There just so happened to be a birthday party for my friend Sarah (so many birthdays!). It just so happened to be at the Moonlight Rollerway. It just so happened to be "Organ Night." (click the video below to view)
It rained almost the entire time I was down there, which was unfortunate, but that very same storm dumped 18 inches of snow down on Mammoth. Almost immediately after I passed the "Welcome to Mammoth Lakes" sign, I was surrounded by snow, in the air and on the ground.
The next morning, I woke up to this sight outside of my bedroom window (click the video below to view)
While it isn't unusual for it to snow here in October, it won't be here for long. It's expected to get up to the 60s this weekend, so it's doubtful that the snow will be on the ground for much longer.
All this, just as the leaves started to change color.
On a recent return flight from Miami for my cousin Merrilyn's wedding, I got bumped off of my flight due to a combination of overbooked and delayed flights. The best part was that I got 300 Delta Dollars out of it. Now, it just so happened that I had been speaking with my friends Jake, Michelle, James and Rebecca about planning a trip to Portland, Oregon, which is where Jake and Michelle live, not long after obtaining said Delta Dollars. It also turned out that that was the going rate for a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Portland was roughly $300. Booked.
Portland, along with the rest of the Pacific Northwest, is notorious for it's depressing, overcast and drizzling weather. However, in the summer, the weather is perfect. As Michelle (more or less) said "if it were this clear and beautiful year-round, Portland would be the best city in the world." The temperature is a perfect mid-70s in the daytime, with nighttime lows in the 50s or 60s. There's a bit of overcast in the mornings, however it likes to clear out at around noon.
One of the first things I noticed was how amazingly clean the city center was, it can stand toe to toe with the cities of Japan. There are parks and public squares scattered all over downtown, with lots of tree cover in these areas. You can tell the city really comes alive in the summer, with people taking full advantage of the great weather. There are farmers markets, music festivals, beer festivals, people sunbathing and the like.
Food Trucks. I know that they are everywhere in this country now, but Portland is doing it right. There are food trucks everywhere, I can't imagine you ever being more than a mile from at least 5 food trucks in the city. All over, and especially downtown, there are a ridiculous amount of parking lots that have turned into food courts made up of food carts, as seen above. There are your staple foods, Thai, Asian-fusion, hot-dogs, burgers; but than there are also your unique specialty carts. Traditional japanese festival food, Montreal style poutine, Polish, egg sandwiches, gypsy food and new trucks pop up with different fare all the time.
Portland also serves as a model to any city in regards to public transportation and bike usage. A light-rail, named the Max, runs from the airport to, and throughout much of, downtown. There are bike lanes and paths that can take you safely and quickly from rush hour traffic in the middle of the city to the suburbs, past amusement parks, hotels and wildflowers with amazing views of the city from any of the many bridges that cross the Willamette river, which bisects the city's east and west sides.
The very first thing I noticed, before the clean and before the food carts, was the green. So green! Trees everywhere! No doubt that is has a lot to do with the constant drizzle the region experiences. But on top of that, the city and its citizens seem to be much more keen to maintaining these green aspects.
Just a short drive outside of Portland in almost any direction will bring you to a lot of beautiful pieces of nature. Jake, James and I went on a camping trip close to the Pacific coast. We took a ninety minute drive, past farms and Paul Bunyon, to Saddle Mountain State Park. In the morning we climbed to the top of the 3,283 foot (1,001 meter) tall Saddle Mountain for some spectacular views. From there it is was only a short drive to Canon Beach on the Pacific coast, where, despite the freezing water there was quite a lot of surfing going on.
30 miles in the other direction of Saddle Mountain is Multnomah Falls, sitting on the south side Columbia River Gorge and is the largest waterfall in Oregon. The sight of the falls isn't all there is to see in the area, there are also dozens and dozens of miles of hiking trails up in the mountains behind the falls with streams and smaller waterfalls aplenty.
All said, Portland and its surrounding areas are fantastic, fun, delicious and beautiful. There's a lot more to say about the city, it's certainly one of my favorites, so check it out yourself. Also, be sure to go into Powell's Books in downtown, it is the best bookstore I have ever been to.
After I bought my ticket back to the U.S. from Japan in December, I wanted to do one final jaunt. The cheapest and most interesting option from Japan was Shanghai, that's when I decided on spending a solid seven days in the city.
The business capital of mainland China, Shanghai is a modern, world class city and immensely interesting. It has all the usual western amenities: Starbucks, McDonald's, KFC, the Gap, malls, a subway system and art museums. Most interesting of all is how fast this city has grown in the past twenty years. Here's a look at what the cityscape looked like in 1990:
And here's what that same grassy plot of land looked like when I saw it 21 years later:
Across the river from this young, vibrant financial district is The Bund. Initially a British settlement, it later housed many of foreign banks and trading houses, turning it into the financial hub if East Asia. This foreign development in the area lent itself to the construction of many remarkable buildings in styles ranging from Neo-Classical to Art Deco.
Another popular destination in Shanghai is Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping street similar to New York's 5th Avenue or Tokyo's Ginza. It's especially spectacular to see at night.
While Shanghai is a huge metropolitan city with a lot of western influences, it is still very much a Chinese city with traditional architecture right next to a modern skyscraper.
My plan was always to spend the entirety of my 7 days in Shanghai, I wanted to take my time and relax. My only trip outside of the city center was to Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town in the Shanghai suburbs. The town was amazing, I got there just as the sun was setting and the color was beautiful.
I met a lot of great people in Shanghai and saw just as many interesting things. Going to China absolutely put a lot of the news I read about the country into perspective and was a great experience.
I love snowboarding. The family and I used to go skiing most every spring break, from elementary school through early high school, usually in the Rocky Mountains. I made the transition from skis to snowboard around the time I became a teen and really enjoyed it as a snowbound extension of all the skateboarding I did. It's been at least 6 years (possibly 8 ) since the last family ski outing and as time has gone on I've only wanted to go again more and more.
Moving to Japan, home to two winter Olympics, I had thoughts of possibly strapping back onto a board before even leaving Miami. However, not having a car tends to put a hamper on planning road trips, but I have been sidetracked by a lot of amazing Japanese experiences, so I haven't paid it much mind.
Before I'm asked, it does not snow in Fuji City.
An opportunity arose when I saw my buddy Atsutoshi make the following post on Facebook
Sure, why not? We settled on going to the village of Hakuba within Nagano prefecture and off we went Friday evening after we had both finished work.
The one caveat would be that we didn't have a place to stay and would be sleeping in the car. Not something I'm against at all, but I was really surprised to hear that it's an extremely common practice in Japan. Since people don't get a lot of time off, and you are probably never further than an 8 hour drive away from a resort, people will drive to the mountain after work on Friday, sleep in their car that night, ski first thing Saturday morning and drive back that evening. Sure enough, when we got to the parking lot at a little past midnight, there were at least a dozen other people sleeping in their cars.
Known as being the location of the Alpine, Ski Jump and Crosscountry events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Hakuba dense with places to ride down mountains with great snow. I had originally thought that the ski resorts in Japan, being a relatively small country whose mountains aren't particularly high, wouldn't be all the great. Naturally, I was wrong.
Hakuba can certainly stand up next to most resorts around the world. It was a great place for me to ease myself back into the sport after so long away from it, a lot of varied terrain ranging from easy to moderately difficult and the weather was amazingly clear. On one chair lift ride we spoke to a Finnish man who was just wrapping up a 6 week ski trip in Hakuba because it's his favorite place to ski in the world and also doesn't really get too crowded.
It turned out that Atsutoshi had a friend from New Zealand that lives in the area and invited us to a "Hip-Hop Party" at some bar. It would mean sleeping in the car another night, but sure, why not?
The featured entertainment of the night would be live rap music, but before and during that there was also an ongoing mural/graffiti demonstration.
We met a lot of really nice people, most of which were from Tokyo, and had a really great time. Sleeping in the car this night wasn't too difficult, we were extremely exhausted from a long day of snowboarding and all the beer we drank didn't hurt either.
On our drive back to Fuji from Nagano we passed an amusement park...of course we did.
Fujikyu Highland, home to three record setting roller coasters: Fujiyama, formerly the world's tallest coaster; Dodonpa, the fastest accelerating roller coaster in the world, doing 0-172kph/107mph in 1.8 seconds; and Eejanaika, the world's second "4th dimension" coaster ("whereby riders are rotated independently of the orientation of the track").
I'm here to say that Eejanaika is by far the best roller coaster I have ever been on, was it ever terrifyingly amazing. It is high, extremely high, and words cannot describe it. Words can describe Dodonpa, extremely fast.
This really made for a great end to a great weekend. But I think seeing this in the parking lot on our way out made it even better:
Nothing compares to you Sankaku.
For a quick digest version of the weekend, watch this video:
Continued from "If It's Koya, It Has to be Good"
From Koya, Ryan and I continued our road trip south, towards the southernmost tip of the Japanese mainland.
We made some stops along the way whenever something caught our eye: bridges, nice views, observations platforms. On that observation platform we found this piece of wonderful exercise equipment, with no explanation:
We camped a the night in Shirahama, a beach town frequented by people from Osaka (Japan's second largest city) during the summer. Being made up of a islands formed by volcanoes, Japan's beaches are typically black sand. Shirahama cheats by importing white sand from Australia.
I really enjoy drives through Japan, they typically offer a wide variety of landscapes in short distances. Big cities, mountain ranges, farms and suburbs can all be seen in an hour's drive. I especially like Japanese mountains. They have a bit of a marble look to them, having a variety of trees with different heights and shades of green in separate clumps.
This road trip was by no means short on driving, the vast majority of our time was spent in the car, upwards of 30 hours over the course of a single three day weekend.
On our last day of the trip was stopped in another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kumamono Shrine at Nachi Falls.
A beautiful site, Nachi falls are the second highest in Japan, and possibly the most stunning. To this day it's still a popular buddhist pilgrimage destination.
I love a good road trip, and this one was no different. This trip was probably one of my favorites that I've had in Japan, we saw a lot of historic sites, took in some great nature, met a few nice people and had ourselves a good time driving through narrow mountain roads.
Continued from "Nothing Beats a Good Trip"
From Osaka we headed south down the Kii peninsula to Mt. Koya. Not only a mountain, Koya is also a small town that was settled in 819 by Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and is now home to a huge amount of temples in a pretty small area. All of them are strikingly beautiful, making it more than worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
One of the most popular destinations at Mt. Koya is the Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan. Many important Japanese figures are buried here, including monks, artists, and feudal lords.
As I've mentioned before, the Japanese expressway is sinfully expensive, however if you have an ETC card (an automatic billing device drilled into your car) it's only ¥1,000 (~$10 USD) to go where ever you want on the weekends. Unfortunately for us, we didn't have an ETC card. So, our main roads of choice became Japan National Routes 1 and 42.
The Japanese National Route system is almost identical to the U.S. route system. These are roads that a generation ago were the best way of getting around on wheels, but now are not much more than typical two lane roads, fully stocked with stop signs and traffic lights. Thankfully making frequent stops anywhere that feels interesting was built into the plan.
Our first stop would be in Iga, in Mie prefecture, over 300 kilometers (186 miles) away and a 7+ hours drive. Formerly the home to legendary samurai and ninja Hatori Hanzo, Iga is now a quaint small town that lies between the Nagoya and Osaka metropolises. Our purpose would be to check out the ninja museum and surrounding areas.
Fortunately there was a ninja show with reenactors doing things that ninjas do. Unfortunately we missed the last showing by a couple of minutes. Apparently Iga's level of tourism isn't high enough to warrant showings past 4:00pm. But the surrounding areas were pleasant with some nice scenery.
From Iga we headed further west towards Nara, where we hoped to find lodging or a place to camp.
From time to time we made stops at roadside convenience stores, which is where I discovered this technological breakthrough.
Arriving in Nara as night fel, we immediately noticed how dead the city was. While it was formerly the capital of Japan 1,600 years ago, and today is a huge tourist destination, almost all of those tourists come on day trips from Kyoto or Osaka. This made our search for a place to stay all the more difficult. We made some phone calls, a friend had stayed with someone in Nara the year before and we tried getting in contact with her, no luck. After considering our options over Vietnamese food we decided we'd go to Osaka, the second biggest city in Japan, only a half hour's drive away, and a place where Ryan knew of a place we could sleep.
Like Tokyo, we knew that Osaka would be impossible to park the car in, and since Nara is a tourist hotspot, its parking is just plain expensive. So we drove to a suburban city between the two, parked in a lot near a station (at the wonderfully low price of ¥500/$5)and made the rest of the journey via train.
Osaka was a bit of a whirlwind, we made friends on with some university students that gave us some recommendations on what to do for the night. Walked into an empty Australian bar on a whim, only to have the owner apologize, close up shop, make some phone calls, and show us to a basement nightclub filled with people and smiles. Our long travels got the better of us at around 3 in the morning, probably much earlier than the rest of the city called it quits.
Around the corner from the nightclub, literally, was where we'd be staying for the night, a lovely little capsule hotel.
From Christmas in Miami, I went to spend New Years in the Greater Phoenix Area of Arizona with my girlfriend Stacy. This place is starting to become one of my favorite places in the US. The weather is nice (no rain), it's not too big for its own good (Miami's main problem), a lot of amazing food (seriously, all sorts of blow-your-mind food) and all the beautiful Western landscapes you can handle.
We (being me, Stacy and plenty of her friends) started off the New Years celebrations with some fireworks. Their legality was pretty questionable. And by questionable I mean that they were definitely from Mexico and illegal.
All good and sparkled up for the main event, we headed out to the party.
The party was being held at a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-some-guy's house known as "The Compound." There was tons of art all over the place, it was a bit of a makeshift backyard art gallery, with live music and fire pits, pretty spectacular.
A lot of the rest of my time in Arizona was spent eating as much of its amazing food as I good. Some recommendations I have if you are ever in the area: Matt's Big Breakfast, Green, Pita Jungle and Filiberto's.
To cap things off, we went and saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a live cast, which was great fun, and we also went to a drive-in to see True Grit. Eating Mexican food while watching a western at a drive-in in Arizona is probably something Billy Joel would write an amazing song about.
It went by all too fast.
Kamakura is a small (pop. ~170,000) town about 60 kilometers/40 miles from Tokyo, or an hour by train.
It absolutely has a beach town feel, with plenty of surfboards, faux-VW vans and a slight obsession with Hawaii.
Soon after getting off my train, I stopped into Kua-Aina, a Hawaiian based sandwich chain. I ate a Mahi-Mahi sandwich with American cheese on a Kaiser roll. It was heavenly. ¥1,100 ($13) of heavenly.
But by far the biggest draw that Kamakura has is its Great Buddha.
Built in the 1200s, it's withstood a tsunami and one of Japan's biggest earthquakes. It truly is beautiful.
A 360-degree view of the famous statue.
Another popular spot in Kamakura is the Buddhist temple Haser-dera.
Kamakura was a great, short little day-trip; made home in time for dinner.