Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kyushu, Japan's southern island

We've been on the island of Kyushu for the past week, based in the city of Fukuoka, and having a blast. We're taking it easy today because we've been so busy and we desperately needed some time to catch you all up on where we've been and what we've done.

Our first full day here, we stayed close to the hostel and ventured around Fukuoka. The task of planning the day was given to Nicole and she planned a great one. We visited Canal City, a large mall and entertainment complex designed by an American, resembling the red Arizona cliffs. Nicole snuck in some shopping and we investigated what movies were playing later in the week. We briefly stopped at Kushida-Jinjya shrine with a very cool festival display on our way to the folk museum. At the museum, we watched an interesting and educational video on local festival traditions. Then we hopped on the subway and took a nice ride in a swan paddleboat around a lake in Ohori Park. As the sun set, we carried on to Marinoa City, a pier and outlet mall with the world's second largest ferris wheel! The wheel took over 20 minutes to ride, and it yielded nice evening views of downtown Fukuoka and the surrounding area.

Friday, it rained, and we spent the day planning the rest of our day trips and doing laundry. Saturday was much more fulfilling, visiting Nagasaki in the day and partying it up in the evening. Nagasaki was where the second atomic bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945. We strolled through the memorial park and visited the hypo-centre. Similar to Hiroshima, the city is filled with symbols of peace and the abolishment of nuclear weapons. On the other side of the city we visited a small island, Dejima, once inhabited by the Dutch. Permission was given to them by the emperor during a time when Japan was restricted to only trade with the Dutch and Chinese. Thus, the small dutch settlement, still trading with Europe, had an important impact on the modernization of Japan. The settlement is now protected as a historical site and Japan has re-built many of the Dutch buildings and continues to preserve the site for tourists.

While in Nagasaki we also tried to visit a Chinese shrine, Confucius Shrine, considered to be on Chinese land. Unfortunately we arrived shortly after it closed, greatly disappointing Jason. To make up for it, we motored to Spectacles Bridge, the oldest stone bridge in Japan. We got some great pictures in the twilight. Back at the hostel in Fukuoka, we quickly made friends with some Americans and a French fellow over dinner. This being the Saturday before Halloween, it was a good night to go out partying. With some hesitation, we all agreed, and I think the pictures tell how the evening went. :D

The following day, Jason didn't get out of bed till noon and the only real achievement we made was venturing to the cinema to catch the 7:20 showing of Stardust. The movie was good, the popcorn was even better!

Monday, we travelled to Beppu. A large tourist destination for both Foreigners and the Japanese. It is a highly thermal area and the city is built right over top of the geysers and hot springs. Throughout the city you can see steam rising through vents and street sewers. A very odd sight. The Japanese come here to bathe in the hot springs, so we did just the same after visiting some of the more interesting thermal spots, called The Hells. We visited White-Pond Hell, the Blood-Pond Hell, and the Waterspout Hell. As the names imply, a white pond, a red pond, and a spouting geyser. We soaked ourselves in a spa near the seaside, which was very relaxing, then took a late train back to the hostel. Beppu was very tacky for the tourists... we weren't overly impressed.

Yesterday, we went to the city of Kagoshima at the south end of the island. A nice, tourist-driven city, with a semi-active volcano island close by. Once we figured out the tourist City View bus, we visited Sengan'en Garden. The garden was beautiful and had the first true nature hike that we've encountered since in Japan. So much so that Nicole was squeamish the entire hike, watching out for the large spiders that seem to be everywhere throughout Japan. It was a great hike though, leading us to a hidden waterfall and a nice view of the volcano island in the bay. We then took the bus to the ferry terminal and crossed to the island, only 15 minutes away. We walked a couple of kilometres along a waterside path through a lava field. There were large black boulders everywhere, put there in 1914 when the volcano last erupted. Pretty cool.

We leave Fukuoka tomorrow to make our way back east to Osaka and Nagoya. It's going to be a busy week before getting back to Tokyo!

Fukuoka Pics | Nagasaki Pics | Beppu Pics | Kagoshima Pics

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kyoto, Hiroshima & Miyajima

So after only a couple of days in Tokyo, we carried on to Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. With our Japan Rail Passes that we bought in San Diego, we're able to travel on any JR train in Japan. The high speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto took about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Not too shabby! They sure are nice trains, and they sure go quick! Enough to make Nicole feel ill by looking out the window! :)

It was a rainy day in Kyoto, so we just settled into the bAKpAK Hostel and did laundry. Not that great of a hostel but it had an awesome location. We were in an 8-bed mixed dorm room, which got packed to 12 people on our last night...

On our first full day in Kyoto, we ventured out on a little circuit walk. First we went to the Kiyomizu Temple and Jishu Shrine. A university student named Shiho approached us and offered a free guided tour so that she could practice her English! We gratefully accepted, and she was great! The temple was quite scenic, with a view over the city and the shrine was to the God of love and good matches! So that was kinda fun. Thanks Shiho!
We carried on through small, scenic, crowded steets (it was the weekend afterall), up to Maruyana Park and then back to the hostel. We spent the late afternoon in the shopping district, up the street from the hostel. Quite an amazing experience. It was outdoor, but with a roof over our heads. Streets that had been converted into a mall. Amazing and crowded. No cars could drive through but that didn't stop scooters, motorcycles and bikes. The lights in the evening were similar to Times Square.

The next day, we did a longer walk, a much longer walk. We started off at the Heian Shrine which had a beautiful garden and lake surrounding it. We made a stop at a small Vegetarian Festival that was going on next to it, then carried on up the pretty Philosophers Path to the Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion). Not quite as cool as the previous day's Temple. Then we walked through the grounds of the old Imperial Palace (from before the capital was moved to Tokyo), but you couldn't see much of the palace so we carried on to the Nijo Castle. This had two moats. After the first moat, we were able to tour through the Shogun's residence buildings. We weren't able to go into the castle of the inner moat, but we were able to go up the stairs on top of the dungeon that provided a decent view. All in a good day's walk.

Our last day in Kyoto, we used the train to visit Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion). It sure was golden! Quite bright. It also had nice gardens and ponds to walk amongst. Next we visited the Ryoanji Temple which is famous for its Zen Rock Garden. We weren't quite able to find zen... but it was interesting. A nice temple anyway with a nice large pond to walk around. We were back at the hostel mid afternoon and we headed to the train station.

One transfer at Osaka and we were on to Hiroshima. The super-express from Osaka to Hiroshima was only about an hour and 45 minutes. Amazing. We hopped on the tram for 20 minutes, followed by a short 5 minute walk and we were at the J-Hoppers Traditional Hostel! A VERY cool hostel. Was once a traditional Japanese style hotel. Take your shoes off at the door! Our private room consisted of Japanese style doors, traditional floor, and folding cots to sleep on. Pretty cool actually. The staff were really nice and the common areas were pretty good. We probably should have planned to stay longer.

We toured Hiroshima, starting with the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. The museum consisted of information regarding the lead-up to World War II, the reasons for and the droppings of the atomic bombs, and the reconstruction efforts thereafter. Very well done and quite interesting. Unbelievable, that's for sure. Hard to imagine that the park where we were, and a couple of kilometers around it, were just utterly and completely destroyed in a matter of about one second, some 62 years ago. Incredible and heartbreaking. They certainly have done a fabulous job of rebuilding the city, and making it a symbol of peace. It's great to see.

After walking through the park, we went to Hiroshima Castle. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed by the bomb, but they reconstructed it to look like the original (VERY cool) and made a museum of the inside. The museum was a little bland, but somewhat interesting. The view from the top of the castle was worth the trip.

Today, we visited Miyajima, one of many small islands in the Seto Inland Sea off the south coast of Japana. It took us half an hour to travel on the JR train and Ferry for no extra fees, from Hiroshima! It was a pretty awesome day. Right off the bat, we were welcomed by deer! Deer that are actually indigenous to the island for the past 6000 years! Now they are very tame and used to people. We went to see the Itsukushima Shrine and its O-torii Gate (the main attraction of the island).At high tide, the shrine and gate appear to be floating. Unfortunately, we were there at low tide, but it meant we could walk right out to the gate. Then we walked up to the picturesque Five-storied Pagoda before walking through the small shopping arcade. From there, we walked through Momijidani Park to a tram (ropeway as they call it), which took us 430m above sea level. We hiked the extra kilometer up to the top of Mount Misen at 535m above sea level. There were pretty temples along the way, including one that housed an Eternal Flame that had been burning for hundreds of years! At the top, we were greeting by large boulders and a viewing platform. Unfortunately it was a little hazy/smoggy for a distant view, but it was nice nonetheless. By the time we were back down, the sun was getting low in the sky. We took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima and have now arrived at a hostel in Fukuoka. We are here for seven days to tour Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. We've settled in and are looking forward to a great week!

Kyoto Pics | Hiroshima Pics | Miyajima Pics

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Konichiwa! We're in Japan!

Now the trip REALLY begins! We arrived in Tokyo yesterday and we have surprisingly had a fairly easy time navigating our way around. There is just enough English around to keep from being utterly confused. The subway system sure is a mess though. But if you pay attention, it's easy enough to follow. The Japanese definitely seem to be hospitable people and we have enjoyed our first day here. No homeless asking for change, minimal honking cars, minimal sirens. Pretty amazing for a city of 13 million people. It's crowded, but not dauntingly crowded. Tokyo is certainly quite Western though. We are looking forward to experiencing more of the culture in other areas of Japan.

To finish off the United States, we drove to San Diego, through the cacti of southern Arizona, along the Mexican border, and past some brief sandy desert areas in south-eastern California. We even briefly drove at sea level in the middle of southern California. Pretty cool.
San Diego was nice. It was the weekend, so the streets around the HI San Diego Downtown Hostel were quite busy. Hard to find street parking until very late at night. During our first day, we walked around Seaside Village and alongside the piers. We were pretty tired from the past busy days so we didn't do much. The next day, we visited the Horton Plaza to get travellers cheques and to visit the post office and a travel agency. We discovered it takes many days to get at Japan Rail Pass... In a scramble we found a Japanese travel center online that had passes for immediate issue that was easy to find. After securing our JR rail passes we drove to the coast and walked around the Cabrillo National Monument. Cool coastline, lighthouse, and visitors center.

Then it was back to Los Angeles! We took the Pacific Coastal Highway from Laguna Beach, through Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Sunset Beach, etc, all the way into LA and back to Julie's in Santa Monica. So we can actually say that we drove the Pacific Coast Highway all the way from Laguna Beach to San Francisco! :)

We said our farewells to Julie the following morning, dropped off the rental car, and made it to our departure gate in the airport a good couple of hours ahead of the flight. No problems. The flight to Tokyo was 12 hours! And we actually flew over Alaska and part of Russia en route! Pretty cool. It wasn't very cloudy so we were able to take pictures of both.

We landed at Narita airport in the late afternoon, took the train into Tokyo, and figured out the subway system enough to get us to the Tokyo International Hostel for the night. Very cool private room for a fairly reasonable price. Our own bathroom with Japanese bath area. Pretty interesting.

Today, we visited the Embassy of India to arrange our visas. It went smoother than anticipated. They need to get confirmation from Canada that they can give us the visa then we go back for them to process the visa. During all this we get to keep our passports. Not bad. After we walked around the outside of the Imperial Palace grounds. A surrounding moat keeps the public out. Pretty cool and very picturesque. The Imperial Palace is where the emperor of Japan lives. The garden is the only area open to the public so we enjoyed the walk around. Very pretty. Then we went up Tokyo Tower for a view of the city. The tower is much like the Eiffel Tower. A little taller but not nearly as nice. Decent views though.

Tomorrow we head to Kyoto to experience a bit more of the culture. Looking forward to it!

San Diego Pics | Tokyo Pics

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Arches, Grand Canyon, oh my.

The last four days have been pretty crazy! After Vancouver, we realized that we really didn't have enough time left to do everything we wanted before our scheduled flight date to Japan. We had always figured that we could just change our flight date since our around the world ticket is flexible like that. But it turns out we can't change any flight dates until after our first international flight... So we've been rushed to get through everything.

We left Canada in the afternoon, and stayed at a motel in Ellensburg, east of Seattle. Then we made the 7 hour drive to Butte, Montana, leaving us a couple of hours away from Yellowstone National Park. The scenery through Idaho and Montana was fantastic! Lots of mountains, rivers, and brightly coloured trees. Butte was a funny but nice little town, surrounded by mountains, and all of their oil rigs were lit up with red lights. Very odd. We camped at the KOA campground and were quite cold through the night. Nicole's emerging cold got worse unfortunately.

Yellowstone was pretty cool, but quite stinky! :) We visited the Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lake Yellowstone, Mud Volcano, and the Old Faithful Geyser. The Mud Volcano area was definitely the most stinky. Mmm sulfer. We saw a substantial amount of wildlife along the way, lots of elk and bison, some deer, and even a coyote! Lots of magpies and other birds flitting about as well. We stayed in a beautiful historic hotel in West Yellowstone. Cheap and very cozy.

Then it was off to Utah! It was 5 hours to Salt Lake City, then we drove east to Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival and the 2002 Winter Olympics. Pretty little town with a Historic Main Street. In heading south out of the town, we ended up rising a couple thousand feet, and then descending along a dirt road through a completely birch forest. Time consuming, but quite pretty. Once back on main roads, we carried on south to Green River, a sketchy little town, about an hour north of Arches National Park. The motel we stayed at was equally sketchy, but cheap. We survived the night at least. :)

Nicole wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible so we got up at 5:30am and made it into Arches before dawn. We found a few photo opps and by chance, found our way to the Window Arches, about 10 minutes before sunrise. We walked up through the north window and found a spot were other professional photographers were. Just in the nick of time. It was beautiful. The red rocks lit up as a brilliant orange. Jason had a similar experience at Ayers Rock in Australia but was equally impressed now. As the sun rose, we ventured on to Balanced Rock and the Delicate Arch. The entire park was absolutely phenomenal. Easily our most impressive experience of the trip so far. Unfortunately due to our time constraints, we only stayed a couple of hours, but we definitely plan to come back.
* Please note, these are definitely our coolest pictures yet. :)

The drive to Grand Canyon National Park took us 5 and a half hours through impressive canyons and cool geological formations. Our first views of the canyon were from Desert View on the east side of the park on the South Rim. We stopped again at Grandview Point before carrying on to Grand Canyon Village. Went to the Visitors Centre and found out that the cool new glass viewing platform over the canyon isn't even in the park. It's closer to Vegas, much to Jason's chagrin... But the shuttle bus took us to Pima Point which yielded great views of the Colorado River, and was a nice spot to watch the sun set. What a day! Sunrise at Arches and sunset at Grand Canyon. Can't get much cooler than that.

We ended the day by driving to Flagstaff for the night. Which finally brings us to yesterday, in which we drove for 7 hours or so via Phoenix and along the Mexican border to San Diego. Mountains here and there, some sand dunes, a lot of cacti, but mostly boring. Being a Saturday night, we couldn't find parking anywhere near the HI San Diego Downtown Hostel, so we had dinner and saw Michael Clayton (movie). Nice hostel though. We stay two nights here before heading back to LA. Looking forward to heading to Japan!!

Yellowstone Pics | Park City Pics | Arches Pics | Grand Canyon Pics

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vancouver Island!

We're back from Vancouver Island! What a beautiful place! We took the bus and ferry to Victoria and checked in to the Hosteling International Victoria. They had some coed dorms, so Nicole and I could actually sleep on the same bunk. Then we walked around town for a while, visiting the Wax Museum, and figuring out how we wanted to transport to Tofino. The wax museum was pretty well done. It has one of the most historic displays of any wax museum. Lots of well known figures such as the royal family, the leaders of the world, scientific greats, sports heroes, and even a display on historic torture methods. Pretty cool.
Victoria is quite a nice little city. Much like Ottawa, but even smaller. Very pretty. Turns out that renting a car for a couple of days was practically the same amount as taking the buses where we needed to go, so the following morning, we rented a Subaru Impreza, and got on our way to Tofino. We were finally able to get our Tim Hortons fix on the way. :)

The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino was beautiful. Lots of mountains and nice little towns. Even some peaks with traces of snow on them! The sun was shining and there were not many clouds.We drove straight through Pacific Rim National Park to Tofino. By the time we reached Tofino, it had mostly clouded over. We drove around town (which didn't take long) and then walked around town. Took some pictures of the sound and the hills rising out of it to the east of Tofino and visited many of the shops. Nice little town.

Then we went back to the Park and set up camp at our reserved site at the Green Point campground. Took a walk down from the campsite to Long Beach and walked on some rocks to look beyond to Combers Beach at sunset. Not much of a sunset, but still nice.Then back into town where we could only find expensive restaurants. So we went to the Schooner Restaurant and finally celebrated our 3-year. Jason had steak and Nicole had a curry and seafood dish. Both delicious. And our waitress was very nice, from Toronto gone surfer, and she knew Nicole's cousin, Jordan.

By the time we returned to the tent, it was raining. It rained much of the night. And all of the next day. We went to Surf Sister to see Jordan and had a nice chat. Then we went back through Pacific Rim to the little town of Ucluelet where we went on a short hike along the coast to see a lighthouse. Then a brief stop at Florencia Bay beach before heading back to Tofino. We picked up some pizza slices for dinner and then went back to the camp site. Still pouring with rain... We took down the tent and made a comfy sleeping area in the car with the back seats folded down. Worked out quite well but the tent was absolutely soaked...

Up at 4am to head back to Victoria. We wanted to get back to Vancouver in good time. So we packed up, left by 5, and drove through the pouring rain for 4 hours. On the winding roads, there were mini waterfalls all over the place pouring off the roadside cliffs into ditches, and several falling branches on the road. Crazy. But by the time we reached Nanaimo, the rain lessened and it was nice by the time we reached Victoria at 9.

Took the bus and ferry back to Vancouver and we were back at Melanie's by 2. We just had a mini Thanksgiving dinner with Melanie at Swiss Chalet! Followed by a movie (In the Valley of Elah) which was quite good. One last night with Melanie tonight and then we're heading back to Seattle and the rest of the mountainous USA. Our Chinese visas were sent in the mail while we were on the island, so we're good to go for China now. Yay!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Victoria Pics | Tofino & Pacific Rim Pics

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

We're Back in Canada!

We're temporarily back in Canada! Visiting Vancouver and Vancouver Island. We've stayed with Melanie, a family friend of Jason's, for the past couple of days. Yesterday, we sent our visa applications with passports for rush service to the Chinese Consulate, and shopped a bit downtown. Today, Melanie drove us to Lynn Canyon for a little hike to Rice Lake, including a walk over a suspension bridge. Pretty cool.
Last week, after sleeping near Portland, we drove east of Portland into the Columbia River Gorge to visit the picturesque Multnomah Falls. Beautiful cascading falls with a scenic viewing bridge too. Very cool. Then we carried on into Portland, parked downtown, and walked to the Portland Saturday Market. Lots of cool booths, food, and even a live band. Cool atmosphere.

There wasn't much else in Portland to hold our attention, so we drove the rest of the day through Washington State to Olympic National Park, west of Seattle. We didn't get to the parkhead town of Port Angeles until 5pm and the weather was looking threatening. So we drove into the park immediately to get the remaining view from Hurricane Ridge. Luckily for us, it was National Parks Day and it was free to enter the park! We drove the 17 winding miles up through the mountains of the park, seeing views back to Port Angeles, Victoria, BC, across the straight, and encountering 4 deer. At the top, the wind was blowing quite strongly. Completely cloudy, a little misty, and 0 degrees at the visitor centre. We could only see 80% of Mount Olympus. And even that 80% was mostly misty. But it was fun to stand in the 30mph winds as they howled up the ridge. Feeling nature's fury. The weather was a bit much for camping, so we returned to Port Angeles and found a cheap motel. Then went to see The Kingdom at the local movie theatre.

The next day, we drove to Seattle, and immediately took the Seattle Underground tour. A mix of history and humour, and a guided tour of the underground sidewalks of the old Seattle. Pretty crazy. Seattle certainly had a rough history in the second half of the 19th century. Then we met up with Tim and Daneille, Nicole's friends from Waterloo, for coffee and dinner. We went to a small thai place in the university district. Very cool place. Jason was quite impressed with his Penang Curry Chicken. Delish. We walked around for a while after then parted ways as they had a flight to catch back to Toronto before moving to Zurich in two weeks! We followed them most of the way to the airport as we had reservations at the cheap Motel 6 near the airport. The front right tire on our PT Cruiser was also looking quite bald and in bad shape so we intended to exchange cars at the Seattle Airport National car rental.

We woke up the next morning to find the tire completely flat... We had National Roadside Assistance come change our tire to the donut and we drove straight to National afterwards. We were given the choice of any car in the lot! We were quite happy to get a Cobalt like we had in Hawaii but there were none. So we picked a Chevy Impala! MUCH nicer than the PT Cruiser. But bigger. Good swap. :)

We spent a couple of hours at the Seattle Centre, checking out the views from atop the Space Needle, and a walk through the interesting, but mostly boring Science Fiction Museum. Drove past the Pike Market, then headed north out of Seattle.

We parked the car in Bellingham and caught the Greyhound to Vancouver. A short cab ride got us to Melanie's place where we are now. It's been really nice catching up with Melanie and we are both getting along really well with her and the kids. We head to Vancouver Island tomorrow for a few days to check out Victoria and Tofino. As usual, can't wait!

Portland Pics | Olympic NP Pics | Seattle Pics | Vancouver Pics