Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How Technology Changed the Sunday Drive

When I was much younger, I can remember people used to go for Sunday drives.  Now we all travel by car so much that maybe it's become a thing of the past, but occasionally, I like to do what I call taking a "Detour Drive".  You can set one destination, but you have to find 3 or more detours along the way checking out places you've never been to before.  These are always so much fun because we stumble upon some great stuff and make a memorable outing, sometimes meeting interesting people along the way that assist in our detour finding.  Sometimes the detours are thematic, but usually it's just about taking a break at a certain point in the drive to keep everyone happy.

We usually do this when my husband is gone because it's a good way to keep Omar busy and not asking where his dad is for an entire day.  I'll share the latest one we did with you so you can see how much fun you can have with this idea.  Smartphone apps and GPS make the whole adventure a breeze. I recommend you have access to Yelp, Oh Ranger! Park Finder, and Tripadvisor.  All three of these apps have the ability to find your current location and tell you what's nearby.  Yelp focuses mainly on food.  Oh Ranger! Park finder finds local, state, and federal parks.  Tripadvisor finds hotels, food, and attractions.  I use it mainly for attractions because Yelp lists many more food options, including fast food (Hey, when your kid insists on a McDonalds, you have to find those golden arches).

We dropped my husband off at the airport and started to drive towards Omar's Saturday gym class with friends in Cedarburg, but we had an hour to kill.  I spotted a turkey walking into the woods near Shorewood Nature Preserve, so we parked and followed it into the woods, taking a few photos on the way.  There were actually a pair, but we only saw this one close up.  Nice feathers!

We hiked down to the beach, finding this beautiful carpet of blue spring flowers on the way.  We saw hundreds of shorebirds.  Omar threw rocks in the water for awhile.  The woods were filled with bird song.  You could see hundreds of songbirds in the trees too.
A finch in the trees above us 

We made it to Cedarburg with time to spare.  While he was playing with his friends, one of the moms told me about this beautiful hexagonal church west of Cedarburg in Jackson, WI.  This is very easy to find if you are in Cedarburg, just head out of town on Western Avenue until you see it on the right side of the street.  We stopped to take a picture and then used Yelp to find the nearest McDonalds, which happened to be at a truck stop on hwy 41, which also had video games.  Omar scored big time!

Some call this a round barn- located on Western Ave, in Jackson WI
The McDonald's even had some very cool video games

I have wanted to see Horicon Marsh for the annual bird migration, so we headed in that general direction.  I guess I never really thought about what we might see.  It was much larger than I expected and there was no way we could hike it with Omar, so we just stopped at the visitor center where Omar made some crafts and I looked at the marsh from the large windows.  I'll save a real trip for when he's older or I have adult hiking friends.

Horicon Marsh, WI
By now, Omar was ready for some real fun, so I used the park finder app to find a county park in Germantown  that had a pond, hiking trails, and a good playground.  Omar found some nice kids to play with and we stayed there for about an hour.  Then it was time to check in with trip advisor to see what was nearby.  I found Paul Bobrowitz' Spectacular Sculpture garden nearby in Colgate, WI.  It was 6 acres of scrap metal creations done by one man who lives on the grounds.  You can purchase them, but we were just looking.  So many amazing things to see and the best part was...nothing was breakable so it was a good place to wander with Omar.  By now, we were both pretty tired.  We hit the home button on the GPS.  It was an easy drive home where we made some pizza and settled in for the night with an amazing array of images in our head from the interesting day of detours.  I encourage you to try it!  Lots of fun!

Homestead Hollow County Park at Germantown
Scuplture Garden piggies

Monday, April 29, 2013

Puerto Rico's Historic Forts

If you visit San Juan, Puerto Rico, you must spend half a day visiting the national park's forts at Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felip del Morro.  These extraordinary structures are still standing in spite of centuries of wind and weather.  They were built to fortify the island against enemies and took more than 200 years to build.  At one time, the entire city of old San Juan was completely enclosed by a wall.  Click on the national park link for more information about the history of this amazing place.  They are also listed as UNESCO world heritage sites, and you can read more about them at the UNESCO link as well.  We've made it a priority to see more of these fascinating UNESCO world heritage sites when we travel.  There are currently 962 sites, and you can see the list of all of them along with a map.  In my lifetime I've seen just around 50, so we still have a long way to go!

We thought it was fun to see the huge forts and to explore the jails, dungeons, staircases, and walls.  Our son Omar had a really great time, although at the time these buildings were made, there weren't any safety limitations.  Because of that, it was a bit nerve wracking for us with so many places to jump or fall over the walls for him.  It took 3 of us in constant panic mode to keep up with him.

these were left by previous tenants- probably sea captains 
You can freely open the jail door  to try it out

walls are thick and high

gorgeous ocean views

loved the high ceilings and arches

soldiers' quarters

layers of fort walls with 6 levels

the old lighthouse at el Morro

So many places to crawl

years of changing features

rooms connected through doorways

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tips for Traveling to Japan

We definitely had a great trip to Japan, and for those of you thinking about taking a trip, I've written down a few tips that may help you.

The electricity is 100V which is slower than the American 120V, but the plugs are very similar so you can use electrical appliances without a plug adaptor, but they may operate more slowly or not get as hot.

Pack lightly.  I can't stress this enough if you plan to use public transportation at all.  We used the smaller carry-on size luggage with wheels, but we saw plenty of tourists with huge suitcases trying to get them up and down staircases or into train compartments and they just don't fit.  One family was forced to keep their baggage in the entryway of the train with a companion to watch it for over an hour because it wouldn't fit into the train seats or in the overhead bins.  You can send out laundry at hotels or wash it in the sink and hang to dry.  All the hotels we used had a washing line to dry items over the bath.  All of our hotels provided toiletries including toothbrush, so it was one less thing to pack.  They also provided robes and pajamas, which will only fit if you aren't much taller than 5'7" or heavier than 175 lbs.  You will want to pack some nice socks though as you will remove shoes often if you are visiting temples.  I recommend merino wool clothing because you can wear it more than one day and it doesn't retain odors.  The travex line by Eddie Bauer or Columbia's travel clothing has been some of our favorites.  It's also great to keep you warm/cool depending on weather.  Layering is also helpful.  Mornings can be cool, but afternoons warm up quite a bit in springtime.  The Japanese wear nice clothing- clean with no holes.  You won't really want to be seen in public in torn jeans, shorts, sweat pants, flip flops, etc.  Save the casual wear for the beach.

If you will be bringing small children, a stroller is helpful, but it can't be the supersize model.  You need an umbrella stroller that folds up small because you will have to fold it and eject the child every time you get on a train or bus.  We use the Maclaren Volo when we travel.  It's extremely lightweight and holds a child up to 55 lbs, although our son is now 75 lbs and he still fits, but his knees are up on his chest.  In spite of it being too small, he prefers using it when we have to walk long distances.  Also a good idea to bring a small daypack to carry your stuff with you during the day.  Many public toilets don't have towels, so a pack of wet wipes is useful.  We usually carry Clif bars with us on trips too so even if you can't find a restaurant, you won't get too hungry.  They go through airport security better than trail mix.  Having pockets in whatever you wear is helpful too so you have a quick place to store change and subway tickets or your JR pass.  You have to show the pass or ticket when you enter and exit the train.

Bring cash.  There were very few places where you could use credit cards not issued in Japan.  You could naturally use it to pay at hotels and hotel restaurants, but all the shopping we did required Japanese yen.  You can bring a debit card and get yen from ATMs at 7-11 stores.  There were also banks and hotels that exchanged dollars, but you will pay a fee.  And be sure to call your credit card/bank card number before you travel to preauthorize use in a foreign country.  You want to ensure you can use it when you need to have access to your money.  Be aware that most cards charge at least 1-5% per transaction, so you aren't surprised by excessive fees when you get home.

Wifi is hard to find and not cheap.  Most 7-11s have it and it's free, but your websites may show up with Japanese characters once you log in.  If you plan to use your iPad or smart phone, you can pre-purchase time from your carrier before you enter the country and it may work out cheaper and easier.  If you opt for the hotel wifi, you generally have to pay about $20 per day.

If you plan to travel to more than one city, it's beneficial to purchase a Japan Rail pass, but you have to purchase it before you leave home.  Then it comes via mail, and you activate it the first day you travel by train in Japan.  You can read more about the pass and get one at the Japan Rail website.  We were there for 8 days, but had a 7 day pass.  We used this pass for local transportation in Tokyo and Kyoto as well.  The first day we used a shuttle bus to get from the airport, which was very easy.  Once you are out of baggage claim and customs, there is an area before you step outside where you can purchase ground transportation.  They speak English and can tell you what options are available.  It is quite a long way from the airport to the center of Tokyo.  Our ride via bus was nearly 2 hours.  Once you've had a few days to practice using the public transportation, it will be much easier.  There are maps available in English and Japanese at the stations, but you can download maps to your smartphone too for preplanning. When you're ready to go back to the airport, ask about reserving a seat on the Narita express- the express train from Tokyo to Narita airport.  They even serve snacks.

You can use any number of travel guides to learn more about Japan and to plan your trip.  I usually prefer using Frommers guide to read about places in advance, and they have downloadable books on itunes under apps, or you can use Amazon to put it on your kindle.  When I'm walking around doing the sightseeing, I prefer the DK Eyewitness series for their amazing maps, photos, and general information that you need in a jiffy.  We did use a few of Frommer's city walking tours which are available free on their website (you can just print out a few pages) to plan our days, but used the DK guide as a supplement, which worked well.  The most important thing is to have a plan.  If you just show up at a local train station with no plan, you will be overwhelmed.  Usually the concierge or local information desk at the train station has some ideas to hone your plan, but you should know which attractions are high on your list.  You can also search Facebook for Japan travel pages.  I subscribed to several and then we got updates about where the cherry blossoms were blooming in real time as we traveled.  Because of these updates, we attended a night time festival that turned out to be well worth it.

Traveling to Japan via airlines is a personal choice, but we found that using ANA was a dream compared to any US airlines, which is usually the case when you travel long distances.  Most foreign airlines are subsidized by their governments, which means they offer more amenities like leg room, nicer food, snacks, and have young kind flight attendants.  The aircraft are often newer too. Of course, price is a big consideration, but if prices are similar, I'd go with the Japanese airline.  If you can, choose a window seat or at least get up during the flight and look out from the windows near the rear.  You'll be flying over Alaska and may have the opportunity to see Denali national park or Fairbanks.  I thought the views were amazing.  If you have a TV at your seat, there's usually a map option so you can follow the path of the aircraft.  It will let you know when you're over Alaska.

Finding a hotel can be easy using any travel website like expedia, kayak, trip advisor, etc.  We ended up using "my tokyo guide", a company I found on Facebook, to find ours because we were traveling last minute and had trouble finding accommodations at all.  Often the upper tier hotels hold back rooms for travel agents so you end up paying more, but you will get a nice room.  In both cases we stayed right near the local train station for our Kyoto and Tokyo stays.  It was so convenient.  We asked for hotels with pools because Omar loves to swim, however, in Japan the pools are for adults only.  None of us ended up using them due to the stringent rules.  Jake did use the health clubs at the hotels though. I was happy that my tokyo guide suggested an overnight at an authentic Japanese Inn.  It turned out to be the most interesting, relaxing night we spent.  You can read more about that at my Japanese Inn blog post.  I would recommend this to anyone going to Japan so you get to see what the Japanese enjoy.  The sushi was fresh and amazing too.  When we do foreign travel, we always try to add breakfast with our hotel if it's available.  Sometimes it costs a bit more, but it is so much easier to rise and shine when you know coffee is just down at the lobby.  When you're suffering jet lag in a foreign city and the weather is crummy, you don't really want to search for your breakfast.  Once you eat, you can set out much happier.

If you'll be visiting Japanese people while you travel, you must bring gifts.  We brought American chocolates, but you can also pick up food or flower gifts while you're there in Japan.  Small hand towels are also welcome because as I mentioned earlier, there often aren't towels in public bathrooms so people carry towels with them.

I hope these simple tips help you when visiting Japan.  Feel free to ask questions if you need any additional help!

Temples and Shrines of Kyoto region

Everyone who visits Japan has to see at least a few temples.  They are historic, beautiful, and many are grand.  If you see too many, they start to look alike and you won't enjoy the sightseeing anymore, so it's best to limit yourself to about 3 per day, although I know there are tours that cram up to 7 in one day, which I feel is just too taxing.  If you open any tour book, you'll notice Kyoto is home to 17 UNESCO world heritage sites.  There's a link with a map at this site for "visit Kyoto".  You can click on the map on any temple and get more information about what to see and the history of the temple or shrine.  I'd include Nara too, because Todai-ji was the most memorable for me.  Nara is about an hour train ride from Kyoto.  You can see plenty of photos at the UNESCO site link, but here are some of the photos I took.

The other temple we really thought was memorable was Kiyomizu-dera.  Here you can walk through the hilly grounds and the view of the city below is pretty amazing.  There's a spring you can drink from that may help you live longer, so naturally the lines were very long to do this!  These are working temples so at the right time of day, you will see monks going to prayer.  The grounds of the temples are often very beautiful too,  some in flowers and trees, others in gravel and evergreens.  The idea is to be there and be at peace, which you can feel if you sit and enjoy it...and there aren't hundreds of tourists.  It was rare that we ever had a garden to ourselves, but we were there during the busiest season- when cherry blossoms were in bloom.
The most beautiful gardens were at Taizo-In temple.  You could feed the koi fish here too

Huge gate welcomes you to Todai-ji temple area

My son Jake in front of Todai-ji temple, the largest wooden structure in the world!

This large seated bronze Buddha is more than 50 feet high- largest in Japan

Also at Nara's temple

wooden prayer plaques available at many temples

Monk calling prayer time

holy water comes from spring at Kiyomizu-dera,
Monks coming to prayer at Kiyomizu-dera

During Cherry Blossom time at Kiyomizu-dera

The famous golden temple, Kinkaku-ji

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Geishas of Kyoto

I saw the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, and because of that, I had always wanted to see the place where Geishas live and work in Kyoto.  I was lucky to have that opportunity while we were visiting Japan.  There's a region of Kyoto, called Gion, where most of the Geishas can be found.  The travel books will tell you to hang out there, mostly in the evening, with the hope of catching a glimpse of one of these fascinating ladies.

During April they hold a month long performance season, Miyako-Odori.  Called the Cherry Blossom dance, it is an amazing array of talented performers in their dance festival.  I used our hotel concierge to get tickets to the performance, which included a brief tea ceremony at the beginning.  These "special class" tickets were about $45 each.  You can call the theater direct, but the recording when I called was in Japanese, and they don't take credit cards anyway.  Through the concierge, I was able to have the hotel pay for the tickets and when we arrived, I paid the concierge with cash.  If you find yourself in Japan while you are reading this, you can also go to the ticket window and see if same day performance tickets are available.  Because we were there at the peak of cherry blossoms, the theater had only a few empty seats, but it says they hold 10% of the tickets for window purchases.  I was also lucky enough to attend with my pen pal, Mariko.  There are many Japanese people who have never seen such a performance, so it was just as interesting for her.

When we arrived, we were allowed to wander through the garden outside the Kaburenjo theater.  It's a lovely green place with traditional Japanese plants, cherry trees, moss, and water features including koi fish.

This video is from the tea ceremony.  The Geisha, or Geiko in Japanese, has to take lessons to learn all the steps.  A Maiko is an apprentice Geiko who will also learn to do this before she becomes a Geiko.

And here's the treat we were served with the tea (that tasted like grass by the way).  It was filled with a gooey fruit.  Isn't it pretty?  Then we got to keep the plate as a souvenir.
Here are some photos from the program.  Cameras weren't allowed in the Kaburenjo theater, so these are photos they provided.  There were 60 performers!  Some played instruments, sang, or danced.  Even the older women were involved in the performance.  Some of the hour long performance was group dancing.  Then there were dramatic interpretations of folk stories.  It was all sung in Japanese, but even so, it was interesting.  I could follow along with the story.
The seasonal kimono 
Notice the white painted neck

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Japan's Fascination with Cats

A lot of people go to Japan because they have so many amazing World Heritage Sights, like temples, castles, shrines, etc.  Although I enjoyed seeing those things, I was more amazed by the everyday stuff that makes you go hmmmm....  And there was plenty.  What really surprised me was the fascination with cats.

Most people in Japan live in small living spaces in larger apartment buildings. Because of this, they don't have pets.  But just like Americans, they LOVE pets. Especially cats, apparently.  There are Cat Cafes popping up all over the larger cities.  For about $10, you pay a cover charge and get a cup of tea at a cat cafe and can pet or watch kitties for an hour.   There are loads of rules about how this happens.  You sanitize your hands, can't pet kitties that don't want attention, have to leave sleeping cats lie, can't use flash photography, etc.  In Tokyo, there are nearly 40 cafes to choose from.  The one we were near was in Asakusa and even has a Facebook page where you can follow the lives of the cats who live there.  The great thing is that these cafes tend to develop by taking in cats that are homeless and giving them a loving home.  We rarely saw cats outdoors in parks or in alleyways, so I'm guessing they don't have a huge problem with stray cats.  These cats get plenty of loving, if they want it.  The customers pay to do it.  It must be a good thing.

You can rent pets, including ferrets, cats, and dogs.  Japan has made it cool to take in a pet for the weekend or just a couple of hours to entertain grandkids who are visiting.  There's even a Japanese movie about a woman who rents out cats, called Rent a Cat.

Hello Kitty is a major phenomenon with a cult following.  You can buy anything with the cute little cat that has no mouth.  Have you looked at the number of apps available on iTunes for this kitty?  Apparently the love isn't just in Japan.  And age has no bearing on your love affair with Hello Kitty.  You can even download a Hello Kitty camera app so she can be in all your vacation photos.
Don't be caught without your Hello Kitty umbrella

Loved the kitty skirt on this girl.  See the eyes and nose?
OMG!  Total cuteness!

And can you believe there's a Cat Museum in Ito?  You can learn about the history of cats, as well as see 50 live cats of as many as 30 species.  Who would have thought something like that could happen and that people would pay to see it?  I was disappointed that we didn't have time to visit, but we'll put it on the list for next time.  For all you cat lovers, Japan is the coolest place for you!