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|Friday, May 18th, 2012|
|European Trip Friday May 18
We woke up and packed our bags again, and decided to take the car to the bus area outside of Venice where we had noticed a parking garage so that we could head out to our next destination as soon as we were done in Venice. My intention was to buy some souvenirs/ gifts for family, and perhaps buy something made of Murano glass for us. We took the water taxi to the Rialto Bridge, on the way, we saw the early morning work of the city, trash barges, supply boats being unloaded, etc. And of course, more beautiful ancient buildings along the canals:
and then walked through the streets to San Marco Square, mostly window shopping.
San Marco Square:
At San Marco Square, we realized that we could go to the Arsenale area of Venice and see the boats and the old fortification of the city. So, we set off walking in that direction:
The races were scheduled to start at 2:00 pm, and we decided we were not going to stay for the races, but we had a great time looking at the boats and the small harbor where the boats are moored. We saw some of the large yachts belonging to the boat owners on the way.
We made our way back to the Rialto Bridge, where the bridge shops were open, and bought a few items. Sheldon ducked into a store quickly, and handed me a wrapped box that I later opened and found was a beautiful pair of earrings made from coral colored Murano glass beads in the shape of grape clusters.
It was upsetting to see so much graffiti in both Vienna and Venice, defacing these beautiful areas.
We finally got out of the city about 2 pm, headed towards Florence.
The drive was lovely, but I found myself dozing off every half hour due to having to take medicine for shingles pain. The sky was overcast with some drizzly rain, so the views were limited. Once we got to the Florence area, we realized that the hotel we selected was not too near Florence, but about an hour north in the Tuscan foothills. We arrived at the hotel outside Barga and parked on the narrow road outside the gates. A gentleman greeted us and we went inside the gates to check in. The hotel was spectacular. The original building was a stone building that had been used as a hotel with 2 guest rooms. Even the staircase was rough hewn rock. The newer part of the hotel was built up the hill in stages, with the last stage being the top floor with a conference center and spa area.
After we checked in, we were shown where to park and the gentleman who had greeted us at the gate brought a golf cart and ferried our bags. This fellow reminded me of Jerry Lewis in his younger slapstick days, he kept saying ‘I’m sorry” and dropping things like our luggage and bumping into us in the elevator and getting into the room. We had a lovely balcony outside of our room overlooking a serene Tuscan valley.
We freshened up and went to dinner, which was served in the original building. The waiter had a pretty fair knowledge of English and served us a very nice local wine with dinner. There weren’t too many guests at the hotel, so dinner was quiet. Toward the end of our meal, another table in the room was filled with more English speaking guests.
|Thursday, May 17th, 2012|
|European Trip Thursday May 17th
We spent the morning touring the gardens at Shoenbrunn Castle, acres and acres of paths, statues hedges, and sculptured gardens. The gardens are open to the public and we saw lots of joggers, walkers and tourists. There is a structure on the hill above the gardens below which is a fountain that takes up about an acre. The size and proportion of these gardens was immense and hard to describe. We walked for quite a while without retracing our steps.
We spent the rest of day driving from Vienna to Venice, still enjoying beautiful scenery of Italian mountains.
It shouldn’t have taken all day, but halfway to Venice, the check engine light came on again, so we called the European service department. The customer service skills of the service people can use some polishing, as the woman on the phone asked Sheldon, “What have you done to the car?” We found out that there was a service station about 50 kilometers behind us in Graz where we could take the car, so we turned around and went back. When we got there, the place was closed so we waited for a while and then called the Mercedes service number again. We were told the dealer is closed because it was a bank holiday, but the service person was on the way and should arrive any time. When he arrived, he ran the diagnostics on the car and found that the car believed there had been a loss of pressure in the fuel line but there was no evidence that this had actually happened in the fuel system itself. So, we concluded that the check engine light was not a serious issue and we could carry on with our vacation and get it taken care of later.
Due to the detour, we did not arrive at our hotel outside of Venice until 5:30 pm, but we found out the bus came by the hotel every 30 minutes and we could buy a bus/waterbus ticket good for 24 hours. We dropped off our bags and headed into Venice. At first, we had no idea where we wanted to go in the city, but once we arrived and started walking, Sheldon saw the signs for the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Since we were there so late, we walked extremely fast to get to these places before dark. The light falling on the city from the sun low in the sky was beautiful, and even though I was walking fast, I still managed to take a lot of photographs of one lovely Venice scene, bridge or square after another.
Once we got to Piazza San Marco, we worked our way back to the Rialto Bridge and found a cafe and had some dinner. The night was slightly chilly, but it was beautiful. During our walk through the city, we saw that the America’s Cup races were currently being held in Venice, and while we were having dinner, one of the British news crews sat next to us and we had a nice discussion with them.
After dinner, we took a night gondola ride from the Grand Canal through some smaller canals. It was quiet and peaceful and beautiful. The gondolier would call out at intersections to make sure nobody was traveling the cross canal.
We opted for the water bus ride back to the bus station and took the land bus back to the hotel.
|Wednesday, May 16th, 2012|
|Europe trip Wednesday May 16
We woke up and had breakfast in the lobby- the food was plentiful and good. We had planned this trip to stay at hotels we are familiar with such as Courtyard, that way we are assured of a minimum quality and a possibility that someone may speak English. So far, even with non-English speaking people, we have been able to communicate pretty well. Sheldon had spent some time having the Mercedes technician come to the hotel and look at the car while we were out, getting hold of the service people in Austria was a bit frustrating. The weather was grey and overcast with a bit of rain. We decided to tour Schornbrunn Castle http://www.schoenbrunn.at/en.html
which was about a block from our hotel, and then take the on/off tour bus around the city.
We weren’t able to take pictures inside the castle, but we have some of the outside. It was a cold damp day, clouds threatening.
This is a photo of the wooden floor tiles in the foyer of the castle:
There is such an abundance of wood in Austria that there are lots of things made of wood that you wouldn't expect.
More pictures of the castle:
After touring the castle we got on the tour bus. We got off the bus at the Vienna Opera house and then took a different tour bus on the circle tour of the Vienna area including crossing the Danube river. The bus was equipped with headphones (in several languages) so we could learn about the history of the places we were driving by. It was quite interesting, and a good way to stay dry and warm while learning about this beautiful city.
The outside of the Vienna Opera house:
Outside of the Opera House were men dressed in Renaissance-era type clothes, trying to seel seats (cheap!) to the opera. We declined the opera...and the symphony...and the other offers. We weren't sure what we would feel like doing later.
Building details from the bus:
The famous Vienna ferris wheel:
Close up of one of the cars- each car holds about 30 people:
St. James' Cathedral outside of Vienna:
After arriving back at the Opera house, we walked around the downtown shopping area, and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant down a side street. I bought a lovely scarf for myself and a couple of items as gifts. After we had lunch, we went to a little coffee shop for coffee and pastries.
It was great to people watch and get a feel for the downtown area. There was quite a mix of old and new. The St. Steven's cathedral was in the downtown area and is surrounded by new buildings. The building was surrounded by scaffolding and there was canvas covering the face of the cathedral. On the canvas was painted the picture of the wall underneath so from a distance it was difficult to tell that the wall was not showing. I'm glad they did that because it would have been a dissapointment not to have at least a sense of what the lovely carved stone looked like.
We then went back to the opera house and took some more pictures of the Opera House:
Then we caught the bus back to the castle, by then it was raining quite hard and we opted to have a quiet evening at the hotel. Dinner in the lobby restaurant was good and it was nice to relax a little bit. We called the Austrian Mercedes service person again, and she told Sheldon that the car had been repaired. Then it was early to bed to leave for Venice the next morning.
|Tuesday, May 15th, 2012|
|Europe Trip Tuesday May 15
We went to breakfast in the sunny conservatory room. The choices were too many to list, but I had a croissant with fresh strawberry jelly and a large plate of fresh fruit. They had several different juices- I chose apple, pear, carrot, and orange which was really delicious. They brought “fresh delicious Austrian coffee” to the table and we enjoyed our breakfast amid the spectacular view. It reminded us of our stay at the Ahwanee hotel in Yosemite where we stayed for a night a few years ago and were able to have breakfast while watching Yosemite Falls, and of the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire nestled at the base of spectacular Mount Washington. This was a similar experience of being nestled in such grandeur. Later on, while we were packing to leave, I saw a brochure in the room for a time share type of plan where one would visit the ‘Grand Hotels’ around the world. I feel so lucky to have experienced this wonderful place and hope I get the chance to return some day.
After breakfast, we wandered around the grounds and took some photographs and talked about our next stop on our big tour! Vienna!!
Me taking photos after breakfast:
We set the navigation system for Vienna, and headed down the mountain. As we got further down into the valley, the mountaintops became hazier and hazier. I am glad we had the views from the top, because the views from the valley, although spectacular, had a certain distant haze. Once into the valley, we hit the autobahn and headed east. Mid-morning, we decided to abandon the autobahn and take the more scenic route through the mountains. This allowed us to travel at low speed through one quaint town after another. The little Alpine villages all had common themes: incredible churches dominating the center of town, large sprawling homes with lots of wood beams and wood decks, colorful flowers planted in flowerboxes along the decks and beautiful architecture. Many of the homes had elaborate painting done around the windows and on the walls, and many also had names: Jan’s Haus, Stephan’s Haus, etc.
A typical village on our drive:
Once we were out of the mountains and into the valley, we were able to drive on the Autobahn. Austria had more tunnels through the mountains than we could count- an amazing engineering feat. Travel must have been extremely slow prior to the tunnels, sine the only way to get from place to place would have been over the mountains through the passes. I drove for part of the day, getting to drive the new car was great!
We stopped at an Austrian rest stop for lunch, the food was served cafeteria style and there was a huge selection. We took our trays outside and enjoyed watching a little bird come to the table begging for scraps. I fed him a couple of pieces of bread, and the next thing we knew, we were swarmed with little birds begging. Sheldon got up to use the men’s room, and the birds jumped right up on to the table to see if they could find food on his tray- it didn’t seem to matter to them that I was sitting 2 feet away!
More mountains on our drive:
View from the passenger's seat:
One of the towns we stopped in along the way:
During our drive, the ‘check engine’ light came on in the car, so we spent some time trying to reach the Mercedes European hotline in order to find somewhere to take the car. We ended up contacting the American European delivery center and found out that the European hotline is not able to be called from an American cell phone. We finally reached someone when we got to the hotel in Vienna. The hotel we stayed in was outside of the center of the city near Schoenbrunn Castle.
We got ourselves settled into our room, then took off to walk around the area and look for a place to have dinner. We ended up finding a place called Wienerwald which looked to be the Austrian equivalent of a Denny’s. The food was really bad and when Sheldon used the men’s room, he said it was incredibly filthy. After the Interalpin, it was quite a disappointment.
|Monday, May 14th, 2012|
|Europe trip Monday May 14
Picking up the Mercedes and drive to Interalpen.
We had breakfast at the hotel- surprisingly good croissants, fresh fruit, espresso. There were lots of meat options for Sheldon and non-meat options for me. I kept an extra orange for the road and we packed and waited for our cab driver to take us to the factory. He arrived a few minutes early which was good because Sheldon had started trying to text him at about 8:45. Between Sheldon’s basic German and the driver’s few words of English, we were able to make it to the factory. The weather was perfect, sunny with a slight breeze and temperature in the 60s.
We arrived at the factory at 9:35 and waited for a few minutes until an English speaking service person was ready to process our car. While waiting we had a “Mercedes cocktail” – a juice mix consisting of mostly grapefruit juice. We took a stroll through the gift shop where we bought matching Mercedes windproof fleece jackets.
When we were called over to the desk, the first thing she asked was for us to give her our receipt of order. I searched through all the papers I had been sent and did not have it. She gave us a very disappointed expression and said “Dat is ok, I will get a copy.” When she came back with the copy, we thanked her, and she said “Of course, that is not as it should be, but we now have vat we need”. She then sent us to wait in the customer observation area, where we could overlook the garage where deliveries to customers are made. We spotted our car immediately and tool some pictures. Our car is at the far left:
There was a lounge with coffee, pastry, fruit and snacks. There were cool stools with the Mercedes logo on the foot rests:
Many locals were there- the locals bring their license plates with them to pick up their new car and then just drive out. One of the reasons we had to wait was for a courier to bring our license plates from the German equivalent of a DMV. We watched several people getting their cars: a Mom with 3 kids getting a van (3 car seats!), several people getting Smart cars, and many people looking like this wasn’t their first Mercedes.
Smart car delivery area:
It was a pretty big deal to us. Another English speaking assistant came and explained the numerous features of the car. She also took a picture of us with our car, I guess we weren’t the first customers who wanted that- she grabbed her camera and had took the shots and had hard photos back to us in about 90 seconds.
The on board computer system is incredible. It will take me a lot of time to learn to use it. The explanations and questions took long enough the we missed the English language factory tour, so we decided to take advantage of the free lunch voucher that we were given in our package. We had a very nice lunch and even sampled a glass of local red wine. Most of the local wines are varieties that are unfamiliar to me, but the wine was a nice light red.
Then we were on the road:
Next stop was the Interalpen Hotel in Telfts Austria. This hotel is a 5 star resort nestled in the Alps. Part of our European delivery package was a free night at a hotel. We had numerous hotel choices, including hotels in Stuttgart that we could have used Sunday night, but we chose to use the free night on the night after getting the car instead. We set our destination in the on-board navigation system and headed out. We stopped at the Austrian border and bought a 10 day pass for driving in Austria, which is required. The drive to the hotel was one spectacular view of mountains and villages after the other. Sheldon did the driving which gave me the opportunity to enjoy the scenery.
Arriving at the hotel, the garage entrance was a little confusing, we parked the car and started to walk into what looked like the lobby when we realized that it was not a lobby, but a spot to drop off luggage and have the valet park the car.
Our luggage was loaded onto a luggage cart and we went up the elevator to the lobby and checked in. The hotel was built in the grand hotel tradition with sweeping wings and large open common areas, but with modern amenities and modern building techniques, since it was built only 27 years ago. Our ‘room’ consisted of a foyer, a bathroom with a soaking tub, shower, double sinks and a private toilet area. Further down the hall was a ‘changing room’ with closets and a twin sized bed. The main room had a large bed, a seating area and a table area. The balcony overlooked the back grounds of the hotel and the vistas of the mountains.
View from the road on the way up the mountain to the hotel:
View from the balcony:
The desk clerk had encouraged us to use the spa area, so we put on our bathing suits, our spa robes and slippers and headed down to the spa. There were relatively few people there for the number of rooms, and we found our way with assistance to the ‘salt pool’, a pool kept at body temperature and salty. The attendant requested we wear no bathing suits in the pool, so off went the suits as we descended the steps into the pool. If you lie back in this pool and let your head fall back so that your ears are underwater slightly, they play whale songs under the water. The room is cave like and dimly lit. It was very refreshing for us.
Afterward, we made our way to the large solarium room at the spa and sat on lounge chairs for a few minutes enjoying the view of the trees.
Then, time for the 5 course dinner included in the package for the hotel. The first course was the salad bar with incredible choices of fresh greens, fruits, nuts and a display of about 50 different cheeses. The bread choices were beautiful, ranging from hard black bread rolls to light airy croissants. An assortment of yogurts, salads and pastries were also displayed. Of course, it was hard to choose, but we managed! The second course was a choice of a fish cake or chicken breast. I had the fish cake, a piece of fish about 1 inch oblong served very artfully with a white rounded piece of something resembling a small block of tofu. I asked the waiter and he said it was buttermilk. I took a small bite of it and it was quite yummy but passed on any more than a small taste since I don’t normally eat dairy foods. Course three was the soup- a mushroom broth or a cucumber crab cream soup. I had the mushroom and Sheldon had the cream soup. We had ordered water, and a bottle of mineral water was brought and our glasses kept filled by the waiter. Sheldon ordered a glass of wine and had the waiter bring the chef’s choice for his main meal. The main course was veal for Sheldon and asparagus for me. The asparagus was several thick white asparagus cooked to a perfect consistency served with a garnish of carrots. Delicious. The servings were very small, but perfect. I remembered the 5 course dinner I cooked a couple of years ago and realized that I should have had a much smaller serving size for that many courses. Finally, we were brought the final course, I had a lemon sorbet with a chocolate torte and Sheldon had kiwi and tonka fruit with sauce. The waiter then invited us to sample the cheese bar but we passed and walked around the lobby for a few minutes, then headed to our room to bed. A long beautiful day!
|Sunday, May 13th, 2012|
|Europe Trip Sunday May 13
As we headed towards Europe, I sensed that there was light out the window, so I lifted the shade to a spectacular and fast motion sunrise- somehow traveling towards the sunrise at 600 miles per hour makes it happen a lot faster! Breakfast on the plane was pretty much the same as dinner- steamed vegetables, a roll and applesauce. We flew over the North Sea and as we had a long descent I was able to watch the barges going all different directions and several windmill farms as we continued east. Flying over the Netherlands, the countryside is criss-crossed with hundreds of canals, and the farms had incredible stripes of colored flowers interspersed with brilliant green grass. Landing was smooth, and we deplaned to catch our next flight to Stuttgart 1 hour later. Sheldon seemed very hurried to get to our next gate which was all the way across the airport. I thought an hour was plenty of time, but I am glad we didn’t dawdle. We made steady progress from one side of the terminal to the other, and since we had to go through a passport check, we made it to the gate just in time to board the flight. I was able to look out the window at some more spectacular countryside during the flight.
Once we landed in Stuttgart, we made our way to baggage claim and out of the airport. We found a taxi that would use our pre-paid voucher to take us to the hotel. The driver knew very little English and Sheldon’s high school German came in quite handy. At the hotel, the driver asked us if we needed a ride to the Mercedes factory in the morning, and we said yes. He asked what time and Sheldon told him to come at 9. I kept saying come at nine, which seemed to confuse the driver. Sheldon told me I was saying “no”, not “nine”, which in German is noin. (I think I should let Sheldon do all the talking in Germany).
At the hotel, it was nap time. Our bodies were telling us it was 3 am. After about a 3 hour nap, we headed out to find some dinner. We found an Italian restaurant called The Flying Ship. It struck us as funny to find an Italian restaurant in Germany with an American name. I ordered water, and they brought seltzer water, no ice. High school German didn’t teach Sheldon how to ask for regular water. But it was refreshing, and we were able to order a pasta dish for me with no cheese successfully. The crusty bread they brought was really, really good. We headed back to the hotel and went back to sleep until we both woke up at around 3 am feeling pretty refreshed.
|Saturday, May 12th, 2012|
|Europe trip Saturday May 12 2012
We spent Saturday morning finishing packing and getting wine ready to send off to a couple off competitions with deadlines while we are gone. During preparations, both printers at the house ran out of ink, so running to Staples for ink cartridges became one of the errands of the morning. Another errand was to run by the eye doctor for contact lenses because I hadn’t realized I was using my last pair. We were able to get everything completed and ready for mailing on Monday and out the door just a few minutes behind schedule. We read that we should be at the airport 150 minutes ahead of time for international travel, so with a 2:00 pm flight we aimed to arrive at 11:30am. While dropping off our bags at the desk, we saw a sign that said they accept luggage up to one hour before take- off.
The security line at the international terminal at SFO was one of the longest lines I have been in lately, so I was glad we had the extra time. Once we got through security, we stopped and had lunch at one of the venues at the airport. I also stopped at a newsstand and got some life savers for the ride. The lines were long everywhere at the airport, at one point a woman plowed ahead of me at the restaurant, and I said, “excuse me ma’am, but I was ahead of you in line”, she said “I am only buying water” which, of course, is exactly what I was doing. She was apologetic, and I felt bad for being annoyed. Later, while waiting for our flight at the gate, the same woman was waiting in the crowd. It isn’t like me to ‘call someone out’, and it made me feel embarrassed.
Once on the plane, we took our seats- I had checked our seats the day before and we had an aisle and a window seat with an empty seat between us, but at the last minute, we had someone come to sit in the middle seat. Since I am happy with a window, and Sheldon is happy with an aisle, we just settled in for the 9 hour flight. I looked out the window for the first few hours of the flight. I had a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe with snow capped mountains all around it, and then we headed north to some really beautiful countryside. Snacks and hot towels were passed around by the attendants. The vegetarian meal was pretty good- steamed vegetables, a decent roll, and salad. Somehow, I had ordered ‘strict vegetarian’ meals for both Sheldon and myself, but he was good natured about it. Later he said the food was good but not filling enough. As we got towards the east coast, the flight attendants requested that we close the shades- they dimmed the lights so that we could have the experience of ‘night’ for a few hours before landing in Amsterdam. I reluctantly closed my window shade as we were flying over what I think was Hudson Bay. I was able to doze off for a short while.
|Tuesday, September 20th, 2011|
It is funny how rituals so easily become part of our lives. There is a certain comfort in the actions of repeat activities.
On Sunday, getting ready to open the winery tent for tasting, I rushed through laying out the brochures, setting up the till, and putting up the tasting card signs. The part I never rush through is opening the wine.
First, I selected the bottles. One of each, 5 varietals. After setting them on the bar top (in order, whites to the right), I removed the foils. If you are very careful with the cutter, you can get a perfect round of foil from the top of the bottle. If you miss a spot on your circle around the bottle, you have to tear the top of the foil off. It is impossible to tear the foils perfectly, so if you don't get the circle, you get an assortment of jagged edges. Once all the foils were removed, I started pulling the corks. Putting the corkscrew in each cork and feeling the firm sponginess of the cork in each bottle, one by one I pulled the corks. Reds first, so they could breathe for a few moments before I tasted them. As I pulled out the corks, I sniffed each cork in turn, delighting in the unique aroma of each of the wines.
Once the bottles were opened, it was time to taste. I love tasting wine, and on the week-ends we are open, I taste but do not drink the wine. I have developed my own technique after watching a couple of sommeliers do their own version. Starting with the first white, I poured between 1/2 and 1 ounce in the glass. The French Colombard has a sparkly look, held up to the light it looks crisp and clean. Next I sniffed, taking in the scent of the grapes and the wine, appreciating the slight citrus scent of the 'nose'. Swirling the wine in the glass increased the scent. The swirling, smelling and looking may not be totally necessary to check to make sure I haven't opened a 'bad' bottle, but it is an important part of the ritual for me. I love large glasses for wine tasting so that plenty of swirling and sniffing can be done.
The last step was tasting- I took the whole amount of wine in my mouth, a rather large sip, and held it in my mouth for a moment. This gave me the rush of the taste of the wine and a sense of the mouth feel. The French Colombard is the wine equivalent of a cool glass of lemonade on a warm day. After I held the wine in my mouth, I swished it around (sort of like mouthwash) then spit it out. After I spit it out, I enjoyed the lingering taste (the finish) in my mouth.
I repeated this for the other 4 wines I was pouring, enjoying each wine in turn without drinking any of it.
Ready for business.
|Wednesday, August 4th, 2010|
We had a wonderful, relaxing week-end for our first anniversary.
Started the day by driving tractors:
Then we stopped by Echo Lake where we have some friends who have a vacation cottage built on the rocks. We had a nice visit with lunch from the grill and a glass of nice Chardonnay before we headed out for Lake Tahoe.
After checking into the hotel, I was able to satisfy my urge to roll some dice (and won!). We ended up having dinner at the casino buffet because the better restaurants were all booked, sharing the space with a big wedding party. I wondered if the guests had to pay for their own buffet...
Sunday, we drove around Lake Tahoe, stopping for some pictures. The altitude was rough >7000 feet, I had a hard time catching my breath with ANY exertion. Emerald Bay was breathtaking:
We ended up having lunch at a lovely restaurant outside of Sacramento- I fell in love with the fountain there. I'd love to do something like that in the tasting area at Lightheart Cellars. You aren't even aware that the parking lott is just on the other side of the fountain.
My good friend Bonnie visited Sunday evening, we had dinner at a nice Japanese place near the house, sat around the pool and drank some wine. The hot tub heater was replaced on Saturday, so we were able to have a hot tub for the first time in many months!
|Sunday, June 13th, 2010|
|The Winston Man
I was amused at this guy- his image is on most of the cigarette machines in Japan and there are cigarette machines everywhere. I keep wondering just what it is they are trying to sell?? I call him the gay gaijin cigarette dude.
|Thursday, June 10th, 2010|
After we finished touring the Nijo castle and the grounds, we decided we would go to the martial arts store we saw advertised in one of the tourist magazines. (http://www.tozandoshop.com/Default.asp
) Sheldon perused the 2 guide maps we had, and figured out that the faint dotted line running down the middle of several streets was a subway system. There was an entrance about a half a block from the castle entrance, so we headed down.
The cool air of the underground was a welcome relief after being in the hot sun for most of the morning. The sight of Japanese ladies with parasols had become commonplace for us, and now I totally understood why. We both ended up with a little bit of sunburn on our faces and necks. The only reason it wasn't a lot worse was because we tended to jump from one piece of shade to the next whenever we could.
So, we were standing at the fare machines, looking for a word or two of English anywhere and, as was most often the case when we were trying to figure out where to go, a helpful station guy came over and pointed out the one machine that had an "English" button. Our choices were to get a one way ticket to the other side of town, or to get a 1-day pass that would include the subway and buses. We opted for the 1-day pass. By this time we were getting a little low on Japanese yen, so we figured we would find a place to get some yen, have lunch and go to the store.
A word about Japanese stations- like most everything else, the stations are not only clean but you often see people in the ACTUAL ACT of sweeping and cleaning up trash. These people are always in uniform, and seem to TAKE PRIDE in what they are doing! We saw very little graffiti when we traveled, by very little I mean maybe 2-3 spots of graffiti throughout our whole trip.
We got on the next train and headed over to the other side of town. According to the map, it looked like we had to switch trains at a location across the street from our stop. It turned out that the train going the other direction is a different system that (of course) our 1-day pass did not cover! So, we opted to go ahead and find an ATM, eat and walk to the store- about 5-6 big blocks. As most of you know, my walking has decreased to almost nil since my two knee surgeries, and this was the most walking I have done since before I even injured my knee! I was getting a bit worried about it, but the knee did great! I can't say the same for my hips- besides the huge blisters I got on my feet in Hiroshima, I was having pain in my hips after all the walking. The trick, we found, was to keep moving because the second we sat down, the joints wanted to kind of fuse in place and prevent any further motion afterwards. We had a few laughs about the noises we would often make while getting up from a chair or even from bed. Speaking of chairs, they were all short. You know how when you sit down, there is a point while you are lowering yourself where you anticipate that your butt will hit the seat. In Japan that point is about 2 inches lower than you expect it to be, so I found myself 'plopping' onto benches and chairs because of my guage being off.
The ATM system in Japan is more like it used to be here, you have to find an ATM that takes your card system. We take for granted that all ATMs will take our cards here because it is mostly true, but the ATMs in Japan were finicky, and the one we found on our way to the martial arts store didn't care for our card. Undaunted, we forged ahead figuring any store that advertises to tourists MUST take credit cards.
We finally reached the store, and were waited on by the lovely Haruku Tsuchiya. The store was lovely, and clearly had many things that would only be used by people who practice various martial arts. Upstairs was a museum of swords and armor consisting of about 20 to 30 items, all of which were museum quality- swords, armor, masks- definite martial arts eye candy. Being the intrepid American tourist that I am, I found the T-shirt section and started thinking about who I wanted to get a shirt for. Haruko was very helpful, assisting me to select some appropriate shirts for our sons. And the American Express card worked just fine.
About a half a block away from the shop was a bus stop. We got on a bus with our new passes and rode almost all the way back to the hotel. We still hadn't found an ATM, but we felt a measure of success in navigating our way around Kyoto. I have to mention that during all of this, were were still taking pictures of interesting doorways and different shrines we passed along the way. (Pictures to follow)
We picked up a bite to eat in the hotel coffee shop, and retired to our room to freshen up and figure out what we wanted to do for dinner. One of the tourist brochures had an advertisement for a restaurant in the historic district that boasted an English menu (by English menu, I mean a menu that is printed in English characters). I called and spoke to the one person that worked there who knew English and made a reservation.
On our way out, we asked at the front desk where we could find an ATM. Well, actually we asked "Eh-goo-ga hanashimas ka? (Do you speak English?)" As we often found, the answer was "no". So, we were limited to the few Japanese words we knew and the few English words the other person knew to find out that the nearest ATM was a 15 minute walk away, and...you guessed it- the opposite direction of the restaurant. But, we persevered, getting our yen, finding a bus, and actually getting to the restaurant only a few minutes after our reservation.
Eating in Japan is an adventure. There was very little food that I recognized. I have been working hard on being vegan since the beginning of the year, only eating some fish during the last month or so figuring I would eat fish in Japan. Other than fish and rice,the food was not anything like what we normally eat here. There was this really great black seaweed type stuff on the breakfast buffet that I really loved. The breakfast buffets had a big steam pot full of rice and another big pot of miso soup. I had at least 2 bowls of miso soup for breakfast most mornings, along with a big cube of tofu. The other funny thing about eating in Japan was that everything was served separately. My tray would often have 2 bowls, a cup (coffee), 3 small plates of vegetables, tofu etc., and a plate of salad.
The restaurant was situated along an old street next to the river. We were seated on a deck on top of a canal and overlooking the river. The air was finally cooling down after a hot day. The smell of food wafted across the deck from all the little restaurants. We weren't the only Americans seated on the deck, which was unusual- most of our trip we saw very few other westerners. I ordered vegetable tempura and Sheldon had beef tempura, we also got an appetizer plate and rice. We ordered beer and had a toast to a great day. After dinner we walked along the river back to our hotel.
Our first day in Kyoto began the same as our days in Hiroshima. Japanese breakfast buffet- an amusing mix of Eastern and Western food. Most days I end up with a couple of bowls of Miso soup, coffee, rice, western style sald bar stuff with sesame dressing, little piles of Japanese vegetables (?). The difference in Kyoto was that they had bread and strawberry preserves. The view from the dining area of the Kyoto hotel was breathtaking. You could see a vista of the east side of the city, beautiful old buildings, shrines, and a huge statue of Kuan Yin, the buddhist goddess of mercy.
Our tentative plan for the day was to go to the Imperial Palace, then to the Nijo Castle. We set out walking from our hotel, north to the castle. We discovered that we would need a visitor's pass to actually go into the compound, but we wanted to see the area anyway. The scope and the size of the compound was astounding. We meandered around the perimeter of the wall of the castle, and walked around in the massive garden area.
This is the outer wall of the entire compound, it seemed like it went on forever.
This is the inner wall surrounding the palace itself:
A detail of the ornate tiles making up the top of the wall:
One of the gates into the palace compound:
Detail of the end plates all the way around the compound:
Imperial gardeners tending the botanical specimens. Many of the trees had bamboo or other wooden supports holding up limbs. The supports are artfully lashed to the branch, keeping it in place.
Another one of the gates into the compound:
A detail of wooden dragon carvings under one of the gates:
The tourist shot:
We tried to get a picture of the size of this compound...just huge.
Next we went to Nijo Castle. Another amazing place. This castle consisted of a double moat, with a castle in the outer moat area as well as in the inner moat area. We were able to go into the outer castle after removing our shoes. The rooms were beautiful, floors covered with straw mats and lovely paintings and carvings on the walls. No photographs were allowed inside to preserve the artifacts. I kept wondering why the ancient Japanese built these incredible fortresses out of stone and giant beams and ceramic tiles, then built the walls out of matchsticks and paper. Several of the buildings we toured had been burned down numerous times and reconstructed. You would think they would have figured it out...
Some images from the grounds at Nijo castle: The front gate and outer moat:
The front of the Castle detail:
Gate into Castle grounds with detail of carvings:
We spent the next couple of hours wandering the grounds. It was breathtaking, beautiful.
|Wednesday, June 9th, 2010|
Yesterday, while Sheldon was in his last day of conference, I went back to the shopping district. The first store I went in was a book store, thinking I might find an English section. It was apparently a used book store- all the books were 150 yen. I flipped through a few of them, enjoying the 'backwards' orientation of the book, and the lovely characters on the pages. I wandered into one section where the books had plastic covers on them, and slipping out a random book, I realized that I had found the porn section. The books were sort of anime porn, drawings vs photographs. Several of the salespeople were looking at me with amusement.
Next I went into a pharmacy store looking for band-aids for the blisters on my feet from walking the day before. I figured band-aids would be easy, they come in a pretty universal type of box.
Walking further down the walkway, I was enticed by a few pretty blouses on a rack in from of a clothing store, so I wandered over to have a look. The very sweet and polite saleswoman was quick to point out the rack with the 'larger' sizes and proceeded to take blouse after blouse off the rack and hold them up for my inspection. I pantomimed that I was just looking, she understood that "ah...looking". She came up to me with a large gingham checked blouse and proclaimed 'Checks!' which made me laugh out loud.
Next I found a Japanese store- maybe the equivalent of an American Dollar Store- pretty much everything was 100 yen. I picked up a few souvenir items and moved on.
Walking back towards the hotel, I realized I didn't have any antiseptic for my blisters so I went back into the pharmacy store. I asked the shopkeeper if she spoke English- of course not, so I figured I would look at boxes on the shelf to see if anything seemed to jump out at me- many of the products have English words so I hoped I would be able to find something. The shopkeeper then brought out an enlarged picture of the body with Japanese and English words on it so I could point to the body part I was having trouble with. The picture did not have feet blisters, so I shook my head. Next she brought out what looked like a calculator, but turned out to be a translator. I typed "antiseptic" into the device and the Japanese characters came up on the screen. She went right to the shelf and selected a bottle. I have no clue what it is, but I am diligently spraying it on my blister.
Then I returned to the room and packed for our trip to Kyoto, checked out of the hotel and waited in the lobby for Sheldon for the next phase of our journey.
We walked about a block to the trolley station and found a map that let us know which tram to ride, and that the trip would be 150 yen. The transportation in Japan- everything is on time, and very efficient. Then we rode to Hiroshima JR station to turn in our Japan Rail vouchers and get our tickets. The voucher process was fascinating, the clerk had 4 or 5 different stamps he used with different colors of ink. We each filled out a questionairre and handed over our passports. The young man studiously copied our names on the rail passes, stamped our receipts and looked up the train schedule in a book for us. We were each given 2 tickets, one for the trip from Hiroshima to Shin-Osaka, and the second for Shin-Osaka to Kyoto.
While we were waiting for the train, there was a what I would call a fast food noodle shop on the platform with a push button machine on the outside next to photos of food. The trick was to match up the Japanese characters for the food I wanted with the same characters on the machine. Total FAIL. I called Sheldon over to help, and he also agreed that there was no match. But the selection I wanted from the picture that looked like a ball of rice wrapped in seaweed was 190 yen. Since there was only one 190 yen button, I figured I would just selct that and take a chance on what I got. Stepping inside the little shop there were two men at the counter loudly slurping noodles and broth. I handed my ticket to the woman behind the counter and she pointed to a selection of rice wrapped in seaweed on the counter. I picked one that had a green tint and one that had an orange tint. She asked "take out?" and I said yes, so she wrapped my selections and I felt a great sense of accomplishment for figuring out how to get something to eat - which has been one of the more challenging things about this trip. I really had to decide that I won't always know the content of the food I am eating. When I come back to Japan, I will definitely learn more about food words so I can ask for what I want.
We settled ourselves on the train, which quickly accelerated. It had a feel of being on an airplane and the same sort of smooth ride. Not at all like the clackety clack of trains in the US. This was a "hikari" bullet train. There are 3 types of bullet trains - Nozomi, Hikari and Kodoma. Our pass allows us to ride on the Hikari and the Kodoma. We were placed in the 'quiet' car, which meant that there were no overhead announcements and people were asked to have their cell phones on silent. The train vendors are not allowed to announce their wares in this car. The first leg of our trip was an hour and a half to Osaka. This is a view of the train from our seats:
Some views of the countryside out of the windows. Sheldon was taking pictures, we were going so fast I am surprised any pictures turned out. Clever guy had increased the shutter speed! But you can still get a sense of movement in the shots:
The entire track is elevated above ground level, and the tracks are in a sort of concrete half pipe.
Fukuyama station- you can see a castle out the window:
When we arrived in Shin-Osaka station, we had 6 minutes to make our connection. It was a very tight connection, and made us very glad we are traveling light. We got on the Kodama train for a short ride into Kyoto.
Kyoto station is one of the largest stations I have ever seen, multiple levels, multiple exits. We found an information desk and between our limited Japanese and the clerk's limited English we were directed to the bus. After a short bus ride, we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant- European style (forks and knives instead of chopsticks).
This morning, we are about to head out into Kyoto. We wanted to see the Imperial Palace, but found out this morning that you need reservations, but we may wander over and see what we can see from the outside. More to come tomorrow!
|Tuesday, June 8th, 2010|
|Japan Hiroshima- day 3
Yesterday, I walked with Sheldon over to his conference site which is located in Peace Park. The park is located on an island adjacent to the hypocenter of the blast on August 6, 1945 at 8:15. I spent the morning on the little island visiting several locations. The first spot was the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial hall for the Atomic Bomb victims. It has been hard for me to wrap my mind around the incredible devastation and the death rate- by the end of 1945, it is estimated that over 140,000 people were dead from the blast and aftereffects, about half of them died on the first day. The Memorial Hall is a monument to peace, fountains with trickling water and a hushed air of meditation permeates the area. This Memorial is the place where living victims have come to register and leave their memoires of the event.
The photo below is a view of the Centotaph for the A-bomb victims, what I learned was that within the centotaph are the names of the victims. The literature about the cetotaph says that it was erected in honor of 200,000 dead.
I really couldn't help the tears. Those numbers are astounding. When we think of 9/11, we are mourning the loss of 3,000 people. This was over 10 times that on the first day. Along with the loss of the entire infrastructure of the city, few buildings were left, and no real medicine or supplies. 65 years later, you can still feel the absolute shock of it in the air.
My second stop was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This museum hold artifacts of the blast, watches stopped at 8:15, more first hand accounts of what people were doing on that day, pieces of buildings with twisted and broken metal girders, lots of melted pottery and glass, drawings done by survivors, etc. There is something compelling about the stopped watches- time stopped that morning for so many thousands.
This museum also has the story of Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was a 12 year old girl who had been exposed to the radiation from the bomb when she was 2. 10 years later she developed leukemia- this was a common late stage condition for people who had survived the heat and fires of the original blast. Sadako held the belief that for every 1000 paper cranes that were folded, a wish would be granted. This has started a paper crane movement that exists through today, there are paper cranes everywhere, on many of the shrines around the city as well as the millions of paper cranes that are housed at the monument for the children affected by the bomb. Below is a picture we took our first day- I wasn't sure what I was taking a picture of that day, but it had a certain draw that I couldn't quite place. After I saw the story in the museum, I understood what it was.
Other images from around peace park. A group of school children on a field trip:
Images from the 3rd story of the museum looking out over the centotaph and the eternal flame for peace with the "A-bomb dome" in the background.
Workers cleaning the area:
Another view of the centotaph.
My next stop was the Hiroshima Castle. The castle was originally built in the 1500s, but was destroyed in 1945. It was rebuilt in the early 1950s. The infrastructure of concrete and stone lining the moats was not destroyed, just the wooden structure of the castle. There is also a bunker on the site of the castle where the first radio transmission was made after the bomb dropped.
Stone staircase along a stone wall on the castle grounds:
More stone stairways:
There is a Shinto shrine within the walls of the castle. The shrines are fascinating, each is entered through a gate guarded by stone lions. Each has an area for ritual cleansing prior to approaching the shrine itself. I will likeley learn more about the ritual and symbolism over the next few days. Here is an image of the gate at the shrine at Hiroshima castle:
Before climbing the steps up to the castle, I had my first taste of a non-western style bathroom (I pretty much undressed from the waist down so I wouldn't pee on my clothes):
Other images from the castle grounds (I don't know what this is, but it was beautiful):
And from above:
Another amazing stone wall:
Looking from the castle over to the moat:
And the rebuilt castle itself. I did not go inside.
Back in the city (5 blocks away), I sat and watched people. After the war, other Japanese cities sent Hiroshima their streetcars. Hiroshima has a big trolley system using those streetcars, so many of them are different. This one was the only one that came by while I was sitting.
Noodle shops all have 'curtains' over the door, I am not sure what that means, but I remember seeing the curtains from old movies. Here were some on my route:
For the third day in a row, I had lunch at the same place, there is a window with plastic food on the outside, and inside you put your yen in a machine with pictures corresponding to the food. No English anywhere, but all you can eat rice. I am doing quite well with chopstick eating. The few pitiful words of Japanese I learned prior to coming are almost laughable. But at least I can say hello, excuse me, thank you.
Last night I went to a banquet with Sheldon for the members of the conference. It was a 5 course meal, artfully served. The first course was 4 pieces of art made from fish. The second course was a creamy fish bisque. The beef course had vegetables cut up in the shape of leaves, I gave the actual beef to Sheldon, but the food was so beautiful, it was hard to eat it! Many people were taking photographs of the food before they ate it. Dessert was another piece of art made from fruit. Entertainment was a Tanto drum troupe, amazing stuff!
One thing I learned last night is that the first week-end in June is the annual kimono festival, where everyone wears their kimonos. So that explains the diverse mix we saw on Saturday when we arrived. I had thought it was a regular Saturday night thing. I feel so lucky to have been here to see it! Next time I come here (and there WILL be a next time) I hope I can do it the first week-end in June so I can see that again!
Today I am going back to the shopping district for a while, then coming back to the room and packing for our trip on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, where we will stay and be tourists until Saturday. Sheldon will be done with his conference today.
|Monday, June 7th, 2010|
Yesterday I spent some time in the Hondori shopping area of Hiroshima. I am not looking to buy anything in particular, just seeing what things jump out at me as representative of our visit and some trinkets for loved ones. The very narrow street is covered by a canopy that keeps out the weather.
These pictures we took on our first day here (Sunday). Monday was much more sedate, fewer people strolling about, fewer outlandish outfits. The young girls wear what I would consider fetish wear out on the street. Most women carry umbrellas and cover their arms with special sleeves while they are out in the sun. They remove the sleeves inside. `
On the first picture here, you can see the McDonald's on the left side of the picture.
One of the most picturesque things we saw the first day was a young girl in full traditional garb, including the wooden shoes-sitting and waiting on the street with her head bowed:
It was raining quite hard all afternoon, so I spent time in the hotel room reading while Sheldon was in his conference. I walked over to meet him for a reception and chatted with some of his old colleagues from NH. Wehad dinner at the japanese restaurant here at the hotel. ( Sheldon's FaceBook post about dinner last nightCollapse )
I will post today later after I download the pictures. A very heart-touching day.
|Sunday, June 6th, 2010|
We arrived on Saturday evening- after leaving at noon time on Friday, the time change is weird, losing a day without ever seeing the sun set while flying across the Pacific:
Written on FB on day 1: After the hour ride to SFO..10 hour flight=two movies, one novel, 2 meals, and lots of snacks. Canceled flight in Tokyo (Norita) resulting in an hour bus ride to Haneda airport, then another hour and a half flight, another hour bus ride, a 1/2 mile walk, and we are finally safe in our hotel in Hiroshima. People have be...en helpful and gracious, we're tired... 20 hour travel day!
The view from our hotel room (both directions) in Hiroshima:
We are overlooking the Motoyasu-gawa River. The bridge in the picture is the bridge from the city to the Peace Memorial park, just a few hundred meters away from where the first atom bomb ever used in an act of war was detonated on August 6, 1945. Since the war, Hiroshima became a study in rebuilding, forgiveness, and prayers for peace. At least that is how it looks now over 50 years later. The monuments to peace are scattered all over the city, all with fresh flowers and fresh offerings whenever we walk by.
Yesterday morning, we took the tram from Hiroshim city to the Miyajima ferry line, where we crossed over to Miyajima Island to the Itsukushima shrine. The shrine is guarded by the Otorii gate, one of the 3 most photographed sites in Japan:
In this picture, we are coming up to the ferry dock area with a clear view of the gate at low tide. There are hundreds of people making their way over the sand to the gate:
We each took a shot of the other with the gate as background, because that is what gaijin tourists do:
Other images of the island were the tame deer that could be found everywhere:
Restaurants tend to have plates of plastic food in their windows depicting what you might like to order inside. This is one of the windows we saw on Miyajima, the little tags are the price of that particular plate:
The city of Hiroshima is full of contrasts. Waking down the street, you see a wide array of styles- from traditional Japanese kimonos to very western. School kids seemed to wear their uniforms, even on a Sunday, and businessmen wear their suits even on week-ends. Most people either walk or ride bicycles.
More to follow later.
|Monday, April 5th, 2010|
Ok, so not so much an update since I never posted about it in the first place, but an update after 3 months.
I am not sure if I can 'officially' call myself vegan if I don't carry a political banner about it all, but I have basically quit eating meat, and other animal products in general including dairy and eggs for 3 months now. I have had had shrimp maybe 4 times in that 3 months, and probably the occasional muffin made with dairy products or eggs since I have not cooked everything I ate.
I have discovered Indian restaurants. I have changed my way of thinking about food.
Saturday, I made a big pot of vegan spaghetti sauce and had a group of folks over for dinner. For those that wanted, I also served some meatballs, but they didn't seem necessary to me. I am not missing meat. I also have not said to myself that I 'can't' eat meat. It isn't an absolute. I can envision myself missing crab meat, but I haven't missed it enough to buy any yet. The reason I ate shrimp was that when I was eating out, shrimp was the best choice I had at restaurants.
What started all this was having incredible stomach "issues" for over a month in November/December culminating in having an upper and lower endoscopy with numerous biopsies from various locations in my gut to figure out what was going on. I was having visions of major surgery and really bad stuff like chemotherapy and was living in quite a bit of fear about my continuing health.
I had read a book last Fall called "The China Study", which discussed the health benefits of a plant based diet. I picked it up again the beginning of January. In my mind, the idea of eating a plant based diet seemed kind of 'drastic' and foreign, but at that point the idea of chemotherapy seemed pretty drastic and foreign too. The China Study discusses the wisdom of eating a plant based diet vs. an animal based diet and discussed studies where heart disease and cancer have been reversed and eliminated by diet alone. Also, around the same time, I read a lot of stuff on-line about Dr Edelsteyn's studies- his studies showed that eliminating animal fat from the diet showed a reversal of heart disease in patients that already had been through bypass surgeries and had major heart attacks. I also did a little bit of reading about the effects of dairy products on the system in general, and how the concentrated fats in most dairy products aren't any better than the concentrated fats found in meat. (This isn't meant to be a soapbox rant, just a bit of where my thinking was at the time.)
There is a group called PCRM that offered a 21 day vegan quick start program with recipes etc. that I used for some reference, and I just plunged in. I started to feel better within 2 weeks. The biopsies all came back negative and I realized that if I continued to eat a plant based diet, I could reduce my cholesterol, reduce my triglycerides, reduce general inflammation in my body (which would improve my knee), and lose weight!
I haven't lost weight yet, but I feel 100% better. I think I haven't lost weight because some things that are 'vegan' aren't necessarily low calorie...potato chips....wine....you get the picture. So, I am still working on limiting portions while I get into the groove of the vegan eating plan. This past week-end, I read the book by Alicia Silverstone called "The Kind Diet", a very interesting book about her choice to be vegan and lots of good rationale for the choice along with some really great recipes. I am not the kind of person that spends lots of time in the kitchen. I do it infrequently but I really enjoy it when I do it! One of the things I may try is to make large portions and freeze individual servings so that I can reap the benefits of cooking for myself, both in the lowered cost and in the personal energetic sense.
We bottled our estate Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay a couple of weeks ago. The Pinot was a bit watery, we'll probably dump it, but the Chardonnay is quite lovely! I read an essay once by a winemaker who was discussing sitting in his yard and drinking wine from the vines he was looking at, and eating cheese from his goat's milk, and having a salad from greens grown in his garden. I am looking forward to planting the garden again, and knowing that my food is fresh and chemical free, grown with love by our own hands. Our winery will be the extension of that feeling- a sustainable grape crop grown with love and processed by hand.
|Monday, February 15th, 2010|
Happy birthday to my dear son Noah alderins_cave .
He has been an important part of my life journey, and I am glad he is part of my life!
|Tuesday, February 9th, 2010|