June 30 was Linc’s 11th birthday! We took the high speed train to Kyoto that day and checked into a beautiful hotel with an amazing restaurant. The kids enjoyed a little pool time, and we headed to the restaurant for the celebratory dinner. On the way we ran into a Geisha! The hotel has a Geisha perform nightly at 6pm. We missed the performance the first night but did go back to see it later in our stay. It was really interesting! We did get a pic with the Geisha the first night- probably the only photo of all 10 of us!

Lincoln’s birthday dinner was fun- he of course ate steak. He insists he looks “derpy” in this photo, and while I agree, its the only one I have of him that night.

The next day we set out for Arashiyama, an area of Kyoto. First stop: the Bamboo Forest. This is the kids at the beginning of the day, all refreshed and unaware of the coming heat and humidity that would suck the life out of them over the next 4 hours!

Our walk through the forest led us to the Tenryu-ji Temple. It was truly beautiful. The gardens have survived in their original form since the it was built (1339-1345)! The buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt a few times over the years, the ones we were able to tour date from the late 1800s. I am going to subject you to some scenes of the garden because they are just too good not to….

Here are the kids hanging out in the shade of the buildings- looks like they are discussing life’s big questions ..

With a little luck and a great concierge, we found a dinner spot that had room for 10. This private room was really fun. The kids loved taking their shoes off and sitting on the floor. It was a great Japanese dining experience!

We had to take 3 cabs everywhere we went- this is what happened to the passengers of the first cab when waiting in the lobby for the second and third cab to arrive! LOL. They had a good day.

Samurais and Shibuya

Our third day in Tokyo was a huge winner. We took the kids to the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku.  Shinjuku itself is a crazy area and fun to explore. We were there during the (rainy) day, but at night I am sure it is a neon paradise.

The Samurai Museum was amazing. It was a guided tour- which was great for the kids. Our guide provided interesting historical info while the kids gawked at the legit Samurai armor and swords. The detail on these things were insane, from the knuckles on the gloves to the silk and metal shoulder guards.

Can you imagine going into battle balancing those horn-like things on your helmet? The guide told us these the average height of Japanese men at the time was about 5 feet tall, so helmets like these helped to intimidate enemies. They are actually made of a light weight wood, not metal. But still…..

The museum was really hands on. Such a rare experience and one the kids just ate up. They could touch and try on helmets, face guards and swords. Archer was in HEAVEN.  Probably the first time he has held a REAL SWORD. Literally, I did not think he was going to give it back. Sadly that joy was not photo documented, but you can see the envy on his face below when Lincoln had the sword.

At the end of the museum tour, the kids were able to dress up in Samurai gear and pose with “real” weapons. I think they could have messed around with this for hours. We have about 500 pictures, so brace yourself for more than enough here:

The Janiga girls got in on the action – super cute:

The kids insisted the parents also dress up. We did, and it was pretty funny. Unfortunately the kids were the ones taking the pictures so we look like ghosts in all of them. You get the idea:

When we left the museum we wandered around Shinjuku making our way back to the station. As luck would have it, we (of course) meandered into Kabukichō, Tokyo’s most notorious red light district and part of Shinjuku. Luckily with the Japanese language barrier – none of the kids noticed a thing. Pretty sure this photo was taken at the cusp of Kabukichō. Oops!


After a little rest and pool time, we ventured out to see Shibuya and the famous Shibuya crossing. It is said to be the busiest intersection in the world and that at peak times 1000 people cross the street at every light change. The intersection is one of those all ways at one time pedestrian crossings. It was as insane as it sounds. It was the only time in Asia so far we were actually in danger of losing one of the children…. (well, except for that time in Tokyo when Archer got on a subway car and the doors closed behind him with the rest of us still on the platform – that was a pretty close call too. I try not to think about it…)


The entire Shibuya area around the crossing is the bustling, jam packed neon jungle you imagine Tokyo to be. The kids had meat on a stick for dinner from a walk up meat-on-a-stick window, and everyone was happy.

I’ll leave you with this gem. It’s probably the best photo we’ve taken in Asia. I mean, seriously??? (he was VERY serious about this, did not crack a smile for even a second. Samurais don’t smile apparently…nothing is funny when you’re a warrior.)

じゃあね (jaa ne)

こんにちは (Kon’nichiwa)

We loved Japan!! Our first stop was Tokyo. Such a beautiful city! Our friends the Janigas met us there, making us a party of 10!  I think we lucked out with all the touring/meals working out so well despite our large party. There are a lot of ways a group of 10 people can go bad quickly…

The above pic was taken at the Hozomon near the Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple. We took a boat ride there- which was fun and a nice change from the subway – better scenery! (pic below taken from boat)

On the temple grounds, a kind Japanese man helped the kids with the fortunes. A metal cylinder is filled with numbered wooden sticks. You shake the cylinder until a stick falls out. The number on the stick indicates which drawer you open to find your fortune.

Lincoln got ‘Best Fortune”, the Japanese man was very excited and said it was very rare. Sadly Grayson got a “Bad Fortune”. You keep the good fortunes, but tie the bad ones to the wires to leave the bad luck at the temple. 

Surrounding the temple was an adorable little area that is said to be reminiscent of the Edo Period in Japan. The Edo Period was 265 years (1603-1868) of peace under the rule of the Tokugowa shogunites. I assume they mean the buildings are reminiscent because they have not been knocked down and replaced with high rises. The below pic is a street filled with charming shops and restaurants. This type of thing is right up my alley. The boys, not so much…. thus, our visit was brief! Check out the women in the kimono, there are two in the picture. There were women all over Japan in kimonos. Many are tourists that rent them for the day and wear them around to the tourist attractions. It is elaborate, their hair is done and they even sport the socks with Japanese sandals. There were also older women wearing kimonos, and I have to believe they were not playing dress up….. but you never know.


The second day in Tokyo we visited the Imperial Palace Grounds. You can’t actually access the Imperial Palace. It is still the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. However, there is a lot of wide open lawn on the Palace Grounds that you are actually allowed to walk on! My kids, who have been in some of the largest cities in the world for the last 8 weeks, were in heaven. You would think they had never seen a lawn before.  Archer was leaping around out of sheer joy before they all got down to a serious game of tag.

The highlight of the second day was definitely the late lunch Japanese BBQ. Mike found the place wandering around the alley’s near our hotel. We had this whole cave-like room to ourselves, one end was open to outside and the other end was a mirror.

The kids LOVED cooking their own meat on the grills in the middle of the tables. They were obsessed. The food was really good, but the kids loved it even more because they cooked it. No one got burned – miracle.

One of Linc’s friends from his soccer team happened to be in Tokyo the same time we were! We met them for dinner at a small pizza joint in Roppongi that served gluten free pizzas (more miracles!). Roppongi is a fun area to cruise around, super lively at night.

While not terribly Japanese, the pizza place was a fun night. So fun that Archer fell asleep. Hahaha- shocker!

More about our time in Japan tomorrow!

じゃあね (jaa ne)


Recently in Asia…



We have not been the greatest at blogging lately. It’s been a crazy busy few weeks! The week we returned from Beijing, Mike had a few business trips so it was just me and the boys. Then Auntie T came to visit on 17th! This is the boys waiting for her on the street corner….they were obviously a little excited. We could have waited in the air conditioned lobby or apartment, but apparently that was not good enough. LOL


We dragged her to all our favorite spots – rain or shine (mostly rain).


The Yu Yuan Gardens are always awesome. Walking the gardens in the rain was worth it because it dramatically reduces the number of tourists in the gardens. We got great shots like this with no random people in the background!!


Another from the Yu Yuan Gardens.


Rooftop bar fun on The Bund!


Mike had a business  day trip to Nanjing on Friday, so we all tagged along. We took the train out there. Mike went to his meetings and we had a guide meet us at the station. Bless his heart, but this poor guy knew nothing. Most questions were answered with “I don’t know”. If he did know, it was because he walked over and read the Chinese Tourist Signs and just translated what it said. He could not even help us order at the Chinese restaurant he took us to for lunch! However, it was nice to have a car and driver to take us around, so it was not a total bust. We saw some beautiful and interesting things, like this Buddhist statue rising out of the lake.


We learned about the life of Confucius at the Confucius Temple, but the highlight was banging the drum of course! 

The trip to Nanjing was a funny experience overall, including the miserable moments.  T got to experience the frustration that can be living in China- inability to communicate an order in a restaurant, trying to get train tickets, the heat and humidity, and a general lack of understanding of what is going on around you.

T and I  managed to sneak away on her last day here. Our planned walk was derailed by my poor navigation and then heavy rains. Luckily, we found a cute cafe in which to wait out the downpour, with wine of course!

It was a great week with Auntie T!

Day 1 Beijing

The boys settling in for the 5 hour high speed train ride to Tianjin, our less than 24 hour pit stop on the way to Beijing. Mike had some meetings here. It was a lovely city, but the boys and I did not leave the hotel. We hung out at the indoor pool all morning and were back on the train to Beijing in the afternoon.

Friday was our first day in Beijing and we had a great day of sightseeing. Beijing is so different than Shanghai. Shanghai is all high rises, more like New York. Beijing has almost as many people (22 million), but because city center is considered to be so historical, tall buildings are not allowed. Only in the CBD (Central Business District) are high rises allowed. You can sort of see behind the goofballs the low skyline of the city…

Mike spent the day in meetings and we toured The Forbidden City:

Tiananmen Square:

Beijing hutongs:

And The Temple of Heaven:  At the Temple of Heaven, the boys stood on the spot that the emperors prayed on as it was believed to be a direct line of communication to the god. Not sure these kids were talking to any god, but more than one Chinese visitor snapped photos of them on that stone. Some bold ones even hopped in and took a photo with the boys…. 


Knowing better than to try to navigate Beijing myself with 4 boys- we hired a tour guide for the two days. Jessie came highly recommended and it was the best money ever spent! The boys had a lot of fun with her. 

We would never have been able to cover so much in one day without Jessie. A driver picked us up at the hotel and shuttled us around to all the sights. She knew where to go, where to start, how to get tickets. More importantly, she knew what to skip and guided us toward things that would be interesting to the kids. She shared interesting facts and the history of things so the kids knew what they were looking at. It was also interesting, and good for them, to hear a Chinese person speak about China. It provided a sense of how they see their country and their place in the world. How their history has shaped their feelings on their government and even a little peek at how the Chinese are taught about their country’s history.

Some unexpected highlights were :

  1. How excited the kids were over a jewelry exhibit in one of the gates of The Forbidden City. I could not drag them out of there! Very unexpected. Here is one of a thousand pictures they took, Archer actually took this one. I’ll let them post more…

  1. Lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. We could have NEVER navigated this without Jessie. There is literally not one Chinese dish made without soy sauce (aka gluten). Jessie managed to get the kitchen to cook us some dishes that were gluten free. The boys had fun with the deep fried whole chicken, and I mean WHOLE CHICKEN. I’ll let the boys go into detail…

Below is the very humble mausoleum where Chairman Mao is preserved. Not buried or entombed, but preserved and on display in a crystal case.  It was closed while we were in Beijing. After 40 years, they have to do some work on his body. Apparently the skin needs some refreshing. Perhaps it was for the best we missed it?!?

The boys taking a break in the shade:

It was over 100 degrees and sunny in Beijing that day. They were troopers, it was HOT. Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden are huge expanses of hardscape with no trees and little shade. By mid afternoon we were desperate enough to walk around with umbrellas! While perhaps a little unlucky with the heat, we were so lucky with the air quality. The AQI was under 100. In a city that has been known to reach AQI 800 – that is amazing. No masks needed!

In true O’Brien fashion, the day ended at a restaurant with Archer passed out.

This week in Shanghai…

This is a deceptively calm photo of Qibao, an “ancient” settlement on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is an area that prospered during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. There was some old and beautiful architecture, the canals you see here and tiny alleyways jam packed with food and merchants.  What you can’t see in the photo is the thrall behind me. It was the most crowded place we have been in China yet. Granted – we went on a Chinese holiday (not smart) but word has it that this spot is always crowded. It was hard to see past the mess and chaos to get a feel for the ancient settlement. These two pictures in no way represent what it was actually like!! Not sure how I pulled that off…

It was hot and smelly and I would call the overall outing a bust if not for this tea tasting the boys did. The whole scene literally made the day. The woman was so serious about her tea. She let the boys pick which tea they wanted to taste (fruit tea, of course) and invited them to sit while she brewed a fresh pot.  They loved the tea and the whole experience. Super cute.

The Chinese holiday this week was Dragon Boat Festival, everyone had Monday and Tuesday off. We did Qibao on Monday and decided to just lay low Tuesday, that was the day we took the chess boards to the coffee shop. Wednesday the air quality here tanked so we stayed home. Thursday the air quality was not much better, but we decided to venture out to find air masks since A) the air quality was horrible B) we are heading to Beijing next week and C) I decided the boys need to wear them when they play soccer. Grayson in particular is having a hard time with his lungs so, better safe than sorry. The trip was futile (shocker) and I ended up ordering them online. Nothing is Shanghai is where it is supposed to be and if it is, it doesn’t have what it is supposed to have…

This is the boys this morning at That’s Mandarin, a Mandarin school here in Shanghai.

Mike and I decided that it would be a tragic waste for the us to be immersed in a language and culture for 3+ months and not learn it, so we enrolled in Mandarin classes here (well, the boys and I did). They are so0oo thrilled. I am taking the classes with them, I think it will be fun once we get underway. We start Monday! We were playing with Grayson’s camera while waiting for the Didi (Shanghai Uber) after our visit to the Mandarin School. Didi is another awesome pain in the ass. We can’t live without it, as Shanghai taxis only fit 4 people and you can’t take the subway everywhere, but there’s always some problem with Didi. As you can tell from these photos, we were waiting and waiting and waiting…

This afternoon the air quality improved and the boys got to play soccer while I made dinner. I have come to appreciate how much easier the right tools make things in the kitchen. I finally caved and bought some measuring spoons and cup, a rubber spatula and a cast iron skillet. Next on my list is tongs and I am considering a blender. I know cooking the way I do for our diet is a challenge – but good lord it is much more difficult here. I think everything is more difficult here for six Americans, but so far its all worth it.

Rainy Shanghai

It started raining mid-day. It’s a hot muggy rain like the east coast. None of the boys were sad to bust out their umbrellas…

Now that we have conquered the subway- all of Shanghai is available to us! Which means FINALLY we were able to find a store that sold chess boards!! Perfect timing with the rainy day. The Superbrand Mall in Pudong has a massive Toys R Us. We snagged a monopoly game, UNO, Quirkle and a rubick’s cube while we were at it.

Shopping malls here are insane. They all seem to be at least 7 stories and labrynths of shops you could be lost in for weeks. Here is a shot Mike took of the inside of the ‘iapm’ (a huge mall) in the French Concession.

Today, the metro stop was below the ‘ifc’ (another monstrous luxury mall in Pudong) so we had to go through some of that massive mall in order to get over to another massive mall that housed Toys R Us. I think shopping is a sport in Shanghai. I’d be a winner if I did not have 5 boys slowing me down… 😉


A “normal” day

We needed a break from the tourist circuit today.  We are so lucky that there is a turf outdoor tennis court on the 7th floor – it is PERFECT for soccer. One of the first things we did was get a soccer ball. The boys spent an hour and a half playing soccer on the court this morning. Third day in a row actually.

We had lunch and hit the park for a bit. The boys were literally mauled by some old Chinese men. More photos, more touching. The boys know they can politely decline, but I think they don’t mind the photos. The touching though – that creeps them out!! I have to say, we see lots of little kids (5 or under) around,  but we have not yet seen any older kids or teenagers. Literally not one. Where are they hiding them?

Had groceries delivered and am attempting my second dinner made here in this tiny little kitchen. It’s tiny, but I love it!! 


The first did not go so well.  Fingers crossed this is better.

Here are a few more shots from the YuYuen Gardens yesterday…


Day 4

The boys after a 3 mile trek up and down HuaiHui Lu – the street our building is on and a major destination/shopping street here in Shanghai.

An American we met yesterday told us after living here for 3 years they categorize their days as Shanghai days or Shanglow days. I already get what she means, although I am not going to go as far as saying we have had a Shanglow day yet…

We have learned that nothing is easy to find here. Nothing. Google maps and the internet may say its there….but it is not always actually there. In addition, a particular address might be a 30 story building – good luck finding the one store you want in all of that.  Shops and restaurants could be on any floor and are often not on the street level. Even if you know the shop or restaurant you want is in a specific building like Hong Kong Plaza, you get there to realize HKP covers two entire city blocks. Not that we could read them, but it seems like they don’t have directories. It was a hunt and seek kind of day, that turned up zilch.

Mike had to work today so the boys and I decided to attempt to find a toy store to buy a chess board. We identified a store, had an address, and decided to trek the 1.5 miles, knowing full well it was a shot in the dark. No toy store, 1.5 miles back empty handed. On the upside, we saw another new area of Shanghai and thrilled another street full of people with the spectacle that is the one white woman with 4 white boys.  We get  exclamations of “si ge nanhai” (4 boys) and  “si ge erzi” (4 sons) everywhere we go.  “Shi de, si ge nanhai” (yes, 4 boys) is my response and I ALWAYS get two thumbs up like I did a great job or something. It is funny, but the boys just don’t get what the big deal is.

Despite the long walk, which the boys are getting used to, and the unsuccessful mission – we were still smiling.


First Weekend

This is what the boys looked like by the time we arrived to our apartment in Shanghai at 11PM Friday night.

Thanks to jet lag, this is what they looked like an hour later when we went to get food….

The first weekend has been great. We explored the adorable park across the street from our apartment. The boys particularly love the exercise equipment stationed throughout the park. Yes, the Chinese people actually use it….

There is so much within walking distance and many of the streets are tree lined and beautiful. Bikes everywhere! The yellow ones are available for anyone to use, you text a number and receive a code in return to unlock the bike. Pretty cool system…

We discovered a darling pedestrian only area called Xintiandi with lots of yum restaurants and cute shops. All the trees are key for beating the heat. It’s in the low 80s here and will only get hotter…

Coffee shops seem to be a thing here, we’ve tried 3 so far, this one was a fav and had charming window seats. It’s called Mellower Coffee and they serve the strongest coffee we have had so far….

The apartment is great and everyone loves having views like this from every room.

Happy Mother’s Day to everyone! We’ll be celebrating Mothers Day next week – we need time to find worthy brunch place 😉