Throwback to Japan

Facebook is great at remembering dates that happened, “On This Day”. Eight years ago this month, I made my way to Tokyo while a friend worked abroad there. Memories made, some remembered vaguely, and the experience of a lifetime ensued next. 

After 20 hours of flying leaving Boston on a Friday at 10:30am, I arrived to Tokyo on Saturday at 5:20pm with a 13 hour time difference. Meeting up with my friend Katie, we made it to our hotel in the Shinagawa ward of Tokyo after an hour train ride from the airport to the city. Having dinner and several Kirins, we ended up meeting an Australian couple at the hotel bar who was in town for breeding horses. I end up doing a couple of tourist attractions with the couple later in the week as well. 

The next day we made our way over to the ward of Asakusa with open air markets and several shrines. Japan has two primary religions: Shinto and Buddhism, which co-exist and are complementary to each other. Here we could participate in a few rituals such as wafting smoke to inhale from burning incense, collecting water from a fountain with a cup but then drinking it from your hand to then spit back out, paying to write prayers on piece of paper to attach to an outside post to the shrine, or participating in yoga like prayer while tossing coins into a tin collection. We also experienced a customary lunch that day which required your shoes to be taken off and sitting crossed legged on pillows as you cooked your meats and vegetables in a hot broth being boiled on your table. 

Asakusa with Katie

Asakusa with Katie

Buddhist ritual

Buddhist Ritual

Park in Asakusa

Park in Asakusa

That evening we took the subway to Shibuya, with an equivalency comparable to NYC Times Square. An immediate difference, however, is the cleanliness of the city and the politeness and friendliness of the natives to foreigners. The area hosts thousands upon thousands of people shopping, eating, and walking about. Great entertainment if you enjoy people watching. While having dinner that evening at a restaurant called 603, we felt our first earthquake and learned the experience was somewhat common and experienced several more throughout the week. This happened to be a year and half before the terrible earthquake and tsunami hit Japan 2011.
Shibuya

Shibuya

“Franklin”

Famous Shibuya Crossing

Famous Shibuya Crossing

The next day I ventured solo, south of Tokyo by train, to Kamakura. I ventured to Engaku-ji Temple which houses monks and an 8 foot bell at the top of a hill which requires you to take several flights stairs to access. I made my way around the small city center to do a bit of shopping and to tour the Great Buddha, otherwise known as Diabutsu, within the Buddhist temple of Kōtoku-in. It is a bronze statue that stands 37 feet tall. It was massively impressive. Making my way back to the train I visited Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Kamakura and where one of my favorite photos of Sake Barrels was taken.

Engaku-ji Temple

Engaku-ji Temple

Komyogi Temple Bell

Komyogi Temple Bell

Diabutsu

Diabutsu

Kōtoku-in Temple

Kōtoku-in Temple

Giant Buddha

Giant Buddha

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū

Sake Barrels

Sake Barrels

The weather in August is hot, humid, and some days full of rain. This day happened to be one of them, as were most of the days of my trip.

The next morning we were awoken to our 16th floor hotel room shaking at 5:02am. We were experiencing our 2nd earthquake. Unsure of what to do for the 30 seconds that seemed forever, I vaguely remember hoping into the tub. Unsure of our rational back then, it seemed like the most logical solution. By the way, Japan’s technology seemed to be quite ahead of Americans, that even the toilets and showers light up, heat up, and self clean. But I digress. Eventually the shaking stopped but we were pretty rattled ourselves so decided it was a good time to head over to the famous Tsujiki Fish Market in Shimbashi district.

Tsujiki is the largest fish market in the world. We probably saw every type of fish imaginable, along with whole Tunas that was claimed to be the most expensive in the world. The workers were quite disgruntled with having to work around the tourists and it being already close to 100 degrees by 6am, I can understand why they would be annoyed. 

Tsujiki Fish Market

Tsujiki Fish Market

Tsujiki Fish Market

Tsujiki Fish Market

Making our way back after an incredibly hot and humid trip, I showered up again and then took a bus tour from the hotel to Mt. Fuji and the town of Hakone. After a 2 1/2 hour bus ride, we made our way to the 5th station (out of 12) and also the highest point cars can drive up to Mt. Fuji. We were given some time to explore, shop, and walk around. I hiked a bit of a trail but unfortunate you could not see the peak due to the clouds. 

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Hiking up Mt. Fuji

Hiking up Mt. Fuji

Hikers at the 5th station

Hikers at the 5th Station

View from 5th Station

View from 5th Station

Views from Mt. Fuji

Views from Mt. Fuji

2,305m up from sea level at 5th Station

2,305m from sea level at 5th Station

We then continued to drive on to Hakone, which houses sulfur hot springs and Lake Ashi. Upon arrival, we took a cable car up to the hot springs. Unfortunately, The cloudy weather stuck with us and made it difficult to see anything. However, you could certainly smell the sulfur. Here you could participate in a ritual where one is supposed to eat a boiled egg from the sulfur water that turns the egg black, claiming to add 7 years to your life.

We drove our way back down to the Lake, where we got on a large Pirate looking ship and took a cruise. Our tour ended with taking the Bullet train back to Tokyo. The ride was incredibly fast, lasting 30 minutes. I was also on the tour with the Australian couple we met earlier in the week, in which I found out the husband, Kerry O’Brien, had participated in the ’68 & ’72 Olympics for the Steeplechase. The world is so interesting!

Kerry O'Brien, Australian Olympic Athlete. Photo from: Racing Past

Kerry O’Brien (2), Australian Olympic Athlete. Photo from: Racing Past

That evening we had dinner with them, a couple of their associates, and I ended up going to a traditional Japanese Karaoke Bar late night. However, word of advice, don’t leave your friends overnight, in a foreign city, without a working cell phone.

The next morning I toured parts of Tokyo. When I got off the subway a Japanese University student named Takashi, wanting to practice his English, offered to help show me around. We went to the Imperial Gardens where the emperor lives. We went to Ginza, which reminds me of 5th Avenue or Newbury Street. We then made our way over to Roppongi and viewed the Tokyo Tower. 

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Nakagin Capsule Tower

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

After several days of jet lag, I finally slept through the night and got an early morning start the next day to visit Harajuku and Ueno. Harajuku is famous with the Japanese youths for shopping including American/British style clothing and some girls that dress up like baby dolls. A colorful area for sure. After, I made my way to Ueno park and visited the zoo and Tokyo National Museum of Western Art.

Harajuku

Harajuku

Harajuku

Harajuku

Ueno Park

Ueno Park

The city is vibrant with culture and history but also modern with advanced technology. I’m lucky and happy to have made it to that side of the world. 

Hachikō, the loyal dog and a couple of other Huskies

Hachikō, the loyal Akita dog and a couple of other Huskies

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456 Hot Air Balloons

I’m always searching for something interesting to see or do, to broaden my horizons or purely satisfy my curiosity. 

Luckily for me, I’m living about a 30 minute drive away from the annual Mondial Air Balloons held at Aérodrome de Chambley in Hagéville, France. 

It’s an annual week long international Hot Air Balloon Festival held at the end of July. Several countries participate with, weather depending, morning and evening flights.  People can come watch and peruse local vendors with outdoor activities for the kids. And best of all it’s free.

This year was particularly special because they were planning for what’s called “La Grande Ligne”. This was a plan in hopes for the most hot air balloons to take off at once, to set a world record. The days for take off kept shifting due to storms and wind but finally was set for a 6:30am on Friday July 28. I didn’t want to miss it!

I woke up at 4:30am and drove the half hour to claim a front row view. Then I waited. I wasn’t alone with some other brave early risers but the weather was cool and damp, with no indoor waiting area, and nothing to look at. We were staring out to empty runways and I think most of us were hoping we were in the right area. We waited some more as 6:30am came and went with no action. But around 6:45am we started to see cars with trailers, what seemed like thousands, driving out to line up on the runways. This went on for a good 45 minutes. Then the pilots and crew started setting up by laying the ballons on the ground, attaching baskets or single seats to the balloons, checking the ignitions of the fire and then started to blow the balloons up. What seemed to take forever and seemed like thousands of balloons, was actually 456 balloons that anti-climatically lifted off around 8am. With a suttle wind, the balloons were seemingly all in flight and began quickly drifting north all within minutes. 

I grabbed as many photos as I could and ran to catch a great action shot. I watched them raise higher and drift more north as I made it back to the car and started to drive home (which was north). So surprisingly for me, I got a great view of them as I headed back home.

Are we in the right place?

Starting to see some action

And it’s take off


Such a cool experience. I highly suggest catching a festival, maybe next year I’ll make friends with a pilot and be on one!

Sweet Oporto

What an amazing week I’ve had! Not only did I begin training for my 10th marathon for Berlin in September and adapted my nutrition to start following a ketogenic meal plan (high “good” fat and low carb), more to come on these on later posts, but I also spent a long weekend visiting Porto, Portugal. 

Visiting the 2nd largest city in Portugal started as a trip to visit a couple of American friends traveling through. However, a friends flight got cancelled twice, due to strikes, cutting 4 days out of her trip so she decided to stay back, meaning I was venturing on my own. I took a 2 and a half hour direct flight late Thursday afternoon from Luxembourg to Porto. From the airport I was able to get a metro ticket for less that 2€ to get me towards Trindade stop in the historic portion of the city, and also where my airbnb was located. After a quick check-in and shower I took to Google trips to get myself acquainted with sights to see nearby. Here’s a recount of what I did daily:

Thursday:

Livraria Lello

Famous Bookshop

Famous Bookshop

Red Staircase

Red Staircase

 

The Historic District

Town Hall

Town Hall

Ingreja da Santíssima Trindade

Ingreja da Santíssima Trindade

Typical tiled buildings

Typical tiled buildings

Praça de Carlos Alberto

Praça de Carlos Alberto

Igreja do Carmo

Igreja do Carmo

French inspired architecture

French inspired architecture



Street Art 

Street art is legal with a permit. It brings bright colors to the already lively city.

17th Restaurant & Bar

Views of Porto

Views of Porto

Rosé on steroids

Rosé on steroids

 

Dinner at O Buraco

Fresh and inexpensive traditional Portuguese restaurant

Fresh and inexpensive traditional Portuguese restaurant


Porto Walkers Pub Crawl
I signed up for a pub crawl for 12€ which started at 11pm going til 5am, if you could make it that long. With 5-6 stops visiting bars mostly on Galeria de Paris, a drink special was included at each stop. I’m glad I went because I met a bunch of English speaking backpackers from US, Canada, and Australia. Albeit, I was the oldest by 10+ years, but was able to dance the night away (or at least until 2:30am, I admit I couldn’t quite hang as long).

Friday:

Early Morning Run

Free Walking Tour
I can’t recommend enough taking this free 4 hour walking tour with a passionate local from Porto Walkers (Do this!) I learned a lot and felt it was necessary to share a few important points…

1. Porto’s tourism is relatively new (think 15-20 years new). Thanks to UNESCO and budget flights like RyanAir, the city has seen an influx in visitors and most of the locals are appreciative for the economic boost but…

2. In the poorer sections of town, where the buildings create narrow, quaint winding, colorful, clothes-lined drying alleyways, some families monthly wage is 500€. There used to be laws to protect them, where monthly rent was grandfathered over to keep prices low to protect them from losing their homes. Due to greed and a change in law, rents have skyrocketed from 50€ per month to 800€ per month, to create Airbnb’s for tourists like myself. This results in families getting kicked out of Porto or ultimately leaving them homeless.

3. Here’s what we can do to help: Don’t rent Airbnb’s within the Riberia district or support the overpriced, tourist restaurants and shops along the river front. Do eat at local Portuguese restaurants and shop off the typical tourist beaten paths. You’ll know the difference immediately because there will probably be a wait to get in because they are small and the prices will be extraordinarily less expensive.

Ponte Luís I

Ponte Luís I

Ribeira District

Ribeira District

Ribeira District

Ribeira District

Ribeira District

Ribeira District

View of Douro

View of Douro

Old Tram

Old Tram

Igreja paroquial de Santo Ildefonso

Igreja paroquial de Santo Ildefonso

Inside São Bento Train Station

Inside São Bento Train Station

 

Port Wine in Vila Nova de Gaia

I did a self tour visiting several wineries of the sweet port wine.

Ramos Pinto

Ramos Pinto

Croft

Croft

Inside Taylor's

Inside Taylor’s

Taylor's Courtyard

Taylor’s Courtyard

Taylor's

Taylor’s Port Wine

 

Saturday:

Praia do Molhe
I got up early and took the old Tram line 1 along the river to where it meets the Atlantic Ocean and spent most of the day at the beach. 

Dinner at Tapabento
Ranked #1 Restaurant in Porto, there are advantages to eating solo. I didn’t need a reservation! Fine dining in a quaint restaurant, you’d never know from the outside. 

Seated Tuna

Seared Tuna

Red Mullet

Red Mullet

Pistachio Sufflé

Pistachio Sufflé

 

Sunday:

Last day in Porto and started it with another early morning run. Expecting to find the streets deserted I was actually weaving in and out of the drunks making their way home at 6:30am.

Breakfast at Zenith
Best Brunch Ever

Detox Smoothie bowl (I also got 2 eggs with avocado not pictured)

Detox Smoothie bowl (I also got 2 eggs with avocado not pictured)

Armazém
Vintage Flea Market and bar. Cute, artsy and unique.

Portobello Rooftop Bar

Finished the trip with a couple cocktails at Base

I hope you all get a chance to visit and take into account the need to respect their culture, heritage, and people. And drink all the port wine 🍷. If you’re waiting for a reason to go, the weekend of June 23rd is a huge street party for Saint John (Sao Joao) with plastic hammers, drinking, dancing, and fireworks. A celebration not to be missed 🎉

A Day Trip to Nancy, France

Since being in France, and more specifically living in the Lorraine section, Nancy has been on my list to visit. Over the past year I’ve driven past Nancy several times with it being about 45 minute drive away, have received Facebook event notifications for concerts and local races there, and have been warned by Metz loyals that “La Lorraine est grenat”! (Metz’s football team colors and Metz and Nancy rival each other in soccer/football). I could get backlash here for being a Metz girl in Nancy but I’m fine with it because, let’s be honest, I’m all Boston anyway.

Photo courtesy of La Lorraine République

Photo courtesy of La Lorraine République


About a week ago I had the chance to make a midweek train visit to Nancy, which by the way is only a 35 minute ride at 14€ RT. Considering how convenient that is, I can’t believe it took me this long to get over there.
Stepping out of the train station, which is about a 400m walk to the center of town, I immediately saw a cathedral mimicking a smaller version of Notre Dame in Paris, called Cure Saint-Leon IX.

Cure Saint-Léon IX

Cure Saint-Léon IX


Using Google travel guide and Trip Advisor, I was able to make a walking plan. Starting at Porte Stanislas, I headed towards Place Stanislas. Here marks a vast and beautiful pedestrian Plaza with open air seating for several restaurants, surrounded in gold plated fences and sculptures with magnificent views of the Musee des Beaux-Arts and L’Hotel de Ville (Mayor’s Office).

Porte Stanislas

Porte Stanislas

Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

Place Stanislas

View of Hôtel de Ville

View of Hôtel de Ville


After a quick rest and a glass of white wine to take in some of the views, I made my way towards Palais du Gouverneur Militaire and Parc de la Pepiniere which was in full bloom with spring flowers. From there I made my way towards Porte de la Craffe which resembles the Porte des Allemands in Metz. I then found Place Carnot that was in the middle of hosting a spring carnival. After having walked a couple hours, I built up an appetite and found a Made in France sandwich shop close to Basilique Saint-Epvre.
Walking towards Governors Palace

Walking towards Governors Palace

Parc de la Pépinière

Parc De la Pépinière

Porte de la Craffe

Porte de la Craffe

Place Carnot Spring Carnival

Place Carnot Spring Carnival

Basilique Saint-Epvre

Basilique Saint-Epvre


After replenishing some carbs, I walked across town to Cathedrale Notre Dame de L’Annonciation. I circled around to find Jardin Dominique Alexandre Gordon with more fragrant flowers and finishing up my tour back through Place Stanislas to several shopping boutiques before catching one of the trains, that come every 30 minutes, to head back to Metz.

Nancy Cathédrale

Nancy Cathédrale

Jardin Dominique Alexandre Gordon

Jardin Dominique Alexandre Gordon

Shopping Center

Shopping Center

Nancy Street Art

Nancy Street Art


A beautiful, walking city, Nancy hosts an array of shops, sites and bites to eat. Having gotten a glimpse on a sunny, spring day helped build my admiration of Nancy. Maybe next time I can even convince Juju to come with me!

My Heart Fell for Barcelona

After spending 3 days in the Barcelona for Julien’s birthday, I can honestly tell you it was love at first sight. After flying in on a less than 2 hours flight from Luxembourg, we got a bird’s eye view of the Mediterranean Sea (I’m a sucker for cities near bodies of water). We landed at Barcelona El-Prat Airport with 13C/55F, sunny weather and it being our first time there, we took a cab to get us directly to the hotel on Ave Paral-lel (one of the main streets in Barcelona). The taxi was about 30 euros and in hindsight there is a metro and bus that can also get you to the center at a cheaper rate which we discovered to get us back to the airport.

We got there on a Sunday early afternoon, checked in to the hotel and made our way to the Wild Rover (an Irish Pub, which there are several in Barcelona), just outside the Gothic Quarter, to enjoy our first beers of January (having had a break since the holidays) to catch the world championship handball match between France and Norway. France won, allez les bleues! Afterwards we made our way across Rambla de Santa Monica where they have a street market with local foods and souvenirs and I bought myself a new scarf – it got colder than I was expecting at night. We decided to try dinner in the Gothic Quarter, tiny pedestrian alley ways between European looking buildings with hundreds of restaurants, bars, and shops. 

Gothic Quarter Barcelona

Gothic Quarter

Julien and I in Barcelona

New Scarf


We used TripAdvisor for dining suggestions to look for affordable, good food, which turned out to basically be every restaurant. We started at La Cuina de la Mama where we had an affordable 3 course dinner menu option for 9.90 euros. Fantastic empanadas, ravioli, and coconut chocolate cake but the house red wine was something to be left desired and we asked to switch to a beer. Smaller portions in a small atmosphere. Good for light eaters, which unfortunately does not describe me and we both left feeling still hungry having not eaten all day. As we walked out the door we passed a tapas restaurant called Sensi. Our hunger and desire for better red wine got the best of us and we stopped in for tapas portions of chorizo, octopus, oxtail, cheese and, of course, red wine. We certainly weren’t disappointed or hungry after that. With a 20 minute walk back to the hotel we burned off a small portion of our 2 meals.

mirador de Colom

Mirador de Colom


Monday was Julien’s birthday and we ordered massages at the hotel first thing in morning. I’m always hesitant to get myself massages being a deep tissue masseuse myself, I judge the intensity and while she was good, it still wasn’t a deep enough sports massage I was hoping  for to treat my running legs. One day I’ll find someone over here in Europe just like me 😉.  Still the relaxation was nice and we ended up feeling good enough to decide to run around the city, literally. We mapped out the places of interest and decided Parc Guëll, where the Antoni Gaudi art park is that sits on a hill overlooking the city, was the place to start. It was only 5 km away but all uphill. Running on the streets wasn’t terrible, the sidewalks are fairly large enough to get by walkers but the streets are full of cars and bikers and lots of stop lights, so our pace wasn’t very fast. But the weather was perfect and mild temps with very little wind. The park is lovely with great city views and so much history but learned upon arriving that you have to pay to walk around the Gaudi park, we decided against it and just viewed it from 100m away which still gave us a majestic experience. After a short rest and taking in the sun and views, we ventured off, now downhill, another 3 km towards La Sagrada Familia which is a massive, interesting cathedral, very modern and with a somewhat Disney like feel with it’s colors and size which doesn’t seem to feel like the architecture had this view when it started in 1882. Tons of construction is still being done with expectations of completion in 2026-2028. Simply mind blowing.

Gaudi Park

Gaudi

Gaudi Quote

Gaudi Quote

Running in Parc Guëll

Running in Parc Guëll

Parc Guëll

Parc Guëll

Running by la Sagrada familia

Running by La Sagrada Familia

View of Sagrada from park

View of Church from park

Birthday run with views of Sagrada Familia

Birthday Run with views

Construction going strong since 1882

Construction going strong since 1882


From there we walked another 2 km to the Arc de Triomf, a less impressive in size Arc compared to the one in Paris, but it’s brick design gives it a Boston feel. The arc leads to the Parc de la Ciutadella which also has the zoo, parliament building and a couple of museums. Great for people watching and taking in a quiet and restful part of the city.

Arc de Triomf

Arc de Triomf

Up close Arc de Triomf

Up close Arc de Triomf


At this point we were hungry and turned to TripAdvisor again for suggestions. We were a half mile from a top rated lunch place called El Casal Cafe Bar back in the Gothic Quarter. Delicious food, great prices, and friendly staff 3 language speaking staff (Spanish, French, English). It’s family style seating and you can have your options of a prix fixed 3 course, hearty menu with drink (water, wine, beer) included for 11.50 euros or choice of tapas. I went with the fixed menu and was not disappointed. I started with a huge, delicious salad followed by pork ribs with broccoli potato mash and a banana chocolate cake dessert. Awesome place and would go back several times in the future.

Harbor at night

Harbor at Night

Finishing our run

Finishing our run

Street art

Street art

Three columns

Three columns

Cool artwork by the harbor

Cool artwork by the harbor

Port Vell

Port Vell

Harbor walk at sunset

Harbor Walk


With another 35 minute walk along the harbor, totaling our day out at  close to 20km, we made it back to the hotel for a nap and shower before going out for a seafood dinner. We chose Arrosseria L’arros as it was near the harbor and had Paella (seafood and rice dish in a big skillet) for a Monday night birthday dinner being told that the Spanish eat late (between 9-11pm) we got there at 9:30pm, however we were the only people in the restaurant. In fact the whole area near Port Vell was the like this.  We started with fried squid rings and garlic shrimp. For the main plates we went with Paella, I chose noir paella and my boyfriend went with the regular and with artichoke. The food was rich and made with a lot of oil, while tasty was very heavy. Overall nice establishment, just empty on a Monday evening.

Garlic Shrimp

Garlic Shrimp


Tuesday we got up around 9:30am and packed up our belongings and headed to Plaça Espanya to catch a bus to take us on the top of the hill of Parc Montjuïc to see the castle and home of the Olympic Park from 1992. With another angle to overlook the city you can see both the Sea and residential areas. The Castle is big but nothing too impressive about it’s design, built more for protection and war. The Olympic Park is massive and has a new-age feel having been built in the 90’s. It was empty and you wonder what really happens to the city to keep the upkeep once the Olympics are over. Still a pretty cool place and lots of fellow runners in the area.

Parc de montjuïc

Parc de Montjuïc

The two blondes at Olimpic Parc

The two blondes at Olimpic Parc

Torre de Comunicacions de Montjuïc

Torre de Comunicacions de Montjuïc

View from Montjuïc Castle

View from Montjuïc Castle

Montjuïc Castle

Montjuïc Castle

place Espanya

Plaça Espanya


It was our last morning of touring and we found a cheap bus to bring us back to the Airport. Our trip was a success with amazing sights, good food, and lots of exercise. I promise to be back in the near future.