Palau and Tokyo; December 31, 2011 - January 2, 2012

With the Mauna Loa climb and Palau scuba diving behind us, we wrapped up our trip with land activities on Palau and a short visit to Tokyo.

We arranged a rental car for our final day on Palau. Our first stop was the Fish 'n Fins dive shop, where we reintroduced ourselves to the owner, Navot. When Alex & Jennifer visited Palau in 1994, Navot had just arrived with his family by boat, and had started a small dive liveaboard business. On our week-long dive trip with Navot we'd had an "incident" -- the boat ran up on the reef in a sudden late-night storm -- so for that reason Navot actually remembered our charter. Since then he's expanded to three liveaboards (and two more kids) and purchased one of the largest dive shops on the island; quite the businessman. Nevertheless he was happy to chat over coffee, dispensing useful advice on dive destinations as well as how to spend our day.

The commercial hub of Palau is on the island of Koror, which connects by bridge to the largest but sparsely populated island, Babeldaob. The "compact road" that circumnavigates Babeldaob is so named because it was built as part of the compact between Palau and the U.S. when Palau became independent in 1995. Our drive around the compact road included some Japanese relics from World War II (photos 1-2), a highly-developed but still enjoyable hike to a large waterfall (photo 3), a visit to one of the few remaining traditional Palauan men's meeting houses (photo 4), and other random stops. We had no trouble filling the day.

We'd planned to just "chill" until our late-night flight, even though it was New Year's Eve, but at some point it became clear we ought to attend the New Year's Eve party at the Taj Indian restaurant. Not only would they be serving yummy Indian finger food, but the owner of the restaurant is bosom buddies with René (the fun-loving cook/divemaster from our boat charter), and the band would be fronted by Navot's son. It hadn't taken us long to discover that Palau is a very small place. The party was enjoyable, but unfortunately we had to high-tail it for the airport just as things were heating up. Our 2012 Happy New Year was spent haggling over seat assignments, although the airline check-in folks did have some small firecrackers they let us set off -- not something one would get the chance to do in an American airport!

As far as flight schedules go, we wouldn't recommend two one-hour flights starting at 1:15am (Palau to Yap; Yap to Guam), then a 7-hour layover (Guam). But there isn't much choice when departing Palau, so between naps on the airport floor and faster internet than we'd had in a while, we survived.

Over the past few years we've been accumulating layover visits to major Asian cities: Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, and now Tokyo. The differences among the cities are striking, with Tokyo specializing in efficiency, modernity, and style. New Years is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan, which worked to our advantage and disadvantage. The highly-recommended tempura restaurant we planned to try was closed, but the substitute was a small cook-at-your-table place that we enjoyed a lot once we got the hang of it (photo 5). January 2nd is one of only two days in the entire year that the inner sanctums of the Imperial Palace (photo 6) are open to the public and the reclusive emperor makes an appearance. (The other is his birthday.) We joined the throngs of Japanese funneling into the grounds in an orderly fashion, through purse-inspection and pat-down stations. When we reached the main plaza, the crowd of thousands became surprisingly aggressive in their attempts to glimpse the emperor's 5-minute speech. But they also waved flags and cheered enthusiastically (photo 7), quite the spectacle. Only Alex with his height advantage got a real view of the emperor over the sea of people -- he's the speck in the center of photo 7, with his family behind bulletproof glass -- but it was worth it for the cultural experience.

The trains and subway system in Japan are extremely efficient, but with only 24 hours from arrival to departure, and the size of the Tokyo area, we didn't have time for much more than dinner, the emperor, and some walking around. Our last hurrah was a delicious traditional sushi-bar lunch at Narita airport (photo 8) before heading home.

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