A Travellerspoint blog

A Whirlwind Trip to Japan

A taste of Tokyo and Kyoto

26 °C
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Awhile back, I spent two years living in Tokyo. This trip to Taiwan seemed like the perfect opportunity to swing through Tokyo and get reacquainted with some old friends, and a few places of which I have very fond memories.

Tokyo is looking newer and shinier these days. Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympic games and is working to put its best foot forward. The Tokyo station area around the Imperial Palace has gone from faded and grimy, to upscale and chic. The Tokyo Skytree (634m) has just opened (move over Tokyo tower) with restaurants and the like. Tokyo still busy with people in a hurry, loud with the hum of subways and traffic, the cries of people distributing advertisements and bright with flashing LCD in all directions vying for your attention. The shopping districts -- Shinjuku, Shibuya, Omote-sando and Ginza -- are crazy as ever, but with new, gorgeous buildings. The city closes the main street in the area to car traffic to accomodate the shopping hordes. So many pretty and cool things -- glittery or modern, bright or muted, depending on your taste. Given, Japan's deflationary spiral, I was curious about the prices. Incredibly, a half litre bottle of tea and a return bullet train ticket from Tokyo-Kyoto are still the same price as a decade ago. Food is slightly more expensive, but you still get a decent meal in a full service restaurant for around $10 (tax and tip included). Maybe I've gotten older, or the exchange rate is better, but prices for adorable hand bags, trendy clothes and cute jewelry seemed more reasonable, particularly given the incredible selection available. I wish my backpack was bigger and my duty-free allowance was more flexible!

shibuya, tokyo

shibuya, tokyo

shinjuku, tokyo

shinjuku, tokyo

My friend CS took very good care of me. She, SY and I ate and shopped our way through the weekend. We savoured a lot of yummy things on bamboo sticks. Kushiage, or various rounds of assorted vegetables, fish and meat, some dressed with a kind of japanese salsa flavoured with wasabi or vinegar in a lovely restored Japanese building (very rare in Tokyo). Enjoyed amazing sushi in the Tsukiji fish market. We shopped for pearls in the exclusive Mikimoto flagship store in Ginza. Oddly enough, at one point we came across a street full of lamborghinis lined up in a row -- red, white, lime green and powder blue. Taipei, eat your heart out. There were more yummy things on bamboo skewers, this time, yakitori or meat, fish or vegetables grilled on a charcoal hibachi. I particularly liked the ginko nuts and grilled chicken skin.

Hantei restaurant, tokyo

Hantei restaurant, tokyo

Kushiage

Kushiage

fresh wasabi

fresh wasabi

pre-sushi, red snapper

pre-sushi, red snapper

giant oyster, tsukiji

giant oyster, tsukiji

sake with bonus

sake with bonus

yakitori

yakitori

Next up is Kyoto, the ancient capital until the mid-1800s and the religious and cultural heart of Japan. Where Tokyo is the poster-child for modern, hip and cutting edge, Kyoto symbolizes the traditional, elegant and tranquil. Where I stayed, by the train station, was not so attractive, but a short bus ride downtown to the Gion district (ancient haunt of the geisha) and you were transported to another world. Think neatly kept wooden Japanese houses, framed by maple trees with miniature leaves, or a droopy willow and the occasional canal with a quiet gurgle of water over rocks. Even the more touristy areas like Hinami street and Ponto-cho chocabloc full of restaurants with terraces perched over the Kamo river still had charm, despite the constant pedestrian traffic. I went to one temple, the lovely Kiyomizudera, perched in the hills off of the downtown. By coincidence, I visited on a holiday where Japanese honour their elders. The streets were packed not only tourists but Japanese decked out in traditional dress -- girls in brightly coloured kimono with ornaments in their neatly styled hair and tottering around in little slippers. What a treat!

Nozomi bullet train

Nozomi bullet train

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizudera temple, Kyoto

Nannenzaka street, Kyoto

Nannenzaka street, Kyoto


shimbashi st, kyoto

shimbashi st, kyoto

I never saw geisha (this is a dying art form), but I saw a graceful pair of maika (apprentice geisha) perform some dances in a cultural show. Wow! The ladies floated in their kimono. The way they used their arms, hands and the sleeves of the kimono in their movements was quite extraordinary. One of the maiko had the most expressive face. With a lift of her chin or the a slight turn of the head, she was able to convey such emotion. Inspired, the next day, I went to a dress up place and was transformed into a geisha with full make up, a 10 pound wig of human hair and a lovely kimono. It was a hoot! The attendants were amazing. They knew how to position your head, arms, hands and feet and arrange the kimono for the most amazing photos. What an experience! To keep that wig on my head required all of my dance posture and there were at least three layers under the kimono, so things got a bit sweaty after awhile.

maiko -- apprentice geisha dancing

maiko -- apprentice geisha dancing


Carolyn playing dress up

Carolyn playing dress up

I also took a little workshop on Japanese tea ceremony. It was a seated ten-minute dance of gentle choreographed movement from wiping the tea bowl to scooping the water using a long bamboo pole with a cup lashed on the end, and pouring it into the bowl, then gently resting the handle of the scoop on the floor. She then turned her attention to the drink, methodically whisking the powdered tea into the hot water. The choreographed ceremony she demonstrated was the simplest one and took 1-2 years to learn! Quite a contrast with hectic Tokyo.

Just got back to Tokyo, and had an amazing last meal with another old friend. Sadly, my trip is drawing to an end and I will begin the long journey home tomorrow morning.

Posted by Caro369 09:03 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Taipei and the eating is good

Bubble tea, creamy dumplings and refreshing shaved ice desserts


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I'm thinking it was good thing I was climbing stairs through the forest in 30 degree heat because, when I went back to Taipei, I had a healthy appetite and a yummy selection of interesting food to try. If you get thirsty (which happened a lot), every corner seems to sport a bubble tea stand. The experience is a bit like going to Starbucks -- first you pick your tea, then do you want milk or not, how much sugar, how much ice and finally, do you want some bubbles aka gelatinous and chewy tapioca balls. The resulting delicious and refreshing concoction is presented to you in a plastic cup sealed with a thin plastic top which can be easily pierced with a pointy, big wide straw. I was a bubble tea addict for a couple of days, until I realized I was skipping lunch because these lovely drinks are, at 500 calories, a meal in a cup. Then I discovered the mango smoothie -- mango, water and ice, yum -- almost as amazing, and better for the waistline.

As mentioned in my last post, you can eat cheap and well in Taipei. Every neighbourhood seems to have a night market, that is a designated local street is closed to traffic between 6pm and midnight and vendors set up carts in neat rows to sell cheap trinkets and all manner of greasy inexpensive small meals -- Chinese sausage on a stick for a dollar, octopus balls for two dollars, steamed buns with meat for fifty cents, crazy stews, stinky tofu (kind of smells like rotting fruit), etc. The markets hum with people and smells (good and bad) and you munch while you walk. I have been to several night markets and the food choices are different from market to market. Even within a market, its rare to see duplicates of kiosks. I am particularly fond of the sugarcane juice which is squeezed from stalks of sugarcane while you wait.

Night market

Night market

raohe night market

raohe night market

pork ribs in rich broth

pork ribs in rich broth

The noodle houses were also amazing. For $3-5, I tried sesame noodles with chinese sausage, beef noodle or tender beef morsels in a rich tasty broth with homemade noodle,and pork belly on rice. Then there were more expensive meals. For $15-20, I went to the renowned restaurant called Din Tai Fung for pork steamed dumplings. The dumplings are filled with a small meatball and an exquisite broth which is so rich it is creamy. Proper technique requires that you dip your dumpling in soya sauce and vinegar, place it on a soup spoon with a sliver of ginger and then pierce it with chopstick before slurping it up in onego off your spoon. Heaven! I also sampled some Taiwanese dishes -- tender oysters in garlic sauce, soya braised pork ribs and spicy eggplant with Chinese basil. Like I said, it was a good thing, I like to hike!

pork steamed dumplings

pork steamed dumplings

oysters and garlic sauce, spicy eggplant and pork ribs

oysters and garlic sauce, spicy eggplant and pork ribs

Taiwan also has an aboriginal population and I tried some special aboriginal dishes such as fried bees (YES bees). They look like bees but taste like pop corn chicken. There was also wild boar and sticky rice in a bamboo tube. Very cool!

fried bees

fried bees

For dessert, I went to Ice Monster for a mango shaved ice. I do not know to describe this crazy delicious dessert of fresh mango on the bottom layered with milk pudding and topped with a two inch layer of micro shavings from a giant block of frozen mango juice. Absolutely amazing! There were also amazing bakeries. The spongy lemon brioche at Wu Pao Chun was to die for.

mango shaved ice dessert

mango shaved ice dessert

Before wrapping up on Taiwan -- I wanted to say a special thank-you to my friend SYG and her lovely family for their wonderful hospitality. They also showed me the ropes in Taipei, introducing me to things I would never found on my own. Hugs and kisses.

fresh bamboo shoots at the market

fresh bamboo shoots at the market

I arrived in Tokyo yesterday. So begins part two of my holiday.

Posted by Caro369 08:20 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Observations on Taipei

Chinese flair with a dash of Japanese order and a lot of well-groomed dogs

34 °C
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After a week of soaking in the sights of modern Taipei, I am starting to get a sense of the place and how it works. Taiwan has a very interesting story. Taiwan was part of the Chinese empire until 1895 when it was annexed by the Japanese. China gleefully took Taiwan back when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War. When the Communists seized power on the mainland China in 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party -- and two million fleeing Chinese -- took refuge on the island of Taiwan, creating a separate Chinese state. Today, Communist China considers Taiwan a renegade province. The people of Taiwan see themselves as separate and distinct, and because of their economic success and higher standard of living in the 1980s and 1990s, even look down on the mainlanders. Taiwan does not feel like China, there are cultural similarities, but the people and the energy are different. Actually, Taipei seems more like a more relaxed version of Singapore - steamy hot, clean and modern with a lot of shopping malls

In Taiwan, things are very orderly ( in China there is no such thing as a line, people just push in front). As in Japan, in the subway and at the bus stops, people line up to board the train or bus that hasn't yet arrived! That being said, things are a bit different on the street, drivers are aggressive and you really have to watch for scooters, cars and buses which barely pause before turning right, or even left, into a cluster of pedestrians. In the markets, there is also not a lot of negotiating. In You can try, but people generally look at you and tell you the price is fair and don't budge (in China, if you believe the merchant, post cards cost $20). In stores, like in Japan, clerks hand you your receipt and change with both hands while bowing slightly. I have also been struck by the generosity and kindness of complete strangers. Taking buses and not speaking or reading Chinese is tricky. I have had people let me know (after I asked about it), that this bus doesn't stop at the train station, but that lady over there is going to the train station too, so go with her. The designated lady then accompanied me to the station and lent me her cell phone so I could call my hotel for a pick up. I have had nice couples offer me rides to my next destination in national parks. A group of Taiwanese girls who knew the trail I wanted to take, invited me to hike with them.

In the 1990s, Taiwan was one of the fast-growing Asian tigers, and it shows. The downtown has its share of brightly lit skyscrapers set off by broad and tidy boulevards. Affluence is everywhere from the fancy ferraris to the high-end Chanel and Vuitton stores. There seems to be a shopping area for every budget. In central Taipei, the malls are nicer, where the less expensive stores are on the lower levels and get more exclusive as you go up. There are also cheaper shopping districts like Ximending, with flashy LCD screens, a rabbit warren of small brightly-lit kiosks in small arcades crammed with sun glasses, cell phone accessories, shoes and purses interspaced with noodle houses and bubble tea stands. Each neighbourhood seems to have a pop up night market every evening after 6pm, where the street is closed to cars, and vendors sell snacks and drinks from carts for $1-2 a pop. Despite this apparent vibrancy, Taiwan has lost a few steps economically in the last decade. Wages have stagnated and Taiwan's well educated are seeking opportunities elsewhere, including on the mainland. One girl told me, it was more lucrative to work in the US or Europe as a waitress than to have a professional job in Taiwan. I have found food and public transport are cheap -- a slab of pork belly on rice is a mere $2 and a subway ride is $0.50 -- but housing and other types of puchases are not. For example, you find cheap clothes at the night market, but a cardigan at Uniqlo costs $35, the same as in New York. You don't see a lot of homeless people, but I was in a shopping district yesterday, and I saw some elderly gentlemen looking for bottles in the trash.

Xinyi District

Xinyi District


duhua st

duhua st


Ximending shopping district

Ximending shopping district


Bopilaio district

Bopilaio district


Chiang Kai-shek memorial

Chiang Kai-shek memorial

Religion is an interesting affair. The most popular temples are daoist, a kind of folk religion where you pray to different gods (e.g., the god of medicine or war or knowlexge or mariage) depending on what you want. Every neighbourbood seems to have a small one at least. The buildings are brightly decorated pagodas with statutes of auspicious creatures such as dragons and lions comprised of colourful pieces of ceramic. Inside there are carved pillars and window screens, and paintings of scenes from folk stories. Each temple is dedicated to one main god, but many others are represented in little chapels on the side, or in an annex behind the main building. These places alive and buzzing with people making offferings of incense, flowers or food. There is also steady trade in joss paper (represent money or other items) which are burned at the temple to assist ancestors in the afterlife, and fortune telling. I was surprised to see that the faithful were mostly comprised of young people.

Daoist temple

Daoist temple

daoist temple rood detail

daoist temple rood detail

offerings at Longshan temple

offerings at Longshan temple

Another thing I am enjoying about Taipei, is the accessibility of nature. Yesterday, I went hiking in Yangmingshan National Park (north of Taipei). It took me an hour from the time I left downtown Taipei to the trailhead. The trail I chose, to the peak of Mount Qixing, was 2.5 kilometers of stairs through a bamboo, deciduous tree forest, but I digress. I fortunately was able finish the day soaking my sore muscles in a hot spring steps from the bus station. Earlier this week, after an hour train ride east of Taipei and I was on a forest hike lined with stands of bamboo and giant ferns to see a series of waterfalls. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much rain so the waterfalls were only a trickle, but wow!

Sandaioling Walk

Sandaioling Walk

Top of the 2nd waterfall

Top of the 2nd waterfall

3rd Waterfall

3rd Waterfall

Yangmingshan

Yangmingshan

yangmingshan park - fumaroles

yangmingshan park - fumaroles

One eccentricity about Taiwanese, is the way they care for their dogs. Remember Paris Hilton and the chihuahua in the purse? Yeah - it can get weirder. Small dogs, which are so well groomed they are fluffy, are carted around into upscale shopping malls in baby carriages (maybe it was designed for dogs, I don't know). Men in particular like to carry their dogs in one hand by cradling it by the neck with its legs and belly in the air. The dog seems used to it. Very strange.

Apologies, this post is getting long. The next will be on the yummy food!

Posted by Caro369 08:00 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Taroko Gorge

Steamy jungle hikes straight up with colourful butterflies for company

sunny 35 °C
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After a reasonably uneventful 24-hour slog, I arrived in busy, noisy and surprisingly modern Taipei, Taiwan. I am staying with an old friend and her family in their shi-shi upscale apartment in the shadow of the city's famous skyscraper, Taipei 101. I could not have asked for a better location, or a warmer welcome! More about Taipei and its quirkiness later.

When I started planning my trip to Taiwan, one place caught my imagination and held on with both hands -- Taroko Gorge National Park -- a marble-walled canyon on the east coast of the island. In my head, I was foolishly picturing an Italian church with trees. Uhh, no. The reality was a series of densely packed, pointy mountains, 1000-2000 metres high, covered in lush, green jungle. The very persistent Liwu River has patiently and lovingly carved a narrow, deep canyon through this wall of mountains. The highway through the park hugs the river. There isn't much of a riverbank in a lot places and where there wasn't enough room for a road, work crews in the 1950s blasted into the solid marble and metamorphic rock to slowly chisel out an ongoing series of tunnels along the 18 kilometre route. In the four years it took to build the highway, 226 workers died and over 700 were injured, most from being struck by runaway rocks/boulders, or slipping and falling off cliffs. Today, as a precaution, there are signs everywhere warning visitors not to linger next to cliffs, and park officials hand out hard hats to visitors planning to visit the scenic areas. I am not making this up. Sadly, I don't think a plastic hat, or powerwalking is going to be much help in the event of a rock slide. The "rocks" I saw resting in the riverbed ranged from the size of monster trucks to small walk-up apartment buildings.

Baiyang Waterfall

Baiyang Waterfall


Liwu River

Liwu River

I spent three days exploring the park. The busloads of rude, badly dressed Chinese tourists detracted from the wonder of the place, but these annoyances were quickly forgotten once you left the lookout points along the highway. At the Swallow Grotto, the narrow canyon with rugged, white marble walls is essentially pressed up against your face with a precipitous drop to the river when you look over the railing, small caves where swallows built their nests at eye level, and the shadow from the overhang of the cliff as it shoots up high above you head. It was a humbling place. As you followed the short trail, the river widened and you could see small waterfalls along the rockface and huge, white marble boulders with streaks of grey strewn along the river bed which dwarfed the full-sized luxury tour buses parked at one of the riverbend. I also visited a trail along the the smaller Shakadong River where huge colourful boulders of metamorphic gneiss rock are streaked with green, or grey or purple framing the blue-green water. My pictures do not adequately capture the lovely muted colours.

Swallow Grotto

Swallow Grotto

To do a proper hike in Taroko, you needed to get a permit. On paper, the hikes look short. I did a 7km and a 9km hike, but this is misleading. Given, that these are tall, pointy mountains, it probably shouldn't have surprised me that the first kilometre or kilometre of the path was straight up. God love the Taiwanese. The trails were narrow, about 60-70 cm wide in places with a cliff on one side and a steep drop on the other, but meticulously marked with clear signage. The climb was made easier with strategically placed ropes, chains, stairs and chiselled toeholds in rock faces. Despite the assistance, the climb through the jungle was hot and sweaty in the 35 degree heat though, as you got higher, intermittant cool breeezes down the valley made thing tolerable. The forest hummed with the conversations of insects and birds. The trails were lined with colourful wild flowers which attracted every size, shape and colour of butterfly. There were miniature yellow butterflies, tiger striped, and even big black ones with a spot of red which I initially mistook for small birds. The Jhuilu trail had incredible views of the surrounding jungle-covered mountains and the sweeping valley. The Lushui-Wenshan trail was romp through a jungle bowl with waterfalls and forest strewn with schist boulders or metamorhic rock layered with mica and quartz that gave them a silver shimmer, which was particularly striking against the green of the forest. A typhoon had swept through the park in July and its aftermath was clearly evident on this trail -- stairs had been swept away and there were many diversions marked by red ribbons where the trail required scrambles over large rock fields. I found this trail particularly challenging, as it seemed to be uphill at the start and the end. Sigh -- my calves still hurt, but it was worth it!

Jhuliu Trail

Jhuliu Trail


Jhuilu Trail

Jhuilu Trail


Lushui-Wenshan Trail

Lushui-Wenshan Trail


Butterfly along hiking trail

Butterfly along hiking trail

I am now back in my luxury digs in Taipei getting fat on steamed pork dumplings and bubble tea! Life is good.

Posted by Caro369 20:09 Archived in Taiwan Comments (1)

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