Wait, I have a blog?

Oh, that’s right. I do. Whoops!

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So writing on this blog of mine has been intermittent, at best, over the last 3 years. At one point, I was blogging daily during my first solo trip to Europe. And at other points, I’ve gone so long without writing that I’ve forgotten my WordPress password!  But I guess it makes sense that a travel blog (or an amateur version of one) is only updated when I’m travelling.

But I didn’t create a blog purely as a travel diary. In fact, I had no travel plans when I published my first (kind of depressing) post. This blog was a place to escape. It was a place to dream. It was a place to create the fulfilled, exciting and adventure-ish life that I wanted. This blog was for me.

And that’s what I want to get back to. While this blog has worked out great for sharing travel photos and stories with friends and family back home, I don’t want to completely ignore it whenever I’m not travelling.  Because I think there are quite a few teaspoons of adventure to be had on home soil too!

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My new vow: Write on this blog. Write regularly. Write once a week.  Write for me. I’ve always loved to write, and this is a wonderful platform to do it on. It might not always be travel related (though, knowing me, it often will be). And I’ll probably experiment with different styles. And I don’t assume or expect a large following of readers because of it. But writing weekly will keep me accountable, give me a chance to flex some writing skills and remind me how grateful I am for the wonderful adventure-almost-full life I am currently leading!

Seen in the basement of UBC's Student Union...and a wonderful statement about my old haphazard blogging commitment

Seen in the basement of UBC’s Student Union…and a wonderful statement about my old haphazard blogging commitment

Week 1 and done! See ya next week :)

Adventures with the Kosekis

Besides feeding me, housing me and putting up with my inability to speak Japanese, the wonderful Koseki family has also been touring me around some of Tokyo’s hot spots.

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Festivals & Fireworks
My first weekend with the Kosekis coincided with the annual Plum Festival.  Our local shrine in Fuchu hosted a series of stalls and a boat-load of people.  There were a few stalls dedicated to plum sales and the rest sold other Japanese foods.  There were even game stalls for the kids.  And all of the people were flocking to the shrine to get in their prayers/wishes.  There was a scary long line of people but Mrs. Koseki showed me a short cut: we just did our prayers off to the side of the shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Sword demos at the festival

Sword demos at the festival

That same weekend, Fuchu put on a huge fireworks show.  Most people headed to the Tokyo Racehorse Track for good views. Mrs. Koseki walked me around the track that afternoon and by 4:00pm the place was already packed with people and countless picnic blankets to reserve spots.  Lucky for us, we had the best seats in the house: our balcony! We decided to have a BBQ out on the balcony and then stay up there for the fireworks.  At the same time, Mother Nature decided to throw down her craziest rain, thunder and lightning storm! Fortunately, all we had to do was roll out the awning but I felt awful for all the spectators, including my friend Sean and his host family, sitting out at the uncovered racetrack.  For a while it looked like the storm was going to cancel the fireworks, but the show went on, with only a 20 minute delay.

And it was the coolest fireworks show I have ever seen! Not only were the fireworks themselves impressive (there were even ones with letters and numbers!) but they were accompanied by great music (including “Let It Go” in Japanese) and LIGHTNING! It was so cool to actually be able to see the bolts of lightning in between the fireworks; I have never seen anything like that before! The whole sky was going crazy.  My host sister Yuko was trying desperately to capture the lightning on camera but was never quite quick enough.  I guess some things are just meant to be enjoyed technology-free.

All Aboard the HATO Bus
The next weekend started early with a 7am wake-up on Saturday.  We had to rise early in order to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market before all of the action was over.  The real action begins at 5:00am with the daily tuna auction.  Members of the public can attend the auction, but that involves arriving at 4:30am (or earlier!) to queue for tickets.  So we went with a casual stroll of the stalls around 9:30am.  Tsukiji is giant! It also reeks, being a fish market, and is boiling hot since it’s covered but not air conditioned.  Despite the heat, and the smell, we trekked around the stalls and were able to take in all manner of seafood and sweaty men running around in galoshes, hacking at fish parts or riding on motorized carts.  It was quite the sight!

Just casually straddling a giant fish

Just casually straddling a giant fish

After taking in the business side of the market, we walked around the even hotter vendor stalls where we stopped for some mid-morning sushi.  We stood outside one of the restaurants on a street filled with market-goers waiting for their chance to taste the catch of the day.  Finally, we entered the ten-seat restaurant and feasted on the most delicious, fresh and filling sushi I have ever tasted!  The fish literally melted in your mouth.  It was amazing, and had a price tag to match.  Fun fact: I just found out that Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, who are in town shooting a movie, ate at the exact same restaurant a few days ago!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

From sushi to skylines: we headed up to Tokyo Tower to take in the views.  This would be my 2nd of 4 tower observatories I got to visit in Tokyo; that’s a lot of city views to take in.

The Tokyo Tower

The Tokyo Tower

All of the fish and towers were just to fill our morning before our actually sightseeing adventure: a HATO bus tour! Now, I am usually not a big fan of tour buses.  And when our guide began the tour by handing out (mandatory) stickers we had to wear on our person, I had to suppress my eye roll.  But, my host mom had done a lot of planning for this and had never been on a HATO bus herself.  Plus, my host parents had even signed us up for the English tour despite their difficulty with the language.

Our HATO bus (air conditioned, thank God) first dropped us off at the pier where we took a ferry up the river to Asakusa.  The views from the boat weren’t too spectacular, but it was fun to be on the water.

Tokyo by water

Tokyo by water

At Asakusa, our guide explained that the place would be packed due to the fireworks scheduled there that evening.  But we pushed through the crowds and made our way to the oldest shrine in Tokyo!  The Shinto shrine was built back in the 600s and our guide walked us through the traditional shrine procedure.  First, you wash your hands (and possibly drink? Though whether you actually drink or just fake it seems to be debated) from a fountain in front of the shrine.  Next, you approach the shrine and throw a coin (usually 5 yen) into a large basin.  This offering is followed by two bows, two claps, a moment to introduce yourself to the god(s) and make your wish, and one final bow.

Asakusa

Asakusa

After visiting the shrine, we had a bit more time to explore Asakusa.  I particularly loved the five-storey pagoda and giant lanterns.  The main shopping strip was filled with people but I weaved my way through and managed to snag some delicious Japanese pastries.

Check out that pagoda

Check out that pagoda

The next stop: the Imperial Palace!  En route our guide explained that the current emperor, who is symbolic and has no real political power, is eighty years old and had married a commoner (the first to do so).  His eldest son, in his fifties, will inherit the emperor-ship (I’ve decided that’s a word) once the current emperor passes.  However, this eldest son only has one child, a daughter.  Women are not allowed to be emperors (boo!).  So after the eldest son, the crown (do emperors wear crowns?) passes to the second eldest son’s son…who is four years old at the moment! Of course, he’ll have lots of time to grow up and get ready for his role, but it was pretty comical when the tour guide passed around photos of a buck-toothed toddler proclaiming him as the future emperor of Japan!

With my host parents outside the palace

With my host parents outside the palace

Unfortunately, all we did at the Imperial Palace was walk a number of sweaty paces around the perimeter.  I thought we’d be going inside! But after reaching the front gates, we were herded back onto the bus for our final stop: (another) observatory!  Our guide walked us around the top floor of the World Trade Center Building (way too eerie to be in that elevator) for another crazy view of Tokyo.  Finally, after 4+ hours of touring, we were dropped off at Tokyo Station.  Mr. & Mrs. Koseki hailed a cab and I slept soundly in the back the whole way home.

And All That Eating
I honestly don’t think I’ve eaten better than these last three weeks in Tokyo.  Mrs. Koseki is a wonderful chef; every night is a delicious Japanese dish and she has yet to serve the same thing twice! But sometimes we take our eating adventures outside of the house.

After hearing about my love of sushi, Mrs. Koseki found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant nearby and we all headed there for dinner.  Conveyor belt sushi, which has a much nicer name I’m forgetting in Japanese, is literally a conveyor belt that surrounds the sushi bar from which diners can pick up plates of sushi.  It was fun to watch the delicious plates slide by our table and dive in to pick up the ones we wanted.  But, being serious sushi people, we could only put up with the conveyor belt for so long before we just ordered directly from the waitress.  And, at the end of the meal, a waiter came by with a scanner gun and quickly scanned our mountain of 30+ plates.  And with that, the price was determined!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

All that sushi!

All that sushi!

The Sunday after our crazy HATO bus tour, the Kosekis and I journeyed to their family friend, Keiko’s, house for dinner.  Keiko’s husband is actually Mrs. Koseki’s English teacher, and was eager to speak English with me.  It was nice to have someone to communicate with but awkward to have so much attention put on me.  He kept insisting that everyone practice their English and interrupting conversations to translate for me.  But, the entire family was so lovely.  Their daughter, Mari, and her husband, a famous Japanese chef, joined us for dinner as well.  They were both very well-traveled and spoke great English.  Later, Mrs. Koseki showed me a cookbook she had that was actually written by Mari’s husband! But that night Keiko did most of the cooking.  We ate outdoors, enjoying a BBQ of ribs, corn, fish, potatoes and a few other items I’m forgetting.  At first, everyone was trying to eat the items with chopsticks (including the ribs) but eventually most of us gave in and used our hands.  A few hours later we finished the evening with peaches, cake and coffee indoors.

Dinner party gang

Dinner party gang

During my last week here, we went out for dinner twice.  Once, with some LABO ladies and a second time for my host-sister Yuko’s birthday.

We met up with our local LABO tutor and a few LABO moms for a traditional Japanese girls’ night feasting on traditional Japanese foods.  It was really fun to hang out with these kind women and eating as well as we did.  The meal consisted of 8 courses which included sashimi, lettuce pork wraps, teriyaki fish and soba.  Everything was so yummy!

And the next night, we walked over to same area and settled into an Italian restaurant for Yuko’s birthday.  Suffice to say I didn’t think I would ever be going to an Italian restaurant during my 3 weeks in Japan.  But overall, the food was actually quite good….I just don’t know how authentically Italian it was.  Instead of ordering individual dishes, Mrs. Koseki ordered a series of dishes for the table.  We had appetizers, salad, steak, fries and, of course, pasta.  The homemade lasagne was probably my favourite.  At the end, our waitress brought out a cake for Yuko and we all sang to her before diving into the chocolate-y goodness.

Happy Birthday Yuko!

Happy Birthday Yuko!

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And today marks my last day with the Kosekis :( Last night they gave me a mini photo album to document some of our adventures together.  It was very sweet and I’m sure I will never forget the Kosekis and how kind they have been to me.

Tea & Calligraphy

One of the best parts about my Japanese lessons in Tokyo are our field trips.  Most days we go on mini-field trips in the afternoon: we visit the hyaku (100) yen shoppu (aka the dollar store), department stores, the local jinja (shrine), the post office and wherever else we can walk without melting away in the heat.

But some days are solely dedicated to big field trips.

On our first week, a group of us set off to take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  The journey began with a very long series of subways, waiting and trains until we finally found this little house out in the suburbs.  We were greeted by three older Japanese women dressed in traditional kimonos.

The first step of the tea ceremony is to put on clean white socks (which many of us had purchased the day before from the hyaku yen shoppu).  Next, we took turns entering the tea room doing the prescribed motions: kneel, scoot (literally, push forward on your knees) into the room, walk over to the wall, kneel & bow, walk to the corner, walk to the tea, walk somewhere else and, finally, sit along the wall in a kneeled position.

Waiting her turn to scoot into the room!

Waiting her turn to scoot into the room!

Unfortunately, this position grew extremely painful very quickly.  So painful, that one of the students could barely stand, let alone walk across the room, to get her tea.  Thankfully, the women let us shift and sit sideways when we weren’t drinking tea.

The actual tea drinking was even more complicated than the walking.  We had two types of tea (thin and thick) as well as an assortment of sweets before each tea tasting.  With each tea, there was a procedure of bows and bowl turns that had to be done correctly.  Overall, the entire experience was very cool.  I doubt I will ever again be able to take part in a traditional tea ceremony in Japan…though my thighs will probably thank me for that!

After our tea ceremony

After our tea ceremony

The next week, our group took on Japanese calligraphy.  The sensai showed us how to use the brush properly and demonstrated her skills.  Unfortunately, those skills didn’t quite transfer to me.  I had wanted to write the kanji characters for “adventure” but after another student chose that I settled on “travel”.  And we spent the next couple of hours (aka way too long to be attempting calligraphy) working on our pieces.  It was fun at first, using the brush and ink and throwing bad attempts onto the ground, but it quickly got old.  I don’t think I have much of a future in calligraphy.

Celina hard at work

Celina hard at work

Showing off our "masterpieces"

Showing off our “masterpieces”

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Getting a taste of the traditions of Japan during my three weeks in Tokyo – how lucky am I?

Learning Japanese

If you told me at the beginning of this year that I would be spending 3 weeks learning Japanese in Tokyo this summer, I wouldn’t have believed it.  Not that Japan wasn’t on my list, but the idea of visiting Japan this summer (after 5 months away in Amsterdam) and trying to get a grasp on their language (when languages are not my strong point) still seems surreal.

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Japanese is a beautiful language. Beautifully complicated.  From what I understand (after 2 weeks of learning), there are three “alphabet” sets.  The first, hiragana, is comprised of 46 individual characters each with their own sound. Combining the characters, and sounds, makes words.  The second set, katakana, is 46 DIFFERENT characters with the SAME SOUNDS as hiragana.  Katakana is used for foreign words, aka words taken from English.  So for example, “intaanetto” is katakana for “internet” and “aisukuriimu” is “ice cream”.  And here I was thinking Japanese people were just speaking English with an accent – turns out, they’ve made English their own!

Lastly, there’s kanji.  Kanji are the same characters used in Mandarin, Cantonese and probably a bunch of other Asian dialects.  But, there’s a twist: these same characters I might be familiar with from my years taking Mandarin are now pronounced differently in Japanese!  And, to make it even harder: hiragana, katakana and kanji are all used together in any given passage of Japanese.  So to say tackling this language is tough would be a HUGE understatement.

Luckily, there is no better place to learn than where I am right now.  Every day I trek into the city and meet my classmates for our Japanese lessons.  There are only 8 of us in the beginner class and we spend most mornings learning new vocabulary, grammar, characters, etc.  In the afternoons, we often go on mini-fieldtrips around the Shinjuku area.  It gives us a chance to practice what we’ve learned (like the time we practiced ordering in Japanese at McDonalds), get outside the classroom and grow an immense appreciation for our building’s air con.

After class we usually spend some time exploring new areas of Tokyo or grabbing a snack before heading back to our respective host families.  It’s cool to see how much Japanese we can use outside of the classroom and away from our always-correcting sensais (teachers).  For a city as big as Tokyo, it’s still strange to me that it seems so isolated from foreigners.  Of course, there are a good number of tourists, but non-Japanese expats don’t seem to account for much of the population.  And, accordingly, English is not commonly spoken, seen or understood.

Finally, we start and end everyday with our wonderful host families.  What better way to absorb a language than to live in a house where it is spoken all the time? To see the language in the daily newspaper, hear it on the TV and watch it come to life across the kitchen table.  And while most of it goes over my head, I’m always excited when I understand a few words or have a chance to use one of my well-rehearsed greetings.

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With our final week upon us, I only have a few days left to soak up as much culture, sight-seeing, delicious food and Japanese language as I can.  Wish me luck!

 

Tokyo Twenty-Two

On July 17th, I turned 22! (cue Taylor Swift’s lyrical interpretation of this new milestone)

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I’ve gotten to celebrate my birthday in some pretty cool places: I turned 14 at a beachside resort in the Philippines, 18 on horseback in the Dominican Republic, 21 squealing over penguins in Cape Town, South Africa and now 22 in Tokyo!

On my actual birthday, I didn’t do much outside of my usual routine.  I still woke up at 8am, ate breakfast with Mrs. Koseki and headed off for school by 9am.  At school, the students wished me a happy birthday and the rest of the day continued with lessons as planned.  Of course, spending all day learning Japanese wouldn’t be my first choice for a birthday celebration, but I had been expecting it.

After class I took the subway to Tokyo’s Ginza district.  It was a lot like Toronto’s Yorkville, filled with fancy shops and things I couldn’t afford.  But it was fun to window shop and check out another part of this giant city.  I even stopped to treat myself to a few pieces of delicious sushi.  It doesn’t get much better than sushi in Japan!

Checking out Ginza's famous clock tower

Checking out Ginza’s famous clock tower

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My host family had let me know that we would celebrate my birthday on the 18th, since Mr. Koseki and Yuko were both away on the 17th.  I wasn’t sure what the celebration would entail, as I’ve heard birthdays aren’t a huge deal in Japan.  But I was so touched and blown away by what they had planned.

On the 18th I came home to a dinner of homemade sushi.  Except, this sushi looked just as good, if not better, than restaurant sushi! And, it was accompanied by a bottle of champagne.  They made me pop the cork and then the whole family tucked in to some delicious food!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

After sushi, they pulled out a cake that had my name written on it and candles bought just for me.  Everyone sang and I tried not to laugh as Mr. Koseki, who actually has a lovely singing voice, struggled to pronounce my name in time with the song.  Pictures were taken, candles were blown out and cake was stuffed into our already full stomachs.

Yuko & I

Yuko & I

"I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22!"

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22!”

The family then presented me with gifts.  I wasn’t expecting anything, but really appreciated the tokens of Japan they gifted me with.  Mrs. Koseki’s aunt gave me a beautiful handkerchief that had Mt. Fuji and two little cats on it.  Mrs. Koseki bought me a traditional fan decorated with Japanese goldfish.  And Yuko gave me the coolest card depicting a Japanese festival.

Beautiful host family gifts

Beautiful host family gifts

After all that, the family took me out to the balcony where we lit sparklers.  I’ve never been one for pyrotechnics, but I really enjoyed watching the sparklers go off, especially when Mrs. Koseki’s aunt seemed almost afraid of hers.

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Sparklers!

Sparklers!

The next day, Mrs. Koseki took me to a LABO party.  LABO is the organization hosting us here in Tokyo and teaching our Japanese lessons.  They also run English clubs for Japanese families and facilitate homestays for Japanese children in English-speaking countries.  At the LABO party I watched a few skits and speeches by the kids, participated in a game of human knot and even gave a speech myself about all of the places I’ve travelled.  I pulled out my pictures, when one kid asked what kind of animals I had seen, and was immediately swarmed by all of the children (and their parents!).  It was a really fun event!

Towards the end of the party, the LABO organizers surprised me by getting everyone to sing happy birthday.  One of the high school girls then presented me with a handmade card she had drawn and gotten her friends to sign.  And one of the moms gave me a package of chopsticks that she explained the LABO moms had handmade for me.

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

From my host family to people I had just met; I still can’t believe how sweet and kind everyone has been.  22 will definitely be a birthday to remember :)

Meet the Koseki family!

A week ago I was introduced to the lovely Kosekis; my host family for my time here in Tokyo.

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The Kosekis live in Fuchu, a suburb about an hour out of downtown Tokyo (by transit).  It’s a good neighbourhood with a residential section and a main shopping strip.  I’ve yet to do a proper walk around, but I think there are some cool shops, shrines and other things to discover.

The Koseki house!

The Koseki house!

Their house is really modern and surrounded by Ms. Koseki’s amazing garden.  She is always out in the garden taking care of all her plants. And I found out the building across from us is actually their garage and more garden space.  They have their own jungle!

In the jungle

In the jungle

The inside of the house is also quite modern – they have an elevator (for a 3 storey house…)! The set up is quite different from houses I’m used to: the first floor is a guest room (aka my room for the next 3 weeks), the second floor is for the family bedrooms and the third floor is the kitchen/living room.

The elevator!

The elevator!

I sleep in a traditional tatami straw floor room, which was quite a shock when I first walked in.  It still kind of feels like I’m living in a touristy Japanese restaurant or something! But the most shocking bit was realizing I wouldn’t be sleeping on a real bed, or even a mattress for that matter. Instead, I roll out two comforter blankets and sleep on top of those.  My back is still getting used to it.

Welcome to my room!

Welcome to my room!

I have the sweetest host mom in Mrs. Koseki.  She cooks all the meals, which are all amazing, and has been showing me around whenever she can.  She greets me after school and indulges me in slow English conversations since my Japanese is nowhere near up to par.  She always checks on me and never lets me help with anything.  And, she always gets very excited whenever I use a Japanese phrase correctly – you should see her when I nail my “good mornings” and “thank you for dinners”.

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mr. Koseki is a retired drug store owner.  He seems to spend most of his time in front of the TV, but, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much my life and I’m nowhere close to retirement.  And he has the best laugh! He is extremely good-natured and cracks up about everything.  He also seems to think my grasp of Japanese is much better than it is as he is always trying to explain things to me without a word of English.  I’ve mastered the smile and nod with appropriate pauses and the occasional laugh.

Yuko, 16, is my host sister.  She’s very sweet and is working on her confidence with English.  However, Yuko is the busiest 16 year old I’ve ever met! She is always at school and then after school she has all of these activities or even more school! In the week that I’ve been here, I think we’ve had two meals together.  And today (Saturday), she left the house by 7:30am, made a brief appearance around 7:30pm and then finally returned after more school by 10:00pm.

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Lastly, there’s Mamei, the family’s fat black cat.  She has giant yellow eyes and is nimble as anything jumping around the place.  Her favourite spots are on top of the piano, directly in front of the television or meowing near her empty food bowl.  Friendly would be a stretch, but Mamei is definitely a character!

Meow!

Meow!

And that’s the wonderful Koseki family! More to come on Japanese lessons and celebrating my 22nd birthday in Tokyo!

Jet-lagged in Japan

I’m in TOKYO!

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It all still feels a little unreal – am I actually in this huge city in a brand new country on the other side of the world? After many hours of travel yesterday, and only the airport terminal and my hotel room for a view, it’s pretty hard to believe that I am in Tokyo, Japan.

It’s also kind of scary to believe that it’s 2 in the morning and I’ve recently woken up from an 8 hour “nap”. Whoops! Adjusting to the time difference may prove more difficult than I thought.

On July 9th I headed out of Amsterdam (with giant luggage in tow) on a three hour flight to Moscow.  Our flight was a little delayed, so upon arriving in Moscow I was greeted by a young Russian man, sweating profusely and shouting “Tokio? Tok-i-o!” at all of the offloading customers.  I showed him my Tokyo boarding pass and he ushered me over to the corner.  After gathering the 15 Tokyo-bound passengers, he ran speed-walked through the terminal with all of us jogging to keep up.

We reached a security gate and after some exasperated discussion, we were lead through the quickest security check of my life.  Dude might have looked at my passport for a millisecond before ushering me through and liquids/laptops no longer needed to be identified for the scanner.  Once on the other side of “security” a new grounds agent took us on another race to our gate.  She sweet-talked an employee (who ended up redirecting all of the Air France passengers to a different terminal) and sent us flying down the stairs to the awaiting bus.

So probably about 10 minutes after I had walked off my first flight, I was standing on a bus on the tarmac with 14 other rushed passengers, having expected a leisurely two hour stopover in Moscow.  Just before our bus left the gate, our original Aeroflot employee, who was still rushing and sweating, appeared to do a final headcount.  Reaching 15, he exhaled with relief and we all applauded as he waved our bus off to the awaiting plane.

The next 9 hour flight was pretty uneventful: I caught up on some TV and movies, didn’t sleep much and enjoyed some quality passable plane food.  I did appreciate the little touches that Aeroflot provides its passengers: slippers, a sleeping mask and a printed menu so you know what you’re really getting when you cautiously opt for chicken over beef.

And then I was in Tokyo! I quickly pulled out my tablet and, to my great relief, my hotel confirmation had been sent.  However, to my disbelief, my luggage was missing.  Seems like not everyone was as rushed as I was in Moscow! Luckily, I’m staying at an airport hotel for two nights and will hopefully see my beloved luggage tomorrow afternoon.

After filling out my lost luggage form I visited 4 or 5 rental phone desks before finding the one I had made a reservation at, picked up some food and waited in the muggy disgusting 30+ degree humidity for my hotel shuttle.  While searching for my phone, I walked around the airport mall and was immediately enchanted by all of the tiny, intricate wares for sale.  Not one to usually get excited about cute bracelets or small notebooks, I was surprised by my desire to touch (and then purchase) all of the adorable stuff for sale. I’m calling it the Tokyo-effect.

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So now I’ve made it to my hotel, got caught up on MasterChef Australia (my first priority), eaten some delicious Japanese to-go food and slept. I’ve got one day left to acclimatize to this time zone (and this heat!) before the students arrive, we’re introduced to our host families and thrown into three weeks of Japanese lessons and exploring Tokyo! I can definitely feel that long-awaited excitement creeping in :)

Amsterdam: Doei en dank u wel!

Coming back to Amsterdam after almost a full month of being away was like returning home.  My apartment felt bigger, my fridge seemed emptier and my city had never looked so beautiful.  With only 3 weeks left to call Amsterdam home, it was time to take advantage and make sure those “last times” were the best times.

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Of course, this essential meant we had to eat our way through the city :)

Beginning mere hours after our plane landed, we were at the Saturday night version of our Sunday favourite: The NeighbourFood Market.  The food options weren’t as good but the ice cream and music were rocking.  The next day, we did it up right for our last NeighbourFood visit.  I went for hirata buns, after falling in love with them in London, and this delicious burger:

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

A few days (or it could have been the next day) later, we were back at Westerpark but this time for the famous scones! I can honestly say these scones are the best I’ve ever had; even better than the ones served with afternoon tea in London!  They are warm and come with tasty cream & jam.  Of course, this wasn’t our last scone tasting!

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

Next on the gastronomical tour down memory lane: Pannenkoeken! Or, Dutch pancakes! Our favourites are at the Pancake Bakery by the Anne Frank house.  The only was to enjoy these is with friends: everyone orders a pancake, you eat a share and then rotate the plates.  This way, you get to try everything and don’t have to choose between savoury and sweet!

PANCAKES!

PANCAKES!

We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without taking a ride on the iconic canals. I had been tempted by overpriced tour boats before but am so glad I waited until we rented a boat for ourselves. It was so fun to be out on the water, manoeuvring the boat ourselves, while enjoying good music, good drinks and good cheese.  Despite almost hitting a few other boats and struggling to “park”, we had a blast on the boat.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Low bridges are no joke!

Low bridges are no joke! The blue pads were the seats!

How can I be leaving this city?

How can I be leaving this city?

How else could we top off a typical Dutch day than enjoying the football match with our fellow Nederlanders at an outdoor pub? While I’m not a huge soccer fan (and not scoring for the first 70 minutes didn’t help) even I loved the atmosphere when we beat Chile 2 – 0!

HUP HOLLAND!

HUP HOLLAND!

June 25th brought us to the Grumble Gig, which was actually the reunion of 6 friends over dinner and not a group of pugs playing instruments.  It was the final date the 6 of us would be in the city and we celebrated with a meal at Everything On A Stick (actual name of the restaurant).  And while the service may have, the food did not disappoint! Everything was literally on a stick and the beef was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Better than the food and novelty of eating off sticks was the unstoppable laughter erupting from our table all night long. I miss the grumble!

Some stick-licking good food!

Some stick-licking good food!

All the sticks!

All the sticks!

<3 The grumble

The next morning, Stephanie’s family arrived and we showed them Gabby’s favourite kiwi brunch spot.  Somehow she managed to find a New Zealand-owned brunch place in Amsterdam that serves some serious food.  My plate of pulled pork, poached eggs, avocado and mango salsa was SO GOOD I’m a little upset I didn’t go back a second time.  And making our breakfast date even more special: I got a quick visit from my wonderful friend Mel, who was en route to Ghana from Vancouver!

SO YUM!

SO YUM!

Sadly, after a delicious brunch it was time for me to hunker down.  Over the next 48 hours I crammed and wrote my final exam (24/30 baby!) and joined my flatmates in the most intense clean our apartment has ever seen.  After all that mental and physical work, it was time to relax and enjoy Gabby’s last day in Amsterdam! After starting our day with scones (what else?) we missioned into town to find Thai food and for another visit to the zoo.  Unfortunately, the zoo wasn’t accepting our student discount on a Saturday, so we decided on a place with fewer kids and better smells: Gabby’s favourite brewery!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Brewery time!

Brewery time!

The last chips :(

The last chips with mayo in Amsterdam :(

Saying goodbye to Gabby on the 29th was tough.  It had been an emotional week of goodbyes with Steph and Candy already having left the city.  But Gabby was especially hard, given that “see you soon!” doesn’t really apply to someone living in New Zealand.  But we have a pact: before I turn 25 (in 3 years!) we will be living together again in the wonderful city of London! See you there Gabs!

To celebrate Carlie’s last few days she had friends in town and we had a few last minute things to check off the A-dam bucket list. #1: utilize that student discount at the zoo! We saw all the animals, even the gorillas this time! And Carlie even dragged me into the insect and reptile houses, though I squirmed the whole time.  The highlight was definitely watching Carlie get a proper Amsterdam send off from a friendly elephant :)

She speaks Elephant fluently

She speaks Elephant fluently

Another thing I’ve been doing a lot of in the last few weeks: watching MasterChef Australia! The show is wonderful and crazy addictive. Plus, it airs 5 nights a week, so there is always something to watch.  Gabby & Colin got me hooked on it and then we pulled in Carlie.  After being inspired by a good 30+ episodes of MasterChef, Carlie and I decided to try our hand at chocolate noodles. It was so fun (and simple!) to make and it made our chocolate treat feel way more posh!

MasterChef 2015 - we're coming for ya!

MasterChef 2015 – we’re coming for ya!

After failing on finding a cheap and near by Indonesian restaurant for Carlie’s last supper, we settled for take away Chinese and frivolity on the swings!

Their feet touched!

Their feet touched!

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Don't leave! :(

Don’t leave! :(

And before we knew it, July 2nd was here and our place was spotless. It was so weird to see our place empty and to roll suitcases out our front door.  It was especially weird for me, since I was only moving downstairs.  I hugged Carlie goodbye, with promises to catch up over sushi in Van this fall, and entered my new apartment.

Bye apartment!

Bye old apartment!

It has been a strange week: I’m still in Amsterdam and I’m still in the Gevleweg apartments but I’m not in my apartment and I’m all by myself.  I’ve never had an issue with solo travel (see most of my trips) but after starting out in a place with people, it’s tough to lose them.  I think Amsterdam understood my feelings: the whole week has been a weird mix of humidity, wind and rain; which makes staying in my PJs till 1pm much easier.  I’ve definitely had a pretty lazy week but I’ve been able to get ahead on some Tokyo prep and get some time to myself before I’m thrown into 3 weeks of students, teachers and host families.

***

Tomorrow I leave for Japan.  It’s weird to be leaving on another trip when almost everyone I know is ending theirs.  And it’s strange to be going even farther abroad after spending 5 months living in Europe.  People keep asking if I’m excited and I can see why: 3 weeks working a nice job in a new country that has as much culture and good cuisine as Japan does is definitely a dream experience.  But despite all that, there is a part of me that wants to go home.  And there’s another part of me that wants to stay in Amsterdam (bringing back all my friends, of course).  That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to Tokyo, but “excited” doesn’t seem to capture my current emotion.  But, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly excited on my way to Amsterdam.  I was nervous to be starting a new life in a new city at a new school with new friends.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to London.  And I was regretting leaving behind my family in Toronto and my job/school in Vancouver. But from all that worry, disappointment and regret came 5 amazing months and one of the best experiences of my life.  I suspect something very similar will happen with Tokyo.

And lastly, Montenegro

Montenegro was the vacation from our vacation. We had nothing planned, no one to see and nothing beyond “eat seafood” on our agenda.  While travelling this leisurely would’ve bothered me if it had been our whole trip, by Montenegro, I was ready for it.  Coupled with the fact that I had barely heard of the country before this and it was stinking hot, I was more than happy to spend the majority of our last few days doing next to nothing.

And “nothing” turned out to be walking along the water from Igalo Beach (where our apartment was) to Herceg Novi, exploring the Old City and fort walls, reading on the beach, searching every open store for postcards and eating seafood at least once a day.  Most of that seafood came from Nautilus, a restaurant we frequented far too often for a five-day trip; the waitress recognized us and remembered our orders.

We did stray a little farther from “nothing” to spend one of our Montenegrin days out on a boat visiting different islands.  We had hoped to go on a tour boat but since it was pre-season, we ended up chartering a little (extremely tiny) boat of our own.  We made stops at the Blue Cave, to see the luminescent blue waters, Mamula, where the old prison used to be, Zajinc, to lunch on fresh fish over the crystal waters and Rose, where our driver (captain?) found us a little private beach.  It was a beautiful day and a great way to explore a little more of Montenegro.

Let's go to the beach, beach. Let's go get away!

Let’s go to the beach, beach. Let’s go get away!

Sipping some OJ and figuring out where to go

Sipping some OJ and figuring out where to go

Climbing up to the Old City of Herceg Novi

Climbing up to the Old City of Herceg Novi

Hi Moo!

Hi Moo!

I was going for a "strong like this fortress" pose

I was going for a “strong like this fortress” pose

Sunsets in Montenegro

Sunsets in Montenegro

Hamming it up with the anchors

Hamming it up with the anchors

More ham :)

More ham :)

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Entering the beautifully hued Blue Cave

Entering the beautifully hued Blue Cave

Exploring the old prison fortress

Exploring the old prison fortress

I'm like a bird!

I’m like a bird!

Wandering Mamula

Wandering Mamula

Crystal clear waters of Montenegro

Crystal clear waters of Zajinc

Fresh fish carpaccio

Fresh fish carpaccio

Loving the boat life!

Loving the boat life!

Look who's in the ocean!

Look who’s in the ocean!

Probably our 5th meal at this restaurant :)

Probably our 5th meal at this restaurant :)

Enjoying a beach day

Enjoying a beach day

After five days of good food and relaxation, we started the long trek (cab, bus, cab, plane, bus, cab) back to London.  As documented in my previous post, London was the end of Moo & Boo time and the start of my 5th London adventure with new friends.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more awesome month-long trip with one of my favourite travel companions.  We got to do it all: re-visit old haunts, show off my new home, discover new cities, eat well and laugh a lot.  It’s been a while since I’ve had that much uninterrupted time with my mom.  And while we did get on each other’s nerves a bit, we made up for it with all of the amazing moments and incredible memories made in 28 days adventuring around Europe!

The Iron Throne of Croatia: Dubrovnik

(Excuse the awful Game of Thrones reference above. I’m not a big enough fan of the books or series to do much better.)

After Split, mom and I took a bus down the coast to the magical city of Dubrovnik.  Strangely enough, to go from Split to Dubrovnik (same country) you have to pass through Bosnia Hercegovina (another country) for a stretch of land. But we jumped out of the bus long enough to snap this shot of the scenery:

Driving to Dubrovnik through Bosnia Hercegovina

Hi Bosnia Hercegovina!

After arriving in Dubrovnik and settling into another cute apartment, we headed straight for the famous Old City.  Every image I had of Dubrovnik before this trip (and most of my images after) were of the Old City.  The fortress-like walls and winding alleys are straight out of the medieval ages – no wonder Game of Thrones films here!

Heading to Dubrovnik's famous Old Town!

Heading to Dubrovnik’s famous Old City!

Admiring the columns of Old Town

Admiring the columns in Stari Grad

The next morning we trekked back down to the Old City but decided to take a back road, instead of the main one.  It was definitely a more scenic route and felt more direct, but we couldn’t be sure.  Our Dubrovnik days were always filled with uphills and downhills, regardless of which path we chose.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Hi flowers!

Hi flowers!

On our second day we stopped for lunch at Mimoza, a restaurant our landlady had recommended to us.  To be honest, the main dishes weren’t too wow. The meats were a nice break from seafood (a break from seafood? Blasphemous, I know!) but were nothing special.  However, we did notice a certain adorable slow-walking creature in the flower pots by our table. And mom managed to find a pretty amazing cake for dessert.  She may or may not have come back on our last day to order one (or 4) more slices!

Adorable turtles by our table at Mimoza restaurant

Adorable turtles by our table at Mimoza restaurant

Mom's favourite cake!

Mom’s favourite cake!

Another restaurant find: Wanda’s! I had found Wanda in one of our guide books and after scouring the incomplete street signs, we finally found the place in a back alley of the Old City.  Right away Wanda won our hearts when a waiter insisted we sit down for free prosecco, even though we were just making a dinner reservation for later.

Free Prosecco at our favourite restaurant!

Free Prosecco at our favourite restaurant!

Admiring the view off the Old City

Admiring the view off the Old City

Cats rule this town

Cats rule this town – they are everywhere! 

After exploring more of Stari Grad (Old City), we met up with my Amsterdam friends, Candy & Carlie, who were just starting their Croatian adventures. We took them to Wanda’s for some delicious carpaccio, pasta and, of course, more free prosecco! We also became pretty convinced that our waiter (the one pouring the free drinks) wanted me to marry his son! Living in Croatia and eating free at Wanda’s? I do!

Meeting up with Candy & Carlie in Dubrovnik!

Meeting up with Candy & Carlie in Dubrovnik!

Our favourite jazz band with the singer with the voice of an angel

Our favourite jazz band with the singer with the voice of an angel

The next day we met back up with the girls and headed up…all the way up the Dubrovnik Cable Car to get full views of the beautiful city! While we almost melted waiting to get onto the car, the views (and cool wind) at the top were spectacular!

View from the top of the Dubrovnik cable car

View from the top of the Dubrovnik cable car

Mom and Carlie building Inukshuks!

Mom and Carlie building Inukshuks!

From the top of the mountain to….the sea! After returning to ground level, we decided to take our group to the water and try our luck at a few hours of sea kayaking and snorkelling.  Overall, it was a really fun experience and great way to see more of the Old City.  That being said, the water was freezing and my arms were definitely in some pain the next day!

Getting ready for our sea-kayaking adventure

Getting ready for our sea-kayaking adventure

Snorkelling in the freezing cold with nary a fish to spot!

Snorkelling in the freezing cold with nary a fish to spot!

After kayaking it was time to replenish liquids (aka get our day-drink on) and grab some dinner.  Mom and I tried out a few new places in the Old City, before meeting back up with C&C for dessert and drinks while listening to my favourite jazz band.

Afternoon drinks after kayaking

Afternoon drinks after kayaking

Asian-fusion on our last night in Dubrovnik

Asian-fusion on our last night in Dubrovnik

The next morning we packed up and got ready to head to Montenegro! But before our bus left, I managed to sneak in one more must-do Dubrovnik experience: walking the Old City walls! I joined Candy & Carlie for the 2km walk which felt more like 10 thanks to lots of stairs and the scorching midday heat.  But, the views were incredible! I kept expecting to see a GOT star shooting a scene!

Views from the Old City walls

Views from the Old City walls

Missing this view!

Missing this view!

Hey ladies!

Hey ladies!

Selfie on the wall!

Selfie on the wall!

Beautiful red roofs of the Old City

Beautiful red roofs of the Old City

All smiles (and all sweat) as we finish our wall walk

All smiles (and all sweat) as we finish our wall walk

After finishing the wall, we met back up with mom and enjoyed some Mimoza cake.  Saying goodbye to the girls we grabbed a quick lunch (back at Wanda’s, of course), picked up our bags and boarded our bus for Herceg Novi, Montenegro!

Bye beautiful Dubrovnik!

Bye beautiful Dubrovnik!