Monday, September 6, 2010

The Competence of Strangers

Yes, the kindness of strangers can make or break a trip, and we all have oft-repeated travel stories of guardian angels who stepped in to save our sorry touristy selves. Fortunately, our recent trip to Japan required no such extreme intervention. For the most part, everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped, due in a large part to planning this trip for over a year. And due in an even larger part to the travel agency we worked with here in San Francisco.  That's where the "competence" comes in, because without their knowledge and guidance, our trip might have been a bit more "adventurous," and definitely more expensive.

The itinerary for our two week trip was 7 days in Tokyo, two days in Hiroshima, one day on Miyajima Island, 3 days in Kyoto, and then an overnight in Narita before catching our flight home.  After much research and many visits to and other helpful web sites, I confidently booked hotels and fleshed out the itinerary -- hoping to include at least a few highlights for everyone. Baseball at the Tokyo Dome for my Giants fan husband, The Ghibli Museum for the anime-loving kids, and low-stress train travel from place to place for all of us.

When I needed to get rail passes, a web site referred me to JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) USA's San Francisco office.  I e-mailed, asking about the pricey two-week rail passes, and a helpful woman named Akiko patiently questioned my itinerary, and then suggested that I not bother with the two-week passes when one-week ones would do -- we'd get them validated when we left Tokyo -- and they were much, much more economical. That win was just the first. Akiko also sent me a seating chart for baseball tickets at the Tokyo Dome, and then arranged to have our baseball tickets delivered to the hotel. They were waiting for us when we checked into our Shinjuku digs.

Lastly, since tickets for the Ghibli Museum are only available by pre-purchase and for set times and dates, Akiko arranged for those too. She threw in a nice little discount and used her magic to ensure we did not have to adhere to a specific time on our ticket date -- which is especially nice when traveling with kids.

I don't know why it surprises me that an agency specializing in Japan is knowledgeable about Japan, but it does.  In the past, most of my experiences with agencies have been adversarial. We only used the agency for three tasks, but their approval about what I'd already planned and help with what I hadn't certainly boosted my confidence about the trip.  When we return to Japan, I will be sure to pester them for more help and many more suggestions.

If you ever worked with a travel pro expert in a region or subject, please share. Here's the contact info for JTB in SF (check the web site for other locations):

685 Market Street, Suite 200, San Francisco, CA. 94105
Office Hours: 9:00-17:00, Monday-Friday
Tel: 415-986-4764(Ext 204)  Fax: 415-986-3989

Friday, June 4, 2010

Life Underground

If you happen to find yourself in Fresno and in want of something to do, I suggest The Underground Gardens. You can then decide for yourself if the effort is the work of a visionary, or if it's a masterpiece in crazy.

Legend has is that some time around the early 1900's, Baldassare Forestier left Italy to seek his fortune.

After a bit of meandering on both the east and west coasts of the U.S., he found himself in Fresno, wondering what great things he could do with many acres of land he'd purchased. His dreams of starting an orchard were quickly dashed when he put shovel to earth and hit hardpan -- a naturally occurring geological layer of rock-dense soil that meant "no orchard for you."

So he resorted to Plan B: painstakingly using hand tools to chisel bricks (just stop here to imagine and appreciate this for a bit)  from the hardpan to create an underground castle/eco building. The dwelling, modeled after Roman catacombs, originally covered 10 acres. Its pared-down version still includes a summer and winter bedroom, a courtyard/sanctuary, a kitchen complete with stove, a cistern, a holding aquarium for the fresh fish destined for the dinner table, and naturally cool shelter from brutal Fresno summers -- no A/C required.

Even though the home has several subterranean levels, skylights keep the interior bright and airy, so we never felt as though we were underground. Or in a garden for that matter, because even though the plantings are numerous, the large stone rooms gives the interior a sparse look.  The plants are indeed beautiful and eerie, with fruit trees grafted to produce more than one kind of fruit. One tree in particular had once produced seven different kinds of oranges, lemons, grapefruit.

The Underground Gardens is family run, and it gives tours daily as long as the weather permits; call ahead if the weather seems dicey. Weeks later, our family is still talking about the house, speculating about the man who built it, and cheering Fresno for reminding us city folk that agriculture actually exists and shapes lives on both large and small scales.

For more information, see The Underground Gardens of Fresno website.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Journey Begins (in Fresno?)

Where will I find you? Possibly in Fresno, of all places, when I head there in two weeks.  Yes, this blog is about travels, and Fresno isn’t exactly my idea of a dream trip either, but I’m not one to turn down a travel opportunity, ever.   I am looking forward to seeing what Fresno has to offer;  it’s not exactly obvious, even to those I’ve spoken to who live there.

Where will I find you?   Possibly in Japan, when we head there in June.  I have been planning this trip for over a year, and I look forward to sharing all I’ve learned.  I’ll be toting manga-anime-architecture loving teenagers, which might conflict (we’ll see) with the goals of their serenity-temple-onsen loving parents.

Our itinerary, spread over two weeks and two days, is San Francisco to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Kyoto, and Narita in time for our trip back to San Francisco.  Highlights will include the Ghibli Museum, the Manga Museum, Kibuki theater, Japanese baseball, the Peace Museum, climbing Mount Misen, tame deer, and a rich assortment of temples and shrines.

When I’m not far from home, I’ll find you on the streets of San Francisco.  I grew up in the suburbs of this amazing city, and I’ve lived in the city proper for over 25 years, yet I continue to smack my forehead (metaphorically) almost daily with the discovery of some fantastic something or other.

Still, as much as I love San Francisco, I hope I’m not here too too much.  I need to explore other places and lives, and when I’m there, I will look for you.