Thanksgiving in Barcelona: Gaudi and Goodies

View from our Apartment – Casa Mila in the center

Since we couldn’t easily go home for Thanksgiving break, we decided to go to Barcelona instead.  We heard the food there was fabulous plus we would have a 4-day weekend to explore the city.  We left Wednesday night and instead of driving (which would have taken us 6-7 hours), we took the high speed train (at 180 mph) and we were there in 2.5 hours.  The train station is also conveniently located in the center of the city, so we were even checked into our apartment by 10pm.

We booked a place on the main shopping street in Barcelona….Passeig de Gracia.  The hotel surprised us with an upgrade to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment (it was really nice but way more room than we needed).  They also gave us a box of chocolates and free internet service – all for the same price as a little hotel room. 🙂  The location was perfect, the view was great and the weather was perfect.  The second night we were there the city turned on the Christmas lights so the streets were all beautifully lit up.

Casa Botilo

Thanksgiving morning we out to have our coffee & pastry and decided to spend the day seeing Antoni Gaudi’s work.   Gaudi’s architectural work is so different and wild….seven of his properties are recognized by UNESCO as outstanding examples of early 20th century architecture.  Each of his works is more like a piece of art than it is a practical building.  He designed everything from lamposts, to buildings, to churches, to parks.  We actually spent all day looking at his creations.  It was like walking in fantasy land.  We first saw Casa Mila and Casa Botilo, then we went to see his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  The church was amazing and we spent three hours there.  You can see and read all about it in our next post.

After our church visit, we headed to Park Guell….which is a park designed by Gaudi.  It’s not easy to get to, but it is on top of hill so it has a great view of the city.  It was an incredibly beautiful day and it was great to be spending it outside.  Visiting the park was so much fun and also very relaxing.  We sat on the park benches soaking up the sun, looking out to the sea and listened to several musicians and bands playing.

The design of the park is so whimsical and colorful!  I felt like I was in the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale.  The entrance even has what looks like two gingerbread houses.  The walls surrounding it undulate, the park benches are either circular or wrap around like serpents, there are cute little mosaic creatures and beautiful tiles throughout.  Curvy trails are all over the hill, going thru little tunnels and leading to all sorts of different places – including the house Gaudi lived in (which is now a museum).  I could have easily spent the rest of the day here but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had lunch.  We headed out and immediately found a great little cafe near the park and ended up having a majorly delicious little Mediterranean pizza and a mouth watering Iberian ham sandwich.

Park Guell in Barcelona

It was already early evening when we took the subway all the way down to the waterfront and walked up the infamous mile long street (La Rambla).  We stopped there to buy some evilly good chocolates at Le Boqueria (a huge farmer’s market) and then picked up some wine, cheese & bread to snack on before going to our Spanish dinner at 9:30pm.

Our restaurant was only a few blocks away from our apartment so we walked there.  It was a small restaurant with only 10 tables but it is very popular.  I had to make reservations several weeks in advance.  The dinner (which consisted of multiple courses) was fantastic.  Every dish they served was simply amazing and so different…so many colors and flavors.  Some of the things we had included bread, stuffed olives, spicy nuts, a tricolored caramel shot, foie gras on pastry crust with caramelized leeks, scallops, roasted suckling pig, a celery-lime sorbet, a cheese plate, banana mouse with ice cream and caramel sauce and finally several chocolate samples. Robert ordered the local wine pairings.  It was great to be able to taste so many different local Spanish wines with each dish.  This was by far the best place we ate in Barcelona and so far the best in Spain.  Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.  We sure hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving – there is so much to be thankful for!

Thanksgiving dinner

 

 

Autumn in The Gardens of Aranjuez

Apollo Fountain in the Isle Garden

Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s radar.  I’ve seen it mentioned in our guide books but they don’t give any specific information on it.  It seems to be more of a day trip for the local folk.  It’s widely known for it’s strawberries, asparagus, and most importantly, it’s palace and gardens.  It’s not far from Madrid and it’s easily accessible on the local commuter train.  When it’s strawberry season,  you can actually take the Strawberry Train to Aranjuez (which I might have to do someday if I can find someone else who wants to take it with me).  It sounds interesting and yummy, despite being touristy.

After our now habitual Spanish breakfast (pastries & coffee), we caught the next train to Aranjuez.  The countryside getting there was not particularly attractive.  It was mostly hilly, dry and industrial.  However, as we approached the town, there were all of a sudden irrigated fields, gardens, and trees.  Aranjuez is the last city on that train line and once you get there, it’s like stepping into an oasis.  There are wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks which lead you directly to the center of town and palace.

Interestingly enough, this palace was designed by the same two gentlemen that designed El Escorial (the HUGE monastery).  However, this palace is much more attractive.  I read it is incredibly beautiful on the inside, but we weren’t really interested in seeing the inside this time because it’s the palace gardens that are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site, and I love gardens.  We decided to check out the gardens by the palace first then, if we had time, we’d walk around the town.

Ducks on the River

The gardens looked more like something I would expect to find in France  – not here in such an arid part of Spain.  There were trees and shrubs and fountains everywhere!  We must have seen 40-50 different fountains that day.  My favorite fountain was the guy sitting on the wine barrel (although Apollo was looking mighty fine).  The gardens are huge and geometrically designed.  The walkways were going off in every direction.  Most people had maps, but we just wandered around slowly and discovered all the treasures hidden inside.

The Isle garden (with most of the fountains) is actually on a manmade island on the Tagus river (that’s the same river that runs around Toledo).  There were lots of birds and ducks and a couple of little water falls along the river.  It also looked like you could do boat trips or kayak on some parts of the river – I’ll have to do some research on that.  I know there is a hike in the area, and it looks like it would also be an ideal place to do some biking.

Robert at El Rana Verde Restaurant

Before we knew it it was lunchtime (2pm).  We learned the hard way that you don’t want to be late for lunch in Spain or you won’t find an empty restaurant.  I only knew about two restaurants in town (both were listed in my hiking book).  We found one right away and it was right on the river.  We decided to give it a try even though it looked pretty fancy (the waiters wore suits).  We were unsure at first, but we ended up having a great waiter (yes, in Spain! where they are notoriously known for being awful).  There was a huge Spanish family (22 people) dining beside us so I thought for sure we’d be forgotten, but he was right on time with everything and very friendly.  We each ordered the “Menu del Dia” which included a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a whole BOTTLE of wine – all for only 15 euro ($20).  This may have been the best bargain meal I’ve ever had.  I really wanted to take pictures of our gourmet dishes, but I felt it was inappropriate in a place this nice….maybe when we get our iPhone (then it will be less conspicuous).

After our 2 hour lunch we headed out to work off some of those calories, but the clouds were rolling in, so instead, we skipped the city and briefly peeked into the Prince’s garden.  After a few sprinkles of rain we thought it best to head back to Madrid.  Our timing was perfect, the train was there just waiting for us.  🙂

We both really loved Aranjuez.  It’s beautiful, laid back, and it seemed to be the most ‘authentic’ Spanish experience we’ve had so far.  It’s amazing how different this town was from Toledo.  I’m finding that every city, town, and suburb here is different.  Each has their own personality, their own foods, their own look, and their own vibe.  I can’t wait to visit some more.  I feel like a little kid in a candy store!

Summer Palace in Aranjuez

Our Restaurant on the River

The Monastery in San Lorenzo de Escorial

Basilica Dome at El Escorial

We were looking to get away from the city again and see a little bit of fall color so we went to the town of San Lorenzo which is about 45 minutes away from Madrid.  We arrived around 10:00 am and made a quick stop for some delicious pastries and coffee before heading out to see the sights.  It was a beautiful cool Sunday morning as we walked through the very quiet streets of this picturesque town.  I use to think the Japanese were late risers, but the Spanish have them beat.  They don’t wake up until about noon!

The main attraction here is the Monastery, El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid 1500’s.  When it was built, it was the largest building in the world for quite a long time.  The outside is very stark and boring looking – reminds me more of a prison.  It’s in an extremely pretty area though and it really stands out.  They don’t let you take pictures inside the complex, so in order to see what it looks like on the inside, you will have to click the link above or, better yet, go see it for yourself.

El Escorial Monastery

Overall, it’s really impressive.  To adequately see the whole place, it takes 3-4 hours and you have to follow the arrows or you will get lost.  It’s so large, it actually houses several museums, a palace, a mausoleum, a church, a library and a school all in one.  They should sell multi-day tickets.  You have to be FAR away if you want to get a picture of the whole place.

If you pay the fee to go inside you get to see a collection of tapestries and a huge painting by El Greco, followed by the Museum of Architecture which includes drawings that were used to design the building as well as the materials they used to build it…it’s pretty amazing.  Then there is the never-ending art gallery.  While Philip II was known to be a fairly modest and simple king, he loved art and collected over 1,500 paintings and commissioned some 500 frescos (the frescos are fantastic).  I’m not sure we saw that many but it sure felt like it.

View of Countryside & Gardens from Palace

Next we saw the palace and royal living quarters.  That wasn’t very exciting.  It was mostly just rooms with furniture and a few decorations.  There was one wooden door however that had exquisite detail all over it which looked like something probably done in Japan or China.  We also got to see King Phillip’s room – preserved exactly the way it was the day he died – kinda creepy.  The views out the palace windows of the gardens and surrounding countryside were beautiful though.  I did manage to sneak in a couple pictures of that!

The coolest thing in the whole place was by far the solid pink & black marble hallway and staircase which descended deep into the Pantheon.  This solid marble circular room contains nearly all the Spanish Kings from the last 400 years!  Standing in the center of all those black marble & gold caskets was a bit intimidating.  There are only two spots left – and they are for the current king’s parents.  The current and future kings of Spain will have to be buried somewhere else.

Mausoleum of Past Kings & Queens of Spain (from a postcard)

We passed thru at least a dozen other tomb “rooms”.  They housed all the other royal family members including princes, princesses, husbands, wives, infants and children.  It gets pretty depressing after a while.  The most bizarre tomb we saw was for the infants which is oddly shaped like a wedding cake.

We proceeded onward to the grand hallway and staircase,  the old chapel, the huge basilica (in which Mass was being held), and finally the library.  The library is considered to be one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It supposedly contains about 45,000 works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and thousands of manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.  It is a beautiful library, but it didn’t feel that big or that old.  It didn’t even smell old (like the Trinity Library in Dublin did).  It’s nearly in mint condition.  The bookcases are beautiful and the ceiling is strikingly bright and colorful – decorated with frescoes related to the the seven liberal arts.  It was fun to try and find them!

The town of San Lorenzo

We were finally finished and we were exhausted.  We had originally intended to take a hike next but we just didn’t have the energy.  There were other buildings included in the visit too (which are set in the gardens and countryside), but we didn’t have the energy for that either.  We also wanted to see The Valley of the Fallen which was close by.  There’s just so much to see around here!   I guess we will just have to come back. 😉

To see some more pictures click on the picture.

Monastery Tower

The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap

 

 

 

 

 

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

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? 🙂

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.

Scouting out Singapore

Downtown AM

Downtown in the Morning

Singapore is a city I’ve always wanted to visit – even before I knew exactly where it was.  I don’t even remember why.  When I was researching our trip on the Internet, the overall reviews were mixed.  It seemed like people either loved it or they didn’t think it was anything special. So, I had to go check it out for myself.

We flew Singapore Airlines, which for 19 of the last 20 years was ranked the #1 airline, so we were curious to see what made them so special.  We didn’t notice anything they did above and beyond the other airlines to deserve this type of special distinction.   Nevertheless, the crew was very professional and pleasant, the food good, very nice seats, they were well run and on schedule…but that should be the minimum expected.  Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again, and they’d probably fall in the top tier of airlines, but Air New Zealand still has them beat by a long shot.

When we arrived in Singapore Wednesday afternoon, it was pouring rain….with lightning and thunder.  We were probably lucky they let us land.  By the time we checked into our hotel, the storm was pretty much over and there was no rain for the rest of our stay.  I wonder if I’d ever get bored of living in a city that was always between 75 and 90 degrees with no noticeable seasons?

Marina at Night

The Marina at Night

We ended up with a great hotel: wonderful service, free fruit and water every day, spacious, and it was in a great location – 5 minutes to the MRT subway station and a Starbucks right out front. 🙂  We were near the Marina area where there were lots of businesses.  The first thing we did was walk down to the Esplanade and then up the Singapore river.  The bars were already packed (Happy Hour).  The first group of restaurants we passed unfortunately had food hawkers which annoyed us so much we never ate in that area.  Suspiciously, that area always had less clientele (probably because we weren’t the only ones put off by those pushy street venders).  Those restaurants might want to try not hawking people to improve their business.

We eventually made it up to Clarke Quay…which was much more civilized.  We dined outside at IndoChine.  We had a great view of the river and were able to watch all the boats.  We ordered a variety of food…Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Papaya Salad, and Scallop Curry, which all ended up being very good.  We enjoyed this area so much we returned here for dinner one other night to eat at a Japanese Izakaya (yes, I know, we live in Japan – and yes, the food is that good).   There’s nothing better than being able to eat outside “European cafe style”…especially if it comes with great views and good weather.  Our walk back to the hotel was beautiful too, since the city lights up their buildings and bridges with all different colored lights.

Little India Produce Stand

Little India Produce Stand

On Thursday we visited Chinatown and Little India.  Chinatown was like other Chinatowns – the typical tourist shops and restaurants (except much cleaner).  Little India was more interesting, if for nothing else – the aromas emerging from there.  There was an abundance of jewelry stores down there too and they were all packed.  We should have stopped in one to see what it was we were missing – but I am sure Robert would not have been very interested.  It wasn’t time for a meal when we visited either one of these areas, but I bet the food would have been really good in both.  Each of us really wanted to try the chili crabs in Chinatown and some curry dishes, but we never made it back to either place. 🙁

We must have walked at least 5-6 miles everyday (even with taking advantage of the subway when we could).  The city itself is one of the prettiest cities we’ve ever been to.  The new buildings are marvels in modern architecture…it’s hard to capture their grandeur in pictures.  The city is clean, safe, very pedestrian friendly, with lots of greenery and a foodies haven for ethnic cuisine from everywhere.  The diversity of it’s people also adds to it’s draw.  Residents we talked to simply love it, and this city is NOT in a depression.  Everywhere we looked there were cranes  – for new hotels, subway stations, casinos, and who knows what else.    The “food centers”,  which are slowly replacing the Hawker centers, serve incredibly delicious food at affordable prices (at least the couple random places we tried).  Don’t equate them to USA ‘food courts’ in malls, they are NOT the same.  There are so many eateries in Singapore, I was beginning to think no one had a kitchen in their home.  In 3 days of exploring, we only saw one small grocery store, so I guess it is still possible that the majority of people do not cook (why should they?).  We even enjoyed a free concert (a local musician) on the Esplanade that weekend.  Of course, no place is perfect – two draw backs we noticed (though not surprising) were the number of smokers and the price of alcohol.  Even during happy hour expect to pay $6-10 Singapore dollars for a beer.

white tiger

White Tiger

We walked the full length of Orchard Road…too many shops to mention (at all income levels), eventually passing the Raffles hotel.  Neither of us were tempted to stop at the Long Bar and spend $25 on the infamous Singapore Sling (I had mine on the plane for free 🙂 )  We walked around the new casino and shopping area.  We didn’t go into the Casino, because we didn’t have our passports and they check those at the entrance.  The Historic District is still the center of government activity with lovely old buildings and lots of wide open parks.  The drive to the zoo is amazing – so much of the northern part of the island is parks and nature reserve you almost feel like you’re in a jungle.  The Zoo was quite large with an impressive number of species.  The habitats seemed more natural for the animals (no cages) and you could get real close to many of the animals.  Our favorites were the white tiger and all the primates.

White w/ Purple

Purple-tipped Orchid

Finally, we absolutely loved the botanical gardens and especially the orchid garden….we could have spent all day there.  After all that there were still lots of other things we didn’t have time to see or do, like some of the islands (including Sentosa), Arab Street, the museums, the Nature Reserve, Fort Canning Park, and of course, all the other restaurants. 🙂  By the time we left Singapore, we were very comfortable within a 2-3 mile radius of where we stayed…including all the underground malls and passages.

I’m sure three days is not enough time to make a reputable judgement, but I’d come back here in a heart beat.  Singapore is not by any stretch of the imagination an exotic place.  It is a big, modern city, but it feels like the heart of the Eastern Hemisphere and a civilized representation of all the countries that surround it.  We loved it.

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Mt. Aso and Takachiho Gorge

So cool...

Mt Aso’s Crater

I’m so lucky to have sisters who like to travel.  Every year we try to go somewhere.  This year, after unsuccessfully finding frequent flyer flights to Vietnam, two of my sisters decided to come visit me and see Kyushu.  I was a bit worried about planning everything, because it’s a challenge booking things in Japan if you don’t know the language, so I was hoping everything I planned/reserved was going to work out and that we wouldn’t have too many surprises.  Since it was also the start of Golden Week, I was also nervous about large crowds and traffic.  As it turns out, everything turned out perfectly.  We had another fabulous time and made some more incredible memories.

With on-time flights and an English-GPS equipped rental car, we got off to a good start.  Our first dinner was a special treat at Ippudo for ramen and gyozas.  We all resisted the temptation to stay up late since they had had such a long trip, and we were planning an early morning departure.  We were out the door Thursday morning by 8am after some coffee and breakfast.  I immediately realized I was going to love having an ETC card thus avoiding having to stop and pay at all the toll gates.  The expressway was mostly uncrowded, and we had no problem finding our way to Mt. Aso.  The drive was beautiful once we got out of the suburbs of Kumamoto.  Lots of hills with every shade of green on them, lots of streams and deep river valleys.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation and landscape change as we approached Mt. Aso.  When we got there it was very windy and quite cool.  We took the ropeway up to the viewing area and we got to see down into the crater where it was glowing a florescent green.  We walked around, met a nice German family, and did some shopping and snacking before heading onward.

Falls from another angle

Boat Ride thru Takachiho Gorge

The winding road down lead us into a beautiful valley area which seemed to have a ‘western’ theme to it and views of “hairy” oddly shaped mountains.  We stopped here for a late lunch (udon and soba) and then drove through more canyons before we came upon the town of Takachiho.  Having ‘walked’ the roads here on Google maps, I knew where our Japanese Inn was, so we stopped there straight away and checked in.  They supplied us with some maps and information and off we went.  We walked down the gorge along a steep one lane switchback road to get to the park and boat area.  It was a beautiful area with very few people.  We boarded our rowboat and off we went.  Our fearless, never rowed before, captain managed to make this a fairly humorous boat trip not only for us but for everyone else in the area…it’s a miracle we didn’t get drenched by the waterfall.  I’m sure this was retribution for the rafting trip in Belize that she still gives Jody and me a hard time about.  Nevertheless, she did a great job and we got to see and experience this wonderful place.  The color of the water, the waterfall, the cliffs, the varied rock formations, the vegetation…all made it beautiful and it was great to be a part of it all.

Sharing the Sake

The Kagura Dance Performance

We walked back up to town and checked out Takachiho Shrine where we would watch the Kagura dance later that night.  The size of the cedar trees were simply amazing and I loved the smell of the cedar and pine.  The dance performance was very entertaining, especially the last dance about the ‘Creation of Japan’.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone.  I wish I could have understood the commentator.  He obviously loved telling the story and I could almost figure out what he was saying from his expressions and the small English handout they gave us.  The music was a bit repetitive (almost hypnotic), such that after an hour I was ready to leave (otherwise I might have clobbered someone with that drum).

In the morning, we weren’t in a big hurry to go back to the city, so we drove further up the road to the shrine associated with the dance performances – the place where they supposedly lured the goddess out of her cave so that it would no longer be dark in Japan.  I’m so glad we went there, because it really tied the whole experience together.  The actual shrine is the cave and there are literally thousands of piles of stacked rocks on the way to and in front of this place.  It has a very mystical feeling to it, and we were incredibly lucky to have it all to ourselves.

Just as we were leaving masses of people were arriving.  During this trip, I learned the key to really enjoying Japan’s treasures: do it early in the day, because the Japanese are not morning people.