In which I share final thoughts on Japan, and we are warned of possible projectile vomiting, I think. 

Overall, we all loved Japan though it was harder than I had anticipated to travel there. Here’s some thoughts, in no particular order.
1. The language. Very, very few people speak English here. I don’t mean to sound like the typical Ugly American Tourist, only to comment that it can be hard to get around. Not only is it hard to communicate with people, but little of the signage outside of a train station is in English, so navigation is tough too. In Vietnam and Cambodia, most things were dual signed, even in Phnom Penh which isn’t set up for tourists as much as Siem Reap. And in Vietnam the script is roman script, so even if I don’t know what something says, I can match it up to the street on my google map or a restaurant name a lot easier. Trying to do that by matching Japanese characters is a lot harder. And weirdly, sometimes things would have one or two words in English on it but then would be otherwise in Japanese. Like a menu would say “Lunch Menu” at the top, but then all below was indecipherable to us. Using the google translate app gets you only so far. For us, this meant that one of our favorite things about traveling so far, which has been connecting with the people and learning about their lives, was much harder. If we were to come back for any longer period of time, I would try to pick up some conversational Japanese.


2. The food. Just incredible, and maybe the best three weeks of food I’ve ever had. Being semi-vegetarian also made things harder especially with the language – we were largely hemmed in by places that had English menus so we knew what we were ordering. Many restaurants are these tiny five to six seater places, and we loved that, sitting at a counter while chatting with the chef as we were able. We eat fish and so sushi was always the easy and relatively cheap option. We had ramen as well several places, and I’m 90% certain that it was pork bone broth every single time, but who knows. With broth, while traveling, I generally follow a don’t ask/don’t tell policy. There is so much more to Japanese food other than ramen and sushi, and we want to make some when we get home. The Onigiri, or seaweed wrapped rice balls, were delicious and would be perfect for kids’ lunches. We are going to miss the Japanese food so, so much. And the sake. 


3. Etiquette. Japan is a notoriously polite society, where people do things in a certain way and look down upon you if you do things the wrong way. We tried to be as respectful of this as possible, following etiquette as we could. However. I stopped caring quite so much when I noticed that people sneeze INTO THE OPEN AIR. Into a crowded subway car even. I’m convinced that this is how I caught a cold while I was there. After that, I stopped trying to be so precise about everything. I mean, I felt like this was one area which we did better than the Japanese, and I just figured that as a foreigner, we’re never going to get it all correct so it was better just to relax about it a bit.

4. Shopping. There are malls everywhere. They are huge and confusing, as most don’t have any walls between the separate stores. Everything in the malls is insanely expensive, like you’re shopping at Neiman Marcus but in every store. They are full of people. Who are these people? What are they buying all the time? Where do they put it? We never found out. If you do shop in Japan, bring your passport with you though as foreign travellers get their tax refunded to them. 

5. People. For the most part, people were warm and welcoming to us, even with the language barrier. The only time this didn’t happen was when we went into small restaurants that clearly only catered to locals, had no English around, and all conversation stopped when we walked in. One of these we walked into and asked for a menu. The chef looked at us like we had three heads and pointed to the wooden boards hanging all around the restaurant, written in Japanese, as if to say, “you morons, the menu is literally written on the walls.” We backed out slowly and didn’t go back in. 

6. Money. Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive, and I have to say I didn’t find this to be the case. Overall, it was about as pricey as your average American city travel, and cheaper in some cases, partly thanks to the weak yen and strong dollar. I’ve easily spent more for the same housing and meals in NYC. Average Air Bnb was $60-120/night and an average meal for us was between $10-18 a person, including drinks. You can, of course, find much more expensive options and much cheaper options if you look. Even Disney tickets in Japan are considerably cheaper than the US, honestly. It’s not cheap cheap travel like in Southeast Asia, but it wasn’t like every meal cost us $100. 

7. Public Open  Spaces. There are none. Other than the manicured gardens requiring pay entry, there were no open parks with benches for people to sit and rest in, and we happened across zero playgrounds during our entire time there. We were walking so much every day that the kids got their exercise in, but it was odd. In general, Japan is a culture where things aren’t done in public. For example, other than ice cream, people do not eat in public. So when we’d get those onigiri from the 7-11 and try to find a place to sit and eat them, it was tough. Do the kids not play much there? I have to wonder. There are also almost no public trash cans. Take it with you, people. 

8. Restaurants with kids. This was tricky. First of all, you can smoke indoors at restaurants in Japan, so this made some places a bit tough to even go into. And kids aren’t really welcomed into bars at all, so even when we were just walking around and wanted to stop in for a drink while we found a place to eat on our phones, it just couldn’t happen. 

9. Prettiness. Everything is pretty. Even the manhole covers. So lovely. 

10. Vending machines. There are vending machines for everything purportedly, including underwear, but the only ones we saw were for drinks, liquor, and a vending machine for dashi stock. There’s also a lot of capsule toys and these are arranged in a long line where you can put in between $2-3 and get a little toy

And now, the street signs and others, Japan edition.

This crossing is for Don Draper and smooth criminals


Dancing elderly! Watch out!

Is this sign warning us to beware of drunk people throwing up?

Do not smoke cigarettes as large as your entire body here. I assume small ones are okay. Or cheroots. Who doesn’t like a little cheroot once in a while anyhow?

Aw, they even care about the robots here.

No selfie sticks, no littering, no smoking, don’t lean on stairs, and most importantly DON’T TOUCH THE GEISHA


In which we find people who can speak English but we can’t speak back

Time for our last day in Osaka! We had an 11:30 PM flight so packed up our bags, stuffed them into a train locker at Osaka Station, and went out for the day. First stop was to our last onsen of our trip! Wandering through a pedestrian alley filled with shops, then into a nondescript building with a smoky pachinko (gambling) parlor on the bottom floor, we saw a sign that said “spa” and took the elevator up. This one was on the rooftop of a building in the city! Here you h ad to order what you wanted from a vending machine, including towels, then take those tickets exactly ten steps to the right and hand them to the people working there. Why we couldn’t just order directlyfrom the workers is beyond me, since they were otherwise rather bored looking. One thing I’ve noticed here is that there are always more people at a job than needed, like every cash register always has at least two people working at it, one to handle the money and another to wrap your purchases. Anyway, back to the Onsen.   Not as plush as the last one we were at, but still so fun. The ladies tried to talk to me in Japanese, and not for the first time I wished I spoke the language. 
We bickered about lunch before finding a 7-11 and getting some onigiri. I swear, those 7-11s saved us so many times. There was a fish shaped filled waffle stand too, and we got some really yummy sweet potato ones! 


We had bought movie tickets the day previously, finally able to see “the BFG”! Movie tickets in Japan are notoriously expensive, with regular prices at $18/ticket. Luckily, there are a lot of random discounts. We used the one for “ladies day” and “couple with one person over 50” and paid $11/ticket, which is less than most American theatres. Trying to find a movie in English in Japan is tricky, what with the sites in all Japanese and not always obvious if a movie is subtitled or dubbed. I actually had to match Japanese characters to try and figure it out. Still, we weren’t entirely sure if we’d chosen wisely. The movie starts with nearly five minutes of silence and then random scuffling sounds before anyone utters a peep, but when they did, it was in English. Ahhhhh. I nearly wept in happiness at being able to understand people other than my family talk for a full two hours. Outside of the theatre was a pile of neatly stacked blankets to use for the show. The thing is, it’s not that cold in the movie theatres or anywhere indoors really as an electricity saving measure. Still, how could you not snuggle under a blanket? 


Here’s Eric cozied up in his blanket, drinking a beer just before the movie. The other thing is that the Japanese are SILENT during the movie. I mean, there were a lot of funny parts and we and the kids were laughing, but the Japanese watchers (all ten of them) did not make a peep. They may have thought we were rude for laughing, but it seemed ridiculous to tell my kids be silent while watching characters shoot across the screen farting powerful neon green bubbles. 
The BFG is a movie that uses a lot of made up words and language jokes (For example, the character says “right and left” when he means “right and wrong”) and I couldn’t help but wonder how this could possibly be translated and keep the same feeling. Of course, it’s probably the same when we watch the Miyazaki movies in dubbed English – something isn’t quite carried through. 
After this was dinner, which of course had to be one last stop at conveyor belt sushi, on the top floor of the mall attached to the Osaka train station. Then to the airport, where we bid a sad sayonara to Japan on our way to Budapest and then Romania, the first leg of our journey coming to a close.
-s

In which we see an art-filled island, and are silently admonished by the Japanese for making our small child ride a bike over hills

From Hiroshima we made our way to Naoshima, or more precisely the port from which you get to Naoshima. 
We found our guesthouse, which was small but charming, and headed over to the island. Naoshima is an island off the coast of Eastern Japan which has become a big art site – there are several museums, galleries, and indoor and outdoor installations. The island is also famous for having a lot of cute cats, and we saw several preening about through the day. We had hoped to rent bicycles and pedal about from one site to another. Upon arrival, however, the bike rental dude wasn’t that friendly and seemed shocked that we would want to make a child ride a bike, nor did he give us any other options. For today, we took the overcrowded shuttlebus to the Honmura site and saw the installations there. 
The streets are narrow and the houses stand from the Edo period (1603-1868). Several of them have been gutted and transformed into installations. You can’t take pictures of the sites once inside, unfortunately. The first one we saw, and by far our favorite was a large room we walked into, pitch black. We were led in in small groups of ten or so people, and had to use our hands as guides around a wall before sitting down on a bench and staring into a seemingly black space. Slowly, as our eyes adjusted, the back wall came into view, a large rectangle of dim blue light, growing brighter. Eventually we could see it clearly, the guide asked us to walk towards it and touch the wall. We went to touch the wall…and our hand passed right through, eliciting gasps of surprise from everyone. The light was reflected from an angled wall, which fell away from us so the blue light was actually an empty space. We then walked around the space, our eyes adjusted so that we could see clearly, but the area still playing with our perception. It was a wholly encompassing artwork, and we all talked about it afterwards. On our way to the last site, we walked by a little cafe that seemed to have bikes that might fit the girl, and decided to check back again the next day. 

Communing with the giant sea bream of Uno

Art installation, not an example of Edo architecture


Our guesthouse host had told us of an onsen across the street, and so of course we went! This was my favorite one – they gave you these nice robe/shorts to wear (jinbei) and there was a steam room with a large bowl of salt you could give yourself a scrub with, and these very shallow rectangular pools you could lay down in one or two inches of hot water, a perfect combination of hot water and feeling cooled by the air. 
The following day we headed back to the island and made it to the cafe/bike place. Once again, they seemed very hesitant to rent to a child and warned us of the excessive hilliness of the island. I’m still not sure what to make of this – is it just that they don’t think kids are capable of riding hills, or that they didn’t think the girl was? We were able to find a bike that just barely fit her, and took off. There was one hill I would consider “big” that we had to go over, and even I had to walk the bike at the end of it, but other than that nothing we hadn’t all done before. We made it to the other side of the island in fifteen minutes and saw many of the outdoor art pieces for which the island is famous, especially the big pumpkin! 


Lunch was poorly planned on our part – I thought there would be more options in the museum area, but no. We snacked at the Chichu Art museum and then went inside. Again, no pictures were allowed inside. The museum is designed by Tadao Ando and is entirely built underground into the island, however in such a way that all artworks are seen in natural light only. The museum has a room of Monet’s water lilies, and honestly, I kind of thought, yawn, water lilies again? I mean, haven’t we all seen enough posters of water lilies in the dorm rooms of our college freshman roommates, especially those who later moved into sorority houses? But in this museum, it was a different experience. The floor of the room is made with matte marble mosaic tilework, ranging from white to gray, and you have to take off your shoes before entering the room and change into slippers. Because of this, the room isn’t crowded and there’s no one trying to take pictures and you can’t hear anyone even walking about, just shuffling along quietly, so the focus is on the art and you can appreciate the beauty of them, especially illuminated as they are with natural light only which reflects softly off the tiled mosaic floor. On the way into the museum, there’s a garden set up in the style which inspired Monet, and it was lovely to see the real life inspiration behind the work.

We rode back as the sun was beginning to set , dropped off the bikes, and enjoyed a beer before the ferry came to take us back to the mainland. 



-s

In which we get shrined-out in Kyoto and never tire of the gardens

Onward to Kyoto! I wish I could tell you that I loved Kyoto and the beauty it had to offer. I did like a lot of what we saw, but the crowds made it so difficult to really enjoy things entirely, and there is a limit for how many temples and shrines one can see.
We managed to get to our Air BnB, which was a bit outside the city and quiet. Dinner was at a udon place up the street. We ordered the Tofu Udon and soon realized our error. In the US, if a restaurant dish is tofu anything, you can be assured of it being otherwise meat free. In Japan, where tofu is considered palatable by everyone, this is not the case. Our udon arrived with big chunks of ham. We did our best to eat around them.
Kyoto is a land of temples and gardens and more temples and gardens. The former are lovely but get to be repetetive, the latter are stunning. Our first stop, near where we were staying was the Fushimi-Inari shrine, known for the thousands of red gates. It should also be known for the thousands of tourists, local and foreign, that come to walk through. The path through the gates is narrow and steep and it was hard not to feel a sense of claustrophobia.

Trying out the wishing rock. if it’s lighter than you thought it would be, you get your wish

From there we went to Tofukuji, another shrine (fine) but with truly beautiful Japanese gardens around it. One was a green garden and another was a Zen rock garden, both equally serene and so pleasant to walk around especially after the overload of the first stop.

One restaurant I really wanted to go to was Kyotofu, a restaurant where they create and serve all things tofu! They specialize in many different types of tofu, and it’s a meal you just wouldn’t have in the states. Again, you’d think it would be vegetarian but no, we made sure to specify and good thing as two of the dishes in the set plate are otherwise made of hamburger. Mixed with tofu, of course. This was super tasty and we had a nice view of Kyoto as well.

Quite differently than back home, this restaurant was in a shopping mall! This is pretty typical here – the entire top and bottom floors of shopping malls may be devoted to food, restaurants or grocery and are usually high quality. At a different mall, the downstairs two levels were like a Whole Foods on steroids. Just a little different from the Hot Dog on a Stick fare we’re used to at malls in the states. Another thing different about shopping malls here – there aren’t any walls separating the stores. The floors are sort of divided by theme – men’s fashion, women’s, kids – and then on the floors themselves are just, well, areas, the way we would think about different sections in a Macy’s, but each one is it’s own store with it’s own register.

I’ve also yet to see a department store that isn’t completely packed with people. Who are all these people? Why do they shop so aggressively? Where do they put all this stuff? These malls are all very high end – think Chanel boutiques, Agnes B, Kenzo – and yet everywhere was full of shoppers, seemingly spending hard earned yen. The Gap of Japan is Uniqlo and Muji, and these were plenty full also. Eric continued his quest to find a pair of jeans, only to find that they either were long enough and cost $300 or came to his mid calf.
Our next day in Kyoto was cool and drizzly. We had a late start and meandered to the Ryoan-ji, a zen rock garden. On the way we stopped in at an okonomiyaki, or japanese pancake place. They mix up veggies and meats in a base of egg and flour and cabbage, then cook it up. Your table has a narrow wooden rim and in the center is a rectangular grill, onto which the okonomiyaki goes. You eat it with a sharp spatula thing. I must say, this was my least favorite japanese dish. The pancake itself was tasty but I didn’t like the sweet teriyaki sauce on top.


The rock garden was just beautiful, and afterwards we walked to Kinkaju, or the famous golden temple. Pretty though it was, it was so crowded that I felt like we were being herded along through the site. We are picky tourists, and want to enjoy these very popular sites with no one else around, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I mean, if Obama gets to do it, why not us?

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-s

In which we stay at a house out of a cartoon and finally get to relax in an onsen

After staying the night in a tiny and truly charmless Air BnB, we headed out for Oiso to visit the town of Hakone. Hakone is a mountain town known for it’s onsen, or japanese hot spring baths, and art museums. It’s also a resort town so when I went to look for places to stay, I was blown away by the prices – $300/night for the most basic! We’re really trying to stay at no more than $100/night as much as possible, allowing for the fact that Japan costs more than other places, and that was out of our price range. Instead, I found an Air BnB not too far away that had great reviews, so off we went. 
We arrived and our host picked us up and took us to the property. I haven’t written much about the places we’ve stayed, I realize. Mostly we are in Air BnBs which have 2 bedrooms and a living area, and the prices have been anywhere from $60-100 night for most of the trip. They’ve mostly been nice, clean and have worked well for us, usually set up like a standard small apartment you could imagine. 
This one was something else. The owner and his wife are artists/decorators/musicians/photographers/videographers/art teachers who live in the little seaside town of Oiso, where I later learned Haruki Murakami also lives. Masami, the husband, wakes up at 6 am to surf every day. We were hungry so stopped for ramen on the way at a place that made tomato ramen in a salt broth, quite tasty. 
Masami told us that he and his wife had redone the house with a shipping container, adding in the floors, the electricity and the rooms. We walked in through a sliding glass door and saw a worn wooden floor hallway going into a small patio and a twisted, narrow winding staircase off to one side. On either side of the hallway were rooms, one of which led to the shower room and also had a vintage foosball table in it which the kids promptly began playing. The other side had a room with a magazine racks in it and another staircase leading upstairs. The hallway ended in a large space with long tables, a small bar area, and a piano, drum kit, guitar, and various musical instruments scattered about. We walked up the narrow metal staircase to find the second floor with rooms to either side, and were motioned up to the third attic level through a tiny, steep staircase that emerged onto an open landing into a low ceilinged attic room. Eric stood up and immediately hit his head on a rafter, in what was to be an oft-repeated event for the two night stay here. I’m not sure what Japanese building codes are like, but I’m pretty sure this place doesn’t comply. For a kid, it’s a wonderland. Dusty rooms in seemingly secret places with treasures to be found around the bend. As an adult I looked down the attic staircase without railings and pictured one of the children tripping and falling to the bottom, laying there with their neck broken. At night we blocked off the entrance with a chair. Eric used whatever bottle was handy if he had to pee at night as the only bathroom was two sets of stairs down. 

We all headed off to the beach, we all played in the waves while Masami surfed. On the way home we picked up fish for sushi and some sake and headed back. After we showered and changed he had us come back to their part of the house, which was by following the second level back, outside on a wooden walkway and then into their house. That night we had hand rolled sushi for dinner! 


The following day we went to Hakone. This was truly beautiful. A switchbacking mountain railway leads to mountain base. If you wish, you can further take cable cars to the top and boats around. I do wish we’d had another day to explore and to take an entire loop of the town. As it was we went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, filled with outdoor sculpture of all kinds and a special Picasso exhibit with some of his fused glass paintings, which I had never seen. They had a big outdoor clear plastic bobbly play structure for the kids, who scampered about like little hamsters inside. We had hoped to see Mt. Fuji, but it was cloudy and she remained shrouded. She is indeed a modest lady. 


We then went to an onsen, or Japanese bath! It was so, so lovely. The men’s and women’s areas are separated as you go into the spas in your birthday suit. First you go into the locker room areas and disrobe, then sit in the communal shower area and wash thoroughly. Then you head into the spas! There were several small to medium size pools of different warmth and a cold pool for refreshment. I had been really looking forward to this as a time of peace and relaxation. The girl and I got into the onsen area and from the moment we stepped in it was “oh this is so nice the water is so warm oh this one is too hot should we try that pool that one looks like a cave here’s a cup! What do you think this cup is for? Oh they use it to splash water on themselves i’m going to try the cold pool what’s this little fountain for my towel is wet can you put my towel up can you fix my hair lets go into the sauna soon lets just put our feet in here okay maybe we can sit on the bench and take a break…” On and on and on. At one point I asked for five minutes of silence, and after 30 seconds I heard, “has it been five minutes yet? Now? Now? Now?” And I gave up on the peace and quiet part of the experience. Even with the logorrhea, the pools were so nice and my muscles felt better. 
That night for dinner was fresh gyoza and takomaki, or octopus dumplings, also amazing. (We had a octopus free version). Ikuko was a wonderful host – at breakfast that morning the boy had mentioned that he loves gyoza but we haven’t been able to find any vegetarian or fish gyoza here, and she said we’d have them for dinner! A South Korean guest had joined the house and we enjoyed meeting her for dinner. Next morning was miso soup and onigiri, or rice balls wrapped in seaweed. The onigiri became a staple food for us during the rest of our time in Japan.  


The next morning, after breakfast, we all hung out and played music together and chatted before we left for the train station. The boy played “Space Oddity” for all assembled, I pattered on the drum kit,  and Eric enjoyed having a piano again and playing.


-s

In which we stay at a house out of a cartoon and finally get to relax in an onsen

After staying the night in a tiny and truly charmless Air BnB, we headed out for Oiso to visit the town of Hakone. Hakone is a mountain town known for it’s onsen, or japanese hot spring baths, and art museums. It’s also a resort town so when I went to look for places to stay, I was blown away by the prices – $300/night for the most basic! We’re really trying to stay at no more than $100/night as much as possible, allowing for the fact that Japan costs more than other places, and that was out of our price range. Instead, I found an Air BnB not too far away that had great reviews, so off we went. 
We arrived and our host picked us up and took us to the property. I haven’t written much about the places we’ve stayed, I realize. Mostly we are in Air BnBs which have 2 bedrooms and a living area, and the prices have been anywhere from $60-100 night for most of the trip. They’ve mostly been nice, clean and have worked well for us, usually set up like a standard small apartment you could imagine. 
This one was something else. The owner and his wife are artists/decorators/musicians/photographers/videographers/art teachers who live in the little seaside town of Oiso, where I later learned Haruki Murakami also lives. Masami, the husband, wakes up at 6 am to surf every day. We were hungry so stopped for ramen on the way at a place that made tomato ramen in a salt broth, quite tasty. 
Masami told us that he and his wife had redone the house with a shipping container, adding in the floors, the electricity and the rooms. We walked in through a sliding glass door and saw a worn wooden floor hallway going into a small patio and a twisted, narrow winding staircase off to one side. On either side of the hallway were rooms, one of which led to the shower room and also had a vintage foosball table in it which the kids promptly began playing. The other side had a room with a magazine racks in it and another staircase leading upstairs. The hallway ended in a large space with long tables, a small bar area, and a piano, drum kit, guitar, and various musical instruments scattered about. We walked up the narrow metal staircase to find the second floor with rooms to either side, and were motioned up to the third attic level through a tiny, steep staircase that emerged onto an open landing into a low ceilinged attic room. Eric stood up and immediately hit his head on a rafter, in what was to be an oft-repeated event for the two night stay here. I’m not sure what Japanese building codes are like, but I’m pretty sure this place doesn’t comply. For a kid, it’s a wonderland. Dusty rooms in seemingly secret places with treasures to be found around the bend. As an adult I looked down the attic staircase without railings and pictured one of the children tripping and falling to the bottom, laying there with their neck broken. At night we blocked off the entrance with a chair. Eric used whatever bottle was handy if he had to pee at night as the only bathroom was two sets of stairs down. 

We all headed off to the beach, we all played in the waves while Masami surfed. On the way home we picked up fish for sushi and some sake and headed back. After we showered and changed he had us come back to their part of the house, which was by following the second level back, outside on a wooden walkway and then into their house. That night we had hand rolled sushi for dinner! 


The following day we went to Hakone. This was truly beautiful. A switchbacking mountain railway leads to mountain base. If you wish, you can further take cable cars to the top and boats around. I do wish we’d had another day to explore and to take an entire loop of the town. As it was we went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, filled with outdoor sculpture of all kinds and a special Picasso exhibit with some of his fused glass paintings, which I had never seen. They had a big outdoor clear plastic bobbly play structure for the kids, who scampered about like little hamsters inside. We had hoped to see Mt. Fuji, but it was cloudy and she remained shrouded. She is indeed a modest lady. 


We then went to an onsen, or Japanese bath! It was so, so lovely. The men’s and women’s areas are separated as you go into the spas in your birthday suit. First you go into the locker room areas and disrobe, then sit in the communal shower area and wash thoroughly. Then you head into the spas! There were several small to medium size pools of different warmth and a cold pool for refreshment. I had been really looking forward to this as a time of peace and relaxation. The girl and I got into the onsen area and from the moment we stepped in it was “oh this is so nice the water is so warm oh this one is too hot should we try that pool that one looks like a cave here’s a cup! What do you think this cup is for? Oh they use it to splash water on themselves i’m going to try the cold pool what’s this little fountain for my towel is wet can you put my towel up can you fix my hair lets go into the sauna soon lets just put our feet in here okay maybe we can sit on the bench and take a break…” On and on and on. At one point I asked for five minutes of silence, and after 30 seconds I heard, “has it been five minutes yet? Now? Now? Now?” And I gave up on the peace and quiet part of the experience. Even with the logorrhea, the pools were so nice and my muscles felt better. 
That night for dinner was fresh gyoza and takomaki, or octopus dumplings, also amazing. (We had a octopus free version). Ikuko was a wonderful host – at breakfast that morning the boy had mentioned that he loves gyoza but we haven’t been able to find any vegetarian or fish gyoza here, and she said we’d have them for dinner! A South Korean guest had joined the house and we enjoyed meeting her for dinner. Next morning was miso soup and onigiri, or rice balls wrapped in seaweed. The onigiri became a staple food for us during the rest of our time in Japan.  


The next morning, after breakfast, we all hung out and played music together and chatted before we left for the train station. The boy played “Space Oddity” for all assembled, I pattered on the drum kit,  and Eric enjoyed having a piano again and playing.


-s

In which we conquer Tokyo DisneySea

I love Disneyland. I get the problems with Disney, and have many issues with it myself. I hate the princess culture and the movies that teach that the main goal for a girl is to make sure she gets her man, no matter what the cost. I dislike the sharp dichotomy it’s made in gendering toys and play for boys and girls, so much so that even Lego has a “Friends” line to appeal to girls with sets like “hair salon” and “pet groomer.” Don’t kid yourself, it’s a princess set. (Full disclosure, we own several sets and the girl loves them.) I don’t like how much focus there is on a girl’s beauty being her defining feature, as if nothing else matters. While Disney has done work to move away from this in recent movies, the problem remains. 
That said, going to Disneyland/world/theme park you name it is one of my favorite things to do. I love the feeling of walking through the gates and being immersed somewhere else entirely, and Disney does it very, very well. As a kid our family went to Disneyland quite a bit and I have very fond memories of these trips. Also, I knew that going to Disneyland is a big thing for Japanese people, so I wanted to make sure we took part in this very important cultural experience.

Eric hates learning about other cultures so he chose not to come to Disneyland with us. Tokyo Disney has two lands here – Magic Kingdom which is the same as Disneyland in California, and Tokyo DisneySea, a water-themed land that’s unique to Tokyo. We only had a day and you can’t get park hopper passes for one day, so we chose DisneySea! We went on a rainy Tuesday thinking this would keep the crowd down, as these parks are extremely popular. Turn out that Japanese don’t give two figs about the rain or schooldays and it was as busy as midsummer in a US park. Peak wait times for rides was up to three hours for the popular ones! (We never waited more than 30-40 minutes though, as we skipped the most popular ride having ridden it at California Adventure, wisely used fastpasses and took advantage of the fact that Japanese NEVER use the single rider line. The three hour wait for Indiana Jones meant nothing to us as we just walked onto the ride, because Americans we don’t care about single rider.) I was excited though, that it was one of the costume weeks where people can come to the park dressed up and I’d read that the Japanese get really into that. I had no idea how into it they were. 
We hopped the train to the park. As we got closer, we noticed something. Groups of girls ranging from 2 to 10 in number were clearly going to the park, with everyone in their group dressed IDENTICALLY down to the hair accessories. Some people were heading in with rolling suitcases, which I only understood later. As dumb Americans who wear whatever to theme parks, we didn’t even coordinate! Quelle horreur! We bought headgear as soon as possible so we at least had a modicum of spirit. They do this because not only is going to Disney important, but so is taking perfectly posed pictures everywhere, and I have to admit that it does make for a better photo than the standard American wear of baggy shorts, oversized offensive message tee (No money no honey!) and fanny pack with everyone wearing mismatched colors. 
We got into the park area and immediately began to see people dressed in handmade costumes that they had brought in their rolling suitcases and changed into at the park. Holy cats, readers, these were incredible. People were detailed down to the last accessory and I noticed they usually traveled with a still costumed but slightly less detailed companion, who’s job it was to hold their stuff for pictures. They also have a specific pose they use for pictures. It was so, so fun to be walking around and then suddenly be in the midst of a sea of Ariels as we approached the Triton’s Kingdom land. It reminded me of the old days of going to Disney, where you might just happen upon a character you wanted to see instead of having to wait an hour in line at a prescribed time to visit with one. 


We ended up buying umbrellas as our rain jackets were soaked in minutes with the downpour, though these have been quite helpful for the rest of our trip thus far too. I won’t go into all the details of the rides and areas- it’s been done elsewhere. The girls favorite was the Under the Sea land, an indoor area entirely lit by blacklight, in psychedelic colors that makes you feel like you are really in the land of the mermaids. You could wander through Ariel’s treasure trove, Ursula’s lair, and get caught in Eric’s fishing nets.


The boy’s favorite was a medieval castle that you could run around and explore, with rooms filled with different scientific discoveries! From the movement of the planets with a giant orrery to a pendulum clock to a huge camera obscura and turrets and cannons to fire, we spent well over an hour running around and gleefully happening upon surprises. 


I also loved the Roosevelt lounge, an incredible bar covered in dark, decadent wood paneling with a big game theme, comfortable chairs and couches. We spent a good time there relaxing as once inside you felt as if you had left Japan entirely. Odd, I suppose, to have an entire lounge dedicated to an American President here in Japan when in America all we get is the incredibly dull president’s ride, otherwise known as the “ride where Dads can take a nap.” Here was a lovely area and the first decent Manhattan I’ve had since leaving the US. I may have had two, but who’s counting?


There’s fun food, too! Like frozen mango on a stick. 


Wandering around the lands at night is even prettier, with the lights reflecting on the water below. 


All in all, just incredible and I have to hand it to the Japanese to do Disney better than America. If you like theme parks at all this is a must visit, and I am so happy we made this a stop. Yesterday I just learned that there is a “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” here too in Osaka! I mean, for the sake of cultural exchange, I think we HAVE to visit, no?

-s