Winter Vacation Part 5 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong, what an experience. We landed at the airport around noon and took an awesome double-decker bus into the city. Coming from the snowy land of Japan to Hong Kong was quite a shock. Tokyo was very cold and clean while Hong Kong was warm and dirty. I got some fantastic pictures in Osaka and Tokyo of beautiful blue skies and temples. All my pictures from Hong Kong have grey smoggy skies. I felt like my health would take a big hit if I were ever to move there. Regardless of the air pollution though we had a great time.

Getting to Austin Inn

Austin Inn

Our airport shuttle bus dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel, the Austin Inn, on Austin street. How fortuitous that I, Austin, should stay at Austin Inn, on Austin street. The hotel was just a few rooms on the second floor of an apartment building and one weird walk up. Hong Kong exists in a parallel universe without any kind of zoning. Residential, commercial, it’s all the same. There are homes next to restaurants next to apartments all in the same building on the same floor even.

Getting to our room was like descending into the middle of a labyrinth. We had to walk down a hall past a security guard up a flight of stairs, around the corner, up two more flights then through a series of doorways and long hallways. Even when we finally left Hong Kong, Nicole had a hard time finding her way out of the building. Our room was small, very small. I was taller than the room was wide. That means the room was less than 6 feet wide, which made sleeping difficult. Also there were no windows. It was weird.

Our First Night

The first night in Hong Kong, Nicole and I took the MRT, subway, into Central Hong Kong. The subway was only a few blocks away from our hotel and the stop itself was very close to the center of Hong Kong. We hopped off downtown and explored the city center. Our first night we had some amazing food at the equivalent of a Chinese diner. The food took minutes to come out. It was the fastest service I ever had.

Hong Kong Dinner
Hong Kong Dinner

After dinner we walked along the water and picked up some groceries for our hotel. Despite the small room, we did have a refrigerator. What Hong Kong lacked in breathable air they made up for in high-quality groceries. Nicole and I stocked up on all the finery we can’t easily get in Korea like guacamole, fine cheese, olives, and craft beers not from Korea.

Tian Tan Buddha

Hong Kong Gondola
Hong Kong Gondola

The next day, our first full day in Hong Kong, Nicole and I visited Lantau Island and the Tian Tan Buddha. Lantau Island is most excitingly reached by a 5.7km cable car that takes about 20 minutes. If you figure out how to get reservations ahead of time for the cable car, I encourage you to do that. The line for tickets was 30 minutes. It was a great ride out to Lantau Island. We passed over the harbor, numerous mountains, and a hiking path that looked like a million stairs. It reminded me of the gondola we rode in Taiwan but with grassy mountains instead of forested ones.

Out on Lantau Island, Nicole and I walked through a cute little village of gift shops. It looked like the sort of places elves would live if they colonized an area of rural China. The little village had a drum for celebrating Chinese New Year and it’s very own open-air gondola museum complete with a variety of gondolas from around the world. Having made it past the gift shop village, Nicole and I ascended the 268 steps to the top of the Tian Tan Buddha. The site from the top was breathtaking, partly because of the view and partly because of the air pollution.

Hong Kong Disneyland

Hong Kong Disneyland
Hong Kong Disneyland

After a sufficient amount of gazing and drinking in the experience, Nicole and I headed off to Hong Kong Disneyland. Disney Sea was a little bit crowded, but Hong Kong Disneyland was practically empty by Disney standards. There was a 15 minute wait for Space Mountain and every ride in the park had a short enough line to just walk on.

Hong Kong Disneyland is really similar to Magic Kingdom, and I’m guessing Disneyland California, although I’ve never been. The big difference being mostly Chinese visitors and Chinese snacks in addition to the usual hamburgers and fries. There were some little differences as well. For example, they don’t have a Haunted Mansion. Instead they have Mystic Manor. It’s a similar ride through a dark house but instead of ghosts it’s antiquities brought to life so instead of coffins and tombstones it’s suits of armor fighting each other and dragon tapestries come to life. There’s no Thunder Mountain either. Instead they have Grizzly Mountain. It’s a great ride and it has a big twist to it that I was honestly caught off guard by.

Nicole and I got a bunch of great pictures in the Toy Story area with all the oversized toys. We rode Space Mountain twice, got our picture with Buzz Lightyear, learned how to draw Mickey Mouse, went on the Jungle Cruise, saw a parade and wrapped up the day with a firework show. It was so much fun, and a taste of home. There were quite a few Western visitors in the park, and around Hong Kong when we visited. I imagine it’s also a taste of home for many of Hong Kong’s foreign residents.

My tip for Hong Kong Disneyland is this, after the parade a bunch of people will leave the park. Instead of leaving, go further into the park. Nicole and I were able to do almost every single ride in the park between the parade ending and the firework show starting. There were no lines because everyone was either leaving or staking out a spot to watch the firework show.

After the firework show, there was a mad dash for the park exit. The entire park’s population tries to fit onto the same subway train, because it’s the only way in or out. Fortunately, we got on the second train out of Disney and managed to avoid most of the crowd.

Dim Sum

If you’re in China, you’ve got to try dim sum. It’s Chinese tapas, but heavy on dumplings and tea. We visited Maxim’s Palace Chinese restaurant in city hall and had some great dim sum. The restaurant looks like the ballroom in a fancy hotel. It’s filled with white tableclothed tables as far as the eye can see and each one of them is packed with hungry patrons.

When we arrived we were instructed to take a number and wait. We were something like number 198 and we arrived around noon. The wait was only a few minutes and we were quickly seated. Instead of ordering food, waitstaff walk around with wheeled carts filled with various dishes. You ask for a dish that looks good and they place it on your table and mark your ticket. At the end of the meal you bring your ticket up to the register and pay.

Happy Hour

One thing I miss about America is Happy Hour, some time of day when drinks are discounted or two for one. Korea doesn’t have it. Japan doesn’t have it. Hong Kong embraces it. Central Hong Kong is practically built for it. There’s a street filled with bars thats up a steep hill. However, and here’s the kicker, there’s a series of escalators leading up the hill. It’s the longest series of outdoor escalators in the world. But wait, it gets even better. At midnight the escalators switch from going up to going down. In addition to the drinks there were nice restaurants catering to every kind of cuisine imaginable. There was BBQ, Greek food, tapas, Chinese food, everything.

Victoria Peak

Visiting Victoria Peak was the most crowded thing Nicole and I did in Hong Kong. The line for the tram was an hour long, but Victoria Peak is one of the few attractions right in central Hong Kong and we did visit on a weekend. At the top of Victoria Peak there are some shops and restaurants and a nice vantage point looking out over the rest of Hong Kong or as far as the smog will permit you to see. There’s also a nice hiking trail that leads around the top of the peak. It’s paved and well lit with light posts that recall a bygone era. Nicole and I had lunch at the peak at a nice restaurant. We split some bruschetta and seafood bisque.

Hong Kong Tram

Hong Kong has this really cool tram system running through town. The trams are from the early 1900s. They’re wooden, double decker, really tall, and narrow. Basically they’re the night bus from Harry Potter when it squeezes between those two other buses. In addition to the novelty of riding them, they’re extremely affordable. Nicole and I rode on one just around town. We had no destination in mind, we just wanted to ride. The trams are a great way to pack in a cheap tour of the city.

Boom Shack

Boom Shack
Boom Shack

It wasn’t a big moment from the trip, but I still think it’s worth writing about. Nicole and I popped into a little restaurant called Boom Shack. It’s a hole-in-the-wall place on a side alley. The kind of place that serves Illinois beers, chicken and waffles, tacos, and all kinds of burgers. Basically, it’s my kind of place. I started chatting with the owner and it turns out we’re not only from the same town, but also the same neighborhood. The guy used to live a few streets over from where I grew up.

Hong Kong in a Nutshell

Hong Kong in a Nutshell
Hong Kong in a Nutshell

I really enjoyed how international Hong Kong felt. It’s one of the most international cities I’ve ever been to. There seemed to be an equal proportion of just about every group of people on the planet. There were equal portions Chinese residents and international residents. Nicole and I both felt like, aside from the air, Hong Kong would be a great place to live. Many of the amenities and goods available in the west are also available here, from fine groceries to familiar food.

Japan Vacation – Kyoto and its Temples

Today marked the fourth day of Nicole and my Chuseok adventure in Japan. We arrived on Wednesday and spent the past several days visiting Osaka, Nara, and now finally, Kyoto.

Breakfast

Coffee and Bun

We started the day with coffee and buns at a nice little café around the corner from our AirBnB residence. Up until this point in Korea, I had only had commercial coffee from cafes that were franchises. This place seemed like it was transported from New York City right into Osaka. The shop was small and quaint and seemed to be filled only with regulars. Nicole and I got a bun and coffee for a few dollars and made our way over to the subway station across the street.

The Slow Train to Kyoto

Perhaps it was our outstanding record of getting on the right train every time over the past two days, perhaps it was our own hubris, but Nicole and I were becoming train experts and it was starting to go to our heads. Cue the fall. Nicole and I ended up taking the regular train to Kyoto as opposed to the express train. This meant we had to stop at every stop between Osaka and Kyoto, which greatly hindered our progress and doubled our commute time.

Kyoto like Nara, is really well laid out for travelers. The city of Kyoto provides maps of local attractions and bus routes between them in English. Nicole and I were able to easily map out our day of adventures in a matter of minutes. The two of us bought bus passes for the day that allowed us to travel everywhere for one day.

Kinkaku-ji The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion is on the outskirts of the city and it was our most remote stop of the day, but it’s absolutely beautiful and only about $2 each. The temple is situated on a pond surrounded by lush forests and beautiful gardens. Every part of the temple grounds looked like it was straight out of ancient Japan. The pavilion itself is covered entirely with gold leaf on the top two stories.

Nijo castle

Our next stop of the day was Nijo castle. It was a short bus ride away and centrally located right in the middle of Kyoto. It’s so strange to travel around Japan and see these ancient buildings and monuments adjacent to modern apartments and offices.

The castle was incredible. It sits on several acres in the heart of the city and its surrounded by these well manicured gardens that are incredibly peaceful. We spent several hours walking through the castle and its grounds. I kept having to remind myself that this castle was 400 years old. It was built on such a grand scale it was hard to imagine people 400 years ago constructing something as ornate and detailed as the castle.

Lunch Time

After several hours of observing ancient buildings and monuments, Nicole and I had worked up an appetite. We stopped in across the street from the castle at a little restaurant selling udon noodles. Udon noodles are like fat ramen plus delicious toppings and they’re so much tastier. Nicole and I split an order of noodles with mushrooms, green onions, and pork. The pork was so tender it was falling off my chopsticks.

The Bus to Kiyomizu-dera Temple

After lunch Nicole and I visited Kiyomizu-dera. The temple was a short distance away from Nijo Castle and our noodles. However, the bus ride there took nearly an hour due to traffic. It seemed that all the traffic in Kyoto had to pass through this one intersection that Nicole and I waited at with the rest of the bus passengers crammed in like sardines.

In Japan the concept of personal space on a bus or subway does not exist. Nicole and I were crammed into the bus literally shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Nicole said it best “I’m touching 5 people right now”. It was like twister but vertical instead of horizontal. The most difficult part was getting on and off the bus. It would have been fine if everyone was going to the same historic temple as us, but most of the passengers were going about their daily lives and had no time for honoring their country’s illustrious past.

Chawan-zaka or Teapot Lane

Nicole and I fought our way off the bus and walked the steep hill to Kiyomizu-dera. The walk up to the temple was really fascinating. To get to the temple you have to walk along this narrow road filled with shops and cafes. The architecture of the buildings along the road made it feel as if we were walking back in time on our way to reach the historic temple. Before reaching Kiyomizu-dera, Nicole and I stopped at Tainai-meguri, a temple to the right of Kiyomizu-dera. The temple has an underground tunnel beneath it that is pitch black. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes at the door and walk through the tunnel feeling their way along the walls. The journey beneath the temple is symbolic of entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva. The only part of the walk that was illuminated was a rock about halfway through the walk. Spinning it in either direction is meant to bring good luck to the spinner. Nicole and I both spun it; we’ll see how our wishes work out.

Kiyomizu-dera

Ah Kiyomizu-dera, the temple I have alluded to for the past 4 paragraphs. We finally arrived after an excruciatingly slow bus ride, and passing through the womb of a female Bodhisattva…still better than flying through O’Hare am I right? All kidding aside, Kiyomizu-dera was incredible. It’s a Buddhist temple originally founded in 778. However all the buildings that exist today were built in 1633. The temple is built on a mountainside with a large veranda protruding out over the mountain 13 m above the mountain’s slope beneath it.

Legend has it that if someone were to jump off the veranda and survive the 13 m fall their wish would be granted. Apparently 234 people jumped off the veranda in the Edo period and more than 85% survived. However when Nicole and I visited, jumping off the veranda was not an option so we opted to just walk around. On our way out of the temple Nicole and I were stopped by a Japanese News team who interviewed us about our Japanese vacation. If anyone happens to see me on Japanese TV, please send me a link.

Geishas and Gion

A Blurry Geisha
A Blurry Geisha

Part of Nicole’s and my Kyoto goals was to see a geisha, but they are far more reclusive than one might imagine, or just as reclusive as one might imagine. Either way we didn’t see a real one all day. I did however get a photo of a blurry geisha impersonator along teapot lane. This was not enough for either of us though and we decided instead to search Gion, the teahouse district, for geishas.

The geisha district was an older part of Kyoto completely insulated from the main roads around it. There may be an easier way of finding it, but Nicole and I both stumbled upon it by walking several blocks off the main road. The streets were cobblestoned instead of paved and little bridges traversed a small canal running through the district.

Along our stroll, Nicole and I saw many tea houses, but alas no geishas. The teahouses are closed to foreigners, so we could not go in to investigate. Inside a traditional teahouse, a geisha would entertain her clientele with traditional music, singing, or dancing. In ancient times, geishas would entertain samurais. However today their clientele are more often business men.

Back to Osaka

Dejected after Nicole and I could not track down the elusive geishas, we returned to Osaka via another incredibly crowded bus and an equally crowded subway. Back in Osaka, Nicole and I got another round of conveyor belt sushi and returned to the AirBnB to pack and prepare for our return flight to Korea.

 

Japan Vacation – Nara and Deer

This is day three of my trip to Japan, if you haven’t already, I urge you to read Day One or Two first.

Nicole and I woke up early today and grabbed some snacks in our room before taking the train into Nara. The ride was on an express train and only about 40 minutes. We arrived in Nara a little before noon and enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the train station. I had a curry croissant and Nicole had a giant bun filled with cheese and potatoes. Say what you will about Japan, but their food, all of it, is delicious. I didn’t have a bad dish the whole time we were there.

Nara Park

From the train station we took a bus about 5 minutes up the road to Nara Park. The nice part about visiting Nara, is that it is very easy to see the highlights in a short amount of time. For a tourist with only a day to spend in Nara, Nara Park is a nice way to see the best of the city’s history. The park is home to almost all of Nara’s most famous temples and shrines such as Tōdai-jiKōfuku-ji and Kasuga Shrine as well as its famous deer.

Deer in Nara

Deer at Bus stopI’ll start with the deer. They’re everywhere. Legend has it that a god arrived in Nara on a deer and the deer have been considered sacred ever since. Consequently they’re allowed to wander the city doing deer things and whatever else they want, like waiting for buses at bus stops. As far as I know deer are not allowed on the bus so I’m not sure why they were waiting there.

There are many vendors in Nara Park selling deer biscuits for a few dollars so tourists can feed the deer. The deer go nuts over them. They’re like crack to the deer. If you buy a pack of the biscuits the deer will swarm around you like fire ants. Nicole was pretty popular with the deer after she bought a pack. The deer were really friendly to me the entire day because my pants were deer biscuit colored. I didn’t even need to buy deer biscuits. I felt like Justin Bieber at the Teen Choice Awards.

Kōfuku-ji and Tōdai-ji

After Nicole and I had our fill of deer companionship, Nicole and I visited Kōfuku-ji temple and the 5 story pagoda beside it. Many of the temples and buildings we saw date back hundreds if not a thousand years. The ones we observed were rarely the original as many of the building destroyed by warring armies and rebuilt several times in their long history. Nevertheless the buildings and their architecture were very impressive to behold.

Later in the afternoon, we walked over to the Tōdai-ji temple. Up until this point in my adventures through Asia, I was impressed with the architecture for its detail but this was the first ancient building in Korea which impressed me with its size. The entire building and the gate that led to it were massive. I had to get photos of Nicole in front of it to convey the sheer scale of these epic buildings. If they were built today they would be impressive. The fact that they were built 1300 years ago makes their construction that much more impressive. Inside the Kōfuku-ji sits a giant buddha, 50 feet tall and weighing 500 tons. Its one of the largest Buddha’s on Earth. The temple itself, built to house the Buddha, is the largest wooden structure in the world, built entirely of wood without a single nail in the whole structure.

Back to Osaka

After the Tōdai-ji Nicole and I headed back into Osaka to try some Okonomiyaki. Its amazing. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. It’s basically a pancake stuffed with some manner of seafood, meat, and/or noodles. You heat it up on the table right in front of you on a medium size stove then cut off pieces for each person to eat. Nicole and I got two, shrimp and squid, and ate them as quickly as two people can eat anything directly off a stove, which meant we ate them at a moderate pace.

After dinner we returned to our AirBnB and planned for our next day in beautiful Kyoto, home to scenic temples and castles.