(Sadly, I don't have any photos of our time in Japan but I was able to find photos on the internet that match my memories pretty accurately)
I remember getting off that plane in Manilla and feeling like I'd been thrown into a steam room. Wow was it ever hot and humid! Then when we left the airport, the swarms of people and crazy traffic of beat-up cars mixed with bicycles and jeepneys combined with intense smells was somewhat breathtaking!
These old World War II jeeps that were left by the US when they pulled out were transformed into these privately-owned little buses called "jeepneys" that take people where they need to go. Each jeepney is unique - painted all fancy, often sporting interesting hood ornaments and nonsense words in English.
We explored the countryside and I was so interested in the houses on stilts (nipa huts) with chickens and pigs running around under them.
We stayed for a few days at a quaint resort where we slept in our own upgraded thatched huts on stilts and enjoyed amazing snorkeling and lots of interesting lizards and wildlife (often inside our huts). To get to this resort, we had to go on these very rickety-looking canoes with motors. I remember looking at those things and thinking there was no way that we were actually going to get on those things and ride in them - surely someone would point out how dangerous they looked! But we just climbed aboard and putted away across the bay to the resort where we had to take several different approaches through the rough sea until we could finally get to the little pier and get off safely. I remember everyone being uncharacteristically quiet on those boats - serious fear I think...
Here's what I remember the boats looking like (wish I had an actual photo!). Imagine two of these little boats with outboard motors on the back carrying the 11 of us (plus a driver in each boat) through some big huge waves. Scary stuff.
After about 10 days in the Philippines, we headed to Japan for about a month.
In Japan, it was still sticky-hot but everything was about as opposite from the Philippines as can be. Everything was amazingly neat and orderly in Japan. The brand new clean little cars everyone drove had nice crocheted doilies on the headrests of the seats and while it was crowded, everyone was careful of the traffic laws. Everything seemed so small and neat. We learned to stoop to go into each house and remove our shoes, cramming our big feet into the little indoor slippers we were offered.
The grocery stores were amazing. Everything was so neatly and beautifully packaged. Even the fruit was perfect - cantaloupe melons grown perfectly so that they had nice handles made of vines (and they cost like $50 each - watermelons were about $100!).
When we first arrived in Japan, things were a bit crazy. My dad had picked up a strange debilitating infection after scraping his leg while scuba diving in the Phillippines. When the 11 of us left the airport with our 22 bags and lots of little kids, he was pretty much incapacitated. Somehow my mom and us older kids managed to get all the bags and all the kids off the plane, onto an airport shuttle and off at the train station. It was frantic and wild trying to make the transfers and not leave anyone or anything behind while it was all my poor dad could do to barely walk and keep up with us. On the shuttle to the train station, Charity (age 4) started doing a pretty crazy potty dance and I was charged with finding her a bathroom as soon as we stopped at the train station and threw all the bags off the shuttle. She and I ran into the station but there were turnstiles and we didn't have train tickets yet. I found a station worker and, knowing no Japanese, I just pointed at Charity who was doing her frantic potty dance and the nice worker opened up the gate to let us in, pointing towards the restrooms. We ran into the bathroom and into a stall and this is how the toilet looked:
Charity said "That's not a potty! I can't use that!" and started dancing around even more frantically. We looked in all the other stalls and there were no other options. In desperation, she finally dropped her pants and tried to use the Japanese toilet only to end up with some pretty wet pants and underwear anyway! Those toilets take a little getting used to!
Wish there'd been a sign like this to help us:
We all eventually did make it to the lovely home where we'd be staying. We lived with a wonderful couple who'd read my parents' books and opened their home to our crazy group of 11 people for an entire month. What saints they were! We stayed in a large house (by Japanese standards) in the lovely town of Kamakura (a former capital of Japan outside Tokyo - still the cultural capital of Japan in many ways). My parents had a room and then we had two tatami rooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. In true Japanese style, we pulled out mats and bedding each night and made our beds on the floor in our authentic Japanese rooms with paper walls and straw-mat floors.
The family we were staying with helped us set up all sorts of wonderful cultural experiences and helped us find amazing sites to see.
We visited amazing Buddhist Temples and Shinto shrines and appreciated their unique beauty and peace. We especially loved this little bamboo forest that's part of the Hokokuji Temple in Kamakura.
A Shinto shrine:
We went to visit the Big Buddha right down the street from where we were staying in Kamakura quite often.
We learned to do sand art on black laquer trays at the home of the priest right next to the "Big Buddha". It's a lot harder than it looks!
We experienced the crazy electric district and great cultural sites in Tokyo.
Rush hour in Tokyo was quite an experience. They actually have people in the subway stations whose job it is to push hard on the people hanging out of the over-crowded train so they can squish in and the doors can close. Sometimes the crowds were practically suffocating and we had to hold up the little kids so they wouldn't be squashed. I was impressed by how politely and matter-of-factly the Japanese handled the situation.
Shawni, Saydi and I learned how to put on kimonos (wow, is it ever complicated), participate in Japanese tea ceremonies (so interesting to learn about the precise actions required in that very peaceful and pleasant ritual), and do ikebana (Japanese flower arranging).
Learning to do Ikebana was so interesting - so much thought must go into the exact placement of each element - it's sort of like composing a beautiful painting and getting things artfully off-center but also balanced.
I found a great blog post that shows the pretty intense step-by-step process involved in putting on a kimono - here's one photo from it and you can see the whole thing here:
We took a "bullet train" to Kyoto where we saw amazing palaces.
We visited gorgeous Mount Fuji.
We also had a chance to go to Japanese Schools. The lady we were staying with set up opportunities for each of us to go to school with kids our ages and some of us even got to stay for a night or two with a Japanese family as part of the experience. I remember dropping off my little brothers at a Japanese school where everyone was in their neat uniforms and my brothers with their light hair and American clothes and tall-even-in-America stature stood out like sore thumbs. I was proud of how they went right into the classrooms with the other kids and made friends at recess and sat through classes in Japanese all day, enjoying the chance to help the English teachers learn to pronounce some English words correctly when it was time for English at school.
I got to stay with a family with two girls close to my age and went with them to Sophia University in Toyko for a couple days. The girls were so kind to me and I answered a lot of questions and asked a lot as well. The family I stayed with made me truly delicious Japanese food that I loved and I had a chance to take a traditional Japanese bath in their deep, deep tub (you shower and scrub down thoroughly first, then you sit in the nice deep hot tub to soak after you're all clean). I learned so much in my couple of days with that family and will be forever grateful to them.
We'd lived in Mexico, England, Virginia and Utah before, each of which offered interesting contrasts and great chances to learn about different cultures but wow, our time in Asia offered SUCH a different experience. We all learned and grew so much. And I'm sure that the 11 of us light-haired super-tall people offered a pretty good show to everyone we encountered!
P.S. My sister Shawni's post about the Philippines and Japan with some actual pictures that she found of us is HERE.