If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I’ve already told you about the proliferation of festivals in Japan. Some are huge, nation-wide celebrations, but most of them are actually small festivals during a variety of dates, each celebrating a certain town or even a neighborhood. They are often tributes to a local deity.

Generally, these festivals follow the same formula. A street or two will be cordoned off from cars and stalls set up for people to visit. Some stalls will sell street food like yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) or yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), others will sell cute trinkets like face masks, balloons, or fans. Still others are dedicated to mini-games like trying to catch goldfish from a stream. They usually start at nightfall, with lanterns lighting the way. A special float will be set up, decorated in dedication to the patron deity of the festival. Visitors will be dressed in colorful yukata, or summer kimono, and the night usually finishes off with some fireworks.

I have wanted to attend one of these small festivals since I was younger. As a mild fan of anime (Japanese animation) I would often see my favorite characters visiting festivals, with evening cicada singing in the background. The image had become iconic of Japan in my mind. So I was delighted when my host family invited me and Justin to attend one near the center of Akita city. Although I was excited, experience had taught me not to expect the real thing to perfectly mimic the image I had gleaned from a cartoon.

As Justin and I rode the train, we grew nervous about missing our stop. Luckily, a trio of Japanese girls decked out in bright pink yukata and glistening hair jewelry realized we were going to the same place (since I, too, was dressed in a purple yukata), and helped us to get off at the right stop. There, our host family waited for us with welcoming smiles. Near the entrance of the train station, we saw the float. I had no idea what all the symbolism meant, but the figures on the float were pretty impressive and intimidating.

Our first stop was to the local shrine, where I finally allowed myself to partake in the Shinto ritual of ringing the shrine bell, clapping my hands, thanking the resident deity and making a wish. A sense of being a phony had always held me back, but who cared if I wasn’t a Shinto believer? I could certainly be grateful for the tradition that gave rise to the festival I was about to enjoy. I purchased a good luck charm for my roommate, a cute little cloth pouch with a fortune inside, before heading toward the festival street.

Reaching the festival was like walking directly into one of my favorite anime episodes. The sounds were the same, the crowd was the same, the stalls and the lights all looked the same. It was exactly as I had always imagined it. In that moment my excitement ballooned, and I couldn’t wait to try every single game and snack.

Dragging my host family around, I played a game that involved catching slimy little jelly balls from the water. Later I would keep these in a little vase, watching them shrivel up in the Colorado dry air, until I revived them with a splash of water. They were a lot of fun, but a little gross. Another game involved coaxing a goldfish from a stream into a little cup with a net. The netting was very fragile and prone to breaking. I managed to pull in a huge gold fish. The stall owner told me normally you weren’t supposed to catch the big ones, but because it was my first festival he let me keep it. He wrapped it up in a clear bag, and I gave the fish to Miu, my 8 year old host sister. From another catching game, Miu won a toy goldfish for me that lit up when you squeezed it. Much easier for me to take home to the US! The games were really meant for small children, so they were pretty easy. I really didn’t care, though. I was just delighted to get a chance to play.

(The goldfish game. Sorry for the poor quality. These pictures are scans of printed versions that were similar to old-school Polaroids.)
In addition to having fun games, the festival was also a gastronomic delight. We wandered around eating yakitori, cotton candy, and takoyaki, or balls of fried dough surrounding a small piece of octopus in the center.

Finally, we left the festival and took a short walk through the city before arriving at Miu’s grandparents’ house. Their front yard contained a cute little pond, which became the new home of the goldfish I had caught.

Sono ike ga hiroi kara, kingyo ga okikunaru yo,” I told Miu. That pond is wide, so the goldfish will get big, you know. Miu’s face lit up with delight and surprise and ran into the house, telling her grandparents about the fish.

Her grandparents were a lovely couple, elated to have American visitors in their home. As with most Japanese people I met personally, they were thrilled by my language skills. (No matter how modest your speaking ability, Japanese people will always think you’re amazing.) They brought out a special box filled with small, delicately decorated cakes. These cakes were reserved specifically for rare guests, a hosting tradition found throughout Japan. While we ate, they asked us eager questions about the United States. I discovered that trying to explain where Colorado is to someone whose only frame of reference is Los Angeles and New York can be very difficult. “Um…it’s in the middle…sort of?”

Finally the night came to a close. It is an amazing feeling when you go to a new country and experience something completely unexpected. But it is equally amazing to find an experience that is as perfect as you imagined it. It was surreal and wonderful, and I fell asleep that night thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I am really in Japan.” I might have already spent two months there, but nights like the festival that made it seem brand new all over again.

What local festivals have you been to in the countries you have visited? Did you ever go to a country with a specific experience in mind? Did the real thing live up to your expectations? Have you tried takoyaki? Let me know in the comments!
Hello, my wonderful devoted readers. I hope you can accept my apology for such an extended hiatus. The reason is complicated. I have had a busy, chaotic schedule, there's been a little lack of self-confidence with travel blogging, and a need to determine what I really want this blog to be about.

On one of my other posts, somebody I met at work who was kind enough to visit my blog left a very interesting comment. The gist of it was that my blog seems to be trying to be a lot of different things at once, and that perhaps I should settle on one coherent style. The truth is I’m not really sure which style I want this blog to be in. I definitely don’t want it to be the kind of blog that just says “go here, do this thing.” I want it to be about stories and the cultures of the places I visit. I also want it to be educational, so that my readers might learn something new when they visit. Sometimes I worry that my posts are too boring, so I’ve tried to spice them up with a more narrative style. I don’t know if that helps, or just makes it confusing.

So I thought I’d take a little break to remember why I started this blog, and what I wanted it to be about. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve come back with a concrete answer. So, if you have any opinions regarding what you enjoy reading the most, please let me know. I think perhaps the more traveling I do with this blog in mind, the clearer my goals will become. Most of my itinerary during my travels has been out of my control. Perhaps the more travelling I do with my own agenda, as well as with this blog in mind, the clearer my goals and nuances will become. I guess we’ll see.

If you’re still here, reading this after my absence, you rock, and you are a major reason why I am writing this blog at all. Thank you.

Suffocating in 110 degree heat, my skin itched with the sweat between my thighs and the horse’s hide beneath me. My body lazily swayed into each step the horse took, as fluttering flakes of ash fell from the sky. My horse seemed as fed-up with the heat as me, and soon our horseback riding instructor told us to turn back. The ash was getting too thick, and it wasn’t good for the horses. We rode back to our cabin, one of many available for rent at the camp grounds. The camp offered activities like horseback riding, hiking, crafts, and, normally, rental boats and swimming. But that year, in 2002 when I was 12, Colorado was in the midst of one of the worst drought years in history. The river bed that ran through the camp was completely dry but for the small puddle of water in the center. The state was on fire, especially down south, where we were. In fact, a forest fire raged not far away, threatening the other campsites, and coming closer. Our noses itched with the smoke and we could catch the ash flakes on our tongues, if we wanted to.

So why were we suffering through such heat, so dangerously close to a fire, when we could be hiding up north in the mountains, where traces of snow could still be find on some hiking trails? My family and I were waiting to attend my mom’s cousin’s outdoor wedding. The family owned a beautiful excluded cabin, with a gorgeousl green lawn surrounded by pine trees and aspens. Our cousin, Katie, and her fiancé, Jim, had always wanted to get married there. They certainly hadn’t counted on the fires.

But for the time being, we were safe. When the day of the wedding arrived, we donned our nice clothes and gathered for the celebration. The ceremony started our beautifully. The procession was kicked off by two little girls riding a horse covered in ribbons and flowers. Katie’s dress was spectacular, rivaling the area around us. The bride and groom began their “I-do’s,” when in the middle, before Jim could speak, one of the bridesmaids fainted from the intense heat. Katie gallantly rushed to her side and squatted down in the dirt to help the friend up, dirtying her dress. Once she was recovered, the ceremony concluded without much trouble.

Soon, though, we noticed that a few uninvited guests had crashed the party in the forms of a goat, a pony, and the odd duck or two. Someone’s farm animals had gotten out, and while the pony ran around showing off his excited private parts, the goat found its way into the food truck and started to claim his portion of the meals. We finally rounded them up and returned them before too much damage was done.

But without such amusing interruptions, the wedding started to get boring for me and my siblings. Katie was busy socializing with her many guests, and there wasn’t much to do except wait for cake. The heat was becoming unbearable. My family decided to bail out early, and even managed to snag a slice of cake to pacify my little sister (who was throwing a fit). We returned to the cool of our cabin, threw on pajamas, and I had just started rereading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time.

Suddenly there was a loud, urgent knock at the door. A police officer stood outside. “You need to evacuate, the fire is coming too close and we need to get everyone out NOW.” He told us we could try to get out of the area, but that traffic might hold us up. Otherwise, we could go down to the riverbed, where, he assured us, we would be safe. We decided to take our chances getting out.

In the car, we drove down the mountain side, toward the city of Durango. Across the river, the forest fire had made its way to the opposite shore. I had never seen a fire up that close, and haven’t since. The whole mountain was an angry red, radiating heat even across the riverbed. It sounded like a roaring, crackling storm. It was terrifying and humbling to be before such power, and to think of the brave people who fought something so uncontrollable.

Despite the traffic, we made it to the hospital in Durango, where a Red Cross station had been set up. We met up with our family, where our sneaky early departure became evident. Everyone else was still in nice clothing, whereas we had been forced to leave in our pajamas. My cousin Katie hadn’t even gotten to cut her cake before the wedding had been evacuated. In another location, the Red Cross had set up emergency bunking with cots. My mom wasn’t interested in sleeping in a cot with a bunch of strangers, and insisted on a hotel. Because of the evacuations, we had to drive over two hours to find a hotel with vacancy. Still, after all the excitement, the soft hotel beds were nice to lie down in, instead of uncomfortable cots.

The next morning, my Canadian grandparents found our hotel, and the three kids—me, my brother, and my sister—all hopped into their car. We were about to start a road trip all the way through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and most of Alberta, finally ending in Edmonton. This had been the plan all along, but on the heels of a fire evacuation, the departure had a new energy and a dangerous feeling. We were still uncertain of the fate of my cousin’s land, where all her wedding tents and food remained.

Later we would learn that the campground we had stayed at burned down. I realized afterwards that I had left a beloved stuffed bear and some bear clothes there, which the fire had claimed. The neighboring campsite, which was a mere 15 minute walk away, had been spared. Many people had chosen to go down to the riverbed as the police officer suggested. It turns out that was a bad idea; the fire jumped the river, and the people in the center got caught in a firestorm. They were evacuated by helicopter and no one was hurt, but they all lost their vehicles. Luckily, the wedding cabin was safe.

Although the fire was dangerous and did a lot of terrible damage (I think it was the 3rd most destructive fire in Colorado, as of last summer), it also made for one of the most exciting travel memories of my life. Still, as the summer goes on and states like Colorado and California enter their fire season, I hope everyone remembers to be safe and help out people in need.

On my cruise ship to Mexico, my family and I had a blast on the ship, explored the fascinating San Diego Fort in Acapulco, and snorkeled in Manzanillo. But our last stop before we headed for home was by far the most beautiful and most fun: Zijuatanejo!

The first thing I noticed was how much cleaner Zijuatanejo was compared to Acapulco. In Acapulco, we rode in a dingy buggy taxi, with duct-taped seats and a peeling roof. The taxis in Zijuatanejo were a shiny black, with nice clean, new interiors. All around us were huge houses overlooking the ocean. In the center was a buzzing shopping scene. Admittedly there were quite a few people begging, but the area still felt safer and cleaner than in Acapulco.

Clearly, Zihuatanejo is a resort town, and caters to such. You won’t find much local culture here—which was a disappointment for me—but I did find the most relaxing, enjoyable experience on that particular cruise ship. First we decided to explore the shopping. Ziahuatanejo is filled with pedestrian streets, lined with shops selling everything from Mexican candy to expensive glassworks. I bought a pretty necklace with beads that looked like rough pearls. (Unfortunately, this broke a few months later.) A little girl was trying very hard to sell us some fans, which weren’t very pretty. When we told her no and walked away, I looked back at her. She looked over to the side at her parents (who I had just noticed) with the saddest, most defeated look on her face. I know this is how they get you, but I couldn’t help it. I decided to buy one, but I wanted my pick. I stood there, struggling to remember how to say, “Can I see?” My head was only giving me Japanese, but eventually I managed to remember “Puedo mirar?” which I think is close. Just as I remembered, another lady went to the girl and bought a dozen. The girl looked elated, and I felt relieved from my duty to purchase one.
After my uncle had picked up some sketchy candy, we hopped into the taxi and told our driver in limited Spanish to take us to the beach. “Playa, por favor!” He drove us through dense green vegetation to a cute restaurant on the edge of the beach, with a swim-suit shop and bar attached. The restaurant spilled onto the beach, blurring the lines between the two. My cousins and I immediately donned our bathing suits and ran for the water. The water was warm and soothing, with just enough chill to beat the heat of Mexico, strong even in November. Yet, there was no adjusting to sudden cold the way you do in California waters. The waves were gentle enough to swim easily, but still big enough to have fun with. Tiny fish darted around us, and a few sea stars hung out in the shallows. In the distance, we could see our huge cruise ship.

On shore, my mom caught some sun, lounging in her beach chair. The waiters from the restaurant brought out cold Corona and Mexican Cola, which we drank right on the sand. Could it get any better? My siblings and cousins took a banana boat out into the gentle water, the yellow rubber bright against the green hills.
(That is one happy momma! And also my favorite picture of her. Sorry, Mom, if you're reading this, for putting your pic on the internet, but you look beautiful!)

(My sister, Lonie, between her two cousins, Devonte and Harmony.)
Then my step-dad, uncle and I signed up for para-sailing. I strapped in and was off in a moment, soaring high over the sand, the water, and the lush vegetation surrounding us. I had taken off my glasses for fear of losing them in the ocean, but the sight was still impressive (if a bit blurry.) Ziajuatanejo is beautiful from the ground, but absolutely spectacular by air. The feeling in my stomach as I floated overhead was a sensation I’ll never forget. Touching down, I was giddy with excitement.
We played on that beach until sunset. My parents dreamed lazily about buying one of the ridiculously cheap but beautiful houses in town, while my cousins and I tried to throw mud on each other’s heads in the water. Finally we had to make our way back to the ship. This was our last visit to Mexico. We had another day on the boat, but then we would be back in San Diego, and my family would take the flight back to land-locked Colorado.
Overall, the entire cruise vacation was a great experience, but I think next time I’d like to just skip it and go straight to Zihuatanejo. It was the most beautiful and most enjoyable of all the places we visited. (Although, to be fair we didn’t actually see the city of Manzanillo.) Someday, I’d also like to fit in more cultural exploration. It’s easy to get lost in the beachy resorts of Mexico, and ignore the amazing history and culture of the country. Nonetheless, Zihuatanejo ranks high on my list of favorite places to visit. I hope you get the chance to go there, and have a bottle of Coke on the beach for me.

Have you ever been to Zijuatanejo? If not, what's your favorite beachy spot? Have you ever been para-sailing? Let me know in the comments!
Sweat dripped down my exposed neck as I roasted in my gold and orange kimono, much too thick and hot for July in Japan. I longed to tear away the obi tied at my waist, release my feet from their white tabi socks, and cease the charade of a foreigner in traditional dress. Japanese locals openly stared at me and my friends, whispering to each other and pointing at our colorful, out-of-season attire. I wondered if they were thinking “That’s a yukata obi, not a kimono obi,” and I wanted to tell each one of them I didn’t have time to learn to tie a kimono obi. I wanted to tell them I know I shouldn’t wear such a thick robe in summer.  I wanted to tell them it’s rude to stare. Oh, the things I will suffer for free tickets to a kabuki play.

At the invitation from our professor, most of my classmates from a Japanese performing arts class and I took a bus to the Kosaka region of Akita, to see a kabuki performance like the ones we had been studying. Our professor told us that the theater had given us a special offer. Dressing in the summer style of the lighter, cooler Japanese robe called a yukata would get the attendant a discount. But if we showed up in full kimono attire, despite the heat, we could see the play for free. My suspicion is that the professor, known for his generosity, was actually covering the “discounts” with his own money, but as a poor college student desperate to stretch my funds, I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Having just bought a kimono set, I was eager to get the chance to wear it. I really did underestimate the heat.

Stepping off the bus, we had about an hour to kill before the show, and we were all hungry. Luckily, a local summer festival was happening in the grassy park in front of the theater, with funds going to help tsunami relief on the opposite coast. Belying my fancy clothes, I quickly bought a savory pile of yakisoba noodles and sat on a bench watching the festival. The park was beautiful in its lush green splendor, and it was pleasant to watch all the children enjoying the festival.
(A pretty view of the train tracks separating the theater from the park.)
(The mascot of Akita prefecture, a tree who likes to do various sports. Japan loves mascots.)

Eventually I noticed a man pulling a rickshaw, carrying two regal looking people. One was an elderly man dressed in grey kimono, his brown hair (probably a wig) tied in a top knot. Beside him, dressed in a beautiful red and purple woman’s kimono and elaborate hair ornaments, was a second man—an onnagata.
Onnagata are a unique feature of the kabuki style of performance, which is also characterized by humor, dramatic makeup and costumes, and an approachable play format. This is in contrast to noh plays, which can be dry, slow, and too high-brow for some. Kabuki was initially designed by low-class travelling female performers in the early 1600s for other lower-class citizens of Japan. As such, it is a more light-hearted, comic form of art when compared to its courtly alternatives. The actresses were so popular, that they caused fights among the rowdy crowd. Soon, the government made a law that only men could be actors. To fill the void, male actors took on female roles, dressing like women. Thus, the onnagata, which means “woman role,” was born. Unfortunately for the government, the onnagata were equally, if not more, popular than their female counterparts, and the spectators fought just as much. The cross-dressing actors became tradition.

The modern-day onnagata in Kosaka was the star of the theater, and he was being pulled about the festival to drum up business. His beautiful kimono and charming nature made me eager to make my way to the theater. I finished up my yakisoba, but before I could stand up to walk away, a beetle the size of my first thumb joint circled my head and dropped into the neck of my kimono. Bound up tightly by the belt at my waist and numerous hidden ties keeping the robe together, I had no way to dig the ugly thing out. I started to freak out, making quick, short whimpering noises while trying to hold still for fear of it biting me. Justin didn’t believe that I had a bug stuck in my robe, despite watching me twitch and recoil from the tickling sensation as it walked across my back. It moved onto my shoulder, thankfully, where I could herd it with my finger across my arm and out my sleeve. Meanwhile, an elderly man missing several teeth was sitting next to me laughing, which was contagious.

Smiling over the scare, we made our way back to the group, who were standing in front of the theater. Due to Kosaka’s booming mining history, many foreigners had traveled there to cash in on the abundance. As a result, many of the buildings in the neighborhood sport a Western architecture style, including the kabuki theater called Kourakukan. Since most other theaters have been rebuilt, Kourakukan, built in 1910, happens to be the oldest kabuki theater in Japan. The white and light blue façade hides the traditional kabuki setting inside.

A kabuki stage includes elevated seats along the sides and two sections of floor seating that reach right up to the stage. The sections flank a pathway through the center called the “flower path” or the hanamichi, which is an extended stage and alternative entrance way for the actors. Since our group was sitting in the front row on the floor, cross-legged on cushions, we were looking right up at the actors, creating a feeling of intimacy absent from most of the plays I have attended. We waited anxiously, staring up at the beautiful glittering curtain, decorated with an image of deer in a snowy landscape.

The troupe started out with a traditional play. It was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t quite catch most of the plot, but I still got most of the jokes. This troupe did a modern twist on the tradition, throwing in jokes such as an elderly man showing up in a school girl’s sailor uniform. Another mark of their modern tendencies was the female actors, who have only recently been allowed back into the kabuki field.

(This is one of the few pictures of the play I took, before I was told I wasn't allowed. They allowed photography only for the small skits afterwards.)
After the play, the leader of the troupe called up one of my classmates to perform in a demonstration. She got to catch a bumbling thief. For the finale they performed a series of small dances to music, including selections from Hayao Miyazaki’s movies and Pirates of the Caribbean. Each one paid homage to the tradition, but spiced it up with impressive visuals (smoke and lights), vibrant costumes with David Bowie-like wigs, and upbeat choreography. All the while we sat so close it felt like we were on stage with them. I've included some videos below, which are short because I was afraid I wasn't allowed to do video tape. I apologize in advance for their horrible quality.

Outside the theater, the cast mingled with their audience, taking pictures and talking. They were very interested in our international assembly, and we took a big group picture. Justin and I ended the day by hiring one of the rickshaw men. We stepped into the seat in our kimono, and immediately everyone around us starting taking pictures. Our friends, of course, were obliging us, but many other Japanese visitors apparently found this sight fascinating. Tourists had become the attraction. Finally the gentleman took off, running with surprising agility and ease. We talked to him as he explained each of the Western-style buildings. I assumed he must have been doing the tour for years, with his endurance, but he actually had only started that summer. The neighborhood was beautiful, but I felt strange making someone pull me around in a cart.

When we returned, we immediately boarded our bus back for AIU, which was buzzing with the leftover excitement from the kabuki performance. It had definitely been one of the most fun and interesting parts of our study abroad. If you ever visit Akita, I highly recommend visiting the Kourakukan.

Have you ever been to a kabuki performance? What are some traditional dance styles in the countries you’ve visited? Have you had an uncomfortable experience with an unwelcome bug? Let me know in the comments!

In the above videos, the onnagata is walking onto the hanamichi to interact with the audience and to collect donations for the troupe. This has been a tradition in kabuki since its inception. The song is from Castle in the Sky directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
The finale done in an extremely modern, or as they called it, "Super Kabuki" style.
This was my favorite piece of the whole night.
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.

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. 

 Katsu curry:

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. )
Non-Japanese Food:

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.