Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

The Good Traveler

We are blessed with a good traveler. A good airplane traveler, that is. Car trips are another issue, but since we now use a portable DVD player during longer drives, Miss Red tolerates them.

At 8 months, first plane trip.

As some of you may recall, we went to Okinawa, Japan in April, with our then 2.5 year-old, and she was amazing. I mean, really truly great. She went with the flow and had a lot of fun exploring.

How we survived 15 hours of plane travel with a child who didn’t sleep.

We’re back from Galveston, and I keep thinking about how well she did on the plane. Strangers would stop me and tell me what a good traveler she was. A man offered to carry a bag for me up the jet bridge so I could untangle her gate-checked stroller. She was given plastic wings on one leg of the flight and said after I pinned them to her fleece, “This means I’m a good traveler.”

She really, truly is. She talks about taking trips. She wants to go to China next, she says. She wants to go to Orangeland and Greenland. She wants to see the ocean again.

Galveston

I love this. I love that she can think of places real or imagined and decide it’s worthy of getting on a plane for. I only hope we can take her there.

Where do you hope to take your kids one day?

– MD

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The Cousins

My intentions for posting daily for NaBloPoMo were true, really they were. I even posted from the road while traveling for work, but last Thursday we three hopped on a plane for Galveston, Texas, and I barely checked my email or opened the laptop, so alas, I lapsed.

We went to Galveston for a lovely wedding. It was my first time there, with my previous Texas experiences limited to San Antonio, where my mother is from, and Austin.

Our little family really enjoys spending time with my mother-in-law’s family. This might sound like a given for some people, but I come from a complicated and fractured family myself – some people aren’t talking to one another on one side, I’m not talking to others on another side – and in some cases, people can’t even remember why they aren’t talking anymore. I grew up with a cousin only three months younger and for much of our lives we were attached at the hip, and to this day retain a close bond. I have been close to other family members over the years, but time or distance have pulled us apart, so to have family that actually likes spending time together is a joy.

This gaggle of relatives stem from my mother-in-law and her three siblings. Their offspring and the people who have  married in and their children are all called The Cousins. I get to be a Cousin, and we range in age from 22 to 38. We live in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, New York, Texas, Wisconsin and Japan, and when we get together, it’s a veritable United Nations meeting – with representatives from Scotland and Russia, too.

My favorite moments were the ones where Miss Red and her Arizona cousins played – coloring, twirling, dancing, laughing, and running.

At our final lunch together we started looking at calendars for our next family reunion. A time when The Cousins can frolic again.

What are you favorite family memories?

– MD

A Few of My Favorite Things

And here we are, the end, for now, of my recounts of Japan. I wanted to end with some of my favorite moments of our time there.

1. Time, Sweet, Time

As I’ve written, my job has been more than intense lately, and the weight of whether or not I’ll have this job – my favorite so far – weighs heavily on me, well, almost constantly. But being away from everything and unplugging from the constant chatter of the online world, which I love, was so needed. My favorite moment was a ton of moments, where I forgot the day, had nothing to do but spend time with my lovely little family. No cooking, no cleaning, no email, nothing. But time.

MD and Miss Red

2. Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer

So Miss Red has red hair. Not so common in America, but in Japan it was like seeing a dinosaur. Everywhere we went, and I do mean everywhere, people would smile, comment, and say “kawaii,” cute in Japanese. Older women would reach out and touch her hair, and even thought we didn’t speak the language, we could understand that there was a love of her hair. So much so that Miss Red started to get a little skeeved by it. Understandably so.

Cheese!

But one day while exploring a woman approached us and made the mime of taking a picture. We thought she meant of Miss Red, but she then handed her camera to her companion, stopped down and posed with Miss Red. I tried to capture it myself. Miss Red, CH and I were in shock, and afterward Miss Red clung to our legs. Understandably so. But those memories of the sing-song “kawaii” still rings in my ears. I mean, the girl does have some amazing hair.

3. Swimming

Miss Red took swimming lessons this winter and let me say that it was one of the more stressful things I’ve done as a parent. For a 30-minute class, it was about two hours or wrangling, with getting us both ready, driving there, getting both of us into the water, showering afterwards and driving home. And she hated it. Like cried for 2/3 of each class and I was the one who mostly went with her. We’ll wait until she’s older for additional lessons, but we were excited to head to the hotel pool in Japan.  We didn’t go every day, but as a family we went and CH and I each took her individually and it was so fun. That might seem obvious, but as someone who had to wrestle a slick-as-a-seal toddler in the water, it was so nice to see her, albeit timidly, enjoy herself, and our family, too.

Water baby

4. Castle

One day we took the monorail to Shurijo Castle Park, a complete replica of an castle that was bombed in World War II. It was a long and winding walk to the entrance and Miss Red insisted on walking every. single. step. And she did it. Up and down and all around. I loved seeing her confidently explore and absorb everything as if it were just another day.

Walking the path to Shurijo Castle

5. Smile

One morning at breakfast Miss Red made friends with another toddler. They didn’t share the same language, but played for a few minutes, racing back and forth to the large picture-windows over-looking the water. In those five minutes she picked up a cultural cue that many Japanese women use, which is to cover their mouths when smiling or laughing. Japanese women even used to blacken their teeth, a practice stopped a long time ago.

Smile!

We had an amazing opportunity to go to Japan and I’ll be eternally grateful for the experiences and time together. It gave us reprieve from life, and we hope, sparked a travel bug for Miss Red. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and look forward to our family’s next adventures. I wonder where we’ll head next?

Happy Travelers

– MD

What’s Different?

The most common questions we are asked when we returned from Japan were about what we ate and what, besides the language differences, was different. I’ll take a crack at some of what we saw as different. I am not an anthropologist, and frankly, sometimes the other side of town where I live feels different, so differences are relative. We were in Naha, Okinawa, a separate island from mainland Japan, so that in itself marks major differences. Also, I need to find another word for “different.” Enough jabbering, here’s what I’ve got:

Shoes

Alas, for better or worse, I have flat feet (thanks, Dad!). Large, flat feet. That means no fancy high-heeled shoes for me. Danskos it is. Side note: in Madison Danskos can even be considered fancy! But anyone familiar with America knows that we’re trained to perceive the confident sounds of high heels across an airport concourse, or walking down a hall, implies strength and power. Women tower in five-inch heels, never wincing, to slip them off later and hobble around their abodes.

Yet, in Okinawa, women wore all types of footwear, sure, but if they wore high heels, they looked really uncomfortable and they didn’t hide that fact. Women would literally shuffle around in spiky shoes too big or too small, taking painful-looking steps and not worrying how it looked. It was interesting, and frankly, a better illustration of how painful most women’s shoes are.

This shirt could be yours.

Money

As mentioned in a previous post, Okinawa, and Japan in general, is a cash society. We brought cash with us, and fortunately our hotel exchanged money, but many of the family members traveling with us had to find a Post Office to use an ATM that accepted American cards and then exchange money.

It wasn’t only the focus of being in a cash society, calculating exchange rates, which fluctuated from 78 to 82 yen to 1 US dollar during our stay, but that money is not something that is directly handled. Everywhere we went, including in taxis, there was a small tray near the register that you placed your money on. Only in returning money did money literally exchange hands. And even then, paper bills were placed first and coins fanned out on top. I found the practice to be quite nice, since it gave a sense of importance to one’s money and made the transaction seem special.

The ticket machine for the monorail.

Paper Goods

Paper goods are rare in Japan, and most people carry a handkerchief of sorts. More like smaller squares of fabric, they are sold everywhere and come in an endless variety of patterns and styles. Paper towels are rare in bathrooms, since most have eco-friendly hand dryers, but restaurants rarely have paper napkins as Americans know them, and maybe have tissue-like squares or cloth napkins. This description from Craft Nectar, who moved to Japan, summed it up well:

“For Japanese women, carrying a handkerchief is essential. Not all public bathrooms have paper towels so having a lovely handkerchief with which to dry your hands is helpful. The handkerchief is also useful during humid summers to dab you brow or neck on a crowded train. I never saw anyone blow his or her nose into a handkerchief the way Americans do. It’s more for discreet dabbing the way you would when you walk inside after walking a few blocks on a snowy day and your nose drips a tiny bit. Tissues are used for dealing with runny noses and serious nasal congestion while handkerchiefs are a more multipurpose cloth kept either in the pocket or purse. Japanese hankies are made of very lightweight cotton so they dry extremely quickly and are not bulky in pockets.

Even babies had their little handkerchiefs, tucked into baby carriers and strollers. Picking out a few fun ones for Miss Red was a neat experience.

Painted wall outside of a restaurant.

Overall, everything and nothing was different. I’m sure, as Americans, and now knowing cultural nuances, we were at times rude or awkward. But if so, no one pointed it out to us or did we appear to make major gaffes. A few times I told CH to speak softer, only because he has a boomy voice. We did our best to be polite at all times, smile, bow and just be good humans. It seemed to work.

Miss Red ready for another day of sight seeing.

Next post: some of our favorite highlights. Anything else you’d like me to report on?

– MD

A Smile and a Bow Go a Long Way

When we booked tickets for our trip to Okinawa, it would be the first time I traveled to a country where I didn’t speak the language or was with someone who did. In previous instances CH and I could cobble together enough words or traveled to places with a similar enough alphabet that we managed.

Gum

My main concern? How I would find a bathroom. I’m kind of skeeved out by public restrooms in general, and the thought of being somewhere and not even knowing how to ask for one was beyond me. And Miss Red is “potty training,” so the thought of managing her on a toilet that I didn’t even know how to ask for made me sweat a little. Thanks to Kyle for passing along some of my fears and questions to a friend of his, who sent me two awesome and lengthy emails with some basic phrases and a general course of what to do while in Naha.

I don't think I need to read Japanese to understand what this poster offers.

CH also decided that he was going to teach himself Japanese. He had been to Japan, to Sendai in fact, about 15 years ago with his family, and Grandma had been a number of times, so there were a few Japanese phrase books around Grandma’s house and Miss Red even has a set of Kanji magnetic letters on our refrigerator.

Barber

He selected the Pimsleur method, one he had had success with when learning French. And that, folks, is one of the many reasons I love CH, in addition to the great skill that you can ask him what was happening in pretty much any year, and he knows something of importance. To keep himself occupied on the treadmill he’ll run through Vice Presidents. Backwards.

Mind the gap.

It worked. He ended up being decent enough to know more than some basic phrases. Along with Grandma, we were actually OK during much of our travels. Having CH’s cousin there to translate the first two days was also amazing, and many people in Japan know a small amount of English. But knowing sumimasen (excuse me, or sorry) and arigato (thank you) helped tremendously. I also learned that a smile and a bow go a long way. When in doubt, I would repeat “sumimasen” and bow. When someone did something nice, I would bow and repeat “arigato.” And people were friendly and understanding.

Point to order

Most restaurants have menus with photos of the meal on them, so we could see what we wanted and point to the waiter. Signs we were able to understand, and we only really got lost once, when CH realized that maps are positioned differently than how we read them. And since I never even attempt to read maps, I let it go.

My favorite sign. I walked by it two separate days to work up the nerve to pantomime if I could purchase it and didn't have the guts.

And finding bathrooms? They were clearly marked everywhere we went with the standard image of a male or female icon or listed “toilet.” Were they clean? My friends, they were some of the cleanest, albeit tiniest spaces I have ever seen. Some seats were heated (!) and had helpful buttons such as “courtesy noise,” which sounded like flushing.

The most awesome thing ever. This holds your baby so you can use the bathroom.

Monday’s post? Cultural differences. I mean, there are differences even within a city, but I’ll recap the ones that we found most interesting.

– MD

Toddlers and Japanese Weddings

Now onto the reason for our travels: to attend a wedding. To recap, we headed to Okinawa for a family wedding. You can read more of the background here.

My dates for the wedding, Miss Red and CH

A few family members were in the wedding and needed to get to the hotel earlier to get outfitted into kimonos and have their hair done. It took hours, and according to them, was very difficult to eat and breathe.

The back of a kimono.

For the wedding itself there was an emcee and a translator. Pretty much everything was said in Japanese first, followed by the English translation. The wedding was amazing – it started with a beautiful dance of the bride and groom, in traditional Okinawan clothing, and his wife’s sisters, along to Okinawan music. It was quite something.

In traditional clothing, with marriage certificate

My own wedding was a low-key affair. CH and I paid for a majority of it, so cost was a huge factor and it was bare bones: no flowers, no favors, no open bar, etc. What was also another fun contrast was attending Megan’s wedding the weekend we were back, whacked out of our brains by jet lag. Her awesome party, at the local VFW, was so fun in the Madison East-side way and was a perfect welcome home.

The lovely couple, after outfit change

What followed was really quite fun. Every culture has it’s unique elements of celebration, and this was no different. While there wasn’t a DJ coaxing people onto a dance floor, the bride’s friends and a few co-workers performed to a pop song, dancing and lip synching. Family members danced, again in traditional Okinawan dress, to music, inviting the new family members up. People gave speeches.

Performance by friends and co-workers

The food was also great. Large platters of sushi, sashimi, Western food and everything in between was placed on large lazy Susan’s in the center of the table.

You’ll have to excuse the poor quality of the photos. The room was crowded, I have a simple point and shoot, and at some point during the ceremony, Miss Red, who was acting out the worse she ever has in her life, turned into this:

Asleep in my lap

Out cold, impervious to the speeches and applause, she slept on my lap for a majority of the ceremony and reception. We weren’t able to attend the party directly afterward and headed back to the hotel, where she did wake up and we took her to the pool.

But my favorite part of the wedding? When the families read letters to one another. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand Japanese and needed to wait for the English translation. We could tell from the emotion what was being conveyed. And that’s what a wedding is about.

Sharing letters

Some interesting tidbits:

  • The ceremony and reception were just that. Ceremonial. There, people get married at a court house and it’s a low-key affair, with really office people as witnesses. So the bride and groom had been married in December, but weren’t considered “married” until the ceremony. It was at that point that they started wearing wedding rings.
  • Another neat part considered traditional was the combining of the waters. In the past couples would bring water from their own villages, combine them, then drink from the same cup.
  • Part of the receiving line was signing in and handing money envelopes. We had a card from the states, so that stood out. You also sign your name, and since we can’t write Kanji, they kindly turned the page sideways for us to write in English.
  • At the end of the reception, the bride and groom stood and posed for photos with people.
  • During the ceremony the emcee would announce when it was a good time to take photos. People would flood the areas and do just that.

Next up? How we navigated Japanese.

– MD

p.s. Have these posts been helpful? Are there any questions I can answer? Are you patiently waiting for me to go back to musings and less recounting?

Forks vs. Chopsticks

Many people asked me – both before and after our trip – what we ate, and more specifically, what Miss Red ate. I was concerned about food safety given the radiation in Japan, but my fears were quickly abated when the cousin living there pointed out how far away were were from the tragedy. By this point I knew that we would pack a bag of food for Miss Red. I predicted that she would be hungry at awkward times from jet lag – like 3 a.m. or during the middle of our half-day plane journey, and I was right. But I also knew that she would need to eat some of the food we encountered in Okinawa. While she didn’t dive right into eating everything on her plate, she did a decent job and attempted chopsticks at each meal.

Well-versed

Thanks to a college friend (hi, Molly!) I can comfortably use chopsticks. A few of the American family members on the trip opted for forks the entire time. But all Japanese people used chopsticks, even for french fries or other foods Americans would use their hands for.

Spoon option for this meal.

Each restaurant we went to brought out a plastic bowl and silverware for Miss Red. They called her “baby,” too.

The cutest "kids meal" I've ever seen. For Miss Red.

We brought food with us wherever we went. Sushi bar? She ate a banana.

We ate raw fish. She ate a banana.

Where did we get additional food? Fortunately, there was a grocery store across the street from our hotel, which we visited three times during our stay. The first time we went we hadn’t exchanged money yet and learned first-hand that Okinawa is a cash society. The grocery store didn’t accept cards of any kind and most ATMs don’t accept American cards. In fact, you have to go to a Post Office to use an American card at an ATM.

CH and Miss Red

But the second and third times we went we picked up staples for Miss Red, including milk (about $6 a liter) and cheese (about $6). We tried to hold off on the cheese, but she kept asking for it. Might I add, that being from Wisconsin, and paying $6 for processed cheese is insane. For $6 at home I could have a quarter pound of award-winning aged raw milk cheddar from a specialty shop.

Back to dining. Can I say that it’s actually really nice to use chopsticks for all meals? There’s more of a meditation in eating when not literally shoveling food into one’s mouth. And as a fast eater, it allowed me, nay, forced me, for days, to slow down and enjoy the seaweed, vegetables and other new foods.

Lunch. Which we ordered by taking a picture of the sign outside and showing the waiter.

Okinawa is crazy for pork, in addition to fresh vegetables and seafood. I was probably eating pork in forms I wasn’t aware of. But when in Naha, right?

At the open market.

I feel like there’s a ton I’m missing on how we ate while in Okinawa. What questions might you have?

– MD

p.s. I lied in my previous post. There was so much to write about the food that my next one will be about the wedding we went to. Suspense!