11 Jun

6 Things to do in Stratford Ontario

Matt and I recently visited Stratford Ontario for a weekend getaway. It’s close by (only a few hours drive from Windsor, and there’s even a direct bus from Detroit and Toronto), Matt has never been, and we thought it would be a cool place to see.

We spent 2 nights in Stratford at the Forest Motel and were able to keep ourselves relatively busy all weekend with theatre and eating and shopping and swans and yoga and boating and chocolate.

If you’re interested in taking a trip and are not exactly sure how to keep yourself occupied, here’s my recommendation for 6 things to do in Stratford Ontario:

See a Play

Kind of obvious. In fact, that’s probably why you’re planning a visit there in the first place.
And if you’re going to see one, why not see two? The Stratford Festival has a packed schedule of plays and musicals in the summer, up to 5 a day, so there is a lot to choose from.Hamlet - Stratford

Matt and I saw Hamlet. Not to be confused with Macbeth which, when we purchased our tickets, is precisely what we did. Imagine our surprise when there were no witches.

I’ve been to the Festival Theatre a few times and never had a bad seat, including that one time I was sitting in the nosebleeds and literally got a nosebleed (but that’s a story for another time). So you can still have an enjoyable experience in the cheap seats.

(Bonus: If you’re under the age of 30 you can score tickets for $15-$35 on the Play On Weekends.) 

This time, however, we splurged on front row tickets which were so close to the action that I was afraid of distracting the actors by putting on a sweater when I got chilly.

Make Chocolate

The candy-making workshop at Chocolate Barr’s was our favourite part of the weekend. Derek, the head candy-maker, taught us how to properly temper chocolate by hand, how not to burn chocolate (which, as I learned, I do all the time), how to make chocolate bark, and how to make truffles.

We came home with everything we made, which was a lot, and consumed it way too quickly to be socially acceptable.

Chocolate Making at Chocolate Barr's

Our truffle making skills were weak and the resulting truffles hideous in comparison to the stuff sold at Chocolate Barr’s, though we could spin it as “rustic, hand-dipped, and artisanal” and the hipsters would love it. They were delicious regardless.

Derek gave us lots of samples of the Chocolate Barr’s products, answered my million and a half questions about his shop, and only made fun of us a handful of times in the process.

Highly recommended.

Call or e-mail the shop in advance to organize a time. It’s $75 per person and totally worth it.

Stroll

Stratford Avon River Walk

Stratford is a beautiful place to stroll, particularly along the Avon River. I say stroll because the pace is leisurely: partly to accommodate the abundant waterfowl, partly to observe the beauty, and partly because of the geriatric nature of the patrons.

The river stroll is really quite nice so it’s no wonder it is so popular with tourists and locals.

If you walk far enough west along the river, away from the downtown and the theatres you’ll find the Avondale Cemetery which has some prominent local individuals going back to the late 1800s. You can even take a self-guided heritage walking tour of the cemetery. Or should I say strolling tour?

 Afternoon Tea

In Stratford eating is an event in itself. The restaurants definitely cater to the theatre crowd and offer really high calibre meals but I didn’t find the price points totally out of reach. We dined at Mercer Hall, Pazzo Taverna, and Canadian Grub and I didn’t have a meal that I disliked. (Tip: it’s a good idea to make reservations for dinner pretty much everywhere, especially on Saturdays)

My favourite meal was at The Parlour Inn where we had afternoon tea with an abundance of sandwiches and scones and spreads and pastries. But of course I’d say this, being the Anglophile that I am.

Afternoon Tea Stratford

The Parlour Inn has afternoon tea service on Sundays from 1-4pm for the very reasonable price of $22 per person. They used to have it posted on their website but don’t appear to list it any more. Either way, you need to call ahead to book a reservation.

Take a Yoga Class

Of course I’d say this. I actually managed to convince Matt to take a yoga class with me while we were in Stratford. We took a Hot Yang/Yin class which was exactly what my body needed though Matt is not a fan of the slow pace of Yin practices.

Downtown Stratford has two studios, Moksha Yoga Stratford, where we took a class, and Yoga Collective.

Drop in rates are $21 and $18 respectively.

Canoe/Kayak

The Forest Motel, where we stayed, was on a tiny lake and they had canoes and paddle boats available to use for free to people staying at the hotel so Matt and I took advantage.

You can also rent canoes, kayaks, and paddleboats right on the Avon River in the middle of town at Avon Boat Rentals for $15-$23 per hour depending on the type of vessel. If you don’t want to do the paddling yourself, they offer river cruises for the reasonable price of $7.50.


 

06 May

How to Buy Greek Ferry Tickets

Around this time of year when everyone is organizing their summer vacations, I often get e-mails from people reading  my blog for tips on planning a trip. I get a lot of questions, especially about Tobermory and Crete and Norway. I am by no means an expert but I do a LOT of research for every vacation that I plan so I do end up with a wealth of knowledge on certain destinations.

The most recent question I received was from Jacquelynn about travelling the Greek Islands:

Hi Samantha. I came across your blog and I enjoyed it very much. I’m definitely going to try and accomplish your top 5 list. I was wondering if you knew a site or the easiest way to island hop. I’m going to GREECE come this August. I’ll be visiting Crete first then Santorini, and lastly Milos. I was wondering if you knew how much ferries cost and if you have any advice on where to buy tickets. Thank you so much for your time.

Chania Crete (50)

Hi Jacquelynn

First of all, I haven’t been to Milos and know nothing about it. I HAVE been to Crete and Santorini and loved them both though, I must say, Crete has a very special place in my heart. Good choice.

Thankfully, I keep a repository of years worth of plans, websites, travel times, prices, and itineraries handy to revert back to at times like these.

Back in 2012 we paid 48.60 euro for a 2-hour Seajets ferry from Heraklion, Crete to Athinios Port, Thira (Santorini). Prices these days for that trip are closer to 60 euro.

The best website for helping you plan your island hopping is www.gtp.gr. It includes ferry times for all the major lines like Seajets (mentioned above), Hellenic Seaways, and ANEK Lines so you can compare what works best for you schedule.

Note that not all ferry trips between two destinations take the same amount of time. Some ferries are highspeed while others are not. And some routes might include stops at other islands before your destination. Be sure to compare travel time as well as departure time.

The official departure times for summer aren’t posted on gtp.gr until May or even June for some lines, but you won’t have trouble booking a ticket even a couple of days in advance for most ferries.

You can buy the tickets online for most ferry lines or if you want to buy them last minute, they are available from certain travel agencies in major cities. Check out the line’s website for info on the agencies that sell tickets.

I hope that helps!

And if you’re looking for more information on places to visit and things to do in Greece, check out my other posts:

Santorini Travel Tips

Top Things to do in Loutro Crete

Travelling to Heraklion Crete

Top 5 Things to Do in Chania Crete

Safe travels!

29 Sep

Japan Shrines and Temples

Which shrines and temples to go to and which to skip in Japan, based on my personal experience. Here goes. . .
(click to enlarge photos)

Tokyo

Senso-Ji Temple

Located in the Asakusa neighbourhood of Tokyo, Senso-ji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple and one of its most important.

Senso-ji

Why should I go?

Senso-ji is a large and significant temple to see. The temple is busy so you can witness first hand how the faithful observe their religion and pay their respects. However, you can find spots around the large grounds that are quieter and peaceful.

The main street leading up to the temple is lined with shops so if you like browsing for souvenirs this is a good place to visit.

The temple is located right near Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo’s kitchenware neighbourhood. Who doesn’t love shopping for kitchenware? (The answer you are looking for is: no one)

It’s free.

Senso-ji

Why should I skip it?

If you dislike crowds of tourists, this might not be the place for you.
So. many. people.

Senso-ji

Meiji Jingu Shrine

This Shinto shrine from 1921 is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife. It is located at the centre of a forest near Harajuku in Tokyo.

Meiji Jingu

Why should I go?

The huge torii gates that mark the sacred ground are majestic.

The large grounds surrounding the shrine are covered by forest making the Meiji Shrine a refuge from the busyness of the city. It’s a good place to go to get away from it all.

The shrine itself is less busy than the Senso-ji temple, so you can appreciate it without having to fight the crowds.

You can see huge barrels of sake and wine that are donated every year to the shrine.

It’s free.

Meiji Jingu Sake Barrels

Why should I skip it?

You probably shouldn’t.

Meiji Jingu

Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

This Shinto shrine is located between the Gion and Hagashiyama districts of Kyoto making it a popular spot for both locals and tourists.

Yasaka Shrine

Why should I go?

You’ll see a number of young women dressed in traditional Japanese dress, praying and paying their respects at this shrine. It’s worth the experience.

There are a number of lanterns through the buildings of the shrine grounds. If you go at dusk or night you can see them illuminated.

It’s free.

Yasaka Shrine

Why should I skip it?

I don’t think I’d go out of my way to get here, but if you’re in the area (which you probably will be, as the nearby districts have loads of tourist attractions) then why not?

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto shrine dedicated to Inari, the god of foxes, rice, and business.

Fushimi Inari

Why should I go?

This shrine is SO cool. The shrine itself is at the base of a mountain and includes 4kms worth of trails up the mountain that are tightly lined with bright orange torii gates.

You’ll never see anything else like it.

It’s free.

Fushimi Inari

Why should I skip it?

It takes about 2 hours to walk the trails and walking up mountain can be strenuous.
If you just walk in the lower part of the trails, you’ll encounter massive crowds and miss some of the serenity of the torii gates.
If you are able though, you really should make this a ‘must-see’.

Fushimi Inari

Sanjusangendo Temple

This is an iconic Buddhist temple in Kyoto is known for its 1,001 life-sized wooden statues of the goddess Kannon.

Sanjusangendo

Why should I go?

It’s phenomenal to see 1000 identical statues liked up like this. You’ll be impressed, I promise.

Sanjusangendo

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

You can’t take any pictures of the statues. (Though, probably not a valid reason to skip). You probably should put this one on your ‘must-see’ list too.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Located in Arashiyama, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a temple for veneration of the supreme Buddha surrounded by some of the nicest gardens.

Why should I go?

The gardens are beautiful and are original to the temple in spite of losing the buildings several times to fire. They include a large koi pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees, and mountains.

Tenryu-ji Temple

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

Nanzen-Ji Temple

Located in Kyoto this is one of the most important zen temples in all of Japan.

Nanzen-ji

Why should I go?

The wooden Sanmon Gate that marks the entrance to the grounds is a large, beautiful structure and you can actually climb up the gate’s balcony.

There are several halls, temples, and gardens on the grounds that you can choose to visit for an extra fee like Tenjuan Temple, the Hojo, Nanzenin Temple, and Konchi-in Temple each with beautiful rock gardens. We visited Tenjuan Temple.

There’s an unexpected Italianate aqueduct on the temple grounds that makes for fun photo-ops.

You can visit Nanzen-ji then walk the canal-side “Path of Philosophy” to another popular temple, Ginkaku-ji.

Nanzen-ji

Why should I skip it?

The grounds are free but visiting any of the temples and gardens will cost you.

Ginkaku-ji Temple

Kyoto’s Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple originally built as a shogunate residence modelled after Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion.

Ginkakuji

Why should I go?

The meticulously formed “sea of silver sand” and the sand cone in the gardens are amazing, and easily the most impressive things you’ll see in any garden in Japan.

There is also a beautiful moss garden with ponds and streams.

Ginkakuji

Why should I skip it?

It’s not free.

It’s not actually silver.

Only the grounds, not the pavilion or the hall, are open to the public.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, is a former residence of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and currently is a Rinzai Zen temple. Its top two floors are covered in gold and the roof is crowned with a golden pheonix.

Kinkakuji

Why should I go?

It’s actually gold.

It is situated on a large pond and the sight of it is awe-inspiring.

Kinkakuji

Why should I skip it?

It’s slightly out of the way in that there aren’t many tourist attractions nearby. But there a few city buses that will take you right there.

It’s not free.

The gardens aren’t as nice as Ginkaku-ji, but you’re here just for the temple.

Koyasan

Danjo Garan Monastery Complex

The complex contains a number of temples and was built in the 800s as a place for secret training in Shingon esoteric Buddhism.

Daito at Danjo Garan

Why should I go?

The entire complex offers lots of placards with English descriptions of the buildings, their history, and their uses, making it the most informative religious complex that we visited in Japan.

The Konpon Daito (two tiered pagoda) is larger than it looks and especially impressive.

Why should I skip it?

Only if you happen to not go to Koyasan at all. Otherwise don’t miss it.

26 Sep

Koyasan and Eko-in Review

We left Kyoto behind from Kyoto Station bound for Osaka where we caught another two trains and a cable car to get to Koyasan.

I was really excited for this part of the trip as I wanted more immersion into Zen Buddhist culture about which I know very little, but was eager to learn. (Side note: I’m not religious but do find religion fascinating. Does that make sense?)

Koyasan is a mountain south of Osaka that is the heart of the Shingon (“True Word”) sect of Esoteric Buddhism—the epicentre of study and practice. The mountain was chosen for this purpose 1200 years ago and the monastic life here is still very vibrant with several monasteries and countless young monks.

It also is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists looking to pay respects to Kobo Daishi who founded the Shingon Buddhist sect and established Koyasan as its centre.

Consequently, many of the monasteries offer lodging to pilgrims (and interested but not-so-religious, tourists like myself).

Koyasan might be old but those monks have some pretty good modern marketing skills to attract visitors from around the globe. They even have a mascot (of course they do, it’s Japan!), Koya-kun, who (like every other mascot in Japan) is utterly adorable.

Koyasan Mascot

Eko-in Monastery

We stayed at Eko-in, a popular monastery among tourists and the place was nearly full the night that we were there. Almost everyone was a foreigner save for a single Japanese family.

Eko-in is run by a great group of young monks and they offer you activities to partake in during your stay. When we arrived we were shown right to our tatami mat room where there was tea ready for us and the heart sutra waiting to be copied.

Eko-in Sutra WritingCopying sutras is supposed to be a meditative practice and it is, in fact, quite soothing.

At 4:30pm the monks teach you Ajikan meditation techniques (meditating on the sanskrit letter ‘a’) and leave you to a 40 minute silent meditation.

A Shojin Ryori dinner is ready for you in your room at 5:30pm. Shojin Ryori is the sort of meal you would expect from monks: a simple vegan meal with a variety of small portions or, as described by our travel guide “lacking meat and any exciting vegetables like garlic or onion”. Yeah. The food was thoughtfully prepared, though not as exciting as the meals we had in the Kiso Valley and not as filling.

Eko-in Shojin RyoriShojin Ryori, Buddhist Vegan Cuisine at Eko-in

After dinner, you can opt to go on an guided night tour (in English) of Okunoin Cemetery. We opted instead to do that earlier in the day on our own.

Okunoin Cemetery

This was one of the coolest things that we saw in Japan. I’m a sucker for cemeteries (is that weird?) so I might be partial, but I’d put Okunoin as a ‘must see’ in Japan.

Okunoin is 1200 years old and the largest graveyard in Japan with over 200,000 graves.

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

The reason for the size is because Kobo Daishi (that guy I mentioned in the beginning who founded Shingon Buddhism and Koyasan) is believed to be resting in eternal meditation in a mausoleum in the cemetery.

Everyone wants to buried near Kobo Daishi. This is some seriously holy ground.

Okunoin Cemetery - KoyasanThis is a legitimate headstone among the newer graves in the cemetery. I kid you not.

The cemetery has gorgeous and opulent headstones that span the centuries and is surrounded by huge Japanese cedars that span the centuries as well.

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

Okunoin Cemetery - Koyasan

We couldn’t take photos of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum but it is lit by literally thousands of lanterns which is striking. The silence and reverence of the pilgrims and monks that visit to pray and pay respects is part of what makes the space feel holy and serene.

It’s phenomenal.

Buddhist Ceremonies

Morning ceremonies back at the Eko-in monastery begin at 6:30am in the temple.

There might have been a wake-up call but we certainly missed it. I woke naturally in a at 6:25am realizing that it must be almost time to get up and was frenzied when I looked at my watch. Luckily, neither Matt nor I is unaccustomed to oversleeping so we were able to get to the temple on time.

Eko-in Morning ServiceMorning ceremony at Eko-in

The ceremony itself involved the monks chanting some sutras. It was cool to hear at first but after 5 minutes became about as exciting you can imagine as any religious service in a foreign language would be (not very).

The ceremony was followed up by the Goma fire ritual which was pretty cool. You watch as a monk builds and consecrates a fire for spiritual and psychological cleansing while another monk is drumming and chanting.

The whole thing is very primitive and mesmerizing.

Eko-in Goma Fire RitualGoma Fire Ritual

Osaka

We had some terrible rain that morning which made us limit our site seeing of the rest of Koyasan and we left earlier than expected to Osaka where we stayed for the night before our flight back to Canada.

Osaka didn’t wow me. It was a busy big city with nothing too spectacular to see or do besides eat, drink, and shop (all of which we were tired of doing). We wandered a bit through Americamura (their America Town) and along Dotombori but mostly found ourselves bored and looking forward to the fancy room upgrade we were offered at the hotel.

Oh, but I should mention that in Osaka there was this:

Pablo CheesecakePablo Cheesecake

Pablo Cheesecake- It’s like cheesecake, but creamier and less tangy, and in a tart shell. A tart shell, you guys!

So good.

Matt and I bought a whole cheesecake thinking “what are we going to do with the leftovers”. We didn’t have any.

Stay tuned for the next post in my Japan series: Shrines and Temples.

22 Sep

Travelling to Kyoto

No one has anywhere to go in Kyoto. That was my theme for the 3 days that we spent touring around Kyoto because, unlike Tokyo, the crowds kept a (rather annoying) dawdling pace. Part of this had to do with the number of tourists that come to Kyoto to get a feel for historic Japan.

. . . And you really do get good glimpses of traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto.

There were numerous women walking about dressed in kimono. There is extensive preserved architecture as well as numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. After extensive research on ‘how to spot a real geisha’, I even spotted what I expect were maiko apprentice geisha out of their traditional dress (apparently the hair is the giveaway).

MaikoMaiko? I think so.

Our itinerary for Kyoto was almost entirely made up of visiting those various shrines and temples (stay tuned for a post just about them) but we also managed to see a few other really cool things in Kyoto which were more modern culture than historic culture.

Arashiyama

Arashiyama is a neighbourhood about a 45 minute bus ride west of the central Gion district that draws tourists primarily for its bamboo grove.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

While the bamboo grove was a really cool thing to see, it wasn’t that large and we seemed to move through it rather quickly. (side note: The relentless rain may have also played a factor here.)

That just meant we had extra time in the Arashiyama area to go to the Arashiyama Monkey Park!

Arashiyama Monkey ParkSqueeeee!

The park is the natural habitat for 170+ Japanese macaque monkeys. A number of them are always hanging around the visitor centre where you can feed them (you have to be inside, behind the cage to feed them while they stay outside).

Just don’t touch them or look them in the eye. They don’t like these things, apparently. I didn’t test the rules to confirm.

Just feeding a monkey, nbdThis was super exciting for me. Trip highlight.

Otaku

We got more of an otaku fix by finding a better Yodobashi Camera store than the one we found in Tokyo. And by better, I mean bigger toy section. Matt was in heaven.

Otaku at Kyoto Yodobashi CameraYodobashi Camera

We also spent time in the Kyoto Manga Museum which had a small exhibit about the history of manga and where it’s headed in the future. The museum is more like a library of pretty much every manga you can think of… most of them, of course, were in Japanese and pretty useless to us.

Manga MuseumMatt at the Kyoto Manga Museum

Nishiki Market

Another place that we hit up that I loved was Nishiki Market. It was cooler than Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because a lot of the offerings were ready-to-eat and, let’s be honest, I really like to eat. Pickles, street meat, omelettes, tofu doughnuts, dried fruit, and so much more.

Tip: don’t go early. It seems like none of the stalls open until 10 or 11am.

Nishiki Market

Mowing down on some deep fried chocolate filled goodnessMowing down on some deep fried chocolate filled goodness at Nishiki Market

Karaoke

If you don’t know how much I love karaoke, then you really don’t know me at all.

At first I wasn’t too interested in doing karaoke in Japan because I figured all the songs would be in Japanese and I didn’t think it was worthwhile but we gave in one night in Kyoto and, obviously, it was awesome.

Karaoke KyotoKaraoke Kyoto

They had a decent selection of songs in English that were easy to find. You get your own little room that you rent by the half hour which is awesome because you can make a total asshole of yourself without being in front of a crowd of people you don’t know. You can queue up the songs you want to sing from the get-go or pick them as you go.

It was relatively inexpensive, like the equivalent of $8/person but I could see it racking up quickly if you get hooked (which, obviously you will) and drink a lot.

It was awesome. I wish we had karaoke rooms like this in Windsor.

Next stop: Koyasan. Stay tuned!

18 Sep

Travelling to the Kiso Valley Japan

After four nights and three days in Tokyo, we continued our trip by travelling to the Kiso Valley Japan. We took off via the Limited Express Super Asuza 5 from Shinjuku station to Shiojiri, then transferred to the JR Chuo Line bound for the Kiso Valley.

This valley follows the Kiso River (the strongest in Japan, a kindly man told me on the train) through the Nagano prefecture in the Japan Alps. It’s a relatively quiet area with several small farming towns and a few preserved Edo period towns like the Narai, Magome, and Tsumago. We visited all three and the latter two being ones where we stayed the night in ryokan (traditional inns) with tatami mat floors, futon beds, delicious food and intensely hot baths.

The three towns were all beautiful, quiet, and like stepping into a Japanese time warp. It was a great way to escape from Tokyo and I think some city slickers felt the same way as the area drew large crowds of Japanese tourists on the weekend as we were leaving.

There isn’t much to do but eat soba, buy souvenirs, and generally ‘get away from it all’, but that didn’t stop the Kiso Valley from being my favourite region that we visited.

Narai

Narai was just a lunch break on our way to Magome. We hopped off the train in Narai at about 11am to stretch our legs and take a couple hours to explore the town and eat. The main road in the town is mostly made up of shops peddling sweets, sake, laquerware, wooden combs (they’re known for combs, historically) or other souvenirs.

Narai

We visited all the shops and stopped for lunch at Kokoro-ne for a soba noodle lunch which, for just noodles, was borderline pricey (something I noticed to be common in Japan).

Soba at Kokoro-ne in NaraiSoba at Kokoro-ne in Narai

We then headed back to the train station to get back on the 1:30pm JR Chuo to Nakatsugawa where we caught a bus for Magome.

Magome

DSCF7413DSCF7414

By the time we made it to Magome and checked into our ryokan, Magomechaya, it was 5pm and all the shops were closing and there wasn’t much left to do so we relaxed in our room until dinner time.

Dinner in the ryokan (in both Magome and Tsumago, and later in Koyasan) was a treat. They serve a kaiseki-ryori or multiple course meal with a variety of locally sourced foods and Kiso Valley specialties. We sampled some interesting foods like raw horsemeat in Magome and wasp larvae in Tsumago. (Both of which I enjoyed, by the way).

Dinner in MagomeDinner in Magome

The ryokan dinners (and even breakfasts) are part of what I loved so much about the Kiso Valley.

After tucking into our tempura, and salted fish, and omelette, and mochi, and pickles, and raw horsemeat(!) we donned our yukata robes, bathed, and read until lights out.

The next morning, after a solid breakfast of fish and rice, we left on foot for our next destination:

The Hike

We took advantage of the 500yen luggage forwarding service (even though we each only brought a backpack with us to Japan) between Magome and Tsumago so we could hike without the extra weight.

MagomeRice Patties in Magome

The best part of our visit to the Kiso Valley was the 8km Magome to Tsumago “hike” (more like a moderate intensity walk) that Matt and I tackled along the Nakasendo Road, a route that connected Kyoto and Tokyo in the Edo period.

The hike takes you through rice patties, woodlands of cedar and bamboo, and very (very!) tiny towns. The forests are home to bear and there are bells dispersed at regular intervals to ring loudly and warn bears away.

Bear BellDon't go chasing waterfalls
Don’t go chasing bears. Or waterfalls.

About halfway through the hike an elderly man in a conical straw hat stopped us and asked us where we were from and invited us inside for tea and watermelon and pickles.

Offerings at the official rest stop of the Nakasendo TrailOfferings at the official rest stop of the Nakasendo Trail

He was the official rest stop on the Nakasendo road. Literally. He offered us a few pamphlets about Tsumago and told us to write our name in his guestbook and sit as long as we would like before moving on. It was adorable.

If I were to do the hike again (and I would love to do it again) I would start in Nakatsugawa then hike to Magome and Tsumago from there. There seemed to be a lot of historic sights to see near Nakatsugawa that we missed by going straight to Magome. That, and it would have been nice to spend more time hiking.

Tsumago

Tsumago was our last stop in the Kiso Valley.

Tsumago

We arrived on foot a just past noon and spent the afternoon visiting the souvenir shops which were not unlike those in Narai. I bought myself a wooden canister for tea.

We tried to kill time by stopping for a drink in a small coffee shop in town where the owner who spoke decent English was surprised that I wanted my coffee hot (this wasn’t the first time I got that reaction in Japan) and didn’t want, say, a beer instead. After we told him that we thought his town was beautiful he also told us that he hated it. He was easily the only outwardly disgruntled person we met in Japan, but over course he was disgruntled with a smile.

We checked into our ryokan, Fujioto, where the proprietor gave us their best room (maybe because I booked, like, 5 months in advance?). We sat drinking tea on our balcony overlooking a manicured garden, a koi pond, and the main street in Tsumago while we waited for dinner.

Our room at FujiotoFujioto Ryokan

Dinner at Fujioto was slightly better that Magomechaya because there were more courses and the servers went to lengths to give you great detail about everything that you were eating, where it came from, and why it’s relevant to the region.

DSCF7454Sampler, first course of 8

DSCF7462Shinshu Wagyu (Beef), course 3 of 8

The whole dinner reminded me of our experience at Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago, but cheaper and more authentic.

Gohei-mochi: The BEST thing I ate in JapanGohei-mochi: The BEST thing I ate in Japan

I was a bit sad to leave the Kiso Valley the next day but we had more sightseeing to do. .

. . . this time in Kyoto. Stay tuned!

15 Sep

Overview of Travelling to Tokyo

After our 2012 trip to Greece (my top destination pick) Matt and I had just one more place left to visit to officially clear our travel bucket lists: a lovely little archipelago in Southeast Asia better known as

Japan!

Japan was Matt’s pick for the otaku culture and all things kawaii. I was mostly along for the ride.

Actually that’s an understatement.

I meticulously developed a 30 page itinerary (excluding the appendices, of course) that detailed how to get from place to place, things to look out for a things to avoid, and everything we could possibly want to do/see/eat in a mere two weeks.

There is so much to share, I don’t even know where to start. In this post I’ll give a brief overview of Tokyo and, so as not to bore you with thousands of words, I’ll dive deeper into it all in subsequent blog posts.

I’ll start where our trip started: in Tokyo.

Shibuya CrossingShibuya Crossing

Tokyo

I fully expected to hate Tokyo. I hate cities in general (The people, the concrete, the noise, the smells– what’s to love?) so visiting one of the most populated places on earth didn’t really have much appeal to me. Of course I ended up not hating it at all.

The city is orderly, organized, efficient, and clean. Some beautiful combination of Confucian philosophies of conformity and the knowledge that maintaining order is the only way to survive in a city with 6000 people per square kilometre has created a culture or obedient rule-followers that makes the whole city tolerable. it was my favourite of all the cities that we visited in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka).

Tokyo Neighbourhoods

There is SO much to do in Tokyo. Every neighbourhood is practically a city on its own and an experience all in itself. We based ourselves in Shinjuku but explored:

Asakusa, a very touristy, historic entertainment district centered around the Sensoji Temple;

Asakusa - Sensoji TempleAsakusa - Sensoji Temple Asakusa

Harajuku, home of slightly bizarre fashions and teenagers;

HarajukuHarajuku Harajuku

Shibuya, a busy, busy, busy transportation hub; (pictured above) Ginza, a classy neighbourhood for high-end folks;

Kabuki-za Theatre in GinzaKabuki-za Theatre in Ginza where we saw a Kabuki play

Odaiba, a slow(er)-paced getaway for locals;

OdaibaCool mix of architecture in Odaiba

and of course Akihabara, the geekiest district in Tokyo and centre of electronics, toys action figures, and arcades.

Akihabara Akihabara

Favourite Places

My favourite district was Odaiba, which was slightly quieter and offered fantastic views of the Tokyo skyline, decent shopping centres, with the highlight being the giant Gundam.

Odaiba Giant GundamOdaiba Tokyo Skyline

Naturally, Matt’s favourite was Akihabara, headquarters of all things otaku (that’s Japanese for ‘nerdy’).

DSCF7149While in Akihabara we made sure to play games at Hey! arcade where all the pro Street Fighters play. Even I took part by playing a sufficiently feminine fight game.

Shinjuku, our home base, was also a great location to explore with the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden nearby and all the massive department stores like Isetan, Takashimaya, Lumine, OIOI, etc… Shinjuku at Night

A note on shopping. . .

Matt and I typically both dislike shopping, rarely do it on vacation, and even more rarely do we buy anything while on vacation. Japan was a bit different. We spent lots of time exploring the complexities of the Japanese department store, some of which encompassed whole blocks and more than one building structure like some sort of shopping campus. In addition to the really great food halls, toy sections, and stationery departments in these stores, what garnered most of our attention were all the kawaii (cute) things that were for sale. Matt and I are both suckers for cuteness, hence much shopping (and buying!) was done.

Matt at Yodobashi CameraYodobashi Camera, Akihabara

Matt’s favourite shop by far was Yodobashi Camera an electronics paradise located in Akihabara.  It’s a department store with multiple floors of phones, televisions, cameras, watches, musical instruments, kitchenware, health and fitness gadgets, action figures, and other toys. It has its own theme song set to The Battle Hymn of the Republic that you’ll hear on repeat and that you will not be able to stop singing. What I’m saying is, it’s like Best Buy if Best Buy were awesome.

. . .

After cramming in as much as possible into our days in Tokyo (from eating, to eating, to museums, to temples, to more eating) we set off into the mountains to the Kiso Valley. Magomachaya Stay Tuned!

20 Dec

Moab in November

This is part of my series on Visiting Utah in November including Zion National Park and Arches National Park.

Arches National Park

Driving

Moab seems like one of those places that would please everyone. Even if you’re not the hemp-wearing, granola-eating, tree-hugging outdoorsy type you can just pile into your gas-guzzling vehicle and drive around to see some pretty world-class vistas.

Just one part of Arches' Scenic Drive

Arches National Park has an extensive scenic drive that can take you 4 hours if you stop at each scenic viewpoint. And why wouldn’t you? The views here are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Matt and I had to do the drive a few times to make sure we hit all the overlooks.

Canyonlands National Park has its own scenic drive which looks gorgeous in photos but unfortunately we never made it there because we were so wrapped up in seeing Arches! In the late fall and winter when the days are shorter it can be hard to fit in all that you want to see during daylight hours. Something I sort of forgot about when planning the vacation.

If you’re slightly more adventurous you can take your vehicle off-road which is also pretty popular, especially among the Jeep crowd, but you don’t even need an off-road vehicle (not that I would ever attempt such a thing without one).

If you are the hemp-wearing, granola-eating, tree-hugging outdoorsy type like me, then there’s even more to do. Unfortunately, we hardly put a dent in the long list of things to do in and around Moab.

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking is huge here. Huge. Apparently Moab has some of the best mountain biking in the world, or so I was told by the locals, and hosts lots of races like this endurance race which looks like it could be fun if you’re not terrified of falling off your bike.

Popular area for mountain bikers

I’m barely stable on a bicycle (I blame my parents’ prohibition from letting my bike leave the driveway as a child) let alone on this kind of terrain, so we skipped out on any sort of mountain biking.

Hit the Rocks

Rock climbing and rappelling are both popular activities as well, and you can even climb up some of the towers and hoodoos.

I'm a naturalGeared up to drop down

Matt and I opted for a 1/2 day canyoneering trip with the outfitter ‘Moab Cliffs & Canyons’ at Ephedra’s Grotto.

It was fun and gorgeous, but it was basically just 2 rappels and a bit of hiking– not nearly as exciting as canyoning in Switzerland (but that’t a whole different story for a whole different day).

Boating

The town of Moab is located on the Colorado River so there are plenty of boat tours to be had.

But I hate boats, so I have nothing to suggest to you here. You’ll have to google it yourself if you want to take a boat tour. I’m sure it’s nice, but I still have yet to grow a pair of sea legs.

Hiking

Hiking here is pretty good too; at least it is in the nearby national parks, particularly Canyonlands which has some remarkable backcountry hiking, especially in the Needles area of the park (which, like I mentioned, we didn’t get to)

A rock fin can be a slightly scary place

We did do some hiking in Arches which was great. I love hiking here at this time of year because (in spite of the shortened days) the weather is perfect for spending an entire day hitting different trails (or one big one). Because of the desert environment– the low vegetation, lack of shade, and dry heat– I can imagine it being torturous to hike here during summer. Late autumn however was perfect.

Fins of rock on our hike in arches

We did run into a snag when we tried to hike the Devil’s Garden. Because of the cold temperatures and the (unseasonal) snow that the area experienced before we got there, the rock was icy and frost covered in some areas and we had to turn back. It’s called slickrock for a reason and in spite of my awesome hiking boots I was still too chicken shit to venture out onto steep, icy rock.

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…stay tuned for my next installment in the Utah vacation series where I point out all my favourite places in Arches National Park.

11 Dec

Zion in November – Other Hikes

This is part of my series on visiting Zion National Park in November.

I have already mentioned the grand hike that is The Narrows but here are a couple of other hikes that we did while we were in Zion.

Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock

I wouldn’t really call it a hike, per se. It’s an extremely short trail (it may take you 30 minutes round trip, tops) to the Weeping Rock lookout. Getting there is entirely uphill, but since it’s an out-and-back that means it’s as easy going down as it is strenuous going up.
The Weeping Rock is probably more fun to check out on a dry day because you’ll be able to see how the porous rock is seeping water. On a dreary, rainy day like the one we had when all the rocks in the canyon are weeping, well, it’s not so impressive. Another cool part of this hike is the ability to see ‘hanging gardens’ as ferns and other plants grow right out of the moist rock.

Angel’s Landing

Angel's Landing

Ahh…Angel’s Landing. Everyone wants to do this one to prove themselves. Everyone except people afraid of heights.
The first 2 mile portion of the hike is almost entirely uphill, beginning with a series of steep switchbacks. . .

Switchbacks on Trail to Angel's Landing

then a more gradual climb. . .

Trail to Scout's Lookout

. . . followed by even more switchbacks called “Walter’s Wiggles”.

Walter's Wiggles

This takes you to Scout’s Lookout which offers gorgeous views of the canyon and marks the beginning of the challenge.

Scout's Lookout

The last portion 1/2 mile of the trail is made up of narrow paths along the steep cliffs of a rock fin. There are anchored chains available to hold onto to keep yourself from falling off the rock face to your death, nearly 6000 feet below you.

Angels' Landing Hike
Note the chains in the background

I’d like to say that I did it, because I really wanted to, but alas I did not. With the harsh rain we experienced the combination of the cold, wet chains and the very slippery rock held me back. I began the trail and then reconsidered.

Oh well, maybe next time.

Emerald Pools

Emerald Pools Trail

Aside from The Narrows this 3 mile hike was my favourite because it is one of the most scenic.

In this case the rain worked in our favour as we were able to see waterfalls that aren’t flowing most times of the year.

Emerald Pools Trail 2

There are three parts to this trail: Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald pools. The trail to Lower pools is paved and not overly challenging. Beyond that the trail is unpaved and more rugged but never gets too strenuous. I usually prefer a really tough climb, but the views on this trail definitely make it worthwhile.

Who doesn’t love waterfalls?

04 Dec

Zion in November – Hike The Narrows

This is part of my series on visiting Zion National Park in November.

Hike The Narrows

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In Zion National Park, The Narrows is less of a hike and more of a wade up the running waters of the Virgin River that meander through the canyon. At some points it is narrow enough for you to touch both canyon walls as they reach skyward, perpendicular to the river.

Due to all the rain that was happening while we were visiting, there was a moderate risk of flash flooding in the canyon. This means hikers need to be aware of signs of flash flooding (like changing skies and increased sediment and debris in the water) and there is only a 15 minute window to either get washed away with the river or find yourself some higher ground.

Matt was apprehensive of the possibility of waiting 24 hours perched on the side of a cliff for a flood to subside but, knowing that hiking the Narrows was the thing I wanted to do the most in Zion, he acceded.

Good thing too, because this ended up being an awesome hike and probably our favourite part of the vacation.

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We rented a drysuit package for $50 from Zion Adventure Company which included walking sticks, boots, and what I would describe as the equivalent of a waterproof snowsuit that made me look like Lieutenant Worf of the Starship Enterprise. Luckily we were also able to rent extra fleece tops and bottoms for $2 a piece (it was unseasonably cold) and a waterproof bag so my camera wouldn’t get wet when I inevitably fell into the canyon waters.

Everything worked like a charm.

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I loved having to navigate through the water to find the shallowest, sandiest path of least resistance through the river. I loved walking against the current and feeling it pushing back on me as I tried to hike against the rushing waters. I loved walking back with the current and feeling how easily it propelled me forward.

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In the end we did hike into what is known as ‘Wall Street’, a narrow area with no opportunity for reaching higher ground in case of emergency. We hiked for about 10 minutes (being cautious of potential flash flooding) before turning around. So we didn’t quite make it into the narrowest areas of the canyon but the sights were beautiful nonetheless.

I was warm and dry for the whole hike in spite of wading in thigh-high rapids and having fallen into the water after tripping on some rocks. While I think the hike would be a bit more refreshing in the summer time when the temperatures are hot and drysuits are unnecessary, I appreciated the quietness of the canyon at this time of year. We only encountered 8 other hikers on our entire excursion.

This hike is a Must Do in Zion National Park.

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