I have been visiting the holy land [confusion.cc] since 2007 and since day one I have planned to visit Petra [wikipedia.org]. I’ve been dreaming about visiting Petra since I was 11 years old and first learned of its existence, like so many people, from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And every time I started making plans they fell through. But finally, in November 2019 I managed to make the trip.
I had one day, so it was a short trip and no doubt did not do Petra anything like justice. Logistics were a bitch, I got up at 3AM and went to the airport to catch a flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat at 5:30 AM. Once there I, and several others, tried to figure out what to do as no agent was there to meet us. After 45 minutes we eventually had an agent arrive and a few minutes later the bus which came from Tel Aviv also (you can save a 100 bucks or so on the tour by taking the bus which leaves at 3AM). After a 20 minute ride we arrived at the border crossing at Aqaba. You have to walk across the border and it’s very chaotic on the Jordanian side as lots of cruise ships dock in Eilat and people take day tours. Since the guides from Israel don’t seem to be able to cross, or at least they don’t —there were Israeli tourist who crossed with me— the various tour groups have to meet up with agents on the Jordanian side and go through the various customs and immigration processes. Lots of people speaking lots of languages and trying to communicate about a overly complicated process. Eventually I joined my tour group, we didn’t actually have much problem, and we boarded a bus. But the bus was too small, we had three people with no seats and it took 30 minutes to organize a second car to take them and meet us at Petra. Then we had another 15 minutes wait as we were stopped for something as soon as we started to pull away from the immigration center. Something not right with our papers…
Eventually we were on our way. The drive was beautiful, about two hours starting in the mountains and later over flat desert past Wadi Rum [wikipedia.org]. I would have loved to add a night to my tour to camp under the stars and then explore Wadi Rum, maybe next time. By the time we got to petra it was almost 2PM and our bus had to start back by 4PM (to make the mandatory “lunch” stop at a local restaurant and then drop people at Wadi Rum before making it back to the border crossing before it closed for the day.) So in the end, I had less than 2 hours at Petra. I did manage to see the key sights, or at least the sights on my must-see list. Waking down the Siq [wikipedia.org], the long, winding passage down into the ruins, and The Treasury [wikipedia.org].
The Treasury, or Al-Khazneh, is the main attraction, the mausoleum who’s facade is featured in The Last Crusade. Sadly there were not Nazis or Crusader Knights, just tourists and camel rides. The Treasury comes into view at the end of the Siq framed by the curvy walls. You can see a small vertical slice as our round the last turn, which grows wider as until you emerge into an open area of shear walls with the Treasury in it’s full glory opposite the Siq. An amazing site, and worth the loss of sleep, the money and the hassle. 10/10 would go again.
In fact, I would love to go back and spend a full day exploring more of the ruins. I basically only made it through the Siq, past the Treasury and along the Street of Facades —lined with many tombs and mausoleums, some grand, some not much more than caves it seemed— and to the Amphitheatre. Beyond that there is the city proper, with ruins of Roman temples and more grand mausoleums, even a crusader fort somewhere. Alas, I had to be back at the bus by 4PM.
Final stop on our 2018 limited tour of Japan (1, 2 [confusion.cc]): Tokyo. We arrived by train from Nagano [confusion.cc] at Tokyo Station. Our hotel was a ryokan in Asakusa so we loaded into two taxis with our luggage. Once we checked in we roamed around Asakusa and ended up in the Owl Cafe. It’s less of a cafe than what I thought it would be, I’ve seen photos of a cat cafe and a hedgehog cafe in Japan and they are a coffee shop with animals. In fact my daughters wanted to go to the hedgehog cafe but it was a bit far from anything else we were doing, the Owl Cafe was just something we stumbled upon so thought it would be a good substitute. The Owl Cafe was not really a cafe at all, it was an indoor petting zoo. It was odd but the kids really enjoyed petting and holding the animals —there were more then just owls, there were snakes, a sugar glider, even a giant capybara wondering around, you can’t really hold a full grown capybara.
After the Owl Cafe we found a Denny’s because my older daughter saw it an really wanted to go and have chocolate chip pancakes she remembered having at a Denny’s along the interstate on the way to my grandparents house when she was six years old… unfortunately Denny’s in Japan is not Denny’s in the US. No chocolate chip pancakes, not much for all day breakfast at all in fact. But all the kids did find food they liked and, sad to say, we made two or three more visits to Denny’s to fill their stomachs over the next few days.
Our first real adventure was the next morning, the Studio Ghibli Museum [ghibli-museum.jp]. Getting tickets to the museum is not straight forward, the tickets go on sale in Japan first and at some point you can buy them online via Lawson’s (yes, the convenience store). By the time they went on sale online everything was sold out. But there were lots of tour groups selling “tours” that included tickets to the Ghibli Museum. Tours in quotes because essentially you meet the guide at the nearest train station and walk in a group through the large park to the Ghibli Museum. Not much of a tour. I’m guessing that the tour companies go and buy up all the tickets when they are on sale in Japan and then they are basically scalping them, they cost three or four times the list price. I got the tickets but shame on Ghibli for such shitty customer experience, it’s fucked up. On the bright side, the museum was fun. It’s not real but but it’s got some fun stuff; a mock up of Miyazaki’s studio —complete with pencil nubs stapled end-to-end, which is apparently thing he does or did or whatever— various displays on how animation is made, from the drawing process, to cell painting techniques to multi-layer cameras used to give different layers different movement speed. And, of course, a museum shop where we spend way too much money (note to others we later found another Ghibli shop at the base of the Tokyo Skytree that had more than the shop at the Ghibli Museum, but not the unique things like actual animation cells and limited edition things. So if you are going to buy just the toys, puzzles, cloths and the like, you can skip the crazy crowd.). The other big thing at the Museum is the Saturn Theater which shows original short films. We were really hoping to see Boro the Caterpillar [wikipedia.org], Miyazaki’s first computer animation but, alas, we saw something else, unfortunately there is no other way to see Boro.
All-in-all the Ghibli Museum was worth it for someone who has watched and liked all of the Studio’s work, not sure a passing fan would be able to justify the cost. My only complaint is the ticketing process and the crowds, considering the issues with getting ahold of the limited tickets there were a lot of people, just barely short of fire hazard crowded in places. Even the walk from the train station was fun, we would have made it with or without the “tour” but the leaves on the Japanese maples were in full fiery red glory in the park and we found a shop my kids really enjoyed: B-Side Label [bside-label.com], makers of vinyl stickers. the girls enjoyed just browsing and each picked out a handful of pretty or silly designs to stick on waterbottles and such.
Our next adventure was teamLab Borderless [teamlab.art]. Which is an interactive image mapping and lighting exhibit. Projected waterfalls that flow around you. Animals you can color and scan and watch wonder around the rooms —and stomp on, causing them to splat on the floor. Rainbow whales swim along the walls, a gallery of color changing lamps in a mirrored room. We have been to the smaller teamLabs Future World at the Marina Bay Sands ArtScience Museum in Singapore a few times. several of the exhibits at Borderless are larger versions of exhibits there.
Still, teamLab’s art is awesome and beautiful. We spent most of the day wandering around. The only drawback was how hot the building is, between the large crowd and the lighting equipment it was very hot. In one exhibit it’s so hot it’s like being in a sauna. But Borderless is well worth a visit. There are several other teamLab exhibits in And around Tokyo too, but we didn’t visit any of them.
To round out our time in Tokyo we did some research before we left Singapore. We watched shows on NHK and YouTube to find things to do. The the key show was on NHK, the Hands-on Fun in Asakusa [nhk.or.jp] episode of Tokyo Eye 2020. within easy walking distance of our Ryokan we found three great things to do: Asakusa Kingyo, Kawarawari kawarana, and Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku.
Asakusa Kingyo [crayonsite.net] is located in an arcade just next to Sensōji [wikipedia.org]. Kingyo means goldfish in Japanese and Asakusa Kingyo is filled with paper goldfish, ceramic goldfish, stuffed goldfish and the like. but the main attaction is a large pool in the middle of the shop where you can sit and try to catch actual goldfish with little paper paddles and a wooden box. The kids caught dozens of goldfish over two or three visits. Unfortunately we couldn’t take them home, we got a ceramic goldfish to commemorate the visit.
Kawarawari Kawarana [kawarana.jp] is for distressing, you get to break Japanese roof tiles like some karate master. The roof tiles are about one centimeter think and the basic package is breaking five tiles. It’s a fun experience, you can dress up in one of the yukata provided and a Karate Kid headband to have the full experience. Totally worth it.
Asakusa Taiyaki Kobo Guraku [guraku.jp] is a do it yourself Taiyaki cafe. Taiyaki are the traditionally japanese fish shapped pancakes filled with adzuku (sweet red bean paste), cheese or custard. At Guraku not only do you get to make the taiyaki yourself, you can bring anything you want to fill them. We were not so adventurous, we took ham and cheese, and made a lot of custard too. In fact we made a ton of taiyaki. We really went for the kids to make but that meant booking for all seven of us. I think we got 24 taiyaki out of it. We had hot fresh taiyaki, and warm taiyaki later and cold taiyaki for breakfast and… and then we tossed a few into the trash.
From YouTube we watched a few videos but the ones that we really used were those about food. We watched a YouTuber named Paolo [tokyozebra.com] and in particular his videos on Asakusa [youtube.com] and snacks in Harajuku [youtube.com]. Of all the foods that were tried there are two worth mentioning.
The first is the giant rainbow cotton candy from Totti Candy Factory (which does not seem to have a website, but funny enough they opened a shop in Yishun Singapore near my house). The size of the cotton candy is way over the top. It’s four flavors like some kind of fat sombrero. My youngest devoured one on her own. But Harajuku is too much for my family, too crowded. We made it halfway down the road, pretty much as far as Totti before they were all “get us out of here”. We took one wrong turn trying to go out a side street that ended up being a dead end (thanks Google Maps). But in the end had to wade back through the sea of humanity down the main road.
The second food adventure was back in Asakusa: Benizuru (another one with no website). Benizuru makes one thing, this is Japanese “specialization leads to perfection” at its yummiest. Benizuru makes über-fluffy rice flour pancakes. Each pancake is about six centimeters think when they take it off the griddle, before it sinks a little. They are not so much fluffy (though that’s how everyone describes them) as jiggly. In addition to rice flour the chef folds in fresh whipped egg whites just before cooking. Getting a seat is, let’s say, “an adventure” (looking at it any other way will just irritate you.) they don’t take reservations over the phone, and they don’t take reservations for the future only for the same day. They open at eight AM to start taking reservations and are apparently fully booked dry quickly. My sister and I went at six AM the day after all of this was explained to us (we knew about the same day reservations but not what time they started taking them) and we were not the first people in line, there was a couple from Canada in front of us. By the time they started taking reservations the line was 30 people, or more, long. In any case we did get seats for ten AM and the pancakes were totally worth it. I had the basic, just three pancakes with butter and honey. All orders are three pancakes but there are a variety of toppings; in addition to butter and honey they have different (daily) fruits and even eggs and bacon. The whole reservation system makes more sense when you sit inside; there are 12 seats I think, and 6 griddle plates to cook the pancakes. So they can cook two orders at a time. If you’re going to go plan ahead and get up early, the people in front of us and at least those right behind us were, like us, returning after not being able to score a reservation on their first day.
Our last adventure was the Tokyo Sea Life Park [tokyo-zoo.net]. It was our last day and rainy but we took the train and made the most of it. I think though that the biggest hit was the French fries and hotdogs at the food truck in front of the aquarium.
I almost forgot, at some point we took a trip to the Tokyo Skytree [tokyo-skytree.jp], it was a nighttime visit to see the endless sea of lights that is Tokyo. I had a chance to visit the older Tokyo Tower [tokyotower.com] last year and I think it was better designed for the night view, and better positioned, closer to some of the clusters of tall buildings. Maybe the skytree would be better during the day, but the angle of the windows and the reflection on them of the interior lights spoilt the view for me.
And with that our 2018 tour of Japan came to an end.
The second stop on our 2018 tour of Japan was Nagano. Since no one in the family skis why did we go to Nagano? Monkeys. Snow monkeys to be precise, at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen [wikipedia.org]. We’ve been to see the Monkeys in the Onsen before [confusion.cc] but my youngest daughter does not remember and my niece had never been.
The trip to Nagano from Nikkō [confusion.cc] is via Tokyo: (almost) all Shinkansen tracks lead to Tokyo. We had a bit of a mishap changing trains in Tokyo we actually got on the wrong train, we were five minutes early at the platform. Such is the efficiency of the Japanese rail network. We figured it out quite quickly as there were people in our seat, but it was not quick enough sine we had to wrangle our luggage, the train had already left the station. The conductor told us that we could just get off at the next stop and take the next train. What he did not tell us is that the train we were on only made one stop between Tokyo and Nagano, and it was almost halfway. Since we were on a fast train it took about 40 minutes before the stop. Then, as our train was a slower one we had to wait on the track for 20 minutes, all because we were 5 minutes early at the platform in Tokyo.
Eventually we did make it to Nagano and our hotel. The first thing we did was to check the weather forecast. We were hopping to see some snow and our best chance would be at Jigokudani since it’s up in the hills. There was only a small chance of snow the first night but there was a 70 to 80 percent chance of a decent snow —3 to 5 cm— the second night. So we decided to spend our first day exploring downtown Nagano.
We spent the late morning and most of the afternoon wandering around the grounds of Zenkōji
We woke early on our second day in Nagano hopping for snow. Despite the high chance overnight there was not a flake to be seen. Still we hopped to se some at the Jigokudani which is actually in Yamanouchi. We caught an early bus from Nagano station for the hour and a half ride. Unfortunately there was no fresh snow once we go there. There was snow on the hills and old crusty snow on the grass and under the trees. But it had not snowed overnight and what snow there was was melting in the sun.
It was a beautiful walk up from the bus stop to the actual bath used by the monkeys. About two or two and a half kilometers, from the bus stop it’s half a kilometer along a side road to the actual entrance to the park. From the entrance it’s a beautiful walk in the woods, though a bit muddy in the melting snow.
The monkeys were much the same as the last time we went, but last time it was snowing and that made for an all together more amazing experience. It’s fun to get up close to the monkeys in the bath and take some photos. It’s a bit disappointing if it’s your first time and you realize this is not a natural hot spring pool, it was built for the monkeys. All the travel shows and photos you see hide this but it’s obvious when you are there. Also there are more people crowded around the hot spring than monkeys. It’s a highly artificial photo opportunity. That said you can get some awesome photos.
Back down the hill the kids managed to have a snowball fight with the old snow among the plants around the parking lot while we waited for our return trip.
Other than that we enjoyed some shopping —my kids are obsessed with Japanese stationary so, yea, picked up some markers, pencils, etc. etc.— and my wife and I managed to find a few places to eat local food so she could enjoy something other than convenience store fare, the kids continued lived off of Lawson’s and 7-11, though they did eat soba.
Last December the family went to Japan again —our favorite destination. We met my mom, sister and niece there and went to Nikko, Nagano and Tokyo. This trip to Japan was delayed a full year, plans were made for this trip in 2017 but unforeseen events caused it to be canceled a few weeks before we were to leave. So we were determined to enjoy it to its fullest.
Our adventure began before we arrived in Narita, and not on a positive note —feverish and vomiting kids. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Nikko, after three hours and two transfers by train from Narita, both the girls were sick. My mom and I spent most of the first day looking for medicine as the limited stock we brought quickly ran out. We walked around Nikko for several hours, looking for an open doctors office with the help of Google maps. We never found the first place Google directed us to but the second place we finally did find, after walking around in circles for a while, was very helpful… but it was an experience. The office was full of older men and women and, of course, the staff didn’t really speak English and I don’t speak Japanese so we spent some time conversing in single words and hand gestures enhanced with Google translate. “Child”. “Fever”. “Six years old”. “Ten years old”.
The staff was extremely helpful three or four of them gathered around trying to understand me. Eventually one of the staff was able to explain that we should go down the road to a Welcia to find what we needed. After another ten minutes or so of walking we found the Welcia, a very large drug store. Our second adventure in Google translate was trying to translate the labels of the medicines in the kids section —which was not very big, there really are no kids in rural Japan— one-by-one we translated until we found an ibuprofen and a paracetamol for kids. We never did find anything for vomiting and the staff was not so helpful. The guy at the counter was polite but it was obvious he didn’t want to take the time to try and understand, the contrast with the ladies at the doctors office was day and night. Maybe it was small business vs. big corporate employee but it reminded me of something I was told the first time I went to Japan: even though most younger Japanese speak English, the men won’t talk to you, you’re better off talking to the women. This was explained as a cultural stigma; while it is cute for a woman to struggle and speak broken “Engrish”, it’s not acceptable for a man to speak it so they just pretend they can’t understand.
So, anyway after two days stuck in the ryokan sick everyone recovered and we got to enjoy Nikko a bit. The hotel we stayed at was right on the edge of town and just next to a place called Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) [atlasobscura.com]. A gorge the Daiya river flows though which is overlooked by a line of statues called “Jizō”, a bodhisattva who “cares for the deceased”. The statues are about a meter high sitting on a stone base that is another half meter or so, and dressed with a red knitted hat —like a skull cap— and red bib. It’s quite atmospheric, about 70 of these statues covered in moss, sitting along the trail in the woods with the river rushing through the gorge. We would never have found this place except that our hotel was literally the last building on the street and woods and gorge were right next to us, a five minute walk to where the statues began.
Of course the main reason we were in Nikko was to visit the shrines and temples of Nikkō [wikipedia.org] UNESCO world heritage site. The main attraction was the Tōshōgū Shrine (東照宮); [wikipedia.org], the mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried. Ieyasu was the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, the guy who conquered all of Japan and founded the Shogunate which would last until the Meji restoration, some two hundred years later. They sparred no expense when they buried him.
The Tōshōgū shrine is the most lavishly decorated place I’ve ever been in Japan. It’s the most lavishly decorated place in Japan I’ve ever seen a picture of. When you think of Japanese design you probably think of clean, simple almost minimalist design. Toshogu is the Baroque of Japanese, every inch is covered in carvings and there is no lack of color. Or gold, there is gold everywhere.
The Tōshōgū is far from the only shrine or temple, there is a large cluster of them. Taiyūinbyō (大猷院廟), Rinnōji (輪王寺), Shinkyō (神橋). We wondered around a few of them.
The other major thing we did was to take a train to Kinugawa Onsen to visit Tobu World Square [japan-guide.com]. We wondered around the 1/25 scale buildings from around the world: pyramids, the Acropolis, New York City —including the Twin Towers. There was Tower Bridge and The Eiffel Tower. A Bowing 747 and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was a blast.
In a recurring theme in all my family travels food was a challenge. We end up eating a lot of foods purchased from Lawson’s and 7-11. They have an impressive selection but you might thing we are crazy to be eating convenience store food in Japan. The problem is I’m vegetarian, my kids are just picky, my sister doesn’t eat gluten and my mom is not a fan of seafood. All in all it drives my wife, who is a foodie, mad. The best thing we got in Nikkō was great soba from a place near the hotel.
Late as usual but… the family took a trip to Bali for a few days. Relaxing trip, spending time in the pool and walking the beach. We did take a day tour and see a few of the sights. We stayed in Seminyak, and the beach had sand like icing sugar. Would have been awesome except there was too much trash. This was March right when this video of a diver swimming through a swarm of trash [theguardian.com] came out. I’ve been to Jakarta for work many times and to Bintan a few times, same story there. Indonesia has a problem, a massive problem.
We drove up into the mountains to see Mount Batur [wikipedia.org] and Lake Batur. A long drive for mediocre weather to obscure the top of the mountain. We stopped at a museum, setup as part of the Batur Geopark, part of the Global Geoparks Network [wikipedia.org]. But everything was in Indonesian so we didn’t spend too much time there.
On the way back we stopped at Tirta Empul [wikipedia.org] temple. Lots of statues and people taking their ritual bath. The temple is built around some natural springs which were cool to watch, rolling the sand at the bottom of a couple of crystal clear pools. Did I mention the status? I loved the status.
As we were finishing our walk around Tirta Empul it started raining. Hard. Even with an umbrella I got soaked from what Forest Gump would call rain that “come straight up from underneath”.
For our last stop we visited Uluwatu Temple [wikipedia.org]. This is one of the spots on Bali you have definitely seen photos of. The temple is perched on sheer cliffs at the southernmost tip of the island. Of course we stayed for the sunset and “fire dance”, or more properly “Kecak Dance”. Given that it’s sold as a fire dance there was not as much fire as I expected.
There are many more places in Bali that I would like to see, so maybe I will push to go back for a holiday again soon.