Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lhasa Express

After 3 nights in Lhasa it was time to board the train and take the 48 hour ride back to Beijing. We were sorry that we had spent all of our time in the city of Lhasa and hadn’t had the chance to go out into the countryside. The white-water rafting is supposed to be incredible. But you can’t do everything.

We did have some very unique experiences though, and I would go back in a minute. The food was very good – lots of Indian influence with curries and nan bread. The Tibetans love their yak, and we found it everywhere. In restaurants, on every menu (mmmmm yak butter tea, yak curry, and yak milkshakes – yes the kids each had one). In the temples they burn yak butter in big vats with lots of wicks like an enormous candle, as an offering to Buddha. Worshippers bring yak butter to add to the vat, or sacks of it to leave as offerings as well.

Also at this altitude there are only a few crops that will grow well. Barley is one of them, and you find it in everything, from the beer, to the restaurant menu, to the Buddhist alters. Right next to the vat of burning yak butter and strewn around the floor, were little grains of barley.

But now to the train….48 hours, 5 people, in one sleeper car (5.6 ft by 6.5 ft) with 4 bunks. The restaurant car was right next to our berth and was foggy with smoke and echoing with snorting, horking smokers. Forget the idea that the train is just another way for China to colonize and occupy Tibet, I am a firm believer that the train is evil for it’s assault on the olfactory senses.

There were 2 toilets for every 6 berths – bring your own toilet paper. One was a squatter and one was a normal toilet. Trust me; the squatter was the better option. Yes, even on a jerking, lurching train with slippery floors. You never want to put your most delicate of delicates in contact with a surface like the one presented by the normal toilet. I’m still having nightmares.

This train, the highest in the world, reached an altitude of 16,500 ft. (I know this because I am married to “gadget boy” who spent a good amount of time illegally hanging his hand and a GPS out the window.) They passed out oxygen masks, which we used more because they were cool looking than because we felt sick. All of our ipods quit working at around 16,000 feet - though thankfully, worked again once we got below 10,000 ft.

We met some very cool people on this trip, and saw the most stunning scenery. And that made the trip worth doing…..once.

There were lots of young, free-spirit backpacker types, and older couples, usually teachers, traveling around for several weeks or months. It was fascinating to hear all of their stories. There was Simone a geography teacher from South Africa and Jessica from the US living and teaching English in a Coastal town in Southern China.

There was a young man we didn’t meet but whose story we heard as we saw him walk by in the dining car. He had been camping in the Himalayas and got separated from the rest of his group. He wandered around lost for 6 days before he was rescued. He looked a bit dazed, and still had black marks around his mouth where he’s suffered sun and wind burn, and probably frostbite.

We made a connection with Peter, a young man from Texas, newly engaged (at the ripe old age of 21) and studying in China for the next two years. He lives in Beijing and we spent our last night in China hanging out with him. He helped Mike buy a guitar, took us to lunch at a great restaurant, and showed us the bar district in Beijing where we had a deep fried – inside-out fish. It was delicious.

Uncomfortable, yes. Smelly, more than a bit. But an intensely unique experience – one I will wear as a badge of honor.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Finding My Own Opinion in Tibet

I had some pretty strong political views about China and Tibet before I arrived. Of course they were all based on popular culture, having done no independent research myself. In fact, the first I knew about any kind of discord in Tibet was when I went into a “Free Tibet” store in Evanston about ten years ago. Sad, I know. But in my defense I was busy fishing golf balls out of the toilet and finding car keys in those days.

Here is what I learned from a Tibetan young man. Of course, he is not free to say anything bad about the government in China, and I suppose it is my responsibility to do more research and make an educated decision on my own…just as soon as I find those damn car keys…

As I said before, Buddhism was brought to Tibet by the Indian wife of a Tang Dynasty King. Tibetan Buddhists believe that every Dali Lama is the reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion. After the current Dali Lama dies, the next one is identified (as a child) by things like physical markings, ancient memories, and his ability to recognize the possessions of past Dali Lamas.

The Dali Lama was originally a religious figure only, and didn’t gain political power until D.L. #5, when the Emperor of the Qin Dynasty gave him political power to rule Tibet. Well, #5 was an old man with no political training and wasn’t keen to accept political power, so #6 was quickly chosen (before #5’s death) to take over the political rule.

#6 turned out to be a bit of a playboy, going into town to drink, find women, etc, and was not considered the true Dali Lama. He quickly disappeared, and #7 was later identified to take up the role as both religious and political leader of Tibet.

This was all well and good until the Chinese government decided to “deliver Tibet from a Theocracy” by separating matters of religion and state into two different offices. They sought to “relieve the current Dali Lama” of his political responsibilities.

This discussion between the Chinese Government and the 14th Dali Lama occurred in the Potala Palace in 1956. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama left for India. That is how it is put in China, as if he decided to go on walk-about.

We got to tour the Potala Palace – which served at the home, office, and burial place for D.L. 4-13. (#6 is not buried there as he was the playboy who disappeared, and #14 is still living but his tomb awaits him there). It is an incredible mixture of temples, offices, tombs and prayer rooms, which will be closed to the public by the Chinese Government at the end of this year. They say that the structure is crumbling and is not safe for visitors.

In my experience, this place felt, well, occupied. It was the only place where I saw Chinese soldiers in uniform stationed in the temples observing the worshippers and tourists. You are allowed to be there for only one hour – timed as you enter and then again as you leave, and fined $1000 RMB for every minute you stay beyond the allotted hour. I have to say it made me wonder why the government would close this precious sight filled with all of the scripture, historical and religious artifacts and the tombs of nearly all of the Dali Lamas. Why not restore the building?

I am suspicious of the Chinese Government’s motives. However, I also believe in the separation of Church and State. I don’t believe that a religious leader should also have political power and the ability to make laws.

So there you have it. That’s what I learned – that thing’s aren’t as simple as I’d hoped, and that pop culture shouldn't be the source of my political opinions.

New Photos China and Tibet

Click here for new photos of China and Tibet

Monk-y-ing Around in Tibet

Day two in Lhasa and we are all feeling a little better– thanks to the medicine and the cans of oxygen provided in the hotel rooms. Visiting Tibet is like being on a movie set. The streets are full of people in every form of clothing, spinning prayer wheels while chanting, fingering prayer beads, walking, talking, praying and prostrating themselves on the street – in a worshiping pilgrimage.

We saw groups of shaven headed monks and nuns in dark red robes walking alongside Tibetans in western style clothes. Many women wear the traditional wrap dress with a blouse and colorful apron (signifies they are married), and the men wear pants and a long cloak (chuba). Sleeves are long – even in hot weather. People dress for warmth and modesty. Yet you will also see Tibetans in jeans and tee shirts.

The colors are vibrant, the air feels electric with energy, and there is always the background hum of chanting, singing, or praying. It’s like no place I’ve ever been.

We visited 2 large monasteries, Sera Monastery and Drepung Monestary. These places were alive with monks praying and working, visitors worshiping, and tourists groups. Built into the side of a mountain, they require lots of climbing, and so we went very slowly. It was fascinating to see the temples, each dedicated to a different Buddha, but my favorite were the huge prayer wheels outside of the temples. These are drums about three feet tall and a foot in diameter, lined up next to each other and mounted on a spindle. They are inscribed with prayers and it was especially interesting to watch the devout spinning the wheels and praying as they made their pilgrimage up to the temples.

In the large (400 ft2) community rooms of the monasteries there are rows of small carpet squares lined neatly across the floor. This is the gathering room for the monks to pray together. Although tourists are not allowed during the official prayer times, occasionally we would see a monk sitting cross-legged in the candlelight, meditating and praying.

My favorite part was at the Sera Monastery where we got to watch the monks “Daily Debate”. The monks and their teachers gather in a tree lined courtyard that is paved in gravel. The students sit on pillows on top of the gravel and their teachers ask philosophical questions of them. The teachers stand in front of the students and take a giant step toward them slapping their palms together in a loud clap to punctuate the end of the question. If the student answers correctly they receive another loud clap. For an incorrect answer the teacher claps with both palms facing upwards. I loved watching my kids take this all in. The movement amidst the hum of the voices punctuated by loud cracking noises was incredible. And watching the faces of the monks and teachers, both intently focused on the learning and teaching was unreal. I really think my kids were as moved as I was – right up until Charlie leaned over and asked if we could get ice cream on the way home.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lhasa Sunshine

We flew to Lhasa, Tibet and were so excited to see smog-free blue skies and sunshine. The air, however, contains less oxygen than I require to function normally, and I could feel the effects of the high altitude (13,000 ft) right away. I was woozy,and walking very slowly - had that "in a dream" feeling. I looked at my family and saw that they weren't faring much better. Mike and Anna's lips were turning purple. Charlie was looking at his shoes and walking like an old man, and everyone was very quiet. I followed them off the plane and through the airport, trying to guess which would be the first to faint. Luckily we all made it to baggage claim without a face-plant.

Our guide Lo Sang greeted us in the traditional Tibetan way, by placing a white silk, scarf around each of our necks. He then told us some history of Tibet as the driver took us to the hotel. 95% of Tibetans are Buddhist. Buddhism first came to Tibet in the 8th century B.C. through a woman, the Indian wife of a Tang Dynasty king. Prior to that Tibetans practiced a religion called Bon. This was a shamanistic religion, and according to Lo Sang quite brutal. The followers believed in human and animal sacrificing, and would burn the pinkie finger of their hands as an offering to the gods.

We went straight to the hotel and just lay around feeling headachy, tired, and nauseous - like a hangover without the preceding party. Altitude, like heat, makes me stupid – Mike too. After going to the market just across the street, he and I wandered back to the hotel and walked from room to room in sort of a daze, having no idea which room was ours, and not clear on a way to find out.

In Anna though, the symptoms came out in a much more covert way. It took me awhile to recognize what was going on. She started to get very whiny and unreasonable, picking at everything that her brothers did from where they put their shoes were to how loudly they were talking. It finally dawned on me to ask if she had a headache or felt sick to her stomach. I gave her the altitude medicine that our doctor prescribed (very cool syringes with no needles. You squirt the balm on your wrists and rub them together) some Tylenol, and within 30 minutes she was herself again.

Tomorrow, body willing, we would see the largest monestary and the summer garden of the Dali Lama.

TC Warriors and Wedding Vows

We went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors near Xi’an, China. The story goes that a peasant farmer was digging a well in 1975, and he unearthed a piece of a clay statue. This turned out to be one of the 7000 soldiers, horses, and chariots built by the slaves of the first Emperor of China, meant to guard his tomb.

These statues had been built below ground, with a wooden roof erected to protect them. However, shortly after the Emperor died, the peasants, unhappy with the cruelty of this emperor, destroyed most of the statues and set fire to the roof.

Archeologists are continuing to excavate this sight, repair the statues, and assemble them in their original formation. Each one has a different facial expression, authentic armor, and even held real weapons.


The kids loved it. After we went to the factory where replicas are made and sold as souvenirs. Everyone got to try their hand at sculpting a warrior, throwing a pot, playing with clay. It was very cool.

The next day was the history museum of Xi’an. My kids are starting to get weary of touring historical places, but our guide Xin was able to capture their imaginations – usually be telling them of the gruesome details about life as the slave of an emperor. Lots of dismembering, drawing and quartering, and such. Yow.

That night Mike and I went out for a drink to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and negotiate the terms of our continued partnership. We must have come to some sort of agreement, because here he is in my hotel room again.

And in classic "Mike Nolan" fashion he got to play harmonica with the band. He really ripped it up doing the Chinese Blues. They wouldn't let me play though - something about being a girl.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Xi'an China

Having a guide who does the airport check-in for you ROCKS! Our Beijing Guide Sam took our passports, waited in line and waved us up when it was time to check the bags. In fact, he did ALL of the line waiting the entire time we were in Beijing (considerable) and we got to mill about and poke each other. It was the only time I didn’t have to be the mommy and an invaluable service to Mike “I never met a line worth waiting in” Nolan.

The flight on Air Euina was a tight one, the smallest plane seat I’d ever seen. When the lady in front of me put her seat back, her head was so far into my lap I could have done dental work. I discretely dropped a pack of floss down her cleavage.

Two hours later we arrived in Xi’an, the original capitol of China, and home to the famous Terra Cotta Warriors (more on this later). Xin, a charming young woman and our guide for Xi’an met us at the airport and took over right where Sam left off.

There is a wall about 4 stories high and 40 feet thick that surrounds the center of Xi’an City. Like the Great Wall it was used to protect the city from invasion. Now tourists and locals alike come here to bike around the top and see the city from this vantage point. We saddled up and biked around it ourselves (about 8 miles) dodging potholes, construction workers and Chinese tourists who stared at us, pointing, laughing, and snapping our photograph as we peddled past.

There are two story pagodas supported by bright red pillars every couple of blocks along the wall. And twenty foot tall black poles with dragon heads hold red Chinese lanterns. Seeing my family bike through this wholly exotic backdrop felt like a dream.

Afterward, two families of tourists asked Jack and Charlie to pose for a picture with them. My kids are getting quite used to this sort of attention now and are starting to ham it up for the camera, flashing the peace sign or the thumbs up and throwing their arms around these strangers.

After the bike ride we went to lunch. Let me tell you a little about feeding the Nolans in China. Every restaurant we have visited serves dishes family style on a giant glass turntable. Your place setting is a saucer –sized plate, pair of chopsticks, cup, bowl and spoon. You serve yourself by spinning the turntable and snatching something from the 6 or 7 platters on the table.

We asked our guides to order for us, requesting no fish – a little too exotic for this group. Generally the food has been pretty good, and sometimes VERY good. It is very salty and oily though which makes snatching it from the platter as it spins past you a task requiring speed, agility, and commitment.

Additionally the fact that EVERYONE here smokes has been a big challenge for us. For our first lunch in Xi’an we were seated next to a table of 6 men, cigarette in one hand, chopsticks in the other, smoking and eating at the same time while pausing periodically to hork up something nasty.

When the dishes were served Mike speared a piece of chicken and put it on my plate. There, poised like the arthritic claw of an old woman, was a chicken foot. I just might get thin here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bye Bye Beijing

Our last day in Beijing was a marathon day. We rode rickshaws through the hutongs (local neighborhoods) had lunch at the home of a lovely Chinese lady (Sam, if you are reading this and can send me her name I would appreciate it), went to the official governement tea house for tea ceremony and tasting. Jack is now a full-time tea drinker along with Mike and I.

We also visited the summer palace of the emperor and took a ride in the man-made lake. Afterwards it was off to the zoo to see the pandas, and finally the silk street market to buy 7000 dvd's for our 2 day train trip.
It was so jampacked with information that I can't think of one thing to focus on. So I'll let the pictures do the talking.
It is worth mentioning though that shopping in this part of the world is a full-contact sport. When we went to visit the Great Wall we passed many stalls selling everything from apricots to magic t-shirts (they disappear in the wash). These vendors are tiny comando ninja warrior women who will physically impede your progress as they shout words in English at you. "Hello...banana...lady...apricot nut...lady apricot... 3 dolla....lady banana lady..."

I just shouted back the only Chinese words I know. It went something like this...."Hello hat.. please no...thank you gooodmorning...."
I think we had a moment.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

New Photos of Beijing and Great Wall

For new photos for Beijing and the Great Wall Click Here

Great Wall, Better Stories

Long about 221 or so years before certain baby was born in a manger under a bright star in Bethlehem, a 13 year old boy was proclaimed the first Emperor of China. His name was Qin Shihuang, and he would grow up unite China into one empire under his rule. He also standardized Chinese writing, currency, and political systems, and had an affinity for having slaves build things for him. Big things. He ordered the construction of the first expanse of the Great Wall of China.

We got to hike the Mutiyanu section of the wall, some 60k north east of the city of Beijing. For roughly 2.5 miles we huffed and puffed our way along, marveling at the scenery. And at the end we climbed the 500 steps to the last tower on this section of the wall which is accessible to tourists, beyond which has not yet been restored.

Thousands of words have been written about The Great Wall, by writers much more gifted than I. But hiking it with my family was truly an awesome experience. And the Nolan flying wedge of death (refers to the 5 of us as we walk shoulder to shoulder deflecting advances of all on-comers) managed to make it safely and successfully to the end. Not so for one poor soul who had to be taken off by stretcher after what appeared to be a nasty fall.

The interesting part that we Westerners don’t often hear is that the wall was not something of which the Chinese were particularly proud, as the building of walls indicates a failure in diplomacy. In fact the Chinese name for the wall was originally the Long Wall. It wasn’t until leaders from other countries marveled at the wall, calling it “Great” that it became a source of national pride and symbol of Chinese strength and defense.

Additionally, the emperor Qin was a cruel ruler, who showed no mercy for the slaves constructing the wall. He literally worked them to death, and built the wall on top of them. The wall is considered the largest graveyard in all of China, literally built on the backs of slaves.
In the shrouded mist (again, officially NOT pollution) the sight of the wall trailing off in the distance is just what I expected. But the information that Sam provided, the stories I hadn’t heard about the Great Wall made our visit life-changing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Big Crowd, Small World

Compared to China, Japan seems like it was a stroll through my own, familiar back yard.

Until you’ve been amidst throngs of people in Tiananmen Square you don’t know the meaning of the word crowded. The square itself can hold a million people, and most of them wanted a photo with us. Seeing westerners, especially western children, is still somewhat of an anomaly here and we were repeatedly stopped to pose for pictures with Chinese people on their own holiday.

The kids thought it was pretty cool at first – rock star treatment. But sometimes the people would want to touch my children’s face or hair – like they weren’t quite real. We played “count the white people” from time to time and always came up with single digits.

While walking down the street it is very common for Chinese children to look at us wide-eyed, watch us walk past with their mouths open in astonishment, and then alert the person next to them of the giant white freak show that is passing. And the barber that cut the boys’ hair tweaked Mike’s nose, and poked Charlie in the chest while laughing and commenting in Chinese to the other barbers.

A taxi driver who spoke a little English was astounded by my family of 3 children, as it is still the policy of the Chinese government that families have only one child. “You three? All three boy, boy, girl you?” He asked. “Very big good.” He said. “Very big luck”.

It is a good thing that we hired a tour company (China Highlights) for this portion of the trip. Sam, our guide and best friend for 4 days met us at the Beijing airport sporting a sign with our name – the kids thought that was pretty cool. He and the driver took us to our hotel (Guangzou Hotel) and helped us check in.

DISCLAIMER: I am not generally a fan of fully escorted tours, but here, for us, it has been invaluable. We could never have seen and learned this much on our own, and the kids would have starved to death.

The next morning Sam took us to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was surreal to see the children running around, laughing, and waving the Chinese flag in the mist shrouded square (officially NOT pollution). People were flying great black and red kites with fierce dragon faces, and the giant painting of Chairman Mao, at the entrance of the Forbidden City, is was just visible in the distance.

And instantly I remembered seeing these same images on television one Sunday evening when I was a child. The smell of pork roast wafted into the living room and the sound of plates and glasses clinked against the table in the background. Mike Wallace’s voice announced “And this is another edition of ….60 Minutes”.

I heard my dad yell “Julene, set the table.” But I couldn’t move. I just sat there wide-eyed my mouth open in astonishment. I guess children are the same all over.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Enlightened By Donuts

On 0ur last day in Japan we toured the city of Nara with Chris Rowthorn – Japan guide extraordinaire and travel author for several Lonely Planet guide books

Nara, just a short train ride from Osaka, was the original capital of Japan. The first emperor came to power here and it is also considered the cradle of Buddhism in the country.

Having a local guide give you a private tour of a city is the best money you can spend on a trip – especially with kids. And having a guide that is not only an expert in the area, but also a great teacher is invaluable. We got more out of our six or so hours with Chris than we would have gotten in a week bumbling around on our own.

We visited Nara-koen Area Park, where small but amply horned, young dear roam from tourist to tourist mugging them of the biscuits purchased for feeding them. At one point the deer had Charlie up a tree and Anna atop a park bench. They are about 1200 in number, and considered national treasures. Prior to the introduction of Buddhism, they were thought to be messengers of the gods. It would seem the gods’ message is “Buy more deer biscuits”.

At Todai-ji Temple, we got to see the world’s largest bronze image of Buddha – all 53 feet of him. According to one guide book, four or five monks can fit into his palm when they are cleaning the statue.

Also in this temple is a tall wooden pillar that has a hole bored into it near the bottom – said to be the same size around as the Buddha’s nostril. Visitors line up to see if they can fit through, as success at this indicates you will find enlightment.

Charlie and Anna both fit through. The rest of us are clearly already enlightened enough, albeit by donuts, thank you very much. It was very entertaining to watch the crowd – mostly Japanese – of all ages and sizes trying to fit. One young woman nearly lost her skirt, but made it through in the end.

After Nara, Chris took us back to Osaka for lunch. I had the most wonderful sushi of my life. He called it “toro”, and said it is considered the “Kobe beef” of tuna. It was divine.

Then we took a tour of part of the modern shopping and entertainment district of Osaka. This was a series of wide corridors teaming with life, movement, sound. At every turn was a sea of people, neon signs, whirring, ringing, and clanging noises. It was like being INSIDE an animae cartoon. Seeing Japan like this, from the ancient to the modern, with such a knowledgeable, likeable, fun guide was the greatest experience we could have hoped for. I can’t wait to go back.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More New Photos of Japan

For new photos of Nagasaki, Osaka, and Nara click here

Nagasaki Bomb Museum

We arrived in Nagasaki on Aug. 9, the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic in 1945. Hundreds of people gathered in the Peace Park to pray for world peace and to remember the victims and those who continue to suffer the effects of war. The next day we took the kids to the Atomic Bomb Museum. It was unbelievably difficult to see all of the destruction, loss of life and suffering detailed in the displays. There is so much that we didn't know about this horrific event.

I didn't know that an estimated 75,000 people were incinerated in the initial blast. I didn't know that the epicenter was not the shipyard that was the intended target, but nearby Urakami Catholic Church. I didn't know that an additional 75,000 people were injured and later died from the effects of radiation poisoning.

Several kiosks replayed a video featuring black and white images of incinerated bodies; women, children, and the unrecognizable, and featuring quotes from survivors describing the horrors they had witnessed.

There were bits of burned clothing, a twisted tower, melted rosaries and rubble that had once been statues of Catholic saints. There were several clocks taken from destroyed homes and businesses eerily stopped at 11:02 a.m.

And there was a display depicting the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world, which countries had tested nuclear weapons, and the locations of those blasts.

This visual representation of the number of nuclear bombs stockpiled throughout the world was more than frightening. Most of the afternoon we talked about our country's responsibility for this event, and our personal responsibility to move forward and work for peace.

Later we went to the epicenter of the bomb blast and took the photos you see here.
After that we went back to the Peace Park to see the monuments dedicated to the hope for world peace. There we were interviewed by several Japanese students who were studying English. Part of their assignment was to interview English speaking people about the bombing, our knowledge of the event, our opinions, and ways we thought would be useful to avoid such an event in the future. It was amazing to listen to my kids discuss how they felt about the bombing, what they had learned, and their opinions about alternatives.

Listening to my kids express their opinions left me speechless. It was an incredibly moving day.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Newbie in Nagasaki

Every day here in Japan feels like the first day of kindergarten. I don’t know which carpet square is mine and I am constantly afraid that there won’t be time for a potty break.

Aside and Disclaimer
Traveling like this is kicking my organizational butt. It is an enormous challenge to keep track of airline tickets and flight times, train tickets and schedules, passports, hotel locations and reservation numbers in a foreign language, for 5 people, all the while photographing and chronicling the events of this trip, then turning it into a clever, informative, and factually accurate story to put on the website.

Not to mention the physical and verbal gymnastics I have to perform to wrestle the internet computer from my three friend-starved children. So forgive me when I ramble, misspell, and “almost” get the facts about a city straight. I promise – I’ll rewrite for the book.

We left our Kyoto hotel for the train station early – six hours early. That ought to be enough time to find our way to the airport for our 4pm flight right?

Knowing that we were going to the “other” airport in Osaka, we surmised that we should get off at the “other” Osaka train stop. And so we did.

The problem was, when we arrived and I asked various people which train goes to the ITN Airport, they just looked at me like I had said “Good morning, how are your underthings?”

Mike found a young man who spoke some (and by some I mean virtually zero) English. He told us that the trains don’t go to that airport and that a taxi is “not possible”. He said we would need to take a subway and then a monorail and then listed the Japanese names for the stops. We looked at him with what I am sure was the exact same expression we’d seen dozens of times on the faces of people we’d asked for directions. “My underthings are fine but I could use a good washing” I almost replied.

So we did the only thing we could do – got to the front of a very busy line of ticket machines and sweated on it.

The kind (but probably annoyed) Japanese woman next to us took pity and bought our tickets for us – pushing the incomprehensible buttons and taking the correct combination of coins from my open palm. She handed me our 5 tickets and bowed. I nearly wept – with appreciation.

We got on the train and discussed which of the 8,000 symbols on the subway map could be out stop. It was then that I began to think that we might be cutting it short on time. I looked at my ipod. It was already 1:45pm. Good thing our flight didn’t leave until 4pm. Or…..was it that the flight ARRIVED at 4pm? A frantic search through my backpack for my now creased, torn, sweat-stained flight schedule confirmed it. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 3pm.and we were still on the subway. Seconds ticked, stops flew by and we sweated.

Delayed by an unfortunate attempt to purchase monorail tickets at what turned out to be a dress shop - there was that expression again on the face of the poor shopkeeper - we got to the monorail station literally 3 minutes before the train departed.

We flew to the ticket counter; mimed 5 tickets for the airport (complete with arms outstretched and engine noises).

We tumbled onto the monorail and checked and rechecked our ipods for the time – convinced that fretting about it would get us there faster.

And then we arrived – at the airport – a full 45 minutes before our plane took off. We made the flight and flew to Nagasaki.

We were advised by the staff of the hostel where we had reservations to take the bus from the airport into Nagasaki. But by this time we’d had all we could take of trying to find the correct bus, train, or vehicle. We opted for a taxi – which proved to be an expensive mistake. The airport is more than 30k from Nagasaki – and being “very large Americans” we required two taxis.

Finally arriving at the Nagasaki Catholic Youth Hostel, we spent the very last of our cash on the taxis. We asked at the desk where to find a bank and walked down to use the ATM. Again, more buttons in Japanese, and both of our credit cards came spitting back out at us without dispensing any money at all.

The kind staff at the youth hostel told us we could pay in the morning, when we were able to cash some traveler’s checks. But, dinner that night was bought from the market with whatever coins we could scrounge from pants pockets and coin purses. We had a picnic of fruit, crackers, and tic tacs.

I know this sounds like an awful, stressful, anxious day. But when it was all over we had such an enormous sense of accomplishment. We’d done it. We were able to bumble our way without a map in English, directions, or a clear sense of where we were supposed to be.

I felt like I’d mastered the lunch line, remembered my lock combination, and found my very own carpet square. Until tomorrow…

Friday, August 10, 2007

Traditional Japanese vs. Nolan Children

We are staying at the Hotel Matsui in Kyoto, Japan in a modern Ryokan. This is a regular hotel with traditional Japanese style rooms. That means large room, tatami mats on the floor, single table in the center. Our beds are rolled up futons that are unfurled and beautifully arranged for us by the housekeeping staff every night. They also leave an oragami crane on your pillow.

Our meals are served (breakfast and lunch) right in the room, on small trays, by the most lovely women. We sit on the floor on pillows. Each meal is more perfectly prepared, beautiful and elegant than the last. However the items included in the meal have been a challenge.

Tiny whole fish, lots of sashimi, (read chuncks of raw fish) lots of little things made of tofu, soy, or of some other unknown origin and lots of things that look like decorative bathroom soaps.

Seaweed wraps and rice cakes along with miso soup and sashimi is a delightful meal for me. But for breakfast? Not so much. The kids are getting very thin.

But they love the tradition of the yukata. That is every time you come into your room you remove your shoes, clothes and put on a robe. We do a lot of sitting around without waistbands pinching us these days. Now if only I could lay my hands on a cooked peice of chicken....

Chris Comes To The Rescue

We did an incredibly smart thing yesterday. We hired Chris Rowthorn , writer for the Lonely Planet Guide, for a half day walking tour of the Southern Higashiyama area of Kyoto .

He was an excellent teacher, the best we could have hoped for. He really engaged us all (and the kids especially) by asking leading questions and giving us fun and informational answers. He made the area come alive. It was only a 4 hour tour, but with lots of walking, climbing, and sweating (temps in the high 90’s here) I was afraid the kids would be complaining nonstop after the first hour. Thanks to Chris we had a wonderful day - barely a complaint - and we all learned so much. (Most useful has been the Japanese symbol for flavored shaved ice).

We learned the difference between Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples, stopping to pray or wish at several. It was fun for all of us to ring the gong – alerting the Gods, Spirits, or Buddha’s, that we were there and ready to make a prayer.

We visited the shrine to all things lovey dovey. The kids got to do the Walk of Love Stones. This is a test to see if you will find true love in this life. Two stones are set in a plaza about 25 feet apart. You close your eyes and try to walk between the two. If you are able to do it in a straight line, touching the stone at the end, you will find true love in this lifetime. All three kids made it – and I am sure it was not cheating for Chris to talk to them during their quest.

We went to the temple of pure water where we drank from the spring, granting us good health and long life.

Chris showed us how to buy a fortune, and keep buying one until the fortune you chose was a good one. Charlie got the best on his first try. Anna got the second best on her second try. I asked Chris to read mine. He winced and immediately went into his own pocket and pulled out a coin for me to buy another. Then we tied the bad fortunes to the branches of a willow tree to be blown away.

But my favorite part of the day was a visit to the temple of Tainai Meguri. At this temple we symbolically entered the womb of Zui Gu Bosatsu. This Bosatsu Goddess is one who has acheived enlightenment but forsaken Nirvana to remain on this earth and help guide others on the path.

We went down a flight of stairs into the pitch darkness, holding a hand railing that was a series of large round balls – like prayer beads. The point was to follow the twists and turns in complete darkness being lead only by the feel of the rail in your left hand. At the end there was a giant stone, dimly illuminated from above. You were to were to spin it in a complete circle, make a prayer, and proceed out of the temple. The entire experience was meant to symbolize passing through the womb of this goddess and being reborn into another, higher existence.

Not sure if that happened for all of us, but it was certainly a funky time for me. And soon after leaving Anna murmured, to no one in particular “It sure must be nice being a fish…swimming around in cool, cool water all day”. That sounds like enlightenment to me – or possibly heat stroke.

Confused in Kyoto

We left Melbourne on the 6th of August and arrived in Kyoto, Japan via Singapore and Osaka. It was a huge travel day, 10 hours of flights, trains and taxis.

It occured to me somewhere in the Singapore Airport that I probably should have the name of our hotel written in Japanese to show the taxi driver. Of course I didn't; so I went on the internet (free at the Singapore Airport) and did my best to copy it. My best isn't good enough.

Once in Osaka we went to the train station to get on a train to Kyoto and it hit me. Full force, like shoving my fork in the outlet, culture shock. I couldn't read the signs, nobody spoke English, I couldn't figure out the bathroom, and I was sweating. A lot.

"Ok Jule, take everything you know about how to function while traveling , (i.e. tell the difference between a food item and, say, a decorative soap, be reasonably sure you will be able to recognize and predict the function of bathroom fixtures) and toss it." I told myself. This is brand new territory.

Luckily the woman in the train ticket office spoke a little English and was able to help us find our train to Kyoto - and also wrote the name of the hotel for me to show the taxi driver (bless you sweet young Japanese woman, bless you.)

I had not anticipated how completely different this would be from everywhere else I have travelled. For example, I don’t read or speak Japanese, but I have travelled lots of places where I don’t speak the language. Usually though, I can recognize a street sign as being a word (Blechdinschlaat is a goofy word, but a word nonetheless).

Here however, most of the signs are written in Japanese characters only. So if I want to identify the street I have to think “Birthday cake symbol, squashy-looking seven with round swishy bottom thingy, Eiffel tower-looking dealy etc.” As most street names have at least seven characters, this is a daunting task.

The food, though mostly wonderful, generally confounds me. It seems you are equally as likely to get one of the main characters from Nemo – in some cases anatomically correct and not overly deceased – as a chicken McNugget. Where I come from those are two completely different types of cuisine.

And the time of day has no bearing on what you are served. Sushi and sashimi for breakfast ladies and gentleman. We were so puzzled by the meal we were served last night that all we could do was photograph it.

But my favorite is the lavatory. I had read about the squatters - Japanese style toilets that are essentially just porcelain basins in the floor over which you are meant to squat. (And by you I mean people with stronger thighs and more balance than me). But the only place I have seen them so far is a public restroom which also had regular or European-style toilets.

What continues to surprise and confuse me are all the functions available on a standard toilet. We are staying in a modest hotel with a very small bathroom, and our toilet has nine function buttons. A toilet needs to do nine different things?

I understand that these are probably a seat warmer, a bidet, a deodorizer, etc., but I haven’t gotten brave enough to go pushing any of those buttons. I’ll let you know when I do. But it won’t be any time soon, and it definitely won’t be that Eiffel Tower looking dealy.