A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part II: A Cascade of Christmas

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Oakenwald Terrace

Today the road has brought me to Chatfield, MN.

Welcome to Part II of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  The inn for this trip is Oakenwald Terrace, sometimes known as the Ellen Lovell House, owned and operated by Marion, Bob, and Ruth Ann Lund. When I was originally researching inns for the annual Christmas review, this inn launched itself to the top of my list with its advertisements for how seriously it takes the holiday.  So proud is Oakenwald Terrace of how it celebrates Christmas, that it even hosts an annual open house just so they can show off the inn.  For a Christmas nut like yours truly, it was like ringing the chow bell.  So I booked a stay.

Unlike the wacky weather of last week, this weekend was set to be frigid, but sunny.  Truthfully, this was the most pleasant drive I had enjoyed in a while.  I just felt more at peace than usual and my MP3 player was pulling up some long forgotten classics.  I also had the pleasure of watching the small town Christmases of a number of small towns as I took a scenic route to Chatfield through Fort Dodge to have lunch with my best friend, Josh.

I arrived in town with just a few minutes to spare, but wanted to swing by the old homestead.  When I last passed through in April, I had thought that the people currently living in my old home had finally cleaned up the backyard.  As I drove through the alley, I saw I had been quite mistaken.  All of the overgrowth is simply dead and currently buried under a pile of snow. Ah, well.

Josh and I met at Taco Tico where I enjoyed a few tacos and conversation.  I then suggested that we do a bit of mall walking so I could get a little exercise before driving another 3 hours and to build my strength after a recent illness.  Crossroads Mall was the hangout spot when I was a kid in Fort Dodge.  Not only did it have a stellar arcade in Aladdin’s Castle, but it also did Christmas right for the kids with Santa’s gingerbread castle.  Santa would visit with his kids in the front of the castle while Santa’s talking reindeer, Randolph (Rudolph’s cousin), would visit with kids in the back.

I fear Crossroads is on its last legs.  So much of it is shuttered and it has lost its three major stores of Younkers, J.C. Penney, and Sears.  I would not be surprised to find it permanently shuttered in the not too distant future.

I wished my old pal good-bye and continued the drive to Chatfield.

Chatfield is a tiny town in the Rochester region of Minnesota.  I easily found the house, though the driveway was quite icy from last week’s storm.  I was driving too slow to get up the drive, so I backed up and hit it with a bit more speed and powered my way up.  Keep this in mind for later.

As I walked towards the back door, Bob opened it wide with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the inn.  Once inside, I met Bob’s wife, Ruth Ann, and his sister, Elaine.  Bob and Ruth Ann led me to Mrs. Lovell’s Room, the bedroom of the house’s original owner.

Now I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but I was blown away by the place just from my little walkaround of the first floor.  I had not been in an inn of this type since the Victorian Villa originally stoked my interest in B & Bs way back when.  And every room was jam packed with Christmas.  Trees, decorations, Nativity scenes, Santa Clauses.  You name it.

As I said, time was at a premium.  I had to head into Rochester in order to attend church for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

One good thing about Chatfield is that it has easy access to the highway, thus easy access to Rochester.  The downtown area can be a little confusing as the street numbers repeat themselves, quickly change direction (like 1st St SW to 1st St NE), and transform from street to avenues in the blink of an eye.  However, a good map allowed me to easily find St Francis of Assisi.

It was a nice little church that holds services in both English and Spanish though I suspect Spanish is the primary language as the priest made a joke about the bishop coming for a service so that sermon would be in English.  Father was from Colombia and he used the sermon to introduce a tradition popular in the Hispanic culture.  For the feast of Our Lady from Guadalupe, Hispanic families often take part in “The Night of the Little Candles” where a family will light a number of candles equal to the number of people in the family and place them in the main window of the house.  As such, Father had six candles lit on the altar.

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Rochester Civic Theatre

After church I then headed to the Rochester Civic Theatre in order to review their production of Annie:  The Musical.  You can read my review for it here.

When the show was done, I returned to the inn where I once again didn’t give the car enough juice to get to the top of the driveway.  So I started reversing back down to take another run.  Only this time my car turned sideways and I got wedged in at the bottom of the driveway.  No trouble.  I got out of my car to kick some snow away and rock my way free only to find I had locked myself out of the car.

Luckily, Bob was still up and working as he and Ruth Ann were preparing for a luncheon the next day.  He contacted the police for me and within a few minutes the police had arrived and they managed to get my door open.  Bob then guided me out and I got the running start I needed to get back up to the top of the driveway.

Back in the house, Bob whipped up a bowl of chili for me as I had not eaten any dinner.  As I ate, Bob told me a bit about the house before giving me the formal tour of the house.

Oakenwald Terrace is an L-Shape Shingle Style Victorian mansion which boasts 23 rooms and 10,000 square feet.  It was the dream home of Ellen Lovell who had it built in 1897.  The Lund family has owned it since 1973 and, for the first 30 years of their ownership, Marion Lund operated it as an assisted living home.  In 2003, it was changed into a bed and breakfast and a bit of a living museum famed for its 4 course breakfasts.

After my tour, I finally got a good look at my room.  As I said, I was in Mrs. Lovell’s Room and it had originally been Mrs. Lovell’s bedroom. It holds one of the house’s original 4 fireplaces and the room is as Victorian as you can get.  A comfortable sitting room takes up the bulk of the room with several chairs and a settee.  Behind a screen is a bed with a private bedroom to its left.  I admired my Christmas trees and other holiday items before finally crawling into bed and calling it a night.

In the morning I grabbed a shower and sat down to breakfast.  Course #1 was a tiny dish of raspberries, kiwi, and cream.  Course #2 was a banana pancake.  Course #3 was grapes, ham omelet, and English muffin.  Last, but not least, was a piece of lemon sponge cake topped with an Andes mint.  In short, epic deliciousness and no need to eat again until night.  Bob joined me while I ate sharing stories about the history of the house and neighborhood and the history really adds a vital dimension to the experience.

After breakfast, I went back through the house to finally take photos.  Once I got some posted, I headed back to Rochester where I spent a few hours at The Machine Shed.

This is a tiny vintage arcade where $10 lets you play to your fill.  The arcade does not hold many games though there is an emulator that holds over 400 games.  I played a bit of Shinobi, Root Beer Tapper, Dungeons & Dragons, Sunsetriders, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time.

Where I was done gaming, it was back to the inn for some writing and then off to church at Assumption Catholic in Canton, MN.

My directions were. . .less than stellar.  Supposedly the trip would take 35 minutes, but it was 45 minutes before I even reached the town.  There my directions failed me utterly and it was only through divine aid or utter luck that I managed to stumble upon the church so I ended up being a little bit late, but still enjoyed a pleasant service.

When church was done, I returned to Chatfield where I had dinner at Jac’s Bar and Grill.  The joint was jumping and I managed to get the last booth.  I was told it might take 40 minutes to get food and I replied that I had a book.  I suspected it would take less time as I saw diners leave and not get replaced.  So within 15 minutes, I had my food as the restaurant continued to empty due to an Elvis Christmas show taking place at the local Arts Center a few blocks away.

I enjoyed a Monkey Burger which had ranch dressing, bacon, cheese, jalapenos, and a spicy sauce they called monkey sauce.  It was quite delectable and filled the cavity whereupon I returned to the inn for the night.

The first thing I did the next morning was stoke the fire.  Then I drew a hot bath where I just soaked until the heat was gone from the water.  Feeling refreshed, I was ready for some breakfast.

Today’s meal began with another dish of mixed fruit followed by an apple pancake puff.  Then there was a ham and cheese quiche with a peppermint ice cream cake for dessert.  Another filling meal with more conversation including a couple who were visiting Chatfield for the Elvis show last night.

And so ends this chapter of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  Chatfield is a nice little town with some interesting things to do and is near Rochester if you need some big city fun.  And Oakenwald Terrace should be your lodging of choice as it is a living museum loaded with history.  They do Christmas right.  They certainly do meals well.  The innkeepers are aces in hospitality.  And the inn is just a lovely step back to a less cluttered time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Peaceful Solitude: Beiderbecke Inn

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Today the road brought me to Davenport, IA.

I had just completed my first full stage production in nearly 6 years and I needed a weekend to wind down from it.  How to do just that?  Of course!  Road trip!!

I decided a return trip to Algonquin, IL would fit the bill just nicely.  I could get a little gaming in at the Underground Retrocade and enjoy the comfort and hospitality of Victorian Rose Garden Bed and Breakfast again.

But I needed something for that first night.  A little research led to the discovery of Beiderbecke Inn of Davenport, IA owned by Pam and Dennis LaRoque and the deal was sealed.

Getting out of town was a bit of an adventure.  When I awoke Friday morning, I glanced out the window to check the weather and found Omaha was in the throes of a winter storm.  Luckily the accumulation only amounted to an inch, but the way it was blowing around made it seem a lot worse and cut the visibility down to nearly zero.  A view of weather reports showed me that the storm was localized to the metro area so once I got past Council Bluffs I would be OK, provided that things tapered off by 11am which, mercifully, they did.

It was a little slow going getting out of the city and then my low pressure signal came on.  I rolled my eyes and pulled off to a Casey’s in Council Bluffs to pump up my tires.

After that it was pretty smooth sailing.  My MP3 was pulling up some great long unheard tunes and the driving was smooth after Council Bluffs.  My schedule was thrown off a bit by the slower driving I needed before I escaped winter’s fury so I ended up stopping for lunch later than I anticipated.

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Iowa’s Best Burger Cafe. Don’t be deceived by the appearance as they serve a great burger.

On several occasions I had passed a little gas station/café in Kellogg, IA called Iowa’s Best Burger Café which allegedly served the best burgers in the state and I decided to put that to the test.

The place serves a mighty mean burger.  I had a ¼ hamburger with the works and it really hit the spot.  Juicy, charbroiled, and just flat out good.  A side of crinkle fries completed the meal and it does come with a beverage, too, albeit no refills.  So if you’re hungry and you are close to Kellogg, IA, this place is definitely worth a visit.

From there, it was back on the road until I reached Beiderbecke Inn.

The inn is located in Davenport’s historic neighborhood and had been the dream home of Charles and Louise Beiderbecke who made their fortune selling groceries and coal wholesale.  Their home is built near the bank of the Mississippi and has a beautiful view of the river.

Beiderbecke Inn is a Victorian mansion and a classic B & B.  Stepping inside made me feel as if I was transported to the inn of The Boscombe Valley Mystery of the Sherlock Holmes tales.  I was greeted by Pam and I met her grandchildren (both official and unofficial) as they practiced a dance routine in the massive greeting hall.  The bottom floor includes the hall, dining room, library, den, and billiards room.

After paying for my stay, I met Dennis and was led to the Victorian Room which had the two things I needed for a bitterly cold night:  a fire and a Jacuzzi tub. I heaved a contented sigh and set up for the night.

Due to the lateness of my lunch and the cold outside, I decided to stay indoors for the night.  I thumbed through the impressive DVD library and selected Maverick.  I then finished a novel, started the electric fire, and drew a hot bath.

The bath felt great as the gentle jets soothed my weary body and reactivated my tired mind.  I stayed in the tub until I soaked up all of the hot water.  Then I went through my nighttime ritual and got under the covers to watch the movie, but didn’t get very far before I conked out.

The next morning, it was time for breakfast.  Waiting at the table were goblets of orange juice, milk, and water along with a dish of berries (strawberries, I think) mixed with a cream that made them oh, so sweet and tasty.  The main course was an omelet stuffed with peppers, onions, and bacon which served as great fuel for the road.

If you’re in the Davenport, IA and want to stay in a classic B & B, Beiderbecke Inn is definitely the inn for you.  And, as we’re close to the holiday season, I’m told the inn looks particularly nice at Christmas.  Hint.  Hint.

Until the next time, happy travels.

I Never Promised You a Victorian Rose Garden: Algonquin, IL and Victorian Rose Garden B & B

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Today the road has brought me to Algonquin, IL.

A trip to this region had been steadily growing in my mind for the past few months.  I had actually been in this area back in 2015 when I stopped in the village of West Dundee, IL en route to a review of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.

I had been talking about the locale with a friend and started to reminisce about the fun I had in West Dundee.  The vintage arcade.  The lovely meal at The Village Squire.  The awesome elegance of The Mansion.  I began to get the itch to revisit the place.

I tried to convince several of my friends to go, but one had just got back from a trip while another was getting ready to take a small family trip and the other simply wasn’t interested in going.  I really didn’t want to go alone. . .unless I could stay at a B & B.

I contacted The Mansion to find out if they had any available rooms towards the end of August, but was out of luck.  Acting on an idle thought, I did a search on B & Bs around the West Dundee area and found one for the Victorian Rose Garden in Algonquin.  Then I checked to see how far Algonquin was from West Dundee.  Hmm, only 4 miles.  Did they have any rooms available?  Yes, they did.  I immediately booked the Presidential Chamber for what I would dub the Decompression Trip.

After the end of a hard month which included beginning rehearsals for my first full scale production in almost 6 years, I was ready for a trip.

Unlike my other trips where I take a day off to make the drive, I actually began this one after work on Friday.  The plan was to drive to the Iowa City region where I would stop to rest for the night before finishing the journey the next day.

I had thought to drive just slightly past Iowa City and find a decent place outside the hubbub of a major city, but fate decided to call my bluff as I had difficulty finding any inn, let alone a decent one.  I ended up driving nearly an hour longer than I planned and ultimately stopped in Walcott, IA, home of the world’s largest truck stop.

As I hoped the world’s largest truck stop held a pair of hotels, one of which was a Comfort Inn (bada book bada boom!).  It was a tiny hotel (only 3 floors), but I got a room on the top floor which I prefer on the rare occasions I stay at a hotel.  For an extra $5, I was able to get a king bed and I heaved a contented sigh as my eyes alighted on a small, but comfortable room.

I still needed to eat, but, as the hour was late, I stopped at a nearby Arby’s for a sandwich before returning to the hotel for a bath and a good night’s sleep.

And it truly was a good night’s sleep.  I awoke truly well rested and even had the benefit of having a hot breakfast at the hotel where I enjoyed a pair of sausage links with a biscuit and gravy and some apple juice before heading off on the road again.

Driving the extra hour ended up being a good decision as it not only got me closer to my destination, but helped me stay on my schedule as this route was still doing construction as they were back in 2015 which slowed me down a bit.

About 1pm, I had arrived in West Dundee and immediately made a beeline for the Underground Retrocade.  For those of you reading my blog for the first time, the Underground Retrocade is a vintage arcade where you pay $15 and get unlimited play for the day.   Some new games had been added since I had last visited including. . .a Dragon’s Lair cabinet!!

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Dragon’s Lair. The greatest video game of all time.

Dragon’s Lair is my all time favorite video game and revolutionized the industry when it came out in 1983.  It was the first interactive animated movie and told the tale of a brave, if slightly clumsy, knight named Dirk the Daring trying to rescue Princess Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe.  Make the right move at the right time and you get one step closer to the dragon’s lair.  Make the wrong move and Dirk meets an untimely demise.

This was not the original game.  Rather, it was the officially licensed 2002 Limited Edition reproduction of which only 400 discs were made.  This version included the deleted opening scene on the drawbridge as well as some slightly different timing and moves.  The cabinet also included the original prototype version which has a slew of deleted scenes as well as the games Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp.  I didn’t reach the lair, but had fun playing.

I more than got my money’s worth as I played pinball versions of Ghostbusters and Doctor Who.  I also served drinks in Tapper, fought Bluto and the Sea Hag in Popeye, and conquered Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp, Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, and Altered Beast as well as dabbled with Crystal Castles, Rampage World Tour, Fix it Felix, Jr., and Track & Field.

About 3:30pm I headed for the village of Algonquin.  As I arrived, I was shocked to see the massive amount of construction being done in the little village, but easily worked my way around it until I found the Victorian Rose Garden, owned and operated by Sherry Brewer.

I rang the doorbell of the inn and glanced around the neighborhood.  As I turned back to the door, Sherry’s smiling face had suddenly materialized in the window and the surprise nearly gave me a heart attack.

While my pumper reset itself, Sherry let me into the inn, led me to the Presidential Chamber, and gave me the nickel tour.  I put my normal explorations on hold as I headed for worship at St Margaret Mary.  This was a very nice and quaint church which holds a Polish service at the second Saturday night service.

It was a moving event which brought back memories of going to church back home in Fort Dodge as we sang hymns that I haven’t sung since my childhood.

After worship, I headed to the Colonial Café and I was starved.

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Colonial Cafe

I actually felt the need for a small appetizer so I opened the meal with a small cup of cheddar cheese chowder which had an interesting, but tasty, flavor especially with a dash of pepper.  My main course was a Smokehouse BBQ burger which was hearty and juicy and really hit the spot.  While I ate, I read The House of Brass by Ellery Queen and met an elderly gentleman who liked the fact that I was reading a book as opposed to being glued to a cell phone.

After dinner I headed back to the inn, where I had some chocolate chocolate chip cookies and a cold glass of milk.

With that dessert, Sherry turned down my bed and left me to my devices.  I went around the inn taking pictures (the last set I will take with this camera as it’s falling apart).  The house has an understated elegance not unlike visiting Grandma’s house with a music room, gorgeous dining room, and a living room that is almost like stepping back in time.  It contains an old-fashioned barber’s chair along with a cupboard of shaving mugs, an old-fashioned gumball machine loaded with marbles, and a rocking horse.

The Presidential Chamber, where I stayed, boasts a very comfy king sized bed as well as some nice easy chairs, a fireplace, a mounted flatscreen TV, and a bathroom with a clawfoot tub and shower and even a bidet.  After a long day of driving and activities, I was more than content to simply put my feet up for the night and write and post pictures before drifting off to the land of Nod.

I slept all the way through the night.  When I woke up, I got a shower and a shave and was ready for a good meal.

And that is exactly what I got along with some lovely company in the form of Mike and Sue of Ohio and Tone and Yvonne of Stockholm, Sweden.  For breakfast there was water, orange juice, and coffee along with an appetizer of fresh fruit, cinnamon scones, and banana nut bread.  The main entrée was French Toast croissants with Granny Smith apples, scrambled eggs with home-grown vegetables, and thick slices of bacon along with a heaping side of conversation which Sherry joined in on.

All too soon the conversation and the meal had to come to an end.  In hindsight, I wish I had another day to spend here for there are still activities to partake of, but I suspect I will be back again, hopefully with friends to really expand on the fun.

But if you’re in the Algonquin region, spend a night with Sherry at Victorian Rose Garden B & B.  It’s a inn as pretty as it sounds with fabulous food and company and quite a bit to do in the region as well as being a hop, skip, and a jump from Chicago.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Desert Wedding: A True Arizona Chronicle

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Mat O’Donnell and Carolyn Langlois

Life is ultimately about the stories we make.  Currently I’m on a plane heading back to Omaha from the wedding reception of a good friend.  Originally I thought that I would not be writing this one up, but last night I realized it that it is the real life stories we make that are most worth sharing.

My friend, Mat O’Donnell, has been mentioned in this blog before under the guise of Arizona Mat for my faux adventure series, The Arizona Chronicles, but let me tell you a bit about the real Mat.

I’ve known Mat for nearly 18 years when a mutual friend introduced us a few weeks after I graduated from college.  Mat and I struck up an instant rapport as we had a number of similar interests.  He also shares my somewhat off kilter sense of humor.  Over the past two decades, Mat has become one of my closest friends.  We’ve shared a lot of happy times, a lot of fun times, and some heavy times as well.  He’s my most frequent traveling companion as we have gone all over the globe from Las Vegas to Tokyo.   One would be lucky to have a friend even half as loyal as Mat.

About 5 years ago, a promotion took Mat to Phoenix, AZ.  That one choice brought a plethora of good things for Mat including a wonderful woman named Carolyn Langlois.

I still remember the night that Mat told me about Carolyn.  I was in Abilene, KS reviewing Abilene’s Victorian Inn when I decided to FB chat Mat since I hadn’t spoken to him in a little spell.  We were talking about a mystery/puzzle game we both were playing and then he said he hadn’t been able to finish it as he’d been a little busy lately and then he posted a picture of himself and Carolyn.

I was beyond excited for Mat as he had long deserved some happiness of this type.  Giddily, I asked him about the whole story.  Who was she?  How did you meet?  Etc.  Etc.  I could hear the glee in his voice as he shared his tale of how the two of them met.

About six months later, I finally got to meet Carolyn and I knew that Mat had found his soulmate.  In less than ten minutes I realized that Mat had found someone that completed him in every way, shape, and form.  Over the next year, their deep love grew only deeper and suddenly a wedding was upon us.

Now Mat and Carolyn actually married on October 26 which was the anniversary of their first date.  But the reception was held on November 5 at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix.

On November 3, I found myself heading to Eppley Airfield for a non-stop flight to Phoenix.  Now I’ve enjoyed an unusually long streak of successful or even more than successful flights so I was long overdue for a bit of difficulty.  Just before I reached the airport, I felt my phone vibrate and found that my flight was delayed for nearly an hour and a half.

Not too terrible and I had a novel with which to occupy myself.  Then just before boarding would begin for the delayed flight, a Southwest employee changed the 8 to a 9.  Another hour delay.  Then they announced that the delays were due to runways at Sky Harbor International being shut down due to construction and a ripping thunderstorm over Phoenix which was preventing any and all flights from landing.

Finally at 9pm, we finally boarded the plane.  I was grateful for the gain of 2 hours as it was only about 10pm local time when I arrived in Phoenix.

I called the Crowne Plaza which would be my temporary home and they said they get a shuttle to me in just a few minutes.  Their word was good as gold as a shuttle pulled up to the pickup curb within ten minutes and whisked me a mile down the road.

While I prefer B & Bs, I do admit that I had long wanted to stay at a Crowne Plaza.  This particular hotel had recently undergone a multimillion dollar renovation and looked brand new.  As I checked in I was ecstatic that my standby for an upper level floor had been approved.

This hotel took its security very seriously as you couldn’t even use the elevator without a room key.  I zipped up to the 8th floor and found myself with a comfortable king sized bed, a spectacular view of downtown Phoenix, and a nice office area.  I also found myself with a door that didn’t latch too well unless you slammed it.  After beating my door in a wrestling match, I closed the thick drapes and crawled into bed for the evening.

I awoke the next morning and headed down to the gym for a workout.  The gym was not too bad with free weights, balance balls, treadmills, and elliptical.  I exercised for 40 minutes then returned to my room for a hot bath with a less than cooperative drain before spending the morning thumbing through my novel or finding something interesting on TV.

Around noon, Mat and Carolyn came to pick me up for lunch and we caught up on the goings-on of our lives since we last met.  We ate at Four Peaks Brewing Company where I enjoyed an Oatmeal Stout and a Mexican chicken wrap.  Carolyn had chicken rolls and Mat noshed on chicken wings.

During lunch, Carolyn suddenly got an “I’ve got a great idea!” look on her face.  It turns out that an old friend of her mother wanted to throw a dinner party for Mat and Carolyn.  One of the guests was going to be unable to attend so Carolyn suggested that I take that person’s place.  Mat and I both thought that was a great idea so we drove back to the Crowne Plaza where I grabbed my dress clothes and we returned to Mat’s house.

I spent the afternoon helping Carolyn tie jellybean bags for the reception and catching up on things with Barry, Mat’s father, and John Velasquez, an old friend of the O’Donnell family.

Around 5pm, we piled in Carolyn’s vehicle and drove deep into Scottsdale to the home of the Haggertys where the dinner would be held.  I met Carolyn’s father, Joe, who was a hoot and his girlfriend, Fran, who was a delightful conversationalist.  I also met the Haggertys and a number of other of Carolyn’s relatives who were truly wonderful people.

The home was gorgeous with a beautiful fire pit, an impressive infinity pool, fine works of art, and quartz rocks peppering the abode.  The event began with conversation, cocktails, and light hors d’oeuvres of prawns, cheese, and crackers.  We enjoyed a fantastic sunset as the sun dropped below the horizon backlighting the Black Mountain.  As the stars and planets became visible, we headed inside for the dinner.

Dinner began with a terrific salad which was followed by roasted carrots, chilled pea salad, and a main entrée of chicken and mushrooms.  For dessert there was an absolutely delectable mint chocolate ice cream cake.  After that, there was more conversation before we broke up for the evening.  Joe and Fran were gracious enough to give me a lift back to my hotel where we chatted and listened to opera music on the long drive.

The next morning I decided to give the hotel restaurant, The Post, a try.  The prices were about what I expected for a hotel and the food wasn’t too bad.  I had orange juice with Eggs Benedict which I spiced up with the hotel’s homemade salsa (which was excellent) and a splash of Tabasco.

Around noon, I was joined by David Sundberg, another long time friend of both Mat and myself.  Dave was planning on turning the reception into a week’s vacation so he had rented a Mustang for himself.  And this puppy had some serious horsepower and Dave REALLY likes horsepower.

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Dave and his Mustang

Dave was starving so we found a nearby In N Out Burger where we munched on cheeseburgers done animal style and with animal fries.  Afterwards, we drove around a bit and found a flea market which brought Dave a lot of joy as he likes looking for hidden treasures.  And I’ll be dipped if he didn’t find some Viking horn glasses which he turned into a wedding present for Mat and Carolyn.

From there we drove to Dave’s hotel to pick up his dress shirt and killed a few hours at Castles N Coasters.  I won a large amount of redemption tickets, bested Dave in Mario Kart, and made a stupid mistake which permitted Dave to top me in Connect Four.  Dave and I donated the remnants of our game cards to a group of kids, then drove to my hotel to change into our nicer duds before we went to the Desert Botanical Gardens for the reception.

I’d like to visit the Gardens again when there’s more time as it was absolutely stunning and a very popular place for receptions as 4 were being held there that evening.

It was a truly magical night.  Carolyn looked resplendent in her wedding dress and Mat was quite dapper in his tuxedo.  The bride and groom shared some touching words about why they were spending the rest of their lives together.  Then toasts from the audience were opened up and I even offered one of my own, the bulk of which you actually read in my opening paragraphs.  After that it was a dinner of salad with a chipotle dressing, mixed vegetables, spinach stuffed chicken breast, risotto cakes, and a beef cutlet.  Then came conversation, dancing, and a little Mat and Carolyn trivia game.

All too soon it was time to call it a night as Dave’s internal clock was still two hours ahead and I had an early morning flight the next day.  I said my good-byes and was driven back to Crowne Plaza by Dave.  I shook his hand and wished him a fun vacation.

I’ll carry the memories of this trip for a long time and look forward to the next visit with Mat and Carolyn.

Until the next time. . .

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 14-15: At the End of the End

And then there were three.  I just finished walking Mat to the train station as his flight leaves at about 10am.  For the remaining three of us, it’s going to be a long day of waiting at the airport.  Their luggage is too heavy to lug around to explore more of Shinagawa and we get the boot from our apartment at 10am.  But I get a bit ahead of myself.

On our last full day in Japan, we left our oh so wonderful house in Kyoto and boarded another Shinkansen which rocketed us back to Tokyo, specifically Shinagawa.  On the train we discussed what we wanted to do.  Originally, Mat (feeling much better) had hoped to visit an onsen or Japanese hot springs.

In years gone by, this was a luxury that would ordinarily be denied to Mat due to his tattoos which were traditionally taboo for onsens.  Japan has begun to lighten up on that decree especially when it comes to gaijin (outsiders).  Though Mat was feeling better, his feet were badly blistered from all of the walking around we had been doing and feared they would not let him in.  Dave was not really interested.  Amy was and so was I.  However that desire was tempered by the knowledge that getting to the onsen would have resulted in a 3 hour round trip train ride. After spending 2.5 hours on the bullet train, I decided I didn’t really want to be trapped on a train for another three hours, especially when I had a 9 hour flight to endure the next day, so I declined.

Instead, we deposited our bags at the train station and went to visit Shibuya.  Shibuya is a famed shopping mecca and is also famed for the legendary dog, Hachiko, and for having the busiest crosswalk (6 ways) in the country, possibly even the planet.  Amy went to do some shopping at the famed Shibuya 109 while the rest of us killed some time at yet another arcade.

With that done, we caught the train to Shinagawa where we would spend our final night.  The place wasn’t too bad and was the first home that actually had some beds.  However, the bathroom was a mold ridden mess.  We spent a few hours relaxing before we headed out to a final group dinner.

We ate at Tsubame, located at Shinagawa Station.  This was easily the best meal we had during the entire trip.  We had two plates of incredible scallops for appetizers and they were basted in garlic and parmesan cheese.  For myself I enjoyed salmon meuniere and had a rare indulgence with a black beer called Kostritzer.

Mat had to get up at the crack of doom so we turned in not long after our dinner.  Being an early riser, I walked Mat back to the airport before returning to pack everything up.

For us, we’ll head to the train station at 10am and catch the Narita Express to the airport where we’ll be in for a long day of waiting before our flight boards at 4pm.  For me, once I recover from the jet lag, it’ll be back to business as usual.  I’ll have about a week off before it’s back to the business of theatre with 2 reviews waiting for me at Omaha Community Playhouse and a special invitation from the Barn Players Community Theatre.  Then I hope to return to the stage myself.

But with these final words, it’s time to officially bring this adventure to a close.

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 11-13: Kicking Back in Kyoto

Day 11

It was time to bid farewell to Hiroshima and begin the next leg of our journey.  So we hopped on the bullet train to begin the trip to Kyoto.

Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and is famed for its numerous shrines (in excess of 1,000!!!)  We had comfortable reserved seating on the Shinkansen which almost felt like a first class trip this time and made it to Kyoto in short order.  A brief ten minute walk led us to our new temporary home.

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Our home in Kyoto.

This was easily the favorite of our lodgings, though we still have one more to visit before this trip is done.  This house was luxurious and could easily accommodate 4 people.  We had a den which held a massage chair to soothe those sore muscles.  A nice living room/dining room area with TV.  A laundry room with a combo washer/dryer unit.  We even had an electronic bathroom with a talking tub.  This tub will fill a hot bath for you at the push of a button and recycle the water to keep it hot during the duration of your soak.  We also had a comfortable upstairs loft.

It was a relief to set down our things and unwind for a bit.  Then some bad news hit.  Mat was ill.  With our guide and resident translator down for the count, I became the de facto guide for our journey for the next couple of days.

In the evening we walked to Aeon Mall, a high-end shopping center near our house to find some dinner.  They had a food court on the fourth floor with a wide variety of food which I was glad of.  I’ve enjoyed the food over here, but I’ve noticed that the menus tend to be similar from place to place unless you hit up a fast food joint.

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Aeon Mall

I found a curry restaurant and ordered chicken in a spicy curry with rice and water for my dinner and enjoyed a tangy, tasty meal.  Afterwards we found yet another arcade and Dave won some more prizes and was now in dire need to buy a new suitcase since he had purchased or won so much stuff on our trip.  Getting one at Aeon Mall was out as its high-end nature made the cheapest bag a mere $200.

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Spicy chicken curry and rice

We put that problem to the side and returned to the house for a well deserved rest.

Day 12

Another Sunday in Japan meant another day without church.  But, again, our little group of 3 (Mat was still unwell) went to a couple of Kyoto’s famed shrines and temples.

We found a little one at first and it seemed like a christening or blessing was taking place for a newborn.  When the new family left, I walked into the area, but the monk held up his hands (a local sign for no) and I stepped right back out.

It was a quick exploration and then we came to Toji Temple.  Now this was an impressive site and dwarfed Meiji Shrine in terms of size.  The hallmark of this Buddhist temple was a 6 story pagoda.  They also had some worship areas and it was very calming to hear the chants and intonations as the worshippers sent prayers to Buddha.  Due to the holy ground, photos were not permitted inside the worship areas, but they had some beautiful statues and art pieces.  They also used a very potent incense which quickly drove me back outside.  Strong incense and I are old foes as I’ve had some fainting spells when exposed to it especially when combined with my other nemeses, high heat and humidity.  I was feeling a little heady and sat down for a moment to clear my head.

When we were done looking around, we stopped at a little restaurant near to our house called Tenkaippin, which ended up being another ramen restaurant.  I had a light and refreshing Assari soup which was made from chicken stock and vegetables and a soy sauce broth.

We returned to the inn after picking up some soup for Mat and relaxed for the afternoon.  As I feared, my exposure to the incense played havoc with my head and it was pounding.  I took a pair of aspirin from Dave and then collapsed for a 2 hour nap.  The combination of aspirin and rest did the trick as I felt remarkably better after I awoke.

It was dinnertime so I led the group back to Aeon Mall where we ate at Kitano Grill and this was probably the best meal of the trip due to its variety.  This menu was unlike those of other restaurants and I ended up choosing a delicious chicken and rice casserole which hit the spot.

With full stomachs, it was back to the house to close out the night.

Day 13

Mat had a little of his vim and vigor back and it would be needed as we would be taking a half-day sightseeing tour that morning.

We went to our meeting place and hopped on a bus that took us to Nijo Castle to start the tour.

Nijo Castle was once the home of the shogun, head of all sumarai and the de facto leader of Japan.  The emperor ruled politically, but the shogun was viewed as the true ruler due to military might.  Nijo Castle really wasn’t a castle, just two sets of large buildings called palaces.  The inner palace was being renovated so our tour was limited to the gardens and outer palace which were both quite impressive.

Like Toji Temple, pictures were forbidden inside Nijo Castle, but there were some beautiful paintings inside and the most interesting thing were the nightingale floors.  Nightingale floors were a security system of feudal Japan and they sing like nightingales when you walk on them.

We spent an hour at the castle before heading to Kitano Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine.  I was surprised to see that, in structure, there is little difference between a Buddhist shrine and a Shinto shrine.  The only real difference is that prayers in a Buddhist shrine are offered to Buddha and in Shinto they are offered to nature.  Again, we enjoyed the beautiful architecture for an hour before heading to our last stop.

Our last stop was the Golden Pavilion, known for its lush gardens and a golden pagoda.  Once more, we spent an hour admiring the gardens, especially a 600 year old bonsai and the gorgeous structures on the grounds.

After this stop, a hard rain began as the result of another typhoon working its way across the country though it’s supposed to clear in a short time.  Our bus took us back to our starting point and Dave took advantage of the shopping center to find a third piece of luggage to lug his swag back to the States.  He was able to find one for the more reasonable price of $98.

Lunch was next on our minds and we found a kaiten belt (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant, not only to have something a little bit different, but would be fair to Mat.  Since you are only charged by the plate, Mat would pay only what he felt equal to eating since his appetite was still tanked.

I enjoyed salmon, shrimp, and roast beef variations of sushi which perked me up.  A veritable cloudburst erupted during lunch so Mat and I walked home in the rain while Amy and Dave went to visit Aeon Mall and the shopping center at Kyoto Avanti respectively.

Mat rested while I conducted some business for my impending return to the States and wrote up this article.  The rain seems poised to keep us indoors for the rest of the night, so only 1 full day left to go before this epic journey reaches its conclusion.

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 9-10: Take the Last Bullet Train to Hiroshima

Day 9

Our time in Kawaguchiko had come to an end and now it was time to do a bit of cross-country travel.  We would be traveling over 1,000 miles to visit Hiroshima and to do so we would need to take the Shinkansen, better known as the bullet train.

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The Shinkansen (bullet train)

The Shinkansen travels at speeds of 200 mph and its truly amazing to blur past buildings, people, and cars while traveling at a rate of over 3 miles a minute.  Before we boarded the bullet train I purchased a famed meal of Japan:  eki-ben (or the bento box).  Eki-ben is essentially a pre-packaged meal.  I picked up one with rice, chicken, pickles, dumplings, and some type of vegetable.  I was also amused by the Smurf-sized bottle of soy sauce for rice.  There was also a tiny packet of hot mustard and I mean HOT.  A little of that stuff went a long way.  I had a pinprick’s worth of the stuff and it cleared my sinuses.

The ride was comfy and fun as I watched the country fly by.  I had to time my photos very carefully so they wouldn’t become a blurry mess.  Amy had the most interesting travel partner as she was seated next to a Buddhist monk and they had a most engaging conversation.

About 4:30pm we arrived in Hiroshima.  We hopped a light rail and rode to the neighborhood where our next apartment would be located.

Our apartment in Hiroshima was well taken care of, but, man, was it tiny.  Supposedly it could sleep the original 6 who were to be part of our group, but getting the four of us in was a rather tight squeeze.  I found it difficult to believe that one person could live in this apartment for an extended period because there simply isn’t much room.

There wasn’t much on our minds except to explore the city a bit.  I was struck by the impressiveness of the city when most of the city had been wiped off the map nearly 70 years prior due to the dropping of the atomic bomb.  This was something we’d learn more about the next day when we visited the Peace Memorial.

Our group visited the main drag where we found a little toy and hobby shop that boasted a retro arcade on the second floor.  Now this was an arcade that suited me.  Pac-Man, Vs. Super Mario Bros., Rygar, Space Invaders:  these were games suited to my tastes.  I passed a bit of time playing Popeye while the rest of the group wandered about the store.

Food was the next thing on our minds so we found a Lotteria’s.  Lotteria’s is kind of an upscale burger joint.  I had a DX burger and fries which were OK.  I didn’t think the quality of the food matched the price.  From there it was more arcading, then back to the apartment for rest.

Day 10

I had washed my clothes in the apartment’s washing machine and left them to dry overnight.  With all the heat and humidity we’d been facing, I’d forgotten how good a fresh pair of clothes could feel as I dressed that morning.

We lounged around for most of the morning before getting some lunch at a nearby KFC.  I had a simple chicken sandwich with some Coloneling potatoes which wasn’t too bad.  After lunch, Mat led our little group to the Rihga Royal Hotel where he and Dave stayed 4 years prior.  It seemed quite luxurious and boasted an impressive staircase in the lobby.

After that we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial which made for the most moving day on this journey.  I can’t properly express the feelings I had as I walked around the museum, but it was very eye-opening to learn about the dropping of the atomic bomb from the point of view of the victims.  The exhibits were quite powerful, sometimes even grisly, as we were educated about the effects and impact of the bomb.  Several people working at the museum were survivors of that tragic day and hearing their stories added a depth and texture that I will never forget.  It was a moment I was glad to have experienced.

At the end of this haunting experience, we hiked back to the main drag where we stopped at Mister Donut for a chewy treat and then gamed a bit more.  Then we returned to our apartment to drop up the prizes of the others and burned a couple of hours before heading out to dinner.

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Mister Donut

Hiroshima is famed for its okonomiyaki, but we didn’t get to eat any.  It was nearly 9pm when we ventured out and none of us knew that Hiroshima closed up early.  Most of the restaurants closed about 9pm so we were forced to visit a McDonald’s before returning to our apartment for the night.