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...]