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This blog has gone silent for the second half of 2012, but for perfectly excusable reasons! Between Summer festivals, Asian Travels, two full time jobs, and childbirth, we have been quite busy. The youngest member of the Wandering Hokies has joined us just in time for some European adventures as well! We will try to recap the past few months here and make a resolution to continue blogging. The main point of this blog is to capture the adventures we have traveling, but bear with us if there are more than one blog dedicated to our newest and cutest wanderer!

First Train Ride

Photo by our friend, Michael Aragones.


As an American, it is assumed we have been to all 50 states, or at least the most important ones.  And to our Japanese friends, the most important ones are Hawaii, California, New York (City only) and D.C. Angela and I had never been to Hawaii, a fact that confused our host nation friends, as Hawaii is almost a Japanese province.  A perk of my job is travel, so when I had to go to a conference on Oahu, Angela decided to tag along.  Flying a flight full of Japanese people, and seeing signs in the Honolulu Airport all in Japanese, it took a while to feel like we had actually left Japan.  Our hotel for the weekend before Angela left was on the strip in Waikiki, with an awesome view of Diamond Head Crater and the Pacific.  We spent a great weekend relaxing in the sun, eating American food, and touring a beautiful island.

Our first day involved napping and catching a picturesque sunset over the Pacific from the beach.  We have missed our daily beach sunsets from San Diego and relished this one.  The highlight of the day was dinner, enjoying fresh seafood under tiki torches on the Waikiki beach.  We also discovered the Honolulu Cookie Company outlet stores, with free samples until 10pm.  Delicious!

Our second day we were adventuresome and climbed another volcano. This time, Diamond Head was much kinder to us than Mount Fuji.  A fairly simple hike from the beach gave us beautiful views of Honolulu and the windward side of the island.  Much of the view reminded us of Point Loma in San Diego, with sail boats on the horizon and a tiny lighthouse far below.  We hiked to a coffee house on the way back to use wifi (we were lost without our iPhones!) and set up dinner plans with Japanese friends who had joined thousands from the home islands to visit during Spring Break. We had a great dinner and enjoyed the American waiter working for a tip (in Japan waiters leave diners alone and NO tipping is the norm; there is usually a button on the table to push when you need something so having someone come by just to check on us was different).  We walked the beach on a moonlit Waikiki night and went to bed early.

Our final day together in Paradise was a busy one.  Waking up before 5am, we had booked an Island tour with stops at multiple locations. We were picked up at the hotel by a local guide and together with a small group of 6 we had a fantastic day.  Our first stop was the Pearl Harbor Memorial.  A new visitor center has recently opened and had good displays to look at and read while we waited for a ferry over to the Arizona Memorial.  Going through the memorial was somber and beautiful, and interesting from a viewpoint of living in Japan and getting to know the other side of the Pacific War.

Oil is still leaking slowly from the Arizona, and surviving crew members are still laid to rest there today.  After the memorial we drove north on the H3 (there are three interstates on the tiny island) and learned all sorts of facts on the way to the DOLE Plantation.  While driving by the middle lock of Pearl Harbor I saw my first command, the USS TARAWA sitting in moth ball state waiting to be recalled to serve or sold for scrap.

A brief stop at the DOLE Plantation allowed us to indulge in delicious pineapple ice-cream, and see acres of pineapples being grown.  Our next stop was the birthplace of surfing, the famous North Shore.  We stopped for a while and watched surfers try to catch waves on the famous Pipeline.  We stopped for lunch to eat some delicious farm raised shrimp.  After sugar plantations shut down, the state tried many indigenous industries for native Hawaiians to work on, and one was raising shrimp in flooded fields.  Part of the industry stuck, and we experienced the best shrimp we have had since visiting the Gulf States.

Another local favorite, the Macadamia Nut and Kona Coffee, were exhibited to us by the friend of our tour guide (whose grandfather had immigrated to Hawaii from Portugal to work in the sugar fields) at a roadside hut, and were delicious.  Driving around the island, we came to the windward side, which is less populated and more beautiful.  The water and beaches were breathtaking and mountains green and cliff like.  We passed a famous ranch where movies like Jurassic Park were filmed and part of LOST was set as well.  Before ending the tour back at Waikiki we drove up to a tall mountain pass and viewed Kaneohe Bay to view the spot King Kamehaha had pushed his enemies off a cliff to unite the islands (just before Europeans stopped by…).  A great tour that left us exhausted.

The next day we checked out, got Angela to the airport and I headed to a military base.  The short stay was what we needed to escape the last gasps of a Tokyo winter and enjoyed the warm weather.  Though it was nice to be in America again, the island feels very foreign, and we heard more Japanese spoken than anything else!

Wow…has it really been two years already?  The last two years in Japan have been amazing, and it’s definitely safe to say that we have fallen in love with this country and the Japanese people.  It’s difficult to believe that time is going by so quickly and we only have one year left in this amazing place.  Even with a year left, I find myself beginning to miss things.  I have randomly said to James “How are we going to have a house without a tatami room?” “How am I going to survive without a heated toilet seat?” “What am I going to do when I can’t pick up sushi at 7-11?”

So I think it will be a difficult transition when we leave Japan, but the memories will be with us forever.  And in our last year, I am making a huge effort to not focus on what I will miss, but to instead cherish every moment here and enjoy all of these amazing experiences.  When I begin to look back on this last year, it has been filled with such great friends and moments that I just realize once again how blessed we are.

Some of our favorite moments from this last year in Japan:

Learning all of the traditional Japanese Bon Odori dances and performing them in various festivals around our city.

Hiking Fuji-san (again?!?!) with a great group of friends.  And while it was also miserable, I am so thankful we did it again.

Decorating our Christmas tree in our first Japanese home.  The tatami room made for a great Christmas room.

Visiting Hiroshima and Miyajima Island in southern Japan.  It was quite a moving experience.

Relaxing for a few days in Kyoto and really getting to know the city.  Finding these adorable geisha lattes!

Drinking green tea with my mom in Tokyo

You only have one year left to come and visit us!  We’d love to have you.

On a beautiful spring day in Kamakura, we happened upon this wedding party.  We had come to enjoy the sakura while they bloomed, but this beautiful bride was the highlight of my day.  She carried herself like royalty, taking perfect tiny steps, and making only slight movements.  Yet, she was beaming with happiness, and everyone was stopped in their tracks to witness such a special moment.

All regions in Japan claim to be famous for some indigenous industry, and tourists purchase the special local products to take home to friends and family. Takayama, a small ancient mountain town in Gifu Prefecture is famous for beef, wood working, special Spring and Fall Festivals, Sarubobos, and Sake Brewing.  In a late winter trip to the town, we wandered through wooden narrow streets and experienced fresh local sake.

Mountain water helped provide pure ingredients, and dozens of famous sake breweries still litter the old castle town’s downtown area occupying old wooden buildings with little to indicate a large brewing operation is taking place behind the walls.  After buying a few wooden sake cups at a touristy sake store, we wandered into a quiet street and approached an open door of what seemed like a brewery advertising tastings.

Inside we found a nice brewery owner and some other tourists trying sake in an open room, with industrial barrels and equipment in the back.  We pointed at three sake varieties to taste, not being able to read the type.  Angela and I have had a very difficult time finding sake we enjoy tasting, but soon found ourselves enjoying the best sake we have come across. Maybe it was the setting, but we quickly narrowed down our favorite and purchased a bottle to take home.  The owner gave us a pamphlet in English about enjoying sake for dummies.  Most of our best experiences with wine have come from visiting the actual wineries, perhaps we need to discover more sake breweries more local!  Problem is the natural water near Tokyo is not optimal for brewing…

But we did discover that breweries often hang a large grass ball outside their doorway, so we are now on the lookout.  This may be to signify they have started the brewing season, or is tied to the Shinto religion where sake is sacred, but we aren’t sure as both hypotheses were explained to us by local friends.

Today is always a difficult day.  April 16th.  It’s difficult to believe it’s been five years already.  Five years, and yet it still seems like yesterday.  It’s still difficult to talk about, difficult to write about. Difficult to even think about.  Being so far away from Blacksburg is perhaps the most difficult thing on this day.  I want to be there, to be with Hokies, and to be with people who truly understand what it is like to live day in and day out with this tremendous heart ache.  A heart ache that is coupled by love and joy and hope and a commitment to service and a passion for our university.  The dichotomy is something only a Hokie can understand.

Five years ago today, our lives changed forever.  We will never forget the amazing people we lost on April 16th, 2007.  We will never forget Stack’s infectious smile and lively attitude.  We will never forget the outpouring of love and support we received from all over the world.  We will never ever forget those 32 Hokies who left us too early.  May we continue to live for those 32 every day.  So proud to be a Hokie.  Today, Tomorrow, and Forever.  Live for 32.  UT PROSIM.

Japan has been teasing us for a few weeks with spring.  But thankfully, I think spring has finally arrived! (or at least is very close…) Our soap in our downstairs bathroom is no longer frozen, and we are able to walk into our closet without a jacket on.  We thought spring was upon us in early March, when the plum blossoms began to bloom, until winter decided to play with us one more time.  Mt. Fuji is still covered with snow, but the sakura are beginning to bloom, and that is a great sign of warm weather to come!

A year ago, I wrote a blog about everything I was feeling after the earthquake.  I was sitting in a Starbucks in Virginia, while James was still in Japan, reflecting on what felt like the longest few days of our lives.  I didn’t even touch it until last week, when I started editing it.  It feels strange to go back through the happenings of last year, and I can’t bring myself to edit it just yet.  But in the meantime, I want to remember everything we went through, and I want to use the blog to document our experiences.

So, I’ve taken our twitter feed from March 11th-14th, 2011.  From when the Earthquake hit to when James finally made it home.  I must say that the tweets made me seem like I was much calmer than I was. In fact, I remember typing a joyous tweet about James being in a shelter while I melted down crying about him being sick from the water and not having food.  In hindsight, I did a great job making it seem like I was all together.  When in reality, I was a disaster.  Thank goodness for adorable poodles and a great friend who brought me food and great company.

Please read the tweets starting at the bottom of the page, and work your way to the top.

Start reading from the bottom ↑

Heading back to work after time off is always hard, and leaves us anxiously checking the calendar for our next three day weekend.  The two weeks following New Years are tough to get through, but thankfully we reach a Federal Holiday commemorating Dr. King, providing a much needed break for all government employees come mid-January.  With both of us working long hours, we found ourselves desperately needing a weekend getaway.  The local travel agency on base offered a special to the west coast of Japan to visit the castle town of Kanazawa, famous for seafood, the gold leaf industry, and home to one of the top 3 most beautiful Japanese Gardens.

We put AJ in the kennel, picked up our train passes, and enjoyed a mix of Shinkansen and reserved local trains through the mountains west of Tokyo, and on to the Sea of Japan. We rode the train through the snow belt, enjoying fresh bento boxes and watching excited, tipsy snowboarders get off the train into a winter wonderland.  While our home near Tokyo does not get much snow, the surrounding country gets blanketed.  Much of Japan is truly a winter sports paradise, but we noticed stacks of wood logs and very steep roofs everywhere, indicative of how hard it really is to live there.

I had seen the Sea of Japan while on my emergency shelter/evacuation trip around the country after the March 11 earthquake, and had seen what looked like interesting villages.  Over the past year, I had been wanting to go back with Angela to visit, so we used this as an opportunity to visit the West Coast.  We got off at JR Kanazawa station and grabbed a taxi to our hotel in the inner city.  The west coast of Japan, far from Tokyo and Kyoto, sees less foreign tourists, but we were excited to visit the old, independent samurai town.  Kanazawa was the seat of a powerful Samurai clan, who maintained as much independence from the Shogun as possible, fearing his domain would be split and divided to diminish his power.  What we discovered for the next few days was a city built for defense, but that provided many luxuries for those the defenses protected.

We expected snow on the ground, but luckily it was just warm enough to melt the recent snow fall.  Kanazawa is famous for its rain and snowfall, and has developed ways to protect trees and bushes from the weight of heavy snow.  A majority of trees we saw were protected by a simple rope system which would break up the snow, saving the plant from damage.  In fact, this is what Kanazawa is famous for, and tour guides always include a picture or two of these tree pyramids. I assume they remove the contraptions in the summer, so it must be a painstaking process.  But in Japan, this really does not surprise us.

Our hotel was in the historic city center, and we headed off on foot to explore, coming across a unique shrine with a bell tower, reminiscent of western architecture.  The shrine, originally funded by the local daimyo, had relocated near the castle in the late 1800s after the Meiji restoration, and like much of Japan was suddenly curious for western ideas and thoughts.  In Kanazawa, that meant building a bell tower near their largest shrine based on European and American designs.  Stained glass was incorporated, giving the shrine an odd feeling of being in old Europe.

After visiting the shrine we walked along an old samurai neighborhood with traditional mansions and walls lining the streets. Restored mainly for tourists, we enjoyed the walk through old Japan, something more difficult where we live due to the massive modernization following the Pacific War’s destructive conclusion.  Though we looked for the famous local seafood, we stumbled upon spicy curry, which is always a good pick on a cold day.

The next day we enjoyed a good morning of sleeping in and enjoying matcha lattes from Starbucks before heading into the cold rain to explore the famed Kenrokuen Gardens.  Walking towards the garden, we came across a truly unique experience.  We noticed an old looking shrine near the garden on fire, so decided to check it out.  It turns out the shrine was hosting another New Year’s event, in which people burn whatever possessions from 2011 they wish (mainly house decorations and home shrines, including images of bunnies from the year of the rabbit).  Locals would drive up, get out of their car, walk to the fire and throw out 2011. And in Japan, 2011 deserves to be burned away.

It really started to rain and got cold when we walked into the garden. Good thing we had hot hand pads in our shoes and on our backs to warm up our kidneys!  The garden was a private domain for the samurai lord and his guests until the late 1800s, which is amazing as the garden was truly remarkable with everything you would imagine a Japanese garden would have.  The garden’s picture spot is a stone lantern overlooking a man-made koi pond.  This lantern is unique due to its longer than normal stand, and is prominent in every advertisement of the area.

Tired of getting wet, we took a break inside a restored tea house in the garden and enjoyed matcha and sweets on tatami mats listening to the rain in a remarkable experience.  The rain actually let up and we decided to explore the old castle grounds.  Walking up through the outer gate, we expected to pay an entrance fee when a local retiree took pity on the wet foreigners and gave us a private tour of the castle park.

Our new personal tour guide spoke good English and was overjoyed to show us the renovations being done to turn the park into a full blown tourist attraction.  He walked us through a fully rebuilt defensive gate and showed us all the different techniques of how unique this castle was compared to others (all Japanese towns say theirs is most unique), but we did learn a lot about castle construction.  After a great private tour we finally sat down to dinner. We chose a quiet place near the castle that treated us very well, serving mochi udon and tempura.

After dinner we explored a famous geisha district north of the city that remains intact.  We enjoyed the stone streets and wooden homes, but remembered from Kyoto that it is hard to see a Geisha at work without going into the expensive establishments.  We woke up the next day with one goal: to find and tour a famous Buddhist temple nearby labeled as the “Ninja-Dera.”

The Ninja temple has no actual connection to ancient ninja assassins, but was built by the local daimyo as further protection against a potential invading Shogun intent to fully subjugate the realm.  The paranoid local lord helped fund this Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town to delay and warn of an attacking force. The building defied many edicts from the Shogun, and included many trap doors and hidden pitfalls for unsuspecting invaders (why an invading samurai army would attack a Buddhist temple and not just go around it was beyond me).

The temple was beautiful, and we could follow the tour though it was given all in Japanese.  The creepiest part was a suicide room, with doors that could not be opened from the inside once closed.  If a samurai failed he could go in there and would commit seppuku, or starve to death, in any case dying for failing.

Our trip over, we headed to the train station early to enjoy sushi salads and grab train alcohol.  Japan’s infrastructure is built to get you anywhere without driving, so we enjoyed a few drinks while looking at dozens of snow covered peaks on one side of the train and the Sea of Japan on the other.  All in all a great weekend away to recharge.

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