There are big plans for this blog!

We might be back in Canada, but I still have big plans for this blog. I think that the best is yet to come, and here is why!

Amazing travel posts!
Editing photos and blogging while on the road is not the easiest thing. I still have 120 days of unedited photos and about twice as many blog posts to go. I’ve kept some of the biggest photo days for the end, and big days mean that we were doing / seeing something amazing. You won’t want to miss these! Here is what to keep an eye out for:

– Indonesia: Rice terraces and white beaches.
– Laos: Monks, temples, waterfalls, rice farming.
– India: Rivers, cows, temples, camel rides, the Taj Mahal, Tibetan flags.
– Turkey: The Hagia Sophia, Cappadocia, wild flowers, Pamukkale.
– Bulgaria: Sofia.
– Bosnia: Nature, war, architecture.
– Croatia: Walled city.
– Greece: Mountain-top churches, ancient ruins.
– Zimbabwe & Tanzania: Luxurious safaris, the big 5.
– Argentina: Big cities, wine, glaciers, waterfalls and mountains. We went there 3 times!
– Chile: Pisco sours, surf beaches, fjords, the W, penguins.
– Uruguay: Old Colonia.
– Paraguay: Jesuit ruins.
– Colombia: Stunning Cartagena, beaches, jungle and sunsets.
– Panama: Jungle, beaches, poison dart frogs.
– Costa Rica: Beaches and jungle.

Tips, tricks, and so much more!
A little “how to” for fellow travelers and those planning a big vacation. There will be some great stuff in there, from budgeting to travels truths nobody tells you about. We’ll also include trip tallies, top fives and other fun reads.

New city, new life updates!
Once our trip is actually over, we will be moving to Kelowna in British Colombia. I will try to blog about starting our new life on a more day-to-day basis, so that these updates are more current.

With all of these great things coming soon on the blog, you won’t want to miss a post. With a combination of back-dated and day-to-day posts going up at the same time, the simplest way to keep up with everything will be by following one of these easy options.

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Keeping up-to-date with blog posts

As you might know, I am far behind in both blog posts and photo editing. I want my blog posts to have pictures to illustrate the stories of the day, but editing pictures take time. Then, there is the issue of internet: uploading pictures in foreign countries also can take a long time, and finding internet itself can be a challenge. When the stars align, I try to post as much as possible.

To keep blog posts in order, I have been backdating my posts. This mean that what happened on say, today, will appear on the blog with today’s date, even if it might be posted months from now. While this works great in some respects, it doesn’t work too well in others. The issue is mainly that I have been blogging certain posts sooner than others, and so things have been getting blogged out of order (yet with the correct date). The result: it becomes really confusing for readers of my blog to see if there are any new posts by just showing up on the blog’s main page.

There are solutions though to easily keep track of new posts, current or back dated:

  • You can subscribe to the blog’s feed via a feed reader. I use Google Reader and I love it: it allows me to easily track and read all of the blogs that I follow in one spot. Otherwise:
  • You can subscribe to the blog and receive blog posts via email using the “Follow Me” feature on the right-hand sidebar on the blog.
  • If you are a WordPress user, you can subscribe to the blog via WordPress using the “Follow” button on the toolbar at the top of the blog’s page.
  • Lastly, I share some blog posts on Facebook, as long as they are noteworthy.

I encourage you to pick a solution that works best for you, and this way you won’t miss a post.

Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged | 5 Comments

Around Nagano | Japan

Today I left Tokyo for Nagano, the home of the 1998 Olympics and the gateway for the Japanese Alps. However, I like Nagano for entirely different reasons. I like how the city can feel like a small town. I like the pedestrian street and the large temple area. I like sleeping in hundred year old buildings and watching the clouds move over the mountains. How you can still discover new things there, even on your third visit. It’s hard to explain, really, but Nagano has a special feel and I just adore it. I will go as far to say that Nagano is my favourite Japanese city.

Nagano is also the main reason for my visit to Japan, the ultimate destination on my pilgrimage. But that post is for tomorrow.

Today I am focusing on everything else that I did in Nagano, that did not involve either food (well, some food) or my pilgrimage.

And so we start in Tokyo, at the Tokyo station, where I managed to find the exact store where I bought an amazing bento box back in 2010, and won the bento box challenge against Travis. Today, even though he was not there, I declared myself the repeating winner of the bento box challenge. Why? Because I just know that he would have lost again. I think supplementing my bento box with some yakitori was a good call. The yakitori even came with a little packet of sauce and a packet of togarashi! (This is fitting, because Nagano is home of togarashi. Today I saw an $18 box of togarashi-flavoured Kit Kat bars for sale in Nagano. Had it not been $18 and ridiculously large, I would have totally gone for it.)

trains kissing - part 2
trains kissing - part 1
bento box win!

Off on the train it was, past rice fields, cities, and roads. I left rainy Tokyo, and arrived to a sunny Nagano. Somehow though on my way to my hotel I got turned around, twice, and did a lot of extra walking. I thought it was a bit odd that I’d get confused somewhere I had already been, but things happen. I made it to my hotel, where I was told that I was too early (I was really hoping they’d bend the rules…) and off I went after dropping off my bags.

By this point, I have to say, my back and legs were hurting. My right foot kept not cooperating, cramping up and causing me to limp. For some reason, somehow, I keep feeling and thinking and acting as though if I just keep going, eventually, I’ll walk this whole back pain thing off. I am probably wrong, but time will tell.

So in the spirit of walking (and killing time before I could get into my room) I headed up to the temples, and sat for a long time doing what I came here to do. Afterwards, and once feeling a little bit better, I explored the little “treasure museum” and the adjoining zen garden found at Daihongan Temple (located just before the first gate of Zenko-ji). The museum part is very small and uninteresting, but every other part of the temple you get to access is quite nice and peaceful.

inside daihongan
inside daihongan

I then walked around a bit more in the touristic temple area, which is a few street wide and contains so many beautiful, old buildings. I also did some more walking, hitting all of the other temples in the area, and simply walking the city streets. I love walking the residential streets in Japan, their tiny lanes revealing so many unexpected, interesting things. Here are some of the nice things I found.

persimmons ripening
sesoninshakado roof detail
engraving found at a small temple
unusual ikebana
temple brooms

I also found a Canadian maple tree in a cemetery, a little piece of home! It had a sign with the Canadian flag and everything. See, you never know what you’ll find!

Speaking of cemeteries, I found a lovely one right across the street to Zenko-ji. It had no English name, and was on no map I had. It was beautiful inside though, with numerous zen gardens with the gravel raked into intricate patterns. I always like walking cemeteries, and this one was no exception. Old tombstones, Buddha statues, what’s not to like? I often find myself feeling like an intruder though in Japan, because so often family members are there, visiting and cleaning their relative’s tomb.

cemetery temple and zen gardens
roof detail
detail of one of the many zen rock gardens
zen garden
buddha with zenko-ji in the background

Finally, once everything started closing down for the evening, I headed back to my room for some relaxation and much needed stretching before heading off to dinner. Here is my room here at the ryokan – as you can see, much bigger than my Tokyo room! It is, in fact, twice as big.

my room at shimizuya ryokan

PS. Look at all those windows! The sun comes up early in Japan, and this makes for every bright mornings. Good thing someone invented eye masks!

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Exploring Tokyo | Japan

I decided to make the most out of the time zone change and woke up at 5 AM this morning to head to Tsukiji market, in hopes of eating at Sushi Dai. I had no interested in seeing the market again really – our visit there last time was enough for me. However, I had heard enough good things about Sushi Dai to make the early morning trek. I knew that I was leaving the hotel a bit late at 5:45 AM, but I figured that I would still be able to make it in to the counter before 2 PM. Yes, lines are that long.

Well, things don’t always go as planned. I arrived at Tsukiji to find it closed for a “fixed holiday”. This also meant that Sushi Dai, along with all other restaurants there, were closed. Lesson learned: next time, check the market’s schedule first.

So I decided to just move on to the next thing I was going to do: a visit to Zōjō-ji temple. You can read about my temple visit here.

While it was still really early, I opted to take the metro to Zōjō-ji instead of walking to make things easier on my back. I also took the metro from there to my next destination: the Imperial Palace.

going home

Now, back in 2005 I visited the Palace and was seriously unimpressed. First, you can’t actually visit the Palace grounds at all (except for 2 days a year): instead, you stand on gravel and look at the moat. However, you can visit the East Garden at the Imperial Palace. Since I hadn’t done that before, I decided to give it a try and see if it would redeem my original impression of the Palace. I will not keep you guessing: it did not. While the garden is free, it’s not all that impressive. In my opinion, there are way better things to do in Tokyo.

castle walls
rock tetris
tea plantation
tea house

After the garden I headed to Tokyo Station, a few blocks away, for lunch. Tokyo station has 3 floors of restaurants, and I was headed to “ramen street” for super creamy tonkotsu ramen (ramen with a broth made out of pork bones). Now, did I mention that there are 3 floors of restaurants? Well, my ramen recommendation came with the name of the restaurant (in English) and the floor. The floor helped (somewhat, as there are also sections to those floors), but the floor maps were all in Japanese. Eventually, I figured the Japanese name by bringing it up in Google map, and was able to find it on the floor map. In all, it took about 45 minutes of walking and wondering around to find the actual restaurant.

But was it worth it: oh yes! The broth was creamy, rich and delicious. The egg was perfection. The pork was tender and flavourful. This was different than ramen I had tried before, but in a really good way. I was blown away by this bowl of soup.

ramen lunch for the win

Here is the information you will need in order to get there:
Ikaruga 東京駅一番街 B1F in Tokyo Station.
See also here for a map and more information.

After lunch I knew that my back needed to rest, and that I had probably done enough for the day. I headed back to my hotel and grabbed some groceries for this evening. I figured that I would still be too tired to walk very far… It turned out that it was a really good idea, because by about 4:30 PM is started to rain, hard. I was quite glad to not have to go anywhere!

In all, I was gone from my room from 5:45 AM to about 2:30 PM. I took as many trains as I could, and sat down a lot. Still, this is Japan, and in Japan you walk a lot. Today my pedometer clocked in at 21,200 steps. At the estimated 2000 steps per mile, this means that I walked about 10.6 miles, or 17 km! That is pretty intense, and my back and right leg are not too happy with it. I still can’t fully straighten my right leg, and I feel as though a nerve is caught in my right ankle, preventing my foot from sitting straight. To top things off, my shoulder feels bruised from carrying my heavy bag, but there is nothing I can leave out of it. Clearly, I am not used to traveling anymore!

Tomorrow morning I head to Nagano, and so this should limit my walking a bit. Here is to hoping!

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Zōjō-ji temple | Japan

When I was putting together my post explaining the reason behind my current trip to Japan, I came across some writing about Zōjō-ji temple in Tokyo (link in original post). As it turns out, this is one of the main temples in Tokyo offering mizuko ceremonies, along with the possibility for families to purchase a mizuko Jizō statue to commemorate their child.

Since I had never been there, I wanted to make sure that I would stop by Zōjō-ji on this trip.

I arrived at the temple at 7 AM, but the temple buildings did not open until 9 AM. This gave me time to eat breakfast, and to watch commuters stop by for a quick prayer before work.

breakfast of champions

{A breakfast of champions: salmon ongiri (rice ball) and a banana.}

It also allowed me to tour the grounds with hardly anyone around. This was a really good thing, because I found it difficult to contain my emotions when I entered the area dedicated to these mizuko Jizō memorial statues. Now, I think it is important to mention for those who do not know that in Asia, there is this concept of “losing face”, and that this is something you do not want to do. Not only does it make you look bad, it makes other people around you uncomfortable. Crying is something that makes you lose face (so would be yelling, or anything that shows a great amount of emotions), so you shouldn’t do it in public. So when I got a bit teary eyed, it was good that no one else was around.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so many statues, all with their caps and bibs and toys. I wasn’t expecting there to be such a vast sea of dead babies. I mean, how can anyone not be sad witnessing such a greatness of loss? Yes, cemeteries in general are sad, but usually people buried there had lived their lives – at least some of it. This was just a large gathering of denied possibilities, a large void.

Some of the statues were new, some were old. Some were well tended, some were neglected. There must have been hundreds… There was also a shrine to pray to, with a Jizō inside and toy offerings in the front. In spite of being so darn sad and depressing, it was also beautiful and peaceful. And they did somewhat cheer things up with all of those pinwheels!

front and back of a mizuko memorial
memorial statues recent and old
mizuko jizo shrine and wishes
mizuko offerings

While there were numerous memorials for the children who never were, the focus here wasn’t on the Jizō deity himself. This site was more of a graveyard, rather than a place to pray. In that respect, this temple did not compete with those I will be visiting in Nagano. Still, it set the tone for my trip, and started the healing process.

Once the temple opened it’s doors, I went in for a prayer and meditation. I did shed a few tears, all the while trying to totally not look like I was crying. Once I was ready I went through the gift shop (you can always buy amulets and charms and souvenirs at temples), and bought a little “self-rightning” Jizō statue (their wording, not mine) to add to my home altar. I also got my first go-shuin of this trip, which will make a nice little memorial for my pilgrimage. (This post has an image explaining the different sections of the go-shuin). Here it is bellow!


I walked around the temple a bit more afterwards, and so here are photos from other areas of the grounds. One thing that makes this temple pretty special is that it stands before Tokyo Tower, a famous Tokyo landmark. Can you believe that of all of my trips to Japan, I had never actually seen it? Apparently this temple makes for a great shooting location at night when the tower is all lit up.

zojo-ji temple and tokyo tower

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My first evening in Tokyo | Japan

I left Texas on the 8th in the early morning and landed in Tokyo on the 9th, in the afternoon. You can read all about the flight and getting into Tokyo here – this post is the second half of my super long day into Tokyo.

After checking in and dropping off my bags, I headed out right away. From the hotel I walked to Asakusa, an area popular with tourists that’s about a 30 minute walk away. The main attraction: Senso-ji temple. I visit every time, because 1) it is close to the hotel, it’s 2) where the better food is around the hotel, and 3) it’s still full of life at night.

I walked around the temple a bit before dinner. Just before leaving the temple, I noticed that everyone was staring into the horizon and taking photos of the sky. It turns out that the full moon had risen, and it was orange and huge! Unfortunately it wasn’t big enough to make any photo attempts worth sharing, especially without a tripod and a bigger lens.

gate at night
pagoda and gate
taking photos of the pagoda

For dinner I stopped for ramen at this tiny shop just off the temple area. This bowl of ramen was really unusual, for two reasons. First, the egg had a double-yolk. Apparently this was a big deal and this restaurant’s signature touch, because it was widely advertized in the window and on the walls (in Japanese only). The egg felt much larger than a regular extra-large chicken egg, but all I know is that they come from somewhere near a mountain that’s 2038 meters tall (a quick Google search turns up Mount Iwate, “one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful mountains”). Perhaps it was a goose’s egg? Who knows. Second strange thing about this bowl of ramen was the addition of lemon zest. At first it was different and fun, but in the end it was a bit too much. Overall though, it wasn’t a bad bowl of soup – just an unexpected one!

ramen dinner

On my walk back to the hotel I went to the shores of the Sumida River (not a big detour really, just one block away from where I was needing to be) to try to get a better shot of that moon. Unfortunately, by that point clouds had rolled in and it has gotten smaller. However, I still took a few pictures because the moon was beside Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest radio tower. We had seen Skytree under construction during our last visit.

everyone is taking photos
sky tree, the moon, the river, and a boat

I made it back in time to the hotel for my scheduled soak in their private bath. Traditional baths in Japan are not like baths back home: here, it’s treated more like a hot pool. You wash yourself first, then you enter this really hot bath that does not get drained. I mean, it does get drained, I just don’t know how often. Anyway, this one is on the top floor with a view of the city, and it’s pretty nice because it is private! In most hotels the bath is communal. After such a long travel day, my tired body really needed that hot bath!

my date for the evening
happy to be here

Now it’s finally time to get some sleep! Hopefully I have a good night’s rest because I have an early date with some fish tomorrow.

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Let the journey begin | Japan

Getting up at 4 AM this morning was only made easier by the fact that I did not manage to get any sleep last night. This seems to be a recurring problem of mine: I have a really difficult time sleeping before a travel day. Usually it’s not so bad, but when you are about to embark on a 21 hour journey just to get to your destination, having had a good night’s sleep helps.

Heading to the airport, I was really worried. Worried about traveling alone – even though I’ve done it before and have been to Japan 5 times. Worried about my back, both for today’s travel day and every day that will follow in Japan. [Because those posts haven’t been written yet, let me explain quickly: I threw my back out in August and learned that I actually herniated a disk. Lots of chiropractor visits, massages, stretching, and reclining later, I was doing fine. Except that a few days ago, I decided to go on a really long walk… and to run part of it… and I hurt myself again.] I was just worried and anxious in general… and I had to keep telling myself that once I land, this will all seem foolish.

So, this is my journey today: Austin to LAX, LAX to Narita, Narita to Tokyo, Tokyo to my hotel. 20 hours of flights, plus over an hour of trains to the hotel.

The first flight went well, even though the seats were ridiculously uncomfortable. The sunrise was amazing, going from this red grow to golden flares. Then the clouds came, and made everything funky. The clouds transformed themselves from peach fuzziness to giving the impression of flying through water. It was pretty cool. I kept shooting the sky on my phone, and made this little movie while eating breakfast in LA. I have to say, that must have been my first video editing experience devoid of cursing.

the first light of the day
strange morning moonscape

In LAX I searched the airport for some (somewhat) private floorspace so I could stretch. My back was really hurting, with a weird pain extending to my right ankle. I have to admit, I made a lot of wincing faces walking to my gate, and even had to stop walking a few times to breath through the pain. Not fun. Not fun either was the total lack of space anywhere to stretch. I had to just do it in public… which felt awkward. But not as awkward as trying to stretch while wearing jeans. What I am grateful for is having had the presence of mind to pack my sarong in my carry on, so I could stretch on top of it. Because let me tell you. I don’t think they know what a vacuum is at LAX.

leaving LA

The flight to Tokyo though was fine. The seats were comfortable. The plane was new, with fancy dimming windows and electrical outlets. They fed us well, although weirdly (breakfast was a ham and cheese sandwich with ice cream, lunch was scrambled eggs). I nearly finished my book. I watched some movies. Now even though I hadn’t slept at all the night before, for some reason I was not feeling tired. I knew that I had to sleep though, so I took some motion sickness medication (it always puts me to sleep), put my eye mask on, and forced myself to sleep. I think that I may have gotten in 5 hours of sleep?

flight progress map

We landed on time and safely. Customs took a long time, but went well. I was out in the amount of time I had anticipated, and had a little bit of time before my train left. I took that opportunity to activate my Japan Rail Pass, and to book my train ticket for Nagano.

The train into town was super easy: I even treated myself to the fasted train and saved myself the extra 30 minutes. I was surprised at how empty the train was – to top things off, no one else in my wagon went as far as I went. I had the whole thing to myself!

made it!
no one else is going to ueno

Finally, I made it to my hotel. My good old hotel, my “usual” spot for Tokyo. It was really nice to already know where I was going, and what to expect. Even though it is located in one of Tokyo’s worst neighborhood (because of the Yakuza – honestly this place is really, really safe – safer than so many other places in the world!), it is relatively convenient and quite affordable.

Here is my room: it’s slightly bigger than a closet but has a lot of storage. Rooms in Japan are calculated in terms of the number of tatami mats they can hold (all mats are roughly the same size): this one holds 3. It’s big enough for me. And brings me back memories from my first trip to Japan: I stayed in a room just like this one back in 2005!

my tiny room

The rest of today’s adventures will be blogged under tomorrow’s date, since landing in Japan resulted in losing a day. See you in the next post!

Posted in Asia, Japan, North America, Post with photo, USA | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments