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Tasty, Tranquil and Fun Things to do in Ojai, California

November 26, 2016 at 4:36 pm

One of our favorite day trips from Santa Barbara is a quick visit to Ojai, California. There is literally something for everyone here. We find the town to be a bit “hipster” and that just seems to add to the enjoyment. We love green smoothies, yoga, renting beach cruisers and quirky used bookstores! With plenty of things to ride on(bikes, trolleys, horses) and many large, open parks, kids are bound to have a good time. By visiting the nearby farms you can stock up on a great variety of produce and enjoy the stunning mountain views. This peaceful little town is a wonderful getaway location all year long. Let’s take a look at some of our favorite spots.

Bart's Books Ojai

Books, Books, Books 

Bart’s Books (302 W. Matilija St.) is an Ojai institution known as the largest outdoor bookstore in the U.S.. Currently housing over 150,000 books! We could spend hours (days?) browsing the shelves. Every nook and cranny has a comfortable seat or table, so onsite reading isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. Check their website for fun special events.

 

Book Ends Bookstore Ojai

Book Ends Bookstore Ojai

Book Ends Bookstore & Curiosities (110 South Pueblo Ave.) definitely lives up to it’s name. This former church and ‘60’s era Airstream have been lovely crafted into a unique and cozy space for exploring rare book titles and collections from antique cameras to radioactive glass(yes, you read that right.) I got a special kick out of the group of original computers. The ibook clamshell still looks pretty impressive two decades later. The proprietors share a wealth of book knowledge and are striving to turn Ojai into a “book lover’s destination.”

 

Organic Tastings

Casa Barranca Ojai

Casa Barranca

We have to love a town that offers at least three olive oil tasting opportunities. We drove out to Ojai Olive Oil  Company (1811 Ladera Road) and took the short tour at this 150 year old heritage olive grove. We learned about the harvest and refining process and then tucked into the samples like we hadn’t eaten in a week. The garlic infused olive oil and peach infused balsamic vinegar were too good to pass up. We came home with a bottle of each.

 

We continued this Mediterranean theme with a visit downtown to Casa Barranca Organic Winery and Tasting Room (209 E. Ojai Ave) where we sampled a flight of delicious local organic wines. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the owner educated us on Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara offerings. We plan to return to visit other tasting rooms in the area. It’s time to up our wine game!

 

Farm Stores and Eateries

Farmer and the Cook Ojai

Farmer and the Cook

farmer and the Cook Ojai

Farmer and the Cook

Ojai has a thriving community supported agricultural program. Farm fresh produce, classes in foraging, and volunteer harvesting make eating here a very special experience. We stopped by  The Farmer and the Cook (339 W. El Roblar) to try a green smoothie and check out all of the spices, herbs and veggies on offer. This bustling store/restaurant is a hub of local activity.

 

Knead baking Company Ojai

Knead Baking Company

Knead Baking Company Treat

Knead Baking Company treat

So after you’ve stocked up on veggies and herbs head to Knead Baking Company (469 E. Ojai Ave.)for some treats. The bread here is so good and pairs perfectly with the olive oil. We shared a couple of tarts. Lemon kiwi and frangipani were heavenly. This would be a wonderful spot to pick up the ingredients for a picnic.

 

Baked Brie

Baked Brie at The Vine

It’s hard to believe we could eat again, but later in the evening we visited The Vine (308 E. Ojai Ave.) for a cup of curry and a shared baked brie dessert. The ambiance at this lovely, intimate little restaurant reminded us of a vintage eatery with classic films playing and jazzy ‘20’s style music. Very warm and inviting!

 

Mindfulness

Meditation Mount Ojai

Meditation Mount

Meditation Mount Ojai

Between all this eating we needed a break to clear our heads and reflect on the stunning natural beauty that surrounds Ojai. We drove up to Meditation Mount (10340 Reeves Road) for some photographs and to contemplate the views. The quiet, spiritual property would make a perfect location for a picnic at sunset. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Check the website for yoga classes and special meditations.

 

Getting Around

We drove from place to place but The Mob Shop (110 W. Ojai Ave) is the place to rent bikes or take a bike tour. Ojai is a long valley that stretches over quite some area but is mostly flat and full of great bike trails. 

 The Ojai Trolley Company covers most of the valley and a day pass runs just $2.00.

Accommodations

We drove over for the day from Santa Barbara but could have easily stayed a night or two. We’d love to splurge on a spa treatment. Maybe hot rocks or reflexology? We also missed the great golf, art galleries and horseback riding Ojai is known for. I guess that gives us plenty of reasons to return! The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa would be the place to stay for a luxury resort experience. Watch for their seasonal specials. We’ve also heard excellent things about The Blue Iguana Inn a “bohemian boutique”inn. We’re already planning our next visit. Spring wildflowers? Sign us up!

Titanic, Tile & Sharing Baths. The Jane Hotel, NYC.

October 10, 2016 at 2:38 pm
The Jane Hotel Lobby

The Jane Hotel Lobby. Beautiful Tile!

I’d like to say I put hours of thought and research into my New york City hotel choice, but the truth is The Jane Hotel was included in the package deal I booked through Expedia. For just $988 I had 5 nights stay and airfare, so this stay definitely fell into the bargain category. I’m pretty picky when It comes to hotels. I love a comfy bed and cleanliness is pretty vital. Ideally located in the West Village on the Hudson River, this historic hotel elicits strong reactions both negative and positive. The Jane averages 2.5 stars on most reviewing sites and swings wildly between 5 star, loved it and 1 star, hated it responses. So, how did the Jane stack up?

the Jane Hotel Exterior

Free Bikes to Rent

When I first walked in off the street, I was struck by the quirky charm of this old hotel. The tile and woodwork are gorgeous! The bellhops and desk personnel are uniformed in classic vintage attire and I love any type of costume, uniform or get up. You check in and are handed a strange metal keyfob which inserts into the electrical box in your room. The lights, TV and air conditioning only work when the fob is inserted, so there is no wasting electricity when you’re not in the room. The hotel was originally built as a seamen’s lodging and retains the feel of a ship with long narrow hallways and tiny berth-like cabins. I chose a standard cabin which was about 50 square feet and optimized to use every square inch wisely. A person with claustrophobia might not do well, but I loved my little old fashioned cabin. I found the shared bathroom situation perfectly acceptable. The baths were clean and again the tilework was amazing with black and white hexagons and traditional subway tiles. The Jane has a long, interesting history which you definitely feel while staying there. This was the hotel where they immediately brought the survivors from the Titanic. There is a tremendous “old New York” atmosphere.

Jane Hotel Room

My Tiny Berth

jane hotel hallway

A Bit Like the Shining?

I found the public areas of the Jane fascinating. There are two bars and a restaurant, Cafe Gitane, which also has a bar. Perfect. The rooftop bar is filled with velvet settees, leather stools, chandeliers and panelled woodwork. My first evening, I sipped a brown sugar mojito and watched the sunset over the Hudson with just the tiniest glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. I was sold and came back every night. The ballroom is frequently the site for special events including fashion week galas and in the 80’s and 90’s was part of downtown New York’s bohemian culture hosting Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Million Dollar Club and various rock and roll events. I enjoyed three solidly good meals at Cafe Gitane which has the most lovely, warm ambience.

 

Cafe Gitane

 

The location really is great. It’s steps away from the Whitney Museum and the High Line. I could easily walk to the Chelsea Market for meals and shopping and the surrounding neighborhood is packed with upscale restaurants and bars. There’s even a Magnolia Bakery site within a couple of blocks. Hello, delicate golden cupcake with whipped lavender buttercream frosting! The 14th Street Station was a ten minute walk(well 15 for me) and provided access to the ACE lines, so it was easy to get up, down or cross town. The area felt safe with young families everywhere and is definitely the spot to see Manhattan’s fancy dog set. The streets are full of shady trees, colorful doors, window boxes, cobblestones and curly wrought iron railings. All my favorite things!

So, what were the downsides? This is a hotel that is old and when it was restored they obviously worked to keep many old-world attributes in place. It smells like an old hotel. Not necessarily bad, but definitely not “fresh.” There are areas where housekeeping could be improved but, honestly, nothing shocking or disturbing. Just a bit of mustiness. You may want to ask yourself if you’ll feel comfortable roaming the hall in hotel bathrobe and slippers to and from the shared bathrooms. I ended up letting go of some inhibitions(no, not that much!), but this may not be for everyone.I originally thought that partiers coming in after a night on the town were waking me up. After rising myself at 4am to catch my flight home in Newark I realise it may have been people checking out that I’d heard. Either way, the halls creaking and doors shutting in the night woke me. I decided to be okay about that, too. You know,” The City That Never Sleeps'” kind of okay.

The bottom line? I liked it. The quirky, fun, vintage Jane Hotel was  lovely. I’m starting to look for travel experiences that are unique and packed with personality. I’d say go with an open mind and you’ll like it, too. What do you think?

My New York City Trip Budget

September 30, 2016 at 7:24 pm

New York City Cafe

I’d heard New York City is one of the most expensive places in the world to visit for years, and to be honest that kept me from seriously considering a trip there until I started blogging about travel. As a point of reference it felt important to check it off. I felt pulled to see the 9/11 museum, which I’ll share about in the future and I needed that “New York” experience to put other cities into perspective. When an Expedia deal showed up in my inbox, I decided to just grab on and go for it. I traveled to Manhattan by myself for 5 days. How expensive was it? Let’s take a look:

Airfare and Hotel (Expedia Package)             855.00

Travel Insurance                                               59.00

Santa Barbara Airbus RT                                  88.00

Go Link New Jersey Airport Shuttle  RT           37.00

Uber                                                                  22.00

NYC Metro Card (7 day unlimited )                   32.00

9/11 Museum                                                    24.00

The Metropolitan Museum of Art                      25.00

Central Park Photo Safari                               100.00

Meals and Cocktails (5 days)                          340.00

Mementos                                                         70.00

*Gift (Einstein bobble head NY Public Library) 22.00 

Total                                                              1674.00

It averaged out to $335 a day, which does feel pretty pricey. For reference, our Denmark, Sweden and Germany trip averaged $206 per person, per day and our Japan trip averaged $148 per person, per day. Of course splitting costs is a great money saver(unless you’re the mom). So was it worth it? Absolutely! Was there a cheaper way to go? I’m not so sure about that. My hotel (The Jane, review coming) was definitely budget for Manhattan. My expenditures feel fairly modest. I passed on most entrance fees, tickets, cab rides and gourmet meals. In the end, the value of the trip felt balanced and I wouldn’t have missed those glorious Central Park days for anything.

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New York City Budget

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Einstein Bobble Heads

Einstein Bobbles-Creepy or Cute?

 

 

 

 

 

On Photo Safari in Central Park

September 26, 2016 at 2:33 pm

One of the things I looked forward to most on my trip to New York City was spending long, unhurried hours in Central Park. I’ll always remember sitting in Hyde Park in the early ‘80’s people watching and enjoying the large, verdant open space in the center of bustling London. I imagined myself sitting in Central Park re-creating that lovely experience. On the other hand, I also wanted to improve my travel blogging skills. At the top of the list is photography. It’s an area where I definitely struggle. Often I lack the patience to wait for the right shot or for people to disperse and I usually only grab a couple of shots at a location and then later regret that I don’t have more options for the blog. It was time to embrace slow photography! My plan was to take a photography tour on Saturday morning. I figured I could get a close and unique look at the park and maybe improve my skills.

Central Park Skyline

I was greedy and tried for the rock, lake, trees and skyline.

For $100 I booked a two hour  photography tour with New York Photo Safari in Central Park. Tours were also offered for the Met, Grand Central, Iconic New York and NYC after dark. Central Park seemed the best option for me. It would provide the opportunity to take photos of both cityscape and landscape, wouldn’t involve too much walking and was appropriate for everyone from beginners to advanced hobbyists. There were quite a few different tours offered on other sites like Viator or Expedia. I really just took a shot in the dark to select the one that had good reviews and seemed a comfortable fit for me. Hm, must stay in the “comfort zone.”

Central Park Lake

This guy just wouldn’t row to the best third of the shot.

It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful morning to be in Central Park. I met our guide, Zim, and another young woman who would be taking the tour that morning. I lucked out because it was just the two of us and we had plenty of one on one time with Zim. The other young woman was an aspiring fashion photographer with an amazing camera worth probably thousands of dollars. I use an Olympus PL–7. It was a bit of an intimidating start. Zim asked why we were taking the tour and what we hoped to learn. Apparently, I was deep undercover and never mentioned the blog. I said I just really wanted to have fun and learn to take better photos. Maybe it’s time to open up about the blog and trust that I will learn and grow more by sharing it? Next we got down to business and Zim shared some great tips about composition. We were set to take photos.

Central park Bench on Photo Safari

Really Long Central Park Bench

Zim guided us through a variety of different situations. We took photos of a park busker, Belvedere Castle, the lake, fences, paths, the New York City skyline, and some macro photography in the Shakespeare Garden. In each instance we would take an initial shot. She would look at it it’s give us advice and ask us to retake another. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  I learned that each shot is not a one time opportunity. I could look at the photo and with Zim’s advice find ways to better it. This was probably my biggest take away from the tour. I put aside my tendency to give up and learned about opportunities to improve the shot.

Central Park Butterfly

Central Park Butterfly

What I Learned:

  • Pick a “best friend”, and focus on it. If you’re shooting a bench, don’t be afraid to get close and make it all about the bench.
  • Don’t get greedy and try to put everything in the shot. It just becomes a hodge-podge.
  • Use the rule of thirds. For example,position your horizon two thirds of the way up.
  • For macro photography, it’s okay to move a leaf or dust off a rock.
  • Play around. It’s digital. You can just delete the bad shots later. (Believe it or not this was a big one for me!)

This was a fun and unique tour that I would definitely recommend. I came home and decided to look for more classes and opportunities to improve my photography. Here’s to stretching the comfort zone!

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Central park Photo Safari

 

 

How to See Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo

September 8, 2016 at 3:04 pm

Sumo WrestlersI admit that the idea of seeing a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo was not on the top of my to do list. It took me quite some time to come around but boy am I glad I did. The pomp, the ceremony, the heft! Like so many other things in life, the more you know about it the more likely you are to you enjoy it. We lucked into this fun experience and I’m happy to share some of our tips and hints to get the most out of this Adventure.

Sumo Opening Ceremony

Tickets and Timing

There are six sumo tournaments in Japan throughout the year. Tokyo hosts them in January, May and September. Since we were visiting in May it was perfect timing. The tournaments last for 15 days each and can be an all day affair. Sumo wrestling is to the Japanese what professional football or baseball is to Americans. Nearly every Japanese school boy knows who the top wrestlers are and has a favorite. I started to hunt down tickets a couple of weeks before hand and realized that I was already too late to buy them directly. Tickets are released about a month before the event. These matches sell out early so as soon as you decide you might want to go, purchase tickets. Just by luck, I happened to come across a Viator tour that included the sumo match and Chanko nabe(Hot pot stew) meal. I paid $129 per person which included the meal. Regular non-tour tickets run between $50 and approximately $125, depending on your seating choice, so the tour seemed reasonable.

Sumo fun

Meeting Yuki

Hotel pick up was included in the price of a our ticket, but since we were staying in an Airbnb rental we took public transportation to Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal. We wandered a bit and needed to ask directions to find the tour office, but relative to some of our experiences getting lost, this was pretty easy to find. We were greeted by our guide, Yuki, who made the whole experience fabulous. Yuki spoke perfect English and had an extensive knowledge of sumo. She gave us a thorough introduction into what we were about to see and do and then we were off to the tournament. We traveled to the stadium by rail, with our group, switching trains a couple of times with Yuki watching over us the whole way.

Sumo Hand Print

These guys are huge!

The Center of Sumo

When you arrive at the JR Ryogoku station you realize that you are in sumo country. There are numerous monuments and displays to past and present wrestlers. The Kokugikan stadium seats over 10,000 visitors and is surrounded by Sumo stables where wrestlers live and train. We entered the stadium grounds and headed to the museum first. The museum closes at 4:30 so we needed to pay it a quick visit. Admittedly, some of the sumo history was lost on us. There were photos and drawings of each of the past Yokozuna(Grand champions). We met back out at the entrance where we watched as each of the wrestlers walked to the stadium. It was fascinating to see these huge man accompanied by their apprentices and wearing elaborate kimonos. Spectators line the route and politely clap and discreetly take photos. These men are Japanese heroes and the excitement really starts to mount when you see what they mean to the locals.

Sumo Wrestlers Arriving for the Match Tokyo Japan

The Show

Yuki led us to our seats when the top level divisions were about to begin. We were in the second tier in western style seating so I was quite pleased to be comfortable. The box seating is at ground level on Japanese-style cushions and although they looked cozy and fun, I couldn’t imagine sitting on the floor for the 3+ hours we were there. Yuki prepared a thorough guide for us so we could identify the wrestlers in each of the matches. She included fun details like who looked like Nicholas Cage, who was a rising young star, who was the heaviest(440 lbs) and lightest(297 lbs). We figured out pretty quickly that the pomp and circumstance of sumo is really important. The opening ceremony, purification rituals, and careful positioning of the wrestler before each match create and elaborate spectacle. The actual match is over in seconds! The goal is to push your appointment out of the ring or off-balance. When this process takes more than a few seconds the crowd goes crazy. Many wrestlers are from Mongolia or other locations outside Japan, so any Japanese wrestler is particularly beloved. Like any sporting event, when there is an upset and the underdog wins, the excitement level is through the roof. Our tournament ended with a Japanese wrestler taking an unexpected victory. The crowd went crazy, trowing their seat cushions into the ring and cheering madly.

Chank Japanese Sumo hot pot stew

Chanko

We gathered together afterward and headed out to a chanko restaurant which serves the tradition hot pot stew the wrestlers eat before matches. Sitting at communal tables, we chatted about the experience and eagerly waited for our stew to bubble and boil until it was ready. There was something there for each of us. My daughter loved the variety of tofu and my son appreciated the large chunks of chicken. This was the perfect way to cap off this exceptional evening. What started with my reluctance, ended up as one of my favorite memories of Tokyo.

 

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Sumo wrestling Tokyo Japan

Linking up with Weekend Travel Inspiration

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How to Jump on the Shinkansen with the Japan Rail Pass

August 29, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Japanese Shinkansen train

We read from nearly every source we checked that purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is the way to travel through Japan. This advice turned out to be some of the best we received. The savings were considerable compared to the cost for individual train tickets and it was a relief knowing that even if we screwed up and took the wrong train or missed a connection we would not be charged extra. Japan guide.com and JR pass.com provide great information about nearly every question you could have. These are our experiences with the pass.

Japanese Train Station

Purchasing the Pass

JR passes must be purchased in advance from your country of origin. They are valid for seven, 14 or 21 consecutive days and are delivered to the US in about 24 to 48 hours by FedEx. It is wise to check different sites is there can be a small difference in price. We found the process of ordering them quite simple. We chose the 14 day pass and opted to activate it 4 days into our trip. That meant that we bought separate tickets to travel from Narita airport to Tokyo. We bought a PASMO card  from a vending machine in Tokyo and used it for Subway and bus trips in Tokyo and Kyoto. When we were ready to leave for Kyoto we allowed a little bit of extra time to activate our JR rail passes at the information office. This enabled us to get 14 full days of travel during our 18 day vacation from our pass

HyperDia

We found the best way to plan our routes and time our journeys was to use the HyperDia app. Although, we  could have Google searched one destination to the next and be provided with a variety of travel options, the app allowed us  to separate which routes are covered by the JR pass. For example, you cannot use the Nozomi Shinkansen with the Japan rail pass. On every leg of our journey we found multiple options to get from point A to point B. Some used small local trains and others included the Shinkansen. It was helpful to spend some time playing with the app to work out the best possible route. Some trains left earlier but arrived later due to multiple stops along the way. The app was a huge help in deciphering the best choice.

Shinkansen Train Interior

Hopping On

Whenever possible we opted to take the Shinkansen or bullet train. These high-speed trains travel up to 320 kilometers an hour and connect the country’s major cities. They run on their own separate, really smooth tracks with very comfortable forward facing seats They are timed literally to the second so don’t be late! All of the cars on the Shinkansen are comfortable, but we opted for a first class JR pass to enjoy the Japanese rail experience to the fullest.  Whenever possible, we chose to reserve seats before heading to the platform. This proved to be wise because we were always able to sit together and some of the non-reserve cars filled up quickly even though we weren’t traveling during special holidays. Reservations are easy to make at the ticket office and are free. There was only one occasion when we could not take the train we had planned. We needed to wait an extra hour for the next one which didn’t prove to be too much of a hardship. Unlike our experience with Eurail, we discovered that the Japanese stations were totally easy to navigate. There were English instructions everywhere and the system for finding and boarding a train was consistent throughout Japan. Carriages are clearly marked on your ticket, boarding locations are clearly marked on the platform and the boards provide information regularly in English. 

Pack a Snack

We had heard that food was served on the train, so we didn’t pack a lunch or grab any snacks on our first Shinkansen ride. We learned that yes, food is served on the train, but it is pretty meager. By the time the little cart reached us the only lunch choices were beef tongue bento box and only my daughter was willing to give it a try. My son and I opted for crispy chips and a water bottle. We were pretty envious when the other passengers around us pulled out delicious looking hand packed picnics. We learned our lesson and on the next leg of the trip we packed our own tasty treats.

Cocktails and Manners

Enjoying a cocktail on the train is not only acceptable but welcomed by most Japanese travelers. No one thought twice about cracking open a beer or enjoying a gin and tonic in a soda can. We learned to savor a cocktail. Like nearly every part of Japanese life, manners and etiquette prevail. While you could enjoy cocktails on the train any rowdy behavior is frowned on. Occasionally we stifled are urged to laugh or call to each other from seat to seat. Quiet indoor voices and decorum are the order of the day.

Throughout our trip we boarded everything from local commuter trains to the Shinkansen and were always happy with the experience. Japan has rail travel down!

 

Visiting Snow Monkeys at Yudanaka, Japan

August 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm
Snow Monkey and Baby

Snow Monkey and Baby

One of the highlights of our trip to Japan was a visit to the snow monkey park in Yudanaka. We absolutely loved getting up close and personal with these darling little monkeys. That’s not to say that we didn’t make mistakes in planning this portion of the trip. If we were to do it again we would definitely make some changes. The monkeys, however, are not to be missed and we lucked out on a few details that I’ll share.

Papa Snow Monkey

Getting There

We made a large loop around central Japan. From Takayama we headed north, past Nagano, to Yudanaka where the snow monkey park is located. Our first mistake was to only schedule one day in the area. The trip from Takayama to Yudanaka is beautiful, but takes nearly five hours and requires switching trains in Nagano. We left mid morning and did not arrive at our ryokan until mid afternoon. This left a very short window of time to get to the park, enjoy the monkeys and head back to town. 

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Adorable Inn Owners

Fortunately, we were very lucky in our choice of ryokans! Purely by chance, we chose to stay at Yudanaka seifuso, a very traditional Japanese onsen inn just a few hundred yards from the Yudanaka train station. The ryokan was built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and is owned and operated by possibly the cutest, elderly couple in Japan. They greeted us very warmly and immediately offered to drive us to the entrance of the monkey park. The owner explained in halting English that we needed to hurry so we scrambled to load into their car for a 10 to 15 minute drive. He pointed out the famous local ski areas on the way and advised us that the park closes at 5 o’clock and we would need to be down the mountain in time catch the last bus back to town by 5:53. He dropped us off and we were on our way.

Yudanaka, Snow Monkey Park

The Hike

There is a small gift store at the base of the hike where the owners speak English and can answer any questions you may have. The hike to the park takes about a half an hour and is mostly a gradual incline through an amazingly beautiful and peaceful forest. We visited in May and the ground was dry and the temperature perfect. There is one large set of stairs but the hike was easily managed by this out of shape 57-year-old. Entrance to the park cost ¥500 (approximately five dollars) per person.

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Mother and Baby Snow Monkey

Mingling with the Monkeys                                                                                                    When we entered the preserve part of the park we realize how lucky we were in timing this trip. Many of the monkeys had recently given birth and were nursing and holding tiny babies. The Japanese Macaque monkeys are quite small at about 22” tall and spend their day foraging for food and insects and grooming each other. We were able to stand right next to the monkeys without them reacting in anyway. There are Park Rangers throughout the area who ensure that tourists don’t feed or touch the monkeys but other than that you are allowed to get incredibly close to observe and photograph them. A few monkeys were bathing in the hot spring, but as it was Spring, most were foraging on the ground. We spent about an hour with the monkeys and then had to hurry down the trail to catch the last bus back into town.

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Japanese Snow Monkey Pool

The Onsen Experience

When we returned we really enjoyed our ryokan and it’s four separate baths each with a different atmosphere. The sheltered, outdoor spring fed pool soothed us after our hike and prepared us for our night’s sleep on futons and tatami mats. Look for separate posted times for males and females at each bath. I will write a detailed post about onsen etiquette and culture, but it is helpful to do a bit of research before heading off to the baths.  

If we were to go again,we would definitely spend more time exploring the local area. We missed some sites like the nine public baths that are located on the street of Shibu Onsen, Sake breweries and local culture since we needed to hurry back to Tokyo first thing in the morning. The monkeys are the main attraction, but there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy for two days.

Our Wild Trabi Safari

August 15, 2016 at 2:52 pm

Our Wild Trabi Safari
Who wouldn’t want to cruise around Berlin driving a 1960’s East German Trabant? Traveling with two young adults in their 20’s often pushes me outside of my comfort zone and honestly, the Trabant is a car with no claim to comfort. We tend to waffle between seeing the great sites of a destination like the Brandenburg gate or The Berlin Wall and lounging around cafés near our hotel just people watching. We decided it was time to spice up our trip to Berlin with a truly unique tour. Trabi Safari offers escorted tours through former East Berlin and a chance to drive a vintage Trabi. Count us in!
Explore East Berlin on Trabi Safari

The Trabant, nicknamed “Trabi”was manufactured in East Germany between 1957 and 1991. These smoky, two-stroke engine cars were in such demand that East Germans waited up to ten years to get one. Party officials and celebrities usually managed to jump the line, but for an average citizen, owning Trabi was a sign of prestige. They took meticulous care of them, so they could last for years and many remain today. At 18 horse power the Trabis top out at 62 miles per hour and are often missing conveniences like turn signals and gas gauges. These details make for a crazy driving experience, so we screwed up our courage when we signed up for the tour.

Trabi Safari is located just steps from Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall. We showed up a bit early which was not necessary as the tour took quite a while to get organized. The Trabis aren’t always cooperative so selecting 8 to 10 of these little beauties that run at the same time can be a challenge.

Trabi Safari

In time we were escorted out to the Trabi yard where we could choose our car. We selected a pea green sedan but could have upgraded to a convertible or one of the crazy Trabis painted as giraffes, tigers, or the pink panther. Our guide walked us through a crash (pun intended!)course in Trabi operations. The little cars have a two-stroke engine and are basically like driving a riding lawnmower. …… through the streets of Berlin! A guide leads the tour and another follows behind offering instructions and commentary through a radio. We were off.

Soviet Era Apartments
Trabi Gas Station

The tour includes sites like Soviet era apartment buildings, the Berlin Wall and various communist party headquarters. What with the frequent stalls and lack of braking ability, driving the car demands the bulk of your attention. Don’t expect perfect photo ops or an in depth history lesson. One of the high points of our tour was a stop at the gas station to refuel the Trabis. After some intense maneuvering we managed to line up 10 Trabis at the pumps and were soon gassed up and ready to roll on. We were often the object of pointing, laughing and photo taking from pedestrians on the sidewalks. We ended up loving this quirky tour, laughing through East Berlin on Trabi Safari.

Tips:
We had wrestled with their online reservation system. So I sent them an email begging for a chance to take their tour. Keep at it. It’s worth it.

Don’t stress too much about the actual driving. If you can drive a manual transmission, you’ll be fine. You don’t need for an International Driver’s license, just a sense of humor.

How to Just Get to The Damn Hotel!

August 4, 2016 at 6:49 pm

How to Just Get To The Damn Hotel

After tackling my fear of flying by embracing Xanax I was ready to eliminate the other anxiety producing situations that have the potential to ruin my trips. When I arrive in a new location I am usually tired and frazzled. I’ve dealt with airport security, finding the right train platform or producing the proper travel documents and am ready to just crash. I’ve found one of the most stressful parts of a trip is traveling to my hotel or Airbnb the first time. I feel like it should be simple, but there are a number of factors that make it pretty difficult just to get to the damn hotel! These are my top 6 tips for finding your accommodations.

 

Reserve

I always reserve at least the first night in advance. I know the fun of finding that charming hotel you’ve always dreamed of, but it is outweighed by the security of knowing where you would lay your head that first night. When you arrive at an unfamiliar spot the odds of finding the perfect hotel right off the bat are slim anyway.

 

Print

I always print out the name and address of my hotel or address of my Airbnb location in both English and the local language. This saved us many times in rural Japan where few people spoke English. I like to have an actual print out in case my phone dies.

 

Get Data

Before I land in the new country I plan for how to get data on my phone. I immediately set up this data at the airport. This might mean renting a portable Wi-Fi or buying a SIM card.  I don’t step out of the airport without data!

 

Ease in Slowly

Most major airports are quite a distance from the city center. I have a couple of techniques for dealing with this. In the case of Japan, we decided to stay in Narita the first night.  We took a 10 minute taxi ride to the hotel and this lovely small town was one of the highlights of our trip. We were about 45 minutes by train from the center of Tokyo, but had arrived in the late evening. The idea of wandering a busy city after a long flight was just too much.

 

Plan

I spend time researching online the best way to get from the airport to the center of town. Tripadvisor can be a great resource for this. Be careful to check that commenter’s advice is current. Rome 2 Rio is another great site for slowing all of the potential transit routes. We happily used HyperDia in Japan. The point is select a simple route without multiple changes that takes you to a major downtown location.

 

My Not So Secret Weapon

My secret weapon is actually the oldest trick in the book: take a cab! I have found that this is one of the nicest luxuries I can give myself on a trip. I’m tired, disoriented and ready to relax. The idea of facing commuters, subway platform changes, hauling luggage, stairs or unfamiliar addresses feels daunting. Hopping in a taxi and handing the driver my pre-printed hotel address feels great!

 

Using these simple tips has eliminated another stress from my holidays. Do you have any tips for getting to the hotel? Please share in the comments.

 

Celadon Shopping in Chiang Mai, Thailand

August 1, 2016 at 11:14 pm

] Celadon Shopping in Chiang Mai, Thailand

One of the highlights of our trip to Chiang Mai was a visit to Baan Celadon. I knew very little about this unique pottery, but another woman in our group praised the beauty of Celadon so highly we knew we had to hit it up. Celadon is a form of pottery that originated in China. It was favored by royals long before the traditional blue and white work we associate with Chinese vases today. Celadon refers to both the pale jade color and type of glaze used on both earthenware and ceramics. The first known works of Celadon in Thailand date from the 13th century and were created by the Lanna people of northern Thailand, hence it’s popularity in Chiang Mai. There are several Celadon factories in Chiang Mai and all have excellent reputations. We toured Baan Celadon and were in for a treat!

Celadon Vase Painting

Celadon Vase Painting

The minute we walked through the door we were graciously greeted by English speaking women in traditional Thai dress. We happily agreed to take the tour. We learned that the clay used today is still sourced from local quarries and is fired in kilns created at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of the work is cast in molds, but many pieces are hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel. After the pieces have sufficiently dried, some are hand painted using very colorful natural dyes. It was fascinating to watch these huge pieces being intricately painted by local craftsmen and women. Some of the larger, more detailed work took up to 45 days to create.

Intricate Celadon Painting

Intricate Celadon Painting

After our tour, we were offered tea in Celadon cups while we browsed the store. There was a tremendous variety of tea sets, tableware, vases, lamps and statues on offer. They ranged in price from a few dollars to thousands, with the hand painted items at the upper end. I ended up selecting a small, solid green, elephant lamp which was shipped by sea. It was like Christmas when two months later my Thai Celadon lamp arrived. My total purchase, including shipping ran $125 which I consider a great bargain.

Elephant Lamp

The night markets and bargain shopping can be really fun in Chiang Mai, but don’t miss the opportunity to visit some of the truly fabulous custom shops like Baan Celadon.