Monday, April 29, 2013

One Cheap Date!!

Out of a sense of fun, and nostalgia, we went to the horse races, at Happy Valley Racecourse, along with the rest of Hong Kong!! And man, what a cheap (and very fun) date it was indeed!! After a 10 minute walk from Christian and Megan's apartment, we rode the tram (or the "clackety clack" as I have taken to calling it) to Happy Valley for a whopping $2.30 HKD (about $.30 US), and after a bank-blowing entry fee of $10 HKD ($1.25 USD) we were in!! 4 beers (among 2 of us, for the evening) for another $32 HKD each, and we were off to the races (so to speak)!

We bet on two horses in race 5 (Nostalgia - because that's what we were at the track for, to walk in George and Mary's steps, and Twin Turbo - because obviously!). Twin Turbo did pretty well, but 4th place doesn't win anything, and Nostalgia did about as well as you would think, seeing as nostalgia isn't really an emotion that comes racing into the finish line. He sauntered across the line rather lazily, 2 full horse lengths behind the others, losing us $10 HKD.

For race 6, we bet $20 HKD on Happy Champion (again, pretty obvious picking here) to "place" (there is no bet for "show" in Hong Kong). We got settled in to wait for the race to start, and then they were off! Happy Champion wasn't even in the first half of the pack until the final stretch, as he moved into position. And then, by a horse's nose, he came in 3rd place. We lost!! Or so we thought. Turns out placing a bet to "place" in the US means the horse needs to come in 1st or 2nd. But in Hong Kong, it means they need to come in 1st, 2nd or 3rd. We won!!

All in all, we placed $40 HKD in bets, and won $36, for a total loss of $4 HKD (yep, that's about $0.60 US). And the grand total for an awesome date out on the town including drinks? $161 HKD...or $23 US. Boo yah!

And, it turns out, as I review George and Mary's book after our visit to the racecourse, that we were there just  102 years and one day after they were!! Reading their description of Happy Vally being to the right of Hong Kong makes it so clear how much this city has grown since then, as the racecourse is smack dab in the middle of Hong Kong now.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hong Kong from the Harbor

On April 17, we arrived in Hong Kong and started taking in the sights (and what an amazing city this is!), and I am moved by thinking about the city that George and Mary saw 102 years ago. Although the weather is not hellish by any means, it is hot and very sticky, and the advent of air conditioning has surely helped the rapid expansion on the island.

But for a side by side comparison, here's their 1911 photo of the city from the harbor, and ours. Although I'm not sure exactly where they took the photo from, or where exactly its directed, I get the sense those details don't matter too much in the comparison.

Last days in Tokyo

At 10 days of Japanese fun, it was time for our time in Tokyo to come to an end! There are a few little stories we want to share before we start blogging about our adventures in Hong Kong!!

For our last full day in Tokyo, we went to a Giants baseball game (yes, like the San Francisco Giants!). The team was modeled after the Giants (in NY then), with the same logo design, team colors, and awesome fan base. And going to the baseball game in Tokyo was a fabulous experience! We bought our tickets at a machine in a 7-11, but the machine does not have english translation, so we asked the clerk at the 7-11 to help us and with his limited English and our non-existent Japanese, we got some great ticketS, and we were off to the game! True to the rest of our experiences in Japan, Tokyo Dome is incredibly clean (you could eat off the floor if you were so inclined!) and the fans are incredibly enthusiastic. The Japanese seem to have taken American baseball and added their favorite pieces from American football - a brass band in the stands for each team, and cheerleaders who come onto the field for a pompom-fueled show at the 7th inning stretch. A must-do for a baseball fan visiting Tokyo!!

After the game, we went back to our apartment, where our hosts, Yuji and Akiko had prepared for a lovely going-away dinner with us. They had planned on making Okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) and Yakisoba noodles, both made on a hotplate at the dinner table (which is an awesome way to cook with guests, because no one is stuck in the kitchen!). As they were pulling the different hotplate accessories out of the closet to get the right ones, we remarked that they had one for making Takoyaki (octopus pancake balls). Yuji asked, "do you like Takoyaki?" and we said, "oh, yes!" and he grabbed his bike helmet and said, "I will go to the store for octopus! We will also make takoyaki!" and before we could protest (we were just standing in awe), he was gone! Off to the store to procure us an octopus.
Akiko and the art of Okinomiyaki
And when he returned, we had a Japanese home feast! Okonomiyaki with shrimp and pork, and sauces on top, followed by Takoyaki with dried shrimps, crispy rice, and bonito flakes, finished with a plate of yakisoba noodles with pork and green onions. Stuffed to the gills, it was time to teach our hosts how to play dominoes, and after the boys so viciously crushed the girls, it was time for bed, and off to Hong Kong in the morning.

Working on our Takoyaki skills
Our happy hosts, and wonderful teachers!
A note on cost, now that we're at the end of this leg: we had heard over and over how expensive Japan would be, and although it was more costly than our overall trip budget can handle long term, at $210 USD per day, we found that it can be enjoyed on a tight budget. We had several inexpensive days (staying in an apartment through, renting bikes, visiting museums and heritage sites, and eating in small, casual places) and some more splurgey days (staying in the Ryokans, long train trips out of Tokyo, and souvenir shopping).

All in all, we both absolutely loved Japan, are both sad about moving on, and already excited for our next trip back. Between the incredibly friendly and open people, the delicious food, the severe cleanliness of everything, and the fascinating culture and history, Japan was a perfect country to start our world adventure!

Sunday, April 21, 2013


We returned to Tokyo after our overnight stay in Hakone, to realize we wanted a few more days out of the city. An analysis of train travel costs, weather patterns, and advice from our hosts led us to Nikko, and we are so glad it did!! Nikko is a town in the mountains, about 2 hours north of Tokyo, and its big (and well-deserved) claim to fame is that is has about a billion UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And we were going to see them ALL!!

Actually, we just wanted to take some more time soaking in an onsen! We found another wonderful Ryokan, Akarinoyado Villa Revage, run by a lovely couple on the eastern end of Nikko. We arrived before it was possible to check in, so we started our time in Nikko with a hike to Jakko Falls (really more of a nature walk up a road than a hike), and found quite the adventure! As we turned up the road towards the waterfall and looked out over a lovely stream, we saw a monkey!! And then another, and another, until we realized that we were looking across the stream at a pack (is that the right term?) of wild monkeys! Sadly, our monkey pictures didn't really turn out spectacularly, but it was a great walk!

Jakko Falls
We headed back to the Villa for some onsen and an absolutely delicious dinner prepared by our host, Kono-san. Up early (with another soak!) the next morning, it was time to see some culture!! We hopped a bus down to central Nikko, where the World Heritage Sites are, and bought a combination ticket to see the main temples and shrines: Futarasan-jinja, Tôshôgu, and Rinnô-ji. The sites were stunning arrays of color, nestled into the forest, with some amazing carvings. 
Clockwise from top left: Rinno-ji temple detail, the God of Thunder, See/Speak/Hear no evil monkeys, grave markers at the gravesite of self-immolation monks, Shinkyo bridge, at the center of Nikko

One claim to fame is that the "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" monkeys are carved on the stable house here. What I didn't know was that the panel is just one of a story of a man's life, and refers to the fact that children should not see, speak or hear any evil. The other panels depict pieces of a man's life (nurturing from mother, seeking independence, experiencing heartbreak, and falling in love. One of the last panels was our favorite, and depicts a newly married couple (of monkeys) riding the waves of life's troubles together, to safely make it to calm waters. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Weekend in Hakone

After 5 busy, hectic days in Tokyo, we decided it was time for a break (I know, our life of perpetual vacation is so hard, we needed to take a vacation from it!). So off to the idyllic mountain village of Hakone we went! 

We hopped on the aptly named RomanceCar train bound for Hakone, and then transferred for an hour long bus to get up into the mountains (easily the prettiest bus ride I have ever taken!). We wound through some very twisty mountain passes, through Japanese Maples, Cherry Blossom trees and bamboo forests, before arriving at our ridiculously charming destination, the Fuji-Hakone Guest House. 

We got set up for our two evening reservations in the Onsens (hot springs that go straight out of the mountain, sulfur, minerals and all, right into the tubs in the inn, for our bathing pleasure!), and then walked into town to lunch on the best pot stickers either of us have ever eaten. A game of dominoes (in which Cory crushed Molly in the most disgusting way) and couple of cold beers later, we were back at the inn to relax on our tatami mats (Japanese futons on the floor), put on our yukata (Japanese pajamas, as they described them), and take a soak in the onset (hot spring tub).  When we decide we need to relax, we do it hardcore!! :)

The next day, we awoke to another soak in the onsen, ate a hearty breakfast and took off to find Fujisan (Mt Fuji). After a two hour hike straight up the side of Mt Kintoki (during which we were not sure it would be clear enough to see Fuji once we finally got to the top), we crested the mountain, and there was Fujisan in all her glory! Thankfully, there was a tea house at the top, where we got a tray of tea to enjoy Fujisan (best tea party view ever!!). 

Then we said our goodbyes and scrambled down the mountain intent on completing the Hakone Circuit, a local tourist activity/trap that has been set up for taking different modes of transit to see the surrounding area. We started by bus (the lamest part for sure) to the cable car station (like a funicular), which took us to the Ropeway (gondola - we felt like we were in Tahoe!), and finally to the pirate ship. Yes, that's right. Pirate ship. And like any good tourist trap, the offer you the opportunity to upgrade your ticket for the pirate ship to first class for a mere $4! And like any good husband who's wife has been looking forward to the pirate ship all day, he bought us the upgrade (swoon!) and boy was it worth it!!

After all the adventuring, we managed to get the last bus back to Hakone station and made our way back to Tokyo after a restful night and adventurous day.  As our train sped us back to Tokyo we watched as the sun set over Mount Fuji, a beautiful end to a blissful trip.

Tips for your own Hakone trip:
Unless your really strapped for cash, upgrade your ticket to the Romance Car; you won't regret it!

The Hakone Free Pass is a really good deal and makes it really easy to get around Hakone by all the transit options available.

We would definitely stay at the Fuji-Hakone Guest House; it is a very traveler friendly Ryokan with wonderfully comfortable Tatami Mat beds.  The Owners and the staff are wonderful - they helped us figure out where to go for dinner and also where the best hiking paths were.  Also Fuji-Hakone Guest House is one of the few places we researched that have private onsens for reservation; most of the other hot spring baths are either male or female only.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ramen - True Japanese Style!

After years of eating ramen back home (both the 10 cent kind and the awesome Izakaya kind), we were both excited to try Ramen in Japan. There are several types of Ramen here - different types of broth, thickness of noodles, topping options, and some with the noodles in the soup, others where you dip the noodles in the broth before eating (Tsukemen Ramen).

Cory ordering Ramen tickets

For our first Ramen, we weren't so concerned with which type - we just wanted an authentic Japanese Ramen experience, and boy did we get one! Although every Ramen shop does not operate this way, there is a trend of ticket shops. You buy a Ramen ticket from a vending machine outside the shop, paying for the size you want, extra noodles, extra garlic, seaweed sheets, etc. And of course there is a button for beer. Not a size or brand of beer…just beer.
So you pay the machine, get your tickets, and then go inside the shop and find your seat. At this particular Ramen shop we tried, Ichiran, there were no tables inside. Each seat was at what looked like a study carrel in a library, with an opening in the wall in front. We sat down and gave our tickets to a man behind the opening (whose face we never saw!) and then beer appeared, then a big steaming bowl of Ramen! Then the curtain quickly shut and we were left to slurp our noodles in peace.

My little Ramen haven - we were able to open our divider a little so we could have lunch together!
All the Ramen carrels at Ichiran
In a feat of good experience fortune, Cory had ordered a ticket for extra noodles. Once he had finished half his broth, the man behind the curtain instructed him to put a little metal tray on top of a section of his table, alerting the staff that he was ready for his noodles. And what happened when Cory put the little tray on the table? A pretty little horn melody sounded in the restaurant and a few seconds later, a bowl of hot noodles popped out from behind the little curtain! And as we continued lunch, you could hear by the horn melodies that lots of diners were hungry for extra noodles that day.

The final delicious product
All in all, quite the experience! Plus, Cory hit is head on the ceiling on his way out, so a true Japanese experience for us :)


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Grabbing Tokyo by the Rising Suns

Imagine waking up one morning and thinking, "I think I'll go for a bike ride today...through Times Square. On a beach cruiser. On the sidewalk". Yep, we rented bikes and rode through downtown Tokyo today, and managed to neither die nor kill anyone in the process. Bully for us!

Tokyo is very much set up for biking all over. Since so many people here do not have cars and use only trains and bicycles to get around, pedestrians and drivers expect to see bikers everywhere. And since the custom is for bikes to be on the sidewalks with pedestrians, its less intimidating for outsiders to bike. And at the equivalent of $5 per day to rent a bike, it's incredibly affordable!

However, all those niceties do not make the whole thing any less terrifying! Because although bikes are supposed to ride on the sidewalks, and there are bike lanes on some of the sidewalks, and bike lanes at every street crossing, pedestrians could not care one bit, and meander along in the bike lanes, texting, teetering side to side, and looking generally oblivious. So the bikes just weave around them at break-neck speeds.

On a completely unrelated note, the Japanese are impressive with their attempt to make daily life completely integrated for those with vision problems (though not mobility problems - Tokyo is incredibly inaccessible). On all sidewalks, in buildings and in the subway, there are yellow grooves in the floor which blind people can use to ensure they are in a walkway appropriately. Which is awesome! It becomes less awesome when you're biking all over the city and trying to avoid the grooves in the ground, the people on the sidewalk, the cars in the road, and the local zooming toward you on his bike, waiting for you to flinch first.

My advice? Definitely go for a bike ride in Tokyo :)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tokyo, Arrival and first Full Day

It was my goal that our first real on-the-trip blog entry would be witty, fantastical, and downright awesome. Then we got here and our ADD brains took over our bodies, and we have been running non-stop since we got off the plane! So I write this mildly disjointed post with achy feet and a happy soul.

My first impressions of Tokyo are these:

- Every Japanese person we have interacted with has been incredibly kind and patient with us, despite the wide language barrier. Case in point, the following is a photo of the man at the train station who helped us buy our multi-day train passes. He just popped out of the wall!!

- Tokyo is incredibly clean, despite the complete lack of trash cans anywhere! I don't know if people just make less trash, or if they carry it around with themselves like I have started doing, but we can't figure out how the place is so clean!

- There is such an incredible culture of fun and downright cuteness. We had heard about cat cafes before we came, cafes that are filled with kittens you can pet while you dine. Then we saw a billboard with cats and the letters "8F" so we crossed the street, found the elevator, went to the 8th floor, and...nothing. The buildings here are so tall and narrow that we were in the wrong one! So, we went back down, went to the next building, elevator to the 8th floor, and we were smack dab in a father-daughter run cat cafe. Though none were as cute as the lovies we left behind in the US, it was a hilarious and delightful experience!

- It is a blessing for the language barrier that the Japanese have a culture of plastic food outside restaurants with prices listed. We went to lunch yesterday at a restaurant with no picture menus and an english menu that clearly did not match the Japanese menu, so Cory went back outside, took a photo of the plastic entrees we wanted with his iphone and then showed the server. Done and done!! And who is to thank for all the plastic food? The plastic food shops of Kappabashi-Dori, of course! Below is a photo of one of the shops we went to...they even make plastic pizzas and pasta dishes for the Italian restaurants here!

And lest you think we have accomplished nothing of high culture, we did go to a temple on our first real morning, which was beautiful. We went through all the customs of temple visiting after watching the other tourists who knew what they were doing. First we paid 100 yen (about $1 US) for a fortune (which incidentally told us it's "good to take a trip") and then Cory tied it to a rack where it would help come true (I assume...we just did what everyone else was doing!). We also washed our hands and were bathed in incense smoke prior to entering the temple, as methods of cleansing.

Unfortunately, we missed the Cherry Blossoms by about two weeks, but that has not made the city and its parks (Uneo Park below) any less beautiful! And there have been a few late bloomers around town...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Drifting through the Far East

Yep. My mind has officially been blown.

My Dad sauntered into the kitchen over the weekend, with a big, old (102 years old, to be exact) book called Drifting Through the Far East. Turns out my great great grandparents went on a trip to Asia in 1911, and wrote a book detailing their experiences. Pretty cool, but here's what's mind blowing:

1. The people who did this trip were George Pillsbury and Mary Boyden Pillsbury. And who was I named after? Mary Boyden herself. I never liked the name because I had no connection to Mary, but boy do I now!

2. George and Mary traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, and China, among other places, which happen to also be our first stops on our big adventure!

3. They arrived in Japan on April 7, 1911. We'll be arriving in Japan on April 6, 2013.

4. They wrote a chilling Forward to their book, which details exactly how I feel about our trip. Below is a photo of the forward, but in the event your eyes aren't so hot, here's what it says:

The following pages have been written both as a labor of love and a most delightful renewing of the experiences and pleasures we (my wife and I) enjoyed, while drifting through the Far East in an absolutely irresponsible and carefree way. We made no effort to "study the people" - their history was to us an uncut book - their politics concerned us not at all.

That Japan had become a World Power, in a marvellously short time, gave us no thought, only so far as their adoption of western methods in railroads and hotels, added to our personal comfort in traveling from place to place and gave us the conveniences to which we were accustomed. The object of the journey was the enjoyment, the pleasure, the freshness of travel through a land of ancient and unique civilization absolutely its own. Its art, its house life, its religious monuments, its cherry blossoms, its savor of strangeness, all this we did see and enjoy to the very utmost limit, stamping on our minds and memories, impressions that will remain vivid and living for the rest of our lives. It has been written for us, for our children and for our children's children.

As the years pass, this may preserve a record of what Japan was in the year 1911, before the devastating hand of progress had been laid too heavily on that unique, altogether beautiful land of Bushido.

The only challenge with this mind boggling traverse along my ancestor's path is attempting to convey our experiences through this blog with as much fabulous language as George and Mary conveyed theirs. I hope our blog finds its way to our children's children's children's children as well!

I'll end on a quote from the second page of the book, which identifies just exactly how I've been feeling:

[From Christmas unti we left], we lived in a constant fever of anticipation and preparation for, to us, a most outstanding voyage.