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Neutral Patio Decor

Initially, I bought pillows to coordinate with the fabric of the outdoor sofa. A little back story on the outdoor sofa: we moved from North Dakota where Colter (our dog) lived inside. He liked to lay on the sofa and in an attempt to successfully transition him to an outside dog, I decided that he needed an outdoor sofa. My mom took me to a discount fabric store where we found some outdoor fabric and foam and someone to make a bench seat and pillow covers. Matt made the sofa based on the bench cushion dimensions.

Last year, I started ignoring the brightly colored sofa cushions and bought orange decor for fall and red and green decor for Christmas. The back door was an eye soar and originally planned to replace it but I eventually chose the cheaper option: paint. The front door is black so I decided to paint the back door black too. I sanded and scraped and painted the frame and the door. Matt installed new hinges and weather stripping.


In addition to my new black door, I had a black and cream pillow that my mom purchased for me when we first moved in so I decided to carry the black and cream/white palette to the rest of the patio. That included painting a concrete urn that was at the house when we moved in and I also painted my old burgundy pot. The bottom of the cage lanterns were copper colored but while I was spray painting everything else, I decided to paint them black too.

If you are looking for outdoor lanterns without glass, good luck. These are the only ones I could find. The lanterns from Pottery Barn are actually less expensive than the similarly styled Smith and Hawken lanterns from Target. I am sure the glass on an outdoor lantern is pretty tough but this is the dog’s patio where we play fetch and run around on a regular basis. My aim is not too good and like me, my dog is a bit clumsy so it is best that we avoid anything with glass out there. All of these glass-less lanterns also use battery powered outdoor candles.

I found the inexpensive cream and black pillow covers on Amazon. I brought back the tic-tac-toe board that my aunt made. I put the Christmas cactus that my other aunt gave me in a white pot on the table.

I finally got some lights and found a plug with remote on Amazon so I can easily turn them on and off. They are pretty bright and I wish I had purchased the plug with dimmer capabilities. I also picked up one more ottoman pouf.

I am liking all these lanterns and the neutral decor. I brought back the dragonfly flag, which will probably stay till fall.

Now I just need a black and white umbrella for the lounge chairs by the pool.



Jinan, China

This was my husbands third trip to Jinan, China. The university he works at has an exchange program with Shandong Jianzhu University. Professors go to teach during the summer and winter semesters and undergraduate and graduate students can participate in student exchange programs to attend classes overseas. Professors and students from Shandong Jianzhu University gave us tours of the campus of Shandong Jianzhu University, the Shandong Museum, Baotu Spring, a horse racing park, Lingyan Temple, (Buddhist temple), and places around the city.

Shandong Jianzhu University

Shandong Museum

Traveling around Jinan without native speakers and a driver would have been difficult. Jinan is an ancient city with a large population but not a lot of people speak English and my husband and I only know about 5 words/phrases in Mandarin. It was very neat to see such an old city. The people there were very nice and the university professors and students take hosting guests very seriously. They bought us gifts, food, and souvenirs. It is an interesting city and I look forward to my next visit.

Baotu Spring

Top Three Tips For Touring Japan

I covered a lot of topics in my Planning A Trip Overseas post. Obviously, your itinerary and activities will determine what you chose to bring with you to Japan. I prefer to be over-prepared and in some ways I was (there were a few phone applications I downloaded that I never used) but for the most part I was perfectly prepared. These are a few things that will make navigating Japan much easier.

Here are my top three essentials for traveling Japan.



The majority of the time you will be walking or using public transportation. We decided against the JR Pass which seems like a really convenient way to travel around Japan. However, it is really expensive ($263/person for an ordinary 7-day pass) and based on our calculations, we were not planning and actually did not average $36/each a day in transportation expenses. Public transportation is really convenient and inexpensive. We used our Pasmo IC Card throughout Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. When we arrived at Haneda Airport we went to the Pasmo booth (there are also kiosks) to purchase our cards. There was a minimum amount of $30 already on the card, $25 for use and $5 deposit (once you returned your card you received the $5 deposit back). We only had to reload our Pasmo once or twice and we kept them as souvenirs. You can also use your Pasmo at convenient stores. Click here for more information on how to use your Pasmo.

We did have to pay for separate tickets ($130 each) to ride the Shinkansen from Hakone to Kyoto. Total transportation cost for two people using a Pasmo and buying two Shinkansen tickets was approximately $360 versus buying two JR Passes $526 and still having to buy additional tickets because Japan Railways does not own all the transportation systems throughout Japan and therefore the JR Pass does not work on all transportation systems you may potentially need to use.


If you are going to Hakone, first I suggest giving yourself more than just one full day there because there is a lot to see, and second, I suggest getting the Hakone Pass. The Hakone Pass allows you to use all modes of transportation throughout Hakone. It provides unlimited use of Odakyu-affiliated buses, trains, boats, cablecars, and ropeways in in the Hakone area and discounted admission to selected tourist attractions on two or three consecutive days. Optionally, the pass also includes a discounted round trip from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. We bought ours at Odawara Station on the way to Hakone from Tokyo. At Odawara Station each 2-day pass costs about $36.14. If you bought your pass at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station it is $45.17.

Total transportation cost for two people using a Pasmo, buying two Shinkansen tickets, and two Hakone passes was approximately $432.28, which was still less than just the JR pass and the additional tickets you would have to buy even if you bought the JR pass.

We took a cab one time from our hotel in Hakone to the Odawara train station which costs about $10. This cost was not included in the transportation total because it was private transportation. We climbed the 2 mile hill to get to the hotel with all our luggage, so we decided to treat ourselves and avoid descending the hill with all our luggage.


The best decision I have ever made was renting a Pocket Wifi. Free Wifi access is still rare in parts of Japan. With a pocket wifi you can easily navigate Japan and use all your phone applications, including accessing emails and iMessages. All the hotels we stayed at provided free wifi but once we left our hotel for the day, we carried our pocket wifi in one of our backpacks or in my purse at all times.

We rented our pocket wifi for seven days and had it delivered to our hotel. You can also have it delivered to the airport which is what we may do next time because getting to our hotel from the airport would have been easier if we had already had the pocket wifi. The pocket wifi provided us both with unlimited internet access and at the end of our trip we used the prepaid envelope included with our order to return the pocket wifi by dropping the envelope into a Japanese postal box at the Kansai airport. You can drop it in any Japanese postal box.

Because I had the pocket wifi I could easily access digital copies of my itineraries, agenda and maps, hotel and flight information, bus and train routes, as well as city maps I had stored using the Documents application. The Documents application is free and allows you to sync your typed itinerary and maps you find online to your phone for easy access. I used this application a lot because I did not feel like constantly pulling out paper copies of my itinerary and other travel information.

I did not use the Google Translate application until I got to China but it is a nice applicaiton to have if you remember to use it. However, as I previously mentioned, most people I encountered spoke English.

If you do not have an iPhone that allows you to use iMessage, you can download Viber for free. If you have wifi, you can message people phone to phone so ask whoever you may need or want to talk to download the Viber app as well. It’s free and nicer than emailing back and forth.

I also bought the GPS My City application for $5 which you can use for directions to sights as well as the ability to create your own itinerary and map out your routes around the city. I never used that application.

I also downloaded a unit conversion calculator which made converting currency, length, speed, temperature, and mileage easy.


We stayed on budget and part of the reason we did is because we only took a certain amount of cash. We took our credit cards in case of an emergency. We contacted our credit card company (like us, you may be able to login to your online account) to authorize usage outside of the country but we never needed to use our credit cards.

Thankfully the Yen to USD conversion is really easy. Because 100 Yen is equivalent to $0.90 anytime I saw the amount in Yen, I could easily round up, so if something was 300 Yen I knew it was about $3.00. We traveled with about $1700 cash and spent $1615.15. The exchange rate changes depending on where you are but we also only wanted to convert our dollars to Yen as we needed. We wanted to convert a large portion of USD to Yen while we were still in the United States. The first time was at the Minneapolis airport, converting $915.15. The second time at Kyoto Station, we converted $500 and the third time we converted $200 at Osaka Station.

What you may not realize is that Japan really isn’t that expensive. I am not aware of the cost of living in Japan but as far as food, clothing, and transportation, Japan is very similar to most of American cities. They do have luxury brands (the same brands you will find in America) but every-day brands and items will not break the bank. Typical hotel accommodations are also not really expensive. Again there are luxury hotels and luxury suites but the average person looking for a normal room will find reasonable rates.

You will also find that Japan (at least Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Osaka) is very clean. It is a crowded but the people are incredibly polite, respectful, and friendly. Strangers came to our aid even when we did not realize we needed it (citizens and train station employees informing us we were on or getting on the wrong train). Customer service is like nothing you have ever experienced in the United States. Employees of every restaurant, retail store, train station, and hotel were amazingly hardworking, friendly, and kind. I never once encountered a person with an entitled or rude attitude. Everyone seemed to take pride in their work regardless of their particular job.

Japan is an amazing place and if you ever get the chance to visit, you should definitely go.