USA and Canada Days 14-17

Day 14

Another day with an alarm set for around 6am. Most people probably want to relax a bit but there’s so much to do. We packed up at Patricia Lake and oddly took our first real look at the lake which was very pretty. We drove over to Pyramid lake (also pretty) before heading into town to grab some packed lunch and head out onto the epic Icefields parkway. Until this day I did not know that an icefield is an area that creates glaciers. There are many glaciers along the icefields parkway and many of them can be seen from the road.

We had a lot to do and a nebulous dinner reservation at our stop for the night, so we tried to keep up a decent pace. First up we decided to (abruptly) stop at horseshoe lake, a pretty little spot with nobody around aside from one young guy who looked like he’d spent the night in his hammock. Then we stopped at Athabasca falls which was already quite busy but well worth a look. Not too far away was Sunwapta falls which was not as big but also very pretty. The drive itself through this region is hard to describe and do it justice. There are incredible mountains of different shapes and types all over the place. You pass waterfalls and glaciers. I can’t quite believe that I didn’t know that this was here until I started doing the trip research. As far as landscapes go, this probably just became my favourite amongst those that I’ve visited.

We stopped at Beauty Creek which had been recommended in my guide book for being off the tourist trail but very beautiful. We followed some very specific instructions to an unmarked parking space for a handful of cars just off the parkway, ate some lunch and then went for a “short” hike. My book said it was an easy 1 hour round trip. My mistake was not reading until the end of the description. The creek contains Stanley falls, a series of lovely waterfalls, and no tourists there to get in the way. We met 2 other groups on the trail and that was it. Our easy walk became a longer and steeper hike as we ended up walking right to the top of the falls, easily taking an hour just getting there. The trail isn’t marked but I could always hear more waterfall around the next corner and stuck with it. I don’t think many people will actually keep going to the top (those we saw didn’t), but it was very rewarding and one of the more memorable little bits of the trip. There were a few vertigo inducing moments for me and because it was “easy” we hadn’t taken walking poles or much else with us, but that only served to make it a little more rewarding.

After the creek we headed on down the road to the Columbia Icefield. We had to wait in a short but incredibly slow line but then got tickets to ride out onto the Athabasca glacier in a big truck and walk around on top of the glacier. They only get to run these tours because they were doing it so long ago it was before the laws came in and they put a lot of work into keeping it environmentally friendly. Due to the glacier naturally receding, this will only be possible here for another 50 years or so. Then the glacier will be gone and a lake will form at the base of it. It’s very cool to see the lakes, moraines, waterfalls and glaciers in various stages and see how everything changes very slowly over time. The views around the glacier were spectacular, which was saying something given what we’d been seeing all day.

We then headed on towards Field, only stopping at Peyto lake. This involved a pretty quick hill climb before coming to a really nice viewpoint looking out over the lake. We spent the night at Cathedral Mountain Lodge in the Yoho National Park, staying inside a log cabin. It was a pretty fun experience but for just one night we didn’t get too many benefits of being at such a place. It did give us the opportunity to get into the Yoho park though. We met one couple near Beauty Creek who had done the parkway drive on 2 consecutive days because on the day before it had been so cloudy here that they couldn’t see any of the mountains. We only had the one day to do it but had such a beautiful day that we really did consider ourselves very lucky.

Day 15

The lodge in Yoho provided us with a very memorable dinner and pretty tasty breakfast. The dinner was on the classy and expensive end, but well worth it. Easily top 3 for the trip. We got up super early to check out and then make our way to the main sights in Yoho park. These were Takkakaw falls and Emerald Lake. Very few people were at the falls at 8am which made it pretty fun. They’re the 2nd tallest in Canada and were well worth the trip up the road and some pretty tight roads. Emerald Lake was a lovely little lake further into Yoho and it was very tempting to stay for more than just a brief walk but we had more lakes on the agenda.

We hopped into the car and headed on towards the town of Lake Louise. We were trying to get to Moraine Lake for 11am to beat the crowds and see it in nice light but the road was closed due to too many visitors so we went to see Lake Louise instead. This lake has a grand Fairmont hotel right at one end and is all over the postcards in the region. I remember after I had my gallbladder out that I looked into holidays and Canada before settling on Japan. I saw the photos of Lake Louise and I wanted to stay at that Fairmont. In the end we didn’t, because of the cost and the touristy nature of the lake.. but it was part of the inspiration to come. We got lucky with a parking space here and it really was tourist central. Not all that fun where the path from the coaches met the lake, but not so bad a little further round. We grabbed some early lunch and then rented a canoe to do a trip up and down the lake. The wind made getting all the way to the end of the lake and back in the allotted time a bit of a challenge, but I was determined. I had a great time, Claire just wanted to rest for a few weeks afterwards!

We then headed up to the Lake Louise Gondola which was on the other side of town and which gives a really nice view across the valley and to the lake with hotel. We got to ride up and down on the open air chair lift and enjoy the sunshine. Afterwards we hopped on the road to Banff and found that we’d left the best scenery behind. Banff does have some nice mountains though, the parkway just can’t compete with north of Lake Louise.

Day 16

We’d been told that we’d need to get to Moraine lake very early to park up and avoid any blocked roads, so we got there for not too much after 8am. We had breakfast in the lodge and then walked up and down the lakeside before renting another canoe. This time there wasn’t much wind and we had a more sedate paddle. The weather started out very cloudy but picked up quite nicely by the time we were on the lake. We then walked up the rocks at one end of the lake for a good couple of viewpoints before heading off.

The lakes here are so famous because of their incredible colour. Glaciers grind up rocks into a fine powder and that ends up in the rivers and lakes. Due to the concentration of minerals in the powder it creates the special effect when the light hits the water. It’s hard to say which of the lakes was my favourite but they were all gorgeous. Spending an hour canoeing across one of them is a very nice way to relax.

We stopped off at Johnston Canyon one the way back to Banff and walked to the lower falls. This was again packed out with tourists and whilst it was pretty, it was incomparable to Beauty Creek. Back in Banff things got pretty cold for the evening as the storm was rolling in and even though we brought appropriate clothing, we didn’t wear quite enough even then. After over 2 weeks of sunshine and hot summer it can be easy to forget how quickly the temperature can change in the mountains.

Day 17

After repeatedly expecting bad weather in the mountains we finally had a day with it really pissing it down. On top of this it was well under 10 degrees at best when most other days of the trip had been in the high 20s. This was also the first day where the alarm was turned off and we weren’t getting up around 6am. We got up late for a very tasty brunch in town and then headed up to Banff hot springs in the early afternoon. Apparently everyone else in town had the same idea and we had to queue for a little while before entering a pretty packed pool. Luckily a bunch of people left fairly quickly and then we didn’t feel so much like sheep. The hot water was nice but after Japan it seems like everything else is a warm spring. As insanely stupid and punishing as the ones in Japan were, I feel like they’ve ruined other hot springs for me now. Unless I’m actually cooking myself and regretting any kind of movement which wakes up my nervous system then it’s just not going to be so fun.

Afterwards we grabbed some dinner and did a little walk to the falls just outside of town on the Bow River as the weather had just started to clear up. We were lucky enough to see a deer next the path too. There were some pretty gorgeous views through town on the way back at little bits of mountain revealed through gaps in the cloud.

The only things we didn’t get to do in Banff were the gondola and a look at Lake Minnewanka. We’ve not been short on either lakes or gondolas so it’s no big loss, but neither would have been good at all in the weather today. Maybe we’ll sneak one of them in tomorrow on the way to Calgary for our very late flight home. Maybe I’ll just spend all day in the knife shop ;).

USA and Canada Days 10-13

Day 10

We packed up our bags and were up a little later than normal. We’d covered most of the ground in Vancouver that we wanted to but still had Stanley park left to see. We thought about renting some bikes but the weather was looking like it could rain a fair bit. We chose to walk through downtown to the park and then walk some of the sea wall before going into the aquarium. It’s one of the world’s best apparently, but we really weren’t that excited. It was really packed with people and I think we got lucky in Bangkok by going to a very empty one just before closing. The highlight was the 2 Beluga whales and a small dolphin display.

Afterwards we cut through to the other side of the park to check out a couple of the beaches. It wasn’t exactly sunbathing weather but a few people were still trying their very hardest. We grabbed some mid afternoon key lime pie and some drinks with a beach view and the pie was superb. We then walked back through downtown before grabbing an early pre-train dinner in a Malaysian place. I don’t remember ever having Malaysian in a restaurant before but my Beef Rendang was one of the best curries I’ve ever eaten, and God knows I’ve eaten a few.

We grabbed out bags from the hotel and went to the train station to board the Via Rail overnight service to Jasper. Our cabin wasn’t luxurious but it was perfectly decent and had more space than our similar journey in Thailand. The next carriage had an upper deck with an observation area (lots of window area in the sides and roof) so we spent a little time in there and eating the complimentary jammy dodgers before trying to get some sleep.

Day 11

I don’t quite know how, but I slept on a moving train. In Thailand I spent the whole time listening to music and failing to sleep but on this one I was out like a light. We got up super early for breakfast around 6.30am so that we could get some decent seats in the observation deck. The food was pretty good considering. Most of our carriage was filled with a Japanese tour group who were spending a week in the area. We got seated with a couple of them at lunch who were perhaps 10 years older than us. It’s a special kind of delight that they show when you surprise them with a bit of their own language and her eyes went so wide when I said the usual Japanese equivalent to bon appetite.

It was a pretty long day watching scenery roll by and occasionally chatting to the other passengers. Some of them were going all the way to Halifax in the East, all by train. We saw a couple of eagles but no particularly exciting mammals. We arrived a little late into Jasper but still picked up our hire car (a fun little Fiat 500) and we gingerly made our way to Patricia Lake to our cabin for the next few days. We came back into town to grab some fantastic pizza for dinner and finally found a restaurant that did good ice cream as well as panna cotta. We did get some first hand experience with mosquitoes back at the lake late at night and decided that for the rest of our stay we’d be in training to open and close the cabin door as quickly as possible to avoid letting them in.

Day 12

We got up early to head out of town towards Lake Malign. Our first stop was pretty close to Jasper and that was Malign Canyon and a series of bridges over the canyon with some really deep views! We were a little clueless as to the length of the trail but did the longer route anyway and were rewarded with some fabulous views, just at the cost of a lot of climbing back up the canyon to get back to the car.

Next up was a stop at Medicine lake. The viewpoint at the end of the lake was gorgeous and had mountains on all sides and a very clear lake. We stopped at a few viewpoints to enjoy the scenery and a few more just to get confused at where the hell we were meant to go to get to the view.

Finally we arrived at Malign Lake. Early tourists arrived here just over 100 years ago and first impressions showed why. It’s very picturesque. Only one road comes to this lake and it’s not just next to Jasper, all of which helps to keep the number of visitors reasonable. We grabbed some lunch and then did one of the fairly easy hikes before hopping on a lake cruise for an hour and a half. I spent most of the time on the back deck just enjoying the view and snapping photos. All around are mountains, some of which have chunks of glacier visible. Around halfway down the lake we all got off and had a little walk around near Spirit Island, a tiny little grove of trees that have significance to the original natives.

After the boat we did another relatively easy hike over to Moose lake. It wasn’t named for the moose but some did settle in nearby. We hoped to see some but it’s not all that common. Thankfully we got lucky and down the end of the lake was a seriously big moose just having a drink and slowly wandering by. I passed around my binoculars to the girls who arrived just behind us who were trying to look at it through zoomed in phone screens.

We headed back up the road into Jasper trying to watch for wildlife as it’s a hotspot for bears but we didn’t get lucky. We tried to book onto a wildlife watching tour for the following day but they were all full. I may have been slightly sad at the thought of missing out on the good wildlife! We grabbed a burger in town before crashing for the night.

Day 13

We had originally planned to go up the local gondola but we were a little gondola’d out at this point so we decided to do one of the hikes instead and go up near Mt Edith Cavell. A long, windy road took us up to the parking area and we could feel the altitude kicking in at around 7000ft. The walk was a little more serious than my guidebook had suggested and I was intent on getting up to the penultimate viewpoint via the easier trail but skipping the very top. Just before we got to the fork between difficult and easy we met a couple descending who told us that there was a bear up ahead near the trail. This definitely picked up my pace. The next couple told us that it was a grizzly and then I felt slightly differently. Still excited but a little more nervous. Reports were that it was seen from the hard trail rather than the easy one, so off we headed to hunt for it. We only saw perhaps 4 people in the next hour on the trail but sadly no bears.

We did at least get some fantastic views and then get to enjoy a relatively easy descent down the other route and see a marmot. From our best point we could see mountains, a glacier and then a waterfall from the glacier which was feeding into a glacial pond which had large chunks of ice floating on it. We descended and took a closer look at the pond before heading back to Jasper where we settled for some more of the pizza.

On a whim I got Claire to check the local tour company to see if they’d had any cancellations for their wildlife tour whilst I went shopping for more memory cards. It turned out that they’d had a lot of interest and put on another tour and Claire booked us onto it immediately. We had just enough time to get back to our cabin, get ready and then head back to town.

This is where things get a little ironic. On the way to our tour to go try and find a bear.. we saw our first bear. You know you’ve found wildlife when there are cars at the side of the road and havoc is ensuing. A black bear was feasting on some berries just inside the woods so we took a moment to watch and grab some photos before having to dash off to our tour.

The tour was really a 3 hour hunt along the highway and some local areas to find whatever was about. We found a lot of elk on the road to Miett but no bears, coyote or anything else. As we headed back into Jasper near the end of the tour we stopped near a few cars to try and see what they’d seen. We weren’t even sure there was anything as everyone else was leaving but eventually someone from the back of the bus spotted a bear right at the back of some trees and we pulled off the road to go up to the railway line and got a good view of it. He was eating some grain dropped by freight trains and eventually wandered off to the other side of the tracks.

Compared to most of the people on the wildlife tour it seemed that we’d seen a lot of animals so far in Jasper, but I guess we’d just been going to the best spots and doing plenty of walking. We grabbed a bit of light food for dinner and failed to have an early night. Tomorrow we have the scenic drive to Field ahead of us as we head towards the last part of the trip. The weather was a mix of overcast today and sunny (yesterday) in Jasper so we can’t complain. Looks like storms might hit us in Banff but hopefully they aren’t too bad.

USA and Canada Days 5-9

Day 5

We had to be up early to hop on the ferry which would take us to Vancouver Island. It was a short taxi ride away from the hotel and then we were some of the first on-board so we got to pick some seats with a good view. The clipper didn’t have a large viewing deck so we relaxed with some snacks and watched the scenery float by. The view was nice but nothing to rival some of the epic scenery we’ve seen on previous trips. On the up-side, the old guy behind us did leave with the number of the woman he sat down next to.

We checked into our hotel and failed to notice that we’d been upgraded to a suite. We’d got cooking facilities and a bedroom and it was nice to have some space. We decided to head out pretty quickly to go grab some food so we walked around the very pretty waterfront area and went to a tapas place. It wasn’t a great sign when they had pizza and pasta on the menu but we hoped that the good reviews we’d seen would make it worth it. We were mostly wrong and it would seem that people in Victoria are clueless about tapas! It was certainly edible, some of it even tasty.. but I wouldn’t go much further than that.

We did a little shopping for chocolates and walking around the downtown area before crashing at the hotel. My lack of sleep had finally hit in full force. After a nap that lasted far too long we headed out to Fisherman’s Wharf to get some freshly caught fish and chips. The cod on offer was some of the best I’ve ever tasted and well worth the trip. We took a long but uneventful stroll out to Chinatown afterwards before crashing for the night.

My main issue with the day was the potatoes at the tapas place. They had “Papas bravas”, more usually called Patatas bravas or “brave potatoes” which is one of the most common tapas dishes around. They had it with a choice of spicy tomato sauce or just a plain garlic aioli though. One of those things is patatas bravas, and one of them is not. It’s like offering a turkey sandwich with the option of turkey or prawn. I did the only thing I could and ordered patatas aioli and confused the hell out of the poor woman.

Day 6

Another early start today ahead of a kayaking trip to discovery island, which lies a little way off the coast of Victoria to the East. We got picked up by a fun woman in an electric car and then taken out by Reuben and Jeanette with the kayaks. We were joined by an older couple and a dad with his 2 teenage kids. These kayaks were the height of luxury compared to the ones we had in Thailand. Rudders, waterproof space for bags and we were fully waterproof in the adjustable seats. Honestly though, it was a bit more of a faff and I kinda prefer the more simple approach. I guess we had a very calm day for this one but with more wind it would be nicer to be waterproof.

We spent several hours paddling about 12km around the island and some of the neighbouring one too. We saw a bald eagle, kingfishers, vultures and a variety of more common birds. We did a short hike to an abandoned lighthouse on the island too where we saw signs of a resident wolf. The weather was fantastic and we had a great time. Reuben was a great guide and he gave me some suggestions on how to spend our time in Vancouver too.

We headed out to beacon hill park in the late afternoon to check out some totem polls and stroll along the ocean front. The park felt a little too much like those at home to get terribly excited about trees and ducks, but it was nice all the same.

We went to a highly recommended Italian restaurant for dinner and found it decent but not amazing. I ended up just wishing I had cooked most of it myself. Today’s issue came with pronunciation. I hoped Canada would be different to the states. Parmesan is probably my most hated word in the states. “Parmajarn” is not a thing. I prayed that the waitress wouldn’t do it to me but she did. Someone needs to come and educate these places. Whilst they’re at it they can sort out the aluminum, yam, cilantro and eggplant but seriously just start with parmajarn.

Day 7

We’d booked onto a whale watching tour with the top rated company on trip advisor. We really wanted to go see a whale in the wild. We got down to the docks for not long after 8am and then had a drink in a local coffee shop whilst everyone arrived. We then got suited up in some massive jackets and waterproof trousers despite the expectation of a very hot day. Travelling on a small, triple-engine speedboat made us very glad for the layers though. We had around 15 of us on the boat and plenty of space and comfy seats.

After around 45 minutes of serious speed and heading west we slowed up and saw our first whale in the distance. Our fab guide told us that there were a bunch all around in various directions and that we’d be seeing quite a few and that prediction came true. We spent several hours checking out multiple whale pods and sailing alongside anything from 1 to 4 whales. The boats can’t get too close to the whales but sometimes we’d get ahead of the whales, turn the engine off and they’d head right past us (or under us) out of curiosity. Seeing all of these whales in their natural environment was one of the highlights of all the trips I’ve ever done. We learned a lot about them during the morning and we were spoiled for whales to look at.

We saw some sea-lions on the way back but didn’t manage to find the local humpbacks. After the whales we grabbed a huge plate of nachos in a decent mexican place near the hotel before getting our bags and heading to the bus terminal and hopping on the coach to Vancouver. Most of the journey was on a car ferry which wound its way through many islands and gave us some pretty decent views. We arrived late, grabbed some disappointing sushi (using brown rice!) in a well rated place near to the hotel and called it a night.

We really liked Victoria. Just one or two streets away from the sea and it was incredibly peaceful. There was grass and trees everywhere, lovely people and the air was super fresh. You could just enjoy being at somewhere like Fisherman’s Wharf with little, multi-coloured floating buildings and then watch the sea-planes take off and land. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of Vancouver island but I could see us coming back sometime.

Day 8

The hotel in Vancouver was the first place with a breakfast. They needn’t have bothered. Nobody should ever do that to an egg and call it an omelette. Nice big room though and the first of the trip which had a shower taller than me.

Today we took a free shuttle (an old school Vancouver Trolley) to the north shore and went to Capilano suspension bridge. This was a rather expensive but cool area above a deep gorge which had a cliff walk, suspension bridge and some tree-top walkways in the forest. It was a little busy but we got the impression that we were actually there at a good time of day. The suspension bridge wasn’t at all scary for me which was a surprise. That didn’t stop lots of other people being fairly terrified on it. A fun place to spend the morning but a little more touristy than we usually like.

Late morning we jumped on a bus from Capilano up to the base of Grouse Mountain. We took a gondola up the mountain and then got to ride a chair-lift even further up before finally going up inside a huge wind turbine which had a viewing platform to look out across the surrounding mountains and down over Vancouver. This was all really quite nice. They had a couple of bears there which we got to see and a few other activities that we watched before heading back down. It was really hot again but not quite so punishing up on the mountain.

The return shuttle dropped us off quite far from our hotel so we slowly walked back and did some sightseeing in Gas Town along the way. This is the “historic” old town of Vancouver but nothing here is old to us, just not quite as new. Quite pretty, but it mostly just felt like a collection of shops and bars. We booked into a Thai place for dinner that was a decent taxi ride from our hotel. It had great reviews and pretty much lived up to them. A very good yellow curry and we mostly went for the mango sticky rice. It didn’t live up to Thailand but it was nice, so I wasn’t too sad. It does make me appreciate the food back home though. Vancouver is known for being a foodie place here and it has a lot of Asian cuisine, but you really have to hunt to get anything as good as we’d expect in any decent restaurant in Bath. Maybe I eat at too many nice places thesedays.

We took a really nice walk back to our hotel via Granville Island and a water taxi and some nice Sunset views of Downtown.

Day 9

Another day, another gondola. On the advice of our kayak guide Reuben, we decided to go along the Sea to Sky highway up to Squamish and ride the new gondola up the mountain. We didn’t want to book a car for the day so we did a guided tour instead. For once the in-hotel tv channel showing tours came in handy! We got a few scenic stops at Horseshoe bay and then Shannon falls (3rd tallest waterfall in British Columbia) before getting to the gondola. This one was really steep and it had amazing views of the Howe Sound below, probably the first fjord that we’ve seen. Another suspension bridge at the top, though much smaller and then a panoramic trail and it was time for a quick burger before heading back down. The scenery here was fab and the mountain air was wonderful. This place reminded us quite a bit of Yosemite in terms of the vegetation and air.

We stopped off at the shut down Britannia copper mine on the way back to Vancouver. We wouldn’t really have gone there if it wasn’t part of the guided tour but we loved it. We got to go inside the mine shafts and learn about the conditions and equipment. The historic photos just had an incredibly British quality to them too.

We had a pretty light dinner of some very, very tasty baguettes from a small place not too far from the hotel (and some cake) before having a pretty lazy evening. One more day in Vancouver ahead and the weather is probably about the turn slightly sour on us.

I’ve often thought that Vancouver might be one of the best cities to live in and I wondered if I might like it more than others from previous trips. It’s pretty good, but it’s no Kyoto! It has pretty decent food, lots of trees, amazing mountain views and great air. Everywhere you look there is someone doing exercise. The only problem with all this is that it’s also full of homeless people. I knew that they get sent here from other cities because it’s the only major city in Canada where they won’t die during the winter, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how many of them we’d see whilst walking around the city. It just feels like more could be done to help them and it’s kind of surprising that in such a successful city that they aren’t doing something to solve the situation. This is still one of my favourite cities though and I expect to end up back here sometime, maybe on the way back to Vancouver Island.

USA and Canada Day 4

I decided before this trip that I would try and be pretty healthy so that I didn’t do too much damage that I’d have to sort out afterwards. Eating more of the famous coconut pie at 5am probably wasn’t the way to go. I did sleep though, at least some of the night.

We grabbed more breakfast muffins and headed over to the venue early to grab some good seats for the final day. Today we’d got a match to decide who would make it into the final to face CDEC and then the actual final itself. It ended up being a classic China (CDEC) vs USA (EG) final with a very high standard of Dota that lasted for several hours. The atmosphere in the venue was just incredible. Even though these weren’t the teams I support, I still loved the experience. EG won in the final and after it was over there was a short set by Deadmau5.  We then headed back to the hotel to grab burgers in the bar before sorting out our packing. We have to leave pretty early in the morning to get on the boat to Vancouver Island.

I grabbed a couple of photos during the day. The first with Ri and then one with Jorien (Sheever). I ended up stood with Sheever, chatting for a little while and taking photos for her fans with her. Once she was done I decided I’d get one of my own whilst she was looking a bit more casual, and where I could try and actually look into the camera. She was going to take the selfie but then over pops Erik Johnson of Valve who offers to the picture. Erik Johnson does multiple jobs at Valve, but one of them is being project manager for Dota 2. As such, he’s pretty important and it was nice to have him taking my photo for me :).

I’ve watched this tournament online for the last 4 years and the quality of the production this year blows all the others away. I’m delighted that this was the year we came and I don’t see how they’ll improve on it so much next year.

USA and Canada Intro and Days 1-3


We’ve wanted to go to Canada for a while and always figured we’d do the West coast and see the mountains and take in the landscapes and wildlife. Last year I had the idea of combining that with another of my hobbies, esports. I’ve been into gaming for years and competitive gaming (as a viewer) for at least 6-7 years. 4 years ago Valve, the company behind Steam, released Dota 2. They did so by organising a tournament for $1.6m to attract attention and they called it The International. The production wasn’t great, it was buggy and there were so many pauses but it was interesting. I’ve since been into Dota 2 as a player and a fan and this year The International 5 has 16 teams competing for $18m, the single biggest prize in gaming. We got tickets for the event and so planned a trip to Seattle to see the last half of it and then go on to Canada for some regular stuff!

Day 1

We had an uneventful afternoon flight out from Heathrow to Seattle. For some reason we thought it was going to be about 12 hours and then it turned out to be 9.5 which is so much nicer. Watched Frozen at least but there weren’t too many tempting movies. We were feeling awake enough for public transport and hopped on the light rail to take us into downtown Seattle and near to our hotel, the Mayflower Park.

First impressions of the hotel were decent but not amazing for the money, but I think we’ll have that feeling a few times. Travelling during August is pretty punishing on the cost and not something we’re used to. I guess we’ve also been spoiled on some previous trips. We headed out for some Korean fusion food at Cha:n nearby which was a really tasty choice. Some spicy chicken wings, bibimbap and little bulgogi burgers started off our food journey in style.



Day 2

I don’t sleep much at all during the first few days of a trip. Each time I hope it’ll be different and it never is. No change here. We got up early as we wanted to walk to the venue and grab breakfast on the way. Almost none of the hotels on this trip came with breakfast included, so it’ll be a good chance to find some bakeries. Dahlia bakery was top 10 on tripadvisor and oh god did it deserve it. Amazing hot breakfast muffins full of bacon, egg and aioli. They also had little coconut and cream pies (TARTS!) so I had one whilst I waited for the muffin and it was gorgeous.

We walked through downtown to the area with the space needle and Key Arena, where The International was taking place. We were pretty early so we grabbed our tickets, some merchandise and then found some really good seats in time for Day 4 of the competition. Unfortunately several of the teams I was supporting had been knocked out by this point and it wasn’t looking great for the others. Thankfully the standard of play was incredibly high and it was very enjoyable, regardless of who I was rooting for.


We grabbed some Vietnamese bahn-mi at Red Papaya just round the corner from the venue and it was well worth the money. We then returned to see some more games and then attend a virtual reality demo we’d signed up for. Valve are partnered with HTC to make a VR headset called the Vive. It uses positional tracking so you can walk around in a room with the headset on and explore the space. We got to enjoy demos where we explored a kitchen and one where we got to do some 3d painting and move around our art. There was an incredible underwater one set on a wrecked ship where a whale turns up and makes you feel incredibly tiny and vulnerable. Finally there was a Dota 2 themed one inside a shack full of items and creatures from the game. I had the biggest grin on my face the entire time through the demo and I can’t wait for this stuff to become part of our normal lives. Gaming simply won’t be the same anymore.


After the VR we watched a 10 vs 10 all-star match on the main stage which featured some of the crowd and some of the fan favourites playing together. Then we headed back to the hotel and crashed for the night.

Day 3

Even less sleep going into day 3 and I’m not sure what I did to deserve that! Having skipped dinner on day 2 I grabbed 2 of the breakfast muffins as we walked over to the venue for more Dota. We found some decent seats again and watched the pre-show.

“Sheever”, one of the personalities who acts as a pundit and presenter at big events is someone I regularly watch online. I’d ended up trying to help her sister Ri out with a ticket as they’d been hard to get hold of. I’d not met Ri before the event but we’d talked a bunch on skype in the run up. We met up for a while during the first game whilst she was running a few errands for her sister. I recognized a lot of personalities at the event but it was cool to chat to Ri as she was the only person I’d actually talked to before. We ended up chatting on twitter a fair bit during the games and it was really cool.


Above: Me (jetlagged!) with Jorien “Sheever” van der Heijden.

We skipped out after the first couple of matches to grab some thai food and the phad thai didn’t disappoint. I really shouldn’t have asked for it spicy though.. I am apparently a very, very slow learner. We then watched the remainder of the last game before heading back to the hotel. I may have grabbed a big coconut pie at the bakery on the way back with the intention of eating a small amount of it. As I write this.. there isn’t much of it left. I ended up being so tired that I fell asleep at 9pm but I did get some solid sleep and then decided that 5am is a good time for blogging! In a few hours we’ll head off for the penultimate match and then the final and then on Sunday we’ll be hopping on a boat to Vancouver Island.

Tour of Thailand

Later this week we’ll embark on a 2 week tour of Thailand. We start with a few days in Bangkok before hopping on a rice barge
to take us to the historical city of Ayutthaya. We get a day sight-seeing temple there before hopping on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the north where we can see an elephant sanctuary and do some cooking lessons in a rural setting. We then fly south to the Andaman coast to stay near Phuket in the areas of Krabi and then Khao Lak. We should get a chance to see both jungle and exotic islands in this second week. It’s got a very different feeling to the Japan trip right now and this one barely feels real yet. I’m sure it will when we’re on the plane :).

I’ll try to add some photos as I go to make the blogs more interesting.


Day 14

Day 14

We woke up for an early breakfast then used the subway to get to Kyoto station for the shinkansen back to Tokyo. With a 2 week Japan Rail pass you aren’t allowed to use the fastest “Nozomi” service which now makes up most of the trains, but instead can get the “Hikari” every 30 minutes. This still travels at around 170mph and just stops a few more times. I watched the countryside fly by and tried to spot Mt Fuji which wasn’t too hard. Sadly it had the typical layer of cloud covering the peak.

We got into Tokyo just before midday and headed back to the same hotel we’d used at the start of the trip. Whereas Tokyo felt very unfamiliar just a couple of weeks before, it now felt like returning home. We knew dinner would probably be a little awkward so we wanted a big lunch and had the amazing idea of trying to find the same katsukura curry chain in Tokyo and there was one at a department store in Shinjuku within walking distance. Even though we’d had it the night before, more tonkatsu was amazing and we both had bigger portions.

From Shinjuku we headed over to Ryogoku where the Kokukigan sumo stadium sits and made our way inside having obtained English lists of the competitors and the rankings for the day. The tickets weren’t cheap but we had excellent seats on the upper level with a great view and the spectacle of sumo turned out to be genuinely enjoyable, much more than either of us really expected. The bouts were short and involved a lot of ceremony but it was always a powerful and exciting contest. The fighters improved as the time went on and as the quality improved, so did the amount of time spent on pre-match build up.

The funniest part of the sumo was how men would do a lap around the small ring holding very traditional style advertisement banners for major companies. I saw one fight where both wrestlers toppled out of the ring at the same time and after a length deliberation the judges decided they should fight again. We also saw several wrestlers exit the ring at speed straight into the crowd which sits very nearby. I had to wonder how many people get hurt this way. The experience was well worth our time and really made the last day in Tokyo into something to remember.

Afterwards we headed back to Shinjuku and grabbed some bento for dinner before packing up ready for an airport transfer so early the hotel couldn’t help us with breakfast.

At least on the flight home I haven’t had to worry about staying up as long and being immediately ready for sightseeing so I can enjoy a few movies. Turns out the new Robocop was better than I expected, Divergent was doing OK until the second half and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn said it was a comedy and then ended up with Robin William’s character trying to kill himself and it all got a bit emotional. There’s just enough time left to think about watching Life of Brian which I found in the archive before we land.

I don’t think Claire and I have ever been so quick to decide we want to return to a country to see more of it. The food which was a worry before the trip turned out to be a highlight. The sights were better than expected across the board and the transport runs so well that we rarely had cause to stress. Above all else we found the people to be incredibly kind and hospitable. Strangers stopped for us (and other western tourists) to help them with ticket machines or if they saw us looking at a map with a little confusion and many people tried to use what English they knew to talk to us and ask us about the trip.

Arigatou gozaimashita and sayonara Japan. Ja mata ne!

Day 13

This day began similarly to the previous few.  We had a strong desire to get up early but we were doing an awful lot during each day and I hadn’t been sleeping well.  We got up anyway and made the best of it, grabbing a fairly quick breakfast and getting out of the hotel for around 9am.  We hopped on the subway nearby to then change onto the a main JR line to take us to Arashiyama, an area in the western hills of the city.

We had a bit of a walk from the station to the start of our walking tour but soon enough we got to Tenryu-ji temple.  We only saw the gardens here and though we found a very pretty pond next to the main building, the rest of the garden wasn’t quite as good as some of the excellent ones we had already seen.  The reason to start here though was that the exit of the garden went straight into Arashiyama’s bamboo grove and you get to walk right through the middle of it.  I’ve walked though plenty of forests but there is something pretty damn cool about going through bamboo because it just has such striking lines.

We strolled north through Arashiyama afterwards past a few smaller temples.  We eventually stopped in Gio-ji which is a small but very atmospheric little temple on the hill with a dark,mossy garden full of trees and bamboo and very few tourists.  There were spiders hanging between the bamboo everywhere here and while Claire saved me from walking into one of them, I don’t think the couple behind us were so observant.

We then continued up the hill for some distance through some very traditional small houses and shops to a large orange/red tori gate.  We walked a bit too far beyond this and ended up at the foot of another shrine, along way from a taxi rank to get us over to north-west Kyoto.  Luckily for us as we walked back down to the tori gate we were approached by an empty taxi!  Not only this, he was the lovely kind of taxi driver who stops at a picturesque lake on the way to take a photo of you and then uses highlighter on a map (whilst he’s driving) to show you where you’ve just come from and the route between the main temples in the area.

We hopped out, now in the last major temple sight-seeing district of Kyoto to see Ninna-ji, the first of 3 temples we were looking for.  We were treated to a quite extensive building complex which was originally built as a retirement home for one of the emperors and converted by his son into a Buddhist temple.  We had lovely views out over the pond to a nearby pagoda and got to walk up to the emperor’s own room, surrounded by a nightingale floor.  This was on a par with any of the other temples we’d seen and there were far fewer people at it which made it an excellent experience.

Afterwards we took a quick look at the pagoda in the grounds, grabbed a short drinks break and then headed outside to find some lunch.  I didn’t like the first option and we were worried there wouldn’t be too many more so we dived into the second as we saw they did yaki soba (soba noodles cooked with meat and veg on a teppanyaki hotplate).  We sat at the counter as the tables were hosting a small school trip of only 7 kids who had traveled up for a few days from Tokyo.  It was really fun to watch them cook my yaki soba and Claire’s pork steak.  We also saw them cooking okonomiyaki for the kids which is like a thick filled omelette.  I chatted a little to the school teacher and made my exit in style by smacking my head on the wood above the counter.  We weren’t expecting much of this place but the food was great and they were very friendly.

We walked along the road to Ryoan-ji, a temple famous for having a very nice zen garden.  Unfortunately there were a lot of people in the temple and it wasn’t a terribly large zen garden either so it didn’t make much of an impression.  With the heat and tiredness we also found our own moods heading south so we decided we needed a proper break to get the most out of the last temple on the list.  We talked about 25 minutes up the road and found a cafe just outside where we ended up with some coke and ice cream and I half collapsed on the table for a while.

Japan is a very clean place as a whole but there’s one convention that shocked us, and in this cafe it was even worse!  In almost all of the toilets we had come across so far in public, there was no soap or drying facility, just a tap.  In this cafe there wasn’t even a tap or a sink in the toilet.  Given that most of the toilets have space-age controls on them to control water pressure and multiple bidet sprays it just doesn’t make a lot of sense that they don’t much go in for soap outside of the hotel facilities.

After the break we headed up to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavillion.  On our first full day in Kyoto we started with Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavillion) and this would complete the pair.  We paid the small entrance fee and joined the throngs of tourists to go look at a building covered in gold leaf.  Photos had made it look yellow to me and I wasn’t exactly bursting with excitement for this one before the trip but once the sun came out and we rounded the corner to see it then I understood why there were so many tourists.  It reflects beautifully in the pond that it sits next to and they give you several good vantage points to try and snap a picture.  Sadly for us there was a small wind and the reflections weren’t going to win me any photo competition prizes.  We toured round the gardens afterwards and then hopped into a taxi to make our way back to the hotel and we were both very happy to see the bed for a late afternoon nap.

We kept our options open for dinner and headed out to get a look at a Tonkatsu restaurant (fried pork).  I have always had a thing for chicken katsu as I mentioned before but Japan seems to almost always offer pork instead and I’ve always thought that outside of bacon that I wasn’t too interested.  The place looked good and had fantastic reviews so we went down a little tunnel from the mall and felt like we had entered a different world.  We had to pick which quality of pork we wanted and how much of it.  We then had it as part of a set with rice, miso soup and shredded cabbage.  They had a variety of different sauces to try on the pork and they also brought us some sesame seeds to grind ourselves (we weren’t sure quite what to put them on afterwards so a bit went everywhere).  I had 120g of their best tenderloin and it tasted so good that I wished I’d had just a bit more.  The spicy sauce was really good too.  To top things off I finally found Uemeshu available here which is a plum brandy.  It was one of only 2 things Sarah was really familiar with from Japan outside of the obvious stuff and I had made it a mission to track some down.  Luckily for me it was really rather tasty and I didn’t have to head home having failed my quest with my tail between my legs.

After dinner it was time to get packed up ahead of going back to Tokyo for the final day.  One final strange thing we’ve seen here so much has been selfie sticks.  People attach their phones and cameras onto the end of a stick and use it to take better selfies.  These things are apparently all the rage in Asia and I guess we’ll be seeing a lot more of them around Bath soon.  The Japanese love taking selfies and half of them seem armed with these new toys.  I can’t say that i’m tempted, but I have for once tried to take some photos of us on this trip and having a camera where the back screen could flip up and be used for a selfie has come in very handy!  Hopefully a couple of them aren’t rubbish.


Day 12

After the late start on the previous day we set an early alarm with the best of intentions.  Unfortunately we went to bed quite late and were still pretty damn tired from all the walking.  Over breakfast we decided to try and make today a little easier, but only a little.  With under 4 days in Kyoto and an impossible amount of sights to see we had to summon some energy.

To start the morning we headed to the Heian Jingu shrine.  This is one of the main shrines in Kyoto and is a large complex of red central buildings with a huge red front gate, all surrounded by a very pretty garden.  This place was also on my Lost in Translation hit list as there’s a scene with Charlotte jumping across the stepping stones.  I found them and I had my fun on them too!  This garden also featured a lovely large wooden bridge with a roof across one of the ponds with good views of some of the other buildings.

From here we headed south along the railway to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine.  Similar to the previous day, the run up to this shrine also had a lot of little souvenir shops, food stalls and little old restaurants.  We grabbed some soba noodles and chicken in a broth from one along with a little sushi and it exceeded our low expectations by a long way.  They don’t seem to go in for ripping off tourists with crap goods and services in quite the same way that we do in the western world and it takes some getting used to.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine for the 40’000 Inari shrines across Japan and was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century.  Essentially there’s a large red shrine complex at the base of a mountain which is itself covered in forest.  Winding their way to the top of the mountain and around it are paths which have smaller shrines periodically at the side of them.  Pilgrims travel here and give offerings to each shrine.  Lining the paths are thousands of red tori gates.  We’d seen a lot of red gates at entrances to other temples and dotted about in Japan, but these turn the paths nearly into tunnels and make for a remarkable sight and experience.  It takes over an hour to walk up paths and steps through them to the top of the mountain and not much less to get back down.  There was a point on the way up with great views back over Kyoto but at the top is simply a large shrine in the woods.  It certainly felt rewarding to get up there though.  People vote this the number 1 activity to do in Kyoto and they’re not wrong.  As with everything in Kyoto it becomes quickly apparent that it’s so much larger than you expect and very well maintained for something so old and visited by so many tourists.  Even though there were a lot of people there, we had long sections in the top half where it wasn’t so busy.

After the shrine we headed off to Nishiki market for a little more shopping and to check out some of the food stalls.  The most exciting thing was seeing a tiny little red octopus on a stick.  We didn’t jump at the chance to try one.  We then headed out for an evening walking tour through Gion to try and spot a Geisha but didn’t find another one.  We did enjoy the many old streets with very traditional high-end restaurants though before getting back to the hotel with every intention of not getting to bed too late before our final day in Kyoto.

After many days walking around in Japan I realise that I have still only seen graffiti one time and that was on the train taking us from the airport into Tokyo.  I’ve seen poorer areas but nowhere that looked run down.  Everywhere has felt extremely safe, even the pink-light district in Shinjuku which the locals tend to avoid.  We often see young children using the subway or kids in school uniform out walking late at night too.  There’s no litter either.  There are very few public bins in Japan, you’re simply expected to take your rubbish home and deal with it and everybody does.  Where are the chavs and the disobedient folk?  I know they have the mafia, the Yakuza.. but on the face of it Japan seems to have less of the bad stuff than anywhere else I’ve yet been to.

Day 11

I’d planned that today we would do 2 walking tours.  Northern Higashiyama and Southern Higashiyama.  Both of these tours were meant to take 4 hours and are hard to squeeze in because of opening and closing times for the temples and shrines, but there’s so much to do in Kyoto that I wanted to try to be efficient.  I figured that there would be a couple of big temples and then a lot of small ones.  I was wrong.

We got up a little late and grabbed a pretty decent breakfast.  The hotel provides an awful lot of variety though the bread was all tiny so I had to toast loads of little pieces.  After the food we got out to a scorcher of a day and hopped on a bus up to the north-eastern hills.  Our first stop was Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion.  Except it isn’t silver, because the project ran out of money a long, long time ago.  It’s still lovely though and it there were extensive gardens with views from the hillside out over Kyoto.  They did a great job of taking the tourists near to the main building but in such a way that the best photos could still be taken without them getting in the way.

After this we headed to Honen-in temple.  We actually missed the main entrance and made our way up to the beautiful old graveyard instead before finding the main body of buildings.  This was all on a pretty small scale but very old.  We were greeted by a little old lady here who insisted we see somewhere else (neither of us caught the name) and when she found out we were from England she explained that she loves Hugh Grant.  Afterwards we deviated from the planned route to also take a glance at Anrakuji temple as we heard some chanting and it was a pretty little building.  There are thousands of shrines and temples in Kyoto that aren’t flooded with tourists and you constantly pass them, forcing yourself not to take a look because if you did, you’d never get anywhere.

We then made our way to a canal and followed a path known as the Path of Philosophy.  There was a lot of pretty flowers and trees around the canal and we had more good views out over the city.  After the canal we got to Eikan-do temple.  We hadn’t read much about it and it looked like a little temple (of many) on the route.  We wondered if we’d really get value for money out of the £3 entrance fee each (We had this thought several times, always to be proven so very wrong).  We found the main entrance and removed our shoes to tour the interior of what became many buildings lining the side of the hill and on multiple levels, with some lovely ponds and gardens too.  After the inside we popped our shoes back on and roamed in between the buildings and toured the gardens themselves.  We walked quickly but soon realised that if every “little” temple was like this then we’d be going all night too.

From here we walked down to Nanzen-ji.  I knew of this from a scene in Lost in Translation where Charlotte day trips to Kyoto and sees a wedding taking place.  There was a huge gate ahead of the main temple and then a bunch of sub-temples (we visited Nanzen-in and Kotoku-an.  All of the above were lovely.  The main temple buildings at the bigger sites are just magnificent and very large.  The gardens at the smaller temples are equally captivating and look exactly as you’d imagine when you think of Japanese gardens featuring ponds, stepping stones and zen gardens.  Our final stop of the morning was Konchi-in temple just around the corner, and this had a very pleasant zen garden.

To get a short break from the heat we hopped onto the subway to travel just down the road and get nearer to the start of the other walking tour.  We picked up a quick bagel lunch in a cafe to help fuel all the walking too.  Our first stop now was Shoren-in temple.  More lovely buildings with some beautifully painted sliding screens and some of the best gardens of the day featured here too but our overriding memory was of a small Japanese girl pleasing with her mother (Kudasai!  Kudasai!) to let her ring the temple bell in the garden.  Mom didn’t seem to think this was a great idea but her dad picked her up and gave it a go.  It made a very gentle sound for a large bell and was intended to be rung by visitors.  This prompted us to have a go too!

Next on the trail not too far away was Chion-in temple.  We were a little confused as to where the entrance was.  Most of the temples so far had a single main entrance and some of them would charge a small fee at this point.  Not so with Chion-in as it was so ridiculously large.  The main hall was actually entirely encased in a modern shell to protect it whilst repairs were going on and yet the overall temple grounds were so big it hardly mattered and it was all free and a functional temple, we saw many monks cleaning and chanting.  The highlight here was a giant bell elevated on the hill in one corner of the temple which was hanging from an incredibly solid looking wooden structure.  The bell is so heavy that it takes around 16 monks to swing the giant wooden hammer into it.  The bell is around 400 years old and the temple nearly 900.  Some Japanese men suggested to us that it was Big Ben and they found this hilarious!

From here we entered Maruyama park which features the most famous cherry blossom tree in Kyoto.  Unfortunately in September it really doesn’t look all too special.  Still, there was an attractive pond and bridge and a little cafe drilling holes into grapefruit and selling them as drinks and a very talented young musician playing a guitar.  We walked to the western end of the park expecting to find Yasaka Shrine, which we assumed to be small because of the location.  Wrong, very wrong again.  This was a large shrine at the end of the park and flooded with people.  It sat at the end of the main street in Gion, a very old entertainment district in Kyoto and where you’d expect to find a Geisha walking about.  Like so many of the shrines it was large and red and had a lot of people offering up a bit of change for a small prayer.

We carried on up a small hill out of the park to find Kodaiji temple sitting at the top of a long flight of very pretty steps.  There was a shrine here and a lot of people with stalls nearby.  The temple featured more wonderful landscaped gardens and a bamboo grove.  From the bamboo we glimpsed a giant Buddha nearby too.  In any other city it would have been a major attraction but here it was just something you could see from the gardens of Kodaiji.  After the temple we walked down a few very pretty and traditional side streets.  We found a man walking with a Geisha and positioning her outside the buildings for some photos.  I asked if he minded if I also took pictures and was promptly ignored, so I did grab a few.

The final stop of the southern tour was the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera.  It took a lot of walking up the hill through countless traditional lanes with souvenir shops.  They did an excellent job of not looking tacky.  We were especially surrounded here by young couples and women wearing traditional kimono and wooden sandals.  We knew we might see some of this but it was incredibly common.  In amongst the tourist shops there were also a lot of shops selling tasty little treats, each specializing in a different type of treat and so many of them look very interesting and tasty.  At the top of all the streets we got to the temple, expecting a large building but we found a vast complex of them again.

We again paid the cheap token entry fee and walked more of the hills of Kyoto.  The main building stood on a massive number of wooden stilts to allow it to sit on the hill and had paths along the hill to some of the other buildings.  The views from the top of the path over Kyoto were wonderful and would have only been slightly better if we’d have been a little later for the actual sunset, but the temple closes a bit too early for that at this time of year.  We made our way back down through the shops, trying a filled custard cream puff from one of the stalls for good measure.  We then got back to the hotel via the subway.

It’s hard to recall exactly which temple had which garden feature and where we saw the most beautiful paintings and details because there were so many.  Many times during the day we would see a magical red or black building on a huge scale, for it just to be the gate ahead of the main collection of temple buildings.  This was easily the single best concentration of historical sites I’ve ever seen and even though it was temple after temple, garden after garden, they were all different enough to stand out and each feel like a great experience.

We took pity on our very tired bodies and our need for a big meal and grabbed Indian food at a nearby restaurant with excellent reviews.  I think it’s fair to say that most people in England are probably enough of an expert in Indian food to be able to judge anywhere else (outside of India or similar) on how they do.  This place was pretty good in general but you really shouldn’t blend the spinach in a chicken sag to make the whole sauce bright green!  We dipped into a local food shop right by the hotel afterwards and found that it sold all sorts of global foods.  I don’t know why it’s so exciting to see highland shortbread or Patak’s curry paste when we’re so far from home, but it was nice to see.  It may also have involved buying some dairy milk ahead of the next busy day!