Mt. Koya

Mt. Koya

Today marked our travel day from Osaka to Mt. Koya to stay in a Buddhist temple. We decided to visit Mt. Koya at the recommendation of one of my dearest, Japanese culture-loving friends, Lauren. Boy was she spot on with this recommendation!

We met my parents in the hotel lobby for breakfast and walked about a mile to find a place suitable for my mom for breakfast. After poo-pooing on 3 options, she finally settled on Tullys – again. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tully’s is good, but we need to add some diversity to our breakfast routine. We told my mom it was the last “Tully’s breakfast” of the trip and she said “we will see”. Of course, that means “no”. Haha! If mom’s not happy, no one is happy, right?

We grabbed some snacks for the 2 hour train ride to Mt. Koya and hit the train station. We ended up missing the express train but the extra 30-minutes on the regular train was not bad. We had great views, some snacks, and all got time to decompress.

Once we arrived at the station, we hopped onto the cable car which took us up this insanely steep slope to the top of the mountain. It was packed with people and I cannot even begin to fathom how they installed the cable car on just a steep incline.

It took about 10 minutes to get to the top and then we hopped on a short bus ride which dropped us off right in front of the Koyasan Onsen Fuchin. The lodging was part temple, part onsen (Japanese baths), with Japanese style rooms. We were not able to check in yet so layered up in jackets and scarves before heading out to explore. It was pretty darn cold in comparison to the 60 degree weather in Osaka!

We decided to find a spot for lunch and ended up at this little place at a traditional style table where you sit on a high platform, on a pillow, around a short table. Ryan almost wouldn’t fit!

My sister and I split some sushi and I had a delicious tempura udon. The food was so filling and warm on such a cold day!

After paying, we took off to find the temples and renowned cemetery. There is a grouping of temples on one side of town which were all different styles and pretty amazing to look at and explore.

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Photos are not allowed inside the temples but there are a ton of gold ornaments and sculptures very similar to those in Thailand. They were quite stunning.

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We then took off to the other side of the town for the Okunoin Cemetery. You can do cemetery tours at night but we opted to walk it during the day so we could see it more clearly, not freeze completely, and be back to the onsen in time for our 5:30 dinner.

The cemetery was awe inspiring. The faded light coming through the trees, slight fog in the air, moss that covered the monoliths and huge trees that went up 100’s of feet in the air gave the whole place such and ancient, eerie and sacred feeling.

I could have stayed in there taking it all in for hours but my mom was on a mission. She was speed walking ahead of us so fast that we lost her for a good 20 minutes! When we finally caught up, we had arrived at the Okunoin temple. It has over ten thousand lanterns inside and is absolutely magical. We were able to go inside and take it all in and then we went to a side building that had even more yellow lit, golden lanterns. It was well worth taking our shoes on and off to go inside.

The whole walk was well worth the hour or so trek. We spotted a sweets shop on the way back and grabbed a few to sample. A lot of the sweets in Japan have red bean inside and have a gluggy consistency with pastry on the outside. Super good and filling though.

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We got back to the Fuchin and checked in. We had to leave our shoes at the door and wear special red shoes within the buildings. We were brought up to our small room that kind of smelt like straw. There was a small table in the middle and we settled in with some tea. We also had to wear robes around the building and to our meals!

Once 5:30 hit, we went to room 23 for our multi-course Royal dinner. The dinner we had was monks’ cuisine (shojin ryori) and completely vegetarian!

There were so many things to try and they kept bringing in more dishes. Quite a bit of the food had a gelatin consistency which we weren’t too keen on but, overall, the food was delicious. Ryan tried this one piece of spongy white tofu (or something related to it) and , when he bit into it, all of this liquid came out. He flipped and couldn’t stop laughing at how strangely foreign it was! The rest of us tried it but didn’t get very far into it… It barely touched my lips before going straight back into the bowl. Amazing how new food textures can create such a different dining experience.

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After dinner, my sister and I decided to try out the onsen. Japanese baths are separated by men and women because you get completely naked and are not allowed to wear swim suits. We walked down in our robes and took our shoes off to be pleasantly surprised that the floors were heated! Thank goodness because it was only 30 degrees or so in the temple’s halls!

Once disrobed, we had to wash ourselves off in a shower station in the central bath room. There was a big shallow bath pool inside, which was too hot for us, and then a outdoor rock pool. We were the only ones there and chatted for a good 30 minutes before anyone else joined. It seemed like everyone finished their dinner around 7 and had the same idea as us because a huge group came and it was far too crowded to stay in the onsen so we headed back to the room. Totally refreshed, we hopped in our Japanese style beds and passed out.

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San Diego

San Diego

Between visiting my sister when she lived in La Jolla, dog sitting with my friend at her dad’s house in Rancho Santa Fe, and exploring the San Diego Zoo for a bachelorette party, I’ve done a few long weekends in San Diego! With that said, I’ve got a few favorite places to check out if your journey takes you there!

Beaches: 

  • Ocean Beach – Only a few minutes away from the airport, Ocean Beach is a really cute area with great shops and restaurants leading up to the beach. Don’t miss Hodad’s burgers for a huge burger and yummy shakes!
  • La Jolla – This beach is huge and has a beautiful park along side it as well. If you are into kayaking, snorkeling, or scuba diving, there are some amazing caves and reefs to explore right off the beach. You can rent the gear or go out in a kayak tour to check out the caves for a really cool experience!

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  • Black’s Beach – When I went to La Jolla with my parents and little sister, we decided to hike down from Torrey Pines to the beach and then walk all the way back down the beach to our hotel. Little did we know that Black’s Beach, a large nudist beach, was in between! Not only did we walk through the nudest beach with my semi-conservative parents making the funniest / embarrassing comments along the way, we did so during the 3rd largest gay pride weekend in America – the beach was PACKED! I tell you, it was the funniest hike I have ever been on! Just be aware that it is there and that there is no way out once you start walking since there are 100 foot cliffs on the land-side of the beach. Needless to say, I do not have any pictures of this particular beach!

Hikes:

  • Torrey Pines – Torrey Pines is a beautiful national park right on the coast line. The parking lost starts at sea level and then you have to walk up the side of the road to the top of the cliffs. The views from the trail are stunning! There are quite a few trail options of different lengths and intensities. Bring a hat, water bottle, and some sun screen and you will have a perfect day with Torrey Pines on the itinerary!
  • Annie’s Canyon Trail – Annie’s is a short hike across the highway from Torrey Pines. It has a really cool slot canyon that you can walk through and then climb up. If you are claustrophobic, you may want to skip this but if you can handle a narrow pass, this is a really cool hike to check out.

Things To Do:

  • San Diego Zoo – The San Diego Zoo is huge! It feels like you are walking through a jungle to get from exhibit to exhibit. There is even a huge bridge hundreds of feet above the road that feels like a canopy walk. The animals have huge areas to roam and all seemed very happy (especially the polar bear that was playing with a ball for a good hour). Outside of the Sydney Zoo , the San Diego Zoo was the best I’ve ever been to.
  • La Jolla Cove (Seals!) – Only a few miles up the road from La Jolla beach is the cove. There is a wonderful park and small beach. On the beach and rocks around the cove are hundreds of seals! Big ones, baby ones, brown ones, and black ones, you can get up close and personal. So personal that one started barking at my friend that got a little too close! On top of hanging with the seals, there are some great boutiques and sea-side restaurants right by the park if you have the time to walk around.

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  • Seaport Village & The Gaslamp  – Seaport Village is a really cute little shopping area right by the wharfs with great shops and restaurants with water front views. You can walk from their down the coastline and there are cute little parks and bars along the path to sit at, enjoy the view, and soak up the sun! Once the sun sets, head over to the Gaslamp district for great restaurants and bars for some night life.

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Osaka, Day 1

Osaka, Day 1

Today was our trek from Tokyo to Osaka. We checked out of our hotel in Tokyo hotel and walked to the train station to hop a few lines over to Tokyo Station and grab a bite to eat at a market. I had this delicious sandwich with cheese and a coffee. Once we filled up, we headed to the train. We had spent a little too much time at the station and were in quite a rush to get to the correct platform. Thankfully, we reserved seats on the JR Line to Osaka in advance to ensure we were able to sit together, so that reduced some of the stress, but navigating the thousands of people in the station  with our luggage during rush hour to catch a train was crazy!

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Finally, we made it to the platform with a few minutes to spare. Ryan decided to grab “train beers” for the 9:03 AM train ride to to relax and my sister and I had one as well. It definitely did the relax-trick! We were able to see Mt. Fuji from the other side of the train’s windows for about 15 minutes as we sped by at 200+ MPH! I spent the rest of the 2 hour ride journaling. I have to say, the train rides in Japan seem to go by quickly!

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Once we hit Osaka, we hopped off the train and navigated the streets to the Candeo Hotel. It was centrally located in the Namba District which was filled with restaurants and bars. We could not check upon arrival, so we dropped of our luggage and took of to head towards to Castle Park. There were some restaurants at the park entrance and we stopped for lunch at R Baker Osaka-jo. It had a bunch of baked goods and Ryan and I shared 4 pastries: a potato pizza, Japanese curry fried pocket, sweet rolls, and a hot dog looking thing. They were delicious and it was so nice to sit in some green space while enjoying lunch after being in the busy cities for so long.

After lunch, we continued our walk through the park. It was a beautiful day and the first one warm enough to leave our jackets at home. Once we got through the giant stone walls to the center of the park, the main castle was visible and totally stunning. It was totally massive and we sat for a while taking in the view on some jade looking rocks. There was a Spanish performer playing loud music starting his act right in front of the palace and we were so curious how his life could have led him to performing street art in Osaka.

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We continued our walk through the gardens, passing some shrines and statues of Shogun and then it was back to the hotel to check in. The room was small and view was lousy, but the hotel was so central to the main areas it worked perfectly. The Dotonbori district with tons of shopping and restaurants was only a few blocks from us and we took of to explore and find something to eat.

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Being so close to Kobe, Yakiniku is very popular in Osaka so we found a restaurant with good reviews to try it out. We sat at a table with a grill pot in the middle of us and, for $29 per person, we had 1 hour and 30 minutes to cook and eat as much as we wanted.

The meat quality was excellent and we used a table next to the table to order plate upon plate of different meats, seafood, and veggies. It was delicious, though picking who was going to cook what was a little stressful as people like different cooks of meat. We opted to each cook our own food to our desired doneness which helped with the stress. The clock countdown also made out meal tricky. If you had too much food left over, you would get charged extra for wasting. Ryan was super hungry and took down at least a pound of steak and pork belly within the last 7 minutes to finish everything off.

My parents never really understood why Ryan thought sushi was not enough food until tonight when they saw how much he can eat! What can I say, he is a growing boy (man haha).

After dinner, we walked through the crowded streets of Namba, checking out all of the food vendors and shops along the way. The number of lights and signs were overwhelming but so cool; nothing like we have seen before. There were all of these fake food displays outside of the restaurants too that looks so realistic! It was pretty incredible but we were so stuffed we couldn’t even think about more food!  After about an hour walking off all of the meat we had eaten, we headed back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

Overall, Japan has been a bit stressful so far. I think it is a combination of the sheer number of people in the city, unlimited number of options for things to do, and how many opinions there are with the 5 of us. It makes it tough to make everyone happy for everything unfortunately. I think getting out of the hustle and bustle of the cities for a few days will do us some good. I am just very glad we have the technology we do because trying to navigate Japan without GPS and our phones would be next to impossible.

Continue on this adventure….

 

Tokyo, Day 3

Tokyo, Day 3

Another Tully’s breakfast morning in the books. We have loved eating all of the traditional Japanese food for lunch and dinner but it is kind of nice to have some more “Americanized” food in the mix too. After we loaded up on our regular toasted ham and egg sandwich, pancakes with a butter patty that looked like banana, coffee, and toffee almond cookie, we were off to start our day.

The plan for today was to see the Imperial Palace in the morning and then we would split off so my parents and sister could check out the Edo Museum (while it was open) and Ryan and I could see the Tsukiji Market and Harajuku areas. The train ride to get to the Imperial Palace was quite easy and we emerged from the station into this beautifully modern office building for Mitsui. Mitsui is a retail store that started selling Kimonos in the 1673. Before then, rich families would have the kimono makers come to their houses to make custom kimonos that were not very affordable. Mitsui opened the kimono market to be accessible for the everyday buyer but opening a department store for one-stop shopping and bulk creation.

We exited the Mitsui building to this massive park in the middle of a modern city. Sitting on 1.15 square kilometers and surrounded by trees, the Imperial Palace is almost impossible to see from the outside. The Place is only officially open 2 days a year and can only be seen by limited numbers in tours during the rest of the year. We did not have an official tour scheduled so we opted for the free version to go tour the East Garden. While we could not see the main palace, the gates, walls, and guard towers were pretty amazing to see.

Apparently, the gardens used to be filled with houses and various buildings. The buildings were mainly made of paper and wood and had a tendency to burn down due to cooking fires. The buildings were always rebuild after time and time again of fires until the 1800’s when they decided not to continue the restoration. You can still see some guard houses and structures made from rock, but the rest of the view is mainly of the garden and cherry blossoms that started to pop while we were there.

Ryan downloaded a tour app and talked us through the different points of interest while we wandered. We were there for about 1.5 hours before heading to Tokyo station to try and find Ramen Street for launch. The malls / shops / restaurants in the subway and train stations are insane. They are all clean and look just like any nice place you would go in the States, only they are underground at the station! We entered this long row filled with shops that had all kinds of cartoon characters and cherry blossom decantations adorning the store fronts. Eventually, we found the Ramen area and opted for one restaurant with a little smaller of a line. We ordered at the machine and were quickly sat at the bar area. Ryan and I both got versions of “dipping” noodles where you dip the noodles into the broth cup. It was insanely good and Ryan declared it was the best thing he has eaten in Japan so far hands down! While the slurping and noodle to chopstick experience was a bit messy, it was delicious.

After lunch, we agreed to meet back at the hotel once we were done with our activities and split off. Ryan and I excited the station and headed to the fish market. While the main part of the market that did the famous Tuna actions was closed, the outer ring of the market is still a highly recommended tourist spot filled with different vendors and food types. Along our walk, we saw a drip coffee place and decided to get some coffee for the long day ahead. While we sat, I Googled the market and, to our chagrin, it said the that market hours went until 2ish and it was already 1:30. With that in mind, the 20 minute walk definitely didn’t seem worth it. I was pretty disappointed but we decided to pivot to Harajuku instead.

The train station at Harajuku was packed. The main road for Harajuku, Takeshita Street, was also packed. It was a mob scene and the people-watching was amazing. There are so many people in Japan that wear brown trench coats and super thick (like 3-4 inches) platform shoes or boots. We also saw some traditional Harajuku outfits which were so weird (in a great way) and colorful. The shops were full with crazy colors, patterns, and kitchy cartoon animals. There were also crepe places that smelt amazing along with other weird food vendors like rainbow cheese sticks, fried potato unicorn horns, and 2 foot tall cotton candy rainbow pyramids.

We ventured through this wild costume store and I wanted to buy pretty much everything inside. It was so cool!

We also happened upon a owl café and, to the recommendation of at least 4 people I’ve talked to, we went down the steps to check it out. It was about $10 a person to walk through this room lined with fake trees and cherry blossoms. Each turn took you to a different owl breed. They were chained up which was sad, but they were beautiful. There are animal cafes of all types in Japan. You can see everything from cats and puppies to hedgehogs, owls, capybaras, otters, and meerkats. While I would have loved to see more, I don’t feel great about supporting places like that financially since most of them  do not provide adequate environments for the animals. Buyer beware if you decide to go.

Once we dogged through the crowd to the end of Takeshita street, we decided to go find one of Harajuku’s weirdest cafes – the Monster Café. It was one the 4th floor of a high-rise and we were immediately excited about the strangeness to come when we were greeted by a giant moving eyeball at the front door.

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The waitstaff were dressed in doll-like costumes and we were lead past a cake-themed carousel, through the mushroom table forest, into the “milk bar” for our table. I got a strawberry milkshake and Ryan got this weird red and blue sugar mixture to put in his gin base. The milkshake was good but everything else we got was just pure sugar! Ryan got this cute Pikachu looking lemon tart and I got a bunny doughnut topped with a strawberry jam centered white cream ball. I couldn’t eat even close to all of it.

About half way through our time there, the lights shut off and all of a sudden a rave broke out by the cake carousel. This big purple monster started dancing with the waitresses and it was a mix of chaos and high pitched yelling. This was exactly the side of Japan we were looking for haha!

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We left pretty quickly after that and couldn’t put into words how to describe the experience overall. About 5 minutes into the walk back to the train, Ryan realized he left his backpack at the table. We hurried back and it was right where we had left it. Phew! I have to say, Japan feels very safe and is so respectful. People don’t even use bike locks here for their bikes because people don’t steal them. It is a very trusting and nice environment to be a part of.

The trek back to the hotel was easy and it felt great to take our shoes off and relax for an hour. We met my parents back at the rooftop bar for another drink around 6. Ryan wasn’t too hungry so he opted to stay at the hotel while we went to find a place for dinner. My dad wanted Sukiyaki for dinner – kind of like a hot put but slightly different. My sister found a tiny place only a few blocks from the hotel. It had 3 tables and 3 private rooms and we were welcomed in by a English speaking owner. His father opened the restaurant 20 years ago and now this kind gentleman owns it. He sat us down, gave us an English menu, and walked through the options. There were two flights of courses and 3 grades of meat. Since I was already pretty full, we went for the smaller course option, the medium grade meat, and sake all around. The sake was much better than the $1 sake I had with sake bombs in college!

We all got a bowl with a cracked egg in it and were instructed to scramble the egg. Our waitress started to cook the food on the grill in front of us, using a chunk of pork fat as the grease for the pan. Boy did it make things flavorful!

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She started cooking the meat with sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce, and, once browned, put it into our raw egg bowl. The egg was so fresh and added this intense flavor to the meat. I am not usually an egg gal, but this was eggsalent! (Excuse my pun haha).

She then added the veggies to the pot and, once cooked, in they went to the egg mix. This meat then veggie pattern went on for like 4 courses and we were getting so full! It was all so delicious! After the final round of veggies, the cooked noodles for us as the last main dish. We were stuffed, but still had slight room for the cherry blossom ice cream and strawberries for desert. What an amazing meal!

We asked about the price on the menu when initially ordering to make sure it was a group and not individual. The owner confirmed the price but, we got lost in translation. What we thought was going to be a 4K Yen dinner ($40 USD) ended up being 37K Yen or roughly $340. OOPS! It was so worth it though.

We walked back to the hotel and told Ryan the story of our dinner. We were going to check out the Golden Gia district for bar hopping and drinks, but it was already 9 PM (on jet-lag time) and we had an early morning so we called it a night and fell quickly to sleep.

Continue on our journey through Japan…

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park, Texas

More and more, gift giving in my family has turned from things to experiences. Personally, I love this trend, and for my birthday this year, Ryan surprised me with a trip to Big Bend National Park!

Big Bend is a national park along the Texas / Mexico border that spans over 800K acres. While my birthday is in July, we took off on our road trip to Big Bend in September so that the heat wouldn’t be in full force. We left after work on a Thursday evening and., after 7.5 hours of driving, podcasts, and yelling at our two dogs to behave in the back of my Jeep, we arrived at our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas at 1 AM.

Our dogs on our long road trip to Big Bend National Park

Our AirBnb was a traditional adobe looking building and was pet friendly, so it was almost perfect for our dogs. I say “almost’ because the fenced in back yard was missing about 6 feet of fence so we couldn’t let the pups romp around off-leash, but the inside was super cute.

Our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas

We chose to stay in Alpine to reduce the drive from Dallas to the Park and stay in a in a more populated area, but that meant some early mornings to get to Big Bend. Big Bend was about 80 miles, or an hour and ten minutes, from our AirBnb, so we only got about 5 hours of sleep after arriving in Alpine before waking up to head to our kayaking experience. We woke up around 6, walked the dogs, cooked some breakfast, and took off on the hour long drive to Terlingua to meet up with our guide.

We met at the one gas station in Terlingua and gas cost $3.15! To set expectations, gas was $2.11 when we left Dallas, was $2.83 in Alpine, and over $3 in Terlingua! We are so glad we listened to the warnings about filling up before we left to the park. The drive to the park was spectacular and went relatively quickly at 80+ MPH.

We grabbed some extra water and snacks from the gas station upon arrival and then met our guide, Erin, and the dad / daughter duo that were the other guests on our hike. We loaded into Erin’s van with all of the kayaks in the back. The drive from Terlingua into the park was about 20 minutes, and then it was an additional 40 minutes or so to get to the river entrance. Erin was full of fun facts about the park and it’s history, living in the small town of Terlingua, and her background from Tennessee. Her accent made the stories that much better.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We were in awe of the views along the park and couldn’t believe the river close to the road was the boarder between us and Mexico. We finally pulled up to the parking lot and had to unload all of the kayaks and fill up our dry-bags for the trek. We even got these really sexy looking boots to wear through the mud. My boots were about 2 sizes too big so I was slipping and sliding all over the place! This made carrying the kayaks quite difficult but we eventually got to the Santa Elena Canyon entrance. We waded into the water and took off our boots to get into the kayak. The mud felt so good on my feet and was only about 1.5 feed deep, but there were some sections where you feel into quicksand like mud and it went up to your hip! It was so crazy.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Once we were all in, we started our semi-relaxing ride. I say semi because we were able to paddle about 80% of the time and were stuck in mud and had to pull about 20% of the rest of the time. The Rio Grande river is damned up in El Paso and, unless El Paso releases some of the water, the Rio Grande river is very shallow in the Santa Elena Canyon. It was still an amazing experience in between the massive cliffs, especially since there were only 5 of us. It was so relaxing. Ryan couldn’t have done a better job planning this.

Pulling our kayak through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We make it about 2 miles up the river before stopping for lunch. I made some PB&Js and we enjoyed some Sun Chips while taking in the view. I found a nice-looking log and pulled it into the shade as my lunch chair. It was a truly great spot.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Eventually, finished lunch and relaxed in the river for a little bit. The water temperature was absolutely perfect. We really lucked out. While the other duo on our trip power-paddled back to the exit, Ryan and I took our time to really enjoy the view and take it all in.

The most difficult part of the whole day was getting the kayaks back to the van. We were covered in mud, our boots were super slick, and there were rocks all over the place to push you off balance. We had quite the time trying to carry the heavy boats back but, eventually, made it. We got quite a workout in for the day! After loading up the van, we hit the road for the hour long, educational drive back to the gas station. It even rained a little and Erin joked that Big Bend judges rainfall by “drops per square foot” since they get so little.

We were pretty exhausted and didn’t dawdle in Terlingua once we arrived. It was back in the Jeep and off to the Airbnb. Our pups couldn’t be happier to see (and smell) us when we got back. We showered off all of the mud, took the pups for a walk, and relaxed a bit before finding a spot for dinner.

There is a pretty popular place in Fort Worth that we have both been to called Reata, and apparently, the original location is in Alpine! We went around 6:30, were starving, and ended up ordering waaaay too much food. We started with some delicious corn bread and biscuits, had crab stuffed, bacon-wrapped peppers, split a goat cheese salad, and then got two massive entrees. Ryan’s chicken fried steak should looked like two entire chickens, and my steak with enchiladas had two bread-plate sized pieces of steak, corn, beans, and enchiladas.

We were soooo stuffed and had to take the majority of the food back home. Since it was my birthday celebration, they even boxed up some apple pie and ice-cream for us, which we enjoyed cuddled up on the couch at the Airbnb before hitting the sheets for bed.

Day 2 – Big Bend Hike & Marfa, Texas

Our 1 year old dog, Dixie, was not a happy camper at night. She was barking in her kennel all night and we had a rough time sleeping. I had to get up at 3 AM to take her potty, which actually turned out OK because I looked up into the night sky and saw millions of stars. It was beautiful!

Combined with the 6 AM wake up to head to Big Bend for our hike, we were so tired. Thankfully, we grabbed a bunch of caffeine at the gas station which perked us up for the 2 hour drive to our hiking spot within the park. The drive was beautiful and we got to watch the sun rise over the mountain range in all of these amazing pastel colors. It made the drive much less boring. We even passed a Target along the way!

Target by Marfa, Texas

We arrived at our hike and were excited to start on the 4.8 mile journey up to the top. Originally, we were going to hike the Emory Peak Trail, a 12 mile rigorous hike that reminded us of the Tongariro Pass that we hiked in New Zealand. However, we opted to hike the Lost Mine Trail instead so that we could check out Marfa in the second half of the day.  We were not disappointed by Lost Mine in the slightest. The views were amazing there was some cloud coverage so we didn’t get too much sun. The temperature was perfect for hiking and there was even a cool breeze to cool us down. We got so lucky.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Even though Big Bend is technically a desert, the plant life is so diverse and beautiful. There are cacti of various types all over the place, flowers in different colors, grasses, and other weird looking plants that, when combined, made for a gorgeous looking landscape.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the ridge top. Again, you couldn’t beat the views. We spent some time at the top taking it all in. We even took a snack break and attempted rock climbing on a big boulder just to enjoy it further.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

The dad and daughter from our kayaking journey the day before were also supposed to hike Emory Trail, but we ended up running into them on our hike down from the top! They said that they got to the Emory trailhead too late and the park rangers were cautioning people not to go since it was going to get too hot! I am glad we didn’t waste time driving over to that trail only to get rerouted to Lost Mine.

The hike was the perfect length and we were sore but feeling good once we got back to the Jeep. We ate our PB&Js on the 2.5 hour drive to Marfa. Marfa is a town of 1.8K or so in the middle of nowhere. Marfa has become well know among the art community for Chinati Foundation which is on 340 acres and is a permanent house of certain artists work. There is also a random Prada store (similar to the target) about 30 miles north of Marfa which is now an iconic image for Marfa. With all of the driving we did to and from Big Bend, we decided to skip the Prada installation and check out the gallaries in Mafa instead.

We started by going to the Chitani. When we got there, the two people at reception did not even look up to greet us. It was pretty strange and they told us that the only thing we could check out there was the outside cement block installation. We walked through what sounded like rattle snake infested grasses down to the art- which really just looked like a dumping ground for giant concrete blocks. We didn’t get it, but that’s OK. Every type of art is not always for everyone.

We then went to the Ballroom – another gallery. This one had this creepy exhibit of motion triggered things – like ladders with dog heads that had long wigs and the ladders moved closer to you when you walked towards them. It was very strange and, again, not my cup of tea. We went to Inde / Jacobs Gallery and had a great conversation with the owner. We actually liked the style of art at this Gallery. We kept walking, got some coffee, and checked out the Marfa Store. It was run buy this young guy from Minnesota who moved to Marfa with his boyfriend. We talked to him about transitioning to such a small town and he had some interesting perspectives.

 

We the checked out the town square and the shops / galleries within. There was one gallery with 3 massive Andy Warhol paintings! It was so crazy seeing such high caliber art in Marfa, Texas! We walked past a few places for sale and decided to check out the real-estate prices on Zillow. Holy cow it was expensive. The homes were comparable price-wise to Dallas, but some of the homes didn’t have city water or even AC! We were so shocked!

We took off back to the AirBnb to spend some time with the dogs. Ryan and I hung out in the hammock in the backyard for a bit before we decided to go find some food. We went into the town and settled on an Italian place called Guzzy’s. It was strangely decorated insides and reminded us of a night club. I got some ravioli with Alfredo and Ryan got some pizzas. The food was average but did the trick and we spent the remainder of the evening with the dogs before passing out around 9 PM.

Guzzy's in Alpine, Texas

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.

Continue on our journey through Japan…

The Hunter Valley – Day 2

The Hunter Valley – Day 2

WINE TOUR DAY! Today marked our full wine day experience with Two Fat Blokes wine tours. We had a delicious breakfast at the Kirkton Hotel (that was included), went and checked out the smelly pigs in their barn, and got picked up for our tour promptly at 9:30 AM. Our super energetic guide, Julie, told us to keep our eyes out for kangaroos as we set out to pick up additional guests. It was only about 10 minutes into our drive to the next stop that we saw a bunch of them in the bush! It was so awesome to see them hopping around in the wild.

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We picked up a total of 10 other people and were on our way to our first winery by 10 AM. Apparently we were a bit early so Julie took us to her “secret” kangaroo spot in a vineyard. We pulled up and there must have been about 100 of them all hanging out along the road! It was so cool to see – there were even some mums with their joeys!

After snapping a few pictures, we were back in the bus and off to Mistletoe Winery. The vineyard was very pretty and chockablock with beautiful sculptures in the yard and an art gallery inside.

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We all lined up at the bar and started our tasting. The lady leading that tasting told us to be aware that, if we drank all of the wine at all of the tastings we would be drinking 2-2.5 bottles of wine each! Not including the glass of wine included for lunch and 3 beers at the brewery stop at the end of the day! Geesh! I usually never waste wine but that knowledge made it easier to just taste some of the pours I didn’t prefer. (I am a light weight after all!)

Our second stop was the Two Fat Blokes wine and cheese shop to sample 9 cheeses with 9 wines! We were taken to this cute room in the back of the shop and had quite the spread.

We were told to have a bite of the cheese to get the full flavor, sip the wine, and then have another bite of the cheese to see how that flavor changes with the wines influence. It was pretty substantial! I love cheese and wine so I was in truly a happy place! There was this feta with chives that was so to-die-for we bought some to share with my sister back in Sydney.

After we ate all of our cheese, we relaxed in the winery grounds for 15 minutes before heading to the next place for lunch. I was glad some hearty food was coming our way because I needed something to soak up all of the yummy wine (as you may start to tell from the photos moving forward)!

Our next stop was the Audrey Wilkinson winery. Julie told us that the wine makers used Audrey’s old photo as the logo for the winery and on all of the bottles. A few years in, an older local man came into the winery and asked why they used a photo of Audry’s brother as the main logo for the winery! Apparently, the wine makers didn’t realize the mistake but already had brand recognition and all of their marketing materials with the brother and not Audrey. To fix the problem, the took the photo of Audry’s head and photo shopped it on his brothers body to keep similar imagery. How crazy, right?

We had lunch on the veranda of the winery. Lunch was included with the tour and I assumed it was going to be something like our fabulous lunch on our Tuscany wine tour, but I was a bit wrong. We brought the lunch in coolers from the Two Fat Blokes restaurant and it consisted of pretty average cold meats, salad, and pasta salad. I was slightly disappointed but the rest of the day was so amazing that it did not bug me too much.

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Lunch’s disappointment quickly evaporated as we went inside after we ate for yet another tasting! We started with a Semillon, a wine specific to the Hunter Valley that has strong notes of lemon and lime. The white wines at Audrey were a little to tart for my taste, so we did not buy any, but they were still decent. The best was the desert wine at the end. It was delicious and our host even gave me extra when I finished mine first and joked that I never got any to start with!

The view from the winery was beautiful and we had to snap a pic – even our guide Julie wanted to be included!

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After another quick ride on the bus, we arrived at winery number 4, Ivanhoe. It also had amazing views and we sat on the porch tasting about 7 wines. Our host at this winery was very lively and apparently worked at Disney for several years so he could travel the world to the various parks. What a great way to see the world!

Our last winery for the day was one of my favorites because it included the chocolate pairing! We had 4 chocolates to taste with 7 different wines and they were soooo yummy (at least that is how I fuzzily remember it at this point). Ryan and I bought two bottles of wine and a few of the white chocolate coconut truffles to share with my sister. One of the bottles we bought had a picture that was supposed to be Marylin Monroe but she didn’t look anything like her.  She didn’t even have her signature mole! We still bought it though since, apparently on trips, we randomly buy things related to Marilyn like we did in Santa Fe!

We were getting very chummy and silly with the rest of our tour group by this point and the photo bombing continued at a hilarious pace!

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One last bus ride later we arrived at Hunter Valley Beer Co. – a micro brewery that only serves the surrounding area. The beer was pretty good and I know this because I usually don’t like beer and I LIKED the beer at HVB. We played some Aussie beer trivia (which I quickly lost at) and then got a tour of the beer making process. It was a nice way to end our big day.

Julie did a fabulous job of getting all of us safely back to our accommodation. One guy even drunkenly ran out of the bus at our hotel to go pee in a bush. That took us all by surprise!

Ryan and I had a 6:30 reservation for dinner at the hotel restaurant because we definitely we re not driving anywhere at that point. It was a set menu and we were already pretty full, so we decided to cancel our reso and get a pizza from the bar instead. We played pool while waiting and I did not get one single ball in! Of course, that had nothing to do with my skill and everything to do with the wine… right?!

Our dinner was served at the bar and my award-winning food photography skills really captured my bbq pork pizza….

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It truly was delicious though! After we filled up and I gave up trying to win at pool games, we relaxed on the patio of our room with another glass of wine before zonking out.

Continue on this adventure…