My article with tips on making world travel affordable

For those seeking to make world travel affordable, you might consider eliminating expenses at home, being flexible in your destinations, skipping the travel agent for flexibility in booking flights with discount airlines, securing large frequent flier mile sign-up bonuses with travel credit cards, and using certain booking services to save on lodging.

My article appeared in the Mount Holyoke Spring Quarterly, which is dedicated to international stories. If you care to read the issue, click HERE.

Singapore’s Supertrees and Sentosa Island

There are some places on earth that are so naturally beautiful or imaginatively designed that they send you straight back to childhood when discoveries still had the power to blow your mind. Well, Singapore’s Supertree Grove at night, where 18 towering, otherworldly supertrees glittered and flared to the thunderous refrain of O Fortuna, was one of those places. Photos only hint at the magic.

The trees are about as tall as a 16-storey building and are covered with 200 species of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers. Some harvest solar energy and others serve as air exhaust receptacles. Elise and I took the elevator up to the walkway between the trees that is 22 meters high and 128 long. The dazzling, slightly ominous-looking Marina Bay Sands Hotel (Espheni base in Falling Skies?) glowed in the distance. When we walked into the hotel, Elise, who enjoys watching the antics (and luxury purchases) of famous Youtube stars, gleefully pointed out a Lamborghini in the valet parking.

Also somewhat mind-blowing, though in a more dreamy Oh man, what a lifestyle! kind of way, was our wonderful friends Barbara and Christian’s waterfront condo on Sentosa Island on Singapore’s southern shore. Centuries ago, the island was called Pulau Belakang Mati, which meant ‘Island of Death from Behind’, likely due to attacks by pirates. Its current name, which means ‘peace’ and ‘tranquility’, reflects today’s luxury lifestyle on the island.  Barbara, a fabulous cook who literally saved our Thanksgiving dinner in Prague by coming to my rescue with her cooking savvy and calming disposition, serves up delicious dishes on her terrace overlooking the Straits of Singapore. Many floors below is a sprawling pool where she swims every morning and then soaks in the jacuzzi, where blossoms drop from the trees and swirl in the soothing water.

She took us on a bike tour of the marina, where we saw a yoga studio for humans and their dogs.

We also saw a strip of stunning waterfront homes which have pools integrated into the design of the home. Simply awesome.

Singapore has some of the lowest crime rates in the world thanks to strict laws and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. Taxi drivers carefully adhere to the speed limit, there is no spitting or smoking in public places, and women leave their purses hanging from their chairs behind them. A very welcome thing for this traveling mom! However, one drawback is that one doesn’t dare take photos of private property, so the pix above I borrowed from this website.

In the meantime, Elise and I explored some of Singapore’s international culinary delights at hawker centers with dozens of stalls, including steamed buns and gyoza. We also had custom-made bowls of Chinese soup where you fill a bowl with all of the raw ingredients you want and then the cook parboils them in broth for you, and you top them off with seasonings.

Ethereal cemetery at Koya-san

At long last, we reached Mount Koya, site of the ethereal Okuno-in cemetery and sacred temple. I had visited this place nearly 3 decades ago and it has had me in its spell ever since. Ancient, solemn headstones, many covered in moss, line the pathway to a temple lit by thousands of lanterns which have, according to tradition, been burning for more than 1,000 years.

Elise’s introduction to the cemetery was during a night tour given by a good-natured monk who described the significance of the headstones, bridges, symbols, temple, as well as teachings of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and who is believed to have been meditating in a sealed chamber at Okuno-in since 835.

In spite of the size of our group and the cheeriness of our guide, Elise and I had goosebumps at times. It was spooky seeing the faint outlines of the headstones just a few meters from the path where the light dropped off.

The monk explained that the Japanese practice both Shintoism and Buddhism, the former to celebrate beginnings, such as births and weddings, and the latter to commemorate death. He pointed out the full and partial moon shapes in the lanterns, which represent the range of human emotions. He said that we should strive to be open and bright like the full moon, rather than subject to, say, anger or depression, which reduces us to a fraction of our full selves.

Before we crossed one of the bridges, he warned us to walk carefully because anyone who falls dies within 3 years. He said this almost gleefully. He also told us that anyone who cannot see their reflection in a well near the bridge would likewise die in 3 years. Fortunately, we did not fall, and, the next morning – gulp – we checked for our reflections and saw them deep in the well.

At the third and final bridge, beyond which no photography was allowed, we purified ourselves by splashing water on the statues of Buddha, and then followed the monk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, the most sacred part of Okunoin. Drawing our attention to the tall, gilded, lotus flowers, he told us that Kobo Daishi taught that lotuses can grow out of even mud, and that, like them, we should strive to live beautifully in spite of challenging earthly conditions. I reflected on how I’d allowed myself to get cranky when things did not meet expectations during our travels (eg suboptimal accommodations, delays, airline strikes, etc), and decided to concentrate instead on how fortunate we are just to be there.

The monk chanted so that we would receive blessings. Our group was quiet and I saw that eyes were shining. There seemed to be an element of respect or big-heartedness or something in the air, and my (type A/stressed-out/gotta-manage-it-all) self felt strangely at peace.

The next day we had no trouble feeling as open and bright as the full moon as we sampled a sublime vegetarian Zen Buddhist meal. It was a joy lifting up the tiny lids to see what delicacy lay beneath. There were more than a dozen different dishes including silken tofu, miso soup, veggie tempura, salads, pickles, various unidentifiable root veggies, and fresh fruit. We were in heaven. I could not recall the name of the restaurant, so I checked the receipt. It was in Japanese, so I drew the characters (花 菱) into this fun website to get the romanized spelling: Hanabishi.

At a shop nearby, Elise spotted a giant Totoro and sat down next to it, mimicking the bus stop scene in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, where Satsuki and little Mei first discover (the initially somewhat sinister) Totoro.

Elise loves Totoro and carries a baseball-sized version of him with her, which she photographs like a stolen garden gnome.

After lunch, we made our way to a temple for sutra writing, the meditative practice of tracing kanji characters representing spiritual teachings. I loved seeing Elise carefully produce proper-looking characters with her calligraphy brush.

Eons ago I taught myself enough kanji to pass the first two levels of the exam of Japanese for foreigners, and had started working towards the third level when I decided to leave Japan for a fellowship in the German Parliament. Learning the strokes, stroke order, meaning, and pronunciation of each character required attention and time. It was then with a delicious sense of recklessness that I traced the characters at high speed (though with the proper stroke order), giving me an undeserved feeling of mastery. This was completely contrary to the point of the exercise, but it made me as happy as a little kid singing now I know my ABCs

We dedicated our scrolls to the good health of our loved ones and paid a small fee to have them stored at Kobo Daishi’s temple.

We revisited the cemetery which had a very different feel during daylight. A monk chanting quietly clunked by in big wooden shoes.

We saw tiny bibs that had been placed on statues for the protection of children.

We also saw our lovely French friends Frederique and Caro, and Totoro posed for the obligatory stolen gnome travel photo.

Tea-making in Uji and wheelchairing around Byodo-in Temple

When I graduated from college, I was sure I wanted to study international relations, but at that time, while I knew a bit about American and European culture and geopolitics, I knew precious little about Asia. I didn’t even have a single Asian friend. So I decided to participate in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), which brought 2,000 native English speakers to Japan to teach in schools. I was placed in Uji, a tiny town in the south of Kyoto Prefecture famous for Japan’s finest green tea.

The day Elise and I visited Uji, I had 3 goals: experience a tea ceremony, show Elise Byodo-in, the temple featured on the back of 10 yen coins, and introduce her to my old host parents. She had somehow hurt her leg while climbing the mountain at Fushimi Inari Shrine and was limping a bit, so when I spotted a row of wheelchairs at the entrance to Byodo-in Temple I asked to borrow one. There were many so there was no danger of our taking one from someone with greater need.

Elise spotted a window where beautiful, handmade temple stamps were being offered for 300 yen. She asked to have one for her journal, but they informed us that the stamps are considered so precious that they cannot be added directly to a standard journal. We were allowed, however, to purchase a stamp on a small sheet and add it later.

In the museum, there were stunning Buddha figures, a giant metal bell, and a gorgeous room with painted walls with buddhas arriving on a swoosh of air from the mountaintops. The patterns and colors – orange, gold, red and turquoise – were so beautiful fireworks were going off in my head. I was in agony that photography was not allowed.

Outside, we took a pleasantly strenuous path uphill which, unbeknownst to us, would eventually turn into a downhill path with large, shallow steps. The wheelchair pitched forward somewhat precariously each time we went over a step, causing us to laugh hysterically, but Elise wanted to stay in the wheelchair. Anyone observing from afar would have thought that I was an Extremely Bad Mom. Elise joked that she might actually break her leg, which would justify the wheelchair even more than her pulled muscle.

On our way out we stopped at the prettiest Starbucks I’ve ever seen that had a rock garden surrounded by lush greenery. It struck me as culturally brash, however, that it was occupying the best real estate in a strip of shops dedicated to selling Japan’s finest green tea.

As we made our way down the street, we noticed the heavenly scent of green tea emanating from one particular shop, Mitsuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu. I was hoping we might be able to observe a tea ceremony, but instead we were offered a lesson in preparing tea ourselves, which was even better. The owner, 16th generation tea master, Kambayashi Sannyu, told us that his shop had been the official supplier of tea to the Emperor during the Edo Period. He took us through the shop museum which had framed orders for tea from the Tokugawa Shogunate and a parade of tiny dolls transporting a huge pot of tea on foot representing their early missions to Edo (Toyko), a journey that took about two weeks.

He was clearly proud of his connection to the Emperor, rapidly flipping through magazines to show us photographs, but, interestingly, he seemed even more proud of a certificate of award from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

As we left, he flashed us a photo of what will become the 18th generation Mistuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu tea master: his cute, little, 3-year-old grandson.

In the tea room, his son, 17th generation tea master, had us rotate an old-school stone tea grinder (today it’s done mechanically), and we saw how the dark green tea leaves turn into a brilliant green powder.

He then taught us how to prepare the tea: place two spoonfuls into the cup, tap the spoon once on the ridge of the cup, add hot water, and whisk the tea briskly until it foams. Then clasp hands together and say itadakimasu, take a tiny bite of a sweet (in this case, a red bean paste confection), rotate the cup twice, and sip. When finished, rotate the cup back once, and say gochisosamadeshita. The taste of pure Uji tea is richer and yet more subtle than any other tea I’ve ever had. It was wonderful.

Nourished and satisfied, we took the local train 2 stops to my old neighborhood. We’d arrived on a different train line than the one I used to use, so I asked directions to Junese, my old host parents’ beauty salon while Elise petted a fluffy Pomeranian. As we walked, nothing looked familiar, until, suddenly, there it was – my old street! – transformed with a big, glaring grocery, but still, my old street. I marveled at how fast the nearly 30 years had passed since I’d lived there. When we reached my host parents’ salon, however, it was closed and their home was completely dark and I felt sad. Elise, however, managed to make the most of it by playing on the playground in front of my old house at the end of the street.

1 Golden Temple + 1000 red Shinto gates

Today we visited one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites: the Golden Temple. I was first taken to see it nearly 30 years ago as a freshly trained English teacher with the JET Programme. I was in awe, and I thought Elise would be, too. But the crowds were thick and we felt rushed as groups of tourists vied for photo ops, and the day was hot and sticky, etc, so our visit ended up feeling more perfunctory than magical. Elise did, however, enjoy the samples of traditional Japanese snacks for sale at the tea garden.

We said prayers for our loved ones and headed next to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The path to the entrance was lined with food stands. The sign at this one looked, um – how to say it? – the opposite of appetizing.

Unlike the short path around the Golden Temple, the route up and down the mountain at Fushimi Inari was nearly 4 km and passed through 2,000+ red Shinto gates. As we got closer to the summit, the crowds disappeared.

There were many mini shrines along the path with statues of foxes, which are regarded as messengers.

As we neared the top, Elise asked “Is it going to be what heaven looks like?” When we got there, it looked like same as the path we’d been on, just level. And there were Oreo cookies for sale.

A soft, cool rain started to fall as we headed down the mountain, and in the falling light, the magic missing from earlier in the day was suddenly all around us.

Nijo Castle light show, Kimono Roboto, and packaged eyeballs

To make up for a lazy day of zero exploration, we finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel after nightfall to see the light show at nearby Nijo Castle. Everything from the massive, stately walls, to the cherry blossom trees and gardens was aglow, and there was a light show on a towering wooden gate reminiscent of Miyazaki’s magical Spirited Away with flying birds, dragons and swirling cherry blossom petals.  And, of course, because Japan would not be Japan without something a little futuristic and weird, there was a multi-media show called Kimono Roboto with a moving C3P0-type robot in a kimono flanked by two twisted, blob-like robotic arms. The footage behind them alternated between close-ups of gleaming robot heads and staggeringly gorgeous models in kimono strolling a moody beach. For just a flicker, I felt the same dazzle that I felt eons ago photographing NY Fashion Week, and I felt happy.

Afterwards we shopped for food. It was a treat seeing shoppers in kimono as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But then we discovered a package of what looked liked clear eyeballs in the refrigerated section next to seaweed and potato salad. I couldn’t even bring myself to google what they might be.

Monkeys on mountains and Elise in kimono

At the shops near Arashiyama Mountain Elise tried on her first kimono. Various undergarments were wrapped and hooked, and the hem was fitted to her by hoisting up the excess fabric and folding it under a wide obi belt (so different from the Western cinched-waist silhouette). She was given tabi split-toe socks to accommodate the traditional wooden shoes, and her hair was twisted into a bun and embellished with a flower.

Parasol in hand, she was ready to head outside.

Even with the restrictions of the clothing, she did not move like Japanese ladies in kimono, with tiny forward steps, but instead clumped in the unusual shoes and struck poses like the cartoon characters she draws. I wanted her to stay in the kimono all day, but the shop was closing so we returned and she changed back into her normal clothes. While I waited, I took in the sumptuous patterns and colors of the kimono and obi and was practically floating by the time we left.

After that experience, a bowl of udon noodles and veggie tempura was in order. We try to avoid fried food in the US and Germany, but in Japan, the tempura batter is so light that it does not feel as sinful.

But the best part of the day was our hike up Arashimaya Mountain, where monkeys roam free.

Feeding the monkeys outside is not allowed, so Elise was delighted to discover that it was possible to buy tiny bags of peanuts and chunks of apple and feed the monkeys through a screen at the visitor’s center.

This little gal surprised me by scooting over and plunking herself down behind my chair. It was fun, but after having had monkeys clamber all over us in the Amazon trying to get our bananas, I longed to scoop them up in my arms and hold them – or at least let them hang out on my shoulders for a while.

To round out the day, we headed to Gion, the oldest part of the city and Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. The tiny alleys are atmospheric, and if you’re lucky (we weren’t), you may catch a glimpse of apprentice geisha disappearing behind sliding wooden doors into one of the traditional tea houses or restaurants.

Also atmospheric at night is Yasaka Shrine, which overlooks the bustling Shijo-dori shopping avenue. By the time we wandered inside, however, the vendors had started packing up, and so we decided to call it a day and headed home, tired after the long day.

Kyoto traditional dolls artisans

We made it to Kyoto, my old home after graduating from college. After checking in to our hotel, we happened upon Ohasi Ippo, a traditional Kyoto-style master doll-maker. The artisans welcomed Elise and showed her various doll styles in their catalogue and showroom, and even gave her a piece of gorgeous textured red fabric and a handmade set of porcelain doll hands. We learned that there are specialists for each part of the process, such as the head crafting master, hair attaching master, hand and foot craftsmen and accessory craftsmen, who are masters of traditions dating back to the Edo era.

I asked Elise, who makes tiny, painted figurines out of oven-bake clay, which aspect of doll-making she’d most enjoy if she were part of Ohashi Ippo and she said head crafting, since she loves creating expressions on her dolls. She brought this set of dolls she made with us on our travels. She’s been writing a story about the two taller ones, Any and Sunny, and their pets, Luna the panda and Sugar the cat.

Across from the Ohasi Ippo was an Indian restaurant that served up spinach curry and the largest piece of naan I’ve ever seen.

Back at the hotel, it was a relief having a bit more space after having tripped over each other for days in our teensy tiny hotel room in Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms and mad baby swan boat driver in Ueno Park

We took a break from the bustling city-side of Tokyo to stroll Ueno Park. The lake was lined with cherry blossom trees. They were past their prime, but still beautiful.

These ladies asked where I was from. I told them USA, and the one in blue said “United Kingdom”? To quickly clarify, although I am from MA, I said “New York” and they applauded for 20 long seconds. I felt like an imposter, lol.

Elise passed through the striking red torri gates, lit incense, and rang the giant gong at Bentendo Temple. When I asked an elderly attendant in a gray and blue kimono questions about the temple, he gave me a flier and a bookmark, and, smiling, held out a peach-flavored lollipop to Elise.

After all that friendliness, we were unprepared for the epic battle that was to take place on the lake. Although there should have been plenty of room for everyone’s swan boat, the wind (and steering ineptitude) caused a number of crashes. The fiercest boat, by far, was commandeered by an adorably round-faced baby Japanese girl. Her boat slammed into ours twice, and yet, cleverly hiding her intentions, she waved at us cheerfully.

Miraculously unscathed , we continued our walk through the park. From this vantage point, the mighty urban bustle of Tokyo, more populous than entire countries! (eg Canada, Oz), felt like a distant dream.

Shibuya’s beloved dog Hachiko, tiny treasures, and soba noodles

Elise was moved by the story of a beloved dog, Hachiko, who came to the station every day to meet his master, a professor. At one point, the professor died, but Hachiko kept coming to the station for 10 more years until he died. Hachiko’s loyalty was so moving to the townsfolk that they erected a statue in his honor. Even today, crowds throng to get a shot of the statute. A cat has apparently taken up residence at the statue, but wasn’t to be seen the day we were there.

Shibuya is also know for the Pedestrian Scramble, one of the largest pedestrian crossings in the world. It struck me that there is a lot less smoking today than there was when I lived in Japan 1989-92, which is a fantastic thing. Or maybe everyone’s e-smoking and we just can’t smell it.

The neighborhood is full of funky shops selling gadgets, school supplies, zany clothes, character figurines, and toys. Elise spotted My Melody, the character on the dress she bought in Harajuku and got a matching pen, and then struggled over whether to spend her Tooth Fairy money on tiny furniture for a tiny Pikachu. I was pleased to see that she decided not to acquire anything else new.

After a day of lots of walking while dodging the crowds, it was very pleasant to sit down to a meal of soba noodles. Elise chose a bowl with hot broth and kelp, and I choose my old favorite, cold Zaru Soba noodles with a delicious soy/mirin dip with seaweed and sliced green onions.