Tuesday, March 17, 2009

OAT Japan Tour 2009

Preliminary Planning For The Trip

Tour Information and Assistance:

Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) was exceptionally helpful in preparing for the trip. In additional to the usual printed comprehensive itinerary, the tour leader,
Machiko Abe (left), communicated directly with the tour participants by e-mail. For example, she alerted us to last minute changes to the itinerary. Additionally, she provided a link to the Japanese Meteorological Agency’s weekly weather forecast. She gave as an example the planned stop half way up Mt. Fuji where snow was expected. We packed a few extra articles of clothing as a result. (Note: the extra clothing came in especially handy when we were visiting frigid Kanazawa and the mountain villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go).

On-Line Research:

Although OAT includes most meals in the tour price, there were a few lunches and dinners where we were on our own. We had heard horror stories where sit down meals could cost a budget-breaking 10,000 Yen (¥) ($100) a person on up! This convinced Marie to research the Web for (relatively) inexpensive sources of food. These included “conveyor belt” sushi bars, and public food markets located within close walking distance of our hotels in
Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. (Note: We found Google maps are as detailed as those for urban areas in the U.S., including the satellite and street view features. This resource was most helpful in pinpointing some promising purveyors of cheap yet authentic Japanese food.

Currency Exchange:

One decision we made early on was to obtain some ¥ currency in advance. This was due to two reasons. First was the recent extreme volatility in the currency exchange market. In the past month, the ratio varied from 88¥ to 100¥ to the dollar. According to the Narita Airport Web site, the best exchange rate (the higher, the better) was available for travelers’ cheques, issued by the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi; from what we understand, cheques from other issuers may not receive as good a rate. We found that Wells Fargo Bank, where we have an account, offered rates comparable to the cash exchange rate at the airport.

Exchange rate examples-assuming a ratio of 98¥ to the dollar, which were close to actual (March 13, 2009):

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Travelers’ Cheques: 96¥ to the dollar.
U.S. Cash at the airport: 94¥ to the dollar.
Wells Fargo (including small processing fee): 93.7¥ to the dollar.
For comparison, Travelex was offering only 89¥ to the dollar before commissions!

The second reason for having some
¥ currency in advance is to cater to the possibility that we might miss the airport limousine service that OAT has arranged for tour participants. If we had to catch a limousine on our own, we must pay 6000¥ up front for the two of us!

If one needed to convert additional currency, one could use debit-ATM cards (it is said that postal services ATMs are most reliable), at close to the official exchange rate. Alternatively, one could exchange limited amounts of U.S. dollars at banks or hotels, at a ratio close to the cash rate quoted at the airport Web site.

Decision to Bring Only Carry-on Luggage:

We have learned over the years that we should carry as little luggage as possible, even on international travel. This certainly eases the check-in and customs procedures, and eliminates the fees airlines now charge for checked items. The fact that we had only carry-on luggage paid dividends during the whole trip, since larger suitcases often needed to be transported by courier. This was due to the use of trains and small buses with limited luggage space.

Look for our reports and photos of the sights and experiences in Japan!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Anza-Borrego Desert Flower Display, March, 2009

We decided to make a return trip to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to see this year's wildflower display. (See the 2008 Borrego Posting for the routing).

March 6, 2009 was brisk and cool as we left San Diego, and was predicted to be cool in the desert as well. Our first stop, as is our tradition, was Dudley's Bakery,where we bought loaves of Danish Apple Pecan and Sun Dried Tomato bread. Their breads are still offered in 24-ounce loaves for a current price of $4.60 apiece. (They offer a deal where one buys four loaves, the fifth loaf is free). Some changes we noticed since last year's visit: The establishment is now open only Thursday-Sunday, and the business plan now calls for more self-service for walk-in customers.

The Anza-Borrego Desert Visitor Center is an excellent source for seeking out the best blooms, and after obtaining the routing map, we strolled about the grounds. Here are some photos of their representative specimens.

Another tradition for us is a picnic on the grounds of Christmas Circle Park, located in Borrego Springs. This being Friday, we were fortunate to be able to visit the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce Farmers' Market. This Certified Farmers' Market operates each Friday from 7 am to 12 Noon. We had a hankering for fresh strawberries so we bought a basket to supplement our picnic.

After lunch, we drove north on DiGiorgio Road to Desert Garden, located at the mouth of Coyote Canyon. We felt the display was not as showy as it was in 2008, and the ground seemed drier.

On the other hand, flowers along Henderson Canyon Road, where we took these photos, were on excellent display, and the stand of Arizona Lupine near Peg Leg Junction was the most spectacular in recent memory!

We then headed up Banner Grade to historic Julian, where we took time to stroll the main street. One of our favorite hangouts in town is the restaurant, now known as the Miner's Diner. It is located in the Levi-Marks Store Building, which has existed since 1886, and the old-fashioned soda fountain in the photo dates back to 1928. Many years ago, we would stop in Tozer's Drug Store, as it was known then, for their sinfully rich chocolate milk shakes. Back in the 1970s, each shake cost 55 cents; we're sure they are over $5 each in 2009!