Wednesday, August 21, 2013

twenty years...

My husband and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary today.. :)

On our wedding day.. August 21, 1993
He stole my heart pretty much from Our First Date...
he's my lover, my best friend,
my co-pilot in this parenting stint,
my workout partner,
my travel companion
and the keeper of my heart. 

He truly is my prince from a far away land who swept me off my feet. 

I'm so lucky to be living happily ever after with this man.
Today on our 20th wedding anniverary.

I love you. xo

My apologies for the repetition to those of you who saw these same photos and sentiments on facebook or instagram earlier today.. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Library Loot LXXI

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries! 

I returned a whole bunch of library books before going on vacation, but as soon as we got home, I hit the library! I already had (have) several books on my reading queue right now, so I didn't get too many books. I didn't read much in July and because I've been doing some re-reading lately, I've fallen at least 10 books behind in my 2013 goodreads Reading Challenge to read 101 books by the end of the year. I really wish goodreads would allow us to count re-read books to our annual stats. I mean, I read the whole book again.. it should count! Anyway, to help me along a little bit, I decided to check out the graphic novel section for some quick reads. I was psyched to find some pretty awesome--and fairly grown-up-- newly released graphic novels at my library! Check it out:

Primates by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks This one is a nonfiction book about three scientists who dedicated their research efforts to studying primates! Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Tim Hamilton So psyched about this one. I read and loved The Illustrated Man when I was maybe in 8th grade but never read Fahrenheit 451. I figured this was a great but sneaky way to catch up with this classic.

The Kite Runner Graphic Novel by Khaled Hosseini I know, I know... I should just read the full book. I even have it! My daughter read it this spring, loved it and implored me to read it, too. And I should. But when I saw the graphic novel I couldn't resist the temptation of a short cut.

The Pickled Pantry by Andrea Chesman Finally, as always I had to visit the cookbooks in the new book section where I found this delightful book on pickling. I'm planning on making at least one of the recipes and posting a review, but in the meantime, know that it is fabulous!

What do you have borrowed from your library?

Do you like pickles? Not just cucumbers.. pickled anything?!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Haru Cooking Class in Kyoto, Japan & other vacation food

This is the FOOD post that accompanies my Asian adventure travel post from the other day. It didn't turn out quite as exciting as I think I made it out to be, but I hope you enjoy the photos and bits of information about the food we ate in Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I'm going to mention the food on our trip in reverse order, starting with Japan and ending with the Philippines because I want to make sure the best part--the Japanese cooking class in Kyoto-- is at the top of this post.

As many of you know, I love food! Who doesn't? I love trying new foods and my favorite food next to treats and desserts is Indian and Thai. I really didn't know much about Japanese food before our trip other than the sushi, yakatori and yaki udon we typically order at local NJ sushi restaurants. I honestly just haven't put much thought or exploration into the cuisine before. Needless to say when my husband suggested a Japanese cooking class as part of our itinerary while in Japan, I jumped at the chance (He found it through TripAdvisor). I'm so glad I did, too, because The Haru Cooking class that we attended was absolutely the highlight of my culinary experience on our recent trip to Japan. The Haru Cooking class is hosted by a Japanese husband and wife team who have put together a small group cooking class right in their Kyoto home. The class size is limited to six people, so our group consisted of our family of four plus a couple also from the US.

Our host, Taro-san emailed us detailed instructions on which bus to take from Kyoto station and which stop to get off the bus. Taro-san met us at the bus stop at a predetermined time and we walked with him to his home from there. It was very easy. His adorable little daughter accompanied him and she immediately stole our hearts. Not only is she very cute and gregarious but I have to admit little girls speaking Japanese is one of the sweetest sounds! Honestly.

Once at Taro-san's house, we met his lovely wife who welcomed us into their home and served us cool drinks and snacks. The cold tea we were served was fire roasted tea. It had a fairly strong smokey scent, so the girls didn't like it so much, but Gabe and I found it appealing.

We spoke for a little while to get to know each other and then we promptly began learning about every day Japanese foods and cooking techniques, including Kobe beef which is extremely exclusive to a specific region of Japan and only very, very recently exported to a very, very small number of restaurants. I think only two in the US and only in the last 8 months. So basically if you think you've been served Kobe beef in the US, you weren't.

Taro-san also answered any questions we had about Japan and Japanese culture in general. Taro and his family were so lovely.. warm, welcoming and patient. And of course, the food was wonderful! I can't wait to try some of the recipes at home!

Here are some photos from our cooking class:
Haruko playing

Taro-san showing us how to make dashi
(Japanese broth used in everyday cooking)

Haruko inspecting the cooking students' work

Haruko looking up to Maria 

Haruko playing ball with her friend.
Plating up the food!

Our beautiful table!  "itadakimasu.."
[translation: "I gratefully receive.."]
Before eating, we put our hands in prayer position and balanced our chopsticks in the space between your thumbs and first fingers. Gently bow your head and say "itadakimasu" before eating. This translates to "I gratefully receive". Then enjoy! Slurping soups is a sign of a good meal and encouraged. :)

Hosting a cooking class is hard work! 

I loved the cooking class experience. Not just learning some basic Japanese cooking, but also the experience of meeting and dining with a Japanese family in their home. Just lovely.

Our other food experiences in Japan mostly include ramen, sushi, pastries and ice cream.

When we were in our cooking class, I asked Taro-san what the average Japanese person eats for breakfast. I was curious about this because the only places we found serving food at breakfast time were coffee shops serving a few pastries and convenience stores. Taro-san explained that most Japanese eat a simple meal of seasoned rice for breakfast, a bit of fermented vegetables (similar to kimchi) and on a good day, breakfast will include a little bit of cooked fish. We ended up frequenting a small coffee shop near our hotel for iced coffee, bagels and pastries, grabbing a yogurt at the convenience store a few times. I must admit that I think I ate a sweet red bean bun with coffee for breakfast every morning in Japan.

My standard Japanese breakfast:
red bean bun and coffee
While walking from bus stops to the different shrines, sometimes you find a really great cafe food or snacks from street vendors such as these...

Japanese Udon

Green tea ice cream! yum

goma dango (yummy!)
sweet glutinous rice ball with sesame seed and honey paste
I later saw these similar fun Japanese snacks while helping my daughter shop for gifts for her friends back home. I should have bought them when I saw them, because I didn't see them later when we were shopping for gifts.
hanami dango
Recognize them from the iphone emojis?

I only learned exactly what they were a couple of months ago myself, but it was fun seeing the real thing. They are hanami dango or sweet glutinous rice dumplings.  The green are flavored with green tea powder, the white are either plain, almond or vanilla flavored and the pink is either flavored with rose water essence or sakura, which is cherry blossom flavor. I really regret not buying a box! [740 ¥ is about $7.40 US]

One evening, my husband and I went to a sushi restaurant recommended by the couple with whom we took the Haru-Cooking class. It was one of those conveyor belt sushi restaurants - have you heard of those? The sushi chefs are in the middle of the room making different kinds sushi and they set them on little plates that go around a conveyor belt. When a plate comes by your table that you'd like, you just take it! You can also ask the chef to make something specific for you. Each plate costs 137 ¥ or around $1.37 or so and the end of the meal, the waitress counts up your plates and you pay. So easy! Except it was also easy to eat something you thought was raw fish and was really something else like I did. Oy. Anyway, I thought the sushi was just okay. Very plain. Next time we're in Japan we'll do some research ahead of time and try a different sushi restaurant with good recommendations.

Previously in Tokyo, we ate many of the same foods as in Kyoto.. lots of ramen, pastries and ice cream. On our first day in Tokyo we sampled some yummy food near the popular Sensoji shrine. my first snack food was a ningyo yaki (a pancake filled with sweetened red bean paste), which is popular in the street of vendors leading up to the Sensoji Shrine in Tokyo.
ningyo yaki in shape of bird

The inside of a lantern shaped
ningyo yaki
We also got ice cream cones in this street area. We tried chocolate & vanilla swirl, green tea & vanilla swirl, red bean and blueberry ice cream (we think!). Omg sooooo good! I liked the red bean best, but the green tea swirl comes in a very close second.

We scream for ice cream!
Sorry I cropped off our faces..  Anna is inadvertently making a funny face squinting in the sun and would be so mad if I posted that. ;)

We grabbed a quick lunch at a small restaurant where we ordered dishes of dumplings and ramen. In this restaurant, there's a vending machine when you walk in the restaurant where you place your order. You put your money in the machine, then press the button to select what you want to order and a little receipt pops out of the machine. Then you sit at a table and give the receipt to the waitress who brings it to the kitchen. Within minutes we had our food! Oh and by the way, ramen in Japan is nothing like the instant ramen soup you can buy in cups at the grocery store. In Japan, ramen is a big bowl of flavorful broth with thick udon or ramen noodles and assorted Japanese additions such as seaweed, other greens such as spinach, pickled plums, hard boiled egg, maybe sliced pork or even tofu. Very delicious and filling.

Oishi (delicious) Japanese Ramen!
..with seaweed, egg, pork, spinach and fish ball with swirl
We had lunch in the Museum Cafe at the Studio Ghibli Museum and were delighted when our dessert was served on a Totoro plate! It was delicious, too! We shared a delicious strawberry shortcake and a sponge cake with sweet red bean filling.
Strawberry shortacke on a JiJi plate!
[From the film "Kiki's Delivery Service"]
Sponge cake with read bean filling
on a Totoro plate!
[from the film "My Neighborhood Totoro"]
On our way back to Tokyo from the Ghibli Museum, we passed this quaint bakery at the Mitaka train station. I have to say the Japanese are excellent pastry chefs! Absolutely delectable pastries that could really give Paris bakeries a run for their money!
Adorable Bakery at Mitaka Station,  Japan
From the platform in Mitaka station, I spotted a little Italian Pizzeria. I would have loved to have tried pizza in Japan to see how it compared to New York pizza! What do you think?
Spotted a pizzeria in Mitaka, Japan
from the train platform.. 
As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a profusion of vending machines in Japan. They are everywhere! Very convenient and actually quite affordable, I think. You can find a good selection of cold teas, cold coffees, water, carbonated drinks, sometimes fruit juices and even beer!
Beverage vending machines are EVERYWHERE
in Japan. 
One evening we hunted down the world famous Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in Ginza station, which is where you can supposedly find the world's best sushi. It is also the subject of the documentary "Jiro Loves Sushi."  We were tickled pink to find the restaurant and to have even caught a glimpse of Jiro himself!
Sukiyabashi Jiro

The highlight of our very limited and very brief culinary experience in Hong Kong was probably our hotel's continental and asian style breakfast buffet. The buffet was a cross of American and English breakfast foods and some Hong Kong dim sum foods. It was a great start to a busy day walking around the city and up Victoria Peak.

omelet and dim sum
at the YMCA Hong Kong
Of course, more ice cream!
Cooling off with ube ice cream
Ube is a purple yam or sweet potato and makes a delicious sweetened potato paste commonly used for desserts and snacks. It's also very common in the Philippines.

I also had my first taste of dragon fruit! Believe it or not, this was on the flight from Cebu City in the Philippines to Hong Kong. I loved it!

Have you ever had dragon fruit? I think it tasted like a softer, more mild kiwi fruit.
Would you agree?

My first dragon fruit!
Our first meal in Manila. Maria eating meat and rice for breakfast like a true Filipina! Would have been an even more authentic if she was using a fork and spoon. ;)

meat and rice for breakfast
 A sampling of Filipino foods for lunch. We were out to eat with Gabe's first cousin (who is the oldest in that cousin generation) and her lovely, lovely family. Her husband and their three grown children, daughter-in-law and their youngest child. It was wonderful meeting them for the first time and spending the day together.
Filipino lunch!
For dessert almost every day, we ordered a popular Philippine frozen dessert called halo-halo made with shaved ice, sweetened beans, ube and other jelly or jellos, sweetened cream and topped with ube ice cream and corn flakes. Sometimes sweet corn and chunks of flan are added. It was different from the way my mother-in-law used to make for us and not as good as hers either. But still delicious! I'm going to try to recreate my mother-in-laws version sometime this month.

halo-halo by the pool
One evening while out to dinner with some cousins (second cousins, actually), I tried a new-to-me main called sisig. It was really delicious. I don't know if I'd call myself an adventurous eater, but I do tend to agree to try foods before someone tells me what's in them. Too trusting, I know. Sisig is a dish that originated from a province called Pampanga because the US residents of Clark Airfield would discard parts of the pig they wouldn't eat such as the ears, cheeks and some inards. So the Filipino people came up with this recipe using those parts, finely chopped and served on a sizzling plate. Hmm. Well it tasted really good.. salty, fatty and delicious. I don't know it I'd intentionally eat it again, though.

Would you try sisig? 

Again for dessert we had more halo-halo and some leche flan. Why not? We're on vacation, after all. Again, neither was as good as my late mother-in-law's!
leche flan and more halo-halo
I mentioned in my vacation post the other day that the crew of our dolphin watching boat cooked for us right on the back of the boat during our time at sea. They grilled chicken and shrimp for us and we also brought along local bananas and steamed rice in these little pouches or baskets woven out of palm or banana leaves that they called 'hanging rice.' I wish I had a good picture of it, but you can see it in the lower left hand corner of this photo of my husband eating his lunch. We used forks at first then decided what the heck, it's easier to just eat with our hands. ;)

Lunch on the boat: grilled shrimp and chicken
"hanging rice"
and local bananas
On our last night in Dumaguete, we had dinner with my husband's cousin and her family. They had so much food prepared for us, but unfortunately I didn't take a single photo! This was the evening after we were at sea all day, so I think I was just so tired. Wait! I just asked my husband and he took ONE photo of dinner that night and of course I am in it with my eyes closed! However.. I am in the photo with Gabe's first cousin whom I met for the very first time and we totally hit it off, so I'm posting it even though I look silly. ;)
A feast prepared for us!
We ate rice, pancit, fresh lumpia, delicious pork adobo and a marinated salad. For dessert we had 'suman' and 'bud bud kabog.'

This is casava suman.
Bud bud kabog looks nearly identical.
Source:Wikipedia | Author: Obsidian_Soul 
Suman is sticky glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf, which I've had before and is really tasty. Theirs was made with a bit of chocolate in it, too. This was my first time having 'bud bud kabog' and I loved it! It is sweetened millet steamed with coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf. You unwrap the banana leaf and just eat the sweetened rice or millet on the inside. So yummy!

And so it appears I've wrapped up my post on our vacation food with a banana leaf! 

Haha I'm so punny. ; )
Hope you enjoyed it! If you have any questions about the food or our trip, please ask.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

An Asian Adventure

I'm going to try to squeeze a little bit of info about every place we visited in this post, but I'm also going to post about all the food tomorrow otherwise this post would be even longer than it is--which already took me days to put together, and I don't want you to get bored. Plus food is fun and deserves its own post!

Our trip to Asia was a full 16 days during which we flew 7 times in all from beginning to end. Yes, seven. It was a little nerve-wracking. And overall pretty exhausting, but definitely worth it. As you may or may not know, my husband is Filipino so we've been planning for years for the right time to visit the Philippines so I could experience his homeland and also so our daughters could experience from where half their heritage comes (he immigrated to the US in the 70s and was naturalized shortly thereafter). We decided this was the year to do it since the girls are old enough to appreciate and remember this trip but not too old that we couldn't force them one more time to go on a long family vacation. So that's how our 2013 Asian Adventure vacation came to be. Huge kudos goes to my husband who planned everything about this trip from start to finish. He uses TripAdvisor for a lot of his research on hotels and things to do, in case you were looking for tips on planning your next trip. The only thing I did for this trip was secure a house and pet sitter, schedule the bills and make sure we all got the vaccines and medications we needed before we left.

Our first two flights were from JFK airport in New York to Narita airport in Tokyo, Japan (flight #1) where we switched planes and continued on to Manila, Philippines (flight #2) for a total travel time of 19 1/2 hours not counting the three hour delay in JFK before take off. What a long day! We got picked up at our house at 10 am on Saturday July 20th and landed in Manila after 11 pm on Sunday July 21st. The time difference makes it look worse than it was, but we still lost a day somewhere in there.
Ready for take-off!
Photo by: Maria Alba [Maria Alba Photography]
This trip to the Philippines was my husband's first time in 39 years to return to his native country since he immigrated to the US when he was a young boy. Most of our time spent in Manila and a neighboring suburb was for him to reconnect with his childhood and visit with cousins and second cousins. It was so nice! The first day, we walked from our hotel to the church where Gabe's parents were married in 1961!
Gabe's parents were married here in 1961.

Gabe's second cousin (the daughter of his first cousin?) met us at our hotel and walked with us to Rizal Park in Manila, which is dedicated to the Philippine statesman and martyr, Dr. José Rizal, a pacifist who spoke up against the Spanish during their occupation and was later executed by them. Rizal's execution actually sparked an even stronger rebellion from the Philippine people which became the beginning of their revolution against Spain. Very interesting!

Rizal Execution Memorial
0 km marker
Manila, Philippines
We then met up with more of this cousin's family and we enjoyed their hospitality and company immensely as they drove us around Manila to Fort Santiago and a local restaurant for lunch.

A photo given to Gabe by his cousin.
This photo was taken just before my husband
and his parents immigrated to the US in 1974.
I love this photo!
Fort Santiago is a museum and public park that showcases a stone fortress that was built at the turn of the 17th century! Many parts of the fort are crumbling, which only added to the reality of its history, having sustained tremendous damage in WWII when it was occupied by the Japanese and reclaimed by American and Filipino forces at the end of the war. Sadly, hundreds of American prisoners of war died in this fortress from suffocation or hunger while being held in extremely tight quarters in the dungeons before the liberation from the Japanese. This was also the time of the Manila Massacre during which Japanese forces committed atrocities against the civilians of Manila resulting in the deaths of 100,000 innocent people. Horrific.

Exploring Fort Santiago with family
and an armed guard!

Multigenerational cousin portrait
The following day we visited places that my husband lived when he was a child, his schools, his parents' places of work and so on either in Manila or the nearby urban suburb Quezon City. I think visiting these places was more sentimental than he expected!
My husband's childhood home 40+ years ago!
That evening we visited with another set of cousins for dinner, which was so fun. We hadn't seen them since they visited the US many years ago! Spending time with my husband's relatives was the highlight of the Manila area to me.
Little cousin love! xo
The sight seeing was nice, but honestly, I was a little overwhelmed or unnerved by the constant stares from people (we really stood out) and vast extent of poverty seen everywhere throughout the city. So many sad images are still swimming in my head. If I were a good journalistic photographer, I would have taken photos to show you, but instead I was absorbing it all and lost in thought..

The most popular public transportation in the Philippines, or at least in Manila, is by jeepney. Jeepney are WWII US Military jeeps that have been converted to small passenger buses. The are covered, but have permanently open side windows and the back is completely open as well. In fact, that is where passengers climb on and off the jeepney!

A jeepney in Manila, Philippines
The back of a jeepney
in Quezon City, Philippines
We then flew from Manila south to another island in the Philippines to Dumaguete City (flight #3). The airport was so tiny! One runway and a small two room building for the terminal. One room for arrivals and one room for departures. We walked across the runway from the plane to the terminal. A far cry from JFK airport in NYC! This is the city where Gabe's father (and all of his 13 siblings) grew up. It's a much, much smaller city than Manila and I guess with fewer people it felt a bit more socio-economically balanced. Our hotel was right on the sea and we were treated to some serene yet pretty spectacular views. The sunrise.. oh my goodness.
Sunrise from our hotel window - NO PHOTO EDITING!
Dumaguete City, Philippines
July 2013
I had to post another one.. so beautiful!

So serene.. 
coconut trees!
Someone told me that Dumaguete City is the motorbike capital of the Philippines and I am not surprised by that claim at all. By my observation, 95% of the people get around by motorbike or motorbike tricycles and 5% drive cars. Motorbike tricycles are made up of motorbike that is rigged with covered seating for 2-4+ people over a third wheel. Kind of like a rickshaw attached to the side of a motorbike. No one wears helmets at all there.. not on regular bikes or motorbikes. Most people wear flip flops riding motorbikes whether they are driving or a passenger. Entire families ride one motorbike.. a child between the dad and the handle bars, mom on back and a baby in between mom and dad with just an arm around the baby. Sometimes I saw ladies sitting side saddle on a the back of a motorbike holding a baby with one arm. I'm not kidding. My heart was in my throat the whole time, I felt sick. Oh and to make it more heart stopping.. there are only a handful of traffic lights in the entire city. I never saw a single stop sign or yield sign or pretty much any other traffic sign aside from those few traffic lights. Vehicles just approach an intersection and go, weaving around everyone going in different directions honking at pedestrians to get out of the way.. even at elderly people shuffling across the street! SO FREAKING CRAZY! We had no choice but to hire a tricycle taxi thing twice.. fortunately with all four of us as passengers we made the darn thing heavy so the driver just couldn't go fast. I think it forced him to be more cautious, but still.. I won't mind if I never ride one of those things again!
family transportation 
Tricycle Motorbike Taxi

riding a tricycle motorbike taxi
I posted two videos of us riding these motorbike taxis on my instagram account. I think you can watch them HERE and HERE.

We spent part of a day at a local beach which was relaxing but very hot. It wasn't quite as clean as I expected.. it seems no one cares about picking up any trash in the public area, which was so sad to see. We walked along the beach to the waterfront of a resort and it was much nicer. The resort grounds were pretty and well kept but pretty empty, probably because it's the middle of the school year there now. We ordered snacks from the resort's outdoor restaurant right next to a gorgeous pool. It was very relaxing!
Photo by Christine Alba
Editing by Maria Alba
Later we bought an umbrella in Dumaguete because we needed shade protection when we were walking around. We ended up using it on our whole trip and even bought a second one in Tokyo. We also carried around folded fans to fan ourselves. It was that hot!

The next day we spent some time visiting my father-in-law's college, Silliman University, where staff there still knew some of my husband's younger relatives! We also visited the cemetery where my husband's grandparents are buried. It turned out to be touching for all of us, especially since the inscription on their tomb mentioned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, which then includes Maria and Anna. I'm glad they felt a connection to the Philippines and the family that lived there.

On our last day here, we hired a driver to take us further up the island where we hired a boat to take us dolphin watching. We were the only ones to book the tour that day, so we had the boat and the crew to ourselves! I felt kind of spoiled, but it was pretty nice letting the day flex to our own schedule without having to wait for other tourists for anything on the boat. Before we set out, the tour guide took us to a market where we bought food for lunch that the crew prepared for us right on the boat!

Heading out to see for dolphin watching!
We saw a lot of dolphin swimming alongside our boat and all around us.. but it wasn't easy getting that National Geographic shot! It was quite thrilling to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat doing their own thing but also being curious enough about humans to come closer and take a look.

Photo by Maria Alba [Maria Alba Photography]
Anna felt seasick- feeling dizzy and queasy but she held it together. She napped a bit on the boat as we left the open sea with the dolphins and headed for a sandbar to swim. This sandbar is in the sea pretty far from land, but check this out... there are cottages on pilings that you can rent!
Cottages for rent in the middle of the sea!
So pretty, right? During low tide, these cottages sit on their own little sandbar beach! We swam around the boat for a little while (water was only chest deep here..not low tide) and eventually got out when we started to get stung by invisible jellyfish tentacles that were coming in with the tide. Ouch.

The boat then took us to a mangrove forest. The boat docked at this little hut and we walked a long boardwalk from the sea into the mangrove forest. It was so still and quiet except for the sounds of bugs, a few birds and water lapping up along the pier and the sound of our feet on the boardwalk.

Walking through a mangrove forest.

How a mangrove forest grows.. see the little seedlings?
Later that night we had dinner at Gabe's cousin's house. This was my first time meeting this family and of course, we adored each other right away. ;) They prepared a lot of food for us!

The following day we flew from the tiny airport in Dumaguete City to Cebu City in the Philippines (flight #4) and then from Cebu to Hong Kong (flight #5). Only two more to go. eep.
walking to our next plane..

boarding our plane. eep.
Hong Kong is a magnificent city with amazing views! First of all, we stayed in the YMCA Hong Kong while we were there. Definitely nothing like my YMCA at home aside from the smell of pool chlorine in the lobby. It was a busy place but the hallways and rooms were very quiet and well tended. Also, the breakfast buffet was fantastic! So yummy!

YMCA Hong Kong!
The YMCA Hong Kong is a little fancier
than my YMCA at home. yeah...
We were only in Hong Kong two days. We walked along the harbor and took in the sights, went shopping in Sham Shui Po area (mostly electronics stuff), took the tram to Victoria Peak for spectacular views of the city during the day and night and visited a beautiful, tranquil shrine in the middle of Kowloon. We loved it and would have spent more time here, but it was almost unbearably hot. There are a few other sites we longed to visit but we didn't have enough time.. at least now we know what to do first thing when we come back!

Keeping cool.

Hong Kong Harbor

Avenue of the Stars tribute to Bruce Lee

Skyline view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

Dramatic black and white of Hong Kong
from Victoria Peak 
High-end shopping in Hong Kong
Love the red taxis
Shopping in Sham Shui Po

The beautiful and serene Nan Lian Garden
Hong Kong

Next we flew to Tokyo, Japan (flight #6) for the final phase of our Asia vacation. Japan was so nice and I learned so many new things while visiting. Our hotel was lovely.. very comfortable and while it was compact, it was still simultaneously efficient and luxurious. The shower was wonderful and the electronic toilets were.. adventurous! Quite a contrast to the squatting public toilets in Japan, but both are actually very sanitary. Enough of this TMI topic! ha ha!

On our first morning in Tokyo we struggled a bit to figure out how to use the subway because everything was in Japanese writing (not romaji which is the romanization of Japanese words) and no one in the stations spoke English! My husband's Japanese audio course was still tremendously helpful throughout our whole trip, though! Eventually we figured it out and bought our daily subway passes, found a subway map with romaji words for the stops and were on our way! By time we used the subway a second time, we were pros. Honestly, the Tokyo subway is actually way easier to use than NYC subways! I'm not kidding.

Our first tourist attraction in Tokyo was the Senso-ji Temple, the which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo having been completed in 645 CE and is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. It's quite famous.. maybe you've seen pictures of it before. There are lots of little shops and booths selling food and souvenirs along the path between the gate and the shrine. It was very crowded and very hot, but we had fun buying little gifts for friends there and snacking on food. Of course, we also visited the shrine and other buildings there and learned about the dedications and prayer customs.

Kaminarimon - The outer gate to Senso-ji Shrine
Some cute girls dressed in harajuku style passing out flyers for which I could not figure out.. I couldn't decide if it was for something racy or not..

Dressed up harajuku style
One night we took the subway to the Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo which is a popular, kind of high end shopping area and went to the movies!
Photogenic skyscraper in Roppongi Hills
We saw Monsters University; it was in English with Japanese subtitles. There's a new Hayao Miyazaki movie in theaters there titled The Wind Rises (translated), which would have been our first choice, but since it's only in Japanese that wouldn't have worked well for us. ;) Here's the movie poster, though:

The Wind Rises
Studio Ghibli Movie
Can't wait for it to come to the US!

Are you familiar with Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films? Maybe you've heard of Spirited Away or My Neighborhood Totoro? Those are probably his two most popular films in the US. If not, get yourself to the library, Netflix or AppleTV and watch one! So good.

Speaking of films, have you seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi? It's a documentary on this man named Jiro who is supposedly the best sushi chef in the world. It costs a small fortune ($300 US per person) to eat at his small restaurant that is located in the Ginza Station in Tokyo. We found the restaurant and saw him sitting at a table waiting for his next customers! It's kind of funny, but we were pretty excited. Check it out:
Sukiyabashi Jiro
"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" Documentary
Food critics best sushi in the world!
By the way, in case you think it's strange that there is a high end sushi restaurant in a subway station, it's not that strange in Japan. Several of the big subway stations are host to some pretty fancy shopping store from fancy bakeries, clothing, perfume, handbags, and more. It's like a small mall. Pretty interesting.

We also visited the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which I have to say were not very impressive at all. Only one small area near a pond was well taken care of and nice to look at. Everything else was just plain and not even weeded well. Now you know not to waste your time going there.. visit something different instead.
East Gardens of the Imperial Palace
Tokyo, Japan
The next day we ventured a bit out of Tokyo city to Mitaka where we had tickets to attend the Studio Ghibli Museum! Again, this probably means nothing to you unless you are familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's films. We had so much fun visiting this little museum even though the plaques at all the displays were in Japanese only so we probably missed out on some small details. Oh well.. we still loved it. There were Totoro signs in the town pointing pedestrians from the train station to the museum. So cute. Photos were not allowed inside the museum so I don't have much...

Walking to Studio Ghibli Museum 
Almost there! 

We made it! See the big Totoro in the window! 

Posing with a statue of a soldier from Laputa
From "Castle In the Sky."
Vine covered Studio Ghibli Museum
Photo by: Maria Alba [Maria Alba Photography]
Little bits of whimsy and magic everywhere
at Studio Ghibli Museum
Mikata, Japan
Photo by: Maria Alba [Maria Alba Photography]
In our attempts to spot Mt. Fuji from somewhere in the city, we ventured to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building (TMG) where we learned there is 360 degree observation deck at the top of both towers that is open to the public for FREE! This was an awesome travel tip from to my blogging-instagram-Japan loving friend In Spring it is the Dawn! {Thank you so much!xo} Unfortunately it was way too hazy so visibility was low and we couldn't see very far. Still, we had some nice views of the cityscape from there.. just not Mt. Fuji.
View of Tokyo from the FREE Observation Deck
at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Consequently, there was a special art exhibit taking place in the observation deck for the survivors of The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bombing, which was so incredibly moving. Maria and I really took the time to look at all the artwork and and read all the quotes from survivors who created paintings of their experiences to help them work through their grief. In no time both of us were in tears. My youngest told me she saw an elderly Japanese man take a photo of me looking at the art and wiping my tears.. I hope seeing me be so moved by this exhibit helped him in some way. I'd like to think it did. In the meantime, another gentleman approached Maria and started chatting with her. He asked her to write her reaction to the exhibit on a form so they could document it and share with other survivors. She obliged him and while they were talking, he revealed that he himself is a survivor. It was an unexpected, but rewarding experience for us at the top of the TMG building!

My daughter with her new friend,
a Nagasaki A-Bomb survivor.
1000 Paper Cranes for healing.. 
Early the next morning we left Tokyo on a speedy Shinkansen bullet train for our last vacation destination.. Kyoto, Japan!

On the Shinkansen Bullet Train
From Tokyo to Kyoto
Once we arrived in Kyoto we walked about 1/2 mile in the hot sun with our luggage in tow to our hotel. We did this a lot, it seems. It was too early to check in, but our hotel held our luggage for us and we headed back to the station to catch a bus for our first Kyoto activity which was a Japanese cooking class! My husband found this great opportunity through TripAdvisor and I'm so glad he did--I loved this experience. If you're ever in Kyoto, I highly recommend you check this out. It's called Haru Cooking Class and is a small group cooking class taught by a Japanese man and his wife in their Kyoto home. They also have an adorable little daughter who entertained us immensely.

I'm going to share more detail about the cooking class in a separate vacation food post tomorrow.. so please come back and look for that!

After our cooking class, I convinced my husband to head back to the hotel so I could take the nap I so desperately needed at this point. I was fighting a little headache from lack of sleep and it was my time of the month so I really needed to lie down for a little while. Later that evening, the girls stayed in with room service and Gabe and I went out for dinner by ourselves. Imagine.. date night in Kyoto! ;)
Kyoto Tower at night
The following morning we set out with all day bus passes and toured a few shrines throughout the city. First up was The Golden Pavilion, another famous Japanese shrine of which you may be familiar.

The Golden Pavilion
The second temple we visited was the Eikando Temple. This shrine had larger, more wooded grounds and was much less crowded. It was so nice walking around all the prayer houses and pavilions and being surrounded by so much green! Maple trees and moss... it was really pretty. We climbed a bunch of stairs to the Taho-to pavilion where we could see the Kyoto skyline.

Everything is so green at Eikando Temple

The Taho-to Pavilion
Eikando Temple

The Kyoto Skyline from Taho-to Pavilion

Looking up at the Taho-to Pavilion
from lower ground in Eikando Temple
We were hot, thirsty and exhausted but decided to power on and head for one last temple. It took a little sense of adventure to get there because we missed the one hourly bus that travels that route by less than 5 minutes. Fortunately, a local Japanese woman standing near us at the stop figured out where we were trying to go and assured us that bus 81 would take us close enough to walk. It was a leap of faith in communication because she didn't speak English and we barely spoke Japanese, and the bus route wasn't even on our map, but she insisted so we boarded bus 81 with her and she told us when to get off. Then she pointed down a street and sent us on our way! With a little help from the GPS in our phone, we found the shrine without too much trouble.

I'm so glad we took the chance and followed the kind Japanese woman onto the bus, because the Fushimi Inari temple, which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Shinto God of rice, was spectacular! Intricate and elaborate with so many torii (gate-like structures). It sounds like it would be showy, but really.. it evoked a sense of awe and peace rather than grandiosity. Well in my humble western opinion, anyway. We really enjoyed this shrine! There was a lot to explore and because we were there so late in the day (just after 5 pm) there was so few people there--what a treat! It was nice to take a lot of photos without other people in the picture! ;) The grounds for this shrine are pretty extensive, with lots of hiking trails and torii scattered throughout the woods. If I go back to Kyoto, I wouldn't mind visiting Fushimi Inari shrine again.

Entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine

A group of Japanese youth dressed in traditional
clothing, washing their hands before
entering the prayer house.

Posing with sass!

Walking down one of the paths lined
with 100s of torii

A view of many torii through the woods.

Another view of the many torii
After walking around the prayer houses and paths through the many, many toriis, we headed back to the hotel. One thing about Japan that I forgot to mention is the abundance of vending machines everywhere. Definitely at train stations and bus stops but even in other places a pedestrian would venture. Well they certainly came in handy for us.. we were always thirsty on this trip! Every once in a while you can also find a photo booth in the vicinity of a vending machine. Remember those? You'd think it was an old fashioned thing, but we actually saw people using them!

A photobooth and vending machine..
vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Japan!
That night the girls were zonked. They just couldn't budge another foot so we set them up with McDonalds take out and instructions to shower and settle in while Gabe and I went out on another date in Kyoto, this time for sushi.

Waiting for our shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo.
The following morning we took a shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo and then an express train directly to Narita airport. We just barely made the connection to the airport train. We saw the train come in as we descended the escalator to the track. Trains in Japan are extremely punctual so we are lucky we made it! Phew!

This was our last flight of the trip (flight #7) which took off from Tokyo on Sunday, August 4th at 3:00 pm. After a 12 hour flight we landed in JFK airport in New York at 2:55 pm. We gained 5 minutes like magic! I guess it sort of makes up for losing time going to the Philippines 16 days earlier. Only the jet lag going this way through us for a loop and we're still not straightened out!

Sayonara Japan!
I'm exhausted!!!
So that's our Asian Adventure! Thank you so much for reading all about it.. I hope it wasn't too long and you enjoyed it! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I hope I've inspired you to visit one of these countries someday.

Also, please check back very soon for my post all about the FOOD on our Asian adventure!