Hokkaido, Japan: Otaru

If you haven’t done so already, you can read about the rest of our trip in Hokkaido, Japan here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.

The last day of our trip was finally here. We only had one day in Otaru, so we really packed everything in as best we could. We went to a fish market for breakfast, which was such a fun experience.

John got a roasted fish with rice, miso soup and sides, the kids got roasted salmon with rice and miso and I got the seasonal sashimi platter, complete with raw shrimp! Yikes!

These are very traditional breakfasts for the Japanese. The appetizer, that was served with the oolong tea, was dried squid. It was our first time trying it, and it was surprisingly good! John and the kids loved their fish, and I liked my sashimi platter, though it was just a bit strange eating cold fish while it was so cold out – in the morning.

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Sashimi set for breakfast

It was some of the best seafood I’ve had though! The hot tea was really nice too. The ladies who ran the fish market restaurant were so sweet, and kept talking to the kids. When they heard them playing Janken (the Japanese paper, rock, scissors game) they were so excited and came over and started talking to them in Japanese. At one point Violet got pretty rowdy and hit her head hard on the corner of the table. The sweet ladies did everything they could to console her, but the favorite was a singing and dancing cat statue they brought out. Too funny.

It was time for us to catch our bus for the aquarium after breakfast. The ride up there was so pretty, as we rounded the snowy coastline of Hokkaido.

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The aquarium was definitely a highlight of the trip. 

It was situated on top of quite a big hill, and had a gorgeous view of the ocean and nearby mountaintops.

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View from the top of the aquarium

We made it there just in time for the daily penguin walk! This was the highly anticipated moment of the trip for myself at least ;).

The penguins were all corralled outside and made a few circles around the pathway so everyone could get a good look and a good picture. They were so cute!!

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Violet had again fallen asleep out of self defense in the cold, so she missed that part, but Olivia really enjoyed it.

Cliff was so excited to have found a green snow shovel and some big piles of snow, that he barely watched the penguins! Kids can be so funny. We did manage to peel him away from his very important job for a few minutes 😉

We ended up staying for a while after the penguins left and did some sledding down the hills. John pretty much scared me half to death at one point, as I thought he was going to go right over the edge of a 30 foot drop off. The snow had all but covered the barrier, and it wouldn’t have taken much to go over! He is insane sometimes. I’m convinced I’m the only reason he’s still alive now.

We all had a really fun time though. Olivia worked hard to dig a snow slide and then we took turns sliding down on it.

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Moments like this make the difficulties of traveling with little ones worth the memories. They even convinced their mama to try out the snow slide.

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The views were amazing up there, and we thoroughly enjoyed the family time.

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We also got to see the seals, who were in a very good mood.

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Playful seals

I didn’t think the rest of the aquarium would be that appealing to us, since we have the Churumi Aquarium in Okinawa, but I was wrong! There were some of the most interesting fish and sea creatures there! The kids even got to touch an octopus! The “octopus supervisor” put this octopus away after the kids kept getting a little too close to his mouth – yikes – I think he was saying it was hungry!

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Touching the octopus – “tako” in Japanese

Lastly, we saw them feed the porpoises and saw a few more local fishes.

It was a really fun visit! Definitely worth the bus ride out. When we got back to Otaru, we took the mile and a half walk to the music box museum.

Along the way we had lunch at a local seafood restaurant. Sashimi rice bowl and grilled eel with miso soup. So delicious!

Cliff actually slept through lunch in the stroller but when he woke up we got all the kids got some street food too, since they weren’t a fan of the raw fish ;). They had corn on the cob and some sort of a fish pancake that looked pretty good. Apparently “Royce” chocolate is a really big thing in Otaru. Since my dad’s name is Royce I had to take a picture 🙂

The music box museum was in a beautiful old historical building and had wooden balconies lining the inside.

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We’d never seen so many music boxes! We had told the kids they could pick out a music box as their souvenir when we went, so we spent a while perusing the place helping them pick out the perfect ones. I regret I didn’t take any photos of the inside – it was pretty unbelievable! At one point when I went to pay, John turned his back on Violet and she piled as many music box bears as she could reach into her stroller. She either was surprised at herself or was trying to look innocent…”who, me??”

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“who, me?”

Otaru was such a cute little town. We really loved our short time there. The old buildings were so fun to see, and the canals with the rushing water along the snowy banks were like something out of a storybook.

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The canal at nighttime

We stepped into a local chocolate shop on the walk back and had some hot chocolate to warm us up.

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Hot chocolate pit stop!

We also got to check out a couple of the glass shops. I would have loved to spend hours combing the little shops, but it’s not super practical with 3 kids 5 and under! It was starting to get dark now, so we made the trek towards the ramen restaurant we’d picked out for dinner. We were excited about this one. It was ranked as one of the best restaurants in the town, and we agreed!

The ramen was absolutely delicious. The kids liked it too, and they also are the bonito fish rice and dumplings. There’s nothing like a soulful bowl of ramen to warm you up after hours of walking in the freezing cold snow! Next, we headed to the train station again to pick up our tickets for the next morning, and some bakery breads for breakfast (we’d be leaving too early to get anything then). On our walk back home we stopped in the pathway of candles and snow sculptures that snaked along the alley. Some of them were surprisingly intricate! The sculptures were a gift from the Korean country to the Japanese. It went along for blocks, and we were all pretty cold, so we didn’t get to see all of it, but what we did see of it was really beautiful.

I could hardly believe our trip had come to an end! The next morning we would pack up early and get on the 6:00 train back to Sapporo to catch our flights to Tokyo and then back to Okinawa.

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The canal outside our hotel

Traveling with three kids 5 and under…we finally did it. We were crazy, but we did it 😉

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Going home!

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Hokkaido, Japan: The Chocolate Factory

If you haven’t already, you can read about day 1, day 2 and day 3 of our Hokkaido trip.
The next day was Wednesday, our last morning in Sapporo, so we made a quick stop for breakfast in our favorite cafe (or the only one we could find, really, since breakfast isn’t a very big thing in Japanese restaurants).
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Hot chocolate with breakfast – what a treat!

The newly fallen snow made everything look really fresh and beautiful. After breakfast we finished our laundry, packed up our room, and ran down to the ice sculptures to see which ones were looking the best.
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The Portland Ice Sculpture, work in progress

The international ice sculpture contest went all week and the winner was announced on Thursday, after we left Sapporo. Portland was the rep for the U.S. – it was looking good! Our favorites were Macao and Latvia, but they were all pretty amazing. Macao ended up winning First Place on Thursday, and Latvia was the Runner Up.
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The Latvia Ice Sculpture, work in progress

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The Macao Ice Sculpture, work in progress

After that we grabbed our luggage and took a taxi to the Chocolate Factory. Cliff’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day, and we were just a few days out, so we celebrated it by taking them to the Shiroi Koibito Factory, courtesy of Grandma and Poppy.
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The courtyard of Shiroi Koibito Factory

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Clock Tower and Courtyard

The factory was beautiful. It was like something out of a fairy tale! A huge clocktower stood at the edge of the courtyard, and inside the courtyard there were dozens of little playhouses, each with its own little kitchen or bed.
Inside the Factory, Cliff and Olivia got to go into the kitchen and decorate their own cookies.
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All “chefed” up!

Cliff decorated a cookie in the shape of Hokkaido, and Olivia decorated a heart cookie. They both did a great job!

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The birthday boy and his finished cookie!

We had lunch after cookies (priorities, right?!), then the kids played in the little town of playhouses outside, had a snowball fight, and warmed up indoors in the kids play area for a bit.
Next we went on a factory tour to see the line where they assemble the chocolate sandwich cookies (which are out of this world delicious – I only wish we’d bought more).
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Checking out the chocolate cookie assembly line

Before leaving we had to try out the cafe located on the top floor, overlooking the clock tower and the park grounds below. We all got a parfait and John and I shared a coffee. It was delicious! By the time we were done it was nearly dark out. It was time for our fairytale experience to come to an end.
We called a taxi and he drove us to the train station again where we boarded our train for Otaru, about another half hour from the edge of Sapporo. The snow was so deep everywhere, from the snowfall the night before.
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Walking to the train station

It was about 19 degrees out at that point, but we were all pretty well bundled. The kids were all troopers, and they loved getting on the train (though Cliff fell asleep in my lap about 4 minutes after we started moving).
We got into Otaru after dark, but our hotel was a straight walk down from the station. We were glad we just decided to walk, even though it was so cold, because the town was beautiful all lit up!
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Ice lanterns were everywhere!

Nearly every little shop and restaurant had ice globes with candles inside them. It was gorgeous! There were also quite a few snow sculptures along our walk. We found these fun sculptures of seals and frozen fish inside of ice blocks!
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Seals and fish!

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We found the minions!

We were staying right on the canal, in a beautiful old historic hotel. It really felt like we’d stepped back in time. The town had a European feel to it (I say that, but I’ve yet to go to Europe!) with lots of cafes, chocolate shops, glass shops and music box shops.
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Our pretty girl on the canal!

After we got settled into our new hotel room (which felt huge after our tiny double twin room in Sapporo), we ventured out for some dinner, again to no avail. We’ve made a decision to never again try to find food in a new city on the night we get in town, if it’s after 6pm. We almost always strike out!
Though we walked into half a dozen restaurants and street food shops they were all either closed or closing. We finally settled for the bakery food we’d bought at the train station and the cookies the kids had decorated at the chocolate factory. It was a strange dinner, but you do what you gotta do. We tried to make it fun for the kids, though Olivia reminded us the next morning that she’d only had pastries and cookies for dinner the night before (parenting fail!). We only had one day left in Hokkaido, so we were soon out the door for breakfast and exploring. More coming soon!

Hokkaido, Japan: Tsudome Site

If you haven’t read about our first two days in Hokkaido, you can do that here and here. On Tuesday, we took the subway from Sapporo Station to another area of the Snow Festival, the Tsudome site. It was an adventure just using the subway system.

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About to get on the subway

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We made it to Tsudome – grumpy kids and all…

Growing up in Texas, neither John nor I were that savvy with subways to begin with. But we thankfully managed to figure it out without any English words to help us along!

The Tsudome Site was full of sledding, tubing, bike skiing, snow ball fights and snow men building. It was all free, too!

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Do you wanna build a snow man? 😉

We did a few of the activities outside and then ventured inside the dome to warm up for a bit. It was a really cold day, with a pretty good windchill. This was pretty much the only time Violet showed any interest in getting out of her stroller or ergo the entire week.

There were tons of inflatable rides and activities for kids inside the dome.

We took an hour or so to let the kids play and then had lunch (another bowl of steaming ramen for me, please. Thank you very much). They loved this humongous inflated slide, and I cracked up laughing when I realized they were going down it backwards! They are so funny!

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Hang on for your lives!!

The kids had been begging for ice cream, so we decided to let them try it. All the ice cream here is made with fresh Hokkaido milk, and it is delicious. The Japanese eat ice cream anytime, but especially when it’s cold out, for some reason. I could barely get mine down, it was so cold outside, but it was nice not to have to worry about it melting!

After lunch Violet passed out in the stroller, so we took the time to do some snow slides with the kids. We all tried the small tubing slide, and then the ice slides.

The kids did the bike skiing again. They probably enjoyed that the most.

Before we left we had to do the huge monster tube slide! The catch with this one is there was only one person allowed per tube, so the kids had to go down by themselves. I was so proud of them for doing it! I was even scared going down! Snow may look soft, but it can be pretty hard when it’s all compacted in there.

Just before we left it started snowing pretty hard.

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Me and my big girl

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Catching snow flakes!

We took the bus back to the subway station and then walked back to our hotel through Odori Park for another look at the sculptures.

The kids recognized this guy and it led to an interesting conversation where John and I came to the realization that our children may know pop culture better than we do.

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PPAP

It’s okay, we googled it. Pen Pineapple Apple Pen or PPAP for those of you who are really hip. And we finally understand what they’ve been singing at home (they’d been singing it with a distinct Japanese flair to the words, so I hadn’t even caught on that what they were saying was in English!)

That night we decided to go out to the mall for some dinner. It was cool walking around a local fancy mall, but the restaurant we wanted to eat at ended up having an hour and a half wait. So we settled for an Udon restaurant.

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The Udon Set we ordered for the kids

It was pretty good, but not quite what we were hoping for. Traveling sure requires a lot of flexibility. Especially when you’re traveling with little ones. A long wait for a great dinner isn’t worth it if everyone is miserable.

When we left the mall the snow was really coming down – so instead of walking back to the subway we took a taxi.

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It’s snowing!!

We played in the snow a bit when we got to the hotel, until we were all miserably cold. Olivia and John even made a little snow man. Traveling with little ones is never easy, but it can be pretty fun at times too 😉

Hokkaido, Japan: Sapporo Snow Festival

The first morning the kids were so thrilled to get out in the snow. Of course we had to have a snow ball fight on the walk down to the festival.

That first day we just explored the main Snow Festival site, Odori Park. It was 13 blocks of snow and ice sculptures, food vendors, snow slides, and snow shows.
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I think this girl was the official Snow Festival character, from what I understood.

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The Cup Noodle snow sculpture and slide

It was pretty overwhelming at first, but so very cool! We were glad we had bought some snow spike guards to put on the bottom of our shoes, since it was really slippery in places.

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This entire “building” was a snow sculpture!

The food vendors were amazing. It was so cool to see they could just leave all the uncooked seafood and beef out in the cold, and when you ordered they’d grab a piece and throw it on the grill right there in front of you.

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Raw crab and beef tongue, waiting to be cooked.

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The crab on a stick was so yummy, and the kids loved the corn on the cob 😉

John and I tried the crab in a shell, which was topped in a cheesy corn sauce and had seaweed mixed in. Corn is a pretty big deal in Japan. They even have corn sushi at most restaurants, and they almost always put it in ramen.

For lunch we ventured down to Ramen Alley. We’re not positive we found it, but after wandering for about 45 minutes in the blistering cold, we finally found a ramen place that was open and looked good. The province of Hokkaido is known for its food and boasts the best ramen and the best seafood (thanks to the icy cold waters surrounding the island). This place did not disappoint. It definitely ranked near the top of our ramen experiences.
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The ramen shop

We walked around and saw some more ice sculptures after lunch and then headed back to the hotel.

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I loved the horse ice sculpture

 After a rest we all decided to try the onsen inside the hotel. An onsen is a Japanese hot mineral spring. I had brought all our swimsuits when I saw there was one in the hotel. However, we didn’t need them! In Japan apparently they are gender-segregated and nude. It was quite an experience, and though I didn’t think I would like it, I actually did. Violet wasn’t so sure though. It was pretty hot! The process of the Onsen is what was so amazing. You undress, then shower off in a small open stall. You’re supposed to shower with hot water to acclimate your body to the hot spring. Afterwards, you use the indoor hot spring, and if you’re feeling brave, you walk outside to the open air onsen, where the surface of the hot water steams as it hits the icy cold air above it. It was much hotter in the outdoor onsen. I didn’t go out with the girls, but later when I went back alone I did and it was such a cool experience!
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Open-air onsen at our hotel (pic from their website)

After you soak for as long as you can stand, you go back to the showers, and they have soap and shampoo so you can bathe off. Then you dry off and proceed to the line of vanities where you can blow dry your hair and use oils and lotions on your skin before you dress. When I went back in the evening the onsen was crowded with probably near 100 women, all doing their evening routines for bedtime. It seemed very relaxing, and there was hardly any speaking at all. Just silence as everyone quietly processed their day.

Since we all got naps that first afternoon, and had already had our showers for the evening, we decided to go back out to Odori Park to see the light shows. It was a completely different experience at night!

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Happy and bundled!

The kids got their chocolate bananas that they had been promised too (we had bribed them for good behavior while we were dragging them around looking for the ramen place). No, we are not above bribing. It’s the only way we survive traveling with little ones. Seriously.
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Chocolate bananas!

In Texas we eat frozen chocolate bananas, but here the bananas were raw, then dipped in chocolate and decorated, and then they stood them outside to freeze the chocolate. Pretty neat!
I tried a fresh scallop, cooked on the grill. The king crabs looked good, but they were so expensive!
We got to see the Star Wars light show, and many other lit up sculptures.
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The Star Wars sculpture in the daytime.

Violet was bundled up warmly, and just wanted to know “why??” She was such a good sport through all the cold weather. At the end the kids couldn’t resist the fluffy snow lining the pathways, and had to have another snow ball fight. It was such a fun night!

Hokkaido, Japan: Venturing Off Okinawa

I had never heard of the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, until John came home telling me about it at the end of January. Surprisingly, in 2016 we really didn’t go anywhere. We did take a couple nights trip up the coast to the beach at Okuma when Grams was visiting in November, but other than that we had stayed put. Between adjusting to life with three little ones, and John’s 60-70 hour work weeks, we were happy just keeping our heads above water. We had planned to venture off our tiny island of Okinawa for several trips in 2017, and one of the trips we’d been planning had recently been scratched. So we decided to jump online, do some quick research, and see if we could find good lodging and cheap tickets. Sure enough, Peach was offering great prices on their last minute flights to Hokkaido and we booked some of the last hotels in Sapporo and Otaru. Cheap flights are a must when you’re a family of five. We’d already saved up money for the trip that hadn’t worked out, so our budget was happy.

Hokkaido is actually an island, all the way above the northern part of the bigger island of mainland Japan. The city of Sapporo is similar in climate to Chicago or Boston. The Japanese seemed very proud of Hokkaido, and we got to know the shape very well, as it was on everything from coffee drinks in the vending machines to t-shirts and ice cream shops. It reminded us of the pride Texans have and the way you can find the shape of our state everywhere. I found this map at worldatlas.com – you can see Okinawa at the very bottom of the image, and Sapporo is near the top on the island of Hokkaido.

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Map of Japan from worldatlas.com

The next challenge was gathering warm enough clothing for all of us. After living for a year in Okinawa, where the coldest temperatures we’d seen were in the high 40’s, we’d all but forgotten about cold weather.

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The middle of November in Okinawa…no warm clothes necessary!

Thankfully we have awesome friends here who were willing to loan us some of the gear we were missing. The last few things we were able to secure on clearance from the bunny store out in town and the PX.

The last difficulty was packing all that bulky clothing and gear for all five of us into a manageable amount of bags. This was especially important considering we planned to take many trains and buses, where we’d be carrying all we brought with us. We managed to fit it all in our large L.L. Bean duffle bag and a smaller L.L. Bean duffle carry-on (seriously, these bags have been great investments!). Between those and a couple backpacks we were set! Unfortunately I have no pictures of us with our luggage – obviously because our hands were always full when we were dragging everyone from point A to point B.

We set out on Sunday morning. It was our first time taking a plane trip with all five of us (besides our move to Okinawa from the states when Violet was 8 weeks old). I was pretty nervous. We were outnumbered, which is a scary thought with all the transfers and details that traveling requires. Ironically, I had packed all of Violet’s socks for the trip, so the morning we left all I could find were two mismatched socks. I guess you could say she’s a christened member of our family’s travels now.

Violet passed out in the hotel in her mismatched socks.

We flew through Tokyo, switched planes, rechecked our bag and baby bed, and boarded our second flight to Sapporo. It was a full day of travel – about 8am to 8pm.

The kids did great on the flights and were so excited when we could finally see snow from our plane.

Once in Sapporo we bought tickets for the train that ran to downtown, near our hotel. It was a little scary taking that train, since the stops were super quick, and we had three kids, our luggage and umbrella stroller to manage. Thankfully, the other tourists as well as the Japanese locals were very friendly and helped Olivia and Cliff climb off the train. It was the most logistically challenging part of our trip.

Near 8:00pm we finally arrived in Sapporo at the Prince Hotel.

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View from our hotel room.

It was one of the last rooms available, and all we could get was a room with two twin beds. In Japan, kids under 6 stay free when they use existing beds, so it made it affordable, but we were pretty crowded in that tiny Japanese-sized double twin room! At least Violet had her own bed!

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Olivia and Cliff didn’t seem to mind sharing a bed – they slept soundly!

That night we tried in vain to find some good dinner. We were all too tired and cold to think straight, and after a failed attempt at one restaurant that was more like a Japanese pub, we ended up just getting some to-go food from Lawson’s (a Japanese convenience store) next door. They have yummy chicken, onigiri (triangle rice balls wrapped with seaweed), sushi, etc.

The best part about the hotel was how close we were to the festival – just a quick 3 block walk and we were right in the middle of all the excitement. We all went to bed early so we could get a good start the next morning. More to come soon!