Saturday, April 15, 2017

日本 - 2017年

From previous posts you may have seen that we've taken some trips on about a 2-year schedule. However, unique circumstances combined in such a way that we had a window of opportunity to take a trip this year at a substantial discount.  So we did.  In March of this year Michelle and I returned to the country where I served as a missionary 36 years ago. We visited Japan.  That's right, 日本, the land of the rising sun. And what an amazing trip this turned out to be.  We decided on the trip in December, so we took the opportunity to let two friend who live in Japan know we were coming and we made arrangements to visit them while we were there.

The trip started on March 13 when we left from Albany, just ahead of the biggest snowstorm in probably 10 years.  We are thankful for good neighbors who plowed our driveway for us while we were gone!  Though we left early in the morning on the 13th, we didn't arrive in Tokyo until the afternoon of Tuesday the 14th, courtesy of the international date line. On arrival we picked up our Japan Rail passes (a must), some Tokyo subway passes (also strongly recommended), and two "Hakone free" passes, and headed off to our hotel. By the time we checked in it was starting to get dark, but we still had some time so we headed off to Shibuya to see the famous crossing there.

We had dinner, then headed back to the hotel, walking through the Ginza district on the way. In our hotel we had a "semi-double bed".  If you ever travel to Japan, know that they do not have the same bed sizes as in the USA.  A semi-double in Japan is somewhere between a twin and a double in the USA.  Suffice it to say, we were cozy.  But we were fine since we were there to experience the country and not hotel beds.

The next morning we were going to visit the Tokyo Temple, but first wanted to make some train reservations.  We stopped in the Tokyo station and made the reservations and then discovered Glen had lost his subway pass.  So after a sad detour for a new pass, we were on the train headed to the temple.  The temple is beautiful, but unlike many other temples, there are no temple grounds to speak of. Luckily, just across the street is a very nice park with a beautiful garden which makes up for it.

After a visit to the temple we went to the Meiji shrine and enjoyed touring around it a bit. Two temples in one day!

The Meiji shrine is just across the street from the famous Harajuku neighborhood. This neighborhood has two parts: one street has a lot of high-end shopping. However, the street that is popular with the young crowd is Takeshita street. This street is clogged with tweens, teens and young adults and stores targeting them. We passed one store that had an amazingly delicious smell coming from it and a line out the door.  So we got in that line and ended up buying eating a delicious thing that's hard to describe.  It was long, toasted, filled with custard and coated with something yummy.

That arrow pointing at my head does not mean I'm full of
soft-serve ice cream or that I cost 450 .

At the end of Takeshita street they have a video banner hanging over the street and in the photo here you can see us looking up at it.

Since we were not far from Shinjuku at that point we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building because it has an observation floor that is free to visit.  We went up to that floor and got an amazing view of all of Tokyo, which is an enormous city.  We also got what would turn out to be our only view of Mt. Fuji.

The next day we visited the famous Tsukiji fish market and the neighborhood around it which sells all manner of seafood and got some good sushi for breakfast.
Nothing like sushi for breakfast!
Then we took a train to Daiba where we were booked on a cruise from Daiba to Asakusa on the Himiko river boat. The Himiko is a very unique boat and we got a nice view of Tokyo along the way. The most fun on the trip, though, was the group of elementary school children that was also on board. A small group of them gathered in a clutch near us and played rock-paper-scissors to see which one would have to approach us, but they finally did and asked us questions in English, which they were learning.  We answered in English a bit, but Glen answered in Japanese too, which surprised and entertained them greatly. A great time was had by all.
The Himiko
(see panorama below)

In Asakusa we had Tempura for lunch, because that's what you eat in Asakusa.  We then visited the Kaminari gate and the Senso-ji Buddhist shrine. The gate and the shrine are connected by a street called Nakamise-dori, which is jam-packed full of stores selling all manner of touristy trinkets and food. On this particular day there were also a number of young men and women wearing kimonos, which was beautiful to see.
Michelle touching the lantern in the 雷門

Since we weren't far away, we decided to make a stop in Akihabara, which is famous for electronics, video games and maid cafes.  We didn't stay long, because that kind of thing isn't really up our alley, but we did happen to see 4 or more go-carts go up the streets with their drivers dressed as different Mario-Kart characters.  That was fun.

We wrapped up the day and our first stay in Tokyo with a trip to Mori tower for another panoramic view of Tokyo from the Sky Deck.  The day was much colder than we had anticipated, so we were happy to get back to our warm hotel.

The next day was Friday and early in the morning we were up and boarding the Shinkansen for Hiroshima.  We got there in the early afternoon and found our AirBnB apartment.  This was a great place to stay.  After dropping our luggage off we met our friends, the Konos. We haven't seen them since about 1996 so it was great to see them again.  The Konos took us to a resort-like place where we enjoyed a walk in a beautiful garden and then an onsen (a public bath/hot tub). After the onsen we dressed in yukatas (because that's what you do after an onsen) and had a truly authentic multi-course Japanese meal at the Hotel Kamogawa.
The Brooksbys and Konos
Hiroe and Kiroki
Glen and Michelle
Wearing yukatas after the onsen.  It's what you do.
The next day we met the Konos again and went together to Miyajima.  By bus, ropeway and hiking we ascended to the top of Mt. Misen for a beautiful view of the inland sea. Coming back down we toured the town a bit eating various things along the way.

After leaving Miyajima our feet were very tired from all the walking an hiking so we made a brief stop at foot onsen.  Here we just bathed our feet and drank hot lemonade. It felt great. We ended the day with dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant on a hill overlooking Hiroshima.  It had a beautiful view.

On Sunday, Glen and Michelle went to church in the Hikari Ward in downtown Hiroshima.  No, we did not run into anyone Glen knew from long ago.  After church we met the Konos again and this time their son Takuto was with them. Takuto found a place for us to have Okonomiyaki for lunch.  Okonomiyaki is the thing to eat in Hiroshima and ours was delicious.

We next headed over to the site Hiroshima is most famous for, Peace Memorial Park.  This is the park near the epicenter of where the atomic bomb was dropped.  It is sobering to see man's inhumanity toward man so graphically on display. War is terrible and it makes people do things they would never normally do.

To wrap up our visit to Hiroshima, the Konos took us to a great tempura dinner.  It was sad to say good-bye to them since we know how hard it is to visit.  We'll just have to find other ways to stay in touch.

Monday morning we boarded the shinkansen again, this time for Kobe, where we met the Naganuma family.  Glen met Masahito in 1979, when he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  They lost touch until about 2008, but then found each other again. It was great reunion after 36 years!  We spent Monday-Wednesday with the Naganumas and had a great time.  Monday we drove to Himeji Castle and toured it.

Naganumas and Brooksbys at Himeji Castle
Then Tuesday we had a great time at the Arima onsen, which is one of the best in Japan.  It was raining that day, so the combination of the cool rainy air while soaking in the hot bath was very enjoyable and relaxing.
In our yukatas after the onsen.
On Wednesday we drove to Kyoto and visite Kinkaku-ji, the Heian shrine, and Kiyomizu-dera.  Kiyomizu-dera was apparently the place to be on Wednesday because there were lots of people and a great number of women in traditional kimonos and even some men too.

At Kinkaku-ji
At the Heian-shrine
At Kiyomizu-dera

So many beautiful kimonos!

Kiyomizu-dera means Temple of pure water.  This is that water.

Wednesday evening we said our sad good-bye to the Naganumas as they went home and we checked into a hotel near the train station in Kyoto. The train station itself in Kyoto is worth a visit.  It's quite the place.

Because the Japan Rail pass made the trip free, we jumped on the train and made a brief run to the Fushimi-Inari shrine.  This is one of the iconic places you see when you see photos of Japan. The shrine has a path spanned by thousands of red Torii gates.  If you were to hike the whole thing it takes about 2 hours, which we did not have.  To be honest, once you've seen a hundred meters of it you kind of get the idea what the rest will look like. Thursday we got up and made another quick trip to Fushimi-Inari again so we could see it in the daylight.  After a stay of about an hour we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and take the shinkansen to Hakone.

Fushimi-Inari, going uphill.

Fushimi-Inari, going downhill.
The writing on the Torri gates can only be seen going downhill.
 Hakone is a resort town, also famous for onsen, in the hills not far from Tokyo. Here we had booked a stay in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese accommodation in the small town of Gora.  The room had tatami mats and we slept in futons on the floor. This night was spent very much like Glen spent many months of his mission in Japan.  Despite forecasts to the contrary, the weather turned pretty cold while we were in Hakone.  This made things interesting because the place we were staying was so traditional it did not have central heat.  It did have a gas room heater, which worked well. But because it is gas, you can't leave it running all the time or you could run into carbon monoxide problems.  So before bed, we went to the onsen on the property. This onsen was so hot! You could barely stand to be in it. So, so hot!  After the onsen we were warmed up and we ran the heater to warm up the room, then got into bed.  Except for noisy neighbors, we slept fine, and in the morning heated the room back up again.

Our room in Gora (Hakone region).

In yukatas again, after the onsen.

Our futons!
Gora is on a steep hill and transportation up and down the hill is by a cable car. We took the cable car up the hill to Sounzan where we caught a bus to Owakudani. From there we took a ropeway down to lake Ashi and then a tour boat to the south end of the lake. Did I mention it turned cold while we were in Hakone? Well at this point in our trip it started snowing!  We knew it would be cold this day, so since we weren't prepared for snow, we just layered up. Glen wore 6 layers of clothing and Michelle wore 5.  We stayed warm enough, but it was a good thing we had all those layers.
Our sightseeing cruise ship.

The avenue of the cedars.
We took in some sights in that part of town and then reversed the whole process - Boat, ropeway, bus, cable car - back to our ryokan to pick up our bags. On our way back we stopped at Owakudani, which is a small area with sulfurous geysers.  They boil eggs in the geysers and it turns the egg shells black.  It's traditional to eat black, hard-geyser-boiled eggs there, so you know we did.
Black, geyser-boiled eggs anyone?
Finally we boarded various trains and made our way to our final night's stay in Tokyo. Saturday we only had half a day before we had to head to the airport. So we went to the imperial palace and got tickets for their morning tour.  It was fun to see the castle and imperial buildings up close.  By noon we were starting our trip back to the airport.

On the grounds at the Imperial Palace.
Visiting Japan was so much fun and such an enjoyable experience. We highly recommend it to anyone.  It is so different from other places you may visit in the USA or Europe.  But there are so many fun and interesting and unique things to do.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Italy 2016

In October of 2016 Michelle and I decided on a great way to celebrate our 32nd anniversary. We celebrated it early, and in Italy.  It took a couple of years of saving, but we began planning early and started making reservations in March.  I'll say it up front: there are a number of places you'll want to visit in Italy and several of them require reservations well in advance. Others require tickets that you can get on the spot, but you'll want to know the requirements in advance.  To make the most of a trip like this, I recommend doing your research up front. Michelle handled most of this for us and we had so much more fun as a result.  Tickets were so important to have in some places that I'm using the abbreviation AT in this post for the places we had advance tickets and found it helpful, not counting planes, trains and lodging.

We started by taking the bus from Albany to New York City, then the LIRR out to JFK airport.  From JFK we flew Emirates Airlines directly to Milan.  Then in Milan we took the train from the airport to the Milan Central train station.  From there we walked to our apartment not far from the station. All our accommodations on this trip were at Airbnb's and they couldn't have been better.  In every case we paid about what we would have for a hotel, but instead got something closer to an entire apartment.  In many cases with laundry facilities.

Once in Milan we walked to the Milan Cathedral. We didn't have tickets for this one and we didn't want to wait in the two lines for tourists. So we agreed not to take pictures and reverently went in the side reserved for worshipers.  We sat quietly in the cathedral and enjoyed it in a way closer to its intended purpose.

After leaving the cathedral we took a Metro train to a smaller church named Santa Maria delle Grazie.  This unassuming little church is where daVinci's "Last Supper" was painted.  Thanks to tickets (AT) purchased far in advance we were able to go in and see this masterpiece.  It is amazing to see, in person, this work that we've only seen in books for so many years.  It was a great experience.

We left to go back to our apartment, and soon found that the train drivers were on strike!  Initially we thought we would just walk back, but soon realized it would be too far, so with the help of a tobacconist with very good English we found a (very packed) streetcar that got us home.

The next day we boarded an early train to Venice and arrived mid-day. We dropped our bags at the apartment and walked over to St. Mark's square and Basilica. We toured St. Marks (AT), then in the evening we went to Chiesa di San Vidal and listened to a beautiful performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" (AT).  It was gorgeous.

In the morning we met our apartment-mates.  In Venice we were in a two-room apartment, of which one room was ours.  The couple from the other apartment was heading off on a cruise, so they gave us their day-pass for the vaporetto.  We used that to scoot around the islands for the rest of the morning.  Then in the afternoon we boarded the train to Florence.

Once in Florence we found our way to our apartment to drop our bags, then walked to the downtown area just for a quick glance... and gelato.

The next day was Monday and it was the first of many climbs we did in Italy. We were at Brunelleschi's dome by 8:30 AM to climb to the top (AT).  This is the dome on top of the Florence Cathedral. It's quite a climb to the top, but you are rewarded with a great view when you get there.  It was good to climb early in the morning while the air was still cool.

After climbing down from the dome we walked over to the Baptistery of St. John.  You can read more about that here, but especially read about the doors.  Since you weren't there, I'm including here a photo-sphere I took inside.

After the baptistery, we went to the Duomo museum (AT) and saw the actual doors from the baptistery along with a host of other beautiful pieces of art and scupture.  At this point it was our appointed time to climb Giotto's Campanile (bell tower), where we were rewarded with another great view.

At this point in the day we didn't have firm plans so we accidentally made the best impromptu decision. We walked over and visited the Basilica di Santa Croce. We didn't know it, but inside this single Basilica are the tombs of Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini, and others, as well as funerary monuments to other Florentines such as Dante, Marconi and Fermi.  The tombs and monuments were amazing and there was an equal amount of stunning artwork as well.

On Tuesday were were up bright and early to be in line for the Galleria dell'Academia (AT), which houses Michelangelo's statue of David. We were among the first in the door and went straight to the statue and so had a bit of time there with very few people before the crowd grew.

After the Galleria, we made another impromptu decision that turned out to be fun.  We boarded a bus that would take us back closer to the center of town.  But we decided that since our ticket was good for 90 minutes, to just ride the bus and see where it went.  It went way out of town into the countryside before stopping for a few minutes and then returning.  We still got where we wanted to go, but we got to see the true Italian countryside as well.  The bus dropped us off near the Pitti Palace, which we toured next.  This building is not terribly attractive from the outside, but the inside is a palace in every sense of the word.  I've included another photo-sphere here to give you an idea.

From the Pitti Palace we took the bus over to Piazzale Michelangelo where you get a great view of Florence.

Next we walked and rode the bus to the Uffizi museum.  This museum is filled with so much art and sculpture that you could spend days there.  We used a "Rick Steves" podcast as our tour guide and it took us through the museum stopping at the most important pieces without dwelling too long in any one place.  This got us through in a reasonable amount of time without wondering if we missed something important.  At this point we were quite tired so we went back to our apartment and found a restaurant nearby where we had Steak Florentine (of course).

Wednesday morning we checked out and headed to the train and rode to Pisa. In Pisa we did what everyone does: visited the leaning tower. Once again, we climbed to the top (AT).

This was just a stop along the way, though, as we were headed to La Spezia.  This is a town you may not have heard of but it is the gateway to the Cinque Terre, which was our destination for Thursday. Wednesday was the 26th and two earthquakes hit Italy this day, but in a region far from where we were, so we were unaffected.

Cinque Terre is a group of five small coastal towns that are connected by roads and hiking trails. We had heard it was a beautiful hike and we were not disappointed.  Even though two shorter sections were closed due to rockfall, the longer sections were open and we had the most (strenuous and) beautiful hike imaginable.  This was partly because the weather was perfect. A cloudless blue sky, a gentle sea breeze off the ocean to cool you down as you climb, and post-card-perfect scenery.  This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Michelle's FitBit recorded 33,325 steps, 14.27 miles, and 210 flights of stairs for this day!


So many stairs. So many.

This is how narrow the trail got at one point!
As wide as that one stone, and it drops of precipitously.

Sunset in Riomaggiore

Needless to say on Friday we needed a down day.  We relaxed in the apartment until about noon and then met our train to Rome.  When we got to Rome, we found our apartment, but then we were hungry. The apartment was very close to the Vatican, so it should not be surprising that the restaurant we stumbled upon was Osteria dei Pontefici.  What a great place.  The waiter spoke no English and we spoke no Italian, so there was much pointing and a bit of surprise in our orders, but it was delicious.

Saturday morning we headed to the Villa Borghese.  While the whole park around the Villa was beautiful, it was the Borghese Gallery that we were headed to. Advance tickets are a must here.  We saw several people turned away.  It would be sad to travel thousands of miles for a once-in-a-lifetime visit and miss something like this. The gallery had amazing artwork, but it was the sculptures that we really enjoyed.

After the gallery, we spontaneously decided to rent and ride a "Bici Pincio". This little pedal buggy - with electric assist - was a blast.

From the Villa we walked down to the Spanish Steps. These are famous, but their fame brings crowds and they were too crowded to really be enjoyable.  From the steps we took the subway to the Trevi Fountain and found the same.  Massive crowds that really detracted from the enjoyment. We then took the subway again to the Piazza della Repubblica before taking a bus back to our apartment for the night.

Sunday we planned to go to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and many of the sites in the area.  We took the bus to the train station where our plan was to take the Metro to the Colosseum. When we got off the bus we were met with an enormous crush of people trying to get ON our bus. We couldn't understand why, but we got off and headed to the Metro, only to find it closed.  It turns out that in the night there had been another earthquake and the Metro was closed for a safety inspection.  Boarding a bus looked like it would take forever, so we just walked to the Colosseum.

Then we walked all. over. town. The sites were amazing and we walked ourselves to death. We ended the day by visiting the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Monday was our last full day in Italy.  We woke up and headed straight to the Vatican Museum (AT) which was a short walk from our apartment.  This is an amazing museum, and there was an enormous crowd waiting to get in.  After touring the museum we visited the Sistine Chapel.  The chapel is beautiful, but our memories are all we took out because they don't allow photography in the chapel.  After the chapel, we visited St. Peter's Basilica, which is an amazingly large and beautiful building.  Among other things here we saw Michelangelo's "The Pieta".  We saw a lot of sculptures on this trip, but this one was one of the best. Michelangelo truly was a master.

From St. Peter's we took the bus to the neighborhood of the Pantheon.  This too is an amazing building to visit.  At this point though, we were tired; especially our feet. We were fortunate enough to find a bench we could sit on and listen to a podcast about the building.  After resting a while, we walked over to Piazza Navona, which is a nice public square.  In this piazza we found a restaurant/gelateria named Tre Scalini. Here we purchased the most delicious gelato treat called a Tartufo.  I do not think we could visit Rome again without buying and devouring one of these.

To end the day, and our stay in Rome, we took the bus to Castel Sant'Angelo. We climbed (again) to the top and made it there just before sunset. We were able to watch a beautiful sunset from the top and see the lights of Rome come on.  It was a perfect ending to our trip.

St. Peter's Basilica at twilight.

On Tuesday the hostess for our apartment had arranged a taxi for us to get to the train station.  We had an early train and it turns out that since it was November 1st, it was a holiday in Italy (All Saints Day) and the buses and trains were not running on normal schedules.  The taxi had to take the long way to the train station because the earthquake had damaged one of the bridges we would have taken. But we got to the station with plenty of time. From there it was the train to Milan (at 300Km/hr (186 mph)!), then another train to the airport. The plane back to JFK, then three more trains and we were back in Albany.

If you're looking for a way to celebrate your 32nd anniversary, I recommend this itinerary.

I would make 3 recommendations if you're planning a trip like this:
  1. Make as many advance reservations as you can. It may mean you call Italy and talk haltingly to an Italian agent, but it's worth it. Skype has cheap rates for calling abroad.
  2. The Roma Pass.  In Rome this gave us unlimited use of busses and the Metro as well as free or discounted admission to many sites.  Well worth it.
  3. Only take a backpack and a small carry-on bag.  You'll appreciate the mobility.  Laundry facilities in our apartments made it possible to carry fewer clothes and travel light.