Dziadziu Visits Japan: All Kyoto, All Day

This morning we set out for our first stop, the National Modern Art Museum of Kyoto. After the crowds of the previous days we enjoyed the quiet solitude of the galleries.

From there we continued on to the shrines nestled along the Higashiyama mountain range. After strolling through Nanzenji shrine, we continued on to my favorite, Eikando. Eikando draws huge crowds during the peak autumn foliage season, or momiji. The rest of the year it’s a fairly quiet place, which I love.

After pausing for some refreshment of matcha green tea and a red bean paste sweet cookie…

… We continued on to Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion.

After lunch we headed for easily the most crowded spot of our trip so far: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion.

All day, everywhere, we saw sakura. Cherry blossom fatigue starts to set in with so many trees around, and so many people determined to capture the perfect shot. I know–poor us.

For our last dinner in Kyoto, we enjoyed the varied offerings of an izakaya. On our way to the restaurant, we blended in with the foreigner crowd on foot determined to find an excellent meal. But once we reached the restaurant, we saw nothing but Japanese customers surrounding us–always a good sign, especially in a heavily touristy area such as Gion. We ordered an assortment typical to an izakaya: grilled chicken skewers, assorted vegetables with miso sauce, a soft boiled egg nestled atop potato salad with anchovy, and steak cooked to perfection.

It capped off a lovely day with amazing sites, perfect weather, so much sakura, and the best company.

Tomorrow we board our final Shinkansen: back home to Yokohama.

Dziadziu visits Japan: Hiroshima and Kyoto

I can’t believe that it’s only day two of our trip! We’ve seen and done so much already.

This morning we headed out to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Loyal martayaki readers may recall that I visited this museum back in 2016 when Grandpa Don came to visit. The experience was a bit different this time due to a recent renovation–but still utterly gut wrenching.

The Children’s Peace Monument

After the museum we strolled past the Children’s Peace Monument and Genbaku (Atomic Dome). At all three sites the size of the crowds struck me. Here is probably the least fun thing you can do on vacation, looking at photos of brutal death and destruction. Yet people care, and spend their free time learning about such dark times in history. It gives me hope.

The former Bank of Japan branch, designed by my friend Marcos’s grandfather

Right as we were leaving the museum, my friend Marcos sent me a suggestion to check out a building that his architect grandfather designed. Since the building was only a few minutes walk away, we headed over to see it for ourselves.

Built in 1936, the building originally served as the Hiroshima branch of Bank of Japan; it survived the nuclear blast and now serves as an exhibition space. We enjoyed the photo exhibit on display.

After a quick lunch, we boarded yet another shinkansen, this time bound for Kyoto.

After relaxing in our hotel for a bit, we headed for Kyoto’s busiest tourist site, Fushimi Inari shrine. It’s not only the most visited tourist attraction in Kyoto but also in all of Japan. The late afternoon visit proved to be a wise choice; we experienced fairly uncongested pathways as well as the Golden Hour for photography, right before sunset.

We enjoyed a traditional Izakaya dinner then called it a night, enjoying the sites on our stroll back to the hotel.

Dziadziu Visits Japan: Himeji Castle and Hiroshima

My dad’s here! Dziadziu (grandfather) came to see the grandkids and see what our life in Japan is like. After a few days of Yokohama sites, it was time to hit the rails.

Dad said that he wanted to see Hiroshima, so I decided on a stop at Himeji Castle along the way. So we boarded our first Nozomi Super Express Shinkansen of the day.

As loyal martayaki readers may recall, I visited Himeji Castle once before.

We arrived in Himeji and saw tons of people. And sakura (cherry blossoms)! Honestly I had no idea that the castle is surrounded by them, so it was a lovely surprise. A gorgeous Sunday afternoon with sakura in full bloom brought out the masses, but somehow no one seemed to mind. The long lines moved along at a steady pace, and the announced wait time of 60 minutes to enter the Main Keep (main part of the castle) turned out to be about 20 minutes. Our fellow line standers all seemed in good spirits. Call it the magic of the sakura, or simply good manners–but everyone waited patiently, enjoying the beautiful day and incredible scenery.

Standing there, looking at these breathtaking flowers, and this stunning castle–I swallowed a huge lump in my throat. It’s impossible for me to feel anything but pure gratitude that I have this opportunity, and that I shared it with my dad.

After the castle Dad sampled his first bowl of katsudon (pork cutlet with egg over rice) and soba noodles.

Then we returned to the Shinkansen for a quick 60 minute ride, continuing on to Hiroshima.

We arrived late afternoon, checked in to our hotel, and relaxed a bit. Then dinner!

If you mention a visit to Hiroshima, you’ll get very different responses from Western and Japanese friends. The Westerners frown a bit and ask if I went to the Peace Memorial and other sites related to the atomic bombing. Meanwhile Japanese friends light up and enthusiastically ask, did you try any okonomiyaki?!?

So for dinner Dad and I headed to Okonomimura, or okonomiyaki town–really a building with several floors of okonomiyaki stalls. We carefully reviewed the stalls, weighed our options, then judiciously chose one. Kidding! We sat down at the first place with two open stools, then ordered beer and a Deluxe Okonomiyaki.

Well nourished, we retired to our hotel for a solid sleep ahead of Monday’s plan: a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Atomic Bomb Dome.

Hong Kong: Street Art

My favorite aspect of Hong Kong was also the biggest surprise: the amazing street art adorning building all over our neighborhood. We rented a studio on U Lam Terrace in a somewhat pretentious/chic area called PoHo (from nearby Po Hing Fong).

As soon as we started walking we saw amazing murals and street art on every block. It made getting lost in the maze of streets and stairs so much more interesting! I’ll let the photos tell the story.

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Hong Kong: Food and Shopping

I arrived in Hong Kong with high expectations of delicious food, and Hong Kong delivered! Our first night we enjoyed an amazing Nepali meal in our neighborhood. Many of Yokohama’s Indian restaurants are actually operated by Nepali nationals, and I wish some of the dishes we had in Hong Kong appeared in Japan more often instead of the parade of mediocre curries.

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Our second night we tried French fusion dim sum. We loved the setting and beautiful presentation while appreciating the novel twist on traditional dim sum, but we both agreed that it wasn’t our best meal. Foie gras in a dumpling….not so much.

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Another night we grabbed a bite at a restaurant near a street market. We sat at long, communal tables and heeded our neighbors’ recommendations.

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For our final night’s meal, we sought out a Michelin recommended hole-in-the-wall. The rather utilitarian ambiance and entirely Chinese clientele foretold a great meal. And it was!

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Like many Asian cities, Hong Kong features several street markets, night markets, and “antiques” rows featuring loads of colorful baubles and trinkets to tempt the eye. We wandered and picked up a few treasures.

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Our hands-down favorite shop was right in our neighborhood, and I lost count of how many times we popped in. Every surface was covered with both Western and Chinese vintage records, eyeglasses, cameras, toys, and more.

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The final installment: street art.

Hong Kong: Views

Last week Cy and I headed to Hong Kong for spring break. We ate amazing food. We saw cool stuff. We climbed. So. Many. Stairs.

Here’s the first report: views!

The Hong Kong Museum of History provided and excellent overview of the many people who have occupied Hong Kong over the centuries. I loved the vivid displays that recounted Hong Kong’s fascinating and turbulent history. The United Kingdom officially handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, and the museum’s displays abruptly stopped at this point in time. Because apparently no history happened since then….? Still, I really enjoyed what I saw and learned.

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We ventured out on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor one day….

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…then braved the crowds to ride the Victoria Peak Tram to stroll wooded paths and catch the views from the top.

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And the stairs. So many stairs! Streets abruptly became flights of stairs, and we were so grateful that our visit wasn’t in the steamy summer months as we climbed them every day.

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We stopped by Hong Kong’s most famous temple, Man Mo…and were extremely underwhelmed. “Hong Kongers are not a religious lot,” our guidebook drily noted. No kidding! I can think of a dozen temples and shrines within five minutes of our house in Yokohama with more to offer.

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Next up: food and shopping.

Let’s Eat Haggis; Or, Burns Night at the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club

Last weekend Mark and I donned the tux and gown and headed over to our club, the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC) for Burns Night. What’s Burns Night, you ask? I hadn’t heard of it myself until moving to Yokohama. So let’s start with a little background….

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I absolutely love that kilt and kimono are both proper attire for the evening!

Robert Burns was a Scottish poet (“Oh my luve’s like a red, red rose….”) and his birthday falls on January 25. So on the weekend nearest that, Scots around the world gather to toast ole’ Rabbie with whiskey, haggis, Highland dancing, and bagpipes. Kilts are encouraged and black tie tolerated if your man doesn’t feel like baring the legs in late January. YC&AC’s first members included plenty of Scots, so Burns Night has enjoyed a spot on the YC&AC social calendar since the club’s founding in 1868. YC&AC calls its celebration the oldest Burns Night in Japan.

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My favorite kilt-wearer of the evening was the Japanese gentlemen third from the left. It really suits him! He totally kills it.
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Enjoying our first course of haggis, neeps (turnips/rutabagas), and tatties (potatoes) with the fine folks of Table Alloway (Photo: YC&AC)
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Our table got its name from Burns’ birthplace, Alloway

I suspected Scots outside of Scotland tend to celebrate Burns Night more than those living in the home country. My Scottish friend Jason confirmed this. Picture a watered down Groundskeeper Willie accent from The Simpsons when you read this next part: “Mostly awld faaahrts in cloobs git togather far it.” Meanwhile my friend Iain–born in Scotland, reared in Canada, and both a wearer of kilt and player of bagpipes–disagreed, stating that plenty of people in Scotland, both young and old, raise a glass to Dear Rabbie.

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Mark the Whiskey Bearer delivers his toast to the piper

The evening includes a series of toasts and speeches, and Mark played an important role as the Whisky Bearer during the procession of the haggis. Moments before the procession began, Mark sprinted over with an important assignment for me. As the master of ceremonies stabs the haggis, a women is supposed to scream loudly. Was I willing? As if he had to ask! I warned Iain who sat directly in front of me, then let out a blood-curdling shriek as knife and haggis became one.

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After I snapped this photo my tablemate asked me, What on earth will you do with a photo of a haggis?!? A fair question, I think
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Emma and Iain. Aren’t they the cutest?
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Iain positively identifies the Haggis Stabbing Screamer

Mark joined the procession of the haggis bearing a bottle of liquid gold, and even remembered his response to the question, “And to whom do you toast?”. “To the piper!”, he declared.

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Taking a break from Highland dancing to snap a quick photo with Emma and Iain

Highland dancing was tons of fun. The dances have names that sound incredibly dirty and hilarious after a few glasses, such as Strip the Willow, Highland Fling, and Threesome Reel.

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Highland dancing the night away, either Stripping the Willow or Highland Flinging at this point (Photo: YC&AC)

We ate. We drank. We danced. We selfie-ed with the bagpipers. A smashing evening all around!

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Yay, YC&AC Burns Night 2019!!! (Photo: YC&AC)

Beer and Blondies, The Dinner of Champions

I’m on the Shinkansen with the boy, headed for a ski weekend in Niigata prefecture with my friend Caroline and her family. It’s my third visit to Bears House, a lovely hotel right on the slopes of Ishiuchi Maruyama ski resort. So by now I have the drill down of getting there: local train to Tokyo station, arriving early enough (about 40 minutes) to buy a bento dinner for the 75 minute Shinkansen bullet train ride.

I think you all know where this is going.

So I met Caroline on the platform of our local station, Yamate. We expected a 50 minute, no transfer ride to Tokyo Station. About halfway there the train stopped right after the first car entered Kamata station.

We sat there for about ten minutes with periodic announcements in Japanese. After a bit people started getting up and heading toward the front of the train to get off, and we followed. When I saw that one car made it into the station, I assumed the worst: that someone jumped in front of the train. Unfortunately this is a fairly common occurrence in Japan. But when I didn’t see a white fabric barrier erected at the front of the train I figured it was something else. The JR East status website quickly listed “unidentifiable noise” as the cause of the delay. If it were a jumper then the status would reference personal injury.

The plan was to get off the train and somehow magically make it to Tokyo Station in time for our Shinkansen.

And on the platform in Kamata Station, our guardian angel appeared: Katayama-San, the neighbor of our drum teacher, Marcos. Katayama-san and I have exchanged friendly waves and genial small talk and appeared together in music recitals for three years. Caroline’s family also takes lessons from Marcos, so Katayama-San knew all of us.

Because the universe had my back today, Katayama-san was taking a group of boys to the same ski resort, and riding on the same Shinkansen. He and Caroline were even in the same car.

On the Yamanote line to Tokyo Station. It wasn’t even crowded at this point.

So he said, “Follow me!”. And we did. We sprinted about a kilometer from one station to another and hopped on a Keikyu train, then got off at Shinagawa and stuffed onto an overcapacity, rush hour Yamanote train, where there may or may not have been train pushers at work based on the crush that climbed aboard at every station.

We arrived at Tokyo Station with six minutes to make it on the train. We ran from one platform to the next and made it with two minutes to spare.

We absolutely would not have made it without Katayama-san’s help. Given the train delays we could use our tickets for the next Shinkansen, but we would likely end up standing the whole way.

With the whole 40-minutes-to-buy-bento-dinner thing out the window, I settled in with the snacks I packed: beer and blondies.

When I went back to deliver beer and blondies to Katayama-san and Caroline and her crew, I found Caroline dispensing her dinner/snacks in a method familiar to every parent of more than one child: counting out potato chips/crisps one by one to each of her three children.

We arrive at Echigo Yuzawa in 30 minutes. I really, really hope the bento stands are still selling dinner when we arrive.

Christmas in Hawaii, The Lava Edition: The Big Island

After a fantastic five days on Kauai, we hopped on a one-hour flight to the Big Island of Hawaii. We started in Kona, the city on the perpetually-sunny western coast famous for its coffee, sunsets, and Ironman competition.

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Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this summer from Washington state. Though he now lives in Hilo on the Big Island’s rainy eastern coast, he lived in Kona for several years. He drove over to meet us, and we enjoyed a sunset visit to one of his favorite surfing beaches.

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The next day we headed out to a nearby exotic animal rescue, Three Ring Ranch. The caretaker Ann Goody told us about her resident zebra, monkeys, birds, turtles, bison, and other animals. While she spoke she noticed cues from one of the monkeys, then declared that the monkey chose Marshall as his special friend. So Marshall followed Ann’s instructions, greeting the monkey with the appropriate lack of eye contact, handshake, and so on. She said that the monkey will remember Marshall as one of his chosen friends even if he waits a few years to visit again.

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After a great weekend in Kona, we drove across the island to Hilo.

In December 2016 we visited Hawaii and rented a house in Vacationland, a community of (surprise!) mostly vacation homes. When Kilauea erupted and the lava started flowing in May of 2018, I quickly learned that Vacationland lay in Lava Zone 1 as designated by the U.S. Geological Survey, making it the most vulnerable area to lava-related annihilation. Unfortunately the lava flowed exactly as USGS predicted, wiping out hundreds of homes. I was surprised to hear that most of those homes had no homeowners’ insurance because the risk of lava damage was so high.

The following map shows the extent of the lava flow, as well as points along our visit. The location of our 2016 rental house is marked with a yellow star.

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Yellow star: the location of rental house where we stayed in 2016; Blue star: the road we drove in on and accessed the lava; Green star: the road to the lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi

We drove as far as we could down Government Beach Access Road, just to the right of the bright blue star in the photo above. The road ended abruptly at a wall of lava, so we parked and joined our fellow lava tourists already on the rocks. We followed a slightly crushed-down path marked by shells and coral left behind by previous visitors.

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Driving toward the lava flow on Government Beach Access Road
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The end of the road, marked on the map with a blue star

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As soon as we climbed up the lava, I swallowed hard and blinked back tears. It was impossible to forget the hundreds of houses entombed under this unfathomable blanket of rock. The house where we celebrated Christmas, the legendary Champagne Pond and Kapoho Tide Pools where we snorkeled. All of it just gone.

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Following Hawaiian custom, earlier hikers marked the trail with light-colored shells or coral

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I can’t even begin to explain the power and sheer vastness of the lava field before us. The lava radiated heat as we walked across it. At first I assumed the black surface simply absorbed the sun’s heat, but then I started passing blasts of warm air from below. A physical geographer who worked with the evacuation told us that the lava would stay hot for at least two years.

IMG_0943 2So remember that map above? Go ahead, scroll up. We parked at the blue star, then climbed across the tiniest little corner of the lava field to the road to Cape Kumukahi, immediately under the green star. We scrambled for a solid 15-20 minutes each way across that tiny corner of the lava field. I can’t even comprehend just how much hardened lava came from the Kilauea eruption, and how little of it we could see from our vantage point.

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Along the road to Cape Kumukahi Light, marked on the map further above with a green star

Steam vents in the distance perked away.

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We headed back to the car and drove around to the southern edge of the lava field for our next stop. Along the way we drove over metal plates on the road just outside Leilani Estates, another subdivision affected by the lava flow. Before the lava started flowing in May 2018, cracks and steam in the road appeared right before fissures in Leilani Estates opened up. Road crews quickly patched up the cracks with those metal plates, and steam vents still bubble away along the side of the road even now. Crazy.

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Near Leilani Estates, driving past roadside steam vents percolating away

While the road outside Leilani Estates “only” cracked, other roads were completely covered by lava. As soon as the lava cooled enough for road crews to get out there, the crews poured asphalt on the lava and reopened the road. We drove over those new roads on our way to our next stop, Isaac Hale Park.

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We arrived at Isaac Hale Park, a state park that both survived the lava flow and experience some incredible changes. The park’s boat ramp used to lead to open water, as boat ramps do. The lava flow cut off the boat ramp from the ocean, so now that ramp leads to a pool of water completely isolated from the ocean. Signs warn swimmers to stay out of the water because the lack of ocean access means that the stagnant water harbors high bacteria counts. People splashed away anyway. Ew.

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The boat used to lead to the ocean, but the new wall of lava created a germy swimming hole instead

In addition to a new, bacteria-filled swimming hole, the lava created a new black sand beach.

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After enjoying the rather aggressive surf there, we headed out for another, older black sand beach, Kehena. Marshall warned us in advance of its clothing-optional reputation. Hence the from-a-distance or thisclose photos that follow. Because, you know. Nekkid people.

IMG_0959IMG_0961IMG_0962IMG_0963Our last night, Marshall took us to a famous weekly night market in Kalapana called Uncle Robert’s. With food, crafts for sale, and music, it reminded me of a Hawaiian mashup of an Asian street/night market and a weekend street market in the US. The weekly market takes place every Wednesday, and it’s the social focal point for the eastern half of the Big Island. Most people within an hour’s drive come several times per month.

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And that’s a wrap on Hawaii 2018!

Christmas in Hawaii: Kauai

In 2016 we went to Hawaii and really loved our time there. Traveling to Hawaii is much easier from Japan than from Washington DC, so we decided to visit Hawaii again before leaving Japan. Mark’s youngest brother Marshall moved to Hawaii this year, so that made our decision easy.

We started on the island of Kauai, where we enjoyed a visit to Waimea Canyon…

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….the ubiquitous chickens, whose population exploded with the destruction of Kauai’s chicken enclosures after Hurricane Iniki in 1992 …..

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….a stop at the National Tropical Botanical Garden…..

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A ziplining tour with Koloa Ziplines….

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….and our favorite, a helicopter ride over Waimea Canyon, the waterfall from the Jurassic Park movies, and the utterly breathtaking Napali coast.

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After five days of beautiful Kauai, we moved on to the Big Island–stay tuned for that report!