Some of the Best Board Games Fit for Travel

I like games and I travel a lot. While I often have either my Nintendo Switch or 3DS with me, I also enjoy playing games offline whenever I can. You know, analog! It’s more personal. It gets the family together. You can talk to other humans. Have some fun! But great games like Ticket to Ride or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong will never find their way into my travel bag — they are just too large and the boxes might get crushed. So what games do travel well? Here’s my list of games that I recommend for travel. There are many lists like this… but this one is mine.

Note, this post contains links to the games mentioned. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Hive Pocket

Photo of Hive Pocket
Hive Pocket by the pool. Raisin box for scale.

Hive Pocket is frequently mentioned in discussions about games that travel well. Here’s why. It’s so small it can actually fit in a large pocket — a cargo pant pocket if you will. The pieces are bakelite making them near indestructible and easily cleaned. There is no board — the game just uses its pieces. Finally, the game is great and is one of my personal all-time favorites. If you like games that are like chess, i.e., one vs one, no luck, and have pieces that have unique movements, then you’ll probably like Hive.

Yeah but what is the game about?

Expected you to google that! But thanks for sticking with me. The short and skinny of Hive is that each player has the same set of insect tiles. On your turn you will either place a new one, or move one that is already in play. Each type of bug moves differently. Unlike chess, pieces never leave the field once placed. To win the game you must completely surround your opponent’s Queen Bee piece. Hive is a very thinky game that can play as quickly or as slowly as you please. On average, I would say games take about 15-25 minutes.

But Hive can’t be perfectgive me the straight story.

OK fine. Here’s what to watch out for. As Hive is a no-luck game, if you’re playing against the same opponent over and over again eventually one of you will likely emerge as the better player. Being a no-luck game like chess, it will be nearly impossible for the weaker player to win. Some people might not like that, but here are a couple of Hive house rules you can use to adjust the game to fit players of different skill levels.

House Rule Hive to Support Different Skill Levels

Blind draw: Have the stronger player turn all of their pieces upside down except for the Queen Bee. When they choose to place a piece on their turn, instead of picking which piece they want to place, they must instead randomly select one of the face down pieces, look at it, and then place it.

Fewer Ants: Ants are clearly a strong piece in Hive. By default each player has three. To balance the game, give the stronger player fewer ants.

Blind draw and fewer Ants: Combine the previous two house rules! I have used this method to play Hive with my elementary school aged kid to even things out.

Sprawlopolis

Sprawlopolis
We actually managed to win this one… Haven’t won much since.

Sprawlopolis can be purchased at ButtonShyGames.com and is in their line of 16-card micro games. This is a cooperative city building game that can be played solo or with another player. Basically, you’ll look at your card options and choose a card to add to the city. Cards can overlap as you place them, leading to countless (at least feels like it anyway) possibilities. If you want to actually figure out the optimal place to play each turn, your brain will melt out of your ears. Analysis paralysis to the max. Your goal is to score points in a variety of goal categories that change each time you play. It’s an amazing design accomplishment for such a small package!

Take 5 (AKA 6 Nimmt)

Take 5, which is also known as 6 Nimmt in the original German, is a game placed with a unique deck of cards. I have never had this game fail when introducing it to a group. People understand it quickly, it brings lots of laughs, and everyone will quickly think they have figured out the ultimate strategy only to get blown out of the water when something unexpected happens. Take 5 plays 2-10 players according to the box, and I have found it to be great fun from 2, all the way up to 6-7 players. For this reason it’s a great travel game, as you can pretty easily include any unexpected friends you might make along the way.

Another perfect game huh? Seriously…

Okay, negatives about Take 5 would be that while the game is “just a stack of cards,” it is 104 cards so it’s a fat deck. For reference, a standard deck of playing cards consists of 52 cards. Also, once the number of players exceeds seven or so, Take 5 becomes hard to predict and chaotic — very much not a game of pure skill. It’s still hilarious fun though!

For more on Take 5 (aka 6 Nimmt), check out this 6 Nimmt review by Shut up and Sit Down.

You’ll also find some viable travel game options in print and play games. I have blogged about several, including Ada Lovelace Consulting Detective, and Raging Bulls which would be a great place to start. All you’ll need is a pre-printed piece of paper and a few dice to play these.

This list of travel-ready board games should be a good start for anyone. You’ve got a head-to-head game with endless strategic possibilities (Hive Pocket), a difficult cooperative game (Sprawlopolis), and a zany party game that can play up to 10 but still works reasonably well at two players (Take 5). Maybe I’ll do a part two to introduce more travel-friendly games!

Try some of these out! Might be fun!

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Earth Celebration on Sado Island

In 2013 I went to the Earth Celebration festival on Sado Island. It was a wonderful experience and I hope I have a chance to do it again.

Sado Island Main State
People claiming their spots for the main show.

Attending the the Earth Celebration is a real adventure. It’s a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city, a musical treat, and a cultural experience.

The main event at Earth Celebration is always a Taiko Drum performance by Kodo, who always deliver an absolutely earth-shaking show. They perform throughout the year in other locations and I would strongly recommend you catch them if you can. I don’t have photos from Kodo’s performance from Earth Celebration 2013 as they asked for no photography during the show… Plus it was dark and we were far from the stage and I didn’t have a zoom lens…

Before Kodo performs you can enjoy other music performances and a variety of food stalls of the usual Japanese festival fare.

"Oni Daiko" which is literally "demon drums."
This was called “Oni Daiko” which is literally “demon drums.”
The man wearing the demon mask was the main performer.
Sado Island Earth Celebration Logo - Warakudaiko groupFlag
Sado Island Earth Celebration Logo Flag
Earth Celebration on Sado Island (2013)
The main shopping strip of Sado.
The main street in town.

Even though Sado Island is off the beaten path, it’s not difficult to get to as Japan has public transport sorted out. The town itself is quaint, but during the Earth Festival there are plenty fo tourists, so many shops and restaurants are open. The town is small so you can walk around the main drag in a single day no problem.

This is a report from a visit in 2013, I’m sure the festival has changed in some way since then, but I’m sure it’s still great. Has anyone been recently? If so do share your experience!

Links:

Earth Celebration Official English Website

Kodo, Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble

Getting to Sado Island on VisitSado.com

Tottori Sand Dunes for an trip out-of-the-ordinary Japan Adventure

Looking for something different to do in Japan? Try Tottori Sand Dunes! Might be fun. This isn’t a location I would recommend to someone who is headed to Japan for the first time ever, but if you are already living in Japan and looking for something new to do, check it out.

People for scale.

The Tottori Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘 tottori sakyuu) are the only place in Japan where you can see sand dunes. They are indeed natural, and have existed for 100,000 years.

The Tottori Sand Dunes are really the main tourist attraction in Tottori prefecture. Other than the dunes, you can find hot springs and ryokan as you can at most other tourist destinations in Japan.

At the time I went, which was 2006… there were several activities you could do. They had rental boards so you could try sand surfing. You could do paragliding, or ride a camel. There is also a sand museum.

Camel at Tottori Sand Dunes
Camel to ride! Must be lonely being a camel in Tottori…
Sand dune!
I guess parasailing isn’t the proper term, but this. It’s smaller.
Sand surfing!

Getting to Tottori Sand Dunes:

Once you’re in Tottori it’s easy to get to the dunes. They are such a major tourist attraction all the signs and anyone you ask will point you there.

From Tokyo: If you’re coming from Tokyo by train, it’s about 5 hours and 10 minutes. The trip will take you to Himeji on the Nozomi bullet train, and then from Himeji to Tottori station on the Super Hakuto train. From Tottori station you can get to the dunes by taxi or bus.

From Osaka: Coming from Osaka the trip is about two hours and 40 minutes on the Super Hakuto train. It’s a straight shot from Osaka to Tottori with no train exchanges. Easy! Then once you’re at Tottori you can get to the dunes by taxi or bus.

Japan’s Crazy Desert Revealed: Tottori Sand Dune Adventure ★ ONLY in JAPAN


There is even a classic song about Tottori Sakyuu that many Japanese know and love. It’s more popular with the older generation, but still a lot of people know it!

For best results, sing in a karaoke shop in Tottori.

Kaori Mizumori  sings Tottori Sakyu

Give it a shot!

Links:
Tottori Sand Dunes [Wikipedia]
Tottori Sand Dunes [Japan Guide]
Access to Tottori Sand Dunes [Official]

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Kisaichi in Osaka – Hike to Kurondo Pond

If you’re looking for a low-key place to get some nature in the Osaka area you might consider a visit to Kisaichi to hike up to Kurondo Pond. The hike from Kisaichi Station to Kurondo Pond is about 1.5 hours. I hiked it with a seven year old and it took about 2 hours each way.

Kurondo Lake
Kurondo Lake (pond?) your destination

To get to the place we started at Kisaichi station, you can take the Keihan Line from Hirakata.

Getting to Kisaichi
Hirakata to Kisaichi, 210 yen (2020)

Once you get going you’ll find many helpful signs pointing the way to the pond, and others pointing the way back to the station. It’s easy to find your way even if you do not read Japanese. Just in case, Kurondo Pond is written くろんど池。

Signs to Kurondo Lake
Many of the signs are written in English
Trail to Kurondo Lake
Part of the trail between Kisaichi and Kurondo Pond

The hike itself was great. It’s got some hills, some stairs, and you’re often near water. It’s got a bit of gravel road, some dirt paths, and sometimes you’ll be climbing over rocks and stepping around tree roots. To be honest, I did the hike in flat Adidas because that’s all I had, but I saw many Japanese in hiking gear with backpacks and poles. I should add that my seven year old indoor kid made it and only complained four of five times, so it’s not actually that demanding — though you will be tired at the end. If you’re prone to get the munchies, pack a snack and bring some water.

We went in early summer and saw a ton of neat bugs. Caterpillars?

Insect near Kisaichi
Bugs! I guess it’s a caterpillar. There were a lot of them.

When you finally make it to Kurondo Pond you’ll find a few restaurants, and of course the pond.

Kurondo Lake
Kurondo Pond!

You can pay to ride a row boat or one of those pedal-driven swan boats. Many families with kids and couples are often out on the pond enjoying the peaceful waters. You can also buy some fish food and feed the large koi that hang out near the pier.

Koi in Kurondo Lake
Koi in Kurondo Pond

One protip. One shop near the pond sells honey collected locally from Ikoma in Nara. At time of writing it was 2000 yen per bottle, so it’s not cheap, but it is delicious. You can also buy this Ikoma honey online.

Ikoma Honey
Delicious honey collected in Ikoma

There is actually a very famous suspension bridge called Hoshi no Buranko in the area that is the reason that most people visit Kisaichi. However, when we visited it was still closed due to coronavirus concerns. We’ll have to get there next time! A local helpfully pointed us to Kurondo Pond upon learning that we were disappointed that the bridge was closed.

Map of Kisaichi Area

Get out there and get some fresh air! Might be fun!

River near Kisaichi

Some relevant links!

Kansai Scene: https://www.kansaiscene.com/2014/08/relax-refresh-explore/

Kurondo Area Website: http://kurondoso.jp/

Hoshi no Buranko: http://osaka-midori.jp/mori/hoshida/hoshinoburanko.html

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Gion Festival in Kyoto circa 2005

Summer 2005, I went to Gion Festival 祇園祭り in Kyoto.

Gion Matsuri 2005

Gion is one of the largest festivals held in Kansai. It is one of the three largest and most important festivals in Japan. Normally held in July, it is a treasured annual event that completely consumes all activity in downtown Kyoto.

Some Japanese phrases to describe Gion Matsuri could be…

人だらけ。 “hito darake” “nothing but freakin people everywhere”
満員電車状態。 “manindensha jyoutai” “freakin’ like a rush-hour train”
めっちゃ暑いねん。”meccya atsuinen” “It’s freakin’ hot”

I joke, it’s an amazing experience and if possible, I would recommend everyone at try to attend once if you can manage.

Gion Matsuri 2005 - A crowded float
Gion Festival 2005

Giant two-story, two-ton floats carrying dozens of people in festival wear are wheeled around the streets — manually dragged by what must be 40 men. At one of the most exciting moments of the festival they heave the float to turn their fixed-axel heavy wooden wheels across the pavement. It is truly a sight to see!

Gion Matsuri 2005 - float full view

They even float by McDonalds… For an… Ice Cream Float. [joke.]

Gion Matsuri 2005 rolls by McDonalds
Gion Festival 2005 – Floating by McDonalds

Visit Kyoto in the summer and check out Gion Festival if you can! More details can be found at Yasaka Shrine’s official site.

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Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

I finally made it to Sumiyoshi Taisha after years of visiting Osaka. It was never on my radar as it’s a bit out of the way from the city center, but now that I’ve been there I wish I had gone sooner.

A friend of mine recently moved to the Sumiyoshi Taisha neighborhood, which was my excuse for finally visiting.

Sumiyoshi Taisha is the main shrine of all the Sumiyoshi shrines in Japan. On new years and during festivals the shrine attracts huge crowds. I would love to check it out at that time some day.

There is an iconic taiko bashi bridge that is steep and round. Taiko is Japanese for a round Japanese-style drum, and the bridge is shaped like that, hence the name. The bridge is one of the most memorable locations on the grounds. Grab a photo.

住吉大社 : GFDL,Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.1 Japan License
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
The grounds are quite large and spacious. Great place to take a walk or wander around.
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori at Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka
Omamori (Good luck charms) left at the temple for luck
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

The legend behind the good luck omamori here is unique. You try to find power stones yourself from inside of this stone fence. The stones actually have characters written on them in calligraphy ink. Once you have found a set of three stones with the characters 5 五, large 大, and power 力 (godairiki) written on them, you can bring them and purchase the omamori sack to put them in. Then you hang it up for good luck. Finally, you’re supposed to then write characters on stones yourself, and toss them back in for others to find. Pay it forward!

Sumiyoshi Taisha is on the way to Kansai International Airport. Maybe you can swing by as a last stop on a visit to the Kansai area! Enjoy!

Links:

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Traditional Soba at Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

Yoshinoyama (吉野山 or Mount Yoshino) in Nara prefecture is mainly famous for it’s beautiful cherry tree blossoms in the spring. However, I was in the area in the summer as part of another trip, and Google Maps led us to a wonderful soba shop, Yamatoan.

Inaka Soba at Soba restaurant Yamatoan on Mt. Yoshino
Inaka Soba set at Yamatoan (circa. 2020)

The staff are very friendly. Maybe it’s because we went on off-season and they weren’t very busy, but they took some extra time to tell us the difference in “inaka soba” (country-style old-fashioned soba) and regular soba. They also serve “soba yu” at the end of your meal, which the left over warm water that is left over from when the soba noodles were prepared. You’re meant to pour this warm broth into your soba dipping sauce (tsuyu) and drink it like tea.

The shop also had a big jambe drum from Mali… The staff told us that he used to play in a drum circle. I’m saying staff, but, he actually might be the owner, or manager, not sure. The shop also sells high-end hemp backpacks from Nepal. It’s that kind of natural place with a hipster vibe.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

We cheated and came to Yamatoan by car. If you decide to walk up the mountain to get here, you’ll be sure to work up an appetite and you’ll enjoy passing by the other rustic shops along the way.

Good times! Good food! If you’re in the area be sure to check it out, might be fun.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
They also have a soba-making workshop!

Links:

Yamatoan Official Website

Nara Sightseeing – Yamatoan

Address: 2296, Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara Pref.

A Visit to Awajishima Circa 2004

In 2002 I took a trip from Osaka to Awajishima. The trip was awesome and was suggested by a reader of my blog at the time. I was lucky enough to be hosted by an exchange student friend who was living on Awajishima, so I had a local host of sorts. The trip was a few hours one way. First we took a train to Sannomiya, and then grabbed a long distance bus for about an hour and a half. The last stop on the bus is a town called Fukura, which is where my friend was living. I’m not sure if that’s still the best way to get there, so check the Awajishima Access link below to plan your trip.

A picture of one of Awajishima's famous whirlpools
One of Awajishima’s famous whirlpools called Uzuoshi うず潮

We arrived late Friday night so we would have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy. Due to the unbelievable whirlwind of activities that we did on Saturday, I think I can say that we did almost all of the main attractions that Awajishima has to offer. Here’s a summary of our tour.

#1 Nushima (Nu Island)

Nushima (沼島) is a small island about a 10 minute ferry ride from Nandan-cho, Nada. Nushima has a famous rock called Kamitate Gami Iwa 上立神岩。

Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock
Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock 上立神岩

It also has this cool area with hundreds of continuous Torii gates. Sort of like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto but with fewer tourists and a different style of torii gate. Apparently they give luck to the many fishermen in the area.

Torii Gates on Awajishima
Torii Gates on Awajishima

Also, here’s some trivia. Apparently in Nushima there is a story that explains how the island, and the rest of Japan were created. When god was creating Japan, he jabbed a sword into the earth. When he was pulling up the sword some of the stuff that was clinging to it dripped off. That first drip is Nushima. Kamitate Gami Iwa is the spot where the sword stuck. The other drips were Awajishima and the rest of Japan… So Nushima came first. Apparently there is a similar story in Awajishima with the names reversed. The ferry’s don’t leave Nushima back to Awajishima so often, so be sure to track the schedule carefully. If not, you might have to run up and down the hills of the island at break neck speeds to avoid screwing up the rest of your day. Then your muscles will be sore… Not that… it… happened to us or anything… Ha Ha Ha!(恥)

#2 Awajishima Monkey Center (モンキーセンター)

After Nushima we went to Awajishima Monkey Center. Awajishima Monkey Center was probably the second most famous thing in Awajishima next to the Uzushio (渦潮) at the time.

Awajishima Monkey Center
Awajishima Monkey Center (2004)

The monkey center was nice because the monkeys were just kind of walking around freely. There is a designated spot for feeding where the customers go behind a fence and give them peanuts. This is so the monkeys understand that random people are only going to give them food when they are behind the fence so they don’t ask for food other times.

Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center
Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center

#3 Nazo no Paradise (ナゾのパラダイス)

Nazo no Paradise is this erotic museum with other random mystery stuff like UFOs. It was freakin’ strange. Apparently the place tries to remain reasonably legit by keeping old school Japanese erotic prints. You know what I mean. They also though had strange statues…

Statue from Nazo no Paradise
Statue from Nazo no Paradise

#4 Awaji Ningyou Jyoururi (人形浄瑠璃)

That Kanji is difficult. It wouldn’t even come up on my cell phone on first try.

Awajishima Doll
Awajishima Doll

These dolls are famous and the performance is an art. It takes three people to control one doll. The right arm and head are controlled by one person, the left arm by another, and the feet by the last person. The doll’s hands can move, eyes can blink, head can turn, and all of the arm joints move freely.

During the performance there were two Japanese ladies on the side, one playing the shamisen, and one singing and reading the lyrics. It’s amazing how they all work together to bring the dolls to life. Pictures were not allowed during the performance. The men controlling the dolls wore all black and black hoods as to not distract from the action of the dolls. 

#5 Awaji Farm Park England Hill (England no Oka, イングランドの丘)

Farm park was a sort of nature and farm inspired theme park. There is something similar in Osaka called Mother Farm. Check their website for some of the possible activities. I wouldn’t recommend a trip to Awajishima just to visit Farm Park, but if you’re already in Awajishima and have kids it can be a nice healthy diversion.

On our final day we went to do shiohigari, which is “clamming.” You go down to the beach when the tide is back, and dig for clams. Then you take them home and eat them up. Fun for the whole family!

Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima
Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima – BYOB (Bring your Own Bucket)

充実した一日だった。

Links around the web

Isuien Garden in Nara – Don’t skip it

The area around Toudaiji and the Deer Park in Nara is constantly packed. If you’re looking for something that is less crowded, don’t skip the beautiful Isuien Gardens.

Isui-en Garden
Isuien Garden

One creative feature in Isuien Gardens is their use of stones tied with rope to indicate areas that guests should not enter. This is great. The stones are aesthetically pleasing, blend in with nature and the parks scenery, and are still easy to spot.

Isui-en Garden Stone
Stones tied with rope indicate no-go zones for visitors.
Isui-en Garden Stone
Beauty stone STOPS YOU IN YOUR TRACKS
Isui-en Garden Stone and Path
Beautiful Scenery at Isuien Garden

Isuen Garden is a short walk from Kintetsu Nara station. You can easily do the garden, Todaiji, and the nearby famous deer park in the same afternoon or morning.

There is also a nice little tea house in the garden where you can take of your shoes, sit on tatami, and enjoy some tea and traditional Japanese sweets (or soft cream).

Visiting Isuien shocked me into really feeling like I was “in Japan” again. It’s amazing how much the environment can change once you enter the garden grounds. As there were hardly any tourists when we went, it was quiet, free of any litter, and seemed that everything was in place. We were there in the morning and could hear what sounded like a bullfrog, and there were small bugs suspending themselves on top of the pond. Really a great environment. If you’re in Nara, don’t miss it!

Links:

Isuien Garden [Wikipedia]

Japan Guide: Isuien [Japan-Guide.com]

Official Isuien Garden Website [English / Japanese]

Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture

I had the opportunity to visit Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture winter 2017.

You can read a lot about Chusonji online, and I recommend that you do. If you’re looking for an impressive Japanese temple to visit that is far enough off the beaten path that it isn’t crowded with tourists, this is a great choice. Chusonji and the entire town of Hiraizumi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so quality signs in English abound.

Iwate prefecture is up north at least three hours from Tokyo by train. Many visitors chose to fly. A visit is difficult to recommend for a first visit to Japan, but if you’ve been before and are looking for something different I would recommend taking a look.

I happened to be in town in December, so it was freezing cold and covered in snow. Here are some of the photos that I took. Note, some of the most famous locations do not allow photography, so these shots are not representative of the entire site.

Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds in December
Chusonji Temple Grounds
That water is cold…
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Tourist with umbrella for the snow at Chusonji
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds

Links: