i think i’m turning japanese!

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The stunning Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion).

August 19-21. Kyoto, Japan.  I swear Katrina was Japanese in another life.  The minute we landed in Kyoto after a long day of layovers, Katrina couldn’t wait to try the plethora of vending machines, eat convenience store onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed), and say “konnichiwa” and “arigato” to perfect strangers.  And don’t get me started on her near-obsession with spotting the elusive Geisha!  There’s no doubt Katrina was in love with this unique and captivating country.

What’s not to love about Japan?  It’s distinct culture, from sushi to anime, has had incredible worldwide influence for such a small country.  But to experience life in Japan firsthand is something special.  With so little time in Japan, we wanted to experience the fascinating mix of ancient and modern as much as possible.

Our first stop was Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years.  Kyoto conjures up some of the classic images of Japan: streets of traditional wooden houses, majestic palaces, sacred temples, and traditional culture.  It was a great introduction to Japan’s rich history.

We stayed at Oil Street Guest House, a beautifully restored traditional machiya house with modern conveniences, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood.  We slept on the floor on tatami mats and comfortable futon mattresses.  Special thanks to owner/host, Yasu, and his black Labrador, Burrito, for making us feel so welcome.  It felt like home away from home.  We loved it!

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Burrito, the Japanese wonder-dog!

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Breakfast with Yasu.

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Slept surprisingly well on the floor!

Highlights:

  • Borrowing Oil Street’s stylish bicycles and heading down to the Kamo-gawa river for some beautiful scenery and epic people watching (teenage dance crews, girls practicing their trombones, boys playing American football, etc).
  • Ditching our guided group tour of the Gion district in search of Geisha (more of an a entertainer for affluent men instead of high-class prostitute as often misconceived).  Ever since Katrina read Memoirs of a Geisha, she has been fascinated with this subculture.  We walked all night through the rows of traditional wooden teahouses hoping to spot one.  Just as we were about to give up, we caught a glimpse of some in the corner of our eyes!
  • Busing around Kyoto’s western district and admiring the extravagant Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavillion).  There, we lit a candle at a small shrine that is supposed to bless our marriage and families.
  • Drinking the refreshing “Da-Ka-Ra” vending machine drink to recover from the sweltering heat.  We still don’t know what exactly that drink is, but we drank plenty of it!
  • Rushing to get to the spectacularly photogenic Fushimi-inari Taisha shrine (dedicated to the god of rice and sake) before nightfall.  More than 10,000 wooden orange torii gates snake through the mountainous forests, forming a maze of mysterious tunnels.
  • Contemplating the meaning of one of Japan’s most famous (dry) Zen gardens, Ryoan-ji.  Interestingly, the stones are placed so that wherever you stand, one them is always hidden from view.
  • Our first taste of sushi via conveyor belts!  Best invention ever.
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    Geisha sighting!

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    Getting lost in the maze of orange gates at Fushimi-Inari.

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    The Zen rock garden of Ryoan-ji.

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    Devouring sushi off the conveyor belt!

blessings from bali, part three.

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Soul cleansing at Tirta Empul.

August 13-18.  Ubud, Bali.  As one of Bali’s major art and cultural centers, Ubud was a fantastic place to capture more of the island’s spirit.  Sure, the tourist-friendly comforts were nice, but authentic Balinese experiences were still easy to find in Ubud and its surrounding areas.  With the help of Bali Barong Tours, we planned a day full of memorable moments that went well beyond the typical tourist trail.

Tirta Empul.  It is one of the holiest temples in Bali, built around springs that still bubble in the central courtyard, where Balinese make pilgrimages for spiritual cleansing.  With the assistance of the temple’s Hindu priest and our guide, we underwent the ritual of personal purification by immersing ourselves and splashing our faces in the bathing pools filled with holy water.  We were lucky to have the pools to ourselves after a group of Balinese finished their cleansing rituals.  We again felt blessed—blessed to be happy, healthy, and together.

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More blessings from a Hindu priest at Tirta Empul.

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Dukun – traditional healer.  We met with a local village medicine man/healer to learn about and experience the healing process through the use of traditional medicines and acupressure.  Illness is believed to stem from a lack of balance between the patient and the spirit world, and traditional healers in Bali are considered vital adjuncts to Western medicine.  We enjoyed learning that dukuns and doctors refer out to one another when illnesses are not cured.  It is a very holistic approach, similar to our Osteopathic training.  While all the poking and prodding by the dukun inflicted pangs of pain, we weren’t sure how effective it was.  I guess we will stick to our Western medicine training!

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Hurts so good!

Gamelan orchestra.  The national music of Bali is a jangly clashing of sounds best described as organized chaos.   The intricate (and fast!) rhythms of the gongs, cymbals, drums, and metallophones that make up a gamelan orchestra create a cohesive, distinct sound that is unlike anything we have heard before.  We had the opportunity to visit our guide’s small mountain village (Pacut Village), meet the members of the village gamelan orchestra, have a quick music lesson, and participate in playing the instruments.  The sounds were sweet, but experiencing such an important aspect of Balinese village life was even sweeter.

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Staying focused with Banjar Pacut.

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Other Highlights:

  • Massages.  Katrina opted for the 5 hour extravaganza which included a massage, manicure/pedicure, hair cream, body wrap, and flower bath.  All for $40!  My more basic package included a massage and body scrub/wrap.  There were a lot of awkward giggles when the spa lady was washing the body scrub off me in the shower (disposable underwear intact) and saying: “Like a baby.”
  • Cheap haircuts.
  • Yoga sessions at our beautiful hotel, Uma Ubud.  Their beautiful yoga pavilion overlooking the Wos River was the definition of peace and nature.
  • Taking a day trip to Uma Ubud’s sister property (and way more expensive) Como Shambala.  We swam and relaxed in the best looking natural pool we had ever been to without having to pay to stay there!
  • Crossing paths again with our new travel friends, Alex and Kristin, who happened to be in Ubud at the same time.
  • Gianyar Night Market.  We met up with Alex and Kristin, and headed east of Bali, in search of Gianyar’s famous babi guling (roasted suckling pig stuffed with chillies, rice and spices).  Our taxi driver recruited his young (maybe 10 years-old?) son, Gade, to “guide” us through the hectic local market.  Gade, who didn’t speak any English, ordered our meals, took our money to pay the street food vendors, and gave back the change.  We were happy with bellies full of pig, while Gade couldn’t wait to tell his dad that we bought his dinner and dessert!
  • The nightly Balinese dance performances throughout Ubud.  We caught the Kecak fire dance and the Legong dance.  Thanks to Katrina and Kristin’s feisty negotiating skills, we scored front row seats to the Legong dance at Ubud Palace!
  • Watching the locals prepare for the village’s sacred cremation ceremonies, which included offerings of live ducks!
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    Legong dance at Ubud Palace.

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    Gianyar Night Market.  Notice the whole roast pig (babi guling) in the background…Delicious!

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    Our little man, Gade, wheelin’ & dealin’ for us.

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    The amazing natural pools at Como Shambala.

beyond bali: lazy days in lombok.

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Fun in the sun.

August 9-13. Lombok, Indonesia.  We knew there was more to Indonesia than Bali.  Way more.  But with only two weeks dedicated to this expansive country of 13,000+ islands, there was no way we could fully explore it.  To at least get a different perspective, we crossed the Lombok Strait (more on that experience later!) to Bali’s less famous neighbor, Lombok.  The two islands are vastly different.  Lombok is culturally Islamic, like the majority of Indonesians.  The temples and tiny banana-leaf tray offerings (canang) laid out for the gods every morning in Bali were replaced with mosques and the sounds of the call to prayer in Lombok.  Also, Lombok offered us a more rugged, undeveloped landscape with secluded coastlines and slower pace of life.

Our itinerary in Lombok was simple:   a few days of sun, sand, and snorkeling.  We opted out of Lombok’s most famous area, the Gili Islands, and instead stayed at the nearby white-sand (and coral) beaches of Pantai Sire at the luxurious Tugu Hotel.  This place had “honeymoon” written all over it:  romantic dinners on the beach, drinks by the expansive pool, beautiful rooms, the works.  Since we just had our wedding renewals, we fit right in!

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Hotel Tugu’s pool.

We then headed to the remote southwest peninsula (our taxi driver had never been that far south before!) to what is sometimes referred to as the “Secret Islands,” where small (mostly uninhabited) islands dot the coastline and the life underwater was vivid.  We hopped on a small boat, luggage in tow, and marooned ourselves on Gili Asahan, staying at the quaint Pearl Beach Resort.  Our beach bungalow was basic, but the setting was pure relaxation.

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Gili Asahan

Other Highlights:

  • Quiet walks along Gili Asahan’s beach that ended up being walks around the entire island.
  • Watching the shy island villagers going about their daily lives.
  • The snorkeling around Gili Layar had impressive, pristine coral (but no big fish, turtles, or ray sightings unfortunately).
  • Snoozing on oversized beanbags.
  • Feeling like Robinson Crusoe for a few days!
  • (Lowlight)  To get to Lombok, we took a fast boat, called the “Gili Cat,” across the Lombok Strait.  The six-foot-high waves were a fun roller coaster ride for the first ten minutes.  The rest of the ride became the worst, most gut-wrenching boat trip of our lives!  Unfortunately, the boat’s motor broke 45 minutes into the ride, and we had to slowly return back on an emergency motor (thank heavens for that at least!) for repairs and then do it all over again.  There was a lot of puking going on inside the boat…awesome.
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blessings from bali, part two.

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Blessings from our 100+ year-old priest.

August 6-9.  Munduk Andong, Bali.  Heading north, away from the coast, and onward to the highlands of central Bali, lies a place that will always give us fond memories from this trip.  It was here where new friendships were formed and where our marriage was renewed and blessed.

Our small hotel, Desa Atas Awan (translation: Village Above the Clouds), is literally just that—a retreat set amongst sloping rice terraces, cool mountain breezes, and smiling villagers.  It was the perfect setting for our vow renewal.  Nothing fancy or extravagant, just tranquil and serene.  While we loved our traditional wedding (3 years and counting!), the stresses of making sure everything ran smoothly took away some of the intimacy that comes with uniting two lives.   We have always imagined having a ceremony just for the two of us, and with the help of Josep, our hotel manager extraordinaire, we arranged to have a traditional wedding blessing (Mejaya-jaya ritual) that is performed to release bad energy and bring new energy into a couple’s life together.   We were fortunate enough to be blessed by the local village priest, who is thought to be over 100 years-old (no one in the village knows for sure)!  We invited the rest of the hotel guests and staff for the “after party” of amazing Balinese dancing performances by children of the village.  We all ended up joining in on the fun!  It was a magical evening full of love and laughter.

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Desa Atas Awan, truly a Village Above the Clouds.

Desa Atas Awan was also the place where we met some fun-loving Canadians, Alex and Kristin.  Oddly enough, their lives mirrored ours (quitting jobs, finishing school/training, traveling before relocating back home).  Maybe that’s why we became instantaneous friends.  We tagged along with them on a tour through the Bedugul region, home of three spiritually charged volcanic crater lakes and camera-friendly temple Pura Ulun Dana Bratan.  We learned from our mistakes and got to these places early before the tour buses rolled in.  After a short hike and canoe ride around Lake Tamblingan, we said our goodbyes, but little did we know that we would later run into each other again!

Other Highlights:

  • Shopping for traditional outfits for our wedding blessing in Tabanan using Parto (our guide/ driver), as our translator, bargainer, and fashion consultant.
  • Leisurely rice field treks and mesmerizing views around Desa Atas Awan.
  • The UNESCO protected rice fields of Jatiluwih were absolutely stunning…
  • (Lowlight)…but getting there by bicycle was exhausting in the beating sun.  The inclines were brutal!  We initially rented a scooter, but after almost wiping out on our test drive, we knew it would be a death trap for us with all the potholes!
  • Trying to buy bananas from a street vendor.  The shopkeeper refused to believe that I wasn’t Balinese!
  • Our priest insisting we have our ceremony done outside in the drizzling rain, as it was the proper way to do it.
  • Marrying Katrina all over again!
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    Jatiluwih

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    Canoeing Danau Tamblingan with Kristin and Alex.

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    Our wedding blessing/ceremony.

blessings from bali, part one.

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“Hmm, I think the grass is greener on the other side!”

August 3-6.  Southwestern Bali, Indonesia.  Ever since I took a course called “Balinese Gamelan Music” in college (tuition money well spent, right?), I have always wanted to travel to Bali.  As the only remaining Hindu society in Southeast Asia, this tiny island has maintained a culture full of religious ceremonies, temples, music, and dance unique to this part of the world.  Combined with tropical landscapes and vivid greenery, no wonder it’s such a huge tourist draw.

We made Bali/Indonesia a cornerstone of this trip and dedicated two weeks there to immerse ourselves as much as we could into the culture.  And it was Bali where we experienced the many blessings that helped us reflect on how fortunate we were to be on this journey together.

Our first week in Bali covered some of the lesser known parts of the island, with our first stop being southwestern Bali, near Yeh Gangga beach.  Staying at the fancy (and remote) Alila Villa Soori—thanks to vactionist.com for helping me score a sweet discounted rate—was the perfect place for some rest and relaxation after some hectic days in the big cities of Cape Town and Singapore.  The black sand beaches in the area were stunning and surprisingly undeveloped, while the small surrounding villages were undeniably Balinese.

Highlights:

  • The confused looks of locals’ faces when I only spoke English after mistaking me for being Balinese.
  • Meeting Parto, our driver during our time in Bali, and seeing his smiling face in the hoards of drivers and cabbies as we exited the airport.  His knowledge of his homeland and its winding roads were impressive.   His kindness was humbling.
  • Bubble baths and pool plunges at Alila Villa Soori.
  • Jogging on the seemingly endless black sand beaches and meeting local fishermen and exploring the many small, cliff-side Hindu temples that scattered the coastline.
  • Bicycling through the small villages in the Tabanan regency with its surrounding rice paddy fields and slow-paced charm.
  • Stumbling upon a small hotel called Bali Japan Village where we learned a few Balinese phrases and ate a delicious (and cheap) meal.
  • Visiting Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s famed attractions.  This holy temple is dramatically perched on a tiny rock with crashing waves encircling it at high tide.  It is a site to see at sunset.  Unfortunately, loads of tourists (including ourselves) showed up at that time, cheapening the experience somehow.
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    Impromptu gamelan lesson.

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    Pura Tanah Lot.

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    Pura Batu Balong.

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    Parto, our driver and friend.

asia 101: singapore.

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Singapore’s skyline.

August 1 – 3.  Singapore.  A cultural smorgasbord where the sights and smells were the perfect springboard into Asia.  It is truly a microcosm of Asia with a medley of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western influences, but without the trash, poverty, and chaos.  Sure, “the Switzerland of Asia’s” reputation for a squeaky clean image holds true:  chewing gum can only be bought with a prescription, littering comes with a hefty fine, and teenagers respectfully do their graffiti art on designated removable walls.  But if you scratch the surface a bit, you’ll find a country that is anything but boring.

With only two days in the Lion City, we needed a crash course into Singaporean culture.  And what better way is there than to EAT your way through it!  Singaporean food is legendary, but having an experienced guide helping you navigate through the bustling food hawker centers is key to maximizing your caloric intake.  We were fortunate enough to be in Singapore on the night where Tony Tan holds his weekly “Real Singapore Joo Chiat Foodwalk” where we spent the next *6-7* hours eating our way through the non-touristy Joo Chiat / Katong district and learning about how Singaporeans work, live, play and pray.  This was no ordinary tour.  It was a “food orgy.”  I stuffed my face full of chili crab, meat skewers / satays of all sorts, exotic Asian fruits, curries, and noodle dishes, while Katrina watched in embarrassment.  Anthony Bourdain would be proud.  This tour is a must-do!

With our bellies full and our wallets a little lighter (the shopping centers on Orchard Road are ridiculous), we hopped on a quick Air Asia flight to the beautiful island of Bali, Indonesia.

Highlights:

  • Chili crab, Hainanese chicken rice, fresh fruit juice stalls, and satay…street food heaven!
  • Easily spotting Katrina in crowd full of Asians and me getting lost in the shuffle.
  • Staying at Grand Park Orchard Hotel and feeling the pulse of the busy metropolis on famous Orchard Road.
  • Walking through the streets of Little India and Chinatown, where we felt like we stepped into a sterilized version of the real country.
  • Finding a local brewery, Level 33, hidden away at the top of a non-descript business tower that had fantastic skyline views of the city.
  • Hanging out in the middle of an outdoor basketball court at midnight during our food walk without any worries or fears…not something we can do in Chicago!
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    Tony Tan talkin’ Singaporean food.

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the business class experience.

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All smiles in business class!

July 31.  CPT to SIN on SQ 479 (that’s airline jargon for:  Singapore Airlines Flight 479 – Cape Town to Singapore).  With so many places in the world to explore, figuring out the where part of our travels took a lot of planning and compromise between the two of us.  But how we traveled was a no-brainer…we wanted to fly in business class as much as our frequent flier miles allowed!

With the help of one of our friends, a founder of a travel website/service called JettFrogg, we accumulated as many frequent flier miles as possible and used them to fly in business class on all of our long-haul flights.  This saved us thousands of dollars on airfare costs, while at the same time, letting us travel relaxed and refreshed on those 10+ hour flights.

We were lucky enough to find business class award seats on Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s most awarded airlines, for our flight to Singapore.  It was amazing!  The service was impeccable.

Highlights:

  • Eating meal after gourmet meal while watching movies.
  • Sleeping on a seat that flattened out into a bed.
  • The Singapore Airlines staff
  • Only paying $59.70 in taxes and fees for this flight!
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    More food? Yes, please!