In which we find that in Romania, the streets walk on you

Friends, it was a rough transition from Japan to Eastern Europe. After an exhaustingly long, though comfortable flight, to get to Budapest, we had two days there before coming to Timisoara. The first night Eric and I went out to get some pizza for dinner. Whether it was fatigue, or extreme jet lag, or just real culture shock, my whole body felt stunned as we walked around. It was a complete reversal from Osaka to get to Budapest, from the slick cityscape of metal and glass to the brick and cobblestone buildings and streets. Suddenly everything became intelligible again, at least to a degree, as we returned to Roman script. Gone was the extreme politeness and solicitude of Japan, and instead the harsh straightforwardness of Eastern Europe. 
There were parks, open spaces and benches, which were a refreshing change to be sure. 


The next day we took a five hour car ride to Timisoara, driven by a dour man who was clearly agitated at our decision to eat while in his car, and had no interest in even polite conversation. We arrived at our flat in Timisoara, greeted by our friendly host, and settled in. I found the bathroom directly connected to the kitchen, which in and of itself was revolting. I went to use the toilet and the seat slid out from under me and I almost fell on the floor. I noticed that there were five air fresheners in the bathroom, but that did little to cover up the dank odor of stagnant water. The living space and bedrooms were fine, with high ceilings and large windows that spoke to a grander past. The kitchen was filled with pots and pans that were still covered in a layer of grease from whoever was there last. The shower water had two choices, scalding hot or frigid. What a metaphor. It was full of mosquitos, and the girl and I woke up with no less than 14 bites on our faces. 


We all set out to find dinner, looking up some places on our phone before heading out. The streets were dark, desolate appearing and had menacing graffiti tags all along cement block buildings. Whenever we walked outside, we felt cold stares of people on us. I’d look back in defiance, only to find that Romanians feel no need to break a stare when caught in one, and we’d end up staring each other for sometimes as much as 15 seconds while walking past one another, looking over our shoulders to stare. There was no accompanying smile or any gesture of friendliness in the stare. A Ukrainian colleague of mine once told me that in Ukraine, there is a saying, “Why are you smiling? Are you stupid or something?” And I felt that this had clearly bled over into Romania.
We made it to a wide plaza surrounded by outdoor cafes and people having beverages. We walked up to one and asked if they served food, and they simply shook their heads. Where can we find food at three pm on Sunday, we asked? The mall, they told us. Try the mall. So we went to the mall, a byzantine complex of shops and no clear pathway from one end to the next. There are modern stores there like Sephora and H&M, but then next to that will be a store selling mops and brooms. We found a passable Italian restaurant where we kept waving away the dense clouds of cigarette smoke that wafted over us from the other patrons. 
Before we stopped back home, we went to a corner market to pick up some bread and milk and such for the morning, and found this on the shelves. 


At this point, I felt like Romania was literally telling me to eat shit. We settled in for the night with heavy hearts, feeling that the next three months were bound for misery. 
It’s looked up considerably since then, but man, that was an unhappy start.

-s

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 take a ride on a catbus and eat a lot of tasty food.

Japan has been a bit of a whirlwind so far! We’ve been here a week and haven’t had much time to write, so I’ll catch up now. So far we are loving it. It’s orderly, neat and clean everywhere. Eric feels he has found his people, in tidiness at least, if not in height.. People obey the crossing lights, so much so that it took me a full 24 hours to realize that they drive on the left here – I simply haven’t had to avoid a car at all and all those skills we learned in Vietnam are fading. We can finally drink water from a tap again, and I can’t tell you how wonderful this is. 
Our first day we were so exhausted from the red eye we mostly slept, only leaving to find lunch and dinner. After 30 minutes of wandering through Shinjuku,  we happened upon a tasty soba noodle restaurant. 


For dinner,  we found ourselves at a cheap conveyer belt sushi restaurant! The sushi itself was just okay – but the novelty of it was so fun! There’s a screen at your table where you can either order the sushi you want or you can take whatever comes by off the belt. The prices of the food are according to the color of the plate, and at the end of your meal your waiter adds up the plates to see what you pay. The first time a plate came by for us, the screen lit up and played music and said “food ready for pickup!” We looked around because we had no idea what was happening, but then the girl noticed some cucumber rolls going down the line, well out of our reach. Aha! Now we got it and whenever we heard the music again we snatched our plates off the belt. The next day was our time to go to the Studio Ghibli museum, one of the stops on this whole trip that I have been looking forward to the most. Studio Ghibli and it’s recently retired director Hayao Miyazaki are behind many beloved animation films popular all over the world. My Neighbor Totoro is one of my favorite movies, though Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are more known in the west. I love his children’s movies for their magical feel, strong girl characters, and bittersweet thoughtful endings instead of the cloyingly happy endings most children’s movies have. If you’ve never heard of him, get thee a rental now and watch. Tickets sell out months in advance and I had purchased our tickets in June. From the moment you enter, you feel as if you could be in one of the movies. They do not allow any photography inside the museum, I think to preserve the air of walking through and just feeling the place instead of having people constantly snapping away. Mostly I liked this as it added to the atmosphere, but there were times I really wanted a picture! You will have to be satisfied with my descriptions.


The museum is a three story house with rounded roofs,  an open atrium in the center and rooms arranged around the periphery. There are narrow round stairways to take if you wish, and bridges across the open space. Clocks abound on the surface and the windows are stained glass scenes from the movies. Each room has a different focus – one shows the evolution of filmmaking using characters from various movies – from zoetrope, to early stop motion animation, to film. Every single exhibit is explained only in Japanese, and not for the first time did I wish I understood the language. I’m sure I missed out on so much. Other rooms were set up like Miyazaki’s studio, complete with paint pots. Others showed the creation of hand drawn gel animation and how a scene was created and imagined. There were storyboard books for the movies “Ponyo” and “The Secret World of Arrietty” which described how they would draw out a scene and then have the camera pan over it and around. 

The favorite spaces by far were the catbuses. If you don’t know what a catbus is, go google it now. I’ll wait. You back? Okay – there was one room which was set up like a giant catbus. We sank down into the furry seats and relaxed for a bit, looking out the windows which had animation cel panels, imagining we were running through the countrysitde. The other one was a smaller catbus only for children 12 and younger (unfair) where you could crawl in slide down, go through the catbus and pick up and roll around large plush dustmites! There’s also an original animated short only seen at the museum, a young girl goes on a trip to the countryside, greets the nature spirits along the way, but has to escape from an unexpected visitor!

In the gift shop the girl bought a plush catbus, which we have named “meowcedes”.

 
We left and walked along a road where the internet told us that there were a bunch of restaurants. We didn’t see anything at first but then saw a small “open” sign on the other side of the road. We walked over to see if the menu was in English, and the lady behind the counter saw us through the window and beckoned us in. It was a tiny space, with only seats enough for five people. We asked if there was vegetarian food, and there was! It was a little place serving homemade japanese food. You had your choice of roasted vegetable main dish, fried sardine, or tofu burger and two vegetable sides. I had the sardine, the boy had the veggies and Eric and the girl went for the tofu. Everything was unbelievably delicious. There was another man sitting there with his toddler girl, and we all had so much fun chatting and laughing with them. These are my favorite, when you just happen upon a place and it ends up being so delightful. 

Then a walk through a verdant and nicely arranged neighboring park for a while where the mosquitos made a delicious feast of me. Eric said I was just being paranoid and looked ridiculous slapping myself, but when I began to break out in welts he had to eat his words. 


 Everywhere we went in Japan we saw families riding this bike – seats for the kids on the front and back, and these neat bike parking areas. I never saw a bike locked to anything stationary, only to itself, as theft is low in Japan.  

Then came a train ride to Shibuya to see the famous pedestrian scramble! I had imagined getting there, finding a seat in a little cafe overlooking the area and relaxing for a while to watch the scrum. Instead, Eric stated he wasn’t going anywhere that didn’t serve beer. I happened to not be the only tourist with this idea and it was a madhouse trying to find somewhere. Some words may have been exchanged – we were hot, tired, hungry, and squished. Finally, we did what everyone else does and got coffee at the Starbucks overhead and sat to watch. It truly is an incredible sight. Thousands of people going every which way and in such an incredible orderly fashion!
We looked up a place with reportedly good vegetarian food, and walked over. On the way there we passed by a ton of shoe stores selling Converse in every imaginable flavor, and some I’d never seen before! Metallic silver, rainbow, wedge converse! If I hadn’t just bought a pair of Tiger kicks in Cambodia I might have caved and bought another pair. I might still yet. The restaurant looked depressing, so we stopped at the brewpub across the street first where Eric ordered a Lagunitas IPA and nearly wept in relief at the biting hop flavor he’d been missing since we left the US. Sorry world, the US just does IPAs better. 

We had walked by places advertising vegetarian ramen on the way over, so we headed back and saw a popular place with veggie ramen. You ordered from a machine out front! You put money in, pushed buttons for what you wanted and it spat tickets out at you. We ordered veggie ramen, an egg, sprouts, scallions, and beer and headed inside. We sat down and handed over a fistful of tickets to our chef, who smiled and laid them in neat stacks. A few minutes later we were slurping down a delicious bowl of steaming hot ramen. Amazing. There were a lot of Japanese people there too, so my guess is it’s a decent ramen place overall and not just for tourists. 


We walked back to the train station, Shibuya lit up in neon colors and blinking, looking like the Tokyo we’ve all seen in pictures, giving a colorful coda to this splendid day


-s

In which we pay to ride and experience claustrophobia in the Cu Chi tunnels

We’ve arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals prefer to call it, Saigon. After a day of relaxing we booked another Grasshopper bicycle tour, met our guide Nguyen, and were off. Man, it was hot and humid. Due to our inability to convert inches to centimeters and thinking we’d have a chance to fit the kids for bikes, one of the bikes was almost comically small. Thankfully, the boy took this one and did just fine with it.

It was a muddy, bumpy ride through the countryside, and it was so fun! Passing by rubber plantations, we stopped at a rice paper making factory, where almost all the work is done by hand. You know those little lines when you get the sheets? It’s from them drying on the bamboo mats! I always just thought they were decorative.

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tapping the rubber tree

We stopped at a local roadside stand for a snack, and our tour guide told us that it was owned by a former Viet Cong. Eric asked if it was weird for him to have Americans in the shop, and Nguyen answered “No, here in Vietnam we forgive and forget after the American war.” (The Vietnam war is called the American war here) So surprising, given that the Vietnam war still has such a strong and negative legacy in our country and that there was so much damage inflicted by us on their country as well.

After 30 km of riding, we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels. With the bike tours, you go to the far side of the tunnels, less visited by foreign tourists, much quieter and more of the original size entry holes preserved. These were a large series of underground tunnels that the Viet Cong used to hide from and attack American troops during the war. They were so well hidden that Americans only found about a third of the tunnels, even after carpet bombing the area. The tunnels were all dug by hand, a vast network of 75 miles near Saigon, with exits popping up every five to ten meters or so. The tunnels have three layers to them, a top layer just below the ground, and then subsequent layers about 7-10 meters below the previous. There were booby traps in case American soldiers did make it through. Air vents were disguised as termite mounds, and the entrances were barely large enough for me to fit through. After crawling through them for 30 meters, my heart started to pound and fear took over. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but to be in a tight space in utter darkness…I don’t know how the VC were able to stay down there for weeks at a time.

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Diorama of the tunnels at the site

 

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Inside the tunnels, at the exit point. So cramped and tiny, even the girl had to stoop

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Creepy mannequin recreations of rooms under the tunnel, here’s a meeting house where the kids take part in a planning session

A lovely meal on the riverside after that, then back home to Saigon, and all in all a delightful day.

-S

In which I take stock again

It’s time for another installment of what’s working, what’s not.

Needs improvement

  1. City arrivals. We always somehow end up in a new place hungry, tired, cranky and hot and someone starts crying. Sometimes that someone is me. It just takes a couple hours between the plane and actually getting the place we stay and then getting food somewhere, and someone has a breakdown somewhere in there. The boy, when he is hungry, is truly terrifying. Ravana wouldn’t stand a chance against him and would run away whimpering in fear.
  2. Learning to relax midday like the locals do. Here in the tropics, there is morning activity and then evening activity, because it is brutally hot and humid in the middle and only the idiot tourists are out. This is really where it helps to have a place right downtown, where it’s easy to head back to and chill in Air-con comfort until it cools off.
  3. ATM fees. Man, they get you with every withdrawal. It’s hard to know exactly how much money you need especially when you’re withdrawing millions in local currency and your head starts to swim. In hindsight, we should only withdraw the absolute maximum amount every time as there is always a way to spend it, and many places do not accept credit cards. More than once we did not have enough cash and had to run to the nearest ATM to withdraw more. There are banks that do not charge ATM fees and reimburse you for international ones, and perhaps it would have been wise to use one of those, but since we have so many automatic payments arranged through our current bank, it felt like too much work.
  4. Getting through the airport. Why won’t my kids just shut up while we got through security, immigration, or customs? Why must they use this time to ask the million questions they have saved up? Why do they say at customs “Hey Mom, what about all that US money you have?” (for the record, I only had $200 in cash on me, not declarable!) Holy god, it’s maddening and has led to some…unpleasant moments in the airport.

 

What’s working:

  1. Still, the pacing and flexibility. We don’t have anything planned when we get into a country, and this has been great. When we got to Cambodia, we weren’t sure how the weather would be as rainy season is unpredictable, and because we weren’t booked we skipped the beach and spent more time in Siem Reap and had a wonderful experience because we could do things at a nice clip instead of feeling like we had to squeeze it all in.
  2. Bike tours. Absolutely love exploring countries by bicycle with a guide! You get to see things up close, talk to people, smile, engage, and interact. So different than taking a tour bus or just going from point A to B in a car. On a bike you see the countryside, the houses, stores, hear weddings and parties taking place, and all the kids really do run out and wave and say “hello!” to you as you go by. If you like to ride, absolutely take a bike tour. We’ve done two with Grasshopper and they have been fantastic, and are planning on taking more as we come across them.
  3. Smiling. Every time we smile at someone and say hello, we are greeted with the same on return. This has been true everywhere we go, even to people who may at first seem standoffish. Having the kids is also a natural icebreaker, especially the girl, who attracts attention everywhere she goes. We’ll go to a restaurant and the waitress will start talking to her and then just absentmindedly strokes her hair for the next ten minutes while she chats with us.
  4. Finding places to stay. We’re learning that there’s a huge difference in staying outside city center and not. Our perfect place is just a few streets away from the main drag, where traffic and partying noise is low at night, but still walkable to where we want to go. Most of the times we have booked a place for a few nights when we get in, get a lay of the land and then book for the rest of the time according to what our plans are and where we want to be. This does take a lot of time of searching though, as there is an overabundance of available places. We are also almost exclusively using air bnb’s. As a family, it is SO much nicer to have a living room and bedroom so you don’t all have to go to bed at the same time, and the price isn’t that different.
  5. Money. We’re more or less on budget for the trip, though SE Asia has been a bit pricier than I had anticipated. While we could stay in hotels that cost $20/night for a room, we wanted something a bit nicer. While it’s costing us less than a comparable room would in the States, it’s not dirt cheap. Food is moderately priced for us as well, since we’re less likely to eat at roadside stalls.
  6. Saying “yes.” When you have an opportunity, take it! We did the photoshoot in Siem Reap, and then the photographers got a job in Saigon and asked us to take part! We got to do a free night motobike tour and eat delicious street food and hang out with young Vietnamese people, and it wouldn’t have happened if we’d turned down the initial offer.

Tips/Tricks/Advice

  1. Do not, I repeat do NOT, under any circumstances, use the colored, highly perfumed toilet paper for any, shall we say, vigorous cleaning. Developing a contact dermatitis in sensitive areas is NOT fun. Ask me how I know (ouch, and thank goodness for the prescription hydrocortisone cream we have with us). I recommend watching youtube videos on bum gun use and learning to use same. The bum gun is a water sprayer attached to the toilet, looks just like the sprayer you have next to your kitchen sink. After use, you only need a square or two of TP to lightly pat yourself dry.
  2. I highly recommend having all visas you need done prior to arrival if you are travelling with kids. Vietnam and Cambodia both have visa on arrival services, but there is a line for it and after a flight even one more line with the kids can break you all. In Bali it was a visa right at the immigration desk, no extra waiting, thank goodness.
  3. We loved the Indonesian and Cambodian food, but needed breaks every now and then. One of my most delicious meals in Cambodia was a veggie burger I had at an expat bar. Mmmm. I no longer have disdain for people I see eating Burger King in foreign countries. Sometimes you just need a taste of home.
  4. Plastic water bottles are everywhere and unavoidable. To try and save at least a few, I would boil water in the electric kettle provided in nearly every room, let it cool overnight and then refill a bottle. Some places have large water cooler bottles for refill which is nice.
  5. If you travel to Cambodia, make sure all your money is crisp and new looking! The main currency there is the US dollar, but if bills are at all old looking, they won’t take them. I had withdrawn a $100 bill from an ATM there that had a tiny, 1/8 inch tear in one edge and they almost didn’t accept it. Check money whenever you get it and ask for crisp new looking bills only, else plan on just hanging onto it until you get back to the States.
  6. There are some games in the Family on the Loose book that came in really handy. First is mini Olympics, done in waiting areas or even in line. Basically, a set of directions or challenges can keep kids going for a long time. Like, run to that pole, go around it three times, jump up and down ten times, then come back. Another is timing how long they can stand on one foot, or hop, or something like that if there isn’t open space. We also use the dinner games of choosing a category and then having to go around the table, each answer starting with the last letter of the one before it.
  7. Bali, Cambodia and Vietnam are easy places to travel with the kids, with the exception of crossing the street. Do as the locals do, wait for a bit of a gap and then WALK across in a brisk, steady fashion so the motorbikes anticipate your movement and go around you. Don’t run pell-mell across the street. If you have a child who tends not to pay attention and daydream at inopportune moments, hold their hand. Again, ask me how I know.

Items gained:

  1. Some new clothes, souvenirs. Eric and I got cool sneakers in Cambodia to wear around instead of our sad, torn up running sneakers. I’m not getting rid of those yet though because I think there is still mud in our future. We also got custom made leather flip flops in Siem Reap, leaving behind our nearly trashed other ones. I usually leave them in the hotel rooms – I don’t think anything is thrown out here, someone will take them and find a way to make them usable again.
  2. Herschel backpack. That cheap messenger bag I liked? Well, let’s focus on the cheap aspect as it began disintegrating. In the Bali Airport I just bought a nice Herschel backpack and have loved it. Point is: take good gear with you. Side bonus though, I gave the messenger bag to the Balinese clerk who was absolutely delighted to have a free bag.

Items lost

1.My shit, a few times.

-s