Skydiving Experience and Trip to Japan Part I

2013_japan_378Greetings friends, family and fellow readers,

Last 2 months went flying like never before. Word flying is appropriate has we went jumping out of a plane! Also, we went out traveling in Japan for 10 days. A long awaited experience. 2 new check marks on the Bucket List. Oh, among other, I had my 33rd anniversary while I was working in PNG.

Before I jump into the exciting stuff,  I though I could share a great article I thumbed upon on some expat blog I was reading. I had few thoughts recently about living as an expat as many friends I have had move back home (e.g. Philippe, Jessy, Alex). While living abroad, you often wonder on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, evolve, and also one key and repeating question in your mind “What am I missing?” when thinking about home. The article mention that : “As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you” and I think this is exactly true. As for myself, since late 2006, I have been home only a little more than 2 years, traveling around, living in difference places and unraveling the mysteries of this world 😉 However, no matter how blessed I think I am to have an exciting life like the one I chosen, so much I have missed. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve had families, they’ve become completely different… so do I evolved a lot too. Sometime I wonder how things would be back home and how would I be able to connect with everything once again because it’s hard to deny that the act of living in another country, in another language, fundamentally changes you. Anyway, if you have a moment, I strongly suggest you read that article.

Sky Diving

We had Lorraine visiting Queensland earlier in March and among thing we did, we went Sky Diving altogether at Byron Bay. Jumping out of a plane at 14 000 feet was ultimately an incredible experience. For the entire day, we had a huge smile carved on our faces.

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— Below is the video of the jump —

Japan (Part I – Osaka, Koyasan, Nara and Kyoto)

It was on my bucket list for some time but we weren’t planning to visit Japan this year but rather New-Zealand. However with the really good deal with JetStar for 600$/pers fly return, we couldn’t resist… so we went out traveling in Japan for 10 days from April 24th-May 3rd.

Japan was appealing for many reason, first it’s very rich in culture and traditions, then it’s modernity, it’s buzzing cities and high population density makes it a good destination for a little variety with Australia. Indeed, a very different trip than the previous one to Vanuatu.

I planned quite intensively this trip and booked all my overnight stays before arriving due to the fact our stay was short and the amount of things we wanted to see across the country was diverse, and knowing also that the week we would visit was the Golden Week, a busy holiday week for Japanese people. If you think about going to Japan, feel free to save some time and re-use my planning document Planning du voyage Japon_Pascal.

The previous day I rented a car and packed our stuff in order to be able to leave Brisbane early for the Gold Coast where our flight was taking off around 6am on April 24th. Sadly, once we arrived at the airport, I noticed a SMS from JetStar mentioning the flight was delayed for 2 hours. At that point, it was too late and we simply waited. The flight took 9 hours to reach Kansai Airport near Osaka but from there we needed to take a bus for another hour to reach the city and our hotel (New Hangkyu Osaka) for the night in Umeda district. Our plan was to visit Umeda Floating Garden on the top of the 37th floor but it was now too late so we went on foot exploring the city. Quite interesting that even at 11pm the city was still buzzing with all these business people going out for dinner, drinks, clubs and lady bar, on a Wednesday (for comparison in Brisbane, at 8-9pm the city is dead). Everyone was well dress up and elegant except us with our backpacker style (and me more than Gabby). We went out for dinner as we were starving to a small restaurant and we tried something that we couldn’t understand on the menu. Nevertheless it was really good, especially with a good beer! A good first impression.

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April 25th – Koyasan

Next morning, we woke up early to depart for spiritual Koyasan and Mount Koya. We had to take the subway, train and cable cars to reach our destination. First experience with Japanese transport = very confusing!! Only little bits of information in English, millions of people rushing in different directions and indications (in Japanese) everywhere. There was almost no tourist and asking for guidance is difficult as staff don’t speak much English. When we finally found the train we needed, we jumped on board and though “alright, it’s pack, there is no more space”. This is when you’re just plain wrong..! Suddenly, staff on the ground started pushing people inside the train to the point you can’t move at all. That’s how we initially broke the ice between culture I guess! Good thing I’m tall so I could breath and check the next stations coming. At the train station, we were ask by another fellow traveler for direction to Koyasan. I noticed her accent I asked where she was from and to our surprise she was from Quebec city too. I can’t recall all the number of time I met traveler from Quebec in random places and situations all over the world but this is how it goes. Anyway, if you ever go to “La Boite A Pain” in Quebec, well you might find her there. Arrived in Koyasan more than 2 hours later we went exploring the village altogether. Koyasan is on the top on a sacred mountain named Koya where Buddhism had first started in Japan many centuries ago.

In the first moment of walking around in Koyasan, we could see Buddhist Monks in the traditional robe. For sure, Buddhism was practiced strongly in this place and in fact it was a famous place for pilgrimage, especially due to the presence of majestic temples. Our first stop was Kongobuji temple were we could experience traditional Tea while sitting on  traditional tatami floor. The interior decorations were also remarkable, consisting of mantras, paintings of great finesse and an armada of skillfully carved Buddhas. On the exterior, large and beautiful Zen Garden surround you everywhere.

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Then we went exploring other impressive wooden temple nearby. The most impressive Pagoda was Konpon Daito with more than 50 meters high and its bright orange color. Sadly, the picture below doesn’t make you feel the height of the building.

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Our next stop was the impressive walk through the heart of a forest of giant cedars up and sanctuary of more than 200 000 graves and statues to Okuno-In Temple. Along several kilometers of paved road were several thousand graves. These tombs had nothing sordid. Instead, they were covered with green moss and decorated with mysterious statues and in perfect harmony with nature.

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We ended the day saying good bye to Catherine and went in the traditional Buddhism Temple we were to spend the night:”Fukochi-In”. It had 79 rooms and an area of 16,000 square meters along with long history of more than 800 years. The ambiance was special with Monks, prayers, samurai armors and costumes, etc.. We had traditional dinner sitting on tatami mat and with a view over the Zen Garden outside. We went in japanese warm bath named Onsen after dinner. Quite special to bath in public completely naked but after a complete day of walking it was good to relax in the hot water. The next morning, I went to the morning ceremony and prayers given by Buddhist Monks. This experience was remarkable on every aspects  and we believe that temple lodging offered us an excellent chance to get a taste of the simple, traditional lifestyle of Buddhist monks.

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April 26th – Nara

Nara was the first capital city of Japan centuries ago and today a great place to visit because it is full of historic treasures and possess the oldest and biggest temples such as Todaiji. Much smaller than Kyoto or other cities but still with plenty of interesting site to visit and much less tourists. We arrived in the morning and dropped our bag at the hotel Fuji Nara about 10 min walking from the train station then we headed toward Nara National Park to discover what the place has to offer.

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The first interesting encounter was with all the deers that hang out freely everywhere. Hand them over some food and you will make some friends for sure… Most probably explaining why they are not at all intimidated by human anymore there. We visited few museum explaining the different moment in history then we headed to the biggest wooden structure in the world, the Todai-Ji temple, after passing by a huge 5 floors high pagoda. The Todai-Ji was initially built in the 8th century but rebuilt over time after being burnt in different wars. Inside the majestic temple was a giant bronze Buddha of 15 meters high, apparently the biggest too. There was a ceremony going too making it even more special.

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After being caught by the rain and hide inside a temple for almost an hour, we walk to the to top of grass covered mount Wakakusayama for a nice view over Nara and then we went exploring the Kasuga Taisha Shrines and the lantern walk path. Walking on the way back and at the right moment we were talking about our curiosity of how people live and how house look likes from the inside, we were greeted by a friendly Japanese woman that invited us over her place to visit.

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We ended the day by visiting the merchant streets around Naramachi and having dinner (sushis). Brought back few beers to relax and try local flavors at the hotel. We slept well after 7 hours of walking.

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April 27th/28th – Kyoto

We got up early for our train from Nara to Kyoto, cultural center of Japan. Also, first day of use for the Japan Rail Pass, a worthy Train Pass that give you unlimited rides on JR train lines and Shinkansen (high speed train).

Our first stop of the day coming from Nara was the famous Tofukuji and Fushimi Inari Temple with its hundreds of Toris Gate as you walk up the small mountain. The place was really beautiful, but also pact with Tourists (80% are french tourist). We walked up half way through the mountain and turned back as we still had our bags and we still had a long day to go exploring other parts. We headed next to Gion where we would stay for the next 2 nights. Gion was definitely interesting, with its entertainment district with a collection of streets defined by its old traditional wooden buildings, teahouses. It was also reconised as the only geisha district in Kyoto. We had a bit of trouble finding our hostel for the night with inaccurate maps and direction in Japanese but fortunately a good Samaritan came and helped us finding the place. The hostel, A-yado was very well located, so we left our bags and quickly went on foot to explore the area.

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We had a long day ahead with many things to visit, we first booked a Geisha show for the next day then we took the bus up to visit the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavillon). The temple and garden were nice but overrated we though as compare to what we saw in Nara and Koyasan. We then walked down  the nice Philosopher path down to Eikan-Do, Nazenji temples.

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Then we walked through a really nice small district on the way to Kodaji temple and Kiyomizudera temple.  Many locals were wearing Kimonos. We though it was great that Japan embrace modernity but also keep its strong traditions. For some reasons, it made me think about Old Quebec (Quartier Champlain) but in JapanLand. Then we walked to Kiyomizudera temple (big wooden World Heritage temple), but unfortunately it was under heavy renovation, which hindered the pleasure of the visit a little. At least, we could catch an incredible sunset over Kyoto.

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2013_Japan_163 2013_Japan_1552013_Japan_161 2013_Japan_159 The day was getting late (6:30pm) so we walked back through Yasaka illuminated Shrine in order to look for a place to have dinner. Too much choice was like not enough. It took a while before we decided. We went out in central Gion and ate tempura. Knowing how food was good in Japan and usually quite cheap too (as compare to Australia), it was good but for the price we paid we were not impressed and still hungry! We walked more in the evening the discover the shopping area of Shijo-Dori street and then through Gion small streets. We were completely exhausted from the long walking day (8h at least) but we were delighted from Kyoto so far.

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Next day, we started off by visiting the Nishiki Market, a small merchant alley that goes off for couple of blocks near Shijo-Dori St, where local shops are selling mostly food but also local specialties and art craft. We then headed to the Geisha show is old Gion Quarter. We paid a little extra to get initiated to the tea ceremony serve by a traditional Geiko. For information, while the term geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts”, the more direct term geiko means essentially “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art”. The tea ceremony went a little to fast for us and we were soon push out of the room to fit other guest. Anyhow, the show was truly interesting letting you understanding the traditional way of living in Japan meanwhile discovering all the dedication to perfection by the japanese performers.

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Well entertained, we put back our walking shoes and went exploring the north west area of Kyoto to Kinkakuji, the picture perfect Golden temple and Zen garden. After struggling with all the tourists to get the best shot possible and exploring the area, we took no chance of staying hungry with Japanese small portion and we went feeding our screaming stomach to a Japanese buffet.  That might not has been the smartest choice for continuing the walk for the day but anyway it was good. It was getting late in the afternoon already and we were just in time to visit the Ryoan-ji. Nice temple and gardens, but once again, we were not mesmerized by it. We stopped at Nijo Castle on the way back but sadly it was already closed (close at 4pm).

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Later, after more walks, we stopped to ate the famous Japan Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients that you grill yourself on a teppan (hot plate). The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. Couple of Kirins later (Japan beer), we took the path to Pontocho walking around and then we were off to bed for another early morning departure!

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To be continued in Part II…

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