48 Hours in Beijing, China (with kids)!

 

Seeing The Great Wall of China has always been high on my bucket list (along with seeing the other six modern wonders of the world). Well, I finally got the chance this past Veteran’s Day weekend.

The lobby of Hotel Nikko New Century

On Friday, my family boarded a plane headed for Beijing. We booked our trip through a travel agency, and they arranged everything for us (driver, hotel, full itinerary, meals, tickets. etc.). When we arrived, our travel guide, Alice, was waiting for us and took us straight to Hotel Nikko New Century Bejing. Alice spoke English fairly well while our Chinese driver didn’t speak any. By the time we got to the hotel, it was already evening, so we got settled in to begin our full day of sightseeing the next morning.

China is an exciting country with its own unique culture. We never felt unsafe; although, we stayed very aware of our surroundings. We have travelled to big cities with kids before, but Beijing is on a different level, sometimes making us feel intimidated and overwhelmed. The Chinese people were actually very friendly, and loved our kids; however, there were so many people! 26 million in Beijing alone. Although we had a wonderful trip and saw lots of sights, if we were to go again, we would not take our small children.

Beginning our adventure

Here is how we spent (a very busy) 48 hours in Beijing, China:

Living in Asia, I know the streets are crowded and everything is on a much smaller scale, so I decided early on that I was not brining my double stroller. I would simply wear my Ergo for our baby and put our toddler in an umbrella stroller. Tip: For the love, do NOT, I repeat, do NOT forget your baby carrier!

Tip: Make sure your diaper bag is ALWAYS zipped up! Yes, that is my wallet on the left, and yes, my husband snapped this picture without noticing my stuff was hanging out!

“Why didn’t you just run to buy one?” you might ask. Well, we weren’t really sure to what extent our tour guide and driver were at our disposal, so we figured we would check the local surroundings in and around the hotel first. We eventually asked Alice if there was a nearby store we could visit, but she basically told us no. There were more than a few awkward exchanges like that throughout the trip that we chalked up to language barrier. Jesse and I just agreed that the first carrier or umbrella stroller we saw, we would purchase. I mean, the city is huge. They would have to have some sort of store somewhere along our path, right???

Day 1: Alice picked us up in the hotel lobby at 9:00 am, and we headed to the Forbidden City. Our driver dropped us off at Tiananmen Square, and we began our walk towards the first of the three entrances into the Forbidden City. The square and entrances were huge and there were thousands of people everywhere, at times, crowded elbow to elbow. It didn’t take long to begin to feel overwhelmed. We had our baby in the stroller, a death grip on Max, and were surrounded by thousands of people. To make matters more exhausting, our tour guide was on her own program and would walk quickly, several feet in front of us. It was beginning to be a bit much for me, and it wasn’t even 10:00 am. We finally just had to tell our guide to stop to at least give us a minute to feed our baby.

Entering the third entrance to the Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was built around the 15th century and was home to the Emperor and his household (including his 3,000 concubines!). No one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor’s permission, finally closing in 1912, at the end of the Qing Dynasty. It was opened to the public in 1920. The palace is so large that a person could spend the night there every single day for 27 years and never sleep in the same room twice! The roof is decorated with small animals, each representing one of the Emperor’s children. (With 3,000 concubines, he had quite a bit of offspring).

Family snapshot in the middle of the Forbidden City

Although the Forbidden City was interesting, there were lots of stairs that we had to go up and down. Jesse had to constantly climb with the stroller (again, don’t forget your baby carrier), and we just had to hope our two year old wouldn’t need a nap until we were back in the car.

After leaving the Forbidden City, we headed to the Silk Factory. This was not on our itinerary from our travel agency, but we were excited to pack as much culture into the trip as possible. The tour included a presentation on the history of silk, the cultivation and extraction process, and the different types of silk products China produces. What started as an educational tour quickly turned into a tourist trap as we were escorted into a large shopping area with hundreds of sheets, scarves, clothing items, etc. all made of silk. Max wanted to touch everything but we weren’t interested in purchasing anything, so we politely declined, and declined again, and again, and we finally got our tour guide to show us the way out and headed to lunch.

Eating my first of many Clif Bars on this trip. Regardless that I live in Japan, Asian food is not my favorite.
The Temple of Heaven

At lunch, Jesse and I agreed that we had to slow down. We were missing things, and we just couldn’t go at such a fast pace with two little ones. Alice would just have to wait for us. After a leisurely Chinese lunch, we headed to the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven is the sacred place where Emperors held their worship ceremonies. Built circular, but lying on a square base, the temple represents heaven, which they believed was in a circle, and the ground was earth (as a square). We began enjoying ourselves a bit more since we decided to approach this next spot at our pace. Unfortunately for Jesse, he had to climb three flights of stairs carrying the stroller….again. At least he got his arm workout in for the day.

Climbing yet another flight of stairs, stroller in hand.

Once we had time to walk around and take our fair share of pictures, we headed to our next destination, a “prayer” store, not on our itinerary. We just assumed that the next stop was related to the religious background on the Temple of Heaven. We arrived outside a building with a pretty empty parking lot and walked into a nice area with a large water tank. Similar to the silk factory, we were shown a demonstration of how China’s freshwater pearls are farmed and processed. Max got to participate in picking out an oyster shell, watching them open it, and given four little pearls to keep. I’ll admit, we were completely oblivious to what was happening until we were led into a large jewelry shop with hundreds of pearls on display. As we enter the store with all eyes on us, Jesse turns to me and whispers, “Pearl, not prayer.” We chuckle a little to ourselves at the honest miscommunication and browse for a bit before we politely declined and headed on our way.

Watching the art of pearl discovery

Dinner was an authentic hot pot feast, and it was finally time to head back to the hotel. Completely exhausted, we put the boys down, and fell asleep ourselves.

Hot Pot Dinner

Day 2: After breakfast at the hotel, our tour guide and driver picked us up, and we headed to the Summer Palace. Added to the UNESCO in 1998, The Summer Palace was the summer home of the Emperor. He was not able to bring all 3,000 of his concubines since the Summer Palace was not near as large as his palace in the Forbidden City, so he selected 2 or 3 of his favorites to bring along with him. The Palace is surrounded by a garden, which is said to be the best imperial garden in the entire world.

Entrance to the Summer Palace

Half a day is the recommended time to spend at the Summer Palace, as there is so much to see. We were only given about an hour, so we missed quite a bit, but we were able to see the longevity hill. I climbed to the top to see the Buddhist temple that overlooked the entire area. Inside the temple were three Buddha statues-past, present, and future. Monk statues lined the walls, each with a different power to protect the Buddha. Pictures were not allowed inside the actual temple, and while inside, I noticed many Chinese praying to the Buddha. Once we left the Temple, we were on our way to the Great Wall, grabbing lunch on the way.

Summer Palace

Another quick (non-itinerary listed) stop prior to our final destination of The Great Wall was a Jade factory. Jade is incredibly precious in the Chinese culture, representing five virtues (benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, bravery, and honesty). It is considered their most valuable material. I actually didn’t mind this stop as I have a personal love for the stone as well. We even purchased a Jade Puzzle Ball Sculpture. Made of only one piece of Jade, the outside layer has a dragon (male) and a phoenix (female) carved into it, protecting the inner circles, which represent multiple generations. After touring the jewelry counter for a minute, we loaded up and began heading to the much-anticipated Great Wall.

Our take home souvenirs
Taking it all in

I have waited my entire life to see the Great Wall, and I couldn’t help but smile the moment I saw my first glimpse of it. Since the Wall spans several cities and is over 4,000 miles along, there are, needless to say, many entrances. Once we parked, we began our walk along the path. One thing I never realized was how many stairs the Great Wall has. Pictures I had seen made it seem as if much of it was just a hilly sidewalk. That was not the case, at least not where we were. Some of the stairs were very steep, and we needed to carry both children; I was pretty thankful for handrails. Had we not had our small children with us, we would have climbed much higher and gone further, but we were satisfied that we were able to mark off something we both had wanted to experience.

Great Wall Bucket List Item Complete!

We were supposed to be back at a certain time, but since this is what we had really wanted to see, we ignored the time and just took it all in. (I mean, we were the ones that had paid to be here, right!?). When we finally got back, our guide said, “Ok, let’s go,” and I put my foot down, and said, “No, I have waited my whole life to be here.  I am going to stay here a bit longer.” I think it took her by surprise, but she, of course, had to comply. Before leaving, I stepped into the souvenir shop. As cheesy as it may sound, I had to buy Max a “Great Wall of China” kid shirt.

Jesse & Max (and just a small part of the many, many stairs that make up the wall).

After taking 3,248 pictures (ok, it was closer to 50), we got in the van and headed to what our guide said was “Chinese Tea.” This stop wasn’t on the itinerary, but Jesse and I both figured it couldn’t be like the Silk, Pearl, and Jade stops…. could it? When we arrived, Max decided to have a tantrum. Not that we enjoy his tantrums, because we definitely do not, but we had no interest in going into this tea house (honestly, we are coffee drinkers). We told our guide, thanks, but no thanks, and headed back to the van without waiting for an answer. We aren’t sure what was said in Chinese between the guide and the tea house workers, but we didn’t care. We made a pact then that for future trips, if we didn’t want to go somewhere, we would simply say, “No.”

After we left the tea house, we headed to a restaurant for some Peking duck, a popular dish in China. Jesse was looking forward to trying it. I, on the other hand, not so much. When they brought it out, Jesse simply smiled at me because he knew there was no way I was putting that fatty meat in my mouth. Animal crackers and Clif Bars for the win!

We finally headed back to the hotel, got the kids in bed, and packed up our belongings. We were being picked up at 5:00 am the next morning and heading home.

I enjoyed China. On the one hand, I don’t think we could have seen as much in such a short time without the tour guide and driver. Additionally, I don’t want to even think about how we would have navigated the city with two kids without our private vehicle. On the other hand, the lack of flexibility with our itinerary coupled with the frequent surprise, unsolicited tourist stops made us a bit annoyed during the trip. It wasn’t my favorite destination, but I’m glad I went and experienced it. I’m in talks with a group of girlfriends to go in May for the Great Wall marathon (ok, we would do the 5K, but still). I would love to have the opportunity to go back and see more of the wall! And if I ever have another tour guide, I will simply ignore their pace, and go at my own speed!

Finally, if you are traveling with small children, here are some tips (or just some things to be aware of) before going (and no, we never did see any baby carriers for sale):

One of MANY “celebrity” interactions.

Child Tip #1: If bringing children: Be prepared for them to be mini-celebrities. There was no shortage of them being videoed, photographed, etc. We were told many of the Chinese have never seen an American in person, especially ones with curly blond hair and blue eyes. They aren’t shy about it, either. One woman grabbed my stroller so she could get a selfie with our son while another time a man just sat down beside Jesse at the Great Wall and tried to put his arm around Max while we were taking family photos. We were never fearful, but we definitely didn’t take our eyes off of our children.

A man who joined in (unwarranted) our family photo. (Notice Jesse’s grip around Max).

Child Tip #2: According to all the signs, the tap water in Beijing is not drinkable. Although it wasn’t too inconvenient for many things, it made washing bottles very difficult, so don’t forget to bring a bottle brush and some travel dish detergent. We had to do our best with just bottle water. We were also nervous about bathing the kids, since you can’t really ensure that they won’t drink the water.

Taking a much needed (feeding) break.

Child Tip #3: The child ban was only lifted in 2016 to allow Chinese families to have two children. Most families desire boys to carry on the name, so walking around with two boys got quite the attention as well.

The little loves of my life.

Child Tip #4: There are no driving laws. Ok, maybe there are, but as far as we could tell, there weren’t, including car seats. We no longer bring our car seats with us since most taxis have them or can arrange for a vehicle with them. Our van did not have them, so we held onto our children as we drove thorough one of the busiest cities in the world.

Gripping my baby in the backseat of the van.

Child Tip #5: There are baby-changing rooms, but they are sometimes tough to find. Bathrooms are not conducive to changing children. At one stop, I had to put a bunch of paper towels on a disgusting bathroom floor to change my infant’s explosion. (Yes, I have a diaper mat too, but it wasn’t big enough).

Top 10 Tips: Traveling with Toddlers (and Infants):

Observation Deck at the Haneda Airport Tokyo.

Those that know me know I have a strong love for travel. When asked where do I want to visit, my answer is always the same: Everywhere! But I seldom travel alone (or even just with the hubs). I almost always have my two under two with me, and although I would never say it’s easy, it’s definitely possible.

I understand that just the thought of traveling with young children is enough to cause anxiety even in the most tolerant parent; however, don’t let children be an excuse not to see the world.

My kids have flown seven international flights, countless domestic, over 32,000 miles and have spent over 82 hours on the plane in the last 12 months. Even though its tempting, leave the Xanax at home, and check out my Top 10 Tips for Traveling with Toddlers (and infants):

Day 1 on my flight back home from Florida to Japan-just the kiddos and me. Did I overpack?

1.  Car Seat Strap: This suggestion only applies if you’re bringing your own car seat. This tip I learned the hard way. Before discovering the Cares Harness (tip # 4) I brought Maddox’s carseat on the plane. He was comfortable in it, and it made things much easier for longer flights; however, waiting to board was incredibly difficult. I had to push a stroller, hold onto my carryons, and balance a car seat on top. Turtles could have passed me, but then I came across the Car Seat Strap. This strap wraps through the handle of a carry on and connects to a car seat. Since we were loading Maddox’s car seat directly on the plane, this seemed like a way I could strap Maddox in, and then just use my moby wrap for Asher. It took a couple of practice run throughs before I had mastered it, but it ended up being a huge help. Throughout the airport, we were stopped multiple times and asked where we got the strap. We even had our picture taken.

Rolling through the airport. The car seat strap made everything so much easier, especially if flying alone.

Maddox absolutely loved it since he could “ride” through the airport. . When it was time to board, we simply unstrapped it (approximately 10 seconds), threw the strap in the diaper bag and loaded on the plane. (This could also be beneficial if you’re taking your car seat on your trip, but don’t plan on having your child sit in it on the plane. Car seats can always be gate checked-just bring a protective bag.).

2. Night Flights: I cannot express this tip enough! If given the choice, book a night flight. Ten minutes before we board a flight, we change the kids and put them in their pajamas. Once on the flight, we settle in our toddler, give him some milk and read him a book. We try to keep all of our nightly rituals as close to home as possible, down to brushing his teeth. The flights provide pillows and blankets (and the attendants have always offered us more), so we make him as comfortable as possible. Most of the time, he is asleep before we even take off, which allows us to get some shut eye as well. The only issue we have with night flights is they are quiet, so if Maddox wakes up, he tends to start crying. Be prepared if your child suddenly wakes. We keep pacifiers near by, his singing bear, and adjust him as quickly as possible to get him back to sleep.

Asher getting some shuteye on our flight to Australia.

3. Bassinet: Every commercial plane has it’s own style of bassinet. Once an airline ticket is booked, customers should call the airline as soon as possible and request a bassinet for their infant (first come, first served). If available, the parent(s) seat assignment will change to accommodate the request. The bassinets are located in front of the bulkhead seats (the seats right behind the walls that separate the different classes), and once the seatbelt sign is turned off, the flight attendants will attach it on for use. Not only does the bassinet allow parents to lie their child down for periods at a time, but the extra leg room is a major bonus. Even though there isn’t any under seat storage, after take off bags can then be placed in front of you (still with plenty of leg room). Having anything you need at a hands reach, makes it much more convenient than having to constantly stand up to get more formula, diapers, or toys.

The bassinet on our Quantas flight.

4. Cares Harness: Children can remain in a parent’s lap until the age of 2; however, when Maddox was a year and a half old, we flew with him from Japan to Florida, and it was a miserable experience. He slept most of it across our laps, but we had to remain as still as possible because when he wakes up, he wakes up screaming! After that, I knew it was time to just get him his own ticket (even though we had to pay his seat, tickets are still discounted quite a bit for young children). Unless a child under two is in a car seat, they have to sit in your lap at take off and landing with one exception: they are using the Cares Harness. The Cares Harness is the ONLY FAA-approved child harness and takes less than a minute to strap to the seat. It’s incredibly safe and fits the child much like a car seat. Once the seat belt sign is turned off, the harness can be adjusted to make it more comfortable, or we even just put the normal seatbelt on him. Call and confirm with the airline that you are bringing a harness, but we have never had an issue. In fact, on our flight to Australia, the attendant even told us that the harness we had was the only one Qantas airlines approved!

5) Moby Wrap: If you’re traveling with an infant, obviously requesting the bassinet is the first step, but what if its unavailable? As much as you love your baby, holding him/her the entire time on a long flight will get old. Even with the bassinet, I would wrap my son up for at least some duration on the plane. It allowed me to be hands free, he liked it, and it was comfortable. Babies can’t be wrapped at take off or landing (or going through security for that matter), but the rest of the flight was a breeze. I personally love my Moby Wrap, but any kind of cloth wrap should work fine. I would just avoid bulky carriers like the Ergo. With multiple ways to wrap your child, there is bound to be something that works.

Flight from Texas to California. Just the three of us.

6) Quart-sized Zip lock bags (organization): In the past, my husband and I would shove a bunch of toys into our carry on. When Maddox needed something else to play with, we would have to take the entire carry on down from the above compartment to get just a couple of toys out. Heaven forbid Maddox see the carry on full of toys because regardless of what we pulled, he would make a fit to get something else. Anyone that has been on a plane knows that getting up, getting something out of your carry on, putting it back and getting readjusted is not the easiest task in the world (See tip #3). Try doing it several times throughout a single plane ride. We often have multiple connecting flights, so with several plane rides ahead, I had to come up with something easier, especially if I’m also holding a baby. Each zip lock bag is full of certain styles of toys. I have my book bag, my coloring/sticker bag, my noisemaker bag (they really aren’t that loud, promise), etc. Every bag is themed and can go together, so when I bring out a different one later, it is an entirely new set of activities. It’s very easy to just reach in and grab a bag. I don’t even look at what I’m taking out of the carry-on!  (Bonus tip: In the weeks leading up to the flight, pick up cheap toys, coloring books, activity pads, etc from the local dollar store. Hide them, or go ahead and start organizing them in your zip lock bags. That way, your child(ren) has lots of new and exciting toys on the plane).

7) Lots of snacks: For the love of all things good and holy, do not rely on airplane food to feed your kids. My son ate a roll on the 10 hour flight to Australia, even though he was given every meal that we received. A roll! Thankfully, we had two ziplock bags full of his favorite snacks. We filled one with multiple fruit and veggie packs, his favorite crackers, some fruit, etc. The other had the fun snacks that we used for the pill box (goldfish, teddy grahams, animal crackers, etc.). I wanted to bring snacks that I knew he loved (sorry, let’s save the kale chips for home), but that wouldn’t give him too much of a tummy ache. One mistake we made on one of our first international flights is we brought packaged toddler meals. Again, we brought the favorites (macaroni and cheese is a staple). The issue we ran into is airlines do not have microwaves. For some reason, that didn’t even cross our minds. A flight attendant was able to help us out by heating some water and letting the meal sit for awhile, but it honestly wasn’t worth it. Save the heated meals for home or your actual destination.

Getting my snacks prepared and organized in the ziplock bags.

8. Pill box: I happened to stumble upon this genius idea while researching snacks to bring on the plane and thought I would give it a try. Maddox has a lot of energy but not a long attention span. When I find activities for him, I am really hoping to get a solid 5, maybe 10 minutes of his focus, and then I need to be ready to move onto the next “game.” I purchased a pill box from our local Dollar Store. The pill box bought me a good 45 minutes three different times on our long plane ride stretches! We are talking over two hours of focused activity, people! In each section of the pill box, I loaded some of Maddox’s favorite snacks (goldfish, animal crackers, gummies-remember, I’m looking to keep his attention. I will save the healthy veggies for at home). He would open a container, eat the snacks, and close it before moving on to the next one. After all the snacks were eaten, he just enjoyed opening and closing the compartments for a bit. I didn’t hesitate to reload the sections to “play” again. I do know of some who use each part of the pill box for small toys such as miniature dinosaurs or race cars. For my son, those toys don’t hold his concentration more than a few seconds, but give him some goldfish=winner! My husband made sure to tell me, “Do not forget the pill box on our next trip.”

Pill box-don’t board a flight without it!

8) Electronics: I know some parents are against letting your child(ren) use electronics at a young age. I understand, and if this tip isn’t for you, just skip it; however, I will do close to anything to have a peaceful plane ride for not only me, but the passengers around me and that means occasionally breaking out the electronics. Our go-to is the Ipad. Before we travel, we load the Ipad up with lots of toddler friendly games. We NEVER give him the Ipad at the beginning of the trip. We often wait until he is starting to get really restless, and our ziplock toys just are cutting it at that moment. His whole face lights up, and he will usually play for a good hour. We often have to help him, but toddlers catch on quickly! In addition, on international flights, we have access to a plethora of movies, so we put on one of his favorite cartoons, give him some snacks, and he is good for quite awhile. He absolutely hates earbuds, so he wears his Cozyphones or occasionally wants my husband’s Bose headphones, which he gets. 😉

Maddox just relaxing and watching some cartoons before “bed.”

9) Diapers, Formula, & extra outfits: Pack what you think you would need and then double it. I tend to pack one diaper for every hour of the flight, plus a couple of extras for check in and luggage pickup. I also bring a brand new packet of wipes and am never surprised when I’ve practically gone through the entire container by the time we land. The bathroom has a changing table that simply folds down, and although its small, it is convenient to have a location where the kids can be changed. I also have a formula feeding baby, and throughout my day-to-day life, the three section formula dispensers are great, but for a flight, leave them in the checked suitcase. Bring the whole flipping formula container! I always have a fresh, never opened one to bring so that I know I have enough. Don’t think you need that much? I recently had a friend stuck on the tarmac for five hours. It was only a four-hour flight! That is nine hours on the plane. Make sure you have enough food for your baby, and plan for the unexpected. Finally, bring each child at least one change of clothes. As stated in Tip #2, I put my children in pajamas right before boarding the aircraft, but I still bring another set for my toddler and two extra sets for my infant. My toddler can sometimes make it through the entire flight without having to change clothes. My infant-never!

10) Take Off/Landing Ear Popping: At takeoff and landing, make sure your kids are sucking on a pacifier, eating snacks, or drinking. It will help with their ears and keep them from being in pain. The LAST thing you need is for a cry fest to begin because they can’t get their ears to pop. If he’s not already asleep, we tend to hide our toddler’s evening milk until take off because we know he will down it .(It also shows that it is bedtime, so GO TO SLEEP). We almost always have a bottle prepped and ready to give our baby as well.

After traveling on four flights (two completely solo) from Florida to Japan with my munchkins.

Every time we travel somewhere knew, we think of something that we want to add to our next trip to make it even easier to with our small children. What tips do you have that make traveling a breeze?

Touring the Land Down Under

Australia is a popular bucket list item for a lot of people, myself included, but it was always in the far off distance. “I want to go to Australia one day,” I had so often said, so when my husband, Jesse, started putting together a summer trip for us, I was beyond ecstatic.

Since Sydney is such a big, sought-after area, we decided to spend our full eight days there, and we were so glad we did. We were never at a lack of something to do, and Sydney surpassed any expectations we might have had. In fact, Sydney, Australia took our number 1 spot for favorite destinations (as of now). The best description I can give is it was a mix between Seattle and San Francisco with a sprinkle of New York City and the weather of Tampa Bay. For us, it was perfect.

Jesse was able to take leave in June, so we planned our outback adventure to coincide with our birthdays. What a birthday present! Australia’s seasons are the opposite of the States (and Japan for that matter) so even though we left in our summer, it was their winter. The temperature remained in the nice mid-60s, and we both agreed that if this was their “winter” we might never leave. The locals were obvious. They were the ones with huge down jackets, beanies, and gloves. The tourists had light cardigans and shorts.

TIP: EVERY person visiting Australia MUST apply (and pay) for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA/Tourist Visa). We didn’t know this, and could not get our boarding tickets until this was completed. We had to find a free wifi spot, visit the site (below) and complete the form. It takes only about 5 minutes, but since we were traveling with four (yep, infants have to have one too), it took us about half an hour. Fortunately, we arrived three hours prior to boarding, so we had the time, but we were told by a Qantas employee that she has witnessed several tourists who arrived within an hour or so from their flight and were unaware they needed the VISA. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it. Be prepared. Complete the form BEFORE you get to the airport. It’s about $20 per person, and you need your passport!

https://www.eta.immi.gov.au/ETAS3/etas

If you decide to take advantage of the weather and visit Australia in their winter, I highly recommend going during Vivid. Vivid is a three-week festival where the city is lit up by massive light displays.

View of Darling Harbour from our room

We didn’t even know about Vivid and coincidentally booked an airbnb overlooking Darling Harbor. Every night, we got to witness a spectacular light show accompanied with fireworks and music over the harbour. The opera house was lit up with different scenes and colors every night. There were ferries that could be taken and allowed visitors to see all the different displays. It was absolutely amazing and beautiful, and this year happened to be the 10th anniversary. Talk about our luck with timing!

View of Darling Harbour from our room

As usual, it was a family trip, so we had our munchkins tagging along. Even with them, there was no shortage of fun things to do. Here are our Top 10 recommendations if exploring Sydney (with or without children):

1) Australian museum:

Australian Museum

Our flight landed around 7 in the morning, but we couldn’t check in until 2pm, so we had to find something to do to kill a few hours. By the time we got through customs, grabbed our luggage, and had breakfast, we still had about five hours to kill. Typically, this wouldn’t have been such a tough decision, but on this particular day, it was raining, so that eliminated all outdoor tourists spots. Jesse absolutely loves museums (my love is actually growing for them too, but don’t tell him ;)) so we decided to start our vacation visiting the Australian Museum. We weren’t going to lug around two suitcases, plus carryons, so we grabbed a bagbnb a block away, dropped off our things, and started the tour. (Side note, bagbnb is amazing! Do NOT pay to store your luggage at an airport. It is very expensive. If you can store it at your hotel for free until check-in, great. If that isn’t an option, save some money and utilize this service).

Australian Museum

When purchasing tickets, guests have the option to ad on the Mammoth tour. DO IT! It’s only a few dollars more, but feels like an entirely separate museum, and there is a real baby mammoth on display (sad, but completely fascinating). The Museum’s main focus is on Australian animals, past and present, but there is also an entire aboriginal section with the history of how Australia came to be and dinosaur area with actual fossils.

Max looking at the baby mammoth.

We killed several hours there, and actually went past the 2:00pm check-in, so we had no issues once we left. If you like museums, than it is a no brainer to visit this place. If you’re on the fence, I promise you, it’s worth it.

Actual dinosaur fossil

2) Sea Life Aquarium:

Penguin exhibit at the Sea Life Aquarium

I was so excited about visiting the aquarium that it was our first stop on our second day. Australia is known for having some of the deadliest sealife in the world and lots and lots of sharks, so I was curious to see what all exotic creatures were displayed.

Sea Life Aquarium

Although I didn’t see the deadliest jellyfish or a great white, it was still pretty impressive. My family loved viewing the manatees, whale sharks, colorful fish and dozens more creatures of the Ocean. Also, guests can take advantage of a financial savings when purchasing aquarium tickets. We were given the option to purchase the “Sydney Big Ticket.” This allowed us access to not only the Sea life aquarium, but also The Sydney Tower, Madame Tussauds, Wild Life Sydney Zoo, and the 24 hour Hop-on Hop-off tour bus for only $99 per person (kids under 4 were free). Since we were interested in visiting at least the tower and touring the city on the bus, it was an easy decision for us to grab those tickets! (Tip-Get to the acquarium early. We were there before the doors opened and still had to wait about an hour to get in. Those who came later in the day had a two hour plus wait.)

Sea Life Aquarium

3) Wild Life Sydney Zoo/Madame Tussauds:

Crocodile show at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo

We knew we wanted to visit the Tarango Zoo, and I had been to a Madame Tussauds before, so if we had not purchased the the package deal, we most likely would not have visited these places; however, we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

Butterfly exhibit at Wild Life Sydney Zoo

The Wild Life Zoo focused just on animals and reptiles from Australia. It was not a huge zoo, but much bigger on the inside than it appeared. We were able to walk around and discover the deadliest snakes, massive crocodiles, hungry kangaroos, and a crazy Tasmanian devil.

The kids ended up passing out in the stroller, so this was the perfect time for Jesse and I to explore Madame Tussauds. He had never been to one, so it was a unique experience for him. This museum focused more on Australia’s founders and celebrities, so we saw Captain Cook, the Hemsworth brothers, Rebel Wilson, Mel Gibson, Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, etc. but there were still some good ol’ Americans sprinkled in such as Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum

This Madame Tussauds did have some areas that allowed participation of guests such as a live recording studio, a model runway, and a chance for visitors to jump on an air vent with the iconic Marilyn Monroe and recreate her famous blown white dress scene. Visiting Madame Tussaud’s was a nice change of pace from all the animals and sea life we had already experienced during the day.

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum

4) Sydney tower:

View from the Sydney Tower

If one of our destinations has a tower, we are going to visit it! There is just something about being above the entire city and looking over its beauty that I absolutely love.

View from the Sydney Tower

The Sydney tower was a very simple stop to access. We waited about 5 minutes in line before entering the 4D cinema where we watched a 10-minute show that portrayed various angles of Sydney via a drone. After the movie, we walked onto the elevator and ascended 1,000 feet to the top.

View from the Sydney Tower

The 360 degree roof give guests every possible viewpoint, but if that’s not enough, and you’re a daring (and child free) individual, you can even participate in the tower’s Skywalk. The Skywalk places guests in individual harnesses and gives them an open air view. At around $60 a person, it’s a fairly affordable price for such an exhilarating experience.

View (and kisses) from the Sydney Tower

5) Hop-on hop-off bus:

 

Similar to the tower, if there was a city tour bus, we were going to be on it! There were two routes, each lasted an hour an a half. On our second full day, we took the loop that sent us by the Opera House, Botanical Gardens, and historical sites.

Route 2

The bus tour pass was only good for 24 hours, so we made sure to hop the second loop the following day, which focused more on beaches. Bondi beach was a huge tourist spot. Although we visited in the winter, and hadn’t planned on spending any time at the beach, it gave us the opportunity to drive by to see the stunning view. The cold water didn’t seem to bother everyone though since the ocean was full of surfers. Chilly or not, we made sure to sit on the open air top of the bus!

6) Opera House

Sydney Opera House

The Opera House was an obvious staple to visit, but both Jesse and I were surprised by how much we just loved being there.

Sydney Opera House

We didn’t tour the inside, but walked among the shops and had lunch at the outdoor restaurant. It was pricey, but as I said to my husband when he questioned eating there, “How often do we get to have lunch at the Opera House?” If I had been given the chance to actually attend an opera, I believe that would have been my most memorable experience. It didn’t happen for us, but maybe for you?

View of Circular Quay from the Sydney Opera House restaurant

7) Whale Watching:

Whale Watching Sydney

Growing up in Florida, I was used to dolphins, but whales? I had only seen whales in aquariums.

To have the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat was beyond amazing. We caught a three-hour whale watching tour out of Darling Harbor and weren’t on the ferry for 20 minutes before we saw our first spout. For the next two hours we saw up to 35 whales splash, blow, and breach. It was beautiful, peaceful, and mesmerizing. An experience that I would be happy to repeat. We used this company, and they were pretty great:

http://www.whalewatchingsydney.net/

Whale Watching Sydney

8) Shop ’til you drop:

Outside of QVB

The multi-story Queen Victoria Building (referred to QVB) was built and completed in 1898 during a time of severe recession and specifically built to accommodate warehouses, coffee shops, tradespeople, and a concert hall.

When we entered the Romanesque architecture , we immediately heard a a pianist playing ballads from the top floor that radiated among several stories. The mall boasted more unique, high end boutiques and after walking through, we took the elevator to the bottom floor (underground), and a new world opened up.

Inside of QVB

The QVB attached to the Westfield Mall. Walking through, we found more escalators that took us right back to street level, but blocks away from the QVB. We realized the shopping didn’t end there. Alleys upon alleys were lined with stores ranging from H&M and Gap to Gucci, Louis Vutton, and Christian Louboutin. Street performers entertained and there were countless restaurants. I was glad we  planned at least an entire day to shop.

Shopping down the main avenue

9) Tarongo Zoo:

 

We saved the zoo for the prettiest day of the week. One of my favorite parts about visiting the Tarango Zoo was the journey to get there.

View from the ferry
Close encounters at the Tarongo Zoo

We had to catch a 20 minute ferry from Darling Harbour that gave us incredible views, including a different angle of the Opera House.  Once we reached land, we then took a sky ferry up to the actual zoo. The Tarongo Zoo had the same animals and reptiles that the Wild Life Sydney Zoo had, but on a much grander scale. In addition, they also had the standard zoo mammals such as giraffes, elephants, gorillas, etc.  One thing that stood out to both Jesse and I was how close we could get to these creatures. Often, just a simple rope kept us away. The one exception was the Tiger Trek, which the zoo was very strict on keeping as close to their natural habitat as possible, meaning only a select number of guests could go into the Tiger exhibit at a time (and those tigers did not look happy to see us). It was wonderful zoo with absolutely breathtaking sights that are second to none.

View from Tarongo Zoo

10) Visit Darling Harbor:

Darling Harbour

We booked an airbnb overlooking Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is not only an attractive spot, it has quick access to anything: ferries, shopping, attractions, etc. With the exception of the bus and museum (both which were a 10 minute walk), all of our attractions left from Darling Harbour. On the opposite side of the Marina is a mall with loads of shopping and lots of dining restaurants.  Since we had a toddler and an infant, we tried to make our dining experience as easy as possible, so with the exception of eating at Hard Rock one night (also located at Darling Harbour), we ate at the food court each evening. There were tons of options (it is one of the largest food courts I have ever seen), so we never got bored. On the second floor, there were play areas for children, so after dinner, we would let Maddox play a bit. There was even a massage studio that I stepped into one evening for a foot reflexology session. I was able to watch Maddox through the glass play while I was pampered (don’t worry, Jesse stayed with him).

Darling Harbour

When Jesse and I visit places more than once, we always like to stay in different locations so we can get a variety of experiences. This is the first exception we’ve had where we both said we would stay at Darling Harbour again. Beauty plus convenience is hard to beat.

Bridge adjacent to Sydney Opera House

Hawaii of the East: 72 Hours in Okinawa

 

Okinawa has been referred to as the “Hawaii of the East.” As Japan’s southern most prefecture, the island of Okinawa offers a tropical climate that can be an easy escape from the more northern parts of the country. Memorial Day weekend gave my family a couple of days to take the quick trip and do a little exploring ourselves.

We booked our trip through our base’s IACE Travel department, which made things so easy from the start. The flight and car rental were arranged, and we were given a choice from a variety of hotels. We chose the Rizzan Sea Park Hotel Tancha Bay. Our plan was to arrive on Saturday afternoon, have two full days Sunday and Monday, and then head back Tuesday.

The plane was only about half full, so both Jesse and I had our own row. We split the kids, and we had landed in Okinawa in what felt like just a few minutes. For a relatively small island, Okinawa has a decent sized airport. After we departed, we hopped a shuttle bus that carried us to our baggage claim. Within a few minutes, we had our items (as stated in one of my earlier blogs, Navigating Tokyo , Americans always stand out because of our immense amount of luggage. My family is working on downgrading with each trip) and on board another shuttle headed to get our rental car. Since our three suitcases, two carry ons, two car seats, a camera bag, and a double stroller didn’t fit in the first car, we had to upgrade to the next sized vehicle. But once we were all settled in, we were off to the Rizzan.

The drive from the rental car agency to the Rizzan was about an hour, but was completely worth it. I made Jesse pull over at one point so I could snap a picture of the emerald waters with the mountains in the background. Pictures truly don’t do it justice.

We don’t like to waste too much time in hotel rooms while we travel, so once we were checked in, we turned right around and jumped back into the car. It was already the afternoon, so we knew we couldn’t adventure too long, but being the military family that we are, we wanted to check out the Kadena Air Force Base. We spent some time shopping at the Exchange, which is much larger than the one we are used to, grabbed some dinner, and headed back. We ended our evening splashing around in the hotel’s indoor pool.

On Sunday, I wanted to head to the Mihama American Village. This American themed area is filled with restaurants, shops, and entertainment. The main spot in the village is called the American depot. The maze-like area is massive and filled with shop after shop. We spent several hours shopping and dining, and there was still so much we just couldn’t cover. If you want a touch of American food and clothes, the American Village is definitely a place to visit.

It may sound strange to some, but one of my little bucket list items is to one day get a fish pedicure. I planned on doing this (and still do) in Thailand or Vietnam, but the American Depot gave me a a little glimpse into how it would be. Although not a full pedicure, we did find an area that allowed customers to sit and have doctor fish (a family member of the Carp)  eat away at your feet. I, for one, could not wait to do this. We paid 500 yen for 5 minutes, and I honestly loved every minute.  I had no idea if it would hurt, but I quickly found out it simply tickles in the beginning. After a minute or so, it just feels strange. As for my feet after the 5 minutes? They actually were really smooth.  As soon as I was done, Jesse was throwing down another 500 yen and giving it a go as well.

Part of our travel package was a free dinner at the hotel. With five resort restaurants to choose from, we instantly decided on one of our favorites: Yakiniku. Popular in Japan, Yakiniku restaurants allow guests to cook their own meats and vegetables on top of the flame grill located in the table. We were seated right on the ocean and surrounded by tiki torches. It definitely closed the evening with the tropical feel we were seeking.

After breakfast on Monday morning, we decided we needed some beach time. There was no way we were going to a tropical island and not spend some time on the beach. We rented an umbrella and stretched out for a bit. I was so excited to get Maddox in the ocean that I had purchased a cute life vest, beach ball, a float in the shape of a jet, and a pail and bucket. Unfortunately for me, Maddox may not yet share my love of the beach. Other than the pail and bucket, he wasn’t having any of it. He threw a fit when sand touched his feet, so an hour and 800 yen later, we packed everything up and headed to the pool. He enjoyed that scene a bit more, so at least the float got some use.

Early afternoon, we headed back to the room from the pool to get cleaned up. Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road and headed  to the end of the island to explore the Okinawa Churami Aquarium. The kids were asleep, and it really allowed us to take in the beauty of this island on the hour drive. Jesse even commented just how much Okinawa is similar to Hawaii in both beauty and culture. Aquarium passes were included in our package, and when we arrived, we couldn’t wait to see the heavily advertised whale sharks. Once we parked, we followed a long trail pass intricate hedges and cafes before entering the actual aquarium. Once inside, some of the most beautiful fish were displayed, many native only to Okinawa. Maddox had never been to an aquarium and was completely fascinated with the fish in the smaller tanks. We kept explaining there were big fish and sharks to be seen, but he was perfectly content where he was. After some coercing, we managed to bring him into the aquarium’s main attraction: the whale shark tank. There were small tables set up on the side where a guest could grab a snack or coffee and sit. I mentioned to Jesse that I was grateful none were available, because I would never leave that spot. We just sat with Maddox as he screamed and pointed to each shark, fish, and manta ray that swam by. The size of each of these species was incredible to see in person but we had to move on to the rest of the aquarium.

Before exiting the main building, we went through an exhibit which displayed skeletons and activities geared towards teaching more about underwater creatures. Maddox tended to pound on the glass too much, so we could only stay there for a short time. Once we left, we went across the trail into the next portion where we saw manatees and sea turtles in their underground viewing room. We had just missed the dolphin show, but were able to see several of them playing in the pool at the end of the trail. After exploring what all there was to see, we started to make our way back to the car. We did let Maddox play a bit in the fountain before our drive home, which must have worked because he fell asleep rather quickly on the drive.By the time we arrived back at the hotel, we were completely exhausted.

The next morning, we packed up our things, had some breakfast and headed back to the rental car agency. Okinawa is only about 466 square miles, but there is quite an abundance of activities. A 72 hour trip to this tropical destination was the perfect getaway for Memorial Day Weekend, but Jesse and I are already talking about when we would get to visit this beautiful island again.

View from a coffee shop at the American Depot.
Trying the soda flavored iced candy. Advertised as the “only one in the world.”
Trying some hard iced candy
Toy Kitchen rainbow snow cone
Coffee stop in the American Village
Only a small portion of the American Village
Yakiniku at the Rizzan
Baby Asher
Our personal Yakiniku chef
Very upset with sand getting on his toes
Finally playing in the sand-on a towel
Pool time went over better
Sea turtles
Massive whale shark
Aquarium
Small fish tank
Aquarium
Entrance into the Aquarium
View of the ocean from the aquarium
Intricately designed hedges along path to aquarium
Intricately designed hedges along path to aquarium
Playing in the fountains

Navigating Tokyo

View from the top of Tokyo Tower

Sometimes, well most times, military families do not get much of a decision when selecting a duty station. In our case, the Marine Corps sends my husband where he is needed, and the family just tags along; however, in our particular case, we were asked out of AZ, CA, & Japan, where would we like to go next.

For us, Japan was the obvious choice.

We sometimes get weird reactions when we tell people that, but we were born to travel. We want to see the world and everything it has to offer, and if the government wants to help pay for that, well, why the heck not?

Three weeks into our move, it was time for me to travel. A good friend of mine, Sam, was delivering her baby in Tokyo, so we arranged for me to come visit her for a few days while she waited for her baby to arrive. My husband had to work, so it was just little man and me venturing to Tokyo, and to say it was an experience would be an understatement.

Our plane journey to Tokyo is an entirely different story, so I will save that for another blog, so fast forward to my arrival.

  • Train Station-There may have been some watery eyes in this process. I feel I’m a pretty independent person, but when I’m in another country, with a 1 year old, a large suitcase, surrounded by virtually no one who speaks English, and I have to figure out what train to take to make it to my friend, my limits are tested; however, once I figured out the transit option on my Maps app, life became much smoother.
One of the many trains we took in our 72 hour visit.

The train system is color coded, which helped tremendously. The app even allowed me to see which train to take, when to transfer, how long I would be on the train, and how many stops it would make. For those who may be used to trains and subways-I’m looking at you NYC- this may be common sense. For the girl who drives everywhere, this ended up being incredibly tough for me, and even after three full days in Tokyo, I still didn’t mastered it.

The Japanese utilize every bit of space available. There are even professional “pushers” to make get as many people on each cart as possible.

Also, be prepared to have personal space invaded. The trains are packed and chairs aren’t offered to women or the elderly like they would be in the States; however, the Japanese are so respectful. I took up so much space; yet, I received nothing but smiles. As the train doors opened, and there were mad rushes to get on and off before they closed, my luggage was constantly lifted on and off the train for me. I had a few people even escort me to the elevator with it. Sound sketchy? In the States, I would have elbowed someone in the face if they touched by luggage, but Japan-it’s just different. They are genuinely kind people.

Most of the strollers are simple umbrella strollers, so even my single Chicco Bravo stood out.

The biggest takeaway, be weary of large luggage. Americans definitely stand out. We have big everything-strollers, luggage, and bodies! Even the Japanese who carried luggage only had small carry-ons or backpacks. Strollers were mainly compact umbrella strollers, and I didn’t see any diaper bags (nor families with more than two children). I’ve never thought of myself as an over packer, but my next trip to Tokyo, I will definitely size down in this area.

Welcome to Harajuku!

DAY 1: Harajuku & The Fashion District                                                                    If large crowds give you anxiety, Harajuku is not the place to go. I have never seen so many people at the same place, at the same time. It was both fascinating and exhausting. Harajuku was eccentric to say the least. The fashion is, well, different.: five-inch platform sandals, giant glitter hair bows, rainbow colored crop tops. However, once I was able to get past all the crazy shops of clothing and souvenirs that a part of me wanted to buy, yet knew it was a complete waste of money, we discovered some amazing cafes and restaurants.

My brunch at Pompompurin Café made up of rice, pancake, fruit, veggies, and salsa.

We grabbed lunch at Pompompurin Café. Haven’t heard of it? You may soon. Pompompurin is a golden retriever character created by the same company that started Hello Kitty and is growing quickly in popularity throughout Japan.

The entrance to Reissue. You have to be looking for it, or you will miss it.

After finishing lunch, my friend and I headed over to the Latte Art Café Reissue. After climbing up a very steep flight of stairs, were warmly greeted and led to a small table, which we shared with a Japanese mom and daughter. One of our favorite stops throughout the entire trip, we simply showed the waitress a picture of whatever we wanted to have their “café artist” recreate on our drink. Since Sam and I were away from our husbands, we thought this would be a good way to have them join us.

My custom latte. <3

Ten minutes later, a phenomenally looking latte appeared. After a half dozen pictures, we finally made ourselves drink the $10 latte, and it was delicious. The café claims to be able to recreate any picture that is brought to them, including 3-D, and by the amount of pictures being taken all of the customers throughout the quaint café, we were not the only ones impressed.

One of the many high end stores located in the fashion district.

A street over is the fashion district. This was a nice break from the massive crowds, but any real dreams of shopping were quickly squashed for these two military spouses. The street was aligned with high-end stores such as Gucci, Prada, Celine, Louis Vuitton, etc. We window shopped and dreamed, and an hour later, we decided it was time to head home.

Fashion District

 

 

We had to brace the crowd back through Harajuku, which by now had doubled in size. On our way out, we wanted some cotton candy at the Totti Candy Shop. We had passed by this shop earlier, but thought it would be a perfect ending to our day. This is not your typical cotton candy. It’s colorful and massive and even comes with a glove to avoid that annoying stickiness. Unfortunately, everyone else must have thought it was a good time for cotton candy as well because it was a two hour wait! We passed for this trip, but definitely on our list for next time.

Before giving birth, Sam had the opportunity to go back to Totti Candy Factory to grab her some cotton candy. I will have to wait until my next Tokyo visit before I can experience this rainbow of sweetness.
  • Day 2: Shiba-Koen & Shibuya
A different view from the top of the Tokyo tower.
Our private elevator (not sure why the blue led lighting).

We knew today we wanted to see the city: literally. We headed for the highest point: The Tokyo Tower located in the Shiba-koen district. We had been told to get there early to avoid the long lines. While reading up on the Tokyo Tower, articles kept mentioning all the steps we needed to climb. If this were accurate, it definitely would have been a site we wouldn’t have been able to see between a 9 month pregnant woman and a stroller. Fortunatley, it was the complete opposite. We felt more like VIPs. After about a 20 minute wait, we purchsed tickets and were escported to a private eleveator that took us right to the top. The views were spectacular. There was a little café, so we sat to have a bite and some coffee while enjoying the scenery.

Cafe at the top of Tokyo tower overlooking the city.
Max enjoying the view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After an hour or, we started back down on our private elevator and headed to Shibuya.

Pedestrians getting ready to cross.
Approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross this intersection every 60 seconds. This is our view from the top of Starbucks.

This was the most fascinating part of our three day trip. There is a reason Shibuya is known for the world’s largest crosswalk. In only 60 seconds, up to 2,500 people cross the street every time the light signals. I have never seen so many people in such a relatively small space in my entire life. Before crossing, we had to take a moment and just watch (as did MANY other visitors). We finally went, and as cheesy as it may sound, it was a bit of an adrenaline rush. Directly across the street is Starbucks. The line was out the door, but we still wanted to see the “Starbucks View.” Hands down, that has to be the quickest Starbucks I have ever been to. There were close to 20 people in line in front of me, and I had my latte in less than 10 minutes. I headed up the stairs and just watched the crossing from a higher viewpoint. (Plus, I was able to grab my Tokyo Starbucks mug). With the exception of a $5 latte, it was one of our favorite spot and completely free.

  • Day 5: Kamakura
Great Buddha
Our entrance ticket to walk the grounds around The Great Buddha.

On our last full day, we decided to head to Kamakura to see The Great Buddha. There was a nice trail leading up to The Great Buddha. There is an option to go inside, but we decided just to purchase the main entrance ticket. We saw many Japanese lighting incense and praying, and it was a really interesting location to just observe. We walked around the site for a bit, learned more about Buddhism, and then ventured into Kamakura.

Shopping the streets of Kamakura.

There were cute shops and restaurants we visited, but after three days, these two gals were exhausted, so we decided to call it an early day and headed back.

 

 

 

Overall, Tokyo is a fascinating city to visit.  Although we just touched the surface on sites to see and things to do, we feel that three full days was our max for that trip. Our legs were sore, we were mentally exhausted, and it gave us an excuse to visit again.

 

Saying Sayonara in Kamakura

What is a must for our next visit? Mario carts!

A Kid in Kyoto

The second most visited place in Japan is the city of Kyoto. With a population of over 1.4 million, the city is filled with tourist hot spots, and my family couldn’t wait to visit as many as possible.

My husband, son and I decided to use Veteran’s Day weekend to take the 2 night, 3 day trip to the city. We had two options-drive 5 hours, or take the 2 hour Shinkansen (bullet train). I had been wanting to take the bullet train since we arrived in Japan, so that was an easy decision. Many of our friends had recommended AirBnB, so that is the route we decided to take. Our rental was approximately two blocks from the train station, so very convenient to access the train throughout the weekend.

No handrails-simply steps cemented into the wall. Terrifying, especially with a toddler.
Our AirBnB. It was small, but very neat and modern.
The only panel that was operated using the electrical panel in the shower stall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We arrived around 3:30 pm, and with only about 48 hours to see as many (kid friendly) sites as possible, we knew we had to make it count. Here are our Top 5 Must-See Destinations in Kyoto:

 

  • Nijo jo Castle

About a block from our AirBnB, was the Nijo-jo Castle. The castle lets in its last guest at 4:00pm, so we had to hustle; fortunately for us, we were the last ones allowed in. Built over 400 years ago, the Nijo-jo Castle was the residence of the most powerful man in Japan and first Tokugawa shogun (military government ruler), Ieyasu. In 1893, it became an imperial palace after the fall of the Tokugawa before being donated to the public in 1939. Today, visitors can walk throughout the castle, viewing each of the numerous rooms and learning of its purpose. Some rooms were designated for the less ranking officials, while others were held for special guests. Breathtaking murals are painted throughout the castle, each with a distinct meaning and purpose. Some rooms are covered in tigers, while an adjacent one may have floor to ceiling pine trees. The most unique feature of the castle is the “nightingale floors.” To warn against sneak attacks or assassins, the boards were intentionally structured to make a bird chirping sound when anyone walks on them. Walking through this centuries old palace and getting a glimpse into the style of that time period can be considered beautiful in itself, but when guests exit the building, they are surrounded by acres of gardens, moats, and elaborate gates once used to protect the castle from outside enemies. English audio tours can be rented for 500 yen (around $4.50), and we wish we could have taken advantage of those. I’m sure we would have learned even more about this destination; however, being the last visitors, we simply ran out of time. Fortunately, there are signs throughout the castle explaining much of the site. Cameras are not allowed in the castle, so it really is a spot one must see.

 

Cost: 600 yen per person (kids are free)

 

Kid Friendly: Unlike many castles that go up, this one is considered a flatland castle. There are very few stairs; however, strollers are now allowed. Shoes also must come off before entering, but both strollers and shoes can be safely stored at the entrance.

 

  • Fushimi Inari Tight

The next morning, we headed to the most famous shrine in Japan, theFushimi Inari Taishi in southern Kyoto. About a ten-minute walk from the Kyoto train station, the shrine has thousands of torii gates dating all the way back to 711 A.D. Each of the torii gates were dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and their names and dedication dates can be found in kanji writing on the backside of the gate. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, so many statues are located throughout the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon arriving to the destination, visitors will quickly see the gates start to ascend up a mountain. Many hikers will explore the full 2.5-mile path; however, all guests are welcome to turn back at anytime.

Cost: Free

 

Kid Friendly: Strollers are not allowed on the trail; however, the mountain is not steep, and with the flexibility to turn back at any time, it is definitely manageable with children. Take comfortable walking shoes.

 

 

  • Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a full sightseeing district and definitely worth the trip. Thinking our son would love it, we decided to take the hike up the Iwatayama Mountain and see the monkey park. With over 150 macaque monkeys up close and personal, the monkey park is about a 30-50 minute hike.

Being six months pregnant, this proved to be a bit more difficult for me, but there were benches located throughout the train that several visitors were utilizing. The trail itself had some dangerous areas, no railings and steep drops, so there were several spots we wouldn’t allow our one year old to walk and needed to be carried. Towards their top of the mountain, and just short of the park, is a “resting area” with a small playground. Once we left the playground, and ascended another 100 feet, an absolutely incredibly view of Kyoto opened up for picture taking. For a few moments, we didn’t even pay attention to the monkeys walking right next to us because we couldn’t take our eyes off this beautiful city, but once we broke away, the exhaustion from the trail was quickly forgotten. Our son loved the monkeys; however, he did decide to throw a tantrum when we wouldn’t let him play with them. Visitors can purchase food to feed the monkeys and there is no shortage of spots where monkeys are relaxing, but there are signs everywhere to not look them directly in the eyes. After half an hour or so, we decide to head back down the mountain, which proved to be much easier!

Cost: 550 yen ($5.00) per adult. Kids 4 and under are free

Kid Friendly: Semi depending on age. Strollers are not allowed, so be ready to carry small children.

 

Once we exited the monkey park, we took the 10-15 minute walk to the bamboo Grove, passing dozens of shops and restaurants and crossing a bridge with even more gorgeous sites to take in. I was so incredibly exited to get to these paths, which cover over 500 meters, and it was completely worth it. Shaded and peaceful, the bamboo forest really allows visitors to take in the tranquil surroundings of the area. If traveling without the kids and for a bit of a romantic feel, rickshaw rides can be rented for 5000-7000 yen (roughly $40-60). English tour guides on the rides will take up to two guests on private trails, picturesque spots, and provide knowledgeable information on the area. Although we snapped dozens of photos, none can convey the atmosphere in person, making it an easy (and free) must see.

 

Cost: Free

 

Kid friendly: Very. Strollers are allowed, and guests can turn back at any time.

 

  • Golden Palace

On our last day in Kyoto, we knew we wanted to check out the Kinkaku-ji , which became a favorite stop for my family and the most photographed temple in Japan. After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the Kinkaku-ji, better referred to as the Golden Pavillion, the Kinkaku. Dating back to 1397, the temple was originally built for statesman, Saionji Kintsune, and later purchased by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. After Yoshimitsu’s death, and designated in his will, his son converted the complex into a Zen temple. In 1950, a crazed monk burned much of the original structure, but the pavilion was restored to its original design, including the gold-leaf coating that covers the temple. Besides the obvious gold element that makes this temple so unique, the building also boasts three floors of different styled architecture. The Kinkaku-ji is located in the middle of a pond, and although it cannot be entered, often the windows of the pavilion are open, where statues of Yoshimitsu and Shaka Buddha can be seen on the first floor.

Visitors can continue to follow the garden path around the pond and up a slight hill where a tea house will end the tour. The beautiful shaded trail is a must-see during the fall season when the leaves are changing colors.

 

 

 

Cost: 400 yen per adult & 300 yen per elementary/middle school aged child (toddlers/babies are free)

Kid Friendly: The garden path is a flat pathway and very easy to walk with small children and strollers; however, there are stairs towards the end of the trail (and must be climbed to access the tea house). We took turns going up the stairs to check out the tea house and small markets located at the top of the hill, while one of us stayed with our son (about an additional 10 minutes each). We then simply turned around and went back down the way we came down the path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Kiyomizu Sera

 

Once we left the Golden Pavillion, we jumped back on the bus and within a few minutes we were walking our way up towards the Kiyomizu Dera. Our last major stop on trip, this Buddhist Temple was founded in 780 and is best known for its “stage” that extends from the main building providing stunning sites of Kyoto. Like many sites throughout Kyoto, the Kiyomizu Dera is located up a steep mountain; however, the path is considered the Higashiyama District and is aligned with numerous shops and restaurants catering to tourists.

We were surrounded by both men and women in Kimonos and couldn’t help but to stop in a little shop to pick our son up his very own.

    

Throughout the Kiyomizu Dera are areas where guests can stop to pray, whether with the use of incense or in front of a statue. Once visitors exit the temple, they descend down a trail lined small waterfalls and even more views of Kyoto.

 

Cost: 400 yen per adult (kids are free)

 

 

 

Kid Friendly: The HigashiyamaDistrict is very crowded, but strollers are allowed; however, they must be left at the bottom of the temple due to the amount of stairs needed to climb. The temple itself is an easy walk with children.

 

What we wish we could have done:

There was one thing I really wanted to do on our short trip to Kyoto, but we simply ran out of time. I wanted to see a Geisha! Upon leaving Kiyomizu Dera, we decided to walk to the train station versus taking the bus. The walk was much farther, but it allowed us to walk through Gion, the area to find a Geisha. We had learned that dusk was the ideal time to spot one, and timing wise, we may have been a bit early, but that didn’t deter us from looking down every alley we passed. If you have extra time to sightsee, check out the neighborhoods of Hanami-koji-dori in Gion, especially n the weekends and holidays, but remember, snap a photo from afar since many geishas don’t have time to stop for a picture, as they are usually on their way to an appointment.

Overall, our trip was amazing. Kyoto is beautiful and has over 17 UNESCO World Historic Monuments. Traveling with a child (or children) will slow any family down, but children should never be an excuse to not explore the world.

The Beauty of Beaufort Book Deput

 

Written for Eat, Sleep, Play Beaufort

Beaufort Inn’s Tabby Place was filled with fans, photographers and members of Friends of Hunting Island Thursday evening for the anticipated book debut and author signing of The Beauty of Beaufort. A year in the making, the book features over 175 image from 28 local contributors. Throughout the night, guests mingled, snacked on hors d’oeuvres, sipped wine and one lucky raffle winner even walked away with a free book.

Author, Ryan Copeland & wife

Publisher Lydia Inglett approached the Photography Club of Beaufort’s President Joan Eckhardt about getting its members involved. Inglett visualized a book full of breathtaking images that captured the Lowcountry with historically written descriptions by Author, Ryan Copeland. Several categories were given such as shrimping, Port Royal wetlands, Hunting Island, etc. Hundreds of images were submitted and Inglett with her team, selected the ones that would be featured on the pages. As a thank you to the Photography Club of Beaufort, all net proceeds from now until May 31st will benefit the Friends of Hunting Island. After this date, proceeds can benefit the nonprofit organization if purchased directly from a Photography Club or Friends of Hunting Island member.

Members from Friends of Hunting Island, as well as the Photography Club of Beaufort gather for the book deput.

The Photography Club of Beaufort was very selective in choosing which organization to direct the donations, but the Friends of Hunting Island was the obvious choice. This nonprofit greatly depends on contributions to help acquire items such as planting sea oats, ADA beach accessible wheelchairs, sand fencing, and a nature center. This year’s plan is to even create a replica lighthouse playground for those not quite tall enough to climb the real one. “The books’ proceeds will really help purchase a lot of items that are not state funded,” stated Friends of Hunting Island President, Denise Parsick.

Publisher, Lydia Inglett (second from right) along with other staff members gather in preparation for the event.

If interested in purchasing The Beauty of Beaufort, contact the Photography Club of Beaufort, Friends of Hunting Island, or visit www.31stStarbooks.com to grab your copy today.

Author, Ryan Copeland autographs his first copy.

 

 

Why I’m Pro-Life

Maddox just turned 4 months old.  Every night, I say the same prayer for him: to be protected, healthy, kept safe, and to one day accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  I am a Christian, and I try my best to put God at the center of my life-every decision.  Sometimes, I fail, but for this election, I held true to my values.

When I look at Maddox, I realize how truly pro-life I am.  The moment I heard his heart beat at just a few weeks in utero, I would have done anything for him. I cannot support a politician who doesn’t flinch if a woman wants an abortion for unrelated health purposes.  I have been told, “There needs to be separation of church and state.” I disagree. The more we push Jesus out, the worse, I believe, our country is getting. “What a woman chooses to do with her body is her right.” What about the baby’s rights? Women have options if they do not want to raise a child, but as a Christian, I view abortions as murder.

When I was about 20 weeks pregnant, I was given the option to test for disorders such as Down Sydrome.  I asked around to a few of my friends on whether they got the test or not, as well as their reasons for it.  I heard a few mixed answers.  One that struck me uncomfortably was, “Yes.  I recommend it. That way, you can decide if you want to keep the baby or not.”  I was totally left speechless, and then I asked one more person. My friend Brittney.  Brittney has been one of my closest friends since childhood, and she is the epitome of a Christian woman.  Her response spoke volumes to me: “No, I wasn’t tested. It didn’t matter.  If God wanted to give us a child with Down Syndrome, then He obviously thinks we can handle it.”  That was all I needed to hear. I spoke with Jesse, and he agreed. There would be no test for me, but abortion would not be an option.

After Maddox’s birth, my 0pinion on the subject was even stronger. I look at him and thank God for this wonderful blessing. I have friends who have adopted and love their children just as much as I love mine.  These parents are also thankful to their children’s biological mother for choosing life.  That choice not only saved the lives of the babies, but brought a new love to a family.

I’ve often wondered why God allows some women to get pregnant so easily knowing they do not want to have a child, while others pray relentlessly for one-only to never have the chance.  I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m not supposed to.  Jesse and I became pregnant with Maddox very quickly, and four days after his birth, we knew we wanted more children. The same may not happen again for me as quickly, or at all, but that is out of my hands.

My mom and I have talked about abortion often. She knows my stance, and she sometimes reminds me that I did not feel this way as a teenager or college student. I was fine with abortion, but I also feel people change.  I didn’t know then what I know now.  I had never heard a heartbeat or had seen a sonogram.  I hope one day abortions become illegal again.  I know that is  a controversial statement, but that is the beauty of being American. I have the right to    say what I want to say, just as those who oppose me can do the same.

I believe every life is a blessing from God, and I believe every baby is created in the image of Him. To destroy that breaks my heart, especially knowing there are so many families out there who would love to raise a child.

Ecclesiastes 11:5

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things.