Let Your Heritage Lead You To Travel Destinations

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Image ID : 35177538
Copyright : Borislav Marinic

 

Though I thoroughly enjoy international travel for a multitude of reasons, the most meaningful trips I have taken have admittedly been the ones I took in an effort to learn about my ancestral roots.  The first time I went on a heritage trip was in September of 2014, exactly six months after I had ordered genotype testing through 23andme.  Despite the fact that I already pretty much knew the bulk of my heritage (Japanese and Hungarian), I was even more determined to visit Japan and Hungary after I received the test results.  It took me a full six years to visit Japan, but I was able to do so in March of this year, and made a point of visiting both prefectures which my grandparents were from.

Source: 123rf
Image ID : 8705805
Copyright: ginasanders Budapest, castle hill and castle. city view

 

It turns out that my determination to visit my ancestral countries, occurred right at the beginning of the surge in heritage travel which has swept the globe.  One of the driving forces behind this boost in travel to ancestral lands has been the popularity of genetic testing kits such as the ones offered by 23andme. From personal experience, I can definitely tell you that a trip which is taken in an effort to learn about one’s heritage is definitely different from a trip which is taken for vacation purposes.

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Image ID : 121655857
Copyright : pitinan
Beautiful morning at Yasaka Pagoda and Sannen Zaka Street in summer, Kyoto, Japan. Yasaka Pagoda is the famous landmark and travel attraction of Kyoto.

 

Thanks to AirBnB, people can stay in dwellings which are more reflective of the culture which they are visiting, and thus more authentic and rich.  According to AirBnB, there has been a 500% increase since 2014 in travelers who use the AirBnB service to book accommodations and experiences.  Close to 80% of these trips are taken either with one travel partner or alone, which suggests that these treks are indeed meant to establish connection with mother cultures.

It’s no surprise that AirBnB and 23andme have joined forces and are offering services specific to heritage travel on their websites.  On 23andMe, customers who receive new ancestry reports, are now able to click through to their ancestral populations and find Airbnb Homes and Experiences in their countries of origin. Correspondingly,  Airbnb has dedicated pages which correspond with 23andMe’s genetic populations, making it a breeze for customers to book accommodations in the countries which emerge on their reports.

If you’re thinking of booking a heritage trip but are hesitant, take it from someone who has not only visited her two main countries of origin, but who has also visited the other countries (Italy, Greece, Germany, France) which had popped up on the genetic testing report, and just GO.

Funny English Signs In Japan

Here’s a collection of some of the signs I encountered during my visit to Japan in March.  Clearly there is a need for more accurate Japanese to English translation!

This was in Daiso in Sendai

 

Thank goodness Yama No Saru in Sapporo had an English menu for us from which to order!

 

This was in many elevators throughout Japan…watch your fingers!

 

When you want all the shoes in your Miso Ramen…

 

Umbrellas up for grabs…

 

Don’t forget to unrticepticize your hands before handling the pets at the pet store…

 

Freshers??

 

A cozy, comfy cushion for your tush….

 

The best drawstring bag ever, and for 93 cents at Seria…

 

Lastly, the label on the drawstring bag cracked me up too

The Michael Kors Jacket Nightmare

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Image ID : 102290706
Copyright : Jonathan Weisswarm

On March 5th, when I was waiting to board the plane which would take me from LAX to Haneda, Tokyo, I walked by a Michael Kors store and saw a nice ivory puffer jacket on display.  I took it off the hanger and tried it on, and instantly loved it.  My reasoning was that since it was a puffer jacket, it would be incredibly warm and would keep me snuggly and comfortable while I was in Sapporo.  I promptly decided to purchase it, and decided to wear it out of the store.  The sales associate asked me to take it off so that she could scan the tag, whereupon another associate cut the tags off before I could stop her.  Though I was upset, I hoped that I wouldn’t have to return the item.

About 30 minutes after I purchased the jacket, I placed it in my carry on bag, deciding that I should wait until I arrived in Japan to wear my new jacket.  Then I put the jacket to the test, not in chilly and snowy Sapporo, but in Sendai, which was far more moderate in temperature, with highs in the mid-40’s.  Well, I ended up freezing in that darling jacket, and because I purchased the jacket for warmth and not to make a fashion statement, I tucked the jacket away in my luggage and vowed to return it once I was back home in the states.

I returned to Los Angeles on March 19th, and learned that the area was on full lockdown, with retail stores closed.  So began the ongoing contact with MichaelKors.com, engaging the chat function, calling local stores, and emailing them regularly, each time inquiring when they thought stores might reopen.  This was a major headache for me to deal with, but since I was in possession of a $213 jacket which conferred almost no protection against the cold, I persisted.  I was told that return windows were being extended as a result of the lockdown, and I didn’t need to worry about the return window closing on me.

Then on June 29th, I called a local MK store, and not only did someone answer the phone, but she also stated that the store was indeed open to the public. I rushed over to the store the next day, but as I was walking towards the store, I got a funny feeling in my gut that something was about to go very wrong.   I walked into the store, explained my situation, and as soon as I mentioned that I had purchased the jacket at the Michael Kors store at LAX, the salesperson grimaced and said, “Oh, I don’t think we can process the return here.  You see, the store you went to isn’t owned by Michael Kors, it’s owned by Hudson Group”.

The salesperson tried to enter the SKU, but the number was not accepted by the register, and he told me that I had to contact the phone number on the purchase receipt.  By this time, I was fuming, frantically dialing the numbers as I exited the store, cursing under my breath the entire time.  I called the number, only to be told that wasn’t the proper number, and that I had to call yet another number.

Little did I know that the second phone call would connect me to the bossiest, bitchiest, rudest woman I have encountered in years.  She was VERY nasty to me and kept interrupting me as I told her the situation.  It took everything in me to remain calm as I spoke with this witch.  She explained that Michael Kors was franchised, yadda yadda yadda…but all I cared about was, would they allow me to return the item?  Finally, she stated that the Hudson Group would issue a return, provided I sent numerous specific images of the jacket, a pic of the receipt, and proof that I had been in Japan from March 5th through March 19th.

I sent all the information over, then heard absolutely nothing.  So I re-sent the emails from a different email address, thinking maybe there was an issue with the email server.  Still nothing.  I called her once again, and she got nasty with me, stating that she hadn’t received my emails, and why was I wasting her time?  Then she provided a different email address when I implored her to do so, and I re-sent all emails from two different email servers once more.

Once again, I heard nothing.  So I sent the Hudson representative another email yesterday, marked urgent, which asked her to please get in contact with me if she received that particular email.  She called me today, stating that she had only received the one email, then started yelling at me, stating that I hadn’t followed directions, that I was wasting her time, and that she didn’t have to help me at all.  When I tried asking her to check her spam folder, she interrupted me, started yelling again, and HUNG UP ON ME.

I re-sent all the emails yet again, from both email servers, this time with hands shaking in rage.  Imagine my surprise when she responded and said that she received all my emails, FINALLY!

This battle isn’t over yet, though.  Tomorrow I will mail the jacket to her office, at my expense, and wait to see if a refund is actually granted.  This woman should NOT be in customer service.

UPDATE 8/10/2020:  I finally received a refund several days ago!

 

Gustatory Challenges In The Land Of The Rising Sun

A lovely sashimi lunch in Tokyo…

The biggest bucket list destination on my list has always been Japan, so when I finally went there in March of this year, I set out to absorb as much of the country as I possibly could, traveling through Northern, Central, and Southern Japan over the course of 14 days.  I had a bit of a concern about encountering odd food items, but since I grew up eating Japanese food, I felt pretty confident that I would fare well through most of the trip.

One of my favorite Japanese food items, umeboshi

There are many Japanese food items which I love to eat, and some of them are comfort foods for me.  Things like manju, chawanmushi, umeboshi onigiri, tsukemono, and just plain old gohan (rice) give me a sense of great joy whenever I eat them, because they take me back to my childhood.  I knew that I could always order my favorite food items without any issues.

Overpriced imported strawberries and tomatoes

One thing I noticed immediately was that the sashimi I ordered in Japan was not only far superior to most of the sashimi I have had in the states, it was also much cheaper.  What would cost me about $25 in the U.S. ran only $11 to $13, and the fish was incredibly fresh and flavorful.  The food items which were outrageously overpriced were imported fruits like baby watermelon ($15), strawberries ($30 for 6 jumbo fruits), tomatoes (also $30 for 6 large fruits), and I wasn’t interested in those items anyway.

I wasn’t about to limit myself to safe food items like sashimi and ramen, but I also had some trepidation about encountering bizarre, Fear Factor type foods. What also added to the challenge was the fact that some restaurants which didn’t give a hoot about gaijin (foreign) customers refused to put out menus in any language other than Japanese.  So I struggled to decipher a few menus while I was in Japan, searching for the kanji and kana I knew, like 肉 (niku, or meat), 魚 (sakana, or fish), ご飯 (gohan, or rice), and 野菜 (yasai, or vegetables).

The first evening I was in Japan, I walked to a quaint little restaurant near the hotel I was staying at in in Ota-ku.  The proprietors were lovely, gracious, spoke a bit of English, and also served a tasty chirashi bowl which I happily devoured.  I was tempted to return to the same restaurant the following night, but I wanted to explore, and ended up in a very bizarre restaurant which featured the first nihongo-only menu.  The instant I walked in, the proprietors and guests all stared at me, making me very uneasy.  At that point though, it was late, I was hungry, and I needed to eat, so I put up with the icy reception.  One table in particular was quite loud, and one middle-aged man clad in manga covered pajama pants was making the most noise at that table.  He kept talking and cackling while taking long drags off his cigarette, creating clouds of off-putting fumes which wafted over to where I was sitting.  There was no way I would have a relaxing evening at this place!

The proprietress handed me a menu and mumbled something very rapidly in Japanese, then shuffled off hurriedly.  I took one look at the menu, took a deep breath, then scanned the menu for kanji I could recognize.  I ended up ordering a bowl of rice, tsukemono, edamame, gyoza, and a whole fish which was so tiny that I had to order 3 more to fill up on the meal.  The food was ordinary, unimpressive, and it was incredibly expensive.  Thank goodness I was leaving for Sendai the following morning!

On March 9th, I took the shinkansen from Haneda Tokyo to Sendai, and once there, I was determined to have a bowl of ramen.  I had fantasized about eating ramen while in Japan, and I wasn’t about to wait any longer.  Luckily, I was able to find a tiny yet popular ramen house in Sendai, and I was rewarded with a spectacular bowl of ramen.

Later that evening, I became hungry again and began to scan the area for a place to have dinner.  My travel companion noticed a restaurant which was perched on the second floor of a building and suggested we try it, so we trekked upstairs for what would become the most bizarre and costly meal of the entire trip.  The menus were only in Japanese, and the waitstaff spoke absolutely no English.  We ended up ordering sake, rice, gyoza, sashimi, chicken skewers, and tsukemono.

The menu at a small restaurant in Sendai

The tsukemono, sashimi, and chicken skewers were not what we were expecting, and our taste buds were definitely offended by the experience.  The tsukemono featured vegetables like eggplant which, in our estimation, does not produce an ideal pickle, due to its mushy texture and bland flavor.  Next was the sashimi, which included some very strange seafood selections which were a very different texture and flavor from what we have enjoyed, even in other restaurants throughout Japan.  Let’s just say there were some neglected morsels of seafood after we relinquished the plate.

Lastly, there were the chicken skewers, which were also quite surprising.  There were eight skewers, but only two had chicken muscle meat, and those two consisted of chicken thigh and not chicken breast.  Two skewers were chicken skin, two were chicken kidney, and two were chicken gizzards.  I was a sport and ate one kidney skewer, but I could not tolerate the gizzards or chicken skin, and my buddy wouldn’t touch any of them.  We learned our lesson from that restaurant and avoided ordering any chicken skewers for the remainder of our trip, because we noticed that all chicken skewer dishes in Japan seemed to include the undesirable organs which we were served while in Sendai.

The next day, I had another bizarre food experience which almost completely turned me off from ikura, or salmon roe.  I visited the Mitsukoshi in Sapporo, and saw numerous vendors selling the bright orange, salty roe which was my grandmother’s favorite.  I alighted upon one vendor whose ikura looked especially fresh, and was offered a sample, which was absolutely divine.  I promptly selected a tray and paid for it, not noticing the mentaiko which was also on the tray.  For those of you who don’t know what mentaiko is, just click here for a description.  Despite the fact that I had only heard about mentaiko, and didn’t know that it was sold with the roe sac.  I quickly found out that it was tough, rubbery, very strong in flavor, and so disgusting that I spat out the first bite, drank a bunch of green tea, then brushed my teeth to get rid of the taste.  They say that people either love or hate mentaiko, and I found out I am definitely a hater!

 

 

ALL The Ramen!

Sendai ramen

As a result of my Japanese heritage, my palate has always been primed for ramen.  I’m not talking about the economical dried version which has become a rescue meal for most monetarily challenged college students (admittedly, I availed myself of this habit when I was a struggling college student and also holding down two jobs).  I’m talking about authentic, Japanese ramen which can be found in ramen houses in Japantown areas around the United States, as well as ramen shops and yatai (stalls) throughout Japan.  A steaming bowl of authentic Japanese ramen is a masterpiece, full of slurpy golden noodles, briny broth, meat, and vegetables, irresistible and unforgettable.

There are over 32,000 ramen houses throughout Japan, and there are enough ramen varieties and regional variations to steep your fascination for this delectable soup.  It is quite common to see long lines of people spilling onto the street in anticipation of a bowl of heaven from the more popular noodle joints.

In the months leading up to my trip to Japan, which took place in March of 2020, ramen was the dish I was the most excited about eating while in my maternal grandparents’ native land.  Even though I am supposed to avoid wheat and eggs, I was NOT about to deprive myself of ramen while in Japan.  I ended up paying the price every single time I consumed a bowl of ramen, developing abdominal cramping within 20 minutes after ingesting each bowl of those incredible noodles.  Then the next day, I was ready to eat more ramen, even though I knew full well that my belly would writhe in digestive protest.

There wasn’t a single bowl of ramen I had while in Japan that was less than spectacular, and I truly got a kick out of the bizarre yet efficient way in which most ramen houses had their patrons order (basically, you order from a station and pay through it as well, without any human interaction).  I was also intrigued by the distinct regional variations which popped up depending on what prefecture I was visiting.  Curious about the main types?  Click here to learn more.

Sapporo Ramen…miso base with ground chicken, crabmeat

I quickly noticed that in Sapporo, miso ramen was featured in many of the ramen-ya.  And before you think it’s just a basic miso, noodle masters add in fresh garlic and ginger and simmer with pork broth for an unbelievably tasty concoction.

Kyoto Ramen

Kyoto Ramen

I had both shoyu ramen (first image above) and miso ramen while in Kyoto, and loved both.  Then as I headed further south, I encountered creamy, extremely flavorful broth.  In Okayama, I encountered a specific type of  tonkotsu style broth, made from slow simmered pork, but with Okayama-specific seasonings.  Delicious.

Okayama ramen

Then I arrived in Kumamoto, my grandmother’s birthplace, and noticed that the ramen houses featured a very milky, rich, flavorful broth which was also made from pork bones for many hours.  Though I am not a big consumer of pork, I was happy to ingest it daily as part of my almost daily ramen indulgence.

Obviously with all the ramen around, I didn’t follow a low carb diet.  In fact, I had rice balls to snack on whenever I rode the shinkansen (bullet train), and I had a devil of a time finding high protein meals or snacks of any kind.  So I just allowed myself to enjoy the constant carb bump for 2 weeks straight. If you ever travel to Japan, don’t deprive yourself of ramen, rice, mochi, manju, and other carb-heavy foods.  You will be moving around so much during the day that you will burn off the carbs pretty steadily.

Hear About My Travel Promise To Myself On This Toddcast Episode

https://m.soundcloud.com/toddcastpodcast/stacey-naito-ifbb-bikini-pro-made-herself-a-promise-to-travel-every-2-years

Check out this audio clip from a wonderful interview with Todd Hancock on his Toddcast Podcast, in which I talk about the travel promise I made to myself back in 2014. I’ve been keeping that promise and I’m thrilled about it!

Magical Thailand

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Copyright : pakhnyushchyy

Last November I traveled to Thailand with an open mind and no set itinerary, and I fell in love with the country. From the island vibes of Koh Samui, to the many temples scattered throughout Chiang Mai, to the metropolitan atmosphere of Bangkok, Thailand far exceeded my expectations.

There was so much to do and see that the ten days which were earmarked for the trip weren’t nearly enough. Yet my friend Sasha and I were ambitious enough to travel to areas in north, south, and central Thailand, and we noticed differences between the areas.

If you like the idea of being on an island, then you might want to consider island hopping, but make sure that you designate most or all of the trip for the islands instead of trying to conquer areas on the mainland as well. Consider visiting Koh Samui, Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Chang, Phuket, Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Kood, etc.

Here’s a link to an article which describes the Thai islands in a bit more detail: https://www.roughguides.com/article/best-thailand-islands/

When we were on Koh Samui, we drove around the island (which took all of an hour), which was a bit of a challenge since Thai residents drive on the left side of the road, and the traffic is rather haphazard. We spent time on the beach, indulged in fresh seafood, got massages, and relaxed.

After four nights on Koh Samui, it was off to Chiang Mai, where we visited a number of Buddhist temples. As someone who identifies as a Buddhist, I immensely enjoyed honoring the Thai temples and praying to Buddha. Evidently there are over 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. A word of warning though: Do NOT wear anything with Buddha’s image, such as a t-shirt. Thai people take honoring Buddha very seriously, and if you are seen using Buddha’s image as decoration, you could be arrested and thrown in jail!

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Copyright : Sutichak Yachiangkham

While in Chiang Mai, we also spent a half day at Kanta Elephant Sanctuary, where we fed and bathed the elephants. It was a tremendous experience and one which I highly recommend. Another activity which we found ourselves doing quite a bit of was shopping, which was surprising since shopping isn’t exactly one of my favorite activities. However, it is quite an experience to visit the night markets, not just for the souvenirs, but also for the sensory experience. The sounds, the sights, the aromas of Chiang Mai will surround you in such a way that you won’t mind so much that you are sweating through your clothing in the sweltering humidity and heat.

Last stop was Bangkok, where we spent two nights (“two nights in Bangkok”…I know, it’s supposed to be one night…) consuming fantastic food, visiting more temples, the Golden Palace, and getting fantastic massages at Perception Blind Massage. During the earlier part of our Thailand trip, we had made the mistake of going to two different massage places (one right on the beach while in Koh Samui, and the other in Chiang Mai) which were cheaper, but the masseuses were of questionable skill, and the massages were NOT good. But Perception Blind Massage in Bangkok (800 baht for 60 minutes, which is about $28) and Natural Wing Spa on Koh Samui were exceptional and well worth the extra expense.

A Thailand vacation is very reasonable on the pocketbook, so you will be able to explore the country in many different ways without breaking the bank. Typical dishes in most restaurants run around 50 to 80 baht ($1.70 to $2.70 right now), and a GOOD massage will run about 800 baht ($27). Hotels are also very reasonably priced, with a 5 star hotel in Bangkok averaging about $90 per night.