Category Archives: Asia

Respect for Hakone, Japan

Japan makes me feel like a changed person after visiting.  I can’t think of another country that coats its streets with a sound muting barrier.  It’s a country that I think actually prefers enough silence to hear a pin drop.  For everything they do, there’s a deep level of respect.

Relaxing in an onsen (natural hotspring) is a time honored tradition that embodies this attitude.  During a family trip to Tokyo, we visited Hakone , a short hour train ride outside of Tokyo.

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The water was clear, cherry blossoms just beginning to sprout, and the sky was a  calm cerulean blue.

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Source: Yamanochaya site

The Yamanochaya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, was our wooded sanctuary, replete with amazing meals and open air baths.  I had the sensation of bathing in a hot babbling brook.  Our toddler had a ball padding around the tatami rooms and having unprecedented access to the low table.  Quite the family friendly vacation.

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source:yamanochaya site

Our traditional kaiseke meals were an intricate multi-course symphony of ingredients, assembled with seasonal elements and balanced flavors.

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Sakitsuke (Hors deouvres)

Tofu made from Ankimo (Monkfish liver).  Topping: Broccoli, Wolfberry fruit
Boiled crab and Japanese parsley flavored with soy sauce
Japanese pond smelt fish deeply fried with rice granules
Castella made from vegetables, fish paste and white of an egg

I could live in Japan for the food alone.

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Best Food Court in the World-Bangkok

Food courts have a bit of a negative connotation in the US-they tend to be fast food joints in malls aggregated in a single mess hall of quick cheap dining.  They exist for the convenience of the shopper rather than as standalone dining establishments.

In Asia the feel is a different.  While they are still usually reasonably priced, there’s a broader mass appeal.  Going out to eat at a food court is still a sensible Friday night choice.  When I lived in Singapore I probably ate out more often at food courts (sometimes called hawker centers)  than restaurants.

Singapore food courts were amazing.  Food Republic must have been some type of revolution at some point, freeing asian cuisines to the masses.  This chain of food courts were indoors, relatively cleaner, and airconditioned. (in contrast to the outdoor hawker centers)

And then I went to Bangkok for probably the umpteenth time. I randomly ran into an old friend who had married a local and was now living in Bangkok.  He took us to the best food court I’ve ever been to hands down.

The newly built Central Embassy mall is fairly high end and foot traffic is low, so it is quiet in there.  Their new food court features all types of Thai cuisines, with separate stalls for northern, southern, northeastern Thai, vegetarian, seafood, and street food.

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Marinated street pork, Beef salad, Galangal chicken noodle in coconut milk, and best pork satay with peanut sauce I’ve ever tasted

The food court is kid friendly, with a few high chairs and a tuk-tuk for the kids to play in.  At the door everyone gets a dining debit card/pass that allows you to charge food.  Each stall will hand you a receipt and staff will help retrieve the food once you give them the receipts.  Fast, easy, delicious!

 

Back in Time in Myanmar (Burma)

The most glaring difference between a developed and developing country?  The earthy tones of the landscape, clouded by the dust and dirt kicked up on a daily basis.  Myanmar was definitely the earthiest I’ve visited.  The country, despite being the second largest in Southeast Asia by landmass, has been one of the slowest to develop due to political strife.  A majority of the population is Buddhist and Burmese temples are a massive draw.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon (capital city)-said to contain 8 Buddha hairs

 

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Shwedagona Pagoda, oldest pagoda in the world at 2600 yrs old.  Gold plated dome topped by a stupa containing 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz, and sapphires (Burma is gem rich)

Bagan is Burma’s temple capital, rivaling Angkorwat in its grandeur without the crowds.  The best form of transport around Bagan was a horse drawn carriage.  Plodding along the dirt roads, I felt like I was in a different era.  The entire city was tinged in shades reminiscent of the older parts of Laos or Cambodia.   Well preserved and uncorrupted, sunset views from Shwe San Daw Pagoda reveal a landscape littered with temples as far as the eye can see.

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Sunset in Bagan

 

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Gyubyauk  Gyi Temple-Built in 1113 AD, one of the finest temples in the early period, decorated with carvings on the exterior and jataka paintings on the interior

Myanmar or Burma? Burma’s name was officially changed by the ruling junta to Myanmar in 1989, but considering my old Burmese roommate still refers it to Burma, so do I.  The names have the same meaning, but Burma is a colloquial form the locals tend to still use.

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Mandalay palace, the last royal Burmese palace

 

 

Stupas are Buddhist monuments used to house relics, commemorate Buddhist events, and offer a place for meditation.   They are typically dome shaped with a spire rising out on top.  Positively stupefying.

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Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay
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Sandamuni Pagoda, Mandalay

 

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Burmese food-sampling of lovely curries

Back in 2009 the most popular billboards around town were of lubricant oil, an industry thriving from maintaining second hand imported cars.  As a result of these imports, the driver’s side of the car is on the complete opposite side of expectation.  Burma actually switched from driving on the left side during British colonial days to driving on the right.  In most countries the steering wheel would be placed on the left, but the second hand imports have steering wheels on the right.  Just one of the ways traveling reminds us that conventions, sometimes arbitrary, can be meddled with.

 

5 Things to do in Hong Kong in 24 hours

Hong Kong is a transient city I’ve moved to 3 times in the last decade.  Call me an expat turned local.  But if I were visiting for 24 hours for the first time, here’s what I’d do:

1)Victoria Peak-For the active ones, there are both steep/short and long/winding hikes to the top.  The shorter hike starts at the end of Old Peak Road (take a cab to the end of old peak road and you won’t miss it) and is a steep but tree lined shady hike to the top.  For the average fit person it should take about 20 minutes, but be forewarned, the hill will certainly get your blood pumping.  Otherwise get to the peak tram in Central and take a leisurely uphill tram to see the view.  It’s not necessary to goto the skydeck, the free views are the same.

2)Dimsum-There’s nothing dim about dimsum- the wheeled carts of food feature brightly decorated delicacies made for sharing.  It’s Chinese tapas.  I typically take visitors to the Maxim’s on the top floor of city hall (with a view to boot)-don’t forget the baked savory pineapple pork buns and indulge on that fresh mango dessert at the end.

3) Ding ding-The easiest and cheapest transport in HK is the 2 dollar tram.  Well it might be 2.50 HKD by now, but not much more.  Go on the top deck for open air views and you can ride from the west side of HK island to the east. (or vice versa)  The tram line traverses major roads and is one of the best ways to experience the island.  Apparently also easy to catch Pokemon.

4)Star Ferry-A ferry between HK Island and the Kowloon peninsula (which is the closest to China).  Also a cheap transport, hop on at Central (HK) or TST (Kowloon) pier for a short ride and plenty of photo ops.

5) Temple street night market-Beginning early evening (by 5pm) vendors turn a couple of streets in Mongkok into open air markets. (Get out at Mongkok mtr and look for signs) These are extremely diversified markets selling clothes, wallets, purses, (“LV”, “Gucci”, “Prada”, etc)  knick knacks, toys, and all sorts of bits and bobs.  Even if you’re not a shopper it’s an experience you want before shopping goes the way of the world wide web and drones.  Do bargain.

Bonus round: Goto Lan kwai fong for a nightlife district on steriods.

 

 

The Chinese Experience

 

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As soon as I tried to check in for my flight, the agent informed me there was no such leaving at the time.  Not exactly what I wanted to hear before a business meeting.  Amidst the confusion I discovered it was a code share flight, and they wanted me to check in with the operating airline, which is usually not the case, but..the Chinese have their way.
After finding my flight information, the agent informed me that I would have to sit in the back of the plane, because the front rows would be empty to balance out luggage weight.  The only flights I’ve ever been on where my seat weight mattered were on 10 seater planes in Hawaii, but..the Chinese have their way.

When I boarded the plane, there were still scattered passengers in the front rows.  Sure enough, I had been placed in the last possible row, as if any inch forward would have tipped the plane.  When I asked the flight attendants if I could move, they readily agreed.  I moved to the front of the plane without triggering the silliest accident of the year.

The meal served was reasonably tasty (for an airplane meal).  Though as a I picked through my noodles, I found a number sticker at the bottom that was clearly meant for the lid rather than the interior.  I asked for another, and it was switched silently without apology…the Chinese have their way.

As we streamed out of baggage claim, the swarms funneled back through a “line” meant for customs.  But there was no line in the typical sense of the word.  The movement of people depended on the ebb and flow of the channel; there was no holding your place in line and cutting was encouraged.  If you could make it to that position in the mob, you deserved to be there.

I planned to take a taxi after exiting the subway, and when I asked the subway attendant for help she pointed in a general direction with an annoyed look.  There was definitely no taxi stand at the exit she pointed at.  Outside, the skies were grey and a fine drizzle splattered the pavement.

I decided my best bet for a taxi would be from the shiny looking mall across the street.  Sprinting through muddy puddles, I finally ended up at a roped line marked “taxi”, where I waited..and waited…and waited.  The person ahead of me managed to get a taxi, but I was out of luck, and when I asked the nearby parking attendant why there weren’t any taxis, he said: “Oh, taxis don’t come here unless they are dropping people off.”  When I finally flagged down a taxi on the street, he dropped me off 2 blocks away from my destination, despite insisting he knew where it was.  I’d already put my heels on in the car, and as I struggled down the road with the skies spitting on me, I still smelled the unmistakeable odor of smoke.  The 2 other people sharing the sidewalk were smoking in the rain!  The Chinese…

I walked into the building sopping wet.  The smoke I’d picked up on my clothes mingled with ash tainted stale air inside the building, and I started actually looking forward to breathing HK air.  One consolation was that I’d have access to an office bathroom soon.  The building was clearly dated, so I was not expecting much, but my heart still sank as I walked closer to the ladies room.  The door was cranked wide open, revealing an out of order sink covered in blue tarp.  If I’d wanted to pump milk there was nowhere to hide.  There was not even space to set down my bags and straighten my suit.  I settled for smoothing rain water through my wild hair.  When in China…

The meeting was ok, and in an attempt to avoid getting stuck in Shanghai traffic, I had booked a 9pm flight out.  I already knew it would be delayed, rain notwithstanding.  After my flight was delayed 2 hours, we arrived back in HK having missed the last airport train to the city.  My entire plane got in line for a taxi.

And this, folks, is China.

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Huangshan..China’s Magic Mountains

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Why visit Huangshan? 

Traditional Chinese calligraphy paintings often used Huangshan as inspiration to paint mountains shrouded with clouds.  Each peak has a smooth surface interrupted by jutting pines or other granite rocks.  They range from a coffee toned brown to gray, shifting with the intensity of sunlight.  Clouds are often drifting lower than the line of sight, adding a mystical air.  In fact, the standout features of these mountains are the pines, the rocks, the sunrises, and the clouds.
The scenery is plentiful and melts into a Rorschach that speaks to the imagination or level of drunkenness of whoever named the spot.  Each scenic spot tells its own tale.  Can you see the monkey’s back as he’s overlooking the ocean?  Do you see the soaring pines that are 2 tigers chasing one another?
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Best season to go?
The weather can be temperamental, with sudden bursts of rain from the low hanging clouds.  I took a picture where it looks like I’m blowing on clouds-they are THAT close.  I went the first week of September and the last week of April, and I lucked out with perfect weather both times.  Apparently the beauty of the mountains changes with each season, so it’s touted as a year round destination, even during the snows of the winter.  For temperature comfort I’d recommend the spring or fall (basically the times I went).  I was 1 out of 2 on a clear sunrise, but even shrouded in the clouds it was breathtaking.  It’s even better than the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
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How long do I need to visit?
Huangshan can be “seen” in a 3 day trip, spending one night on the mountain, if you’re in a rush.  Even a day trip is doable.  But I’d recommend spending 2 nights up on the mountain, one on the  western side near the Yuping “Jade Screen” cable car and one night on the eastern side near the Yungyu “Cloud Valley” cable car.  The eastern side is clearly where you watch the sunrise, and the shuffle from the Beihai Hotel begins before the crack of dawn.   Because there are a limited number of rooms on the mountain, after the day crowd leaves the mountain displays a serenity I would normally not associate with China.  I think even some of the tourists are fatigued from climbing, so when my Mom and I explored paths later in the day, we were alone with nature. It was her first time in China and the scenery and cleanliness have probably spoiled her for future travel there.  But then you understand why Chinese poets and painters scrambled up these cliffs without cable cars or paved steps.
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Where is it and why haven’t I heard of it?
Nearest airport is Tunxi.  3 hr flight from Shenzhen , 1
  hr flight or 4hr drive from Shanghai (also trains), 1.5 hr flight from Hangzhou.  Huangshan (Yellow Mountain in Chinese) is a marquee Chinese tourist spot, kept impressively clean.  It is a household name in China, but has not really been marketed internationally.  With a billion potential customers China doesn’t need to raise its international profile anyway.
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