We took all sorts of trains while travelling around Japan, but the Shinkansen were certainly the coolest. They reach speeds up to 240–320 km/h, are luxurious and the timetables run like clockwork!
On the first leg of our travels with JR passes, we went from Tokyo Station to Takayama station which is up in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture. The Shinkansen towards Nagano took us as far as Toyama station where we transferred to the much slower scenic train, the JR Hida Limited Express (also known as Wide View). This train had huge windows and wound up through the mountainous terrain providing some spectacular views.
View from the Shinkansen somewhere near Nagano.
When travelling by train in Japan one must sample as many Ekiben as possible, as they are a true adventure in Japanese food art. Ekiben are a specific type of bento boxed meals, sold on trains and in train stations.
Cute kids Ekiben from Ekibenya Matsuri Tokyo Station.
This photo is from later on in our journey, but was also taken from the window of a Shinkansen heading towards Odawara station from Nagoya.
Three days in Tokyo was barely enough to scratch the surface of this huge, vibrant Metropolis. The kids and I certainly tried to squeeze in as much as we could though!
Sights around Tokyo Teleport station.
EarthRunClub https://earthrunclub.net was having an event. It was fun to see how even the sport of running is influenced by culture. Ekiden are traditional long-distance relay races held all over Japan, where whole towns are known to get involved in one way or another.
It is hard to put into words exactly what a visit to TeamLab Borderless is like. Transcendent, otherworldly and futuristic are three words that first come to mind. The most important advice I would give anyone is to get there early, at least 1/2 hr before opening and beat the crowds. For the first hour it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves and that was when it was truly immersive. After that, there were just too many people and it detracted from the amazing digital wonderland.
After a long flight and a quick sleep to try and get onto the local time zone schedule, the kids and I hit up Tokyo DisneySea. It ranks up there with one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. It had the Disney feel, but infused with Japanese language and culture. To be honest, after navigating the transit system from Narita airport area out to Chiba Prefecture where the Disney parks are located, we were just glad to have someone waving and telling us where to line up. Not that we understood a word they were saying, but the orderly lines and quiet atmosphere made for a relatively relaxing day! The music was not blaring the way it does in the US parks, people were quiet and respectful and at times I forgot we were at Disney. It was a day of weird moments, “Hey, are we in Venice with a bunch of Japanese people?”, or “Look kids we are back in Morocco.”
The lineup 45mins before park opening
Thank goodness for big brothers who give piggybacks when the going gets tough!
As if riding camels into the desert together was not awesome enough in itself, we got to spend a night in a bivouac camp all by ourselves. Although it was rather chilly, I think the benefits of travelling in Morocco during off season are worth it and the family experience of having special moments all to ourselves was simply priceless! At around 3pm we met our guide and our camels at the Yasmina hotel, got all wrapped up in our headscarves to keep the blowing sand at bay and we were up and away. By up and away I mean literally, the camels have to stand up once you get on, and it is hilarious. First they get on their knees, and you lean back a bit, then their butt goes way up and you pitch far forward. Then they get their front legs up and you realize just how high off the ground you are. My 10yr old was on a camel by himself and I could tell he was nervous, but he was a trooper!
We were on the camels for just over an hour, up and down and around the dunes. It was peaceful and tranquil, the closest I can say I’ve been to feeling like I am in another world altogether.
Once we arrived at the camp, we climbed up a huge dune to watch the sunset. It was AMAZING!
The tent camp was quite comfortable, but it got very cold once the sun went down. We bundled up in blankets and listened to our guide singing traditional Berber songs and playing the drums. My daughter and hubby gave the drums a try, but I felt really bad when he asked us to sing some Canadian songs and the only thing I could come up with was “We’re goin’ on a bear hunt”.
In the morning we got up before sunrise and set out for the trip back. Just as the sun was coming up over the dunes, we stopped to watch and just soak it all in.
Near Merzouga, at the foot of the Erg Chebbi Dunes, there is an Oasis that local families use for farming. The Irrigation system is a canal down the centre, with long narrow plots off to either side. The families take turns opening their section up to the water by knocking down a mud barrier and letting the flow in. It is a simple, traditional method based on cooperation and it is amazing that they have been farming like this for generations.
Outskirts of Oasis
After visiting the beautiful Oasis we stopped at the village of Khamlia to listen to some Gnawa Music. The Bambara tribe, also called Gnawa, trace their origins to sub-Saharan Africa. They came to Morocco as slaves and brought with them their culture, customs and traditions. Their music is a mixture of Bambara, Berber and Arabic and it has a strong link with their spirituality. You can have see the Groupe des Bambaras on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQMzGn-knz8. What I find sad and yet also inspiring is that the sound of the castanets is said to mimic the sound of the clanking of the chains that the slaves endured though their forced march across the Sahara desert when they were brought to Morocco. Focusing on the rhythmic sound helped them to chant together and stay focused on a steady pace.
Having been so dark the previous night when we arrived to Merzouga and got settled in at the Hotel Yasmina, we had no idea what was in store when we woke up the next morning!
View from outside our room on the balcony.
The Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara were literally at our doorstep! The kids dove right in and started playing while hubby and I had coffee on the patio and enjoyed the otherworldly sight of this sea of sand.