Hiking in Madrid – Collado Mediano

Collado Mediano Area Hike and Mountains

After 3 weeks of walking on sidewalks, hearing sirens, seeing mostly buildings, cars and people, and stressing out about finding an apartment, it was time to get out of the city.  I had initially planned on just taking the train up to the mountains when I suddenly stumbled upon a website about Hiking in Madrid.  I hadn’t even thought about hiking here but it turns out there are lots of mountains and river valleys nearby so why not?  It would also be a great way to get some fresh air, meet some more people, and get more comfortable using our great local transportation.

I contacted them to get more information on upcoming hikes and I went to the local bookstore to pick up a copy of their book.  Their Saturday and Sunday hikes both sounded great.  Robert had some work to do on Sunday so we opted for Saturday’s hike.  For 10 euro (plus transportation) we met at the bus station at the pre-arranged time and we were taken to our destination outside the city to hike for 3-4 hours – lunch and a drink afterward are included.  There were 28 people that went that day.  Most of them live in Madrid.  Most of them spoke both Spanish and English.  They were of all ages and from all over.  Someone even brought their dog.  We had people from Israel, Britain, Mexico, Lithuania, the US, and other parts of Spain.

Our Hike Reminded Me a lot of Arizona

This particular hike was about 45 minutes outside the city near the small town of Collado Mediano (which means Middle Valley).  When we arrived in town, we had a 20 minute break to stock up on water, get breakfast, use the bathroom and check out the town before heading out.  The croissants we had was SO good, we should have bought more.

We headed up and out of the village.  There were trails going in every direction (many mountain bike trails), so it was good to have someone point out which way we were suppose to go.  Our hike was pretty much straight up hill to the top.  The rock outcroppings, vegetation and mountains here remind me a LOT of southern Arizona.  It was plenty hot that day too – which also reminding me a lot of Arizona.  Next time we go, I’ll know to bring extra water and another back pack.

View of the valley

We had a great time.  It was exactly what we needed.  Good exercise but very relaxing at the same time.  The views along the way were great.  We could see the world’s largest cross in the Valley of the Fallen off in the distance.  We could see the many surrounding mountains, several reservoirs, and other towns and villages dotting the countryside.  We eventually found a nice shady spot in the pines to have our lunch (which was peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and chips).  We had lots of interesting conversations that day and met lots of interesting people.  Eventually we headed down the mountain – which was easier.  It was mostly a long winding path back down the side of the mountain we climbed.  There were thunderstorms in the area which cooled the temperature a bit and provided us with much needed cloud cover.

When we returned to Collado Mediano, we had to wait over an hour for the next bus to Madrid.  Which was great actually, because we were thirsty.  And here in Spain there’s nothing better than just sitting outside at one of the local taverns and having some drinks and tapas.  And that’s exactly what we did!

For more pics, just click on the photos.

Croissants!

Largest cross off in the distance

 

Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…

 

Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

A Day Among Elephants

Patera Elephant Farm

During this vacation, we realized there were lots of things we did in both Thailand and Cambodia that we would never be able to do in the USA (mainly because of “safety” laws/regulations).  Riding elephants bareback in the mountains is one of them.  Of all the fun activities we did on this trip, our experience at the Patera Elephant Farm had to be the most thrilling.  Spending the whole day “owning” one  these amazing creatures is almost beyond words.

To be in the mountains and see elephants roaming around freely is in itself pretty incredible.  We had the added bonus of being there only a couple days after the newest member of the herd was born.  We got to spend time with the  3 day old baby elephant and her mother.  The baby was already walking – her legs a little wobbly and skin a little baggy.  She was still small enough to walk under her mother.  I’m not sure what she thought of all of us, but we all thought she was adorable.  Her eyes were so big, her trunk so tiny and her little hair was spiked up.  She stayed close to her mother who was obviously being protective, but she still let us feed both of them bananas.  It wasn’t very long before a 10 week old baby elephant showed up – jealously wanting all the attention (and the bananas).  There was another 10 week year old roaming around nearby, but he stayed closer to his mom.  We were told 5 elephants were born on the “farm” this year and that another one was on the way.

Washing MayBooDee

We headed across the river to a covered pavilion where the head mahout (trainer) spent about 30 minutes talking about the Thai Asian Elephants and the Patera Elephant farm.  He went over their history, their dwindling numbers, and the different parks and programs around Thailand trying to protect and increase their numbers.  He also gave us a brief run down of the day’s activities.  Meanwhile the 10 week old elephant was wondering around getting into everything, knocking things over, and bothering the chickens and roosters (which he was actually afraid of). 🙂  While he looked “small”, he was so strong that it took two full grown men to move him when he went somewhere he shouldn’t.  It was delightful entertainment.

Eventually we all put on our mahout outfits and were assigned an elephant (and their corresponding mahout).  We learned how to approach them, feed them, check their health, and to clean and bath them.  Maybodee was our elephant’s name and she was 28.  She was very calm, trusting, healthy and BIG.  She was one of the largest elephants there.  I wasn’t nearly as intimidated by her as I thought I would be though.  However, I was very much aware of her size and strength and knew she could easily crush me into a pancake if she wanted.  Like a human, she seemed to be very aware of their surroundings and looked like she was constantly watching and thinking.  Like a dog, I think she knew who she could trust.  Over time, we slowly got use to her size and I think she really liked us.  She ate two huge baskets full of food (bananas, sugar cane, and straw), we brushed the dirt off her and then took her into the river for a bath.  Bathing her in the river was hard work.  She was so big it was hard to get all of her completely clean.  After we gave her a bath… she gave us a bath. 🙂

Riding to the Waterfall

We all met back at the pavilion, where we were given instructions on the commands we needed to know in order to ride our elephant.  There were quite a few, so we wrote them on our forearm for reference.  We were then shown three different ways to mount an elephant, and where to sit.  Robert & I shared an elephant so we both had to get up.  I got to ride up front while he rode on her back. It was actually pretty comfortable and not nearly as high or scary as I imagined.  Of course they are so big, it’s more like sitting in a boat than on a horse.  After we were all on, we went for about a 30 ride through the forest until we came to a spot in the river near a waterfall.  It was easy to dismount because there were some large rocks that Maybodee just went right up next too so we could get off easily.  The elephants were led away while we had a nice lunch outside on a big rock near the waterfall.  We were starving and there was all kinds of food for us to try…fried chicken, fruits, rice balls mixed with various beans/vegetables, pumpkin bread, and other goodies.

It was a much needed break, and the weather was perfect for relaxing and enjoying the outdoors.  Surprisingly, there weren’t even any bugs.  We were all sitting around chatting when the 10 week old baby decided to join our little party and finish our leftovers!  The other elephants started showing up and some got in the river.  A couple of people decided to get in the water with them, as did both of the 10 week old baby elephants.  It was so cute watching them play with each other in the water.  I’m not sure how long we were watching them, but I could have stayed all day.  Eventually, we had to leave and we all got back on our elephants – this time Robert was up front and I was in back.  The ride getting here was easy, so I took my camera out to take a few pictures.  Then I saw the hill we were about to climb and immediately put it away.  Seriously, the next 30 minutes I was in disbelief that these animals could climb and descend hills that steep…so steep that even I wouldn’t have hiked them.  We both trusted Maybodee completely, and she was amazing.  I knew she would have no problem, but the incline from where I was sitting was nearly vertical at times and I felt like I was going to slide right into Robert causing us both to fall off.  My whole body was sore for the next couple days from holding on so tightly.

Baby Elephants Playing in the Water

Fortunately we made it back to the camp intact.  We dismounted, had some water (and Advil), and paid our dues.  We thanked our mahouts, played some more with the babies, said goodbye to our wonderful new friend, and took some final pictures before heading back to the big city.  We were exhausted but so glad we had the opportunity to do this – we wish everyone could.  They say that an elephant never forgets, well neither will we.  They truly are amazing animals and we certainly hope the world doesn’t ever lose them.

One of the staff at Patera Elephant Farms took pictures of all of us there that day and provided us with a CD.  So, in addition to our pictures you can see lots of thiers too:

Day 5 – Spending A Day with Elephants

Time to Cook – A Lot of Thai

Our Cooking Class Limo

We both love food and we both love to cook but neither of us had ever been to a cooking class, so we decided to try one.  Chiang Mai must have 50+ cooking schools and it was a great way to spend the day (especially if you like Thai food).  All of the schools were rated highly on Tripadvisor, so it probably didn’t matter which one we actually chose.   In the end, it ended up being a fun and very economical way to spend the day since it went from 8am – 6pm and pretty much included breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We meet some interesting people and we also ate some of the best food we had in Thailand.  Hopefully, our newly acquired knowledge (and the included cookbook) will help us re-create these dishes when we get the urge to eat Thai food again.  The hardest part of making Thai food at home is actually locating all the ingredients that give it that uniquely Thai flavor.

Robert Cooking

We booked our class with A Lot of Thai.  Yui has been teaching these classes for 10 years, and she only teaches 8 people at a time.  We registered for the “Popular” dishes course (which, not surprisingly, included most of our favorites).  We were told not to have breakfast, but we did anyway (there was no way we were passing up that).  Our pick-up was suppose to be at 8:30, but they were running late and didn’t get to us until 8:45.  When the van drove up, we chuckled.  We could tell right away that this was going to be interesting day.

After we picked up one other couple, we arrived at her house by 9am.  The class was actually held in her long covered patio area which was bright, tropical and very homey.  Everything was already set up for us and we each had our own cooking station.  Everyone was introduced and we put our aprons on.  Our class consisted of a couple of bee farmers from Canada, a father and daughter from South Korea, and a young couple from London (he was Indian and she was Swedish).  The first dish we all made was Chicken Pad Thai.  Yui first explained all the ingredients and then she demonstrated how to cook it.  We each got to try what she cooked and then off we went to our stations to replicate it.  As we cooked she walked around and would repeat steps outloud and correct us if we were doing anything wrong (or adjust or stoves if it was too hot/cold).  Our first dish was a success!  After we finished cooking, we’d go back to the little picnic area, eat our creations and talk.  Having lived in Chiang Mai for so long, she was a wealth of information about the city – especially the good restaurants.

Red & Green Curry

The next two dishes we made were Tom Yum Soup and Red/Green Curry.  The soup was incredibly tasty in spite of the fact that it only takes about 15 minutes to make.  There are lots of ingredients in it, but all we really ate was the shrimp and mushrooms and drank the broth.  The rest of the ingredients were mainly for flavor.  If I made it this at home, I’d probably strain the big stuff out right before serving it.

The curry dish was quite involved and had more ingredients than I thought it would.  Robert made the red curry and I made the green curry, this way we could compare.  They were both fantastic with the green curry being a bit more spicy than the red.

After cooking three of the six dishes, Yui took us to the local market.  This was great timing for several reasons.   First, it gave us a break from cooking.  Cooking is hard work, and at times stressful – especially if you are competing with your spouse.   It also gave us time to build our appetites back up.  While the serving sizes we made were very reasonable, rice, noodles, and coconut milk are filling, so a chance to walk around felt good.  Finally, it also helped us learn and remember what we saw at the market.  Since we just used many of the ingredients we could locate a lot of them on our own. The market also gave us an opportunity to purchase hard to find ingredients that we could take home with us.  Yui went over a lot more than just what we just did in class.  We meet several market vendors, had ice coffee made, watched fresh coconut being ground, and so much more!

Yui & Us

After about an hour, we headed back to the house to do our next three dishes: Chicken with Cashew nuts (yum!).  This one was pretty straight forward with no difficult ingredients, so I’m pretty sure we can do this one again.  Our fifth dish was spring rolls (which ended up very crispy – not greasy).  We usually don’t make fried food, but this one seemed pretty healthy the way it was done.  The last dish was  my complete and utter favorite – Mango with Sticky Rice.  And it was SO incredibly delicious, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Even without mango this dessert is so good.  I know it sounds like it would be easy to make, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to make it that good again.  The rice she used I’ve only ever seen in Thailand…..but I’m not going to give up, because even so-so versions of this dessert are so worth the effort.

It was 6 o’clock by the time we finished and we were all full.  No one had made plans for dinner – except us.  We had pre-arranged a meeting with friends at 7pm.  We did warn them however, that we probably would not be eating, just drinking – and that’s what we did.  What a great day!

Check out the rest of our pictures by clicking on the photo below:

Day 3 – Thai Cooking Class

Cycling the Hills of Chiang Dao

Banana Pancakes with Mango Gelato

Most people start their vacations by sleeping in…not us.  It was Saturday morning, and we were up at 6am.  Of course it felt more like 8am given the time difference from Japan, so it really wasn’t a big deal.  The sunrise was soooo beautiful, and we had a delicious full buffet breakfast waiting for us.

There was more food in that buffet than was humanly possible to consume: a large selection of fresh fruit & juices, pastries, yogurts, muesli, smoked salmon, cheeses, salads, noodles, soups, breads & jams.  We could also order anything off the hot menu.  We not only tried a bit of everything on the buffet, but we ordered hot meals as well.  Heck, why not, we had an active 9 hours ahead of us.  And I’ve got to say….my banana pancakes with mango gelato were particularly scrumptious.

Biking in the Hills of Chiang Dao

As promised, our bike guide and driver picked us up at 8:15am.  We found out we were the only ones scheduled for today’s trip – which was an added bonus.  We got into the truck and started our 1 1/2 hour drive north.  It took a good 45 minutes to get out of the city, but it was worth the wait to see the beautiful countryside.  The roads became curvy and less crowded and the mountains and hills became more visible.   Eventually we entered a wide river valley and began traveling on small rural roads.  I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find this place on my own.  The last stretch was on a dirt track (with no signs).  We eventually drove thru two large open wooden gates.  Within the walled compound was a beautiful little complex.  I felt like I was in some scene from Romancing the Stone.  There was another group of people (from REI) that had spent several days biking in the area and they were getting ready to leave.  After our quick 15 minute rest stop, we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets, grabbed some bottled water, and headed on our way up the dirt road.

Hill Tribe Crafts

Kiki (our guide) lead the way.  She was great.  She’d stop along the way and point out the different types of trees, fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, and plants they grew (which is just about anything you can think of).  We stopped and watched the locals picking, packaging and hunting.  Sometimes we’d stop just to take pictures of the countryside.  In the course of about 2 hours (and 12 km) we also got to ride through and visit 5 different hill tribe villages (Karen, Akkha, Lahu, Lisu and Palong).  These villagers migrated from either Myanmar (Burma), China or Tibet  over 100 years ago and each have their own distinct culture and language.  The women stayed home and watched the kids, while the men went to work in the fields or to hunt.  They shared one vehicle in the village.  The women worked on crafts made of cotton (hats, coin holders, purses, wall hangings), stones/gems (for jewelry) or bamboo (for baskets).  They were always excited to see foreigners and would lay out blankets and display their creations in hopes of making a sale.  Chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely.  Their houses and possessions were minimal, yet they all seemed content, and it was very clean.  Some of the old women had a very bad habit of chewing on betel nut (a stimulant), and their teeth had become chipped and black.  Actually learning about these people while you meet them was very interesting.

Cutting Bamboo for Baskets

Before we knew it, we were back at the lodge.  It was good timing, because riding on dirt roads without biking shorts and cycling up some good sized hills had started to take it’s toll.  The lodge offered us some soft drinks and a huge spread of food.  While it was all very good and healthy, we were a little disappointed it wasn’t that spicy.  Looking back, however, it was probably not only a good thing, but also intentional – especially since we still had 30 kilometers to go.

We rested for 20 minutes and then restocked our water.  Off we went, this time down the hills and across the valley.  The single dirt track we took was fun.  It had a good bit of sand on it (probably from the recent floods), and we would occasionally get stuck.  We rode through forest, and then past fields and orchards.  Finally we ended up on the rural road from which we could see Doi Chiang Dao mountain in the distance (the third highest mountain in Thailand).  The cave at the base of this mountain was our final destination.

Herbal & Root Medicines

It was pretty warm that afternoon and the sun was pretty intense.  We stopped at a rice “factory” and at a newly planted teak tree plantation for water breaks.  The driver followed us in case we needed a break from riding.  Fortunately, the closer we got to our mountain, the more shade there was.  We made it, but we were both glad to get off the bikes.  Walking around felt good.  There was a large market here which specialized in natural and herbal medicine.  If you had an ailment, they had a fix.  I forgot to ask if they had something for my numb bum.   We ended up not purchasing anything though, since it probably wouldn’t have gotten through customs in Japan.

Buddha in the Cave

We walked around the place to stretch our legs, take pictures of all the cool stuff, and cool off before we went inside the cave.  It was similar to other caves – except for the religious statues, articles and decorations scattered throughout.  There are supposedly 5 interconnected caves (at various levels) believed to stretch some 12 km under the mountain, but tourists usually only see the first 1km – which, quite frankly, is enough.  It’s humid and damp and some areas are pitch black.  We went as far as we could without lanterns and a cave guide.  At the end of the lighted area, there is an imprint on the wall of the royal emblem – the King and Queen paid a visit here in the ’60’s and someone left their mark.

It was now time to head back to Chiang Mai.  We were back at our hotel by 5:30.  A nice long shower and a short walk to dinner was the only thing on our mind.  What a great first day.  We packed a ton of stuff in and we knew we’d sleep great.  We were also looking forward to a leisurely day exploring the Old City tomorrow – if we could still move in the morning. 🙂

We took over 150 pictures that day.  Check them out on our picassa website:

Day 1 – Biking in Chiang Dao

Our Japanese Tour Experience on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise on Iriomote Island

Urachi River Cruise

We’ve always been DIY travelers, but since it was the off-season in Okinawa and Iriomote Island is mostly uninhabited and operating on skeleton schedules, I really did not want to mess something up and get us stuck on this island.  There was also a lot we wanted to see and do.  We thought it might be nice to actually have someone else do all the planning – so we asked the Concierge to book us on a Japanese Tour.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the narration – but that didn’t bother us, we live with that every day.  We were just looking forward to relaxing and being like little ducklings for a day.  They were even going to pick us up and return us to the hotel.

Our nearly full tour bus left the hotel at 8:00am.  I had a vague idea what the overall itinerary was, but I never received a detailed schedule.  The bus dropped all of us off at the ferry terminal and we were told to stand in line (along with dozens of other people) and wait for our turn at the counter.  When we got there, the guy said a bunch of stuff in Japanese and handed us some tickets.  The only two things we understood was Gate 6, Boat 1 and return to the counter at the end of tour.  We were hoping for a bit more information than that.  We boarded the completely full ferry, a little nervous.  I think we looked, acted, and sounded as confused as we were.  When we arrived at the island, we headed for another line (that everyone else was in) hoping to get some direction (we didn’t know what else to do).  Fortunately, a gentlemen in a hawaiian shirt approached us directly and said “B Course?  Bus, this way”.  He led us to a bus (we noticed the sign in the bus window had four letters, one of which was B).  Now we were starting to feel a bit more comfortable.   The crowd we were with had finally been narrowed down.  When the bus was ready to go, the hawaiian shirt guy came onboard asking everyone (in Japanese) if anyone knew English (other than us), but no one did OR at least no one admitted they did – in fear they would have to babysit us all day.  That made us start worrying all over again.

River tour in Iriomote

River tour in Iriomote

He said something to the bus driver, and we were off.  The coach ride was actually very nice.  With lots of big windows and seats much higher up than a car – we had a great view of everything.  Right away it became evident that the island is almost completely covered with a thick subtropical primeval forest.  If you are not on a river, a road or some well trod path you won’t be able to go anywhere.  The island’s only main road follows the coast to the other side of the island – and that is where we were headed.  In route, our bus driver did a lot of talking and the passengers did a lot of laughing.  We were able to pick out a few things he talked about (or pointed out): the Iriomote cat (no, we didn’t see one), the kanmuri-washi bird (a crested serpent eagle), the waterfalls, some islands, something about pineapples and mangos, and the hot springs.

The bus did stop once about 1/2 way to our destination and some people got off (happily we knew this was not our stop – unlike one of the other couples).  We arrived at the Urauchi River by 10:00am.  As we exited the bus, we noticed the bus driver had scribbled down on a sheet of paper (just for us):  Bus go 1:00.  Ahhh, I think we can do that!  Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be as difficult as we thought.  We soon boarded a little cruise boat.  Someone handed us a sheet of paper saying 12:40. We figured this must be the time the boat would return.  The boat only had 12-15 people on it, so we had lots of room to move around and get a good view of everything the captain was pointing out.  Aside from the sound of the boat engines when moving, it was ultra quiet going up river.  The further we went, the more tropical and lush the vegetation became.  We passed mangroves, saw some big white birds, a couple kayakers, more waterfalls, inlets, fish, and another kanmuri-washi bird (this one actually dove in and caught a fish).  I was really expecting to see a lot more birds. The other rain forests we’ve been to were full of birds and creature sounds, but here it was so quiet.

River tour in Iriomote

Water Fall seen on River Tour

We docked at the trail head around 11:00.  We confirmed with the captain that the boat would leave at 12:40.  I knew we were suppose to hike to some waterfall 30 minutes away, so we followed the others along the trail.  Off we went, but at a fairly slow pace – Robert’s knee was all of a sudden really bothering him (probably from his swim the night before).  He almost turned around twice, but he stuck with it.  Luckily we didn’t encounter any wild boar or snakes to run away from. 🙂  We made it to the observation tower of Mariyudo Falls and even a bit further, but the path down to the falls had been closed (looked like it was washed away), so we headed back.  We returned to the dock with a few minutes to spare (there was no way WE were going to be late).  The captain almost left a couple of young girls there who were a couple minutes late arriving.  He probably would have left, if it was us instead of them.  The boat trip back was much faster but so relaxing.  It was a beautiful sunny day and we were just soaking up the rays and the scenery.

We boarded the bus at 1:00 and were quickly dropped off for lunch.  The drivers notepad now said: Bus go 1:50.  A yummy Bento box lunch was waiting for us at a lovely little restaurant (which we would have never found ourselves).  One waitress knew enough English to explain to us everything we were eating.  There was a lot of food, but we ate everything – I guess we were hungrier than we thought.

Yubu Island

Yubu Island Warning Sign

Our first stop after lunch was the other star sand beach.  This time, I decided to look for it.  I figured it would be easier to spot them if I put the sand on the black coral – and sure enough there it was!  I showed it to Robert, and he we was able to find some – pretty cool.

The bus slowly made it’s way back to ferry terminal along the same road.  The bus driver didn’t talk much this time, he just played some Okinawan music playing.  Robert took a nap.  Our last stop was Yubu Island.  I really wasn’t interested in visiting this very small island, but it was included in the price, so we went.  It actually ended up being quite fun and funny.  We even got to see the water buffalo family tree.  Our water buffalo cart driver played us some music on his sanshin and we watched all the carts being pulled back and forth across the shallow sand bar.  The water buffalo are really strong, though not very cute.  The island was full of sandy paths going every which direction.  We walked all of them, entertained by all the silly creatures and features along the way.

Before we knew it, we were headed back across the sandbar and boarding our bus for the last time.  We eventually boarded the ferry back and then returned to our hotel.  That was it.  We did it!   We managed to make it through the day without any problems or mistakes.  It made for a very memorable experience and we would consider doing it again.  I wonder if this now makes us professional Japanese Tourists? 🙂

Our Japanese Baseball Experience

The Dome

Yahoo! Dome Stadium

I am not the most qualified person to write this post, but since my husband is always busy doing his two jobs, I will take a stab at it.

We didn’t have a chance to go to a baseball game last fall, so we really wanted to go this year.  Robert’s birthday was coming up (and he loves baseball) and my niece was coming out for a visit, so I thought this would be the perfect time to go.  The Yahoo! Dome stadium is only a couple of miles away from where we live and Fukuoka’s baseball team is actually pretty darn good.  It just so happened that they became the Pacific League Champions after their previous game.  The boys live and breathe baseball here…way more than in the USA.  They practice ALL the time and for many hours, so we thought the PROS would be amazing to watch.

It was an afternoon game, and we had just come from visiting the fish market.  It was a lovely afternoon, and we had a couple hours to spare so we picked up our tickets and had some lunch before the game.  The “official” English website said we weren’t allowed to bring in food or drinks, but we had extra munchies and brought them in with us anyway.  Within a few minutes of finding our seats, it was obvious that the official “Japanese” website said to ‘Bring in all the food and drinks you can carry’, because they were feasting.

Beer Backpack

The father and son to our right had brought in 50 posters to hold up at various parts of the game.  Young ladies and gents were carrying around kegs of beer to sell beer to the fans.  Everyone came dressed in Hawks shirts (even though very few were actually in the Hawks color yellow.  Most were wearing baby blue or pink…we couldn’t figure that one out.)  They all also carried in  a set of small plastic bats, which they pounded together constantly every time the Hawks were up at bat.

The visiting team was never introduced or recognized.  They had a small cheering section in the back (probably the band that travels with them everywhere they go.)  When the visiting team was at bat, everyone was busy talking and pretty much ignoring what was going on for the most part.  However, when the Hawks were at bat, everyone stood up and followed the cheers of the main cheerleader who was equipped with a megaphone.  They would chant the name of the player up at bat until he either got a hit or an out.   This could have been a completely boring game had there not been the home run and extra runs batted in by the home team.  The English speaking announcer was also annoyingly weird and way too perky.

The balloons

The balloons

Then really strange things started happening.  At the bottom of the sixth, despite a no-hitter, the pitcher was replaced.  Then right before the seventh inning stretch, blue and yellow balloons were being blown up by fans all around us.  The man behind us gave us some balloons to blow up too.  All of these balloons were released at the same time. My niece was very concerned about the spit that was going to be released, but these are special balloons with a protective white mouth piece that prevents such an unsanitary event.  With the Hawks up by 5 and the visiting team looking weak, we expected some people to start leaving… but NO ONE did.  Even at the end of the game, with a guaranteed win….still NO ONE was leaving.  We had to stay, curious as to why.  Well, we got to experience another balloon blow-up and release (mostly white balloons this time), followed by fireworks, and then a ceremonial opening of the dome’s ceiling.  They still weren’t leaving, but we had had enough at this point, so we did.

Hiking Miyajima Island, Plus Hiroshima & The Peace Park

View of Torii Gate

View of the Famous Floating Torii Gate

We finally made it to Hiroshima and Miyajima.   After a series of really wet weekends, the weather could not have been more perfect for our trip and I’d have to say that these two UNESCO World Heritage sites were well worth the year long wait.  Even though they are extremely different, we enjoyed both of them very much and would go back there in a heartbeat.

We knew there would be lots to see and sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday morning to be out our door by 7am.   Since Miyajima was more difficult to get to, we decided to do that first, which meant buying lots of tickets and making lots of connections (from our subway, to the bullet train, then transferring to a regular train, and finally onto a ferry).  Fortunately everything went smoothly and we were in Miyajima by 10am.  We even managed to figure out the lockers at the train station so we could store our luggage while we explored the island.

Close-up of Doe & Fawn

Doe & Fawn

While we were on the ferry, Robert was busy snapping pictures as I stood anxiously watching the torii gate approach.  After seeing so many pictures of this torii gate, it was hard to believe we were actually here.  The island (Istukushima) is very beautiful…it’s steep and very forested.  The island is still considered sacred and pure in the Shinto religion.  In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, and all other visitors had to go thru the torii gate before stepping on the island.  There are still some strict rules in place…no cutting down trees, no births and no deaths.  The highest point on the island is Mt Misen which rises up directly behind the torii gate to a height of about 530 meters (1,750 feet).  We had originally planned to take the ropeway up to the top, but Robert said his back was feeling fine, so we decided we would hike it instead.

Robert eating the Maple Leaf

Snacking on Maple Leaves – yum!

Everyone visiting the island had smiles on their face….(you’d think you were at Disneyland).   Tame deer roamed the streets, there were little chariots carrying happy couples around, and lots of quaint little shops.  There were also lots of statues, lanterns, and traditional Edo period Japanese buildings.  We didn’t have a map, so we just followed the crowds and wondered around – looking at everything.  Occasionally we’d see signs, pointing us in the direction of Mt Misen.  We also saw signs telling us not to pet or feed the deer, but the Japanese sign must have said something different because they were doing both constantly.

We visited the pagoda, walked around the “1,000 tatami mat” pavilion (Senjokaku) and explored the back streets of the village.  We found a shop making the little maple shaped cakes (momiji manju), so we stopped and sampled their two flavors and had some tea.  We eventually ended up at the main temple, Daisho, and spent a good hour taking photos and enjoying the scenery.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded and some leaves were starting to change so we really took our time there.  However, I knew it was getting late and we still had our hike to do, so we continued on our way.

View near top

View from Mt Misen

Our hike up Mt. Misen (Mount Stair-Miser would be a better name) began near the temple.  I don’t know if anyone has ever counted how many stairs there are, but I’d venture to guess there were at least a couple thousand (it took us nearly an hour to climb it).  Some sections were so steep that it was very obvious there had been some recent landslides and extensive repair work had been made.  At times I thought the stairs would never end.  The views just kept getting better and better, so we kept going.  We even had a fantastic view of the torii gate at low tide…all the people walking up to it looked like ants.  The trail followed a stream/waterfall most of the way up.  It was very shady and there were only a handful of other hikers.  Thank goodness it was a cool day because I was extremely thirsty (I didn’t have my water bottle and there were none of those famous vending machines along the way).  The views from the top were spectacular.

YakiKaki !

Grilled Oysters!

I would have loved to hang out there had we had picnic provisions, but since we were both extremely thirsty and hungry, and neither of us can tolerate walking down steep downhills anymore (darn knees!), we decided to take the Ropeway down.   After a 15 minute ride we were back amongst the masses and the vending machines!  The line to go up was incredibly long so we now know never to do that.  Robert was craving some grilled oysters (yakikaki), so we waited about 15 minutes for our delicious appetizer and then moved on to find some anago-buri (eel on rice) for a late lunch.  Again, (true to the Japanese tradition), we waited in another line at the restaurant.  The anago-buri was amazingly delicious (oishii!).  Sunset was approaching, so we figured we should make our way back to the ferry…passing the torii gate one last time, and delaying our departure as long as we could.

We went back to Hiroshima, retrieved our luggage and checked into our hotel.  Fairly exhausted from our long day, we relaxed for a while, shared a beer and opted for a carousel sushi dinner.   We got up early so we could experience the Peace Park with as few visitors as possible.  It ended up being another beautiful day.  We walked along the river to the A-bomb Dome – which is quite impressive indeed.  It seems frozen in time.  Stray cats run around it just like in some dystopian tale.  It’s hard to write about our experience there, as a worthy description of both the Dome and Peace Park cannot be captured in words.  It’s something that must be experienced first-hand.

A-bomb dome View

A-bomb Dome

The visit to Hiroshima completed a full circle for us.  Some 20+ years ago, we visited the museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico – the birthplace of the A-bomb.  I still remember that day vividly.  It was an incredibly weighted experience (just as watching Schindler’s list was).  It rendered both of us speechless and depressed for hours.  It is shocking to realize the kind of destruction man is capable of.  We have since then also visited Nagasaki (the site of the 2nd nuclear bomb dropping), and we live relatively close to where the 2nd bomb was initially intended to be dropped.

As horrible as that part of history was, it’s nowhere near the devastating nuclear capacity we have today.  The recent events in northern Japan is a constant reminder of how dangerous a game we are playing.

At the end of the day, I left Hiroshima feeling hopeful – because I didn’t like the thought of it ending any other way.

Montana Summer 2011 – A Reminiscence (nice word, thanks spellcheck!)

Cow on the way to the butcher.

Death Next Door – but Tasty!

We had a great, but very dramatic summer.  We returned to floods all over Montana, record snow fall, a deer that took up residence in our backyard and a leaking pipe in our basement.  Shortly after getting everything back in good shape, we had a long, violent thunderstorm with golf ball size hail that wrecked havek on our yard, house and truck – which now requires us to get a new roof, new gutters and our deck repaired.

The events kept piling on.  There was lots of drama on the family side of things, including fires threatening family homes in AZ, a dear uncle dying, and a cousin who shot his 40+ dogs and now is dealing with the law.

On the positive side of things, it was absolutely wonderful to see our families, friends and pets (which we missed very much) and we spent lots of time outdoors and doing some great hikes.  Rose got to fly down to AZ to see and spend time with her mother and a couple of sisters.  We enjoyed having friends visit and we got to eat some really great meals (sorry Japan, we still prefer American beef) and drink some fantastic wine.  It was the fastest two months we’ve ever had.  I can’t believe it came and went so quickly.  Hope you enjoy these pictures highlighting our summer (click on a picture to seem them all).

4th of July in Luther (Parent's House)

Spending Time with Family & Friends

I’m not sure either of us were really ready to leave our beloved Montana yet (as fall is also spectacular here), but at the same time, we were both excited to get back to Japan and the adventures of teaching and travel.

Rock Creek Valley

Our Playground

NZ: The Wildly Wet West Coast

Coastal Scenery

The West Coast

We woke to heavy rain.  We knew it was coming, and we knew it was not going to be a typical storm.  The precipitation forecast models indicated dark purple (meaning very heavy rain) for at least 36 hours.  Fortunately, we weren’t in a big hurry to go anywhere.  This old farmhouse turned B&B was a great place to hang out – until they kicked us out.

Our tasty breakfast was served from 7-9am.  The combined kitchen and dining room in this place was huge.  Conversations at the table revealed that everyone at the B&B was headed north today, since there was no reason to hang around town…as every activity was canceled.

When we finally checked-out , we were given a calender, map and information sheet.  It still ended up being a beautiful drive – with even more waterfalls than before (if that’s possible).  We noticed the rivers were rising quickly, some were already rushing from all the rain in the higher elevations and the water color was now brown.  There were a few stretches where water was already crossing the road.  My trusty driver was probably getting a bit worried about potential flooding.  Fortunately, the rain let up as we moved north and in spots it wasn’t raining at all.  We stopped a couple of times to view the wild beaches and rocky coastline.  We even stopped in Hokitika to check out a few jade shops and watch one guy work in the studio.

Weka (baby raptor)

Weka (a miniature raptor)

We continued our drive down the coast through Greymouth and then to Punakaiki.  Another break in the rain allowed us to walk out to the pancake rocks and blow holes.  Because of the storm, the surf was exceptionally high and the sea was quite dramatic.  Our hotel was very close by so we checked into our eco-suite (which is a nice way to say: not fancy).  We had a pretty view and a nice little patio area. We were soon visited by a Weka who obviously was not afraid of people and kept acting like he wanted to come in our room.  He even charged at me when I opened the door and then rapped on the window with his beak.  Robert joked that he was from Jurassic Park since he looked and acted like a miniature velociraptor who wanted to kill us.

When I booked our hotel room three months ago, I opted for the package that included dinner, drinks and breakfast….which ended up being a great move, because neither of us wanted to go back out in that storm to find some dinner.  We hung out in the lounge, drinking beer and wine and watching the waves.  We then moved to the dining room to have our meal and a few more drinks.

Kitty so cute

The Cafe Kitty

After another great nights sleep and a big breakfast, we checked out to move to our next place, a B&B about 90 minutes north near the end of the West Coast highway.  On our approach into Westport, we noticed the highway to Nelson was closed (which we needed to take tomorrow).  When we crossed the Buller river it was running bank to bank.  We now knew why all those river beds we crossed were so huge, and I was hoping it wouldn’t get any worse or we’d be stuck in Westport for a long time (actually, that wouldn’t be so bad).  It was in Westport that we learned about all the road closures on the South Island due to flooding and slides.  We had to call our B&B to make sure we could still get there.  After checking out the town and getting some coffee we made our way further up the road.  The rain storms were coming in like waves with at least some blue sky and calm breaks between them now.

We stopped at the Drifters Cafe to have a beer and split a lunch.  A super soft, cuddly kitten was there for us to play with.  We ordered the red chicken curry which was very good and by the time we finished it was time to check into our next B&B.  We met our host, Gay and her dog (ironically named Storm).  We unloaded our stuff and told her we really wanted to do the hike along the river to see the waterfall.  She told us how to get there and gave us a couple of torches (flashlights) for the tunnels.  It appeared as if the storms may have finally stopped – so out we went.

Huge Falls at Charming Creek

The Falls at Charming Creek were like Niagra Falls

The trail followed an old mining rail track (there were lots of cool mining relics along the way).  The sunshine was so beautiful and shining brightly in the canyon as the river below rushed along something fierce.  There were several spots where we were very tempted to turn around, but we kept going.  Dark clouds quickly set in and all I wanted was to get to one of the tunnels.  Fortunately, we made it to the tunnel just before it started raining hard.  We had to wait 5-10 minutes before we could continue our hike.  We passed several other hikers coming back who apparently didn’t have shelter during the last downpour.  The rains created temporary waterfalls requiring us to go through them in order to get to the swing bridge.  And to see Mangatini Falls we had to cross that bridge.  Robert nearly chickened out (he doesn’t like heights), but I went across.  Robert soon got up enough nerve to cross the bridge….and he was glad he did.  The falls were WAY bigger than we had imagined.

On our way back, the trail and temporary waterfalls were already drying up.  We were almost back to the B&B when the final storm came through.  We hung out for the rest of the evening drinking a bottle of wine and conversing with our host about the storm.  Later we went back to the cafe for an incredibly good pizza and to check out the local rivers.  They all had come down a good bit…we were hopeful the highway would be open in the morning so we wouldn’t have to take the detour.   The other couple staying at our B&B came from Nelson and they had to take the 4 hour detour to get here.  We kept checking the NZ transportation department website and slowly the roads were opening back up.  By the time we went to bed all roads were open except two (one of them was our road to Nelson).