Tokyo, Day 1

Tokyo, Day 1

Getting to Tokyo:

In 2015, we treated my dad to a trip to Peru for his 65th birthday. That trip was so amazing that my mom wanted to fast-forward her b-day trip to her 60th (typical mom!) and she wanted to go to Japan. After 7 months of researching and planning, our late March / early April cherry-blossom-season Japan trip was in full swing. My mom, dad, and sister flew in to Tokyo Friday night and Ryan and I arrived Saturday afternoon to start our two week journey.

After navigating the busy Tokyo Airport, grabbing our (very worth it) Rail Pass, hopping a few trains and walking through markets with our luggage, we arrived at the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Since there were 5 of us, my sister Julia was bouncing between staying with my parents and bunking with Ryan and I. The Shinjuku had this really cool loft suite so we started the trip off with a sleepover!

We unpacked and took a quick shower before hitting the streets to find some food. We ended up at a sushi train place with melt-in-your-mouth sushi! All 5 of us got our fill of so many types of seafood for only $50 total. It was a very impressive start to our culinary part of the trip.

After we filled up, we walked back through the crowded streets to our hotel for some much needed sleep.

Day 1:

Thank goodness for Melatonin. If you don’t know what that is, it is a natural sleep aid that tells your body when it is time for bed. When you are traveling and in a place with a totally different time zone, like Tokyo which is 14 hours ahead of Dallas, it helps you reset your body clock. My sister, Ryan, and I all had a gummy version of it before bed, slept like logs, and woke up ready for an 8 hour tour day!

We met my parents in the lobby of the Shinjuku Granbell hotel at 8:15 AM to grab breakfast before our tour guide arrived. It was only 40 degrees outside and it took one step out the door for me to start patrolling for a heavier jacket when we passes markets and shops. We walked about 5 minutes down to road to a more Americanized breakfast place for coffee called Tully’s. Ryan had half a ham and egg sandwich and pancakes to load up for the day and I had a coffee. This is going to sound really strange, but my sister and I both opted instead to go to 7-Eleven for breakfast. 7-Elevens in Japan look similar to those in the US but are much different. They have a wider variety of fresh food and are much cleaner / nicer. I had heard the rumors about them and read tons of info online so my sister and I decided to Japanese foods from there instead of the American place. I grabbed a pork version of the triangular shaped rice balls stuffed with meats, veggies, or fish, a steamed pork bun, and Korean rice ball. All three were really different but tasty! I don’t know how I feel yet about seaweed for breakfast though, according to our guide, traditional Japanese breakfasts consist of rice, veggies, fish, and always, always miso soup.

After our 7-Eleven stop, we went back to the hotel to chow down and wait for Misa, our 8 hour, private tour guide. She showed up right at 9:30 in a sun hat, fur-lined hooded jacket, and boots. Her face was bright and personality brighter, and we all hit it off with her immediately. She gave us an overview of the customized tour for the day and we headed off to tour gardens.

Our hotel was located in the middle of the Shinjuku district. While it is a modern, 4-star variety hotel, it is surrounded but all of these other themed hotels which were really interesting looking and strange. A lot of them had pictures of the various rooms in front of the hotels and private entrances. Misa told us that they were all “love” hotels that can be rented by the hour. Apparently, most of the houses in Tokyo are very small and people live in very close proximity with paper thin walls. To get privacy, most people in the city, from young lovers to parents, go to these “love hotels” and it is a widely accepted but secretive process. That conversation definitely brought a new perspective to our ideas of our neighborhood!

It was about a 20-minute walk to the garden and the sun was finally starting to poke out. For the sake of time, we decided to walk the Japanese portion of the garden only, about 1/3 of the full experience. There were some large and beautiful white flowering trees and the cheery blossoms were starting to bud as well!

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My mom was ecstatic when she saw her first blossom. After all, the blooming of the trees was the reason we booked our trip at the end of March! The cherry blossoms bloom from mid-March-May all over Tokyo and are so beautiful.

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After about 45 minutes of taking in the garden, we took off to our first temple. Along the way, Misa had us try these fried red bean and sweet potato fish snacks. They were so hot they burnt by tongue, but were delicious and so cute!

Misa reloaded our Suica cards and we hopped on the train. I have to say, public transit in Tokyo is so well signed and easy once you get the hang of it!

We walked to the Meiji Shrine entrance and bowed in respect. We saw a lot of girls dressed up in kimonos while we walked. Misa told us that the end of March was graduation season and that was the traditional dress for the graduation ceremony. It was super cool to see so many in their traditional garb and hear about the cultural traditions. We opted to grab some Sakura (cherry blossom) tea so we could rest for a few minutes and people-watch before heading into the temple.

The temple was huge and there were two wedding ceremonies going on while we were there. The bride’s white wedding kimonos were gorgeous and they wore these large round hats. Apparently, most kimonos are passed down from generation to generation and cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. There were also some 100-day old babies celebrating their first 100 days of living with their parents and grand parents. Again, the mothers and grandmothers were wearing family kimonos with their family crests embroidered on them. It was a treat to see the traditional wear and ceremonies of the people.

We walked up to the shrine and threw a lucky 5 yen into the entrance to make a wish for our futures. The word 5 in Japanese, “Go”, is also the word for destiny, so throwing 5 yen helps ensure your wish for your destiny.

Our stomaches were starting to rumble and we hopped back on the subway to go to a lake teppanyaki lunch. We arrived at this random building and I would never have found the restaurant, up this tiny elevator to the the 7th floor.

We sat around massive grill and Misa taught us how to make these seafood and pork grilled pancakes. We got a big bowl consisting of tons of veggies, egg, and meat with butter on top. We put the butter on the grill and then added the meat and seafood to cook first. Then, we stirred the egg and veggies together into a doughy mix and put that on the grill. Once the meat was semi-cooked, we put it on top of the cake and then flipped it around halfway through the cook. Once done, we added bbq sauce, Japanese mayo, and fish flakes. THE END RESULT WAS SO GOOD! Misa also made us veggies and noodles.

If you go to Japan, you must try teppanyaki out after a long day of walking.

It was such a treat to have Misa show us how to make lunch. She was such a great guide for our day. After we filed up, we took off through the market streets back to the subway to make our way to our next stop, the Ueno Park. The park was quite crowded and the blossoms were also starting to appear.

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This garden is massive and surrounded by museums. Misa told us that all of the museums and buildings over 5 stories in Tokyo are on rollers so that they can withstand earthquakes! Really inventive.

Then we headed to our last stop, the Asakusa Shrine. At the forefront of the Shrine was a gate with a massive lantern. There was a very long street with vendors lining it on both sides from the 1st massive lantern all the way to the 2nd that was right in front of the main building.

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We were getting a bit overwhelmed with all of the people so we took a side street the rest of the way down to the temple. We walked down the market and Misa bought us some various treats to try like sweet rice balls and savory rice cakes with sake.

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By this point, we had been walking for 7+ hours and we were all starting to get weary. By the main gate, there were these shaker cups with numbered sticks. We shook the cup and got a random numbers that indicated which box to open to select our fortune. The fortunes were these long pieces of paper and all of them were positive, except Ryan’s, so he had to tie his to this rack so his bad fortune would “blow away in the wind’. Poor Ryan!

We were already feeling pretty low energy, so we found a vending machine and grabbed some espresso. It came out piping hot from the machine and Misa explained that drinks with red prices are hot and blue prices are cold in the same machine! Such cool technology and such a good idea to have some caffeine which helped us get home.

Misa took us back to our hotel and we said our goodbyes. She was such an excellent guide for our day. We decided to take a 1.5 hour nap / recharge break and met back up at 7 PM to decide on plans for the next day. My parents wanted to go back to the “Robot Sushi” aka sushi conveyer belt place again, so Ryan and I broke off to try a Ramen place. What a good idea that was! It was delicious. We split a thick wavy noodle, pork belly Ramen with gyoza and fried chicken for like $12 total including drinks. It was so good and warmed us up on the cold evening.

After dinner, we decided to check out our hotels Sky Bar. We texted my family to meet us and sat at a table under the space heaters. The staff even gave us warm, fuzzy blankets so we could enjoy the view comfortably. We had a glass of wine and discussed our itinerary for the rest of our time in Tokyo before calling it an night.

Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney, Day 5 & 6

Sydney Day 5:

We enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the Kirkton Park. They had some to-die for hash browns, fresh braked bread, and yummy fruit, not to mention freshly made marshmallows for the coffee. Also, the rose garden was right out back and the gardener brought in fresh cut roses and rosemary to decorate the kitchen and tables – it was enchanting!

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After we filled up, we took off on the 2.5 hour drive back to Sydney. We saw a few kangaroos on the way back but that was about as exciting as the drive got.

We parked back at the Adina Hotel and decided to walk down to Chinatown and explore. I have fond memories of getting Dim Sum (Yum Cha) with my family on previous trips and I wanted to show Ryan around. We ended up exploring the huge market with tons of booths jammed packed with random stuff. Thankfully for my wallet, I didn’t have any cash on me so I couldn’t buy anything.

We walked up the street further into the restaurant section of Chinatown and ended up at Noodle Company. It had great reviews and all of the noodles were made fresh. We ordered pork fried noodles, sweet and sour pork, and lamb and chive dumplings. Yum!

Obviously, we should have looked at the portion sizes before ordering! Usually an order of dumplings came with 6 total and we had 12! They were sooo good and we decided to box up the rest for enjoyment later.

We were stuffed so the walk back to the Adina was welcomed. Ryan went back up to the room and I took off to the grocery store to buy a few things for home. My mom always had the best BBQ sauce imported from Australia, so I bought two bottles of bbq sauce, my moms favorite gummy snakes, and my favorite Aussie candy – Violet Crumble. Violet Crumble is chocolate covered honeycomb and is sooo yummy! I like to freeze it and it just melts in your mouth afterward. I highly recommend!

Once I got back with the groceries, it was time to catch up on some blog posts. Ryan napped and we relaxed for a few hours before deciding to go out for a pre-dinner drink. My cousins and sister were meeting us at Muum Maam for some Thai food at 8, so a pre-drink was a good way to pass the time.

We ended up walking to Lil Darlin, which looked packed and had a great happy hour – cocktails for only $10. We walked in and I saw this crazy looking pink drink that, upon glancing at the menu, consisted of cotton candy and I had to get it. So glad I did!

 

We got so much entertainment and joy out of eating the cotton candy (fairy floss in Aussie lingo). I really wanted to try all of the other yummy drinks on the menu but it was time to meet everyone up. We sat at a communal table and enjoyed some tasty pork rinds while we waited on the remaining cousins to show up. Unfortunately, our cousin’s dog was acting up right before she was heading over and she had to take him to the vet. It was a bummer that we could not see her and her husband, but we are big “dog people” and totally get it.

Anyways, we had some super yummy crispy spring rolls and duck paper rolls to start with. Ryan and I decided to share the Panang curry but we got the heart breaking news that they ran out so we ended up with some tasty Pad Thai instead. Who knew that we would be eating so much Pad Thai this trip? But I am not complaining!

After dinner, we wound up walking to an ice cream place and enjoyed some delicious macadamia nut, white chocolate ice cream. Such a great way to end the night with my awesome Aussie family!

Sydney Day 6 –

Today was Royal National Park day. We walked down to the little organic grocer down the street for a quick and delicious breakfast of rocket, aioli, bacon, avocado, and scrambled egg wraps and flat white coffee, and then we were off in our rental car to the National Park. The weather was absolutely perfect for hiking with a cool breeze that made you forget the work of the hike.

The views from the hike were awesome and the water was sooo blue!

Apparently, there was a huge brush fire in January of 2018 which wiped out 60 hectors (148 acres) of brush along the coast. While it was sad to see all of the burnt toast looking trees, there was tons of promising new growth.

The trail led us to some amazing heights,

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And some sandy, relaxing lows. We ended up snacking on apples and enjoying our beach view for a while.

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We walked for a good 1.5 hours before needing to turn around and head back to the car. We had a 5 PM drop off for the rental and didn’t want to cut our beach time short so we hustled back. It was definitely a good workout and we were thankful for the hats, sun glasses, sunscreen, and water we brought (though I think Ryan and my sister were getting annoyed with my “mom” habit of reminding them to reapply frequently!).

There was a large beach was right next to the car park so we took a detour before heading out. My sister and I got our feet wet and had a good time reflecting on our time in Aussie as kids and now. It was so special to spend this time with her, especially in a country of our heritage.

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We walked back to the car and tried to de-sand our legs and feet before dirtying the rentals. Our GPS showed quite a bit of traffic on the way back, so we opted to stop at a food court for some of the best butter chicken curry with naan bread I have ever had. It was so good that I ate all of it before snapping a pic. Oops!

Thankfully for us, traffic cleared up when we got back on the road, so the drive back into Sydney was easy. Getting the rental car back, however, was not so easy. The driveway was not clearly, marked and we definitely drove up the wrong way to trying to get in! It took us even more time to go down all 7 levels to our car drop-off. We got dizzy driving around and around so much!

Finally, we made it successfully and walked back to the hotel for much needed showers. We still had some delicious herb feta cheese and Semillon wine from the Hunter Valley in the day prior and enjoyed that while packing the rest of the evening. Our flight home was bright and early the next day.

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Sydney, Day 3

Sydney, Day 3

Today we decided to do the Coogee to Bondi coastal / beach walk – a 2.7 mile walk along the beautiful coast of New South Wales, Australia. It was raining pretty hard when we woke up around 8 AM, so we lounged until the sun came out around 9:30 and took off to the bus station. We waited about 10 minutes for the 373 bus to drive us 25 minutes to Coogee beach. On the bus there were two barely 20-year-old looking guys trying to get this young girl in a Ponzi scheme type company that sold “lotto” tickets. It sounded super shady but listening to their “sales” pitches helped pass the time waiting to arrive at our beach destination.

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It was still a bit chilly, so my Lululemon jacket really came in handy and the sun felt great when it finally hit us. The coastal walk is a paved walk that runs for miles along the water and is full of stellar views. There is quite a bit of walking up and down hills and cliff sides and, while it wasn’t thaaat tough, we didn’t realize how sore we still were from the Tongariro Crossing a few days prior until we started going up some of the hills!

With stopping to admire some of the views and chasing our hats around as they got blown off our heads, the hike took us about two hours. We even watched a whole bunch of kids surf the turbulent waves out on the water.

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Eventually, we got to Bondi Beach, one of the most visited tourist sites in all of Australia. There were quite a few people swimming in the sea water filled baths and surfers, but the beach itself wasn’t too packed.

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We were starting to get hungry so we walked down the shops and restaurants to find a spot to eat and ended up getting some delicious Chai tea lattes while watching the waves hit the water. Ryan really wanted to try McDonald’s (or “Macca’s” in Aussie lingo) so we stopped there and he got a Big Mac and fries. It actually tasted quite different from the US version, especially since the Ketchup (or tomato sauce in Aussie) is much sweeter.

I was in the mood for a meat pie since I had yet to have one in Aussie and they are one of my favorite Aussie delicacies! I found a little place called Funky Pies on the way back to the city and got a butter chicken pie that was sooooo flaky and delicious. (As I review this blog post entry, my stomach is literally rumbling for this pie 4 months later! It was THAT yummy). Good thing we had a 1.5 hour, 3 mile walk back to our hotel to walk it off.

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After quite the walk and a bunch of hills, we finally got back to the hotel. We showered and packed up to stay at my aunt’s house for the night. We walked down to the Central Train Station, filled up our Opal cards, and hopped on the train to her stop.

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It was super easy to find the right train and the train was very clean. My aunt was waiting for us at the station and it only took a few minutes to get to her house where my cousin and uncle was waiting. We watched some football, drank wine, and snacked on some delicious cheeses and bread with olive oil, balsamic, and dukkah – my new favorite combination!

Once my sister arrived, we enjoyed some amazing conversation, roasted chicken, fresh oysters, prawns, potatoes, and a slew of other delicious things. I have to say, both my aunt and my mom are excellent cooks! The amount of fresh produce and seafood avaialbe in Sydney only makes it even better.

It seemed like we talked for hours could have gone on for a few more. It was so great to catch up, get juicy / funny stories about my mom and aunt growing up together, and reminisce about the times my sister and I visited Australia or when my family came to the US. I have to say, my Australian family is absolutely amazing and I couldn’t have been happier to see them or finally introduce them to Ryan.

Eventually, we were stuffed and tired and hit the hay to rest up for another early morning.

Continue on this adventure…

Sydney, Day 2

Sydney, Day 2

My mom is from Sydney and has quite the family over in Australia with 3 brothers and 1 sister that all have kids around my age. I grew up visiting them throughout the years it was about darn time that I introduced my husband to them. After years of trying to make that happen, today was finally that day!

My sister, Ryan & I made a delicious breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast, at the hotel and then we took off to find some coffee, a birthday card, and wrapping paper for my Aunt who celebrated her birthday in the day prior. We went to a few grocery stores before finding a card and had to go to a bookstore to find any sort of wrapping paper or bags. The differences in what stores carry in the US and AU are incredible. Almost every store in Australia is unique and has super cute designs. Chain stores / restaurants are much fewer and farther between. I quite prefer the Australian stores to those in the US.

Once we got what we needed, we ran back to the hotel, grabbed the gift, and took off in a cab to Ripples Chowder Bay for brunch. The view from the restaurant was beautiful and we had two big tables for the 20 of us! I can’t tell you how happy I was that everyone was coming in from all over Sydney for lunch with us. Ryan did a great job trying to remember who everyone was and we were all in great spirits.

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Since there were so many of us, we had a prix fixe menu, though the waiters were having trouble rounding us all up to order since we were all socializing! Oops.

Our first course was either deliciously buttery prawns or a goat curd salad with beet root. I got the prawns and could not have been happier. They were 8 inches or so long, buttery, and melted in your mouth.

The second course was either risotto, barramundi, or what most of us had, the steak with mushrooms and sweet potato puree – so scrumptious!

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Dessert option 1 was meringue – an Australian dessert of the most fluffy, cloud like pastry you could imagine. Ryan tried it and kept saying he “made a HUGE mistake” ordering the chocolate moose!

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After a lively lunch, we took some family photos of all of 11 cousins and then my sister, Ryan, and I with my aunts and uncles.

It probably took us about 30 minutes and some serious corralling from some of the cousins to get us out of the restaurant and into the cars since we were all chatting so much! We ended up in my cousin’s car to drive back to her and her husband’s new apartment. They just recently bought the place to start their new family and it had an amazing view of a national park off of the back balcony. We even saw a few kookaburras in the trees!

We had some great conversations and catch up time before it was time to head back to Surry Hills. My aunt and uncle were kind enough to take us on a brief tour of downtown and drop us back at the apartment. It was so great to see everyone!

While brunch started at noon, we didn’t get back until 6! Time flew so fast and we were pretty hungry when we got back so we took off to an Indian place that my sister had been wanting to try called Masala Theory. It was a “neo-Indian” cuisine an we started with some deconstructed samosas that were to-die for! We then split some amazing lamb chops in a mango puree, flaky naan bread, and a green veggie curry – yumm!

That restaurant turned Ryan into an Indian food fan – something I’ve been trying to do for years! We were stuffed and were glad to walk some of it off on the way back to the hotel

Continue on this adventure…

Sydney, Day 1

Sydney, Day 1

5:50 AM wake ups don’t seem too bad when you are jet lagged and your body wants to get up at that time naturally. Within 15 minutes, we were dressed, had the rest of our PB&Js for breakfast, and were walking down to the car to head to the Auckland airport for our flight to Sydney. We had to fill up the gas tank and couldn’t find a station until we got to the airport. We paid for that $2.18 a liter which is like $5.36 per gallon! After we got over the sticker shock, it was back in the car to the rental drop off, onto a shuttle to the airport, and through security to our gate. We grabbed some yummy banana bread while we waited for the plane and were on and ready for take off in no time. I ended up watching The Kingsman on the 2.5 hour flight to Sydney and we celebrated with some champagne (its 5 o’clock somewhere right?!) and had an AMAZING view of the city from the plane.

Customs in the Sydney airport was the quickest and easiest we had ever experiences. We used the electronic portal which took our picture and printed out a form that we gave to the customs person. He gave us the “Go!” in under a minute and we picked up our bags, went through one last security check, and were done in probably 15 minutes. Most of that time was spent walking! We exited the airport and took a cab to my sister’s extended stay apartment in Surry Hills.

Little did we know, the extended stay place was an old hospital and was converted into a hotel and my mom was actually born where we were staying! My sister came out and we had a big hug reunion! I was so happy to see her – it had been 5 months and we are insanely close. Getting to spend a week with her in our mother’s homeland was so special.

We went up to her place to unload and then took off to Sydney Harbor to meet my friend from college, Monique, who was also living in Sydney. The plan was to take the ferry over to our favorite fish & chip / calamari place called Doyles on The Beach. We had tons to catch up on during the ferry ride over to Doyles in Watsons Bay and the weather was perfect for the ride there.

Growing up, my family would go to Doyles every time we visited Australia to see my mom’s side of the family. My sister and I have so many good (and tastey) memories there. We even saw Elton John there once (leave it to me to be within 5 feet of such a legend and not realize it until he left)! With all of that history, I had to introduce my husband to Doyles.

We decided to order a few things to share so we could taste a varriety of dishes. We got some of the most buttery oysters I’ve ever had, barramundi (an Australian fish), salmon, fish & chips, steamed veggies, and some Doyles wine to top it off. It was so light and delicious!

You can walk from the Doyles’ beach up to the cliffs that separate the harbor from the ocean so we decided to do a little trek to walk off lunch. Both Ryan and I were still sore from our 6 hour Tongaririo Crossing hike, but we somehow made it up the hill to the views.


We also had a great view of Sydney harbor on the way back down!

After we were done fiddling around, it was back on the ferry and back over to Sydney harbor. We decided to grab a drink at Opera Bar, a bar literally under the Sydney Opera House that overlooks the harbor bridge. It was a great spot for people watching and seeing all of the very aggressive seagulls attempt to steal food!

After that, it was back over to Crown Street in Surry Hills for another drink and a little pizza. We ended up at The Dolphin Hotel, which looks small form outside but opens up to a two story bar and restuant inside. It was filled with graffiti and so cool. We learned that bars are actually called “hotels” in Australia because, up until 1980, all bars had to provide hotel rooms for those who over indulged. I had no idea!

With such an early morning, were fading quickly, so we said goodbye to Monique and headed over to a grocery store to get fresh eggs, bread, and fruit for breakfast. I definitely loaded up on passion fruit (my favorite fruit that are far too small and expensive in the States). After we were stocked up, we went back to the hotel and watched an episode of Black Mirror before heading to bed.

Continue on this adventure…