Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Big Day Out: Saskatoon

I've been back in Canada for almost a year now and was supposed to be leaving to return back to Japan next month.  Due to circumstances out of my control, unfortunately this won't be happening.  I don't see any travel plans in the near future because of health problems and for anyone who knows me, this is pretty much my version of hell.  As someone literally addicted to travel and who was/is seriously considering trying to make a career out of it in the near future, this has been pretty tough and no one quite understands this feeling quite like other like-minded individuals.

But then I got to thinking as to exactly what it is about travelling I love so much.  It isn't about going to exotic locations where you don't understand anything.  Nor is it about jumping on a plane or lying on a beach or spending a ton of money.  It can be these things, but it doesn't have to be.  Last summer, I went travelling in Canada for the first time in my life (well, the first time that it was just for the sake of travelling, rather than going to visit someone or in transit to somewhere else).  For the longest time, I wasn't interested in seeing my own country, simply because it wasn't different enough.  But as I've travelled more, I've realized travelling is about seeing something new, even if it means going to a festival or museum in your hometown you've never gone to or a restaurant with different cuisine you've never tried.  How many people actually go sightseeing around where they're from (I mean unless you're a Parisian, hopefully you've hit up the Louvre!).  When I left Europe, I realized I didn't really do much local sight seeing in any of the four locations I'd lived, so I made an effort to change that when I lived in Japan.  It's too easy to get caught up in daily life and it's always nice to know a little about the place you're currently calling home.

So a few weeks ago, when I found out the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon (where I currently am) was holding a free day, my broke ass was pretty excited!  And even doubly excited when I found out there was also a winter festival with ice sculptures on in the city!

The Western Development Museum has four branches around the province, yet this is the first time I've ever been to one.  The point of the museum itself is pretty self explanatory: it records the early and ongoing development of the province, with each branch focusing on something different (ie. agriculture, economy, transportation, or people).  The museum also offers short courses in things like blacksmithing.  There really is something for everyone.  Admittedly, I was pretty bored at the beginning; it was just like walking through my dad's shop at the farm, full of old horse harnesses and the like.  But once I learned the 'Boomtown' exhibits were actually old buildings from the early settler days, I was a little more impressed.  There's also a huge display of vintage cars and farm equipment, as well as more modern exhibitions, which made me feel pretty old.  I was particularly interested in the section on the Dirty 30's and anything after that, as it reminded me a lot of stories I heard growing up.


This free day was actually part of the city's Heritage Festival, but a little internet research dug up the fact that this year marks 65 years of the Western Development Museum in the province, and as such, anyone turning 65 this year gets free admission on their birthday, as well as a gift.  As well, to mark the anniversary, on Sunday, April 6, 2014, admission will only be 65 cents.

The second part of our big day out was taking in the ice sculptures near the Farmer's Market which were part of the PotashCorp WinterShines Festival.  This festival goes on for just over a week at the end of January, right in the dead of a prairie winter, when we all need cheering up the most!  This was the first time I've been to it, and found out about it just before it was finished for another year.  There's a soup cook off, ice park and sleigh rides for the kiddies, and all sorts of other fun wintery events.


All in all, it was a great day and did the job of curing the winter blues, even if just for a few hours.  I'm here until at least August, but if there's one time of year I do love in Saskatoon, it's the summer.  For such a small city, it really does have a lot of great festivals: the Fringe Festival, the Jazz Festival, Taste of Saskatchewan, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, and of course Folk Fest, just to name a few...I'm
looking forward to it!


Friday, February 14, 2014

Afternoon Fling in Firenze

In honour of Valentine's day, I felt it was time  for a love story, inspired by true events:

I had been visiting my friend Ade in Bologna where she was teaching at a preschool.

After spending a weekend together partying, she had to go back to work, but I was staying on in her flat for a few more days and decided to take a day trip to Florence.  I caught the train in the morning and arrived, unsure of what there was to see, not having researched it at all.  By this time in my amateur travelling career, I was learning to just wing it and see where the day took me.  I stopped at a cafe in the train station, lured by the smell of coffee beans and stood at the counter sipping on a bitter espresso while quickly glancing through a brochure for the city I had just picked up.  Throughout my travels in Europe, I had also become a fan of Boticelli, so the Uffizi Gallery seemed the place to go.

I walked out of the station into the bright, crisp October air, heading in the general direction of the Uffizi.  After not long, I stumbled upon the Duomo, one of the 'Big Three' of Italy.  Not having planned to go to Florence at all, I at first didn't realize what I was looking at, but it was so beautiful, I couldn't help walking around it, snapping pictures from every angle.

Surrounding it were stalls, mainly selling souvenirs, but some with painters as well, inspired by one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  A man called out to me and I ignored him.  I had just come from Istanbul weeks earlier and was well versed in ignoring the cat calls of eager men.

The painter left his stall and approached me.

"You're beautiful," he told me.

I mumbled a word of thanks and tried to continue on my way but he kept on.

"Can I paint you?  You have beautiful eyes."

This was a new one and made me stop for a split second, which was all the encouragement he needed.  He decided to change his tactics.

"Where are you going?"

I finally looked at him, until now he had just been in the corner of my eye.  I hadn't wanted to make eye contact, for fear it would encourage him.  He was short - for a man, meaning he was only a smidge taller than me - , in his forties, average build, brunette hair with a few silver wisps.  And the most beautiful gray eyes.  He was wearing loose jeans and an old worn blue, red, black, and white leather jacket, the kind that was popular in the 90's.  I couldn't speak for a second, I was so taken aback by this gorgeous man who had just called me beautiful.  I had never been attracted to older men, but it looked like that was about to change.  My wariness was wavering.  I told myself he was just a stereotypical Italian man, who knew his way around women and probably hit young naive tourists on a daily basis.  But I didn't care, because out of the crowd, he had chosen me today.  Whether it was because I was alone and easy prey, or because he truly thought I was beautiful, I didn't care.

I hesitated, before replying, "I'm looking for the Uffizi Gallery."

"I'll take you there."

And without waiting for a response, he stepped into stride along side me and I had no choice.  He left his painting stall and motorbike as though he did this sort of thing every day, which he very well may have.  Perhaps he gave a nod to one of his fellow painters to ask them to keep an eye on his things and I just hadn't noticed.

I don't remember his name anymore, but he spoke perfect English and was from Albania, not Italy, although he had been living in Florence for years.  We started walking down a small street of cafes and shops.  Suddenly he asked me if I wanted some wine.

I looked at him.  "Uh..."  It was barely noon on a weekday.  Without waiting for an answer, he walked into a cafe.  I followed, thinking we were going to sit down and have a glass....maybe with lunch.

He bought a bottle and when he asked for two paper cups, the clerk handed them to him from a stack without blinking an eyelid.

Admittedly by this point, I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable and like I was never going to actually get to the Uffizi, but I didn't say anything and followed him quietly.  Thoughts of underground sex trades were starting to run through my head and I regretted wearing a mini skirt to walk around on my own.  I reminded myself we were in public.

We eventually came to the river and started walking across the Ponte alle Grazie.  We stopped and he pointed out the next bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, first built around 996 and the only bridge in the city not destroyed by the retreating Germans during World War 2.  It is one of the few remaining bridges still lined with shops, as was the Medieval style.  Beyond it is the St. Trinity Bridge, the "oldest elliptic arch bridge in the world".

As we crossed the river, he pointed to the right and showed me where his apartment building was.  To my relief, we turned left at the end and continued walking along the river a ways, before he stopped and set the two cups out on the little wall and filled them with wine.  He handed me one, touched his to mine, and said "Cheers".

For a long time we didn't say anything, just sipped at the wine and gazed out at the breathtaking scene in front of us.  The dry, orange leaves that had already fallen off swirled at my feet as the breeze picked up a little and I shivered.  He took off his jacket and draped it across my shoulders.  Then he hopped up on the little wall and pulled me into him.  We stayed like that for awhile, he shielding me from the wind and me staring at the river over his shoulder.  After what seemed like an eternity, I began pulling away. And then he kissed me and I felt my stomach doing flip flops and my head spin, like it was my first kiss.

He eventually hopped down off the wall and took my hand.  The bottle of wine was finished and I suppose he had to get back to work.  We walked back across the river and not long after he pointed down a street and said, "The Uffizi is down that way."  We had passed it earlier.

We couldn't have know each other more than an hour, but somehow, it felt so much longer.  He must have seen the look on my face because he held my face in his hands, looked into my eyes, and whispered, "I'm so happy I met you today.  I hope to see you again one day in Florence and you will let me paint you."  He kissed me on the lips one last time and was gone.

I was the definition of speechless and stood, watching him walk away with his hands in his pockets, wishing I could form the words to ask him for some way to contact him.  It was the information age after all, and there were no excuses.  He turned and saw me watching him, gave a small smile and wave and just like that, he was gone in the crowd.

I spent the rest of the afternoon looking at art so beautiful it's been known to make people pass out.  But I couldn't take my mind off my Albanian painter.  In the early evening, on my way back to the train station, I passed by the Duomo again, but his stall was gone.  I began to think my story of an afternoon stroll along the river in Florence with a painter and a bottle of wine was just a figment of my imagination, it sounded so cliche.  That night I returned back to my friends flat and told her all about as she listened in disbelief.

"Ziggy!" she screamed in that passionate Italian way of hers.  "How could you not get his e-mail?!  You are his muse! We must go back and fine him!"

A few months later, I found myself on the train through Florence again and had the overwhelming urge to get off and have a look around the Duomo, but I didn't (if only because I was with my father).  To this day, my painter remains one of my favourite travel memories, for the pure cliche of the story and for knowing that somewhere out there, there remains at least one old fashioned, romantic man, who wants nothing more than to create a good story.  Needless to say, I didn't see much of Florence, but I'm pretty sold on the city and the men

.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bucket List 2014

Before I left for Europe in 2007, a co-worker asked me what my travel goal was.  I hadn't really thought about it; I had a travel bucket list (consisting of: EVERYWHERE), but I hadn't ever really thought consciously of a goal.  I replied to him 'I want to live on every continent'.  Seven years and two continents later, this is still my goal.  Although I sometimes feel like I haven't accomplished much travelling (this scratch map I got as a gift made me realize just how big the world is and just how little I've seen), when I think back to things that used to be on my bucket list that I've now seen or done, it's a pretty good feeling.  Just because I didn't have a physical list to check them off, doesn't mean I haven't accomplished things I wanted to.  I've taught English in Japan, been in a film in Scotland, heard a muezzin calling to prayer in Istanbul, been ripped off in Budapest, brought in the New Year singing karaoke in Seoul, slept on a beach in Australia, camped in the Rockies, seen the sun set from Santorini, caught a midnight train from Paris, seen sumo in Osaka, eaten pizza in Naples, harvested potatoes in Switzerland, paid $12 for a shower in Hong Kong, lied to immigration officials, missed flights, been sick, slept in countless airports and NEVER had my luggage lost OR anything stolen (knock on wood).  I've also done a lot I never planned on doing (ie. becoming a ninja in Kyoto), but that's part of the joys of travelling!  So here's my current, ever-evolving list of travel aspirations:

1. Work on a kibbutz in Israel - The hippie/farmer in me has wanted to live and work in one of these communities for a long time.  I have a feeling I'll say I'll stay for a month and end up not wanting to leave it sounds so up my alley.

2. Travel the Trans-Siberian railway - Being part Russian, I've always wanted to see where my grandmother's family came from.  I would love to be able to go to Russia with my grandma, but seeing as she's 96, I don't think that will happen.  So that plus my love of train travel combined sounds like the perfect adventure for me!

3. Volunteer/live in India - India is definitely up there in my top places to travel and has been for a long time as well.  Because of my interest in pursuing a second degree in international development, one of my travel goals has been to volunteer along the way. In India, I particularly want to go to Goa, the old hippie hangout of the 60s and 70s (see a hippie trend here?)

4. Take a safari in East Africa - Africa is one of those places that everyone I meet who has gone there says it will steal your heart and you'll never want to go elsewhere.  Perhaps this is my excuse for leaving it waiting for so long.  But no trip to Africa would be complete without seeing the great migration on the Serengeti in the summer months.  The whole goal of volunteering goes for here as well.

5. Travel more of Europe (particularly Scandinavia and Eastern Europe) - After living in Europe for two years, there's so much more I want to see.  Some of my favourite cities I've ever been to are Prague and Budapest so I'd love to see more of Eastern Europe.  As well, a lot of my best friends while living in Australia were from the Scandinavian countries, so I really want to be able to visit them again.

6. Travel across Canada - It's confession time.  Before this past summer, I had only been to two provinces in Canada (besides seeing the insides of airports).  I guess the lure of somewhere far away and exotic had me saving every penny to hop on a plane out of here again!  So of course, I'd like to see my own country a bit more and visit friends and family along the way.

7. Egypt and the Sahara - A great wonder of the ancient world...need I say more?

8. Go to the Antarctica - This is so very expensive and so very far off into the future but no bucket list would be complete without it! Perhaps via South America?

9. Study Spanish in South America - Spanish is one language I've always wanted to learn because it's used in so many countries around the world.  Instead of doing it as a minor at school, why not just go live there and learn it by immersion?

10. See Morocco -  Ever since I was in Spain, I've been kicking my butt I didn't head over to Morocco...perhaps one day.

11. Climb a mountain (either Everest, Fuji, or Kilimanjaro) - After the past few years, health is becoming a new found priority of mine, so perhaps one day this can be a reality.

12. Go to Petra - I'm not an Indiana Jones fan BESIDES the fact that this was in the movie.

13. The Amazon River and Rainforest - I've been obsessed with going here every since I was in elementary school playing The Amazon Trail in computer class (perhaps I should do The Oregon Trail as well?).  I also really loved Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Perhaps these games are what started it all...?

14. Stay in an ice hotel - There's one in Quebec, there's one in Sweden...seeing as these are both on this list, there's no excuse!

15. Angkor Wat - Because lost cities are where it's at!

16. Macchu Pichu - Speaking of lost cities...












17. Easter Island - ...and uber remote islands.
















18. Rio de Janeiro - I've dreamt of seeing the Christ the Reedemer statue ever since I dated a guy who had it on his favourite T-shirt...weird reason, I know.

19. NYC - In keeping with the whole "let's see some things on my own continent" theme.  I've never felt particularly drawn to North America, but the more I travel, the more I realize travel is about going somewhere you've never been, it doesn't necessarily have to be across the ocean where you don't understand the language.  And I really like RENT.

20. Cruise Ship - I don't want to GO on a cruise ship, it's not really down with my style of travel.  Rather, I'd like to work on one, or better yet, volunteer on the Peace Boat.

21. Great Wall of China - Because it can be seen from space!!!!












22. Return to Australia/New Zealand - Last October marked my ten year anniversary of setting out in this weird and wonderful world on my own.  Australia holds a special place in my heart for many reasons; it was the first place I lived overseas and first place I travelled on my own at the mere age of 20.  It showed me what travel is and inspired me to do more.  As cliche as it is, it's where I found myself, or at least a huge chunk of me.  Ever since I left in 2004, I've said I'll be back and I hope to make that dream a reality soon.  Plus, I never actually saw New Zealand in the year I was there (too busy partying...hey, I was 20!)


















23. Backpack Central America - I need to continue practicing that Spanish I learned in South America as I work my way back North!

24. Go to California - If I had to choose any State to visit, this would be it.  So many cool cities (LA, San Fran, San Diego), great weather, and everyone I've ever met from Cali has been so stereotypically Californian (laid back, down to earth and awesome!)  I wouldn't mind timing it in order to hit up Coachella as well.

25. Victoria Falls and the Devil's Pool - The Falls alone look amazing, but the Devil's Pool (a sort of natural infinity pool formed right on the edge of the waterfall during the dry season, which you can sit in if you dare) looks like an amazing experience.

26. Galapagos Islands - I may not be using my science degree, but I'm still a bit of a geek deep down. Ever since first learning about Darwin's Theory of Evolution as a youngster, these islands have been on my hit list.



27. Open a hostel - OK, so this is YEARS down the road, but I already have it all planned out in my head.  The problem now is where to settle down to actually have it!  We all know the best hostels are run by former travellers.

28. Get a better blog/be more dedicated to it - This is something I'm hoping to do within the next year.  New domain, much more regularity to when I post, and hopefully better writing!

I should probably stop at some point, I could really go on forever...go to the Olympics, learn to swim (so I can surf and scuba dive)...the list really is endless.  If I can come back to this post in a year and cross a few things off I'll be more than happy!  And hopefully I'll have discovered a few more amazing places to add.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Travel Hacks #1: Solid Liquids

The first time I went abroad alone was to Australia for 6 months (which quickly turned into 10).  My main suitcase was a massive 32 kg.  This was 10 years ago and luggage weights were much more lenient and generous if I recall correctly.  I remember a bus driver loading it for me and asking if I was moving for a year...no, only 10 months.  This was even before I travelled with a laptop, digital SLR, etc.

Since then, I've learned to pack much more efficiently, even though I'm still a girl and not as compact as many travellers...I love my girly things and electronics and there are just some things you can't sacrifice when on the road for extended periods of time.  When I first went to Japan 3 years ago, my whole life was on my back in less than 17 kg (that's almost cut in half!).  Now I have an apartment full of stuff there spread out in 3 locations, just waiting for me to come back, and the luggage on the way back is going to be packed to the limit (mainly full of quinoa, toothpaste, and deodorant).

But living abroad and travelling are different things and when I'm travelling, I have my whole world on my back and want to make it as light as possible.  So the next time I went abroad to Europe in 2007, I changed a few things.  The thing which probably made the biggest difference was solid liquids, and since then, my back (and knees!) has really thanked me.  I even managed 2 weeks around Spain with only a school sized backpack.

The only solid shampoo and conditioner I've used is from Lush.  I'm sure there are others out there, but considering it's the one I was first introduced to and I have no problem with it, I've stuck with it.  Lush is also in 51 countries around the world, so no matter where you are, you're bound to be able to hit one up soon if you run out.  There are around 8 different shampoo bars, giving you lots of choice for your needs, 2 conditioner bars, and 1 all in one.  You can even buy a convenient carrying case for them.  While I love the idea of Lush, the smells aren't always something I want a whiff of everytime the wind blows.  I tried a few different bars before I settled on "Ultimate Shine" as my favourite, both in terms of smell and how well it does the job.  Retailing for around $12 Canadian, it may seem a lot, but keep in mind, even with every day use, these bars last me at least 3-4 months.  The conditioner (featured on the right in the picture), is called "Jungle".  It costs a little less, but honestly, once this bar is gone, I probably won't be purchasing another one, as it doesn't really seem to condition the way a liquid does and makes me smell like a hippie (more than I want to anyway).  If you're a guy (or a girl who's not picky), of course you can just make do with a bar of soap for all your cleaning needs.

The other solid liquid which has saved my life is solid perfume.  This not only lightens the load, it also relieves the stress of packing expensive glass bottles of perfume (I've never done this, but know of people who have with disastrous results).  These are a little easier to come by, but once again Lush carries them.  The only one I've tried by them is "Vanillary" and I really liked it.  The $10 tube lasted over a year of weekend getaways and 3 major trips (ie. a few weeks in length).  Currently, my travel perfume is The Body Shop's "Love Etc." Another option for perfume are miniature samples.  As a Sephora junkie, I have a ton of these lying around thanks to the free samples from all my orders.  It's also a great way to get samples of anything else you might need, such as face creams.  But, if you go into any Sephora store and linger in the perfume area long enough, they're bound to offer you a few samples to try.  I haven't done this yet, but the tops of these bottles look easy enough to take off and fill with your own perfume at home once they're empty.  One of these little bottles will definitely last a week or more. Stay tuned for more travel hacks coming soon!






Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Top 11 Things I Miss About Japan

Having been away from Japan for nearly six months now, I've found myself really missing it lately and can't wait till I can go back next year.  Then I got to thinking...what is it that I actually miss?  Because, like anywhere, including Canada, there's things I love and hate....so I came up with this list. Some are things you don't even realize you'll miss until you don't have them anymore ( like my students, Engrish, and toilets that clean your butt!)

1. Shinkansen - by far the thing I probably loved the most was the shinkansen.  How can you not?  It's fast, clean, punctual, spacious, futuristic, and uber convenient, dropping you and picking you up in the city centre, unlike flying.  I'm an advocate for having bullet trains in every country of the world, even though other bullet trains I've ridden in different countries aren't nearly as awesome.  I lived in Japan nearly a year before I took the shink...I don't know why....part of it was definitely the fact that a night bus to Kyoto is cheaper, but it made me really nervous for some crazy reason...the same reason perhaps that I lived in the UK a year before hitting up London because it made me nervous (but I had no issue with Rome, Prague, Istanbul, Paris, or Athens?).  Either way, after that first ride in style up to Nagoya, I haven't looked back...it's one of the few expensive comforts I allow myself when travelling in Japan and my God is it worth it!

2. Purikura - this was again another thing I didn't do for a long time, but after awhile, every newbie I'd show around town or everyone who came to visit, got dragged into one of these booths.  Who doesn't want to be airbrushed, have the perfect amount of blush, creepily huge eyes with rainbow falsies, and accessorize themselves to look like a whorish tranny bunny?  Just don't wear green or you'll be one with the background.

3. Karaoke - I'm the first person to admit I have an absolutely horrid voice.  And a lot of the time I go to karaoke I don't sing a whole lot (there's much better singers out there, don't want to steal their thunder!) but it's nice to just sit back and relax and watch everyone have at 'er.  The original karaoke in Japan is so much better than it is in Canada because you just rent your own little room with your friends, rather than stand in a bar full of strangers!  I don't know about you, but it takes me awhile to get comfortable enough with someone to hold a conversation, never mind sing!  That being said, I have graduated from having to be incredibly drunk to sing anything to being able to sing Barbie Girl by Aqua sober with my boss on a Monday at noon.

4. Konbinis - I don't live in the urban part of Japan, at least by Japanese standards.  In fact, when I'm travelling out of my prefecture and tell Japanese people where I live, the response is always the same: laughter and Why?? Why??? My first apartment in Japan had a vending machine literally at the bottom of the stairs and when I moved I was devastated I had to walk ACROSS THE STREET to the nearest one.  (Also note: THE VENDING MACHINES GET CHANGED IN THE FALL SO SOME DRINKS ARE HOT IN THE WINTER). There was another one around back of the apartment and 3 konbinis (convenience stores) practically within arms reach.  And this is is in the inaka (countryside).  Now, convenience stores in Japan truly put to shame those in any other country.  You can do anything you want: fax, copy, buy decent semi-nutritious food, heat up your food, buy booze, buy concert tickets, tickets to sporting events, pay bills, use the ATM (7-11 banks even allow you to transfer money home through the ATM), buy bus tickets, drop off or pick up luggage from the airport, send or pick up parcels, buy stamps, print digital photos, use the toilet, some have free Wi-Fi (surprisingly uncommon in Japan), buy dish detergent at 3am.  The list is literally endless.  However, I try to avoid my local 7-11 at certain times of the night when the annoying yankee kids (the wannabe yakuza teenage boys with rhinestone Hello Kitty track suits and matching sandals) have nothing better to do than hang out outside 7-11.  This video does an excellent job of summing up both the awesomeness of konbinis and life in the inaka for teenagers (sorry it's only in Japanese, but still super catchy)

5. Kawaii-ness - No other country in the world probably loves cute things as much as Japan.  After being in Japan a year and taking a short trip to Korea, I wasn't expecting to notice the lack of cuteness quite so much.  Nearly every person in Japan, regardless of age or sex, including foreigners, has at least one favourite character.  My first was the stereotypical Hello Kitty.  I didn't even realize I loved her - my first set of chopsticks my second day in Tokyo were Hello Kitty and my first Halloween in Japan I made a zombie Hello Kitty papier mache costume.  Next came Choruru (my prefectures mascot with green mountains for hair) and Nameko (a phallic looking mushroom which is just plain wrong for little girls to be obsessed with - yes, I said it).  In Japan, it's perfectly acceptable for a 30 year old woman in a business suit to be riding the subway and pull out her iPhone rhinestone studded Hello Kitty case, complete with at least 5 keitai charms (these are yet another thing I miss...no one decorates their phone enough here!).  It's so hard coming back to Canada and having no one get as excited about my cute things as I do. (or not doing the peace sign in photos!)

Okonomiyaki
6. Tabemono -  When most people outside Japan think of Japanese food, they think of sushi. However, because of my allergies to shellfish and some other fish, I never actually ate sushi in the two plus years I was in Japan (well not sushi proper, but I ate non-fish sushi).  But there's so many other amazing foods, my favourite being okonomiyaki, meaning 'whatever you like'.  It's basically a savoury pancake with an amazing sauce, usually with a lot of cabbage, and I like mine with pork, mochi (pounded rice cakes), and cheese.  Another standard, eaten almost every day are onigiri (rice balls).  They're good either just plain, or with a filling inside, one of my favourite fillings being umeboshi (pickled plum) or kombu (a type of seaweed).  There's an awesome restaurant near where I live with HUGE onigiri with 3 fillings in each (*note: if you ever find yourself in Yamaguchi-ken, hit up Sanzoku!).  The list of awesome Japanese food goes on and on, but I'll finish with one more: yakisoba, a staple food at festivals of fried soba noodles, veggies, pork, and a yummy sauce.  Then theres udon, ramen, nabe, tonkatsu, shabu shabu, yakiniku...and don't even get me started on all the amazing mochi and anko sweet treats or the booze or flavoured Kit Kats!  And while we're on the topic food, I'm just going to quickly throw in how amazing it is that there's a button at your restaurant table to ring the waitress/waiter whenever you need something (I HATE yelling 'SUMIMASEN!'...no one ever hears me!)

7. Kotatsu - Winter hasn't hit yet in Canada, and although we have central heating and insulated houses, I know I'll be missing my kotatsu.  I wrote a blog last year on how to survive winter in Japan, so I won't go into much detail here, but there's more to a kotatsu than just being an amazing heated table with a fleecy blanket keeping it all in. It's a place to socialize, make nabe, eat Christmas dinner and watch the Grinch and pass out for a whole afternoon after surviving an overnight ferry from Korea (WARNING: You're NOT supposed to sleep under them)

Celebrities to the locals at hanami!
8. Being special - OK, this sounds a bit narcissistic, but let's face it: all travellers love being the center of attention, perhaps that's part of the reason we like to travel? But especially in a country like Japan, where the population is largely homogenous, and especially if you have blonde hair, green eyes, and more than a flat chest, you're basically an instant celebrity.  Although I still have yet to feel completely comfortable in Japan (I'm always going to be considered a giant and I still despise the little old obaa-chans peering into my shopping basket to see what gaijins eat), but I have learned to let it run off my back...I'm still dealing with the occasional blatant racism, but I think that's something one can never truly feel comfortable with...

9. Cleanliness - Pretty much the first thing I noticed when I got to Tokyo was how clean it was.  It's one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, metropolitan areas in the world and yet you would probably literally have to search high and low for a piece of litter anywhere.  When I first got to Japan, I was a smoker and I was walking down the streets of Tokyo smoking, wondering why no one else was and thinking 'Wow, they really are so healthy!'  And then I looked down and saw a sign literally painted onto the side walk saying no smoking while walking and to use the designated areas for smokers on nearly every street corner.  Now this is nice because it keeps it clean (there's no butts ANYWHERE), but I was surprised that in a busy Japanese world, they didn't walk and smoke (or eat or drink or often even talk on their phone)...way to lose time by not multi-tasking!

10. Friendliness and Politeness - This has been a bit of a double edged sword for me, because I don't ever feel like anyone is being truly sincere.  So in a way it's nice to come back to a country where people show their feelings and say what they're thinking, but at other times it drives me insane.  Both my bosses in Japan told me I'm Japanese in this respect, because it's hard to see how I feel about something, so I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing (if you want to read a bit more on this subject, google 'honne and tatemae or this cartoon describes it pretty well in a nutshell).  My second day in Japan I was looking for the Working Holiday Office in Tokyo (which promised to assist me in job hunting, finding an apartment, setting up a bank account, etc.) and I couldn't find it so the woman in the post office I asked literally walked down the street with me about two blocks to take me right to it - turns out it no longer existed and so my plans for starting life in a new country were screwed but that's beside the point.  That would NEVER happen here.  Nor would two 20 year olds working in a 7-11 photo copy a map and spend ten minutes comparing it their smart phones and explaining where we should go because we didn't have a smart phone or GPS.  That shit don't happen in Canada, no matter how nice we think we are.

11. Hyaku yen Shops - 100 yen shops are basically like dollar stores here in North America or the pound shops in the UK with one vital difference: they're awesome.  Of course there's the usual crap you expect for so cheap but then there's the actual decent quality stuff that's amazing.  I've got some really cute dishes there, cheap spices, onigiri molds, nori stamps for putting kawaii faces on my onigiri, all my shodo supplies before I committed and invested in the good stuff...the list goes on and on.  And for someone like me who had to furnish their apartment from scratch, unlike a lot of foreigners I know, this place (Daiso in particular), literally saved my bank account.  There are even 100 yen grocery stores.  Also on my favourite stores list that i MUST mention is Tokyu Hands, but nowhere near as cheap!

And there you have it!  I could go on and on the more I think about it.  Let me know if I missed anything!

Sanzoku Onigiri!

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Dying Wish Tour - Pretty Overload, You May Malfunction

A blog entry is long overdue, but alas, I have a relatively good explanation this time!  Since April I've had to take an unexpected, unwelcome, temporary hiatus from living abroad (explanation in another entry to follow) and since this is a travelling/living abroad blog, I haven't had much to write about...until now!

In July, I had the pleasure of travelling around my own country (CANADA!) for two weeks...this seems like a long time but considering the size of the country I managed to see maybe .01% of the actual land mass.  This is pretty exciting for me because although I have lived in 7 different countries on 4 continents, the most I've seen of Canada has been the inside of airports and the wheat fields of my own province, and I must say it was spec-fucking-tacular (pardon the French).  Seriously though, Canada is pretty amazingly jaw droppingly beautiful....even though I do say that about every country I've been.  I think Japan, being so different, has really made me appreciate Canada more than anywhere else I've lived.  Japan is beautiful of course...there's nothing quite like seeing the bamboo covered mountains swaying in the wind, the delicate cherry blossoms falling to the ground at the end of their short existence, a big, fat, greedy koi begging for food from a clear temple pond, your first Shinkansen ride, the crazy neon-ness of Akihabara, the sky reflected in a freshly planted rice paddy, or that first time you see a maiko-san shuffling through the ancient streets of Kyoto....the list goes on and on. Every time I've come back from somewhere, I couldn't wait to move on.  But this time, the wide open spaces, the uncrowded cities, the people and how REAL they are (anyone who's lived in Japan knows what I'm talking about), and just the independence of knowing what's going on and being able to do anything and everything myself was a giant relief and, even though the circumstances haven't been ideal, I've been happy to be back.

Anyways...Rockies...I started by taking a 10 hour bus to meet my friend in Edmonton.  Public transportation in Canada is HORRIBLE....this drive should have taken 5 hours at the absolute most...but hey when you're unemployed, disabled, and a temporary citizen, there's no point in buying a vehicle.  The bus arrived more than an hour late as well.  After that my friend picked me up and we drove another 2 hours to his brothers to pick up his camper and stay for the night.

Day 2 we drove from Plamondon, AB. to Jasper, AB. (total of about six hours driving) and stayed at the Wapiti campground for two nights.  There we met with my good friend Nik and his girlfriend Pat who were visiting from Switzerland...awesome timing!  Nik and I met ten years ago in Australia, travelled together a bit there, I've been to see him in Switzerland at least 4 times I remember (there's usually a lot of snuff and booze involved so it could have been more), met in Munich for Oktoberfest once, met in London for a night of drunkeness once and he also lived in Canada awhile so we've met up here at least 3 times I remember.  Nik's a lot like me in that he gets antsy being anywhere and cannot make a travel plan so we've been incredibly lucky we've managed to see each other as much as we could over the years; this time was probably the longest stretch we've gone not seeing each other...almost 4 years!  While in Jasper, we wandered around the town, went to the top of Whistlers Mountain, saw some wildlife, went for a little walk, made smores, drank, and did a lot of snuff.

After a few days in Jasper, we parted ways and moved on to Kamloops for a night...not much to say here, stayed at Knutsford Campground (actually an RV park). I had no idea Canada had such a desert-y looking landscape.  It was mega hot and I loved it, but Kamloops itself did not leave much of an impression on me.  After a night there we took Highway 99 to Squamish and it was absolutely gorgeous, although not the greatest road for pulling a camper on - narrow and windy - some places even had one lane wooden bridges.

Once we arrived in Squamish, we found a campsite at Klahanie
Campground and spent at least a good hour pulling into the site, but it was worth it because we were there five nights....and by there I mean our belongings were, but we weren't a whole lot....the campsite was nice, we had a view of a waterfall and some of the others had an ocean view.  We used this as our base for the next few days as it was only about 45 minutes to either Vancouver or Whistler from there.  Spent an evening in Whistler having some yummy sushi and drinks.  Our first day we went into the city and met a friend of mine who took us to Granville Island, which on its own I was fairly unimpressed with but the salmon burger I had there was pretty good!  Next on to China Town which was closed - but I did manage to find some Japanese food in the supermarket I've been missing!  We spent a day in North Vancouver on the Capilano Suspension Bridge and treetop walk and hit up the Brittania Mining Museum.

We also spent a day in Richmond and went on a whale watching tour.  It lasted pretty late (we went on the afternoon one) because we had to head into Washington waters in order to find the whales.  Pretty cool but again disappointing as I thought we would get a little closer to them.  Stayed in Vancouver that night and the next day hit up Stanley Park before heading back to the campground to finally relax a bit.

The next day we started making our way slowly back to the prairies and moved on to Kelowna for two nights at the Apple Orchard RV Park.  Timing was again perfect as a good friend from  Japan was visiting her family in Kelowna for a few weeks so we were able to meet up for lunch.  Afterwards we went for a tour of the Mission Hill Winery, one of the most famous in the Okanagan Valley.

Next we moved on and spent a night in Golden, B.C.  Although we didn't spend much time here or see anything, it seemed like a really nice little town and the Whispering Spruce campground we stayed at had a pretty awesome view!  We spent another night in Jasper on the way back, this time at Whistlers Campground (more than 800 sites - crazy!), stopping at the Columbia Icefields and a few other places on the way.  After leaving Jasper I spent a few more nights in Edmonton before heading back to Saskatchewan - this time the bus was only eight hours!

So all in all I was pretty happy with my first tour around Canada, but by the end of it I wished I had a penny for everytime I said something was beautiful. It was definitely a different way of travelling than I normally do, but it scratched my itchy feet for the time being.








Saturday, December 22, 2012

Surviving Winter in Nippon

Contrary to popular belief, Japan is NOT futuristic in many ways.  From fax machines to giant cell phones, trains that stop running at midnight (not just here in the inaka but also in Tokyo) to no insulation\central heating.  Coming from Canada, I think this last one was the biggest shock.  Sure, I come from the prairies where the temperature can easily reach -60 with the windchill, but one of my favourite things about winter is coming from the refreshing, invigorating cold air into a steamy warm house.  It's quite the opposite in Japan; usually walking into my apartment at 10:30pm after working all day, the temperature is colder inside than the air outside.  My apartment this year seems to have some insulation as it doesn't seem as bad as last year, thank God.  I actually saw inside the wall of my apartment last year (don't ask why!) and there was NOTHING in it.  I remember walking out of the only heated room in my apartment and being able to write my name on the condensation on my fridge door.  However last year my bed was raised up and because hot air rises and cold air sinks it wasn't too bad.  This year, however, I sleep on the floor in true Japanese fashion and am freezing the majority of the time.  I've asked several Japanese people why they live like this and have gotten a variety of answers: money (to install, plus Japanese houses aren't made of stone and those don't last several hundred years), they like to 'wait out' the winter, it's not that bad (stop starting every conversation with 'Samui desune?' then!), the summer is too humid for insulation (it would get mouldy), etc., etc.  Instead of getting with the times and installing central heating and insulation, Japan has come up with a few ingenious and not so genius solutions to the answer, my favourite being the kotatsu.

I just got my first kotatsu last weekend and as anyone who is familiar with them knows, nothing has been done in my apartment since.  It's definitely something I'll consider sending to wherever I head next.  A kotatsu is really a pretty awesome invention and I'm surprised it hasn't come to Canada.  Wait a minute, no I'm not because I can move freely and warmly aboot my house all winter!  A kotatsu is basically a low table you sit on the floor at with a heater underneath.  You place a think futon between the two panels of the tabletop and BOOM!  Ridiculously cozy warmth that you never want to leave....the perfect setting for eating mikans, drinking hot sake, and watching anime. The newer ones have a cage around the heater so you don't have to worry about burning your legs, but it's still not recommended to sleep under one.  Plus it can be used as a regular table in the summer and I did need another table, only problem is, my tiny apartment is now full. The original idea of a kotatsu (the kind built into houses wear you sit and hang your feet over burning coals) was that the heat enters at the bottom of the traditional Japanese robe everyone used to wear, travels up the body, and exits at the top of the robe, warming the whole body.  I also like to stick my pet fish Ponyo chan under the kotatsu every now and then to warm him up...talk about multipurpose! I hope I don't forget about him and kick the bowl over or have him fry to death sometime...

Before my kotatsu, the only way I warmed my apartment was through my air conditioning unit which can be set to a heater as well.  Luckily every apartment I've lived in in Japan has been new and had one of these bad boys so I didn't have to buy one.  It cools the room down well in the summer but in the winter, all the heat tends to stay at the top of the room which is pointless in Japan, considering I spend 90% of my time on the floor.  To get it warm enough on the floor, I had to turn it up as high as it would go and leave it on all night, but then the electricity bill is ridiculous, especially considering costs were just raised another 8% in the fall, 'due to Fukushima'.  Plus the kanji on the remote is ridiculously hard to read, even for Nihonjin.
Another extremely popular method of space heating in Japan is a kerosene heater.  I really can't wrap my head around WHY anyone would use this.  Sure, it's cheap, but you have to constantly buy kerosene (which sucks if like most foreigners you don't have a car to go buy it), isn't exactly safe (fire wise or fume wise), and is a bit pointless considering you have to open a window to let the fumes out (considering there are no vents in the houses) so they don't kill you, thus letting cold air in.  Can you say oxymoron? Why not spend the little bit of extra money on an electric heater, be warmer and safer....surely your life is worth the extra $50?

And then there are the heated blankets, carpets, foot warmers, underwear and what not....basically electrically heated anything you can think of.  Other methods of temporary warmth include a ton of blankets, more layers of clothing than you would wear in a Siberian winter, cute panda humidifiers (Japanese winter is extremely dry and the Kitty chan one was too expensive!) to try and hold more heat in the air, hot baths or showers, hot water bottles, kairo (little heaty uppy packs you can put in your pocket that generate more heat than you would expect and for a surprisingly long time!  Or the adhesive type to stick all over your body.  Plus you can get cute kairo carriers, they are extremely cheap for the disposable kind, or you can get the kind you use over and over.  I have a reusable one in Canada and never thought to bring it...however it was from a Passion Party!), weather stripping, or winter proofing your windows (unless the only windows you have are your doors to your balcony and you need to open them periodically....or you're one of those with a kerosene heater who has to open your windows), moving to Hokkaido (land of heated sidewalks and insulation), or hanging out on the overly warm trains as much as you can (preferably local lines rather than shinkansen to keep the costs down).

Basically, Japanese winter, especially here in the Guch where it rarely goes below 0 isn't that bad, but it HAS turned me into a giant wuss.  Stay warm and be happy you have double paned windows! I'm also glad I'm not at a public school and turning on the heating in the rooms is my responsibility!