The most exciting city: Osaka (大阪)

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People dining in Osaka.

In March we went to Osaka to once again see the Sumo Spring Tournament. As I have mentioned before Thomas is a pretty big sumo fun, which even the Japanese find funny because the popularity of the sport among the general Japanese population is definitely dying. Most people in the crowd at the tournaments are over the age of 60. However, sumo is filled with traditions that date back to centuries and has many ritual elements that can be linked to Shinto Buddhism, such as the use of salt for purification. So, for that reason alone I also have enjoyed learning and following up with the ups and downs of the sumo world.

We went for 4 days as I still had some extra holidays that I needed to take before leaving Japan. On our first day we went to Universal Studios Japan or better known in Japan as USJ. I have never been a big fan of theme parks, maybe because I had never been to one before. In my mind they are places where you can easily waste your money on extremely highly priced food and toys (which they totally are, but they are so fun!). Thomas really wanted to go though and many of our friends said that it really was a fun place. So we went and yes they were right, it was a ton of fun and yes I was right too, we spent way too much money on Hello Kitty merchandise and Spider-Man pencils, but hey when else will we be at USJ again, right?

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At the entrance of USJ.

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About to start our day at USJ.

Our first stop was the Spider-Man ride. It was pretty old school but it was funny to see Thomas mention the names of all the villains… haha! Then we went to the Back to the Future ride and I was feeling pretty sick when we got out of there. Too much up and down movement for my liking. The most fun was the Jurassic Park ride, which included some dinos spraying water at us and a big drop at the end. I have to say though, waiting in those lines really took it out of me. That’s one thing I do not enjoy about theme parks, but people say is part of the experience so I went with it. My favourite part was of course the Snoopy area. I have been a Snoopy fan since my childhood and love the comic strips and the holiday specials, so yes, I was super excited when I got to meet Charlie Brown and Lucy! This area was particularly cute and super fun for the kiddies. We even spotted a famous Japanese singer in the crowd. It was a very fun day and I am glad we went but at the end of the day I was so tired that I fell asleep in the subway like a 3 year-old after a big day at the theme park.

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A Sesame Street themed stall.

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Back to the Future the Ride.

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Got to meet Charlie Brown!

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The doctor is in…

For the sumo tournament we met up with 2 of our friends who came to Osaka from Niihama. Being their first time at the sumo they spent most of their time photographing the event. However, last time I saw the sumo tournament it was also my first time and I spent 2 hours taking pictures, so this time around I sat down, opened my beer, and actually watched the matches. After the tournament we walked around the Dotombori Area of Osaka which is the entertainment district and enjoy the nightlife of Osaka.

Osaka is a very fun city, filled with young people, a lot of shops and lot of restaurants! The locals love their local food which includes Okonomiyaki (a sort of pancake made out of cabbage with different toppings such as shrimp and pork and topped with a sweet sauce and nori, seaweed) and Osaka’s famous Takoyaki (they are balls of dough with pieces of octopus inside, also topped with the sweet sauce of okonomiyaki and eaten with toothpicks. In Japanese the word for octopus is tako, hence takoyaki). I will write more about these 2 delicious dishes in a later post. But I will leave with some pictures from our trip. Enjoy!

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A sumo inspired izakaya (Japanese pub)

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The back windows of restaurants.

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The world goes up in Japan.

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Walking through the streets of Osaka.

 

 

Obon Holidays:Okinawaaaaaa!!!

The view from Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa.

We have just come back from our summer holiday to Okinawa. Both Thomas and I had been working pretty hard over the last month or so, and were super stoked about our trip to the south islands of Okinawa. So, you can imagine that I was not impressed when I woke up on Saturday and saw the torrential rain in Matsuyama. I imagined that it would be raining in Okinawa as well, but to our great fortune, the weather in Okinawa was fantastic the whole time we were there!

The flight from Matsuyama-Naha is actually pretty short at 1.5 hrs. We arrived to glorious sunny skies and super humid weather. On our first day we just explored around Naha and indulged in all of the American goods that we had been missing living in Shikoku. We also took a bit of Okinawan culture by walking around town and looking at the shisa dogs outside every store. A shisa is a traditional decoration often found in pairs, resembling a cross between a lion and a dog. People place a pair of shisa on their rooftops in order to protect theirs houses from evil spirits. Sometimes you find only one shisa, instead of two, but when found in pairs usually the left shisa has its mouth closed to keep good spirits in and the right shisa has its mouth open to ward off evil spirits.

A Shisa on Kokusai Street (international street) in Naha, Okinawa.

The next day we went on a Japanese tour of the island. Naha doesn’t have the best public transportation system, so we were told to rent a car but neither of us have a Japanese Driver License so we couldn’t do that and so decided to go on a Japanese tour in order to see the Aquarium on the north side of the island. So we woke up early and headed to our Japanese tour. Everything was in Japanese and so we didn’t understand much. We also had to go to some places that were of no interest to us such as Pineapple Road, a pretty big tourist trap in which they lure you with all you can eat pineapple, but try to sell you anything and everything that can be made with pineapples. The one thing that we really wanted to see though was the Churaumi Aquarium.

The Aquarium was incredible! The marine life of Okinawa can be found in this Aquarium including my favourite the sea turtle, as well as whale sharks and manta rays. The Aquarium works as a research facility and a conservation area for the marine life of the surrounding area. We only had 3.5 hours to explore so we had to rush through some parts of the Aquarium but still had enough time to see the 2 big tanks as well as the sea turtles. Some other interesting things we saw were sea horses (which I haven’t seen anywhere else), giant lobsters and king crabs and some sea weeds that looked like worms sticking out of the ground. We really had a great time there!

Sea Turtles at Chumauri Aquarium.

Sea horses at Chumauri Aquarium.

The biggest tank at Churaumi Aquarium.

After a full day of touring around the island we ended up having dinner at a Canadian Pub, not very Japanese of us but it felt like home. I must also mention here that on that evening I celebrated Mexico winning gold at the London Olympics in soccer with a Corona beer.

The following day we went on a tour to an island 20 minutes way from Naha. This tour was great, they only took us to the island and then we were given 4 hours to go wild and go swimming, snorkeling and all. We rented snorkeling equipment and I literally spent 3.5 hours snorkeling and swimming. The snorkeling was fantastic especially because after visiting the Aquarium we actually saw the fish that we saw in the Aquarium in the sea. My favourite was a little shy clown fish that kept hiding every time I tried to swim towards it. We had a great time and it was exactly what we had gone to Okinawa for. Just fantastic!

An island off of Naha, great snorkeling spot!

We’ve made it to Okinawa!

On our last day we took a taxi to a beach just out of Naha. We spent a couple of hours swimming and having an awesome time. Unfortunately, we weren’t too smart and didn’t rent an umbrella and we got burned pretty badly. The plane ride back was a painful one but we arrived home with big smiles on our faces, feeling relaxed and ready to tackle the last part of summer. Okinawa was just awesome!

Golden Week!

For Golden Week holidays I went to Kyoto and Tokyo. It was my 5th visit to Kyoto, which has become my favourite city in Japan. It has everything you would expect to see in Japan, temples and shrines, geishas, modern buildings, great food and lovely, kind people.

I went with my friends Jen who was visiting from Australia on her way back to Canada and my friend Rachel who lives in the same town where I live. Then Thomas joined us for the Tokyo leg of the holidays.

I will try to write as much as  can about the places we visited and the things we saw, or at least as much as I can remember.

The end of the cherry blossom season at Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto.

Naoshima and Takamatsu

After my summer trip home I was very very busy. I finished working for an English company and moved on to a new one at the beginning of October. When I changed jobs I was able to take days off during national holidays, so during a national holiday in the month of October Thomas and I decided to go on a mini-holiday to one of the prefectures adjacent to ours: Takamatsu. Takamatsu is where the head office of the company I work for now is located and is on the other side of Shikoku Island that takes us to Okayama and Honshu Island.

Art by Yayoi Kusama.

We woke up early on Saturday morning and took the express train to Takamatsu. However the train we went on splits into 2 different trains somewhere on the way and when I realized that we were on the wrong side of the train, we were crossing the bridge that takes us out of the island! So we got off at the first stop after crossing the bridge and just took the next train going the opposite way. We were not fussed up about our mistake though. We were on holidays! but we did loose some time getting back on track and thus we were late catching the ferry that would take us to the art island of Naoshima.

Naoshima is a lovely, artsy island with art scattered all around it. We had a fun time walking around and enjoying one of the last summer weekends. The thing I enjoy the most about Naoshima is its onsen. Naoshima has a very cool onsen called I Love Yu and inside there are Japanese erotic pictures inside the bath and around the shower area. I just find it fascinating to see all that Japanese art and being able to hear the men on the other side of the wall, although we can’t see them. Plus the name of the onsen is pretty cool! We went to a couple of museums and walked around the island. Thomas went into the onsen but I didn’t have enough time so I waited for him outside and had some awesome takoyaki by the port, before taking the ferry back to Takamatsu where we stayed overnight.

Takoyaki man.

We had dinner at a Spanish restaurant in downtown Takamatsu. It wasn’t great, but after living in Japan for a while now I just enjoy having non-Japanese food very now and then. After dinner we ended up at a teeny tiny bar that if I look for it again I will not be able to find it. The barman did not speak English but he was very kind and super nice.

On sunday we spent the day in Takamatsu. We rented bikes and went around the city. The main sightseeing spot in Takamatsu is Ritsurin Park. It is the largest of the registered 194 Cultural Heritage Gardens in Japan. It is absolutely beautiful with many bonsai trees, ponds filled with koi fish and arranged and maintained in a very traditional Japanese style. We walked around it, had lunch and even took a nap there. In the afternoon we took the 1.5 hour train ride home and got ready to go back to work the next day. The trip to Takamatsu was very relaxing. After a somewhat stressful summer and some big changes it was an opportunity to  be thankful that things turned around for me and that I would be able to look forward to fall and winter in a much healthier environment as far as my work and living arrangements are concerned.

Here are some pictures from our mini-weekend trip!

Thomas on the ferry ride.

Naoshima Island.

Having fun.

Found some new friends.

Ritsurin Park.

Golden Week: Malaysia

Petronas Towers in KL

This year for Golden Week I went to Malaysia for 10 days. I wasn’t sure where to go and booked my flights quite late, but was glad to find a great country to go to for a low price. Perfect!

I went to Malaysia via Hong Kong, however I wasn’t there long enough to see much more than the buildings in Macau from the airport. I have to say though that Hong Kong looks pretty interesting and modern. Having many friends working/living there I should definitely take advantage and go visit them. Anyways I made it into Kuala Lumpur, jumped on a taxi and made it to my hostel in the middle of Downtown Kuala Lumpur.

The first night I just crashed but the next day I woke up bright and early and just began walking all over. I did a couple of walking tours by myself. I walked around Downtown, I visited a couple of mosques, got lost more than a couple of times, found my way again and continued on my way. I also went to the market and began to fill up my suitcase! I think I can say that I am not a big shopper. Most of the times that I have gone to the shopping mall in Niihama, I have walked empty handed. I’m a pretty picky shopper, but every time I go to Southeast Asia I can’t stop shopping. I love how colourful everything is, and I love the fabrics, designs, and choice of the clothing and accessories. So, needless to say on my way back to Japan my suitcase broke!

I was also very excited about this trip because I would be able to meet with a couple of friends from my time in Niseko, Hokkaido. I met with both Yui and Michelle. It was fantastic to see them both, even if it was a little odd to see them wearing flip flops and shorts instead of our eternal ski jackets and toque uniform that we donned for 4 months straight. Yui’s family actually lives in KL, so she was our tour guide of sorts. We had lunch together and then we headed to Michelle’s place of residence in KL, the Hilton Kuala Lumpur. I asked her how on earth could she be there, but she reminded me about a friend’s of hers who are good customers of the Hilton and do they offered her the stay. Even better? Michelle offered me to stay with her too, so this is how I spent 1 night at the Hilton Kuala Lumpur and if I may say so myself, it was incredible! We went swimming on the pool, had dinner at the executive lounge (it was actually something similar to ‘happy hour’ but there was so much food, we decided to make it dinner), and the best part was the super comfy bed. I have to say those hotels have some very comfy beds… wait no the best part was the free buffet style breakfast. They had everything: fruits, juices, toast, french toast, pancakes, syrups, baked goods, the works. I ate so much I thought I wouldn’t have any more food for the rest of the day.

A market in Downtown KL

Yet, we had to say a big Thank You to the family who let us stay there for the night, so we went to visit them at their condominium right besides the Twin Towers. Well, we were to meet them for lunch, but we couldn’t possibly eat anymore! Yet, for round two we had steak, mashed potatoes, friend potatoes, gravy, it was like a Christmas dinner, and I felt terrible because I just couldn’t possibly eat anymore. That day we also went to the club and went swimming and ended up spending the whole day in their company. They were incredibly generous with us but at the end of a very busy day, Michelle and I got back on the subway and headed towards our own hostels. So the rest of my adventure continued.

Sunset in Langkawi

After KL, I took a plane to the beautiful island of Langkawi. Langkawi means eagle in Malay language and there are hundreds of eagles living here. Langkawi also has beautiful beaches, awesome food and relax feeling. Every morning I would buy fresh fruit, water, and walk down to the beach with my book and iPod ready to enjoy the sun. I went swimming, I tanned and I went on 2 tours. The first one I went on a mangrove tour, with a bunch of cool people. We went to a couple of fish farms, planted our own mangroves, went into a bat cave and never saw an alligator, but had the best meal of the whole trip. Fried fish that was caught just a few minutes earlier, a lot of fruits and veggies and a ton of local cuisine. I had a lot of fun! The second tour was not really a tour. A guy from Korea wanted to go up the gondola on the other side of the island. So I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and went up with him. We made sure to go early but the line was so long by the time we got there, but the wait was totally worth it. We got the best view of the island from up there and it was exciting to walk on the suspended bridge. Maybe a little scary, since some of the gaps were a little big and I thought I was going to fall right through. The funny part was some of the children looking excited going up but then as soon as they stepped on the bridge would begin screaming from how scared they were. Well, I thought it was a little funny.

Well holidays always come to an end, and soon enough I was arriving back in Osaka. Unfortunately I arrived on the last day of the Golden Week holidays and the highway was packed, so it took me an extra 2 hours to get back to Niihama. Once I was home, though I was happy to be back and relaxed after a 10 days holidays. Malaysia was lovely, and I would certainly recommend it as a place to visit. The people are warm and accommodating,  the food is fantastic and the culture is fascinating. A mixture of hinduism and Islam together with a big Chinese presence it was definitely a great learning experience.

A mosque in KL

The infamous fish foot massage. Don't think I'll be doing that again...

Sydney!

While in Australia I spent 2 weeks in Brisbane, then flew to Sydney for 4 days and back to Brisbane to catch my plane back to Japan. This was my trip to Sydney:

Sydney has been a city that I had been wanting to visit for quite some time. I’m not quite sure why, I would hate to say because of ‘Finding Nemo’ but it probably is, so I was very excited when I arrived to Sydney. However I had the shock of my life soon after arriving when I came to the conclusion that Sydney has got to be one of the most expensive cities I have ever been to!

 

Yet, I knew that chances were that I wouldn’t be back for many years to come so I had to take advantage of my time there. On my first evening I met up with my friend Sarah, who I admire very much as a friend. We always have great conversations, she somehow has an incredible ability to be positive and to be aware that things will work out in theend, and most importantly (and I wish I had this quality) Sarah is amazing at keeping her stress to herself. So it was great to see her again. We walked around Sydney and went to have the most delicious Chinese dumplings in Chinatown.

The next couple of days are hard to remember but I went for a run along the beach every morning,  went swimming, laid down on the beach almost every day (life was rough) and just took advantage of the beach culture of Australia. I wish I could go to work and then go to the beach at the end of the day! Sarah and I also took a ferry ride to Manly Beach where we spent our lunch scaring the seagulls away from our fish and chips. Those things have no fear, one of them totally swooped and stole a chip from my hand and another almost landed on Sarah’s head, which made her shriek and I think that’s what scared the seagull away.

I also went on a tour of the Sydney Opera House. It was really interesting and I was glad I was able to go because I got a glimpse of  the Australian Ballet Company practicing for their Christmas performance of The Nutcraker. I enjoy ballet very much, so I was in awe for the 3 minutes that I was there. Some fun facts about the Opera House: the tiles are actually not white but off-white because if they were white one would not be able to stare at the building during sunny days because of how bright it would be. The carpet on the stairs leading to the main hall are purple so when Luciano Pavarotti was there for a photo-shoot he refused to step on the stairs because purple is the colour of death in Italian society, so the photo-shoot had to change to a different location. He also charged the most expensive ticket for a performance in the history of the building. Coldplay recorded one of their albums there and the only time the tiles have been washed was when a Green Peace demonstrator wrote an anti-war slogan on the tiles.. he was of course, arrested soon after.

Another day I went to Taronga Zoo! I don’t particularly like zoos, but I have to say Taronga zoo is quite beautiful. To begin with all of the animals have been bred within the property of the zoo, so it made me feel slightly better to see the animals in closed spaces, although the tigers need WAY more space. Also the animals in there had to be some of the most clean and beautiful animals I have seen in a zoo. My sole reason of going though was so that I could touch a koala. Before going to Australia I thought Koalas were adorable, but now I might have changed my mind. To begin with they have some scary looking claws that look as though they could take your eyes out. Also they don’t do, or move for that matter, a heck of a lot. They pretty much just sat there, sleeping in  that uncomfortable position, on the same tree branch all day long (the reason is that eucalyptus makes them way too sleepy). Most disappointing was the fact that I simply couldn’t touch them. To take pictures with them was way too expensive and even then, you still can’t touch them, so I just took pictures of them instead. Even though they didn’t live up to my expectations koalas still have adorable faces and if it wasn’t for those terrifying looking claws I might have tried to steal one. My favourite animal was the Australian pelicans.. those guys were awesome! They have this HUGE neck and they wobble around and are pretty tall! I had never seen one before so I was a little freaked out when I first saw them, but they were by far one of the coolest animals I saw there. Overall, I was quite pleased with my visit to the zoo and I felt like a little kid all over again, which is a good feeling to have every now and then.

On my last evening I went to an Indonesian restaurant with Sarah and after many goodbyes and promises to see each other again in the near future, it was time for me to say also goodbye to Sydney before heading back to Brisbane for a few more days before heading back to Japan.

 

Oz!… Brisbane

Well it has been ages since I updated the blog. There are quite a few reasons for that though. First I was traveling throughout November, so it was difficult to update it then and once I arrived in Hokkaido it became quite evident that updates would not be happening for the time that I was to remain there. For being Japan and for being a Hilton Hotel, Hokkaido had the slowest internet speed I have EVER experienced. It was frustrating and downright annoying, but there was nothing I could do about it. Now I am back in my apartment in Niihama and ready to update you all with my adventures from the last four months (or at least as much as I can remember). Cheers!

So after a tearful goodbye I left Niihama on November 8th, 2010 (wow, that was a long time ago) and headed to Australia where I met up with 3 of my dearest friends: Jen, Alexa and Sarah. I arrived to Brisbane and ran straight into my friend Jen’s arms. It had been a couple of years since we had last seen each other and it was wonderful to see her again! Alexa was also there waiting for me and we pretty much tried to catch-up on everything that went on in the last year or so in about 3 hours (though that was impossible). My days in Brisbane were lovely. It was the beginning of summer, so the weather while humid and sticky was quite lovely as Japan had begun to feel cold again. I stayed at Jen’s for about a week and we spent a lovely week walking around Brisbane and even took a 2 day camping trip to Moreton Bay where we had the time of our lives snorkeling (we saw a shark!), sandboarding and just lying on the beach… AMAZING! Jen and I also went to watch West Side Story the Musical. I have to say West Side Story is not one of my favourite movies BUT the play was awesome and we both came out singing and dancing to the songs. Afterwards I stayed with Alexa who happens to be one of the funniest persons I know, so never a dull moment with her around.  I met Alexa while living in Japan so it was good for me to be with someone who had already gone through the same emotional roller coaster that I was experiencing at the time and to see her so happy and content with what she was doing now. Overall Brisbane was great, relaxing place to be in after leaving Japan. It was nice to be with people that I love and to remember that there are many places and adventures waiting for me out there. Here are some of the pictures from my time in Brisbane. After Brisbane I went to see the beautiful Sarah in Sydney, but more about that later…

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