Monday, November 5, 2012

Japan Part 3: Kyoto

Old Kyoto
Whew. I can't believe it took me this long to get this last Japan blog out there but well there you go. After 8 days in Japan, having explored Tokyo, Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama, we hopped on a bullet train for about 2 hours to get to our final destination - Kyoto.

Kyoto is known for it's rich history and cultural significance - plus the fact that it came out virtually unscathed from bombing in WWII means when you spend time in the older parts of Kyoto you really do see how it used to be. And that was a big appeal for coming here.

We found a lovely ryokan right in the heart of Old Kyoto and it was a perfect location get immersed in the rich history. Temples everywhere plus monuments, old streets, parks, wonderful food, and really just heaps of character everywhere. Sure, there is the "modern Kyoto" not far away with skyscrapers and blah buildings and traffic lights. That's to be expected. But the old part is pretty special.

We thought we had walked a crap load in Japan up until this point, be it on concrete or nature trail. But the walking we did in Kyoto blew that all away. There is so much to see that most often walking there was the most practical and interesting, even if it took 20 or 30 minutes just to go to a park or restaurant or temple. Add that up over a few days and one is glad to have good shoes.

While taking the speedy train to Kyoto we heard that a typhoon - actually a SUPER typhoon - was wreaking havoc in Okinawa (way way way south Japan) and was making its way toward mainland Japan. Uh oh. A hurricane was making its way toward us on what would be our first full day in Kyoto. Nertz. But as it turned out it was mostly nothing for us. The day pretty much went like this: cloudy but pleasant morning where we could still walk our butts off seeing things in Old Kyoto, rain showers after lunch, 2 or so hours of wind in mid afternoon (not terrible, but enough to not want to be in driving rain), winds and rain gone just after dinner time, lovely the next day.  Not too shabby!  We felt pretty fortunate about that.

Geisha sighting in Bamboo Grove
Kyoto is known for having more actual working geishas compared to other parts of Japan, especially in the Gion district - which we happened to be adjacent to. So it was pretty interesting to be walking along a street during the day or even at night to suddenly walk past a geisha in full dress and makeup. So lovely - and so unexpected!

And while we were outside the city exploring a lovely area which includes a pretty spectacular bamboo grove - a lovely walkway carved through a dense bamboo forest - we happened to see this one out having some photos taken. As you can imagine, I wasn't the only one who ran over fumbling around with my camera trying to get shots while it lasted without being TOO obvious and invading her space. Not an easy feat. :-)

Another highlight was visiting Nijo-jo castle in the heart of Kyoto. It's not only a big and impressive place, it has a feature Anne had read about in novels and other books that we were both really interested in seeing first hand - "nightingale floors". It's a pretty interesting concept that was invented centuries ago. When they built the wooden floors in the (wooden) castle, they designed them so that they would intentionally squeak when you walked on them. And not quite like how you'd think of a squeaky wooden floor - in fact more like a bird. A nightingale, to be specific. It has to do with the nails. The reason? So that if the enemy were to try and sneak in at night - for an assassination or attack or whatever - you could hear them coming. They couldn't walk inside without being heard. Pretty clever, huh? And sure enough when you walked around the castle all the floors made tiny little chirps with every step. Not terribly loud - but there. Clever.

One of the many lovely temples
Kyoto was a fascinating place. Full of history and culture yet modern. So very walkable yet subways and trains to get you around when walking wasn't practical. Of course, as we learned, being mindful of the teeny little "express" sign on the front of a train will help one avoid getting on and whizzing by your stop 5 minutes down the line and ending up 20 miles up in the mountains. Whoops!

It's hard for to pick a favorite place in Japan of all the places we went - but it would be a close race between Kyoto and Takayama/Japan Alps. It was an amazing trip altogether - much better than I even expected. The challenge is part of what made it fun - the language, food, and culture - but the amazing people, amazing sights, and of course my amazing travel companion - make it a trip to remember. Highly recommended!

We were fortunate to be able to fly home on Air New Zealand from Osaka-Kansai airport (an hour away by train) rather than having to go all the way back to Tokyo. And then finding out we got a complimentary upgrade to business class for the 11 hour overnight return flight made for the perfect ending to the trip. Me likey.

Click here to see more Kyoto photos!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Japan Part 2: The Japan Alps

After 3 exciting days in Tokyo it was time to head into the central mountains of Japan - the Japan Alps - via 2.5 hours in trains including a speedy bullet train to Nagano. Our first destination of three for this area was Matsumoto, a small and charming city with an old castle as a highlight.

Matsumoto castle (featured heavily in the photos link at the end) is Japan's oldest wooden castle having been built in the 16th century. Quite a feat not to have burned down in all that time! It comes complete with moat and is quite beautiful. For a bit of fun there was even a guy dressed in actual samurai armor. Hokey? Nah, pretty cool actually.

You are able to walk around inside the castle including going all the way up to the top level of the tower - very interesting indeed. And as with most historical places in Japan you can't wear your shoes inside while walking around. So you remove your shoes at the door, slip them in a bag to carry around with you, or leave them in a cubby. Sure they provide one-size-fits-all slippers to wear instead - but as you can imagine my feet came nowhere close to fitting in them. Quite comical, really. So if possible I just walked around in socks. :-)

The jovial samurai?
A highlight of our two nights in Matsumoto was using the free bicycles our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) had for use. We rode all over this very bike-friendly town and it was a handy way to get to and from the ryokan since it wasn't right in the town center. We were skeptical about it at first but it turned out to be really fun and an unexpected delight!

While in Japan we wanted to be sure to have a little bit of time out in a remote, beautiful area so we chose Kamikochi, a national park "village", but not really a village, about an hour and half by train and bus. Just a few places to stay and eat. Our "onsen hotel" (with traditional Japanese baths) was right on a river surrounded by mountains and was a lovely place to stay. And it's not often that one can be in a place with both black bears and monkeys, but this is such a place! Very strange. We did see some monkeys - so close in that one walked right by me on a trail - but thankfully no bears.

We had such a nice time walking the trails and enjoying the wonderful, warm weather. There is no shortage of other visitors here - almost all Japanese - so at times it can feel a bit crowded. But it doesn't take much to get on a trail with no one else around. Not surprisingly, that is where we saw the monkeys. And everyone you pass on the trail offered a cheerful "konichiwa!" or "ohayo gozaimas!" (good morning). So friendly.  And since no cars are allowed in this area (you can only get here by bus) it makes it a very enjoyable place to be.

One side effect of seeing a country by train (and the occasional bus) is hauling one's luggage on and off the trains and to/from the train station on foot. Yes they have taxis shut up. Wheeling a suitcase for several blocks in Tokyo? Not too troublesome actually. Finding nooks and crannies on the train cars to stick the suitcases? Sometime tricky. (It sure seemed like we were the only ones with bags bigger than carry ons!) But the most unusual was toting our bags a half a mile through the forest on walking trails to get to our Kamikochi hotel from the bus stop. Can't say as I've done that before...

After our one night in the wilderness we hopped back on a bus for an hour and a half ride to Takayama, another charming little city in the mountains. Our first night we stayed at the most wonderful little ryokan that was impossibly charming and wonderfully traditional. It felt like stepping back in time. And the host was a very funny and delightful older woman who spoke a little bit of English and made sure we really enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner she served us in our little room - complete with tatami mats (socks only!), low table, antiques abounding, and a futon she rolled out on the floor after dinner to sleep on.

Takayama is full of lovely street markets, lovely shrines and temples, and traditional Japanese architecture. It's easily navigated on foot and there is no shortage of places to see and things to do. Very photogenic, and very Japanese. And no shortage of funny little things like this oddly worded hat and the sugary vitamin water bottle with "Let's Vitamin!" on it.  I laugh.

We wanted to stay in that perfect little ryokan for our second night in Takayama but...they were already full. So we found another one that, while also really lovely and traditional, suffered only from following our first one so it just wasn't quite as awesome. But the food was good (as always) and they were so very, very nice. Even gave us a ride to the train station when we were ready to go to Kyoto!

These five days in the mountains, whether actually in the mountains or in the charming cities surrounded by mountains, was a highlight for me. Spectacular, perfect-as-can-be weather helped I'm sure, but I really loved the places we stayed, the beauty of the mountains, and the people we encountered. Lots to do yet easy going and relaxed pace. Just lovely.

The place we went next - the last three days of our trip - was Kyoto. And that will be the topic of my next blog entry. Just as soon as I get those photos done. :-)

In the mean time, click here to see some more photos from Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Takayama.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Japan Part 1: Tokyo

Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo
After returning from our 11 day adventure to Japan I thought it would be best to blog about it in three parts - one for each of the main areas we visited.  Since our first three days were in Tokyo, that seems like a good place to start.

We arrived in Tokyo full of eager anticipation yet also with a bit of trepidation. Although we've been to places where English wasn't the primary language, most of the time the locals did speak English so it was never a hardship. This would be different, though, since only a small number of Japanese speak English and even more so the fact that the writing, unlike say Spanish or French, is completely unintelligible to the likes of us.

So we did our best to learn a number of Japanese words and phrases to help us get by.  And wow was that ever a good thing. Not only do they appreciate the effort of saying "thank you", "hello", "excuse me", "good morning", and even "do you speak English?" in their own language but I really think it helps establish an instant rapport. We found every single Japanese person we encountered to be friendly, kind, and helpful - even if we could barely communicate.  So great!

Tokyo is massive in every sense of the word. Huge in size and huge in population - the biggest city in the world with 35 million people. Wow! So would walking around Tokyo be like the "Girl in the Red Dress" scene from The Matrix? Shoulder to shoulder masses of people everywhere?  Well no.  But sometimes yes. :-)

It's not hard to find areas with the quintessential neon, skyscrapers, packed subways, and masses of people that visions of Tokyo conjure up.  And we immersed ourselves in some of that. Could hardly say you've visited Tokyo without doing that! But it's also quite easy - QUITE easy - to find parks and temples and small quaint streets with just a handful of people around. At no time did the city feel overcrowded to me. Very unexpected! And quite lovely.

Of course another fun aspect of Japan is the part of the pop culture very different from ours (and often quite kooky) and how it manifests itself in everyday things. And of course the often comical translations into English for many things including products and slogans.

So many things are just so happy and jovial like this sign for an electronics store. Or the little sing-song electronic melodies that play when your train is about to depart.

And then there is my favorite name for an ice cream bar ever (and corresponding candy bar) - Crunky. I can hardly stop saying it out loud. So for things that were written in English it was always fun to see how the translation manifested itself or the names they came up with.

The subways and trains in Tokyo are remarkably efficient and always on time (would you expect any less?) and because the signage is always in both Japanese and English it meant getting around the city was a snap. Well OK it really helped having a pocket map, but still - it sure made getting around one less thing to worry about.

One often difficult thing was finding a restaurant listed in a guidebook. Sure, there are 160,000 restaurants in Tokyo (!) so finding one isn't ever going to be hard. With Anne's gluten-free needs, though, there were times we wanted to seek out a particular place because perhaps they had gluten free soba noodles or something and were highly regarded. Since Japanese addresses are very different from ours it's hard enough finding a place - but then factor in that if a building is kind enough to put the address up well it's written in Japanese of course so no help there.

The guidebook would tell you the English name of the restaurant, the description, and a dot on a crude map. So off we go, we manage to find the street and general location, and of course every single sign for every single business is guessed it...Japanese.  Ugh.  So the best we could hope for was someone coming out of where we thought it might be and asking in very rudimentary Japanese if this was so-and-so. And did actually work! Or one time there were so many other restaurants around that we threw up our hands and said, "Let's just choose this one." And then after being seated we saw in tiny print their website URL and lo and behold it was the one were actually looking for! Nice.

Tokyo is known for being expensive - and it certainly can be. Hotels especially. But it's actually not too hard to find very reasonable yet lovely places to eat. Or to find things to do/places to visit that cost very little.  So that was really nice.

The marvellous differences in age and feel in different parts of city was fascinating. Our hotel, for example, was in a very modern area with a very sort of "futuristic" vibe - levels upon levels of walkways, trains, and roads. Then walk for 5 minutes and you feel you are back in time with charming streets, lanterns, and cafes. Pretty cool.

How was it being so exceedingly tall in a land of generally short people? Not too different, really. Ducking wasn't needed all that often. I fit (barely) into the subway cars. I got some looks but you know, there are plenty of taller Japanese people, too. None as tall as me, but then that usually seems to be the case. So it didn't really feel all that odd or different. Or maybe everyone was taking surreptitious photos of the "freaky Caucasian". Hard to tell.

The weather as a whole for our entire trip was AMAZINGLY good. Just wonderful, warm, pleasant sunny summer days with highs around 80F/27C most days. However there were 2 days where we got wet (both were Sundays oddly enough) including one day in Tokyo. It literally rained all day but we made the best of it for as long as we could. We still saw a lot but by 2pm we were soaked through and had enough. That's OK - the next day was idyllic and it was a good excuse to visit a Japanese version of an English pub and have a nap.

Tokyo gave us a great introduction to Japan and I enjoyed it quite a lot - certainly more than I might have thought. And there was much more to come. Next up would be three different locales in and amongst the Japan Alps, about 2.5 hours by train west of Tokyo. Small charming cities and no-cities-around mountain immersion. More on that in part 2.

In the mean time, you can see more photos of Tokyo here.

And here is a short clip highlighting Shibuya - an area that does in fact have LOTS of people, all the time. Plus a little bit of Tokyo Dome and neighboring middle-of-the-city roller coaster. Very Japanese. :-)


Monday, September 17, 2012

The Mighty All Blacks

The All Blacks at Eden Park
The Rugby World Cup last year made us fall in love with rugby, and most especially the All Blacks - easily the greatest rugby club in history.

So this year it made sense that we should try and go see a match live and in person in Auckland.  They play their home games throughout the country and so there was really one chance to see them here in Auckland during their "season".

So I got us some tickets when they went on sale and a couple of weeks ago we got to see our boys in person - and playing arch-rival Australia no less!

Although there are hardly any bad seats at Eden Park, we probably had some of the ones farthest away up in the top corner.  So although that made it hard to hear the hits and grunts and yelling going on down on the field, it was still a pretty amazing experience to see them - and the pre-game haka - live.  They are SO GOOD!

As stated by the reporters the next day, there was probably not a team in the world that could have beaten New Zealand that day - they won quite convincingly 22-0.  Very satisfying.  Of course the Wallabies haven't beaten the All Blacks at Eden Park since we're glad that streak didn't end with us in attendance.

So although watching the mighty All Blacks on TV is probably the best way to go (we never miss a match) it was great to take part in the very Kiwi experience of seeing the All Blacks in the home park.  Sweet as.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Vanuatu and the Volcano

We've recently returned from our first South Pacific island getaway - 6 days in Vanuatu. Since most people not from this side of the world haven't heard of Vanuatu, it's an island nation consisting of 83 islands in the neighborhood of Fiji and an easy 3 hour flight from Auckland. One of the common "beach holiday" destinations for Kiwis and Aussies.

Of course there was the tropical loveliness and sunshine and all that but it is still south of the equator and therefore still winter.  So it wasn't ever HOT - highs in the mid-upper 70s(F) - but a couple of days and nights it was downright COLD.  OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration seeing how "cold" = 65F but when you're in an open-air bungalow with one blanket it's shiver-time.  Hotter would have been better, but man was it nice to feel warm in the sun coming from winter-time cool wet days in NZ!

The highlight, far and away, was our volcano visit.  After arriving in Vanuatu we took an island hopper over to Tanna, a remote island of Vanuatu, to spend 3 days.  There is almost nothing there except for the indigenous people living a very simple life and a handful of tourists and lodges.  Just forest, mountains, and an active volcano. And active it is!

We knew to expect something special, but we had no idea it was going to be quite so amazing.  Yes, it active every day and ash billows out in big plumes.  We knew that, and knew that you can get a guide to drive you in a 4x4 (absolutely essential - the "roads"are not passable without one) all the way up to the rim to look down into the caldera.  And if the wind was a certain direction you can and will get covered in it.  Yuck.

Mt Yasur from a distance
Coming over the mountain after an hour of bouncing and swaying in the 4x4 we saw the ash-spewing volcano from a distance - and were pretty amazed to see just how active it was.

Driving further to the base of the volcano we could drive 50mph over the flat ash plain.  Rocks and boulders littered the area, giving a hint as to what this thing can do.

Then it was up to the top where we joined a handful of others looking down into the volcano at dusk.  It was pretty amazing to see this and be so close.  The whole effort of coming to Tanna and driving on those god-forsaken roads would have been totally worth it as this point.

Then the thing exploded.

Explosion time
The ground shakes beneath your feet, the shock wave hits with a deep, deep boom any subwoofer owner would be jealous of, and an explosion of glowing, tumbling chair and sofa sized rocks blasts into the sky above you, seemingly in slow motion.  Oh. My. God.  Awesome!!

(And we were upwind, so no ash-covered Americans here!)

And it kept doing this, maybe once every 5 - 10 minutes, sometimes one right after the other.  And it does this every day!  Which is why people come here - to witness an exploding volcano close-up yet know it will (probably) be safe.  After we were there for a while and it was dark, the thing had such a big explosion that the flying, glowing magma came a little to close to where we were.  So even the seasoned guides accompanying everyone said, "It's time to go now!"  Well I wanted to stay but Anne insisted otherwise. :-)

So really, this should be on more people's bucket list.  It not only was an amazing experience of the trip, it ranks as one of the most amazing experiences of our lives.

Here is a YouTube video with a more complete set of photos plus some video clips courtesy of my iPhone.  Note that the first video clip ends right as the first explosion happened - I wasn't expecting it AT ALL and was just turing it off when it happened.  I started it up again and missed the best part - although capturing Anne's reaction was pretty good.

Volcano Video

And click here for a collection of photos from the trip. (Tip: click or tap the photo to show/hide the captions and next/prev controls)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Star Struck on Jervois Road

He really needs a coffee.
Guess who just saw Eomer (Karl Urban) getting a coffee in Herne Bay?  Yep!  I was waiting for my trim flat white, one sugar, when this scruffy looking guy comes in.  The woman behind the counter says, "Your usual, Karl" and I realized I recognized this guy in baseball cap and flannel shirt.  Maybe I'm going overboard, but this is the first time I've ever stood right next to a movie star.  And no, I played it too cool to get his autograph.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Moving House - Take 2

All good things come to and end, and our time in our "apartment by the sea" is at an end I'm afraid. We've struggled with the noise from the elephants (evil neighbors) in the apartment above us for a very long time and finally decided it was time to move.  Yeah, it's pretty hard walking away from this:
But we found an adorable little house to rent not far away (because we really love this neighborhood).  They call them 'villas' here - older (early 20th century) houses with lots of character and details like gingerbreading on the exterior and lovely woodwork on the inside.  Here's what it looks like from the outside:

Sure there are things not as nice as the old place but there are many things better, too.  The biggest of all, of course, being that it's magnificently quiet.  We moved in on the 6th of July and have HEAPS of things to do and unpack still but it's kind of fun, too.  And being just steps away from an amazing number of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops is sweet as.

It is by FAR the oldest house I've ever lived in and it will be a great experience.  I do already miss seeing the ocean everyday but I know, poor me, I only need to take a walk or short drive and there it will be again.  Still pretty cool, really.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Some New Zealand Golf Magic

Cape Kidnappers Golf Course
Last week my friend Mike from Minnesota came to the shores of New Zealand for the first time in almost 17 years for the purpose of spending a week with me playing some of New Zealand's - and the world's for that matter - best golf courses.

It was a bit of a risk attempting this in May as we're well into autumn and you just don't know if you'll get sunny and mild or cool and rainy. And since we'd mostly be playing seaside courses, the wind would be a big variable, too.

Our first two days were spent in Hawke's Bay playing the should-be-a-household-name Cape Kidnappers Golf Course. This amazing track is situated high on the cliffs above the ocean and makes you wonder how somebody had the idea to build something as crazy as a golf course here. "Dramatic" is the understatement of the century here.  From hole to hole the word "wow" came from my lips countless times. It's really quite breathtaking!

The Head Professional at Cape Kidnappers, Jon McCord, just moved out here last November from Minnesota and gave us quite possibly one of the best weather days of the year there.  Sunny skies, mild temps, and calm winds gave us an unbeatable introduction to this World's Top 100 course. Jon's welcoming and genuine demeanor made our time there just that much better. He's pretty great.

With our first day of golf a roaring success we figured we had to play it again the next day, and it wouldn't matter if the weather turned for the worse because we played it at its best.  Well, somehow the next day got even a little nicer and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to experience the course again. It makes the memory of the holes stick that much more which is great.  I just can't say enough good things about this place.

The next course on the list was Kauri Cliffs, a sister course to Cape Kidnappers and situated way up towards the top end of the North Island - so that meant some driving was on deck.  First it was an evening 5.5 hour drive in some rain from Napier to Auckland to spend the night at our place. Then it was up early the next day to make the 3.5 hour drive to Kauri Cliffs.  Yep, we're committed!

The drive up started out rainy and cloudy but by the time we arrived at the course it was warm, sunny, and calm yet again!  We have a gift, I guess.  And what's more we were literally the only two golfers on the course the whole day.  So it's a little embarrassing to say to say we took almost 5 hours BUT that was because we had our cameras and couldn't stop taking photos. :-)

Kauri Cliffs has just nearly as much drama and wow factor as Cape Kidnappers but a very different look stretched out over the immense green hills high above the sea. It's more of an "island course" feel I guess and it's hard to call it more or less beautiful that Cape Kidnappers. Just amazing, really!

The next day was a "rest" day to enjoy some sights around the Bay of Islands and the giant kauri trees along the west coast of the North Island.  Good fun.  And our last bit of golf was back in Auckland at the Alister MacKenzie designed Titirangi.  Much more of a "traditional" course and quite lovely set right in the middle of the city yet you feel like you're out in the country.  I can now see and appreciate the reason MacKenzie - the designer of Augusta National and many others - is so well thought of. And the weather? Once again nearly perfect.

Mike and I had an amazing week of golf that pretty much ranks up there as a "golf trip of a lifetime". Not to mention getting to sample lots of Kiwi cuisine, pubs, and scenery.  Sure glad Mike decided to cross the Pacific to make it happen!

Click here for some photos of our week.  Don't worry, they're not ALL golf holes. :-)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Janie & Steve's New Zealand Visit

Relaxing in Auckland
Janie and Steve - the intrepid aunt and uncle duo - came to visit us and a lot of New Zealand in April.  Their whirlwind 3 week tour took them across both the North and South Islands and we were able to join up with them for part of it.

We first met up with them in Wellington after they had driven all over the North Island. We all then took the Interislander ferry to Picton on the South Island.  Their lovely traveling companions Rick and Carol from Georgia were along, too.

We had a wonderful time around the Marlborough Sounds, Kaikoura, and Marlborough wine country before continuing on to other parts of the South Island with them including the Abel Tasman National Park area, Buller Gorge, and the Panacake Rocks in Paparoa National Park.  We saw so many beautiful things and the weather was all around fantastic save one rainy driving day.  So that was sweet as.

Other highlights were a personal tour and tasting at Isabel Estate winery, seeing fur seals up close on a rocky beach outside of Kaikoura, a boat ride along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, and lots of gorgeous drives.

The Fearsome Foursome continued on down the South Island from there without us for the next week but we got to spend a couple of days in Auckland with them before they left for home.  It was great to have them see where we live and show them around a bit.  And the lovely mornings at our place were well spent sitting on the terrace overlooking the water.

We loved that they came to see us and New Zealand and we were so pleased that all of them - Janie, Steve, Rick, and Carol - all seemed quite smitten with this lovely country.  They got a great dose of pleasant weather, tasty food, and endless miles of beauty!

I'm trying out a new web gallery to display photos so that they can be viewed on mobile devices like iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.  (And of course it still works just fine on regular computers.)  It's maybe not quite as pretty but it works so I'll give it a shot.  The key tip is to tap or click the photo to get the controls and title to appear.  For mobile devices you can just swipe between photos. Let me know if it sucks. :-)

Click here to see some more photos from our time together.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Recap - Mike's Visit

OK, I don't know why it took me so long to get through all the photos and put up a blog entry. Just did.

Anne's dad Mike was here in New Zealand for just over a week in March.  We spent a couple of days in Auckland but then ventured to the South Island to immerse him amongst mountains and lakes.

We were treated to some outstanding weather which was great, and we had such a good time exploring, hiking, eating, stargazing, and well just admiring the scenery.

New Zealand, of course, is such a beautiful place but going to the South Island takes it up a notch.  We spent some time around Queenstown including a scenic flight over the mountains to Milford Sound followed by a boat ride on the sound. We hiked in Aspiring National Park near Wanaka.  And we hiked and explored Mt Cook National Park with it's tall snowy mountains plus glaciers and lakes.  Pretty fantastic.  And of course there was the previously blogged about night at the observatory.

We were so glad to show Mike around and have him see a bit of where we live.  We didn't get him paragliding, though.  That'll be next time...

Click here for some tasty photos.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Astronomy Domine

The Southern Lights (not taken by me)
First of all, kudos to anyone who gets the Pink Floyd reference of the title. :-)

OK, so while Mike was in New Zealand a big goal of his was to see the southern sky at night. As an active astronomy enthusiast, there were all kinds of stars and constellations only visible in the southern hemisphere he was eager to see.  And although I have seen the brilliant sky at night, I was very excited to learn more as well.

We had some stellar nights (no pun intended) for viewing later in the trip with no clouds and no moon. In Queenstown after realizing it was too bright in town we drove out just a ways, got out of the car, and WOW.  The number of stars you can see is almost incomprehensible.  And the Milky Way band across the sky. WOW.

Mike pointed out the various stars and constellations - and noted that Orion was "upside down".  And there were the two Clouds of Magellan - and they do look like glowing clouds about the size the moon would be - except that they are entire galaxies beyond our own.  We did this a couple of different nights - with binoculars even to really see some detail - and each time it seemed I could just stand there and stare up for hours.  It's just fantastic.

But the highlight came on our last night, when we had arranged to be part of an organized excursion to go up to an observatory near Lake Tekapo where a university has many telescopes in one of the darkest places you can find.  And the clear, moonless skies were present again which I was SO happy about!

Since there are active astronomers working at the observatory they are very strict about any extraneous white light.  So part way up the mountain the bus driver turned OFF his headlights and navigated solely by his amber parking lights.  A bit scary weaving up that road? Oh yes.  And once at the top no phones or flashlights or anything that emitted white light were allowed.  The amazing thing is that even with absolutely no light around the light from the stars was actually enough to (carefully) make your way around.  You could see the ground and silhouettes of the other people, but not faces.  Pretty cool.  So while could listen to our guides, we never saw what they looked like.

The green laser pointers (not taken by me)
Then came the fun part of the guides pointing out things in the sky with green laser pointers which is very effective.  You could swear the laser beam goes all the way to the star in question.  And right as the guide was pointing out a "blank" area next to the Southern Cross, a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky next to his pointer.  WOW.

Then came looking through two different telescopes (one free standing and one in a rotating dome), each pointed at something else, and for the rest of the tour they moved the telescopes from one point of interest to another and everyone got a chance to see.  WOW.

You look at Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky, and see that it is two stars - a binary star!  You look at Omega Centauri, a quite dim star in the sky but then through the telescope you see it is actually a globular cluster containing 4 million stars.  Then there was Saturn (rings and all), the Tarantula Nebula, the Jewel Box, and a few others.  WOW.

I never thought it would have made sense to bring my DSLR camera to such a thing, but it turns out I should have.  They had an astrophotographer present who could setup your camera for a nice long exposure of the Southern Lights.  Oh yes.  Due to the recent solar flare activity the Southern Lights were somewhat visible.  It wasn't terribly colorful until you did a long exposure of it - like you see in the first photo.  Still pretty cool!

So as you can tell I am pretty blown away by the wonders of the sky and how beautiful and mesmerizing it is.  And I was so glad to have Mike share his knowledge with us and to get to look at things up close and personal at the observatory.  WOW.

Stargazing group (not taken by me)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Queenstown Paragliding

Jeff and Kiwi pilot Brady

While in Queenstown with Anne's dad last week we  both decided it was the perfect time and place to finally try paragliding.

Being the "Adventure Capital of the World" there was no shortage of companies willing to help you fling yourself off a bridge, jet down a river, swing across a canyon, jump out of a plane, or pretty much anything else you can think of. But paragliding seemed like a good blend of thrills and sanity.

We couldn't convince Mike to give a whirl, but we both were ear-to-ear grins the whole time! Take off was as easy as walking briskly for a few steps at the top of the mountain above Queenstown.  With no effort the sail filled with air and boom you're floating over the trees.

Anne and her French pilot

From there it was about 10 minutes of gliding through the air with only the sound of the air breezing past you.  You're strapped to the pilot and get a little "seat" to make it very comfortable. Anne requested a "calm" ride but I got to have my pilot do some tight spins and turns pulling a few g's in the process.  Oh yes I like that!

The landing site was an open playing field right in the middle of town and touchdown was smooth and easy.  I landed first and got to see & record Anne's landing. Our pilots were exceptional and took photos and video on the way down.  Facebook followers will have seen this already, but here's a silly little video I put together using iMovie and the video from the adventure. We both highly recommend paragliding to EVERYONE!


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Case of the Missing 'T'

You learn a lot about the way you talk, as it turns out, when surrounded by people who sound different than you.  Quite a revelation, I know.  Of course it's easy to hear the differences in other accents - but after a while it makes you see how the way you've said words your entire life suddenly seem odd.

Case in point is how we Americans drop the hard 't' sounds in the middle of words.  The word 'mountain', for example, is said 'moun-n' by pretty much everyone. The 't' just up and disappears, doesn't it?  Same for 'gluten' and 'Martin'.  You get the idea.

Even words like 'printer' end up as 'prinner' or sometimes the 't' sound ends up as a 'd' like how 'monitor' turns into 'monider'.

Of course Kiwis (and Brits and Aussies and lots more) actually say the 't' sounds so 'mountain' actually sounds like 'moun-ten'.  Neither way is necessarily right or wrong, really - just different.

So what I've realized is that I seem to be deliberately changing my speech for the first time. It largely comes from making it easier for others to understand me, but it also seems to me like the way these words ought to sound.

Or who knows - maybe I'm just smih-n with the Kiwi accent.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Auckland Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival
A couple of weeks ago Auckland held it's annual Chinese Lantern Festival just across the road from the University Library where Anne works.

Having just returned from Hong Kong and not going last year we decided to give it a go to check out the lanterns and food.

What I didn't expect was the sea of people! We were there on the first of three nights - a Friday - and I guess I'd have to say it felt like a Chinese market!  Wall to wall people getting food and enjoying the festivities in Albert Park. Actually I think it added to the atmosphere.

In addition to the lanterns all over the park there were performances and buskers and yes, dragons everywhere.  We even saw the Prime Minister of New Zealand speak for a bit on the big stage.

So while it seemed like forever for it to get dark to really enjoy the lanterns it was fun to see and experience.  The dumplings and pork buns weren't as good as in Hong Kong, but that's OK. The mini-donuts were awesome. :-)

Click here for a few more photos.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bay of Plenty - Belated

Anne taking in the view from "The Mount"
Yeah so I never seemed to have blogged about this back in yeah. Whoops!

Over what was Thanksgiving weekend in The States (giving me an extra day off) we decided to do a Saturday-Sunday overnighter to the Bay of Plenty region - specifically Tauranga and Mount Maunganui.  They're about a 2.5 hour drive from Auckland and a popular "beach holiday" destination for Aucklanders.

We had never been to this area before but we got a lovely dose of it with a winery visit (Mills Reef), exploring Tauranga and the waterfront, and a day at "The Mount", i.e. Mount Maunganui. It's just next door to Tauranga but it's a step through another door to a laid-back beach town with a little mountain at the end (The Mount) to walk up and explore.

We were treated to a perfect day of sunny, warm weather for our day at The Mount.  The beach was hopping with boogie board relays and people soaking up the sun.  We were unsure of how many people would be around because back in October a container ship ran aground on a reef a few miles out from the beach. Oil from the ship leaked and found its way to shore making a big mess and oiling up some cute little penguins and other sea birds. No one likes oily penguins!

But wow they did an amazing job cleaning it up and there was absolutely no trace of any foreign substances anywhere.  It was a pristine white sand beach just like it's always been - we were so pleased! One of the reasons we chose to go there at that particular time was to help support the local community and economy in case the ship was scaring others away. But I'm happy to say it's flourishing. The ship is still out there, now having broken in two, and they're still trying to recover the shipping containers on it.

Tauranga has a nice little downtown area on the waterfront with lots of restaurants and bars - and that's where we stayed so it was fun to see that.  But next time we go we'll definitely stay in Mt. Maunganui and it's tidy little beach community with an endless stretch of beach as far as the eye can see.

Click here for a few more photos, pretty much all from the day on The Mount.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weekend in Taranaki

Mt Taranaki volcano
Last weekend was a three-day holiday weekend (Waitangi Day) so we took advantage of it by driving to a new part of New Zealand for us - Taranaki. The peninsula juts out from the southwest part of the North Island and it's main feature is a single, 8,000ft/2,500m cone shaped volcano right in the middle of it - Mt Taranaki. It's about 4.5 hours away.

The goal was some good food, good relaxation, and some hiking in Egmont National Park where the volcano is.  We stayed in a cottage just outside of New Plymouth which overlooked the Tasman Sea - quite lovely!

The downer of the weekend was the weather with gloomy clouds, occasional rain, and cooler temps.  Not very summery!  In fact, the clouds completely obscured the volcano - a dominant feature on the landscape no matter where you are - until the very last day we were there.  But at least we saw a bit of it and we were able to get in some hiking that WASN'T completely in the clouds in order to take in some views of it.

Even if we were up to the task of hiking to the summit (an 8 hour round trip lung-draining adventure) it would have had to have been on our second day there when the mountain was hiding from the world. So it would have been futile. Luckily we had more sense that day and stuck to forest hikes at the base of the mountain.  Still in the clouds, but under cover of the forest so not a problem.

On the way to Taranaki we stopped for a bit at a native bird sanctuary and got to see some kiwi birds - albiet in an indoor/dark environment where they are led to believe it's nighttime (they're nocturnal) and forage for food in their pretend forest. Such funny little creatures! It's rare - very rare - too see them in the wild not only because there aren't a lot of them but because they mainly come out at night. So seeing them in a sanctuary is the next best thing!

Click here for a few Taranaki photos.

P.S.  The entire week after we returned we were treated to some absolutely beautiful and absolutely perfect summer weather so I don't feel bad anymore for our Taranaki clouds and rain. :-)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Jeff in Hong Kong

Last week I joined my friend Ryan for 5 days in Hong Kong.  He went to Shanghai and Hong Kong for an MBA class so meeting him near the end of his Hong Kong leg was a great excuse to see a new part of the world.

In short, Hong Kong pretty much blew me away.  Looking along the harbour at the massive skyline representing the pinnacle of capitalism and commercialism is a sight to behold.  Photos just don't do it justice - it goes on forever!  Throw in the fact that we were there over Chinese New Year and well it was just over the top.

Staying part of the time in Kowloon (peninsula side) and part of the time on Hong Kong Island was a great way to go.  The working class area of Mongkok and it's street markets made for some interesting sights.  The commercial side over on Hong Kong Island along with its VERY interesting neighborhoods and streets and food and well everything is an interesting contrast.

There are a LOT of people, but other than elbowing my way through the crowded street markets I never felt like the city was overcrowded.  But wow there are just so many high rise apartments!  They go on forever.  It's quite clean and the food is very good.  I still suck using chopsticks and I'm sure the locals enjoyed watching me flip a dumpling or two.

We had a great time exploring the city by day and night.  At night the lights of the city are amazing.  The line of skyscrapers on each side of the harbour are dazzling - even more so for Chinese New Year - and they have a laser light show with all the main buildings EVERY NIGHT OF THE YEAR.  Yikes.

It's winter there which means most days are cloudy/hazy and although the temps stay pretty mild it was a wee bit chilly for the last couple of days there.  The clouds/fog/smog/rain diminished some of the views but oh well.  I was still blown away.

I've posted some photos here - enjoy!