Disney Day in Tokyo!!! 

Today we head to Tokyo Disney Sea!!! Yay!! 

I’m just hoping to be able to make it onto even a couple of rides. It sounds like the lineups are going to be horrific. 

Finishing up the fabulous complimentary breakfast at our hotel (I love Asian breakfasts….noodles, soup, veggies, eggs….) and we’re on our way! 

Ok. Change of plans. The subway station was chaos. There’s a reason they say to avoid rush hour in Tokyo. Holy Fruit Loops it was crazy!!! I thought it was busy on the weekend. Apparently not.  So we are back at the hotel for a while to wait until rush hour(s) are done!! 

In the meantime I’ll catch up on writing about some of the other things we’ve done here. 

  • We did a tea ceremony workshop in Kyoto that was much better than I’d anticipated. It was really interesting to learn about different aspects of the ceremony and how a formal one would actually run. A few highlights: 
  • Samurai were very into the tea ceremonies to show they were cultured and not just warriors 
  • There are many moments of reflection and appreciation, appreciating each of the tea utensils, each other, and ourselves 
  • The tea scoops are named by the master who made them and usually someone preforming tea ceremonies has several scoops so they choose the one best suiting the season and occasion
  • The ladle is held up like a mirror as a reminder to slow down and see yourself 
  • So many aspects are about respect for each other and yourself and your utensils. The tea bowl is placed facing the guest so they can appreciate the beautiful design at the front. It is then turned to face the host prior to drinking so the host can appreciate the design as well as out of respect for the design, not to drink on that part of the bowl. Then turned back to face the guest at the end. 
  • There was a poem on the wall our hostess explained to us that was about the planets all individually circling the sun and if they all aligned at the same time I’d would be a special occasion. The meaning was that the people at the ceremony were like the planets brought together at that one moment that would never happen exactly like that again. So to appreciate each moment. 
  • So much more as well. There is so much history and philosophy behind the tea ceremonies. I’m so glad we had an opportunity to learn a little about it. 

We also took a Kintsugi workshop. It’s the art of golden joinery. Broken pottery is mended using lacquer and gold to not just fix the piece but enhance its beauty. It goes along with the wabi sabi philosophy of embracing the imperfect.

We used superglue and golden powder to repair our pieces as the real lacquer takes weeks to dry fully. It really is a meditative process, putting the pieces together, gluing them, painting the cracks with lacquer, and then adding the gold powder. I would love to do more. We will see in a couple of days how our pieces turned out!! Our instructor spoke a little about wabi sabi after I asked her to explain what it meant to her. She showed us pottery bowls with plants and rocks simulating a small nature scene. It’s like bringing nature inside. They make bowls that aren’t perfectly round because they are a more natural, organic shape. 

Sigh. Still a little time to wait before we go see Mickey and the gang. Fingers crossed!!! 

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A glorious day in Kyoto

We just finished a fantastic day of sightseeing in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. 

After wedging ourselves onto a packed train we had a thankfully short journey to the Arashiyama station. There were a few must-sees I wanted to check off my list: the bamboo grove, Otagi-nenbutsu-ji (a temple noted for its many statues), and the kimono forest. 

It was lunch time when we started walking through town so we stopped at a tiny restaurant for some steaming hot yakisoba and matcha ice cream for dessert. Thus fortified we began our explorations  

Tenryuji Temple is the first site most visitors to the area experience. We chose a ticket only allowing entry to the gardens and not the buildings as we were more interested in the fall colours and making our way to the bamboo grove. The gardens are massive! And peaceful despite the huge crowds walking through. We didn’t linger long though as I knew we had a fair amount of walking ahead of us. 

Next stop, the Bamboo Grove. Again, despite the incredible numbers of tourists making their way down the path, the grove is very tranquil. And really lovely. Tall stalks of bamboo gently swaying…. and yet we continued on. 

Trying to keep to our path with the interesting signage along the way was a bit of a challenge. We did manage to stay basically on track which was a nice change. There are so many temples and shrines and other sites along in the area that I can’t imagine it would be possible to see them all in one day. We only stopped at a couple. 

Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple – to see the thousands of Buddha statues which were originally gravestones for the dead who were buried in the area. The stones were scattered all over until about 100 years ago when they were rediscovered and brought to the temple. The temple grounds are quite interesting to wander. 

 Otagi-nenbutsu-ji – more statues!! But there are hundreds of statues of the disciples of Buddha. All with different facial expressions and characteristics. They are wonderful! Well worth the walk to see them. It’s just unbelievable how many there are. And many of them are adorable or funny or both. It’s probably my favourite of all the temples we’ve visited thus far. 

After spending a fair amount of time taking pictures of the extremely photogenic statues, we started our walk back to the train station area. Once there we went to Togetsukyō, the bridge with views of the beautiful autumn foliage on the nearby hills. 

One last place to visit was the train station which has a display called the kimono forest. Kimono material in cylinders lining a pathway. Tough to describe, it’s much more impressive than it sounds. More picture taking there, and then to our final stop, still in the train station, the foot bath. For only 200 Yen (about $2.45 CAD), you can soak your weary feet in a hotspring with other savvy travelers! And you even get to keep  as a souvenir the little towel you’re given to dry your feet! Heck of a bargain. 

After that we caught the train back to Tokyo and finished our day with dinner at McDonald’s. I know I know, there’s tons of amazing food in Japan. I totally agree. And it’s crazy to eat at McDonald’s with all those better options out there. It’s true. But I do like to eat once at a McD’s when I travel to check out the very different local menu items you’d never see anywhere else. Tonight we had the fillet o’shrimp sandwich and corn soup. Pretty tasty actually and somehow entertaining. 

That’s about the summation of the day. Packing to do tonight so we can check out and make our way to Tokyo tomorrow after our tea ceremony!! I get to learn to make matcha. Yay!! 

Japan – All About the Food! 

Going through my photo roll is showing me that this trip is all about seeing temples and shrines and temples with shrines and trying to remember which temple or shrine you’re currently visiting and….  the food! 

Here’s a tally of our Japanese culinary delights thus far: 
– delicious yakitori skewers of various denominations of chicken including gizzard and heart 

– Supermarket and 7-11 noodles and baked goods (surprisingly fresh, hot, inexpensive, and tasty). Sometimes you just need quick and easy. 

– Pancakes filled with red bean paste and other various red bean paste sweets 

– Monja

– Okonomiyaki

– Udon

– Insanely excessive and delicious traditional Japanese ryokan dinner including everything from super fresh sashimi to miso soup to rice to many types of veggies and lots of unidentified, but yummy, morsels. The food just kept coming and coming! And the presentation was gorgeous…veggies cut into autumn leaf shapes, real leaves as decorations…. 

– Breakfast at the ryokan was almost as crazy as dinner. Potato salad, crab broth soup, yogurt, rice, lots more unidentified items, fruit, cooked salmon…..

– Another food tour with samplings of: matcha tea, sashimi, pickled veggies and plums, octopus balls (no comments), more Okonomiyaki, the most delicious pancakes filled with custard, beef croquettes, and a variety of small side dishes. 

The food we’ve had has all been exceedingly fresh, presented with great care, and incredibly tasty. I love how the Japanese really do use the best of what’s in season and showcasing their flavours and colours. 

It’s been great to try foods at shops that have been in business for 16 generations. So many businesses are closing because times are changing and the younger generations have new goals rather than running the family shop. No fault of theirs but it’s sad to see these places go. I’m guilty of choosing chains over independent coffee shops or restaurants many times so it’s good to have a reminder of how great these places are. 

I’m looking forward to a few more days of delicious adventures. 

We have done more than check out the good though. A few walking tours, lots of wandering about soaking up the atmosphere (getting lost is another way to put it), and seeing some cool sights. 

So much to do in the next few days!! 

I forgot to take a picture before we wolfed everything down! Oops!

Japan catchup (at least a bit) 

Tidbits from our first few days in Japan. I’m so behind in my chronicling of this adventure as my blogging time has been taken up trying to book the tours and hotels i didn’t get booked prior to coming here. Oops. Turns out it’s not low season and it’s tougher to book things than I expected. 

However, we are still having an amazing time!! Tokyo has been such a combination of traditional and new with the most gracious people imaginable. Everyone has been eager to help two often lost ladies get on the right track. 
We’ve taken a couple of tours, eaten some amazing (and some less than amazing food….more on the food in a separate post), checked out one of the zoos, criss-crossed the city on the subway, visited temples, giggled at the fancy toilets, learned to launder money at a shrine, and enjoyed some serious people watching all over! 

Initial impressions: 

– the cleanliness for a city this size is astounding. No one walks around eating or drinking. If you buy a snack you consume it there or take it home. It’s the vendors responsibility to give you a bag for your garbage and not let you walk away eating. It feels weird to just stand around eating but it works. There’s almost no litter anywhere. 

– The subway is crazy efficient and easy to navigate. The only hard part (at least for me) is figuring out which exit to take from the station in order to find where you’re actually going.

– Presentation is key. The attention to detail is lovely to see. Beautifully decorated cakes, sweets in different shapes or seasonal themes, everything about department store food halls….it’s inspiring. 

Well that’s it for now. Time to take some cold meds and get rested up for our first full day in Kyoto!! Two walking tours booked so it’s gonna be busy!

Time for Japan already?! Yikes!! 

Soooo…. I blinked and it was time to leave for Japan. I’ve been caught in a glittery crafting vortex for a few weeks getting ready for a craft market (check out Facebook.com/punkpugsandpinwheels) and somehow the date to leave just snuck up on me. 

We are in Tokyo at the moment in our cute little hotel room consisting of two bunk beds and a teeny tiny washroom. It’s super clean and the beds are pretty comfy so it’s all we really need. That and a free beverage machine in the lobby for our morning coffee   or tea! 

Our flight on All Nippon Airways was excellent. The flight attendants are lovely, the seats are comfortable (relatively speaking of course, no plane seats in economy are terrific for 9 1/2 hours), and the food was great. The time went by quite quickly. Our dinner was surprisingly good….little appie/side dish containers with smoked salmon, edamame, pickled veggies, noodles, and maybe tofu. The main course of beef patty in an onion sauce was much tastier than it sounds. And we were pretty delighted by our tiny tub of ice cream for dessert. There were little self serve snacks in the galley during the flight and Mom was particularly taken by the smallest chocolate bar in the world. About the size of one square of chocolate but divided into four like a full chocolate bar. Haha. The weirdest little things amuse us. Oh, speaking of which, I was impressed by the fancy toilet with the bidet settings on the plane. I’ve certainly never seen that onboard before. 

We got through customs in Tokyo and spoke with a super helpful tourist information lady to figure out how to get to our hotel. The monorail and train were not bad to figure out and then we wandered around for about 40 min looking for the hotel. We asked directions from a number of very gracious folks until we finally got there…only to find that we were at the wrong one. Sigh. Apparently the hotel chain has three locations and we’d gotten directions to the wrong one. We conceded defeat and took a taxi to the correct hotel as we were getting tired and our backpacks were getting heavy. So happy to finally get to the right place!!! 

We got our plans in order for the next day and then it was time for sleep. Yay! The only drawback of our cute bunk beds is that they are crazy creaky noisy every time you move. Oh well. I’m sure we’ll live. 

This morning is a slow start as it’s currently pouring rain and we don’t relish being soaked all day especially since mom’s fighting a brutal cold. We have a walking tour booked this afternoon though so we’ll venture out soon and start exploring! 

Iceland Day 5 & 6: Fitting it all in!

Today was pretty low key. We had a lazy start to the day with another fantastic breakfast at our guesthouse (the owner makes amazing carrot marmalade, I didn’t even know that was a thing but apparently it is. So good). Our plan was to wander the weekend flea market and see what we could find for souvenirs that don’t require selling a kidney to afford, and maybe try some of the weirder Icelandic foods. I’d read that you can purchase smaller amounts of the fermented shark at the market so I was hoping for that.

Side note on said fermented shark (Hakarl)…..apparently, back in the day, the shark was doused in urine and buried and left to rot until it was ready for consumption. Nowadays, the shark is fermented and no urine is involved. It supposedly smells to high heaven and tastes like ammonia. Yep, gotta get me some of that. No idea why it made it onto my list of things to do in iceland. At least it was the only really weird thing I decided to try and not the sour sheep’s balls which sound even grosser.

The market building was nice and close to our guesthouse and was not nearly as busy as I’d expected. It’s quite small and only really took about 20 minutes to wander around. Most of the flea market stalls are similar…. woolen goods or novelty items from china or lava stone jewelry or books/china/housewears…… The prices were definitely better than in stores but there wasn’t much we really wanted. We did end up getting a couple of lava stone keychains to make into christmas ornaments for our memento of the trip.

The food area is even smaller but we did get to sample a few things…. more lava bread, a sweet and delicious tastes-like-christmas gingery layer cake, kleina (icelandic doughnuts), the popular dried fish snack, more chocolate covered liquorice treats, and…… yes, I did get a tiny container of Hakarl for only 200 krona (about $2.33) – what a bargain!! We didn’t try it at the market though, we took it with us to eat later.

After the market we did the rest of our souvenir shopping. It was a pretty paltry amount of stuff even by our standards, we just couldn’t justify the prices. Felt wrapped soap for $40, for one bar of soap….. cheap plastic to-go coffee cup for $25….. but we did manage to find a few things.

We walked to the oft photographed Sun Voyager sculpture so we too could have a picture of it. It is very picturesque I suppose. Just down from there, sitting on a rock overlooking the water, is where we finally broke out the shark. As soon as the lid was popped off the tiny container the smell was readily apparent. Not a delicious smell by any means. We each took a toothpick and speared a morsel, looked askance at each other, and took a bite. As not delicious as it smells…. but not as awful as I’d expected either…. at least until the ammonia hits the back of your throat. I’m glad to be able to say I gave it a try and I certainly never need to again.

We went back to the guesthouse to pack before going to the Harpa to see How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes. Amazingly, packing wasn’t too hard. I guess it helped that we bought next to no souvenirs so stuffing everything back into our backpacks was not so bad. The walk to Harpa is only about 10 minutes which was nice given that it was once again raining. There are no assigned seats so it was a good thing we were a little early and managed to get seats together. There’d been some kind of glitch and the show was oversold so the start was a bit delayed while they tried to find ways to accommodate all the extra people.

The show itself was cute, not fantastic but cute, and now we can say we’ve been to a show in Iceland. The actor gave lessons in how to be come and Icelander…… Be rude, The correct way to walk, Wash (referring to cleaning oneself prior to getting into one of the hot pools), Love Balls (sour sheep’s testicles), The correct way to speak, Be right all the time and argue about everything…. and a few more. It was a bit of a history lesson and comedy show. Again, not terrific, but not bad.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Icelandic Fish and Chips for a late dinner. We ordered Wolfish with crispy potatoes and tartar sauce, what we ended up with was wolfish (I hope), rosemary potatoes, and tzatziki…. still delicious though. While we waited for our to-go order to be prepared, we toured through the volcano rock/gem exhibit in the attached shop. It was really interesting actually. Definitely made us wish we could find some cool rocks to bring home. Our order was called, we brought our (incorrect) food to the hotel and wolfed down our wolfish (sorry, had to), finished packing and put ourselves to bed!

Next morning we were up bright and early to catch our lava tube caving tour! Luckily another couple was up early so breakfast was ready and we were able to have one last bowlful of skyr and some fresh from the oven banana bread before heading out. We were met by a nice young lady who thanked us for changing the pickup location as our guesthouse is tough to get to. There were two other couples to pick up and we were on our way for the 25 minute drive out of reykjavik to the cave we would be exploring. She stopped at one point to show us the traditional fish drying racks they use to make their favourite snack. Currently there were only cod heads drying and she told us that they used to throw away the heads but they had found a market selling them to Uganda. Crazy. We arrived at the cave site and were given hard hats with headlamps (I would learn to be very grateful for the hard hat on the tour), and we made our way through the very lunar landscape to the tunnel opening. We carefully picked our way over rocks to enter the tunnel, turned on our headlamps and started in. It’s not a very long tour, this is kind of an entry level cave/tunnel experience who’s big draw is that it’s close to reykjavik and easy to get to. That’s not to diminish how cool the tunnel is, it’s really interesting to wander through a lava tunnel and check out the various formations and rocks and colours left behind. At one point our guide had us all turn off our headlamps so we could understand just how deep the darkness is down there. You really can’t see your hand in front of your face, there’s just nothing. It’s an eerie feeling knowing that you would be completely lost if your batteries died and you were alone. The have to rescue a few people a year from exactly that fate. I like the tunnelling and caving, I think it’s super cool to see what’s down there but I have learned that I’m not an underground person. I bump my head all the time, I’m awkward as all heck and was definitely the caboose of the group. Mom however is in her element, scrambling over rocks like a subterranean mountain goat. We were able to explore a few different tunnel offshoots before it was time to leave. It seemed like we must have beaten all the other tours to the tunnel as there were a few groups just starting down as we were leaving. It was nice to have had the place all to ourselves.

After the short drive back to Reykjavik we were dropped off at the bus terminal to catch the airport shuttle to Keflavik Airport. We arrived a tiny bit earlier than we’d anticipated (5 hours before flight time) but somehow managed to kill time fairly well. The airport is really nice, at least in the shopping/dining concourse. It’s organized and calm and they have the cutest little baggage carts to wheel around. When we finally decided we should head to our gate (and a good thing we did too, we had to go through yet another passport control area we weren’t expecting), we found just chaos. There were four  gates of flights going out within 15 minutes of each other in an area most airports would have for one to two gates at most. No seating at all and people just milling about packed in together like cattle. No announcements really, you’d just see people at one area or another start to surge forward for no discernible reason. We were finally let into the next waiting area but not let up to the plane and heard them making announcements that our flight was in the stages of final boarding but no-one had yet been let on the aircraft. It was very claustrophobic and people were getting very cranky. Finally we were let on board. It was strange that it was a free for all boarding when the flight to Keflavik had started with pre boarding, then business class, then zones…. not on the way out, it’s every man for himself. But we finally got settled into our seats and, lucky for us, we had a row to ourselves. Yay! The flight home was again uneventful and mediocre (I’m still sad there’s not even a tiny free snack on the flight, just beverages)… we watched a couple of movies, tried to sleep a bit, and poof – we were in Edmonton with three hours until our flight to Calgary. The time went by fairly quickly though, a bite of dinner, a much anticipated pumpkin spice latte, and it was almost time to board. Woo hoo.

And thus ended our journey to Iceland. All in all it’s a place I would definitely recommend visiting. It was too bad that the after affects of the tropical storm had caused all the rain and cloudiness so there was never a chance to see the northern lights. We loved all our tours and our guides were amazing. Guesthouses are the way to go for accommodations…. and grocery store food is helpful to bulk up your food budget. I would certainly like to go back in the summer and do some hiking, it would be a fantastic place to explore further.

Hard to believe it went so quickly and we’re home again. Probably even harder to believe is that we leave for Japan in about 3 weeks! Yikes! I’d best get on booking some accommodations and things to do!!! Iceland is definitely well worth a visit.

 

 

Iceland Day 4: Yumminess Abounds

Due to some technical difficulties, I’m a little late with these posts. Oops! 

Today was all about the food. We had a mellow morning just poking about before meeting up with our Reykjavik Food Walk tour guide and group. The confirmation email mentioned our guide should be easy to find as he’s tall with a big red beard and round glasses. They were not wrong. I’ve dubbed him the uber hipster Viking elf (but only between me and mom. Haha). He’s got the Viking look but lanky, more elf-like and the hipster glasses. Others mentioned the hipster vibe and apparently he gets that a lot. He said Icelanders are all horrible hipsters. Anyways, as with all our guides thus far, he’s extremely well schooled and highly entertaining. Love the sardonic sense of humour. Once our group was all gathered up we walked to our first stop for traditional Icelandic meat soup. As mom is allergic to lamb (not easy in this country) she had a bowl of sweet potato soup that she said was excellent. The traditional lamb soup the rest of us enjoyed was soooooo good. Amazing broth and super tender meat. Apparently at The Icelandic Bar where we had our sample, they change up the recipe every day so you never know which version you’re going to get. I’m sure they’re all equally delicious. 

The next stop on the tour was to a local delicatessen for a cheese and meat sampler. We tried the creamiest, tastiest Gouda I’ve ever had (we went back later to buy some), a nice white mold cheese and a surprisingly smooth blue mold cheese. As for the meat, our first taster was a little controversial, it was cured horse meat, but the Icelanders are very pragmatic folks and horse is a normal food source for them. The next was cured sheep which was quite good. The final taste was a specialty of the store, one that brings people in droves around Christmas, a smoked goose breast. Our guide recommended we try it with a raspberry champagne vinaigrette which complemented the meat beautifully. I was amazed at how good everything was. 
From there we continued our walk towards the beautiful H church to Cafe Loki, a local standard for traditional Icelandic cuisine. We tried one of the house specialties, something only made there, rye bread ice cream!! Unusual concept and totally delightful. The traditional rye bread in Iceland is denser and sweeter than the style we’re used to and Cafe Loki caramelizes the bread before adding it to the ice cream which gives it a sweet, crunchy texture. So very good. Mom calls it winter ice cream. We also learned a little about the story of Loki as our guide gave an explanation of the mural on the wall. Apparently he’s studied history and literature among other things and can discuss mythology for hours. 
Our next stop was in a little greenspace Kjartan stopped us in as we were walking along. From his backpack he produced containers of skyr for everyone! Likened to Greek yogurt, skyr is actually cheese. Very high in protein and low in fat it’s part of a typical Icelandic breakfast, and probably my favourite part. Wish we could easily get skyr back home. 
Next up was a stop at the most famous hot dog stand in Iceland. Apparently Bill Clinton ate there several times on his visit. Icelanders really do love their hotdogs. Who knew?! These are made with lamb and most locals order “one with everything” meaning it comes loaded with ketchup (interestingly they put applesauce, not sugar in their ketchup), mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and crispy onions. Poor mom, with her weird lamb allergy she was forced to eat just a bun with toppings. I think the guy at the counter struggled not to laugh when our guide placed her order. Those of us who were able to nosh on the hot dogs all enjoyed them immensely. They were really tasty and the toppings were messy and yummy. 
For anyone reading who is wondering how we’re going to manage two more tastings, we were all feeling the same. Haha. But the tour takes about four hours with constant walking between tastings so you don’t get stuffed to the gills full. 
On that note, we wandered down to the harbour to visit the Sea Baron and sample the lobster soup the restaurant is known for. Holy cow was it delicious!!! Rich and creamy with the tenderest lobster I’ve ever had. Apparently they keep the soup boiling hot all the time and only after a customer places an order, the lobster is put into their bowl of soup, only cooking as the waiter brings it to the table. Whatever they do they do it well!! 
Then it was onto our final stop. Kjartan took us to a very fancy looking establishment for our dessert. Apotek, which means apothecary, is named for the business which used to be in the building for many years. The pastry chef is head of the Icelandic cooking team and is well known for his desserts. Rightfully so. As the creations were brought to the table there were gasps of delight and amazement. The presentation was beautiful. I wish I could remember what the waitress said was in the desserts but all I can think of is strawberry sorbet. Coconut was involved in one layer but that’s all I know. They were quite decadent and again, just so beautiful. 
What that the tour was at an end. Well, after Kjartan gave us one last treat, an Icelandic chocolate bar to take with us. 
Such a fantastic way to learn about the place you’re visiting and get a chance to try some amazing food!! The group of people on the tour were lovely as well. Some had just gotten off the plane and come straight to the tour. I think they had the right idea. I’m definitely adding a food tour to our Japan trip in a few weeks. Can’t wait!!