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“Okay, take care, aloha”

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“Okay, take care, aloha”

So, we went on vacation. I’m going to go ahead and call it our First Family Vacation, despite the fact that we’d gone to New York/New Jersey in June to visit GP’s immediate and extended family– that first trip, while not a business trip, was definitely not as relaxing as, say, a week on the beach. A week on the beach is exactly what we were in for when we headed to Hawaii, arriving on the day that a hurricane was supposed to make landfall on the islands for the first time in twenty-five years.

Likely due to the power of our crossed fingers, United didn’t cancel our flight, which departed from SFO with plenty of empty seats vacated by those apparently willing to compromise their vacation plans. (I basically wanted to crawl into a hole when I began to contemplate this possibility, and refused to consider what we might do if Mother Nature royally effed up our scheduled trip.) The extra plane space was extra awesome, as it meant that we didn’t have to check Claire’s carseat– giving us a convenient nap spot that meant we got to enjoy SkyMall while she rested. (A plane is essentially a huge white noise machine, right? Naps 4 EVAH.)

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We arrived to a bit of wind and more than a bit of humidity, and made our way to our rental house on Oahu’s North Shore. While I don’t think we’d stay in that exact house again (location and view were awesome, as was the AC in our bedroom, but the oversold “gourmet kitchen” and dim bathroom were definite letdowns), we were thrilled to see that this would be our view for the week:

DSC_2452There were active parts of the vacation, like a trip to the peak of Diamond Head (not the most strenuous hike, but such amazing views of Waikiki) and some scuba for GP and his dad, but mostly we took it easy on the beach and around the house.

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DSC_2093Claire did get a few (small!) bites of Dole Whip and some mostly-ice tastes of shave ice, and was a fan of both.

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IMG_20140811_150108_761The upside of traveling with grandparents is that they’re willing to “babysit” (post-bedtime), so we did get to have a grownup dinner out in Haleiwa, complete with mai tais in commemorative cups. (After two, I was drunk. Let’s say my tolerance is a little lower after nine months of abstention.)

Leis. You're doing it right, lady.

Our return flight, shockingly, was just about as empty as our flight out to the island, so we lucked into a bulkhead row of five seats in front of which Claire had quite the play area– that was sanitized within an inch of its life, because I am not even playing around with airplane germs.

The switch back to Pacific time was not as rough as I feared it would be (way easier than the shift to Hawaii time, which resulted in a no-fricking-way 3:00 a.m. baby wakeup on our first day), and I am now fully ready to accept the change of season into my heart. Is it sweater weather yet?

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My Big Fat Asia Trip, Part 4: Phuket

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Ahh, Phuket. It was the last stop on our almost-as-long-as-our-honeymoon trip to Hong Kong and Thailand, and possibly the only place I wish we could have at just one more day. Whether this was because it was the last stop (and, hello, it is sad to say goodbye to a long vacation) or because of just how blissfully calm our few days there were, I’m sure I can’t say. But, regardless, it’s probably redundant at this point to say we had an awesome time there. We arrived at our hotel (in Kamala, not Phuket town, so it was slightly quieter in general) a little late for a solid day of beach-lolling, but did manage to head down to the water to say hello before we grabbed dinner at one of the many restaurants along the beach, careful this time to remember to apply our Thai 7-11-purchased insect repellent before dining.

Our first morning/early afternoon was occupied with a snorkel (for me) and scuba (for GP) outing with a company recommended by a friend who’d been there recently. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef exploration we did while in Cairns on our honeymoon, this dive was on a smallish boat where the majority of other people were either certified instructors or in the process of certification, which meant that each of us got a lot of individual attention. It was interesting, too, to talk to everyone and hear stories from the former au pair from Texas who had been living in Phuket for about four months, the Malaysian guy who shuddered when told the temperature of our beaches here in Santa Cruz and Monterey (he found the water temperatures that day in Phuket to be too cold!), and the Alaska native who was completing an internship at the dive shop (clearly, I’ve gone into the wrong line of work). When we got to our destination– a small rock island– the divers took off in small groups (GP had two guides!) and I had my very own personal snorkel guide (because I get something akin to reverse claustrophobia in open water, scuba scares the bejesus out of me).  The entire trip only took about half the day (plenty of time to cower in umbrella shade on the beach later!), but we saw some pretty amazing marine life, from small barracuda, clownfish, and angelfish to an huge group of small yellow fish that swirled and schooled around GP on his second dive.

Man overboard

Our dive/snorkel destination

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Very similar to a honeymoon picture taken three and a half years ago

For the rest of that day and the entirety of our second day, we alternated between chairs on the beach (150 baht for both of us for all-day privileges, complete with a guy to adjust the umbrella under which we hid from the sun) and chairs on the pool deck at our hotel. Not a bad gig, if you can get it.

Our beach view for a day and a half

Pool and view

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Pool and bar

Our hotel was the family-friendly (and probably cheaper, but that’s just a guess) side of a dual-hotel resort that was run and largely occupied by Scandinavian families. It makes sense, I suppose: February in Norway is probably a little harsher, climate-wise, than in Thailand, so why not spend a couple weeks in the sun? (Oh, and they spent it in the sun. I saw plenty of people that had roasted themselves until they began to resemble fine Corinthian leather.) It was situated along the beach in the midst of plenty of other hotels, along the back of which ran the main drag through Kamala, with the beach to the front.

On our last night, we made sure to do two things that I had begun to consider must-do’s for our trip: (one more) stop at  a roti stand for some banana-Nutella awesomeness (think crepes, but not a batter-based pancake) and releasing a lantern on the beach. We had had our first taste of roti at the night market in Chiang Mai, and I am fairly devastated not to have found a suitable analogue here at home (yes, crepes are similar, but the roti wrapping has a crispness that is somehow even better). It was easy to find a stand along the beach with a woman that was all too happy to oblige, so we took our treat and enjoyed it on a couple vacant lounge chairs (I mean, it was in the evening, so they were all vacant) with some wine coolers we’d bought at a nearby convenience story (because we are classy, duh). The lantern-releasing was something that I had read about before we took our trip, and we had seen lanterns rising from various locations in Chiang Mai, but hadn’t seen any place to participate until we made it to Kamala. Along the beach, not so far from the roti stands and the Bob Marley-themed bar, was a man advertising “magic wish balloons.” These were the lanterns we were looking for, the ones that (as our Chiang Mai guide had explained) people released when they wanted to symbolically let go of something and make a wish for the future. Well. Given that we were even able to take this trip because of a certain lacking, I’d say we had some letting go and wishing to do. It might have been a total tourist trap, or a completely inappropriate use of an actual cultural tradition, but we did it, and I went ahead felt feelings about it.

Very happy roti-maker

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Lighting the lantern

Lantern rising

The next morning, we packed up all we had carried an accumulated over nearly two weeks, and made our way first to the Phuket airport, then on to Hong Kong, and finally home.

The rest of our Phuket pictures are here.
If you’re planning a trip to Phuket and haven’t seen The Impossible…go ahead and wait until after your trip to do so. Trust me on this.

My Big Fat Asia Trip, Part 3: Chiang Mai

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After running around Bangkok for a few days, we were ready to slow down a bit in Chiang Mai. With several friends having visited recently, and even one who had lived there for a few years, we were armed with plenty of recommendations for what we absolutely had to do, see, and eat. Our first day there was Valentine’s Day– not that it received that much attention in Thailand, which was actually something of a relief– and we “celebrated” with a tour we’d booked ahead of time. I was envisioning something on the order of a minibus filled with a handful of strangers, but what we ended up with was an SUV (with air conditioning! Holla!) and our very own tour guide, who was really knowledgeable and funny. He picked us up from our hotel a little before 9 in the morning, and we drove up to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, atop a mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai. It was really helpful to have the guide with us as we wandered around the grounds of the wat– he told us the story of the wat’s establishment and construction (an elephant walked all over the mountain and determined that this would be the site of the temple), gave us details about the rituals going on around us (walking around the central chedi three times while chanting, blessings from monks accompanied by strings tied around your wrist– I still have mine on), and mercifully had us take the tram up and the stairs down (stairs + humidity = no bueno, thanks). The wat, of course, was absolutely gorgeous.

Bells

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Blessings

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The next stop on our tour (after a bit of driving) was an elephant ride. This was absolutely one of the highlights of the entire trip, and something that I was so excited about that I had trouble sleeping the night before. It was astounding enough to be so near an elephant at the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, but nearly unbelievable that we would be permitted to ride one. With a mahout to steer and guide the elephant, we made our way back toward a little bamboo snack (for the elephant– it wasn’t people-lunchtime yet), then over a hill (where we met other tourists, one of whom commented that our elephant was “naughty.” He wasn’t! Just…spirited) and across a river back to where we’d started. Riding an elephant is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’m so thrilled to have had, but I have to be honest: it was a little scary, too. There’s not exactly a safety belt up there, so the up- and downhill portions were a little harrowing, and I’m glad GP was willing to let me use his arm to brace myself in our seat.

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Giving an elephant one of our coconuts

His reward was our other coconut

Our next stop was lunch alongside the river we’d just forded on our elephant, where our guide had ordered an array of the most delicious Thai food for us, including rice, green papaya salad, and some fried fish and chicken. We sipped our Cokes, watched some bamboo rafts go by (more on this later), and had plenty of the “Is this real? Is this really happening?” conversation that so often accompanies our travels. From lunch, we drove to a Hill tribe village, where we got to watch a woman making scarves (of course,I bought one) and poke around a bit.

Karen Hill Tribe weaving

Colorful wares

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Having visited a temple, ridden an elephant, and met some of the local tribes-people, we were all ready to have a lazy (for us, probably less so for our raft-captain) float down a river on a bamboo raft. Something tells me it’s going to be hard for future Valentine’s Days to live up to this.

"Did you see any snakes?" our guide asks

The finale of our day of touring was a trip to various sites in the Lost City, so called because it had been flooded by a river around the 11th century and remained largely hidden underground for generations. There are still things being discovered in the area, I’m sure, and we got to look at some pretty impressive ruins.

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Yep, that dog lives here

Having gotten a whirlwind tour of the outlying areas of Chiang Mai on our first day, we wanted to explore the Old City itself on our second day. Chiang Mai, though smaller than Bangkok, is home to almost as many wats– we visited several of them, including Wat Phra Singh (which we got to by hailing a taxi and having the following exchange with him: “Wat Phra Singh?” “Wat Phra Singh,” he replied. “Meter?” we asked, knowing that we would only ride in a cab that was willing to run its meter rather than bargaining for a price that would surely be higher. “Meter,” he agreed. Many of our taxi negotiations looked just like this), Wat Phantao, and Wat Chedi Luang. It was on this day of wat exploration that I learned a scary lesson in trying to befriend the medium-to-large-sized dogs that seemed to live at every wat (you will remember that I learned no such lessons with cats at Wat Arun); basically, I greeted several dogs that were sleeping in the shade of a parked truck, they were not excited to see me, and gave chase as I darted away, shrieking. Lesson learned(Please note that the dog pictured below is not one of the mean, scary dogs. I left him alone, and he left me alone, so we’re cool.)

Wat Phra Singh

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Canine camouflage

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Having gotten our fill of the many wats of Chiang Mai, we headed back to our hotel, passing the walls of the Old City and pausing for a beer and some free wifi before we took in the sunset from the pool deck at our hotel.

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Old City wall

The best kind of free wifi

Sunset from the pool deck

With our last full day in the city, we took some time to explore the day market, which is housed in a huge building that was a short walk from our hotel (we’d been to the night market, which was more of an open-air affair, the night before). This market had just about everything, from carved wooden figurines to huge bags of saffron (that I’m kicking myself for not buying, but would customs have been ok with be toting them into America?) and row after row of clothing, snacks, fruit, and more dried fish than I’d ever seen in my life.

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Our final night was occupied with one last spin through (another, nearby) night market, taken after we were positively eaten alive by mosquitoes while enjoying an outdoor dinner. (FYI, those insect-“repelling” incense coils don’t do a single thing to prevent bug bites.) With the last bargains we could grab (a couple wooden carvings of an elephant and a Buddha, as well as a couple bracelets for myself and my brother’s girlfriend), we made our way back to the hotel with Phuket on the books for the following day.

Night market

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If you want to see all 296 Chiang Mai pictures (including way more elephant-riding photos and a picture of me unabashedly eating what amounts to a bowl of candy for breakfast), head on over to Flickr.

My Big Fat Asia Trip, Part 2: Bangkok

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While our SFO-Hong Kong flights were on Singapore Airlines (which, by the way, had wonderful service and amenities), we went the budget route for our in-Asia flights and flew Air Asia. The flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok is a relatively short one (especially compared to the trans-Pacific flight we’d taken less than a week before), and we knew the second we stepped off the plane that we were in for a whole new experience– the heat and humidity crept into the cracks between the plane and the jetway, and we new we were in for an adventure as we rode through the streets of Bangkok in our mercifully air-conditioned van. (Speaking of heat and humidity, let’s hear it for the ice-cold washcloths that accompanied our welcome drinks in the hotel lobby. Well-played, Thailand!)

Hotel lobby 2

As we had arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, we knew we only had a few hours to hit the Chatuchak market. The subway and SkyTrain are heavily air-conditioned (yes, I’m going to be harping on climate control throughout these accounts), so the trip wasn’t bad– and when we arrived, we were met with a cacophony of people, food, and merchandise ready to be haggled over. Oh, the haggling. It’s expected, and definitely approaches the level of sport– and we got used to it after a couple exchanges. As we sat in the midst of the market sipping Singhas, the sense of being very, very far from home was particularly acute (and pretty wonderful).

Pausing for a sit and a Singha

Everything is crowded. EVERYTHING.

Our first night was spent exploring Chinatown, which was deep in the throes of New Year celebrations. We stopped for a dinner of fish ball soup that cost roughly $3, stood in a crowd that was awaiting the arrival of a princess (who never materialized, or at least didn’t until well after we left), and staved off the late evening heat with Fanta (him) and strawberry-flavored street ice cream (me). There was, of course, also a wat involved.

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Let's do this

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Over the course of our stay in Bangkok, we got to explore many of the wats that can be found on what seemed like every other block, from the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (it’s made of jade, don’t be fooled) to Wat Arun and Wat Pho– there was even a smaller wat right next to our hotel. Our first full day was spent exploring Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, which are relatively near each other. Wat Pho is home to an enormous reclining Buddha, the scope of which is hard to convey, even photograpically (though we obviously tried). Because it was the first wat we visited on the trip, we took an especially long time lingering over every feature of each building, referring constantly to our guidebook to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

He's, uh, really big

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Even though the Grand Palace isn’t a royal residence anymore, it’s hugely popular and crowded (I’d imagine throughout the year, but definitely when we visited), and for good reason. Once you’ve made your way beyond the pristine, forbidding outer walls– and ensured that you’re dressed “politely” (there are garments for rent if you’re not)– there is a lot to see. And most of it, for lack of adequate adjectives, is pretty crazy-looking.

Shade-cowering

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Guards

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And of course, once we were done exploring, we couldn’t resist a tuk tuk ride. What they lacked in air-conditioning, they more than made up with harrowing traffic maneuvers. Plus, where else do you get to bargain so extensively for transportation? (I mean, probably plenty of places, but we haven’t visited very many of them.)

Everything's negotiable

View from the tuk tuk

As cities sometimes tend to do, Bangkok had developed on the banks of a river (the Chao Phraya), which we crossed via boat a couple times (this was necessary, or at least most convenient, when we wanted to visit sites along the river, like Wat Arun). In the midst of this city teeming with people, cars, buses, and tuk tuks, the river wasn’t exactly an oasis of calm; boats from teeny to, well, mid-size zipped up and down, depositing passengers from one side to another. We took a boat across the river to Wat Arun on our second full day, pausing to make friends with a stray cat (not the only one spotted on the trip, of course, but one of the few that was amenable to my advances) and gawk at other tourists paying to put on traditional Thai garb for photos (think Old West photography, but a different culture/period) before we entered the wat and climbed our way to the top. The stairs are steep, so we felt as though we truly earned the views from the top (we signed the fabric wrapped around the uppermost prang to prove we’d been there).

Wat Arun

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Other tourists

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It's true, we do <3 Bangkok

Later that day, we headed to the Dusit district, where the royal family still live, and explored Dusit Park (home of the Vimanmek Mansion and a wonderfully air conditioned Royal Elephant Museum) and Zoo. The zoo was full of many sleeping animals, and was where we encountered our first up-close elephants– they seemed a little agitated (and we felt pretty awful for them) at being basically chained to the ground, but also hustled us out of the long beans we bought to feed them in record time (the elephants we met in Chiang Mai seemed much happier). It’s interesting to observe different cultural behaviors and attitudes at places like zoos and museums (focuses on things like conservation and the like definitely vary by region and majority culture of the visitors)– and was most interesting as we watched a woman sneak into a barricaded area and offer a yogurt cup (?) to a hippopotamus with its jaws agape. I guess it isn’t the animals who put up those “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs, but damn.

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Royal elephant tusks

Clearly, it was not the animals that put up the "don't feed the animals" signs

"ONE long bean? ONE?"

Just. So. Excited.

Our final day in Bangkok wouldn’t be a long one, but we did have time to take in the Thai National Museum, which is home to some of the earliest examples of written Thai (think the Rosetta Stone, but less Greek and hieroglyphics), miniature dioramas of historic battles (mostly with the Burmese), and some pretty beautiful grounds (you know, if you’re into completely beautiful buildings embellished with gold and elaborately carved wood).

Some of the earliest written Thai

It looks like tilt-shift, but it really IS miniatures

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Stuffed to the gills with as much Bangkok as we could pack into fewer than 100 hours, we headed off to Chiang Mai– the “jewel of the North” that would be less frenetic but no less awe-inspiring than the city we’d just left.

 

P.S. If you’re not all Bangkok-photo-ed out, you can find all the pictures here.

Rather

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Once it became clear that there was something going awry with my previously calm pregnancy, I began to mentally prepare for the worst. It was as agonizing as you might imagine, but also involved the thought, “If this goes as poorly as it could…I’m going to need a major fucking vacation.” This was helpful (and has continued to be) because it gave me a sense of a happy future even without the baby we were so anxiously anticipating. Sure, maybe it wasn’t a vision of what the everyday would be like– convince yourself to get out of bed, smile and interact with people appropriately, truly appreciate what a supportive network of family, friends, coworkers, and internet strangers you have– but just imagining this escape was, for a time, escape enough.

When we got the official diagnosis, one of the things that GP said to me was, “Let’s go away. Like, far away.” Mind you, this happened without any suggestion from me that we might want to skip town to momentarily take our minds off All the Terrible; it was a good reminder that I married exactly the right man.

And so, just under a week from today, we’ll take that Big Fucking Trip to a Faraway Place. We’re going to be spending about two and a half weeks in Hong Kong and Thailand, courtesy of our joint wanderlust, my company’s generous PTO-donation program, and a desire to be far away from home when the day that was to be my due date passes. Yes, rather than finishing up a nursery and fighting for some decent sleep, I’ll be spending about sixteen hours on an A380,  getting a couple more stamps on my passport, and living the shit out of my (currently baby-free, as the doctor said to wait six effing months) present.

 

Post-vacation ennui

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We just returned (well, last week) from our only strictly-vacation of the summer (we have a wedding to attend in August, but GP is a best man, so there’s something planned other than simply hanging out). I’ve managed to upload the pictures from my phone (yes, I took an actual camera, but the ennui! It is powerful), and you can see them here. I’ll be back with the fancier-camera pictures, a medium-sized recap, and maybe some links to GP’s trip reports. We visited four amusement parks in six days; never let it be said that I am not a good sport. (He did humor me by letting me drag him around a museum, of course.)

Japan part 3: Mt. Fuji-Five Lakes

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The side-trip that we included on our Japan voyage was to the Mt. Fuji-Five Lakes area, so named because it’s…near Mt. Fuji and the five lakes that surround it. While Mt. Fuji is only open to climbers about two months of the year (and we are not crazy mountain climber types), there is also a fair amount of reasonable hiking in the area, as well as (another) amusement park at which GP could reach his 300-coaster milestone. (Yes, 300. That is a lot.) Our destination in the area was Kawguchiko, just on the shore of Lake Kawaguchi. While the process of buying the bus tickets to get out here was among the most trying parts of the trip, language-barrier-wise, it wasn’t so bad, and after about two hours, we arrived here:

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The hotel in which we stayed was a traditional ryokan, complete with an onsen (bath) to share with dozens of naked Japanese people (single-sex, so it was mostly like a spa, but a spa at which I am the lone white lady with anything resembling hips).

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Anyway. The ryokan was lovely, and we had our very own fancy tatami room, complete with layered futons to sleep on, and a short table at which to eat our (mostly purchased at convenience stores) breakfasts and dinners.

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While nature was, of course, at least half of the draw to this area, there was definitely an ulterior motive: roller coasters! You will remember that GP is, to put it mildly, interested in roller coasters. It just so happens that there is an amusement park in the Mt. Fuji area, Fuji-Q (or Fujikyu, in it’s less-anglicized form) Highland, that has a decent handful of roller coasters, including a recently-opened record breaker called Takabisha. The record in question might be best shown in photo form, I think.

Takabisha - hanging on the edge

That right there? That’s the vertical second lift, that brings you to the landmark drop. See, first they bring you straight up one side, then they sloooowly bring you over the top. You sloooowly approach the precipice, and then you just hang there for what feels like an eternity. Then you’re taken over a 121 degree vertical drop. Because going straight down wouldn’t make you mess yourself enough. I know there are a lot of italics in this paragraph, but I have to make certain that you know how nuts this ride was. The most pleasant surprise of this at-least-a-little-terrifying-looking ride was that it was incredibly smooth– much more so than some of its neighbors, such as former record-breaker Fujiyama.

Fujiyama

The “4D” movement of Eejanaika. For you Californians or other coaster enthusiasts, it’s like a smoother version of X2 at Magic Mountain. For you others fortunate enough to have preserved the brain cells that we’ve likely lost riding these things, 4D means that, in addition to doing the regular spins and loops that are laid out on the track, the cars do independent flips and twists. Disorienting doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Eejanaika

Or even the really, really, really fast Dodonpa. (Yes, 107 miles in 1.8 seconds sort of makes you forget where you left your heart…until you find it in your throat.)

One of the few rides we skipped, despite the warm temperatures (and mostly because of ridiculous humidity) was a raft ride. However, if you think that this means I didn’t put my face in this cat’s mouth for a photo, you haven’t been paying much attention.

And this concludes my three-part review of our trip to Japan. Someday I’ll finish curating and editing all the pictures we took, and of course I’ll share them, but I hope I’ve provided enough inspiration to make everyone want to take a trip to someplace that seems at least a little intimidating, whether its because of how far away it is, the possible pitfalls due to a language barrier, or the fact that there are rides there that may or may not cause brain injuries.