Map our trip…
Oct 11th, 2009 by Kate

A bunch of people have suggested that we post a map on our blog tracking where we’ve been.  We are trying, but in the mean time, for anyone who cares – and  for Troop 190 who I know is out there following us -  here’s where (and how) we’ve traveled so far…


Phoenix, AZ USA                                            by plane to

Dallas, TX USA                                               by plane to

Fort Lauderdale, FL USA                                by car to

Stuart, FL USA                                                by boat to

West End, Grand Bahama Island, Bahamas       by car to

Freeport, Bahamas                                           by boat and plane to

Fort Lauderdale, FL USA                                by plane to

Phoenix, AZ USA                                            by plane to

Calgary, Alberta, Canada                                 by car to

Canmore, Alberta, Canada                               by car to

Bamff, Alberta, Canada                                    by car to                                              

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada                          by car to

Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada   by car to

Kamloops, BC, Canada                                   by car to

Jasper, Alberta, Canada                                   by car to

Calgary, Alberta, Canada                                 by plane to

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada   by boat to

Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada           by car to

Sooke, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada by car to

Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island, BC, Can        by car to

Duncan, Vancouver Island, BC Canada            by car to

Parksville, Vancouver Island, BC Canada         by car to

Victoria, Vancouver Island, BC Canada            by boat to

Seattle, WA, USA                                            by plane to

Los Angeles, CA, USA                                    by plane to

Narita, Japan                                                    by train to

Nagoya, Japan                                                 by train to

Takayama, Japan                                              by train and bus to

Lake Kawaguchico, Japan                                by train to

Yokohama, Japan                                             by train to

Tokyo, Japan                                                   by train to

Hiroshima, Japan                                              by train and boat to

Miyajima, Island                                               by train to

Kyoto, Japan                                                    by train to

Osaka, Japan                                                   by boat to

Shanghai, China                                                by train to

Suzhou, China                                                  by train to

Beijing, China   …

 Tonight (October 11th), we leave for Xi’an, China on the overnight train, so you can add that too!

Slow Boat to China
Sep 29th, 2009 by Kate

We’re on it – the slow boat to China.  No, really – 48 hours from Osaka to Shanghai.

 Thank GOD it is way nicer than I thought it would be.  When I told my family we were taking the boat they all laughed and made jokes about my sea sickness issues.  I was far less worried about being sea sick than I was about the boat being growdy. 

But it’s great!  We have a nice cabin that sleeps four (with decent sheets!) and even has a Japanese-style sitting room and a big window.  The food is really good, the seas have been calm-ish, there are few kids on board to pal around with, and there is ping-pong!  Phoebe has become quite the little ping pong player in the last 36 hours and tonight the ship’s crew was lined up to play her.  She is quite the little celebrity on board.

I am writing this late in the evening and we are in the middle of the Sea of Japan, literally in the middle of it. There is a string of lights out my cabin window in the distance.  Fishing boats feeding Japan’s appetite insatiable appetite.  They look like the pretty hanging lanterns I saw the other night at the shrine in Kyoto.  I’ll watch them as I drift off to sleep…

 (Note: I wrote this while we were on the boat, but didn’t have internet access so I couldn’t post it.  When we arrived in China the girls got to the computer and posted about the Chinese traffic before I posted my “boat” post – hence the reason they are out of order!)

Signs we like…
Sep 28th, 2009 by Kate
Um, we were kind of thinking we'd stop if children were on the highway instead of just slowing down... (Canada)

Um, we were kind of thinking we'd stop if children were on the highway instead of just slowing down... (Canada)

Sadly, Jeff and I seem to be unable to catch this train very often... (Japan)

Sadly, Jeff and I seem to be unable to catch this train very often... (Japan)

Banker's hours in the Canadian Rockies

Banker's hours in the Canadian Rockies

Way way up in the mountains in the middle of no where it seems that we need to watch out for falling eletrified mushrooms?  (Japan)

Way way up in the mountains in the middle of no where it seems that we need to watch out for falling eletrified mushrooms? (Japan)

Sep 27th, 2009 by Kate
Kyoto shrine

Kyoto shrine

I know from the guide books that Kyoto is supposed to be our very favorite place in Japan.  Of course that means we were bound to be disappointed.  That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy Kyoto – but it didn’t really meet our expectations.  Yes, it IS filled to the brim with Japanese history – tons of fabulous shrines, buildings of architectural and historical importance, and we even saw an illusive geisha in an alley in the Gion district… but it was a massively huge city with way more big buildings, malls, and concrete parking garages than old Japanese charm. 

 Our favorite part of Kyoto was our couchsurfing host Shoji and his wife and three daughters.  Shoji has an unusual couchsurfing set-up… rather than hosting surfers at the home he lives in, he has made a “CS house” from another property he owns.  The night we arrived (fresh off the train from Hiroshima) there were 8 other couchsurfers crashing at the CS house!  There was Roxane from Belgium (hey Roxane), Ben from France, two Emma & Ingrid from Spain, Diego from Columbia via Australia, Grace and Laura from Canada, and Linda from Denmark!  They were all SO nice, each had very different life and travel stories, and it was like living in a fraternity house for a week!  We had our own little room to escape to – but we spent most of our evenings trading travel stories and mochi balls (aka little disgusting mushy balls of ick) with our new friends. 

The Couchsurfing Crew at Shoji's Barbque

The Couchsurfing Crew at Shoji's Barbque

 On the second night of our time at Shoji’s CS House – he and his family hosted a huge party at his regular house for all the surfers and his friends.  Shoji and I had been corresponding via the couchsurfing website for months, and we had decided it would be really fun for our girls to get together and meet.  Shoji took it to the next level (we came to find out that is the kind of guy he is – takes everything to the next level) and invited all of his kid’s friends and their parents over too.  It was hard to count all the running, squealing girl heads, but I think it is safe to estimate that there were 15-20 girls ages seven to seventeen there, plus their parents, their dogs, and all 12 of us couchsurfers – it was a BASH!  We brought the beer, and Shoji and his friends made tons, and I mean TONS of food.  It was seriously like a good ole fashion American bar-b-que but the English was sketchy and there were many many foods that were pretty darn foreign looking (but most really tasty – still don’t like fish paste though).  Tess and Phoebe had a blast, have lots of new Japanese friends, and we have great family memories that will last forever.

Tessa and friends in Kyoto

Tessa and friends in Kyoto

A universal truth... all 9-year old girls, not matter where in the world they are from, LOVE puppies!

A universal truth... all 9-year old girls, not matter where in the world they are from, LOVE puppies!

The rest of Kyoto in a nutshell… an entire day at the “21st day” flea market on the grounds of a shrine shopping for used kimonos, exploring the back alleys of the historic Gion district looking for Geisha (saw one!), shrines shrines and more shrines (we especially like the ones that are lit up at night with lanterns), Dance Dance Revolution in downtown arcades with middle-aged Kyoto men, attack monkeys at the Monkey park, the cherry tree-lined Philosopher’s Walk, pretty Buddhist gardens and the coolest train station in all of Japan.

 Okay – so it wasn’t the Kyoto of my imagination… but is was still pretty darn cool (and as Tess reminds me – better than school!).

Lanterns lighting the way to a Shinto Shrine in Gion

Lanterns lighting the way to a Shinto Shrine in Gion

Just when we think we mastered traveling in Japan…
Sep 27th, 2009 by Kate

So we’ve been here in Japan for three weeks now – and I was feeling pretty good about our ability to read the train timetables, find the right trains (and actually get where we want to be), navigate the subways, find food that we’ll all eat, get us to wherever we are staying… oh but throw two little “national holidays” into the mix and it all becomes a giant crapshoot!

 Elder’s Day and the Autumnal Equinox – who knew?  And to celebrate the whole country gets a FIVE day weekend!!!!  AHHHHH!

 Our plan was to stay in Hiroshima for two nights at a hostel, then head back north to Kyoto for 5 days with our couchsurfing host.  We have been traveling really flexibly – meaning we don’t really make our plans ahead of time- and just figured that the hostel we had booked would keep us for a second night… um… wrong.  There was no room at the inn – there, or anywhere else in a 500km area!  Between the two nice receptionists at our hostel, Jeff and myself we probably contacted 200 hotels, hostels and inns… and there was nothing. 

 The girls started making plans to camp in a nearby rice field.  I started to think of that as a viable option.  It was pathetic.

 Thankfully, our couchsurfing host in Kyoto got our late night message that we were homeless and offered to let us come a night early.  So with our trusty Japan Rail passes in hand, we boarded the bullet train and four hours later we had a roof over our heads in Kyoto. 

 The moral of the story for me – when your guide book says that on national holidays everyone in the country goes on vacation – BELIEVE IT and book early!

Miyajima & the Itsukushima Shrine
Sep 27th, 2009 by Kate
Miyajima O-tori

Miyajima O-tori

I have found my favorite Shinto shrine.  Okay, it’s probably a lot of people’s favorite Shinto shrine, but hey, it’s just that beautiful!

 Miyajima is an island in the Seto Sea west of Hiroshima.  Like many things in nature, it (the island) is considered sacred by practicioners of Shinto.  As not to disturb the sacred island, the Itsukushima Shrine was constructed in the water leading up to the island.  Originally built in the 6th century and then remodeled into the current style in 1168, the shrine, and it’s o-tori (gate leading into a shrine) were constructed on low stilts above the water – so whole place looks like it is floating on the water during high tide.  The o-tori is located about 200 meters from the shrine (further out to sea), so it ends up being about 300 meters from land when the tide is in – such a sight!  The entire shrine is painted vermillion (an orangey red color that seems to be a rather popular color for shrines and such) and set against the water and the greenery of the island’s mountains it looks quite spectacular.  In a country choked-full of shrines, this one is outstanding-in-its-field (or should I stay outstanding-in-the-water). 

 And to make our visit to Miyajima even more memorable, our friend Yoshie (of Yokohama fame) asked her friend in Hiroshima, Keiko, to accompany us on our visit that day.  Keiko (and her daughter Yoko) were wonderful tour guides and hostesses.  We learned more about Shinto shrines in one morning than we would have learned reading a million guide books.  They showed us around, treated us to the local delicacies (eel and maple leaf shaped cookies – not eaten together of course) and only laughed at us a little when we got accosted by the local deer (who knew deer could smell popcorn through your backpack!).  We were honored that Keiko and Yoko took time out of their busy schedules to play tour guides – they truly made or time in Miyajima memorable and we look forward to playing tour guide for them in Phoenix someday.

Jeff and HIS minions... Tessa eat your heart out!

Jeff and HIS minions... Tessa eat your heart out!

Sep 27th, 2009 by Jeff

We are now almost three weeks into our travels throughout Japan. We really have enjoyed all of our travels in this amazing country. I have especially enjoyed traveling on the bullet trains. They are very comfortable and convenient.

As far comfort was concerned the trains were great. Unlike plane travel, it is no problem to get up and move around the “cabin” or car at any time. This made the 3+ hour trips we took quite nice. Also, Phoebe loved the fact that on the bullet trains each row of seats could be spun around to face the row behind it. This allowed us to sit and chat or hang out together during our longer trips.

With respect to convenience, Kate purchased a 21-day rail pass that is available to foreign tourists and this allowed us onto all but the newest, top end trains. It wasn’t inexpensive at ~$550 each for myself, Kate, and Tessa (unfortunately even 12 year olds count as adults and there is no getting around it – believe me Kate tried), and ~$350 for Phoebe. This rail pass was great in getting us to where we wanted to go (with the minor exception of the last segment of our journey to Mt. Fuji). In order to get tickets, we just went to the reservation counter showed the passes and received reserved seating on the bullet trains. On the local trains we didn’t need to purchase tickets at all (since there is no reserved seating), we just showed our passes and were ushered through the gates to the train. During our time in Japan we traveled from Narita Airport outside of Tokyo to Nagoya and then on to Takayama in the Japanese Alps. We then made our way over to Mt. Fuji, then back towards Tokyo to stay in Yokahama with our wonderful, extremely generous host and friend Megue and her family. (I could go on and on about how wonderful, generous and over the top these people were to us, but I think Kate has already done so. So I will just add that they could not have been nicer and that we hope to be able to reciprocate the hospitality we were shown to them and their family members in the future.) From Yokahama we travelled to Hiroshima and then back to Kyoto and finally Osaka.

Having done most of our major traveling on planes, we did have to make some adjustments to our traveling “style” that we really didn’t think too much about until we were going from train to train. Most notably would be know ahead of time exactly when our stop was coming and getting all of our stuff together before we actually got to our stop. On the first train we took, we did a mad scramble to get all on our backpacks on and to grab our other bags in order to get off the train before the doors closed and it moved on to the next station. Having learned that lesson quickly, I am happy to report that we didn’t miss a stop (or have to do any backtracking) during our train travels in Japan. (We’ll see if we can keep that status in place when we get to China and the rest of the countries were we plan on a lot of train travel).

Having now had this experience with a great train system, I will definitely get behind President Obama and his plans to implement high speed rail in the U.S. We were able to travel over 1,200 miles very efficiently and quickly, moving from city center to city center. Adding this capacity to our national infrastructure certainly would add jobs to the economy and, in turn, would only improve our transportation sector and make things more efficient. It also would be much better for the environment in the long run and would help to reduce our dependence on oil. The only downside I can see is probably some displacement of people along the routes that would need to be established.

I have read that the trains are good in the rest of Asia. If they are close to what we experience here in Japan, I think things will be just fine in our travels.



Hiroshima & Peace Park
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Kate

Back on the bullet train and speeding west towards Hiroshima… I felt a strong draw to bring the girls there and talk to them about what happened there in 1945. 

 Hiroshima is a big Japanese city set in the middle a beautiful valley laced with rivers.  There are mountains in the distance on three sides and the Seto Sea on the other.  I was surprised at what a pretty city it was.  Not like Paris pretty (the buildings were still big and concrete and boring like in other Japanese cities), but the rivers gave it a presence that was unlike any of the other Japanese cities we have visited.  Nineteen-fifty-looking streetcars buzz around town, sharing the bridges with bikes and mini cars and lots of people walking around looking like they are on vacation.

 Peace Park is located on a long, wide island that runs through the middle of town.  I couldn’t really tell from the post-A-bomb photos if it existed as an island at the time of the blast or if they created it to be a stunning reminder of the horror that took place there.  It is lush and green and full of beautiful sculpture – each one recognizing people who suffered from the blast.  I found the Peace Bell, with its deep vibrating tone, an incredibly moving monument urging peace around the world.  The girls folded paper cranes and left them at the statue honoring the children that died as a result of the blast, and we recounted the story of Sadako Sasaki, the little girl who tried to fold 1,000 cranes before she died of leukemia caused by radiation exposure.  

Hiroshima crane tessa 2

 In the center of the park, in the area directly under where the bomb fell, there is a remarkable collection of sculpture and natural elements that entomb the names of all of the victims of the bombing.  The vista that the sculpture creates frames a view of the iconic visual image of the tragedy, the “Atomic Bomb Dome. It is beautiful and tragic all at the same time.  I felt tremendous sadness and guilt and anger and confusion being there.  I found myself wanting to apologize to all the older Japanese people that were also visiting the park – but in the back of my head remembering my high school history teacher saying “if we hadn’t done it, many more innocent people would have died…” Hiroshima a-bomb dome

 All the inner conflict I was feeling wasn’t lost on Tess.  She got it.  I don’t know if she got the guilt part, but she definitely felt the gravity of events that had taken place here.  Before we came to Hiroshima I really did want the girls to have a better understanding of horror of war – to “get it”, but once we were there I found myself wanting to protect them from this ugly thing for just a little longer. 

 War is complicated, I know.  There were many sides to WWII, many stories, many tragedies both for us and our enemies.  Sadly, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.  But a few days ago in Hiroshima, I stood with my kids and rang a giant bell and re-committed to myself that I would work towards bringing peace to the parts of my world that I touch, and teach my children that they have the choice to do that too.

Sep 22nd, 2009 by Kate
Tokyo lights

Tokyo lights

People people people people, lights, people, honking cars, more honking cars.  Stores and more stores and then more stores on top of those stores.  School girls in plaid sailor uniforms giggling in Starbucks.  Company Men blue suits crammed on subways – crammed crammed crammed cheek-to-cheek.  Arm socks and leg warmers.  Manga and more manga.  Time Square on crack.  Hello Kitty.  Magic toilets.  Hello Kitty.  People people people.  Hello Kitty.  Swine flu hysteria = anti-bacterial gel dispensers and face masks.  109.  Totoro and a fuzzy cat bus.  Kawaii!  Clown elevators.  One Piece.  Tired feet.  Old ladies in kimono with bedazzled cell phones.  French pastry.  Lemon CC.  Shrimp heads in your miso-yum.  Boots (love the boots).  Dance Dance Revolution.  People people people… Hello Kitty!Tokyo w giant doll

Sucking shrimp heads

Sucking shrimp heads

Phoebe-bunny with "Cos Play" kids in Harajuku

Phoebe-bunny with "Cos Play" kids in Harajuku

Yokohama and new Japanese family
Sep 18th, 2009 by Kate

Our next door neighbors back in Phoenix, Masato and Megue, are from Japan.  Megue (sounds like segway but with an “M”) actually works lives and works in Japan and very generously offered her apartment to us when we visited the Yokohama/Tokyo area.  This was an amazingly kind offer in so many ways.  Tokyo area is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit, and on our budget we would have been unable to stay very long if we had to pay for accommodations.  Megue’s apartment was wonderful too – it was in a great location in Yokohama just a few blocks from the Japan Rail lines, the waterfront park, and right in the heart of Yokohama’s Chinatown – which is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world and absolutely MUST be the nicest.  We loved the neighborhood, quickly (and surprisingly) learned to navigate the streets and alleys, and became “regulars” at a few stores and food stalls.

Chinatown Gate in Yokohama - our neighborhood away from home!

Chinatown Gate in Yokohama - our neighborhood away from home! But the best part of staying at Megue’s was getting to meet some of her amazing family. Megue is one of nine children, her father was emigrated from China and her mom was Japanese. A number of her siblings, and their children, live right in the Chinatown area. Megue had arranged for us to meet her sister in her sister’s home for a “simple” Japanese tea ceremony – which we were totally excited and honored to be invited to. Megue’s sister, Yoshie (pronounced Yo she a) has an absolutely beautiful antique-filled home on a hill that overlooks Yokohama. In 1910, when Japan opened its borders to foreigners after being closed for 300 years to trade – this hill was where the foreigners built lovely homes in all kinds of international styles with a slightly Japanese flair. Many ambassadors have homes in the area, and there are even still some embassies located here (the Korean embassy is right up the street!). Yoshie and her husband, her husband’s parents, her nephew and niece, and the great grandmother all have homes right next to each other – kind of like the Wells/Bell compound in Phoenix (but a bit more grand!). The “simple” tea ceremony was anything but – Yoshie’s mother-in-law and her family owned a formal tea house, have a formal tea garden in their yard, and Yoshie studied the tea ceremony for twenty year!!! (Miss Susan – the entire time we were there for the tea ceremony, Phoebe was wishing you could have been there- you would have been in heaven!) Yoshie wore a beautiful summer kimono, served us an autumn “sweet” (the sweet you are served is determined by the season) and then served us tea – Jeff first, then me, then the girls. While she was very formal about the process, Yoshie and Megue were wonderful about telling us some of the meanings behind this elaborate ceremony. Yoshie also studied ceramics, and we were honored to be served our tea using beautiful pots and bowls she had thrown herself. After the tea ceremony, Yoshie presented the each of the girls with their own summer kimonos!!!! The girls were so excited I thought their heads were going to pop off! Yoshie had saved her daughter Kaori’s kimonos from when she was a young girl (I have a feeling Kaori probably had many fabulous kimonos as a child) and Yoshie wanted to give the girls summer kimono (they are lighter weight, made of nice cotton instead of heavy, lined silk). We spent a good hour learning how to tie all the different belts and cords (Miss Susan, I think we’ll need a refresher lesson when we return!) and learning how to fold them. Buying kimonos were one of the few splurge purchases we were going to make on the trip, but the ones the girls got are extra special because they received them from Yoshie.Yoshie fitting Tessa in her kimono


Phoebe & Tessa in their new summer kimono

Phoebe & Tessa in their new summer kimono

Amidst all the tea ceremonies and kimono fittings, Yukie (Megue & Yoshie’s niece – pronounced U-key-A) and her totally adorable daughter Suiran (age 7) and son Ranmaru (age 11), came over to greet us and bopped in and out of the house (as I mentioned earlier they live next door and kind of function like we do with Mom/Grandma Eileen next door).  Tess and Phoebe were so happy to have kids to play with, and after Ranmaru got over Tessa being “a giant”, they all got along like they had known each other forever.  Yes, there was a total language barrier (Ranmaru’s English we think just consisted of “AHHH – Giant!”  and Suiran’s “What is your favorite color”), but they all chased and colored and laughed and ate ice cream like there was no tomorrow.  After we all went out to a huge family meal of Chinese food (at yet another nephew’s restaurant), Phoebe felt so at home with the kids that she had a real, honest-to-goodness Japanese sleepover at their house!

 I felt SO indebted to this lovely family for their hospitality and generosity that I invited them over to “our” apartment for dinner a few nights later – Jeff and I both thought it would be fun to cook them Mexican food.  They were all excited about the prospect, but decided that the apartment was way too small so arrangements were made for us to return to Yoshie’s home to cook the big family meal.  We had to make a few menu adjustments as we went along – finding ingredients for Mexican food was a bit more challenging that we thought.  So we settled on a Mexican appetizer – salsa and guacamole with chips (we found chips!  They were tortilla chips made in Belgium of all places – but tasty!), an Italian dish that I’m really good at and that feeds a huge crowd – Chicken Cacciatore, a big salad, a fresh ciabatta loaf (go figure!) and Jeff made a totally delicious apple crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert. 

 We fed 16 people a sit-down Mexican/Italian/American dinner in a Japanese kitchen with an oven that was smaller than my microwave at home and that only had Japanese characters on it -  in Celsius no less!  All I can say is… I ROCK!

 It was one of the most fun evenings I have had in years.  We ate, laughed, drank too much wine, and shared funny stories about children and travels and life.  We left their home that night with invitations for the kids to come back when they are ready to study abroad, doggie bags full of treats, and the feeling that we have family in a far away land.

A very old tea house in a park in Yokohama where Yoshie sometimes does formal tea ceremonies.

A very old tea house in a park in Yokohama where Yoshie sometimes does formal tea ceremonies.

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