Travels with Andrew, Heide and Lachlan. Stories, photos, tips and recommendations for family travel.
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After all the walking on our first day in Kyoto, we had a bit of a slower start on day two. The planned highlight of the day was a family kaiseki lunch. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, featuring seasonal ingredients and an elaborate presentation. As a major center for Japanese traditions, Kyoto is […] The post Japan – A Family Kaiseki Meal in Kyoto appeared first on Airports and...
After all the walking on our first day in Kyoto, we had a bit of a slower start on day two. The planned highlight of the day was a family kaiseki lunch. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, featuring seasonal ingredients and an elaborate presentation. As a major center for Japanese traditions, Kyoto is a great place to experience a kaiseki meal. These meals can be very expensive, and a lot of kaiseki restaurants don’t allow children. Fortunately, our AirBnB host was able to make a reservation for us, and we managed the cost by scheduling our family kaiseki experience for lunch, which is a less expensive option than dinner.
Even with a bit of a slow start, we had some time before lunch to explore the area close to our AirBnB, a short distance northwest of Kyoto Station. Although it was raining intermittently, we managed to see some lesser-known, and even quirky sights. The first one (which we actually stumbled across by accident), was the original Nintendo building. This was very exciting for video game enthusiast Lachlan.
Our next stop was a place I had read about in the wonderful Atlas Obscura, a great resource for finding things to see that are not your average tourist attraction. Mimizuka, or “Mound of Ears” is a burial mound for noses and ears collected by Japanese soldiers as war trophies in the 16th century.
Next to Mimizuka there is a children’s playground, featuring a happy blue hippo.
Our next stop was a more traditional tourist site, the Toyokuni-Jinja Shrine. This place doesn’t get as many visitors as the more popular temples and shrines, but is well worth a visit.
A special feature of this shrine is the treasure house, where you can see artifacts from the shrine’s history.
Another interesting feature right next to the Toyokuni-Jinja Shrine is a massive bell. It weighs in at more than eighty tonnes. Unfortunately, the giant Buddha that was planned to be located with the bell was never built. The bell sits in a belfry that is all that remains of Hoko-ji temple. The rest of the temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 1596.
After our morning sightseeing, we were ready for lunch. We made our way to Harise, a restaurant that has been in business for more than 350 years. Even for a city as steeped in history as Kyoto, this is an impressive number. The staff greeted us warmly, showed us where to put our shoes then led us to our private room. The room featured a lovely view to a small garden.
Our waitress presented us with the customary hot towels and we settled in for our family kaiseki experience.
Over the next couple of hours, our waitress served a series of courses, each beautifully presented. The kids didn’t like the small fish that are meant to be eaten heads and all. However, generally the food was fresh and flavorful. We even had two dessert courses, although in the Japanese style these were a lot less sweet than typical western desserts.
After finishing our meal with a matcha green tea, we all agreed that we were glad we had chosen lunch time for our family kaiseki experience, because we definitely didn’t need the extra courses (with accompanying extra expense) that would have been served if we were there for dinner.
After our major lunch event we headed back to our AirBnB apartment to recover. While the kids were done with sightseeing for the day, the grown-ups decided to check out one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites, the Fushimi Inari Shrine. After taking a train a few stops south from Kyoto Station we entered the shrine through the massive entrance gate.
A light rain enhanced the look of the moss-covered stone lanterns and shrine guardian statues.
The main reason for visiting Fushimi Inari is to see the walkways lined with bright red torii gates. Business owners donate these gates to the shrine in thanks for (or in hope of) good fortune. In parts of the trail leading up the mountain behind the entrance gates the torii gates are so close together they almost form a tunnel.
As well as the torii gates, it’s interesting to see all of the small sub-shrines that you see along the way as the path climbs the mountain.
These are mostly Shinto shrines, but some Buddhist statues and altars are also sprinkled amongst them.
We were there too late in the day to walk all the way to the top of the mountain behind the shrine, but we did manage to get a good workout following our big lunch. We made our way back to the train to head back to Kyoto Station as light was fading.
A treat from Mr Donut was our reward for our Fushimi Inari hiking efforts, and the futuristic Kyoto Station building was an interesting contrast to the historic sights and experiences of the day.
This post will cover the first part of our time in Kyoto, including our self-guided walking tour through eastern Kyoto. After our stopover in Narita, we were up early the next morning to meet our friends at the airport. After finding some breakfast in one of the terminals, we made our way to the Japan […] The post Japan – a Walk Through Eastern Kyoto appeared first on Airports and...
This post will cover the first part of our time in Kyoto, including our self-guided walking tour through eastern Kyoto.
After our stopover in Narita, we were up early the next morning to meet our friends at the airport. After finding some breakfast in one of the terminals, we made our way to the Japan Rail office and exchanged our vouchers for JR Passes. We booked our seats on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, and headed off on our Japan adventure.
We arrived early in the afternoon after enjoying a few hours whizzing through the Japanese countryside and towns. Our AirBnB was an easy walk from the station, and accommodated our group easily. We would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a place to stay for a group of people in Kyoto.
After settling in, we ventured out to explore Kyoto. Our first mission was to find the Pokemon Center. Lachlan wanted to visit as many Pokemon Centers as possible while we were in Japan. This was actually the second one we visited, as we had already visited the small Pokemon Center in Narita Airport. The Pokemon Center is in a large department store, so the members of our group who are not into Pokemon had other things to look at, checking out some of the weird and wonderful things you can find in a Japanese department store.
We were all starting to feel the effects of our recent long plane flights, so we grabbed some refreshments from a vending machine (always easy to find in Japan) and took a break sitting on the bank of the Kamo River in the late afternoon sunshine.
By now it was getting late enough in the day that we were starting to think about finding some dinner. We were all a bit jet-lagged, so decision-making wasn’t easy. We wandered down the very scenic Pontocho Alley in search of a place to eat.
We found a restaurant that had a variety of different types of food, thinking this would be an easy option for our first group dinner of the trip. Despite a few issues with the restaurant service (very unusual for Japan) we eventually managed to get something to eat. We then headed back to our AirBnB and slept very well.
For our first full day of sightseeing, the plan was to check out the temples and shrines of eastern Kyoto. However, our first stop was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. When we had previously visited Kyoto you could only see this place by reserving in advance. Now that you don’t need to make reservations our lack of advance planning skills didn’t keep us from seeing it like it had in previous visits.
Before entering the palace grounds we explored some of the outer gardens.
Once we had paid our entrance and made it into the palace proper, we saw some impressive buildings.
As well as the impressive scale of the palace buildings, the architectural details (featuring lots of gold) were impressive.
We were particularly impressed by the meticulously groomed gardens. The palace designers strategically positioned them outside the rooms of the highest ranking members of the imperial family and their staff.
After the Imperial Palace, we headed east to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Shops selling souvenirs and various kinds of food line the road leading to the temple. A lot of the people we saw on the street were school students. Many school groups come to Kyoto to visit the significant and historical sites in the city.
The Silver Pavilion at Ginkaku-ji is not actually covered in silver, unlike the Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji which it was modeled after. The initial plans to cover the pavilion with silver foil never happened.
For me, the gardens are the best thing about Ginkaku-ji. It’s a lovely walk through the moss and carefully groomed trees and shrubs.
We continued our eastern Kyoto journey with a visit to the Honen-in temple. This is much less visited than other temples, so was a nice respite after the very busy Ginkaku-ji.
Honen-in is a place where you can sit and feel some peace and serenity, much more of a zen experience than the more famous and crowded temples in Kyoto. A Japanese tour group who came to check out the temple’s Buddha statue briefly interrupted our peace, but it wasn’t long until they were gone and serenity returned.
From Honen-in, we continued down the Philosopher’s Path (also known as the Path of Philosophy or Philosopher’s Walk). Although the name may sound like it has been passed down through the ages, the name comes from a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who used it for his daily walk to contemplate and meditate.
As a break from historic sites, we stopped at a small do-it-yourself pottery shop on the path. The instructor very patiently guided members of our group through the process of making a small bowl on a potter’s wheel. Each craftsperson selected a glaze color for their bowl after shaping the clay. The store owner later fired the bowls and mailed them to us back home in Houston.
A little further down the Philosopher’s Path we came across an unexpected highlight of our day in eastern Kyoto. Intrigued by a sign featuring a couple of cute mice, we decided to check out Otoyo Shrine.
We found a small shrine complex with an interesting collection of guardian animals.
The final stop on our walk through eastern Kyoto was Nanzen-ji. This is a large Zen Buddhist temple complex with quite a few different things to see. After walking through the large entry gate, there is a large incense burner. The incense smoke is to purify visitors before they visit the temple.
Next to the incense burner is the Dharma Hall, with an impressive painting of a dragon on the ceiling.
Probably the most interesting thing at Nanzen-ji (perhaps even in eastern Kyoto) is the aqueduct. This was built in the Meiji period (late 1800s) as part of a plan to modernize the city’s water supply system. The plan was never fully implemented, leaving the Nanzen-ji aqueduct as a curious oddity.
You can climb steps behind the aqueduct and walk along the canal leading into the forest. We were lucky enough to see a grey heron resting peacefully next to the rushing water.
As the light was fading we had just enough time to visit the Nanzenin garden. This is a lush and peaceful zen garden built around a pond. A stroll around this peaceful place was a fitting end to our eastern Kyoto adventure.
On our previous trips to Japan we had always hopped on a train straight from the airport. We had never had time for a Narita stopover. However, on our recent family trip to Japan we were arriving a day before the friends we were going to travel with, so we had some time to explore […] The post Japan – A Narita Stopover appeared first on Airports and...
On our previous trips to Japan we had always hopped on a train straight from the airport. We had never had time for a Narita stopover. However, on our recent family trip to Japan we were arriving a day before the friends we were going to travel with, so we had some time to explore Narita before we headed to the first major destination of our trip, Kyoto.
Narita is the airport for Tokyo, but it’s a long way from the city, about an hour by train. Fortunately, the nearby town of Narita has some things to do and see. If you only have a few hours between flights, the Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program provides options to see Narita town or other nearby places. However, we had an overnight Narita stopover so we chose to explore Narita independently. We landed around lunch time, and after clearing customs we headed to our hotel which was a short walk from the airport terminal. See the “Where to Stay” section later on in this post for information about accommodation options for a Narita stopover.
By the time we had had showers and freshened up after our long flight from Houston, it was mid-afternoon. We realized we had to get moving while we still had daylight to check out Narita town. After a short train ride from the airport, we made it to Narita Station to start our exploration.
Exiting the station, we saw a small but bustling town. Narita is a good first experience for a trip to Japan, because it isn’t as overwhelming as suddenly arriving in Tokyo or Shinjuku Station and having to battle the crowds. The first interesting sight we came across, right outside Narita Station, was a statue of a kabuki actor which looks out over the town.
From the statue, we set off along Omotesando (the main street in Narita), heading towards the Naritasan Shinshō-ji Temple. This is the main attraction in Narita, but the walk through town to get there is also quite pleasant. There are many souvenir shops and restaurants along the way. Unfortunately for us most places were closed, as it was late afternoon. This was probably for the best, because it meant we weren’t distracted so we got to the temple while there was plenty of daylight left.
In fact, the late afternoon sunlight was spectacular. The temple buildings glowed, and the golden architectural details shone brightly.
There were also interesting temple guardians and statues. Some of these looked fairly new. This is obviously a temple that is a part of the lives of the people of Narita, not just a historical or tourist site.
With the sun setting, we headed back towards Narita Station to look for something to eat. We had limited options as it seems that almost all of the restaurants along Omotesando operate for lunch rather than dinner. We read online that the local specialty is unagi (eel), but we couldn’t find an unagi restaurant that was open. This was a shame, because unagi is Lachlan’s favorite Japanese food, and his goal for our trip to Japan was to eat unagi every day.
Fortunately, we were able to find a sushi restaurant, which was a good start to our Japanese food experiences for the trip (the food is one of the best things about any trip to Japan).
After enjoying our sushi, we were really feeling the travel fatigue from our long journey from Houston. So it was time to head back to Narita station to get a train back to Narita airport and our hotel.
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With Narita town being a short train ride from Narita Airport, if your Narita stopover includes an overnight, there are feasible options in town and near the airport. We chose to stay right at the airport as we were meeting our friends early the next morning when they arrived in Japan to join us. We stayed at the Narita Airport Rest House, which was walking distance from the terminal we arrived at. This is an older property, but very clean and a good budget option.
We enjoyed our Narita stopover. Hopefully this post gives you an idea about what there is to do and see if you have some time to spare while passing through Narita Airport.
This post is an overview of our family safari in South Africa and Swaziland. It was a great trip and we covered a lot of ground in two weeks. This was enough time to see an amazing amount of wildlife, and also to spend some time seeing non-animal scenery. Each section below includes a […] The post Family Safari – South Africa and Swaziland appeared first on Airports and...
This post is an overview of our family safari in South Africa and Swaziland. It was a great trip and we covered a lot of ground in two weeks. This was enough time to see an amazing amount of wildlife, and also to spend some time seeing non-animal scenery. Each section below includes a link to a more detailed post about each part of our trip.
We planned two nights in Johannesburg to give us a full day to recover from the marathon sixteen hour flight from the U.S. to South Africa. As it turned out, due to the evening arrival into Johannesburg, we got a great night’s sleep the first night, and had enough energy for a full day’s sightseeing the next day.
There is plenty to do and see in Johannesburg, including the Apartheid Museum and Soweto township tours, but we opted to drive a little way out of town to the Cradle of Humankind. Around 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils have been found in this area and many of these are on display in a very interesting and educational setting. We also visited the Sterkfontein Caves, the site of some important fossil finds.
After our travel recovery time in Johannesburg, we were excited to begin our family safari in earnest in the Entabeni Safari Conservancy. This was a good place for Lachlan’s first safari experience as it doesn’t have a lot of predators like the Kruger area camps, so the game viewing is a bit more low key. However there are still plenty of animals to see and the scenery is spectacular.
Accommodation options are also a bit cheaper than the Kruger area lodges, and with a location between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, the Entabeni Safari Conservancy makes an ideal add-on to a Kruger visit, or a quick getaway from Johannesburg if you can’t make it all the way to Kruger.
Before we plunged into the full-on Kruger wildlife experience, we took a day to check out the famous Panorama Route. The Blyde River Canyon provides some amazing scenery, definitely worth a day away from the animals.
For this sightseeing day and our next day’s visit to Kruger National Park, we based ourselves in the small town of Hazyview, just outside the park. We stayed at the Rissington Inn, which we would definitely recommend.
On our second day in Hazyview we got up very early, picked up a picnic breakfast prepared by our hotel and drove to Kruger National Park. We arrived at the gate just before it opened, ready for a full day’s self-drive safari action. Although we didn’t see any lion, leopard or rhino, we saw plenty of other wildlife. We actually saw more than we expected, considering we had to spot the game ourselves, without a guide. The highlight was seeing elephants right next to the road on multiple occasions.
The highlight of our trip was three days on the Manyeleti Game Reserve. This reserve is right next to Kruger National Park, with no fence between the two places, so animals can roam freely between them. We saw four of the Big Five on our first game drive the afternoon we arrived, then completed the Big Five the next morning. We saw lions on a kill, lion cubs and even lions in a standoff with a group of hyenas protecting their kill.
It was all new to Lachlan, but Heide and I were particularly excited to see leopards. We had only managed to catch the briefest glimpse of one on our previous African safari experiences.
We stayed in the Honeyguide Tented Camps in the heart of the reserve. There are actually two different camps, we stayed in the family-friendly Khoka Moya camp. This was a very authentic bush camp experience, but with great food and tents with indoor plumbing. We saw three of the Big Five (lion, elephant and buffalo) at the camp waterhole.
After the excitement of the Manyeleti Game Reserve, we headed to the tiny land-locked nation of Swaziland. At the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary we had a more laid-back safari experience. This reserve lacks the lions and elephants of the other reserves we visited. This means that you can cycle or walk amongst the wildlife here. With only one day at Mlilwane we chose to drive around the park, seeing lots of different kinds of antelope, as well as zebra, hippos and crocodiles.
For the last couple of days of our trip, we moved to more comfortable accommodation at the Mogi Boutique Hotel. We checked out some of the sights of Swaziland and did a bit of shopping before heading back to Johannesburg for our flight back home.
The highlight of our Swaziland sightseeing adventures was driving to the top of Sibebe Rock, a massive granite monolith. We also learned about Swaziland’s history at the memorial park for King Sobhuza II and at the Swaziland National Museum.
I took a lot of photos on our safari trip. Even after narrowing down to the best ones there were too many to include in the blog posts, so here’s a gallery including a bunch of pics that didn’t make it into the posts.
So Many Animal Photos … There are usually many uncertainties and surprises involved with travel to Africa, but one thing for sure is that you will take a lot of photos, especially on safari. Even after editing and narrowing down to the best ones, we had more photos than we could use in our blog […] The post Animal Photos from our Family Safari appeared first on Airports and...
There are usually many uncertainties and surprises involved with travel to Africa, but one thing for sure is that you will take a lot of photos, especially on safari. Even after editing and narrowing down to the best ones, we had more photos than we could use in our blog posts. So here is a post with all of our animal photos, organized by animal. Let’s start with the Big Five:
There are other animals that don’t make the cut for “Big Five” status, but are just as iconic and must-sees on safari in Africa.
We saw so many different types of antelope that I’m not going to do a separate gallery for each one.
As well a four-legged creatures, we saw an incredible range of birds, from tiny bee-eaters to majestic eagles.
Pictures from game drives and game lodges – the friendly guides and staff as well as the awesome scenery helped make our safari experiences great.
Swaziland Sightseeing After the final wildlife experience of of our trip in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, we planned to spend the last couple of days in Swaziland sightseeing. We also planned to spend some time in more luxurious accommodations after “roughing it” in game lodges and even a backpackers hostel. After a lot of early […] The post Family Safari – Sightseeing in Swaziland appeared first on Airports and...
After the final wildlife experience of of our trip in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, we planned to spend the last couple of days in Swaziland sightseeing. We also planned to spend some time in more luxurious accommodations after “roughing it” in game lodges and even a backpackers hostel. After a lot of early mornings for game drives, we also planned to sleep a bit later each morning.
For our couple of nights of luxury at the end of our trip we chose to stay at Mogi Boutique Hotel. It lived up to the “boutique” label by being small and comfortable, with friendly staff and a great breakfast served each morning. It is built into the side of a hill, so the view from the deck outside our room was spectacular.
After we arrived at the hotel, we spent some time exploring the lush gardens, which featured a stylish pool built into the hillside. Unfortunately it was too cold to swim. The view from the rocks next to the pool into the Ezulwini Valley was spectacular.
A highlight of our Swaziland sightseeing adventure was the memorial park for Swaziland’s beloved King Sobhuza II. Sobhuza reigned for more than sixty years, and led Swaziland to independence from the British. The park includes some nice gardens and the obligatory statue of the great man.
There was an interesting display about Sobhuza’s life and times, which did a good job of giving a sense of the man beyond his ceremonial and political roles. We particularly enjoyed the car collection. The King enjoyed trading up to the latest model of Cadillac every couple of years.
Swaziland is known for the availability of a wide range of reasonably priced arts and crafts. It’s a great place to pick up some souvenirs of your African travels. We only bought a couple of small items as we were traveling with carry-on luggage only and we already have a lot of African items in our house from the time we spent living in Africa. Nevertheless, we spent some time browsing the Swazi Candles Centre looking at some interesting things.
The Swazi Candles factory and store is the main attraction. It sells an amazing array of candles in all shapes and sizes. The most impressive and uniquely African are in the shape of various animals – you can choose your favorite.
As well as Swazi Candles itself, there are open air stalls selling the standard African souvenirs that we had seen all over South Africa. The selection and prices were pretty good.
More interestingly, there were some stores selling higher quality and more contemporary arts and crafts. There’s definitely something for everyone here.
This is an obvious must-see for any Swaziland sightseeing program. However, I would recommend that you don’t set your expectations too high. The exhibits are a bit dated and the building is tired. They have some more of King Sobhuza II’s cars there, but they are in need of some repairs.
It’s still definitely worth a visit. You can find some interesting information about the history and people of Swaziland, and the displays have a retro kitsch vibe that is entertaining.
The most unexpected part of our Swaziland sightseeing was Sibebe Rock. This is basically a gigantic piece of granite, but is impressive and important enough to be on the label of one of Swaziland’s most popular beers. Our plan was to find a place to gaze up at it in wonder, however our day took a different direction when we stopped at the information centre to ask about the best viewpoint. A guide told us that we would be able to make it to the top of the rock in our rental 4X4 SUV.
This sounded like a fun adventure, so we all got back into the car and our guide directed us up the steep and rough road to the top. There were a couple of rocky parts where we thought we might have made a terrible mistake, but we made it to the top, and it was worth the effort. The views were spectacular.
We got out of the car and went for a walk amongst the huge boulders that looked like they had been tossed around like pebbles.
The highlight of our Sibebe Rock experience was climbing up to a secret cave (at least our guide claimed he is the only one who knows about it). As you can see it was quite a climb, then we scrambled trough the cave for the best views yet.
Our final Swaziland sightseeing stop was Ngwenya Glass. We stopped here on our way out of Swaziland heading to Johannesburg to catch our flight home. We watched some glass items being made, including some items being blown, which was fascinating. Even though the viewpoint was fairly high above the factory floor, we could really feel the heat from the furnace. It must be really hot work during the Swaziland summer.
Of course there was a showroom with all kinds of glass objects for purchase. Similar to Swazi Candles, the most interesting things were the objects shaped like African animals. The skill required to make these is impressive. with our limited luggage space we limited our purchases to one small rhino bottle stopper.
We were glad that we experienced Swaziland. Although we only had a few days there, we saw enough to get a good feel for the place. It’s quite interesting to be in a tiny country surrounded entirely by another country (South Africa). Swaziland is definitely worth a visit as an add-on to a South African journey.
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