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Eugene Magazine: Two days in Florence

Florence, OR

One thing I love about living in Eugene is that you are about an hour from the Cascade Mountains to the east, and an hour from the Pacific Ocean to the west. Florence, OR, is a nice spot for a weekend getaway to the coast, and I had a lot of fun breaking down some things to do and see while there for the Spring 2018 issue of Eugene Magazine.

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Barely breathing on the roof of the world

About 14 years ago, I was barely breathing on the roof of the world. I’d been on an indie traveler tour, overlanding through Tibet in Land Rovers, watching yaks, talking with people in their villages, and seeing a part of the world that, even today, is still a hard place to get to and get around.

The culmination of the trip was a night spent at Everest Base Camp, on the Tibetan side of the world’s tallest mountain—Everest, or, in the Tibetan, “Chomolungma,” which means “Goddess Mother of the World.”

As you might have noticed, mountains feature a fair bit in my fiction. I’ve lived pretty much my entire life in valleys, surrounded by mountains and hills. Oregon’s Cascades, Asia’s Himalayas, and Scotland’s Highlands are all part of my soul.

Though our ragtag group had been traveling the Himalayan Plateau for the past ten days or so and were decently adjusted to the altitude, there’s still a big shift going up into the Everest area. Base Camp on the north side is at 5200m (17,056ft). The air is thin, and ridiculously cold. It’s hard to feel warm. Every breath is a struggle—and we were just at regular ole’ starting point Base Camp. I can’t imagine being high up on the mountain.

Despite the thin air, the cold, and the, shall we say, overloaded latrines, that night at Everest Base Camp is one of the fondest memories of my life.

I saw Chomolungma with my own eyes. I watched the wind blow snow off the summit. I looked out across the plain below camp, where bright tents held climbers who were preparing for their time on the mountain.

The moment that stays with me above all, though, is at night. I’d come out of the tent to gasp my way up a small hill, where I could look out over the plain toward the mountain.

There, I watched the full moon rise over the slope of Chomolungma. The moon seemed impossibly large, though maybe that was the lack of oxygen. The mountain shone, its bulk standing before the world in both silvery brilliance and dark shadow.

I have no desire to climb Everest. I respect people who do. For me, it was enough to stand before the goddess mother of the world, to see the moment when moon met mountain, and to know that I was grateful to be one of the few people who would stand here and see this.

Fourteen years later, I am thinking more and more of the adventures and journeys that my family and I will be going on over the next few years. As I write this, my son Connor is looking at Everest pictures with me, and talking about how if he were there, he would put on snow clothes, make ice blocks, build a snowman, and then climb Everest. He just might.

That time near Everest stays with me and always will. I was barely breathing, but I was fully alive.




Beyond the Pin: A Small Taste of Hong Kong

Over on The Martini of Destiny Pinterest Board, there’s this photo (outlined here in red):

The Martini of Destiny Pinterest Board

A street more clogged with little red top van-taxi-things than New York City is with yellow cabs.

Bright signs that I can’t read, hanging between buildings.

A sense of much going on in a very compact space.

It’s a street scene from Hong Kong, a city I visited only briefly, but that has a hold on me still.

It’s an image I like a lot. During 2003, on the way to India, I had a brief stopover in Hong Kong. A 12-hour glorified layover, really. Just time enough to get lost in the city for a while. I wandered those packed streets. I watched people walk through a park in the middle of a neighborhood whose buildings could’ve been cut out of London. I took the ferry across the harbor. I got a haircut (with free head massage!). I went down the alleys between the massive buildings, and wandered the temples and vendor stalls.

I got lost, and felt lucky to make my train back to the airport in time to catch my flight to New Delhi.

That small taste of Hong Kong has stuck with me for over 10 years now. I want to go back, wander those streets with my family. I want to see where the suit-and-tie businesspeople are going for lunch, and follow them inside another small streetside little eatery, where the noodles are fresh and the air gleams with the scents of chicken and pork. (Sadly, we wouldn’t be able to see the trippy, otherworldly Aw Boon Haw Gardens—they were torn down in the 90s for apartments.)

Hong Kong is a major city—but its vibrancy is beyond many other major cities. The world passes through here. And one time, long ago, I did too.

When I started working on The Martini of Destiny, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it had to be set in Hong Kong. It also doesn’t surprise me that, in my wee fantasy world, Hong Kong is a bit different from what we know today. For starters, in the Rucksack Universe, Hong Kong is an independent country.

The Martini of Destiny needed to be set somewhere not American or European, not Western—but with a touch of the West to it. Hong Kong is that. Chinese, British, Asian, American, European—and ever and always, itself. Which never stops changing.

This photo is just a small reminder of a place I’ve only gotten the tiniest taste of.

For now, that will do. But even if it’s just in another story, Hong Kong, I’ll be back for more.

Available now as an e-book, The Martini of Destiny comes to trade paperback worldwide on Dec. 10.




On Homestays and Couchsurfing

One couchsurfing experience had us sharing homemade Yokohaman comfort food with a wonderful Japanese family.

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Sometimes people think we’re nuts. Like when we said we wouldn’t be staying in hotels during our Japan trip. Instead, we’d be staying in the homes of strangers.

There’s a method to our madness though, and homestays proved to be a great way for us to travel as a family.

When Jodie and I travel, our preference has always been to leverage hostels or, when possible, stay with friends. Since we view paid accommodation primarily as a place to sleep and keep our stuff, we don’t feel a need to pay high dollar for a place we’re hardly going to see. We prefer the vibe of a hostel, with its funkiness and many nationalities—but always with a private room, instead of a dorm. A couple wants their privacy, after all.

Ahem.

But now our family of two is a family of three, and it made sense to look at some fresh options for accommodation. While researching our trip, Jodie came across the Airbnb and Couchsurfing communities. Immediately we knew we’d found people who had a similar mindset. We focused on doing couchsurfing. Jodie looked over lots of people in the cities we wanted to visit, searching for what sounded like compatible personalities and, above all, a willingness to have a wee child in their midst.

It worked, too. From a bachelor in Tokyo, to an expat couple in Kobe, to families in Yokohama and Kyoto, we couchsurfed 2 of our 3 weeks in Japan. For our middle week, where we were in Matsumoto for Jodie’s Suzuki Method World Convention, we stayed in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.

Here are things we learned about couchsurfing—and why we’ll be doing lots more on future trips.

Couchsurfing is an opportunity to see a place from the perspective of people’s ordinary lives. Our hosts were regular workaday folks. We got to see Japan from their standpoint, and share a bit of a regular day.

  • See how people live. It’s fun to see the sights, but it’s also fascinating to see how other people live day-to-day in other places. Our couchsurfing experiences with 6 different hosts showed us 6 different perspectives on living in Japan. Some hosts were Japanese, some were expats. Through all of them we got to learn more about Japan and what it’s like to live and travel there.
  • It’s comfortable and affordable. Couchsurfing is a great way to save on travel costs, but the biggest knock against it is people who play cheapskate and do nothing in return for their stay. We tried to do things for each of our hosts, such as treating them to dinner, buying flowers, or helping with chores. Each place we stayed at was also safe and cozy, and felt indeed like being right at home. Our hosts also would help us with anything from ideas on getting around, to using the washing machine, or where to buy diapers.
  • We could introduce Connor to different people and experiences, helping him understand more about being flexible in life and in travel. This last point is the most important to us. Some of our hosts had children, and they also viewed couchsurfing as a way to introduce their children to other cultures and people. We viewed it as a way to show Connor some of the world’s diversity, and the commonalities and courtesies that are universal. It was also an opportunity to show him how we try to be open to new experiences, and flexible in different situations.

Couchsurfing opened up a new and different range of travel experiences for our wee family. It’s something we will definitely be doing again, but not only as guests. Now that we’re home, we also plan to be hosts.

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Amongst the Monkeys

Two primates, one clearly offspring of the other as demonstrated by measurable differences in size, explore the uphill areas of Kyoto’s Arashiyama Monkey Park.

A Day at Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyoto

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Our first day in Kyoto dawned bright and lovely. We thought about all the walking we’d done over the last few days, and decided the flat, not-much-walking-required area of Arashiyama would be perfect. So I don’t know what then possessed us to hike a steep hill to see monkeys.

Oh yeah. Monkeys.

I don’t read Japanese yet, but I’m betting the parts we couldn’t read say, “Big long uphill walk this way.”

The Japanese macaque is the only non-human primate that lives this far north. Located at the top of the 160 m (525 ft.) Mt. Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama Monkey Park (also known as Iwatayama Monkey Park), is the home of over 130 of these wee silver-furred buggers. Fed and maintained by staff, the monkeys nonetheless roam wild around the hilltop.

130 monkeys. Just what a 16-month-old toddler needs to see.

Unattended young monkey explores rough terrain in its new habitat, while learning essential ranging skills that will help it survive in the wild once old enough to leave its parents and get a job.

From the train station nearest Arashiyama, we stretched our legs with a sunshine walk down a bike/pedestrian lane. Connor could roam like a free-range monkey and smile at all the pretty ladies riding by on bicycles. (I don’t know where he gets this flirty charm.)

Getting to the park itself is fairly easy and straightforward. You wander a main street, past various cafes, shops, people selling green tea, and fascinating temples. After crossing a bridge to the left bank of the Oi River, you just keep going straight and then right toward the only big hill in the immediate area.

Remember: monkeys are thieving buggers with personal space issues, dietary restrictions and passive/aggressive tendencies. Some of my old girlfriends should have come with a sign like this.

Up a few steps and past a shrine—so people can pray the monkeys don’t wander into town?—the fun really begins.

For starters, no strollers. You’re going up steps and rough paths. This is one of many times we were relieved to have our baby carrier. Connor spent much of the hike strapped to my back, helping him save energy and me feel like a bad-ass.

Luckily, this map is not to anything approaching scale. The hardest part of the hike is the walk up to the “present location” red dot in the lower left corner of the map. From there, things get easier, the top is not nearly as far away as it looks, and—hey, look!—you can see monkeys along the way!

The first part of the hike was the hardest. First going up rough steps and then up a simple path, the going is steep. Between Jodie’s prosthetic left leg and the 28-pound load on my back, we stopped a few times to catch our breath. This also gave us a chance to really look at what was around us. The foliage reminded us of home, and here and there flowers were blooming.

But we also got another reminder of that Japanese attention to detail. There’s a steep drop to the left side of this part of the hike. A handrail fence had been constructed to give people a modicum of safety. At first glance, the fence and rails look to be made of wood, appropriate given the foresty environs. On a closer inspection, however, you realize that they are not wood at all. They are concrete, molded and stained to look like wood. The effect is harmonious with the surrounding environment, and the fence often even melds with the rest of the view. And, on a practical note, there’s probably less upkeep needed for the fence, so the park staff can devote resources elsewhere.

Though it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if some of those resources went to drawing maps to scale.

One of about 130 Japanese macaques at the park

We stopped for a longer rest on two benches by the not-to-scale map. After not seeing anyone for ages, Jodie and I decided this was also a good spot for Connor to nurse. As must then happen in circumstances such as this, Connor had hardly taken to the breast when crowds of people walked by, both coming up and going down. We merely smiled, and Connor kept right on eating, good little monkey that he is.

Nursing in public here has been a different experience for us. Accustomed to the nurse-anywhere attitude we know at home, it’s taken some time to get accustomed to the more reserved courtesies of Japanese culture. Usually Jodie has nursed Connor in private, such as the baby care rooms you see in various places. But in time we’d also been realizing that when kiddo’s got to nurse, well, nature trumps sensitivities. So if anyone was offended by the mom nursing her child as they walked past, well, tough ramen. I think, though, that most folks understood.

Look out kid, there’s a monkey behind you!

Once nursed and refreshed, Connor was ready to do some hiking of his own. Uneven terrain? Long drops to one side or the other? And did I mention we’re walking up a steep hill where wild monkeys with passive/aggressive tendencies are wandering free and unchecked?

Good on ya, kid, get walking.

I stuck close to Connor, of course, helping him over difficult spots he couldn’t quite figure out, or staying between him and the long drops off to one side. Some might think this is a bit nuts. I disagree. Like any living thing, Connor can only learn by doing. He needs a chance to try out his strength and abilities in new and different places. So I stayed near, but also stayed pretty hands-off, while Connor walked, climbed, and figured out how to navigate rough terrain and uneven steps.

I confess: I like that someday I can tell him he was hiking steep hills in Japan when he was a one-year-old. Besides, I knew what he had to look forward to: a hilltop covered in monkeys.

How many monkeys do you count on this wooden monkey house? (I found 4.) The hilltop viewing house lets you check out the monkeys from outside or inside (no monkeys inside, but there are refreshments, seats and a toilet).

The top of the hill came almost sooner than expected. We had a feeling the map had exaggerated the distance, and it turned out we were right. Monkeys wandered everywhere. Over the grounds. All over the roof and walls of a small building where you could sit inside and watch the macaques from behind a screen while enjoying a snack and a beverage.

We wandered both inside and out. And for the most part, all was fine. There were a couple of times where a monkey spotted Connor and started getting a bit close for comfort. When one macaque in particular sauntered up, its black eyes bright and wide in the midday sun, I did wonder what in hell I would do if a monkey grabbed onto my kid. Could I take a monkey in a fight?

Luckily, such ponderings wound up with no bearing in the tellings of this true travel story, though they may make a fun fictional scene someday. The macaque stared at us for a while, and then wandered elsewhere. Maybe he lost interest. Maybe something else caught his attention. And maybe he was wondering the same thing I was. But yeah, you just keep on walking, mac…aque.

Kyoto from the top of the hill at the monkey park, about 160 meters (525 feet) above sea level

Connor had a great time seeing the monkeys, and pointed and gestured and stomped as if he were one of their own. Eventually, though, it was time to head back down—but not without a stop at the toilet first.

Children’s toilet at the hilltop monkey park building.

Wandering down, of course, was much easier than going up. We put Connor on my back, and he soon was bouncing along in a deep sleep, probably with a side of monkey dreams. Jodie and I talked, admired the scenery, and just enjoyed each other’s company. At the bottom of the hill, we picked up our stroller and wandered back toward town.

We’d worked up quite an appetite. It was time to check out which plastic food displays promised a tasty yet budget-friendly lunch. And after forgoing easy flat walking for a steep, intense, arduous hike up a hill while carrying a toddler, it was definitely time to rest and reflect on what had, in fact, turned out to be a wonderful and unique way to pass much of our first day in Kyoto.

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This Is Not a Trash Can

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

“I don’t know you,” Jodie said, holding her hand over her face as I walked back over to where we were waiting for our train.

“What are you talking about?” I replied.

“I’m talking about all the Japanese people wondering why the white guy is taking pictures of a fire extinguisher.”

Okay, she’s got me there.

But I just couldn’t help it. Trash cans are a rarely sighted species in Japan. When I saw this wee box on the platform, I figured it had to be a trash can. But it’s not. It’s just a fire extinguisher, cleverly disguised, and oddly cute.

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The Family in Kyoto

Our few days with a family Kyoto presented Connor with many new experiences—and ways to grow and change as a toddler learning more about how to interact with the world.

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Not only was Kyoto bloody chilly, we’d realized that Connor’s fleece jacket had somehow never made it to the Portland airport with us. But maybe a new jacket was just a 5-minute walk away.

After surviving the tantrum on the train and arriving in Kyoto, we had a couple of hours to kill before meeting our homestay host. We stowed our bags in a coin locker at the train station, then started wandering toward a major shrine in the area. Visible from the station and marked on the map we’d procured from the Tourist Information Office in the station, we soon learned a vital truth about the Japanese: their walking times and distances are great big lies.

In Japan, you can walk anywhere in five minutes—as long as you are very flexible about your definition of time.

From what we understand, the Japanese simply walk fast—and much faster than we do. What they may consider a 5-minute walk is likely a few kilometers away, and a much longer choof for the 3 of us.

For starters, in this part of Kyoto the city blocks are massive. Multiple lanes of traffic noisily rushed by, so loud we could barely talk with one another. Plus, as we wandered we realized there was simply nothing about this shrine that could be so staggeringly amazing that we wanted to see it right now. It was easily a few kilometers away still—and we would still need to make our way back to the station later to catch the subway to meet our host.

Really cool doorway off a side street in downtown Kyoto

Sometimes in travel, knowing what you’re willing to miss is just as important as knowing what you have to see.

We nixed the shrine, and instead made a decision that surprised us: we went into a Babies R Us. Not a place we normally frequent even in the U.S., but we were so surprised to see one in a large Kyoto mall that we had to check it out. This wasn’t just curiosity at work; we also had a practical reason: we needed to find a new warm jacket for Connor. At home, we don’t buy much new for Connor, especially things like clothes; we aren’t into paying top dollar for clothes that will fit him for sometimes only a few weeks. And the Babies R Us, while very similar to the same at home, didn’t have any jacket that quite worked for what we wanted—plus they all cost more than we wanted to pay. But we figured we’d be all right; Connor was layered and warm, and we’d keep looking. Something would turn up.

Wandering calmer neighborhood streets back to the station, we relaxed, chatted, and took in the comforting sights of a neighborhood hiding behind busy streets and large buildings. Small front gardens made us smile, and wee shops held baskets of goods or foods that piqued curiosity. By the time we returned to the station, we were more than ready to meet our host for a new couchsurfing adventure.

This Anpanman play structure is just one example where we saw Connor testing his body and motion in new ways.

Like many couchsurfers, S. met us at the subway stop nearest his home. It’s a smart strategy: both parties get to feel each other out and make sure they think this is going to work out okay. Plus, since it’s not easy to navigate Japanese cities to specific locations, it’s a much easier way for a guest to learn how to get to where they’re staying. Luckily, we approved of S. and he approved of us, so off we went on another 5-minute walk to his home, a flat in a nice building tucked away in downtown Kyoto.

Japan’s back streets are some of the most intriguing in the world. Dotted with shrines and flats, eateries and wee shops, S. pointed out lots of fascinating places, all the while wandering quickly down the narrow side street. Cars and scooters edged by; at an intersection, a police officer directed rush hour traffic.

Once settled in to the flat, we met S.’s wife and 2 boys, one of whom was about 5 months older than Connor. Despite differences in language and age, the boys took no time at all to play together. The boys showed Connor their toys, and also demonstrated their climbing abilities on the wee jungle gym in their living room. After a tasty dinner of Japanese curry rice, and side salads of lettuce and shredded cabbage, we all chatted over tea and watched the boys play.

Connor clearly felt right at home. We could talk shop with fellow parents—helpful too, since we also needed to find a good place to stock up on diapers. At the end of the night, showered and refreshed, our hosts prepared our room for us. From one corner of the overall living room they pulled retractable walls from two sides, closing off an area for privacy. We rolled out futons onto the tatami mats, and laid out blankets and comforters onto a wee couch.

Soon Jodie, Connor and I were relaxing in a wee space of our own. Our host family was nice, and we were warming up to each other. It had been a long day, packed with not a few toddler and travel difficulties. But we had made it. We were in Kyoto, we were safe and sound, and we were fed, clean and snug in a comfy flat.

Now it was time to rest up for our first full day in Kyoto.

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Colorado in Kyoto

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

We passed by this Cafe Colorado Espresso place during our first wandering afternoon in Kyoto. We’d considered finding our way to a big shrine that on the map looked nearby, but in reality was much farther away than we really felt like walking.

Sadly, we didn’t get around to trying the coffee here, but there was no way I could pass up a photo. This one’s for my in-laws.

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Macadamia Nuts & Crunchy Cheese

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

We first encountered these ridiculously delicious Australian snacks on our Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. Crunchy cheese and macadamia nuts. I’ve never seen them before. I probably shouldn’t ever see them again, because I never, ever, ever want to stop eating them.

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Shinkansen: The Quiet Bullet of Japan

Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen Bullet Train

Shinkansen slows from a blur to a brief stop

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

If only the incredible bullet trains of Japan were a cure for toddler tantrums.

We’d ridden many a train already. The speedy and overall smooth Narita Express. The clean, efficient local Tokyo trains of the Japan Rail and Odankyu lines. But there was nothing to compare with riding the Shinkansen, the super-fast, super-quiet bullet trains of Japan.

Homes in the countryside show a mix of modern and traditional looks.

The Shinkansen is a train experience the like of which I’d never encountered before. I love trains, and often lament about the overall lack of a quality rail network in the U.S. I’d ridden trains throughout India, China and Scotland, so my experience is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive.

But I just can’t get over it. There is nothing like riding a Shinkansen.

The Shinkansen Series 700. Nothing at all like 007 James Bond.

It’s also a special experience. Shinkansen tickets are not cheap. Many Japanese folks we spoke with told us they had never been on one. But riding the Shinkansen was also one of our reasons for getting a 7-day JR Pass: for the money, we could ride fast and in comfort between cities over the next few days.

In Tokyo we reserved seats and soon boarded a Kyoto-bound Shinkansen. For the next couple of hours, we would sit in comfy seats and speed by towns, cities, huge industrial complexes and hilly countryside.

Passing by the homes, industries and hills of the small bit of countryside between Tokyo and Kyoto

However, to say Shinkansen trains are quiet just doesn’t quite get across how quiet these trains are. When you ride trains, you get used to the comforting clacks and clanks of the train and tracks. The sounds and thumps are part of what makes the ride soothing; there’s many the train ride where my unofficial eyeball polls of the train car showed more passengers asleep than awake.

But the Shinkansen is completely silent and smooth. No track noise. No clackety-clack. No thunks or sways or bumps. I don’t know if the speeds are so fast (320 km/h, or 200 mph) that you just don’t feel any bumps, or if the network is just this well put together, or what. Riding a Shinkansen is like riding a cloud at the speed of a bullet.

Boards alternate displaying Shinkansen schedules in Japanese and English (luckily for us)

These trains are ridiculously habit-forming. We knew we only had a few days to enjoy taking Shinkansens; looking over train fares, we knew they’d be out of our budget once our JR passes had expired. From Tokyo to Kyoto, and later from Kyoto to Osaka and from Osaka part of the way to Matsumoto, we always rode Shinkansen.

Fields being prepared for spring planting

Sadly, though, just because you’re riding the world’s comfiest, smoothest trains doesn’t mean that as parents you’ll have a comfy, smooth ride. It was also on our Shinkansen ride to Kyoto that we first dealt with some major tantrum meltdowns from a certain Tokyo Toddler…

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Hi.

Anthony St. Clair - Travel Fantasy Author / Craft Beer Writer / Business Copywriter

Author and copywriter Anthony St. Clair has specialized in online content since 2000, blogged since 2004 and is the author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series.

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