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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 25/04/2017 10:54:23

The timing for the 2017 Lemieux Fantasy Camp was perfect as not only was the Stanley Cup in the house for our contract signing, the 2017 Stadium Series consisted of an outdoor game at Heinz Field against our most-hated rival the Philadelphia Flyers. Watching the outdoor game was a pretty incredible experience - but day 3 of camp gave campers the chance to actually play our own games on the outdoor ice sheet. As if I hadn't already had enough excitement.

We left in the early morning to depart for Heinz Field, and from the moment we got there it was a strange experience. We got changed in the visitor's locker rooms - an NFL locker room is much different to the NHL equivalent. With twice the number of players dressing for an NFL game than an NHL game the locker room seemed cavernous even with all four camper teams in there. Walking out onto the ice was weirder still, and as we crossed the rubber-covered football ground towards the makeshift ice arena I started to feel the cold. Obviously ice hockey is a sport that can get chilly - but being outdoors during a Pittsburgh Winter was something else entirely. They turned on the heated benches but this just made me feel like the majority of my cooking (burnt on the outside and frozen in the middle). On top of all this, we were in the middle of a football arena and whenever my gaze drew upwards I was captivated by an incredible view (of empty seats). The one aspect that wasn't strange for me was the quality of the ice. The ice conditions were a little bit choppy by the end of our game, something I'm very used to back home. That the temporary, outdoor ice rink built during unseasonably warm weather was just as good as the purpose built ice arenas back home says a lot about the state of ice hockey in Victoria.

Walking Out
This felt exactly as strange as it looks, but also a little bit badass

Nothing Odd
This shot captures both the incredulity of me playing on a team with Mario Lemieux, but also the zero people that were watching in the 65,000+ seats available for viewing

There were also no surprises when it came to my performance in the second game - I was below average in most aspects of the game. There was, however, one thing that I was pretty happy with. I've always played centre throughout my inline and ice hockey career - which means I've taken a lot of faceoffs. I quite enjoy the game within a game that faceoffs provide and I take them quite seriously (as exhibited by the number of sticks I have that were crushed at the end of the blade). Learning the way different refs drop the puck, how each opponent will take a draw, knowing whether to go forehand / backhand, going for a clean win or tie up are all going through my head when I line up after each stoppage. Somehow, I won most of the faceoffs cleanly during the outdoor game - including 2 out of 3 against Pierre Turgeon, an ex-NHL centre and personal favourite of mine for many years.

FTW
Finally, something I didn't completely suck at. Turgeon's grin makes me think this was the first faceoff I won against him

The first draw against Turgeon was won pretty easily to my backhand, I suspect Pierre wasn't trying all that hard. He gave me a "well done" in congratulation but his tone suggested he would actually try harder when we faced off next. The next draw I won cleanly to the forehand side, and I heard an immediate noise of displeasure from Turgeon that had me feeling pretty good. The final time we lined up was a win to Turgeon but I would hazard to say it was not a clean win - it required a second effort from Pierre before the puck was directed to his side. At the handshake line after the game he recognised me and congratulated me for the minor victory. It sounds silly (and insignificant when evaluating my entire contribution to the tournament), but this was another highlight of the camp that I will never forget - no matter how many faceoffs I will later lose for my Victorian team.

Shakes
Pao managed to capture my grin during the handshake line while chatting to Turgeon about my faceoff prowess

Each of the four camper teams would have one chance to play with Mario Lemieux joining the lines, and the outdoor game was our opportunity. He would join a different line each period and float through the positions - but as I was on the fourth line I didn't have a chance to skate with him this time. I did have a chance to watch him from up close - and that was an experience in itself. Lemieux is still such a smooth skater and capable of making incredible passes with his head up. It was clear he wasn't trying at 100% for this game and even so he was very impressive to watch. I was so happy for my new mate Bryan as he received a pass from Lemieux, and then setup their third linemate for a goal. I can't imagine how amazing the resultant fist-bump with Lemieux would have felt!

Caufield Bomb
I think we're a victim of a Jay Caufield photobomb here

After I got changed one of the camp organisers took me to the side and let me know that my partner Pao had sprained her ankle quite seriously. As my personal camp photographer, Pao was running around the outside of the arena taking photos with our phones and camera. She was doing such a great job but perhaps not paying enough attention to the terrain under her feet. When our itinerary begun with the camp being the first thing we did in the U.S., I was worried that any injury I sustained would then make the rest of our travels annoyingly difficult or even impossible. We had no expectation that it would actually be Pao suffering an injury during the hockey camp. Thankfully there were 2 doctors taking part in the camp - both super great guys and happy to help us out with an initial investigation of the injury. The camp organisers were also awesome and really took care of Pao - we ended up in a local Pittsburgh hospital where Paola's ankle was x-rayed and no fracture was detected. The aircast she limped away with was a great help for the rest of our trip and Pao was even able to climb a certain statue a week later.

The second game for the day was cancelled due to poor weather (more fortuitous timing, considering we spent most of that time at the hospital) so we headed back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. After an appropriate nap (essential for hockey players I think you'll find) we had dinner at the nearby Morton's Steakhouse. Great food and excellent conversation was then followed up with some surprising, heartfelt and hilarious speeches from the pros. Tie Domi was pretty amusing the first few days of camp (and the butt of the other pros jokes at times) but I was really impressed by the impassioned speech he gave when talking about the opportunity we all have to help the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Some of the other speeches were pretty funny, but certainly nothing that I could or should be repeating here.

When we got back to the hotel I wanted an early night in hope of performing a little better in the following games - but I'm so glad I didn't. We stayed up a bit and had a few drinks with various campers, and I ended up standing next to Larry Murphy at the bar for over an hour. He regaled us with stories from the Penguins heydays during the 91 / 92 cups - Scotty Bowman taking over as coach after Badger Bob's tragic early death, the Penguins rally from a 3-1 series deficit in 1992 against Washington, how it felt to be hit by Ulfie Samuelsson or how it felt to go into Philadelphia and get beaten by the Flyers. Larry was particularly interested in how a video game led to me following hockey and the Penguins - he was actually one of the five starters that specifically caused me to choose the Penguins. I know I had far too many beers, and I felt pretty crap the next day - but I will treasure those conversations for a long time to come.


This is the 4th in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Marc-André Fleury still giving high fives to his injured buddy

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:08:48
Updated by Joel Dixon at 19/04/2017 04:11:38


There's so much to love about the 2016 Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, not least of which is our goaltender Marc-André Fleury - by all reports an awesome dude.

I noticed he is still doing his high five routine - even with Letang out injured.






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Saturday, April 08, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 08/04/2017 08:56:14

The "fantasy" aspect of the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp approached warp speed on Day 2 with the contract signing and jersey presentation. I knew that Mario Lemieux himself would be signing my 5-day "skilled hockey player" contract and presenting me with my #53 jersey - but as I entered the contract signing room I was met with a surprise. As the Penguins had defeated all challengers in the most recent NHL season, the Stanley Cup served as an incredible backdrop to the jersey presentation photograph. I'm sure some of the camp goers would have been in awe of one of sport's most storied trophies, but I almost ignored the Cup with my attention fixed on the fact that Mario Lemieux was signing a contract specifically for me (the fact I had visited the cup previously in my travels was also a factor). I had a quick chat to Mario about my travel plans after leaving Pittsburgh (at least I think I did, it was a bit of a blur) before Pao and I got a photo with Lemieux (and that Cup). Sure, it was all fantasy and contrived - but what took no longer than 5 minutes will remain a fond memory as long as I live.

Five Day Bargain
Joel Dixon of Surrey Hills (I probably should have guessed they didn't want me to be so specific when they asked my "hometown" during the application process)

No Hold Out
The the stuff of dreams is made a reality - I still can't believe the opportunity I've had

Now that the camp had secured my skills (for the week anyway) we piled onto the bus and drove to the Penguins' practice facility in Cranberry. Team Adams (the group I was placed with) had a training session first up, so we headed to our locker rooms to change. Time for another shock to the system, I walked into the locker room and my gear was neatly laid out with my jersey hanging name and numbers facing out. I'm a huge fan of Penguin's equipment manager Dana Heinze and his Twitter account - so I've seen so many pictures of the Penguin's locker room setups. Seeing my gear laid out, my skates freshly sharpened and a table stacked with various snacks and tapes - I really started to get a small insight into the life of a hockey player. It sounds like such a small thing, but the camp's volunteer equipment managers had a huge impact on the feel of the camp for me - I was not expecting how much they would bring to the experience.

More Gear
Love the old school NHL logo on the shoulder

Sharp Work Desk
Jason Binnie was often stuck here - but we all really appreciated having freshly sharpened skates waiting for us at the locker rooms

After all the preamble, it was finally time to throw on my skates - and I was justifiably shitscared. My lead up to camp wasn't ideal as I had fractured my foot three months prior, which ruined my chance for some last minute fitness gains (admittedly I was probably too late for any real fitness - by about 12 years). My doctor was a good sport and we eventually settled on enough anti-inflammatories / painkillers to keep me walking and skating throughout the camp period (and following holiday). Even so, I wasn't sure how the foot would hold up to 5 days of constant skating (when I usually only have a chance to skate once or twice a week). I also had a new pair of sticks (which turned out to be two inches shorter than my normal sticks) and a heap of new gear to break in - all while playing the most important games of my hockey life. Thankfully, when I stepped onto the practice ice, had a few laps and started the simpler drills my foot felt fine and I started to feel a little better. Then Mario Lemieux joined us on the rink and my butt resumed clenching.

Brains Trust
Our coach Pierre Larouche was the youngest player to score 50 goals (until Gretzky) and captain Jay Caufield telestrates for Root Sports (and was part of my favourite bad movie) - yet they still weren't enough as we completely botched most of the drills they drew up

Mario Tries
Mario tried to catch me...

And Fails
... but had to give up (*cough*)

I wasn't expecting Mario Lemieux and Mark Recchi to be joining us for training, but it was really cool seeing them skating around the ice. Sure enough - I found myself in line for a pair drill - and Mario was lined up next to me. A few turns later and it was Recchi standing there. I passed a puck to both (and received one) so as far as I was concerned at that point - the camp would have ended a success if my foot didn't hold up and I had to go home. To add to the good-time feelings, I scored a goal in the end-of-training shootout and seemed to catch the attention of my coach and Mario - can't ask for more than that.

Dont Fail
I think I was pleading with the puck and my stick to be nice for this drill


Yes, I stuffed up the second pass, but things went better after that. I should point out that the dude that defended far too hard on the drill was Bryan, the guy I enjoyed hanging out with for the week - he felt terrible he didn't just let Mario's pass go through. I gave him a hard time about it (of course), but I was just happy to be there!


I was having trouble puck-handling with my new stick - but at least I managed to hold it together long enough for this one!

Getting changed in the locker room I was still feeling pretty good (even though we stuffed pretty much every drill). Our coach told us not to worry - as bad trainings lead to good games and good trainings lead to poor games - little did I know how right he was.

Before that ominous game, we had a tour of the Penguins locker rooms - and it completely blew me away. The extensive weights room had very few weights - most machines operating via hydraulics with the program and results being saved on individual FOB tokens for each player. The player's kitchen and social area was pretty cool too - I would love to sit in the corner and just see how all the players interact during downtime. Most impressive was the team's change room at the practice facility - an (almost) exact replica of the facilities at PPG Paints home arena. Everyone's gear was hanging up ready for the team's return from Dallas (except for Crosby, of course, as he only uses one set of gear that comes with him for every game / training). We had a meal cooked by the team's chef (pretty damn delicious, considering it was all healthy) and started to get ready for our first game of camp.

Chill Zone
This is where the players can chill before training. Kitchen in the back, Xbox One and PS4 in front of these comfy chairs. I tried to hide out in here until the next training days later - but they were onto me

No Crosby
This is just the locker rooms in the training facility - but still look amazing. Crosby's gear travels with him, of course

The first thing I noticed when the game started was Paul Coffey's incredible skating. It was unlike anything I've seen before, he took a few smooth strides and he was already up to top speed. I suspect he may have lost a step or two since his Pittsburgh days - but you couldn't tell from ice level. Watching him swing around the net and fly around the opposition like they were pylons was such a joy - I couldn't have asked for a better team captain.

Line One
You know, just lining up for a faceoff with Coffey as one of my D-men

Crouching Wolverine
One of the professional photos taken during our first game - it looks like I just checked someone but I assure you I did not

During training I was thinking I wasn't so much slower than my teammates, but when we started the game I realised that I was just slow enough to matter. I was always a step or two away from where I wanted to be. I was beaten in most puck battles and felt like I was constantly chasing my opposition player. I had a few good shifts (even stole the puck from Tie Domi at one point), but was certainly on the poor side of average.

Just Tie To Stop Me
After stealing the puck from Domi (more luck than anything really). At one point Domi stood in front of our bench and welcomed anyone to drop the mitts. Huge regret that I didn't take him up on the offer!

Not wanting to be a defensive liability, I didn't want to change while the puck was in our zone - unfortunately my line didn't get the puck deep into their zone at all the first period - which meant my first few shifts were longer than I wanted. This upset the center that was coming on when I was going off.

Now I have been on the receiving end of this before - especially during pick-up games back home - so he was justified in his annoyance. What I don't feel he was justified in was how he choose to deal with that annoyance. Instead of telling me personally to watch my shift lengths - he choose to yell his concerns at me in front of the whole team, following this up with a threat to take a slapshot to my ankles so I would have to go home. Not exactly in the spirit of a charity camp as far as I was concerned.

While it felt like shit to be treated like this in front of my short-term team (especially since I admittedly caused the problem) - I actually think it helped in a small way. The other members of the team seemed to agree that the reaction wasn't proportional to my crime - and most of them told me to "ignore that guy" and had a quick chat with me to see how I was going. I was so happy to be a part of the camp - I wasn't about to let that one guy ruin it for me. So while I did take shorter shifts (without caring too much where the puck was while doing so) I kept a positive attitude and I think it helped me bond better with a few of the other players on the team.

After the game the short-shifted angry man did seek me out to apologise, and did so again in-front of the whole team before a later game, which I do appreciate - especially as I could see he felt bad about the way he reacted. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit of a dampener on the camp for me - but it was no worse than the self-inflicted dampener that was the general lack of skill and fitness I had compared to the rest of the participants. At least I've got something to improve on for next year!


This is the 3rd in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
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Monday, April 03, 2017

Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 03/04/2017 09:45:29
Updated by Joel Dixon at 08/04/2017 05:11:37


Three years ago, while listening to a Pens game on the radio, I heard a tantalising ad - come and watch Mario Lemieux play hockey at the CONSOL Energy Center - scheduled for my birthday no less! I was lucky enough to see a few of Mario's final games way back in 2005, but that was a long time ago. Having another chance to watch 66 flying around the ice had me momentarily consider taking a week off work and take a quick trip to Pittsburgh.

It didn't take too long to realise that a week-long trip to Pittsburgh to watch a few exhibition games wasn't the most financially prudent decision I could make, even if it offers a chance to watch my all-time hockey hero playing again. As my disappointment gradually dissipated I looked into the event that brought Lemieux out from seclusion and back on the ice, perhaps it would happen again next year so I could plan a proper hockey holiday. When I discovered it was part of a yearly Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp I was struck with an unbelievable possibility. As I'm sure is the case for most Australians, the sum of my fantasy camp knowledge comes from a particularly memorable Seinfeld episode, but as I understood it, this camp could allow me to play hockey with Mario Lemieux (but, you know, not punch him). I looked into it further, the Mario Lemieux Foundation was actually offering regular people the chance to experience the life of an NHL player while meeting a bunch of ex-NHL stars. While I had only started playing ice hockey a few months prior, I put my name down on the waiting list and dreamt about the camp a few nights each week. The invite took longer than I had expected, but once I finally received that magical acceptance email - Pao and I immediately started planning our trip!

Day 1 of camp started with registration and gear distribution. I knew that I was going to receive a playing uniform with my name and number on it (based on the vintage 1986 All-Star game designs) including a helmet and gloves - but that was just the start! I was given a large hockey bag (with my name and number on it - I'll never get sick of that) and we were whisked through 4 rooms as the bag was filled with Lemieux Camp-themed sports attire. Tracksuit, puffy jacket, hats, skate guards and jumpers were all piled into my bag - and as a camp guest Pao also received all of the non-uniform items as well. At the end of the experience we headed up to the hotel room to catch our breath and evaluate all the awesome swag that I will now wear until the last thread fades.

On The Gear
It's hard to pick a favourite, but I absolutely love the "Lemieux Camp Hockey" authentic-style logo on the sweatshirt

We didn't have much time to appreciate our goodies, as Pao and I had signed up to participate in a tour of Pittsburgh's UPMC Children's Hospital - to understand exactly what our donations go towards. I'm glad that we decided to squeeze in the hospital visit, it gave us a great feeling knowing that we were contributing towards such an amazing program. Going through serious health issues during his NHL career (chronic back pain, bone infection and Hodgkin's lymphoma) Mario Lemieux created his foundation to help in the fight against cancer. In 1996 Mario's son Austin was born profoundly premature requiring months of intensive care. Mario and his wife Nathalie wanted to spend as much time as possible in hospital with their newborn - but there was nothing to keep their other two toddlers occupied. In 2000 Nathalie started a program to build Austin's Playrooms - providing families a chance to get away from everything medical while still being able to visit their sick loved ones. Pao and I were able to tour the playrooms and are happy to be part of such an important project.

Staff Announcement
I'm going to have to check out our own Children's Hospital at some point and see how it measures up

We came back to the hotel after the tour and sat around waiting for the welcome dinner to start. It was at this time that Paul Coffey, one of the NHL's 100 greatest players and a personal favourite, arrived and sat down at the table I was sitting at. I was more than a little starstruck but like all the pros at the camp, as I would later find out, he was more than happy to chat and was even interested in why an Australian would learn to love hockey. Being the first camp participant from outside of North America was a great way to meet people (not just the Hockey Hall of Fame members) as most people seemed interested in why an Aussie would follow hockey. I also used that opportunity to explain to everyone why I would be so much worse on skates than they are!

As luck would have it, the year I was selected to join the camp coincided with the Penguins being selected to host the NHL Stadium Series, playing a game against our bitter rivals the Philadelphia Flyers outdoors at Heinz Field. So on the first night of camp we all went to watch the game as a group, with Mario Lemieux joining us on the bus. As further luck would have it - I sat across from Mario on the bus and had a quick discussion with him (again, about hockey in Australia) to which he seemed interested (and I probably seemed like a huge fanboy). Someone ended up sitting between us which gave me a chance to realise that there was a police car with sirens blazing and our bus wasn't getting out of the way. A few minutes after that I realised that we were actually enjoying a police escort - which certainly cut down on travel time to the stadium.

While the view of a hockey game from a football stadium wasn't the best - the outdoor game was pretty awesome with all was considered. There were real-life penguins on a side rink playing around with Iceburgh (the first real penguins at a game for quite some time now), the 67,000-strong crowd was thunderous and in the second period snow started to fall. The picturesque environment, and the fact that this was my first live hockey game in over 10 years, meant I was glued to my seat even though there was a warm bar area available to us.

Beaner
It was pretty cool to see the players have a chance to play in an outdoor game - cooler still that I would be doing the same in a few days!

Penguins In Water
One of the penguins kicked a puck, I nearly died!

Le Tits Now
Let down by my lack of photography skill as usual, but I hope this photo can almost convey the awesome spectacle

Crosby scored (always happy to see that), Malkin was dominating and the good guys won - I was never in danger of complaining! We took the bus home (no escort this time) and went to bed. Day one at camp was amazing - but I was pretty sure that day two was going to be even better!


This is the 2nd in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 21/03/2017 03:48:34

For 3 grueling years I've been on a waiting list to attend the Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp - a 5-day camp giving participants a glimpse into the life of an NHL hockey player and a chance to play and interact with some of the biggest names in hockey. The chance to play hockey along-side and against Mario Lemieux as well as other favourites such as Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Pierre Turgeon - while contributing to the Mario Lemieux Foundation - made the decision to join the list a no-brainer. When my name finally reached the top of the list, Pao and I planned a 4-week holiday in the U.S. - and took the opportunity to bring my little brother Tay as a 21st birthday present (I set a silly precedent by doing similar with my sister years ago).

This incredibly generous gift (which I hope ensures Tay remembers me once his music career makes him millions) was almost completely wasted at the conclusion of our our first flight (of a healthy 15 hours). We arrived at the LAX airport and headed through customs and border control mostly concerned with the impending 6-hour wait for our following flight to Pittsburgh. Taylor headed off to one counter while Pao and I went to another for our passport checks. We were waived through quickly while Taylor was asked to head to the "B Sign" for further checks. We tried to wait in the area for him to head out, but were requested to move through and exit the terminal. What followed was 6 hours of interrogation for Tay while Pao and I were harried from one terminal to another trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

Dignified
I think it's time someone updated the Customs Declaration card I was given upon entry in the U.S.

Initially we waited a few hours as the exit point, assured that he would be coming out in any minute. After an hour I started asking questions only to be told that 1 hours is not enough time for processing, just wait an hour more. The information we received was different every time we asked - but the one consistency was that they were not interested in letting me speak to the officer that was actually detaining him. Luckily our flight was delayed 2 hours, otherwise Pao and I would have been stuck in LA needing to scramble our way onto Pittsburgh before the camp started. In the end we were told repeatedly that customs must have found something in his bag, and it was very unlikely that he would be let into the country (while telling him that we had already left LAX). Once we finally resigned ourselves to rush onwards to our connecting flight, we were told Taylor finally made it through the detainment and was on his way to our terminal. I had assumed that Taylor's ... bedraggled ... appearance was the cause for agents to be concerned - but it turns out Australian Mem Fox (responsible for one of my favourite books from childhood) had similar treatment soon after Taylor's ordeal - and she's a 70-year-old children's author. While Mem Fox received a written apology for the mistreatment - I'm fairly sure Taylor won't be afforded the same courtesy. I'm sure the worrying that Pao and I went through is nothing compared to the complete shit that Taylor was subjected to - but I'm thankful that we did eventually make it onto our connecting flight and arrived in Pittsburgh not too worse for wear.

Australian Too
Somewhat ironically Mem Fox's latest book is about accepting strangers from differing cultures and treating everyone with respect

After purchasing new SIM cards (a huge advantage over long Europe trips is that a single SIM card will work for every U.S. state you visit - with unlimited data!) we headed to the top item on my list of Pittsburgh food to try - a sandwich topped with coleslaw and chips from a Primanti Bros. restaurant in the Strip District. My Pitts-burger (#2 best seller apparently - there isn't a #1 on the menu) was delicious although Pao wasn't 100% on board with the unique flavour.

Tastes Great Jagoff
An early example of large serving sizes in Pittsburgh - a theme that would be repeated again and again

We took a bus to the Carnegie Mellon University campus, mainly to see "The Fence". A cool tradition specifies that the Fence can only be painted over between the hours of midnight and sunrise, only with paint brushes and if the artists want their message to remain they must stand guard over the Fence every night. The original Fence started in 1920 but collapsed under the weight in 1993. The replacement concrete Fence was red when we saw it, which I guess is pretty cool.

Paint The Fence
I'm not sure what the fence was advertising, but I do know that the dude sitting at the picnic table was mere minutes away from being sconned by a soccer ball

Close-by were two more items on the "food to try" list - Conflict Kitchen provides a rotating menu sourced from cultures that are in conflict with the U.S. (currently Jöhehgöh) and Dave and Andy's Homemade Ice Cream to go a completely different direction (incredibly delicious, especially the hand-rolled waffle cone).

Amiable Flavours
The gahgwahgi:'da:h was quite nice, as was the chilled drink of oya:gi'. More punctuation than I normally eat, but hey - I'm on holiday

Steel Jaw
16 scoops in a cup sounds excellent again for this year please!

We decided to walk down to the Market Square for dinner on the first night. We went to The Yard - mainly because of their extensive grilled cheese menu (they also have a great beer selection, which I noticed much later). Yet again we were caught out by the huge sizes on offer here, having to leave behind half of our meals. We walked back to the hotel and got an early night - I was starting camp the next day!

Just A Grilled Cheese
You buy a grilled cheese and you also get the sweet potato fries and the tomato soup (both quite tasty) - I would get so fat so quickly if I lived in Pittsburgh!


This is the 1st in the Joel Goes To Camp series
Game 1 - Pittsburgh Arrival - Border Security Magic, 2017Game 2 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 1 (Registration and Penguins Stadium Series)Game 3 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 2 (Contract Signing, Training and Game)Game 4 - Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp 2017 - Day 3 (Outdoor Game, Injury, Dinner and Drinks)
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pittsburgh Penguins - 2016 Stanley Cup Champions!

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 24/07/2016 04:32:38
Updated by Joel Dixon at 25/07/2016 01:14:16


It has taken me far too long to write the blog post, but the Pittsburgh Penguins have won the cup again!

Pens Cup 16
Is anyone happier in this photo than super Duper?

Just like last time we had a pretty ordinary first-half to the season, followed by a coaching change and return to form.

While in the early part of the season it seemed to Phil Kessel never met an easy tap-in goal he couldn't stuff up, there wasn't a better, more consistent player in the playoffs (especially amazing when you consider the iron man was playing hurt). Watching The Phil streaking down the wing and firing a wicked wrister at net was as amazing as advertised, but it was his incredible passing abilities (especially on the PP) that really impressed me. Along with Hags and Bonino Bonino Bonino!, the HBK like provided us a third line that no team could cover.

Clutch Crosby performed as he always does, scoring goals and setting up the play at the opportune moments. Matt Murray also played like a veteran of the game, his focus and maturity on display all through his first NHL playoff series. I feel bad for Fleury, he kept us in playoff contention when we sucked in the first half of the season, only to get two concussions and having to turn the reins over to Murray. Geno Malkin also dominated some early games when Crosby was MIA, but a shoulder injury towards the end of the regular season seemed to affect his playoff performance significantly.

I remember thinking back in '09 that the Penguins could win the Cup year after year, but a 7 year gap just shows how hard the NHL is. Still, I wouldn't be betting against the Pens in 2017! Speaking of betting, I could see the team responding well to Coach Sullivan's no-nonsense approach early in the year, so I put $100 on them making the Stanley Cup Final. The $700 I won helped me afford all the usual goodies - championship hat, shirt and puck, locker room towel and bobble-head. I also had to pick a player jersey to remember this playoff series (I bought a Talbot last time after his game 7 heroics). Early on I thought it might be Sheary or Rust getting the nod, with Bonino and Letang having an outside chance. By the end - it was hard to argue against Kessel, so I picked up this beauty:

Kessel
I am yet to eat cookies while wearing this jersey, maybe I shall when I watch the first game of next season

This also marks the first season that I watched every single game of the regular and playoff seasons, thanks to NHL.TV. After every single playoff game that we watched, Pao and I listed to the following song. I'm pretty sure this helped the Pens as much as anything else this season.





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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Inca Trail, Peru - 2015

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 11/11/2015 02:47:14
Updated by Joel Dixon at 11/11/2015 03:04:48


I would assume that most people are filled with a sense of achievement and awe once they finally reach Machu Picchu after the long and gruelling Inca Trail hike. As for me - I was simply ecstatic that I had finally reached a site with a proper toilet. A regular western-style toilet with ample paper supply was such an improvement over the portable toilets, squat toilet or makeshift "to the side of the path next to an archaeological site" toilets I had been forced to utilise until this point. Given that something was forcing me to evacuate all of my hopes and dreams through my backside every 1 to 4 hours - I can't stress enough how delightful that toilet was.

Machu Poochu
Such a comforting sight - aside from the weird "chuck your soiled paper into a trash can instead of the toilet" system they insist on
(I didn't have the foresight to take a photo myself so I had to find this one on the internet - part of a very informative article about the state of toilets on the Inca Trail - great reading!)


But I digress. How did I get myself into this situation in the first place? More than six months ago Pao and I were planning our next trip to visit her family in Argentina and we decided to tack a Peruvian stay to the start to check out Machu Picchu. I had the bright idea that we should attempt the four-day classic Inca Trail for some added adventure. This was towards the end of my first season of ice hockey and I was feeling pretty fit and ready for the challenge - we figured we'd up our gym visits as well to get ready.

So towards the end of my 6-month hockey break I had a whole heap of work to keep me away from the gym and my fitness certainly wasn't at the highest point. Adding to that was the horrible altitude sickness in Cusco which capped off an entirely insufficient preparation. Oh well, we were going to complete the trek or die trying (both appeared to be completely possible results at various points)!

Unprepared
The start of the trail was final point that I was feeling confident about the trek

The first day was the "moderate" testing phase with a leisurely 14 km stroll without too much steep elevation gain or loss. I was quite enjoying it although Pao's cold was causing a constant usage of tissues and I needed to carry her pack up the final hill. We checked out some nice scenery, listened to interesting stories from our guide, ate a few great meals and visited our first archaeological site - Llactapata. Overall I was quite happy with the first day, though feeling a tad worried about the next "challenging" day.

Red Bits
The source of red carmine dye - I've always been interested in where colour dyes came from - I got to see a brilliant red in its natural habitat

Llactapata
The first of the archaeological ruins - reminds me of my Geography homework when we first learnt about isobars

Day 2 was tough. Waking up at around 4:30 am, 16 kms over 11 hours, starting the day with a 900m climb, then a 600m descend, another 400m climb and finally 400m down to the night's camp. Our highest point was 4,200m above sea level which is when the altitude difficulties were most obvious. Pao and her cold struggled mightily with the climbs on this day - so I was carrying her pack as well as mine for most of it. I think I overdid it on day 2 - at the end if it I was incredibly exhausted and pretty much left my dinner untouched (another bad idea but altitude removes appetite). The night of day 2 also had the added bonus of not being able to sleep (presumably also due to the altitude) - all issues culminating in a terrible day 3 (for me).

Jungle Time
There certainly was beautiful sights, but the longer we walked...

Dead Woman
... the less I cared

Stones
Presumably a Beastie Boys Intergalactic remake

I got messed up pretty good by day 3. It was listed as the "Easy Day" because it was only 10 kms mostly downhill. But when "downhill" consists of 1,000 meters of descending via steps, easy day doesn't seem to cut it as a description. I was getting extremely weak as the day and my feet dragged on, by lunchtime the guide needed to carry my backpack as I limped through a shortcut to get to our camp quicker. Thankfully day 3 did have nothing planned after lunch (to recover for the final Machu Picchu day) so I gathered my strength and slept a whole lot.

More Stones
I'm glad I took these photos, because at the time I was passing zombie-like through most archaeological sites

Stop Looking
Stop looking at me, deliciously edible swan rice!

Forever Young
I did take some time out of my busy napping schedule to join the group for a visit to the Winay Wayna site - very impressive

Day 4 was supposed to be another easy day, made more so by the fact that Machu Picchu was the destination that spurred us forward. We awoke at around 3 am so that we would be ahead of most trekkers when we arrived at the Sun Gate - the first chance to see Machu Picchu. That first hour of trekking was actually as easy as advertised and I was starting to feel some confidence returning. When we reached the Sun Gate and took a photo of our first glimpse of our final destination I was feeling pretty good. That's exactly when my stomach and beyond decided to let me know that pure evil was brewing inside me. As I clenched my last line of defence even Pao could hear the gurgling that was coming from deep within me - and it scared the both of us.

Suntastic
The Sun Gate shows that Machu Picchu is still quite a walk away, but we were on the final stretch

We scurried down the hill for what should have been a mere hour of gradual downhill moseying but turned into series of 15 minutes of walking followed by a quick visit to the "Inca Toilet" for some mountain painting (solely a watercolour palette). I tried with all of my remaining strength to keep a hold on my evacuations - but the ferocity of the call seemed to be threatening to find another exit if I was not to comply. This is when I reached a new level of weakness and any semblance of joy for the whole "adventure" evaporated as quickly as my water stores. By the time we reached the "Gringo Killer" portion of the final stretch (the last, almost vertical, set of steps before Machu Picchu) I didn't even have the energy to take a photo of what confronted us. As far as I'm concerned, we arrived at Machu Picchu without a minute to spare as I raced towards to afore-mentioned golden toilet.

Made It
I do admit, after an hour or so of sorting my issues out, I was finally awestruck by such a beautiful example of the early civilization

Jack Smile
I am exhibiting a "Jackson Smile", a smile through gritted teeth named for my nephew

Another View
I can see why so many people want to make the trek out here - I just wish I took the single day option more seriously

And thus ends my harrowing tale of a trek up (down, up and down) a mountain. I'm very slowly coming around to Pao's opinion that that Inca Trail was worth the effort even considering the 5 days of feeling horribly sick afterwards. Not completely there yet (I'm still yet to have a solid poop with almost 2 weeks having elapsed) but I can see the chance of it happening sometime in the future.

Certainly give the Inca Trail a go if it looks like something you'd enjoy - but take seriously the warnings about altitude sickness (we clearly needed more than 2 days to acclimatise) and the level of fitness required. We probably would have made it easily if it wasn't for illness - but you need to account for anything I guess. Oh, and pack extra toilet paper in your day bag just in case.



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Monday, November 09, 2015

Lima & Cusco, Peru - 2015

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 09/11/2015 22:42:56

A "great deal" on flights convinced Pao and I to head back to South America once more to visit her family, so we decided to add Peru and Machu Picchu to the trip to make the long hauls worthwhile. We started off our trip with two nights in Lima and then two nights in Cusco to help us acclimatise to the altitude for the trek.

During the first 24 hours of flights I was constantly stressing over our arrival in Buenos Aires, where we had less than 2 hours to collect bags, clear customs and then check-in to the next flight to Lima with a different carrier. Surprisingly we made it with time to spare, eventually arriving at our hotel quite late without much time to do anything other than sleep.

Why Not?
The kind of behaviour you come to expect from Argentinian travellers. Not pictured is the way they all jump up as soon as the plane lands (still taxiing and seatbelt sign on) to retrieve their carry-on luggage with nary a concern for the protesting attendants

I had heard that inner-city Lima is probably not the best place to spend time, so decided on the nearby Miraflores District for three main reasons: it looked nice from my limited research, it was the location of a highly-rated Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant and it was close to a cat park. What more would we need?

Rocky Kisses
Also close-by was the "Love Park" with this statue of two people making out. Get a room!

Our first meal in Peru was at Maido for a 15-course "Nikkei Experience", combining Japanese and Peruvian cuisine with over-the-top presentation (our first course resembled a pot plant). The serving sizes were small, but when you have 15 of them, you still fill up quickly. The highlights for me included the regional sausage and roasted plantain appetizers and both the "sea" and "land" sushies. Overall a very delicious meal!

Yummy Plant
It looks like our pot plant is also growing a little Peruvian man

Yummy Rock
Another delicious meal, prime wagyu rib, egg yolk and cecina fried rice. They go to great lengths to ensure you can't steal their crockery

After lunch we headed up to Kennedy Park, known locally as the cat park - and we weren't disappointed. Many cats were indeed at the park, being looked after by local (presumably slightly crazy) volunteers. There were also large speakers playing music that some of the locals were dancing to (with many more looking on) - overall quite a nice vibe at the park.

Cat Food
It appears I'm not the only one that is suspicious of the red-shirt guy eating cat food

Dancing People
I'm sure there was a certain style of music / dance they were exhibiting - but it's all the same to me

With only one full day in Lima we wanted to tick off as much as possible, so even though we were still slightly full from lunch we headed to the Huaca Pucllana restaurant which is next to an archaeological site of the same name. Eating our dinner outside with view of the pyramid was quite relaxing, even though neither of us could finish our food.

Dinner View
Apparently this pyramid allowed the elite clergymen to express their complete religious power and control the use of natural water resources back in the day - isn't that nice

After our brief stay in Lima we headed to Cusco so that we could start acclimatising to the altitude. Almost straight away the lack of oxygen hit me and I was having trouble breathing / walking short distances even though we went straight from the airport to the Sacred Valley (Ollantaytambo's temple hill) which is a tad lower. After a night of restless sleep we consulted a doctor and were taken to an oxygen clinic for the better part of the day. So the majority of our first few days in Cusco was spent in a bed trying to relax. When we returned to Cusco after the 4-day Inca Trail I was far, far sicker and not able to walk much without needing to sit down or run to a toilet. Even so we managed to look around the city a little and get a bit of a feel for it.

Step To It
The terraces of Ollantaytambo - pretty steep as it is, much worse when you are gasping for air

Firstly, the traffic was probably as bad as anywhere I've been (which includes Italy, Egypt and Malaysia). We took a (company-supplied) taxi from the train station to our hotel. Our impatient driver was going about 80 km/h down the wrong side of the road to overtake a bus with a few cars coming directly towards us. Instead of slowing down and merging back into our lane, he continued his course and just expected the other cars to swerve out of our way. Oh, and neither of the back seats had seat belts (almost none did). Fortunately, after a few annoyed honks they did swerve out of our way and we survived - but it wasn't the only close shave we experienced.

The majority of the city had a typical South American feel to the architecture (although the buildings next to the main square had been rebuilt somewhat recently) - lots of stone and plenty of colours. As we were constantly close to the main square we couldn't walk more than a meter without a various commercial opportunities (massage, taxi, tours etc). One thing I did find interesting about the main square is that they had a lot of Western favourites (Maccas, KFC and Starbucks) but there must be a rule about gaudy signs - as each shop had a very simple monotone logo outside their building.

Market
We happened to be in Cusco during The Day of the Living - which amounted to a street market and a punch of annoying fireworks



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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sakura & Bonus Wrap-up, Japan - 2015

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 26/04/2015 13:04:09

With the high of the amazing burger behind us, I don't feel I should dwell on our final stop - so this will be brief. Wanting an easy road to the airport for our flight home, we decided to spend our final day in Sakura, very close to Narita Airport (and also quite nice in the blossom season apparently). Little did we know then, cherry blossoms are scared by a slight breeze or light shower of rain, so the majority of blossoms were gone by the time we made it to Sakura.

We did check out a few of the Samurai houses in the location, which were pretty cool (and unlike Kyoto they actually included props to understand the purpose of each room). We also headed down to the local castle ruins with cool greenery and hidden pathways. But in general, our final day was pretty much a lazy Wednesday.

Dresser
The old samurai houses were fun to walk through

Outside
... though Pao was experiencing this from outside as she felt her shoes had already come off enough

Forest Hideaway
One of the hidden pathways around the castle ruins

After a quick night in the Narita Airport Rest House we were on our plane back home. I've never had a more enjoyable 10 hour flight, leaving at midday meant I didn't have to attempt to sleep (which I find impossible) so I just spent the time reading, listening to music and writing my blog entries. It did mean we arrived home at around 2 am - but we were home and safe and finally able to fit into a bed

To sum up our time in Japan, I don't think it could have gone any better. I put many hours into the planning and I'm pretty sure it all paid off as we were only once put into the position of walking around a city trying to decide on what to do at the last minute.

That being said, the trip to Japan was a little different to some of my recent adventures. It took me a while to figure out why - but I believe there wasn't any big ticket item in Japan that I was looking forward to achieving. My first trip to the US had Niagara Falls and my first ever live NHL game. My second trip had the Stanley Cup and concluded a very long-time goal of being inside the Statue of Liberty. My European adventures had a few (such as being inside a pyramid, the leaning tower of Pisa, Stonehenge and the Eiffel Tower). Even my trips to Sydney generally end with me climbing the harbour bridge. For Japan, there were a number of things I was looking forward to (mainly the food, but also bright lights and electronics) but no huge singular item.

It was a very enjoyable cultural experience all the same, and also such a great time to have fun and be silly with my girlfriend Paola. The fact that the two of us only got grumpy at each other once or twice in the whole 3.5 weeks spending every hour together is a great sign to me. I think I said it best way back in Egypt:

Quoting Joel:
Apparently Mark Twain once said "I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.". While I am surprised at the grammar utilised I couldn't agree with the sentiment more - there will certainly be further travel for Pao and I in our future

I believed it then and I believe it even more now Looking forward to our next trip to South America and the Inca Trail later this year.


This is the 21st in the Super Fun Chronological Japan Travel Catalogue series
GET 1 - Nikko, Japan - 2015GET 2 - Ueno (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 3 - Akihabara (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 4 - Ginza (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 5 - Asakusa (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 6 - Shinjuku (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 7 - Harajuku (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 8 - Shibuya (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 9 - Odaiba (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 10 - Kawaguchiko (Five Lakes), Japan - 2015GET 11 - Yokohama, Japan - 2015GET 12 - Kamakura, Japan - 2015GET 13 - Osaka, Japan - 2015GET 14 - Kobe, Japan - 2015GET 15 - Hiroshima, Japan - 2015GET 16 - Himeji & Nara, Japan - 2015GET 17 - Kyoto, Japan - 2015GET 18 - Iga, Japan - 2015GET 19 - Nagoya, Japan - 2015GET 20 - Takayama & Gero, Japan - 2015GET 21 - Sakura & Bonus Wrap-up, Japan - 2015
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Takayama & Gero, Japan - 2015

# Posted by Joel Dixon at 26/04/2015 01:42:47

The Wikitravel article for Takayama was quite complimentary of Center4 Hamburgers serving American-style burgers in Takayama. I'm a huge fan of burgers, but the trip to Japan was more about eating the local fare and trying food that I wouldn't have access to back home. Little did I know, Center4 Hamburgers produces the best burger (and onion rings) I have eaten anywhere in the world - but more on that later.

The only reason we looked into Takayama to start with is the Spring Festival - which is apparently one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan - happening right at the end of our prospective Japan trip. It took a bit of re-arranging, and a hotel in almost close-by Gero (as everything in Takayama was already booked) but we were able to stay in Takayama the night before the festival. Looking through the festival map we received from the hotel, the phrase "all events will be cancelled in the event of rain" got me a little worried.

Given that it was already raining the night before the festival (and forecasts predicted nothing but rain for the next few days) we were both concerned that our long train to Takayama would be all for nought. A little deflated (while checking weather websites periodically) we decided to grab some burgers.

From the first morsel, I knew that this burger was special. Muttering "Wow!" I looked up at Pao and she replied to my thoughts with "I know - this is amazing!" I savoured a second delicious bite before turning my gaze towards the onion rings. Onion rings are very hit and miss - but with as much chance of a hit as you'd expect from Uwe Boll (and not in the boxing ring). Stringy onion / onion mush saturated in oil or too much burnt breadcrumbs is what usually prevents me from ordering the delicious golden rings in the first place - but Pao suggested we get some with our meal. Looking with fresh eyes, I silently hoped that the rings we purchased would please instead of disappoint us (the stakes even higher now that the burger had cut the mustard). Thankfully, the onion rings were more than worthy of the tasty burger with which we had been blessed - a perfect amount of oil and real onion melting in our mouths.

Burgasmic
As Samuel Jackson would say - that's a tasty burger

I think it had a lot to do with the high quality Hida beef and other ingredients from the area, or perhaps a recent lack of Western food that caused Pao and I to crave something familiar, but I think this may well be the best burger I've ever devoured. We actually made our way back to Center4 again the next day for lunch, but there was a huge waiting list of excited customers (we were very lucky to have been admitted the night before). So after our delicious burger meal, we both agreed that - even if the whole Takayama Spring Festival was rained out - the trip was more than worth it.

And the festival was pretty much rained out. The main draw of the two days - the night festival - was cancelled outright due to the rains. The festival floats would no longer be driven around the town like in other years - instead staying parked in their garages. Fortunately, the doors to the garages remained open, so Pao and I could still walk around the town checking out the floats and even catching one of the puppet shows (all operated remotely via wires).

In The Shop
One of the floats stuck in the garage, still pretty impressive

Costume
Final costume check, our puppet was a bit of a diva requiring many last-minute adjustments

Weak Dragon
It was kind of cool seeing the puppet holding a dragon...

Strong Dragon
... until the spectacle was dwarfed by the puppet turning into a dragon!

After the puppetry finished we headed to Hida no Sato (folk village) which was pretty fun to walk around and think back to living in that time period. We didn't hang around too long until we realised the night festival wouldn't go ahead and headed to Gero.

Folk You
These types of buildings were made using primative materials and tools - I'd have no chance even using the latest technology

Gero was only supposed to provide us a bed to roll into after the Takayama night festival, but as we arrived a few hours early we took a walk around the town, and it was quite pretty. Known for many open-air onsen and foot baths the town was a little glum due to the weather - but still provided beautiful scenery. As if not spoilt by food enough, we had another delicious meal in Gero - our first time sampling eel in any form. We had the grilled variety with rice, spring onion and wasabi - so delicious! So much amazing food in such a short time at the end of our trip will ensure I always retain fond memories of Takayama and Gero

No Privacy
Swimwear was requried so we didn't give this onsen a go - but it looks quite luxurious (if a little too public)

Eels Eels
In this case, it was the mouth


This is the 20th in the Super Fun Chronological Japan Travel Catalogue series
GET 1 - Nikko, Japan - 2015GET 2 - Ueno (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 3 - Akihabara (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 4 - Ginza (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 5 - Asakusa (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 6 - Shinjuku (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 7 - Harajuku (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 8 - Shibuya (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 9 - Odaiba (Tokyo), Japan - 2015GET 10 - Kawaguchiko (Five Lakes), Japan - 2015GET 11 - Yokohama, Japan - 2015GET 12 - Kamakura, Japan - 2015GET 13 - Osaka, Japan - 2015GET 14 - Kobe, Japan - 2015GET 15 - Hiroshima, Japan - 2015GET 16 - Himeji & Nara, Japan - 2015GET 17 - Kyoto, Japan - 2015GET 18 - Iga, Japan - 2015GET 19 - Nagoya, Japan - 2015GET 20 - Takayama & Gero, Japan - 2015GET 21 - Sakura & Bonus Wrap-up, Japan - 2015
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