Looking Ahead: Living On Less in Tokyo

Tokyo is not an inexpensive city to visit or reside in but over the years we’ve discovered that there are ways to keep costs down. Brett and I are going to be on a very tight budget during our three-month visit early next year because of the cost of our lodging, and also because of what we’re putting away each month for YaYu’s college expenses and the small amount that’s going into savings each month. By the time those three things are accounted for out of our net income, we will only have around $800/month left to cover our daily living expenses. We’ll be bringing all our frugal skills to bear in order to not overspend during the time we’re there, and I have to admit upfront it’s going to be a challenge.

Currently, there is a good exchange rate between the dollar and yen, and if it holds we should be OK. If the dollar starts dropping though we may run into trouble, or have to reduce expenses and what we put away into savings and for YaYu in order for us to make it in Japan.

Our housing costs in Japan are nearly a third again more per month than what we typically pay for lodging, but much, much less than what we’d pay through Airbnb in Tokyo. It’s shocking to see what teeny, tiny studios in the city are going for on Airbnb these days, so we feel very fortunate to be able to rent again from last year’s host. The monthly amount isn’t cheap but it covers not only rent but all utilities as well, and gives us the luxury of a nicely furnished one-bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen, a nice bathroom, and a washing machine. The apartment’s location is fantastic too – it’s in a great neighborhood just one subway stop from our son’s place and three stops away from Shibuya, a major Tokyo transportation and shopping hub.

Here’s the spending plan we’ve come up with for each month in order to stay within our $800/month budget:

  • Convert dollars to ¥80,000 each month (at the current rate, that’s less than $800, more around $750, but that could change). This will be divided and placed in envelopes that we’ll draw from as funds are needed.
  • ¥40,000 per month will be set aside for groceries. Besides rent, food will be our biggest expense in Japan. We aim to keep our food expenditures at or under ¥10,000 per week We spent around that much per week on our last visit, but that often included bakery visits and such which we plan to curtail this time. Before we left Japan last year we discovered a second supermarket (Seiyu) located near to us that has the same products but lower prices than the other market we had been using (Tokyu), and we’ve also learned of another discount store in Shibuya (Don Quixote’s) that we’re going to check out. We will be bringing along $400 in cash with us to use for commissary and exchange shopping trips as we’ll most likely do two of these during our three-month stay (our son loves his Diet Coke). We will get things like certain cuts of meat, coffee, dairy products, cereals, and American-style bread, items that are expensive and/or difficult to find in Japanese stores at the commissary. We also plan to buy a slow cooker not long after we arrive to increase our cooking options and will leave it with our DIL when we depart.
  • ¥12,000 per month will go toward transportation costs. We are going to load each of our PASMO cards (which are not only convenient but provide a small discount each time the card is used) with ¥6000 at the beginning of each month and hopefully, that will be enough to get us through 30 days. However, if we learned anything last year it’s that the balance on the card can drop surprisingly quickly so this amount may need to be adjusted. Our son will cover our transportation costs for picking up the grandkids from their schools which will help, and I will be starting out with nearly ¥1000 on my card leftover from earlier this year. 
  • ¥12,000 yen per month will be set aside for dining out every Friday evening. Eating out in Japan is something we have always enjoyed, and there are some things we like to eat that we just can’t make at home (like takoyaki (octopus dumplings), sushi, or handmade udon like we can get at the noodle restaurant down the street), and when our grandson comes for sleepovers we sometimes like to take him out for McDonald’s or KFC. Dining out for the two of us typically won’t be anywhere near ¥3000/meal, but a few places could be so ¥12,000 should be enough to cover these expenses each month. This budget should also work as an incentive to find sources for good food at low prices (and they are abundant in Japan).
  • ¥16000 yen each month will be for all other expenses, including occasional admission fees, occasional snacks, occasional trips to the local laundromat, and for emergency expenses. We plan to use Secret Tokyo extensively because every place listed in it is free, but of course, there will be transportation costs in getting to and from those places. One big expense we’re already planning is a day trip to Kamakura. We will take one of the free private walking tours but will have to pay for our guide’s lunch and our total round-trip transportation will be about ¥2600 – we are going to use the ¥4000 we received from YaYu to help cover these expenses and will set aside some of our extra each month for the rest. We’d also like to take a trip up to Nikko but are not sure if we can fit that into our slim budget.
“Don’t say kekko (fine) until you’ve seen Nikko.” We would love to visit this amazing World Heritage site again if we can afford it.

Sadly, for now, Brett has decided to forego calligraphy lessons during this stay. The tuition for weekly lessons plus the transportation costs for getting there and back (around ¥10,000 per month) are a luxury he feels we cannot afford this time. However, yen that is remaining at the end of the month will be rolled over until the next, which will mean a lower amount we have to convert for that month. If there’s enough left over out of our $800/budget I think the extra should go toward these lessons. We’ll see.

Our time Japan next year will be all about living a good, but frugal, life in an expensive place. Our goal is to find a path for getting more for less and discovering ideas and solutions that can be applied when visiting other expensive locations.

30 Terrific Travel Tips

(picture credit: blog.ted.com)

Often it’s the small things that can turn a good journey into a great one. During the last giveaway, I asked those who entered to post their favorite travel tips and they generously shared ones covering topics from health to packing to souvenirs.

Below are 30 great ways to make your next travel adventure even better. I’ve added a few of my own as well: 


  • If you love travel planning, great, but if not, travel with someone who does and then say “thank you.”

Staying Healthy:

  • Stay hydrated on long flights or train journeys by drinking lots of water and/or juice (tomato juice is a refreshing choice) and skipping caffeinated and alcoholic beverages (which can be dehydrating).
  • Swab Vaseline inside of your nose during a flight to avoid catching a cold from others
  • Wipe down everything around your seat you may touch with antibacterial wipes, and carry antibacterial gel for your hands after using the bathroom.
  • Don’t use the airplane-provided blanket or pillow; bring your own shawl for a coverup, and your own neck pillow. The airplane blanket or pillow can be placed in your seat for additional lumbar support.


  • Pack as lightly as you can, and travel with as little luggage as possible. Once you’ve put in everything you want to take, try to remove at least a third or more of it because that’s probably what isn’t needed and won’t get used.
  • Choose lightweight clothes that can be layered easily.
  • Choose quick-drying clothes if you won’t be staying where there are a washer and dryer.
  • Only pack a few small-size toiletries. Once at your destination assess what’s on hand and purchase more there if necessary.
  • Pack a clean, damp, inexpensive washcloth in a plastic bag into your purse or personal carry-on item. Upon arrival wash your face, hands, and neck – very soothing after a long flight!
  • The most important clothing item you take along is a comfortable pair of shoes.
  • Sturdy canvas shopping totes make great, lightweight personal carry-on bags. They’re easy to carry, fit under the seat in front during a flight, and can hold lots of items along with a purse. Plus, you have a reusable shopping bag when you arrive.


  • Your own photos make the best souvenirs. Take lots of pictures!
  • Purchase interesting postcards at your destination, then back home display in a basket where you can easily pull them out and remember your trip.
  • Purchase small but useful gifts and souvenirs: tea towels, earrings, kitchen utensils, coffee mugs, t-shirts, holiday ornaments, linens, scarves, lipsticks or other small cosmetics are lightweight and pack easily.
  • Small, packaged food items make great souvenirs and help you recreate the tastes of where you’ve been. Avoid larger jars or cans as they have to go inside checked luggage and can boost the weight.
  • Give children a set amount of spending money upfront to buy their own souvenirs or snacks with the understanding that a) they can’t ask you to buy them something, and b) when the money is gone, it’s gone. Children learn very quickly to think carefully about spending when they control their own money.


  • Carry along a cooler when you travel in a car or by train (from small to full-size, depending on the space available), or a small one with you on a plane to keep snacks, meals, or drinks cool and fresh.
  • Choose low-cost portable food (i.e. sandwiches or wraps) and add fruit or fresh vegetable for light, healthy meals – the variety is endless.
  • Save your loyalty program points to use at airport food purveyors for free or discounted meals so you don’t have to pay airport prices. 
  • Always try the chocolate wherever you go!

On the Road:

  • Pay careful attention to arrival times and make lodging arrangements accordingly. If your arrival time is early in the morning, you might not be able to check into your hotel until later in the afternoon and have to wander around with your luggage for several hours (not good if you’re exhausted). If you can’t book an afternoon arrival time, you can reserve lodging beginning the night before, and ask that your roomor  be held for you.
  • During your travel day, count your baggage and “toteables” after every stop or activity (i.e. stopping for coffee, using the restroom) to make sure nothing has been left behind.
  • Always bring along something to do in downtime, whether that’s reading, a game, knitting or crocheting. If you have to wait or have a long layover, it will make the time pass more quickly.
  • Have a plan, but be flexible. Stay calm, work with the unexpected if you have to, and accept you can’t control everything.
  • However, always have a Travel Plan B in case of an emergency, and an emergency fund to cover the unexpected.

On the ground:

  • For long-term travel, think about carrying small utensils and other practical items you can’t do without, things like a vegetable peeler or washcloths. A wireless charger is a good addition as well.
  • Don’t schedule every moment – give yourself room to be spontaneous.
  • It’s OK to have a bucket list of things to see and do on your journey but give yourself time to wander down a sidestreet or turn down an alleyway you keep passing or go into a shop that looks interesting. Try that unknown dish or food. Your curiosity will thank you.
  • Travel with a sense of wonder.

Any travel experience will be as good as you make it, and adding a few new tricks along with having a positive attitude can and will improve any journey.

Goodbye to Blockley

When Brett and I leave England tomorrow, a piece of each of our hearts will be left back in the Cotswolds, especially in our home for the past three months, the village of Blockley. 

I don’t think we could have picked a lovelier place to stay. Our cottage, located in the center of the village, has been cozy, quiet, and very comfortable, with a view of the Blockley Church each time we’ve stepped out our door. Although Blockley has been in existence since the 10th century and is currently the exterior location for the Father Brown series, it’s not a “destination spot” and hasn’t been overrun with tourists as other nearby locations have been at times. Set among pastures and farmland and with beautiful views on every side, two major footpaths, The Monarch’s Way and The Heart of England Way, pass through Blockley and gave us opportunities for short walks and longer hikes filled with breathtaking scenery. The local bus service stops a few times every day which has made it easy for us to get to other destinations in the area for shopping and sightseeing, but the village store offered just about everything we could need at reasonable prices when we didn’t feel like leaving town. We’ve been able to enjoy coffee, tea & scones, lunches and even a three-course gourmet dinner at the village cafe, and a couple of great meals at one of the village pubs. Blockley has a rich history and is full of wonderful old homes and buildings yet has never felt “quaint” – it’s a vibrant, living community with old buildings being remodeled and renovated, new construction continuing, and families moving in. Residents have been welcoming and friendly, often stopping for long chats, and several who were born and raised here have helped us understand the village’s past as well as its present. Blockley also has the most amazing selection of dogs we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting!

The photos below are ones I’ve posted while we’ve been here, but they’re my favorites, and each one is full of memories.

Goodbye Blockley . . . for now. We’ll be back!

What To Do, What To Do

Should we keep traveling or should we settle down? That’s the BIG question for the Occasional Nomads that we have been and are STILL discussing.

Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, which is why it’s become a neverending topic of conversation for Brett and me. How do we see our future unfolding? That changes frequently, sometimes from day to day. Have we had enough of all this moving around? Some days yes, some days no. Should we settle down? It sounds good for a while, then it doesn’t, then it does again, and so forth. Won’t we get restless if we stop?

It’s wonderful to have options and talk about them but at the same time, it’s beginning to get a bit confusing and even boring at times too. Thankfully it’s not something we ever argue about – we share similar concerns. However, we’ve been going back and forth about this for months now and have reached a point where we need to decide the direction this journey is going to take going forward and then get on with it.

The primary benefit of continuing our nomadic lifestyle is that our income can be devoted almost entirely to doing something we love: travel. We’re not paying for utilities, insurance, and home maintenance, and so forth – we pay for an Airbnb rental and all those other things are included. We also don’t have the expense of owning a car and all that goes along with that, or other expenses that come with staying in one place. We’re blessed with excellent medical insurance that covers us worldwide at no cost. By carefully selecting our rentals we’ve been able to enjoy a quality lifestyle and experience locations and life around the world that would have been difficult to impossible for us to do otherwise.

At the same time, our fund for transportation expenses is diminishing and we’re not able to replenish it now that we’re committed to contributing a not-insignificant amount each month to help YaYu with her college costs. Since we’ve also decided to upgrade our seats for longer flights, we’re eventually going to have to dip into other savings if we want to continue traveling before we’re able to start building it up again.

We’ve discovered along the way though that we don’t like staying in a place too long and begin feeling restless after a couple of months. This is the biggest concern and fear we have about settling down somewhere. One – to two-month stays seem to be the ideal for us, with three months in one place too long (except for Japan because of family there). On the other hand, we dislike short stays because of having to pack and move everything after a few days, and the go-go-go of it wears us out. Being Occasional Nomads versus Short-Term or Long-Term has turned out to be a very good fit for us.

Brett is more enthusiastic about settling down than I am, but we both like the idea of getting our mail sent directly to us, having a regular family doctor and dentist, getting our prescriptions renewed easily, and having a place with our own things where the family can gather. We like the idea of learning to live frugally in one place, from getting haircuts to buying groceries. However, when we think about possibly owning a car again or paying utilities or having a mortgage or keeping up with home maintenance, those sort of things immediately take the shine off of the idea. Having to acquire furniture and other household items once again leaves us cold. Weather, particularly cold weather, has become an issue for both of us as well and limits where we could or would want to settle. We’re not even sure at this point if we want to live in the U.S. anymore.

I’ve always been someone who likes to know what’s happening and see the path going forward. I like to have a plan. When Brett was in the navy and it was getting close to the time for a transfer, I would become an absolute nervous wreck as he waited for orders, wondering where the navy was going to send us next. The not knowing was hard for me because until we had those orders there was no way to plan anything or get ready to move again – we were in limbo. We have plans now for the next seven months, but if we’ve learned nothing else it’s that the time goes by very quickly these days and before we know it that those seven months are going to be over. It’s starting to feel now like it did when we were waiting for orders.

We still have a bit of time on our side, but by early next year a decision is going to have to be made, one we can commit to and make plans for. Our hope is that a compromise solution can be found, one that satisfies our love of travel but also gives us a chance to settle for a while. That, however, may be an impossible dream. We will be talking with our children in the next couple of months to get their feedback, ideas, and concerns, and will work toward figuring out the “big picture” of what our future could, would and maybe should be.

What to do, what to do?

A (Very) Short Visit to Bath

The Roman Baths and Pump Room

Our quick dash down to the city of Bath this week was over in less than 48 hours. We saw as much as we could during our stay, and Brett had a wonderful reunion with his former classmate. 

The city of Bath absolutely charmed us, and we left wishing we could have given ourselves a few more days there. We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and walked up to our Airbnb from the station, about 15 minutes away on foot. We checked in, dropped off our stuff and then headed right back out to visit the Circus and the Royal Crescent as both were only a short distance away. The sky was overcast and loaded with heavy clouds, but the rain was holding off and we wanted to see these places before it arrived. We crossed our fingers, took our umbrellas, and off we went.

One of the three curving terraces of The Circus. While the homes are identical in the front, from the back each is unique. I couldn’t even recognize the back as the same building!
The Royal Crescent was breathtaking! Like the Circus, the fronts of the terrace houses are identical and the backs of each are different.

Neither the Circus nor the Royal Crescent failed to impress – both were magnificent and thrilling to see. We walked along in front of two of the three terraces at The Circus and then turned for the Crescent. As it was growing darker we chose not to walk the full length in front of the Crescent but instead went down to the park to take in the full sweep of the building’s curve. I was thrilled to discover there was a ha-ha in the park! I have read about them for years and when I saw it I knew immediately what it was and why it was there.

The Royal Crescent ha-ha.

Just before it turned fully dark the clouds opened up so we turned back into the city to find a grocery store to pick up things for breakfast (orange juice and French pastries as it turned out) and maybe something for dinner. We didn’t see anything that appealed to us though so instead stopped at a little restaurant just down the street from our apartment that served all-day breakfast, and Brett enjoyed a plate of banana french toast and I ordered eggs benedict. The rain was really coming down by the time we finished so we dashed back to our apartment to get ready for a busy Wednesday.

Brett had arranged to meet his classmate, Chris, for coffee at 11:00 on Wednesday morning at a cafe/shop up near our apartment, so we got up early and headed down to the Roman Baths to be there when they opened at 9:30. The temperature was quite cold, but we could see a few patches of blue sky above, a good sign, we hoped. I had purchased our tickets online the night before in order to save a few pounds and speed things up, and we were first in line when the Baths opened. There were only a few other visitors there with us, so we practically had the place to ourselves and were able to take our time to see it all. I am fascinated with Roman ruins and these did not disappoint – it was thrilling to walk on the same pavement stones that Romans had used nearly 2000 years earlier. At the end of the tour we were able to taste the famous water, said to have healing powers. Considering all the sulfur, iron and other minerals in the water I was expecting it to taste fairly foul, but it wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed two cups of it before leaving (Brett passed though).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Following our visit to the Roman Baths we walked around the Bath Abbey (construction is being done inside so we didn’t go in) and then headed over to find Sally Lunn’s, home of the eponymous Sally Lunn Bath Bun, a brioche-type bread brought to Bath from France by Ms. Lunn in the late 17th century. Sally Lunn’s is now a restaurant, but it is located in the oldest house in Bath and there is a small museum in the basement. We skipped the restaurant but checked out the museum and purchased a Sally Lunn Bun to eat later in the day.

Bath Abbey sits adjacent to the Roman Baths.
Side view of the Abbey.
The Cotswolds Way, a 100-mile path from Chipping Campden, ends (or begins) in front of the Abbey.
Sally Lunn’s sits on top of Roman, Saxon and Norman ruins. The layers of these ruins can be viewed in the museum in the basement.

The reunion with Chris couldn’t have been nicer, and we also had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know his wife, Jane. We started out over cappuccinos, then took a bit of a walk, stopping into a lovely little bookstore along the way where I bought a travel book called Secret Tokyo, filled with quirky and unusual places to visit for free in that city. From the bookshop, we walked to the Holburne Museum to have lunch in their cafe. I don’t think the four of us ever stopped talking – Chris and Jane felt like old friends we hadn’t seen for a long time. After lunch we headed back down to the Roman Baths where we said our goodbyes so that Brett and I could start a free walking tour of the city.

Chris and Jane – it was grand getting to spend time with them!

The walking tours given by the Mayor’s Guides are free and absolutely no tipping is allowed. Our group had only seven members, and we had a great guide who covered the history of the city from the Baths to the Abbey to the distinctive Georgian architecture. We stayed with the tour until we got to the Circus, but since we had already visited there and the Royal Crescent the day before we said thank you and goodbye then and walked back to visit the Assembly Rooms before they closed (groups had not been allowed in that day). When we came back out it was raining again, and as we had walked over four miles and nearly 12,000 steps at that point we decided to call it a day.

We crossed Pulteney Bridge (completed in 1774) on our way back from lunch and had no idea we were on a bridge – there’s no arch in the center and the sides of the bridge are lined with shops like a regular street. The lovely three-tiered oval weir in the river was designed to keep water flow to the center to reduce bank erosion.

The Assembly Rooms opened in 1771 and were a hub for high Georgian society in Bath – Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were among those who attended balls and other functions at the Assembly Rooms when they visited the city. The chandeliers were made by Whitefriars of London and are original to the Rooms, installed for the 18th-century opening. Their insurance value today ranges from £150 million to £300 million each although they are of course irreplaceable.

We still felt full from lunch in the evening and decided to just have our Sally Lunn Bun(s) for dinner. We thought the box would contain four small buns, so were quite surprised to find just one HUGE one inside. It was about the size of a personal watermelon but light as a feather. Our guide at the museum had told us the buns are traditionally sliced in half, toasted and served with butter so that’s how we ate ours. Brett and I each had half of the bun and it was plenty for the both of us (and plenty tasty too).

We were shocked by the size of our Sally Lunn bun – it was massive but very, very light.
Toasted and buttered and ready to eat. For size reference, the halves are sitting on salad plates.

Sadly, our Airbnb in Bath was a disappointment. All of the Airbnbs we have stayed in have been lovely, well-kept places but this apartment was shabby, complete with worn, stained carpet, dirty windows, and mismatched, damaged, thrift store furniture. The host met us at the apartment when we arrived, gave us the keys and two rolls of toilet paper and then quickly departed telling us nothing about how things operated. We about froze the first evening until Brett eventually figured out how to turn on the heat. The apartment also wasn’t what we would call spotlessly clean – clean-ish was more like it. Thankfully the bed had crisp, clean sheets but it was the most uncomfortable bed we’ve experienced on our travels. We both slept poorly and I woke up each morning with a sore back. It did have one redeeming feature though, a superb location in the city near to shopping, dining, and sightseeing. Still, if we had been there longer than two nights we might have found somewhere else to stay.

We woke up Thursday morning to sunshine and cloud-free blue skies, feeling ready to get out of the apartment but sad to leave because there was still so much of Bath we wanted to explore. We had a quick cup of coffee with our pastries and were out the door a little after 9:00, even though our train didn’t leave until nearly 10:43. That was another thing that had gone a bit wrong for us – I had booked the 9:43 train to get us back to Moreton-in-Marsh in time to catch the bus back to the Blockley, but when I downloaded our tickets they were for the 10:43 train (along with a different itinerary). The new schedule got us into Moreton 30 minutes after the bus to Blockley had departed and with another two hours to go before the next one so we ended up having to pay for a taxi to get back to the cottage. And, to add a bit more insult to injury, I had also reserved forward-facing seats both coming and going, but our assigned seats were all rear-facing.

We are glad to be back “home” and looking forward to resting up this weekend and then enjoying our last two full weeks in Blockley. Our recent trips to Edinburgh, London, Oxford and now Bath have made us realize that while we were happy to have been able to visit these places, we really don’t care for the frenzy of short visits anymore and prefer to stay somewhere long enough to discover and enjoy a place at our leisure. While we’ve loved seeing what we could in these cities, the short, hurried trips left us feeling exhausted and unsatisfied because of all that we missed. But, you go with the schedule you have, not the one you wished you had.

Closing Out the Books for October 2019

Our souvenirs from Oxford: Brett got a Cheshire Cat mug (one of his all-time favorite literary characters) and I got a plastic-free reusable/sustainable travel cup in the Japanese “octopus” pattern at the Ashmolean Museum (the silicone top and sleeve and can be used on other cups). Both were purchased using a coupon, and cost less than £10 ($13).

We tried.

We tried very hard to stay at or under our Daily Spending Average this month, but between our visit to Edinburgh and our time in London and Oxford with YaYu, October ended up being an expensive month for us and we are ending October with our DSA at $45.08. That’s $10/day over budget or $310 this month. Ouch.

We did a bit of traveling this past month, and we did buy a few things. Brett and I each got a cashmere scarf in Edinburgh (discounted because we bought two), and we also bought some shortbread and a bottle of gin when we toured the Edinburgh distillery. We ate out only once a day, nothing fancy, but otherwise, all meals were eaten at our apartment. We bought nothing in London other than three Oyster cards for transportation (£40/$52 each) and ate just one meal out a day while we were there as well. Even though we chose affordable places to eat (for London, that is), it was still expensive, usually in the $75+ range for the three of us. In Oxford, we walked everywhere, ate one meal out (full tea at the Randolph Hotel) and Brett and I stopped for coffee and cake at a cafe after YaYu departed. Brett and I also bought ourselves a coffee mug while we were there, our preferred souvenir these days. Along with the small rabbit pillow we got for YaYu (less than $25) before she arrived, it didn’t seem like much but it all added up and here we are.

We spent £43.50 ($55) on this week’s groceries, enough to get us through until we return from our trip to Bath next week. That amount also included a few more items not shown because they will be used later for gifts.

We are finding food costs, if bought in a store like Aldi or Tesco, to be very affordable, much less than we paid in Portland last summer. We average around $50/week on food, with our monthly grocery store expenses less than $300 (our food budget is $450/month). However, everything else seems to cost much more here. Our round-trip bus ride over to Moreton-in-Marsh every week is £9 ($11.50), nearly triple the cost of a similar ride in Portland, and that’s after getting a discount because we buy a round trip ticket. A cup of tea and scones costs approximately $10 per person but we’ve learned to get a plate of two scones and share a pot of tea to save on that expense. We don’t do that very often though, maybe twice a month, and consider it a British experience we couldn’t do elsewhere. The different gins we are enjoying are also something unique to being in Britain. We’ve bought four bottles here of specialty gins, costing us about $180 total, but those have and will last through our entire three-month stay. They’ve been an absolutely delicious treat and we have no regrets (and we’ll go back to drinking cheap wine after we leave).

Anyway, we’ll keep trying and hope for a better result next month. We’re not quite sure where to make changes or cut back at this point. Brett tracks everything we spend, every day, and we think carefully about each purchase we make. We had several no-spend days in October and we’ll try to increase the number of those. Maybe $35/day is unrealistic, especially in an expensive country like England (and Japan) and perhaps we need to adjust the amount we’re putting away for YaYu’s college costs. We’ll see how November goes because December is also going to be an expensive month when we have all the girls with us for nearly a month.

In Praise of Walking Tours

Walking tours go on rain or shine!

When I know we’ll be in a location for only a few days like we were in Edinburgh, London or Oxford, the first thing I look into is whether there are any walking tours that might pique our interest, and give us a different or deeper look into the place we’re visiting. In Edinburgh, we took three tours: one that focused on the city’s medical past, another that looked at the dark side of the city, and one that dug a little deeper into the Old Town’s history. In London, a walking tour gave us a fun and closer look at the neighborhood of Notting Hill, where we learned all sorts of interesting things about the area’s history, who had lived there, or what was going on there now.

With only a day for a visit to Oxford, the walking tour we booked through the city’s Visitor Information Center took us to places we wouldn’t have known to visit or gotten into otherwise, and we also received in-depth and fascinating information about the university and its history including how many colleges are included (38), its libraries (12 million books and counting), acceptance rates, how classes are taught, where and how students live while attending, how meals are taken, and the college’s extensive wine collection (which students can enjoy at low prices). We learned about famous people who had attended Oxford and which colleges they had attended as well as visited sites where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The pictures below are part of what we saw in our two-hour tour, most of which we’d have never figured out on our own, at least not in a day:

We’ve done guided walking tours in Buenos Aires, Paris, Rome, Edinburgh, London and Oxford, and self-guided tours in Strasbourg, Lucerne, Bordeaux, and Florence. Most every city we’ve visited has offered free guided walking tours and throughout our travels we have toggled between those and ones purchased either through Airbnb Experiences or local visitor centers. In some places, free tours can be offered through local volunteer groups as well. We had a free, custom tour of the Montmarte neighborhood in Paris arranged through Paris Greeters, and have used free local guides in Kamakura, Japan, for private tours as well. Our biggest issue with some of the larger free tours is that they can be too general, and the size of the groups that congregate for the tour can sometimes be 20 (or more) people, making it difficult to keep up with the group and/or hear the guide. These tours often also count on tips received from tour members at the end, so they’re not really free unless you stiff the guide. Tours booked for a fee typically are small-group, with no more than 10-12 people maximum, and a few times we’ve ended up getting a private tour or going with just one other couple. We have tipped on those if we’ve had an exceptional time, but usually, it’s not required nor expected.

Choosing tours is one of my travel tasks, and the first thing I do when looking for a walking tour is to read lots of descriptions to see if any tours sound interesting and like something we would enjoy. Once I’ve gotten two or three tours picked out I go on and read lots and lots and lots of reviews. Airbnb tours are rated on a five-star system, so I look for tours that have received high scores and have been taken by more than a few people. I also read tour reviews on TripAdvisor and other travel sites. A tour’s price is also a consideration – I’m not looking for the cheapest tours out there, but neither do I want the most expensive. Our three tours in Edinburgh cost the two of us $92 in total and ranged in price from $13 to $19 per person, but we could have done similar tours that cost more. I always check to see if a senior discount is offered as well; we did receive a nice one for the Oxford walking tour (along with a student discount for YaYu). Tours generally last anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes, although we did a three-hour one in Rome, and the distance covered in that time can be up to three miles or more. Comfortable shoes are a must!

The venerable Randolph Hotel was our Oxford guide’s suggestion for afternoon tea . . .

. . . and the setting, service, and food did not disappoint!

Suggestions from our guides about other places to see or eat or shop are also some of the best things we’ve taken away from the walking tours we’ve done. All of our guides have been locals with deep knowledge and love of their city, and they’ve always been eager to share what they know if we ask.

We don’t always use them but have found walking tours a terrific way to explore a city if our time is limited or we want a more in-depth or unusual look at a city’s history. Whether free or for a fee, we’ve found these tours to be a good travel investment and one of the first things we investigate before traveling to a new city.

An Autumn Day in Blockley

Two massive stone pillars mark the entrance to the road leading to the village’s former silk mills.

Although the weather was for the most part miserable (i.e. cold, windy, and rainy) during our daughter YaYu’s visit to England, we did get to enjoy one absolutely glorious day while we were back in our village of Blockley. We made the most of it by taking a long walk with her through the village and out into the countryside. Even after a month and a half here, Brett and I have learned there are discoveries to be made in the village yet, and the countryside views still have the power to take our breath away. Fall is finally making its appearance although there is still plenty of green around, courtesy of all the rain the area has recently received.

The vines covering our cottage have turned a vibrant red. Subsequent storms, however, have begun stripping the leaves off the vines and the walls may be naked by the time we depart.

Located on the high street is the second of two banks that used to operate in the village (the other was directly across the square from our cottage). We’ve been told that in the past residents never had to leave the village to find what they needed.

Little alleys and openings occur now and then along the high street, leading to back doors, back yards and sometimes other residences.

Leaves are dropping everywhere, but a few flowers still remain and the buildings continue to enchant and invite one to imagine life in Blockley back in the day.

The village bath house was where residents could both bathe and/or do their washing. Like many other buildings, it’s been converted into a holiday residence.

Located near the town square, the ground floor of this building was the village coach house, and the upstairs held a boys’ school, opened in the 18th century. There are now residences on both floors.

Glorious fall color on the village green.

The Blockley skyline. The church bell tower is visible from almost everywhere you go in the village.

The fields outside of the village are green thanks to all the recent rain. On our trip back to the Cotswolds from London, we noticed that many fields had been flooded from rainstorms that occurred in this area while we were away.

Our walking path took us through pastures, which required us to climb over a couple of stiles to continue. They are always awkward.

Beautiful fall views were our reward during our walk. There was also quite a bit of mud!

If a half-million dollars (or more, haha) ever fell into our laps, Brett and I have decided that we’d buy a cottage here in Blockley and spend half of each year in this beautiful little village. We’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with this place!

London Calling

Near-constant rain was the backdrop of our London visit.

When we set out last Friday for London I wasn’t sure how I felt about going. I was excited about getting to see YaYu and spending time with her but also was somewhat dreading the logistics of navigating a new-to-us (very) large city, albeit an exciting one filled with lots to see and the potential for adventure.

On our way to London – that big cloud followed us the whole way.

Rain was the signature feature of our travel day. It was raining when we left Blockley and rained the entire way to London, with us getting soaked at the stations where we made transfers. We arrived on time though, and once we got to our hotel had a light dinner and went to bed early as we needed to be at Heathrow at 7:00 a.m. to meet YaYu’s flight. We almost arrived late for that though – we ordered a taxi in the morning and were told it would arrive at the hotel in approximately 10 minutes so we went back up to our room to get our bags. When we came back down another couple was finishing loading their bags into OUR taxi and off they went! So, a new taxi had to be called but it took its time getting to the hotel. We finally made it to Heathrow, went running to the arrival gate and just a couple of minutes later out came YaYu!

Our London Airbnb apartment was in the back attic of this terraced home.

From the airport we headed over to our Airbnb rental to drop off our bags – our host happened to be home that morning and said it was fine for us to check-in early. Our loft apartment, located in the attic of an older terraced home, was clean and modern, with a comfortable sofa bed for YaYu in the living room. It was a good thing though that YaYu and Brett can sleep through anything, and I was extremely thankful I had thought to bring earplugs along with me because one of the first things we noticed was that jets into Heathrow were coming in right over the house (apparently this happens only once or twice a year – lucky us).

And, just because I like to keep things interesting, on the way out of the station on the way to the house I had caught my foot on the steps and fell, jamming the big toe on my right foot (but otherwise OK). The pain was excruciating, but thankfully I could still walk.

After getting our bags put away, we set out for our afternoon walking tour in Notting Hill. It took a longer time than expected to get to our destination – our trip by bus and train there took nearly two hours because the double-decker bus from our location to the underground station was slowed down by road construction as well as being crowded and needing to make frequent stops.

One of the many interesting places we stopped at in Notting Hill. This regular-looking building is actually a very, very private hotel favored by celebrities. In September 1970 Jimi Hendrix overdosed on sleeping medication and died in the room under the window and behind the plants.

Arundel Lane in Notting Hill had the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed street in London during WWII. It was rebuilt after the war to look just as it did before its destruction.

We arrived on time in Notting Hill with minutes to spare, found our meeting place, and soon set off on what turned out to be a fun and very interesting two-hour tour. Our group was small (only eight of us) but the guide really knew the neighborhood and its history, and told interesting stories and showed the group where several celebrities had lived or currently owned homes, or where famous events had taken place. It rained steadily during the entire tour, but it was so interesting the time flew by. After finishing we went back to a small restaurant our guide had pointed out along the tour, Mike’s Cafe, which had recently been voted as having the best breakfast in London, and had a great (and affordable, for London) late lunch/early dinner there. Across the street was a gourmet doughnut shop filled with decadent choices, and we each chose one for our next morning’s breakfast. We arrived back to our apartment that evening feeling extremely tired – we had walked five miles that day! My toe was screaming, and when I finally got a look at it, it was double in size and sporting a huge, deep purple bruise, not a good sign.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Little did we know when we got up on Sunday that we would be calling on all of our resourcefulness and ingenuity to get ourselves where we needed to be. We had tickets to visit the Tower of London, but getting there wasn’t going to be easy in the least. There was a large eco-demonstration going on in the city and the two train lines that would get us to the Tower were closed down (one for scheduled maintenance, it turned out). We made it as far as Covent Garden, London’s theater district, and then had to find a bus. Locating the bus stop however turned out to be a major challenge because so many streets were shut down by the demonstration. There were police stationed all over though and one finally helped us find the stop we needed. We had a long, long wait for the bus, under a big theater marquee, but eventually the bus showed up and off we went . . . or so we thought. Twice the bus made stops where everyone had to get off and climb on another bus! We eventually made it to the Tower, but the journey had taken us nearly three hours!

We spent a couple of hours exploring the Tower, including viewing the Crown Jewels (which were spectacular), then walked over to see the famous Tower Bridge. The rain was light when it did appear but mostly the day was only windy and cold. At the Tower Bridge Pier we caught a boat and took a wonderful ride down the Thames to Westminster Pier, enjoying views along the way of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and several other famous buildings. At Westminster Pier we sadly discovered Big Ben and many of the Parliament buildings were shrouded for major conservation work, so we didn’t hang around and instead walked over to Westminster Abbey. It was closed at the time we were there, but we enjoyed walking around the exterior and talking about the events we knew of that had occurred there (weddings, funerals, etc.). The Abbey was much larger than we thought; however, YaYu said that everything else we had seen was smaller than she had imagined, including the London Eye and Big Ben.

We had initially not planned on seeing Buckingham Palace but since we were so close we thought we should walk over and check it out before stopping for another late lunch/early dinner. From the Palace we walked over to Victoria Station Plaza to have another late lunch/early dinner at Wagamama and make a quick stop in Marks & Spencer for a few supplies. When we stepped outside after eating the first thing we noticed were blue skies and sunshine, giving us hope our final day in London might end up being a good one. Trains were running from Victoria Station so we had a fairly quick and easy trip getting back to our apartment. Once back we discovered we had walked five and a half miles that day – it was no wonder we all felt so tired! Thankfully when I woke up that morning the swelling in my toe had gone down and the pain had decreased as well so I had a better experience getting around than I thought I would.

My dinner selection at Wagamama, chicken & shrimp pad thai, was a risky choice – the last time I’d had it I broke my tooth. No problems this time though and it was delicious.

Westminster Cathedral (Catholic), across from Victoria Station. Sadly the blue skies and sunshine didn’t last long.

Because our behind-the-scenes tour on Monday for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace had been canceled (there was an official state event that day – the Queen went to Parliament to make a speech), we slept in a bit on Monday morning but woke to heavy rain (again) and howling winds. We also felt more tired than we imagined we would, and decided not to push ourselves to go out again but instead spend the day together resting up for our trip back to the Cotswolds the next day. We eventually got bored though and rode the bus down to a big commercial area next to the nearest train station, and got a few more things at Marks & Spencer and had dinner at an interesting and inexpensive fast food noodle shop. I had initially been disappointed that our tour that morning had been canceled, but we all ended up feeling thankful because the weather was not fit for anyone or anything to be out in. We came home from dinner, packed our bags for the next morning’s departure and enjoyed some hot chocolate and watched some TV.

This is the main reason I visit Marks & Spencer! Best. Cereal. Ever.

After three days in London we were eager to get back to the more quiet pace of our little Cotswolds village. I’m not sure our short time in London was enough to form any kind of honest opinion about the city, and while we enjoyed our Notting Hill tour and the sights we visited on Sunday, we mostly felt overwhelmed by the transportation issues, crowds, and exhaustion (and in my case, a foot injury). The miserable weather added to the feelings of too much in a strange city. However, we absolutely loved the diversity we encountered there, all the languages we heard spoken, the variety of ethnic restaurants and shops, and the kindness of almost all the people we met or encountered during our visit.

We’re off tomorrow morning to visit Oxford. We’re booked on a walking tour in the early afternoon, and then plan to stop at a pottery studio and store I have long wanted to visit before going to our B&B. On Friday morning we’ll tour the Ashmolean Museum before getting YaYu over to the station to catch the bust to Heathrow for her flight back to the U.S.

In Search of Thatched Cottages

As we arrived in Broad Campden, a thatched roof could be spotted on the right.

Before coming to England and spending time in Blockley nothing said “English country village” to me more than a thatched cottage. While there appears to be none in our village, we did spot a few of these cottages as we passed through the village of Broad Campden on our way to Chipping Campden a few weeks ago, so when we finally got a break in the weather this past week we headed over to check them out.

Although it is possible to walk from Blockley to Broad Campden via the Heart of England Way, because of all the recent rain there had been (and the resulting mud) we chose to go over to the village by bus, and then take a shorter walk between the two Campdens, and catch the bus home from Chipping Campden. If we’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks it’s that the weather can change quickly here – a sunny day can suddenly turn cloudy, cold and rainy in a matter of a few minutes, and vice versa and we did not want to get stuck if rain appeared again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Broad Campden was an absolutely beautiful little village full of pretty homes and cottages, a small but lovely church, and a Quaker meeting house that’s been used since the mid-17th century. As my father and his family were/are Quakers, I was especially interested in seeing this place. Other than one pub, there are no other businesses in the village. We spent approximately an hour after we arrived walking through the village.

And yes, we did discover thatched cottages, several of them. All of them appeared to have been plucked from a storybook.

At noon we headed to Baker’s Arms pub for lunch. The pub has been operating since the 17th century and is one of the local pubs our host recommended we try. Brett ordered a tuna sandwich on whole-grain bread for his lunch, while I chose a traditional ploughman’s lunch, with ham, cheddar, beets, Branston pickle, pickled onions, salad, and bread. The lunch was once again huge, much more than I expected, and I did my best to finish as much as I could.

The Baker’s Arms sits in the middle of Broad Campden.

The pub has been open since the 17th century. Interior pub scenes in the Father Brown series are filmed here.

My ploughman’s lunch was extremely generous

As we finished up our lunches we looked out the window and noticed that what was blue sky when we arrived was now dark, heavy, and clouded and the wind had picked up. We quickly settled our bill and set out for Chipping Campden, hoping we could make it before rain arrived.

The Heart of England Way left Broad Campden on a small path squeezed between cottages.

On the way out of the village we passed a pasture with freshly shorn sheep . . .

. . . and then headed out across some fields to Chipping Campden, with rain threatening the entire way.

Thankfully, the clouds blew over and the sun returned by the time we arrived in town to catch our bus back to Blockley.

As we started over the fields the clouds began to spit on us, and we were sure we were going to end up arriving in Chipping Campden soaked to the skin. But, the clouds blew past us and by the time we arrived in town the sun was back out again, ending what was a lovely outing on a high note.