Whatipu Caves

You’d think working an entry level job for City Council would ensure the standard 9-5, no over time, off on public holidays kinda life. Not this one!

Rotorua – Redwood Forest

After arriving in Rotorua in the late afternoon, I didn’t have much time to do any exploring yesterday. I settled into my hostel, The Spa Lodge (which is mad cute, by the way) and went to a local pub, Pig and Whistle, for some live music in the evening with my dorm mates.
Ohhhh, my dorm mates.

Rangitoto Island

Guys. I have to tell you about how much I love this cafe. It’s my new home. There’s a “take a book, leave a book” shelf, couches, solid wifi, a decent selection of teas, a giant window I can sit in with my laptop, and a random little vintage pac-man arcade game in the corner. I’m obsessed. This is where I spend every morning.

Cold Waterfalls and Highway Driving

We survive the night without any demonic activity from the creepy candle lit church.
It’s out by morning.

We get an extremely early start for our hike. We don’t have time to summit so we’re just doing a 2 hour climb instead, before getting on our way back to Athens. 

Toldra Gorge 

Waking up to watch the sunrise is WELL worth it. Pictures will never do it justice of course, so I give up on trying and just “soak up the sun” in the dunes. Horrible attempt at a play on words, I apologize.
We are served a gigantic breakfast, and while we’re eating one of the guides comes through the tent yelling “Marrakesh!” so we drop our food and run. There are only 2 bus options for the day; 8am and 5pm. We were really hoping to get on the 8am but realized it would be a bit too tight to make it. Especially if we rode the camels back to the hotel. The only other option was then to try as hitch hike, because if you’re not in the desert there’s nothing to do here and Im sure we’d be brought to some more rug shops. Luckily, this guy has a desert-ready SUV, and is absolutely RIPPING through the dunes to get us to the bus on time. What a gem.

We get to the bus station with just enough time to pay and board before it pulls away. We don’t book tickets straight to Marrakesh, we plan to stop at a beautiful gorge we’ve heard is along the way, and then on to Marrakesh. Cesc books both tickets, but I only book as far as the gorge because I have more time and might want to stay an extra day.

Tinghir is the name of the town closest to the gorge, which is a little funny because it sounds just like Tangier, the city I flew into right across the sea from Spain. If it turns out we’re heading back that direction I will stop drop and roll off the bus.

5 hours later we arrive in the town and need to sort out whether we want to stay here, or try to find a hostel closer to the gorge itself. It’s about a half hour or longer drive to get up there, but we’re not sure we’ll be able to find accommodation. Again, there is a group of men outside trying to sell us on staying at their hotels and hostels. One man offers us a room for 120mdh (11€, $16cad) each per night, with dinner and breakfast included. Sounds pretty damn legit but after what happened with our last hostel next to the Sahara I’m more than skeptical. We manage to bargain for 100 each and throw our prayer hands up. Inshallah it’s not a mistake.

Similar to how involved Mohammed felt he had to be, I’m unable to say anything to Cesc privately. Our new hostel man, who is actually also named Mohammed, is being overly attentive, but hasn’t tried to sell us any tours yet so that’s a huge plus. The closer to the hostel we get, driving up winding mountain roads, past a beautiful valley, the better vibes I get. So far Morocco’s landscape hasn’t been anything like I expected. It’s much more green and mountainous, but here in Tinghir I see more of what I had imagined Morocco to be. Down in the valley is a lush jungle, surrounded by towering, dry and very rocky mountains. The old kasbah sits between the two, abandoned and crumbling. The stark difference is beautiful and so interesting.

We get to the hostel where we are shown to a huge room with two separate double beds. Amazing. Before coming here everyone told me it’s unacceptable for unmarried couples to travel together, but guess what? Another totally misinformed piece of advice. That may be true of other Muslim countries, I don’t know, but we haven’t had to pretend to be married once. No one has even batted an eye.

We head out to the gorge which is pretty epic. I grew up in a small town with a beautiful gorge but this is totally different. More rocks, so many rocks…all the rocks. The cliffs are higher, and there’s no fun little swimming hole like the one in my home town of Elora. Still makes for a fun little hiking adventure.
Once we get sick of all the rocks and the blazing sun, we decide to head down to the abandoned Kasbah. We hitch a ride with a local, who is the first person we try to flag down. WAY easier than hitch hiking in Chaouen. From the main road we walk through the little jungle, have to cross a river in our bare feet, and do a bit of level 1 rock climbing. It’s totally worth it though, in so many ways. We are the ONLY people down here, which blows my mind because who wouldn’t want to visit abandoned kasbah ruins? On our drive up Mohammed told us that these are often used in films like Star Wars, The Mummy and Express to Marrakesh. I can totally see why.



It’s bigger than it looks from afar. Which actually makes sense considering it was an old village. Getting out of the Kasbah is a little more challenging than getting in, and we don’t get to panic level, but the sun is starting to set and we’re just following what may or may not be a path out and hoping for the best.

Obviously I survive, we make it out before dark, and have no trouble catching a ride back to the hostel.
Our included dinner is absolutely massive and super delicious. We both order cous cous with lamb (which is actually 100% beef, even though they swear it’s not) and we can’t even finish half of it. We meet a few other people at the hostel; not all couples this time!! One guy is traveling solo, there is a pair of German sisters, a couple from Argentina, and a couple from England. Still half couples, but not allllll couples, and not allllll Spanish. Confirmed: other nationalities DO in fact travel in Morocco!
The moon rises over the mountains while we all chill out on the roof top terrace, exchanging travel stories, asking the hostel employees questions about life in Morocco, and listening to chill tunes. One of the guys who works here tells us he is a Berber Nomad, a tribe that, as you can guess, never lives in one place, sleeping in caves and living off the land. He welcomes us to come visit his home on the top of the mountain tomorrow, but I get a slightly weird vibe about it. Why would a Berber Nomad work at a hostel? Someone told me they don’t speak Arabic or French, just their own language, and this guy is speaking to us in both English and Spanish. So I don’t know how legit this “Nomad” is, but going to one of their camps would have been cool if it were an actual thing.

Trekking to a Hill Tribe in Sapa

We pack our day packs with an extra pair of clothes, and make sure to layer up because Sapa is famous for having 4 seasons in one day. It’s a cold morning with clouds hovering over head, threatening rain. All I can do is hope it doesn’t get too slippery on the trails, because all I’ve got is a pair of running shoes.

Tamara and I walk down to the same spot we met Song yesterday. We’re a bit early, so we run to the market to buy some fruit for breakfast. I get 3 small bananas for 5,000 dong ($0.25).
As soon as we meet up with Song she explains that we’ll have some company today. Two other people have arranged to trek out to her house with us, which is totally cool with me. She also makes sure to mention that we don’t tell them how much we paid. Apparently they’re paying more and she’s worried that they might be angry if they find out. I promise her I won’t tell them. Now I have a burning curiosity to know exactly how much they’re paying, and I plan to find out.

Shortly after, we meet our trekking companions. They’re a couple in their late twenties who live in Hanoi full time, teaching English and running a catering business. Mark is from Australia and Ryka is Dutch. They met in Romania and have been together ever since; what a cool way to meet someone!
We wander through the market while Song picks up all our necessary groceries for the next three meals. I try to be patient through the small talk but am eager to find out what a fantastic job of haggling I’ve done. I finally get to ask them what they’ve paid for the trek. They say $20 EACH per day. I keep my promise and tell them we’ve paid the same, when in reality we’re only paying $13 each per day. Mark says he’s heard of people haggling it down to $18, but that you would never get it any cheaper than that. Mark, who lives in Vietnam. It’s pretty hard to keep the smile off my face. Victory!! I love a good deal. The couple have been referred here by their friends, who visited Sapa and found Song the same way Tamara and I did; by bumping into her on the road. They loved her tour so much that they keep her cellphone number handy and recommend her to everyone who goes to Sapa. Today is going to be a good day.

We start out on our 7 kilometre trek to Song’s village. A number of other tribes-women join us and talk to us a little bit, but Song’s English is by far the best. Once we’re out of the town we start along a rocky and pretty steep ascent. The rain has held off thus far, and the sun has even managed to poke through the clouds a little bit!

We make a quick stop, where I take the opportunity to de-layer and gulp back some water. Song points to the left to bring our attention to the marijuana plants growing on the hillside. Wow, she’s not kidding. Now that she’s said it, I can even smell it a little bit. She says it’s grown here to make clothes and that it’s rarely smoked by any locals, but that if foreigners ask they can usually buy some from the farmers. Of COURSE they can. A few minutes later we also pass by a massive plot of land used for growing Vietnamese green tea. That’s more my scene.

The trek is insanely beautiful. Part of me is a little bit disappointed that we can’t see the view from the mountains due to the thick fog, but something about being able to see it creeping towards us and rolling over the rocks along the trail ahead, makes the walk even more incredible. The fog also does a pretty good job of keeping us cool and protecting us from direct sunlight, which I’m sure my skin will appreciate.

It’s pretty hard to put into words how spectacular my surroundings are. Lush green jungle in combination with massive limestone cliffs and orange tinted dirt make for quite an incredible few hours. Photos never do it justice, and I take a few, but I try my best to just absorb my misty surroundings instead, because I know that I’ll never experience something quite like this ever again.

20140501-120015.jpg

20140501-120037.jpg

20140501-120104.jpg

20140501-120119.jpg

20140501-120147.jpg

We stop for lunch in an open and relatively flat area of grassy land next to a farm. Just beyond the fence, some children are playing a game where they release baby chicks into the yard and run around catching them all again, shrieking and giggling with delight.

Song pulls out some soft baguette bread, and slices up pieces of cucumber and tomato while we all relax in the grass. We stuff our bread with the vegetables and call it lunch. After a long morning of hiking I feel pretty hungry and the vegetables taste so refreshing. We have watermelon and banana for dessert.
Then the fun starts. Three of the women who’ve accompanied us on our trek start pulling out their handmade items and encourage us to buy. “You buy this from me and I go home.” in the most pouty tones they can muster. We say no over and over again, but it doesn’t deter them much. This lasts for about 10 minutes before they finally give up and walk off, disappearing into the fog. I hate feeling guilt tripped and pressured into buying something. I also hate feeling that they beautiful hill tribe women are a nuisance, but in all honesty, 90% of the time they are. They act like beggars, are shameless in their sales tactics, and I’ve seen them swarm tourists in Sapa who make the mistake of caving and buying something. Because Sapa is now such a popular tourist destination, the street selling has gotten out of control. There are signs around the town of Sapa asking people not to buy anything from children specifically. I’ve learned that this is because their parents will pull them out of school and send the kids out to whine “buy from me” at tourists in the hopes that their cute, irresistible little faces will turn a higher profit. Some people choose to ignore these signs and do it anyway. I saw one woman hand a camera to her friend and ask her to take photos while she distributed cash in exchange for fabric bracelets to a hoard of hill tribe children. This is another reason I tend to dislike other tourists.

20140501-120551.jpg

The last portion of the trek is extra slick with earthy red mud, and all downhill. We are extra careful with our footing, but each of us fall at least once. Song leaps down the mountain in nothing but a pair of plastic sandals and doesn’t trip once.
I’m so happy I wore a pair of jeans that no longer fit me, so I won’t have to feel so bad about them being destroyed. I fall a couple times and the seat and knees of my jeans are instantly stained a rusty orange colour. If I had 1,000 dong for every time I almost fall, but somehow manage to catch myself, I’d be rich.

20140501-120641.jpg
Muddy aftermath

20140501-120844.jpg

20140501-120859.jpg

We walk through one last stretch of thick greenery, where Song picks us some berries that look like tiny, yellowy-orange raspberries. They taste bitter, but have just enough sweet flavour to balance it out.
We finally make our descent to her village. I’m not quite sure what to expect as we approach her house, but I am eager to see how she lives. Four or five young, barefoot children run up to greet us, and seem excited to have their mother home. Only two of the children are Song’s; an 8 year old boy and a 6 year old girl. They look just like her. She turns the key to a small padlock hooked between two metal loops on her front door and we step inside. The house is made up of two rooms, a living room/bedroom and a kitchen. The floor is made of solid exposed concrete, the walls are simple hand cut planks of wood, and the ceiling is made of mismatched scraps of metal. Song tells us that her and her husband built it themselves over three years. It’s very modest, but beautiful in it’s way. A small television sits in one corner of the room, and a single lightbulb hangs down from the ceiling. There is no running water, and no bathroom of any kind. Song fetches big barrels of water from her brother-in-laws house down the road to use for cooking and cleaning.
There are animals absolutely everywhere. The children have fun playing with a small puppy, while a funny cat comes and meows aggressively at us all, demanding some attention. Two or three chickens roam around, sometimes letting themselves into the house, and are followed by a flock of baby chicks. Pigs and piglets also hang around outside the home, and on occasion we see a wild dog. Bugs don’t seem to be much of an issue here, though cob webs can be found on almost everything, I don’t see any spiders or even a mosquito.

.

20140501-121144.jpg

20140501-121200.jpg

20140501-121813.jpg

20140501-121832.jpg

I pull out my phone to take some pictures, and the kids all run over to see if they can play with my phone. I check with Song and she doesn’t mind. I don’t have many games at all, let alone games that cater to 6 and 8 year olds, so instead I try to find them a video to watch. All I’ve got is the Of Monsters and Men music video for Little Talks. The kids watch it over and over again. If you’ve ever seen it, you’ll know it’s one of the weirdest music videos of all time, so I kind of understand why they love it so much.

By the third go around I can’t watch it anymore, and my phone has a mega-protective case on, so I let the kids play with it for a while and go to help Song in the kitchen. There isn’t much to do, but we sit around the open fire and chat while she cooks. I notice some miscellaneous pig meat hanging to dry in the corner of the room. Song explains that it’s been cooked in salted water, and after drying for an hour or so, it will keep for months to come. They eat every part of the animal; hooves, tail and ears included. I’m disappointed to find out that her husband won’t be coming home tonight. He works in the rice fields and only comes home every few days. It would be so interesting to meet him! I foolishly made the assumption that they had an arranged marriage, but she tells us that they met in Sapa when she was younger, they fell in love, and were married at 16. In her tribe, you are able to marry whomever you choose, but by age 20 it is common to be seen as old and undesirable. Anything under 16 is too young, so basically, only the time between the ages of 16 and 19 are deemed acceptable for marriage.

There’s no mirror in the house, but Tamara, Mark, Ryka and I all inform each other of our sunburns. I can feel mine burning on my face and chest. I don’t understand how I managed to get so burnt in such thick fog, but it happened.

Dinner is ready, so Song pulls a small wooden table into the middle of the living room and brings out large bowls of food. We all sit on small plastic chairs and fill our bowls with rice, tofu, mushrooms, carrots, and water spinach. Everything tastes especially wonderful after a long day of trekking. I lose count of how many bowls of food I consume. It’s only 6pm when we’ve finished eating but I feel absolutely exhausted! I step outside to use the washroom (aka. any nearby bush of my choosing) and to brush my teeth. It’s so too bad about the overcast sky, because without any light pollution I’m sure the stars would look incredible from here.

20140501-121224.jpg

I’ve been confused about where everyone will sleep since I’ve arrived. There are only two places to choose from, and even if we squish I don’t think all seven of us will be able to squeeze into two beds. Song clears away the table from where we had eaten dinner, and pulls out 6 bundles of long dried rice stems. She unties each bundle and starts spreading them on the floor. The last two bundles are used as pillows to complete this rustic version of a pull-out bed. I’m skeptical as to how comfortable some dry sticks can really be, but I also hope that we get to sleep on this make shift mattress because how many opportunities am I going to have to sleep on something like this again?

20140501-121409.jpg

20140501-121417.jpg

I worry about how we’ll make the decision between who sleeps where, because I can see that Ryka and Mark are also eager to sleep on the rice bed, but Song just assigns us each to a bed an fortunately for us, we get the one we want. Song and her children all sleep together on her bed.
She’s hung a bug net from nails in the wood around the room, which makes me feel even more comfortable with sleeping on the floor. I am in the middle of the forest after all, and even if I don’t see the spiders doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The bug net is key. We test out the rice bed and are pleasantly surprised by it’s comfort level. The dried rice is really there primarily to keep us warm, but does provide a layer of padding too which is nice!

By 7:30 we’re all wishing each other goodnight and falling asleep. I see a couple fireflies have made their way thorough the gaps in the wooden plank walls, and are perched on the outside of our bug net, glowing a pleasant red as I drift into a blissful sleep.

I only wake up briefly to the sound of heavy rain on the metal roof top and a quick sight of lightening illuminating the room through the spaces between the walls, before I fall back to sleep.

I think about how lucky I am to be here, and how fortunate I was to have met Song out of all the other hill tribe women. Her opening her home to us like this is extremely humbling and so kind.

Hiking By Day, Drinking Mak Gul Li by Night

Okay forget the running idea, I’m going hiking today! I’ve realized that Seoul is basically surrounded by mountains, so why would I run on a university track? I take the subway (I’m a pro now) to Giruem Station, where I must then catch a bus. I don’t even take the bus in Toronto, so I’m a wee bit concerned that I have no idea what I’m doing. Again, Seoul’s transit system is a gem and my required bus is sitting just outside of the subway station exit. Amazeballs!

I haven’t eaten yet, so I let that perfectly timed bus go so that I can get some food. There are a couple street stalls selling fruit, but everything is so expensive! I want to buy just one apple, but they say I can only buy them in bundles of 5 for W5,000. I love apples, but not that much. I decide to get food at the base of the mountain. There are bound to be more stalls and probably some restaurants too! I think today I shall try bulgogi.

The bus takes me to the base of the mountain where I see a tourist information centre. I don’t know what trails to follow or how long anything takes so I try popping in to ask some questions. Too bad the doors are locked. It’s a Monday afternoon! Even the sign outside shows their hours and confirms that they should be “open” at this time. The lights are off inside, though, so they’re pretty obviously closed. Oh well. I try to read the trail map outside of the centre instead. Everything is in Korean but there are some pictures! I still don’t really understand.

While standing at the map a little Korean lady comes over and I’m 90% sure, compliments me on my butt. She keeps tapping her own butt, pointing at mine, smiling and saying stuff in Korean, then gives me a thumbs up. If that’s not a compliment, I don’t know what is. Thank you kindly, old lady.

I give up on trying to read the map and just pick a trail. For once, I think I have picked the BEST day to do something touristy, because there are no tourists! Apparently this place gets pretty busy on weekends, but on this splendid Monday afternoon I only see a handful of other hikers. The trails are great, totally unpaved and pretty challenging in some areas. I have to do a mini rock climb to get to the top. I make the choice to crawl out to a look out point on a cliff, but I’m extra careful because I’m going to North Korea tomorrow and can’t die before that happens.
The view is pretty sweet! Seoul surrounded by fabulous mountains. I love it! There’s nothing like the peak of a mountain to make you NOT hate hiking.

20140421-194317.jpg20140421-194329.jpg20140421-194401.jpg20140421-194450.jpg

On my way down I even see some wildlife… A squirrel and a wild dog. Exotic!

Taking the bus back is a nightmare. I’m sure there’s an easier way, but I think I have to ride the whole loop to get back to the subway station. I don’t really mind, because after hiking I’m a bit tired anyway.

Something magical happens.
I’m chillin on the bus thinking about how long it’ll take me to get to the right stop, then onto the subway, where I have to transfer etc., when I look out the window and see a super familiar Starbucks. Them a familiar GS25. A familiar grocery store. Dear god, is that the road to my hostel? Why yes, it is. How lovely! I’ve accidentally arrived at my destination without even knowing it. I have no concept of this is even possible, but I care not!!

I’m starving, so I stop at a restaurant that coincidentally has bulgogi. Things are going my way today!

20140421-194710.jpg

bulgogi is the best thing I’ve eaten so far. But I say that every time

I stop in at the hostel to shower and get ready before going out to buy a pair of pants (I’ve got a good feeling about it today!) and then meeting up with one of my old high school friends who lives in Seoul!

Today. is. my. DAY! I find pants that fit. Hollaaaaa. I don’t do anything crazy adventurous to find them, I just go back to Myeong-dong before it gets busy like it was last night. I’m boring and shop at ULIQLO. Sue me.

My life is at an awkward point where I’m relatively low on Korean cash, but also so close to leaving that I don’t want to pull more. I don’t want to pay to pull more money, and then pay again to have it exchanged in Vietnam. Hella no. I’m going to try to live the next two days on W21,000 ($20). I think I can do it. I love peasant life.

I meet Sung at 8pm at Starbucks. I don’t know why I pick it as our meeting spot. I can’t afford this fancy shit. It’s just such a good landmark! Damn you, Starbucks.
He doesn’t live in this area but knows where the cool part is anyway, so we walk just a couple blocks over from my hostel to a fun, young, very lit up part of town. Lots of cool bars and restaurants, along with more boutique shops! I wish I was in more of a position to shop it Seoul, because they know what’s up when it comes to clothing.

We stop at a little Korean restaurant where we order Mak Gul Li to drink; a very old and traditional Korean drink. It’s hard to describe besides being delicious, but it’s made with rice and is slightly carbonated like beer, but quite sweet tasting. It’s served to us in a huge bowl. I am a little obsessed.

Sang also orders us another Korean food called Pa Jeun, that he says if often eaten with the Mak Gul Li. The two are complimentary, the same way wine would go with a steak in Canada. It’s like a seafood pizza, but with eggs and green onions instead of actual dough. Another delish choice.
I love Korean food now. I knew there was some good stuff around, I just had trouble finding it!

20140421-233554.jpg

It’s so fun having some friends who live all over the place. It’s always nice to catch up! We can talk about everything, from old high school memories to the best sights in Seoul. I now feel like I have a solid list of things to fill my few remaining days here! I even get a list of more foods to try. Yummm!

20140421-234738.jpg

Mountain Trek Day 6

It’s our last day with Mountain Trek! We’ve got just a short day of hiking in order to make it to Kyoto at a reasonable hour. We’ll have one last meal together tonight, and that’s it. Some people have even arranged to fly home tomorrow morning! I’m really happy that Dad and I added a couple of extra days on either side of the trekking trip so we could see more of Japan.

We leave our fabulous village hotel behind, feeling a little sorry that we didn’t have more time there to enjoy it. They even made a good breakfast!

There are two options for hiking today; a flat country road that will take us to the temple in an hour and a bit, or a mountain trail that will take about two and a half. Part of me wonders if I should take the flat road after having some knee trouble, but I figure if I’ve come this far I might as well finish strong too. I opt for the mountain.

The first half is relatively flat with a gradual ascent along a river, similar to yesterday’s walk. I spend most of the time chatting with Linda while I still have my breath. Then the stairs come. They never end! I must walk up a million steps.
The last part is even harder. Instead of steps, I’m faced with a stone wall where I need to put aside my hiking poles and use my hands to climb up. The climb only lasts for about 5 minutes, and is lots of fun, but it’s definitely pretty challenging. Everyone does a great job and makes it to the top no problem, I’m so impressed!
The view from the top of the mountain makes it all worth it. This is truly, in my opinion, what makes all hiking worth while.

20140412-144428.jpg

20140412-215727.jpg

We only get a few minutes at the top, because time is of the essence if we plan to beat rush hour into Kyoto. I ask Ted, “how long is the decent down, like 30 minutes?” He responds with “nah just like 15”. Okay sweet! It’ll be a quick walk down the mountain to the temple. I start on my way, being careful not to aggravate my knee too much, but still moving quickly so I can go get a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup…and see the temple…but mostly the soup.

45 minutes later I’m down the mountain. Not sure what I expected, really. When Ted says 15, it either means 5 or 45. Never 15.
When I do get down to the temple, I meet up with the Mountain Trekkies who chose to walk along the road today. They say it was a nice walk, and took them less than an hour. I’m slightly envious, but simultaneously happy that I chose to do the climb.

I watch as the calligrapher signs my final stamp at the 88th temple on the pilgrimage. I wonder if he is confused as to why I only have stamps on pages 1-12, 20 and 21, as he signs 88. This can’t be the popular order to the route, especially in Japan.
We wait for everyone else to come down from the mountain to hear Ted do his final chant, and we all light an incense stick while he does.

Now it’s noodle time. There are a few noodle shops to choose from just outside the temple, but I just pick the first one I see. I sit down with Arun, the handsome doctor, and Carol, his beautiful yet brilliant wife (I totally came up with that on my own) as well as Angela, Dad and Sharon.
Angela orders us all a big steaming bowl of udon with vegetables and pork, after having it recommended to her by our waitress. Apparently, these udon noodles are a specialty of the region, yum! Everything tastes fresh and is totally delicious, but I can’t finish it all because the portion is so big! Afterwards, we all get matcha ice cream for the road. The drive ahead is another long one. Ted says it should be about 2 and a half hours to Kyoto, placing our arrival around 4.

It’s 5:15 and we’re still in the van. Not sure what I expected, really.

Its 6:00 before we’re in the lobby of our hotel. It’s a nice place, right in the heart of downtown Kyoto. Optimum shopping location! We get a little bit of time to settle in before gathering again for dinner.

Dinner is at a restaurant down the street where we have our last fantastic meal all together in a historic building at the scene of a famous samurai showdown. There are even sword markings on the bridge just down the street to prove it. Pretty cool!
We all make a toast to Ted for all the hard work he’s put into this trip and the year of planning that went into it. Tomorrow we will all be going our separate ways, so we enjoy our final meal, laughing while reminiscing our adventures over the last six days.

Mountain Trek Day 5

I always sleep SO well on these tatami mat futon beds. I must invest in one.
The bean bag pillows, however, I think I can do without.
I get up just in time for breakfast at 7am which is a traditional Japanese breakfast full of small dishes. It consists of a piece of cooked mackerel, miso soup, rice, a raw egg, and natdo (which is Japanese for fermented soy beans). This is a popular breakfast dish, and notoriously difficult for westerners to stomach. I’ve seen it a couple times now at breakfast buffets, but have decided that if I’m going to try it, I should do so at a good Japanese restaurant. Now is the time. Angela is across the table from me, which is great because she can coach me through it. I stick the stringy, kind of sticky looking soy beans in a bowl with my rice and mix it up. There are two mini packets of sauce that come along with it, so I tear those and pour them in too. I lift my bowl to my mouth and start using the chopsticks in a circular motion to eat the beany rice. It’s too stringy to eat in small doses, so the goal is to just keep ’em coming to avoid a mess. I get about three rounds of chopstick full bites before I have to stop. They’re not delicious. Of course, I can swallow it, there are worse foods out there, but this isn’t something I can classify as enjoyable. The next step would be to add the raw egg, but I just feel that’s unnecessary. No thanks.

20140412-065512.jpg

We pack up and head to the vans. We’re skipping a little bit of the pilgrimage today and starting at Temple 20 (yesterday we were only at temple 12). We’ll get to do more hiking today as we walk from 20 to 21. We start our day off with a half hour descent. There are a lot of stairs built into the trail, which is a little hard on my knees. Specifically my right knee on its right side. Ouchhhh. I know this sounds crazy but picking up the pace and doing a little jog actually makes it feel better. So I get in a little trail run.

We make a quick stop in this almost empty village. There’s evidence that people still live there, but an abandoned school building with rusty fire escapes and furniture covered with tarps seems to be the biggest land mark. The gazebo where we all meet up is just a random mixture of old furniture; most notably a torn
blue pleather couch, a fabric folding chair, and three brownish-white bar stools. I assume these must be left here for the pilgrims, but I’m really not sure.

The last portion of our hike is only about 2km and is increasingly difficult as the ascent goes on. It starts out relatively flat and meanders around a river with a very gradual ascent along the way. About half way through, the stairs start. They feel pretty killer at the time, but once I reach the top (and stop sweating and wanting to throw myself off the mountain) I look back at them fondly. My knee pain is basically gone. It seems to only hurt on the downhill hikes, which this trail doesn’t have at all. Pros and cons.

By the last 300 metres of the hike, I am alone and can see the temple at the top of the hill. I reach a small fork in the paved road that gives me the option to walk along a gravel path. I figure both of them must lead to the temple, so I pick the nice trail instead of the paved road. 2 minutes later I find myself at a dead end facing a ladder against a tall cliff. Obviously I climb it. I leave my poles and backpack behind and slowly climb up the rickety ladder, feeling a little like this might be poor choice. There were some signs along the trail, but all in Japanese. Maybe they said “danger, don’t climb ladder”, I don’t know. I just feel like I have to know what’s up there!
Once I reach the top I can see a small shrine sitting at the edge of the cliff, and mountains off in the distance ALL around. It’s stunning. I feel free, I feel alive. I know it’s far from it, but it feels like the tallest place on earth. I sit there on the cliff for a few minutes before realizing that no one knows where I am. I had passed Dad a few hundred metres back on the trail, and he’ll be confused when he gets to the temple and I’m not there. I know I have to go back down. It was a fun little side adventure while it lasted! After a week of following someone else’s guided footsteps through Japan (as wonderful as it has been) it’s nice just to discover something cool on my own, even if it’s small.

20140411-211932.jpg

20140411-211942.jpg

20140411-211955.jpg

I hike back to the temple quickly to meet up with all the other Trekkies. Dad didn’t even know I was gone.
I joke, he did, but he assumed I had gone up ahead to the main temple, which is up yet another two flights of tall stone steps.
This temple is beautiful, as per usual. I am fortunate to catch a glimpse of a monk walking beneath a cherry blossom tree. It’s picture perfect.

20140411-212121.jpg

We take a cable car down the mountain, which I’m sure my knee is thankful for. We are served “mushroom tea” while we’re waiting, which is really more like a bouillon than a tea. It’s salty, but yummy as long as you think of it like a soup.

The cable car is pretty cool! There is a square grate in one section of the floor, and huge windows all over the place so we can observe the wonderful scenery on our way down the mountain. There is a cable car tour guide with a microphone, pointing to all sorts of different things out the window but speaking Japanese. Besides Angela, Ted and one random man who is not a part of Mountain Trek, no one on this cable car can understand what he is saying. But the cable car guy takes his job very seriously and does his very best to get us to understand what he’s communicating anyway. He even warns us whenever there will be a bit of turbulence.
Ted brings Dad his hiking poles, which he had totally forgotten outside before getting on the cable car. GoPro attached to them and everything. I laugh at him hysterically.
When we get off the cable car, I’m almost inside the restaurant for lunch when I realize…I’ve forgotten MY hiking poles on the cable car. Thankfully, Kirkland picked them up for me. What a gem! I guess I can’t laugh at Dad anymore.

Lunch is at a restaurant and souvenir shop at the base of the mountain. Ted has pre-ordered all our meals, and does a fantastic job by choosing a delicious bowl of udon noodle soup with wild vegetables picked from the mountain. It totally hits the spot.

Now we’ve got a two and a half hour drive ahead of us to our next accommodation. It’s a scenic route which keeps the long drive interesting.

Ted has this weird habit of doing the opposite of everything he says, so whenever he tells us a hike is going to be long and hard, I assume that means short and easy. When he says the food gets better, I expect 7/11 lunches. It’s always a gamble.
Today, as we arrive at our new accommodation, he wants to take us on a 20 minute walk to a “special place”. I assume this means an hour walk to a place that sucks. I’m fine with it, but I’ve just learned not to get my hopes up too high.

We take a 10 minute walk down to a bridge that is UNREAL and made of old vines and wooden planks. It’s stunning! The gaps between each plank are about as thick as the planks themselves. You don’t want to drop anything!
It’s beautiful AND it realllllly is only 20 minutes away. Ted was right!!! I love it. We take our time crossing the swinging bridge and getting shots of the beautiful glacial (I think) water below us. A couple people have a fear of heights, but face their fears to cross the bridge. That’s bravery at it’s finest if you ask me! If you’re going to cross a bridge, this is probably the scariest one on which to do so.

20140411-210856.jpg

20140411-210830.jpg

Dad, Angela, Kirk and I also run down to a waterfall just a few hundred metres away from the bridge. It’s stunning and I want to jump in, but the bus is waiting for us…and it’s like 15 degrees.

20140411-211248.jpg

I take a quick onsen before dinner. It’s the most fabulous one yet. Actually, the whole hotel is fabulous! It’s a great experience. I believe we’re in an area of Japan that not too many foreigners get to see. I LOVE places like this. Little hidden gems. We’re staying at what appears to be the fanciest hotel in town. The staff leave us a cute origami flower and a note welcoming us to our room.
I love it here!

20140411-211616.jpg

Dinner is served in traditional Japanese style. The food is unbelievably tasty and very local. We eat river fish (which I expect is literally caught outside in the very river we were just standing over on the bridge), kobe beef, soba noodle soup, tempura, and a ton more. Everything is perfect.

20140411-211634.jpg

I go back to the outdoor onsen at 9ish to catch a glimpse of the moon on a calm night. It’s the most wonderful end to a wonderful day.

Mountain Trek Day 4

We pack all of our bags in order to leave the hotel and move on to the next one. Today, we’ve been told, is the hardest day of our hike. I’m feeling pretty good about that because the only hiking we’ve done so far has been on flat pavement. I look forward to getting on a real trail!

We drive to temple 11 and spend a bit of time there preparing for our hike and enjoying the space. Kirkland leads us through a series of stretches before we start walking. Hanging notes sway in the wind along the trees lining the path, with words of encouragement painted on each of them. Ted points out the important characters on the directional signs for us to memorize so that we can find our way if we get separated. One of them kind of looks like a trident, and another I think kinda looks like an old school space invader. It’ll be easy to follow the signs to our destination now.

The trail is beautiful and long, covered with rocks and tree roots as all hiking trails should be. It’s lovely. We hike mostly uphill for the first 6k, at which point we stop to meet our vans down in a valley where we eat lunch.

20140411-134526.jpg
We keep intercepting a large group of pilgrims on a two day bus tour. They’ve got all the gear and they chant at every temple. It’s so interesting and I love running into them at our stops. I will say, their chanting isn’t quite as fantastic as the group of monks who chanted yesterday, but nothing ever will be.

Ted tells us that the last 2k of our 12k day will be the hardest. Straight uphill, he says, sending his hand up to the sky on a 70 degree angle. I seriously consider staying in the van along with some other hikers, but in the end decide, YOJO. You’re Only in Japan Once (maybe). Those of us who choose to hike are all a little terrified, but still up to the challenge. We expect that the hike will take us an hour, so we take it really easy. The trail is challenging, sure, but there are many switch backs and make-shift rock stairs along the way. I wouldn’t classify this straight up hill, but I fear it will get worse so I keep a steady pace. Half an hour into the hike we reach a plateau, and find out that we’re here. It’s over. Our 2km straight up hill mountain of doom was actually a 30 minute hike through a forest with a challenging but totally manageable trail. Sweet.
The day as a whole, which we were told is the hardest, is actually quite painless. Bring on more hiking!

Making it up to the temple is well worth it. The view from the top is wonderful and we even make it up in time to see the group of pilgrims chanting again. What a great end to our hike! On our way to the car park, I am walking with Sharon when we see a group of Japanese pilgrims walking up to the temple. We give a small bow and say “konichiwa” to everyone we pass, as you do to your fellow pilgrims. At the back of the group there is one young white guy, to whom I am not sure what to say, so again Sharon and I just say “konichiwa”. He gives us a head nod and says “hey”.

The van takes us to another onsen which I’m sure my body will thank me for. The hot water loosens my tired shoulder and leg muscles, but I get out early because I’m just far too hot. I can only enjoy an onsen for about 15 minutes before I need a cold shower.

We drive another half hour to our accommodation at a quaint little Japanese style hotel. Our room is just one large tatami mat with two futons, and a table in the corner for us to pull out if we so choose. It’s not a glamorous place to stay but I love that it’s true to Japan and especially the pilgrimage.
Dinner is served downstairs at 7:00pm. For a minute we’re concerned when we see what looks like a gravy covered burger patty on our plates (along with other small dishes of pickles, fish, rice, tofu etc) but it turns out that this burger is made with Japanese beef and is covered in miso gravy. It’s actually a local speciality. Cool!

20140411-134227.jpg
blogging