Tokyo, Japan

This was not part of my original itinerary. Initially, I just had a layover scheduled here during the course of my final flight home in December, but I extended my stay for a few days, because: Tokyo. I've heard so much about this city, I just had to see and experience it for myself since the opportunity had presented itself. 

I had an exhausting flight from Hanoi to Tokyo that departed just after midnight and arrived around 7 AM in the morning. I suck at sleeping on planes so I was dragging my feet in a daze through the Tokyo airport. The only upside was that a new friend happened to be on the same flight, but we parted ways in the airport because she was flying all the way back to the States. 

I was too tired to function so I ended up in a capsule hotel called 9 Hours that was attached to the airport. The capsules were just as cool and compact as I had expected, but turned out to be far more expensive. It was like $20 bucks for just three hours. After some semi-lucid sleep, I collected my bags, bought some subway tickets, got some yen from an ATM, ate an overpriced lunch and then headed from the airport to my hostel. 

Tokyo is huge and overwhelming and has a ton of different neighborhoods. I had booked only one night in a cheap hostel near the Akobonobashi station in Shinjuku. I was the only girl in a fully booked room full of 10 beds and nine other dudes. There were stains (possibly blood or some other bodily fluid) on the floor and my bed was in the middle of the room, nowhere near an outlet. The room smelled like stinky boys and the bathroom was even worse. This is why I usually book female dorms when traveling: the smell(s).

The silver lining of this place, though, was that they had great internet. So I was able to plan out the rest of my days here, as well as book another hostel in the Asakusa area on the recommendation of a friend form college. That night I went to bed relatively early and got up super early around 5:30 AM, excited for my first full day in this crazy city. 

I took a couple different lines on the metro subway to get to Hiro-o station and tried to find a temple that supposedly hosted foreigner-friendly morning zen meditation sessions. The directions on their website were not great and I wandered for a while and found a traditional-looking temple-ish place and lingered outside. An elderly Japanese lady noticed me lingering outside and invited me inside, but neither she, nor the other handful of people there, spoke any English and I knew I wasn't in the right place. She fumbled through a pile of brochures in just about every other language but English, so I still don't know where I was. I bowed graciously and said "Arrigato" and left as politely as I could.  

I remembered seeing a tree that obscured part of the temple in the picture online so I started searching for trees, thinking it would lead me to the temple, but instead I ended up at Arisugawa-No-Miya Memorial Park. It was a big and beautifully landscaped area complete with a pond, bridges, trails, trees and tons of sitting areas. I decided to just sit here and meditate instead since I gave up on finding the temple after at least an hour of wandering around. The chill in the air was refreshing and definitely felt like December, but the fiery foliage made it feel like the beginning of fall. After about an hour of mediation, I walked around the park watching other people walking their dogs, feeding pigeons, chatting in pairs or getting in a quick morning workout. 

I was impressed with and enjoyed the Tokyo Metro subway system. Despite being the world's busiest railway, it's one of the most organized and easiest to navigate in my experience. I even survived Shinkjuku station, the world's busiest rail station. But once I got above ground, it was a different story. Tokyo addresses are super confusing with like 3 different numbers and I really had trouble making sense of it.  I only had my little samsung with limited battery life and no sim card so I couldn't completely rely on GPS so I had to supplement my navigation with old fashioned paper maps and directions. 

One of the things I wanted to do most was to find a traditional zazen temple and learn about zen buddhism and meditation. It first piqued my curiosity after I heard all about how much Steve Jobs was into it when I read his biography last year. Let me tell you how many times I tried and failed to make this happen. 

1. Before I arrived in Tokyo, I tried to book a temple stay in advance. I got responses from temple in Kyoto, but apparently they are pretty popular this time of year and I couldn't book two consecutive nights. And, as awesome as it would have been to take a bullet train to Kyoto, it would have been a lot of extra strain in terms of time and money so I abandoned that plan. 2. I found a few spots supposedly in Tokyo but received no response from the ones I was able to email. 3. I attempted to find Kourin-in temple for morning meditation near Hiro-o to no avail. Found the park instead. 4. Found a recommendation for the Buddhist English Academy online. . I went to Nishi Shinjuku anyways and walked around for at least an hour looking for this place, only to discover that the address was for an apartment in a residential building and that the phone number provided was not in service.  5.Took the metro all the way out to Myogadani Station for a Wednesday night Zen meditation intro class, only to find the temple non-existent. It was literally razed to the ground with the empty lot surrounded by a white tarp. Supposedly a new temple is going to be built in its place. 6. I found another local Zazen meditation experience through Voyagin.com but it turned out to be "currently unavailable" when I inquired about it.

So after wasting so much time and effort in my quest for zen, I decided it would have to wait until a later date when I could not only plan a proper trip in advance, but confirm it in advance as well. 

But back to the more successful stuff that I did. I was glad I moved to Asakusa because it was a livelier and more artistic area. I booked a few successful activities via Voyagin. The first was a customized art and design tour of Tokyo with a local designer named Kota. He met me at my hostel and showed me around the city. It was such a relief to be with someone who knew where he was going and spoke Japanese! Plus he was good company as well. We started at the famous Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest in the Tokyo area. It was free to enter and explore, but teeming with vendors and tourists. Next we went to Jimbocho Street which is know for it's abundance of book stores. We spent a surprising amount of time perusing old books and scrolls in the stores, and I ended up buying a book of poetry from the 1950s for a friend back home. 

Our tummies were starting to grumble, so Kota took me to a little place that had VEGAN RAMEN! It was delicious and apparently hard to find according to other friends who have visited the city, so I'm eternally grateful. The last stop was the Advertising museum, built in the basement of a mall in the shadow of Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency.  I couldn't stay long because I had to head to my next appointment with a local lady to learn Japanese calligraphy. I made it to the subway station with no issues, but then I got lost several times between there and her house, with people on the street giving me terrible directions. One girl even walked me to the police station, when I thought she was walking me to the house. Anyways, I showed up 30 minutes late but still managed to get some good practice in and paint a satisfactory character for the word "wisdom." Definitely better than any souvenir I could have bought on the street. 

My last day in Tokyo was a bit of a blur. After so many days surrounded by sky-high concrete I was craving some nature so I headed to Mount Takao, located less than an hour outside the city by Express train from Shinjuku. It was colder and more precipitous than I anticipated so I ended up buying a hat and gloves at the base. A sporadic mix of rain and snow fell from the clouds above. My left foot (the one injured in Bali) had been hurting for a few days so I opted to take the cable car part way up the mountain, then walk the rest of the way. There were tons of other locals around, but hardly any other obvious foreigners. There were several shrines and one large temple complex along the way. 

If you reach the top on a good, clear day, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance, but my view was thoroughly obscured by the weather. I was pretty hungry so I ordered Honshimeji Kake (soba noodles with mushrooms) and Amazake (warm fermented rice drink) for lunch at a small shop. There, I met a fellow American that was in Japan for a few days en route to visit family in Vietnam. We chatted and walked back down the mountain together and shared an affinity for steamed red bean paste buns. Drool. I really enjoyed some delicious food in Japan!

Once I got back to the city, I headed straight for one of their famous Cat Cafes. I arrived, ready to be showered with love and affection from exotic kitties, but was kind of underwhelmed. There were way more people there than I expected and the cats were only interested in you if you had food. I tried several different toys, but none of them were interested in playing. Just food. You pay by the hour at these places (there are also owl cafes and bunny cafes) and I was about to leave when I met a group of Americans. One or two were marines stationed elsewhere in Japan and the others were just visiting. They invited me to karaoke and the infamous Robot Cafe show, so I figured WTH since it was my last night. 

We rented a traditional private booth at a karaoke bar to kill time before the robot show. Apparently unlimited drinks came with the rental, no doubt to supply liquid courage to shy singers. One dude was confident in his skills without an alcoholic crutch and sang a pretty legit Sinatra. The rest of us, were your typical tone-deaf karaoke-ers. This was my first time ever singing Karaoke but I've known the song I would sing for years now: Before He Cheats by Carrie Underwood. If you know me, you know this is an odd song choice because I am no fan of country music; in fact I think this is the only Carrie Underwood song I know. It's just fun to mock-sing with a raspy drawl. So, check that off the bucket list. The other musical selections spanned several genres and decades including Britney Spears, TLC, Missy Elliot, Shaggy and some other more recent songs that I didn't know because I rarely listen to the radio these days. 

So last but not least was the robot show, which I will attempt to describe but honestly you just have to see it to fully understand and appreciate it. It's not cheap but one of the guys offered to pay for my ticket so that was awesome. We were front row for all the crazy, loud, neon, random action. It was like a mashup of Japanese pop culture; like a live action anime featuring a variety of costumes, robots, epic battles followed by energetic dancing and singing. And some weird skit about a couple of Santa's reindeer beating the crap out of him. (Not sure which two but my money would be on Dancer and Prancer.) 

It was a late night to say the least and I didn't get much sleep so my final challenge was getting myself and my luggage back to the airport for my 11ish flight back to the states. I grot a seat on a shuttle bus and everything went smoothly until I arrived in Dallas. It's so stupid that you have to recheck your bags and go through security again when you literally just came from an international flight. I narrowly arrived at my connected and then a few hours later I landed in Charlotte. My bag didn't make it onto the same flight as me, but the airport promised to fly the bag to GSP and then have it delivered to my parents house the next day. Annoying, but really not a big deal in the gran scheme of things. Traveling solo for so long has really helped me put things into perspective. 

Mirambling Muses: Singapore

Well that week pretty much flew by. It was so nice to catch up with my sister and just let my guard down and relax for a bit. We didn't have anything really specific planned beforehand, so I just kind of made things up as I went along. 

The typical Singapore tourist comes here for perpetual shopping trips, fancy hotels and/or cosmetic surgery. Therefore, I didn't notice a ton of backpackers and probably wouldn't have stopped here had my amazing sister not been here with a free place to stay. However, there is a ton of budget-friendly culture, fun and excitement to be had if you know where to look.

Here are my highlights:

Red Dot Design Center

If you're a design geek like me, you have to visit the Red Dot Design Museum. It's a bright red building on the outskirts of Chinatown and it's full of all kinds of innovative and modern design including industrial, product, packaging and concept. There are lots of interactive iPad displays and you can touch and play with everything! There's some neat stuff in the shop as well. I picked up a couple letterpress postcards and seriously considered a recycled vinyl laptop sleeve. Learn more about Red Dot and their international Design Awards here

Chinatown

Of the designated traditional ethnic areas, Chinatown was the most fun. The streets are lined with lanterns small shops selling everything from silk robes to custom cut paper portraits and any & all kinds of Singapore and traditional Chinese souvenirs. And there is also no shortage of meal options. You'll find fresh produce (including the spiky, stinky-foot-smelling fruit, Durian) street food vendors and more traditional restaurants. I'm quite sure I need to start employing a food chaperone that is more familiar with these exotic foods, because I've made some regrettable decisions. The most memorable being a delicious-looking mountain of rainbow snow cone bliss, which turned out to be more like miscellaneous, dessert nachos. The base was beans, mystery jelly and pieces of mangosteen supporting an odd-tasting assortment of flavored ice and then topped with creamed corn. Taste, texture, everything, was just weird. 

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a must-see with its colorful, ornate decor and literally hundreds of statues and I was quite surprised to see people square dancing (to modern, English pop music, no less) near the Chinatown Complex. 

Gardens by the Bay 

These giant greenhouse gardens are located in the shadow of the huge and hideous (IMO) Marina Bay Sands Hotel. There are actually two Gardens by the Bay, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Jamie and I opted to only do one as we were short on time and didn't want to pay double the cost. The cloud forest was a nice respite from the city summer heat and we walked past the waterfalls, up the ramps, around the top and back down to the educational area. The flora was immaculately maintained and they even used misters to simulate foggy clouds. At the end, there is a dark room full of colorful, projected info graphics that educate you about the environment and it's biggest threats and you end by watching a short doomsday video about climate change where they describe a dying earth over the next hundred years. Then they rewind and give you hope again saying all that can be avoided if we take action today. They're preaching to the choir with regards to me and my sister but I hope it had an impact on everyone else passing through. This time, I didn't mind exiting through the gift shop because they had a bunch of awesome & eco-friendly stuff. I found some beautiful post cards designed by Peranakan Inspirations as well as this awesome little travel backpack that folds up into a small pouch. 

And I can't forget the super trees! They are these hybrid plant/solar structures that stand about 16 stories tall and collect solar energy so they can light up at night so they're self-sustaining. And the look pretty cool too. 

Street Art

I found the biggest concentration of street art in the Malay/Muslim district on Haji Lane. While admiring the incredible colors & designs, I turned the corner and found a group of  girls with American accents doing inversions in front of one of the murals. Turns out, one of them is kind of a big deal and teaches all over Asia but is based in Sinapore. Marysia invited me to one of her classes at Pure Yoga and I enthusiastically accepted her offer. I actually ended up doing two classes in a row the following morning; first a moderate Hatha class followed by a class called Upside Down, which is the hardest class I’ve ever attempted. The main focus was handstands and arm balances. I got a ton of tips from both Marysia and a pretty petite yet bad ass yogi next to me named Sen. The poses seemed almost effortless for her and she had short black hair with blonde streaks and an asian/egyptian pair of eyes tattooed at the base of her neck that stared at me everytime we posed facing the left wall. I was so satisfied with and grateful for the classes and really feel like I made significant progress in my practice. 

 

Public transportation is plentiful and my sister and I took trains, busses, Uber and cabs. My biggest gripe is that stamps and letter boxes are nearly impossible to find here. 

Random Road Trip (Bush Week)

Monday was going to be a laid-back, relaxing day. Until I found out about Bush Week. What is this Bush Week Festival, you ask? Well according to the website, it’s a week long celebration of art, music and lifestyle that happens only once every other year at a camp site in the rainforest in far north Queensland. In reality, it was more of a mud-covered hippie fest. But more about that later. 

I had nothing else planned for my last week in Cairns except a day snorkeling on the GBR (Great Barrier Reef), which was completely flexible. Once I found out about the festival, I decided I had to go. I was kind of annoyed because the site was just above Cape Tribulation, where I had just spent the previous weekend and returned from there on a tour bus just the previous night. 

TRAVEL TIP #2: ALWAYS GOOGLE FESTIVALS AND EVENTS FOR PLACES YOU ARE VISITING BEFORE YOU GET THERE. 

Common sense, really. And I usually take my own advice. That’s how I found out about the Auckland Arts Festival and Pasifika Festival that I experienced in New Zealand a few months ago. Not sure why I didn’t do it this time because I could have planned way better. But I digress. 

I first checked out the bus schedule and there was no easy way to get there. So I ended up renting a car from a place around the corner from my hostel. I talked to a few other friends at Calypso whose eyes lit up and said they were super were interested in going, but when it came time to actually buy the tickets, they flaked out on me. (It was probably for the best though because I ended up sleeping in the backseat of my car for two nights. I have no idea where they would have slept.) I conquered my irrational fear of driving on the left and went to Cairns Central to buy some groceries for the trip. I packed up most of my stuff and set my alarm for 5 AM because I wanted to get an early start the next morning. 

 Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Tuesday was the only time I’ve slept through my alarm so I got a bit of a later start and finally got on the road close to 7 AM. I had printed out directions, but I pretty much only took two and a half roads to get where I was going: Route 1 up to Mareeba and then Route 81 up to Rossville and the rainforest. It took about 300 km (186 miles) and nearly 5 hours to get there. It was raining at first, which made the winding road out of Cairns and through the Tablelands a bit treacherous but once I got on the wide open highways, all I had to worry about was avoiding cows and kangaroos. I could drive for miles without seeing another car on the road. There were caution signs everywhere and I saw about a dozen dead roos and whatever the Aussie equivalent of a possum is on the side of the road, but also saw a couple live kangaroos as well. One was perked up on the side of the road, seemingly waiting to cross once the cars were clear, and another, riskier roo hopped across the road between my car and a truck coming from the opposite direction and made it across just in time.

The roads were smooth and paved the entire way, until the last terrifying 3 km where I was basically off-roading on a wet, muddy and bumpy dirt road. I had to drive over rocks and creeks and avoid fallen limbs and stray rocks in the road and was scared my little Hyundai wouldn’t make it but it did because I was driving as slow as possible. I parked on a grassy spot not to far from the “road” or the entrance which decreased my chances of getting stuck in mud and increased my chances of an easy exit three days later. 

I ate a quick lunch in my car then went out in the rain to make friends. I met a friendly group a few meters away. One of them was painted white and purple and was mumbling about mushrooms. I chatted with the group for a while then followed the signs to a tent where I could get a hair wrap. The girl I met there, Ashley, was a festival regular and a super sweet hippie type with dreads and pixie point bangs. She wrapped a section of my hair in blue yarn and string and I picked a silver Om charm and two small feathers to fasten to the end. She also happily did a French braid which rippled along my crown and cascaded down the right side of my face. 

 Ready for a purple party. 

Ready for a purple party. 

It was raining intermittently all day but you could still hear the reggae over the precipitous wind. When it finally let up for a while, I was able to make it back to my car, eat some dinner and go to bed after listening to some music, which had transitioned to dubstep (I think). 

The next day I decided to walk to the waterfall rumored to be in the area. I met another lone traveler along the way and we Hobbit-hiked it (barefoot) to the waterfall, which was a way farther and more arduous journey than I ever expected. It took over an hour to get there, traversing thick mud, slopes, tree branches and slippery rocks so there was no way I wasn’t jumping in for a swim after all that. The water was cold and I was more than a little paranoid about crocs, even though there were no warning signs. I put my clothes and jacket back on which I had stashed under my umbrella to keep dry then we started the same unruly trail back to the camp. It would not stop raining but there was one bright spot when my new friend found a $20 note on the ground, which we used to buy a well-deserved lunch from one of the food tents. 

I hung out with another group for a while which included one of the DJs who would perform that weekend, his petite French wife, a hitchhiker from Canada who did our tarot card readings and a few other characters. They had one of the most spacious and driest spots, with three tarps strewn across some trees and vans. We entertained ourselves there until the rain stopped and we finally saw the sun for the first time in two days, just before it started to set, of course. There was a live Reggae singer on a small stage and people were dancing in the mud. Pretty much everyone, including myself, was barefoot because it was just easier than getting your shoes stuck in the mud. I was a bit surprised to see so many kids there. The older ones were clothed and the younger ones looked feral as they were all running around naked except for the mud splatter that covered them. 

 Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

I got my feet as clean as I could and curled up in my car for a second night. I left early the next morning and of course the day I leave, everything was bright and sunny. Of course, driving a car by myself was not the most sustainable way to get there and back, but the tree to car ratio along the road was about a bazillion to one so I’m pretty sure most of my CO2 was absorbed. Still, I’ll probably pay to plant an extra tree at the end of my trip.

The main part of the festival took place over the weekend, so I was a bit bummed to have to miss it, but glad to get back to Cairns for a proper, hot shower. I did yoga, enjoyed my long-awaited shower and then visited the night market one last time for some lo mein and a $15 full body massage. 

Ultimate Beach Party with Sea-Doo

I'm so stoked! In previous posts, I talked about how Devin Super Tramp is a super inspirational person for me and then about what it was like to participate in one of his videos and now here's the final product:  

And here's the Behind the Scenes video:

The 3:45 official video looks like nonstop action, but we were actually there all day for about 12 hours getting the right light and the right shots. I didn't actually get to ride a Sea-Doo myself but I did get to go tubing, play volleyball, play cornhole and now I'm considering being a career extra. 

I'm actually featured more in the BTS and I'm only a little bummed that the slow-motion dive on the volleyball court (for which I did several falls and received several bruises) didn't make the final cut. But the video is sponsored by Sea-Doo, not the AVP so I get it! I was just glad to be a part of it at all and get to meet Mr. Super Tramp himself and make some new friends and memories. 

 Team Super Tramp

Team Super Tramp

Beach Party: Supertramp Style

Today is going into the top five best days of my life. That's because if you read my previous post, The Pursuit Of Passion, you'll know that I cited Devin Graham as one of my inspirations so being able to meet him, let alone be featured in one of his videos today, was literally living out one of my dreams. I've been an avid fan, following his videos since I discovered this one in 2011, and never in a million years thought I would have this opportunity.  

 That's A Wrap! 

That's A Wrap! 

I found about this gig via Facebook and Instagram when they advertised a need for extras in their next video sponsored by Sea Doo which was scheduled to be shot in Deerfield Beach, FL. It was unpaid of course but they did promise to provide lunch (which I correctly predicted to be pizza). I and eleven other strangers between 18 and 30 met and had to become fast friends as we were supposed to be portraying a beach party full of besties. 

Around lunchtime, we all gathered around the picnic bench and a particularly precocious extra started asking Devin a ton of questions, sparking kind of a impromptu interview. Devin accurately described himself as an open book and gave us more insight into his own inspirational journey, which included a mission trip to Jamaica, quitting college in Utah less than a year from graduating and moving to Hawaii alone for a year to start making videos he was personally passionate about (as opposed to becoming a puppet for whoever hired him). His nickname Supertramp pays homage to Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) whose Alaskan Adventures inspired the book/movie Into the Wild. And he's just a really, really nice dude. Seriously, I don't think I saw him without a smile the entire day. 

As the most experienced and skilled volleyball player present, they took some super slow motion shots of me diving for and spiking the ball, which I hope make the final cut. I also got to take a spin around the lake on a tube tugged by a Sea Doo with a particularly fit couple, a gopro and a selfie stick, which was all good until we finally all tumbled off the tube at once in a tangled pile of flailing limbs.

Back on the beach, we played cornhole, frisbee and football, and waited around. A lot. But at least we had bright yellow tents to shade us from the sun (and occasional summer showers) and they kept us pretty hydrated. It ended up being almost a 12 hour day for us extras, and I'm sure it was even longer for the crew and the sponsors. I wanted to stay a bit longer and help clean up, but I wanted a sandwich even more so my hunger won out over my altruism. 

 Blast from the Past

Blast from the Past

I also had a serendipitous reunion with an old friend from my Delta Zeta days. I didn't recognize Ashley right away with her crutches, bright pink leg cast and sunglasses but she eventually made the connection and we caught up on the past several years since matriculating from the University of Tampa. I told her about my upcoming trip and she told me about how she got into racing jet skis. Which is pretty awesome, except when you get flung off of it going 70 MPH and fracture your leg, of course. 

So I got to take home a selfie with Supertramp himself, a few bruises and some amazing memories. Can't wait for Team Supertramp to edit and release the final video on YouTube, which should happen mid-late June. :D

My Two Favorite Entertainers

Robert Plant was the guest on the Colbert Report today. And it was all I hoped it would be. It's mind-boggling how great his voice still sounds after all these years! (Although he seems to have devolved a bit from Rock God to Geriatric Hipster.) Watch the slightly surprising interview, as well as two releases off his new album lullaby and the ceaseless roar: Rainbow and Little Maggie