ted & pamela

Indonesia Parts I-II: Jakarta & Borneo

July 8th, 2014 by Pamela

Indonesia Part I: Jakarta

Jakarta Airport Menu

Time to order-by-picture

We did not get to see the city of Jakarta, but upon arriving in Indonesia we were met by our tour operator, Rya, and a driver and taken to a very strange hotel near the airport named FM7. There were entire wings of the building that we could see from the roof, but never figured out how to get to. There were entire floors that some staircases never reached. Much of it was still under construction. I felt like I was in a labyrinth. The next morning, the same driver and a different guide named Harry (maybe) took us to the domestic terminal of the airport to hop over to Borneo; it took us 45 minutes to go 2 miles. Welcome to Jakarta (outskirts) traffic. I wanted lunch, but had no idea what the menus were offering, so I decided to order by picture. I picked a picture and pointed to it. Turned out I’d ordered something like a “combination rice plate”… so they just picked some options for me. We also noted that it was mostly tourists eating at the food court, likely because we are here during the month of Ramadan. We were not expecting so many tourists in the domestic terminal. We also got to experience the excitement of a delayed flight and of being told that the reason the gate listed on our ticket (C6) did not match the gate listed on the monitor (C3) was due to “monitor error”… and then we left through gate C7 instead. This was as opposed to the previous flight whereupon we were told “the monitor is always right” when there was a mismatch…

Indonesia Part II: Borneo

Our Klotok

Our Klotok

Borneo is full of rainforest. We flew to the town of Pangkalan Bun, which is the largest town on the island, with 8000 working adults (the only people counted in the census because they have IDs, which, incidentally, state their profession). We were met by our guide Sony and took a taxi to the smaller town of Kumei, 2000 working adults. At Kumei, we boarded our boat, by first walking through a family’s home, out the back of their home, and across the 4 boats that were parked closer to the dock. On the boat we were joined by a family of 4; the father is the boat captain, the mother is the cook, and they have 2 small children, Andres and Mira. The boat is about 2m by 10m, and has 2 decks; the crew stayed on the bottom deck and we stayed on the top deck, which was equipped with a table, 2 chairs, and 2 mattresses for us to sleep on at night. In the back is a space with a door, inside of which is a toilet bowl that empties to the river and a shower head that pumps from the river. Since we’d ended up with a (delayed) afternoon flight instead of the morning flight that got canceled, it was dark by the time we reached the boat. We set sail towards the river that would take us to Tanjung Puting National Park. We sat up at the bow of the boat and watched the jungle sail by, saw a few monkeys in the treetops that the captain pointed out with a flashlight, and counted myriad stars overhead (I estimated about 200 in my immediate field of view) while Sony told us about the history of the river and national park (e.g. the first portion of it is brown because there is a gold mine up ahead dumping mercury into the water; the cleaner fork later on is coca-cola colored). We were served tomato-fish, vegetables, fried… something (soybean?), and watermelon for dinner, and retired shortly thereafter around 9pm. We docked in front of a village about 2 hours down the river, and the crew draped a mosquito net around our mattresses. We fell asleep sticky and dirty, but too tired to care.

Alpha Male "Tom"

Alpha Male “Tom”

The next morning, we woke up with the sun and roosters (apparently the sun rises at 5:30am and sets at 5:30pm year-round here) and wandered around the dock until the mother (who said her name was something like “Ms. Watli”) served us breakfast at 7. A mother and child came to the dock from the village to wash clothes and bathe, and a father and son came to take off in a small canoe. Breakfast was (over-)buttered and grilled toast, eggs, and really good banana pancakes, with orange juice. After breakfast, we motored another 2 hours down the river, this time in daylight, and watched the jungle sail by and saw a few more probiscus monkeys until we arrived at the second orangutan research station in the national park. The first one, the one with the wild orangutans, we missed due to our late arrival the previous night. The second two have semi-wild orangutans that are being rehabilitated after being taken away from people who had them as pets. We trekked about a kilometer into the jungle to the feeding station, where a park ranger set out a large mound of bananas and bowls of milk onto a raised platform and the guides made ape-calls. We waited for a while, and then a large male orangutan came lumbering up to the platform from the jungle, plopped himself down, and started snacking. Three females, one with a baby, came after him, but one of the females stayed in the trees until everyone else had left before coming down to find the leftovers. Later, another female with an older child came as well. The females would often drink some milk, and then shove a fistful of bananas into their mouth and climb a tree to eat them before coming back down for more; the male just sat there like he owned the place. We then set sail farther down the river to the third research station, eating lunch along the way (chicken and tofu in coconut curry; peanut sauce and egg over vegetables; fried shrimp; pineapple) and enjoying a nice natural shower in which I danced around at the bow of the boat. At the third station, the apes were even less wild; we had to walk around one that was sleeping in the middle of the path with a pile of branches on his head to block the rain, and at the feeding station, the orangutans would just walk through the crowd to get to the platform. A much larger crowd of orangutans gathered at this feeding station, as did a gibbon and a wild pig that hung out with them, a la Lion King. Towards the end of their snack, the alpha male chased a female up a tree, dragged her back down the tree, and mated with her… another family’s guide told them that she had been flirting with him, but she didn’t seem too happy when he decided to take her up on the offer. After feeding time was over and the orangutans had all wandered off, we set sail back up the river towards Kumei and enjoyed the most wanted shower of our lives (being warned to finish before we entered the part of the river full of mercury, as it would irritate our skin). Dinner, early sleep, early rise, and a day of transit: chug-chug 2 more hours to Kumei, drive to Pangkalan Bun, fly 1 hour to Semarang on the island of Java, drive 3 more hours to Borobudur.

The Japan Alps: Japan Days 8-10

August 2nd, 2012 by Pamela

Last post on Japan!

Arrival of the Shinkansen

Arrival of the Shinkansen

2012-07-28: Kyoto to Fukuji Onsen

We started the day with another 8am breakfast at the ryokan. Breakfast has gotten more psychic: Ms. Uemura stopped asking if Ted wanted a second piece of toast and just brought it. During breakfast, we watched the Olympic opening ceremony on TV in Japanese and saw the torch get lit. We could hear the beginning of everything that was said in English… but about 3 words in the Japanese translator would drown out the English in the background. After eating, we cleaned up and checked out, but left our luggage behind. Even as we checked out, there were no other guests at Ryokan Uemura. Surprising; almost disconcerting.

No sooner had we walked around the corner from the ryokan than we ended up in the middle of a group of people filming a movie scene. They had to stop to let us through. I’m guessing they re-shot that scene. =\

We walked to Ryozen Kannon Buddhist temple, which was basically in our backyard but we haven’t been home during its open hours. Our entrance fee bought us an incense stick to bring up to the… incense-stick-offering-area. We finally got a complete view of the giant Buddha statue sitting on top of the main temple that we’d caught sight of two nights ago. Pamela wonders how a temple can hold up a gigantic stone Buddha. It was seriously gigantic, and just sitting on the roof of the temple. Then we caught monks chanting and drumming and performing a ritual, which we later read (in the temple’s brochure) was a ceremony that they only do 3 times a month, in which “the mountain priests of this temple conduct services of kindling a sacred fire for the sake of national prosperity, highway traffic safety, and harmony within families.” We walked as closely as we dared without distracting them, and Pamela videotaped the chanting.

After staying too long (we’d told Uemura we’d only be gone an hour), we walked next door to Kodai-ji Buddhist temple. We did a really quick walk along the “tour route”, hardly stopping to look at anything or take any pictures, and discovered that our “quick run-through” of Kodai-ji was about the average touring pace of other tourists… and we even skipped all the optional turn-outs. We’re slow.

We walked a few steps back to Uemura, collected our luggage and took a bus to Kyoto station. While waiting for the bus that our map said went to the station, this other bus arrived listing “Kyoto station” as its destination and we decided to take our chances. Apparently our bus map is incomplete, because the bus we took isn’t listed on it at all.

Once we’d purchased our train tickets, we ate lunch (pasta and… a rice-pasta-omelet) and then wandered into the department store at the station and gawked over all the pretty, expensive umbrellas/parasols. There are a lot of pretty umbrellas walking around Japan, and the department store had several hundred of them in stock. We’ve never seen so many umbrellas for sale, and all with different pretty designs. They were also unnecessarily expensive, so of course now Pamela wanted one.

We rode a Shinkansen (Hikari) from Kyoto to Nagoya. Upon boarding this train, an entire class of Japanese schoolchildren got on the train with us. Our first instinct was to groan, but as we got off the train, we realized we’d forgotten they were even there. How was an entire class of elementary school children that quiet for so long?? Ted slept; Pamela wrote yesterday’s blog post until the computer ran out of battery. The train from Nagoya to Takayama was slower. Pamela slept; Ted studied Japanese.

We arrived in Takayama… in a rainstorm. The storm had been partially predicted, because when a train passed us going the other direction, Pamela had said “that train… is wet.” But it was still jarring after the heat of Kyoto. While we waited in bus station… we found free Wi-Fi!!! Japan does not seem to be very big on Wi-Fi hot spots; this was the first and only one we ever came across other than the airport. Pamela plugged in her dead laptop to post a blog entry… but got yelled at for using the power outlet. I can use the Wi-Fi, but not the outlet???

Seriously, why can’t I use a power outlet??

That burned.

We rode the bus from Takayama to Fujuki Onsen through the rainstorm. At our stop, we asked the bus driver where our ryokan was, and he found it on a map and then drove us a bit farther forward to point it out to us and keep us out of the rain. The helpful bus driver did not actually speak any English, although he managed “bus stop” at one point. He also had a very thick regional accent of some sort.

Ted says that the name of our new ryokan (Ryokan Sansui, or 山水) literally means “Mountain Water.” Fitting for a hot spring hotel. As we walked up to the building, a man came running out to help us as if he’d been waiting all day for us to show up. A woman gave us a tour and showed us our room. Then dinner came… By dinner time, the rainstorm had turned into a thunderstorm, and the first particularly loud crash of thunder actually made Pamela scream. Pamela claims she has never screamed due to thunder before…

But back to dinner. First, a new woman walked in with a tray of food, and indicated to move our table and make room for it. Then we both pulled our seats up to opposite sides of the tray, and the woman looked horrified and indicated that that was very wrong, so we leapt back. Then she came in with a *second* tray of food. Oh.

In the end, dinner involved 15 separate dishes; they just kept bringing up more food! We’re still not sure what half of it was; but in no particular order we were served:

  • Jasmine tea;
  • mineral water;
  • a square box with… a bite of salmon with something yellow on top; a square of fish on top of a cube of cornmeal; an entire 3-inch-long fish; a bowl with a wheel-shaped vegetable and a bit of meat; a leaf wrapped around rice and secured with a toothpick; and something that looked like a round stuffed pork slice;
  • a bowl with… shrimp tail; flower-shaped soft rice cake; purple and white vegetable that looked like swiss cheese (lotus root?); a bite of green vegetable; another… vegetable; and a pile of thin seaweed-y things in a soupy sauce;
  • a bowl of cold soba with rice krispies and green onion;
  • a bowl of miso soup with a *lot* of seaweed, green onions, tofu, and mushrooms (Pamela drained the broth);
  • a bowl of egg pudding with fish and a white vegetable and a green leafy vegetable;
  • a bowl with a potato-rice ball;
  • a bowl of tempura with shrimp, zucchini, kabocha squash, 2 leafy green things, a potato chip (??), and a dish of pink salt to dip it in;
  • a plate with an entire 8-inch fried trout atop vegetables (pink, brown, and green strips) and a green chili pepper;
  • a sashimi plate with tuna (2 pieces), 2 types of white fish (2 pieces each), and a pile of noodle and radish (?), with soy sauce, wasabi, a flower, a sprig of small red ball-shaped berries, and tiny red leaves on the side;
  • a plate of beef, enoki mushrooms, green onions, other onions, and brown peanut-ty sauce over a giant brown leaf, with chafing fuel lit in a pot underneath the plate to cook it;
  • a pot of rice… that we never opened. Oops. The women exclaimed over it when they came back to pick up the remains of our dinner;
  • a bowl of pickled… green, red, and white veggies, next to the rice, that we also never touched. This was apparently less offensive;
  • a dessert cup with green tea pudding, whipped cream, pink mocha ball, and a piece of fruit.

After dinner, the first woman (the only one who could manage some broken English besides the man at the front desk) told us there was a summer festival going on right that moment, and another woman brought us dessert while they removed dinner and laid out our futons. We ate the dessert and changed, then went down to walk to the festival… and were told it was ending. Fail.

Instead, we showered and changed into yukatas provided by the inn. We tried to read up on the procedures for using hot spring baths in our travel book, and instead giggle about how it described “magic elves” as making your futon appear while you were bathing and disappear while you were eating. Ryokan staff members will thus henceforth be known as elves.

Apparently the yukata is intended to be worn with the left side crossing over the right side, not the other way around. This was learned after the inn-elf giggled at us and tried to fix it. No idea what else we were doing wrong with it.

We soaked in a private onsen (hot spring) bath outside before sleeping. The hot spring water is too hot to remain in for longer than ~5 min. at a time without a break, so we didn’t stay long (maybe 30 minutes). The correct onsen procedure here is to apparently shower in the “preparation room,” then get in the onsen bath, then shower again in the preparation room. We learned this after showering in our own room, as we found that the “preparation room” showers actually had soap and shampoo.

Random Observations:

  • Pamela still does not like Orangina, even though Ted thought he’d finally found some juice in the store for her.
  • Tatami mats look much nicer on the floor than industrial-grade carpeting.

Mountain Trail in the Japan Alps

Mountain Trail in the Japan Alps

2012-07-29: Shinhotaka Ropeway

We dragged ourselves down to our 8am breakfast only slightly late after our own alarm, an unexpected wake-up call, and an also-unexpected door knocking all ensured we’d be awake. Breakfast had almost as many dishes as dinner, but none of them looked very breakfast-y: this was our first actual Japanese-style breakfast, with things like rice, fish, soup, etc. Pamela liked the ham with potato salad and the boiled nuts the best. Meals around here do not seem to include much fruit, except perhaps a few pieces with dessert.

We asked the front desk where the nearest ATM was since we didn’t have enough cash left for today’s travel. (NOTHING in Japan takes credit cards except for the department stores. Seriously. Nothing. It’s cash or bust.) The inn elves told us that there wasn’t a nearby ATM, but that the female elf would drive us to one in the next town to the north, near a different bus stop. We accepted the offer, got ready and left… also only slightly late.

She drove us to an ATM… but it was the wrong kind of ATM – it didn’t take foreign cards because Japanese cards are apparently fancier. So she drove us to a different ATM. Also too fancy. Finally she drove us back to inn and loaned us a couple hundred dollars…

They offered to drive us to our destination, the Shinhotaka Ropeway, since we ended up missing the intended bus, but we declined and decided to wait for the next bus 45 minutes later. We ended up spending 30 of the 45 minutes we had to spare searching for the bus stop which was supposed to be 200 meters from the ryokan. A few minutes before the bus was due to arrive, the male inn elf mysteriously showed up to clean the bus stop building, and was still there as we left aboard the bus. We suspect he may have come just to make sure we made it onto the bus.

The bus took us to the Shinhotaka Ropeway, which is this gondola attached to a pulley system ski-lift style that takes you up to the top of some mountain a few mountains over from where it started. We went up up up. We noted that there were no other foreign tourists in the whole area. By the end of the day, we had only seen exactly 2 foreign tourists at Shinhotaka Ropeway: us. There were, however, many Japanese tourists.

We bought a baked good from a bakery at the ropeway to call lunch. It was yum. Then we bought 3 more. We admired the view from the top station for a short bit, and then attempted to hike the trail that Lonely Planet told us would take us down the other side of the mountain to Kamikochi, the next town over, in about 3 hours. We tried asking the guy in the store where the trailhead was, and he showed us Kamikochi on a map. Um, thanks. So we went outside and found a trail and just started walking down it. We took pictures of the signs along the way, wondering what they said. All we could tell was that they did NOT say Kamikochi (we’d taken a picture of its name on the map). We also noticed that everybody seemed to be going the *other* way down the trail.

A ways down the trail, we started stopping people we passed asking where they were coming from. None of them indicated that the trail went to Kamikochi (in fact, most of them seemed to indicate they had never heard of Kamikochi). One couple finally communicated that our trail was about a 2-hour hike and went to the summit of the extremely large-looking mountain in front of us. We finally turned around, deciding it must be the wrong trail.

When we got back to the trailhead, we looked at a map inside the hut again and discovered that the name of the stop *in between* us and Kamikochi matched the signs on the trail (and was over the summit of that large mountain). Thus we decided we had, in fact, been going the right way.

So, we started again. We’d gotten to about where we’d been before when we passed a group of hard-core-looking hikers. They stopped us, exclaiming that they had just seen us going the *other way*. A man in their group who actually spoke English (first one in the entire mountain range, I swear), asked why we were going back the way we’d just come. When we told him we’d been trying to go to Kamikochi but had been told we were going the wrong way, he exclaimed that we were crazy and should turn around at once. He claimed that they were going to Kamikochi, but with an overnight stop on top of the mountain, and that it was at least a 10-hour hike. We hiked for a little while longer, then turned around and went back again, deciding that either Lonely Planet was trying to kill us, or that the nice man thought we’d kill ourselves without hiking sticks or something. (Unlikely.)

After consulting the same hiking map for a third time, Ted found times listed between each stop on the trail, and decided it was supposed to be about a 3-hour hike. Sigh. At least the weather was really nice. It had been great hiking weather all afternoon, and would be great evening weather for outdoor festival-viewing; best weather all trip. This was the first day of our trip that Ted did not get over-heated and exhausted.

We took the ropeway back down and returned to our ryokan. Thankfully, we hiked back fast enough to make the 4pm bus rather than waiting another 2 hours for the next one.

After getting back, we relaxed in another private outdoor hot-spring-pool until dinner, then had another gastronomical adventure in our room, consisting of *only* 13 dishes this time. I’ll spare you the details of each dish.

After dinner, we walked to the “summer festival” with 2 guys we ran into from Norway, and couldn’t believe the fluidity of their English after trying to communicate with the Japanese for the last week. We watched some sort of cultural drum dance things, followed by a dragon dance, followed by a dragon-eating-a-snake dance. There were a million bugs attracted to the outdoor lighting, but thankfully, they were mostly moths, not mosquitoes. There was occasional lightning during the festival, but the rain held off.

We walked back to our room, sat by the windows, and turned all the lights off to watch the lightning storm outside until we fell asleep. The rain was no longer holding off.

Random Observations:

  • The Japan Alps are very pretty. The hiking trails are so much greener and prettier than the ones on Mt. Fuji, which was a barren volcano once you got above the tree line.
  • Japan uses these TP rods that have a cover. This cover is useful for tearing the unperforated TP if it is either (a) serrated or (b) thin. Not if it is thick.
  • The Japanese TP also has no cardboard roll inside. It’s like it was wrapped tightly around something else gear-shaped that was then removed. Less waste.
  • I don’t think we’ve mentioned Japanese toilets at all, actually.  For those of you who have never seen one, public toilets in Japan (though not in our inns) are in the floor. You squat.  They still flush and have modern plumbing and everything, just no seats, so they’re technically more sanitary.  This works better for some forms of business than others.
  • Ted gets fewer bug bites when wearing long pants. (Duh.)
  • Pamela’s blog posts get progressively longer each day of a trip.

Private Hot Spring Bath #3

Private Hot Spring Bath #3

2012-07-30: Fujuki Onsen to Tokyo

On the last day of our trip, we woke up eaarrrrlllier than early to relax in the third private outdoor hot-spring-pool *before* our 8am breakfast. We have now successfully tried all 3 of the private baths.

Breakfast was again many dishes, though none as enjoyable as yesterday’s. One particularly weird dish was a bowl full of fish that are about the size of a bean sprout. Looked like a bowl of short noodles full of eyes. The Norwegian guys were seated next to us at breakfast, and we noted that their breakfast dishes were the ones we’d been served yesterday. After comparing notes, we learned that their dinner dishes last night were also the ones we’d been served two nights ago. That must be one busy cook, considering each meal was 13-15 dishes… and he was making multiple meals.

The inn-elves drove us to a third ATM which had been closed yesterday so that we could pay them back… and then drove us to the bus terminal in Hirayu Onsen, the next major town, since we’d again missed the intended bus. Note to future selves: JP ATMs accept foreign debit cards. Other ATMs do not, pretty much universally.

We took a bus east to Matsumoto, rather than going back the way we’d come, and saw many pretty waterfalls in the hot spring area. From Matsumoto, we took a (slower) train to Shinjuku, Tokyo.

We wandered through Kinokuniya, Coldstone, and a mall in Shinjuku, but got sick of lugging luggage around while we shopped. Then we took a train to Shibuya to meet Eiko for dinner, where we met her mother as well. They took us to dinner at an Asian-fusion restaurant in a department store where we had Thai/Vietnamese food.

Pamela stayed with Eiko and her mother in Shibuya while Ted traveled back to Brian’s place to collect our walking sticks and return his key. We waited, and waited… and the discovered that Ted had gotten on wrong train and would not be returning to Shibuya, so we left and met him at the monorail to the airport.

Eiko and her mother took the monorail to the airport with us, where we checked in, returned our rental phone, and said goodbye to them. Then we flew home, during which we slept pretty much the entire way. We arrived and were greeted by Ted’s dad negative one hour after we’d left. Weirdo time zones.

Random Observations:

  • We’ve seen children in school uniforms the whole time we’ve been here, and not just the ones “dressed-up” as schoolgirls. They must attend school year-round… or enjoy wearing their school uniforms.
  • I lost weight in Japan; my pants are no longer too tight!
  • Jetlag was easier to deal with heading west: We arrived at 5am, were forced to stay up all day as we ran around Tokyo, crashed at night, and were on a normal schedule. After heading east, we left at midnight, slept all night, and then arrived at midnight… wide awake. This does not work so well…
  • Bay Area weather is SO NICE. Even when it’s hot.

Kyoto: Japan Days 5-7

August 1st, 2012 by Pamela

Ted has decided that my bullet-point blog posts are in a boring format, so here you get actual writing. Thus it’s longer. Comment which way is more interesting. =)

Ninen-zaka

Ninen-zaka

2011-07-25: Tokyo to Kyoto

After relaxing at Brian’s house in the morning, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo  Kyoto. Got on a hikari train, the second-fastest type! We went through a lot of tunnels: apparently shinkansen don’t go *over* hills; they go *through* them.

Upon arriving at Kyoto station, we transferred to a city bus.  The buses here are advanced (by our standards): they announce upcoming stops, both by sound recording and on a screen, and they are air-conditioned! Not as scary as usual, where you have to frantically find each intersection you pass on a map and hope you haven’t missed your stop.  We got off at the stop that the tourist info guy said to get off at… but then promptly got lost trying to find our ryokan (Japanese-style inn) because the map he gave us was crummy.

We finally arrived at Ryokan Uemura about an hour after we said we’d get there, and were greeted by Ms. Uemura, the innkeeper, who showed us to our (air-conditioned!!) room and served us tea and cake.  Although this inn was listed in Lonely Planet, got high reviews on TripAdvisor, along with recommendations to book far in advance, and has only 3 rooms, we were able to book the room by phone last night.  We did not expect it to be available.  Thought maybe it had had a cancellation; however, it appeared that we were actually the only guests there…

We relaxed in the room cooling off for a bit, then went for an evening walk through the Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka, and Sannen-zaka areas, which are cobblestone, wooden-house-lined cute streets. (Our inn happens to be located on Ishibei Koji.) Most places were closed, and the streets were nearly deserted but lit up prettily. We wandered down to the Yasaka Pagoda nearby and saw part of a giant Buddha statue at the Kodai-ji Temple (but could not enter to see the rest of it because it was closed).  We were definitely located in the cutest part of town.

When we finally decided we wanted dinner, we discovered nothing was open anymore (7:30pm).  Apparently it’s very weird to eat dinner past 7:30pm. We asked Ms. Uemura where we could get dinner, and after being astonished that we hadn’t eaten yet, she escorted us down the block to a Chinese restaurant that was still open.  This was our first non-Japanese meal since arriving.

After dinner, we showered and relaxed in our room for the rest of the night.  We found a book on Japanese architecture in our room; according to this book, our room looks very similar to a merchant-class Japanese house.  The floor was lined with 8 tatami (woven straw) mats; it was encased with sliding wooden and paper doors; there was a table in the middle of the room which could be moved to make room for the futons on the floor; there were little alcoves displaying decorations; and there is was separate passageway which had a sink and an area from which to view the garden through the window. It’s a cute room.

Random Observations:

  • Tokyo was hot. Kyoto is even hotter than Tokyo. Air conditioning is good. Brian thinks we’re wimps.
  • We were told that while in Tokyo, you stand on the left side of the escalator and people pass on the right side, it is the opposite in Kyoto. However, this is not true.  We tried standing on the right side and were just in the way.
  • Disposable chopsticks here are no better/worse than those in the U.S.
  • Vending machines have a lot of water and tea; it is hard to find juice around here.
Bamboo Grove

Bamboo Grove

2012-07-26: Kyoto on our Own

We had to wake up early for breakfast, for which we were served fruit, eggs over ham, toast, and orange juice by our hostess. Yay juice! She also offered us tea and coffee, was surprised when we declined both, and brought us extra juice and toast.

Ms. Uemura had us take an umbrella when we left today. That umbrella and the fan that was a gift from Akie were both instrumental in preventing heat stroke today, and the towel that was a gift from Eiko has proven instrumental in drying hands and removing sweat. California should adopt a parasol, fan and towel custom, especially in the Central Valley where it gets really hot. Maybe we’ll start a new trend.

We began by walking through Maruyama Park and the Yasaka Shrine to the Chion-in temple complex. We would like to note that gardens are cooler than temples. Especially gardens with shade from trees and running water.  We strolled through the beautiful garden area at Chion-in, then got lost in the confusing temple area with the terrible map they gave us at the ticket booth.  Chion-in has a lot of stairs and dead-ends. Also, its main hall is under construction, with a huge crane, a lot of scaffolding, and a sign saying it will finish restoration in 2019.  We started to get sick of the temple when we couldn’t find a way out, and eventually went all the way back and left through the front gate.

Next, we took the metro to a station that connected to a “rail line” and discovered that the “train” was actually a streetcar (singular), like the ones in SF, attached to lines overhead. We took this streetcar to Arashiyama, which means “western mountains” and is the western border of Kyoto.  (Our inn is in the “Higashiyama” district, which means “eastern mountains” and is the eastern border of Kyoto.) The buses, trains, and metro are all air-conditioned. Yay.

In Arashiyama, we had Katsu-don and Oyako-don for lunch at Yoshida-ya, a place our guidebook recommended.  Then we walked to Tenryu-ji Temple, where we were able to enter both the actual temple itself and its extensive gardens.  We exited the gardens to find the Bamboo Grove, which is like a forest made entirely of large stalks of bamboo.  While strolling through the bamboo grove, we watched a girl doing a photoshoot dressed up in a kimono.  Bamboo groves are really cool.  Unfortunately, Bamboo groves are also full of mosquitoes. Mosquito bites are itchy. Mosquitoes like Ted. He’s got around 40 large red splotches all over his legs and arms. =\ Two of his bites even got a pus-filled blister. =\  Pamela’s favorite spot was Ted’s least favorite spot.

When Ted got tired and grumpy from walking through mosquitoes, we got lost trying to find the Japan Rail station and wandered through a residential neighborhood. We eventually took a (real) train/metro back to our area and had dinner (nyumen and soba noodles) at Hisago, where we watched a girl dressed up in a kimono having dinner with her boyfriend.  Pamela’s study of Hiragana finally paid off: We’d tried to find Hisago for dinner last night and failed, but today in daylight, Pamela recognized the name of the restaurant written in Hiragana.

After dinner, we stopped at a cute store selling a lot of things made with beautiful fabrics and spent some time shopping until the shopkeepers got grumpy because they wanted to close. (It had been the only shop still open.)  Then we got some (more) ice cream from a convenience store and headed back to our ryokan.

Random Observations:

  • We saw several girls wearing kimonos; they look cute. However, their outfits look terribly hot for this weather; Ted thinks they should have portable air conditioners wrapped in the fabric on their backs.
  • Our inn has funny bathrooms. The sinks are on top of the toilet tanks, and the water runs out of the faucet and into the toilet when you flush. Then there is a cloth towel dispenser, which rolls cloth towels out and back up.
Fan Makers

Fan Makers

2012-07-27: Kyoto Walking Tours

We spent most of this morning and afternoon on a Kyoto Walking Tour called “Walk in Kyoto, Talk in English.”  We’d wanted to do the walk with Johnny Hillwalker, the guy who started it and is highly recommended, but he only does tours on Wednesdays now. Our guide was Emi.  Over the course of 5 hours, she took us to Higashi-Honganji Buddhist temple, another private Buddhist temple with a graveyard, Ayako-Tenmangu and Ichihime Shinto shrines, a fan-making workshop (Kyosendo), a pottery workshop (Yuki), a rosary-making workshop, lunch at a café in a shopping center, tea and sweets at a tea/sweet shop (Kaikado), the old Nintendo headquarters, a couple “teahouses” in the old geisha district, the gangster headquarters (where she asked to please not all look at the same time), and the only bath house in Kyoto that allows you into the bath with tattoos on (conveniently situated right next to the gangster headquarters).

Before the tour, we didn’t understand the difference between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples; we couldn’t tell which was which. They both have offering boxes that you throw money in and bow to; some of them have bells to ring; they all have large traditional buildings; many of them have Stonehenge-ish gates at the entrance—but there is no distinction as to which have which of the above. During the tour, Emi claimed that Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are different, although they may look similar to the casual observer. Buddhism is used for death (does funeral rites, etc.) while Shintoism is for life (does weddings, etc.)  Both religions thus seem incomplete.  At Shinto shrines, you must clap to draw the attention of the gods, because they are just spirits floating around. At Buddhist temples, you need not clap because there is a statue of the god right in front of you; they have form. Shinto shrines are colorful, using reds and oranges. Buddhist temples are plainer (on the outside). Only Shinto shrines have tori gates. Also, Buddhist rosaries look different from Catholic rosaries. I’d assume they’re prayed differently, too…

We also learned that apparently you are not supposed to step on the edging of tatami mats because it wears off faster. Oops.  The fan-makers we watched made fans incredibly fast: using pre-folded 3-layer papers, the woman picked up a set of sticks, wiped them with glue, and inserted them into the papers. The man folded it up, made sure it was lined up right, and set it aside. When it is dry, they’ll go back and attach the sides. The whole process took under half a minute.

During our short break in the afternoon, we wandered into some shops and stopped at a café for shaved ice. It was too hot to do much. We gave up and took a bus to Gion, where the second tour we wanted to attend (same company) would begin. We went into an Internet Café hoping for Wifi, but found computers and cigarettes instead. Then we went into a bookstore, where we ended up with 4 people helping us find a book on Wagashi recipes for a friend, and still failed.

After leaving the bookstore, we went to the meeting point for the Gion walking tour and discovered we were 15 minutes late. We attempted to follow the tour route and actually found the tour though!

This second tour was a walking tour of Gion, the current Geisha district, with Mie. Mie was more fluid in English, and even used a word Pamela was unsure about: auspicious.  Mie walked us around Gion showing us geiko/meiko (geisha and apprentice geisha, in Kyoto dialect) dormitories and teahouses and explaining the traditions to us.  We happened to be stopped in front of one dormitory when a taxi pulled up, and Mie told us that meant a meiko was coming out because they only use that one taxi service. We all stood there for like 15 minutes waiting for her to come out so we could take a picture of her. Only Ted succeeded, so others in the group started taking pictures of his picture…

Both walking tours were good. The tour guides stopped often enough that we were not exhausted or dying of heat stroke, and we learned interesting things (although Ted claims not to remember anything).  Both guides had good English; probably the most fluent English we’ve heard anybody speak since getting here. Emi had two English quirks: she often confused masculine and feminine pronouns (her/his, she/he, her/him), and pronounced all English “r”s with the Japanese pronunciation. Whenever she was grasping for a word, she’s kill a millisecond saying “how should say…” and then continue right along. Pamela also noted that Emi (in the old district) said that the geisha are still sometimes used as prostitutes today since official prostitutes were banned; while Mie (in the new district) refuted the claim.

At the end of our Gion tour, we went back to an okonomiyaki restaurant that Mie had pointed out during the tour for dinner. The noodle dish was good, but the place in Tokyo had better egg dishes.

While walking back to the bus stop, we got passed by a geiko going somewhere. Ted tried to take her picture, and she literally ran away.  We passed her again waiting to cross an intersection, and she kept looking at him nervously.

Random Observations:

  • Ted uses ice cream to cool off. Pamela must limit Ted’s ice cream intake so that he will be able to eat meals.
  • The AC is never turned down very cool. Maybe cools off to 80 degrees (F), which feels good compared to outside but is not “cool”.  Opposite of places in the US, where you have to go out carrying a sweatshirt because it’s cooled down to 60 degrees inside.Ted’s suggested itinerary for next time: sightseeing in morning and evening; shopping in the afternoon.

Tokyo: Japan Days 1-4

July 24th, 2012 by Pamela

We are in Japan! Our first stop is Tokyo, where we will visit with Ted’s brother (Brian) and two friends of Pamela’s who were exchange students in the U.S. back in high school (Eiko and Akie).

Shibuya

In Shibuya with Eiko, Akie, and Brian

2012-07-21: Walking Tour of Tokyo

Activities:

  • Spent the flight sleeping an attempting to learn to read Hiragana.
  • Arrived around 5am, rented a phone, killed some time at the airport. Found our way to Brian’s.
  • Met Eiko and Akie at Hachiko’s statue at Shibuya Crossing. Left their gifts at Brian’s. =(  Watched thousands of people cross the street. Crossing wasn’t that busy yet.
  • Took photo booth pictures and decorated them.
  • Ate okonomiyaki for lunch–these egg-pancake things stuffed with whatever.
  • Wandered Omotesando district, a fancy shopping area.
  • Started to rain. Bought umbrella.
  • Walked through expensive shopping mall, Omote Hills.
  • Went to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine, got fortunes, saw wedding procession, made offering.
  • Wandered Harajuku district, a hip female teen area. Saw mostly teenage girls.
  • Wandered Akihabara district, an electronics area. Saw mostly men. Bought Gundam treat. Ted bit its head off.
  • Met up with Brian’s friend, Tsutombu(?).
  • Went to Asakusa and saw Sensoji, a Buddhist temple.
  • Went to a restaurant known for its eel and had unagi donburi and miso soup for dinner.
  • Crashed.

Observations

  • There are a lot of people everywhere in the city.
  • High consumerism. There are a lot of people buying a lot of things with questionable value.
  • Omg sensory overload.
  • There are quite narrow streets in neighborhood areas like Brian’s, used mainly for pedestrian traffic with the occasional car that drives through.
  • Compared to the number of people, there are few cars and bikes; mostly pedestrians.
  • Everybody actually waits for crosswalk signs.
  • Everybody pulls out an umbrella at the tiniest hint of rain. I wouldn’t even call it rain. Akie has a cute umbrella.
Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

2012-07-22: Edo-Tokyo and More

Activities:

  • Left Brian behind because Ted snored so much he couldn’t sleep. 😛
  • Met Eiko at the Edo-Tokyo museum, a museum showing the history of the city as it changed from being Edo (old city) to Tokyo (new city).
  • Had lunch at the museum cafe: oyako don and tempura udon.
  • Went back to Shibuya Crossing to take pictures of the crossing and Hachiko’s statue. Way more people there this time.
  • Met up with Brian and went to cat cafe, a place where you can go to play with cats. Played with kittens.
  • Wandered through north Jiyugaoka neighborhood, two stops south of Brian’s.
  • Went to a green tea shop (Nana’s) where Ted/Brian/Eiko got iced green tea drinks and Pamela tried to practice reading all of the signs in the shop. Went in a housewares shop and looked around.
  • Met up with Brian’s friends Yuko and Tsuzu for dinner at a korean bbq style place and ate nabeyaki(?).

Observations:

  • The museum had a lot of 3D and hands-on exhibits, with entire buildings and stuff inside. This is a good way to maintain interest.
  • The neighborhoods farther from the city center are quieter and  prettier.
  • Kittens are cute.
  • Cat cafes are more practical in dense populations with no pets allowed in apartments than they would be in a suburban area.
  • Yum.
Sunrise Atop Mt. Fuji

Sunrise Atop Mt. Fuji

2012-07-23/24: Mt. Fuji

Activities

  • Mt. Fuji is divided into 10 “stations” from its base to its summit.  There are a series of mountain huts at each station.
  • Took a bus to the 5th station, as far as the buses go. Practiced reading on the bus.
  • Got lunch (ramen) and bought some supplies (headlamp, walking sticks, peanut snacks).
  • Started hiking at 1pm. Spent 6 hours hiking from the 5th station up to the 8th station, where we had reservation at a hut to sleep.
  • Spent an hour freezing outside waiting for the hut to check us in and show us up to our sleeping bags.
  • Rested for 30 minutes, then went downstairs for dinner for another 30 minutes.
  • Attempted to sleep for about 4 hours.
  • Got up at 1am, started remainder of hike about half an hour later.
  • Spent 2 hours hiking from the 8th station to the summit.
  • Spent an hour and a half watching the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji, walking over to see the crater, and climbing up to the closest peak.
  • Rested for an hour on a bench in a hut.
  • Spent 5 hours hiking back down to the 5th station.
  • Got lunch again and took the bus back to Tokyo.
  • Showered. Napped.
  • Met Brian for dinner–sushi.

Observations

  • The mountain is only open to hikers in July and August. The paths are full of people 24/7, hiking up and down in an endless line.
  • The “stations” are deceiving–they are unequally spaced and get progressively harder to climb to. There is also more than one hut claiming to be at each station.  Thus, we reached the 6th station relatively easily, but then passed like 4 more huts before reaching the 7th station, etc.
  • We had different problems on the way up the first night. For Ted, the problem was altitude–he had trouble getting enough air and kept needing to stop and rest. For Pamela the problem was sore achilles tendons and really cold hands.
  • The check-in system at the “Fujisan Hotel” was utterly inefficient and confusing.  The only English word they understood was “reservation”. Oh you have a reservation? Ah yes, here is your name on our list. Please stand outside and wait. [30 min later] Please come inside. Stand here and wait. [diff guy] Why are you here? Please wait outside. [We refused. It was freezing.] Finally, another 30 min later, Please come over here and pay. Thanks. Here is the time you can come down for dinner. Here are the numbers of your sleeping bags. Why did that take an hour??!?!?!?
  • Probably the worst night’s sleep ever, not even counting that it was from 9pm-1am. First we had to listen to the other hikers who weren’t asleep yet, then we had to listen to the guy next to Ted snoring, then we had to listen to the people downstairs stomping and shouting all night as they cleaned the kitchen, since they didn’t have to wake up at 1am, then we had to listen to the other hikers begin to stir and rise at 12:30am for no reason at all.
  • The sunrise hike was COLD. We’d expected it to get cold (it’s like a 40 degree difference in temp from the 5th station to the summit), but were not prepared enough. Just as Pamela thought her hands were going to fall off from frostbite, she found a pair of gloves on the ground. Finders, keepers.
  • Headlamps good.  The line of headlamps stretching out behind us reminded us of a line of miners.
  • Watching the sunrise was cool, but would have been more enjoyable had we been warm and rested.
  • The trail uphill was mostly either loose rocks (bad for ankles) or big rocks to scramble up. The trail downhill was the “bulldozer path”, mostly loose dirt and steeper.
  • We had different problems on the way down as well. Going downhill was painful on Pamela’s ankles and knees, until she decided to pretend she was dancing standard, and then decided to switch off each switchback with dancing forward or dancing backward. Then it stopped hurting, but the damage was done.  Ted spent the hike down with a headache and kept needing to stop and rest.
  • Restrooms got more expensive the higher you got. They cost 50 yen to use at the 5th station, 200 yen to use along the way up and down, and 300 yen to use at the summit. That’s a $5 potty break if you’re desperate.
  • Each hut had people who would “stamp” your walking stick for a fee. They were basically branding it with a hot iron over a fire, showing the name of the hut or the altitude or whatever. We thought we’d be getting 5, one for each station… but since each station had like 4 huts along the way, the stamps ended up covering our entire stick (and becoming quite expensive).  We now have proof we made it all the way up!
  • Apparently we eat sushi like heathens… perhaps because we’ve never gone out to sushi before. Brian was embarrassed to be associated with us. 😛
  • We have different shopping habits. So far, everything non-essential (souvenirs/gifts) that Ted has bought has been a form of sweets. For Pamela, it has been socks and postcards.

City of the Sea: Italy Days 11-13

July 18th, 2011 by Pamela
View from the Rialto Bridge

View from the Rialto Bridge

2011-07-10 Italy Day 11: Venice’s Santa Croce, San Polo, Cannaregio

Activities:

  • Early flight from Catania to Venice, delayed due to ash from Mt. Etna’s eruption 2 days ago.
  • Lunch. Bad pasta.
  • Long nap at the Giardini Papadopoli.
  • Wandered northern Venice. Saw some churches, ate some gelato, did some window shopping.
  • Dinner at a rude restaurant with a wonderful canal-side view.
  • Hung out on the Rialto Bridge; took pictures of the Grand Canal.
  • Did some shopping and made our way back to the hotel.

Observations:

  • We have now “experienced more Italian culture” — volcanoes, in addition to strikes, can cause delays.
  • Venice is still pretty warm at midnight. Afternoons are brutal.
  • It really is much cooler in the shade.
  • Next time, we will pick a room closer to the center of town.
  • Streets in Venice are mostly short and not straight, making a labyrinth if you are trying to go anywhere in particular.
  • Shops in Venice seem to be a bit cheaper than shops in Positano and Capri.
  • Food just doesn’t taste as good after having been spoiled by home cooking.
  • Pamela will no longer eat mozzarella cheese that does not come tied in a bow.
  • It’s not cool to try to convince people to sit down at your restaurant. Nothing you say is going to help them make up their mind when you are acting like a car salesman.
  • Our waiter for dinner was particularly rude.
  • Venice is a pretty city.
  • Yay for showers.

Doge's Palace Quad

Doge's Palace Quad, with the Basilica poking up in the background

2011-07-11 Italy Day 12: Venice’s Piazza San Marco

Activities:

  • Breakfast: Croissant at bar by hotel
  • Vaporetto to San Marco
  • Hot. Went to Basilica. Long line in sun. Got gelato instead.
  • Museums–one of Venice history/culture, one archeological, one something else.
  • Lunch in Museum Caffetteria
  • St. Mark’s Basilica
  • Doge’s Palace
  • Granita
  • Campanile
  • Dinner: Pizza
  • Vaporetto partway home. Got too hot; got off and walked rest of way.

Observations:

  • We don’t get up early enough to avoid the crowds.
  • Afternoons in Venice are too hot to be outdoors.
  • The floors in St. Mark’s Basilica are both beautifully decorated with mosaic tile work and decidedly NOT flat. We wonder why.
  • The rest of the basilica seems to have a more Byzantine style to it in comparison with the Vatican.
  • We manage to always be getting kicked out at closing time. Left the basilica as it closed at 5; got chased out of the Doge’s Palace as it closed at 7; left the campanile after it closed at 9.
  • I’m glad we didn’t take the elevator down from the campanile that we’d planned to, because right after it left, one of the bells started ringing and put on a terrific display.
  • Water taxis are only cool if they aren’t so crowded that you can’t breathe. The vaporettos along the Grand Canal need to be running at least twice as often.
  • People in Venice are rude. I definitely got clapped at like a dog by a shop keeper who tried to shoo me away from his window that I was blocking, and he had the nerve to later ask if I wanted to buy something because I dallied. I was actually blocking his window less when I was sitting down, but couldn’t seem to find the desire to leave after he made me stand up and so was now blocking it more.
  • The pigeons covering St. Mark’s Square seem to disappear sometime during the evening.
  • The water in the canals here seems to be dirtier and leave steps covered in algae, unlike the crystal-clear water that we went swimming in in Marina di Patti.
  • Granita is good for cooling off.
  • Half a bottle of wine seems to be a good amount for the both of us. We still have yet to find any amazingly good pizza in Italy.
  • Ted is fond of skirts and heels. Pamela doesn’t understand girls who walk around the city all day in horribly-uncomfortable looking heels, but is glad she was wearing a new skirt instead of pants today.
  • Too many places say no photography, for no apparent reason.
  • No one checks to see whether you paid for a ticket on the vaporettos, similar to the busses in Rome and Positano. We have no idea how they actually make money.
  • They also weren’t being to anal about enforcing the dress code at the Basilica. Perhaps they were taking pity on people due to it being so hot.
  • Pamela’s knowledge on cheese and on Catholic art and symbolism is apparently lacking, it would seem based on her lack of ability to answer Ted’s questions.
  • Pamela is undecided whether super-fancy churches should stop being used as churches due to the constant distraction of people walking in to see them, or whether it’s cool that they still can be used as churches.
  • St. Mark’s Piazza started flooding from holes in the middle at high tide. Weird. It is also decidedly NOT rectangular.

Master Glass Artisan at Work

Master Glass Artisan at Work

2011-07-12 Italy Day 13: Venice’s Murano

Activities:

  • Post Office: Mail postcard to Liz.
  • Coop: Buy carton of juice and 2 yogurts for breakfast.
  • Vaporetto to the separate island of Murano.
  • Lunch: Pizza.
  • Guided tour of Glass Museum.
  • Studio demonstration of glass sculpting.
  • Shopping for Murano glass sculptures for the house.
  • Vaporetto back to hotel.
  • Shopping & Dinner (ravioli) in neighborhood near hotel.
  • Stay up late repacking everything smaller for flight home tomorrow.

Observations:

  • “Cereal” flavored yogurt is not at all the same as having yogurt with granola in it. Yuck.
  • The default type of water seems to be carbonated. Not sure why they don’t like straight water.
  • We have never once been given a spoon with which to eat our pasta.
  • There do not appear to be any mammals living in Venice besides the humans.
  • There is a decided lack of diversity in restaurants. Not sure why no one has thought to try opening a restaurant serving international cuisine (although we’ve seen sushi once or twice).
  • Glasswork is hot. Furnace. Bad in summer. But super cool to watch.
  • Glass artisans work FAST, even with details.
  • The water surrounding Venice is not so good for dipping feet into. The steps down/anything touching it is covered in algae, and the water itself is green and dirty-looking if you look too closely.
  • We still don’t like mosquitoes, of any nationality.
  • While all the toilets in Italy seem to come with a bidet, none of them came with toilet seat covers.