Fun 3D illusion art in Chiang Mai

My intention was to visit the Lanna Folklife Museum, but it was closing early so we went instead to Art in Paradise. It was 4x the price of the other museum, but oh! it ended up being so worth it. You could use their app to capture 3D animations, such as a giant croc snapping at your kid hanging from a tree or her dodging boulders in King Tut’s tomb or cowering before a wheezy shark trying to do a proper Jaws impersonation. There were also gentle scenes. One of my favorites was one in which Elise looked around at falling cherry blossoms on a bridge in Japan. To watch a compilation of the animations we captured, click here or on the image below.


There were also 3D illusion photo ops. Most were paintings that played with shadow or perspective, such as a floating God pouring a glass of wine or a flying carpet.

Other illusions made use of special installations such as rotated rooms, pictures frames that were actually windows, and a fake pool that made you look like you were underwater.

Elise got the biggest kick out of the one that made me look tiny and her enormous (she stood next to the legs of a chair while I sat in the background on the ‘seat’), whereas my favorite was the one of her hanging from a picture frame.

Kerala, India Part 1 – My sister Lisa joins us!

My sister Lisa finally arrived in India to join us for a travel adventure in Kerala! It almost didn’t happen. There were the usual travel hassles: finding flights, the unnecessarily complicated visa application, the length of the journey (24 hrs), vaccinations, etc, as well as the jitters that most world travel newbies feel before journeying to a country halfway around the world. (Her trips to Europe hadn’t evoked such feelings.) But after scoring a free flight as a credit card sign-up bonus and receiving encouragement from me and her world-traveling friend, Heather, Lisa conquered all obstacles and showed up smiling and radiant in Kochi with gifts and needed supplies for us.

I’d traveled backpacker-style years ago from Delhi to Udaipur to Jaipur and Mussoorie, and had faced some challenges I wasn’t sure my sister was ready for, so I thought I would ‘ease’ her into India by booking a room for us at the Kochi Marriott, a five star hotel starting at only $75 a night. Split two ways, it was cheaper than our bare bones lodging in Bolivia! (Soon enough, though, she’d be experiencing bare bones.) It turned out to be the perfect place to begin our journey. They upgraded us to a suite, and when the chef learned that Lisa was vegan, he gave her a customized tour of the vegan dishes that where part of their enormous Ramadan buffet. Chef Ganesh then whipped up extra dishes just for her and brought them to our table. We were thrilled. The other Restaurant staff, Front Desk, Concierge, and Housekeeping staff were also all infallibly helpful and friendly. #kochimarriott

The next day, we took a backwaters tours in Kochi where a gathering storm made the light and colors surreal.

There were resorts along the banks, primitive huts, and this post-apocalyptic-looking building.

We traveled overland to see the iconic Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin Beach, a subject we would see again and again in paintings on hotel walls. For me, they were interesting because I wanted to try my hand at photographing them, but I quickly realized that, to my gentle-hearted, vegan sister, they symbolized misery and death for millions of fish. Accordingly, my photo is nothing like the idyllic paintings in our hotel.

Whether due to pollution or to freighter traffic, no one swims at Fort Cochin, but there was an enormous crowd milling about on the beach under brooding skies.

As she is much like my sister, Elise hates seeing animals exploited. Instead of asking for a ride on this poor camel, she asked if she could pay to feed it, but the owner had no food so she just petted it instead. 

The next day, we set out for Alleppey to do a houseboat tour, but when we arrived, we learned the workers were on strike, so we decided to continue on to Kovalam, the southernmost point on our itinerary. Our driver was more than happy to oblige. Along the way we happened upon a Krishna-Radha festival, where the town was ablaze in all manner of lights. Lisa described it as “1,000 Christmases”. The brash, blinking lights in the shape of various deities were over the top.

But I simply loved the long strands of colored lights hanging from trees in quiet corners which made me think about the magic of childhood. French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s quote seemed apt: Childhood is the world of miracle and wonder; as if creation rose, bathed in the light, out of the darkness, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us. I also thought of John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in which two little girls light Chinese lanterns in a lush garden at twilight – one of the loveliest representations of the magic of childhood I’ve ever encountered, and I recalled my own wonderment as a kid catching fireflies on balmy evenings in our yard full of fragrant lilacs. I decided that I would find a way to surprise Elise by recreating these lights at an upcoming summer evening party for her.

When we finally reached Kovalam late in the evening, we checked into The Leela, a grand, airy hotel set on a cliff overlooking the beach. There was a poolside terrace restaurant, giant vats of rose petals floating in water, and slate walkways with rock pools in open-air hallways. It was a relief to have arrived at such a place after the 220 km drive, during which our driver overtook hundreds of vehicles (speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down ad nauseam). In the case of one particular truck, however, which reeked of some ungodly rot, we were grateful for his ability to speed past other vehicles.

At check-in, we were given shell necklaces and coconuts to drink, and then we headed out to explore the beach.

Given the incomparable service at the Kochi Marriott, when we sat down for dinner, we felt a wee bit neglected by the wait staff, but Chef Gurudeep more than made up for it the next morning when he gave us a marvelous tour of the many dishes in their breakfast buffet. We had various curries and masala dosas – thin crepes stuffed with potato and chutney, and discovered Kumbil Appams, steamed jackfruit rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Unlike the boxed cereals, donuts, and other junkfood you get for breakfast in the US, this was real food and deeply satisfying.

After some yoga on our balcony, we hit the pool, where Elise did cannonballs and then pulled me around on a float (so relaxing), and then we hit the beach. Unfortunately, there were red flags along the shore warning of strong riptides, so we didn’t risk going into the water. There was a lively local scene further down the beach where everyone seemed to be smiling or laughing.

Although The Leela was lovely, it had some quirks such as the heavy, antique-y, wooden bath doors that didn’t close right and a damp smell in our room which did not justify the price, so we decided to move to a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet that offered Ayurvedic treatments.

Our transportation there was comical. The resort golf cart brought us to the edge of the property, and then the three of us piled into one tiny rickshaw with our 4 big bags. We had to get in and out a few times to make everything fit. The taxi drivers watching us looked incredulous and offered to take us instead. I told them it wasn’t a matter of price, it was that we wanted the experience of riding in a rickshaw. It turned out to be fun! and the price was an astonishing 29 cents for .7 km.

After The Leela, our new accommodations seemed dingy, although they had just been scrubbed clean. Instead of a proper shower cabin, there was a faucet on the bathroom wall and a big blue bucket with a dipper to pour water over oneself. Splash too much and you get the entire floor wet and the toilet, too. At the start of our travels when I was unsure how long our funds would last, I’d opted for many such rooms and I think I’d finally had enough. Lisa, though, was surprisingly positive about the room. She told me that she had stayed in very basic rooms when she did her Master Yoga Teacher training at the Kripalu in Western Mass. I shouldn’t have complained…it was soon going to get much worse, lol.

But first, we got to experience an Ayurvedic massage from this wonderful lady with kind eyes. When I learned that she had traveled an hour and half from her village to provide us with treatments, I gave her a big tip and my shell necklace from The Leela as well as some red beads from Fiji which matched her sari perfectly.

In the evening, we set out to find a vegetarian restaurant, but Lisa got nervous as it grew dark so we popped into a German-owned restaurant on the main drag and ordered take out. We had tea while we waited, and Elise showed her Aunty her drawings. It was beautiful seeing their interaction – Lisa was so patient and positive, and Elise reveled in all the attention.

Snorkeling with sharks in Fiji!

Fiji had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember, and, thanks to a university course I’m taking in travel journalism, I had become interested in writing an article about island-hopping in the South Pacific, and so I had even more reason to visit. I’d assumed, though, that it would be difficult to get there and that the flights would be cost-prohibitive. But then I discovered some great deals on direct flights from Singapore, and joyously booked our tickets to Nadi and then a ferry to the tiny Yasawa Islands, which curl like a cat’s tail off of the west coast of Viti Levu.

Our first stop was Nacula Island in the north of Yasawas. We met a great group of people and the lodge was delightful. The cabins had vaulted ceilings decorated with an island motif and long curtains that billowed in the ocean breezes.

Our beach was pleasant, but it had low, flat rocks which made it less than ideal for swimming. Fortunately, it was a short boat ride to nearby Nabula Island – my vision of tropical paradise – where we went snorkeling.

There was, however, an unpleasant surprise lurking just below the surface of those perfect turquoise waters: sea “lice”. They sting but leave no mark. One sting is a nuisance, but a dozen stings all at once is enough to drive one away shouting obscenities from the infected area. Not what I expected. They seemed to be more prevalent around schools of fish, so we learned to stay clear.

Back on Nacula, a staff from the lodge brought us to a nearby village to meet the chief of the island, who was descended from a long line of chiefs. He gave us blessings and then welcomed questions from our group. I was interested to know what the most pressing issue was that he faced as chief. He told us that it was the destruction of the cassava plants, a staple in their diet, which had required food aid from the government in Viti Levu. (I immediately decided I would make extra purchases at the village crafts shop.) I asked him about his ancestry and he said that the people of Fiji originally came from South Africa in large, seafaring canoes, though such canoes are no longer a part of their culture. Having learned about our own ethnicity from DNA tests, I would love to know more about his ethnic mix.

Wifi was non-existent, so we played cards and read books after dinner. A group of Danes laughed and sang around a fire, but their voices eventually faded and we heard only the roar of the surf as we fell asleep.

Two days later, we headed south to Naviti Island. On the ferry, Elise created a new character – a sweet, shy, blue-haired elf named Orchid.

On Nativi, we ran into some of the friends we’d met on Nacula Island.

After taking some photos, I claimed a beachside hammock in the shade of palms and was – at long last – able to truly relax.

Given the daily lodging/food/activities/transportation-related logistics…and homeschooling, my own coursework, photo editing, blogging, etc, that level of relaxation doesn’t happen often, so when it does, I add the experience to a special collection of memories to return to in times of need.

My first such experience was at the Baltic Sea when I was nine years old. It was low tide and I had discovered a little sand bump in the shallow water the size of my body. I lay down and was amazed at how dreamily comfortable it was on the soft sand in the warm water and told myself to always remember it. Another such experience took place in a cool, slate-walled pool in a boutique hotel in Paris where Elise’s Dad gently pulled me through the water as I floated on my back, eyes closed. Sigh.

In the meantime, Elise learned how to extract the goodness from coconuts Fiji-style. On a specially made bench with a built-in metal tool, she scraped the white coconut meat into a bowl. It was much more moist and flavorful than any coconut we’d ever had.

But then…she was shown how to squeeze the coconut milk from the shavings into a cup, and when we took a sip, we were astonished at how delicious it was! We learned that, in the islands, freshly extracted coconut milk is kept for at most one day, and I wondered how we might manage – without adding a bulky coconut bench to our minimalist apartment – to get a steady supply back home.

We did some more snorkeling and saw a giant, electric blue starfish, multicolored Christmas tree fish, and a giant clam. We watched the clam shut in stages: click (one inch), click (another inch), click, click, click until it was completely closed.

At night, the male staff performed a dance in long grass skirts (the female staff were conspicuously absent) and then put on a fire show on the beach. Elise freaked out when a dancer put the burning baton on his tongue, though afterwards she was allowed to touch the flame, and while it was hot, it did not burn.

The next day we walked with one of the two Swiss families we’d met through the rainforest to the other side of the island to reach Honeymoon Beach. Another postcard perfect place…and this time no sea lice. Bliss.

The last island we visited was Waya Lailai, which had a dramatic mountain rising high above the coastline. Our cabin was up a steep walkway lined with blossoms.

The men were busy bludgeoning special tree branches to form them into cord to tie bales of leaves onto the thatched rooftops of the bures, or cabins. They sat around a giant satellite dish as they worked – a fun contrast of modern and ancient. I told them about the Uros people of Bolivia who form floating islands out of reeds on Lake Titicaca (my blog post about our visit there is at this link). They seemed to listen intently, as if they were actively considering whether they could do the same with their materials. (How cool would it be to return to Fiji in 10 years and see the floating islands of Waya Lailai? lol)

The high point of our visit was snorkeling with sharks. Reef sharks are harmless, but we still felt a bit of trepidation at first. Our guide splashed a chunk of fish around in the water to attract the sharks. They showed up quickly.

Although they were shorter in length than Elise (my illogical measure of danger), I held onto her as we snorkeled to keep her ‘safe’. She got tired of my hovering, though, and pushed me away.

Special thanks to Katie Storey for these underwater pix.

At one point, the water suddenly turned dark, and a group of much larger sharks appeared. (Cue the Jaws soundtrack.) These were definitely longer than Elise(!) so I immediately swam over to her and grabbed onto the fabric of her swimsuit.

And then I saw one of the guides wielding a long, metal prong. Had the wrong kind of shark arrived? Was this a weapon to ward them off?! I pulled Elise towards the boat and popped above the water to ask the guide what the prong was for. He told me it was to spear small fish to attract more sharks. Whew! We were not in any danger, but to this day, every time I think of the large sharks circling below in the dark water, I get a chill. Elise, of course, remains unfazed: “Sharks are so cute! They are one of my new favorite animals!”

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.

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.