Monday February 27, 2017
I've finally made it to the United Kingdom, where I'm boarding temporarily in Oxford until I figure out what I want to do. It seems there is a high administrative overhead in opening a bank account, getting a tax number and finding a flat, and of course London is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The weather is exactly as I've expected it to be - cloudy and wet - but it is winter after all, and I expect it to warm up over the next couple of months.
It was a very early start in Reykjavik - 5am to be precise - to get to Keflavik Airport on Saturday, but the flight was short and I arrived in Gatwick just before noon with no problems at immigration. The bus to Oxford took two hours but at least it had free wifi. The first thing I noticed upon arriving is how gorgeous the buildings are; so full of character and rich with history. The food scene is apparently quite lacking here, but I'll be exploring the city tomorrow and will give you a proper opinion after I have experienced it myself.
I have at least managed to obtain a local SIM card for myself, and fortunately this deal allows me to roam around Europe with 12GB of data each month at no additional cost. Again, obtaining this was not a trivial exercise and reinforced the notion that bureaucracy is rife here. The app for managing my account and usage was only available in the UK App Store, so I had to create a new account in order to download it, and honestly I was rolling my eyes so hard at just how unnecessarily complicated things can be. Despite all this, it's all sorted now, and I've even managed to catch the fourth regional Pokemon, Mr Mime. That leaves Heracross (South America) and Corsola (equatorial countries), thanks to Generation II dropping a week ago.
Saturday February 25, 2017
There's something in the ice in Iceland that makes it much more serene than in Canada. Certainly at this time of year, the soft covering of pristine white snow around the city makes it more picturesque, and even more so in the countryside.
Upon arriving in Reykjavik, I had some time to kill before checking in, so I wandered around town for a bit. I'm staying on a hill near a massive church, with a tower that overlooks the whole city. The view from the top is the highest point in Reykjavik and seeing the city come alive as the sun rose was magical. Afterwards, I walked into the CBD and visited a volcano museum, which happened to be staffed by a guy who studied at Victoria University in Wellington, so that was a good yarn indeed. I continued on to various locations around town, stopping for lunch (I got grilled plaice and lobster!) and for shelter during the snow storm. I wanted to go to this highly rated Icelandic restaurant for dinner but they didn't have space available, so I went to a steakhouse and got some steak.
Yesterday I went on a tour around Iceland's southern coast. It was jam packed with sightseeing, we visited Skogafoss Waterfall, which has water from the infamous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, then the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach for lunchtime where I got some expensive fish and chips. The tour continued to the Solheimajokull Glacier, where we hiked for a few hours onto the glacier itself, admiring (and avoiding) some large crevasses all over the terrain. There was the opportunity to go down and explore one of them, but unfortunately we didn't have time. There were a lot of groups on the glacier and we opted to hike further up to watch the sunset colours light up the white snow and blue ice.
We stopped by the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall on the way back, which we missed that morning as there were too many people around it. You can walk behind it, but at that time of night it would have been suicidal, so we took a few photos and then I got dropped off for the aurora hunting tour.
Four minibuses scoured the southwestern coast of Iceland for a dark spot with no light pollution and clear skies. We found the Strandarkirkja church and waited for a bit but to no luck. A snowstorm started picking up so we bundled back onto the buses. Unexpectedly, about an hour later on the way back to Reykjavik, we found a large campfire by the side of the road and all four buses pulled over - "we have lights!!" came the excited call over the intercom. We all rushed out to gawk at the night sky and sure enough, overhead, visible but faint, were these curtains and pillars of green light, moving slowly and fading in and out of view.
The shots you see on Google image search are all taken with long exposures on fancy cameras so completely not representative of what you see in real life. What the cameras don't capture is the movement, the ghostly shimmering of the aurora borealis as it dances across the sky. It was a very memorable experience for me, it's definitely one that I can check off on the bucket list. Of course I'd like to take every opportunity to see more aurora, especially in different colours.
I was back at the hostel close to 2am and today it's completely whited out with snow. They cancelled the whale watching trip I was supposed to go on and it does look quite miserable outside, so it might just be a quiet rest day today.
Wednesday February 22, 2017
A high school friend of mine met me at Niagara Falls and took me for lunch at a nearby winery before heading back to the falls for an Escape Room. Themed around science in one room and art in the other, we worked effectively as a team of five and a half to solve all the puzzles with 25 minutes to go - this room had an 18% success rate! Feeling pleased with ourselves, we walked down the river path towards the actual waterfall.
It's hard to put into words or even pictures how magnificent the Niagara Falls are. The view from the Canadian side is definitely superior, as you get a better angle of both sets of falls. Furthermore, it was such a sunny day that the spray from the river produced a fine pair of rainbows, making the sight truly memorable.
We went home to Waterloo and played some games before retiring for the night. The next day was pretty relaxed, and as it was a public holiday, my friend had the day off too. We went to the next town over to visit a VR Arcade called Ctrl V. It's exactly what you think it is - a set of cubicles with the HTC Vive wired up for you to play in for an hour. There were some really fun games in there - no Into the Dead though. My favourites were a simple shooter where you shot flying pods and dodged their bullets in turn, and a stand-your-ground zombie shooter that provided some fantastic shock and scare moments!
We ended up playing board games again that night, one called Tales of the Arabian Night, which is a controlled, shortened version of Dungeons and Dragons. My character had a horrible time, but the game was kinda fun.
Today I swam for a bit, but struggled with my sore shoulder, and also walked around Waterloo. My friend works at the University of Waterloo, so I met him for lunch, then detoured to an amazing board games and collectibles shop on the way home.
And now, I'm on the plane to Iceland. Forecast is partially cloudy with a 40% chance of aurora, increasing to 60% on Thursday - the exact date I am going aurora hunting!!
Monday February 20, 2017
My time in Toronto has come to a close for now. It's been a very enjoyable five days here, and the weather has been unseasonably warm and sunny too. I covered a lot of the city by foot, seeing many sights and revelling in the food scene here. Toronto is the world's most multicultural city so my mission this week was to eat at a different country each meal.
After arriving at Union Station, I checked in to the accommodation - a small lodging house - and had a rest before heading out towards the main shopping district. I ended up walking through the university and gay village too before settling for some ramen (Japan).
The next day, I walked down to the waterfront, then over to the CN Tower and Ripley's Aquarium. I really needed to use the bathroom so I ended up paying for a ticket to the aquarium, which turned out to be quite interesting. From there, I went to Chinatown and Kensington Market where I got some bulgogi and squid for lunch (Korea), then continued north and east to Queen's Park, and all the way back to the accommodation on the east side of town. There was a Thai place I wanted to try for dinner, but it was closed, so I settled for a veal parmigiana and a very large tiramisu (Italy) from a nearby place instead.
On Thursday, I went to St Lawrence Market and was overwhelmed with all the amazing produce on display. Every type of meat and cut imaginable, all sorts of seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, shelves of cheeses, maple syrup, pastas, antipasto, charcuterie, breads and pastries. I was so happy walking around and admiring all the food. I ended up getting a grilled salmon sandwich (Canada) for lunch.
I took the subway over to High Park and spent a few hours walking around there. Though it was cold, it was very sunny and pleasant, and there were lots of people walking their dogs. I was on the subway again to Ubisoft Toronto, where I got a sweet tour of the offices and caught up with an ex colleague whom I hadn't seen since he left New Zealand. It was getting close to evening, so I settled into a cosy pub called The Caledonian for some haggis (Scotland).
The new set of Pokemon from the Johto region dropped in Pokemon Go, so I spent much of Friday wandering around the CBD to see what I could catch. It was another brilliantly sunny day, so I went up the CN Tower - what a spectacular view from the top. The lake was glistening in the sun, the city still had patches of ice and snow, but for a winter's day, this was most enjoyable. I continued west back to Kensington Market for some tacos and nachos (Mexico) before wandering back to the house for a rest. At night, I trekked back into town for mixed grill platter from Paramount (Lebanon).
Yesterday was more of the same, aimlessly wandering around town and visiting various PokéStops off the beaten track. I really wanted dumplings (China) for lunch, so I went to Chinatown and got my fix there, and I wanted to end my time here with something a little fancy, so I found this French restaurant nearby and ordered their pâté, confit duck casserole and creme brûlée (France). Fantastic! What a great meal to remember Toronto by. I will definitely have to come back and explore all the options I have available.
Just as I got home for the night, a lady right outside the gate cornered me and gave me some bullshit excuse of being hungry and pregnant, asking for any spare change. I offered to buy her food instead but she didn't want any - she tried to get me to pay $60 for subway tokens but I ended up paying $15 to get her to shut up and go away. Not the nicest way to end my time here but I won't let this faze me. I've had a most enjoyable time here and I look forward to coming back when it is slightly warmer!
Wednesday February 15, 2017
I'm at Gare Central, waiting for my train to Toronto. It's been kinda miserable here in Montreal, for several reasons really, but mostly because the weather has been pretty terrible. Last week was painfully cold, so much so that it hurt to go outside. There were snow flurries over the weekend, making walking outside quite magical but still unpleasant. Yesterday was nice...ish, but the Botanic Gardens were closed. Oh well.
The hotel hasn't been that great either. I didn't have control over the floor heating so I was basically at the mercy of housekeeping, who put the temperature too high and I was even sweating last night. The room is quite noisy and I could hear a lot of traffic and people outside during the night. At 6am, demolition on the building next door starts, so really not ideal for a good night's sleep.
As a result of the weather, I've also generally felt quite unmotivated to look for food, though I did make it to Fairmount Bagels and Schwartz Deli. The bagels were really solid, but I didn't realise it didn't come with toppings - it was purely the bagel and nothing else. I ended up buying Italy's finest prosciutto and cheese at a ludicrous price, along with a really nice bottle of limeade. I had to wait outside for a seat at Schwartz Deli and to be perfectly honest I was a little underwhelmed at the sandwich. The meat was a bit dry and needed something more than mustard on the bread. The poutine was good though, and I totally see the importance of having good cheese curds. So, not all was lost, just not as amazing as I thought it would be.
Last night I went on Yelp to find somewhere nice to go for my last night in Montreal and I chose this well rated pub near the hotel. It was probably a 2/5 for me - I ordered a Filet Mignon with Brie and out came this massive plate with meat and fries and cheese. It was a hearty meal but way too much food and the cheese was almost sickening - and I actually had to...um...yeah, afterwards. I got a blueberry creme brûlée as well, which was subpar.
My time here hasn't been completely awful though. There was of course Distant Worlds on Saturday night which was so good that it made up for everything else. On Sunday, I went to the Biodome since that was indoors and really enjoyed it. I saw a capybara, a lynx, two otters, dozens of penguins, a porcupine, some fish, some birds and some bats. It was interesting seeing them cram four different ecosystems into this massive arena.
The weather is warmer in Toronto, and really, as long as it doesn't feel like death walking around, I'll be happy.
Sunday February 12, 2017
I spent the whole day in bed because it was cold and snowing outside - which is kind of novel for me, but I was quite miserable because I couldn't really go anywhere far without feeling like I was going to die. I ventured out to get lunch and dinner, but otherwise it was a pretty boring day to spend in Montreal.
Tonight, however, was the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert at the Place des Arts. Final Fantasy has been one of my favourite game franchises since I played FFVII back in 1997, and since then, I've played all the ones from FFIII to FFX-2, and will probably play FFXII, FFXIII and FFXV at some point. The music has been iconic - for who can forget those emotional, pivotal moments so beautifully captured with the perfect soundtrack? There was the poignant Aeris's Theme (FFVII), played as she is killed in the Forgotten Capital, the encouraging You Are Not Alone (FFIX), played as Zidane's friends fight along side him as he battles the gauntlet of Pandemonium, and of course, To Zanarkand (FFX), the hauntingly solemn song about the journey of Tidus and Yuna. These songs carry so much nostalgia and context behind them, but their true power is the ability to confer emotion to people who have never played these games before.
Distant Worlds has been around for 10 years now, and Final Fantasy for 30 years. I have longed to see a Distant Worlds concert for ages, and the closest I got was last year in Melbourne, when Andy and I saw the New World concert. Distant Worlds is a much larger, more powerful experience, and today in Montreal, we were lucky to be joined by Susan Calloway, the voice behind many of FFXIV's vocals, as well as RIKKI, the original voice behind Suteki Da Ne (FFX). The full set list tonight was:
- Victory Theme
- Torn from the Heavens (FFXIV)
- Character Medley ~ Terra, Kefka, Celes, Locke (FFVI)
- Balamb Garden (FFVIII)
- Rose of May (FFIX)
- Dragonsong (FFXIV)
- Cosmo Canyon (FFVII)
- Blinded by Light (FFXIII)
- Apocalypsis Noctis (FFXV)
- Chocobo Medley
- Man with the Machine Gun (FFVIII)
- Hymn of the Fayth (FFX)
- Zanarkand (FFX)
- Jenova Complete (FFVII)
- Suteki Da Ne (FFX)
- Fighters of the Crystal (FFXI)
- Not Alone (FFIX)
- Answers (FFXIV)
- One Winged Angel (FFVII)
I cried so hard at FFVI's Character Medley and at FFX's Zanarkand. Terra's theme has that hopeful beat, that sound of determination to overcome adversity, and Celes' theme has those beautiful notes which make up Aria di Mezzo Carattere. The choir sang Hymn of the Fayth a cappella, then immediately the musicians transitioned into Zanarkand with the first few notes on the piano - totally lost it then. That quietness of that intro mimics the part in FFX's ending where Tidus says "I'm sorry I couldn't show you Zanarkand.... goodbye", and for me, seeing Yuna fall through him was so heartbreaking. Such wonderful memories evoked by such powerful music.
Like in Melbourne, Arnie Roth, the conductor, invited the audience to join in with singing during One Winged Angel, and a chorus of 3000 strong provided a fortissimo "Sephiroth!" that bellowed throughout the auditorium. It was truly a memorable night, full of wonderful music that has stood the test of time for 30 years, and long may it continue.
Saturday February 11, 2017
I spent all of Wednesday flying. It was nine hours to Calgary and five hours to Montreal. The Pacific flight wasn't too bad, people had said Air Canada was average, but I found them okay. I watched Dr Strange for two hours and tried to sleep for the remainder, but I wasn't really tired.
It was dusk by the time I arrived in Montreal, and very cold already. I was unimpressed by the hotel, but at least it's warm. It's quite noisy though, and several times during the night I was woken by various noises from the street.
In the morning, I headed out to find a local SIM card to use for the two weeks I'm here. That in itself was a mission - the places I tried all charge exorbitant rates and they really screw you over with activation fees and what not, up to $50 in one case! Completely not worth it for a fortnight. I finally settled for a provider called Koodo which was still expensive at $40, but at least it wasn't $90 like Bell tried to charge me.
My wandering took pretty much the whole day, and that included going back to the hotel to find that the 3G connection wasn't working, and trekking back to the Koodo store to get it fixed. I had a really bad pho for lunch but dinner was much better at least. I also managed to catch my Tauros from near the hotel, so that just leaves Mr Mime for the regionals!
I was up quite early today, a bit jet lagged but really my body doesn't know what timezone it's in. I ventured out to grab some breakfast, hoping to take advantage of the sunny weather to see some sights, but it's -15C and it's actually painful to walk around. My face feels like it's being continually attacked with tiny needles, and it's unlike anything I've felt before. I promise to never complain about the cold in New Zealand ever again. I made it to Chinatown and stopped for some croissants before heading to Notre Dame, but couldn't tolerate it any longer so I headed back to the hotel to warm up again.
I don't understand how people live like this!! It's supposed to be warmer tomorrow but it's also supposed to snow.
Wednesday February 8, 2017
As I make my way to Narita Airport, I'm well and truly satisfied with my time here in Tokyo. I've had such a good time despite not knowing the local language, and I will definitely be returning some day to explore the rest of this beautiful country.
I covered a lot of things in my time here. On Sunday I was ahead of schedule so I decided to check out Tokyo Tower and Tsukiji Fish Market. My feet were still tired from all the walking so it was good to take it easy. At night, I remembered that I needed to book tickets for the Square Enix Cafe, so I enlisted Amy's help to navigate the website. It took a while and a bit of back and forth, but I ended up having to go to a Lawsons store to print out and pay for my ticket. What a hassle this turned into - there were no English instructions, I didn't know which numbers to put where, and I ended up having to ask the store clerk for help. He asked me to write my name down so that he could translate it to enter into the machine and FINALLY I got my ticket.
Amy had also given me a recommendation from a food blog for this place in Shibuya, but there when I arrived, the alley was dark and deserted, and there was no signage. I thought to myself this will be an adventure in itself, so I went in and enjoyed a very good and satisfying meal.
On Monday, I covered Akihabara, Ueno, Senso-ji and Tokyo Sky Tree, getting myself a Senor Don Gato plushie from a claw machine in Akihabara and a Pikachu in Mega Gardevoir hoodie from the Pokemon Center. I think this would have been my favourite day, just because of all the excitement of the arcades and the Pokemon Center. There were so many soft toys and figurines around, some massive models of Solgaleo and Lunala, the Sun and Moon mascots, as well as the three starters, Rowlett, Litten and Popplio. A special limited time Pikachu with Alolan Vulpix hoodie and Pikachu with Regular Vulpix hoodie were also available, but sadly I didn't have enough luggage space to buy everything I wanted.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening at the Tokyo Skytree, watching the sun set over Mt Fuji in the west. The expanse of buildings is phenomenal and watching the city lights slowly flicker on as night fell was magical. I had a tempura dinner back at Akihabara and then it was home for the night.
Yesterday I spent at Tokyo Disney Sea. Though the sun was out, it was rather blustery, making the day quite cold indeed. It meant that queuing outside for various attractions very unpleasant and it also meant that the final show, Fantasmic, had to be cancelled midway through. I did manage to go on Journey to the Center of the Earth, Indiana Jones, Tower of Terror, Raging Spirits and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with my only regret being the Raging Spirits rollercoaster. All in all, it wasn't too bad, just a bit sad that the day had to end with that cancellation.
This morning I was up bright and early to check out of the hotel and make my way back to Akihabara to go to the Square Enix Cafe right in the middle of Tokyo rush hour. After all the hassle of getting that ticket, I was determined to enjoy my time there and treated myself to a Moscow Mule cocktail and some snacks upon arriving. It was okay I guess, the food was nice and the merchandise was cool, but mostly focused around Final Fantasy XV.
Final thoughts: it would have been nice to know some basic Japanese or at least travel with someone who does. I managed to survive fine but probably missed a few things, especially food. The Japanese are very polite and orderly, and they are very advanced in some things, but other things, like e-commerce, are still lacking. There are vending machines everywhere but no rubbish bins. They really like queuing here. I need to come back with someone so I can go to karaoke.
Sunday February 5, 2017
Japan is amazing. It's everything I imagined it to be and more. Everything is so cute! Everything is so orderly! Everything is delicious! The weather has been good so far, sunny and pleasant to walk around in, but a little chilly at night time. It's certainly not shorts weather but it's better than some of the "summer days" that New Zealand got last month.
My Air Asia flight to Haneda was uneventful, but I did win the airplane lottery again and got the whole row to myself. The food was pretty good too! We landed earlier than expected and I made it through customs pretty quickly. I had planned to take a taxi from the airport to my hotel but decided to take the train since it was still operating. I ended up lugging all 30kgs of my life about 15 minutes, but the weather was mild and I got some good exercise. I was dripping with sweat by the time I got to the hotel though.
On Friday, I wandered aimlessly around Shibuya, visiting various shopping malls and enjoying the sights and sounds of the area, when I happened to spot the region exclusive Pokemon, Farfetch'd, on my nearby list. A bit of scurrying around and it appeared right outside the Shibuya Tokyo Rei hotel - and caught!
I was so lost in time that I didn't get to have lunch. I hurried off to the Ghibli Museum out near Kichijoji and was greeted by Totoro at the entrance. The guidelines say to wander freely with no set path, discover the many and beautiful things hidden inside. Truly the whimsy and wonder of the many worlds of Ghibli have been captured here. There is unfortunately no photography allowed inside so I must rely on my memory to revisit the many exhibits and displays of art all over the building. There's a showcasing of the "beginning of movement", and they're playing this beautiful piano piece from one of the films, and it's such an emotional song. I spent about an hour wandering around, and I'm getting hungry, so I set off to find this French patisserie place that Amy told me about in the opposite direction.
I arrive about 30 minutes later and I am not disappointed. It looks like Louis Sergeant with a few Michelin stars tacked on. I choose two desserts and I'm on my merry way back to the train station, but I spot a park in the sun on the way, so I sit down and devour the things I've bought - a giant hazelnut tower and a yuzu inspired cake.
I'm back at Shibuya at dusk, in time to witness the famous Shibuya crossing, where hundreds of people converge on a single intersection during green lights. I'm hungry still, and getting tired from walking around so much, so I find a ramen bar and play food roulette - I didn't know what to do with the vending machines so I just copied the dude in front of me and ordered what he got. It's delicious. The soup is full of flavour and the noodles are bouncy and soft. The lady next to me however has a massive bowl of pork and egg and I'm getting fomo, but what I have has satisfied me. I'm back at the hotel by 8pm and I pass out for a good 9 hours.
Today I met up with Tak who took me to a sushi train place for lunch. Holy moly. The sushi here is completely different to what you get in New Zealand. The freshness of the seafood is very noticeable, as is the quality of the vinegar in the rice. I'm almost moved to tears, everything is so delicious. The salmon especially is creamy and smooth, the unagi is sweet with a slightly crispiness from the blowtorch. I'm enjoying myself so much, this is a very memorable experience.
We take the train to Harajuku and wander around for a while, visiting the various shopping streets as well as Meiji Shrine and Togo Shrine. We stop by the Cookie Time store and under Raewyn's orders, I sing Let it Go from Disney's Frozen on the karaoke machine and receive a round of applause from the shop, as well as a jafa and hokey pokey cookie for my efforts.
I also visited the owl cafe around the corner. They're so damn fluffy and cute. For 1500 yen you can stay there a whole hour and you get a small drink too. Pretty worth it, in my opinion! As dusk fell, I went to a place called Red Rocks, another of Amy's recommendations, and got a massive stack of sliced beef with a raw egg cracked on top. Delicious again!
I made my way to Shinjuku and wandered the streets, looking at various arcades and bright lights adorning the streets. I bought some thermals from Uniqlo for super cheap as well. I saw the robot restaurant but it looked too busy so I gave it a pass. It was fun just enjoying the busyness of the area at that time, and the atmosphere and vibe.
A half hour later and I'm back at the hotel, nursing my sore feet. What an amazing two days!!
Thursday February 2, 2017
The remainder of my Malaysian holiday has been spent answering the question, "so what haven't you eaten yet?" We went to Klang for bak kut teh, went for a Japanese buffet, and had satay, roti and steamboat. We had a big dinner with dad's side of the family on Monday and I caught up with mum's side of the family on Tuesday.
My time here has been pretty quick but I've enjoyed it immensely. It's quite odd seeing Kuala Lumpur during this time - the shops are all closed for the festive season and the traffic within the city is actually pretty good while people are outstation. My family have spoiled me - they always do - and I will be forever thankful for that.
For now, I'm at KLIA2, the budget airline terminal, where I will be off to Tokyo in just under 90 minutes.