Thursday, December 9, 2010

Monkey Parking

When we first told the children that we would be moving to Japan for a few months, we asked them what special things they would like to do there. Will hoped to ride on a bullet train, while Jane just wanted to play.

“Can we go see snow monkeys?” Katy asked hopefully.

“Great idea, of course!” I answered with no clue of how I would pull that off. My children are still young enough to think that I am capable of anything, an illusion I’d like to keep intact as long as possible. This was going to take some work.

We had seen footage of snow monkeys in National Geographic and BBC nature videos. Japan is a small country, how hard could it be? A Google search came up with numerous hits, and I even found a webcam at the sight were most of the nature videos had been shot. I also heard about a monkey park near Kyoto that a friend had visited and recommended.  Travel in Japan is quite expensive (actually it only seems that way, about the same as the US, but since our budget is very small, it feels expensive). We thought we could manage one trip out of Hamamatsu, but that was about it. Luckily, John was invited to work in Kyoto for a few weeks, and we all were able to come.

When we arrived in Kyoto, I went immediately to the Tourist Information Office in the train station and spoke to a nice older man. He provide me with a bus map, and some tourist guides and when pressed, a route to Arashiyama, the town at the edge of Kyoto where the Monkey park was located. The route he gave us used the train Station as a starting point, but our apartment was located near Kyoto University.
After a few days of navigating the bus system, I figured out the bus to Arashiyama went right by our apartment, a straight shot across the entire city of 1.5 million people.
Shrine at the entrance
Japanese pygmy woodpecker

After a 40-minute bus ride with most of Kyoto getting on and off our bus, we arrived and walked along the river to the Togetsukyō BridgeThe river has different names on either side of the bridge, perhaps just to confuse tourists. Ok, not really, but names are very precise here. We crossed the river with the throngs of Japanese tourists, dodging rickshaw touts and begging priests and trying to stay out of other people’s photos.  The entrance to the Iwatayama Monkey Park was a short way down the river, near a small shrine.  The kids were so excited; they raced up the 20-bazillion steps that led up the mountain. Well, two of them raced; one needing convincing. If you have ever traveled with a three year old, half the time is chasing her, the other half cajoling (then you break down and carry her.) 

As we climbed, the sun filtered down lazily through the cedars, and we watched a Japanese pygmy woodpecker make its way up a tree.  There were educational signs along the trail, some in English. The rules about not feeding the monkeys were very clear. We went up many more switchbacks and then, there they were.
Our first monkey

We came out on a small clearing, a flat space on a ridge, with a small building. Monkeys were everywhere. Scratching, climbing, ignoring the people walking amongst them. You could see all the way across the city, even through the haze. People admired the view, took photos, all under the supervision of four or five alert park wardens. Every few minutes, one of them would take out a notebook and jot something down. They seemed to be making careful notes about behavior, and a sign said that all the 130 monkeys are named and known well.

The girls feeding monkeys peanuts
and apples

Looking down from above the feeding
Sitting in a prime spot, making sure no
others get close while waiting for
the humans to offer food. 
In the building, food was for sale and people could stand at the wire covered windows and feed the monkeys. The monkeys knew they would only get food from the building, so they didn’t harass the people outside, but they are opportunists, hence the vigilant wardens. I rather liked the people-in-a-cage, monkeys-in-the-wild idea, but as a biologist, it was a bit depressing to see the monkeys begging. While the kids fed the monkeys cut up apples and bananas, I tried to get a handle on the group hierarchy. There seemed to be about 4 dominant individuals who staked out a spot on the window, depending on how many people inside were feeding. Others would try and make a grab here and there and babies, probably of those of the dominant females, would scurry up and down, hastily getting out of the way if a bigger animal moved in. I threw bits down to the unlucky on the ground, too low in status to get a spot on the window. At one time, two big males had a fight on the roof and one ended up taking over the whole side of the building. All this was ever changing, as animals moved on, dropped to the ground, had their fill, got displaced, etc. After the food (or rather, the parents willingness to pay for the food) ran out, we went back outside. A warden offered to take our picture with the monkeys. She sought out a particular large male and gave him a chestnut. He posed nicely while working to open the tough nut. In addition to the fruit and nuts, the monkeys were also fed grains. Interesting to watch them make choices about where to try and forage; was it worth it to pick up the tiny rice, or, if they hung out by the warden would they get a nut, or could they sneak in and grab a banana piece while the big male's back was turned?

Picking up pieces of rice

Low status monkey, keeping an eye
open for an opportunity


As we walked around a bit, we saw juveniles playing, babies nursing, and many grooming pairs. Some taking naps in trees. Nothing seemed to last long and if you followed one monkey, it might sit for a minute, then go over and harass another, start grooming a third, then go off in the bushes for a while. It would take a lot of observation time to put names and behaviors on all of them!

Monkey stink eye
US, monkeys, smoggy Kyoto

major slide
After leaving the feeding area, the trail drops down to another open area with a playground (for people). Of course, the kids couldn’t resist, so we stopped for a while. There was a truly magnificent slide that followed the hill down, a zip line and swings. The bigger kids were ok, but John stuck close to Jane while I took pictures. At one time, a big male approached her and a warden who was on top of the hill came running down and chased it off by throwing a rock. Apparently, that one must be a problem. It didn’t look like anything naughty was up, but it was unnerving how close it had gotten without us noticing. Soon after, we trekked down to see the rest of the sights of Arashiyama.  The kids liked the monkey park so much, though, that we came back another day, so some of the photos above are from the second trip.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How to manage when traveling with Children

Ugh. I've spent the last two weeks (ok, almost 3 now) trying to get a handle on Kyoto so I can post something coherent, and not just be a boring travelogue. I took 1484 photos, a few worth looking at, but a lot of dross. We visited eight Buddhist temples, a few of them several times, four Shinto shrines, two palaces, and various and sundry other sites.  There was so much to see and do, to experience and think about.  We managed to avoid the "if it is Tuesday, that must be the Acropolis" mode of sightseeing only because we were there for so long and had to do things at the pace of three year old. I'd advise anyone to travel with a small child. Slows you down, keeps you from over doing it, makes sure you find out where the grocery stores, bathrooms and laundry facilities are located. Pronto. It gives you an excuse to be a fuddy duddy without being accused of being high maintenance. And you get to take naps if you want to. And you are invisible, people only see your cute children.   Except when they throw a hissy fit in public, in which case, you get to learn about humility. And forgiveness.  I've come up with a few guidelines that work for me that might work for you, too, if traveling with kids.

1.     Know your limitations. Know their limitations.
This is the most fundamental rule to happiness. You might be able to spend hours hiking in the hills trying to get the perfect light for that once in a lifetime photograph.  They can’t. They can spend hours digging in the sand, while you get bored after 15 minutes (admit it, you do).  Plan most activities based on the person with the strictest limitations. You will all be happier not listening to whining, and you can push happy people to do new things a lot easier than dragging unhappy ones.

2.     Feed them.
Find snacks and familiar food, and keep it handy. Everyone is happier with a full tummy. I have children who are very blood sugar sensitive. Moods degenerate quickly, and the capacity to handle change diminishes with low blood sugar. 
When making meals, anything familiar that they like will do as a meal backbone. Then you can slip them something odd and they might try it. And, if they won’t today, they will tomorrow because they will be hungry! It also helps to have a little of something truly vile on hand to use as a “Well, at least we don’t have to eat this!”  The steamed yam looks really good next to the dried fish!

3.     Find the playgrounds
I try to build in a visit to a playground or a park or open place where the kids can play and move most days.  If we do this, then we can get in a visit to a temple or shrine or garden, too, without complaints.

4.     Use your cute kids to meet people.
Many people have spoken to us that wouldn’t have if I had been alone.  I’ve met other mothers, lots of grandparents, and people who are simply thrilled to meet foreigners. If you have a young child with you, you are instantly less threatening and more approachable than a foreigner on their own. I find that I am braver about trying things, too, because I have to put on a good face for the kids.

5.     Bribe them with exotic treats
This is such a powerful option, save it for when you really need it. Small toys, incomprehensible lollipops, one Yen coins, those sweet pastry like things that the lady at the stall gave you to sample, drinks machine beverages. Again, very powerful, use with extreme caution and frugality or it will lose its power. A trip back to the science museum was the most effective bribe-for-goodness so far, but a trip to the Ghibli Museum is working pretty well, too. 

6.     Get silly- see how many different turtles there are made of stones in the temple path, count the stairs, pretend to be monkeys, attempt to balance out on the teeter totters, watch TV and make up dialogue.

7.     Motrin and a soaking tub. When none of this works, and someone has a trying day, there is always Motrin. And, the Japanese have perfected the art of bathing. There is no higher pinnacle of civilization than the Japanese soaking tub. Period. Forget writing, printing presses, Nintendo Wii, no, the soaking tub trumps them all.  

 Below I've posted a few more sightseeing photos. I encourage everyone to google the place names and read more about these strange, lovely, very different places. I'll post more . . .

Fusimi-Inari Shrine

Fushimi-Inari Shrine


Maple dell, Tofuku-ji

Tofuku-ji, Can't imagine getting that laid out so straight each day.


At Nanzen-ji

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Images of Kyoto

A sampling of photos, text to follow:
Lake Biwa canal


The garden at Ten juan, part of Nanzen-ji, this footpath was laid down in 1338

Traditionally dressed couple under the aqueduct at Nanzen-ji

San mon bell

Koi, Ten juan

Stepping stones across the Kamo River

Detail of a door at the Imperial palace

door to Dantei at Imperial Palace

Oikeniwa garden Imperial Palace

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kanko desu ka?

It took us a day or two, but we finally found the rhythm that works for us in Kyoto;  John and I get up early and do what we need to do, the kids sleep in till about 8, John goes to work and the kids and I go off sightseeing. One of the first phrases we learned in Japanese was “Kanko desu ka?” which means “Are you sightseeing?” This seemed hilariously useless in Hamamatsu, but we dutifully repeated it after the nice lady on the computer, and fortunately, it stuck. Here, it is the first question we are asked.

Sightseeing in Kyoto is unlike anywhere else I have been. Not only is the city interesting in and of itself, but the encircling hills, five with great symbols cut into the sides that are lit for the Gozan Okuribi festival in August, make it dramatic. My guide book says there are 1600 Buddhist Temples, more than 400 Shinto shrines, and 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. For a city of a million and a half people, it is fairly compact, and because they see (and depend upon) so many tourists, the transportation system is easy to navigate, and people are kind. 

We didn’t come here with a plan, or a list of places we must see. We tend to travel in a less structured way, and see what we see, and find what we find. When traveling with kids, this is a much less stressful proposition than getting all fussed about having to make the next bus or have your day ruined. In Kyoto, there is always another bus, and it likely goes to another ‘must see’ place.

It has worked out well for my kids to have lunch at home and a little down time after a morning out. Then they are ready for another adventure in the afternoon.  I try to come up with interesting alternatives, so they have a choice in what we do, and give each child a chance to pick an activity on alternative days. There is so much to do here, it hardly matters what you do, you will see something amazing and learn about something you didn’t know before. We’ve gone to temples and shrines, gardens, and the zoo. We climbed a mountain and fed snow monkeys.  We accidentally went to 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  And we haven’t yet felt overwhelmed or over tired. We have one week to go, though, so we will see how we do!
Here are the pictures of what we have seen and where we have been, Imperial Palace Park, Nijo Castle, Kikakuju, Tenryu-ji. Google tells me I am out of storage, and I need to figure out how to deal with that, but it is 4 AM, so that is a problem for later. More pictures if I figure it out. 

Giant Ginko in the Imperial
Palace Garden

Imperial Palace Park

Making a fall boquet

South gate, Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace park
walking in the gardens at Nijo castle

Here are the pictures of what we have seen and where we have been: 

Kara-mon, Nijo castle
Ninomaru Garden, Nijo Castle

Outer moat, Nijo castle

Special Autumn market, Nijo castle

Dragon detail, Kara-mon, Nijo castle

Garden at Tenryu-ji

Frog pool shrine at Tenryu-ji

Dragon mural, Tenryu-ji

Garden at Tenryu-ji

covered walkway between halls, Tenryu-ji
Kikakuju, the Golden Pavilion