While most of my travels have been amazing experiences, I have had a few trips that were less than fantastic. I am sure every traveler goes through this; sometimes a vacation leaves you with more bad memories than good. Despite my happy recount of my experiences snorkeling there, one such trip was the last time I visited Maui.
Now, my bad experience had nothing to do with the island itself. Maui is a beautiful place, with lots of fun things to do. However, the last time I went there, at age 15, various independent circumstances made me long desperately for my home and my friends.
We went to Maui in the middle of December. I was looking forward to stretching out on the beach and maybe flirting with a couple boys in swim trunks on the sand. Unfortunately, there were very few people my age at our resort. It was mostly old people and a small spattering of college-aged students. However, this alone would not have been enough to dampen my spirits. I love the ocean, and I was happy to just enjoy the surf on my own.
I was there with my family, including parents, grandparents, an aunt and two uncles, my siblings, and my cousins. I was the oldest of the kids, the closest to my age being my brother at 12 years old. As a result, I got stuck babysitting almost the entire trip. My parents and older relatives would go off to enjoy pina coladas, while I tried to keep my sister from ripping out my cousin’s hair. It wasn’t so bad during the day, when everyone was around the pool or on the beach enjoying themselves. But at night I got to sit in a hotel room with the kids, waiting for a bunch of drunken adults to stagger back from wherever they went. Not exactly the best time. So, for those of you who bring your children along with you on vacation, remember that they deserve to have fun just as much as you do. If you’re going to participate in activities they can’t join in on, at least make sure that they have something more than the television to entertain themselves.
However, babysitting wasn’t even the worst of my time in Maui. I was barely 15 (by a month), and had only started developing the summer before. I had experienced a dramatic change in a matter of months, going from a scrawny 8th grader marked as a nerd, to a developed 9th grader that confused the boys at school. Thoroughly unfamiliar with my body, I was unprepared for the reaction I got from men around the resort. I was up to my ears in sexual harassment, without the confidence or know-how for dealing with it. Resort workers stopped what they were doing when I walked by to wolf-whistle and catcall. One guy bothered me the whole time I was there. He whispered to me “where are you going tonight?” when I passed him near the pool. Later he found me on the beach and, pausing to look me up and down, asked me how old I was. I stammered an answer, and luckily my young age seemed to deter him.
(Me and my unfamiliar womanly body. Oh, also I used to have long hair.)
The worst was when I was sitting in the hot tub with my cousin and sister (both around 9 years old). We were playing clapping games (sophisticated patty-cake), while a large man old enough to by my grandpa sat nearby. While I was playing with my cousin, he scooted next to me. It seemed odd, so I moved to the other side, but he persisted in gradually moving towards me. I asked my cousin and sister if they would go into the regular pool, but they started screaming and crying when I tried to make them. “Okay, okay, we’ll stay here.” The man seemed to be keeping his distance by then.
Convincing myself I was being paranoid, I started to play again with my cousin. Immersed in the complicated movements of the clap game, I didn’t even notice that the man had sat by me again until he, most certainly, put his hand beneath my butt. I gasped and stood up, at which point he jammed his foot between my legs.
“We’re getting out, NOW!” I screamed, and luckily my charge obeyed. When my family came back later, I told them what happened. My mom immediately turned into mama-bear, and looked ready to rip that guy apart. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be seen, and I never saw him again.
Nowadays, after dealing with this sort of thing for years, I would know exactly how to deal with it. I am no longer timid or afraid, but at the time I had no idea how to respond to such treatment. If you travel with teenage girls, especially in a place where they’ll be wearing bathing suits a lot, be sure to keep an eye on them. A grown woman doesn’t need chaperoning, but young teenagers may not know how to handle the situation. Like me, they might even be too embarrassed to admit it was happening until it had gone too far.
I guess the point of this post is mostly as a warning for people who travel with others. Always be mindful of the experience of your travel partners, whether it’s your friend, your husband or wife, or your children. Don’t assume that just because they aren’t complaining audibly, that they’re actually having a good time. Find ways that everyone can enjoy the beautiful destinations you’re visiting. I hope to return to Maui someday, so I can replace my sad memories with happy ones, and enjoy the splendor of Hawaii with my own agenda and confidence.
Have you ever had a vacation that turned out more of a pain than a pleasure? How do you handle harassment like I experienced? How do you balance adult enjoyment with enjoyment for children? Let me know about your experiences in the comments!
Soon after the first bus trip AIU set up for us, I was ready for a second one. I heard that a number of bus trips got cancelled because of fear of aftershocks from the big earthquake. Still, they managed to give us one more trip. This one was equally as jam-packed with activities. Although it was somewhat hectic, each different location provided a great, unique experience.
This trip was to the Oga Peninsula of Akita prefecture, a popular tourist destination reaching out into the Sea of Japan. The first place we stopped at was at the edge of this peninsula, looking out over seaside cliffs. There wasn’t really much to do here, except appreciate the beautiful and rugged coastline. There was also a gorgeous lighthouse. I had never seen a lighthouse in person before, so for some reason I was especially excited. Then I followed a verdant path out to a precipice. Above me hawks dove and soared while I stood on the edge. A kindly couple offered to take my photo.
I finally met up with Justin (I’m not sure how we got separated), and he went with me to explore the rest of the coast. I wanted to film the jagged rocks below and the water hitting the sides, so I crawled out onto the rocks that hung over the edge the most. Justin danced around on safer ground, begging me to come back. He was so worried I would fall, but I was being very careful. I just had to get a photo of these beautiful orange lilies growing on the side of the rock face, defying the odds with their brilliance. I am sure the Buddhist deities from the nearby shrine were watching over me.
Finally we meandered back to the bus and drove off for our second destination: an observation tower atop Mt. Kanpu, overlooking the peninsula. Although the mountain is small, the observation tower gives a 360 degree view of the peninsula as the tower rotates slowly. The staircase to the top is lined with pictures and text describing the history and culture of Oga. The views at the top were beautiful, but it was still early and foggy. By the time we left, however, the sun had come out. As we drove down the mountain to our next destination, the tower basked in the sunlight while colorful parachutes dotted the sky.
Next we visited the Gao Aquarium. For such a small aquarium, it had a great variety of creatures on display, including a polar bear. One of the best parts was right at the entrance, where two spotted seals pulled in the crowds with their puppy dog eyes. Even better was going through all the fish and crab exhibits, and hearing all the Japanese students saying “Oishisou!” which means, “That looks delicious!” I would have been happy to take my time there, but the people from AIU rushed us through in a mere 45 minutes. I definitely recommend the aquarium if you ever visit Oga. Just take a little extra time for me! I've included some videos I took there at the bottom of this post.
Our final location was the real point of the trip: the namahage museum. Akita prefecture in general, but especially the Oga Peninsula area, is famous for its namahage. Namahage are demons that live in the mountains that come down every New Year to terrorize the towns. They threaten to eat any children or new wives. They storm around making loud growling noises, carrying knives and sporting great red and blue ogre grimaces. Moving in pairs, they enter the house of a family and demand to eat the children. The children cry and scream and cling to their parents as the namahage try to take them away. The parents must then placate the demons by offering them food and sake. Finally, the demons agree to let the children live as long as they promise to be good, productive citizens.
The demons are portrayed by volunteer men who dress up in straw capes and homemade masks. The knives they carry are obviously fake, but they still present a very imposing façade! In Akita, many of the exchange students from AIU are allowed to dress up as the demons and join in on the fun.
Now, this being summer, there were no namahage festivals for us to enjoy. However, we got to visit a namahage museum, where we could learn all about this cultural trait. Our first introduction was a recording of a typical festival. The video showed the disguised men growling and grunting and snatching at children, while the children bawled and screamed and the parents laughed. Honestly, it was a little hard to watch. However, it is a time honored tradition, and none of the people who have grown up with yearly namahage visits seem to be all that scarred from the experience.
(The above video shows the namahage coming into a house. The little girl saying, "No, no! Scary!" Her parents are telling her it's okay. Around 1:30 the demons start trying to take kids from the parents in the audience. You don't have to watch the whole thing.)
Then we explored the wide array of displayed masks and a diorama recreating a typical namahage night. Traditionally the masks are carved from wood and are very intricate. An in-house artist was busy carefully carving new masks in a corner. He let me take pictures of him. I wish I could have bought one, but they were very expensive. I did get to try the namahage costume on, though. Too bad I still don’t look very imposing.
Finally we were led into a traditional Japanese style home where we settled onto the floor. Two men, looking burly and terrifying in their namahage costumes, came barging in to give us a live demonstration. Even though I understood the tradition and knew there were just men under those masks, the performers were very convincing and it was actually kind of scary! There was a lot of nervous laughter as they jumped at you, demanding that you do all your homework and get good grades.
The sun was beginning to set by now, and we enjoyed the last part of the trip by wandering around the gardens outside the museum. Everything was green and lush. There was a beautiful, strange tree covered in rope and white paper strands, signifying that a deity lived there. A Buddhist shrine sat at the top of a hill. Mysteriously, all the heads of the Buddha statues had been cut off. It was kind of eerie. On the way down, I passed by this brown tree frog, perfectly set against a single leaf. He sat as still and peaceful as a monk himself.
On the way home, two large namahage statues glared at us as we left the final pit-stop, reminding us to be good and study hard.
This kind of insight into a popular rural tradition is my favorite thing about traveling. I love how Japan has so much respect for their past. This tradition is another reminder of the group culture prevalent in Japan. Even the demons want you to contribute to society! I hope I get to go back in the winter someday, so I can experience this fascinating, silly, scary tradition first hand.
Have you encountered any traditions about demons in the places you’ve visited? Would you like to dress up as a namahage and scare little children? Let me know in the comments!
Cruises are wonderful. You get to go to different places around the world, they drop you off at the ritziest spots, give you tips on what to do, and even organize excursions for you. But taking a cruise isn’t all about the places you go to; it’s also about the cruise ship itself!
As you know from my previous post about Acapulco, I went on a cruise to Mexico during my freshman year of college. Of course, the places we visited were amazing, and I have a few more stories about them up my sleeve, but I don’t want to brush aside the ship. After all, I actually spent way more time on the ship than on the shore, and it was pretty amazing, as well.
My cruise was through Carnival Cruises, and the first thing to know about the ship is that it was HUGE. I mean gigantic. It was much bigger than the other cruise ships whenever we docked, and it looked a like a floating city on the water. I’ll never forget first seeing it in San Diego, craning my neck so far back it hurt just to see the top row of windows. Stepping onto the ship, we were led into the center room, where a glorious staircase spiraled around a stained glass pillar up to the bedrooms, flanked by two glass elevators.
(Our cruise ship from afar.)
(This was the stair case leading up to the bedrooms. The girl is my sister, Lonie.)
My room, which was also my brother and sister’s room, was tiny and in the center of the ship, so we didn’t get any cool views. We did however, have a very nice shower, two comfy beds on the bottom, and two that pulled out from the ceiling, which was pretty neat. The housekeeping found time to come in every day and set out clean towels on the bed, folded into a different shape each time. One morning it was an elephant, another it was a swan, the next it was a crab. It was really impressive, though it made me feel bad that they had to clean up the room after my sister threw up in the middle of the night. (She threw up and then went straight back to sleep. What the heck?) We had a mini fridge stocked with some soda, but mostly lots of tiny bottles of liquor. My grandmother promptly requested that the fridge be locked, even though none of us would have tried to drink anything. (Unlike my uncle and his girlfriend, who emptied out their mini-fridge one night, all on my grandparents’ tab. Let me warn you, those tiny bottles are NOT cheap.)
(An example of a towel animal. I guess this one is a swan? Source
The adults were the ones to get the nice rooms, with big king size beds, huge soaking tubs, and a balcony to look out on the expansive ocean. I was a little jealous, but I didn’t really mind. I was just happy to be there.
(A picture of a sunrise from off my grandparents' balcony.)
Eating on the ship was different for breakfast and lunch versus dinner. For the first meals of the day, we could help ourselves at any time to the food court in the center of the ship. They served cuisines ranging from Mexican to Asian to American, with dessert bars and various drink options. We could eat our meal at one of the booths inside or take our meal to a table outside to enjoy the ocean breeze. The food was pretty good, but I really don’t recommend trying the sushi. My grandmother and sister did, and they were quite sick afterward.
Dinner was served in a grand dining room, where we sat with our party and were presented with 3 options, different each night, for a starter, main entrée, and dessert. My favorite dessert was the rich lava cakes, oozing with warm chocolate sauce. Some nights they had a mariachi band, complete with gold trimmed sombreros and rolling trumpet notes. Perhaps a bit stereotypical, but nobody could deny they were talented musicians.
There was plenty of entertainment on the ship as well. They often had special shows in a little auditorium, such as magic shows, dance performances, and comedians. The ship had a few gift shops that sold clothes, mini Carnival ship toys, and even books teaching how to fold your own towel animals. There were two decently sized pools, although they were always very crowded and not very deep. More importantly, they had twisting, swooping waterslide that my siblings, my cousins, and I could not get enough of. They also had a room with a dance club, a small arcade, and a pretty big casino. They also had the big public deck, covered with beach chairs, where you could spread out your towel, read a nice summer book, and watch the waves. On this deck, I actually saw dolphins playing in the bubbly swell behind the ship.
The ship was one of the best parts of the whole cruise, and worth the trip on its own. If you haven’t tried a cruise, I highly recommend giving it a go.
Have you ever been on a cruise? Did you enjoy the ship as much as the places you visited? What kinds of entertainment did they have? Let me know in the comments!
(All photos were taken by my grandpa, Dennis Graue, and used with permission, unless otherwise noted.)
Over the course of my life, I have been on a plane, travelling, many times. Although many of these involved flying without friends of family, I was not traveling alone. I have a travel companion that’s been with me on almost every single trip, and I would like to introduce you to her, even though it’s embarrassing. Please don’t laugh.
This is Ke’eko (pronounced “kee-ee-ko,” not “kee-ko,” because I was a weird child). She is a stuffed animal wolf that I have had since I was nine years old. I begged my parents for her, worried that I wouldn’t get her because she was $50, which seemed hugely expensive, especially for a stuffed animal, when I was nine. But my parents knew my favorite animal was, and still is, the wolf, and so they bought her for my birthday and she immediately became my best friend. She has been through dirt and snow, and has served as my pillow on many a sleepover. As such, she's been through the wash a lot, and isn't as fluffy as she was when I bought her. But she also has gone with me on every single trip except one, because she got McDonald’s syrup on her on the way to the airport. So like me, she has also been to Canada, Hawaii, Mexico, and even Japan.
Obviously I have outgrown playing with stuffed animals, but I still bring Ke’eko along whenever I travel. I get strange looks, of course, but it’s a tradition that I refuse to break. In foreign places she is my connection with home. She is a grungy, matted, beautiful reference to how far I’ve come in life. She is a constant reminder of the greatest experiences in my life, transporting me back not only to my childhood, but also to the ship deck on that Carnival cruise, my dorm room in Japan, the secluded cabin my grandparents own in Alberta.
So even though it may be silly and childish and embarrassing, she will continue to ride with me to new places. Together, we will see the world.
Do you have any toys that you have cherished beyond childhood? Do you bring anything with you every time you travel, whether it’s a stuffed animal or just a small trinket? Do you own anything that reminds you of somewhere special? Let me know in the comments!
You may have noticed a distinct lack of posts about food on this blog. This is primarily for two reasons: I did not pay attention to food that much during most of my travels; and, when I was in Japan, I was on a strict budget, so I ate out rarely. However, I did have some really fantastic food experiences in Japan, so I’ve made up a little list of my recommended food adventures if you ever visit.
Let’s just get this out of the way. If you go to Japan, you are required to try sushi. You can go ahead and indulge in really expensive sushi, but you should also try to milk the fact that it’s even POSSIBLE to get cheap sushi in Japan (unlike in the States). Go to a kaitenzushi restaurant, a restaurant that serves cheap sushi on a conveyor belt. I ate at one called Kappazushi, and I could fill myself up easily on only 1000 yen, or roughly $13 at the time. You’re charged by the plate depending on the plate’s color. Some kinds of sushi are cheaper, like tuna nigiri, whereas others are more expensive. It tasted amazing, especially to my untrained American, land-locked taste buds. If you eat fancy sushi from Hawaii all the time, it might not be up to snuff, but to the average person it’s just as good. Besides, pulling them off the conveyor belt is a lot of fun, especially the orders that come to you via things like mini old fashioned trains or futuristic bullet trains (shinkansen).
(A bullet train at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. The chefs make items for anyone to take on the bottom belt, and specially ordered items come to your table via the bullet train on the top belt. Source
Sukiyaki is my favorite Japanese dish by far. Most people haven’t heard of it, and if they’ve had it in the United States it might not have been served right. I often have it where it comes out in one big hot pot, but sukiyaki is actually kind of like non-cheese fondue. It’s a special occasion meal in Japan, where a big ceramic or cast iron pot is set on a hot plate in the center of a table. The pot is filled with savory-sweet dark broth made form a mix of dashi (the fish stock base in miso soup), soy sauce, mirin, and sugar, which is brought to a boil. Side plates are loaded with various noodles, vegetables, tofu, and meat. The meat is high quality pork or beef, thinly sliced. Then all these ingredients are thrown in, either all at once or in whatever order you prefer. The meat cooks fast, soaking up the flavorful liquid. You spoon out the cooked food into single serving bowls, sometimes filled with rice. In Japan, they enjoy dipping the meat and other ingredients into raw egg, but my American evasion to raw egg kept me from trying it. If you do want to try it, rest assured that eggs used raw in Japan are carefully regulated to ensure you won’t get sick.
Sukiyaki is heart and stomach warming, delicious, and a lot of fun to cook. Careful, though, udon noodles can be pretty hard to hold on to! Sukiyaki is often cooked at home, but restaurants usually serve this dish up buffet style, where you pay in the beginning and can either go back for more, or ask your server to bring out seconds, thirds, fourths, until you are stuffed.
If you’ve read my post about my host family then you are already familiar with this dish. Kiritanpo is the specialty of Akita prefecture in northern Japan. The kiritanpo themselves are made from slightly mushed rice molded around a wood stick to form hollow tubes. These tubes are grilled and then can either be eaten on their own, or put into a special stew hot pot (nabe) made with chicken and vegetables. The kiritanpo soak up the warm broth and have a wonderful chewy texture. I’ve also had just the kititanpo covered in salty, nutty miso paste, which was absolutely heavenly.
Okonomiyaki is often called a Japanese pancake, or a Japanese pizza. Pancake is kind of close, but still doesn’t convey the unique nature of okonomiyaki. Like sukiyaki, okonomiyaki is something you usually cook at your own table at restaurants. You order a variety of ingredients you want included, such as vegetables, meat, shrimp, pickled ginger, etc. They then bring you out a bowl of the batter, which is light and airy, and the ingredients you ordered. Mix them together, and then spill it onto the hot griddle in the middle of your table. According to my Japanese friend who we were eating with, it takes skill to know exactly when to flip okonomiyaki. When you feel like one side is done enough, flip it over to cook the other side. Top the facing side with delicious sauces like Japanese mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce (a savory-sweet brown condiment). It is also usually topped with bonito flakes, which are fluttery shavings from dried fish.
So, you’ve probably heard this before, but real ramen is nothing like the instant stuff you buy in the packets or Styrofoam cups at the grocery store for less than a dollar. It’s a big bowl of steaming, delicious broth with hefty, golden noodles. There are many kinds of ramen, though the most popular is called tonkotsu, which has slices of marbled pork (called chashu), green onions, and pickled ginger. The soup usually comes with a hardboiled egg floating in the broth, sometimes cooked in soy-sauce to give it a brown color. The egg is my favorite part.
It is polite in Japan to make loud slurping noises while eating ramen, to show the chef that you think it’s delicious. It also helps to draw up the liquid clinging to the noodles, as well as keep the hot broth from burning your tongue. This is surprisingly hard to pull off after years of training yourself not to do it. I recommend giving it a shot, although no one will fault you for just eating quietly, especially if you’re a woman. Ramen shops are often itty bitty inside, with only a few seats, so try to eat quickly to let someone else get in. By the way, instant ramen in Japan tastes so much better than American instant ramen. They make midnight study sessions actually bearable.
Taiyaki are a popular festival food. They are little fish shaped cakes most commonly filled with either a sweet red bean (azuki) paste or creamy yellow vanilla custard. The bean paste one sits a little heavier in your stomach, but it is more traditional. The custard filling is lighter, but still rich. The bread around the filling is similar to the consistency of a crepe. These treats are really adorable, and since there are usually made at an outdoor stand, it’s fun to watch them cook, too. Go ahead; make your little fish swim through the air before chomping his tail off. We won’t judge.
The Japanese love curry, though they have their own kind of curry that is different from Indian or Thai curries. It’s thick like Indian curry, but it usually doesn’t have as much of the spice, and it has a different taste. A popular way to eat curry is in a dish called curry rice (karei raisu), where a big pile of white rice is paired with vegetables covered in curry sauce. Sometimes, sautéed chicken is added. But to me, the king of all Japanese curry dishes will always be katsu curry (katsu karei). Instead of sautéed chicken, the curry is placed next to delicious panko-covered fried chicken or pork, which is sliced into strips. The combination of the crispy, salty meat dipped into the spicy sauce is mouthwatering. The rice brings out a bright sweetness to the curry, and offers a light contrast to the succulent meat. It might not be the healthiest Japanese dish, but damn is it good!
I think my love for Japanese bakeries stems from the fact that the United States is so devoid of real bakeries. All our bread and cakes are bought from a big-box grocery store, with the rare exception here and there. This is not the case in Japan. There are real bakeries everywhere, and even the ones in the grocery stores feel like little neighborhood businesses. As such, most of Japan’s baking related foods are amazing, from the melon flavored sweet bread to the dainty sandwiches of fluffy white bread. The most impressive baked goods, however, are the beautiful, delicious cakes. Japan takes cake decorating very seriously. If you read my post about convenience in Japan, I mentioned the cake specialty shop, Fujiya. They serve individual slices of cake as well as whole cakes. Each slice is delicately decorated, with frosting that has just the right amount of sweetness. (I can’t stand the sugar laden, instant tooth-rotting icing found commonly in the States.) The strawberry shortcake pieces are the prettiest and tastiest in my opinion, but all of them are beautiful. I also went to a cake buffet! Yes you read that right; a cake buffet, as in a place where you just eat cake and sweets and go back for more. They’re called keiki baikingu, which translates as “cake Viking.” For some reason “Viking” is the word for buffet in Japan. I could only manage a couple trips before I was overloaded on sugar, but it was so much fun and so delicious.
(The above photos are from a friend, Kristina Piorkowski, who studied abroad with me. They are from the cake buffet, and used with permission. )
One of the most fascinating parts of my dining experience in Japan was seeing how they did food from other countries differently than in the United States. Obviously there are Americanized versions of Chinese food, Italian food, and Japanese food. But it was really interesting to see Japanized versions of Chinese food, Italian food, and American food. Restaurants like McDonalds, Starbucks, and Denny’s are adjusted to better suit Japanese tastes. Subway has items like shrimp and other fish beside the ham slices.The Denny’s I ate at had amazing hamburger-based meals, though not always in a bun. You might criticize me for eating at a Denny’s at all, but I don’t regret it. It was delicious, way better than any American Denny’s I’ve eaten at, and the difference in the menu was amazing. I had teriyaki burgers at a little café, which were delicious but tiny. The closest thing to Mexican food there was called “taco rice.” It was essentially ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, and Dorito-like chips mixed into white rice. (The Doritos were probably in lieu of cheese. Cheese is very expensive in Japan.) Surprisingly, it was very tasty! Italian food was terrible, though. I went to an Italian food buffet, and their sauces on the noodles were just not nearly as flavorful as I was used to. Fair warning, tomato sauce in Japan basically tastes like chunky ketchup. Even though I didn’t like it, I was happy to see how different the Japanese version of Italian food was compared to back home. So, even though you’re not eating Japanese food, trying food from a different nationality in Japan reveals a lot more about Japanese culture than you might think.
(A menu page from Denny's. Source
Royal milk tea:
Okay, so this isn’t a food, it’s a drink, but it was like crack to me while I was in Japan, and probably the taste I remember best. It’s great cold, but amazing hot. It’s basically just a really sweet version of black tea with milk, served in a dense steel can. Don’t be deceived by its simplicity. One taste of this and you’ll find yourself shoving your 100yen coins into the vending machines so fast, you’ll wonder why you’re broke all of a sudden. My roommate, knowing my love for this beverage, was kind enough to buy me the powdered kind so I could mix my own at home. Sadly that mix is now a faraway, delicious memory. If you ever go to Japan, please try this amazing drink. See if you can find the cans (not plastic) that are thinner at the top; those were my favorite.
So there you have it. All my favorite things to eat (or drink) in Japan! I hope this has given you some ideas for what to eat in Japan besides sushi. You’ll notice that other than sushi, there’s no fish on here. Japan has delicious and amazing fish, but I’m kind of a wuss when it comes to seafood. Sushi is easy for me because it doesn’t have that fishy taste as much. Obviously, if you like seafood, you should definitely try some in Japan. My boyfriend really loves unagi, which is eel. Apparently there are whole restaurants dedicated to just serving unagi based meals. Try one out, and let me know how it goes!
What are some of your favorite foods eaten abroad? What are your favorite Japanese foods? Any weird food stories? Let me know in the comments below!
**Added Note About Vegetarianism/Veganism in Japan: Being a vegetarian is very difficult in Japan! It's probably easy if you cook your own food, but if you're visiting and you're vegetarian or vegan, it will be very difficult to find accommodation in restaurants. It may be easier in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, but if you're in the smaller areas be prepared to either make your own food or make exceptions to your diet for the visit. When I was there, they thought vegetarian either meant you ate chicken instead of beef, or you only ate cabbage salads. The good thing is that if you DO manage to find a vegetarian meal at a restaurant, it will probably be vegan as well, since Japan isn't big on cow products, and egg is only in so many things. My honest advice is to find a hotel that has a kitchen, and try out the grocery stores in Japan. That can be a lot of fun, too, and some of their produce is amazing! (I had the juiciest, sweetest strawberries EVER from a grocery store in Japan.) So in general, don't expect to find vegetarian/vegan food in smaller places, and be prepared to do a lot of research to find it in the big cities.
I’ve been to Hawaii, specifically the island of Maui, three times in my life. Lucky, I know! Granted, I can’t remember the first one because I was a baby, but twice is still a good number. I did a lot in Hawaii between my visit when I was 10 and my visit when I was 15, but the parts I remember most are whenever I was snorkeling. This is by far the most fun activity available to children in Hawaii, and so I thought I’d tell you about my experience and also give you a little advice.
The first time I went snorkeling, I was super psyched up for it. My grandparents kept telling me about all the fish I’d see, and because I wanted to be a marine biologist at the time, I felt like my dream was coming true. That is, until we went to the aquarium.
At the aquarium I got to see all the fish and sea creatures I would see snorkeling in person, a sort of sneak peek behind glass. You’d think this would make me even more excited, and it did at first, but then I came across the moray eel exhibit. I read on the plaque about how morays hide in little crevasses in the rocks and coral, and then strike out quick and fast to grab their prey. I looked at the eel, at his big head and gaping jaws, those lifeless eyes that seemed to stare at me no matter where I moved. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go snorkeling anymore. I was convinced that I was going to be attacked by an eel, my little ankle caught in his jaws.
(Look at them! They're terrifying! Source
I didn’t say anything until we got to the black sand beach where we were going to snorkel. My brother, 3 years younger, refused to go in the water at all. Finally facing the big moment, and thinking about all the colorful fish I had been dreaming about seeing, I fessed up to my fear. Luckily, my family being the kind souls that they are, figured out a way to let me see the fish without getting too far into the water. Someone left and came back with an orange blow-up raft. I got to lie on the raft and dip my goggled face into the water while someone pulled me along by a tether. So, if you’ve got kids that are too scared to go into the water for snorkeling, you should try this trick! I felt perfectly safe, and I didn’t have to miss out on the experience.
During my second visit, at age 15, I went snorkeling twice. One was an official, paid-for excursion. My whole family and I got onto a boat to go out the tiny island of Molokini, where there were promised to be lots of fish, turtles, and maybe even sharks. Unlike last time, I wasn’t even worried about the sharks (at least, not after our guide assured us they were small and uninterested in humans). The best part about that excursion was that the company had high-prescription goggles for me to wear! I would actually be able to see all the fish!
Unfortunately, the fish were really far down below us. If you are a good diver, this might not pose a problem, but I couldn’t dive down far enough to get a good look. My ears would start to hurt. Everything was a blue-green color, and it was somewhat murky. I did pick out lots of fish and even some turtles, but it wasn’t nearly as colorful and impressive as when I had snorkeled off the beach during my last visit.
(This was about as good as it got at Molokini. As you can see, there were fish, but the area is very murky.)
We had a stroke of luck, however, later in the week. My siblings, cousins, and I walked down to the very end of the beach in front of our resort, the Ka’anapali Ali’I Resort. The beach ended at an outcropping of jagged black rocks. Here you could see several people bravely flinging themselves off the edge, carefully landing into the safe part of the water. Too far to the right, and they’d be caught by a dangerous current that would slam them against the rocks. At least, that’s what my parents told me, probably to discourage me from trying it, too.
At the bottom of the rocks, the part that fell into the sea, we found the perfect snorkeling spot. Shallow and much warmer than the spot by Molokini, this snorkeling spot was small but filled with dozens of brightly colored fish. They were so close I could touch them—if they would just hold still. Colorful coral wiggled in the waves, and then three sea turtles lazily swam up to join us. They were half my size, with shells covered in algae. Although I was concerned about being bitten accidentally, I grabbed some seaweed and held it out to one of the turtles, who happily chomped it up without going near my fingers. I think they must be used to all the humans in that spot. I thought to myself, “This is the best place to snorkel, and we didn’t even have to pay extra!”
(This turtle is from the Molokini visit. I don't have photos from my off-beach snorkeling.)
Snorkeling excursions are fine, but I really recommend trying to find a good snorkeling place near a beach that doesn’t cost money. Even when I was in Mexico, the snorkeling excursion we paid for really wasn’t worth it, but I’ll never forget the sights at that black sand beach or by those black rocks. There’s no time limit, the fish are right at your fingertips, and the diversity is fantastic. I think it would be more comfortable for younger kids, too, since it’s not out in the middle of the ocean. I hope you can find a great place to snorkel during your next beach-side vacation.
Where was the best snorkeling you’ve ever experienced? Do you prefer excursions or finding your own spots? Are you scared of anything in the water, like I was? (Seriously, moray eels are creepy!) Anyway, here are some more photos from our visit. All of the photos in this post are
Everybody knows the best part of school is the field trips. For some reason, as you get older there are fewer and fewer field trips. In elementary school it seemed like every month I was on a bus going to the zoo or the science museum. By high school, I was lucky to go anywhere the whole year, and in college field trips are virtually nonexistent (as least for me). This was not the case when I studied abroad at AIU. The college itself organizes several field trips, and most of my classes had a least one special destination. One of my favorites was the trip my chemistry class took to a fireworks factory.
Let me first say that this chemistry class was spectacular. I heard that the one at my home college was hard and boring, but this one was fun and challenging in a good way. The professor had almost daily demonstrations, there were explosions, and we made things like nylon and ice cream with liquid nitrogen. The firework factory field trip was only one among numerous fun things we did for that class.
Fireworks are a big deal in Japan, definitely more so than in the United States. Here, we light them off for the odd big celebration, but primarily just for Independence Day. In Japan, there are weekly festivals all over the country during the summer, each with their own firework display at the end. Most big festivals, regardless of the season, have fireworks, but in the summer there are festivals just for the fireworks themselves. Huge bags of smaller fireworks are found in most general stores during the summer, and they are always in the kids’ section. They’re much bigger and impressive than the dinky ones we set off in our driveway in Colorado, and since Japan is so humid, there are fewer fire restrictions keeping you from getting some big ones, too.
This factory didn’t make the small ones for kids, though. They made huge ones shot out of launching tubes the size of big tree trunks. And we got to see the somewhat dangerous step-by-step process.
The first thing I noticed about the factory was the many flowers around the property. In Japanese, the word for firework is hanabi, which literally translates as “flower fire.” Our tour guide explained that his company was always trying to think of new fireworks, and so they planted flowers to give them inspiration for colors and shapes.
There were a lot of buildings, mostly made of metal in case of an explosion in order to reduce the risk of fire. Some of the buildings were painted red, and had extra red, metal fences around them. The guide explained that these were the more dangerous buildings where they actually mixed the chemicals. The red paint was to remind everyone which buildings required extra caution. Fun! Then we went into one of these buildings where a man wearing a mask was very slowly and carefully mixing the chemicals that react together to make specific colors and send the sparks off into specific directions. The guide said that they had to be mixed slowly, because too much friction heat could potentially set off a reaction. These chemicals were mixed into various ball shaped pellets, which would be the filler for the fireworks.
(That machine turns very slowly to help mix the chemicals.)
The pellets were then laid out in the sun on big sheets to dry. In the next room, dried pellets were being carefully placed into balls about the size of a honeydew melon. The workers filled each half in layers, each layer separated by a sheet of thin paper like tissue. They also piled in basic gun powder. The process was slow and repetitive, with precise measurements. Once each half was done, they stuck them together with the fuse poking out. Then they went to a table of women workers who covered the balls in layers of weird paper. The paper was slightly damp because it was covered in a special substance that held it together under anything but the high pressure of the explosion inside. They also kind of smelled funny. The guide explained that the amount of paper helped determine the size and timing of the firework explosion. The balls themselves are not that big, but when he showed us the size of the launching cannons it convinced us all that the resulting fireworks would indeed be grand and beautiful.
He said that there was a great fireworks competition in the summer every year, but it had been cancelled for that year, because the country was in mourning over the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant problem. At first they thought it would be imprudent to have such a big celebration when so many people had died or lost their homes. Then they changed their minds. They decided that actually the competition would raise spirits during a time when many people needed something to make them smile. They would use the competition and their beautiful firework displays to instill courage and hope in the Japanese people. Some of the money they made during the festival would be put toward restoration projects. He said he was working on new fireworks, so that this year’s festival would be the best one yet.
I know from experience that fireworks have the magic ability to fill your heart with pride for your country, and hope and optimism for its future. I didn’t get to make it to that big fireworks competition, but I am sure that for the many people affected by the earthquake and its aftermath, there had never been a more beautiful, inspiring show.
Below is a video of the workers putting the inside of the fireworks together. Have you ever been to a fireworks factory? Are you interested in learning how things are made? Where was the most spectacular fireworks show you ever saw? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook!
I have a lot of family in California, and as such it has been a reoccurring destination from me since childhood. Unfortunately, as soon as you get into college everyone expects you to pay for your own tickets to get out there (go figure), and so I haven’t been there in a long time. The last time I was there, it was actually for work. Struggling to find a job in a highly competitive college town, my grandpa hooked me up with an internship for an oil company in Los Angeles. I was supposed to be trained for a month and a half, and then go home to Colorado and do the work remotely. In the end, it didn’t pan out that way, but the experience of living in Anaheim with my aunt, commuting with the black tie crowd, and working in the big city was one I’ll never forget.
(My desk at work. Yay, cubicles!)
(An unnecessarily large calculator I found at my desk.)
Travelers get the chance to visit so many places, but you see a different side when you actually get a job wherever you’re visiting. This was a side of Los Angeles I had never known, despite having been there so often. Admittedly, I was pretty scared. Denver is a mere neighborhood compared to Los Angeles, and even Denver intimidates me. I had to make the trip into downtown L.A. all by myself and try to find the building based on loose directions. I woke up early to catch the hour and a half long train ride from Anaheim to L.A. in order to be in the office by 9 am. Luckily, when I got to my transfer, a nice lady helped me figure out which train to take, and then a police officer downtown told me exactly how to get to my building. “You’ll see a bright orange sculpture in front!” Who ever said city people aren’t nice?
(You know what this fountain needs? A bright orange stairway sculpture...thing.)
Overall, my experience was pretty much what you’d expect from working anywhere. It was working; getting up ridiculously early, grabbing lunch at crazy prices because it’s downtown L.A., looking over a sea of sky scrapers during my breaks. Still, it felt posh, it felt professional, it felt empowering. I was truly grateful for the opportunity.
(The building I worked in.)
(The view from the nearest window to my desk.)
It wasn’t all work though. Here are some of the things I did or saw that made working in LA almost as good as vacationing in LA:
I got to swim almost every day. I swear I am Californian at heart; I love the sun and the water. While I only made it to the beach once, there was a pool at my aunt’s condo that I took a dip in almost every day. I got to play with my young cousin, Amari, and his friends, who were a handful but lots of fun. Kids always make pools more enjoyable. The best part was night swimming. I don’t know what it is, but swimming in the dark in a lit up pool feels great (as long as it’s still warm out).
I got to see the beautiful gardens in the central train station in Los Angeles. One of my favorite things about California has always been the flowers, since Colorado, in general, is pretty devoid of them. The garden in the train station was a treat, especially coming home in the light of the setting sun.
The stores in downtown L.A. are very chic, and my favorite was a cute bar/bakery/confectionary called Bottega Louie. They sold amazing macarons (not macaroons), providing me with my first taste of those trendy treats. They were kind of expensive, but the earl grey flavored ones were just too good. I usually picked some up twice a week. They have pretty little gift boxes to put them in, but I actually just bought the gift boxes separately because they were so cute. I keep jewelry inside them.
(Pretty macarons and dainty pink boxes. Source
I visited Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japan Town). Los Angeles’s Chinatown is full of interesting smells, sights, and stores. It’s huge and magnificent and I definitely recommend a visit. Japan Town is a bit understated by comparison, but they have awesome ramen restaurants, beautiful Japanese gardens, and I even got to buy my first yukata there.
One of the most fascinating parts of my visit was learning so much about my grandpa’s company. It was a great opportunity to get a glimpse into that part of his world, and to see how much he was appreciated. My coworkers were so nice to me, and I learned a lot, such as how oil wells are made and about geology in general. One coworker seemed to just be waiting for someone to ask about his impressive rock collection, and I was the one who obliged. He had some really rare pieces!
Most of my memories of this time are happy, but there is melancholy to them, as well. It would be the last time I saw my cousin Devonte, who passed away only six months later. I try to fix this time in my mind whenever my memory wanders back to him. I try to remember watching TV with him or playing in the pool while he flipped off ledges into the water. My visit to California helped me grow as a person, but it is more important as the most fun I’ve ever had with my cousin.
Have any of your travels been for a job, or have you ever tried to pick up a part-time job while vacationing somewhere? Do y
I’m sure most of my readers have had, at some point in their lives, the experience of going into a photo booth with a friend or a boyfriend/girlfriend, to take silly photos. Maybe it was at the mall or an amusement park. Was the result anything like this?
That’s right, Japanese photo booths make you look like that. The bright light flushes out your skin to make you look perfectly white and blemish free (unless you’re not light skinned…I honestly don’t know how it reacts with different skin tones.) The light also makes the eyes look bigger, like in anime. On Japanese people, this eye-widening effect is pretty significant, but on Westerners without glasses the result is super dramatic! This combo of big eyes and perfect, porcelain skin is considered to be very beautiful in Japan.
You pile your group inside the white-walled booth, arrange yourself in silly or cute poses, and then try not to blink at the blinding light. Change poses before the cutesy, girly voice alerts you to the next flash, and freeze. When you’re done, you can go into a little nook on the other side of the booth where there is a computer. There you can peruse your photos, pick which ones to keep, determine the sizes you want, and enter your phone number to have the pictures sent to your mobile. More importantly, you can decorate your photos with silly stamps, little icons, and even draw on them with various colors of pen. Some have sparkles and some are kind of glow-y. The icons can include little bows, mustaches, polka dots, hearts, pre-designed words, animals, you name it. Then the little machine spits out your printed versions, which are tiny, some not even a square-inch in size, and sticky on the back. A table nearby provides customers with scissors to cut out the pictures and divide them among friends. Peel back the protective layer from the sticky side, and affix your quirky images to cell phones, laptops, notebooks, your face, wherever you want.
(These are the stickers on my grungy laptop, with my index finger for a size comparison. As you see they're very tiny, and we've included hats, cat ears, mustaches, some stars, and even a dolphin! Lots of fun!)
These booths are called purikura, which is short for purinto kurabu, which are the words “print club” put into Japanese sounds. These booths are immensely popular, and you can find them in every single mall, outside popular restaurants or attractions, in movie theaters, etc. And you don’t just find one. You find a whole forest just stocked with different purikura machines. Each one offers slightly different goodies. Some even have an option to make it seem like you’re wearing makeup like blush and mascara.
(An example of the purikura
machines from the outside. Source.
A trip to these booths is like initiation for any new relationship, whether friendship or love. Friends go out every couple of weekends to renew their images, confirming that they are still the best of friends. A girl will immediately bring her new boyfriend to make cutesy photos together—and, contrary to what you might think; the boys do it, too!
While we were there we did purikura at least three times. Eventually I learned to take off my glasses to get a better effect. Sometimes it’s hard to fit everyone in the picture, especially with any group over four people, so try taking turns being in the middle. The cost is between 800 and 1500 yen, depending on how fancy you want to get or how many photos you want, but the price isn’t bad if you split it between people. This is definitely an experience I’d recommend to anyone visiting Japan. It’s silly and unique, and the photos actually make great souvenirs. I have a couple stuck onto my laptop. They are a constant reminder of the wonderful people I met in Japan, and how much fun we had together.
Have you ever taken purikura photos? Do they have something similar in your country? What do you think of the special effects they use to change your appearance? Let me know in the comments!
Fall in Colorado is short lived, and turns cold and wintery pretty quick. Which is why I was so excited during my freshman year to leave cold, dead Colorado to run away to warm, sunny, colorful Mexico! Through the generosity of my wonderful, admittedly well-off grandparents, I and a lot of my family got to take a Carnival cruise to Mexico, stopping at Acapulco, Manzanillo, and Zihuatanejo.
I had never been to Mexico before, so our first stop to Acapulco was a bit of an eye opener. First, general impressions were along these lines: hot, bustling, kind of dirty, colorful, hot, inexpensive, lots of guys hitting on me, lots of begging, hot, beautiful, hot, intoxicating. It was an overload for the senses.
Stepping off the ship, we were immediately surrounded by dozens of taxi cab drivers, all hoping to win our patronage. First, though, we wanted to stop by the near-by San Diego Fort, which was only a short walk away. This fort is the only colonial building still standing in Acapulco, and as such is a very important historical site. It was originally built in the 1600s, but was reconstructed after an earthquake in 1724. It was built to watch over the ships bringing goods to Acapulco, Mexico’s second most important port. It is shaped like a pointed star from above, and inside it is now a museum, documenting the history of Acapulco and the culture of the settlers. We meandered through the dark shaded rooms, enjoying the artifacts and the beautiful views. (Picture source.)
(The view of the cruise ships from the fort. That's not our ship.)
(The tunnel like interior hallways of the fort. That's my brother and Blake in the front.)
(Gorgeous view of the city and the harbor.)
Afterwards, we finally hailed a cab. I remembered from my Spanish high school class that you can haggle with taxi cab drivers, but unfortunately I didn’t trust my Spanish skills. (Actually, because I had already started studying Japanese, any time I tried to remember my Spanish I could only think of the Japanese word.) Luckily my grandpa is fluent, so hopefully he got us a good deal. The cab we got into was a tiny yellow bug with tearing seats held together with duct tape. He took us to a pedestrian neighborhood filled with shops. I wish I had a camera there to document the amazing trees in the center park. They were huge and dripping with children while their parents sat on the benches, lazing in the heat of the day. There was a vendor selling balloons, with his huge display of helium and color.
One of my favorite things we saw was the beautiful white-washed, domed church in the center of the neighborhood. The paintings along the walls and ceiling were beautiful, and the open, airy design of the building was like nothing I had ever seen. The walls only covered about 2/3rds of the area, with much of it open to the square. It made sense: who would want to go to church in Mexico if you were all stuffed into a hot, closed off building? I tried to find out more about this kind of church but unfortunately Google failed me. My pictures will have to suffice.
Meandering, we made our way to the La Quebrada cliffs along the shore. The sun was winding its way down the horizon, casting the beautiful golden light of early evening. We found a restaurant overlooking the water and cliffs. The view was beautiful, and my food was fine, but unfortunately my brother (notoriously picky at the time) was tricked by his American comfort food of fried chicken: it was raw in the middle. The restaurant reimbursed us after my brother refused to eat anything else (his appetite long gone by then). Despite this incident, we were happy to stay there and soak in the sun and sea spray.
La Quebrada’s cliffs are famous worldwide, and they are the home of the La Quebrada cliff divers, who perform their daring feats for the public. Apparently there had been a great international cliff diving competition only moments before we got there, with the US competing! I was so disappointed! You’d think our cruise line would have known about an event like that, and told us to high-tail it over there. We had no idea. Oh well, someday I’ll see them. At the time, I was happy just to look at the sea, feeling a wonderful symmetry to the day between the view of the San Diego Fort and the view from the cliffs.
Overall, it was a great introduction to Mexico. Back in my bed on the cruise ship, feeling my body rock slightly with the waves, I anxiously awaited the morning and our next destination.
Have you ever been to Acapulco? Did you get to see the cliff divers? Ever had a restaurant serve you raw chicken? Let me know in the comments!
Life on the water...it calls to me!