Taking your kids to a garden for the day might not be the first thing that comes to your mind when planning a fun filled day. Visiting Gardens by the Bay though was our top choice this summer when we talked about where we wanted to go. Our son had seen a video of the Supertrees and the more we checked out Gardens by the Bay the more excited we got about visiting the whole venue! We actually ended up making our way back to Gardens by the Bay several times during our stay in Singapore. It is completely free to enter Gardens by the Bay but some attractions do require an additional fee. We really appreciate that Gardens by the Bay invited Family in Faraway Places to visit!
We started the day at the OCBC Skyway. We wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the area and we figured it would be super-hot later in the day. The OCBC Skyway is a 22 meter high and 128 meter long walkway among the Supertrees. It’s a narrow walkway and you’re only allotted 15 minutes at the top to allow other guests time. I’m nervous about heights and while I wished we could have had more time, I really appreciated that it wasn’t overly crowded. At one point I was taking a photo and a woman shoved me out of the way to go in the opposite direction (the path is only one way). One of the Skyway workers stopped her immediately and came over to make sure I was ok. I was so impressed with the care they took. Amazing views to match as well! You can see much of Marina Bay as well as the gardens from up top. Though we started our day on the OCBC Skyway other popular times are at sunset and when the Supertrees are lit up.
Child (3-12 years old): $5
9 am – 9 pm
Gardens by the Bay’s cool mist conservatory, Cloud Forest is kept between 23°C and 25°C. That alone got us in the door! Cloud Forest showcases plants from tropical highlands. The exhibit around a 35 meter mountain and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall! The waterfall is SO cool. Make sure to look down because there were some pretty great rainbows in the mist of the falls when we were there.
After checking out the falls you can take an elevator up to the top of the mountain and then make your way back down along walkways through the mist. We really liked the little display of Lego carnivorous plants. Keep your eye out for them!
Admission (to get into both the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome):
Child (3-12 years old): $15
Discounts available for local residents.
Far East Organization Children’s Garden Playground
Bring your swimsuit! In the Far East Organization Children’s Garden there is a splash pad and water play area for little ones. There are water play and playground zones for both toddlers and older kids. The 6-12 year old playground has two rain forest tree houses with bridges swaying among the trees!
Lunch – Mc Donald’s
I know. I know! We’re in Singapore and eating at Mc Donald’s. There are several dining options around Gardens by the Bay but the fast food giant is also there and is in a very central location. We wanted to grab just a quick bite to eat before we continued on our way.
We were feeling pretty sleepy by now so we headed over to the Flower Dome. Like Cloud Forest, the Flower Dome is also a temperature controlled area so it’s a great place to take a rest and cool down. The Flower Dome is the largest glass greenhouse in the world and is divided into different geographical regions from Mediterranean and semi-arid parts of the world. We wandered around and ended up resting for a while in the olive grove under beautiful big trees. The succulent garden though was our favorite by far!
Admission (to get into both the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome):
Child (3-12 years old): $15
Discounts available for local residents.
Hours: 9 am – 9 pm
Far East Organization Children’s Garden Playground
We visited the water park in the morning and the playground in the afternoon. See above.
Dinner – Satay by the Bay
We were really looking to try some local dishes in a kid friendly environment that wouldn’t make me sick. (I always get sick when we travel!) We were really surprised to come across a place like Satay by the Bay at Gardens by the Bay. At Satay by the Bay there are 19 food stalls which serve up local dishes, and 6 satay carts as well as a bar and bistro. The prices are cheap, the food is good, and the environment casual.
Kingfisher Lake, Water Lily Pond, and Waterfront Promenade
After dinner we spent some time walking around Kingfisher Lake, Water Lily Pond and the Waterfront Promenade. Despite being in the city there is plenty of wildlife to be fond here. We found turtles in the ponds as well as fish, monitor lizards along the promenade, and all sorts of birds and bugs.
Supertree Light Show
The whole reason we originally wanted to come to Singapore was to see the Supertrees! Twice a day Garden’s by the Bay puts on a FREE Supertree light show to an arrangement of musical theater show tunes. Just pull up a spot on the grass lawn for a wider view or you can sit on the pavement right under the trees. During certain celebrations throughout the year the light show is also performed to different music arrangements. Check Garden’s by the Bay’s website to find out when there is a special arrangement.
We loved the show! We liked it so much in fact that we came twice during our stay and if we had had time we would have come again. Our son couldn’t stop talking about it and even now that we’re home in he goes on and on about the Supertree show whenever he sees a photo. Garden’s by the Bay and the Supertrees are definitely worth the trip to Singapore!
Admission: Free Performances: 7:45 pm and 8:45 pm daily
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This Japan itinerary contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. All opinions in this Japan itinerary are my own.
Our Route from Osaka to Tokyo
When we travel with our son we take a slightly slower pace than we did before we had kids. If we try to fit in too many activities in the day, it is a surefire way to overwhelm him. So, we usually head out fairly early in the morning (he’s an early riser) right after breakfast and come back to our hotel around lunch time. He’s 4 now so he doesn’t usually need a nap anymore but quiet play time still helps him to recharge his batteries. The in the late afternoon or evening we head out for a while closer to our home base.
For this Japan itinerary we visited Osaka, Koyasan, Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo and Narita. So we didn’t have to double back we flew into Osaka and out of Narita. Our visits to Koyasan, Nara and Narita were just day trips but longer overnight stays would be fantastic for longer itineraries. Our son enjoys visiting temples and traditional sites, especially if he can have ice cream! He’s also HUGE fan of technology, vehicles and robotics so this Japan itinerary was a balance between the old and the new.
Do You Need a JR PASS for Your Japan Itinerary?
Whenever there is talk about traveling to Japan people of course recommend the JR Pass. The 7, 14 or 21 day JR Pass allows visitor to ride many JR group trains, and buses but there are limitations. It is a good idea to enter your Japan itinerary route into a Japan Rail Pass Calculator like this one (there are others available online as well). We found that for our Japan itinerary we would not save any money getting the JR Pass. We also chose to take the Nozomi Shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo and at this time it isn’t covered under the JR Pass.
Days 1 to 3: Osaka Plus a Daytrip to Koyasan
The 5 tiered Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and a must visit for anyone coming to the city.
Not only is the castle beautiful but it is surrounded by large grounds and Osaka Castle Park. It is a great place to stretch your legs after a long flight. There are also a fair number of food trucks set up inside the gates as well. You can also find people feeding the pigeons which our son thought was great.
Best seen at night, Dotonbori is Osaka’s well known downtown area. It is full of great places to shop but most people come to see the brightly colored neon billboards and quirky signs of giant sea creatures which line the canal.
It is also home to quite a few well known restaurants. The lines to get into these restaurants can be incredibly long so it is best to get there early or try your luck at one of the less known places. We ducked into a small ramen restaurant and it was great as well! There are also sometimes free concerts along the canal in the evening. The day we visited we happened to catch Kamen Joshi.
Koyasan – Day Trip from Osaka
The UNESCO world heritage site, Mount Koya is home to more than 100 temples as well as Japan’s largest cemetery Okunoin. More than 200,000 monks have found their final resting place in Okunoin. This incredibly sacred place is also hauntingly beautiful. Green moss covers the grave marker and thousand year old cedar trees tower overhead.
Koyasan is approximately 2 hours from Osaka so it is an easy day trip. In bad weather though, it is best to check that the cable car is still running. We ended up traveling during one of the heaviest snowfalls they had seen in ages and ended up with more excitement than we bargained for!
Other Fantastic Sites in Osaka to Add to a Japan Itinerary
Nara is close enough to both Osaka and Kyoto to make it a daytrip from either location. We decided to stop over in Nara as we traveled from Osaka to Kyoto. There are places to store your bags in the train stations and at the Nara City Tourist Information Center.
The ancient city is home to some amazing sites such as Todaiji and Yakushiji temples. Nara is best known for the more than 1,200 deer that roam freely in Nara Park. I was a little worried about bringing a very excited 4 year old to see the deer but they were perfectly gentle. Vendors sell crackers that you can feed the deer but expect to get swarmed by a group of deer if you bring out a snack for one.
Days 5 to 8: Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple
As pretty as the Golden Temple is we felt a bit underwhelmed because there were massive crowds. We just happened to arrive exactly when several tour busses pulled up. You enter the gates and everyone must follow the same route shuffling along with the group and leaning over to take photos the best they can. It was just our luck that the sky completely clouded over when we went through. We stopped to grab some ice cream and suddenly the sky was bright blue and the crowds had cleared.
I don’t know if going back in a second time is allowed but I was able to duck back in and get a few more photos. There isn’t much else to do at the Golden Castle but it is an iconic site so worth the trip. It is best to arrive early or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Or you can try your luck waiting for a break in the tours because as quickly as they come, they are gone just as fast.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Along with tourists to this popular site, worshipers have been visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha since around 711. Inari is the patron of businesses and the god of rice. The shrine is well known for it’s bright orange torii (arches) and fox statues (messengers).
Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine was so much bigger than I ever expected! We arrived early and made our way to the first set of torii (the red orange arches). Everyone around us was getting frustrated trying to get a great photo. Little did we know that there are pathways all the way up to the top of the mountain with torii galore! We tried to make the two hour hike to the top of the mountain but turned back about 30 minutes from the top. We realized that we were going to have to make it back down with a 4 year old in tow and we were all getting tired. The assent is gradual though and it is easy to explore.
Gion and Geisha (Geiko)
The reason I wanted to go to Kyoto was to try to see a REAL Geisha (or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto). We were successful our second night! You can read more about how we were able to find Geisha in Kyoto here.
It takes a lot of patience though so we made sure to allot several nights to exploring the Gion which is Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Even without Geisha, the Gion has many beautiful old buildings and is very atmospheric at night especially in the Shimbashi area.
Kyoto Train Museum
The Kyoto Train Museum is the largest railway museum in Japan with a stock of 53 trains and train cars. It is a 3 story museum with lots of interactive displays and hands on exhibits.
It also has Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional fee you can take a 10 minute ride on one! It is by far the most memorable museum we have visited in Japan.
Other Fantastic Sites in Kyoto to Add to a Japan Itinerary
On past trips to Japan we had seen Mount Fuji from a distance on clear days in Tokyo but we wanted to see it more closely. We also had no desire to climb it and how long can you spend looking at Mount Fuji with a 4 year old really? We found the perfect solution! The Nozomi Shinkansen which we had also been wanting to experience goes right past Mount Fuji on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can see Mount Fuji for about half of the trip and the train passes by closely enough that you can get a pretty decent photo.
Days 9 to 13: Tokyo
We love Odaiba! During our visit to Tokyo we visited nearly every day. The Odiaiba area of Tokyo is a man made island which has been developed as a shopping and leisure destination. The Yurikamone elevated train ride across to the island is quite fun itself as there is great views of the harbor and Rainbow Bridge as the train track loops over the water. If you are really lucky, try to get the first seat in the first car for a drivers view!
Once in Odaiba there is plenty to keep you busy for days. Odiaba is perhaps most well known for being the home of the life sized Gundam statue which was taken down on March 5th 2017. A new one will be erected in the fall of 2017 but until then there is still plenty to do and see on the island. At Decks Tokyo Beach you can find a Legoland Discovery Center and Madam Tussauds wax museum. Toyota Mega Web is a Toyota showroom, and museum with attractions including test drives.
Right next door is one of the world’s biggest Ferris Wheels. The National Museum of Emerging Science (Miraikan) where the robot Asimo puts on daily displays is also in Odaiba. The list goes on and on so click here to read more!
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market really isn’t kid friendly. It’s a busy and active wholesale market and it really isn’t set up for tourists. The famous tuna auctions happen very early in the morning and are limited to 120 people per day who have applied in advance. Danny is a chef though and wanted to at least check it out. After 10 am when the majority of the sales have been finished the public is allowed to enter into the wholesale seafood area. By noon though most vendors have packed up and gone home leaving a very short window of time to visit.
I’m glad we went just to be able to say we have been. The vendors were very nice to us and we were given some free samples as they were cleaning up for the day. The area is wet, messy and there are forklifts and such rushing about so we opted to carry our son on our shoulders. The outdoor market is open to the public any time and is easier to navigate with little ones.
Nakamise shopping street lines the way through the Asakusa district of Tokyo to Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple). The shopping street is primarily made up of souvenir shops and little snack places. This is where we ended up trying black sesame ice cream! The dark grey color was awesome and the taste OK but it’s not going to end up being on my top 5 list.
At the end of Nakamise shopping street you’ll find Asakusa temple which was built in the 7th century. Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) is probably the best known image of this temple with its giant lantern. This is a very popular site so during holidays and weekends it gets incredibly busy. Kannonura Street in Asakusa is also one of the few areas where you may be lucky to spot a Geisha in Tokyo. If luck is not on your side when you visit, Konnonura Street is still a beautiful and historic area.
Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree
There are two towers in Tokyo which you can visit to get a great view of the city. The original bright orange Tokyo Tower is 333 meters high and is the tallest self-supported steel tower in the world with observation decks at 150 meters and 250 meters. The newer (2012) Tokyo Skytree is 634 meters tall and has observation decks at 350 meters and 450 meters.
We chose to visit Tokyo Tower. Though the views at the Skytree are of course more impressive it was the cost that made us decide to visit the original Tokyo Tower instead. To visit the first observation deck at Tokyo Tower it only cost us about $8 USD each, whereas the Skytree was going to cost us about $18 USD each.
JAXA Tsukuba Space Center – Half Day Trip From Tokyo
About a 45 minuet train ride from Tokyo is JAXA Tsukuba Space Center in Tsukuba city. You can join a tour of the KIBO (the Japanese science module for the International Space Station) Flight Control Room and the astronaut training facility. Advanced reservations for English speaking tours are recommended.
A lot of people go to Narita only for the airport. Just by chance we stayed at a hotel one night a bit away from the airport because we had an early flight. Bored and wanting to just get out and walk a bit we were suddenly walking along Narita Omotesando (path leading to a temple).
The narrow one kilometer street is lined with old buildings now housing souvenir shops including traditional foods and handicrafts, and restaurants. It twists and turns until it reaches Naritasan Temple (Narita-san Shinsho-ji ). Built around 940 the temple is and grounds are quite large and very popular. It’s a great place to spend a few hours before your flight!
Check out our other Japan Guide on the best places to find cars, trains, robots and rockets here!
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I’m Canadian, my husband is from the Philippines and our son was born in Korea (You can read more about our family’s story here!). We of course want our son to love and appreciate his Filipino heritage and a big part of that is learning to speak Tagalog. By being able to speak Tagalog he will be able to connect with his father’s country and join in conversations with his family and other Filipinos more deeply than if he only spoke English.
Teaching him to speak Tagalog while we live in Korea though has been a challenge. Our son attends preschool taught in Korean and he hears Korean everywhere when he leaves the house. My husband and I speak English to each other and it’s easy to find English books, videos and toys either in Korea or online. Though I have studied Tagalog, teaching it to our son is primarily left up to daddy and it isn’t even his first language.
My husband grew up in Negros Occidental on the border of the Ilonggo and Cebuano language regions. They spoke one language at home and when they went to the market they spoke the other. When he started school his classes were in English and Tagalog so, by the time he was 6 years old he was using the 4 languages on a regular basis. After college he would go on to learn to speak Japanese while living there for 2 years and later learnt to speak Korean before going to Korea to work. I’ve seen him have conversations with groups of people switching back and forth between 3 – 4 different languages! So while he can speak Tagalog he doesn’t use it often and sometimes he struggles to find the words for things.
We tried using the very effective one parent one language technique in our home. I would speak English and my husband Tagalog but since my husband and I were speaking English to each other we would always forget to have him switch to Tagalog when he spoke with our son. Despite knowing many families in Korea with at least one Filipino parent, we have only been able to find 2 families in our city who were also teaching their children Tagalog. One has left and we have lost contact with the other family. A cultural center in our city offered us free space to hold language and cultural classes for Filipino kids but there was no interest from the Filipino community. We have visited Filipino groceries, sporting events, restaurants and churches to expose our son to Tagalog here in Korea as well but people go to these places to spend time with their friends and so he may hear the language but doesn’t get to practice it much at all.
We realized that we were going to have to collect resources to help us to teach our son. Here are some we have used. I hope they can help your family as well!
Tagalog for Kids Flash Cards
We bought the Tuttle Tagalog for Kids and the More Tagalog for Kids flashcards before our son was even born! Each set includes 64 cards, an audio CD, a poster wall chart and a learning guide for parents with teaching suggestions. On the front of the card is a simple graphic in color with the word in Tagalog. On the back of the card is the English translation and a couple of sentences using the vocabulary word. The CD includes the pronunciation of the words, sentences and some songs.
Before our son could even talk he loved looking through the cards and having us tell him over and over what they said. We visited the Philippines for the first time when he was about a year and a half old and as soon as we got out of the airport he started pointing and excitedly yelling “Jeepney! Jeepney!” He had learnt about Jeepney from these cards. Though they are made from strong paper I would recommend having the cards laminated if possible. We ended up laminating ours and it has made them easier to clean and more difficult to damage. Now that our son is older we can work on the sentences with him.
We struggled a bit to find good books in Tagalog but over the past 4 years more have been showing up on the market. We wanted fun and educational stories for our son but we found that a lot of the available Tagalog books are religious or political in content even for very small children. While this is fine for many families, we wanted to keep the topics more lighthearted when he was very young. Another reoccurring theme in many children’s’ books are balikbayan returnee stories. These are a fantastic resource for children who are learning Tagalog because their families are going to move to the Philippines. In our case I was worried that if our son keeps on reading about how he should be moving back to the Philippines he might feel guilty about living abroad. I might be worrying too much though!
It is possible to get books for children in Tagalog online and at the National Bookstore in the Philippines but at the bookstore the Tagalog selection is far smaller than the English book section. At two of the National Bookstores we visited in the Philippines the employees didn’t even know where the Tagalog children’s book sections were! My husband and I had to search through all the aisles and show them. It was really shocking!
Here are some of our favorite Tagalog kids books:
Lakas and the Manilatown Fish / Si Lakas at ang Isdang Manilatown
Lakas and the Manilatown Fish / Si Lakas at ang Isdang Manilatown was the very first Tagalog book that we got for our son. The story follows Lakas through Manila town in San Francisco as he chases a magical fish and meets unusual characters along the way. It is a dual language book. On the left side the story is written in Tagalog and on the right it is written in English so in our family daddy reads it in Tagalog and mommy reads it in English. It is aimed at children age 5 and up but we started reading it to our son when he was a baby. The beautiful illustrations kept his attention and he just enjoyed listening to us. Years later, he still enjoys it. The author and illustrator have released a second book Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel / Si Lakas at ang Makibaka Hotel but we have not had the chance to read it yet.
The book Filipino Friends has been created in the same style as the classic English language Richard Scarry books. The objects in the illustrations have been labeled in both English and Tagalog. The story is only in English though. Included among the pages are points teaching about Filipino culture, foods and even a simple recipe for kalamansi juice! We enjoy singing Bahay Kubo together when we reach that section of the book. This book does end up being a balikbayan returnee story but it is so full of fun cultural bits we just couldn’t pass it up!
The illustrations alone in Tagu-Taguan are reason to buy this Filipino counting book! From sampu to isa the reader travels through the garden counting different insects. This book is a bit too difficult for children who are learning to count to read on their own but is a great book to read together as a family. Our son is an insect and number lover so this book was an instant favorite!
We actually have 3 books in this series. “Kokak! Kokak!”, “ Mmmmm… Sarap!” and “Prrrrrt…Utot!” There are others in the series as well by the same author and illustrator. They’re funny little books with simple big graphics and few words on the page for young learners. They can be purchased online and shipped internationally through http://www.anvilpublishing.com/ We got ours at National Bookstore and will be looking for more the next time we visit!
Adarna House Books
Adarna House Books have been publishing quality books for newborn to teenaged Filipino children since 1980. The following books can all be purchased through http://adarna.com.ph/ and shipped internationally. They are also available at the National Book Store in the Philippines
The award winning Dumaan si Butiki follows a cute little lizard up and down and around the house. It is a young learner’s board book that teaches locations as the little lizard goes left, right, up and under. It can be purchased online and shipped internationally through we purchased our copy in the Philippines.
We love carabao (just like lolo’s!) and so any book that features them is a hit in our family! Ang Mabait na Kalabaw is a dual language book with Tagalog at the top of the page and English at the bottom. The good carabao is a role model of good behavior as he goes about his day. There are items to count on each page as well starting at 1 on the first page and finishing with 13 in the last illustration.
This Bagan travel guide contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you. All opinions in this Bagan travel guide are my own.
Much of our trip to Myanmar was focused around trying to find a connection to my family who had once lived there as part of the British Colonies. We visited Bagan though purely as tourists. We have traveled to Borobudur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia but there is something uniquely special about Bagan. There are more temples to explore than at Borobudur and it currently is much less touristy than Angkor Wat. Find some great tips in this Bagan travel guide.
Before we went to Myanmar we read a lot of posts from people online suggesting that tourists should not buy the entrance tickets to Bagan. The writers offered tips on how to avoid paying and they promised that no one would ask to see your ticket when you traveled around the city.
It’s still true that you probably won’t be asked to show your ticket. In 5 days we were only asked to show it once. There are now ticket booths before the exit from the airport in Bagan though so skipping out on paying the fee is not as easy as before. You would need some careful planning to avoid it and at a reasonable 25,000 Kyat or $22 USD per person (our 3 year old son was free) it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. We lined up, got our ticket and were out the door in less than 5 minutes.
Throughout the desert landscape of Bagan there are more than 2000 temples and other religious structures still standing from the 11th to 13th century. Some of the smaller ones can even be found in the backyards of homes with kids playing soccer around them. The atmosphere around the temples is pretty relaxed and visitors can climb up or go into, nearly any that they wish. But these are still places of worship and religious significance for many. Therefore, shoes must be taken off before you set foot on or in a temple out of respect and to help preserve the monuments.
On August 25th, 2016 a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Bagan damaging many of the temples. Restoration is underway and looks like it will continue for quite some time to come. With the devastation a bit of a silver lining has emerged for the city. Much of the damage that occurred was actually restoration work from the 1990’s which had been done quickly and not using original materials. As a result, Bagan did not qualify for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Aung San Suu Kyi has insisted that the process of restoration be taken slowly and under the guidance of UNESCO. Hopefully when the work is done Bagan will be better than ever and will hold the much deserved status!
Getting around Bagan is pretty easy and economical. We stayed in the Nyaung U area which is within walking distance of quite a few restaurants, shops, and some smaller temples. You will need some sort of transportation to visit the big temples though.
Many places rent bicycles for less than $2 USD a day and some accommodations proved them for free. The area is very flat and so it is an easy ride if you set out early in the morning or late in the afternoon. When the sun is high in the sky the city is incredibly hot and options like e-bikes (around $6 a day) or a car with a driver (around $15 for half a day or $35 for the whole day) may be better options. There is even the popular option of taking a hot air balloon ride over the temples as the sun rise!
Many tourist sites recommend that you spend around 2 days in Bagan but we were there for 5 and we left wishing for more time to explore!
Hot air balloon crew returning after a morning flight
Bagan with Kids
We found Bagan to be really kid friendly! The side streets were quiet and our son joined other kids chasing bubbles and playing. People in Bagan love kids and they went the extra mile to make sure we were all ok. A group of men even showed him how to play a board game during their lunch breaks. Some hotels in the area have swimming pools as well so kids (and adults!) to cool down a bit from the afternoon heat.
Going into and around the temples with kids is very easy but climbing up them is much more of a challenge. The many of the steps are very narrow and you have to walk down some of them sideways! We used our Manduca baby carrier to get our son up and down some of the more steep temples. Even then it was a bit precarious. Not all of them are this difficult though and it is completely doable especially if you just take it slow and steady.
Before we traveled to Indonesia I knew embarrassingly little about the country. I knew about Jakarta because we know some people from there. I had of course heard of Bali but actually hadn’t realized for the longest time that Bali was part of Indonesia. And I knew about the fantastic Komodo Dragons. I had never heard of Borobudur. We came across it while planning our vacation and instantly knew visiting it was going to be the highlight of our trip. Amazing as the 9th century Buddhist temple is, it’s even more amazing at sunrise so we decided to plan a Borobudor sunrise tour.
Options for Seeing the Sunrise
There are a large number of tours that go to the temple from Yogyakarta which is around an hour from Borobudur. They tend to start off from your hotel around 3:30 am and arrive at 4:30 am at Manohara Hotel within the grounds of the temple. Another option is to stay at Manohara Hotel itself so you just wake up and go. Since we were traveling with our son we decided to stay at Manohara Hotel. He’s an early riser (he was getting up at 4 am most days then) but we thought that waking him up at 3:30 am and then driving for an hour to the Borobudor sunrise tour would be pushing it.
There are also some smaller guesthouses that have been popping up just outside of the temple. If you stay in one of them you can wake up closer to the start of the Borobudor sunrise tour, bike over to Manohara and join the sunrise group. In hindsight, I wish we had done that. Some visitors try to be there right at 6:00am when the gates open and then make their way up to the temple without the sunrise tour. Depending on the time of year, the sun may not be completely up yet and it is possible to climb the temple in time to see the sun rise in all its glory. When we visited, “blue hour” occurred around 5am. Then around 5:50am there was a pastel light of dawn, followed nearly right at 6am by a brilliant orange sky. The dramatic colors only lasted less than 15 minutes though, so on the day we went you would have really had to run from the front gate and then up the stairs to catch it with a 6am start.
We flew from Bali to Yogyakarta and stayed at the Hyatt Regency for a night. The hotel was a bit beyond our price range for the trip but considering it is a Hyatt hotel, the price (around $70 USD a night including buffet breakfast) was very reasonable. We did have an issue with a double booking that was eventually cleared up when we got back home but we were there for the pool and the pool is spectacular! This was our peace offering to our son for dragging him around to a bunch of temples. There was a huge winding pool in a garden setting accented with buildings in the style of Borobudur. The waterslide even came out of a temple! There were stone bridges, a basketball net, and even a waterfall. The pool alone is worth the visit!
The following morning we were picked up by the driver we had arranged to take us to Manohara Hotel. It was pouring rain. Absolutely pouring down and we were starting to feel a bit worried about our sunrise tour. The streets were flooded and it didn’t look like the rain was going to give up any time soon. Our driver assured us though that we had nothing to worry about and that after a big storm, the sunrises were always spectacular.
We arrived at Manohara Hotel and were checked in quickly. The grounds were beautiful and there right outside the dining area was Borobudur in all its glory. It was still raining so we didn’t explore the temple much that day.
The hotel itself though was less than spectacular. They have a monopoly in the area and it seems like the owners are taking advantage of the fact. Our bathroom was filthy with hair and dirt everywhere. Our shower had hot water for less than 2 minutes. I’ve since read other reviewers have mentioned this as well so it wasn’t the first time it had happened. The staff acted very surprised and said they would come and fix it but never did. There were ants everywhere in the room. I left my toothpaste out on the counter and when I woke up in the morning there were hundreds of ants covering it. We continued to find ants in our luggage for days after we left the hotel. The food in the restaurant was also overpriced and poor quality. Our stay at the Hyatt outside of Yogyakarta had been cheaper so we were really quite annoyed.
Borobudor Sunrise Tour
The convenience of just being able to roll out of bed and go straight to the Borobudor sunrise tour was fantastic though. We got out of bed around 4 am, gathered our things and met the people coming from other hotels joining the Borobudor sunrise tour at the front desk by 4:30. We were given flashlights, put our son on my husband’s back in our Manduca baby carrier and followed our escort to the temple. There was nearly no light at all as we walked up to the temple but luckily there are railings going along the steps that you can hold on to.
It stayed fairly dark for about 15 minutes more until blue hour came and we started to take photos. While there is plenty of room to get a great photo without anyone in it, the light from all the people using their phone’s cameras can get really annoying when you are trying to set up a shot.
Blue hour faded into a pinkish dawn as we listened to the morning prayers being broadcast on loudspeakers and watched the mist roll through the trees.
We had been up at the top of the temple for about an hour and the sun was quite high in the sky. People were starting to make their way back down the stairs and though it was pretty we were feeling a bit let down. Our driver had promised a spectacular sunrise. Suddenly at almost precisely 6:05 am the sky changed to brilliant oranges, reds and yellows! We were told that it was the most spectacular sunrise they had had in a month.
The brilliant colors lasted less than 10 minutes but we stayed for another hour just watching and listening.
Open hours: 6 am – 5 pm
Foreign Visitor: 280,000 IDR per person Domestic Visitor: 30,000 IDR per person
Borobudur Sunrise Tour or Sunset tour (via Manohara Hotel)
Foreign Visitor: 400,000 IDR per person Hotel Guests: 250,000 IDR per person Domestic Visitor: 270,000 IDR per person Kids 1-5: Free Kids 6-10: 50% the adult price
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This Japan guide contains affiliate links which means if you click on one of the affiliate links and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. All opinions in this Japan guide are my own.
There’s no denying that Japan is the place to go for technology lovers. Our son is a fan of absolutely everything mechanical so on the latest of our family vacations to Japan we decided to plan our trip as a balance between traditional Japanese culture and machines. In this Japan guide find out where to go on your family vacations in Japan to see cars, trains, rockets and robots!
In the Odaiba area of Tokyo just across the Rainbow Bridge you can find Toyota Mega Web in the Pallet Town shopping area. The car “theme park” is divided into the Toyota City Showcase, Ride Studio, History Garage, and Ride One.
Toyota City Showcase and History Garage
Toyota City Showcase is free to visit and has on display around 60 of Toyota’s current model cars. A really nice thing about this area is you can actually get inside many of the cars to check them out, even if you are 4 years old and not planning on buying a car for a couple of years! We could have left our son there all day as he dreamed of being a race car driver.
On the second floor is the Toyota Gazoo Racing Garage with serval cars from the Toyota Gazoo racing team on display and a motor sports simulator. The simulator allows visitors to play the Playstation 3 game Gran Turismo 6 for free for about 5 minutes. There is a line but we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for our turn when we visited. Even though there is a height requirement of 135cm in order to reach the pedals, we were allowed to play the game with our son on our lap.
If you love classic cars you are going to want to check out the History Garage. The first time we visited Mega Web we completely missed it since it is not in the same area as the City Showcase. There are some really nice cars including a DeLorean which made mommy and daddy happy but this area is less interactive so our son was ready to go back to the showcase area quickly.
Ride Studio and Ride One
Ride Studio allows kids to give driving a try in their own kid sized cars. There are several different tracks and cars that kids can try out depending on their age and height. The price ranges from 200 – 300 yen. We visited a bit after 6pm one evening and they let our son try out one of the cars for free since they were getting ready to close up for the day.
Kids under 12 require a guardian’s signature to drive the cars and the rules were quite strict. Our 4 year old struggled to understand the traffic rules and daddy had to stay right with him the entire time on the course to make sure he followed the traffic lights. But he still enjoyed the chance to drive!
Ride One is the adult version of Ride Studio. Adults with a valid Japanese driver’s license or an international driving permit can test drive a vehicle of their choice around a 1.3 km driving course for 300 yen. There are a large variety of cars to choose from but advanced reservation is encouraged.
The Kyoto Railway Museum was by far our favorite museum! It is a quite new museum that opened in April 2016 with lots of trains on display and to explore as well as interactive exhibits. It is a bit expensive. Adults pay 1,200 yen, teens 1,000 and kids 500 but it was worth every yen. It is the largest railway museum in Japan and you can easily spend the day there.
The 3 story museum has trains on display both inside and outdoors. There is a rolling stock of 53 trains and train cars including steam, diesel, and electric locomotives, Shinkansen, EMUs, DMUs, coaches and wagons. The outdoor roundhouse displays Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional 300 yen visitors can take a 10 minute ride on a steam train.
Riding the Nozomi train between Kyoto and Osaka was the perfect accompaniment to our train museum visit. The Nozomi is the fastest train service in Japan on the Takaido/Sanyo Shinkansen lines and reaches up to 300km/hour. For a portion of the trip the tracks pass right by Mount Fuji giving a fantastic view for quite some time!
To be honest, I think my impression of this museum was influenced by the fact that it took us so very long to get there. It is only about a 45 minute train ride from Tokyo if you take the express train. Make sure you take the express train! If you don’t you’re looking at a very slow train that stops at every station and takes hours. Want to make a guess as to which train we accidentally took?
So, when we got to the museum we were tried and grumpy. We walked into the Space Dome and wondered “Is this it?” The Space Dome is only one large room but it is free and has some interesting items on display.
Our son enjoyed the full sized mockup of “KIBO” the Japanese science module for the International Space Station and insisted that daddy help him to “float” like the astronauts. Kibo alone kept him occupied for about 30 minutes. There is also a full sized rocket in the museum grounds that you can walk around and a nice little gift shop with some astronaut ice cream which we all love.
If you’re in the area it is a nice little museum but I wouldn’t make the trip there a second time with a younger child. Older children and adults though can take part in a guided tour of the KIBO Flight Control Room and the Astronaut Training Facility. The 70 minute tour includes seeing real-time operations of KIBO which sounds pretty cool! Advanced reservations for English tours are recommended since it is not always available.
Other Japan guide places to check out space technology:
We visited the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation(Miraikan) to meet one of the world’s most famous robots, ASIMO. Four times a day ASIMO puts on an approximately 10 minute presentation. He walks around, waves, runs and kicks a soccer ball among other things. We were quite surprised by how smoothly ASIMO moves and expected much more jerky movements. We really wished that the presentation had been a bit longer or that we had been able to see ASIMO up close. After the presentation ASIMO disappears back behind a door. There are a few other robots and/or androids on display at Miraikan as well which you can get more up close with. They also have a really good gift shop with ASIMO merchandise and all sorts of robots for every ability it seemed.
Gundam is not technically a “robot”. Gundam are mobile suits which are vehicles controlled in a cockpit by humans. But since this article does not have a “mobile suit” category and Gundam have “robotic” characteristics, here it is!
In Odaiba at Diver City Tokyo Plaza stands an 18 meter, life sized RX-78-2 Gundam…or at least it did until March 5th 2017. The Gundam statue has now been removed and by the first week of April the Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba Hotel Gundam theme rooms as well as Gundam Front Tokyo will also be closing. Our family has a lot of great memories visiting the Gundam statue. On our last trip to Tokyo we visited maybe 5 times. I remember the very first time in 2014 that we suddenly saw Gundam come “alive”. We hadn’t known about the performances and were thrilled that Gundam moved and had a light show! We are quite sad to see the RX-78-2 Gundam go.
But fear not! In the fall of 2017 the original Gundam is being replaced with a 24 meter RX-o Unicorn Gundam and The Gundam Base Tokyo will be opening as well. We may need to make another trip to Japan to meet this new Gundam!
Are there any other great places we should add to our Japan guide where you can see cars, trains, robots and rockets? How about some other sites to check out awesome technology in Japan? Tell us what you think about this Japan guide in the comments below!
It’s not an easy question to answer. In recent years there have been quite a few articles and advocates who have encouraged people not to visit the Oslob whale sharks. In order to have the whale sharks returning to the area daily so that visitors can swim with them, feeders give the sharks fish. This has resulted in the whales having an unnatural amount of contact with humans. The artificial feeding behavior has taught the whales to associate people with food. They will now sometimes approach boats rather than staying away from them which can lead to injuries. Injuries can also occur if tourists in the water accidentally kick a shark.
The feeding has also resulted in the sharks having less variety in their diet as they spend more time eating the fish that are given to them rather than plankton and such. Some of the Oslob whale sharks spend up to 6 hours a day feeding instead of foraging naturally. In the future, this could end up causing nutritional problems. Additionally, the migratory patterns of the sharks have also changed. The breeding pool of the sharks or the spread of this vulnerable and declining species may be influenced by this. It is hard to say though as the whale sharks are difficult to study and concrete answers hard to come by. Obviously, the best thing for these Oslob whale sharks is to be freely swimming and living the way nature intended.
Whale shark very closely approaching one of the feeding boats in Oslob
Having tourists visit the Oslob whale sharks is a relatively new practice. Back in 2011 photos of fishermen interacting with Oslob whale sharks were featured in Mail Online. The article was largely positive with conservationist Shawn Heinrich praising the bond that had formed between the sharks and fishermen in Oslob. In other places in the region the same whale sharks were being slaughtered by fishermen. It seems strange that a conservationist would applaud fishermen touching, riding and playing with the sharks until you consider just how bad the slaughter of the whale shakes in the region is.
The ban was a great first step but not all in the Philippines have welcomed it. The sharks can interfere with the catch of the fishermen who already struggle to make a living. Even as recent as 2015 in response to whale sharks and dolphins eating the fish in the major fishing grounds of Tañon Strait, Nelson Garcia, mayor of Dumanjug town in Cebu stated: “I want to kill those whale sharks…Man should be the first to survive, not the whales, not the fish, because we will be violating the Bible. God said, man have dominion over the ocean, the fishes, the birds, the animals, and subdue it. That is the order of God.” Tañon Strait is a rich fishing ground but is also part of the natural migratory path of large marine animals.
Whale sharks also still continue to fetch a lot of money in the Asian market. In China a single whale shark at market can bring in $30,000 USD or more, though the fishermen usually get considerably less than that. About 600 whale sharks a year were killed in just one slaughterhouse in Southern China it was found in an investigation between 2010 and 2013. Then in August 2015 the world was shocked by videos of a whale shark in China (WARNING: Graphic!) being butchered at market while still alive. While the sharks are a protected species in Philippines, China and other countries which do not protect the sharks, share many of these fishing waters as well as the migratory paths of the whale sharks with the Philippines.
Getting the fishermen and local people to see more value in having the whale sharks alive then dead has been key to protecting them. It is easy to say “It is important for our environment to protect the whale sharks!” but when it interferes with your lively hood and ability to provide for your family the choice is not so easy. Groups have instead been working to educate locals and to set up profitable eco-tourism projects in popular whale shark areas.
Donsol Bay and Oslob Whale Sharks
Both Donsol Bay in the Bicol Region of Luzon and Oslob, Cebu are well known for whale sharks. They have both created tourism industries for their small towns around them. As a result the fishermen who once killed them in these areas now protect the whale sharks as tourist dollars bring in more money for them and the entire community.
The major difference between the two sites though is that the whale sharks are not fed in Donsol Bay. This way there is no unnatural feeding, no increased contact with boats, and migratory patterns are not affected. But it also means that there is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark when you go out in your boat even during the peak viewing season. In the past couple of years reports from tourists started to come out that the whale sharks of Donsol Bay were gone. People were sighting one or no sharks for extended periods of time. This continued for a few years and tourism in the area dropped considerably. Though it seems that the whale sharks have been returning to the area, it is hard to lure people back.
By feeding the Oslob whale sharks, Oslob is able to guarantee a sighting of a whale shark to its visitors. Seeing a whale shark in a completely natural environment is much more thrilling but when you’ve traveled from far and wide and paid for the experience, patience is hard to come by. As mentioned before though, there are all sorts of problems with this unnatural feeding behavior. The sheer number of visitors to Oslob has also created issues. In 2014 over 110,000 tourists came to Oslob primarily to see the sharks. Conservation groups have stepped in and regulations have been applied. Tourists are only taken out to the sharks from 6 am – noon each day. Time in the water or boat is limited to 30 minutes. If you plan on going in the water you need to be free from sunscreen to help keep pollutants out of the water etc. Anyone who touches a shark will receive a fine or even jail time.
This does not seem to be enough and suggestions of limiting the number of tourists or stopping the feeding practice have been made repeatedly. They are hard things to put in place though when a guaranteed whale shark sighting means tourists and tourists mean more money for the entire community which doesn’t have many other employment options. The Large Marine Vertebraes Project Philippines (LAMAVE) is a great organization to check out if you would like to know more. They are working in the Philippines to research and educate, while striving to find a balance between marine conservation, and local community development.
Our Experience We visited Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental which is just a short boat ride from Oslob so we decided to go and check out the whale shark situation ourselves. We fully prepared to leave if it looked like the whales were being harmed in any way. We stayed in a guesthouse just outside of the town away from the sharks and wished we hadn’t. In there weren’t many restaurants and our guesthouse didn’t offer meals beyond breakfast. Nearly all of the businesses catering to travelers seemed to be around the whale shark viewing area.
Before we visited the sharks we spoke with some of the boatmen, restaurant owners and other locals. They told us the stories of how in the past many fishermen in the area (or even themselves!) would attack or kill the sharks to keep them away from their catch. Now though they loved the sharks and wanted to keep them healthy and safe. Following the rules and restrictions that had been recommended by outside organizations meant to them that tourist dollars would keep coming into the area. If there are no sharks or the area gets a bad reputation the tourists will go and so will their jobs.
The people we spoke to at the feeding site took their jobs and the safety of the sharks very seriously. It seemed like a well-respected job in the community that many were competing for. Around 300 people work at the feeding site not to mention all the other jobs in the community created to care for tourists. Some mentioned though that they felt that some of the money generated from the whale sharks which was supposed to go into developing the town was being used by other areas in the region instead. I really don’t know about the financial allocations though.
We decided to go out in a boat to see the sharks based on the positive stories we had been told. We traveled in August and arrived around 7:30 am. There were not many people and so the three of us were sent out in our own boat with 2 staff after the safety briefing. One staff member would keep our boat in place while the other took photos for us (for an additional fee). If you are a strong swimmer you can get into the water to view the sharks underwater though most people stayed in the boats. If traveling with a small child it is best to bring your own lifejacket since they may not have the correct size for little ones.
We did not see anyone touch or harass the sharks. The whale sharks did at times though get very close to the boats of the feeders. They may have touched the sides of them. If feeding the sharks is truly necessary (I don’t think it is) it would seem that some sort of alternative could be arranged so that the feeders had no contact with them at all!
We had an incredible experience and feel really lucky to have been able to interact with these beautiful and peaceful sharks. We left with more questions than when we first arrived though. There seems to be no straight cut answer as to how to best protect the sharks. Though Donsol Bay seems to be the clear choice for responsible eco-tourism, I don’t think I would say that you shouldn’t go to see the Oslob whale sharks. The community genuinely appears to want to find a solution that is both beneficial to the sharks but also supports their livelihood. The whales may also have arguably been more at risk when these same boatmen sought to kill them just a few years ago. Rather, supporting groups which actively work to find a balance, and reporting mistreatment or violations when spotted so that practices can be improved may be the way to go. It is clear though, that more can and needs to be done to help protect these gentle giants.
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Once the national capital from 1802-1945, Hue Vietnam is home to the ancient Imperial City (Citadel) and the tombs of several emperors. The ancient sites around Hue Vietnam are spectacularly beautiful and it was well worth the visit. Learn more in this Hue Vietnam travel guide!
This small museum doesn’t appear to even get a mention in the guidebooks but if you are visiting the Imperial City next door and are interested in military exhibits it may be worth a quick visit. The museum is in bad repair. The grass hasn’t been cut in ages and there are large holes in the pavement leading down to the drains below. Staff scurried to turn on fans and lights when we walked in like they weren’t expecting visitors. Inside the museum some photos, small weapons and other wartime paraphernalia can be found.
The only reason we visited (twice!) is that out in front of the museum there is a collection of tanks, a helicopter, a plane and other military vehicles from the Vietnam War. Each vehicle has a plaque with the name of the vehicle as well as the year and place it was captured from. Our son was THRILLED to see a helicopter so close for the first time and excitedly ran back and forth between each vehicle.
Built in 1601, Thien Mu Pagoda is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. This seven story tower is part of the temple complex on Ha Khe Hill just outside of Hue overlooking the Perfume River.
Not only beautiful, the pagoda has strong historical, political and religious significance in the region. In 1963 the Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam saw the Catholic government cracking down on the Buddhists majority (70-90%) in the country and Buddhism. The crisis began when 9 unarmed Buddhist were shot by the army in Hue. Thein Mu Pagoda became a major organizing point for the movement. In protest of this crackdown and the government’s refusal to meet calls for religious equality, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon on June 10th, 1963. There in front of onlookers, reporters and supporters he conducted self-immolation by setting himself on fire.
In the background of this world famous image by Malcom Browne the car he drove can be seen. It is presently on display at Thien Mu Pagoda.
Tombs in Hue Vietnam
There are 7 imperial tombs just outside of Hue but the most commonly visited are the Tombs of Emperor Minh Mang, Emperor Tu Duc and Emperor Khai Dinh. We did not have a chance to go to Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb but made it to the other two. When visiting the popular tombs it is best to get there early in the morning before the tour groups arrive or later in the afternoon when they have gone. It can get crowded! We visited Khai Dinh tomb before 9am because there are a lot of steps and we wanted to avoid climbing them in the heat. By 9:30 the tomb was packed with tourists arriving in tour buses. We then went to Minh Mang tomb and even around 10:30 the tour groups were just starting to arrive. Any driver you hire should be able to advise you on what times to go to beat the crowds. The tour groups seem to have very set roots.
Khai Dinh Tomb
Khai Dinh Tomb took 11 years to build and was completed in 1931. Before his death he visited France resulting in the tomb being a combination of both Western and Eastern styles. Khai Dinh’s tomb is the last of the large imperial tombs in Vietnam. The dragon sculptures along the sides of this temple were the largest dragons in Vietnam though the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang likely now holds this distinction.
Minh Mang Tomb
The construction of this tomb began in September 1840 but by January 1841, Emperor Minh Mang had passed away. The tomb was fully completed by 1843 under the watchful eye of Emperor Thieu Tri. The burial grounds include landscaped lakes, and canals as well as beautiful architecture.
Is Hue Kid Friendly?
We went to Hue when our son was 3.5 years old. In Da Nang, Hoi An and Hanoi we saw a lot of kids his age and some even younger but in Hue he seemed to be one of the youngest. There aren’t a lot of activities aimed at children in Hue and there are no beach resorts so it’s less appealing to parents traveling with really little ones. It seemed to be more popular with families that had kids 8 years old and up.
That being said, Hue is not unfriendly to kids! Many of the sites are free for younger kids. The Imperial City and Tombs offer a lot of space for kids to stretch their legs and to explore and as a vehicle lover our son really enjoyed the small war museum. We would go out early in the morning and then spend our afternoons in our hotel’s pool or playing indoors in our room. There’s a lot of walking so a good baby carrier that allows you to carry little ones on your back like the Manduca baby carrier can be a life saver if your infant to preschooler is too tired to walk. But short early morning trips, ice cream and swimming pools made Hue a great place to visit with a little one. If I were to go back through it would definitely be in the winter months! It was 38 degrees the entire time we were there in July!
Getting In And Out
We traveled to Hue by car from Hoi An through Da Nang. Hoi An to Hue it is about a 3 hour drive and Da Nang to Hue around 2. The driver can take the route either along Hai Van Pass or through Hai Van Tunnel. At a length of 6.28 km, Hai Van Tunnel is the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia and it can save you between 30 minutes to an hour on your trip between Da Nang and Hue. Hai Van Pass though is much more scenic winding up the mountain and along the coast. Most drivers and tour buses choose to dive the route along the coast and stop at the top for a break and to enjoy the views. There are shops and restaurants at the top as well.
Cost for a private car:
Around $60-$75 USD
There are direct flights to Hue Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat and Hanoi. The flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi arrive daily but Dalat only has flights every other day. We decided to drive into Hue and then flew to Hanoi.
It is also possible to book a local bus, train or a tour bus between the two cities. Tour buses seem to be most popular with group tours that are only going to Hue for the day but your hotel should be able to help you make arrangements.
We were in Hue in July and it was HOT. Even in the evening it was hot so we didn’t walk around too much. They do though have a nice park and walkway area along the perfume river. In the evening little shops and restaurants open up and it’s a lovely place to take a stroll.
Taxis in Hue are cheap and your hotel can easily arrange for them to pick you up. When visiting the sites it is quite common to arrange a set price and have the taxi driver wait for you while you visit. This means that many of the taxis you see waiting may not be available. A couple of times we did not make these arrangements and were unable to find another available taxi despite being in the city. We did not run into any large problems with taxis in Hue but twice we were brought to the wrong end of a site even though our hotel had arranged the pickup.
We arranged a private car to visit the tombs outside of the city and to take us to the airport. I wish we had used them our entire time in Hue! They were absolutely fantastic and reasonably priced. There are several companies in the area but here are two we had contact with.
We used this company both times. We were picked up on time (actually the driver was early) in a fantastically clean SUV. Our son was thrilled since he had never driven in a large SUV like this before. All 3 seatbelts in the back were working. Our driver was safe, friendly and knowledgeable. We decided to use the same company when we went to the airport and had the same experience the second time as well.
We did not use this company but I was very impressed with their customer service. Their reviews on TripAdvisor are also high. We needed to make a last minute reservation and they were very quick to respond. They also have baby car seats available for small children. Unfortunately I was not able to connect to the internet at our hotel in the evening and when I finally got through to them they were fully booked for the time we wanted to visit the tombs. They offered us a discount if we would go later in the day or offered to take us the next day instead. We were short on time though and wanted a very early start to beat the heat so we went with a different company.
On our most recent trip to Japan our main goal was to finally make it to Kyoto because (if we were very lucky) I wanted to see a geisha. The exact number of geisha currently working in Japan is not known but it is estimated that there are about 1,000 with the highest concentration in Kyoto. There are about 100 geisha and 100 maiko (geisha apprentice) working in Kyoto.
We booked a hotel near the Gion, Kyoto’s most famous entertainment district where most geisha in Koyoto work. My plan was to go out to the Gion each of the 4 nights we were in Kyoto to just sit and wait and hope to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately our hotel was not as close to the Gion as we had thought.
The first evening we were just too tired and we had an early morning so we didn’t end up making the trip to the Gion. The next night we were too late. Every article we had read had mentioned that we should be in the Gion area around 5:45pm if we wanted to catch a glimpse of a geisha heading to work. Our son had had a late afternoon nap though and we had been given strange walking directions to the Gion.
We found ourselves in the Shimbashi area well after 6pm. It was eerily quiet with only a handful of people walking around. As we walked through the small alleys and side streets you could hear a low murmur coming through some of the glowing doorways as patrons behind the curtained doors enjoyed their meals. On the far side of the Shirakawa river canal large windows allowed us to get a peek into some of the expensive restaurants and clubs.
Shimbashi side street
We then made it over to Hanamikoji Dori. The famous street is less pretty than the Shimbashi area but we had been told that we would have a better chance spotting a geisha there. It was very clear when we arrived though that all the geisha were already at work. If we wanted to try to see one, we would have to wait until their parties ended later that night or try another day. We made our way over to Yasaka Shrine and then called it a day.
Our Last Chance
We didn’t make it back to the Gion until our last night in Kyoto. We took a taxi right to the intersection of Hanamikoji and Shijo Dori and started our search by around 5:20 pm. We slowly made our way down towards Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater (Gion Corner) where visitors can take in traditional performances by maiko for a fee. Looking this way and that, we carefully checked each alleyway. There were kimonos everywhere! We knew before we arrived though that most women we saw in kimono would be tourists. Daily kimono rental is a very popular tourist activity and some places will even make you up to look just like a geisha. There was a lot of “Is she? Is she?” as we walked along. A real giesha or miako is on her way to work though when you spot them in the Gion and so they will not be on the street chatting or stopping for photos.
NOT real geisha
When we made it down to Gion Corner we weren’t exactly sure what to do next except head back the way we came. There was a large group of tourists waiting at infront of Gion Corner and we thought maybe they were waiting there to see some geisha arrive. When their tour guide joined them though they moved along. Further down the street I saw 3 or 4 men with cameras looking down an alley. These men were not tourists. They were middle aged Japanese men wearing business casual and though they were discrete, they didn’t fit in to the fast and noisy crowds around us.
We decided to check it out. There was a middle aged woman with them. I regret that I never got her name. She spoke a little English and we started to chat about where we were from. They were also waiting for Geisha and the photographers asked through her what kind of camera I was using. I replied “Nikon D90”. They all whispered between themselves “Ah! Nikon. Nikon. Nikon.” while nodding. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Apparently I had “chosen wisely” and was now part of their group! The woman told us to wait there for about 5 more minutes and then we should move on to the street near the famous Ichiriki Chaya teahouse.
Seeing Geiko and Maiko
I don’t know where she came from but suddenly she appeared! I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. There are signs throughout the Gion reminding visitors to respect and to give the geisha working there space. Some locals in the community even volunteer to patrol the Gion to watch that overly enthusiastic visitors do not act like paparazzi.
Sign in the Gion
I stayed well back until our guide said “Get in there!” and nudged me to the front of our group. The beautiful geisha in front of us stopped only for a second, looked directly at us, gave a small smile and then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone. “Is she a real one?” I asked. “Yes” our guide replied, “a geiko”. While “geisha” is the more commonly used term internationally and in Tokyo, geiko is the term used in Kyoto and other parts of western Japan. I didn’t cry when we saw her but I was embarrassingly close to it and in awe. She was dignified and beautiful!
We quickly headed down the street to wait near the historic 300 year old Ichiriki Chaya tea house. A menacing looking doorman stood in front. Entry is by invitation only and if the doorman doesn’t know you, you’re not getting in. Our guide instructed us to watch for people who were delivering food to the tea house. If you see food being delivered you know that there is going to be a party there that night. More food likely means bigger party. The guests arrived in advance and would be listening to musicians playing before the geiko and maiko would arrive about 10 minutes before 6 o’clock. We looked every which way and peeked in every taxi going by but we were informed that if they did come by taxi, it would only be in the black ones.
Ichiriki Chaya tea house
Unexpectedly in the alleyway across the street down the side of Ichiriki Chaya a maiko appeared. Taking tiny quick steps she made her way down the walkway…and then disappeared! I was looking right at her. I don’t think I even blinked a moment but right in front of my eyes she completely disappeared. Our guide explained that the maiko I had just spotted had arrived early and so she was hiding until she could make a more appropriately timed entrance to the party.
It was now very clear to us who were geiko and maiko and who were just tourists in costume. The kimono of a geiko costs thousands of dollars. Some are even worth an entire year’s salary! Even from a distance you can see the difference in quality. The kimono of a maiko is colorful, elaborately patterned and has long sleeves. A geiko’s kimono is simpler. Maiko style their natural hair and wear beautiful hairpins whereas geiko wear wigs. Maiko usually have some skin on the back of their necks that remains without makeup but geikos usually wear makeup right to their hairline. The collar of a maiko’s kimono is red but a geiko’s is white. And so on.
Maiko with her assistant
Around 5:45pm there were suddenly maiko appearing regularly. While we waited we saw two taxis with several maiko in them go by but resisted the urge to chase them down. We saw about 5 maiko in total go into Ichiriki Chaya. The maiko who had disappeared in the alleyway also suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and made her way to the tea house. They all moved so quickly. In the changing light conditions of the dark street with lamps I would just get my camera set when she would move to another area. They were all exceptionally hard to photograph! Some would give a small glance towards the camera but most didn’t.
Since we visited in February there weren’t as many tourists on the streets as there are during more busy seasons. We luckily didn’t see anyone swarming or harassing the maiko as they made their way down the streets. There were two tourists in Kimono who stood in the alleyway taking photos with their cell phones as a maiko made her way towards us. The photographers who we were with chastised them for getting in the way of the “real” photographers and for bothering the maiko with their cellphones. I also have a series of photos where you can see two men trying to take a selfie of themselves with a maiko and her assistant in the background. When they pass the men you can then see the men in the next few photos following and giggling like school girls. The look foolish but nothing paparazzi like.
Then suddenly at 6pm on the dot the action stopped. Our guide though told us to wait around a bit longer. If more food was seen being brought into the teahouse around 6:30pm it would mean that there would be more guests and more geiko and maiko arriving around 7pm. This was not the case that night. Shortly after 6:30 we all said our goodbyes and each person seemed to go in a separate direction. I’m not sure exactly who that woman was but she was a wealth of knowledge. The photographers with her took me under their wing. I should have asked but I was just so excited about the moment. With their help though and a whole lot of luck, our Kyoto dreams of seeing a geiko came true.
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While we were staying in Osaka, Japan we wanted to make the approximately 2 hour daytrip to Mount Koya (Koyasan). In 816 Mount Koya was settled by the monk Kukai in a 800 meter high valley among the 8 peaks of the mountain. The area is home to more than 100 temples and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We were mainly interested in seeing Okunoin Cemetery. We had seen atmospheric images of bright green, moss covered monuments in a large cedar forest. Stretching on for more than 2 kilometers, Okunoin is Japan’s largest cemetery and is home to the graves of more than 200,000 monks. In Okunoin there are no dead, only waiting spirits.
We had a two day window to visit Koyasan during our trip but the first day it snowed and we heard it was quite heavy in some regions. Some people said it was more than they had seen in 80 years so we stayed in Osaka for the day. The second day it was also snowing a little bit but in Osaka it was clear. We checked with our hotel before we headed out to see if we would be able to get to Koyasan. When we got to the train station we asked again. We were assured that everything would be fine.
The train trip was uneventful. We could see a few centimeters of snow in some towns we passed. In order to get to Koyasan you need to take a train from Namba Station in Osaka to Gokurakubashi Station at the bottom of the mountain. From there you take a large cable car up to the top. The cable car whisks you up the steep mountain in about 5 minutes. We were really excited about taking it!
Our train suddenly stopped a station before our final stop and a conductor hurriedly came in. He asked us how many of us were going to Koyasan. Considering that there really isn’t much of anything else at that train stop, it wasn’t surprising that all of us were. He looked concerned and got off the train. Then he came back. He told us that because of the heavy snow the cable car wasn’t working. Looking outside the window there was just a light covering of snow but on the other side of the mountain it was another story. Nearly 2 feet of snow had fallen in a short time. We didn’t know this at the time but nearly 40 passengers had been left stranded in the cable car for 90 minutes.
The conductor ran off and onto the train several times while my husband who speaks Japanese and one Japanese woman who spoke English tried to find out what was going on. They then did their best to translate what little information we got to the other passengers. The conductor told us that if we still wanted to go up the mountain they would provide taxis or buses for us. Would the cable care be running later that day? They didn’t know. Would we get a refund for the tickets we had already bought? They didn’t know. If we went up the mountain, how would we get back? They didn’t know. They did assure us though that at the top of the mountain everything was open and running. If the taxi driver ran into difficulty, he would turn back and take us back to the train station.
Taxi Ride from Hell
It seemed like it would be ok so we went and got into the taxi. There had been about 30-40 people on the train with us and half turned back. We didn’t know this though since we were in the first taxi. That was something we also didn’t realize! Right away the taxi was all over the road. Branches were on the road and trees were bent over. Every once and awhile the snow would loosen from the trees and suddenly drop onto the road in front of us. On one side of us was mountain. On the other side was a steep drop off with only a small barrier.
Immediately I asked to turn back. We were told it was just a little way further. The car slid across the road. I searched for my seatbelt and realized that while my husband and son had one, I didn't. The taxi driver insisted that I did. I didn't. He told us the road was too slippery for us to turn around. We saw other cars coming down the road and I insisted that he stop and let us go back down with them but he said that if he stopped he wouldn't be able to get going again. It ended up coming out that on a good day this drive takes about 20-30 minutes. We were not close at all. The taxi was sliding all over the place and I was screaming that he needed to stop. I am pretty sure he had never driven in snow or ice before and the drop off the mountain would surely kill us all. He insisted that the cable car was now running and if we just waited until we got to the top we would be able to come back down in the cable car instead of taking another taxi down. I held my son tight and continued to tell him to let us get out of the car.
The spirits of those 200,000 resting monks must have been looking out for us because when we got to a particularly steep and slippery section of road the taxi couldn’t keep going. The wheels spun on the ice and the back end of the car started to slide to the edge of the drop off. When he paused between revving the engine we grabbed our son and our bags and jumped out of the car. Behind us 3 other taxis carrying passengers from the train had caught up and were now also stuck behind him. He and his friend put newspapers under the tires and told us to get back into the taxi so there would be more weight for traction. They also asked us to help push but each time they tried to push the taxi was sliding backwards. Holding on to my son for dear life I refused to get anywhere near that taxi.
After a while a small private bus came along with 7 seats available. With chains on their tires the driver was able to take us and the passengers from 2 more taxis to the top of the mountain. The driver was listening to my husband’s favorite song by his favorite Japanese band. This was surely a sign that we had been saved! The driver of the bus told us that the cable car was not running. The taxi driver had lied about that as well. We wanted to turn back but the driver suggested we go to the top (which was truthfully close now) and relax a bit first. We made it to the top with no further problems. The final taxi was able to make it up the mountain somehow but the other 3, including ours ended up getting towed.
Everything in Koyasan was covered in snow but most of the streets had been cleaned and the buses had chains around their tires so they were running smoothly. The workers at the train station were confident that the cable car would be running again soon. So much time had passed that we really didn’t have time for much sightseeing so we headed over to Okunoin Cemetery right away.
Nine of us from our train ended up at the cemetery: our family of 3, a Japanese couple, a couple from China, 1 student from Australia and a man from Taiwan. The man from Taiwan summed up our feelings very well when he shared that he was really excited about the snow (he had never seen any before) but at the same time he didn't want to die. We didn’t run into anyone else while we were there. We think we are the last group (maybe only group) that was sent up the mountain that day.
Instead of moss covered monuments we were greeted with a winter wonderland. Luckily we had brought our baby carrier with us “just in case”. Our son is 4 and really doesn’t need a carrier but the snow was past his knees in some places.
We didn’t see all the major sites of interest because not all of the pathways were cleared. One of the people we were with also pointed out that we needed to head back to the train station quickly. Once the sun started to go down everything would be getting even icier. We did a quick loop around the main path and headed back. Less than an hour after we had arrived we were leaving Koyasan.
Once we arrived at the cable car station we were informed that it would not be running for the rest of the day. They actually thought it might be out of service for several days and the only way back down was by taxi. Our second taxi driver was less of a macho ass and knowing just how long the trip was actually going to take this time helped our fear a lot. There was some sliding but nothing like before and we were driving into better conditions rather than into worse conditions. Our son though decided that this would be a perfect time to sing for the entire trip. Wanting the taxi driver to be able to pay full attention so we wouldn’t die, we tried everything we could to keep him quiet but he wouldn’t stop singing. Now it’s funny. Then it wasn’t.
Each of us who had made the trip up the mountain made it back down (except for a group of 3 tourists who were staying overnight). While we had chatted away nonstop earlier everyone sat in silence on the train ride back towards Osaka. No contact information was shared. As we pulled up to each of our stops we said our goodbyes and went on our way. Was it worth it? I’d have to say “no”. Koyasan is beautiful and spiritual but I truly feared for our lives. I’d love to go back there some day. Just not in the snow.