Thursday, December 30, 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

I just had to get this movie to watch after our New Year's experience! I have never had all my travel woes concentrated into the final day in this manner before! To think of all the miles we flew, all the cars and taxis and planes and trains, for it all to go belly-up just when I thought I was within spitting distance of home. You know how you think it's all over when you get off that last plane, and you just have to drive home? No way! A two hour trip took us 20 hours, and included a car, two vans, two trains, LOTS of snow, a hotel called Green Rich and an iphone that I LOVE, except for it when it tried to take me, three sleeping children and 11 pieces of luggage to a love hotel. Well, iphone must just love me back, aye?

The flights from Hong Kong were as fine as flights can be. I got window seats, so Amy and Lena sat next to each other in the row behind me and Erica. Erica played like crazy with her new Woody and Buzz Lightyear dolls -- sorry, 'action figures', until she soon fell asleep. I didn't sleep much - take off, meal, land, wait, take off, meal, land - not much time for snoozing! All in all, the stop in Taiwan made the flight TO Hong Kong a little more interesting than usual, as we were always doing something, but since I was trying to sleep on they way back, I wish we could have flown direct.

I should have known things were staring to go haywire when the stroller fell to bits as the ground staff tried to open it. They sat there desperately trying to help, trying to screw the faulty screw back in by hand, until I whipped out my roll of packaging tape. Yeah, I come prepared! So with our carry-ons and a now very wobbly taped-up stroller, we headed to immigration.

We went through immigration and straight through customs. We had nine pieces of luggage including the carry-ons, plus a car seat and the stroller, so one of us pushed Erica, while the other two pushed carts loaded with the bags. The plan was that Kanji would leave the car in the carpark for me earlier, as he couldn't get away from work in the evening when we arrived, and I would find it, retrieve the keys from the cunning hiding place in the wheel and drive home. It seemed like the best idea at the time, because it seemed that getting on a train or even to a hotel in a taxi, with three kids and all my luggage would be too hard.

It was so cold! Even from the the airport lobby I could feel it whipping through the door. I was tired. I wondered if I shouldn't go to a hotel after all. I called K, and he told me where the car was parked. I mentioned that I was thinking maybe we should have gotten a hotel, but he seemed keen for us to get home. We went to find the car. Amy and Lena pushed a trolley, and I pushed Erica in the stroller. (I'm not such a hard task-master, that taped-up, wobbly stroller was HARD to steer! I swore it would be ritually burned when we got home).

Crossing the road, several bags fell off Lena's trolley, and I rushed back to help her, leaving Erica in her stroller on the road! Some other foreigners rushed to help me, while the Japanese all politely pretended they didn't notice, though one lady did laugh at me leaving the baby on the road to get the bags! Lena's stuff fell one more time before we got across the road. I got them to wait on the footpath with the bags while I found the car. As I was pulling out, it started to snow! I called K again, but he said we have to come now, because it would be snowing very heavily tomorrow, so now was our last chance to get home. I found my deserted, freezing children by the road side and loaded them all into the car, happily snuggled under the blankets K had thoughtfully put in there for us. Wearing the snow jacket he put in for me, I then proceeded to load the nine bags and the broken stroller into the car. At least my kids hailed me as a hero for doing all that by myself in the dark and the snow and letting them stay warm inside the car!

I drove to the expressway, and stopped at a roadside stop or 'Road Station' to go to the toilet and buy coffee. The kids were all asleep already, and I was very tired -- in my head it was around two in the morning, so I took a nap. I woke up when K called me to ask after my progress, so I hit the road and kept driving.

I drove to Tosu interchange and took the road to Oita. At the next stop, Chikugo, I had to leave the expressway as it was closed. There was too much snow. I have no idea where the heck Chikugo is, except that it's somewhere between Fukuoka and Nakatsu! I had the brilliant idea of following a truck for a while, on the theory that the truck would be heading in the same direction and would know which secondary road to take. But as he kept driving north, and I felt we should be going east, I gave up on him and turned around. (I wonder now if I should have followed him, he may have been heading to the Kitakyushu highway to the north, which was open and also leads to Nakatsu).

So now I had even LESS idea of where I was, and this is where the iphone first came in handy, as I could use the inbuilt GPS to pinpoint my location and the maps to figure out where to go next. Knowing a fairly major road, Route 3, runs into Kurume, and another fairly major road runs from Kurume to Hita, I thought I would drive to Kurume, just south of me on the map. I wanted to be on a main road, as I thought it would be less icy, and safer with more people around. The car did have a navi, but not only did I not know how to work it, I know it would only have tried to take me to the nearest expressway, which was closed. The route-finder on the iphone kept trying to take me back to the expressway too, but at least I could look at the overall maps and make my own choice.

It started to snow more and more heavily. It was not a main road, and pretty deserted, just me and snow. I stopped outside a convenience store. I called my K again, to let him know what was happening. He said he had the room all warm waiting for me. At this point I burst into tears! There was nothing I wanted more than to be in that room! He still wanted me to try to get home, but I was beginning to give up on the idea. More to placate him, I said I would decide when I got to Kurume. I hung up, still feeling very upset, and Amy was awake by now and saw me crying. I reminded myself I had a job to do! Kids to look after! Can’t collapse into a self-pitying pile of mulch! I dried my eyes and kept on driving. Well, it’s going to an adventure, anyway!

I used my iphone to find a road to Kurume. I took a minor road at first, but it was snowing very hard, and I could not see the road very well, so I was driving VERY slowly.

The smaller icy road I doubled back on to get back to the main road

I estimated that at this rate, it would take me at least four hours to drive home. It was after 11pm. I had jetlag, so my body felt like it was 3am. There was no way I would get home tonight! As the road got darker and narrower, and icier, I decided to double back to a bigger road, to get there safely. I finally entered the city about half an hour after that, and parked next to a McDonald’s. I called Kanji to tell him he would not be seeing us that night.

My next call was to a friend who lived in Kurume – I wanted to be saved! There was no answer, and as I was not sure if she was still in Australia, I had to give up on that option, and find a hotel. How do you find a hotel in the middle of a snowy winter night in a city you don’t know? iphone, of course. Using my ‘locality’ app, it showed me the hotels in my vicinity. Being an overseas app, however, it didn’t know the difference between real hotels and love hotels, so at first it directed me to some of those! For those who don’t know, love hotels are for, um, ‘dates’, and you hire them by the hour. You can get an overnight room after a certain hour, but you are locked in – or rather, if you leave, you have to get a new room and pay again. There is also, of course, only one bed. I did seriously consider it though! Many people take advantage of the cheap rates and stay in them overnight, but you just have to be sure you have everything you need from your car and get it all in in one go, and with 2 out of 3 children sleeping, and at least 2-3 bags needing to come in with us, I didn’t think I could pull it off. So I turned around. I knew to head to the station for a more traditional hotel.

My first choice turned out to be shut. I got a bit worried after this, what if they were all shut? It was after midnight now. I figured I would either go back to the love hotels and just try it, or find an all-night petrol station so I would have a source of fuel, and just sleep in the running car. But the next hotel was open, and I could get a room, although only a twin room. But since it was after midnight, it was discounted, only 6000 for all four of us. This was a relief, as I didn’t have all that much cash on me, and while I was carrying a credit card, it’s based on a NZ bank, and Japanese shops often don’t take credit from foreign accounts.

All the children were asleep again. The parking for the hotel was in the next block, so I left the car running outside the lobby and took what bags we needed to the lobby. Then I parked the car and woke up the children to tell them to come to the hotel. I carried Ercia, and we skidded and slipped down the icy street to the hotel, all wrapped in our blankets. The room was on the 7th floor, and very cold, because they had not turned on the heater. The children got into bed, and I put lots of jackets on top of them. I called reception to ask them to fix my heater. A man came up and turned it on for me, but it was still very cold. I was still cold when I went to sleep.

The kids wrapped up in jackets in bed

View from the hotel room

The next morning, I decided to get an early start. Jetlag had us up very early, so we packed up and headed out into this:

We went back to McDonald’s for breakfast and I called K again.

The plan was to take that main road from Kurume to Hita. I’ve driven it before a few times to visit people in Kurume. So we set off to drive to Hita. It was very snowy and the road was sometimes icy, but it was okay because lots of cars were driving on the road and melting the snow and ice.

Driving into Hita

We arrived in Hita, navigated a few icy back streets, then went to check the expressway entrance. Still shut. The next option was the mountain pass to Nakatsu. We drove through Hita towards Route 212 to Nakatsu. It started to snow again. I stopped at a convenience store for a few supplies, and I saw a man putting chains on his car tyres. I got a little worried, but I decided to keep on trying – maybe he was just being over-cautious, after all, we had just successfully driven from Kurume with no trouble.

We drove out of town for about five minutes then reached a curved overpass. The snow was fluffing in the air by now, and was piled up at the sides of the road. I took a deep breath, and decided if I made it over this overpass, I was set. I started out slow, but on my way up, the car got slower and slower so I gunned the accelerator. But it completely lost traction, and the wheels just went round and round while we didn’t go anywhere. With no traction the steering wheel was useless too. The car slipped, very slowly, to the side of the road and stopped before a snow drift. We were stuck.

Right then, a van with two men in it came past in the opposite lane. They slowed down, and we both wound down our windows, and they asked if I needed help. “Yes!” I said. There was a taxi behind me too. The men in the van drove backwards back up their lane, as there was a divider between the two lanes, and came backwards down my lane. They hooked a tow rope to my car, then pulled us up and around the overpass, to park outside of a closed shop at the top.

Time to call K again, this time to ask if we had insurance. I needed some road-side help, and some chains. He had to call Aunty the Manager to find out, so I was left sitting there. The van guys were still there, kindly waiting to see what I would do. I had nothing I could do right then but wait, and I was afraid that if the answer from K was that he could do nothing either, then I would be left on the side of the road trying to flag down passing motorists in the snow. So when they asked, I said I had to try to make it back to town, and did they think I could make it back? (After all, I had made it that far). They assured me I could not, without the snow tyres or chains. But I could hardly stay there with the children. I think it was their presence that made them stay to help me. You can leave an adult to walk back, you can’t leave three little children. So they offered to drive my car back for me, while me and the kids rode in the back of their van.

So they drove us back to the very same convenience store where I had seen the man putting on chains! After saying Thank You a gazillion times, but not thinking to ask their names, they left and I got back in the car to go check the highway one more time. Still closed. I called Kanji again, and he was looking into roadside help, and asked me to stay there by the entrance to the highway, as it was an easy location to find. After he called again, still searching for options, I told him we’d go have lunch.

So we ended up at Gusto over the road from the expressway entrance, with Amy suffering yet another piece of bad luck as the shoe fell off her new fairy Barbie on the way from the car to the restaurant. While we ate lunch, Kanji called again to say roadside help was swamped with calls, and the wait would be interminable. We decided then and there to take the train, and Kanji had to hang up yet again, this time to find somewhere for us to park the car – I suggested he call someone from his club. It’s a young men’s business association, made up of small business owners, and since we’ve been to Hita-hosted events before, I assumed there would be someone. There was – a guy at a nearby bookstore.

We left the restaurant, taking the time for one last exhaustive look through the car park for the lost Barbie shoe, and then some more to repack our bags to bring only the absolute essentials - my handbag, the medicine bag, one of the girls’ carry-on bags with both girls’ things crammed in, and my carry on with Erica’s things and toys and games and books, which would be essential on the long train ride ahead!

We drove to the bookstore, and parked out the back. Then the guy and his son loaded us into their van with our much reduced luggage, and took us to the station. At the station, we were told that the bus was the quickest way back, but it didn’t leave for an hour. I not only didn’t want to wait, I didn’t want to be anywhere near that road again, even if the bus had chains or snow tires! The next train was in five minutes, so we grabbed tickets, got some very rushed instructions and raced off to the next platform over to get on.

The train ride was THREE HOURS, compared to the usual one hour through the mountains by car. We went via Yufuin, the famous hot springs resort that we’ve stayed in a few times and visited many more times. It was easily the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever been on, with the deep snow covering the fields and trees and houses, and even the rocks in the rivers, so very quietly pretty and picturesque.

Erica out to it already, while Lena and Amy still play

A station in the middle of nowhere
Very pretty scenery

Amy and Lena exhausted too - and still wearing the pyjamas I had the wear on the plane, thinking we'd drive straight home to bed...

We had one train change at Oita, but that went very smoothly, and we all got seats, though not together. We arrived back in Nakatsu at 4pm, 20 hours after our plane landed. The first thing I did was run a bath and we all hopped in for a good long soak! Then we re-packed our bags and headed off to Baachan’s for New Year!

Never have I seen my kids so enthusiastically dive under a kotatsu!

We stayed there two nights, and Kanji and his Dad drove back to Hita on the 3rd to pick up my car, as Erica had a fever by then and I needed to stay with her.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Arriving at Nakatsu Jinja. Baachan is directing the girls over to the water to wash their hands, and thereby ritually purify, before entering the shrine.

At the shrine attached to Nakatsu castle, right next to the main shrine. You have GOT to watch this to the very end and catch the "You are crazy, Mum" look Amy gives me at the very end

Portraits of my precious three-year old. We went to the shrine to get a blessing for her on her third year. 7-5-3 is for three-year old girls and boys, five-year old boys and seven-year old girls.
Above, at the shrine, below at Baachan's house, in the zashiki formal sitting room, showing her kimono from the back without the jacket. It's just tied up like a dressing gown, a bit heavy, but not tight or uncomfortable. They wear an obi for the first time at seven. However, she refused for two hours to even try it on, we sized it up against her body for sewing (it's loosely sewn at the shoulders and waist to fit, the thread will be removed before it's stored again.) Eventually we convinced her to wear it by promising her ice cream AND chocolate. One was not enough!

I forgot to tell Kanji we were going to do the 7-5-3 this day! So he didn't schedule the afternoon off...

Amy and Lena are neither five nor seven, but having them put on a kimono was one method we thought of to convince Erica to wear hers! We almost gave up to try another day, but suddenly she changed her mind, and we were all in a rush after that to get everyone's hair and accessories fixed up and in the car in case she changed her mind!

Me and the girls outside the castle shrine.

With Baachan and Aunty Mie, champion kimono dressers. Amy said her belt was firm but not uncomfortable, just perfect! Lena's was a bit loose, and they had to keep adjusting it, but Mie will not tie them tightly after her daughter Mami fainted once because her obi was too tight!

The promised ice cream! A rabbit-shaped sundae. On the right, with her precious, her iphone...

Yes, okay, it's pretty mad giving kids in expensive silk kimonos ice cream, but...

One very tired little girl at the end of the day! Part of her problem was of course, that she was just tired. It was our second event of the day - in the morning we'd been to the Culture Festival at the technical college where I teach, and they had jumped on a bouncy castle, and played ball games. And there we were, trying to shove a heavy kimono on her instead of settling her down for her nap!

Two video extras:

Little toes!!! Tabi are funny-looking things, and most intriguing for a three-year old kid the first time she put them on....

... as are long kimono sleeves!