Sunday, November 29, 2015

Seeing our Kids in Kansas City

Our last trip to Kansas City was six months ago to move our son and daughter-in-law into the home they just purchased.  He had just graduated from medical school and was getting ready to start his residency in pediatrics, and she was looking for a job as a Physician's Assistant.  We were anxious to see them both, so another trip to Kansas City was on the top of our travel list.  Here they are, sitting on the wall overlooking Union Station and downtown KC.

We had just finished painting bed rooms and got everything moved inside the house when we saw them last.  Now they have everything decorated and arranged and looking so cute!  They are no longer rookie home owners--they are experienced residential investors.

Because we spent most of our time painting and working on our last visit, they took us for a tour of the area this time.  We headed north out of the city to the little town of Weston, Missouri.  They are gearing up for holiday shoppers, and we just happened to find Father Christmas out greeting visitors.

Jordan just happened to find something else--an old sled that could make a nice decoration beside their fireplace this winter.  Luke wasn't convinced, but agreed that it would make a good gift for Jordan for Christmas.  So Mark was sneaky, and returned to buy it when Jordan wasn't looking, and then hid the sled in the car.  Alas, when she went back to the store to make the purchase, it was gone.  We wanted her to have it early to use it as a Christmas decoration, so we gave it to her right there in the parking lot.

We just missed the peak of autumn foliage in Kansas City, and it looks like their street was stunning with all the 100-year-old trees turning colors.  It made Denisa happy just walking down that avenue of giant trees.
We went on a long walk around their neighborhood, and found some trees that were still in their prime red foliage.

While on that walk, Denisa took this picture of two of her favorite men.  You might notice that Mark is participating in "No-shave November."  He has always been good at growing a beard, but this year's model has more gray hair than he remembers.

Mark, Denisa, and Luke were walking a few miles, while Jordan was doing a training run for an upcoming marathon.  Along with several of her 26-year-old friends, she is determined to run a 26 mile marathon this year.  So Jordan, and her best friend Jordan, are running a 12.5 mile training run this day.

We enjoyed our time playing games, singing, and being with Luke and Jordan!  It was a great trip to KC!

It was a good time in KC, but we also had great fun getting there and back.  We stopped in Stillwater, Oklahoma to visit our niece Beth and her family on the way to KC.  On the way back we made a stop in Owasso, Oklahoma, to visit our nephew Michael and his family.  We love spending time with our nieces and nephews, and we appreciate them fitting us into their busy schedules with their growing families.  Our travels have allowed us to see almost all of our nephews and nieces this past year.  Even more fun, we've gotten to spend time with most of our great nephews and nieces as well.   One of the greatest parts of being retired is having the time to spend time.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

We're Home on the Range

After two successful flights, we were again home in Oklahoma.  Thanks to Denisa's sister and brother-in-law for picking us up at the airport and allowing us to crash at their house.  We got to see their family as well as our son and his girl friend, and we managed to stay awake until 10:30 p.m.  One of the best cures for jet lag is to get back into your new time zone as soon as possible.  Fifteen hours difference in time zones can take some major adjustments.

So we headed to Mark's parents' home in the Oklahoma panhandle, where the motor home has been parked for the last month.  We are truly home on the range, where the bulls . . .

and the turkeys roam.

We had lots of roaming turkeys right beside the motor home.  This picture was taken from the living room window, and there are 30 turkeys in the frame.  These are smart turkeys, as they learned how to perch on the fence post and empty out the bird feeders meant for smaller birds.  This flock of turkeys showed up every day, until one week before Thanksgiving.  Then they vanished--another evidence of their intelligence.

Living on the range can be beautiful, and we enjoyed some great sunsets out on the plains of Oklahoma.

But those clouds can bring tornadoes in the Midwest.  That same evening Denisa took a picture of the tall wall clouds emerging in the north.

Unusual in the autumn, these clouds would spawn 13 different tornadoes in our area.  We spent part of the evening in the safe house when they reported a tornado on the ground ten miles away.

Another part of being home on the range is getting to play cowboy.  Here is Mark surveying the first group of calves we were working that morning.  You'll notice the group of mother cows standing behind him making disapproving comments.

Since we were living on the ranch, we helped with rounding up the calves.  This is the first group of cowboys taking off for the morning.  Denisa isn't in this group, but she did ride in the roundup for another pasture later in the day.  Her bowlegged walk the next day was her proof that she hadn't ridden a horse in a while.

Once the herd is in the corral, the calves are sorted out from their mothers.  Then cowboys on horseback rope the back legs and bring the individual calves to the working crew.  There is usually a pair of cowboys that serve as "muggers" to throw the calf into the right position and hold them down.  This is the most physically demanding job, and Mark was a mugger for one pen of calves.  He has the dislocated finger, cockleburs in his hands, and calf poop on his jeans to prove it.

The calves get two shots, an ear notch, and bulls are castrated in a matter of seconds.  Mark is on the right, coming in to give one of the shots.  The muggers have another calf ready to be worked on the left, and a cowboy on horseback is bringing a third calf up.  This is a well-oiled team!

They even let Denisa give shots with another group of calves.  She's in the black coat, trying to keep the needle away from the cowboys and into the calves.

When we worked the herd closest to the house, Mark's parents rode the 4-wheeler into the corral to get a ring-side view of the action.  They have been right in the middle of the action in the corral for most of their lives. Mark is standing beside them, with his injection gun poised and ready.

Denisa liked this picture of two of our nephews and Mark's brother, standing ready for the next calf.  Mark's brother (on the far right) now owns the ranch.  Just like Mark, the two boys have been raised on this ranch, and came home to help with the roundup.

Another day, we went to the sale barn to watch the cattle sell.  In truth, we really came because they were serving a free meal for customer appreciation day.  Mark's brother bought a couple bulls, so there was a customer in our group.  In fact, he used to own the sale barn a few years ago.  We hadn't been to the sale in years, and we thought a picture might be a good addition to the blog.  Denisa took a couple pictures, and the auctioneer suddenly stopped the auction, and announced over his microphone, "Ma'am, did you know there was a $5 fee for taking pictures?"  He quipped that the fee was payable directly to the auctioneer, and he liked cash.  Some times we get ourselves into embarrassing situations for this blog.

After several years of drought, the panhandle has been blessed with good rains this year.  That has brought a bumper crop of tumble weeds that are now blowing freely across the plains this fall.  We had to take a picture of the tumbleweeds filling the bar ditches and even caught on the cap-o-ranch mailbox.

We are enjoying our home on the range, as we settle into life in the central time zone.  It's good to be back in the heartland of the good ole USA.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Things We Learned in Asia

We had our last Japanese meal of Ramen noodles and pork, ordered and paid for at a vending machine-type machine, and eaten with chopsticks at a counter in front of the cook.  It was all served up with Japanese efficiency that makes dining out a 15-minute experience.  We are feeling very Asian on our last day in Japan!

We took the free hotel shuttle to the international airport, and Denisa spent all of our remaining Japanese yen on snacks to tide us over until we got on our stand-by flight towards the United States.  We were lucky this time, and made it on the first available flight to Dallas, and got to sit together!  The 11-hour flight seemed to go by quickly.  It's amazing how 3 movies and 3 meals and a few naps can make 11 hours slip by.  We passed the international date line again, and this time we gained back the day we lost a month earlier on our flight.  We left Tokyo at 11:30 on Tuesday morning, and arrived in Dallas earlier than that--at 8:30 a.m. on the same Tuesday morning.  I guess that means that we got back to the United States before we even left Japan!

For now, we are back in Oklahoma, recovering from jet lag and getting to spend good quality time with friends and family.  But it seems that we need to have a blog that covers those things that we learned from spending a month in Asia.  We could title this list "Things we wish we would have known about Asia before it was too late."  Some have been mentioned in earlier blogs, but we put together this list as we traveled.

*There are almost no trash cans in public places in Japan.  There are a few recycling bins, but it was hard to find a place to dispose of things like a candy wrapper or a cup.  We guess that people had learned to carry their trash with them, because we also saw no litter left lying around.

*Beds are definitely harder in Japan!  We learned to use the duvet or bed spread as an extra layer of cushioning, but we were wishing for some kind of air bed that we could fit into our back pack-sized luggage.

*Every restaurant has only tiny water glasses.  Asians must not drink much water with their meals, as they all seem to be content with a 4-6 ounce cup of water with their meals.  Waitresses seemed to be astounded when we kept asking for refills because it obviously wasn't something their usual Asian customers needed.

*We saw no paper towels in restrooms in Asia.  This cuts down on the litter, and also does away with the need for a bathroom trash can for tourists that are looking for one.  Denisa noticed that most women carried a little terry cloth towel in their purses to dry their hands, so she bought one and did the same.  Mark noticed that most men just dried their hand on their pants, so he did the same.

*More English is spoken in Japan than Korea. But we still found that less than half the people we asked in Japan did not speak English. The actual percentage is actually much lower, because we usually only asked young professionals that we thought were more likely to have taken the required English classes in school.  We found very few English-speakers in South Korea, and we think it would be much more difficult to travel there on our own.

*Service was fast, efficient and great in restaurants.  From the time of ordering to receiving food is usually less than ten minutes, so eating good wholesome meals can still be categorized as fast food.

*There is no tipping in Japan.  That makes a 20 percent savings on the usual food budget.  There is also no tax added to food.  So when we ordered a 1000 yen meal, we left the restaurant paying exactly 1000 yen.  The food was really affordable, and we usually shared a meal.  Part of that was because they were sizable enough to both get full; the other part is that we just didn't have enough time to eat that much food with those chopsticks!

*We were surprised that we didn't see very many Americans on this trip.  When we saw an occasional white person, we could determine from their accent that they probably weren't from the USA.  There were far more Europeans traveling in Asia than Americans.

*We are big fans of the train system in Japan!  Anyone visiting here for a week or more should certainly buy a Japan Rail Pass and learn to use it.  It has to be purchased before leaving your home country and is only available for tourists, but it was a great value for us.

*Coins are used more in Japan than in the USA.  If you use the equivalent of a $10 bill to make the equivalent of a $1 purchase, you will get all of your change in coins.  Keeping track of all those coins was interesting.

*Bicycling is popular all over Japan.  It was common place to see all ages and all walks of life riding bicycles--men in business suits, older women in dresses, young people, Mothers with babies etc, etc.  Many of the city sidewalks are wide, and the pedestrians must watch out to keep from being ran over by bicyclists.  The sidewalks are usually divided with an upraised stripe, but we saw no evidence that the bicyclists stayed on their side.

*It is common to see people with a mask over their nose and mouth.  We weren't sure if they were sick people trying not to spread their germs, or well people trying to keep the germs out.  But it is totally acceptable to wear a mask every day--not just on Halloween.

*The biggest differences between the United States and Japan seem to show up in the restrooms.  About half the time we found the western style toilet that we were used to.  Obviously not everyone is familiar with them, because we would sometimes find instructions posted on exactly how to use them.

More common in remote areas are the hole-in-the-floor style of Eastern toilets.

Many times there would be signage helping to clarify the correct usage of this option as well.

*Most of the toilets in our lodging were bidet toilets.  They have a multitude of buttons that determine the direction and force that the water is squirted.  We didn't take any pictures, and we'll let your imagination fill in the rest of the story.

*One of the button options in some of the restrooms was for the sound of flushing.  It seems that Japanese women are embarrassed by some (ahem) natural sounds.  So if the button is pushed, the flushing noise is piped in with enough volume to mask other bathroom sounds.  Denisa reported seeing this many times, but Mark never found it in a men's restroom.

*Fresh produce and meats seem very expensive, but we thought meals in restaurants were reasonable.  We're not sure what that means, but we probably weren't eating prime cuts of meat like in the picture below.  Also, all of our meat was so finely sliced that there was very little by weight in each serving.

*Comic books are alive and well in Japan.  It was interesting to sit beside a grown man on a train, and watch him reading an encyclopedia-sized comic book.  Comics are obviously not just for children here, and they read them back to front.

*Japanese never wear outdoor shoes inside the house.  Slippers were provided in each of our places of lodging, and we even had to take our shoes off at some restaurants and most temples.  We were glad we had new socks for this trip!

*The only candy bar we saw were kitkats, and we saw them in every flavor except the milk chocolate we are accustomed to.  This display would include kitkats in the following yummy flavors:  red bean paste, wasabi, green tea, bitter chocolate, and strawberry cheesecake.  We also saw orange and strawberry.

*We saw packaged snacks ready for gift-giving, and it wasn't unusual to see a businessman loading up 5-10 boxes before he got on the train.  The favorite filling seems to be red bean paste--and we were disappointed when we mistook it for chocolate more than once.

*One of the packaged items that seemed to be quite popular were these french fry snacks.  I thought the ten box limit was silly until we saw a woman checking out with that many.

*The Japanese seem to over-package their food.  We bought a package of cookies at the grocery store in the size container that would probably hold 2-3 dozen cookies in the United States.  But in Japan there were only 8 individually packaged cookies, placed inside a plastic tray inside a box.

We found that life is different in Japan, but we enjoyed and tried to embrace the differences.  That's why we love the adventure of traveling internationally!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Search of Mt. Fuji

It was raining when we got up on our last morning in Tokyo.  We had our traditional hot dog, potato salad, broccoli, and coleslaw breakfast that we have somehow gotten used to here in the city.  Then we stopped by our local 7-11 to purchase two umbrellas.  These convenience stores are everywhere, and we had 3 within two blocks each way of our hotel.

It was a 25-minute walk in the rain to the Tokyo train station, but not without photo opportunities.  We saw two fire engines with sirens blazing, deploying ladders that seemed sadly inadequate next to the skyscraper.

We stopped to watch the wedding pictures being taken on the picturesque Nihombashi Bridge.  A troupe of photographers were fixing hair and trying to keep that beautiful white gown clean on a pedestrian bridge in the rain.  This is our last day in Tokyo, and the heavy rain has shortened our sight-seeing here.

So we headed to the train station.  As we were waiting on the train platform, it was fun to watch the cleaning crew.  With amazing Japanese efficiency, they run onto the train as soon as the last passenger is off.  The team turns every chair 180 degrees, as the train will leave in the opposite direction.  They take off each seat's white head cover, and replaces it with a clean one, dust, wipe and vacuum, and then rush off the train in less than ten minutes.  After a bow, they run to the next incoming train.
This is the last day of our 7-day Japan Rail Pass, and we used it to take a shinkansen toward  Hakone, one of the best places to view Mt. Fuji.  These bullet trains are so fast, that when we meet another train it is just a white blur that is gone in a second.  We are a little sad that this is is our last shinkansen, but we have enjoyed 11 in the past 7 days.  Add to that around 20 other local train rides, and we have made good use of our JR Pass.

We arrive in the city of Odawara in the rain, and it looks like we will be seeing clouds instead of Mt. Fuji.  We still decided to buy the two-day Hakone Pass that will allow us to travel on any mode of transportation in the Hakone area for 4000 yen each. We will come to respect how many different types of transportation that will include before we leave there.  Now we use that pass to ride two different small local trains . . .

and a cable car . . .
and then walk up hill in the rain to get to our next lodging.  It's actually an apartment, with more square footage than all our places in Japan combined!  New and spacious, it was a great place to be on a rainy afternoon.  We had our own living room with its Japanese-style sofa that has the cushions on the floor.  Check out Mark's provided slippers, as outdoor shoes are not allowed inside in Japan.

We even have our own kitchen and dining area.  Everything is in Japanese, so Mark spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what buttons to push so we could toast some bread for breakfast.

This is a picture of our bedroom.  Now an empty room with tatami floors, at bedtime we will use the mats, futons, and sheets in the closet to make our beds on the floor.
We decided to do some exploring in the afternoon, and we had to figure out the bus system to do that.  We consider ourselves seasoned travelers, but reading bus schedules in Japanese brings navigating bus rides to a whole new level.  Once successfully on the bus, we decided the driver viewed this curvy mountain road like a raceway.  He was trying to keep on schedule in spite of the rain and requested stops by passengers.  There was a curious English announcement on the recorded system that said, "As we are on a meandering road, please take care of yourself and luggage."   Good advice!  After our journey to the lake, the clouds and rain thwarted our tries at seeing Mr. Fuji today.  But we have high hopes for tomorrow . . .

On the second day of our stay in Hakone, the weather forecast gives us a few hours before the rain starts for the day.  So we are up at 6 a.m., eating our breakfast of bakery bread (successfully toasted), jam, cheese, apples, oranges, milk and green tea.  It's not hot dogs, but we are still feeling very Asian.  We got to the cable car about the time it opened for the day.  Denisa was taking a picture of Mark on the platform, and managed to picture herself in the mirror as well.

The cable car isn't very full this morning, and Mark is the only non-Asian on board.

Denisa is standing at the front, taking pictures of the beautiful trees out the big window.

When we get to the top of the mountain, we find that it is not raining yet, but it is socked in with fog.

Our Hakone pass includes unlimited rides on the ropeway, so we hop aboard the first ride of the morning.

We're guessing that the ride above the fall foliage would be breath-taking, but we only see shadows of color through rain-splattered windows.  It's a lesson to us that in every vacation, a little rain must fall.

Riding above the trees is also a good time to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, but this was the only mountain we would get to see.

There's a circular path that visitors can take using the Hakone pass. It starts with the cable car, the bus, the ropeway, and then a sight-seeing ship ride across the lake from the northern shore.   We were sorely disappointed to see that the boat ride had been suspended for the morning because of the weather.  So we reversed the circular path down the mountain on the bus, down the cable car, a two-stop train ride, then onto a bus to the southern shores of Lake Ashti instead. Not quite as fun or scenic as the boat ride!  We were glad to have the pass that covered all our transportation.  We navigated through all these complicated rides with few signs in English and few English-speakers to guide us.  When we finally got to the southern shores of Lake Ashti, the boats docked there looked like ghost ships in the fog of the lake.

So we did some hiking along the lake instead, still marveling in the colors of the leaves that have fallen from many of the trees.

The fog lifted enough that we decided to race back to the ship pier to get a picture of the boats we had planned to ride today.

Our ride was already paid for with our pass, so it was really disappointing not to sail across the lake for that perfect shot of Mt. Fuji.

There was some shopping in the little stores of Hakone-Machi-Ko.  The wooden boxes and plates decorated with thin layers of intricate wood patterns immediately caught Denisa's eye.  Our son, Blake brought a plate home to us when he visited Japan several years ago.  So it was fascinating to watch the process of putting the wooden pieces together in intricate shapes and patterns.  These blocks of solid wood patterns are then shaved off in thin sheets and applied to wooden boxes and plates.

Denisa stopped to watch the older gentleman making them.  He noticed her interest and shaved off this thin piece of solid wood pattern and gave it to her as a tiny souvenir.

We walked back through the "Ancient Cedar Avenue" made up of trees planted 400 years ago to provide protection from the weather to travelers on the Old Tokaido Road.

They provided the same protection for us today.

We also walked along the peninsula that separates the two tiny towns of Hakone-Machi-Ko and Moto-Hakone-Ko.  The lake is still a sea of fog, and the small rental boats are chained together in the harbor for the day.

The autumn trees are still beautiful in the fog.

It was 200 rock steps through a forest and another hike to get to one of the best view points for Mt. Fuji.  We know this hike is useless, but it can never be said that we weren't trying every option to get a glimpse of this famous mountain.

We couldn't even see the lake right in front of us, much less a mountain 25 miles away.   It looks like we have made a long and expensive trip to see Mt. Fuji, but it obviously wasn't going to happen this time.

According to this poster, this was the view we were supposed to be enjoying today.

So we had to console ourselves with a lunch of bratwurst, fried potatoes, and corned beef, all smothered in melted cheese.  Mark deemed it his favorite meal in Japan, so we had to take a picture of his idea of a really good Japanese restaurant.  It looks like the trip to Hakone was worth it after all. 

A stop for ice cream for dessert at 7-11, and we were ready for our long march to our last hotel.  That would include rides on a bus, train, cable car, then a walk to our apartment to pick up the bags they've stored all day for us.  

While picking up luggage, we gestured and wrote and spoke enough that our non-English-speaking hosts finally understood that Denisa was wanting to buy one of the kimonos that are in the rooms for guests to wear.  Score!  She finally got an authentic Japanese kimono--the perfect souvenir from this Mt. Fuji adventure.
Our hosts also insisted on driving us to the train station.  So we continued our journey by car, then the Hakone Tozan train, then transfer to another Odakya train.  The train had stopped in the valley, and the windows were raised to cool the passengers.  Mark was holding his phone out that open window taking pictures of the train approaching us.

He found that there is barely a phone width between the two trains when they meet.

After all our different modes of transportation today, we must now figure out how to buy train tickets and get ourselves to our last destination--the international airport on the other side of Tokyo.  Spoiled by the ease of the Japan Rail Pass, we have to learn to use the ticket kiosks and map our way through rush hour in Tokyo.  We made a wrong turn on the subway and found ourselves in a deserted train station staring at a subway map without a clue of where we were.  
But one of the only three people at the remote station turned out to be our guardian angel and helped us get back on the right track (literally).  Our journey through cars, trains, cable cars, ropeways and subway rides took us almost six hours, and we were tired when we arrived at our last hotel close to the airport.  We weren't successful in our search for Mt. Fuji, but we were glad to find our last Japanese hotel.