Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Japan: Kyoto and Nara--Bambi 2, Dylan 0

We left Tokyo with Typhoon Mawar snapping at our tails. Mawar was causing all sorts of havoc north of us, so all we saw were sheets of rain coming down, but fortunately as we travelled south, the weather cleared up and we were back in the land of the hot and muggy by the time we reached Kyoto.

Although Kyoto is highly recommended on the tourist track in Japan, I was a bit worried it was way overhyped and we wouldn't enjoy it as much as we enjoyed Tokyo. (Overhyped like the Grand Canyon, the Lincoln Monument or Alcatraz, which end up being really cool places). I was wrong. Kyoto is where you will see old Japan, such as the images from James Clavell's Shogun, in cosy co-habitation with modern Japan-like Tokyo. A few facts about Kyoto I didn't know before going there. One is that it's about the size of the greater Portland area, which means that it has a bit of a cosmopolitan flair (our friends from the east coast are laughing) but it isn't so crowded that every encounter in public is a physical jockying for space. Second, it avoided being bombed during World War II. That means that most of the architecture that was created during the pre-Meiji period still stands. Third, it was the capital of Japan until as recently as 1886 so it was the home of a lot of movers and shakers.

We visited a few temples, shopped in a open air market, where I scored a 50-100 year old obi (the sash used by women while wearing their kimonos) for $10 and found ourselves, after eating a really yummy Indian meal, in Gion. Gion is an area of Kyoto that has some of the oldest buildings. Many of these buildings house restaurants and private clubs, and a constant stream of taxis droppingoff business men was evidence that this is a happening spot. Shortly before entering the streets of Gion I explained to Dylan that we might see a Geisha, a traditional Japanese hostess who is dressed in an elaborate kimono and has her hair and face exquisitely made up. As we were coming out of a shop Dylan spotted three Geishas coming towards us. It was like seeing an incredibly rare bird and the late Princess Diana rolled into one, given the excitement and cameras flashing upon seeing one. It's not like they are hanging out for the tourists (or at least tourists like us who are not willing or able to shell out $300 or more a night for their company) so they scurry to their apointments, trying to avoid as many of the tourist camera wielding papparazzi as they can. All in all we saw about nine Geishas and were blown away by their exotic looks as well as the idea that in 2005 we are seeing a bit of Japanese culture that has been around for centuries, still thriving. (Actually our bible, the Lonely Planet, says that there are fewer and fewer Geishas or maiko (geishas in training). I'm not sure to what extent they are thriving.)

After spending just a couple days in Kyoto, we barely scratched the surface of what is offered. By the way, there are so many temples/shrines there that you are kind of tripping over them on the way to Starbucks. (Yes Virginia, there is a McStarbucks all over the world, even in China's Forbidden City) We took a short 40 minute train ride out to Nara to see the Todai-ji temple with one of the largest Buddhas in the world. Dylan is a huge fan of the Todai restaurant in town, and so her ears perked up when she heard we were going to a Todai temple, she could only imagine the acres of sushi offered at a temple devoted to the restaurant, but we had to break the news to her that the temple came before the restaurant. The Todai-ji temple is the largest wooden structure in the world. Its scale is immense and I told Dylan the next time she comes across something this large it will probably be the Forbidden City in China or the Taj Mahal in India. This temple holds the Daibutsen, one of the largest bronze statutes of a buddha. This buddha was about as big as the one we saw in Kamakura on a previous trip to Japan. The temple cost us $13 to enter and we agreed that this was the best value of temple to cost we've seen.

We couldn't get to the temple without first dealing with the 1200 deer that roam freely around the park, accosting terrified children for handouts. Vendors sell round biscuits for 150 yen that you can feed to the deer, so they've been rendered huge mooches. Apparantly in pre-buddhist times deer were seen as messengers from the gods, so these deer are descendants of a long line of nationally protected deer. It was all fun and games for Dylan, feeding and petting the deer, until we got into a herd of aggressive guys with "huge" racks and one of them scratched her on the leg, then she screamed, cried and swore she hated all deer except the "Bambis"--tiny ones with no horns.

A mention must be made of where we are staying tonight. We are in a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan. A ryokan can range from $40-1000 a night per person. The rooms have a tatami mat covering, and futons are laid out on the floors, covered with thick comforters. Many ryokans have rooms with private toilets, but almost all have a public bath. You sit on a stool and shower yourself off with a hose (this is where the cleaning gets done), and then jump into a deep bath filled with hot water. It's really a delight. After donning our yakuta (simple cotton kimono) we were directed into another tatami matted room where our dinner waited for us. We had ordered ahead, when we made our reservations, for a traditional Japanese meal and it was divine, a true splurge among many on this trip. We are staying at the Ryokan Matusma which is a clean, comfortable place. The business has been in the family for over 25 years and the son, who worked at the Westin in Chicago was our chef for the evening. He and his wife were very friendly and made our stay very enjoyable.

From experiencing the sublime, we are now going to the most sobering. We leave today from Nara, via Kyoto to Hiroshima, where we spend a few days before heading south to our ferry.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tokyo Japan: A culture of cute

For the past couple of days we’ve immersed ourselves in shopping, hanging out and soaking up the culture. One of our biggest sources of entertainment has been cruising the shopping areas. This is because they are air conditioned, as we can only deal with the heat and humidity for short periods of time. Actually, in Tokyo, everywhere is a shopping area, from the train stations to Seibu, one of the biggest--if not the largest--department store in the world. We’ve visited Kiddyland (a six story toy store devoted to every imaginable toy), Tokyu Hands (a combination of Home Depot, Michael’s and Fred Meyer) and department stores like Seibu. At Seibu they even sell small live squirrels in the pet area. Cute, fuzzy tiny squirrels that look just like the millions of other cute furry things for sale here.

The Japanese are known for their hard work, their long hours on the job and the seriousness that is needed to become a major economic world leader. This seriousness, however, seems to be balanced by a never-ending embrace of all things cute. From Disney to Snoopy to Hello Kitty (all familiar to our American friends), the Japanese buy towels, keychains, toilet seat covers, toilet paper covers, rice pots, kimonos, fans, dolls, cell phone covers and everything else with cute characters embossed on the fronts.

While here we’ve discovered some really wild things that have been cutified. (Is that a word?) A ball of dust, a radish, raccoons, a small fire (his name is Calcifer and he’s from the Miyazake movie Howl’s Moving Castle) and the oddest one in our book: a whole cartoon based on a talking singing bag of caramel popcorn, complete with video and matching stuffed toys. Go figure.

At Disneyland the thing to do seemed to be buying a set of character ears (Pooh, Rabbit, Piglet, Mickey...), and wearing them around. Now, I know many Americans do this while out at the state fair, or a renaissance faire, but usually it’s the young ones doing it. Here we spotted men in their 30’s who were sporting tigger ears on the top of their heads!

My only question is: where do they put all this stuff that is bought??? We have seen no single family homes here. There are hundreds of thousands of apartment buildings, but they have to be on the average pretty small. There's a lot of recycling and separation of trash that goes on, but it still seems like the country's waste stream must be quite large.

All this cute does not come cheaply either. We knew before coming here that we wouldn't be able to stay for very long because things were expensive, but we are finding that we are spending about $100 more per day than we originally planned on. We are not doing the backpacker's route (we are in a business class hotel, albeit a very simple one) but neither are we spending extravagant amounts (no drinks at the Park Hyatt where Bill Murray hung out in Lost in Translation). Fact is, the cleanliness, terrific infrastructure, goods and service have to cost something. Tipping is not done, waiters and cab drivers are expected to give good service, with no extra financial motivation, so the costs of doing business must come out of the price of goods. That said, we are leaving Tokyo tomorrow before we go broke, and are taking the shinkansen(high speed, efficient bullet train, tickets for the three of us cost $334 and Dylan is half priced) to Kyoto. Two days in Kyoto, one in Nara and then onto Hiroshima before we head to Busan Korea.

Yours in Fluffydom

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Tokyo Japan: An Epicurean Adventure

We are a family of avowed foodies, and often gain huge pleasure in a great meal. Even Dylan snubs her nose at a McDonald's chicken nugget in favor of some pork katsu or weinerschnitzel. No where else in the world is food such a delight as it is in Japan. Dinner here is not just a feast for the tummy, it's also a feast for the eyes. So far we've eaten ramen from a tiny shop that serves huge bowls of ramen simmering in a rich broth, topped with bits of daikon radish, that puncuated the other toppings primly set upon the dish. [Note from Andy: Loey's writing sounds a bit like the "Japanese English" signs that we sometimes see here.] We've sought out zaru soba shops that sell what is essentially cold buckwheat noodles. But in Japan, it's not just a plate of cold noodles, but still life with art. In Tokyo, the noodles are universally placed in a square lacquered box, atop a bamboo tray surrounded with tiny bowls that have green onions, sesame seeds and a cold "soba sauce" used to dip the noodles in. When you are done with the noodles, the waiter/waitress comes by with a kettle of hot broth, which was used to cook the noodles, and pours it in the bowl with the remaining soba sauce so that you may sip it as an after-meal soup.

We were lucky enough to be taken out to dinner by Andy's ESI co-workers and friends, Nishio-san, Nabeta-san, and Kamo-san, to a restaurant in the Gotanda neighborhood called Hokkaido. This was a restaurant that we would have never ventured into since there was no English on the menu displayed, no plastic food displays outside, and no indication to us that down the dark stairway would be a wonderful restaurant. They had reserved a private tatami room, and after taking off our shoes and putting them into a quaint locker with a wooden key, we were led to a room with a low table (there was a cut out in the floor for long legged gaijin--foreigners) and our hosts commenced ordering.

A Hokkaido specialty is crab, and we had crab tempura, crab shao mai (small dumplings cooked in a bamboo steamer on the table), crab sushi, and to balance the crab we had potato cakes, yakitori chicken, lamb salad and plenty of drinks to wash it down. Not only was the food wonderful, it was great to sit with local friends and ask them about things we had seen in their country, their thoughts on Portland (all very good-they have travelled there and lived there respectively) and travel advice for Japan!

Even lowly take-out in the train stations is something not to be snubbed. Bento boxes wrapped in paper that I would save for wrapping a gift, usually houses a small bit of rice, fish, pickles, and whatever specialty the store is known for. And the food is fresh. No 7-11 fare shriveled under the glow of a heat lamp here. Somehow, all this food is prepared ahead of time, but remains relatively fresh for consumption. [Note from Andy: actually, there seems to be a 7-11 or AM/PM or Lawson mini mart on every corner here, but they don't have the scary food that we see in the US.]

We can even get Dylan into a McDonalds here. (Ever since we showed her Super Size Me, she's really taken its "message" to heart and refuses to eat at McDonalds. Perhaps this displays a lack of parental judgment in more ways than one: we can no longer rely on McDonalds when we want to) She goes there because of a drink that we've seen sold only in Japan. It's called Qoo and we love it. It's like an aloe juice (better than it sounds, with tastes of grapes and pineapple), that has a mild non-carbonated taste and so the Golden Arches, even in Japan, can save the day.

The only disappointment that Dylan has had with Japanese food is that in the land of sushi she has not found a California roll. Perhaps when she grows up, she will move back here and introduce the locals to the joys of cucumber, fake crab and avacado, but only time will tell.

We should have prefaced this entry with a warning: be sure you have access to some great food after reading this! I used to read Little House on the Prairie books and everytime a meal at Almonzo Wilder's home was described, I found myself raiding the fridge. We will continue our epicurean adventures throughout the trip, and share them on the blog. Next stop: Bulgogi and mandu!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Tokyo Japan: There's Something Fishy Here...

Dylan has woken us up at 5:00 am for the past two mornings. You can't blame the girl. Where she comes from, her body is telling her it's 1:00 pm and since sleep has overtaken her at 7:00p.m., she is getting 10 h0urs of sleep. Prior to coming to Tokyo, I knew from a previous visit that if we were to wake up really early, the best thing for us to do is get up, hop on the train and go to the Tsukiji Central Fish Market to catch the fisherman scene and have some sushi for breakfast. You may ask why anyone would want to go a fish market on their first day in Japan. Or for that matter, why would you want to go to a fish market at all. For starters, although I dont have any hard facts on it, I'm willing to bet that the Japanese eat more fish per capita than any other citizens of the world. Given that Japan with its outlying suburbs is the largest city in the world, it can start boggling the mind to think about how much fish goes through people's hands and mouths here. So imagine a building the size of nine city blocks filled with every type of fish imaginable. Every morning around 2:00am fisherman drop off their loads and buyers from local restaurants and businesses come in and bid for the catch of the day. It's an amazing crazy scene that I've only seen on a Travel Channel special, since it is not open to the public, but just seeing the aftermath, I can imagine the chaos. Three wheeled vehicles that look like forklifts, but drive like scooters, spewing toxic fumes race around picking up deliveries. Dylan was sure that she would die at the market as a result of being run over by one of this carts. Fishmongers with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths were weilding samauri swords and chopping up fish the size of an Irish Wolfhound. Crates of octopus, eels, and crabs were stacked waist high, while squid the likes of which Jules Verne could only imagine we're splayed out on tables. Amazingly enough, this rich human and fishy drama wasn't just played out for us, but happens every day of the year. I guess that song is right, there are too many fish in the sea. By 8:00 am we were getting hungry (amazingly enough the smells of diesel, cigarette smoke and fish did not curb our appetite), and sought out some sushi from one the the hundreds of tiny restaurants that ring the market. Knowing that the fish was alive just a few minutes ago, we had high expectations for our sushi and we were not disappointed. Buttery rich tuna, salmon, and shrimp topped tiny bits of rice and we were happy.

After the sushi breakfast, we walked up to a part of town called Ginza where the rich and beautiful shop. Unfortunately they don't crawl out of bed till 11:00 am since most of the stores did not open until then. Tokyo, aside from the crowd at the fish market, is not a town for early risers. Most shops do not open before 10:00, it's tough to get a good breakfast out, and I think many folks eat at home, so the tourists are left to their hotels, until the lunch counters open at 11:30. Things stay open really late here, but I don't know if we'll get to enjoy the nightlife if we keep crashing at 7:00pm!

Both yesterday afternoon, and today we have returned to our hotel in the late afternoon to rest of up and avoid the heat. We are literally able to chill out, since the air con is blasting in our room (thank you to the hotel maid who cranks it up after she leaves) and get our second shower of the day in. I've christened our hotel, the Barton Fink (It's really called the Princess Garden Meguro) because we've seen no one around. Well, today at breakfast we saw a small handful of tourists, but until then, there was no one in the hallways, no one in the lobby, and a sad dejected pile of suitcases by the front desk that no one has claimed since we arrived. This place really gives off the same vibe as the hotel in the movie Barton Fink. In fact it's even got a creepy laundry room in the basement of the parking garage. Actually, the washing machines don't even warrant a room to themselves but are stuck along the side of the garage, where anyone can pull right up and park. Yikes!

Our adventures today we're much more pedestrian, literally. We walked many a city block looking at plastic food, stores full of chopsticks and a shrine or two. Tonight we're off to dinner with some co-workers that Andy knows who are based in the Tokyo ESI office and tomorrow plans for Dylan's second pilgrimage of the trip (the one after morning sushi, and before Disneyland), Studio Ghibli. Until then....

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Toyko Japan: Safe arrival

Konichiwa! We arrived safely in Japan last night after a 10 hour plane flight. The flight was pretty nice, it was on a new plane with tiny individual tvs and so we didn`t have to fight with Dylan about what movies to watch. We arrived in Tokyo at 4:30pm Wednesday and bought JR tickets for the train into the city. We got to our hotel at 7:00 pretty fried. The room our hotel tried to give us was about the size of a bathroom in the US, really tiny. We upgraded to one with two beds, and I kept pointing to the hotel`s brochure and telling the clerk that I wanted to see one that looked like one in the picture, big, clean and nice. He said no, you want another and gave us a key to check out a different room. What we think happened is that there are no rooms left in the hotel that look like they do in the brochure and so to save face he tried pointing us in a different direction.

One of the things this hotel does not have, among many we`re afraid, is internet access. So right now we are at a Dell kiosk in a subway station that is incredibly hot, (weather outside is in the mid 80`s with 80% humidity) writing this blog entry. We have been up since 5:00 am our time and have spent the last 7 hours walking around the city and ducking into cafes to keep cool. I am also on a Japanese style computer and the keyboard is different enough that I`m having a bit of a problem typing correctly so it`s taking my jetlagged, tired brain even longer to write.

We hope to update in the next couple of days and add some pictures of today`s adventures. In the meantime know we are well and safe and seeking out air conditioning whenever we can.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Thank you, Danke, Merci, Arigato Gozaimas, Kamsa Hamnida

Although it is only the three of us setting off on this trip, we would not have been able to do it without the support and help of many people. We have seen new friendships develop, as well as old friendships deepen with all of the help and encouragment given to us. Thank you for letting us stay in your home, feeding us, taking care of Dylan and listening to the many hours of talking about whether we should make this trip, and how we are going to do it. In fact many of you did all of the above! A huge thank you with bear hugs and sloppy kisses are especially for:

Offering us a place to stay during our two month homeless period: Barbara & John, Scott & Stormie, Lake & Angie, Tina, Amanda & Wendy, Barb, Steve & Annie, Suzanne & Peter, Laura & Don, David & Sally, Toni, Sue & Howard, Ronda & Mark, Bill & Jil, Carole, Mike & Phyllis, Kris & Dorothy, & KB's in-laws John & Mary!

Feeding us: Chris & Michele, Jess & Deb, Daksha & Tom , Don & Laura, Jenn & Gunnar, Toni, Tori & Glen, David & Sally, our wonderful parents, and the gang at Milos (especially for the Key Lime Pie!)

Taking care of our important paper and mail during this huge transition: Kerry & Stephanie

Providing hours of medical advice, especially about all the cool exotic diseases out there! K.B.

Hosting parties, providing valuable travel advice or contacts on the road, giving us help setting up a "world school" cirriculum and mostly listening and providing tons of support: Stephanie & Kevin, Ruby G, Pat, Susi, Lili & Sam, Rhonda, Kim, Sam, Luann, George & Sally, Kris, Dover, Suzanna, Charity, Margie, Bay, Kara, & Tom & Andrea

Moving all of our stuff into storage: John!

Those from ESI: Kim & Pradeep, Steve H., Mahesh, Qi, Steve C, Paul, Richa & Doug.

A special thank you to our brothers and their families, Miles & Joile, Lake, and Marty, Heidi, Sophia and Emilia, for their support and watching the parents (and grandparents) while we're gone!