After checking in at our Sapporo hotel (Gracery, across the street from the station) we visited the huge food market adjacent to (or in?) the train station before hopping a few subway trains across town to find the famous Genghis Kahn BBQ restaurant for Jingisukan.
After failing to find any documentation in English of what we might have done wrong with the thermostat we called the front desk. A man came up with a fan and explained that today the AC units only offered heat. This made little sense since today was hotter outside (sunny and nice) than yesterday (cold and raining), but there you go. He said the entire building had been switched from cooling to heating. So, because the window in our room didn’t open (and in a country with higher suicide rates than most, I don’t blame them), we set up the fan and blew air from the hallway into our room for an hour, which earned us some strange looks from other guests.
After breakfast at the train station we went to Hokkaido University to see the avenue of ginkgo trees which were changing color.
We also visited a little pond on campus.
Across from the pond, I found an iced black coffee that remains the best I’ve ever tasted, but also the most mysterious. The only Germanic alphabetic characters on the bottle said “black” and “Grandia.” I found the convenience store brand online and a page that describes its coffee. There’s a photo of a smaller can version of what I bought, but google searches for “Grandia” as a brand come up empty, so the manufacturer must be written in kanji and the translations of the store’s web page offer no help. A little bit of internet sleuthing, including what appears to be a drawing of a translated version of the can, shows that Seicomart, which is a sub-brand of the larger Japanese company Secoma, makes their own coffee (I think). Whatever. I lost you three sentences ago, didn’t I?
Our next stop was at the Sapporo brewery for a tour and a pint of beer made and only sold in Sapporo.
After the brewery we took a train to…a mall somewhere to eat dinner. Then walked about a mile to the Japanese version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Shiroi Koibito Park.
After that, the party split and Sam and I took the subway to the TV tower.
We ran into Sam’s sister and brother-in-law at the Gucci store nearby, which was sort of Sapporo’s version of Rodeo Drive. Sam claimed that the Don Quijote store there had a good selection of watches. I didn’t believe her.
To my surprise, we found an interesting selection of Seiko and citizen watch models not available in America. So interesting that I bought one: the Seiko Tokyo Toro Wired model 420. I only got that one because the somewhat cooler (more expensive) ones weren’t available at the shop. The model 420 was only (approximately) $160. And it was a good thing I picked it up, too, because after we came back when I pulled the crown on my citizen to change the time it came all the way out! So my citizen eco drive will be set to Tokyo local time forever.
On the last full day in Japan The Fam walked to the Nijo fish market for sashimi breakfast.
For me, it was one last chance to pile on the delicious fresh caught salmon, which, surprisingly, became my favorite thing about the trip.
After breakfast, we took The Fam to Don Quijote for souvenirs. After sitting around the mall for a while we went to Suage+ for curry. The hole in the wall place had a squid ink curry with boiled fatty pork that was surprisingly good (the pork part).
Our next stop was the dollar store, Diaso, at the subway station for more souvenirs before going back to the hotel as a group to say last goodbyes because everyone else had early morning flights on Monday.
Sam and I went to the mall under our hotel and had gelato ( black sesame and Hokkaido berries), and yakatori while finding ways to spend the last of our yen and leftover Pasmo balances.
Another few trains and a bus ride later we arrived in Noboribetsu, also known as “Demon City,” which welcomes you with a big angry club-wielding demon at the train station.
On the bus ride to the hotel we went past a giant blue demon, like Paul Bunyan’s evil brother at a Duke game. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of that, but he appeared again later in the forest (albeit smaller).
Why all this devil worship? Noboribetsu’s claim to fame is the natural sulfur hot springs that bubble up out of the mountain. Over time, the Japanese assigned what I guess you’d call mascots to the phenomenon (they tend to do that with everything, but usually are cute, not demonic) and demons were an obvious choice, especially since the valley between the mountains became known as Hell Valley due to the sulfur.
We checked into the hotel and hiked to Hell Valley.
We walked to the top of the hiking trail and The Fam, eager to disrobe in front of each other, decided to go back to the hotel to check out the onsen. Sam and I continued on through the forest and discovered a natural onsen at the foot of a small waterfall in the valley.
We took our shoes off and walked into the hot (but not too-hot) spring. The rocks under the water were fine-grained volcanic leftovers. At least I think. They were black and cleaved into tiny spheres. After relaxing there for a while we walked back down the mountain road among the fall foliage to the hotel.
On the road we passed another statue of the blue demon, this time with child (and much smaller than the other statue).
Back at the hotel we had time to kill before our pre-purchased buffet dinner so we visited the onsens (separate for men and women) at the hotel. Yes, that onsen, where you have to get naked.
Turns out, though, that the locals (or, as some claim, the experienced Chinese tourists) bring down the face towels from their room and use those to cover certain areas while walking around. Having no idea this was the custom, I followed the directions the hotel gave us and left all my worldly possessions in the locker room…including breaking Douglas Adams’ number one rule of travel: always bring a towel. Because of this, I strolled right out into awkward eye-contact with Sam’s brother-in-law. Fun. I don’t think I need to do this ever again. I expected a bunch of old dudes laughing it up in there, but nobody else at the onsen seemed to be having much fun either. In one of the pools I looked up to discover windows in the adjacent hotel could see right into the onsen. More fun. No thanks.
After that experience, we dressed in matching yukatas and attended a grand buffet.
The “regional” dishes on the buffet were just okay, but I honed in on the tuna and salmon early because the fish there make for the best-tasting sashimi in the world (that I’ve had so far). I must have eaten a whole salmon and they just kept bringing it out. And the tuna. And the red king crab legs. We chased it down with Yuzu (a lemon-ish sour local fruit derived drink so nice we bought two bottles to take home) and a surprisingly well-done dessert table with chocolate cake and (perfect) cream puffs and all sorts of other sugary things. As the internet saying goes: 10/10 would come to Hokkaido again just for the fish. The room cost including buffet breakfast and dinner and onsen use was roughly $200 for one night. In Los Angeles, a meal for two with that much sashimi ain’t gonna be $200. Maybe $200 per person…but not in the quantities we were gulping down.
In the morning, we went to the Bear Park on the top of the mountain via the ropeway across the street from the hotel.
The bears are so accustomed to people that they raise their hands and point at their mouths to ask for acorns and dried salmon chunks.
At first, it’s cute. Then you realize they’re raised in captivity in the concrete cages and it becomes sad to watch. But, hey, guess they’re living better than the whales the Japanese are “studying,” right? (Side note: we did encounter a few places that would have apparently served us whale meat, but we did not want to do that)
The Japanese in Hokkaido have incorporated the bears into another type of mascot: the Melon Kuma, which combines their regional seasonal “melon” (which my Ohio raised taste buds and eyes call a cantaloupe) and their bears. The result?
On Tuesday morning the family assembled for a long three train journey to Hokkaido.
At our first destination, Hakodate, we visited the cape just as the sun started to set behind Mt. Hakodate.
We had dinner at a fancy local restaurant with lots of great food (but few customers) then took a cab (because the ropeway was closed for renovation) to the Mt. Hakodate Observatory on top of the mountain.
The wind rushed around the top swiftly enough to discourage the Fam from staying too long. They went back to the cabs and back to the hotel while I stayed and tried to get some stabilized shots. As throngs of teenagers arrived on buses and rattled the rails my gorrilapod was affixed to I realized that long exposures weren’t going to happen here and took the public bus back to the hotel.
The next morning, before catching our train to Noboribetsu, we walked to the Hakodate Asaichi for breakfast, focusing on super fresh crab and the most delicious salmon/tuna in the world.
We also tried squid ink ice cream, which didn’t really taste like much of anything.
On Sunday we took a Shinkansen from Odawara to Tokyo to meet up with Sam’s family. Both her sisters and their husbands joined us as well as her mother and her brother-in-law’s mother for the rest of the trip. Her sister booked us all rooms in the Shinjuku Prince hotel, a high-rise not far from the subway station and across the street from the bustling core of Shinjuku – the densest part of Japan.
After the family assembled in lateafternoon we took the subway across town to the Thunder Gate.
We looked around at the Shrine and walked over to the infamous Hoppy Street, eating street food.
After going back to the hotel, a smaller group left again to wander Shinjuku at night in search of yakitori.
We found a local standing-room-only yakitori bar and ended up inhaling more cigarette smoke than meat due to the slow service.
Cigarettes occupy a strange space in Japan. They are a society extremely observant of public smoking, with large signs affixed to the sidewalks in many cities banning the behavior. Because of this the streets are clean (which means the rivers and oceans they drain to are clean), but as soon as you duck into a bar… cough cough cough, the smoke hits you like wave. I guess the theory is that it’s your choice to enter a restaurant, but not your choice to enter a public street. Makes sense, though I wish there were more restaurants that banned cigarettes completely like many states in America have been doing. I felt like my lungs got really unhealthy at the same time my stomach was eating really healthy.
In the morning the family headed out “for breakfast” and boarded a shinkansen to Kawaguchi Station. We walked down through the town to Lake Kawaguchi and took a boat cruise in the rain to the Fuji viewpoint.
As our innkeeper in Hakone had warned two days ago, the fog still covered the slopes and Fuji-san eluded us. We trodded back to the station and took two slow local trains back to Tokyo, arriving after dark.
After spending some time in the station reserving our seats on the shinkansen to Hakodate for the following morning we split up. Sam and I went to Shibuya. Me for the famous crossing.
The ramen restaurant is in a very tight underground short corridor of barstool style individual tables separated by partitions. You order at a machine after entering the antechamber after a long wait on the stairs which often backs up onto the street. Each meal stall has a forward wall partially made of bamboo that opens to the kitchen, though not high enough to actually see your server.
The ramen itself was good, for ramen, but not worth the extreme markup in price over the ramen we all had in college and the similar markup in wait (3 minutes in the microwave vs. 45 in line).
As the rain kept falling we took the Oedo Line to Roppongi Hills to visit the sky view of Tokyo with the famous view of the Eiffel-ish Tokyo Tower.
On Tuesday morning we started our JR passes and took the express to Kyoto. On the express, the ride is only about twenty minutes, surprisingly quick. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we walked to Nishiki Market for lunch.
We were a little bit frustrated because we were refused seats at a few restaurants (apparently for being foreigners) and then were served rather mediocre sashimi at a high price when we finally did get service.
After lunch, we walked to Nijo Castle, which turned out to be underwhelming as well. We took a cab across town to Ginkaku-jitemple as the sun was starting to set, walking through lush moss-covered forests with views of Kyoto at the top of the hill above the pagoda.
Outside the temple, we ate ice cream topped with real gold leaf. This is a tourist trap sort of thing they developed where this temple is the “silver temple” and another temple in Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji) is the “gold temple” (you’ve probably seen/heard of the gold one before, but not this one) and so at several locations they sell temple themed ice cream with either silver or gold topping. Since something about eating silver seemed just wrong, we opted to taste the gold.
With gold in our bellies, we pondered the symbolism of literally consuming wealth as we walked Philosopher’s Walk on the way to Honen-in temple. After taking a picture of a hut on a bridge I managed to kick my sunglasses (expensive Ray Bans, a gift from Sam) into the koi pond.
This was all happening after sunset with no natural lighting, which was why the glasses were hung on my neck instead of on my face and able to drop down on the bridge while I fiddled with my camera. The glasses are gold so they stuck out under the dark water of the pond. We were the only people there so we couldn’t ask for help. Looking around the complex we found some portable caution tubes (not sure what these are called since they don’t have them in the U.S., but they had hollow circles on each end to place over the tops of traffic cones. With Sam providing light via our portable crank flashlight (the same one that got me out of a jam in Joshua tree) after a few false starts I managed to fish the glasses of the water.
Triumphant, we celebrated by taking a cab to Nanzen-jitemple, but there wasn’t a lot of light in the complex so we didn’t stay long.
Across the street from our hotel, we ordered a quick bite at a hip place. Sam asked to have the cook put more time into her nearly-rare beef bulgogi. After several more days of this, we realized that most beef is apparently consumed nearly raw in Japan. Also, “American Beef” is a big thing apparently.
Wednesday we set out walking with the goal of weeding our way north until we reached Yasaka Shrine.
We wandered down the back road from Yasaka visiting shrines and temples we’d not researched until we came to the famous one that sticks out in a crowd. Of people. Because it’s also on a busy intersection and crowded with people.
Unfortunately, it was raining most of the day. Doubly unfortunately, Kiyomizu-dera was covered in scaffolding and tarps for a renovation. Triply unfortunate, we bought tickets to the temple of a thousand Buddha’s only to find out no photography is allowed inside. Wet and tired we took a break back at the hotel before walking to the Kyoto tower for night views of the city and a good dinner at the food court underneath.
After dinner, we took the train to Inari to walk the famous orange Torii gates on the staircase up the mountain. What we didn’t know is that the stairs are closed at night after the first flight.
As we walked down a concrete path on our way back from the shrine we heard a large animal grunting and snarling from one of the open areas. The path was poorly lit and the animal was somewhere in the dark patch of grass between our steps and the woods that cover Mt. Inari. When Sam shone a flashlight on it we discovered it was a wild boar a few feet away.
It was eating and seemed annoyed that we interrupted. After a few more snarls in our direction, it loped off into the woods. We would later come back to the shrine in daylight and see warning signs all over the place to avoid the boars. Woops.
In the morning, we walked to Kyoto station to travel northwest to Ashiyama to ride the “romantic train.” Unfortunately, the leaves hadn’t changed yet, so the view from the train was not very impressive.
We actually had more fun in Ashiyama-proper at the souvenir shops and eating the traditional “Japanese Pizza.” (the last bit of the video at the top of this post) Our last daylight trek took us across the river and up the mountain on the other side to visit our friend and see some monkeys.
Our friend (from Hong Kong/LA/Michigan) joined us at the monkey park as she recently moved to Nagoya.
We walked back through the bamboo garden at night together, which, curiously had none of the lights we had seen in photos and had nearly completely cleared out by nightfall. It left the place curiously creepy feeling (American horror movies often take place in the deep woods, so maybe Japanese ones could be deep in the bamboo forest?).
We walked back to town and visited the Kimono Forest again since the “trees” light up at night. And the people.
We took the train back to Kyoto together and our friend found a BBQ restaurant within a few minutes walk of the station. The place was a pork-only joint with a small circular burner at every table. The locals sitting on the same bench with us asked where we were from and how we found the place because “this restaurant is for regulars only and foreigners don’t know about it.” Only one employee (the manager, we think) spoke any English. No pictures allowed. They cut the meat from pork carcasses on the same counter we paid for our meal. You want more meat? Whack! Here you go. Ralphie’s mom wouldn’t have liked this place one bit, but we did.
After the meal, we walked back to the station to see our friend off to Nagoya, but not until eating some ice cream first. Japan sells fully formed ice cream cones in the freezers at convenience stores.
On Friday we took a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple or “golden pavilion.” There were thousands of Chinese tour groups and Japanese kids on field trips. Maybe the largest throng of tourists we’ve seen in any one spot on Earth in our travels thus far.
We’re talking Trevi Fountain levels of tourists here, all scrambling to get that perfect shot of the gold-adorned Pagoda. We figured if you can’t beat em, join em, and started taking pictures with the children (who delighted in saying “Herro! Herro!” to us to practice their English).
We took a cab back to the nearest JR station to visit Inari during the day and finish our hike to the top, but first, we sated our hunger with a stop at the floating sushi restaurant.
Back at the shrine during the day we were determined to hike through the thousands of torii to the top of Mt. Inari. And so was every other tourist in Kyoto.
On our way there we misunderstood the map and took a wrong turn into the forest valley at the base of the mountain where we found a small shrine covered in moss and a tiny man-made waterfall.
The trail took us by a small town and back up the hill, where the torii started again and relieved us that we weren’t totally lost.
We finally reached the true top of Mt. Inari about an hour later only to discover there were no views at all from the small shrine. I ran back down the trail to the earlier viewpoints to take photos of the sunset over Kyoto.
After walking out of the mountain in the dark we took a cab north to the park behind Yasaka Shrine and ate at a kaiseki restaurant recommended by our cab driver who assured us it was just as good as the others that cost $200 per person up the same street.
After dinner, we took night photos at Yasaka shrine and walked down Shijo Dori looking for the real geishas our driver told us about. Most of the geishas you will see in Kyoto are just Chinese tourists who rent kimonos at souvenir shops. After a while, we didn’t see any geishas and it was getting late so we hailed a cab. As the cab drove through an alley we finally saw two real geishas, and even though the driver stopped, they ducked inside a doorway and we didn’t get any photos.
Saturday we took a Shinkansen to Odawara. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the Shinkansen experience is. It’s insane that we do not have this option for travel in America. I travel to Oakland for work often and I’d much prefer to take a high-speed train than take a southwest flight. Remove the time of checking in at the airport, boarding, deplaning, etc. and the train would actually be faster (if we can make them as fast as Japan does).
After the shinkansen, we took local trains and buses to Hakone, a small town nestled next to Lake Ashi with a view of Fuji-san. Or at least that’s what the internet said. Even though clouds covered up the mountain we still took the pirate ship lake tour en route to the ropeway.
The sulfur gases escaping from the mines adjacent to the tourist trap on the top of the mountain in Owakudani stung our eyes and noses. All a ploy to get you into the souvenir shop, right? The main draw inside: black eggs.
The clouds never cleared and we went back to the Inn a little disappointed. The inn turned out to be the only place to eat (I guess nobody actually stays in town at night like we did) after dark so the Innkeeper chatted us up while we ate. Yes, this was where the Trump questions came during the trip. Or rather, the Trump proclamations. The Innkeeper noted that Trump has asked Japan to buy American cars. Looking around the streets it became obvious what a joke that idea is. At a time when Ford is discontinuing the manufacture of its small cars, the president is asking a country that only buys small fuel efficient cars…to buy giant gas guzzling american cars. Other than that interaction (which was otherwise pleasant) it was nice to not have to think about the blind, deaf, and dumb bull in the china shop back home.
When the conversation swerved elsewhere we learned from the Innkeeper that Fuji-san is actually hidden by cloud cover “95% of the time” and the only time when you have a better chance to see it is after the frost sets in and the humid air can no longer rise. “Come back in a few weeks,” he said. Great…
But Fuji isn’t the only thing to see in Hakone. The next morning we braved the rain to walk up the street to Onshihakone Park and then continued on to the more famous Ancient Cedar Avenue.
Even more famous than the short walk through old trees is what they’ve done with a few of those trees and some red paint. Seen in many photos and videos a giant Torii “Gate of Peace” sits literally in the lake’s edge a staircase below Hakone Shrine.
This gate served as the turning point in our trip. From there we took a bus back to the Inn, a bus to Odawara, and another Shinkansen to Tokyo to meet up with six members of Sam’s family.
Before I could see the bus, we had to get to Japan. Our flight on JAL was nice. (international flights always tend to be “easier” than long-haul domestic) the large seats with ten-inch screens and new movies made the nearly twelve hours on board somewhat comfortable. The food was decent for an airline and stewardesses kept checking back to see if I was okay after I asked about nuts (and they couldn’t check ingredients, so they just kept checking to see if I survived). The best thing about the flight was the 2+4+2 design which let Sam and myself have our own two seater section by a window.
By the time we got through security in Japan and collected our bags it was already evening in Osaka. After a train into town, the only thing we had time for on the first night was checking out the 7/11 next to our hotel. Yes, what you’ve heard is true: the food is worlds away from 7/11’s in America; hot yakatori, cold sushi and sandwiches, entire refrigeration cases filled with beers not made by Anheuser Busch or Coors. Side note: while Americans like to say we’re super serious about coffee, we really aren’t. The Japanese have hot and cold coffee vending machines on every block instead of starbucks and market it like we market coca-cola (Suntory hired Tommy Lee Jones to fill the real-life role Bill Murray had on screen).
As someone who got into the coffee drinking game much later in life, I prefer cold coffee with no extras (if only because all the sugar and milk in the sweeter drinks make me very uncomfortable after the coffee is long gone). Simple, inexpensive, not sour, cold black coffee is hard to come by in America but is available on every street corner in a variety of brands in Japan (even in the small towns).
Suntory “Boss Black” seems to be the best widely available iced black coffee. I found something better at Hokkaido University, but that’s for a later post.
Monday morning, while Sam waited for me to wake up, she went next-door and went up and down the escalators at Don Quijote. It’s a sort of department store, Japan-style with things crammed into every corner of the compact multi-story building.
After breakfast at the hotel we walked to the famous Namba Yasaka Shrine.
We walked north to check out Dotonburi on our way to the Owl Cafe.
At the Owl Cafe we had an hour to interact with all the owls. Sam’s favorite were the two little barn owls, which definitely had the softest feathers and bobbled around when touched.
Back at dotonburi for lunch, we found the tepanyaki wasn’t as good as we had heard. Bellies sorta full we took a cab up to the castle and walked around the grounds, catching the processional of a wedding at one of the surrounding temples, which was – to be honest – more interesting than the actual castle.
Another cab right took us to tsentenkaku(Hitachi tower) for a late afternoon view of the city. There were many exhibits about the famous “muscle man” Kinnikuman, apparently as popular (in Osaka, anyway) as Superman in America, including a large-than-life size (at least I hope so) sculpture. Unlike Superman, muscle-man looks . . . well . . . weird. He had trendy botox lips way before the Kardashians made it popular.
By the time we left, dusk was arriving, so we walked to Dotonburi again to take a few photos of the famous food/shopping Mecca with the Glico Man.
We took the subway to Abeno Harukas 300 (across the street from our hotel) to take night photos of the city from the observatory.
Friday night we flew into Calgary around 9. We made it to our hotel around 10pm as the sun was setting. The next morning we went back to the airport to pick up our rental car. The thrifty agent let us know they had a “special” on 4x4s and he recommended it if we were driving in the mountains. It would only be twice the price of the compact we’d requested. We declined. Suddenly our original compact car disappeared from their system and we received a free upgrade to the 4×4 SUV. Golly, aren’t we special? We drove off in a brand new Hyundai SUV thinking we’d outsmarted the system (clearly they ran out of compacts and would have had to give us the SUV whether we paid the higher price or not). Fate wouldn’t let us get away with it…but more on that later…
We drove from Calgary out to Banff without stopping. We kept on going past the sights we’d seen in December 2016 to head to Jasper, which we had to drop from our list back then because the Icefields Parkway was too dangerous.
This time around, the only danger came from constant construction on the road and constant rain. And by constant I mean every day of the trip without fail.
We stopped at Mistaya Canyon for a short hike to the waterfalls on our way to Parker Ridge. At the ridge, we could see nasty storm clouds coming in and ran back down from the top without hiking all the way down on the other side. I say we ran, but the trail was already mushy from days of rain so it was more like slipping and sliding. We both fell at different points on the trail but were able to stop ourselves from splatting an entire body part in the mud.
On the drive from the ridge to Jasper, we came across a grizzly bear grazing on vegetation near the road. We’d gone the entire Montana trip without seeing a grizzly, and the only black bears we saw were far up on a hill. This fellow was only twenty feet from our car. And, unlike in Montana, nobody warned us at any time about the need for bear spray. I guess, like the people, the bears are nicer in Canada.
The next day we visited Maligne Canyon, which is similar to Johnston Canyon in Banff in that it’s a series of waterfalls along a forest trail. Unlike Johnston, this one is a dirt trail which, like Parker Ridge, had (in parts) turned to a MOV demolition-derby style mud-fest by the time we arrived.
From Maligne Canyon, we tried to visit Maligne Lake by driving up the mountain into falling snow. By the time we arrived at the lake the restaurant had just closed and the mountain hid behind the snow clouds so we went back to Jasper to eat dinner and check-in.
Unlike our last trip to Canada (in the winter) we were able to find quite a few good restaurants. I guess the Michelin reviewers don’t ski.
On Sunday we visited Sunwapta Falls and walked down the trail to the river and back. On the way to Pyramid Lake, we spotted more bears. First, a momma brown bear with a cub, then a wandering black bear. At Pyramid Lake, we stopped in the forest to sit with some young Elk grazing along a hiking trail. At the lake, we watched fly fishermen for a bit before driving to the other side and walking out to the island. We didn’t stay long due to the cold winds blasting across the lake.
We attempted to take the Jasper gondola before dinner, but the same winds that blasted the lake had shaken the cables enough to shut the operation down.
On Monday we knew that we might see more blue sky than the rest of the week, so we switched our reservations to walk on Athabasca Glacier and headed down the icefield parkway. When we finally hopped off the arctic bus we learned the storms left a few feet of snow on the glacier, turning the ordinarily crystal blue wall into another heaping snow drift in the distance. On the way there we’d seen a bighorn sheep standing on the side of the road. When we stepped out onto the glacier skywalk (a few miles up the road from Athabasca) a mountain goat made it’s way down from the hills to walk beneath the glass under our feet.
On the way back to Jasper we saw yet another bear. Two bears actually, an adult and juvenile grazing the same open patch of grass next to the road. Trying again for the gondola we went all the way up. From there we could see Beauvert Lake, but not the traffic on the only road in. We pressed through to visit the Lake, thinking we could drive around the other side but found that road closed to auto traffic. After dinner, we visited Edith and Anette Lake.
On Tuesday we needed to make our way to Banff, stopping where we wanted along the way since we’d already seen the glacier. Barely outside of Jasper, we hiked out to the valley of five lakes; a series of oval lakes known for their deep emerald color. An hour or so later we stopped at Tangle Falls on the parkway, and after that, the tandem of Panther and Angel falls, which aren’t actually labeled. Despite the unnecessary mystery, the adequately named Panther Falls was both one of the easiest to reach on the trip and most powerful.
With plenty of daylight left, I asked Sam to find something new to kill time. With no cell phone service, but a saved Google Map we only had a star and a road to go by. After twenty minutes of zooming down the road off the icefield parkway, we discovered the star was placed on an Icefields helicopter tour operation. However, down the road, a dirt path offered our 4×4 access to the Cline Riverbed. We’ve since learned that the river normally comes all the way to the banks, but apparently in summer (or for some other reason) when we arrived it had shrunk back from the banks maybe a half mile and created a beautiful shallow blue “lake” beneath jutting mountain ranges.
After spinning around a few times we made a beeline for Banff for dinner. However, yet again, we stopped to view black bears at two separate spots on the road.
On Wednesday, we returned to Johnston Canyon, which we’d visited on our last trip when the waterfalls were frozen. During the last visit, our GoPro and DSLR both failed when we came to the upper falls viewpoint. In a stirring coincidence that might convince a less-skeptical person of hauntings, ghosts, or astral energy vortexes, the GoPro started corrupting all remaining video files from the trip immediately after we left the same spot. Luckily my new camera survived intact….but only temporarily.
We visited the Vermillion Lakes next, vastly different than during the dramatic winter sunrises we’d seen before (though vastly safer to approach the waters). The mountains behind the town were hidden in fog so we drove up to the viewpoint. The last time I visited the Banff viewpoint I tried to take sunrise photography and ended up freezing the camera with my own breath in the negative thirty degree cold. This time we spent some time walking around in the fog listening to a large family of marmots warn each other about our presence before popping in and out of their holes. This has to be the place where whack-a-mole was invented.
Also unknown to us last time was the fair-tale forest behind the viewpoint. A conglomeration of tangled trees rooted in an increasingly vertical hillside and covered in moss and lichen itched for an elf, or something darker, to appear in the drifting mist. These unseen forces beckoned me to worm my way further up through the tall grass into the strange clearings and circles of skeletal black branches. If Sam hadn’t have been there I may have continued on up the hill in search of the perfect photograph and lost my way in the eerie quiet.
We left the forest devoid of animal life and found a family of deer by the railroad tracks below. Further outside of town we saw a trio of antlered elk grazing in the rain. We traveled on to Lake Minnewanka as the clouds began to break. By the time we’d driven to the other side and come to Two Jack Lake conditions were right to take one of those famous “reflection” photos. Except that the demons haunting Johnston Canyon caught up with my camera as well. The image stabilization motors began to fire at random and gave the camera (brand new Sony A7III) seizures until the dreaded black “camera error” screen flashed. Photography for the rest of the trip would be a struggle and by the end of the week, the damn thing would simply flash the “error” screen as soon as it booted up.
The next day we visited another place we’d seen before under different circumstances, this time the difference proved more dramatic. We went to Yoho National Park in British Columbia to see what Natural Bridge looks like when you can’t actually stand under the water. Next, we tried to find Wapta falls, which left us stuck in the snow spinning our wheels in the winter. With no snow to stymie things, life found another way. On the highway down into the canyon, a rock hit our windshield and created a six-inch crack. I’d always seen cracks in other windshields but never been in a car when it received on. The cost of crack repair easily ate up our “free upgrade” to the SUV, so we ended up paying twice as much as we planned for the rental anyway.
As it turns out, the place we got stuck last time wasn’t even the way to the trailhead, it was the way to a viewpoint on the other side of the river from Wapta Falls. Eventually, we got to the real trail, another muddy run through a cloud of mosquitos that eventually gave way to a winding descent next to the mini-Niagra of Wapta Falls.
Hungry after the hike we headed to Emerald Lake, a “winter wonderland” in December that proves just as pretty in warmer times, though with a hell of a lot more Chinese tour buses, and had dinner at the restaurant on the Lake.
With a little more time to kill and rain clouds coming up in the distance we followed a hunch and drove out to Takakkaw Falls, easily Canada’s closest version of Yosemite Falls and a stunning omission from everyone’s “what to see in Banff” list. Maybe it has something to do with the way the rocks surrounding the falls make the whole thing look like a giant butt. It’s one of those things that can’t be un-seen once someone mentions it, as Sam did while we were walking toward it.
On our last full day in Canada, we returned to Peyto Lake. In 2016 we attempted to hike up from the viewpoint, stumbling through the snowdrifts and barely avoiding the occasional cross-country skiers splitting the pines. This time we took the same hiking loop and headed off on another hunch onto a dirt trail. The trail soon led to a rocky outcropping with a much better view of the lake than anything we’d seen before.
On our way back to Banff, we stopped at Lake Louise, now infested with more tourists than Times Square. We wanted to visit the other lake, but found the road closed as it was “full.” Instead, we took the Banff Gondola up the mountain to eat dinner at the buffet.
Last year Sam and I stayed in Loreto on our way to and from the San Ignacio Lagoon. We snorkeled on Coronado island and at Playa Santispac and enjoyed such a diversity of underwater life that I vowed to come back.
As luck would have it, six of my snorkeling friends (though, sadly, sans Sam) agreed to try it out when the water warmed up in May. We unspooled from our flight and waited in that long customs line around 1pm local time on a Thursday (they only fly there a few days per week).
When sprung from customs we went for our rental car and were told that the SUV we rented wouldn’t be big enough for four people (our group had two cars). We were considering the upgrade when the other half of our group said “Oh we can help with your luggage, don’t worry.”
Seeing the jig was up the smiley rental guy dropped his pretense and just upgraded us for free to a full-size van because he was out of SUVs anyway. I keep running into this trick at the airport rental car spots, so I’m assuming a lot of people fall for it. The only time a rental place didn’t bother to do this was in Hawaii in 2014 when they said: “Congratulations, we’re giving you a free convertible upgrade!” Obviously, it was because they ran out of compact cars and not because we were special… but at least they didn’t try to wring money out of us first like everywhere else.
Our van had tire pressure warnings going off when we started it, but the attendant just noted it and said the sensor was broken. Well, we are in Baja. I did worry about the tires popping when driving on gravel to visit some of the beaches up north, but kept that to myself and hoped it would turn out okay.
We checked in at our hotel and bargained with our concierge for two snorkeling trips on our three-day Sea of Cortez binge. We headed to Orlando’s afterward for cheap tacos and beer. (Where else in the world can you order a Pacifico at a full-service restaurant for under a dollar?)
Friday morning we hopped onto a panga with a 16-year-old captain (yes, we were confused too at first, then realized this is probably a family business and the boy must be related to our concierge) and headed south to Danzante island. Before we reached the island we encountered a large pod of dolphins, mostly babies testing their jumps. Another snorkeler and I jumped in after the boat circled round the pod, but the dolphins scampered away too fast. By the time I even opened my eyes and got my head above water they were already fifty feet away and gaining.
The snorkeling at the island seemed a little disappointing to me after the wild amount of biodiversity I observed last year. A strong green algal bloom covered nearly the entire shallow floor beyond the beach, and where the algae stopped, few fish remained. That said, I did see an eel in the flesh for the first time, relaxing in the yellow grass on the bottom of a rocky crag. I tried to shoot him with my camera but found I’d already exhausted my batteries.
Back at the hotel after the tour, I discovered the camera battery wasn’t dead, the camera (an original Sony A7) was! Earlier on the boat I just though the condensation inside the camera “bag” was from humidity (as often happens right after getting in or out of the water). After a thorough examination (sealing air in it and putting it underwater in the sink and squeezing) I discovered a pinhole leak in a part of the bag that I’d never opened (the expandable zoom lens extension). It seems because I never used that part, I never cleaned it, but saltwater got in there (as water tends to do) and quietly worked away at the material (vinyl?) year after year until finally breaking through. I dumped it in a jar of rice for the night and hoped for the best. In the meantime, I went all around town asking in broken Spanish for “camera aqua?” Lots of people pointed here and there, but every time I got there the attendant would say no.
Now “hold up!” you say, “why in the hell would you put a full-frame DSLR in a ‘bag’?” Well, to be fair it worked for four years just fine. To be honest, at the time of purchase I’d used one of these “bags” with my NEX (not an inexpensive camera, either) for years without problems as well. But the real reason was because when Sony’s full-frame cameras first arrived on the scene the only underwater (non-bag) enclosures cost more than just buying a new camera. (And that’s still true now. A “professional” underwater enclosure for an A9 or A7III runs about $3,000, more than the cost of an A7 III body) I gambled. I lost. Maybe. I mean it did work for many years. I won’t be using a “bag” again though.
Defeated, I went with some of our group to Orlando’s to drown my sorrows in a margarita or two. While we were there a man came to our table and asked if we wanted some of their baked chocolate clams because they had “too many.” We said “sure thing” and enjoyed those chocolate clams fixed up with cheese and spices. Then we considered ordering more and noticed it wasn’t on the menu. We caught up with the group of guys at the aqua fresca shop next door and they informed us that they’d caught the clams themselves that day and (like many restaurants near the ocean) Orlando’s cooked them up for a fee.
Later that night, our concierge let me know that he had checked around after my request the previous night to see whale sharks. He said he knew a man named Jorge that knew “everybody” in Mulege and could take us to a captain that would show us the sharks. Awesome! Swimming with whale sharks has been on my bucket list for years.
The next day our group split in two. Four of us headed to Mulege with Jorge to hunt for whale sharks and the other three headed to Loreto Bay. At a strangely deserted Playa Santispac we boarded a smaller panga with a captain that negotiated down to 500 pesos an hour (the same rate Sam and I had last year in the same spot). The captain took us around the coastal beaches slowly, looking for whale sharks – but found none. I started to question whether we’d been hoodwinked a bit by our concierge but didn’t want to let on to my friends who were having a good time anyway.
After that, the captain took us to a small island. So small I swam all the way around it in about fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, the biodiversity here matched the previous day and lots of the corals looked dead. However, the captain captured our attention by diving for clams and scallops. He would cut into them on the way back up and draw a crowd of hungry fish. It didn’t occur to me until later that this might be another example of what Anthony Bourdain experienced while catching “fresh octopus” in Italy. Why later? Well, read on…
In a few minutes, he fed even more of them (with limes and hot sauce) to hungry humans on the boat. I prefer fish to shellfish so I only ate a few bites. One of our friends ate a great deal as shellfish is her favorite thing so this was a dream come true. After eating in the boat we headed to the shipwreck, where a plethora of fish swirled. The captain had said the islands over here were more “bonito” when he heard me complaining that all the coral at the first island (isla coyote?) were dead.
Unfortunately, most of the coral and plants at the second island were still dead as well, but we managed to spend a few hours floating around and having fun.
Back on the road, we stopped by Playa Reqezon where two of our friends walked on the submerged sandbar to the little island. They said at the deepest point (up to your belly button) they saw swarms of stingrays scurrying over the sandbar at their feet to escape the small bay before the sandbar cut it off from the sea again.
Back in town, we went to Domingos for a steak dinner. Before I even got to dinner the scallops caught up to me. And kept catching up to me all night long and into the next morning. So either they weren’t as fresh as we thought, or they were and I might be a bit more sensitive than others (nobody else got sick the entire trip).
Before our last tour a fellow traveler gave me some magic pills that turned the valve off inside my stomach. Our last tour took our entire group to Isla Coronado, where a “bathroom” exists, but in name only. Any clamming up my system was still doing cemented when I took a look at the facilities (more or less open-air pit on stilts).
Underwater the fish too clammed up. Or left altogether. Unlike the last two days, the word about Coronado escaped and the beach was crammed with boats and people. There were more people on the island now than fish. The coral followed the same pattern as the rest of the islands, turning to dust and the majority of the fish disappearing with it.
Despite this, my friends claimed to see a moray eel out there and even an octopus (I cannot tell you how insanely jealous this made me, my desire to see an octopus in the wild is only slightly weaker than my want to swim with whale sharks!). And, more importantly, they all seemed to enjoy themselves. One friend entering the extremely calm, shallow water to snorkel with her husband for the first time. As luck would have it, at that very moment, the coronet fish (or what I call coronet fish, anyway) returned.
On our way back to Loreto (another first for me) we saw a small pod of manta rays leaping repeatedly from the water. Back on dry land, our group splintered again, four of us going to dinner and the other three going to fish (I think).
The next morning the group of four got up a little early to slip down to Loreto Bay, where the other three had gone instead of joining us in Santispac on Saturday. The accommodations at the Bay were much more luxurious than our hotel, and the brown sand beach very calm and shallow. We walked on the volcanic rocks a bit further out into the bay and saw one of the few places where plants haven’t totally blanched yet.
After a while we headed back to the hotel to pack for our flight, stopping at a small (really great) taco shop for lunch called El Rey Del Taco. It was only outside that I noticed they served Cabeza tacos, darn! (that’s often the softest fattiest juiciest meat you can get from an authentic taco stand) Now I’ll have to go back next year just to get the Cabeza taco!
Our flight was delayed slightly when three drunk men were kicked off the aircraft for swapping seats, staying in the lavatory, and making the captain feel “unsafe.” We never received a clearer explanation. We came home to overcast weather in Los Angeles, very strange for that time of year, and urging most of us to start planning our return to the quiet (super cheap) little beach town next year.
On Thursday morning I drove east on the 10 past the stretch of Los Angeles suburban sprawl until the malls faded into gas stations and the houses thinned to shacks and sheds. Once in the open desert on the other side of Riverside county I realized I forgot the annual national parks pass we’d purchased in sequoia last spring. A warning, perhaps?
When civilization whittled to nothing and the last turbine faded from view, an oasis appeared on the horizon. At least that’s what the sign said. 29 Palms is a one stop light town with a national park entrance appended perpendicularly to the main drag. I guess since there’s water and it’s in the desert that makes it an oasis. Expectations began to dim for the rest of the weekend.
Inside the park I went straight to Ryan Mountain, the tallest hike. My reasoning, honed with practice at several other national parks,went like this: My knees are getting older and I didn’t bring braces or pain killers, so I should take on the most strenuous work while my legs are still fresh.
Turns out strenuous work wasn’t to be had on Ryan Mountain. It only took an hour to reach the peak, and I guess you get what you pay for because the view was, well, open desert in every direction spotted by boulders.
Not ugly per se, but nothing to sneeze at if you’ve hiked up to a glacial lake in Montana, a frozen waterfall in Alberta, an ice cave in Iceland, paraglided over sheer cliffs in Switzerland. You get the idea. A collection of loose and clumped dust in every direction isn’t what soothes my soul. But that’s my preexisting bias talking having been born in a forested place rich with water and leaves and life (and polution and chemicals and death, too, unfortunately). Honestly, the desert can be a damn depressing place and since Sam didn’t have any vacation time and my friends flaked…I was not developing a strong love for Joshua Tree’s hiking opportunities that first day.
But I didn’t come to Joshua Tree for the hiking, I came for the stars. All this hiking and walking was just to kill time until sunset. And calories; I asked for a side of onion rings with my burger at lunch in NowheresVille and they brought out a serving tray full of fry batter.
I went to Keys View, supposedly the place for sunsets in Joshua Tree. The view features an overlook of Palm Springs and Indo against a backdrop of the mountains. I arrived ninety minutes till sunset and my stomach was growling (remember what I said about burning calories?) so I headed to the town of Joshua Tree for a smoothie. I barely made it back to Keys View in time for the real deal, running up the path and slipping on the rocks on the other side of the fence to capture a triumphant sunset. A thick ceiling of clouds capped the far mountains and caught the setting sun like a great searching eye in the distance.
If Tolkien wouldn’t have loved it, I can confirm that at least amateur softcore pornographers do.
I went back to the spot every day after only to be disappointed.
I drove off in the twilight to Barker Dam, hoping to capture the stars in the water’s reflection. However, after walking down the trail and bouldering around in the pitch black of a new moon for an hour I had to give up. I’d reached the top of a boulder mountain with nothing but sneakers and a wimpy flashlight. Shining it down below the crest revealed a darkness that could be trees or water, but the absence of reflection hinted at the former. Not wanting to get lost in the dark in the part of a park no one would visit for another ten hours I backtracked to the car and spent the next hour driving back through the park to 29 palms, stopping randomly to attempt night shots on the way.
On Friday I went first to the chollas garden before heading north to visit arch rock. I’d intended to shoot night photography of the arch the night before, but I couldn’t find it on the map. That’s because it’s located inside the White Tank campground and no signs for the arch appear until you are parking there to take the arch rock trail hike.
Wanting to discover where I’d gone wrong with Barkers Dam I headed there next. As it turns out there are two trails that start from that parking lot, spaced about a hundred feet apart. In the dark I only saw the one by my car and went down it, unknowingly heading for the abandoned Wall Street Mine. The bouldering in my attempts to correct the night before actually led me to traipse over an area clearly visible in the morning light to be part of the park closed off to the public (for danger?). And the dark patch I’d seen was, in fact, trees.
At Barkers Dam I discovered the wind blows over the water (as it does quite swiftly everywhere in the park), rippling it and making my planned star shots impossible anyway. Other than a few ducks, there wasn’t much of interest at the dam so I walked up to the mine. Also underwhelming to a boy from Ohio/California. But some other hikers there were fascinated by the hundred-year-old strips of steel and rotting wood. Old rusted cogs and pipes and pieces of cars Henry Ford lived to see.
Not sure what to do next I turned into a parking lot and wandered into the valley just to the left of Echo Tree Trail. Unsatisfyingly this flat hike ends in a barb wire fence. I walked the nearby hidden loop trail before going back to town for another smoothie. I went back to keys for the sunset but it was pathetic (and much colder!) compared to the night before. At the arch rock, I tried some night photography but strong winds (I would later read 45 mph!) shook the camera and rattled my frozen bones.
Okay, so compared to -30 in Alberta it wasn’t that bad, but there’s nothing worse than waiting on a twenty-minute star trail exposure just to have the wind creep up on you and shake the tripod at the 19’58” mark. In frustration, I collapsed my equipment and headed to the hotel.
On Saturday I went to skull rock, a place I’d driven by on my way elsewhere several times at this point, to try the short hike. The hike, it turns out, goes to a parking lot around the side of the rocks and starts over. Just for fun I “lost” myself in the rocks on the way back. Hard to lose one’s self, though, with so many large glaring directional indicators laying about.
On my way to Hemingway rocks I stopped several times to photograph what had been mundane the day before. Heavy dark clouds rolled overhead with sun splashes sneaking between. The altered light gave the green of the joshua trees a vibrancy they lack in the full sun washout.
Reminded me of a car I once bought in Ohio with a green paint job that shined after the rain, then moved to Southern California where it “never” rains and everyone thought my car was gray. Well, on Saturday morning the Joshua Trees were not gray, but nearly lime green and the thin grass not the dusted ochre of yesterday, but a brilliant sunshine yellow making up for the lack of such color in the sky.
At Hemingway I walked out and bouldered up to the rock climbing spot to shoot some climbers on the wall.
Afterwards, seeking a challenge for my legs I started walking on a whim down the 7.7 mile (one way) boy scout trail. I intended to just turn around after an hour or so to get in a few good miles before lunch. However, after a mile the trail turned right to go to something called “Wonderland of Rocks” if I promised to walk another two and a half miles.
The wonderland is a ever-narrowing trail that eventually surrounds the hiker on all sides with rocks before eventually winnowing down to a marsh pelted with fallen boulders. Those who wish to keep hiking can boulder their way through the narrow crack in the larger rocks, but I turned back, hungry for another smoothie.
My legs needed a break (and carbs) so I went to town for pizza (which is pretty good!) before heading to black rock canyon to the northwest of the park (actually not part of Joshua Tree national park but a day-use area) to make the five-mile west side loop. After the earlier 7-ish mile hike a five-mile trail up the mountain turned out to be a bad idea. My left knee told me so for the entire last two miles. Perhaps to make up for it, mother nature decided to hop a couple of black-tailed jackrabbits close to my walk. Didn’t let them stick around long enough for a great photo, but jackrabbits are skittish by nature, so I was lucky to get within a few feet at all.
I tried the sunset at Keys View again, waiting in the buffeting horrendous winds, but the blazing eye still didn’t equal what I saw the first night. As night fell I drove to the chollas garden to take star shots. 45 mile per hour winds, wandering teenagers on marijuana, cloud cover, and nagging “professionals” with heavy laser star mapping machines making it clear they wanted me out of their neighborhood made the job difficult yet again.
When those elements forgot about me occasionally the garden became extra creepy. The chollas look like people in the dark and my coat scraping against my backpack in the wind sounded just enough like approaching footsteps to have me whipping around to check my surroundings in illogical fear more times than I’d like to admit.
Then again, coyotes do prowl the valley at night.
On my last day I visited the Chollas garden again and kept on south, reaching Cottonwood by mid-morning. I hiked up to Mastodon Peak, fun for the bouldering and the view of the Salton Sea in the distance, but otherwise a largely unimpressive walk through a stream of loose gravel. I had one more thing to see before speeding home: a walk “on a real Bajada,” the Joshua Tree brochure proclaimed with such excitement that I assumed miracles awaited. I should have looked up the definition for Bajada.
I’ll save you the trouble. It’s a wash of dirt and rocks that come down from a mountain. And up through those rocks, a few desert trees (and dead ones) grew on a short flat trail overlooking the 10 freeway. The most memorable thing I did on that day was eat shrimp tacos in Indo.