We landed in Tokyo on June 6 about 2pm and took the monorail, and then the subway, to our AirBnb in Ginza, deposited suitcases, and started exploring what felt like a new planet. Every man wore a white button up shirt and either navy or black slacks.  Every woman wore a white button up shirt and either a navy or black skirt.  All the buildings, residential or commercial, had exterior fire escapes (which seems more efficient than having such rarely used steps inside rent-able, temperature-controlled space, right?).  And the people…so many people.  Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world–nearly 40 million people–and is nearly homogeneous.  It’s absolutely other worldly to behold.  Yet the crime is 1,000% less than it is in the U.S.

All 5 of us were fairly exhausted from the flight and the time change (13 hours ahead of our home time in Atlanta), but we were determined to try and stay active until a reasonable bedtime, so that we could be fairly acclimated the next morning. We walked to the statue of Godzilla in the aptly-named Godzilla Square.  I expected it to be like 10 stories high, but instead it was like 10 feet high:

The adults got coffee somewhere nearby, and then we visited the lower level of Takashimaya, because in prepping for this trip, we watched PBS’s “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” in which Phil goes to Japan, and we wanted to see the 25,000¥ melons from the show.  We picked up some considerably cheaper fruit and desserts for later.

We meandered about the enormous Tokyo Station, letting the children explore shops on “Character Street,” including Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and other weird Japanese characters I can’t (or won’t) remember.

Then we walked to “Ramen Street” (all these “streets” are underground…it’s like  a giant mall underneath all the train tracks) to find some dinner, settling on Oreshiki Jun for some bowls of ramen.  There was a machine just outside the doorway with pictures of dishes outside the restaurant, and potential patrons had to pick their meals, deposit yen, wait for a slip of paper to drop like a Coke can would in a typical vending machine, hand the meal ticket to the restaurant host, and then sit and wait on the food to be brought to our table.  Given our lack of sleep and knowledge of Japanese, this was difficult for us, but the host stepped out of the restaurant and helped us choose.  It was delicious.  Whatever I had, I loved, and whatever my boy ordered but couldn’t finish, I loved even more.  It was so much better than anything I’d ever had called “ramen” at home.

At 7:30pm, we went to sleep.   Or, more accurately, my family went to sleep.

The day before we flew to Japan, I’d had a miserably contentious 8-hour mediation that didn’t settle, and at one point after my client had stormed off to go home, I was talking to her EEOC lawyer about how I had several hours of work to do when I got home (since I’d never made it into the office that day, given I anticipated this mediation would take 3hrs max) plus pack for 2 weeks in Japan, and she said, “They have a lot of earthquakes there…I had to leave early because of one when I went several years ago.”  So, all I could think about from midnight until 3am or so was what it’d be like if our 6th-floor apartment started violently shaking.

At some point, I slept a couple hours, and as the sun shone brightly into our apartment at 4:30am, the whole family was up, bathed, and ready to explore the city by 5am the next day.

We woke up early (and cold) in our tent on Friday, April 6.  It was my 9th soloversary (I like to remember the anniversary of quitting my job and starting my own law firm; it’s also my late maternal grandfather’s birthday), and we had a very difficult-to-book ranger-led canoe trip scheduled for 10am.  But first, we ran to the restroom and to check the inside of my parked car, our youngest following behind nervously.

The reason we were interested in the inside of my car at sunrise at a national park campsite in South Carolina is that my youngest won a Betta fish she named “Blueberry” at church several years ago, and it goes with us on trips that don’t involve airports, so we’d wrapped its bowl in scarves and left it in the car, hoping it didn’t freeze to death in the 40-something overnight temps. Oh, and the fish barely had any water, because its bowl got kicked over on the drive down from Jamestown while riding in the back seat floorboard.

We slowly opened the car door, fearing the worst.  My bride and my 7-year-old kept concerned expressions fixed on the little plastic bowl sitting behind the gearshift as I unwrapped the makeshift insulation.  We looked at Blueberry, who was sitting motionless at the bottom. I raised its tank to my face to get a better look. It wiggled.  Blueberry was alive!  My 7yo daughter beamed.  I started the car and cranked the heat so the fish could warm up and my phone could charge.

We struck camp and reloaded the car, ate Jody-provided eggs and bacon, and headed to the visitor center to get junior ranger workbooks and learn about Atlanta’s closest national park before meeting our guide down by the water.  One of the first things we learned after dragging our canoes into the woods to the edge of the river was that we’d just begun snake mating season, so we should expect to see lots and lots of snakes.  Snakes in trees above us that might drop into our canoes.  Snakes on logs that we’d float by.  Snakes swimming through the swamp in the waters we were about to navigate.  Lots and lots of snakes (including the venomous cottonmouth spotted earlier that week).

Our guide was right.  We hadn’t paddled long before we saw our first snake, a non-venomous water moccasin lying on a tree branch that would be about 6” above our heads as we approached it to float underneath.  Luckily, it stayed put.

We learned about the various vegetation, birds, reptiles, and fish in the national park as we paddled with the slow current.  The temperature approached 80, but the huge cypress trees’ canopy kept us cool.  It was beautiful, serene, and quiet–a peaceful conclusion to our last day of spring break 2018.

Eventually we came to a large fallen tree blocking our path, so we turned around and headed back, passing all the snakes we’d seen before, including a couple who were actively mating during mating season.  Out of respect for their privacy, I did not take a picture of them, but I did snap one of this lazy guy, who was still mateless in mating season.

See him?  He’s lying along the top of the lower log in the shadow of the upper log.  He’s not small.

Eventually, the tour ended, and we went back to the visitor center for the children to get sworn in as junior rangers at yet another national park (and for me to get another passport cancellation!).

Then, it was time to hit the interstate and head back to civilization in Atlanta.  We’d traveled over 1000 miles, saw 6 national park properties in 3 different states, and learned about nature, the Civil War, and our nation’s colonial times before it was an independent country while keeping a small fish alive and maintaining familial affections while in close quarters every day and night.

This was a great week.

We arrived at historic Jamestown as soon as it opened on Thursday morning, exploring the glasshouse and fort buildings before going to the archaearium and visitor center (taking in a 360-degree film there–best NPS movie theater I’ve seen!), where I added a cancellation to my NPS passport book.

The guide walked us through the area where the first church stood–its floor has recently been removed to allow for archeologists to dig below it and discover even more history.  We stood there several minutes, listening to the guide and watching the working archeologists.

We then drove to the Jamestown Settlement area, a “living history” exhibit that included replicas of the Jamestown fort, a Powhatan village, and the ships:  Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant.

Here’s a behind-the-scenes action shot of how the above picture was made:

I found the NPS property (the actual location of the settlement) more interesting, but the replicas/living history Settlement area next door was more fun.  The children loved scooping out the charred inside surfaces of dugout canoes with shells, like the Powhatan did hundreds of years ago.  They got to wear armor, tour houses, and play games as youngsters their age may have done 400 years ago.

That afternoon, we had plans to meet my friend since 3rd grade, Jody, and his 2 daughters at a campground in South Carolina, but first, my son insisted we stop at South of the Border, an area just off the interstate after we crossed the state line; he’d read about it in a quirky “roadside attractions” book he likes to consult any time we travel by car (it’s how we found “Goats on the Roof” on our way to see the solar eclipse a few months ago).

We were in a hurry to beat sunset, as we’ve never pitched our tent in the dark before, but we let the children get pictures with a T-Rex.

Two hours later, we pulled into Congaree National Park, joined Jody and family, and threw up our tent just before dark.  We built a fire with the wood I’d bought at a highway bait and tackle store and had dinner right there in the woods like wild animals.

Since all we’d brought was a tent, sleeping bags, and a 6-pack of Colonial Williamsburg beer, we relied heavily on Jody’s Eagle Scout training and pre-camping grocery shopping to survive our overnight stay in a national park where the overnight low would be mid-40s.

We survived the night.  But would we survive a Friday morning canoe tour during snake mating season?  Find out next time I post!