72 Hours in Brooklyn

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Near Madison Square Garden, walking between subway stations!

SMS and I had an extended weekend in NYC!  It was fantastic!  We arrived into EWR very late on Friday and took a ride share over to Brooklyn.  We stayed at an Aloft that was on the edge of the DUMBO district.  The hotel had a few mixed reviews, mainly regarding the paper thin walls (true) and the too-tiny size (not really true but this is very subjective).  Importantly, it was clean, on the inexpensive side, and a place to sleep.  Since we usually travel to do things rather than hang out at the hotel, I would recommend the Aloft.  The only reason I wouldn’t stay again is that I would likely want to explore a different neighborhood rather than repeat an experience.

It wasn’t the most über-cool part of Brooklyn, but enough that there was an awesome food hall nearby.  We ate at the DeKalb Market Hall three times during the trip.  We had thin Spanish-style churros (awesome), arepas (really disappointing), pierogis (delicious), and coffee (necessary).  The building also has an Alamo Drafthouse and Flying Tiger so it’s definitely worth checking out.

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We were in town to celebrate my college friend’s birthday.  I still owe her for the amazing time she showed me on my 21st birthday (heavy sarcasm).  In all seriousness, I wanted to be there for my amazing friend for her landmark birthday so SMS and I made it happen!  Saturday was the main day so after sleeping in (we stayed on West Coast time the whole trip) and eating at DeKalb, we headed over to Citi Field for a private tour!

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Overall, Google Maps is a lifesaver for figuring out how to take public transport in a new city but there are definitely some gaps in the system.  We found a big one on our way to the tour since we took the subway to the LIRR with the plan to go two stops to Mets-Willets Park.  We were cheerfully oblivious that this would not work since the train does not stop there on game days.  Fortunately, a very nice conductor saw our tickets and told us this before we reached Woodside, so we hopped off and took a Lyft.  So, not the most efficient and we didn’t have time for a pre-tour drink at Mikkeller, but at least we weren’t late for the tour itself.

The tour was awesome!  We went to the press room, different box seat levels, the rotunda, the club house, the dugout, and the field.  I think the highlight for me is knowing that beer cooler #1, the Grand Central Station of all the non-craft beer to different vendors around the stadium, is directly opposite the Clubhouse.  It was nice to meet some of Karen’s friends before the group grew for a delicious Thai dinner at SriPraPhai.

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Best Bobblehead Collection- more were on the side!

Dinner was delicious.  SMS and I shared a green curry and pad see-ew.  After that, we headed back to Brooklyn with Laddie, Dave, Hillary, and Jason.  Laddie, Hillary, SMS, and I grabbed an after-dinner drink at Svendale Brewing Co. Tasting Room, which was a really cute place with a nice bartender.  All the beers were served in wine glasses, which angers one of Karen’s friends on principle but fortunately, he wasn’t there.

On Sunday, SMS and I slept in again and then headed to DeKalb.   We headed to the NY Transit Museum, which was pretty interesting.  It’s not a must-do but it is cool to learn more about the vast, iconic subway system and what went into making it and the maintenance and upgrades over the years.

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The most Brooklyn thing that every Brooklyn’d.

Then, we went to the Other Half brewing company where we had a few taster beers with Karen and, a little later on, Stephen.  The beers were delicious and it was fun to try a lot of different small pours.  Then, we went to Laddie and Dave’s house for the Super Bowl with a brief stop in the most ridiculous, gourmet grocer on the way, Court St Grocer.  It’s less ridiculous if you just accept it as a slightly mis-named fancy sandwich shop.

Laddie had an ad in the Super Bowl line-up, which was fun to see.  The game was an exciting, fast-paced one with a comeback ending.  And that’s about the depth of my analysis and caring.

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What nightmares are made of…

Monday was our dedicated tourist day.  I had listened to Abbi Jacobson’s A Piece of Work podcast and I really wanted to go to MoMA.  There were a few Jackson Pollack’s that were really cool and “Number 1A, 1948” was interesting to look at in juxtaposition with Jack Whitten’s “Atopolis: For Edouard Glissant.”  I also liked The Planes of Color gallery.    We also enjoyed Haegue Yang’s Handles installation and took a few pictures there.

The highlight, though, was a trip across the river to PS1.  This is prime evidence that SMS is a saint because once I realized the James Turrell Meeting was located there and that it wasn’t in the middle of Long Island (I don’t know why I thought this), I wanted to go so badly.  And SMS gamely agreed to two art museums in a day!

PS1 was so cool! It’s located in an old public elementary school and is such a throwback, evocative building that the setting itself is one of the best elements about the visit. It reminds me of St. James Catholic School in Red Bank, NJ.

We saw Meeting (yay!) and a few other pieces.  SMS thought the coolest thing was the old coal furnace in the basement.  It was huge and very elaborate!  We grabbed a coffee in the little cafe and then headed to Williamsburg for pulled noodles at Xi’an’s Famous Foods, which were delicious!

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In North Williamsburg, walking towards the water.
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Skyline at Dusk.  The ferry pictures were a bit blurry.

We walked around Williamsburg, including McCarren Park.  Then we headed to the water and took the East River Ferry from North Williamsburg down to Dumbo, which was a gorgeous thing to do at sunset.  We walked through Dumbo and settled on Colonie for drinks and a light dinner.  I loved that bar and, since we came upon it rather than researching it, were lucky that we found the perfect fit for what we were looking for!

After dinner, we headed to the hotel and watched two episodes of Cheer.  It’s a good series and it let us stay up so we were still on West Coast time.  One more episode to go!  Will they win?!?!  I think the answer is yes but I’m waiting to watch with SMS!

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Bluestone Lane.  Can you tell why I picked the place?

Our last day, we went to Bluestone Lane for breakfast after testing the wheels on my MUJI roll-aboard.  Still holding strong!  Strong recommend- both the cafe and the suitcase!

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9/11 Memorial

Then, we went to the 9/11 memorial since SMS had never been.  It is so amazingly powerful.  It doesn’t even feel like history since I can so vividly remember the day and it still has such wide ramifications on our current time.

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Afterwards, we went to Eataly and grabbed a coffee while discussing a super cool company, Cesta Collective with the two founders.  It was really exciting to talk about a promising, mission-based business that these two women believe in so strongly.

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One World Trade Center and the Occulus

Then, it was time to go.  We took the PATH train from WTC to Newark-Penn Station.  Then, we took the 62 bus, which was really easy and came every 10 minutes.  Even an Uber wouldn’t have been that much faster and it was nice to use public transportation.  Basically, getting to EWR is a bit of hassle no matter which way we would go but hey, the flights are the cheapest!

We had cheesesteaks before our flights because we like to choose the healthy option.  Then, it was back to the West Coast for an abbreviated work week.

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Hold out your hand for a special surprise! Seriously, is this sign for real?

10 Tips for Traveling in Japan

1. Japan Rail Pass: This is a huge cost savings if you’re planning on traveling by train which, in the land of the Shinkansen, I hope you are!  You have to obtain your voucher outside of the country and then exchange it for the pass at any JR customer service counter.  A lot of people will do it at the airport and ride the Narita Express into the city.  I exchanged mine in Yokohama since I activated mine later in the trip. But really, you could activate it for any date at the airport by specifying a specific future start date at the time of exchange.

2. You may have read #1 and went, “Pffpt, print out a voucher” in a high-pitched, making-fun-of-me tone of voice.  You’re going to JAPAN!  Why would you have to do something as low-tech as print out a voucher? Can’t you just show your smartphone?  Well, no.  Or at least, that’s not what the instructions for the pass direct you to do and really, it’s best to follow the rules when you’re in Japan.  Sometimes, things are done in a low-tech way that you may not expect in the land of Akihabra.  Having a printout is much preferred and honestly, I’d recommend printing out any confirmation emails/passes you may have.  It definitely helped me a few times when checking into hotels.

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Station gates.  In this particular station, the worker’s booth is on the right.  You can see a small walkway to the right of the green arrow turnstile.

3. How do you use the JR pass?  At every station, there will be multiple turnstiles/gates with green arrows/red Xs to indicate whether it’s an entrance or exit gate.  On one side, there will be a booth where the station worker is located.  There is a wider gate there used for strollers, wheelchairs, and…tourists!  Just hold up your JR pass and you will be waved through.  They could ask to check the pass, but that is pretty unusual.

4. Make seat reservations at the ticket counters outside the turnstile entrances.  This may sounds nerve-wracking if you don’t speak Japanese but pretty much every ticket counter staffer speaks what I call “train English” meaning the basics of a trip such as train number, origin/destination city, window/aisle, smoking/non-smoking can be covered in English.  It helps if you know which train you want which leads me to…

5. Hyperdia.  Download this app.  It will give you the best route by train/subway for wherever you want to go.  For the shinkansen, you can obtain your train type and number which helps you book your ticket.  What do I mean by train type?  There are three classes of Shinkansen: Express (Nozomi & Mizuho), Limited Express (Hikari & Sakura), and Local (Kodama).  The JR Pass does not cover Express trains.  I strongly recommend the Limited Express since there are a surprising amount of stops on the Kodama local train which makes those Shinkansen very slow moving “bullets.”  So, if you know you want the Hikari 515 from Tokyo to Kyoto leaving at 13:33, you can write down or point to that train when making a seat reservation which makes things a lot clearer.

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Hyperdia Screenshot: This can be accessed via the app or a web browser.  On this trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, I would want to make reservations on the Hikari 515 (second train listed) since the first train listed is a Nozomi.  Also, note that the app also tells you the departure and arrival platforms.

6. If you don’t make seat reservations (why!?), the unreserved seats are usually in cars 1-3 at the front of the train.  The overhead signs on the platform will indicate which cars are unreserved.  They will also indicate which cars are the Green cars (first class).  I have always bought regular (second-class) Shinkansen tickets and been very comfortable.

7. Other train tips: Buy a bento and a drink before boarding.  Some of the larger stations have incredible basement food halls in the adjacent large stores that are amazing.  The bento shops within the station are also tasty but the food hall quality is sublime!  When traveling South from Tokyo, try to get a seat on the right side of the train for view of Fuji on clear-skied days.  These tickets are usually the first to be booked.

8. So, I mentioned the Hyperdia app.  Other great apps include Google Translate, Japan Official Tourism App, and the Louis Vuitton City App for Tokyo (this is not as high-end as it sounds).  But how should you access these?  I’ve always used my own cellphone without a SIM card switch.  I have Sprint, which has great rates for overseas travel.  I usually pay $25/week for the high-speed data, but I could use the slower rate for free.  Text messages are also free.  The only high rate is for voice calls so if you are calling back home, use FaceTime or a similar app over a WiFi connection.  WhatsApp is also great if you have contacts that use it.  This tip isn’t meant to be an #ad for Sprint (although it’s great), but check out your carrier’s overseas plans before automatically assuming you need to purchase a Japan specific SIM card.

9. Within cities, buses are pretty great.  There may be a slight learning curve but the 5 minutes saves many minutes of walking.  Don’t get me wrong, I walk a LOT and love it but sometimes, you want to go a little faster.  The Kyoto bus system in particular is great since the subway is limited there.  But, if you have 3+ people in your group, taxis may be more economical and faster.

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Not covered by the JR Pass! But very convenient so you should use!

10. Tokyo subway.  There are a few different lines.  The JR pass works for the JR subway/local trains, the most famous being the circular Yamanote line.  There are a few other Tokyo lines that will not work with the JR pass.  Most will have the Blue M in their signs.  For these, you can either pay cash fares (which Hyperdia will tell you!) or if you are spending a few days in Tokyo, it may be worth buying a rechargeable Passmo or Suica card to just throw a few thousand yen on so you can just tap the card at the gate and keep moving.

 

Sisters in Japan, Day 3: Osaka

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Today was an exciting day because it was the first Shinkansen ride for the entire M-R clan!  We left about 9 o’clock after that lil’ diva LR took for-ever to get ready. Seriously, good thing he was the last to shower because there would have been no hot water for the rest of us.

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Haha. I am so funny. I managed to get a quick workout in while we were getting ready and then we took a multi-train trip from Sagami-otsuka (Atsugi NAF) to Yokohama, Yokohama to Shin-Yokohama, Shin-Yokohama to Shin-Osaka (Shinkansen!), and then Shin-Osaka-Osaka-Nishikujō-Universal City.

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The hotel is nice and right outside the station and amusement park. It is an awesome location! After settling in and feeding the newest little Griffindor, we headed out to the Dotonbori/Nanba area.

We walked around and took in all the neon signs, sounds, and smells of Osaka. Osaka is known as Japan’s kitchen and there is so much good food!

We wandered around until I, at least, was starting to reach mild hangriness, despite a quick takoyaki break.  We went into a small Izakaya off of a side alley and got a great set dinner!

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We headed back to the hotel after briefly discussing moving onto a bar. But we needed a rest. Our mega-Harry Potter day was the next day and we had to be at our peak!

5 Days in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

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Tulum Beach

So, this Christmas brought a travel first for me.  I went to Mexico!  Yes, it’s almost strange to admit I’ve never been since I was in San Diego for so long but it’s a fact.  Of course, when I went to Otay Mesa during my Kaiser residency days, I was almost in Mexico.  Early in the morning, I would worry about being too tired and missing my exit and ending up in Mexico instead of work.  That would make me late.

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Hotel Room Balcony

We went to Mexico with SMS’s family and had a really great time at an all-inclusive.  We went to Royal Hideaway Playacar, which was really nice.  I did some TripAdvisor reading beforehand and wasn’t too sure about the place but ultimately, it was wonderful.  It is clear that there some people on TripAdvisor who are just never going to be happy.

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On vacation, I read a lot and hung out at the beach.  It was delightful.  Linda and I did water aerobics one day, which featured great music and a slightly less great, but enthusiastic, instructor.  The food was really delicious and the portion sizes were perfect.   I would say most meals came out with a proper serving (aka, enough but not too much food), which was great because wasting food was minimal.  I feel that sometimes, all-inclusives (not that I’ve been to many) can serve large quantities to make people feel that they are getting more when really, it just leads to excess- in the belly and in the trash.

I went for two runs and SMS and I went for a walk on the beach.  It was really beautiful- wide, fine-sand beaches with clear blue water.

One day, the four “kids” went to Tulum, Dos Ojos cenote, and Cosme’s Taqueria for lunch.  Tulum was really beautiful.  The sun-bleached stone ruins were gorgeous and we learned a lot (but not too much:) from our guide.  Hiring a guide was definitely a good idea because the context definitely made the viewing more interesting.  Afterwards, thanks to the magic of our smartphones, we found Cosme’s taqueria which was a small spot that served up delicious tacos.  It was a great find and definitely different than the polished all-inclusive or tourist trap restaurants outside of the Tulum ruins.

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After lunch, we went to the “Dos Ojos” cenote, which was awesome because I had really wanted to go to a cenote after following the hashtag on Instagram for the last several months.  There are some beautiful looking ones closer to Chichen Itza, which we passed on because we didn’t want to drive all day.  But there are some along the coast and Dos Ojos is really pretty.  There are two separate cenotes, a dark and light “eye,” with a connecting tunnel that I think you could get through without SCUBA gear but I wasn’t going to try.

After 5 days, it was time to head back to California.  SMS and I returned our rental car, which was cheaper than a shuttle and gave us flexibility to go to Tulum without booking an overpriced tour.  But it was a little bit of a hassle so there was definitely a trade-off.

Back in California, we moved apartments from Mountain View to Menlo Park.  Goodbye orange tree in the front yard!  Our place in Mountain View was really nice but the commute for Mark’s new job was anything but so…we moved to Menlo Park.  The location of the new apartment is great and it’s fun to be near a new downtown to explore.

We spent New Year’s Eve in downtown San Francisco with friends.  We went to a 1920’s themed party (flappers and Great Gatsby, not suicidal bankers after the crash of 1929).  Our friend had organized a get-together of several people so it was very easy and a lot of fun.

Then it was New Year’s Day!  SMS and I started out the new year with avocado toast and good coffee so that was a delicious start.  We went to a Australian coffee shop, Bluestone Lane, in SF.  I would definitely like to go back and someday, we will get to Australia proper!

Scandinavian Summer, Day 12: Gällnö

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While planning the vacation part of the Sweden trip, multiple blogs and articles spoke of how a visit to an archipelago island was almost a non-negotiable part of a trip to Sweden.  This is true of both the East and West Coast archipelagos near Gothenburg and Stockholm, respectively but there seemed to be a greater focus on Stockholm.  I suspect this is mainly due to Stockholm being a more popular tourist destination, especially for those on shorter trips just trying to get a taste (or smaka!) of Sweden.

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I hadn’t made any plans so after returning to Stockholm, I had an inner debate on what to do on my only full day left before my return flight.  I really did want to explore an island within the Stockholm archipelago but I also thought wandering Gamla Stan more, seeing City Hall and going to the Nobel Museum also sounded really cool.  And it’s true, staying in Stockholm another day would have been awesome.  But, ultimately, I decided that there are always more museums to see and things that stay off the list so rather than do more of the same by staying in the city, I decided to venture out for a day trip to experience the Swedish Island lifestyle.

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Once I made that decision, I had to figure out which island I wanted to go to.  I was in Stockholm one week before the tourist season starts, aka Midsummer.  Once Summer arrives, there are many more ferries and seasonal routes open.  I really wanted to go to Utö but in the off-season, there was no direct ferry from Stockholm.  My second choice was Gällnö, reachable by direct ferry even in the off season. The ferry that was running was the Cinderella line (no Disney affiliation). It also went to Voxholm, Grinda, and Sandhamn.  Voxholm has the fortress and is nearby, but looks like a small town rather than a nature-focused island.  Grinda sounded a little too family-friendly but would have likely been fun.  Sandhamn was a two-hour ferry ride one-way and that just seemed like a little too much for a day trip.  Also, it has a reputation as a nice harbor for luxury yachts so I think it is a little posh.

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So, Gällnö.  I picked it because it sounded very undeveloped and a great place for biking, hiking and swimming.  There is a hostel there that is very popular in the Summer and, when passing it, I can see why.  It looks delightful and is in the most idyllic spot.

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Breakfast is served!

I had made up my mind the night before, so I timed my hotel breakfast so that I could enjoy the delicious food and then head to the pier without stressing about the time.  The breakfast was awesome.  I started in the drawing room but after I saw another guest outside, I wanted to eat outside too.  It was an amazing morning and the guy was very nice.  He was a bariatric surgeon from Chicago, traveling with his lawyer wife for what sounded like their annual big trip.  He was well-traveled and she joined us after awhile and they were fun and interesting to talk to over coffee.

I biked to the pier and boarded the ferry.  It left about 10 minutes later.  I paid onboard, a one-way passage with a small bike supplement since I took the bike from the hotel.  After 90 minutes, I was dropped off at Gällnö.  All by myself.  It was disconcerting to be the only one let off with only a few farmhouses visible as the ferry steamed merrily away.  Uh oh.

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But don’t worry!  Everything was fine.  I hopped on my bike and went towards the hostel and store.  The store was very small and had limited food, mostly geared towards group campers.  I wasn’t very hungry and only bought a snack, but a picnic would have been a good idea.

I kept biking and I’m pretty sure I biked on a hiking trail for a bit.  I found a beautiful beach and laid out in the sun for a bit.  I also scrambled around on some nearby rocks.  It was really beautiful.

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Then I hopped on my bike and went a few miles in the opposite direction and found another beautiful spot by the coast. I sat for a bit and really, didn’t think much about anything.  I just kind of sat and enjoyed how beautiful it was.  I tried to hone in on all the sensory inputs so I could have a vivid mental snapshot to go back to as a memory.

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Then, although it had only been a few hours, it was time to bike back towards the dock.  There was another timetable listed for another ship, maybe a commuter type ferry?  I flipped the dockside indicator to show that I was waiting for the boat.  I wanted to stick with what I knew so I waited for the Cinderella boat, which was the first one scheduled to arrive anyway.  They put the gangplank across and I boarded.  I bought a hearty late lunch (risotto!) that was impressively good for being cooked in a ship’s galley!

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I bought my ticket on-board again and word to the wise, if you think you can avoid the ticket lady, they do check your ticket stub as you disembark so no cheating!

I had to leave really early the next morning so I decided to take care of as much as I could the night before.  I took the tram to the rail station with my roll aboard, which I locked in an overnight locker.  The reason for this is that I was leaving so early the next morning that the tram to the station wouldn’t be open and I didn’t want to drag my suitcase for 1.5 miles.  I bought my Arlanda Express ticket as well.  On the way back to the hotel, I did some last minute sight-seeing along the way.

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Guard outside Stockholm Palace
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The stuff of nightmares.
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Kungliga Djurgarden Gate
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It’s a bird’s life, sitting on the head of a Swedish Aristocrat/Composer’s statue.

That night, I treated myself to a dinner at Oaxen Slip.  It was so good.  I had the herring dish again.  To me, it encapsulated new Swedish cuisine in one dish.  I had the rhubarb lemonade again and an awesome strawberry and merengue dessert.