Kimonos in Kyoto


If you are coming to Japan to see ladies (and men) in Kimono – then let me recommend Kyoto. We’ve seen hundreds of folks wearing Kimono – not all of whom are geisha – or for that matter – normally wearing Kimono!

It turns out that there is a very large industry here in Kyoto in Kimono Rental. For anywhere from $15 to $30 a day, you too can be dressed in Kimono, complete with hair ornaments and proper sandals. They even provide tabi socks and proper hand bags. These places advertise madly – and not just in the Gion area where you might expect it. We spotted Kimono Rentals near the train station and near several of the major shrines. There was even one near Nijo Castle.

So how to tell a ‘faux’ kimono wearing young woman or man, from the real McCoy?

Dead give-always include speaking Chinese not Japanese. Or wearing sneakers. Sometimes you can spot leggings or pants under the kimono – that’s another sure sign it’s a faux Geisha.

Hairstyle is often another sign that the gal wearing a kimono is actually a tourist, although many orientals have long hair, and the kimono rental places do a good job of getting the hair up, and the hair ornaments in place. So that’s not probably the best sign.

If you spot an iphone – particularly one being used to snap ‘selfies’ – it’s a faux.

Overly bright colours are also a give-away – the gals that we’ve deemed as real tend to the more conservative styles and colours – those fluorescent reds, pinks, violets and oranges are often the choice of young ladies who want to look flashy – not necessarily like wearing a kimono is natural to them.

As for the men – we’ve spotted men in Kimono that look incredibly dapper and well dressed. They hold themselves erect, and walk with purpose. Often they are older gentleman – who we’re guessing either are extremely conservative, or feel that wearing a Kimono sets them apart. Whatever – they do look very smart!

The ‘faux’ male atire is often cotton, wrapped poorly around the guy – and almost certainly on a guy accompanied by a female faux geisha. I’m guessing there was some arm twisting involved. In any case, very few of these guys look like they are comfortable – and certainly one wouldn’t describe them as dapper. Often they look like they are wearing bathrobes – not even nice ones either.

There is another dead giveaway – but this required looking at the way the Obi is tied in the back. There is a cheap trick to getting that fancy knot on the back of the Obi – it is a separate piece of fabric, tied in a bow, and then fastened to a metal hook. The hook slides in the obi folds, creating what appears to be a bow tied in the sash. But it’s a fake. And if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot.

The older the person wearing the kimono, the more likely it is that the kimono is real. I spotted older women gossiping on a street corner – and I’ll bet those kimono were real. On the other hand 3 young ladies giggling madly over ice cream are not serious about their kimono.

Last but not least – look for folks wearing Kimono that are doing things that a tourist wouldn’t be doing. For example, I saw one gal pushing a bicycle. I’m pretty sure her kimono was real, just because what tourist would even think of pushing a bike wearing one!

In the 6 days we’ve been in Kyoto – and the countless times we’ve ridden a bus thru the streets of Gion, I’ve only spotted one gal that I am pretty certain actually was a Geisha. Why? Because her hair was in the traditional style, her kimono was a very conservative cut and design, her posture was comfortable but not silly and she looked like she knew how to walk in her shoes.

Desperate to see more true Geisha, I went at twilight to Pontocho Alley – and found my self face to face with three different Apprentice Geisha – looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of a history book! I was so shocked – I didn’t take pictures! Silly me. But they were very cool, and very in a hurry to get where they were going.

Overall, I’ve spotted lots of woman that I’m sure were wearing Kimono because it was comfortable and attractive – some of them were attending a festival at one of the shrines we visited, and were invited into the inner sanctum, others were in the stands at the Aoi Festival, but looked comfortable, not stilly, and still others were just riding the bus or visiting a museum or a garden with us.

So while you are far more likely to spot faux kimono wearing tourist than real kimono wearing ladies and gentleman, if you know what to look for – at least you can be sure when you are lucky enough to see the real thing.

And a lovely thing it is!

Signing off the visit more temples and shrines – there appearing to be no end to these in Kyoto – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

A Find of a place to Stay in Kyoto


We are in love with our lodgings in Kyoto.

Seriously – this place is awesome. I found it on Air BnB – and my husband will be relieved to know I didn’t have to meet the owner under a bridge at midnight to get the key.

The Gottingen (strange name – I know) is really more of a very tiny hotel than a real Air BnB lodging. But despite that, it’s adorable. The host is a lovely gentleman named Peng – who while not the owner, is effectively here 24/7. I’m hoping he gets some time off, but I’ve never known him not to be either at the front desk, or available thru the intercom.

The Gottingen is located in a very residential area of Kyoto (we love being in residential areas) to the West of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and just North of Nijo Castle. Even better it’s right near 3 grocery stores – one huge, one medium sized, and the third is a more fruit based smaller store. There are restaurants within easy strolling distance, and we are right on a long thin walking pathway along what used to be a river running thru the city.

And there are 4 different bus routes that go almost past our door – so you can really get almost anywhere you want to in Kyoto without much walking. I’m a very happy camper.

Our room is on the ground floor – so no dragging our carry-on’s up a flight (or two) of stairs, and our room has 2 twin beds and a sleep sofa. It even features it’s own bathroom – no sharing.

The bathroom has actually two spaces. A toilet and sink space (yes – one of those bidet toilets that the Japanese love so much), and a ‘bath’ space.

The ‘bath’ space is actually a shower and a bath tub combined, in the old Japanese style. The shower head swivels out so you can shower standing on the self-draining floor, or swivels in so you can use it in the bath tub. The tub is one of these short deep jobs, so you can in fact get in a soak if needed.

There is a lovely kitchen area right at the front door, so while we are preparing our meals we are also greeting our fellow travellers. There have been several Chinese groups coming and going while we have been here – since we are just 2 hours from Shanghai, it’s an easy 2 day, 1 night trip. But the guests that we tend to chat up, and who are staying longer in Kyoto are the westerners. There’s a couple with their 2 year old son from Germany, two Polish Women, and a couple from Italy. I think the newest arrivals are Spanish- it’s hard to say for sure since they just nodded as they walked quickly by on the their way out for dinner.

We get fresh towels every other day (a pleasure compared to our lodging in Tokyo where we never got fresh towels during our entire 9 day stay), and the place is spotlessly clean.

So – great host, clean space, lots of room (no dresser – but I don’t think the Japanese do dressers), our own bathroom, and a lovely quiet location with folks walking by on their way home – what more could we ask for!

Oh yes – and it’s within our modest budget – just $60 a night total, or $30 per person.

We are happy campers.

Signing off – The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady

Loving Kyoto


Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is civilized, friendly, and easy to navigate. Not that it is easy to navigate, just that its a whole lot easier than Tokyo.

And Kyoto is cheaper. We’ve been running under $10 for lunch, and under $20 for dinner – including either Saki or Wine. How are we doing this – ah ha! We cheat.

Lunch is often at a restaurant, where we’ll share one meal between us. It is just lunch after all. And our new lodgings have a lovely kitchen and dining area. Perfect for cooking in. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Putting together meals from a combination of ready to eat stuff from the grocery store, and stuff we have to microwave or the Intrepid Traveller works her magic and cooks.

Tonight we’re having Edamame for tea time, followed by a mixed Tempura Appetizer and then dinner will be Wine, Rice with a raw egg and a tempura shrimp and onion pie, and mixed cooked vegetables. We even decided on a lovely Caramel thing (we hope it’s Caramel – it’s smelled like Caramel) for dessert. Yum.

Kyoto has been an amazing city to visit. I had pre-organized trips to 3 of the restricted Imperial Palaces – only to discover that they aren’t that restricted – you just need to reserve. Good thing too because I blew it on the dates for 2 of the 3. But I digress. The 3 restricted places we are going are the Sento Imperial Palace, The Katsura Imperial Villa, and the Shugakuin Imperial Villas.

Back 25 years ago, all three of these were only available on guided tours, pre-reserved, by foreigners from outside of Japan. No Japanese was able to see them. Boy have things changed in 25 years. Today there is an office of the Imperial Household Agency located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and all anyone, Japanese or Foreign must do is go to the desk and ask about available spaces. If there is space available – you are in!

Because I totally mucked up the dates, this proved to be a godsend. We first toured the Sento Palace and Gardens. This palace is still in use today by the Emperor and his family when they visit Kyoto. Our audio guides explained that the palace has been completely remodeled inside – this means carpets and western furniture. I’m wondering about toilets of course – but I suspect that’s understood to have been done.

Most of the tour consider of viewing the absolutely stunning garden. I want a garden like this. Even a little bit of garden like this. Of course there were 4 gardeners in one tree alone when we were there… so maybe the labor to maintain the garden would be well out of my price range, but still. It was magnificent. And right in downtown Kyoto. I do not understand why it’s not booked solid, but I think the whole – go to the Imperial Household Agency requirement puts people off. In any case – you are alone in the garden, you can pause to reflect and take pictures… it’s wonderful.

Our second tour was the Shugakuin Imperial Villas – and I think they were my favourites. Again – no lines, no crowds, no rushing you thru. And the tickets are free – my kind of price point.

There are actually 3 villas included on the tour – and to me the highlight was how close we could get to the villas. And all the shoji screens were open – so you could see thru to the magnificent views that they were created to showcase. Wandering paths, tinkling water falls, random bridges, glorious plantings, and magnificent moss gardens were there to be savoured. I loved it.

The bad news about the Shugakuin, ignoring my mixup of the dates, is its distance from Kyoto. We had to take a subway and a bus – and then walk. Naturally we got lost on the walk, so a 15 minute walk took 30 minutes – but we did eventually arrive at the Villas. Totally worth it. And the way back to Kyoto proper was much much faster – one bus ride and we were downtown enjoying ‘Kid’s Day’ at one of the major parks.

What a hoot and a half that was. The theme of the ‘fair’ was kid safety – and they had police cars for kids to climb in, big construction equipment that they could push buttons on, a Virtual Reality game that taught you to stop before you hit pedestrians, and a series of the most adorable bike riding courses.

For older kids, there was a biking maze set out with safety cones and policeman signalling directions. For younger kids unable to actually ride a bike, they had those push bikes. Kids mounted them, then either went around in a circle collecting rings from organizers standing on the outside of the circle, or – this was the best part – on a signal they got off the bikes and used special gloves to pop bubbles that the organizers were creating in the zillions.

We loved it and so did the kids.

Today we tried for the Katsura Imperial Villa – but again a date mix-up happened and we discovered it was closed. But all was not lost – we ended up at the Kyoto Aquarium. This is a completely marvellous aquarium, complete with a dolphin show, a seal show that had the young trainers bringing the seals out among the crowd, and a Penguin show. The stunner of the place was right at the entrance. You walk across a virtual tide-pool that ripples under your feet – revealing Giant Japanese Salamanders. These are roughly the size of a 4 year old child – and they are meat eaters. And they are native to the Kamo river that runs thru Kyoto.

I’m so not swimming in that river.

These things are huge – with enormous teeth and extremely ugly. Yuk!

Another highlight was the jellyfish exhibit – all black light and glowing jellyfish floating around in huge tanks.

Speaking of huge tanks – there is a ‘Sea of Kyoto’ Tank that contains Manta Rays, Sharks, and a school of small fish that numbered in the several hundreds. I’m thinking these fish might be the dinner for the seals – but as a school, they created wonderful balls and funnels and odd shapes.

We watched as one of the organizers suited up and dove into the tank – and fed both the fish and the manta rays. I’ve never seen a manta ray eat before – so this was very cool. They have mouths on the bottom, and create a vacuum that sucks any food that passes by into their jaws. So the diver just released the tidbit, and the manta did the rest. It was very cool to watch.

On the way back home, we decided to visit one of Kyoto’s most famous Temples – the Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkaku-Ji). We’d been warned that it was a mob scene – and figured that hitting the place in the late afternoon might have thinned out the crowds a bit. I think it did to be honest – we were able to get photographs of the Pavilion without having to wait our turn. But compared to the serenity of the other gardens – this place was decidedly unpleasant. I got hit a few times by other tourists trying to get past me in a hurry – one wonders what was the rush, and the number of souvenir stands made it feel tawdry. Worse – we had to pay for the privilege of going in.

Well – I suppose it’s one of the must do things here in Kyoto – but I’m basically glad we crossed it off our list.

We still have a lot more to see and do here in Kyoto – including seeing the Aoi Matsuri Parade, so I’ll be reporting on Kyoto again in a few days.

Meanwhile – I’m the Soup Lady – signing off to help the Intrepid Traveller prepare our dinner. (That means I pour the wine and set the table – she cleverly does the rest).

The road to Koyasan is long – but the Journey is worth it!


I first visited Koyasan (Mt. Koya) with my husband at least 20 years ago, and fell in love with it, so I dearly wanted to show it off to the Intrepid Traveler.

She kindly agreed – so I booked us a Monastery stay for 2 nights and off we went.

The trip from Tokyo to Koyasan is not an easy one – there are subways to take, trains to catch, more subways to use, more trains to catch, and finally a funicular, a bus, and a walk. But in this case, the destination is worth the travel headaches to get there.

Koyasan was established as a place of Buddhist teaching and worship back in 816. Yes – well over 1200 years ago. And it’s been going strong ever since. Everyone in Japan wants to be buried there – and if they can’t – to at least have a monument erected in their honour. It is a place of pilgrimage and for many – a place of power. Certainly it is difficult to describe how unique the feeling of being in Koyasan is – even to the totally uninitiated

Our Monastery – the Yochi-in – was probably the least expensive place to stay in Koyasan – mostly because there were no private toilets. All the washing and bathing areas are still shared, and this keeps the prices low. But that said, we absolutely loved it. The facility is huge, and only a small part of it is devoted to paying guests. We dined on special vegetarian meals in a communal dining area, and prayed together every morning at 6:30. There were sutra copying exercises on offer, and you could pay a bit more and have all the facilities of a proper ryokan – in-room massages, wine or saki with dinner, etc. Being budget travellers – we took the simplest options – but they were wonderful.

Our room was huge, and lovely – yes our beds were futons on the floor, but we had a private balcony with western chairs and a small table overlooking a lovely garden. Quite a change from our lodging in Tokyo. And we loved meeting all the other guests at dinner and breakfast. There were folks from Italy, Holland, Australia, Spain, and France, along with Japanese pilgrims as well.

We had all come for the same reasons – to walk the absolutely stunning graveyard, to pay our respects at the Temple where the founder of Koyasan, the Buddhist Monk Kodo Dashi, is lying in eternal meditation, and to feel the power of what is a completely marvellous place.

In addition to the main highlights, the Intrepid Traveler and I found time to tour the World Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. This is home to the largest Rock Garden in Japan, and a set of sliding doors used to separate the various rooms from each other that were painted by a master in and around 1000 years ago. They are stunning – and worth contemplating for hours – which of course is what they were designed for.

One of our highlights however was a very small temple off the Main Street that told the story of a man and his son who spent 40 years as monks in this very temple, without the father ever letting the son know of their relationship. He did this to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism – in the denial of self. The story – one of infidelity and the results of that action – was told in a series of wood carvings. Our favourite was the one that shows the wife and the mistress playing an innocent board game while their long black hair has become fighting snakes. Naturally the husband is looking on – and decides it would be best for all if he left to become a Monk.

Eventually, his son by the mistress comes looking for him, but at that point, he’s been a Buddhist for so long, he refuses to identify with his former self, and tells the child that his father had died. When the son returns to Koyasan having discovered his mother has also died and he is now an orphan, it’s too late to undo the white lie, and thus father and son spend 40 years together, without the son ever knowing that his mentor is his actual father.

I know – weird story. But very Japanese I think. And the wood carvings were magnificent.

We loved this visit to Koyasan as much as I loved my last visit – and I will try to return once more. It is a very special kind of place.

Signing off on their way to Kyoto – and a much less relaxed pace – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Tokyo Subway Primer – It’s not as hard as it looks


A city of 10 Million (1/4 of the entire population of Canada) like Tokyo needs a proper subway system. And boy, does Tokyo have subways.

In fact – there are 3 major companies that run subways under, around, and in some cases above the city. So getting from point A to point B can generally be done several ways – and making a decision about which line, and what route is often a question of price vs speed.

I’ve been using the iphone app maps.me to help me get around – although to be honest, it’s more useful if I’m walking than if I’m on the subway. To use the subway, I must rely on quick reading, and slow walking!

To avoid feeling like a salmon swimming up stream among the bears – walk on the left! And that goes double for riding an escalator. This is not something I’m good at either. My natural tendency is to walk on the right – and I get bumped a lot. No wonder the Japanese think we’re awkward. We keep getting in their way because we walk on the wrong side of – well – everything.

But back to subways – The least expensive in general is the ‘Tokyo Metro System” There’s English on the signs at all the stations, and many of the stations are new. The Ginza line is currently undergoing renovation – so it has the most stations that are a challenge to navigate. The other lines are in much better condition. There are public toilets at all stations (so clean you could eat off the floors), there are well indicated elevators, and most staircases also have an escalator if not two. Clearly this is my favorite system. I particularly like their 24 hour pass – at 600 Yen, it makes sense if you are taking 3 trips or more in the next 24 hours – and that’s pretty easy to do.

The next more expensive is the Toei System – which has 4 lines. This system duplicates a lot of the Tokyo Metro System, and you can buy tickets that allow you to change from one to the other – for a price. We were standing at a station in the Toei System – and the price to go to Ikebukuro was 400 Yen. But if we walked to the nearby station that was part of the Tokyo Metro system, the price to Ikebukuro dropped to 170 Yen. A significant difference. But effectively, unless you realize you are using the subway lines of a different company, you can’t tell when switching from Toei system to Tokyo Metro system.

A note on switching lines. Even within one system – say the Tokyo Metro System – the distances from one line to the other line, officially in the same station, can easily be 250 m or more – that’s pretty far to navigate in a crowded environment. So the better if more time consuming plan is to try not to change lines if possible.

The third system, and my least favourite by far, is the JR Line. Yes – that’s the same company that runs the long distance travel and sells those rail passes. They run a subway system within the city that makes a giant circle with one line that goes out into the islands nearby. It’s not the cheap option, but if you want to go to Tokyo Disneyland, or even out to the Sea Life Park – you will find yourself on these lines. The lines are old, the elevators tiny, and there seemed to only be escalators on rare occasions, and always going the wrong way. Not a winner.

Given this complexity – it shouldn’t be a surprise that each line sells it’s own tickets. And each line sells tickets that will work on the competitors lines (no idea how that works financially), but they won’t sell the discount ticket options that include the competitors.

Now, the nice thing about the ticket machines is that they all have a language button that allows you to pick English. Some just offer English or Japanese – others offer several languages – I’m thinking one might be Chinese. Whatever – English is always an option.

Once in the English option, it’s of course easier to use the machine. And all the machines I saw offered a search by destination station name and often by destination station number. And I have to say – knowing your destination station number is a huge advantage! It’s just one letter for the line, followed by a station number. So rather than remember Ikebukuro- you can remember Y09, F09, or M25. Since you can reach Ikebukuro by 3 different Tokyo Metro lines (Y, F, or M) , as well as it being a stop on the JR line it can be confusing. But still, if you know your station name, and it’s number – that’s a huge help.

Another help when getting around by subway is to realize that most stations have signs every few feet, visible from the metro car, that give you the station name (in English and Japanese), the name of the next station in either direction (both languages) and the station numbers. This make it easy to track your progress thru the system when traveling. And there are announcements – again in both languages giving the next station name and connecting information. The problem is that the way Japanese say the names, even in English, isn’t the way we’d phonetically pronounce them. So it’s a better idea to watch the monitors! Much less confusing.

As for navigating the stations – that can be a nightmare. If you hit a station during rush hour, or even just during a busy time (lunch say), the rapidly moving crowds are daunting, truly daunting. And it is easy to get really confused and turned around. In a station like Ikebukuro there are probably several hundred different stores, not to mention 3 huge department stores and cute pop-up shops as well. Signs are everywhere – pointing you correctly to the destinations, and even giving the distances to the destination, but still – I’ve gotten really lost.

One time I ended up in what can only be called ‘Shopping Hell’. It was a sub-basement of a department store with no apparent way out and the only clothes on sale were size 0 to 3. It was mobbed with young Japanese women, and between the throngs, the garish displays, the flashing signs, and the bowing sales people – it was seriously overwhelming. I think they were as confused as why we were there as we were to be there.

My next piece of advice – learn to hug walls. The Japanese have learned this, and know that putting your back to a wall is the safest option when in a crowded environment. Near the toilets it’s not unusual to see 10 to 15 men all lined up along the wall – waiting we assume for their sig other to exit the ladies room. We learned the hard way that stopping in your tracks in the middle of a passage is a recipe for disaster. At tbe least you are going to get bumped – and I’m not so sure that you wouldn’t get trampled!

And my last piece of advice, and one I gave earlier – walk slowly. If you keep moving, even slowly, the crowds will part around you. And by walking slowly you have the time to visually identify and read the signs. They are extremely well written – giving not only the line, but often several key destinations, so if you are moving slowly, and know where you want to go, you can get there.

Bottom line – the Tokyo Metro System, in all it’s complexity, is a thing of beauty. Use it – Enjoy it – but do it slowly and on the left. Let the folks that know where they are headed flow by – take your time and you too can enjoy the voyage.

Signing off to do more traveling on the Subways of Tokyo – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Musings on the Dawn of a new Era


When we were planing our trip – one of the key days that we wanted to be in Japan was May 1, 2019. On the day before the old Emperor was formally abdicating the throne, in favour of his son. And on May 1st – the new Emperor was to be crowned. This would mark the beginning of the Reiwa Era of Japan.

It’s a key moment in history. Nothing like this has happened in Japan for over 200 years – and the planning for this was begun over 5 years ago.

So We were keen to see what, if anything, the Japanese would make of this moment.

And the answer is perhaps not surprising.

Not much is visible to the eyes of a foreigner.

Some Museums honoured the transition by having a free museum day – we went to 2 of them in hopes of there being some kind of something – but nope. Just perhaps more Japanese than normal taking advantage of the opportunity to see their National Museum, but hardly earth shattering impact.

There was a crowd gathered at the automobile exit from the Imperial Palace, we assume in hopes of spotting one of the 2600 invited dignitaries. And there appeared to us to be a bit more of a police presence. Certainly seeing 3 of those big police moving vans was a tad daunting. And there were two helicopters circling the Imperial City air space – I’m guessing either as protection or loaded with news cameras. In the US – it would be news cameras – but in Japan – I’m betting on protection.

And there was a much, much later crowd gathered at the Nippon Budokan – that sports center/music venue. But that crowd of young Japanese women buying fan items for their newest ‘hot’ idol was definitely not thinking of the new era.

So – not much to report I suppose. But at least we were here – and we had a marvellous dinner with the son of the Intrepid Traveler. Which was made more delightful after the challenges of trying to find him in the Ikebukuro Train Station. We’d agreed to ‘text’ each other our locations – but hadn’t figured on the lack of WIFI. I need WIFI to use texting here in Japan – I couldn’t afford a data plan.

After asking several restaurants and tea houses if they had WIFI, I finally decided that the safest bet were the restaurants on the 8th floor of the Seibu Department store. And I was right – they had a public WIFI, and I was able to contact my friend’s son. Whew!

Our dinner, during which the dawning of the new era in Japan was not mentioned – even once – we relaxed and enjoyed completely delicious meat slices cooked quickly over a grill. My favourite – no surprise – the Wagu Beef.

So all in all a lovely day – if not the earth shattering one we’d hoped.

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Day 1 – The Adventure begins in Narita


The Intrepid Traveler and I are off on another of our adventures. This time we’ve chosen Japan. I know that the idea of a budget trip to Japan seems completely crazy – and I admit to being concerned – Japan is hardly considered budget traveler friendly – but here we are.

To make a budget trip these days of raising costs, no travel agents, and internet reservations requires not only confidence, but also a fair bit of bravery. The Intrepid Traveler comments here that Stupidity probably helps too. Not for us the well known brands – the closest we are going to get to a Hilton, a Marriott, or even a Comfort Inn is going to be the bathrooms!

So for the past 6 months I’ve been scouring Air BnB to find the right combination of price, location, availability, and facilities to meet our needs. We want to stay under $50 a night per person for lodging, and to be honest, it’s better for our budget if we run at around $25 a night per person. Canadian. And we want places that are close to public transit, walking distance to main sights, and highly recommended. We know from past trips that having access to a Kitchen is critical for keeping costs down, so that’s high on our list of need to have. We also enjoy meeting people, so a place that has more than just us as guests is automatically given a higher priority.

We do not need a private bathroom, although it’s preferred. And we can handle stairs – as long as it is not a 6 floor walk-up like we got hit with in Russia.

As all trips must – we started in Montreal by getting on an airplane. The lowest cost option was to break our flight in Dallas – so we flew first to Texas to enjoy some BBQ, then got on our flight to Narita.

To our amazement, the economy section was empty. I mean like – empty. I had a full row of 4 seats to myself, and the Intrepid Traveler, who is shorter than I am, took a row of 3 for herself. She was able to put her back against the side of the plane, and stretch her legs completely out.

Service was blisteringly fast. There was a full crew for about 1/3 the normal number of economy guests – so the crew could literally race down the aisles.

Interesting to note – the tiny section of ‘Option Plus’ was full – not an empty seat. So we were far more comfortable in budget economy. And on a 13 hour flight – you definitely want to be able to stretch out. I chatted with some of the attendants – and they told me this was a rare fluke. The flights out of Japan this week are over-booked. So they too were relaxing a bit before the hard work of the return trip began.

We arrived in Japan feeling, while not 100% – not completely 0% either. I’d booked what I’d hoped was a proper hotel (the APA Hotel in Narita) for our first night, knowing that after getting off that flight I wasn’t going to be able to cope with complex navigation problems. It is the most expensive place we will be staying – at a whopping $118 Canadian a night – but I figured I wasn’t going to be up to handling language challenges after the flight.

And I was right. On the booking confirmation were the times and location of the free shuttle from the airport to our chosen Palace – and while the line for check-in was surprisingly long, after about 45 minutes we were given the keys to our ‘Small Double Room with Bath and Breakfast Included’.

Small doesn’t really describe our room. It has all the essentials squeezed into the smallest possible space. The room is a rectangle – barely twice the width of the door. Actually – I think it is less than twice the width of the door.

There is a double bed that fills most of the space, with a desk featuring a 55″ TV that takes up all the rest. You can’t walk straight down the space between the desk and the bed – you must slide down sideways.

There is absolutely no closet, no drawers, no storage of any kind. The tea kettle is on the floor under the desk, and there are 2 mugs on a shelf. The required bathrobes – generally provided at all Japanese hotels – were on the bed along with the ‘Ruses for using the public bath’. There were 2 hangers on hooks in the space opposite the bathroom door. When we put our door key card in a slot, the electricity went on, and lights glowed, a most welcome sight.

The bathroom was almost as large as the bed. And was fully equipped with a 1/2 size deep soaking tub, a sink and a proper Japanese toilet with bidet functions. That said – the toilets in the Airport had bidet functions! This is Japan – proper toilets are a must.

Our first challenge was to just slide open the floor to ceiling drapes that covered the far wall of the room. I always like to see the view, and I prefer ‘real’ light. I think I might have been the first guest to do so, the dust from moving the drapes was considerable. But never mind, I found a shelf – and that was perfect for putting my purse. And our view was acceptable – over the center of Narita towards a forest of trees.

Our next challenge was to locate the light switches for the bathroom. Ok – I know – they should be near the door to the toilet – at least they would be in Canada. But diligent searching found no trace of a switch near the bathroom door. No switch on the outside of the bathroom, nor on the inside of the bathroom. Where could they be hidden? Diligent switching on and off of all switches in the room finally identified them. They were above the bed!

Also above the bed was a built-in clock radio and room control unit. Labels were in Japanese and English (thank goodness) or we’d have never figured things out. All the light switches for the room were on this unit – except the bathroom and ‘hall’ lights. Those were independent switches. The ‘hall’ switch was right near the door – it’s only the bathroom switch that proved a bit odd. And the knob on the radio (it might not be a radio actually – I can’t see a tuner) controlled the night light.

Being really good friends, the Intrepid Traveler and I worked out how to get our clothes out of our suitcases (a challenge when there isn’t enough room to put our tiny carry out bags sideways to open them), and got into bed.

I’m going to sleep – and deal with my lack of time zone correctness in the morning. Which explains why I’m blogging at 2:00 AM Japanese time!

On the bus ride here we spotted Cherry Blossoms – and the promising buds of flowers of all kinds. Tomorrow will be another travel day – we have to get to our lodging in Tokyo, but once there and settled in – we can begin exploring Japan.

Signing off to go back to bed…

The Soup Lady

Travel by Train is so – elegant!


I adore traveling by train. There is something about trains in Canada that is both glorious, relaxing, stunningly beautiful – and elegant. I’m reminded of times gone by when life was lived at a slower pace. When we had time to smell the roses, admire the deer peeking out from among the bushes near the tracks, spot birds – large and small – hidden in trees, and glaze in wonder at the remarkable countryside that is Canada.

Or at least the part of Canada that lies along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Toronto.

I”m traveling business class – which is roughly the same price as economy air – and totally enjoying the morning out my window of the train. I’ve been welcomed with a smile and ‘can I help you’, been given a quite nice breakfast with lots of hot coffee, and am now just watching the scenery go by.

There is the predictable evidence of severe flooding out my window. This is standard in the ‘lowlands’ in the spring – as the ice and snow melt, and the ground remains frozen below that, there is no where for the water to go. And I suppose that the farmers whose fields I am flying past are well accustomed to this yearly ritual. The rivers are also in ‘flood’ mode – filled to their high banks by water that has to get to the ocean. I’ve never understood why folks persist in buying houses that yearly are in damaged of flooding – but perhaps high risk is it’s own form of adrenaline.

The route from Montreal to Toronto – by train – goes thru low gorges cut into the rocks, and as we near Toronto, will actually run along side the St. Lawrence itself. There are hiking/biking/walking trails visible when we are near towns – but right now I”m in the middle of the ‘wilds’ of Upper Canada. Not actually ‘Upper’ of course – but that’s what they called this part of Canada before they knew just how upper Canada really goes.

My purpose in taking this trip (as differentiated from my reason) is to participate in a Regional Bridge Tournament in Toronto. I actually have a friend from Alabama who drove 4 days to meet and play with me in Toronto. I really hope that I don’t disappoint her! My Reason however was to enjoy the elegance of train travel.

I do love being on the train. Canada is a remarkably clean country, as viewed thru train windows. In comparison to what we saw from the train in South Africa – we are spotless. Even homes that might be considered worthy of a de-clutter are clean and neat in comparison to the horrors I saw out of the train windows going from Pretoria to Cape town. We here in Canada really have no idea how blessed we are.

But back to the elegance of train travel. There is something – well – Harry Pottersque about this trip. I feel like I’m heading to a new adventure – and that getting there is half the thrill. A gaggle of wild Turkeys just fled from our noisy passing, and I’ve seen plenty of Canada Geese stopping over on their way further North. And there was a deer grazing in the bushes near the tracks that watched our passing with suspicion. I haven’t spotted any Eagles yet, but there have been Hawks sitting proudly on top of trees with they eyes searching for rabbits or mice stupid enough to make a dash for it out of their burrows.

And we pass homes and condos and Solar Fields aplenty. This part of Canada varies from the barely cultivated to the intensely inhabited. As we are now approaching Kingston, the ratio between untamed and highly cultivated and well built is moving towards the inhabited. I”m reminded of train trips I took in England where everywhere was highly inhabited – and there was no ‘untamed’ left. This isn’t the truth in Canada of course. While real estate values skyrocket in the ‘cities’ – in the countryside one can still imagine land being given away from basically free.

I do wonder about the lack of Blue Hoses. For those who don’t know – blue hoses are the way Maple Sap is pulled from Maple trees these days – suctioned to the Sugar Houses, then boiled to create that signature Quebec Product – Maple Syrup. But along this section of Canada there is a distinct lack of Maple Groves. I suppose a person more knowledgeable about these things than I could explain it. I’m guessing we’re talking a climate difference that makes the area around Montreal prime Maple country – and keeps the Maple trees at bay here in Southern Ontario.

The train whistle blows, a train going the other way flies past, the other passengers chat – and time slowly passes. Soon enough we will be in Toronto, but meanwhile I’m going to relax and let the world pass me by.

Signing off – 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

The Saroche – Luxury has a price!


I’m aboard the 39 meter (127 foot) long barge – the Saroche. And I honestly – I’ve think I’ve landed in the lap of luxury.

The service on the barge is so personal, and so fast that I’m reminded of Goldie Hawn’s line when her butler brings her Cavier in the film ‘Overboard’, “Thank goodness, I almost had to wait”.

This is definitely not your budget holiday trip, but then sometimes it’s fun to be different. We opted for this cruise for several reasons, and it is interesting how close and yet not close it came to matching our expectations.

I should start by explaining that this is not really a cruise. It’s really a barge trip down a series of canals in the Champagne Region of France – the Marne Valley to be exact. And where our expectations and the reality have diverged is really in the Champagne Touring. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The Saroche is an absolutely lovely boat – low and long, she was purpose built to be a ‘hotel’ barge, and while her history diverted from that at times, it is her basic design. The front of the barge, under the deck where there sits a large Hot Tub, a dining area, and a lounge area, are just three staterooms. This is a trip for a max of 6 passengers – and with 4 crew, it’s easy to imagine why the service is so completely personal. And we are just 4 passengers – one of the couples had to cancel at the last moment, leaving Jason, our host, unable to fill that slot.

Our cabins are glorious. Dawn and Jason spent last winter completely remodeling the cabins – and they now reflect the Art Deco/Art Nouveau theme that Dawn thought would be appealing. Light wood, poster art from 1930, and huge beds and equally large bathrooms make the cabins a haven. I’m particularly fond of the shower in the our bathroom – it has both a rain shower and a hand shower, and plenty of nice hot water. Perfect.

The main cabin, which has the spiral staircase to the upper deck, a large lounge area with a full open bar, two sofas, and a game/library cabinet is quite comfortable. The focus however is on the dining area. Here Dawn with the help of the crew (Sarah, Luther, and occasionally Jason) serves up delightful 4 course meals for lunch and dinner. I’ve never eaten so well, or so often, in my life! Wine glasses are never allowed to be empty, and once they figure out your preference (I love hot water if the weather is nippy), they are fast to be sure that your need is met, before you even have time to think about needing it. “I almost had to wait…”

There is simply nothing that I can say about the food that wouldn’t sound like I’d been drinking the Koolaide. It is outstanding. Jason does his very best to match the food with wines from Vineyards in France, but with less absolute success. His pairings tend to be young wines, and their lack of maturity is often a flaw. But this is a minor quibble. This cruise is not about fine wines (albeit that there were some outstanding wines opened and enjoyed) – it’s about knowledgeable pairings – and in that Jason excels.

The cheese courses are a case in marvellous point. We have a cheese course twice a day for 6 days. And Jason does not repeat a cheese. I will admit that there were cheeses that I could die for (the Comte he served us was the best I’ve ever had), and cheeses I didn’t try (I’m not keen on the Blue Cheeses, and I can’t eat cheese made with goat’s milk, it makes my throat swell), but all in all, the cheese course and the wine pairings that with them were legendary.

Jason did promise us a list of the cheeses and wines – I’m sure it will come by email in a few days – but even holding a list I doubt I could duplicate the experience. The kitchen has a built-in cheese store, so that they are served at the right temperatures – something that has always given me trouble at home.

Each night finds us moored at a different location along the Marne Valley Canal system, enjoying a late dinner. Each morning finds us either moving at a snail’s pace down a canal or through a lock, or sometimes taking a day trip into the surrounding area.

While I loved the relaxed pace of the cruises – not really a snail’s pace as much as a walking pace – it was the side trips that I found truly interesting.

We visited a little known battlefield from World War I – La Main de Massiges. This labyrinth of trenches laid buried for years until it was unearthed and an association started (only in 2008) to keep it open, accessible, and properly signed. For an in-depth description of the place (in French – sorry) – do click here. Our visit was made even more interesting by about 20 WWI re-enactors who were there to film a movie about the involvement of soldiers from the Czech Republic. It was unworldly to walk thru the trenches, knowing that just around any corner one might run into soldiers doing their level best to be period correct.

For me, as much as I dislike visiting battlefields in general, this visit was a highlight.

Another outstanding exploration was to the Eisenhower War Rooms – a small museum in Reims that was the actual site where the treaty ending WWII was signed. It was signed again the next day in Berlin because the Russians wanted it to be officially signed there – but here in this tiny room, in this now lovely town – but at the time heavily bombed battlefield – the treaty was signed. It is hard not to find the room strangely inspiring, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the then movers and shakers gathering to end the war.

I also loved the visit to chocolatier Thibault. It’s a lot of fun to make praline filled chocolate champagne corks – although the very best part was the wrapping machine. I’m such a techy! I really loved the tasting as well – there’s is simply nothing wrong with chocolate – particularly good chocolate.

Bottom line – I loved aspects of our cruise. I enjoyed the company of our new friends, I totally relaxed in the hot tub in the afternoons as the glorious scenery glided by, and I ate way to well, and way to much. I think for me, a week of ‘relaxing’ is too long. I was itching to get going again, but that’s a personal problem. And I definitely think that Dawn, Jason, and their crew deliver on their promise – you are indeed in the lap of luxury for a week.

Signing off to enjoy Museum Night in Paris – Muse d’Orsey here I come! The Soup Lady.