An InGENEius product

Embarrassing fact: I LOVE Skymall magazine. I’m a frequent flyer, and it never gets old — I’m not one of those people who reads Skymall after they’ve exhausted all other options, I tend to pick it up as soon as I’m in my seat, and pore over every page, often rereading it later in the flight. Of course, I never imagined that among the electric nose hair trimmers, tacky garden statues and pet stairsets that I’d find something I needed to buy.

Yet, about a year ago, I discovered in Skymall the dog DNA test. With a simple cheek swab and $70, the product promised to discern your dog’s breeding. Immediately I knew I had to have it. You see, my family has a very cute mutt dog, and her breeding a topic of frequent and bitter debate. Though the pet store advertised her breeding as “chow, lab-terrier,” my father insists she must be half golden retriever, and we have spent several hours a week debating this point for about ten years now.

You can judge for yourself:

$70 is a small price to pay to irrevocably beat your dad in an argument, and so I purchased the DNA kit, hoping for long-overdue vindication.

Finally the kit arrived, and the family gathered around to swab the dog’s cheek. Naturally, we all had to be present to ensure that neither side unfairly tried to skew the evidence.

After a long wait, our results arrived — Chow was the clear winner, genetically speaking. The rest of the breeds the test picked up were Pomeranian and Husky, both of which are related to Chows. That was $70 down the drain.

The last time I was on a flight, I noticed a new Skymall product, or I guess I should say, I noticed that they have repurposed the dog DNA test for humans. A friend of mine has tried the DNA test offered by National Geographic, which she strongly supported, but I have my doubts.

After all, dogs have been much more carefully bred into distinct genetic types, yet this DNA test was pretty useless. I can’t help but wonder how accurate the human test can really be, but it is exciting to think about the future possibilities for learning family history with the swab of a Q-tip.

A Whale of a Good Time!

Those who know me well know that at least 60 percent of my dreams involve marine life, usually whales, and that a common nickname for me by my family is “whale.” So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lifelong dream of mine has been to go whale watching, and on Saturday, I did!

First of all, what an amazing day, made possible by Monterey Bay Whale Watch, which I can’t praise enough. They have marine biologists on each trip and share tons of information about all the wildlife you see. Plus, the crew was really helpful and took great care of us!

The day started with a delicious breakfast of waffles and strawberries — don’t forget this, it’ll come up later. After a leisurely morning, Jeff and I headed to Monterey and boarded our small whale watching boat, the “Sea Wolf II,” a humble vessel that looked like it had seen better days.

From the very outset, the trip was great. There were several otters in the bay, and though I didn’t get any good pictures, they were approximately this cute:

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The Monterey harbor is just lovely, with lots of boats that look like this:

In addition to otters, we also saw sea lions and seals:

The sea lions had taken over this wall of the harbor and were having a nice old time sunning themselves and splashing in the water.

Once we got into open water, the numbers of cute animals went down, but we still saw some albatross and pelicans.

It took us about forty-five minutes to get out to the whale migration highway, and though the day was clear, there were huge swells. I actually didn’t mind too much, and the pay off was great! We ended up seeing several different groups of whales over the course of the three-hour trip.

All the whales we saw were gray whales, which are no longer endangered and are currently migrating north. Did you know that gray whales only feed half the year? It’s true! Pretty incredible, but they go thousands of miles north to Alaska on empty stomachs!

After about an hour, the swells finally got to me, and I got gloriously seasick. Remember how I said breakfast would come up again? Well, it did twice with a vengeance. I actually didn’t mind too much, because it tasted good the second time around — more or less like a Jamba Juice actually — and as Jeff pointed out, the strawberries turned my upchuck a lovely shade of magenta. Plus I’d like to think that the sea creatures got a chance to have a taste of my delicious waffles and strawberries, a rare divergence from seaweed and krill.

Despite the seasickness, I LOVED my whale watching trip, and I think I’ll go again some time. But of course, the next time I’ll take some motion-sickness medications ahead of time to avoid the impressive puke fest that occurred this time. See how much fun were having?

At any rate, I highly recommend everyone try this! Whale watching was so fun, and March is the month to do it. If you go in summer, you can also see blue whales and humpback whales, so get out there!

For the romantics

The Beatles, I Will

Yesterday Jeff was playing the Beatles song “I Will” to me, and the lyrics just spoke to me in a completely surprising and delightful way.

Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to I will

For if I ever saw you
I didn’t catch your name
But it never really mattered
I will always feel the same

Love you forever, and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we’re together
Love you when we’re apart

And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you
To me ah, you know I will
I will

I’ve always found it to be a sweet and endearing love song, but this time it just hit me that it’s about the beauty of animals who pair bond for life.

There is a little bird singing his song, and there’s only one other little bird in the whole world that hears his song and thinks it’s beautiful. And though those two little birds may not know much else, they know they’re a pair, and they’ll be together for life. And every spring, they will sing their little bird songs together, until they grow too old to sing.

Today in the park I saw a male bird singing and displaying his magnificent flying skills in hopes of finding his mate. He was ducking and diving, swooping and swirling, and singing his little heart out each time he alighted.

I hope he finds his duet partner soon.

Linus the bandit

These two photos make me happy, because they remind me that even the meekest of creatures can still have his share of wily tricks.

This one is from one of my preferred random photo sites, thisisphotobomb.com. That dog is totally scoping out eats to steal from the table.

And this is a photo of the Lee family dog Linus, who had in fact stolen a cookie and was reluctant to give it up even after being apprehended.

Kotohira

After leaving Matsuyama, we took a train to Kotohira, a small town famed for its temples. We got in in the morning, dropped our bags and headed out for sightseeing.

The first thing on our list was the oldest surviving Kabuki playhouse in Japan. The theater was built in 1835, and the entire backstage, trapdoors and all, is open for tourists to explore.

The entryway was lined with lanterns, and the doorway was about three feet tall, not sure why…

The interior of the theater is beautiful and really interesting. The in-house guide didn’t speak much English, but he quite bravely pointed out the theaters features for Jeff and I as best he could. The theater had tracks on the ceiling to make actors fly, several trapdoors, and a rotating stage — pretty high-tech for the 1800s! The runway was also made to accentuate the actors’ footsteps, and there were slats across the theater floor so that actors could run through the audience.

Jeff tried out his acting skills… zexy! —random complaint: Jeff packed only one pair of shorts on the trip. The pair that doesn’t go with ANYTHING! sigh —

We toured the backstage, including the basement, where we saw how the various trapdoors worked. The rotating stage was pushed by six men, while various lifts for actors were powered by others. There were several passages around the stage as well, allowing for a variety of ways for actors to have dramatic entrances into the play.

After playing in the theater, we headed to the main attraction in town, a mountaintop temple. The temple was up 876 stairs, but that was nothing after hiking down 8,000 steps a few times in mountains in China.

The temple complex was spread across the mountaintop, so we got to take short breaks by looking at the various shops and shrines on the way up.

The temple was dedicated to the god of the sea, for protection for sailors. The roof was decorated with designs of dragons and waves, really unique! In the past, many people who wanted to make pilgrimages to the temple couldn’t afford to, so they tied an offering around a dog’s neck and through it into the ocean, hoping that passing sailors would find the dog and take it to the temple. I’m not really sure why they could put the money on a raft, instead of killing the family dog, but I guess that’s just my compassion for animals talking.

At the mountaintop there was this cool statue of a fan, for no apparent reason. Too bad it didn’t work though!

After our temple tours, we hiked back down and got a much-needed snack since we’d only had elevensies and no lunch. Ice cream with puffed rice on it seemed to be a town specialty, so that’s what we had.

Then, we did what should be the town’s biggest tourist attraction: fish pedicures!!!! I’d heard about these in the news about a year ago, and have been curious ever since. At $10 for 10 minutes, they were a bit pricey, but how could we resist? If you haven’t heard of these before, you basically put your feet in a fish tank, and fish eat your callouses off. And yes, it was amazing!

My feet are pretty calloused, and the fish loved them.

It really tickles! There were two Korean girls next to us who kept screaming and laughing and carrying on. I managed to keep it mostly together.

The results of the fish pedi weren’t amazing or anything, but it was quite the experience. I’d say I got my money’s worth.

After our pedicures, we still had time to kill before our hostel opened, so we went to the nearby sake museum. It had life-sized models of each step of the sake-making process as well as a lot of sake cups and a sake shop. It didn’t have any English so we cruised through pretty fast.

The museum was supposed to have sake samples, but it was near closing time so we didn’t get to booze it up. Oh well, fun day anyway!

Miyajima

Miyajima, a small island just off the coast of Hiroshima is a tourist hot spot, and with good reason. Imagine the gorgeous jungle scenery of Jurassic Park, combined with deer, monkeys, ancient temples and cute stores, and you have Miyajima pinned down.

The deer on Miyajima were a little less tame and a little more aggressive than the Nara deer. We were warned repeatedly that they eat paper, and would come after us for our tickets and souvenirs. No kidding! The second day we were there, a buck actually climbed up on me to get at my purse, and Jeff had to save me by taking my purse from me and running. Luckily, these deer are pretty short and light, so no harm done, other than hoof prints on the shirt.

“So thirsty! Little help here? I can’t reach the buttons!”

“What they got in there? Cookeez?”

“No… just a bunch of tickets… just as good!”

Our first stop on the island was Senjokaku Temple, also known as the Temple of 1000 mats, built in 1587. It’s actually a partially built temple that was meant to house the sutras from the main temple on the island, but partway through construction the benefactor died, and so it was never finished. The temple has open walls and lovely paintings all over the ceiling, and it has a great view of the ocean.

The views from the top:

Right next to the temple is the Five-Story Pagoda, named for obvious reasons:

After we came down the hill from the temple, we saw a chupacabra hanging around a small shrine. SpooOOooky…

Then we went to the island’s main claim to fame, the floating torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine. We came at low tide, so it wasn’t quite as pretty as it could be, but it was neat nonetheless. While there, Jeff and I admired the wildlife of low tide, including fish, crabs and cranes.

This crane was hunting fish by hopping about in the most awkward manner. Behind it you can see the “floating” torii gate, which actually rests on the sea floor.

After the temple, we went to a folklore and craft museum that is housed in an old merchant’s mansion. The museum has many artifacts from the island’s history, including an old rickshaw, cooking utensils, furniture, jewelery, paintings, books and the preserved interior of both some rooms of the merchant’s home and a more typical Miyjima home.

Because it’s in a home, it also had a lovely garden in the center courtyard.

After touring the museum we got elevensies and saw a neat cookie making machine. The cookies it makes are actually more like sponge cake with some sort of grainy, sweet filling. They’re kind of gross. But we bought some other cookies that were delicious.

Here you can see the cookie dough being squirted into maple-leaf molds, and a dollop of filling is also added.

The cookies travel around in their molds, cooking, and then they’re picked up by a robotic arm and wrapped for sale.

After having some cookies, we started our ascent of Mount Misen, the tallest mountain on the island. First we took a gondola, and then we took a second tram. From that tram stop we had a hike to the very top of the mountain.

It was blazing hot, so even the relatively short hike up the mountain took a long time and contained a lot of grumping by me. The mountaintop is covered in shrines, which provided nice places to rest.

The mountain is also home to many monkeys, whom we were warned about various times. The tram station had free lockers to prevent the monkeys from stealing bags for food.

I accidentally stared one in the eyes, but I didn’t get attacked or turn into stone.

Aw… cross-species de-bugging:

After several hours on the mountaintop, we headed back down on the tram. Right as we boarded the tram, however, Jeff noticed that the key necklace charm he had given me was no longer on my necklace. Jeff made the silver key himself last year, and I pretty am always wearing it, so I was in tears as we rode the tram down. Poor Jeff suggested we go back to the mountaintop and look for it, so we did. Jeff asked many of the mountain staff and even ran up the mountain to look for it while I hiked slowly behind scouring the path for my key. The hike that had taken hours to complete before was suddenly much easier when we had a goal and urgency. Sadly, we never found my necklace, but at least the hike gave me some time to compose myself and get used to the loss. I was glad to lose a necklace, and not a loved one. But I’m still bummed about the necklace, don’t get me wrong.

So, we finally headed back down the mountain. Exhausted, we entered town, which is when I was attacked by the deer. My feelings were a little bruised and I almost cried over being attacked by a usually peaceful animal, but Jeff cheered me up and we got desperately needed dinner.

Miyajima is the lead producer of oysters in Japan, so Jeff got the oyster special, which came with deep-fried oysters, raw oysters and barbecued oysters in the shell. I opted for curry udon, which was delicious as well.

After a long day we headed home and I slept like a rock.

Oh dear! Nara!

A short day trip away from Kyoto lies Nara, a small town famous for its deer and its temples. When Nara was founded, the deer were considered sacred, so they were allowed to live there in peace with the monks. Nowadays, the deer live like fat kings, fed constantly by hoards of tourists. This was probably one of our favorite things to do in Japan so far. We fed the deer, tried out our meager natural horsemanship skills on them, and I guess we saw some temples too, but those were not nearly as cute as the deer.

“U buys my cookie?”

“Grass? Pffft! Give us teh good stuff! We wantz cookeez!”

Jeff communes with the deer:

The ones with antlers are a little scary, because they swing those things around a lot. But the antlers are also really fun to touch — they have the texture of a pussy willow!

Beebs!

OK, now boring temple stuff. This was a neat roof on one of the temple buildings:

This is the center chamber of the largest wooden building in the world. It’s now 2/3 the size it once was. I think it looks like a giant samurai helmet.

Inside the temple is a 16 meter tall Buddha, which is one of the largest bronze statues in the world. It was pretty big, but you can’t really tell from photos.

At the end of the day, we wandered back toward the station, and along the way we found a cicada. Cicadas are a kind of bug that make an incessant buzzing, squealing noise. It was about two inches long, and actually quite pretty, but I think it was dying.

We made the forty-minute train trip back to Kyoto still a bit giddy from all the deer we’d pet that day, and set our sights on the travels to come.

Zhangjiajie, Monkey Day!

The second day in Zhangjiajie we took a two-hour hike through a canyon floor, where we saw lots of monkeys! Regardless of the copious signage discouraging it, the Chinese tourists fed the monkeys, and we even saw some monkeys run down from the hills and try to steal things from the tourists.

The monkey troupes had lots of babies, which were super cute!

Since we were literally the only white people at the park, we were almost as highly sought-after as the monkeys for photographs. I got tired of that quickly. I always wonder what the Chinese tourists do with their white person photos after they go home.

At one end of the valley, there was a gigantic lock for couples photos. It was free, so we all took advantage of the opportunity to experience something truly Chinese. This is the most barf-tastic photo we took:

This bridge had a warning sign that read “limit 20 people, no rocking.” It was as if the park authorities were daring the tourists to do it.

After our morning hike we went to a small restaurant for lunch. In southern China it’s traditional to use your first pot of tea to wash all your eating utensils.

After lunch we started up the mountain. We were really tired from the day before so we took a fast tram up the mountain, but first we had to wait in line again. This time there wasn’t any karaoke, but we did try some weird Popsicles. Beth’s was corn flavor, and Kieran’s was green soy bean flavor. The unanimous decision was that corn was much better.

Up the mountain!

We trekked around on the mountaintop for the afternoon, visiting various lookout points that claimed certain mountains looked like girls, or animals or palaces. Mostly we thought they looked like rocks, and our guide posited that Americans don’t have as much imagination as the Chinese. Here’s Devin at “Cloud-Reaching Pavilion.”

After a long day we went down the mountain on the tram again. Let me tell you, losing several thousand feet of elevation in 2 minutes in a tiny tram is terrifying.


After we left the mountain, it was time to catch our train to Jianxi province, so we headed to the train station and bid our guide goodbye.