Bluff – Shark Dive NZ

IMG_3672Hopelessly traversing the docks of Bluff scanning for people, a billboard, an idling boat . . . any sign of Shark Dive New Zealand, I crunch irritably on the last few pieces of Inca corn. It’s 6:50 Sunday morning. The quay is empty and we’ve paid in full. A lone man in his early thirties stands by the bus stop anxiously twisting a strap around his finger. He’s also on this supposed shark dive. Paul offers him a seat in our warm car, but he declines. Through the open window the two compare notes on the correspondence they’ve received since booking. Perturbed by the frosty air now filling the car I whip the heat on high and reach into the backseat and dig for a snack bar. I’ve been up since 3:30am and am in no mood for small talk. There will be no Hilton breakfast this morning.IMG_0572Buoyant clomps upon the asphalt brings the conversation to an abrupt end as we all scan the otherwise noiseless quay for the source of this disturbance. Corkscrew curls skirt the bottom of her wooly cap and freckles splash her alabaster skin. Dressed in a pair of red waders and oversized boots, Nic looks more like someone’s kid sister playing dress-up in her big brother’s snow gear than a shark dive aficionado.   Pleased to have located the last of her “crew” she motions for us to follow. Continue reading

Queenstown – The Final Day

IMG_1309Ten minutes into IMG_0547our drive from Dunedin to Queenstown, delirious from sleep deprivation, I try to take it all in.  As we cruise the crease of the mountain highlands the earth folds around us in warm hues of emerald and gold rising up to clasp heaven’s hand.  Fluffy white puffs scatter up the jagged hillside in a brilliant dusting of white confetti like angelic clouds of sweetness trying to find their way into the sky.  Yes, before we leave New Zealand I must pet one of these adorable little lambs.

IMG_0555As luck would have it the opportunity presents itself on day four of our trip.  During one of our walks along the Queenstown shore I spot a large poster of a young girl embracing a sheep; her gentle fingers intertwined in the wooly locks of this divine creature as he affectionately rests his chin upon her knee.  One hour and a hundred and fifty dollars later Paul and I are gliding across Lake Wakatipu aboard the TSS Earnslaw in route to Walter Creek High Country Farm.

The line to board the old steamship is long and finding two seats together proves challenging.  Well-oiled benches though charming fail to provide orderly seating as the amount of space required by each patron appears to be based less on size and more on personal preference.  Bags, jackets and outstretched legs fill many of the choice seats.  Unfamiliar with the social mores of bench seating aboard IMG_0542a steamship we wade through the stagnant crowd looking for a suitable spot to claim.  An abrupt damp heat greets us mid ship and we stop to peer through the iron ribs of the old boiler room and into the heart of the vessel.  A whiff of the warm ashy air hits us as stokers shovel coal into the fire to the tune of one ton an hour.  At the stern of the ship, just behind the pianist we find an open bench.  As we bid adieu to Queenstown the silver haired pianist plays tunes reminiscent of the Titanic.  Ironically both ships were completed in the same year.

A warning from our captain directed at distracted parents, reminds people to stay off the rails.  The frigid waters of lake Wakatipu would most likely cause hypothermic death within thirty minutes of exposure; plenty of time for Paul to swim ashore and for me to cling hopelessly to an iceberg.   The sixty-minute ride to Walter Creek High Country Farm is novel for about ten minutes, after that we retreat to our seats. Paul orders a beer and I snag a cocktail napkin to begin my first blog post of the trip.

IMG_0537

With a hundred and IMG_3566sixty-three people in tow and four activities planned, dividing us into groups seems most logical, but not the case.  Shepherds, used to corralling herds, apply the same method to tourists.  We disembark and after a quick introduction all head to feed the animals.  With outstretched hands we wait patiently for a few pellets of food.  I try to contain my enthusiasm and let the little ones go first.  Disseminating information to a group this size, half of which don’t speak English proves challenging.

IMG_0524While Tom directs everyone to afternoon tea, Paul suggested we hang back.  He returns to the food bin and grabs another handful.  I follow.  It takes a bit of convincing but eventually he woos a handsome stag to the fence.  After making friends with a few bits of food the wide eyed deer lets us rub his antlers; velvety soft.  This entices others to join and before we know it doe, lambs and sheep abound.  This is the experience I was longing for.

IMG_0504IMG_3594 (2)As we finish our tea and start towards the barn Tom calls for Belle to follow.  The well weathered gal lays between the second and third stair of the sprawling country estate.  Her tired face rests upon an outstretched paw, eyes winced shut in the bright afternoon sun, forcing a contorted grin and exposing a chin full of white wiry hair.  She ignores his call in a show of defiance or more likely deafness.  He calls for her again, this time in a louder more insistent tone and she rouses only to stretch and yawn before sauntering slowly in his direction.  The old girl is but a vexatious thorn in an otherwise magnificent display of voluminous pink roses, sweet smelling lavender and trumpeted fox gloves manicured to cinematic perfection on the windswept shore.

Tom closes the IMG_0474gate and we fan out along the fence in anticipation.  He removes the metal collar from around Belle’s neck and she morphs into a magnificent beast.   A genetic refinement of speed and agility, half border collie, half Australian cattle dog, she effortlessly bounds high into the hillside to retrieve the four little meringues.  In a beatnik cadence of barks and baas she rounds them to her master with skillful precision.  Her chest heaves and falls under heavy breath but her eyes never leave the target as she tilts her ears towards her master and waits for instruction.  With each guiding word to “step” she drops a paw.  Nails pierce the dirt and she slogs her belly across the earth flattening the roughage like a rattlesnake hunting prey in the bush.  Impressive!

IMG_3597Catching a sheep for the shearing demonstration proves challenging even for a seasoned professional.  Overcome with stage fright and crouched in a seated position, front hooves pressed firmly together she slides onto stage under pressure from her handler.  This being her second sheer this year I’m pretty sure the little sheep knew what to expect and needless to say was not looking forward to her impending trim.  A struggle ensues, a haphazard dance of sorts as Tom wrestles the fuzzy cloud onto her back.  Stillness.  Defeat.  Hooves in the air she relaxes in to a sedentary trance.  For some reason being upside down is calming to sheep.  With one hunky farmhand curl Tom pulls her into a seated position flexing his biceps for the audience; her fluffy bum atop his shoes, her shoulder blades pressed firmly against his thighs and her hooves spread eagle for all to see.   Yep, she’s definitely a girl.

They swivel towardIMG_0492 the audience and he smiles triumphantly.  I focus my camera; it’s time to begin.  From my vantage point at the back of the barn the sheer is smooth and dramatic; like clearing fresh snow from a car windshield; one long swipe after another, but as I zoom in for an up close shot, I get a vastly different perspective.  Like a hungry adolescent devouring an ear of silver queen; the clippers travel her body row by row in a series of uneven bites revealing a nappy gnarled cob.  Embarrassed and defeated she scrambles in place still bound by her captor.  Her hooves scarring the platform with deep gashes as her heels dig in under the pressure from her voluptuous legs.  Nearly nude and on shameful display as though she were a piece of meat she cowers back to the pen.  I feel my cheeks blush empathetically.IMG_0515

 

Milford Sound

IMG_0385

There is one good way to see Milford Sound, well two, ok three and yes, we did them all!  Months before arriving in New Zealand Paul booked two splurge items, a shark dive in Bluff (more on that later) and a plane, boat, helicopter tour of Milford Sound.  Both activities required a fair amount of persuasion on his part as danger at premium is not my idea of a good time.  I’m pretty sure he knowingly and conveniently omitted information about a deadly helicopter crash on nearby Fox Glacier a few weeks prior; details I learn from my seatmate on the plane ride over.  As for the cost, to this day I still don’t know exactly how much this experience set us back.  Paul’s calculation of the conversion rate from US to New Zealand dollars seems to improve with each swipe of the Visa.  But we’re on vacation and it’s already paid for, so I’m not going to worry about it.

IMG_0264Our day starts with a 9am call from the front desk.  First stop the Queenstown airport.  From Queenstown, Milford Sound is a winding three and a half hour drive, but just over a 20 minute flight (30 minutes if you take the scenic route).  Kerri picks us up in the lobby and we arrive at the hanger a short time later.  Air Milford is a family owned business. Both father and son fly.  After greeting his mother (Kerri) with a quick hug Captain Arthur joins us for a safety briefing.  Looks like it’s going to be full flight so someone is going to have to sit copilot.   Paul’s hand shoots up.  Guess that means I’ll be riding solo.

We board the IMG_020514 passenger Cessna, Paul in the front and me in the first row right behind the pilot.  This is good, one engine, one pilot and Paul as the backup.  And it looks like our “copilot” is more interested in suctioning his GoPro to the window at just the right angle than figuring out what a copilot actually does.  As Captain Arthur preforms one last check of the plane’s exterior I notice a gold placard just below the control column: Thy Mercy, O Lord, Is In The Heavens, And Thy Faithfulness, Reacheth Unto The Clouds, Psalm 36v5.  I say a little prayer.  Small planes always make me a bit nervous.

IMG_0212Once I get past the small plane thing and the fact Captain Arthur likes to fly uncomfortably close to the ice capped mountains in order to give us “a proper view” I relax a bit.  His voice is very soothing.   It also helps that the skies are relatively calm and that we haven’t experienced any turbulence.

The progression from the lush Queenstown hillside to snow-capped peaks is a brilliant contrast.  Mountains grow nearer, terrain steeper, and the forest fades into a barren land of jagged rock pocketed with glassy pools of melted snow.  As we crest the top I look down at the magnificent mountains powdered with frozen tops and try to take it all in.  Endless pristine wilderness as far as the eye can see.  A splendid sequence of unending three-sixty panorama.

We arrive at the auction IMG_0260house (aka the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal).  At the end of the runway is a large contemporary building framed in metal with gigantic glass windows.  We disembark and gravitate toward the natural flow of people heading toward the terminal.  Capitan Arthur brings up the rear. The experience makes me feel a bit like a New Zealand sheep being herded in from pasture.  The trickle of tourists pools at the entrance.  Pilots and bus drivers herd the flock through the sliding glass doors in preparation for sale to the eager vendors inside.  The terminal swells with people bunched like little flocks waiting wide eyed for instruction as representatives from the cruise ships push through making their selections.

IMG_0266Card in hand we follow the other red sheep down a ramp leading onto our ship, The Pride of Milford.  Blue sheep make their way on too, but are lead to the main deck.  Here they are presented with black shiny bento boxes filled with neatly arranged pockets of sushi, veggies and orange wedges.  We spend the first few minutes outside on the upper most deck, but I get cold shortly after takeoff and retreat inside away from the wind.  Paul stays behind.

I find a makeshift seat just outside the bridge and strike up conversation with the captain.  After a few formalities he launches into the fascinating history of the sound periodically stopping to say a few words to the other passengers on the intercom.  He would like to broadcast more but resists the desire to do so.  The passengers get a bit fussy when his commentary is not followed up with the Korean translation.  He hits a button, sits back and smiles.  A monotone voice in an unfamiliar tongue fills the silence directing our attention to the fjords.

IMG_0273

Ah! The Fjords.  A fun word indeed sure to get you strange looks as most have no idea what they are (present company included until this trip).  A long narrow inlet carved into the mountains by massive glaciers travelling down to the sea.

IMG_0294My favorite part of the cruise is trying to spot fur seals on shore.  They are remarkably hard to see as they blend in beautifully with the rocks.  What’s not camouflaged is their terrible odor; like eggs cooking on an old car tire.  Each time I get a whiff I hold my breath point my camera towards shore, hoping to root them out with the zoom lens.  Our captain tells us these are young males that have been kicked out of the heard.  The youngsters retreat to Milford Sound in order to grow strong and hopefully win a harem of females next breeding season.  To me these fur seals look more like fuzzy rocks than gladiators preparing for combat.  Physical exertion is limited to the IMG_0317occasional scratch behind the ear or a ninety degree turn to sun the other side.

Paul favors the waterfalls.  Dwarfed by the enormous mountains most are actually three times the height of Niagara Falls.  Just past The Lion (a 4,300-foot mountain in the shape of a crouching feline) our captain directs our attention to The Four Sisters; a series of falls that appear together following heavy rain.  This magical water is said to hold powers of enteral youth.  Following the Korean translation the deck fills with tourists dancing and snapping photos beneath the frigid water.  We return to shore to meet Butch our last vendor of the day.

IMG_0354Riding in a helicopter is an unusual and somewhat frightening experience.  I liken it to sitting on a washing machine, the kind that churns upright with an agitator in the center.  As the final rinse commences the laundry room door closes with an unsuspecting click and the voracious gushing intensifies bouncing from one wall to another in a futile attempt to escape.  Inside the belly of the machine the wet load purges itself of the remaining suds clinging to the side of the drum in a giant wad creating an interrupting “woom“ with each rotation.  Faster and faster it goes into an uncontrollable whirl as wobbly legs give way under stable ground.

This is serious business.  The safely belt pins my shoulders tight against the palpitating seat.  Headset securely fastened I nod in agreement.  I have no idea what Butch said, but I’m pretty sure yes it the correct answer.  The whirling intensifies and I grip Paul’s hand as the helicopter begins to rock back and forth.  This was a really bad idea.  Next thing I know we’re airborne.

IMG_0369

A short time later Butch opens the door and I peer out into this wild new terrain.  Deafened by the howling noise of the helicopter turbines I follow the others out into the silence.  A thin layer of ice covers the thick fluffy snow.  IMG_0387I crunch through it with deep, heavy steps as wet slushy snow moistens my toes and tickles my ankles.  As I look out into snowy horizon I am blinded by its brightness.  When my eyes finally adjust I can only stand still and try to take it all in.  It is almost too much.  This is quite simply one of the most picturesque places in the world. Yep, worth every penny!

 

Queenstown NZ Part II

IMG_3418We spend the first four nights of our trip in Queenstown.  It should have been five but was almost three thanks to a pilots strike at Air Tahiti.  “No worries” as the Kiwis say.  We had a restful night at the Crown Plaza in LA and even managed to squeeze in lunch with Aunt Mary Beth before catching a 7:55pm flight directly to Auckland on Air New Zealand.  One hour on the tarmac, twelve long hours in the air, another thirty minutes waiting for an available gate, followed by thirty minutes in customs and we are finally there! Well, sort of.

We stand broken and exhausted at the mercy of a cheery customer service agent trying to rebook our missed flight to Queenstown.  A small silver Christmas tree blocks my view of her screen.  Christmas music fills the silence as she toggles the mouse back and forth across the desk shaking her head disapprovingly with each click.  The impatient couple behind us inches closer.  The wife drops her bags with a grown.  Her husband crosses his arms and clears his throat disapproving.  I pretend not to notice.  The line grows as four more unhappy travelers join the cause, dreams of happy holidays abroad crushed under over booked flights and lost baggage.  I hate Christmas music.  We’ve missed our connection by 40 minutes thanks to two guys with Visa issues who held up the plane in LA and never even boarded.  With our only option to Queenstown being a 2pm departure the following day, we opt for a flight to Dunedin instead.

IMG_0203I could have sworn she said the flight left at 11:15am but over our 8:00am lunch we realize the departure time is actually 15:15; seven hours from now.  Christmas music fills the silence once again.  After exploring every inch of the Auckland airport, the adjoining hotel and consuming our second overpriced mediocre lunch of the day we finally board.  When we arrive in Dunedin two hours later we’ve been awake for thirty-five hours straight.  As we wait out front for our rental car Paul chuckles.  We’re both glad he sprung for the extra car insurance.  He turns on the windshield wipers signaling his intention to merge right as we pull out onto the left-hand side of the road and begin our three-and-a-half-hour journey to the hotel.  Next time I hope he’ll use the turn signal.

FullSizeRender (1) (2)

The Doubletree Queenstown is just as expected clean, modern and free (we’re staying on points of course!).  Gold and diamond members have access to all the amenities at the Hilton across the street including a great IMG_3497hot tub and a top notch breakfast.  We have a nice view of lake Wakatipu from our third floor balcony.  The hotel is about fifteen minutes from city central.  The first two days we drive; on the third day we take the hotel shuttle.  It’s also located less than two miles from the airport; convenient for those who actually get to fly to Queenstown.

IMG_0015In a city full of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts where a clean pair of dark jeans represents the high mark of formality, traversing the Queenstown garden made me feel surprisingly underdressed.  Magnificent piles of soft fluffy petals fanned perfectly atop well tamed stems in an explosion of regal femininity. Their airy velveteen edges rising gently toward the summer rays exposing the remnants of morning dew.  This is truly one of the most beautiful rose gardens IMG_0450I’ve ever seen.  Voluminous blooms in in blushing shades of red, pink, yellow and white.  I love them all but the Patty Stephens is by far my favorite.  Paul finds the perfect bloom and snaps a picture.  I lay on the lawn and take in the sun.  We enjoy the Queenstown Gardens so much that we actually come back for a second visit two days later.

IMG_0197Athletics aren’t really my thing, but I do consider myself relativity fit.  However, a hundred steps into the Queenstown Hill hike I thought I was going to die.  Two important notes about this trail.  First, it begins at Belfast Terrace not the end of Malaghan Street as noted on the map.  Second, I don’t care what the sign says this “hill” is really a mountain.  If you’re looking for a leisurely hike, stick with the Queenstown Gardens.  We make the drive up the winding road to the end of Malaghan and find a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood with exactly four parking places, three of which are available.  How convenient!  A small sign points to an opening in the overgrown bush blanketed with hard packed gravel.  About thirty steps in we round the corner and are presented with about sixty stairs, each with at least a 12-inch rise.  Paul bounds ahead as I lumber behind, the distance between us increasing with each step.  About ten paces in exhausted and gasping for air I find myself bent over at the waist hands on hips, eyeballs to the ground trying to cough up a breath. Tottering side to side like a whisky fed hen foraging for food I waddle up.  This position albeit a bit strange is the only way I can muster the steep incline and ensure gravity doesn’t play any unsuspecting tricks.

FullSizeRender (2)

Paul stops at every overlook, climbs every rock and reads every sign.  I trudge slowly behind promising to take in the views on the descent.  We finally reach the top in what feels like record speed.  Paul checks his phone.  In total from the actual start of the trail it takes about 40 minutes.  IMG_0181 (2)The sign at the bottom estimates one and a half to two and a half hours to the top and back.  Sitting on a rock at the highest point of Queenstown Hill I take in the views for the very first time.  Spectacular!  During our decent I join Paul at each overlook for more views of the area and even climb into the Basket of Dreams for a quick photo.

Queenstown NZ Part I

Satisfied with the tautness of AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0002-Cam02 (2)the ankle strap he reaches for the first of two carabiners and clips it into the nylon loop positioned perfectly between the legs, just slightly above the bridge of the feet.  Snap! His hands continue up the nylon strap right over left inching uncomfortably close to the crotch.  The right hand releases springing up to the belly then hooking down toward the navel.  His thumb extends forward breaking open the second clip.  The carabineer collides with the metal D-ring and closes back upon itself.  Snap! Snap! One final tug on the harness confirms a snug fit around the waist.  Two painful hops toward the ledge; feet heavy with hesitation, legs jelly with nerves.  One final look down . . . way down.  His outstretched hand points towards a platform on the adjacent mountain side.  One final picture.  One final breath.  Peripheral vision wains to the drum of a single heartbeat.  One… Two… Three… Bungy!  Not A Chance.  Fortunately, my moment of clarity came well before this point.  My twenty-minute trip from Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge was simply to document Paul’s Bungy jumping experience.  And that’s exactly what I did.

AJ HackettIMG_0061 Bungy is a brilliant example of social media marketing at its best, drawing thrill seekers from around the world thirsting for a sip of excitement and the sharable content to commemorate the moment.  Appealing to emotions of those looking for a visceral high and the desire to join an “elite” club of the truly nuts.  Bungy jumping is a rush of excitement for mind, body and wallet to the tune of about $10 a second.  Through the top of the giant bee hive we go down the long spiral ramp which hugs the inner wall of the dome.  Massive flat screen TVs line the walls depicting raw expressions of adrenaline madness amplified with pulsating techno music.  Equally as cool as the facility are the crew employed.  At the bottom of the bee hive we are led to a desk by a rugged Kiwi sporting a partially groomed beard and a lip ring.  His dreadlocks, pulled loosely back, expose the sides closely sheered three or so inches above his ears.  Few occupations lend themselves well to this hair style, IMG_0062fortunately for him Bungy jumping instructor is one of them.  After signing his life away Paul is weighed and marked with two numbers, his weight on his left hand and his photo number on his right.  A quick swipe of the Visa and we were ready to go.  Jump or no jump the Bungy experience is non-refundable from this point forward.

At this point we spilt.  Paul goes to the bridge to get fitted for his harness.  I head to the photo deck to join the other spectators, most of which are Korean.  As I write this Korea is experiencing an economic boom.  The New Zealand Tourism Consulate has wisely responded with a full on advertising campaign designed to make Korean travel fluid.  Korean translated maps and brochures dot every visitor center and almost all guides we meet can say hello, goodbye and thank you in Korean; many know much more.  At least for the time Korean in Queenstown is as common as Spanish in Florida.

In the AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0004-Rovingfive days we’ve been here I’ve come to love Korean tourists.  In fact, should there be a list on the best tourist worldwide I do believe Koreans would rank at the top.  With amenable dispositions and adventurous spirits they are great at lines (forming them and standing in them for long periods), as well as some of the first to volunteer for the chance to try something new.  Want to dance under the frigid waters of the Milford Sound Falls?  Sure why not!  Cheesy lanyards and logoed hats provided by tour companies, others toss in the trash, they wear happily.  Yes, their eager nature makes them quick to crowd to the front but they are so jovial and polite it’s hard to find fault.  Besides, the tallest among them is still a good six inches shorter than me so by all means crowd ahead. Surrounded by Korea tourists I watch the barrage of jumpers hurl themselves from the bridge one right after another.  The entire process takes about 5 minutes and each reaction is the same providing me with ample mAJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0007-Rovingaterial to assess the typical Bungy jumping experience without actually having to take the plunge.  In describing the sheer and uncontrollable panic experienced by the jumper in the 20 seconds leading up to the fall, I draw on my one and only skydive experience (never again!).  Hey, every great story includes a bit of creative licensing.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0008-RovingWith each jump my comrades cheer with delight, their $3,000 cameras fixated on the platform ready to capture every shot.  I’m pretty sure they have one or two friends at the top but they take pictures of every single jumper with unrelenting focus and enthusiasm.  Finally, Paul enters the shoot and the hook up process beings.  I step closer to the rail.  Eyeball to the lens I zoom in for a close-up view of the process and snap a few quick photos.  After passing inspection Paul grabs the metal bar, pulls himself to his feet and rotates 180 degrees.  Still holding on to the bar he takes two backwards hops to the edge of the platform, looks down, and stops.  What is he doing?  Every Korean camera goes up, cell phones and iPads too.  The chatter intensifies.  After a satisfying nod at the angry waters below he looks out toward the observation desk and scans for me.  I wave.  Yes, I’m paying attention.  Don’t want to miss this and have to pay for a second jump. AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0010-Roving I can feel the Korean on my left looking at me for a response.  I shake my head.  Yep, it looks like he is going to jump backwards, that’s not surprising.  He reciprocates with something in Korean.  I nod and he jumps with delight.  Having broken the language barrier, I motion for him to move so I can steady my arm on the rail.  He complies.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0012-RovingTwo more hops on the platform.  Heels suspended in midair Paul rises on the balls of his feet.  A GoPro mounted securely to his wrist to capture the full decent.  Back arched, arm splayed, he rolls his head back and he gazes into the heavens above.  One small jump and he falls into the sky.  The ride is intense but fast, so fast he is in and out of the water before I have a chance to process it.  Good thing, I had no idea this was part of the plan.  What looks like a hard splash from my vantage point he assures me was just a light dip in the water.  As he nears the river the enormous rubber band takes hold slowing his decent.  The band recoils and releases several more times before the ride finally comes to an end.  Paul is left hanging upside down about 10 feet above the water waiting for two men in a life boat to break him free.  As he lay flat in the boat I lean over the sideIMG_0139 of the platform and we make eye contact once again.  I wave and he gives me two thumbs up.  He joins me a few minutes later outside the beehive quite pleased with his accomplishment and soaking wet from the waist up.  I’m glad it’s over.  He’s happy they threw in a “free” dry t-shirt.  Welcome to New Zealand indeed.  It’s sure to be an exciting three weeks.

Japan Part II

What is perfection?  How do you achieve perfection?  Is this goal a fool’s errand?  After my time in Tokyo these are the questions I am left with.  Before I came to Asia I read a book about Bushido.  For me it was about just that, the pursuit of perfection.  The quest to know life in every breath and to truly live life to its fullest.  Now I’m not sure if that was the point or even the lesson I was supposed to learn but that’s what I got from it.  Whether or not these goals are attainable is not the point it’s the pursuit of them that matters.IMG_3982

Throughout my time in Asia I saw little glimpses of this pursuit, especially when visiting a Buddhist temple, but nowhere was it more evident then in Tokyo.  The simple act of making a beverage for a patron is something I thought I was well versed.  When bartending in college if a guest ordered a whiskey & ginger, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on how to make and serve that straightforward cocktail:  Put ice in glass, tip the bottle of chosen whiskey, count 1…2…3…4… and if you are feeling nice 5…6, fill the remainder with ginger ale, serve with a lime.  Simple right?  After seeing our bartender do this at the Hilton concierge lounge, I can unequivocally say no.  He took this simple act of making my beverage and with no flare whatsoever made me stop and stare, mouth gaping, contemplating my life.  I swear to you my drink tasted better because of the effort that was put in.  It wasn’t just the extra steps he took of chilling the glass and the whiskey or how he shook the concoction before pouring it out.  It was how he performed these steps, every one practiced, deliberate and fluid.  This man took his job very seriously and it made me reflect. Have I ever done the same in my life… for anything?

I am embarrassed to say that for Katherine and I, Tokyo was an afterthought, a place to stop because it was on the way home.  “Why not” I said, “we’ll be there anyway.” It was the one place on our journey we did minimal research.  The extent of my study was the aforementioned book on Bushido and an episode of Anthony Bourdains’ “Parts Unknown, Tokyo”.  Side note, that’s how we ended up at the Robot Restaurant.

Through TripAdviser.com and our knowledgeable concierge staff we ended IMG_3997up booking an experience that will not soon be forgotten, a traditional tea ceremony at Happo-En.  To this day I get chills every time I think about our experience in that beautiful garden.  We arrived by subway (which we had finally figured out) a little early.  Met at the entrance, we were asked for our reservation and invited to explore the beautiful grounds as we waited.

When it was time a traditionally dressed women greeted us and escorted us through the property to a historic bamboo teahouse where the ceremony would take place.  With simple gestures the hostess invited us in and instructed us to have a seat at the table.  In almost complete silence, except for the sound of the fire crackling in the stone hearth, the ceremony began.  IMG_3972I was again awestruck and left speechless by the absolute reverence that each movement was given during the ceremony. The relatively simple process of making tea was reconstructed into an intricate dance between the hostess, teacups and the utensils, with every motion done for a specific purpose. We drank our tea making sure, as instructed, to turn the bowl so as to not drink from the front (bad luck I assume).  After the ceremony we exchanged pleasantries took some pictures and departed.

On our way out of the garden we passed a collection of bonsai trees, some over 500 years old.

The care and devotion that it takes to keep something alive for that long astounds me.  We lingered here for a while taking pictures and enjoying the peace and calm that had taken hold of us.  It was a welcome respite from the concrete jungle awaiting.  I still think of that day in times of stress.  It reminds me to keep calm, slow down and respect the moment.

During our last night in Tokyo I sat in the lounge enjoying one last “perfect” whiskey & ginger, looked to my right and who was sitting there but our tailor “Tony” of Simpson Sin in Hong Kong from 3 weeks earlier.  IMG_3892The sheer probability of numbers that we should meet in Tokyo boggles my mind.  But there he was asking if we enjoyed our trip.  As I sat there mouth gaping for the 3rd time that day, all I could think was, this world is not so big after all.

Katherine and I disembarked our plane from the long trip home picked up our luggage and as we started out to the cold night we looked at each other, she asked “Are you ready to go home?” I said “Nope” she replied “Me neither.”  This adventure opened our eyes to so many new things: cultures, people, food, philosophies and religions, making us realize that it’s more worthwhile to collect experiences instead of collecting things.  I have to admit it was very hard to adjust back to “normal” life.  I don’t think we will ever stop traveling or exploring the world.  As we get older and eventually start a family we may have to limit the duration or distance of those trips but that’s ok.  For now I think the only question we need to ask ourselves is “Where to next?”

Japan

IMG_3886 With a connection through Japan’s Narita International Airport and enough Hilton points for a free three night stay we decided to extend our trip a few days and explore Tokyo. Unfortunately, this completed the planning portion of our trip. I know! We planned all our other stops, but when we got to Tokyo we just dropped the ball. Looking back, a general idea of the distance from the airport to the hotel would have been a good place to start, but by this point in the trip we were tired of planning we decided to throw caution to the wind and just wing it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I wasn’t even aware that downtown Tokyo was a good 90 minutes from the airport until 15 minutes into our bus ride there.

DSCN1657 (1)Because the Metro was just a few blocks from our hotel and because we found it easy to navigate in both Hong Kong and Bangkok we naturally assumed traveling Tokyo by rail would be just as simple. Boy were we wrong! There’s a reason the Japanese Metro system tops the Tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Tokyo (yes it’s currently #4). Riding the metro is certainly a challenging task. To start, the subway is made up of two train operators; Tokyo Metro “JR” and Toei Subway. JR is a private rail system which operates 179 stations on nine lines and Toei is a government run system with 106 stations on four lines. The systems are closely integrated, sharing stations, but not payment thus you cannot use a ticket purchased through JR on Toei or vice versa. This would have been good information to know prior to arriving at the station. Add to that the fact that in some areas of the city the train runs three levels deep, meaning from the top of the platform you may have to take two additional escalators and pass four tracts before locating the train you’re supposed to be on.  Yes to a foreigner with no background information on the rail system the map just looks like a hot mess of spaghetti.

Being that we were staying at the Hilton IMG_4088Tokyo in the financial district and it was 8am on a Monday the rail station was was full of corporate types making their regular morning commute; too distracted by i-phones and time constraints to notice two very lost tourist trying to buy their first tickets on the Tokyo rail.

We were starting to lose hope, but all a sudden like a beacon of light in the tumultuous pool of black and gray suits two golden robed monks appeared. Frustration turned to relief as I watched them approach my disheveled husband. With praying hands and subtle smiles the tiny men stood just inches from Paul’s outstretched handIMG_1285 watching him stare defeatedly at the map. Sensing an audience Paul drew back the paper to see two tiny baldheaded men staring up at him. After exchanging a couple of nods the monks motioned for him to come closer. As he did they pulled out a shiny gold card and gave it to him along with wishes for lifetime of peace in broken English. Then one of the men raised a small coin purse and waited patiently for a response. Paul opened his wallet and handed the man $5usd but the purse remained high in the air with countenance now turning from contentment to condemnation as the monks pressed him for more. After forking over $20usd and another $20 for “the girl” they turned and disappeared back in the sea of suits.  So $40 lighter after our encounter with the two “alleged monks” and still no idea how to ride the train we headed back to the hotel to regroup.

Is this a dream or a nightmare? DSCN1700The last thing I remember is stepping out of a cab, walking down an alley and backing into a door as this ten foot tall half woman half robot (mostly breast) machine rolled onto the scene. Falling down the rabbit hole deep in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district through migraine-inducing neon, video screens and 3-D jungle graffiti into the not so Disney version of “Alice in the mind of a teenage boy video gamer world.” I was at a complete loss for words. Sensory overload coupled with the incessant pounding of beamstaiko drums and last year’s American club music made simply walking a straight line nearly impossible.

IMG_3936The staircase opened into a large pit with stadium style seating on either side. After being lead to our table and handed our preordered bento boxes we were literally chained into the seating area. Yes, I definitely need a drink, make it two. Our entry fee included two bento boxes, though we both agreed we could find tastier fare in an average convenience store.   Sure hope the show is better than the food. One and a half cocktails later the lights dimmed and the drumming began.

Two tiered platforms with IMG_3937at least a dozen hot Japanese girls rolled in from opposing sides in some sort of sexy choreographed game of chicken. Laser beams moved back in forth across the floor showering the glittery vixens in shades of red and green.   The moving platforms gyrated up as the girls swung around conveniently places stripper poles in ridiculously small bikinis which were clearly designed to squeeze every last bounce out of their giggly physics as the crowd waved their glow sticks in the air enthusiastically like drunken groupies at an EDM concert. Then the show just got weird. First came the mirrored tank with flashing lights, and then another fight scene followed by a random stuffed panda running across the stage. Intermission brought more drinks,IMG_3928 then the lights dimmed and the craziness continued, motorized bikes, several somethings resembling the terminator with clown hair, then the finale.  Out came massive “bustybots” for a little robot on robot action.  Yeah, the pictures about sums it up.  This Siskel and Ebert pair gives Robot Restaurant one thumbs up and the other thumbs down (way down).

Having just endured three hours of “man fun” I decided now was the perfect opportunity to pull the estrogen card. So over breakfast I casual suggested that since we had the morning free we squeeze in a little kabuki; and off to the theater we went. The primary difference between kabuki and traditional theater is the duration. At the Kabukiza Theatre, production begins at 10:30am IMG_4004and runs until nearly 8pm, but your not expected to stay all day. Balcony seats are sold by the act allowing commerce to continue at every intermission. The lights come on and a borage of new people appear. Not happy with your seat? No problem, simply wait for the next break and commandeer a new one. Going in I was a bit concerned that we wouldn’t grasp the concept being that we arrived three acts in and the show was entirely in Japanese. Not to fear, Paul rented me an English headset and up to the balcony we went. Not sure if Paul thought a British woman rambling the plot in his ear as the actors carried on in their native tongue would detract from the experience or if he was just planning to take a little nap after the lights went out, but we took our seats with just one headset containing a single earphone. Concerned that he wouldn’t be able to follow the story and finding myself with a few minutes to kill I set to task bringing Paul up to speed on acts one and two as he gave me his best “I’m fully engaged in this conversation” face and tried to act interested. No barely clad bods in this show. Infact, no women at all. Being male is a prerequisite to perform at the Kabuki Theatre.

IMG_4003Japansese Kabuki is just as I imagined. Powdered white faces and beautiful traditional kimonos. Lots of slow controlled movement with minimumal words causing you to lean thoughtfully in like elementry children listening to a teacher’s whisper. Then sudden outbursts of sullen cries or joyful adulation shaking the audience to their cores and filling every inch of the theater. What amazing pitch for someone with an Adams apple!  Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of our Kabuki experience as picture taking during the performance is strictly forbidden. Official looking Japanese ladies perched on bar height stools throughout the auditorium sit ready to swoop down and snatch contraband from anyone who dare try and break the rules.

On our last full day in IMG_4076Tokyo we got up extra early for an up-close look at the Tsukiji fish market. I know it sounds crazy to get up before dawn to walk around a seafood market in the freezing cold, but this place is absolutely incredible. Famous for being the world’s largest fish market each day Tsukiji moves over 5 million pounds of seafood totaling more than 28 million usd. What’s even more incredible is that you don’t smell fish anywhere in the 56 acre complex. That’s because this place draws the freshest and best seafood from all over the world; more than 60 countries.  Crab from Alaska and Russia, tuna from Spain and Croatia, sea urchin from Oregon and Australia and anchovies from Peru. Many of the ocean’s finest delicacies arrive still alive, shipped from their native lands with extra special care.

TDSCN1777sukiji Market consists of an inner market with wholesale business and the famous tuna auctions, and an outer market with retail shops and restaurants cater to the public. Although the fish market does try to be tourists friendly, it is clearly business first, tourism second in the inner parts of the market. The tuna auction actually closed about 60 minutes prior.  We would have liked to see it, but the market has a strict no tourist allowed during busy season policy so we arrived fashionable late – ten till seven.  It’s aIMG_4052 little after 7am when we enter one of the warehouses. A severed tentacle nearly four feet long stares up at me like a fallen log with a sprinkling of shiny inverted mushrooms plump after a heavy rain while its captor decapitates a fish on the adjacent board. Squid pour into barrels with a slosh like the sound of a loosed jowled woman slurping scalding soup from a spoon.
IMG_4050 After a few laps around we headed to the outer market taking care to stay out of the path of the mini carts hauling boxes of styrofoam full of seafood motoring about. In the center of the courtyard atop a large cement pillar stands a uniformed guard whistle in mouth hands flailing up and down with each tweet of his whistle. It’s time to get some sushi. We duck down under a band of flags into a tiny restaurant with a single L-shaped counter and take a seat. We are presented with a menu written entirely in Japanese. On the wall perpendicular to our stools hangs a picture of our chef with the president of Amazon.

IMG_4031Paul points to several of the pictured items on the menu and the small Japanese woman nods her head. Not sure what we ordered, not sure Paul knows either. All of a sudden I am overcome with guilt as I realize my decision to eat sushi will most likely lead to certain death for some poor sea creature on the other side of that wall.

The quality of the fishIMG_4037 is apparent at first bite.  The meat is lightly marbleized, medium fatty tuna from the upper belly, with a hint of wasabi and a slightly acidic rice which subdues my palate.  I place the entire piece in my mouth and close my lips tightly. It melts like butter into a sublime and heavenly flavor as I swallow. I am forever spoiled to Japanese sushi.