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Entries tagged with experiences.travel 
rosefox: a green and white highway sign that says THIS LANE FOR ROSE (driving)
We are in the woods. Every summer J's mom comes to the U.S. and stays at her house upstate, and we always spend at least one weekend here with her.

Last year it was our first driving trip as a family and we stressed a lot trying to plan it. This year we had three ready-made shared checklist documents for packing (for the car), packing (for the stay), and prepping the house. I said I wanted to leave by 7:30; at 7:20 we were pulling away from the curb. Flawless. Bonus: we didn't have to bring a portable crib or changing table because we'd already brought them on previous trips.

Last year we drove through beautiful summer sunshine, but the trip took five hours because of wretched traffic. This year we left after dinner, so even though we drove through torrential rain (I very nearly pulled off the highway at a few points) and then amazing thick fog (through which we were guided by a ghost car) it only took abut three hours. I like night driving and I like cutting two hours off our travel time but whew, I-87 is pretty terrible in nighttime rain, with no streetlights and very faded lane markers and water sheeting across the road.

Last year Kit was a perfect travel bean. This year they were also a perfect travel bean. During our mid-drive break for sandwiches and stretching, we took them into a gas station convenience store that they examined with the same serious yet optimistic expression they brought to the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Then J got them a bag of Goldfish crackers and they were so excited that they hugged it all the way out to the car. Everything is magical when you're a baby.

Last year we got here in the afternoon and Kit was astonished by the trees. TREES. SO MANY. SO TALL. This year we got here at night and a very sleepy Kit was astonished by Glory's collection of teddy bears and other stuffed animals. When they went to bed we had to stop them from pulling every bear within reach into the crib with them (in addition to Toronto and Hug Face, the bears we brought with us).

(One of Glory's bears has similar fur to Toronto's but is a bit bigger and has a snazzy black beret. "Toronto's uncle!" X said. "That must mean Toronto is French-Canadian," I said. The beret bear is now Uncle Georges and I suspect he'll be coming back to the city with us to meet Toronto's recently acquired identical twin [always have a spare of your child's favorite toy/blanket, always always always], whom I tried to name Ottawa but J and X call Toron-two. We are very silly with our bears.)

(Toronto actually has nothing to do with Canada; I call it that because of T.O. for "transitional object". I will never get tired of this joke. Hug Face is because Kit hugs it with their face. It has a fraternal twin named Face Hugs for the same reason. We are very silly with our bears.)

Last year I wrote, "I didn't mean to type so much; I should go do my OT exercises, ice my arms a bit more, and get some sleep. I'm just so glad that at least in our tiny little corner of the world, everything went okay today. I needed that." This year I say: yes, that.

Tomorrow the rain is supposed to ease off in the morning. I hope Kit gets to go out and romp a bit in the grass and be astonished by the trees all over again.
17 July 2017 02:29 - "The travel-model baby"
rosefox: A zombie from a Nintendo game. (zombie)
We are HOME. I have rarely in my life been so tired, and I have spent much of my life being tired. This is non-Euclidean tired that collapses in upon itself. I'm sort of impressed by it.

As usual, Sam was thrilled to see me, Sophie was thrilled to see X, and Alex pretended to have entirely forgotten our names until we ordered pizza and he decided he wanted some. Tili took very good care of them. She also pointed out that our inexplicably huge basil plants grew enormous flower spikes during the three days we were gone. The leaves are yellowing a bit; might be time for more fertilizer.

I cannot overstate how tremendously lucky we are to have such a good travel-bean. They were really clearly Done With Everything around 2 p.m. yesterday, and very polite about our inexplicable failure to take them home right then. They didn't nap much on the train today, though they did sleep on me for about half an hour—it's such a pleasure to be slept on by a baby, and we were all jockeying a bit to be the one that Kit napped on; I only won because J needed to get up to get something and I snagged the sleepy baby and the blanket—but they were generally cheerful and amenable to distraction nonetheless, and as soon as we got home they chugged a bottle and sacked out. They even signed "train" while we were waiting for the train, and they made friends with another toddler who was riding in our car, trading many high-fives and handshakes. They really liked the train trips; we should do more train travel with them.

Next year, more and better planning. Definitely. But on the whole it was a very good con.
16 July 2017 02:11 - "Gonna fall down any day now"
rosefox: The Readercon logo flipped to read R F. (readercon)
We are at Readercon! We are having a very good time.

We took the train up instead of driving. There was a mess leaving Penn Station—we had to get off our broken train and get onto another one at the last minute—and a friend couriered much of our luggage, so that was all a bit of a logistical headache, and it's stressful being bound to an external schedule. But I actually haven't missed having a car (or even thought much about leaving the hotel) and I definitely haven't missed being the only licensed driver for a long trip. Maybe the train again next year; maybe not.

Me being sick for the crucial two weeks (two full weeks! June 26 to July 10! let's never do that again!) when we would usually do all our planning led to many hilarious planning failures, including not packing enough underwear, packing the wrong bra, not bringing enough warm clothing for a freezing cold hotel, never getting around to going swimming (after much fuss about making sure we all had swim gear—though of course we forgot Kit's swim diaper!), not bringing toothpaste, not bringing enough cash for housekeeping tips, forgetting that my new eyeglass prescription means my hoarded last pair of contact lenses was useless, and not scheduling enough babysitter time. Rarely has my behavior.planning.agley tag been so apt. X and J did their very best to make up for my incapacity, but we're all used to me being the primary planner, and at this age Kit is very distracting and makes it hard to focus on planning. I suspect that we're going to go home, sleep for a week, and then plan out our entire schedule for next year in advance.

I gave a talk on habit reversal training for writers that was extremely well received. That was very gratifying and enjoyable, and set a good tone for the rest of the weekend. I attended a few panels, was on a couple more, read none of my book and knit none of my knitting, had a really lovely time hanging out with friends, stayed up very late—the usual.

Some of it has been a bit strange. I'm now at the age where my friends tell me about their divorces; I was not quite aware I had reached that age, but it's happened twice in two days, so here we are. (To be clear, I am very glad I could be there for those friends. I just wasn't expecting it.) No one's slept much except Kit, who remains an absolute champion traveler and has taken a solid two-hour nap every day we've been here, including on the train on the way up (and will ideally do so on the train home). But we're coping.

I was nearly falling asleep during my own room party, and then after it was done I went out to the patio because 1 a.m. Readercon patio conversations are a superb vintage I only get to taste once a year. We talked about consciousness upload and replication, which led to digressions on neuroscience, parenting, and karma. Good times.

I must go sleep a lot now. A whole lot. Tomorrow: home.
rosefox: a green and white highway sign that says THIS LANE FOR ROSE (driving)
Here is some advice on road trips with babies!

Driving

* A friend recommended putting the baby in overnight diapers to prevent rashes from lots of sitting and keep the baby from complaining between stops. We ended up not doing this because Kit doesn't really complain about wet/dirty diapers; we just stopped every two hours to give them a break from the car seat (which is very important to do) and changed them then. That said, they did start to get a bit of diaper rash redness by the end of the trip, so if you don't use super-absorbent diapers, I recommend applying diaper rash ointment proactively/preventively.

* If possible, stop at restaurants rather than highway rest stops. It's so much easier and nicer to change the baby in a restaurant bathroom than in a noisy, crowded rest stop bathroom where a dozen high-velocity hand dryers make a horrible noise that makes the baby scream, and restaurant food is better and tastier than rest stop fast food. Second-best option for a quick change: stop at a Babies R Us or similar baby supply store, which is guaranteed to have a well-appointed changing room.

* Expect each stop to somehow take at least 30 minutes even if all you're doing is changing the baby and giving them a little wriggle time. (Pack a picnic blanket you can lay out on a table or a bench or that little strip of sorry grass next to the parking lot.)

* Bring a few extra layers of clothing for the baby so you don't feel any urge to drape a blanket over the car seat even if you're cranking up the air conditioning in the car.

* If your kid isn't yet weaned, you may want a policy of only feeding liquids in the car so you don't have any concerns about choking hazards. Obviously you should NEVER EVER breastfeed in the car. Apparently this is a thing people do? Don't do it. Bottle-feed in motion, or breastfeed at a rest stop.

* Pack your regular diaper bag with everything you'd need for a day trip and have it handy for rest stops. If someone's sitting in the back seat with the baby (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) they can also dip into it for toys, pacifiers, etc. en route. You won't need many toys with a young baby; they'll mostly want to look around and sleep. (And you'll mostly want them to sleep.)

* Have a prepared playlist of music that's soothing for the baby but not soporific for the driver. Ella Fitzgerald singing heartbreak songs was perfect for putting Kit to sleep while I stayed alert.

* If no one's in the back seat, consider getting a car seat mirror so you can occasionally glance back and make sure all's well. But they can be major distractions, so use with caution.

* Don't be afraid of side roads and alternate routes, even if they slow you down a bit. It's more soothing for the baby if you drive steadily at 40 MPH than if you sit in stop-and-go traffic on the interstate.

* We got these cling-on window shades and they worked perfectly: easy to put on when it was sunny and take down in the evening, effective at shading the baby. They're great for rental cars and safe in accidents (unlike shades with metal edges).

* Consider a car seat protector to keep the area under and around the car seat clean. It's especially useful if your kid is at the Cheerios-scattering age, or if you're worried about damage to car upholstery. Waterproof car seat liners are vital for kids prone to spit-up, diaper leakage, or toilet training accidents. Get two so if the one in the car seat is soiled mid-trip, you can swap it out.

Overnight stays

* If you're staying in a hotel and storing breast milk or pre-made formula in the room's mini-fridge, bring a fridge thermometer to make sure the fridge is at an adequately cold temperature. Remember to pack a little travel bottle of dish detergent and a bottle brush for washing bottles.

* Graco Pack 'n' Play travel cribs are the awesome. They're easy to set up and take down, and they work as playpens and/or changing stations during the day as well as cribs at night. Kit's regular crib at home is a mini crib, so we bring their mattress and sheets along. If that's not an option for you, get a thin mini-crib mattress (takes up barely any space) and some mini-crib sheets and mattress pads that you launder a few times to give them that familiar smell; your baby will sleep much better surrounded by the scents of home.

* Get a travel humidifier for use in hotel rooms, which always have extremely dry air.

* Expect to have two duffel bags worth of stuff for the baby even just for a weekend. Diapers take up a lot of space, especially cloth (disposables have the advantage of not coming home with you). So does bedding, and you'll want extra in case of spit-up. Kit's very drooly right now because of teething and we went through two bibs and four to six burp cloths a day. Bring a laundry bag to make it easy to tell what's clean and what's not.

* Traveling with cloth diapers is a challenge. We used a Planet Wise hanging wet/dry bag for Kit's cloth diapers and it was fantastic--there was no smell leakage at all, even after days on the road, so we could just throw it in the trunk of the car with the suitcases. A smaller wet/dry bag with five diapers went in the diaper bag and was equally useful.

* Don't forget to bring a stroller or carrier for toting the baby around outside the car. A car seat frame may seem tempting, but your kid's already spending a lot of time in the car seat, and it's better for them if you can change it up a bit.

* Pack a first aid kit that includes gas drops, your antihistamine of choice, Tylenol, saline spray/drops and a snot-sucker, and a thermometer. If your kid gets a cold or has an allergic reaction mid-trip, you'll want all your vital supplies on hand. Calamine lotion is great if you're anticipating bug bites.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head, but I am happy to answer questions about anything I missed!
25 June 2016 01:41 - "When I am a driver"
rosefox: My feet on a pebbly beach. (travel)
The Brexit news is wretched and I can't pay too much attention to it or I fall into this sort of stupor of grief. Fortunately we had a lot to distract us today: our first-ever car trip as a family, the minimum-three-hour drive to visit J's mother upstate.

Prior to this, the longest drive I'd ever done was the two hours between Boston and New Haven for last year's Readercon travel Rube Goldberg machine. And my arms have been very cranky, as noted elsewhere, and my knees have been a little cranky, as I think I haven't even bothered noting because there's so much other stuff going on; highway driving is fine for my knees but stop-and-go is awful, and anytime we drive out of NYC there's going to be stop-and-go unless we leave in the middle of the night, which we can't do because baby. And X has their learner's permit but their driving test isn't until next week, so they can't spell me as the driver when we're renting a car. So we were all concerned about how that was going to go. I had a tiny little additional anx over never having rented a Zipcar before, but at least I'd seen other people do it and basically understood the process.

Kit does great in cab rides but has never been in a car for more than an hour. They've also never slept overnight anywhere other than our house (not counting the hospital where they were born). So we had no idea what or how much to pack, and had no idea how often we'd need to stop, and had no idea whether Kit would abruptly run out of "happy to be in the car" before we reached our destination. Plus I was nervous about the responsibility of being the driver with the baby in the car.

Given all of that, it's a wonder we only all snapped and griped at each other a few times over the course of getting ready and getting on the road. And then it went totally fine. We planned the fuck out of it, and 98% of the plan worked, and the 2% that didn't (Kit's folding crib not fitting in the rental car trunk; me packing all the burp cloths in a duffel that we put in the trunk) were things we had a backup plan for (I remembered that you can see a Babies R Us sign from I-87 in the Bronx--I've gone by it a million times in Chinatown buses--so we stopped there and bought a super compact folding crib/playpen that juuuuust fit in the back with the rest of our stuff) or coped with well on the fly (X noticed the lack of burp cloths and grabbed a few more before we left the house). My knee was kind of murderous after the two hours of stop-and-go traffic that got us to the Bronx, but traffic was much lighter the rest of the way and it recovered quickly. X was a superb navigator and deejay in the front seat while J entertained the baby in the back seat. Kit slept, ate, complacently tolerated being changed in the Babies R Us bathroom, slept, ate, complacently tolerated being briefly extricated from the car seat at a rest area where I stopped to eat a sandwich and have J jab the pressure points in my shoulders, and then cheerfully babbled and watched the sun-dapple through the trees for the last 45 minutes of the drive while J sang them silly songs and cracked us all up. We started the trip grumpy and anxious, but I think we all ended it feeling much more relaxed and content.

After nearly five hours of travel, we arrived at Glory's house, where she was standing out front waiting for us so as not to miss a single minute of her grandchild. We set up Kit's folding chair right in the driveway and plunked them in it, and they looked around wide-eyed at their ecstatic grandmother and all the glorious trees and then gave us a huge beaming smile. I have never felt so good about my life choices as I did in that moment. All the stress, all the fretting, all the physical discomfort was 100% worth it to see my baby smile like that.

While I iced my arms and knee (which all felt pretty good, but why take chances), J and X unloaded the car and Glory doted on the baby. J brought all the heavy bags in and then swung right into cooking dinner while X took point on feeding Kit, which was a bit of a challenge as we were sitting on the porch and they kept getting distracted by all the trees. So many trees! All moving constantly with wonderful breezes that smell so delicious! Kit happily sat on Glory's lap, happily let X take them inside and finish feeding them away from the distractions, happily had their diaper changed and put on pajamas, and happily lay down in their new crib (on their familiar mattress, with familiar music playing and a fan for white noise--we wanted to take as few chances with sleep as possible). More than an hour after their usual bedtime, they were still wide awake. But we all said goodnight and turned the lights down and left them to settle, and after a few minutes of babbling quietly--to themself? to the house spirits? who knows? it's not a thing they usually do--they conked right out. That was four and a half hours ago and they haven't woken yet.

Friends, I don't know what we did in a past life to deserve this baby. I think we were a trio of saints.

I'm already trying to figure out how often we can come up here. A five-hour drive is no picnic, even once X can split it with me; we all took today off to make it happen. I can't imagine doing the trip on a two-day weekend. Even a three-day weekend is pushing it. But Kit is so happy here. My little elfling. :) At the very least we should take more walks in Prospect Park. Trees! Trees are the best.

I'm so glad we have this trip as a trial run before going to Readercon in two weeks. By the end of the weekend we'll have a much better idea of what we need to bring with us and what's overkill. We'll know what to pack where we can reach it during the trip and what can go in the trunk. (I'm still embarrassed about the burp cloths.) We'll know the car; we've already reserved the same one for the Readercon trip. (I'm not sure I'd rent it a third time, but it's good enough that familiarity trumps wanting a car where the gas pedal is not set so much further forward than the brake pedal that it's literally impossible for me to find a comfortable seat position.) We'll know which of our travel gear works and is useful, instead of just having to hope. (Static cling car window shades: amazing. The thing that goes under the car seat and protects the upholstery: probably not necessary until Kit's old enough to be dropping Cheerios everywhere.) We'll know how often we need to stop and take breaks. We'll know that my "quiet and mellow" playlist is something the baby can sleep through--though frankly I wouldn't be surprised if Kit slept through Darude's "Sandstorm", Hamilton, or Beethoven's Fifth--but not so mellow that it puts me to sleep while I'm driving. We'll know that our baby is an amazing travel baby. And we'll know that we're a pretty amazing travel family: we may be a little irritable as we're getting on the road, but we can recover from that and go on to have a decent trip and a good time at our destination. Plus there should be a lot less irritability on the next trip, now that we have any idea what we're doing.

I didn't mean to type so much; I should go do my OT exercises, ice my arms a bit more, and get some sleep. I'm just so glad that at least in our tiny little corner of the world, everything went okay today. I needed that.
25 August 2012 04:28 - "A triumph of your will"
rosefox: "Joy through making things happen" (accomplishment)
Today was a fucking epic rockstar day.

1) I slept. Not a ton, but it was good sleep and I got up feeling well-rested.

2) I did every single thing on my to-do list plus two things I had forgotten to list, and every part of the day that was about timing went like clockwork.

3) I bought plane tickets for the London trip!

4) I went to lunch with [livejournal.com profile] zia_narratora, and ate spicy curry, and my ear unblocked! And the curry was yummy and the conversation was too. Tea is such a lovely person.

5) I had exactly enough time for a haircut between lunch and workout, and Yelp led me to a great barbershop. My head is finally fuzzy again! Five weeks between haircuts is really way too long.

6) At my workout I did PUSH-UPS. And TRICEPS DIPS. And they felt so good that I did them again. And I still had enough arm afterwards to high-five Chelsea, the awesome trainer I've been working with. (I also had a less fun moment when I was doing a lot of core work, which means tensing my abs--those very same abs that I have carefully taught myself to deliberately relax as an antidote to panic attacks--while leaning against a balance ball. Being literally wobbly amplified the emotional wobbly and I had to take a breather. Chelsea was lovely and brought me water and then stepped out of the room so I could center myself. I sat there and thought, Well, I have paid $85 to have this studio for an hour, and if I want to spend 20 minutes of that hour crying I can do that. But I don't think that's how I want or need to spend that money and time, so let's keep going. We did and it was just fine. So I call that a net win.) Chelsea even gave me homework, so I can keep working out my arms in between sessions. I cannot even explain how exciting this all is. I never thought I would do another push-up, ever. Today I did thirty of them! From the waist, not full-plank, but still. Tremendous.

7) I edited 4000 words of the book I'm working on.

8) "At some point I must try Julia Child's chicken waterzooi," I said, and tonight I did, since J and X and I were dining with friends who weren't interested in fish. The creaminess of it reminded me of many years ago when Mi Cucina on Hudson & Jane was a good restaurant and served utterly sublime pollo y rajas con crema with wonderful crispy cubes of potato (if there's a name for those in Spanish, I don't know it), so crispy potatoes became our side dish. We drank Thomas Henry chardonnay, with which I promptly fell in love--glorious notes of caramel!--and sopped our bowls with French bread and it was very, very good.

Crispy potatoes )

Chicken waterzooi )

Both recipes supposedly serve four, so we doubled them. They just barely served six. Fortunately the waterzooi is intensely rich and we had bread as well as potatoes, so no one went hungry.

(recipes crossposted to [community profile] omnomnom)

Afterwards we went out for gelato. I am so full, my goodness.

Many thanks to our hosts [livejournal.com profile] d_aulnoy (who shopped) and [livejournal.com profile] schrodingersgnu (who helped with cooking) and our dining companion [livejournal.com profile] vschanoes (who cleaned), all of whom made delightful conversation as we stuffed ourselves. What a marvelous evening.

9) I briefly entertained the Gnubaby and felt only somewhat awkward and at a loss. This is an improvement over my usual interactions with babies. I am not a native speaker of baby, but X is planning to have one in a couple of years, so I'm taking every opportunity to learn. (This is an extra reason why I'm really looking forward to hanging out with my friends in London who are parents, and especially the poly parents.) The Gnubaby was getting a bit tired-cranky, but I distracted him by tapping his shoulders in waltz time, which worked very well. [livejournal.com profile] d_aulnoy says we can come over and practice baby anytime we like, and I think we may take her up on it once X is out of crunch mode at work and J and I are done traveling.

10) On the way home, J and X helped me sort out some of my feelings about charging for advice. More on that in another post.

11) I brushed the cats and now they are all sleek and soft. Well, Sam was already soft, but now she's softer. Java's getting lazy and arthritic in his old age and he doesn't always crane his neck all the way around to lick his back, so he gets mats there sometimes, and I like to brush them out. He tolerates it. Sam doesn't need the brushing, but she loves it and boofs the brush and purrs like a Harley and is all cuddly after. They are such good kitties.

And now I have stayed up far too late reading the archives of "Scandinavia and the World" because I sent the link to [livejournal.com profile] schrodingersgnu, so I will feed the kitties and pass the out.
21 April 2010 21:37 - "When you're having fun"
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)
Travel diary part 1 of n is up at rosefoxtravels.

Ohaio gozaimasu! I'm writing this on Wednesday the 21st, en route from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Tokyo by way of Kōriyama. We're in the northern part of the country right now, passing conical hills and huge cloudbanks drifting over snow-capped mountains. It's been so cold here this spring that rather than being too late to see the cherry trees blooming around Tsuruka-Jo, we were actually too early... but I get ahead of myself.

I've been taking sketchy memory-jogging notes on my Palm Pilot. I hope to translate them into a proper narrative as I go along. My apologies if any of it seems to still be in shorthand. There are photos to go with much of this, but Josh didn't bring a camera cable, so I'll add them later when he gets a cable and has a chance to upload them.

THURSDAY APRIL 15

The trip really started five days ago (real days, not calendar days; Japan is 13 hours ahead of New York, so that calculation gets a bit tricky). I went to my various jobs and made sure everything was in order there while Josh worked from home and got the apartment in good shape for the cat-sitter. I left PW an hour early, stopping on the way home to get ham, roast beef, bread, and chicken and tomato salad as well as a bunch of meal bars to make sure we didn't get stuck with the usual terrible choice between airplane food and starvation.

Once I got home, we went out to dinner and then went home to pack. I looked at our schedule and divvied it up into five blocks: three changes of clothes in Ōsaka, four in Fukushima and Tokyo, two in Ōsaka and Matsuyama, four in Ōsaka, four in San Francisco. Each block got its own zippered plastic bag of the sort that sheets and blankets come in. Rather than count on being able to do l*undry at any given point (since the Ōsaka apartment has a washing machine and a clothesline, and there was no guarantee of sunny weather in April), I packed 17 comfortable easily-packed dresses and an assortment of tights, socks, and tops suitable for layering, as well as sandals for warm days, flats for cool days, and Crocs for rainy days. By the end of this process, I felt extremely organized and relaxed, which is always a good way to start a trip. Bag 1 went into my carry-on, ensuring that I'd have clothes for three days if they misplaced our luggage.

We knew we'd be bringing back lots of stuff from Ōsaka, so we originally planned to put my big cloth-sided suitcase into Josh's big hard-sided suitcase, but it wouldn't quite fit. Instead we left each one half-empty, which made them nice and light. Josh also brought his big camping backpack to check through, and of course each of us had the regulation two carry-ons. I tucked our big blue duffel into the suitcases just in case.

By the time we were done, it was maybe 22:00 and the cats were frantic. They know what the suitcases mean, and they don't like it. We spent the next few hours drinking tea, chatting with friends online, and petting the kitties until they calmed down some.

FRIDAY APRIL 16

Around 3 we did a last round of preparations, checking in online (I was amazed that United let us check in for the international leg of the flight) and figuring out how to fit all the food into Josh's carry-on duffel. Josh also made very sure to pack the two pounds of coffee he'd bought at Porto Rico, since he says most coffee in Japan is terrible and he didn't want to be stuck drinking terrible coffee for two weeks. We triple-checked that we had our passports, sufficient toiletries, and chargers for all our electronics.

The cab came to pick us up at 03:30 and we got to JFK right at 4... to find that the United counter opens at 04:30. We stood around in line with other early birds and eventually got up to the counter and learned that they would helpfully check our bags all the way through to Ōsaka. Thus unburdened, we confronted the suddenly enormous line for security. Fortunately I'd paid extra for us to use the first-class line, so we were through very quickly.

To get ourselves onto Japan time, we'd planned to stay awake on the flight to San Francisco. Ha ha ha. Josh was asleep before we even took off. The start of the flight was pretty wobbly and bumpy, but eventually we made it into smoother air, at which point I conked out. I think we spent maybe four hours of the six-hour flight asleep and the other two eating. Getting to our gate in SFO was a breeze, and we snacked some more while waiting for the flight to board, which it did with classic Japanese efficiency and promptness.

I'd forgotten that I had ordered the dairy-free vegetarian meal until it was delivered to my seat. It was some sort of grain mush. I poked at it a bit and went back to the ham and roast beef. Eventually they turned out the cabin lights; we shut our windowshade and did our best to get more sleep. When we woke up four hours later, it was about 08:30 Japan time: perfect! All that remained was to last six hours until we landed. Josh listened to audiobooks while I finished reading Peter Benchley's The Island and started in on Stephen King's It. I read pretty quickly, but that sucker is a good thousand pages long, and I was maybe halfway through when time came to fill out our entry forms. We got to the "address" section and realized that neither of us had the address of the Ōsaka apartment, so I fudged a bit and gave the name of the Fukushima ryokan.

SATURDAY APRIL 17

We arrived in Ōsaka around 14:20, half an hour early. That half hour was quickly eaten up by the very long line for customs, and this time there was no way to bypass it. I kept reading until it was time for me to be photographed, fingerprinted, and waved through to baggage claim. Our bags were coming around the curve of the conveyor belt just as we got there, so I ran over and hauled them off. We emerged and headed over to the currency exchange to turn our U.S. cash into yen and look for Glory, whose flight from Tokyo was supposed to have arrived just minutes after ours. A few minutes later I spotted her heading our way. She explained that her flight had actually been twenty minutes late, so the timing worked out perfectly.

The next stop was the Japan Rail office to get our rail passes, followed by a quick commuter train trip to Tennoji, the closest major stop to the apartment. While on the train, Glory discovered that her map book had vanished from her luggage, which made us all very sad; there wasn't any truly vital information in there, but it contained many notes from many trips. Otherwise all was entirely uneventful. We somehow managed to haul all of our luggage onto and off of the train and then fit it and ourselves into a taxi. Arriving at the apartment, Glory rummaged for the keys... and couldn't find them. Eventually they turned up in her locked suitcase. We were all very glad she had a spare key for that luggage lock in her purse.

The apartment was musty-smelling, in part because the climate is damp and in part because sewage had apparently exploded out of the toilet at some point since the last time someone stayed there. I gave Glory a disposable glove (what, you don't always carry them with you?) and she scrubbed the bathroom while we started turning on the heat and hot water and seeing what supplies we needed to buy. I hung up the dresses from Bag 1 and set myself up in the one bedroom that has a real bed while Josh and Glory made futon beds in the two tatami rooms.

Around 18:00 we realized we were ravenous and went out to hunt down a yakiniku place that Josh and I had loved on our last trip there. It was easy to find, and we were thrilled by how well we remembered the navigation of the neighborhood. We splurged on top-notch beef, which was fatty but oh so tender, and grilled it over gas-fired "coals" along with an assortment of vegetables. Glory helpfully translated for us as I realized just how much Japanese I'd forgotten (pretty much all of it) and grumped over leaving our phrasebooks at home.

On the way back, we stopped at a little 24-hour grocery to lay in breakfast supplies: bread, butter, orange juice, milk for coffee. We went home and did our best to stay awake, but I'm pretty sure Josh was asleep by 20:00 and I conked out an hour later.

[I pause to change trains at Koriyama; now we're on the Shinkansen to Tokyo.]

SUNDAY APRIL 18

Having gone to bed so early, of course I woke at 4, coughing from the whiffs of mold growing on the back of the closet in my room. I did my best to doze and eventually got up and read until everyone else was awake. We noshed on toast and tea as the sun rose. Thus fortified, we set up the air-cleaner that was sitting in a corner of the apartment and got it humming in my room. We also began preparing to loot the apartment, rummaging through cabinets and dressers to find things to bring home with us or give as gifts.

We soon got hungry again and ventured out, strolling up the nearby shopping street. Nearly everything was closed, since it wasn't yet 08:00 on a Sunday. We walked up to the Teradachō train stop (nearer than Tennoji but not on the main loop line), hoping our favorite little ramen shop would be open, but it was still shuttered. Mister Donut no longer has the sainted pastries that we lived on the last time we were in Japan, purple yam paste wrapped in crispy layers of dough and sprinkled with black sesame seeds; I vowed to learn how to make my own. Eventually we wound up at a tiny little place called Cafe Marguerite, which was blaring American hip-hop radio from speakers over the front door but was at least open for business. Inside they were playing old-time blues, which was much more pleasant. We sat at the counter--nowhere else to sit--and ordered from a pictorial breakfast menu: ham and a fried egg for me, ham-egg-cheese sandwiches for Josh and Glory. The presentation was lovely, with little bowls of salad, tiny cups of yogurt, and delicate glasses of iced apple juice. Rolling up ham and fried eggs and eating them with chopsticks is an interesting challenge, but quite doable once you have the knack of it. To our right, a trio of salarymen chatted and smoked; I'd entirely forgotten that smoking in restaurants is still legal in Japan, and it both weirded me out and made me a bit nostalgic for the smoke-scented New York breakfast counters of yore.

After breakfast, we caught a train from Teradachō to the center of town. I was still coughing, so we stopped at a newsstand and bought some cough drops. We later found that the newsstand clerk, perhaps annoyed at breaking a large bill for such a little purchase, gave me Korean change, which is pretty worthless. Oh well; I guess I paid $7 to learn the lesson of checking my change rather than just shoving it in my purse, which seems a reasonable price, really.

Hiroshi texted us directions to Kinokuniya, the big bookstore, and we headed there to discover that they have bilingual atlases of Tokyo and Kyoto, but none of Ōsaka. All the Japanese-only atlases weren't really worth bothering with. We had to hunt to even find Ōsaka train maps. Given that the store is in Ōsaka, we all felt this was a bit ridiculous. I picked up a couple of pocket phrasebooks and a cute little book of mnemonics for katakana and hiragana (ku is the beak of the cucKOO bird: く; ni looks like a KNEE: に; ha looks like a capital H on top of a lowercase alpha-style a: は), and Josh got a charming traveler's restaurant phrasebook that explains a lot about Japanese food, so at least the trip wasn't a waste.

On our way out of the shopping center, we passed a yarn store. Of course Glory and I had to go inside. I bought expensive, gorgeous silver and black glass buttons for finishing my current project, and some lovely silk and paper yarn for a colleague. Glory got shimmery yarn for making a scarf for a friend. Josh was very, very patient. He got his turn when we passed a shop selling French presses; after much deliberation, we selected one with a pink holder that nearly matches Glory's hair.

Glory thought the giant five-storey Muji store was nearby, and the store clerk was happy to give us directions. The directions were, unfortunately, useless. Undaunted, Glory stopped a gaggle of teenagers and asked for help, and they said they were going that way themselves and would be happy to escort us. I found myself greatly missing our teenage friend Lorelei, who I'm sure would have been taking piles of notes on the girls' clothing, makeup, and hair.

The teens left us at a building that turned out to have a Muji shop on the top floor; it wasn't the monster Muji but we were happy to go look around anyway. It looked for a minute like their men's clothes might fit me, but they weren't quite right. I bought two kinds of tea and Josh got a neck pillow and a little six-compartment pill box. On the way out, we spotted a travel shop and I picked up plastic zip-top bags for our toiletries, since Josh didn't have one and mine had split in transit. I also found a little gift for my mother.

It was past noon and we were getting hungry and footsore, so we stopped at a random noodle shop for lunch. It turned out to be amazing! Josh got curry udon that was out of this world. My udon soup with beef was delicious. They came with little dishes of homemade tofu that had the texture of top-notch fresh mozzarella; I confirmed that I don't really like even very good tofu, and Josh and Glory were happy to share mine.

We walked back to the train station and went a few stops over to Doguyasuji, an old shopping street full of cooking supply stores. I was starting to get cranky from too much conversational time, so while Josh and Glory ogled beautiful knives, I went a couple of stores down and looked at wooden spoons. Amazing how much better I felt just from five minutes to myself! When Josh caught up with me, he bought two for stirring French presses. I also got a tiny plastic sushi keychain for a friend and reluctantly tore myself away from some of the most beautiful wooden rice bowls I have ever seen. I may eventually go back for them. They were only ¥540 and oh so pretty. What will I use them for? Don't I have enough little bowls already? Who cares, and no.

Now our feet were really hurting. After a few wrong turns, we found our way to the train and went back to Tennoji, taking a taxi home from there because the short cab ride cost about the same as three bus fares and none of us felt like figuring out which bus went where we were going.

The rest of the afternoon is something of a blur. I know we rummaged through more boxes, selecting things to take home or give to friends, until the mold got too bad and I started coughing again. I know I played a video game while Josh napped. I know Josh eventually woke up and we did a three-way room swap: his bedding into the smaller tatami room and Glory's into the larger, since she's sharing it with Hiroshi when he comes to join us, and then Josh's things into the bedroom and mine into the smaller tatami room, since he thought the Western-style bed would be easier on his back and he's less sensitive to mold than I am. We also packed for the next leg of the trip, which for me meant putting Bag 2 and a couple of layering shirts into my big backpack. I do so love being organized.

By 20:30 we were all tired and prone to griping. Glory fretted about it being too late and all the restaurants being closed; I snarked that she was the one who wanted us to pack before we went out because we'd be too tired when we got back (even though I knew she was perfectly correct in this assessment). Fortunately we're all adults and capable of taking deep breaths and going to get food RIGHT NOW.

Glory and Josh had been wanting to go to a little sushi place near the apartment, where the owner knows and loves Glory and Hiroshi. I was a little skeptical, since I generally don't love sushi (or most seafood). I wasn't all that hungry, though, so I agreed to go and try whatever they said was good, privately figured I could always have a meal bar when we got home or something.

I'm not sure how to describe the front of this place. It mostly looks like a run-down flower shop. From the outside you can't even tell that it's open, and there are flowerpots everywhere; this is a common outdoor decoration in that neighborhood Ōsaka, but they're so haphazard that they could just as easily be junk left out for the trash collectors. Then you slide the door open and walk in to find a beautiful counter made from a single enormous piece of wood, and tables up on a platform from which you can easily watch the sushi chefs behind the counter preparing your meal. It's tiny, but really well arranged, and we immediately felt at home there even before the chef came out to greet us with cries of delight.

Glory inquired about non-fish options and learned that they had beef--gorgeously marbled and laid out on the sushi bar for us to marvel at--which we promptly requested, along with two orders of shishito, little bitter green peppers with just a hint of heat. She and Josh requested an eight-piece sushi assortment as well, and chawan mushi. I was very skeptical of the chawan mushi, which Glory described as egg custard made with fish stock, so she only requested two bowls, one for her and one for Josh. They also split a bottle of sake. Remember this; it will be important later.

The beef arrived first: 100 grams of absolute top-quality steak, marinated in soy and sake, grilled for just a few moments on each side, and carved into elegant pieces. This was not a thick American steak, but a slender cut, perhaps a centimeter thick. It was magnificent. I dipped it into the little dish of salt and black pepper and nearly fainted with joy. The texture was indescribably tender. I think I'm going to be very spoiled for steak after this trip.

The shishito were also grilled and served with a bit of soy sauce and whisper-thin shreds of dried bonito on top. The shreds waved and curled in the heat from the peppers, always a magical effect. We devoured them with great delight.

The sushi assortment included toro, maguro, unagi, uni, ebi, ikura, a couple of pieces of whitefish that none of us recognized. I ate the unagi and pronounced it delicious. The rest vanished with almost alarming speed, and Josh ordered an extra serving of tako while Glory requested more uni.

Josh and Glory rhapsodized over the chawan mushi until I agreed to taste it. WOW. The custard was ethereal, and the stock richly flavored without any of the briny fishy taste that always triggers my "this has spoiled and I shouldn't eat it" reflex. Embedded in the custard were pieces of mushroom, fish, chicken, shrimp, lobster, a delicate little crab claw. I could have eaten the whole thing myself, but I settled for splitting the crab with Josh, since he had given me most of his share of the beef.

While we were savoring the chawan mushi, the server brought a single piece of uni sushi, which Glory thought was the one she had ordered. Then the server vanished and returned with two pieces of tako for Josh and two more of uni for Glory. Apparently the chef had sent the first piece of uni over as a gift. We expressed effusive gratitude.

Finally, we were given bowls of miso soup, simple and perfect.

Now I must zoom out from the close focus on the table, because while we were enjoying this spectacular meal, we were also making a friend of sorts. An extremely drunk man in a red track suit was sitting at the bar (just across the very narrow aisle from our table) with a shaggy-haired woman who seemed to at least be his close friend. They had been drinking steadily for the entire time we'd been there. Not long after we settled in and Josh and Glory were starting in on their sake, Red Track Suit Guy lurched to his feet and turned around to regard us with a friendly if unsteady gaze. He spoke maybe two words of English, and was so far gone he could maybe manage four more words of Japanese. Fortunately, a young woman sitting behind Glory spoke some English and was kind enough to help translate once she saw us struggling to surmount the twin barriers of language and intoxication.

Red Track Suit Guy wanted to know where we were from. Singapore and New York, we said. Ah, New York! he said. I have a friend who lives north of New York... uh... somewhere. Boston? Connecticut? No, no. Albany? No, no. It snows a lot there. Aha, I said: Canada. YES! he exclaimed. Canada! That's it! North of New York: Canada!

We cracked up. Our translator and her friends burst into fits of giggles. Red Track Suit Guy also started laughing, though I'm not sure he knew what was so funny. Maybe he was in that state where everything was funny.

Red Track Suit Guy eventually clapped Josh on the back a few times and sat back down with his friend. We thanked the translator for her help. The chef came by, said hello, asked after Hiroshi, asked how we were enjoying the meal. We sang its praises in two languages and he bowed several times, looking very happy. He went back behind the bar.

The server brought over a bottle of sake and said it was a gift from Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. They turned around and waved at us and raised their glasses: Kampai! Kampai! I toasted with my water glass, since it was all I had. Everyone drank. Red Track Suit Guy got up and went over to the fellow sitting on the other side of Shaggy-Haired Woman and started talking at him. (I have no idea whether they knew each other.) Shaggy-Haired Woman didn't seem thrilled, but she busied herself with eating, as did we.

[Another pause. Now in the hotel room in Tokyo. Beds! Real beds!]

We reached the end of our meal and got some delicious watermelon for dessert. Glory felt we ought to repay the gift, so she asked the server if she could send some sake over to Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. No, the server said, they keep their own bottle of sake at the bar and just drink from that. We also thought that maybe sending more alcohol over to someone so obviously soused would be a bad idea. Instead, I suggested we buy them some watermelon. The server brought it over and told them it was from us, and Red Track Suit Guy jumped up from his conversation with his neighbor and thanked us effusively. With some help from our friendly translator, he even invited us over to his house. Glory hastened to explain that we were leaving for Tokyo very early in the morning. For some reason she neglected to mention that we would be coming back to Ōsaka.

Josh did give the guy his card, and I took a hilarious photo of them together. We thanked our translator, who said, "Don't mind him. He's just... very drunk." I said, "Yes, that's the same in every language!" and we had a good laugh together before settling the bill and escaping. We stopped at the store to get sugar for the coffee-drinkers (Glory had thought there was sugar in the house, but it turned out to be artificial sweetener, which Josh can't stand) and then staggered the few blocks home and pretty much immediately went to bed. By 23:00 we were all unconscious.

[This concludes this evening's portion of our program. More soon.]

-----

Ohaio gozaimasu! It's Sunday the 25th and I'm in the air, flying from Matsuyama to Ōsaka after a lovely day trip. Josh has kindly given me his window seat, since I slept through the last flight; the view of the island is lovely.

I'm nearly a week behind, so let's see about catching up.

MONDAY APRIL 19

Still jetlagged, I woke at 6 and hid in my room for a bit, reading It, until I heard other people moving around. We broke our fast with toast and tea; I tried the chocolate tea from Muji and was disappointed by its general lack of chocolateness. We all showered and dressed, checked that everything was packed for four days away, and got ready to head to the train station. Since we'd gotten up so early, there was plenty of time to make the early train to Tokyo.

I was starting to feel frustrated with how little Japanese I remembered, so on our way out the door I ran out to the balcony with my laptop (that being the only place I could get a clear signal from the neighbor's unlocked wireless network) and downloaded a free online Japanese textbook and a couple of grammar references. It took maybe thirty seconds. I love the internet.

We caught a bus to Tennōji and took the commuter train to Ōsaka station, where we waved our rail passes at the JR office and got reserved seats for the Shinkansen. There was plenty of time to stop and get breakfast pastries; I acquired a curry sausage (not curried, but curry in a sausage-like shape) wrapped in dough, a pocket of egg and ham and cheese, and a soft mochi-like ball of black sesame dough with a yam filling that went some way toward scratching the itch for the Mister Donut pastry of blessed memory. Once we'd eaten, we went down to the train. It took a mere three hours at super-fast speeds to get to Tokyo, where we had half an hour to transfer. We stopped to acquire bento boxes: Josh and I shared one with grilled beef, very tasty pickles, and lots and lots of rice. The next Shinkansen took us to Fukushima.

Since we'd arrived on the early side, we decided to check our bags at the station and head off to Hanamiyama ("the mountain of going to see the flowers"), where the cherry trees were in perfect full bloom. Smallish lockers were ¥400 each, but there was a convenient tourist bag check office near the bus stop that was happy to take four pieces of luggage for ¥100 each. We were warned several times that the luggage office closed at 18:00 and the last bus back from Hanamiyama left the mountain at 16:55, though it was quite possible to take a taxi after that if we wanted to.

The 15:40 bus dropped us off at Hanamiyama at 15:55 and we stopped to use the bathroom (where there were old-fashioned hole-in-the-ground toilets) before setting out along the path up the mountain. We saw hundreds of other tourists there but very few gaijin. A map showed us three paths; we chose the middle option, a 45-minute walk not counting the trip between the gate and the mountain itself. The path was steep and occasionally muddy, but the trees were magnificent, and we declared the effort well worth it. Josh and Glory took lots and lots and lots of pictures, which I'll link to once they're online.

We made it down just in time to catch the 16:55 bus, picked up our luggage, and found the little two-car local train that took us up to Iizaka, a tiny onsen machi (hot springs town) in the mountains. The station was full of some of the biggest mosquitos I've ever seen. Glory called Iseya Ryokan to say we had arrived, and we got in five minutes of swatting bugs, taking pictures of funny signs, and watching people stroll around town in their yukata (onsen bathrobes) before the car from the ryokan showed up. It was a very quick drive up to the ryokan, where many bowing people greeted us, showed us where to leave our shoes, checked us in, and took us up to our shared room.

[A pause while the plane lands; now in Ōsaka Itami airport, sitting on the floor near a power socket because for some reason my laptop didn't charge properly yesterday.]

For a tatami room in an onsen ryokan, it was quite big. A large, low table occupied the center of the room. One closet held yukata, towels, and other bathing supplies, and another had a supply of futons (perhaps half the thickness of American folding-couch-style futons) and big down quilts. Behind a set of sliding doors was a dressing area with a water closet at one end and a full shower on the other--very luxurious! Another set of doors hid a tiny Western-style boudoir with two chairs and a table. We arranged for dinner at 6:30, and Josh stretched out on the floor to nap while Glory and I read our books in the boudoir.

Promptly at 6:30, a cheerful voice called out from the corridor, and a woman came in with two enormous plastic tubs and began setting out delicious-smelling appetizers--a sweet custard with flecks of gold leaf, a shrimp in the shape of a bird with a little spine from the tail for its beak, a tiny bowl of golden jellyfish tentacles, sweet konbu wrapped around something or other, two little fish cakes, a salad--and an enormous boat of sashimi. Glory offered her a tip, which she adamantly refused. She vanished and we sat down at the table... to realize there were no chopsticks. Had she forgotten them? Maybe she was flustered over the offered tip? Our stomachs rumbled as we sat for a few minutes, staring at the food and debating whether she was coming back. Finally we called down to the front desk and asked for chopsticks, and a minute later the woman returned with two more enormous plastic tubs full of even more food. And chopsticks. Oops.

I'm not sure I can even remember everything we were served. There was grilled fish with a stalk of young ginger, tender and sweet and delicious; piles of top-quality sashimi served in an elegant wooden boat; chawan mushi, not quite as delicate as what we'd had at the sushi place but very good; a flame-heated iron dish of shishito, red and yellow pepper, fish, a scallop, a crab claw, and a piece of the most tender squid I've ever eaten, all simmered in butter; tempura fish, shrimp, and vegetables; delectable pickles that were cleverly colored and shaped to look like sushi; salad; miso soup; plenty of plain white rice; hot tea. I'm probably forgetting something. Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves.

It would have been clever to bathe before dinner. We were not clever. It took some time of sitting around and digesting before we were able to stand up, but we eventually headed down to the baths.

[Now on the bus to the Ōsaka train station.]

There was a large bath for men and a smaller bath for women, plus a huge rotonborou (outdoor bath) that had a very strict schedule of men's times and women's times. These baths contain natural hot water from underground springs and are for swimming and soaking, not washing. Before getting into the bath, one scrubs oneself thoroughly with soap at stations equipped with sinks, handheld showers, and little stools and wooden buckets. The ryokan provides soap or you can bring your own; it also provides little wash-towels that have the name of the ryokan and can be taken home as souvenirs. (Glory has a big collection of them and uses them for dishtowels.) As with anywhere in Japan, there's very specific etiquette around footwear: we were given slippers for walking around in the hotel, left them at the door of the bath and went barefoot in there, put them on again to walk over to the door to the rotonborou, and then changed to clunky wooden flip-flops for walking outside.

Women had the rotonborou until 20:50, so Glory and I enjoyed a very nice long soak among flowering trees and women who carefully avoided making eye contact. We delicately left our eyeglasses on a nearby rock because one isn't supposed to stare at other people while bathing. Etiquette around communal nudity is fascinating stuff. Josh headed to the men's bath for a soak indoors. We returned to find the dinner table moved to one side and futons laid out on the floor, covered in starched linens and down comforters. Josh went straight to sleep; I stayed up long enough to finish my book, got an extra comforter to provide padding (the futon + floor combination being quite deadly for one's back, especially with a pillow that appeared to be stuffed solely with some sort of dried grains), and conked out around 22:00.

[Now on the Shinkansen to Kyoto. It takes 14 minutes, so I'm not sure how much more I'll be able to write out.]

TUESDAY APRIL 21

We woke at 6 and Glory went down to take another bath; Josh and I took advantage of the time alone. Around 7 I wandered down and enjoyed another brief soak in the rotonborou before dressing and packing (leaving my book behind to lighten the load a little). Breakfast was served at 8 and I don't even remember what was in it; I just remember that it was enormous, and there was an onsen egg, very soft-boiled with an amazing orange yolk, that had been cooked in the hot spring water. I'll have to consult the photos for the rest.

We were up early enough to catch the 9:15 train back to Fukushima, where we switched to the Shinkansen to Kōriyama and then got on a red-painted train decorated with pictures of a red animal that we thought was either a dog or a cow. We were later to learn (after many jokes about "Dog-cows say 'moof'!") that this is the akabeko, a red bull that gave its spirit to the Buddha after helping to haul materials to build a temple in Aizu-Wakamatsu. The akabeko is something of a mascot for the region, and local craftspeople make little akabeko toys with bobbling heads.

[Now, much later, on a local train from Kyoto back to Tennōji Station in Ōsaka, which will give us 45 minutes of blissful rest after a long hard afternoon of shopping. Ow, my feet.]

At Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, friendly people at an information booth gave us a pamphlet and schedule for a tourist hop-on-hop-off bus that hit all the local hot spots, including the train station, the local castle, a couple of sake breweries, a botanic garden specializing in medicinal plants, and the onsen machi that was home to our little ryokan. The only snag was that the buses didn't go to the onsen part of town between 11:00 and 15:00, I guess because most tourists are out sightseeing around then, and we had just missed the last one. We considered going to lunch with all our luggage and then continuing to the ryokan, but I talked Josh and Glory into taking a taxi straight to the ryokan and dropping our luggage first. We were pretty burdened with clothes etc. for four days of travel, so it wasn't a hard sell.

The taxi was pretty quick and not too expensive. The ryokan looked like just another storefront along the main street of the onsen machi, with flowerpots in front of the sliding wooden doors and an understated blue fabric banner that presumably proclaimed the name of the business. We went in and admired the fireplace set into the middle of the floor (a style called "robata", which means "fireside"). A woman rushed out to greet us and apologetically explain that our rooms wouldn't be ready until 16:00. She was happy to guard our luggage until then, and when we said we wanted to go to a restaurant that Hiroshi had recommended, she immediately offered to drive us there. The hotel's car turned out to be a really smashing Toyota that looked vintage but had all the modern amenities. We were very impressed.

The hotelier dropped us off at Takino, where we had a truly excellent lunch of wappa meishi, sticky rice steamed with various toppings in a single bamboo container. Mine included pork and a sweet-salty garnish of cooked egg crumbled so finely that it looked like minutely grated cheese; Josh got fish and Glory had vegetables. We got set lunches, which included pickles and miso. Much tastiness. As we were leaving, I successfully asked for the location of the bathroom, feeling very vindicated in my purchases of language learning books and decision to spend most of the train ride studying up on grammar.

We strolled down to the castle, but the cherry trees were not yet blooming--apparently it's been very cold this spring--and a sign informed us that the castle tower had been torn down in the early 1900s and rebuilt in 1965. We decided to skip it and started walking towards Oyakuen, the botanic garden, which I really wanted to see. After just missing the tourist bus and realizing that the garden was most of a kilometer away, we decided to take a taxi; it cost a mere ¥500 and gave us a few minutes' much-needed relief from standing and walking.

Oyakuen was quite lovely. The medicinal section was being planted as we walked by, so there was very little to see there, but the central pond and traditional garden were beautiful, and we enjoyed a restful stroll along the single path. In the middle of the pond was a tatami-floored hut with a thatched roof, which was really neat; I'd never seen thatch that close up before. We also saw ducks and some impressively large koi, all of which looked hopefully at us as we walked by. We had no crumbs to give them, but it was entertaining to watch the ducks pecking at the koi to keep them back just in case there might be something to go after. As we neared the end, we saw a real triumph of arboreal manipulation. A cherry tree leaning over at almost a 60-degree angle had been hollowed out along one side, with large holes through the other side--but we knew it was a cherry tree because it was flowering, somehow still alive despite the dramatic surgery. There was even a clump of daffodils growing through one of the big holes in it! Truly impressive. We took lots of pictures.

In the gift shop, we bought medicinal tea that's supposed to be good for stomach trouble. No idea what's in it, but it certainly tasted good in the shop, and was very soothing. We refrained from buying anything decorated with akabeko. It was now past 15:00, so we sat outside for about 20 minutes and caught the tourist bus to the onsen machi. It dropped us off at the edge of town and I successfully led us up the hill and along the main road, past a beautiful river, to our ryokan.

Entirely silent earlier, the front room was now full of salarymen sitting around the robata and drinking tea. Many pairs of shoes were lined up by the door. We added our shoes and went to greet the hotelier, who led us to another room with its own robata. We sipped tea for a bit while admiring the various artifacts of various earlier eras--an iron kettle-hook over the fireplace that was at least 500 years old, a wind-up Victrola with a pile of Elvis records--and then were shown up to our room on the third floor. The building was small and charming, with only nine bedrooms and shared single-sex restrooms on the third floor and baths on the second floor. The woman taking us to our room pointed the way to the baths and said the one for men had a blue curtain and the one for women had a red curtain. Remember that; it will be important later.

Our room was again quite large. This time the central table was covered with a blanket, and an electric blanket lay underneath; Josh and I were thrilled to sit down on floor cushions and stick our aching feet under the table to warm up. Behind a screen was a tiny boudoir with two chairs, where Glory settled herself, and a sink, so we could brush our teeth and apply makeup and so forth without going out. The woody-sweet scent of fresh tatami mats was everywhere. Josh and I opened our laptops and discovered to our delight that there were two unlocked wireless networks, one belonging to the hotel and another from some nearby home. Signal was weak, but we found the best places to sit and latched on like starving infants while Glory went down to the bath.

At 6:30 we repaired downstairs for dinner and were shown to yet another separate room with a large rectangular central fireplace full of ash, a mound of perfect coals in the center. Bamboo sticks braced in the ashes held three small fish and three large cubes of firm tofu over the the flames. The fish had been elegantly skewered to look as though they were still swimming. As we settled ourselves around the table, a server came over to take our drink orders--and spoke to us in pitch-perfect English, with an American accent no less! We were delighted and asked where she was from: Manila, she replied. She was Filipina-Chinese and had moved to Japan after marrying a Japanese man. We later overheard her speaking what sounded like equally excellent Japanese, and she said she also spoke Tagalog. We were very impressed.

While we waited for the fish and tofu to cook, we were given small dishes with slices of what looked like raw beef... but was in fact raw horse. Yes, I ate it. On the whole I'd say I prefer raw beef; the horse didn't have much flavor and was rather tough.

The fish were served whole, and our server explained we were to eat them from head to tail: bones, guts, fins, and all. Since those fish only eat algae, they're considered safe to consume in their entirety. Glory did just that, while Josh and I pleaded gaijin and opened them up to pick out the sweet flesh and leave the rest. I did try a fin, which was crunchy and salty and very nice. The cubes of tofu were surprisingly tasty; I'm not usually a tofu fan, but I liked this incarnation of it.

Our server then grilled three spiced chicken patties, which were served with a delicious sweet sauce and a raw egg that one muddled with chopsticks and used as a dip. I was actually more grossed out by the idea of raw egg than I had been by the idea of raw horse, but it was very tasty. Next came boneless chicken thighs, likewise grilled over the coals, perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. We were also served bowls of kama meishi--steamed rice with meat and vegetables mixed in--and miso soup. Dessert was pieces of gloriously sweet orange.

During dinner, a woman came in, gave us a folded paper crane, bowed, and left. (We assumed she worked for the hotel, but who knows?) Our chopsticks had come wrapped in paper, and Josh tore his into a square and handed it to me; I folded it into a carnation. Glory took her chopstick wrapper, placed folded tip money inside, put the paper flower on top, and handed it to our server the next time she came by. She appeared utterly charmed. We all felt very pleased with ourselves.
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