Catching up for Lost Time & Thailand: Sex, Spice and Sand.

Time moves quickly. This I know. Almost nine months have passed since I last posted on my blog, which makes me question my blog’s existence at all. Maybe all of you, my baker’s-dozen-or-so-odd-readers, have forgotten about me, and that would be ok considering my cyber disappearance.

I would like to lie and tell you I got lost in Japan without an internet connection (highly unlikely in such an advanced technological world), but really life just moved by so damn quickly. This is my attempt to bring you up to speed. Buckle up, my friends.

Thailand: Sex, Spice and Sand.

Before you start creating fanciful stories in your brain about my wild and crazy times in Asia, let me start by telling you it was painful to leave Japan. After all that amazing sushi, blissful ramen, and enough green tea lattés to slightly tint my hair green from the inside out, I sort of lost my traveling mojo. Had it not been for a very random blind-date with an ever-so-handsome, American high-mountain guide who also just happened to be passing through Bangkok (you can ask me how it went later; needless to say, there’s no ring on my finger), I wouldn’t have been very motivated to keep moving. Thailand shocked me with its stifling heat, its widespread sex industry, its high-rise, super air-conditioned malls and tourist laden beaches. Maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the ex-pats, and gorgeous, slender Thai women draped over the shoulders of awkward looking Western men, but traveling got old and fatiguing.

Sure, it was fun to meet lots of enthusiastic and friendly international travelers in small beach towns and have some new, superficial friends to pound back a couple of Chang beers and watch fire shows together.

And yes, I loved getting massages almost every day in legit parlors and on the street during weekly markets while watching shoppers stroll past. [When I type this statement, I feel like a spoiled-rotten, overly privileged white traveler, which is another reason I struggle with Thailand.]

Who can forget all those hilarious moments when the street food vendors made my papaya salad too spicy with all those damn power-packed chilies? I begged for another Thai iced tea while sweating profusely and pulling off an incredible impersonation of a beet, and all of this, mind you, while laughing heartily.

On the other hand, I remember waking up over Chiang Mai one hazy morning, watching endless waves of motorbikes whiz past my window and wondering why in the hell I was traveling solo around Thailand when my friends and family were so far away. Traveling is like that. Highs and lows. Tears of spice and tears of loneliness. But I still love it, and despite the fact that Thailand won’t be high on my list for future travels, it won’t stop me from checking airfare to other far-flung destinations when maybe all I really need is to stay put for a while.

After Japan, I put my camera away. These are a few of the images I managed to capture.

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Tokyo: The Magic of Tsukiji

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market has always held mythical status for me and has sat high on my must-see list, mostly thanks to lots of sea-loving men who strongly influenced my life. As the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, handling over 2,000 tons of fish a day, my morning visit well exceeded my expectations and left me wondering how our seas were supporting this kind of consumption on a daily basis anyway. Are there still that many fish swimming around our oceans? And this was just one of Tokyo’s fish markets.

If you’re suffering from jet-lag or thrive on pre-dawn excursions, head on over to the market around 3 or 4 am to secure your place as an observer in the tuna action. Only 120 lucky tourists get a spot each day during two showings (5:25-5:50 and 5:50-6:15), so get your green tea to-go and wipe the sleep out of your eyes to guarantee a spot in this astonishing tuna slinging.

I strolled in at 9am (I was too busy watching the dozing diners at Jonathan’s) when the wholesale market floor officially opens to the public and spent hours wandering through the maze of tight isles, a gazillion beady fish eyes glaring up at me, trying hard not to eat it on the slippery floor or get hit by one of the hundreds of zippy “turret trucks” whizzing down the many corridors.

When your belly starts rumbling, find a spot at one of the numerous small sushi bars and counters on the outskirts of the sales floor. The problem, of course, is deciding which one to try. I settled on a locale with no English posted outside with a moderate line of non-touristy faces. The toro and hamachi were melt-in-my-mouth exquisite, as it was easily the very best sushi I’ve ever had.

I’m officially spoiled for life. Sushi at my fave cheap sushi counter in Berkeley will never quite taste the same.

Plans are underway for a brand new market in Toyosu due for completion in the spring of 2016. You still have a little under two years to get there and witness the real deal. Go on, hurry up.

It’s worth it. I promise.

THE PRODUCTS (AKA THE FISH)

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THE PEOPLE

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Tokyo: The Metro Maze, Persimmons and A Couple of Quaint Neighborhoods.

After an impressive four cups of tea at Jonathan’s this morning (I’m developing a pretty severe addiction to green tea flavored drinks), I felt ampted and ready to navigate the subway system. And with the help of a newly acquired, prepaid Suica card, I could just swipe away and easily go wherever I desired within Tokyo via train or bus. It’s only my second full day, but already the subway map, which looks a bit like a Candyland game-board on acid or a Pride postcard, is beginning to make a lot of sense.

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I got off at the Shubuya station to witness and participate in the famous pedestrian crossing, but I wasn’t particularly impressed and didn’t like the big crowds. Then on to neighboring Harajuku known for its youngsters dressed in unique fashion depicting anime characters, Goth girlies and anything bright and extravagant. I forgot these teenagers have to go to school, so the street was eerily quiet and disappointingly ordinary. I looked for Gwen Stefani too and her girl gang, but she wasn’t around either, so I was left with little choice but to eat some sushi!

I decided that I had to partake in conveyor belt sushi at least once in this fine city, but I think I made a bad decision in a rather touristy and chichi section of town on the gingko-lined Omotesando boulevard. The little containers of powdered green teas and personal hot water spigot at the bar impressed me the most, and I did enjoy watching all the colorful little plates roll by enticing and flirting with hungry diners.

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After lunch, I decided to ditch the guidebook and wander by foot. Turns out I discovered lots of great little neighborhoods and non-touristy sections of town.

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Some of the architecture was extraordinary.

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And I loved the mix of old and new, small and big, country and city in some of these smaller less-trodden blocks.

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Persimmon season is my absolute favorite. Turns out I also love orange.

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These hanging hachiya persimmons reminded me of similar drying endeavors by my pals Trilby and Zack, although I’ve never seen it done outside like this.

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These lily pads for sale outside a small hardware store made me smile.

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You can take the elevator up to the 39th floor in the Yebisu Tower in Ebisu for a great view of the city, especially at sunset.

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Doggy beauty parlors are big in Tokyo, and that little black poodle was about as cute as ever, and significantly less furry based on the floor coverings!

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My evening ended with a stroll around the hipster Nakemeguro neighborhood with loads of adorable specialty shops, cafes and restaurants.

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Tokyo: Sleeping While Present in Multicolor.

I came to Tokyo thinking I would be lost in a sea of people, stuffed into bulging subway cars only to be groped by wandering hands, a nameless gaijin crossing the street with thousands of other pedestrians. With close to 13.3 million people in the world’s largest capital city, Tokyo is surprisingly quiet. At least that was my first impression from the airport to my hotel the evening of my arrival. Compared to Oakland, this city is on mute.

This quiet theme played out my first morning in Tokyo, when I was certain I stumbled into one of those prank TV shows with undercover cameras. My hotel provides breakfast at the adjoining diner, Jonathan’s, (imagine Denny’s only with green tea and bowing servers), and all the patrons were asleep. Well, almost all of them. A couple of the other confused hotel guests were milling about half-dead with jet-lag trying to decipher the 100+ beverage options at the highly mechanized drink bar, but sleeping teenagers and middle-aged business men sporting untucked button-down shirts with crumpled suit jackets occupied the rest of the booths. It’s common for the Japanese to sleep in public. There’s even a word for it, inemuri, which roughly translates to ‘sleeping while present,’ which is both culturally acceptable, necessary for an over-worked population and perfectly safe in such a crime-free society. As I was gulping down my green-tea latte and watching the drooling diners around me, I was liking this city more with each gentle snore.

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For those diners awake enough to appreciate it and/or chew, breakfast was a tasty and perfectly un-American combo of pork soup, rice, pickled radish, seaweed and Natto, an ooey-gooey mess of fermented soybeans coated in their own slime. Natto is best described as somewhat rotten tasting soy-beans rolled in uber sticky snot. Forgive me for not painting a very pretty picture, but really, it’s quite dericious and nutritious. Really.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more forms of transportation, exploring the city on foot seemed like a good first day plan, and according to my guidebook, there were all sorts of notable things to do in my neighborhood. A quick ten minute stroll from my abode, and I was in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden where I admired some grandiose gingko trees and enjoyed a chrysanthemum exhibit.

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Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo...

Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo…

I traveled from the tranquil park to the bustling shopping district near Shinjuku station, then through the sleepy, neighboring red-light district and on to Korea-town where I sampled the most divine stuffed grilled pastries with sweetened red beans, walnuts and other yummy things I couldn’t decipher.

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I know, I know. I flew all the way to Japan to eat Japanese food, but since I was in Korea-town during lunchtime, I decided on a make-your-own-Bibimbap-bar for lunch, primarily because the place was packed with people and they had bright-colored chairs outside. I even got a token piece of classy looking gum when I paid my bill!

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I don’t consider myself a rookie traveler, but I made the mistake of taking a nap in the afternoon because the voices in my head were strongly persuading me to close my eyes. The natto slime from breakfast must have had something to do with my eyes being glued shut, because I couldn’t get them open. Finally by belly won over the drowsy war, and I realized I had bigger, better things to do in Tokyo.

Like eat.

A tiny ramen shop on a deserted side street was home for dinner. I tried my darndest to duplicate the slurping sounds of the pudgy diner to my left, but gave up after splattering my shirt with too much flying broth. Table manners in Japan encourage zealous slurping as a sign of true enjoyment.

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What’s struck me most about Japan in these first 24 hours are all the colors and incredible design. Here are a couple more favorite images from the day.

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These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

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I’ll catch y’all tomorrow over a cup of green tea.

Les Alpes, Le Apli

Having grown up in the Midwest, my exposure to mountains was minimal-to-none as a kid and young adult. I was convinced that the hill up the street from my house, the one my sister and I used to ride down zealously on our pink scooters with pom-pom tassles, wind in our hair, was about as high as it got!

It’s been a couple of years now since I have been leading trips in the French & Italian Alps, and I’ve taken to these mountains like bees to nectar. I love it here in the mountain air. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to head back to Provence (by no means a compromise), and I would like to share a couple more pics with you from the season.

They’re all taken from the Italian side with the exception of the last flowery one.

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I really do miss them already.

Hear ye, Hear ye! My Tour de Mont Blanc starts tomorrow, and I’m grumpy

My highly anticipated solo Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB) commences tomorrow, and I’m feeling a bit ill-prepared.

No map. No guide book. No idea how to even reach the trailhead.

Today, three train segments whisked me away from the heat and dryness of Provence to the mountainy coolness of Le Fayet (St-Gervais-les-Bains). Luckily I have a couple of hours before dinner to sort things out, re-evaluate the contents of my 36 liter pack, and mentally prepare for this 200 kilometer jaunt around the Mont Blanc Massif. A few days ago, I returned to France after a two week holiday in Chicago to celebrate my sister’s wedding. Whether it’s on account of my lingering jet-lag or a certain loneliness brought on by losing the company of my smiling family by my side, my energy is awfully low. On top of that, my right knee is acting up.

There’s always a silver lining, and mine happens to be two salted, dark chocolate bars and two bags of jerky in my pack! Plus, seeing these mountains again, incandescent in the strong setting sun, fills me with joy and optimism, as cheesy as that may sound.

Tomorrow will be a good day. I’m certain.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

TMB: Day 1. Lace up them boots, it’s go time!

The sun was out in full force with a clear view of the mountains on this fine morning, and my grumpiness was but a foggy memory. Undoubtedly, I was in for a splendid day of hiking.

After some milky coffee and a pain au chocolat in the sunshine on a street side café, I reserved a spot on the 9:30 cog train/tram from Le Fayet through St.-Gervais-les-Bains up to Col de Voza (1653 m) to officially start my hike. My pack felt balanced and my legs strong as I made my way through alpine meadow, forest and little hamlets of quaint ski chalets with cheery flower boxes. On my way to my first refuge, Chalet du Nant Borrant, I even passed through a rather unexpected Parc des Loisirs, which could be best defined as a ‘leisure’ park complete with golf, paddle boats, bouncy castles and ice cream!

There’s a whole series of cozy refuges along the TMB, so hikers can pack lightly and have a warm and dry bed to sleep every night. Opting for half-board, or demi pension, guarantees a hearty dinner after a day’s hike and hot cup of coffee and simple, carb-rific breakfast to get you back out on the trail. Unfortunately, the energy in my first refuge wasn’t as vivacious as I’d hoped. I got stuck eating dinner with a old, crotchety and pessimistic Parisian who wrinkled his eyebrows at all my not-so-well-thought-out hiking plans and kept encouraging me to take the bus tranfers in the valleys. I felt a bit stubborn (Is it possible to be more stubborn than a Parisian?), but I wouldn’t take his wimpy advice.

I was going to walk every last kilometer.

In spite of his pessimism and the approaching rain clouds, I went to bed content and full of gratitude for an incredible first day on the trail.

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead.  Sunshine all around!

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead. Sunshine all around!

My first trail marker...maybe this whole TMB wasn't going to be as tricky as I thought.

My first trail marker…maybe this whole TMB wasn’t going to be as tricky as I thought.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. My favorite --a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. I devoured my favorite French lunch – a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Mountain bouncy castles.

Mountain bouncy castles.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge, just in case you wanted to pray for a blister-free week.

Day 1 recap:
Transfer: Mont Blanc Tram- from Le Fayet to Col de Voza.
5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Chalet de Nant Borrant.

TMB: Day 2. Rain, rain go away…and the Orphanage.

I woke up to the sound of rain.

Not a gentle pitter patter of a spring shower, but a steady, heavy, soak-you-to-the-bones kind of rain.

After a dull breakfast with my pessimistic Parisian and 3 quiet Aussies, I suited up like a sailor out to sea and headed into the storm. And I enjoyed it. When I’m working, I dislike lots of consecutive rainy days because it makes my clients testy and makes my job as a guide that much more challenging. Today, I couldn’t care less about the unrelenting torrent. My trail running shoes were soaked within minutes, but the rest of me remained dry (sweaty but dry) as I trudged along a path that quickly became a makeshift stream. I looked at my morning climb ahead to the Col du Bonhomme with rainy-day goodwill, and somehow it paid off.

I decided to take a tea break after about an hour and a half into my march, and miraculously the clouds began to part, and the heavy rain really did turn into a pitter patter, then a drizzle, and then…voilà, nothing at all!

And on the second day, the clouds burst open!

And on the second day, the clouds parted…

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

After my first day, I thought that following the Tour du Mont Blanc was really as easy as pie. As long as you weren’t hiking with your eyes closed, you could find your way with ease. Usually, there are sign posts with clear waypoints posted every 200-300 meters, and all sorts of trailmakers on tress, rocks, walls, houses, you name it. Somehow, after the sun came out, I jumped onto an alternate trail (with similar trail markings, mind you) that took me about an hour and a half and a handful of miles out of my way. This detour turned out to be my second favorite trail of the trip. As I stripped off my rain gear, and the sun slowly dried out my soggy self, I felt an up-lifting of my spirit and a most pleasant high that comes both from being perched on a lovely balcony trail and doing something in nature that you absolutely love.

No picture can do this part of the hike justice. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

No picture can do justice to this part of the hike. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

I finally ended up in the field of cows, dopily looking around for my trusty trail marker, when I realized I had gone the wrong direction and needed to backtrack to make it to my reserved refuge for the night. I admit as a mere, inexperienced ‘Day Two-er’ of the TMB that I was worried about arriving too late to my accommodations, and godfor bid, being late to dinner, but as I’m a speedy little walker, everything turned out fine. I arrived at the Auberge les Mottets to be heartily greeted by my new Russian friend (I met him the night before in Nant Borrant) who I found out had opted to hike the trail while his wife and two kids took a beach vacation in Crete. This, in his broken English, he equated to suffering like a baking sausage on a lounge chair in the sun. He would take no part in it!

Les Mottets reminded me of my middle school days as a blossoming thespian when I graced the stage with the renowned role of Grace Farrell, personal assistant and closet lover to the debonair Daddy Warbucks, in the musical “Annie.”

How you might ask?

Well. Imagine a big long wooden deck in an old drafty cow barn. Throw some ragged matresses and pilling wool blankets on top and call it a ‘group sleeping accommodation.’ These famous dortoirs, or dormitories, staged the perfect orphanage setting for a Little Alpine Orphan Annie Revival! And of all things to forget, I forgot to pack my goddamn ear plugs, so instead of drifting off to Annie’s “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” I lay awake trying to blend the cacophony of snores into a melody to “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.” Turns out, I was still happy as a clam. Just a bit sleep-deprived.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

Day 2 Recap:
Auberge Nant Borrant to Chalet les Mottets via Col de Bonhomme and Les Chapieux.
Detour: From Refuge Col de la Croix du Bonhomme on the GR 5 (Variante of the Tour de Beaufortain) towards Col de la Sauce.
Hiking 9 hrs
Refuge: Les Mottets

TMB: Day 3. Italy here I come. Prepare the Polenta!

Since I really wasn’t sleeping anyway, I decided to get an early 7:30 am start to conquer the first big climb of the day up to Col de la Seigne. The initial climb felt really good, but then my fatigued body began to retaliate and my pace considerably slowed on my descent into Italy and the Val Feny (Feny Valley). The relatively flat valley ground was a welcomed change of pace in the late morning, and I looked forward to a new country on the TMB and, of course, my Italian pranzo (lunch)!

Goodbye orphans, hello Italy!

Goodbye orphans, hello Italy!

From this side of the massif, Mont Blanc charmed me with her robust beauty and even seemed to be posing for photos with wispy little clouds on high.

Hey, any meteorologists out there know what those little clouds mean?

Mont Blanc with a chapeau.

Mont Blanc with a chapeau.

My heavy legs finally carried me to a hearty late lunch of polenta, wild mushrooms and homemade tomato sauce. A quick macchiato got me back on my feet, but not nearly prepared for the brutal downhill into Courmayeur. This little mountain goat loves to climb, but I can really do without the steep descents.

What would I have done with this café macchiato?

This little café macchiato gave me wings.

I arrived in Dolonne (the small hamlet before Courmayeur) feeling a bit defeated, so I decided to call it for the day and try and get myself a hotel room.

The view from my hotel room.

The view from my balcony.

Miraculously, there were no other random snoring people tucked into my personal hotel room, so I had the most lovely and quiet (!) evening and actually slept. I even had time to wash out my one slowly ripening hiking outfit and enjoy an out-of-this-world pizza experience at a welcoming little joint called Fuori Pista. If I don’t come back in my next life as a contented alpine cow, then as least let me come back as a soft Italian cheese. Really People, how is it worldly possible for warmed Stracchino to be so darn good under a bed of Arugula?!

Yum, yum, yummers.

Yum, yum, yummers.

I wrote this, and only this, in my journal that night:

I’m so happy to be back in Italy tonight, eating pizza while listening in on people’s aperitivos.

Tonight marked a turning point for me when the stresses of the outside world slowly started to slip away, and I fell gracefully into the simple rhythm of the trail.

Day 3 recap:
Chalet les Mottets to Courmayeur through Val Feny
Walking 7.5 hrs
Hotel: Stella del Nord in Dolonne.