Asia Trip Summary

We have finish the second of two trips and have been traveling with the kids for 11 out of the last 18 months.  Our kids typically love to travel but by the end they were tired and craved the comforts of home.  Maddy and I unlike last year were happy to be at home as well.   Here is the final map and some statistics of our Asia trip.

Our trip began in Bangkok but we quickly traveled north because we heard that Chiang Mai was smoky later in the spring.  We followed the Mekong River down into Laos before heading onto Cambodia where we explored Siem Reap and then heading to the beach.  Vietnam was next, we spent nearly two weeks in Hoi An during the Tet holiday.  We then traveled onto Hanoi and Ha Long Bay before escaping to the Malay Peninsula as the spring rains arrived in Indochina.  We stopped in Krabi, Penang, Kuala Lampur and Singapore before jetting off to Bali where we spent a month exploring islands and dodging Komodo dragons.  Borneo was next then onto the Philippines and Hong Kong.  We ended with nearly a month in Japan before flying home near the end of June.  It was a lot of adventure packed into a short period.

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Here are some of the final stats for the trip:

10 countries (China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan)

16,963 kilometers (10,540 miles) traveled not including two trans Pacific flights.

40 places, cities or locations

177 days – January 1st through June 26th (for an average of 4.2 days per stop; if you are double checking my calculations I added back in two duplicates locations).  That is some serious fast travel.

19 plane trips (I counted each segment)

30 boat trips with three major cruises: Mekong River, Bali to Komodo Island and Ha Long bay.

13 train trips (all but one was in Japan)

18 UNESCO sites

12 Gondola rides (includes wire lines, funiculars and cable cars)

10+ world schooling families that we became friends with.  In South America I think we met 2.

29 Islands

I am not even going to attempt to count the number of Temples, Shrines, Mosques or Churches.  We are just going to go with lots.

We only had one bad bout of sickness in Bali and essentially zero problems with diarrhea which is quite remarkable.  This is especially remarkable considering I like to try just about any food that comes along.  I chock it up to the extensive travel and the build up of good bacteria in our tummies.

I will be forever entranced by Asia in particular three countries stood out for me; Thailand, Indonesia and Japan.  The variety of sights, smells, activities and people were intoxicating.  The future of the Asia seems to be a very bright one.  Most of the fastest growing economies are located in southeast Asia; we saw construction everywhere.  The big cities were amazing, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur.  They all had amazing sights and attractions.  I was not expecting to have such an easy time communicating, so many people speak English, we had no need for translators in nearly all of Southeast Asia, Japan was another story.

Maddy’s favorites included Luang Prabang (Laos), Gili Aire (Indonesia) and Cabilao (Phillipines), I also loved Penag (Malaysia) and Kyoto (Japan).

We felt like we completed all the requisite tourist sites on this trip and maybe when we go back we can dig into certain areas and delve deeper into the culture of a particular place without worrying we are missing other places or attractions.

Our plans going forward are to stay in Middleton for the entire school year in 2018/2019 so this is really the end of our adventures for the time being.  Caroline has pushed hard on us to stay at home for her first year in junior high.  So signing off Travel Trotter for the time being.

Tokyo

We arrived in Tokyo on a Monday, with only a week left in our trip and feeling a bit worn down.  Our apartment was a bit smaller than we have had in the past, accommodations are a bit more expensive in Tokyo.  We did have a balcony that overlooked a small canal connected to the ocean.  We loved looking out and counting the number of jelly fish in the water every day.  We also needed to get some medicine for Julie to get her back to normal, so we relaxed almost the entire first day.  Except when the kids and I walked around our Kiba neighborhood and discovered several parks and shrines; always a shrine around every corner.

We had dinner out at a Japanese restaurant and had a type of hotpot, with a huge mound of bacon and cabbage that melted down.  I ordered vegetables and meat, but we only got cabbage and bacon.  It wasn’t exactly what I thought I was ordering but it was tasty.  A bit lost in translation though.

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In the afternoon with the kids resting and playing their ipads, I ventured out to explore the original Tokyo harbor.  I found some maps of the original shore line but was not very successful in finding any original shoreline or old neighborhoods.  I read later that between an earthquake in 1923 and bombing in WWII that the city has been pretty demolished so not much older construction exists.  This is also why the city is so expensive, but it makes it a very modern city.  I did find some nice views of the river and then got a pint and an Irish pub.

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That night we met up with Erik one of Maddy’s old friends from San Francisco in the Ebisu neighborhood and had dinner.  The kids were extra crazy but it was a fun dinner.  We had ice cream afterward and got some crazy flavors like tomato sorbet and sesame ice cream.

The next day we went to Disneyland Tokyo and then Disney Sea the next day, Caroline will be publishing the blog post for these two days.

After two days of Disney were exhausted, the kids especially didn’t want to do anything and everybody’s feet hurt.  Maddy and I continued to explore by ourselves one by one.  I went out and walked around the Imperial gardens, while talking to my brother John then tried my luck at Pacheco, and had sushi.  Pacheco is a game of chance where if balls go in the right hole you win.  I didn’t win and soon left not seeing a way to use any skill to win at the game.  The sushi on the other hand was amazing, melt in your mouth tuna.

 

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The next day was a bit rainy but we got out and did a boat tour of the city harbor starting at Asakusabashi and floating down the Sumida River into the harbor.  Tokyo is built in a natural harbor so we didn’t encounter any rough waters just strange spaceship looking tour boats.

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We passed the famous Tsukiji fish market and the Hamarikyu Garden where some of the original harbor shore line is still observable (lots of fill in other areas).  We ended at Odaiba and were greeted with the statue of liberty (a small version of it at least).  We ate lunch and then headed home via Uber because the rain was coming down steadily by then.

On Saturday we took a trip out to the Harijuku neighborhood on the west side of Tokyo a very trendy colorful wacky place.  We had lunch of grilled cheese (with rainbow colored cheese), then ate lot of funny colored candy and finished up with petting hedge hogs to our hearts content.  I believe it was about $15 and you could pet your very own cute little hedgehog.  I passed on the experience and ate some ramen noodles at a shop around the corner.  The girls had a blast.  It is quite a thing in Tokyo and Japan in general to pet Hedge hogs.

Our last full day in Tokyo we decided to take a picnic to the local park, and have an al fresco lunch cleaning out our refrigerator and enjoying a beautiful day in Tokyo.  The kids climbed trees and ran around until we headed back to pack for home.  I ventured out on my own in the afternoon to take a walking tour of the Tsukiji fish Market, there were quite a range of sea foods to be had but the thing that I came for was the tuna and it was amazing, some of the best sushi I have eaten.  I walked through the Ginza shopping district but it was mostly very high end merchandise so I didn’t buy anything although I did stop in a very interesting samari sword shop.

The next day we cleaned up our rental and finished packing and boarded the JR rail for the last time on the Narita express to the airport and began our long trek home.  Our flight left at 7pm on Tuesday and got into Newark at 7pm on Tuesday, bit of a mind bender, but we gained back the day we lost heading to Asia.  We were delayed two hours so we were not able to meet up with Priya in New Jersey, such a bummer.  Once we landed in Newark it became very evident that Americans are very pushy, people cut in lines and yelled at TSA agents, it was really in your face, very different from Asia.  It was good to be back home though and Nana picked us up from the airport in Madison.  Thanks Nana!

This is it for our Aisa trip I will be wrapping up with a trip summary in a few days but altogether it was an amazing successful trip.

 

Mt. Fuji

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The ride out of the Japanese Alps was most interesting; rolling green hills punctuated with flat rice fields flooded with water in the intervening valleys made for a picturesque tour of the foothills.  It took three trains but we got to the area around Mt. Fuji.

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I first noticed it on a relief map of the area… the total geographical dominance of the the volcano that is Mt. Fuji.  Once you get to a high point (a mountain or a tower) it is easy to see the extent of eruptions on the landscape that has caused miles upon miles to be leveled creating this perfect symmetrical slope to the summit.

Mt. Fuji is a spiritual place for all Japanese and has been a symbol of their country for generations.  The summit of the mountain has been designated a shrine and many people consider it the ultimate pilgrimage.  I would really like to come back and climb it some day; Mimi has announce she will climb it with me too.  We settled in Fujioshida on the north side of Mt. Fuji instead of Hakone because of some problem with licensing at our first Airbnb.  We had to scramble and rent a new place at the last minute but Airbnb made up for it by refunding our money and giving us an extra credit.

The area was geared toward vacationers, there was a huge amusement park with lots of roller coasters near the train station along with a Thomas the train park.  We didn’t got to the park despite the pleas of our children; we decided that Disney Tokyo was enough for the remainder of the trip.  We only stayed in the area for one full day and two partial days but we ran into the same transportation problems that we have elsewhere, no taxis or ride apps.  We did have a grocery store nearby and our place was really big, due to our late booking cancellation we got an upgrade.

On Father’s day I got treated to breakfast in bed and a pile of beautiful cards and presents that the girls had worked on the night before.  Sunday was our only full day around Mt. Fuji so we went out to the nearby lake and took a ride up the local rope line to the top of Mt. Tenjo to see the best views of Mt. Fuji.  The weather outlook didn’t look good up until leaving the house but once we got on the mountain the clouds began to part and even though we had to wait an hour before the clouds cleared it was a spectacular sight once they did.  We snapped pictures galore and then hiked back down the mountain, I am sure the girls were happy not to have had to hike up.

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We had lunch and then a boat ride on lake Kawaguchi on a speed boat, it was a quick ride but fun and reminded me of Lake Mendota.  The weather had worsened by the time we were home and we had no more Mt. Fuji views.  Julie was having a bit of a fit before heading out to dinner so Mimi, Caroline and I went for sushi, not a bad father’s day.

Once we were done with dinner and started to walk home we turned a corner and all of a sudden Mt. Fuji was just right there.  It was huge and beautiful and larger than life, I began to really understand the Japanese preoccupation and reverence for the volcano.  My girls and Maddy spoiled me and made me feel great on a truly special fathers day.

Next stop Tokyo!!!!

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The Japanese Alps (Matsumoto)

After our marathon day over Mt. Tateyama we had a relaxing day chilling out in our new Airbnb in Matsumoto.  The town is located in a valley running north and south between a range of mountains on each side, lots of beautiful view and a huge flat valley in between.  On our first day in town Maddy went out with Caroline on a run in the morning and explored a park nearby; they motivated me to take my own run and even though the park was straight up a huge hill.  After lunch we went to Matsumoto Castle, the oldest existing original castle in Japan.  It had a distinctly different feel to it including very steep steps and low ceilings, you could get a better understanding of conditions in the 15th and 16th centuries from the castle.

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Afterwards, Maddy and Caroline walked around town looking for flip flops (Caroline broke hers) while the twins and I went home.  One of the drawbacks of Matsumoto was that there were not many cars nor any car hire apps available, we wished that we had rented a car at this point instead of getting a JR pass.

Our place in Matsumoto had a patio over looking the valley which was unusual for us to have outdoor spaces at our lodging especially without anyone else sharing the space.  We enjoyed the space tremendously especially when the girls needed some air and some running around time outside.

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View from our house

The next day we hopped on a train and headed to Nagano a few miles north and where the Olympics were held in 1998.  We had lunch and wandered up to the Zenko-ji Temple.  The temple is where the Olympics were opened with the ringing of a very famous bell.  We were able to catch the daily chime, which was quite ear splitting when you are up close.

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A newly married couple walking up to the temple

The temple is also famous for the door to heaven, a purity ceremony that lets you touch your hand on the door to heaven.  Within the main Buddhist temple you walk down a flight of stairs into total darkness and are told to keep your hand on the wall as you walk through a corridor, eventually you come to a cold metal door handle which signifies the door to heaven.  It was an assault on the senses and makes you mentally push past fears and doubts.  The kids made it through and actually Mimi and Julie wanted to go around again, Caroline had no such interest.  On our way home we stopped in a store and tasted some wine, apparently the valley is one of the most productive wine producing areas in Japan.

The next day we visited the Alps park in Matsumoto which was only a mile away from our house but it was a mile hike up a steep trail, the kids whined so much we decided it was better to walk a mile down hill to the train station to get a taxi up to the park and then hike the mile back down to our house.  The lengths we go to avoid whining.  The park was fun, lots of play structures for the kids, they had a natural history museum with a tower and great views of the valley.  They even had a summer luge track for the kids, they loved it and even had a fun hike back to the house, the kids looking at every bug along the way.  The views were very nice too.

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Our last day in the Matsumoto we spent going to an Onsen one of the many hot springs bath houses.  This one called Sakae-no-yu Asama Onsen was a traditional bath house.  The men and women are separate and there are no clothes allowed, you must go totally naked, you must bathe before going in the tubs and be quiet and respectful.  I had a great time; I got a break from the kids and enjoyed a warm bath.  Actually the kids were well behaved and enjoyed their time with mom.  We had some snacks and headed home.  That night I watched some World Cup Football with the kids, it left me wishing Uncle Sam’s Army was in Russia for the Cup.  Alas we did get the hosting job in 2026.  On to Mt. Fuji and Father’s Day.

Shinkansen and the Alpine Route

Within the span of 36 hours we boarded our first bullet train, rode three local trains, two funiculars, two trolley buses, a ropeway (gondola) and two buses all to get to the top of Mt. Tateyama.  What an adventure.  We departed Kyoto on the Shinkansen the famous bullet train of Japan.  The blurred countryside whizzed past as we travelled to Nagoya on our Shinkansen, I was able to snap a picture as it came in the station.  This version was not the fastest train in the country but still was upwards of 200 km/h.

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After arriving in Nagoya we hopped on a train to Takeyama where we stayed for the night.  It was a quaint town with a river running down the middle.  After eating lunch we split up and explored; Mimi, Caroline and jumped around on the rocks in the river before grabbing some ice cream.  Julie and Maddy took a hike through a wooded area in search of a castle.

The next day we had to get up early and get tickets for the Alpine Route.  We had a minor snafu and thought we were supposed to start the route in Takeyama but actually it was Tateyama… oops.  These are the times when you wish you were on an organized tour but that’s not our style.  We were able to get to the start in Tateyama by 10:00am as it was only an hour train ride.  We then began the trek in earnest, no harm done.  They picked up brochures that you could stamp at all the stops along the way, a great activity for the kids.  We boarded our the first leg of the the journey a funicular and we were off.

Next was a bus which wound it way up the mountain making us all car sick, we passed the Shomyo waterfall, the highest in Japan as well as some very old cedar trees.   The bus ride took us to nearly the top of Mt. Tateyama where they have a huge snow wall, we were not expecting much because it is June but the famous snow wall was still at least 25-30 feet high.

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We then took a tram through the mountain before riding the ropeway (gondola/teleferico) which signaled the beginning of our decent.  After another funicular we walked across the Kurobe dam and boarded another tram.

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Then a bus to the JR train station in Omachi which took us to Matsumoto.  It was a good 12 hour day, the kids did awesome but we were very exhausted.  It was quite an adventure and we could have taken the Shinkansen and been there in 2 hours but then we would have missed all the adventure!!!

Kyoto

Japan’s former imperial city is chocked full of temples most in the category of amazing; there is something like 10 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto alone. After the industrial chaos of Osaka, Kyoto seems elemental, organized and gorgeous.  There seemed like there are temples or shrines around every corner and all of them are beautiful.  The Shinto religion the indigenous religion of Japan is followed by approximately 50% of the population with 35% following Buddhism and the rest something else.  We learned that Shintoism is really a collection of rituals, beliefs and mythology involving nature and ancestors linking the past with the present.

After navigating the Osaka train station we picked up our JR rail passes and we hopped on our first train from Osaka to Kyoto.  It was just a quick 30 minute ride to Kyoto on a commuter trail.  We took a taxi from the train station to our airbnb; a subway and a 14 minute walk seemed too much for the girls especially in an unfamiliar city, still no Uber.  After dropping our bags off and eating some sushi for lunch (Maddy and Julie had curry) we attempted to make it to the Hijo-jo Castle but only made it so far as a local playground.  We grabbed some groceries on our way home, it’s nice to have a kitchen again especially in expensive Japan.

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Kyoto Train Station – a temple in it’s own right

On our first full day in Kyoto we went out to the Arashiyama bamboo forest and the famous Tenryo-ji Temple our first UNESCO site in Kyoto (only 10 more to go).  The green bamboo forest had trails that wound through the forest and the light that day produced an amazing effect leading your eyes up in the air.

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We had lunch at the local seven-11; I know right but this seems to be a thing in Japan.  It’s easier to get the girls to eat something there and stave off meltdowns for at least a few hours.  We walked through the Tenryu-ji Temple adjacent to the bamboo forest and one of the oldest and most revered temples in Japan.  The temple was incredibly beautiful with a pond and running stream surrounded with traditional style Japanese buildings and beautiful moss gardens.  It was a very tranquil place to visit, we tried not to break the silence too many times; kids will be kids though.

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Next we crossed the Katsura River to hike up the other side of the river to see a group of Macaques and a beautiful view point of Kyoto.  The kids were exhausted so we headed home on the city tram way.

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That afternoon when everyone else rested I went out exploring.  I headed toward the Imperial Palace but it was already closing by the time I got there so I was only able to walk around the gardens a bit.  Afterward the palace I wandered over to the confluence of the Takano River and Kamo Rivers, where I enjoyed the final rays of sunshine and a relaxing break.  I grabbed some quick dinner and groceries for breakfast and headed home.

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The next day was a bit of a down day after pushing the girls to so many spots the day before so we  just did a quick stroll through the Nishiki Market in the afternoon.  The market was in one of the covered walking malls that are so popular in Japan.  The stalls were more sophisticated looking with assortments of dried fish, pickled radishes, green tea flavored everything and soft serve ice cream around every bend.  They even had a few rock stores for me, but almost everything in the stores was from somewhere else.  Maddy has some time to herself that afternoon and had a massage and walked around to some temples.

Our next adventure was taking a train ride to Nara an imperial capital of Japan prior to Kyoto.  We used our JR passes at the train station and hopped on a train south.  Although we were warned to take our passports with the JR tickets although they never checked them and we just passed around the turn-styles and headed to the trains.  Once we arrived in Nara we quickly found lots of the docile deer that makes the city famous and we were able to pet them and feed them.  A park with the deer was originally established in the 6th century when the town was the feudal capital of Japan.  There was also an impressive pagoda and palace grounds.  The deer have been trained to bow prior to receiving their food, it’s pretty hilarious.  Only in Japan.

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Deer selfie

Our destination the next day was just a short walk from our house; the Hijo-jo Castle was built in 1603 as the residence for the first shogun of the Edo period (1603-1867).  We kept our outing short after a somewhat long day to Nara the day before but we lasted long enough to complete the tour through the house and walk along the ramparts.  It was a beautiful castle and another UNESCO site but not quite as impressive as the Osaka Castle.  On our way out we strolled through plum and cherry tree orchards, which reminded us a bit of home.

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Entrance to the Hijo-jo Castle

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After a few days of running around with the kids we chilled out in our apartment for the most part.  I took advantage of everyone’s laziness and temple fatigue and got out and toured some on my own.  My target was Kiyomizu-dera, on the eastern side of the city, many of the best temples are built on this western facing hillside taking advantage of water sources and beautiful views.  After being dropped off by the bus I walked through the Yasaka Shrine, there were lots of tourist even with the overcast day.

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Trying to avoid the majority of the crowds I slipped into the Kodai-ji Zen Buddhist Temple and took a walk around; there were very few people so I really got the place to myself which enhanced the experience so much.  The temple had some amazing features and it wasn’t really featured on any tourist info; there was a Zen rock garden, foot bridges, bamboo forest, prayer  and a huge dragon head sticking out of the ground.

Next I climbed through the shopping area at the bottom of Kiyomizu-dera, mostly kitchy shops but some were pretty upscale.  I pushed through the pedestrian traffic so I had enough time to see the sights.   They didn’t disappoint, there was a massive orange pagoda, with several temples, and a grave yard overlooking the city of Kyoto.  Even after visiting many temples over the last 10 days I was impressed.  I walked down through the graveyard then down through Otani Hombyo temple; I would swear there is a temple every 20 feet in this city.

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I walked home passing through Gion Corner, with really small walking streets.  There were people waiting to see if they could spot a Gesha, apparent it is a well known spot for seeing them in between engagements.  I didn’t see one, not that I hung out waiting for one.

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I was off to walk along the river and have some sushi before heading home to put the kids to bed.

On our last day in Kyoto we decided that we couldn’t miss Fushimi Inari, the shrine with distinctive vermilion gates that meander up the mountain on the eastern side of the city.  It was an amazing spot and the weather was beautiful.  We rang the bells in the temple to awaken the spirits and walked through several long sections of gates before Julie and Caroline and I decided to head home.  Maddy and Mimi went on a longer hike further up the hill.  The rest of the day was spent packing and cleaning our apartment; we were headed to the mountains the next day.

Japan and the End of Home School

At first Japan didn’t seem so different as we walked along the people movers in the airport; we were the only white people coming from Hong Kong to Japan but that would make sense right?  As we delved deeper into the country we noticed a few things; there is technology everywhere, the streets are immaculate, all rules are obeyed and people are incredibly polite.  Things are much more expensive too.  After a quick discussion we decided not to activate our JR (Japan Rail) Passes so as to have them for the final three weeks, so we grabbed a taxi toward our apartment rental for 4 days in Osaka.

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Osaka Castle

We settled in after having no trouble finding our rental place in Osaka… the toilet and ordering food was another thing.  The fancy Japanese toilets are really a thing: a warm toilet seat, a retractable arm that sprays water up your %$$ with a push of a button, a sink on top of the toilet where you can wash your hands while refilling the tank and a myriad of other options at the push of a button.  It will hand you a cup of coffee and a magazine too… ok that one I made up.  I think we need one at home in Middleton.  We grabbed dinner and purchased 4 dishes and two beers out of a vending machine, the dishes were thankfully delivered by real people.  The girls didn’t take to the food but I enjoyed it, I think I ate everyone’s miso soup.  The girls are experts with chop sticks which is good, not a fork in sight.

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The next day we finished our penultimate day of school, it was a bit of a struggle;  Caroline had the first final of her schooling.   From our apartment we saw a pink garbage truck that was playing what we would consider ice cream truck music. That was followed by a school letting out with girls and boys wearing ubiquitous yellow hats, the culture change is a bit surprising.  There are not that many people who speak English so our google translate is getting a workout.  The neighborhood we ended up is residential but 5 streets over there it gets a bit dodgy especially near the train station and a few more streets beyond that Maddy accidentally walked through a red light district.

After school Caroline and I went out for an adventure, we were looking for map stores and interesting antique stores in the Dotonbori neighborhood.  We met up with Maddy and the twins for dinner and ate at a merry go round sushi place.  You sit in front of a conveyor belt that constantly sends sushi around and you grab what you want.  It was tons of fun and the kids ate so much fish.  It will be good brain food for the last day of school.

Our last day of school was not without arguments, cajoling and some fits, but we finished.  I am not sure who is happier about finishing the parents or the kids.  The kids were treated to McDonalds and slushies for finishing school.  The day was a beautiful 80 degrees and sunny so we headed over and toured the Osaka castle a massive fortress built in 1583, constructed with two moats.  We ate dinner at home, except I went out for some local dishes a bit later.

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That is a beautiful piece of Shist… oh and the castle is nice too.

Our last day in Osaka we visited the Shitennoji buddhist temple.  We got a blessing at the entrance to the temple and then stopped at a water fountain and performed a purification ritual, most temples have a water feature where you can use the water to rinse your hands and drink a bit of water to purify your mouth.  We didn’t realize it was a purifying ritual at first so we poured it on the back of our necks to get cooled off.  The Shitennoji temple was originally built in 593 AD, but the pagoda was under construction so we didn’t get the iconic photos we were hopping for.

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We walked home from the temple and wandered through a park that was a battle field site over a thousand years ago then crossed a beautiful bridge that lead to the Osaka museum of fine arts.  We did a quick tour and saw some beautiful water color landscape paintings (sorry no pictures allowed).  After that we headed home and relaxed before heading out to dinner.

When we tried to go out later for dinner Julie was having a bit of a fit, I think she was still unwinding from finishing school, so she stayed home with Maddy.  Mimi, C and I went for dinner, we are the sushi crew so when in Japan… We walked to the Tsutenkaku neighborhood and ate lots of Nigiri (a small bed of rice with sushimi on top) our favorite.  The neighborhood had a bunch of walking streets with lots of young people walking around with a big tower in the middle.  After dinner we headed home and the girls destroyed their school workbooks (see the video on my facebook page) before packing up for the train ride to Kyoto the next day.

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Hong Kong

Technically our second stop in China, Hong Kong is a separate administrative state within China, which lucky for us doesn’t require a visa.  The city is spread between an archipelago south of the Pearl River and is centered around Victoria Harbor.  The Harbor is essentially a strait between Hong Kong Island to the south and Kowloon to the north.  The city is very cosmopolitan with lots of cultural activities surrounded by beautiful vistas and lots of nature.  My impression of Hong Kong was basically China light; we were able to talk to people in English and it had a very western feel likely due to it’s history as a British colony ending with a return to China in 1997.  Of all the cities we have been to it reminds me of NYC the most, even though no city can really be compared to New York.

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We rented another Airbnb, it was a little apartment in the Tin Hau neighborhood on the island of Hong Kong, we entered the apartment through this small stairs entry that was used by a young man selling toys during the day, every little space is used for commerce here.  The apartment had enough space for us to sleep and eat and do school, so it was perfect.  The kitchen was out the back door and into an unconditioned space. We assumed this was typical for China.

Our first day in Hong Kong we settled in to do some school, Maddy completed some work and then we went out to explore Victoria Park, which was two blocks from our apartment. It has a huge sports complex with swimming, tennis and a huge garden abutting the coast. We played on a few play grounds and exercise parks before heading home.  That night we went out to eat then took a ride on the Ferris wheel along the bay and stayed for ice cream and a laser light show that had lights coordinated between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.  The light show was less than impressive.

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Our second day we completed school and visited a science museum and stopped by the Bruce Lee statue over near Kowloon Bay where Bruce Lee was raised.

img_9030The next day after finishing school we split up the girls and rode a tram up and down the island; Caroline and I toured hidden valley and counted Teslas (there are tons of them).  We got off at the western market.  It was a bit of a dud if you ask me except for the fabric level which my mother would have loved. Afterwards we walked to an antique souvenir street where Caroline and I had fun looking at all the touristy antiques, but we didn’t buy anything other than a replica 1950’s map of Hong Kong.

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The next day we went out to Shek-O beach and met up with one of Maddy’s friends from business school and her family and another family with kids of similar ages. We played on the beach for a while then got dinner with the families before grabbing a taxi to the other side of the island.


The next day we headed to the “The Peak” the highest point in Hong Kong and of course had take the tram up to the top and attempt some hiking.  The views from the top were amazing.  We actually took a bus up to the top and then rode the tram down as was recommended by our friends.  The kids got some well deserved ice cream at the top but we didn’t get tickets for the 360 degree cantilevered outlook probably just as well.

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View of Victoria Harbor with Kowloon in the distance.

Our last day before leaving Hong Kong we visited the Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan Buddha. We rode the subway out to Lantau Island before hoping on a gondola lift out to the monastery.  It was one of the most beautiful monasteries I have ever seen… sorry Uncle Paul, yours is pretty awesome too.

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Cabilao

The day after Maddy’s birthday we set off from Oslob to the dive resort of Polaris on the island of Cabilao just off the coast of Bohol in the Philippines.  We hired a driver from the place we stayed in Oslob and drove about an hour and a half north to Argao where we were to meet the boat that took us to the island.

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It took a few tries to find the right place where the Polaris boat docked but we finally found it.  We grabbed some lunch and waited for the boat to depart.  They were about to shove off when our friends Sharon and Scott showed up looking very tired.  They had told us about this resort so we were glad to see them, we had arranged to meet up when we were all in Koh Lanta, Thailand.  We found out from them that they had been up most the night flying to Cebu with sick kids and then got up early to get their daughter’s fever check for Dengue.  They were in Koh Lanta with us so they have a healthy appreciation for Dengue as well, but all was negative and all they needed was a couple nights rest.

We got to the resort and it was amazing; gorgeous palm trees, turquoise waters, a pool and a nice area for the kids to run wild.  It was a great spot to relax and unwind for a bit.  They also had great diving just off the coast, some of the best coral wall diving, I’ve ever done.

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They advertise lots of micro sea-life, not too much big stuff is left in the waters, due to over fishing.  So we got lots of pictures of the smallest most interesting crabs and shrimp you have ever seen.

 

 

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This Ghost Pipefish was one of the coolest little animals that we found on the reef.

We did see a few turtles and we heard that some other friends that joined us later (Charlotte and Jasper) saw a whale shark during their dive, So jealous.  We ate at the resort restaurant for most of our meals and the kids enjoyed the food, chicken fingers and spaghetti mostly.  I’m sure the kitchen enjoyed all the special request from the kids.  Day in the life I guess.

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We were there for 10 days and it was really gorgeous weather the whole time, the sunsets were incredible almost every night.  We did venture out and go on a tour on the neighboring island of Bohol to visit the Chocolate Hills that was recommended by my friend Jen Dyen.  The hills were a mostly green (they look brown during the dry season) but other than that they were beautiful.  They are a limestone formation that eroding in a very interesting way.

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We visited a butterfly museum, a hanging bridge and a tarsier sanctuary.  The kids loved visiting the tarsiers, they are really tiny nocturnal primates that have huge eyes.  There were only a few for us to see on the path in the preserve but we were able to see 6 of them.  They were so tiny and cute, one even woke up to show us his eyes.

They rest of the time we enjoyed swimming, school, scuba and sunsets at Polaris.  It was a perfect spot for the kids to run free and collect hermit crabs, have treasure hunt or play chess (on the huge chess board).  We were certainly sad to leave the island and our friends there but Hong Kong awaits.  So long to southeast Asia, only one month left on our journey.

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Cake by the Ocean!

We grabbed a taxi outside our apartment and headed to the airport in KK and met a very interesting American in line at the airport.  He was an older gentleman by the name of Johnny who went from island to island in South East Asia spreading his Christian ideals.  He showed us pictures of his boat and how it got destroyed in a Typhoon and that he was on his way to the Philippines to get a flying boat.   It turns out he was trying to purchase a very small one prop/one wing boat for his travels.  It sounded like a recipe for disaster to me, but to each their own.  We chatted with him on the plane and said farewell once we got to Manila.  We heard later that he was not able to purchase his plane.  Just as well.

We passed through customs no problem and actually they stamped my passport on the first page, meaning that they didn’t take up any of the last few spot in my passport.  I only have ten, maybe twelve spots left in my passport and we have at least three countries to go (six more stamps) so this was the break I needed just in case we ran into a customs agent having a bad day and decided not to let me into a country because of my limited pages.  We exited the international gates and took a bus around to domestic but after having no trouble getting tickets or passing through security we got delayed getting to our Cebu flight.  At one point they told us we were delayed 4 hours but it ended up only being delayed 2 hours.  We had fun with the crazy bus in the airport and had a crappy pizza dinner, ah travel.

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Once we arrived in on the island of Cebu in Cebu city we hopped a taxi and checked into our hotel for the night above a seven-eleven.  This seven-eleven just happened to be the party spot in the neighborhood, after putting the kids to bed and arranged our car for the next day I popped down for some breakfast supplies and I found a party going on.  There was about 20-30 young people drinking and chatting and buy stuff from the store.  They were well behaved, and you couldn’t hear them from our room so…. carry on.

The next day our driver was very prompt, actually he was two hours early.  We finished our breakfast and packed up our stuff and then took off an hour ahead of schedule, and sat in traffic on our way to Oslob a town near the southern tip of Cebu island.  Once we fully got out of Cebu City the traffic eased up and we began to see the beauty of the Philippines.  Lots of palm trees, green hills, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches.   We were back on the ring of fire after a quick pit stop in Borneo, bringing us more volcano vistas.

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We checked into Saschas Resort near the town of Oslob, we booked the place because it had a pool with a slide where the kids could play and the adults could sit and enjoy the ocean.  The place was great except that it was half under renovations, but in our usual laid back style we didn’t let it bother us.  We were only there for 4 nights anyway.

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Our second day there was filled with finishing school and lots of relaxing and pool time after the last couple days of travel.  I also was making last minute preparations for Maddy’s birthday.  We had dinner in the small town of Oslob, there was only a few places to eat or at least only a few that would suit us.  It looked like most of the locals ate from the barbecues that were set up on the main road.  The girls took a look at the grills and decided against all the varieties of fish and meat that were on offer, so we ended up with pizza.

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Downtown Oslob barbecue 

The next day we went on a tour of the local water fall, which was a few miles down the road.  We took one of the ever present motorcycles with a large metal side car.  The five of us piled in and then had to transfer to two single motor bike to make it up the hill to the water fall, we then had a ½ mile hike into the jungle.  It was worth the effort, the water fall was amazing, very cold water but the blue hues and streams of tumbling water was mesmerizing.  The girls got a bit cold because we were in the shade the entire time so we didn’t stay more than ½ hour.  We had dinner at our resort and reserved our car for the swimming with whale sharks the next morning.

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We got up at 5:30am on Maddy’s birthday, not much after dawn and roused the kids, we threw on our clothes, ate a bit of banana bread and headed 5 miles south where lots of people began converging.  Our driver helped us to navigate through the lines people.  We acquired a mask and snorkel, signed in and then started looking for our assigned boat.  We also got a bit of instruction about staying outside of a 3 meter buffer zone with the sharks and that we were not allowed to apply sunscreen, because the chemicals bother the whale sharks.

We finally boarded our boat and paddled out to the viewing area, our boat was part of a “U” shape with 5-6 other boats in a stationary formation and then several other boats feeding the sharks started moving on the outside of the “U” and we began to see the sharks.  We jumped into the water and got our first view of the largest non-mammal vertebrates in the world.  Even the babies were 15-20 feet long and the biggest was 30-35 feet.  It was hard not to image them just swimming over and swallowing you, but of course they are very gentile creatures and only eat tiny krill.  The kids all jumped in and got a view, and were surprisingly brave, and were gushing about how amazing it was once we were done.

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Even though the limited 30 minute experience was incredible, both Maddy and I were left with a bit of an empty feeling with the staged nature of the shark viewing.  We both agreed that we would love to have a spontaneous encounter with one of the whale sharks on a dive.  The whale sharks are only allowed to be fed in this manor for half the day and then find food for themselves in the afternoon to allow for natural behavior.  Once we finished we bought some donuts from a little stand with Nutella filling, a tasty cherry to our shark Sunday.

We were finished and back to our hotel by 7am, and felt we had a whole day adventure and didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  So we had breakfast, more pool time and gave Maddy some birthday love.  We lounged around, until around 11am then went out to lunch at a restaurant in the town and walked around the local basilica.  After we had our fill of walking and sun we headed back to our pool, by this time the cake that I had ordered had arrived and we drank a bit of bubbly to celebrate Maddy and gave her a few presents.  We finally ate our cake by the ocean and relaxed around the pool and enjoyed an amazing day of sun and sea.

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The next day we packed up our things to travel to the island of Cabilao just across the channel from Cebu toward Bohol.  This is where we were to meet our friends Sharon and Scott and enjoy 10 days of relaxing and diving.