Posts Tagged “Travel”

News flash: Yuko and I will be in Las Vegas for New Year’s. We’re both leaving on December 26th, but because I managed to get more time off than her, she’s coming back January 4th, and I’m coming back January 15th.

This will be Yuko’s second time in Las Vegas (and first time with a native), so we started putting together a list of things we have to do and see in her few short days in town. Here’s what we have so far. Feel free to comment or make suggestions!

  • Shooting (she’s never even seen a real gun)
  • Meet my friends (and see where they live, if possible)
  • Clubbing (Japanese clubs are very different affairs)
  • Autocross/track day (wanted to, but I don’t think we’ll have the opportunity)
  • Cirque du Soliel (If you can hook us up with tickets to any show, even though I’ve seen Mystere three times, let me know)
  • Strip club (She’s semi-interested… anybody want to go with?)
  • Desperado roller coaster (we rode a motion simulator in Kobe, so we’ll ride the real thing when we drive in from LA)
  • Stratosphere (low on the list because she’s been there, but hasn’t ridden the rides)
  • Hofbrauhaus (a totally unique experience outside of Austria)
  • Paymon’s (Mediterranean food is totally unavailable in this part of Japan)
  • Taco Bell (sounds silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told her about my random cravings)
  • Kung Fu Plaza Thai Restaurant (best Thai food I’ve found in Vegas, endorsed by my only Thai friend, Pauline)
  • Christmas lights drive in a nice neighborhood (again, totally not a Japanese thing)
  • UNLV (quick campus tour)
  • Western High School, LVA (quick perimeter tours will suffice)
  • Congregation Shaarei Tefilla (where I had my Bar Mitzvah)
  • Shopping at Fashion Show (unless there’s a better location for high end brand browsing now)
  • Fremont Street (if they’re still running the zip line, because that just looks cool)
  • Metro Pizza (Japanese pizza is both expensive and crappy)
  • Salsa dancing (to compare what’s available in each area)
  • Sushi (medium low on the list, just for novelty’s sake)

I know it looks like a lot, but much of it is just driving around town. Even still, I’m sure there’s plenty I’m forgetting. What else should we try to cram in? =)

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If I talked to you before I went to the states on my winter vacation, I probably told you the thing I was looking forward to the most was the food.

It’s not that I didn’t miss the people, but thanks to the internet and the occasional phone call, I still had a sense of participation in my friends’ lives. Food, however, is poorly represented over the wire.

I actually kept a food diary to help me remember each meal and avoid duplications. I’ll spare you the tedium of reciting every meal and hit the highlights of my trip. Oh yeah, and I might mention the people I hung out with and the stuff we did. 😉

My first meal in the US was with Marvin at Norm’s, a locally well-known diner in West Hollywood. I was, of course, shocked at the size of my mushroom & swiss cheese burger, but oh, was it tasty. Dinner was my first dose of Mexican food at El Coyote on Beverly Boulevard (coincidentally where Sharon Tate and friends ate their last meal before they were done in by the Manson clan). Being a Jewish household, Marvin also quickly helped me get some bagels and lox back in my system the next morning.

Brian, me, and Nat

I drove to Vegas in the morning of the 20th (passing the snow you see in the picture above) to see Shannon & Kevin get married in the afternoon. The wedding, held at Red Rock Country Club, was gorgeous. The ceremony was outside, and even though Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert, the end of December is pretty cold, so I felt a bit sorry for the ladies in the wedding party as they shivered their way through the vows Kevin and Shannon composed. I was a little surprised the club didn’t bring out any of those freestanding portable heaters, actually. The reception was great too, and I liked their idea of having the wedding party actually sit at normal tables so they could eat with their families and friends instead of isolating them at the front of the room. The meal was a classy prime rib buffet with a host bar.

The next day I saw Brian & Claudia’s house and Greg & Allison’s house. They bought houses quite near each other in central Las Vegas, near where Shannon & Kevin live. That evening was the (4th?) annual Vegas group white elephant party, at Brad & Vanessa’s house this year. I brought a grab bag of assorted Japanese stuff, including an uchiwa (non-folding Japanese fan), a packet of Japanese tissues, and a hand-drying towel like everyone carries in Japan. I brought chicken egg rolls and a turkey sandwich to complement the pizza, hummus & pita, and salad that was already there. It was a fun evening, but I left my camera at my mom’s house, so I don’t have any pictures to share.

On Monday, I drove with my mom out to Bakersfield for a meeting with my grandfather and a long-term care provider. He’s 87 now, and not exactly in the best of health. I guess having TIAs (mini strokes) every few months will do that to you. 🙁

Excepting the addition of my grandfather’s little-used computer, his home’s décor hasn’t really changed much in the last thirty years. I suppose my mother looks a little different in this picture than she did growing up there, too. My grandfather and his wife get to stay in their house for now, with a health care worker there twelve hours a day. It’s the best situation for all involved.

While we were there, I worked on his computer, and my mom helped them sort out some stuff that they wanted her advice on. I also got to drive his first generation RX-7, which I always enjoy.

We ate at Lam’s Chinese restaurant one night and El Torito Mexican restaurant the next. I also had one of my perennial breakfast favorites, Kashi Crunch. It’s a cold cereal of “crunchy clusters made from Kashi Seven Whole Grains and Sesame,” with just a hint of cinnamon.

As luck would have it, a good friend and younger neighbor of theirs happens to be an RN, and she stops in about once a day to check on them as well, so I think my mom and I left them in good hands.

Me with the Tehachapi windmills in the background

On the way home, we ate brunch at Kelcy’s Restaurant in Tehachapi. This place has a surprisingly rich history, having survived through seventy five years and a rebuilding after a 7.7 earthquake, much of which is displayed photographically on its walls. I took their last order of freshly-made homestyle biscuits and gravy for the day. I can’t imagine a more stereotypically American breakfast than biscuits & gravy eaten in a roadside diner served by an aging career waitress who calls everyone “darlin’.” Good stuff.

Christmas itself was pretty low key. I was at my mom’s in the morning, and we hung out and talked for most of the day. I had a few presents for her from Japan, and between the garage door she bought me and her plan to take me shopping on Boxing Day, I was well taken care of. We lit Hanukkah candles in the evening and then went over to a family friend’s house for Christmas dinner.

At Angel’s house, I met her daughters Morgan, Kelsey, and Taylor (again?). Taylor is a freshman at the Academy, Kelsey just graduated from the Academy (vocal performance major) and is a freshman at UNR, and Morgan’s been out of school for a short while now, I believe. Kelsey and I had a lot to talk about with our shared past at the Academy and UNR. She and Taylor are both taking Japanese, and were very interested to hear about my experiences in Japan.

Of course, being Christmas dinner, there was a lot of delicious food to be had (and Dr. Pepper, which I believed until very recently to be completely unavailable in Japan). Angel made the traditional meal, with roast turkey, honey-glazed ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. I was in heaven. Remember that scene in Ratatouille where Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille, and is transported back to his childhood? It kind of felt like I was really home, eating that meal. The Peaks have always been great cooks. 🙂

The next morning, I woke up to homemade blueberry and blackberry pancakes. I spent Boxing Day at the mall with my mom shopping for clothes, and again felt like I was transported back a dozen years. This time though, the experience wasn’t as pleasant. As much as I love my mom, it’s frustrating to shop with someone who doesn’t share your needs or fashion taste, especially when that person is funding the outing. I really got a feeling for what gets under my brother’s skin when he stays at her house on school vacations.

At the end of the day though, I was extraordinarily grateful for my mother’s largesse. I got the clothes I needed, and spent some time with my mother as two people, rather than mother and child. Lunch was at the mall food court, my only falafel of the trip.

That evening, I went over to Susan & Neil’s with Shannon Wood, and I remembered how different Pizza Hut in Japan is from Pizza Hut in the US. Japanese people seem to like their pizza soaked in oil with extra oil in little packets to drizzle on top. I’m not even kidding- instead of crushed red pepper, they give you packets of what seems like really mild green chili oil to drizzle on top of your pizza. The only good pizza I’ve had in Japan is from this little Italian hole in the wall near Okaido. They have an actual wood-fired oven where you can watch your pizza baking. Anyway, we spent the evening relaxing in front of the Wii (my first go at Wii Fit) and watching videos on YouTube through their NetFlix and YouTube-connected DVR. I tell you, digital convergence has come a long way.

I still hear those old Life commercials in my head when I eat Life cereal (“Mikey likes it!”), as I did the next morning. Lunch was a massive Chipotle burrito before contra dancing.

If you aren’t familiar with it, contra dancing is an American social dance with roots in English and French folk dancing. It’s a “called” dance, which means that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, kind of like a square dance. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, especially with an energetic crowd. When groups of my friends were regularly going to contra dances a few years ago, we totally dominated the floor.

While I’m in Japan, my mom is taking care of my beagle Ellie for me. When my brother moved out of the house, my mother developed a mild case of empty-nest syndrome, and with me out of the country, Ellie and my mom get along fantastically.

The next morning, the three of us went to a dog park for a beagle meetup. About a dozen beagles descended on Desert Breeze dog park at the same time. There was much howling, running, and butt-sniffing. The dog park also has a surprisingly clear view of the Las Vegas skyline. If you click on the picture and open the magnified version, you can see most of the major Las Vegas casinos in the background. Incidentally, what you see is a typical Las Vegas clear blue sky.

After the dog park, I had what was probably my favorite meal of the trip- a fantastic “everything” bagel and lox platter with my mother at The Bagel Cafe. This restaurant has won numerous awards for their food since they opened about ten years ago. It was my first time eating there, and they certainly lived up to their reputation.

We chose a mid-grade salmon for our shared 4oz platter, and it was the perfect amount of fish. The veggies were fresh and crisp, the orange juice was freshly-squeezed, the bagels were baked fresh, and the smoked salmon was to die for. (My mouth is actually watering right now as I write this and look at the picture.) If you’re ever passing through Vegas, I highly recommend you visit The Bagel Cafe.

That evening, I went out with Shannon Wood and about ten friends to celebrate her birthday at Sushi on Rainbow. I was curious to see how my memory of Las Vegas sushi compared with my more recent memory of Japanese sushi. I was pretty much right on; Japanese sushi is fresher (duh), softer, and tastier. Another big difference is the form they each take. Japanese sushi centers around nigiri sushi, the prototypical fish-slice-atop-a-bed-of-rice kind, and American (from my experience anyway) sushi seems more focused on rolls, the more unique the better. Anyway, my favorite is still salmon nigiri. BTW, next time you have sushi, ask for raw onion shavings on top of your salmon, maybe with a smidgen of mayonnaise if you like mayo. I’m not kidding, try it.

In the morning my mom made one of my comfort foods, matzo brie. Along with “English” muffins, I’m always at peace if I have some hot matzo brie in front of me.

The next day, I went to the Las Vegas Springs Preserve with Brian, Claudia, Jesse, Tony, Barbara, and Allison (where we “accidentally” got in free when we came in through the cafe where people usually leave). New Year’s Eve brought a party at Hejmanowski House, which was a normal party, I guess, but felt so strange to me. Maybe I was already subconsciously disconnecting because I knew I was about to leave my friends again, or perhaps I was on edge because I was nervous about making the flight to Colorado, but I didn’t quite feel at ease. I had to leave rather unceremoniously at 1am to drive to Los Angeles to make an 11am flight to Denver for the last leg of my trip.

From Denver, I took a shuttle to Eagle to spend a couple relaxed days with Kyria and her family, a nice end cap to the hustle of outings in Las Vegas. We all played a fair bit of Mario Kart Wii and Rock Band (on the PS3), something I’d missed out on in Vegas. We also just sat around watching movies and cooking, which was novel for me. She lives in a beautiful mountain town with her beautiful family. On my last day there, we made these most incredible pumpkin spice cookies that I actually carried with me, in a little plastic container, through the six airports it took me to get back to Matsuyama. I tell you, I savored each one of those over the next month I made them last.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip. An expensive trip, but worth it.

So, when are you coming to visit me? 😀

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Preface:
I wrote this about a trip I took in August over summer break from school. I started writing it just after I got back to Matsuyama, but the process of arranging all the detail in this post exhausted me, and I still haven’t written about the last two thirds of the trip. I think this is my longest post to date, and it only covers the first part of my trip. I hope to get to the rest very soon. 🙂

I don’t remember when I first heard about Bunny Island, but I think it was about a year ago. Then earlier this year, I read a blog post written by a JET ALT who went there in February. A month and a half later, I was happily accepting a position in Matsuyama, pretty close to the island.

Its actual name is Ohkunoshima (with the accent on the first elongated “O”). It was once home to a secret weapons plant (where they actually hid WMDs!). Many Japanese people, even from the cities nearest the island, have never heard of it.

The site itself fascinated me from the first moment I heard about it (A super secret island in the Seto Inland Sea that still has ruins of an illegal WWII-era gas plant? Oh, heck yeah!), so when I learned our school’s summer vacation was two weeks long, I figured that would be the perfect time to go.

This (excessively long) post is about the good luck, good people, and good experiences I was fortunate enough to encounter on that brief two day trip.

***

8/8/08

When I woke up late two days ago, I knew I’d have to rush to make the 10am bus. I’d already skipped a day in my plans to go to Ohkunoshima because I wasn’t yet ready to leave. (I wanted to buy a book for the trip, but the bookstore was closed by the time I decided. A lame excuse, especially since I didn’t end up reading it, but I wanted an extra day to relax anyway.) So I scrambled to get ready and get out the door at about 9:40 for the fifteen minute ride to the city station.

I added my bike to the hordes of bicycles already gathered and concentrated like so many lengths of tangled Christmas tree lights, and briskly walked back to the empty platform where my bus would soon be. Relieved that I’d made it in time, I used my five minute buffer to go inside the station and ask again whether or not I needed to buy a ticket before boarding the bus. As you might imagine, I don’t always know if I’m getting good information when I speak to people in Japan. Usually we speak in a mixed form of “Japanglish,” so I’m never sure if my takeaway message is exactly what they meant, and I wanted to be absolutely certain that I could get on the bus without a ticket. I got confirmation that the fare was determined and payment collected upon leaving the bus.

Relieved, I went back outside to see that my bus had just divested its passengers and was boarding to leave in about thirty seconds. I stepped on with a confused look on my face and the driver smiled and pointed to the ticket dispenser on my right. “Take ticket,” he said, his meaning already clear. I took a ticket labeled “0,” and wondered what it meant.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I think I was the fourth person to get on the full size touring coach at that terminus, and I was surprised to see the bus as empty as it was. The bus was pretty nice, with deep red velour seats, and actual curtains on the windows. Another thing that surprised me was the fifth foldaway “jumper” seat in the aisle of every row, whose use would completely block the exit for passengers behind that row. Different safety standards for different countries, I suppose.

The bus left as soon as I sat down. We had one more stop in Matsuyama, where I realized that oncoming passengers were collecting tickets labeled “1.” At that point I figured out the price board above the driver’s head and the pricing based on how far you’d ridden, and understood why my ticket was labeled “0.”

I took a few moments to finally relax and let some of the dampness evaporate out of my shirt. Even though it was still early morning, I’d ridden pretty hard to get to the station on time, stopping once to put the chain back on Rusty’s rear sprocket. He gets crotchety when I ride in a spirited manner. The air conditioner on the bus was adequate, but nothing spectacular. A nice touch was the adjustable automobile-style vents placed above each seat, which I directed at my back. This was my first long-distance trip since I started working in Japan, and I saw some of Matsuyama that I hadn’t seen before, so I took a few pictures of the city as we passed.

Every time I mention wanting to go to a beach in Matsuyama, people tell me to go to Hojo (a town on the northern outskirts of Matsuyama) instead of Matuyama’s beaches, so I was delighted to see the bus stop right at a beach complex in Hojo. After that, civilization thinned out until it was just a highway rest stop / beach restaurant every mile or two. Even that held my interest though, as I think Japan has some very interesting geometric artificial breakwater blocks, and the restaurants and small populated coves are fascinating.

Civilization started picking back up as we approached Imabari, a small city on the northern tip of Shikoku (the Japanese island on which Matsuyama is located). The outskirts seem very depressed, and reminded me a lot of the images you see when the US evening news talks about Detroit. Downtown Imabari was another story though, and reminded me very much of a small California coastal city. There was a rest stop and driver change in Imabari, and with the bus door left open for a few minutes, you could smell the sea air and see the boats slowly bobbing in the docks, only a hundred yards away from the bus station. Even passing through for as short a time as we did, I got the impression that life travels a little slower there.

We were back on the road in short order, heading northeast toward the series of bridges and islands that connect Shikoku with Honshu (the biggest of the four main islands). There was a lot to see on the way, and I felt like a total tourist, snapping pictures of anything that caught my eye. I gave myself permission to play tourist for a while, disregarding the mild amount of attention it brought the only gaikokujin on a slowly-filling bus. I half expected someone to remind me that I wasn’t on a tour bus.

At each stop, I checked the kanji on my bus schedule with the kanji on the board at the front announcing the next stop, and (when I could understand it) the “next stop is …” announcements from the speakers in the bus. I felt a little tension growing as my stop approached, because I really didn’t have a plan for what to do once I got off the bus, but I tried to relax and enjoy my first trip through the real Japanese countryside.

When it came up though, it was easy to spot, letting off in a large bus turnaround area with a few bus stops around the perimeter.

From my bus stop, I didn’t know where to go for the ferry I needed, or how I would get there if it was too far to walk. Just looking at a map, the bus stop seemed to be a tiny outpost next to one of the bridges, and that turned out to be about right. The area around the bus stop has a highway rest stop and a small collection of highway trap businesses, including a restaurant, a gift shop, a small convenience store, and (thank the gods) a bicycle rental shop.

I took a few pictures of the scenery, ate a lunch of octopus tempura and udon at the restaurant, and set about finding information on the ferry I needed to catch. I first asked the waitress at the restaurant where I needed to go to catch the ferry, and she told me the name of the town I needed to get to. Having never heard the name and finding it quite a mouthful, I promptly forgot it, but she walked me next door to the convenience store and handed me a ferry schedule with the town’s name on it. She exchanged a few words with the convenience store clerk, and both ladies said something to me in Japanese I didn’t understand at all. Through a few iterations of smiles and language retries, they told me I should go next door and rent a bicycle.

I later learned the bicycle rental shop caters to people who rent bikes to ride across all the bridges between Honshu and Shikoku- an understandably popular attraction in that gorgeous countryside, especially for someone who likes bridges as much as I do. The area is a mix of different types of classical Japanese scenery, with little wooded rocky island hills popping up out of the sea and Japanese people wearing classic kasa (those stereotypical wide, flat, cone-shaped hats) while working terraced rice paddies alongside the most modern and impressive of bridges. If you have any interest in bridges or modern architecture, it seems like riding the island highway would be a fantastic way to spend a few days, as most of the bridges are constructed in different styles, and the sea breezes are refreshing even on the early August days I was there.

The young lady at the bicycle shop was quite helpful, providing me with a map of the island we were on (Ohmishima) and a brochure for the bridges-by-bicycle tour I mentioned. I plunked down my ¥1500 (~$15.00), signed on the line, and rode away on one of their cruisers.

I had about an hour to ride the three miles from the bicycle rental shop to the ferry landing, an easy cruise up the coast of the island. It’s been so long since I’ve been to the beach, I just wanted to take big heaping lungfuls the sea air. I could feel my lungs thanking me.

Now, as near as I could understand her, the woman told me to ride up the main road until I got to the ferry port. I hit a bit of a snag though, when the main road veered away from the coast. Straight ahead was a small road, barely wide enough for two cars to slowly pass each other. Thinking that couldn’t be the way I needed to go, and that the road must just be temporarily veering around some coastal feature I couldn’t see, I followed the main road as it turned inland, not suspecting I’d just turned away from the road I needed.

I passed a very small local beach and made it to the ferry dock with only a few minutes to spare. Looking around, I realized that I didn’t see another bicycle rental shop to which I should return my bike, so I stopped to ask a man if there was a bicycle rental shop in the dock area. He was already getting out the paperwork to check my bike back in when I realized this guy had been working in the office where I had just rented the bike an hour ago. He gave me back a ¥1000 (~$10.00) deposit I hadn’t even realized was two thirds of the cost of the rental and collected a copy of my rental form. He loaded the bicycle in the back of a small van, and turned on the road to go back to the main office. This guy had just driven from the main office specifically to collect my bike at this small town.

Smiling and amazed at their “system” for collecting bicycles (so that’s why she asked where I was going), I went inside to buy a ticket for the ferry. It was at this point that I realized I was really moving down the food chain of Japanese cities. Matsuyama is not a metropolis, but it’s definitely a medium-sized city. The bus passed through smaller Imabari to drop me at the tiny tourist-driven whistle-stop where I rented the bike. Then I turned off that main road and ended up at the ferry dock that was supposed to take me to Ohkunoshima. I didn’t even see anything that I’d call a town- it was just a dozen buildings lining the waterfront across the street from the dock. I presume the town’s handful of employees all live in one of the rice farms and small orchards I passed along the road.

On the upside, the bike path that parallels that highway is absolutely gorgeous. That’s one thing I’ll say for Japanese civil engineers- they build a killer bike path. A few hundred yards away from the coast, I realized the highway was heading into the foothills, and didn’t seem likely to turn back and follow the coast. I stopped and asked a road construction worker where we were. As I feared, he pointed to the highway I was hoping he wouldn’t say we were on. I checked my watch and turned around, careful to choose the driveway I’d previously avoided.

As soon as I got back outside, the ferry started loading passengers. I was surprised to see that it was a full size ferry with space for cars on the lower deck and a couple hundred seats on the upper level. The trip to the actual island was basically an uneventful ferry ride, which gave me time to enjoy the Engrish on display. I got a little concerned when I started thinking about the fact that I didn’t have a reservation at the only hotel on the island. I figured the worst case scenario would be me spending a night on the beach leaned up against my backpack.

But hey, I brought a towel (thank you, Douglas Adams), so I was prepared for just about anything.

***

To be continued

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