Let’s Go Somewhere

Brett and I are in the beginning stages of planning for next year’s BIG Mystery Adventure,™ even though our departure date is months away, more than a year really. Right now we’re primarily in saving mode, as well as losing-weight-and-getting-in-shape mode, but we’ve got a basic itinerary in place, and I’ve begun the research process, which of course has me in my happy place. As always, my ultimate goal will be to put a solid foundation in place for our trip without choreographing every minute we’re on the road, all while staying within our budget.

The steps the planning is taking are the ones we’ve honed over the years:

  1. Where do we want to go? You might think it’s easy to pick a travel destination, but not always. There are lots of places Brett and I want to visit, in the U.S. and all over the world, and we have our family in Japan that we want to see (fairly) regularly. So, we usually start with a list of places to go, talk about them, both pros and cons, and then whittle down the list until we have a destination. Sometimes we can agree and decide quickly, other times it takes us a while longer. Then, once we know where we want to go, and when, we can start figuring out how much we need to save. We always come up with a Plan B too.
  2. How much will it cost to get there (and back)? The next step is to start figuring out how much it will cost us to get to our destination. Even if a trip is more than a year away, I start checking out airfares to get a general idea of what I can expect in the way of prices. I also spend a bit of time reviewing airlines to make sure they have a good reputation for service and safety. Right now there’s just about no amount of savings that would get me to book with United (which I’ve always tried to avoid anyway). If possible, we always try to add an additional amount to our budget to upgrade seats.
  3. How much will it cost to stay there? At the same time I’m looking at transportation, I start thinking about lodging. Do we want to stay in a hotel? A B&B? An Airbnb or VRBO rental? Where we’ll stay will depend on how long we’ll be at a particular location, or whether we’ll be moving around. It usually costs much less to stay at a vacation rental than paying for a hotel room every night, but sometimes the hotel amenities and location can make it worth it to pay more. The New Sanno Hotel in Tokyo was more affordable, and in a better location for us than a Tokyo Airbnb, and a stay at the El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon had been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, so that’s where I booked for our trip there last year. The El Tovar cost more than other lodging there, but was worth every penny for the location and the amenities. I love looking through Airbnb though, imagining what it would be like to stay in the different homes.
  4. How much will it cost to eat while we’re there? This is one of the most difficult parts of planning, at least when it comes to figuring out our budget. Will we be able to prepare some meals on our own or will we need to have all of them prepared for us? Are there menus we can check ahead of time? Restaurants and dishes we might want to try while we’re at our destination are included in this part of the planning, and help us eventually come up with a reasonable daily amount for meals.
  5. What do we want to do while we’re there? This is an area of the planning where Brett and I work together. We have different interests, but plan together what to do while we’re someplace. Are there unique or special activities at our destination (like our mule ride at the Grand Canyon)? Are there must-see sights or museums? Are there activities we might want to do on our own or will we do everything together? Are there tours we might want to take? Do we need to make plans for our “down time” or does it look like we will head to our lodging every evening and fall right into bed? We read guidebooks, travelogues and blogs, and eventually come up with a list of things we might want to see and do while we’re at our destination (as well as what they might cost, if anything).
  6. How will we get around at our destination? All things considered, this part of the planning is fairly easy, but still needs to be figured out for the budget. Will we need a rental car? For how long? The Costco Travel site has car rental prices a fairly long way into the future so that I can get an idea of how much we will need to set aside for that expense. For some places, Japan for example, we have to get ourselves from the airport to our lodging by train or bus, but will otherwise be walking or using public transportation, and those expenses need to be considered as well. There are loads of sites now where you can find out exactly how much public transportation will cost, no matter where you’re going (or if there even is any public transportation).

Also, I always try to remember to:

  • Stay flexible, and adjust plans as necessary. Our first choice isn’t always the best choice, and we don’t have to see or try to do everything.
  • Read and find out as much as I can about our destination. Knowledge is power.
  • Keep looking for ways to save while we’re there.
  • Figure out exactly what we will need. This includes luggage, clothing and shoes, camera, and electronics, as well as whether or not we’ll need travel insurance, how we’ll access funds while we’re on the road, and how we’ll communicate with other family members.

Planning travel can be exciting, but also can feel overwhelming at times. I know though that eventually everything falls into place, and a good foundation, along with knowledge about our destination and a sense of adventure, means we’re going to have a terrific trip!

Build a Better Staycation

Staycation (noun, informal): a vacation spent in one’s home country or state rather than abroad, or one spent at home, possibly involving day trips to local attractions.

For many, just the word staycation sounds dull, dull, dull. While I personally wouldn’t put a vacation in your home country in the staycation category, I also believe that staycations can be anything but dull. When a week at a tropical resort or a cross-country road trip or a visit overseas is unaffordable, there are still plenty of ways to make a staying close to home something more than lawn chairs in the backyard.

There are basically three ways to staycation:

  1. Stay at home.
  2. Stay someplace in your community, overnight or even for a couple of days if possible.
  3. Visit/stay somewhere within your state, or within a day’s driving distance of your house.

None of the above is any worse or better than the others, and how you choose to staycation will depend on your budget or what’s available locally.

It’s still a staycation if you and your family or spouse or whoever get in the car and drive over to someplace different in the state or even in the next state over. All those camping trips we took in Oregon for so many years count as staycations. We loaded up our car, headed south for four hours, and for very little money our family was in a new and different environment, with different things to see, do and eat. Every one of those trips was a welcome respite from our usual routine. Same for the Thanksgiving weekends we sometimes spent out on the Oregon coast at family friendly lodges, or at a friend’s beach house. Even Brett and my overnight stays at fancy hotels that we sometimes did for our anniversaries counted as staycations.

One of our favorite staycation memories involved a Portland B&B that Brett and I visited for a quick getaway when our son was in high school. It was affordable, but close enough that we could get home quickly if our son needed anything. The room Brett and I reserved was lovely, and had a working fireplace. The owner brought us a compressed log, and told us it would burn out in a couple of hours or less. So, we lit what we thought would be a short, cozy little fire but the log would not go out. We spent most of the night wide awake, watching shadows from the flames flicker and dance across the ceiling of our room. We got a lovely surprise in the morning though when we went down for breakfast: our favorite antique dealer in Japan just happened to be visiting Portland and just happened to be staying at the same B&B, so along with an amazing breakfast we got to have a lovely catch-up and chat with him. All our bad feelings about the ever-burning log were (almost) erased.

If you can’t get away or travel for a vacation, there are lots of ways to make even a vacation at home special, fun and even memorable. Here are some ideas for building a better staycation, from Real Simple magazine:

  • Tune out the outside world: Stop the paper, the mail, don’t read email, and don’t check the news. In fact, turn off your computer and put it away if you can. Turn off the ringer on your phone, and pick one time each day to check your calls. Don’t return calls from anyone but family. Hide all the alarm clocks. Be on vacation.
  • Have someone else do it: Order out or go out for dinner every evening, even if it’s just for burgers or pizza. If you’re the family cook, tell the family you’re on vacation for the week, and make sure there are easy options for everyone to grab for breakfast and lunch, or have other family members do the cooking and clean-up. Hire someone to come in for a day and clean your house. Set up childcare or overnight swaps with friends or neighbors so that adults get some “alone time” (they watch your kids while you’re on vacation, you watch theirs later).
  • Create a vacation mood: This can be as simple as putting out Dollar Store tea lights in your backyard in the evening during the summer, or playing “vacation” music, maybe from a different country or culture, or a different style of music than you typically listen to (i.e. beach or country music). Throw away your usual schedule – do things when you feel like it, including getting up in the morning.
  • Have fun: Create your own film festival during your time off. Set up a tent in the backyard and camp, or at least let your kids camp for the week. Go on a reading binge. Make one day “Games Day” with your kids, or have a Bathing Suits Only Day in the summer – water balloons or super soakers, anyone? Visit somewhere different in your town every day: amusement or water parks, museums, bakeries, local tours, etc. Try out geocaching.
  • Relax: Give yourself or your spouse a “spa day,” with an aromatherapy soak in your tub, and hydrate yourself all day with cool water flavored with lemon, orange or cucumber. Hire a massage therapist that makes house calls. Create a yoga retreat in your living room one day.
  • Enjoy some luxury hotel amenities: Have someone else deliver you breakfast in bed – you can rotate this service among family members – make sure there’s a flower on the tray. If it’s not too hot, pamper yourself with a plush cotton terry robe. You can buy it new for your staycation, and enjoy it for the rest of year, or even years later. Same for indulging in some high thread-count sheets and pillowcases. Buy some expensive chocolates, and have someone else treat you to “turndown service” (another thing that could be rotated among family members.”

A staycation can be far more than just staying home for a week, even if all you can afford to do is stay home. Just because you can’t hop on a plane, or take a road trip, a vacation at home can be a wonderful, relaxing and memorable experience.

Brett and I will be taking a quick Kaua’i staycation this coming weekend to celebrate our anniversary (which was last month, right after we got home from Japan). We’re looking forward to having some local “down time,” and being able to take advantage of our hotel’s location and amenities, even if it’s just for one night. We’ll also be trying out the restaurant a couple of doors down the highway for the first time, and enjoying its delicious offerings and ocean views.

Finding the Right Suitcase

Brett and I haven’t owned a big suitcase since our trip to China to adopt YaYu in 2005, but we will both need to check bags for next year’s Big Mystery Adventure™ – it’s going to be more than a “carry-on only” sort of trip. We will also need to check bags when we begin our three-month Japan stays in 2019. We bought Meiling a giant suitcase as one of her high school graduation presents (from Costco), and big and medium rolling duffels for WenYu for college, but otherwise we are in the dark about what we each want and need.

So, lately we have been reading articles about what to look for when buying a bag that will be checked, and the features we each want in a suitcase.

Both Brett and I like the Delsey Helium Aero suitcases, and they’re highly recommended if you’re wanting a hardside bag.

  • Laura: I am leaning toward a soft-side bag, and would consider a big rolling duffel, just because of the amount you can get into them. They are usually lighter than a hard-side suitcase, although modern materials are changing that up. Still, a bag that’s heavy before you start packing is going to be too heavy by the time you finish. But, a hard-sided case saved me from disaster back in 1999, on the adoption trip to get WenYu. One of our Samsonite suitcases fell out of the back of our taxi on the way from the Hong Kong airport to our hotel, and a bus ran over it! Everything inside survived though, which is why I’m willing to consider a hard-sided bag, although it’s not my first choice.
  • Brett: My design perspective on the ideal bag requires a perfectly plumb, seamless interior, for maximum packing/storage space, and a durable, impact resistant exterior with no sharp edges or corners. But….. what to do about all that wasted space between the rectangular interior and smoothed cubic exterior, without adding weight? Steamer trunk or duffel/the lady or the tiger? I haven’t shopped yet, but instinct tells me I’m also going to settle on soft-side luggage.
  • Laura: The things I know I do want, even in a soft-sided bag, are spinner wheels (because they make moving the suitcase around easier on my back, shoulder and arms), loads of inside space, and a bright color, so it’s easy to find at baggage claim. Durability will be key though – if I go with soft side I’m going to be looking for fabric that’s waterproof, stainproof and tearproof. I also want a metal zipper and TSA-approved locks. One big downside to a hard-side bag, for me anyway, is that I might have to get additional bags to carry small items, or wet items, etc. because soft-side bags typically have additional pouches built into them that can be used for these types of items. My Hong Kong suitcase experience showed me a soft-side bag is not as safe for any breakable items – if that bag had been a soft-side most everything inside would have been toast.
  • Brett: Chiefly because I won’t be looking at my checked luggage at length, I have no aesthetic preferences. Just about any finish or color will be perfect so long as it has a grip or handle that doesn’t cause pain. My only other concern is the noise generated by locomotion: less than 70db, no audible screams, no “What’s that noise; where is it coming from” reactions among nearby travelers.
  • Laura: My suitcase is also going to have to be something I can maneuver on my own along with a carry-on. While Brett will be there to help, he’ll have his own bags to wrangle. I will also be checking airline regulations for size and weight restrictions before I make my decision. Sixty-two inches (length+width+height) is a pretty standard limit for most airlines, but it may be too large for some. We could pay extra for oversize luggage, but I’d prefer it if we didn’t have to.
  • Brett: Yes, “Utility Man” will be on the job, BUT as Laura says, I’ll have my own luggage to shuffle along as well. On our last trip, last-minute shopping became so intense that I had to ask, “Who’s going to carry all that home?” My principal complaint about rolling duffels is they are almost too accommodating; that is, nearly infinitely expandable so that it’s easy to stuff them beyond one’s ability to move them, and secondarily, the corresponding lack of protection for fragile and/or heavy articles.

    The Travelpro Maxlite 4 line: It’s the brand that many in the travel industry use and recommend.

  • Laura: What bags am I leaning to? The TravelPro Maxlite 4 Spinner bag has shown up on several sites as one of the best brands for checked luggage, and the price is reasonable. The bag (either the 25″ or the 29″) has all the features I’m looking for, and gets great reviews, although many say the 29″ is very big, maybe too big. While TravelPro is a different brand than my carry-on (Samsonite), it would coordinate well enough without being matchy-matchy. I could live with it. I also like several of the rolling duffels from REI, and Eagle Creek duffels get good reviews but I’m not all that excited by them. For a hard-side bag I’ve been looking at the Delsey Helium Aero. It’s affordable, made from lightweight polycarbonate, and also comes in a variety of bright colors.

    The Granite Gear Reticu-lite line

  • Brett: Extremely undecided after looking at REI, their best deal dujour being the 34-inch Granite Gear Reticu-lite rolling which offers 170L capacity, but with dimensions at 66.5 inches it busts the 62-inch girth limitation. (If memory serves well it is not prudent to carry luggage that is both oversized and overweight.) Meanwhile, Amazon is featuring a terrific expandable hardside, 29-inch Delsey Helium Aero Expandable Spinner Trolley, which I like because it has a padded laptop sleeve with two web pouches for accessories in the top compartment (although I would never check my laptop). Unexpanded, the Delsey measures only 61 inches total girth (add 2-1/2 inches fully expanded), and it’s available in a variety of colors that I wouldn’t be shy to be seen around.

So, no decisions yet. This is something we will be working on over the next few months, although I read somewhere that a great time and place to look for reduced luggage prices is Cyber Monday, on Amazon. We can do that.

What We’ve Learned From Our Trip: The Ugly, The Bad & The Good

A trip to Japan always means lots of walking, which we actually enjoy. It really is the best way to get out and experience Tokyo. Unlike previous trips though, walking was not always easy for us, and turned out to be a real learning experience in both positive and not-so-positive ways:

The Ugly:

  • Both Brett and I are out of shape, much more than we realized. We’re both overweight, and in my case carrying around a few too many extra pounds caused my bursitis to act up from time to time. When I weigh less, it’s not an issue. We need to get more exercise than we do now so that we have more stamina no matter where we go. Brett’s going to start taking a walk on the beach path every morning, and I’m going to punch up my bike riding. When I get my weight down and the bursitis under control I’ll join Brett on the longer walks.
  • Long plane trips affect us more than in the past. Even with the more comfortable seats we booked for this trip, the long plane ride over affected my back somewhat, and Brett said it was hard on him too. Fortunately I knew what to do about my back this time to ward off major problems like I experienced last summer, but we realize it’s something that will always need to be considered going forward. Visiting Japan will always require a long flight, but we may have to consider breaking up other journeys into shorter sections, with a period of rest in between.

The Bad:

  • We need much, much better shoes for walking. The shoes we took with us this were not made for walking any distance, and we walked miles each day. Our feet more than let us know that we need better shoes. Before we do any more traveling we are both going to invest in some good-fitting, quality walking shoes.
  • Jet lag affects us more than it did in the past. We noticed it took us a bit longer to recover this time than it has in the past. We’re getting older, and don’t bounce back like we once did, so it’s something we’re going to have to consider for future trip and plans.

The Good:

  • We’re still open to adventure. We continue to enjoy trying new things and new foods, and going places and doing things we haven’t done before.
  • We’re still very good at packing just the right amount. We brought just the right amount of clothing: five days of outfits. Everything fit perfectly into our carry-on bags, with room for gifts coming over, and plenty of room for souvenirs going home.
  • We’re still flexible. We’ve been able to adjust our plans easily without throwing everything off, or feeling disappointed. We had an unexpected rainy day earlier in the week, but quickly changed our plans and had a wonderful time exploring the area around Tokyo Station (which was mostly covered) with our son and grandson instead of heading out on our own to a more distant part of the city as we had planned.
  • We’ve gotten even better at managing our travel funds. Lots of things catch our eye (and boy have they this trip), but we’ve been even better at telling ourselves no, that we don’t need something, and reminding ourselves that we’d much rather use our money for other things, like being able to splurge on our grandchildren, and do some special things for our son and daughter-in-law.

We won’t be traveling again for the rest of this year, and for at least half of next year, so we have time to get ourselves in better shape, plan an affordable flight schedule that works for us that includes some built-in rest periods, and find better shoes for walking!

It’s good to be home, but I can’t wait to go back!

The Walk To Our Son’s Condo

The New Sanno Hotel, where we’re staying while we’re here in Japan, is just a 15 minute walk from our son’s condo in the NishiAzabu neighborhood. We have two choices of how to get ourselves from the hotel to his place: a) turn right out of the front of the hotel and walk along a busy four-lane thoroughfare lined with shops, restaurants and other businesses, or b) turn left out of the hotel and then take the next left onto a narrow residential street that takes us the “back way.”

Both options are quintessentially Japanese, but we always choose the second one, and this is the walk we take each day.

While most of the area is residential, there are also a few businesses along the way. There are also several vending machines interspersed on the road, most selling either hot or cold drinks, or cigarettes.

The street is very clean. There is absolutely no trash, and the sidewalk is swept the entire way. Japanese are master recyclers, and on trash days bags are neatly set out in designated areas with each type of trash/recycling separated for pick up. If there is a large pile of trash, the bags are covered with netting so they don’t spill out into the street.

Occasionally we see an old house among the new. The land the house sits on is extremely valuable, worth millions of dollars. Building a new house would also cost millions, so the owners tend to hold on to their old house as long as possible and then sell the land to a developer.

More older-style homes, probably from the 1970s and 1980s, with a new high-rise condo going up in the background. Almost every house and condo has plantings in the front, or at least some potted plants.

We pass a small neighborhood Shinto shrine on the way. This is one of the things I love about Japan, finding a very traditional shrine or Buddhist temple mixed in with modern homes and condos. Local festivals and services are held at the shrine throughout the year.

Halfway to our son’s condo is the National Azabu supermarket. The neighborhood contains many embassies, so there are lots of foreigners living in the area, and National Azabu carries a wide selection of “foreign” foods, although you will pay dearly for them. A container of Fage yogurt that costs around $4 back in the U.S. is approximately $19 here, and a western-style beef roast, if you must have it, will cost you your firstborn.

A studio apartment in the neighborhood can start at $2000/month, and prices go up from there. Many of the apartments in the neighborhood are larger than a typical Japanese residence, to suit Western tastes, and have amenities like dishwashers, ranges with ovens and such, things not typically found in Japanese homes but that appeal to foreigners. We saw an ad for a 683 sq. foot 1-bedroom condo (new construction) that was selling for $1.25 million dollars!

A sculpture adorns a corner of an apartment building along the way.

Our son’s condo is just nine stories tall, but all units open into an inner courtyard, which is a feature our son and his wife wanted after the big earthquake in 2011. A mixture of foreigners and Japanese live in the building, and there is rarely ever a unit available for rent. An apartment/condo building will always have balconies; a commercial building won’t.

I have yet to go to any residence in Japan, whether it’s a house, condo, or high-rise apartment, that doesn’t have an intercom system used to announce your presence, whether you’re family or a tradesperson. Modern intercoms, like at our son’s condo, also have video capability, so you can see who is asking to be let in.

Everyone takes off their shoes in the genkan before stepping up into a Japanese home. When you take your shoes off, you turn them to point out so that all you have to do is slip them on to leave (we fail miserably at this). All homes have a spacious shoe closet built next to the genkan.

What no photo can capture is how safe the neighborhood is. Cars watch out for people walking. You can walk alone at night and not worry about being accosted. You can leave your umbrella or your bicycle outside a store and it will be there when you come out.

But Will It All Fit?

Gifts play an important role in Japanese culture, so any trip to Japan for us means taking gifts for family and others . . .  and in our case this usually means lots of gifts. However, Brett, YaYu and I will only each be taking a carry-on bag, and one additional bag for under-seat stowage (tote bag for me; backpacks for Brett and YaYu), so making sure everything fits and arrives in good condition will be a bit of a challenge.

Besides clothing for eleven days, here’s what we’ve got to fit into our luggage this time:

Gifts for our granddaughter: Two onesies, a Hawaiian-print sundress, some leggings, a stuffed hippo, a feeding set, and some ocean-themed blocks.

For our grandson: Star Wars Lego set (he’s obsessed with both right now), Star Wars Lego t-shirt, six boxes of macaroni & cheese, and two packages of tortillas (for quesadillas). Tortillas and mac & cheese are available in Japan, but are super expensive.

For our daughter-in-law, Kona coffee and Kaua’i made soap.

We’re giving our son some of his U.S. favorites that are unavailable in Japan. He especially loves anything chocolate & mint, and it’s hard if not impossible to find in Japan. We’ll also get him two to three cases of Diet Coke from the mini mart in the hotel while we’re there – you can’t buy it otherwise in Japan, and he loves it.

We’ll probably get together with our daughter-in-law’s parents, so we’re prepared with a small gift of Hawaiian items: Kona coffee, chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and Kaua’i-made cookies.

Because it’s so ridiculously expensive now to mail anything to Japan, we are taking along some of our granddaughter’s first birthday gift: eight board books, a birthday card and gift bag. We’ll buy a couple of other things while we’re there for them to put away until her birthday.

We’re also taking several gift bags, tissue paper and tape, and will assemble and wrap everything once we get to our hotel room. Presentation is important in Japan!

The big question as we start this week is whether we can get all of this to fit into our bags. I think we can – the only “big” items are the box of cereal and the Lego set. Brett is a master packer (and I’m no slouch), and I’m confident will find ways to squeeze everything in. We do have some Space Bags to use if we need them, but I’m hoping they won’t be needed.

Fingers crossed!

Road Tripping

I don’t think there’s any half-way about road trips. You either love them, or you don’t. Brett and I love them. Our children, not so much.

There are three ways to approach taking a road trip:

  1. Fill your gas tank, fill your wallet, hop in your car and see where the road takes you. I have friends who do this regularly and have had some pretty terrific trips.
  2. Do your research, make a plan, fill your gas tank, and go.
  3. A blend of #1 and #2.

You might think that with my love of planning we’d go with the second method, but Brett and my road trips were mostly a combination of #1 and #2. We had a destination, a deadline and a budget, but then we’d get in the car and go, stopping when we felt like it, and adjusting our route along the way.

“To hell with the plan, Margaret!”

Here are some tips for making your road trip a success:

  • Plan your route: One of the following three things will pretty much have the most effect on which direction your plans will take: destination, distance or budget. Once that’s figured out, then you can start thinking about what you want to see along the way. Are you a fan of historical site (says the girl whose parents stopped at every historical marker along our route)? Do you want to experience nature? Are there friends along the way you’d like to stop and see? After you decide what or who you want to visit, then it’s time to see if there is a logical route that can be taken, and how that route can be broken down into manageable driving segments. Knowing your route and stops along the way can help you plan how much gas you’ll need, and how much that will cost.
  • Find your lodging: Once you know the location where you’ll be stopping for the night, then you can figure out the place where you want to spend the night. This is where Google can be your friend – search for a place + lodging, and voilà! Some locations might be worth the splurge for a fancy hotel or famous lodge, while others might warrant nothing fancier than a Motel 6. Besides the cost for the room, other things you might consider are whether the hotel or motel offers a free breakfast, if there is a swimming pool where you can cool off and unwind after a long day’s drive, or what nearby dining options are available. Camping, whether that’s pitching a tent or sleeping in your car, is one way to keep travel costs down if you’re on a tight budget. Don’t forget to check out AirBNB as well for a more unique lodging experience, depending on where you’re going and how long you might like to stay there while you’re on your way.
  • Download some apps: There are loads of terrific travel apps available now that can help make your road trip easier and more enjoyable, as well as save you money. TripIt can actually create a route for you – just plug in your preferred lodging and the attractions you’d like to see and they’ll do the rest. The Along The Way app for iPhones can find bathrooms, coffee stops, shopping locations, etc. wherever you are on your route. Gasbuddy will help you find the cheapest gasoline prices, and sites like OpenTable, tripadvisor and Yelp provide restaurant reviews, menus, photos and other helpful information about where to eat. Music apps, like Pandora or Spotify are also great to have along on your road trip. Most smartphones these days also come equipped with GPS, if you like or need that sort of thing.
  • Be flexible. Even the best-made plans sometimes have to change. Stuff happens. Be sure you are able to adjust and adapt to changes that might occur, whether than means having emergency funds set aside, being able to shorten or lengthen your trip, or taking a different route if necessary.
  • Make sure your car is in tip-top shape before you go. There is nothing worse than having car trouble when your hundreds of miles away from home, or out in the middle of nowhere (I say this from experience). Get your tires checked and take care of other maintenance issues that you’ve been putting off before you go.

The Western National Park Loop

While there are no road trips happening for us these days – the highway that circles Kaua’i is just over 56 miles – Brett and I still talk about possibly making a road trip back on the mainland some day, after the girls are all off at college (that’s not what we’re planning for 2018 though). Road trips were the only way either of us traveled when we were young, and we love being out on the open road. Our dream trip is to see all the western national parks in one trip. We’ve priced it out though, and it would cost us at least $15,000 to do it from here, if not more. It would take approximate two-months to make the loop, and once we started figuring out our costs for air fare, car rental, lodging, gas, food, etc. the price just kept climbing. So, for now it remains nothing more than a dream. One of these days though . . . .

Jesus, take the wheel . . .

Somebody loves a road trip . . .

Laura & Brett’s Big Adventure

mystery-signBrett and I are planning something BIG for 2018, but that’s really all the detail I can give right now. We are currently in the research and saving stage, and have set some goals to achieve by the end of the year:

  • Save at least $7000 this year for our adventure next year. If it were just the two of us, this would be easy; in fact, we could probably save a whole lot more. But, we still have three children we’re responsible for, two of whom need plane tickets to and from the mainland a couple of times each year ($$$$), and one still at home that has numerous expenses related to high school and college admission and who still needs to be fed and clothed ($$$$). This is going to be a difficult goal for us to reach, but we’re going to give it our best shot. I will try to update our saving goal each quarter.
  • Research, research, research. You know this is fun for me, and I’m going to get to do a whole year and more of it! The first thing will be to find and reserve lodging, but there are other smaller tasks that I’ll be doing as well along the way.

I’m sorry this is all I can reveal at this time, but I just wanted to let you know that something is on the horizon. Something BIG!

Maybe I should call it Laura & Brett’s Big Mystery Adventure™?

To Souvenir or Not To Souvenir


A corner of our travel wall collection includes a small watercolor of the Hong Kong harbor; a tiny print of the Seattle skyline; a postcard from Walt Disney World; a traditional Chinese landscape from the Forbidden City; a photo of the Oregon coast; and the Tokyo train and subway map I carried everywhere for 3 1/2 years during our last tour in Japan. The Chinese picture was created by a man using just the side of his hand – no fingers or brushes.

(Adapted from an October 2015 post)

It’s fun, and almost expected when you travel to find something to remind you of the good times you enjoyed, or to share a little of your experience with those back home.

Souvenirs don’t always need to be purchased though:

  • The best souvenirs can’t be seen or touched or heard. They’re the memories created during the journey, and the experiences shared with others.
  • Your own photos make absolutely fabulous souvenirs.
More travel wall photos: Flamingos from our time in Key West; and old photo of Opaekaa Falls on Kaua'i; and "Rainbow Row" in Charleston, South Carolina.

More of our travel collection: Flamingo print from our time in Key West; a vintage photo of Opaekaa Falls on Kaua’i; and “Rainbow Row” in Charleston, South Carolina.

Although I always take lots of pictures and create memories when I travel, I still often enjoying buying things from the places I visit. Over the years, and through trial and error, I have developed a set of personal rules for my souvenir purchases:

  • We always have a budgeted amount for souvenirs and we stick to it. I know I’ve felt disappointed that I couldn’t buy something because it would either blow up the budget or put us over or mean I couldn’t get something else I had my eye on, but in hindsight I have absolutely no regrets about anything I didn’t get to buy. I don’t even remember what those things were.
  • A useful souvenir is always best. So, no totchkes or knickknacks for us. Brett and I have often bought coffee cups from cities we’ve visited (yeah Starbucks!) that we use for our daily coffee. On my most recent trips to Japan I bought several tenugui, cotton hand towels that are printed with amazing designs, from traditional Japanese themes to the avant-garde. These towels get used daily in our kitchen, and seeing them provides wonderful reminders of when and where I bought them. I also look for things I can use in the kitchen – these items are usually affordable and connect me to a place and time whenever I use them. I’m still using the spoon rest I bought 36+ years ago when we were in Coronado for Brett to attend training, and I love the handmade bamboo spatulas I scored when we visited Kyoto two years ago.
  • Local food makes a fabulous souvenir. Food items are not as permanent a souvenir as a coffee mug or kitchen towel, but they can help draw out the experience and memories as long as they last. And, food items are usually very affordable. We brought home an amazing selection of sauces and snacks from our last trip to Japan, including all those interesting flavors of KitKats, and Brett brought back a bucket of delicious and much appreciated Danish butter cookies from his visit to Solvang in 2015 (those did not last long at all). We’re planning to send WenYu and Meiling each a box of their favorite Japanese snacks following our upcoming trip.
  • Clothing items, carefully chosen, are also good souvenirs. I don’t do the t-shirt thing, but Brett came home from his 2015 California trip with a nice collection of shirts from places he visited – they get a lot of wear. Sweatshirts we purchased on Disney World visits when the girls were little were were worn by all three girls before they wore out – we more than got our money’s worth out of them.
  • Finally, we used to always look for a picture to add to our travel wall. We started our collection back when Brett was in the navy, for reminders of places we were stationed or visited. We continued the tradition after he retired, and bought a few more, although these days we’re trying not to add to our possessions. We treasure every piece of our collection and every memory they recall. For example, the worn and broken creases in the folds of my Japanese train map remind me of the many times I pulled that map out and poured over it to find my way around Tokyo. The little watercolor of Hong Kong was purchased one evening from a street vendor in Kowloon, as Brett and I walked back to our hotel after dinner. The picture of the Golden Gate Bridge was from our trip to San Francisco for our 25th wedding anniversary, purchased on the day we decided to adopt one more time (to add YaYu to our family). Every one of the pictures is uniquely special to us.
Cross section of the Golden Gate bridge.

Cross section of the Golden Gate bridge.

The combination of kids and souvenirs can be both tricky and trying. Kids love stuff, and sometimes it seems they want you to buy them everything they set their eyes on. Our solution has been to give each child a set amount of spending money the first day of travel (to be added to whatever they have saved on their own and want to bring along). They can do whatever they want with the money we give them, buy whatever they want whenever they want. But . . . they are not allowed to ask for any more money during the trip nor can they ask us to buy something for them, including snacks. We started all of them out with this at a fairly young age, around five years old. Typically there was a quick, impulsive purchase that was almost instantly regretted when they saw how quickly their money dwindled, but for the rest of that vacation and future ones every purchase was carefully considered, even when they were just five or six years old. This system even worked at Disney World, where there’s a souvenir store every couple of feet and more temptation than can be counted. More often than not, all four of our children usually have/had money left over at the end of each trip. On our trip to Japan in 2015, YaYu bought very little, then saved up a bit more after she got home and bought herself a new (inexpensive) computer – totally her choice of what to do with the money we gave her for the trip. With this system, Brett and I have found ourselves able to enjoy our time with the kids and not feel like cash registers or pressured to buy, buy, buy when we travel. The kids like the system too, and the control they have over their purchases.

The underside of the US 101 bridge in Florence, Oregon. We camped with other adoptive families in Florence every summer for over 10 years.

The underside of the US 101 bridge in Florence, Oregon. We camped with other adoptive families in Florence every summer for over 10 years.

Souvenirs are an intensely personal and usually fun part of any travel experience, and whether they’re a planned purchase or a spontaneous find, you don’t have to break your travel budget in order to bring home something special from a memorable journey.

What do you like to buy when you travel? How do you handle souvenir shopping? What’s your most treasured souvenir?

Follow Your Nose

Outdoor yakitori stand

The aroma from an outdoor yakitori stand takes me right back to my first visit to Japan, when I was 18 years old, and visiting Inokashira Park in Kichijoji. There was a stand right outside the entrance to the park, and the smell was intoxicating. The yakitori was pretty tasty too.

Believe it or not, some of the most intense and lasting memories we have come from the aromas we encounter when we travel. Sadly, most of us tend to disregard the impressions we receive from our sense of smell when we travel, and instead concentrate more on taking pictures or buying souvenirs to remind us of our journeys.

And yet, our sense of smell has the ability to repay the the encounters we have with scents and aromas many times over. Experiencing a particular scent after we return home, or in a different location, has the power to transport us to both a place and time, pleasant or unpleasant, filling our minds again with what we were hearing, seeing and feeling when we inhaled that aroma. It’s the same way the scent of bread baking or other foods cooking can take us back to our grandmother’s kitchen, or the scent of freshly mowed grass can bring back memories of a park we visited or games we played as children.

Here are a few of my favorite travel memories associated with aroma:

  • The scent of green tea always reminds me of tea shops in Japan and China. They were calming, comforting and quiet places, even in the busiest of cities.
  • Barbecue – The aroma of smoky barbecue still takes me back to a little shack called The Brown Pig, which sold the most amazing barbecue in Millington, Tennessee. I craved it when I was pregnant.
  • Temple incense – when I smell incense now my mind leaps to several temple visits in Japan

    Fresh tatami mats are green;

    Fresh tatami mats are pale green, and have a refreshing aroma

  • Whenever I walk past a tatami shop in Japan, and smell the fresh mats, I’m transported right back inside our off-base Japanese house, where we lived for 18 months in 1990-1991. We had fresh tatami in our dining room and bedroom – heavenly!
  • The tang of ocean air and the aroma of sunscreen always remind me of childhood summers spent at our family’s San Clemente beach house.
  • Any time I smell dashi, the broth made from dried bonito that’s the basis of Japanese cuisine, I’m right back in Japan. I call it Japan’s “background scent.”
  • Yakitori cooking on an open grill (see the picture above)

    This stuff really worked!

    White Flower Embrocation

  • The scent of Tiger Balm and White Flower Embrocation always puts me in Hong Kong, having to stay in my hotel room with a very, very bad cold and watching a man across the road practice some kind of martial art on the top of his building. I still use White Flower – it works!
  • Campfire smoke = coffee around a morning campfire at Honeyman State Park in Oregon

The smells we encounter when we’re on the road are perhaps our most intense travel experiences, even if we don’t recognize them as such, or pay much attention to them at the time. While a picture can remind us of where we’ve been and what we’ve done, a remembered aroma can put us right back inside a memorable experience.