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the sacred deer of Nara

Much as we loved Kyoto, after a couple of days of jam-packed sightseeing, it was time for a change of scenery. The crowds might have been less oppressive had we planned our stay midweek. Instead, as luck would have it, our visit to Kyoto fell on the first pleasant weekend after a massive typhoon had rocked the country. After two days of battling the crowds and trying to squeeze in a representative number of sights, we realized we needed to take the intensity down a couple of notches. Instead of spending a third day shuttling between temples in Kyoto, we headed south for a day trip to Nara.

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kimono watching

In addition to history, culture, art, and food, we would add one more reason to the list of rich experiences that make Kyoto a must-see destination: it just may be the best place in Japan to people-watch.

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city of emperors

Kyoto, with its overabundance of temples and shrines, fantastic food scene, and a wide array of small artisan shops filled with intricate handcrafted wares, is widely considered Japan’s most tourist-friendly city. Our first 24 hours in Japan felt more stressful than relaxing. It wasn’t until we checked into our AirBnB in Kyoto, took a stroll around our neighborhood, and immediately stumbled on a covered arcade lined with cute shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that we felt like our vacation had truly commenced.

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fools in the rain

The upside of hitting rock bottom at the outset is the knowledge that there is nowhere to go but up. After our many misadventures on arrival in Japan, we hoped that a new day would help us turn the page and make the most of our vacation.

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welcome to Japan

Japan – the land of chatty appliances and heated toilet seats; gas station sushi, seaweed snacks, and breakfast udon bowls; tiny hotel rooms and indoor slippers; inscrutable signs with dubious English and incomprehensible (to us) kana and kanji characters – has long been on our travel bucket list. In fact, before D landed an eleventh hour assignment that forced us into a three-month separation, we had planned to visit Japan during our transfer from Washington to Manila. It was only fitting that we’d make the land of the rising sun the first international destination during our first Asia tour.

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parting shots

From an early age, Munchkin exhibited a keen curiosity for photography – an interest we have nurtured, especially because it kept him engaged and occupied during our travels. Although he sometimes treated the camera as more of a handheld video game, he managed to produce quite a number of interesting shots on our trips to South Africa and Europe. It was also fascinating to see the things that attracted his attention closer to home during the year that we spent in the States.

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the trilogy

Considering that we are living in an archipelago nation known for its beaches and dive spots, our beach-to-trail ratio appears to be a bit off. We have gone on several day hikes. On the other hand, it took S four months to make it to the ocean, and the only sand D has seen in nearly two months in the Philippines is the beach volleyball court in Manila Bay, where his ultimate frisbee team practices.

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into the wash

Lakes, volcanic craters, and mountain trails abound just beyond Metro Manila’s urban sprawl. To reach them, one just needs to penetrate the metropolis’ omnipresent traffic. Gridlock can be a powerful deterrent for a day trip, especially since the only reliable solution for escaping it is to hit the road before the sun is up. There is usually no dodging the congestion on the return trip, but by that point an epic adventure is in the books, which makes a couple of hours in traffic seem like a small price to pay.

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rules and regulations

D’s mom, comparing life in America to the one she knew in the Soviet Union, once succinctly summarized the difference by pointing to a sign at a public beach, which enumerated prohibited behavior: “In America they tell you what you cannot do, and anything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed. In the Soviet Union, it was the opposite: if it was not expressly permitted, then you couldn’t do it.”

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volcanic walk

While D was still fighting the fog of jet lag, S was burning up with wanderlust. It’s not that her first three months in the Philippines were uneventful; far from it. Moving to a new country, then moving again a few weeks later from temporary housing to our permanent apartment; getting the kids settled with school and daycare; figuring her way around Manila while tackling the steep learning curve of her new job – there were more than enough challenges and new experiences to keep S thoroughly occupied during our separation. After spending a couple of months in Manila, however, S longed for a break and an opportunity to begin exploring our new country.

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