Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tokyo's Meiji Jingu Shrine

Ahhh, peace at last. Meiji Jingu Shrine was our last stop during our busy first day of Tokyo touring. Nestled in a 175-acre forest, the surrounding city just melts away when you walk through the cypress torii gates leading to this Shinto shrine. I also discovered that if you leave your youngest two kids and your hubby at the cafe annex, all whining about tired feet melt away, too.

The late afternoon light filtered through the trees.

Too bad there's no happy hour at the shrine, because man oh man, do they have a lot of liquor here. Barrels and barrels of Burgundy wine line one side of the path to honor the Meiji emperor who introduced red wine to Japan. The other side is lined with barrels of sake. East meets West. If only I had a tap and an empty glass on me.

Pick your poison. Wine or Sake?

After a bit, we finally reached the shrine. But before we went in, we stopped at the temizusha (font) to ritually cleanse ourselves before entering. The more I travel, the more I realize how many cultures and religions use water to symbolically purify themselves.  

Perform ablutions but don't toss in coins.

Built out of cypress and copper, the shrine may look like something from centuries ago, but the original shrine was established in 1920. That one burned in the fires of World War II, and the current building is merely 54 years old.

Looking back at the entrance to Meiji Jungu Shrine

Over in one corner, numerous ema plaques hung from hooks.  The shrine sells blank wooden tablets for Shinto worshippers to write their wishes and prayers on before hanging them up for spirits and gods to receive them. We noticed these at all the Shinto shrines we visited this trip.

If my son had written one, it would say, "I wish mom would take me to the Nintendo building."

This kimono clad lady was practically a blur as she hurried back to
the Hall of Sacred Music and Dance.

My boy and I eventually made our way back to the cafe where we had jettisoned the rest of the family. The gift shop next door had a great selection of tasteful but affordable Japanese souvenirs. As we made our way back to the entrance torii gate, daylight gave way to dusk. We emerged from this quiet forest oasis back into the glittering cement jungle that is Tokyo.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Kids on Bikes

I saw them when I was wandering around Armenian Street in Penang last Sunday. There they were. Two kids out for a joyride on a too big bike. Sister up in front, barely reaching the pedals, and little brother perched on back, hanging on for dear life. They took me by surprise. I wasn't expecting to see them on this quiet street in historic Georgetown. It's just another reason why I love this town.

Credit for this mural goes to artist Ernest Zacharevic. I hear it's part of prep for the George Town Festival next month.

Mural painted on wall with a real 3D bike mounted against it

Related Post:
Meow! On the hunt for Kitty Cat Street Art

Friday, May 25, 2012

Future Pewter Craftsmen at Royal Selangor

What is the sound of one hand clapping?* I don't know, but I can tell you what's the sound of 10 kids banging wooden mallets on metal disks. Really, really, shoulda-brought-my-earplugs LOUD. For centuries, tin was one of Malaysia's primary exports. Tin also happens to be the main component of pewter. At Royal Selangor's School of Hard Knocks, you can finally live out your lifetime dream to be a pewtersmith — like being a goldsmith or blacksmith but with pewter.

Floor-to-ceiling dislay of pewter shavings

Our visit kicked off with a short tour of the small gallery showing the history of pewter manufacturing in Malaysia. I think the kids were most interested in ringing the giant chimes made of different metals. Surprise, surprise. Loud and hands-on is what they like. The guide dipped a ladle into liquid pewter and poured it into a mold. It must have cooled quickly because she immediately popped it out and demonstrated polishing. Then, it was on to what all the kids were waiting for.

Time to hammer out their very own pewter bowls!

Tools of the trade: hammer and metal letter stamps for personalizing, bowl and wooden mallet

Each kid donned their aprons and grabbed a flat, metal disk. The first step is personalizing the bowl using the small hammer and metal letter stamps. A quick, firm tap is the key to a good imprint.

Then came the loud part. Put the metal disk on the wooden form and start banging away. Tilt the disk into the depression and rotate it evenly while hammering to get it rounded just right.

I don't want to work. I just want to bang on my bowl all day.

The top side of the wood form makes a shallow bowl. If you want a deeper one, flip the wooden block over and continue with the form on the other side.

Presto change-o! Your metal disk is now a lovely bowl. Perfect for ice cream if you ask me. Just keep it in the freezer, and it's ready to go.

It's the hard knock life for us.

It was a fun way to spend an hour, although all follow up visits to the hearing specialist is another matter. Afterwards, we all had the chance to browse the store. If you ever need a souvenir from Malaysia, Royal Selangor is a great place to go. They make a everything from jewelry to figurines to tea sets out of pewter. Some designs are a traditional nod to Malaysia's past whereas others are very modern and contemporary. Plus, and this is the best part, you don't have to worry about it breaking in your luggage no matter how badly the airlines handle it.

* If you really want to know what's the sound of one hand clapping, track down my hubby. He will demonstrate it for you.

Details, details:
Royal Selangor Visitor's Centre
Straits Quay retail marina enclave

Telephone: 04-8912018

RM 60 for the School of Hard Knocks includes personalized bowl, apron and certificate; by reservation only

Related Post:
5 Places for Kids to Ride Bikes and Scooters in Penang (includes Straits Quay)

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

10 Foods Americans Miss Most

Last month, CNN Go posted an article listing the 10 Foods Americans Miss Most While Abroad. Read original story here. Well, this is my response from Malaysia. Penang is supposedly the foodie heaven of Southeast Asia. I've fallen in love with Char Kway Teow, Roti Canai, and Curry Mee. But it's only human for an American gal to occasionally crave American food.

Mexican Food
Not surprisingly, it's really hard to find amazing Mexican food in Penang. As a Texas gal accustomed to having multiple taco stands to choose from, it's been difficult. One place recently opened up near me called Grumpiez Green Pepper, but my other choices are Chili's (barely mediocre) or the quesadillas at T.G.I.Friday's. The hand-down best Mexican restaurant in Malaysia is La Mexicana in Kuala Lumpur which is, unfortunately for me, a 4-hour drive away. It's kind of funny how my Texan expat friends seek out Mexican restaurants in Singapore, Chiang Mai, Beijing, and Siem Reap because the more metropolitan Asian cities have a better chance of serving up platters that are muy bueno.

I've actually been buying Old El Paso Taco Kits more often here than I ever did in the U.S. But since it's manufactured in Middlesex, England, how authentic can it be? The first time I ripped open the spice mix packet, I swear the aroma of curry wafted up to my nose.

How could I tell this was British?
Perhaps it was the phrases, "splash of oil,"
"brown the mince," and "lovely rich, tasty filling."
These are tacos that you eat with your pinkies up.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch (and other cereals)
Cereals aren't impossible to find, although you'll pay out the wazoo for American made ones. The few times we've seen Cinnamon Toast Crunch at the store, the kids have asked for it. Instead of my normal, "Too much sugar" response, I say, "Do you think we're the Rockefellers?" At US$8 for a box, it's now a luxury. The Kellogg's cereal is manufactured in Thailand, and Nestle is produced in the Philippines. These are the affordable cereals. And so far, we've only chipped one tooth eating it.

Along the same note, Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing is another little luxe item. I've only seen it on the shelves twice in the 10 months I've been in Penang, and it's US$7 for a medium sized bottle.

Chili Fries
I've never found chili fries in Penang, but it's no skin off my nose since I'm not a particular fan. I bet the Canadian version of this story lists Poutine in this spot.  UPDATE: I spotted Chili Cheese Fries on the menu of Morgenfield's at Gurney Paragon Mall.

Root Beer
A&W Root Beer is nowhere on the menu. However, you can find A&W Sarsaparilla. Maybe it's because Muslims can't consume alcohol, so A&W moved away from the word "beer". There's an A&W restaurant in the nearby mall where we can get root beer floats. Due to a slight misunderstanding even though everyone was speaking English, I accidentally upsized our entire order and got double scoops of ice cream. My kids thought I was awesome that day.

Proper Hamburgers
If you order a hamburger in Penang, chances are that you won't come away feeling like a glutton. That's a good thing. Burgers are actually reasonably sized. Getting a tasty, juicy chargrilled burger is difficult, although the Canteen at China House is one place in Penang to find them. Forget about making the perfect burger at home. For some reason, all the ground beef at the store is Weight Watchers Minced Beef which is code for "so low fat that you don't need to worry about grease flare ups."

One burger could daintily fit on the palm of my hand.

Rainforest Bakery makes bagels and offers free delivery. It's a delicious ring of doughy, chewy bread, but it is NOT a bagel. The outer crust is wrong, offering no resistance when biting in. At the high end grocery store, Cold Storage, I can sometimes find Bagels Forever made in Madison, Wisconsin in the freezer section. "Sometimes" is the operative word. When I get back to America, Panera Bread is high on my list of must-eat places. (Use this info to revile me if you consider yourself a true bagel connoisseur.)

Domino's delivers, even in Malaysia. What do you want? Tuna Extreme, Prawn Passion or Spicy Sambal? Don't worry. Pepperoni (beef or chicken) and Cheese are also options. You can actually get some good wood oven pizzas at a few Western places around town, so all is not lost.

Popcorn is definitely available in Penang. Cold Storage carries Orville Redenbacher or Paul Newman, but like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch, be prepared to pay the big bucks. At the movie theater, you have the choice of Salted, Lite n Sweet or Caramel. The concession stand is so cheap that each kid gets their own box. They also hear me say, "Wow, we could never afford to do this in America."

Penang isn't Europe. You can readily get ice with your drinks here. Of course, it's so bloody hot that it will melt in 10 seconds, and the condensation sluicing off your glass will convince you that it's leaking. I'm so seasoned that I drink iced juices from outside hawker stalls without fear of getting the runs. (Can you hear me furiously knocking on wood?)

Free Ketchup Packets
The fast food places will include packets in your takeaway (that's "to go" for us Americans). Look carefully, though. There's a good chance that you're squirting Chili Sauce instead of Tomato Ketchup on your fries.

Squirty and red. It's delicious, but it ain't ketchup.

How can I tell that the guy who wrote the original CNN Go post isn't a Texan? Barbeque is nowhere on his list.

This post is part of Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys. Check it out for more delicious inspiration.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Playing Ball in Malaysia

My girl and Chris Davis at a Round Rock (Texas) Express Game, June 2011

In America, almost every parent I know spends their weekends watching their kids play sports. Weekdays are spent figuring out how to shuttle them to numerous practices. Here in Penang, we've found that it's decidedly more low key. This worked out well for us, since we're not a very competitive family sportswise. But when I was telling one of my friends in Austin about it, she looked at me and declared that it would drive her husband CRAZY.

When we arrived here in Malaysia, my oldest boy decided to start playing baseball after being inspired by his sister's appearance at a minor league game over the summer. In America, I would have been hesitant about letting him begin at such a late age. After all, some of the kids on my girl's kindergarten T-ball team in Texas were already in their second year of league play. But since everything is so laid back in Malaysia, learning baseball in 6th grade didn't seem like such a big deal.

Our condo grounds aren't the best place to practice batting, so hubby went online to find a batting cage. The closest one is in Kuala Lumpur, 4 hours away. That's a bit of a drive! So, they drilled a hole in a ball and hung it from a rope to practice instead.

The team was one of three in the intramural league at the school. Whereas my daughter's kindergarten T-ball team had weekly practices led my multiple dads, my son's Penang team only had a couple practices before the season started and a couple before playoffs. Other than that, his time commitment was simply for the one game each week during regular season. The coach was a teacher (and father of a player) assisted by a few high schoolers. No moms or dads helped out over here.

Most parents didn't come out to watch the games either. In Texas, I was accustomed to a bevy of moms, dads, sisters, and brothers for every player showing up at the games. One of my favorite memories is of the umbrella and picnic blanket tent city siblings built on the sidelines to watch a game during a rainshower. The games at our Penang school only drew a handful of folks.

Middle school games were always on a Saturday morning at the school, and the elementary school doesn't offer softball or T-ball at all. Unlike in Texas where we'd have to juggle being at various games for each kid throughout the weekend, the time we spent watching sports shrank down to less than a couple hours. The rest of the weekend was free!

Playing ball on a tropical island has its own special challenges. The coach's wife tells me that a few years ago, the kids went out of bounds to retrieve a wayward ball. There it was lying next to a python. Luckily, the python had recently fed and was in a food coma. The next season, a wild boar ran out onto the field. The players piled into the van next to the field while adults grabbed the baseball bats to chase it away.

My younger son who is in elementary school signed up for the Soccer Club during the 2nd Quarter. Unlike in America, they never formed teams but just practiced as one big group. The only time that they played another school, the kids were divided up into teams after they arrived. It was more like a organized pick-up game than the soccer leagues I was used to in Texas. This was fine for my son but I think my friend's daughter who played on a development team in Austin may have been a little let down. Once again, not many parents turned out to watch the game.

We were informed that playing against local schools would be different than what we're used to in America. The typical Malaysian "Ok-lah" attitude extends to not worrying about being on time for competitions. Or maybe the coach or some of the players won't show up. When my middle schooler attended the citywide cross country meet, he was quite surprised that hardly anyone was there at the announced start time. Most didn't start rolling in until 15 minutes later. You can bet no one is speeding to get their kid there on time.

So yes, sports are much, much more relaxed in Malaysia than in Texas. This suits us just fine because sports takes a low priority in our home.  (Although, it's not 100% absent like it was in my childhood.) It's been great to not have to eat dinner at weird hours just to accomodate practices. I definitely don't mind not driving to sports practices for all three kids. But I do miss the camaraderie that comes from being with the same team supporters week after week.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Kid-friendly History at Tokyo's Fukagawa Edo Museum

Boathouse, small Yakitori Stall and Fire Watch Tower

Where do you go in Tokyo to explore Japanese history without your kids being bored to tears? Take them to the Koto-City Fukagawa Edo museum. We spent an hour wandering around the small alleyways of this recreated Edo period town. What's best about this place is that you can pick up and touch items. We could let the kids loose to freely explore. If you actually want to know what you're looking at, grab an English language map after you enter as there are no signs or docents inside.

Just getting to the museum was interesting. The surrounding area is a quiet little neighborhood without all the hustle and bustle that we found elsewhere in Tokyo. As we were walking from the subway station, a fire truck pulled up and firefighters jumped out. Since the side streets in this area are quite narrow, they had to unroll the long hose and pull it the few blocks where the truck could not fit.

The meowing of a small cat perched on a rooftop greeted us as we walked down the stairs to the main room of the museum. Her hame is Mame-suke, and she's here to play host. It was "night time" when we entered, but the lights gradually brightened, transforming the room into day. A cherry tree bloomed in one corner, and you could hear chickens and a temple bell. Before we left, the sun set and it became night once again.

"Yao-shin" Vegetable store
Rain barrel in the public space

The original platform shoe

Single room home in a row house

Pretending to cook over the wood stove

Two-story boathouse doubles as an eatery and gathering place

Choki-bune canal boats also serve as water taxis.

Milling brown rice at the Rice Store was a bit of a workout. You hang onto a bar in front of you and step onto a see-saw lever. As you move up and down, the other side smashes into the rice, breaking it free of the husk and bran. The kids really enjoyed this bit of hands-on history.

In fact, I think they liked everything about this place. Hubby and I liked it, too. Score! Everyone was satisfied. You can't beat that.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Signs from a Japanese Subway

I really should be doing other stuff right now instead of blogging. Like planning for my daughter's birthday party. (Or licking the empty bowl of hot fudge sauce I just made for her ice cream birthday cake.)  I've invited a bunch of girls over this weekend and still have not planned exactly what I'm going to do with them. Perhaps I'll make them write clever captions for all the signs I saw in Japan. Because that is EXACTLY how little girls want to spend their time.

My favorite part of this Tokyo sign is the little bubbles floating up from the yellow man's head. Or maybe it's the expressions on everyone's face. I'm not quite sure what pushing the button will do because Yellow Man looks like a goner if the train is that close. (By the way, the one-eyed son is a motif you'll find in many of my Japanese photos.)

I didn't have a chance to take a photo of a great instructional sign we saw in Kyoto. It showed that the passenger platform at the train station is a ledge. If you fall down on the tracks and a train is approaching, roll over into the empty space under the ledge. It was bona fide useful information.

Woe is the person who is so busy texting he loses his arm (or worse) to an incoming train.

The most fabulous thing about this sign from the Kyoto subway is that girls actually wear adorable hats like this one. We happened to get on a train at the same time as primary schoolchildren going home for the day. They had on the cutest school uniforms I've ever seen. The girls wore hats straight out of Madeleine, and the boys had on Eton suits. Everyone matched, down to their socks and shoes. Even their leather and plaid book bags matched. They could be in a little fashion show. If The Gap copied the look for a Preppy Classics line, they would make a fortune.

Apparently, Thomas the Tank Engine is big in Japan, too. There's even a Thomas Land amusement park somewhere. Here, Thomas gives little ones directions for "Station Safety for Children." The only words I recognize are "SOS!" and "HELP!" So, now you know what to do if Percy is up to his old mischievous tricks.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Room with a View

Today's showdown is a comparison of the views looking out my boys' bedroom windows.

At home in Malaysia

At home in Texas
Malaysia wins!

Sometimes, I feel like Cinderella at the ball. How did this happen? How did I end up living in this incredible place?

Malaysia has such a comparatively low cost of living that I understand why so many people retire here. Of course, you do have to go without good Texas Barbeque or authentic Tex-Mex food. (TacoDeli — I have been daydreaming about your Cochinita Pibil tacos for months ever since you denied me them at my last home visit.) One day, the clock will strike midnight, and my carriage will turn back into a pumpkin. At least my pumpkin will come with mesquite smoked brisket and tacos al carbon.

This post is part of Friday Daydreamin' at R We There Yet Mom?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Culture Shock: Buying Chicken

To Market, to Market to buy a fat hen

I wonder if Malaysians come to America and think, "Is this it? Is this is the only way to buy chicken?" Like the vast majority of carniverous Americans, I would just go to the grocery store and buy neatly packaged chicken out of the refrigerated case. Who knew that this simple task would have so many variations when I moved over here?

Super Chicken!
No, it's not the latest Marvel Comics hero. Super Chicken is the term for what Americans think of as Whole Chicken. A Standard Chicken, however, means with the head and feet still attached.

Chicken Feet
Succulent chicken feet are a Chinese delicacy. In the same way that you may opt for just drumsticks, you can get just feet here. In the mid-80's, my parents in America tried to start a business exporting discarded chicken feet from the U.S. to Hong Kong. Tyson Chicken informed them that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not permit chicken feet for human consumption, thus thwarting their plans. Then, Wal-Mart successfully lobbied the FDA to change the rule so that they could export chicken feet to their stores in China. True story.

Wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray
Yup, you can go to the grocery store in Malaysia and buy chicken this way, too. For the most part, this is my default method. But the inventory is small, and sometimes all that's on the shelf is drummettes or wings. Another time, my car smelled of Death when I got home, and the odor was definitely coming off the chicken despite the fact that the expiration date hadn't hit.

Sometimes, I'll get lucky and tongs are available for handling the chicken.

Buy it in bulk
At Tesco Hypermart, carts in the middle of the aisle will be piled high with chicken. On the day I took this picture, ice was layered between the pieces. Most times, however, a only the pieces on the bottom are being chilled with the upper 12 inches of the pile just exposed to room temperature. In this situation, I'll grab the pieces directly off the ice. If you think Jenga is hard, try dislodging slippery, raw chicken from the foundation of a tall poultry tower without causing the whole thing to tumble down. Just scoop it up, dump it in a plastic bag, and bring it over to the Weigh Station for the price sticker. Do not dare go to the Checkout without stopping at the Weigh Station first. Hint: Dig the hand sanitizer out of your purse before your hands are covered with raw chicken juice. I learned this one the hard way.

At the Wet Market (top picture)
The Wet Market supposedly has the freshest chickens. It's also the place with the most abundant supply and with the most customers. The chicken is slaughtered and plucked that morning, then brought to the market. Have I mentioned that the market is open air and unairconditioned? The chickens are laid out on tile counters, typically without the benefit of ice or refrigeration.

I must confess that I waited until a good friend had purchased chicken here for weeks without falling ill before I was willing to give this a try. When I did, my friend in Singapore commented that I had really embraced SE Asian life. I only buy chickens here if I can arrive early in the morning before they've sat out in the heat for too long.

The chicken stall at the Wet Market is similar to a butcher shop. You tell the vendor which pieces you want, and he'll cut it up for you. You get the discarded bits in the bag, too, because they weigh the entire chicken before taking a knife to it.

Freshly Slaughtered
Some markets bring the chickens in alive and then slaughter them on site. Now that's fresh! The only way to get your poultry fresher is the way my mom did it as a kid. Go into the yard and do it yourself right before cooking.

My local market doesn't slaughter chickens there, so I was naive and unsuspecting when I was at another market and wandered into a room labeled "Chicken." I must not have noticed the clucking noises or else I would have anticipated what I would witness. I've always imagined chicken slaughtering as either the complex machine in Chicken Run or else with a butcher knife raised high in the air before coming down on the chicken's neck laid upon a chopping block. Not in Malaysia.

Since the majority of the population is Muslim, chicken must be killed following Halal protocol. Halal is the dietary rules of Islam, similar to Judaism's prescription of Kosher rules. [If you're the squeamish type, stop reading!] When I walked in, two people were holding the live chicken in mid-air and one of them was holding the knife. With the both the slaughterer and the chicken's head pointing towards Mecca, the long blade was drawn across its neck, slicing through the jugular vein and windpipe but not the spinal column. During this process, they murmur a prayer to Allah. Some of my devout Christian friends wonder if it's permissable for them to consume halal chicken since it's been killed in Allah's name. Causing minimal pain to the animal is imperative. The chicken is then drained off all blood before butchering. I did not buy chicken this day.

As long as I'm here, I'll continue trying out the various ways to obtain chicken. But when I return to America with its sanitary chicken supply far divorced from the reality of slaughter, I'll be as happy as a rooster in a hen house.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Epic Day at Tokyo DisneySea

There was definitely a sense of anticipation at exploring DisneySea (as opposed to DisneyLand, clever) for the first time, and and it turned out to be quite exciting in more ways than planned. This park was originally conceptualized for Long Beach, California but ended up being built in Tokyo instead. Other than two rides — Tower of Terror and Indiana Jones — the rest of the rides and shows were new to this very experienced Disney family.

The first thing I noticed is that, unlike in America, visitors here are eager to get an early start. We're one of those "crazy" types that always gets to the park super early to beat the crowd. We were once the very first family through Sleeping Beauty's Castle! We underestimated Tokyo. A full hour before opening, hundreds of people were already waiting, and hordes more poured out of each local commuter train that pulled up at the station. It was going to be a crowded day.
Looking across Mediterranean Harbor to the entrance of DisneySea

I also noticed that the Japanese weren't going to compromise their fashion style just because they were spending the day at a theme park. To make some broad, sweeping generalizations, the Walt Disney World crowd in Florida tends to be populated with people wearing family reunion Tshirt uniforms. Disneyland in California has the SoCal look with lots of girls in spaghetti strap tank tops and cut offs. Hong Kong Disneyland was filled with people wearing heavy winter coats worthy of a ski slope even though the temperature hovered around 62°F. In Tokyo, I was freezing my bum off in a microfleece shirt, jacket and jeans. All the ladies around me were dolled up in short shorts, thigh high stockings and platform shoes with a cute jacket on top. Many were munching on the numerous popcorn flavors offered — caramel, strawberry, black pepper, and curry.

I wished that I had more time to admire the grand Mediterranean Harbor at the entrance, but I knew we had to head quickly to the rides if we wanted to cut down on waiting in line. Plus, I think I would have been run over by the stampede of people if I had stopped. As usual, the family split up for part of the time with my hubby taking my older son on the high thrill rides while I escorted the younger two on the kiddie rides.

Steampunk at its best — a retro-style view of the future

Mount Prometheus is the centerpiece of the park and the biggest steampunk display I've ever seen. It's part of Mysterious Island which is based on the stories of Jules Verne and held what my kids declared to be some of the best rides at DisneySea. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may share a name with the now closed ride in the U.S. parks, but that's where the similarity ends. In this much more exciting version, we climbed into a diving bell and dipped down "under water" to explore the deep sea. All three kids really enjoyed the joystick-controlled searchlight. Be forewarned that taller folks, like my husband, will have to practically lie down on the bench in order to see out the window. The best original ride in the park has to be Journey to the Center of the Earth. It has it all — detailed theming (decorations that set the mood), great storyline, surprises, and a high thrill factor. If the U.S. parks are looking to expand, they should strongly consider adding Mysterious Island stateside.
Unbelievable sights, Indescribable feelings

Despite DisneySea being positioned as oriented for adults and older kids, there is plenty for the younger set to do at Arabian Coast and Mermaid Lagoon. Arabian Coast has Jasmine's Flying Carpets which is a Dumbo-style ride. There's a two-story carousel, and of course, my kids wanted to ride on the top level. Sinbad's Storybook Voyage is a relaxing boat ride that would have made a lot more sense if we had remembered to pick up the handheld English translator unit.

If I understood Japanese, I could tell you what's happening on Sinbad's Storybook Voyage.

The Magic Lamp Theater has a fun 4D movie mixed with live action on stage. This time, we remembered to ask for the translator. It's the story of Genie and one of his other masters not featured in the Aladdin movie. The bucking seats accidentally knocked my iPhone out of my pocket, and I didn't realize it until after we'd exited. Imagine describing your iPhone to someone. "Um, it's black. It's an iPhone." I don't know if I was sadder at the prospect of losing a pricey item or the numerous pictures that hadn't been uploaded to the cloud. Luckily, they found it!

Up where they walk, Up where they run, Up where they stay all day in the sun...

The fantastical, Gaudi-inspired spires of Mermaid Lagoon beckoned us to cross over to this port-of-call. A kiddie roller coaster and another ride are at surface level. Then, you descend down into Triton's Kingdom which, joy of joys, is located entirely indoors. Disney was wise to plan a section which would be enjoyable no matter what the weather was like outside. Our first stop was the Mermaid Lagoon Theater where we once again remembered to get translator devices. It's a good thing because this version of Ariel and Ursula's story is different from the movie. The show involves a lot of dangling from a harness on Ariel's part (an aerial Ariel) as well as ginormous lever-controlled puppets. It's not to be missed, even if you've seen the one in Florida a thousand times. Triton's Kingdom also has three other kiddie rides, an indoor playground, a restaurant, ice cream cart, and a few shops. You could spend HOURS down here as we later discovered.

Jumpin' Jellyfish! This place is deceptively huge.

Fortress Explorations is a Renaissance-era citadel that reminds me somewhat of EPCOT and its numerous hands-on activites. If EPCOT is focused on the future, Fortress Explorations is firmly rooted in the past. Guests joined the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.) to "witness first-hand the progression of our explorations and research." No rides here, but there was still plenty to capture our attention. Plus, what had started as a windy day was getting even more blustery, and this was a wonderful way to take shelter. It was too dark outside for the Camera Obscura to work properly, but I will admit that the life-size Flying Machine was a sight to behold (and climb on).

Come Josephine in my Flying Machine

At this point, the weather stopped holding back and really let loose. People made beelines for stores selling rain gear. I utilized my pushy American attitude to grab some instead of politely waiting while the lady in front of me took her time figuring out exactly which knee-length, white, semi-transparent, plastic raincoat she wanted. Even though we were in Port Discovery, we didn't do the rides. Aquatopia was outdoors and looked miserable in the lashing rain. We seemed to have missed StormRider, too. This Fast Pass-category simulator ride takes you into the middle of a typhoon. With the wind and the rain whipping around in real life, we wished it was all just a ride and we could get off.

My little girl is absolutely terrified of storms. More than one person has commented to me, "That's how my dog is around thunder." So, the younger two kids and I made our way back to Triton's Kingdom. Lots of people were streaming towards the park exit even though it was only mid-afternoon. My guess is that if people had a season pass or a multi-day pass, they were calling it quits for the day. I only saw half of DisneySea, so you'll have to rely on my hubby and son's report for the remaining ports-of-call. No pictures after this point because we were worried that our cameras would either be soaked or blown out of our hands. So much for my plan to go back and take a picture at the entrance.

Do not anger the Raging Spirits roller coaster.

The Lost River Delta evokes an ancient Central American civilization deep in a remote jungle. Like any good movie archaeologist, the rides explore ruins and anger the gods. Will they never learn? The Raging Spirits roller coaster was rated "medium thrill" by hubby despite its tight, 360 degree loop. Hubby actually exceeded the maximum rider height limit, so he slouched down and snuck on. I'm glad the gods didn't make him lose his head over it! The Indiana Jones ride is very similar to the one in California. But since this is one of his favorite non-rollercoaster rides, hubby didn't mind. Indiana Jones is the one DisneySea ride I really regret missing out on.

The sea was angry that day my friends.

American Waterfront has both the Tower of Terror and the S.S. Columbia which looks amazingly like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. My hubby joked that Disney really went all out making the seas look stormy that day. Tower of Terror is my son's favorite ride at any Disney park, and he enjoyed the Tokyo version immensely. It has a different story but keeps the exhilarating, full-shaft drops.

The family reunited and decided to head to dinner during a lull in the storm even though it wasn't quite 6 p.m. We made our way to Zambini Brother's Ristorante in Mediterranean Harbor. While we were huddled down and walking, an announcement in Japanese started broadcasting over the entire park. That can't be good. I'm glad they repeated it in English afterwards. The Fantasmic show that evening was cancelled, and they may have announced that some of the outdoor rides were halted too. The part that took me by surprise was that all commuter trains back into Tokyo were shut down. Remember all those hordes of people streaming out of the train station that morning? How were they all getting home? Hopefully, most of them had already left. Otherwise, the taxi stand was going to be a mob scene.

So, we decided to while away our time at the restaurant. After eating, I stayed there with little girl while hubby took the boys back to Mysterious Island for one last go at the rides there. My younger boy commented that you could lean backwards, and the wind would completely support you. Also, wait times at rides were practically nothing.

At 8 p.m., a full 2 hours before park closing, we decided to leave. This should give you a clue to how bad the weather was at this point. I thought the best chance for us to comfortably hail a taxi was from the MiraCosta hotel. So, we donned our rain gear and headed back outside. By now, we couldn't even walk straight since the wind was blowing so hard. In the next day's newspaper, they printed a picture of semi-trucks on the road which had blown over on their sides. Flights into Haneda Airport had stopped, too. The MiraCosta was beautiful inside. Even if it's not storming, you should take a moment to explore it. The kids settled down in front of a TV showing The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (in Japanese) while we waited for our taxi to arrive. Much better than waiting outside at the park's taxi stand! On our way home, we had to take a detour since the iconic Rainbow Bridge was closed as well. All in all, it was an epic day in more ways than one.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tips for Handling Grumpy Junior Travelers

I need to make a confession. Reading over my trip reports with my kids, you may have formed the impression that they are enthusiastic, willing participants on all our travels. Perhaps you picture them happily donning their backpacks and eager to explore. You are mistaken. When I was visiting Austin a few months ago, one of my friends commented about how much her kids complained when they traveled, even on an overnight getaway. She was envious of all the trips I was taking with my kids. And then I explained that my kids' attitudes were pretty much just like her children's.

The key is that I've built up a very high tolerance to whining, pouty faces, and even calmly conveyed protests. I alternate between chirpily restating how much fun we're going to have, grouchily muttering, "Because I said so," and silently ignoring the cloud of grumpiness hovering around us.

So, why do we keep going? Because ultimately, the good outweighs the bad. Like much of parenting, just when I'm ready to throw in the towel (e.g. potty training, separation anxiety at school drop off, learning to sleep alone, etc.), something happens that gives me encouragement. A few happy moments of my kids' appreciation are all I need to keep me going. Plus, I am certain that at some point, probably a few decades from now, they'll look back fondly at all the journeys we take.

Here are some tips, some of which may only apply to my family:

1. Quote Lilo & Stitch
As Lilo says, " 'Ohana' means family. Family means no one gets left behind." I bring this up whenever the kids ask, "Why do we have to come along?" Hubby and I want to travel. We're taking the family with us. No one gets left behind.

2. Let them have input on trip planning
For our trip to Japan, I asked all the kids what they really wanted to do while we were there. Letting them have some control has cut down on resistance. I made sure I incorporated all the reasonable requests. Staking out the Nintendo office building which is closed to the public is not a reasonable request.

Can you guess if an adult or child put Pokemon Center on the itinerary?

3. Give kids their turn at picking restaurants
I will readily admit that we eat at McDonald's while traveling. I claim that we go too much. My kids claim that we go too little (3 times a day being just right in their eyes). So, I guess we're at some sort of happy medium. We'll also do the "acceptable choices" routine. I'll appoint one child to pick the restaurant but limit his choices to, for example, three restaurants that serve either teppanyaki, sushi, or ramen. Note that McDonald's is not a choice.

Plastic food displays outside Japanese restaurants helped the kids decide where to eat.

4. Figure out why they're reluctant
My kids don't get out of doing the day's activity just because of a bad attitude. But if someone is scared, I've learned not to push it. Who knew that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland would traumatize my then 4-year-old so much that we weren't able to go on most rides for the rest of the day? I honestly thought that if I just got her on it, she would be so enchanted by the storybook images that she'd forget her fears. Wrong! On the other hand, we assumed my son refused to go back into the Magic Kingdom's Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor show because he thought it was too scary. It turned out that he just thought the Roz character spoke to the audience rudely. We went back in.

5. Bribe them
Put the kiddie fun activity after the boring adult one. "If you behave while we are at this Buddhist temple, then we can go to the children's science museum." Also, offering an ice cream break will do wonders to rejuvenate tired children — just remember to tour quickly before the sugar crash hits.

6. Accept that everyone may not be happy
Of course, I would be overjoyed if everyone were happy! With two adults and three kids, all five of whom have very different personalities and interests, the chances of everyone being happy are slim. I try to split the difference so that everyone at least has a few chances to be happy. If one adult and 2 of the 3 kids are satisfied, I consider it a huge success.

How many children are happy in this picture?

7. Be willing to split up
Sometimes the best way to increase the odds of numerous happy travelers is to split up. There's a five year age difference between my oldest and youngest kids, and they are definitely at different developmental points, both physically and psychologically. In Maine a few summers ago, the two older kids went with their dad on Diver Ed's Dive-In Theater Boat Cruise, an amazingly way cool excursion to get an up close look at marine life both above and under the water. My girl was leery of boats, so we stayed on shore to visit the aquatic touch tanks and play with DNA replication LEGOs at Mount Desert Island Biological Lab.

Diver Ed uses an underwater camera to give kids a peep at life beneath the waves.

8. Know when to stop
Sometimes, I will have the most amazing, action packed day of sightseeing planned, but tired feet and hungry stomachs get in the way. I'm slowly, v-e-r-y slowly, learning to be flexible and figuring out when to call it quits and head back to the hotel. It's the same planning that goes into a day of running errands with a toddler and baby. As much as is logistically possible, load the most important stuff at the beginning so that you minimize your losses if you have to stop before the end of the list.

9. Find some Me Time
For some of my friends, this means a spa treatment or a quiet date night while the children are at the resort's Kids Club. In my case, Me Time usually involves barricading myself in the hotel bathroom and reading a book while perched on the counter after the children and my early bird hubby have fallen asleep.

Also be on the lookout for any Me Time opportunities that come your way.  Flying from Hong Kong to Tokyo, my hubby — but only my hubby — was bumped up to business class. He was all ready to decline when I piped up, "I'll take it. You can sit with the kids." See how nice I am to let the kids have quality time with their even keeled dad without buggy, ole mom hanging around? I was in a better mood, so I was more able to deflect my kids' grumpiness. Hats off to hubby for being totally fine with this arrangement.

I enjoyed a selection of goodies from the Business Class Fruit and Cheese cart.
Hubby snacked on peanuts while caring for 3 kids in Steerage Coach.

And if you find that magic moment when everyone is happy and content, cherish it!
(Then take a picture so you have proof.)

This post is part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups.
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