We’ve had an exceptional few days of travel and fun. We departed Thiruvananthapuram early on July 1st– in fact a 6AM flight, which meant arriving at the airport at 4AM. Our dear friend Manikandan (PhD student and our first guide in Trivandrum) was kind enough to see us to the airport despite the early hour. Our first flight was a quick jaunt to Kochi, India, to be followed by a long layover before leaving that evening to Kuala Lumpur then Vientiane, our actual destination. It was a pretty ludicrous travel plan to being with— but necessary given that Vientiane Laos is not a huge destination with lots of flights incoming.
Our original plan was to visit Kochi in the day, return to the airport, and then fly all night… eventually reaching Vientiane in the morning with perhaps a few hours of airplane sleep under our belts. Our first setback came when we tried to find the left luggage area in Kochi. The Kochi airport is GORGEOUS– brand new and beautiful. The place you can leave your luggage– let’s say has not yet been remodeled. It was a bit of a shack across the street from the airport. You could leave luggage there for the day… but as we spoke with the attendant… he had a lot of questions about which bags would and would not be locked. Perhaps he was just a naturally curious person, but it did not inspire confidence. After regrouping we decided instead to re-enter the airport and spend the day with our luggage inside. While we missed a day of sightseeing in Kochi, we did have the advantage of a very relaxed day. Given our brutal flight schedule, this turned out to be a good thing.
We finally loaded onto the plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia… and spent about three hours on the runway as they worked to fix an electrical problem. It’s such a tough situation– as you absolutely want to take off in a plane without any electrical problems— but after a while, you also just want to take off. Fortunately Alice fell asleep while we were on the runway and slept the whole flight. After about three hours, we took off– and the electrical engineer was on the flight with us– which definitely instills confidence!
We were meant to have about a 3 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur before flying to Vientiane. It was clear after our delay that this would not be happening. In a way, it was good that it was SO delayed, as we did not have a frantic Home Alone style airport experience racing to catch a plane. We knew we’d missed our connector before we landed. We made our way through customs, found our bags, and then took a very tired and grouchy crew up to the help desk. The Air Asia staff was REALLY wonderful. They were so kind and thoughtful, despite not having very good news: there was no other flight to Vientiane on that day. In fact, they only flew every third day between Kuala Lumpur and Vientiane. Our options were to go the next day to Vientiane via Bangkok… or to wait two days for the direct flight to Loas. They would put us up at a hotel and provide food coupons in either case. Our trip to Vientiane was only a few days, so we opted for the Bangkok flight the next morning. It did allow for some great meals in Malaysia and a restful night of needed sleep.
The free meal tickets were only to be used at a curry restaurant at the airport. We thanked them profusely but said that having just been in India for six months we’d like to explore local food instead!
We then made our way to Laos via Thailand. We were able to get more good food at the Bangkok airport– the kids have loved checking out all the interesting snack foods and cuisines. We arrived in Laos midday and took a van to Karen and family’s house. Karen was Mike’s roommate on Folly back in the day and our good friend Carl’s sister. She has been working all over the world for the last few decades, for a while in the Balkan region and more recently in Laos for Catholic Relief Services. Soon she will be in the Philippines. Compared to India, Laos was incredibly quiet and laid back. A much slower pace of life in a kind of sleepy capital city. Karen was just about to take her family on summer leave, but still managed to host us, feed us, and show us all the sights.
We visited Buddha Park, the That Luang temple, had some delectable food, and hugged a lot of statues!
Laos’ original name was 10,000 elephants under a white parasol… and you simply can’t go wrong with a name like that.
Plus you can never go wrong with new friends.
Then we made our way back through Bangkok to Tokyo.
We took a bus from the airport to a neighborhood west of the city called Kichijoji. We picked this area because of its proximity to the Ghibli Museum –the museum of the animation studio that features the work of director Hayao Miyazaki. We have been big fans of their work for many decades (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Tortoro to name just a few). We reserved the hotel here months ago, hoping we would be successful in procuring tickets through the designated elaborate and specific procedure. Tickets for each month go on sale on the 10th of the preceding month at 10AM Tokyo time. Tickets may be purchased in advance online but sell out quickly. Being an orderly person, I planned for 6 months to buy the tickets at the designated time and place. On the day, I dutifully filled my basket with the tickets and pressed the purchase button. It was rejected with the message: “You are not able to access over your environment”
What this means exactly, I am not sure. I do know there is no information available about the system in place for how to purchase tickets if you’re located in India. I was using the method for Americans (a different method exists if you’re Canadian or from the EU. Japanese can buy tickets from kiosks locally at the same time (10th of the month before)). Obviously at some point it was reading a mismatch between my method and my location. That didn’t stop me from trying, again and again, as I watch all the tickets for Saturday, all the tickets for Sunday, and finally– all the tickets for Monday– disappear. It was heart wrenching.
So, we decided to make the most of it and to stay in the hotel as planned. I read a side comment on a post within a conversation on a travel forum (where all good information is found!?) that said one might be able to procure tickets at the end of the day after 4:00 when all the ticketed visitors had entered. Based on this whisper of a rumor, we decided to try. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Arriving on Saturday in Tokyo, we made our way to the Kachijoji Dai-Ichi hotel, which is unbelievable. It has something like five different restaurants (not cheap, but plenty to chose from) and a bowling alley. It’s centered in the neighborhood, surrounded by restaurants, shops, parks, truly ANYTHING you might want. We stumbled out the first day to something that loosely claimed to be an Italian restaurant (we actually didn’t realize this until we saw the menu) but we found some Japanese versions of Italian inspired dishes which were pretty great. A noodle and cheese dish for Alice, something with a raw egg on top… some kind of sticks with grilled meat on them… who knows– but we were hungry and it was great!
After a nap, then walking through a local department store, we decided to take the kids bowling. They had a blast– they’ve asked to bowl repeatedly since then. We’ve tried to explain that there is more to Tokyo than bowling… but what do we know?
Then it was Sunday and we enjoyed the hotel’s insanely delectable breakfast buffet.
Then we went shopping at a store called Loft that had a whole floor dedicated to stationery, pens, papers, and art supplies. It is a miracle we left.
Then we decided to trek to the Ghibli, grabbing lunch along the way. We had yakitori– more meat on sticks– with rice and sushi. It was so good.
The Ghibli is situated in Inokashira Park and made for a lovely walk from the neighborhood in the gentle rain. From our first moments viewing the city it was obvious the care and attention given to trees here– even in dense spots (and this is by far the largest city we’ve visited, at over 38 million) you see spots of green with mixes of species and sizes. This was a large park with many trees, a zoo, and a lake. We approached the museum to see those fortunate enough to have procured the tickets lining up and being directed inside (there are 4 designated entry times throughout the day). I went forward to explain our situation to an attendant. The staff are all very friendly but also businesslike, and wear matching blue lab coats. The attendant was courteous but firm. I explained how I had tried several times to purchase the tickets, but that (perhaps because I was in India?) it wouldn’t let me complete the purchase. I asked if there were any alternatives. She noted how busy it was — that the tickets always sell out– that tickets on Saturday and Sunday especially so, as the Japanese themselves come on these days– that the way to purchase tickets was through the online system. She went to talk to a gentleman for a moment but then returned, shaking her head. She said that there was only one way to purchase tickets.
I agreed, and made sure to note repeatedly that I knew the procedure (I described the procedure to her) and that we had tried, but that it had failed at the last moment. I then asked how people based in India were meant to purchase tickets. She said she did not know. I told her that I had tried to learn this information online, but had no luck. She was kind and firm, but the answer was no– so I thanked her. I walked back to the kids– we’d made them aware that this was the longest of long shots– and told them it wasn’t going to happen. There was a museum nearby dedicated to zoology- we thought we could check that out instead. They were sad but understood. We had tried. That’s all you can do.
At that moment, the manager that the woman had approached earlier walked up to Mike to ask where we were from, etc., and to chat. He told Mike that if we returned at 4:30 he would have tickets for us. So we took a moment to have a coffee and collect our emotions (you know I cried. Twice. First when I failed. Again when he said he’d help us).
We returned at 4:30 and he showed us in. The tickets are quite inexpensive. We thanked him profusely as he was so very kind. Photographs aren’t allowed inside the museum (which is wonderful in its own way). I wish I had the words to explain what we saw. It was as creative and awe-inspiring as the animation they produce. Some of it was technical– short films about how they hand color panels of animation or how they mix colors and decide on the tones they use. Some of it was personal (miniatures of the artists working in their studies; recreations of their offices including ash trays and barrels of discarded pencils). Our favorite room used mechanics to simulate animation with figurines. So– if I can explain this– there were a kind of carousel of figures completing sequential actions (for example, a girl jumping rope, or a rabbit stretching out and squatting down, or a person riding a unicycle). Each micro-step was included. Then the machine would turn on, the setting would go dark, and a pulsing light shone on it. As the figures moved around the carousel, you saw the motions animated (girls jumping rope, rabbit going up and down, girl riding unicycle). It was incredible. Upstairs there was a room with an enormous version of the cat bus from My Neighbor Tortoro. Willy and Alice got in line to play and had a blast climbing all over it. Willy organized all the kids into a game collecting the bus passengers and putting them in one spot. Then we visited the theater to see a short animation that can only be seen at the museum. It was delightful. We made our way to the gift shop just as they closed, and were able to see our generous benefactor on the way out, thanking him again. Then we returned to the neighborhood around the hotel for dinner, where we visited a quiet small restaurant for hot pot.
Here’s our steamy broth(s) just before we put in the vegetables and meats, watched it cook, and all shared in the deliciousness.
It was quite a day. The kids said again and again how much they loved it. We couldn’t have asked for more.
We have one final day here before we travel to Alaska (via Hawaii) for about a week visiting our friends there.
Next time you hear from us, we will be in America!