A Travellerspoint blog

Japan - ride on the peace train

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Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

After Tokyo we traveled around Japan by train for three weeks starting in Hiroshima and working our way back up to Tokyo. The train system in Japan is incredible. It covers most of the country, big cities and small. The bullet trains are so fast (more than 300 km/h) anything nearby is a blur as you go by, but it's still a great way to see the countryside.

Even the locals are amused by the bullet trains.

Even the locals are amused by the bullet trains.

The train system is a metaphor for Japanese culture. It moves lightning fast, is impeccably prompt, is user friendly, and is so smooth there is a peaceful zen about it. Throughout the country we heard only one taxi honk the horn and every car stopped for people at crosswalks. No one littered and not one train or bus ran late! If we looked lost, we were always helped by a passerby.

Our only minor complaint was from our train seat. Aside from some small mountain villages, Japanese cities are not very picturesque or inviting. Most skylines are full of buildings built in drab concrete. However, the true charm of each city is waiting in the little streets and back alleys.

Typical Japanese city skyline

Typical Japanese city skyline

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima is now a beautiful city in Japan, but will always be remembered as the site where the world entered the nuclear age. It fell victim to the first atomic bomb dropped in 1945, an attempt by the United States to force Japan to surrender in World War II.

The city's peace park was an incredibly emotional place. It was common to see visitors with tears. What I found the most powerful was how the people of Hiroshima, many of whom were alive when the A-bomb devastated the city, have turned the horrific experience into a quest for peace, rather than anger.

This is a memorial to all the people who died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. As many as 220,000 people died from the blasts and from the bomb's after affects.

This is a memorial to all the people who died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. As many as 220,000 people died from the blasts and from the bomb's after affects.

Hiroshima is another city that Elizabeth and I feel world leaders should be required to visit (especially from North Korea!) A little disturbing is that the United States didn't send a politician to pay formal respects at the site until recently. While other countries sent Prime Ministers and Presidents, the US, under President Bush, sent Nancy Pelosi.

Remnants of a tricycle after the A-bomb.

Remnants of a tricycle after the A-bomb.

The A-bomb dome is one of the buildings left standing. The bomb exploded directly above it, having missed the actual target, a nearby bridge. It remains as a reminder of why we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The A-bomb dome is one of the buildings left standing. The bomb exploded directly above it, having missed the actual target, a nearby bridge. It remains as a reminder of why we need to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

A student walks past a mural of the city the day after the the bomb was dropped. You can see the A-Bomb Dome next to the student (click on the picture for a larger image). Next to this mural is the city, full of houses, the day before the bomb was dropped. Hiroshima was almost completely leveled, with just a few structures left standing.

A student walks past a mural of the city the day after the the bomb was dropped. You can see the A-Bomb Dome next to the student (click on the picture for a larger image). Next to this mural is the city, full of houses, the day before the bomb was dropped. Hiroshima was almost completely leveled, with just a few structures left standing.

The bridge that was the main target of the bomb. It was damaged, but was usable again in a matter of days.

The bridge that was the main target of the bomb. It was damaged, but was usable again in a matter of days.

In relatively neutral terms, the museum in the park explains why the bomb was developed and used. I was taught in High School that the bomb was dropped justifiably to end the war quickly, without risking our troops with an invasion, so this museum was a learning experience.

The Japanese take responsibility for their actions in the war, but feel the atomic bomb was not the right tool to end the war. They feel the US was eager to drop the bomb to establish its super power status and to limit Soviet influence.

Japan, who was already weakened, believes a surrender could have been achieved if the US gave a clear warning that a bomb of great magnitude would be dropped, or if the Potsdam Declaration was modified to assure them the emperor system would be maintained after the surrender. The emperor system still exists today.

This clock chimes each day at the time the A-bomb detonated above Hiroshima, 8:15am (on August 6, 1945.)

This clock chimes each day at the time the A-bomb detonated above Hiroshima, 8:15am (on August 6, 1945.)

School children visit the peace park and join in the city's quest for peace.

School children visit the peace park and join in the city's quest for peace.

The peace bell is rung by visitors as a prayer for peace and to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, peace will have to wait as the bell was locked when Elizabeth tried to ring before opening time.

The peace bell is rung by visitors as a prayer for peace and to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, peace will have to wait as the bell was locked when Elizabeth tried to ring before opening time.

Kids ring the peace bell.

Kids ring the peace bell.

MIYAJIMA

Miyajima is a quaint island a short ferry ride from Hiroshima. It is famous for Buddhist temples and a local dessert called Momiji Manju, a pancake filled with sweet red beans.

The picturesque O-Torii gate at sunset. This gate is partially submerged in the ocean during high tide.

The picturesque O-Torii gate at sunset. This gate is partially submerged in the ocean during high tide.

Daisho-in Temple has 100 Buddhas, each with their own character, lining a stairway to the main temple.

Daisho-in Temple has 100 Buddhas, each with their own character, lining a stairway to the main temple.

SHIKOKU ISLAND: DOGO, UWAJIMA, KOCHI, OBOKE

Then we zoomed from Hiroshima to the mountainous island of Shikoku, one of Japan's biggest islands, on the Shinkasen train.

We visited the oldest onsen in Japan in the town of Dogo. An onsen is a public bathhouse, with separate, large, group bathing areas for men and women. The Dogo Onsen is fed by a nearby hot spring and is still used by locals for bathing and relaxation. Perhaps not so relaxing for us as we fumbled our way around the customs and public nudity. We enjoyed customary tea after our separate baths.

We visited the oldest onsen in Japan in the town of Dogo. An onsen is a public bathhouse, with separate, large, group bathing areas for men and women. The Dogo Onsen is fed by a nearby hot spring and is still used by locals for bathing and relaxation. Perhaps not so relaxing for us as we fumbled our way around the customs and public nudity. We enjoyed customary tea after our separate baths.

Many families have matching kimonos. Elizabeth and I settled for rented matching kimonos.

Many families have matching kimonos. Elizabeth and I settled for rented matching kimonos.

We made a stop in Uwajima, a podunk town, to visit the Fertility Shrine and Sex Museum. We found it strange to find such a racy place in a rural town. This is a side view of the shrine. We clapped twice, bowed, and donated a coin per tradition for our future endeavors.

We made a stop in Uwajima, a podunk town, to visit the Fertility Shrine and Sex Museum. We found it strange to find such a racy place in a rural town. This is a side view of the shrine. We clapped twice, bowed, and donated a coin per tradition for our future endeavors.

We then headed to Kochi, famous for its Sunday market. Believe it or not, Elizabeth passed on eating this little guy! Something about it looked me in the eye! The Japanese love dried fish.

We then headed to Kochi, famous for its Sunday market. Believe it or not, Elizabeth passed on eating this little guy! Something about it looked me in the eye! The Japanese love dried fish.

The locals were all very serious at the market.

The locals were all very serious at the market.

Along with a group of old men we headed to the Oboke Gorge for what turned out to be the most boring tour boat ride in the world. "Gorge'' was definitely an overstatement.

Along with a group of old men we headed to the Oboke Gorge for what turned out to be the most boring tour boat ride in the world. "Gorge'' was definitely an overstatement.

Yes, beer, as with most things in Japan, is sold in vending machines. The old men above made the boat tour more exciting by drinking the beer along the way.

Yes, beer, as with most things in Japan, is sold in vending machines. The old men above made the boat tour more exciting by drinking the beer along the way.

Oboke is also home to some ancient vine bridges. The planks are pretty far apart so most people crossing were a bit scared.

Oboke is also home to some ancient vine bridges. The planks are pretty far apart so most people crossing were a bit scared.

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Elizabeth and I in Oboke with the vine bridge in the distance.

KYOTO (on Honshu Island)

Kyoto is a wonderful city with many temples, gardens, and streets lined with Machiya (traditional wooden townhouse) storefronts selling handicrafts and food. The city has a comfortable feel that we enjoyed immensely, especially with many small alleyways and off the road paths.

Women dressed in traditional kimonos visit a shrine at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

Women dressed in traditional kimonos visit a shrine at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

The zen sand garden at the Ginkakuji Temple.

The zen sand garden at the Ginkakuji Temple.

Machiya coffee shop.

Machiya coffee shop.

A typical Machiya street.

A typical Machiya street.

Pottery sold in a Machiya style store.

Pottery sold in a Machiya style store.

Kyoto is also known for having an active Geisha culture, which is a strange concept at first. Geisha are basically female socialites and entertainers dressed in traditional kimonos and white makeup who are hired to keep business men company with classical music or dance. At night we would see Geisha wandering around town from one appointment to the next.

Geisha strolling through town.

Geisha strolling through town.

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On our last night in Kyoto, we tried a local specialty, onomiyaki. It is a thick pancake made of egg, chopped veggies and seafood. Delicious! We also tried tokayaki, a dumpling filled with chopped octopus. Not Elizabeth's favorite, but I thought it was tasty!

On our last night in Kyoto, we tried a local specialty, onomiyaki. It is a thick pancake made of egg, chopped veggies and seafood. Delicious! We also tried tokayaki, a dumpling filled with chopped octopus. Not Elizabeth's favorite, but I thought it was tasty!

MORE HONSHU ISLAND: HIMEJI, KOBE, KANAZAWA

From Kyoto we took a few day trips to Himeji to see the Himeji Castle, Kobe for a nice Kobe beef meal, and to Kanazawa to see one of the nicest gardens in Japan.

The Himeji castle is one of the few castles that survived WWII bombings.

The Himeji castle is one of the few castles that survived WWII bombings.

Elizabeth in her castle.

Elizabeth in her castle.

We had a delicious Kobe beef lunch at Wakkoqu restaurant at the source in Kobe. It was the best meal we had in Japan!

We had a delicious Kobe beef lunch at Wakkoqu restaurant at the source in Kobe. It was the best meal we had in Japan!

Gardeners working hard in Kanazawa's Kenrokuen Garden, which wasn't as colorful as we were expecting. Apparently we were visiting Japanese gardens in the wrong season.

Gardeners working hard in Kanazawa's Kenrokuen Garden, which wasn't as colorful as we were expecting. Apparently we were visiting Japanese gardens in the wrong season.

We think school kids in this area look like those little space Lego men with their backpacks.

We think school kids in this area look like those little space Lego men with their backpacks.

FUJI-SAN

We stopped in Hakone, a town south of Mt. Fuji, to visit an amazing open air museum featuring many sculptures and a Picasso pavilion. We then did some hiking and biking around Mt. Fuji in the town of Kawaguchiko where the altitude is around 3000 feet. Mt. Fuji is 12,388 ft high and was covered with snow, making for spectacular views. Mt. Fuji itself was closed for hiking when we were there.

Dave gliding through sculpture at the Hakone Open Air Museum.

Dave gliding through sculpture at the Hakone Open Air Museum.

"Miss Black Power", Niki de Saint Phalle. Sculpture at the Hakone Open Air Museum.

"Miss Black Power", Niki de Saint Phalle. Sculpture at the Hakone Open Air Museum.

Elizabeth taking a foot bath at the Hakone Open Air Museum with locals. All locals show the peace sign when taking pictures. It's so   Japan!

Elizabeth taking a foot bath at the Hakone Open Air Museum with locals. All locals show the peace sign when taking pictures. It's so Japan!

The mountain.

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Elizabeth, always the reliable navigator.

Elizabeth, always the reliable navigator.

UTSUNOMIYA

Before returning to Tokyo we decided to have lunch at an Izakaya (Japanese tavern) north of Tokyo known for it's special wait staff, highly trained monkeys who serve beer. As with most of our activities on our trip, we had to walk a few miles to reach the tavern from the train station. We arrived only to learn that it was closed on Tuesdays. As we sulked and began our trek back to the train station we ran into the tavern owners carrying a few baby monkeys in for training. They didn't speak any English, but after some charades, they invited us in for a drink and were incredibly kind. We ended up getting our own monkey show and had an amazing time!

Elizabeth monkey'ing around.

Elizabeth monkey'ing around.

The monkey formed a bond with me... most likely because of my hairy monkey-like appearance.

The monkey formed a bond with me... most likely because of my hairy monkey-like appearance.

Enjoy this video of our private monkey show! YouTube material?

We've met up with my mom and cousins Pat and Ellen in Beijing and are enjoying exploring China from the Great Wall to Hong Kong. It's a much different culture than Japan! More on that soon.

- Dave

Posted by daveliz 21:53 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Tokyo - the world's largest city

Embracing the future while holding onto the past

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Bright lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo.

When Dave and I organized our trip around the world we had no idea how the order of countries we visited would affect us, but as it turns out, timing is everything. After the mayhem of southeast Asia, Japan couldn't have come at a better time. From the minute we stepped off the plane we knew something was different. We were in the biggest city in the world, but the air smelled fresh, the roads and buildings were spotless, and the people were genuinely happy. There was no honking or superfluous noise, everything ran on perfect time and there was a sense of zen that we both desperately needed.

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Of course, I immediately ruin the peace by breaking the high tech metro ticket machine. Oops.

Tokyo, like most of Japan, as we learned, is a balance between new and old. Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi have more trend setting car models on the road than I have ever seen. The country has completely embraced technology. Gadgets are everywhere. Cell phones (which you never hear, because they are always turned to manner mode) and iPods are strapped to everyone's neck; both young and old.

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Paradise for some! Electronic mega malls can't be missed in the Akihabara section of Tokyo.

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Gambling is very popular. Slots seem to be the game of choice, but oddly many businessmen are using machines with a mechanical arm to grab for a stuffed animal.

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The Japanese love a corny game show! We spotted one being recorded from the window of a street side studio in Shibuya.

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Karaoke is extremely popular, so Motown Dave and I rented a private box to share our voices with the world. Good thing the windows are strong ; - )

But the best invention . . . the plug-in toilet, with amenities such as a heated seat, a multitude of cleaning options, and music or flushing sounds so your neighbors don't hear your business.

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Don't be scared by the remote control handle bar.

Tokyo has a thriving sex industry. The country's version of the 'no tell motel' is called a Love Hotel. Guests can either 'stay' for the night or 'rest' for a few hours. Dave and I shopped around and found some very classy rooms fully equipped with bar and karaoke machine, while others have themes to look like a doctor's office or cave. Use your imagination! Guests range from businessmen with young women, young couples still likely living with parents, to curious tourists. In traditional Japan form, guests select the hotel room from a vending machine wall so they don't have to interact with a human face to face.

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There is a vending machine for just about everything. Coffee, beer, noodles, sex.

Lodging runs the gamut and we wanted to experience it all, so booked a night at a capsule hotel, which costs a fraction of a regular hotel and on par with a hostel. Guests are basically assigned to a morgue in a large room that comes fully equipped with a tv, radio, alarm clock, light and air.

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The best part was waking up to the Sox/Yankees game!

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The bathroom is onsen style (traditional Japanese bathhouse.) Guests rinse off with the shower head and then enter the same bath.

Women, especially, are fashion forward in Tokyo.

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Takeshita Dori is a congested shopping street that attracts lots of teens.

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Thigh highs and knee highs are in. Layering is a must. Jeans should be rolled up and worn with heels and cute, colorful ped-like socks. And then there is an edgy cartoon-like style worn by many teens.

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Even school girls, who go to school six days a week, have style.

...

YET, Tokyo and Japanese culture is holding on to aspects of its past. People are still riding bicycles circa 1960.

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Typical bike with few to no gears, but comes with a creative umbrella holder.

Credit cards are not widely accepted. And, the business culture seems catered to men, with women often staying at home once they have children, although it should be noted that women are having children much later in life and working much longer.

Tokyo is open 24 hours a day and is the most expensive city we've traveled to thus far, comparable to New York City. Restaurants serve every type of food. I got my fix of safe meat to fill my protein deficient body from not eating right during the last few months.

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Restaurants line alleys and are always full.

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For the freshest fish head to the Tokyo fish market at 6 a.m. After checking it out, Dave and I went for breakfast sushi.

Photos of Tokyo look like chaos, but at its busiest intersection not one person attempted to cross the street before the light turned. No cars tried to run a red light, and oddly, it was pretty quiet. There is also no trash on the ground as people don't eat in public and smoking areas are designated to certain street corners, with most smokers carrying their own portable ash tray. It is unreal!

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The Tokyo scramble in Shibuya is the busiest intersection in Tokyo.

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In almost every city Japan has made roads accessible for the visually impaired. Like the freedom trail, all roads are lined with raised yellow strips and dots, plus special sound devices at all street intersections.

Ninety percent of Japanese are Buddhist and shrines are everywhere.

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Meiji Jingu, Tokyo's largest Shinto Shrine. It is custom too wash before entering. While there, people make a donation and write their well wishes.

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Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

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Tokyo's Imperial Palace is not open to the public. We enjoyed looking in from the opposite side of the moat.

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Roppongi Tower, a landmark in Tokyo because you can see it from everywhere, is sort of like the Eiffel Tower, but not really. This is the view from Neil's porch. Roppongi is a Tokyo neighborhood with many of the city's night clubs, but it is also home to many foreigners who work in the city.

We were fortunate to have our third homestay of our trip. Natick High School alum and fellow Temple Shir Tikva Hebrew School carpooler Neil Rosenblatt opened his doors for us, hosting two parties; one on our first night and one on our last. Ok...not exactly planned for us, but we felt pretty special ; - ), ate well, and met many of his fantastic friends that he has met during his decade long (give or take) tenure in the city.

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Neil and Elizabeth cooking up yakatori, which is glazed meat on a stick cooked on a special grill.

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Party 2.

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Party 1.

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We didn't realize we would be back on US ground so soon, but we were invited to a going away party at the US Embassy for two marines leaving for new posts. Neil has a few friends who work at the embassy. The US military continues to have an enormous presence in Japan. (We actually ended up in the embassy newsletter, which is quite funny!)

As a bonus, Neil introduces me to his friend Reina who is a hair stylist in training.

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Reina colors my hair as a treat. Neil is my personal translator so I don't end up with purple hair.

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Our last adventure in Tokyo was to ride this roller coaster at the Tokyo Dome. After a few major drops it goes through a shopping plaza wall.

We are sad to leave Japan, but know we will come back. We're now headed to main land China for three weeks, followed by one week in Hong Kong. We'll likely write our blog entry on China once we leave the country so we can be as candid as usual. After Hong Kong, we fly to South Africa for one month. If you've been, send us your tips. If you know anyone there, please introduce us.

Soon you'll hear from Dave with stories from our travels around Japan.

Sayonara,
- Elizabeth

Posted by daveliz 23:11 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Toto, we're not in Fenway Park anymore . . .

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View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.

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In honor of all the Red Sox players from Japan we decided to go back to their roots. While in Tokyo, Dave and I went to the Tokyo Dome to watch Hideki Okajima's first professional team, the Yomiuri Giants.

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The Dome sits about 20,000 more than Fenway, but indoor games seem to be lacking the vibe of a 'real' baseball game that we were craving. None-the-less, we were glad we went as the best action wasn't on the field, rather in the stands.

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SOME THINGS YOU WON'T SEE AT FENWAY . . .

1. IN REGARDS TO BEER . . .

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A hot chick in a space age neon outfit with a portable keg on her back. In fact all vendors in the stands are women. There's not one man screaming 'beah heah!'

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As a bonus, fans get to start off with two beers from home as long as the entrance gate attendant pours it into a Tokyo Dome cup.

2. IN REGARDS TO FOOD . . .
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Forget peanuts and Cracker Jacks, father and son enjoy their first baseball game together with a carton of edamame and sushi. You can also buy udon noodles, rice and hotdogs - no comparison to Fenway Franks.

3. MANNERS . . .
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There is no swearing from the excited, yet polite fans. (Of course we don't speak Japanese, so they could have fooled us.)

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Fans don't stick to the floor on mystery goop that's been there since 1918. Plus, there wasn't a single peanut shell on the ground and throughout the game a garbage man walked through the stadium to collect trash.

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Sweet Caroline is old school. Japanese fans come to the park with their trumpets and drums to backup the specialty cheers for each player, which are chanted throughout the entire game. To make things fair, fans from both teams take turns cheering so they don't tune each other out.

4. BEHAVIOR . . .
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Keep your wife beater on. In Tokyo, men in suits fan themselves to keep cool.

5. MANNY . . .
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Ramirez is in right field. Did he cut the dreads and move to Japan while on suspension? It can't be. This Ramirez actually waves to the fans and throws them baseballs!

More details on Tokyo (which we love) and the rest of Japan later.

Go Sox! For those of you going to Phish at Fenway, I'm jealous. Please send a full report!

- Elizabeth

Posted by daveliz 04:37 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Vietnam - Laos - Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi with a brief intermission in Laos

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Three weeks has never felt so exhausting. In an effort to see as much of Vietnam and Laos as possible, we've been on more buses and trains then on land. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see it all, but we got a great taste and know we want to come back.

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Hmong Village People in Sa Pa, Vietnam.

- Dave is a very popular tourist attraction in Southeast Asia. Men, who normally don't have body hair, come up to him in amazement and pet his arms. One man told Dave that his arms are like an old forest, where as his arms were like a young forest. Another marveled at his built in mosquito protection.

- Everyone in this area thinks I am about ten years younger than I am, which is very flattering. However, when they find out my age and that I am married without children, they are appalled. One hostel owner practically mandated that Dave and I go upstairs to make babies. Sorry, but that will have to wait!

- In full disclosure before you see too many photos, I gave Dave a hair cut with my rounded nail scissor. We thought it was a better option than having a stylist who has never seen curly hair cut it. He actually liked the results, so we bargained for a real pair of scissors for round two. Dave is working on his coloring skills before I let him touch my hair ;- )

VIETNAM - SOUTH TO CENTRAL

HO CHI MINH CITY - a.k.a. SAIGON

Ho Chi Minh City was renamed from Saigon in 1975 to honor the country's former leader. It is bustling like Bangkok and also has a great network of alleys where many off the guest houses and restaurants are located. Most people are very welcoming to Americans and have relatives who fled to the US after the war.

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Motorbikes fill the streets of HCMC. Cars are a rare site. If you want to cross the street just go and hope for the best. The bikes and buses do a pretty good job of swerving around pedestrians.

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Handicapped Handcrafts was created in 1976 near Cu Chi, Vietnam, to allow the wounded and handicapped to do crafts for compensation. There are a few locations around the country.

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The Cu Chi tunnels were built by the North Vietnamese to hide from the US Army. The tunnel openings are extremely small and covered by grass to conceal them. Dave and I were two of just a handful of people on our tour who could actually fit in the tunnel opening and walkway. The space is small, cramped and dark. The tunnels go three levels below ground. The third level, which was incredibly narrow, was used to hide when the US Army entered the first and second levels. The Vietnamese also had the advantage of being much smaller than US soldiers and the ability to squat, which is pretty much the only position to be in underground.

An exhibit at the tunnel site included a propaganda movie that made us feel a little awkward as Americans hearing about the success the Cu Chi people against 'the enemy.' We also found it strange that there was an M-16 firing range for tourists at this historical monument.

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Vietnam calls the 'Vietnam War' the 'American War.' The war museum in Ho Chi Minh City gives narrative about the war from Vietnam's perspective. It also includes artwork from children, like this drawing showing US planes dropping bombs. It was interesting to get this view point, although we found the focus to be a bit accusatory, rather than sympathetic that lives were tragically lost from many countries. Not to mention, most of the people in this area of the country fought with the US, so it was clear the government controlled the content in museums. We also found it interesting that it wasn't until President Clinton that a US president visited Vietnam, made amends for the past, and opened talks to work as partners in the future.

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At 6 p.m. many women in Ho Chi Minh City join group aerobics in the central park. I decided to jump in, but couldn't understand the instructor, so was always a step behind.

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HCMC has a large market selling food and knockoff clothing, but don't expect to just browse. I was literally grabbed by sellers as we walked through. They won't let go until you agree to at least look at their booth.

We were in Vietnam during Reunification Day, April 30. This holiday marks the day the North Vietnamese captured Saigon and declared north and south Vietnam united and liberated from the US. Most locals take advantage of a four day weekend with a getaway to a beach area.

We tried to stay away from the busy areas of Nha Trang and Mui Ne, so opted for an overnight train to Hoi An, a European feeling waterfront town with more tailors than tourists.

HOI AN

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The overnight train from HCMC to Hoi An was supposed to sleep four, but a local family of three somehow bought one seat. They were very nice, but the cabin was just too small for all six people! Plus they brought on a box of popular dorian fruit, which is banned in many buildings for its horrible skunk-like odor. Lucky us!

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In Hoi An custom-made suits cost about $70-$100. Dave had a shirt made to go with his snazzy blazer from Thailand. What was odd is that every tailor offered the same five items...creativity was definitely lacking in this clothing district. Although, the French village architecture that houses all of the tailors is very charming.

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Hoi An's river front is thriving with souvenir shops, street vendors, a Japanese Bridge, and little French influenced restaurants. Similar to the cookie cutter tailors, many of the restaurants had the same photocopied menu.

Dave and I both caught colds, likely on the train, so stayed put for about five days in Hoi An, which really only deserved about two days. Next up was the bus ride from hell from Hoi An, Vietnam, to Vientiane, Laos.

LAOS

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To sum up .... 3 buses in 27 hours. One bus drove away with our luggage. They came back, but took Dave's Oakley sunglasses as a parting gift. One flat tire. No air con (more than 100 degrees outside and in.) No windows to open. Not enough seats. People in the aisles. No room for bags, which also ended up in the aisles. One woman vomiting. Major body odor. Driver decided to pull over to a hotel for a two hour nap. No toilet and little food.

We're told Laos is the most undeveloped country in the world, but it seems to be moving forward with infrastructure and there is an emphasis on education that we didn't find in Cambodia. We also didn't witness extreme poverty on the streets. Most of Laos is influenced by the French, giving the architecture a flare and the food a sweet addition. With our daily dose of noodles and rice, we enjoyed pastries, baguette sandwiches and crepes. Interestingly enough, people from Laos seem to be the only Southeast Asians with curves.

VIENTIANE

The capital city, Vientiane, is lovely. Streets are wide, paved and clean. There seemed to be equal amounts of cars and motorbikes, but with little honking. The city seemed so quiet compared to the major cities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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Laos students on a lunch break.

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This monument, resembling the Arc de Triumph, is called Patuxai, but is better known as the vertical runway. It was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US, which was intended for an air strip. When the US gives our tax dollars, don't they mandate where the funds are being used?

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We saw a sign for free salsa lessons, so we popped inside this bar. Turnout was low as salsa is new to the area. The teacher said he learned his moves from the German embassy in Vientiane, which we can't really figure out.

VANG VIENG

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We took a five hour bus to Vang Vieng. Again, no air con, but the view was worth the ride.

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Picture MTV spring break Cancun, but cheesier. Travelers go to Vang Vieng to tube down the Mekong River with as many stops at riverside bars as possible. All of the bars come with make shift trapeze ropes, adding to the show for senior citizens D & E who just watched and took photos.

LUANG PRABANG

To Luang Prabang we took a six hour mini bus with a sleepy driver who had to be continually nudged to stay awake, even though he took breaks every hour. We could have spent a week in this area, but were short on time due to all of the bus rides.

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After a few drinks with friends from the bus ride, we went to the night market, which was huge, but only sold about five items. Duvet covers and pillowcases seemed to be everywhere.

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We rented bikes to toot around town.

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Cyclists get a little help from a friend with a motorbike.

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School boys walking home from class.

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Not a great photo, but all school girls and women wear this traditional skirt.

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The fruit shake girls gave us our daily dose of bananas and funny conversation!

We would have liked to visit the Pak Ou caves, the Tat Kuang Si waterfall and do a trek in the surrounding mountains, but we just didn't have enough time. We left with a warm feeling about Laos, it's people, and it's beautiful mountain scenery. We will likely return with more time to explore the countryside and to get to know the people.

We initially planned to bus back to northern Vietnam, but after learning our route would take five days, we splurged on a plane ticket to Hanoi.

A few Laos laws to keep in mind:
- Don't smuggle drugs. One woman from England is currently in jail awaiting a trial. If found guilty she will get the death penalty by firing squad.
- Don't do more than flirt with a Laos man or woman. It is illegal for them to date foreigners with penalties for everyone involved.

VIETNAM - THE NORTH

SA PA

Our first stop in northern Vietnam was the picturesque Sa Pa Valley. Sa Pa is a beautiful French influenced town built into the side of the mountains.

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Sa Pa village.

Sa Pa is home to the friendly Hmong hill tribe people. The Hmong have cultivated most of the mountain sides in the valley to grow rice. Interestingly, the rice is not used for trade, rather each family is granted land to grow just enough rice to feed themselves. We took a two day trek through the rice fields and stayed at a Hmong home.

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Some of the locals, like our guide Kou, have found an alternative to the difficult farming lifestyle. Kou is guiding a variety of hikes and is the family cook when she's at home.

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During our hike Kou collected greens for dinner. Most Hmong are married before 18, but Kou is a bit of a rebel at 20, unmarried and independent. She finds boys to be too much trouble.

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Like many older Hmong siblings, Kou didn't go to school, rather helped her mother raise two younger siblings while her parents farmed. It is common to see children carrying children in this area.

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We visited a Hmong school where Elizabeth helped a few kids with some math equations. When we arrived at this classroom the kids were left alone without a teacher. They were incredibly well behaved doing their work!

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We handed out coconut candy to children in the villages.

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Kou gave a great back rub!

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Sunset at our home stay.

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Many Hmong women make and sell handicrafts in Sa Pa. Elizabeth bought a bracelet for $1 from this woman - a 28-year-old with three children.

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Our first ride on a motorbike was up from the Cat Cat waterfalls in Sa Pa.

- Skip this story (which is etched in my memory forever) if you get queasy and don't like toilet humor. I hope you have a vivid imagination.

On our trek through the rice paddies in Sa Pa we happened upon a young boy as he was taking a poop in nature's toilet behind his home. I felt like we were invading his privacy, but our guide chuckled and told us to keep walking toward him. What unfolded was like watching a train wreck . . . I know I should have looked the other way, but I couldn't help myself. Unfortunately, the boy's large poop wouldn't fully come out even after some wiggles, so he grabbed the nearest machete, which I suspect was used to farm rice, and sliced it off. But the best part, he then stood up from the squat position and got on all fours with his tush in the air. At this point his dog came up to him and licked him clean! Then he went about his day ; - ) I guess when you have man's best friend to help out, there is no need for toilet paper.

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This shirt (and about three others) was made in Vietnam and disposed of in Vietnam. After some shopping in Sa Pa and Hanoi, my wardrobe has been upgraded with a few new tees to carry me through the next six months.

HA LONG BAY

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After Sa Pa we went to Ha Long Bay, which is known for its limestone karst mountains and junk boats (junk is the Vietnamese word for sea.) The sails don't do anything on the motorized boats, rather just act as an advertisement for the different companies. We enjoyed the accommodations and the pretty area, but were sad the area was packed with tourists.

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Kayaking is a great way to explore the caves in the area.

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Jumping off the boat into a sea of jellies.

HANOI

Hanoi is like Bangkok on crack. Utter chaos is the only way to really sum it up... major traffic, constant noise, rancid smells and raw behavior.

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Ho Chi Minh rests in this Mausoleum in Hanoi. (Cameras not allowed inside.) We visited on his birthday, which explains the line of thousands of people in front of us to view him. This was probably one of the most annoying lines we've waited in as the Vietnamese haven't really grasped the concept of lines or waiting with patience. We were pushed, passed and stepped on for about two hours. And to make things even better, school children on a field trip just dropped their pants to go the bathroom while in the quasi-line, opposed to walking to the proper toilet, which was in sight.

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Hanoi is known for its water puppet show. Small wood puppets dance in water to Vietnamese folk music. It was very bizarre.

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Vietnamese men (and some women) frequent sidewalk restaurants. They sit in little plastic chairs that we buy for children.

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Traditional Vietnamese hats are always for sale. Too bad we couldn't squish one into our suitcase.

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Cyclos are a popular way to get around town or at least a good way to scam a few bucks from the tourists.

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City traveling in the rain isn't fun!

We leave Vietnam with mixed feelings. The countryside is beautiful with some very loving people, but the cities knocked us down. They are fast paced, dirty and full of scams. Locals have acquired both of our sunglasses, two socks and some underwear (laundry thieves) and most of our patience. Even though we understand the scams to some degree - people are just trying to make an extra dollar to live - it is frustrating and sad. Tourists are targets with rates for food, transportation and living double what locals pay. Customer service is also lacking in many establishments, especially once they have your money.

We're now in Tokyo, Japan, enjoying a dose of westernization. So far we love it. There is order, sophistication, warm people and a sense of zen. More to come!

- Elizabeth and Dave

Posted by daveliz 21:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

Life on the Mekong Delta

The faces of today's Vietnam

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View A Rough Outline of our Trip on daveliz's travel map.

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Biking along the mighty Mekong River.

What a difference a border can make. Our entry in Vietnam from Cambodia was relatively smooth, minus the woman sitting next to Elizabeth who was throwing up for the duration of the bus ride. Yuck! That aside, it was like we entered a whole new world. Roads were smoothly paved again. Houses and storefronts showed signs of life and modern amenities, and most importantly there was a sense of calm and happiness amongst the people we saw from the bus window. It is amazing that both Cambodia and Vietnam were in massive wars in the 1970's, yet Vietnam has visibly rebounded. More on this in a blog to come.

But first, we want to take you on a two-day boat journey along the Mekong River in Vietnam, which is south of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon).

Day 1...

The Mekong River runs from Tibet into the South China Sea in Vietnam. It is the centerpiece of life for many Vietnamese.
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After a bike ride in the Delta region, we hopped on a row boat and then onto a power boat. We shared the experience with new Dutch friends Hester and Freek (pronounced Frrrrrake). The little Vietnamese women were very tired from rowing us heavy westerner passengers!
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The river is where many Vietnamese in the region live, work, and play. We saw several floating markets. Many peoples' boats are their homes and storefronts. Others live and work in open style houses along the shore.
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Locals make several food items from products that either grow along the Mekong or are transported via boat on the river. We went to a factory that makes rice paper, puffed rice and coconut candies wrapped in rice paper. The women hand wrapped each coconut candy in rice paper in lightening speed!
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Locals catch fish in the Mekong. They cook using the water and then clean their dishes in it.
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They wash their bodies in it.
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And do laundry.
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Heading home from school.
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The river seems a bit murky and unhealthy to us given how much use it gets, but the local kids don't seem to mind! After school, children play and bathe in and along the Mekong. At the end of a long hot day of work, adults do the same.
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Resting on the Mekong.
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The Mekong and a neighboring path is used for transportation.
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The day ends peacefully on the Mekong.
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Day 2 ...

The Can Tho Floating Market is one of the largest in the country. It is a wholesale produce market, with larger boats selling fruit and vegetables and smaller boats travelling around to make purchases. Everything is sold in bulk and then brought back to land to either sell in markets, or to use at restaurants.

The sticks on the stern of the boat advertise what they are selling.
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The young and old help with the family business.
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The market in the city of Can Tho sells products from the floating market...
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Rice paddies and factories are a major part of life on land in the Mekong Delta.
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And some insightful locals at a cafe in the city.
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- Dave & Elizabeth

Posted by daveliz 20:25 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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