I planned this post to be about my weekend away, but I ended up travelling quite a bit for work either side of the weekend and it’s felt like I’ve been all over the place both physically and mentally.
I started off my travels by heading to London for a last minute trip with work. I needed to catch up with a few people and all of them were at the London office so it made sense to head there for the whole day. I quite like going to London with work, but I do like it when I have a bit more time so I can add on an adventure like going to a museum exhibition or head to the Japan Centre for supplies. This was a rush job as I needed to be back in time to pack for the next location.
My next stop was Brighton! A trip with the girls for the marathon weekend. I’ve been going a few years now and it is always a great weekend. Two girls were doing the marathon, another two did the 10k and a few others did the local park run. I walked everywhere as my foot is still playing up with plantar fasciitis. It was super hot and I caught the sun while we were shopping and relaxing on the beach. We even bagged free t-shirts for taking part in a game that involved being broadcast on the big screen on the beach!
Sunday involved coming back from Brighton with a quick stop at home and then driving up to the Lake District for another work trip. It wasn’t too bad as a friend drove back from Brighton so I only had the trip north to do. I hoped by going later in the afternoon I would miss the holiday traffic and I was right! I got up to Kendal at 8:30pm and crashed out. It worked out really well as I was refreshed for my 9am meeting in Grasmere.
The weather continued to be wonderful and spending the afternoon out around Grasmere was great. I love my job! After a day in the Lakres I then headed over to the Yorkshire Dales for another work trip. I met a work colleague for dinner in Settle and enjoyed a lovely evening and meal before more work in the Dales the following day.
The next was spent working from a local office with the local team. A piece of work I am doing is being tested up in the Dales and I don’t get to go up very often to work with the team and it’s always a good day. Fingers crossed I can work it out to go on a more regular basis.
After a day in the Dales it was time to head home. Unfortunately the traffic was not so kind on the way home and I got stuck and didn’t arrive home until 9:30pm. This is where my brain stopped working for 24 hours! I was so on form throughout all the travelling, but once back to normal I lose momentum and felt awful. I underestimated the impact of the travelling and paid for it by trying to push through it. Next time I need to plan in time to rest and rebalance.
I love exploring but I also need the energy to do it and enjoy it. Just being able to pause in between is useful and I’m learning all the time what I need to do physically and mentally to be my best with everything I want to do.
It’s been three weeks since I went to Iceland and for some reason I have struggled to sit down and write a blog post since – it’s very weird as I absolutely loved the trip and want to recommend it to everyone I know!
Iceland has been on my list of places to visit for ages, but the reputation of being quite expensive has always put me off while I wait ‘until I can afford it’. I have since changed my mind and believe you can travel anywhere you want on whatever budget you have and still have an amazing time! So, anyway back in early December a few friends got on to chatting about places we wanted to go and Iceland came up. Two of my friends have been before, but not seen the northern lights and myself and another friend hadn’t visited. So we were all up for heading out for a few days in January.
We got a really good deal on flight and accommodation (under £400 for return flights and 3 nights B&B hotel). We went with EasyJet and stayed at Storm Hotel, just off the main shopping street and close to the water front.
It was cold, but not as cold as the same time back in the UK. It also rained a lot! We made the most of it though and had a fantastic time exploring Reykjavik and further afield. The trips we went on probably doubled the price we paid for the flights and hotel, plus food and drink means be prepared to pay more once you’re out there.
The food was amazing! It was pricey for sure, but you can find places that are better value than others. The drinks are what astounded us as in many places they cost at least the same, if not more than the food. There are lots of happy hours at the bars and hotels, but if you’re doing trips you can’t always be back in time for 4-7pm slot. So we ended up not drinking at all – totally weird for a holiday, but totally worth it!
We took two main trips and had a third one cancelled because of the weather, all with Greyline. We went out to the Blue Lagoon. It was so weird as we got there at 8am and stayed until 12pm. It was pitch black, middle of the night dark! My brain was playing tricks on me as I kept thinking it was 8 or 9pm, not am. It was so quiet when we arrived and we got to explore while it was empty and dark. It had expanded since my friends went before so it was funny to find new places. It was also horizontal rain and so windy the lagoon was choppy with waves. It was so hilarious! You could not call it relaxing in the slightest, but it was fun and the water made my skin feel amazing!
The second trip we did was out to the Golden Circle. We went to see the UNESCO world heritage site called Þingvellir National Park which is home to Iceland‘s largest natural lake and the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart. It was raining so much I didn’t take my camera out at all.
We then went to Gullfoss waterfall, which was amazing. It was colder here and there was still some snow on the ground and parts of the waterfall was frozen over. It was loud and tranquil all at the same time. If you ignore the amount of people stood around you, you can see nothing for miles.
We then went to see the Geysir hot spring area. It was amazing to see the geysers bubble and explode at times. There was so much colour on the ground that I would love to go back as it was getting dark when we were there.
On last full day we further explored Reykjavik by taking the hop on hop off bus. You can easily walk around the city, but as it was raining so much we didn’t want to get cold and miserable walking around. It was good as we got see everything we wanted and also took a trip to the local public swimming pool which is geothermally heated. I loved the wall art dotted all around the city and there is really good coffee!
We tried every night to go out and see the northern lights, but due to the weather we did not have the right conditions for them to appear. On the plus side we didn’t have to go out and try as they cancelled the trips during the day, which meant we could get a full refund.
It was great fun to go away with my friends and we are already planning a trip to Norway for next year to see if we can track down those pesky northern lights.
This year I finally got tickets to go and see Brian and Robin’s Christmas Compendium of Reason after seeing so many tweets and blog posts about it over he last two years. It was amazing and this blog post is really for me to keep a record of all the acts we got to see on the night as I am rubbish at remembering these things. So here goes…
First up was Jack Liebeck’s quartet.
The Public Service Broadcasting who were so different it was good.
They even bought out a dancing astronaut/cosmonaut.
The Brian and Robin did a bit of an introduction to the night and as you can see we had great seats just back in the stalls.
Then we saw Helen Czerski with her pet globe.
Then we had computational biologist Andrew Steele who took us through research spending (I want his powerpoint presenting skills!).
A better photo of Robin and Brian.
Then Festival of the Spoken Nerd and I definitely want to see these guys again!
The we had a great presentation on genealogy by Adam Rutherford.
Followed by a talk from Steve Backshall.
Then Chris Lintott went through gravitational waves (I was lost!).
Then the next one I wasn’t sure about from Alice Roberts and Ben Garrod.
Then James Acaster performed his stand up routine.
Then before the break we had more music from Nitin Sawney who has a beautiful voice.
During the break we found that Steve Backshall was now sat in front of us and taking selfies with fans (I did not ask for one).
Then we had more music from the quartet from the beginning and The Hackney Colliery Band.
This was awesome and again I would look to see these guys again.
Sophie Ellis Bexter then joined them on stage.
Then Clifford Slapper and David McAlmont performed and were amazing!
Next was a panel that was most like the podcast I love – The Infinite Monkey Cage – I would have loved more of this, but it was a great show anyway!
The Lucy Cooke came on and really bought the science and comedy together.
The Greg Foot came on for some experiments and this was great fun!
The Ben Goldacre was fantastic and the fastest talker I have ever seen! This was really interesting as well as it was all about the trials that do not get published.
Milton Jones who is famous for his one-liner stand up, which I find funny to begin with, but then it gets old fast. Sorry Milton.
The we got to hear a brief talk about his time in space from Chris Hadfield.
Then the night ended with Duran Duran – who I totally did not have to ask my sister who is 10 years older than me who there were, definitely didn’t happen!
Overall this was a fantastic night and I hope to get tickets for next year!
We finished our trip to Japan by staying in Tokyo for 4 nights. Our hotel was based in the Ikebukuro area and had great transport links all over the city. My first and lasting impression of Tokyo is that it is super huge! I would describe it as being 12 cities in one as every area we went too was different and felt like its own city. It was awesome and overwhelming – I definitely need to go back!
The first night in Tokyo our guide took us to Shinjuku. It has the busiest train station in the world and for a first trip out in the city is really a way to see Tokyo in reality. We visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to get a night-time view of the area. It was amazing to see all lit up, but not good for photography as it was brightly lit inside and even with the help of a scarf the reflections in the windows would not disappear. It was free to go up and makes considering visiting one of the towers in the city not as essential. We then headed towards the entertainment area and found a small restaurant that our guide had booked out for our group.
After dinner we wandered around the area seeing the bright lights and big city vibe. It was amazing in Kabukicho with so many shops, arcades and restaurants really making it atmospheric. It was still above 20 degrees in the evening making it really comfortable to walk around for an extended period. It was bustling with business people, locals and tourists and I could have easily found somewhere to people watch for a while.
The next full day in Tokyo our guide took us all over the city and it allowed us to get used to the transport system ready for our solo explorations for the rest of the trip. We got the train from Ikebukuro and headed to Korakuen on the Marunouchi Line. We stopped at Tokyo Dome City and went up another government building (which I have completely forgotten the name of and don’t seem to have written it down) for another free view. We marvelled at the theme park set up in the middle of a city as we wandered towards Ueno.
Ueno is the cultural centre of Tokyo with the park (Ueno-keon) at the very centre. It is full of many museums and when I go back I would like to make time to visit the Tokyo National Museum as there was not enough time to fit everything in.
We walked through the park and I spotted my first outdoors cats on the trip. We didn’t see many cats or dogs at all and it made sense to find all the animal cafes as the concentration of people make the city not a great place to have pets I imagine.
We then walked to Asakusa which is home to the most visited temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji. The legend is that a statue/image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (Kannon) was pulled from the river by two fishermen in AD 628. You can get a great view of the entrance to the temple by going in the tourist information centre and up to the viewing platform. The entrance is lined by lots of little shops and stalls selling all sorts of trinkets.
This was a lunch spot and I managed to find a okonomiyaki place to take my mum to where we cooked it ourselves. It was ace and is something I said I must learn to cook when I got home (and I already have). They bring out a bowl full of all the ingredients and you mix it all together then cook on the hot plate set into the table. Simple and amazing!
We then got back on the train and headed to Shibuya. It is the centre of the city’s teen culture and is full of bright colours and amazingly dressed people. We came out of the station and watch the Shibuya crossing from above. It is said to be one of the world’s busiest crossing as when the traffic stops people head in all directions to get where they are going. It was fun to watch and again when I come back I will get a seat in the Starbucks looking right over the crossing and watch the world god by.
We also got to see people playing real life Mario Cart as we were waiting at the crossing. It looked amazing, but not something I would be brave enough to do!
If you find yourself at the crossing you will come across the statue of Hachiko, the dog that waited at the station everyday to meet his master and continued for another 10 years after his master died in 1925. Nowadays you’ll find a cat upstaging Hachiko for an excellent photo opportunity. He looks like a stray, but his owner pops him up there everyday. He was very friendly.
In the late afternoon we headed to Harajuku to Meiji-jingu. It is Tokyo’s grandest shrine with this amazing wooden Torii gate at the entrance, created from 1500 year old cypress trees. It is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and was constructed in 1920, but destroyed in the second world war and had to be rebuilt in 1958.
On the approach to the shrine the path is lined with barrels of sake and casks of whiskey.
It took the whole trip but I finally pursuaded my mum to join me in visiting a cat cafe and Cafe Mocha was located really close to the hotel. It was a modern and well spaced cafe and I didn’t see any cages, which I had read warnings a bout.
The cats were all quite sleepy, but that made it really peaceful. I could have easily sat there for a quite a while and read book, but my mum was expecting teh cats to be playful so we didn’t stay as long as I would have liked.
There were some fun characters in the room and all accepted strokes freely and knew if they went up high they would be left alone.
But this once just lounged right on the floor and gave the best looks!
It is such a good idea as it keeps cats off the street and gives them a safe environment to share with people.
That night we headed up to the top floor of a shopping centre where you can find all the restaurants you could want. We went for a teppan one and I could have a proper dessert of the Halloween variety!
We ended what was a long day by heading up for a drink in the bar on the top floor. It was expensive, but worth it for the ambience and view.
The next day we had it free to explore as we wanted. I will say I preferred having a guide to take us around as it was an overwhelming city, but we had fun and had many more coffee stops than we did the previous day. We started by going to the bakery across the street for breakfast and I partook in the Halloween theme again – who would have thought it would be such a big thing in Japan?
I mapped out our day starting in Ginza the upmarket shopping district of Tokyo. We walked through the shops and stopped for coffee as we headed to the Tsukiji Market. This is still home to the fish market, but we did not fancy the super early start you would need to see the action. Instead we experience the outer market and I enjoyed some fresh tuna sushi and my mum got to have lots of fruit!
The market is busy, but absolutely amazing! I could have carried on wandering and trying different foods all day, but we wanted to go and experience some other neighbourhoods as well. We headed back to Ginza so that we could go in the shops that opened later than the market. There were several things that were cheaper if they offered the tourist tax discount, so worth a look!
We got the train to explore Akihabara as I wanted to experience the geek subculture of the district. However I was quite tired by this time and it has peaked in temperature to 30 degrees (in October!!!). We wandered through the electric town and it was fun to explore, but I would have liked a bit of help to know exactly where to go and what to see – my guide books didn’t quite have enough information.
We took it easy the last night and went out with the group locally for a last meal as some of the group were heading off on an earlier flight and other had an extra week to explore. As our flight was not until the evening we pretty much had a whole day to explore more. We went to the Marunouchi area to see the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station. We didn’t end up getting to see the gardens of the palace as there was an event on, but we had a wander around the outside and went to see the old bridge entrance.
We then headed back to Ikebukuro to explore the local area bit more before having to be back at the hotel to catch the airport bus. It’s a great and fun neighbourhood with lots of quirky aspects and some big shopping opportunities around the station. It is very worth finding a 100 yen store before you go as you can pick up fun small gifts such as origami paper.
I was also able to fulfil a big part of my kit kat mission by finding a chocolatory in the food hall of a big department store and came away with some posh versions of kit kats I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
We decided to fill the last few hours by going to Sunshine City just up the road from out hotel. It has loads of entertainment things and we went to the rooftop aquarium. It was fun, but at the same time I was concerned about the lack of space the animals had, so would not go back and wouldn’t really suggest visiting. It’s quite an eye opener to go somewhere like a place you would go as a kid and see it in completely different light. I did however find a Pokemon shop and again dragged my mum in to have a wander!
Top tips for Tokyo:
Know you will not fit everything in to your trip and pick the things you want to do first
It’s a huge city so be prepared for crowds – wait until after 9am to use the trains
Don’t be afraid to walk between areas as it means you find other things along the way
The next part of the trip was through the Japanese Alps and heading towards Tokyo. We started the day getting the train from Takayama and heading to Tsumago. Tsumago is a designated protected area preserving the traditional buildings by keeping out modern disruptions. We walked along the Nakasendo way, which is one of the five highways from the Edo period between Tokyo and Kyoto. We only experienced a small part of this path, but it was beautiful and peaceful. It’s full of trinket shops and we tried gohei mochi, which is rice ball cake covered in a peanut sauce. It was very nice and tasted like rice in a satay sauce.
Then we carried on to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is surrounded by the mountains of the Alps in a valley only 20km wide. It is a lovely city and is a favourite of tourists and residents. We got there in the evening and with only one night in the town we headed straight out to explore and find food. We went straight to see the Matsumoto-jo, which is Japan’s oldest wooden castle. It was a great chance to practice my night photography and as I had decided to carry my borrowed tripod on this overnight stay I improvised with a beanbag to take this beautiful image. Lit in green it stood out throughout the park that surrounds it.
We found some great food in a local favourite. Full of business people ending their day with freshly cooked food. It was very much tapas style where we order a section fo meat and vegetables and each came freshly prepared and cooked. We were sat at the bar area and the chef handed over our dishes on a long wooden paddle.
The next morning we headed back to the Matsumoto-jo to go inside and experience it fully. It was extremely busy even though it was off-season and first thing. I captured this great picture of a koi. They see you walking along by the shadows you cast over the water and must be so used to be being fed they come straight up expecting food.
Inside the castle is an experience. It is made up of multiple floors with varying degrees of stairs, which basically become ladders at the top. There are boards explaining the history of the castle and the samurai while you look through the small windows of each level. We queued round the whole castle, where you also have to take your shoes off and carry them round in a bag (great system!) , and finally you make it to the top for stunning views of the city. I would recommend a visit here as this was completely different from the temples and shrines we had seen.
As we wandered around Matsumoto we explored several little shopping streets and stumbled across an organic vegetarian market, where we bought this wonderful sushi for our lunch on the train. It was lovely to wander freely around the city after the rush of the castle.
Our next destination was Obuse which is famous for chestnuts and art history including woodblock printing artist Hokusai. It was extremely busy with Japanese Tourists and at this point my mum and I decided to avoid the crowds and find a little coffee shop to relax. I would have liked more time on the places at this point in the trip as it felt rushed as we were fitting in so much. I will definitely return to the Japanese Alps if I return to Japan.
We then headed on the train to Yudanaka for another night in a ryokan. This time it was a huge hotel version, which would be wonderful in the winter for skiing, but just felt a little wrong for the time of year. It has two large onsens which changed over at 10pm switching from male to female. This time the group decided to go altogether and there were may more locals there using the amenities. It is a very odd experience being fully naked with other people in a spa like setting, but then having the shower facilities around the edge. It’s a body positive experience (I see a separate post on this coming) as all the Japanese women had no issues with stripping down, at least it did not seem that way. However when a couple of younger ladies got in they were trying to be modest like ourselves. It’s definitely an experience!
The next day we headed to the Snow Monkey Park just outside Yudanaka. It is another experience that is hard to explain. The park has been there since 1964, but unlike the interpretation of natural onsen ponds, the area is man-made. Without any snow you can see all the thermal pipes and debris from the operations. Also the monkey’s stay for the food they are given, as in reality they would migrate away from the area when it snows. Apart from this the monkey’s were free to come and go and although we were warned they would try to take things we had no problem with any of them. I also managed to take some great photos I am really happy with.
We then headed on to Tokyo, but before we explored the city we made the most of the extra day on the rail pass and tried to see Mt Fuji by going on travel day to the area of Hakone. It is a full day of travel, all by different modes, but there is very little time to stop and appreciate the surroundings you find yourself in. Again if I came back to Japan I would spend more time in this area as it was so beautiful.
The day started with getting the Bullet train to Odwara, then catching a local train to Hakone-Yomoto. We then transferred to a switch back train to start the journey up the mountain to Gara. We then transferred to a funicular to got straight up the mountain to Souzan to catch a cable car. The cable car took us to the volcanic springs at Owakudoni. Here they have a speciality of cooking eggs in sulphur water so they turn black, you can then buy a bag of 5 to eat. We had one each and they were very nice. Being hard boiled they give you some salt to add and it’s a very nice protein snack surrounded by volcanic activity!
We then got back on the cable car and headed down to Togendai-ko. Here we got on a pirate ship (yes you read the correctly) to Hakon-Machi-ko.
We then stopped for lunch and walked through the cedar trees to Moto-Hakone-ko to get back on the pirate ship (correct again) to Togendai-ko. We then got on a bus to go walk through the silver grass. It was a beautiful, but cloudy day and we did not get to see Mt Fuji, apart from the glimpse I got on the train in the morning. We then got back on the bus to get back to where we can catch the bullet train back to Tokyo.
That night we stayed close to the hotel for dinner and found a wonderful basement restaurant and tried some new things such as dumplings and this wonderful mochi strawberry dessert. Desserts aren’t big in Japan and there were only 3 on offer in this restaurant and it was very good.
Next up the big bright lights of Tokyo!
Top Tips for Matsumoto, Yudonaka & Hakone:
Make the most of your time by having breakfasts and lunches on the train
Get to tourist attractions early to have minimal crowds
If you can have more time in places I would recommend it, but this trip lets you see everything
Don’t be afraid to go down or up to find good restaurants