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How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.

Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough. read more

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Notre Dame Basilica

Many are surprised to learn that my husband is a Canadian citizen. Before his parents took the plunge and moved to the United States, they started the first chapter of their North American life in the frozen North of Canada. My husband waxed poetic about Canada like it was a lost paradise. Mary, he often told me, I will take you to Canada–the country of my childhood–and I will show you why I love it so.

Well, husband came through. I’ve not only visited Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver–but to my surprise, my husband proposed to me on the top of Mount Whistler in Whistler, Canada. Like husband predicted, I fell in love with Canada. From my point of view, Canada is basically a friendlier, cleaner, and more egalitarian version of the United States. read more

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

A few weeks ago I went to New Orleans, Louisiana for the first time and enjoyed a blissful weekend there filled with historical sights, classic soul cooking, and most of all–jazz. (Travel tips at the bottom of post)

For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a jazz fan and never once considered the thought of going to New Orleans.  In fact, I took a “survey of jazz” class in undergrad mostly to 1. get an easy “A” and 2. catch up on lost sleep.  For most of my life, jazz was music to be played in the waiting room of a doctor’s office or in an elevator.

Then, I met Tohko.

Tohko is my Japanese soul sister.  She dragged me to live jam sessions in Shanghai where the jazz (and Tohko) literally swept me off my feet.  When I lived with her to escape my flea infestation, she would put on her favorite jazz tune, take me in her hand, and whisk me away to dance on the living room floor.  We toe tapped while we cut vegetables, listening to jazz as we cooked dinner.  When we cleaned the apartment, Louis Armstrong was blasting on her stereo.  I was an easy convert.

“Mary,” she pointed at me. “Me.  You.  We’re going to New Orleans.  We have to see jazz in its birthplace.  We just have to.”

Going to New Orleans never once crossed my mind until that moment–but after she uttered those words, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Then, I moved to Texas.

Welcome to New Orleans: A City of Many Cultures

As fate would have it, Tohko and her new boyfriend arranged a visit to New Orleans while I was living in Texas and graciously invited me to be the third wheel–I mean, be a lovely addition–to their New Orleans vacation.

And wow, New Orleans blew all my expectations out of the water.

New Orleans has a culture that is uniquely… New Orleans.  It’s a blend of cajun and creole, French and Spanish, American and Southern.  As the birth place of Jazz and Cajun culture, the city has a unique identity that is simply not found anywhere else in the world.  It’s the kind of place you can walk around and hear music wherever you go–the whimsical noise of a jazz trumpet seeps out of every doorway, every window.  Foots are tapping everywhere in some kind of rhythmic beat that has entranced the whole city.

The music in the air.  That charming European architecture. That sweet smell of beignets and sugar wafting from the center of the French Quarter.  The echoing laughter of tourists on vacation, the tack-tack-tack of the old trolley carrying visitors around the city on century old rails.

It’s magical.

The Best Part of New Orleans?  Bacchanal Wine

Bacchanal Wine Stage
Bacchanal Wine Stage

I could wax poetic about New Orleans architecture and jazz all day, but let’s go straight to my favorite part of New Orleans: this outdoor wine and jazz bar a stone throw away from the Mississippi, and far away from the French quarter.

Bacchanal Wine came highly recommended to me by all my friends (and even travel shows); and wow, it’s one of those places where you’ll have an enchanted evening no matter what you do.  It’s a no-frills house converted into a wine cellar selling some of the best pours you’ll ever have, with some simple southern fare to match.  While the wine and fish may be top notch, you’ll enjoy these delicacies sitting on a humble plastic lawn chair matched with a metal table in the outside courtyard, listening to some of the best jazz New Orleans has to offer on a make-shift wooden stage.

One of the best cooked fish I’ve had in my life….!!!

Like many places in the south, the Bacchanal Wine bar is as low-key and local as they come.  It was the kinda place one could frequent in a nice dress, a suit, jeans, or shorts and a t-shirt–and no one would feel it was out of place.  It was the ultimate hangout joint.

Tohko, her new boyfriend and I all ate delicious fish, drank a bottle of wine, and listened to live jazz until the stars twinkled above us.  It was one of those magical evenings that only New Orleans–and Bacchanal–could offer.  I can’t recommend this place enough.  Take a taxi/lyft, get out of the French Quarter, and spend a few hours here.  You won’t regret it.

And the Best Jazz Clubs?  The Spotted Cat and Fritzels Jazz Cafe

The Spotted Cat Music Club

It’s been a struggle for me to find half-decent jazz bar.  Since my return from Shanghai, most Jazz clubs I’ve visited are filled with half-assed bands ready to make a quick buck.  Others are a little too orchestrated and stiff for my tastes.

I will say with certainty: the jazz in New Orleans is the real deal.  They play the classics mixed in with their own creations, followed up by the passionate outburst of random jam sessions.  At these two venues in particular, the music ultimately captivated the audience in attendance.

The Spotted Cat feels like a jazz bar built for swing dance–and that’s because you’ll most likely spot some professional swing dancers twirling at the front near the stage.  It’s a popular joint with a mix of locals and tourists; with the real locals twirling and dipping and jiving and tapping in full swing-dance gear near the band.  The energy of the venue is infectious and, while it can be crowded and noisy, the music is still the star of the show.

Fritzel’s, on the other hand, is a more low-key joint where one can sit, have a beer, and enjoy the music.  Wooden benches line the stage (with plenty of room for standing when it’s crowded).  Although the bar has a low hum of conversation in the background, most of the audience is enchanted by the energy and class of the Fritzel Band.

“Come on down,” the lead sings sweetly in the microphone, taking a break from his trombone solo. “Come on down to New Orleans.”

 

The Real Deal: Preservation Hall. Unchanged since the 1940s.

And finally, if you’re a real jazz fan, you know you gotta fork over the

$20 to go to Preservation Hall, the supposed birth place of some of the most legendary jazz songs in history.  In summer it’s a sweltering shoebox of people, and in winter I hear it’s as cold as death–but for the jazz-dedicated, this is a must. read more

Tea Evoked Memories

Tea Evoked Memories

I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:

“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”

I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:

Genmai-Cha 玄米茶

Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined.  After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower.  It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.

Genmaicha is a green tea with roasted, popped brown rice

I had just arrived in Japan the day before.  My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings.  I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside.  A wind-chime sang in the breeze.  The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck.  The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room.  My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese.  My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.

Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise.  I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.

“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.

The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha.  Do you like it?  Hold on.”

She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me.  I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.

Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶

http://aboutteas.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/puer-tea-1.jpg

Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region.  Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars.  Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color.  When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth.  It smells like trees, soil, dirt.  It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.

daketang

IMG_2626

I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang.  The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations.  The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables.  Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.

Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens.  After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers.  Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:

Pu-er.

Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much.  My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours.  There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement.  It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city.  I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it.  The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.

Oolong Tea 乌龙茶

I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like.  To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia.  No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.

I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed.  For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.

After my former roommate booted me out of her apartment because I failed to find her a white husband, I had fully moved into what I deem the best apartment I ever had the rare luck of living in. I invited Z and Jenny, my new coworkers, to look at the apartment and decided to get dinner.

We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment.  Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).

A ‘gong fu cha’ (kung fu tea) set

“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.  “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”

“Of course it is!” she laughed.  “It’s quite a show.  Do you want to order it?”

The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot.   As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea.  I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).

“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed.  “What a waste!”

Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary.  It goes all over the place.”

With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot.  “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”

Irish & English Breakfast

I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea.  It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).

Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy.  Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea.  There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning.  The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.

Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma.  When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.

What kind of memories do tea evoke for you?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

This post has nothing to do with China, Japan, or even travel.  It’s just about the monster that has taken over my life and kept me from writing in this blog: my job.

Despite relocating to Dallas for this job, the nature of my role allows me to have a mostly flexible and remote working environment.  I haven’t visited the Dallas office in over a month.  In fact, I work from home and on the road almost all the time.  Many envy me when I tell them I work from home, but whenever I hear their words of longing, I can’t help but think…

Is a flexible, or remote, working environment really better for us?

The Line Between Work and Personal Space Begin to Blur

I used to tell people that I loved work more than school because, unlike school, work didn’t give us ‘homework.’  As a graduate student, the worry of papers and homework always loomed over my head even after class ended.  I thought back to my work days when work ended at 5pm and didn’t follow me around.  It was great to clock out, go home, and not worry about the monster that was my job until the next day.

I’ll tell you now:

a flexible work schedule destroys that clear barrier between work and personal space. read more

3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

Despite living in Utah for 22 years of my life, I had never once visited Yellowstone National Park.  So when all of my bridesmaids (minus one) flew in from China and Japan to be in my Utah wedding, I wanted to treat them to something special post-ceremony: a three day trip to Yellowstone National Park.

I won’t lie.  It was extremely stressful to plan both a wedding and a Yellowstone trip.  A mere day after my wedding, I hauled three Chinese and Japanese girls into an SUV and drove five hours to Wyoming.  It was a whirlwind, but I also knew that having all of my Asia friends in Utah was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.  If we were going to do Yellowstone, it was now or never.  (For more logistical tips and tricks, scroll to the bottom)

Our trip was an absolute success.  Here are the hot spots we visited on our short, but wonderful journey:

Day 1: Mammoth Hot Springs & Lamar Valley

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone
It’s hotter than it looks
Looks like another planet!

Going to Mammoth Hot Springs felt like stepping into an alien world.  You can physically feel the heat of the bubbling hot springs, hear the roar of the waters and..

“Oh god,” Jean held her nose.  “What’s that smell?”

“Euch,” Z gagged.  “It smells like rotten eggs!”

“Oh my god!” I faced Tohko.  “That sulphuric smell reminds me of an onsen (Japanese hot spring)!  This makes me want to hop in!”

“You’re right!” Tohko jumped toward me and grabbed my hand.  “This smell.. ahhh… it makes me want to dip in a hot spring and eat onsen-tamago” (eggs boiled in an onsen).

Z looked at us, horrified.

“You Japanese people–I’ll never get it.”

Cool rock formations made from the hot springs

Afterwards we went to =&0=& approximately one hour away from Mammoth Hot Spring.  The tourist office said that it was a great spot to see wildlife, but when we got there we just saw more Bison.  If you camp out all day (like some photographers did) you might see some wolves… but yeah.  We were happy photographing the bison and called it a day.

Wildlife refuge in Yellowstone
River near the refuge

Yellowstone Bison
So many bison!
We’re obviously way too excited to see bison

Day 2: Artist’s Point (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone) & Yellowstone Lake

I won’t say much about Artist Point (also aptly named ‘the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone’), because the photos do all the talking.  It was my favorite spot in the whole park and, honestly, it really does feel like you’re in a painting.  We did a few trails that gave us both a high and low vantage point of the falls.

Artist Point Yellowstone, Grand Canyon Yellowstone
Gorgeous or what?
Nothing says “tourist” more than matching t-shirts

Yellowstone Artist Point Observation Deck
Hiking down to the observation deck
Up close and personal with the waterfall

“Look at this view!” Tohko pointed to the waterfall as we stood on the observation deck.  “It’s so beautiful… it makes me want to do Acro yoga!”

“Do what?” I repeated, thinking I misheard.

“Acro yoga!  Feel that fresh air, hear that water, look at the view–come on, we just gotta do it–it will make this even more unforgettable!  Come over here Mary, I’ll lift you.”

“No way!” I jumped back.  “I’m too fat, I’ll fall over on you.”

“I’ll do it!” Jean raised her hand.  “I’ve never done it, and I’m scared shitless, but it will make a great photo!”

“Oh my god,” I put my face into my palms, embarrassed. “I can’t believe we’re doing acro yoga here…”

It was a bit weird and drew quite the crowd, but I must admit that Tohko was right: it made the moment even more unforgettable.

Yellowstone acroyoga
I think Jean’s face says it all here

Later we did a hike nearby Yellowstone Lake, in bear country.  When we realized we were the only ones on the trail (and we heard constant rustling around us), we were spooked.  Nearby signs told us to make noise so the bears would stay away, so Tohko taught us a Japanese song about bears and we chanted it the whole hike.  We laughed nervously while walking out of the park, singing the Japanese bear song, scared shitless that a bear would pop out at any moment.

So yeah, rent some bear spray.  Don’t be stupid like us.

Relaxing at the lake

Singing to stave off the bears

Day 3: Old Faithful, Lower Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Lodge read more

Moving to Texas for Work and What Life is Like in Dallas

Moving to Texas for Work and What Life is Like in Dallas

A few months ago I mentioned that I received a baller job offer, but with one catch: I had to move to Dallas, Texas to take the job.

It’s already been four months since I first set foot in the heartland of America.  Before coming here, I had no to connection to Texas whatsoever–no family, no friends, no nothing.  To be quite frank, I probably could have gone through life without visiting Texas and been totally ok with it.

If you told me four years ago that I would be moving to Dallas, Texas, I would have rolled over laughing and said you were out of your mind.  Now, here I am.  Just goes to show: you never know where life will take you.  From Niigata to Shanghai to LA to Dallas.  I literally ask myself everyday–how did I end up here?

Anyway, Texas is a very interesting place….I’ll give you that.  Here are some of my observations (scroll to the bottom for best of Texas recommendations):

People in Texas are friendly and polite.  Like, really damn friendly.

Friendly bartenders at Deep Ellum brewpub

I mentioned this before, but people in Texas are the friendliest I’ve ever met in the states.  They’re not pretentious; they’re very down to Earth and approachable.  People address each other as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ here.  It’s the kinda place where you can walk up to someone and strike up a conversation and it’s not awkward at all.

The Lyft/Uber drivers here are the friendliest I’ve ever seen and they’ve given me great tips about the city.  My coworkers are helpful and warm.  Servers at restaurant are truly top-notch–they are prompt, considerate, and well-mannered.  I’m very impressed with just how lovely it is to interact with locals.

Yoga in front of the capitol? Only in Austin

The only drawback?  Like the Midwesterners (and Japanese), Texans tend to put up a wall.  They’re friendly and nice, but to a point.  Many Texans I meet are tried and true Texans–in other words, their family has been in Dallas for generations and they’ve already got a well-established network. They have a close circle of family and friends and they’re very selective about who enters that circle.  This is a big change from California, a state chock full of transplants who are more open (and forced?) to let others deeper into their social circles.

Everyone is Moving Here for a Job

View from my new company window 😀

Transplants may, however, outpace the population.  Texas is booming.  Techies fed up with Silicon Valley are flooding into Austin.  Big businesses are relocating to Dallas for the business friendly atmosphere and low taxes.  Houston is filled with oil/energy money and all the cash it brings.  There is a strong economy in Texas (tenth in the world!) and it’s very apparent.  Cranes are everywhere.  The population is increasing year on year.  Every car that passes my street is either a BMW or Porsche.

I used to think that I was a weirdo for moving to Texas for a job; but the longer I live here, the more people I meet who are in my very same predicament.  Like me, I’ve met many twenty/thirty-somethings with no connection to Texas, but who moved here for a job.

American Culture is Strong Here

Even Trader Joe’s Feels More Texas

I was always at a loss when I had to teach Japanese students about American culture.  To me, American culture was a melting pot of different cultures–it was more than just hamburgers, hot dogs, and baseball.  There was no such thing as “American food” or “American culture.”  We were a mix of different cultures–a country of immigrants–and it was hard to condense that into one, simple lesson.

But man, if I was from Texas?  I’d have a whole lotta culture to teach the kids.

Fortworth Stockyards
A super cool Saloon

I feel more American here.  It may be somewhat stereotyped, but going to a honkey tonk; visiting a real ranch, seeing people wear cowboy boots and hats (and look cool in them) and going to a real rodeo make me feel like I’m in a place uniquely America.

My parents came to visit last week and I took them to see a cattle drive; eat authentic and downright delicious Texas barbecue, and drink in a real-life saloon.  When the bartender saw my dad in a cowboy hat and found out we were visiting from Utah, she gave us a wink and poured us a round of beers on the house.  Again, the combination of old-west plus friendly folks create a uniquely American atmosphere that is hard to find anywhere else.

Texan Women Dress REALLY Nice

What can I say?  Texas women are stunning.  My coworkers look like they walked out of a fashion magazine.  From their earrings, to their necklace, the color of their dress and down to the style of their shoe–everything matches.  I haven’t seen women this nicely dressed since Tokyo.

Texas Cities are Super Clean

Downtown Austin
Ausitn was Pretty Darn Clean

Downtown Dallas sparkles.  I live near downtown and man, the city glows.  I just went to Austin last weekend and it was equally spotless.  Compared to downtown Los Angeles, Dallas looks like Luxembourg.

Maybe the suburbs are a little trashier (?), but metro-area Dallas is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen in the USA.  Good job, Texas.

Texas = Affordable

My neighborhood. This would cost 3k+ in LA–only 1k ish in Dallas

I keep telling my husband that Dallas/Austin/Houston are probably the last cities in the US where one can achieve “the American dream.”  Not only are houses affordable here, but jobs are plentiful and wages are high.  I’m quite sure that if I worked my current job in LA I’d make the same salary–except with double the cost of living.  This is a huge Texas perk.

Ok, some of the bad

Green! ….but flat
  • There’s no nature here.  I know, some Texans might argue with me, but as someone from the rocky mountains who spent the last four years in California–I’m sorry.  The nature here is just not that great.  But hey, at least it’s green?
  • Traffic is pretty gnarly in Dallas and Austin.  Not as bad as LA, but close.  Freeway design makes no sense either–it’s really confusing.
  • Texas drivers are out of their mind.  I was pretty sure LA drivers were the most reckless and dangerous in the US, but I take it back.  Texas is much worse.
  • Dear god, it’s hot.
  • Hard to make friends.  But maybe this is true everywhere.
  • read more

    Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland

    Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland

    Kylemore Abbey in Connemara

    Countless Americans make the journey across the Atlantic for one reason alone: discovering their Irish roots in the homeland of Ireland.

    I’m no different.  When my father first told me that I was Irish (around six years old),  I went to the library and checked out every book on Ireland I could find.  Each page was filled with green pastures that stretched out to the ocean, castles dotting the rolling green countryside, and cobblestone streets in cute seaside villages.  As a young girl growing up in the deserts of coal-mining Utah, Ireland looked like the setting of a faraway fairy tale from a Disney movie.

    My Irish Grandma

    My Grandma Winnie left Ireland when she was in her early twenties.  Her father was a strict, Irish farmer who fit the stereotype: when he wasn’t drinking at the pub, he was beating his kids.  My grandmother loved to dance and sing so, despite my grandfather’s strict household rule, she would sneak out of the second floor window and run to the dance halls.  Usually she was able to sneak in and out undetected, but one evening her father caught her climbing back in the window.  She was beaten bloody.

    “Winnie,” my great-grandmother told my grandma the next day. “Your brothers are going to inherit the farmland here and you’ll get nothing.  If you stay here they’ll make you labor on the farm and work you to the bone for nothing.  If you marry another Irishman around here it will just be the same.  Take this ticket to America and find your own future.”

    Winnie journeyed to America, moved to Boston, and lived and died there.  She was a single mother to two children and worked a hard life of physical labor to give her kids the American dream.

    I loved my grandma Winnie and was proud of my Irish heritage.  If I was going to Ireland, then I just had to go to her hometown in…

    Carna in Connemara, County Galway (aka, the Irish boonies)

    Aint nothin here, man

    Connemara used to be its own county, but it was so small and unpopulated that it was eventually merged with neighboring County Galway for efficiency’s sake.  Connemara is a vast swath of bog and plateaus that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  Connemara is rugged, untouched by man, expansive and stunning in its purity.

    When husband and I were driving to Carna, we were surprised to see… well, absolutely nothing.  Much of Ireland is rural, but the area around Carna is so rural, you have to wonder if there are more sheep than men wandering around the hills.

    Carna!
    The old, Irish style cottage–still in fashion (this one was newly built)
    The focal point of the town: a church
    Pharmacy across the street

    The town was tiny–basically, there’s only one supermarket, one church, and two pubs.  The ocean is so close you can hear the waves from the main road.  The church is the central point of the town, and next to it is a pub (go figure).  It was surreal to be in my grandmother’s hometown and think that she wandered these streets and went to this very same church.  Since there are only two pubs in the town, we go to the one that’s open and walk in to get some lunch.

    A model of the famous Galway boats was in the restaurant. These boats are super cool!

    As soon as we walked in three elderly men at the bar craned their heads at the door.  They gave us a long, hard stare until they went back to nursing their pint of beer.  The peppy woman at the bar sat us at a table and took our order.

    “Mary,” husband whispered to me. “I think I’m the first Asian person to ever be in this bar.  Or even set foot in Carna.”

    “Yeah, you’re probably right,” I laughed.

    The pub!

    Everyone in the bar spoke Irish gaelic.  The waitress told us that everyone in Carna actually does speak Irish with English as a second language.  In fact, Carna is known for being the last remaining town where Irish is spoken daily; thus, people in Ireland homestay in Carna for the sole purpose of attaining fluency in Irish.  Hearing the Irish-Celtic going around the pub had me feeling like I stepped back in time to a pub from Ireland in the 1800s.  I’m quite sure little had changed.

    At the grocery store everything was written in Irish. Even the books for sale.

    We didn’t spend long in Carna and, much to my disappointment, I didn’t learn more about my grandmother or any surviving relatives.  Being there felt surreal to me and it was hard for me to approach the locals to ask about her family.  Emotionally I didn’t have the strength, and I hope that someday I can go back to Carna better prepared to find some long lost relatives.

    Rural Connemara near Carna

    Although Carna is not a tourist destination, it really is stunning.  It’s rare to find a patch of Earth that has changed so little over the centuries.  The scenery around Carna is burned into my brain–it’s literally unlike anywhere on Earth (and is very different from other parts of Ireland).  If you want to hear people speak Irish, eat the best damn meal of mussels you’ll ever have, and discover a patch of Ireland untouched by time–maybe Carna is worth a stop.

    Best mussels of my life. Freshly caught off the coast of Carna that morning.

    But for me, it was definitely worth it.  To see where my grandma came from.  To see where I came from.

    And If You’re Going to Ireland, for God’s Sake go to Galway City: It’s a Must

    When people ask me where they should go when planning a trip to Ireland, I immediately say:

    “Skip Dublin and go straight to Galway.  Trust me.”

    I’m not just saying that because I’m from Galway–I’m saying it because Galway City is the shit.  It’s like stepping into a modern, medieval city.  It’s a stunning city on the seaside that has cobblestone streets, charming medieval homes, and pubs that feel like they came right out of a fantasy film.  When you walk down the main street in Galway, you’ll find Irish performers dancing in the streets.  Smell freshly baked bred or a pot of Irish stew brewing nearby.  Hear the music of Irish guitars and tin whistles from the lively pubs flood onto the street.

    Latin Quarter!
    The old clan flags of Galway
    Failte!
    Look how bustling it is!

    It’s a nerdy reference, but I kept telling my husband that walking around Galway City felt like I was in a fantasy village in a video game.  The music would change depending on which pub or restaurant we happened to walk by, the medieval buildings and music felt like it was straight out of a renaissance fair, and approaching a random local to ask about the city was not only easy, but encouraged.

    Proof I’m a Galway Girl

    My Irish last name is not very common.  I’m not an O’Malley or an O’Hara.  In fact, husband teased me throughout the entire trip saying: “your clan must have died out, because I don’t see your Irish name anywhere.”

    When we visited the National Irish Museum in Galway and we looked through the local history, I not only saw my last name right smack in the main exhibition–I saw that my clansmen were the original settlers and leaders of Galway.  I took a photo and beamed with pride.

    Maybe my clan is dying out.  Maybe after the British ran the original Celt settlers out of Galway and killed many of them, a good chunk of my ancestors died too.

    But I’m very proud of my last name and my heritage–it’s one reason I didn’t, and won’t, change my last name (even after marriage).  Luckily, I got a good husband who not only lets me, but encourages me to keep my last name.

    I’m proud to be Irish.  I’m proud to be from Galway.

    Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it

    Going to Kyushu, Japan? Why Visiting Yakushima is Worth it

    I originally had no plans to visit Japan in 2017….  but when we saw plane tickets from Los Angeles to Kyushu, Japan for only $600 round trip, my husband and I thought:

    Dude.  We’re goin’ to Kyushu.

    When I told my Japanese friend Tohko that we were going to be in Japan, she said she would meet us in Kyushu on one condition:

    We go to Yakushima.

    Yakushima?  Where and what is it?

    It’s the greenest and wettest place in the country, receiving more rainfall than any other location in Japan.  On top of that, the island has a strong reputation for being a spiritual and mystical retreat, and rightly so–it did, after all serve as the inspiration for the animated film “Princess Mononoke.”

    I always told myself that, someday, I just had to go to Yakushima (similar to my desire to go to Kumano Kodo).  Not only is Princess Mononoke my favorite Studio Ghbili movie, but when I googled Yakushima and looked at the images, the greenery blew me away.

    But first, we gotta get one thing straight: Yakushima is not an easy side-trip.  It’s far away.  Really far away.

    Wayyyyy down there!

    Even within Kyushu (the bottom island), getting to Yakushima is no easy feat.  You’ll not only have to take a 3+ hour bullet train from Fukuoka City to Kagoshima, but then you’ll have to ride a 2 hour speedboat from Kagoshima to Yakushima.   Once there, it is possible to get around by bus or scooter, but I recommend renting a car. 

    To be honest, I thought the inconvenience of going to Yakushima wasn’t worth it–but then again, I really wanted to see Tohko.

    In the end, I’m glad Tohko nudged lazy Mary to go to Yakushima.  It was my favorite part of Kyushu–and here’s why:

    Where to Go

    Cedarland (Yakisuki Land) 屋久杉ランド

    When the tourism office told us to go to Cedarland, Tohko and I were super skeptical.  It sounded like a corny, cedar-themed amusement park for kids.

    But don’t let the name fool you.  It’s a protected natural park–and it’s stunning.

    Yakisugi Land
    Starting to see the Princess Mononoke resemblance?
    Yakisugi Land Sennensugi
    Thousand year-old-cedar… no big deal
    SOOOO GREEEEN
    I bet this is so pretty in the fall!
    The Ruby Ronin is green… you know, to blend in with the surroundings
    Untamed wilderness

    To say Cedarland was lush and green is an understatement.  It’s a rainforest.  There’s moss and growth everywhere.  The water is clear, transparent and fresh.  It’s extremely wet.  We were constantly slipping around on muddied trails (in fact, I even fell in a mud pit!), but that added to the adventure of it.

    The main trail is well maintained, but if you venture off into the lesser-traveled routes you’ll find trails in disrepair.  While it’s exciting to go off road, travelers should exercise caution: its extremely slippery and one wrong step will send you sliding down a muddy hillside.  Be careful!

    Seaside Hot Springs (Yudomari Onsen)

    Yudomari Onsen
    Not a bad view for a bath
    The onsen itself

    Japan loves hot springs, so it’s not surprising that people are willing to strip down naked in public to hop into a seaside thermal bath.

    That’s exactly what we did at Yudomari Onsen.  I have to admit, even I was self-conscious about the teeny-tiny two foot bamboo wall that attempted to separate the male and female hot springs.  Although the water was lukewarm, it was an experience–who else can say they bathed in a seaside hot spring watching the sunset?

    If you want to bathe in more, ahem, private quarters–then here’s a list of all the onsens in Yakushima.  Kyushu is a hot spring lover’s heaven, and Yakushima is no exception.

    Waterfalls and More

    So, we saw a lot of epic waterfalls–and trust me, there are a lot of majestic waterfalls all over the island.  You can’t go wrong.

    Ohko Waterfall
    Ohko Waterfall
    Impressed with Ohko

    Close to Ohko falls were some stunning beaches.  Be sure to randomly make pit stops along your Yakushima journey–if it looks pretty, then make a stop!

    Yakushima ocean
    Random road stop
    Yakushima’s pretty all around, so we made random pit stops–at places like the above

    I highly recommend Senpiro waterfall.  It’s a quick stop and the observation deck not only provides the perfect photo opportunity of the gigantic waterfall, but also gives you a stunning 360 view of the villages and surrounding island.

    Plus, there’s picnic tables up there.  If I were you, I’d bring some bento boxes and have lunch up there.  No better way to do it.

    Senpiro Waterfall Yakushima
    Senpiro Waterfall
    Senpiro Waterfall in Yakushima
    View of Yakushima from the Vantage Point at Senpiro Waterfall

    Where to Stay?

    If you’re staying in Yakushima, I just have one word for you: Minshuku.

    As I wrote in my Kumano Kodo post, minshukus are my absolute favorite type of lodgings in Japan.  They’re basically the Japanese version of a British B&B.  You can also think of them as as a more intimate ryokan.

    Tohko reserved a room for us at a minshuku called Shiki no Yado….. and wow.  I cannot recommend this place enough.

    Shiki No Yado Yakushima
    Beneath a dormant volcano!
    Shiki no yado sunrise yakushima
    Sunrise at Shiki no Yado

    Not only is Shiki no Yado located beneath a dormant volcano, but the rooms are spacious; wooden, and clean.  Plus, the staff speaks great English.

    The Japanese family running the minshuku are wholesome and kind.  The wife told us she’s originally from Yakushima, but went to Tokyo for about 15 years to work until she said–enough.  Now she’s living the simple life, running a b&b in rural Yakushima… and I can see the appeal.

    Where to Eat

    Your Minshuku

    Minshuku meals are the best.  THE BEST.  At Shiki no  Yado the owners not only prepared the meals fresh from scratch everyday, but they used locally sourced ingredients from their own farm (!!!).  This food was legit farm to table–and at a stellar price.

    Shiki no Yado Yakushima Food
    Look at that spread!
    Mmmm… caught-the-morning-of sushi
    Minshuku breakfast: the REAL breakfast of champions

    Iso no Kaori

    Tohko’s friend also recommended a place called “Iso no Kaori.”  It’s a tiny teishoku (set-meal) establishment on the side of the highway that loops around Yakushima.  It’s fresh food at great prices.  Definitely worth a visit.

    Iso no Kaori Yakushima
    Here it is!
    While I got a sushi meal, Richard’s friend got a fried fish here… trust me, it tasted better than it looks
    Yakushima Craft Brew
    And believe it or not… there’s even a craft brewery on the island. The place was just starting out, but still… quite good!

    Yakushima Travel Tips

  • Watch the Weather: Yakushima weather is unpredictable–ensure that you avoid the rainy season when going to Yakushima.  We were unable to go to Yakushima’s most famous site (Jomon Sugi) because of the heavy rains.  Keep this in mind.
  • How Long Should I Stay?  We were only here for two days and one night.  While we were able to have an enjoyable vacation, I would say three days and two nights would be an ideal time frame.  If you’re looking for a place to relax for a long stretch of time, this would also be a good destination.
  • What to Bring? Pack good hiking gear and water resistant clothes!  I would also bring an extra pair of shoes in case you trip and fall in the mud, like I did.
  • Get a Kyushu Rail Pass:  If you’re going to have an extended trip in Kyushu ONLY, I recommend getting the Kyushu rail pass.  It’s like the nationwide JR rail pass, but only for Kyushu.  It’s an all you can ride, 5-day pass for about 180 USD.
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    Guns, an American Way of Life

    Guns, an American Way of Life

    My husband and I went to see Black Panther last weekend.  Although my husband has had enough Marvel movies for one lifetime, I was quite stoked to see this one in particular.  It wasn’t just the all-black (and beautiful!) cast, but I was also excited to see a unique marvel world crafted out of African culture.

    The movie was great—until a group of young teenagers a few seats behind us began to provide loud and offensive commentary on the film.  I won’t repeat what was said, but let’s just say they said the ‘n’ word twice, among other things.  From start to finish this group of teenagers just kept at it—and no one said anything.

    I thought about standing up and telling them to shut up, but I must be honest.

    I was afraid.

    In America, it is very possible that a group of young, aggressive teenagers could turn hostile.

    …. And since we’re in Texas, the likelihood they have a gun is very real.  I was afraid to risk it.

    Although I was seething in my seat, I was also surprised that no one else spoke up.  These teenagers were so loud I’m sure people from across the theater could hear their offensive remarks in stereo.  What about the people sitting right next to them?  How could they keep quiet?

    “I liked the movie, but didn’t appreciate the commentary,” my husband told me when we were driving back from the movie.  “I was going to say something, but since we’re in Texas, I held back—I mean, what if he had a gun?”

    “Oh my god!”  I cried.  “I THOUGHT THE SAME THING!”

    “I don’t think I can live in Texas,” my husband said, shaking his head.  “Maybe I was spoiled in California.”

    I nodded in agreement.

    And believe it or not, that’s not the most alarming part of this story.

    When the lights came on at the end of the film, the group of teenagers in the back of the theater weren’t the racist rednecks I imagined.

    They were black.

    But that’s a different post entirely.

    A few years back I wrote about how America sometimes isn’t the paradise we think it is—especially when it comes to physical safety.  The biggest culture shock I had when moving abroad was how many East Asian countries—even those third-world ones we look down on so much—are much safer than almost all urban megacities in the USA.  It’s much safer to walk around Hanoi at 2AM than it is to wander the streets of downtown San Francisco.  Trust me on this one.

    There is a wealth of arguments as to why this is.  It could be socioeconomic circumstances.  Culture.  Religion.  Hegemony.

    Me?  Well, I blame the availability, and proliferation, of guns.  Especially those used by the Las Vegas and Florida shooter—the type of weapons used for mass killings in war zones.

    Basically, because it is so damn hard to get a gun in Asia, the worst thing that could happen to anyone is getting stabbed.  And yes, getting stabbed would really suck, but we can all admit it’s definitely harder to enact a mass stabbing than a mass shooting.  Stabbings, while lethal, keep the kill count down to a minimum.

    Even then, stabbings rarely happen in Asia.  Pickpocketing is probably the worst thing that will happen to any tourist in Asia.

    When people in Asia told me to watch out for pickpockets, I laughed.  I don’t care if they take my purse, I told my friends, at least I can walk the streets and not fear for my life.

    At least I can walk around and know no one will shoot me.

    In the USA, the fear of guns—and mass shootings—is very real.

    At my previous job, we had to undergo specific training about how to hide from an active shooter in the building.  Those training videos were traumatizing.  How to attack an active shooter (yes, they told us not to run from him/her!).  Where to hide.  What numbers to call.  How to help students/co-workers/victims.  How to tend a gunshot wound.

    Lo and behold, a few weeks later, there was a school shooting only five miles away from the University I worked at.

    One survivor of the most recent Florida mass-shooting told reporters that he had undergone survival drills to prepare for mass-shootings since elementary school.

    In other words, if I someday have a child in the USA, they will have to undergo mandatory drills on how to run away from a maniac with a gun running rampant in their school.

    That’s sad.

    As my husband so poignantly stated after the Las Vegas incident:

    “If a mass shooting at an elementary school (Sandy Hook) won’t put a halt to gun proliferation, then nothing will.”

    When I told new friends in China and Japan that I was from the USA, they often followed up with a question.

    “Do you have a gun?”

    And if they didn’t ask me about a gun, then they often assumed I had one.  When I told them that my family never possessed a firearm, many of them were shocked.

    “You’re American and you don’t have a gun?  I thought everyone in America had a gun.  Don’t you guys always shoot stuff up?”

    I even had some friends from Asia come to my home and ask me where I keep my gun.

    I’m sad, because my friends from Asia assume I’m a trigger-happy, gun-toting aggressor just because I’m American.

    I’m sad, because I can’t walk around late at night in fear of either being shot or held up at gun point.

    I’m sad, because when people flip me off or curse at me on the highway, I don’t do anything in response because there have been incidents where retaliation has led to gun violence and death.

    I’m sad, because I can’t go to the movies and tell someone to be quiet—in fear of guns.

    I’m sad because guns negatively influence the American image.

    I’m sad, because even subconsciously, guns dictate even the most simple and menial actions in my everyday life in the USA.

    Is there good news?

    After way too many mass shootings, a group of very brave students (the survivors of the latest Florida shooting) decided to step up and fight for change.  Their courage and determination to stand up to the NRA and Congress reminds me of movements only found in history books.

    In other words: I think the new generation—a generation sick of seeing their peers die from senseless violence—is not only willing to fight for change, but might make it happen.

    I know America will never fully rid itself of guns or the assumed power of the second amendment.

    But here’s to hoping that America can, at the very least, pass some simple reforms to ensure tighter gun control (like Australia or Switzerland).  I personally hope someday the US can better control guns in our lives, instead of guns controlling how we live.