Friday, April 03, 2015

Blossoms have stopped the blogging...



If it wasn't pouring rain today, I would not be writing this. You see, the first week of April is my business of the year... not only are there the standard spring things going on, such as the start of baseball season, my kids' birthdays, spring break trips, and the like going on, but it is roughly the time each year when the famous cherry blossom (sakura) trees bloom in Iwakuni. These blooms are very delicate. They bloom fast and only stay a week or two... sometimes less if the wind and rain damage them. The Kintai Bridge, which is about 15 minutes from base, is considered one of the most beautiful places in Japan to view them.

Because of their fragility, and that they are one of the flowers that symbolizes Japan, many American families want to have their portraits taken among the gorgeous sakura blooms. I am a photographer, so that means that I have been busy taking portraits of a dozen different families in five days. So, forgive me, I have been lax on blogging. But I have a good reason this time! Here are some of the photos I have taken this week. Enjoy!






(Shameless plug: If you happen to like any of these landscape images, you can buy prints, canvases and more, on my web site here.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Universal Studios and the 10 mile walk-a-thon...


So, there are a few things I learned when traveling to Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan. I thought I would take a moment to share them with you so that you can plan your weekend accordingly.


1) For a family of four, two adults with two offspring, but where one of those offspring is 12 years old and considered an adult in Japan, plan on the trip costing about $1,500. Some of these expenses are paid for ahead of time, some of them are not. But this is a good round number to keep in mind for car rental (or tolls, which were 8,800 yen one way), gas, hotel for two nights, food, one souvenir per child, amusement park tickets, etc. of course, the yen rate is outstanding for Americans right now, at about 120 yen to the dollar, so also keep that in mind as you calculate costs.

2) It is SOOOO worth it to get the Universal Studios Express Passes ahead of time, like weeks in advance. Express passes are separate from general admission tickets, and you have to buy them at your nearby Lawsons convenience store, at a kiosk in the store. The kiosk, as far as I could tell, does not have an English option. So, those of us attached to MCAS Iwakuni are fortunate enough to have the free services of the ITT office in Crossroads Mall. Tell them what date you want the Express Passes for and then they will give you a sheet of paper with the details, which you will then hand to the Lawsons employee to assist you. These cost 7,400 yen each, regardless if it's for a child or adult. Expensive until you tally up the cost to stay another night to get to all of the rides we managed to do in a single day. And realize that the waiting time for the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride was 4 hours. We got through in 30 minutes. (Note: I have been told that the Express Passes are actually on a tier system and if you plan months in advance you can get Express Passes for 5,500 yen. Obviously, I did not plan that far ahead. It's hard to with a spouse in the military, anyway.)

3) Consider booking your hotel through agoda.com. We got a room at the Richmond Hotel Namba Daikokucho, a nice, simple "business" hotel close to a subway station, with a free breakfast buffet for up to two adults. We paid about $300 for two nights. By American standards, the room was very small. Not quite tiny, but very small for four Americans, 3 of them being 5'9" or taller. And keep in mind the fine print when you book the room. Kids can say for free, but you will have to pay 600 yen for an all-you-can-eat breakfast for each of them, each day. Still, pretty cheap. Also, plan to pay about 2,400 yen for parking each day. But the elevator parking system the hotel has is pretty darn cool. And remember to pack an air mattress, blankets and a couple of pillows if your kids are going to be sharing a room with you. There are no couches or additional beds. Fortunately, our traveling companions, my friend, Cortney's family, had a spare air mattress to cure my brain fart. My kids were appreciative.

Here is what my 12-year-old, Will, and I ate for breakfast the first morning:




An unusual mix of foods, but it was quite tasty. You won't starve.

4) Be sure to check the weather. Yes, we knew it was supposed to be chilly and rain the morning we planned our trip. But we had express passes, so there was no rescheduling. We had water resistant jackets, umbrellas, and Cortney's family had plastic rain gear. We weathered the morning rain pretty well.


5) If you take mass transit, realize that not all trains are created equal. From our hotel we had to take three different "lines" to get to Universal Studios. Mistakenly thinking that we could get a day pass to ride on each one, we bought day pass for everyone. Don't do this. We took the subway, then a JR train and then some other kind of train. All three different modes of transportation, apparently, and the day pass only worked on the subway system. Just pay as you go along. And select a machine that has an English option to make it easier. Plan on spending about $12 per adult (half for kids) for round-trip tickets.

6) Plan to wait in line... for EVERYTHING. Yes, American amusement parks are busy. And there are lines. But Universal Studios in Japan seems to take lines to the extreme. We waited in line to pay for admission tickets for about half an hour. General admission tickets are 7,200 yen for adults and 4,980 yen for kids 11 and under. The Express Passes were sold out for the day, so we were very glad we had gotten them at Lawsons a month earlier.

7) Have a plan of attack... for the rides. If you have Express Passes (and I certainly hope you do) take them to the information office near the admission gates to have them translate the Japanese. You will need to enter Harry Potter World at a certain time (for example, ours was 1 p.m.), and ride the two main rides (1:15 p.m. and 1:45 p.m.) in there by a certain time. Nothing else is on a schedule. However, with your Express Passes, many of the rides you can Express on are either/or. You can chose one ride of three different ones to use the Express Pass on. For example, I think Jurassic Park, Jaws and Backdraft are three of the rides grouped together. Only one of these can you use the Express Pass on. So, we headed to the back of the park first thing, and went through Backdraft first, with only a 10 minute wait. Then we went and got a timed ticket for Jurassic Park, which only had us waiting in that line for about 30 minutes. And then we used the Express Pass on Jaws later in the day, when the crowds really started hitting around noon.

8) Plan to understand very little of the rides' dialogue. EVERYTHING is said in Japanese. And even when there are subtitles, they are in Japanese. We did feel like we missed out on a lot because of the language barrier, especially since the attractions are based off of movies. Signs, maps and menus are all in English, though.



9) If you eat at the diner above, plan to do some ninja moves to get a table at which to sit. Especially if it has been/is raining. You basically spread out and everyone goes on the hunt for "seated people who appear to be almost done eating." When a table with such people is spotted, you stealthily block the view of the table from other table stalkers and send out your ninja glare to keep them at bay. Once the previous occupants vacate the table, you seat one or two of your offspring (the largest or most stubborn would probably be best) to hold the table while you bring back the sustenance. Our two families ended up sitting at opposite ends of the restaurant, it took 30 minutes to order food, 10 minutes to eat, and we had a table ninja stalking us the moment we crumpled up our burger wraps. We spent about 6,500 yen on lunch for four, which included 4 hamburgers, 4 fries, an order of onion rings, an apple pie and four drinks. There are no refills.

10) There are photo ops every where. And opportunities to sing. The entire park plays pop music... so we were the Americans singing "Happy" in the Jurassic Park line and dancing to "YMCA" as we left Back to the Future. Yes we were smiled and laughed at by the Japanese people around us, but maybe they just thought we were part of the entertainment.




11) There are gift shops everywhere. Nearly every ride exits in to one, but I limited my kids to one souvenir each. You can see what they chose below. Also, if you collect squished pennies, nearly every major ride had a machine. Bring 100 yen coins and your Penny Passport will be thrilled.


12) Yes, Harry Potter World is crowded. Get your Butterbeer early, and get the cold kind. It tastes much better. Plan to pay more for it than you would a regular beer. Some shops take 30-45 minutes to get in to. And, as I mentioned, the castle ride has a 4 hour wait. There were kids on Gameboys waiting in the line. You can also simply tour the castle, which only had a 10 minute wait, so we did that, too. There are some things you'll see on the tour that you don't see on the ride. Like all the people waiting in the 4-hour line. And some other Harry Potter things. If the line is short, it's worth it. Same with the Hippogriff ride. It's very short, not thrilling and I would have been disappointed if I had actually spent the estimated 110 minutes waiting in line for it. With the Express Pass we waited 10 minutes. But small children would probably like it.






The price of hot Butterbeer, two of them with souvenir mugs the kids use every day.
OK, so I guess they each got two souvenirs.






Rodney has been asked by a member of his home town to wear this shirt and take pictures in it everywhere he goes. Since he rarely goes anywhere, this is only the second time it has been photographed. ;)

Of course, you can buy a wand. I think the Ivy wand would suit me best, but I did not buy it. I have no idea what I would do with it since I am a mere muggle.



 They had pumpkin pasties for sale. Let the strippers know.


Thanks to Cortney's husband's pedometer, we discovered we had walked more than 6 miles by mid-afternoon. So, by the time the day was done and we hoofed it back to the hotel, we figured we walked about 10 miles. 10 miles. Which, I am sure for you running types, is just a blip in your weekend. But, for those of us who only move faster than a brisk walk when something deadly is chasing us, or our child is in mortal danger, this is an exhausting day in need of a margarita, greasy food, and an onsen.

13) We found drinks and greasy food at Bubba Gump Shrimp, located on the third floor of the mall that is outside Universal Studios and on your way to the train station. We had eaten at Outback the night before, which was great for those of us craving American food. Bubba Gump was also delicious. Plan on spending about $120 each night at these place for dinner. And much-needed adult beverages.


 14) Ladies, dump the kids and spouse at the hotel and make your way to Spa World, which is open all night long. This is an onsen. Yes, you have to be naked. No, you cannot have large tattoos. Cover up small ones with Band-aids. For more details about Spa World (which was just one subway stop from our hotel stop... even better! But the subway stops running around midnight. But taxis are around all the time) check out this blog post. I slept like a baby that night.

15) Before we headed back to Iwakuni, we did some sight-seeing. My feet were not happy, but my eyes were. We made arrangements to keep our cars parked at the hotel and then took the subway system to the Tsutenkaku tower, which was only a couple of blocks from Spa World.















Then we thought it would be a good idea to go to Osaka Station to go to Starbucks and Krispy Kreme. It was only a 15-minute subway ride away. How long could it possibly take to grab some doughnuts?

16) Osaka Station is a freaking maze. I felt like a lab rat. Give me my iPhone with Google Maps and I have been able to find LOTS of things in Japan, despite language barriers. Try to find Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the Osaka train station and it's like someone keeps moving the cheese. There are various levels underground, various levels above ground and the GPS couldn't always give us an accurate picture of where we were. It took us 45 minutes to find Krispy Kreme once we got to the station, and that was only after we all were frustrated, hangry (yes, hangry) and in serious need of sugar. Fortunately, I found a very helpful information office, with an English help desk, an English map... and Krispy Kreme was a three minute walk from there. We gave up on Starbucks when we saw the line was about 30 people long. Where is an Express Pass when you need one?! After eating at a tasty Italian restaurant on the top floor of a nearby department store, we finally headed back to the hotel on the subway, got our cars and headed home.

So, yes, the trip was fun... in a walk-your-ass-off and herd-children-and-spouses-everywhere sort of way. We saw a lot, did a lot and the kids have been able to check something off of their bucket lists. And then I took a girls trip a few days later to take a vacation to recover from my vacation. ;) That post is coming soon.

Added 4/5/15: One thing that I can't believe I forgot to mention is that they size requirements in Japan appear to be smaller than those in the States when it comes to rides. I am a jeans size 16 or so, depending on the brand and style, of course, and I was asked by two park employees to not ride two of the rides "for my safety." The spouse could not ride on one of the rides because, at 6'3", he was too tall. So, keep in mind that being Big OK may be a problem at Universal Osaka.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Three places to go when you need to see signs of spring...

I have never been a huge fan of flowers. Sure, they are pretty, and nice to look at. I'm allergic to a few (lotus, certain lilies) but I've never hated flowers. By enjoyment of flowers is somewhat slightly above lackluster, but since moving to Japan, I have found that I flock with other, more committed flower enthusiasts to various locations within a day's drive of Iwakuni. Maybe it is the fact that the Japanese seem to habitually visit famous locations at different seasons because of the flowers growing there at that moment. Maybe I just need an excuse to get off this tiny base, but whatever the reason is, I constantly find myself traveling to photograph flowers. This past week, my flower journeys were on full steam: I visited three different locations in Yamaguchi prefecture to check out several different types of flowers that are tough enough to bloom in 40-degree weather.



I have blogged about visiting here a couple of weeks ago, but the ume (plum blossom) flowers were not quite in bloom then. I met three of my English students, lovely Japanese women, who wanted to celebrate Girls Day (March 3 each year) with me. We met at Tenmangu Shrine, where the ume were about halfway bloomed. I really liked the way they draped around the Japanese lanterns.






Then went to the Mohri Family Former Residence and Gardens to see the historic Hina Doll items they had on display. Photogrpahs of the items were not allowed, so my students were kind enough to give me postcards from the museum.



 Finally, we at lunch at Douzodouzo, which was quite oishii (delicious).



My Girls Day gifts from my students:



If you are planning to go to the Mohri residence, here is the brochure in English:




Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture

Map of this trip  (works best from a computer)

This was a full 12-hour day, but we managed to fit a lot in to it!

First we stopped at the Hagi Sea Market to see the kawazu sakura, or early cherry blossom trees. This is a different variety of cherry blossom tree and its flowers are a brighter pink than the pale pink, almost white flowers seen around Iwakuni. This was an easy stop on our way to our original destination, which was the tsubaki (camellia) park about 15 minutes away.





The tsubaki park has a forest of large camellia trees with red flowers, and I think we may have been late in the season to enjoy them. However, off to the right from the parking lot is a garden with camellia bushes of different varieties. There is a map on the edge of the parking lot, so be sure to check it out. It takes about an hour to complete the entire path circuit through the forest. There are also only squatty (Japanese style) porta-potties for bathrooms, so be prepared.









We made an unplanned detour on the way back down the hill from the tsubaki park: Yuzuya, which features all sorts of orange and tangerine (yuzu and mikan) delights.






I bought orange juice and jelly... yummy!

The Viking King (buffet restaurant) was quite tasty and for 1,630 yen, it was all you could eat and drink. Including make-your-own cotton candy. And we definitely left full. 






This makeshift bassinet was provided by the employees of the restaurant. This worked quite well for baby Sofia. Helicopter parents relax... the chairs were too heavy to separate on their own.

Finally, we enjoyed the warm waters and fabulous view from the Hotel Yokikan onsen. For about 1,000 yen, we soaked our worries away (and enjoyed some amazing citrus shampoo and conditioner!) And yes, you do have to get naked with both friends and strangers of the same gender. Be brave.



Kanmuriyama Park, Hikari


I've been to Kanmuriyama Park three times now, and I finally made it for one of the seasons it is famous for: ume (plum blossom) season. I was invited by some friends to make the 1.5 hour drive over to the park, and because of my crazy schedule this time of year, they were kind enough to wait until late on a cloudy afternoon when I could go. Because of the terrible light, my photos don't really do the park justice, but I figured you might enjoy seeing a sampling of the thousands of ume trees that await you.








So now you have three day trips where you can go at the beginning of March to see the first blooms of color while you wait impatiently for spring. Dress in layers because we encountered temperatures ranging from freezing to about 55 degrees... it's an unpredictable time of year.