Tuesday, April 29, 2014

NOLA 04-2014

I've spent a few weekends and week vacations in New Orleans. All of them tied to the Jazz Festival that is so popular and famous each spring.

This year I managed to hit the city once again over one of the two weekends. The weather was perfect; a lovely 80+ degrees F. My host owns a convertible so driving around with the top down through the tree lined streets and the unbelievable old mansion neighborhoods is a real treat.

The first stop in town, as odd as it may seem, was at the cemetery. Once before, when I was in Argentina, I'd stopped at a famous cemetery in Punto Arenas and just wandered around for a while. This time my host drove me all around the grounds, stopping sometimes to get out and look inside the mausoleums at the statues and stained glass. The cemetery is incredible and there are so many varied nationalities and monuments to the dead. We spent quite some time there just enjoying the interesting things people decide to leave behind as their legacy.

It was a lazy start to the day so after the cemetery it was time for dinner and dancing. Frenchmen street was where we headed for some food and fun. Snug Harbor restaurant nicely accommodated my request for a plate of sautéed vegetables and a salad instead of anything off their menu :)  Then after dinner, it was time to dance off the calories. Frenchmen street is very eclectic so you can walk around for a while just perusing the wares people have for sale and sticking your head in the unique shops along the way. There are of course a lot of bars with live bands to enjoy...it is New Orleans after all! So we stuck our heads in several before finding just the right one, Vaso LLC. The bands change nightly so you just have to wander around to find one that suits your tastes at the time. Once we found ours, it was time to dance. And dance we did! We had the whole front of the room to ourselves, right in front of the band. Of course they complimented us and I'm sure enjoyed playing for active participants. People sitting down clearly enjoyed the show as well from the claps and murmurs of appreciation I randomly heard as I twirled and sashayed my way around the floor. After we had danced a while and were sitting for a spell, a lady came up and sat down next to me. I thought she was asking my partner for a dance, but she just wanted to say how much she enjoyed watching us dance. She wasn't American so her English was hard to understand, especially through the band sound, but her point was understood and greatly appreciated. We danced well and weren't snobby lol!

Everyday was wonderfully the same; wake up at noon, enjoy a late brunch, walk around or drive around a new neighborhood, take a nap, get ready for dinner and dancing, go to bed super late and repeat :)

One of the afternoons my friend had a terrific surprise for me, my first gondola ride on the Nola Gondola! Our gondolier, Robert, was a fabulous tour guide. I asked him all about gondoliering (is that a word?) and he graciously answered all my normal and outrageous questions. He told us all about how he discovered and entered the gondolier life and it was very apparent how much he loves what he does! What a trip! And he let me practice my rowing skills (even complimented me that I was a natural) and said that next time I could take her out on open water~!~!~ These are some pictures taken along the ride through City Park.

For our dancing hot spots we hit up Rock N' Bowl and Frenchman Street and then dined in all the favorite local restaurants. It was such a refreshing (yet exhausting) trip! I'll never forget the charbroiled oysters at Vaso, the brussel sprouts and bread pudding at Blue Oak BBQ inside Chickie Wah Wahs, the tasty veggie pita wrap at Fellini's, and the atmosphere and live music almost everywhere. One of my favorite things about New Orleans is the mood in each of the neighborhoods. I love sitting outside at the different cafes and soaking up the local atmosphere, the local music (and the sun too)!

One week of dining, drinking, and dancing went by so fast. Now I'm back in Nashville for a short week before heading off to Florida for some more fun in the sun!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nashville, Delaware and the Vegas Red Rocks

After returning to the States, I spent a good deal of time with my parents, catching up with old friends, and performing with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. I had let a lot of "to do's" stack up toward the end of my Korea stay, so I was busy busy busy for those first couple of weeks.

But now that most of that is all over, I'm back on the travel trail, satisfying my itchy feet :)

The very first stop was a short, several hour layover in Chicago. My parents were so kind to drive me there with my years worth of Korean luggage so that I didn't have to take multiple trains and walk part of Chicago with it all.

I'd been trying for a little while to meet the maker of my violin, William Whedbee. Unfortunately, schedules had never aligned, but this trip, I had a few extra hours and I was able to stop by his workshop (which is unbelievable) and talk to him a little bit. It was great and I hope next time I have a few minutes in Chicago to be able to stop by again.

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With my Whedbee Violin
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The master and his craft.

After the quick visit, I said goodbye to my folks, and jumped on the plane to Nashville. The hour and a half flight seemed so fast compared to the long flights from Korea and SF to Chicago.

My adopted dad picked me up at the airport and took me home where I almost finished my to do list and started to relax and begin my vacation time.

After four days of Nashville it was time to move again. I started by spending a day browsing around Nashville. I'd never spent a day in the city before (my adopted dad lives an hour outside the city). Being a thrifty shopper I went bargain hunting at a couple large thrift stores but came up empty handed :(  So I headed on toward a huge shopping complex closer to downtown call the Opry Mills Mall. There was a Gap outlet store there and I had a coupon so I was interested in seeing what I could find. Since I've lost more inches than I realized more and more of my clothes don't fit.

Opry Mills mall is HUGE. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time wandering around it, watching all the people. And I was also fortunate because I finally found a new pair of tennis shoes (mine were over five years old and in desperate need of replacement) and the Gap store did not disappoint! While I was shopping I bumped into a stranger who ended up chatting with me for well over half an hour. I had time to spare so it was a nice time to spend. Now I have another new friend! It was a really fun first half of my day.

Following the shopping, I went to check in at the hostel I'd previously booked, Music City Hostel,  and checked in. It's a nice little area with numerous buildings, each with a couple of rooms, a lobby and bathroom. My room was the sunshine room :)  And inside, my door was the guitar door. There was a fiddle door across the hall, but it was a private room so I couldn't swap.

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After I got checked in, one of the guys I'd met in the lobby took me up on the offer to go see the second Hobbit film at the $2 theater. The theater was only 11 miles away, but in rush hour traffic it took us over one hour to get there. So we missed the first hour of the movie, but oh well.

When I got back I had intended to go see Otello at the Performing Arts Center, but was so tired and hungry I just searched for a nearby restaurant and then crashed around 10p.m. Around midnight the girls sleeping on the bunk next to mine came in so I woke up. Then at 1a.m. the girl underneath my bed came in and woke me up. Then around 2:30a.m. the guys staying in the third room of the building came home quite drunk and very loud playing all sorts of idiotic games to amuse themselves. So I laid in bed awake until around 4a.m. when they went to bed finally....  And my alarm when off at 6! Short night!

Considering the policy that they give you upon checking in that you're supposed to read and sign, that has very specific details on drinking and whatnot, I'm not highly rating this hostel in anyway since they obviously didn't adhere to their standards by making the guys go elsewhere (the girl sleeping under me worked for the hostel so she could have alerted the manager). When I walked outside the next morning the grounds had been destroyed. Things were flown all over the place. Hope the guys had fun....

An early morning flight to Delaware and I was off again. Fortunately, I have a good friend there who was willing to put up with me, I mean, put me up, for a whole week while I did some recording. Now, small side track, the recording didn't actually take place SO, if you know a pianist (that is a professional with sight reading abilities) that might be interested in working with me on cruise ships, please send them my way. Here is the advertisement that I made for the job: cruise ship pianist. I did enjoy some wonderful, fabulous friend time and even got in free to the highly rated Longwood Gardens. Actually enjoyed it so much I hope to take my mother there when everything is in bloom later this summer.

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Delaware was tough in many respects, but I'm moving forward and appreciating the wonderful time I spent there.

After Delaware, it was off to Vegas baby!!  Flew in late evening, ate at a lovely Korean restaurant lol, where I got to speak some Korean and entertain the staff with some pictures and tales of my recent trip.

Now we all know that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so I'll just mention some nice highlights and say, Vegas was fun! And hiking the Red Rocks was awesome!

Highlight 1: The Vegas Strip is still magnificent to see. I'm never underwhelmed at the monstrosity of the buildings. Everything is just beyond belief.

Highlight 2: The food is delicious if you go to the right places. I ate at a Korean restaurant for my first lunch named K far outside the strip. It was tasty and fun. Then there was a juice and organicy restaurant off the strip called SkinnyFats. It was fabulous! Bouchon, on the strip was a highlight of one brunch and Mon Ami Gabi was a nice French late night dinner with patio seating facing the Bellagio fountains. The waiter was my favorite ever and the view was amazing and the food quite tasty so a lovely late night meal all around. One breakfast was taken in a family restaurant called Coco's. Not my favorite, but many other's favorite. The last dinner was at Biscayne Steak House in the Tropicana. Service was eh, but the eggplant mushroom tacos and deconstructed bananas foster dessert were superb!

Highlight 3: Unmentionable.

Highlight 4: Definitely can't say.

So I guess those are my Vegas highlights :)

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After an exhausting few days of little sleep and much exercise and surprisingly not much food, I pulled an all nighter before flying back to Nashville. And in typical Ronda fashion, I called the wrong shuttle and had to walk a mile and a half back to the right hotel in my dress heels. When I got there I couldn't find the car keys so I dumped everything out of my luggage. No deal. Called road side assistance to unlock the car hoping the keys were in it. No deal. Dumped out my luggage again. No deal. Called a couple airport lost and founds as well as asking at the hotel where the car was parked. No deal. Began making plans to sleep in the car and charge my phone somehow. While planning inside the hotel, dumped out all my luggage a third time...found the keys. whoopee! Multiple hours later, so tired I could hardly walk a straight line, I delightedly hopped in the car and made my way home.

Now it is time to head to New Orleans and the ever popular Jazz Fest. Bags are unpacked, repacked and ready to go. Swinging good times to be had, delicious food to savor, tantalizing music to hear, and unforgettable times to make more wonderful memories.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Seoul to Japan to Seoul - Tokyo

The last two days of Japan were reserved for the enormous city of Tokyo. Just picking a neighborhood to stay was daunting. Do you pick a traditional neighborhood, a party neighborhood, a centrally located neighborhood, a touristy neighborhood? Tokyo has them all and even multiples. And since Tokyo is so huge, the neighborhoods are fairly spread out so it's a fairly big deal if you don't want to hotel hop every night.

The neighborhood I chose was Shinjuku. It's a party neighborhood that is located in the northwestern part of Tokyo and also is very close to the world's busiest subway station in Shinjuju.

Much time was spent wandering around through markets, getting lost on the winding streets and window shopping at interesting stores. But one of the things I really enjoyed was visiting one of the popular cat cafes. You pay a fee for the time you spend and can also buy coffee or tea and desserts as well as cat treats to lure the cats to you since it is only allowed to pet the cats, not pick them up or hang on to them. There were two floors in the cat cafe that we visited. After getting a badge, you removed your shoes and washed your hands before walking into the cat room. There are lots of different kinds of cats and lots of toys to play with them as well as couches to relax and drink your coffee while you watch the kitties.

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There are two towers in Tokyo, the Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo Sky Tree. The Sky Tree is listed as the world's tallest tower. It's used as a broadcasting tower but with obvious tourist attractions on a few of the higher floors as well as a plethora of shopping opportunities surrounding the base. I visited the tower at night and it was indeed breathtaking. The sparkling city lights of Tokyo stretched as far as I could see in every single direction I looked. It was jaw dropping gorgeous, really. Photography is quite difficult due to the bar placement around the windows and the interior light reflections at night though.


I sampled sushi, soup, dumplings, fish dishes, bakery delicacies, and amazing handmade ramen. The food was superb and I miss it intensely.

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Japan was a truly amazing country and someday it would be fantastic to return and see more of the islands and countryside and also see it during cherry blossom season. But until then, the memories I made are wonderful and lasting. I hope you enjoyed my tales and pictures. This was the send off I received at the airport...fitting don't you think?  :)


I've already begun another travel adventure; not for work mostly, but for play. Watch for a new entry soon detailing the beginning of my most recent trips!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Seoul to Japan to Seoul - Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto

The next two days of my journey were spent in the three cities of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. They are all very near each other so it was easy and quick to get from one to the other.

I arrived in Kobe late morning after a train ride from Hiroshima. For lunch my friend had his heart set on sampling the world famous Kobe beef so we headed to a nearby restaurant.

Since it was lunch time the price was more reasonable and it included a salad, soup, veggies, ice cream, coffee, and the steak of course. Breaking my vegetarian diet to sample this potentially once in my lifetime opportunity meal, I was wowed! Ethically speaking there are a couple sides to the Kobe beef issue, although none of the urban legends are confirmed. I personally didn't go out into the hillside and see the cow treatment for myself, but knowing there are only around 3000 head of this beef, that doesn't leave near as much measure for the overcrowded facility treatment that is so commonplace in America.

So leaving behind the ethics debate, I'll move on to the taste agreement. For sure, Kobe beef is the best tasting meat I've ever eaten. It nearly obliterates from memory all other steaks previously enjoyed. The belief that steak needs sauce or dips or rubs or added flavor is inaccurate in regards to Kobe beef. There was nothing but sea salt sprinkled on as the chef began grilling the steak on a hibachi grill right in front of my eyes. Then, after getting a few bites ready, he offered me the first bite instructing that I not place it in more salt or pepper or sauce, but just eat it completely natural. My taste buds exploded and an involuntary "oh wow" escaped from my lips. I expected it to be good but my expectations were shattered with the flavor and melting meat in my mouth.

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Unfortunately, you can't get Kobe beef in America. You'll have to go to Japan. All the people claiming it elsewhere are making false claims. Ask them for the 10 digit code that proves what cow it came from if you want to verify it's authenticity and you'll find they don't have one for you. Some restaurants import the same cattle but from other prefectures. It's not actually Kobe beef but it's really close. You'll pay a pretty penny though, so beware. If you want to experience the true thing, just go to Japan. The country is worth the visit and the Kobe beef is one of the extreme highlights along the journey.

After lunch it was time to explore the nearby woodlands. I hiked up through several small waterfalls, around a dam, up some giant sized steep stairs, and then strolled along a rather steep incline that wove its way through the Herb Gardens. Since it was winter time, not much was blooming but things were planted and the ground was being taken care of quite meticulously. It was still very beautiful. At the top there was a very handy and welcoming cable car ride to the bottom where it was time to jump the train to Osaka for dinner.

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Osaka has an entertainment district called Dotombori. It's a canal street that's super lit up with so many lights it's distracting. It's also crowded so moving along can be slightly difficult, even if it's a weekday evening. There was a recommended old fashioned noodle house in the Lonely Planet guide book so off I went for some udon. (Udon is a type of thick wheat flour noodle of Japanese cuisine. Udon is often served hot as a noodle soup in its simplest form, as kake udon, in a mildly flavored broth called kakejiru, which is made of dashi, soy sauce and mirin ~ thanks Wikipedia) This was by far the best udon I've ever had before and since. The noodles were perfect and the broth was delectable! I had a tempura prawn in mine and with the flavors of the broth soaked into it, that prawn was the most delicious prawn I've ever had in my life! I could have had two bowls of that soup!


But the night was young, so after a light dinner it was off to explore and hunt down some sake!  The first bar was a hole in the wall, straight out of a movie scene, packed with locals, nice looking bar...that didn't serve any sake. So instead (I wasn't going to waste the trip, right?) I enjoyed some nice port wine as an after dinner beverage.

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Now the need for dessert got much stronger and it was time to taste the famous waffles advertised and eaten for every meal in every restaurant it seems. It wasn't hard to find an open cafe with some waffles served with ice cream, chocolate sauce and a banana, YUM!


After dessert it was back to the mission of sake hunting. It is now extremely apparent that the Japanese don't drink sake like the Koreans drink soju. Both are the local famous beverage, but the Japanese merely export it because many bars don't even offer it and you rarely see the locals drinking it (this was my experience anyway).

After much hunting, I finally found a bar that had sake plus a lot of character! I mean, a lot of character. And the owner surely put his character into the bar because he was sooo thrilled to see Americans. My friend and I were ushered upstairs along some crazy narrow stairs (the kind where you have to use the right foot on the corresponding stair to walk up them) into a small room with silver Sharpie writing everywhere. There was a little sink and a little bathroom and just a few very small tables. He brought us some free food and a nice sake gift set. Then as we went to leave the bar he offered to take our picture and thanked us a million times for visiting.

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It was late by then and time to head to bed before a big day in Kyoto the next day. Osaka sure was fun and full of life. Someday I'd love to go back!

My favorite artsy picture of the Dotombori Canal featuring the ever popular bicycles and sparkling lights!

Kyoto is known as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan and in the late spring/summer and maybe even fall I could see the possibility, but during the winter... it just wasn't charming for me.

Still, there were many many many many (did I mention there were many?) temples and castles and other various religious monuments to go see. My friend wanted to go see the Golden Palace first so we did. Here's the picture.

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Yes, it's gold. Would I bother going all the way there to see it? No, the Notre Dame dome in South Bend is just as big and more sparkly if gold is your thing, and there are many other more fascinating historical monuments elsewhere around the world.

Kyoto was where the hot pot meal was had. It was all you could eat for 2 hours and it was very delicious! Definitely still a huge fan of hot pot!


Geisha's are a popular sight in Kyoto and in the Gion district you can see them walking home every evening.


These girls were even nice enough to take a picture with us.
All in all, it was a fun and fast couple of days. In Kyoto was were I stayed in a Ryokan, the traditional Japanese housing. There are tatami mats on the floor with some cushions and blankets and that's about it. It was actually super soft and comfy. Ryokan stay, check :) Next it's off to Tokyo!