Friday, June 11, 2010

PB&J on the train

Sometimes you just need to eat something that reminds you of home. Thanks to the fancy grocery store mentioned in the previous post, we were able to find Skippy peanut butter and raspberry jam for our picnic on the train. Don't worry, we didn't have a knife so we got creative and used chopsticks to spread the PB&J!

I'm turning Japanese, I'm turning Japanese, I really think so - Tokyo

We'd like to welcome Sara Collins (often referred to as Lizzy in order to avoid confusion between the Saras). She is joining us for our time in Japan and will be a guest blogger in future posts.

Tokyo is a dream come true - it is the land of neon signs, karaoke clubs, arcades, animation, funky clothing, and millions and millions of men in business suits. It's definitely the best place in the world to people watch. Just when you think you have seen it all, someone turns the corner and BAM you are mesmerized again.

We stayed in Shinjuku - a sprawling civic, commercial, and entertainment center. We fell in love with the Takashimaya department store's food court. Every food court in the world should be patterned after this one. There are rows and rows of fancy desserts, pastries, hot and cold Japanese food, and juice bars. No where will you find a Mickey D's or Panda Express. There is also an amazing grocery store section where the produce looks so fresh and colorful. This grocery store is a little pricey and is not for the average joe. Some musk mellons (cantaloupe) sell for $150 and up.

We spent time exploring some of the famous Tokyo neighborhoods. We strolled the streets of Ginza - Tokyo's Fifth Avenue. The shopping never ends in Japan. Everywhere you look there is another designer store waiting to rob you of your life savings. We went to Harajuku hoping to spot some Harajuku girls (teenage girls who dress up in goth makeup, punk kimonos, or other crazy clothes). We spotted a couple of girls and they definitely did not disappoint. Their outfits, hair, and makeup were amazing. We ended the day by going to Shibuya. There is a famous intersection there that sees hundreds of people come and go every traffic light. It's quite a rush to be in the middle of the madness.

The iris gardens at the Meiji-Jingu shrine were refreshing after pounding the pavement the day before. The Koi ponds were beautiful too. We loved exploring and learning about the rituals performed at the shrine. We were particularly fascinated by the cleansing rituals. There is a trough of water and you take a ladle of water and pour water over each hand and then you rinse your mouth out by sipping water out of your hand and spitting the water on the ground.

Our final stop in Tokyo was the Tsukiji Fish Market - the largest seafood market in the world. The action begins daily at 4am with the fish auction....but we didn't get there until 1:30pm. There wasn't a lot going on by the time we got there. It was a little creepy wandering through the deserted buildings. We saw a few people cleaning up their work stations and we watched a man cutting up a fish. We were impressed how clean everything was. We ended our tour by eating the freshest sushi we will probably ever have. This was Sara's first time eating sushi. She swore she would never eat it and held her ground while living in NYC but the pressure in Japan was just too much to handle. She ate it, she survived, and she actually liked it.

PS - The streets of Tokyo are spotless even though it's impossible to find a garbage can. We can't quite figure out how they do it with the millions of people that live here. New York needs to learn from the Japanese how to keep a city clean.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cairns, Australia: Land of the Great Barrier Reef...and Swiss Ice Cream

We had our first Amazing Race experience during our journey to Cairns. Our flight left Sydney at 7:00 am. There are two airports in Sydney: international and domestic. Since our flight was domestic, it naturally left from the international terminal. We did not know this important piece of information until we arrived at the domestic airport for check-in. After first being told we would miss our flight, we waited in line only to be informed we had 15 minutes to get a cab to the international terminal before the flight closed. We (along with about ten others that made the same mistake) ran to catch a cab and got there just in time. Turns out our flight was continuing on to Osaka, Japan, but that was not indicated anywhere on our ticket or on the airline's website. The race continued as we were going through security. They were announcing last call as we were stuck behind a Japanese woman emptying what looked like the entire contents of her pantry from her carry-on bag. Oh, and Chelsie also was randomly selected to test for bombs. Luckily she didn't have any that day and we all made it through and ran for the gate and made it on.

After a three hour flight, we arrived in Cairns. It was a beautiful sunny and warm day. What a nice change from the mostly cool and rainy weather we had in Sydney. We checked into our hotel, grabbed some lunch, and booked our boat out to the Great Barrier Reef for the next morning. Marina then left to encounter some wildlife and Chelsie booked a bungee jump in the jungle. The rest of the group went along to watch her do something crazy and for moral support. For the record, she is still alive and had great form as she flung herself off a huge platform in the middle of the jungle.

The next morning was our big day of exploring the Great Barrier Reef. We woke up early and headed to the marina to board our boat. It was a nice boat that accommodated about 70 or 80 divers and snorkelers. The ride out to the reef took about an hour. While traveling, we got a safety briefing and were told about what we could expect to see at the three sites we would be visiting. One of those things was sharks! Our crew member, Shiloh, said "We see sharks on every trip out. But don't worry, they are more scared of you than you are of them". Probably true but still a little unsettling. The sharks they typically see are both white tipped and black tipped reef sharks. She also said "Obviously there are also big scary sharks out here like bull sharks and tiger sharks but they usually don't like the shallow waters of the reef". What?!?! USUALLY?!?! Needless to say, we were a little apprehensive when first entering the water. Once in though, it was amazing. So many fish and types of coral all around. A few of us even spotted a sea turtle as it was surfacing for air. It took a few breaths and then dove back down to the bottom. At our last site of the day, Shiloh (who I forgot to mention looked almost exactly like Lady Gaga when she had her sunglasses on) took the group on a snorkel tour and pointed out a giant clam, a sea cucumber, and various other reef life. As the tour was wrapping up, she told the group "Those that are afraid of sharks, don't head back for the boat". Apparently some in the group spotted a shark just under the back of the boat where the swim platform was located! It was time to head back to shore after a thrilling day at a natural wonder.

We were all pretty exhausted after a long day so we had dinner and then Swiss ice cream at Movenpick. This ice cream is delicious. They don't have it in the States but apparently it's in Canada so you might want to cross the border to try it if you don't want to make the trip to Australia or Switzerland.

Sadly it was time for the South Pacific crew to go our separate ways. We had a great time and will have tons of memories that will last a lifetime. Thanks to Chelsie, Maria, and Marina for adding so much to the world tour!!

Roosters vs Sharks - Sydney

We met up with Becky Middleton Sorenson (a dear friend from NYC who just moved to Sydney), her husband Karl, and her sister-in-law Analiese, to attend a Rugby match. We attempted to cheer on the Roosters but unfortunately the Roosters played terribly and were crushed by the Sharks. We had a great time learning about Rugby since all we really knew about the sport was what we had learned from watching the movie Invictus! Apparently there are three different types of Rugby and Australians call it football (although diehard soccer fans call soccer football too). Watching the players get tackled without any pads to protect themselves made our professional football players in the US look like a bunch of pansies. Oh, and of course we tried the famous meat pies smothered in tomato sauce. I think all of us, minus the Australians, would have preferred eating a great American hot dog instead.

Vivid Live - Sydney

A festival called Vivid Live was going on while we were there. One of the special things they do during this festival is project images on the opera house at night. Below were some of our favorite designs.

Wild Australia - Sydney

One day we all ventured out to the Taronga Zoo. We were fascinated by the animals and agreed it was one of the best zoos we have ever been to. Our favorite section was Wild Australia. We were able to see koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, Tasmanian devils, and exotic birds. The zoo had several special animal encounters where you could get up close and personal with the animals. One of our favorite encounters was with the koala bears. John, Chelsie, and Marina had their own photo shoot with the cute and cuddly bears.

Sara and Maria particularly loved the sections where you were able to walk freely amongst the animals without a zoo caretaker present (this would never fly in the US). In one section they spotted a wallaby on the side of a little hill. They were gushing over it and in an instant they were surrounded by a pack of eight to ten wallabies. All of a sudden they weren't the cute little animals we thought they were. The wallabies started inching closer and made direct eye contact with us! Sara was convinced they were going to attack so we took off screaming and laughing as the wallabies chased us back to the entrance.

Rain, rain, go away - Sydney

Rest assured, the crazy rainy weather couldn't stop us from exploring and falling in love with Sydney. We had four action-packed days of enjoying the harbor, animal life, and shopping.

Our first order of business was to head down to the harbor to experience the amazing views of the bridge and opera house. The view was incredible but we were a bit bummed to find out the opera house wasn't white (see post below). We walked through the botanical gardens and stumbled across 700 little kids killing time before their recorder concert at the opera house. Yes, you read that right, a recorder concert. We would have gone but it sold out in two minutes! Instead they serenaded Maria with a special Happy Birthday tribute.

We took a ferry to Manly but only ended up spending a couple of hours there due to the heavy rainfall. It looked like a fun place to spend the day at the beach. Then we took another ferry to Darling Harbor, a lively area with an aquarium, restaurants, IMAX theater, and lots of shopping. We ate at a yummy Italian restaurant and then overdosed on sugar at the Lindt Cafe. This place is a must for all of you chocolate lovers out there.