Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

It's almost Christmas! I can't believe I didn't manage to write a single thing for all of December. I'll make it up in the next few days. I'm home for Christmas this year. The first time since I went to Hong Kong. This year, my cousins are back too so we're getting together like the old days. I got lots of presents and planning to make lots of food. Should be a fun time.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Recent weekend activities: hiking and touring

The weather has been really nice these past couple of weeks. It's been sunny and warm. I usually take a light jacket out with me in the morning but haven't really needed it. The only places that are really cold are indoor places due to the cold air from ACs.

After the strenuous hike up and down the 8 Immortals, I did another hike that was much more chill. This one was out in the Saikung area and the hike ended at a beach. I hadn't realized how long it's been since I went out to Saikung. When I lived in Kowloon, I used to go every now and then, sometimes just to wander around the town area. I think I blogged about this before. Anyway, it was really nice to get out there again and it was hot that day.

My roommate, her boyfriend, and I were joined by another friend when we got out to Saikung. We ate some noodles for lunch and then set off to find the trailhead. It always amazes me how many local people are out on hiking excursions. These outer reaches of HK are local vacation spots that are always very alive with people during weekends and public holidays. We hiked for less than 2 hours on trails with slight inclines and declines and then found ourselves at a really nice beach.

The beach is also a camping area and we saw some tents pitched on the sand. It was generally really nice and quiet there. The beach was not crowded at all since it's a trek to get out there. We jumped in the water but didn't go too far out as the waves were really strong. I definitely felt myself being carried around by the waves. I just stayed near the shore area and floated around. I fell asleep on the beach afterwards and we made a collective decision to head back rather than to keep going on the trail. I think this was a good decision as the sunset was complete by the time we got back out to the road area to wait for the bus. We got dinner in Saikung before finding that there's a minibus that goes right to where we live. So convenient!

Last week, Sally had some friends visiting. They were moving from France to Australia and this was part of their layover. We took them out to dim sum and they said that this was their first or second time having dim sum. Chinese food is not so easy to find in France. We also took them to see the Occupied staging area. It was also my first time out to the main one in Admiralty. It's really amazing how they've managed to cut off a central thoroughfare in the middle of the city. We approached the blockade from the eastern end and walked for a while on an empty multi-lane expressway. There were kids on rollerblades and bicycles just clearly making use of the free space. We walked around the camp areas where people were putting various prints on blank t-shirts, making speeches, and studying. There are designated areas with tables and chairs for students to study. Places were really well organized with makeshift steps and stairs. I wonder how this is all going to end.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Hiking the 8 Immortals

Long overdue post about another hiking adventure. This hike was really an exception one. I'm pretty sure this is the most challenging hike I've ever been on. This was compounded by the fact that I don't think I'm in very good shape these days. The hike that we decided to do was Pat Sin Leng, which is means The Ridge of 8 Immortals. There are supposed to be 8 peaks in this ridge but I really think there are more.

The hike up the first peak was the most challenging and I was really out of breath. But we made it up the top, pretty satisfied with ourselves. The trees fell away as we went up and there were no trees in sight.

The view was really nice. It was a clear day. 

The long road ahead:

See, no trees:

A large reservoir can be seen in the distance. Our end destination is down near the water.

This is what we hike. Pretty sure there were more than 8, count them! 

Towards the end, I honestly didn't think I could go up any more peaks. The hike took us about 4-5 hours. I've never felt so tired walking uphill. The descent took a while as well and we were totally exhausted when we finally reached a big road with a rest station. We washed up and refilled our depleted water supply. I was hoping for some tofu dessert place at the nearest village but all they had were BBQ places. We sat down at a little convenience store selling American goods. I quickly finished two cold drinks. I was sore for a week afterwards. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hiking weekend

Last weekend I really felt the need to go away from the craziness of the city. I tried to get people to go hiking with me on Saturday but no one was available so I decided to go somewhere close by myself. I went out to Cape D'Aguilar, which is a marine reserve park near Shek O. I've seen the bus stop for it many times on the bus to Shek O but didn't know what it was. I got off and started on walking down the path. 

The entire hike in was on a paved road that actually had a good amount of traffic. I think there's some kind of construction going on so there were big trucks coming in and out. There were some people on motorbikes and others in private vehicles. Not sure where all these people ended up since I didn't see any of them at the end. At one point, I was going to give up and turn back but then I checked my location on GPS and it seemed like I was almost at the coast. So I kept going until I got to the gates of one of the radio station towers and the road ends. 

I didn't really know what to do at this point but an older guy who was walking in front of me told me to take the footpath to the side of the fence. I went on the path and it took me around the radio tower. But I didn't know what to do at the end of that and was turning back when the guy came by showed me the way down. He said that he grew up in this area back when it was a station for long distance telephone services and other utilities things. There were several houses built for the people who worked out here and the families thrived on catching fish and planting their own vegetables. He said he spent his childhood swimming and playing out in the area. All the houses that were out there before have now been demolished. The entire area has been made into a marine reserve and is kept by HKU as a research station. There are some student housing for the researchers.

  Rock arch

Real whale bone

The research station

He took me around to see the lighthouse and rock arch and left me near the whale bone. The entire area is really, really nice. You can look out to the sea and climb onto the rock outcrop. I think most hikers are really respectful of the area and there's no trash or other random things left behind. There weren't a lot of people around but the guy said that there's usually more people. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Random updates while filing emails away

My shoulders and neck has been feeling extremely stiff lately. I've signed up for a couple of massage sessions in hopes that they can help me relax the muscles there. I think I just need to work less. I have this big submission that is finally getting down to the wire in terms of needing to push out a submission. I've even taken over the living room at home with drawings and such. My roommate is away this week in Australia. The table at home is actually bigger than the table at work.

There are two public holidays next week, on Wednesday and Thursday. But I have a big deadline on Friday. It should still make the week better though since I can come into the office whenever I want on those days. I really think having a more flexible schedule would make me more efficient. I do my best work between 7-9pm. Whenever I have a difficult problem, I leave it until those hours and solve it then. Anyway, hard to have a really flexible schedule when you're coordinating things with other parties.

My work has upgraded to Microsoft Office 2013. The color scheme is really lacking! You can only chose between white, light gray, and dark gray. Honestly don't know what the designers were thinking. It's really hard to see with everything so white and not enough contrast. How hard could it be to just let people chose?? There seems to be a lot of complaints about this on the forms. Hope they fix this soon.

I finally redeemed my book prize of $300 HKD with Page One from writing an article after an AGS site visit. I got a Lonely Planet book for Korea and What Color is Your Parachute. The Korea book is kind of slim but I guess that makes it good to carry around while traveling. It even has a section for North Korea. I think it would be cool to do a train trip around South Korea using their rail pass. But the book says that the rail system is not that comprehensive. I guess not everywhere is like Japan.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Team BBQ

Long days at work again. One deadline after another. At least this latest one is for my own project and I feel like I'm doing enough analysis and research to justify my design. This latest project is one that I feel like I'm really the engineer for the project. I've been looking after it since the beginning and I've made the important decisions for the project so far. The construction works will start early next year so once we've finalized the design, it's going to happen really quickly. There's not much time to make any changes other than those that happen during construction.

I've been thinking about applying for ICE membership (UK chartership) for this spring. I would need to submit two reports, one summarizing all my experience so far and another that goes in depth for a project. I would also need to pick a project to do a presentation. It's pretty hard to choose since I feel like there are pros and cons among the projects I've worked on. Maybe once I write the broader report (or start to write it), I'll have a better idea of which project to use for the chartership exam.

In other news, I'm now a licensed engineer in Texas! There's a long story to go with why I'm doing this. Hopefully it all works out... In the meantime, I'm getting my stamps for CA and TX made at a local stamp shop. They are pretty fast! 4pm next day service.

Last Friday, I helped organized a team gathering event that consisted of BBQ and playing around at a golf driving range. The location is kind of out of the way but it hard to find a location that satisfies everyone. I think it was still too hot to comfortably have a BBQ. Actually, it's a lot cooler this week than last week so maybe we should have had it this week. Anyway, one of the attractions of this BBQ site is that you can order a suckling pig to roast. We ordered a pig and a duck. It took us about 4 hours to roast them. It might have taken less time but I don't think we knew what we were doing for a while. They were really fat and really good. But I think we had a lot of leftovers because everyone was full from all the other food.

The duck

The pig

Salad for lunch this week to make up for eating all this roasted food. Hydroponically and locally grown!

Totally unrelated but I'm a big fan of these cakes

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mid-Autumn Festival

Happy mid-autumn festival! I went out to dinner with a couple of Yalu's friends who are here for their internship. One girl is from Dalian and she took us to a Dalian restaurant out near Austin MTR station. I've only been to this area one other time in an attempt to find Vietnamese sandwiches. I think I've blogged about that in this blog post. The area is laid out in a grid and feels like an old neighborhood with small shops and family run restaurants all along the streets. The place we went to was also very small and run by a family. All the other patrons at this restaurant are from the Dongbei area. 

It was a very chill day in general. I managed to finish off this one project that has been sucking up all my time on Friday and can finally start on the project that I've been neglecting. I went into the office on Saturday for a little bit to wrap up some stuff and then had a easy day on Sunday. On Monday, I decided to go to the CPS site to see the first step of the destrutting for the excavation that I have been working on these last few years. We thought it would happen in the morning but all the preparation works took a while and so they didn't start until the afternoon. Everyone wanted to go home early so things happened pretty speedily. Nothing major happened but we did take measurements after every major cut. We're actually very lucky that BD had required strain gauge monitoring. I really don't think other private projects have such extensive monitoring records. It would be really interesting to do back analysis and possibly publish a paper somewhere.

After I stood around for a few hours watching this whole thing happen, I felt pretty gross from all the sweat and grim. So I went home to shower instead of going into the office. I checked email and then headed out for dinner at this Dalian place. I got stuck in traffic after deciding to take the bus and go to the dinner place about half an hour late. Anyway, the food was very good and we had a good time chatting. The food is heavily spiced (unlike Guangdong style food) but not spicy. There's a lot of grilled things on the menu and we got lamb and chicken skewers along with grilled eggplant and corn. They sliced up the eggplant, drizzled it with oil, and added a lot of garlic and spices. It was really good. 

The two friends had been wanting to hang out but I didn't hear from them for a week. This was good for me since I was really busy last week. But it turned out that they had been in a really scary boat accident. Their boat was tugging a banana boat (a boat where people saddle on for fun) and the rope broke, came flying back to their boat, and hit them in the face. Luckily, they were both wearing sunglasses, which saved them from any eye injuries and they came away with bruises and small cuts. No stitches needed. But I think they were in bad shape the whole week. They said that the accident was totally preventable because the boat guy saw that the rope was frayed so he cut it and tied it with a knot. The knot slipped. I'm glad they're both okay except for some really bad bruises and superficial cuts. 

Anyway, had another chill day today (Tuesday). It's a public holiday here since it's expected that everyone had a late night with family dinners.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer updates

Thought I'd write a quick post since it's been a while since I've written anything here. I was home for about a month. My trip was originally going to be a little more than 2 weeks but I ended up extending my stay. It was nice to stay home for an extended amount of time. There were many days where I didn't do that much. I feel like our lives are always so fast paced and we're always trying to fit everything in that it's actually hard to stop. I always feel like I need to be productive and do things during the day. It's actually really nice not to do very much and lounge around.

Anyway, it was nice to be back. I met up with friends and met new friends. The wedding that I went to was really nice. The ceremony was at the Stanford chapel. The chapel was spacious and it was easy to see what was happening on stage. Outdoor setups tend not to be the greatest in terms of viewing the actual ceremony. There was a bunch of shuttles that took the entire party up to a winery for the reception. The winery is really nice! Actually, it was amazing. The view of the Bay was unbeatable against the vineyards. There were indoor rooms and outdoor mingling spaces. The dinner was held in a large gazebo area that was shaded from the direct sunlight overhead but can still be considered an outdoor space. We enjoyed the dinner in the long sunset. I really don't know if the couple and the wedding party was able to enjoy the wedding as much as the guests. They seemed busy, which is a shame. It would be nice if these wedding venues could have a package deal where you get to enjoy the place after the wedding for half a day or something.

On my flight back, I had a layover in Taipei. My long flight between SF and Taipei was not that full and I had all 3 seats to myself! Usually these trans-Pacific flights are really full so this was a nice surprise. I think what happened was that these summer flights are in high demand. All the other airlines were fully booked. And EVA airlines decided to run an extra flight. So there were 2 flights that night from SF to Taipei, leaving 20 minutes apart. I was on the earlier flight, which (I think) is the extra one. Anyway, after eating dinner and watching the latest Detective Conan movie (!), I laid down on the seats and slept. The seats weren't completely flat so it wasn't that comfortable but it was still better. I read an article about this rich guy, who instead of booking First Class, would book all three seats in Economy and had this inflatable thing that fits in the legroom space. This would actually give him more space to sleep on than a First Class seat.

I've been back in HK for more than a week now. One of my friends came to visit last week. He had originally told me that his flight was leaving Friday late evening and had asked if he should arrive Wednesday or Thursday. I told him that there's a lot to see and do so he should probably come in on Wednesday. It's a good thing that he did because it turns out that his flight was Thursday evening! We still made it out to a dim sum dinner on Wed night and then a bunch of places on Thursday before he had to leave to catch his flight. There's too much to see and it's hard to be walking around in the heat. HK is a much better place in the winter. At least there wasn't any tropical rainstorm or typhoon during his 24 hour stay.

Friday, July 11, 2014


My trip stated with an unintentional stopover in Vancouver. I was only supposed to connect in Vancouver and then go into Portland. I had thought the original connection time was short, around 90mins. But then my flight out of HK was slightly delayed. I thought it took them forever to board everyone. There was a lot of people on this flight. 

My journey actually started Thursday morning with me catching the shuttle to the Airport Express station outside one of the nearby hotels. This turned out to be a really bad choice since the hotel I got on was the first hotel on the route so we had to get people from all the other hotels. So maybe this was where all the delays started. I got to work pretty late after dropping off my luggage. Actually taking the airport express from work isn't optimal either since there's really no good way to get there. I ended up taking a taxi.

Always taking these photos now. Such an HK thing.

So I arrived at the Vancouver airport and a lady at the gate said that there was no way I could make my connection and that I should just had over to the US customs. I knew this would happen and was hoping to get on the next flight out at 8pm. But i was really worried about this since the only planes that fly between Vancouver and Portland were small planes that can only hold like 20 something people. So I rushed over but I forgot to pack a pen with me so I had to stop to fill in one of those customs forms. There was a huge line at a counter in front of the customs area, which turned out to be the reticketing counter. I went around to get in line for the security check only to find that other people in line already had rescheduled flights. So I went back to the counter and found that they had already printed another boarding pass for me for the next day. There's already 5 people on standby for the 8pm flight so there was no way I could get on. So I gave up at this point and went to collect my bag. Had to go through Canadian customs and got another stamp on my passport. 

The guy at the baggage counter found my bag. Apparently they take photos of all the bags and they found mine pretty easily. I had to go up to the ticketing counter to get my hotel voucher. It's really a good thing that there was easily connectable internet at the airport and hotel. The hotel voucher came with 3 meal tickets. I used both the lunch and dinner one in one go. They really didn't give us very much money and food at the hotel was not cheap. 
Weather is really nice!

Dinner of salmon burger and fries. Enjoying the long sunsets. Really miss the long sunsets. The sun goes down too fast in HK.

Breakfast. Had to pay extra on top of the voucher. Good thing Discover doesn't charge foreign transaction fees and they took it.  

Monday, June 30, 2014


It's been a month since I came back from a long weekend trip to Taiwan. So this is long over due. I used to be better about blogging but I think it's because I used to carry my laptop with me. It's easier to type with the laptop. Sometimes I write on my phone but it's just harder. I went to Taiwan because one of my friends was also there on holiday so I joined her and two of her other friends who were stopping in Taiwan before going to someone's wedding in Malaysia.

My journey to meet the group was a really long one. I started my trip on Friday afternoon (May 30th) shortly after lunch time. I was at a conference and left a little bit early (around 3pm) so that I could just take a leisurely bus over to the airport for a 6:30pm flight. I got to the airport and had just finished buying a drink at Starbucks when I got a Whatsapp message from one of my coworkers who had left for the airport before I did. His plane was delayed and he was just hanging out. He asked me what gate my flight was and coincidentally, that was the gate he was hanging out at. It turns out that his flight had been moved to the gate that my flight was supposed to depart at and my flight got bumped to the next gate. This is where we found out that flying to Taipei is closer than flying to Shanghai. I guess it's obvious if you look at a map but it just doesn't feel that way.

My flight got delayed slightly and it was getting close to 9pm by the time I arrived in the Taoyuan airport. I tried the ATM but the one I used didn't want to take my ATM card. I remember that it worked last time I came but it took a while for me to figure it out back then. Not wanting to miss the high speed train down to Tainan, I used some cash from my last trip to buy a bus ticket over to the train station and quickly got on a departing bus. My friends had just finished exploring the Alishan area and were in Tainan that day. So after the bus to the high speed station, I tried two more ATMs before finally getting some cash to buy a high speed train ticket. Luckily for me, they were running an extra train so I quickly hopped onto that one just as the doors were closing. I got to the Tainan high speed rail station close to 11pm. It was a good thing that my friend sent a brief description of how to get to the hotel that afternoon. They had picked a hotel that was really close to the Tainan city station, which is not the same as the high speed rail station. So I had to take a local train (more like a metro) over to the city station. This one was really slow and I got on one of the last ones for the day. I found them sleeping at their hotel room at around midnight. It was a long journey to get there but it was all pretty easy. Taiwan has really been working on boosting its tourism industry so they have tried hard to make everything easy to navigate. 

The next day started off with us walking all over the place in search of breakfast. This is where I reminded myself how much I dislike doing anything before breakfast. People seem to get up late and we were probably in the wrong part of town for food. We finally settled for some small road side eatery that served turnip cakes and other local fast foods. Then we walked around some parks and temples. We picked up some really great maps for the city that showed all the touristy sights. But Tainan is seems not as touristy as Taipei and the tourist street signage was still lacking. But armed with maps and GPS phones, we found everything we were looking for.
He's a musical instrument
It was a sweltering hot day but we still managed to walk around some touristy stuff before chilling at a cafe that serves quail egg quiches. We stayed there for a while to rest and then continued our exploration. We wanted to find a park but ended up at a department store that had a large sports section. Some of their stuff was on sale and I got a polo shirt that's made of sporty clothes material. We wandered around the supermarket but didn't end up buying anything there. After we cooled down in this department store, we finally found the park. But it was cutting close to the time we needed to head out so we walked through it really fast. I think we should have given up on this park at some point and took a taxi back to the hotel. Anyway, we got our stuff from the hotel and went to the local train station. This local train station was a really big mad house. It took us a while to figure out how to buy tickets. In the end, one of the guys working there just did everything for us. But all this still didn't get us on the high speed train that would have taken us back to Taipei by 7:30pm. My friends had left their luggage at a place that closes at 8pm. Our high speed train arrived in Taipei at 8pm and they rushed over to the luggage storage place. The guy was really not happy to see us even though we were late by 10 minutes max. We then went on a taxi to get to our Airbnb place.
Squirrel at park
We waited around the lobby of the apartment until I finally texted the lady and she sent her mom downstairs to meet us. I really think these Airbnb hosts should stick to the time they agreed because what if we weren't able to text her or find internet to email? This host basically has an extra apartment which she rents out through Airbnb. I had thought that Airbnb was more like couchsurfing but turns out it's more like a hotel service. In some ways, it's nicer to stay at an Airbnb place if you can get the whole apartment to yourself. There was wifi, TV, refrigerator, freezer, stove, washing machine. She even stocked the place with tea and water.

We went to a small night market for dinner and then went back to shower and sleep. The next day, we went up to the tea terraces by the Maokong gondola. It's a really cheap gondola ride, about $2 USD per person. I had expected it to be a really short ride since it was so cheap but turns out to be pretty long. There wasn't even a price difference between the standard and crystal cabins. There's definitely a lot of stuff to do up at the tea terraces. We walked for a while before settling down at a restaurant to eat. Their menu featured a lot of tea flavored stuff. The food wasn't that great and was pricey for what it was. We didn't make it all the way to the visitor's center and headed back in an attempt to keep to the schedule. We had a lot planned for this day!
Hello Kitty mascot at the Maokong Gondola
We were really serious about eating and buying pineapple cakes since it's a big thing in Taiwan. We first went to the Chai Te bakery, which is the most famous brand in Taipei. Their store is kind of out of the way and it took us a long time to walk there. When we got there, the line stretched down the road. People were coming out with huge bags and boxes of pineapple cakes. There were taxi drivers waiting to take people back to their hotels. The bakery looks like your standard Chinese bakery with displays of the pineapple cakes and other pastries. They had different flavors and I loaded up one big box and one small box of the original flavor for the office and one small box of other flavors for myself. After being a little bit short on souvenirs after my Japan trip, I wanted to make sure I had enough this time. Then we nursed some bubble tea at a really nice bubble tea place that looks more like a restaurant. Then we continued on our pineapple cake adventure and went to another pineapple cake place. This one is called Sunnyhills. It's not as famous as Chai Te but they are very high quality. Their store is set up like a cafe and when you enter, you get ushered to a table where they serve you tea and a full size pineapple cake for free. No one comes by to hassle you and they just let you enjoy the piece of cake. They only do one flavor and use all pineapple for the filling, no other fillings. I would definitely go back if I'm ever in town again. I never used to like these pineapple cakes but after having tried these "high end" ones, I can definitely taste the difference. It's too bad I can't bring any back to the States because they only have a self life of 2 weeks. They sell boxes of 10 and we each got a box of 10. Never getting the cheap stuff again!
Chia Te pineapple cakes!
Bubble tea
Sunnyhill pineapple cakes!!
The National Palace Museum was on the list for today but it was already getting late and we were tired from all the walking. So we decided to save that for the next day. We went out to the river to see if there was still dragonboat races. But they had just finished as we got there and all we saw were people leaving. We took the subway back to the place we were staying and rested for a while. We then headed out to the Shilin night market where we ate a lot of food.

National Palace Museum
The next day we got up extra early and headed to the river again to see the dragonboat races. They weren't all that exciting and we saw two heats before taking a taxi to the National Palace Museum. The museum is huge and full of tour buses. There is a designated route for the first few exhibits and you're crammed in with all the tour groups. It makes the experience really unpleasant. I'm not sure why they don't just let people go wherever. There's definitely plenty of room for that. Maybe it's because their first few exhibits are the most famous ones and they just want a somewhat orderly possession going pass these ones. The whole thing was kind of boring and involved a lot of walking. We didn't really have a proper breakfast beforehand so I didn't have very much energy to look at these exhibits. We went back and got a ton of food at the 7-Eleven nearby and ate it at the apartment before heading out to the airport. We took a bus from the main train station that was old and didn't have very strong AC. The hour ride was really hot but I think we were all asleep within 5 minutes. I was flying Cathay and was able to do online check-in and got a mobile boarding pass. The whole thing was really convenient. I didn't have to print anything out. My friends were going on to Singapore and I stayed with them at their gate for a while before heading to mine.

This concludes my streak of going on vacation every two weeks. Definitely feeling privileged in having a US passport. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Japan Trip - Conclusion (finally)

Last post about Japan. So after we got off our overnight train, we quickly got onto another train to go out to Kawagoe, a small city on the outskirts of Tokyo. After we got to there, it quickly became apparent to me that these guys scheduled another really tight trip. The visit to this town was sandwiched between the overnight train and another train out to the Alps of Japan. My friend and I were not going to go out to the mountains with them as I needed to get back earlier than what they had planned. And this part of the trip seemed much more rushed. I read about Kawagoe and decided that I wanted to spend more time exploring it so this was where we parted ways with the group.
Shrine at Kawagoe
We got out of the train station, and had some trouble with directions. After everyone realized that there was only an hour scheduled for this town, we found the tourist bus and got on that. It took us slowly through town and dropped us off at a famous temple where you can get buy a small wooden board, write a wish, and hang it up. Then we basically ran to the main street where there are a lot of cute little shops. The group ran off to catch their train while my friend and I strolled slowly. The group ended up having to take a taxi back to Omiya so that they can catch their next train. This town is known for sweet potatoes so there were sweet potato flavored everything. After we walked for a while, it started raining so we got lunch at a cafe. I had kind of wanted to spend the night in this town but it was hard to find accommodations online and there were a lot more choices in the big cities. We ended up booking a hotel for Nagoya so we left Kawagoe after lunch and took a train back to Omiya. We wandered around that city for a little bit too and then took train to Tokyo, then another one to Nagoya. It was cold and rainy when we got to Nagoya and it took a little while to find our hotel.

Sweet potato and taro ice cream
My friend had another friend who lives in the city and we had some small snacks at a restaurants with him. We walked around for a while until it got too cold and wet. Then we went to a place that featured grill-your-own food with an all-you-can-drink menu. I've never drank so much alcohol in my life. Good thing the hotel was right next door. Anyway, I was really looking forward to this hotel because it featured a hot tub. It turned out to be a really nice spa place where there are Japanese style communal showers, two jacuzzis, and sauna. There were also massage chairs and a relaxing area. They even had a vending machine where you can order real massages.

So cute
Nagoya castle
The next day, we relaxed at the spa again and enjoyed the free breakfast before heading out. We got to the main train station only to find that there are no lockers available because it's a big transportation hub and everyone in Japan is traveling. We ended up going back to the city subway station and left our things there. In hindsight, we could have just left our stuff at the hotel. Anyway, we then went out to see the Nagoya castle and then a temple. The castle was really crowded with other tourists and actually not that impressive. We went back to the main train station for lunch where I also got a Krispy Kreme doughnut. I recently found out that there Krispy Kreme had opened some stores in Hong Kong before but left because HK people apparently don't like pastries that are too sweet. Anyway, after lunch, we went to see another tourist sight and decided to walk back to the station. Along the way, we passed by the hotel. I booked a train ticket for Nagoya to Kyoto to the airport so at some point, we started running through the station to get me on this train. There was a lot of running after trains on this trip. It's really a good thing that we got this train pass and can just get on any train.

Krispy Kreme Easter special!
I met up again with my roommate at the airport and we shared stories about our trip. They definitely had a more chill trip. Anyway, really need to go back again! Japan is an interesting place. It would be nice to get the 21 day pass and just travel all over the place. I've found out that both Korea and Taiwan also have similar train passes. I'm a big fan of getting subway passes when I go on holiday. Don't have to think about buying individual tickets and adding money all the time. This train pass thing takes it to a whole new level! I think this trip has renewed my desire for a long trip somewhere.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Japan - Part 3 - Hokkaido

Snow park
So part 2 ended with the laundry fiasco where everyone ended up with wet/damp laundry. Some people resorted to wearing multiple pairs of socks or hanging them from their daypacks in hopes that they will dry. It didn't help that it was still pretty cold in the area so things don't dry very quickly, especially jeans. Anyway, we had planned to explore Sapporo that day and we did our usual routine of stuffing things into lockers at the train station and then setting off. Sapporo is known for having great parks so we walked around one of them that had really cool slides and lots of kids playing on them. Then I found a tourist center where the lady was really nice and told me that one of the parks, a garden, is free because it's Greenery Day. I would have asked about more stuff but someone rushed in and rudely interrupted. Didn't think people would be so rude in Japan! Anyway, I got enough information and took the group to this free park.

After being exhausted by touring parks, we went to a fish market for lunch. The unfortunate thing about traveling with students is that they don't want to spend very much, especially on food. So we basically looped around the fish market many times before settling on a place. The thing strange thing is that most of them are very willing to spend money on souvenirs and gifts but not on food. I think my priorities now are different. I've never really been into getting gifts for people, just postcards. And now I think it's important to try the region's specialties. Anyway, the place we went to in the end was not bad. I actually got something cheap off of the menu because I was all out of cash at this point. Getting cash was another ordeal (I'll save this for later).

After lunch, we headed to a chocolate factory. Sapporo is known for this White Lover's chocolate and the factory was highly recommended. You can see more about this factory here. We weren't expecting much and kind of just went because we had gotten a full day pass for the subway. Again, this was another one of those things were I thought the group would surely split up so that people can do the things that they wanted instead of going along with the group. There were some people who wanted to go out to an Ainu (native people of Hokkaido) thing but it's about an hour outside of the city, which practically means a day trip. They didn't go in the end because of some bad reviews. Anyway, we found the factory using our noses and the place was definitely worth the effort and entrance fee.

White lovers chocolate cookie

The factory

Minipark outside the facotry
Outside of the actual exhibits area, there was a miniature garden with lots of mini houses. I think kids can definitely spend the entire day there playing house, fort, or whatever. We stuffed the group into several houses and took videos of them coming out of the tiny houses. The actual chocolate museum was pretty small but we got to see the factory line. There were some random exhibits that we weren't really sure why they were there. But anyway, in the middle of the museum is a cafe with a good view of the garden. Every hour, the clock tower has a little dance with mechanical bears, rabbits, and owls. We splurged on desserts. Unfortunately since this was still the middle of the trip, I didn't end up getting a box of the chocolates. They would have been hard to carry back and they are actually available in HK. The wrapping is special since you can get the ones that say they come from the original factory. And, again, I was out of cash and my Capital One credit card expired right before the trip.

After this we headed back to the main train station for our second overnight train. This is where my friend and I split from the group. We had a couple of hours to kill and people wanted to look for souvenirs and such. My friend wanted to go up this tower that has an observatory level but the rest of the group wasn't so interested. Anyway, the observatory tower thing wasn't very high but I think they did a good job of presenting the place. The parking lot even had arrows pointing out the iconic things around the city in big letters. I think these observatory things are sometimes a hit-and-miss. They could be very good or not so good. And going during the day is very different from going at night. You see different things. And then, the big hunt for an ATM that works for me started.

I really needed to get cash at this point and tried out several ATMs only to be disappointed that they didn't take foreign credit cards. We finally asked someone at a help desk and she said to go to a 7-11. I had actually heard about this (that only the ATMs at 7-11 took foreign credit cards) but we couldn't find a 7-11. After the lady pointed it out, we realized that we had passed this 7-11 many times. Having cash makes buying things a lot easier and we got food for the train ride. I saw a booth selling Hokkaido cheesecake and got one for about $5 USD. It came in a box and was big enough to share. Really good deal. I shared this on the train ride with the group. I think they were really happy about this. Hokkaido cheesecake is not dense like the American kind. It's more like a sponge cake. 

Hokkaido cheesecake
The overnight train ride this time was better since we had reservations to begin with and the train was pretty empty. I was able to take up multiple seats and actually get some sleep. We arrived sleepily into the city of Omiya, which is pretty close to Tokyo. This ends the bulk of the trip.

[to be continued...]

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Japan Trip - Part 2 - Snow!

Time to write about the rest of this Japan trip. This part is actually the more crazy part. After the long, loud, slow, 8 hour journey on the overnight train to Sapporo, we spent a few minutes in the Sapporo station to use the bathroom, brushed teeth, and quickly stuffed our things into lockers and hopped on another train. This train took us to Asahikawa, the mountainous region of Hokkaido. Even though this train wasn't a Shinkansen, it was a pretty nice train and I got some quality nap time here. We arrived at the very nice Asahikawa station feeling very groggy. The town must get a lot of money from people on ski trips because the train station and the airport are both very nice structures that definitely cost a lot of money to built. Anyway, we struggled to find food and this mysterious bus that is supposed to take us to the mountains. After everyone ate, got food for lunch, we were in a bit of a panic since we still hadn't found the bus. I finally convinced the group to go to the very nice tourist center where the staff was able to point us in the right direction. I wish we had gone to the tourist center earlier since they had wifi, more food options, and lots of information about the area. Anyway, we found the bus stop with no problems and made it onto the first of the three times that the bus leaves from the train station.

The bus ride was long and drove us through the sparsely populated town. The group commented on how similar the town feels to suburban America. The roads were wide, most houses were standalone ones, parks had baseball fields, etc. We even came across farmland. The bus took us to the airport which is small but had very nice architecture. The architecture is on par with larger airports so this part of the region definitely gets a ton of money from people coming to ski. Speaking of skiing, we saw more and more snow as the bus goes up the mountain. We found out that the name of this mountain range is "Big Snow Mountain". We had a small snowball fight in the snow after getting off the bus. After we all finished going to the bathroom, repacking, looked through the gift shop, we ventured outside to look at the hiking situation. We found ourselves in knee deep snow, couldn't see any walkable trails, and a good amount of people skiing.

We asked the lady at the ski lift about walking around the area and she gave us a very pessimistic response but pointed us to the visitor's center. We made our way over to the visitor's center where the lady on duty took one look at us and was like, "you guys don't look prepared." Seeing how eager we still were to do something, she slowly talked to us about our options. We could rent heavy duty shoes for the snow, take the lift up to the top, and walk around there. Or we could rent real snowshoes and hike up the ski trails. Of course we chose to rent the snowshoes and hike around, even though only one person out of the whole group has had experience with hiking in snowshoes. The first part of this hike went pretty slowly and we took lots of breaks. It wasn't very difficult and I think we all got used to walking around in these things after a while. After about an hour or so, we stopped for food and then the real adventure began. We had reached the point of no return. We needed to get back down to take the last bus out. We had a choice of either going back down the way we came or go all the way to the top and take the lift down. From where we were, we could almost see the top so some people were pretty keen on going all the way up. I didn't doubt my abilities to go all the way up in time but there were two people in the group whose physical fitness was questionable. But time and again, this group really surprised me by pulling together and we made a team decision to go up, slow and steady with short breaks. We actually made it up 30+ degree slopes with lots of time to spare.

We took the "ski lift" which is actually more like a large cable car that holds a lot of people at a time. We went back down and got food from the souvenir shop. We all fell asleep on the way back and made it onto our train, again with very little time to spare. We went back to Sapporo and went in search of our Airbnb accommodation. It was a good thing that I printed the map out because the place was really difficult to find. We're not actually sure any of us managed to look up the right place but we miraculously found it. This was the first time I had stayed at an Airbnb place and this one was a two story apartment with lots of rooms. There were lots of other guests since it was Golden Week. The owner told us about a few places for dinner and we basically stormed into the first ramen place we found. We made a shower schedule as we walked back to the house but annoyingly, the other house guests decided to shower late as well. It was getting close to midnight when we all finally showered.

And then the big laundry fiasco started. The group (except me) had planned to do laundry once on the trip. I actually had a really bad feeling about this when the person who booked the place explained that the washing machine is one of those 2-in-1 machines. I was like, uh, those don't really dry well and we're leaving early the next day. And after everyone piled on their dirty clothes, the owner informed us that it would cost extra to run the dryer. So of course, the undergrads were not cool with that and made a decision to just hang everything up instead of using the dryer. Everything was still wet the next day and ended up running one cycle of the dryer (which didn't do very much) and this whole ordeal stressed us out. I didn't participate in this laundry business because I knew it wouldn't work out and I had managed to fit everything I needed for 6 days in my backpack. I'm starting to think I don't really need one of those really big backpacks. It would just make me carry too much stuff.

[to be continued...]

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Crazy Japan Trip - Part 1

The highly anticipated Japan trip has started! It took a few back and forths to figure out what which rail pass we wanted to buy. My friend in Japan has all variations of the rail pass and a group of people are going on a Hokkaido trip. Apparently this week is Golden Week in Japan where a few public holidays line up to form a nearly week long holiday. But my roommate wasn't so thrilled at the this whole city hoping business (and actually neither was I at first) so we ended up deciding to split up. I got the national Japan Rail Pass while my roommate and her boyfriend got only the Kansai Area Pass.

We still went to the HK airport together. I was trying to finish up some work and got back with just enough time to shower and eat something before we headed out. I packed a few days ago and managed to fit 6 days' worth of clothes and other essentials into a backpack. We checked in at Terminal 2 but actually flew out of a gate in Terminal 1. It was nice that they actually got a gate instead of one of those shuttle bus things. But maybe it's because the flight is late at night. We left at nearly 1am. As consistent with any other discount airlines, legroom was lacking and no food was served. They left the cabin lights on the whole time, which was unexpected for a red eye flight and didn't help with sleeping.
The obligatory photo

We got to the Kansai airport and got out at their Terminal 2. The structure of this terminal looked extremely temporary, with sheet piles as roofing. When we got out, it seems like Peach, the discount airline, was the only one using the terminal. I wonder if any other airlines will move into the space. This really goes to show that a discount airline does not necessarily mean the company has no money; they just want to make money off of being a discount airline. This is supposed to be the first discount airline in Japan. They have a lot of domestic routes so I guess they are trying to compete with the rail network too.

We took the shuttle bus to the real terminal (Terminal 1) and activated our rail passes. The best train to Kyoto gets into the city after 9am, which meant that it would be too late to meet up with my friend. We had planned to meet up at the station at 8am, before his 9am class. This also meant that I had to somehow contact him so that he wouldn't be waiting for me forever. The Japan Rail (JR) office that we were standing outside of advertised free WiFi. So I connected only to find that I needed to scan a QR code. But since I wanted to connect on my phone and the only device I had was my phone, this was a problem. It was a good thing that I was traveling with other people because I scanned off of my friend's phone. But the code wanted me to email something which was also a problem. I mean, if I can email, I really don't need to connect to their wireless network, right? Anyway, I realized at some point that we could just walk to the actual airport terminal to find free WiFi and we were successful. I ended up being able to get on the JR West WiFi network andade other plans to meet up with my friend right before leaving for Tokyo.

It wasn't until I was on the train to Kyoto that I realized I could have had a leisurely breakfast before rushing off on this 1.5 hr train ride that didn't seem to have a snack cart. So I was really hungry by the time I got to Kyoto station where I ate at a cafe inside the station. Then I still had 2 hrs before meeting up with my friend so I went to the Imperial Palace. It was the biggest thing on the tourist map but it turned out to be not very interesting. I got back to the train station and bought some rice balls and pastry for lunch. I waited around for people and they arrived in a panic about 20 minutes before the train left. So there was actually no need to panic. But anyway, at the platform, I realized that the rest of the group (with the exception of my friend) are undergrads from Stanford on a study abroad. Now it all makes sense why they wanted to do this all island trip. It's something that I definitely woke have wanted to do when I was an undergrad. Now I feel a bit old for this. Anyway, the group is pretty cool and people generally agree on things. I'm always wary of traveling in large groups since it's hard to make everyone happy. The group comprises of 8 people total, including me.

Tomagachi Store!

We got to Tokyo and wandered around the underground shopping area inside the station where there is lots of food and cute little shops. Two of the people in the group arrived late so we waited around in the station for them. We camped out at McDonald's for a while after we were all tired from walking. After we were finally together as a group, we went in search of our hotel. It was a good thing I printed out directions to the hotel because no one else had and trying to navigate using someone's phone is not so great, as we would find out on the next day. After we finally got there, I showered immediately and then we went in search of dinner. We found an Italian Japanese restaurant that had really cheap options. The food was decent. Some people wanted to do kareoke but places were closed and the neighborhood with all the night life is over an hour away by subway. So we toured the supermarket instead and went back to the hotel. I was really tired and went to sleep pretty much right away. Other people stayed up and made plans for the next day.

Really big vending machine
Day 2 was a whirlwind tour if Tokyo. We started the day with another round at the supermarket and ate in someone's room. I was surprised at how punctual everyone was. Anyway, after eating, we went to Tokyo Station and stuffed our bags into a locker and headed off to a department store that has a Kit Kat counter that sold special Kit Kat flavors. They sell different flavors everyday and apparently sells out pretty fast. You can get flavors that you don't get anywhere else. They're pretty pricey for what it is but weeks make really cool gifts. They have flavors like sakura green tea, cream cheese, chilly, and extra dark. I didn't get any because it's pretty hot out any I didn't think they could survive the trip. After that we headed to go find a sushi place that serves sushi from the famous fish market. We had decided the night before that we didn't want to get up that early up go see the auction. But we failed to find the restaurant but still had a pretty good sushi meal at another restaurant. It was a conveyor belt place but we orders off of the iPad menu because we were at the end of the conveyor. It was a good meal and I paid $15 USD for some really good stuff. Traveling with students definitely makes this a budget trip.

Sushi lunch!
We walked around the akihabari area after eating where it is supposed to be the center of anime and gaming. We really didn't know what we were supposed to see and waked into random arcades. We saw one where they have these capsules where you sit inside a pod with screens on 3 sides and team up with other people to fight virtually. They looked pretty cool. Some of the other shops had sketchy stuff though and we were generally unimpressed.

We headed back to the Tokyo station after this to get our stuff and to get ready for the long journey north. We had some confused moments after getting to the station of trying to find the lockers we left our bags in and the platform the train should be on. We made it to the right platform well in advance of our train and settled in for a 3hr ride to the tip of Honshu (the long island). Our overnight train journey started at the conclusion of this train ride.

We basically got to the station where our overnight train would depart 3 hours early. The reason that our trip is so well planned is that one member of the group is very into planning things ahead of time. This works well with being able to reserve seats and such but unfortunately for this important leg of our trip, the reserved seats were all booked out. So we basically had to fend for ourselves in the nonreservable seats. This is why we ended up at the platform 3 hours early. One member of our group basically planned the entire trip and is someone who gets really anxious about things. She ran ahead to the platform and put our stuff in line to wait for the train even though we were 3 hrs early and there was no one else around.

The train leaves from the town of Aomori but from the old station. Our shinkansen from Tokyo arrived at the new station where there where things were much nicer. Since it would be kind of dumb to go back, we gave up on the idea of finding showers and just went around the station for food. My friend and I went to a Yoshinoya after being unsuccessful at finding anything for more than an hour. Places seemed to all close as we walk up to them. So we finally ate at the Yoshinoya even though it's something that I can get everyday at work. It's much nicer though and we ate while talking about how old we are compared to these youngsters.

When we got back to the station, all members of the party had arrived and were joking around loudly about how we weren't going to let anyone else through, be they babies, elderly, or disable. They had separated the group into 2 so that we took up north doors of a train car. The plan was that we would coverage in the middle and take up 8 seats together. The plan worked, mostly because the other people waiting on the platform became scared of us and put a "no man's land" between us and the rest of the train. That space got filled up though. The ride was very loud and bumpy, not smooth like the shinkansen at all. I didn't get very good sleep and was awake for a lot of the ride.

The overnight train

Friday, April 25, 2014

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has been a really great trip. We did, ate, and bought a lot more than I expected. I got flights for this trip about 6 months ago after my aunt, uncle, and cousin moved here. I wanted this to be a longer trip (more than 4 days) so I booked it for the Easter holiday. But then they moved to China in January so I asked around to see if anyone else wanted to go. One of my college friends, Diana, is working in India and wanted to come too. One of her friends from church was also in the area so she showed us around for a few days. This was awesome since she knows the city and can speak Thai.

I went to work Wednesday morning and left for the airport slightly before lunch. It is a pain going to the airport from work via MTR since I have to transfer so many times. The flight was slightly early. They served a large snack. One of the choices was dim sum! Wish I took a picture of it.

The Chiang Mai airport is pretty small. There are a couple of booths with taxi service and you just tell them where you want to go and they call a taxi for you. No harassment or haggling with taxi drivers.

We started at the Eco Resort which is a cheap resort with a mix of dorm rooms, shared bathrooms, and single rooms. We got a double with shared bathroom. There is a really nice pool right outside our room, which is where I found my friend and her friend when I got to the hotel. I swam with them for a little bit and then we ate some snacks (mango sticky rice and papaya salad) that they got earlier in the day. After this, we went to the night market where we tried the feet cleaning fish, looked at a ton of trinkets, had fruit juice, got a full body Thai massage, and ate more food.

The 2nd day we got off to a slow start. I got up, went swimming, had breakfast, and chilled by the pool. Then we went for noodles, another market, followed by more shopping, ice skating at a fancy mall, and ate some really good roadside food.

Friday, we went on a road trip to a nearby park with a waterfall. There were 5 of us and we drove 3 motorbikes to the park, stopping on the way to get food. We picnicked after we got there. The three other girls have been in Chiang Mai for a while and they said that when they first started coming to this place, there were maybe 2 or 3 other Thai families. Now they have people manning the gates and trails. There wasn't a lot of water at the waterfall and we climbed up and down the rocks. There were a lot of other people and even some tourists. We all got soaked. I didn't bring my phone so will upload pictures later when I get photos from my friend. After this we rested and then had a BBQ buffet for dinner followed my karaoke. The karaoke rooms all had different themes. We chose the Ant Room.

On Saturday, we went to do a cooking class. The class was even more in depth than the one I did in Guilin. We got to choose from different dishes. I made green curry paste, green curry with chicken, pad thai, papaya salad, tom yum soup, and banana in coconut milk. We made and ate the pad thai and papaya salad first. Afterwards we were extremely full. The class was a lot of fun and the food was great. We even got a small cookbook with the recipes after. These cooking classes are really fun.

After that, we walked around the old city and found three Saturday walking street, which is another market. We ended the day with a trip out to a mall with a Big C, which is like a Walmart. We missed an over/underpass on the way back and went really far before getting off the highway and going back again.

On Sunday, we went to a 3D art museum, which is like the Alive museum we went to in Seoul, except that it is a lot bigger. Then we tried to find the Sunday walking street, which is yet another market but found out that it starts later in the day. So my friend went back to the hotel while I walked around the city some more. We finally tried the little place near our hotel that does pad thai for dinner.

We didn't much Monday morning and I got to the airport early to see my friend off. Trying to catch up on blogging! Will do the Seoul ones soon.