When Mom Escaped to Vietnam, Part 1

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Some people say that I’ve been traveling with my kids for so long that I don’t know how truly exhausting it is traveling with them compared to traveling without them.  Fair point.  While I do actually enjoy traveling with my children, when I was presented with the opportunity to accompany my husband on his business trip to Vietnam while my children stayed home with my in-laws, I jumped at the chance!  Now, my lovely husband has always made time over the last few years to watch our kids so that I could enjoy a short “girls trip” every now and then, but they were usually to places I was already quite familiar with.  So this was going to be an adventure!

Part of the mission for the trip was to see if Vietnam was some place we felt we could bring the kids back to and at what age would likely be best.  While I was leaving Seattle on a Sunday morning, I wasn’t going to get into Hanoi until 10:00 p.m. local time on Monday night. Which was going to give me 4 full days in Vietnam, before departing to go back home at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday night.  While this might seem too short of a trip to travel so far, flying to Asia from the U.S. has minimum jet lag if you can get a flight that leaves your home in the morning and arrives in Asia at night.  When we fly to Europe, it’s at least 2 days before we time zone adjust.  But in Asia, we land at their night time after being up all day and during most of the 10+ hour flights and are ready to go to bed when we arrive.  Then the next morning we wake up with everyone else and are ready to start the day!

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Breakfast!  Fresh, ripe fruit!

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My husband and I at Lake Hoan Kiem.

On day 1 of my 4 full days that I would be in Vietnam, I got to have breakfast with my husband and only had to dish up a single plate, for myself.  I leisurely looked around at recommendations for sights to see without someone asking me “can we going yet?”  And later, after my husband’s morning meetings, he and I walked at our pleasure and pace through Hanoi without worrying about a kid getting hit by one of the millions of motorcycles whizzing through the streets and sidewalks.  After visiting the famous island shrine in Hoan Kiem Lake, and doing some shopping, we capped off day one with a nice dinner at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant with his co-workers and no one refused to eat their food!

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The island shrine entrance.

On my 2nd day, I had booked a tour to Hoa Lu (an ancient former Capital of Vietnam) and Tam Coc.  Since my husband had warned me that the conference center was a great deal outside of the heart of Hanoi and all the popular sights, I had just planned to spend one day in the city.  On my first morning in Hanoi, while I had been waiting for my husband to get done with his morning meetings, I took to the travel desk at the hotel.  I held my breath and prayed that the tours wouldn’t be too outrageously priced given that I was booking at the hotel.  My first inquiry was about Ha Long Bay, based on basically everyone’s recommendation that I should go there.  The reasonably priced 2 day, 1 night cruise I wanted was book for the Wednesday/Thursday date but was available for Thursday/Friday.  Lucky for me, that option got my back to Hanoi at 4:00 p.m. and our plane didn’t leave until 11:00 p.m.  So I booked it.  That left me with Wednesday still open.  I had seen this rather nice picture of people floating along this river stream that looked like there was rice or plants growing on either side of the passageway, heading towards some beautiful mountains.  I asked about it and made arrangements to take a day trip to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc for Wednesday, the next morning.

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Downtown Hanoi, motorbikes galore!

Waking up that Wednesday morning was a little harder than expected but I made it downstairs to the lobby with plenty of time to spare before the tour bus picked me up from my hotel.  I knew I was their last stop so I was surprised to find only 3 other people inside.  All were older than I and from Australia, though not all traveling together.  The bus was air conditioned, which was nice given the 86 degrees outside and 70% humidity, however the seats benches were not spaced well and my knees would scrunch up against the seat in front of me.  But I made the most of our 2 and a half hour drive by snapping pictures out the window and taking in the countryside and other smaller towns we passed through on the way to Hoa Lu.  We made a stop at a warehouse midway to Hoa Lu so we could use the bathroom, and then they hoped we would shop for the remaining 30 minutes of our bus break.  It was convenient to have all of the different traditional items in one spot, but the prices were 2 to 3 times higher than what I had just seen in Hanoi city center the day before.  I bought nothing but dropped a few dollars into the donation bin for the orphanage.

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Silk weaving art at one of the shopping warehouses along the way to Hao Lu.

Once we got to Hoa Lu, as we  got off the bus we were of course immediately swarmed by people wanting to sell you bottled water or a hat.  We acrossed the street to the sight we had come to see and from there were left in peace to enjoy the two temples that now sit on the sight that was once a great fortress.  They were interesting enough temples to look at in honor of past Emperors of Vietnam, but nothing too spectacular.  I did enjoy hearing more about the history of Vietnam from our guide. It was hard to believe that the sight had once been a great fortress and capital city.  There were no signs of ruins but we were told that all of the stones transferred to Hanoi for the new fortress.

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One of the temples with a shrine to honor the Dinh and Le Dynasties

After about an hour at the temple sights, we got back into the bus and drove to Tam Coc where we were slated for a bike ride through the village and countryside followed by lunch and then a river boat tour.  We arrived in what looked like a storybook Vietnamese village with a man made harbor.  Small mountains sprung up along the outline of the town with a river that flowed around the edge.  We took a nice bike ride outside the village to an area that had some caves.  Several people who seemed to be on a longer tour ventured into the caves, but we were told we only have a few minutes so I didn’t risk going in.  Along the way on our bike ride, we noticed men or women taking pictures of us.  One very boldly insisted that we stop and that three of us ladies pose for a picture.  As it turns out, they follow you out to take pictures on your way to your sight, then they hurry back to the village to get them printed before you return for lunch so that they can sell them to you.  However, unlike cruise ship photos, these didn’t cost you your first born son, I got 5 photos for $1.

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Bike ride through Tam Coc.

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Temple entrance at a cave sight in Tam Coc.

Once back in the village we had a lunch buffet that was included in the price of my tour.  My whole day was only costing me $75.  After lunch, we split in groups of 2 and boarded our 3 person (counting the “driver”) little “bamboo” boats that are nowadays made of metal.  I watched in amazement how the drivers rowed the two oars with their feet as they began to steer us down the river, through a trail of water with river grass floating along side us.  Once again people followed us, this time in their own boats, to take pictures on our journey to the end of the river.  As we moved along the water, I loved seeing some of the different houses perched up along the bank.  Before we got too far away from the village, you could see children coming down to play and cool off in the water.  The river cut beneath several little mountains so we traversed through 3 or 4 cave tunnels in all.  Finally, we came to the end of the road.  A small inlet just on the other side of one of the cave tunnels.  There we would turn around and go back along the same route, BUT, not without first being greeted by several women in boats stocked with snacks and beverages, all beckoning us to buy something for either ourselves, or our boat driver.  Here’s the great dilemma right?  Do you buy or don’t you buy? How much of this money will they actually get to keep? Do you re-enforce this annoying practice of bombarding tourist for a buck?  Or do I accept that this is someone’s livelihood and at the end of the day, is still only setting me back 1/4 of the cost of a Starbucks coffee back home.  Plus, how do you refuse the suggestion that I buy something to drink or eat for my female boat driver who is “working very hard.”  I bought her a bag of chips of her choosing and a cold green tea, all of which cost me around $1.50.  The reality is, everything I was going to do in Vietnam for 4 days was still going to cost less than taking the whole family to Disneyland for a single day!  So if I was going to get something that was already 50-75% less than what I would pay for it in the US, why not?

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Riding along the river at Tam Coc.

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Going under the mountains.

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The mini floating markets selling snacks to tourists.

As we sailed back, I took just as many pictures as on the way in.  I must have snapped 200 pictures on the river alone.  It was quite beautiful and at the same time, humbling.  When I saw all the children in front of their shack of a home, jumping in the water, splashing and playing and smiling, I immediately wished that my children were there with me.  I wished that they were experiencing the beauty of the natural scenery that surrounded me and I wished that they could see these children, these fiscally poor youth, having the time of their life playing by the river as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  It’s those moments that I want to show my children through travel.  Life is life, and ever so precious and that there is joy to be found in it no matter how much money you have or don’t have.  I definitely want them to come back with me.

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Children at play, cooling off in the river.

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How to dry rice, just spread it out on the ground next to the harbor!

The river boat journey was the last activity of the day.  We boarded the bus, after I purchased a few of my river photos, and headed back to Hanoi.  We made a similar warehouse stop, to a different one of course, on the way back but the 2nd leg of the journey did not sit well with my stomach.  I was not sure if it was the food or the fact that I had just spent 5 hours out in the sun and then an hour staring out a bus window with the scenery flying by that made me dizzy and sick to my stomach.  I soon couldn’t tolerate to look at anything, let alone out the window.  I spent the last hour of the drive with my knees pulled up to my chest and my head between my legs trying with every fiber of my being not to puke on the bus!  It felt like forever before we got back to the hotel and after rushing a thank you and some tips to our guide and driver, I ran to my hotel room and immediately got sick.

Thankfully, the emptying of my stomach helped and I started to recover quickly.  Good thing because that night we were dining again with my husband’s colleagues and we were trying out a French style restaurant at the hotel.  I made it through a glorious meal full of adult conversations with no unwelcomed interruptions and then eagerly collapsed into bed.  The next morning was going to be an early one, I was going to take another bus out to Ha Long Bay for a 2 day, 1 night cruise to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World!  All by myself!  Stay tuned as that amazing trip deserves a post all of its own!

 

 

Road Trip Lucky Finds-Dinosaur Footprints!!!

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Road trips are a big part of America’s vacation culture.  I remember many hours spent in the car driving with my family to go camping or visit relatives.  Unfortunately, timelines often get tight so the actual driving part can be very boring for kids and doesn’t allow for many stops or side detours.  So when I started off on our “Great American West Road Trip” I knew I wanted to allow for some unexpected sightseeing in between our different home base destinations.  You never know what you can find, and if you’re willing to stop, some amazing discoveries await you!  We came across one by chance in the northeast corner of New Mexico, in route to Dallas, Texas from Colorado.

Clayton, New Mexico

Clayton, New Mexico

About 5 hours into our drive we were passing through the small New Mexico town of Clayton on highway 87 when I spotted some large dinosaur models on the side of the road in town.  The sign next to the triceratops and brontosaurus said “Clayton Dinosaur Track Way.”  I pulled into a parking lot to turn around and see what those dinosaur tracks were all about.  Next to the dinosaur models was a little tourist information building.  We went inside and inquired about the tracks.  As it turned out, flooding in the area near the lake washed away some ground cover that then revealed approximately 500 dinosaur tracks that had been preserved in the layers of earth below.  The woman in the office said it was 12 miles back west from where we were now, out at Lake Clayton, something we had seen signs for before entering the town.  The 12 miles didn’t seem too far to back track, even on a 35 mile per hour road and we had yet to stop to eat our lunches that I had packed in the cooler.  So off we went.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

Dino tracks advertisement in the town.

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We drove the curvy road out to the lake in about 25 minutes from their downtown.  We drove into the park and found the sign directing down a dirt road to the dinosaur tracks.  We also noticed that different sections for camping and boat launching to go out on the lake.  We took the road directing us towards the track, at the end, you could park in a lot, but then had a quarter mile walk, around half of the lake, to the sight where the tracks were located.  We took a couple water bottles with us since the temperature was reaching 100.  The walk provided a few spots of shade along the way in addition to a bench under a tree half way along.  At the end of the quarter mile was a hut, with several informational signs inside about the dinosaur tracks.  It was a nice refuge from the sun and a chance for the kids to sit down one more time before we explored the tracks themselves.

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There were stairs that led down to the level of ground from the hut to where the tracks were.  A boardwalk encircled the most numerous and obvious collection of tracks to help preserve the find.  It was quite amazing to see just how many footprints there were.  That just like different types of animals today, they wandered around, intermixing and passing by different breads.  This was the first time that I had ever seen an actual dinosaur footprint!  I had scene a cast of one before in a museum, but never out in the natural environment where the dinosaur physically stepped and left it’s mark.  I have to admit, I think I was a little more blown away than the kids.  Nonetheless, they still asked some questions and thought it was “neat.”

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We slowly made our way back to the car, taking a pause again in all the shaded spots and being fascinated by the bugs that looked like a cross between a cricket and a butterfly.  At the car we unpacked our lunches from the cooler and set up acceptable eating stations at their seats so that we could get back on the road.  Our total detour time was 90 minutes.  Which put us about 30 minutes over the total of 2 hours that I had factored in for us to use as stopping time between southern Colorado and Dallas (we had stopped for an hour at a Wal-Mart that morning to stock up on water and food for the day).  But in the end, I marveled at the fact that we just stood next to the footprints of dinosaurs!  Something I will never forget and I hope my children will grow to appreciate.

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12,000 Steps in Kyoto-Japan Day 7

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It’s one of the most famous shrines in Japan, and for anyone who has seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha,” it’s a must see on their list when visiting Japan.  I’m speaking of course of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and its trails to the top of the sacred Mt. Inari.  Commonly referred to as the “Thousand Gate Shrine,” it literally has thousands of torii gates that visitors walk through up and down its numerous paths.  Next to the Golden Pavilion, it is arguably the most popular physical attraction in Kyoto for photography.

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Waking up on that Sunday morning, we had to check out of our hotel.  Our first full week in Japan was officially over.  We heard that there was a concierge luggage transportation service that would take our bags from our hotel (the Westin Miyako) to Kyoto’s central train station where the hotel had a special holding location for guests.  The downside was that you had to collect your luggage by 6:00 p.m. that same day or they’d be kept overnight.  While I would have preferred more time, I knew that getting the bags much later than 6:00 p.m. would just mean we’d show up at our next hotel in Nagoya really late, which could be a dangerous situation with a 2 year old tantrum.  Once we got the bags squared away, we hopped on the shuttle to the train station to get our connecting train out to Inari.

Map of the shrine area up the mountain,

Map of the shrine area up the mountain,

The commute time to Inari from central Kyoto was not that long, about 10-15 minutes by train.  Once you cross the tracks and start the walk through the street towards the shrine, you are immediately surrounded by cute shops and street food vendors selling Japanese souvenirs and sweet and savory treats.  It’s a little bit kitschy but fun.  The crowds seemed a bit light for a Sunday but still very busy.  I attributed the manageability of crowds to the fact that we were visiting during the rainy month, though we only had very brief and sparse sprinkles that day.  There were some wide and manageable stairs to get up to some of the religious buildings and the main shrine but were manageable with a stroller. While walking around with the kids, we drew a lot of attention since I chose to put them in their number shirts.  A group of Japanese students even asked to take their picture with us!

Walking from the train station to the main shrines and temple. Inari.

Walking from the train station to the main shrines and temple. Inari.

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Be cautious when photographing around this part and look for any “no photography” signs as there are certain areas closest to the temple where photography is prohibited out of respect for the sacredness of the area and ceremonies preformed.  Once we walked around the main buildings we started towards the path up the mountain.  My husband really wanted to go all the way to the top.  But first, he just wanted the “Memoirs of a Geisha” running through the torii gates shot!  We came to the two paths where naturally most people were walking up on the right and people were coming down on the left.  The start to the top of the mountain essentially began here and the right side of the tunnel had the constant stream of tourist starting their assent.  To get a good picture, try stepping up into the left side path that has a much slower stream of people coming down so you can get a better chance at a picture with just your party.

Go up the path on the right, but first duck into the left hand path of the downward travelers to get a less crowded picture.

Go up the path on the right, but first duck into the left hand path of the downward travelers to get a less crowded picture.

There were a couple times in between each stretch of the gated paths where you had to make a choice of direction, I found it slightly confusing to follow to get to the top, despite there being some maps.  It doesn’t always play out the same way on the path as it does on the map.  But we made our way up and up.  We didn’t make it far before we decided to stash the stroller on the side of one of the rest areas since we were met with many stairs for the foreseeable future.  We figured that it wouldn’t get stolen, but there wasn’t much choice.  For the first hour of our time there, it was beautiful and fascinating to see so many of the torii gates and the landscape of the mountain.  Half way up we got a beautiful view of all of Kyoto below.  The kids and I were very tired at this point.  We had been climbing stairs for about an hour.  I wanted to turn around and since I had already gotten so many wonderful photos, I felt I was good.  But, we promised my husband we’d make it to the top. The only thing that kept me going was that the ½ way up view was so gorgeous I kept imagining how much better the view would be once we got to the top.

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We found several Japanese tourist who wore traditional kimonos and shoes to make the pilgrimage to the top.

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The half way point view of greater Kyoto.

The boys were being troupers but even their patience was running thin.  My 2 year old was the hardest as I didn’t have the Ergo with me so we went back and forth with her walking, them me carrying her, then my husband. We had to bribe them with Oreos that I purchased at one of the stands.  Finally, after two hours from our arrival at the shrine, we reached the top.  I was SO relieved because about 5 minutes before we got to the top, my 5 year old announce that he had to go to the bathroom, and not the stand and pee on a tree kind!

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Bribing the kids with Oreos at each rest station to keep going up the mountain.

Up we go!

Up we go!

As I looked up from catching my breath from the last set of stairs, my heart sank.  We were completely surrounded by trees and in the middle of the path was this two tiered, stone landing area with a bunch of little stone shrines all around it and a gated one in the middle.  I read a sign that said “Top of the mountain.”  I looked around waiting for the amazing view, searching with my eyes for something exciting, some other little path that I had missed that would lead us to the site that would make 12,000 steps worth it.  Nothing.  Nothing but the increased pleads of my son for a bathroom.  I tried to distract him while my husband took a quick look around at the thing he was so committed to seeing, then he took my son back down the trail to look for a bathroom.  There were little restaurants, little souvenir stands and resting landings ever so often on the way up and we hoped that the last one we saw before the top would have a bathroom.  While they started down, I took my turn to look around.  It took all of 5 minutes before I saw all that I wanted to see and I started back down with my 7 year old and 2 year old.

The top of the mountain and no view of the surrounding area below!

The top of the mountain and no view of the surrounding area below!

Seeing all that there was to see of the shrine at the top of Mt. Inari.

Seeing all that there was to see of the shrine at the top of Mt. Inari.

When we reached the first landing station on the way down we looked around to see if it had the bathrooms.  Seeing none, we asked a man there and he said “no, the next, just 5 minutes walk.”  So, on we went until we came to the next stop.  Seeing nothing again, we asked. “Not here, just 5 minutes that way” as he continued to point down the stairs.  We went some more and finally by the 3rd landing we saw the bathrooms, but not my husband and son.  Continuing on the trail we finally caught up with them and we all lamented at how disappointing the top of the mountain was and how many times we had to walk “just 5 minutes” to get to the bathroom.  When we reached the base of the main shrine and temple, my husband looked at his Fitbit and said we had climbed 12,000 stairs!

Running down is fun!

Running down is fun!

We finished up the trip with some food from the street venders and a little souvenir shopping on the way back to the train.  Since we didn’t get back to the Inari station till close to 3:00 p.m. we knew we didn’t have much time before we had to pick up the luggage from the central station.  After some debate, we decided to try to go walk around the Imperial Palace grounds.  We found a wonderful playground that was a nice treat for the kids before we had to call it a day and get back on the train.  We were Nagoya bound, about an hour and a half on the bullet train from Kyoto, and there we would spend the next 5 nights of our journey in Japan.

Fresh orange juice straight from the

Fresh orange juice straight from the “tap.”

Deer Mania! Japan Day 6

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You’ve probably seen the pictures or heard about Nara’s famous deer like I had, so this was one of the day trips I was looking forward to the most.  Nara did not disappoint, especially since we were basically going for the deer, and there were plenty to pet and feed.  But during our stay, we found a few other beautiful and unexpected sights as well as the beautiful and historical Todai-ji Temple.  The speed of our trip, with my husband now joining us picked up a bit, and therefore, my daily writing more difficult, but I’m excited to pick back up on the rest of our 17 day trip to Japan.

We were scheduled to be in Kyoto for day 6 & 7 of our trip (the Saturday and Sunday right after my husband’s conference ended) and I had been saving most of the Kyoto stuff for him.  However, with the poor weather on the day I planned for Nara, we didn’t get to go and it was something I was really looking forward to.  Since our next destination after Kyoto was Nagoya, and it was only 45 minutes by train from Kyoto, I knew it would be easier to come back to Kyoto from there than it would be to go to Nara from Nagoya.  With that in mind, decided to go to Nara while we were still staying in Kyoto.  This would be my husband’s first day to join us in exploring Japan.  While I was excited to have him along, but it’s always a bit different traveling with another adult than it is alone.

By this point, we were all on a new schedule of going to bed around 10:00 p.m. and not waking up till 9:00 a.m.  This, we began to discover, was not an ideal schedule for Japan where most attractions close by 5:00 p.m.  We were rushing to get to breakfast and eat before the buffet closed at 10:00 a.m., then quickly gathered up our stuff to head off to Nara.  The hotel shuttle took us right to the main train station where we had to exchange my husband’s JR voucher for his Japan Rail Pass.  I found it comical that the line in the JR ticket line was so long for all the locals, and the separate line for foreigners (any foreigner) was a deserted.  My husband was the lone customer the entire time we were in there.

We got to bypass the long line of locals for the empty

We got to bypass the long line of locals for the empty “Foreigner’s Line.”

On the train, a small regional one this time, we found the cars a little crowded with school children, around middle school age.  There was one open bench with two seats facing another bench the had two young school boys sitting down.  I ushered my sons over to have a spot while my husband and I stayed with the stroller in the open way of the carriage.  Immediately the school children took notice of the two little English speakers sitting across from them.  The term “giggling like a school girl” could very appropriately be applied to them.  It was a sweet moment to watch over the next 20 minutes while they were on the train with us.  They watched my boys talk and play with their stickers from the train workers and tried out their English by asking my sons a few questions. I even tried a few of my own and got an understandable answer.  Those type of things are what you live for one trips like this, for a few moments our kids had the chance to try to communicate with someone from a culture so different from theirs and it gave them a chance to be a hospitable sight and a goodwill representative of their own country.

Getting a small chance to interact with some Japanese school children, and to be a bit of an amusement for them.

Getting a small chance to interact with some Japanese school children, and to be a bit of an amusement for them.

Once we arrived in Nara, we went to the information booth and found out about the bus that would take us around Nara park and through the areas where you could get off to walk to their 3 different temples, all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The kids were also immediately given little origami gifts to take with them too, spinning tops!

Many information desks in Japan gave out Origami gifts to kids when we would talk to them.

Many information desks in Japan gave out Origami gifts to kids when we would talk to them.

In all, about 15 minutes from the time we boarded the bus, we got to a part of the park where we could see the deer and got off.  Instantly the kids were drawn to the deer, that really, truly were just walking around with the people.  They were on the grass, they were on the sidewalks, they even crossed the streets, obeying the traffic signals even!  The kids carefully and excitedly approached them and delighted in the fact that they could pet the deer while the deer didn’t seem to notice.  A few, sniffed around for food and one more aggressive deer even went after my shirt!  But, that wasn’t the norm.  A very nice gentleman came over and gave us some of his crackers so that the kids could feed the deer.  You can buy special deer “cookies” from the vendors that are all approved by the city.  He also showed us how the deer will actually bow for their food!  If you hold the cracker up high over your head, then the deer will bow their head/neck down low, some even a few times, to get the cookie from you.  Not sure who started that habit or how long it took to for them to figure it out, my guess is, not very long!

Just petting some deer.

Just petting some deer.

We bought some more cookies of our own and started the walk over to Todai-ji Temple.  Because of our time restraints (us not getting there till around 1:00 p.m., we knew we’d probably make it to just one temple.  I picked Todai-ji based on it’s description and the proximity of some other highly reviewed traditional Japanese gardens near it.  As we walked, we encountered more deer and of course, the row of tourist souvenir stands.  The temple had a fee to get in, 600 Yen for us adults and the kids being free. The gate, statues and the main hall (the world’s largest wooden building) were very impressive, as was the 15 meter tall seated Buddha.

The old gate.

The old gate.

The largest wood structure in the world.

The largest wood structure in the world.

As we walked around, we encountered one of the pillars that had a small hole cut through the middle of it’s base.  The saying is that it is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril and that if you can fit through it, the you will gain enlightenment for your next life.  Of course the kids wanted to climb through the hole.  My husband and I declined the inevitable embarrassment.

The hole the size of the Buddha's nostril.

The hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril.

Each kid wanted to take a turn.

Each kid wanted to take a turn.

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We didn’t explore much more of the temple grounds themselves, but instead headed over to the Japanese garden I had read about.  It was a little confusing getting there by exiting the side of the temple, but eventually we found it.  We arrived with about 35 minutes left before it’s 5:00 p.m. closing, something we were getting used to in Japan.  While we only had a mere half hour to explore it, and had to pay a small fee, it was well worth it to take in the beauty of Isuien Garden.  It is everything you ever pictured a true Japanese garden to be.  We used the comfortable facilities for the kids and a diaper change as we left and then they literally closed and locked the gates behind us on the way out.

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Isuien Garden with the Todai-ji Temple in the background.

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From here we figured it was time to start thinking about some food.  On the bus ride in, we saw a miniature Oktoberfest event set up in the park!  That was definitely not the sight I expected to see when coming to the city boasted as “traveling back to Ancient Japan.”  I thought it would be fun to check it out and see what Japan’s take on the Bavarian tradition was.  We walked over to that section of the park again and did a quick pass through.  After not being able to figure out quickly whether you just paid cash at the booth or if you had to buy some special tickets for admissions and food, we decided that just a walk through was enough and continued on foot by the next section of the park.  I had wanted to walk by a particular pagoda that seemed to be on the way to some other shopping and food.  We could see the towers, but of course, being part of a temple, and it being after 5:00 p.m., much of it was gated off so you couldn’t get too close.

A visiting Oktoberfest in Japan, in June!

A visiting Oktoberfest in Japan, in June!

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We walked the loop of the park and came upon a row of shops and eateries, I ducked into a visitor’s welcome center that gave us a map and guided me to a shopping arcade where they had 2 restaurants serving classical Japanese dishes.  With the map in hand, we headed up the promenade until we reached the restaurant.  Menus are still hard as they are not always in English.  But these had some good pictures to go by and we were able to ask some basic questions.  I ended up with my own little grill on a plate in which to cook some raw vegetables and a few slices of Kobe beef, my husband got the most beautiful (yet a bit scary) plate of 30+ brightly colored vegetables, tofu and meat that he had to cook in a broth, oldest son got a plate of rice with grilled eel (and he ate the whole thing!), my younger son ended up with a noodle soup that he couldn’t get enough of and my 2 year old, well, she was asleep.  The food was really good, but the bill was fairly high (ended up being about $110 for all 4 of us) and my stomach was still pretty empty.  On the way back to the train station, I stopped in a couple little markets to grab some food for myself and my 2 year old, who had slept through dinner.

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By time we got back to the train, it was approaching 7:30 p.m. and we had just the right amount of fun without too much overdoing it on walking.  Getting back to the hotel a little after 9:00 p.m. was probably the earliest we had gotten back in the last three excursions!  But now it was time to pack up.  It was our last night in Kyoto and we had just a few more things on our list to prepare for the next day.  Including leave our really nice suite for a much much smaller single room in the next city.  However, more adventure were about to come our way!

It’s A Date With The Great Salt Lake!

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Of all the times I have flown over the Great Salt Lake, I finally made it to it’s shores and in it’s water.  As we popped across the Utah border from Idaho on day 2 of our road trip, I began to look at where the best place would be to pull in for a lake stop.  While looking at the map the landmark “Golden Spike National Historic Site” caught my attention.  Flashes of U.S. history started to reappear in my mind as I tried to recall a few things I remembered about the great railroad race to connect east and west.  Since we didn’t do a hotel stop Friday night, we had the whole day to explore ahead of us before we could even check in to our Salt Lake City hotel.

Rocket display in Promontory, UT.

Rocket display in Promontory, UT.

I ran the idea by my husband who shared my mind set of “why not explore” and we watched for the break off signs from I-84.  At the turn, we also saw a sign for “Rocket Display” which I found curious, but made sense since U.S. deserts were often used for missile and bomb testing.  As it happened, the rocket display rose up out of nowhere before we reached the Golden Spike.  The large white rocket with the ever familiar blue NASA logo painted on the side stood off the side of the road in front of a large building waving an American Flag.  It was an impressive display.  Besides the NASA trophy in the front, the whole display was actually made up of more than a dozen other rocket engines and missile motors covering the last 75 years of air defense technology.  The building belonged to government contractor Orbital ATK.

So big!

So big!

Not being the most “techy” girl myself, even I was fascinated by the pieces on display and the accompanied explanations of how the missiles and rocket motors worked by their signs and my husband’s seemingly encyclopedia brain.  Seeing how the pieces fit together and their massive size was dumbfounding, especially when you compare your ideas to what these things do in real life to your childhood images of the movie Top Gun.  Call me dumb, but I had really never pieced together the fact that a missile, or even a rocket required its own motor, and a complex one at that.  I only wished that our 5 and 7 year old sons had been there to see it too, though not all was lost on our 2 year old daughter.

Helpful descriptions at each rocket motor station.

Helpful descriptions at each rocket motor station.

From the rocket display, we moved on to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, which was only about a 10 minute drive away.   We pulled up to the visitor’s center and could see the two steam locomotives in the back as we entered the parking lot.  A quick Wikipedia read before we arrived already told me that the actual Golden Spike was not on site, but I did learn that Stanford University’s founder, Leland Stanford was also the founder of the Central Pacific Railroad that built the eastward connection to the Golden Spike meeting point at Promontory, UT.  The fee was $7 per vehicle to “enter” the park.  There were a few movie features that showed throughout the day offering historical information about the site and also re-enactments, which we missed.  My desire to get to the Great Salt Lake limited my desire to spend too much time at the Golden Spike, but we did walk out to the trains where the tracks had met and there were stairs to platforms for each of the two railroad company’s steam engines so that you could get a good look inside of the pilot’s pit.

Golden Spike National Historic Site. Promontory, Utah.

Golden Spike National Historic Site. Promontory, Utah.

The gift shop had some fun and educational items and books highlighting the railroad era as well as America’s expansion into the “Wild West.”  I purchased a book and a couple of postcards, along with a train charm before heading out to drive along one of the original track routes.  You see, this portion of the historically significant feat of manpower, the first transcontinental railway in the world, has actually been re-routed.  I learned from the park ranger’s introduction that a better route, across the Great Salt Lake, was opened in 1904 that cut out 15 miles of travel and took away several portions of uphill grade that had previously required some extra “push” support for the trains along certain parts.  During World War II, the government mandated that all of the railroad tracks not in use in America needed to be torn up for use in the war effort.  So the tracks that were originally laid, connecting the east and the west, were torn up.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the government decided that it was of historical significance and needed to be remember and was therefore, re-created a small portion of tracks at the original meeting site.  Nonetheless, my 2 year old found the trains interesting and more importantly, the rocks fun to play with.

As we heading back out to I-84, we decided to stop for a late lunch/early dinner in Ogden, Utah.  I had carried some snacks for my 2 year old with us in the car along with her water bottle so she was pretty satisfied.  Since we also had a big breakfast, no one was really hungry until 5:00 p.m.  We decided on a Cracker Barrel since that was a childhood favorite of my Georgia born husband, and something that we couldn’t get in Washington.  This of course suited my daughter just fine as macaroni and cheese is always a top choice, couple that with some steamed broccoli and we were set.  Though we had gotten out of the car to walk around several times that day, our appetizes were not as big as normal so finishing up even a single meal with salad and vegetables left us stuffed!  The decision to go to the Great Salt Lake between Ogden and Salt Lake City was perfect.  After looking on the map, a trip out to Antelope Island made the most sense.

We paid $10 for our car to get onto the island, which is a state park.  While the name suggests you’d see a lot of antelope on the island, the brochure said that bison herds were quite the popular attraction.  In 1893, about 12 bison were introduced to the island and today there are between 300-500!  As we drove towards the beach area to go into the water, we saw one grazing out in the grass, with a suspiciously pulled over van and people standing out around it.  We soon discovered a man running towards the buffalo, much against the advice of the parks department.  We pulled over to see if this person was truly stupid enough to keep going at the buffalo, trying to get it to charge.  It made a start at the man once, and he took off, back to his van, not to return.  After that brief entertainment, we parked over at the beach to go down to the water.

 

A buffalo and a man trying to tease him out our window.

A buffalo and a man trying to tease him out our window.

The sand was warm, but not too hot to walk on.  It was very dry and felt nice on all of our feet, and being so dry, it didn’t stick to the skin as much.  Soon however we found that more rocks and the dried and broken salt blocks to be a little too sharp to walk on bare foot.  It was however, still tricky to walk on with shoes, especially flip flops.  After we got about a 100 yards out, it became more compact and easier to walk on as we approached the water’s edge.  Soon, we took notice of movement that looked like blowing brown sand whenever someone would walk across the beach.  It took us both a second to realize that it was a swarm of bugs, Brine Flies to be exact.  It made me cringe at first, but the brown clouds they would make when movement was near were fascinating.  You could see them along the coast on the sand, and there was no way to get to the water without walking through them.  They do however, move away quickly and want to avoid you just as much as you would like to avoid them.

Playing in the Great Salt Lake.

Playing in the Great Salt Lake.

Breaking through the bug barrier was worth it.  The warm water was still just ankle deep a good 100 feet out from the shore.  My 2 year old loves the water.  Nothing made her day more complete then swimming or splashing in water.  While we weren’t equip to take a full dip, just walking around in the lake was fun enough.  You could feel the water pushing your leg up if you shifted weight to just one foot and let the other one go.  If you stood completely still on both feet would feel yourself starting to sink into the lake floor’s sand too.  We spent about 20 minutes walking and splashing around before we headed back, beginning to feel our only 5 hours of sleep through the night before.  I dreaded the walk back through the sand with wet feet but it actually wasn’t too bad.  Same issue though with the difficulty of walking with or without shoes that resulted in me having to also carry my toddler half the time on the 200 yards back to the car.  A quick rinsing off at the showers outside of the restrooms and we were loading back up into the car.  My daughter had gotten about 2 inches of the bottom of her dress wet in the lake, and when it dried, you would see the stiff salt crystals on the fabric!

Salt Lake City Sunset.

Salt Lake City Sunset.

We pulled into our hotel, a Sheraton in Salt Lake City, the capital also caught my eye with its attractive skyline backed by mountains with a beautiful sunset.  I was pleasantly surprised by the warm feeling Utah left me with at the end of a long drive, full of fun and educational pit stops.  And we haven’t even been to the rest of the state that gets the most press!  For now, I will leave Utah as a pleasant pass through state that I look forward to visiting again with my whole family!

Osaka and The Long Awaited Kidzania-Japan Day 3

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Wednesday is English day at Kidzania, so I read on their website. What is Kidzania you ask? Well, it just might replace Disneyland as the happiest place on earth, and you’ll have to read ahead to find out more, ha ha! I will warn you however that this is long since I’m trying out a more diary style of writing for this trip.  Then I’ll come back later and give everyone some shorter articles on what we’ve learned on this trip and a few short hints and trip ideas.  But for now, on to what we did on our 3rd full day in Japan. I first heard about it from a blog I came across called Tokyo Stroller. This mom started Tokyo Stroller to help provide some English content to navigating Tokyo with kids. It was one of her suggestions for something to do on a rainy day. I first thought of doing this in Tokyo after I watched their AMAZING promo video. But when our final plans gave us just 5 days total in Tokyo and a day and a half were already slated for Disney, it just didn’t seem right to take up another full day for that. I saw they had multiple locations around the world and in checking that out, I discovered they had one right next to Osaka in Kochien (think Seattle’s Bellevue). It was perfect.  Since it wasn’t too far from Kyoto, I made a plan do take the kids there on Wednesday of this week. The day they had been talking about for the past 3 months finally came. However, we first had to get out of the hotel and over 3 cities.

There are two entry “shifts” for Kidzania, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. I ultimately went with the 2nd shift even though I wasn’t too excited about being that far away from the city we were staying and that late and night. I still felt the risk of the kids being super tired was not going to be as bad as us not getting to the place we’ve never been to by 8:00 a.m. and the kids missing out. Oh the wrath I would have faced if they didn’t get to go!!! So I figured we would at least get up and moving out the door as soon as we could because then we could go see something in Osaka before our start time. When everyone was awake by 5:30 a.m. I started to think, maybe we could get out the door and try to make it to the 1st shift and maybe they would change our tickets. Then I thought, other than taking the free airport shuttle to the train station, I don’t really know another way to get there and that could take up an unknown amount of time that would be hard to factor into an arrival destination. So I figured it would be easier to wait for the hotel shuttle that started at 8:15 a.m.

Chomping at the bit, ready to get on the train and go!

Chomping at the bit, ready to get on the train and go!

Knowing we had 2 hours to kill before breakfast switched my brain into lazy mode. You would think I would have learned by now, especially since I tell myself each time I get behind (because of lazy mode) that I need to get everything completely ready to go first before we just relax and wait for the time to leave. But no, I get partially ready, or get the kids ready and not myself and start writing or looking through pictures and before I know it, it’s 15 minutes from the 1st shuttle and I haven’t showered or taken the kids to breakfast. Ugh. But hey, it’s a vacation right!? While I clearly want to actually see stuff in Japan, I don’t have a very set agenda. There are thousands of landmarks that are supposed to be beautiful and culturally significant, but you will make yourself go crazy on any trip ESPECIALLY with kids, if you try to see and do too much. So for Osaka, I had identified a few cool things I thought we’d try to pick from. I didn’t care about seeing them all, as I knew similar things existed in other cities. My list was, Osaka Castle, the aquarium, walk around Shinsekai or find some arcades. After our late start, we didn’t get to Osaka till 11:00 o’clock, even though the bullet train got us there from Kyoto in 15 minutes. I decided on the train that we’d try to see the aquarium. So we got off at Shin-Osaka, wandered around aimlessly looking for some information stand. At the stand the very nice man, who spoke some of the best English I had encountered so far (it’s been a struggle even at major tourist spots) and he showed me the route to the aquarium. Unfortunately, it involved taking two different subway trains to get there. And then when I asked how we would have to go back to get to Kidzania, it was way out of the way. But, I figured we still had 4 hours so we’d give it a try.

They try to give foreigners some direction in bigger cities. Subway, Osaka, Japan.

They try to give foreigners some direction in bigger cities. Subway, Osaka, Japan.

Once we got to the first transfer, things were confusing. I began to get nervous about finding my way, and doing it with enough time to make the aquarium worth the trip and get to Kidzania on time. We ran into a mother and son British couple who were trying to find the same line we were going to, only in the opposite direction as they were going to the castle. We helped each other find the way and then started to part. After they disappeared to their platform, I looked on the map and realized their stop was just 2 away and then 2 more back to the train station we needed for Kidzania whereas the aquarium was going to be another 6 stops away, and equally back with 2 transfers. I made a split decision to change our plans and go to Osaka Castle. It did look pretty in the pictures and was said to be one of the most important in Japan. I told the kids that mommy would really like to see the castle and do something grown up since we’d then spend the rest of the afternoon at Kidzania. They nicely agreed and off we went.

Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle

We arrived at our station for Osaka Castle. I had forgot to grab the one map I had of Osaka that I got from back home in Seattle and never found any take away maps in the train stations in Osaka, other than the subway and train map. So we saw one map fixed to the wall and I took a picture. Even with that, once above ground I was completely disorientated. I looked around in all directions but couldn’t find anything that I recognized on the map. Worse, there were very few people around us, which made me think that because we had to travel to the only elevator up, we went to a completely different part of the station from where I saw the map. A man started walking by, he was an elderly man, but I figured, “what the heck” I had to ask someone and my pickings were slim. Not surprisingly, there was little English but I showed him a picture of where I wanted to go and he pointed in a direction and motioned for me to follow him. So we did and got to a street corner that was a busy intersection. He motioned in the direction of the castle and I thanked him and nodded. I figured we were done at that point. I had to stop to fix something for the kids and then looked at a park we passed to see if there was a playground in it and he kept going. We got back on track and soon were back up to where he was again. He looked and pointed ahead again and I nodded and said thank you again. But I still wasn’t sure if he was taking us there or just walking, because when I stopped him, he was going in a different direction from the Castle. We got into the Castle ground park and my 5 year old really needed to go to the bathroom. Once inside the first set of stone walls, the man turned to me and said “I take you.” I said ok, but that my son needed to go to the bathroom. He nodded. At his pace, he knew we’d catch up in no time. Well, sure enough, he walked us all the way to the entrance for the main part of the Castle. A friend of mine told me that people would go out of your way to help in Japan, and she was right! However, once we got to the castle courtyard entrance, we were dripping in sweat, it was at least 85 degrees and the sun was out that day. There was an ice cream stand across from the entrance and I knew we needed to stop or I’d have mutiny on my hands. So we grabbed some cones and sat down on a bench in the shade. Much needed for everyone.

We made it into the main castle courtyard and finally saw the building up close. It was beautiful. But it was also hot, and we had just 2 and a half hours before we needed to be at the Kidzania station. As much as I wanted to go into the castle, I knew the boys were anxious. I also didn’t want to deal with the stroller and going into the castle. Now I did see and elevator that went up to the base of the castle, but I wasn’t sure where else there would be an elevator and we had a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to carry or leave in the stroller. I also wasn’t sure how long a proper tour was either. And in the end, I knew I’d go into Himeji for sure and our 2nd week long stay in Nagoya was also right next to a castle. So we moved on to the perimeter gardens again to make our way back to the train station. Did I mention it was hot? Let me say it again, it was HOT! And humid.

Photography swap with some Japanese girls to get a picture with all 4 of us!

Photography swap with some Japanese girls to get a picture with all 4 of us!

By time we got down to the base of the moat around the castle, we were all tired. That is when I saw this cute, old style Japanese boat. I pointed it out to the boys and asked if we should check it out and see how much it cost and how long its little trip was. Since we still had 2 hours. Turns out it was a 20 minute tour back and forth the moat to see a view of two sides of the castle and it was just going to cost $27 for all 4 of us, because in Japan, basically everything is free for kids under the age of six! So we decided to take another break, and have a neat little experience to make up for not tour the castle. We had the whole boat to ourselves other than the driver and the “guide” who pointed out a few things about the castle base’s rocks. They also immediately gave us the cone/pyramid hats to where, which the kids LOVED. Right after they handed out the hats he handed my 5 year old a samurai sword and another kids a fan. He opened it up and it was a real blade! Well, with the exception that the “sharp” side was in fact blunted, but there was a pretty sharp point at the end! They passed it around for a while then the guide set it off to the side and let them keep playing with the fan. We relaxed, took pictures and saw the castle from a very different angle. It was a real treat.

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Back at the dock, we loaded up the stroller again. The boys were dragging in the heat and I was afraid of them getting worn out before Kidzanie, that would last till 9:00 p.m. and they had yet to still be awake at 9:00 p.m. during this trip. So, as cheap as I am on some travel things and as much as I hate to shell out money for a cab, I did. It cost me around $16, but whatever, we were at the train station. I got the ticket I needed, there is usually a live person in a booth at the ticket pass through where the ticket purchase machines are also usually located. So asking for help was relatively easy. Turns out from the station we were at (Umeda), relatively in the middle of Osaka, it was only a 15 minute train ride, if that, to Kochien. I took pictures of the maps from Kidzania’s website to help guide me.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, I promised to tell you what the heck Kidzania is in the first place. Well if you haven’t opened another browser already and gone to the link to check it out, let me explain now. Kidzania is a kids size world with 60-90 different professions set up as activities for kids. Adults cannot participate or help with the activity but can stand near it and watch, as well as walk around the “city” with the kids helping them navigate the job locations and keep track of time. They offer two, 5 hour long, “shifts” per day. The first shift from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and the 2nd, the one we were doing, from 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Each job activity lasts anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes each, with most being 30 minutes. There is everything from being a fire fighter to a beauty shop worker to a dentist and a Coca-Cola bottling factory worker! A child will earn Kidzos (play money that can be spent on activities or merchandise in Kidzania) for each job they do. If you’ve never heard of them before, check out their promotional video. Very cool stuff. So, needless to say, this is VERY popular and no, they do not have this in the United States, yet.

Arriving at the entrance to the Lalaporta mall where Kidzania Kochien is located.

Arriving at the entrance to the Lalaporta mall where Kidzania Kochien is located.

As we arrived at the train station in the town of Kochien, we were a bit unsure of how easy it would be to find but it proved to be easy. I didn’t expect that it would be in a shopping mall however. We came upon the shopping mall entrance with big Kidzania signs, it was right across the street from the Kochien professional baseball team’s stadium. Once in the mall however, we found that we had to go clear to the back to reach Kidzania. As we walked through the mall, following the signs, it was 3:20 p.m. We could get in line at 3:00 p.m. but what I didn’t totally realize is that people would get there hours early to get their tickets so they could have priority of entrance at 3:00 p.m. They group you with a letter and “A” is the first group that enters around 3:00 p.m. then “B” and so on. So we were already down to “E” by time we showed up at 3:20 p.m. and boy was there a crowd!!! I started to panic, I had hoped that on a Wednesday, with it supposedly in all English activities, that maybe the crowds would be less. I was wrong. There were hundreds of families lined up and the first two groups had already gone inside. Because of my stroller, we were ushered to the front through the first doors and directed to the elevator that would take us to the top floor where everyone else had been climbing the stairs. I thought for a moment, “How lucky! We’re going to get to skip the line and go right in!” But boy was I wrong! We were in a holding area with 2 other families with a stroller. Since we all had our group letter on our passes that we had to keep around our neck, we didn’t get in from the stroller holding area until our letter group arrived from the down stairs. But still, it was better than waiting and moving through the mad house line.

The crowd to get into Kidzania.

The crowd to get into Kidzania.

Portal entrance to the actual "city" via their kid size airport.

Portal entrance to the actual “city” via their kid size airport.

Once we were allowed in, there were staff lined all over the paths with huge smiles, waving, and shouting friendly greetings. It was literally one big party. The theme song music was playing over the loud speaker and you started to feel like you were the most special family in the whole world! The first thing you were supposed to do was go sign up for the activity you wanted to do the most. Everyone who showed up before 4:00 p.m. was let in before that time so that you had a time to be at a spot when the first shift started right at 4 o’clock. Along with their job card that they are given at the beginning, each kid gets a “Kidzos” 50 dollar traveler’s check, which is a starting out currency. Crowds immediately flocked to the most popular job stations. The pizza and sushi shops had huge lines. The first few kids to get to each station go to go first, the rest were given different times to come back to do the activity. But here’s the catch, you can only have one reservation for a comeback open on your card at a time. So for example, if you were in the huge Pizza shop line and you were kid #20 in line, you might get a come back time if 5:30 p.m. That means, that all of the other activities before then have to be ones with no wait. I was even more scared and started to sweat. The boys were off the wall excited and I was trying to keep them from running in opposite directions while push a stroller through crowds and figure out where each activity was between two floors. There was an elevator but just one small one. I was completely overwhelmed but at the same time, it complete awe at the awesomeness of this place. I got my 5 year old right in at the Police department which then gave me some time to take my 7 year old to his first choice of the Fire Department that was on the 2nd floor. Already the Fire Department had filled the first start time so he was given 4:30 as the next one. That meant I had to find something else for him to do in the meantime that was just 15 or 20 minutes and open right then. I saw a Publishing shop and a News Paper office. I asked a staff member what to do since I could barely keep my brain in order on the process amidst all the chaos. I also began to realize that the 3 “white” people I saw as we first came in were probably the only ones that speak decent English and were there to wander around as translators. Nonetheless, I got my 7 year old into the Newspaper thing, which was lame, and he was done by 4:15 and ready to wait for Fire Fighting.

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For the next 5 hours, I ran around the facility and up and down the stairs and elevator like a chicken with its head cut off. Learning the process as we went and discovering more jobs to do in every directions, my boys ended up getting to do seven/eight activities each. After spending some of their Kidzos “money” on driving school (and yes, they had a test to get their driving license) they were able to “rent” a car and go for a drive around their mini street track. And the cars are free range. They are given lines and signals that they are supposed to follow, based on their driving school. It was amazing. They could also open a bank account in which they actually deposited the paper money they got and then were given a bank card that they could then make withdrawals from an ATM with to simulate the real world. It was amazing watching my boys be so competent and excited about learning different professions and doing make believe play that was so real! Here is the list of what my kids did…

My 7 year old:

1.Newspaper deliverer (which I barely count) 2. Fire Fighter-Rides in a moving mini fire truck to a fake burning house and sprays real water on it. 3. Voice Actor-Says and records lines for a character in a cartoon and then you get the DVD of the final cut! 4. DMV Driving School-Watched a video of how the cars worked and rules, took test, got a driver’s license. 5. Car Rental-Rented a car, drove it around, and then had it served at a gas station. 6. Airplane pilot-Got to learn about piloting a plane with a computer simulator in a recreated cockpit. 7. Coca-Cola Bottling Plant-Put wrapper on bottle, cleaned bottle, filled with syrup and carbonated water, capped, chilled and tested a 20 ounce bottle of Coke that was really sealed and they got to keep! 8. Electrical worker-learned about power outages, played with a computer board that showed where they were and then went to the downed power line, ride in a lift up to the fake power line and “fixed” the broken wires.

Fixing a "downed" electrical wire.

Fixing a “downed” electrical wire.

My 5 year old:

1.Police Department-Did some detective work to solve a case and I think they also put someone in jail. 2.Airplane Pilot- Got to learn about piloting a plane with a computer simulator in a recreated cockpit. 3.DMV Driving School-Watched a video of how the cars worked and rules, took test, got a driver’s license. 4.Car Rental-Rented a car, drove it around, and then had it served at a gas station. 5.Fire Fighter- Rides in a moving mini fire truck to a fake burning house and sprays real water on it. 6.Bank-Opened a bank account and practiced depositing money and then using an ATM to withdrawal. 7.Embassy-As a patron, applied for a passport, looking into a country to travel to, got a stamp for that country.

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For all of the jobs they completed, not only did they get their pay for their work, but they also got a “certification” card for that “profession.” They get to keep the different things they make as well. Like the bottle of Coca-Cola and the DVD of the cartoon with my son’s voice as one of the characters. So of course the ice cream shop, pizza shop and bakery were insanely popular and we missed out because we didn’t realize that people would sign all the way up and spots could fill all the shifts through closing within the first hour! That was a bit of a bummer. So other than the food related professions, we never had to come back more than 30 minutes later to participate.

Are sample of all the different stuff just one of my son's took home from their experience.

Are sample of all the different stuff just one of my son’s took home from their experience.

Now, you might be wondering what my 2 year old did while I was running around helping her big brothers. Well, she just tagged along. They promised a small play area and café/lounging spaces for parents and toddlers to hang out at. Or they could participate as the audience for some of the activities such as the theater and TV show production. I was worried that she would be so upset that she wasn’t getting to do what the boys were doing (you have to be at least 3 years old to participate), but there was so much for her to see and look at that she just went right along with it until the last hour. By the last hour and a half, she was getting tired and bored and so I broke out the iPad and pushed her around in the stroller. Within 30 minutes of that she was asleep. And so, after the clock struck 9, our magical day had come to an end. You might think I lost an arm and a leg on the whole thing. To be honest, it was one of our more expensive single activities, but in the end, I spent $143, and that was because I couldn’t resist buying 4 of the professional pictures at the end that were roughly $12 a pop! The experience in my mind was well worth it! I will be doing a more detail write up of just the Kidzmania experience and other tips in a different post. But for now, I will leave you with the horrible story of us having to get back to Kyoto that took an hour and a half and 3 sleep walking kids that I had to spend another $20 on a taxi to get the last leg of the journey done from Kyoto Station to our hotel at midnight. But as I looked at their sweet sleeping bodies piled up in that cab, I couldn’t help but have a feeling of joy and satisfaction at our amazing day, and that I got through it with the 3 of them all on my own.

Maximizing Your Hotel Amenities-Day 2 in Japan-Kyoto!

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Even in a new and exciting country, kids need some down time and the chance to feel like they are actually on a vacation that includes some rest and leisure. After two full days of travel and sightseeing, I knew that this day would be the perfect day for something low key. We didn’t get to sleep in until 6am this time, the boys were wide away at 4am and I have to admit, so was I. They were all asleep by 8:30 p.m. after our long day in Tokyo and train to Kyoto. Madelyn stayed asleep until 6:30 a.m. which was a relief. Breakfast opened at the hotel at 6:30 but we spent some leisure time getting ready and showering and letting the kids play some tablet games while I caught up on some pictures and got ready for the day. Thankfully, the breakfast buffet was included with our stay so at least we knew we’d have one big meal a day that we didn’t have to pay extra for, and had enough “westernized” breakfast options to satisfy the kids.

When we got to breakfast, I made everyone at lease browse the Japanese breakfast section and chose one or two items to try. My 7 year old went for some rice and a dim sum dumpling and my 5 year old tried some soup and Japanese style egg omelet. I had rice portage and soup but have to admit, I wasn’t as adventurous as I felt I should be in order to set an example of trying new things. I’m also having a bit of a hard time navigating the gluten free aspect of eating since I have celiac and a lot of things are just generally seasoned with normal soy sauce. There were no gluten free bread options but scrambled eggs and the omelet station were delicious. After everyone had a full tummy, we decided that, after reading the brochure of the hotel, we would explore what we had without having to travel anywhere. We’re staying at the Westin Miyako in Kyoto which is actually quite near the Gion district (traditional Giesha neighborhood). The hotel itself is a popular resort for the area that boasts a nature trail that is a bird sanctuary going up on a high hill behind the hotel with its own quaint shrine. It also has a traditional Japanese Nobility home that guests can tour to see what the layout and gardens would be like. Then of course, there is a swimming pool and a kid’s room. So we decided to check that out first.

Westin Miyako Kids Room

Westin Miyako Kids Room

Guests can check out a key to the kids’ room for the duration of their stay. We were showed where it was at, instructed on removing our shoes and how to place them and then left to the room that had a large Little Tykes play structure, a few shelves and drawers with toys, a napping room complete with cots and a bathroom with a dishwasher and clothes washing and drying machine. Thanks to the playroom and free hotel wifi, I let the kids play for over an hour while I caught up on some writing. From there we checked out some binoculars from the front desk to take on the bird watching trail. Clearly I didn’t research this trail too much, nor had a chance to fully gage from the outside, in daylight, our natural environment otherwise I would not have ventured out in flip flops (yes I had another pair!) Immediately at the start of the trail we were presented with roughly 100 steps going straight up the side of the hill. As it curved around the side of the hill there were over 200 steps total with little stops here and there for look-out points and a beautiful small shrine with a panoramic view of Kyoto below. Other than being completely devoured by mosquitos (SUPER thankful that we have the Japanese encephalitis vaccine) it was enjoyable walk that gave us a healthy dose of cardiovascular exercise.

Pathway up through the bird sanctuary behind our Kyoto hotel.

Pathway up through the bird sanctuary behind our Kyoto hotel.

Traditional Japanese house of nobility.  Complete with water well.

Traditional Japanese house of nobility. Complete with water well.

Once back to the hotel, we gathered up our swimming suits with the plan to go out of the hotel in search of food and then return for a swim. With some general guidance from the concierge and a map, we set out to find something to eat. Once we got to the main road where two recommended noodle restaurants were, we quickly found that it was a bit busy for a last minute lunch rush. We decided to keep walking along to see what we could find that might have more room. Here is where I admit, I haven’t quite figured out the whole Japanese restaurant thing. Many, you can identify as being such, with a menu outside and occasionally, some pictures. But there are others that look more like homes, despite a food menu, in Japanese only, being outside. So I feel like am intruding by making an inquiry. This is one of those cultural things that I am going to just have to be brave and get over and just try. The problem, is of course the 3 kids. When we see a picture of the food, I don’t always get an agreeable response. But we’re working on it. After walking for over a mile, we came to a 7-11. This had been a quick and easy lunch stop for us the day before so I conceded and we stopped yet again for a 7-11 convenient store meal. Now, don’t think that we’re making a cultural cop out here. Japanese convenient store food is still very different from what you’d find in an American 7-11. Though you can get some of the same candies, cookies and sodas, and corndogs!

"Oh thank Heaven for 7-11!"  I couldn't agree more on this trip!

“Oh thank Heaven for 7-11!” I couldn’t agree more on this trip!

A ton of American candies and cookies have green tea flavoring in Japan.

A ton of American candies and cookies have green tea flavoring in Japan.

After our little picnic lunch in front of the 7-11, I saw a huge gate to a shrine. It wasn’t that far away from where we were, and wouldn’t be too far of a walk back to the hotel either. Since my 2 year old had already fallen asleep in her stroller, I convinced the boys that it would be unfair to her to go back to the hotel now and swim. So instead, I told them we’d just go see this one shrine nearby while she slept, then we’d go back to the hotel to swim. Just through the huge orange gate was the start of a park like complex consisting of a local public library, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and the Heian Shrine. Just next to the library was a small playground that made for a nice pit stop before the shrine. When we got up to the Heian Shrine. Once we got up to the shrine, we saw the ema wall. The ema are traditional Japanese wood tablets that you write a wish on. We had first learned about this with our Little Passports interactive games online for Japan where they kids could write and hang virtual ones. Now they had a chance to do the real thing. After purchasing, writing on and hanging their emas, we walked up to the main part of the shrine and did a quick loop around the grounds as the natives were getting restless.

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Hanging their ema, wishing tablets.

Hanging their ema, wishing tablets.

On our way back, we saw a baseball field were a baseball practice was going on. The players look at least high school age, if not college. It was fun to watch them practice and show the kids how far the “great American pastime” has spread. From the baseball field we walked past the zoo and just an average housing neighborhood. It’s important along the way in the heat we’ve been experiencing here in Japan (80+ Fahrenheit and around 29 C) to stop for water, which is frequently available in cool looking vending machines throughout the towns. As a treat for walking back instead of getting a taxi for the last 400 meters, the kids got to choose a grape Fanta. Something not too common back in the U.S. We finally made it back to the hotel and were ready for a swim.

Watching a baseball practice.

Watching a baseball practice.

When we checked in at the fitness center for the pool, we got the full rundown of what was needed to take a dip in the hotel pool. We knew the towels would be provided but we also received the required swim caps, a locker key for clothes and a shoe locker key. Shoes of course had to be removed in the first stage of the locker room and put in the show lockers. Then you moved into the dressing area for changing, then showered off out in the pool area then walked through a foot rinse pool in order to get to the main swimming pool. It was probably the biggest and most structured operation the kids had seen to go swimming. But none of that matter once we all got in the pool and enjoyed 2 hours of just swimming and having fun together.

Kyoto on the river!

Kyoto on the river!

Exhausted from our swim, we went back to the hotel room to get freshened up and relaxed a bit before heading back out of the hotel, on their shuttle this time, to the Gion district in search of food once again. The Gion district was just a close shuttle ride from the hotel and is a huge shopping district full of traditional Japanese teahouses and restaurants. It’s close to the River as well where restaurants line the river with makeshift decks overlooking the river. Once again, the price and intimidation factor made it difficult to settle on a place to eat. After about 30 minutes of walking around, the threat of rain loomed and we came across a café with hot dogs in the window. It was settled. We grabbed a couple of hot dogs for the kids and then hopped a taxi back to the hotel since the shuttle would take you to Gion, but not take you back from Gion. Back at the hotel my three full and sleepy kiddos raced to get into their beds and were asleep upon their heads hitting the pillow. Which just left one more thing to do, feed myself! Not being able to eat the hot dogs, I decided to give into hotel room service just one time and ordered myself a plate a delisious sashimi. A perfect end to a low key day! I myself was pretty tired and found my way to bed by 10:00 p.m., knowing full well what a big day we had ahead of us!

Finally some real Japanese food for mom!

Finally some real Japanese food for mom!