Sunday 27 April 2008

Sunshine Coast Cycle

I spent a couple of days at a friend's cottage near Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast. It is an area just north of Vancouver but you can't drive there because of the mountains and other rocky terrain. The only way to get there is by taking a ferry from Horseshoe Bay (near Vancouver). It is about a 40 minute ferry ride.

On Saturday, we went for a very nice bicycle ride. The weather was sunny and it was fairly warm outside. Unlike scootering, I rarely get cold when cycling because I create my own heat, so to speak.

We first made to 2 km from my friend, Randy's place to the town of Gibsons. It is a little town of about 5000 people that became very popular because of a long running -Canadian TV show called the Beachcombers. Molly's Reach was one of the main locales in the series and serves a nice pint, too, if I recall previous trips.

We took the lower road which more or less runs parallel to the highway. There were a number of stops along the way to take photos. The sun was very cooperative and the views of the ocean made me feel very good inside. We didn't push really hard as it was my first bigger ride of the year so there was lots of time to chat and joke as we rode.

The lower road ended at a beach just shy of Roberts Creek. We then pushed our bikes along the beach, no easy task, for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. It was pretty hard work. We then connected up with a trail covered in roots where we had to carry our bikes until we got up to the road. In the photo, you can see our tire tracks in the sand.

In Roberts Creek, we stopped at the Gumboot Cafe for a coffee and a snack. I had a samosa with tasty homemade chutney.

We continued on to our destination, Sechelt, which is a bigger town of about 10 000 people. We stopped at a park on the beach there and had a nice break, admiring the view. While in the park, I took Randy's bike for a ride. He has a "Bike Friday" which is a folding bike. He has taken it several times to Europe and really likes the mobility it gives him. Not a bad ride, either.

We then headed towards home, stopping at Davis Landing for a drink before we pushed it a bit on the highway back to Gibsons.

It was about a 50 km ride which was definitely long enough for me for a first ride of the year. Back in Gibsons, we headed into Gramma's pub and tucked into a well deserved halibut and chips with a frosty beverage, also well deserved!

Monday 21 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #9

March 28 - Kamakura and Hase

Got up at 8, feeling pretty good, despite the late night before. Maybe I'm getting used to this hectic lifestyle?

Our first stop was an unusual one - it was the Honjo Fire Station and Life Safety Learning Centre - just a five minute walk from where we were staying! We first watched a 3D film dramatizing how several people responded to an earthquake that hits Tokyo.

The first was a mother who couldn't work out how to work a fire extinguisher and so, fled her house with her elderly mother as buckets, roof tiles and live wires fell all around them.

The next part had a businessman on the subway as the earthquake hit. We had headphones that translated the dialogue into English which was interesting. As the earthquake hit, for example, the businessman yelled, "What the hell was that?" which is not exactly what you'd expect for an educational video shown to children!

Anyway, the story progressed from people running from the train, some running on top of other people, and running, panicked into the street as debris fell around them. The film continued with a story of what not to do in case of an earthquake without giving the alternate - a refreshing change from educational videos here! I quite enjoyed it although I did find myself giggling from time to time...

After the movie (which happened to be in 3D - look out for that falling glass!) we headed upstairs to the earthquake room. After a rather lengthy explanation ("OK, OK, OK?") and detailed instructions on what to do, we had a couple of simulations where a machine moved the entire floor of the test area - a couple of the jolts were quite strong. I enjoyed it thoroughly!

After, we took the train to Kamakura which was about an hour away. We had soba for lunch (a type of noodle), which was quite tasty, and then wandered the shopping street.

We made a couple of purchases, took in a shrine, stopped for coffee, and then headed back to the train station to take the little commuter train to Hase.

We arrived in Hase and then walked to the Daibutsu - the big Buddha! He is huge! He was built around the year 1200 and is made of bronze. About 400 years after he was built, the building that covered him washed away in a tsunami.

It is a remarkable sight and is well worth seeing especially with the trees and hill behind.

We then went to Hase temple which is a shrine complex with gardens, statues, and caves as well as shrines.

The saddest was the section devoted to Jiso, god of unborn children, to honour all those unborn fetuses and children who died in childbirth. I think there were less statues than last time I went, however, possibly due to the fact that birth control is now legal in Japan.

When we went home, it was rush hour so Yoichi sprang for a Green Car - a first class seat on the train - which was very nice - reminded me of the Shinkansen - and I had a bit of a nap on the way home.

Later that night, Keiko prepared a fantastic sukiyaki meal which is a cross between shabu shabu and yaki niku (Korean BBQ). We then just sat around, chatting, talking of old times and new experiences. It was a wonderful last evening.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Interlude - Scooter Ride to Barnston Island

I know that I've been sharing my journal of my trip to Tokyo for the past little while and, even though I'm almost done, I have a couple entries left to write. However, yesterday was an unseasonably warm and sunny day so I packed my camera and went out for a nice afternoon ride.

I first took the Albion ferry - and I love it because scooters get to go to the front of the line! I arrived at the ferry and was the only thing on two wheels until we started loading. Then I heard the rumble of motorcycles but I focused on getting up the loading ramp without having an unfortunate accident....

I parked my scoot, got off and looked behind - 13 leathered guys and their Harleys, some with their biker girlfriends. Happily, a few smiled and waved at me, something that I still find surprising and amazing. Here I was on my little 50cc scooter and a guy on a bike with an engine bigger than my car treats me like an equal!

The sun was shining as I rode in my shirtsleeves through Northern Langley towards my destination, Barnston Island. Barnston Island is a small island in the Fraser River between Surrey and Pitt Meadows that is basically an agricultural area used for dairy. There are also a few houses where people live. I had always intended to pack up the bikes when the girls were little because it's a great cycle but just never got around to it. Also, there's no stores so my girls would have serious motivation problems, especially now....

I didn't have a map handy (it was with my eldest daughter's car) so there was a bit of exploring but I eventually found the ferry. While waiting, I chatted with a retired gentleman who lived on the island.

The ferry itself is small - really small. It's actually a little barge with a tugboat secured to it. It holds about five cars and the ride is about three minutes.

Once we got across, I rode the very flat road that goes around the island. The weather was fantastic and the views were great.

There was this very nice view of the Golden Ears in Maple Ridge.

And, 100 metres down the road, this view of Mount Baker.

I stopped a couple times, snacking on the cookies that I had snagged from home. It was very quiet and peaceful.

The only negative was this in-your-face sign that clearly stated that visitors were not welcome on the bench.

When I got to the dock to leave, I watched in amazement as the cars backed onto the ferry to get on. This is definitely small scale!

On the way back, I was able to get a few shots of the Golden Ears bridge which is under construction. There were some interesting views of the construction and I was able to get right under the bridge.

This photo I especially liked as it looks like pieces of Hot Wheels track that hasn't been snapped together yet!

I headed home, taking the return ferry trip with only one motorcycle. The temperature was still around 24° (about 75° F.) so I changed into my shorts and chilled out for the rest of an excellent Saturday.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #8

March 27 - Tsukiji, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro

Got up a little early and, after a nice breakfast, left for the Tsukiji fish market.

We arrived as things were beginning to wrap up at the fish auction but still got there in plenty of time to see lots of interesting things. Scooters and bikes scurried everywhere with loads of fish earmarked for different places all over Tokyo.

In the actual market, the different businesses were readying their fish, sawing, packaging, and otherwise getting their product ready for further on the food chain.

We did our best to stay out of the way but it was difficult because there was so much activity. We even got honked at a couple of times!

I loved all of the colours, fish, and strong smells. Colleen, on the other hand, thought it was gross but kind of cool. Teenagers...

We left the market and went to a sushi restaurant just down the road where I had, quite possible, the best sushi of my life. It was super-fresh, melt-in-your mouth sushi and tasted amazing!

One cool thing - the chef took a blow torch and seared the top of some of the pieces! Very industrial.

On our way back to the station, we stopped by a shrine where a monk(?) was burning dolls that people had purchased. I think it was either for good luck or to remember departed relatives.

After, we went to Shinjuku and Ikebukuro for some shopping. Even Colleen was starting to get a little bit overexposed to the commercialism that is Tokyo, but I still enjoyed wading amongst the masses of people. Tokyoites make for excellent people watching.

Interestingly, we had a couple of delays on the train. Apparently there were two different suicides where people had jumped in front of the train. This is one of the most common forms of committing suicide in Tokyo. I guess it was a bad day for some.

After, we went to Kinshicho station for Shabu Shabu. This tasty dish is where you have a pot of boiling water in the middle of a table and you plop in meat and veg to cook. The sound it makes gives the dish the name. It was very tasty.

Later on that night, Yoichi and I went out clubbing in his fancy car, an Aston Martin. Very cool. First stop was a Karoke bar with Filipino hostesses. This was quite a large place and the manager was a bit excited that I was a gaijin. I was let in, thanks to Yoichi's influence, and things picked up a bit. The woman I spoke to the most was 32 and was looking forward to going home to hang around her house and chill. She had been in Japan for 5 years out of the last 13 and had the equivalent of a green card.

Singing at this bar was a bit intimidating because of the number of customers, the fact that I hadn't had a really warm greeting, and that I couldn't hear myself really well. You also had to go up on a stage where in other places you could sing from your seat. According to Yoichi, there were pretty cheap with the drinks and expensive with the bill.

We then ended up after midnight at another karaoke bar, this time with Indonesian hostesses. Again, the manager was a little excited about the fact I was a gaijin but the customers seemed generally friendlier than the last one. One hostess I spoke to knew less English than I knew Japanese so eventually another one was found that spoke English. She's only been in Japan for a couple of months and didn't speak Japanese very well so she was quite happy to talk to someone she understood. She was nice enough but I made a point of talking about my wonderful daughters and my loving wife...

The singing was better here - I belted out a few numbers - and the clientèle really warmed up to me, especially after singing a couple of Green Day songs.

As to the hostesses, rest assured that, at least in the places Yoichi took me to, nothing untoward happens. Apparently these kind of places are popular in Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and many other places around the world. The hostesses couldn't believe that we don't have places like this in Canada (at least, not that I'm aware of).

At around 2 AM, we headed home. A full day, definitely!

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #7

March 26 - Ueno and Ginza

A bit of a later start today - up at 8 and then off to Ueno to shop at Ame Oko. Ame Oko was a black market area established during the American occupation after WWII. It’s not a black market area any more but it is a very popular place to shop for deals. Colleen absolutely loved it. So did Yoichi so quite a few omiyage (presents) were purchased and we all left with many bags.

This picture shows Keiko in front of a place that makes manju - buns with sweet bean paste inside. I don’t like them.

We then headed to Ginza - very fancy stores and hip people. Colleen managed to find some trendy shoes while I bought a bright yellow walled in a bargain store.

We stopped at the Lion Beer Hall for lunch. It was an odd fusion of German and Japanese cuisine. For example, I had a chicken and onion dish which seemed German but had a soy based dipping sauce. Colleen had Chinese dumplings, cheese spring rolls, and french fries! Still, it was pretty good. The picture shows me between Yoichi and Ando-san - notice how they’re both smoking.

This building is actually twisted - there’s no special effect.

We went into a Nissan store and everyone was talking about the new GTL. It wasn’t until I returned to Canada that I realized that it was actually the new GTR!

After lunch, we headed back to Kinshicho by taxi because Yoichi’s feet hurt. We all went back to the massage clinic and had a combo shiatsu and foot massage. It was wonderful although my daughter found it to be a bit strange.

While we were waiting for Yoichi, I thought I’d show Colleen a pachinko parlour. Pachinko is a game where you buy metal balls and put them in a machine similar to a pinball machine and try to win more balls. Then you cash in your metal balls for some objects (flints, for example) and then go to a booth nearby and exchange the object for money. This is all to evade the gambling rules in Japan. Unfortunately, the pachinko parlour was completely packed, extremely smokey, and so cacophonously loud that I couldn’t stand it!

We had dinner at a restaurant called Tsukiji Sushi and ate our fill. It was good and I stayed away from anything really odd. We then went back to Yoichi’s for a night cap and then retired, content and full after yet another super day.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #6

March 25 - Shibuya, Harajuku and Akihabara

After breakfast, Colleen and I headed to some intense shopping. I'm finding that my Japanese has come back quite a bit over the past few days and dealing with people in stores and restaurants has been great practice.

The first place we went to was Shibuya 109 - I think it's named that because there are 109 different little stores in it! It's a teen girl's shopping dream of both cheap and expensive clothes and accessories. Unfortunately for Colleen, she's gaijin-sized and so, didn't fit most of the the clothes.

Then, onto the busy streets of Shibuya. There are very fancy stores like Louis Vuitton, Prada, and more but Colleen was more interested in great deals.

We stopped at Wendy's as Colleen was missing North American food and ended up with a shrimp burger. Hmmm.

We then went to Takeshite Dori - and this was the kind of shopping that Colleen loved. Crowded, noisy, tons of stores - it was a great Tokyo experience! I even bought a couple things.

Unfortunately there were no dressed up girls at Harajuku Station when we got there but Colleen still enjoyed the experience immensely.

We headed towards the Meiji Shrine but, unfortunately, a bird shared a little joy with Colleen's head so after a quick wash of the hair, it was back on the train.

We headed for that bastion of consumer electronics, Akihabara. I thought I'd lost my subway ticket so I had to pay ¥160 but luckily I found it in my cell phone and was promptly reimbursed.

Akihabara was almost as good as last time and almost as crowded. We went to the Tokyo Anime Centre which was OK but the highlight (for Colleen) was the store.

We then had a nice coffee break where the people watching was excellent, a stop at Yodobashi Camera, and then back to the station.

I think the highlight was when we had our photo taken with some girls dressed up on the street.

Back at Kinshicho station, Yoichi and Keiko met us and we walked into Kinshicho park to look at the Sakura. This time of year is very special in Japan. The cherry blossoms, or sakura, are in bloom and the even of their blooming is called Hanami. Hanami means flower viewing.

We then headed to Yoichi's sister's house which was bitter-sweet. It was great to see his sister and her husband after so many years but is was sad because she has liver cancer. She was up today, though, and we had a very nice visit. Her husband's nick name is Ando-san which means Mr. Ando because when he speaks English, he always says "ando" between words.

We all then went the an Izakaya which is a traditional Japanese bar restaurant. The variety of food that I'd never had before was amazing! I really liked this Japanese version of what looked like a corn dog - it was made from pork and you dipped it in raw egg - oishi (delicious)! There was lots more oshinko (pickled stuff), too. To finish off, we had the biggest o-nigiri (rice ball) I've ever seen in my life! It was like a whole extra meal!

After saying goodbye to Yoichi's sister and Ando-san, we headed home. That was good for Colleen as the smoke in the bar - between the cooking and the fact that almost everyone was smoking in a small place - really bothered her eyes.

All in all, another great day.

Saturday 5 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #5

March 24 - To Kyoto and Back

Today was an early day. I managed to get up by myself and left by 6:45 to catch the train for Tokyo station and, after that, the shinkansen or bullet train to Kyoto. The train to Tokyo station was very crowded - no men with white gloves pushing people into the trains, but getting there.

The Shinkansen is not cheap - ¥13 000 ($130) for a one way trip - but there aren’t a lot of other options for transportation to Kyoto (370 km or 230 miles) and it is fast and clean. It took about 2 and a half hours to get there.

Once I arrived I knew I was going to meet up with my daughter, Colleen. She had been on a one week exchange with a family in Miyoshi (near Hiroshima) along with eight other students from her Japanese class at school.

There were staying at the Kyoto Tower Hotel which, I was told, was across the street from the station. As luck would have it, I exited the wrong side and spent a half an hour finding my way around the station to the hotel! Kyoto station is big!

It was great to see Colleen! She looked good and happy and not the least bit homesick. The exchange had gone extremely well but she was looking forward to her trip to Tokyo.

After some shopping and a nice lunch, we said goodbye to her friends that were returning to Canada and took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.

Colleen was a huge hit with everyone back at Kinshicho. Her Japanese was clear and her appetite was good - both essential for visiting!

We went to the Tempura restaurant round the corner and Colleen did very well. She did have some issues with the oshinko (pickled stuff), though.

After, we chatted at length in Yoichi’s apartment and then headed for bed - although the bed I was sleeping on and the futon Colleen was curled up beside me made the apartment fell a bit cramped!

Friday 4 April 2008

Oki-na Gaijin, Chisai-na Kuni (Big Foreigner, Small Country) #4

March 23 - Shibuya and Harajuku

Today started a little late. I didn’t really get up until nine and rang up Yoichi at 10.

Staying with someone certainly changes your travel experience. On one hand, you don’t have the freedom to just go whenever you want. On the flip side, there are opportunities that the average tourist would never have.

We hung out and drank coffee until about noon and then headed toward Kinshicho station. This transportation hub has changed quite a lot in 23 years. There is a new subway line going through the station as well as a couple of different train lines so it is very busy. Yoichi and I had a coffee while Keiko went to the Loto place and placed about 100 ¥100 bets. This is a common event on Sundays.

We eventually got on the subway (Hanzomon Line) and went to Omote Sando. . We had lunch at the Spiral Building, so named for its spiral staircase. After the queasiness of last night, the tomato and rice dish was very settling.

We then walked towards Harajuku. The big draw is the show of rebellious teens who dress up in a variety of costumes on the weekend. Some dress up in weird Bo-Peep costumes, others in frilly dresses, others as goths and other strange outfits. And yes, sometimes it’s boys dressing up in the frilly outfits.

There’s also a narrow, long shopping street called Takeshita-dori which was a sea of people - tourists, shoppers and costume play (Cos-Play) teens. Very festive and busy.

The most Cos-Plays on display were outside Harajuku train station and were quite happy to be photographed. Interestingly, there were a few gaijin dressed up in the mix.

We then walked towards Shibuya past all sorts of very fancy stores (Louis Vuitton, Gucci, etc.) that I don’t really care about but are very popular in Japan. We ended up at a gigantic scramble crosswalk in Shibuya - I had to cross it twice - and then headed back for home.

Back in Kinshicho, Yoichi decided that his feet hurt so we all ended up at the massage clinic for a shiatsu body massage. After putting on little Japanese pajamas, the massage guy worked me over for an hour, asking (in Japanese) if I was OK after each excruciating move. But I always said that I did because it felt so good after.

Afterwards, we went to little restaurant near the station which had a nice variety of food. I had the chriasi sushi with is a bowl of rice with a bunch of fish and other stuff on top. It was very good but one of the oshinko - pickled vegetables - that I had - a daikon dyed yellow - was absolutely hideous. Luckily the two big beers I had helped eradicate the bad taste.

After a great dinner and the massage, we were all pretty tired. I watched Bull Durham in Yoichi’s apartment and then retired to bed for my best sleep thus far.