Saturday, December 30, 2017

It doesn't matter if you're black or white

The first time I saw a live panda in person, I was 17. My dad had a business trip to San Diego and I think it was summer time, so, at his invitation, I took time off work and tagged along! We spent a day at the San Diego Zoo (which is a great zoo anyway) and visited the panda exhibit three times. Each time a different panda (Mom, Dad, or the cub) was active, so it was worth the multiple trips. I also went a little crazy at the gift shop, adding to a collection of panda things that had been growing since I was 2 years old. For more on the origins of why I love pandas and my panda collection, click here.

I moved to D.C. five years later, which was around the time that zoo had a cub (Tai Shan) as well and the Smithsonian National Zoo was free. So, I went a lot to that zoo. First stop was pretty much always the pandas and I took a couple of dates and all my visitors there, in addition to the trips I made on my own. After Bao Bao was born, I got to be among the first of the general public to meet him and I thought my heart was going to explode just being a part of that debut.

That is, until our first full day in Chengdu, when we went to the Panda Research Base and I saw 56 pandas in one day. A whole compound just for pandas - giant and red! But let’s be honest, we totally skipped the red pandas. Because giant pandas!

As soon as our friends from our congregation in Alexandria got news they would be getting their first Foreign Service post to Chengdu, I knew I wanted to visit them and the pandas - 80% of the world’s pandas are in research centers in Chengdu. When we got our assignment to Japan a year later, I knew this trip was more than just a hopeful dream! In fact, flying both of us to China was the same price as flying one of us to the US, so we’re able to stick to our guns about not coming back and traveling the world instead. We weren’t sure when it would happen, but we knew they would be leaving early 2018, so we starting scheming. With some of Blake’s assignments away and even a possible deployment, we realized I may be going to China on my own, but ultimately it worked out that we could both go AND do it to celebrate being married for five years!

We found pandas! Also, the air was really bad in Chengdu, so we wore masks a lot.

The one panda decided they wanted this bamboo, even if it meant sitting on the other panda

So, the other panda got the heck out of there
We took a cab and got to the panda base right as it opened at 7:30 in the morning. Pandas like cold weather and they are most active first thing in the day, so we knew it would be the best chance to see them in action. It was actually still dark when we arrived, and we hiked up the hills with some of the employees. Most of the buildings were still closed at first, so instead of trying to plan which areas we’d hit first, we just started wandering.

This way to pandas!

Ultimately, we saw pandas of all ages - babies, adolescents, and adults. I’ve heard there were approximately 50 pandas at this base, so I’m pretty confident we saw most, if not all, of them. I kept my cool most of the time, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t skip through park at least a little bit. The temperature was cool, but comfortable, and the pandas were just super adorable. The Panda Kindergarten was closed for construction, but we saw baby pandas elsewhere. Not enough were rolling around or going down slides, but that’s okay. At least one still seemed to be figuring out how to walk, so that was pretty cute. Sadly, they have indefinitely suspended the opportunity to hold pandas here, but there is another base farther away that has the opportunity to pay to volunteer for day and directly interact with pandas as part of it. Our Chinese visas are good for ten years, so. . .
Tree pandas! Blake didn't realize that pandas are excellent climbers before this visit.

I got a stick!

Really though, if we never make it back here, I will be alright. Until recently, this much panda time was merely a wish anyway, and now that has come true!

I also kept it pretty mild when it came to souvenirs. At this point, my collection has been growing for more than 30 years, so a panda thing has to be pretty interesting or different for me to want to buy it. (I will still always happily accept panda gifts of any kind.) Blake actually bought the first thing - a coin to add to his challenge coin rack. I got a keychain (of course), a Sichuan opera toy that changes faces - including a panda, and panda ears!

I try to generally keep my panda love in check. It certainly hasn’t overwhelmed my lifestyle, decor, or clothing - most days. They are not my only interest in the world. But that day in Chengdu will go down as one of the best, most self-fulfilling days of my life. Hooray pandas!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Tuck you in, warm within

The closest train station is only a five minute walk from our apartment and the closest airport is only an hour away. Getting through security at a Japanese airport is less of a pain than an American one, so you don’t have to show up at the airport as early, even if you’re flying internationally.

So, if your international flight takes off at 7, and the first train out of our station leaves at 5, you could theoretically get on the first train and still make your flight. However, for our trip to Chengdu and Beijing, China, for our fifth wedding anniversary, we decided that leaving so early in the morning but late in the schedule would make for a very stressful few hours and instead chose to use this as an opportunity to stay in a capsule hotel - a very Japanese invention where “rooms” are little more than pods the size of the bed inside. It’s very efficient! And, since you’re only there for the night and it’s meant to be functional more than luxurious, why pay for space you don’t really need?

My capsule

Yep, that's the entire space - we paid a little extra for me to stay in "business class"
 Fortunately for us, there was such a hotel right in the Haneda airport. So, in the morning, it took us about ten minutes to get from the hotel to the check in line in another terminal. So much better than the stressful hour on the train!

In order to make early morning flights from London-Stansted, Glasgow (maybe it was Dublin), and LaGuardia Airports, I have slept on the floor of the check-in area, surrounded by strangers. This is actually a thing at Stansted - the floor was covered in bodies. LaGuardia not so much. I’ve also stayed in hostels - dorm like lodgings with bunk beds and potential strangers in your non-private room.
Blake's capsule

This capsule hotel was officially better than any of these. I had my own bed with a pullover curtain door that left a gap at the bottom enough to let light in (we sleep in pitch black at home), the mattress was hard, and it was pretty noisy with people shuffling by all night, but it was still better than any hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

Cabin wear, toiletries, and towels provided

After I changed into my cabin wear, I went exploring. I found the ladies lounge, which had a vending machine for face creams and another for drinks, some chairs, and a coin operated massage chair - 100 yen for 10 minutes. I spotted a dropped 100 yen coin just nearby and I indulged in that chair massage, even if the settings were in Japanese and I only kind of figured them out. The communal bathroom was a sento - like an onsen, but the bath is not from natural hot springs. Otherwise the set up is the same. So, I also enjoyed a brief soak to relax before bed.

Ultimately, I didn’t sleep super well. Too noisy, too light, too travel anxious - suddenly got scared at 12:30am that we were actually flying out of the other airport in Tokyo, despite my calendar saying Haneda, but Blake had our official travel documents and was hopefully sleeping by that point, so there was nothing I could do. But I did sleep some and then napped a lot on the planes during the day. Still, better than the alternatives.

Our flights were uneventful. The panda in the safety demonstration video for Air China was super adorable and our first meal in China was Burger King because we needed food during our layover in Beijing and that’s what we found first. But everything was on time, customs went well, and we were able to meet up with our friends in Chengdu easily! An excellent start to our China adventure!

We're in China!

Next up, we begin the Chengdu leg of our journey and PANDAS!!!
Thank you, I feel very welcome!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey

The Shinto religion or way of life in Japan honors the divine in all its entities. The word for spirits or gods or essences is "kami". Kami can be manifested in all of nature, places, and even people. I suspect that it is because of that belief that there is so much reverence for nature and the world here in Japan as its people recognize the divine in almost everything and everyone around them. There is even a word in Japanese for a forest bath - shinrinyoku - taking a walk in the forest for its restorative benefits. This is also noticeable in the way that the Japanese celebrate the changing of the seasons, including the falling of the leaves, and the blossoming of the flowers. In one year here, I feel more aware of which months feature which blooms than I ever did in D.C., except for cherry blossoms. Here, one garden may have cherry blossoms in April, but another has wisteria in May, or irises in June. They advertise and host festivals around these events and celebrate their beauty.

The changing and falling leaves in autumn is no exception. In the Tokyo area, the most dramatic leaf changes are in early December and many parks host what some Americans refer to as "leaf peeping."

One of the best places for viewing autumn colors is at the Imperial Palace, which opens up one of its streets only two weeks a year - once for cherry blossoms and once for fall leaves. Until this December, the street had actually been closed for maintenance for the last 18 months, so it was even more of an exceptional treat for a friend, her two kids, and I to go check it out!

Suwa-no-chaya Tea House

Gingko Tree

On Saturday, Blake and went for more autumn color viewing at Sankeien Garden in Yokohama.  We've been trying to go here for all sorts of blooms or events all year, but for whatever reason had to keep changing our plans. Not only are there amazing leaves and other flora, but several historical buildings from throughout Japan have been moved here for historical preservation. We are so glad we finally made it!

Old Tenzuiji Juto Oido protecting hall - 1592 - longevity tower, kind of gravetsone

Choshukaku - 1623

Choshukaku - 1623

Choshukaku - 1623

Shunsoro tea arbor -  possibly 16th century

Three-storied pagoda of Old Tomyoji - 735 - Oldest pagoda in the Kanto region

Hatsujenaya teahouse

My favorite view of the autumn colors is right outside our dining room. This hill is beautiful all year round, but its at its best in the fall.
From a few weeks ago - it probably hit its peak a few days later