Fushimi Inari and Nijo Castle, Kyoto

 

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Fushimi Inari

With its 10,000 red torii gates flanking pathways through mountain woods, Fushimi Inari has to be one of the most spectacular, unique sights in the Kyoto area…and it’s close, free and always open. Awesome!

For 200 yen one-way (appx. $1.96pp), we caught the frequent local San-in train from Nijo Station (near our apartment) 2 stops to Kyoto Station and then connected on the Nara Line for a 5-minute ride to Inari Station, just across the street from the entrance to Fushimi Inari. (From Kyoto, the one-way fare is 140 yen.) The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be his messengers, so fox statues and votive offerings abound.

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Fox statue outside Inari shrine

Walking uphill from the main shrine past many smaller shrines, we were directed to the first of many virtual tunnels of torii gates framing the paths on the mountain. A split in the paths made a one-way loop and the mobs of people funneled into this area made us wonder if Fushimi Inari was going to be a huge disappointment. Thankfully, the crowds thinned (and the tour groups disappeared) as we walked further up the mountain. The gates also be came larger than those at the early one-way section.

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Early on, crowds are funneled into one-way lines through narrow torii gates…fortunately, this dissipates as you climb higher. [Note the lack of writing on gates while on the uphill climb.]
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Yet another mountain shrine
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Leaving the crowds behind. Looking back through the torii gates (writing visible)
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Fox-shaped votive offerings

As we hiked ever higher, we walked past streams, waterfalls and small ponds. The forest air was cool and fresh, but heavy with humidity. We came upon several tea rooms with beautiful views and many vendors selling fortunes and votive offerings along with snacks. The mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views over Kyoto at Yotsutsuji intersection, high on the mountain, but still a ways from the summit. We stopped at a nearby stall and teahouse for mixed soft-serve ice cream: vanilla and “soy flour”. Delicious. We could have hiked even higher, making the loop past the summit, but with diminishing gates and a sense that not much was changing, we opted to turn back. We’d spent a couple of hours wandering the mountain. It would have taken maybe another hour to make the final loop.

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Tea room beside path on Mt. Inari
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View of Kyoto from Mt. Inari

Don’t miss Fushimi Inari if your travels take you to Kyoto! (Day trips are also possible from Nara and Osaka.)

Back in Kyoto from Fushimi  Inari in time for a quick lunch at the apartment, we decided to spend our last afternoon at Nijo Castle. We’d been admiring one of its watchtowers from our balcony since we arrived, and knew we didn’t want to miss it.

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Beautiful interior entrance gate to Nijo Palace

Unlike other Japanese castles, Nijo was always meant to be a palace castle, not a fortified castle that happened to serve as a palace. Consequently there is something more delicate and beautiful about it. Original wall paintings have been removed to the nearby gallery, but reproductions let you see the palace has it must have been when used as a shogun residence. I loved the idea of being able to finally get inside a building, and this one in particular. Most exciting of all for me, Nijo Castle boasts a “nightingale floor,” something I’d read about for years, but never experienced. It was nothing like I’d imagined!

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Nijo Castle interior

We decided to get an audio guide at 500 yen apiece, something I usually skip, but really enjoyed on this trip. Entry to Nijo Castle is another 600 yen. The walk through the sprawling castle was fun, but the absolute highlight for me was the experiencing the nightingale floor. Designed to make noise on purpose to alert the shogun to assassination attempts, the sound was not the squeak I expected, but high-pitched and truly something almost musical. David and I both first wondered if it was a soundtrack, so stopped and spent much time listening to the noise, trying to match it to our footsteps and those of the people around is. The chirping had a weirdly disjointed quality, seemingly removed from actual footsteps, but nonetheless resulting from them.

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Nijo Castle
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Nijo Castle garden

The Nijo Castle grounds actually encompass two palaces. The main palace with the nightingale floor and another castle within yet another moat in the center. This castle, built entirely of cedar, is not open to the public, although you can cross the interior moat and walk through the gardens and up to the raised foundation of a long-destroyed tower.

 

Affordable Kaiseki and friendly service: Kyo-ryori Kaji

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Picture-perfect appetizer course

I’d been wanting to try a kaiseki dinner, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine that’s as much art as food. With its extensive courses, seasonal ingredients, and careful attention to detail and beauty, these meals can be exceedingly expensive. When our AirBnB host, Eoghan, suggested Kyo-ryori Kaji (“Kaji”) as an affordable kaiseki restaurant, we had to go.

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Our friendly chef prepared much of the food right in front of us

We got off to a hectic start, by running late across town at Kiyomizudera at sunset, then hopping the wrong bus, so that we ended up catching a taxi and getting Eoghan to call the restaurant for us to explain the situation. (We could WhatsApp with Eoghan with my data SIM, but couldn’t make phone calls easily and didn’t have the number for Kaji anyway.) All this left us with no time to change out of the very casual clothes we’d been wearing all day in, periodically in the rain. I felt terrible showing up bedraggled and underdressed (David in shorts and me in cropped pants and a t-shirt), but the delightful people at Kyo-ryori Kaji welcomed us as honored guests and could not have been friendlier the whole night.

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First soup course

Dinner consisted of a number of set courses and three price options. Each price option contains the same number of courses of the same general description, but each option offers an increasingly augmented version of the course. Kaji doesn’t accept credit cards. Since we’d made our mad dash to get here on time and didn’t have time to get more cash, our decision was easy: it was the 3900 yen/pp (appx. $38.61 at the time) dinner for us. [Other options were 6000 yen ($$59.40) and 8100 ($80.19) yen.] This turned out to be an excellent meal, and although David would have tried a different version just to compare, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our dinner.

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Menu page listing the courses offered and the price options

I took pictures of all but the opening “aperitif” which was nothing but a small splash in a saucer of a “September flower” liqueur that tasted not-so-appealingly of perfume. The least successful “course” of the evening.

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Sashimi course
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By way of comparison: This is the sashimi course for a neighbor’s 8100 yen dinner.
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Tempura was substituted for the grilled course.

Our chef did his best to explain each dish to us. His English was limited, but he did his best and was cheerful, friendly and engaged throughout the meal with us and with those dining at the counter beside us. A couple of times, he pulled out a map to show us his favorite area sites. We already planned to go to Fushimi Inari, but he also suggested Tofukuji Temple not far from Fushimi Inari. He also encouraged us to visit a shrine near the restaurant (and our hotel) that he explained had something to do with “god and money.” Sure enough, a later trip to the small shrine revealed a golden torii gate and people praying for financial fortune…and a children’s party with a cowboy making balloon figures. Japan is often mystifying to us!

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Palette freshening course

Kaji also offers a simple, but classy atmosphere. It’s not elaborate or fancy, but certainly not a casual diner either. I found its understated decor warm and relaxing.

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Steamed course: minimally-seasoned steamed vegetables plus a squash stuffed with steamed seafood paste
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Pickles, miso soup and rice with green tea

Cold sake was our drink of choice. We tried two, but most enjoyed the Jyun mai daiginzzyou at 1200 yen which is smooth and dry. The Hon-jyozou (700 yen) was also good, but with a heavier rice-y taste that I associate with sakes more often found at home in the States.

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Sake and Shochu menu

We were given a choice of three desserts: 2 sorbets and an ice cream dish. We both chose the ice cream, mostly because we were intrigued by the sake gelée that came with it.

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Dessert: sake gelée, walnut ice cream with a large black bean and blueberry
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Drink menu
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Restaurant details

You can find Kyo-yori Kaji at www.kyoto-kaji.jp and at the address and number shown in the photo above.

 

 

Kyoto on the Autumnal Equinox holiday

 

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High on my list of temples to visit in Kyoto (and there’s a long list to choose from!), was Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It’s probably Kyoto’s top sight and who wouldn’t want to see a Zen Buddhist temple with two stories covered in pure gold leaf?

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The first hints of fall color beginning to show at Kinkakuji. In a couple of weeks, the leaves–and the hordes of tourists–should be spectacular!

The history of Kinkakuji dates back to a 1397 villa that became a temple upon the death of its owner, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, most recently in 1955. Kinkakuji inspired the similarly named Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, we visited the day before.

Although I really wanted to visit Kinkakuji, I had some misgivings since it happened to be the Autumnal Equinox holiday in Japan, a public holiday when people often flock to temples with their families. Hmm. We decided to go for it anyway, hoping the cloudy weather and threat of rain might work to our advantage again with regards to crowds.

Today, we opted to buy a Kyoto bus pass. At 500 yen/day (about $4.90), they’re a good deal if you plan to do some scattered sightseeing. A regular one-way ticket on a bus is 230 yen. (You get on Japanese buses in the middle and pay a machine by the driver when you get off.) Three “Raku” buses (numbered 100, 101 & 102) are included on this pass in addition to the regular city buses and they hit many of the top tourist sites in Kyoto. Lots of locals use them, too. A Raku bus picked up near our apartment and went directly to Kinkakuji in the west of the city without requiring any changes, so we were there in less than 30 minutes.

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At Kinkakuji: People toss coins at the bowl among the statues for good luck.

The rain held off and, not surprisingly, the crowds were pretty thick at Kinkajiju, but not as bad as I might have expected except around the main Golden Pavilion photo op. [Tickets are 400 yen. (about $3.92)] After walking the temple grounds, we had much fun sampling snacks set out at several food stalls just beyond the final shrine: sweet nama yatsuhashi, a Kyoto specialty, and more savory bites of crunchy little balls flavored with wasabi, ginger, curry, etc.

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David samples nama yatsuhashi, a soft, triangle-shaped Kyoto sweet with various fillings: cinnamon, sesame, chestnut, and many more

After a lunch break at the apartment, we decided to head to the east side of Kyoto to see Sanjusangendo. Despite the fact I can never remember the name of this temple, what I’d read about the many statues of Kannon housed there definitely stuck in my mind. I had to see this place!

Sanjusangendo exceeded expectations. Housed in a long, narrow temple redolent of smoke and incense, row upon row of the many-armed goddess of mercy stand, shimmering in gold. A huge statue sits at the center of this host, making 1001 statues of the goddess.

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Central statue at Sanjusangendo

Sanjusangendo is 600 yen (about $5.88), a bit more than some other temples, but well worth it my opinion. A highlight!

We stayed till closing at Sanjusangendo, but figured we still had time to make it to Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) for sunset. Kiyomizu is known for its huge terrace overhanging a hillside, its views of Kyoto, and a holy spring. We were tired, it was drizzling on-and-off again, we debated, but we decided we could do it. (It’s this kind of thinking that has us walking 8-10 miles a day before we know it.)

A short bus ride later, we started hiking up the shop-lined street to Kiyomizu. The area is charming, its small shops and restaurants stylish. A 3-tiered pagoda welcomes visitors to the temple ground. Up more steps, we paid 400 yen (appx. $3.92) to continue on to the large wooden deck jutting from the main hall. A path wandered beyond that and along the side of a mountain, then down to Otowa waterfall. The stream supplying the waterfall splits into three parts here and people used cups on long poles to drink from the water. Each is said to have a different benefit: longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. (Drinking from all three is apparently considered greedy.)

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Three-tiered pagoda at Kiyomizudera
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View towards the deck at Kiyomizu

With darkness setting in, it was time go. We had reservations at Kyo-ryori Kaji for a multi-course kaiseki dinner our AirBnB host recommended highly. I’ll review that fun meal in a later post.

Kyoto in the rain…and crashing a funeral?

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The first touches of color on leaves near the Choin-in Temple gate

Although Typhoon Malakas wasn’t a dangerous storm by the time it reached Kyoto, its effects lingered. For the first two days of our stay in Kyoto, it seemed we’d fallen into some bad travel mojo: Google let us down a couple of times, leaving us searching for bus stops it insisted were right under our feet… and always, just then, the skies would open up. So much for beautiful autumn in Kyoto! Not willing to quit, though, we kept on and discovered that one benefit of the rain was a decided lack of the crowds we’d been told to expect. I’m a sucker for a silver lining!

To start our day, and more or less on whim, we hopped the subway nearest our apartment and got off near the middle of a walk I’d seen recommended by Frommer. We ended up blowing off that itinerary, when we stumbled upon a “worship walk” through Chion-in Temple. The paved path wandered through temples and shrines and we were thrilled to find a full service in progress, seemingly open to the public. Inside, thick incense filled the large building (Honen Shonin Mido) while an older man in robe and headdress chanted before an elaborate altar, flanked by rows of younger monks, one beating a two-block “instrument.” Worshipers sat behind the monks in the main room. Along with other guests, we were met by smiling greeters and directed to seats removed from the main action, but with a clear view. The service was beautiful, and occasionally those seated in our immediate area would get up to either leave or pray at a side altar. Not until after we left and spotted a few signs regarding memorial and cremation services did I do a little research and realize we may have crashed a memorial service. Yikes. [Photography was forbidden inside or I’d share just how picturesque it was.] I actually highly recommend this visit since no one seemed to mind–in fact they were very friendly and welcoming even though we were clearly tourists–and it was a wonderful experience.

Our main target for the day was Ginkakuji, a famous Zen temple. Known as the Silver Pavilion, there’s nothing silver about it except for its original owner’s unfulfilled plans to cover it in silver leaf. Still, it is a beautiful place with a unique, stylized sand garden shaped to suggest waves and Mt. Fuji. It looked as if the weather had taken its toll on “Mt. Fuji,” and we arrived to find workmen putting the finishing touches on a big pile of sand shaped like a #4 coffee filter.

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Ginkakuji: The Silver Pavilion
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Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion): Men at work on stylized sand representation of Mt. Fuji

Even in the clouds and drizzle, a fair-sized crowd wandered the paths around the pavilion and up the hillside garden.

We took a beer pub break (I was with David, remember!) for lunch at  Tadg’s Gastro Pub which we really enjoyed and I’ll review separately. It didn’t rain throughout lunch, but five minutes after we set out for Heian Temple (a 20 min. walk) the skies opened up, sending us darting for cover under an awning until it lightened up enough for our umbrellas to do the job. The orange and green temple is immense and its gardens probably great (but too pricey on a rainy day at 600 yen).

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Heian Temple

We’d decided to head back home on the bus and hope for better weather later, when I noticed that the bus went past the Imperial Palace, a place we wanted to visit and not too far of a walk to our apartment. The rain had let up for the moment and it wasn’t like we were going to dissolve, so we decided to hop off at the palace. This turned out to be a great idea. We beat the last entry at 3:45pm by minutes so got to walk around the Imperial Palace (within the walls, but the buildings are not open to the public) with only a minimal crowd. The palace sprawls and the walking route lets you explore quite a bit. Although you can’t enter, you can view some painted screens in three of the receiving rooms through glassed-in sliding doors and certain temple buildings have porches open to the outside. The park surrounding the Imperial Palace is 1500 meters long by 700 meters wide.

The Imperial Palace used to require reservations and guided tours, but has just this summer switched to a free, no-reservation, self-guided policy. Excellent!

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The Imperial Palace, Kyoto
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Oikeniwa Garden in the Imperial Palace

 

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair!

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Wedding party at the Meiji Jingu Shrine
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Wedding procession at Meiji Jingu Shrine

Our first week on Honshu, the main island of Japan, encompassed two Japanese holidays: Respect for the Aged Day and Autumnal Equinox. The first holiday fell while we were in Tokyo and treated us to wandering groups of costumed people toting shrines through the streets of Shinjuku and chanting. A festive air reigned through the neighborhood with stalls of food being hawked by groups of smiling people dressed in costumes to match the shrine-bearers. An open stage blared live Japanese rock music, trucks trundled by broadcasting music sounding more military than anything else to our bemused ears. Inquiries resulted in answers that lost something in translation: “There’s a ghost in the box.” when we asked about the shrine bearers. Oh well, it was big fun anyway.

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Despite the variable weather, we visited the soon-to-be-moved Tsukiji fish market which was top on David’s list. Unfortunately, the big commercial market was closed for the Respect for the Aged holiday, but the food stalls overflowed with people.

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This guy was giving out free samples. David tried it, but couldn’t identify.

We wandered popular Shinjuku Park and explored its greenhouse, braved the rain to try an izakaya (Japanese gastropub) on the 40th floor of a Shinjuku building where we dined among the clouds. Wanting to see the relatively-new Park Hyatt, we got a birdseye view of the worsening weather which we were soon to discover was no minor storm.

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Hyatt Regency, using 1 free night apiece David and I had from our Hyatt Visa credit cards. At $95/ year, we find these cards to be no-brainers: With our travels, we’re bound to be somewhere–like Tokyo–where we can get a much more expensive hotel for the yearly fee on the card, plus the perks of the status the card gives us. In Tokyo, this saved us about $200/night. When we discovered that a typhoon was bearing down on Japan, threatening high winds and devastating flooding in the south on the day we were scheduled to depart on a bullet train to Kyoto, it was nice to have the super-helpful concierge staff at the Hyatt checking on the status of trains and providing detailed transfer information from the hotel to Tokyo Station.

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The massive chandeliers at the Hyatt Regency were only a week back from cleaning and more magnificent than ever

We’d planned to catch a taxi from our hotel near Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station where the bullet trains depart, but it turned out to be faster to simply catch the Oedo Line from Shinjuku to Tokyo. The price was also included in our bullet train ticket. [We did not purchase a JR Pass because the math just didn’t work out given the length of our trip and our proposed train travel. Also, David wanted to ride the fastest bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto and that train, the Nozomi, is not included in the JR Pass. The time difference is minimal between bullet trains, but it was something he wanted and, as I said, it made financial sense anyway.]

The ride itself was uneventful–and fast. I don’t think the weather caused any slow-down, although we were told that was a possibility in typhoons. We enjoyed our bento box lunches and the trip flew by.

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Inside the Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto (2nd class, reserved seats)
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Bento box lunch bought at the station; beer bought on the train

We arrived in a rainy Kyoto. No surprise there, but not exactly the beautiful fall weather I’d envisioned. Oh well, such are the whims of the travel gods. After a short ride with a truly nasty-tempered cabbie (the only unfriendly person we encountered in Kyoto), we arrived at our AirBnB apartment. As billed, it sits just across the road from Nijo Castle and our balcony looks out on one of the watch towers. Beautiful, even in a typhoon!

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Nijo Castle in a typhoon; view from our balcony

One of the joys of lengthy travel is being able to slow down and try to get at least a little taste of living in a place. It’s a big reason why I like renting apartments rather than hotels, along with the extras like a washing machine and kitchen. Usually, apartments provide more space as well, but a typical apartment in Japan also means compact. I’d chose Kyoto for our longer apartment stay and, as always, ran it by David before booking. David’s 6’3″ and I knew some of the features of the apartment I’d chosen might be a little tricky for him. As usual, he was game.–It’s one of the things I love about him.

The apartment is exactly as described: immaculate, small, but well-equipped and well-thought-out. We have a double bed*, a tiny kitchen, a washing machine/dryer combo (that doesn’t do much in the way of drying), air conditioning, free bikes at our disposal, wifi and a portable wifi hotspot. I love the odd, but practical, touches–like the toilet where you can wash your hands in the water that’s refilling the tank. (‘Makes sense: It’s clean water, you’re recycling…there’s just something about the idea that’s a little unsettling to the Western mind.) We’re in a good location and the building is very nice. It’s a big change from living at home, but it’s fun…and funny to listen to David banging around in the bathroom while he tries to bathe in the meter-long bathtub. He really is a great sport!

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We’ve got a large grocery store just a couple of blocks down the street and we’ve had fun shopping the often-mystifying items. Once again, Google Translate has been invaluable as we scan labels of products we’ve never heard of.

*A double bed may sound small to my American friends, but I’m going to do a separate short post on why it’s actually a very awesome thing. Hint: Beware the “semi-double!”

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016