Sayonnara

This is where our story ends. Arriving in Japan, I was excited, and anticipating something wonderful. Leaving Japan now, I am sad and wish that the experience was in front of me, instead of behind.

Aug, 2009 – Aug, 2011 is documented at 3yrsinjapan.blogspot.com. Aug, 2011 – Aug 2013 is here:

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Allan is still in Yokosuka, living at the BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters). He’ll arrive in Jacksonville on the 23rd and beginning work at the Naval Air Station on the 26th, not much time to deal with jet-lag.

Rachel1 85During my last few weeks in Japan, I was in a rush to do things that I hadn’t done yet. But I couldn’t think of what, because we’ve done it all. We’ve lived with the Asian culture for four years, and most of it was good.

Here are some things we will or won’t miss.

Will miss…

Rachel2 15Japanese Manners – Drivers stop to let you pull out of a parking space or side road, people hold the door, waiters are incredibly patient with geijin who don’t speak enough Japanese to order food in a restaurant, train/bus riders whisper so they don’t disturb those people who are sleeping, salespeople say ‘irasshaimase’ (happy you’re here) when you enter a store & bow when a transaction is concluded… I could go on and on.

Japan 06Food – Asia has a celebration of food. A meal with 8 courses can be as artistically presented as a Rodin sculpture. This is one course of a lunch I had with a group of students. The leaf is about 4 inches in diameter, then there is a sliver of onion, a thin slice of daikon, three pieces of sashimi, sea grapes, and a dollop of wasabi topped with a sliver of squash. The base is a conch shell. Cute, huh? And delicious.

July 026Public transportation – the trains and buses are great. They run on time, are safe and clean, and you don’t worry about parking. I don’t know how other countries get along without them.

Alleys – When we arrived, we were leary. Now we know they are absolutely safe and some of the best restaurants and shops are in an alley.

No tipping – oh yeah, this I will definitely miss. If you tip, sometimes the wait person will refuse your money.

Jean 050School uniforms – I love seeing the kindergarteners, especially their hats. Each class wears a different color, then on a field trips, the teacher can keep track of her students. And Japanese schoolkids keep their underwear on the inside.

BTW… field trips are a big part of a Japanese education.

Japan 02Toilet seat – If you make a visit during a cold winter, your lower body will not constrict from the cold seat. Not only are they heated, you can give yourself a little spritz and feel really fresh. Here’s the control. I love it, Allan and Brian – not so much.

Wont miss…

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Separating the trash –  We’ll probably feel a little guilty about not doing this anymore. Japan has 6 types of trash that are all picked up separately.

Speed limit 40 kph – this one is Allan’s. 40 kilometers per hour is about 25 mph. He hates driving that slow.

Onsen – Communal bathing. This time it’s yeah for Allan and nay for Elizabeth.

Rachel2 53Will miss…

Fukubukuro – Every year on NY’s day, shops all over Japan have ‘happy bags’ filled with that store’s goodies. We never see any that we want, but it’s fun just the same.

Vegetable stands – in the middle of town, there are fresh vegetable stands. Good prices, good tastes.

Rachel6 233French bakeries – We did not expect to get great baguettes and pastries here, so we were pleasantly surprised.

Japanese restaurants – most meals come with a small dish of pickled vegetables, most common is daikon, my personal fave. Also, you’ll get a hot or cold towel prior to your meals.

Rachel1 18Won’t miss…

My Japanese washer and dryer – Both are small, but the dryer is the real pain in the laundry. It takes about 5 hrs (no kidding) to dry a few towels. When our friends, the Elies were visiting, Joe was sure it was something simple that he could fix. It was. There’s no exhaust, so the wet heat just stays inside the teeny tub. I hang all of the laundry til it’s about 80% dry, then tumble as long as necessary.

Will miss…

The scenery – No commentary needed.

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English students – I had 25 English students. Most came to my house for coffee or tea and 90 minutes of English.

Rachel1 86They are all wonderful and I enjoyed them so much. Now I don’t know what I’ll do in Jacksonville, but I’m sure it won’t be as much fun as teaching English to these people.

That’s everything but the kitchen sink, which I won’t miss. It’s large, but no stopper and there’s no dishwasher, so I washed the dishes in a plastic tub, then washed the tub.

Jean 036Regret… I’m sorry we didn’t do this when Brian was still living with us. There’s no substitute for living abroad, and children who get the opportunity to explore the world have a better chance to understand that not everyone is like us.

This prayer was left with a thousand others at a Buddhist Temple.

Rachel1 76Don’t Regret… giving up our life in Florida for a short time. Allan loved working at the base. He worked 40 hrs. every week, so if you compare it to running your own company, that was basically part-time.

Toward the end, he received a ‘Meritorious Service Award’. He did a great job for the Public Health Directorate at Yokosuka Base, and his last supervisor, (Lt.) Ben Barrus made sure that his work was recognized.

So I hope you found something in my writings that encourages you to visit Japan. Please be polite and have a wonderful trip.

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Four & five day weekends

Sequestration is here. Allan is working four days each week and getting the corresponding (cut in) salary. It was that, or he’d be off once a week for 22 weeks, instead of 11. In addition, a lot of facilities (library, food store, gym) are closed one day and have shortened hours the other days.

Most everyone is scheduled to be off every Monday, but his commander has generously agreed to let him take Friday off every other week. That gives him a four-day weekend twice a month. Since Independence Day was last Thursday, he had a very long weekend.

It began on Wednesday night at an izakaiya (bar/restaurant) with three friends. Sabrina Barris and I were the designated drivers, since the others were drinking like sailors (ha ha, since two of them were Naval officers). Thursday (the 4th) was boring. No festivities at base. That was scheduled for the 5th. Huh?

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I get the gov’t making new federal holidays on Monday, but the 4th comes between the 3rd and 5th. The last place that should change that is the government or the military. Just my opinion – but this is my blog.

On the 5th, most activities, including fireworks were cancelled due to weather. See, ya shoulda done it on the 4th!

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One thing wasn’t cancelled, a concert by the Lt. Dan band. Remember the character from Forest Gump? Well, the actor, Gary Sinese put together a 12-piece band and they play for the USO.

Allan played golf early, so we could get to the base and in line early. They put on a great show that lasted 2 hrs., 20 min. All that American music made us hungry for sushi.

Saturday was our day for the beach, but we went late to Zushi, thinking we’d drink some beer and eat tacos or some other beach food. Maybe the wind was a factor, (it’s typhoon season here) but none of the temporary (summer) bars were hopping. Not a problem, we found an Italian restaurant and had a great meal.

Sunday, we had some Texas barbeque and shopping in Yokohama, Allan played golf Monday, while I did Zumba (it is hard!) It’s not easy to fill up 5 days off. But we managed pretty well.

Happy Birthday Joey

Back in 1992, in the middle of August, Allan looked out to see three black kittens playing on our deck. When they saw him, they panicked and ran back under the deck, where it appears our neighbor’s cat had come to birth her small litter.

JoeysBirthdayWe began to feed them and Allan trapped one inside the house. He was very frightened, he clawed and tried to get free, but Allan was bigger and more prepared.

Allan found homes for the other two, and because he was all black, he named our kitten Joey, for a boxer named Joe Lewis.

We decided that they had been born on or around the 4th of July, so that became his official birthday. We had him for 17 years, until we moved to Japan. We couldn’t imagine him on a twenty hour journey in the luggage compartment of a plane, so Chris and Bruno Ferraro agree to keep him.

Today, they celebrated his 21st birthday. We miss him and will see him soon. Happy Birthday to a wonderful pet.

Counting down

Hot Yoga – have you heard of it? Wendy, my Taiwanese friend, invited me to try it saying that after weeks of feeling bad, one session and she felt like a million Taiwan bucks.

We arrived early and I, as a new student, sat in front. This session was dedicated to massage (and giving myself a massage was about as much fun as it sounds).

Img 04By the time the class began, I was dripping wet from the 35 degree C (95 degrees F) temperature of the room. We began with stretches and I began watching the clock, hoping this would be the fastest hour I’d ever spent. An hour after the class, my face was still flushed.

I didn’t have the miraculous experience Wendy did, so that’s it for me. No more hot yoga. Now I take a zumba class at one of the gyms on base.

I did some shopping in Yokohama and saw this lady – very traditional.

Allan received his orders for transfer, so we know when we will ‘pack out’, our departure dates, and when he will start at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville.

Img 01I think we’ve been in Japan too long when Allan is looking over the table for chopsticks in a French restaurant. Yep, he did it.

We’re supposed to do a ‘major pack’ and then an ‘express pack’, which will be the stuff we need to keep here as long as possible and receive in Jacksonville as soon as possible. We found out today, even though we’re allowed 700 lbs., they won’t ship a mattress! So what good does it do to get dishes and linens express? You can’t move into a house with no bed. That’s sequestration. You gotta love it – or not.

These schoolgirls are headed for the train, and carrying all of their books. Of all the ‘western’ things that Japanese people adopt, school lockers would be a real good one.

photo (2)I’ll be in Orlando on August 10, to spend a week with our cat, Joey. His people are going on vacation, and he needs me. He’ll be 21 years old on July 4th, so you can imagine that he’s not moving so well these days. But he still gets up on the dining room table… with a makeshift ladder provided by Chris and Bruno.

I told my 25 students that I will be leaving and it’s a sad thing. We weren’t sad when we left Florida for Japan. It was an exciting thing for us to come here and we knew we’d be back in Florida after a few years.

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We are sad to be leaving Japan. It’s a wonderful country, with wonderful people and great experiences. When we leave, we know we won’t see Japan again.

My last class will be on July 31st, and I’m introducing the students to other teachers. I hope they each think their new teacher is great.

I’m preparing for our exit by scouting for souvenirs. I went to Kamakura with a friend, and we found Dr. Fish (that’s the name) in an alley.

Img 09You put your feet in water & fish gnaw on the dead skin. Sounds a little gruesome, actually. But it wasn’t so bad.

I had an audience. There were several pre-teens enjoying the experience.

And they say there’s nothing new under the sun!

The 50th state

Hawaii 01Aloha!

After four years, our time in Japan is coming to an end. We will be heading for Jacksonville, Florida in August. We’ve very little time left for Asian or Pacific travel, so we decided to make a trip to Oahu.

We spent time at the pool every day & only left the hotel by foot a couple of times during the first five days. Just a little dining and souvenir shopping.

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The last day was our only busy one. We took a nine-hour tour that started at 0600. That’s earrrrr-ly if you don’t speak military time.

We started at Pearl Harbor, our destination – the Arizona Memorial (the white building). First we had a history lesson from our driver and guide, then a short movie with footage of the battle.

Hawaii 22Then a boat ride to the memorial which is managed by the Forestry Service, but the transport boat was provided by the Navy. Tours have been cut back. Well, everything in the D.O.D. has been cut back.

This is the only part of the ship that is above water. The memorial itself is most of the visual presence.

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It went down where it was docked when the ship’s arsenal was hit and exploded. The ships were docked two deep on Battleship Row. Most of the crew was killed in the explosion, but some swam to Ford Island in the middle of the harbor.

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After 72 years, the ship is still leaking oil. Other than that, not much is visible.

Since it was all about the Dec. 7th attack, we saw the army base and the airfield where a few planes took off before they could be hit. Then a small museum and gift shop that belonged to the tour company. I had Allan take this photo for my BFF Jean, who is a motorcycle babe.

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On the way back, the bus driver slowed and opened the door so Allan could get this next photo. Do you hear the Hawaii 5-0 music? I do.

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We stayed at the Hale Koa, a hotel for military, D.O.D. employees and retirees. There a fringe benefit for you!

On our last night, the hotel had a luau, complete with a whole pig cooked in the ground, music, hula girls and a fire dance.

Hawaii 68Allan found a dancer for a photo-op. I went for the chief, who was a funny guy and a great climber (see photo below). He was up that coconut tree in 5 seconds.

Here he’s weaving a palm tiara for me, so I guess I’m a Samoan princess now.

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Beginning the event was a show starring a Hawaiian band and dancers. Then on to dinner and the fire show and this dance, which cannot be called a hula.

Those grass shirts were shaking…

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It was better than Disney!

Allan and I forgot to bring our U.S. cellphone. Oh yeah, Hawaii is the 50th state.  Wikipedia says “following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States Navy established a base on the island in 1899″. What threat was the Hawaiian Kingdom that required their overthrow?

It’s filled with highways and shopping malls now, but it’s easy to imagine what the area looked like 100 years ago. Too bad it was so beautiful. Like the Eagles said “Call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye”.

Rachel in Japan

Rachel1 08On April 30, Rachel Schreiber arrived in Tokyo, sans luggage. She and Allan barely made the shuttle to base.The three of us made a quick trip to a store to get her a few essentials, then we got her to the house and settled, ready for a very busy 9 days…

Day 1 – Kamakura & Hase

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Rachel1 100Rachel1 18On her first day, Rachel met my Wednesday morning students; Ichiro, Kimiko and Noriko. Speaking to the Japanese is so interesting, and we all got a lesson in the Japanese kanji alphabet.

Rachel got to ask questions and was also required to answer a few. After class we took the train to…

Kamakura is a one-time capitol of Japan. I don’t know the whole history, but it’s a great little town, just 45 minutes away by train.

We did a little shopping and touring. After lunch in a soba restaurant we hit the main attraction, which is a large shrine called Hachimango.

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Rachel was here during Golden Week. This is a holiday that takes place the first week in May. It’s actually three separate holidays that happen to fall within 5 days.

Rachel1 34One day is the celebration of the late Emporer’s (Hirohito) birthday, then there’s Children’s Day and Constitution Day. Many Japanese have the week off and tourist sites are very busy.

The Daibutsu (Big Buddha) is always the next site on the tour. Then the Hasedera Temple – this is a great one. Remember (I’ve mentioned this before) temples are Buddhist, shrines are Shinto.

Rachel1 36At shrines, there are often large displays of sake casks, that are donated, who-knows-why.

Well, organized religion… nope, I don’t think I want to finish that sentence.

Day 2 – Tokyo – Asakusa, Ueno & Roppongi

Allan arranged for Rachel’s suitcase to be delivered to the New Sanno Hotel in central Tokyo. We drove to Tokyo, but didn’t use the car for our three days touring the world’s most expensive city.

Rachel2 05The Asakusa section is the home of the oldest (800 yrs.) temple in Tokyo, and this week it attracted takusan nin (many people) including a few Schreibers. Rachel hung tough through jet-lag and made it through her second day.

Rachel2 07The route to the Senso-ji is a tourist site, shops, street food and fortunes. Rachel went for the yakitori and the fortune.

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Rachel2 12So, here’s how it works. You shake a stick out of a silver can, then you check out the Japanese characters on the stick, match it to a drawer and pull out your fortune.

I hope its “best” or at least “good”, but if it’s not, it’ll say “bad fortune”. In that case, don’t read it, leave it there and move along. Rachel got a good one – hoorah!

Anyway, on to the incense. Wave some smoke on your body to drive away evil spirits. Temple visits are great!

Rachel2 24Next to the temple is a Japanese garden that is only open a few weeks a year, and Golden Week is one of them. Allan and I have visited the Senso-ji a lot, but this is our first time in the garden. It’s a beauty.

Rachel2 29After the garden we hit Ueno Park. It’s sort of like Central Park in New York, only safe.

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We came across a street artist. He had music and interacted with this crowd. It was quite entertaining.

This site is easy to identify. It’s a cemetery. The difference here is that families are all buried together, generation after generation.

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For dinner, Allan escorted his two ladies to an izakaiya in Tokyo, Gonpachi. It’s a favorite among Americans.

Check it out if you’re ever in Roppongi.

Day 3 – Tokyo – Tsukiji, Harajuku, Yoyogi Park, Shibuya

Rachel3 02Here’s a photo I just don’t understand. A visit to Tsukiji (Tokyo fish market), and a smile. What’s to smile about? It’s a stinky, slimy fish market! It’s in the guidebooks and tourists seem to love it. Rachel did.

Allan and Rachel got up early to take in this site. I slept in. Or tried to. I got a call from the front desk, at 7:10 about our reservation for dinner that night. Are they kidding?

Rachel3 29So I had fruit and a muffin at the hotel, and guess what they had for breakfast. (Hint: see photo at left).

When they got back to the hotel, we headed for Harajuku. It’s a fun shopping district. Takeshita St. is filled with shops for teenagers and weirdos. Rachel found something she wanted to try, but I think the color was wrong for her.

Rachel3 44Elsewhere in Harajuku are other shops more suited to the three of us. But all that walking and shopping made us hungry.

Japan has foods other than sushi, but our favorite sushi place is just up the street from the Oriental Bazaar, so we took our purchases to the sushi-go-round.

Rachel3 64Then we headed for the Meiji Shrine, where we were approached by students wanting to speak English. It’s pretty common for teachers to hang out at tourist sites for the opportunity to talk to a native English speakers. They ask a few questions and hope for simple one-word answers, fat chance!

At the shrine, we saw people wearing traditional costumes and carrying, in this case, bow and arrows. Remember, it’s a holiday, so there are lots of traditional activities going on all around.

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We missed the show, but saw musicians and the processional for a Shinto wedding.

Rachel3 07Talk about traditional costumes.

Yoyogi Park was next. Tokyo is a great city, with plenty of sites for tourists and residents. Parks are filled with people playing games or musical instruments, walking dogs or just relaxing with loved-ones.

And right in the middle of a huge Japanese holiday period, Cinco de Mayo. The park was filled with the scents of cooking, the sounds of Spanish music and lots of beer.

Rachel3 99These days involved lots of walking for Allan, Rachel and me. We were dirty and exhausted at the end of each day. But we were rewarded with excellent food every night. This night we dined on a gourmet meal at the hotel. The prix fix menu included wine, so we ate, drank and were very merry.

Day 4 – Tokyo – Imperial Palace, Ginza, Kabuki Theatre

Rachel4 16Today we head for the Imperial Palace. Don’t you love this architechure? We can’t actually get on the grounds, We just view parts of it from across the moat.

It would take a while to walk around it, so we never do. We just see what we can and move up the road to Ginza.Rachel4 30

Ginza is to Tokyo what Rodeo Drive is to Hollywood. If you’re feeling like picking up a pearl necklace for a quarter million (dollars, not yen), this is the place to do it.

I know a few places that we could actually afford, so we headed there. This street in downtown Tokyo is closed to vehicles on weekends.

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Rachel4 43Not much success shopping today, but we still had fun. Just a ways away from Ginza is the brand new and improved Kabuki Theater.

The old theatre was razed a few years back and rebuilt (bigger and better) in the same style. And also more earthquake proof.

The shows were sold out for weeks, since it has just reopened in March, but we had a chance to see a short performance. If you want to see just a short program, you can stand in line that day and hope for the best.

Rachel4 52It didn’t work out for us. It would have taken three hours, including the show, but this was our third day in Tokyo. Our energy was waning.

How about this building? The name is Hasegawa Green Building. The green is plants. Well kept and nicely trimmed, but WTH!?

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This is the Tokyo Tower, recently displaced by the opening of the Tokyo SkyTree (which is even taller). But we’re closer to this one, and how about this view?

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After the tower, we finally got into a cab back to the hotel to pick up the car.

In just over an hour we were home and thinking about dinner. Rachel enjoyed our izakaiya experience in Tokyo, so we voted to do it again and we met Hiromi Zeid, our friend who will be living in Alabama very soon.

There were some specials that Hiromi ordered, since specials aren’t usually listed on the English menu.

It was bamboo, cooked several different ways, all good! Who knew?

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Rachel4 71We had about 20 different plates, including this one that we had to cook ourselves.  I lost count of the drinks. Everything was oishi (delicious), and though I try to avoid cooking my own food when I’m in a restaurant, there are several really good Japanese dishes that customers cook themselves. I can live with it.

Day 5 – Yokohama – Queen’s Plaza, Kannai, Chinatown

Rachel5 26Rachel and Allan had their own day in Yokohama, and it began at the Museum of Art. It’s located very near Queen’s Plaza (a mammouth shopping mall in three towers) and the Port of Yokohama.

A quick walk will take you to a small amusement park that’s just like any you’d find in the states.

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Here’s the Ferris wheel, and (scroll down a bit) there’s a view from the top overlooking the port and Tokyo Bay.

Finished with amusements, they walked to the Kannai district of Yokohama to meet up with some friends for lunch and maybe a little sake & beer.

Rachel5 32While we were in Tokyo, our friend Ben Barris picked up Rachel’s Kyoto tickets and trip itinerary from the base travel agency. So he delivered the package and they had lunch.

You can’t visit Yokohama and not see Chinatown. It looks like every Chinatown in every major city in the world.

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My favorite Brazillian restaurant is actually in Chinatown. Allan won’t go there with me. He doesn’t like Brazillian food (his loss).

That building behind Rachel is the Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Yokohama, with a great view. You can see Yokosuka from the top.

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This shrine is pretty fancy schmancy and right in the middle of Chinatown.

There are plenty of restaurants, and then some.

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Allan and Rachel ate street food in Chinatown. Mmm Mmm! They had a great time.

Day 6-8 Kyoto 

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Rachel’s Kyoto adventure began with a ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train).

We made the arrangements in advance and Monday morning I drove her to the train station.

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We’d been on the Japanese train system quite a bit during our three days in Tokyo, and Rachel had no problem navigating. If you can get around Tokyo, the rest of Japan is a piece of cake.

Our arrangements included staying at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. The servers wear kimono or yukata (summer or casual kimono). Tea and meals are served in your room.

aa 154This room was for up to four people. I know that because there were four futon. These are hidden during the day. At night the table is moved and the futon are set up.

They were rather thin here, so two were stacked. That still wasn’t soft enough, so she grabbed the other two out of the closet and slept on all four.

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Good thing she was alone.

The next night, all four futon were stacked up for the princess.

Dinner is served in your room and it looks like the table is set for two, but Rachel made a good effort to taste every item.

That’s not a hardship, I promise.

aa 596The ryokan is in Gion, which is the old geisha district of Kyoto. Before WWII, it was full of tea houses and okiya (houses where geisha lived and were managed).

Here’s Gion Corner, where you can see a tea ceremony,  Japanese music played on traditional instruments, a puppet show, tradition dances and plays.

Allan and I went here with Rachel’s parents during their visit 2 years ago.

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She took a lot of photos in a short time. Here are a few.

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This building is probably painted orange to keep away evil spirits. There are temples, shrines, the Kyoto Imperial Palace (Kyoto was the capital of Japan before Tokyo), and Nijo Castle, which is from the period when the shogun ruled Japan.

Rachel returned from Kyoto the way she left, with a smile on her face.

aa 340Allan and I enjoyed Kyoto and the cities close by, Osaka and Nara as well as the rest of Japan. Hiroshima in also in the general vicinity, but Allan would not go to see it. People say  it is a beautiful city and of course there is a large monument to those who died there.

aa 261We’re leaving in a few days for Oahu. We’ll be staying at the Hale Koa, a D.O.D. hotel on Waikiki Beach. We’ll be visiting Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.

So we have a tougher time visiting a site where we bombed the Japanese, than a site where the Japanese bombed us.

aa 277We feel guilty about one and sad about the other. Sad is easier.

Allan will also be traveling to Okinawa soon. He’s supposed to go for a ‘coral reef’ research project, but if that doesn’t work out, we’ll probably take a quick trip. Actually, Okinawa is further away than Korea (he just returned from there) and parts of China.

He has the travel bug, and of course Okinawa is known for its diving.

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Rachel was traveling alone, but she didn’t seem to have much trouble finding a volunteer to photograph her in front of beautiful architecture.

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This architecture is found all over Japan, but a lot of it is replicas. The buildings are wooden, and the cooking and heating source was fire.

I feel disappointed when we visit what is supposed to be a historic structure and it has an elevator and air conditioning.

aa 440We have old buildings in the U.S. but none that were built in the 12th century. I’ve seen those in Japan.

So far, we’ve seen every place on our list in our travels around Asia. Hawaii is a big travel destination for the Japanese.

aa 313One of my students laughingly told me that if I visit there, I should know how to speak Japanese.

I know how to say “How much does this cost?” That and “Where is the toilet?”, is all I need.

Across from Gion is Ponto Cho. That’s it on the Shirakawa River. It doesn’t look like much of a river here.

aa 119All of these buildings are filled with restaurants. During the summer, all these balconies open up to diners, but Rachel was too early to sit outside and watch the activity.

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If you want food here, you’ll have to say ‘eeny, meeny, miny, mo’ because every restaurant is terrific and there are dozens on this one street.

The best bet is an izakaiya, a bar with small plates. Get a good selection and everyone gets a taste. Why isn’t this more popular in the states?

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This one is Nijo Castle (home to some famous shogun).

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and here, Rachel is seeing Kinkaku-ji. It’s covered in gold foil, and the floors are supposedly mirrors. I don’t know how you walk on that with ending up with shards in your feet.

She looked like this (smiling) the entire trip. She really knows how to have a good time.

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But all good things… as they say. She returned to Yokosuka with only one night before she left Japan. The regular trains to Tokyo can be a little difficult, especially during rush hour, but the bullet train is a pleasure. It’s like traveling first class on a plane.

Rachel got this great shot of Fuji-san from her seat on the train.

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She told us she wanted to visit before we left Japan, and it was good thinking on her part. We are just short of four years, which is a year longer than we expected to be here.

We’ve had 12 people visit from the U.S., 6 from Allan’s family, Brian and 5 friends. I hope they all had fun.

Vietnam

If you’re old enough to remember the ‘Chicago 7’, it will sound odd to hear ‘We loved our trip to Vietnam’ or ‘I wish we’d had more time in Ha Noi’.

Vietnam 161Our experience was great and we’d recommend the country to anyone looking for something interesting in a vacation. We were glad Brian decided to join us. Allan & I arrived in Ha Noi late on the 21st. Brian arrived later.

Vietnam 135Buffet breakfast and either lunch or dinner every day was included in our tour, so we did not go hungry.

We traded one day in Ha Noi to spend the night on a junk in Ha Long Bay. Big cities are the same everywhere and less interesting and ethnic than rural areas.

We left Ha Noi early for Ha Long Bay. En route we spotted these buildings. Here’s the story…

The government was scheduled to build a factory in this area. So, speculators bought up land and built about 20 acres of these houses. Then there was a change of power, and not only did the factory not go up, but the utilities were not run into this section of town and the buildings were stripped of anything portable and abandoned. Oops!

Vietnam 014A terrible waste by a corrupt government. Hoang was quite matter-of-fact about it.

We reached the bay and took a dinghy to our luxury boat. The room was tiny, but the top deck and salon were available for lounging, and it was perfect outside.

Vietnam 037Lunch took place while we cruised to a limestone rock called Titop. We walked up to the little gazebo at the top, no small feat, since the steps were narrow and steep. Have an accident here and your vacation is over. There’s lots of walking and lots of climbing on this trip.

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From the top, I took this picture of our boat. We enjoyed it a lot. I guess we miss being in Florida, with it’s access to water. We live close to water here in Yokosuka, but it’s cold most of the year and it was warm and sunny in Vietnam.

Here’s a view of the bay. See? Lots of large rocks.

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Vietnam 129We didn’t just climb rocks. The three of us were the only ones on the boat who wanted to go kayaking.

In our kayaks, we passed this ‘floating village’ where people live on houseboats.

Vietnam 124I’m not sure how they make a living, but it looked like they weren’t the only ones living that way.

Of the 26 passengers, we were the only Americans. Tour groups are divided by language and our groups was mostly Brits.

Vietnam 035Allan decided to spectate rather than participate in Tai Chi at 6:30 the next morning. Later we all went to yet another limestone rock – hey, there are hundreds of these things.

This one had a cave inside. Everywhere you go in Asia, other than China, you see symbols of Buddism. The caves were no exception. I think the communists destroyed a lot of Chinese religious sites, and tried to force aetheism on the people. That’s what happened in Russia.

Vietnam 112There were carved statues and altars in this cave, as well as this spotlight, where Allan and Brian posed. Also, it was quite extensive, with more chambers that just this one.

Below is the view from outside the cave opening.

Vietnam 101During brunch, we cruised back to the dock and were met by Hoang and our driver for the trip back to Ha Noi. There we began at Hoa Lo Prison. The name over the door is Maison Centrale, French for Central House. No it’s not a hotel, though it’s known as the Ha Noi Hilton. Just a small portion of it remains.

Vietnam 138It was built by the French during their occupation, thus the name. The presentation showed horrible treatment of Vietnamese prisoners who were arrested for protesting French occupation.

Then came the story of the American prisoners, all pilots except one guy who fell off an aircraft carrier and was picked up by a north Vietnamese fishing boat. I bet he kicked himself all the way to prison. The photos showed a chess tournament, basketball games, lounging around, just having fun with your buds. I’m sure it was great fun.

Vietnam 158What we saw of the city was overcrowded and full of traffic. Vietnam has very little public transportation, and the city has 5 million motorbikes.

Our only night in town, we went out with Hoang. We took a walk around the happening area and stopped for a beer – 4-for-a-dollar draft. We opted for a bottle of Hanoi Beer.

Vietnam 169Look at these seats and tables. It looks like a 5-year old is having a tea party.

While we sat, vendors stopped by selling baked goods, hats, or balloons. Brian and I had a roll filled with sweet bean paste. In Japan, it’s called anko. Allan doesn’t care for it.

Vietnam 165Brian bought a tee shirt for himself and one for his cousin, which I left in our last hotel. Oops!

Allan & I had an early night but Brian headed out on the town. There were plenty of young English speaking tourists, so I’m sure he had fun.

Vietnam 163Day three started early with a flight to Da Nang where we met Duy, our next guide. On the drive to our hotel in Hoi An, we stopped to see the Cham Museum and the dragon bridge. We were at the tail end, but later that week the bridge opened to traffic and the head really does breathe fire. Just Google ‘Vietnam Dragon Bridge’ and see for yourself.

Vietnam 176Now, about the Cham… Didya ever wonder how Vietnam ended up so long and skinny? Well, originally the northern part  was the whole country. Then, they conquered the Champa Kingdom and added area in present-day central Vietnam. There is still a concentration of Cham people in the area and a few scattered throughout Vietnam & Thailand.

Vietnam 192We’re not finished. About 350 years ago, they took more land away from the Khmer people (Cambodia).

The Khmer Rouge had hopes of regaining the area for Cambodia during the American War. You probably remember it as the Vietnam War.

I thought Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Min City because the French had named it Saigon. No, it got that name when it was taken from Cambodia. The new name isn’t popular. It would be like renaming Richmond Abe Lincoln City at the end of our Civil War. Everyone we spoke to called it Saigon.

The country is still divided. Our Saigon guide told us he waited 6 years for his parents to approve his marriage to a ‘northern’ woman. He finally told them the date was set and they were welcome to come, which they did.

Vietnam 196We see an occasional monk around tourists sites. This place was not always a tourist attraction. It may have a dramatic history and be a holy place, but now it’s full of folks snapping pictures.

Brian got a new camera for the trip. I don’t know how many pictures he took, but Allan and I had more than 800 when we arrived home.

Continuing south, we passed China Beach on the way to the marble hills. Allan and Brian are standing on the steps & below that is another cave filled with Buddhist icons.

Vietnam 185From the top we could see the South China Sea. It’s a beautiful country, and a person with a moderate American income could live (or vacation) like a king here. Allan and I have decided that Vietnam has passed Bali as our favorite destination.

Vietnam 188Still further south, we stopped at a silk market. They had silkworms and explained how they spin the silk into a little coccoon. We’d seen it in China.

Vietnam 215A young girl was weaving silk on an old manual loom, but I noticed this girl embroidering a large scene. It takes three weeks for her to finish one this size and it sells for around $600. If I haven’t already mentioned, most things are priced in dollars.

I went upstairs, where you could be fitted for a custom made dress that would be ready the next day. I thought I might get an aodai, which is the traditional long dress over pants. Even in silk, I didn’t see any fabric that would make me want to pay $170. Oh well. I’ll get a souvenir. I love to buy stuff.

We were hungry when we reached Hoi An, so our guide for this part of the tour took us for noodles. Allan wanted bun (boon) cha. Bun is the noodle, and it’s served with beef, shredded veggies and a sweet vinegar sauce. We didn’t find any, so we had quang noodles, one of 14 types in Vietnam.

Vietnam 247Our guide in Ha Noi told us that bun is only served at lunchtime. I guess it’s like grilled cheese. You’d never have that for breakfast or dinner, would you?

Here’s a pretty street, and that’s Duy and Allan to the left.

We arrived at our beautiful hotel. The entire front and back were open and the day was perfect. We had chosen the medium package tour, meaning that we didn’t stay in hostels, nor at the Ritz.  But our hotels were great, except for the Asian beds, which is like sleeping on the floor.

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Hoi An is a small beach town, with shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to relax and we’d been pretty busy up ’til now. After some pool time and a clean-up, we went for dinner. I really miss the food.

Vietnam 237The following day was a full one in Hoi An. Brian had eaten breakfast and gone to the gym by the time I knocked on his door. This is day 4, so he might be hit by jet lag. It’s a two hour time difference for us, but for him, it’s nine. After breakfast, we headed into town.

Our day began at the Hoi An post office where I mailed a few postcards, one to my brother Jim. He used to send mail from Vietnam, so I thought he might like receiving some. Then shopping, which means bargaining. I bought my BFF Jean a dress for eight bucks. I couldn’t bring myself to offering a lower price.

Vietnam 223The blue sign behind Brian’s hand shows the water line during the 2009 rainy season. No, it doesn’t alway reach that high, but high enough that I don’t want to be here.

Vietnam 243Allan is standing in front of what is called the ‘Japanese Bridge’. But my friend Hiromi says not. She’d know better than me.

We stopped at a dress shop owned by Duy’s friend. She had dresses, blouses and skirts on display. Her price for aodai was $65 (just $105 less that the silk market). She measured me and said to come back around dinnertime. In another shop I tried some sandals, but they were too large, so the shopgirl measured my foot and said to come back later.

Vietnam 257This day we made silk and bamboo lanterns. Allan was lauded by our instructor – not me. I think he would have preferred stopping for a beer rather than a lantern, but it was on the tour. It looks like Brian enjoyed it and we each had a great souvenir. After that, our guide was off duty until the next day.

The afternoon was free time. Brian borrowed a bike and explored, Allan took advantage of the pool and I had a 3-hr. spa treatment. Including tip, it was under $100. Didn’t I say you could live like a queen here?

Vietnam 268We went into town on the hotel bus. Allan located the shop and here I am getting my aodai fitting. The pants were too long. It was after 7:00 and we were trying to think of when we could get back to pick it up.

The owner gave us her card, with instructions to have the waitress at whatever restaurant we chose call her. The waitress acted like she did that all of the time. By the time the meal ended, a young girl from the shop delivered my clothes. Talk about service!

Vietnam 276We had some beach time in the morning before our guide and driver picked us up for the drive to the Da Nang airport. I could have stayed in Hoi An the rest of our time, but we had to push on. We stopped for lunch and another look at the dragon bridge. We missed its opening by two days!

At arrival in each location, we looked for our guide.

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He’d be carrying a sign with all our names. Allan’s name was usually first. But in Saigon, we laughed at this site.

It was late afternoon by then, so we discussed plans for the next day. Brian wanted to see the Cu Chi tunnels. Allan and I decided to let the guide take him, and have a site seeing morning together since we had no interest in reliving the war.

Once the plans were set, we walked to the Rex hotel, known for the daily press briefings during the war, called the 5:00 follies.

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We had a drink and a couple of hors d’oeuvres. I don’t think we can keep up the amount of eating we’ve been doing. We walked through the night market, crammed with shoes, shirts, purses, skirts, wood carvings… you name it. And it’s all cheap, cheap.

Here’s Saigon at night. It could be any large city anywhere.

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March 27 – Brian left early with the guide for the Cu Chi tunnels. He said that his group walked around and area looking for the opening to the tunnel, but no one could find it. The guide showed it to them and it was tiny. You can see how tight a fit it is for him.

Vietnam CuChi

The tunnels have been excavated for tourists, but the tour group was shown how big and dark they originally were and he was amazed. After the tour, they were given the choice of several guns to try out. Brian shot an AK-47.

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Allan  & I explored Saigon. I’m glad I decided to wear my aodai, because it was a big hit with the Vietnamese.

During the morning we walked in a pretty high class neighborhood, hotels, fancy restaurants… There must have been a school close by, because we saw this group doing morning callisthenics.

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There were several photo shoots at fancy buildings, mostly brides. I was sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for Allan and a young girl walked out. She was alone & wearing a dress that was like an inefficient condom – very tight and didn’t cover well.

I thought hooker, but Allan said she was a model, and she just came into the hotel to use the toilet. We’ll never know.

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Allan took dozens of photos of me in this outfit. We met back at the hotel and had a ½ day tour of Saigon starting at the Reunification Palace, formerly the Capital Bldg. of South Vietnam. The President from 1956-1963 was supposedly killed by the CIA for stealing their money.

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Next was the War Museum – Yuck. Why a museum dedicated to war?

There was the Historic Truth display, Agent Orange Aftermath display, War Crimes display, Post-War reconstruction display and a few more I can’t name. This was not fun, but I don’t suppose it’s intended to be.

Unlike the Ha NoiVietnam 358 Hilton, where the display shows that American prisoners were well treated, happy and healthy, this display showed horrible conditions that the Vietnamese people suffered by the Americans.

Well, history is written by the victor. Churchill said that… but he also said ‘we can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities’. It took 17 years to leave Vietnam, and it wasn’t our choice. I guess all other possibilities were exhausted.

But now we are welcome there. I’m glad, because we really enjoyed it.

Cambodia is next…