The Great American Road Adventure: Kansas

The drive from Denver to Topeka, Kansas was supposed to take us 7-8 hours on the I-70 East. Still suffering from the dreadful after-effects of the edibles in Denver, the 5 hour nap refreshed me completely. After I woke up, it was about 2pm, and Michael and I decided that we’d stop somewhere for lunch in the next hour. After looking up some places on Yelp, we decided to stop for a late lunch at a place called Al’s Chickenette, in Hays, Kansas.

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We didn’t have much choice in stopping for lunch at Al’s. It was the best reviewed place on Yelp within 50 miles, that was on the way to Topeka. It took us one hour to get there, and we arrived around 3:30pm on a Wednesday afternoon. Much of the ride had been spent gazing out of the window to stare at cornfields.

We parked in the small car-park outside the restaurant, and proceeded in. Due to the unusual hour for lunch, we were the only customers in the restaurant when we came in. The servers in the restaurant all looked to be about high school or college aged, and were milling about chatting to one another when we came in.

Michael and I were served by a couple of the young servers, neither of whom were from Kansas, but told us they had moved there for college.

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We continued driving to Topeka after our meal, arriving around 7-8pm.

Topeka continued to be stiflingly hot even in the evening, and we were sweating as soon as we set foot outside the car. For dinner, we had Indian, while making small talk with the restaurant owners who’d sat next to us by chance. Michael was fascinated by the seeming randomness of international immigrants who’d come to America 20 years ago, and settled in a place like Topeka.

The people of Kansas spoke with accents that were almost Southern, with a bit of something else thrown in. During dinner, we listened bemusedly to the conversation of diners next to us, who were discussing something at the intersection of religion and extramarital affairs.

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After dinner, we checked in to the Ramada Inn, part of a motel chain. The motel was one of the more unusual and lackluster that we’d stayed in on the trip. At the time of the road trip, I was making efforts to train for my first marathon, and having a gym at the hotel was crucial in making selections for where we’d stay. Though it is the capital of Kansas, Topeka had a surprising lack of hotels with gyms, which is how we ended up at the Ramada.

Some parts of the interior looked like they hadn’t been updated since the 70s, and also could have formed the backdrop for the hotel in The Shining.

The next morning, we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. This comprised of a heavy assortment that you would expect to find in a place like Kansas: hotcakes, bacon, biscuits and gravy, sausages, and eggs. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, and drove to a nearby attraction known as ‘Truckhenge’.

I discovered Truckhenge on the website Roadside America, which lists bizarre national attractions optimal for travelers making their way by road. Truckhenge, rated as ‘Major Fun’ on the website, can be described as an unusual art installation created solely by one man, Ron Lessman. The website advised calling the phone number listed to see if the farm would be open to visitors on days people intended to visit.

After Michael called, we drove there with some trepidation, noting that our surrounds looked like a place ideal to commit homicide.

Within 10 minutes’ drive, we’d reached our destination. The gate was closed to us though, and we wondered if it was open. We got out of the car after stopping on a grass mound across from the farm, and walked into the front yard, where we saw a man with grizzled hair doing something in the yard. After getting closer to him, we excused ourselves, and asked if we might be permitted to take a look around.

On turning around, he looked startled, but not hostile, and asked if we were the ones who’d called that morning. We identified the man as Ron Lessman, the resident, owner and creator of Truckhenge. Mr Lessman had a thick sort of accent that wasn’t quite a Southern accent, and nor did it seem like it was a typical Kansas accent. While enthusiastic to speak with us, we had some difficulty in understanding him.

Mr Lessman told us it would be $8 to see his property. Michael handed over $20, but noted later that he never received any change. Mr Lessman seemed to welcome the idea of visitors that day, and asked us if we’d like a tour. Though we said no, he proceeded to walk and talk with us about his creations, telling us anecdotes about some of the creations along the way.

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In front of the Lessman farm

He had a section of the farm that was dedicated to stumps of trees that had faces etched into them using a saw.

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Mr Lessman seemed especially pleased with these, and proceeded to tell us stories about each tree carving. He was also fond of making gestures, which Michael and I mostly didn’t understand.

Around where the trucks were, Mr Lessman left us to our devices. We leisurely strolled about his farm, admiring his creations.

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What we understood of the story behind Truckhenge, was that the local council had advised Mr Lessman to get rid of his trucks- the phrase they’d used, according to Mr Lessman, was “pick up the trucks”, which resulted in him “picking them up” according to his words, and a gesture with his arm. The art that came after, like the tree stumps, were a result of the initial trucks.

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The trucks were the last creations on the farm, before we were about to turn around and head back to the house. Then, we heard a humming, vibrational sound, and turned the corner around a bush, to see Mr Lessman doing something on a tractor. When he saw us, he hopped off the tractor, and started talking and walking with us back in the direction of the house.

Michael mostly asked Mr Lessman questions about his pieces, while Mr Lessman told us about how some high school kids would come there to take photos before going to the prom. As we neared the house, Mr Lessman suddenly turned to us expectantly and asked us if we’d like to see the inside of his house.

Micheal, ever cautious, said we had to get going shortly, but thanked Mr Lessman. A blank look came over Mr Lessman’s face, perhaps surprised at the unexpected denial. He then asked us, “Do you want a peacock feather?”

We’d seen peacocks strutting around his farm as we walked, and excitedly, I said yes, not knowing what the offer entailed. We walked back and reached the house, and horrifically, I realized that Mr Lessman meant for us to go inside the house with him to get the peacock feather.

He opened the door, and we both stepped through. Michael kept one foot nearly in the door, while I stood nearby. We watched as Mr Lessman stepped off to the side and retrieved a sole peacock feather from a nearby desk. The interior of the house had dark gray walls with high ceilings, and giant pieces of furniture or other objects that loomed over us and cast long shadows.

He handed me the peacock feather, and then said he could show us around the house. I thanked him, and Michael said we had to get going. It looked like disappointment crossed Mr Lessman’s face for a second, but he walked us out, and we thanked him for the tour and the feather. He shook our hands in goodbye, and we got in the car quickly, and began the drive to Kansas City.

It took us about an houralso to drive to Kansas City from Topeka. The temperature in Kansas City again, wasn’t much kinder to us, and we were dripping with sweat as soon as stepped out of the car.

We entered the restaurant I had chosen, Hayward’s Pit BBQ, to have eyes fall on us, and mouths hang agape. The restaurant had the largest and whitest customers I’d ever seen in one place at a time, and was also heavily male. We had plates of very heavy meat set before us, while Michael chatted to the male server about our road travels.

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I noticed that the waitresses here, even despite being middle aged and above, wore full faces of makeup, looking like the picture of traditional femininity. Michael remarked later that people in more conservative communities tended to conform to traditional gender roles compared to people in more liberal places. He also noted later that Kansas is a red state, and I thought that there must have been at least several people in the restaurant that day, that voted for Trump.

We finished our meal, paid the bill and left to drive north, to Minneapolis.

 

The Great American Road Adventure: Colorado

After about 5 hours on the road, we reached Denver around 6 or 7pm on a Monday evening. As we didn’t have a clear plan laid out, we’d been using the app HotelTonight for bookings, and used this for the entirety of the trip. We checked into Courtyard by Marriott upon arriving in Denver, which was at that point, the most comfortable stay of the trip.

The hotel was located right in the heart of the city, so we had no issues with finding restaurants to eat at, or things to do. As we checked into the hotel that evening, the receptionist recommended certain areas to dine in, and alluded to Denver’s ‘recreational activities’, advising us to partake if we pleased.

At this time, I wasn’t aware that marijuana is legal in Colorado. After learning this, I suggested to Michael that we should get some edibles the following night. After checking in to the hotel, we dropped off our things and freshened up, then walked to a nearby restaurant, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, for dinner.

We were seated immediately at the restaurant. Ophelia’s had a modern, trendy ambience, and was located across two floors, with a giant projector screen on the upper level. The seats faced the screen, which was playing something in black and white, made to look like it was from the 40s or 50s. We each had burgers there, which were superb, before heading out to stroll the city center.

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It was the first time in a couple of days that we’d been in a large city. We both felt comfortable and at ease in Denver at once, and decided that this would be the place to spend two nights. The streets of Denver were clean and beautiful, and the belief that the air was fresh also pervaded due to the knowledge that we were surrounded by mountains on all sides.

That night, we decided to go to a cinema nearby to see ‘It’, until late that night.

The next morning, we got up and walked to a nearby cafe, The Pig and Sprout, for brunch.

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Dip sandwich at The Pig and Sprout

After finishing brunch, we went for a stroll in the heat, before getting an iced tea, and an Uber to the Molly Brown House Museum. The Molly Brown House Museum is a real house that Titanic survivor Margaret Brown lived in at one point in time. The museum entrance fees cost $15 or less per person, and entrance fee includes a mandatory tour. The house museum was more interesting to me as a place preserving its Victorian heritage and furniture, and less so because of who Margaret Brown was.

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Interior of the living room

As we moved through the house museum, the tour guide gave us insights about upper class Victorian living customs, and about Margaret Brown and her family. It took us around 30 minutes to get through the entire house. After the tour, we walked to a nearby cafe for coffee, and then went to the hotel to rest before dinner.

That night, we’d decided to partake in Denver’s recreational delights, so I spent the afternoon looking up places nearby to get edibles. Michael and I left the hotel early in the evening that night, and went to a place called ‘Sweet Leaf’ in a different neighborhood of Denver.

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Unfortunately, I had brought only a copy of my Australian drivers licence, which the staff told me wasn’t sufficient as a form of ID for entry. They said I could enter with my passport (which I hadn’t brought), so only Michael was permitted to enter, and purchased a few items.

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List of edibles for purchase at Sweet Leaf

He told me that the staff inside had informed him that he wasn’t “allowed to buy anything to supply to me”, which I thought was unusual, considering that I had a valid license stating that I was well over the age of 21. We got an Uber to a restaurant in another neighborhood of Denver, featuring Asian and Cajun fusion cusine.

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Purchase from Sweet Leaf
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Deep fried alligator

After having dinner, we went back to the hotel and I had half of one of the truffle brownies that Michael purchased from Sweet Leaf. The container consisted of three brownie bites, which were small mouthfuls, enough for 2 bites. Each brownie bite had 10 milligrams of THC. However, after an hour, I failed to feel anything, so I finished the brownie.

I felt exceedingly tired soon after this, and retired to bed. The night that passed was not a pleasant one. I woke up every 2 hour, with a constant need to drink water. My mouth felt parched, and my head heavy.

In the morning, my alarm went off at 8am to wake me up for a Pilates class nearby. I got out of bed groggily, and stumbled into the bathroom. My pupils were dilated, and I felt like my vision was blurred. My head felt so heavy, I went back to bed for 2 hours, and skipped Pilates.

At 11am, it was checkout time, and despite the extra 2 hours of sleep, I still felt dreadful. This would be my first and last experience with edibles. We departed for Kansas with my head a mess.

 

 

The Big Move (or I moved to New York, and all my friends were more excited than me)

In my 20s, after graduating university, I decided to do the most cliche thing any single girl in her 20s could possibly do: I decided to move to New York.

The justification behind the move came from my trip to Japan in 2014. As much as Sydney had always been home, ever since that idyllic trip, I had the unshakeable feeling that I wasn’t meant to live out my days there. A few friends of mine who had previously lived in NYC sold me on living there, and told me how easy it was to move there on a working holiday visa (J-1 cultural exchange visa). NYC had always seemed alluring to me as a young girl, but in later years I had stopped thinking about it. With the ease of the visa that was available to me though, I thought I’d regret it if I missed the opportunity, so with that, I prepared all my necessary documents and readied myself to leave the only place I’d ever called home.

I experienced a vast range of emotions leading up to the move, and the majority of them weren’t positive. There was one week, I cried going home on the train from work 3/5 consecutive days, shielded only by my colossal copy of ‘War and Peace’. Another week closer to the move, I couldn’t get to sleep at night. I knew I was beginning to get cold feet at this point, despite all the justification I’d pointed out for the move. Obviously it was too late to back out though.

And, in spite of all the fear, anxiety, and sadness that I was feeling, I couldn’t face the possibility of living in Sydney for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, I faced criticism from some friends. One of my friends said I chose “the worst possible time to move to the US” (which I couldn’t agree with more). Another voiced concerns about the possibility of me not being able to find a job, and having to come home financially worse off. The comments were disheartening, but I knew after getting off the plane in Sydney after my last trip, that I couldn’t live my life like that anymore, just living for the holidays.

During one of our last meetups in Sydney, one of my friends said she hoped that I would find whatever I was looking for in NYC. However, I didn’t really know what this was myself. All I really knew was, ever since that idyllic trip to Japan in 2014, I never felt the same about living in Sydney. Ever since then, I’d been travelling the world searching for that elusive something, but I couldn’t find it doing the same thing I had always done.

At the same time, I hadn’t prepared myself for the reality of the situation. When I told people about the move, the most common question I got asked was, “are you excited?” I often replied that I wasn’t, or only a little bit. In short, I was thinking of all the doubts that I had surrounding the move, the tediousness of having to start fresh all over again, and the discomfort of it all. It was like after I had gotten the visa, I began to question if I really wanted it after all. I knew how it felt to want something very badly, to look forward to something, and I knew after I got the visa, there was an absence of emotion for almost everything in my life. I was surviving, going through the motions of my daily routine: working, exercising, eating, sleeping, seeing friends, but I failed to feel anything. There was the constant fear and doubt that I had made a huge mistake. I spent the past three years wanting something, dreaming about it, hoping for it every day, and then felt nothing when I finally got it. So I did everything I could do avoid talking about the move, avoided seeing my friends when I could, just to avoid that dreaded question and the emotions it conjured up. I needed to come to terms with the gravity of what I had done, and I wanted to be on my own.

It was a stark contrast to those first few weeks after coming back- I slept, ate, breathed, dreamed New York. It was the only thing I thought about. I knew the odds were stacked against me, but I prepared to leave anyway. A couple of days before the move, it hit me that I was really leaving and I didn’t know if I felt like laughing or crying. I didn’t know if or when I would be back again. I felt an enormous chapter of my life was ending, while another one just as big, was beginning, and I didn’t know how to feel about it.

When I really took a long, hard look at my life, I reasoned that taking action was infinitely better than wishing, wanting, hoping, and never going. And with that, I ended one very important chapter of my life, to begin anew on the other side of the world, alone.

Lake Louise, Banff

Rather spontaneously, I booked a trip to North America just three months before my departure date. For once, the spontaneous travel decision had less to do with me and more to do with travel plans of a good friend of mine, J, who had decided to return to New York in October for a short holiday. J had previously lived in New York for a year, and I thought it would be good to visit New York with a friend who had lived there, rather than on my own.

I designated the longest time to spend in New York, and initially planned to spend the entire two weeks of my leave there. After further deliberation though, I decided to spend some time traveling around North America on my own, as I had no idea when I would be back next. That was how I ended up making a super short (two nights, to be exact) trip to Calgary.

I flew out from SFO on a Monday morning around 11am, on a flight operated by Air Canada, on a small Bombardier aircraft, with two rows of two seats. The flight was direct, around 4 hours. I landed at YYC at 4:30pm on a Monday, and had booked a shuttle bus service from Calgary to Banff. It was a two hour trip from Calgary International to Banff, and I slept on the way. I would wake up intermittently and look out the window to see a rolling white expanse, with snow covered tree tops passing by.

Here is the worst part of the trip and embarrassing mishap: I got dropped off at the wrong hostel, which happens to be a hostel chain. They had two in nearby locations- HI Banff and HI Lake Louise. I had wrongly booked my shuttle bus to HI Banff as they didn’t do a service to HI Lake Louise, and found out when I got there and tried to check in. I was able to order a taxi from the hostel, and while on the way to the right hostel, the cab driver asked me about the economy in Sydney, which led to him revealing his life story and how he ended up working as a cab driver in Banff. It’s funny how much people will share about their lives to complete strangers.

40 minutes and $100 later, I arrived at HI Lake Louise, checked in quickly and dumped my stuff in my room. When I got in, there was just one another girl in the four room dorm, and we exchanged a brief hello before I went to get something to eat at the cafe next to hostel reception.

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Poutine

There was a cafe called Bill Peyto’s, conveniently located right next to the hostel reception. It was around 7:30 on a Monday night when I came in, and the cafe was busy. When I came in, a waitress greeted me and said I could sit anywhere I liked. I took a seat at a six person table with a young girl sitting across from me. She looked up and said hi when I sat down, then went back to writing in her notebook.

The waitress came back after leaving me alone with the menu for a few minutes, and I ordered the poutine, despite the cafe being out of cheese curds. After about 10 minutes, the waitress returned with the poutine, pictured in the above picture. Even without cheese curds, they were still delicious, and I ate them with great relish. While eating, the girl sitting at the table and I chatted about the beauty of Lake Louise, and Canada in general.

After finishing, I paid the bill, with tip, and left. I spent some time researching shuttle bus companies to take me back to Calgary Airport on Wednesday morning, and after finding only one company (Brewster Express), I booked it, and prayed it would get me to the airport in time for my 10:30am flight. Afterwards, I went back to my room and slept early.

The next morning, I was awoken at god knows what hour by the sound of my roommate getting up and getting ready to leave, and dragging her luggage out of the room. She had the decency not to turn the light on. After she left, I flip flopped and tossed and turned in bed for another half an hour or so, trying to get back to sleep, but couldn’t. So I gave up, took a shower and dressed and decided to get breakfast at the cafe I had eaten dinner at the previous night.

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I ordered my usual favourite sweet breakfast- pancakes. Bill Peyto’s pancakes were fluffy, and dusted with caster sugar. I drowned them in maple syrup and ate them with relish. After finishing breakfast, I paid the bill and asked the hostel receptionist for directions on how to hike to Lake Louise.

She gave me a map and highlighted the path in orange, describing the landmarks I would see on the way so I would know I was heading in the right direction. She asked if I was heading alone, I said yes, to which she asked if I wanted bear spray. The Canadian Rockies are well known for grizzly bears, and it was for this reason that my mother had told me not to go hiking on my own. As usual, I didn’t take her advice. I also didn’t take any bear spray.

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Starting the hike from HI Lake Louise

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And so I set off from the hostel, on the tramline trail, which was about a 4km hike each way. The receptionist told me it should take about 40 minutes to hike each way, but it took me a lot longer, as I was tramping in the sleet and thick piles of snow with not enough layers and my Nike free runs. I came unprepared, without gloves, and though I was wearing four layers (of thin clothing), I was freezing in the minus one weather.

It was an easy hike, and would have been more pleasant had I been dressed more warmly and also not thinking of grizzly bears popping out to maul me at every corner. The trail was flat, and still contained the footprints of those who had walked it before me, perhaps that morning.

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For someone who hasn’t seen a lot of snow in her life before, it’s always a delight to travel to a country and experience a view like this. However, by the end of the hike, my face and hands were bright red from the biting cold, and all I wanted to do was arrive.

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About 70 minutes after I started the hike, I reached a carpark, and followed the people getting out a short distance to Lake Louise.

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It’s an exhilarating feeling to finally arrive at a place you’ve taken so long to get to. I walked up to the lake with the swarm of other tourists coming out of Chateau Fairmont, and started taking pictures.

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In a nutshell, the view was breathtaking. I wanted so badly to sit by the lake and read all day and read, which I would have done, if not for the snow and the cold.

After taking a few pictures at the front of the lake, I walked around the lake to get a view of Fairmont Chateau from the other side. While I was walking around the lake, I asked a girl to take my picture. Coincidentally, she happened to be Australian, and we chatted briefly about the beauty of Canada and how there were so many Australians there.

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I continued walking around the lake, and as I paused at times to get more photos, people would stop and ask me to take their pictures, and I would get mine taken in return; a sort of ‘traveller’s exchange’. When I stopped at one point, I saw a middle aged Chinese man with a DSLR camera on the rocks nearby. He caught my eye and motioned to me. He didn’t speak any English, I didn’t speak any Cantonese but somehow we communicated. He gestured for me to take some photos of him, and frowned with displeasure when I took photos he didn’t like. In return, he took some photos of me, first with my DSLR, which I understood he thought were too dark, which then led to him taking photos of me on his DSLR. He then held out notes on his phone, saying “email”, which I took to mean he would email me the pictures. To this day, I haven’t received them.

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The other side of Lake Louise, with Chateau Fairmont in the distance

The other side of the lake attracted less tourists, and was completely frozen. The layers of top ice were thin, and cracked under your feet if you walked with a heavy step.

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After I was done with gazing at the lake and was satisfied with the number of photos I had taken, I ventured into Fairmont Chateau and had lunch at the hotel cafe and looked around in the hotel’s souvenir store. I was so cold I bought a pair of tacky mittens, with ‘Canada’, and a maple leaf embroidered into them that I would never wear back in Sydney. The store assistant asked me where I was from, and when I said ‘Australia’, he said there were so many Australians in Canada this time of year, he was surprised there were any left in Australia.

After I sufficiently warmed up, I began wearily trudging back to the hostel. I got back to Lake Louise town around 3pm, and decided to check out the local grocery store to see if there were any local Canadian goodies. After perusing the aisles briefly, I got a packet of Lays bacon poutine chips, and walked back to the hostel.

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I decided to hang in my room and snack for a bit, but it wasn’t long before the door opened, and someone came in. My next roommate was a French woman who was currently living in another part of Canada. We chatted for a bit, and before long she extended an invitation to me for a ride to Lake Louise the next morning, which I unfortunately had to turn down. After chatting for a bit, I went to have an early dinner at Bill Peyto’s, and ordered the Chill Poutine.

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The Chilli Poutine was heavy, topped with ground beef, shallots, spicy barbecue sauce, and sour cream. It very much resembled nachos in taste, and while pleasant to eat, I much preferred regular poutine. After dinner, I went to chill in the hostel common room above the cafe. The Wi-Fi was okay, but not great, and it was frustrating to me as I was navigating Expedia and Skyscanner, thinking about whether I should buy another flight in the case that I did miss my flight the next morning. While I was browsing the Internet, a woman came and started chatting to me and asked if I wanted to hike with her to another nearby lake (not Lake Louise) the next day, which I also unfortunately had to turn down.

We then got into a conversation about our travels, and how she had been on the road traveling for 18 months. I found her story inspiring and was gladdened by the spontaneous encounters that I’d had in Canada. Hostels may not always be the most comfortable forms of accommodation but really appeal to my sense of novelty and adventure- you never know who you’re going to meet or what could happen.

The next day, I woke up at 5:50am and checked out of the hostel, and waited outside for the Brewster Connect. The bus driver was Japanese, and had an efficient and professional manner. We stopped at a nearby bus depot for half an hour, and I had a light breakfast of yoghurt and granola from Tim Horton’s. After getting back on the bus, I fell asleep for some time, and awoke just before arriving at Calgary International Airport. My flight was a 10:30am flight with WestJet, and I arrived at the airport to check in at 9:40am. The WestJet staff at the check-in counter told me when I came to check-in, that I had unfortunately missed my flight. They offered me a free flight on a morning service the next day, but arriving in New York a day later than initially planned was inconceivable to me, so I booked the next flight to NYC, with United Airlines, flying into Newark departing Calgary at 2pm. The last minute flight made a conspicuous dent in my wallet. And there ended my brief travels in Canada.

 

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Summer in Japan 2015: Day 1- Back again, chilling in Shibuya

I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said something like ‘we can have in life, one pleasurable moment at best, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate that moment’. Or something along those lines. This has never been more true considering my travel experience with Japan.

I spent two weeks in Japan in 2014, and without hesitation, I can say that those two weeks were the most perfect two weeks of my life. When you have perfect moments, you can never forget about them, and you spend the rest of your time trying to recreate and replicate those moments. Within three months of returning home from Japan in 2014, I had booked my next two trips there.

Without invitation, my best friend invited himself along.

We left on the last Monday morning in June 2015, on an Air Asia flight, with an 8 hour stopover in Malaysia. The two of us were so tired that all we did at KL airport was check into a hotel and sleep, until it was about time to board our next flight to Narita. It was my best friend’s first time traveling to Japan, and my third. By this time, I could navigate the subway and airport pretty well, and once we arrived at Narita, we got to the suburb where our Air BNB was located fairly easily.

When you’re traveling with your male best friend, getting an apartment with two bedrooms is of utmost importance. When traveling to any other country, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but because we were going to Japan, the land of matchbox apartments, we ran into some trouble because we were also both budgeting. There was the hostel option, which we didn’t want to go. It took us a few weeks of searching to find a suitable AirBNB within our price range.

The AirBNB that we had picked, was in my favourite area of Tokyo, Minato-ku. Minato-ku is like the Manhattan of Tokyo. It’s one of the most expensive areas to live in Tokyo, and is comprised of the suburbs Roppongi, Azabu-Juban, Shiodome, Akasaka, Daiba, Shinbashi, Toranomon, to name a few. The suburb that our AirBNB was in, was called Shirokane-Takanawa. I had picked it for its proximity to Roppongi (my favourite part of Tokyo). Our AirBNB in Shirokane-Takanawa was super convenient, about 3 minutes walk from the subway, and with several convenience stores nearby.

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Shirokane-Takanawa subway station

Our AirBNB host was waiting for us inside the apartment, and showed us how to use everything. It was about 11am, when we got to Shirokane-Takanawa, and the two of us freshened up quickly before heading out for our first meal.

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Standing sushi bar in Shibuya

I’ve forgotten the Japanese name for standing restaurants, but standing restaurants are common in Japan, especially if you’re eating something like ramen, sushi or drinking. It was warm that day, and Michael and I wanted to cool down, so we thought that sushi would be the best thing.

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Our lunch cost around 3,000yen (about $32 AUD). After eating, we walked around Shibuya shopping and taking in the sights. I also went to Bic Camera to fix up a data sim- I got 2gigs for about 4,500 yen. Not a particularly cheap option, but the cheapest and best value in comparison to the other choices.

We went to AA and walked around the back streets of Shibuya, had coffee at a super hipster cafe called Streamer Coffee Company. I came here for the military latte- a mix of matcha, coffee and white chocolate.

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Military Latte from Streamer Coffee Company

 

After a few hours of shopping, we decided to take a rest (that means eat, again).

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After our afternoon snack, Michael and I parted ways as I had dinner plans with S, a Tokyo Instagrammer.

Shohei is your typical Tokyo salaryman. The only thing that differentiates from other Tokyo salarymen is that he has an Instagram account with a strong following. We chatted only a few times online before meeting up that night. I told him that I liked trying unusual foods, so we went to have dinner at a loach restaurant in Shibuya.

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It was both our first time eating loach, or ‘dojo’ in Japanese. To be honest, I’m still not really sure what loach is. Whatever it was, it was delicious. It had a texture similar to eel. We had a lovely dinner talking about cultural differences, travels and the deliciousness of Japanese food.

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Eating loach for the first time
Eating loach for the first time

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Loach and tempura mushrooms
Loach and tempura mushrooms
Potentially horsemeat
Potentially horsemeat

Because of the language barrier, I often find myself in situations where I have no idea what I’m eating.

Thanks for the great dinner, Shohei!
Thanks for the great dinner, Shohei!
Strolling around Longbay Yokocho
Strolling around Longbay Yokocho, Shibuya

After dinner, we walked around talking in Shibuya a little before parting ways. Shohei took me to Longbay Yokocho near Shibuya Crossing, which is a laneway of bars and restaurants similar to Golden Gai.

Shohei had to go back to work after dinner (Japanese people work so hard), so I really appreciated him taking time out of his busy schedule to meet me.

Still exhausted, I decided to head back to the apartment and have an early night.

How travel messed me up

I’ve been feeling out of sorts lately, and can’t seem to pin down exactly why. It might be because I don’t know where I’m going to live next year (Sydney or Tokyo). It might be because this is the first time in a long time that I haven’t got another trip booked and don’t know when I can go away again. It might be because I’m graduating soon and increasingly feel dissatisfied with the structure and routine of a job and just want to focus on doing the things I love. I’ve never been the kind of person that’s able to put up with things I dislike.

KL - NRT on Air Asia plane
KL – NRT on Air Asia plane

Since February 2014, I’ve been traveling constantly, about every couple of months. Because of my impending graduation and the necessity of finding a full time job, I have no idea when I can go away again, but it’s likely it won’t be anytime soon. I knew about this for a long time and was expecting to have a bad post holiday depression, but instead I didn’t get that. My worst post holiday depression was after I came home from Japan in 2014, and I was expecting something much worse than that, but instead there was nothing. Instead, I felt kind of numb to the things around me, as if I didn’t care what happened. I also felt restless, like I wanted to do something but didn’t know what. A ridiculous thing I’ve started doing in my spare time now is looking up the prices of plane tickets while knowing I’m not going to buy them.

For a long time now, I’ve really been trying hard to pin down what it is about travel that I love so much. This quote kind of sums up how I feel travel changed me.

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, even breaks your heart. But that’s okay.

The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body.

You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

Anthony Bourdain

I have a whimsical nature and dislike dullness, monotony and routines. I like spontaneity. I think that one of the reasons travel appeals to me so much is because I love adventures. I love waking up in the morning knowing that absolutely anything could happen, that I’m not bound to routines and schedules, that I could make a new friend around the corner, have an adventure. I like the thrill of getting completely lost, and finding your own way again. Some people say that other people like traveling because it’s an escape. I don’t deny that. One of the reasons I love traveling is because I don’t have responsibilities. One of the best things about going away is that carefree feeling that comes from knowing you don’t have to do anything at all.

For a long time, I was fixated on moving to Japan. I talked about it every day, to everyone and anyone (I know everyone is probably sick of me talking about Japan). I told everyone I was moving there. I think the reason I fell in love with the country so much is because it was my first travel experience that was 100% perfect. After coming home from Japan last year, I was the worst I’d felt in a long time. I felt dazed when I went out, like I was walking around with my head in a cloud. I couldn’t concentrate on anything anymore and my marks dropped. All I could think about was going back, and eventually living there someday, maybe even permanently.

Like the Anthony Bourdain quote, I felt that my travels had really messed me up on the inside. It sounds like a drastic overexaggeration that something as trivial as a holiday could mess someone up like that, but that was really how I felt. I was happy before I left, but after coming back, I wasn’t content with my life anymore. I hated walking around in my hometown, feeling like an alien, like I didn’t belong there. All I could think about from that point was getting away, and it didn’t matter where, as long as I wasn’t in Sydney.

After traveling to Japan three times in a year, I can still say that I really like it, and want to go back, but for a number of reasons, I decided that I might not move to Japan anymore.

I think that’s part of the reason why I feel so restless lately. I can’t decide if I want to be in Sydney or somewhere else next year. I’ve even been toying with the idea of moving to London or New York. The thing that scares me most is having regrets about things I should’ve done, but didn’t. Come 2016, I think the best thing for me to do is decide then and there in the moment what I feel like doing, and do it.

Three nights in Nagano

Monday 16/02/2015- I woke up early and checked out of Juyoh Hotel. As I had previously missed my Willer Express bus to Osaka earlier in the month, I wasn’t going to miss my bus this time. I got to the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building an hour early, and chilled at Starbucks with a Sakura latte before boarding the bus.

Konbini sushi from Family Mart- consistently cheap, fresh and delicious
Konbini sushi from Family Mart- consistently cheap, fresh and delicious

I came an hour early for my bus this time, so I got some sushi from Family Mart for breakfast for less than 500 yen. We boarded the bus 15 minutes before departure time and set off exactly on time (around midday I think). It was a 4 hour bus trip with two 20-30 minute stops in between for toilet breaks and buying snacks.

When the bus arrived in Nagano, at Nagano JR station, I walked to my hostel and checked in, and paid the full amount (8,400 yen) upon arrival. I had booked a hostel called Moritomizu Backpackers, primarily for its cheap price. This hostel wasn’t as cosy as the hostel I had stayed at in Sapporo, and the people weren’t as friendly either. The best thing about Moritomizu was probably the location and the price. It was situated just 5 minutes from Nagano JR station, so it was extremely convenient to go out from. I spent the afternoon uploading photos before going out for dinner at a nearby yakitori restaurant.

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Complimentary salad

I sat at the counter and had some difficulty ordering as everything was in Japanese with no English menu. No one in the restaurant spoke English either. I got by by saying to the restaurant staff that I would have two of everything.

It wasn’t long before a Japanese couple came in and sat down next to me and began drinking. I can’t clearly remember how it happened, but I remember the woman had been looking over at me with some interest and finally, she began speaking to me in Japanese. I didn’t understand all of it but I’m pretty sure she was asking if I wanted to drink sake with them.

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Negima- chicken and shallot

Every time I go to Japan I end up drinking pretty heavily, and I decided it would be in the best interest of my health to refrain from drinking that night, however I decided to take the woman up on her offer of one sake shot. One of the things I love so much about Japan is the potential for spontaneous experiences at every corner.

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After the never-ending onslaught of yakitori that followed, I definitely regretted ordering two of everything. The couple sitting next to me had also invited to me to share their food. Me being me, of course I accepted.

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The above dish is one that was offered to me by the couple next to me. This is one of the most delicious Japanese foods I’ve ever tried, and unfortunately I’ve forgotten the name. The man described it to me as ‘Japanese soul food’. The soup was like a thick beef gravy, with tender, fatty pieces of meat and tofu.

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Taking alcohol from strangers
Taking alcohol from strangers

After having one shot, the woman proceeded to keep trying to get me to drink with them, to which I told her in English that I’d been drinking too much lately and wanted to refrain. Her husband spoke better English than her, and tried to tell her I didn’t want to drink, but after awhile it seemed like they were having an argument about me drinking. Some Japanese people can be very persistent.

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And the food just kept coming...
And the food just kept coming…

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Streets of Nagano
Streets of Nagano
Snacks from the konbini
Dessert from the konbini

My first night in Nagano was a pleasant one due to the new friends I had made. After finishing dinner, I walked back to the hostel and planned my activities for the next day. When I went up to bed, it was so cold in the room that I thought it might be okay to leave the heater on, but I was sharing the room with someone who clearly didn’t operate on the same body temperature as me. As soon as I had turned my light off and it was clear that I wasn’t going to turn off the heater, I heard an admonishing female voice say in Japanese that it was a bit hot- code for turn off the heater. This was the first and only time I’ve ever had trouble with anyone in a hostel, and it wasn’t a particularly bad experience, but I felt uncomfortable, and also almost froze to death that night.

However, the next morning, my roommate was kind enough to turn the heater on before leaving the room.

Tuesday 17th February: The first thing I did when I went out was to get a bowl of soba at a small restaurant at Nagano JR station.

Kinoko soba
Kinoko soba

After eating, I boarded a bus that was packed with Australian tourists to go to Yudanaka, where the snow monkey park was located.

View after getting off the bus
View after getting off the bus

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From the bus stop, it was supposed to be half an hour or 40 minutes walk to the monkey park. At the bottom of the mountain, there was a shop that had hiking boots which were free to hire.

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Being in Nagano reminded me of Sapporo, except more rural. I’d never seen so much snow in my life.

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Piles and piles of snow
Piles and piles of snow

While I was hiking up the mountain, I bumped into a boy from the hostel and we walked to the snow monkey park together.

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The area surrounding the snow monkey park was quiet, serene and beautiful. Like all scenic nature places, I always feel calm and relaxed in my surroundings. There was a steady group of tourists both hiking up and down the mountain so we knew that we were going exactly the right way.

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While walking up the mountain, we passed a few monkeys on the way.

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The monkeys roam freely around the park, and even come quite close to humans on occasion. They seem to be oblivious to the presence of people. However before entering the park, there are signs warning people not to get to close to the monkeys, touch them, feed them, or look them in the eye.

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While walking around taking pictures, I spotted a familiar face. It’s funny that there are so many crowded places in Japan, and yet I find myself constantly bumping into people here. I had met Leanne only a week or two earlier in Tokyo, and we both found it the funniest coincidence that we bumped into each other here.

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We spent a good deal of time walking around here, taking pictures and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere. After we’d spent about an hour here, the two of us hiked back down the mountain and caught the bus back to Nagano.

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After catching the bus back to Nagano, I decided to walk from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji temple.

Walking from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji
Walking from Nagano JR station to Zenko-ji

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From Nagano JR station, it was a straight road up to the temple, and it took me around 15 minutes to walk up.

I didn't know what this was supposed to be
Some sort of animal
Kurogoma (black sesame) soft serve
Kurogoma (black sesame) soft serve

While walking up to the temple, I paused to look around the small shops in this area and got a soft serve for myself for 200 yen.

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As with basically all of the touristy spots in Japan, Zenko-ji was crowded that day.

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I enjoyed strolling around the temple and the surrounding zen garden before walking back down to Nagano station. Since my hostel was located so close to Nagano’s city centre, it was easy and convenient to go back for a break after I went out. The price of this hostel was really cheap, but because the rooms were so cold and somewhat shabby looking, I wouldn’t consider staying again. Another con of this hostel was their daily lockout from 10am to 3pm. I’ve encountered other hotels with similar lockouts, but I find it extremely inconvenient since I like to sleep in a lot, and also because things in Japan generally open late (around 10am or 11am).

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The hostel also only had wifi in the lounge area, which is pretty standard as far as hotels/hostels go. When I came back from Zenko-ji, I sat in the lounge area and chatted to one of the hostel staff briefly about good restaurants in Nagano, and he recommended a soba restaurant nearby, which I decided to go to for dinner that night.

Plastic models of food outside Aburaya
Plastic models of food outside Aburaya
Basashi
Basashi

I’d eaten basashi last year at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo and liked it so much that once I saw it on the menu at Aburaya, I didn’t hesitate in ordering it. What I got paled in comparison to the standard of meat I had eaten last year. As you can see from the photo, the meat was an off-putting colour. In my experience, when I’ve eaten raw meats, such as raw chicken or raw horse, the quality of meat is the deciding factor in what makes it taste like raw meat. On the occasions when I’d had good quality basashi and torisashi, it was pleasurable to eat and the texture wasn’t slimy. Eating basashi at Aburaya that night was a culinary experience to turn me off eating raw meat altogether.

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Since Nagano is renowned for its soba, of course the soba noodles were good. After finishing dinner, I went back to the hostel and planned my activities for the following day.

Wednesday 18th February: The next day I woke up exhausted, got ready, and was the last one out of the hostel. It’s really ironic that vacations are meant to be relaxing, but I always find myself more drained then when I’m back home. I caught a bus to Togakushi, which was mostly filled with schoolkids that looked like they were going skiing/snowboarding. It took 50 minutes from Nagano to Togakushi on the bus. I was lucky that on buses in Japan, they have voice overs announcing the stops in both Japanese and English, otherwise I probably would have missed the stop. The bus stop for the skiing location was after Togakushi, so I was the first one off. Togakushi is the location where there are three main shrines located: Hokousha, Chusha, and Okushairiguchi. I had intended to hike from Hokousha to Chusha in one day, but I remembered speaking to someone about it, and being told that it was difficult in winter conditions.

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Nevertheless, I tried anyway. The first thing on my agenda after getting off the bus though, was a good meal.

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I went into the first restaurant I saw, since it was a fairly isolated area. There was no one to be seen walking the streets, so I couldn’t ask anyone for directions. The restaurant I ventured into was deserted and I doubted whether it was open until someone came out to serve me.

Another situation of not knowing what I ate
Another situation of not knowing what I ate

After ordering, I was brought out a complimentary starter by the waiter, but as he didn’t speak English, he had trouble communicating to me what this was. All I know is that it was some kind of vegetable.

Tempura soba
Tempura soba

The soba I’d eaten around Nagano city had been good, but the soba at Togakushi was amazing- it was hands down the best soba I’d ever eaten in my life, and I doubt whether I will ever eat soba this good anywhere else, ever again. The price was average, around 1500 yen.

After finishing my meal, I went back to the main road and attempted the hike to Houkousha but got lost and ended up falling on my butt about 10 times because of the snowy, slippery roads. At this point I was glad that there wasn’t anyone around to see me. Outside the restaurant, there had been a cute map of how to get to the shrines, but it wasn’t much of a help to me as it was all in Japanese.

They make everything cute in Japan
They make everything cute in Japan

After walking around for about an hour, lost in Togakushi, with no shrine in sight, and sore from repeatedly falling over, I decided to give up and catch the bus back to Nagano. Obviously I wasn’t cut out for hiking in the snow.

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When I got back to the bus stop, I saw that there was one coming in an hour, and after that, not for another hour. So at that point, it was a choice between walking around in the snow for another hour, or catching the bus back to civilization. Obviously I’m a sane individual so I decided to catch the bus back. After I got back to Nagano, I went to a pastry cafe to have an afternoon snack. Hiking through piles of snow is not my thing, but eating dessert clearly is.

Creme filled pastry
Creme filled pastry

After having a snack, I walked around the streets of Nagano city for awhile, before going back to the hostel. When I got back, I told the hostel staff about my disastrous day and all of us had a laugh at my hopelessness. I was sitting in the lounge room on my laptop shortly after this, when the hostel got a random visit from some people from the Japanese media, who were shooting a television program. At that time, there was just myself and a European exchange student sitting in the lounge, with some of the hostel staff, and we were asked if we could do an interview about whether English speaking should be promoted in Japan. Being naturally awkward, I didn’t want to do the interview but the television staff wouldn’t take no for an answer. During the interview, the interviewer asked me questions about whether I thought it would be good if Japanese people could speak more English, and so on. It lasted about 10 minutes, and they were probably the most uncomfortable 10 minutes of my life.

Around early evening, I decided to go out to dinner at the yakitori restaurant next door to the hostel. Every night, when I walked home, I was confronted by the mouthwatering smell of cooked meats and this place was on my to-go list. When I walked in to the restaurant, there were a few salarymen inside eating already, and one male chef.

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As was expected, no one here spoke English, so I made do and spoke bad Japanese to the chef. I had learned my lesson from the other night, and made a point of looking at the menu and only ordering meats that I liked. I don’t have a problem eating strange foods, but two things I don’t really like to eat which are common at yakitori restaurants are cooked liver and cooked chicken heart.

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Chicken cartilage and chicken thigh with shallot
Chicken cartilage and chicken thigh with shallot
Tare dipping sauce for the yakitori
Tare dipping sauce for the yakitori
Tsukune- chicken meatballs
Tsukune- chicken meatballs

Tsukune is one of my favourite kinds of yakitori skewers, and the ones here were flavoured with a sweet sauce soy sauce and garnished with sesame seeds- extremely delicious.

Kobukuro- pork uterus
Kobukuro- pork uterus

I’ve noticed that many Japanese people are interested in foreigners because they want to practice speaking English. Then there are also Japanese people who are simply interested in foreigners purely out of curiosity. I’ve encountered this many times in Japan, such as on my first night in Nagano drinking with the elderly couple, and it happened again tonight. The chef and a lone salaryman in the restaurant struck up a conversation with me so it wasn’t such a lonely dinner.

While ordering food, I came across a menu item I had never before encountered: kobukuro. The chef couldn’t really explain it to me in English, except I grasped that it was some sort of inner organs of a pig. The salaryman translated that it was the female organ where the baby was held, which I took to mean the uterus. Since I love unusual foods so much, I ordered this right away after finding out what it was.

Kobukuro is one of those acquired tastes. I won’t say right out that it was disgusting, but I would be hesitant about eating it again in the future. It had a springy texture, with a bloody, metal-like flavour that reminded me of cooked liver.

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Something a little more normal than pork uterus

Dinner at the yakitori place was about 2000 yen.

Thursday 19th February: The next day, I woke up early as it was my last day in Nagano and walked around the city. I checked out of the hostel in the morning, but left my luggage there while I went out.

My hair was badly in need of a cut, so I stopped at the first hair dresser I saw and got a cut, which cost me 5500 yen including the length (Japanese hairdressers charge extra for longer hair). At my Japanese hair dresser in Sydney, I would normally pay about $100 just for a cut, so I was happy with this price. After cutting my hair, the hairdresser also styled it for free. After getting my hair cut, I had my last meal at a random restaurant I saw.

I don’t know what kind of cuisine the restaurant was meant to be serving, but I ended up with a strange ramen dish, that I believe is Chinese style ramen. I have a bad habit of ordering things from menus without asking what they are. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. In this case, I was surprised, but it was not a good one. While at the restaurant, I had a conversation with the restaurant owner about Australia.

Side of fried rice that came with the ramen
Side of fried rice that came with the ramen
Ramen Hancha
Ramen Hancha

I asked for ramen hancha and I got it, but I didn’t know what ramen hancha was. The ramen was served shortly after the fried rice, and there was way too much food for even me to finish. It didn’t taste like Japanese food. I regretted eating at this place for my last meal in Nagano.

Matcha layer cake
Matcha and chocolate layer cake

After my disappointing meal, I wanted to eat something good to make up for it so I bought a matcha layer cake from a nearby patisserie. It was very creamy, and it didn’t have a strong matcha flavour, but it was still delicious.

I went back to the hostel to pick up my luggage, and said goodbye to the hostel staff. He told me that he had seen the yakitori restaurant chef, and that he said he was happy to have met such a nice young girl. At this point, one of the wheels of my luggage had completely broken from my carelessly dragging 25kgs around for 3 weeks. It was the struggle of my life dragging my luggage back to Nagano station with only 3 working wheels. I caught a Willer Express bus back to Tokyo sleeping most of the way.