walk approximately 5 minutes. It is also possible to catch a local bus and get dropped off at one of the multiple bus stops along Kawaramachi. The Millennials is located next to the Can Do shop and directly across the street from KFC and Flying Tiger. The reception desk is available on Level 8.

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Accommodation. Each capsule includes a 1.2 meters bed, which are very spacious. The beds convert upwards into a comfortable sofa for daytime sitting. Other functions, including the lights, fan and projector screen* are controlled by an iPod Touch that is provided upon check-in. This is also your “keycard” to grant you access onto the floor. My floor had 38 individual capsules with a shared bathroom. There are also 4 toilets, 4 showers, and a tub with plenty of sink space. This was not an issue, as the floor only had a handful of guests each night, but may become an inconvenience if all the beds were full.

*Projectors are only available in select pods for an additional cost. Remotes provided, HDMI cables and Apple convertors are available at the reception desk upon request.

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Amenities. Every pod includes a bath towel, small towel, free amenities kit and a pair of slippers. The hotel also provides complimentary sleepwear (for the full Japanese capsule experience). There is a kitchen on the 8th floor, a “rooftop terrace” which was just the roof and bike racks. There is also coffee and beer available according to the Welcome video, but I did not get a chance to try either.

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Value. At around $28-31 USD/night, the price of The Millennials Kyoto is a great value! As a backpacker, I was very pleased with the hotel. The facility was brand-new and very clean. The staff was very friendly and spoke exceptional English. The lobby has a nice vibe that made me feel like I was back at home. The lack of laundry service could easily be overlooked, as started previously, this isn’t a hostel. It is, however, a great option for any traveler looking to experience their first capsule-hotel. I would highly recommend The Millennials Kyoto, you will not be disappointed!

Day 121 – Tokyo, Japan

Last day in Tokyo! This morning was a little rough. The roommates in my dorm kept walking in and out of the room all morning. One guy keeps forgetting the key code to open the door so he has to keep trying over and over again. Unfortunately, my bed is the closest to the door so I can hear every beep on his failed attempts. At one point, I wanted to just tell them to keep the damn door open, so they wouldn’t have to keep opening and closing it so loudly. But I didn’t want to be that guy. And tonight is my LAST night in a hostel. Praise the Lord! One thing I definitely will not miss are the bad nights in hostels. Oh, the stories! I will say, they are not all bad but the bad ones will make you cringe.

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I haven’t done much today, as I’ve now been in Tokyo for over a week in total and I feel like I’ve seen all that I really wanted to see. There’s still more that could be explored but I think I’d rather save that for another time, when my spirits are higher and I am excited about travel again. The thing about this trip is, travel is tiring. It’s not all sunshine and beaches and beauty. While it is those things, it’s also long overnight bus journeys, sleepless nights, red-eye flights, and a whole lot of sweat. I’m still not complaining because the past four months have definitely been a dream, but at this point I’m ready to wind down a bit and just mentally prepare myself for the 12-hr flight back home.

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Anyways, I did a tiny bit of window shopping before meeting up with my cousins, Nika and Rap, from earlier in Shinjuku. It was just a quick Hey before they leave back to the Kyoto/Shiga region and before I head back towards Narita to get closer to the airport. After seeing them, I stopped by Flying Tiger to pick up some last minute knick-knacks for myself and Dean &Β Deluca, which is an awesome bakery that I’ve passed by several times but never bought anything. I was like a kid in a candy store, piling up muffins and scones onto my tray! On my way home, I stopped at a couple more stores trying to find some special Japanese shampoo for my dad and then came back for a mid-day shower!

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It’s still early in the day, but I think I will just relax with some Netflix, pack my bags and finish up any last minute errands before tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be checking-out of the hostel and catching the trains back to Narita. I booked myself in a hotel close to the airport to save myself the 2-hour commute on the morning of my flight back home. It’s all pretty much tying up loose ends from this point, and before I know it … I’ll be home.

Day 120 – Tokyo, Japan

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Hamarikyu Garden

This morning I went to the Tsukiji Market, which is one of the most famous markets in the world. I didn’t care to wake up at 0500 to possibly catch the live tuna auction, instead I casually strolled in around 10am and walked the aisles of various eateries. I stopped when something caught my eye, like the freshest salmon and tuna nigiri, that was literally caught that same morning. Or the matcha soft serve ice cream, of course!

After my fun at the market, I decided to check out Hamarikyu Garden down the street. I had been in a little bit of a funk all morning. Everyone is entitled to one of those days. But I had no idea I would be in such a negative mood at the end of my trip. It was more like a bunch of little things all adding up, and I didn’t become aware of it until I was walking around the garden. It’s so hot and humid during the day. Plus, I’ve got a little URI going on and it’s impossible to find Western medicine here.

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Frustrated, I realized there was no better place in the world to be than exactly where I was right now. I was literally standing in the middle of a Japanese sanctuary, surrounded by trees, ponds, and nature. I decided to find a nice shady spot next to the river, laid out on a bench and just calm down. After just sitting there for awhile and watching a few boats float down the river, I started to feel much better.

The rest of my day went immensely better. I found a huge patch of flowers around the garden on my way out. I ended up going back to the hostel for a shower and cooled down before heading back out to explore Shinjuku at night. I stopped into a little tempura restaurant late at night and had a very late dinner amongst the locals.

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Day 119 – Tokyo, Japan

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In the center of Tokyo DisneySea sits Mount Prometheus

Disney Day! Did you know there was a Disneyland in Tokyo? I’m not sure if I did before this trip, but I definitely didn’t know about Tokyo’s DisneySea, which is the only one of its kind in the entire world! For starters, Tokyo Disneyland is Disneyland. But Tokyo DisneySea is a nautical-themed disney park (and it’s awesome!). I knew I would have to make it a part of this trip, because this will probably be the only time in my life that I will get to experience DisneySea. So here’s how the day went…

I woke up a little later than I wanted to, thanks to last night’s adventures, but that’s okay because even though I didn’t make it to the gates just as they were opening, I really appreciated the extra hours of sleep. And I definitely wanted to be well rested for the day! It took about an hour by train to get to the parks, and when I finally arrived at the entrance, there was no line at the ticket booth. (Yes!)

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Don’t forget to grab your FastPass for the most popular rides first! And they’re free!

So I didn’t exactly do a lot of research prior to coming to DisneySea. Partly because I wanted to be surprised and explore the park on my own, but maybe I should’ve had a better plan right off the bat. My first tip would be to have a good breakfast before you arrive. It may seem too simple and really obvious, but you want to have your head straight so you can tackle the rides strategically. I definitely was a bit hangry when I entered the park, so the first hour was spent trying to find food I actually wanted to eat without waiting in a crazy line.

Pro Tip: When you first arrive, go straight to Mysterious Island and grab a FastPass ticket for the Journey to the Center of the Earth.

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I love the mixing of the two elements at the Raging Spirits ride!

My other critical boo-boo, was not getting a FastPass for this ride as my first one. Instead, I grabbed a ticket for Raging Spirits because it was the closest at the time. But you’re only allowed to hold one FastPass at a time, and I ended up using the Single Riders line for this ride anyway, so it was a waste of time. By the time I finally found the Journey to the Center of the Earth ride, the FastPass tickets were already out. It didn’t ruin my day, it’s just another reason to come back.

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Ukiwa bun is a shrimp-filled steamed bun of goodness near Port Discovery!

Back on schedule. Like I said, the first thing I did was to get some food inside my belly. I was getting a bit overwhelmed by the crowds of people (It should be named DisneySeaofpeople) and finally decided to just buck up and wait in line for the Ukiwa buns. These Chinese buns are steamed and filled with shrimp, and they look like little lifesavers! The queue wasn’t too long and it went by pretty fast, so it was a definite win! Now that my stomach was happy, I was ready to go on some rides!

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Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull

I, myself, am a fan of amusement parks as a solo traveler and the biggest reason why is … SINGLE RIDERS LINE. This is the best idea since the FastPass and I love it so much! So I first discovered the benefits of the Single Riders line in Universal Studios in California (or possibly Orlando), but basically it’s a separate line for solo riders, or couples/parties that don’t mind riding separate. You basically are used to fill the empty seats in odd-numbered parties but the queue is significantly shorter and goes by much faster. Anyways, at DisneySea, there are only two rides that offer a Single Riders line and that’s Indiana Jones and Raging Spirits. I really enjoyed the Indiana Jones ride way more than the Raging Spirits (nothing is as bad as the Iron Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta TX).

Pro Tip: Use the Single Riders line for Indiana Jones and Raging Spirits. Even if you are not at the park solo, just split up because it will be so much faster than the Standby queue. It’s pretty much a free FastPass with no time restriction!

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After those two rides, I went to the area called the American Waterfront and had an order of baked potatoes with bacon and cheese. They were just alright, nothing great, and I’m not a huge fan of rosemary, so I could pass on those again. The great thing about Tokyo DisneySea, aside from it being beautifully decorated throughout the entire park, is that it’s full of little side shows that are not even on a scheduled program, but they add the little sparkle of Disney magic to your trip. If you’ve seen video of the janitor playing Under the Sea on the bridge railing, then you know what I mean. He’s actually there!

So I basically spent the next couple of hours walking around the park, exploring the different areas. There’s Arabian Coast, which feels like you’re walking the streets of Agrabah from Aladdin! It’s actually based on the movie Sinbad, but there are references to Aladdin all over too. There’s also Mermaid Lagoon, which is where the Little Mermaid lives! I watched a show called King Triton’s Concert in the theater, which was completely in Japanese but the tunes are the same. Mermaid Lagoon is beautiful, if anything just go to take pictures. There’s also an area, Mysterious Island, based on one of my favorite Disney movies, Atlantis: The Lost Empire! The rest I’ll leave as a surprise but those were my three favorites of the park.

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I love this picture because you can see every country I’ve been to in the last four months!

I had such an awesome time at Tokyo DisneySea (as you can probably tell from my rambling). It was a perfect way to end this 4-month trip with a bang! It’s full of little details and anyone that loves Disney just knows how magical a Disney park truly is!

Postscript, if you managed to read this far then props to you. If you like/comment on this post then I might actually do a full-on DisneySea guide that is organized and well-thought out. I just realized I have tons more photos to share. Let me know if this would be helpful!

Day 118 – Tokyo, Japan

Back in Tokyo. This morning was the usual routine of checking-out and then finding my way back to Kyoto Station to catch the Nozomi bullet train back to Tokyo. It took me a little bit longer since I wanted to take the subway rather than the bus again, but I wasn’t in a hurry. I watched The Big Bang Theory S3 on DVD that I bought in New Zealand to keep myself entertained onboard the train. Two hours flew by, and before I knew it, I was back on the platform at Tokyo Station. This time around, navigating the local trains to Shinjuku-Sanchome station was a breeze. Since I am returning to the Imano Tokyo Hostel, I already know the area fairly well, so I felt like a pro. Back at the hostel, I was able to check-in right away, had another much-needed shower, and went straight to the fourth floor to get my laundry done. I’ve got this backpacking life down to a science, but I will enjoy going back to a life where I have more than eight shirts.

Around dinner time, I met up with my cousin from back home, Steph, who happened to be visiting Japan during the same time as my trip (oddly enough, and we had no idea until last week!). Steph and her friend, Robin, are traveling together, so I suggested we go to Genki Sushi in Shibuya. Aka the place with the iPads and automatic sushi train. After Shibuya, we headed back to Shinjuku to check out Golden Gai.

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Golden Gai is an area with a handful of small alleyways that are lined with tiny bars. Like I’m talking some with 4-8 seats total. We walked up and down every street before picking an upstairs bar to try some Japanese whiskey. I had a glass of sake, and it was a little strange not to drop it into a pint of beer NGL.

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After a few drinks, we left Golden Gai to roam the streets of Shinjuku. We witnessed some pretty interesting folks on the street (literally ON the street). I wanted to find an arcade so we could play the drum game from the other night. We ended up having a blast in the arcade, playing Mario Kart, those claw games, and an intense match of air hockey. Then, I headed back to the hostel to end the night and get ready for tomorrow’s adventure!

Day 117 – Osaka, Japan

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It’s August! Which means I’m officially down to my last week of traveling before I fly back to the US. With the end drawing near, I knew I needed to jam-pack this week with fun things to do. Traveling has taken it’s toll on me, both physically and mentally, but I have to power through! #parasablog

Around noon, I got on a train and headed south to the city of Osaka. It’s a little less than an hour away from Kyoto by train and Japan’s third-largest city. The main attraction that I wanted to see was Osaka Castle, so I found the closest station and walked about 2 kilometers, across the moat and onto the castle grounds. Osaka Castle sits in the center atop a mound of boulders. The architecture is stunning. And I actually had a window of blue skies today, which was a brief relief from the unforgiving humidity.

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After getting my series of castle selfies, I met up with my friend, Tommy, from UTSA for drinks. He’s been living in South Korea for the last 3 years, so it was nice to catch up on our recent travels for a bit. It’s so nice to see a familiar face from back home when you’re on the other side of the world. We got a little lost, exploring different Japanese game shops along the way. We even found one shop that had shelves full of secondhand retro Nintendo consoles and aisles of old games.

For dinner, we went to a little ramen place hidden in a small alleyway (not Ichiran). I’d say my day trip to Osaka was a success, especially for a last-minute spur of the moment deal. One of the best part about traveling is the flexibility to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Osaka, nor Kyoto, were neither on my list when I decided to stop in Japan, but I am so thankful for my friends and family that showed me around these cities that I would have otherwise missed as a solo traveler.

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Cheers to having friends that love to travel as much as you do. Next round’s on me!

Day 116 – Kyoto, Japan

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After finishing some travel “housekeeping,” I took the train to the Fushimi-Inari shrine. This Shinto shrine is one of the most well-known in the world due to the iconic torii gates that are lined up. They appear on every travel blog and Instagram from all over the world.

I knew this was a must-see attraction, so it was to no surprise that when I arrived around noon, it was already packed with tourists. The huge crowd of people was enough to already put me off ease, but combine that with the insufferable heat, and I just about wanted to cry. I literally laughed out loud at the amount of sweat that was dripping from my drenched t-shirt.

Walking through the torii gates was a great experience, however, it was nearly impossible to snap a good photo with all the people around. Still, I managed (with a lot of waiting). As soon as I walked through the gates and came back around, I headed straight for the exit to escape the mass of people. But I had another quick glance at the map and realized I had completely skipped the back end of the park. So I climbed back up the steps, walked back through the gates and continued to the spot that I had missed.

Luckily, the further I got into the park, the less people there were walking around. The path went on for a kilometer or two and there were plenty of more big torii gates to photograph. Along the path, there were also lots of shrines and dog statues, restaurants, and places to buy souvenirs. I was pretty glad I decided to go back, because I really got to enjoy the experience once I left the other tourists behind.

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Since I was absolutely saturated with sweat, I decided to go back to the hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes. The next activity planned for the day was to go to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. However, as soon as I stepped outside of my hotel, the weather took a turn for the worst. I decided to scrap the bamboo forest and spend my time and money elsewhere. Since it’s my last full day in Kyoto, I was able to go to a few shops to pick up some little souvenirs and then went to my favorite Japanese BBQ restaurant for dinner, Gyu-Kaku!

It was still early for dinner, so I was the only person in the entire place. It had started raining pretty hard outside while I was cooking my thinly sliced pork belly, marinated beef, and chicken. They even had cheese fondue, which I’m not sure if they include that on the US menu in Houston. Tomorrow I’m planning on catching a train over to Osaka for the day. Hopefully I wake up on time and the weather is on my side!

Day 115 – Kyoto, Japan

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Surprise! This morning, I met my cousin and we traveled about an hour and a half on three different trains to make it to the Shiga Prefecture, where her parents live. I was so excited, because I haven’t seen their family in 16 years, since the last time we were all in the Philippines back in 2001! We were picked up from the train station by my uncle and we drove to their house in Shiga. As soon as I opened the door, I was immediately greeted by the sound of my aunt’s screams and enjoyment! Anyone that knows my family, knows that they are loud and proud, but Auntie Helen takes home the gold! She is the youngest and most energetic out of the eight siblings on my dad’s side.

Auntie Helen cooked a feast in anticipation for my arrival. To my surprise, she had a spread of chicken cordon bleu (with a panko crust!), thinly sliced beef, fresh veggies, dipping sauces, and a blueberry cheese tart for dessert! Oh my goodness. I was so full after our meal! It was so delicious and such a treat! After lunch, I video-chatted with my parents to surprise them. They knew I was in Japan, however, they thought I was only staying in Tokyo (which was the original plan). They were both so surprised to see Auntie Helen in the background, and I will never forget the look on my dad’s face. Since I wasn’t able to see my family in the Philippines again, I’m so glad I was able to visit our family in Japan! My dad is a man that likes routine, but he even said that this was a “good surprise.”

When the (very loud) conversation between the sibs was over, we left the house to go to Blumen Hugel Farm, which is an agricultural park in Shiga. We walked around the gardens and took lots of pictures with the flowers. My favorite part was the ginormous sunflowers that were standing tall. There were so many of them! In the spring, around late-March to early-April, the park is full of cherry blossoms that bloom for about two weeks. I’d love to come back and see the Japanese cherry blossoms someday!

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Around 5:30pm, Uncle Frank picked us up from the park, and we stopped for ice cream on the way home. We had a quick rest and then picked up my other cousin from the train station in the evening. The last time I saw him, he was barely 1 yo and wearing diapers. Now, he is taller than me! I taught them all how to do a proper “sake bomb,” which is not-at-all Japanese and all-American. It was all a good time. Before I left, they took me out to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. We had a tower of plates stacked up by the end. After dinner, I got dropped off back at the train station and my cousins walked me all the way to the gate. I successfully made all three trains back to Kyoto on my own, with lots of help and planning from my cousin and had a hot shower then went straight to bed. Tomorrow I will be exploring the tourist sites around Kyoto that I missed, then I’ve got a few more surprises in store!