Hotel Reviews: Three Nights in the Carolinas

We just returned from a trip to North Carolina and South Carolina. The main reason we went was to attend a friend’s wedding in Charlotte but since we are rarely in that area, we decided to turn the trip into a whirlwind weekend of visiting South of the Border, the cheesy tourist trap right off of Interstate 95, on Thursday, meeting up with friends in Raleigh for dinner on Friday night, and then attending the wedding on Saturday before Continue reading “Hotel Reviews: Three Nights in the Carolinas”

#TBT: Japan Trip, April 2005: Shinkansen, Hiroshima, Peace Memorial Park

I’m writing this on my PDA (MODERN DAY NOTE: A PDA. Wasn’t that CUTE?!?!?!) while on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Hiroshima back to Kyoto. If you can read it, that means I’m much more computer-savvy than I give myself credit for (grin).

Today was pretty stress-free, since we’re getting more of our bearings when it comes to trains, shuttles, scheduling, maps, etc.

After yesterday’s near-fast (grin), we made sure to make room for meals today. We took the 9:20am shuttle from the hotel to Kyoto Station and, after a quick detour to a touristy place under Kyoto Tower to buy postcards, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the Station called “Beef Stew.” And I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Joe and/or Steve (our friend on this trip with us) had for breakfast (grin). I, on the other hand, had bacon and egg on French bread with a side of salad and Miso soup (Yeah, salad and soup with breakfast. That’s what they do here. Different culture).

So we made it onto the Shinkansen to Osaka (15 min ride), then switched trains to go to Hiroshima (90 min ride).


Waiting for the Bullet Train


Here it is!


The trains are VERY comfortable, with padded seats and foot rests. They have bathrooms, offer snack/beverage service, you name it.


This train is 8 cars long and each car has its own set of “rules”….reserved seats vs. non-reserve, smoking or non-smoking, “silence car,” etc.

At Hiroshima, we took a trolley car to the museum area that we intended to see. The first thing we saw was the Peace Park, which encases the remains of the “A-Bomb Dome.” That is a building that (sort of) survived the atomic bomb attack (“sort of” because all that’s left is the skeleton of the building and a few inner wall structurings…as opposed to all the other buildings in the city, which were totally obliterated).


The A-Bomb Dome as you approach from the trolley.


Information and history about the A-Bomb dome.


Beauty, destruction and modern times.


Information about the destruction of Hiroshima.


The Peace Memorial Park area. In the hours and days after the bomb hit, thousands and thousands of bodies floated in this river.

The park also houses several memorials (to the various thousands of people who perished), and the history museum. Here are a few of them, with explanations when possible:


Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students (middle- and high-school students who were working for the government to help make fire paths. Over 3/4 of the mobilized students died from the A-bomb.)


Close-up of the base of the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students


Cenotaph for A-bomb victims (Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace).


Short explanation of the Cenograph


Children’s Peace Monument. This memoriam is to Sadako Sasaki, a teenager who died of leukemia over a decade after being explosed to the A-bomb at the age of 2. Her goal was to make 1,000 origami cranes, in the hopes that doing so would cure her. She didn’t live to finish, and her grieving friends raised the money to erect this memorial to her. People from all over the world still bring thousands upon thousands of paper cranes to her memorial site.


The golden crane inside the Children’s Peace Monument.


Short explanation of the Children’s Peace Monument.


A small percentage of the thousands of cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument.


This mound of dirt is made from the cremated remains of the people who perished in the days, weeks, months and years after the A-bomb hit. Most of the people whose ashes are in the mound were unidentified.


(from front to back) Flame of Peace, Pond of Peace, Cenograph (partially obscured) and the center area of the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

The museum was amazing…it went through the history of the city of Hiroshima, the history of the invention of the atomic age, the events that led up to 8:15am on August 6, 1945, the immediate effects of the bomb, as well as the after-effects, some of which (birth defects, cancer, psychological, etc) persist to present-day time.

The museum houses thousands upon thousands of artifacts, from clothing people were wearing on the day of the bombing, to lunch boxes (melted, with burnt food still inside), to a pocket watch that was permanently stopped at 8:15am, to steps from a former bank that still had the faint shadow of the person who was sitting on them when the bomb hit and he/she was incinerated on the spot. There’s no way that my writing or our our pictures could ever do it all justice, but this website can give further information.

Besides the obvious tragedies of the loss and illness of thousands upon thousands of people, the one disturbing thing to me, as an American, is that the museum portrays not just the city, but the entire country as an innocent victim of the U.S.’s actions. Pearl Harbor and the rest of Japan’s part in WW2 was VERY minimalized in their presentation. Then again, as Americans, WE have learned an entirely different view of history. All depends on your perspective, I guess.

It was raining when we left the museum, but with umbrellas in hand, we checked out the various memorials within the park (see pictures above) and each took a turn ringing the Bell of Peace.


Me ringing the Bell of Peace


An explanation of the Bell of Peace

After that, we caught a trolley back to Hiroshima Station. In the months before we went on vacation, we had gotten a lot of “Japan advice” from someone we knew who had spent about 6 months living and working there, circa 2001-2002, and he recommended if we were going to eat in Hiroshima, to try to go to a restaurant that served okonomi-yaki style, since Hiroshima was famous for it. Okonomi-yaki is grilled ramen noodles, egg, vegetables and a batter, with meat, that you make into a sort of loose pizza in front of you (think of Benihana-style but smaller scale, the food comes all mixed together and you heat it up yourself). We found such a place near Hiroshima Station and had dinner there. VERY tasty!


Steve enjoying his okonomi-yaki.

After dinner, we got our tickets for the Shinkansen back to Kyoto (no changing trains this time!) and here we are on it (remember, I’m writing this on my PDA).

Tomorrow is our walking tour and I think it’s laundry day, as well. Until next time, sayonara!

Hotel Review: Fairfield Inn & Suites West Palm Beach Jupiter

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Photo of hotel from Marriott website

When we drove home from Key West, our original plan was to leave early and visit the Morikami Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach and then go to dinner at Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (more on Mai-Kai at a later date – it deserves a post all its own!). After driving from Key West and then having a full day of events, we figured we would most likely need to rest after dinner instead trying to drive three more hours to get home. We do have family in the area so we figured if we stayed overnight, we could plan to meet them the next morning for breakfast. We’ve stayed in the Fort Lauderdale area recently but decided we’d rather drive a little ways towards home after dinner so that our ride the next morning would be that much shorter.

Since I am not loyal to any specific hotel chain, I looked at what options I had that were near my relatives’ house and still close to the highway. I usually end up obsessing over these one night stays just as much as I do about where to stay for a week in Austria because I just never want to end up in a bad hotel. So I spent way too much time looking at TripAdvisor reviews before deciding that the best combination of location and price for us was the Fairfield Inn & Suites West Palm Beach Jupiter.

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Now when looking at where the hotel was, it would be a stretch to consider this location to be near West Palm Beach. However since we needed to stay near Jupiter, this was a good place for us.  It was located right off of I-95 and the Florida Turnpike and would therefore be a great location for anyone wanting to staying overnight near the highways.

On our last night in Key West, we decided that we were going to sleep in and stay in Key West until around lunchtime. We’d miss going to the gardens and would drive straight to our dinner in Fort Lauderdale. This worked out well but we also didn’t plan on dinner ending so much earlier than we thought it would. So after all that planning, we arrived at the hotel around 8PM, pretty well rested (we thought we would be there around 10PM and exhausted from our travels that day). We worked out our plan while walking to the lobby: if the front desk would allow us to cancel the stay, we would just drive home that evening. If we were going to pay for the room anyway, we’d stay at the hotel and get up early the next morning to drive home.

The front desk clerk on Sunday evening was exceeding pleasant and funny. I explained our situation and asked if we had to stay in the room. She said that she understood our dilemma and we weren’t forced to stay there. Unfortunately, Marriott would still charge us for the stay because we were past the cancellation deadline. I said that if we were going to pay for the room anyway, we might as well stay. We had a good chuckle over this and she then told us that since I am a Marriott Rewards Gold member, they upgraded us to a suite so we could live it up!

We were handed our room keys and went up to our suite, which was quite nice.

It had a living room with a full sitting area that included a desk, couch and TV. There was a dividing wall separating the bed area from the living room but it was still quite open so it would be difficult for someone to watch TV in the one area and someone else to watch TV in the other. Since we usually just read or watch our iPads in bed, this wasn’t a problem for us. I would say that for the $89 plus tax we paid, it was a very nice room.

The bathroom was a typical basic set up for a mid level hotel. The sink was outside of the bathroom, along with a microwave, coffee maker and refrigerator. The bathtub/shower and toilet were behind the door and there wasn’t all that much space (or light) in the room.

The hotel did have a pool and hot tub that were in good enough condition that I considered changing into my bathing suit. When push came to shove, though, I decided that changing to sit in a hot tub for 15-20 minutes and then having to shower that night before going to bed just wasn’t worth the effort. Instead, Sharon and I sat in bed and watched a special on the History Channel for two hours about the Shroud of Turin. Don’t be too jealous of our glamorous lifestyle.

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Daytime at the pool from the hotel website. We were there at night but the area was clean (but not scenic as it was basically in the parking area between two hotels).
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This sign was the highlight of our stay. We guess people are only allowed to use the pool at night? We pointed this out to the hotel staff who didn’t understand why we found the posted hours to be a bit odd.

The hotel offered a free breakfast, as is normal at most Fairfield Inn properties. Because we were meeting relatives for breakfast, we didn’t try it but it looked pretty standard for a hotel in this range. Think eggs, pastries, coffee, juice and oatmeal. For those interested, as we are, there is a Starbucks coffee directly in front of the hotel but the drive-thru line was about 10 deep when we drove by on a Monday morning, so plan your time accordingly.

Final Thoughts:

This hotel was a perfectly acceptable as a right-off-the-highway place to sleep. It had a great location which was close to the two major highways but did not get any of the traffic noise. The upgraded room was almost too big for what we needed. The person working the check in desk on a Sunday evening was very pleasant and funny (something rare to find with night staff). The room was quiet and dark, which let us get a good night sleep so we could get back on the road the next morning.  While I doubt we’d ever need to stay in the area again, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay here if we needed to.

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Kyoto & Nara (Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Nara Dreamland, Nara Station)

The first part of our day was stressful because of timing factors, the second part of our day was hysterically funny and the third part of our day was, well, hungry (grin).

Well, we THOUGHT we had it all figured out…how to get to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. You have to get special permission to go and we had gotten that the day before. Joe, who had been obsessively planning this trip for the past 9 months, had every street, bus and subway map known to man, plus how to get from Point A to Point B throughout the country…but apparently only carried SOME of the written material we needed today…so today was the day of “miss the bus by ‘this’ much and have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the next one.” We grabbed some pastries at a local bakery for breakfast (didn’t eat them yet because Japanese people don’t eat on the streets and we were traveling) and waited for the next bus.

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A shot of the pastry shop.

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This flamingo place was actually directly across the street from the bakery, so while we waited for the bus (the bus stop was directly in front of the bakery) I wound up taking a good half-dozen pictures of the flamingo. With a zoom. Without a zoom. Trying to not get a bus or car into the picture as they were passing by (grin). I have no idea of what this store was. In fact, it didn’t even look like it was open for business yet, but with how much I like flamingos, it gave me a good giggle.

Anyway, after the bus let us off (we also had no idea of where to get off the bus. I gave the deer-in-the-headlights look to the driver and said, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” [Shugakuin, please?], so he would tell us when our stop was), we had to figure out which direction to go. Joe’s books just said to look for the place when we go off the bus. Well, it certainly wasn’t anywhere in sight. And we didn’t see any signs. Not in English, anyway. So I, being a female, was more willing to stop and ask for directions. I went into the local liquor store (I think that’s what it was) and asked the proprietor (who had like, 4 teeth), my now-obviously-helpful, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” (hey, it got us off the bus inn the right place, didn’t it?). His response was to point, give me 2 fingers, and said, “Left. Up.” OK, so when we go out of the store, we have to walk down 2 blocks that way, make a left and walk up the hill, towards the mountains. Gotcha. And sonofagun, it worked. Pity it took almost a half-hour because the “hill” was a half mile of a residential neighborhood with winding streets and a canal through the center of it.

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The neighborhood on the way to Shugakuin Imperial Villa

We finally made it to the Villa, albeit 15 minutes late and they were gracious enough to lead us to the rest of our 10:00am tour…which, as it turned out, was spoken entirely in Japanese.

Oh, great.

Well, the views of the outside/hills/farms were pretty and I guess it was an interesting tour…something about land that had been owned by the Emperor but then the emperor moved to somewhere else so the farmers took back the land and when the officials found out, they decided to allow them to keep their land because it wouldn’t be right to take it away from them. And some of the land is still used for farming. As you may be able to tell from my description, except for the English handout they gave us, I had NO idea of what this place was (grin). Since I’ve gotten home though, I’ve found this website, (MODERN-DAY NOTE: the original website I linked to no longer exists. This is a new one) which gives a decent history of the place. Not to be outdone though, here are a few of our own pictures of our visit:

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Everything on the walls were painted by hand.

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Some more hand-painted wall decorations. And “not orbs.”

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A different style of wall decoration inside of one of the buildings.

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Our tour group looking at the outside of some of the buildings.

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Me walking away from one of the ancient buildings. Or maybe it was the ladies’ room? I forget.

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A view of the rest of the property, and beyond, from the highest hill in the complex.

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A view of Kyoto from above, as seen at the Shugakuin property.

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Steve’s newest friend, who he met on the tour. Yeah, Steve really WILL talk to anybody (grin). (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend who went on this trip with us)

After the 90-minute tour, we stayed at the front gate and ate our pastries, then decided to go to Dreamland, which was in Nara, a 40-minute express train away. Saturdays in Kyoto are HUGE tourists days so noon was not the best time to be taking a bus. An hour and a half later, we were back at Kyoto Station, finding our express train to Nara. No time for food…we had to find our train! We eventually got it, as well as our bus to Nara, and there it was…Dreamland!

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Now, for those of you who never heard me talk about it, Dreamland (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Nara Dreamland closed in 2006, so its official page, which I had originally linked to, no longer exists. But you can read all about it with a quick search of NARA DREAMLAND) is a small amusement park that was built in the early 1960’s. It’s a total ripoff of Disneyland, complete with knockoffs of the train station, castle, Matterhorn, Jungle Cruise, Teacups, Main Street, etc., except with a budget of a carnival, with horrible upkeep and few visitors. It sounded wonderfully awful…the kind of place that you go to and just make fun of. I heard about it right after I got back from Japan in 1994 and, after learning out it, kicked myself for not going. So this was a “must see.” And see it we did…we got there at 2:45pm and the park was scheduled to close at 5pm…more than enough time, right? Here’s a photo review of the place, including the good, the so-bad-that-it’s-funny, and the ugly:

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The kiosks where you pay to park, if you drive to Dreamland. Don’t know if you can read it, but it costs almost $20.00 to park there (parking is VERY expensive all over Japan) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Remember, this was written in 2005, when $20 to park WAS expensive). The kiosks look so friendly, so inviting, so well-themed…well, maybe if you’re going to a jail.

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The front entrance actually looks pretty darn nice, huh?

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The back of the train station. If you look carefully, you can see me doing my impersonation of Evita Perón.

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A walkabout character in the “town square.” I don’t know who he is or if he even has a name…his image isn’t ANYWHERE else in the park (whose logo seems to be a soldier). He just stands there and for about $1.00, he plays a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with kids, who win a trinket if they outsmart the oversized Frito Bandito. He took one look at us and started picking his nose. No, really!

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The Dreamland fire department, right where you would expect it to be, on the left side of the “town square”.

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And every fire department should come equiped with a pink Cadillac and a Jeep, right? You can’t tell the angle of this picture, but the Caddy was being held up by cinderblocks.

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A view of their version of “Main Street” and their castle, far off in the distant background (it’s hard to do the forced perspective thing when the buildings and trees are all the same size).

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A closer image of one side of the street.

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Ooooooo….now THAT’S pretty. Yeah, this place really IS a DIVE (grin).

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Good emulation there, because Disney “Main Streets” ALWAYS have a utility truck parked on them, right?


Ewwwwwww!


Note the name of this restaurant on “Main Street”…Woody Garden!?!?!?

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This HUGE fountain encompasses most of “the hub” area (this view is looking towards the train station). It looks like it would be pretty nice, if they turned on more than just the one center set of water jets.

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The castle doesn’t look half-bad if you’re not CLOSELY close-up, even though it doesn’t have a whole lot of detail.

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Of course, EVERY castle in Japan should have a statue of George Washington in its moat.

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And Abraham Lincoln too!

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And a Joe (wink).

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Their “Matterhorn” looks like it’s made out of cardboard, doesn’t it?

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Or maybe it’s papier mache. I like how the Skyway goes right through the center of the thing, like Disneyland’s used to. The Dreamland Skyway was closed, by the way. It was constantly moving (maybe they were afraid if they stopped it, they’d never be able to get it started again?), but no one was on it and no one was manning either entrance.

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Here’s the monorail, with the Matterhorn in the background. The monorail wasn’t running either…just sitting there, collecting dust and dripping grease.

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I love what they did with their landscaping.


The Swan Cycle ride. You go in a molded swan boat that has bicycle pedals in the bottom and PEDAL your way around the ride! No, REA

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Teacups???

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European-made Carousel (American-made ones go counter-clockwise). The horses didn’t even go up and down.

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Sure, cuz EVERY Disney knockoff park should have an Octopus ride…

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….and swings…. (MODERN-DAY NOTE: This was before Disney’s California Adventure had  Flik’s Flyers, Golden Zephyr or Silly Symphony Wings…)


…and a Mirror Puzzle…

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…and Bumper Boats. Nice line of scum on the bottom of the boats, huh?

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We never figured out if this was the entrance to a haunted house or to the Matterhorn.


Grand Prix Raceway it ain’t!

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The Flashdance ride. What a feeling!

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Screw Coaster, huh? Well, I guess EVERYONE is screwed when they come to THIS park (grin).

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I dunno. I guess it’s the “ride that used to be there but isn’t there anymore” attraction. Joe suggested it was a UFO landing pad.

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The one GOOD ride they have there….a roller coaster called Aska. I don’t “do” coasters, but Joe and Steve said it was very, very good, with LOTS of airtime. Meanwhile, look at the throngs of people in this picture!

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They had a lot of baby rides at this park.

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I like the white fences that they put around some of the rides. Really high-tech.


Someone called this the “ride that goes nowhere” ride. Walk up the stairs, go across, go down the stairs. Fun, fun, fun!

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And we complain about poor maintenance at the Disney parks…..HA!

By 4pm or so, Steve was starting to get hungry, so we stopped off at what looked like an abandoned picnic ground with an overhang. One of the food places nearby was open…
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…and Steve saw they had some sort of meat dish for about $20.00. He picked that and the owner motioned for us to sit down at a picnic table. The guy brought over an ashtray…”Smoke? Smoke?” (EVERYONE in Japan smokes) “No thanks, we don’t smoke.” He went back to (we thought) preparing Steve’s meal. By this point, I left to go in search of Dreamland souvenirs. By the time I come back, the guys had this portable hibachi unit on their picnic bench, which is connected to a gas line coming out from under the table. And they were sitting there, grilling the food!
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They said the guy was wonderfully nice….gave each of them a plate, utensils and dipping sauce (and a set for me too, for when I came back) and there was LOTS of food. The guy came over several times, to “help” them cook…I guess he figured they didn’t know what they were doing. He even offered to take our picture…
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He started talking with us more and more, asking where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Japan, His English was just slightly better than our Japanese, but we were still able to converse, albeit in a simplified way. At one point he looked at Joe and then at Steve and said, “Your son?” We burst out laughing at that (well, Joe and I did [grin]) and I pointed to Joe and said, “No, my husband!” The guy said, “Oooohhhhh!” But then he got this really confused look on his face, looked at Steve, looked back at me and said, “Who three?” We laughed again and said, “He’s a friend.” “Ooooohhhh!” Then he pointed to the woman behind the counter and said, “My wife!” The guy must’ve been embarrassed that he referred to Joe as Steve’s son, so he gave me an ice cream cone. Hey, who am I to say no to free ice cream?

Before we left the nice, unwittingly hysterical man, Joe said, “This food was very, very good. Thank-you very much. I would like to know the name of it, so that I can ask for it again. What do you call this kind of food in Japan?” And the guy looked at him and said, “Ahhhh…in Japan, we call this barbeque!” We almost wet out pants!

We bid out goodbye to the guy and his wife and took their picture before we left:
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They were just another part of the reason that Nara Dreamland became such a strong, strangely pleasant memory for us.

The one ride that the 3 of us went on was the Jungle Cruise. I think this one had to have been the worst of all. Take a look at this:

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The entrance to the ride.

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One of the boats. It didn’t look particularly seaworthy, but we figured if worse came to worse and we sank, the water couldn’t have been more than a few feet deep and w we’d be able to walk to shore. Of course, we’d have to fumigate ourselves after being in the scuzzy water, but….

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The boat was not on a track (I guess when the Dreamland Founding Fathers came to Disneyland to steal their ideas, they couldn’t see through the murky water of the REAL Jungle Cruise ride to tell that the boats were on a track) and the driver (the guy with the red windbreaker that says STAFF) just pressed a button to start a pre-recorded shpiel so he could drive the boat uninterrupted. Note that all of the “jungle natives” are, um, “people of color.”

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Ooooo….scary tiger! Well, scary he’s in that bad condition, anyway.

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The snake is in 4 or 5 pieces. I guess it’s cheaper to buy it that way. But they sure did a lousy job of hiding where one piece ends and the next piece starts!

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Oh give me a home, where the flamingos roam, and the rhinos stand behind them all day…

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The picture doesn’t do this justice at all. You see, it’s an action shot. The cheetah is on wheels on a track. The wheels move up and down the side of the log at a snail’s pace, which therefore SSLLOOWWLLYY rolls the cheetah to and from the embankment! We almost wet our pants laughing at that one!

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Watch out for that stationary elephant with the garden hose coming out of its trunk!

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Someone must’ve used a real gun to shoot the hippo, cuz it was deader than a doornail. It just laid there, half-in, half-out, not moving.

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And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where we have a pheasant, an ostrich, 2 parrots and some toucans, all living in harmony in the same place. It doesn’t matter than in real life they’d be on different corners of the earth…in Dreamland, anything can happen!

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Oooo…the suspense is killing me more than the ride is…here comes the dark, scary, cave!

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What was in the cave? 3 sets of bats. That’s it. This picture is set #1. Only 2 of them still flapped their wings. I especially like how they hang rightside up from the stalactites.

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Another “action shot.” This alligator had a stick coming out of its tail and the stick was connected to a motor that made the whole thing spin in circles. So that, my friends was the Dreamland version of an alligator in a death spin. Us Floridians prefered to call it gator on a spit.

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Shot taken after we exited out boat (nope, it didn’t sink!). Native #1 looks like he had a stroke. Native #2 looks like he’s scared of the bamboo that’s growing in front of him. And native #3 just looks…um…very happy with his lot in life.

it really is an awful park. But we turned it into a REALLY fun afternoon. By the way, this is an article some other people wrote about their trip to Dreamland in 2004. Their website also have some nice video links of the place. MODERN-DAY NOTE: Joe is positive we have some videos of Nara Dreamland too, but we can’t find them. As soon as we do, we’ll put them up on YouTube so you can share in the so-awful-that-it’s-great -ness.

Made it back to Nara Station…a tiny train station, so no food there, but we figured we could get something at Kyoto Station when we got back there. Not. The restaurants were PACKED, with lines outside every restaurant. SO…we decided to catch our shuttle bus back to our hotel and eat something there. Shuttle arrived on time at 8:40pm and we got back to our hotel at 9:20pm…and EVERY restaurant AND room service closed at 9pm. By this time, with just a noon pastry and 2 bottles of soda (Fanta sweet grapefruit…mmmm!) in me, I was hungry and hypoglycemic. And the guys were hungry too. And so, with chowing down on the “Take Five” candy bar that I had bought during our stopover in Chicago 2 or 3 days ago, we went to bed at 11pm.

Between the walking and the steps and the lack of most snacks, I’m gonna lose a LOT of weight this trip.

Tomorrow is Hiroshima. And food. We will make sure to leave time for food .

Our favorite places to eat in Key West

We’ve been to Key West six times since 2010 (Sharon also went an additional time in 2008). It’s a quick getaway for us, within driving distance or a short flight away. We like going to places we’ve been to before because many of the stresses of traveling are diminished when you know something about where you are. I totally get that some people will be like, “You shouldn’t go back to somewhere you’ve already been. There are so many new places to discover!” I totally agree with that and we do our best to get to new places, too. But we also do our best to revisit places where we’ve had a really good time. It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen or re-reading a book you like; it’s a comfort and you know it will be enjoyable.

One of the nice things of going to a location you’ve been before is that you have a pre-made list of favorites made by the best travel consultant you know – YOU! It’s easy to remember the restaurants you like and that is what this article is about. This is a list of the places we really like to go to in Key West that fit our travel style. I’ll try and explain why we like each place so you can decide for yourself if you might like them as well. As with everything on this website, Your Mileage May Vary. I’ll work from breakfast to late night snacks.

Starbucks – 431 Front St.

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I told you this was our list, didn’t I? There has been a Starbucks on the first floor of the La Concha hotel on Duval St. for years, but that can be quite a walk from some parts of town. This Starbucks is right on the corner of Front St. and Duval. While we were very happy to see its appearance on our most recent trip, we didn’t go there because we were able to make our own coffee with the Keurig we had in our room. I find that most hotels don’t seem to get the drift that coffee is an important part of the day and providing good coffee can play a part in how good you feel your stay at that hotel was. I’ve had one too many nasty cups of coffee from a dispenser in a hotel lobby so now I just avoid them. Having a Starbucks nearby where I can get a consistent, decent (albeit not wonderful) cup of coffee to start the day is a huge plus.

Sarabeth’s – 530 Simonton St.

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I’m pretty sure that was duck bacon with those eggs.

Sarabeth’s is now our go-to place for brunch. So much so that we went there twice on our most recent trip. It’s located a bit off the tourist strip so the vibe is more laid back and less hectic. There is seating inside and outside (that can be pleasant for people watching or a bit warm, depending on the season.) They just do so many things right that it’s hard to find a fault with eating here. I mean, look at the size of the coffee cups! They have a bunch of interesting breakfast champagne cocktails with fresh juices and serve toast with their own brand of preserves. We knew we made a good choice when, after checking in on Facebook, our social media lit up with likes from our friends who visit Key West.

Louie’s Backyard – 700 Waddell Ave.

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We’ve been going to Louie’s Backyard since our first stay in Key West in 2010. We’ve had brunch and dinner there, along with drinks on the back deck. I’d say that we like going for brunch the most (reservations are recommended). We enjoy that the dog beach is right next to the deck and we spend much of our meal watching the doggies playing in the water. The menu for brunch does change frequently and we’ve not been overly thrilled with the selections the last 1-2 times we visited, but that’s always going to be hit or miss. We did come here for drinks to watch the sunset one time but since Louie’s is on the southern side of the island (near the Southernmost Point marker), there isn’t that a great of a sunset view. We did eat dinner here once and wasn’t thrilled with the experience; it’s a classier vibe and the menu was much more expensive. The food was fine but for us most of the appeal here is the view and that isn’t much to look at in the evening, once the sun has gone down. But for brunch, we’ve generally really enjoyed our experiences here.

Rick’s Tree Bar – 202 Duval St. 

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I know I said that this was a list of places we liked to eat when we are in Key West. However, this is Key West and sometimes we choose to have a liquid lunch. The Tree Bar is part of the larger Ricks and Durty Harry’s complex, which is quintessential Duval St. Think live music, cheap drinks and lots of drunk people. That’s not our style. Fortunately the Tree Bar is none of that. All the liquor is premium and the juices are squeezed fresh to order. I also understand they make one of the best Bloody Marys on the island but we’re partial to the Pina Coladas. We make sure to visit the same bartender every time. Sharon is Facebook friends with her and she remembers us from trip to trip, so besides getting a properly chilled adult beverage, we get to say hello and talk about what’s changed in Key West since our last visit.

Cafe Marquesa – 600 Fleming St.

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We’ve stayed at the Marquesa Hotel on two of our trips to Key West and we’ve eaten at the Cafe Marquesa during each of those stays. The hotel made all the arrangements and it was nice to have a really wonderful dinner and then just go back upstairs to our room. The restaurant only has about 35 seats so it books up fast. Cafe Marquesa gets consistently high ratings from Zagat guide, Travel + Leisure and TripAdvisor and is priced accordingly, with entrees going for between $30-$45. We’re not against paying that for a dinner but we’d rather save that type of money for a trip to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa. If money is no object or you are celebrating something special, you can’t go wrong eating here.

Nine One Five – 915 Duval St.

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Besides the Cafe Marquesa, finding somewhere good to eat for dinner in Key West has proved to be incredibly difficult. We’ve gone to the best rated places on Yelp! and TripAdvisor and been disappointed time and time again. We’ve never seen ourselves as quitters so we kept trying and I think we finally found a winner this last trip. Nine One Five is housed in a classic style home right on Duval. The location on touristy Duval St. would normally turn us off but it’s far enough away from the port and Mallory Square to keep some of the tourists away. KWNineOneFiveFood

The atmosphere was wonderful and we sat at a table right on the front porch. Service was great and I think Sharon might possibly leave me for the “Absurdly Addictive Asparagus.

Our food pictures aren’t going to garner any awards on Instagram but trust me, the food here was amazing. By far some of the best we’ve ever had in Key West. We will definitely be stopping back here during our next trip.

 

Caroline’s Cafe – 310 Duval St.

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Fried something on a roll with a pile of french fries.

I can almost imagine Sharon’s jaw dropping when reading this for the first time (Note from Sharon – it did) because I’ve done almost everything I could to avoid eating here again. I just find the atmosphere bland and the food uninspiring. But you see, here’s the thing that makes me include Caroline’s to the list. The food here is consistent, the location is excellent and they are open late. I guarantee you that if you walk around Key West enough, you will eventually walk past Caroline’s at a time when you are hungry and don’t want to look for somewhere to eat. That’s when you’ll eat here. When you are borderline hangry and your feet hurt and just want to sit down. If you are in a similar situation, don’t be afraid to grab a chair and eat some unidentifiable fried fish/chicken/meat on a plain roll smothered with mayo and a leaf of lettuce. You’ll leave full, rested and ready to continue your day. Sometimes, that’s all you want to do. I’m sure that I will eventually end up eating here again when the stars align and I just don’t want to bother looking for anywhere else.  🙂

So did I leave out any of your favorites? What’s your go to place in Key West? Let me know in the comments or drop a note to us on Facebook or Twitter.

#TBT: Japan April 2005: Kyoto: Kyoto Station, Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Seeing Beauty & The Beast

So after waking up at 4:20am (yes, 4:20 in the morning. Jetlag sucks!) and catching up on our internet/computer stuff, Joe, Steve (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours) and I started our day by using the hotel’s shuttle to go to Kyoto Station. Lesson #1 is get to the shuttle at least 15 minutes before it has to leave because it fills up FAST:
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We made it onto the shuttle bus, but there were a LOT of people who didn’t. My favorite was when the driver had squeezed in every single body he could, there was no room to breathe, people had suitcases on their laps, and someone came up and said, “Do you have room for 4 more?”

Arrived at Kyoto Station around 10:00am. Re-built and expanded around a decade ago, that place is HUGE…besides being the main bus, train and Shinkansen (Bullet Train) center for Kyoto, it also encompasses a few shopping malls, a department store, a hotel, the theater where Disney’s Beauty & The Beast was playing, and I forget what else…I mean it’s HUGE.
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This picture of Kyoto station, which shows how cavernous is it, is only a tiny piece of the whole complex.

We wandered around for an hour, getting our bearings and looking for a place to eat. Found a noodle shop that opened at 11am and had a good breakfast/lunch of stuff that we mostly knew what it was (wink). The shop, which was within the confines of Kyoto Station, gets a lot of tourists (and non-tourists too), so one of the workers helped Joe and Steve with what they had to do with their food (“put these spices in this liquid, mix and dip your food into it”…that sort of stuff). I apparently “won” the “Stupid American” contest…the guy only helped me once…told me to pour the broth over my noodles and shrimp and then he left me alone (wink).

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Front of the noodle shop. Notice the display of plastic food on the left side of the store. Besides showing potential customers the type of foods they offer, those who don’t speak the language can go outside with the person who is taking your order and you can point to what you want.

So after several stops at several information booths, we found our train and made it to the Imperial Palace. It’s a group of very big, old buildings inside a park. Actually, it’s much more than that. The Japanese Imperial family lived in these buildings before they moved to their Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868. It was built and rebuilt (ten times due to fire) between 750 and 1855 A.D. The do have free guided tours, but you need to apply in person (not by mail or phone) to be able to go on one. That didn’t work for us logistically, since we had just arrived a day and a half before, plus the tours are only conducted in Japanese. We were only allowed to stand outside the buildings and, at best, peer inside.

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One of the more ornate buildings that is in the Imperial Palace complex.

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Looks like Epcot, doesn’t it?

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General description of what we’re seeing in this particular building.

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Close-up of what was described. And no, that’s not an orb.

Since we made it to one tourist spot without incident, we decided to take our chances and took another train to Nijo Castle. Another “big ol’ opulent house where someone important used to live.” This one began construction in 1601, as a residence for the Shoguns and, like many old Japanese buildings, was burned down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. We were allowed to go inside this one, albeit after taking our shoes off to protect the centuries-old floorboards. Nijo castle was built in such a way that the floorboards always squeak if someone stands or walks on them…it was done that way on purpose, so guards could hear intruders at nighttime. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings but took shots of the outside and the gardens.

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Main building of the castle

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Main gate before the castle (taken from the castle courtyard, looking back, after you’ve already gone through the gate)

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Visitors are allowed to climb the (VERY STEEP!) stairs to just one of the guard gates. This is the view from there.

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A very photogenic building in the Nijo Castle complex [wink]).

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A view of the moat

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Nice shot of the Nijo Castle garden.

By this time it was about 4pm. Beauty & the Beast was scheduled to open their doors at 6:10pm so we trained it back to Kyoto Station and found a sit-down place to eat called Toh Sai. Joe and I both had the pork cutlet in curry with white rice (before we had gone on this vacation, someone told us that when in doubt, get the curry platter) and Steve had a beef dish. Decided to get dessert…Joe and I shared a chocolate parfait, which was chocolate soft-serve ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and frozen raspberries on top, and a layer of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and more frozen raspberries on the bottom. I’ve never been a fan of chocolate and fruit, so all I’ll say is that the ice cream part was good (wink).

Made it to B&TB…the show is exactly like the Broadway and/or traveling version, though, of course, all in Japanese (“Ohayo Belle!” instead of “bon jour”). We were able to follow the storyline without a problem though…between the 3 of us, we’ve seen it 20 times between Broadway and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (grin).

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Posters advertising the show. Photo taken at Kyoto Station. Notice what show is coming next…Aida!

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Stairway that leads to the main entrace of the theater. The opening to the right leads towards a hotel that is also in Kyoto Station.

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A picture of the inside of the theater. Very plain, undecorated black walls and ceiling, with these BRIGHT pinkish-purple seats.

Japanese audiences are very different from American audiences…besides a few nuances that wouldn’t translate over (i.e. when Belle sings the line, “Madame Gaston, his little wife, UGH!!!”, the “Ugh” is MUCH less accentuated in Japan…because people generally just aren’t that mean to each other in Japan where they would say something that bad about someone else [grin]), their applause between songs is polite and short-lived, there was little-to-no laughing at the parts we Americans always laugh (i.e. when Gaston knocks LeFou to the ground), but they clapped for 5 minutes straight, non-stop, for TEN curtain calls at the end of the show! Now, this COULD be because the show was scheduled to close the next night, but even so, it is, by far, the LONGEST applause I’ve EVER seen!

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Joe and I and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Lumiere.

Overall, we had a very nice time and the only disappointment was that they didn’t have any Japan-specific, or Kyoto-specific B&TB merchandise…all of their shirts, mugs, etc., all had the generic “B&TB: A Broadway Musical” logo. Only thing they had was an ornament for a cell phone that had “Kyoto – Finale!,” to commemerate the closing the show, so we got one of those. I would have bought the CD but, of course, I got that YEARS ago (wink).

Took a city bus back towards our hotel and amazed ourselves at not getting lost between the bus station and the hotel. Was in bed by 11pm, with plans to meet Steve at 8:30 Saturday morning, to go on our next adventure.

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Osaka to Kyoto: Shuttle Bus Ride, Holiday Inn Kyoto, Jet Lag

We arrived yesterday afternoon and after a 2-hour shuttle ride from the airport in Osaka to our hotel in Kyoto, we fell into our beds at 9pm Thursday (Japan time), after being awake since 4:30am Wednesday (Orlando time). All told, we were awake for probably 26 of the past 28 hours. I’m getting WAY too old for this (grin).

During our shuttle bus ride to the hotel, we already stared seeing lots of Engrish. A factory that made ice products had a logo that said, “Always to make your life the best!” I saw an establishment called “The Glory Hole” and laughed. Don’t know what it was, though I doubt it was what I thought it would be if it was in the US (grin).

The hotel, Holiday Inn Kyoto, is nice. Apparently it’s a “hot spot” for Americans (mainly older ones on tours…but I love old people [grin]) so the 3 of us are not the only ones who speak Japanese. We’ll appreciate that more as the days go on and we understand NOTHING [grin].

MODERN-DAY NOTE: If you look at their website and compare my photos from 2005 and theirs that are copyright 2017, you’ll see that the building has not been change AT ALL. Same carpet in the lobby, same furniture in the room).

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Our hotel’s lobby
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Our floor (7th floor) – a view from the elevator

The rooms are small…about 11’x20′, bathroom included, but it’s just Joe and I in this room (Steve [MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours] has his own room for this leg of the trip) so we’re using the 2nd double bed as an extension of floor space (wink).

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Joe and Steve at the computer (my laptop) in our room
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Duck on bed in his and Steve’s room. The radio is composed of 6 pre-determined stations and the red thing on the bottom shelf of the nightstand is a flashlight, in case of emergency (earthquake). No Gideon Bible in the nightstand, though some places had the works of Buddha.

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You can’t see it, but you have to step over a 4″ rise in the doorway to get into the bathroom. They also give you slippers to wear in the bathroom (since it’s customary to take your shoes off when you enter the hotel room and you don’t want to run the risk of getting your feet wet in the bathroom). That dark, rectangular thing on the floor between the toilet and the shower is a drain. They don’t use caulk as often (or as much?) as we do, so water from the shower is allowed to drain/drip/pour onto the bathroom floor, which is oh-so-slightly graded towards the floor drain. It’s probably a cleaner system, since caulk gets dirty and moldy, but it really messed with the minds of us stupid Americans who were trying to put down floor mats and couldn’t figure out why they were getting SO wet during our showers! (grin)

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The toilets in most of our hotels were made by Toto, which is a Japanese company but they sell them in the United States, as well. They were awesome…all the ones we experienced had heated seats (with adjustable temperatures), automatic closers (so you don’t slam the seat down) and a bidet. Some of the fancier ones also had “odor neutralizers” (automatic scent expellers), “courtesy flushes” (automatic half-flush when you sit), noise cancellers (computerized sound of a toilet with the press of a button, so no one hears you “going”), etc. Steve hated the heated seat and both of the guys thought the bidet was scary (grin) but I thought the whole setup was GREAT! I want one. No, really. I do. I don’t think we can do the bidet thing because our water is too hard and the sprayer would be chock full of calcium deposits within 6 months (and Joe is wonderful about letting me buy stuff but he’s already drawn the line at a water softener for the benefit of a more efficient bidet [grin])…but all we need for the warm seat is a plug…which I think we can do…woohoo! (MODERN-DAY NOTE: I did get my own Toto Washlet in 2008, when we gutted & re-did our master bathroom. Calcium deposits are not an issue and it still ROCKS!) That thing under the toilet paper, with the round hole, is the smallest garbage can known to man. Two tissues and it was all filled up.

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Our complimentary bath sponges from the room (grin).

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They also gave us disposable toothbrushes, toothpaste, things to pull our hair back and razors, but none were as funny as the bath sponges.

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The view outside our window. I like the contrast of the parking lot on one roof, tennis court on the other roof, residential area across the river, and then mountains.

We don’t have many solid plans today, since we don’t know if jet lag will hit us later in the day. We’re seeing Beauty & The Beast tonight though…all in Japanese (we know the story, so it’s OK)…I can hardly wait!

Anyway, it’s past 6am and I’m gonna go start getting ready to take a shower. This hotel has free DSL in the rooms (WOO HOO!) and we’ll be here for the first 5 days, so y’all will get reports here and there.