Wednesday 5 April 2017

Meghan's Thoughts Before we Make the Journey Back Home

Hello everyone, Meghan here. I know I haven't posted anything in a while but don't worry, I have not forgotten about you all. This isn't really a blog post but I just thought I'd write a little something on the eve before our flight back home to Canada after over 3 years abroad. I will write a whole long summary blog soon once I can come up with something postable!

Anyways, it is April 5, 2017 today and I am sitting in our hostel room in Kyoto, Japan thinking about the 24th of March 2014 when I was sitting in our empty living room in Calgary waiting to leave soon for the airport to fly to our new home: Amelie. I find that I feel somewhat the same today as I did that day, 3 years ago: excited yet apprehensive, happy yet sad as well. That is why today, I feel strange in a similar way I did that last day in Calgary: I am realizing that it is the end of a chapter in my life and there are new wonders and new challenges ahead of me.

Neither Matthew nor I have not been back to Canada in the three years we've been gone (Dad went back to Calgary for a couple of weeks last February and Mom went back to Ottawa for a month last July) and even though we've been to a few countries similar enough to Canada (New Zealand, Australia) I have a feeling it is going to be a bit of a shock to my system. I am mostly only happy and excited to return so I can see my family (my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins) and my friends whom I haven't seen in what seems like forever, so I can develop a more stable lifestyle with a regular routine, and so I can really start planning my future (education-wise). However, there is a small part of me that is slightly apprehensive about the challenges that await me while trying to integrate back into modern society and 'fit in' again. I am also sad to leave this trip behind because I know that no journey I do from now on will be exactly like this. I also know I have many important decisions to make in the near future (mostly about school). This trip has been one-fifth of my entire life and it has definitely changed me, in more good ways than bad. I know it will forever be a part of me and will affect the decisions I make and the paths I choose in the future. What I mean is, just because we are physically leaving this journey behind, we can still hold it in our hearts and in our memories forever.

Now, I think feel more confident about taking the plane and flying home. I mean, I've crossed an ocean right? I can take anything a new lifestyle wants to throw at me! All I really need to worry about right now is making the flight home since we have three planes to take in the next 24 hours! Wish us luck because we're gonna need it!

Thank you all for reading and we will keep you updated when we get back home! 
Meghan :)

Marquesas, French Polynesia (May 2015)

Unique Japan !

March 21-April 6 2017
Japan! Land of the rising sun! Home of the ultra modern lifestyle!  Place where everything is extremely civilized and people are so polite ! Japan, where the biggest danger you are ever in, is to get run over by a bicycle !  We have quite simply ADORED Japan ! 

We spent two, fully packed, weeks first visiting Kyoto, then Hiroshima, Himeji and Nara then on to Tokyo and surrounding areas, finishing off the trip back where we started in Kyoto ! This way we got to see the beginning of the cherry blossoms in Kyoto in late March and then saw them again, this time in full bloom, when we got back in early April.

Of all the places we have been, Japan has been the place were we have felt the biggest culture shock and where we’ve had the most trouble communicating but we have greatly appreciated this vast contrast, and the experiences we have lived here will forever be etched as some of the most memorable of all !

Gion at night, Kyoto

Shinjuku at night, Tokyo

Mt Fuji, as seen from a moving Bullet Train (Trip between Tokyo and Kyoto)

First things first: “What is this thing you speak of, Long sleeves and Pants?" On top of everything else, Japan was a great opportunity for us to get acclimatized to the cold. We left Bangkok at 34 degrees C, and arrived 5 hours later in Kyoto at 12 degrees, and when we land in Ottawa tomorrow, the forecast calls for a high of 4 !!!  We felt desperately cold in Kyoto. I am sure that our Canadian friends and family have zero sympathy for us! I don’t know what to say except to lower our heads in shame, and admit that we, are now wimps ! 

"DO THINGS WELL."  I've decided that this MUST be a Japanese motto. 
From gardening, to tea ceremonies, to store displays, to food preparation and presentation, to technology all the way to how to live your life: “Always thriving to be the best that you can be, and with no excuses”.This is the vibe I get from everyone here. It definitely seems to be the norm. I find it exceptional, I find it comforting, and most of all. I find it inspiring ! This is something that I would like to take home with me, as a gift from Japan; this attitude, this mindfulness that is so universal here. The Japanese are so polite, so reserved and well behaved that it makes us westerners look positively rude in comparison !  To them we must appear to be bumbling, clumsy oafs !  No wonder they tried to keep us out for so may years !  


Garden in Kyoto, Photo by Meghan

Catching a glimpse or a real Geisha in Kyoto

Niji-jo  Castle (moat)

Here agents from Japan Rail are taking a survey to improve services for tourists ! 

Mark was a real pro at navigating Tokyo trains and subways lines

 Navigating Japan’s trains, subways. It made total sense for us to delegate the job of navigating the trains and subway in Japan to the one who so successfully navigated us half way around the globe with out ever getting lost, not even once ! That would be Mark of course ! No surprises here, our captain did a marvelous job of deciphering the impressively complex maps and ticketing machines throughout Tokyo, Kyoto, and everywhere in between !  All Matthew, Meghan and I had to do was to follow close behind him like good little ducklings, carrying backpacks! 

Kyoto, is like a dream ! Easily our favourite destination in Japan, this ancient and traditional town evokes the Japan of days gone by, with its narrow streets, tea houses and small canals with tiny bridges. We visited many temples and tranquil gardens, saw an imposing Castle 
(Nijo-jo), walked the serene ‘Path of Philosophy’. We enjoyed delicious food, had some fun shopping opportunities and we even stopped in to see the International Manga Museum. Mangas (Japanese Cartoons) are a big part of the younger generations’ culture here in Japan, and it was definitely an education for us to learn about its history and scope !  

We took a bus out to Arishiyama (just outside of Kyoto) to go and visit the great Bamboo Grove and got to meet a few of the wild snow monkeys that live in the hills nearby ! On our last day in Kyoto, Meg and MC went to see a geisha dance (the actual term is Maiko/Geiko dance). The Miyako Odori dance was elaborate, colourful and extremely precise yet full of grace, all set on beautiful backdrops. We were duly impressed !

On our last evening in Japan, we all walked to the historic narrow laneway known as Pontocho to have a Kobe Steak Dinner, to celebrate Japan and the end of our three year trip!  It was, without question, the best steak we have ever had, (sorry Alberta) litterally melted in our mouths, like foie gras  !! 

Quiet walk along the Path of Philosophy

Mark's favourite sight of the entire trip: A SAMURAI DOG !
Complete with sword !

Busker in a Park, Kyoto

The tea/pic nic tables set up for the "Hanami"  ( Cherry Blossom Party)

Bamboo Grove, Arashiyama

A snow monkey

The Miyako Odori a Maiko/Geiko dance. 

Melt in your mouth "Kobe" beef


Toei Kyoto Studio Park. 
 A day of Samurais, Ninjas and Geishas ! Mark’s auntie Andrea  had many suggestions for what we should see and do while in Japan, and we really appreciated having this insiders information, as many of the places on her list were some of our favourite destinations !  Thanks Andee !

 One such suggestion was for us to go and visit Toei Kyoto Studio Park. We had a good time walking around the movie sets, featured in many famous samurai movies, and also learning about the process, with fun ‘behind the scenes’ demonstrations.

Meghan also got to dress up as a Geisha (Geiko) ! The process of her transformation was very interesting to watch and the final result, we think, was fantastic!  (It took the two ladies, less than 5 minutes to achieve this !)

Kyoto is a place that has so much to offer, and I would love to come back again and again. We are so glad that we spend most of our time here !
Samurai movies, ‘behind the scenes’ demonstrations

Transformation into a Geisha, Toei Studio Park, Kyoto


          Toilets that thinks for themselves, and other wonders on the modern world. I know that I seem to talk about toilets a lot during in my blog about our travels, and yes,  I have described various aspects of these maybe in a little bit too much detail, but,  hold on folks, this is borderline revolutionary!! I mean  the Japanese have got this figured out ! I am not sure if the government passed some kind of law, but there is no where I have been in Japan that hasn’t had one of these magnificent models:  Heated Toilets Seats !  One would never again have to be fearful about going to the loo in the middle of the night in winter again you actually look forward to taking a seat, oh the warmth !

And not only heated seats, but all kinds of other options too !  Each toilet has its own set of controls, usually in the form of a push pad. You can almost feel like you are about to captain a starship, or at least a jet pack,  when you have a seat on one of these babies. Just wish they came with an (english) instruction manual ! 

Toilet controls

Toilet controls can be difficult to figure out ! 

One one occasion, early on the trip, while at a restroom at a restaurant, Matthew discovered the bidet option, all by himself at first he had a “quietly perplexed” look on his face, which turned into a look of cautious enchantment!  After a fit of laughter in the bathroom (which,lets face it, never sounds good in public!),  I then had to figure out how to turn it off !

I also like that these toilets seem to have a mind of their own, as soon as I enter the bathroom, it turns itself on and gives itself a prewash, all on its on and before I am even half way in to the room, yes, it turns itself on, (when the sensors turn on the bathroom light I presume), it always feels like I am catching it off guard like a child doing something naughty and you walk in on them and they quickly hide something behind their backs that’s how I feel when the toilet quickly mists itself as I walk in. I can’t help but think: "Okay, what have you been up to since the last time I was in here ?”

Oh, and then I love the option of "relaxing nature sounds" or "classical music", in some of the public toilets I’ve been in if you aren’t feeling relaxed enough, or if you want to feel like you are alone in a forrest with song birds and bubbling stream just push the “sound” button, and you are all set it will surround you with lovely relaxing atmosphere and, if you fall asleep, it will turn itself off after a few minutes. 

Oh, and hows this for efficiency ? There is a tap on the tank, which supplies you with (clean) water to wash your hands every time you flush!  This water, destined for the tank, is used in the next flush cycle ! Less Waste!   Okay, that is quite enough about toilets now, don’t you think ?


Tokyo: Did you know that Tokyo is the largest city in the world (by population) ???  Yep, 37 million people live there !  That is more than the entire population of Canada, in one city !  

Yes, it is a bit overwhelming walking around and it can feel quite packed in the trains and subways, but hey, they have ROBOTS here, so that makes it all okay ! 

Information/greeting robots at  train stations
Therapy Robots

Kirobo, a communications Robot who just came back from Space (ISS)

Meghan the Android/Avatar  (This android is mimicking Meghans every movement from  her own body movements from a control room next door. Even her voice is filtering through its mouth, and  she can see us from the eyes of the robot ! )


Superstar ASIMO ! 

We had seen a robot or two in our first week travelling around the Tokyo area, and they were just so wonderful to watch, but nothing prepared us for ASIMO ! This has to be the coolest robot EVER !  We got to meet “it” at the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo Bay. When the door opened and it started to dance, I thought it was pretty neat, but then when it RAN towards us and then started talking and gesturing and walking around, it looked so human, it was uncanny !  I had never seen anything like this, not even in the movies !  This guy's fluid motion makes C3PO look so robotic and stiff !  We have great video footage of Asimo and other robotic encounters we made, one of these days I would like to add these to the blog post, just not anytime soon.

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo
Other things we had to go and see while in Tokyo were: The bright neon signs at night in the Shinjuku area, and watching the masses of people cross the street all at once at the Shibuya crossing, walking around and seeing some ultra modern architecture and the hip teen hangout called Harajuku, where we saw all kinds of interesting fashion statement by Tokyo’s youth. Mark and the kids went to visit the worlds largest seafood market, at Tsukiji, and returned with lots of photos of fish and other creatures some that were un-identifiable !

Godzilla Sighting !  Tokyo

Images from the worlds largest seafood market, at Tsukiji

 Photos by Meghan
Shibuya crossing

That's a LOT of people! I’ve never actually played rugby, but I’ve seen the players when they all pack themselves tightly into, what I believe they call  a “scrum” well, that is exactly how it felt when the four of us rode the subway on our last morning in Tokyo, like we were in the middle of a very intense scrum; 

We had our heavy backpacks on, we were all so packed in together, I had my head buried in between Mark and Matthew, my arms holding us together and trying to stay steady on my feet as the train rocked from side to side it was quiet, as always even though we were surrounded by 100 or so other people in our car alone, all wearing black or dark blue business suits and carrying briefcases, all with the same look on their faces (blank), we really stood out in our clumsy attire, and bright coloured jackets, Matthew’s jerky movements and tendency to drop to the floor to rest his legs.  No one laughed, (except Meg, bless her), when I broke the silence to say:  “Maybe we should have taken a taxi this morning...”

 It was kind of comical though, us all pressed against each other, trying to act all casual, when it was so obviously uncomfortable, when the door finally opened at our stop, I’d never felt so grateful for fresh air before, but, there was no time to stop for a breath, as we were now part of a very focussed and time conscious swarm of people all rushing to get to the escalators, no stopping, no changing directions allowed, unless you want to cause a major commotion! Its a good thing we’d had practiced the art of riding escalators (stay left!) in Singapore, as we quickly learned that this was also the way to move when in Tokyo!  All very organized, all very quiet and orderly, the very model of efficiency, just not the most backpacker friendly environment !

This photo was taken on a day which was much less crowded than the one I described above.

Modern Architecture, Tokyo

We also went to visit the lovely town of Hakone, close to Tokyo in the hopes to see Japan’s “shy lady “  (Mount Fuji), so called because “she” is often hiding in clouds, unfortunately, Fuji was not feeling very outgoing on that day, and we only got to see one side and her iconic top was no where to be seen, but we got to experience a traditional Japanese ‘Onsen’ (Hot baths), it a beautiful and quiet setting, so it wasn’t all bad, and, on the way back to Kyoto, we did get a great view of Mt Fuji from the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) ! We loved the bullet train by the way, an exceptionally smooth ride, very comfortable ! 

The Nozomi, a Shinkansen, the worlds fastest train 

Cherry Blossoms ("Sakura"). To say that the Japanese LOVE their Cherry Blossoms is the under statement of the year !  Every spring they gather in great masses in the parks, all over the country to have pic nics ("Hanami"), under the cherry trees.  This is a great way to celebrate the renewal of spring, and it was a pleasure for us to witness the usually quite reserved Japanese being positively boisterous on these occasions! We joined in the  fun and tried our luck at capturing the beauty with our cameras...

Birds eye view of a Hanami in Tokyo

Hiroshima, City of peace. The city which was to become famous as the place of the first atomic bombing, has risen from the ashes, and it has a message for the rest of the world. Instead of harboring feelings of hatred, it has become an outspoken promoter of world peace and it dares to hope for a future in a world where nuclear weapons no longer exist. Of all the opinions on nuclear weapons out there, I would think that the ones we should pay attention to the most is that of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Their message rings loud and clear. We took one day to visit this city as Meghan had done a major project on Hiroshima for her Social Studies/Language Arts class earlier this fall, and we felt that it was important that she get the opportunity to see it in person. On a rainy afternoon, we visited the numerous peace monuments, and the museum. 

The museum was a very heavy experience. Sobering to the extreme. It was difficult to read the information on the panels, but even more poignant was to see the artifacts, the items left behind, linked to personal stories, the devastation, the horror (there are no words to describe this). There were moments when I felt that I could no longer look, I felt ill, and drained, but in honour of those who lost their lives, their families the innocent 200 000 people*, I read everything,wiping away tears, I looked at everything , and I watched the first hand accounts videos, for all of them, in their memory. * Many more would die later on from the after effects of radiation. 

At the Peace Memorial

The A Bomb Dome, a building which was almost directly under the bomb when it detonated, stands as a memorial

What the dome looked like before August 6 1945

Sadako holding a giant paper crane
1000 paper cranes; The story of Sadako, a little girl who died of Leukemia at the age of 12 in 1955, ten years after being exposed to the A bombs radiation, when she was 2. While in the hospital, Sadako decided to make 1000 paper cranes (origami) she was inspired by the japanese legend that says that the person who makes 1000 cranes will be granted a wish. She managed to make over one thousand of them but sadly, died soon afterwards. Her classmates continued to make the cranes for Sadako and helped to promote the idea of the Children's Peace Memorial. 

This memorial has a girl holding a giant paper crane above her head, as a symbol of hope for peace for all children.

I found it very moving to see japanese students, in their school uniforms, lining up to ring a bell (which was just below the statue), it was very solemn and I felt a real tightening in my throat watching them.

Thousands of paper cranes are made by school children from all over the world and delivered here

Himeji Castle 
 Hiroshima City of Trams and of Hope. Hiroshima loves its trams, andthere is a story behind this as well: On the days right after the bombing, while the fires still burned amidst the rubble, a shipping company worked day and night to rebuild a bridge and get the tram running across the river, to bring building and medical supplies. Only three days after the bomb, they succeeded and the tram ran again when the survivors and the wounded saw this, the first sign of normal life in the midst of all the chaos and suffering they were living, it gave them great hope, that life would return to normal sometime in the future, and from this moment on, the tram became the enduring symbol of hope, of a city rising above the despair and moving forward. If you visit Hiroshima, make sure you catch a ride on a tram !

Hiroshima Tram

Even with our heart heavy from all that we had seen and experienced, we felt glad that we had seen Hiroshima. If only to have witnessed for ourselves how well the city is now doing, 

it is a vibrant, healthy city. It is inspiring to see and it gives me hope for humanity, for places which are currently trying to rebuild after war, for people who are trying to rebuild their broken lives. If Hiroshima could do it, so can they !  

In the evening, we took a walk and headed for the famous restaurants called:  Okonomiyaki . It is a wonderful experience. You sit right at the hot grill, (so you have to watch that you not lean your elbows down, that would hurt !), and you get to watch them build your meal, which consists of a savory pancake, which has a variety of ingredients piled on, and you then eat it right there, hot, off the grill (literally!) . DELICIOUS ! 

Eating hot off the grill ! 

Okonomiyaki ...Yum !

Himeji. The town of Himeji is really worth a visit ! Just North of Hiroshima, it is home to Japan’s most beautiful Castle. Himeji castle is 600+ years old and Japan’s first UNESCO World heritage site. It was quite remarkable walking up to it, seeing its bright white colour and the imposing structure seemingly just hanging on the edge of a steep embankment.We got to walk all the way up to the highest floor, the higher you go, the narrower it gets, and the more crowded it feels ! 

Himeji Castle 

Himeji Castle, a UNESCO site

We then took a bus to go and visit an ancient  temple on Mount Sosha, just 30 minutes away. This wooded and serene area has been the setting for many japanese movies, and one well known one in the western world: “The Last Samurai”, with Tom Cruise.  We enjoyed the hike around the many interesting buildings, and were delighted that it was not commercial at all, and not exploiting the Hollywood connection. It was a very impressive site, with interesting history and buildings. 


Nara: A lovely town just outside Kyoto, where we saw a Great Big Buddha, (Daibutsu), 15 meters high, some remarkable gardens, and sacred deer running around everywhere, asking to be fed (the kids had fun obliging them). We also had a sunset walk to see a colourful and very old Shinto Shrine called Kasuga Taisha

The friendly deer of Nara

Reflection of a garden on a pane of hand-made glass


Eating Out Japanese Style
Trying out different foods is part of the fun in Japan: 

As far as Sushi goes, I can report to you that  there is definitely a lot more variety here than back home, forget about the California rolls (aka  “  Karuforniaroru” , as they spell it here in Japan ) although they do have these, what you see is a whole lot more of squid, octopus, eels, sea urchin, fish eggs (Salmon Roe),  and of course the king of all sushi:  Tuna ! 

Kids enjoying the Sushi Experience

Sushi Train, coming through ! 

Some of the other foods we tried were: 
*Kobe Beef (amazing!), 
*Sweet White bean Paste , in dough, and other pastries, very popular here
*Green Tea Ice cream
*Sea Urchin
*Fried Bamboo Shoots, and a whole bunch more

And of course, we had a ton of green tea, which is often offered free in restaurants and tea houses, at the sushi place we visited you had to make your own, using powder, and every seat had a hot tap in front of it.   

Make-your-own green tea station at Sushi Place, Nara
Green Tea Ice Cream

Ordering a fast food meal ! 
The Bento Box
Beer vending machine

Octopii Bites
Dried Pears (Above) and Roasted Bamboo shoots (Below)

Hotel Snacks

Delicious dried fruit !

'Geishas for a day' catch a ride in a rickshaw

School kids
An interesting cat shelter found along side the Path of  Philosophy 

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto
Prayers and wishes left at the temples
Another common sight: People read their horoscopes and hang them up this way afterwards

The 'Pillow Menu' which was in our hotel room in Osaka on our first night in Japan ! 

Very "Boxy" cars