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Japan: Take 2

The best laid plans of mice…

-Slartibartfast

When I left Canada nearly six weeks ago it was with the promise that I would be blogging nearly every day.  I said that I was going to be traveling around the country on the week-ends, I would be taking a ton of pictures, and I would be blogging about my experiences.

While I have blogged a little bit over the past few weeks, it has not been nearly as much as I had hoped.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. I have been busier with work than I anticipated.  It has all been a good kinda busy, but busy nonetheless.
  2. My accommodations, while not generally uncomfortable, are, for me, not conducive to writing.
  3. While in many ways the trip has been going extremely well, I suppose I have been in a bit of a funk.

Does that mean that I have not been traveling?  That I have once again wasted this wonderful opportunity of travel abroad?  Definitely not.  While I have not traveled as much as I would have liked to, I have taken a few trips:

  • My regular readers will know that I spent a wonderful week-end in Kyoto a few weeks ago.
  • I have taken two day trips to see Mount Fuji, and to experience the areas around the mountain.
  • While Shibuya is in Tokyo, I spent two incredible evenings over Halloween taking pictures there.
  • I have booked an evening next Saturday in Nara, so I will get there by train earlier in the day, toddle around, and in the morning I will take another tour.

12194657_10153088877761898_2047175420690303089_oNow, I should mention that between my two trips to see Mount Fuji, or Fuji-San as it is referred to here, both of them were to one degree or another a bust.  On my first trip the weather was completely overcast… from the moment I got up in Tokyo until the moment I went to sleep the rain and clouds did not abate.  This picture, taken on the shores of Lake Yamanaka-ko, shows Mount Fuji in the background… if you are able to see through the clouds, which I am not.

Doshi Rest Area 3 - CopyThat doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a great time on the trip.  Simon and I met at the train station where we rented the car, and took the scenic route into the country.

Our first stop was the Japanese equivalent of a Rest Area… only it was not the generic, cookie-cutter type area that I am used to.  It was called the Doshi Service Area, and it was gorgeous, relaxing, and very… restful.  It was built on the banks of a stream, and offered an opportunity to take some great pictures.  Although there was ‘fast food’ available for purchase, there was also a delicacy of fish grilled on a stick.  I opted for a bag of crisps instead.

As we drove along the Pacific Coast (on the Tokkaido Road.  What was once the ancient roadway during the times of the Samurai is now a nice stretch along the ocean with tourist spots and surfing and sun bathing.  According to one of my friends, you have to be very aware of the hawks along this stretch… not because they are a danger to you, rather because they will steal your food right out of your hands.  I was tempted to stop and pick up a sandwich just to experience this, but I decided to put that aside for another day.

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We stopped for lunch at a traditional Japanese Soba restaurant.  I had experienced several ‘authentic’ Japanese restaurants where you seemed to sit on the floor, but under the table there was a hole to put your legs and sit normally.  Not here… You could sit cross-legged, on your knees, or straight-legged with your legs under the table if you wanted, but this was the real deal.  They cut their soba noodles by hand, and you could order any drink you wanted… as long as you wanted tea.  It was a wonderful experience, and even if I hadn’t been pretty comfortable, it was my goal to experience the real Japan during my stay.  This is as real as it gets!

After lunch we went for a tour of the Kirin Gotemba Distillery.  We got to see how they make and store whisky, and at the end of the tour we got to taste it.  While it was a nice experience, I think the whisky they produce there (yes, they are blends) are sub-par.  They gave us two drams, neither of which was worth my time.  I did however buy a set of six whisky glasses for my bar at home – the base has a 3D carving of Mount Fuji, which when you pour your liquid in takes on that hue.  Truly very nice, and I hope they survive the plane ride!

…And then we arrived at the highlight of the day trip.  The best thing that could possibly have happened on this rainy Sunday afternoon.  We arrived at the Onsen.

If I had to pick one thing that the Japanese do soooo much better than anyone else, it is the Onsen.

The mountains around Mount Fuji and Hakone are quite volcanic.  Because of that, and I expect because of their proximity to the ocean, there is an abundance of hot springs.  The onsen is a hot spring bathing area.  You enter, removing and storing your shoes at the entrance.  You are given a wrist band which is good for everything… it is your ID, but it also has a bar code so that anything you want to buy while on the premises (and aside from the restaurant there is also a gift shop) will simply be charged to your account – in other words, you can walk around in a towel, go in and out of the baths, and do anything you would like without having to carry or go get your wallet – or worry about it getting wet.

After we finished a very relaxing afternoon, we decided to head into Hakone to get dinner… and buy a particular candy that is hand made there, and which my friend Simon is quite partial to.  I was hoping to look into an art shop or two, but we spent too much time at onsen and only got to town when the stores were closing.  Oh well Smile

I mentioned I had taken two trips to Fuji-San; as wonderful as the first was, the second was essentially a waste of time and money.  Simon, who took me the first time, knew exactly where to go, what routes to take, and so on.  What he did not know, he asked.  My second trip was taken with a friend Jay who reminded me of… me, twenty years ago.  He thought he knew everything, refused help, and because of that we spent nearly five hours driving (to the wrong spot) and arriving with a very half-decent view of Fuji three minutes after sundown.  In other words, we saw the top of the mountain far in the distance… but not well enough to take a picture.  I did get a couple of decent shots of the lake… but that was not what I traveled for.  Oh well, live and learn.

While I started writing this article a few days ago, it is now Saturday at 12:26, and I am on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto, from where I will transfer to the train for Nara.  I am looking forward to my last weekend in Japan… even though I am dying to go home already.  This trip was too long without seeing my family.

Who would have guessed it by the way… After two failed trips, I just got some absolutely breathtaking pictures of Fuji-San from the train!  Wow, I feel blessed.  The mountain is truly a sight to see.  I am also blessed because this afternoon (or tomorrow morning) I will have the opportunity to feed the deer in Nara Park, and if you know me, you know I love wildlife!

A couple of months ago when I realized I was coming back to Japan I set certain goals for myself: I wanted to take a lot of pictures, I wanted to travel outside of Tokyo almost every weekend, and I wanted to blog a lot.  While I do not feel like I did a good job on achieving these goals, I didn’t do too badly.  I had seven weekends here, and I left Tokyo for four of them (although two were day-trips without an overnight).  I didn’t blog nearly enough, but that was in part because I have been very busy with work, and have not had the proper work area where I am staying to do so.  I have taken some breathtaking pictures though… not only of Fuji-San, but of nature, temples, shrines, and people.  It has been a wonderful experience (if a bit too long), and I am thrilled to have lived it.  I am also thrilled that in four days I am getting on a plane and coming home.

I will try to write another article, this time about Nara, on the train back tomorrow.  Unfortunately I did not bring my SD-Card Reader (www.juicedsystems.com) with me, so if I am going to include pictures I will not publish until after I am back.  However whether now or later, I promise you will see them!

A (Mostly) Boring Trip

I really did have images of going out and having fun every night.

I really planned to travel outside of Tokyo and see the country every weekend.

That is not what happened.

Don’t get me wrong… I have gone out for dinners, if mostly close to home.  I have also been spending a lot of time relaxing at a pleasant spot called Le Connoisseur Cigar Lounge – certainly not a Japanese name, and certainly not a French lounge.  But I have been enjoying it nonetheless (as seen in this article https://garvis.ca/2015/10/16/sushi-cigars-welcome-to-japan-mitch/).  It turns out that it is a chain of lounges, and I have spent many evenings at the one that is within walking distance of my apartment.

I have also traveled out of Tokyo twice – once by Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto), and once by car (with a friend) to Mount Fuji.  Well, he tells me we were at Mount Fuji… it was a very overcast and rainy day and the mountain was absolutely invisible through the clouds.  We made up for it though – we went for a very authentic lunch (on tatami mats on the floor and all) at a local restaurant, we went for a distillery tour at the Kirin Gotemba Distillery, and we spent a couple of hours in the onsen (hot springs) before having an agreeable dinner and then driving back to Tokyo.

But all in all, I am not doing even as much as I did the last time I was here… despite having more money to spend (if I wanted to), more free time (okay… about the same free time), and living a little closer to the action (I am four subway stops from Shibuya).

I am spending most of my evenings in one of two places – at the cigar lounge, or at the apartment.  Yes, after the first week in a hotel room slightly smaller than a respectable prison cell, the company found an apartment for me.  It may be small to some, but having moved out of the shoe box it feels utterly palatial to me.

I watch TV – that is to say, I download the American TV shows I would normally be watching at home – and I watch movies.  I do have work to do in the evenings, as I am still taking care of the network back in Oakville.  However if I wanted to there is no reason I couldn’t (if I so desired) be out exploring the city every night.  I just don’t seem to want to.

I want to be clear – I am not loving Tokyo less than I used to.  It is an amazing city and I love being here.  I probably went out more at the beginning of my stay – I went to Shibuya several evenings – but maybe it is the result of my being in a reasonably posh area; there is every sort of restaurant I might want to try (If you are following me on Facebook you will know that I have had Yakiniku, Soba, Tempura, and of course loads and loads of sushi… not to mention a couple of Chinese and a couple of Korean meals just to mix it up a bit.  All within a kilometer of my apartment.

I should mention that I am not staying home every night; I have gone out on the week-ends (Halloween was amazing, and I have also gone out with friends to a few different areas).  It is just a little less frequently than it could be… than it once was.

Maybe, a little too late, I am becoming the homebody that my ex-wife wished I had become much sooner.  Maybe I am just not enjoying being on the road as much as I used to.

I miss my kids… I speak with them on Skype and VoIP often enough, but it is not the same.  And of course, my girlfriend is all the way back there too.  It is harder to be separated from her for longer periods than it would have been for me a few years ago.  Maybe at long last I am growing up.  Maybe I am finally… Naaah!

I have really been enjoying my work, and I am glad to be here for that.  My boss and I discussed it earlier, and we agreed that this is the length of time we needed for me to be here for this project.  I am enjoying working with my team, and meeting other people on other teams.  It has been a blast, and I hope I can continue to work with this company on other projects when this one is over.  We’ll see…

Two weeks before I head home, and the trip is far from over.  I might still venture out of town one more time, and I have several evenings planned… with friends, colleagues, and even one with a reader who reached out to me.  How cool is that?  Each of those will be another evening of fun and excitement, hopefully exploring new places and areas and discovering new foods and treasures.

But unlike past trips, I am counting the days… I am so looking forward to getting home, to hugging my kids, playing with my dogs, and of course seeing Stephanie.

Fourteen days to go.

Kyoto is to Tokyo…

I got off the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Kyoto Station, which was a hustling and bustling place, just like Tokyo Marunouchi Station where I had embarked.  In fact while the layout was different and so were the shops, there wasn’t all that much to differentiate this building from all of the other major ports I had visited.  I might as well still be in Tokyo for all the difference it made.

I walked outside, and by the time I was a couple of blocks from the station I realized I was in a very different world from the Tokyo I had left behind less than three hours earlier.

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Don’t get me wrong… Kyoto is busy and bustling and there are lots of people around… but unlike Tokyo (where everything is modern and neon, unless you are around a temple or shrine), this city had a different look, a different feel… a different vibe, if you will.

At first I thought it was the slightly smaller scale.  When you exit the station it feels more manageable, less overwhelming.  It might be like traveling from Montreal to Calgary – the smaller city being easier to manage.

A hawk flying overhead at the Ginkakuji Shrine

Then I thought it might have to do with the people… Tokyo is a very stressful place after all, but Tokyo moreso than the rest of the country.  Maybe it was like going from Montreal to Vancouver – a little less stressed, a little more laid back.

And then someone told me that Kyoto had been spared the aerial bombardment that Tokyo endured during World War 2; he told me a story about American Secretary of War George Stimson who had honeymooned in Kyoto, and spared the city because of his wonderful memories of it.   In fact, Kyoto, was the top choice of the Targeting Committee tasked with deciding where to drop the first atomic bombs (this committee included Robert Oppenheimer).  Stimson did veto it, but it might have had more to do with the fact that Kyoto had little military significance, and the destruction would have been entirely civilian.  (Source: https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-Kyoto-Japan-was-nearly-bombed-in-WWII)

One of the gates to the Hingashi Honganji Shrine

So instead of having a city completely rebuilt after 1945 (while there are many older sites in Tokyo, many of the temples and shrines have been rebuilt to look like the originals), Kyoto actually has buildings and sites that date to the 15th century… and earlier.  Maybe a more accurate comparison would be to equate the Tokyo-Kyoto trip to the Toronto-Quebec City trip.  Tokyo and Toronto, the busiest metropolises in their respective countries, modern, crowded, stressed; both replete with modern skyscrapers reaching for the heavens.  Kyoto and Quebec City, calmer, quieter, shorter… while there are modern buildings, they are smaller, and there are many historical sites dating back hundreds of years, lovingly preserved; both more concerned with history, beauty, and culture than with the race to be the best.

One of the towers of the Hingashi Honganji Shrine

I could have spent another week in Kyoto and not seen everything there is to see.  I don’t know when I will be back, but I hope I will have the opportunity soon.

Kyoto: The Ancient Capital

The last time I was in Japan I did not leave Tokyo. This time I vowed would be different. Before I left Canada I bought several Japan Rail passes, and I was ready to explore.

After consulting with my peeps over here, and with Simon’s help tracking down a room (it seems autumn is a difficult season to your last minute!) I made plans to spend my first weekend out in Kyoto. Saturday morning I redeemed my first JR pass and boarded the 11:03 Shinkansen (bullet train) on the Osaka Line. I was in Kyoto at 1:44, having enjoyed the train ride even though I was working on a report.

Riyoyan 1I have stayed in enough ‘western style’ hotels to choke a horse, and the Tokyo Efficiency hotels are way too cramped. I reserved a Ryokan- a very traditional Japanese room, that looks very much like the ones you see in movies depicting the times of the Shogunate. I arrived after a short walk from the train station and was welcomed by the front desk, and a bellhop in traditional Japanese attire carried my bag to my room on the sixth floor. Upon entering the room I removed my shoes in the foyer, and walked into the tatami room. There was a table with a tea service, and that was it. I loved it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about a bed; in a traditional ryokan the maid comes in the evening, moves the table to the side, and sets up your bedding on the tatamis. Spectacular!

Ryokay Ready for Bed

Before I left Tokyo I tried to book a number of bus tours, but was informed that I was too late. Oh well, right? Well it turned out to be for the better, because I was able to book the exact same tours at the Kyoto Train Station for much less money. Woot!

Dinner is served!The evening tour would involve a very traditional Kyoto Cuisine dinner. They tell me that because Kyoto is surrounded by mountains it was difficult to get fresh seafood in, and because of that the chefs are tasked with creating wonderful dishes that are simpler than you would find in other areas.  The chef at our restaurant did a magnificent job – both the presentation and the taste was fabulous!

Our next stop was Gion Corner, where we got to experience seven forms of Japanese art and culture in one sitting.  The show is designed to not only expose gaijin (foreigners) to the beauty of Japanese culture, but also to show a generation of Japanese growing up in a modern society their roots.

The show started with the emcee asking the audience for volunteers to experience the Japanese tea ceremony, and my hand shot up.  Two of us got to experience it, with the Tea Master and her apprentice working hard to make sure the experience was highly authentic.  We were shown how to turn the cup, and how to hold it in both hands.

Koto Players 3

Flower Arranging 1As we sat in the tea corner, the next two sets of artists took to the main stage: Two women playing an instrument called a koto (a 13-stringed instrument that lies flat and is strummed with the fingers) played, while two other women took turns arranging flowers.  It had never occurred to me that flower arrangement could be a performance art, but for a culture that for centuries has revered the beauty in simplicity, I suppose it makes sense.  These two pairs worked side by side for the next several minutes.

When this group left the stage the next musical act came on.  The gagaku is a style of music that was played exclusively in the ancient imperial court, and as such never gained the widespread popularity of other arts.  While the music did not appeal to me, I found the costume of the conductor (who was almost dancing) was amazing, and well worth the show.

Gagaku Conductor 2

Once the Gakaku left the stage we were introduced to a Japanese comedy troupe.  It is easy to imagine that there would be a language barrier to understanding, and at first there was.  Three men in kimonos came onto the stage in turn, and after a few minutes the language fell away, and their performance triumphed.  They were a hilarious hit with the mostly foreign audience!

Let's Drink 7

Next came the Maiko dancers.  Apprentice geishas, these dancers are meant to be flawless in their beauty and movements.  As you might imagine, I took a couple of pictures… along with the videos!

Geisha 4Geisha 1

The last performance was a form of puppetry that I had never imagined before.  Three men came onto the stage dressed entirely in black – two of them were hooded as well – in control of a single marionette-cum-Muppet.  I confess that I did not follow the story line very well, but I was enthralled by how the three men worked in unison to control this person (and they did such a great job of bringing her to life that I thought of her as a person).  She walked across the stage, then climbed the tower, and it was easy to forget that she was made of wood.

Puppet 1Puppet 3

The following day I woke at a reasonable hour and after getting breakfast I went on my second tour.  We were to visit three temples and shrines, and each was incredible to see.

At the Golden Temple 2

It struck me as our tour guide spoke (okay, as the translation played in my ear) that nearly every site we were shown was on the World Heritage or National Treasures or some other fancy list.  However when you see the spots we visited it is no wonder… Kyoto is absolutely breathtaking.

The picture of me near the Golden Shrine is not the best picture I have taken, and was indeed taken by a fellow Canadian I met from another tour.  He and his wife were in from Vancouver, and seeing that I had a good camera as well, they were happy to let me take a picture of them with their camera, and I let them take one of me with mine.

Unlike many parts of Japan, I am told that Kyoto was spare the destructive power of the U.S. Army during World War II.  Consequently many of the sites date back to the days of the Shogunates.  Unlike tours I took in Tokyo, when they mentioned that a temple had been rebuilt after the original had been destroyed by war, that was was usually hundreds of years ago.  It is no wonder that there are so many sites recognized internationally and by the Japanese as Heritage sites.

Ginkaku-ji Shrine was built by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa as a retirement villa in 1982 (ten years before Christopher Columbus set sail for ‘India’).  Walking around, you can see that the Shogun (military ruler, and separate from the Emperor) knew how to live.  ZSC_0279

Our last stop of the tour was the Kiyomizudera Temple, and while it was also a World Heritage muckety-muck, I was more interested in observing the people.

Kiyomizudera Temple 1

We were there on a Sunday, and it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside.  I suppose these factors contributed to a plethora of Japanese visiting the temple for religious reasons.  When I think of dressing up for synagogue I always think of putting my best suit on (my Saturday best?).  Here they dress up as well, but their outfits are not western.  And so there were a plethora of Japanese women (and quite a few men) in their traditional kimonos.

ZSC_0390 As you can see from this duo, many of them were out taking the same sort of pictures I was (note the ‘selfie stick’).  However unlike them, I was certainly not dressed for the occasion.  Nevertheless they were all very happy and smiling, and most of them were thrilled to pose when asked.
All of the kimonos were colourful and bright.  I am told that women tend to opt for less colourful kimonos later in life, but these were all happy colours. ZSC_0360
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From what I was told, no visit to Kyoto would be complete without experiencing the special and unique sweets they make.  Made by hand, they are difficult to describe… other than absolutely heavenly.  Depending on the variety they can have macha or sesame or chocolate or any of a dozen other fillings, and the ones I tasted were magical.  I brought some back to the office as Omiyage and they were extremely well received… possibly even moreso than the Quebec Maple Candy I brought when I arrived.

All in all I had a wonderful time in Kyoto, and strongly recommend spending a few days there the next time you find yourself in Japan!

Sushi & Cigars: Welcome to Japan Mitch!

No matter how you fly, getting from Toronto to Tokyo is a long flight.  Sitting in the window seat of Row 62 probably makes it that much longer… especially when you are my height and size.  Since Friday was going to be a regular working day for me, my real first relaxing evening would be Friday, and even so I decided to stay close to the hotel.

On my first trip here I discovered that while Japan is a nation of smokers, cigars have not quite become mainstream here,  So imagine my surprise and delight when walking around my hotel looking for a bank machine I discovered a cigar lounge with a walk-in humidor filled with (mostly) Cuban cigars, and a very respectable selection of single malt whiskies. 

Following my first sushi dinner of the trip I walked back to Le Connoisseur Lounge in the Akasaka Flora Plaza in Minato-ku.  Once they explained to me that there is a cover charge of 1,080 Yen (about $10) they seated me in a lovely leather arm chair.  I settled in, then walked over to the bar to peruse their selection of whisky.  The bartender noticed, and asked if I wanted to try a Japanese whiskey, not realizing that while I am not quite a connoisseur I am definitely a keener.  He handed me the list, and I immediately noticed that my all-time favourite – Nikka Yoichi 15 – was on the list.  This was a bonus, because the 15 year old has been discontinued, and is very hard to find.

As I sat down the waiter brought me a hot towel; this is not uncommon in Japanese bars and restaurants, and is extremely welcome, especially on a humid night where one will walk in from a light mist outside.

While their humidor is extremely well stocked and the prices are reasonable, I had left my hotel not realizing I would find a cigar lounge, and I had my own.  I asked if I was allowed to smoke my own, and they said that I was.  A lot of places I have visited add a ‘cutting fee,’ but I suppose that is offset by the cover charge,  no worries.  As I prepared my H. Uppman cigar, the waiter brought my drink – neat of course – and a glass of ice water on the side, and a small bowl of popcorn. 

Connaisseur2At my table waiting there was an ashtray, as well as a lit oil candle, and a shot glass with cedar sticks for those who did not bring their own butane torch.  If my Japanese was better they would have offered to cut and light it for me (I observed them do so for other patrons), but either to save my having to explain that I don’t understand, or because they saw me put my cigar punch and torch on the table they let me punch and light it myself.

The atmosphere here is wonderful – while you can smell the cigars, it is well ventilated and the smell is not overpowering.  The furniture is rich leather, the bar mahogany, the staff wearing white shirts, black neckties and vests.  As I look around there are a dozen people in the place including three women (none of whom are currently smoking).

Connaisseur1

Along with their bar (which does not seem to have the typical well drinks), they also have a cappuccino machine for those who prefer caffeine to alcohol.  While I did not ask about food, there is a trio of Japanese businessmen from Osaka at the table in the corner who have a selection of edibles that they are sharing.  And yes, they have WiFi for those of us who are dedicated to writing for our readers on a Friday night.

I have been here for an hour, and decided to shift from the Yoichi to another whisky I have been meaning to try – the Taketsuru 17 Pure Malt.  While strictly speaking it is not a single malt, my understanding is that Pure Malt (a Japanese concept from what I can tell) is a nice compromise, and is extremely nice and smooth.  I would compare it favourably to a Glenfiddich 15, with a fruity bouquet.  To accompany the new whisky I lit a new cigar, this one a Romeo y Julieta Belicoso.  As he reads this I can imagine my friend Brian saying to himself that he wished he could hop on a plane to join me.  Brian, come on down!

Le Connaisseur (www.leconnaisseur.jp) was a great discovery.  With six locations around Tokyo (Ginza, Shibuya, Roppongi, Chiyoda, and Minato-ku are all areas I am familiar with) it has become easier to decide where to go when I do not want the hustle and bustle of my regular standing bar.

If you find yourself looking for a great place to hang out in a normally hustle-bustle city, this is definitely the place.  I can assure you that I will be back!

Going Away…

When I leave town for two or three days my preparation depends on two factors: How am I going (by car versus by air or train), and what will I be doing (business versus pleasure).  My usual MO is to pack two bags: Clothes and sundries in one, electronics (photography and computers) in another.  Depending on how I travel I will pack differently – if I am driving I don’t need to be anywhere near as efficient as if I am flying, because I can just throw things into the trunk.

When I leave town for a week or longer I have to be more careful; will I have the ability to do laundry where I will be, and so on.  However aside from that, the only thing that usually changes is that for more than three days I will take a proper suitcase instead of throwing my clothes and kit into a backpack.

What about longer trips?  As I write this I am less than a week from getting onto a plane that will take me away for nearly two months.  I will be going to a different country with a different culture, different language, and different customs.  There are several factors I have to consider for a trip of this magnitude, and a lot more planning goes into it.Japan1

I am going to Japan… one of my favourite countries in the world for sure, but definitely a different culture.  So here are some of the things I planned for, and hopefully will help you the next time you head out on the road:

1) There’s no question about it… I can’t get away with a single suitcase.  The reason isn’t as simple as I need more clothes – although I do.  However other things that will go into my suitcase will include my small laptop bag and my messenger bag, because I like to carry most of my electronics on me (and especially my computers and camera equipment) as carry-on, so rather than just carrying on a small and unobtrusive laptop bag, I start with the fact that I need two carry-ons – one for my camera equipment (which is a full sized backpack), and one for my computers… even though both of my computers are very small, there is a lot of extra gear that I will take with me.  On the other hand, once I am in Tokyo I do not want to have to lug my large Briggs & Riley laptop bag (which when empty weights three or four pounds) back and forth from the office to my hotel.briggsu174ol

2) You never know… and that’s the problem, you do not always know what you will be faced with once you get to the destination.  That goes for both camera equipment (and so I am taking two camera bodies and five lenses), and computers (which is why I will take a docking station, external speakers, as well as a plethora of cables and connectors and adapters (and not to mention a wireless network switch).  Why?  Because I might need to connect to HDMI… or VGA, or Display Port.  I will likely want to watch TV and movies in my hotel, but that will mean downloading them to my computer, and then watching them (hopefully with my computer connected to the hotel’s TV).  I need a PowerPoint remote for when I present, and I need a ton of other things that I can’t think of… but don’t want to have to buy again (I remember arriving in Hong Kong only to discover I had forgotten my wireless presenter mouse, and had to buy a presenter and a mouse).

3) Cell phone woes… If I were going to the USA for seven weeks I wouldn’t worry about it because of my cell phone plan.  However I wasn’t sure with regard to Japan so I called my provider and asked, and sure enough, there was no good way for me to use my Canadian cell phone in Japan.  The first thing I did was had them unlock the phone for me, so that I could just get a SIM card to put into it in Japan.  I asked my colleagues in country to look into the best way to do that, and they did.  However what I wouldn’t have thought of before was this… My cell phone plan costs about $140 per month.  I will not be using it for the next two months.  I cannot cancel it… but what I did do was change the plan to the least expensive one they offered.  It leaves me with enough data for the week until I leave, but no more.  Rather than having the lavish 10GB per month plan with unlimited North American calling, I now have a 1GB plan with ten hours per month.

**NOTE: If you are going to do this, you also have to make sure you change it back at the tail end of your trip.  I put a reminder in my calendar to call them back the day I get back.

4) Renew prescriptions! If you are my age there is a decent chance you have at least one medication that you take daily.  Make sure you have enough for the entire trip.

**NOTE: Insurance may screw you on this.  In speaking with my pharmacist last night I found out that insurance plans often will not allow you to renew your prescription until you are 2/3 way through your last refill.  Make sure you don’t get dinged.

5) Weather the whether… or whatever.  I am leaving for Japan on October 14.  I know what the weather will be like this week.  However I also have to anticipate what the weather will be like in Japan in six weeks, so that I am not stuck wearing shorts when it is 5C outside.  If you are traveling across seasons, make sure you have enough appropriate clothes for both seasons.

6) SHOES ARE IMPORTANT!  I always pack with the philosophy that whatever I forget I can just buy when I am there.  When I was preparing for my first trip to Japan my boss warned me that I will not be able to get shoes in my size in Japan, so I made sure to take an extra pair… just in case.

7) The last time I went away for a long period of time I lived with my family.  Now that I am living on my own it is important to make sure someone is checking in on my condo every couple of days.  Let’s be honest… the one bamboo plant I have does not need watering; however it is important to make sure that there are no leaks, that the pipes don’t freeze, and that nothing goes wrong.  Every few days should be enough, and that is taken care of.  Also, rather than ‘stopping my mail’ it is a good idea to have someone bring the mail from the mailbox into the house.

Traveling abroad for longer periods can be fun… even when you are going for work.  Planning for every contingency is impossible, but giving it a bit of thought will make your trip more enjoyable.  As they say, Luck favours the prepared mind!

Goodbye Vegas: A Friday Post :)

Thanks, I needed that. As I write this I am sitting on a plane outbound from Las Vegas. Aside from spending five marvelous days with great friends, I really needed the vacation. This was, far and away, my most enjoyable trip to that city; part of that is because it is my first visit that wasn’t for business, part because I was better able to afford to enjoy myself with shows, good meals, and so on, and partly because I just needed a few days to sit by the pool and in the hot tub, drinking and smoking cigars and talking to people.

On a number of my previous trips I had ventured out beyond the confines of my hotel/casino/conference centre to golf, eat, and more… but this was the first time I really went out a lot, and I got to see and enjoy a lot of the sights and sounds of one of the most opulent and ridiculous cities in the world.

IMG_0262I have said many times that Las Vegas is a city that was conceived of and engineered with the sole purpose of separating adults from their money, and that perception certainly has not changed. However if you look around the city, and especially the Las Vegas Strip, you can’t help but notice that there is no greater waste of money and resources anywhere in the world.

 

With that said, it is certainly a great place to spend a few days (although I think my visit was one day longer than it needed to be). Of the four complete days I was there, three days were spent lounging and enjoying myself by the pool. The fourth? Well, Nick and Jenna and I walked along the strip for a couple of hours, and then we got onto the Deuce Bus and headed out to see the Gold and Silver IMG_0272 - CopyPawn Shop of Pawn Stars fame. Before you ask, no I did not buy or sell anything. Although right across the street there is a discount ticket booth for shows, and I bought a dinner and show package for Saturday (the night that Nick and Jenna were doing their own thing). We walked for a bit, and then got back on the bus to return to the Monte Carlo.

 

If you happen to be a fan of Pawn Stars, it might surprise you that the neighbourhood in which the shop is located is not among the classiest; some of its neighbours include sex clubs, strip shows, and bail bondsmen. I wouldn’t want my kids walking around there alone. However it was a nice experience – we like the show, and seeing it first hand was a nice field trip.

A few weeks ago Jenna asked if I wanted to join them at the Las Vegas Comedy Club (in the V Theatre at Planet Hollywood) for the show, and I said sure. We saw a decent host and opening act, but the resident headliner at the club is a very funny man named Edwin San Juan who had us in stitches. Check him out online at www.edwinsanjuan.com, or on Twitter at @EdwinSanJuanESJ. After the show we went for a late dinner at the Harley Davidson restaurant on the strip, where we were able to enjoy dinner on the patio while people watching (an activity that you have not truly experienced until you do it on the Las Vegas Strip).

IMG_0278Friday was the big day. As the Best Man, Maid of Honour, Ring Bearer, Flower Girl, Photographer, and Witness I can proudly attest that I witnessed Ms. Jenna Dunlap become Mrs. Nick Duratz. She was an absolutely radiant bride, and with the fountain show of the Bellagio in the background it was an incredibly beautiful ceremony conducted by the Reverend Peck. Once the pictures were done we got back into the limo. First we headed to the Las Vegas sign to take some pictures, and then to the Stratosphere Hotel for dinner at Top of the World Restaurant, a magnificent experience on the rotating 106th floor, from which point the rest of Las Vegas looked gorgeous but small. The meal was fabulous – we all had the lobster bisque (which was to die for); I then had a Caesar salad, followed by the third best steak I have ever eaten in North America. We didn’t leave the restaurant much before midnight, and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice… Jenna had spoken about going clubbing somewhere with one of the Kardashians after dinner (which appealed to me much on a level that root canal surgery might), but we were all absolutely beat. We took a taxi back to the hotel, and although I didn’t go right to bed, I did tone it down a bit.

It always amazes me that I can make temporary friends so easily; it isn’t that I go looking for them (although I am happy to talk to anyone), but they often search me out. That was the case Saturday by the pool, where a group of 25 year olds from Minnesota pulled me into their clique. They had rented a cabana for the day (a colossal waste of my money, but when someone else is spending it is a nice experience). They wouldn’t stop pouring drinks for me – and they were not chintzy with their booze. I am not usually a vodka drinker, but the five Grey Goose & Red Bulls that they poured me went down very nicely, accompanied all the while with a procession of cigars.

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Speaking of drinking by the pool, if you have been reading my non-technical articles for any period you will know that I am usually a scotch drinker. None of the bars at the pool stocked single malt scotch. Not a one. I had to make do with gin and tonic (when I was buying), and Grey Goose & Red Bull when the kids were. That is not entirely true; if you follow me on Facebook you will have seen a picture I posted a few days ago of my ‘Vegas Wallet’ – a leather folio with what looks like two cigar tubes, a cutter, and slots for credit cards. On closer inspection though you will discover that it only has one cigar tube; the other tube is actually a flask that I refilled with The Glenlivit 12 in my room every time I went back. It amused me that on the first morning Nick and I went to the pool straight from breakfast with our portable cups of iced tea; Marcus was standing at the pool entrance checking peoples’ bags and preventing them from bringing any outside alcohol in. He wouldn’t let us bring our iced teas in, but even after inspecting the Vegas Wallet he let me in with my scotch! He was actually a really nice guy… I spent a bit of time talking with him, and I was surprised that someone who sees a thousand people or more per day said to me the second time he saw me that ‘Don’t go looking for your room key… I remember you!’

IMG_0296That same day that I met Dean, TJ, and company in the cabana I also met Batman. Okay, his real name is Johnathan, and he is a big hulking African American dude from West Palm Beach. He and I had a great time together, chatting it up and smoking cigars. He was a very easy person to spot… I think the term ‘brick shithouse’ was coined for him. He’s a dude that someone like me looks at and thinks ‘I wouldn’t want to mess with him!’. Nicest guy though, and we laughed it up for two days straight!

If you have never been to Las Vegas you might not appreciate how omnipresent the advertising for shows and such are, but they really are everywhere, starting in the first minute you are off the plane. I probably saw a lot of the usual suspects (Cirque de Soleil, Jersey Boys, Elvis and MJ and Brittney and whoever else) that didn’t phase me before I saw one that stood out, but the minute I saw a billboard for Zombie Burlesque I started mocking it. You can like Burlesque or not (I have never been into it), but as much as some people may like zombies I think the whole concept of them is stupid. So when someone told me on Thursday that they saw it and it was fabulous I didn’t give it much thought. But then a second and a third person said the same thing… and so when it came time to buy a show ticket for Saturday night I said ‘What the Hell?!’ and decided to give it a shot.

The ticket I bought was actually for dinner and a show, so after I checked in at the box office and picked up my ticket, I headed over to Pampas, a Brazilian Barbecue in the Miracle Mile shopping mall. Since I didn’t think to make a reservation I had the option of waiting 90 minutes or sitting at the bar. SOLD, the bar won without a second thought. It was probably the third best Rodizio I’ve been to, behind Fogo de Chao in Sao Paulo and Brasa in Niagara Falls, Canada.

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What can I say about Zombie Burlesque? It might well be the most enjoyable show I have ever seen in Las Vegas. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is too much of an understatement… shocked is more like it. There was singing, dancing, comedy, and boobies… all of the components I look for in a burlesque show. The fact that all of the actors were zombies (real ones, I swear!) did not deter from the magnificence of it. I even bought the CD as I walked out… how can you not, with songs like ‘Eating Penis Doesn’t Make You Gay?’ J I am happy I was able to have my picture taken with many of the cast members… look at it, you will see that this is no ordinary cast of players! While I saw that, Nick and Jenna went to Divas Las Vegas, a drag show that they asked if I wanted to join them at which I did not. They then went to a club to hang out with some guy who is apparently the baby daddy of one of the Kardashians. They paid handsomely for this experience, and saw him for precisely two seconds. I can assure you I had a much better time.

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The weather Sunday morning did not look promising for lying by the pool, and the forecast predicted rain. Nick, Jenna, and I opted (for the first and only morning) to forego the gluttonous buffet and opted for brunch at the Café, still in the hotel. It was fabulous, and the only breakfast (possibly the only meal) I had in Vegas that I did not feel (too) guilty about. By the time we finished and paid it was around noon, and the sun was doing its best to beat the clouds back. The newlyweds occupied their usual chairs as I lit my first cigar of the day and headed for the hot tub. As had been the case both Thursday and Saturday, a cast of people rotated in and out of the tub throughout the day, and I chatted with many of them. Each day I got out for a few minutes now and then to swim the Lazy River, to talk to more people (Batman, etc…), but for the most part I held court in the hot tub.

When we were done lazing by the pool we got cleaned up and took the bus to Freemont Street, or ‘The Freemont Street Experience.’ I didn’t know what to expect from Old Las Vegas, and was pleasantly surprised by how much more I like walking around there than I do along the Strip. Jenna really wanted to do the Zip Line, and Nick (being married to her) went along. I had no interest, so as they waited in line to get harnessed I walked around taking pictures, and then when it was almost their turn I camped out in a place where I thought I would get the best shot of them plunging to their deaths flying safely through the air from tower to tower.

Did I mention that I love my Digital SLR camera? Some time ago I decided I wanted to get into photography, and having pushed the limits of what my PhD (Press here, Dummy!) camera could do, a couple of months ago I bought a (used) Nikkon D5000 with an 18-105 lens. Wow, what a difference. I was shocked by how incredible it is to shoot with, and while I did not bring it to Chicago a few weeks ago, I certainly brought it to Vegas… complete with tripod. It is the first time I have ever gotten onto a plane when my camera gear outweighed my computer gear… and got much more use during the trip.  I should mention though that all of the pictures in this article were taken with my iPhone camera.  It’s just what is currently available!

With the Duratzes safely back on terra firma we walked to the end of Freemont Street and then back trying to decide where to eat dinner. By this point not only were we hungry, but it was nearly 10:00pm, and I had to go back to the hotel, pack, and try to get some sleep ahead of a 3:30am wake-up call to catch a 6:15am flight. Neither of them had ever heard of the Heart Attack Grill, but I had. While I didn’t really want to gorge myself, they thought it was funny and we should try it. Let me tell you folks, this is a great hamburger. We all stuck to the single patty… they are very clear that if you leave foodIMG_0299 over on your plate they paddle your ass (and if you think I am kidding or that they take it easy on you, let me assure you that during our meal a number of diners were escorted to the tower of shame, strapped in, and the waitresses (sorry… NURSES) spanked them HARD with a paddle. Folks, I am a trained fighter and I know when someone is pulling their punches… these women were taking a running start and the crack of the paddle echoed throughout the restaurant. I was at the same time reminded of two great movie scenes: the first was Animal House, during the initiation scene where the frat boy (I am tempted to say it might have been Kevin Bacon) grabbed his ankles and got whacked, screaming ‘Thank you Sir may I have another?!’ and Biloxi Blues, where the Drill Sergeant (Christopher Walken) examines the trays as the soldiers leave mess and says ‘This is the army, son… we don’t waste food. You take what you want, but you eat what you take.’ Fortunately for Jenna (who failed the test) we were sitting in close proximity to a garbage can, and she was able to destroy the evidence. We all left with our bottoms intact.

The bus ride back to the Monte Carlo was much longer because of traffic. After nearly an hour sitting on the bus and hardly moving we decided to get off at the Bellagio and walk the rest of the way. On the first night I wore a pair of black dress shoes with my suit that I hadn’t worn since probably 2008, and I paid the price… they didn’t fit properly, and my feet were in pain the rest of the week. I was relieved that the other pair of shoes that I brought (my running shoes) are black with black laces, so I wore them every night (I wore sandals during the days) and it’s a good thing too because boy were my feet hurting. I was glad that I was still able to walk between 12,000 and 18,000 steps every day, despite the bad feet, and was also able to wear a suit and tie most nights (Freemont Street didn’t call for it) with the black running shoes and not look too stupid.

So along the way, when all is said and done, I walked about 75,000 steps (42 miles); I smoked 8 cigars (maybe 9). I had about one third of a bottle of The Glenlivet (along with about a score gin & tonics and vodka & Red Bulls). I ate three ridiculously gluttonous and one reasonable breakfast, and three reasonable dinners with two gluttonous ones. I had zero lunches. I saw two shows, I witnessed two friends getting married. I took about 800 pictures, spent about 20 hours by the pool, and applied Coppertone Sport SPF 15 Sunscreen 4 times. I lost exactly how much money I set aside for gambling, and stayed on budget for the rest of my activities. Most importantly, I had ONE amazing time.

Goodbye Vegas; I will see you again soon.

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