Remember This is Your Dream

Exhausted, hurt, dazed, and confused - I don't think I've ever been happier in my life.

Exhausted, hurt, dazed, and confused – I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.

Running a marathon was always one of those goals I’ve had in the back of my mind, but never fully executed on – things would come up that diverted my attention.  A year ago I was at a strange crossroads in my life and oddly decided running for 5+ hours would be the best use of my time, and registered for the Marine Corps Marathon. Having never run more than a half marathon and being badly out of shape, I knew I had a really long way to go.

My parents and friends pledged full support of my endeavor and my good friend Erik, a ultra marathon runner, even promised to draft up a training plan for me.  When I later found out I had won the lottery and secured a spot in the race there was no turning back.

Training was tough – not physically but mentally.  I simply had no motivation for my long runs.  I was giving up partly through my runs and not accomplishing the distances I needed.  I was beginning to question my decision to even run the Marine Corps Marathon in the first place.  My training became even more difficult because halfway through my trip to Japan came up.  Before leaving for Japan I could barely run 10 miles without stopping – how was I supposed to return from the trip and get re-motivated with less than 2 months to go?

Mile 16 - It's amazing the boost a friendly face on the sideline can do for you.

Mile 16 – It’s amazing the boost a friendly face on the sideline can do for you.

Fueled by my parents booking hotels and flights to come see my first marathon, I had new focus in my marathon training.  On one of the first weekends back, I ran 18 miles, only stopping to walk a mile roughly 13.5 miles into my run.  It was the longest run I had ever done (and I could barely walk afterwards!)  I was worried about the marathon now but Erik assured me I had broken through “the wall” and any subsequent run would be nothing.  He was partly right, the following weekend I ran 15.6 miles without stoping.  I felt great afterwards and even went to the Washington Nationals play-off game afterwards!

But trouble started again.  My right foot began to bother me with symptoms similar to plantar fasciitis. With only two weeks until the marathon I decided to lay low and just rest, because I was going to run the marathon, foot be dammed!

Reality struck when my parents flew into D.C. on Friday, the weekend of the marathon.  The reality of my foot injury and the closeness of the marathon began to set in.  There was no turning back now as all the pieces were coming into play.  The night before I could barely sleep.  They say no-one sleeps before running marathons and they couldn’t be more right.  Worried about my foot and beginning to doubt even running at all, I think I only managed about 3 hours of sleep.

Perhaps it was the energy from being anxious, and all the pre-race excitement, but the race started off without a hitch.  I decided to run with the 5 hour group – something I thought was reasonable given my injury.  The pace group I ran with through me off though.  We would run and at the mile markers we would walk for 15~30 seconds, which wasn’t how I had trained.

My foot began hurting at mile one.  While I was able to fight it off for the first thirteen miles or so (and stay with my pace group), the combination of throbbing pain and the constant start / stop of the pace group proved too much.  I began walking around mile 14 to let my foot rest some.  At mile 16 I popped some pain pills I had brought with me – but as expected didn’t do too much to kill the pain.  I still had 10 miles to go!  Mentally I began telling myself that it was just 10 miles – I could run that in my sleep.  While the mental games worked for a few miles, I had to walk the majority of mile 19 through 21 and I began doubting again my decision to run and even began to contemplate defeat.

Although my friends and family are yelling at me like crazy, I'm really smiling because the finish is just within sight.

Although my friends and family are yelling at me like crazy, I’m really smiling because the finish is just within sight.

At mile 24, I turned the corner and, not expecting to see anyone, my mom surprised me with a huge smile and hug. That spurred me on, and then I saw one sign that changed my entire outlook.  Someone, who appeared to be standing by themselves, was holding a sign that said “Remember this is your dream.”  It struck me in a way nothing else had the entire day.  After seeing countless “Worst parade ever” and “I only run if I’m being chased” signs I began to tune them out, but I noticed this one. And it became the mantra that stuck with me as I finished the race.

I had pledged to do a marathon.  It was something I always had wanted to do.  My original  goal of getting a good time was long gone – but the dream of completing the actual marathon was still alive.  As silly as it sounds, this one sign changed my entire outlook on the race.  Sometimes in the mist of chaos we loose sight of what’s important. Our set backs and doubts can overcome us, if we let them. But our dreams remain sitting on the sidelines ready to be conquered. Sometimes all we need to get back on track is a gentle reminder of what those goals are, even if it’s from a complete stranger.

 

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Fantastic Queso Fundido – Melted Cheese Dip with Spicy Chorizo

Queso Fundido with a Spicy Chorizo is easy to make at home!

Queso fundido with chorizo is the perfect appetizer to spice up any meal!

Queso Fundido, Spanish for molten cheese, is a delicious Mexican appetizer that can add a bit of flare to any meal.  My girlfriend and I always order queso fundido with added chorizo (a spicy Spanish sausage) when we are out at a Mexican restauraunt. After ordering it repeatedly at restaurants (and spending who knows how much) I decided to learn to make it on my own.

Turns out its a really easy recipe to recreate, you simply melt, then broil the cheese and top with the chorizo cooked separately.  I’m beginning to question why its so expensive at restaurants!

The recipe below is a fairly simplified version.  Feel free to add diced tomatoes, cilantro or sliced jalapeños after broiling to make it really something special!  Served with tortilla chips, use it as an appetizer for the Super Bowl or just as a way to spice up a main course.  I guarantee it will your new go-to side dish or appetizer!

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Fantastic Fundido with Chorizo
 
Prep time
Cook time
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Gooey and delicious - Queso fundido with chorizo is a simple way to spice up any meal!
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Mexican
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • Half Block of queso oaxacan (Monterrey Jack can substitute)
  • ¼ Pound of chorizo (see note below)
  • Olive Oil
  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
Instructions
Chorizo
  1. Remove the casing from the chorizo and add to the heated pan on medium heat, cook for a few minutes until browned
  2. Remove the chorizo, drain the grease from chorizo on a paper towel and set aside
  3. Add a tsp of olive oil to the pan, heat, and then add the chopped onion and fry for 1 minute
  4. Quickly add the garlic and fry for 1 more minute, or until both the onion and garlic are soft
  5. Add back the chorizo and mix in the cooked onion and garlic, set mixture aside
Queso Fundido
  1. Shred the Cheese into a oven safe dish
  2. Set your oven to 400 degrees and cook the cheese for five minutes, or until it starts to bubble
  3. Immediately broil the cheese for a few more minutes, or until brown spots begin appearing on the cheese.
  4. Remove the cheese from the oven and add the cooked chorizo mixture
  5. Serve with fresh chips or flour tortillas and enjoy!
Notes
You can get Queso Oaxacan and Chorizo at just about any grocery store specializing in Mexican. Whole Foods also sells both items if you do not have a Mexican grocery close by.

If spicy chorizo is not available spicy Italian can be substituted. If spice is not your thing, any other sausage can be substituted. Trader Joe's Soy Chorizo is a good vegetarian alternative as well.

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Hiroshima and the Itsukushima Shrine

Hiroshima

The Atom Dome in Hiroshima

Old and New – the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is framed by a new construction in the background.  Not wanting to completely erase the travesty of the bombing, Japan has opted to preserve the site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hiroshima: the sight of 80,000 horrors.  On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. the US dropped the bomb that led to the end of the war.

When first planning my trip to Japan, I put Hiroshima as a top destination to go.  I’ve read about the bombing in books, watched documentaries and movies, but wanted to experience it for myself.  In doing so I learned a lot more about what happened then what is told in books.

Getting to Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a 2.5 hour train ride from Osaka, Japan.  From Tokyo it’s roughly 5 hours.  As it’s on the main train line through Japan, there are several daily Shinkansen trains passing through, including trains eligible for the JR Pass, so it’s an easy city to visit, logistically.  From Hiroshima station the Atom Dome take trams 2 or 6  to the Genbaku Dome-mae Station, or I just walked, as it’s roughly one mile.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Ground Zero where the Atomic Bomb was detonated in Hiroshima

Ground Zero.  Roughly 2000 feet (600 meters) above where this photo was taken, Little Boy was detonated with a force of 13 kilotons.

When arriving to the city I quickly dropping off my things at the hostel, Backpackers Hostel K’s in Hiroshima, and went straight to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

Inside the park is the A-Bomb Dome (otherwise known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial), which is famous for being the closest building to ground zero that survived. It is a haunting reminder of the devastating power of atomic weaponry.

In addition, I highly recommend visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a 50 yen entry fee (about 50 cents).  The museum contains hundreds of artifacts of the victims.  I learned that a large portion of the victims were children that the were in the city working that day as part of the Student Mobilization Policy.

The Student Mobilization Policy was a “volunteer” government program that had middle and high school age students working in factories and other public works projects. After the government relocated the women and children away from city centers, which were targets of US attacks, the students joined the work program. Their purpose that day was to clear firebreaks in Hiroshima in case of a future attack. Wandering through the museum and reading story after story about various child victims I learned that many Japanese blame their own government for the attack.  Had the students not been in the city that day, clearing useless firebreaks, those victims would have been home safe in the hills.

Delicous okonomiyaki hiroshima style with bacon, egg, and noodles!

A much needed pick me up after spending the day in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

After this moving experience, I took a much needed break and popped into a restaurant to get an okonomiyaki lunch. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake famous in both Osaka and Hiroshima that is made from batter, cabbage, and bean sprouts and topped with a wide variety of options.

The Hiroshima style is cooked with bacon, egg and noodles. I washed it down with a beer to enjoy this delicious late lunch.  In addition to Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima is famous for oysters. I tried them later in my visit, they are absolutely amazing!

Miyajima and the Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine Gate at Sunset

Catching some of the later boats to see the Itsukushima Shrine Torii Gate at Sunset is well worth it!

The Torrii Gate of the Itsukushima Shrine on the island of Miyajima is an iconic Japanese image.  Rebuilt several times over its history, the present structure dates from the mid 16th century.  Built on pier-like structures, during high tide the shrine appears to be floating on water.

Only a short train and ferry ride away from Hiroshima, I highly recommend the half day side trip while visiting the city.

Getting to Miyajima

With a JR pass one can do the trip for free, because the JR ferry that takes you from the shore to the island is included fare. You can also take a boat from the Peace Memorial, but this is not covered by the JR Pass.

From the Hiroshima train station take the JR Sanyo line to Miyajimaguchi station.  Then walk to the ferry port and catch one of the half hourly ferries to the island.  Pay attention to the tide schedule because while it’s neat to see the shrine when the water is low, high tide makes for the best photos.

Itsukushima Shrine

Peaking at the Itsukushima Shrine Torii Gate

Miyajima has a lot of hidden pathways that are fun to explore.

The Itsukushima Shrine is a 10 minute walk from the island pier.  The best shots of the Torii gate itself are taken from the east side before approaching the Shrine.  My sunset picture, above, was shot at this angle!  The shrine itself offers little in terms of views and can be skipped without missing much, if you’re not up for the entry fee.

The island is also know for the deer that roam around freely, so pay close attention when eating a snack or picnic or you might have an unwanted visitor!  Most of the activities, buildings and shops on the island close around 5PM, so if you want to do any sightseeing besides the gate itself be sure to arrive with enough time beforehand.

Although there are hotels on the island itself, I don’t think staying on Mijajima would be worth a night’s visit.  I was able to see plenty of the island with just a few hours stroll, and it’s easy enough to get to from Hiroshima in an afternoon.

I enjoyed my time in Hiroshima.  Not knowing what to expect, I left with a deeper understanding of not only the attack but of Japan itself.  It was well worth the time to visit.

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Through the Torii Gates of Fushimi to the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku, Kyoto Here I Come

Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto Japan

Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, glimmering in the pond

Kyoto, city of thousands of shrine and temples.  Having seen the Silver Pavilion the day before, it was time to see Kyoto’s crowning jewel: Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  Unlike Ginkaku-ji, which was never actually covered in silver, Kinkaku-ji glimmers in the sunlight and is quite a spectacle to see.

While the main pavilion is the attraction of Ginkaku-ji, one should still spend time wandering around the gardens.  From Ginkaku-ji we headed over to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine which is know for it’s thousands of torii gates that snake through the hillsides up to a sacred shrine at the top of the hill.

Red Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha

The backside of the torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha contain the name and message of the donor

Donors can buy the larger torii gates and place a message or advertisement on them.

It was simply amazing to wonder through the tens of thousands of torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha.  Quite a work out too – for those attempting to hike to the top it took us a good hour walking at a brisk pace.  It was tough – the last mile or so was strictly up stairs.  While there is no view at the top, it was still worth it to see all the small sub-shrines and just gawk at the thousands of gates you are walking through. Finally with a little time left we hopped on a train to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

Tenryu-ji Temple

One of the many gardens at the Tenryu-ji Temple

One of the many gardens at the Tenryu-ji Temple

Before stopping at the grove we decided to pair our visit with a trip to the Tenryu-ji Temple.  Tenryu-ji is ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples, and is now registered as a world heritage site. Tenryu-ji is the head temple of its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism.

The gardens are an incredible site to see and are apparently original (unlikes the buildings which have been rebuilt due to fires).  The garden features a central pond surrounded by rocks, pine trees and the forested Arashiyama mountains.  From the garden we exited and found us among the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Everyone going to Kyoto should spend some time to walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove was an amazing sight to see!  Standing among the bamboo forrest with the day light filtering through is an experience that’s difficult to grasp with photographs and has to be experienced first had.

Both the forest and Tenryu-ji are a fairly short JR train ride from the Fushimi shrine so those with a JR Pass should have no excuse to visit.

It’s amazing really how many different experiences the temples in Kyoto give you.  From glimmering gold, to thousands of red gates, to a forest of bamboo – Kyoto has at least one thing that will touch just about anyone’s heart and soul.

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Kyoto Day One – Heian Shrine and the Silver Pavilion

Heian Shrine Torii Gate, Kyoto, Japan

The Torii Gate at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto, Japan is one of the largest such gates in Japan

Arriving in Kyoto I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, picking exactly what to visit can be quite the challenge.  We stayed at OKI’s Inn, which was fairly centrally located.  Near-by was the Heian Shrine so we decided to explore this first.

The Heian Shrine, while not widely listed on any “Must Visit” Shrines in Japan quickly proved it’s worth.  While the main shrine itself was incredibly impressive, what I found far more interesting were the gardens.

Heian Shrine

The stepping stones in Heian-jingu garden

The stepping stones in Heian-jingu garden were the same stones Scarlett Johanson walks over in the movie Lost in Translation

The gardens at the Heian Shrine were broken into four different gardens – West, South, Middle and East.

For 600 yen you start by entering the West garden where the focus  is a quiet pond named Byakko-ike.  When we were there the gardens were almost empty and a light rain began to fall, creating a very relaxing and peaceful setting to wonder around.

From the West garden you enter the South garden which contain many beautiful cherry trees.  Supposedly aristocrats once used this garden to create poems during grand parties that used to be held here.

Looking across the Seiho-ik pond from the East Garden

Looking across the Seiho-ik pond from the East Garden

You then enter the middle garden.  It contains the Soryu-ike (Blue Dragon) pond which features the Garyu-kyo, a walkway consisting of stone pillars which once served as foundation stones for the girders of Sanjo Ohashi and Gojo Ohashi, famous bridges in the center of the city of Kyoto.  This pathway was also featured in a scene from Lost in Translation.

Finally one enters the East Garden which features a beautiful view across the Seiho-ike (habit of the phoenix) pond to the Taihei-kaku and the Shobi-kan buildings. The Taihei-kaku is a roofed bridge one can walk across and feed the koi and turtles from. A relaxing way to spend the afternoon. From the Heian Jingu Shrine we made our way to the Ginkaku-ji Temple, or Temple of the Silver Pavilion.

Temple of the Silver Pavilion

A rock garden imitation of Fuji-san at Ginkaku-ji

A sand imitation of Fuji-san at the Ginkaku-ji temple

Ginkaku-ji, while quite small, is famous for it’s sand gardens. It’s popularly called the “Silver Pavilion” because of the initial plans to cover its exterior in silver foil, which were never followed through.  The sand garden of Ginkaku-ji has become particularly well known; the carefully formed pile of sand is said to symbolize Mount Fuji and is an essential element in the garden.

While not nearly not as impressive as Kinkaku-ji (“Temple of the Golden Pavilion”), Ginkaku-ji is still a site worth visiting.  The sand gardens, the moss garden, and the temple itself radiate in their own beauty.

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Above the Clouds with Mount Fuji

The sunrising above the clouds viewed from Mount Fuji

Watching the sunrise from Mount Fuji is a must do for anyone!

Hiking to the top of Mount Fuji was my primary goal when first visiting Japan.  To say it was easy or that it went without a hitch would simply be a lie.  Fuji was tough and my original plan to hike it was shot to shreds when we overslept, but it turned out to be one of my best travel experiences to date.

Our original plan was to get to Mount Fuji around 12pm and start our hike to one of the 8th station huts.  That’s what is typically recommended for anyone hiking to the summit and what most people do but was clearly out of the picture for us.

Because we stayed out a little too late the night before our hike (oops), the bus I intended to catch from Shinjuku Station didn’t run on Tuesdays (oops), and we then missed the bus we were scheduled on because we couldn’t figure out where the bus picks up (further oops), we didn’t get to the base of the mountain until 6pm.  We debated if we should even attempt the hike but decided  if we had come this far we should push on.  It was roughly 7pm when we finally hit the trail and our timing proved perfect!  Hikers we met up with later on told us they hiked through nothing but rain, a stark contrast to the beautiful sunset and stars were were treated to!

A rainbow rises out of the Mount Fuji crater!

A rainbow rises out of the Mount Fuji crater

We ended up making it to the last of the 7th station huts that night – Toyokan Inn, which again was perfect.  The hut was probably one of the nicer ones on the trail as it was recently renovated.  Talking to other hikers who stayed at Fujisan hotel, they complained of crowded conditions and difficulty sleeping.  Toyokan was broken into various rooms so we only had a handful of people in our room and not the 150+ some of the 8th station huts have, so we were able to get a full nights sleep!

The top of Mount Fuji

The view from the top of Mount Fuji was just a sea of clouds. Beautiful it its own right

The next morning we awoke at 4am and started our hike stopping only for one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve seen in my lifetime.  Watching the sun slowly creep above a sea of clouds was truly inspiring.  We continued on and stopped at one of the huts at the 8th station for some udon noodles.  There we met a fellow traveler from Baltimore who told us they could not see the sunrise from the top and had to descend to between the clouds to see it.  We continued our hike and as we got to the top, the morning sun began to clear the clouds.  We decided to stay a little longer up top and around 7:30am we were treated to some amazing views of the inside of the crater, where a rainbow began to rise out.  I’ve never experienced being above the clouds and it was truly breathtaking.

At the top of Mount Fuji

The top of Mount Fuji almost didn’t happen for us. Sometimes you just have to keep your goals in sight and push on

Hiking Mount Fuji taught me some important things I will always try to remember for future travel.  Your intended plans might not always come to fruit but you should still continue on regardless.

Fuji is hands down my best travel experience to date and it’s something that almost didn’t happen.  Reflecting back I would have not done Fuji any different then the way we ended up doing it.  We were given some breathtaking views not seen by a lot of the other hikers we talked to.  Furthermore going against the grain and starting later meant the trail was not crowded giving us more time to take in the beautiful views.  It’s amazing how things end up working out in the end even when you don’t think they will – I think that is the most important lesson I learned.

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