Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Arigatō Gozaimasu!

Definitely the phrase we used the most in Tokyo is, "arigato gozaimasu." It means "thank you" in the polite form, and we said it like a thousand times a day. Most everything and everyone in Japan was so surprisingly wonderful and polite, and we were really grateful!

We rented a classic Japanese house in the Sumida Ward, which was built just after World War II. If you'd like to see pictures of it, you can click here. Even though the owner warns of the low ceilings, actually experiencing them was a surprise - I could touch the ceiling without standing on my toes! Thankfully, Mike and I, and our friends Josh and Bernice, are all on the shorter side.

Mike on the night we arrived, you can see how low the doorway was,
and the ceiling was only an inch or two above that!

It is awfully difficult to get around if you don't speak Japanese, and the subways, buses and trains here are a mess, owned by different companies and running everywhere and nowhere. We ended up walking A LOT. Fifteen miles, in fact, on just one of our longer days. But I think this allowed us to see more random things we might otherwise have missed.

An all-female band we saw, walking down the street.

A shot of restaurants and bikes in the Asakusa district. Everyone bikes!

Another Asakusa street scene, with the Tokyo Skytree in the background.

The Tokyo SkyTree, lit up at night.

A random "Ninja Warrior" training ground that Mike and Josh tried out.

We went to the Kappabashi District, which is where they sell all the restaurant supplies. I could have wandered that street for a full day - they had all the fake food you see in Japanese restaurant windows, cutlery, knives, cookware, robata grills, rice cookers, dishware...you get the idea. It's a great place to shop for souvenirs that aren't your usual key chain or t-shirt.

The display at the knife store - bought myself one!

A gorgeous ceramics and dishware store.

One day, we made a pilgrimage to the Cup Noodles Museum, where they have recorded the entire history of the Nissin Foods company, and its founder, Momofuku Ando. If you've ever had instant ramen noodles (either in cup form or package form - Top Ramen, etc), it's most likely from the Nissin Foods company. This was a staple of my college years and my corporate office days, so a visit to the museum was a must. 

Obligatory photo with the giant cup and the Nissin mascot.

A shot of the "Ramen Cube" which showed every flavor the company makes.

We got to make our own instant Cup Noodles, with customizable flavors and add-ins! 

First you decorate the outsides...

Then you pick your flavors and mix-ins!

After awhile, we started navigating the subways with ease, and even falling asleep on the train like the locals.

Mike and Josh checking out Bernice's napping style on the subway.

We visited so many places and ate so much food that I can't put it all into this post, but I can definitely say we will be back to Japan. In fact, our friends are already planning a trip for next year! It was one of the cleanest cities I've ever been in, and the locals were so kind and helpful. The only issue is the language barrier, but we've got a whole year to learn any crucial phrases. Although we heard a lot of warnings about the high cost of food and housing in Japan, we had the opposite experience and food and the little house we rented were very reasonable (we spent $500 for 6 nights at the house, and about $50/day per person for food and transportation). Eat local and wear good walking shoes; that's my recommendation!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gambling, Seafood, and the Big Buddha

We got back from Macau with 4 days left to explore Hong Kong. The weather had cooled off a little, so we made the most of our time and got out and about. My Dad drove us to the "country town" of Sai Kung, which used to be a major fishing port. 

the very disorganized harbor.

These days, the town is more of a tourist destination and a lot of ex-pats live there. The strip along the harbor has a bunch of fish markets, where you can pick whatever seafood you want to eat, bring it to the restaurant of your choice, and they'll cook it for you.

clams, crabs, lobsters, and various other mollusks - an edible aquarium.

The town is really kind of cute, and it was nice to stroll around and experience something a little less crowded and slower paced.

the "old town" section of Sai Kung.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club is an institution in Hong Kong. The Chinese love to gamble, and they are super vocal about it. We spent a day at the track and it was exciting to watch the crowd get up and scream, cheer, and loudly encourage their favorite ponies! Since Mike and I know nothing about betting on horses, we placed our bets based on their names: The General, Viva Dolphin, Baltic Prince, and Ultimate Glory were some of our winners (and losers). 

I loved seeing them run on grass; seemed appropriate for horses!

My Dad snapped this pic of Mike, me and my brother Randy at the track.

Our last full day, we went to Lantau Island. You take a cable car to get there, and we went late in the day and had the whole car to ourselves. It's about a 25 minute ride and goes over some beautiful landscape.

Mike, relaxing in the cable car as it goes over the ocean.

A shot looking back towards Tung Chung, on the outskirts of Hong Kong.

The view of the famous Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery, as we approached Lantau.

The biggest attraction on the island is the Tian Tan Buddha, a huge bronze statue. You can see it from as far away as Macau on a clear day.

A view of the Buddha, in the late afternoon.

It was a good workout - it's 268 stairs up to the base of the Buddha statue. My thighs were burning by the time we hit the top.

Me with a view of the 268 stairs and the Buddha in the background.

Finally made it to the top!

Two of the six Goddess statues that surround the Buddha.

A view of the Po Lin Monastery from the Buddha.

There were feral water buffaloes that live on the island, and they're cared for by the village. Mike was totally into them and even got to pet one (not advised or condoned, in case you were wondering).

Mike and his new friend.

More semi-tame water buffaloes.

Mike and the herd.

As we headed back towards the cable cars for home, there were suddenly a ton of cows all around us! Mike is like a Pied Piper of animals, I swear.

The subway at rush hour!

We headed home to have dinner with my grandma and pack for Japan. I'll miss you Hong Kong, until next year! 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Touring Macau

Macau is the other Special Administrative Region of China (formerly colonized by the Portuguese), and as such, you don't need a visa to visit it. It's only an hour by hydrofoil to get there, and it's Asia's version of Vegas, with huge casinos and lots of nightlife. 

All signs around town are in Portuguese, Chinese, and English.

The view from the Macau harbor.

Macau is fascinating because it's got a lot of Portuguese influence, which you can see in the food and the architecture. We tried the local Macanese food for lunch. I had a Portuguese fish stew, which was delicious, with tomato broth, and Mike tried lemon pepper chicken, which he happily discovered, was served with french fries.

Macanese food for lunch!

St. Paul's Cathedral, or what's left of it.
The Ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral is Macau's most iconic landmark. It's actually quite large and impressive, and crowded, even on a Thursday late afternoon!

Only the facade is left standing, but the foundation is still there, and you can walk into it, where they have the bones of various devotees and laymen enshrined. Honestly, it was a little off putting (for me) to see human bones lying behind glass, along with the chanting music they play. But perhaps for religious types, it's reverential. 

There's also some Catholic artifacts and art housed here, and it's interesting to see the blend of East and West on religious pieces.

Another shot of St. Paul's, up close.

We hiked up to the Fortaleza do Monte, which is a fortress built in the 1600s. Good little workout for the thighs, and totally worth it.

Beginning of the staircase path to the fortress.

The entryway to the fortress, as seen from above.

Cannon hole in the fortress wall.

The Macau Museum is at the top of the fortress, filled with information on Macau's history as an important Chinese port, to its eventual takeover by the Portuguese, and then finally, its return to China. One thing I love about Chinese museums - they build full scale replicas of streets, houses, and even waterways, to give you a "real life" experience. 

A Macanese street, with examples of Portugese influenced architecture.

We wandered around the streets of Macau a bit afterwards, trying out local delicacies and shopping.

A busy night scene in Macau.

But we couldn't leave without a visit to the Grand Prix museum. Macau is famous for the Macau Grand Prix, a car and motorcycle street race held every year in November. Mike made me promise we would return one year to watch it.

Mike by the Michael Schumacher exhibit.

We played on some race simulators where we got to drive Porsches, Lamborghinis, Audis and F1 cars, and I have to admit, it was really fun. So I wouldn't mind checking out an F1 race. Guess I'll be seeing you again in the future, Macau!

At Sideways driving club in Hong Kong.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Traveling During Typhoon Season

Mike checking out the city view from the balcony.

We are in Hong Kong! If you've never been here before, it's a great place to visit, and you can get around the whole city just speaking English - seriously, everyone speaks English, and all street signs are in English. It's an international metropolitan city like London or New York, and spectacular for shopping, especially clothes shopping. 

We are super lucky because my grandma has a nice flat with plenty of room for guests. It also has an amazing view.

the Hong Kong city skyline early in the morning.

the Hong Kong city skyline at night.

typical street with taxis lined up
Hong Kong can be crazy crowded, loud, and overwhelming with sights, sounds, and smells. I like the change; it makes me appreciate our quiet life back home. At the same time, I get to enjoy all the things I've missed here - the ease of public transportation, the respect people have for the elderly, bakeries on every corner, super fresh seafood, tropical fruits, amazingly intricate dim sum, and my absolute favorite - high tea.

We happened to come back at the peak of typhoon season, so we spend a lot of time indoors (mostly eating), hiding from the wind and rain. Today we were at a Level 8 warning (10 is the highest)! 

A shot of the crazy wind and rain.

A typical subway scene, but much LESS crowded since
schools and banks were closed due to the typhoon.

beef brisket simmered in stock with noodles, and fried fish skin.
Tapas - grilled cheese with figs & honey, roasted nuts and Spanish prawns.

Since you can't eat all the time, we spent a whole afternoon in the Hong Kong History Museum, browsing the exhibits. They've rebuilt a traditional Chinese house, old streets of Hong Kong, and an old port. Walking through life size replicas is pretty fun and immersive.

a whole exhibit on rice, from cultivation to harvest.

Old streets of Hong Kong exhibit, with a grocery store, pharmacy, jail, bank, etc.

When there's no typhoon warning, we rush down to enjoy the pool. Although we always had a swimming pool at our loft in Los Angeles, it was brrrr! cold. This one is like bath water, and you can walk right in.

Like a palm oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle!

Later this week, we are off to Macau for our first time. You have to take a ferry to get there, and during the typhoon, the ferries are cancelled. We pushed our reservation to Thursday in the hopes that the storm will have passed by then. Wish us luck!