Thursday, January 08, 2009

Around the Pacific Rim in 14 Days

Despite a couple of international moves, I've managed to have Christmas with my family every year. I didn't want 2008 to be the exception so Mickey and I made grand plans to meet my mom and brother at the Sydney-LA halfway point of our choosing, Maui. Our plans became even grander and more absurd when we decided that we should also visit Mickey's family in Seattle before Christmas and our dear friends Andrew and Alyssa in Japan for New Year. Our itinerary was ambitious, but we did it in the name of tradition, or, tradition and eating delicious sushi.

Packing was tricky because we had to be prepared for three climates, one bi cultural wedding and Christmas. Hat and gloves? Check. Bathing suit? Check. Traditional Indian evening clothes? Also check. Believe it or not, I did this with three pairs of shoes (sandals, boots and non-sexy European walking shoes).

We had an eight hour layover in Honolulu en route to Seattle. Waikiki is perhaps the nicest place I've ever spent a layover, but it made for a long day without a shower. Mickey and I celebrated our arrival back in the US by brunching in a very American fashion: buffet-style. Livin' la vida glutard limits my options at a buffet, but I got my fill of bacon and delicious Hawaiian pineapple. I lingered in the water watching tourists learn to surf in the gentle waves. They made it look easy. Mickey and I always joke about when you can claim that you've been somewhere. I usually argue that layovers don't count and that you have to spend the night to have really "been" there. In this case, we didn't spend the night, but left the airport, swam in the ocean and bought a towel that says 'Hawaii.' That has to count for something.

As our plane descended toward SeaTac airport, I noticed something strange about the ground. "Mickey, the ground looks... funny," I said worriedly. "I think it's the s-word." I'm not one of those Californians who gets excited by snow. It requires temperatures below 32F and not even adorable snowmen and sledding can make freezing weather worthwhile to me.

Sure enough, there was a significant amount of snow on the ground and it kept coming down for the duration of our visit. This wouldn't have been a problem in Minneapolis or Cleveland or any other snowy place, but according to locals, Seattle "doesn't usually get a lot of snow" and was thus completely unprepared. The roads weren't plowed, businesses closed and our rental car was equipped with a flimsy plastic ice scraper that would have suited Barbie's dream car better than our Mazda.

We were in town for Mickey's cousin Tanvir's wedding to the lovely Aimee, a Washington native. Sadly for the couple, the snow caused a lot of guests to cancel. On the bright side, though, the wedding was one of the most thoughtful I had ever attended. Tanvir and Aimee integrated Indian cultural rites and symbols with Western traditions to create a ceremony that was inclusive and meaningful to both families. He wore a tux with tails while she wore a beautiful green and blue Indian dress. They made an effort to involve their guests by encouraging them to string garlands of carnations, cranberries and popcorn and then attach them to a homemade arbor.

Our remaining days in Tacoma were quiet and fraught with worry about flying out on time. Hundreds of flights were canceled and thousands of people were stranded at the SeaTac airport. Desperate to get home, some fellow wedding guests drove from Seattle all the way to LA.

Thankfully, our flight to Maui left as scheduled. Mickey and I were thrilled to exchange our hats and gloves for sandals and shorts again. At least that's what we were wearing under our umbrellas. They don't tell the tourists that Maui is so green, lush and beautiful because it gets a ton of rain, but perhaps we should have put two and two together. It didn't help that we stayed on Maui's north shore, a rainier part of the island.

Still, it was a joy to be off the beaten path, away from the charming but touristy western side of the island. And boy howdy were we off the path; reaching our accommodations at the Huelo Point Flower Farm (HPFF) requires a slow 1.5 mi drive down a bumpy dirt road off the Hana Highway. We wanted to surprise my mom and brother with a unique vacation experience by picking this beautiful, secluded spot to spend Christmas.

HPFF's website promises ocean views, a hot tub for every unit and the opportunity to pick fresh fruit from the orchard. It sounded like paradise and we chose to rent HPFF's main house instead of a more conventional, more reasonably priced vacation home. Of course, our expectations were sky high and we were a bit disappointed by the house. It wasn't in perfect condition (mold, squeaky doors, dryer needed repair, ran out of hot water, sand in the hot tub) and it lacked some basics (shampoo, the privacy that comes with bathroom doors). Mickey and I actually ended up switching rooms after our tolerance for squeaky doors and geckos on the ceiling (are they going to fall in my mouth when I'm sleeping?) ran out.

My mom and my brother were very gracious, however, and were thrilled with all that HPFF did deliver. My mom enjoyed cooking our Christmas dinner in the fully equipped kitchen and fell in love with apple bananas, a smaller variety of banana that grows on the property. Nic was happy to spend Christmas day watching a Laker game via satellite TV and was intrigued by one of HPFF's cash crops: medicinal marijuana. (That explained so much after we learned this mid-trip).

Lonely Planet's guide to Maui (and any other guidebook, I'm sure) describes watching the sunrise over the Haleakala crater as the Maui experience. So, not wanting to miss anything, we set our alarms for 4am (yes, there is a 4am) for three consecutive days to rise and see if it was clear enough to drive up the volcano. Each day, the weather was questionable, but it was Mickey's health that ultimately caused us to turn the alarm off and go back to sleep. He had a sinus infection that caused him pain when we changed altitude. Thus, driving from sea level to 10,000 feet was one of the last things he wanted to do at 4am. On one of our last days in Maui we decided to drive up the volcano regardless of poor weather and the fact that we wouldn't catch sunrise or sunset. The visibility wasn't more than 100 yards so this was kind of a bust. Next time, Haleakala.

Exploring other Maui treasures closer to sea level was far more rewarding. Mick, Nic and I hiked on a short but treacherous path (littered with slippery rocks) through a bamboo forest to a waterfall. As if the waterfall wasn't reward enough, we rewarded ourselves with fresh pineapple smoothies from a roadside stand. Operated by young hippies, the stand also sold homemade coconut candies and delicious baked favorites like banana bread infused with the tropical bites of mango and macadamia.

Another sensory highlight was our day of farm visits, first to the Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm and then the Surfing Goat Dairy. Ali'i's lavender grows on a steep hillside and we enjoyed spectacular views of the island while wandering through the garden. The Surfing Goat Dairy isn't just a clever name; they let the goats play on old surfboards. And if the quality of their chev is any indication of the goats' happiness, they must be fully content. The creamy goat cheese was excellent. We tasted a seasonal treat consisting of quark, cranberries and cinnamon that made me regret not buying a whole jar to slather on bread for a delicious upgrade to your standard leftover turkey sandwich.

And though we aren't beach people, we thoroughly enjoyed two of Maui's beaches. Baldwin Beach, on the north shore close to HPFF, has a lovely stretch of coast that is buffered from big waves by a strip of rocks and tide pools. This lagoon-like area is appropriately called 'Baby Beach' because it's so gentle. My other favorite beach was far more crowded because it's directly in front of the Sheraton resort, but the water was just as calm. Lonely Planet called it one of the best places for snorkeling because colorful fish (unafraid of people and looking for a handout) swim near the coral in waist-deep water. Snorkeling there on Christmas day was one of the highlights of my year. It's amazing that a $50 mask, snorkel and fins kit serves as the key to an entirely different world under the surface of the ocean.

It wasn't long before I bid my mom a tearful goodbye and departed for the final leg of our journey: Japan. We always said that if we were going to visit Japan, we'd have to tag along with our friend Andrew, one of our favorite travel buddies who just happens to be fluent in Japanese. He and Alyssa spent their entire holiday break in Japan and we tagged along with them for one week in Kyoto and Tokyo. Upon arriving, we had to swap our shorts and sunglasses for heavy wool coats again. It wasn't as cold as Tacoma, but it felt colder because we spent so many hours outdoors sightseeing. I had planned outfits around dresses paired with leggings and boots, but eventually alternated between two dingy pairs of pants because I was desperate to stay warm.

The two big negatives I had heard about Japan, that it was unbearably crowded and expensive, didn't diminish my experience there at all. Visiting Japan during a week of national holidays meant that some tourist destinations (such as Tsukiji, the famous fish market) were closed, but it also meant that central Tokyo was less busy. Many Japanese had gone home to the suburbs and countryside to visit relatives. Thus there was never a need to stand upright on trains, with one's hands straight in the front, for optimum subway car space efficiency as the helpful diagrams indicated.

Likewise, we did find Japan expensive in that our roughly $150/night for accommodations bought us small rooms in average hotels with miniscule bathrooms. Finding good food at a reasonable prices, on the other hand, wasn't a problem at all. I remember wandering through the maze that is Kyoto Station in search of a recommended sushi restaurant. I was curious why Andrew and Alyssa were so desperate to find a place that Lonely Planet described as only "good" sushi as opposed to "amazing" or "delectable." When we finally found it and sat down for a long lunch of endless hot tea (they had taps around the counter for hot water on-demand) and conveyor belt sushi, I understood what all the fuss was about. "Good" sushi by Japanese standards is great sushi anywhere else. It was a treat to find fish beyond your standard salmon and tuna on the rotation. We enjoyed some unagi (eel) which for once wasn't overwhelmed by sweet, barbecue sauce and some horse meat by accident. Whoops.

Having traveled in Japan two weeks longer than we had, Andrew and Alyssa had learned that Japanese people like to rank things in top threes. We're familiar with top universities, restaurants and top cities to live in because these things are regularly ranked according to certain criteria, but we don't rank our national parks, war memorials or covered bridges. However, in Japan, they do. And it's not just travel guides that will tell you what the top three gorges, temples and gardens are in Japan, this kind of thing is common knowledge. Alyssa and Andrew visited a castle which someone said was probably Japan's number four or five castle, but not in the infamous top three.

So, in the spirit of Japanese top threes, I'll reveal my top three favorite Japanese foods that I had never tried prior to my visit.
3. yakiniku - It's fun to say and even more fun to do. I'm told this is similar to Korean barbecue; there's a grill in the center of your table, you order the meat of your choice and you grill it to your satisfaction. I loved this because it helped me slow down and savor my food more because it took a while to cook. It's social in that the food and the grill are communal.
2. shabu shabu - It's even more fun to say than yakiniku and it means 'swish swish.' My friends were familiar with shabu shabu, but it was new to me. It's the same idea as above in that you order the meat of your choice and cook it in the center of your table. This time it cooked in a hot broth instead of a grill, though. The 'swish swish' refers to the motion of swishing your thinly sliced meat quickly through the hot broth to cook it. We had all you can eat shabu shabu on New Year's Eve and the Japanese wait staff made sure that you truly got all you could eat.
1. mochi - Mochi is a dessert made from sweetened rice pounded into a gelatinous ball of goodness. Mochi is fun to say when you create new words with it such as 'mochilicious' and 'mochtastic.' We tried different varieties of mochi, some with red bean paste, another with green tea flavors, and the unanimous favorite among our group, mochi with a creamy yellow custard in the middle.

This top three is a great way to organize my thoughts about Japan, so here are my top three uniquely Japanese experiences.
3. visiting the onsen - Onsen is a ridiculously hot thermal/spring bath. You may remember them from those nature videos with those snow monkeys. Visiting the onsen is a quintessential part of the Japanese ski holiday experience and/or the ryokan (Japanese B&B) experience. The ritual requires taking a shower beforehand so you're completely clean and nude when you enter the sex-segregated tubs. We stayed in urban hotels, but went out of our way to find a decent onsen in Tokyo. We located one in our guidebook, several maps, rode the subway and walked to the appointed address only to find it closed. Our courage to bathe naked with Japanese strangers in the name of cultural experience remains untested, but it's still in my top three.
2. buying something unusual from a vending machine - We've all heard the stories about anything and everything being available in a Japanese vending machine: toys, milkshakes, underwear, etc. This is officially a myth. The most unusual thing I saw on a vending machine was Tommy Lee Jones' face (his is the face of Boss Coffee). Still, I did see plenty of vending machines with beer, coffee, soda and to my delight on those chilly winter days, hot drinks. When we returned from our failed outing to the onsen, I cheered myself up by buying a hot lemonade from a vending machine.
1. renting a private karaoke booth and singing your heart out - This was the highlight of my trip to Japan by far. Alyssa and I knew we wanted the Lost in Translation experience: singing karaoke with Bill Murray and a pink wig minus the Bill Murray. Okay, we weren't fussed about the pink wig in the end either, but we knew we had to do karaoke before we left, but where? We were complaining about this when Andrew pointed to a 15 story building and said, 'you see that sign? It says, kah rah o kay.' To our surprise, the whole building was karaoke! We rented a room for two hours and sang until we were hoarse. This place had tambourines for everyone, an option to order food and drinks directly to your room, decent quality microphones and a phone book sized book full of English songs. The experience was pure joy.

Top three stereotypes about Japan that were true to my experience:
3. the importance of fashion - The standard of dress in Japan was very high. The young people followed the trends and older people took great care with their clothes and accessories. We spent an afternoon in Harajuku in search of the wildly dressed women who make the neighborhood famous. Despite the holiday rush to a nearby temple, we found and photographed a few. Believe it or not, a Little Bo Peep motif was popular with quite a few young women.
2. cleanliness and efficiency - I have never seen a cleaner city of a comparable size than Tokyo. When I realized how few rubbish bins there are, I was even more impressed. Andrew jokingly said that the Japanese people anticipate when they're going to need to throw something away and plan accordingly. I'm not sure if he was kidding though, because I would believe that.
1. politeness - It seemed that everyone we came across in Japan took pride in his/her work no matter if they worked in a hotel or cleaned the subway stations. Clearly, there's a sense of professionalism that's missing from many western industries. We were treated with the greatest respect wherever we went.

Okay, enough of the top threes. We had a fabulous trip, but I hope to never attempt another so ambitious again. We were exhausted, Mickey got sick with a sinus infection and I feel like I'm only now (weeks later) catching up with life as usual. These are the complaints of a very lucky person and I know that in my future I'd be only too glad to return to days when my biggest problems are jet lag and unpacking from adventures.