Random musings on traveling in Japan…

I’m on the shinkansen (bullet train) to my next destination (photographing snow monkeys, apparently in the rain) and figured it’s as good a time as any for a blog post. It was either that or study and there is just enough movement that I feel studying might give me a touch of motion sickness, so…

Those who really know me know that Japan is like a second home to me after I lived here as a college student studying abroad. It’s already clear that this trip isn’t long enough, tho it may be a couple years before I have a chance to return (I’m still determined to try to go to the 2020 Olympics and my old home stay family offered to help buy tickets so, perhaps…) I have several friends who are either planning trips here soon or hoping to come in the near future, so I’ll use this post for some random observations and tips…

If you are bringing a laptop and it has a 3-prong grounded plug, bring an adaptor. Yes, I forgot one. Well, I forgot that my current laptop even has a grounded plug until the day I left. I still haven’t had a chance to go find one. Otherwise, outlets here are basically the same 2-prong outlets we have and power is 100 volts, so most US stuff will work here (especially modern chargers and laptop cords that have built in converters.

Yukatas are folded left over right. The other way is how the deceased is dressed for a funeral, so you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a walking corpse. (Do Japanese zombies wear yukatas or kimono? Hmm…) Women tie them at the waist, men at the hips. As an aside, they don’t fit as well if you are busty (or if you have a big gut, I’d imagine)…

Japanese robo-toilets, as I like to call them, are pretty awesome. (So much so that my mom bought one after her first trip here.) I have always loved the heated seats, but never really understood the attraction of the bidet function until taking this trip in the midst of a Crohn’s flare up. (As an aside, I had quite the experience trying to explain Crohn’s disease and an ovarian cyst in Japanese to my old home stay family.) But the toilet paper at my eco-friendly ryokan is like sandpaper, so the less I use, the better…

Speaking of robots, the Robot Restaurant (which isn’t really much of a restaurant) in Shinjuku is something not to miss no matter how short your visit here. I don’t know how to describe it, really, but I was talking to some first time travelers about it and said I imagine it’s similar to dropping LSD. If you do a little advanced research, you can often find discounts, like at this site. The neighborhood it’s located in, Kabukicho, is historically a red light district, which is apparent as you wander the area. Still, it’s worth the visit. After all, where else can you see Godzilla roaring and breathing smoke every hour on the hour?

Schlepping luggage on rush hour trains isa miserable experience. Well, rush hour trains are a miserable experience. If you are going to be on the rail lines during busy times, don’t expect much sense of personal space – it doesn’t exist. I literally had a guy leaning against me because he was was too busy texting to hold on to a handrail or hand strap. The same is true in the stations – people are rushing here and there, often without regard for other people, so don’t be surprised if you get jostled, cut off, or crowded. As polite as the culture is here, that kind of goes out the window during rush hour and in big train stations, generally. (Think, LA rush hour drivers, but on foot.)

Shopping and dining in train stations is a good thing. Some of my favorite restaurants are in the underground shopping centers attached to train stations.

The JR East shinkansen have free WiFi. They also usually have food and drink carts that come by, but I haven’t seen one yet (and I didn’t have time to get a snack before I left).

Just like driving is on the opposite side of the road from the US, the same is true of walking. People generally tend to walk on the left side of the sidewalk. On escalators, stand to the left, walk on the right.

Japanese ofuro/bath tubs are heavenly. They are deep enough that you soak submerged up to your shoulders – the ones at my ryokan (which proudly states it is LGBT+ friendly, incidentally) are filled to the top and the water literally spills out as you submerge yourself. The water is so hot that you really only want to soak for a short time. A little bit about bathing etiquette – you wash before you bathe because the bath water generally is not replaced for each person. My ryokan actually has a sign posted explaining this. There are usually handheld showerheads and small wash bowls, as well as soap and possibly shampoo. Basically, use these to thoroughly wash yourself off (I prefer the showerhead to the bowl, but the latter is more traditional) before getting in the tub. The same is true at onsen (which you use fully nude -no swimsuits or towels – even if other people are there). I’m determined that I will have a Japanese-style bathroom built if I ever own a house…

My train is nearing my destination, so I’ll wrap this post for now. I may keep updating it or I may do a second post.

Any questions or suggestions on things I should add? Hit me up in the comments…

Travel on the horizon…

The last quarter of 2018 left much to be desired. But it could have been worse, I suppose. I am still dealing with the medical issues that, and treatment is delayed due to the joy of insurance (as bad as it normally is, try adding a specialty medication to the mix). On the other hand, my medical bills would have been well into the 6-figures without insurance and my total responsibility is less than 2% of the billed total. So there is that.

But I am not letting those issues stop me from traveling. Over Christmas, I went up to Portland for a few days to visit my cousin. I had a chance to do a little hiking to waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Next up is Japan in less than 2 weeks. I’m not sure how I’ll actually pay for the trip, but I am mostly staying in pretty low-budget accommodations. I’ll be in Tokyo for a few days, with a detour to the Shibu-Onsen area to see the snow monkeys. I’m looking forward to photographing those guys. Then it is up to Sapporro for the snow festival. Check those off my bucket list.

I just booked a trip to Edinburgh in May. I’ll be going to the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Europe chapter’s annual conference. Then I plan to spend a few days at the university library researching for my dissertation, whatever the topic ends up being. So it isn’t really a vacation (although I do intend to get in at least a little fun -and definitely some photography).

After that, it is Slovenia in June. Part of that trip is planned because it is a group trip for my friend’s birthday. The trip ends at Lake Bled – another bucket list spot. I am contemplating renting a car and making my way down to Dubrovnik, Croatia (aka King’s Landing from GoT). We’ll see – I still have a little time to sort out all those details.

Of course, July means San Diego Comic-Con.

Later in the year, it is back to Edinburgh for my graduation. My mom and brother plan to join for that trip. I will probably want to rent a car and drive (on the wrong side of the road) around the Highlands a bit. That has been on my bucket list for a while.

And next February, will take me to Africa to see the mountain gorillas and the Serengeti migration. That’s still a year away, but I have to scrap up the deposit soon (unfortunately, I don’t expect quite as high of a tax refund as usual thanks to the Trump tax reform/scam that eliminated my biggest deductions).

I also didn’t let health stop me from launching my photography/greeting card business. I haven’t sold much yet, but I have had a few sales and a few people have expressed interest. I don’t expect much to come of it, but maybe it will help me pay for the travel or a new lens or something.

Keep an eye out for travel updates, time permitting.

So long Churchill. It’s been fun.

As I start this post, it’s after midnight on Friday (Saturday, technically) and I’m somewhere high up above Manitoba on my flight back to Winnipeg. I should have been in Winnipeg by now, but our flight was delayed around 3 hours – we didn’t leave until after 11 pm and won’t arrive until well after 1 am. It is now Saturday night and time to finish this.

Thursday was an eventful day. No bears (we had white out conditions in the morning), but we did have a dead battery in the vehicle I was riding in. This was on a day with bitter cold winds like nothing I’d felt before. Fortunately, it happened while we were at lunch, so most of us stayed warm inside.

In the afternoon, we went to see the dogs at the Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation’s facility. There are only around 400 Inuit/Eskimo dogs left in the world and they are trying to preserve the breed – one of the oldest in the world. They are sled dogs – super strong and rugged with a ton of stamina – that can pull a loaded sled fire 10-12 hours without trouble. They are built for strength and endurance, not speed. The foundation’s founder Brian Ladoon, who recently passed away, was not without controversy, but there’s no question they care about the dogs. Although not pets, most of the dogs were really friendly and loved attention. Unfortunately, the bitter cold and wind let me to spend more time photographing the dogs from the warm car rather than with the dogs.

Yesterday was a good animal day. Still no bears, but we saw a few foxes (red and arctic) and some ptarmigan. There was even an arctic fox scampering around in town, just a few feet away from us.

Yesterday was also the day I finally ate it in the snow – twice – and ended up with snow in my boots as a result. While trying to get into position to photograph one fox, my foot went right through the snow. Not just my foot, but my leg was buried up to my knee. I nearly dropped my camera with the $2000 rental lens attached (thank goodness it was insured!). I needed help from one of our guides to get up that time (fortunately, it didn’t scare off the fox). Ironically, I got some of my best photos of the whole trip from that vantage (see the red fox below). Later in the afternoon, the group was calling me over to take a group photo. In my rush, my foot again went through the snow – not as deep this time, but still enough to cause me to fall face forward. When I got up and took another step, I fell again. Thankfully, everyone was too busy to turn their cameras on me and capture the moment (a risk when traveling with photographers). 

This afternoon I met up with a local photographer, Walter Potrebka, who I was introduced to by one of the guys on my tour. We went out to shoot Snowy Owls, like this famous one. Walter says it was one of his best days owl-spotting ever – he saw 15 today, around 8 – 10 of which were while we were out. I thing I got a few pretty good shots. We also saw a fox and some deer, as well as a coyote way off in the distance. 

I’ll admit, I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see more bears from a closer distance (most were just a quick glimpse from the helicopter at 300 feet). After all, that was the purpose of the trip. But I did get pictures of a few bears and I saw and photographed a lot of wildlife and realized I like that much more than landscape. (Now to figure out how to afford the right equipment.) I also really enjoyed spending time with this particular group of people. If you ever have a chance to take a workshop/tour with Leighton Lum (he has some good ones planned), Kelsey Eliasson, Fred Lemire, or Karine Genest, I definitely would recommend them. 

All in all, I really enjoyed the trip and have no regrets. (Well, I may have a few when I step on the scale back home.) 

These two were my favorites of the dogs
Ptarmigan
Arctic Fox
Red Fox
Snowy Owl
Hedwig!

Hey there, foxy…

Today was a productive animal day.

This morning started off with two fox sightings – an arctic fox and a red fox (in different locations). I was able to get some really nice shots of both, tho my photos of the arctic fox turned out surprisingly noisy/grainy for some reason.

After the foxes, we hopped aboard helicopters to spot polar bears from the air. The group split up between two helicopters. Our group saw about 7 or 8 bears (including a mother with cub) and even a trio of moose. It was a cool experience (my second time in a helicopter), but it was also a bit disappointing, especially after we heard from the guys who were on the other helicopter. Our pilot would spot a bear, point it out to us, and then basically fly off after just a quick look. There was no time to even try to snap photos (especially for those of us sitting in the back trying to shoot through foggy windows). Heck, we barely had a chance to spot the animal before we were off to the next one. And when he did circle to get a better view, it was never on my side. Still, it was a fun experience.

In the afternoon, our original plans were thwarted due to unexpected circumstances. But as we were driving along, someone in the group spotted another fox. Our guide tried to get ahead of where she thought the fox was going (while the other vehicle parked where it was) but she was out-foxed (yes, pun intended) and the fox ran across the road closer to the other vehicle as we were walking that direction. I managed to get a few shots, but it was late and dark, so there isn’t much to do with them.

We also learned that a mother and at least one, possibly two, cubs had been spotted in town just around the corner from the B&B where 4 of us are staying. We didn’t hear it, but apparently there were some shots fired (blanks) to scare them off around 5:30 this morning. We did find paw prints in the snow tho – mama’s paw print is bigger than an adult human’s footprint.

The last couple days, especially today, have been a little tough with my Crohn’s. There are only a handful of restaurants in Churchill and the menus are fairly similar at all of them – and they aren’t necessarily friendly to someone with digestive issues. Sure, I could probably make it easier on myself by ordering more selectively, but it would be food that I just don’t like or that is really boring. So I have ended up having a few meals that didn’t sit well with me. Fortunately, it has mostly been at dinner, so I just had to make a bee-line to the bathroom when we got back to the B&B. Today, lunch caused me some problems. Fortunately, we lingered in town a bit before we hit the road, so I was able to take care of things without any impact on the afternoon. My gastroenterologist would not approve. But, other than those moments, my health and energy have held up and I have none of the pain I was having as recently as a couple days before leaving on the trip.

I don’t know the plan for tomorrow yet. Apparently a film crew will be joining us for at least part of the day (our lead guide has been working with them on a project related to polar bears), so that could add another interesting element to the trip.

All in all, despite some disappointment (and a little digestive upset), so far this trip has been well worth the money.

Arctic fox:

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Red fox:

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We made it back safely:

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Moose from about 300 feet above:

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Look at those paw prints! The cub’s were almost as big as my foot.

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Brrrr….

Greetings from the frozen north – Churchill, Manitoba. And I do mean frozen – temps have been in the single digits with wind chill making it feel like -15° or so. Still, I can’t complain – a month ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be healthy enough to make this trip (who am I kidding – I told the gastroenterologist that I had no intention of missing it).

I am here with some other folks hoping to shoot polar bears – with a camera. Unfortunately, just before we arrived, the wind shifted to be from the north and the Hudson Bay had a major freeze. To the polar bears, that signals that it’s time to move on, and it appears most of them have.

We got lucky on our first day and spotted two different bears. I got some great photos of the first one. It was getting dark when we came across the second one, and it was a good distance away, so my photos are pretty grainy. We also saw an arctic hare. There were a couple foxes during the day, too, but they were moving too fast to photograph. I did get a picture of one’s butt, tho. (continues below the pix)

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Day two was… let’s call it an adventure. We drove around in blizzard conditions hunting for bears. At times, it was basically white-out conditions. We did spot some ptarmigans (aka snow chickens and related to partridges) and I got some good pictures of them. There were also some other small birds flitting around in some trees. (continues below)

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While we were at lunch, we got word that a mama bear and cub were spotted. We rushed out and did manage tho find them. Unfortunately, they were just too far away to photograph, even with the 150-450 mm lens I rented. Besides, the wind was so strong that my hands nearly froze the minute I left the car (seriously, this weather is intense!). Still, it was cool to see them.

Today was day 3. The weather conditions were better, relatively speaking. Temps were still single digits and the wind was brutal, but the snow wasn’t falling, at least, and the sun was shining most of the day. Alas, still no bears. We got in a few landscape shots and did manage to see a couple arctic hares, at least.

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Tomorrow, we will be on a Tundra Buggy that will be looking for bears in the conservation area / national park (private guides operate in a different area closer to town). The reports are not terribly promising – people we spoke to today saw 10 bears on their trip, but they were all out on the ice already and sounded like they were out of camera range. So we’ll see…

In the meantime, I’ll just soak up some rays while the sun is out…

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Bucket lists (travel)

Eight days ago, I returned from a trip to Iceland where I checked some boxes off my travel bucket list. Chief among those was a chance to see the northern lights / aurora borealis (they were oddly underwhelming in person – they looked more like thin, barely visible clouds than the bright green you see in photos – until I looked at my photos and realized I got some good ones).

The other day, I was thinking about bucket lists and, for a short moment, I thought I had put a serious dent in my bucket list over the last three years – Yellowstone, Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Florence, Iceland, the aurora… Why the sudden burst of travel? After my divorce, and after a few friends died too young, I realized I needed to do a little more to enjoy life today and to do things for myself.

I have been at my current job for over 17 years and have been working at a below-market salary (for many years it was quite significantly below market) for all those years. I have been doing that, in part, with an eye toward my future in the form of a fairly generous (particularly by today’s standards) pension and also toward the present in the form of above-market benefits. Among those benefits is very robust vacation accrual, which I rarely took in my first 10 years.

My future was accounted for, but what was I doing in the present? In 2010, I started taking advantage of my vacation time, with a 2-1/2 week trip to Japan, a place that feels like a second home to me. My next trip was 2011, to see the Kings open the season in Berlin and then to travel around France with a friend. And it was around that time that I met my now-ex, who lives in Stockholm (yes, Sweden).  For the next 3 years, my vacation time was spent almost exclusively visiting my ex or spending time with my ex here in LA. But that was okay, because I was planning a life with this person – a life that would eventually be based in Europe where, I thought, I’d be close enough to many of the places I hoped to see someday. Plus, my ex and I had some of the same places on our bucket lists and had planned to visit them some day, as well. I figured I had plenty of time to whittle down my list. But then my marriage ended and, with it, so did those plans for the future.

About a year and half later, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a conference in Rome. I had the chance to both check Rome (and a few other cities) off my bucket list and to learn something. So I took it. And I realized around that time that I could make my own opportunities. And when some friends passed away suddenly, I realized life was short. I had been working hard to ensure my future, but I needed to start considering the present. So I started checking places and travel experiences off my bucket list.

But was I really just down to just two more, one of which I anticipate knocking out next year, after just a few years of travel? As I started talking about travel I realized there were so many other places and experiences still on that list.

Among the remaining bucket list items:

  • Cambodia and the Angkor temples
  • The Galapagos Islands
  • The ancient ruins in Greece
  • Israel (with a detour to Petra, Jordan)
  • A safari in Africa
  • The Scottish Highlands
  • Stonehenge (yes, I know it’s underwhelming), Bath and other sites in England
  • Castles throughout Europe
  • The rain forests in Costa Rica
  • Snow monkeys in Japan and the Sapporo Snow Festival
  • The pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt
  • Iguazu Falls
  • Auschwitz (not so much a bucket list item as something I feel I need to see in my lifetime)
  • The national parks and national monuments in Utah

I am sure there are others and new ones will replace the ones I check off. But it looks like I have some busy years of travel still ahead…