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Week 88/89: San Francisco

16-Dec-09 :: The 5-hour flight from Honolulu to San Francisco went pretty smoothly. We rented some movie consoles and the time flew by quite quickly. Upon arrival, Daniel went off to pick up the rental car while the rest of us collected the bags and found a spot out front to wait for him. After awhile, I began to wonder where he was and worry a bit. Just as I tried, unsuccessfully, to call Daniel from a payphone, he arrived in the baggage claim area without a car. Unfortunately, because the car was reserved in my name at Budget they would not allow him to pick up the car. Also, since my driving license has expired (must do something about that soon!), they would not have allowed me to pick it up. So we hopped in a taxi and headed off to the hotel, with a plan to attend to the rental car issue in the morning. Although we arrived at the hotel around 10:30pm (which was only 7:30pm in Hawaii), we were feeling quite tired — I guess it's just flying.

Upon reaching the hotel, I was told that the 2 rooms I had booked were at the opposite ends of the corridor on the 6th floor, rather than interconnecting. Not ideal, but again we were advised to wait until the morning and speak with the rooms coordinator in order to find a more suitable combination. The most amazing thing is that after about a year and a half of travel, this was the first time we've had any issues with either rental cars or hotels!

Thursday morning, Daniel was able to get Budget to change the name on the rental car reservation, so he could return to the airport in the afternoon for the car. And the rooms coordinator managed to find us interconnecting rooms on the 4th floor. We went out shopping for some new clothes for me and the kids, while the staff at the Ritz Carlton moved our bags to the new room — by the time we returned around 6pm, everything was in the new room and we were all set. Julie met us at Macy's and then took us to the park for the boys to throw around baseballs until dark.

Daniel got back from the airport and we had a lovely dinner with Julie and her husband, Brennan, who we met for the first time. Mexican food — what a treat! The kids were very good, but I could tell they would probably have preferred to eat back in the room ...

Saturday we visited my parents' old friends, the Sekhons. The kids were keen to visit a batting cage, so we discovered one near Oakland Airport which was convenient. The boys lasted about half an hour, since hitting the fast pitches hurt their hands (and having not played baseball for such a long time!). Then we reached Sant and Susie's place, which was a cute little condo overlooking the bay. Sant recommended that we eat at a very busy vegetarian Indian place in Berkeley, which was quite good — as usual I over-ordered and even though I completely stuffed myself some of the food went to waste L.

Sunday we were invited to Sant and Susie's son's place. Steve lives in a houseboat in Sausalito, which was really lovely. He and his girlfriend, Jarl, graciously offered to host a BBQ and invited all of us, plus Scott, his older brother. I really enjoyed catching up with all of them after a long time — I last saw Sant and Scott in 1989, and Steve probably when we were about 9 years old!

The remainder of our time in the city was devoted to visiting schools for the kids. What a learning experience for me and Daniel as well! I collected a huge number of applications during the week, and heard more than once how "competitive" entrance is to the private schools in San Francisco. It was an exhausting experience, but interesting to meet the people involved in education in the area. Daniel and I also looked at a few houses in some of the more appealing neighborhoods, which was reminiscent of shopping for a house in London — you give up some of the things that you want in exchange for a good location (or pay double your budget!).

We celebrated Ben's 13th birthday with dinner at the Cheesecake Factory and Ben and Jerry's ice cream for dessert, and by the end of the week we were all very excited to meet us with the Lohans, who came to visit us during the October school break!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from California.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Quick Update

27-Nov-09 :: A little long since we posted any blogs but we have been incredibly busy settling down into our home for the next few months. Very strange not living out of our suitcases but not to worry only temporary before we set off for Bermuda in December and then Europe in January. Kids meanwhile are catching up with a tutor and the dreaded dentist (braces for 3 eldest ... ouch!). More later.

Photo Update

27-Nov-09 :: Check back soon for a new Trip Log entry. In the meantime, please click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Sterling Woods.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Photo Update

27-Nov-09 :: Check back soon for a new Trip Log entry. In the meantime, please click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from California.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 86/87: Maui and the Big Island

15-Nov-09 :: Leaving Kauai after an entire week was a bit of a shock! The fact that the hotel had a check-in terminal for Hawaiian Airlines was a real plus — we managed to get our boarding passes and avoid a huge line at the airport. The flight to Maui was brief, not surprisingly, and we managed to stop off at the supermarket to shop for dinners and still reach the villa by 12:30. To their credit, the staff at the villa didn't even mention the 4pm check-in time — our villa was all cleaned and ready to be occupied, and we got a lovely tour and welcome as well! Shortly after unpacking the kids were keen to head over to the pool at the main hotel, as the Grand Wailea is known for its amazing swimming pools and water slides. After finding a nice calm area as a base, with a shallow "beach" area, the older kids all went off to find the most exciting water ride. Daniel and I relaxed and stretched out on some pool chairs, supervising the shallow area while Francesca played with her toys. Ben came back to get me for a snorkel — we headed off to the end of the beach where a rocky outcrop promised turtle viewing. Though the water was lovely and the coral outcrops were interesting, we saw no turtles. Still, the challenging swim was worthwhile! After the water slides closed at 5pm we headed back to the villa for dinner and enjoyed some family TV time.

Wednesday morning we had a very early start — we left the villa by 6:20am in order to make a 7am check-in for our morning snorkel trip to Molokini. The boat was full of honeymooners, but the staff seemed to enjoy the chance to interact with the kids. The tour was rather more commercial than what we're used to, but the kids had fun and the snorkeling (though not very interesting) was in swimming pool calm water with amazing visibility. So all in all it was a successful outing. After returning to the villa, we headed out to the swimming pool again and returned to our favorite spot. A lovely lady was walking around, offering to arrange dinner reservations or spa appointments, so I took her up on the offer and booked a hair appointment for the next day. What a great service to offer! Passing the remainder of the afternoon was no problem at the swimming pool — Daniel and I tried one of the local specialty drinks and before we knew it dinner had been successfully cooked back in the villa and everyone was asleep! A great opportunity for us to catch up on some episodes of Two and a Half Men ...

Thursday morning Ben was keen to try out a nearby snorkel spot that he'd read about, so we headed off around 10am (nobody else seemed interested in accompanying us). Our original plan was to rent a kayak and paddle around, but we couldn't find the kayak rental shop so we ended up just leaving our shoes on shore and walking in at a beach. I was really worried that it would be another unsuccessful outing, because Ben was so determined to see some turtles, but fortunately we stumbled upon a turtle colony once we rounded the first bend off the beach and ended up swimming with at least 6 turtles! It was pretty exciting, but required a pretty challenging swim. Although we were never too far from shore, there weren't too many places to exit the water because of the rocks, and the swell was pretty intense. By the time we returned to the beach with our shoes I was beginning to feel pretty tired! But it was a very satisfying outing. After a quick lunch at the villa, I went off to the hair salon for my appointment with Colin, the cutest hair stylist going!

Waking up on Friday morning, it definitely felt as though our stay in Maui had been too brief. We were all sad to pack up and leave the beautiful villa, but we made it to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to Kona. Arriving at around 2pm, we managed to get settled into our rooms and head off to the pool immediately! The hotel's web-site described the local turtle population as being very easy to find, so we were keen to have a look. Although the visibility was not great, we still found about 5 turtles, which was amazing. That evening the kids were happy to have room service, while Daniel and I explored the various restaurant options at the hotel before settling on a few drinks in the lounge with some bar snacks.

Saturday we realized we were stuck at the hotel, due to the Ironman necessitating the roads to be closed. With a gorgeous beach and all the other facilities, things could have been worse. Surprisingly, I never made it to the spa that day — we were just too busy enjoying the beach. Perhaps we enjoyed it a bit too much, since we all ended up a bit red in places as a result. But Daniel and the boys still managed to find the energy to fit in 9 holes of golf before we headed to Norio's, the Japanese restaurant, for dinner! The kids were pleased that we managed to get 6 seats up at the sushi bar, which enabled them to watch what was made. The food was absolutely delicious, and we all enjoyed having a chat with our sushi chef, who came from Osaka.

Sunday we awoke early and got our breakfast order into room service directly so we could get going. Amazingly, we were on the road shortly after 8am on our way to the Captain Cook Monument. It was quite a long drive, along which we saw an unusual number of cyclists and joggers, no doubt inspired by the Ironman Triathlon from the previous day! We reached the kayak rental area around 9:15am and we on the water by 9:30am. Our first goal was to paddle to where the dolphins were swimming. We reached them quite quickly and before we knew it were in the water swimming with them! We stayed there, snorkeling with adult and baby dolphins for about a half an hour or maybe more — it was so incredible! From there we kayaked over to the monument, where the snorkeling is rumored to be fantastic. Well, the coral was pretty and there were quite a few fish, but I wouldn't describe the snorkeling as "world class". Nevertheless we enjoyed the swim and then returned to the kayaks to make our way back to shore. First we stopped back where the dolphins were swimming to have another look at them — still amazing! We returned the kayaks just after noon (much later than we'd anticipated!) and showered off at the public facilities before piling into the car and making our way back up to the Fairmont. What a full morning! Surprisingly, we still found enough energy to head out to the hotel beach again for some more snorkeling with the turtles! After ordering room service for the kids' dinner, Daniel and I wandered up to the hotel lounge for a few drinks and snacks before returning to the room for bed.

Monday we awoke early in the hope of renting a kayak at the hotel, only to discover that kayaks were not being allowed out due to "large swells" — call my crazy, but the sea looked nearly glass calm to me, so that was rather disappointing. After playing around on the beach for a bit, we returned to the room to clean up and pack in order to set off for the other side of the island and the volcanoes. The sun stayed with us as we drove north to Waimea and found a fantastic children's playground, where the kids played for nearly an hour! From there, the clouds quickly took over and we experienced showers as well as downpours as we made our way to the east coast and proceeded south. Our next stop was at the World Botanical Gardens and the Three-tiered waterfall. Although the water looked quite dirty, the waterfall was spectacular. And the botanical gardens were rather small, but with thoroughly labeled plant life and as a bonus, a maze of shrubs at the end! The kids loved the maze, in spite of a few scary moments where they thought they were lost ... From there we carried on to the Akaka Falls, which are the largest falls in the islands. The walk to see them was rather long with plenty of stairs, but worth the walk! Our final detour was a 4-mile scenic drive, which was rather perplexing because most of the road was lined with trees that blocked the view of the ocean. Still, by the time we reached the Safeway in Hilo, we were ready to shop for some food and drive directly to our rental house in Volcano village. Although it was nearly dark when we arrived, we managed to find the place and it was lovely! We watched our rental movie, Taken (starring Liam Neeson!) and enjoyed a dinner of risotto before turning in early.

Tuesday we awoke at 6:30am to glorious clear skies and sunshine — a perfect morning to visit Volcanoes National Park! Since I didn't really do any research beforehand, I was quite surprised by how much there is to do there. We first stopped at the visitors' center to collect a map and some information. From there we drove around Crater Rim Road to the Jaggar Museum, which has a lookout with views of the Kilauea Caldera, including the smoking Halema'uma'u Crater. How amazing to see all the plumes of smoke rising from the barren landscape below! From there we stopped off at the Steam Vents (more smoke) and walked back to the visitors' center before continuing along Crater Rim Road to have a look at the Kilauea Iki Crater and walk through the Thurston Lava Tube. The lava tube was very impressive — totally circular and uniformly shaped! The kids were comparing it to the one they visited in Galapagos last year, which was much larger and more irregularly shaped. After that we raced down Chain of Craters Road, which ends after 20 miles. We reached the car park in about 30 minutes, from which we walked to the end of the road — lava had covered it during an eruption in 1983. The spot where the lava actually covers the road is 1/2 mile further than the car park, and the temperature rises quite a bit back down at sea level, so that was quite a tiring walk! But the kids loved climbing around on the hardened lava flows so that kept them busy for about a half an hour. From there we raced back up to the entrance to the park, stopping only to see some of the craters that are visible from the roadside, since the sky had clouded over and we were experiencing period showers.

Returning to the house for lunch, we relaxed for about an hour and a half before heading back out to see the lava flows at night. Although the entrance to the park is extremely close to our rental house, the lava is currently flowing outside the park and only accessible via an hour+ drive. We reached the car park around 5:30pm, pretty close to opening time, and trudged across a ? mile of hardened lava to reach a point near the coast about ? mile away from the spot where the lava flows into the ocean. There was some disappointment that we were not able to get closer to the lava, but I must admit that I was relieved. Standing close enough to molten lava that one can dip a stick in it is not my idea of relaxing! After a long day out, we returned to the rental house by 8pm, with just enough time to cook dinner before everyone fell into bed exhausted!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Maui and the Big Island.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Quick Update

25-Oct-09 :: Benjamin unfortunately celebrated his birthday at school! It's been a busy and somewhat scary week of school visits but we feel we have some idea of what life "off" the road might be like here. (Outside the Ritz Carlton ... our home for the week)

Week 85: Honolulu and Kauai

22-Oct-09 :: With flight delay from Tokyo, we didn't reach the hotel until nearly 10:30am. The Ihilani had one room ready for an early check-in, where we all quickly passed out on the 2 queen beds while watching NFL. We woke up around 2pm and unpacked then went for a walk around the property. I had made a point of avoiding hotels in the Waikiki area, but in doing so it seems I chose the boondocks of Honolulu! Although the property was nice enough (and Disney are building something next door, so it's obviously "up and coming") the hotel is a little run down and the nearby shopping area was a strip mall straight out of Wisconsin! But we were happy enough to buy some breakfast cereal and milk, plus a bit of fruit, then head back to the hotel. After a late lunch, nobody was really interested in dinner, though we all stayed up far too late. On Monday Daniel ordered room service for our breakfast and the kids all wished me a happy birthday. We finally got our act together and headed out to explore Oahu, driving up the highway to the north tip of the island to have a look at the beaches. Although some of them were beautiful, we avoided going for a swim and just kept driving to see the views from the east side of the island. We ended up in Waikiki, where we stumbled upon a small shopping mall with a fun restaurant called "Senor Frogs" for lunch — the menu was mainly Mexican, which we haven't had in ages, and there was a pool table to entertain the boys. So I had a birthday margarita with some nachos and guacamole, which was perfect. From there we went to the cinema near our hotel and saw a film. The perfect 44th birthday with the family!

Next day we packed up the rooms and checked out before setting off for Pearl Harbor, in the hope of seeing the museums and monuments there. Trying to see everything there is rather time-consuming, because of the necessity of taking a tour bus from one location to another, and we ended up visiting the USS Missouri and the Aviation Museum, where the boys were able to do a "mission" in a flight simulator. The Arizona Memorial is accessed by a boat, so only a limited number of tickets are given out per day — unfortunately the limit had already been reached by the time we arrived, but in the end we wouldn't have had enough time to get out there anyway. As we were waiting for a bus take us from the Aviation Museum back to the car park, the bus broke down! Suddenly there was a crowd of people pushing to get on the next bus — everyone seemed in a hurry to move on. It was pretty crazy, and we were concerned about being late to the airport. Finally an extra bus arrived and everyone was accommodated, so we reached the airport in plenty of time for our short flight to Kauai, which lasted about 30 minutes. Upon arrival, Daniel went off to collect the rental car while the rest of us collected the bags and waited for him out front. By 6:30pm we were at the Hyatt and settled into our rooms, after which we headed for the sushi restaurant for some dinner.

The resort is very nice, with plenty of activities on offer. We had set aside that week in order for the kids to accomplish some school work, and we were fairly successful. Most mornings, Daniel headed off to play with the tennis pro — he even fit in a couple of doubles matches with other guests! Meanwhile, the rest of us indulged in the breakfast buffet, which was quite nice. Then we would return to the room for some studying. On a couple of the afternoons, I dropped the girls off at the kids' club while I went for a jog or to the gym. The boys had a golf lesson one day, and surfed another day. The hotel also boasted an amazing series of swimming pools, including a simulated beach (the actual beach was a bit rough for kids), and a water slide — so most days we ended up out there before 5pm, when the water slide closed. We tried all the different restaurants at the resort, and it's hard to say which was our favorite — the Chinese restaurant at the golf club was excellent, but the sushi in the bar was delicious too. One night we splurged for a fancy meal in the Italian restaurant, which was OK but not as special as we'd imagined.

One day we drove up the coast past Lihue and the airport, where we visited the Waileua Waterfall located slightly inland from the road. Then we continued on for lunch at Pizza Hut, and on to the Opaeka Waterfall and views of the river. The lighthouse is one of the highlights of the drive up the coast and unfortunately we arrived just after it closed so we weren't able to get a good view of the nesting birds. On our final day, we drove to the Waimea Canyon, about an hour drive west of our resort. The road up to 4000 feet was pretty long, but we'd been advised not to stop on the way up in order to see the good views before the daily cloud cover came in. The first viewpoint over the Kohala Coast, located on the northwest side of the island, was just beautiful. Apparently this is where some of Jurassic Park was filmed, and we could see a boat cruising along the flat waters at the bottom of the steep cliffs — unfortunately we hadn't left any time in our visit to take one of the boat trips, so I guess that will be another reason to return to the islands.

After a relaxing week, we grabbed an early breakfast, packed up and printed out our boarding passes on the hotel's special Hawaiian Airlines monitor. Upon arriving at the airport at 8:30am, we were certainly glad we had done so! The line for check-in was huge, but since we were simply dropping off bags we were able to skip the line, which was great. We then breezed through security and enjoyed the short flight to Maui, where Daniel went off to pick up the rental car while the rest of us collected the luggage and waited — we couldn't help but notice that the temperature was rather higher than Kauai, so Daniel was even more appreciative of the fact that he'd devoted so much time to tennis there!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Honolulu and Kauai.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 84: Farewell Japan

19-Oct-09 :: A representative of the Anaga Hotel was waiting for us at the nearest bus station. The island is quite lovely, with tall hills falling into the sea, and the hotel villas dot a hillside, providing sweeping views of the Naruto Sound and the bridge spanning it. After settling into our rooms, the boys ran off to spend some time on the tennis court. I have to give them credit, since the temperature was significantly higher than it had been in Kyoto! I got a ride to the supermarket and bought some sushi for the kids' dinner, so that Daniel and I could enjoy a nice taster meal in the French restaurant. Given that the resort is part of Relais and Chateaux, we had high expectations. On the service end, I was surprised when the wine came and I was not offered a taste before it was poured. On the food end, some of the early courses were rather bland and possibly unimaginative, but the main course was a delicious steak served with a creative accompaniment of pureed aubergine — delicious!

Next morning, we headed down to the dock for a boat ride out to the bridge, where the whirlpools form. High tide was around 9:45am, so that was the peak of the whirlpools. The water is frightening — so rough and fast-moving! But the boat just powers through the current without any problem. The whirlpools are difficult to describe — they seem to form spontaneously due to the difference in the speed of the current and the tide, then dissolve while you're still watching. Really amazing. The boat ride was just a half an hour, and on the way back Ben noticed a huge wind farm on top of a hill behind the hotel — very impressive. Upon returning to the hotel, we asked about the possibility of seeing the wind farm up close, but were told it was not possible. The staff then said we could possibly walk over the hill and get a better view. So Daniel and I took Ben and headed off along the road, which wasn't particularly friendly for pedestrians. We never did get close enough to the windmills for a good photo, though Ben stopped to set up the tripod a couple of times, and the walk was very hot and uninteresting. And, by the time we returned to the hotel, the kids were ready to play some more tennis! Daniel and I decided to have dinner on our own, leaving Ben in charge of a cereal dinner in the room again.

On our final morning, the staff agreed to drive us across the bridge to Shikoku, where there is a whirlpool viewing platform on the lower level of the bridge. We packed up and checked out of our room, with the plan being to go directly from the bridge to the bus stop. So after walking the half mile to the viewing spot below the bridge, watching the whirlpools form (though the view is much better from the boat), we returned to the hotel van and headed off for the bus stop. After a few moments, the staff members informed us that they would be pleased to drive us all the way to Kobe Station, so we could skip taking the bus! What a generous offer — they saved us at least 2 hours in our total travel time! The ride was absolutely lovely, since the weather was beautiful and the sky was clear. Upon reaching Kobe Station, we hopped on a bullet train bound for Tokyo. Once again, due to the holiday week, we found the train was very crowded — luckily, many travelers were getting off the train at Osaka, the next stop, which enabled us to get seats together for the remainder of the ride. Our final train journey was very pleasant — we will certainly miss travelling by Japanese trains.

We reached the Four Seasons just after 5pm, when Daniel headed off to the steam room adjacent to the fitness center. Meanwhile, I visited the gym for a quick work out. We were trying to figure out where we could take the kids for dinner — somewhere nearby, so that Daniel and I could get them back to the room and ready for bed, while we went out for a few drinks. But the kids were campaigning hard for room service, so we gave in. Once their food arrived, we set off walking in search of the office building where Daniel used to work. This is a place where he went every day for a couple of years, but of course that was 16 years ago ... Fortunately, I also was familiar with his building because the ground floor contained one of our favorite drinking places! So we didn't know exactly where we were going, but we managed to find it and remind ourselves of the building's name — the Otemachi Urbanette Building, where Barclays still have all their offices, according to the building guide. So we stopped into Grand Central (the name of the ground floor bar) and it looked just the same. The faces were different, but the crowd looked the same — way to make us feel old! So we had a drink and some calamari, reminisced about previous visits, then proceeded to Roppongi to check out some other old hang outs. I think we arrived a bit later than the previous visit, so some of the places were a bit more active, which was nice to see. We hit Motown briefly, then went on to Mogambo's (it was so much smaller than I remembered!). We walked around Roppongi a bit, looking for other familiar places and staying off the main road, which brought back lots of memories.

Saturday it took us awhile to get out of the hotel. We finally headed out to have lunch at the New Otani, in the Trader Vics Restaurant. Well, the restaurant was pretty weird, but the sandwiches were delicious, not to mention huge! From there, Daniel took the older kids off to see the sumo tournament, while I pushed a sleepy girl around in the pushchair. From the restaurant it was a straight walk up Aoyama Dori to Omotesando, where I found Kinokuniya and bought enough Weatabix for Sunday's breakfast, plus some cranberry juice. Walking around Tokyo gave me such a great feeling, especially on a warm, sunny autumn day. The memories were really strong — back in 1990 I learned my way around the city by walking everywhere (which also saved me money!), and those days were such an adventure. Still, I tried to find the flat where I lived briefly in 1993, but could not. The whole area has changed so much, I didn't recognize anything! So I gave up and walked through Aoyama Cemetery, which is one of the most peaceful areas of central Tokyo. From there, we reached the new Roppongi Hills development and caught a taxi back to the hotel, since my feet were hurting. The others arrived back soon after, and we all headed back to Roppongi to have our last dinner at Moti.

Sunday we got going rather late again, but went directly to Harajuku for the usual Sunday festivities. Although we were unable to find the rock bands, the park was absolutely buzzing with people, so it was still an adventure. From there we braved the crowds through Omotesando and back to the Aoyama Cemetery, since Daniel wanted to see that it was still as he remembered it. The boys were impressed because several Porsches drove through the cemetery! Shortly after, we checked out of the Four Seasons and headed off to Narita, where we had plenty of time to get checked in and reach our gate. Just after we dropped off our bags, the final match of the sumo tournament was being shown — the two wrestlers circled around each other, trying to psyche each other out, and finally lunged toward one another. The match lasted over 30 seconds, which is actually quite long, and was rather exciting. The underdog won, so that made it more exciting. We felt no rush to get to the gate, since our flight was delaying by about an hour. But it ended up being a rather painless overnight flight, even in economy!

Now that we are back in the USA, I can safely say that we miss the public bathrooms in Japan. They are so clean and lovely! As we all know, public bathrooms in the US are very hit and miss — occasionally you get a good one, but the bad ones are pretty disgusting. The kids are missing the onigiri snacks, as well as the delicious Indian food at Moti. The Japanese people were so much more gracious as hosts than what I remember from living there — we were treated so well everywhere we went. We had interesting conversations with so many people (particularly dog owners, since the girls are so attracted to them!), and those were really enriching experiences. I actually miss speaking Japanese, since it made me feel useful to the rest of the family! But the time we had there was pretty much perfect.

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from our Farewell to Japan.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 82/83: Kyoto

12-Oct-09 :: Catching the train from Kagaonsen to Kyoto could not have been easier, partially because the journey was short with no transfers, but also because we are JR pros now. The weather remained gorgeous again as we pulled into Kyoto Station, and we joined the queue for taxis to reach the Hyatt Regency. Saturday marked the beginning of the long Japanese holiday, so we were lucky to get some very expensive rooms at the Hyatt. Having read on their web-site that the rooms are a mere 28 square meters, our expectations were pretty low. But upon seeing them we were pleasantly surprised! The rooms were very stylish and laid out such that they didn't feel cramped at all. What an impressive feat! After unpacking, we set out on a mission to rebuild our Weatabix stash in order to continue our satisfying breakfasts. I'd found the address of the local Meidi-ya branch, which we managed to find on a map and reach by navigating the local subway. After a successful shop, we decided to stroll along the river back to the hotel — it was a very pleasant walk along with many other cyclists and pedestrians, enjoying the lovely weekend weather. Daniel noticed that quite a few restaurants had decks jutting off the back and overlooking the river, so we made a note to try and eat at one. Near the hotel we picked up some takeaway sushi for Saturday's dinner, then turned in early in anticipation of a busy Sunday of sight-seeing!

Sunday morning we headed off to a bicycle rental shop next to Kyoto Station — luckily we had reserved our bicycles in advance, because the place was very crowded. It was another glorious day, sunny and warm, as we all mounted our bicycles and set off north. Our first stop, after about 25-minutes, was Nijo Castle, which is one of Kyoto's top ranked sights. Not surprisingly, the place was packed. We paid $10 to park all the bikes, then another $20 for the entry fee, and off we went. By the time we finished looking around the grounds and viewing the many lovely buildings, we certainly didn't feel as though we'd overpaid. Everything was just gorgeous! After recovering our bikes from the parking area, we set off north again in search of the Kinkakuji, or the Golden Temple. Just as we were all running out of energy, we came across a McDonalds. After some chocolate milk shakes and fries, everyone was feeling a bit more energetic and we discovered that we were nearly there. If the Nijo Castle seemed busy, it paled in comparison with the Golden Temple, Kyoto's number 2 attraction (after the Imperial Palace). After entering we followed the crowd along the appointed route. Although the crowd marginally detracted from the enjoyment of the place, it was well worth the visit. That ended up being the biggest crowd we saw in Japan anywhere (with the possible exception of Kyoto Station), so I think we still did pretty well. From there we cycled down the road to the Ryoanji Temple, which is known for its specially formed Zen garden. Unfortunately the temple was undergoing some renovations, which slightly detracted from the peace of the garden. But with the sun shining and the sky blue, there were still many photograph opportunities in the gardens! After that we began the long journey back to return the bicycles, meandering through what I assume are some of Kyoto's nicer residential areas, sticking to the smaller back streets and retaining our single file system. We caused a bit of a stir among some of the local residents — a line of foreigners on bicycles! By the time we returned to the bicycle rental shop we must have clocked up about nearly 20 km! But everyone had a great time, and the kids all begged to cycle again the next day. After grabbing dinner in one of the many restaurants at the station, we returned to the hotel and fell into bed, exhausted.

Monday morning we decided to visit another part of the city which is not ideally suited to bicycling, so we caught a train and walked a bit instead. Our first stop was the Heian Shrine, which has amazing gardens — the highlight is a long, covered bridge which crosses one of the ponds. Apparently it's quite spectacular in the spring, when the cherry blossoms and wisteria are in bloom, but we enjoyed the garden, even though the only flowers were water lilies. From there we walked south, past a couple of art museums (the line to get into the one which was showing a display from the Louvre was incredible!), and on to some other temples. Since the holiday was celebrating the need to respect old people, the temples were quite busy with worshippers as well as tourists. After a couple of temples, we reached the historic quarter, where many buildings have been restored or maintained because of their historical significance. The area is pedestrianized and is really beautiful. I was amazed by the kids' capacity for appreciating the various temples, shrines, gardens and historical buildings. They really seemed to enjoy themselves!

That evening, Daniel and I arranged to have dinner at a Thai restaurant with a deck overlooking the river, and we were really looking forward to it. After resting a bit from our long day of walking, we got ready and headed out, only to discover that it was pouring with rain! So much for our plan to eat outside — all the tables had been moved indoors. Still, the food was delicious and the price was quite reasonable, so we had a pleasant meal. From there we walked along the riverside in search of a fun place to have a drink. The area was very lively, and we were impressed by the Kyoto nightlife! Although the rain had stopped temporarily, it never stopped long enough for us to sit outside anywhere and we returned to the hotel after a couple of drinks.

Tuesday morning we got up and headed back to the bicycle shop, even though the sky was overcast. Although we embarked on a slightly less ambitious route than Sunday, we still managed to get some good exercise with the hills involved. We started at the Nishi Honganji temple, which was pretty straightforward. From there we rode down south past the train station to a different neighborhood — completely different from what we had experienced on Sunday. Crossing the river was quite daunting, riding on a massive bridge which was very narrow. Finally we reached the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its thousands of interconnected orange tori, which create a tunnel-like effect when walking through them. Walking around the tunnel, which wound its way up and down hill and around curves, was pretty spectacular, and took quite a lot of time. After we finished, we followed Daniel (who was leading this time — I don't think he was too impressed with my navigation on the earlier cycle) up a few hills in search of the Tofukuji Temple. Since we got a bit off track, we ended up asking a gentleman out in his garden which way to go. He was very nice and decided to lock up his house and show us the way, with a little stop along the way to his own local temple. The Tofukuji was just a few hundred meters past his local temple and we found it easily. To our surprise, it included a beautiful and rather unique garden, which was accessed by crossing a quaint bridge, and felt like entering a true wilderness! From there we rode around the local area, full of other temples and shrines, all incorporating lovely gardens. By the time we finished looking around and rode back toward the station, it was nearly 5pm and we were all tired again! That evening we all went out for shabu shabu, but again the rain started and we were forced to move indoors. So we never got our outdoor dinner along the riverside.

On Wednesday morning, we packed up our rooms at the Hyatt and got ready to head off to the next destination. But first the boys wanted to visit a couple of other temples, so off we went to see the Kiyomizudera, which involved taking a taxi up a hill and walking a bit further — unfortunately the sky was rather overcast and the scenery photos didn't really turn out. Next stop was the temple directly next to the hotel — although we had walked by many times, we had yet to visit and discovered that the interior was quite incredible. Inside were many Hindu deities, strangely, as well as 1000 buddhas lined up in about 6 or 7 rows! It took quite a while to walk past all of them since many people had come to worship, and the mood was quite serious and quiet. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside, so we had to make do with describing the experience to the rest of the family.

After checking out, we headed off to Kyoto Station to catch a train for a station near Kobe, where we planned to catch a bus to Awaji Island. The station was absolutely packed and we had our first experience of taking a crowded train (as this was a local service, rather than a bullet train). We reached Kobe quite easily, but when we arrived there were so many buses it took quite awhile to find the one we wanted to catch. Luckily, after asking a few people and walking around in circles a bit, we managed to buy our tickets just in time and relaxed on board for the 2 hour drive!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Kyoto.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Quick Update

28-Sep-09 :: Just arrived in Honolulu. Sad to say goodbye to Asia but looking forward to our 2 weeks here before San Francisco.

Week 81: Japanese Alps

27-Sep-09 :: We must make quite a sight, traveling around on the trains with our green, reusable shopping bags carrying our Weatabix stash for the kids' breakfasts! Never mind the fact that there are six of us and Japanese families these days tend to be very small ... But we are thoroughly enjoying the ability to move around by train — so much easier than flying. Driving would be slightly more convenient, but never as quick — we covered over 1000 kilometers in 7 hours on the way to Matsumoto! We awoke in Kumamoto to a very gray morning and by the time we packed up and caught taxis to the train station, the rain had started. As we rolled up toward Hakata, the clouds appeared lower and the rain really started to pour down. As we continued east through Hiroshima and toward Nagoya, the rain continued to fall and patches of fog were visible on hillsides. By the time we transferred onto the train going north, the rain was still coming down — but it stopped when we reached Matsumoto, in the middle of the Japanese Alps. Sad to say, we were all excited to see Starbucks as we exited the train station, and everyone enjoyed a snack there. The taxi ride to our traditional style hotel, Kishoan, was longer than expected and more expensive too, as it is not located in the center of the town, but we were relieved to be met by Koji-san, who speaks excellent English. In addition, Hirotani -san helped us to make sure that everyone had yukatas of the appropriate size. After a long day of travel, the kids just wanted their onsen (hot spring bath) again, and a relaxing evening in the room. This was our first experience in a traditional Japanese room, with tatami mats instead of carpet, and a low table in the middle of the room. But the rooms were very spacious and located on the fifth floor, which offered us a lovely view of the mountains. We also had our own mini onsen just outside the bathroom, in addition to the common onsen on the main level, which was very nice. The kids voted for onigiri from the local convenience store again, so off I went to pick some up — I surprised everyone by returning with some sushi rolls as well! After another successful and inexpensive meal, we turned in on our futons for the night.

Sunday morning I awoke at 7am to a gorgeous day — blue sky was framing the mountains and the air felt cool and fresh — so I decided to head out for a jog. The local neighborhood is lovely, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. When I returned to the room, the kids were up and having breakfast, and we eventually headed out to see the city. Having just missed the bus, we decided to walk into town to see Matsumoto Castle. The weather was absolutely glorious, and appreciated all the more after the previous day's rain! Walking at a leisurely pace through the neighborhoods outside the city center, it took us about an hour to reach the castle. Being a Sunday, there were quite a lot of people around to tour the castle, which was slightly less impressive than the Kumamoto castle. Although the gardens surrounding it were quite nice, in the castle itself the displays were all in Japanese, with no translations, so not very interesting for us. We made it up to the top, along some pretty treacherous stairways, to take in the view. But by the time we came back down, we'd had enough of the crowds. For lunch Daniel discovered an Irish Pub, which served fish and chips, so that made everyone happy. Matsumoto is quite a cosmopolitan place for such a small city. From there we headed over to the train station to get some information about our next trip, on Tuesday. Although most train times are available on-line, Daniel was having some trouble locating the departure times for a small train that goes through the mountains — only 1 carriage long! Fortunately we discovered that the train goes at least once every hour, so putting together a trip with smooth transfers was going to be possible. We managed to catch a bus back to the hotel from there, with plenty of time to visit the onsen before dinner. Our dining area was called "Sakura" (which means cherry blossom), and we arrived there wearing our yukatas (Japanese robes). I was surprised that we had a regular table with chairs and legs, rather than a low table which enabled us to sit on the floor. But I was also relieved! Daniel and I were served about 8 courses, while the kids had about three. I really enjoyed almost the entire meal, which was a nice surprise — we were both expecting to have to tolerate lots of very strange and unappetizing food. The kids did very well, trying some new things and behaving politely.

Monday morning we got off to a slow start, but caught a taxi to a nearby town called Azumino, where our taxi driver directed us toward the local bike rental shop. After sorting out properly sized bicycles for all the family members, we set off for the nearby wasabi farm. I was pretty excited by the prospect of seeing how wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is grown, and riding along the country roads was complete bliss. The traffic was minimal and the signs directing us to the wasabi farm were easy to follow. After about 20 minutes of cycling we reached the place and parked the bicycles. The farm was huge, but beautifully laid out with paths and bridges, plenty of shade and cute little buildings. It turns out that wasabi grows in very wet conditions, much like a river bed, and appears to need lots of shade. The farm was so peaceful, in spite of its size, and we enjoyed wandering around the paths for about 30 minutes. Then it was off to the shop to have a look at some of the weird products, including wasabi ice cream, wasabi gummy candy, and even wasabi wine!! On the way back we rode slowly, stopping to take photos of the surrounding mountains and rice fields. After returning the cycles, we stopped at the supermarket for some of our favorite snacks and then caught a taxi back to Matsumoto. That evening our friend at Kishoan, Koji-san, arranged for us to have Italian food. His favorite restaurant was unfortunately booked (on a Monday evening, no less!) but he'd chosen an alternative which was walking distance from the hotel (we always like that). Although the exterior did not look promising, I have to admit that the food was very good, and the kids were happy to have some pasta for a change.

Tuesday morning we packed up and caught a taxi for the station, where we boarded a train headed toward the coast. After transferring 3 times, we finally reached the Kagaonsen Station, where we were met by the staff from the Beniya Mukayu hotel. Upon arrival, we met the owners, Sachiko and Kazunari Nakamichi, who are very attentive hosts. Though they don't normally accept children younger than age 6, they made an exception for Francesca, which was very flexible of them. They also agreed to let us stay without having breakfast and dinner every day, which is quite unusual. I gather our stay of 4 nights was unusually long as well! After a quick tour of the property, we reached our rooms — an even more luxurious set of suites with tatami mats and futons, not to mention our own personal onsens attached to the bathrooms. Making ourselves at home was no problem, and I quickly changed in order to go for a jog and check out the local area. I managed to find a great supermarket with some lovely fruit for sale, as well as a small shop with some decent imported wine — a very successful outing! That evening we enjoyed the hotel's dinner menu, which was served in the kids' room, on the low table which sits on the floor. Daniel and I started with a glass of champagne, as well as some sake. The kids did well with some new types of sashimi, and ate lots of rice. There was a delicious soup with unusually tasty prawns, and a huge selection of vegetables. Given the number of courses, it was a rather late night.

Next morning we got off to a slow start, beginning with another visit to the onsen. We're really getting into the idea of having numerous baths in a day! We then set off up the hill behind the hotel, in search of Banshoen, a park which has a viewing tower to climb and see Mount Hakusan. The view was OK, but we ended up being the buffet for the mosquitoes. As we came down, they gradually disappeared, thank goodness. At the bottom of the hill we reached the Hattori Shrine, which was very pretty and situated on many levels. Next door was the Yakouin Temple, which was a bit less impressive. Along the road back to the hotel, we also came across another little park where people come to bathe their feet in fresh hot spring water. Finally, we checked out the location of a local sushi restaurant, in anticipation of eating dinner there. The building was lovely — very traditional and cute. I was unsure about taking a chance on sushi again, after our slightly expensive and disappointing experience in Kagoshima. But Daniel was keen to have another try, so we all agreed. Thank goodness we did! The couple who run the restaurant were so sweet — they actually gave Francesca several trains as gifts (Thomas the tank engine and friends), which she played with while eating her sashimi, and the food was delicious. I particularly enjoyed the squid sashimi. They also were not offended that we didn't want to try every last type of fish. Most importantly, the kids ate well and enjoyed themselves. I'm so glad they will have a good sushi experience from Japan to remember.

Next morning we headed off to the train station for Kanazawa, which ended up being a lovely day out. They run a cute little tourist bus, which makes rounds to all the famous sights and you can get on and off wherever you want. Our first stop was to see a couple of geisha houses — actually the whole street was old geisha houses, turned into discreet shops and tea houses, and was very cute. From there we proceeded to the castle, which was partially under renovation, but still rather impressive. Even more grand were the grounds surrounding it, which kept us busy for a good hour. From there we visited the neighboring Kenrokuen, apparently the third most beautiful garden in all of Japan. After another hour and a half wandering around and admiring various ponds, fountains, trees and little buildings, we exited the gardens in order to visit another old Samurai house. It appeared to be closed, but the exterior was sufficiently interesting. By the time we finished there and boarded the tourist bus, we were feeling pretty exhausted! Still, we managed one more stop which encompassed about 20 different temples and shrines in a concentrated area, and then boarded the bus for Kanazawa Station, where we found a little Indian restaurant for dinner before catching the train back to Kaga onsen and our cozy futons!

On our final day we stayed in bed late, recovering from our busy outing the previous day, followed by a leisurely visit to the onsen. We then decided to visit the neighboring town of Yamanaka Spa, which has a path following along the river, with a number of beautiful bridges spanning it. The taxi dropped us at one end of the path and off we went — it was a really lovely walk, and the temperature was just perfect! About an hour later we reached the final bridge and crossed over to walk up to the town, where we found some snacks and ate them while sitting on a little bench in the town square. Several elderly people were walking around, smiling at us and commenting on the fact that we have four children. By the time we caught a taxi back to the hotel, I had just enough time to do some laundry before Daniel and I had to attend our tea ceremony! I just have to mention the laundromat, because it was in the middle of nowhere and after the staff member from the hotel dropped me off I was a bit unsure how to proceed. I couldn't figure out where to put the laundry detergent, so I asked another lady who was there waiting for her own laundry. Remember that I'm trying to have this conversation in Japanese, with a very limited vocabulary, so when I heard her say, "The machine does that itself", I was certain that I got it wrong. But I put my 500 yen in the machine and, sure enough, I soon saw bubbles appearing through the clear door. That was a first for me. Anyway, back to the tea ceremony. I was a little nervous that it would be long and formal, so I was relieved when it lasted only about 15 minutes and the tea was surprisingly tasty. Sometimes tea ceremonies can last for hours, during which no talking is allowed and the participants have to sit on their knees! After that we had our final meal at the hotel, this time served in the parents' room so that the kids could leave and go to bed when they finished. The meal was amazing — the most delicious sashimi, some melt-in-your mouth steak, a couple of huge plates of light and fluffy vegetable and prawn tempura, several whole crabs with the legs cut for easy access to the meat, and plenty of rice. Needless to say, nobody left that meal feeling hungry ...

The following morning we packed up and left for the train station, bound for Kyoto. After a week of relaxing in luxurious Japanese style hotels with onsens, we were ready to face a bit more activity. The two-hour train ride was very pleasant — because the long holiday was beginning I had been expecting the train to be crowded but it was no different than any of our previous journeys. However, when we arrived at Kyoto Station, then we encountered the crowds I had been expecting. It seemed that everyone had decided to spend their holiday in Kyoto! I know this is not really true, since we had found hotels throughout Japan booked over the holiday, but upon exiting Kyoto Station and trying to find the taxi rank, it certainly felt that way!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from The Japanese Alps.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

Week 80: Southern Japan

21-Sep-09 :: The shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Hiroshima was very comfortable, to say the least. The 4 hours went by so quickly, and the trip was quite painless, with Yasu from the Four Season helping us to load our luggage on the train in Tokyo. Upon arrival in Hiroshima, we managed to pull our suitcases to the taxi stop and ask to be taken to the Crowne Plaza hotel. Checking in was very straight-forward — Daniel and I were really surprised by how many people are able to speak a practical amount of English! Meanwhile, I continued to astound the kids with my Japanese language skills (getting us by). After settling into our rooms, it was only 3:30pm, so we headed straight to the Peace Park to visit the A-bomb museum. The most striking exhibit is the model of the city before the bomb — next to it is a model of the central area after the bomb was dropped. What a vivid picture it creates of the destruction. After making our way through the various exhibits in the museum, we exited the building and walked through the Peace Park toward the Peace dome, which is a great one to photograph. It was a short walk back to the hotel, and we got ready for dinner and headed downstairs to the buffet restaurant. Just one day after the most delicious steak ever the previous night, I was not expecting to be impressed by the meat. But surprisingly, the inexpensive buffet also boasted tender, delicious steak (though not quite of the same standard as the teppanyaki).

With one successful night outside Tokyo under our belt, we headed off on an adventure on Monday morning. Miyajima is an island nearby to Hiroshima known for its "floating" shrine, as well as for certain traditions — nobody is meant to be born there, die there, or be buried there. After catching the streetcar to Hiroshima Port, we waited a bit for the next ferry and scooted over to the island. The kids were delighted to be greeted by the island's famous friendly deer, who were happy to be petted and seemed to find any scrap of trash edible. Following the signs, we walked along the water's edge to reach the Itsukushima Shrine. At high tide (which it was when we arrived) the gates, or "tori" at the front of the shrine are out in the water and appear to float — at low tide they are on land and it's possible to walk out to them. Very cool. So after walking around the shrine briefly, we headed toward the nearby 5-storied pagoda and then off to have some lunch. Once we finished eating (our first meal chosen on the basis of the plastic food models in the window!), we decided to head up to the nature trail that runs along the steep hillside. There was some talk of taking the cable car up to the top of Mt. Misen, but it was 15 minutes up, plus a walk to the nearest lookout, and then 15 minutes back down, so we decided against it. After the long walk down the nature trail back to the shore, the ferry ride was merely 10 minutes back to the mainland, after which we enjoyed about an hour on the street car back to our section of the city. We watched lots of school children get on and off the streetcar, presumably travelling home at the end of the school day. Their uniforms are really something!

That evening I found a laundromat down the road and caught up on the washing, after which we all dressed up and went out to a local Indian restaurant for dinner. Although the menu showed only nan, the chef was happy to make some roti and paratha for the kids, which was nice (though it seemed to make the wait for our food much longer). Back at the hotel, Japanese TV was as baffling as ever so we all turned in straight away!

Tuesday morning we headed off to the train station, bound for Kagoshima. I was a little nervous about the journey because of the need to change trains twice, and because of all the different tickets I was carrying. But in the end it could not have been easier. Though we had a minimal amount of time between trains, we made each transfer with plenty of time to spare. And getting the luggage on and off the train proved to be relatively straight forward as well. So we arrived in Kagoshima feeling pretty fresh, though a little hungry, and decided to try the McDonald's in the food court at the neighboring mall. That received high marks from the gang, especially since they had chocolate milk shakes! From there, we caught taxis to the Castle Park Hotel. I was a bit worried about speaking Japanese, since I'd heard about all the different dialects throughout the country, but most people still seemed to understand me — phew. Our hotel was a pleasant surprise — perched on top of a hill, facing the volcano, Sakurajima, it was like a little oasis in a city! We got settled into our rooms and the staff brought some small yukatas (Japanese robes) for the kids so we could all try out the onsen (hot spring baths). The kids looked so cute going off to their first onsen experience! The set up for the onsen at Castle Park was pretty typical — a row of low showers for washing and rinsing, several baths fed with naturally heated water indoors, as well as a couple of baths outdoors, a steam room, and a cold bath. From the outdoor baths the view of Sakurajima was gorgeous! Passing an hour in there was no problem, and by the time we finished it was time to get ready for dinner.

The concierge recommended a local sushi restaurant which was a short taxi ride away. It was pretty exciting to be shown to a low table where we had to sit on the tatami mat (though the kids would have preferred to sit at the sushi bar and watch the chefs make everything). The set menu had a lot of items on it that we really wouldn't eat, so I did my best to explain the types of fish we like. Still, we ended up being served a few surprises and wasting a couple of things, but trying a few new things as well (don't ask me what any of them were!). The bill was a bit steeper than I was expecting, so clearly I hadn't understood the conversation with the server as well as I thought I had. Oh well.

Next morning we headed off to the ferry terminal again, this time bound for Sakurajima. We rode on a car ferry, which took about 20 minutes. Upon reaching the island, we discovered that there were several options for seeing the volcano. A full day tour was already out of the question for us, but we could still choose between taking a bus to a point on the southwest side of the island where we were likely to be showered with ash; or alternatively, we could take 2 taxis (few taxis in Japan are big enough to take 6 passengers) and drive up to the highest accessible point on the mountain — we chose the second option. Just as we got out of the taxi, the volcano spewed a fresh cloud of ash from the south crater! It was very exciting, though I didn't feel any kind of small earthquake (we had a couple of small tremors on Guam, as well as in Tokyo). After our taxi tour finished, we decided to head back to the mainland and visit the Kagoshima aquarium. Surprisingly, it was really good! There was a large tank containing a whale shark on one level, and a pool with dolphins on another. Some of the highlights were freshly hatched baby sea turtles; an electric eel; and a tank full of these huge freshwater fish from the Amazon (they grow to be longer than 2 meters!!). All in all, a fun afternoon. Then it was back to Castle Park for another visit to the onsen, followed by the buffet dinner at one of the hotel's many restaurants. Another successful day!

Having packed up from the Castle Park Hotel on Thursday morning to catch the ferry to Yakushima, we loaded our bags into 2 taxis and asked them to take us to the ferry terminal. Suddenly the taxi driver looked perplexed — apparently the ferries had all been cancelled due to bad weather! Although the sun was shining in Kagoshima, I felt confident that the Japanese would only cancel a ferry with good reason. I think a tropical storm was passing nearby and making the seas rough. So we proceeded to unload the taxi and return to the concierge desk in the hotel to sort out an alternative. First, Ms. Tsukahara phoned JAL, to see if we could get onto a flight to Yakushima. Unfortunately all the flights were full, so that option was out. We were probably the last people to discover that the ferries were not running, meaning everyone else intending to take the ferry already had a chance to book the remaining seats available on the flights — so that was no surprise! After that, we considered the possibility of waiting another day to visit Yakushima, but the distances from the ferry terminal where we would arrive, to the hotel and back to the airport are such that visiting for 24 hours would not really allow us much time to do anything, so we scratched that idea. We then enlisted the help of the very efficient Ms. Tsukahara to help us cancel our hotel in Yakushima (I have the feeling that people stuck on the island due to lack of ferry service were pleased to have our rooms made available) and our flights from Yakushima to Osaka. After that, we had to come up with an alternative destination for 2 nights — Kumamoto was suggested, so we hopped on a train and arrived an hour later!

Arriving in Kumamoto in the early afternoon, we hailed 2 taxis and headed for the Dormy Inn, the only place where we were able to get rooms (and because of the small size, we needed 3 rooms!). It's a funny place — the rooms are tiny but still quite nice, new and clean; but the spa bath on the rooftop was beautiful! In fact, it was much nicer than the Castle Park spa had been, which was most unexpected. Since the afternoon was not yet over, we chose to head over to Kumamoto Castle, which was a short walk from the hotel. Having climbed up quite a hill to reach the entrance, we then had to climb up several flights of stairs to reach the top of the tower to enjoy the view. But the exhibits inside the castle were the highlight — we learned a bit about the history of that part of the country, since they'd made the effort to translate much of the text into English. From there we had to walk down through all the fortifications to the bottom of the hill in order to exit, which was a nice walk.

After a relaxing visit to the rooftop spa, everyone was very sleepy and nobody felt like heading out in search of dinner (the Dormy Inn has no dinner restaurant). So I went off to Lawson (a local convenience store chain — I have a bit of a soft spot for this particular one since I lived next to one for over 2 years!) to pick up various snacks for dinner — cup noodle (just add boiling water!), onigiri (a triangular rice ball with fish in the middle — in our case, mostly tuna), some yogurt, bananas and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. Well, that was a big hit, and I certainly couldn't complain, after spending only about $25. Friday morning we aimed to get an earlier start, but failed again! Still, we were on a streetcar by 10:30am, headed for the Suizenji Gardens. I forked out $5 for fish food and the kids carried it around the gardens, fattening the koi in the pond and attracting pigeons as well. It was another hot day, and shade was sparse in the gardens, so we took it slowly. After that we walked to Lake Ezu, where we were thrilled to see quite a bit of birdlife — there were herons and egrets everywhere. After walking about 40 minutes in the heat, we finally reached an air-conditioned restaurant where we managed to order some edible sandwiches. Then the kids decided to take a pedal boat out onto the lake, which ended up being rather frustrating because of the relatively strong current. By the time we caught taxis back to the center of town, everyone was pretty tired. Still, we wanted to visit one other attraction — the Gyobu Tai, which is a grand former residence of a high ranking samurai. Built in the 1600s and covering nearly 10,000 square feet, the place was impressive. However, because the taxi drivers didn't seem to know where it was, we ended up being dropped off back at the castle and then walking for nearly 20 minutes to find it. After walking through the residence, we then walked about another 20 minutes back to the hotel, where we repeated our routine of spa upstairs followed by snacks from Lawson for dinner.

The plan was to catch an 8:53am train from Kumamoto Station on Saturday morning, which I was dreading. Although I woke up at 7am, I hoped that by staying in bed perhaps I could avoid the need to rush and pack everything up, then head to the station and rush some more (I was sharing a room with Francesca, while Daniel and Miranda were down the hall and the boys were upstairs!). But in the end Daniel knocked on my door at about 7:30am and the packing went smoothly, without too much rushing, and when we reached the station the ticket-buying process was very smooth as well (thanks to the most efficient ticket lady ever), so the morning was a pleasant surprise!

Click on any picture below to launch a gallery of pics from Southern Japan.

Or check out some more pics at Flickr.

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