Wow, it’s already Sunday? How does the weekend go by so fast? Anyway, he hope you had a good week! Here are some travel articles we’ve recently seen that we think you may enjoy.
Sometimes international travel can be a breeze. Just have a plane ticket, a valid passport and sometimes maybe a visa, and you’re free to go to almost any country you want. But sometimes you may be traveling to a country that may not have the same health care standards as where you live and you’ll need one or more vaccinations to ensure you’ll stay free of diseases and other health issues that may be present in the place you’re visiting. The issue becomes even more complicated if you’re traveling with children or if you yourself have a chronic disease or are immunocompromised or pregnant, among other issues.
So if you have to go somewhere internationally, what do you do, and how do you find out what steps in need to take, in terms of vaccinations, you should get before you travel?
Tipping. In some countries it’s an important norm, whereas in others it’s considered an insult. Some folks tip people in certain professions whereas others don’t, and while some countries’ tipping culture suggest just a little bit of money for a tip, others’ say 20% is appropriate.
So who should you tip? And how much? And what if you’re in THIS country versus THAT country? Well, I think I’ve finally found a definitive answer. But first a little background…
Attention international travelers! Last week the Department of State updated how they share information with U.S. travelers and the improvements are said to provide U.S. citizens with, “clear, timely and reliable safety and security information worldwide.” Under the new system, every county in the world will have an individualized Travel Advisory number, which will provide levels of travel-related advice ranging from 1 to 4. The levels are:
Going on an international trip is very exciting but it can also be very expensive. Using a credit card to pay for purchases when traveling internationally is often the best way to get a good exchange rate and the rate your bank gets will be better than the one you’ll get on your own if you exchange cash. Using a card also means that you don’t have to carry around a bunch of cash with you. However, many cards will add on a “foreign transaction fee” to any transactions made with anything except your home currency. Here’s an easy way to keep from paying that extra 2-3 percent on all of your purchases while away.
The first part of our day was stressful because of timing factors, the second part of our day was a Disney knockoff that 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.
A shot of the pastry shop.
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.
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.
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:
Everything on the walls were painted by hand.
Some more hand-painted wall decorations. And “not orbs.”
A different style of wall decoration inside of one of the buildings.
Our tour group looking at the outside of some of the buildings.
Me walking away from one of the ancient buildings. Or maybe it was the ladies’ room? I forget.
A view of the rest of the property, and beyond, from the highest hill in the complex.
A view of Kyoto from above, as seen at the Shugakuin property.
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!
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:
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.
The front entrance actually looks pretty darn nice, huh?
The back of the train station. If you look carefully, you can see me doing my impersonation of Evita Perón.
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!
The Dreamland fire department, right where you would expect it to be, on the left side of the “town square”.
And every fire department should come equipped 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 cinder blocks.
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).
A closer image of one side of the street.
Ooooooo….now, THAT’S pretty. Yeah, this place really IS a DIVE (grin).
Good emulation there, because Disney “Main Streets” ALWAYS have a utility truck parked on them, right?
Note the name of this restaurant on “Main Street”…Woody Garden!?!?!?
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.
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.
Of course, EVERY castle in Japan should have a statue of George Washington in its moat.
And Abraham Lincoln too!
And a Joe (wink).
Their “Matterhorn” looks like it’s made out of cardboard, doesn’t it?
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.
Here’s the monorail, with the Matterhorn in the background. The monorail wasn’t running either…just sitting there, collecting dust and dripping grease.
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, REALLY!
European-made Carousel (American-made ones go counter-clockwise). The horses didn’t even go up and down.
Sure, cuz EVERY Disney knockoff park should have an Octopus ride…
….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…
…and Bumper Boats. Nice line of scum on the bottom of the boats, huh?
We never figured out if this was the entrance to a haunted house or to the Matterhorn.
Grand Prix Raceway it ain’t!
The Flash Dance ride. What a feeling!
Screw Coaster, huh? Well, I guess EVERYONE is screwed when they come to THIS park (grin).
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.
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!
They had a lot of baby rides at this park.
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!
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…
…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!
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…
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:
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:
The entrance to the ride.
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….
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.”
Ooooo….scary tiger! Well, scary he’s in that bad condition, anyway.
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!
Oh give me a home, where the flamingos roam, and the rhinos stand behind them all day…
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!
Watch out for that stationary elephant with the garden hose coming out of its trunk!
Someone must’ve used a real gun to shoot the hippo, cuz it was deader than a door nail. It just laid there, half-in, half-out, not moving.
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!
Oooo…the suspense is killing me more than the ride is…here comes the dark, scary, cave!
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 right side up from the stalactites.
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 preferred to call it gator on a spit.
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.
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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:
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.
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).
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.
One of the more ornate buildings that is in the Imperial Palace complex.
Looks like Epcot, doesn’t it?
General description of what we’re seeing in this particular building.
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.
Main building of the castle
Main gate before the castle (taken from the castle courtyard, looking back, after you’ve already gone through the gate)
Visitors are allowed to climb the (VERY STEEP!) stairs to just one of the guard gates. This is the view from there.
A very photogenic building in the Nijo Castle complex [wink]).
A view of the moat
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).
Posters advertising the show. Photo taken at Kyoto Station. Notice what show is coming next…Aida!
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.
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!
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.