Posts Tagged With: travel

Paris Is ALWAYS A Good Idea!

 Since coming back to Canada my life has been in a minor state of limbo. Unsure what career path to pursue, yet deliriously happy to be back at home surrounded by my loved ones and the things I’ve missed the most about Canada, I often find myself staring out into space, deep in thought.  It’s a strange feeling to simultaneously feel sad for the life I’ve lost, yet lucky for the life I’m currently living.

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I’ve been waiting 3 years to drink one of these!!! Happiness level: 100

In a stroke of extreme fortune, my father found out several weeks back that he not only was approved for the 2 weeks of holidays he requested but that, by a stroke of sheer dumb luck, he doesn’t have to go to work the week before, or the week after either! Can you say heeeeello to one whole month of holidays!!! My mom was delighted, and they’ve been bouncing travel ideas back and forth at every opportunity! They even teased me saying I should come with them and forget my hunt for a new job.

In a moment of lucidity, lying awake at 2:00am in the morning, I asked myself: When again in my life will I ever have such a wonderful opportunity? I’m currently in between jobs, have enough money saved, and this is the season I’ve always dreamt of going to France. I squashed down the voice in my head that said it would be crazy to arrive home to Canada only to up and leave on holidays again, and the voice that I should be focusing on finding a new job. I fell asleep that night with dreams of Parisian cafes and the Eiffel Tower floating around in my head.

The next morning I woke up with a devilish grin on my face and a reckless enthusiasm that just couldn’t be contained. I made myself a cup of coffee, plopped myself down at the table where my mom and dad were reading the newspaper and said, “Audrey Hepburn once said that Paris is always a good idea. If you still want to go to France, count me in!”

Paris is always a good ideaSo that’s my big news folks! I’m off to France in less than 2 weeks! My days are no longer spent resume editing, but rather perusing travel books on Paris & France! I’ve checked out 7 books from the library and am devoting all my time to planning this exciting, spontaneous adventure! Wish me luck and if you have any suggestions or recommendations I’m all ears!

paris is always wonderful

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Kyoto & Osaka Adventures – Matt’s Trip To Japan

Just wait until I tell you about my weekend! It was positively, absolutely incredible!

My brother Matt and his friend Tim came to Japan for a holiday. I couldn’t unfortunately take a lot of time off from work as it’s a really busy season for Japanese schools, but I was able to pop down to Osaka and Kyoto this weekend to play local tour guide. I was so excited to see my little brother I could hardly sleep the days leading up to our adventure!

Saturday we toured around Kyoto and I brought the boys to some of my favourite places and temples. I knew it would be my last trip to Kyoto, so it was really nice to see my favourite temples one last time and share them with my brother.

First stop was Kinkakuji Temple. The boys were delighted to get to ring the enormous bell inside the temple grounds.
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Then we meandered over, through the throngs of school kiddies out on their annual school trip, to the actual pavilion. I had never seen Kinkakuji look so beautiful! The temple was magnificent to behold with a robins egg blue sky in the background and the brilliant sunshine making it really sparkle. Also, the iris flowers around the temple pond were in full bloom much to my delight! (For more info in Kinkakuji click here)

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We arrived in downtown Kyoto, it was a scorcher of a hot day so we grabbed some matcha ice cream and took a shameless selfie. IMG_4472Our tongues turned thoroughly green and our stomachs happy, we skipped down the street to relax and putter around my favourite zen temple Kennin-ji. Matt and Tim both said that it was their favourite temple in Japan so far. Or perhaps I was simply so enthusiastic about being there, and singing it’s numerous praises, they dared not break my bubble of happiness…

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My favourite part of that whole day was walking around Kennin-ji and finally sitting down for a ‘quiet’ moment to contemplate the beautiful rock garden! Matt and Tim made friends with some of the cute girls wearing kimono and these photos were the highlight of their day.IMG_4631 IMG_4698

Truly tuckered out I retreated to my favourite cafe Malebranche in Kyoto Station to relax a little while the boys went shopping for Japanese goodies.  This was a  bittersweet and nostalgic moment, Malebranche’s cafe is one of my favourite cafes in the world and it would be my last time ever sitting there in it’s tranquility and comfort.IMG_4500

It’s a good thing I rested up because that night we went out on the town! Osaka’s big city lights lured the boys out of the hostel for a few beers and good times. I had to call it quits at 2 am little party pooper that I am eventhough the boys were ready to stay out till the sun came up; what can I say, these old bones of mine just couldn’t keep up! IMG_4503

 

We woke up tired but excited Sunday morning. Today was the day we were off to see some owls! A new and big trend in Japan is Owl Cafes which is basically a place where you go to hang out with live owls! Matt and I are die-hard Harry Potter fans, so this interaction with live owls was a dream come true.

Osaka today, Hogwarts tomorrow! Oh how I wish! Owl Cafe Osaka IMG_4753 IMG_4746We had a hoot at the Owl Cafe in Osaka (*wink wink*) and we all agreed it was a really memorable experience.

It’s pretty hard to beat that experience but I was determined to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine with the boys. They were so templed-out by this point (a common affliction in Kyoto) that I had to promise them this was the grand finale and insist that they couldn’t leave Japan without seeing this magical place.

IMG_4809 IMG_4834 IMG_4843I normally hate to say, “I told you so!” but this was one of those times I couldn’t resist. The boys even admitted afterwards that they definitely would have regretted not going! I’m a pretty good tour guide, if I do say so myself. (For more info on the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto click here)

All too soon we had to say our goodbyes. I to go back to work in Fukui, and the boys to go on to have more crazy Japan adventures. Luckily it wouldn’t be long until we saw each other again. On Friday they will be coming to Fukui and I can’t wait to show them around my stomping grounds!

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I’m One Lucky Duck: 2013 in Reflection

2013 was unbelievable! Possibly even one of my best years yet, so let me just begin this post by saying I am one very, very lucky duck!

I’m stealing this idea from a good friend of mine’s blog. It may be almost February, but it just seemed like such a fabulous chance to look back at the past year and feel grateful for all the wonderful things that did happen I couldn’t resist! It was guaranteed to put a spring in my step as I prepare to put my best foot forward in 2014!

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2013 began with an amazing two-week vacation to Cambodia and Singapore. Which, for a girl who loved pretending to be Indiana Jones when she was little, was a dream come true. Also, speaking of dreams, my stomach is still dreaming of the amazing cuisine of Singapore (a.k.a. The Land of Foodies). Dearest Singapore, I’ll be back one day, to eat more of your delicious food, that is a promise! cambodia singaporeAt the end of January, right in time for Valentine’s Day, my friend Tomomi and I traveled to Kyoto to attend Salon du chocolat which is an international chocolate festival. I basically died and went to heaven because I ate some of the most delicious chocolate my stomach will ever taste, I was surrounded by the most beautiful chocolate my eyes had ever beheld and I even had the honor of meeting both Jean-Charles Rochoux and Pascal Le Gac (2 very famous luxury chocolate makers!)salon du chocolateIn February I released my inner snow queen and went on 2 fun winter adventures: a 3-day snowboarding trip to Hakuba, Nagano and a weekend getaway to the quaint & picturesque town of Shirakawago.nagano shirakawago 1 shirakawago 2

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As the snow melted, the best adventure was waiting right around the corner. My parents came to Japan, and I couldn’t have loved our time together more! We 3 musketeers spent two weeks traveling around Japan creating beautiful memories to last us a lifetime. I will forever remember our good fortune that the cherry blossoms decided to say “konnichiwa!” to my parents too by blooming an uncharacteristic, never before heard of, 2 full weeks early!!! So my parents actually got to experience the most beautiful side of Japanese spring season! It was a once in a lifetime trip!

momanddad2 momdad6 momdad7You would think life would calm down after such a whirlwind vacation, but it just never seemed to. Adventures waited every time I tried to stop and catch my breath! Life just got better and better!

A beautiful hike up Mt. Aoba with good friends…aobayama1 …I walked across burning hot coals with my bare feet in a firewalking ritual at a Fukui temple…walking on fire…and participated in a day long prefectural-wide scavenger hunt with a KarRally team dressed up as Madonna throughout the ages! (That’s me second in on the left if you can believe it!)Kar RallySoon after this, came the unfortunate and busy time when good-byes had to be said to old friends as they left Fukui to pursue their dreams, and say hello in greeting to the new ALTs who came into my town to take their place. There’s never a dull moment in my life and this was my last summer in Japan so I lived every day with a carpe diem mindset.

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Two weeks road-tripping throughout Hokkaido lived up to my 2013 New Years Resolution to be more adventurous. I had never undertaken such a large holiday initiative before and I had my hands full juggling all the necessary research, planning and budgeting all by myself. It was also a personal test of sorts, designed to push me out of my traveling comfort zone because I had never done such a long trip, alone, in a foreign country before.  I learned a lot about myself during those long scenic drives and saw many breathtaking views that made me wonder if I had somehow wandered out of Japan and into a fairytale!

Such as at the Furano Lavender Farm, with purple blossoms stretching as far as the eye could see…hokkaido1…The mysterious turquoise waters of Lake Biei…hokkaido2….the wild splendors of Shiretoko which stole my heart. Seriously everyone, you’re lucky I decided to return to civilization after this place. I was sorely tempted to become a modern day Japanese Tarzan living in the wild…hokkaido3 hokkaido5 hokkaido6Reflecting on my photos of Mt. Rausu which I summited in the heat of summer – with a messed-up knee no less! – I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself “Damn, I am pretty badass!” I’m very proud of that hike in reflection! hokkaido 7And finally I went up to the beautiful Rebun Island which no one I know has ever done before, for 4 memorable days of hiking in wild flower paradise!
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I returned home to Fukui exhausted but happy as a clam. In need of rest and relaxation I traveled with my friends to the Earth Celebration at Sado Island. There is nothing quite like good friends, good food and summer music festivals in my opinion. Our inner hippies rejoiced as we let our inhibitions go, camped on a beach, went swimming in the ocean every morning to wake-up, and lay out every night gazing wistfully up at the constellations that were clear as diamonds. The pounding taiko drums at the Kodo music festival made my blood pound along in harmony and my soul soar as traditional Japanese music echoed across the field under a starry summer sky. I felt in that moment ready to take on the world. Sado Island is my personal paradise and I simply know I’ll remember that trip until I’m old, with grey hair and many more years under my belt. sado island

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My favorite season Autumn was lovely and relaxing with plenty of hikes, include a hike up the famous Mt. Hakusan which is one of Japan’s 3 most holy mountains. Watching sunrise dawn at the summit of this mountain with a best friend on each arm, I knew that right then and there was exactly where I was supposed to be. Choosing to stay a 3rd and final year in Japan had been the right choice!hakusanIn November, I was spoiled absolutely rotten when my friends Robin, Denea and Kim came all the way from Canada to visit me! (*Insert here the appropriate and necessary squeal of joy!*) Robin has insisted that 3 years is much too long for me to be gone, and insists I return home as promptly as possible. In the meantime, much to my delight, she couldn’t resist visiting! We had so much fun and I haven’t laughed so hard in years! Especially the maiko dress-up experience, none of us are going to forget that any time soon!i08cUQWmDSC_0001

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As Christmas drew near I was blessed with the ability to pop down to Kobe to see the Kobe Luminarie, an extraordinary Christmas light display which filled me with Christmas cheer…IMG_2323…before jetting off to be reunited with my amazing family and spend our first Christmas together in 2 years! I was glowing with happiness, and radiated perpetual joy every single day I was able to bask in their love and the tropical Hawaiian sun!1522230_10100844383650401_413116668_n 1486826_10100846565128701_1229695093_n 1504063_10100846565153651_800997576_n

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Finally, let me end this post by saying that I am grateful for the opportunity in 2013 to have been living my dream. I am still stunned sometimes when I remember the fact that I am living in Japan. I live in JAPAN and that is awesome!

Living here is so much more than simply amazing, it’s one of my biggest dreams come true. Thank you to all the amazing people in my life, you mean the world to me, which is funny because quite incidentally you do happen to live all around the world!

japan living in japanAs 2014 starts my heart is full to the brim with love and I’m eagerly awaiting whatever wonderful adventures this year has hidden in store!

XOXO, Jessie

Categories: Life in Japan, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tu me manques. You are missing from me.

In English we say “I miss you.” In French however you would say “Tu me manque” to express the same emotion. Translated this means not “I miss you” but rather “You are missing from me.” This is a linguistic difference that I love. I feel it more accurately conveys the depths of emotion I feel often when I think of my family.

We make a kickass team, my family and I, and when I’m away from them I always feel there is a part of me missing.  Or rather maybe a better metaphor is not that they are missing from me, but rather imagine a beautiful jigsaw puzzle that lacks completion because one single tiny piece of the puzzle is only god-knows-where, and I am that lonely little puzzle piece missing from the puzzle.

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The lost jigsaw puzzle piece together at long last reunited with the rest of the puzzle.

It has been 895 days since I first arrived in Japan. The two and a half years I have been living here teaching English is undeniably one of the most life changing decisions I have ever made. I’m a very strong and independent young woman, but I would be lying if I said this was something I could have accomplished without the support of my family.  Their never-ending, bottomless love gave me the strength to live miles away from the life I knew.  Without question my mum, dad and younger brother are the thing I miss most. I miss the every day little moments, the way they accept me unconditionally for who I am and how I can simply be myself when I am with them.  I knew that after 2 Christmases spent a whole world apart that Christmas 2013 and New Years Eve 2014 needed to be celebrated with my family. So that’s exactly what we did. We met halfway between Canada and Japan in sunny Hawaii and had ourselves a “Maui little Christmas” which was lovely.

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We found a Christmas tree!

My dad loved his gift, a Sapporo brewery t-shirt from my holidays in Hokkaido. 1483147_10100844215771831_1581015095_n
And I absolutely loved my Christmas present from my brother.  A wrap-around Chan Luu bracelet which I had been eyeing over when we went shopping earlier that week. He knows me so well, he couldn’t have picked a better gift!

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Gorgeous, no? I adore it.

We spent a very uncharacteristic snow-less Christmas at the beach and finished up with a nice night out around the Black Rock area of the island, which is full of swanky restaurants and bars overlooking the water.

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Then we had some drinks while watching the sunset. Matt had a mai tai and I had a coconut mojito. Deliciousness.

Then for Christmas dinner, thanks to a recommendation from my friend Denea when she visited Japan earlier this year, we went to the famous Hawaiian restaurant Roy’s. The food was to die for. The restaurant itself was a little noisier than we had expected, somehow I imagined a more subdued atmosphere in my mind, but the blacked ahi tuna more than made up for the noise. The chocolate souffle disappeared so fast no photo was ever taken, but it was a family favorite.

1526841_10100844215816741_2022825257_nIn Maui, our days were very simple and relaxing. Every day we woke up early, before the heat set in, to play tennis then headed back to the condo for breakfast. After, we would go to whichever beach had the best weather for reading, swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding, playing backgammon or playing smash ball. Perfection.

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Can you tell I come from a family of avid readers?

We rented a couple paddle boards and I loved it! I had never paddle boarded before and it was really fun and standing up wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had expected. Perhaps that’s due to my many years of snowboarding… Either way it was an activity that I would highly recommend.

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I was pretty proud of being able to stand up the first time.

1538739_10100844227782761_1632134997_n I did a lot of reading this vacation. It was something I really missed from when I was younger. When I was little I was a real bookworm of a kid. I read at every opportunity, and when I was in trouble my punishment was that my book was taken away. Yeaaaah, I was that kind of kid.

As I got older life got busier and busier, these days I rarely have an entire day to myself that I can devote to reading. In Maui however, I read over 15 books in 2 weeks! I devoured them the same way Cookie Monster would probably devour cookies after being on a diet. Thank heavens I have a Kindle e-reader or my suitcase would have been filled to the brim with books.

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Shade paradise. Please note the “local” chilling in the background who scoffed at the idea of needing time out of the sun for the majority of our beach time.

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Feet in the water and nose in a book is bliss.

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Another family pastime is a game called smash ball which basically ping-pong meets tennis. The goal is to see how many times you can hit the ball back and forth with a partner using only a little wooden paddle. Matt and I got up to 116!

Then every night we would return to the condo around 4:30 to clean up, grab a mojito and watch the sunset. We didn’t miss a single one.

Mojito magic

Mojito magic

1504063_10100846565153651_800997576_nMy favourite memory of the trip was walking along a beach near the northern tip of the island after visiting the quaint little town of Paia for a little (or in my case, a lot of) shopping.  My mom and I took a stroll to get a closer look at some of the surfers (who were freaking incredible). We noticed a lot of people taking a lot of pictures at one end of the beach so we wandered over and looked at the rocks past the barrier that had been erected but we didn’t see much. We looked at each other in confusion, raised an eyebrow, shrugged our shoulders and promptly went back to watching the surfers. Two young tourists stepped over the boundary holding their cameras ready, and likity-split a local rushed over and asked them to please come back to the other side. Curious…

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Can you see them?

We looked closer at the rocks, wondering to ourselves what was up (perhaps it was dangerous?) when suddenly, I saw a “rock” move. Camouflaged amongst the rocks were giant sea turtles taking a sunny afternoon snooze on the beach!!!  A true OMG moment if there ever was one.

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Very zoomed in picture of one of the turtles snoozing.

As I’m sure you can imagine, I completely freaked out and pointed at the nearest turtle to my mom and exclaimed “TURTLE!” while practically jumping for joy, at which point she freaked out and ran back for the camera. We were mesmerized, even though they were pretty boring to watch while sleeping, because there were lots and lots of them! There were big turtles and little turtles, all of whom were happily napping, and we hadn’t even noticed them when we first looked over.

So two weeks later I return to Japan ever-so-slightly tanned, relaxed, well-read, rejuvenated, more than a little homesick, and broke beyond belief after spending all my money on food goodies and new clothes (hey! I haven’t gone shopping in 2.5 yeaaaaars!). I’m so grateful to have such a wonderful family to call mine, and I am so thankful for everything my family did to make this holiday special. It meant the world to be with them, something they know very well.

I have 7 months remaining before I return home, and while I am eager for the day I step back on Canadian soil for good (at least for a little while before the next adventure) I’m also determined to make these last 7 months in Japan the best yet.  2014 get ready for some amazing adventures, I’m ready!

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Heart of Takayama: Takayama Road Trip Day 2

My second day in Takayama was just as much fun as the first. It was full of eating, shopping and puttering.  I woke up early and tried to beat the crowds of people to the old town area of Takayama, all in the name of getting a few pictures without the swarms of tourists that would inevitably descend given time.

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Pretty view from the bridge as I crossed into the old town area

Walking the streets of Takayama’s old town is my number one recommendation for tourists. It is the cultural heart of Takayama. The old town area has been beautifully preserved with many buildings and whole streets of houses dating from the time of the Edo Period, which was a time when Takayama thrived as a wealthy merchant town. The old town streets are perfect for people who love to putter.IMG_9789 IMG_9791 IMG_9922IMG_9794

I’m pretty sure this is the number 1 most photographed house on Sannomachi Street, all because some very marketing-savvy person planted a beaaaaautiful purple wisteria tree outside. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to witness it in full-bloom!

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While walking along the streets you can’t help but notice large spheres that appear to be made of cedar branches hanging outside many store entrances. These spheres are called “sugidama” and are hung over the entrances of a sake brewery.  As sake is one of Takayama’s local specialities there were many local breweries along this street. The best part, they are perfectly happy to pour you liberal amounts of sake to sample.

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I think one of my favorite memories from this trip however, happened at approximately 10am in the morning. My friend Ken who coordinates the orphanage volunteer visits in Fukui texted me wondering if I was free and could come play with the kids. He’s got a 6th sense for these kind of things, and knew within 2 texts that I was hopelessly tipsy.

Text from Ken: Jessie….you are drunk. Before noon. On a Sunday morning……

At which point I realized that he thought I was drinking alone in my apartment before noon on a Sunday. I hastily explained the situation in an attempt to save my reputation. I told him I had taken a spontaneous holiday, and was sampling sake so I could buy my father a bottle for Father’s Day, and because I was driving home I had to start early in the morning so I would have no liquor in my system when I needed to drive home in the evening.

Next text from Ken: “Jessie, you are drinking, before noon on a Sunday morning….like a boss”

I was absolutely tickled pink.  Compared to my other ALT brethren I’m far from being the wildest one of the bunch and I have never been called “boss”.  I have to admit, I really liked it.

After texting Ken I realized however, that I was consuming quite a bit of sake with little more than a banana and a cup of tea in my stomach. Food was essential. Suddenly, almost as if fate heard my thoughts and decided to intervene mere seconds after this thought crossed my mind, I saw a long line of Japanese people waiting to buy food. Without stopping to think twice I hopped in line too. I have a traveling commandment in Japan, if you see a group of Japanese tourists in line for something, hop in line, don’t ask questions and be prepared to be amazed, because whatever you’re about to eat it’s going to be delicious . This rule is doubly important when you see elderly little old ladies in line, with great age comes great food wisdom, they really know their stuff! During my 2 years in Japan I have never regretted obeying this commandment.

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Seeing as I’m not the biggest egg fan, I opted for A: Succulent medium rare beef nigiri. Both were mind boggling good, but if you twisted my arm I would have to say my favourite was the ginger soy version. Better yet, the whole snack was eco-friendly! That’s no plate people! It was a rice cracker which you could munch into oblivion after finishing the nigiri. My stomach and I both think more street vendors should serve their snacks on edible “plates”.  IMG_9848My stomach was satisfied and I decided it was time to check out the Fujii Art Gallery (Fujii Bijutsu Mingeikan), and take a breather from sake sampling.  This museum is also known as the Fujii Folk Craft Museum and exhibits various household items and art objects.IMG_9857 IMG_9863 IMG_9868

Beautiful collection of sake glasses

Beautiful collection of sake glasses

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It was really interesting but at an entrance fee of 700yen, the price was a bit too steep in my opinion.

Therefore, the second thing I would recommend doing in this area is visiting one of the two morning markets.takayama mapI went to both, and my recommendation would be the Miyakawa Morning Market because the atmosphere of strolling by stalls alongside the river was more pleasant.

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Be sure to check this man’s stall out if you get a chance! He’s won quite a few awards for his pudding. I bought a chili-pepper-infused version of his classic recipe and it was to die for.
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While strolling along the river, shopping was inevitable. I’m not one for shopping normally, but my dad’s birthday and father’s day were very soon so I shopped up a storm to have things to send home for him. I was so happy because I found some of his favourite Japanese snacks. IMG_9590

I love this store because they allow you to sample nearly all of their top sellers. This particular package is my favourite, garlic flavoured crackers, the perfect gift for garlic-lovers that’ll make their toes curl and their loved ones run in fear from their breath. Vampire protection is an additional bonus. IMG_9593As a small present for Tomomi, I also bought something from this store (Takumi)IMG_9586

I thought these little flower holders were the cutest things and bought us matching ones.
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As lunchtime approached I made my way to the end of the Miyakawa Market and up into on of the side streets. A good friend of mine had recommended the restaurant Kyo for its fabulous lunch sets. He’s a big foodie like me so I knew I’d love it.

Address: 77 1-chome town daxin Takayama, Gifu, 506-0851 Tel: 0577-34-766

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The Best Restaurant In Takayama – Kyo

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My fabulous lunch set: hoba miso grilled on a magnolia leaf, hida beef personalized BBQ with veggies, rice with minced hoba beef, pickled local vegetables, Takayama miso soup, vegetable assortment with a local draft beer on the side.

It was the best meal I think I’ve had in Japan and the family who owns the restaurant was very kind to me. The set was very reasonable for the quality and it tasted so good my taste buds are still singing hallelujah when I think about it. The most surprising thing about the whole meal however, was the beer.

I love dark beers and I don’t get to drink them as often as I like in Japan, due to the price. Darker beers don’t seem to be as popular here, so I was pretty surprised it was the default local brew served. As the first swig of ice cold beer hit my lips, I could actually feel my eyes pop just a little. It was unbelievably delicious! So unbelievably delicious I thought the sake was playing games with my mind. So, I naturally had to take a second gulp. Nope, it wasn’t a trick, it was really truly the best beer I’ve ever had.  IMG_2339

Beer is like wine, sometimes what tastes amazing to one person doesn’t suit someone else, everyone has different preferences. For me, this tasted like my dream beer. I’m sure you’ve all imagined the perfect beer in your minds at one point or another. You take a sip of a beer and wish it was just a little more “this” or a little more “that”…..  this one was simply amazing. As soon at the kind lady serving me came by to fill up my water I quickly asked her where I could buy some of this beer because I loved it.  It turns out I was in luck, they had a store along Sannomachi Street. Check it out everyone, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Full to bursting by this point and my wallet much lighter after buying quite a bit of beer from the Takayama Brewing Company I figured I would take a time out and relax for a bit before driving home.  I went in search of a nice coffee shop to read my book and drink some coffee before hitting the road. I stumbled upon the adorable Hidacchi Cafe.

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I couldn’t resist the cuteness of the milk chocolate mocha!

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You put the chocolate disk on the top of the steamed hida milk and coffee and waited for it to melt. Lip smacking good!

I lost all track of time hiding away from the the bustling streets of Sannomachi nose buried deep in my excellent book (The Stockholm Octavo, should you be so interested).  Unexpectedly rain began to downpour and I thanked my lucky stars I was already happily nestled away in a cafe, I felt a little bad for the many drenched to the bone people who tried to come into the cafe but it was full and they were forced to run back out into the rain. Putting my book down, I stared up at the sky lost in thought. I love sitting at a window with a hot drink watching thunderstorms, I find it very relaxing. All too soon though it came time for me to hit the road. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful adventure.

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Life Shrinks Or Expands In Proportion To One’s Courage: Tayakama Road Trip Day 1

Up until last week I had been stuck in a bit of a funk and I needed something to snap me out of it….I was trying to decide how best to do so when I remembered my all-time favourite quote:

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To me, this roughly translates as “Life holds many wonderful things waiting around the corner, if you only have the courage to take chances.”  It was this quote gave me a much-needed nudge when I was deliberating whether or not to take a leap of faith and move to Japan.  (Thanks Anais for this quote, I really owe you one because Japan’s been a blast!) It also made me realize that perhaps a good way to shake off this funk was to pluck up a little courage and go have a crazy little adventure!

Last year, inspired by this quote I did something for the very first time, I traveled somewhere in Japan all alone! It may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was a big deal to me. It was the first time I had ever travelled somewhere alone.  Not only would I be traveling alone, I would be doing it in a country where I didn’t speak the language fluently. I had prior to this never dared to stray too away from my comfort zone (aka: my friends who speak Japanese much more fluently than I do). I was terrified I’d end up in a situation where my limited Japanese would cause problems, especially because I wanted to travel to a rural little town called Nikko.  In the end it was one of the most rewarding trips I’ve taken in Japan, it was a wonderful holiday and I was so proud of myself for taking the chance.

This winter I once again took another big leap of faith by traveling solo internationally for the first time! I travelled to Cambodia and Singapore for 2 weeks, meeting up with friends briefly in Cambodia. Anais would have been proud! I was starting to get the hang of this solo-traveling.

I had been contemplating a road trip to Takayama for quite some time, ever since I visited the snowy village of Shirakawago this winter. Last Friday, I had traveled to Nagoya to visit the zoo and on the bus ride home was thinking over what to do with myself for the weekend.  Most of my friends were away for a sports tournament yet I really felt the desire to take off and sightsee. I hadn’t been anywhere new since my parents came to visit, and my feet were very itchy! Takayama was only 3 hours away from Fukui….and I had a car….but I was terrified of heading off on a solo road trip in Japan, what if I got lost?! Need I say more? It was time for me to take a deep breath, take a risk and dive into a new adventure. I can now proudly proclaim that I have successfully experienced my very first ever solo road trip!

I adore road trips. They are so much more fun than taking the train for one very wonderful reason: you can blare your music and howl along at the top of your lungs. So, Saturday morning I woke up early, hopped into “The Snickerdoodle” (my adorable little K-car), plugged in my iPod that was “tsuru-tsuru-ippai” (full to the brim) with some new country music and hit the road!

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Cruising down the highway I thought to myself “Life just doesn’t get any better than this!”

Three house later, after driving through the beautiful mountains, I arrived in Gifu for the first time!  Takayama (高山), or “Hida-Takayama” as it’s often referred to as,  is a very quaint and charming city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. It retains a traditional touch, especially in its beautifully preserved old town streets.

First things first, I checked into my hostel. For anyone visiting Takayama I would highly recommend the Sakura Guest House. The people running the hostel were very helpful, the hostel clean and facilities were lovely. Bonus: they have a small parking lot which you may park your car in (for free!) which J-Hoppers did not.IMG_9758

After that I scampered out the door lickety-split to seize the day….and what a beautiful day it was! IMG_9759

The Sakura Guest House was very near to the Hida Folk Village (飛騨の里, Hida no Sato), which is one of the top sightseeing places in Takayama to visit, only about a 5-10 minute walk. The Hida Folk Village is an open air museum exhibiting over 30 traditional houses from the Hida region that were built during the Edo Period (1693-1867). It’s 600yen to enter and well worth spending a couple hours wandering through.

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The name of this style of house in Japanese is “Gassho-zukuri” which when translated into English means “constructed like hands in prayer”. This is because the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks when pressed together in prayer. Isn’t that just so sweet?

There were so many interesting houses to explore and lots you could learn because there were many signs written in English.

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Every house had old artifacts on display, even better most with English explanations too!

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My favourite part was actually being able to go into all the different houses and explore.

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An old woman weaving traditional hida patterns on a loom in one of the houses.

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I was really lucky to be one of the only people there that day. So walking through this historic village was peaceful and I could really imagine for moments being transported back in time…

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Feeling a little mischievous I also bravely rang this bell, normally I’d shy away from drawing attention to myself when traveling solo, or even in a large group. That, however, I reminded myself as I eyed the bell for a good long minute deliberating, wasn’t the point of this little adventure. I was trying to be a “yes person” the kind of traveller who seizes every wonderful opportunity to experience culture and not let shyness hold them back. With a deep breath I climbed the stairs and let the bell’s deep GONG ring out.

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After the historic village it was time to grab an early dinner. I was starving and so I headed out on a mission to hunt down a famous bowl of Hida-Takayama beef ramen that was highly recommended by the man at the Sakura Guest House.  The restaurant itself, despite not knowing its name, was pretty easy to find. I walked from Takayama Station to Miyagawa Bridge, and right before I crossed over the bridge I saw a black restaurant building on the corner with a long line-up. There were also plenty of posters showing the famous bowl of ramen. photo (12)Another awesome thing about traveling solo is that you often don’t have to wait a long time to eat. Within minutes I was seated (despite the line-up!) and had ordered. When the server brought my steaming bowl of ramen out I could immediately see why it was famous.  The scent of amazingly-flavourful beef broth wafted up, my eyes took in the thin chinese-style noodles and my mouth began to salivate at the sight of the raw, thin and oh-so-tender looking slices of hida beef that slowly were being cooked by the heat of the broth. I whole-heartedly said “Itadakimasu!” (much to the approval of the group of Japanese tourists sitting next to me) and dug in.  I won’t torment any foodies out there, other than to say, it was even better than it looked! Please try it if you ever visit Takayama!

My bowl of ramen finished in record time, I made my way back to the hostel stopping briefly at the tourist information center at the train station to ask for an onsen recommendation. I had done my research and knew that the Okuhida area of Gifu was very famous for its hot springs and many of them have fantastic views of the surrounding Northern Japan Alps.  I love mountains and I love onsens so I was keen to drive out there and visit one.  It was just a matter of figuring out which one!  The lady recommended a onsen named Hirayunomori which was a 45-minute drive from Takayama or I could take a bus. Seeing as I had my car I opted to drive.

Hirayunomori Onsen was lovely to experience after a long drive and sightseeing; it was relaxing with a serene atmosphere and had a fantastic view overlooking the mountains.  It was one of the nicest onsens I’ve been to so far in Japan!Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 10.48.38 AM

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  • ADDRESS: Hirayunomori – 763-1, Hirayu Okuhidaonsengo, Gifu, 506-1433 (Tel: 0578-89-3338)
  • Public Bathing Times: 10am – 9:00pm  (Last entry at 9:30pm)
  • Price: 500yen for an adult

As I happily plunged into the piping hot water and soaked my weary bones in the special hot spring water of this onsen I could feel a huge weight, at long last, being lifted from my mind. I spent almost an hour and a half relaxing, occasionally moving from special pool to special pool, and serenely taking in the beautiful view of the mountains. It was exactly what the doctor had ordered. The onsen not only left my body squeaky-clean and soothed but my soul too; all the worries that had been cluttering up my mind disappeared and my heart was able to expel all the negativity and find its zen once again.

As the sun sank behind the mountains, saying its farewell with a truly spectacular sunset and leaving behind a caramel-coloured sky, I reluctantly climbed out and made my way back to the hostel to rest up for my next big adventure. Stay tuned!

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Snow-overload in Shirakawago

The first step to dealing with an addiction, supposedly, is to admit to one’s self that the addiction does in fact exist.  I am taking the first step therefore, in admitting I am addicted to my kotatsu and it probably should end….

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A  kotatsu (ko-tat-su) is a small Japanese floor table with a heater on the underside and a blanket over the top). It’s a marvelous, cozy invention that helps survive the cold evenings in your apartment. Japanese houses lack insulation so despite my best attempts at using heaters I still love my kotatsu best.  Other older ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) warned me of the dangers of the kotatsu but I was young and a little cocky and thought I had nothing to fear.  That over-confidence came back to bite me in the butt.

The problem is that once I nestle myself under all those toasty blankets at my kotatsu I don’t want to move…even to pee. Leaving the warmth of my kotatsu, to battle forces with the wicked cold air of my kitchen, can take minutes of mentally working myself up to sprint to the toilet, sprint to the kitchen to grab another mug of tea or a cookie, etc….. Thus, as a result of this addiction to my kotatsu, I’ve gotten quite plump this winter. *gulp*  If there is one thing I have learned after my most recent relationship with my kotatsu is this: never ever allow yourself to start hoarding your snacks near the kotatsu….they will disappear faster than cookies in a kindergarten! Uh-oh!

My life every night can pretty much follow the plot of this little story:

If Jessie sits at her kotatsu she’s going to want a cup of tea, and if you give Jessie a cup of tea she’s going to want a cookie, and if you give Jessie a cookie…

It was a bad habit and it needed to be kicked, fast!  About 2 weeks ago I vowed that it was imperative for my sanity and my waistline that I stay as far away from my kotatsu as I could for one weekend in order to lessen what felt like a gravitational pull into a black hole of doom.

Enter superhero Lizzy, best friend and superb travel-planner! She suggested, and coordinated, a trip to the very cute town of Shirakawago and I couldn’t agree fast enough! Shirakawago (she-rah-kawa-goh) is a small remote village in the mountains between the prefectures of Gifu and Toyama.  It is a UNESCO world heritage site which is most famous for the traditional thatch-style farmhouses.  Some of these houses are more than 250 years old!

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Firstly, let me just say that these pictures do not do the village justice, the houses are beyond adorable! I was very happy we had followed our co-workers’ recommendations to go in winter because it was magical.  It felt like we had been transported to the North Pole and were walking around a Christmas town.

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Walking around the snowy village you could catch glimpses of the traditional houses as they played peek-a-boo with you through the trees. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced!

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The name of this style of house in Japanese is “Gassho-zukuri” (Gah-shou zoo-curry) which when translated into English means “constructed like hands in prayer”.  This is because the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks when pressed together in prayer. Isn’t that just so sweet?  The downside to receiving so much snow is that in the winter months now many owners of the gassho-zukuri houses have taken to “helping” their homes by getting up on the thatch and shoveling snow off. It was terrifying to watch!

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A man shoveling snow off the roof. Terrifying to watch!

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Snow-loving Lizzy

I traveled to Shirawakawago with my friends Lizzy and Zoya.  Both Zoya and myself hail from snowy countries so we weren’t as astonished by the towering height of the snow in Shirakawago.  Lizzy however, was absolutely ecstatic over how much snow there was! She made me laugh with her desire to fall backward into the snow.  We ever got into a minature snowball fight. たのしい!!!! For someone who never grew up with winter she had wicked aim with those snowballs.  I was tempted to ambush her with an unsuspecting snowball often throughout the rest of the trip, however, I had learned my lesson and didn’t quite dare.

We travelled to Ogimachi by bus from Kanzawa, it’s the the largest village and main attraction of this style house. If you visit Shirawakawago in the winter I would 100% recommend taking a bus, the roads can be terrible with all the snow.  It is far safer and far more relaxing to take the bus.  Tickets were 1,600yen one way to the village from Kanazawa.

Also, if you have time to spare I would also highly recommend staying the night in Shirakawago at one of the numerous Minshuku.  Minshuku (me-n-shoe-ku) are Japanese style bed and breakfasts, which are usually family operated. They offer visitors a good opportunity to meet a a local family and experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. (For a full list of Minshuku in Shirakawago click here!)

We decided to stay at a lovely little minshuku called Nodaniya.  It was a traditional style Japanese room, with sliding doors, tatami floors, a kotatsu (OH-NO! haha epic plan to avoid one ruined!) and futons to sleep on.  My favourite part of staying at a minshuku is the food!!!!! OM NOM NOM NOM! If you stay at Nodaniya they will serve you a delicious set meal dinner full of local specialities and a lovely Japanese-style breakfast in the morning.

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Dinner of local Shirakawago specialties. My favourite part was the hida beef (top left corner) which is very famous in Japan. Melt-in-your-mouth delicious! I will admit to being a little scared to eat the fish, but I figured it out in the end, and it was tasty too!

After dinner we decided to hit the onsen for a relaxing bath. For 700yen you can enter the onsen at the lovely Shirakawa-go no Yu minshuku. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from Nodaniya and absolute bliss after a chilly day. After the onsen it was time to crawl into our futons and slip away to sweet dreams.

We awoke early the next morning, breakfast was at 7:30am sharp. Easy to do surprisingly when everyone in the room is a teacher used to getting up at 6:30am to get to school on time. Breakfast was fantastic! Another lovely Japanese tray heaped with small portions of various Japanese foods. I ate everything except the egg. Most memorable was when the owner of the minshuku served something I had never tried before and just about died with happiness eating. The name of my Japanese breakfast kryptonite: Hoba Miso.

Hoba Miso

Hoba Miso

This Hoba Miso is a regional specialty and is traditionally served as follows: a nice big spoonful with shallots, and perhaps a few mushrooms, on a large ho tree leaf (a type of magnolia) which is then rested over a charcoal brazier to heat until aromatic.  It’s eaten at breakfast time with rice.  It was the best miso I have ever tried, hands down! My stomach is growing just looking at that picture. If you visit Shirakawago you MUST try this!

After an incredibly tasty breakfast, Zoya, Lizzy and I decided to brave the blizzard that had descended upon the tiny village.  Everything was covered in about a fresh foot of snow and freeze-your-nose-off cold. The upside of all the snow: double the magic! The fresh snow made the village look even more beautiful, something I didn’t think possible.

IMG_2137Something super interesting to do when you go is to tour the inside of one of the thatch houses. We chose to tour the inside of the the Wada family’s home, this family was one of the wealthiest families and village leaders of Ogimachi. Their former home is the largest gassho-zukuri farmhouse in the town, and is now open to the public as a museum.

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We still had quite a bit of time to kill after we finished touring and souvenir buying (I picked up some Hoba Miso for mom and dad to try when they visit! Hope they like it!). Our feet were frozen by this point and so, when Zoya mentioned a really cute cafe she had visited last time we made a beeline there.  Sipping on a piping-hot, cinnamon-dusted cafe latte (oooh such a good idea) gave my mood an immediate boost.  We chatted and read our kindles until 2:00 rolled around and it was time to return home.  
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We also discovered, while talking with a few locals, that Shirakawago has a very fun-sounding sake festival in October.  Only 300yen for all you can drink sake, hello trouble! Lizzy and I both agreed that coming back sounded exciting. Shirakawago, it’s safe to say you haven’t seen the last of this Canadian. She’ll be back soon to enjoy your cozy atmosphere again in no time!

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