Narita – Worth staying at least 2 nights!


Most folks just pass thru Narita on their way to Tokyo or Kyoto – If they sleep even one night in town, it’s to rest up after their flight – and then to quickly race off to other parts of Japan.

But that’s not fair to Narita. It’s a very famous place in it’s own right! One of Japan’s most famous and most often visited pilgrimage sites is right here in Narita – the Naritasan Shinshoji temple.

This is a huge complex – dating back to the beginning of Buddhism here in Japan – and is well worth a long visit. Particularly special is their three times a day services in the main hall. These feature some amazing drumming – and were very very different from the services we saw in Koyasan.

This temple has been performing a Goma (fire burning) ritual every day for over 1000 years. No matter what your religious affliction – that’s a lot of devotion!

And I had to see it. So we got organized, left our absolutely lovely Air BnB lodging, and went to Temple.

The service started with a brief introduction in Japanese – to a congregation of almost 500 people. There were 4 sections of participants. two large groups kneeling quite near the center alter on the right and left, a much larger group kneeling in front of the altar, and then the senior group. We were sitting on benches that ran along the back wall – with a good view and no kneeling required.

I expected something similar to the morning prayers in Koyasan – but what happened was very different. The service started with the entry of the monks – about 10 of them in formal attire. The main monk seated himself in front of the altar, the gong rang out in the courtyard, the lights dimmed, and a monk sounded a single, extremely loud, Thump on the giant Taiko Drum. That started the service. The monks said some prayers that clearly the gather congregants knew, and then there was some gong ringing and drumming. Suddenly a huge fire burst out in front of the main monk. We were blocked by his body from the bottom of the flame, but the top was easily a body length above his head. This was a signal for everyone to get up and line up to the right and left of the altar.

The Intrepid Traveller and I tried to decide in our own minds, what they might be doing. Comparing notes I thought they were going to do confession, the Intrepid Traveler thought that they were going to a lesson or communion. But it turns out they weren’t doing either. They were handing bags and purses and personal belongings to the helper monks, who were bringing these items to the altar and exposing them – briefly – to the flames.

We had read up on the Goma ritual – and the idea is that the flames represent the wisdom of the Buddha of Unmoving Knowledge – and they burn away the root causes of your suffering. Bu exposing your belongings to the fire, you are allowing the wisdom of the Buddha to impact your life.

Obviously as soon as I realized this was what was happening, I got up with my backpack and joined the line.

After the service ended – folks again lined up – this time to run their hands along a staff that ran in front of the main Buddha. We never figured out why they did this – but it’s been happening for a really long time. The staff was carefully wrapped in ropes to prevent it from being worn away by hundreds of hands, multiple times a day.

Great Service, very interesting Temple, lovely walking meditation garden. This shrine was a definite winner.

We did also had an incidence of ‘Japanese nabbing’. I left the Intrepid Traveller alone for just a minute – and when I got back, she had disappeared. Two older Japanese ladies had grabbed her and forced her to go with them into the tea room for a cup of tea. They spoke no English, so she felt the polite thing to go was to go with with them.

While she was being polite, I spent several anxious minutes wondering where she’d gone when she finally re-appeared to explain that she just had to drink the offered tea – it would have been rude to have refused.

Lunch was in a traditional Eel house. It turns out that Narita is famous for it’s ell restaurants – they are the preferred food of pilgrims – health restoring and considered beneficial after a long trek. And the Eel restaurants in Narita have been serving this dish for over a hundred years. We sat down in a traditional looking restaurant, but with a hole for your legs – no kneeling unless you wanted to – and ordered a meal of eel to share.

It was delicious – and the tea (both hot and cold) was unlimited and free. We were the only westerner’s in the place – it was packed with Japanese – so you know it’s the right place. Delightful meal – and a great way to end our trip to Japan. Tomorrow we are heading for home.

A note on shopping in Narita. We happened into the two largest grocery stores we’ve seen in Japan here in Narita. The land is clearly cheaper – and the shoppers clearly either locals or pilgrims to the shrine – not a foreigner in site.

The sushi selection in the 2nd of the grocery stores we found was unreal. So fresh, so beautiful and so reasonably price. $5.00 Canadian ($6.00 US) got you a platter of at least 8 different sushi option. And need we say delicious?

We are so glad we opted to spend two nights in Narita. It’s a really cool spot – well worth visiting. If you come – check out the Aeon Mall – and buy the sushi. And of course – have at least one eel dinner.

Signing off to get our selves to the airport – our flight home awaits.

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Living in a Traditional Japanese Home is very Interesting…


We’ve been Air BnB-ing around Japan now for 5 weeks, but our place in Nara easily wins first prize in the interesting lodging category. It’s a traditional home, lived in for over 40 years by the current owners, Tadahiro and his wife.

Tadahiro’s English is creative, his wife is even less fluent – but language aside – this stay clearly ranks as one of my most extraordinary adventures.

As always – I used my check-list – but even so – things are never quite what they seem in the pictures. But first steps first – Finding Tadahiro’s home was easy – he picked us up at the tiny train station just 200 meters away – and insisted on driving us to his house. This is not the center of Nara – but then Nara is relatively small – and our location turned out to be absolutely perfect.

As a traditional home, you enter thru a tiny garden space (barely room for the empty tulip planters Tadahiro was working on) going directly into the entrance hall where you take off your shoes and put on slippers. There is only room in the entrance hall for one person at a time – and no where to sit – which caused the Intrepid Traveler a bit of trouble. She much prefers to sit down to take off her lace up sneakers. I went with easy to remove sandals- so for me – not a problem.

Once properly slippered – you are in the kitchen. Shoji screens on our left blocked access to the living space of our hosts – but they kept that door firmly closed most days. I admit to getting a peak in – and like the rest of this tiny house – it was cluttered with the remains of living in a place for over 40 years. Even Japanese accumulate stuff after a while – and there were at least two formal Kimono hanging up on a wall. Plus a lot of intermingled other clutter. But that’s their space!

The layout is typical of older style homes in the Nara region – kitchens were fire hazards – and as such were separated from the main house, and well used. This kitchen was no exception – not the designer granite kitchens of the west – this was a functional space with teeny appliances and virtually no space!

How tiny? The refrigerator (packed full, full, full) was in the entrance hall – as was the toaster oven placed awkwardly on a stool. The stove top had only 3 burners, and there was no oven. And no dishwasher. And no storage space. Everything was on display – all the family’s assorted and well used dishware next to the sink, and food stuff stored on shelves above the wooden dining table on the other wall. Crowded, tiny, clean but not new. Well used is the best description.

To deal with the lack of refrigerator space, our hosts were using a stack of strafoam ice boxes as spare fridges – those were kept in what they refered to as the fire escape – a 2nd set of stairs that lead upstairs. We never used that staircase, and in fact was told it was off limits. But several days later one of the other guests used it to carry up their suitcases. So maybe my lack of Japanese led to confusion on this point.

Our hosts (who admitted to being in our age bracket of 70+ (I’m guessing more like 80+)) have turned the upper floor of their rather large, but very traditional home into a interconnected series of 5 rooms separated only by sliding shoji screens. There are 4 obvious bedrooms, one common space with a sink and a table and a kettle for making hot water – and a toilet room. The bathroom (which has a bath and a shower – no toilet) is down stairs off the kitchen.

We were shown to our ‘room’ – a large tatami mat area with one window, one bed, one futon on the floor, and a lovely library space that provided just a bit of storage – first and only storage space we’ve seen in all the places we’ve stayedI We even had two hanging racks, and at least one shelf that we could use for our stuff. Unfortunately, the rest of the space was filled with Tadahiro’s father’s books – so it was a bit dusty. And there were stacks of scrolls as well. As I mentioned – clutter happens after 40+ years.. as I well know.

We snuck a peek into the other rooms. The largest room had a lovely space with two western chairs and it overlooked the traditional interior garden. That room was used mostly by family groups, and was priced a bit higher than our space. Adjoining the larger room was a smaller room with a window towards the street. Because the two rooms were only divided by shoji screens – if both spaces were ‘rented’, the guests in the smaller part of the larger room had to enter thru another set of screens. We decided that this must have been awkward, and of course anything said in either room was clearly audible everywhere on the upper level.

The 4th room almost appeared to be a later add-on. It adjoined the fire escape staircase and was an odd shape with many windows. We thought this was the prettiest room – but it offered only futons for sleeping, and while we were in Nara – was mainly rented to single men traveling on their own. We liked this room because it was closest to the toilet – but nothing was really that far – so despite our concerns, we never had an issue.

As mentioned, there was the fire escape (off limits?) staircase – and then the proper wooden staircase to this upper level. The proper staircase was very steep – and led down onto the glassed in narrow porch that overlooked the garden. From there you could turn right into the kitchen, or if you turned left – you were in the private quarters of our hosts. We always turned right of course.

Our hosts couldn’t carry our tiny carry-ons up the stairs, and neither could we – so we were instructed to take what we wanted out of our bags and leave them in a space beside the staircase. There are lots of nooks and crannies in the home – this was one of them! But we don’t have much – so it was easy to get ourselves organized, even without our suitcases in our quite comfy space. Our window overlooked the street outside – which turned out to be a bit noisy at night, even with the windows shut. I’m going to guess that there was absolutely no insulation in the home at all – and the shoji windows were single pane glass.

We were actually glad that it was warm (hot even) during our stay in Nara – the AC worked a treat. Each sleeping space had it’s own AC unit – and we turned on them all at one point to cool down the common room. It went well over 95 degrees for 3 days running. It was hot. But the AC definitely did the trick. We were extremely comfortable.

One of the reasons that Tadahiro’s home is so frequently booked is the quality of the breakfast they provide. Meat, Eggs, Home-made omelet, Bread slices, Jam, Ginger, Salad, and noodles (twice more like Italian spaghetti with meat sauce, once more Japanese style) – it was easily the nicest breakfast we were offered outside of the huge buffet at the APA hotel our first morning in Japan.

Since the kitchen is tiny, and the table in the kitchen could only seat 4 – we ate breakfast in shifts when the rooms were all occupied. And during our 5 nights in Nara – guests came and went with alarming frequency. Many folks only stay one night in Nara – they come, see the Deer Park and the Big Buddha and go. We’d barely have time to say hi before they would be gone. The most interesting of our fellow travellers arrived the day before we left unfortunately – but more on them later.

The ‘bath’ room – which contained the only shower – was located off the kitchen – so getting a shower in the morning was a bit awkward. You needed to time your bathing to avoid cooking time in the very narrow, very small kitchen. It actually ended up sounding worse than it was – you just waited your turn – and everyone got the shower they needed!.

As previously mentioned, privacy, in the North American context of that term, is seriously lacking. Yes you can ‘shut’ your shoji screens – but everything you do is clearly audible to all other guests.

This isn’t a bad thing if everyone is being polite, but the first night our fellow travellers were a family – husband, wife, and 6 year old daughter who apparently were having issues. Frequently it definitely sounded like they were fighting. Our host came up stairs to tell them to quiet down – and after that things were fine.

Speaking of our hosts – they are amazing. The breakfast they fixed us each morning has been lovely – although I find the wife’s habit of covering the plates with plastic wrap, and then serving the food (I’m guessing it saves on washing up) very strange. But she was consistent – there was always plastic wrap protecting the dishes from the food. And anything fried had a piece of foil decoratively placed under it – purpose unknown.

Tadahiro absolutely loves to explain how you should do things in their city – and we’ve been happy to follow most of his advice. While his English is limited – he clearly strives to be completely clear. Important note here – don’t disagree with him. Just nod politely and agree to do as he suggests. He justifiably feels that he’s lived here long enough to know what’s what. I checked out his suggestions with the wonderful local tourist offices – and not surprisingly – got different and sometimes better advice. We learned to pick and choose which advice to follow quite carefully.

We also had another issue. Despite the description in Air BnB that implies guests can use the kitchen, it’s clearly their kitchen – and while they said it was ok if we used it, when we tried to cook our dinner the first night, Tadahiro decided we weren’t doing it quite right. He pushed the Intrepid Traveler out of the way – and cooked our dinner for us. Since then, we’ve been very careful to only buy things that don’t need cooking. It’s easier.

Despite advertising that suggested they had a clothes washer – when we asked to do laundry, they directed us down the street to a coil operated laundry. It worked just fine. Next door is an Onsen – a public bath – but I think we’ll skip it this time.

But quibbles aside – my futon is comfy, and Jill has a bed – which makes her happy. We have a bit more storage kind of space here which is nice. Once we realized that the kitchen was off limits in fact, if not in principle, we shopped accordingly and had lovely dinners upstairs in the common space.

We are walking distance from some of the most interesting sites in Nara – yet clearly off the well beaten, overly touristy, path. There’s a bus stop nearby, and a huge grocery store. There’s even two places to pick up my morning Latte’s for just 150 Yen.

There was one couple in particular, that we totally enjoyed sharing the space with. They arrived the day before we left – but they were charming. The wife is Chinese, the husband American, and they are living in China. We spent a lovely evening laughing and chatting over wine (ours) and beer (theirs). I was truly sorry we were checking out in the morning. They were very interesting – and I wish them luck and health in their lives. They will need it. By all accounts, life in China is not particularly easy these days!

This blog has gone on long enough – we loved Nara – heat wave and all – and are heading to Narita in the morning. Right now it’s bedtime – tomorrow is another very hot day to look forward to enjoying.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Smoking in Japan


There seems to be remarkably less cigarette smoking here in Japan than I have seen in other parts of the world – and this is a good thing.

But oddly enough – Japan allows smoking in restaurants – and that really upsets me personally – and the Intrepid Traveller is not all that thrilled either.

Japan definitely does some things right. Smoking (and maybe Vaping which seems curiously absent here) is definitely not allowed on the streets, on the subways, or in museums. If you must smoke, there are barricaded areas labeled ‘smoking permitted’ rather randomly located in public areas. On the street these take the form of wired or fenced or glassed in areas where smokers can huddle to imbibe. They aren’t covered – and there are no seats – so they aren’t generally particularly welcoming, but at least they are provided.

We also haven’t seen much smoking in cars – quite a relief from the smoke filled autos of North America. It happens of course – but it’s not close to the normal thing.

But there is one major problem. Smoking is allowed in Restaurants, and I’m guessing bars as well. This has proven to be a huge problem for us, because we like to get a spot of tea in the afternoons – and every time we’ve tried to do this – we’ve been smoked out.

The worst was yesterday. We were wiped out – and just wanted to sit and relax for a few moments. We were near the wonderful Osaka Museum of Housing, which is in a very commercial part of the city – so no park land in evidence. Our choice was between MacDonalds and a ‘Coffee Shop’.

Foolishly – I picked the Coffee Shop. We sat down, ordered tea and a delicious if weird thing called a fruit parfait – and then realized that the gal seated behind us was a chain smoker – there for the long haul. During our 20 minutes or so she smoked 3 or 4 cigarettes, entertained 2 different groups of friends, and generally made our life miserable between her chain smoking and hacking cough.

Wonder if they were related.

And she wasn’t alone. In the tiny space of this 10 table coffee shop – 3 other tables hosted smokers as well. We walked out stinking of cigarette smoke, and determined to make a better choice next time.

Signing off to wash the cigarette stink off our hands – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Mob Scene or Personal Journey? Choose your own path in Kyoto!


Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!

Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!

Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?

All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.

Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.

Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.

More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.

There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.

The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.

Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.

But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!

We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.

But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.

The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.

We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.

Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

I’m definitely too noisy for the Japanese


I even got shushed in a museum – and I was talking to myself!

Clearly I am way out of line in the noise continuum.

But in my defence – the Japanese are very very quiet. We took an English tour in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (outstanding) and the tour guide was audible only if you were standing directly in front of her. If you stood even slightly off center – you couldn’t hear her at all. I tried.

And in the subways – as cautious as the Japanese are not to insult foreigners – we’ve been insulted. How do I know? People sitting next to the Intrepid Traveler and I, who think nothing of having a conversation while sitting on the subway, move away the minute another seat opens. This has happened at least 5 times already, and I suspect will continue – since we are unlikely to stop talking just because we’re on the subway.

Speaking of quiet – the subway cars – even if mobbed, are silent. Folks either just stand quietly, or they put their faces very close to those of their infants and whisper to them. There is lot of use of iPhones and like – but always on silent mode. I’ve never heard anyone talking on the phone here in Japan – something that I see and hear all the time in Montreal. And while I have seen (and barely heard) Japanese business people gather in a circle on the station platform to have a conversation, once on the subway – they too fall completely silent.

Even in restaurants – you’ll see a table with folks all using their phones – but you won’t hear any noise. This is less true here in Koyasan, where using phones at the group dinners and breakfast is viewed very negatively by the monks. So folks have no option other than to be silent (impossible for me) or to chat with other’s. Interestingly – we’re seated across from our companions, but closer to the strangers on the right and left. Naturally, the Intrepid Traveler and I have struck up conversations with French, Dutch, Italian and Australian fellow travellers. But I’m definitely the noisiest.

This general sense of quiet makes the occasional noise seem even more startling. I was stunned once when I entered a toilet to the sounds of a Beetle Song, and in the Ginza a police car went by making an announcement that over the general quiet was extremely loud. Today the ringing of bells at noon and 2:00 PM were clearly audible for several kilometres – and the occasionally noisy fellow tourist was disorienting, and frankly annoying. It turns out that even the Japanese get noisy in a cemetery – care to wonder why? We think it’s to scare away evil spirits.

And the rules about being quiet – something we Westerners have never learned – aren’t written down. You have to observe others to understand what being quiet is all about.

But quiet or not – we’re having a wonderful time. And I’ll survive insulting a few Japanese. They probably think I’m just an awkward American anyway.

Signing off – The Soup Lady (with the Intrepid Traveler shaking her head over my shoulder)

2 Down – lots to go!


The Intrepid Traveler and I are museum buffs. Serious museum buffs. So rain or shine, English or no English – we are going to visit as many museums as we can squeeze in while we are here in Japan.

Our plans for today were a bit washed out by the weather, and our own stupidity. Last night it poured – and while our home away from home is lovely – it’s also made of wood with shoji screens on the windows and what I suspect is a tin roof. So while we were safe and dry – unless we were trying to navigate that rickety iron staircase down, the noise of the rain was considerable. We woke a bit sleep deprived – but still ready to rock the world – or at least a tiny section of Tokyo.

After a quick breakfast – with a disastrous attempt at coffee (never liked instant – never will) we headed out – making our first critical mistake of the day. We didn’t grab umbrellas. Clearly overly optimistic – and an error we won’t make again. It poured on and off all day – and we were well and truly soaked by lunch time. I took off my socks and spent the afternoon barefoot in sandals – it was that wet. The Intrepid Traveler fared little better – her ‘rain jacket’ is water resistant – and gave up the ghost after noon.

We navigated ourselves around using maps.me (free off-line GPS map App) and by asking a lot of questions. I’ve gotten very good at showing folks the name of where I want to go in both English and Japanese, and the subway officials are very good at grabbing laminated maps and pointing out the correct locations. We haven’t gotten too lost – I think.

We did wander into the Yushukan Shrine – just 150 years old and dedicated to the war dead of Japan. There was a war relics museum on the site – but we just opted to clap our hands 3 times, toss a coin into the offering box, and make a quick prayer. It was a relaxing interval in an otherwise busy day.

But I digress. This blog is about our first 2 museums in Tokyo.

The Showa Memorial Museum was outstanding. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. While it definitely presents a bit of a white-washed view of what life in Japan during and shortly after WWII was like – it was absolutely fascinating – and featured a free (and extremely well worth it) audio guide in English. The museum itself is just a collection of objects and photos dating from that time period – mostly taken in Tokyo – but the slice of life that is represented is interesting, meaningful, and intriguing. My personal highlight was the rising sun lunchbox. Those who have read “Memoirs of a Geshia” might recall her mentioning it. It was amazing to actually see one.

I also found the sections on how schools were impacted intriguing. At first of course – the changes were made to encourage nationalism – textbooks rewritten to praise the Emperor and to inspire children to become good soldiers. As time went on, the need for children to want to be soldiers became more and more intense, and the schools were told point blank to work towards that direction. Eventually the need for factory workers because even more important than the need for soldiers – and school kids were taught how to operate machines. Towards the end, as more and more children were evacuated from Tokyo, the school system shut down.

After the war ended, and the children returned to Tokyo to find most school buildings destroyed or at least severely damaged. Classes resumed – but outdoors or in layered time periods as less damaged schools were used by multiple classes. Eventually textbooks went back to standard formats – but for a while they were only available in heavily censored 1940 versions. Growing up in this time period – which corresponds to when I was growing up – must have been very challenging.

Another section dealt with what happened to the War Widows. At first they were considered war heroes and given a pension. But when the war ended – that changed drastically. Widows were no longer heroes, they no longer got a pension, and many of them had no career training. Life for them was intensely challenging, simple survival because almost impossible.

All in all – the museum was well worth the visit.

A bit dryer, we now had to walk to our next port of call – the Momat – The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. To get from the Showa to the Momat required us to walk past a lovely garden – but given the rain – we opted not to spend time there. We also strolled past the Nippon Budokan – a huge sports center that today was hosting a K-Pop concert. The crowds were considerable – and clearly out for a great time.

Following my open door policy (if a door is open – go in) – we also wandered into the East Imperial Palace Garden – which was having a free admission day. This is the grounds of the original Edo Palace – dating from the time of the Shogun, and while today it is just a lovely garden, at one time must have been a magnificent collection of buildings and flowering paths that the Imperial Court wandered at their leisure.

But eventually we made it to the Momat. After the highlight of the Showa, I must admit that the Momat was very disappointing. I found that given the wealth of Tokyo, and the intriguing public art that surrounds us as we wander the streets of the city, I absolutely expected more – a lot more – of the Momat. The price however was right – it was free to seniors over 65 – and worth exactly what we paid for it. At least we were dry.

So one winner – one loser – and wet feet. The story of our 2nd day in Tokyo.

For dinner we opted to eat in – Fresh Udon Noodles and Fried Boneless Chicken Breast. It was actually quite acceptable as a meal. About half way thru dinner – the guests that I thought spoke no English joined us – and to our surprise the young guy (Trung) spoke excellent English. His friend Anne spoke only Vietnamese and Japanese (Right – only 2 languages… sigh) We had a completely delightfully fun evening getting to know them.

They are from Vietnam, but are currently living here in Japan. Trung (27) is a student in the north of Japan, and is studying Japanese methods of Site preservation. He intends to go back to Vietnam and work there preserving the shrines and other religious sites that abound – and absolutely need preservation. We asked about getting the funds needed to do such work – and he assured us that religious sites have little trouble raising money – at their hearts the Vietnamese are quite religious.

Our conversation was wide ranging – from concerns about aging (another blog) to more political topics. – Trung told us about the Japanese law that restricts building habitation to just 25 years. According to him – and I want to confirm this somehow – After 25 years, homes (I’m guessing new construction only, or perhaps homes that are built quickly – not apartment buildings) are declared uninhabitable and must be torn down and rebuilt. He says that the law was written shortly after the end of WWII – and is based on the fact that there are earthquakes every 10 seconds in Japan. Most are very Mild ones I’m guessing since I haven’t felt any since we’ve been here. Which is a good thing. Anyway – Many homes are built of cheap materials – put up quickly – and just as quickly fall into ruin. He told us that 20% of the homes in Tokyo are currently condemned and thus vacant. And we have seen vacant homes that have clearly fallen on hard times. Even the home we are staying in was in ruins before the current owner (the grand-daughter of the original owner) rebuilt it in 2015. And she has the pictures to prove it.

He also spent quite some time discussing the current history of Vietnam, giving us an interesting if to our minds one sided and clearly a school taught view of the situation leading up to the US involvement. He felt strongly that life in Vietnam was much improved at present – I can only hope he’s right.

Eventually we toddled off to bed. I wore not only my nightgown, but also a long sleeved turtle neck and socks. I’m not getting cold tonight.

Tomorrow is another day.

The Soup lady and the Intrepid traveler – signing off.

Why don’t folks go to the Theatre?


Not a trivial question is it. Why do you go to the Theatre? Do you go to the Theatre? And before you say yes too quickly – when was the last time you were in a legitimate Theatre – one with live actors and a real audience. Not on line, not a movie. A Theatre.

This question was asked – and the gal who asked it tried to answer it – at a ‘Chat Up’ at my local Theatre company. The price for the ‘Chat Up’ was right by the way – it was free, it was on Sunday starting at noon, there were comfortable seats – and they supplied coffee and biscotti. So while not a feast – it was an interesting hour and a half. And full. Because it turns out that both of the performances that afternoon – ‘Shoplifters’ and ’27’ were sold out.

The ‘Chat Up’ was a live interview between the Editor in Chief of the Gazette (arguably Montreal’s top English Newspapers) and a Francophone Professor of Social Media from the University of Montreal. The Professor also was involved in getting folks from the Eastern side of Montreal to come to the theatre – and briefly argued that they don’t come because they are afraid that their clothes aren’t good enough.

I beg to differ here. I don’t think the issue is clothing. I wear jeans everywhere, to the Opera, to the Theatre, to fancy restaurants, and I’ve never been turned away. I’ve seen folks in all manner of dress at the Theatre’s that the Intrepid Traveler and I frequent – and no one has ever been turned away there either. I don’t think it’s the dress code – because there isn’t one!

I think folks don’t go to the ‘legitimate Theatre’ because they can’t see how it’s relevant to their lives. It’s perceived as expensive, it’s seen as potentially boring, and it’s not always marketed as well as more ‘crowd pleasing’ options like the Cirque, Football, Soccer matches, or even Tennis. Shopping centres have done a better job of marketing than Theatres (Other than Place Des Arts) here in Montreal have done. And the ‘fringe’ events – which are often seriously cheap and quite entertaining, often have no marketing at all. If you don’t get their emails, and keep your eyes open for brief mentions here and there – the productions come and go before most folks have a chance to react!

This said – this weekend I was at two different theatre events – a production of the ‘new’ Opera 27 about the life of Gertrude Stein, and of course ‘Shoplifters’ – the play that was the nominal topic of the ‘Chat Up’. I had brought my 11 year old grand-daughter with me to see the play, and even though this was a 2:00 PM show on Sunday – when bringing young adults would seem a reasonable choice, my grand-daughter was the only person under the age of 30 there.

So one anecdotal observation that might address the basic question would be – kids are not being exposed to the Theatre. Whose fault is that? Are parents not bringing their kids because they are too busy themselves to come? Because they don’t know if the kids will like the play and don’t want to have to put up with fidgeting kids? Because they can’t afford it? I paid full price for my grand-daughter – a not insignificant investment to be honest. And a lot more than the cost of taking her to a movie, or to a swimming pool, or to even a bowling alley (do they even still exist?).

But I suspect that money is not the only explanation. I’ve often offered my children free tickets to the theatre – but unless it’s a musical and clearly on a topic of interest – they are unlikely to accept. Even my telling them that this play is a must see probably won’t bring them out. This despite the fact that my grand-daughter asked if she could go see it again! I’m of half a mind to arrange that for her. If I can’t change the opinions of my kids – can I make things better for my grandkids? I hope so.

I am blessed by my friendship with the Intrepid Traveler. She will go to theatre at the drop of a hat – and is my frequent companion. And far to often it’s her that spots the options – and invites me than the other way around. But my attempts to get other folks to join us generally falls flat. Even the offer of free tickets and a free ride down and back (I get it – night travel can be scary for seniors) hasn’t gotten them to budge.

I ran into the same issue on the bridge cruise. All the ‘shows’ were free – but attempts to get folks to join me at Mamma Mia or the Comedy Shows were rebuffed. Maybe it’s me?

My buddies opted to stay in their cabins – they wouldn’t go for free, dress on a ship is irrelevant – trust me – so that’s not an excuse, and these were not mentally challenging theatre options. So why won’t people go? It’s not the price, it’s not the dress code – what is it?

Why do thousands of folks play bridge on line, and not show up at play?

And what can I, one lonely senior trying her best to keep live theatre alive, to do about it.

Another scary statistic – 40% of folks in Quebec live alone. I’d think getting out of the house would be a huge priority – and yet – they are definitely not coming out to the live Theatre.

Musing in solitaire – the Soup Lady.

Kingston – a pit stop on the road to Toronto


I’m on the road today. Leaving Kingston by train for Toronto. My sisters are flying in to Toronto this morning too. It’s my 70th Birthday – and we are meeting up at the UP station near the train station to spend a ‘sister”s’ weekend celebrating that milestone.

I’m hoping there’s a waiting room or somewhere to sit at the UP Station. I can’t remember for the life of me. But I’m sure I’ll work it out.

I came to Kingston from Montreal by train on Tuesday – to play bridge. They are having a Regional Competition this week, and I’m squeezing in two days of bridge before my birthday celebrations in Toronto. My trip here was uneventful. I arrived early at the train station in Kingston, which is located in the middle of basically nothing but forest/farm land. A local bus driver, with help from two of the other passengers, determined my best bet to get to the St. Lawerence College was to take the slow and winding 16 route. At least I don’t have to change buses, and I get a free tour of downtown Kingston. I also get to chat up some of the locals – who for reasons I do not understand decide to share their medical histories with me. To you both – I hope you feel better soon!

Soon enough I”m at the college, and a young student (he’s a grad student, so not that young, but it’s in comparison) walks me to the door to the residences so I can drop off my small suitcase. He also points out the food court, and the gym where we’ll be playing bridge.

The College is one very long, very narrow building on two floors that is probably the result of joining several smaller buildings into one at some point in it’s history. It’s relatively modern looking, and has most of the expected facilities – non-gender toilets, white boards in all classrooms, and signs. Lots and lots of signs. There’s a cooking school (the student restaurant isn’t open for the summer, but I did see signs of a class being held), a vet school (complete with a furry quick stop, and even a weight room. Recycling here is big – and there are 4 different sorting bins – including one just for coffee cups.

And it’s clean. And relatively empty being that it’s summer and while there are classes – the population is clearly reduced from what it must be during ‘term’. But I”m not here for school – I’m here for bridge!

And Kingston for bridge was interesting. I met some very nice people and saw a lot of the same faces from Toronto Regionals. My PUP (pick up partner) was ‘The Independent Lady’ – 73 years young and very very interesting. She’s been married 4 times – has 2 sons from two different husbands – and is very independent today. I admire this of course, but do not envy her at all! I kinda like my cozy married life of almost 48 years.. But she was a very decent partner – we had our ups and downs on Tuesday, but on Wednesday we put our acts together – and did very well. We came in first in our section in the Gold Rush (yeah!!) and even finished in the top 4 in a side game against some pretty impressive competition. I was very pleased.

Last night we decided to share a 3/4 bottle of red wine after the night game, and went up to the lounge on her floor of the college residence. There were others bridge players there – and we chatted and drank and practiced yoga (yes – someone has the pictures to prove that) until after midnight.

We agreed to try to get together again – like me she travels a lot and lacks a consistent partner. We shall see how that works out. She’s not as good as Fern (the gal I went on the cruise with), although she has more master points. While she’s been playing for a long time, she’s still open to new ideas about defence – what I think is the most crucial part of the game. Everyone can learn conventions – but 50% of the time you are on defence – and that makes or breaks your scoring.

I think there’s a definite problem with folks that have been playing for too many years and are willing to teach, but not so willing to learn – they are sure that they know what they know – whereas I’m sure of what I don’t know.

On the subject of college residences… Well, they haven’t changed much since my Tufts University days in 1966-1970. I honestly felt transported back to that single room I had my senior year. The only difference – they have put bathrooms inside the rooms – so no sharing the toilet. But otherwise – it was identical. My bed was the upper part of a bunk bed that had been split, so a metal frame that was a good 25” above the floor. I had to hoist myself up to get in! I had a single window on one wall – which at least could open. The sheets and bed covering were thread bare and had been washed a zillion times. Same for the towels. The closet had no hangers, so I had to just dump my jackets on the floor, or hang them on the back of the only chair in the room.

On the first night – I was so so cold. I didn’t realize that the thing that looked like an AC on the wall was also a heater. I got up in the middle of the night, walked the long long walk to ‘reception’, and asked for a blanket. (I was already sleeping in my sweat shirt, and wearing socks). She kindly gave me a nice cuddly blanket, and explained how to make the heater work. Finally – I was warm enough to sleep!

Last night I asked for better towels – and that too was provided. So I had a nice warm shower before bed – very nice. Maybe I should have had more water to drink though… Wine tends to give me a bit of a headache, and this morning I feel a bit hungover. But two cups of latte at Via Rail’s expense and a warm breakfast makes for a good pick-me up!

We are playing bridge in the University Gym, and the nearest bathroom is clearly the Woman’s locker room. Two tiny toilets – and the biggest shower space I’ve seen in years. No barriers, no curtains, no separations. I know, guys are not surprised, but for women, we tend to shower in our own space – not in huge open spaces with multiple shower heads. And it smelled horrid. Ah well – I guess Gyms are Gyms.. What was I expecting? Marriott? Not hardly.

Food at the residences was also interesting. I was staying at St. Lawerence College, not Queens. I mention this because it was a bit of a distance from ‘downtown’ Kingston, and the closest food was the ‘food court/cafeteria’ of the college. To get to any restaurant required a healthy walk, or a car. Good news – The Independent Lady had a car. Bad news – the restaurants were Tim Hortons, Subway, and a local Sushi Joint.

The food at the cafeteria was actually excellent – I ate lunch there both days – and it was quite acceptable. But they close at 4:00 PM – And the afternoon bridge game finished at 5:30. So you couldn’t go there for dinner!

The first night – we drove over to Tim Horton’s. The Lady had poutine (seriously?), and I ordered from the Sushi place. It was ok, but too much food, so I carefully took part back to my dorm room and put in the fridge.

The second night we opted to eat at the Residences. The Lady munched on some of my grapes and some cookies I”d taken from Via Rail on my trip into Kingston, I ate most of the remains of my sushi. Not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination.

The company however was stellar. We were sitting outside, and were joined by a young man who is studing to be a Correctional Officier. He was adorable – cute, young, very very strong, and very articulate. He was born in Corsovo (sp?), and had immigrated to Canada while very young. He felt that the Canadian Federal Government had saved his life, and wanted to return the favour by working for them.

We chatted and chatted. He explained that the program is 3 months long, and a new ‘course’ starts every week during the summer, with 30 new trainees. If you finish the program, you are guaranteed a job. But getting into the program is the challenge. Thousands apply, few are accepted! They weight train for an hour every day, the rest of the time is filled with courses and lectures and more physical training. It was an eye-opening look at what kinds of decisions young people make today – and it was very interesting discussing how he felt our prision system is managed.

This morning on my way out to get my taxi to the train station, I saw a large group all dressed in their uniforms heading out to start their day. Man, they looked fit and ready for action.

Yes – both women and men if that was the next question.

One of his reasons for making what I can only think is a odd career choice is that the comarderie among the folks who work/manage the prision system is so intense – something he really wanted. He had done a few weeks in a prison prior to committing to the training program, and had experienced an inmate uprising. This made him want to be part of the system even more.

He also told us that folks can retire from the system after 15 years – young enough to easily get another job where their excellent training make it easy to get hired. His original, and I think final, goal is to be a policeman. This is an inbetween stop. But a long one if it’s a 15 year committement.

One of the interesting things about meeting new folks who are so different from what you normally meet is the increasing odds that you’ll find something that relates them to your own life. And so it was not surprising that this morning I was reading the paper waiting for the train, and ran across a review of the play that my sisters and I bought tickets too in Toronto. Tiled “Out the Window”, it’s subject is police brutality!

Well, how’s that for a blending of fate.

In any case – that’s the news from KIngston. Next stop – Toronto.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Sintra – The Tourist Capital of Portugal


Up till now, our journey has been delightfully free of crowds – but that changes drastically when we arrive in Sintra.

There are bus loads of tourists everywhere! And the sizes of the tiny streets are just not up to this kind of congestion. In an attempt to deal with the onslaught, the city fathers have made almost all the streets of Sintra one way – and driving thru the maze of city streets packed with cars, tourists, and the occasional local is daunting.

Victor does a wonderful job of it however, and we manage not to get divorced en-route. I can’t say that we escaped without a bit of yelling at each other – including my finally screaming – JUST PARK THERE!

Our resting place is a legal, albeit heading the wrong way space, quite close in fact to the National Palace of Sintra, our destination. Victor’s hip (not the artificial one) has been bothering him this trip – and I’m sensitive to the fact that walking up and down hills isn’t comfortable for him. So I’m thrilled we found a parking spot that won’t require miles of hiking, and more than will to pay the price for it – if we can find a parking meter!

We search right and left for something that explains how to pay for parking, and finally decide that maybe it’s not required. Strange, but I’m willing to believe anything some mornings.

Fortunately, our walk to the castle takes us right by a meter – and they don’t need your space ID – they need your license #. Whew! We took a picture of the back of the car early on, thinking we might need this number – and are prepared. 5 Euros later – we’ve paid for our parking spot. What a relief.

Parking paid for, we walk to the main square – predictably packed with tourists. I’m both starving and dying for a toilet stop, so we pick the nearest restaurant (expensive, very pretty, and not very good) and empty one end and fill the other. Rest stop over, we are ready to visit the Palace.

We’ve been warned that the crowds here can translate into insane waits to get in, and poor visiting conditions, but luck is with us. We’ve managed to catch a break between tour groups and bus loads, and sneak in with no hitches, and no crowds.

The Palace is a stunner. Built by the Kings of Portugal after visiting the Alhambra in Spain, it has moorish influence, and has seen countless renovations. There’s a free audio tour, and senior pricing. We’re happy.

The highlight of the tour, for me in any case, was being in the room where Columbus was given his commission to find a path to India, and where Vasco Da Gama returned to announce to King Manual I that he had found the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to India and back. Wow – history happened right here…

I’m glad we came to Sintra, but I total understand why some folks have given us conflicted reports. The mobs are daunting, and we are not even in high season. I can not imagine what this place will be like in just a few weeks. But for now I’ve seen it – done it – Don’t have to come back.

Our plan for the rest of the day is to navigate our way into Lisbon (Lisboa for those in the know – like the Portuguese) and park the car. Tomorrow we are going to return the car and be done with it. And I for one will say good riddance. Cars are nice to have, but getting lost isn’t any fun, and we’ve had our parking challenges. So all in all, I shall be happy to return it to Europcar.

And for once, our plan actually works. Our directions to the AirBnB are easy to follow, and while it’s on the slope of a hill (Not good for Victor’s hip issues), it’s quite lovely.

Occupying two floors, we walk in to a hall, dodge around a staircase to squeeze past the bathroom to another hall and the bedroom. Our bedroom has a massive window overlooking the garden below and from there out to distant buildings and eventually the ocean. There’s even an orange tree to admire. Down stairs is the kitchen (kinda old and crummy – but all we really wanted it has – a fridge and a clothes Washer (heaven..)). The main room has a dining table (perfect for Victor to use with his computer), and a comfy sofa. Outside of sliding glass doors that take up the entire width of the apartment (about 12 feet – max) is a tiny garden with a paved floor and several plants. It’s sunny, and the birds are having a blast. It’s perfect.

For dinner we go to the near by Journalist Club, one of the top restaurants in Lisboa, and certainly interesting if not overwhelming. After dinner it’s a short walk down hill back to our tiny palace. It’s late (of course) and it’s bed time. I’m out like a light. Give me a good bed and an open window – I’m a happy camper.

Signing off to get a good nights rest – finally – The Soup Lady

Averio – the Venice of Portugal


Well – not quite. But they do try! There are definitely Canals – and what look like Gondolas if Gondolas were much larger, had much brighter paint jobs, and the Gondoliers wore T-Shirts.

But leaving the comparison to Venice aside – I kinda liked Averio. It’s very touristy = and the side walks are rather hard to navigate between the undulating terrain and the mobs of people, but the canals are definitely pretty. I liked the jovial atmosphere and particularly liked the buskers (we saw a group of actors doing a pirate imitation that got the kids really excited, and one of the best living statues I’ve ever seen – it was a woman with a baby carriage dressed as a Victorian lady – and very cool).

We stayed in a lovely hotel – The Averio Palace, located right on the ‘Grand’ Canal. We ate an over-the-top dinner that while not overwhelming, was at least a better value than the one we tried in Porto, and we managed to even tour the old convent/museum. Altogether it was a nice over-night.

It was getting to Averio that proved complicated! I’m not sure what it is about our two – count’m two GPS systems – but neither is being all that easy to use.

Our first GPS system is my cell phone – and the issue with using it is two fold. First off – it costs Data Plan, and I don’t have unlimited Data here in Europe. So I have to use the trick my daughter taught me – you turn on Data, download the directions, and immediately turn off the data. This works great – unless you make a wrong turn. Then of course you are in big trouble. There’s no re-routing ability – and by the time you turn back on your data and request your destination again – you are seriously lost.

How lost became very obvious when we spent an hour driving back roads (one lane, unpaved) thru what looked to be endless forest in search of the former and quite famous convent in Arouca.

We did manage to find it eventually – but not without a great deal of yelling at each other – and the phone!

Our 2nd GPS is a Garmin. And in theory should be better than the phone since it is constantly hooked into the GPS system, no data plan needed.

The issue with the Garmin is that often it just can’t find a place. Case in point – that convent. Which is why we were using my phone in the first place.

But never mind our GPS issues – we did manage to leave Porto with little problem. I must admit that I loved our Air BnB booking – it was a one bedroom apartment on the 2nd floor of a condo building. There was an elevator – our one and only elevator in Portugal as it turns out – a tiny kitchen area, a nice sized living room, a bathroom that required my husband to sit sideways on the toilet to have room for his knees – and a perfect location.

It definitely provide that old real estate maxim – The 3 most important things in buy real estate? Location, location, location!

After a lovely breakfast at our local coffee house (only 4 days – and they greeted us as old friends) we headed south. Our first stop was the castle at Santa Maria de Feira. It is really a castle – exactly like one would expect from the Middle Ages – complete with curving stone stair cases, a great room, and a long involved history. My husband loved it. Our 2nd stop was the afore mentioned convent – which was not only almost impossible to find – was a bit of a disaster as far a visit went.

We arrived in Arouca, and after finding parking (always daunting in these tiny towns) we opted for an extremely locals only dining experience. Mom in the Kitchen, Dad acting as waiter -and when folks arrived who spoke only English – the 20 some Son showing up to help out! He had to check with Mom to find out what was on the menu – we had a choice of steak or veal stew – a local speciality. And I must say – both were delicious. We shared a bottle of wine, and throughly enjoyed ourselves. A good thing given what happened at the convent.

After lunch, we walked to the convent ticket office – where a sign clearly stated – opens at 14:00 (that’s 2:00 PM). No worries, we’ll wander for 5 minutes and be back. We wander, get back – and get told that the ‘tour’ won’t start till 2:30 PM. What is the point of opening at 2:00 if the only way to see the convent (by tour guide) is only happening at 2:30? But never mind – we wait the 30 minutes – to be told, there’s a group coming, they are short staff – and could we please wait till 3:00? Sigh – I drove for almost 2 hours to get here – I’ll wait. So, we wait. Only to discover when the group finally arrives that it is huge – 2 full bus loads. That’s it. I’m not touring a convent with 60 folks who speak only Portuguese. So we tell the gal running the ticket booth – forget it – we’re leaving.

She takes pity on us – and says – I’ll open the doors – tour by yourselves. So she does, we do – and we admire the outstanding work done in the choir stalls for the nuns, the huge kitchen, and the fabulously over the top altar pieces that make up the wealth of this former convent.

From there it’s back on winding roads to Averio, a quick walk around the canals, dinner and bed.

Tomorrow we are going to Coimbra – home of the largest university in Portugal.

But for now – it’s enough.

Signing off to get some much needed shut-eye – The Soup Lady