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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Highway Hazards of Road Tripping

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It’s always in the back of your mind, car accidents.  Whether you are driving in your own town or out on the open road, there is always a risk when it comes to driving.  But with 80 mile an hour speed limits on remote interstates and 75 mph speed limits on desert county roads, a drive across the wild west requires some extra caution while traveling with children.

On the portion of our drive from Salt Lake City, Utah to Denver, Colorado, we were brought to a complete stop on I-80, about an hour outside of the city limits of Salt Lake. Just about 20 minutes before we had come to a complete stop, we had seen two police cars and an ambulance with their lights on, moving ahead of traffic.  We knew something was ahead, but I was a bit confused as to why their speed was so moderate.  Well, when the rest of traffic is already traveling at 80 miles per hour, I guess if you are “slowly” moving ahead of them you’re still probably going 90, which would seem racing on a normal city highway of a usual 60 mph.  I had no idea however that we would be soon be at a compete stop for over half an hour.

As we came to a stand still, it took about 5 minutes of not moving before we saw people getting out of their vehicles.  I shut mine off and rolled down the windows and sat for awhile.  My husband got out as people from the car behind us started to gather around the asphalt chatting between our vehicles.  They told him that a neighboring trucker got word over his radio that there was an accident involving a motorcyclist.  A helicopter was going to be airlifting him out and it was presumed that he was already dead.  The sad moment set it.  Yet, we were still stuck there for some unknown amount of time.

I got out of the car too, but my daughter stayed in the car, occupied by an iPad.  After chatting with our parked neighbors, my 2 year old got restless and realized that everyone else was outside of the car.  I figured it would be a nice opportunity for her to get out and stretch her legs.  We kept her close, letting her walk back and forth between my husband and I.  Then I saw something that I didn’t expect while we were all parked out on the highway.  A motorcycle was coming towards us from the back of the pack, splitting the lane.  Granted, he was going slow, as he must have seen that there were people along the road, but my daughter was so small!  I immediately grabbed her and moved behind our vehicle until he passed. We moved towards the outside of the lane, against the large grass divide that separated the east and west bound highway, hoping to avoid more.  But just a few more minutes later, another motorcycle was approaching from this outside shoulder too!  It was clear that there would be no place for her to stand safely out of the car.  It was just another reminder that you can NEVER let your guard down when out or ON the open road.

People gather out of their cars, on  the road, as we wait for an accident about a mile ahead to be cleared.

People gather out of their cars, on the road, as we wait for an accident about a mile ahead to be cleared.

With the the threat of more unexpected motorcycles moving through our stand still traffic, I put my daughter back in side the car and just let her walk around inside the vehicle (a benefit of a Yukon XL!)  After sitting on the highway for roughly 35-40 minutes, people began getting back into their vehicles and we knew it was time to start moving.  It took another 30 minutes of crawling through the traffic to move back out to “normal” speed.  But the image of the motorcycle helmet laying on the side of the road, and bits of broken pieces of the motorcycle scattered along the shoulder would serve as a continued reminder for the rest of our trip how much care needs to be given to road safety.  Staying in the right hand lane and letting aggressive drivers and excessive speeders pass you is not only a good idea, but a law in many states with high speed limits.

We hope everyone has a safe rest of the summer, whether in the air or on the road!

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!

A Rainy Day in Kyoto-Day 5 in Japan

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We woke up to rain, for the first time since arriving in Japan. I knew full well that June was the rainy season for Japan, but we had been incredibly blessed with really nice, rain free, weather up to this point. My plan had been to take the kids to Nara this day, so they could wander around Nara Park petting and feeding the free roaming deer. That just didn’t sound very fun in the rain. I checked the surrounding areas and all had rain in the forecast. So, we needed a new game plan. I still wanted to take the kids to the Japanese performing arts show, and with only a couple more days left at our Kyoto hotel, it only made sense that we do something local. But, we were still saving the main attractions to do with my husband on the weekend.

Since we would be somewhat limited in our adventures today, I pulled out some clothes from the dirty clothes pile and decided to do a load of wash in the bathtub. I had packed 3 packets of sink size Tide detergent travel packs so that we could do wash during the trip. I picked out a couple pieces that I knew would dry quickly and a few that I knew would take a full 24 hours to dry. Then I dumped them all in the tub. Twenty minutes later I had some clean tops, shorts and underwear for all 5 of us hanging up to dry around the bathroom. Then, we headed off to breakfast.

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At breakfast, a little late in the morning, I mulled over our entertainment options for the day. I decided to check with the concierge about a few experiences I had hoped to have for the kids that were special to Japan. I wanted them to get the chance to do Karaoke and I wanted them to be able to do some kind of Japanese craft. I was not disappointed with the choices. The concierge pointed out the Kyoto Handicraft Center and the location of a Karaoke club where you can book private rooms to sing within your own party. While the kids didn’t baulk at the ideas, they had one more of their own. They wanted to go swimming again! With the rain pouring down outside, how could I say no. I figured there was plenty of time in the day to swim for a bit and then go out and do the activities I had found.

The funny thing about the swimming pool at the hotel, and this could be true for all Japanese swimming pools, is that you have to wear a swim cap. At first I thought it was just because your hair could be dirty and they want to keep it from making the water oily or something. But they are mesh hats, given to us to use by the hotel since we didn’t have our own caps. So it’s not like a full barrier anyways. Nonetheless, we wore them and I have to admit, the kids looked pretty cute with them on! After some fun in the pool, we went back to the room to change into clothes to brave the weather.

Swim caps required for the hotel pool!

Swim caps required for the hotel pool!

At this point, I started remembering all of the things I forgot to bring to battle the rain. I had a plastic poncho from Disneyland Paris still sitting in my closet at home and my stroller rain cover still in the back of my car. Both of which would have made our day much less miserable. But the idea of staying in a hotel room all day sounded about as much fun as trying to take all 3 kids to the dentist by myself.

So we put on some of our athletic clothes, the ones that tend to pull away moisture and dry easier, our sandals, and rain jackets, then headed out the door with the one umbrella that I had packed. The rain wasn’t mild, but it wasn’t stormy. In fact, it was a typical Seattle down pour. The handicraft center we were going to looked to be about a mile and a half way. It was just past the Haien temple that we had walked to a couple days prior. I convinced the boys that this was do-able and not much further than they had already walked before. I must admit, I was a little nervous at how well this walk in the rain was going to go, and not so much over how the kids would handle the rain, but how I would handle the rain! But we all marched along our route until we hit our landmark 7-11 store.

Given that it was past lunchtime by time we started our walk, we stopped in for some corn dogs that made for a quick lunch. We’ve been getting a pretty big and hardy breakfast each morning at the hotel so I don’t mind making lunch a bit smaller and am flexible in what they choose. After the corn dogs, we continued our walk and ended up having to navigate some confusing side walk and street construction around the area we should have had a direct path to for the handicraft center. Because of that, we happened upon a building that I originally thought was still part of the temple grounds, since it was constructed in the more traditional Japanese style. I saw a few people standing about and decided to check if anyone knew how close we were to our destination. The woman we approached pointed us in the direction that we had been on and said it was very very near. I took the opportunity to also ask what was going on inside the building in front of us that had multiple pairs of shoes lined up outside. She told me that there was a class practicing Aikido martial arts. The large square building had the sliding doors open on all sides so we walked along the path to watch briefly from outside. Since both of my boys are doing Taekwondo, it was interesting for them to watch a different martial arts form practiced in one of the disciple’s native countries. Not wanting to be a distraction, we stayed just 5 minutes then went back to our path to the handicraft center.

Watching a Japanese Aikido lesson.

Watching a Japanese Aikido lesson.

By time we got to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, it was 2:45 p.m. I went in and inquired about the crafts that kids were allowed to do. They showed me a board with the times but said that you had to make a reservation, and that they were not sure if there were any spots left. My heart sank, I didn’t even think about having the concierge call ahead. But, they said I could check next door in their other building to see if there was still space. So over we went. They had one in progress that started at 2:30 p.m. and the next was schedule for 3:30 p.m. While they said that we could still join in at the 2:30 p.m. one, I liked the craft that they were doing at 3:30, so we waited. The rest of the center was a huge shop selling various things that are made in Japan and then some Japanese souvenirs (that were probably made in China). So I picked up a souvenir and some postcards while waiting.

From reading the description for the center in the hotel’s map of Kyoto and recommended things to do, it sounded like the craft was going to be free. So I was a little surprised when at 3:30 they asked for the fee before we went up. Already committed in my mind to do it, we paid the 1900 yen per person (I just did 3, one for each kid) to do the painted doll (that was actually a bell) craft. They led us over to the other building and up the elevator, to the room, and got us all set up with our paints. My 2 year old, who had been asleep up to this point, seemed to wake just at the right time when she heard the word paint, and activity she loves. There was a beautiful display of the finished product examples on the table to give us an idea of what to do.

Doll bells at the craft sample table.  Kyoto Handicraft Center.

Doll bells at the craft sample table. Kyoto Handicraft Center.

And this is how ours turned out.

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I tried to let my perfectionist ideals go, and let the kids be kids and paint their bells how they wanted to. I struggled with my 2 year old, because in my mind, I wanted something to somewhat resemble the samples. So we compromised, I let her paint what she wanted and then I tried to make it look like a person with hair and a face.

Our Japanese bell doll that my 2 year old and I created.

Our Japanese bell doll that my 2 year old and I created.

While we had been painting, my husband texted me that he had a break from work for a few hours and said he could join us. By time we were done, he had walked over to the center to meet us. While the craft finished, we could also watch some of the artisans working on Damascene with find nails, little hammers and gold patterns.

Artisans making Damascene.

Artisans making Damascene.

Our plan was to go to the Karaoke club next. My husband walked with us to where I had seen the closest subway station on the map, which looked like a straight shot and not that far away. But alas, it took a good 20 minutes to get there, still in the rain. At this point, he was sweaty and soaked, despite his jacket, and would need to go back to the hotel early to change for his business dinner. So he got off the subway before us and we parted ways. It was now 5:00 p.m. and I wanted to be sure we didn’t miss the show again. I decided to try for the 6:00 p.m. show (there was also a 7:00 p.m one too) to ensure we made it and then try Karaoke after. I knew in my mind that I needed to get some cash. But with my preoccupation at finding the theater with the 3 kids in the now stormy pouring rain, I completely forgot to look for an ATM and get cash. We got to the theater with our outer layers dripping wet and relieved to be inside again. Up at the ticket counter I saw the sign “Cash Only.” Crap. Because I forgot to stop, I didn’t have enough to buy the tickets. I asked where the closest ATM was and they gave me a neighborhood map that showed the closest 7-11, which is the most common place for ATMs apparently. Unfortunately for us, it was practically back at the subway station we just came from. But, at least I found a new route that led us through a beautiful temple complex.

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At the 7-11, I got enough cash for the next week and had the kids pick out dinner. Since we weren’t going to make the 6:00 p.m. show and would instead have to do the 7 o’clock one, I gave up on Karaoke for the night, which was where we were going to order food at for dinner. This 7-11 was tiny compared to the one from earlier in the day and had no place for us to stand outside to eat. Cultural custom is that you don’t walk around while eating and I was trying as best I could not to be the rude American. So we set out in search of some kind of covered area where we could stop and eat in our route back to the theater. No such luck until we came back to the temple, where there was a covered pathway between two buildings. It being 6:30 p.m. and in the rain, people weren’t exactly swarming this complex. I decided we needed to stop somewhere with shelter and let the kids eat. We stood in the covered area and ate as quickly as we could before heading back at the theater.

Trying to find shelter in the rain.

Trying to find shelter in the rain.

Finally back at the theater, we waited in line for the 7:00 p.m. tickets, again, thankful to be inside again. Seating was quick and easy and so was putting aside the stroller. The theater was not very big and we got a place near the center in the 4th row. The program included several forms of Japanese performing arts. It began with a tea ceremony (Chado), in which two guest participants were selected. During the tea ceremony, two musicians began playing the Japanese harp (Koto). While they were playing, and while the tea ceremony was still in process, the flower arrangement (Kado) demonstration began. All three ended around the same time. I was really glad of this format as it gave the children something in two different spots to look between, which kept them quiet and captivated.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Gion Corner.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Gion Corner.

Japanese harp and a flower arrangement demonstration. Gion Corner.

Japanese harp and a flower arrangement demonstration. Gion Corner.

Next came some of the more lively performances. My 2 year old was particularly fascinated with the court music (Gagaku) and dragon dance.

My 2 year old being fascinated by the court musicians and dragon dance.

My 2 year old being fascinated by the court musicians and dragon dance.

Court musicians and the dragon dancing.

Court musicians and the dragon dancing.

The ancient comic play (Kyogen) came next. While there were some English explanations made over the speakers and written in the program, it wasn’t clear enough for the kids to understand. Nor was there enough time for me to read it to the kids in advance of the performance. So they were a bit confused by the comic play.

Ancient comic play. Gion Corner.

Ancient comic play. Gion Corner.

The main attraction, was 2nd to last and was an actual Maiko (a young Geisha) who performed two Kyoto style dances (Kyomai).

A Maiko dancing.  Gion Corner.

A Maiko dancing. Gion Corner.

Last was the puppet play (Bunrake) which I thought the kids would enjoy the most, but again, we didn’t have time to get the full story beforehand, so they were a bit confused. I think my 5 year old even called it “creepy” haha! But from an adult perspective, it was fascinating how fluid they made the puppet move. For most cases, it took 3 puppeteers to manipulate the one puppet.

Puppet play. Gion Corner.

Puppet play. Gion Corner.

The whole show was an hour total. It was the perfect experience for the kids. They got to see all of the traditional Japanese performances I hoped to expose them too and it was in a very manageable time frame to keep their attention. The theater where we saw the performance was Gion Corner. It is very much a company that created this program especially for tourists. But in my opinion, it was well worth it. Again, my 5 year old and 2 year old were free (and they still got their own seats). I had a discount ticket flyer from our hotel so my ticket was only 2800 yen (around $25 with current exchange rate) as opposed to the normal 31500. And my 7 year old was just 1900 yen.

We had a great time at the Gion Corner performance!

We had a great time at the Gion Corner performance!

By time we were out of the theater, the rain had lightened up quite a bit, so it was a reasonable walk back in the direction of the hotel. I had a rough idea of where we were going, and after 20 minutes of walking, we ended up at the subway station that was on the same line for the stop I had read was next to our hotel. I was so happy to have finally figured out where the subway stop was, turns out it was on the opposite side of our hotel from where we had walked on previous days. This was handy information for Day 6, coming soon!

Himeji Castle and Kobe Harborland-Japan Day 4

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Himeji Castle was one of my “musts” for this trip.  It also was one of the places we learned about in our Little Passports Japan kit, so I really wanted my kids to see the real thing.  Himeji was also a straight shot from Kyoto with our JR pass.  I had just planned to go and visit the castle then come back to Kyoto in order to attend a show of traditional Japanese performance arts.  After such a long day in Osaka the day before, I figured another low key day was in order. At least that is what I thought.

Given that I only planned to visit Himeji, we took our time getting out the door.  We took the shuttle to the train station and made an easy stop at the JR ticket office for our bullet train to Himeji.  It was going to take about 45-50 minutes to get there.  My daughter fell asleep before we got on the train and I employed reason 497 of “Why I love my Baby Jogger City Select stroller.” Since I had to fold it up and put it behind the seats, I just popped off the seat and laid it on the floor with my daughter in it so she could keep sleeping with no blocking of the aisle.  That left just me and the boys to have a little snack and be silly on the train until we arrived.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Just having some fun on the train.

Just having some fun on the train.

Once we were at the main JR train station in Himeji, it was really easy to find the way out and to see which direction the castle was in, being how you could see it the moment you walked out the train station!  So we started looking about and saw the buses.  Even though you could see the castle, it was still pretty far.  Japanese cities are like Paris, something looks like it is close, but really it’s 20-30 minutes away by foot.  We inquired in at a local tourist information center who said to take the castle loop bus around the corner.  So off we went, but we found that we had just missed it and it ran only every half hour.  Walking it was, and boy I was not disappointed.  Before we even got half way to the castle (which is a straight shot down the same street, directly out from the front of the train station) I was falling in love with this city.   The side walks were large and wide with very separate lanes for bikes, walkers and had greenery and lovely art statues every so often.  Little allies that were actually large and long shopping arcades shot off in all directions of the street.  I felt so comfortable to be walking along this street, despite the completely foreign language.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

As we approached the castle and picked up a brochure and map from the information center, I began to wish we had gotten an earlier start.  We probably wouldn’t have enough time to visit the zoo in addition to the castle.  It turns out Himeji is a place you should spend a couple days!  But alas, we had one, and less than that too.  It was time to get up to that castle and see what was in side this colossus.  I was really glad that I brought the Ergo this time!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle.  It was above 85 degrees F that day!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle. It was above 85 degrees F that day!

To go into the main part of the castle, you had to take your shoes off and put them in the plastic bag that was provided for you.  What was not provided, slippers or socks.  So if you were wearing sandals, like the kids and I were, you walked barefoot if you wanted to see the castle.  Just a heads up, when you visit, perhaps you’ll want to wear tennis shoes with socks.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

There was nothing inside the castle except the incredibly steep stairs that were practically ladders.  You could see however the incredible wood build and design of the castle, Japan’s only major castle that has never been damage in a war.  There was a great view of the grounds and Himeji from the top however.  In all, it was a very beautiful sight to behold.  It lives up to it’s nickname “The White Heron” which is a symbol for the whole city and often manhole covers are adorned with a flock of flying white Herons.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

I was having such a nice time walking around the castle grounds and had seen many things on the road there that I wanted to go back to, I lost my sense of urgency to get back for the show in Kyoto that night.  I knew there would be other days to do the show in Kyoto, but probably wouldn’t get back to Himeji.  Unfortunately for me, because I only planned to see the castle that day, we had gotten a pretty late start and most things in the area, like the Himeji zoo next to the castle, all closed around 5:00 p.m.  Even though things were all closing up by time we finished the castle tour, I decided to take a stroll through the side shopping promenades that I had seen on the way to the castle.  We looked at a few shops and then came across a cupcake and pastry shop.  I had to go in and we splurged a little before dinner.

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts.  P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts. P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

As we made it back to the train station I tried to think what we could do with the rest of our evening.  I checked in at the JR ticket counter about Kobe.  It wasn’t a place I thought I’d make it to this trip but as I looked through my booklet for the Hyogo area (which Himeji is apart of) and it talked a bit about the Haborland of Kobe and a Ferris wheel and the Anpanman Kids Museum & Mall.  It looked like a fun sight, especially at night and I had read about an all you can eat seafood buffet right on the water with a great view of the light up harbor buildings.  So we hopped on a regional JR train and off we went.

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

Once we arrived, we asked for directions to Haborland and wandered our way through the station and the huge Umie shopping mall to get to the harbor shops and restaurants that is called the Mosaic, right on the water.  We came across and escalator that the boys begged to ride it down just to go back up.  Of course I had to say yes!

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe's Harborland.

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe’s Harborland.

By chance, one of the first things we saw as we followed paths that looked like they lead to the water was the all you can eat seafood restaurant buffet called the “Fisherman’s Market.”  I saw some pasta and pizza in the window and figured I’d be set for the kids.  They saw us in to a table and through some patience and hand signals, we decided on how much we would be charged based on the kids’ ages, and whether or not we would eat just the food or the food buffet and the drink buffet.  There was a fairly wide selection of choices but all the pasta and pizza had seafood of course.  So it took a little convincing to try a few things even though they looked some what familiar to them.  They also had French fries and what would be close enough to fish sticks.  I made them try some new stuff and then let them have some comfort choices as well.  Plus, the dessert bar with a huge chocolate fountain was a big incentive!  What I liked about this place the most was that they had allergy cards at each station!  So I knew which things would contain wheat.  There was still a chance for gluten, but knowing which things had wheat was a big step because it also told me which things had soy sauce, which is often hard to figure out here since it is a common ingredient.  In addition to the food, the view was spectacular!

View from the Fisherman's Market restaurant in the Mosaic.  At Kobe's Harborland.

View from the Fisherman’s Market restaurant in the Mosaic. At Kobe’s Harborland.

We knew even before dinner that we were there too lake for the kids museum, but what we really came for was the view and the Ferris wheel.  And in that, we were not disappointed!

Ferris wheel at Kobe's Harborland.

Ferris wheel at Kobe’s Harborland.

In all, we had a great evening that was the perfect night cap to a fun day.  Now, we just had to get back to the hotel.  I took the risk again of having 3 sleepy children when we arrived back at Kyoto station.  But I was prepared!  Since I had packed my Ergo, I figured I could just put my 2 year old on my back in case my 5 year old fell asleep on the train. I could then push him in the stroller.  Sure enough, my 5 year old fell asleep, but so did my 7 year old!  To make matters worse, my phone froze up and was not working.  I was in a bit of a panic because I can’t handle being in a foreign place without my phone, just in case.  After a few failed attempts to find something I had to fit in the pin hold to pop out the sim to restart it, I asked a group of business man with my pointing and hand gestures if they had something that could fit.  Thankfully one did, the pin from the back of his name badge!  Good thing for me that people go to work late and come home late!  At 10:00 p.m. the train was packed with business men returning home from work!  With my phone fixed, my last feat was to get all 3 kids off the train.  All 3 dead asleep.

I was the evening’s entertainment. Our skit was an American single white female attempting to move a sleeping toddler from the stroller bassinette position to an Ergo, followed by transforming the stroller into an upright forward facing stroller in which a sleeping 7 year old was placed, then trying to balance a sleeping 5 year old on top of said 7 year old while on a moving train, then exciting the train.  There were several oohs and ahhs.  From there, I had no choice but to take a taxi back to the hotel.  As cheap as I am and hate paying for them, the safety of the kids still comes first and there was no way to get then onto two more subway transfers to the hotel.  But we made it, and I had never been so relieved to find my way to my bed!

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!