Exploring Mexico City

A sprawling metropolis of almost 9 million people, Mexico city has the highest population in North America. A vibrant and eclectic mix of old, new, modern, traditional, classic and contemporary, it is a city that makes you aware of all of your senses at once.

We didn’t really know what to expect when planning our trip to the city; we had heard and read lots of differing opinions, good and bad. Mexico city turned out to be a vibrant and beautiful, but over-whelming location. We really enjoyed our short-but-sweet taste of Mexico.

Here are some of the things we found while exploring Mexico City:


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A city of colour & architecture

The official colour of Mexico City (CDMX) is pink, and you will see plenty of it, particularly the bright pink official taxis that roam the city (although we were advised not to use them as they charge tourists notoriously high fares… We walked or used Uber instead). We also saw every other colour you could imagine adorning shops, stalls, murals, buildings, banners and even the plants and flowers. The smog can make it a little hazy and grey some days, but once the smog clears and the sun beats down, the blue sky is clearly exposed.

Zoccalo is the main historic square in the central city, and it’s worth a visit. When we were there, they were getting ready for Mexican Independence Day, so there were red, green and gold ‘Viva la Mexico!’ banners on the building frontages and a giant marquee in the middle of the square. This main square is encircled by government buildings, a huge old cathedral and even some Aztec ruins.

When we first arrived in Mexico City very early in the morning, we caught a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Zoccalo. It was strangely eerie, as if we had gone back in time; the streets were dark and cobbled, and all we could see around us were the looming shadows of old, stone buildings. Yet when daylight broke, the area transformed into a bustling centre filled with traffic, tourists, noise, crowds, shops, street vendors, buskers and of course traffic wardens blowing their shrill whistles.

We were there in the off-peak tourism season, so we didn’t notice too many other foreign tourists. Most of the people we saw seemed to be locals, if not from CDMX itself, then from other parts of Mexico.
Like any big city, the locals comprise a mixture of business people in suits with briefcases, families with young children and young hipsters with satchels and laptops. Also, akin to many other big cities are the buskers and beggars on the streets - including kids playing guitar and singing along to songs from CoCo, hoping the tourists will fling them a few pesos.

The city has a complex history, and this is evident in the variety of architecture, ranging from roman catholic Gothic churches, to the wide and straight Paseo de la Reforma - a whole street running through central CDMX designed after Paris’ Champs Elysees Avenue.

The greenery is lush, thanks to the mild climate, but just watch your head if you take the open-air double decker tour bus through the city - you might get thwacked by a lusciously green ,but dangerously low-hanging frond.


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Art & Murals

Art runs through the city like blood through veins, whether it’s in the architecture of the buildings or one of the many murals found throughout the city. The murals tell rich and sometimes brutally honest stories; the artists used them to tell stories about the ever-evolving social and political scene in Mexico over the years, and the hardships they faced. But they also depict the many things of importance to them; plentiful crops of corn, mothers holding their babies, luscious bunches of flowers and baskets of ripe fruit.

Muralism has a significant history in Mexico city, some of the most famous examples include those of Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo. The murals can be found all over the city, some of them in the busy tourist buildings, on rooves and walls of old buildings and markets, down random side streets and many other places, both exposed and hidden. On a Market tour of the city, our lovely tour guide took us behind some fencing at a small market and up a staircase to find a host of murals covering the walls and ceilings.
They were honest, and unforgettable. Depicting peasants, gaunt and starving, and politicians growing fat on the monies extracted from the people. There was also a whole mural depicting Nazi Germany of WW2, in the stark, ominous colours of black, white, grey and red.
We were the only ones there, the place seemed quiet and forgotten compared to other areas of the city filled with people and noise. It was strange to think that behind the hustle and bustle of this busy city, there were places like this where pictures of the past were sitting quietly, waiting for curious eyes to find them.

 
 

Of course, some of the busier tourist spots were still must-sees and worth the waiting in line. One of these being the Frida Kahlo museum, which is the house where she and Diego Rivera lived. The dwelling is made up of a collection of quaint buildings that surround a wide, open courtyard with plenty of plants and foliage. From the walls, to the furniture, the art and even Frida’s belongings, you can see a rich array of colours; aquamarine blue, salmon pink, mustard yellow, earthy brown, verdant green and many more. You can walk through the various buildings and rooms of their home and see some of her works of art, and also the areas she lived and worked in. This includes her work shop, complete with a desk and the materials she used for her artwork, and also her bedroom with her death cast is lying on the bed. One room also houses her unique and intriguing clothing, including the corsets and support system she wore underneath her outer clothing that helped sustain her body through its various pains and disabilities.


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The Markets

The nation is a religious one, we saw plenty of statues of various saints and of Jesus himself, particularly in the markets where a lovely guide led us on a walking tour around the city.

The Flower market had blooms of every kind and colour. Stalls displayed wreaths and arrangements for many different occasions.

 
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The Food markets had many traditional staples of the Mexican diet including the ‘bread and butter’ of the country, corn. Among the produce there were lots of vibrant, colourful and deliciously ripe fruits and vegetables. The meats on display were a little bit different from the typical butchery windows we’re used to seeing, but they clearly use every part of the animal. Alongside your usual cuts, there’s plenty of other ‘parts’ for sale, including many a stack of intestines and other more unusual looking things layered up ready for sale. The chickens on sale look strangely yellow, but we learned that there is a reason behind this. In the past, the chickens in Mexico were corn-fed, which made them turn yellow. However, at some point in history the government realised it was a bit of a waste feeding the chickens corn, which could be better used to feed the people! So, they stopped feeding the chickens corn, and instead fed them other grains. However, the fowl started to look different, paler, and without that yellow hue, so the people became a little wary about buying the chicken meat, as it just didn’t look quite right to them. So, they started feeding the chickens marigold flowers, which once again left the chickens with that golden hue as before, yet enabling the corn to be kept for feeding the people rather than the animals - win, win, some might say.

We were also taken to the ‘Witches’ market - which did not have potions, cauldrons or ‘Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans’ like we might have expected. Instead, it was mostly herbs and other dried plants which apparently help with different ailments such as respiratory problems, digestion, sleeping and, of course, broken hearts! There were also perfumes and soaps that you could buy for yourself or a loved one (or even an enemy) which promised things like fortune, luck, love or curses. There was an area with animals for sale, though we’re not sure for what purpose so we are relieved we didn’t find out or go into that area - you could smell it wherever you went in the market, so we can only assume the conditions weren’t ideal for the poor animals.
Some of the more strange and disturbing sights, were the dried skeletons of cats and monkeys! Again, we are not quite sure what they were used for, but we’re okay with not finding out. There were also a few stalls that offered palm-reading or fortune-telling services, if we spoke or understood Spanish of course.
And, yes, plenty of stalls that sold statues of more saints than I knew even existed - including the patron saint of Mexican Drug Dealers or the hopeful growers of particular plants, Jesús Malverde, and also the controversial religious cult following of Santa Muerte - the Lady of Death.

 
 

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The Pyramids & Rural life

Not too far out of Mexico city, we visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan, also known as the Sun and Moon pyramids. Standing on top of the Moon pyramid looking towards the Sun, down the alley of the dead - it’s breath-taking. Not only do you get an amazing view of the valley and nearby villages, but you look down at what was once a thriving city and centre of obsidian crafting and realise you are standing on ancient stones and in a place so steeped in history it’s hard to imagine what went on there. When the time comes to climb the Sun pyramid, staring up at the steep ascent is intimidating, but once you reach the top it’s well worth it.

Throughout this tourist spot, there are old men selling trinkets and souvenirs, including a whistlecarved from obsidian that sounds like a wolf howl.

Our visit was part of another day tour, and afterwards we headed to the nearby village of San Francisco Marzapa to visit a family of Obsidian crafters. They were friendly and welcoming, and happy to share their skills and knowledge. They had lots of beautiful carvings and trinkets on display, and even gave us a taste of Mexican liquor - pulque, mezcal and Tequila.
Apparently the correct way to drink it, is to salt the lime, squeeze the juice into your mouth, hold it there and chase it with the tequila before swallowing the whole concoction all at once. Delicious!
We were also shown a huge agave plant in their back yard, and we learned of the many uses of this very useful plant.

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After this, our tour took us to another family business for dinner, where our host had prepared a delicious, home-made Mexican dinner of fresh tortillas, tortilla soup, rice, meat and vegetables.
A simple, yet delicious way to end our tour, before our bus ride back to the city.

 
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Noise and Traffic

The city is certainly a feast for the visual senses, but it’s also full of noise, sometimes overwhelmingly so! Near Zoccalo and other busy areas, you can hear the piercing whistles of the local policemen directing traffic, screeching in your ear, but also helpful when giving you the signal that it is safe to cross the road.

The street vendors and buskers have various items and services for sale, and a few of them create some sort of honking or kazoo-like noise to attract attention. The buskers will often have a guitar or music box in hand, and music pours out of the shopfronts and onto the footpath.

The traffic alone can be overwhelming to experience; the honking of car horns, cars rattling past, buses, scooters, trucks too.
But they are all masterful at managing to weave in and out and merge throughout the gridlocked madness. We were told more than once by the locals, “if you can drive in Mexico city, you can drive anywhere!”
We think it might be better to leave it to the locals - just trust the driver and look out the window at the cars and the city whizzing by.

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The Food

It’s hard to know what to expect of the food when visiting Mexico; in the western world we see ‘Mexican’ food as Nachos with sour cream, crispy Tacos, massive burritos with rice and beans, and lots of cheese. But when you visit Mexico, you realise the food is very different from the impression that the western world has created.

Corn is a very important staple, you will find it in pretty much every form - even diseased.
Along with corn, there was a range of meat cuts taken from pretty much every different part of the animal, some rice and beans, vegetables like capsicum/peppers and cactus, fresh fruit and delicious stringy cheese. Salsa exists at most food stalls, and there are plenty of options for treats - Mexicans have a sweet tooth!

Morning Start

At the food markets, we tried a couple of different styles of corn for breakfast - in the form of a Tamale (corn dough with a sweet or savoury filling wrapped in corn husk or banana leaf), or a cup of Atole (a hot, creamy drink made of corn and sometimes flavoured with chocolate). These two dishes are usually taken around Christmas time, but can be found around the city and street markets - a simple, yet filling breakfast that will keep you sated all morning. For coffee - there are plenty of options, but we’ll talk about that later.

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Tortillas & Salsa

Corn tortillas can be bought by the dozen at the local tortilleria; the price is capped by the government, to keep this important, basic food affordable to everyone. On our first day, we arrived early, dropped off our bags at our hotel, then headed straight to meet our tour guides for a street food tour. They took us to a neighbourhood tortilleria and we got to look at the giant tortilla press, the mounds of masa (corn meal dough) and then taste a fresh, hot tortilla. There’s a special technique to rolling it in the palm of your hand, and you can add salt and salsa if you wish. Delicious!

Many street vendors and tortillerias will have 2-3 bowls of salsa to compliment whatever dish they’re selling. Usually one is red, one is green, and they range in spiciness - and colour is not necessarily an indicative guide! Some places the green will be the hotter, sometimes the red, so if you’re up for it, give them a go, they are the most delicious, fresh and zesty salsas you have ever tasted, just go easy on the drops in case you get the hotter one!

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More Corn

We also tried some corn soup at a market, the girl selling it was working for her mother before and after school and was eager to practice speaking English - the corn soup was warm and tasty.
Another corn dish we tried a couple of times was the diseased corn. Apparently at one point in history, a fungal disease affected significant areas of corn growth, but rather than waste it, the Mexican government decided that they should still use it - and it became a delicacy.
It is a grey colour and the ears look a little misshapen, but it’s not too bad; we thought it had a similar taste to mushrooms, but we recommend trying it in small amounts to start with, as it has a rich flavour.

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Tacos

Tacos can be found at many street vendors and stalls, but they are a bit different to Old El Paso or Taco bell. A fresh, soft tortilla is filled with your choice of delicacies which you can then top with one of the aforementioned salsas if you wish. The fillings range from vegetarian-friendly options like cheese, vegetables and cactus, to meat-based choices, mostly chicken and pork. It is important to mention that they use ALL parts of the animal, so depending on what filling you choose, you will probably get a mix of meat cuts in there, including the occasional grizzly bit. We were a bit adventurous and even tried the local delicacy of a taco with pig uterus inside - it had a strong pork flavour; but there are plenty of more tamer options to choose from.

Aside from tacos, you can get sandwiches, quesadillas and burritos. All have a range of fillings to choose from, and can also be topped with salsa if you want.

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Cactus

Another popular local flavour that we tried a few times was cactus - we found it had a similar taste and texture to pickled green beans. Apparently, it’s full of fibre and quite good for you.

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Traveling pains…

After the first few days, we did both get tummy aches, however we don’t believe this was from the preparation or handling of the food, but rather just a culinary shock to the system for our western palates. The food was good, and we tried lots of different things in our first couple of days, but it was different to the fare we usually ate - different cuts of meat, but also a lot of corn, when we are probably used to a more wheat-based diet. So next time, we would probably pace ourselves a little better.

Another note of interest, is the water - don’t drink it. We had bottled water free at our hotel, so we barely needed to buy any, but it can be found pretty easily and inexpensively around the city. You are also supposed to be careful and use bottled water even when brushing your teeth as well, but we forgot a couple of times and managed to get by without too many issues.

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Sweet stuff

Mexico seems to have a really sweet tooth! There are lots of sweets and candies on sale at street vendors, and in the shops. We had read about a long-time favourite place that we wanted to visit - El Moro, a churreria, which specialises in churros (delicious Mexican pastries) and divine hot chocolates.
We were lucky enough to catch it mid morning on a weekday, so the lines weren’t too long and we were seated pretty quickly.
However, be warned, this place gets very busy at the weekends!

It’s a busy, quaint place decorated with blue and white tiles, with a view of the kitchen where the churros are being made right before you. Our Español and our servers’ English weren’t great, but we managed to put an order together.
Soon enough, two plates of fresh, hot churros and steaming mugs of hot chocolate were before us. They were delicious! We knew we were going to be facing a sugar overload afterwards, but we didn’t care, sometimes you just have to enjoy the moment!

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Coffee

One of the main attractions behind our visit to Mexico City, was the chance to taste the local coffee there.

Mexico is unique in that the nation mostly drinks coffee grown within the country itself. So, when you are in a cafe or specialty coffee house, you are usually experiencing a local flavour that is incredibly fresh due to the shorter distance it needs to travel.

Like any major location, Mexico City has a wide range of options for coffee drinkers - from the more commercial chains like Starbucks, to the stylish Hipster-esque espresso bars and all the more casual local coffee places in between.

We tried a good range of the places we wanted to visit, but still feel like there was plenty in and around the city that we didn’t get to.

Here is a slideshow of the coffees and places we did manage to try out.

While we were there, we also attended a coffee tasting and cupping workshop at Café Borola. We booked this through AirBnB (interested? Check it out here), and it was a great choice. We learnt a lot about tasting coffee and how to prepare pour-over coffee. Our host, Ricardo was incredibly warm, friendly and knowledgeable not only about coffee but about Mexico City in general, and he was always happy to answer any questions or make recommendations of things to do and places to try on the city’s coffee scene.

 
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Mexico City is a vibrant, busy city and a great place to visit as a tourist. There were some things about the city that we found we could easily liken to other places we have visited around the world, but plenty more that was very new to us and such an interesting experience.

As with any visit to a new location, be sure to do your research beforehand and take the necessary steps to ensure you can enjoy your adventures safely and wisely.
With our limited Spanish (almost zero!), we found day tours with local guides a great way to see, hear and taste some of what Mexico City had to offer, whilst also feeling comfortable and not out of our depth.

Hopefully we can return to Mexico, not only to the big city, but to experience more of the country as a whole.

Have you every been to Mexico? Let us know how you found it, and if you have any recommendations of other places to visit when in country, we’d love to hear about it.

Thinking of making a trip to Mexico? Get in contact with any questions you have and we’ll be happy to answer them as best as we can.

Until next time, happy adventuring! :)

A quick (and nerdy) trip to Austin, Texas

A good excuse to see a new city, or even a new country, is an event. Be it a concert, visiting a friend or family member, a special occasion, festival or convention. For our trip to Austin, Texas it was the latter.

Rooster Teeth (an internet based company that makes podcasts, videos, movies and more) has been holding RTX in their home-town of Austin since 2011. It is a convention/expo which consists of panels, live shows, premiers, stalls and more. They have since expanded to Sydney and London.

This wasn't our first RTX, we actually went over to Sydney a couple of years ago for the very first RTX Sydney. So this year, while on the great big continent of North America, we wanted to take the chance to go to the original RTX in Austin. We also figured it would be a good excuse to visit a new city.

Video games and nerdy pop culture aren't necessarily the first things that come to mind when you think of Texas, but they definitely have a presence and even add to the dynamic and unique feel of the city of Austin. The city is laid-back, while also proud, and seems to embrace different cultures existing within it, including video game ‘nerds’, anime fans, ‘geeks’ and more.

There were still many of the elements you would expect when visiting the Southern state; country music played in restaurants and shops, hearing “y’all” actually being used, BBQ joints with their glossy array of meat served by weight, and Tex-Mex specialties like breakfast tacos.
However, there was also plenty that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from Texas. As we walked around the downtown area, we saw electric scooters available to rent, art-house cinemas outnumbered mainstream multiplexes, and rather than seeing an endless row of all the usual shops and fast food restaurants, there was a vibrant and unique array of independent restaurants, bars, shops and businesses.

Most of our time was taken up by the Expo, but we did manage to explore Austin a little bit. Here is a collection of things that we did, and also things we noticed about the city. It might help you get an idea of what to do if you’re heading to Austin.

NB: We feel obliged to mention the heat… If you’re not from a city (or country) that is consistently 30-40+ degrees Celsius, then you ARE going to find it hot. There’s no fighting it, you just have to accept it and let the sweat flow. On a positive note, the Texans are as equipped to deal with heat as Canadians are with snow; every building has air-conditioning and we found plenty of places around to fill up our water-bottles. That being said, prepare yourself…dress light, don’t exert yourself and drink plenty of water.

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RTX 2018

If you are a fan of Rooster Teeth, we highly recommend visiting one of their expos at some point. Unlike other expos where you often just spend time walking around looking at stalls, RTX has a huge schedule of many different panels and shows, as well as a selection of stalls, signing events, community events, meet and greets and more. You can pick and choose what panels and events you attend according to your interests and timing. We attended all 3 days, and found plenty of things to fill up each day comfortably. Panels covered a wide range of topics such as video games, animation, cosplaying, anime, writing, video editing, vlogging, comedy and plenty more. They also had guests such as Mega 64, Houston Outlaws and Meg Turney.
We found the event to be really well organised, it seemed to run smoothly and getting into the expo was fast and easy with little to no lines.
To make everything fair for all attendees, they only allowed line-ups to begin 1 hour before a panel, and when lines were formed they were organised and orderly.
We found we were able to gets into in all of the events we were interested in, except for some of the super popular ones (e.g. Achievement Hunter, RTPodcast).

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Bats on Congress

From March to November, Congress Bridge in downtown Austin is home to about 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats. Not long after the sun sinks behind the horizon, the bats begin to emerge in a stunning synchronization and fly off into the night for their nocturnal feeding habits. People line the bridge around sunset and wait so they can watch this phenomenon.
We did this on one of our first nights, and ended up returning twice more because we found it so wonderful to watch. It is a truly amazing experience to be on the bridge and see a cloud of bats flying into the twilight, and it is staggering to see just how many bats live under the bridge (this event can last over 45 minutes). They can fly quite close to the side of the bridge, so if that makes you a little nervous, stand back a bit to feel more at ease. On the other hand, if you want to get up close, there are a selection of boat and kayak tours that will take you onto the water of Lady Bird Lake so you can watch the bats emerge from a different perspective.

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Food

There is A LOT of delicious food to choose from in Austin. TIP: It’s best to visit hungry!
Firstly, let’s address the BBQ… Texas is famous for it’s BBQ (particularly beef), and if you are a meat-eater you should definitely try it. It can be a little intimidating to walk into a BBQ restaurant and try to read their ‘Menu’, which usually consists of different types and cuts of meat and the weight in Ounces and Pounds, but the people of Austin are really nice, and will help you if you seem a little confused. It is a little heavy on the digestive system, so keep that in mind when ordering; don’t go if you want a ‘light meal’, share with someone else or with a group to taste more but eat less, and don’t be afraid to take some away in a ‘doggy bag’ if you can’t finish it.
Don’t necessarily skip the sides either (corn, potato salad, mac and cheese etc.), they will help to counter-balance out the mass of meat you’re about to ingest, and they are also really good!

Texas is also the birth place of Tex-Mex (Texas-Mexican food), but the main food item you should try in Austin is breakfast tacos. They can be found in a few places around the city, and there are plenty of varieties and flavours to choose from. Much like BBQ, they are not something you’d want to be eating every day, but still a delicious thing to try when visiting the city.
Look out for the Migas taco, which is an Austin specialty with scrambled eggs, tortilla chips and toppings.

Other great food options to look out for are sandwiches (get as a meal with the potato chips!), fried chicken, hot dogs, burgers and pizzas…basically all the American foods you know and love.

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Drinks

Austin has a legendary bar scene, in particular the infamous area of 6th street, which is located in Downtown. The street is dotted with many bars, clubs and restaurants and closes to traffic in the evenings and weekends.
Don’t just stay around 6th street though, as there are plenty more worthy places not far from it (often less crowded, more classy ones).

We went to CU29 for some delicious, elegant cocktails and the bartender there gave us a great run down of the bar scene and some ideas of where to go. Another place worth a mention is Red Headed Stepchild Bar, AKA Floppy Disc Repair company - a speakeasy style bar that requires a secret code to enter.

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Coffee

With everything else going on in Austin, we were expecting much more of a specialty coffee scene there. However, we didn’t find a lot of good coffee spots, particularly in the Downtown area where we mostly spent our time.

We ended up going to Houndstooth Coffee most days, the only good coffee shop we could find near Austin Convention Centre. They had different beans to choose from for Espresso or Drip coffee, and the drinks tasted pretty good - not too sour or bitter, with a little sweetness. They also had a small range of light breakfast/snack options to choose from e.g. banana bread, breakfast tacos, nut bars, cereal.

On our last day we ventured a few blocks out to a place called Better Half Coffee & Cocktails - we don’t remember how we found the actual taste of the coffee, but we do remember finding the drinks a little lukewarm. They had a good food menu though, and quite a large space with seating options inside and outside.

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Cinema

An interesting observation we made while in Austin, is that the city seems to have more small, independent Cinemas than large multiplex chains. They are serious about their boutique cinema scene, some even having strict ‘No Disturbance’ policies, where you will be asked to leave for talking or using your phone.

Independent cinemas often mean smaller, stylish theaters and a unique range of films to choose from and support. They often also have a menu of great food and drink options to enjoy while watching a movie.

We managed to fit in a visit to the Violet Crown (pictured above) to see Eight Grade and we really enjoyed both the movie and the experience of the cinema itself. We would love to explore more of the cinema scene in Austin next time.

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Other

Some other things to note/check out:

Texas State Capitol
Hard to miss, in the Downtown area, cool building to look at, though some of the statues/memorials around the outside are uncomfortably pro-Confederacy

Rent-a-Scooter
This is a cool and fun-looking option for getting around the city. You just need to download an App onto your phone and scan the QR code of the scooter, and you’re away. They are electric, so don’t require too much effort, and they look super fun!
You do, however, need to be able to use Mobile data for the App (so we couldn’t try it).
Just be careful and mindful of pedestrians and cars - the rules for riding these scooters are the same as riding bikes.

Festivals/Special Events
There are plenty of events that happen each year in Austin (e.g. Austin City Limits, South by Southwest) and it can get very busy when they are on, so just bear this in mind when planning to travel to the city. It might give you a reason to visit Austin, or it might give you a reason to move your trip dates slightly to avoid the crowds.


We really enjoyed our time in Austin and at RTX, but definitely feel like we only touched upon the surface of this effortlessly cool and unique city. We would absolutely return to explore it more (and just brace ourselves for the heat)!

Food Adventures in Portland

We recently spent some time in Portland, Oregon. A city known for being 'home of the hipster', visiting Portland is less about seeing tourist spots and sights, and more about experiencing and tasting what the local community has to offer.  

Many food establishments place emphasis on their use of locally sourced and in-season ingredients. It is also a very eco-friendly, socially conscious city, that supports many diets; from vegans to omnivores, vegetarians to carnivores and everything in between. As a result, the Portland food scene consists of an array of unique flavours, delicious dishes, tasty treats and so many choices and food experiences it's hard to decide where to start. 

Bonus: Being in the state of Oregon, where there is no sales tax, your meal out, morning coffee or shopping trip will cost you a lot less than you might be expecting. 

We had just a short time in Portland, but we made the most of it with plenty of 'walk-sploring' and plenty of tasting. Here's some of the good, the interesting and the not-so-good food we tried in the 'City of Roses'.

NOTE: For this post, we are introducing a rating system for the food we tried:

 

🍽️                      Not good, didn't want to finish
🍽️🍽️                 Okay, wouldn't return
🍽️🍽️🍽️            Good, nothing special
🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️       Great, would go back
🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️  Excellent, a favourite!

 

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Portland Saturday Market

Old Town/Chinatown

A nice way to spend a sunny Saturday (or Sunday) morning, this market displays a huge assortment of goods, mostly from local artisans, producers and sellers. Food, art, clothing, jewellery, soap and health products, garden ornaments, cooking spices, honey, plants and so much more. 

They also had a row of food trucks/stalls, so after you've spent your morning wandering the wares, it's a great spot for an early and casual lunch. They had lots of options from all over the world, and all at very reasonable prices. We tried Fish and Chips, and Northeast African food, which were both delicious.

For more details of their market, check out there website here

Ratings:

'Chowder Heads' - Fish and Chips
🍽️🍽️🍽️ - A little greasy, but seafood was fresh and tasty

'Horn of Africa' - Northeast African Food
🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️ - Delicious taste, lots of options on menu

 

Chowder heads

Chowder heads

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horn of africa


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Doughnuts

Featuring Voodoo Doughnuts

Just next to the Saturday Market, is the infamous doughnut store Voodoo Doughnuts. The line is consistently long, but moves pretty fast. They have a decent selection of interesting flavours and uniquely decorated doughnuts, alongside some more classic flavours if you don't feel like being too adventurous. 
For some reason they only take cash (though there is an ATM in the shop), and they hustle customers through like a herd of cattle, so it pays to make up your mind about which items you'd like before you get to the counter.

The doughnuts were fine, though we think it's definitely a case of hype over substance. The gimmick and appearance of both the store and the donuts surpasses the taste of the doughnuts themselves. 

There are quite a few other doughnut stores in the city, so we would have been interested to try some other ones to compare - particularly Blue Star doughnuts. However, we ran out of time to visit those.
Next time, we would check out one of the other stores before returning to Voodoo, but we're glad we tried them out. 

Rating:

Voodoo Doughnuts
🍽️ 🍽️ 🍽️ - Interesting experience, average doughnuts.
If you are a big fan of doughnuts you might be into it.


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Ramen

Featuring AFURI ramen + dumpling

We usually find some sort of Japanese food wherever we visit - and this place caught the eye of our vegetarian travel companion. The space was bright and open, with a nice aesthetic. 

The ramen was pretty tasty. It strayed a little from the classic Japanese style, but the flavours were refreshing and they had good vegetarian and vegan options. The temperature of the ramen broth could have been a little hotter for one of the dishes.

We didn't quite have the appetite for ramen AND dumplings, so would be interested to try the dumplings next time. 

Rating:

🍽️🍽️🍽️ - A nice meal, good to try ramen with a more unique flavour


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Ice cream

Featuring Salt & Straw and Ruby Jewel

As we walked around the city, we discovered an extensive selection of two kinds of treats: doughnuts and ice cream. 
The weather was warm and summery, so it was the perfect excuse to try some of the latter. 

After spending a morning wandering through Forest Park, we walked back into town and past the first scoop shop we tried, Salt & Straw. The staff were very friendly, and the flavour selection was exciting and unique, using locally grown and produced ingredients.
We got a flight to share with 4 different flavours; Birthday Cake & Blackberries, Wasabi and Raspberry sorbet, Freckled Woodblock Chocolate and Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper.

The second scoop shop we tried was Ruby Jewel, a bright pink, retro-style shop that offered cones, cups, sundaes and cookie sandwiches. This place had slightly more conventional ice cream flavours, but nonetheless it was delicious and offered a more classic ice cream parlour experience. Here we tried 2 flavours; Honey Lavender and Double Chocolate

Ratings:

Salt & Straw
🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️ - High quality ice cream, interesting flavours

Ruby Jewel
🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️ - Ultimate comfort flavours, plus a few different ones for those willing to try

Salt & Straw

Salt & Straw

Ruby Jewel

Ruby Jewel


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Pizza

Featuring Sizzle Pie

We walked past this place almost every day, and it was also right over the road from Powell's Bookstore, so we took it as a sign that we should try their pizza. They had a good selection of meat based, vegetarian and vegan flavours available, and they also offered pies, slices and half slices - top marks for flexibility and choice. 

The pizza itself was classic New York style and all the slices we tried in our group were delicious. Between us, we had Cheese, Spinach & Mushroom and Pepperoni - classic flavours, done well. 

Rating:

🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️ - Good pizza, good options, good time


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Korean BBQ

Featuring Kim Jong Smokehouse

When you put the words 'Korean' and 'BBQ' together, we are intrigued. It's always interesting to taste a Western-Asian fusion restaurant, and this place did a pretty good job of blending BBQ style smoked meat, and the flavours of Korean cuisine. 
Probably not the best Korean nor BBQ food we've had, but it was a nice meal with good service and a great selection of local beverages on offer (the ginger beer was amazing!). 

We both had Bibim Bap; one with Honey Gochujang Chicken, the other with Galbi Beef Short rib, and both smothered in delicious Gochujang BBQ sauce.
The meat was a little dry and overcooked, but the dishes were tasty and had a good level of spice.

Rating:

🍽️🍽️🍽️ - Good meal, the overcooked meat was a bit of a downer, but we would definitely try this place again


Vegan BBQ

 

Featuring Homegrown Smoker

Carrying on with the BBQ theme, we heard about a vegan BBQ joint, and were interested to give it a try. Google maps did NOT make this an easy place to find, as it kept redirecting us to where their old food-truck used to be, but we eventually got there, hungry and ready to try something different. 

They had an extensive menu, with a plant-based version of many American BBQ classics, such as Macnocheese, Tempeh Ribs, Chikn and Soy Curls. We chose a selection to share in our group. 

First things first, the dishes didn't taste very much like their animal-based counterparts. However, as a plant-based option, everything was damn tasty. It was also really filling, and we couldn't finish everything we ordered. Go with an open mind for flavourful, comforting plant-based food. Don't go expecting exact vegan replicas of meat dishes. 

Rating:

🍽️🍽️🍽️🍽️ - A fun experience with a unique take on vegan food

 
deep fried pickles with vegan dip

deep fried pickles with vegan dip

 

There are so many food, drink and treat options on offer in Portland, it can be hard to choose where to go and what to taste. We really enjoyed exploring the city and getting a taste of the local flavours and food specialties. 

We feel like we barely scratched the surface with this unique and beautiful city. It seems like the kind of place where you would be constantly finding new and exciting things to eat, drink and do.
Are there any places in particular you would add to our list?
Anywhere we should check out if and when we go back?

Let us know here! We'd love to hear your thoughts and recommendations.

Coffee Adventures in Montreal

Out of all the cities we have visited in Canada so far, Montreal is probably one of our favourites. Effortlessly cool and confident, the city has a vibrant soul and an eclectic mix of people, culture, art, design and ideas.

Known for it's food and nightlife, we knew Montreal would have a great coffee scene. So we were excited to see what it had to offer. 
We spent just over a week in the city, mainly in the downtown area; and in that time managed to taste some great food, find some awesome bars and, of course, drink some amazing coffee. 

Here's what we found on our Coffee Adventures in Montreal...


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1. Tommy

Old Montreal

On our first day of exploring the city, we decided to head to the area of Old Montreal to peruse old buildings, cobbled streets, statues and the famous Notre-Dame Basilica. 
We also had a Café in mind that was conveniently situated a block from the Basilica, so we headed through the cold, snowy morning to find Tommy

The café was in an old, corner building with heavy wooden doors. Once we stepped inside, it was warm and bright, with lots of hanging greenery. The interior had been transformed into a light-filled, modern space, while still using some of the older, elegant fittings. 

It was busy, but the service was efficient and pleasant. We ordered a Latte, a Macchiato, and a French sweet treat; a Brioche à tête. After some brief shuffling, and subtle eyeing up of who looked like they were finishing up, we managed to nab some seats with a view of the barista at work. 

Overall, it was a little cramped, but the experience was a good one. The coffee tasted good and the milk had a nice texture. The brioche was really good; light, fluffy and just the right amount of sweetness. 

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2. Café 1880

Latin Quarter

On our second day of exploring the city, the snow had gone, and in it's place was a blue, sunny sky. Perfect Spring weather for walking and exploring a city. 

Café 1880 was another coffee shop that we just happened to walk by, not far from where we were staying. 
It had the standard minimalist decor of many coffee shops, but a nice colour scheme that included black, pale wood and teal. 
A small space, but smartly fitted out and we happened to catch it at a quiet time, so ordering and finding a seat took no time at all. 

They had a good selection of baked goods and treats, so we decided to try an Almond Croissant, along with our coffees; a Latte and a Flat white.

The croissant was delicious - but then again, we were in French Canada, it was hard to find a pastry that wasn't.
The milk of the coffees had a beautiful velvety texture, though the strength of the espresso was a little on the weak side for us. Next time we would check the espresso to milk ratio before ordering. 

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3. Café Nocturne

Plateau Mont-Royal

By now, the cold spell seemed to have left Montreal, and in contrast, the days were sunny and warm. We wanted to make the most of the sunshine and fresh air, so we walked towards Mont-Royal, the well-visited attraction where the city gets it's name from. We were in for a short, slightly steep climb to the top of the Mount, to see amazing views of the whole city. 

Along the way, we had a Café in mind that we wanted to visit, but once we got there, we found that it was closed on Sundays. So we carried on, in the hope that we would find something else.

When we first came across Café Nocturne, we were a little apprehensive. The branding and decor of the shop front was very minimal, so much so that we weren't even sure it was a café until we got closer. Then we thought it might be a little too "pretentious hipster" for us. 

However, we were intensely feeling the need for coffee, so decided to give it a try. 

Once we entered the café, we were pleasantly surprised. The inside, although small, was light, bright and kind of cosy. There was a steady stream of customers, and no spare seats, but we were taking our coffees to go, so we didn't mind. Just one barista was working the till and coffee machine, but she was friendly and doing a good job. She managed to serve customers, grab food and make coffees pretty quickly.

We got a Latte, a Cappuccino and a chocolate chip cookie to share. 

The coffee was really good! Probably one of the best coffees we've had, not just in Montreal, but in Canada. And the cookie was delicious too.

We were feeling pretty happy after discovering this hidden gem, and now felt ready for the hike up to the top of Mont-Royal.

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4. Café Chat L'Heureux

 

Happy Cat Café

The next place we visited, was a little bit different to the cafés we usually frequent, but it was a very comforting experience.  

If you've never visited a Cat Café before, it's definitely an experience worth considering. The idea originally started in Taiwan and became popular in Japan. Now you can find Cat (and other animal) cafés in many different countries around the world. These cafés aren't really about the coffee and food experience, though many of them do have menus and offer a selection of things to eat and drink. The purpose is generally more about providing a place for people to relax and spend time with animals, as a way to relieve stress.
All of the cat cafés we have visited, have adopted and/or rescued cats and have a strict number allowed in residence at one time. 
There are also rules in place for the customers to follow, in order to be respectful of the animals' space. 

On each table, alongside the menu, their were bio's of each cat, and a guideline on whether they did, or didn't like to be touched. 

There was a minimum order/entry fee, so we ordered a Ca-purr-ccino and Iced Tea, to sip at while watching the kitty cats. As said earlier, you don't really come to this kind of place for the coffee; the ice tea was refreshing, but a little too sweet and the cappuccino seemed to have been made by a capsule-like automatic machine and was boiling hot.  But it was a small price to pay in order to spend some time with these furry little friends. 

We had a great time visiting Café Chat L'Heureux, and enjoyed just relaxing and watching the cats go about their day. There's something ultimately calming and comforting about hanging out with the cats, and we definitely left feeling a lot happier than when we went in.

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5. Café Nocturne

Take Two!

We liked Café Nocturne so much, that when we happened to be back in the neighbourhood, we took the chance to go back for a second taste. 

This time we decided to sit in and enjoy our coffee, so we found a sunny spot on a big table in the middle of the café. 
We ordered lattes, and noticed they offered Oat milk as an alternative, so we tried it with one of the drinks. 

The Oat milk was a great tasting milk alternative. It didn't affect the overall taste, nor the texture of the drink too much. Of all the milk alternatives we've tried, this is probably the nicest.
Second time around, the staff weren't quite as friendly as the barista we had the first time, but they drinks were still very good. 

 
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6. Café Saint-Henri

Latin Quarter

After visiting and really enjoying our experience at the Quebec City branch of this café, we were keen to try the Latin Quarter version in Montreal. 

We were not disappointed. Saint-Henri Montreal made us some fantastic coffees, just like the one we visited in Quebec city. The staff weren't overly friendly in this branch, but they got the job done. 

We ordered Lattes, and they also had Oat milk as an alternative, so we tried it again. The barista managed to pull off some pretty latte art, even with an alternative milk. The taste and quality of the coffee was excellent. 

Along with the drinks, we shared a piece of Cinnamon bun loaf, which was a delicious sweet treat to compliment the drinks.

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We really enjoyed our time in Montreal, and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Canada. While Vancouver and the West coast might be "beautiful", Montreal has a certain unique and eccentric vibe that comes from combining the food, arts, music, personalities and culture of the people that inhabit it. 

In our short time there, we managed to get a taste of what the city had to offer, but we know it was probably only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Montreal's Coffee scene.

We hope to go back one day, and if so, delve a little deeper, and travel a little further in search of a good cup of coffee. 

Traveling to Japan: FACT vs. FICTION

Back in 2014, before we travelled to Japan for the first time, we read and heard many different things about the country. Once we arrived there and spent some time exploring, we found that some of what we expected turned out to be true, and some of it really wasn't true at all. 

Now, when people find out we've been to Japan multiple times, they often ask questions about it; and we still hear some of those "facts" or "myths".

So, we've put together the following list, to inspire you and to help work out whether your next travel destination could be the Land of the Rising Sun...

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1. "Japan is REALLY expensive!"

FALSE

This is definitely one of the most frequent lines we have heard, and still do.

Cost of travel is always a really hard topic to compare between destinations. People travel differently, and what one person might spend money on, another person may not.

However, the biggest expenditures on a trip are usually the following: 

Flights - This really depends on where you are travelling from, and at what time of year. We have flown into Japan each time from New Zealand, and found that there were frequent sales, so our flights were in the range of $600-900NZD per person. This was for a direct, return flight with baggage included (we flew with Air New Zealand). We mostly travel outside of major and school holidays, as that is when we could get time off work, so this may help to lower costs a little.
Flights are a necessary cost when travelling, so if you're concerned, look out for sales or take your chances with more budget airlines (JetStar). In our opinion, what we paid wasn't unreasonable; we have spent more than that just flying across Canada.

Accommodation - In Japan, we have mainly stayed at hotels or apartments, and mostly stayed at places where the cost was between $100NZD to $200NZD per night. This is a similar cost to what we have found in Western countries such as NZ, Australia, Canada and the U.S.A, but we found the standard consistently higher than Western equivalents of the same price. We always found the hotels to be comfortable, clean and extremely well-stocked, with all the toiletries you need (even toothbrushes and razors). And the staff are always extremely helpful and professional. Occasionally the room may be a little on the small side (this is common in Japan) but it was never small enough to be an issue, particularly as we tended to spend most of our time out exploring and just came back to our hotels to rest and sleep. 
Location is something you don't have to worry about much in Japan, as most accommodation you will stay at will have food options and convenience stores nearby, and will also most likely have a Metro/train station very close. 
NOTE: This is mostly based on our experiences in larger cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka and some other smaller cities such as Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and the Mt. Fuji area. Experiences may differ in smaller, more remote areas. Also, we haven't used Hostels, Airbnb or other options in Japan, so we didn't want to comment on that; you might find some good, cheaper options there.

Transport - Japan has an amazing train system, that will get you anywhere. Unless you really wish to go somewhere that requires it, it would be unnecessary to hire a car (and good luck reading road signs if you can't read Japanese!). The trains are extremely efficient, clean and busy but orderly. The stations are dotted all over cities, and the system extends into rural areas as well. If a train doesn't quite get you where you want to go or when, a bus will. The costs are pretty reasonable; getting around a city is pretty cheap (a few hundred yen for a few stops in Toyko). To save transport costs, loosely plan to explore 1-2 areas in a day so you're not going back and forth on trains.
Catching a train between the big cities is obviously going to cost you a little more. For instance, it'll probably cost you around $160+ NZD to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, domestic travel is rarely cheap between major cities of any country, and the bullet train is FAST and convenient and a really nice way to see the country.

Don't forget, if you are able, your legs are also a great way to get around! We always walk A LOT when in Japan; for the most part the main cities are quite flat, and it's a great way to see different parts of the city and work up an appetite for more local delicacies. Most days we walked 20,000+ steps, and one of our highest days was 40,000+ steps (thank you Tokyo Disney!).

Food - There are so many food options in Japan! To be honest, the 'Food in Japan' topic warrants an entire new blog post, so we won't talk about it too much here, but we will give you a general idea. 
Yes, some food options will be costly (we're talking Kobe Beef, Very Fatty Tuna sushi, Kaiseki dinner etc.), but the great thing about Japan, is that there is also a huge amount of really good, more affordable options too. And unlike many Western destinations, cheap doesn't have to mean bad or "junk" food. Some more cheaper options can include ramen, donburi (rice bowls), Japanese curry and street/market food like fruit sticks, gyoza (dumplings) and takoyaki (pancake balls with octopus). There are also lots of non-Japanese food options on offer, like pizza, burgers, sandwiches, pasta, cafes and more. Many food places will have breakfast and/or lunch "set meals" or "specials", where you will get a meal and possibly a drink at a reasonable cost. Some will also have this available for dinner as well. So, with all this in mind, a casual/cheap daily food cost for the two of us, could be approximately ¥4000/$50NZD.
Another thing to keep in mind, is that Japan has the BEST CONVENIENCE STORES! You can find a wide range of food for inexpensive snacks or meals. For instance, you can find sandwiches, fruit, cup noodles, yogurts, drinks (including hot and iced coffee), hot food, onigiri (rice ball with filling), sushi and more. You can also find toiletries, magazines, sun screen, ATM's, printing and a lot of other helpful (convenient..) things. 

Attractions - Many attractions are free or will only request a small donation, such as temples and shrines.  Most other attractions, such as museums, galleries, zoos and the more popular temples and shrines, are still very reasonable; the cost will usually range from a couple of hundred, to a couple of thousand yen per person. 
The attractions that we spent the most money on in Japan, were theme parks; Tokyo Disney and Osaka Universal Studios will cost around ¥74,00 - ¥76,00 for 1-day-admission per person.

Overall, we don't find Japan noticeably more expensive than other places we have visited so far. We found that once our flights and accommodation were sorted, we could get around and enjoy the culture, sights and amazing food the country has to offer without spending too much money. 

2. "Japanese people are really polite!"

TRUE

It is a big generalisation to describe all of the people from one country in one word, be it "polite", "friendly", "rude", "stand-offish" or anything else. Wherever in the world you visit, there will be a huge range of people and personalities. In some places that will be more apparent, in others, you may not notice unless you spend more time with the locals. 

Nevertheless, we CAN understand where this generalization has come from; most of the Japanese people we have interacted with have been really polite!
This could be due to Japan being a collectivist society, meaning people are encouraged to think of others around them, and put the needs of the group before their own as an individual.
You will usually find service (shops, restaurants, cafes, train stations, hotels, attractions etc.) to be very professional and courteous. Japanese people can also be shy though, so they won't necessarily interact with you as a foreigner unless there is a reason. This is particularly the case in busy cities, like Tokyo, where the locals are more used to tourists.

Don't take the politeness of the Japanese people for granted though! Please be mindful you respect their practices and act politely around them too. Yes, if you are obviously a foreigner or "gaijin" they will let certain things slide, but you may be seen as rude if you don't follow along with certain expectations. 

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3. "Most people will speak English"

FALSE

Before going to Japan, we took a night class for about 8 weeks, to learn the basics in Japanese language and culture. We really enjoyed our classes; our teacher was lovely, the information was helpful, and it was also a nice way to prepare for, and get excited for our trip. Even with a small amount of basic language under our belts, we still expected a little more of the English language to be present in Japan, but once we were there, we didn't always find this to be the case. 

You can take a trip to the main cities of Japan (i.e. Tokyo or Kyoto) fairly easily without speaking Japanese, but we highly recommend you learn at least a little bit before you go! It will help you get the most out of your trip and will make the whole experience a little smoother. It will also give you a deeper understanding of the country, people and culture.

Yes, some Japanese people are able to speak English very well, particularly in common tourist spots like hotels and attractions. But there are also a lot of people who speak very little or no English at all.
As the locals can also be quite shy, if you try to talk to someone, they may just say they don't speak English so as not to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.
Whether you speak Japanese or not, the shop assistant, waiter, or local who you are interacting with will usually be very polite and will try and help you as best as they can. 

Occasionally, you may also come across people that will want to talk to you to try and improve their English. We have had a young man come up and talk to us in a Burger King once! He was very excited to meet English speaking travellers and make friends.
A few times, we have also been approached by school kids; they often have assignments to find English speaking foreigners and ask them a few questions, i.e "What is your favourite Japanese food?", "Where are you from?"
Don't be alarmed! They are not looking to cause any trouble, they are just getting their homework done.

The further you go out of the main cities, the less chance you have in coming across people who speak English, so just be aware of this if you are heading to smaller towns, or "off the beaten track" without a guide or some knowledge of the Japanese language.
The same goes for written English; in bigger cities you will find signs, maps, brochures and even audio announcements available in English, but if you head out of the main tourist areas, that will decrease. 
The great things about menus in Japan is they often have pictures! So if there is no English menu available, you can always try pointing to the picture of what you want and hoping for the best.
In supermarkets, the labels will mostly be in Japanese, so you might end up like us; suddenly realizing that butter and cheese can look quite similar in a foreign country when there are no English words to tell you the difference! 

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4. "I love Sushi! So I will love to visit Japan!"

TRUE AND FALSE

When asked about Japanese food, a lot of people will automatically think of Sushi. While sushi IS delicious, it is not as much of a common, everyday food as you might expect in Japan. Out of the 3 times we have visited the country, we have only had sushi about 2-3 times.

Japanese food and cuisine is SO MUCH more than sushi, so make sure you keep your mind open to trying new tastes and experiences. There are so many flavours and varieties of Ramen, and you can find it everywhere. Udon and soba noodle dishes are also great options. Try some authentic Tempura, Pork Katsu and Japanese Curry. Also, don't be afraid to try non-Japanese food too. Like many countries, Japan has food from all over the world. We have had great burgers, pizza and even delicious Indian food there.
And if you want something easy and familiar, they have all the Western Restaurant chains too (McDonald's, Burger King's, Starbucks). 

Of course, make sure you treat yourself to some authentic and fresh sushi. You can try going to a Sushi restaurant, or head to Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It might be a good idea to have a quick read-up on Sushi eating etiquette before going though, just so you know what to expect, and how it is recommended to eat. 
Other places to find sushi are at convenience stores, in food courts (often in the bottom levels of department stores) and in the food/shopping markets in and around train stations (e.g. Tokyo Station). 

If you are a fan of sushi in your home country, keep in mind that the sushi you are used to is just a variant of traditional Japanese style. So, if you are used to "california rolls" or various types of sushi with chicken, avocado etc., you are less likely to find that in Japan. Traditionally, sushi will mostly be made with fresh, raw seafood (fish, eel, roe, sea urchin etc.)
If that doesn't sound like something you would enjoy, TRY IT anyway; the sushi we ate for breakfast in Tsukiji Fish Market (Outer Market) in Tokyo, was fresh, simple and easily the BEST sushi we have eaten. It helped us to really appreciate the taste and texture of raw fish. 
*NOTE: For good sushi, expect to pay, it is prepared with extremely fresh and premium ingredients by highly skilled and experienced chefs. At the Sushi place we went to in Tsukiji, we payed around ¥300-800 per piece (that's about $3-10NZD!).

Lastly, don't miss out on the cakes, pastries and desserts in Japan. You will see Tea Houses, Cake shops (e.g. Ginza Cozy Corner), Pastry shops, Crepe stalls and Cafes with beautifully presented treats; TRY THEM! They are often as good to eat as they are to look at, and they are not overly sweet. This is to suit the palette of the locals, who don't eat a huge amount of sugary food. 

5. "The subway is really crowded, I've seen the Videos!"

TRUE AND FALSE

We have all seen the videos of the Japanese subway, when attendants will push a few more business people into an already packed train so it resembles a tin of sardines. The first time we caught the Narita Express train from the Airport to Tokyo Station, we arrived at rush hour...to find a sea of heads bobbing back, forth, left and right in the rush to catch the train home. It was intimidating, but also amazing to see so many people moving about with minimal bumping, tripping or altercations!

Even with over 120 million people, the roads are not as busy as you might expect in Japan. The train system is extremely efficient, so people don't really need to use cars. A majority of people, particularly in main cities, will use the train/metro on a daily basis, or ride bikes (you will see lots of bikes around!).
Remember that Japanese society is collectivist; it's better for the community and environment to support public transport.

When you visit Japan, you will probably have to ride a few busy trains; it's inevitable when travelling to a small country with such a huge population. However, you can avoid the sardine-squash fairly easily: by avoiding trains at peak times. Trains WILL be packed when people are on their way to work, usually between 7-9am. The evening is not as bad, as end of day times vary between workers, and people will often go out to socialize after they have finished. However, you may find it gets busy again between 5-8pm.
At any time of day you might happen upon a busy train, but if you're lucky, you'll get a seat, and if not, there's plenty of standing room. Being a tourist, time is usually not on as tight a schedule, so sometimes if you wait a few minutes for the next train, you might get lucky and catch a slightly less busy one. You can also try scanning an incoming train and making a bee-line for the quieter carriages (hint: they are usually further from the stairwells or escalators leading to the entrance/exit). Another trick, is to avoid busier stations, and taking alternate routes to where you are headed (e.g. in Tokyo, Shinjuku and Tokyo stations are the busiest).

If you do have to get on a crowded train, don't worry too much! Follow train etiquette by keeping relatively quiet, turning your phone on silent, and giving your seat (if you have one) to others who need it more. Be prepared to stand up and get close; this isn't so bad as everyone is usually quiet and respectful, and there is a steady turnover of people getting on and off the train. Practice patience! You'll get to where you need to go.
*NOTE: in point 8, we talk about safety on busy trains.

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6. "I love Anime, so I will love Japan"

PROBABLY TRUE

Although it is often related to 'geek' or 'otaku' culture, a lot of people enjoy anime and manga, regardless of age, gender, race, occupation or social standing. This is apparent when you visit Japan; you will see lots of different people reading manga on the train, watching anime on their phone, or buying anime figurines in Akihabara. Even Tokyo Tower now has a whole themed area based on the popular anime "One Piece".  

If you are a fan of anime, manga, video games and/or technology you should definitely check out the Akihibara district of Tokyo. Even if you are just a tourist wanting to explore, it's worth a visit. It feels a bit like venturing into the future, or an alternate reality; flashing neon signs, 3D billboards, shops full of figurines, multi-storey electronic stores, themed cafes and restaurants, retro video game stores, an infamous 4-storey sex shop, waitresses dressed as maids handing out flyers in the street, and more. 

Travellers from other countries who are fans of anime (Dragonball, OnePiece, Naruto, Evangelion, Studio Ghibli etc), are often attracted to visit the country where it all came from.
It is great to have an initial interest in something that draws you to a country, and by all means follow that and enjoy it while you visit; just make sure you don't limit yourself to experiencing only that part of Japanese culture, use it as a stepping stone to see all that the country has to offer.

And for those who haven't experienced the world of anime and/or manga before, Japan could be a great place to introduce you to it. If you're in Kyoto, a visit to the Kyoto International Manga museum is well-worth it for manga fans, and anyone who is interested to find out what manga is all about. In Tokyo, the Ghibli Museum is a truly wonderful place to visit, particularly if you are a fan of the Studio Ghibli films (get in quick, there are only limited tickets that sell out quickly!). There are also plenty of themed cafes, restaurants and bars - so if you've got a favourite series, see if there's a themed place to check out! 

7. "Tokyo is over-crowded and full of people"

FALSE

We've already touched on the fact that Japan has a huge population for such a small country (over 127 million!). Over 13 million of those people live in the prefecture of Tokyo alone.
In certain places, and at certain times, there will definitely be crowds (and lots of long lines), but in general, it doesn't feel too crowded when you are exploring the city of Tokyo. Japan is very well managed and organised as a country and society. Walking down the street, people will move to avoid bumping into each other, even with suitcases, umbrellas, travel bags or young children. If someone does happen to bump into you by accident, they will often utter "Sumimasen", meaning "Pardon me/Sorry". It is polite for you to do the same in return. 

As with the trains, you can always try to avoid busy places at peak times, but some spots will be busy no matter when you go, so be prepared to wait in line. One example is Tokyo Disney; it is busy regardless of the time of day, time of year, season, or weather. Fast passes for the most popular rides will sell out for the rest of the day, so get in quickly for the ones you don't want to miss out on. We also visited another popular theme park, Fuji Q Highland, and some of the wait times for rides were up to 4 hours long! Japanese people have mastered the art of waiting in lines. Even in Harajuku, there is a popular store that people line up outside of just to buy gourmet popcorn. 

Some crowds and lines are inevitable, but they will usually be fairly well-ordered and fast moving. For places you are expecting to be quite busy, research the best times of day to visit, and make sure it isn't a special holiday. If you are expecting a big line (e.g. a special event like Tokyo Game Show) go to the bathroom first and make sure you take water (and maybe even snacks) with you. 

In our experiences, we've never found it so crowded that we didn't enjoy ourselves; if anything it taught us to be a little more patient.

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8. "Japan is very safe"

TRUE

Walking around many areas of Japan, you feel pretty safe. Their crime rates, particularly involving tourists, are pretty low, and you can feel comfortable walking around and not worrying about pick pocketing, mugging or violet crimes. You will most likely never come across Yakusa, or other gangs/criminals. 

There are a few light scams to be careful of, for instance we fell into one trap where a man dressed as a monk came up to us, gave us a prayer bracelet and asked for a donation. He didn't appear to speak much English, and we thought he was a legitimate monk, so we gave him ¥2000. We later found out it is a common scam in areas near shrines or temples where tourists frequent. Be sure to look out for people posing as monks; we should have known this man was suspicious, he had a pair of Nike kicks on underneath his monk attire...
Authentic monks will be seen in shrines and temples, but they will not come up to you and ask you for money.  

We have also heard of solo females occasionally being touched inappropriately on crowded trains, so be aware of this. We are always traveling together, and tend to avoid busy trains, so we have not experienced this. However, this is not to say it doesn't happen. If it does occur, talk to a train attendant or police officer, or grab the perpetrators arm, and yell/cause a commotion if need be. At certain times of day or night, there are also women-only carriages on many popular train routes, so if you are a female traveling alone, you can always keep an eye out for those. 

Walking around the cities, you will see little police huts/stations called "Kobans", with 1-2 officers inside or standing just outside. You can always go and talk to them if you are concerned about something, or even if you are lost; they can help you find where you need to go. 

Don't take the "safe" feeling of Japan for granted though; like anywhere you travel, practice general common sense and safety.

Another thing to be mindful of, is getting on the other side of the law. There are a few small minor infringements that tourists can sometimes make without realising it. One common mistake, is smoking while walking down the street, which is illegal in Japan. If caught by a police officer, you will most likely face a small fine.
*NOTE: If you want to smoke, find a designated smoking area, or look to see where the locals are smoking, this is usually an acceptable area. Malls, trains and hotels will often have smoking compartments/rooms too. 


Before traveling to different countries, you will likely hear and/or read good things, bad things and everything in between. Take all this advice with a pinch of salt, particularly when it's coming from people that haven't actually been to the country. 
Do your research; read travel guides, articles, books, have a look on the internet and talk to people you know that have travelled to the destination you are wanting to visit. Thorough research will help you to make the most of your trip and to stay safe. 

Most importantly, if you want to visit somewhere, and it is viable to go, MAKE IT HAPPEN, and don't let other people put you off somewhere you dream of going!

Have you heard any other tips, rumours, facts or fictions about travelling to Japan? We'd love to hear them! And if you have any questions about travelling to Japan, let us know!