Alexis has been invited to talk at the California Homeschool Network (CHN) in Torrance June 25-28. She is honored to be on a panel with other published authors: Blair Lee of R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey, Krisula Moyer of The Seer and Lena Brem of An Owl Sleeping By. Take a look at the flyer for the event.
In November 2014, we spent 3-weeks enjoying the spectacular autumn colors of Japan. We started with large cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka then moved on to Kyushu in the south and also Hokkaido in the north. It was a lovely trip of fantastic cuisine coupled with scenic beauty, thoroughly enjoyed by all.
11/09/14: The Harajuku area of Tokyo is conveniently located adjacent to our Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. We managed to sleep in until 10am then headed for a fine soba lunch at Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki (鎌倉 松原庵 欅, 東京都渋谷区神宮前1-13-14 原宿クエスト4F原宿クエスト4F) on the shopping street Omotesando, where we watched a soba making demonstration. After lunch, we explored Omotesando then Takeshita Dori where the kids got to roast & season their own sembe rice crackers. It was interesting to see all the malls fully decorated for Christmas already during this 1st week of November. We also visited the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park where we observed many families dressed in traditional costumes and also a wedding ceremony accompanied by giant monkey and panda characters. We seemed to have arrived a few weeks too early to see autumn color in Tokyo. The evening ended with dinner at the sushi bar of Kyubey in Shinjuku Keio Plaza Hotel.
11/10/14: Our original plan was to start our 1st day in Japan at Tsukiji Fish Market but the it is closed Sundays. We were also informed that the auction begins at 5am with admission limited to 60 visitors. We would need to arrive by 3am and be prepared for a long wait. So instead, we opted for a leisurely 8am breakfast at a sushi bar facing the market then meandered through the different stalls. It was still worthwhile even without observing the actual auction.
After the full morning at the market, we moved onto the neighboring Ginza and wandered around Mitsubishi Department Store. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch at the tempura bar at Tenichi tempura bar (http://www.tenichi.co.jp/). At home, we are used to tempura being cheap, fast food. Here, it was a fine dining experience. The pieces were served individually, fried to perfection using sushi grade seafood with a price commensurate with quality. In the evening, hubby returned to Ginza for an amazing dinner at the 3 Michelin starred Sushi Yoshitake (http://sushi-yoshitake.com/).
11/11/14: Explored the sprawling Ueno park on a dreary, drizzling day. When we arrived at the subway station to witness a camera crew filming police picking up trash. Somewhat puzzling. Although there’s a zoo and several museums, we opted to wander through the temples and watch the street performers. Then we crossed the street to the Ameyayokocho shopping district. For dinner, we met up with the Remsik family at Fuku Kushiyaki in Yoyogi-uehara for a meal of grilled meats. The kids enjoyed meeting and playing with their charming 6-year old daughter.
11/12/14: Made full use of our Japan Rail Pass and took the noon train to Kyoto. We stayed in the Granvia Hotel inside the Kyoto Train Station. Shortly after arrival, we enjoyed a basic, classic sushi dinner at Kappa Zushi on a very narrow road along river in the charming, historic Geisha districts.
11/13/14: Took a day trip by train to neighboring town of Arashiyama to visit the Monkey Park atop a steep hill where the kids enjoyed feeding the macaques. It was interesting that the humans had to stay inside a caged shed while monkeys roamed free outside. Finally at Tenryuji Temple, we saw autumn colors in their splendor and visited the spectacular Bamboo Forest. Back in Kyoto, we finished the evening with dinner of amazing fugu course at Igarashi. Every course, from appetizer jello, sashimi, grilled meats, soupy stews and even the sake was made from fugu, the notoriously poisonous blowfish which must be prepared by an expertly certified chef. The service was superb. Because we had kids, we had a private room and were always served by 2-3 people. We didn’t see any other customers. At the end of the meal, all 3 staff came out to wish us farewell and had their photo taken with us.
11/14/14: Tofukuji is nestled in a picturesque forest of Japanese maples just starting to turn scarlet. Then we enjoyed the Philosopher’s Walk from Honen-ji to the Silver Pavilion Ginkakuji, stopping for snacks and souvenirs along the way. Hubby went out for kaiseki meal at Chihana (http://www.kyotochihana.com/). Despite its 3 Michelin star rating, he didn’t find the food terribly impressive.
11/15/14: Took the train to Kumamoto; we completely underestimated how crowded the ride to Kyushu would be. All reserved seats were taken, so the adult ended up standing for the 1st hour of the ride. Upon arrival, we rented a car and drove on the left side of the road to Kurokawa Onsen. It was a lovely 2-hour ride through charming country side and around the base of the volcanic Mt. Aso which was smoldering. We spent the 1st of 2 nights at the very classic Ryokan Shinmeikan (http://www.sinmeikan.jp/). This was our 1st ryokan experience and it was incredible! We were greeted warmly and served quite a feast in their dining room. The hot springs were carved into caves. The kids loves sleeping in futons on the tatami mats and walking around dressed in their yukata.
11/16/14: Started the day with a traditional style breakfast, then explored the photogenic town center of Kurokawa. The lower it latitude was compensated by the high altitude, so autumn colors were in their full glory. Grabbed a quick lunch of soba then headed toward the other end of town for the newly opened Miyama Sansou (http://www.miyama-sansou.com/). The setting was more like a rustic cabin or chalet but the room had a large, private public. We made a visit to Yamamizuki, the sister property, where their public bath was set along the river, beside a serene waterfall. Enjoyed a dinner of shabu shabu and tried horse sashimi, a renown delicacy in the area.
Shortly after returning to Tokyo, we learned that Mt. Aso, which had been dormant for 20 years, erupted just a few days after we left the region. The air quality was so poor that flights in and out of Kumamoto had been canceled.
11/17/14: After the Kurokawa, our had planned to spend a few more days in Kyushu, either Fukuoka or Kumamoto, but we ended up heading back to Osaka’s St. Regis. This gave us the chance to visit this big city, hop to Nara, and return to Kyoto for Kiyomizudera. Unfortunately, to severe disappointment of the kids, we missed out on Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. They didn’t see the ads until the final day. With the limited tickets, we weren’t able to make it.
11/18/14: Spent a leisurely day exploring shopping centers of Osaka. For lunch, we walked along Dotomburi, admiring the giant mechanical crabs and octopus signs. In the evening, we strolled around Shinasaibashi Suji, the covered shopping arcade around Namba near our hotel before dinner. Discovered Lawson grocery stores which became our convenient favorite to pick up rice balls for breakfast and popsicle snacks.
11/19/14: Enjoyed a kobe beef lunch prepared teppanyaki style at Wagou near the Osaka Train Station. In the afternoon, we paid a visit to Osaka Castle and strolled around the gardens. The castle interior has been renovated and modernized as a museum complete elevator. Hubby went to Harasho Sushi for dinner where he got picked up and went bar hopping with an English speaking stranger.
11/20/14: Took a day trip to Nara. It was such an enchanting place with sacred deer roaming freely everywhere. The kids really enjoyed feeding them rice crackers, that are labeled as “taste bad to humans”. The deer were somewhat aggressive once they saw we bought the crackers, swarming and nuzzling. However, they seemed so tame before, when the crackers were just sitting, easily accessible, on the vendor stands. We started with a visit to Todaiji Temple, which boasts 2 large Buddha statues inside. The surrounding gardens were also very serene and picturesque. It was a perfect setting to take a lunch break while DD took her online literature class. Afterwards, we headed over to Kofukuji Temple which was under renovation. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a nice walk back to the JR Nara Train Station as we passed by charming souvenir shops. We finished the evening at Steak Ron, another kobe beef teppanyaki decorated like a western styled steakhouse in the Umeda area of Osaka. It is famed for serving Bill Clinton.
11/21/14: Due to misreading and misunderstanding, we missed Kiyomizudera on our previous trip to Kyoto. Fortunately, Kyoto is only about 15 minutes away from Osaka by the high speed bullet train. It was quite an impressive site. The alley leading up to the temple is lined with all kinds of quaint shops, including traditional kimino rentals. There were quite a surprising number of tourists, particularly Chinese, dressed up to take pictures here. The temple itself is perched above a forest of fiery maples with a pagoda visible way off in the distance. Numerous walkways provide visitors a multitude of views and photographic opportunities. We ended our final evening in Osaka with shabu shabu of different grades of Japanese beef. All excellent!
11/22/14: Flew to Sapporo for our exploration of Hokkaido, the island to the north. Boy was it chilly! It received 2 meters of snow the previous week. Thank goodness for underground walkways the lead straight from the train station to our hotel entrance then onto Aurora Town & Pole Town underground shopping malls. Dinner Sushi Zen (http://www.sushizen.co.jp/)
11/23/14: Took a day trip to the seaport town of Otaru renown for its ultra-fresh local seafood sashimi, sushi, and crab. Miserably cold! We started off on Otaru Sushi Street and found a nice little gem of a mom & pop shop. Since we arrive early, it was quiet and the chef was very chatty, offering detailed explanations about the different seafood and where they were sourced around Hokkaido. We were instructed to try the 3 kinds of crab: snow crab, hairy crab, and king crab. Got to try some steamed and sashimi style. For dinner we enjoyed crab shabu shabu at Kani Honke (http://www.kani-honke.jp/e/restaurant/hokkaido.html) in Susukino area of Sapporo, Then had ramen supper at Ramen Yokocho aka Ramen Alley around the corner.
11/24/14: Fully ready to leave the cold behind and return to Tokyo. Warmly welcomed back to Park Hyatt Shinjuku.
11/25/14: Met up with an OHS classmate at Isetan Shinjuku. The girls enjoyed hanging out and the adults had a lively discussion about literature and foreign service. Bought some bean sticks.
11/26/14: It was a dreary, drizzling day as we embarked on the Odakyu Romancecar to Hakone. The local Tozan Railway wound through forests of vibrant fall colors to Gora then the Tozan Cablecar brought us up the steep hill to Sounzan Station, right across the street to the private elevator to ryokan Gora Hanaogi (http://www.gorahanaougi.com/). Warm, attentive service and beautiful presentation of cuisine.
11/27/14: What a Thanksgiving Day! Clear & sunny, spectacular view of Mt Fuji. Hopped on the Hakone Ropeway through Owafuku known for black eggs cooked by steaming sulfur deposits. Also ate black ramen and black chocolate ice cream. Took a cruise on Lake Ashi. Spent the afternoon at the Gora Art Museum and Garden for its lovely fall color. Finished the day at Hakone Open Air Museum for modern art sculpture and playground. Kids loved Woods of Nets and Garden of Stars labyrinth. Unfortunately, we arrived too near sunset and only got to spend about an hour or so before closing time.
We met guy from Hong Kong who had been to Mt Fuji 10 times and this was the 1st clear day he’s seen. It rained the day before and resumed raining the next day as well. Also made good use of our Hakone Free Pass which covered the train, cable car, rope car, cruise, and admission to local attractions.
11/28/14: The kids loved the Open Air Museum so much that we decided to make another visit in the morning after checkout. Then took the noon train back to Shinjuku. In the late afternoon, made a quick visit to Midtown before dinner with old UCLA friend in Roppongi at Sushi Shin (http://sushi-shin.com/). Luxurious desserts of Jean Paul Hevin chocolates and shell cookies.
11/29/14: Daytime visit to Akihabara’s Electric Town and had lunch at Odobashi where we replaced a dead Apple power plug and browsed their manga section. Dinner with the Remsik Family at New York Grill in hotel’s 52nd floor.
In April 2014, we embarked on a month-long adventure, soaking up the vibrant cultural heritage of India including a short visit to Nepal. We received a solid education on Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam of the Mughals. In addition to visiting ancient monuments, passing through many farming villages made it abundantly clear that we were really traveling to a completely different world. Everywhere, women were dressed in richly colored saree, makeshift tents often served as housing, and cows and goats wandered obliviously through the streets or simply lounged on the roadside. As much as we found the people fascinating, our presence seemed to have aroused their curiosity as well. Many friendly locals lined up asking to have our picture taken with them.
04/01-02/14: New Delhi is the capital and 3rd largest city in India. We started the day at Lakshmi Narayan Temple (Birla Mandir), the largest working Hindu temple in Delhi. Narayan is another name for Vishnu the Preserver, one of the Trimurthi trinity along with Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destructor. Lakshmi is the female consort of Vishnu or Narayan. The Lakshmi shrine and statue were elaborately bejeweled and covered with designer fabric that are changed weekly. We arrived in time for the beginning of a 9-day festival filled with fasting and floral leighs. Then, we took a drive around the seat of government: Parliament Building, President’s Residence and India Gate monument. Ended the day with Kashmir carpet weaving demonstration to support artisans in the war-torn region. Treated with sumptuous meals of curry and naan.
The next day, we continued our visit to monuments from the Mughal Dynasty. Humayun’s Tomb oldest Mughal monument & served as an inspiration for Taj Mahal. Jama Masjid, known as the Great Mosque of Old Delhi, was built by Shah Jahan Mughal emperor of Taj Majal & Red Fort’s fame. Enjoyed a rickshaw ride in vicinity through vibrant Old Delhi markets full of spice, flowers, vegetables, bangles and other colorful wares. Finally, visited Qutab Minar 12th century victory tower of the Slave Dynasty. We admired the intricate carvings of Hindu temple later turned mosque.
04/04-05/14: Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is nestled at the base of the Himalayas. Swayambhunath better known as the Monkey Temple serves as a place of worship for both Hindus and Buddhist. The temple is inhabited by numerous, playful macaus who swim and hang out in various corners of the structures. In Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, we visited several palaces and temples, including the Temple of the Living Goddess, where a young preteen girl serves each year. Finally, Bodhnath Stupa is a huge Buddhist stupa shaped like a mandala from above and surrounded by various crafts shops. The kids learned to use the prayer wheel and watched artists create beautiful Thanka painting.
Explored 3 quaint medieval towns in the Kathmandu Valley:
Took a leisurely hike up to Changu Naryan, passing colorful shops. Walked along cobbled streets of Bhaktapur to witness the Nepali New Year Festivals in main square. Finally, visited the charming town of Patan.
04/07/14: Konark Sun Temple is an impressive complex of sandstone engraved deities & Kama sutra scenes, 24 wheels which serve an accurate sundials, and 7 horses pulling the chariot prayer hall. The main hall is now filled with sand to prevent collapse. The dancing hall mathematically mark the equinox and solstice. Took unpaved roads through small farming villages, stopping for numerous cows and goats crossing. Spent an afternoon outing along the beach of seaside resort town of Puri. Kids delighted at chasing scuttling crabs. Lively beach nightlife with shops, camel rides, and wandering cows and goats.
04/09-13/14: Thus began our 6-day road trip along the south east coast of India,; we were fortunate to have a knowledgeable driver, who spoke good English who showed us various aspects of village life, customs, and crafts. We met up with local English-speaking tour guides at each location.
India SE Coast
In Mahabalipuram, we visited various monolithic granite & marble carved structures: Krishna Butterball, Arjuna Penance, Shore Temple, and 5 Ratchas from the 7th – 9th century. Our 1st guide today introduced himself as Stalin, the neighborhood friendly communist.
Pondicherry is a seaside resort known for the Auroville meditation site with a giant golden lotus dome. The highlight for the entire India trip was when the kids were thrilled to play with and feed the temple elephant Lakshmi. We caught a hilarious video clip of DD giving the elephant an offering. The elephant blessing the child’s face with her trunk then seemingly wiping off the human “ick” on her legs.
Kumbakonam is known as a the city of 1,000 temples. Visited Gagankoinda Temple built by Raja Raja emperors of Chola Dynasty in 12th century with Dravidian architecture. Bottom structures carved elaborately from granite but upper portions reconstructed using the brick and mortar. Most of the temples in these southern regions of India are focused more on Shiva, his consort Pavarti, his children Ganesha with the elephant head and Madorga. Made a quick roadside stop to observe rope spinning technique from coconut fibers. Kids made their own jump ropes.
In Tanjore or Thanjavur, famed for its bronze casting, the 9th generation artisan demonstrated the process of shaping with beeswax + resin, making a mold with clay, melting the wax embryo then casting with bronze mixture of metals tin, iron, copper, gold, and silver representing the elements. The flame is fueled by charcoal and cow dung. The great temple walls were lined with Nandi cow statues representing Shiva and the lingam male-female structure. Watched a colorful procession to welcome rainy season and hence mangos! Visited yet another temple in Trichy or Tiruchirapalli.
Madurai is the wedding site between Shiva and Pavarti. Thus, the Meenakshi Temple is a popular spot for wedding, fertility rituals and apparently sex education. Temple closes from noon to 4pm, so the gods can lunch and enjoy an afternoon nap. This location had strict security due to a recent bombing incident.
04/14-18/14: The original plan was to continue with temple hopping and visiting other world heritage sites. However, we seriously needed a break at this point and took a 5-day detour break at the luxurious Leela Palace Hotel in Mumbai where we enjoy some night relaxation, great food, and early mangos. Although we spent more time in Mumbai than any other city, we actually did no sightseeing and know it the least.
04/19-20/14: Took a pre-dawn flight from Mumbai to Aurangabad to visit the ancient Ellora and Ajanta Caves. These are the world’s largest monolithic structures carved into soft basalt rocks of the dormant volcano. The temple structures were slowly carved across the span of a millennium along pilgrimage route to provide shelter for devotees during the monsoon season. These temples were first dugout from top to bottom up to 3 stories tall. Then they were intricately decorated from the exterior to the interior. They were quite an engineering and artistic marvel.
The Ellora Cave temples were grouped into 3 kinds. The temples of Jainism always had the 24th saint centered between male-female statues and other iconic symbols. The Buddhist temples often had a giant sitting Buddha in a large arched prayer hall that resembled the rib-cage of a giant elephant. Finally, the most impressive of the Hindu temples includes giant Shiva sculptures and wall reliefs of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. The entire complex is structured in a chariot’s form and surrounded by giant elephants, columns, and towering statues.
The Ajanta Caves contain over 30 Buddhist temple prayer halls and monasteries lined around a horseshoe shape. The interior of these structures were brilliantly decorated with dry fresco paintings.
04/21-22/14: Agra was the capital of the Mughal Dynasty and home of the famed Taj Mahal. We started at Akbar’s Tomb and learn how this great emperor promoted tolerance by incorporating symbols of all the major religions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity into all his architectural details and even married 3 wives: a Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. He is remembered for his great deeds despite being illiterate because his father had been in exiled during Akbhar childhood, so he was not able to receive proper education. The grounds provide refuge for wild antelope which had been driven out of the jungles due to construction.
The Agra Fort was an impressive structure built of red sandstone. It was well protected with crocodile infested moat, outer courtyard of lions, tigers & bears, and a sloped entrance where giant folders and burning hot oil greeted intruders. The interior boasted the lavish palaces of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Sadly, many of the precious gem that once adorned the walls have been looted under British rule. The fort provided Shah Jahan the view of Taj Mahal across the river during the final days while imprisoned by his succeeding emperor and son Aurenzeb.
The Taj Mahal, the majestic tomb of hard, while marble, was built by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife Mumtaz. Supposedly, he fell in love with her while visiting a women’s bazaar at the marketplace in Agra Fort and the 2 were inseparable. For 19 years together, she bore him umpteen children and ultimately died in childbirth. Her dying request was for a monument to be built in honor of their love. The octagonal monument with 4 minarets took 22 years to build and is the epitome of absolute symmetry. A building was constructed on the right solely to balance the mosque on the left. Legend says, Shah Jahan intended to build a matching tomb of black marble facing the Taj Mahal. Both emperor and empress are now entombed within. There was so much pollution in Agra that the white marble was beginning to yellow. The government eliminated all industries within the city borders. Only battery powered vehicles, horses, and camels are permitted as transportation to the monument’s vicinity.
The Fatehmah Sikri is situated 40 km outside of the city of Agra. Akbhar originally came to the town asking for a saint’s blessing for heirs. When his wish was granted, he moved his capital here for 17 years and obtaining fresh water became a problem. Then, they moved back to Agra.
04/23/14: We took a train from Agra to Jhansi and went on a short drive to Orchha. Orchhas was ruled by a local king who paid tribute to the Mughal Emperors. An exquisite 3-story palace complex was built for Jahangir’s visit and was only used for 1 night.
04/24/14: Khajuraho is a small town with a population of only 3,000. On the morning before departure, DH made a quick visit to their local temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
04/25-26/14: The holy city of Varanasi along the Ganges River is the oldest living city. It is a contemporary of Luxor and Babylon. Hindus believe that if they die within the city’s border and are cremated here, they will break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth to attain moksha. Thus there are free cooperative housing for the elderly and dying. Crematoriums run 24-hours in contrast to elsewhere which run from sunrise to sunset. We took a evening cruise of the Ganges River to watch the Aarti ritual performed by 7 priests.
Sarnath is considered the birthplace of Buddhism and was also center of Buddhism for a millennium, established by King Ashoka. This is the site where the newly enlightened Buddha came to deliver his 1st sermon to the 5 Hindu priests and 55 noblemen. The ancient site is now archeological remains. A replica of the main temple was built by devotees of Sri Lanka. A deer park is situated adjacent to the sites to commemorate the story of the golden deer when Buddha sacrificed himself to a hunter in order to save a doe.
04/27-28/14: Our visit coincided with India’s national election. It was interesting to see campaign processions through the villages with loudspeakers blaring. Locals even show their political affiliation by painting party colors the horns on their working cattle. Finally, we were able to enjoy some early ripened mangoes but sadly, we just miss the peak season by a couple of week.
Here’s some favorites from our reading list and study resources in preparation for our upcoming extended field trip to India. Most of the books were free from our local library, but the Illustrated Indian epics were worth ordering.
Hindu Stories by Anita Gainer
Stories from India by Anna Milbourne
The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India by Marcia Williams
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Emily Haynes
Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni
The Fantastic Adventures of Krishna by Demi
Buddha by Demi
Buddha Stories by Demi
Taj Mahal by Caroline Arnold
Gandhi by Demi
Alexis was invited to speak to the Junior Apprentice Circle meeting at the Aliso Viejo Library on October 3, 2013. She talked about the NaNoWriMo program, her favorite writing mentor Miss Raundi, and the wonderful friends who have supported and inspired her. It was a great honor and she was thrilled to make some new aspiring writer friends.