Grace: Japan (Part II).

Grace: Japan (Part II).

Tokyo gets a lot of hype – and it deserves it! It’s a behemoth megatropolis that swallows you alive, challenges your preconceptions, and spits you out feeling somehow different, in a surreal, ghostlike way that you can never quite put your finger on. It is the marriage of chaos and order, of excess and of discipline – and it bestows upon its more intrepid explorers more rewards and experiences than one could ever hope to bear. Put simply, Tokyo delivers. It is, truly, one of the great cities on Earth. But no matter how much you might want to believe it, Tokyo is not the real Japan. 

Tokyo is the culmination of Japan’s accomplishment’s. It’s the irrefutable center of the country’s industry, its efforts, its evolution and its potential for global significance. It’s the country’s calling card – an exclamation of ruthless disregard for compromise. Defiant in its scale, its breakneck growth, and its celebration of excess, Tokyo is without a doubt Japan’s living, beating heart – drumming on into oblivion and buzzing like a time-traveling hornet’s nest, freshly home from a quick romp in the 22nd century.  But Tokyo is not the whole story. Yes, Tokyo is the country’s heart. But it too has a soul.

Kyoto: Zen and the Art of Temple Maintenance

Two hours and fifteen minutes and three easy steps are all it takes to travel to an alternate dimension.

  1. Step out from the dizzying chaos of Tokyo station – the noise, the light, the madness – onto the Nozomi shinkansen bullet train. 
  2. Relax and watch 280 miles of countryside pass by your window over the next 135 minutes
  3. Step off the train and into one of the most sensationally beautiful and blissfully serene sacred cities that ever was and ever will be.

Kyoto has a storied history that spans more than 1,200 years. It tells the story of the illustrious geisha, of ancient teahouses, of centuries of tradition. It’s the epicenter of zen buddhism – a pervading calm and a gentle whisper in response to Tokyo’s unsubtle shout. Today, this one city alone is home to a dizzying 2,000+ temples, shrines, and gardens: the living embodiment of a haiku: graceful, poignant, calm. But make no mistake: over the centuries, Kyoto has borne witness to bloodshed. It is a very special place.

There is a modern, industrial city here – the train station is positively Tokyo-esque, and on its doorstep lies a skyline not unlike any other in the 21st century.

Pay these no mind – for just beyond this initial modern facade lies the old city: an entirely different universe unto itself.

This is the real Kyoto. The very city that was, for more than a millennium, Japan’s capital before Tokyo grew from its humble roots as the tiny fishing village of Edo. Today, just as it was hundreds of years ago, Kyoto is where you’ll spot robed monks contemplatively strolling amongst the myriad temples, where the hypnotic chants of zen meditation reverberate through the streets. The city smells of incense, matcha green tea, and the sweet perfume of its endless gardens – unless of course you’re in the midst of a restaurant-heavy part of the neighborhood, in which case the usual olfactory suspects of ramen, tempura, and fragrant rice apply.

Above all else, Kyoto is the embodiment of a devastating, moving beauty. It would be exhaustive to try and explain each temple and garden in detail – there are thousands of them, each with hundreds or a thousand-plus years of history unto itself – but I think photos tell a pretty detailed story. Many of these are places of worship, and some are merely testaments to beauty and calm or monuments to zen. Kyoto is calm like you’ve never experienced it before. (Well – it’s actually a madhouse of tourist activity, so in some ways it’s a bit hectic – but that’s why I was wiling to wake at or before 5 AM every day to soak in the real tranquil spirit of the place and snap some uncontested photos).

If you know where to look, though, you can get a glimpse into the bloody past that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, even amidst these serene temples. Out of reverence for the past, a few temples in town have repurposed for their ceilings the bloody floorboards that once bore witness to massacres in the time of the samurai, including the notorious mass ritual suicide of the 47 Ronin.

Stressful, huh? (Aside from that last bit, I mean – that’s actually a bit stressful, I’ll give you that). It gets better, though. Arguably my favorite individual place on the entire planet is the Fushimi Inari shrine, an unfathomably sacred place for the Shinto faith. Dating back to the 8th century and originally erected in reverence of the God of rice and sake (where do I sign up?), this tranquil paradise is the site of more than 10,000 orange torii gates, together beckoning you up the face of Mt. Inariyama, all the way to its summit. The mountain is incredibly verdant, lush and teeming with life, and hidden throughout its woods are countless thousands of statues of foxes: a sacred animal and messenger of the Gods. There is no feeling in the world like climbing the hills, silently absorbing the sights and smells of the forest, and passing for an hour+ under these gorgeous gates, all the while under the seemingly infinite watchful eyes of these beautiful stone creatures. It’s a truly haunting feeling that I will never, ever forget.

Near the mountain’s base is one of my favorite coffee shops on Earth, owned by a Japanese-Australian man who grew up in Melbourne and returned to his native Japan with his very Australian reverence for insanely good coffee in tow. Kyoto is where the world’s best green tea is sourced and grown – meaning this modernized matcha latte was the perfect way to celebrate the conclusion of my pilgrammage (it was still before 8 AM, after all).

Pictured with this beautiful beverage is my goshuinchou: a bound book that you purchase blank and take along to any temples or shrines that you visit all throughout Japan. For a small donation, officials at every temple throughout the country will painstakingly commemorate your visit with their gorgeous, meticulous calligraphy and ubiquitous red stamp seals. Each page tells a story: the name of the temple you visited, the date, and a prayer or blessing. Over my month in Japan, I filled every last page of mine, creating a keepsake of unparalleled beauty. This tradition is so evocative of Japanese culture as a whole: beautiful, simple, meticulous, graceful, detailed, reverent. The book is one of my most prized possessions.

While we’re on the topic of green tea, I should mention another experience I enjoyed in Kyoto: I was able to participate in a traditional tea ceremony. These ceremonies are rife with symbolism and slow, intentional movement. It’s an ancient practice that’s been lovingly preserved and practiced to this very day, and one I guarantee is far more complex and nuanced than you’d ever imagine. Generally, these sorts of ceremonies require over 4 hours to serve all of those present and seated, but I was able to attend a fantastic abridged version designed to share the traditional practice with visiting tourists with more to do all day than watch someone brew tea. Many backpackers are often blindly averse to anything they deem ‘touristic’, but sometimes these things are popular for good reason. I’m glad I got to see this firsthand!

This city remains the sole place on Earth where visitors may have the incredible luck of spotting a real Geisha: a mysterious and beautiful dying breed of delicate Japanese women whose purpose was to entertain the aristocracy and whose training is incredibly inclusive, rigid, and onerous. Through art, dance, and singing, a scant few remain today and continue the tradition. To have seen two of them alive and in the flesh was a very special, once-in-a-lifetime privilege. Technically, though, these girls are only maiko – young geisha in training. The process is long and arduous, but to endure is a very honorable pursuit. No one denies the unique beauty of these women who have played a special role in Japanese history.

These next two photos aren’t mine – they’re the stunning work of photographer Robert Van Koesveld – but I thought you should see them to appreciate the mysterious allure of these stunning figures.

More scenes throughout Kyoto:

The Arashiyama bamboo forest is another famous refuge of calm in Kyoto – and yet another example of photos I could only take at the crack of dawn, lest they be full of neverending mobs of people. It was worth the mega-early rise, though the area was a lot smaller than I’d expected. Uniquely beautiful, all the same.

The modern city has its charms, as well – including an incredible thoroughfare of street food, bars that offer sake tastings, and warnings about roving monkeys.

As always, ramen is my Achilles’ heel

Sidenote: Kyoto is no different from the rest of Japan in one regard: it’s a unique paradise for car enthusiasts.

Despite all the earlier food porn, my favorite meal in Kyoto is an easy choice. Remember the Nagomi Visit program I mentioned in my post about Tokyo? The one that allows visitors to meet welcoming locals and dine in their homes? I used this once more in Kyoto, and boy am I glad I did. This is how I met Chise, an absolute gem of a human being. Chise is an unbelievable cook – her parents owned an udon restaurant – and she’s one of the kindest humans I encountered in all my travels. I’ve never felt so welcome in someone’s home.

Joining Chise and I for dinner were her friend Masashi and his adorable daughter Mitsuki. Their story is a sad one: Masahi’s wife recently died very suddenly, leaving him to raise his young daughter on his own. Chise was actually a friend of his late wife’s, but she reached out to Masahi in the wake of her passing to strike up a friendship and help out however she could. Masahi and Mitsuki like to come along when Chise hosts foreign guests via Nagomi Visit (she told me she’d done this more than 20 times!), for the sake of camaraderie and exposing young Mitsuki to people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds.

Mitsuki’s grandmother lovingly handmade these for her: likenesses of her imaginary friend (as described in great detail by Mitsuki so as to get the details just right) and her late mother. If that doesn’t move you, I’m not entirely sure you have a heart.

Despite their tragic backstory, our time together was nothing short of joyful. We (barely) helped Chise to create this gorgeous and sensationally delicous meal, for one.

Mitsuki folding gyoza -a traditional Japanese dumpling

How’s that for a spread? While Chise’s English is superb, Masahi’s is minimal and Mitsuki speaks virtually none – but this did not stop us from having a fantastic time together throughout hours of laughing, cooking, and playing card games. Here I have some serious shade thrown my way:

Experiences like this one are truly the most valuable part of travel, in my humble opinion. Connecting with people from somewhere radically different than you and realizing that you really aren’t so different is a beautiful and profound experience that you really can’t recreate elsewhere. Connecting with other humans is what life is all about, and folks like Chise really proved that for me. She and I keep up to this very day, and I’m so grateful for her friendship. The meal we shared together is one that I will never forget.

I hope it’s evident by now that visiting Kyoto made a profound impact for me. This is truly a city like no other, and its impact on me is difficult to measure (Eat your heart out, Tokyo). It taught me to slow down, to rise early, to enjoy the silent streets as the sun rose its weary head, and meditate on my travels in the powerful presence of such incredible beauty and history – truly a spiritually rejuvenating stay. It pained me to leave, and yet… I was so excited still for what was to come. 

Deer & Whiskey Interlude (Wait, what?)

Nearby Kyoto is Nara, a popular daytrip destination for what you’ll come to see are pretty obvious reasons. This was actually Japan’s capital before Kyoto took the crown in the 8th century, so there’s lots of interesting history and architecture here

…but that’s not why most people come here. I’d wager to say it’s the deer. “Wait – the DEER?!” Yes, Nara happens to be the home of THOUSANDS of wild deer who have come to peacefully coexist with humans over the years. Now they’re revered as sacred – or at least officially protected, in modern times – and they roam freely through the streets, living predominately on a diet of crackers hand-fed by tourists and locals alike.

These guys are super friendly and have zero fear of humans. It’s truly one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen – and undoubtedly one of the cutest. All nearby children fell into one of two camps: curiously delighted or absolutely terrified.

In what may have honestly been the single greatest moment of sheer joy that I had throughout the course of all of my travels, I realized delightedly that the deer have learned throughout the years to bow to humans in exchange for food. Bowing is an incredibly important sign of respect and thanks in Japanese culture, and watching this older man bow increasingly deeper to his new animal friend with true reverence in his eyes was enough to nearly make my heart pop.

I don’t think photos come anywhere close to doing this strange place justice, so check this out:

Once again, Japan surprises and confounds. If there’s another place like this in the world, I’m not aware of it. But my next little pit stop brought me perhaps even more joy. Another popular excursion from Kyoto – and one that lies DIRECTLY en route to my next destination of Osaka – is the Yamazaki Distillery, purveyors of some of the best and most sought-after whiskey on the planet. I was in heaven.

For a few bucks a pop, I had the sublime privilege of sampling some incredibly rare whiskies, some of which are aged 20 to 30 years. Some bottles they had on-site are virtually impossible to find in the West, and will set you back THOUSANDS of dollars in the unlikely case that you somehow do – and I got to sample them to my heart’s content without making a dent in my wallet. Needless to say, I got a nice buzz going on the way to Osaka – and it would turn out that this was actually pretty apropos. Boy, I had no idea what I was in for.

Osaka: Ruinous Celebration of Grotesque Excess

Kyoto might be a special place, but it’s not the country’s second largest city – that honor belongs to scrappy, youthful Osaka. Situated around the Dotonbori river, Osaka is a glittering jewel of debauchery – far more soaked in neon and alcohol than the average neighborhood in Tokyo, by a long shot. You’ve got to admit, she’s absolutely striking in a seriously dreamlike way.

Osaka’s reputation derives predominately from its unabashed love for food and drink. Locals in this city have a few famous phrases: ‘Kuidaore (食い倒れ)’, for which the rough literal English translation is ‘to eat oneself into ruin’ – and the expression ‘京の着倒れ、大阪の食い倒れ’, meaning ‘Dress (in kimonos) ’til you drop in Kyoto, eat ’til you drop in Osaka’. All of that is to say that if you’ve been following any part of my journey at all, you know I was pumped to be in town. I’m not one to ignore local customs, so eating ’til I dropped was what’s for dinner… and breakfast and lunch and regular snacks.

I’d start with a longtime bucket list item for me: eating fugu, poisonous pufferfish whose venom can be lethal if not prepared meticulously and knowledgeably by an experienced chef. Sadly, this was the sole letdown meal of my trip – I had it prepared several different ways, but it turns out this simply isn’t a particularly flavorful fish. I’m glad to have tried it, but can confirm firsthand it’s a bit… banal.

Remarkably fresh and flavorful sushi is readily available, though – let’s not get it twisted here.

Hard pass on this one, not nearly drunk enough (yet).

Takoyaki: a famous and beloved local snack that basically breaks down to a fried ball of wheat flour batter, octopus, green onion, bonito flakes, a sweet, rich brown sauce, and sweet Japanese mayonnaise. It’s not for everyone, at least when it comes to Western palates, but I rather liked it.

Michelin-starred duck shoyu ramen. OMG.

Matsusaka beef, widely considered the highest quality and most sought after in the world. Kobe has name recognition for Westerners, but Japan doesn’t even export any of its Matsusaka. These black Japanese cattle live far longer than any other beef cattle, and are fed a luxuriously rich, high-fat diet. It’s common for them to be fed beer and massaged. Seriously. This was the best steak I’d ever had… although (spoiler alert) I’d yet to make it to Argentina by this point 😉

Don’t worry, I had some kobe skewers too. No biggie.

Then there’s my absolute favorite, okonomiyaki: a savory Japanese pancake made with shredded cabbage, flour, egg, pork belly, scallions, and the same delicious sauce and sweet mayo combo that accompanies takoyaki. It sounds weird, but it’s an incredibly delicious and filling treat that’s perfect for soaking up drinking.

Believe it or not, those truly in the know these days have begun circulating sacrilegious murmurs about where to find the world’s best pizza these days. With a wry smile, you might catch one such person conceding that Italy’s been beat at its own game, and the new sheriff in town is a little country called Japan. With modern access to ingredients, materials, and Italian woodburning ovens, plus an artisan class of newschool pizzaiolos (did you know that’s what a pizza maker is called?) who are ruthlessly dedicated to perfection, you’ve got yourself a recipe for a real David and Goliath underdog story.

This pie I enjoyed in Osaka was sublime, but I’d have an even better one soon back in Tokyo – sit tight.

This one’s a head-scratcher

Lest you mistake Osaka for a city merely full of wildly hungry gluttons, let’s clear this up: it’s a city full of wildly hungry drunk gluttons. Nightlife here is notorious and legendary, and the bars are purveyors of many a hazy night. There’s also a massive expat community here, and they love to party. I went on a bar crawl with  some new friends that took some seriously bizarre turns.

…And then came the point in the night when the photos stopped. I happened to stumble into a particular expat bar on a tip from a drunken local who insisted with sheer joy in his eyes that I visit and say the words “Gobble gobble”. That would prove to be a fateful move. It turns out the place was run by a dude from North Carolina, whose signature move was pouring a shot of wild turkey into the mouth of anyone who entered uttered those words. That said, he was leaving Japan to return stateside for a while the very next day, and upon learning I was from the south, this ignited a sadistic smile in him the likes I’ve rarely seen. About half a bottle of Wild Turkey forcefed to me (for free) later, I was done.

I was so done, in fact, that I could barely stay on my own two feet. Drunk like I haven’t been since my freshman year of college, it was time to have a little sit on the sidewalk. Gradually that sit turned into a full on lay and ultimately a hazy nap, as one of my new friends and I fought off a debilitatingly fierce episode of intoxication literally sprawled in front of the blinding neon light of a 7-Eleven. Now, ordinarily, anywhere else in the world, I would have found a way out of that situation at any cost, immediately. But this is Japan, remember, and beyond that, this is Osaka. Not only is the entire country unbelievably and universally safe, but it seems the entire city is constantly blackout drunk – meaning the compromising position I’d found myself in was a normal, everyday occurrence here that absolutely no one batted an eyelid at. Not my proudest moment, perhaps, but it made for one hell of a story.

As much as it’s a feast for the stomach and liver, Osaka too is a feast for the eyes. It’s a city of gorgeous markets, a a select few tranquil shrines, and a blinding array of vivid colors.

An ukiyo-e print, an ancient traditional Japanese woodblock printing method displayed in Osaka’s Ukiyo-e Museum

‘Go’ is the longest continuously-played board game of all time, originating 2,500 years ago in China and enjoyed emphatically to this day, especially in Asia.

Parts of the city have this bizarre neo-retro vibe, where you can witness young Osakans playing pop cap games or patronizing restaurants that allow them to fish for their meals, the staff preparing their fresh catch to each family’s individual whims.

The city’s aquarium is considered one of the world’s best. Unfortunately, my travel buddy of the day and I visited on a day when 6 different schools were visiting. I can’t begin to describe the pandemonium or noise.

And oh yeah – I haven’t mentioned the castle. Osaka’s got one of those too. Why not?

It should come as no surprise that it boasts a pretty good vantage point.

Osaka also pledges an undying love for Jazz, and I had the incredible fortune of stumbling into the Dotonbori Jazz Festival (and simultaneous cosplay event) on my last night in town. It was a magical note to end on.

And yet still Japan had new sides it’d yet to show me. By now already I was awestruck by this incredible nation, but sweeter still it became. It was time to make a pilgrimage to someplace special and worth a difficult journey to reach. I was headed into the countryside, with this spellbinding view outside one train window along the way.

Naoshima & Teshima: Secret Micro-Isles of Art

Naoshima & Teshima: Sleepy, secluded micro-islands in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea that have been taken over by creative geniuses and transformed into world-class open-air contemporary art galleries – yes, the entire islands themselves!

The tremendous effort it requires to get here is well worth the feeling you get when you arrive. It’s as if you’ve found a secret place – devoid of crowds, dripping in boundary-pushing expression and creativity, and absolutely beautiful when explored by bicycle, the preferred way around. 

Sadly (or not), all of the mind-blowing museums and installations on the island have strict no-photo policies, so I can’t show you any of the coolest and most fascinating stuff – you’ll just have to go on your own. It’s better that way anyway, because some of the things I saw really moved me in a way art hasn’t done in quite a while – so I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise 

Take my word for it though: there’s everything from incredible Monet collections surrounded by actual lush lily pads (to enjoy practically all to yourself) to whole neighborhoods of houses converted into interactive, explorable exhibitions… secret underground passageways, 2-story tall statue of liberty replicas bursting through the floors of local homes, and countless masterpieces by Tadao Ando, one of the world’s greatest architects.

While I can’t show you most of that, what I CAN show you are the beautiful islands themselves and some of the art scattered all around them out in the open!

This is the path you take to get to a stunning collection of Monet’s lilypad paintings. Little touches like this are not accidental.

I even ran dead-on into a tiny little community festival procession, which I had all to myself as a spectator.

I would like you to have an idea of what the architecture looks like, at least. Aforementioned Tadao Ando is an indisputable genius and master of the art, and its his designs that dominate these islands in the middle of nowhere – his gorgeous otherworldly monuments of concrete and light, inexplicably juxtaposed against a stunning natural backdrop. Her are some examples of his work, as captured by folks other than myself. Breathtaking — there is no other word.

The feeling one gets while exploring this place is impossible to describe. It truly feels like you’ve been let in on an incredible secret, in these microscopic little islands far from civilization and covered in lavishly incredible world class modern art. It’s so surreal to have these masterpieces all to yourself, yours to drink in with your senses while peddling your way through the beautiful calm landscape among its tiny villages. I have to reiterate, I didn’t even get to show you seriously 95% of it – and so a secret it shall remain. Some things you’ll just have to take my word for.

Hiroshima & Miyajima: A Friendlier Japan

The final new leg of my time in Japan was finally upon me, and I was headed south to Hiroshima, a city that I came to love far more than I’d anticipated. I was visiting, predominately, for the sobering reality check provided by The Hiroshima Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum – monuments to the gut-wrenching devastation leveled on this friendly town by American Bombers that claimed the lives of over 100,000 men, women, and children who suffered through horrific deaths. 

These sights were moving, integral parts of my time here – but I thought it best and most respectful to refrain from taking photos, so you won’t see any here. Needless to say, learning about the atrocities of nuclear warfare was an absolute gut-punch – particularly given the connection I’d personally come to form with the beautiful people of Hiroshima. I pray the day never comes again that this kind of hell is unleashed on the world. The scale of the horror and devastation are unimaginable.

Here’s a look at the modern site in Hiroshima. I learned a bit watching this, too, as it was pouring rain when I visited, relegating most of my time here inside the museum’s interior.

While my primary impetus for this stop may have been to subject myself to this immense bummer of an experience (it’s important to learn and reflect occasionally, after all, lest I merely just “Wheeeeee!” my way around the world), Hiroshima would turn out to have so much more to offer me.

First off, it has to be stated: the entire city was absolutely BUZZING about their beloved Hiroshima Carp playing in the Japanese Baseball Playoffs (NPB Climax series). There was a unified fanaticism the likes of which I’d hardly ever seen: Hiroshima is obsessed and fanatical beyond belief, and their sensational passion completely swept me away along with them.I wanted to ‘pick’ a baseball team in Japan, and it was obvious when I made it to Hiroshima, decked in red from top to bottom, that I’d found it.

Since (as an American) I know the game well, it was an awesome way to really connect with locals and break down communication barriers. For the first game of the series that I caught, I did this in a beer bar with a bunch of local fans – but things really cranked up a notch when I decided to extend my stay in town. My hostel was full, so I needed to move to a new spot – and that turned out to be an awesome surprise. My new spot had a bar in the lobby with a giant projection screen, and a staff that were nuts about the Carp – ESPECIALLY Sven, the Dutch bartender who had spent the last few years living and working in Japan.

It turns out Sven is a bonafide local celebrity, because of his tireless devotion to the Carp and his omnipresence at games and in the community, always spotted decked out head-to-toe in their gear. Because he’s a gaijin – a foreigner – Japanese people are amused and fascinated to no end that he’s so passionate about the Japanese league and their team. He’s a tall white dude, so he’s not hard to spot, either. Sven was also just a really fantastic guy, and he and I struck up a quick and effortless friendship. I was glad to have his help clarifying the few distinct nuances of the Japanese game.

The D-class celebrity he enjoys has actually earned Sven a number of local newspaper and television appearances over the years, and because it was playoff time, the media was back to say hello… cue my 5 seconds of Japanese fame.

The Carp would go on to win this series and advance to the Japan Series – the final Championship round and the equivalent of the US World Series – where they would sadly fall to the SoftBank Hawks. But they’ve earned my fandom for life! That’s in part because the people of Hiroshima are unbelievably warm, friendly, and welcoming. The hospitality and cheerful demeanor I experienced here was so special, and really gave me a soft spot for this lovely city and its great people.

Another big draw for me in Hiroshima? It’s the home of Mazda. I’m a bigtime car freak in general, but I have a special soft spot for Mazda because they’re so damn good at making cars that are exceptionally fun. Their offerings aren’t always always the biggest, or fastest, or best – but they never fail to put a big smile on your face, which is why I’ve owned a pair of RX8s and a Miata (and 11 other cars through the years, but that’s another story for another time). The free factory tour was super cool!

My favorite way to start my mornings in Hiroshima was to head to an old-school Japanese coffee shop, called kissaten, which are a hallmark of a lost era. A+++ customer service from sharp waitstaff, 3-inch thick toast, tasty coffee, beautiful interiors, free newspaper, and a calm respite from the outside world make for an incredible way to start the day. Sadly, they’re rapidly dying now that we’re in the Starbucks era, and patronized pretty much exclusively by old-timers. A damn shame, because it was actually one of my favorite unique culinary experiences in Japan.

And since I don’t have anywhere better to put this – check out this INCREDIBLE bowl of spicy, brothless ramen. To die for.

A wildly popular and incredibly worthwhile daytrip from Hiroshima is the nearby island of Miyajima, which is beautiful and offers some great sights. The island’s famous Daishoin Temple was one of my favorite in all of Japan – not just for beautiful sights like this one, but also for its rare sense of humor.

The island is most famous, however, for its beautiful red pagodas and iconic showstopper Itsukushima Shrine – a floating torii gate with an incredible sunset view.

A beautiful note to end on in southern Japan. After saying goodbye to all of my new friends in Hiroshima, I was back on the bullet train and bound for Tokyo, determined to enjoy a few last incredible days before my flight waaaaay across the ocean to Mexico.

Hello, Old Friend.

I’ve already spilled my guts enough about Tokyo, but I think it’s worth sharing some snapshots from my final days. I wandered around in a state of melancholy, sad to be leaving this incredible country that I’d come to fall so deeply in love with, but enjoying every last second of its incredible charms.

And just like that – it was time to leave. But I will be back, many times. Japan made an imprint on me so deep and so personal that I knew at once it would play a special, recurring role in my life. There’s nowhere like it on the planet, and it’s been such a joy to write about and reimmerse myself in the feelings that arose in me during my stay.

People ask me often what my favorite country was during my travels, and up until October, the answer was pretty tightly contested. Spain was on top, but by a fraction of a hair over Italy, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Japan changed everything, though, and sits atop my list with a comfortable mile-long lead. If ever you’ve considered visiting, I implore you – beg you – please go. It’s the trip of a lifetime… and I’ve been around the block.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this installment – I’ll be back soon to tell you about the final legs of my journey through Mexico, Argentina, and Chile – but because I’m gearing up to move from Atlanta to Denver in the next few weeks, I may make you wait a bit for it again. Hardly the first time, eh? Stay tuned…

Nothing will ever be the same again: Japan (Part I)

Nothing will ever be the same again: Japan (Part I)

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I’ve been back home in the States for a few months now, and between initial exhaustion/decompression and subsequent efforts planning a job search and cross-country move, writing has taken a real back seat for me. But I’ve promised many of you that I’d write about the final few months of my journey, and today’s the day I make good on that… with a real treat for you.

I spent virtually the entire month of October traveling through what would turn out to be my favorite country on the planet – precisely because it feels like it’s on another planet altogether. Yes, I’m talking about Japan – the land of the rising sun.

I feel as if my time in this tiny country drew a clear line, dividing my life into two distinct parts: before and after my exposure to this most fascinating, mind-bending string of islands that has blown wide open my understanding of what the world has to offer and what I have to learn from it. It’s that feeling when you think you’ve loved before, but then you feel that intoxicating, devouring fire of real, TRUE love for the very first time… and suddenly you know. Nothing will ever be the same again.

But then of course…. Someone has expressed this sentiment better than I.

“What do you need to know about Tokyo? Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time—meaning, What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.

I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time, going to Tokyo for the first time, to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend—the reigning guitar gods of England—must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town.

You hear about it. You go see it. A whole window opens up into a whole new thing. And you think, What does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?” 

– Anthony Bourdain


Japan: A Primer

Before we dive into the neon belly of the beast and I tell you about Tokyo, it will probably be helpful to explain a few things about Japanese culture, as it is singularly unique in a number of ways. 

Japan was completely isolated and shut off to the outside world for more than 200 years, spanning 1639 to 1853. As a result, culture, lore, traditions, cuisine, and all other facets of Japanese life were allowed to emerge and thrive in an absolute vacuum, completely isolated from outside influence. These were the core years of the pivotally important ‘Edo period’, a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity for the country that goes a long way toward explaining how and why Japan is so distinctly unlike anywhere else.

Japanese society is incredibly homogeneous, orderly, and polite. Whereas the west places a great deal of importance on individual identity, Japan honors collective society. Its dominant religions are Shinto – a uniquely Japanese animist belief that worships spirits in the form of things like wind, rain, trees, and fertility – and the more globally widespread Buddhism. Both of these belief systems place a great deal of emphasis on mindfulness, meditation, honor, respect, and peaceful coexistence – and neither are rooted in dogma or books full of rigid rules. Many modern Japanese consider themselves both Buddhist and Shinto, as the two are often complimentary.

Japan is also ruthlessly obsessed with perfection and the tireless pursuit mastery in all things. It’s this absolute infatuation with improvement and excellence that colors all things in Japan – the quality of its cuisine, its infrastructure, its manufacturing, and its cultural heart. 

Between the nation’s unique 200-year cultural incubation and it’s love of order, perfection, peace, mindfulness, and respect, you have a fascinating formula for something special. Things get really interesting when you consider Japan’s reemergence into the modern era, though. Thanks to a deeply unified population that accepts nothing short of perfection, Japanese adaptation of technology and efficiencies evolved with staggering speed – and continues to today. 

Let’s jump ahead a bit and consider the modern era in the wake of World War II. It’s 1945, and Japan is devastated by warfare. Nearly all large cities are crippled. Food shortages and starvation are rampant. The Emperor is stripped of power. Massive industries are in shambles, industrial production is less than 28% of prewar strength, and post-war political sanctions aren’t making life any easier. And yet – and yet – by the late 60s and early 70s, Japan would rise from the ashes to become the world’s second largest economy, behind the United States. 

This period is known as Japan’s ‘economic miracle’, and it’s an absolutely astonishing comeback story. Historians will tell you it required a lot of external variables to happen – the Cold War and the US Marshall Plan were highly instrumental – but it also required an insane collective effort by a resolute, unified people. To illustrate, here’s Tokyo in 1945 (NOT VERY LONG AGO):

And here’s modern Tokyo:

Holy crap.

What we have here, then, is a country the size of California with a population of 127 Million – that’s 40% of the entire US populace. These 127 Million people have an incredibly distinct cultural tapestry to draw from, they have massive, organized collective strength, and they’ve proven that even absolute devastation can’t stop them from thriving and innovating. The end result is a fascinating culture that seamlessly blends unique ancient traditions with ultramodern technology in a way that absolutely bends the mind. And there’s nowhere where this bizarre juxtaposition of ancient and bleeding edge are more prominently displayed than in capital Tokyo: my favorite big city in the world.

Tokyo, Japan: Neo-Future Fever Dream

Ahh, Tokyo: the bizarre bastard child of utter chaos and absolute order. Home to 38 Million people, 285 subway stations, 6,000+ parks, and 314 collective Michelin stars (second place: Paris with a paltry 141). Also residing here are the world’s tallest tower, the world’s busiest railway station, a bigger-than-full-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, a 1:7 scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, two full-size Disney theme parks, and the world’s busiest fish market. To name just a few.

Tokyo Tower

Drenched in neon and cowering in the shadow of seemingly infinite high-rises, this implausible city readily and emphatically earn’s Bourdain’s comparison to an acid trip. It’s like nowhere else on Earth. And despite being one of the world’s most populous megacities, it’s also one of the safest cities on the planet. Like all of Japan, crime is virtually non-existent. Having a drink at the bar but need to use the bathroom? Go ahead and leave your phone and wallet on the bar. They’ll be there when you get back.

Helping me wrap my head around the madness of Tokyo were two of my dearest friends, Matt and Nicole, who paid me a visit from Denver, Colorado to spend a week getting lost in the sauce. And boy, did we ever.

I had a quick day to kill before their arrival, and I used it to ogle at ancient Samurai armor, meet the infamous ASIMO, and sample some conveyor belt sushi. The real fun began once we were all together, though.

I wanted to waste no time embracing the bizarre, hallucinogenic nature of Tokyo, so I asked Matt and Nicole to meet me at a restaurant for their first stop off the plane. Little did they know, this was no ordinary place to eat. We’d be dining together at a restaurant called ‘Kagaya Izakaya: Frog is Stranger Than Fiction’… and if you think the name’s weird, you haven’t seen shit. Any attempt to describe the place in words is destined to fail miserably… see for yourself (Content skews slightly NSFW).

Never a dull moment, eh? Unsurprisingly, we spent a lot of time eating while in Tokyo. This is, after all, the world’s undisputed greatest food city.

Our culinary highlight – and indeed one of the great meals of my life – came when we sat at the tiny and incredibly exclusive 6-top table at world-renowned Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi, home of  one of Japan’s greatest masters of sushi, Takashi Ono. Takashi is the son of Jiro Ono, one of Japan’s national treasures and the subject of the sensational documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which I highly recommend checking out on Netflix).

The 15-course omakase menu, served to us piece-by-piece directly by Chef Ono at precisely the right time and temperature, was an explosion of flavor and freshness the likes of which I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Nigiri that I’ve known and loved for years suddenly tasted like it was 100 orders of magnitude more flavorful, more explosive, more sublime than I’d ever experienced. I had to elicit the help of a native Japanese speaker to make this reservation for us months in advance, and at great cost, but the three of us unanimously agreed that it was worth every minute and penny.

On the opposite side of the fancy spectrum, our other favorite meal in Tokyo was the one we shared with Masayo and her sweet daughter Nao, who we met through an incredible program called Nagomi Visit. The program allows foreign travelers to meet local hosts and their familes, who open their homes to visitors and cook a traditional meal together. This provides for an absolutely magical way for Japanese people – still curious about foreigners in their largely homogeneous culture – and foreign people, undoubtedly bamboozled by Japanese culture – to meet one another, practice English, and learn about real, authentic everyday life in their own respective corners of the world. It melted my heart to help Nao with her English homework. She made this sign for me herself!

Another memorable evening began in Omoide Yokochō, or ‘Memory Lane’, a a visual feast for the eyes meant as a callback to 1940’s Tokyo. This tiny alley is absolutely stuffed with purveyors of yakitori: skewered meats, vegetables, and offal whose incredible scent permeates every inch of the narrow throughfare as it’s prepared over open flame.

This was merely a quick stop to fuel up and pad our stomachs for the coming hysteria, as we were headed directly to a Tokyo tourism institution: The Robot Restaurant (or as I like to call it, dimethyltryptamine’s permanent mailing address).

I’m still not really sure what the hell we watched happen in front of us, but there ya go. Still, the night was young, and more madness was at hand.

Enter Shinjuku Golden Gai, six tiny alleys absolutely stuffed to the brim with HUNDREDS of bizarre micro- and nano-bars, each of which seats between roughly 3 and 12 people and has a radically unique vibe completely unto itself. This place is absolutely NUTS. Even getting here is an adventure, as it’s situated near Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest train station, with more than 200 different exits.

The lunatic bars here – each one featuring a radically different vibe and atmosphere than the next – are famous for alluring a wild mix of foreigners and locals, like Natsuke and  Aiko here. Like most Japanese people, these girls spoke extremely minimal English, but that didn’t stop us from becoming good friends while drunkenly eating donuts at 4 in the morning.

Another random Golden Gai stop gave us the opportunity to meet the Japanese Captain Jack Sparrow. At some point you just stop asking questions.

After the hangover wears off, why not visit the local Owl Cafe? Because of course that’s a thing.

Or perhaps the uniquely bizarre ‘Maid Cafes’ are more your cup of tea. Here’s a Japanese lesson for you: “Kawaii!” means CUTE!

No matter what sort of bizarre fever dream you find yourself in, Tokyo somehow continues to find ways to surprise and stupefy again and again. Take the MORI Digital Art Museum for example – an incredible and vast display of interactive projection-mapped art that feels positively unreal.

One of the coolest things I’ve EVER done, anywhere on Earth, was racing real-life Mario Karts through the streets of Tokyo. Pinch me… this is not a drill.

Highlights abound in Japan’s capital city. You can’t miss the ultra high-tech toilets, which have seat warmers, bidets, music, and a butt dryer. Yep. Butt dryer.

What city is complete without life-sized Gundams?!

Japan is home to thousands of beautiful, serene temples and shrines from the Buddhist and Shinto faiths – even hectic Tokyo is no exception.

Even merely boarding the train can be… um… an adventure sometimes.

Believe it or not, though… this train isn’t even crowded. A proper crowded train in Tokyo looks more like this. Hope you’re not claustrophobic! 

Japan LOVES vending machines. No, I mean they love them. There are more than 5.5 Million of them in the country – that’s one for every 23 people. You literally cannot walk for more than 30 seconds anywhere in Japan without finding one – or several. And these aren’t just what we’re accustomed to – they serve cold drinks, hot drinks, food, and even alcohol! (Not to mention the really bizarre ones vending lingerie, bananas, soup, and mystery boxes).

I had to borrow these first two images online to show you what I mean

This one’s not even a real vending machine… it’s the door to a coffee shop!

Here’s something really remarkable – there are virtually ZERO trash cans on the public streets of Japan, due to a terrorism incident back in the 80’s – but despite the total absence of trash receptacles and the INSANE density of vending machines, the streets in this country are absolutely spotless. People do not eat or drink while walking, and they take their trash with them virtually without fail. This is made easier by the equally absurd density of ‘conbini’ – Japanese convenience stores. There are over 6,000 in Tokyo alone.

These are not what you’re used to in the US – these places have everything, and they’re on every corner and open 24/7 without fail. Hot and cold drinks, legitimately delicious hot (and healthy) food, ATMs, home goods, books and magazines, cosmetics, fresh coffee, free WiFi, free (and largely spotless) public bathrooms, trash cans (there we go), and much, much more. Need to pay your phone bill? Ship or receive a package? Buy concert tickets? Do some duty-free shopping? You can do all of this at any conbini, and it’s virtually impossible to walk more than 60 seconds in any direction without stumbling into one. I cannot understate how incredible useful this is, throughout all of Japan.

Another ‘familiar-with-a-twist’ thing about Japan? They adore baseball. As in, much more than Americans these days. The country is absolutely obsessed with this once All-American pasttime, but they do things a bit differently. The fanbases are radically organized, with chants and dances performed in flawless unison. Fans are dead quiet while the opposing team bats, out of respect – heckling is considered deeply shameful.

My favorite part about Japanese baseball? The affectionately nicknamed ‘Ghostbuster girls’: cute roving beer vendors who wear a beer backpack(!!) to dispense icy cold draft Asahi, Kirin, or Sapporo.

Vending prices are super reasonable, but if you’re really thrifty, you’re in luck: games here are BYOB. You can bring food inside, too – all fair game!

On one of our last days, we got to experience another quintessentially Japanese situation: a seriously ferocious typhoon. Not to worry – obviously we escaped unharmed!

A week in Tokyo with Matt and Nicole felt like about 17 lifetimes, but it also flew by really quickly – and soon it was time to bid them farewell. It was a blast having them travel alongside me, and I’m looking forward to calling them my neighbors in Denver soon!

That said, Tokyo was just the beginning of my exploration in Japan… there’s so much left to come. Fortunately for me, Japan has the most efficient transportation system on the planet, spearheaded by the world-famous Shinkansen – colloquially known to us as the Bullet Train. These trains are impeccably spotless, famously on-time to the fraction of a second, and they tear through the country at an absolutely blistering 200+ mph with ease. How fast is that? Welllllll…

Best of all, Japan has an incredible program for foreign travelers called the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited use of the train system throughout the country for a 1-3 week period for one low flat cost. That meant I could board these trains at will and on a whim, and travel anywhere I wanted in the country at dizzying and ridiculous speeds. All aboard! Next stop: Hakone.

Blissful Hakone: Hot Springs, Fast Cars, Cool Art, and (why not:) Pirate Ships!

For most Japanese, Hakone is principally famous for its onsen: traditional Japanese public bath houses situated over natural hot springs. Onsen are a quintessentially Japanese pasttime, and Hakone is known to be one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. It doesn’t hurt that it’s nestled in the shadow of the gorgeous behemoth Mount Fuji, a source of great National pride.

Onsen are patronized by men and women of all ages, and are segregated by gender and enjoyed exclusively in the nude. Japan doesn’t have the same sheepish western sensibility as the US – so nobody bats an eyelash when stripping to the buff. Because of this, however, pictures are strictly prohibited at all onsen – so I had to grab these online for a few examples of onsen in Hakone. Blissful, huh?

Interestingly, tattoos are extremely taboo in Japanese culture. Traditionally, tattooing in Japan was reserved only for the nefarious gangsters of the Yakuza, and as such they are severely stigmatized. Tattoos are strictly forbidden at the vast majority of onsen even today – probably 97%+. Fortunately, Japan is slowly adapting to the broader spread of tattoos in other cultures, and Hakone is known for one of its onsen that’s not only world-class – it’s also the rare exception where the staff turns a blind eye to tattooed foreigners. Seeing as I’m covered in them, this was a lucky break for me. The Yakuza are bonafide baaaad dudes, so I’d recommend not messing with them if ever you run into a group like this.

Even had I not discovered this rare gem of a tattoo-friendly onsen, however, I’d have still been covered to get my R&R soak on. While the most traditional onsen are large, public areas, Hakone is so rich in sulfuric activity that many of the traditional guesthouses – called ryokan – have their own private baths for their guests to soak in. Here’s the scene where I stayed:

Another famous attraction that makes Hakone popular with locals is their incredible Open Air Art Museum. This place is a serious feast for the senses.

Clearly, then, Hakone is already a wildly worthwhile stop on any Japan itinerary. What I haven’t mentioned yet, however, is that none of these are the primary reason that I came here. No, my stop in Hakone was principally intended to flex my adrenal gland and fulfill a lifelong dream.

I mentioned before that Hakone sits in the shadow of Mt. Fuji – and it’s the gateway to some of the best and most revered driving roads on the planet: the notorious Japanese touge, immortalized forever by Japan’s lunatic drifters and weekend warriors and thrust into the global spotlight by the famous anime Initial D.

Those who know me well know that nothing gets my heart beating faster than a ludicrously twisty mountain road behind the wheel of a blisteringly fast, purpose-built car… and oh yes, Japan will scratch that itch for you. Enter Fun2Drive Japan, a local Hakone company with an insane fleet of Japanese tuner dream cars – literally the ones I grew up salivating over – available for daring travelers to slay these world class mountain passes.

Though their stable of ludicrous Japanese tuner missiles was unfathomably deep, I knew there was only one choice for me: the sublime Honda NSX: the dream car of my youth and one of the all-time great handling Japanese sports cars. It’s aged remarkably well for having been a product of the early 90’s – with the exception of the stock wheels. Those kill the aesthetic a bit 😛

Joining me for my spirited romp through car nerd holy ground were two other travelers, who wisely selected a Nissan GT-R and Mazda RX-7 as their weapons of choice. We’d spend 4 hours tearing through the mountains and paying a visit to the world-famous Fuji Speedway.

It was a real adjustment driving on the right side of the car and the left side of hte road!

I cannot express this enough: piloting these legendary machines through these harrowing roads was a literal dream come true to the degree that I was nearly shaking. Definitely a highlight of my year and worth every penny.

These cars aren’t the only interesting transportation options in Hakone, though. No, the area’s actually famous for its wildly unique transportation infrastructure. I left town by way of the bizarre combination of bus > cable car > pirate ship. Where else but Japan?

The seafaring vessel deposited me at the banks of the famously serene Hakone shrine: one of Japan’s hallmark Shinto sites.

If you think that’s special, though… wait ’til you see what’s next. As I departed Hakone, I was still just getting started on my journey through Japan (no, seriously, we’ve covered 10 days out of 30 so far). Next up was Kyoto: one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and spiritually sacred cities on the planet, and arguably the principal highlight of my travels through the country. It’s a city so sacred and beautiful that it was exclusively spared violent devastation during World War II – even Japan’s enemies couldn’t bare to see it destroyed. Home to  more than 2,000 temples and shrines, Kyoto is devastatingly and spectacularly beautiful.

I’ll tell you all about it – plus Nara, Osaka, Naoshima, Teshima, and Hiroshima – next time. (Don’t worry – it’s coming sooner than you think).

A peek at what's to come!

Sound off in the comments if you enjoyed this post — More love = more motivation to write Part II! Stay tuned… some of the best is yet to come.

Iceland: Otherworldly Isle of Fire & Ice

Iceland: Otherworldly Isle of Fire & Ice

[CW Note: Oh. Uh. Hi there. This is awkward. It seems I haven’t updated this blog in 2 months now. It’s not you, it’s me – I’ve been in the middle of pehaps the densest and most rewarding part of my travel itinerary, and I’ve just been having too much damn fun to write. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Commence catch-up mode…]

After a while, the places start to blur together. This museum and that restaurant, this park and that art gallery. A trendy new bar down the street? …Neat. The eager backpacker next to you is gushing about the fantastic view of the skyline they just read about, and you can’t help but feel a tinge of shame when you feign a level of excitement that doesn’t quite feel genuine. ‘Been there, done that’. It’s been 8 months on the road no; surely it’s ok to feel a bit jaded – but you start to bum yourself out as the feeling of familiarity and ingrained patterns bubbles to the surface, amidst a year intended to smash any sense of routine familiarity to pieces.

But there’s a solution to this (admittedly rather privileged) case of the travel blues. When you find yourself comfortable, the only prescription is to relentlessly dismantle every routine, unraveling the very comfort blanket that warms you, and jump headfirst into the depths of the unknown. Here’s a hint: if ever you aspire to find a surefire gateway to such a place – a panacea for predictability – the best place to look is outside. Flee the safety of your living room (or hostel dorm) and return from whence you came: to open azure skies, to the earthy musk of soil, to the summit of a mountain, to the saline ocean breeze.

The beauty in this regimen is that you can find it right in your backyard, and it needn’t cost you a dime. That’s a practical, reasonable approach, though, and 2018 for me is an experiment in the ridiculous, the aspirational, the outrageous, the over-the-top. So in the face of this urban drag, I did the only thing I knew that would shake my routine to the core: I flew to Iceland, rented a car, and drove myself around the entire perimeter of the island with a tent, a sleeping bag, and a healthy thirst for adventure. As one does. 

Wonderfully Weird: Magical Reykjavík

Despite Iceland’s presence as an isolated, frozen entity floating at the northernmost part of the world, you might be tempted to think that it must be, deep down, just like the rest of the world in some way. At the very least, you might say, surely its capital city Reykjavík (the northernmost capital in the world!) bears some commonalities with the rest of the planet. But then, you’d be so hilariously wrong. Iceland is weird. Rekjavík is weird. And I love them for it.

This is a country that believes, whole-heartedly, in elves. A country whose 330,000 inhabitants (yes, in the entire country) are so closely related that they have specialized dating apps to keep them from accidentally inbreeding. A country that has waged one war, ever, if you can even call it that: Þorskastríðið (The Cod War) – a dispute with the UK over fishing grounds. And Reykjavík? Well, Reykjavík has its own penis museum. In 2010 they elected a comedian as mayor who literally made a campaign promise not to fulfil any of his campaign promises. Reykjavík has neither a Starbucks nor a McDonalds (though let’s be honest, they’re likely much better off for it).

The point is, Iceland is a quaint place, and Reykjavík embodies this loveable brand of weird in a perfectly microcosmic sense – which made it a terrifically fun little city to launch my trip from. 

The city’s got some real funky architecture with a distinctly Icelandic style.

The surrounding scenery’s not bad, either.

Most of you know by now that I’m a sucker for great street art, and Reykjavík has got a TON of it.

There are also plenty of opportunities to see the notoriously cheeky and light-hearted Icelandic sense of humor

But while they may be a bunch of jokers, Icelanders are deadly serious about coffee and music

Also, the world’s most beautiful cat apparently lives there.

While I loved Reykjavík to pieces and found myself positively charmed to death by it, its true purpose was to act as a launchpad for my circumnavigation of the entire island by car. 

You see, this is a tremendously special country. 80% of Iceland is actually uninhabited – this is pure, raw, glorious nature at its finest. Because it’s one of the youngest landmasses in the world, it’s a bit of a geothermal drama queen: this is the home of 130(!) volcanoes, incredibly deep fjords and glaciers, countless waterfalls, geysers, black sand beaches, and steaming lava fields. It’s actually growing by a handful of centimeters each year, as a pair of tectonic plates literally rip a seam into it. So needless to say… there’s no place quite like it. 

Road Sweet Road

Iceland is the 18th largest island in the world, but it’s only roughly the size of Ohio or Kentucky.

And it’s served by only one main highway artery: Highway 1, often referred to as the Ring Road. Why’s it called this? Simple.

If you’re a normal human being, you think “Ok, so what?”… but if you’re like me, you think one thing and one thing only: “Road trip!” And so road trip, I did. 

Meet my only companions for my 8-day, 35-hour drive around this incredible country: a tiny but dependable Toyota Yaris and an equally small-but-adequate tent, both of which protected me from the elements and helped me get around some of the planet’s most breathtaking landscapes.

While lodging is incredibly sparse and expensive, campsites are unbelievably ample and ceaselessly beautiful. After all, in a country this beautiful, you might as well spend as much time outside as you can manage. And thanks to Iceland’s proximity to the arctic circle, I’d have until well after 10 PM each night (that’s what time I took the tent photo above) to enjoy its splendor in glorious sunshine before the temps dropped.

After a tremendous amount of planning and research, I decided on a gameplan that would take me to the footstep of some of Iceland’s most incredible sights. A lot of backpackers before me have created a lot of incredibly helpful resources, like the map below, that proved invaluable in my planning.

My days would consist of early rises and hours and hours of incredibly liberating driving through JAW-DROPPING landscapes, with only music, podcasts, or my silent reflective mind to keep me company – it was the most rejuvenating, refreshing, and peaceful experience I’d had in a very long time – a vacation for the soul. 

My drives would be peppered with faily frequent stops for hikes, photo ops, any number of incredible natural phenomena, and more than a few gas station hot dogs (Icelanders love these, and since food here is INSAAAANELY expensive, they’re part of the staple diet for travelers here).

Without Further Ado: Iceland

Rather than bore you with minute details of each area where I stopped, I think perhaps the best way is to just show you a photographic retrospective of what I saw, in roughly the order I experienced it. Because let’s be honest, my words couldn’t possibly begin to describe the insane beauty of this place anyway – might as well just give the people what they want. Here goes…

In summary, Iceland was boring and ugly and I couldn’t wait to leave to go somewhere that was actually interesting or at least mildly pretty to look at. Heh.

This was one of the most expensive countries I visited all year, and boy was it by far one of the most logistically challenging in the sense that it required a lot of planning – but goodness was it every bit as rewarding. I really think this country is the closest you can get to stepping foot on another planet whilst still technically on ours. 

These insane landscapes were the absolute perfect place to do some thinking while enjoying the crisp air and the restorative power of nature – which was perfect, because my next destination was about to turn the party dial to 11/10. More on that shortly (not in 2 months, I swear… bis später! 😉)

Hope you enjoyed the photos! Feel free to drop any questions about locations, etc. in the comments – figured I’d expedite the posting of this one with a slightly looser format.

Spain: A Relentless Celebration of Life

Spain: A Relentless Celebration of Life

Perhaps the greatest dividend afforded to me by my year-long experiment in exploration is the open-floodgate exposure to an incredible array of cultures, each a distinct glimpse into the collective conscious and customs of a people carving out their own niche in the world. Each subsequent country teaches new lessons, and I find myself better understanding myself and my own values through this bizarre carousel of cultural lenses. At times, this is a bit unnerving, particularly when it exposes elements of American life that I find myself a bit disenchanted with. While there’s tremendous opportunity for growth and self-discovery in these moments, I’d yet to really encounter a way of life that resonated absolutely with me and my own system of values, aspirations, and passions. But then again…. I hadn’t been to Spain yet.

BUT! I’m getting ahead of myself, because after leaving Italy, it wasn’t Spain I was initially destined for – it was westward Iberian neighbor Portugal.

Lisbon: Beautiful Seaside Melancholy

Lisbon – or Lisboa, in Portuguese – is both figuratively and literally having a real moment in the sun. This is a gorgeously charming seaside town characterized by a visual signature of hills, Easter pastels, and stunning ornate tile that any Instagram user will eventually find splashed throughout their feed. The city has had a real renaissance as of late, and the world is beginning to wake up to its charms.

This was a place for which I had few preconceived notions and hopeful expectations – and I was all the more excited to inundate myself in its allure with another good friend from back home, Rich!

Rich is genuinely one of the most unique human beings I’ve ever known. The man’s an absolute explosion of energy, positively bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and absolutely devoid of inhibition. The modern millennial vernacular would quickly coin him ‘extra‘, and it’s this very exuberance that I most admire about him – I knew we’d be having one hell of a good time, no matter where we found ourselves…. and have a good time we did.

We’d have the pleasure of staying at yet another phenomenal hostel, which really made our short time in this Portuguese capital special. Hostel Home does everything right, but its most notable claim to fame is the massive traditional homemade Portuguese dinner made each night by ‘Mama’ – the owner’s grandmother, a damn fine cook! I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of her, but she’s special enough to warrant finding one on the interwebs.

It was at these dinners that we made some awesome new friends to spend our days with. There’s Fairouz from Morocco (who I’ll be visiting soon in Marrakech!), Vanessa and Rebecca from Brazil, Colin and Sahel from the UK, Jasmine from Melbourne, Kyoungmi from Seoul…  and that’s just the folks I managed to snag photos of. Needless to say, we had a great crew!

Our time in Lisbon was brief, but we made the best of it. We explored the city’s great street art culture…

…Took an amazing oceanside walk (with a particularly familiar looking landmark)….

…And appreciated some, um, interesting art 😂

The city has a really palpable creative vibe, as well, and you can tell in just walking around through town.

Rich actually captured one of my favorite images of the year in Lisbon as well, as I indulged in one of my favorite travel pastimes: indulging in the sort of male pampering you’ll only find in a proper, traditional barbershop in the care of a skilled craftsman.

The absolute hands-down highlight, though, was discovering the city’s intensely passionate and melancholy tradition of Fado music – a hauntingly beautiful homage to suffering and longing that’s come to be the defining cultural signature of Portugal. Sitting down for a show – which occur nightly all over the city – is an experience that is utterly moving and emotionally powerful. Take a look and tell me this doesn’t make you feel something.

I’ll go back to Lisbon someday if only for the sole purpose of seeing more Fado – that’s how impactful the experience was for me. My one regret is not seeing more of it!

While Lisbon was a wonderful time with wonderful people, our little shoehorned interlude here came to a quick close – and it was time for the main event: España, the country that would come to capture my heart.

Seville: Sensual Andalusian Paradise

It’s going to be difficult to capture in words just how much I adore Seville – just how much it wrapped its tendrils around my heart and soul – just how much it seduced me and just how much I melted in its hand. But hell, I’m going to try. 

When you think of Spain – in the most romanticized sense – what do you think of? Tapas? Bullfighting? Exquisite Moorish palaces? Flamenco dancers? You’re thinking of Andalusia, the southernmost region in Spain (a country very much divided into many wildly diverse regions). And Seville – dripping in Amber paint and steeped in passion and tradition – is the crown jewel of the South.

Seville is the textbook embodiment of everything I came to love about Spain. It’s a city that prioritizes the joy of life, first and foremost. It wakes up late, indulges in the finest cuisine, expresses itself wildly and freely through music and dance, and stays up very late indeed – spilling into the streets to walk together, to dance, to drink the finest wines and to challenge any notions that life need be principally about work, about accumulation, about struggle. This is a culture that is relaxed, that appreciates the brevity of life, and that indulges the senses and instills in its people a sort of passion and appreciation for life that I’ve only seen hinted at in nearby Italy – but here it just feels, for lack of a better term… spicier.

Food here is absolutely sublime, and tapas reign supreme. Nevermind the American emulation of the concept – the real deal is something special, and the Spanish are every bit the culinary artisans as the Italians – just with a bit more diversity in their cuisine.

The Alcázar is one of the oldest functioning royal palaces in the world, and to explore its grounds is to inundate yourself in color and in architectural genius, the product of its Moorish heritage.

And while Lisbon has Fado, Seville has Flamenco. Not content to marry just music and voice, flamenco is all the more complex and provocative: a beautifully intertwined dance of masterfully complex guitar, impassioned singing, and an astoundingly hypnotic display of physical expression: the kinetic catharsis of the flamenco dancer, who pours his or her soul into every movement and offers every shred of their energy to the alter of expression. Each element feeds the other – a delicate balance of human expression. It’s absolutely stunning to witness, and flamenco is the lifeblood of Seville – on its streets, in its bars, pulsing through its very veins. This is sensuality, it’s pain, it’s lust and desire and longing… and it’s beautiful.

Here’s one brief look at what it looks like – and a gorgeous longer piece by the New Yorker that really touches on how important the art is to Seville. Definitely encourage you to watch that one if you have the time!

If ever there was a theme to my year, its this: the people make the place. And Seville absolutely spoiled Rich and I with an incredibly rich group of amazing people. Anamaria is a wildly creative Georgian (the country, not the state), and she volunteers at the hostel.

The lovely Elisa, from New Orleans, and Carlye, from California, met in Seville and immediately became close friends and great dinner company for Rich and I.

Annie, a beautiful Quebecois girl from Montreal, was my favored dance partner and co-explorer for the week.

And, again – I missed some beautiful faces! Here’s a big group photo from one night at a flamenco show, and STILL this collection excludes some awesome people (Bobby, Anneke, Marcela, Juliette, Kasia… I’m bummed I didn’t get photos of you guys!)

I felt a connection to Seville like I’ve felt in few places in my life. After so many LATE nights, dragging myself to bed at 6 in the morning overwhelmed with happiness and content, I was really sad to leave. But Spain would continue to delight.

Madrid: Artistic Epicenter

Madrid wasn’t actually originally a part of my plans; it’s Spain’s big capital city, and as an international hub of commerce, I felt it lacked some of the distinct flavor that makes Spain the special place that it is. However, its location in the dead center of the country makes it a convenient transportation hub, and its world-class collection of museums made it a worthwhile stop, however brief. I won’t say too much about the city itself – but here are a few snapshots (and some particularly potent food porn):

Though Madrid is known for its raucous nightlife, we didn’t partake too much – Rich was headed back home to the states, and I was still exhausted from Seville. Ultimately we took it relatively easy, and I said goodbye to Rich, whose company was a real joy during our two weeks together.

Basque Country: Food of the Gods

Remember I told you earlier that Spain is more like a big collection of autonomous nations than it is one cohesive nation? This fact couldn’t have been more evident when I arrived in Northern Spain’s Basque Country to explore its most important cities: Bilbao and San Sebastián. 

The North is a different world altogether. Relative to Andalusia’s blistering sun, Basque country is distinctly Seattle-esque: it’s grey, mountainous, and constantly soaked in a sort of pervasive, ethereal mist that locals call xirimiri. Which is another hint: they speak an entirely different language here – Basque – and that’s one of just FIVE prominent languages spoken throughout the country. Fortunately, my semi-fluent spanish got me by here just fine as well (a fact that made a tremendously positive impact on all of my time in Spain and really helped to confidently immerse me in the culture).

Most importantly, though, is the fact that this part of Spain is it’s culinary epicenter, and pound-for-pound, I truly believe it’s the best foodie destination on Earth. Lonely Planet agrees, because they just declared the Basque Country’s pintxo culture #1 on their list of the 500 best food experiences in the world. What are pintxos? I’m glad you asked. 

Similar to tapas, pintxo literally translates to ‘skewer’ in the native Basque language. Generally a pintxo involves something insanely delicious affixed to a piece of bread, but the term has grown to encompass basically any small plate in this region. These dishes are usually presented right atop the bar, ready to eat. Best of all, they’re unbelievably fresh, delicious, and of astonishingly high quality for just a few euros each. They’re generally washed down with local wines: txakoli, a dry, sparkling white – or Rioja, most commonly a fruity, full-bodied red (an average house wine is absolutely delicious and clocks in at about €1.50).

San Sebastián in particular has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. The thing is though, you don’t have to blow a whole paycheck on a ridiculous haute cuisine tasting menu – because ALL of the food here is absolutely incredible, and the thing to do here is to hop from pintxo bar to pintxo bar enjoying one or two bites from each over a glass of vino before meandering to the next one. 

Hungry yet?

Aside from the absolutely orgasmic food – which blew my mind wide open and borderline brought me to tears a few times – Basque country is also home to Bilbao, notable for its rising star as a modern art mecca. This is due primarily to the presence of the astonishing Guggenheim Museum, which was erected in 1997 and has radically transformed the city in the decades since. It’s easy to see why.

As a passionate fan of amazing food and boundary-pushing modern art, you can see why I was in heaven in Spain’s incredible northernmost province. Every bit as remarkable as Seville, and yet completely, radically different in every way. At this point I’d seen the sexy, traditional south, the buzzy big city center, and the delicious, experimental north – but I still had one stop to go: one of the world’s great cities.

Barcelona: Psychedelic Beach Metropolis

It’s as if I’d dared Spain to show me another facet, convinced it couldn’t possibly be any more diverse or have more surprises in store. Barcelona is a mind-bender of a city: home to some of history’s brilliant surrealist minds, architecture’s most boundary-pushing geniuses, and a creative edge that doesn’t let off the gas. Nestled along one of the world’s great urban beaches (calm down Rio, I said one of the best), this metropolis is teeming with energy and rewards travelers of all kinds. The capital of Catalonia (and host to yes, yet another language) boasts an impressive skyline, too, and backpackers love to soak it in over a few bottles of wine.

You can’t talk about Barcelona without focusing on Antoni Gaudí, the truly one-of-a-kind modernist genius architect whose trippy influence is absolutely all over the city.

The principal example of Gaudí’s genius is his breathtaking architectural masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. Construction began in 1882 and is STILL ongoing, with completion scheduled for 2026. When finished, it will be the tallest building in all of Europe – and surely the most psychedelic. Personally, I consider it the most beautiful building I’ve ever stepped foot inside… High praise after recent trips to the Vatican, Angkor Wat, and Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. If only my photos truly did the place justice…

The artistic brilliance of this city is hardly limited to Gaudí, though. Catalonia is also home to Dalí, the world’s foremost master of surrealist art.

Ever hear of Pablo Picasso? It’s Barcelona that Picasso considered his home, and in turn Barcelona is home to a museum dedicated to the genius himself.

Barcelona’s not content to restrict itself to these timeless, masters, though – it’s a city absolutely dominated by art of all kinds.

The whole city is an explosion of color, of creativity, of life.

And as usual, it was also host to some friendly faces, like Olivia (Chicago) and Tyler (Toronto), who were kind enough to model for me when we spotted a particularly hilarious artistic masterpiece.

Michela, an actress from Vancouver whose experience taking headshots I accredit for her supreme photogenic nature!

And Heikki, a former coworker of mine who’s Finnish but calls Barcelona home and was happy to meet me for coffee at Satan’s Coffee Corner, a place whose name made me unfathomably happy.

Barcelona, too then, was an absolute blast, and a city that plugged so directly into the things that I hold dear in life. Wonderful and yet entirely distinct to the rest of the cities I explored, Barcelona too was a treasure chest of art, culture, food, and vibrant appreciation for a good time.

España, Estoy Enamorado de Ti

Spain has absolutely blown my mind; this country reverberates so deeply in my soul and stirs so much feeling inside of me. It’s passionate, fiery, absolutely gorgeous, laid-back, and progressive – and while steeped in history and tradition, it doesn’t feel at all stuck in the past. The food and wine are incredible, the people are beautiful, and culture, music, dance, and expression are all inseparable hallmarks of Spanish life – not to mention the naps! And best of all, it’s wildly diverse – truly rewarding those who explore of each of its unique regions.

I don’t know which chapter of my life it’ll play a role in, but I know this: I plan to live in this wonderful country one day. I’ve travelled to a lot of places that are special in a lot of ways – but pound for pound, as it concerns places I could see myself actually living and not just visiting, Spain is my favorite country on Earth. It was, however, perhaps a mistake to visit it back-to-back with Italy… I think I put on a couple of pounds. 😅

That’s a wrap for this one, folks! The next few adventures I’ll be sharing with you are pretty exciting, as well: I’ll be detailing my time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – the largest arts festival in the world – plus my romp through Dublin. Then comes a real treat: my 2-week tour of Iceland, the otherworldly island of fire and ice. 

See you soon!

The Lunatic Fringe: Supermassive Explosion of Creativity

The Lunatic Fringe: Supermassive Explosion of Creativity

Mercifully, this will be a pretty short post following the Herculean epics covering my time in Italy and Spain – but within this abridged, rapid-fire section of my trip was a whole lot of visceral experience and raucous fun. After leaving Barcelona, I was headed to Edinburgh for the annual Fringe Festival. While quite well-known in Europe, it’s not quite as recognized back in the states except amongst the most ardent fans of comedy and performing arts – but it should be. 

You see, The Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world. Throughout the month of August, this beautiful Scottish city hosts more than 50,000(!) performances (comedy, art, dance, theater, music, etc.) across 300+ venues. Even the streets themselves are bursting at the seams with performers, musicians, buskers, and all sorts of creative weirdos, day in and day out. It’s essentially a super distilled showcase of the world’s best entertainers, all vying for your attention and admiration. The whole city is transformed for the month, and the energy is totally off-the-walls.

And vy they do! It seems as if every millimeter of the city is blanketed in flyers advertising shows taking place throughout the month. Magicians, stand-up comics, plays, monologues, acrobats, circus performances, clowns, improv troupes, a capella groups, puppeteers, monologues, dancers, the list goes on – countless performers of every conceivable variety are advertising their shows, not just via flyers posted on walls, but by way of entertaining on the streets themselves. To put it simply, it’s utter madness, and it’s incredible fun.

This is what the atmosphere looks like in the streets

Half of the fun comes from just walking around town and basking in the sheer lunacy of it all

Over my 3.5 days in Edinburgh, I saw 18(!) incredible shows. (Sidenote: None of them allow photos… but I managed to sneak a couple, and I’ll post some press photos for most of the others, to give you an idea of what’s what). 

Amongst these were:

*A performance of Hamlet in which one of six professional actors was blackout drunk (guess which one).

*An uproariously funny audience-controlled robot cooking show

*A moving, projection-mapped monologue about the realities of the Colombian cocaine trade

*A side-splitting live funk opera about the future AI wars between Musk and Bezos

*An Aussie standup with an AI sidekick she was training to be human

*A play about toxic masculinity in a schoolyard fight set to a soundtrack by members of Frightened Rabbit

*A performance in which sketch comedy groups must steal and adapt each other’s routines
*A late night variety show that encourages comics to strip naked to promote their shows
*A play about the new face of sexuality and intimacy in the digital age

*A sexy freakshow circus cabaret

*A two man show about depression and male relationships
*A bizarrely hysterical performance by one man with a blue mustache playing the 26 lost Spice Girls

…And various other comedic performances, including several by my absolute standout favorite act, American-Norweigan duo Zach & Viggo. Be forewarned, this is wildly inappropriate, more than a little weird, and very not safe for work.

Seriously, what a supermassive explosion of creativity and fun! My insane marathon of shows made up what was honestly one of my favorite (half) weeks of the entire year; I haven’t felt this inspired and supercharged with admiration for the human imagination since Burning Man.

I was especially lucky to get to hang out with my friend Ivy again, who I met back in Bologna Italy! Ivy is an Edinburgh native, so she really showed me the ropes and introduced me to a ton of her friends. I was lucky to have her there and I’m super glad to call her my friend!

Before I left town, there was just one thing left I knew I had to do: taste some haggis with whisky sauce. This is a quintessentially Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s heart, liver, lungs, and stomach, and it’s far tastier than it sounds. Forgive me, vegetarian friends!

After that complete and utter whirlwind in Edinburgh, it was off to my next destination in neighboring Ireland

Downtime (and beer!) in Dublin

I’d love to tell you that I really delved deep into Dublin and explored every inch of this great city. I’d love to share some deep history and a ton of photos from the wealth of various activities I partook in here. But the honest truth is that I was tired as hell. Traveling full-time, while certainly a joy, is utterly exhausting – and I chose to spend most of my time in Dublin recharging my batteries, taking it easy, and giving myself a social break. So that’s what I did!

BUT there is one thing that I knew I couldn’t leave Dublin without doing.

And naturally I took a few strolls through Temple Bar as well, Dublin’s notoriously fun pub district that’s packed to the gills with live music, whiskey, and draft Guinness pours. I didn’t bother taking photos of my Guinness stew or corned beef meals – but they were tasty! You’ll just have to take my word for it.

So that was that! Edinburgh and Dublin made for the perfect thematic mixup to bridge the gap between the classically European Italy and Spain, and my next big adventure. But I really got just enough of a taste to realize there’s so much more to do and see in Ireland and Scotland both – so I look forward to more thoroughly exploring these great countries again sometime later in life.

Having caught up on some R&R, I was mentally and physically prepared to tackle two demanding and intrepid weeks in my next destination, one that I’d been really looking forward to all year: Iceland. Stay tuned…

La Dolce Vita: Three Blissful Weeks in Italy

La Dolce Vita: Three Blissful Weeks in Italy

The seductive scent of a pizza bubbling in a woodfire oven. The carnal roar of a cranberry red Ferrari reverberating through ancient cobblestone streets. Impossibly adorable grandmothers hanging the day’s laundry in the early morning sun. The flavorful explosions of fresh lemons, olives, figs – plucked straight from their trees. Infinite expositions of impeccably sculpted marble, breathtaking renaissance masterpieces, expansive frescos defying minds and gravity alike. The unmistakable smell of espresso beckoning sleepers to rise. Centuries of palpable history echoing through time. Endless bounties of cheese, wine, pasta, and other epicurean delights. The passionate, rollercoaster inflection of the native tongue – incomplete, of course, without even greater enthusiasm from the speaker’s hands.

If there’s a country on this gorgeous earth more evocative, more romanticized, more alluring, more sexy than Italy… you know what, forget it – there’s simply no such place. Italia has always commanded over me an impossibly powerful gravitational pull – to the extent that I worried whether it might not live up to my herculean expectations. This is, after all, one of the most touristed nations on the planet – would there be any authenticity waiting for my arrival? Would I find nothing to surprise me, having felt like I’d been here a million and a half times, compliments of popular culture?

If you’ve been, you already know: my doubts were ridiculous. As it turns out, Italy is everything it’s promised to be. This country is the living incarnation of passion, of tradition, of sex, of the insatiable human desire to feel alive. I didn’t hate it.

Rome: Echoes of a Beautiful Empire

My Italian adventure began, as so many do, in its illustrious capital city. The Eternal city, as it’s known, drips in cobblestone, in marble, in that effortless Italian brand of cool that always wears a crisp pressed suit and never removes its Ray Bans. Priceless masterpieces and opulent architectural paragons pervade every square inch of the city, inescapable reminders of one of humanity’s most dominant empires, bursting at the seams with thousands of years of history. The evening sun spills its fiery guts across narrow pastel alleyways adorned with ivy, lined with Alfa Romeos, and drenched in the most seductive smells you can fathom.

Still with me after Paris were Scott and Carla, and our priorities in Rome were clear: First and foremost, eat and drink in irresponsibly grotesque quantities – and the rest will follow. We got to work quickly. Whereas many destinations involve sightseeing punctuated by occasional meals, our Roman exploration entailed decadent meals, punctuated by occasional sightseeing. In fact, let’s just get the food out of the way so I can move on and tell you about the rest. If you’re reading this in advance of your lunch break… I am so sorry.

You’ll notice a lot of zucchini on these pies – it’s a lesser-known seasonal staple of Italian cuisine, and it’s delicious.

This is what Italian breakfast looks like – and it’s enjoyed, without exception, while standing at the counter of a bar. This is where Italians congregate for both their morning cappuccinos (never after 11 AM!) and for evening libations.

Pasta so incredibly fresh and flavorful that vacates just enough space on your mouth to let slip an involuntary “OHMYGOD” to accompany your involuntary ‘I’ll-have-what-she’s-having’ eye roll. Most notably, you see Caccio e pepe – one of my favorite dishes of all time, period. This traditional Roman dish is astonishingly simple and incredibly decadent: fresh pasta, pecorino cheese, black peppercorn. Voilà. The last one pictured was the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite in all of Italy – so beloved, in fact, that he refused to disclose the restaurant where he devoured it. But of course, we found out. If you’re wondering why the bowl looks a bit odd, it’s because it is itself made of pecorino cheese. Yep. I know.

One restaurant even afforded us the incredible opportunity to watch Italian nonnas preparing our fresh pasta from scratch. Suck it, Olive Garden. 

Roman street food: Supplì al Telefono, rice croquettes with tomato sauce and mozzarella so named for the cheese’s amusing tendency to string heroically as you attempt in vain to sever it with your teeth. Also pictured is a new Roman invention, the trappizino: essentially a pizza-sandwich hybrid that evokes a gourmet Hot Pocket done right.

Granita di Espresso con Panna: basically a frozen espresso slush with whipped cream so fresh you can practically chew it.

And here’s a nice surprise. Traditionally a lover of beer and whiskey and not much else, Italy was the catalyst for quite a dramatic change-of-heart for me: it made of me a wine drinker. Ubiquitous and delicious, Italian wine is a fine example of the classic libation – and with pitchers often equally or less expensive than water, how could I not delve into this world? (Spoiler alert: having spent a few months in Italy and Spain, I’m now a bonafide wine lover – having gone well beyond dipping my toes in the water). I still enjoyed more than a few negronis as well, though.

Whew – we made it! The food torture is over for now. There’s plenty more later though, so don’t get too comfortable. Culinary delights aside, Rome was an absolute masterpiece of a traveler’s city. Despite it’s seemingly endless array of tourist attractions, ruins, and museums, the greatest joy to be found in Rome comes from simply wandering its gorgeous streets. We were particularly smitten with the phenomenally beautiful Trastavere neighborhood, which we called home during our stay. When you think Italy, this is probably what you imagine. Just look at this place! 

But of course, we did our share of sightseeing as well. We visited the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery, positively dripping quite literally from floor to ceiling with masterpieces.

We threw our three coins into the famous Trevi Fountain, a practice said to guarantee a return to Rome, and perhaps too new love. To me, one of those is reasonably likely, but the other is an absolute lock – I’ll let you work out which is which.

You can’t go to Rome and not visit the Colosseum. I’m not going to tell you about it, because you already know exactly what it is.

Similarly mandated is a stop by Vatican City – technically the world’s smallest country at 0.44 km², itself a sovereign state. Like the mosques of Istanbul, the grandiose nature of this place was equally inspiring and nauseating – a testament both to the power of human effort and the commanding influence of doctrine and dogma.

I was really excited for one of our more off-the-beaten-path destinations: Centrale Montemartini, a showcase of gorgeous statues and busts juxtaposed brilliantly against the industrial backdrop of a former electrical production facility. Cool, huh?

We had the good fortune of running into my buddy Chase on the Fourth of July, a South Georgia-born American living in Colorado who I improbably met in Indonesia earlier this year – and here we were again. The world is small!

More scenes from around town: unparalleled eye candy.

As usual, time flew by – and long before I was ready to say goodbye to my dear friend and sister, I had to do it anyway. Carla and Scott were headed back to the States as our time in Rome drew to a close. It was such a joy to travel (and eat!) with them – but there wasn’t much time to be sad. I had a whole lot more of Italy left to see.

Florence: Cradle of the Renaissance

Yes, my next stop was Firenze, the birthplace of the Renaissance that forever shaped the Europe we know today. The capital of Italy’s idyllic Tuscany region, this city is more saturated with museums and art than practically anywhere else in the world. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and the list goes on – Florentines are some of history’s most illustrious and influential artists and thinkers. And beneath that veneer of art and culture lies an inescapably beautiful city.

When in Rome, you do as the Romans do – and when in Florence, you just go to a shitload of museums. Here are some highlights.

This contains a piece of ‘THE’ cross. Like, the Jesus one. Allegedly.

You’re not getting off the hook without a bit of food porn.

While public drinking fountains are scattered regularly all throughout Italy, the novelty of Florence’s public sparkling water fountain never ceased to delight me.

Sunsets here aren’t shabby, either.

That brings me to my biggest complaint about Florence, though – more than literally any other place I’ve visited this year, this city was absolutely suffocated with tourists. Yes, of course, it’s Italy in July – this has to be expected – but it was so much more evident here than anywhere else. When it’s difficult to move through the streets without tripping over forty six people thrusting selfie sticks in your face, a bit of the romanticism fades away. That last sunset photo? Here’s what I had to contend with to take it.

Hey, I get it, this is a great city, and with that come crowds – of which I was very much a part! I can’t rightly complain about it, but I can provide a gentle warning if you’re considering a trip here: visit in the shoulder season! I suspect it’ll be a much more pleasant experience.

Here’s some more B roll beauty for you to enjoy.

Seaside Paradise: Liguria's Idyllic Cinque Terre

As I made my way northward, I elected to stop for a few days in another tourist hotspot: Cinque Terre, actually a series of five towns perched precariously in the hillsides overlooking the most gorgeous turquoise Mediterranean waters of Italy’s Liguria region. These towns are famous not just for their beauty, but also for the hiking trails that connect them all together, providing for sensationally beautiful days of trekking amongst them, punctuated of course with ample eating and drinking. Renown for its world-famous pesto, fresh lemons, and beautiful seaside views, Liguria feels like another country entirely when compared to Lazio (wherein lies Rome) and the rustic Tuscany.

The place itself is special and intoxicating enough to delight even the most jaded traveler, but what truly made this leg of my trip unforgettable was my stay at 5 Terre Backpackers – to this day, an easy choice for my favorite hostel in the world (having stayed at more than 50 of them by now). Never mind my favorite hostel – this place is one of my favorite places in the world, and that’s in no small part due to the love and dedication of its owner and proprietor, my new friend Francesco. 

The experience here is absolutely magical. Nestled high above the Cinque Terre in the serenely quiet hills of Corvara, Francesco has created a place where guests are all family. It’s incredibly intimate, sleeping perhaps 20 guests.

Upon arrival by way of the free shuttle that Francesco provides to and from the towns themselves, he pours each guest a complimentary glass of wine as he shows them the grounds and explains what they’ll be having for dinner that night. That’s right – each night, all of the guests sit down at a big table together to share a family meal, lovingly prepared by Francesco himself using produce fresh from his own garden. And let me tell you, he’s not just a pretty face – this guy can cook!

The atmosphere is unbeatable – I really had to pinch myself. One of the great experiences of my life was sitting down to a freshly made Italian meal – from scratch – after an incredibly scenic day of hiking, while watching the sherbet sunset over the hills with a host of new friends, many of whom I became quite close with. Aside from Francesco himself, who is an absolute sweetheart of a guy – kind, helpful, humble, giving – there was a host of other great folks. Ashley and Bobbie are best friends from San Diego.

Adam is a hilarious – and slightly insane – base jumper from Montana. Matthew I was particularly jealous of. An incredibly affable New Yorker studying filmmaking, he was arriving for his first day at 5 Terre, where he’d be living and volunteering for the next 3 months. While I’m living out a dream this year, to be sure, he’s living another version of it that I myself would like to experience some day – laying down roots somewhere amazing for a while and letting that singular place shape him and become a part of him.

This incredible getaway was the driving force behind a lot of amazing new memories for me, and I’m so grateful to Francesco and to the new friends I made there for providing me with such an unforgettable experience. It says a lot when the accommodation itself can overshadow even an incredible place like this one. More sights from this wonderful part of the world:

Believe it or not, though, I still hadn’t made it to the part of Italy I was most excited to see… but that was next up!

Emilia Romagna: Slow Food, Fast Cars

When I look back on this incredible year decades from now, my time in Northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna region will be one of the most vivid and warm memories I have to draw on. This is the undisputed culinary capital of one of the world’s foremost food countries – and the birthplace of the illustrious likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Pagani, Maserati, and Ducati: artisan creators of the finest and fastest cars and motorcycles in the world. If you know me, you know these beautifully monstrous amalgamations of carbon fiber, leather, gasoline, and unbridled horsepower have haunted my dreams for years. A trip to this part of Italy, then, is a pilgrimage for me, both as a shameless zealot of food and of automobiles.

I’d be spending time in three cities: First Modena, the tiny pastel home to Enzo Ferrari, founder of the iconic brand, and Osteria Francescana: The #1-ranked restaurant in the world. Then in Maranello, synonymous with gearheads the world-round as the home and spiritual epicenter of Ferrari. Finally, I’d stop in Bologna, the defacto capital of the region and home to some of the world’s finest cuisine, not to mention a vibrant and buzzy student community, gorgeous architecture, and lively culture. Together, these elements to me represent the earthbound embodiment of heaven.

First, Modena:

While I was unable to secure the impossibly difficult and outrageously expensive reservation for Osteria Francescana, I did make a quick stop by to take a peek. 

Better still, I was able to get a reservation at Franceschetta 58, the more casual and far more reasonably-priced brainchild of the very same chef, Massimo Bottura – one of Italy’s heroes and one of the world’s most illustrious chefs. Check out this profile about this quintessentially Italian character:

If you’re interested – I implore you watch his episode of Chef’s Table (Season 1), available on Netflix – one of my favorite television shows of all time.

My meal at Franceschatta 58 was, predictably, a delight, and paired beautifully with glass after glass of lambrusco, the region’s famed sparkling red wine.

Also in Modena, I visited the Enzo Ferrari Museum – a beautiful homage to a man and his beloved machines in the very house he grew up in, adjacent to the very workshop in which he first began to create his masterpieces 

Also in Modena is Hombre farm, perhaps the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever encountered in the world. Hombre is a producer of Parmigiano Reggiano, perhaps the world’s finest cheese – painstakingly created under the strict guidelines that have dictated Italian food culture for centuries.

That’s 8,000 wheels of parmigiano reggiano, valued at $900/ea. Feel free to do the math.

Touring the facility and watching cheesemakers at work was a joy enough, but Hombre happens to have another notable claim to fame: it’s home to one of the world’s foremost and most valuable collections of Maserati automobiles. The owner of the farm, Umberto Panini, happens to be just a bit of a car freak, as well – and the beauty in this on-site barn was every bit as overwhelming as that of their cheese storeroom.

Punching well above its minuscule weight, Modena is also the home of Pagani, creators of the most expensive, painstakingly hand-crafted, and utterly batshit crazy automobiles in the world. If you think Ferraris or Lamborghinis are costly or exotic, Pagani bests them in both regards by several orders of magnitude. My visit there was literally a dream come true: Not only did I get to visit their museum, but I was also given a tour of the factory floor, where I saw these multimillion dollar masterpieces created by hand.

Devastatingly, Pagani does not allow photos on the factory floor. Fortunately, however, they have allowed media access in the past – so here’s some coverage from SpeedHunters.com, who were allowed to capture images of the factory itself. Truly incredible stuff.

Maranello was again all about the prancing horse of Ferrari, and home to the main Ferrari museum, nestled alongside the very factory in which they’re made and the racetrack upon which they’re tested and benchmarked.

And finally, my beloved Bologna. Oh, Bologna… of all the places I visited in Italy, this is the one city where I can actually imagine myself living. Nicknamed ‘La Grassa’: ‘The fat one’, Bologna is the capital city of the Emilia Romagna. Despite all of its incredible food, culture, art, and energy, Bologna has somehow escaped the tourist hordes that prey upon the likes of Rome and Florence. It’s the home of Europe’s oldest university, and the youthful progressive energy is evident here. During the summer, there’s a giant piazza that screens nightly movies for thousands of locals. Gelato and pasta here are unbelievably delicious, and cheap. And the city itself is gorgeous. For some reason, I basically failed to take any photos here… but this beautiful little video love letter to the city makes my point better than I could have hoped to anyway.

Here again I made some great new friends like Ivy (Scotland) and Neus and her sister (Spain).

Bologna is also the home of Lamborghini, where Id’ again have the unprecedented opportunity to tour their factory floor. Same rules apply here as at Pagani, so again I’ll allow credentialed media to show you what I couldn’t capture.

Bologna is also where I experienced the single best tour – of any kind – that I’ve experienced in my entire life, and one of the greatest days of eating of my 30 years on this Earth, as well. The Italian Days Food Tour, led by the infinitely charismatic and hilarious Alessandro (who absolutely needs his own food show, and in such circumstances would be an overnight celebrity), was a 10-hour barrage of unparalleled and unceasing gluttony. We visited another Parmigiano Reggiano production facility, a prosciutto butcher and curing operation, and one of the foremost family-owned balsamic vinegar production operations in the world.

A note on balsamic: True balsamic vinegar is absolutely NOTHING like we have back home in the states, and is painstakingly produced with a bare minimum of 12 years of barrel aging. It’s a thick, sweet, delicious substance that Italians call ‘black gold’, and it’s priced to match. I sampled one tiny 100ml bottle aged more than 100 years and valued at more than 250 euros.

After touring these three facilities – each of which was the site of insane amounts of food thrust into our mouths – we were then treated to a 12-course lunch. I cannot emphasize enough that this day entailed a GROTESQUE amount of eating and drinking, to the extent that I’d cry mercy and cover my plate – upon which Alessandro would laugh, mock me, and literally pile more food on my arms with which I was obscuring my my place at the table. To say that the food and wine – both of which were world class – was unlimited would be an understatement. I literally fasted the entire next day. SO WORTH IT.

If you go to Italy, please visit Bologna and embark on a tour with Italian Days. It will likely be the best day of eating in your entire life.

Footnote: Venice

Buckle your seatbelts, folks… I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I spent one day in Venice, and that was more than enough. To be honest, I didn’t like it at all. In a country that absolutely boggled my mind with its beauty, its history, its food, its hospitality… Venice offered practically none of these. It is – in my opinion – a radically overpriced, overtouristed, Disney-fied emulation of Italy – utterly lacking in every way aside from being pretty to look at. The food is mediocre, the prices are sky-high, the local culture is virtually impossible to pick out from the teeming crowds of cruise ship tourists, and overall it just fell a bit flat to me. 

But you know what? I don’t care. This was the conclusion of three of the best weeks of my life, exploring a country that captured my heart, my stomach, and my dreams. Italy is a paradise, and frankly I barely scratched the surface there – there’s so much left for me to see. The south of Italy in particular – Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Barri, Lecci, the Amalfi Coast – completely eluded me and give me an incredible future journey to look forward to. So I wasn’t about to let one dud of a city get me down. Instead, I spent a day wandering through Venice, snapped a few pictures, and beamed with joy – I’d just experienced a very special place.

I was gutted to say goodbye to Italy, honestly. But boy was I in for another treat: I was headed to the Iberian peninsula to explore Portugal and Spain. I was sure that nothing could hold a candle to my experience in Italy, but let me tell you… I was in for a surprise. Stay tuned!

Classic EuroTrippin’: Holland, Brussels, & Paris

Classic EuroTrippin’: Holland, Brussels, & Paris

Thus far, my time in Europe has been spent in some pretty fantastic places that aren’t necessarily prominent tier-1 fixtures on the classic tourist trail. Istanbul and Budapest, while massive and popular destinations in their own right, aren’t really the first cities I’ve historically thought of when I think ‘Europe’. Certainly Kiev and Chernobyl are well off the beaten path, and Switzerland, while very much a first-rate Western European destination, seems a bit more niche on the backpacker circuit. 

I’ve taken great joy in discovering these places for myself and finding in each of them a tremendous amount of good; I found it really rewarding getting to know places that I didn’t necessarily have a lot of preconceived notions about. (Next time I find myself in this continent, I plan to really run with that idea and delve into less-touristed destinations like Poland, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Denmark, etc.) 

There’s a different sort of joy on tap in Europe as well, though, and that comes from exploring its ‘Greatest Hits’ and recognizing what exactly it is that makes them so sensationally and universally adored. It was with this in mind that I planned the next leg of my journey, which would include stops in heavy-hitters Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome (the last of which I’ll talk about in a later post). Along the way, I’d be stopping briefly in Rotterdam (Amsterdam’s progressive, modern little brother) and Brussels (with a singular purpose in mind).

I was also pretty excited to share this leg of the trip with my good friend Scott, the first of my everyday inner circle back home in Atlanta to come abroad and say travel alongside me. This would be his first time in Europe, so the classics seemed like a great place to start.

Amsterdam: Sins & Friends

Scott and I would start our journey together in Amsterdam. Interestingly enough, this is the sole destination in my journey to-date where I’d already been once before, during my college years. At the time, I was pretty smitten – so I was eager to see how my admiration would hold up upon a return visit. Turns out, I’m still a big fan.

The primary allure for my return to a destination I’d already seen before lied in the fact that I made some really terrific Dutch friends during my time in New Zealand. Given that I’d loved Amsterdam so much the first time around and I now knew some great people living nearby, I decided it was worth doubling back. This turned out to be a great decision. 

Just as soon as we’d hit the ground, stowed our bags, and had a quick drink at the bar, Scott and I were already off to meet my good friend Jerry – one of the closest new friends I’ve made this year, as well as one of the very first! Amsterdam is a town that loves a good party, and Jerry told us about a great one happening at a really cool outdoor festival venue nearby. De Sluwe Vos (Dutch for ‘The Sly Fox’) is a local DJ known for his techno and house tunes, and he’d be performing a 10-hour long set(!) on the day we landed. Who were we to deny the hand of fate? We met up with Jerry and his lovely girlfriend Annemiek, and thus began a fantastic day that would turn into a fantastic night.

During the show, we also met some cool new people like Julia here and a big group of her friends. As the party wrapped in the late evening, they invited us back to their place for some social afterparty fun. Not 12 hours into our time in the Netherlands, and already we found ourselves in a stranger’s home, laughing at our complete inability to understand conversations in Dutch but enjoying the great company regardless.

(I know, right? Dutch people are all so good looking! What gives?)

After we’d mingled for a bit at Julia’s place, Annemiek and Jerry realized they’d miss the last train back home – so we all got a kick out of cramming into the hotel room that I’d booked for Scott and I that night with some of my hoarded hotel points. Imagine our surprise when we came back to this note under the door, left by a member of the hotel staff I might have been casually flirting with when we checked in. The Amsterdam vibes were STRONG so far!

After joining us for a delicious Dutch breakfast the next morning, Jerry and Annemiek had to bid us farewell – they had normal daily lives to resume, after all – but it was such a pleasure spending time with them. They really made our time in Amsterdam special, and I can’t imagine a better way to kick things off.

Train hangovers for everyone!

From that point on, Scott and I set out to explore the city on our own. We’d have no trouble finding things to do! Amsterdam is famous for so many things. For many, the first thing that comes to mind are its ubiquitous ‘coffee shops’. Don’t be fooled by the name, though – these cafés aren’t purveyors of lattes; they’re sanctioned, legal places to buy and enjoy marijuana. Love it or hate it, this is an integral part of Amsterdam’s identity as a liberal bastion and safe haven for virtually any vice that doesn’t involve hurting yourself or others. Somehow I forgot to take a photo of any of these… for some reason my memory must have been hazy 😉 Here’s one I stole from the web of a particularly famous coffeeshop in town!

The other half of Amsterdam’s notorious naughty side comes from its sanctioned Red Light District – an area of town in which you can stroll through narrow alleys and peek through crimson, neon-lit windows where you’ll find beautiful, scantily-clad, predominately Eastern European women vying for your attention and your Euros. 

Yep, these girls are prostitutes, and they’re big business here in Amsterdam. Because the city keeps the industry on a tight leash and mandates strict rules, laws, and sexual health checks, the practice is generally accepted and tolerated locally. Photos here are strictly forbidden for obvious reasons, and this is enforced with a pretty heavy hand, so I didn’t take any – but once again Aunty Google comes to the rescue. 

Naturally then, the fun touristy thing to do in Amsterdam is to walk through these areas rife with coffeeshops and red lights, soaking in the novelty of it all. These areas are also littered with tons of late night junk food for its many drunk and/or stoned wanderers – famous french fry stands and unique spots like FEBO, which serves hot, freshly made fried goodies from vending machine-esque windows. Yet another vice that this city embraces with open arms!

Before you get the wrong impression, though, understand that Amsterdam is famous for a lot more than its sinful side. This is a city with a rich pedigree that goes much deeper than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, of which it’s merely tolerant.  Damsco (as some locals call it) is also world-renowned for its gorgeous canals and its position as a cultural juggernaut, boasting a dizzying array of museums and art galleries. Though we didn’t visit this time around, it’s the famous home of the Anne Frank House, in which the young Jewish girl and her family hid during World War II. It’s a sobering visit that I’d like to make on a subsequent trip here.

We did manage to visit the Stedelijk Museum, the city’s world-class modern and contemporary art museum.

Another classic we explored was the Van Gogh Museum, which – again – doesn’t allow photos. I’m sensing a trend here. Go Go Gadget Google!

For me, the highlight of our Amsterdam tourism came from the fantastic canal tour we took with a local company called Those Dam Boat Guys. This was a highly informative and highly fun tour, piloted by an American expat who told us so many fascinating things about the city and its history. Best of all, it was BYOB/Picnic – so Scott and I put together quite the spread to munch on as we learned about this great city.

Some fun facts for you: Amsterdam is made up of 165 canals. It’s a series of manmade islands, and homes along the canals have a distinctive look because they were made to order, per the specs of the original buyer. This is why styling is so disparate amongst them, and explains why the width of each home varies, based on buying power (whereas depth is uniform). These homes are supported by wooden poles – 11 million of them in all of Amsterdam, in fact – and that’s why some of them droop or lean. 

Perhaps most fascinating of all, there are more bicycles in Amsterdam than there are people! That figure includes the very young and very old, too – so there’s well more than 1 bike per person here. The Dutch love their bikes! As a result, they’re quite fit, their city is very ecologically friendly, and traffic jams aren’t as prominent an issue as they are elsewhere.

We were really lucky and had a particularly special treat during our time on the canals, when we stumbled into this fascinating local personality who puts on a bizarre – but beautiful – musical performance. This local legend is Reinier Sijpkens, and thankfully some other lucky prior witnesses have captured him on video!

Among our other notable stops in Amsterdam were a craft brewery situated in an old windmill:

A cafe famous for its incredible Dutch apple pie, as suggested by another dear Dutch friend of mine, Nick, and his wife Tianne:

And an incredible private auction collection of cars that we had to peek at through holes in a privacy gate. Scott spotted this hidden gem, and it absolutely made my day.

It was a brief visit, but we also got a chance to catch up with Michelle, another awesome Dutchie who I travelled with in New Zealand.

If you can’t tell already, I really love Dutch folks. And they all speak English! And Dutch! And on average, one or two other languages as well. They’re some of the most multilingual people in the world, as well as some of the most fun and most relaxed. If ya don’t know… now ya know.

And thus, our time in Amsterdam had drawn to a close after one hell of a ride. I love this city to death, and it’s a place I’ll look forward to revisiting again and again over the years for its warmth, its accepting attitude, its incredible art and culture, and its embrace of all things weird and wonderful. Despite the bummer of leaving this wonderful place, however, we were eager to see its kid sister Rotterdam: a city with a fascinating history and an even more fascinating skyline.

Rotterdam: Dutch City of the Future?

1940, World War II: German bombers lay waste to Rotterdam, raining fire on the strategically significant harbor city and reducing the city center to ash and rubble.

In the wake of the destruction, post-war Rotterdam decides not to rebuild, but to completely remodel. They opt for forward-thinking architecture, art, pedestrian/bicycle infrastructure, and public spaces. A few decades later, the all-in bet has paid off, and a very globalized Rotterdam is beginning to emerge from rival sibling Amsterdam’s shadow. 

This is an exciting city right now, and it’s growing progressively more interesting by the day. Edgy design, interesting public spaces, and progressive art are popping up everywhere. Construction is constant, and change is blisteringly fast. Take, for example, Markthal: a mixed-use development with shops, restaurants, and apartments that was completed in October of 2014. (Yes, Atlanta folks, this is a European Ponce City Market)!

Also fascinating are the city’s famous cube houses

Even the train station turns heads!

We stumbled into some pretty cool street art, and even a synchronized dance flash mob (why not!?)

While Rotterdam lacks the cultural clout and classic good looks of Amsterdam, it’s a city that feels very lived-in, and a place that’s becoming progressively better with every passing day. This is a city that’s finding its identity and making its own rules, and it’s something pretty special to watch unfold. It’s going to be REALLY interesting watching Rotterdam come into its own over the next few decades, and I think this is a city to really keep your eye on. 

Our time here was short, though, and by now we were ready to get to Paris – one of the world’s great metropolises. But on the way, we decided to make a quick one-day detour in Brussels, for two main reasons. One, it’s conveniently right along the way there. And two – it’s the home to the best traditional beer styles in the world, and one of the best breweries on Earth.

Brussels: Beer & Waffles

No, not at the same time. That’s gross. Anyway, listen folks. There’s more to Belgium to beer and waffles. I’m sure of it. It’s just that we didn’t really bother finding out for ourselves – our hilariously brief stop here was really and truly for these reasons only. 

Priority one was visiting the Cantillon Brewery – a famous name amongst hardcore beer nerds the world over.

Cantillon specializes in a special, rather ancient style of beer called the lambic. Lambics are brewed in open vats, which allow wild strains of yeast and bacteria like Lactobacillus to take up residence. Before you turn your nose, keep in mind that this isn’t entirely unlike yogurt – it’s perfectly safe for consumption. The yeast and bacteria present in Brussels are uniquely special for this kind of beer production. They do, however, impart a funky, sour flavor that’s an acquired taste for many. I love sour beer styles, personally, but that’s me.

Cantillon makes their beers the old-fashioned way, and not much about their process has changed since opening in 1900. Everything is done by hand, devoid of expensive industrial equipment, and much of the mastery of their beer is due to the artisanship of their master brewers and blenders. These beers are aged in oak and then blended together, not unlike whiskey, to impart balanced flavors and characteristics.

Chances are, though, that you really don’t care all that much about these little details. Suffice it to say, the tour we took was by far the most interesting brewery tour I’ve ever attended – and I’ve probably attended a hundred+ of them (I like beer a lot, sue me). The guide was hilariously curt, to-the-point, and took every opportunity to poke fun at people. Most of all, though, he just wanted to share their incredible beer and fascinating history. It was an awesome experience and well worth the detour!

While we had beer on the mind, we also made a stop at Delirium Bar – famous for having the world’s largest selection of beer on their menu. This might surprise you if you don’t know how much of a juggernaut Brussels is in the beer world – it’s a rite of passage to come here!

And oh yeah – I nearly forgot – I also promised you there’d be waffles. My mind wasn’t blown, really, but hey… we had to do it! I had mine Brussels style, with powdered sugar and hazelnuts.

Last but not least, a bonus (costumed) manneken pis sighting  – and then back on the train we go!

Ravi d'enfin vous rencontrer, Paris.

Yes, this post is getting long, and yes, Paris likely deserves a post unto itself. But hey, this is my blog, so we’re playing by my rules! 

I didn’t really go into Paris with any specific expectations, despite its reputation as a global powerhouse metropolis and cultural icon. Frankly, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t traveling with a lover, so the whole ‘city of love’ angle wasn’t really doing much for me (Nothing personal, Scott). Of course, as a hardcore fan of all things food, I understood that Paris is an incredibly important epicurean city, so I looked forward to sampling its gastronomic wares – but otherwise, I’d be going in pretty blind. I like that.

What did excite me about Paris was the fact that my sister Carla would be joining Scott and I, and sticking around for Rome as well. Carla has a long history in the food industry, and she too loves nothing more than to eat and drink, so if nothing else I knew we’d be in for some good meals together. It was really great to be with family for the first time in 6 months.

Our first stop was the Musée d’Orsay, a gorgeous museum on the bank of the Seine that’s housed in a former train station. We chose to go here in lieu of the Louvre, which was sure to be packed to the point of sheer claustrophobia – instead choosing a slightly more low-key, but still world-class gallery to fill our first morning together. The museum’s collection was extensive, but to be completely candid we were all far more taken with the building itself.

Behold... art!

That afternoon, Scott and I jumped at the chance to watch France’s World Cup match in their own capital city. I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet in my blog ramblings, but following the World Cup while traveling through Europe was a pretty fantastic experience. Europeans are incredibly passionate about their football, and there’s nothing more contagious than watching a country play for glory while within its very borders. Fortunately, spirits were high, because France would go on to win this one against Argentina. Eventually, they’d go on to win it all – though unfortunately we weren’t still around for the celebrations.  

Later that evening, my incredible good luck seeing friendly faces abroad continued when we were able to meet up with my good friend Derek and his beautiful girlfriend Taylor, from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Derek used to be a client of mine when I was at IBM, and we became friends over the years. When I found out they were doing a European tour of their own and would have one day of overlap with us in Paris, I was thrilled to have a chance to catch up with them. More beautiful smiling faces!

The following day, Carla, Scott and I kicked things off by heading to a great local food market and bakery to gather some goods for a picnic in a nearby park. The usual suspects were all present: French cheeses, baguette, local beers, meats – a proper picnic lunch!

After filling our bellies, we took a stroll around the Butte-aux-Cailles neighborhood to scope out some interesting local street art – a favorite travel pastime of mine.