Vee L

Joined January 2016
  • Day9

    Amazing Osaka

    December 9, 2016 in Japan

    Note the use of the word "Amazing", that was intended. As in "Amazing Pass Osaka", the best purchase we've made yet!

    We arrived in Osaka just as the sun was setting, so no time for sight seeing! We made our way to our airbnb booking (shh... Airbnb is illegal in Japan, something that my lovely host wrote to me AFTER I had booked) following these lovely picture directions. He had a picture for every turn we needed to make to first guide us to a moped. Our room key was hidden inside a padlock, hidden inside the trunk of this moped. With our key, we made our way, again following the pictures, to our apartment. Now this booking was on point! For the same price as 2 beds in the cheapest hostel (at least of what we could see online), we had a small but functional studio in a brand new building. Putting the key in at the building entrance opened these automatic glass doors. The same key unlocked the two dead bolts on our apartment door. You came into a mini kitchen with a 2 burner stove top and a sink but no oven or microwave or fridge, a tiny toilet room, a door connecting to the main space which was basically our mattress on the ground and a coffee table, with a shower room. Doesn't sound like much written down, but everything was brand new, squeaky clean, towels were provided, we could make some tea at night, it was perfect. Our home for 3 nights was announcing to be good.

    The next morning is when we discovered the Amazing Pass. Jack read in TripAdvisor reviews about it, and we thought it would be worth it. It included all local subways unlimited for 2 days plus a list of different activities that you can chose to do for free. The pass was 3,000yen each, and after a quick calculation we each did roughly 4,800yen worth of activities on the first day alone, not counting any of the subways we took! Granted we did some activities we wouldn't have done had we not had this pass, but with it, why not! Like the zoo. Not a very interesting zoo, and I certainly didn't come to Japan to visit a zoo, but when Jack is around and needs constant entertainment, running around the zoo for an hour seems like a great idea!

    We did 2 observation towers, one during the day and one at night. We did a ferris wheel at night. We did 2 boat trips (oh yes, 2), one took us around Dotonbori to see all the advertisements and old bridges, and the other that took us to the Osaka Castle (also free with our pass). I'm sure that whoever creates these passes dread people like us, because we make it a goal of ours to make it as worth while as we can! Kind of like on flights when they ask what you want to drink and I always answer "a beer and a coke". The beer is where the money is, and the coke is just a bonus.

    The night time ferris wheel gave us an incredible view of the city lights. You had to wait a little longer to get into the complete glass bubble so you could see thru the floors, but that was important for Jack. I on the other hand, planned on not looking down at all. Everytime I did accidently or to try and push myself, I'd get a head rush and feel nauseous. Learnt that one quickly. The most terrifying was at top very top. We seemed to be turning so slow at that point, I felt like yelling at them to speed things up. You have no reference point, nothing to ground you at the top. Jack took a photo of me smiling and looking casual, that's after telling me to look at her, let go of the railing and "try not to look terrified". That being said, the views made it more then worth it. Osaka lights stretched as far as we could see in every direction. Getting to the ferris wheel was also interesting since the nearby aquarium had yet another elaborate light display. Another observation we did on our second night was just at sunset, from the "floating gardens" at the Umeda Sky building. They were just as breathtaking, only this time I was on solid ground. I could fully enjoy the views without gripping onto a railing. As long as I don't look down.

    We also did 2 museums, because why not, free. We hadn't done any museums yet, so I accepted to do them. Turns out they were very similar to each other, both having representations of what living in old day Japan was, mostly talking about Emperors and the Osaka castle. The Housing and Living museum was the same concept as the Children's Museum in Hull, with a life size walk through representation of an old village. You could rent kimonos there, and there were tons of young girls spending their time taking selfies or posed photos of each other in this "old town" with kimonos. I know stereotypes shouldn't be encouraged, but the one where Asians love to take pictures and selfies - dead on. And not just here, but everywhere in Japan. They even have signs saying "walking while looking at your phone is dangerous" or "No stopping for pictures at the exit" and so forth. The second museum, The Osaka Museum of History was a more grown up, read boring, version of, with old things behind glass and explanations next to it. Only plus side is there was hardly anything written in English, all Japanese explanations, so no excuse needed for me not reading the little blurbs.

    A goal of mine was to try and understand, or at least witness the gaming culture in Japan. So we went to an area called Den Den town where there is the highest concentration of gaming things... Not as exciting as I thought. We walked through an arcade where the first two floors were those crane games where you hope the claw drops and grabs something. People seemed very concentrated, and your prize was mostly something related to video games like action figures. It was here that I tried my hardest, twice, to win a mini stuffed bunny for my pregnant sisters. I failed. Both times. The female action figures were even more sexualized that I had imagined with tiny skirts and cleavage that makes one wonder how she can fight evil without spilling over. The more interesting floors however were where teenage boys played their arcade games, namely a ridiculously advanced version of guitar hero. I've never seen fingers move so quickly in my life. I kid you not - there was 10 buttons PER hand to coordinate with the instructions on the screen, which came with multiple "colors" to press at once. Guitar hero as I know it has 4 buttons and an up/down switch for the second hand. This thing was crazy, and the guys playing it even crazier. Makes you wonder - are these boys popular for it? Is it like a pick up line one says "I've mastered the 10 finger guitar hero, wanna see?". Still such a mystery to me.

    We topped the second night off wandering around Dotonburi, a very colorful, lively area with the famous "running man" sign. Great area with great energy where we seemed surrounded by tourists despite not being able to tell them apart from locals... Everyone taking pictures and selfies, all look Japanese. Local tourism here is huge and fantastic . So yes, the Amazing Osaka pass was amazing indeed!
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  • Day5

    Learning the Buddhist Ways

    December 5, 2016 in Japan

    Dad - you would be so proud! I splurged! We spent a night in Koyasan, a sacred mountain on which you can stay the night in a temple, and wake up to pray with the monks. They feed you a traditional Buddhist dinner and breakfast, vegan of course. A few trains and a cable car later, here we start our walk! This was more a nature setting and Jack was looking forward to hiking, so we opted to walk from the cable car station rather then take the bus everyone was hoping on. Being out of shape and hating physical activity, I asked the attendant at the station if the road ahead was an incline or flat. He responds by waving his hand up and down like following a wave. Great.

    Turns out, mostly down hill! The man AND the map told us the walk would be an hour (which Jack denied and to which I refuted that the map has to be correct) we made it in 26 minutes (Another point for Jack, current standing is Jack:356 Me: 21). Apparently Asians walk slowly because this has been the case most of the time - we half the suggested walking times. And this is in no way to promote my physicality, because as most of you know, a single flight of stairs gets me winded! Anyway. These big red gates announced the beginning of this sacred town where the story goes something like a high placed Monk Kobi Dashi (ish) threw a pine cone for some reason, and found it years later in these mountains and thought it was a sign of God to build his temple here. I probably got some of it wrong. Lol.

    Arriving at Yochi-in, our temple accommodation for the night, we are welcomed by a beautiful old wooden carved gate with a "dry garden" inside. A dry garden is a rock garden where every rock and formation has a meaning. The lady of the house welcomed us, gave us a tour and showed us to our room. Here, I know, we are paying for the experience, not the room. Temples are rarely heated - the whole minimalist mind over body thing, so we had a little kerosene heater in our room which we turned on right away. It's probably about 8-10 degrees Celsius currently being in the mountains and all. We have folding futon mattresses on the ground, paper walls, and a cute little coffee table where we were served tea in our room, sitting on the ground of course. Sliding doors where our beds will be stored away and tatami mats everywhere. For those who are curious, this minimalist experience we wanted was 23,000yen for the night and 2 meals. Do the math.

    Being conveniently located across the street from the main temple "area", we ran over 20 minutes before the last admission time to peak into this beautiful old pagoda. It had these old paintings, more like murals on the walls, with an incredible prayer altar. The rest of the temples were obvious as beautiful, but as the sun was setting we couldn't appreciate all their carvings. Don't worry, we came back in the morning!

    Our dinner was served at 5.30pm,and I think I recognized maybe 1 out of 10 items. Mostly cold food, with hot miso soup and hot white rice. Most things were chewy or squishy, textures I don't do well with... But I finished my plate! Or I should say plates, everything was on separate little plates. You sit on a thin square pillow, onto of tatami mats, eat on trays that are 1 foot high off the floor... My kind of setting. You have to take your shoes off before entering the temple, and they give you slippers to wear. Only problem is, these slippers are made of shiny fake leather, and with socks they slip off our feet like crazy. So every second step Jack and I were looking for our sandal we managed to kick off! Going up the stairs was a challenge of its own...

    After dinner, we had 2 hours of free time before the lock the gates for the night. We were told the walk to the Mausoleum was an hour long one way, but we assumed that was on the same timing as our hike down, and decided to speed walk our way over. 17 minutes! To think, we almost didn't go because of timing. Granted, it was also to keep warm - its cold in the mountains! Within 45 minutes we were already at the end of the cemetery walk, and were looking at the outside of the mausoleum before heading back to our room. The cemetery is famous for having over 20 000 statues, illuminated by lanterns at night. What a beautiful sight. The lighting just made it that much more dramatic, just gorgeous. And we made it back in time to have our second public bath experience!

    In the temples are these public baths, traditionally all Japanese would bathe in these vs private baths and showers like we see today. You come into this little change room. Strip naked. Grab your soap and shampoo and head in. Through the doors, you have usually around 8 to 10 shower heads set at about 3 feet high, with bath spouts, all draining onto the floor and eventually water drains. You grab a little plastic bench, almost like a step stool. Grab a bucket. Sit in front of a spout, and start washing yourself! You use the bucket to spray piping hot water over yourself and the shower head for your hair. Once you are squeaky clean, you can enter the public bath, which is basically a hot tub. Women come with their friends, it's a social event, they have their skin exfoliants, their face scrubs, everything you could want to scrub yourself clean. After a chilly walk through the cemetery, this was the perfect way to warm up.

    We got up at 6am to make it for morning prayer. I felt a little confused by this... On one hand, I felt guilty that these monks had to entertain foreigners, they included us in the ceremony of pinching ashes into a fire and praying, they read one of their chants in English so we could join in, they stayed after prayer to answer our questions... But on the other hand, they are the ones advertising these rooms as stays, and charging ridiculous amounts of money for them... So really, who's winning or losing in this situation? It was an interesting morning, the chants and movements are incredibly ritualistic, more so than the Catholic churches I know. An issue I've had with religion is the idea of all of us doing things just because we're supposed to - stand up now, kneel now, repeat after me... And yet at least there's a sermon which is different and allows for free thought. But here - everything that was said or done during the ceremony was a ritual, all the voice synchronized. It was interesting. Jack asked at the end for a "dummies" explanation of what Buddhism is, and the answer was also interesting. It's the search for neutrality, the search for learning to have no emotions - no happiness or sadness. Just nothingness. Why? I guess I'd have to study it a lot further to really form an opinion...

    Breakfast was another array of unidentifiables, and I came out of it hungry! Those vegans don't know how to fill me up! With time on our side and daylight shining, we literally repeated our two visits from yesterday. The temple park in front of our stay and the cemetery / mausoleum, all incredibly calming and beautiful. Instead of yesterday's 1.5 hours to tour the cemetery, we took 4 hours! Relaxing morning.

    Off to Osaka we go for our last leg of this Japanese journey. Jack says this was one of her favorite parts, unsurprisingly, filled with nature.
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  • Day4

    Beef!

    December 4, 2016 in Japan

    BEEF! Enough said.

    I know I have a tendency to watch where I spend, and what I spend on, but stopping in Kobe was a treat for me. As much as you'd think I would have to convince Jack to come along, she did so without any objection, knowing how excited I was about it. Sounds silly to be this excited about beef, but for me it was more than just beef, but rather about what it meant - I have traveled a lot this year, I've been to many incredible places, and now I'm in Japan, I'm in the area that produces Kobe Beef, beef that I've heard of and wanted to try ever since I was in South East Asia but did not have the chance. I'm half way across the world and I'm going to enjoy a really good steak!

    Arriving in the afternoon, we took our time getting to our hotel because we happened to be near the sake breweries. Like, an entire quarter of them! We were hoping for a tour but apparently it's busy season so no tours were given (I also don't think there would have been any in English...) Instead we stopped by a sake brewery for a quick tasting and informational video. Sake wasn't too bad! Basically tasted like hard liquor without the throat burn.

    Our hotel was in this same area - just to set the mood, this area was purely industrial, basically breweries. As you walk through the sliding doors, there's a poster of different "interesting" outfits one could rent. It was basically all characters or Christmas outfits that left little to the imagination. There was a free pop machine, free popcorn machine, free candy, we scored! There's even this touchscreen reservation thing - we assumed it was to keep all anonymity when checking into this obvious love hotel. Love hotels are famous in Japan where people commonly rent rooms by the hour for obvious reasons... We had to pick up the "help" phone since non of the touchscreen check in options were written in English. A minute later down comes this lady running from upstairs, apologizes 10 times for keeping us waiting, confirms our reservation, then looks very confused as if to say "I wonder if they know what they're walking into", and gives us our room key. Our room was absolutely amazing! Huge TV, fluffy queen bed, huge tub and shower room (toilets are often in separate rooms here), even a massage chair! Thankfully the massage chair was made of leather, we assumed it had been disinfected, the lounging chair on the other hand was made of suede and we avoided sitting on that... Parents and grandparents stop here - but to top it all off, they even had one of those massive plug-in vibrators! It had a plastic bag over it, just like the drinking glasses, as if to say "I've been cleaned". Amazing.

    After spending an hour being amazed by our room, which was a free upgrade from the standard room I had actually paid for fyi, we made our way to Chinatown - a friend told me that's where you go for the beef! On our way we spotted these signs showing off some "illumination" route, and along the street are these white barriers with a huge crowd walking along, following the instructions of our famous "people traffic" controllers. Literally thousands of people walking in a line, following instructions... I've never seen such order. We joined of course, this many people going somewhere must mean good things! Along the way, Jack found the lack of illuminated buildings boring and was struggling with the idea of following a group blindly. She's more of an improviser, not a rule follower. So we bicker a bit, since I'm convinced following what I'm told is always the right way, and we found a middle ground. We followed the same route from outside the barricades, ha! Shows them! And our plan eventually failed of course, hitting a dead end where one must be in the barricades to continue. Only now, we could see the amazing point it was taking you to! This huge structure all covered in a ridiculous amount of Christmas lights. I had to get closer, but the japanese and their rules... The security guard, or people traffic controller, wouldn't let us through the barricades, even though this was an open point with people exiting, because we had to start from the begining. Yep, rule followers, you can't go in through this open space because you have to follow the line from the beginning... So we acted confused, said we were in the line up but had to exit momentarily, came up with different excuses, and finally I think he just gave up, let us through. Score 1 for the annoying white girls. Only the pictures can really describe what we saw - a ridiculous display of beautiful Christmas lights, and I love me some Christmas!

    Now back to Chinatown, beef! Finally! We start walking around, we end up repeating some streets over again, I couldn't make up my mind on where to go... There were cheap street options that I thought wouldn't allow me to fully enjoy the beef while standing, and probably not the most authentic. There were restaurants that charged up to 8,000yen depending on the size and quality you wanted... I didn't expect the cheapest option to 2,500yen for 80g, I assumed that would be a sliver of beef for a lot of money... All these options and thoughts started racing in my mind and I was getting overwhelmed. This brought me back to Nairobi when I ran to the hotel and burst into tears... I couldn't think clearly, I wanted to cry, I wanted scream, all because of silly beef. Jack, who knows me a little too well, and who is amazing at reading me, brought me back to earth. I really don't give her enough credit for how she treats me in my less logical moments. As much as she couldn't care less about beef, she calmed me down, found a place that looked busy - which meant known for good food, and got us a table. Turned out to be the best choice! Tepanyaki, I got to look at my steak before they cooked it, take photos because everything in Japan is made for more photo taking... It was perfect. Once seated and with a clear mind, I decided fuck it - let's go all out. We made it into a 4 course meal, had some wine, enjoyed ourselves! Jack made fun of me because of my amazement of being able to cut through the beef in our stew with my front teeth in one chomp. The "medium rare, on the rare side" steak was mind blowing. Again to think, me, in Japan, currently eating, having Kobe Beef, in Kobe, Japan. Crazy.
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  • Day4

    Wait, how much?

    December 4, 2016 in Japan

    11,000yen each. That's 130$CAD. Per person. I had already researched this, but for some reason, hearing it in person, knowing we took out a total of only 50,000yen from the ATM with a 12$ service fee, this hurt my ears. Unfortunately there's no getting away from it if we want to get to Kyoto from Fuji Lakes. Thank you Visa, you made it feel ever so slightly better. It's like invisible money, you feel like you aren't spending a dime, it only hurts when you pay it at the end of the month. Every month, I feel like my computer screen and I get into a disagreement, I swear and it just stares back at me.

    Granted, these bullet trains are incredibly useful. We crossed the country in 2 hours. Hearing and feeling those trains wiz by you is ridiculous. I had arranged for a later check in at the hostel, they usually close at 7pm but I said we'd get there between 8 and 9pm. 8.38pm, and no later. We arrived at the address my Google map pointed too. There's no English letter on the building. We see its some sort of public bath facility. Let's try. We walk, take our shoes off (no shoes allowed indoors anywhere), and ask for the hostel Tohgetsu. He nods his head, signals to follow him, takes us to an unmarked door in the back of the bath's common area where a new space opened up onto the hostel itself. Apparently there was a side door we missed.

    In comes the strong smell of man body odour. Don't know why, assuming a combination of men staying here and the baths upstairs, but b.o. smell all around us. The location was on point, in an interesting area and around the corner from a subway station. The washroom were squeaky clean, shower is still better then mine at home... But the smell and the lack of linen on our beds was not so fun. We've gotten used to a certain level of luxury in our hostels so far, so this was off-putting. Two nights, easy peasy. The included breakfast was 2 toast with tea or coffee. Oh the luxury!

    Kyoto is known as the cultural/spiritual capital of Japan, it has over 1600 temples and shrines. Our travel book, which we bought the day before leaving and read part of on the plane, has an entire chapter on Kyoto. To sum the city up, we felt like we were just going from one temple or shrine to the next. The city itself wasn't that interesting. At least not to us. Being the weekend here, and local tourism being so big, there are now hoards of tourists doing the same stops we are. We bought a day pass for the bus which came in such good handy. FYI - buses here, you get on in the back door, sit, and exit at the end of your trip from the front door, paying on your way out. And there's a change machine right next to the driver to provide you with the exact change necessary. They really do think of everything. Our little map was easy to follow, we would hop on for a couple stops and back off at the next temple. The bus actually called out the stop in English with the names of the closest attractions. Clearly tourists come here. So far in Japan, the English has been extremely limited, but here the bus tells me when to get off to see certain temples. And don't think like we did - these aren't 5 minute stops along the way where you just look at the pretty temple and leave, the temple grounds are huge, there's multiple buildings to look at, and sometimes so many tourists we would have to follow a slow moving line across the grounds. We took on average an hour at every stop. Our original draft to visit 15 temples on an easy route to follow was quickly revisited and turned to 6. 6 massive, intricate, beautiful and most importantly unique temples. They all had a little something different. Some older, some wooden, some newly painted in bright colors, some with high pagodas, some with huge prayer halls... Lots of walking, lots of bus maneuvering, lots of pictures that will look exactly the pictures everyone else takes and yet its so pretty you can't help but to follow suit and snap.

    There's hired "people traffic cops" (at least that's what we call them) holding those airport control wands that light up red, telling everyone which way to walk and where it is safe so stop for a photo. The funniest thing I found is just how well everyone listened. It truly is a respectful, disciplined country. Jack had a little difficulty with it all. Her rebellious side was crying a little. I on the other hand was perfectly content following the line and doing as I was told. Easy peasy. At one temple, you had to pay to get in, and as soon as you hit the gate the line up started, and you followed it around the main temple, around the hall, to the pagoda, down this path in the forest that leads you to the second pagoda... All following this line of Asian tourists with selfie sticks. Good thing the temples are worth seeing. And the views were spectacular.

    A little "templed out", we decided to take the bus out to the "Philosopher's walk", hoping to get some of it done before the sun set. By the end of our 20 minute bus ride, it was pitch black outside. The sun here sets incredibly fast. Cute lighting along the path allowed us to keep going down this scenic little stone way following a little canal in back residential streets. We were looking for a break from the crowds and noise which is exactly what we got. No temples, no one around, not even shops or restaurants, just walking along a path with nice trees and water flowing next to us following the stones in the ground.

    We then went to the Gion district, famous for its nice restaurants and potential Geisha spotting, but what we thought would be busy interesting streets for people watching, was actually quite calm and empty so we moved on to Pontocho Alley. Now there's the liveliness we were prepared for! A lovely little area of busy alleyways filled with restaurants and bars mixing into a main boulevard of shops. Here we spotted a Geisha! Full kimono white face wooden flipflops classic Geisha, just in time for her to pop into a restaurant, assuming her guests were waiting for her. We did the entire alley of Pontocho, and then some, looking for a cool place for a drink. Considering my lack of cash, we were limited on where to go, keeping in mind "tableing fees" that we learnt about the night before (apparently our seat cost 500yen per person, no reason). I was looking for a certain atmosphere, something with a good vibe we could people watch from, and was having difficulty finding it. We finally stumbled upon a place I was really happy with, tried to enter and was told it was full. I could see an empty table but not many so ok, that's fine. We kept going and magically found another place we really liked, entered, and the lady asked if we spoke Japanese. We said no, confused, and she said "sorry, full". Oh... I get it... We're white. I read about this in our handy travel book, and apparently the cooler, more "elite" places, don't let foreigners in. Apparently we're dirty or something. All but giving up, I finally find a standing bar with no tableing fee (get it? 'cuz we're standing!) and pop in for a night cap. A stool at the bar freed up and we got Jack a seat since her ankle was dying (unhealed sprain from a YEAR ago), which left only me standing. Let's just say, after an entire day of walking around, enjoying a beer while still standing just isn't the same. At one point a seat I got to sit down too and the beer was Japanese so all in all, good.

    After 2 nights in our luxurious sweat smelling hostel, today we planned to head to Kobe. Since all I really needed to experience there was Kobe beef, we only needed to arrive for dinner time, which left plenty of time for more temples in Kyoto! So on Kyoto day 2, too change it up, we actually took a street car our of town to Arashiyama. A really cute little town with old wooden houses, nothing above 2 stories, a quaint bridge and where we ignored this UNESCO temple and instead went down the Bamboo walking trail. About a 20 minute walk from one end to the other along this really great bamboo lined walkway. And of course, by the time we were done, hoards of tourists were starting it. It's still the weekend. So we head back into Kyoto for one final temple, this one because I saw my friend Lorraine's photo of Kunkaku-ji the Golden Pavilion and had to see it. Turns out, her photo, like mine, blocked out the line of tourists I was following. You have to wait behind a crowd of Japanese tourists for a spot to open up which allows you to move to the front to take your photo. Still - the temple was absolutely breath taking. My favorite for far. Gold covered pavillon, quite literally. Gorgeous, with beautiful gardens surrounding it. You just have to ignore the others around you, and follow the "people traffic cops".
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  • Day2

    Mount Fuji and all its glory

    December 2, 2016 in Japan

    Who would have thought, spending the morning on a bike ride would be so pleasant.

    We took a 2 hour bus ride from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko, the most accessible of the 5 Fuji lakes, to take in a bit of nature with a great view. I booked a hostel called K's House, apparently famous in this region, knowing there were 2 different locations to book. One location, slightly more expensive, was right in the town center, within minutes of the lake. The other, less expensive, 20 minute walk from the lake, but that promised amazing Fuji views. I obviously booked the second. The walk over was a little lengthy, mostly because there really isn't much interesting things to look at in this town. Just a simple residential town. But sure enough, the views from their observatory deck were absolutely amazing. Clear blue skies all around. You had to walk up a ladder and crawl through a window to access the deck, but it was so well maintained with slippers waiting for us to put on once outside, that the window crawling just added an element to the experience.

    The hostel was Japanese chic as per Jack; lots of natural elements like the wooden roof, unglazed ceramic sinks, low minimalistic furniture with our sleeping quarters being a double bed you crawl into from the feet with 4 walls around us, a light at our head and our personal outlet. It was like a mini 4 foot tall room. The sinks, the showers, the kitchen, all of it better then what I've ever lived in or dreamed of having. Honestly a gorgeous hostel.

    The next morning, Jack and I put on every layer of clothing we had brought with us, I put on my new gloves (bought the night before), and we set out on a bicycle ride around Lake Kawaguchi. I only started complaining about the biking with about 20 minutes left on our return, my legs are not made for this kind of burning! For those who would like to laugh at my lack of stamina, it was a roughly 20km ride. I rarely admit biking is a good plan, but in this case, it allowed us to have certain views you can only see on postcards. We took a little 20 minute hike to a waterfall along the way, parking our bikes in front of some old little Japanese lady's garage who didn't speak English but seemed to point up the hill when we attempted to pronounce the name of the waterfall. The waterfall itself isn't a show stopper, but the nature around during the walk, the sounds of birds, the leafs changing colors (it's autumn here), all made this hike worth the furthering burn in my thighs.

    Jack says "you should talk about Mount Fuji, she was beautiful, the snow cap, the trails leading up to the top, how she's all alone...". What she said. It's very true how it's isolation from other mountains allowed us to see its full glory. You could see zigzag lines covered in snow making their way to the top for those crazies who chose to hike this thing (allowed only in July and August). A beauty.

    As beautiful and peaceful as this little stop was, there's always space for an anxious moment, which came when I tried to book our bus out of Kawaguchiko, to attempt to avoid them being full like we've just experienced in Tokyo. The website said next available to reserve was the day after tomorrow... " 'Bout what about tomorrow?!". So I thought about it all night, we're screwed there are no more busses. I asked Jack for us to make our first priority in the morning to stop at the station where I would hopefully beg my way into a ticket for that afternoon. Sure enough, I showed up, asked for two tickets, and was given seat 1a and 1b. Apparently I was the first to buy the ticket, online reservation just doesn't allow for booking within 24hours. My bad.
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  • Day1

    Tokyo

    December 1, 2016 in Japan

    As we sit in this bus which left exactly on time, with assigned seats, a clean toilet on board, and seat belts, I've decided to write a little something about Tokyo.

    The stereotype of Japanese people being very disciplined and orderly - couldn't be more correct. There's directional arrows on the ground for walking traffic which people follow, there's areas to line up to get on the metro which people don't divert from (unlike the crowds that form at the Montreal metro stations), they even line up outside at bus stops to allow for whoever was there first to board first (unlike when I used to run up to the door the second the bus pulled in).

    Of all the countries I have recently visited, Japan has elicited the most positive remarks. Almost everybody says "I want to go there!". Jack has had similar responses and now we understand the westerners interest in visiting Japan - the culture is different enough to feel like you're a long way from home, the language and writing is enough to be slightly challenging, yet all the luxuries you could ever want while away from home are readily available. There's public (and free) washrooms everywhere outside and they're clean! In other countries, I've had to pay to use public washrooms in which I felt dirty squatting, with no toilet paper that you can't flush. We walked through a fancy building downtown yesterday to check out the architecture and used the washroom (public access). It had heated seats, 3 different bidet options, the water from the bidet was warm (Jack made me try it), it had the fake “flushing sound”; I didn't want to leave! And if you think it's just because we were in a fancy building, we also used the washroom in the metro station - no heated seats this time, but all the same bidet options with a speaker on the wall with a motion sensor to play the sounds of a waterfall when someone was sitting there. Shy pee-ers, fear no more! And yes I've just rambled on about washrooms, but they'll they you a lot about a country!

    The people are incredibly polite, bow constantly, and yet have a surprisingly limited English. As we walked up to the bus we are currently on, the bus driver wasn't standing at the door, he was next to the luggage area. He ran up, litteraly ran the few steps to the door and apologized by bowing about 3 times for not having been at the door to greet us. They are mostly soft spoken. The tickets for our bus were sold out until later in the afternoon, so we were given standby tickets for the next bus. There's a “standby standing area” which is right next to the ticket office, and we were told to wait there and they would call our number out if we get a seat. 5 minutes later, at the time we were told to listen for cancelations, a lady leans over the counter and starts almost whispering something in Japanese. I was standing no more then 3 feet away and could barely discern a syllable. After she repeated herself a few times, still barely a whisper, she asked to see my ticket, and decided to skip whoever she was calling, since apparently this person was supposed to have heard her by now, and gave us the tickets. I was so happy to be the white chick randomly standing in front of the cancelation area, it got her attention enough to score me a seat!

    We've managed to get a handle of the metro and subway lines, which I'm sure you've already assumed are incredibly organized and efficient. We grabbed a 24 hour pass, allowing us to actually go out the two evenings we spent here! We usually crash in the evening deciding to stay in, but this forced us to make the effort. We visited Shinjuku on our first evening and Shibuya the next. Think Time Square on steroids but for blocks! Lights and advertisements everywhere! Mostly only written in Japanese, so clearly us white chicks were not their target audiences. And since these two areas were the nightlife spots to be - plenty of sexualization of random things like the famous Robot Restaurant, Maiden cafes were the waitress are also “professional company” dressed in maid outfits, or the Bunny cafe (girls with little clothing and bunny ears). There were what seemed to be fetish clubs determined by the photo in the advertisement showing a man starring at feet from the other side of the glass… If I had the guts, and if I had done more research into knowing if it was something I was ok with supporting, I would have loved to explore the Japanese “sexual” culture better. It is fascinating to me how the sexualization of anything childish seems to be a widely accepted phenomenon.

    My mother kept telling me to “be zen” and find “zen places”, assuming she meant gardens and temples. Tokyo had plenty of temples, shrines and gardens to admire, but the amount of people at each of them made it just a little less zen. Still, I could really appreciate their attempt at balancing this urban area with more nature and culture. As usual in Asia, their temples and shrines are beautiful and ornamental; but in Tokyo, they are also incredibly clean and appear to all have been painted or repaired in the last month! Not a scratch anywhere, all the details in the carvings intact… With everything looking so new, it was a little bit hard to find the spirituality I usually enjoy feeling when presented with something that appears older, more usage, less presteen. Still, very beautiful.

    Jack says she's enjoying Japan but "needs a sprinkle of chaos in my day to day life" - She enjoys getting culture shock, disorganized bus systems, and feeling outside of her element when traveling. She says jumping onto a bus last minute to have it not leave for another 2 hours is part of traveling for her. Whereas here, because we didn't reserve our seats on a bus leaving at noon, we would not have to be able to leave until 2pm (next available, despite the fact that there's a bus leaving every 30 minutes). And once we did get our last minute seats, which were given away 10 minutes before the bus leave, the bus still left on time. If Jack and I had purchased these tickets ahead of time, there's no way we would have been there 10 minutes early, and they most probably would have given our tickets away. Also, all of our hotels were booked before leaving as per a friend's suggestion that Japan doesn't do well with last-minute reservations. Clearly, she's been challenged differently!

    Conclusion of Tokyo - large metropolitan city, clean, so clean, poeple everywhere, well kept beautiful temples and shrines, well kept parks, not too much of a shock to the system which makes it easily do-able, and on that note - know that I've been eating perfectly fine since we've arrived! Yay for me!

    Oh, and Jack adds that smokers beware! Here they have specific areas for smoking and everyone respects this. No smoking and walking allowed! And vending machines are everywhere, including small residential street, mainly selling drinks and coffee and so forth. That's all.
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  • Day20

    Pow! Pow!

    September 23, 2016 in the United States

    I woke up to the wonderful voice of the fortune teller mechanical "indian" saying something I couldn't make out ... We parked in front of a gas station that had the obligatory trading post attached to it. The man working the gas station last night was very nice, we asked him about the potential of showers, and after determining that our options were too far to reach tonight in the dark, he suggested we sleep here, parked closed to the door. I guess being two girls makes people uneasy about us sleeping in a car.

    Hitting the road again, we were excited to start the "longest remaining section of route 66" which hasn't been converted to a highway. Because of its length on a map, Jack believed we could only make it Kingman by sunset, where we were just told by the nice man was our next truck stop with showers. My shower will have to wait until tonight, apparently. Turns out, the Arizona desert doesn't have too many towns along it's route... I was at Kingman by noon, just in time for a mid-day shower. This shower, at the Flying J, was wonderful! Much like our last experience at the Flying J, we payed for one shower, 12$, no time limit, and we both headed in. The first time, the lady at the cash actually offered us to only take the one shower, and then radio'd the cleaner to bring us an extra towel, she was great. This time, the cleaner was in front of our little shower room, and offered us this second towel as he saw us heading in. I found myself wondering - is this what gendered privilege feels like? I highly doubt two men, walking into the Flying J, get offered two towels and one shower. Just some thoughts. In this line of thought, I'm amazed that I have yet to be mis-gendered ! I wore my baseball cap for the last 2 days, a hoodie, and lose jeans, and I'm still not being mis-gendered. I don't get it. I got so used to having both genders thrown at me that this girl only thing is throwing me off... The only people to have argued over my gender in front of me on this trip were tourists in St-Louis. What is different here vs back in Ottawa? Or everywhere else in the world where if I want to pass as a girl I puff my chest and speak in a higher voice...

    We passed desert, and more desert, lined with magnificent mountains with pointy peaks and shadows of even larger peaks. As non existent the towns were, it was beautiful. We passed some ghost towns, what I would consider looked more like a single abandoned gas station or a motel, was apparently once thriving towns along 66. This route has shown us what the true rural, decaying America looks like when off the main highways. Forgotten old towns, left with populations of the 3 or 4 people braving the dry isolation. Amongst these forgotten towns was the not-so-forgotten Seligman. Two men in this town apparently refused to see it die with the traffic almost entirely disappearing after the construction of the I-40. They fought to start and founded the Arizona Route 66 Association (first of its kind) and lobbied for their section of route 66 to be recognized as a historic byway. One of these men was Angel Delgadillo. He spent most of his older life fighting to promote his town from his barbershop / 66 museum. This town had at least 7 or 8 main street establishments fully embracing the route 66 idea of old 40s charm and nik-naks. I can't really describe this town, but check out the photos. Diners with yards full of completely random things like a phone booth with a scarecrow inside, and old cars with cutouts of Elvis in them, or mannequins hanging out on the roof tops of the bar... My kind of place. Loved it.

    Having made it to Kingman so early, we suddenly got really excited at the possibility of making it to Oatman for a gun show, which according to our guide book, is at 1.30pm. So we sped through Kingman, a relatively large town with plenty of neon signs, old motels and cool looking diners to make it for the gun show! Quick stop over to get Jack a milkshake that she's been craving for days now, best coffee milkshake ever out of a really cool 50s looking diner. The road ahead was twisting and turning around cliffs edges, in the incredible peaks from early. I quickly realized I could not make good timing on this, so we gave up the idea of the gun show and just enjoyed the ride. Stopped at a few view points to stare at incredible views. The landscape isn't like anything I've ever seen, dry sand ground with green scrubs and tiny cacti.

    Making it to Oatman past 1.30pm, I had all given up on my gun show... that is until I saw a sign saying it was 2.15pm. I kid you not - I looked at the sign, then looked at my phone for the time, and my phone said 2.16pm. The excitement I felt at that point in time was unmeasurable! This is the funniest town yet, a town that was a ghost town for a few years until they decided fuck it, let's do something that will attract the randoms of 66. So they transformed whatever was left of the main street buildings and created new ones, all in the theme of the wild west. Saloons, cowboys, wild donkeys roaming the streets (legit, wild donkeys). And of course - a gun show. Two grown men, who go out in the middle of the street, dressed like cowboys (I really think this is their everyday look, but who knows), one pretended to be a sheriff, the other an outlaw. Sheriff brings money to the bank as a trap for the outlaw. Outlaw steals the money. At this point the outlaw is killing time in the street because the sheriff isn't showing up, starts making jokes about the sheriff not doing his job, or getting lost along the way. Finally the sheriff shows back up, obviously confused that he had missed his cue to re-enter the scene. They have a stand off in the street, and POW POW! Sheriff shoots the outlaw. Blanks of course. So terrible, so hilarious. The final shot that was supposed to kill the outlaw was kind of weak, not loud, so the outlaw goes "that wasn't loud enough", shoots his gun into the air for a louder bang, then falls to the ground. Too good. Probably my favorite experience so far. The only downside were the amount of tourists in the town. So far, we've crossed a few route 66 tourists here and there, obviously crossing many at the Grand Canyon yesterday. Here, the streets were full of them. The next "town" with a suggested stop, Hackberry, had a gas station and general store along the main, and only that. Their gas station was overflowing with tourists - bikers on old harleys, tour buses, you name it, stopped at this old gas station taking photos of their old classic cars. Seeing as we've seen plenty just like this in the east end of the route, we skipped it. Where did they all come from?

    We managed to get so much road done today, not because we skipped anything, but because that's all there was, road. No towns, no stores, no funny museums, just road. The tourists that filled Oatman and Hackberry are no longer in sight. We crossed into California! Our last state... Bitter sweet moment. I'm happy and proud we made it this far. Jack and I haven't killed each other yet, although we've come close a couple times. When you decide to spend a month in a car, sleeping, spending most of your day in this car, 2 feet away from your partner, you are bound to have some not so pleasant moments. I must say, with the exception of a rougher 4 day stint, we found our grove and are having a blast! Our "disagreements" often stem from us getting lost, or commenting on each other's driving skills. Route 66 no longer actually exists as a road, therefore following written out directions or a map leads to many wrong turns and "I think this is it" moments. We've managed to avoid using the internet or electronics for the most part. One of us drives, the other directs, and we switch the next day. At the end of a day driving, I'm ready to take the passenger seat and direct, which has its own challenges and annoyances, which makes me ready to drive the day after! Even setting up the car, we found our system which works. I grab the garbage on my front seat, she gets the cooler and goodies box. She then helps me bring the plywood board forward, and goes to the trunk to set up the box there while I hang the drapes up. The system is the same every night, and we're getting incredibly efficient with it! The car is doing great and continues to feel like home. I haven't felt too rushed or pushed for time, and here we are, crossing our last state line before the end of Route 66.

    The road is entirely empty. It's just us and the mountains and the dry land. The "towns" suggested by our guide book quite literally only had one thing running, be it the closed-at-the-time museum in Goff or Ray's gas station in Amboy. The travel guide even suggested a stop in Essex, what he calls an establishment: It consisted of 5 abandoned mobile homes and a closed gas station. After all this road, we stopped our journey in Ludlow today, or just before it. Who knows, we stopped at the first gas station we saw that was open, but considering today, this might be the town! As far as I remember from my readings, it is legal to sleep in your car in the state of California, so it doesn't really matter where we sleep, but this gas station with our now friends the Truck Drivers, seems like the safest choice. Good night.
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  • Day19

    Little Detour, Big Reward

    September 22, 2016 in the United States

    Today is an interesting day. For the first time, we planned an actual detour away from the route 66. This means we will actually miss part of it. From Flagstaff to Williams, we will be taking a different route north... to the Grand Canyon of course! It's an hour away, so it seemed like a detour worth planning for.

    The day started off a little odd for us... We slept at a rest stop along the highway just before the exit leading to the Meteor Crater that Jack really wanted to check out. We put our alarm on bright and early, 7am, to give us time to cook our breakfast on the BBQ and arrive at opening time at 8am. Of course, we snoozed, so decided to drive over to the crater without breakfast, and while Jack visits, I plan to cook the breakfast. It's 18$ to get in, and as we've done for a few activities along the way, only the interested party goes in and shares with the other. So we drive up to the gate, and we're parked in front of the closed fence by 7.50am. Employees seem to be arriving but closing the gate behind them. Come 8.10am we ask if they're opening soon and we're told "Yes, at 8am". Confusion continues. We are then told it's currently 7.10am. Heh? We later find out that Arizona doesn't follow daylight's saving time. So we just gained an hour! Right there, in front of the gate, we took out the table, the BBQ, and made some fantastic coffee and toasts we ate with Nutella and yesterday's left over beans from diner. Breakfast on the go!

    Jack was in the crater museum for about an hour while I blogged, or attempted to. I get distracted easily, write run on sentences that I then take out, it takes me about 1.5-2 hours per blog. Ridiculous, I know. I'm typing this one sitting in an I-Hop, with my little portable keyboard and tablet. Thank God for that keyboard, love that thing.

    Jack's crater experience : "It was cool. Very, very cool. It almost looked like a volcano crater, or at least some that I've seen, but knowing that it was from a meteor some 50,000 yrs ago just gave it a different feel. It was well done with a viewing platform from the top and slightly lower, a museum and so forth. They even did moon and Mars training here! It was expensive, but The largest and most well-preserved meteor crater on earth. Or so they say."

    From the crater to Flagstaff were more abandoned, or small towns. One of which was an abandoned old trading post Two Guns and another called Twin Arrows. Both made for fantastic photos. Graffiti, broken walls, and a very vague illusion of what life once was here. These little towns, or settlements, actually have highway exits all to themselves. In Flagstaff, in order to allow for more time at the Grand Canyon, we decided to stick with the route 66 and just drive through the town, no stopping. And we did just that. Passed a few great old neon signs, a few motels and diner circa 1940's, and off we went to the Grand Canyon!

    30$ ! Then again, for the both of us... We quickly forgot that price once we stood at the edge of the canyon. There's a certain feeling standing at the edge of the grand canyon that can't be described into words. This absolutely incredible, massive landscape that we all line up to see or get a better view of, and man kind had nothing to do with it. We keep trying to have higher building, or nicer trimmed parks, or the most high-tech houses, but experiencing the Grand Canyon is taking a step back and admiring something that needed no intervention from us. Spectacular all on its own. With 250 billions years of formation, not much can beat it. Of course, the visitors center had an incredible amount of tourists, understandably so.

    We did the north rim drive, from east to west, starting at the desert view point. We stopped at every single view point along the way, both for the obvious views, and because the more we continued, the less tourists there were, so we got to experience it better. Jack and I got in a little disagreement about her hugging the edges a little too much... Our conclusion, she's crazy and I don't have to watch. At least that was my conclusion. So I had to walk away a few times. Her sense of adventure is something I love about her, but sometimes just a little fear from her would help me through my day. Haha. We did take about 3.5 hours driving and stopping along the rim, but even this seemed so incredibly short. We treating this stop like the others along our way, it's a taste, a sample, and we must move on.

    On our drive back to 66 Jack planned a stop for us at the Flintstones Bedrock City. Amazing. Granted we just came out of the Grand Canyon, but Bedrock! I got to catch up with my homeboys Fred and Bam-Bam, and Wilma... We had to pay to into ground of the Bedrock city, which was a camp ground turned mini amusement park! Instead, being our cheap selves, Jack gave me a boost to try and climb a tree a the fence. I got a great view! Slides and more statues of the gang. Had it not been close to sunset, Jack and I would have had ourselves a ball in here! But, sticking with our plan to try and always be in whatever town we plan to spend the night by sunset, we moved on.

    Glad we did! Williams was the cutest town we've seen yet! They call it the entry gate to the Grand Canyon, and with the amount of tourists roaming the streets, I would have to agree. Assuming tourism money is what's keeping this town as alive as it is, they did great. They had a mini Frontier town, they had plenty of old school neon signs worthy of route 66 mention, they had a couple old diner decked out in 1940s decor, and of course plenty of souvenir shops with the same trinkets over and over again. We had ourselves a nice diner and locally brewed beers before heading out in search of our usual gas station home for the night.
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  • Day18

    Simple Entry, Simple Day

    September 21, 2016 in the United States

    Some days, you just don't feel like writing paragraphs about. Some days can be summed up with experiences. That's today.

    We made it Arizona! Today was filled with desert driving, a ridiculous amount of "trading posts" (souvenir shops on reservations) and abandoned towns, gas stations or shops. The drive was beautiful.

    What we did for the better part of the day? We drove through, and walked through, the Petrified Forest National Park. This was my first glimpse of these beautiful, colorful rock formations with layers of color, in the "painted desert". We learned all about Petrified wood, which is basically wood from millions of years ago, having been moved by water ways and barrier, now uncovered have slowly transformed into rock. Gems inside beautiful rock logs, in the shapes of tree trunks. I never knew something like this existed, but very, very cool.

    We ended the night visiting Winslow, a cute little town that decided to create Standin' on a Corner, "a public park, commemorating the song "Take It Easy", written by Jackson Browne and the late Glenn Frey, and most famously recorded by the Eagles" (thank you Wikipedia).

    It must be added, that we've met great people along the way. Locals on 66 are generally incredibly friendly, but the tourists along the route are also incredible lyrics friendly. We've met an incredible amount of butch looking bikers who were friendly, and chatty, who offered to take pictures of us, who asked for pictures in return. Being in a country were the language is familiar, and communication is easy (compared to Ethiopia), working on my socializing skills has been a good challenge. I can't say I'm any more willing to approach strangers for a chat, but I'm trying!
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  • Day17

    Nature Calling

    September 20, 2016 in the United States

    Starting with a side note - I'm almost certain I heard a bear last night. There was distant grunting noises moving across what seemed like the road. It went by twice. Almost sounded like a man's snore, but it was moving... Clearly I didn't get out of our tent to find out, I'm not crazy. Second early note - I was convinced they would be showers, seeing as its a state owned camp site, but there was not. I'd love a shower right now.

    We started our hike down towards the Bandelier monument at 7am to beat all the tours (gates open at 9am, that's for the shuttle to bring you to the door from the closest town, before 9am you can explore on your own, but the visitors center is closed). The hike down took around an hour, walking through dry landscapes with little green shrubs. You can see all kinds of rock formations from far.

    The closer we got, the more high flat cliffs would appear with larger and larger crevices, almost cave like. In the park itself, there were plenty of signs indicating against climbing up the rock face, but of course Jack ignored them all and went crazy on how many holes she could manage to fit inside. We crossed a park ranger along the path who explained these caves, along with the settlement in front of it. Between 1380-1490 (something like that), a community had built 4 to 5 storey high brick buildings along the facade of the cliffs, living in both those constructions and inside the cliff itself. It front, on an open space, was a circular construction of over 200 rooms, 3 storeys high, also lived in. Obviously the current state of what was once a big development is now about 3 bricks high off the ground, the rest was imagination working hard.

    We took the little shuttle (now being 9am, and the visitors center being open) back to our campsite to prepare for the day. Because of our avoidance of the visitors center, there was no where along the way for us to pay our park fee of 20$ per vehicle. Gosh darn, we just couldn't give our money to anyone. So we left, having only spent 12$ for the campsite.

    Jack took the drive through the mountains really easy considering the check engine light. We didn't want to stress Ferby out too much. In the afternoon, after we were back on flat land, I gas'd up with the fancy stuff - 91 octane, treated the little guy to some good juice. And sure enough, within a couple hours, the engine light turned off! All on its own! I was so proud of my little Freby, no need for a garage after all, apparently I must have put bad gas in at one point...

    Back to the 66 we go, we aimed for Alberquerque coming down from the mountains. The colors, mostly reds, from the rocks and mountains along the way were absolutely gorgeous. Once in Alberquerque, both Jack and I weren't really into it... It's not a pretty town, There's a court and government district which had "ok" buildings, their historical downtown was pretty boring. This is the first town along our route where people aren't saying hello... It seems ridiculous, but all along the way people have been really friendly and saying hi as we pass. Here, we're ignored. So with no time to lose, we left. On the road again along route 66.

    From this point, we waved in and out of small towns and reservations, checked out a church inside a reservation along the way. There have been many reservations along the route in New Mexico, and I must say, they are some of the poorest looking communities I have ever seen in North America. And we were in Detroit! The houses look like they should be abandoned, some windows even boarded, front lawns full of whatever someone would consider their riches, and yet people are still coming in and out of them. The pueblos weren't paved, some of the only non paved roads we have driven. Taking pictures seemed wrong, recording someone's hardships for our own gain, but sometimes I just couldn't resist. You have to wonder, is it lack of funding? Lack of initiative from the community? Funds going in the wrong hands? Is the trauma of relocation and missionary schools keeping this community from thriving? Much like our Canadian North, how do you help such a large group out of poverty and hardship when you have maintained them at such a level for generations?

    We passed ghost towns, some towns seemed half lived in, half abandoned. All the large road side businesses closed up, with tiny communities behind them. Finally arriving in Grants just before sunset, Jack was determined to grab a Green Chili burger, New Mexico classic. By the end of it, her face was red from the spiciness. I'm just glad I didn't have any. People have described the green chili to us as "not spicy, there's just a kick to them". I wonder what the red chili burger tastes like... After driving through the town, exploring some neon lights, driving through a picture set up of more neon lights, we made the decision to drive to Gallup in the dark, to save some time. As much as the landscape is beautiful, flat planes with colorful mesas at the horizon, it is redundant. Our goal was to see the neon lights in Gallup of all the old motels and shops, but for some reason we both forgot that goal when we saw the Flying J off the highway just before entering Gallup and decided to set up for the night. Considering the probable bear fiasco of last night, I hadn't slept well, so the bed was calling my name! We set everything up, and made it a movie night. I downloaded some movies onto my tablet before leaving, which made this night perfect. Movie cuddles in our little cocoon, laughing at Guardians of the Galaxy.
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