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castle fever

Unexpectedly, the turning point of our journey around Japan – when the trip ceased being a hellish nightmare of parenting frustration and actually became enjoyable – came on a rainy day in the unassuming city of Matsumoto, located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps.

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acting out

One of the touchstones for our parenting philosophy – or at least for balancing our wanderlust with our parental responsibilities – is a photo two friends, both of whom had recently given birth, shared before we had kids. In the picture, they are standing side by side in a wooded area, with huge smiles on their faces, their infants asleep in the carriers on their chests, and about half a dozen lemurs climbing all over them. The photograph was taken at Vakona reserve in Madagascar, which we subsequently visited.

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surf’s up

Several weeks after returning from Japan, we are still sorting through our photos and mentally processing the trip. Culturally, Japan is unlike any other country where we have traveled. The half dozen posts we have already devoted to our ten-day visit barely scratch the surface of what we want to share, both in terms of our observations and our favorite images of the striking places we visited. To avoid Japan overkill, however, we’d like to break up our overseas travel tales with a post about our adventures closer to home.

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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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