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.

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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…

Sydney, Day 4

We got up around 8 and, after a yummy breakfast or Weetabix (an Aussie staple), my aunt was nice enough to drive us to the Taronga Park Zoo! On the way, we stopped at where my mom and her family grew up in the cove right next to the zoo. My aunt showed us their old house / stomping grounds. It was really cool to see. Apparently, they used to walk over to the zoo and hop the fence to get in! The view from their house was not bad either…

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We got to the zoo relatively early so there were not a ton of people. It is right in the harbor across from the Sydney Opera House and all of the animals have an amazing view!

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We got to hang out with Kangaroos, wallabies, cuddly koalas…

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…red pandas, and other of my favorite animals. The Zoo overall is very well done with great exhibits awesome plant life! I highly recommend a visit!

We were in the zoo for about 4.5 hours before it was time to take the Skyrail down to the harbor side exit.

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We hopped on the ferry to get over to the Sydney Opera House. It was such a beautiful day too – we got very lucky.

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Once docked, we grabbed some very expensive but average gelato. It made our stroll much more enjoyable and we found the perfect spot on the steps of the House to take it all in ( a good view makes everything better!). After that, we walked through the botanical gardens behind the Sydney Opera House and back to the hotel for a refresh before dinner at PhoMo right on the waterside.

We hopped on the train to get to Barangaroo area in downtown where there are strings of restaurants along the harbor. We were meeting my sister and her friends for dinner at PhoMo so we grabbed a few glasses of wine while we waited. It was the perfect temperature out and all of the patios were “chockablock” with people! Once our party of 8 arrived, we moved to the table and ordered some delicious soft shell crab spring rolls and rare beef pho. A few of the girls had never had pho soup before and they quickly fell in love with it – seriously the best!

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My sister’s friends were from all over the world and were all temporarily living in Sydney. It was awesome to hear their stories of how they got to Aussie and how they met my sister. I was pretty proud of my husband, Ryan, for being the only guy at the table and making the most of it. We were planning to get drinks after dinner so we let Ryan head back to the train station to go home and relax.

We talked for about 30 minutes longer and, since it was a Tuesday night with a work day for everyone except me, the party disbanded. My sister and I ended up taking a cab and beat Ryan back from the train station! He had taken the train in the wrong direction and was having quite a time getting back. Even though he left 30 minutes prior, he got in a good 10 minutes after us and was so peeved (in a funny way) that we took a cab and beat him back. I have to say, this trip has been an adventure for the both of us!

Continue on this adventure…

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…