Tag Archives: Family Travel

Best Chinese Food Ever!

A few years ago, a teenager from our town traveled with her orchestra to China.  Upon her return, I asked about her favorite memories.  A big smile came across her face, and she said, “The food!”  She quickly added, “I love our local Chinese restaurant, but the food in China was so much better.”

While traveling in China with my family, I enjoyed lots of delicious food.  And with each great meal, I thought of that young lady.  I agree with her; the food in China is delicious!

We had a number of delicious and memorable culinary experiences in China.  While in Beijing, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment owned by an American family and run by Holly, a wonderful Chinese woman.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We told Holly how much we love dumplings, and she agreed to teach us how to make them.  She started with a trip to a local market, which I never could have found on my own.  Walking from our apartment, we ventured off the main road and turned into a small side street that became a walking path.  Eventually, we entered a nondescript building that held a bustling market filled with local produce and baked goods.

Then, we returned to our apartment where Holly led a cooking class for our family.  She taught us to make the filling, which included pork, cabbage, carrots, onions, spices, vinegar, and soy sauce stir fried in the wok.

 

Hollys Wok - Edited

Then, she taught us how to mix flour and water with chopsticks until the dough was firm and ready to knead.  Holly pinched off small bits, rolled them out, filled them, and cooked them in a pot of boiling water.

Rachel with Holly (2)

Then, we joined other Chinese friends from the neighborhood around the kitchen table eating lots of dumplings.  Delicious and memorable!

Noodle TeacherWe received another cooking lesson while in Beijing.  We went to Mama’s Lunch for a dumpling and noodle lesson.  Our gracious host and excellent teacher, Joyce, greeted us with tea and snacks before beginning the class.  We made regular dumplings as well as green dumplings with spinach water and orange dumplings from pumpkin water.  In addition to the traditional filling of pork and spices, Joyce taught us how to make a filling of scrambled eggs with chives.

 

 

We then shared a feast of boiled and fried dumplings.  Delicious!

Eating Noodles

In addition to our cooking classes, we enjoyed wonderful meals in two restaurants.  In Beijing, we shared a ten-course dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen that included five flavored eggplant, shredded lettuce stem, and black sesame ice for dessert!  The restaurant is located in a hutong, a traditional neighborhood with narrow alleys and courtyard residences.  The meal was pretty expensive, but it was a great treat for our family.

Menu Beijing

Finally, in Shanghai, we had a great meal of Xiaolongbao, soup dumplings cooked in steamer baskets.  We ate at Din Tai Fung, a restaurant chain with several stores around Shanghai and other cities around the world.  All dumplings have a thin skin and sixteen delicate folds, and they are filled with various broths.  We especially loved the pork dumplings and the crab dumplings.

Shanghai Dumplings

I still love Chinese food at home, but I have to agree with the young lady from our town.  These meals in Beijing and Shanghai were the Best Chinese Food Ever!

Group Dinner Plate

Experiencing China with Locals

During our round-the-world adventure, we have tried to experience life as much like local people as possible. While we know this is impossible, we still think it provides an important glimpse into the lives of the people we encounter in different places. Rick Steves, the travel specialist, calls this traveling through the back door.

The goal of living as much like locals as possible has shaped many decisions during our trip. For example, we have chosen to stay in people’s homes rather than in hotels. By house sitting in South Africa, France, New Zealand, and Australia, we have lived in the homes of wonderful people and befriended their neighbors, which has been a very special gift during our travels. When not house sitting, we have booked apartments and rooms through AirBnB, which has meant that we lived in ordinary apartments in regular neighborhoods.

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

My wife, Lisa, with our Beijing host, Holly

We also have taken public transportation as much as possible. While we could have taken taxis to get from Point A to Point B, we have climbed aboard city buses and subways along with local people. More than simply helping our budget, this has allowed us to stand side-by-side with locals making their way to work or school or the market.

We also have spent time walking the streets in cities and towns that have been our home. We have shopped at local markets and joined in local celebrations. Through our stumbling attempts to speak different languages and a comical series of charades acting out our words, we have communicated with people across the world. And, with very, very few exceptions, we have found people everywhere to be kind, caring, and helpful.

Forbidden City

While in Beijing, China, we went to Tiananmen Square. Rather than joining a tour group, we took the excellent Beijing Metro from our apartment to Tiananmen Square. And, we timed our visit to coincide with the flag-lowering ceremony at sunset. About an hour before sunset, a crowd began forming around the large flag in Tiananmen Square near the Forbidden City. Once the ceremony began, we were some of the very few international people in the crowd of 1,000 or more.

Chinese Flag in Tiananment Square

Chinese Flag in Tiananmen Square

As soldiers lowered the flag and marched with it to the Forbidden City, I could see the pride on the faces of Chinese people with whom I was standing. I thought of times I have enjoyed patriotic celebrations in the United States, my home country, and I was reminded that love of one’s home land is prevalent around the world.

Mao

By encountering life with locals, my wife, our children, and I have learned that people the world over are far more alike than they are different. In China, people live under a different social and political system than the one I know in the United States, but when I rode with them on buses or the Metro, when I shopped with them at markets, and when I saw them taking their children to school, I realized anew that our deepest concerns and most of our daily activities are really very similar.

Great Times in Sydney

One of the highlights of our round-the-world adventure has been spending time with my parents, first in Israel/Palestine in October and second in Sydney in April.  We planned our travel to coincide with my parents’ trip to Sydney, and we had a great time together.  We spent many hours laughing and making jokes as we always do, and oh yeah, we also saw some great sites.

We met Mom and Dad at Sydney Airport after their long flight from the United States, and they were amazingly awake and cheerful. Rather than resting for a couple of hours as we had anticipated, they were ready to tour the city. We had a great introduction to Sydney thanks to I’m Free Tours.  The idea is that you take the free tour, in our case a two-and-a-half hour overview of the city, without paying.  Then, you tip the guide at the end. It was great, and I recommend it to anyone in Sydney.

On Sunday, Mom and Dad were up early (just like at home), and we joined St. Stephen’s Uniting Church for Palm Sunday worship. On Sunday afternoon, we headed to Bondi Beach for the beautiful walk from Bondi to Coogee Beach.

On Monday, we headed west to the Blue Mountains where we saw the Three Sisters rock formation. I learned that the blue in the Blue Mountains comes from oils released by eucalyptus trees.

We visited Featherdale Wildlife Park so Mom and Dad could see koalas and kangaroos.

We learned about Aboriginal culture on a Sydney Harbor cruise with the Tribal Warrior Association, which provides education for indigenous and non-indigenous people. We listened to a didgeridoo, practiced indigenous dances, and learned about Aboriginal peoples in Sydney and beyond.

We enjoyed Sydney Harbor and shared a picnic in the Royal Botanic Garden.

 

The highlight of our time came from two performances at the Sydney Opera House. The first was J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion inside the opera house, and the second was Verdi’s Aida on the harbor with the opera house as the backdrop.

Jesus’ words sung in Bach’s St. John Passion were deeply moving:  “Es ist vollbracht!”  “It is accomplished!”  And the chorus’ words, “Ruht wohl” (“Rest well”), shaped my experience of Holy Week.

Aida was on a grand scale. The head of  Nefertiti, which towers over the stage, is eighteen meters (nearly sixty feet) tall.  The show was outside in the elements, and the pouring rain, whose arrival coincided with the Triumphal March, only made our experience more memorable. We donned ponchos and stayed until the end when Aida and Radames died as the orchestra’a music faded away.

Our time ended in Circular Quay when we took Mom and Dad to their cruise ship.  Happily aboard, they can rest, and we will too!  But we will have wonderful memories of our time Down Under.

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef was at the top of our list of things to do in Australia, and our time there exceeded our expectations. We decided to stay in Cairns, Queensland. Despite being chased by Cyclone Nathan (see my earlier blog post), we loved our time in Cairns with its warm weather, delicious tropical fruit, and friendly people.

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From Cairns, we traveled by large catamaran to Green Island to spend three wonderful days at the Green Island Resort (one of the few splurges during our round-the-world adventure). Green Island is about 27 kilometers (nearly 17 miles) off the coast of Cairns. While at the resort, we enjoyed snorkeling, glass-bottom boat rides, wind surfing, nature walks, star gazing, and sea kayaking.  We saw many beautiful fish such as groupers and reef sharks and many Green Sea Turtles.

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During one of our days at Green Island, we traveled to Norman Reef, which is farther offshore and has greater visibility in the water. The highlight of our time there was snorkeling.  All four of us donned stinger suits, which protect you from jelly fish.  The suits are skin tight and keep no secrets. Someone said that they are effective because jelly fish are too busy laughing at you to sting you.

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While trying to get into my stinger suit, I nearly pulled a muscle and eventually laughed so hard that I cried.  My wife, son, and daughter heard me grunting and groaning while trying to get into my suit.  After much effort, I finally had both legs covered, but I could only fit one arm in the suit.  And, the suit was so tight that I could not stand up straight.  Finally, I came out of the bathroom bent over and pleading for help.  My wife tried to pull the suit over my shoulder to insert my second arm, but it would not budge.  At that point, I looked at my ten-year-old daughter, Rachel, standing quite comfortably beside me in a very baggy stinger suit.  Then, I realized that we had switched suits.  By this point, I was doubled over laughing with tears streaming down my face.  After much effort to get out of Rachel’s suit (I’m not sure if it was harder to get into the tiny suit or to get our of it…), I put on my adult-size suit and was ready to snorkel.

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It was glorious!  I have been snorkeling in a number of places, and I enjoy it very much.  But, this was spectacular!  The colors were vibrant, the varieties of coral amazing, and the fish plentiful.  I loved floating at the surface, silently watching fish and looking at the beautiful coral.  Just then, I experienced the highlight of snorkeling — and indeed of my time at the Great Barrier Reef.

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I was all alone when I spotted a Green Sea Turtle feeding about two meters (six feet) below me in the water.  I spent a long time watching the turtle feed below the surface and come up for air.  I thought, “I wish Lisa, Jonathan, and Rachel could see this.”  I looked around and, thankfully, spotted them.  They swam over, and together, all four of us spent a long time watching this amazing creature.

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For me, the highlight was not only being so close to such a beautiful animal but also sharing this experience with my wife, son, and daughter.  I thought, “This experience — and these moments together — have been worth all the effort to get here.”

Chased by a Cyclone

As we prepared to travel to Cairns, Australia, for our visit to the Great Barrier Reef, a news item caught our attention. Almost in passing, the television news anchor said, “A tropical cyclone is off the coast of northern Queensland.”  We paid close attention and learned about Tropical Cyclone Nathan, which would become our companion and nemesis for several days. 

Because we are veterans of hurricanes on Florida’s Gulf Coast, we know to keep an eye on the storm forecast while making our plans. And we know that such plans are subject to change if a storm changes direction. 

As we arrived at Trinity Beach, just north of Cairns, Nathan was offshore churning west toward the coast. The waves were higher than normal with plenty of rain, but Nathan then veered north and started heading away from land. 

  

As planned, we travelled to Green Island and Norman Reef (more on our time on the Great Barrier Reef in a future blog post).  While at Green Island with its beautiful weather, I saw the newspaper headline, “Second Coming,” warning of Nathan’s u-turn and return toward land. 

 

Our time at Green Island was excellent, but the twenty-seven kilometer catamaran ride back to Cairns was rocky and windy. The crew was helpful and kindly provided seasickness bags to many passengers. Thankfully, we did not need them!

We returned to Trinity Beach and waited. We regularly checked the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s website for updates. After heading away a few days before, Nathan was coming back even stronger.  The storm was expected to intensify to a Category 3 or 4 Cyclone. 

 

We joined heaps of Australians at the market buying bottled water and canned food. It reminded me of empty shelves of milk and bread when snow is forecast in the American South.  Our host graciously said that we could come to her hillside home should the storm bear down on us. 

What happened?  

Tropical Cyclone Nathan eventually turned north and came ashore far away from us. We had periods of rain and higher than usual tides, but these gave us a great chance to catch up on reading as we enjoyed canned food and delicious bottles of water.  After a couple of days, the skies cleared, the waves settled down, and beautiful weather returned. 

All was well!

  

Ten Things I Loved about Japan

Our family had a great time in Japan.  While I loved many things about Japan, here are ten things I especially loved:

1.  Excellent Rail System

During our round-the-world trip, we often have rented cars to travel in different countries.  I am a big proponent of public transportation, but with four travelers, it often is cheaper to have a rental car than to buy tickets for each one of us.  Plus, a rental car provides flexibility.  In Japan, however, we used the train system to travel, and it was a great decision for our family.  We purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which you must buy outside of Japan, and it allowed us to travel between major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima.  At times, such as in Hiroshima, the JR Pass allowed us to travel on buses, and in Tokyo, we used our JR Pass on many subway lines.  We also used the JR Pass to travel by monorail to Tokyo’s Narita Airport for our departing flight.  It was well worth the expense and saved us considerable time and money.

Japan Rail Pass

2.  Shinkansen (Bullet Trains)

While the bullet trains are part of the rail system, they deserve special mention.  All four of us are big fans of the bullet trains!  We loved the fast and smooth rides as we traveled around the country.  Here’s a tip:  if you arrive at a station with enough time, you may stop by a ticket office and get a reserved seat on the bullet train, which we did on a number of occasions.  If you are rushing to make a train, which you can be sure will depart right on time, then you can ride in certain cars without a reserved seat.  We did this a number of times, and it was just as comfortable.

Shinkansen

3.  Biking around Kyoto

During our stay at the Apple House in Kyoto (a house we highly recommend with a wonderful host, Hiroko James,), we used two bicycles that Hiroko provided and rented two more bikes.  We pedaled our way around Kyoto, which was both good exercise and a fantastic way to see the city.  It is easy to park a bike nearly anywhere in Kyoto.  In many cases, you can simply park outside a building on the sidewalk with other bikes, or you may use bicycle parking stations located throughout the city.

Bicylcing Kyoto

4.  Japanese Food

We ate, and ate, and ate across Japan.  And the food was delicious!  From a Japanese breakfast at Ryokan Yamakazi (a traditional Japanese inn); to sushi; to noodles; to Syojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine at Shukubo Eko-in Temple in Koyasan; to steamed buns; to dumplings and tempura, the food was excellent.  Here’s a tip:  for the best prices, purchase excellent prepared food in grocery stores or in food markets on the bottom floors of department stores. I loved Japanese food before visiting the country; I crave it now!  (In fact, I had it for lunch today!)

Rachel eating noodles

Japanese breakfast

Dean Sushi

Steamed Bun

5.  Japanese Architecture

Thankfully, we were able to stay at places with traditional features such as tatami (straw mats), futon (sleeping mattresses), shoji (sliding doors), and sento (Japanese baths).  Loved them!

Ryokan

6.  Samurai

We learned about samurai, military nobility of feudal Japan, who are not to be confused with ninja, more mercenary fighters.  We had a great time at Samurai Kembo in Kyoto.  It’s a bit expensive, but if you have a chance to go, I encourage you to do it.  We are glad we did!

Samurai

7.  Japanese Traditions

Thanks to my wife, Lisa, who took the lead in organizing and booking our Japanese trip, we enjoyed special experiences of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and Kimono.  All four of us participated in a tea ceremony, and in another adventure, Lisa and our daughter, Rachel, were dressed in Kimono.

Rachel Lisa Tea Ceremony

Tea Ceremony Jonathan

Kimono

8.  History

I have written in a previous blog post about our trip to Hiroshima, which was chilling and moving, and I am grateful to learn more about this part of Japan’s history.  Japan’s history, of course, is much, much longer, wider, and deeper than World War II, and I loved learning more about Japanese history with special attention to its religious history.

Floating Torii gate at Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima

Floating Torii gate at Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima

9.  Japanese Machines

If there is a way to enhance life through automation, I think the Japanese have found it.  We loved the ubiquitous vending machines, which dispensed both hot and cold drinks from the same machine.  Some vending machines will even scan your body and suggest the drink you should select.  While the vending machines were fun and nice, the Japanese toilets were the best machine by far!  With a number of features such as heated seats and built in warm-water bidet functions, Japanese toilets are the best I have ever encountered.  We are trying to determine how we can have one installed in our home in the United States.

Vending Machine

Notice the hand washing basin at the top of the toilet

Notice the hand washing basin at the top of the toilet

10.  Kindness of People

We fell in love with Japanese people.  We left Japan with new friends who showered us with kindness:  Hiroko James, Naoto Nakamura, and Ryuichi Tsubuku.  We also were treated with kindness by countless people such as fellow passengers on trains, workers at markets, officials at train stations, and one dear man who took about fifteen minutes to walk us through streets of Tokyo to show us our destination.  While we bowed and said, “Arigato, Thank you,” it was not nearly enough to convey our true gratitude for their kindness.

Rachel and Hair Dresser

Noodle House Family

Koyasan, Japan

Koyasan - Lisa

My wife, Lisa, in our room

After an excellent trip on Japan’s amazing train system, we rode the funicular up Mount Koya to Koyasan. February temperatures were cold, and snow covered the ground.

Koyasan was founded 1200 years ago by the Buddhist priest Kukai who was posthumously known as Kobu Daishi, and it remains an active monastic center in Esoteric Buddhism. Many of the temples receive guests in a Shukubo, an accommodation that is part of their activities, and we stayed at Shukubo Eko-in Temple.

The temple grounds are peaceful, and our accommodations were excellent. We appreciated many traditional Japanese details such as shoji (sliding doors), straw tatami mats on the floor, sleeping on futons, kotatsu (a low table on the floor with a heater underneath to keep your legs warm), green tea, yukata (casual robes), wearing slippers after removing our shoes, and onsen (hot baths with natural mineral water supplied from the Koyasan mountains).

Goma Fire Ritual

Goma Fire Ritual

Guests are invited to participate in the temple’s services, and we joined monks and other guests in an evening meditation service, which they graciously led in English as well as Japanese. As we meditated, I could see my breath in the cold air of the temple. The following morning, we attended the main morning service and a Goma Fire Ritual, which is believed to have cleansing effects physically and spiritually.

 

 

The delicious food was Syojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, and we were served on trays in a private dining room.

One of my highlights was sitting with my children in worship experiences that were very different from those they have known in our Christian church. They noted both similarities (candles, sacred books, prayers, monetary offerings) and differences (sitting on the floor, a drum and gong, food on the altar, Buddhist monks).

Photo of dinner taken by my son, Jonathan

Photo of dinner taken by my son, Jonathan

One of my hopes in our round-the-world adventure is to allow our children to experience things that are both similar to and different from their regular lives — and to find that good things occur in a variety of places.

I think that happened at Shukubo Eko-in Temple.