Snow, Sake & naked greetings

The incredibly accessible snow in Japan feels like the country’s best kept secret. We left Tokyo at 6.30am and by 11am we were on beautiful mountains covered in heaps of the white stuff. We headed to Nozawa Onsen, and our first bit of excitement involved the Shinkansen (bullet train). It looks like the Bloodhound (the supersonic car being developed and built in Bristol) when it pulls into the station and it feels like you’re riding in a plane rather than a train! They go up to 320km/h (!) but they feel super smooth. We were in love.

We stayed in Villa Nozawa, run by an Aussie called Mark, who moved to the small mountain town 24 years ago and never looked back. The place is super friendly, comfortable and provided us with excellent breakfasts (especially the banana pancakes). Mark’s got a great set up and also runs a hire shop as well as several other hostels. We booked a quick lesson (more for me than for Rob) as soon as we arrived and within an hour we were on the slopes with our guide, Jerry. We were both a bit nervous as we’d never skied alone together and are at very different levels, but Jerry was pretty laid back and we soon found our feet on the mountain. We skied for 4 days and the snow got better and better. One morning at breakfast, a guy from the hostel announced we’d had half a metre of snow in the past 24 hours! It was without a doubt the best snow either of us have ever experienced. They don’t seem to really treat (piste bash?!) the pistes much in Nozawa Onsen and the result is that they often feel more like off-piste. I almost disappeared coming down one steep slope (with Rob in stitches at the bottom). We also managed to find a Japanese girl’s phone buried in a snow drift! I heard it ringing as we whizzed down a slope and we dug it out and managed to return it to her. Good deed = tick 🙂

Rob is an excellent skier anyway, but the amazing snow and the incredible scenery helped my confidence no end and by the last morning I even tackled a few black runs (Kim & Belinda you would’ve been proud)!

As the name suggests, Nozawa Onsen is an Onsen town! They’re essentially public baths where all the locals (and a few brave tourists) get naked and get scrubbing. The water is piping hot and it’s meant to be frightfully good for you – in a sort of bracing British walk kind of way. The main rules are: take your shoes off at the door (and don’t put them in the same locker as your clothes, as Rob got sternly told off for doing), then leave all your modesty behind, make sure you’re completely naked and scrub yourself vigorously while sitting on a little plastic seat. Once sufficiently clean, plunge into the scolding hot water and sit there for as long as you can bear, before having a rinse, drying off (BEFORE you step back into the changing area) and leaving feeling tingly and relaxed.

There are 13 Onsens in the small town and we went to a little local one just round the corner from Villa Nozawa. It was pretty rustic and clearly didn’t get many tourists. The male and female baths are separated by a high wooden panel, so you can’t peak but you can hear what’s going on. I heard Rob tell the 8 other men in the male bath that he was on his honeymoon and they all went wild, cheering loudly. He told me afterwards they’d all stood up and shaken his hand – completely naked, obviously!

The food in the town is also excellent and we ate a lot of great Gyoza (dumplings) at a place called Sakai, washed down with Sake (rice wine). It was tiny and we sat at the bar, which separated the ‘restaurant’ from the kitchen. The couple that ran it epitomised the local people and were really sweet and friendly. Our lunches in the mountains were also really tasty. They serve Ramen (noodle soup) everywhere and it’s the perfect skiing food! French Alps – take note. We would’ve loved to have stayed in Nozawa Onsen longer and we definitely could’ve got used to the amazing snow, followed by steaming hot Onsens and delicious dumplings. What a life!

Here’s what we love about Japan so far:

1. Super friendly and incredibly helpful people (including really polite kids)
2. The history; there’s roughly one temple for every person in Japan (our guesstimate!)
3. Amazingly efficient public transport system, especially the Shinkansen (bullet train) 4. The food; especially sushi, dumplings and Ramen
5. Vending machines that serve everything, including dinner & beer 6. The awesome skiing
7. Onsens (public baths) where you can get some high quality naked time 8. The fashion; crazy patterns, impractical shoes and dogs in coats 9. The number of Samuri swords on display
10. Heated toilet seats!

J & R xxx

Tokyo and the Jet Lag Monkey

So, after an unplanned but very happy 10 days or so in the UK, we boarded our flight to Japan. We had both been looking forward to it so much – a few family members and friends have been in recent years and have had nothing but praise for the place.

After a 15 hour flight (the award for best in-flight film goes to ‘Whiplash’ – check it out) we arrived into Tokyo and made our way across a truly mind boggling train/subway network to our accommodation. Trying to navigate this beast when rested would be tricky – with mind crippling jet lag to contend with it was a bit taxing. We had booked a room in a flat (an Airbnb job) on the 35th floor of this apartment building on Shibaura Island – we finally arrived and were greeted by a jaw dropping view over the city and a very sweet host (Sugu) who provided snacks and strong coffee.

The jet lag monkey woke us up ridiculously early the following day so we marched out on the tourist trail – first stop Senso-Ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. It’s an extraordinary place where you can engage in some unusual rituals! Locals and tourists queue up to inhale and smother themselves in the incense smoke from the sacred shrines. People also seek out their fortunes by getting a number from a small wooden box, locating the correct small wooden drawer and withdrawing a small piece of paper. Apparently it’s not all good fortunes – however you are able to tie the bit of paper to a small clothes line if your fortune isn’t to your liking.

Late March/early April is cherry blossom season in Japan and our next stop – Ueno Park – is rated one of the top 2 places in the country to see this amazingly beautiful event (an event that also sees the Japanese ‘at their most uninhibited’ to quote The Lonely Planet – we were keen to see what this entailed!). We did manage to see some early blossom but unfortunately the main event is a bit delayed this year and we didn’t see any uninhibited behaviour 😦

Nonetheless we soldiered on and took in both the Tokyo National Museum (brilliant section on history of the Samurai) and the Ginzo district (think Times Square with quadruple the number of people) before eating the most delicious sushi known to man.

Jet lag does have some small benefits – for example, when one is required to get up at 3.30am to go and queue for the world famous Tsukiji fish market, it doesn’t feel quite so grim being awake at that hour of the morning. What does feel pretty grim however is getting to said fish market and being told it’s closed for a public holiday! Ouch.

Again we regrouped and headed for the Imperial Palace – the official residence of the Emperor of Japan. Suffice to say, the palace and gardens befit a man revered and worshipped in Japan – they are incredible and maintained by a legion of unbelievably meticulous gardeners and guards on bikes!

That afternoon we had arranged to meet up with a very special someone. Mami Takahashi was just 16 when she arrived in Devon on a school exchange program. Jess and her family hosted Mami for 2 months and 18 years later Jess and I were lucky enough to meet up with her in Tokyo. She and her 8 year old son Ayumu were brilliant – we had a lovely afternoon in trendy Shinjuku reminiscing about her time in England and eating cake. Magic.

Our final night in Tokyo involved a trip up to the 45th floor of a government building to marvel at the city lights that stretch as far as the eye can see in every direction. This was swiftly followed by the best ramen (noodle soup) we have ever tasted – especially amazing given it came out of a vending machine! 3 days in and we were already obsessed with Japanese food.

The jet lag monkey again decided it was time for us to wake up at 3am but this time we were full of excitement – for the day was to mark our first experience of the legendary Japanese bullet train (the Shinkansen) that would take us to the Japanese Alps and metres upon metres of fresh snow!

Thank you Tokyo – you were brilliant and surreal. Until next time.

Sayonara,
R&J xx

Weathering Patagonia

Fellow travellers warned us that Patagonia can often experience four seasons in a day, and they were soon proved right. We flew from Santiago, which is roughly in the centre of Chile, down to Punta Arenas, which is almost at the southern tip. The flight takes about four hours, which gives you some idea of the length of the whole country.

Early the next morning, we crept out of our guest house before anyone was awake to get a lift to a boat. It was a chilly start and they packed us in like sardines. Pretty apt really, as we were off to see penguins! We skirted an island first which housed a sea lion colony. They’re fascinating (and smelly) creatures to watch. The huge male sea lions spend their time basking on rocks while the females dip in and out of the water catching their dinner. Typical 🙂

The boat landed on the nearby Isla Magdalena, which was completely packed with penguins! Obviously there are strict rules about not getting too close, but they’re certainly not afraid of humans and they don’t really bat an eyelid when you walk past. They’re definitely one of my favourite creatures; they mate for life, which is very sweet, and you can spend hours watching them walk/waddle, which is hysterically funny. I could’ve spent all day on that island, although I suspect Rob wasn’t quite as keen on the little black and white birds who’ve forgotten how to fly.

That afternoon we took a three hour bus to Puerto Natales and stayed at Hostel Amerindia, which was a very welcoming and cosy find. Our guide for our Patagonia hiking experience, Victor, picked us up the next morning. We headed to Torres del Paine national park to do The ‘W’ Trek, so called because the shape of the hike spells out the letter on a map.

Stepping out of the van in the park, we were hit by Patagonia’a infamous wind. We hiked up through a valley with incredible views, although several times the gales threatened to push us over the cliff! Rob wasn’t feeling well again and just as we reached the toughest ascent of the trail, he suddenly and violently threw up on the path. Luckily he managed to power through and we made it to the top, where we got an absolutely breathtaking view of the three towers which give Torres del Paine its name. Their jagged shapes contrast with the beautiful turquoise pool below; it’s a complexly striking and unique view – absolutely incredible.

We stayed in a refugio, which is essentially like a hostel. Although we were in a six-bed dorm, it was far more luxurious than we expected and the staff provided delicious and plentiful food; essential for hiking!

After a speedy trip in a catamaran across a crystal clear lake, we began our second day hike. In contrast to day one, the weather was hot. We trekked along a gorgeous trail, drinking the best water we’ve ever tasted from mountain streams and watching condors soar overhead. We met an awesome Canadian couple, Lana and Steve, who were hiking with their seven month old baby. Impressive. After crossing an incredibly fast flowing glacier river, we climbed high over rocks and slippery tree roots to reach the summit. It was worth it; we had the huge French Glacier to our right, the back of the towers (Torres del Paine) to our left and a stunning lake in front. The scenery in Patagonia is truly amazing.

We stayed in a different refugio that night, which was slightly more rustic than the previous one….! Although at the sunset the weather was lovely and still, the wind dramatically picked up overnight, rattling the windows violently and ensuring we got very little sleep! We had been pretty lucky with the weather up until this point, but the heavens opened on the third day. As we hiked towards our final destination, we were drenched within a couple of minutes. Victor was a fantastic guide, but he certainly went at a fair old lick and we were pretty tired. However, the bad weather cleared briefly as we reached Glacier Grey at the end of the Grey Lake. Magical.

We absolutely loved Patagonia; it was a real highlight for us. Combine some of the best scenery in the world with some fantastic trekking and that should give you some idea of the uniqueness and incredible unspoilt nature of the place. Patagonia; we’ll be back.

J & R xxx

Vina and Valpo – in 10

1. Vina del Mar and Valparaiso are both seaside towns and that is where the similarities end. If I could make comparisons with the UK (sorry to any of our International followers :-)) I would say Vina is like Bournemouth and Valpo like Brighton (both with better weather of course).

2. We rented a flat in Vina for the week – so lovely to have our own space. We spent many an evening curled up on the sofa watching knock off DVDs, eating chocolate and drinking Chilean plonk. Vina might be a little tacky in places (mostly the beachfront) but delve a little deeper and gems abound – lovely residential streets, a racecourse, a castle (of sorts), nice parks, great restaurants and friendly folk.

3. Jess’ much missed aunt used to live in Vina when she was a girl – really lovely for us to visit one of her old stomping grounds.

4. Valparaiso is fantastic – such a cool and utterly different seaside town. Home to quirky people, quirky homes, a unique system of elevators that whisk you up (and down) to different parts of the town, and to one of the many houses of the poet Pablo Neruda (well worth a visit if you’re ever in Valpo).

5. One of the coolest things about Valpo is the street art. Amazing. It’s literally on every corner. We took a few pics to give you a sense of it – for your viewing pleasure below.

6. Jess and I did an amazing Chilean cooking course in Vina – with a Mr Boris Basso Benelli, published chef and potential future contestant on Chilean Masterchef! We cooked all sorts of things including ceviche, empanadas, corn pie (Chilean delicacy) and poached pears – our lovely blog readers will have to come round for a Chilean themed dinner party when we get back 🙂 Please do check out Boris’ cookbook – the man is a genius.

7. Jess and I went out and got extremely drunk in Vina – we haven’t been out a lot on our travels so it didn’t take much! We danced the night away with our cooking school friends (greetings Kim, Bart and Cameron) and felt very hardcore when we rolled in at 5am – of course the Chilenos party for way longer but not bad for 2 Brits, 2 Dutch and an Aussie :-).

8. Needing to do some exercise, Jess and I went in search of a public swimming pool (the sea is not an option at 9 degrees!). We took a slight ‘detour’ and ended up walking for about 2 hours before coming upon a pool in a naval base of all places. Knackered from our detour we managed about 2 widths but the pool was amazing (pic below) and worth the hike.

9. We saw a few movies at the cinema in Vina – in case you’re looking for something to see – The Theory of Everything (amazing performance from Eddie Redmayne, 9/10), Kingsman (unusual turn for Colin Firth, 7/10) and American Sniper (powerful stuff from Bradley Cooper, 7/10).

10. I started a ’10 things’ blog and I am damn well going to finish it 🙂 (Granted the cinema ratings were stretching it a tad already). Anyway, just to say Vina and Valpo are both great and well worth a visit!

Until next time amigos,
R&J xx

Tally Ho, Santiago…!

Rob has never really liked horses and has always refused to ride. However, following the passport debacle l think he thought nothing could be worse…! So, when I suggested we go horse riding in the Andes, to my surprise he agreed.

We signed up to Horse Riding Chile (does what it says… etc, etc) and were picked up from Santiago by a very erratic taxi driver. By the time we reached the Parcella, which is essentially a small farm, we were both feeling a bit sick. We were greeted by an English couple – Ellen & Harry – who run the place. They moved over to Chile about 8 years ago and randomly her family also owns a holiday cottage in East Prawle in Devon – a stones throw from where we got married! It’s a small world.

They were very chilled out (which helped Rob stay calm) and introduced us to our Arriero, Leo. An Arriero is essentially someone who works with horses and understands how to ‘load the mule’. The concept of the ‘mule train’ – linking mules together, laden with goods and leading them over the mountains – is still alive and well in the Andes. The animals are exceptionally strong and we had a mule with us who carried the tent, bedding and food. I can’t remember his name but he wasn’t called Muffin.

Before we knew it, we’d donned our cowboy hats and mounted our trusty steeds (Rosaro and Lucero). They’re much smaller horses than I’m used to riding in the UK; very strong, stocky and amazingly sure footed. Leo didn’t speak any English and our Spanish doesn’t really extend past Hola and Gracias (!) but somehow he signalled that we were off and we followed behind his horse and the mule up some of the steepest and rockiest terrain I’ve ever been over. Rob was doing well and looked confident and luckily the horses were absolutely incredible over the difficult terrain, so we made good progress.

We went up through a valley and then down through a river and climbed across what seemed like a cliff face. They haven’t heard of well maintained bridlepaths in the Andes…! I wouldn’t have even wanted to walk on some of the trails, and my horse at home would have run the other way if I tried to get her to attempt them. (Cowboy) hats off to those Chilean steeds.

Just when we were getting used to the horses navigating their way over boulders and clinging to paths with vertical drops to a rocky river hundreds of feet down, there was a crash of thunder and a streak of lightning! I would count myself an experienced rider and yet I’ve never ridden in an electrical storm. The jagged forks looked like they were touching the mountains and the thunder rumbled and crashed directly overhead. I was scared. However, Leo kept going, smoking a cigarette casually as he rode into the eye of the storm. At least Rob was distracted and totally forgot that he was riding! He did brilliantly – it certainly wasn’t a novice ride.

Thankfully we arrived at our camp for the night and the thunder, lightning and rain stopped. The ‘wild camp’ was literally some trees next to a gorgeous river. Leo was the perfect host; he caught fresh fish and cooked them on the campfire. Delicious. We also ate a ridiculous amount of meat – the Chileans certainly know how to barbeque – and got through a bottle of wine each…

We were pretty merry by this time and despite the huge language barrier, we managed to have a 5 hour conversation! At one point, Leo asked if we sang and we tried to think of something we both knew. We ended up singing Jerusalem (Nick Hodgkinson you would have been proud)! Definitely one of the most hilarious and random nights we’ve had.

The next morning we braved the freezing mountain river for a (very) quick dip before climbing back in the saddle (with a few groans from Rob) and setting off for the Parcella. It was like a different valley; the weather was glorious. We needed our cowboy hats to shade us from the strong sun (not rain) and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

I’m not sure when I’ll get Rob back on a horse, but I’m pretty sure it won’t involved thunder, lightening or cliff edges. He’ll be a pro!

J & R xxx