Friday, February 6, 2009

Kyoto, Japan

I walk the streets of Japan till I get lost....

Yes, the Audioslave song was going through my head almost the entire time of our 4-day trip to Kyoto. And, for the record, it is quite easy to walk the streets of Japan until you get lost and quite fun as well.
Kyoto has been called the most 'Japanese' city in Japan. They have passed laws restricting the height on buildings and against the use of too much neon to preserve a more traditional look to the city. While some residents would prefer the city to modernize (a la Tokyo), for the tourist, we were quite grateful for Kyoto the way it is. The city is much more expensive than Korea or China and has its own distinct feel to it.
We stayed for three nights at traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans. They were pricey, clean and very Japanese. It felt right to come home and sleep on our mat, which was actually more comfortable than many hotel beds I've slept on. I would highly recommend this choice of lodging.
Public transportation in Kyoto is very convenient and easy. There are 2 subway lines and a seemingly infinite number of buses, as well as trains and taxis. Buses are the best bet and they are 220 yen per single ride (around $2.20 USD). For the hardcore day of sightseeing though, you can buy all day passes for the buses for 500 yen (around $5 USD) or all day passes for the subway and buses for 1200 yen (around $12 USD). These are a good value as there are a multitude of temples scattered about the city. There are also maps with the bus lines that link different sites to make your trip more efficient.
The food in Kyoto was very pricey but very good. You can easily find a cafe that will serve a nice filling bowl of noodles for around $5 or so. This will help stretch the travel budget. Our best meal was dinner at a pub/restaurant where you ordered 'dim sum style.' The menu just had many different small dishes for a couple of dollars each. We ordered 5 different rounds between the 2 of us and it was a great way to sample a broad spectrum of the local fare. There are also a multitude of prohibitive looking restaurants that don't even have signs, simply sounds coming from within. According to the guidebook, places like these were welcome to tourists albeit intimidating.
The sights in Kyoto are nearly endless. They include a myriad of temples and shrines, museums, a wonderful castle, and more. We were there in the off-season so many of the sights had limited access. Nijo Castle is definitely worth it. Kinkakuji (with the golden pagoda) and Toji (with the seven-story pagoda) temples are two of the must-sees as well. Wandering Gion, the district of the city most well known for geisha, at night is also necessary. Stroll the streets and follow your eyes and nose into the various shops and restaurants. Its good fun. Speaking of good fun, Arashiyama Monkey Park is definitely worth your time. You get to pay at the base of the mini mountain and hike to the top where you will find the 150 or so free roaming Japanese monkeys. They pretty much go about their business as you walk by. You rarely get a second glance from them. If you care to pay an extra dollar you can buy apples or peanuts to feed them. Allison got quite the kick out of this, buying about 3 bags of food. In addition to monkeys, the park also provides some very nice views of Kyoto, especially the Arashiyama district. When you are finished playing with the monkeys, wash your hands, hike down and grab a rickshaw ride around the picturesque bridge and river. This will work up an appetite, so go to a tofu restaurant and chow down!
All in all, Kyoto was a great trip. The canals and cafes make it much more relaxed than the typical on-the-go Asian city. There are plenty of sights and fun to be had though. However, I had the most fun walking the streets until we got lost...

Our ryokan, bedding is in the closet. Very, very comfortable.

Instead of bibles in the hotels, here we have Buddha's teachings

The entrance to Nijo Castle.

Someday I would like a moat around my house too.

Garden inside Nijo Castle.

Yep, that would be Tommy Lee Jones lending his face to sell some coffee!

The lovely golden pagoda at Kinkakuji Temple.

The scenic river in the Arashiyama district.

You guessed it. The monkey park.

Us and the monkey checking out Kyoto from above.

Dinner. Mmmm.

Pontocho, Gion District

Rickshaw ridin'

Toji temple

We caught the earliest cherry blossoms

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Harbin, China

So starting in Beijing is probably the best idea in mainland China. From there, I would recommend getting out to see more of the real country. A great choice, that is only a mere overnight train ride away, is Harbin!
The city is a couple of hundred miles from the Russian border which provides for a very nice fusion of Russian influence on the Chinese city. Many of the buildings are the more classical Russian architecture, which provides a welcome break from the efficient Asian high-rises. The reason we chose Harbin was because of their famous annual Ice and Snow Festival which officially opens around January 5 of every year, but is usually up and running about a week or so ahead of time for the Christmas holiday.
We only spent a day and half there, but it was quite nice. The weather at night dropped to at least -30 degrees Celsius. As you can see from the pictures we were very bundled up. It was very worth it though.
We stayed at one of the nicer hotels in the area that was right on the main pedestrian street, Zhongyang Dajie. Thats what $40 USD will get you there. The food was good, cheap, and plentiful. We had lunch at the The Russian Cafe and chose a local joint for dinner. Try Harbin Beer if you get the chance. There are many nice little cafes as well to get a break from the cold with some tea and snacks.
The best sight in the winter time is the Ice and Snow Festival which is simply amazing. I will let the pictures below speak for themselves. The theme this year happened to be Disney and something I have learned is that the Chinese like to do things BIG! Like the Cinderella Castle made from ice below....yeah, big. There are many more sights too, such as St. Sophia's cathedral, which is also pictured below and definitely worth checking out. We didn't have nearly as much time as we would have liked, but we got our fill of the magnificent Ice and Snow Festival and were very pleased with that. Picture two 24 year-olds running around like wee children taking pictures with Disney ice sculptures. Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Good times!

USA and Russian shops side by side, kind of like holding hands.

St. Sophia's....very nice.

Playing in the snow and ice.

I don't care who you are, that's just plain awesome.

Hangin' with our buddy the snow dragon.

The grand work in progress at the Snow Festival.

A ferris wheel and fireworks? Yep, that would be Disney!

Cinderella's castle made of ice. They don't mess around here.

On our way in to the Ice Festival.

Us and Steamboat Willie.

The girl likes The Little Mermaid.

I told you...we were like little kids. And Toy Story.

No explanation necessary.

Aladdin's Palace. It was getting a bit chilly by this point.

That would be Pirate Mickey and the Black Pearl from the Pirates movies.

We topped off the evening with a nice slide down from the castle.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Beijing is wonderful city. It was bashed by the tour book for tearing down the old city walls, which was decades ago, and for all of the rapid modernization and destruction of many of their famous hutongs (alleyways) in preparation for the Olympics and forthcoming emergence as one of the world's great cities. True, the modernization is undeniable. And true, it was probably a lot cooler with the additional hutongs and the city walls were probably awesome. However we found a city with plenty of character and the sites to match. We spent about 4.5 days in Beijing and we could have spent a month.

We stayed in a hostel in the Wanfujing area. This is a good location in the city. It is just east of the Forbidden City, which ironically is incredibly crowded. From the Wanfujing area you will have no problem catching the subway, buses, or a taxi to wherever your heart desires. Just make sure to have your hotel write the name of your destination in Chinese for the cabbies, as their English is limited to none. The subway is crowded but convenient and cheap. One ticket costs about $ .30 USD. Between the Wanfujing stop and the Tian'amen stops, the subway gets exceedingly packed. We actually saw a guy's hood to his jacket hanging out of the door of a coming train. I guess they just couldn't pack anything else in.
The food in Beijing is some of the best and cheapest I have ever come across in a capital city. For the budget traveler you will have no problem finding a huge plate of fried rice or noodles for about $2.50 USD. Another must for the foodie is to visit the Wanfujing Snack Street. It is 100% touristy, but undeniably fun. You can try such delicacies as sea snake, sheep testicles and penis, starfish live scorpions, and sea horse (which the vendor assured me was good for my penis). That's good, I was curious. I am pretty sure that your average resident Beijing-er does not sit around their home on a Saturday snacking on testicles, but the street is a good time. Another food must in Beijing is of course the roast duck. We had a amazing dinner on Ghost Street, which is lined with restaurants on either side and lit with red lanterns everywhere. We got the tip for our restaurant from a traveler we met the previous day. He gave us the manager's mobile number and name. We had our hotel make reservations and Vicki (the manager) spoke very good English. She even topped off our duck dinner with a tour around the restaurant's kitchen and 3 separate courtyards that help house overflow guests in the summertime. We ate very well on this trip for not a lot of money.
The sites in Beijing are well known and deservedly so. The Great Wall, of course, is a must. You can probably have your hotel book a bus trip out, or just do it yourself. The Summer Palace deserves almost a full day to enable you to see the entire grounds. The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Olympic stadiums, etc are all well and good. A definite must see is Lama Temple. It has its own subway stop, and is the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It is stunning. Make sure you do not miss the giant carved Buddha at the very back. Our friends visited the zoo and said it was a little disappointing, but the pandas were cool. Try to visit the Temple of Heaven on the weekend if you can. I have no schedule of this, but when we were there on a Sunday, we met a great big group of middle-aged Beijingers playing cards and dancing like it was their day to get away from the kids and grandkids. They tried to get us to dance with them to no avail and it was very cool.
The shopping is Beijing is a great deal price wise and a great deal of fun. We visited the Pearl Market and the Silk Market, both of which sell almost everything under the sun. If you have the stomach and the resolve to brave the crowds, the yelling ('hey lady, lady, lady!'), and the touching (contrary to what we were told, the vendors definitely grab you) you will find some well priced goodies. There are pearls and endless rows of jewelery, knock-offs of almost any brand you could imagine from Coach purses to Columbia jackets, limitless scarfs, men's and women's clothes, obscene amounts of shoes and boots, backpacks and luggage, and so on. Haggle like hell. If you have not agreed on a price until you are actually walking away, you are not haggling enough. Just have a price in mind of what you want to pay and start a little bit lower than it. Be ruthless because the shopkeepers are, but it is a good time. Most of them are very nice and are good sports about the haggling. We were told many times about what 'tough' shoppers we were. It felt quite good. Almost as if I actually enjoyed (gulp) shopping.
All in all, Beijing is a city on the move. It still has lots of culture and hutongs, even if they used to be better and more prevalent. The city has a neat communist feel to it as well. It has the humongous, function-based (aka ugly) government buildings and large open squares. Everywhere you went it seemed there was someone keeping an eye on you. But amidst all of this you will see capitalism at its finest. There are giant posters of the new LeBron James sneakers and Brad Pitt was lending his face to Tag Heuer. You can buy almost anything, anywhere. It is amazing to think that China was only officially 'opened up' less than 30 years ago.

So yeah, I didn't know that you can ride a mini roller coaster to get to part of the Great Wall either.

Mmmm, delicious duck.

Happy campers.

Ghost Street.

Oh, you know. Just hanging out on a frozen lake at the Summer Palace in China. Same old, same old.

Lama Temple

Lama Temple.

Snack Street

You guessed it! Sheep testicles.

Riding the pedi-cab.

The Temple of Heaven

Cuteness and the Forbidden City

Us inside The Forbidden City, it was cold.

Hey there Mao!

Friday, January 9, 2009


So Macau is a 1 hour ferry ride from Hong Kong and if you are in HK, you should definitely go to Macau. We messed up a bit with our times and we ended up having about 3 hours to spend there before having to catch our ferry back. This turned out to be quite a shame as Macau is far more interesting than we had originally thought.
It is billed as the "Las Vegas of the East" so when you think of Macau your thoughts immediately turn to casinos and decadence. However, there is much more culture and interesting history there. Macau is another SAR, Special Administrative Region, just like Hong Kong. Whereas Hong Kong was colonized by our English friends from across the pond, Macau was colonized by the Portuguese. This results in a pretty cool mix between Europe and China. It was very refreshing to see Europe-style piazzas and buildings. All of the signs are in Chinese, Portuguese, and English.
For food, Macanese is very unique and delicious. We scored a very nice lunch at the ferry terminal. Allison ate lamb stew and I had a roasted pigeon (never knew you could them right?) and a seafood noodle dish. For dessert, you must have the egg tarts, which they are rightfully famous for. They are pure taste explosions. Sort of like a delicious omelette inside of a pastry shell.
For sights, we had time to see about 3 things. There is an old fort overlooking the city right next to St. Paul's cathedral, which has mostly been reduced to ruins. Unfortunate, but it is easy to picture the impressive site that used to be. We also ventured into a few alleyways, and enjoyed some more egg tarts. Allison, the Indiana Jones fans that she is, dragged us to the Rua des Felicidades (the Street of Happiness) where the opening scenes of "Temple of Doom" was filmed. It was the former "Red Light District" of Macau and the scene where Willie and Indy jump out of the nightclub and into Short Round's taxi took place on this street. Being the "Las Vegas of the East", of course we had to see a casino. So we chose the biggest and baddest of them all, the Grand Lisboa, which is right across the street its older, more seedy relative, the landmark Casino Lisboa. We got in, played a few slots, DOUBLED OUR MONEY, and left. Booyeah!
Overall, Macau is a fascinating city, and an afternoon, or even 1 day is not enough time to do it justice. I would plan at least 2-3 days to explore it properly.

All that remains of St. Paul's Cathedral in Macau

Taken from the Fort with the Grand Lisboa in the background

Europe? China? Hmmmmm.

Chinese, Portuguese, and English

The Street of Happiness, where they filmed part of "Temple of Doom"

A very nice Macanese lamb stew

No explanation necessary.