shortest day

edebed

Flying this way over the international date line means my ‘day’ started at 8.45pm when the plane landed. I was out at luggage claim by 9.10pm when I called mum. Luggage came out quickly too.

Airport express then taxi. Home at arond 10.15pm. Door-to-door 21 hours. I remember there were times when it was over 24 hours.

I was tired. Too tired to eat even though I was hungry. Too tired to unpack, other than food that needed to go into the fridge, which is unusual for me.

Talked with mm for about an hour, eventually I had to cut her short because I was about to fall asleep. It’s good to be back in my own bed.

flight

Left around 12.15pm, got to the airport around 1pm. No wait for bag drop. No upgrade unfortunately but the counter agent said they were having a special offer for premium economy upgrade, only $650. I was like “only” $650, you’re kidding. When I checked in on saturday I saw that the flight wasn’t that full so I passed.

There was a queue at security, nothing unexpected. I wandered around the duty free; I’d decided that I wasn’t going to buy anything no matter how tempting. I have no room at home. I got to sample the standard Jack Daniels and got chatting with the gentleman in charge of the tasting table. He gave me a small sample bottle of brandy!

ordpoke

Decamped to the bar. A glass of wine and spicy tuna poké for lunch. Interesting, this poké trend. I like it, the tuna was marinated, a little spicy which balanced out when mixed with the rice and avocado. There were also two large rice cracker pieces. Felt like I was eating something healthy, most people around me were having a burger.

cx807seat

The flight was definitely not full. My bulkhead aisle seat gave me lots of legroom and the seat next to me was empty. If i’d stuck to my original selection of seat D I would have gotten the whole row but that was always a risk. I was able to sleep for about 5-6hrs in total on the flight. The film selection was one of the poorest in recent trips. Nothing I wanted to watch at all, and the ones that appealed to me were old films like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Iron Man. I ended up watching the two John Wick films and some old tv series. The John Wick films were surprisingly good, mindless action. And surprisingly good reviews too. Food was mediocre, beef stew with potatoes that had no flavour for dinner and chicken stew with mash that had spring onions for lunch. Didn’t touch either potato sides. At least the cup noodles was consistent and there were plenty of snacks.

chicago trip day 27

chi151park

I’ve packed almost everything, just the last minute items to go in before leaving tomorrow morning. For the longest time I thought I was flying on tuesday, because I usually fly on a tuesday. I checked my ticket a few days ago and realised I was actually flying monday, so one less day than I thought.

Went to Aunt C’s house for lunch. So wonderful to see so many family members there! The kids have grown so much. I remember little A when she was a baby and J is now an adult and sporting a beard too (it’s for an event and he said he’ll shave it off afterwards). The spaghetti and salad were delicious as always and I had two generous helpings.

Day 27 of my trip and looking back, I didn’t do a whole lot. Except for the week of the conference it was mostly staying in or doing laundry or going to the supermarket. Went out to the city twice, once to walk around and another was yesterday’s disasterous go fest. I feel rested and not stressed until this past few days when I started thinking about having to go home. There’s a part of me that can’t wait to go home, to see mm, read at my own desk and sleep in my own bed. There’s another part that has been enjoying how laid back staying at Car’s house has been. We went out or called out for meals a few times, to the usual places–steak, mexican, beggar’s, portillo’s, cracker barrel. We also cooked a few meals at home–pasta, potato frittata, cheeseburger. Sometimes I simply made ham & egg sandwich or toasted some waffles. We would be sitting at the dining table reading, and it’d be peaceful. There was no schedule, no anxiety. Grateful to my friend Car and her cat Midi for making me feel so at home (and I’m not saying this because I know she will be reading this, waves to Car).

day out in chicago

Went out to the city to walk around, check out new places, do a little pokehunting.

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I got to la salle station around 11am. Bought the return ticket and headed out. I really wanted to go to Girl and the Goat but they open at 4.30pm, no lunch service. After researching various other options, I decided to go to revival food hall. It’s a glorified food court, much like the Smorgasburg at south street seaport in NYC. The idea is

an all-local dining concept spotlighting the best of Chicago’s acclaimed culinary scene under one roof

There are 15 stalls, featuring hipster fast food like artisan pizza, ramen, salads, seafood, barbeque, poké. I heard good things about the barbeque so I got a brisket sandwich that came with 2 sauces, I picked memphis and luling, TX to give some tang and a little spice. Didn’t order the sides because instead I got the medium poké with salad. Tuna, edamame, avocado with a spicy yuzu sauce. Can’t get more extreme american food than this–southern vs fusion hawaiian. Combined, came to around $20 so not cheap.

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I wanted to go out to grant park and the lake. Missed the bus so I got the divy bikes. $10 for a 24hr day pass and 30min free rides. Same model as NYC citibikes. It was really nice to bike along the lake on the bike path. I went all the way to adler planetarium. It gave a great view back to the skyline and the lake.

The reason I headed to adler was because I’d read that it’s a good pokemongo spot. And there were quite a few. Two problems: mostly commons, and I spent more than half my time there trying to get a decent signal. I’d get no service, or no data, or 2G. Even tried switching to the brand new simcard. The coffee shop in the planetarium had wifi but it screwed up the gps so much that I was either jumping all over the place or it had me out in the water. Overall, did not meet expectations.

chi192millers

Biked back to the loop and ended up at Miller’s Pub. It’s been YEARS since we went there for happy hour. Asked the bartender to recommend an amber ale and he served up a good one. I’d been walking or biking for over 2hrs and the drink was much needed.

Walked over to Sears Tower because again I read that there may be tauros there. Guess what? Nothing. Zero. Zip. The pokemon experience in chicago so far has been atrocious. Needing to restart every 2 mins, the app crashing every 5 mins, nothing worthwhile to catch. Disappointing.

Instead, I biked around a little more. The streets are okay for biking, traffic is slow and the roads are straight. Drivers aren’t that crazy. A couple of streets have dedicated bike lanes.

Got to the station at 3.47pm and was able to catch the 3.50pm. No waiting. We had tacos for dinner and it was yummy. Great day out, had fun walking and biking. I sure hope saturday’s pokemon fest isn’t a complete disaster.

chicago trip day 08

Woke up at 5.30am because we had an early start. We loaded up my suitcase and muji bag of things for people and the silent auction and were off at 7am. It being a public holiday the roads were relatively clear. I took a chance and asked reception if the room was ready and it was. I dumped my bags and joined the group for breakfast and part of their meeting.

chi022wrigley

Very interesting meeting but I and another meeting attendee had to leave at 11am to get a lyft to Wrigley to see the baseball game. A was at a downtown hotel and would meet me at our seats. I’m not sure why we needed to get to the park so early, we got there at 11.45am and they wandered off to their seats. I walked around the outside of the stadium, made my way inside and explored the concession stands. Lots of food–beer,hot dogs, snacks. Souvenir shops too. I got a goose island beer (had to look for it, it was mostly budweiser) and a giordano’s pizza–I asked for cheese and got pepperoni, sigh. Our seats were in the shade behind first base. The game started at 1.20pm, I had over an hour to wait. Again, not sure why the friends took that lyft so early.

chi033flag

It being Independence Day, there was a parade of military personnel, a display of an American flag that covered most of the field, and we stood for the National Anthem.

chi043baseball

To be honest, I found the game boring. There’d be short bursts of action then long periods of waiting around for teams to get organised or change positions or talk strategy. It’s not continuous and makes the game very long, total I think this game was 3 hours.

The cubs were playing tampa bay rays. Cubs took a 1-0 lead but rays in one innings went up 1-6. It wasn’t till the end of the 9th innings that things got exciting. Cubs fought back to 5-6. Two out and two strikes there were people on bases. If the batter hit the ball far enough they’d have a chance to win. But in the end they didn’t so final score cubs 5 rays 6.

We took the red line to A’s hotel, stopping off to get some stuff at walgreens and visit cheesecake factory. Taxi to a blue line station, L to rosemont then taxi to the hotel.

chi113quesadilla

A little tired but hungry. Walked over to the retail park 5mins from the hotel. There was a band and food stalls as people celebrated the holiday. We found seats at a mexican place and I had blackened shrimp quesadilla which was quite good.

chi081fireworks

Had a wine at the hotel bar and joined others to watch fireworks. Long day and tired.

chicago trip day 06

Laundry day. Boring.

Finished off some work that needed to be done for the conference.

Watched the live action version of beauty and the beast.

chicago trip day 03

Carleen had a hair appointment so I went with her to the mall and walked around during her appointment. Didn’t by anything, although towels and a suitcase ($109 only) were tempting.

Mostly, I hit the 4 pokestops in the middle of the mall. Pokemon go is very disappointing here, now I understand what people are saying about suburbs and rural: I can see pidgeys and spinaraks around the house and there is one stop at the now-empty Radioshack store. That’s it. St Walter’s is a gym and there are 2 stops there. There are no chance for raids. I’ll have to figure out a way to go to a stop once a day. That said, I think I’ve evolved all the gen 2 level 2 that I can and for the others I have the evolution item and need more candies. I’ll have to find a way to go into the city one day to try to find tauros.

The salad I bought at the supermarket was nice and the fried chicken too.

chicago trip day 02

I woke up in the middle of the night, as expected. But managed to fall back to sleep and woke up at a decent hour.

Mostly resting today. Went to the supermarket and bought food: ham, bread, eggs, milk, yogurt, snacks, wine. Plus 10 instant rice that was on sale for $10.

Got tired early so went to bed early too.

chicago trip day 01

cxpe

Left at 8.15am and should have remembered it’s rush hour. Took around 15mins to get a taxi, I was looking at uber when one arrived. The driver was joking that he was looking for a public bathroom, so I told him about the one in the small park. He was okay, he could wait till we get to the station. Hahaha, TMI.

Check-in was fast. The plane was full, I got upgraded to premium economy. But no lounge access.

Had breakfast in the airport, made an attempt at walking around the shops and sat at the gate for over an hour. Not bored, though. Because it was a US flight, there was secondary screening security theatre. Another queue, and then another to get on the plane. The seats are 2-4-2, so not that much extra width; slightly more legroom than regular economy. I was in seat D and the 3 seats next to me were a group of three colleagues so they never got in my way.

Saw Hidden Figures, Passengers, Star Wars ep 7 and 5 eps of X-files 2016 season. Not sure why they only had 5 eps instead of all 6. Hidden Figures was wonderful, justifying every positive review I’ve seen about it. Passengers was meh, it was the best of the meagre superhero/sci-fi film selection that I like watching on the plane.

Food was okay. Overcooked beef filet for one meal and sea bass with skin still on and bones for the other. Ate everything because I was hungry. Got instant noodles too.

Arrived at around 1.30pm, taxi to the terminal was around 10mins. Got through passport control super fast–the e-passport really works. One suitcase came out relatively quickly but the other one was almost the last one out, after a long wait. Another queue to hand in the custom form at the end. Carleen met me at the carpark and we were on out way soon.

usairspace

Carleen had been tracking my flight. Look at all the planes over US airspace at one moment on a weekday afternoon.

Early dinner at the steakhouse. Then back to the house. Rested, read, washed the sheets.

I lasted till 9.30pm, then my eyes started drooping and it was bedtime. Tired, long day but glad to have arrived.

nagoya trip summary

ngo061car

Finished writing up trip and uploaded pics. This was a fantastic trip, and I’m very glad I insisted on going to a new destination rather than Hokkaido or Tokyo. It was a bit hectic, we tried to cram probably one or two stops too many, but we both agree it was worth the hassle. Having a car really, really helped. Some numbers:

  • duration: 8 days, 7 nights
  • hotels: 4 total
  • distance driven: 882km (548 miles)
  • pics taken: 976 original, trimmed to 696 in 6 sets

201705nagoyaexpenses

Total spend excluding personal shopping around USD2,200 per person. The package was decent value, notwithstanding the 4 nights that the agent incorrectly booked. They confirmed they will refund my credit card, so it’s all good. Transport was expensive, between car rental, tolls, and the alpine route ticket. Looking a past Japan expenses, transportation is always expensive.

Posts:

flickr sets:

Some more interesting pics. Takayama traditional house:
tak033house

Saw a group of customised motorbikes in a car park at Takayama:
tak183bike tak185bike

Cannot get enough of the view from our onsen hotel room:
tak322roomview

Koi kites at Shirakawa-go:
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Tilt-shift Shirakawa-go village:
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Sake, sake, sake:
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tak112sake tak233sake

Trolley bus through Tateyama tunnel felt like something out of a sci-fi film:
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Waiting for the bus, and then two comes at the same time:
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Kenrukuen panorama:
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Lanterns:
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Manhole covers:
ngo008manhole shi187manhole

nagoya trip day 08: flight

Checked out at 10am. We had loads of time, slowly wheeled our luggage across the station to catch the train to the airport. In retrospect we should have left our bags with the hotel and gone looking for chicken wings, but ah well.

ngo059sushi

The counter wasn’t open so we took our luggage with us to the food court. Had a decent local fish chirashi, then some shopping at muji and the pokemon store.

Flight was full, but we’d strategically picked aisle seats in the middle section and the seat between us was vacant, so yay. Watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which was very enjoyable. Too tired to get the bus home, took a taxi.

nagoya trip day 07: suganuma, nagoya

sug021village

Sniff sniff, our last full day. It’d been a hectic trip, we probably tried to cram in too much. But all of the places we visited had been worth it.

Went to a bakery café at the station for breakfast, bought additional bread and doughnuts for the road too. Went to the supermarket to get apples, and bought a small bottle of sake.

sug032roofworkers

The drive to nagoya was just over 3hrs so we had plenty of time, setting off at 10.45am. Around half an hour in, we saw the signs for gokayama so we decided to take the detour. Gokayama is another world heritage gassho heritage village like Shirakawa-go. Somehow we ended up at Suganuma despite following the signs. No matter, what a revelation. Smaller than Shirakawa-go but so much more peaceful and with only a handful of tourists. All the houses were concentrated around a small area and there were even workers working to replace the roof of one of the houses.

sug114camp

Lunch was soba, fried tofu, hida beef buns and unfiltered sake. All the delicious food we have been trying on the trip. The other side of the main village, through a short tunnel, were more gassho houses. Completely empty, until we noticed a map that said it was a youth camp. Probably the off-season and it seemed like a great place to camp in the summer. Both Suganuma and Shirakawa-go offered ryokan accommodation; next time it’d be something we will consider. Tha facilities would be basic, no air-con and likely shared bathrooms, but the villages offered tranquility and the opportunity to get away into nature.

ngo044hotel2

Long drive back to nagoya and the GPS took us to some odd building, not our hotel. Google maps to the rescue, it was just a few blocks out. The hotel was a higher class business class hotel than the no-frills one we were supposed to be booked into. Double the price. Really nice room with large beds, a sofa and a large bathroom. Top floor with floor length windows offering views of the city. Just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We went to the petro station, returned our car (882km total, less than one tank of petrol and an eye-popping ¥18650 in tolls), walked to Jins to get our glasses and did some drugstrore shopping.

ngo053wings

Seemed like the Chūbu region is more famed for cooked food than sashimi so we walked around the station looking for chicken wings. This izakaya we came across was cozy and had a great Friday evening atmosphere. Our new favourite drink was umeshu soda and we ordered 10 chicken wings, plus an assortment of other small dishes. Another new favourite was cucumber with miso, this we could make at home easily.

Last minute shopping at lawson’s then back to hotel to pack and rest for the night.

nagoya trip day 06: kanazawa market, kenrukuen, higashi chaya

kan342grill

At last, a leisurely day with no huge pressure to wake up early. First stop was the fish market, which after more walking than we preferred, we found a place that served sushi. We both got the tuna, ikura and crabmeat chirashi. Some Korean tv crew came into the restaurant whilst we were eating and filmed some tv star eating the restaurant’s largest sushi dish at one of the outside tables. It attracted a crowd, but we were never sure who the star was so we focused on eating our meal. The sushi was okay, nothing special. Had grilled eel and fish at another nearby stall and then we left for our next destination.

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The highlight of Kanazawa was Kenrukuen garden, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. It had all the elements of great garden design like tranquility, harmony, water feature. Although it was fairly crowded, we never felt bothered and we could always find a quiet spot. There was a beautiful lake, and the trees and flowers were in perfect harmony with each other. A great place to walk around, breathe in the fresh air and take in the features.

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Even the shops outside were nice, we bought even more folders and I got a salty soda which tasted like upmarket fizzy pocari. We saw a group of three women in kimonos, whether they were geishas or just women in traditional costumes we didn’t know.

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From the garden we drove to higashi chaya tea house district. Traditional wooden houses in a pedstrian district, the houses used to be inhabited by geishas, hence the tea house aspect. Lots of picture opportunities and we stopped at a teahouse–iced matcha for me, hot matcha latte for mm and we shared a tea-flavoured chiffon cake. One thing we did resist throughout the day was the gold leaf covered ice cream that seemd to be everywhere. Kanazawa produces the majority of Japan’s gold leaves and these ice cream are supposed to be unique. Problem was, gold leaves are tasteless and we didn’t see the point of trying plain vanilla soft serve. We had green tea and sesame ice cream near kenrukuen and it was much better.

A few minutes from higashi chaya across town was a shopping district. We hadn’t done much shopping on this trip so it was nice to stop by tokyu hands. Bought some stationery and mm bought more cosmetics. Looking at google maps we saw a nearby chicken restaurant. We were early so were the only customers. The chicken skewers and chicken wings were nice, but nothing to write home about, so we went back to the hotel for ramen, bath and dessert in our room.

Our travel agent had been in touch throughout the past two days, trying to find a hotel for us in nagoya. Not successful, so we’re keeping the one we reserved ourselves.

nagoya trip day 05: tateyama-kurobe alpine route

6.30am alarm, we set off before 7.30am. The destination was tateyama-kurobe alpine route 立山黒部, or alpenroute as they shortened it. This region of the japanese alps get huge amounts of snow every winter and the buildings at the top of tateyama are snowed in until they can get snow ploughs going in march. A narrow corridor gets opened along the road up to the hotel at the top and the snow can reach 20m. A few years ago they realised they could turn this into a tourist attraction, and in typical Japanese fashion, came up with a route that goes from Tateyama up the mountain, along the snow corridor, down via ropeway and cable car to Kurobe dam on the other side. Several different modes of transport on one ticket. There are also a couple of companies that lets people drop off their car and then pick it up on the other side. We opted for a return from Tateyama to Kurobe dam and I bought the ticket online earlier, with a specific start time of 10am.

The GPS guidance up to now had been stellar. The navi systems in Japan allows us to enter a phone number of the destination as well as name. There was a hiccup this time round to Tateyama, almost at the end it took us to a steep footpath with an abrupt dropoff on the driver’s side. I shouldn’t have followed it but I did. Luckily we got through and rejoined the road, but it was scary for a moment.

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We had experience with a planned, organised route through a sightseeing area before when we did the Hakone loop, but that didn’t prepare us for the sheer mayhem that was the alpenroute. We joined the queue at 9.55am for the 10am cable car, which was completely full. It took us up a 24% incline to the next stop where we joined another queue for the bus, which was also full. So full that a few people had to sit on the additional tour guide seats that opened up between the regular seats. The bus trip was almost one hour, and it took us from temperate temperatures to snow. Then we drove through the snow corridor, literally a corridor opened up with walls of snow either side of the road.

alp043ropeway

We made an executive decision once we got to Murodo, the end of the bus leg and where the snow corridor attraction was. The place was pandemonium, people everywhere. The reason was it was around noon, and people who started their journey on both the east and west points on the route were converging at the same time on Murodo. Since we were going roundtrip as opposed to one way, we decided to get to our end point, Kurobe dam, then make our way back, to avoid the crush. So it was a matter of hopping on even more modes of transportation: a trolley bus that went through a tunnel in the mountain, the ropeway and another cable car.

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It was a good decision. The dam was really peaceful and the weather was good. Took around 15mins to walk across to the other side and then it was time for lunch; I had katsu-don and mm had tempura udon. Probably the most disappointing food on the trip so far, definitely below par and tasting like fast food. Served its purpose, filled us up considering we didn’t have a proper breakfast.

alp153snow

Went through the clouds on the way back up and down the mountain, which was an interesting experience. By the time we arrived at the snow corridor it was around 3pm and the crowd had thinned out somewhat. The snow corridor was basically a stretch of road leading to the bus stop, with one side of the road roped off for pedestrians. A sign at the end of the roped area showed where the snow was highest, 16m this winter. People queued up for pictures and the gentleman who took our picture tried to get a bus in the background. As it was nearing the end of the tour day, there were plenty of buses along the road, which was the perfect way of showing how high the wall was. To be honest, at that point we were quite tired from all the travelling and found the snow wall a bit underwhelming. The light didn’t give pictures as good as postcards and the snow wall itself wasn’t pristine white. Still very nice and an interesting sight.

alp193snowroad

The map showed a trail to a small lake at the back of the building and we thought we might try going there. Problem was the path hadn’t been ploughed and it was slippery to negotiate. We needed boots and poles. Gave up after about 100m and took the bus and cable car back to the bottom of the mountain. I like this pic that shows a bus coming up through the corridor. When we got back down the mountain to Tateyama station we still had a 1.5hr drive back to Kanazawa but it was a good day out and we were back in our room by 7pm.

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The hotel recommended a nearby izakaya, around 5mins’ walk. Unfortunately it was full and everyone was smoking so we left and went to one across the road. It was a good choice. I had a much needed beer and we ordered yakitori, chicken wings, chicken cartilege and a really yummy asparagus-mushroom dish. They were sold out of beef and gizzards, and chicken wings too when we tried to order a second portion. We went back to the hotel, went to the bath and had the hotel ramen. Did laundry too, the washers were free and the dryers ¥100 for 20mins.

nagoya trip day 04: shirakawa-go

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We asked for a window seat at breakfast and were not disappointed. What a view! The server told us that we were looking at umbrella mountain, the #1 mountain in Gifu Prefecture (Fuji is #1 in Japan, he acknowledged). The breakfast was even more satisfying than yesterday’s, if that was possible. The tray was positively brimming with smal dishes and we got to grill our own fish too.

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We set off at 10am to head to Shirakawa-go 白川郷, around 1.5hrs. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage site of gassho thatched cottages, or steep high-sided thatched roofs intended to withstand the heavy snowfalls in winter. The name gassho meant prayer hands, because of the shape the roof made.

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The entire site was quite crowded with many tour groups. There was the inevitable commercialisation of the village, with the main street full of souvenir shops and food stands. Didn’t detract from its natural beauty though; after the region attained world heritage status, the houses had to be maintained using thatched roofs but we could see a few that had been modernised before they got the status. We stopped at one of the shops that had a sake bar and ordered one sake and one unfiltered sake. The unfiltered one was absolutely delicious. The intense taste of the rice that was still present in the liquid, so sweet and so satisfying. We bought a jar to take home with us.

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We didn’t go inside the houses that were open to the public. At the top of the village was a steep path that led to a viewpoint up the hill. Good exercise and worth the walk. Stunning views of the village, surrounded by green mountains and there was still snow at the top of the mountains in the background. I played around with the tiltshift app on my phone, the small lego-like houses were perfect for this purpose.

shi145house

Despite the commercialisation, it was still a working village. Away from the main street, villagers were farming the land or in greenhouses. It wasn’t as remote as it seemed–there was no part of Japan that was truly remote–the villagers went about their business, there were plenty of cars around and we saw the post being delivered throughout the day. Lunch was soba with a small bowl of flavoured rice. The cold, refreshing soba dipped in sauce was the perfect lunch, not too heavy and no need for meat.

shi178teacoffee

Explored the lower end of the village and stopped at a café-shop. I had iced matcha latte and mm had coffee. The matcha latte was just like green tea milkshake and better than ice cream. The shop sold cute accessories and stationery; I bought a couple of notebooks for my niece. We’d been stocking up on folders along the way and I had a good selection already.

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The last stop of the day was the open air heritage museum. By the time we got there we were the last people to enter and the place was completely empty. Didn’t think the tour groups went there anyway. There were around 20 thatched houses that we learned were transported from the village to the museum and faithfully reconstructed. The interiors were large and open plan. We ventured up to the first floor of one but didn’t go to any more because the stairs were pretty steep and precarious. A couple of houses were showing videos of the village’s history and there was one video of how the thatched roofs were made. Very manual and intensive. Takes a lot of skill and knowhow to add the thick layers in the right way to ensure support and protection. Thick ropes and needles secured the bundles to interior beams.

From Shirakawa-go we headed to Kanazawa for the next 3 nights. When we got to the hotel we discovered to our horror that our agent had booked us on the wrong dates (June instead of May). The hotel front desk staff were wonderful, they got the manager’s approval to let us have a vacant room they saved for emergencies even though they were officially full. Additional cost, but we would claim this from our agent. We discovered the next hotel was also booked for the wrong date and the staff called for us, even though it was a different chain. Unfortunately there were no rooms so first thing we did when we got to our room was hit up hotels.com. Pretty full but I was able to find a room near the station. It was nice to have a bigger room for 3 days, the room was probably saved for VIPs as it was on the top floor and larger than the usual rooms.

Pretty tired after the long day so we walked to the station, found a supermarket and bought sushi to eat back in our room. The hotel had a sento, aka public bath. A small indoor pool, an even smaller outdoor pool and a sauna. The water didn’t feel like onsen water, we could smell chlorine. The sauna was great and much needed after a long day’s walking and driving.

nagoya trip day 03: takayama

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Breakfast at this hotel was served in the restaurant, which was a change. A nicely presented selection of small dishes, with fish as the protein. What was outstanding was the miso heated over shiso leaves: a combination of salty, sweet, smoky. Yum.

Drove out to Takayama, parked in town today. Typical efficient Japanese carpark, only a few spaces with automatic sensor. A ramp comes up underneath the car when it senses movement, when we leave we pay at the machine and it tells us how much. The ramp lowers and we have 3 mins to move the car. We had been noticing yesterday, so were on the lookout for cheaper hourly places.

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The destination this morning was miyagawa morning market by the river. Mainly stalls selling fruit, vegetables and some craft. A mix of local and tourists. We bought really huge juicy apples and sake from a sake shop. Stopped at a coffee stall run by an elderly lady. Two things on the menu-coffee and iced coffee–I was even okay with the coffee provided I added lots of cream. There was a sign that the stall had been in business since 1975. We felt proud to be part of its history.

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Lunch was at a butcher shop-restaurant. Weekday lunch special, A5 hida beef that we grilled at the table, this time cut in cubes. The best beef on the trip so far in my opinion. Polished off with a bottle of cold sake.

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There was more time to walk around Takayama old town, and by the end of the afternoon we had covered almost all of it. It being a monday, there were definitely fewer people than yesterday and we were able to spend more time exploring the souvenir shops, sake shops or take pictures of the traditional wooden houses.

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There was even a visit to a miso / soy sauce shop and they were serving samples of miso soup. Discovered the souvenir find of this trip–plastic folders! We’d gotten to the point of not wanting to buy too many souvenirs, and tired of always buying the same mochi or sweets. Folders are cheap, useful and make great souvenirs.

We saved enough time to drive to a drugstore we saw yesterday. Bought tea and mm bought some cosmetics.

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Time for onsen before dinner, and a little time to sit at the rest area to have a cup of tea or coffee too. The rest area looked out onto the deck, if we had more time at the hotel it would be so peaceful to sit out there and absorb the mountain view.

Kaiseki dinner started with a really refreshing yogurt liquor. The starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling. Hida beef was cooked as a shabu shabu, and the soup was used to make udon at the end. We were both full by then but the udon was so good we managed to eat a bowl each.

Time to pack and sleep.

nagoya trip day 02: takayama, onsen

Our hotel included breakfast. It was pretty much a mad scramble with around a hundred people in a canteen-like dining room with long tables and everything self-serve. Curry, rice, scrambled eggs, sausages, heaps of salad, fruit. I made tea from hot water. Even though it was a mad scramble, everyone was well-mannered and organised. No shouting, no pushing, no cutting in line. There was even a queue to return dirty trays and people wiped the table after them using the cloth provided. This is what I love about the Japanese people.

We checked out and crossed the street to pick up our rental car from the toyota rent-a-car office. Spending time on research means picking the correct location. Our car was a blue Aqua, which is the local equivalent of a Prius C so basically we were renting Ryan for a week. Added ETC card rental because we knew there would be lots of tolls.

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Attempted to go to the central market but it looked closed so we headed straight onto the motorway towards Takayama. Easy 1.5hr drive. We drove around the town, through the middle of the mass of tourists at the old town area and ended up at a shopping street 10-15mins’ walk from the station. Parking there was free, ostensibly for the shopping street only so we made sure to visit there first. Already we saw stuff we love: Japanese sweets and local sake. The nice lady gave us samples and we tried valiantly to communicate with each other using broken English and copious domo arigatou gozaimasu.

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We walked around the old town quickly to find lunch. We knew we wanted hida beef, the local speciality that has similar marbling to kobe and matsuzaka beef. We chose the grilled thin-sliced A5 grade hida beef rice set. It was served hitsumabushi style, with condiments and broth. Fantastic. Tender and juicy beef and everything so well balanced.

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We had around 2 hrs after lunch to explore around town. Saw part of the old town main street, bought cute ceramic ornaments, sampled more sake. Ate green tea ice cream that was disappointing (too icy). Bought fruit and tea at the supermarket. Walked back to the shopping street to buy souvenirs and a bottle of sake from the nice lady.

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We were on a schedule. It was around 1hr’s drive to the onsen hotel and we wanted to get there before 5pm. It’s a big sprawling hotel with several wings. Luxurious lobby and an entire shelf of yukatas so we could pick the pattern we liked. We found out our dinner slot was at 8pm so that meant we had time to rest. Our room was absolutely wonderful and totally exceeded our expectations. It was a suite! The bedroom was tatami, with low mattresses and more than enough room to lay our suitcases out. Then there was a sitting room with sink and fridge, and a massage chair. The view from the sitting room out to the garden was spectacular, there was a small stream and daffodils just beginning to appear. Best of all, we had our own onsen bathtub, wow. Everything was clean too, so it wasn’t a case of not wanting to touch or use the tub.

There was time before dinner to go to the onsen. There was a large indoor pool, a couple of tubs outside and an outdoor pool. Not too crowded and all very nice. Oh, a low temperature sauna too. We needed the relaxation of an onsen, it was great to just soak in the hot water. Fresh milk was available for free in the small sitting area outside the baths, we shared one bottle so as not to ruin our appetite.

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The restaurant was quite posh and as usual the kaiseki menu had lots of courses. Started off with an alcoholic aperitif, then starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling before the main course. It was the local attraction, hida beef, which we grilled ourselves at the table. Really yummy. Finished off with beef pot, rice and dessert.

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Even though we’d already used the onsen, I wanted to wash my hair because of the grease and smell from dinner. So I used our private onsen tub. It was okay, took a long time to fill, by then I was bored so I only soaked for a few minutes.

Long day travelling, picturesque traditional town and an outstanding hotel room. Totally worth it.

nagoya trip day 01: flight, nagoya

Early start, 5am alarm because mm was setting off before me and I wanted to make sure she got up. I was planning on catching the 6.30am bus, managed to catch the one before that. It was standing room only! Seemed like I was sharing the bus with airport workers going to work and a few travellers catching early flights. Since I was early I went to get the pocket wifi before meeting mm. Check-in was easy and we were inside quickly. Breakfast was eggs I made yesterday (perfectly soft boiled if I may say so myself) and sandwiches mm made. The alternative would have been Mcdonalds and we only got tea and coffee from them.

The flight was almost full. I got us adjoining aisle seats when I checked in, on purpose. Watched La la land which, for all the hype, was a little disappointing. Not the sort of film I watch on planes.

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The plane was a litte early. We checked the transportation board and confirmed that the limited express train was the best way. The information centre had a helpful hand-drawn leaflet too, so cute. Only 30mins to Nagoya main station. Our hotel was around 10mins’ walk and the only difficulty was figuring which direction. Pocket wifi and google maps took care of that. We were only there for one night, so the no-frills business semi-double room suited our purpose.

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The area around the station was full of modern buildings and posh shops. Our first destination was Jins glasses shop. My research showed us it was at the station mall and we found it easily enough. Quite comical, trying to get my eyes tested and barely able to communicate with the optican there. I have the frame which I bought in Tokyo and it’s ¥5000 per feature–I needed graduated lenses and I added UV-sensitive coating. Economical price, and I’ll get the new glasses in 1 week.

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More research told us foodwise we should be trying the unagi hitsumabushi. The eel in Nagoya are fatter and tastier river eels and they grill the entire fish instead of steaming then grilling in other locations. The idea is to add flavour and smokiness. Hitsumabushi means to sample three ways: plain, then with condiments, then dipped in a dashi broth. We found a restaurant in a mall next to the station and gave it a go. It was definitely tasty, as expected from well executed unagi. Plain, with wasabi and with broth were all great. I ended up mixing the eel and rice with wasabi then eating with the broth.

On the way back to the hotel, we visited drugstores we noticed earlier. Bought snacks and a 2l bottle of tea for travelling. We only started noticing drugstores last time in Tokyo, turns out they have an enormous selection of toiletries, cosmetics but also snacks, household goods, gadgets and interesting stuff.

cruise trip posts and pics

the cruise trip is written up and posted.

  • day 01: singapore gardens by the bay, east coast food village
  • day 02: singapore to sydney
  • day 03: sydney farmers market, harbour, barangaroo, watsons bay
  • day 04: sydney fish market, darling harbour, harry’s
  • day 05: sydney fish market, embarkation
  • day 06: at sea, eating
  • day 07: melbourne cbd, qvm
  • day 08: melbourne: fitzroy gardens, mcg, docklands
  • day 09: adrift at sea with no propulsion
  • day 10: on tow
  • day 11: st kilda festival, beach, melbourne riverside
  • day 12: melbourne city circle tram
  • day 13: yarra valley fruit farm, winery
  • day 14: melbourne to auckland
  • day 15: rotorua lake, kuirau park
  • day 16: wai-o-tapu geothermal area, waimangu volcanic valley
  • day 17: hobbiton
  • day 18: waiheke island
  • day 19: auckland mission bay
  • day 20: long flights home

flickr sets:

some of the more unusual pics. The markings on this tree at gardens by the bay in singapore looks like a human face:
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door 5, sydney carriageworks market:
syd045door5

sculpture on waiheke island:
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penguins taking a selfie, waiheke island:
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trip pics uploaded

I deliberated whether to upload pics and write posts at the same time but decided to tackle one task at a time. All pics are sorted and uploaded. Trimmed 1923 to 1059, including 8 videos.

Trip reports up to day 13 are posted, ie all Australia days.

cruise trip day 21: home

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Got home tuesday, or rather, wednesday 1am. By the time I showered and put the perishables in the fridge it was 2am. Woke up around 6am for a bit, finally woke up 11am.

I usually unpack the minute I get home, but last night was an exception because I was simply too tired. I made up for it this morning as I was having my tea and my suitcase is already back in the wardrobe. Mum’s stuff is naturally everywhere, all over the dining table and sitting room. Lunch and dinner were food I’d cooked and put in the freezer before we left, I thought it’s a good bit of planning on my part. Two loads of laundry, Mum did some cleaning, I sorted letters that had accumulated in the postbox, paid bills.

There are a total of 1923 pics to sort and upload. Trip posts beyond Sydney have to be typed up. I’ve kept track of spending, so may be I’ll put it all in a spreadsheet if I get past the fear of finding out the final actual cost. The travel agent says the cruise refund may take 6-8 weeks, but in the meantime there’s the flight, hotels, car rental and additional spending to pay for.

The NYT had one of those short meaningless interviews with Chris Hemsworth about Australia. When asked which one souvenir travellers to Australia should get, he answered

Tim Tams

as it should be. I bought 16 packets of TimTams in total, including 2 of the larger value packs. They are selling special Gelato Messina flavours–salted caramel, coconut & lychee, choc mint and black forest–and I bought at least one packet of each. I also got dark, mango and of course original. Most will be gifted as souvenirs. I also got vegemite and NZ marmite for my niece.

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The one thing I bought for myself was an unexpected surprise. I knew before we flew out that the ship will miss Burnie, which was a disappointment because Tasmania is a huge bucket list destination and also because there would have been a visit to Hellyers Road distillery. I was over the moon to see the whisky on sale at Melbourne duty free. The choice was between full-sized bottles of 10 or 12 year or a box of three 250ml bottles: 10, peated, pinot noir cask. I decided on the 3-bottle pack.

cruise trip day 20: flight

Checked out at 9.30am, drove to airport, returned car. Total 701km driven this trip.

Finished the remaining fruit we had and did some shopping. Mum bought eye serum and I made friends with the people at the whisky counter. Tried aberfeldy 12 and 18, craigellachie 13 and 19. Bought a 1l bottle of craigellachie 13 for NZD99. Bought some more chocolate.

The only lamb we ended up eating in NZ was the turkish sandwich at the airport. Ah well, we have plenty of NZ lamb at home.

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This was at the airport. The sign says, “On loan from Middle-Earth, Do Not Touch.” Heh.

First flight was almost full. We asked for 2 aisle seats and luckily had empty seats next to both of us. I watched thor 2, edge of tomorrow and a bunch of rizzoli & isles. Food was okay. Chicken thingh and lemon shortcake ice cream for lunch and chicken curry and panna cotta for dinner.

We landed at singapore at 6.40pm. Our next flight is 7.55pm so it’s tight. But of course the gate is at the other end of the terminal! And of course mum’s foot is hurting. We got there during final call, but luckily weren’t the last ones to board. The entertainment system isn’t as extensive as the previous flight, they didn’t have the entire season of rizzoli & isles so I watched veep and part of suicide squad. Dinner was seafood pasta and magnum ice cream. Kept falling asleep.

Arrived 11.45pm, thank god our luggage came out quickly. Taxi home, fruit in fridge, will unpack tomorrow.

cruise trip day 19: auckland

Drove out to the fish market in the morning but only one or two shops are open. Someone told us the market’s closed for earthquake strengthening. That’s a disappointment, we thought we’d have brunch there. The good thing was I got a refund of the NZD4 I paid for parking by buying something — a $4 bottle of apple juice.

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For want of somewhere to go, we drove east towards mission bay. Beautiful views back to the city skyline at okahu bay. Mission bay itself is pretty nice too, a beach with long stretch of sand and plenty of restaurants. Quite hectic even for a monday, can’t imagine how busy it can be at weekends.

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Lunch was mussels. Took longer than expected because they forgot mum’s order of steak. By then we were full from my pot of mussels so we just ordered a smaller pot of mussels. The one with cream sauce was better, and the sauce was perfect for dunking chips. Dessert was ice cream from the movenpick next doors.

Back to the city and we found newcastle, a local shopping area. Walked around, again trying to find somewhere to eat. Not finding anything good, and still full, we went back to our room to finish up all the food we have in the fridge.

cruise trip: day 18: waiheke island

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Since trains aren’t running and there is a lot of parking in the city, contrary to what the motel receptionist told me, we drove out in the morning and parked near the harbour. Long queue to get on the ferry to waiheke island, one of the most popular outlying islands in auckland. The ferry ride was 45mins and apart from a brief heavy shower that got everyone on the ferry soaked, the rest of the day was bright and sunny.

After some faffing around, we got on the #1 bus towards onetangi. I have no idea what to expect or do on the island. There’s a hop-on-hop-off bus, bikes, scooters and car rental. Public transport seems to work better for us.

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Onetangi is a long beach with one café restaurant. I’m glad I bought pies at the ferry terminal and mum brought nectarines. We walked along the beachfront admiring the beautiful houses, then took the bus to the nearby winery district.

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Found a nice secluded table in the tasting area of one of the wineries. Nice views of the vines and olive trees in the garden. Mum ordered sorbets and I had a taste of the rosé and pinot noir. Not earth-shattering. Ordered a full glass of the luna negra malbec. May be the sorbet affected my palette, found the wine too tannic.

whk116oneroa

Stopped at oneroa village near the ferry terminal. A few shops, a small grocery and good views.

Ferry ride back to auckland and quickly walked around the cbd. Souvenir shops and saw the sky tower. Not a lot of places to eat though. Either fast food or asian food, neither of which interest us. Went to countdown and bought roast chicken, cooked prawns and ingredients to make dinner back in our room.

cruise trip day 17: hobbiton

tl;dr: I originally planned on missing hobbiton. Big mistake; it was so fantastic.

Originally I wasn’t planning on going to hobbiton movie set because we didn’t have a car and there were only a couple of days in auckland. But with the revised schedule, it was the perfect opportunity to go. One hour from rotorua and 2 hrs from auckland, on the way back to auckland. When I was booking online last night, I was only able to get a slot on the 12.40pm tour. Just as well, it gave us leeway. We had time to stop by a blueberry farm outside of rotorua for frozen yogurt and to sample their stuff. I bought blueberry wine, mum bought chocolate and a punnet of fresh blueberries.

Once we got to hobbiton we asked if they had an earlier slot and found ourselves on the 12pm tour, yay! We joined our guide on the bus for the short journey from the visitor centre area they call the shire’s rest. We quickly learn that the site is part of the alexander farm, still a working farm, and was rebuilt after the film crew left. When filming, the props were made of disposable materials like polystyrene. When they rebuilt, they used permanent materials. Peter Jackson asked the NZ government for financial assistance, but the government wasn’t able to provide $$$ however they sent in the army to help construction. The site attracts an average of 2000 visitors a day and everyone had to join a tour.

Our guide was Nathaniel from the US who is a superfan and extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the entire middle-earth universe. Our group was around 20 people and we discovered 2 fellow Star survivors.

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From the first step into the shire, it was magical. There were plenty of other tour groups so lots of people but it never felt contrived, for want of a better word. So realistic, so obviously a labour of love.

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There were so many hobbit holes they seemed like real homes. Any minute now a hobbit would come out and go about his business. They were built to 75% or 100% scale depending on the needs of the films, to fit the actors in order to emphasise the small stature of hobbits. Most are just façades or with a small empty space behind the door so no, the hobbit holes aren’t real homes. There was still a lot of attention to detail placed on windows, doors, chimneys and gardens. The fishmonger has fish drying outside the door, the baker has loaves of bread, we could see blocks of cheese through the window of the cheesemaker. Real fruit and veg grow in the garden and there are even hobbit-sized clothes lines.

hob103bagend

At the top of the hill is bag end, the baggins residence. Property taxes in the shire are calculated based on number of windows and bag end has the most windows. This is the most complete home because they filmed around its exterior a lot. A little further down is Sam’s house with its yellow door.

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We stopped at most homes, took pictures and imagined living there. The end of the tour went past the mill and onto open views back to the shire.

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There was enough time to stop at the green dragon inn for a complimentary (as in, included in the NZD79 admission) mug of beer or ginger beer. I had the stout, which was very nice. The tour was 2hrs and time totally flew.

Late lunch in the café of sandwiches and we got on the road again towards auckland. We got to the motel around 5.30pm and I was pretty tired by then. If I had to drive another half an hour I would have needed to rest. The receptionist told us not to drive out to the city but to take the train. When we got to the train station we found out trains were being replaced by buses this weekend. The bus got to britomart just in time for us to see the Star depart for the next cruise to singapore. So they had made it from melbourne.

auck077clam auck081crab

Dinner was at the crab shack next to the pier. Chaotic waiting process which involved putting our names down then being shunted to the bar. Eventually someone came up to lead us to our table. Long wait to get served too. On the other hand, the food is good. The daily special crab is mud crab, and we also had a small pot of clams and mussels to start. There’s enough crab there for 3 people, they gave us 3 sets of claws and legs. Total silence as we each worked on our portion. Just steamed, nothing fancy, nothing needed.

It was quite late when we finished. We took the bus back and I recognised the location enough to know where to get off. Don’t have a map on me aside from google maps.

cruise trip day 16: wai-o-tapu, waimangu

Torrential rain meant the 20min drive to wai-o-tapu geothermal area was more like 30mins. We timed our arrival to coincide with the 10.15am eruption of the lady knox geyser. Organisation can be better. Everyone got back in their cars to drive over to the geyser carpark at 9.30am, splashed through the mud, watched the geyser and drove back to the main carpark. A mini-traffic jam in the making.

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I would describe the geyser show as underwhelming. A park ranger poured some surfactant into the hole and some steam splurged up. May be 20m high and 10 seconds duration.

The rest of the park made up for it. Wai-o-tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in the taupo volcanic zone and we followed the guidemap that showed us 3 walks. Craters, sulphur caves, mud pools and boiling springs could be seen everywhere.

waio023palette

Artist’s palette is a flat pool with mineral deposits showing different colours at different spots. Green, yellow, orange, grey, white. We could walk on a wooden boardwalk through the area which gave a different perspective. There is sulphur in the air, not overpowering.

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Probably the highlight of wai-o-tapu is champagne pool. 65m in diameter and 62m deep with surface temperature at 73-76ºC. The name comes from bubbles of CO2 that break out on the surface. There are gold, silver, mercury, arsenic, antimony, thallium, sulphur in the water and the distinctive orange deposit at the side is from arsenic and antimony sulphide. And since it’s been a while since I wrote out compound formulae: orpiment As2S3 and stibnite Sb2S3.

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We followed walk 2 down the sacred track to the frying pan flat and oyster pool. Another boardwalk let us close to the natural features. We didn’t stray from the marked paths; signs for 100ºC water warned us of the danger. There were parts where the path met water and when I stuck my hand in the stream the water was cold. Left a sulphide deposit on my fingers though. Told mum not to touch it. I can pour conc H2SO4 from one bottle to another without gloves and without spilling, but it doesn’t mean lay people should do it.

waio113devil

We completed part of walk 3 and headed back to the visitor centre. The last interesting sight was devil’s bath, a crater filled by excess water from the champagne pool. It changes colour from yellow to green depending on light and cloud cover. Today it was green and quite sickly.

We walked for almost 3hrs and every single minute was worth it. The rain had abated somewhat although we were glad we wore our waterproof coat and I borrowed a large umbrella from the motel that acted as walking stick for mum. They charge NZD32.50 for entrance, we had a 10% voucher from the motel and it was well worth it. I was skeptical when I was trip planning, all the geothermal areas charged hefty admission and I realise it’s for maintenance, to keep the area pristine. I also realise that had our cruise went ahead per the original itinerary, we would be stopping at tauranga today and I had booked our own excursion to wai-o-tapu, so we made it.

Lunch was at the café. Pies and I had L&P lemonade.

We had the rest of the afternoon. The option was to go back to rotorua or go to another geothermal area. We found ourselves at waimangu volcanic valley. They offered senior discount, so NZD30 for mum and NZD37 for me.

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The straight route from the visitor centre to lake rotomahana is supposed to be around 2hrs. We made it to echo crater and frying pan lake faster than recommended. May be the same people explored the region, the craters and lakes are all named the same.

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Cathedral rock was originally named Gibraltar rock because of its resemblance to the latter. There was an eruption in 1917 that changed its shape so they renamed it. Steam coming out all around it makes it look like it’s magic.

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Mum didn’t take the steep 60+ step climb to infernal crater lake. It claims to be the largest geyser-like feature in the world even though the geyser itself is hidden beneath the depths. The lake empties and refills every 35 days or so. There’s a hiking trail from inferno lake to other craters but the trail is closed due to mud.

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To save time and energy, we took the bus part of the way to warbrick terrace, formed from silica flowing from the stream. The green colour is due to algae formation.

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The walk to the lake was unremarkable and would have been more pleasant if we hadn’t walked for hours already. Mum rested while I explored around the lake. We waited for the last bus of the day to take us back to the visitor centre.

Overall, if we had only visited waimangu we would have been disappointed in the area. I didn’t think the entrance fee is worth it and much preferred wai-o-tapu.

Back in rotorua we stopped at a petrol station, hit a souvenir shop (12 kiwi keychains for NZD9.90, and we have a 5% off voucher), and dinner back in our room finishing off the food in the fridge.

cruise trip day 15: rotorua

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Homemade fry-up for breakfast. I didn’t want to leave the b&b, it’s highly recommended.

But onward we go.

It’s three hours to rotorua and it rained the entire time. I’m driving without a map, hahaha. Only have handwritten instructions I copied off google maps. It was pretty straightforward, just follow roadsigns. Thing about A roads in NZ, they don’t have a lot of places to stop. Not talking about service stations, there weren’t even villages on the way with shops or petrol stations. We did stop at around the 2hr mark and arrived in rotorua at around 1.30pm. Stopped at the tourist information centre to get a town map and various leaflets.

Checked into our motel, definitely several grades below the b&b. The whole strip is full of motels, I guess it’s the luck of the draw whether we get a good one. It’s not bad, I’ve stayed in worse but mum clearly wasn’t impressed.

It hadn’t stopped raining but we decided to go out, find something to eat and sightsee a little. Nando’s is following us so we had chicken again; the other options were pub food or asian. NZ nando’s don’t have sweet potato fries, the portugese roll was good.

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Rotorua is situated on lake rotorua, there’s a viewpoint 5mins’ drive from the town centre. It was still raining and hard to distinguish between the sky and the water. Can imagine how pretty it looks when it’s sunny.

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The museum is closed; the building itself an impressive tudor building. It overlooks government gardens, which will be worth visiting in better weather.

On the other side of town is kuirau park. We drove past it on the way in and spotted pockets of steam coming out from behind the trees. There are several hot springs and mud pools in the park. These look the same no matter the weather and we happily walked around looking at each one. To have hot springs and mud pools in your local park, that’s something.

Dining options are limited, or may be we weren’t looking closely enough. We decided to go to countdown and get food to eat in our room. Bought rocket salad, avocado, peach, two flavours of wraps, hummous, pâté, brie, pear paste and wine.

cruise trip day 14: melbourne to auckland

The hotel is separated from the airport terminal by a multi-story car park, but it’s a weaving 10mins walk so we took the hotel shuttle. For some reason I thought the flight didn’t provide food so we bought sandwiches before boarding. I think it’s because I booked via virgin australia which is a sort of budget airline and the flight was operated by air new zealand. Air NZ has the best safety videos, including one set in middle-earth; the newest is called summer of safety.

Arrived at auckland 5.15pm. We breezed through e-passport but it was pandamonium at the luggage belts, there was a long queue and bottleneck to get through customs and we had to fight to even get to our belt. The long lines was for biosecurity, which is even stricter than australia. The agent grinned when I said we bought timtams, and waved us through.

It was great to drive the SUV yesterday, but it cost almost the same as one day’s rental to fill it up when I returned it so I’m glad I opted for a more economical yaris this week. Our b&b hosts had emailed me detailed driving instructions which I wrote out for mum. The drive from the airport through the city to the northern suburb of hillcrest was around 45mins, took us longer because we turned the wrong way and had to go back on the motorway, take the next exit and google map to the destination.

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The b&b is called birdwood house and it’s run by Barbie and David Scott. Absolutely wonderful. Our room is on the 1st floor and comes with its own lounge. Such a romantic setting. The living and dining room downstairs is also beautifully decorated. Very English, down to the bottles of port which we were encouraged to partake.

The hosts gave us a list of places to eat so we headed to the nearby village of birkenhead, found a pub and had the special small plates for dinner: chicken wings, pork belly, arancini, cheesy garlic bread. Many of the shops were already closed and most other eating places were asian or italian food.

To get some peace and quiet, I escaped to our lounge to read. If I could find spare blankets I would have slept on the sofa. Sigh, I really need my own space.

cruise trip day 13: yarra valley

We aimed at getting the 10am shuttle to the airport (5am and 7am were simply too early). A bunch of other people had the same idea so it was a group of anxious people queuing up. The bus was late but it didn’t matter. We all managed to fit on it and we were cheering and clapping as we left the port. Someone said, “we’re free!” It’s been stressful, but it could have been a lot worse if the weather was poor or if they had problems towing the ship. The frustraion is the slowness and lack of communication from NCL. I still don’t know how we’ll get the 100% refund, how the future cruise credit will work and how to get reimbursed for the flight. Plus the Star is now known as the unluckiest cruiseship at sea.

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We got to the airport at 11am, picked up our rental car and headed to yarra valley. The drive itself is around 1hr, but the area is large so it took us a while to find a destination and drive to it. I found a leaflet for rayners orchard and that’s where we headed. Luckily we just missed a coachful of visitors so the place was empty. Peach trees could be seen from the car park, and peaches too, very tempting to just pick them.

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It was that in-between time between lunch and tea. Their café is quite basic, mum had ham sandwich and I had scones. The ham sandwich was really delicious, must be the butter. The scones were great too, normal cream rather than clotted cream. The best part of the meal for me was the tea that was strong and came in a proper teapot. We bought peaches and nectarines from the shop.

Seems to be off-season, several of the other fruit farms we visited were closed. We bought strawberries from a stand and made a few scenic stops. I didn’t have a detailed map so we muddled along. It’s okay, I was driving a big SUV and the valley is very pretty.

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We wanted to go to a dairy farm and ended up at a winery. There was time for some tasting while mum shopped. Tried the sparkling wine, pinot noir and riesling. Tiny portions, and I spit most of it out. Quite nice, but not nice enough to buy.

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The last scenic stop was near kangaroo grounds cemetery. Pretty farmland and rolling hills. I was looking in one direction and when I looked in the other, I spotted a group of wallabies. I think they’re wallabies as they are smaller. Mum was in the car so I dragged her out to see them. There’s a fence between us so I wasn’t worried. They were quite a bit away anyway. Such a nice bonus to end the visit.

Drove back to melbourne airport, checked into the hotel and returned the car. Not too many choices for dinner so we had nando’s again. This time I remembered to order sweet potato fries instead of regular fries.

cruise trip day 12: melbourne

The golden princess in in port, embarking passengers, so we can’t go into the terminal until after 10.30am. Pity the people who were planning on leaving the ship today. We took it easy, I spent the morning reading. It was nice to see the golden princess again, our alaskan cruise was on her.

Finally ventured out at noon. Got the tram and visited the tourist information centre to ask about airport bus. Have to figure out how to get from the port to the airport hotel tomorrow. Taxi of course, but the lady at the counter suggested we taxi to the city and catch the bus, which will be cheaper. In the end, it wasn’t needed. When we got back to the ship they told us there will be several free shuttles to the airport.

Not much to do; we’d seen all of melbourne that we wanted to see. Did some shopping at daiso, of all places. Got the hob scouring pad that worked so well, and some other ¥100 type stuff. Lunch was at nando’s. Shared half a chicken with fries. I got a beer and a ginger beer for mum.

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After several attempts over the past few days we finally got ourselves on a #35 city circle tram. Melbourne has a free tram zone and this one that goes around the central area is completely free. One circuit takes 1hr, we’d already travelled on more than half the route so it was kinda boring.

Tram back to port. I packed quickly and went upstairs to read while mum did her packing. I have a whole bottle of wine to finish today so I sipped while reading. The deck was almost empty, people had either left or still out in the city.

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Dnner at Le Bistro. Escargot, rack of lamb. Huge portion of lamb, 6 chops in total. The most I usually have is 3 chops. No dessert in the restaurant, tried the trifle at the buffet. No good so switched to watermelon instead.

Last task of the day is to settle the bill. Nothing to pay, I get US$89 OBC refund.

cruise trip day 11: st kilda

We woke up to a ship safely docked at melbourne. Seems like déjà vu to walk into the terminal and get a map. A volunteer greeter gave us lamingtons and told us about the st kilda festival. St kilda is the beach alongside port; the town centre is about 2-3km away. Except to get there on public transport means going on the tram to the city and changing to another tram.

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The festival takes place everywhere in the town. Various stages where bands played music, lots of food stalls, craft stalls, kid’s playground and amusement rides. All spread out along the entire beachfront so there was plenty of walking. The best part of the walking was I caught a porygon. I had the app open for some odd reason and it popped up suddenly, wasn’t on the nearby list. The beach is beautiful, a long stretch of white sand. There was a group of people playing beach netball and another group playing beach volleyball. And on the stretch of sand in between the two groups, a woman doing yoga.

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Lunch was free sweet potato fries from the nando’s truck and gozleme with lamb, spinach and cheese filling. I’ve been wanting to try gozleme, saw it at various places in sydney and melbourne but never have the appetite or time to try. It’s very nice. The flatbread crispy and the filling tasty and hot.

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I wanted to slowly walk back to port, so we started off doing that. It was very windy and lots of people were kiteboarding. Looks like it’s a lot of fun, probably takes considerable upper body and leg strength.

Took a couple of videos. Can hear the roar of the wind. Keep watching till around 28s, he gets lifted up above the water by the kite.

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In the end, the wind was too much and when sand started drifting everywhere including all over our faces we called it a day and took the tram back to the city. It was still early so we walked along the yarra for a bit. Riversides are always pretty.

Tram back to port. Late lunch / high tea at the buffet. It’s bavarian night so they had roast pork, cabbage salad and I was dying for a beer. Proper dinner was at Le Bistro, I cancelled the other restaurant reservations and we’ll focus on Le Bistro for the rest of our dining package. Mussels with cream sauce, crevette and crème brûlée. The mussels were so-so, although the sauce was great. The crevettes were meh, I still hanker after L’Ecluse crevettes after all these years. the crème brûlée was okay. Finished the 3rd bottle of wine.

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Full moon tonight.

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Played around with the camera. Hit the shutter as it was trying to autofocus, to get some nice bokeh-like effect.

Got a notice that the ship will leave melbourne on the 14th. We had planned to stay onboard till the 15th so now we have to find somewhere to stay on the 14th. The best option is airport hotel, so I quickly went on hotels.com. Not many choices, got holiday inn at the end. I also booked a hotel at rotorua for a couple of nights so we go somewhere other than auckland.

cruise trip day 10: on tow

It’s just like another at sea day, although we’re moving a lot slower. At least we’re moving.

Breakfast at the buffet, we’d given up on going to the restaurant. Egg white omelette with vegetables, bacon, black pudding, mushroom. Mostly spent the day reading at a table by the pool. I recognise a few regulars there already. A woman in her twenties with large headphones at a window seat, a couple quietly doing sudoku puzzles and a blind lady with her seeing-eye friend.

Queued up for phone and internet again. Since we have a car, I cancelled the original auckland hotel in city centre and booked a motel in the suburbs. Cheaper room rate and free parking. I spent the day worrying about getting my three simcard topped up and finally gave up trying. I need a credit card with UK address to purchase a top-up, argh. Either I change my credit card back to the UK or I’ll have to find someone to help me if I want to continue to use this number. It’s been working fine so far, no problems roaming in sydney or melbourne. I may even keep it as my primary phone because i can still use whatsapp and this way I don’t get junk calls.

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Lunch was from the grill: a burger (no bun), braised cabbage salad and paella that was the result of the poolside competition. Dinner at the restaurant: beef gnocchi, mahi mahi and bread pudding that looks like chocolate mousse. I’ve never seen bread pudding presented in a glass before, it’s like in masterchef or mkr when something doesn’t work they switch to a deconstructed version served in a glass. I’m on the 3rd bottle of wine. Left around 2/3 at Cagney’s last night and when I sent for it tonight they said the bottle broke so they’re giving me a fresh bottle.

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By this time there are 3 tugboats rescuing us. The Hastings is still doing all the heavy work towing us. There’s another one behind with a loose cable, to ensure we don’t roll and to steer, I’m guessing. A third is stuck to our staboard side, also for stability and steering? The captain says we’ll be docking at melbourne sometime after midnight and there’s a shallow dangerous part of the bay to negotiate beforehand. All credit to the tugboats, they’re doing a great job.

We made the news and there are even videos of us being towed; helicoptors were seen hovering above us.

edit: after I got home, I found this video of the ship arriving at Melbourne and the two tugboats docking us. What an amazing feat. The tugboats look so tiny compared with the ship, which at that point was an immovable monolithic object. The pilots are unsung heroes.

cruise trip day 09: adrift

Had to wake up early for NZ passport control, we were the first group.

Finished and there’s an announcement from the captain. The remaining working azipod suffered a breakdown during the night and we have no propulsion system. No wonder the ship isn’t moving. Apart from propulsion, everything is working. We spent the entire day adrift, dead in the water. We hadn’t gone far, around 75 miles from Melbourne, which is a blessing. The weather is also good, and the sea calm. The plan is to get towed back to Melbourne for repairs which may take 4-5 days. The rest of the cruise is cancelled, ie all NZ stops.

Everyone is in a state of shock. We all know about the azipod problems, which has caused missed ports since mid-December. Unlike the previous trip, there was no riot and people seemed relatively calm. The captain announced that we’d get 100% refund and 50% future cruise credit. I guess the full refund defused the situation somewhat but most of the passengers are from north america or europe and it’s a long way to come. Plus the refund doesn’t cover airfares, hotels and other spending.

Another announcement later gave us options:

  • stay on board, explore melbourne and continue with the ship to auckland
  • disembark, fly to auckland — they’ll reimburse up to US$350 airfare
  • disembark, go home — they’ll reimburse up to US$300 for flight changes

We discussed the options and decided we should make the most of our time and disembark. We can either stay in australia so it means changing our flight home; or fly to auckland and take in as much of NZ as possible. Mum has never been to NZ so it’d be nice for her to see more than just auckland.

They turned a couple of conference rooms into internet rooms and let us use their laptops to get on the internet. Long queue though; I put my name down and managed to get a workstation 2hrs later. They want us to limit our session to 20mins but the connection is so slow and there’s so much to do that it’s impossible to adhere to the limit. A quick search and we decided to stay in melbourne for a couple of days then fly to auckland. Auckland hotels are really full (I already know this weeks ago when I was planning the trip) so I’m relieved to find a reasonably priced one outside the city. Got rental car, got the flight from melbourne and we’ll go home on our original flight.

Pretty stressful day, although I wasn’t panicked. Worst case scenario, we stay with the ship. I’m also used to, and quite adept at, travel planning. I could see some other people not doing so well in rearranging their trips. I went back to the internet room later to email sis and mm, belatedly realising we should let them know we’re safe in case we make the news.

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Lunch was at the restaurant. We realise the lunch menu doesn’t change so our choices are limited. I had shrimp & rocket salad, salmon burger and berry sorbet. For dinner we went to our second speciality restaurant, Cagney’s steakhouse. Mum had the rib-eye and I opted for the huge 29oz tomahawk steak, which is enough for 2 people. That said, between the bone, sinew and fat there was a lot of waste. Too full for dessert.

With that steak, I went and did 5k on the treadmill. Long time since I ran, and I was very slow. Only managed to make up the time by doing intervals.

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Something like 16hrs after we suffered the breakdown, our rescuer finally made it out to us at 8.30pm. The tugboat Hastings looks tiny compared with the huge ship, and yet it’s capable of towing us back to port. We started moving ever so slowly around 9pm; I was at the bow watching and we all gave a cheer when someone noticed we’d started moving.

cruise trip day 08: melbourne

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Tram out to the city, got off at the parliament area. Picture opportunities at St Patrick’s cathedral, parliament building, hotel, theatre and the former treasury building turned into a museum. We headed towards Fitzroy Gardens, since it looked pleasant and interesting on the map. It’s quite compact, with a pretty conservatory, Cooks’ cottage and nice walks. Cooks’ cottage is the exact building that belonged to Captain Cook’s parents in North Yorkshire that was dismantled and shipped to Australia.

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I saw on the map that the MCG is only 10mins’ walk from Fitzroy Gardens so we headed there. Mum took a rest on a bench while I explored. The national sports museum needed entrance fee and I didn’t want mum to wait too long so I didn’t go inside. The shop was a gigantic disappointment. Boring t-shirt and expensive football shirts for sale.

Outside on the grounds were statues of sporting greats. A sculpture commemorating the first game of australian rules football played in 1858, Olympic champion Betty Cuthbert (I’d never heard of her before) and quite a few cricketers. I saw Neil Harvey, Dennis Lillee and Shane Warne. Should have walked to the other side of the stadium to see Don Bradman.

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Met up with mum again and planned on getting the #35 circular route tram but it didn’t arrive for ages and ages. Took a regular tram to docklands. In terms of feel, pretty similar to canary wharf. Lunch at black cod, a nice semi-casual fish restaurant. I had grilled barramundi and mum had the seafood platter of fried fish, prawn, scallop.

Tram back to CBD and discovered the tram to port isn’t working so walked across the river to find the bus to get back to the ship before 4pm.

Blueberry ice cream from the deck, read a bit. I found my favourite place, outside by the pool. Usually not that crowded.

The ship was supposed to leave at 5pm but there was a delay until 6.30pm because two passengers didn’t come back. I wonder what happens to their stuff. On a plane, missing passengers’ luggage is offloaded, do they do the same for cruise passengers? What if they manage to make their way to the next port and their stuff was offloaded at the last port? Do their cabin get sealed?

Dinner was at the Asian restaurant, no charge. Steamed dumplings, fried rice, pepper shrimp, tapioca pudding. Honestly, not very good. Needed 2 glasses of wine to finish the meal.

Walked 2.5 laps of deck 7, more reading.

cruise trip day 07: melbourne

Breakfast at the buffet, they have omelettes, eggs benedict and I discovered different sections. The American section has crispy bacon, sausage links, waffles, biscuits & gravy. The British/Aussie section has proper bacon, bangers, black pudding and kippers. Well impressed. There’s also congee.

Walked 4 laps on deck 7.

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Began seeing land late morning and people crowded at the bow to see the Melbourne skyline get bigger and bigger.

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Lunch was bbq by the pool of chicken and seafood. Have to say, food so far has been good. Not excellent, it’s hard to serve excellent food for thousands of passengers.

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We got clearance to go onshore at 2pm. There was a long queue at the terminal for the myki card and an express shuttlebus took us to the national gallery just south of the river. I remember the gallery and the eureka tower next to it although it’s been too long since I’ve been in Melbourne to remember directions clearly. What I do remember is the city isn’t very big so I found Flinders Street station, Federation Square and the CBD easily. Walked around the busy shopping areas and ended up in a Woolworths. Really hot day with the sun beating down.

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Took a tram to queen victoria market. By then it was almost 5pm and I was half afraid the market will be closed. And indeed the day market was closed, but we were lucky to find the wednesday night market just starting. Lots of food stalls and some souvenir and craft stores. There were lamb, bbq, porchetta, paella, pasta, turkey legs, sausages, pavlovas and lots more. We planned on having dinner back on the ship so we just bought lemonade and ate the strawberries we bought at the supermarket. The lemonade was expensive, AUD8 for one.

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Took the tram back to port. Dinner was really good: lamb shank and hazelnut soufflé. A part of me wanted to eat at the market, because I love street food. But the restaurant meal made up for it, and it’s included.

cruise trip day 06: at sea

tl;dr: spent the day eating

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Breakfast at the restaurant. i had pancake, sausages, bacon and mum had eggs benedict. Tea was a dreadful as expected: I asked for hot tea and got a pot of hot-ish water and some sort of green tea teabag. Good thing I have PG and the buffet has hot water.

Made more restaurant reservations and did some shopping.

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Then it was time for lunch, which was at the restaurant. Crab salad, chicken leg, lime parfait. Not too adventurous, tasted okay.

Read a bit, napped a bit, walked laps on deck 7. Bought a 4-meal speciality dining package for US$94, so average per meal around $25 per person. Also got a wine package that suited me: 4 bottles for US$110. I picked the chateauneuf for all 4, the rest were new world wines. $27.50 per bottle is around the same price at m&s at home. I can drink it at any bar or restaurant, and they will give me a tag and store it if I can’t finish the bottle.

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Dinner was at one of the speciality restaurants, Le Bistro. Escargot to start, lots of garlic and butter, yummy. Mum had duck two ways and I had filet of beef. The beef was too salty, the duck was good. Tart tartin for dessert was too sweet, again mum’s chocolate napoleon was better. The bill came to $62 but was included in the dining package. We’re ahead already.

cruise trip day 05: sydney embarkation

First things first, drop by the post office to send a couple of packages. The lady at the counter said I’m a good friend for sending timtams to my friends, especially considering the postage is three times the cost of the contents.

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Packed up, stored our suitcases at the hotel and took the train to the fish market for brunch. I ordered marron, dreadfully expensive and it’s only by obsessively watching masterchef and MKR did I know about them. Live, they look like dark lobsters. Cooked, they turn orange like all crustaceans and have a delicate lobster-like flavour. I also ordered steamed pippies and raw scampi. The scampi was really great, sweet with the taste of the sea.

Too much to expect mum to roll her suitcase to the cruise terminal so we took a taxi. Dropped our bags but decided not to board just yet. Time for one final gelato. I found the best flavour so far, salted coconut with mango salsa. Had another blood orange sorbet too.

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The Star looked nice with the opera house in the background. How wonderful to have a cruise terminal in the heart of the city. We have an inside cabin, #5585, mid-ship port side. It’s pretty much like other inside cabins on other ships. We’re impressed with the amount of space between the twin beds, the large shower and lots of space to hang stuff in the bathroom. As suspected, the itineray has changed because only one azipod is working. Burnie, Milford Sound and Napier will be missed. We get US$500 OBC and 25% future cruise credit.

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As per my usual routine, I went exploring around the ship. Nicely decorated, pretty without being gaudy. There’s a coffee bar in the atrium underneath the stage which people will like. The photo gallery is full of computers vs shelves for hardcopy photos. The gift shop is closed, but is the biggest I’ve come across so far. I pondered drinks packages but dismissed them because everyone in the same cabin must buy the same package and I can’t drink enough for two people. To use up some of the OBC, I made reservations at the speciality restaurants.

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One of my favourite places on cruise ships is deck 7 and on the Star it’s one of the best. Lots of space, very wide with lounge chairs.

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Dinner was at one of the MDRs, the Versailles at the stern. We’re already liking the freestyle dining, none of the first seating / second seating crap. I had steak frites and mum had prawns. For dessert the chocolate lava cake had unfortunately turned into plain chocolate cake although the milk chocolate mousse was good. I had a glass of malbec. Overall, first impressions of the food are good.

Watched the ship leave port at 7pm. Sailed past the opera house, inner bays, Manly. The bridgeclimbers on the harbour bridge gave us a cheer as we went past.

cruise trip day 04: sydney

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More leisurely wake up, left hotel at 10am. Destination was train and light rail to fish market. Forecast is 37-38ºC today and the sun was relentless. Good news is beautiful blue skies and a beautiful harbour.

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We had looked into going to a restaurant and getting a seafood platter yesterday but timing / location wasn’t right. This was way way way better. Around A$100 (vs around A$170-200 for restaurants) and we could pick what we want. We had lobster: one half tail grilled, the other half tail lightly battered, plus grilled prawns and grilled octopus; seafood salad, a dozen pacific oyster, cooked balmain bug and fresh sea urchin. I especially wanted the bug since it’s regional specific and I hadn’t had it for a long time. It tasted a little tough, but I could taste the sea and the brown meat was great. The lobster were both overcooked, tasted nice. The grilled prawn and grilled baby octopus were really nice. I bought the oyster and bugs from the second store on the right which was was less crowded, must remember to go back there next time. Hopefully next time is not almost 10 years later, I was last in sydney in 2007. Mum bought white peaches for dessert, we just stood in the shade eating them, it was sweet and fresh.

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Took the light rail to darling harbour, mainly shopping and walking around. More beautiful scenery around pyrmont bridge.

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I walked around while mum rested. All the way to the end of the pier near the maritime museum. There was a navy cutter, HMAS Vampire and a submarine HMAS Onslow. A lighthouse and several other ships too. Entrance was per ship, I think, no one challenged me as I walked around and other people were exploring too.

Bus to circular quay because we wanted gelato again. Very crowded at Gelato Messina. I was greedy and got 2 scoops: salted caramel and blood orange. Mum was even greedier and got 3 scoops: chocolate fondant, passionfruit, raspberry. She gave more than half of the raspberry to me, hahaha.

Walked back to the hotel, around 10mins. I saw kangaskan again so spent around 20mins walking around the hotel adding to my pokedex. I’ve been trying to play pokemongo all day. Sydney has a good selection and most importantly kangaskhan which spawns at around the same rate as starters at home; definitely better than farfetch’d. I have 5 at the end of 2 days of sporadic hunting.

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After dumping our stuff and taking a rest, we headed out again for dinner. Bus to Haymarket, stop at Coles for more shopping and then dinner was at the legendary Harry’s Café de Wheels. I had planned for the branch at Wooloomooloo but was happy I found a more convenient branch at Haymarket. Harry’s is a stationary food truck that serves pies. More specifically the tiger which is beef pie with mash, mushy peas and gravy. Very Aussie, very British. Not fine dining but very iconic streetfood and a must-eat whilst in Sydney. As tasty as I remembered, and I’m glad mum liked it too.

Back at the hotel before 8pm. Shower, packing and watching cricket (Aus vs NZ ODI). I bought a bottle of wine at Coles for A$7, I was going for beer but even VB was around A$6 so a nice bottle of Jacob’s Creek classic pinot is a better choice.

Cruise starts tomorrow. We’re being ambitious and planning a return to the fish market for lunch then boarding. Let’s see.

cruise trip day 03: sydney

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Took the train to the suburbs to carriageworks farmers’ market. The first sign was we got off at redfern station and saw people carrying bags of produce and flowers. Mostly locals at the market, families with kids. Our brunch was egg & bacon roll for me and apple croissant for mum. Juice to wash it down. It’s really casual, sitting at picnic tables or upturned crates. Bought a loaf of bread for breakfast the next couple of days, but couldn’t buy much else even though the fruit and veg were tempting.

Train back to the city, got off at tourist central aka circular quay. First stop was gelato messina. I had pear & rhubarb gelato and mum had chocolate sorbet. I tried other flavours but they were too sweet; this one was fruity yet the richness of the gelato came through.

Walked a lot in the area. From circular quay to the rocks, there was a market there today. A little rest then towards the newly developed area of Barangaroo. It started to get really sunny and hot, forecast was 27ºC and it felt like over 30ºC under the direct sunlight. We only stopped at a little pub in the new district for a much needed drink. The nature reserve is more like a small park, it led back to underneath the harbour bridge via another route. So we did a whole loop around that area.

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Since it was such a sunny day, we decided to take a commuter boat to watsons bay. The catamaran was fast and I stood at the bow which got really windy. Great view of the opera house as we made our way from the wharfs.

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Watsons Bay pier was very crowded, as befit a sunny saturday. What I remember is a walk uphill to a viewpoint back towards the city but we didn’t do that this time. Walked around the immediate area around the wharf and stopped for fish, seafood and chips. The fish, hake I think, was good. The calamari a bit soft the the fried prawns unmemorable. Had half a dozen oysters too, very fresh.

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Stayed on the same side of the catamaran on the way back, to catch views of the north shore. The harbour bridge against the sun too. I don’t know how but we found legs to walk around to the opera house and the botanical gardens. Took a rest at a bench at the gardens and watched a cruise ship leave harbour; this will be us in two days.

Dinner was at westfield underneath the sydney tower. Mum remembered lots of eateries there but at 7.30pm on a saturday almost all had closed. Yes, closed. We found a mexican place that was still open and had prawn ceviche and lamb taco. I guess the lamb taco is a local adaptation; it was tasty.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at coles for shopping. Tim tams for me and cereal bars for mum. Tired, lots of walking today.

cruise trip day 02: singapore to sydney

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The alarm was at 5.15am but I was so tired I didn’t wake up till almost 6am. I went downstairs to check out the breakfast and ate a sausage and some eggs very quickly. We checked out and grabbed a taxi to the airport. Everything was quick. There was a display of pokemons near the departure gate so I stopped to get pics. Haven’t had data in Singapore aside from wifi at the hotel so I’ve only managed to hunt in the room. When the gps drifts I can catch a stop and there were a few commons around. I don’t mind that it’s pidgeys and rattatas, as long as it shows the Singapore location tag.

The plane was almost full, with many familys (with small babies). Watched Ghostbusters and Looper, napped a bit, ate everything they gave me including half of Mum’s pasta. Ghostbusters was funny and there were a couple of places where I must have laughed out loud, something not to do on a quiet plane. Looper was interesting and the sort of film I like too.

The plane landed at 8pm. We could use the e-passport lane so we were out really quickly. Took a long time for the luggage to come out though. It was around 9.15pm already. Had a little something to eat at the airport then took the train to our hotel. A closed gate and construction meant a longer walk than intended, it was around 10mins instead of 5mins. Our room is quite nice and we got settled. MKR is on, yay!!! I’m also set up electronically and tested the Three simcard I bought.

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And I’m already seeing kangaskhan on my nearby list. It’s almost midnight so too late to run out, from what I’ve read it’s everywhere so I’m not worried. Hopefully I’ll get it tomorrow.

cruise trip day 01: singapore

Woke up before the alarm before 4am, argh. Left at around 6.20am after lots of faffing around. To keep it simple, I decided we’d take a taxi directly to the airport. The nose rest on my glasses fell off in the taxi and although I was able to find it I can’t put it back because it was broken. As soon as we got to the airport I took out my spare glasses. Check-in, security and the rest was straightforward. We had breakast and boarded at 8.30am.

Plane was full. Noodles for brunch. I watched Doctor Strange in between napping. The process at Changi was extremely quick and luggage was out before us. Other airports need to learn from them. Taxi to hotel and we unpacked a little. Then there was a bathroom malfunction when the handheld shower head exploded with a leak and flooded the bathroom. Took 2 calls to reception to get their maintenance people to come around. Everything in the bathroom was wet.

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We didn’t wait around for housekeeping to clean up. Went to the mall next door to try to get my glasses fixed. The opticans there said it’ll take 15mins and she’d do it free of charge. The best news all day. We walked around the shops, and saw these really cute handmade baskets. Large size can be used as laundry basket and smaller ones for knick-knacks. There was even a Nando’s at the mall! So tempted.

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Instead we took a taxi to gardens by the bay which sits next to the iconic marina bay sands hotel. We weren’t interested in paying SGD28 to visit the greenhouse domes. I’m sure they are really interesting but a bit pricey for us. The prettiest part of the gardens is the supertree grove. Supertrees are 25-50m vertical gardens that serve a variety of functions. There is also a skyway walk at tree level that gives an elevated view of the surroundings. We didn’t go up, it was enough to see the gardens on the ground.

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After some more faffing around including being misled by the taxi driver about Lau Pa Sat opening time, we ended up at East Coast Lagoon food village. Lots of choices at the hawker centre. We decided on satay, popiah, steamed crab and razor clam. I got a tiger beer for me and a freshly squeezed sugarcane juice for mum. Everything was delicious and we were full when we finished. Wanted to walk around East Coast Park but it’d started raining heavily so we hopped on a taxi back to the hotel.

The bathroom saga continued. Housekeeping hadn’t come up so I called. They discovered the water issue isn’t fixed so we ended up changing rooms. No big deal. Another early morning wakeup tomorrow, bed soon.

trip write-up

Trip is written up.

day 01: tokyo, sake tasting
day 02: hakone, hotel onsen and massage
day 03: hakone sightseeing circuit to moto-hakone, hakone-machi, lake ashi (with fuji view), owakudani, gora, open air museum
day 04: tokyo, new hotel, new glasses, old whisky tasting, old conveyor belt place
day 05: tsukiji, toyota car city, odaiba
day 06: ikebukuru, pokemon mega centre, shopping
day 07: ueno shpping
day 08: flight

flickr sets: tokyo | hakone

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One thing I have to mention, that we are extremely grateful for, is the pocket wifi we rented. Worked out to be local$96, or around £10, for the entire trip. Pick up and return at the counter at the airport and good connection via the Softbank network throughout. We left it on all day, and on a full charge it lasted around 8hrs. Since we both have external batteries, it was simply a matter of recharging it for about an hour in the middle of the day to ensure it lasted till we got back to the hotel at night. At one point we had both iphones, my ipad, and both macbooks connected and it was fine.

japan trip day 08: flight home

4am alarm, ack. Checked out at 5am and the hotel had called a taxi for us. The short trip to Tokyo station was ¥1230, no wonder people rarely take taxis. I’d done research and found keisei bus that goes from Tokyo station to NRT for only ¥1000. This compared with ¥3000 for TCAT and NEX train. We saved the map of the bus station on my iphone and the taxi driver found it easily. We would have struggled. We had aimed for getting the 5.45am but were early enough to catch the 5.20am.

Check-in for the flight was fast, and we had to wait outside at the waiting area for security and immigration to open at 7.15am.

Breakfast was ramen at the self-service restaurant and all too soon it was time to board!

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Last view: Mount Fuji from the plane. Hazy but visible and with no cloud cover this time.

Slept through almost the entire flight. This was a rare airplane–no tv screen whatsoever, not even a main screen. That’s very rare nowadays. This meant a quiet flight though, everyone had gotten early for the flight and most people were sleeping.

The plane landed early at just after 1pm but there was a long delay waiting for our luggage to come out. Original estimate of getting home at 3pm revised to 3.30pm. I took a longer way home via the station to avoid traffic.

japan trip day 07: ueno shopping

Shopping day. Headed to Ueno, to the pedestrian shopping street we remember from last time. Breakfast was ramen, something warm to give us energy for the day.

First discovery was another ¥100 shop. Bought laundry and cleaning supplies. I’ve been looking for brillo pads, it’s on my UK shopping list, and I was happy to see them in the ¥100 shop. Then it was onto more drugstores and more cosmetics and toiletries shopping.

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A little reward for me was really nice green tea ice cream from a shop specialising in green tea. They let us sit inside the shop to finish the ice cream too. There was more shopping, and we also bought fish and ikura to take home. It’s cold enough and we asked the shop to wrap the items carefully.

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Good thing we bought fish at Ueno, when we got to Tsujiki the shops there were all closed. Lucikly the restaurants were still open so our last dinner in Tokyo was fatty tuna don with a side of ikura, uni and salmon. The uni was the best on the trip.

Back to the hotel for packing and finishing the bottle of sake. The fish we put outside on the balcony, it’s colder than inside the fridge.

japan trip day 06: ikebukuru, pokemon centre

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Brunch at the 24hr seafood restaurant nearby. Salmon and tuna plus clam sashimi and flame-grilled clam. Everything was fresh and delicious.

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Took the subway to Ikebukuru, such a contrast to our hotel area. Most shops were closed near us but Ikebukuru was jam-packed full of people. Eventually we made our way to the pokemon center at sunshine city. A huge store, with statues of pokemons inside. The most striking is pikachu riding on charizard near the entrance. There are also other gen 2, 3 pokemons we don’t know.

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Shelf upon shelf stuffed with soft toys, accessories, souvenirs, trading cards. I bought the 2 soft toys my niece wanted and a few small souvenirs for friends still playing pokemongo. Bought a gengar soft toy for myself and a charizard collectible figure. Oh, and splurged out on a go+. The store was lured but not many people playing. Hakone was okay in terms of pokehunting but Tokyo has been disappointing. Pidgeys and rattatas everywhere. Some eevees too but that’s it.

Time for tea. We found a traditional coffee house near the station. Tiny cheesecake and iced coffee. I’m finding the coffee in Japan drinkable if I add lots of milk and a little sugar. It’s not very strong. The negative of a traditional coffee house is they allow smoking, like at certain restaurants and in all izakayas. Ironic, that smoking isn’t allowed on the street but inside confined spaces like restaurants.

Walked back up the pedestrian shopping street for Tokyu Hands and drugstores. Toiletries and cosmetics are much, much cheaper and mm spent a lot of time looking at them. I bought some eye masks for mum and face masks for sis. Mostly I browsed around waiting for mm to finish. Kinda boring.

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We wanted grilled beef for dinner. The first place we went to, at 5.30pm, was full. Do they eat early or what? A little further away we found a place that advertised 8 different cuts of IIRC wagyu beef for ¥6800. The different cuts included sirloin, filet, tri-tip, skirt and tongue. Very well marbled and melt-in-the-mouth. We also ordered a plate of vegetables for grilling and a salad, which turned out to be banchan. We wondered if it was a korean place. No matter, the beef was delicious.

Back on the pedestrian street for more drugstore shopping, found a ¥100 shop too. We ended up walking up and down that street 6 times today.

japan trip day 05: tsukiji, odaiba

First things first, breakfast at Tsujiki. By the time we got going and got there it was more like brunch. It being a saturday, the market was packed. We went to the outer market and easily found two spots at the sushi place. Ordered tuna-don with a side of miso. The tuna was okay, we thought the quality would be better for ¥1600 per bowl but still nice.

The plan today was to visit Odaiba, the artificial island at the SE corner of Tokyo. We visited there many years ago, and it’s changed a lot since then. Many more buildings and spots for visitors. We took the monorail from Shimbashi station all the way to the other side of the island. Our destination was the Toyota car city at megaweb. It’s truly a city, with 2 level of huge exhibition space. Current cars in production on one level, we liked the new Tank and Roomy, which is indeed roomy. Distinctive Japanese box-like cars, with small abrupt boot and sliding rear doors for easy access.

The upper floor is devoted to racing cars on one side and future cars on the other. We were immediately drawn to the kikai, a cute concept car with visible parts, like the car equivalent of Pompidou. Very cartoonish, and it’s may be hard to envision driving one on the road. This is the vision of the future. There are other futuristic cars too, all electric and aerodynamic.

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The other side of the upper level is a display of Toyota racing cars. A large screen gave a first person view of driving a racing car, and it’s the deep vroom of a powerful engine that is the draw. We queued up to play a playstation driving game in recaro seats. Haha, no wonder we don’t play games, we were dead last.

Lunch was beef hotpot with udon noodles and wild vegetable tempura at one of the restaurants in the outlet next doors. We were quietly enjoying our lunch when the lights dimmed, shutters between the balcony (where we were sitting) and the main restaurant came down and we heard screaming coming from downstairs. A young pop singer came on stage and started singing. No idea who she is, but it seems like she has a lot of fans who were singing along, cheering and clapping. Bonus free entertainment.

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It was almost sunset when we made our way around the outdoor areas of Odaiba. It was cold and very windy, we had to struggle to walk part of the way. Nice sights though–a Ferris wheel, a gundam statue, sculptures, the fuji tv building and a replica of the statue of liberty against the backdrop of the rainbow bridge that looks like Brooklyn bridge. A little NYC in the middle of Tokyo.

The subway back towards our hotel brought us to Mitsukoshi, so we walked around the food, stationery and kitchenware sections. My feet were hurting by then so I took a seat while mm did more shopping. Didn’t go out for dinner, bought oden ingredients, tuna sashimi and crab meat at the supermarket for dinner in our room. Great to put our feet up and enjoy some sake too.

Took advantage of the washer-dryer in our room to do laundry too.

japan trip day 04: hakone to tokyo

We had planned to go to the outlet at Gotemba but the transportation timings didn’t work out so we decided to check-out and go back to Tokyo early. We were selective with breakfast, it was salmon today but it was overcooked and I found too many bones for my liking. I liked the natto though, I should get it more often at home.

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There was a little time between the shuttlebus dropping us off and train departure so we walked around the area around the station and mm looked after our suitcases whilst I did some pokemon hunting to hatch a few eggs. I caught a farfetch’d at the hotel a couple of nights ago but haven’t played during the day. Bought a souvenir can of Hakone beer for the train ride.

The train was faster than the outbound journey. We refilled our pasmo and took the subway to Kanda, around 6mins walk from the Tokyu Stay serviced hotel. We were too early so we left our luggage and went off to Tokyo station. It’s as huge as we remembered and with construction, it took us a few wrong turns and a lot of google mapping to get to the Yaesu end. Now we were in more familiar territory. Popped into the pokemon shop to find soft toys for my niece, visited the whisky shop to check out their collection and headed to our first Tokyo destination–Jins for glasses. The service at the shop was spectacular, and the prices were really good too. The optician helped us pick frames and checked our eyes. Normally glasses are ready in 30mins but with my prescription it’ll take a week so I wasn’t able to get new glasses. I did buy a frame for ¥5900 though, a bargain. Waiting for mm to get her eyes thoroughly checked and she can get new glasses. Ah well.

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As compensation (for me), we went to Hasegawa and tasted a few whiskies. No more aged whiskies in Japan nowadays, everything’s been bought up. The Yoichi, Miyagikyo and Taketsuru NAS samples were a poor substitute, but pretty decent. Also tried a Yamazaki umeshu which tasted like sweet plum juice. Saw some compass box bottles so I tried Asyla and Spice Tree, not bad.

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Dinner was at Hanamaru conveyor belt sushi restaurant. We got there shortly after 5pm and there was already a queue! Waited around 15mins, and the food was as great as we remember. Everything was our favourite: fatty tuna, ikura, uni, scallop, prawn. There as a special white fish a chef brought out that was really good but we don’t know what fish it was.

Picked up mm’s glasses and took the JR to Shin-Nihombashi station, literally around the corner from the hotel. Saw a supermarket at the opposite corner which got us really excited. Stocked up on tea and fruit.

japan trip day 03: hakone sightseeing loop

Breakfast at the hotel is buffet-style. Again, traditional japanese food–grilled fish, pickles, egg, rice, congee, miso soup, tofu, natto. Average in taste, but lots of food so we were stuffed.

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The plan today is to do the Hakone sightseeing circuit. Most guides say take the anti-clockwise route: train to Gora, cablecar then ropeway to Owakudani then Togendai, pirate ship cruise to either Moto-Hakone or Hakone-machi, walk the cedar path then bus back to Hakone-yumato. I was reading another leaflet last night which described the opposite routing. We decided on the clockwise routing, getting to the furthest point then making our way back. That turned out to be an excellent decision.

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We walked to the station and caught a bus to Hakone-machi. It was a different bus than we wanted to catch, but it got us to where we wanted to go, so no complaints. It was cold when we got off the bus, and windy too so we estimated it was near or just below freezing. Hakone-machi is a small tranquil village on the south shore of lake Ashi. The sun came out just as we were walking along the lake and blessed us with a perfect view of Hakone shrine and Mount Fuji in the background. Fuji was partially covered by clouds but enough of it was visible. Peaceful and beautiful.

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The next stop was Hakone-machi, about 1.5km away. The guides say either take the bus or walk along an ancient cedar-lined path. So we took the path. The trees shielded us from most of the wind so it was less cold. It was a nice walk that took us to the Hakone checkpoint. We didn’t go inside, just poked around the shops nearby.

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I was most interested in a statue of a runner at the pier in front of the ekiden café. I’m sort of familiar with the concept of university and corporate running teams in Japan and have heard of the Hakone ekiden, one of the most prestigious ekiden with a course between Tokyo and Hakone run by university teams. I didn’t have time to go inside the café but it was still nice to see something running related.

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We caught the next sailing of the pirate cruise ship towards Togendai. Here was when we had a first inkling that we made the right decision to take the clockwise route. The ship was quite crowded, but we were able to still find seats. This was in contrast to the large crowd that got off the ship doing the loop in the opposite direction. Definitely when we reached Togendai and got on the ropeway, we were one of very few passengers, with all the other gondolas going the other direction full of people. We could vaguely see Mount Fuji whilst on the ropeway; it was hidden behind more clouds, we were very lucky we saw it at the lake.

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The ropeway stopped at Owakudani, a geothermal valley with steam and sulphur emissions. I remember being able to walk around last time we visited but the paths were all closed. The view of the valley wasn’t great, but we saw something cuter: someone made a mini-snowman on the fence facing one of the steam vents.

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Part of the ropeway was closed for repairs so we took the replacement bus to catch the cablecar downhill towards Gora. It was past 2pm already and we were getting hungry. A stop at a small restaurant for tempura soba was just the right ticket. After lunch we caught the train for one stop, we had the freepass so why not take full advantage.

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The last destination on our loop was the Hakone open air museum. We’re both not huge art fans but we were so glad we took the time to visit. The museum has mostly sculptures, curated at spots inside the grounds. Extremely interesting pieces by artists from around the world.

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One of the attractions of the museum is the Picasso collection. No photography allowed inside unfortunately. There were a number of paintings, a series of bull-fighting sketches and numerous sculptures and clay work by the master. The collection showed us his progression from a more traditional style to cubism to his very distinctive style. Well worth the visit.

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Another piece in the museum is called the curved space — diamond structure. It’s a large jungle gym plastic installation designed along the lines of the covalent bonds in a diamond. The inside is hollow and they allow kids to play inside. The space is too small for adults otherwise I would have tried to climb inside for a bit.

We stayed in the museum until closing and caught the train back to Hakone-yumato. Missed the shuttlebus so decided to walk. Just as well, the sake shop was still open and we bought a small bottle to enjoy in our room.

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Dinner was actually worse than yesterday’s. The presentation was lovely but we didn’t find any of the courses tasty: appetisers were bland, sashimi was tasteless, simmered mushrooms were good, taro and fish were okay, the beef stew was gluggy and we struggled to finish it. The nicest thing of the meal was the sweet kiwi fruit we got for dessert.

Time for onsen, relaxation and bed.

japan trip day 02: hakone

For some reason my alarm didn’t ring, but I was only 10mins late, getting up at 8.10am. Made tea, packed up, checked out and caught the shuttlebus to the station. It was rush hour at Shinjuku, so imaging the sheer volume of people rushing about.

We found the Odakyu line counter and bought a 3-day Hakone freepass. Of course not free, ¥5640 that enables us to travel to and from Tokyo and Hakone and all the transportation within the Hakone sightseeing area. We didn’t catch the next train, opting for one half an hour later so we could get breakfast. After wandering around for about 10mins we decided on the place nearest the platform, curry rice. Sounds strange, having curried hamburger or egg with curry sauce with rice for breakfast. It was exactly the hot, filling breakfast we needed. The place was also full, so it’s not such a strange idea after all. There was a little time before boarding the train, we went to the food area of the department store and used our newfounded knowledge to buy a seasonal special new sake.

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For ¥890 we took the romancecar limited express. Not much of an express, the advertised journey time of 1.5hrs was more like 2hrs, but the train was comfortable compared with the regular commuter trains. An enjoyable train ride on a sunny blue sky day.

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A ryokan shuttlebus (¥100) took us to our hotel, Hakone PAX Yoshino. Very traditional large Japanese spa resort hotel. It was only around 1pm so we couldn’t check in yet. They stored our luggage and we walked back to Hakone Yumato village to explore. The hotel is along the local river and it was nice to stroll with the sounds of flowing water next to us. Not a lot of traffic although there were more visitors that we expected.

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First interesting sight was a shop selling dried flat fish. They set up a couple of small charcoal grills outside and encouraged people to grill pieces of sample fish. It was fun! The fish tasted really nice, there were different varieties and different flavourings. I found there to be too many bones, but mm was interested in buying some home. The shop also had fishballs, dried fish snacks and all sorts of pickled seafood. Love the pickles, but the glass jars are too heavy.

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Lunch was delicious soba. I had wild vegetables (beans, mushrooms, bamboo shoots) and mm had the local specialty, yam that was grated and made into a paste.

The walk to the end of the shopping street and back didn’t take long, even though we lingered at any shop that grabbed our interest. Bought a couple of bags of snacks.

Went to the onsen before dinner. There are two baths, one inside and a rock bath in an outside area. We had the onsen mostly to ourselves as the other guests opted for early dinner at 6pm. Our choice of dinnertime at 7pm proved to be a wise one.

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Dinner was the typical multiple course menu at an onsen hotel. A selection of appetisers–eel sushi, taro, prawn with uni, chicken with radish, herring roe–started the meal. Sashimi, udon and vegetables cooked at the table, grilled cod, fish dumpling, baked beef, pickles followed. Rice was from a pot cooked at the table. Dessert was almond pudding, caramel tart and grapefruit. The food was decent, not spectacular. The presentation the usual Japanese high standard.

We spotted a poster for massage, so after resting for a bit after dinner we took turns getting a full body massage. Couldn’t do it together as there was only one lady in charge of the massage station. The massage area was in a really nice relaxation room so we stayed there keeping each other company.

Another relaxing day. Tried to relax and not hurry.

japan trip day 01: tokyo, sake tasting

5am wake up, leave home 6am. Taxi to airport express, very quick, got there around 6.30am. Went to pick up the pocket wifi from the counter and waited for mm at the check in desks. Everything was straightforward and we boarded the plane at 8.30am. Flight was around 4hrs, and it was also straightforward at the Tokyo end, we landed around 2pm.

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The airport limousine bus was ¥3,100 per person, took 1.5hrs and we checked into the Shinjuku New City hotel just before 5pm. Quickly dumped our bags and went downstairs but we missed the shuttlebus by a few minutes. Instead of waiting 20mins for the next one, we walked towards Shinjuku station in search of dinner. There was a maze of side streets around the station that had shops and plenty of restaurants. We spotted one that had a sign out front that said last day. Upon investigation, they were having a sale and it was the last day. The special on sale was dipping ramen, for ¥500. For an additional ¥200 we got a plate of roast pork slices, bamboo shoots and an onsen egg. The serving of noodles was very generous and the entire meal extremely tasty.

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We google mapped to our evening destination, Kurand sake market. They have an all-you-can-drink sake deal, a large selection of around 100 sakes in a large wall fridge. In addition, another floor was plum and other fruit liquors, and yet another floor was sochu. The very reasonable price is ¥3240 for the entire evening session. For ¥5950, we reserved spots at a sake lesson. The instructor, Chris, is from the UK and a certified sake sommelier and sake educator. We were tired, from waking up early and the flight, but were interested enough to stay alert during the 2hr lesson. We learned about the history of sake (first brewed 2000 years ago for religious offering purposes), what it’s made from (rice, water, yeast, koji), the different types of sake, the specialness of the rice (denser with a bigger white inside), the process of making sake (rather like whisky), how to classify dryness / acidity, and much more. We learned that there are different types of cups and which one to use for which type. We can read a label better now, a negative number means sweeter and a positive number means dryer; with acidity is also a factor. And of course, we got expert tasting of more than 10 samples.

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After the lesson finished, we stayed and tasted even more. They don’t sell sake on premises, although they have a shop. We took pictures of the labels of our favourites so we can look for them. The purpose of the sake market is to introduce sake made by smaller independent breweries. Many breweries are now operated by younger tojis (sake masters), similar to how craft breweries have taken over much of the beer landscape.

Even with the large bowl of noodles, we’d consumed a fair amount of sake so we tipsily wended our way, with the aid of google maps, back to our hotel. Showered and crashed into bed immediately.