Rollerblading London

We finally returned to London to work for 3.5 months.  This time we decided to bring our rollerblades with us because Jen discovered a free rollerblading event that occurs every Friday and Sunday (year-round) through different parts of London. 

The event is really cool - it'a run by volunteers who select different routes each week and ride ahead, blocking off the roads to ensure the group stays together and is safe from traffic.  They even strap big speakers to their backs so we can all roll along with synchronized dance music blasting away in the background.

Our first week was during the Olympics so they went from Hyde Park all the way to the Olympic Stadium - around 25 km total.  On that route, we saw most of the big attractions in London including Regent Street, Big Ben, the London Eye, and the Tower of London. 

For our second week we did a smaller loop North of Hyde Park (13 km) and saw a less touristy side of London. 

The London Friday Night Skate (http://www.lfns.co.uk) is free, really well organized, and accessible to anyone who is able to skate, turn, and stop.  It's great fun and we highly recommend it!



Yves' Visit to Calgary

While having dinner in Montreal with Dom's dad, Yves, we discovered that his summer vacation was a starting a week early.  In the spur of the moment, we invited him to visit Calgary and he accepted.  We bought tickets, and 10 days later we were all enjoying Alberta steak together in Calgary.

Since Yves needed a break, we took it easy for the most part, but managed to do a bit of disc golf, have a nice father-son ping pong competition, make sushi, and went on a nice bike ride from Canmore to Banff with Jen's dad. 

On the second week, we went to Fairmont, BC with Jen's family to chill out. 

We had a great time and hope he'll come back for another visit next year! :)

St Jean Baptiste

Over the summer, we spent a month in Quebec visiting family and friends.  

Some friends from Calgary were also visiting Montreal while we were there, so we met up with them to check out the Saint-Jean Baptiste day celebrations in Montreal.

Jen then joined Rosemary and Jessica on their road trip to check out Quebec City and surrounding area.

Montmorency Falls

Along the way, they tried the “Best” poutine (according to Dom's mom) at LaMaire and attempted eat a huge ice cream sandwich from Île d'Orléans.
The road trip ended at Charlotte's country retreat in St Placide where our friends spent the night before returning to Calgary.

Shortly after the road trip, we finally got word that our London work visa applications had been approved, so we drove to Ottawa to complete the application process.  Since Jen hadn't been to Ottawa before, we spent the afternoon doing a bit of sight-seeing :)  


City Chasers

For the last couple of years, Guy and Cynthia participated in a local "Amazing Race" event called the Calgary City Chase.  They really enjoyed it in past years, so we decided to join, along with Harjit (who filled in for Guy) and a bunch of others.

The city chase had us solving puzzles and racing through the city to complete various events.  You can choose to either complete 10 events as fast as possible, or complete as many events as possible before 16:00 (which is what we chose since we were more interested in doing the actual events!! :)). 

We surprisingly only completed 12 of the 23 possible events since we decided to all stick together and make it more of a social event.  We burned up a bunch of time waiting over an hour in line for the Zorbing event.. not an optimal decision if you're trying to "race".. but we didn't care - we were all just super excited to finally try Zorbing!!  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zorbing)

It was definitely the best event we did that day.  We zorbed in pairs up the hill, navigated around the pylon, and the rolled all the way back downhill as fast we could.  We won against the other team in our race and laughed so hard the entire time while bouncing and falling overtop of each other.  So much fun!
The day was a great success - wonderful company, lots of laughs, and we even lucked out with perfect sunny weather!

Himeji

Travelling through Japan is super easy thanks to the amazing railway system.  It can be pricey, but if you plan your trip in advance, you can get really affordable rail passes for various zones.  We decided to take a trip a bit further out to visit Himeji.. because it has a castle.. and as we all know, Dom loves castles!

It was a sunny weekend during the Cherry Blossom festival, so we certainly weren't the only ones there!  When we arrived, there was a huge queue to visit the castle.  It had us worried, but fortunately it didn't take as long as we would have thought.  Unfortunately, the reason the line didn't take that long is because they rush everyone through the castle quite quickly, so we left it feeling somewhat unsatisfied.  

On the plus side, there happened to be a really cool Cherry Blossom festival happening on the grounds, so we watched an assortment of entertainment, listened to traditional Japanese music and, most importantly, sampled some fresh local Sakes :) 

While hanging out in the crowd, enjoying our sake, we were approached by a young Japanese couple who asked us if we like fish (or something like that).  It felt like a rather bizarre encounter and a very random question, so we muddled through trying to figure out if we were actually understanding their question correctly.  Eventually we kinda politely responded "well.. yeah, we eat fish".  

They looked at each other with delight and giggled.  The guy walked off toward the food booths while the girl stayed to chat with us.  When he returned, he was holding a big round meat lollipop that he had purchased, and he promptly handed it over for us to try.. meanwhile they both stared and smiled at us curiously.  

...the strangest things run through your head in these situations - we simply couldn't make sense of what was going on!

We looked at each other in confusion, but politely tried the fishy meat stick as they eagerly observed our reaction and asked us, "Do you like it???".  
"Yes... it's good", we replied.  Again, they looked at each other and simultaneously laughed in delight.  

Ok, the suspense was killing us. "...but.. why?", we asked them in confusion.
"Why?", they responded, almost equally confused.
"Yeah.. why did you want to buy this for us to try?  Was it because you thought we would find it weird? or gross?".  
Again they looked at each other and laughed, and their answer was simply, "Just because... these are a very traditional food in this area.  We really like them... and we thought you might too!".  

And that was.. just that...!  Then they offered to buy us more sake!

Despite the lingering sense of confusion about how this had all come about, we ended up sharing a couple more rounds of sake with them while having a really great conversation about travelling, our visit to Japan, what life and work is like for them in Japan, and answering all their curious questions about what things are like in Canada.  They were a really cute couple.

They were super excited when they discovered that we were from Canada because it's a place that they both really wanted to visit.  We asked them where in Canada they wanted to go, and they shocked us by responding "Yellowknife!".  

Yellowknife??  How do they even know about Yellowknife!?  Out of all the Canadian cities that people usually visit, we never would have guessed that someone would respond with Yellowknife!  .. eventually it all made sense when they explained that they heard about the Aurora Borealis there and really wanted to see it one day!!

About an hour later, they told us they had to head home.  We said goodbye and they were gone as quickly as they had appeared.  

It was such an unusually unique and memorable encounter that it left us recounting it to people long after.  Travelling is so great for stuff like this!


After such a long fun day, few things beat a little nap in the park under warm sun and cherry blossom trees  :)

Expensive Melons

For anyone looking to find the most perfectly-formed juicy set of unblemished melons.. they do exist and they're very real, but expect to pay a premium price!  In Japan, there is an obsession over "perfect" fruits, which are commonly purchased to give away as gifts.  It's hard for visitors to believe that anyone would pay hundreds of dollars for a single melon, but apparently much labour-intensive care is taken to ensure these fruits grow up into flawless, smooth, evenly patterned exhibits - it's essentially an art form!

We managed to find a few examples of the expensive fruits.  To get the price in US dollars, you can more or less divide by 100. 

For example, these are $32 watermelons

And here's what $40 cantaloupes looks like

compared to the $130 cantaloupes, which have "nicer" webbing patterns and a perfectly T-shaped stem.

If you look closely, you can see that the $28 sets of strawberries are hand picked to all have an identical colour, shape, and size.

If you're willing to eat the fruit "rejects", you can also buy them at a (relatively) reasonable price :) :).

Kyoto

Our original plan was to stay in Kyoto, unfortunately, since it's was cherry blossom season and we booked quite late, everything was completely full.  Luckily, Kyoto is only 30 minutes from Osaka by train, so we still managed to spend two full days there.

Kyoto was our favourite city in Japan. It has so many cute streets, temples, yummy restaurants, and it happened to be particularly beautiful with blooming cherry trees. We spent our 2 days there wandering as many streets as we could, and really enjoyed everything we saw.

Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines scattered through the city.  We certainly weren't going to have time to visit them all, so we mainly hit whichever random interesting-looking ones that we happened to pass by :)  There are SO many of them!!

We did make an effort to visit one of the more famous temples, Kiyomizu-dera which sits on the side of a hill overlooking Kyoto.

There were many Japanese people dressed up in traditional garment, having their photos taken.

We also visited the Bamboo Forest on the outskirts of town. 

Oh, and let's not forget... the Ninja Store :) :)  Yep we found one, so of course we had to go!!

Nara

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan.  It also happened to be Jen's favourite site to visit during her first trip to Japan in 2006.  As soon as you enter the Nara Park area it becomes pretty obvious why..

Over a thousand wild sika deer roam freely through the Nara area where they are protected and considered to be national treasures.  Both tame and curious, they often approach visitors to see if we've purchased deer-crackers to feed to them :).

We didn't just come for the deer - Nara also has many world heritage sites.  We visited Tōdai-ji, the Main Buddhist Temple,


wandered through the park to see the 3000 stone lanterns and various other shrines,

and strolled through Yoshikien Japanese garden (which we discovered is free for foreign tourists).

The other reason Jen remembered loving Nara was because of a fond memory of eating a hot freshly roasted Japanese sweet potato there.  She spoke of it many times and we finally found one of the famous potato stands while leaving the park.  A little local lady was set up with a portable potato roaster and a sign that said 200 yen (about $2.50 CAD).  The lady pointed to a potato and Jen gave a nod, so she sliced it up, put it in a bag, and typed the price onto her calculator.  

Turns out our Japanese could use much improvement - the rest of the sign must have indicated that the 200 yen is per 100g.  So our $2.50 potato suddenly became a $10 potato!  Oops!  Well, we suppose we could have refused, but it really was our mistake and she was a cute little lady, so we went along with it and enjoyed eating the most expensive potato that either of us has ever tasted!

Japanese Cuisine

After such an incredible food experience in Korea, we lowered our expectations in Japan where prices are much higher and street-food regulations are far more strict.  That being said, we still optimized our food experiences as much as possible and in the end we were not disappointed!!

Udon Curry Bowl at Tsurutontan daikokucho in Osaka - We arrived late on our first day so we tried to find something nearby and ended up at a small restaurant that served a lovely Udon Curry Bowl with tempura chicken. 

Okonomiyaki at Chibo in Osaka - Looking at Yelp, we saw a lot of places serving Okonomiyaki, a savoury Jamanese "pizza" or "pancake" with a variety of different ingredients.  We discovered Chibo where the servers were really fun and lively.  It was such a great atmosphere and food experience that we went there 3 times! 

Japanese Curry at a Vending Machine Restaurant in Osaka - As we walked the streets of Japan, we starting noticing vending machines at the entrance of a few restaurants.  It turns out that the vending machine is used to order your meal!  You simply order and pay through the machine, then find a table and the server brings the food out to you.  The food wasn't amazing, but it was suprisingly decent and affordable.

Okonomiyaki at Fukutaro in Osaka - We really enjoyed okonomiyaki at Chibo so we decided to try it at another nearby place that always had a huge lineup outside… It was a bit more of a mom&pop shop with a more traditional and authentic feel, however, in the end, we preferred the food and friendliness at Chibo :)

Tako Yaki (octopus balls) at Tenjimbashisuji in Osaka.  Jen tried these the last time she was in Japan and thought they tasted like fish-food.. We thought we give it another try: she still doesn't really like them and still refers to them as Tako Yucky.

Fluffy Japanse Cheesecake at Rikuro in Osaka - Japanese cheese cake if slightly different than what we're used to in Canada with its fluffier soufflé-like consistency.  If you like light fluffy cheesecake, definitely go here!  It's worth the wait, especially if you get one hot out of the oven :)

Sushi at Ganko Sanjo Honten - Since we were in Japan, we had to go for sushi!  We went to Ganko twice, both in Osaka and Kyoto.  It's a common practice in Japan to have many plastic representations of the menu items for people to pick from, and the one at Ganko was particularly elaborate.  We really enjoyed sitting at the sushi bar watching the sushi chefs work their magic!

Gyoza at Chao Chao in Kyoto: "The "best" assorted flavours of Gyoza in Kyoto".  With a motto like that and a continuous line up, how could we possibly say no! ;)  Chao Chao is a tiny place that serves all sorts and flavours of Japanese dumplings.  The servers are really energetic and funny - yet another place well worth the big lineup!

Ramen at Hakata Ippudo in Kyoto - Ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle soup. We found this place while visiting Kyoto. It was delicious and the most memorable part was the amazingly seasoned soft-boiled egg.

Assorted Bento Box from Daimaru in Kyoto - An expensive department store in Kyoto that's fun to explore, especially the assorted food markets in the basement.

Last but not least, the many typical Japanese hot and cold beverages from the various vending machines scattered anywhere and everywhere!