Thanks to the kids’ aunties, we never have to buy Halloween costumes.
To celebrate the girl’s 5th birthday and as sort of a reward/treat/thank you to the kids for tolerating my premature mid-life crises and being in generally good spirits as we shlepped them through Southeast Asia, we got three-day passes to Disneyland and California Adventure. Our kids are so lucky to have us as parents.
Having just come from Vietnam, where it would be a miracle for any public bathroom to have toilet paper, my mom, Tom, and I couldn’t help making comparisons and questioning whether Vietnam would ever be in a position or have the infrastructure, resources and/or wherewithal to accomplish a small fraction of what Disneyland does so well: create a magical fairytale environment that is thoroughly entertaining and pleasing to its guests. Our conclusion, sadly, was no.
I don’t think I’ll ever again take for granted the wonderfulness that is my home country, the U.S. of A. It’s just so comfortable to be home! I wish we could have stayed at home a little longer, but the weekend after getting back we had to haul ass to Southern California to attend to some family matters. Since we were going to be in SoCal, I thought it would be a good idea to swing by Santa Barbara and then visit Disneyland for three days in honor of the girl’s 5th birthday.
If ever there was an antidote to Vietnam, it would be Santa Barbara. What perfect weather! What gorgeous scenery! What friendly customer service!
Tom and I both lost some weight in Vietnam, attributable to consuming mostly fish and vegetables, less meat, small portions, and recurring diarrhea. A highly effective weight loss plan.
I’m pretty sure I’ll gain the weight back and then some after about five minutes on an American diet. We drove straight to Grimaldi’s for some thin crust pizza practically as soon as we got off the plane, and the next morning headed to In-N-Out for some double-double love.
I also really missed simple meals at home like a plate of prosciutto with a plate of heirloom tomatoes and a glass of Pinot Grigio, which were virtually impossible to obtain in Vietnam. Asian food will always be my first love, however. What I crave every once in a while is very different from what I crave on a day-to-day basis.
At the beginning of our stay in VN, Tom and the boy got haircuts (for a grand total of US$2.50) and the unsanitary conditions and overall third-worldness of the local barber shop were very striking to me. The second time the boy got a haircut (toward the end of our stay), the same barber shop looked very standard and ordinary. You do eventually acclimate to your surroundings, and now that we’re about to leave, I’m getting a little nostalgic about sweltering heat and humidity, riding on the backseat of a motorcycle through heavy pollution, and enjoying endless meals with endless relatives. There are things about VN that I will remember and cherish…but not enough to come back anytime soon.
To recap our Japan trip:
Day 1: arrive to Chiyoda and attempt to explore the Imperial Palace East Gardens in drizzling rain;
Day 2: shopping and dining in Ginza;
Day 3: the highs and lows of Shinjuku;
Day 4: views of Tokyo Skytree in Sumida and exploring the adorable neighborhood of Asakusa;
Day 5: wandering around Shibuya;
Day 6: checking out the scene in Harajuku and then catching a train to Kyoto;
Day 7: walk all day throughout Kyoto;
Day 8: walk some more in Kyoto;
Day 9: exhausted from walking all over Kyoto so catch a train back to Tokyo;
Day 10: continue exploring Shibuya, Harajuku, as well as Omotesando (and a quick misguided detour back to Asakusa), and the Meiji Shrine on our last full day in Tokyo;
Day 11: depressed to be boarding a plane back to Vietnam 😦
I can hardly convey how much I loved being in Japan. It’s beautiful, clean, modern, efficient, its citizens are renowned for their politeness, and we didn’t have a single bad meal. In many ways it was the opposite of my experiences over the last six months in Vietnam. I’m ready to leave. The reason we had to squeeze 5 countries into a month and a half of back-to-back travel is that our return flights to the U.S. had been booked for October 16th. Originally we planned to postpone our return flights by six months in order to stay a full year, but after consulting the inner depths of my heart, mind, and soul, I realized that there was no way in hell I wanted to stay another six months in Vietnam.
Which means we only have a few days to pack up all of our crap, say our goodbyes, and get the hell out of Asia.
We took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and spent 3 days and 3 nights enjoying the sights, and tastes, of Kyoto. We visited more temples, shrines, zen gardens, rock gardens, castles, and palaces than I could possibly remember the names of, and even though we took over a thousand photos, I never tire of looking at them. Kyoto produced some of the most stunning images I’ve ever seen. The way the Japanese can manipulate and coax nature into breathtaking works of art is awe-inspiring.
Two experiences for which I’m especially grateful are the discovery of ryokans (traditional Japanese-style inns) and kaiseki dinners (elite Kyoto cuisine involving multiple courses). I’d never heard of ryokans until I started researching hotels in Kyoto. At first I was neither impressed by nor interested in ryokans upon learning that they were more expensive than regular hotels and involved sleeping on a futon on the floor. Who wants to pay extra for that? But then I learned that dinner and breakfast were typically included in the price of a room, and these were no ordinary meals. It was my introduction to kaiseki, which is basically foodie heaven. I could eat kaiseki every day for the rest of my life and die perfectly happy. It’s become my all-time favorite cuisine, and that’s not something I say lightly.
On our last day in Kyoto, we made a pilgrimage to the impressive Fushimi Inari Shrine. I would’ve liked to have completed the several hour trek to the mountaintop, but I think that might have killed my poor old husband.
We spent the day exploring the happening Shinjuku area, known for its hole-in-the-wall bars and masses of humanity. Our intent was to go bar-hopping among the intimate closet-sized bars of Golden Gai, and I guess we technically achieved our goal by going to exactly two bars in Shinjuku. We were informed that nightlife doesn’t really get going until 11 P.M., which was way too late for a couple of old geysers like us, who had been roaming the streets and avenues of Shinjuku since 11 A.M. I didn’t want to be anywhere but in bed at 11 P.M. Especially when, after having for dinner two of the largest buckets of udon known to mankind, we wandered into a “concept bar” called Heaven around 7 P.M. It was hidden at the top of a narrow flight of stairs and when we opened the door into a cramped, dim, and rather dingy bar crammed with shelves of Japanese DVDs, I wanted to head straight out and back downstairs. I have no idea what concept the owner/bartender was going for; it was decidedly not heavenly. The male bartender and a lone female patron ushered us in, so, being too embarrassed to leave, we sat down at the bar and ordered drinks. Turns out the female patron had attended university at UC Santa Cruz and spoke terrific English, so we engaged in conversation with her and she acted as a translator between us and her bartender friend. When I first (reluctantly) sat down, the patron and the bartender exchanged some words in Japanese, and I heard them say the word “beautiful” in English as they nodded toward me and then at each other. Then the patron said to Tom, “My friend [the bartender] says that there are many pretty girls in Japan, but they are not beautiful. She [motioning toward me] is very beautiful.” At that moment I thought they were the most delightful people I had ever met and the bar was charming and exactly where we were supposed to be. What can I say, I’ve always been a sucker for compliments. When the bartender later expressed shock at the fact that we’ve been married for 14 years and have two children, his follow-up compliment of thinking that I was in my twenties was almost as good, but a woman never tires of hearing that she’s beautiful. It totally made my day and I would return to Heaven in a heartbeat. Maybe its dim lighting was particularly flattering or maybe the bartender was just really clever.
After Heaven, we stopped at one more bar and then decided to make our way back to our hotel. As we were walking down the lane that led from the Golden Gai area to the main drag, we approached a row of American tourists taking a picture of themselves at the end of the lane. As we came up behind them, we sidestepped the row of bodies but must have ducked too slowly because one guy (who looked like a stereotypical frat-boy) yelled at us, “Hey, you fucking ruined the picture!” I turned to look at him in shock, but as always, my anger came too slowly. Only after several seconds had passed and we were well down the block did I think of an appropriate retort: “Your fucking face ruined it! Don’t be such an obnoxious American, it’s embarrassing!” Maybe he had reduced inhibitions about swearing at strangers because he thought we didn’t understand English. Maybe he was subconsciously playing the role of the irreverent American in an uptight Asian society. Maybe he thought he was just being a smart-ass when he’s actually a dumb-ass. I realized I was furious, and kept kicking myself for not chewing him out. After further thought I decided it was probably for the best that I didn’t get into a verbal sparring match; I wouldn’t put it past a redneck hick like him to hit a woman.
Before this incident, Tom had just been telling the patron and the bartender at Heaven how impressed we were with the city of Tokyo. As he often does when he’s trying to enhance a compliment, Tom was overly critical about the U.S. and his fellow Americans. He suggested that Americans were, in general, ruder and more obnoxious than Japanese people. I disagreed and reproached him for his unfairly harsh assessment. I told him I was proud to be American, and living in Southeast Asia for several months has reinforced my belief that Americans are, on the whole, eminently practical, logical, friendly, and polite.
Then a stupid frat-boy cursed at us for accidentally walking into a picture. As we were walking away, I watched him and one of his companions climb onto the railing dividing the lane and bow to each other in mocking parody of Japanese people. Tom remarked in disgust that people like that were the type of Americans he was criticizing while we were at Heaven. I had to agree. As mad as I was at the stupid frat-boy for his rudeness toward us, what upsets me the most is knowing how much damage he’s inflicting on the reputation of Americans globally. He and people like him represent such a small fraction of who Americans are as a society, but he and people like him make the rest of us look bad. I believe the vast majority of U.S. citizens are decent, respectable, and respectful people, but unfortunately it’s the occasional asshole who makes a lasting impression.
See our entire day in Shinjuku here:
Tokyo is fucking awesome.