Monday, August 25, 2014

The Busy Last Days of Summer Break

Kai starts school today but he made the most of the last few days of break with a fun visit with his grandparents in Michigan.

Kai looks forward to going to the beach there, and this time he went five times in five days.

Bubbe always has fun activities on tap. This time they went on two different boat rides including this duck.

The duck ride was fun, as was getting ice cream afterward.

Another of Kai’s favorite activities this time of year is going fruit picking. This time he picked blueberries, apples, and peaches.

And best of all, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, including hanging out on the front porch with Papa.

You would think after all that, he would have been tired out, but as soon as we got home late yesterday afternoon, he wanted to head over to our neighborhood pool to get in one last swim before it closed for the year.

Kai has been a pretty good swimmer for a while now, but this was the first time that he wanted to go to the deep end of the pool and dive in. I was happy to see his courage, until he started to insist that I try it, too.

I am not nearly the swimmer that Kai is now, and going to the deep end of the pool makes me a bit nervous. But what could I say as Kai persisted?

“Come on, Dad, you can do it!”

“I’ll catch you!”

Well, after years of encouraging my son to be brave and try new things, I couldn’t be a hypocrite now. I went over to the deep end of the pool, climbed out, and then dove into the water. And then we each did it over and over again.

Kai also tried the small slide at the pool for the first time in years. In the past, he has always shied away from this little tunnel slide, but once he went down yesterday, he wanted to keep going again and again, alternating between diving at the deep end of the pool and going down the slide.

We stayed at the pool right up until they rang the bell that closed up shop for the summer, making the most of the last moments of summer break.

It was a fitting wrap to summer, one full of fun and momentous times. But it went by fast.

Is it really nine months now till next summer?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Surprising Day at the Waterpark

Kai has been asking to go to the nearby Six Flags waterpark for several weeks now.

I have been resisting.

Between the massive crowds at these places, and Kai’s anxiety about going on waterslides, I’ve come to wonder if it is worth the bother. The last time we went to a big American waterpark, more than a year ago, Kai got so anxious about one particular slide that he threw up just as we were about to go down.

And so we have been putting off the trip to Six Flags, hoping that Kai would forget the idea. But he kept saying that he really wanted to go. And as yesterday would be the last day that would work out for us to go this summer, so we decided to go for it.

Kai wanted to start out with a waterslide that he was very familiar with, one of the few he wanted to do the last time we were there. In the past, whenever my wife or I would suggest some different slides, and Kai would strongly resist, being too scared or anxious to go on something unfamiliar.

But today he was different.

After we finished the first slide, he wanted to try a different one, one that he had never tried before. And after we did that one, he wanted to try another new one.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find that in place of the usual huge crowds was a near-empty park. With many colleges and high schools having started their fall sessions already, teens were mostly absent from the park. And that meant that we could go on the slides with very little waiting.

So we went on one slide after another, trying virtually every different one in the park, and then going back and doing them all again.

My wife and I were getting exhausted climbing the three-to-five story structures to the top of the slides. But I didn’t want to quit as long as Kai wanted to keep going.

Late in the afternoon, there was one we still hadn’t done. It was called Tornado, and it looked particularly daunting. I wasn’t even going to bother asking Kai if he wanted to do that one.

But Kai brought it up himself.

“For the grand finale, let’s go on Tornado.”

And so we did.

Tornado wasn’t really as scary as we thought it would be. It was just fun, like all the other ones we did. It was a great way to cap off a very fun day.

As we made our way toward the exit, I wanted to stop at the photo shop to look at the pictures that the Six Flags’ photographer took of us. Usually I don’t care to pay for these pictures. But today I wanted a keepsake of the great day we had.

This picture was actually taken early in our day. But I think my wife and I had even bigger smiles as we left, thinking of how far Kai has come.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Back to Tokyo, then Home

We took three different trains from Beppu to Tokyo, arriving in mid afternoon on Saturday. We said goodbyes to my sister and her family, as they are staying in Tokyo an additional three days on their own.

Then, the rest of us took two local trains to my wife’s parents’ house for one more day before we would catch our flight home.

There are always fireworks displays going on somewhere in Tokyo on Saturday nights and we were able to see several different ones in all directions from the deck of my in-laws’ apartment building.

That night, we all got a great night’s sleep. I hadn’t realized just how tired I was. We had been able to go full blast for two weeks, but now that the vacation was winding down, our exhaustion finally caught up with us.

The next day, we relaxed and enjoyed the time together. We debated going out for a short walk, but one step into the sweltering heat and humidity reminded us just how comfortable we were in the apartment.

Kai was happy to hang out with his grandparents, and have unlimited access to wifi while watching Japanese television and having Domino’s Pizza for lunch.

And then it was time to leave for the airport to head home.

It had been quite a journey. Before we started the vacation, I was stressing out about all that could go wrong. There were tough moments no doubt. But overall things went very well.

My wife had spent a lot of time beforehand thinking about the places we all could go that would be interesting, not just for Kai, but also for everyone, especially for my nephews who were making their first visit to Japan. She researched hotels, restaurants, and venues, and made reservations at a variety of restaurants, and planned out the itinerary for each day. During the trip she was our personal tour guide and interpreter, taking responsibility for trying to give everyone the best experience of her home country as possible. I think it all turned out as well as we could have hoped.

Kai did amazingly well overall. His obsession with the wifi apps on his iPad drove me crazy at times – not only did he require online time, but he was constantly talking about his dragons from the Dragonvale app. But I think it was partly a coping mechanism for him; he often would relate things he saw on the trip to his app. For instance, he chatted on about evil dragons that destroyed Hiroshima. When he was chattering away in public places, I was kind of glad that we were in a foreign country where people may not have understood what he was saying.

But aside from that, he handled the heat and schedule very well. He seemed to enjoy going out and seeing most of the sights. And I know that he loved hanging out with his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins.

He already had a very strong bond with his grandfather, but he built on that even further as they often shared a hotel room while we toured the country. Many hotels in Japan cannot accommodate four people in a room together, so my wife and I often had one room while Kai and his grandfather shared another. By the end of the trip, Kai could be heard calling out, “C’mon Jeej” (short for Jiji, which is short for ojiichan, which means grandfather in Japanese). It was really cute to see their bond, despite neither really speaking the other’s language very well.

The flight home felt long. After traveling around Japan on the shinkansen (bullet train), the coach seats on our 12-hour flight were particularly uncomfortable.

My wife was able to sleep on the plane, I slept a little bit, and Kai hardly at all. And yet, when we arrived home last night, he seemed like he had enough energy to stay up for another 24 hours.

We are home, tired from our adventure, a little let down that it is over, but still glowing about our experience. It will be a lasting feeling, I am sure.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Last Stop in Japan: Beppu

We caught an early train to our final destination in Japan, Beppu.

Beppu is on the eastern coast on the island of Kyushu, and is famous for its onsen (hot spring baths).

The light rain we had in Nagasaki turned into a heavy downpour in Beppu. A typhoon was passing through on the other side of the island. And so we couldn’t see the views of the ocean we normally would have had. But we had planned to spend most of the day inside anyway, so the rain didn’t really damper our activities.

While we waited to check into our hotel to change into swimsuits, we bowled. Fun was had by all.

After that, it was time to get wet. Our hotel has two main water areas. One is a water park, while the other is a huge onsen.

In the afternoon, we went to the water park. We started out in the wave pool that was so crowded that we barely had room to wade. The place was loaded with families with small kids. The lazy river was also crowded, and was not so relaxing.

We wanted Kai to try one of the water slides. Though he enjoys the slides once he goes down, he is often scared whenever it comes time to try a new one. This time, like before, it took some persuasion but he loved it once he went down, and then wanted to do it again.

But two runs down the slide were enough. He wanted to get some wifi time before dinner.

While Kai was using the wifi (with his grandfather watching him), my wife went for a massage and I played ping pong with one of my nephews.

And then it was time for dinner. The buffet was the highlight of the day. With steak and sashimi (raw fish) headlining a vast selection of western and Japanese dishes, we had plenty of great choices.

And the enormous dessert selection was exquisite. (Sorry I was too busy eating to take a picture of the dessert.)

After dinner, several of us went to the onsen to watch the nighttime fountain light show. The following photo is from the hotel website:

The show is similar to what you can see at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, with ever changing colors illuminating fountains of water. Kai seemed to really enjoy it. I think the experience was enhanced by being able to view it while relaxing in the open-air swimsuit hot spring.

The next morning, we enjoyed the breakfast buffet that was just as good as the previous night’s dinner.

Here’s my tray with made-to-order omelet, bacon, sausage, onigiri (rice ball), kinoko omochi (sticky rice cake), and ozoni (Japanese soup).

And then it was off to the train station as we would be traveling much of the day, taking three trains to get back to Tokyo.

We had woken up at 5:40AM so that Kai could use the wifi before breakfast, and he was feeling tired. He napped at the train station on his uncle’s lap…

And the whole time on the first train (along with Mom).

He was a tired kid. But who can blame him? He had done a whole lot on this remarkable vacation.

Japan Vacation: Nagasaki

We boarded the train early Thursday morning and headed to Nagasaki. The trains we have taken are all very comfortable. Kai enjoys riding them as he can watch movies on his iPad. And it gives all of us a chance to rest up, which is particularly nice when we have an early start to the day.

Nagasaki is where the first Europeans came to Japan. We visited the Dejima Museum, site of one of the early Dutch trading posts when Japan first opened up to outsiders.

For lunch, most of us had toruko rice which is a Nagasaki specialty. It is an eclectic mix of spaghetti, tonkatsu (fried pork), and curry rice, which probably is a result of the European influence there. Kai especially enjoyed it.

It was a rainy day in Nagasaki, but we carried on. After lunch, we went to Glover Garden.

The Glover House is the oldest western-style house in Japan, dating back to the late 19th century.

Thomas Glover was a Scotsman who came to Japan when he was 21, and had much business success including introducing beer to Japan and forming the company that is now Kirin Beer.

Later in the afternoon, we went to the Nagasaki Peace Park that honors the victims of the second atomic bomb explosion.

Dinner that night was Nagasaki Champon, a Chinese noodle dish mixed with seafood, another specialty of the area.

Most of the others were tired from all of our travels, and Kai just wanted to stay in the hotel to use the iPad, but my wife and I went out after dinner to ride the Nagasaki Ropeway to the top of Mount Inasa for a great night view of the city. They bill it as the “Ten Million Dollar Night View.”

It is kind of hard to believe that our vacation is winding down. We only have one more destination before we return to Tokyo to catch our flight home.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Range of Emotions in Hiroshima

Hiroshima is most famous, of course, for being the place where the first atomic bomb was dropped. And so our first destination on Wednesday was to visit the Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum.

I prepped Kai that he needed to be on his best behavior. The museum would be a serious and solemn place and it would be inappropriate to goof around and laugh. He needed to be respectful. He said he understood, but I wasn’t sure if he would be able to follow through.

At 8AM, we walked over to the Peace Park from our hotel. We first saw the display of origami cranes, a symbol for peace, made by the school children that visit. There were literally thousands of them, many formed together into beautiful designs.

We walked through the Peace Park.

And then we entered the museum.

The museum presented a history of the events that lead up to World War II and the subsequent decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. There were photographs showing the city before and after the bomb was dropped. And there were numerous photos and artifacts that illustrated the devastation, suffering, and after effects.

Here is a photo of a clock that stopped when the bomb exploded:

Kai took his time to look at and read many of the exhibits.

Here is a photo of Hiroshima shortly after the bombed was dropped.

We saw a display of how the city stood before the bomb…

and after.

Here is a display of the burns people suffered and some artifacts of clothing from victims.

Kai took it all in very seriously.

At one point, he got very upset and came up to his mother. “My country did an evil thing!” And “whoever did this should be punished!”

My wife told him that Japan did a lot of bad things, too, especially to China and Korea. But it’s hard to explain to a boy who sees everything in black and white all the nuances and arguments that go into a decision to use a weapon like the atomic bomb.

I was happy, though, that he was very respectful in the museum, and hopeful that he learned a lot there that will stay with him.

After the museum, we walked over to get a closer look at the A-bomb Dome, one of the few buildings in Hiroshima that remained upright after the explosion.

And then we took a 40-minute streetcar ride over toward Miyajima Island. Kai took the opportunity to take a nap.

After catching the ferry, we were on the island. There are many deer on the island that come right up to people. Here’s one with my older nephew.

We coaxed Kai to come up to one, too.

Later, as we were walking, a deer came right up to my wife and started to eat the plastic bag she was carrying. Kai thought that was very funny.

Then it was time for lunch. We found a nice spot that had good seafood. We ordered three dishes just for Kai: grilled oysters on the half shell, shrimp tempura, and octopus tempura.

Yes, all of the food you see in the above photo was just for Kai and he ate nearly all of it up himself.

I had the fried oyster set which came with soup, small pieces of chicken, and rice.

Miyajima is most famous for the torii gate that is in the water.

It was another scorching hot day, so when we came to a shrine, Kai cooled himself off with water you are supposed to purify yourself with.

On hot days like this, we always carry lots of water. Japan is great, though, because there are vending machines selling water and other cold drinks on every corner.

We also try to stay in the shade as much as possible.

Here is a picture of the torii gate taken from the shrine.

Kai loves trying to shake out a good fortune at every shrine we visit.

And then we took the Miyajima Ropeway to the top of Mount Misen.

It was an amazing view as we could see Hiroshima along with many small islands all around.

When we came back down, it was low tide.

We went back to our hotel and had time for only a very quick shower and then we were off to a baseball game.

Before we left home, my father-in-law let us know that he could get tickets to see the Hiroshima Carp if we were interested. My older nephew and I, especially, are big baseball fans so we jumped at the chance to see a game in Japan.

Our big concern, though, was how long Kai would tolerate a baseball game.

We had never taken him to a baseball game before. He’s not much of a sports fan and mostly does not show much interest on the rare occasions when I have a game on tv. Last summer we tried taking him to the horse race track thinking that the short races and all the numbers would hold his attention. But he wanted to leave after only one race.

I soon learned that the experience of going to a baseball game in Japan is nothing like that in America. The atmosphere is much more akin to a major college football game than to an MLB game in the States. There is a band. The vast majority of people were decked out in the red and white colors of the home team. There was organized cheering for every Carp batter. And the crowd was loud. Very loud. The atmosphere on each pitch resembled what you usually only find in a tense moment in an American playoff game.

The noise did not bother Kai at all. In fact, he got into it very much, cheering for the Carp along with everyone else.

We got food. Most of my family got hot dogs. My older nephew got a Philly Cheese Steak that was heavy on cheese and light on Philly. I had the yakitori.

My nephew and I got jerseys of the Carp’s best player.

The game was very exciting, but I was most thrilled that Kai was having such a great time.

We picked a good night to go. It was Peace Night. Everyone was given a green poster upon entering the park, and at a couple points we all held them up while John Lennon’s Imagine played.

I was wondering what the 7th Inning Stretch would be like. Everyone in the stands blew up long, red balloons.

I don’t know where they all got the balloons as we did not receive them but everyone else had one. As Kai got upset that he did not have one, a woman sitting next to us leaned over and handed hers to him.

It was quite a sight when the song stopped playing and everyone released their balloons all together. The photo below was taken a few moments later and doesn’t quite capture the look of all the balloons in the air at once.

The Carp won the game 9-2. It was one of the most fun sporting events I had ever experienced. Kai said he loves baseball now. Well, I think he loves Japanese baseball. I don’t know that I’ll be taking him to a Cubs game anytime soon.

And so this was a quite a day. From the solemn reminder of the atomic bomb devastation to the joyous exhilaration of the baseball game. It may be one of my favorite days on a vacation filled with good ones.
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