We had to check out of the hotel at 1pm, but our flight to Sydney wasn’t until almost 9pm, so we had a whole day to spend in the city. The only problem was we didn’t want to get super sweaty before a 9-hour flight to Australia.
Dad decided to stay in the hotel lounge and catch up on his computer work. Mom and I contemplated going to some antique shops we’d passed earlier in the trip, but ultimately decided to check off one more touristy item from our list and take the funicular tram up to The Peak for a last view of the beautiful city.
The tram has been running since the late 1800s but has gone through a few refurbishments over the years. The last round returned it to a retro look.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long in the queue even though the weather was clear. The journey up is so steep the floors are slanted to help people keep their feet. We sat, but it was still pretty extreme! I used the level function in my phone to estimate the incline and the steepest part was about a 30-degree angle.
The top was a touristy mall that we basically ignored. Instead, we crossed the street to have lunch at a lovely restaurant called The Peak Lookout. It’s been serving refreshments since 1947 and has an eclectic menu to please any palate.
We ate nachos and tandoori chicken and drank Australian chardonnay in an English tea garden on top of a mountain in Hong Kong. It doesn’t get any more international than that! Lunch was delicious and very pleasant (except for a butterfly that got trapped in the solarium with us and terrified Mom).
After lunch we went for a lovely amble along a flat and shady path on the side of the mountain. We couldn’t see how far down the trail went after it started to descend, but we suspect it might have gone all the way to the bottom.
We went up onto the 360-degree viewing platform on top of the mall that was included in our ticket (it was hot and not very inspiring).
We descended via the funicular and again struggled to get a cab back to the hotel to meet up with Dad. Eventually we made it and collected our bags.
A nice driver loaded us and our luggage into a van and took us to the airport. The Hong Kong airport is enormous. There are literally hundreds of gates spread out over miles of hallways.
The super duper lounge my parents were entitled to was on the other side of the airport, so we all made do with the regular lounge our American Express cards get us access to. They served food and I had a decent bowl of noodles (just in case the flight didn’t include dinner).
Though sad to leave Hong Kong, I felt like we’d seen a lot of stuff during our stay. I’d been keeping a little black notebook of interesting sights gleaned from my review of the guidebook on the flight over. We crossed many of them off!
Today we were tourists doing touristy things on Lantau Island. Many companies offer guided tours but we decided to roll our own adventure based on the sights/activities I read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
Po Lin monastery and the Buddha statue are located at the top of a mountain on Lantau Island. It turns out getting there is more than half the fun.
The most scenic way to go is to take a 20-minute cable car journey from Tung Chung (a city near the airport) up to Ngong Ping (a touristy village with souvenir shops).
The views were stunning.
We sprang for the “Crystal Cabin” which had a glass floor. It was neat to be able to see through the floor but it actually didn’t inspire much vertigo, perhaps because we were seated on regular benches.
We also downloaded their guided narration to accompany the journey up. A dry English narrator imparted a few interesting facts about the construction of the cable car towers.
It was quite a feat of engineering. Donkeys were needed to cart supplies up the mountains, since many places are not accessible by vehicle. The number of towers was also reduced to lower the environmental impact. That’s also why there’s a funny turn on airport island instead of a tower built in the water.
The cars weren’t air-conditioned, but they had air vents built into the sides and top which funneled a lovely breeze through the cabin and kept things nice and cool. Below our feet, we could see a long trail winding up and down, populated by a few brave hikers trekking up to Ngong Ping on foot. The most impressive sight was the Big Buddha in the distance as we approached the top.
Close to the terminal, Mom looked through the floor and said she could see a “ball,” or maybe a “bowl,” but I didn’t figure out what she actually saw/said until a bit later (see below).
Ngong Ping was (as expected) a tourist trap. But it was a nice tourist trap. We had an incredibly oily lunch before heading to the monastery and the Buddha statue.
On our way out of Ngong Ping we saw a cow in a planter! All that time Mom had been saying she’d seen a “bull.” And then we saw a whole herd of cows resting by the side of the path. They must belong to the monastery and appear in thousands of selfies a day.
Mom and I decided to hoof it up the 260 steps to see the Big Buddha up close. We tackled the 16 flights a few at a time, pausing frequently to let Mom (definitely Mom, not me) rest.
We made it to the top (eventually). We discovered stunning views of the South China Sea and a cool ocean breeze that felt heavenly. There were many tourists taking selfies, but there were also a large number of people praying.
The Big Buddha was quite impressive and an engineering marvel. It took almost 10 years to complete, and ended up made of thin bronze sheets cast to fit over a framework. Artisans overcame numerous obstacles to cast the Buddha’s face as one sheet so no seams marred his serene visage. He did look very peaceful.
We headed back down and rejoined Dad to explore Po Lin monastery.
Mom observed it was fascinating to study the architecture because it’s in a style we’re used to seeing only shiny and new at a theme park or old and behind glass in a museum. This was a real, working monastery (evidenced by the chanting we heard drifting from a private building towards the back).
After wandering around for a bit, we headed back to the village and discovered one of the cows wanted to go shopping (aka stand in the shade). A local lured him out with an apple.
We got cold beverages with the most appetizing names.
The Pocari Sweat was basically just Gatorade. The Jelly Grass Drink wasn’t terrible. It was a bit earthy and there really were cubes of gelatin in the bottom (which made for an interesting consistency). It reminded me of an aloe drink I had once.
Mom and I indulged in some retail therapy and purchased a few souvenirs and gifts. Before we left, we ordered egg waffles (made to order) to try out street food Dad was interested in. Mine was chocolate and I was a big fan.
We were all a bit touristed out so we decided to skip Tai O fishing village. Instead, we took the cable car back down the mountain.
We made great time on the MTR back to Hong Kong island, but then waited fifteen minutes for a bus that runs every seven minutes, only to have it skip our stop. Then we had incredible difficulty finding a cab. We stood at a cab stand for more than 30 minutes watching cabswith “out of service” signs whiz by. We were cutting our 7pm dinner reservation at Pierre pretty close since we all needed to shower.
Fortunately, they didn’t mind pushing it back for us.
Unfortunately, the meal was terrible.
Here’s Dad’s Yelp review of the experience (I’ll let him eviscerate it in his own words):
Pierre offers a lovely room with a great ambiance and view. It’s the kind you’d expect to find in a top rated restaurant. Unfortunately, the view is about the only thing that is top rated about it.
At a price equal to or above the nearby Amber and l’Atelier, it’s hard to imagine anyone returning to Pierre for a second visit. The six-course tasting meal we had was, frankly, poor. There wasn’t a single stand-out course, and no one in our party had more than a taste of the grouse entree, which had a very unpleasant bitter taste. Mine even still had a piece of lead birdshot in it.
They’ve tried to make up in quantity what they lack in quality, with a half dozen small plates bearing amuse bouche at the start, and another half dozen plates of dessert at the end. But not one of them was truly good. It’s as if they’re firing scattershot, to see if they can hit anything.
Service was also hit or miss, with the wine list not even offered until the food began showing up, and empty water glasses sitting for long stretches of time.
At about $10,000HKD for our party of three’s food alone, this must be one of the worst buys in the city. And the wine prices are just as unreasonable.
We started our day with a leisurely breakfast upstairs and debated what we should do for the day. Yvonne warned us Sunday would be very crowded. Despite that, we briefly considered going up to The Peak, however it started to pour while we were still at breakfast so we thought better of that plan.
Instead, we decided to relax and hang out in the room for a bit before venturing out for lunch.
Originally, I was interested in visiting a rabbit cafe, which is exactly what it sounds like: a cafe where you can hang out with rabbits. But a quick Google search revealed they were currently engaged in a legal battle over their lack of having a food license. So we scrapped that plan too.
Finally, we settled on The Cat Store, a cat cafe located near a part of town called Times Square. The rain stopped around lunchtime, so we grabbed a cab and headed out. The cab driver said that since it was Sunday some of the streets around our destination were closed to vehicular traffic, but that he could drop us of nearby and point us in the right direction.
The drive took us east into Wan Chai, which didn’t seem dramatically different from Central. The Times Square area was quite busy with tourists and locals alike, but the cab got us within spitting distance.
The Times Square neighborhood was fascinating. It was different than any city we’ve been to because, block by block, it fluctuated between high-end designer stores in sleek modern buildings and much more modest (even decrepit) buildings with a mix of commercial and residential.
The address of the cat cafe led us to a six-story building in the middle of a short block. Having learned our lesson at Yum Cha, we realized the address was on the 3rd floor, though it was strange that the building seemed to be mostly apartments.
The entryway to the building, the hallway, and elevator did not inspire much confidence. They were somewhat less than glamorous. Seedy is the word that came to mind.
But we persevered and found the door to the cat cafe, which turned out to be a charming little shop. It was cozy, tidy, and packed with people. All the tables were taken but the hostess said we could come back in about an hour and a half and she’d reserve us a table.
To kill time, we wandered around the shops nearby for a while, ultimately ending up in a mall across the street. We could actually see the cat cafe’s window from over there, so when it looked like there were empty tables we repeated the journey through the world’s strangest elevators and returned to get our dose of fur therapy.
We only saw one cat curled up asleep when we arrived. Understandably, the cafe has signage requesting that patrons refrain from bothering sleeping or eating kitties. Patience was required.
We ordered some food; again the criterion was cute things shaped like cats. I chose garlic toasts, toast with chocolate sauce and sweetened condensed milk, and cat-shaped butter cookies. I mean this as a compliment, but Mom grills leftover hot dog buns in butter and the garlic toasts bore a remarkable resemblance to that. The butter cookies were excellent.
Dad had homemade caramel ice cream with apple and graham cracker dust. Mom had a smoked salmon pizza (with corn?!).
While we waited for the cat to wake up, we enjoyed going through the literature on the table. All but one of the cats were rescues, and in case you’d never seen a cat before, there was a handy-dandy guide about how to pet them.
Most of the other patrons were families there with their daughters, so we fit right in. Of course, the other girls were all about 6 years old, but so what?
At long last, a cat emerged from slumber and joined the party. His name was JJ and he liked to talk. He had a raspy little mew and though he complained a lot was very patient with the little girls (including me).
His activity spurred lunchtime and the opening cans woke two other cats. The cats are permitted in the kitchen, which horrified one table of guests, but I figure there’s been at least one cat in the kitchen at home my whole life and it hasn’t killed me yet. Plus I got to pet kitties.
We headed back to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Though it wasn’t raining anymore, the clouds continued to whiz by. I took the opportunity to film some time lapse of Victoria Harbour.
After a couple hours we dressed for dinner and headed to Amber, which was recently ranked the 24th best restaurant in the world. It lived up to the hype!
Our table was lovely, nestled in the back corner of the restaurant with plenty of elbow room.
The food was exquisite and the wine pairing was incredibly educational. It included six wines, all from Burgundy.
The only problem is I never finish a wine pairing, and apparently in this culture leaving wine on the table is even worse than leaving food on your plate. But since all six glasses totaled up to more than a bottle of wine, I would have been on the floor if I tried to drink it all. Other than the worried looks that caused the staff, it was a lovely meal and managed to top L’Atelier (which I wasn’t sure was possible).
Hong Kong is perhaps the easiest city in Asia for English visitors. Its more than 150-year history has left a legacy of English signage everywhere. Most people speak some English, and many speak it fluently (the exception seems to be cab drivers!)
Hong Kong is both a province and an Island. The island itself is where most of the tourist hotels and sites are, and the Central area is only about a mile square, so it is compact, to say the least. Most of Central is very walkable. A lot of it is built on land filled into the bay in the past 100 years (much of it recently) so that part is flat. The more historic area rises steeply up the hillside, but there are steps and even a very, very long escalator.
One tricky thing is that some of the main roads are impossible to cross at ground level, so you may have to look for an overhead walkway to get where you’re going.
In addition to Hong Kong island, the other major areas of interest are Kowloon, a business district right across the bay, and Lantau island, the next island over, where the Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland are located.
All of the islands are connected by bridges, tunnels, and ferries.
Transportation in Hong Kong is very easy and very inexpensive. The cabs, which are red, are readily available anywhere there isn’t a double yellow line along the curb, and particularly at the many taxi stands.
Taxi fares are incredibly cheap. The base fare is $24HKD, which is $3USD. You can get most places within Central for just this base fare. Even going to Kowloon is less than $10USD. A taxi ride all the way to Disneyland or the airport on Lantau is only about $50USD.
Even more economical is the MTR, Hong Kong’s version of London’s tube. The trains are ultra-long, new, sleek, clean, and run on time. Train fare is incredibly cheap. Hong Kong to Lantau is under $3USD.
There are several main lines, red, orange, green and blue being the most useful to tourists. Navigating the system using Google Maps or the very clear signage is easy, and signs in the train show you where you are graphically, and how you can connect.
You use the MTR Octopus card to ride the MTR. Just load it with funds from your credit card. It’s best not to get the tourist day pass, as that is overpriced and doesn’t work everywhere the real Octopus does.
You tap your Octopus card on the way in to the MTR, and again on the way out.
The card also works on the buses (which are all clearly numbered) and the double-decker electric trams that run on the major streets in Hong Kong island. It even works on the Star Ferry from Hong Kong to Kowloon. The Ferry fare is about 30 cents!
The best place for tourists to stay is near Central Hong Kong. For example, the Landmark Mall is in the midst of things, and has an attached Mandarin Oriental. There is also the original Mandarin Oriental just two blocks away. Don’t mix them up! There are also many other nearby hotels, including the Marriott and Shangri-La. We loved our room at the Grand Hyatt, but it is attached to the Convention Center, about a mile away, and is a short but arduous multi-level walk from the MTR station and bus lines.
Many of the best restaurants are also in the area. One of the top restaurants in the word is Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. l’Atelier’s Hong Kong location is also at Landmark. (We hated Pierre, at the other Mandarin Oriental.)
Of course there are lots of places to sample the local Cantonese food, which you will find fairly similar to Chinese restaurant food in the US. The dim sum is probably the best bet.
Here are some good prospects:
Things To Do
A walk through Central, especially climbing the steps up to the mid levels, will reveal lots of local fruit, vegetable, and meat markets. Check out the Soho district, south of Hollywood Boulevard, and all the antique shops along Hollywood.
Take the ferry or MTR across the harbor to Tsim Sha Tsui for views looking back at Hong Kong Island.
Take the MTR to Tung Chung on Lantau Island to ride the cable car up to the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping. The view on the way up is spectacular.
Another good view, right on Hong Kong Island, is achieved by taking the Peak Tram funicular to the top of Victoria Peak.
If you think Orlando is hot and muggy, you haven’t been to Hong Kong! It’s that and more. We saw lots of locals walking around holding a personal fan under their chins! You don’t want to be in the sun, so bring an umbrella for both rain and shade. Better yet, visit in January or February when the temperature (but not the humidity) is much more pleasant.
This morning we had a leisurely breakfast upstairs. Dad had avocado toast with a poached egg, Mom had smoked salmon (as always), but I went rogue and tried all the unusual dishes, including chicken bao (with mustard) and congee (a rice porridge with various ingredients and toppings).
Yvonne told us many people work a half day on Saturday so it actually isn’t a bad day todo touristy things. Sunday, however, should be avoided at all costs. Given that, we decided to venture out to the Hong Kong History Museum in Kowloon.
Our taxi driver had to take a very roundabout route to get there (imagine trying to get from 4 o’clock to 2 o’clock but going the long way round). We also ended up on the opposite side of the building from the entrance, but once we did manage to get inside it was blessedly cool.
It’s a wonderful museum. Their exhibits are arranged in chronological order, starting with the beginning of time with the formation of the islands from shallow seas to volcanos to all the various types of rock formed along the way. The ground floor also covers pre-historic Hong Kong, the earliest people to live in the area, and the ebb and flow of various peoples throughout the early dynasties of China.
The aesthetic design was lovely. They created numerous environments to give you a flavor and general impression of what the time period in that particular exhibit was like.
We saw lush jungle forests, sandy beaches, grocery stores, sailing ships, rice paddies, and towers of buns.
The exhibits were very interesting, and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words syndrome (again, perhaps because everything has to be presented side-by-side in two languages).
The museum flow allowed you to wander at your leisure but provided directional signage suggesting a chronological path. It was fairly easy to focus on the things that piqued your interest and gloss over those you found boring.
The ground floor was enormous. The exhibits just kept going and going and going… And then we discovered there was another entire floor dedicated to Hong Kong’s history since the British took over.
There was a really interesting graphic about land reclamation in Hong Kong
Toward the end of the timeline, my parents began to encounter items they recognized from their childhoods’ (many toys in particular, like slot cars).
By the time we finished going through the museum it was past lunch time and I was quite hungry. We had dinner reservations that evening but definitely needed a light bite. I pulled up Google Maps and discovered that Yum Cha, a dim sum place famous for their cute buns, was quite close. Though not big dim sum fans, my parents indulged me and we set off.
The walk was relatively short, but we had some difficulty finding the place. The map told us we were right on top of it, but it was nowhere in sight. Eventually, we deduced it was on the third floor and found an elevator.
Despite not having a reservation, they seated us right away and gave us the dim sum menu (which works very much like ordering sushi in the states).
My major criterion was that it had to be cute.
We succeeded admirably.
I liked everything.
Dad did not.
After our mid-afternoon snack, we took the train across the harbor, but couldn’t quite figure out how to walk to our hotel through all the various levels and construction sites, so we cheated and got a taxi.
We relaxed in the room for a few hours and then headed to Joël Robuchon’s Hong Kong outpost of L’Atelier.
As always, the meal was phenomenal, each dish a delightful combination of flavors and textures. Dad also ordered excellent wines!
A rather impressive thunderstorm woke me up early. The rain drops clattered against the window and there were several long rumbles of thunder. I’ve always thought thunder sounded different in Orlando and Chicago. In Orlando, it’s deep and rumbles and rolls for a long time. In Chicago, it’s more of a crack and it dies down quicker. I’ve always thought it had to do with the tall buildings and large body of water reflecting the sound in Chicago. But here, thunder sounds more like it does in Orlando. So perhaps it’s the air temperature that has more of an effect. It was a muggy 85 already at 6:30am.
Fortunately, the forecast predicted the weather would clear up by 9ish, which is when our walking tour with Little Adventures in Hong Kong started. This company offers small private tours (capped at 3 adults) that can be tailored to your interests.
We asked for a mashup of their “Essential Hong Kong” history tour and the street food frenzy, “Won-ton-a-thon.” In my initial communications with them, I tried to emphasize a focus on food over history. The end result turned out to be reversed, but that was just as well (which I’ll explain in a bit).
We took a cab from our hotel to the lobby of The Pottinger hotel where we met our lovely guide, Yvonne. Her life story is incredible. I’m not sure where she was born, but she went to boarding school in London, college in the US, lived in Wisconsin and Philadelphia, lived in East Africa working at a museum, traveled extensively, and settled in Hong Kong about 10 years ago. She studied anthropology, worked at several museums, but also worked as a film editor and a journalist. It was hard to keep track!
She was incredibly knowledgeable about the history and layout of the city. We explored a few areas of the Central district, including Soho (south of Hollywood street) and the Mid-levels.
Since we hadn’t had anything to eat yet we headed off for food.
Along the way, we stopped to admire the menu of a Cantonese restaurant, that wasn’t open yet. We stopped for a couple of reasons. First, history. The sign said they had been proudly serving since 1860. However, Yvonne explained they hadn’t been serving that long in Hong Kong. They were refugees from China.
The history of Hong Kong is punctuated with waves of refugees from China, fleeing from communism in the 50s, and then from Mao and the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s.
The second reason we stopped was to hear a funny story about how this restaurant’s signature sauce became known as “Swiss sauce.” An Englishman came into the restaurant and ordered chicken wings in sauce, which he really loved. He asked the waiter what the sauce was called. In an east meets west misunderstanding, he heard “Swiss” though the waiter was trying to communicate that it was a “sweet sauce.” It would have ended there, except the Englishman settled nearby and continued to return to the restaurant ordering the chicken wings in “Swiss sauce.” Eventually, it stuck.
Our first bite on the tour turned out to be more of a gulp. We went to Tsim Chai Kee, a noodle shop. The owner insisted we take a nice booth in the back of the restaurant because it was cooler. She was very friendly and chatted away with Yvonne in rapid-fire Cantonese.
Yvonne ordered us three types: beef brisket, fish balls, and shrimp (or prawn in this part of the world) wontons. The bowls were enormous!
The large portions were the result of a rivalry. This restaurant opened its doors across the street from a famous noodle shop, Mak Noodles (which only opens later in the day). Mak serves traditionally sized (i.e. snack sized) wontons. Tsim Chai Kee attracted customers by serving very large portions.
The bowls were packed with noodles and protein. Each broth was different and incredibly flavorful. The noodles were perfectly al dente.
The wontons were the most familiar. The mark of a good wonton is the thinness of the wrapper. A delicate wrapper is more difficult to cook, so it means you really know what you’re doing. Thick wrappers and the mark of an amateur. That bowl had the lightest broth.
The beef brisket’s broth was more savory and had a bit more umami flavor from the beef fat. The way the meat was cut is a bit different than what you get in the states if you order brisket. This was thinly shaved pieces of beef that didn’t fall apart.
The fish balls were the most foreign to us. The best way to describe the balls themselves is like a cross between a fish sausage and a fish meatball. Dace is ground up and mixed with herbs. They’re shaped into amorphous blobs and cooked (I presume in the broth), which was salty and herbaceous.
Yvonne also ordered us a side of steamed bok choi with oyster sauce. It was very delicately cooked and quite refreshing.
I enjoyed sampling each dish. In the US, we would have tried a few bites of each but left most behind to save room for other food down the road. But it turns out the downfall of a food tour in China or Hong Kong is that it would be very rude to leave food uneaten. It would be an insult to the chef’s cooking.
So I ate the fish balls, Dad ate the brisket and half of Mom’s noodles, and Mom ate the wontons. And we were stuffed. So it’s a good thing the tour was mostly about culture and history!
There’s no tipping in Hong Kong, so we simply told the owner how delicious the meal was (but since she didn’t speak much English, that mostly meant smiling and nodding a lot).
We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and ambled uphill.
We passed a Chinese herb shop and saw someone wrapping custom blends of medicinal brews in brown paper packaging.
We turned off the main drag and passed a couple of dai pai dong (street food stalls). These used to be incredibly common in Hong Kong but are now endangered. The government didn’t think they looked modern enough and it was difficult to enforce health codes, so they passed a law that said you could only transfer the license to a blood relative. That meant if your son or daughter didn’t want to continue the family tradition, the stall died out. There are fewer than 20 food stalls left in Hong Kong. They used to be exclusively patronized by old people, but now that they’re in danger of disappearing completely, there’s renewed interest from the younger generation.
One stall we passed serves breakfast sandwiches made of shredded cabbage, peanut butter, and condensed milk. Dad and I would totally have tried it if we weren’t so stuffed and there were any tables available.
Yvonne had some interesting insights about the health and safety of the street food stalls. She said if you see locals eating at them you know they’re safe (and probably delicious) because these people are feeding their friends and neighbors. If they poisoned anybody they’d be out of business! Also, everything is bought fresh daily and cooked to order, so nothing sits around spoiling.
To emphasize her point, we turned the corner and were suddenly in the middle of Graham Street Market, one of the few remaining wet markets in Hong Kong (named that because their streets are often very wet). These markets are a mishmash of vendors selling fresh fruits, tofu, eggs, and other ingredients. Some things we recognized, others we didn’t at all.
The market was a colorful jumble or organized chaos. The patrons were mostly locals. Yvonne told us this market was more tourist/camera-friendly than some others because they’re currently fighting to remain open. That said, we were obviously tourists, and the atmosphere wasn’t exactly welcoming, more neutral. I suspect the locals felt about me the same way I feel about tourists when I’m trying to carry groceries on Michigan Avenue (“You may make the economy go round, but for the love of God don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk!”).
Mom had a brief run-in with a cantankerous old lady when she tried to tie her shoe on the edge of her stall. In fairness, it was pretty decrepit and didn’t look like it was occupied.
Bamboo-scaffolding sprouted around construction sights all along the street market. That’s one of the reasons they’re fighting to stay open. Much of that area is being torn down and replaced with high rises, threatening to push them out. So far, they’ve dug in their heels and the local community seems to be supporting them.
At the top of the market, we turned to the right and walked along the meat and fish stalls. Each stall specialized in butchering only one kind of meat. The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).
The fish was also incredibly fresh (still flopping around in one case!).
After the markets, we passed a small Taoist shrine tucked in a steep alleyway amidst a jumble of residences and shops.
The incense coils burn slowly with prayers attached.
You can also light incense sticks and place them in bowls of sand. These should be done in groups of three, as prayers are sent up to heaven, earth, and humanity.
Yvonne led us through many side streets we never would have found on our own. We passed the historic YMCA. It’s a western-style red brick building, but to make it more inviting to the Chinese the roof tiles were made of green ceramic shaped like bamboo.
Many of the building had Door Guardian shrines, where offerings are placed. If the occupants move, the Door Guardian remains with the building.
We also passed run down or condemned tenement houses, another endangered Hong Kong sight. There’s a very large bias against old things in this city. The tenement style houses are very unpopular with the locals because of their age and lack of elevators. So many have been torn down and replaced with high-rises that there is only one row of livable houses left in all of Hong Kong! A small indie film made a few years ago (actually set in 1940s Kowloon) had to film on this particular street.
One reason these tenements still survive is that until fairly recently this district was a very undesirable location. Hong Kongers are a superstitious lot, and this sector was associated with death because of the plague outbreaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Locals feared ghosts and bad luck permeated the region. As a result, only things associated with death ( like coffin shops and antique shops – because antiques are dead people’s former possessions) populated the area. And the only people who lived there were poor. That history is slowly being forgotten and the neighborhood is in the process of being gentrified (hence all the construction). It will be interesting to see what the city is like in five or ten years.
Along the way, we did sample some more food (in smaller sizes). We had chilled sugar cane juice (refreshing but very sweet) and chilled five flowers tea (incredibly delicious and very floral).
We visited a British Candy Shop.
TAI Cheong Bakery is famous for their egg tarts. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before it was turned over to China in 1997, loved these tarts so much he acquired the rather unflattering nickname of “Fatty Patten.” The tart was delicious, served warm in a buttery flaky crust with smooth eggy/lemony custard in the center. Ten out of ten would eat again.
Lunch hour is officially 1-2pm in Hong Kong, but restaurant lines become ridiculously long starting about 12:40pm. Since we still hadn’t quite digested all the noodles, we opted to finish out our tour in an air-conditioned English pub (which is actually very Hong Kong, given the colonial influence).
I had a Hong Kong summer beer, Yvonne had a traditional British witbier, Dad had an alcoholic ginger beer, and Mom had a virgin Bloody Mary (most importantly, with ice).
Yvonne gave us some recommendations for the rest of our stay. I decided to stick around and explore the area a bit more while Mom and Dad headed back to the hotel via tram.
Yvonne left me with directions to the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science and deposited me onto the outdoor escalators that carry you up from Central to The Mid-levels. The escalators are about one story up, so you have an interesting perspective on the shops and restaurants you’re passing.
I was able to follow her directions right to the museum. The building was very similar to the YMCA in layout and design. Originally it was the Bacteriological Institute, Hong Kong’s first public health laboratory, founded in 1906 because of the plague outbreaks. The governor of Hong Kong pleaded with Britain to send an infectious disease specialist. Eventually they did, and the Institute was founded in 1906.
It was well done and didn’t suffer from Too Many Words (a problem many exhibits have). Possibly this is because every sign had to be in Cantonese and English.
The ground floor had exhibits on the human body, reproduction, and an interesting oral history of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Upstairs had historical displays and a well done video presentation about the plague outbreaks, which lasted almost 30 years (1894-1923). Senior medical students were tasked with dissecting rats to monitor the spread.
After the plague crisis, the Institute continued to test water, dairy products, and other sources to help prevent food poisoning. After the discovery of vaccines, they produced vaccines for several diseases (including smallpox).
Making smallpox vaccines was not very glamorous work. It involved strapping down a calf, shaving its belly, infected it with cowpox, and then taking samples.
After the museum, I went to Man Mo Temple, dedicated to literature and war. The temple is famous (basically, if you see a movie and there’s a Taoist temple, it’s probably this one). It’s being heavily renovated right now, which made for an interesting experience. The outside is completely covered in bamboo scaffolding but it’s still open to the public. The inside is also being renovated (though not quite as heavily). This means construction workers, tourists, and people praying are all jostling elbows.
After the temple, I headed back to a street we had walked along with Yvonne. I stopped at a local Hong Kong Chain, G.O.D (Gods of Desire), that sells locally made products: clothing, kitchen goods, and souvenirs. Then I started wandering back towards the hotel.
Google maps told me it was only about 1 mile, but I sorely missed Yvonne’s guidance about which streets slope up versus down, where pedestrian over- or under-passes are located, and how to navigate crazy intersections. This city was definitely not designed with pedestrians in mind and it would be a terrible place to be in a wheelchair.
It was a fascinating walk, though. The transition from old Hong Kong, with shabby local establishments, street stalls, and crumbling architecture, is replaced suddenly and sharply with gleaming towers of shiny glass and steel. You’d never guess the other part of the city existed in one place or the other.
There are also lush parks that mask the city.
I wandered through one past the Former French Mission Building and St. John’s Cathedral. At the edge of that park, a right turn would have taken me towards Hong Kong Park and the Peak Tram, but a left turn took me towards the hotel (sort of).
It took about an hour, but eventually I wound my way through a maze of streets, overhead walkways, and buildings (blessedly air-conditioned) and found the hotel.
I found both my parents conked out napping. They had taken the tram home, but also had a long and complicated walk to get from the tram stop to the hotel.
For dinner, we stayed in the hotel, but sampled the Cantonese restaurant. It’s beautifully decorated and had mirrors everywhere (including the ceiling).
We didn’t have a reservation, so we ended up at a giant table with a large Lazy Susan. That actually made it very easy to share dishes.
The menu offered half portions, perfectly sized for us to sample several dishes. I don’t think I’ve ever been someplace where the portions were larger than America before!
We had a bbq meat sampler (with honey bbq pork and crispy chicken skin), prawns with chili roe sauce, tilefish and pea sprouts, crispy chicken, asparagus, and wagyu foie gras fried rice. Everything was very tasty (even Dad liked most things). We also had a fantastic bottle of wine, a 2010 Clos de Vougeot de la Vougeraie that Dad was extremely pleased with.
After such a full (and hot) day, I crashed as soon as we got back to the room.
Our first morning in Hong Kong dawned sunnily but with some ominous dark clouds on the horizon. After a fairly restful night’s sleep I felt pretty much on schedule.
I decided to shake off the lethargy of sitting in one place for 16 hours and went to the fitness center to run on an elliptical. It felt good to move all those muscles! I also discovered the wi-fi was good enough to stream DS9 on Netflix while I sweated.
I had the best shower of my life (OK, only shower in two days) and still had time to grab some delicious wok-fried turnip cakes from the complimentary breakfast upstairs.
Our first stop in Hong Kong was (drumroll please): Disney.
Our taxi ride out to Hong Kong Disney essentially reversed our ride from the airport the night before. In daylight, it was much easier to appreciate how the islands connect to one another. There are some pretty spectacular city views along the way.
The ominous clouds from the morning did let loose a short deluge, though it was still sunny. That, combined with the heat and humidity, made it feel just like Florida. We weren’t sure how long it would take to find a taxi, so we played it safe and arrived very early for the backstage tour Dad arranged through some unique attractions.
Our guide Todd was a connection made via the former head of the French AMI outpost, Henry. Even better, we were able to add Glenn Birket to the tour (he arrived on time, being very familiar with the local transit options). Glenn is an old friend of Mom and Dad’s from Epcot days. He’s also my Godfather, though this was really the first time we’ve ever had a chance to get to know one another.
The park seems a bit small compared to other locations, but it is incredibly lush and tropical. Todd was a gracious host and spent several hours with us, walking us through the park and sharing some insider trivia.
Fun fact #1: The park was vastly over-planted, so every time a typhoon comes through and knocks down some trees, they just drag them out and turn them into firewood. They haven’t replanted a single tree since the park opened (and it’s still densely forested).
The park wasn’t crowded, in fact, it seemed rather empty. We thought perhaps it had to do with the threatening clouds and brief downpour, but it turns out…
Fun fact #2: Hellaciously hot September and October are slow months for HK Disney. But although Halloween is not a particularly big event in Hong Kong, it is a huge attendance draw (especially in the evenings and on weekends).
We saw that the park was already decked out with pumpkins, fall leaves, and trick-or-treat stations for the kids. It was also hot. Really, really hot.
Todd kindly lent us umbrellas since it was still drizzling when we arrived. However, by the time we entered the park the sun was out and steaming things up. I finally understand why people use umbrellas for portable shade. They help a surprising amount.
Our first stop was Mystic Manor (an attraction with some similarities to Haunted Mansion). The story follows Lord Henry Mystic and his pet monkey, Albert. Their story ties into the Society of Explorers and Adventurers from Tokyo DisneySea. Todd pointed out the real life designers, engineers, and composer who were featured in the pre-show “sketches” chronicling Lord Mystic and Albert’s adventures.
The ride starts when Albert opens their latest treasure: a music box. Legend says the box can bring inanimate objects to life, which of course it does, to disastrous results.
The ride vehicles are trackless, meaning they can go all over a room, including in circles, over and over again. This leads to a very interesting ride experience where your attention is sharply focused on particular elements at particular times. The show was cute and made excellent use of the ride vehicle’s capabilities.
We ate lunch at the attached restaurant, which served Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, and Cantonese dishes. Dad and I opted for the Indonesian vegetable curry. It was decent (by theme park food standards), but the roti were a bit indestructible. I did enjoy my watermelon juice (which would be called a watermelon fresca in the states).
After lunch, we continued our tour of the park, including a brief stop at an optical illusion that managed to make Mom look taller than me. That’s quite a feat of forced perspective!
Our final stop was the Iron Man simulator ride. The pre-show would be good for hard core Marvel fans because there are some cool movie props on display. Stan Lee also makes a cameo appearance in the safety video (which ran twice, once in Cantonese, once in English). Unfortunately, Stan Lee’s cameo distracted from important information both times!
The story is a bit thin for the 3D simulator. Like with all simulators, you’re there to watch a demonstration, something goes wrong (bad guys want to steal Tony Stark’s new arc reactor) and you have to help stop them and save the world (Hong Kong at least).
Mom and Dad got more of a kick out of the equipment room we visited after riding.
We elected not to stay in the park. Instead, we headed out with Glenn, who is very familiar with Hong Kong, so he could show us the ropes.
He showed us how to take the MTR, a train system that feels like a CTA-tube hybrid. It’s very convenient and reasonably easy to navigate (once you know the ropes).
We stopped briefly at Glenn’s office so he could introduce Dad to a few folks.
Then, we went on a mission to obtain a specific selfie-stick and micro-SD card for Dad. This involved a visit to Sham Shui Po, a district with a vast collection of merchants selling any electronic gadget, piece, or gizmo you could ever want. There’s an outdoor market, but we opted for the four-story indoor (and more importantly air-conditioned) option.
Dad found both items fairly quickly, though the sheer amount of stuff (and people) packed into the teeny tiny hallways was incredible. The experience reminded us a bit of Akihabara, the electronics district in Tokyo.
Mission completed, we hopped back on the train and headed to Kowloon (the island to the north of Hong Kong island). We walked down Nathan Ave (a shopping street) and past the famous Peninsula Hotel (sadly, we did not stop for tea).
As we went, Glenn shared some very interesting Hong Kong history and facts. A few memorable items included:
All toilets in Hong Kong are flushed with salt water – though it requires separate plumbing, this drastically reduced their water shortage problem, even as the city continues to grow
The construction scaffolding is often made of bamboo. There are special classes and certifications to make sure people know exactly how to use it, but when done properly, it can rise many stories and is very strong.
The district Glenn’s office is in used to be factories (from a time when everything was made in Hong Kong). After everything switched to being made in China, the buildings were repurposed into office buildings. Now, a global toy distribution company occupies many of the buildings where the toys used to be made.
We made it all the way to the tip of Kowloon and walked along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, which is directly across the water from our hotel.
The view of Hong Kong island was stunning.
We took the famous Star Ferry across the water to the convention center attached to our hotel. The sun was setting as we sailed across, and it made a striking back drop for the skyline.
We relaxed at the hotel for a bit before going to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel for dinner. We had a nice dinner, which included a delicious lotus root and sesame oil amuse bouche, crab and seaweed salad, some kind of broth with a dumpling, 5 pieces of sashimi, wagyu, tempura, and a mini matcha bunt cake for dessert.
Mom and Dad had access to a deluxe lounge in the airport before our flight to Hong Kong because of their business class tickets. They indulged in such wonders as buffet snacks, a full-service kitchen, and free-flowing champagne.
Flying coach, I ate a salad out of a plastic container at the gate.
Once aboard, though my accommodations for the next 16 hours were not as swanky, I was pleased to discover the middle seat next to me was unoccupied. This meant extra leg room (albeit on a diagonal) and a place to put stuff other than my lap.
Though it looked a bit like a prison tray, the lunch of teriyaki noodles with vegetables and a side of couscous was actually pretty palatable. I stockpiled the bread and butter for a mid-flight snack. I took an afternoon (Chicago time) nap for a couple of hours. After I woke up, I finished going through the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Hong Kong and watched a movie.
At this point it was time for another afternoon nap (this time on Hong Kong time). Mom offered to lend me a nifty contraption that converts between a square pillow and a neck pillow. It was actually pretty comfy and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. When I awoke the second time, I was pretty able to convince myself it was late afternoon… until they served breakfast. Oh well.
I had a window seat so I got to observe the mountainous islands that dotted our approach. One bridge was so long I couldn’t see the end!
After landing, our trip through immigration and customs was painless. Plus, the “priority” stickers a nice young man put on our checked bags in Chicago (thanks business class!) did their job and our bags were the first off the plane.
A limo driver from the hotel met us and stowed our bags away. In all that guidebook reading it never occurred to me they would drive on the left side of the road here! But it makes sense, given the British colonization.
The drive from the airport (at the end of Lantau) to The Grand Hyatt in Central (on Hong Kong Island) was a bit mysterious due to the gathering darkness. By the time we approached Kowloon and Hong Kong we could see the elaborate lights on many of the high-rises.
The lobby of the hotel was palatial, which is particularly impressive given that real-estate is so scarce in Hong Kong. Dad booked a beautiful suite with a killer view of Kowloon’s skyline. There was an entryway, sitting area, dining table, bedroom, and large bathroom (with an opening into the bedroom… I guess so you can admire the view while you shower?!?). Mom also discovered a small bathroom and closet off the entryway that just looked like part of the wall at first. There were an incredible number of doors in the room (six, not including the shower door).
The package also included free minibar snacks, drinks, some extra goodies delivered in very nice cookie jars, and a bottle of 2015 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Cotes-du-Rhone (too bad it wasn’t the 1982 Petrus Mom and I saw displayed downstairs).
We ate dinner (or possibly second dinner) in the hotel’s cafe and then crashed.
This trip to Japan sort of snuck up on us. Between having hardwood floors installed, buying new living room furniture, painting and redecorating the guest room, getting ready for Christmas, and entertaining my Dad, suddenly it was the day after Christmas and we were packing for Tokyo.
The 4 am alarm was an unwelcome sound, but our trip to the airport and flight to Atlanta were uneventful. By 10 am we were boarding Delta flight 55 for the 14-hour flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
The Boeing 777 was a lovely plane, with business elite seats that nearly reclined flat. I exchanged 360,000 frequent flyer miles for the tickets back in March, when I thought Delta might be going out of business. Even though they are still in bankruptcy, it was gratifying to see that their international service has really improved — a necessity to compete with foreign carriers on their many new routes. As a result, the food and service was excellent. The Japanese meal I had was particularly noteworthy, with a dozen small ceramic dishes of tasty mysteries.
We were able to nap for several hours, which helped make up for the early morning and ten time-zone shift (Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of Orlando). Dani took advantage of my new laptop’s 9-hour battery to add 3500 words to her novel, The Last Telepath, which is now past 20,000 words.
The flight path took us over Alaska — I know, it doesn’t seem like a shortcut until you look at a globe. We arrived a bit after 2 pm Thursday, having lost an entire day somewhere over the Bering Sea, when we crossed the International Date Line.
It was very windy in Tokyo, which made for an exciting landing. I was struck by how much the airport — and much of the city’s architecture, for that matter — looked like Frankfurt. In fact, all of Tokyo looks much more European than I was expecting. Except for the signs in Japanese, the sea of 5-foot tall, black-haired people, and the cars being on the opposite side of the street, it would be hard to distinguish it from any major European city.
The people are very different, though. Friendly but reserved, and extremely focused on doing things right. This was in evidence from the moment we arrived at the airport. Waiting for the bus to the hotel, industrious porters arranged and tagged our luggage and positioned it (and us) just so, in anticipation for the spot-on arrival of the bus. There was much more spoken English and English signage than I was expecting, although this changes dramatically, away from tourist-frequented areas. In the city there are lots of English names on stores and buildings, but they’re mostly just words that sound good to the Japanese, and don’t convey any meaning.
The topography of Japan is similar to Southern California, although one guide book described it as looking like a perpetual construction site. Certainly the land is thoroughly used, with every acre of the 45-mile drive from airport to hotel occupied by either a rice field or a building. Speaking of guidebooks, here are some things I learned by reading the excellent Time Out Tokyo during the flight:
Japan is an archipelago that stretches from the latitude of Miami to Montreal. Tokyo is about even with Atlanta.
The Japanese literacy rate is 99%.
There is no tipping in Japan, an odd but refreshing experience.
All but three of Japan’s 3000 streams and rivers are dammed!
Approximately 100 million Japanese practice the traditional Shinto religion. And 100 million practice a version of China’s Buddhism. Impressive, considering the population is 127 million. Clearly these people are hedging their bets.
On the drive from the airport we passed a Carre Four (French) supermarket, Tokyo Disneyland, a very, very large Ferris wheel, The Ginza shopping district, and Tokyo station. By this time the sun had set (at 4:30!), and the city was a mixture of Vegas neon and brightly lit office buildings. Workers were still hard at it in most of the buildings, but there were also a lot of office parties in progress. December 28th is the last day of work for most people, and culminates in a traditional Japanese-style blow out. Many of these workers won’t go back to their jobs until January 4th.
Central Tokyo was a literal tangle of streets, bridges, causeways and canals. It was amazing to see vending machines glowing in the darkest corners of these concrete mazes. In a city with low crime, these machines are safe from vandalism everywhere. And they are everywhere, vending, soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, condoms and even used teenage girl’s panties (although we didn’t actually see any of those. . . sorry, Dave).
At the hotel I was bemused that, in a city with little crime, procedure still dictated that every last baggage tag be matched to our luggage as we disembarked. This was all done for us, but it had to be done.
I didn’t realize it when I booked it, but we’re staying at the hotel where Lost In Translation was filmed. The Park Hyatt is a stylish, modern facility occupying the 41st through 51st floors of one of the western-most high rises in Shinjuku, Tokyo’s “skyscraper” district. At over 300 square feet, the rooms are among the city’s largest. The staff is extremely efficient (of course) and friendly, and well-versed in English. A measure of their efficiency was that when we checked in they didn’t have a record of the third person in our room. By the time we were escorted to the room, there were already three people there making it up for the extra person.
Our luggage was delivered moments later by a young lady who apologized profusely when I had to help her heft the largest piece onto a shelf to prevent her from being flattened — but better to lose face than life.
The wind had swept away the clouds, providing infinite visibility in all directions. Given how even the locals lingered at the windows, I suspect this is a one-a-year event. As promised, our room looked directly onto Mt. Fuji. I wonder how many guests have never spotted it?We had an early dinner in the lobby restaurant, Girandole, which specializes in American food. It was okay, but expensive, more attributable to the hotel it’s in than the cost of Tokyo these days, which after fifteen years of inflation isn’t nearly as high as it once was. The exchange rate is pretty good — 118 Yen to the dollar — but this is still going to be an expensive trip: a bottle of San Pellegrino water is $15. By 7:30 pm we were in bed, and didn’t surface until 7 am.
Friday, December 29, 2006
The next morning we awoke to find Tokyo dazzling. Still breezy, and with few commuters to replenish the smog, visibility remained infinite. Dani and I had an American breakfast in the lobby restaurant, with delicious croissants, scones and other pastries.
The most notable feature of the room is one the Japanese take for granted. No, this isn’t the captain’s chair on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, although it has more buttons. Don’t press them unless you like surprises. It’s typical of most toilets in quality establishments in Japan. Because the Japanese don’t like rude noises, it is also the habit of women to flush the toilet multiple times to mask the sound. Because this was wasting water, many public toilets are equipped with audio players that make a flushing noise when their button is pushed!
There is an entirely different type of public toilet that provides a far less pleasant experience. As you walk around Tokyo, you are often handed packets with advertising on them. The advertisers know you won’t throw them away, because they contain toilet paper — a necessity in this other caliber of public facility.
After a visit with the concierge, Crystal Wong, to organize our week, we set out to explore. A twenty-minute walk East brought us to Shinjuku Station. Thanks to careful reading of the guide and a few leaps of logic, we were able to use the automated kiosk to purchase three Suica passes, essentially wireless smart cards with pre-loaded fares. These will work on the Japan Railway trains, but not on the other three competing systems. Shinjuku Station is the one that often appears in films of rush hour in Tokyo: white-gloved personnel pressing commuters into trains so the doors will close. Fortunately for us, the New Year holiday means the trains are almost empty by Tokyo standards, with only a few people in each car. The Yamanote line is a particularly easy way to get around Tokyo, as it makes a loop, and stops in most of the places that interest visitors.
Most Tokyo streets aren’t named, which makes it a bit of a challenge to get around. Navigating the rail system is quite easy, once you get the hang of it, because routes — and the corresponding trains — are colored. Stops are named, but not always in English. Recognizing the Japanese characters is very difficult, but you can get off by counting stops. And the trains are so timely you can also tell where you are by how long the ride has been.
But once you come out of the station, you have to navigate by the names of buildings or businesses. Addresses are a combination of the ward, district, chome, block and building, sometimes named, but mostly numbered arbitrarily. This means maps are of only limited use. But if you stand staring at a map, looking lost, someone will probably offer assistance. Of course, they may then have to ask a policeman!
Two stops to the South brought us to Harajuku, an upscale shopping and restaurant district. We strolled up and down the street looking for a Japanese restaurant with English menus, finally settling — by mistake — for one that turned out to be Chinese. It was a nine-course affair of mostly unfamiliar stuff. I can’t say I found anything spectacularly wonderful, but there were a few tasty things.
One thing about Tokyo — you never have to feel self-conscious about taking pictures. Everywhere people were snapping photos and taking videos. We saw very few foreigners, but there were either a lot of Japanese tourists, or they just like to document everything.
We visited a store called Kiddy Land (you can’t count on the name implying the contents in Japan) that specialized in animated gizmos (including radishes) and radio-controlled gizmos, and kitsch. After exploring one floor we discovered there were five more and gave up.
Dani discovered an enormous Manga (comic book) store. 40% of Japanese publishing is Manga, and there are titles that appeal to boys, girls, men and women. When translated they cost about $10 a book in the US, but many are under $2 in Japan. How frustrating: 10,000 titles, and not one in English!
We later learned the Japanese write two different ways. The traditional vertical technique is read top to bottom, left to right. But young people prefer to read left to right, horizontally, and many books are now being published this way. This is also how text messaging on the phones work. (Text messaging is quite popular here, because voice calls may not be made on public transportation, as it annoys fellow travelers. ) How you text message in Japanese using a ten-key pad is beyond me, though.
The nearby Takeshita Dori specializes in shops for teenagers (sample name: Goth and Lolita). More on this later.
The high today was in the 40s, and it continued to be breezy, so as the sun set we retraced our route to Shinjuku station — spending only about half an hour reorienting ourselves as we re-emerged through a randomly selected exit. Back at the hotel our heated toilet seat actually felt good.
We had a nap and then a late (9 pm) dinner in the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, Kozue. This is a fairly famous restaurant, where each dish is a unique ceramic work of art. There were eight courses, some of which contained many individual items themselves. Many dishes were based upon broth, and there were many new flavors. In the end, it was the sashimi that I liked best, by a wide margin. Not coincidentally, it was the only thing that seemed familiar. Dani has been quite adventurous food-wise, but I think she found today’s lunch and dinner a bit challenging. I know I did. Linda, following the philosophy “when in Rome do as the Phoenicians do,” tried some Japanese white and red wines. They reminded me of the Florida wines Blanc du Bois and Noble. On the whole I thought the meal was just okay. I stayed up late, catching up on my journal.
Saturday, January 30, 2006
Continued cool and clear, although not quite the dazzling clear of yesterday. After some nice pastries in the lobby we set out for Akihabara. This involves taking the Yamanote line halfway around its circuit of Central Tokyo, a thirty-minute trip.
On the walk to the station I saw someone washing highrise windows. This is done by essentially rappelling down the side of the building. As dangerous as it looked, it was topped later by a guy clinging to a ledge washing the windows outside his restaurant.
Akihabara is Tokyo’s “Electric Town. ” It started as a black market center for tubes and other electronics after World War II, and has since become the place to buy consumer electronics. There are over 600 booths, shops and stores crammed into a few blocks.
For me, the most interesting ones are the small booths right beneath the train station. Reminiscent of a permanent flea market, each specializes in one category of component, such as LEDs, transformers, or even screws. Unfortunately, this was the least interesting area to everyone else.
There were no deals on consumer electronics. The Japanese versions of some products were a bit cheaper than in the US, but the export versions (which have an international warranty and English menus) were the same price they would be for a savvy Internet shopper.
Dani bought some T-shirts and souvenirs at Llaox, a seven-story duty free electronics and gift shop. Duty free means the store carries export merchandise, and will refund your 5% tax on the spot if you spend more than 10,000 Yen (about $80).
Because of its appeal to the young male otaku (nerds), Akihabara is also filled with Manga and Anime shops. The one we visited consisted of seven floors, each about 1000 square feet, with approximately 100 nerds per floor. Navigating the three-foot wide stairwells was interesting. The ground floor offered the most varied selection, with the other floors devoted almost exclusively to porn in all its variations, Lolitas and tentacles (or a combination) being the most popular. (There’s no stigma against reading porn in public here. The shelves of the am-pm mini mart are lined with it. )
Having found no deals, no English Manga, and no appealing restaurant in Akihabara, we got back on the Yamanote line for two more stops and disembarked at Tokyo Station. Built to look like Amsterdam’s Centraal station, it is one of Tokyo’s oldest buildings, although it dates from only the late 1800s.
The station opens onto the Marunouchi district and beyond that the Imperial Palace. The Marunouchi Building is 36-story high rise with many floors of gourmet food shops and restaurants. In the lobby a large orchestra was playing classical music. It seemed odd that at the end of the pieces none of the spectators applauded.
We found a tempura restaurant on the sixth floor, and had a nice meal that involved a lot of pointing and nodding. Personally, I liked it better than last night’s extravaganza.
On the way back to the lobby, a sign in the elevator warned us not to put our fingers in the door.
Two blocks north, we posed in front of the Imperial Palace grounds. They are open two days a year. Today wasn’t one of them.
On the way back, Dani used the new camera Grandma Marjorie gave her for Christmas to take some art photos.
By the time we completed the circle of the Yamanote line it was approaching rush hour, but because of the holiday, traffic was light.
The walk back to the hotel after sunset was a bit cool, and we stopped at a mini mart for cans of coffee. I hadn’t realized that coffee was so popular here. It seems there is a coffee house on almost every block. So far they are holding their own against the encroaching Starbucks. After such a busy day and a late lunch, our 6pm nap turned into bedtime, and we didn’t venture out until the next morning.
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Another cool and fairly clear day, with highs in the 40s. Up a bit before sunrise, we watched Mt. Fuji change from purple to white in the morning light.
We had breakfast in the lobby. One thing on the buffet that I’ve never seen before is a complete honeycomb rack, removed from a bee hive. It drips into a collection tray, then runs into a serving dish.
Linda was feeling a bit under the weather, so she opted to relax in the room today. Dani and I decided to visit Roppongi Hills, a new shopping development in what used to be mostly the sleazy sex district. We took the subway, which is like a clean version of the London Underground. Like the train system, it’s easy to buy tickets and navigate, once you get the hang of it. And like the train system, the biggest problem is figuring out what exit to come out, when the streets have no names.
Roppongi Hills is a network of malls, on six levels. I have no idea how many stores there are, but the map is 12 pages long, and the separate restaurant guide is at least thirty pages. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, and Dani found a Japanese copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For someone who liked shopping, this place would be paradise.
We selected an Indian restaurant named Diya for lunch, and had an excellent meal of curries and tandoori-grilled meats. No trouble communicating there.
After lunch we decided to return to Harajuku and Takeshita Dori’s funky teen neighborhood. We took the subway to the Yamanote train line; total travel time: 15 minutes including the connection. This transportation system works great. It sure was deserted most of the day, because of it being New Year’s Eve.
But Takeshita Dori wasn’t. The place was packed with teenagers, many dressed for cosu-purei or “costume play. ” 19th century French maids, lolitas, and leather abounded. There were an equal number of tourists checking out the funky shops. Dani bought some umbrellas with plastic animal handles. At the Manga store a helpful salesman directed her to the titles she was looking for, which were unrecognizable from the English editions. A whole bagful cost less than one book in the US. Too bad she can’t read them.
Back at Kiddy Land she bought a few more gifts for friends, and a plush radish (we didn’t have one of those). Then we headed back to the hotel to rest our feet and get ready for New Year’s Eve.
The hotel’s approach to housekeeping is interesting. A team of five housekeepers — men and women — descend upon the room and completely remake it in under ten minutes. This includes carefully wiping every edge that could possibly collect dust.
The hotel staff has also been leaving small gifts in our room: a box of candied chestnuts, mint chocolates shaped as leaves, a chestnut pie, an artisan-crafted flask of sake.
We took a twenty-minute taxi ride to our 8 pm dinner at Gonpachi. It was quite fun zipping through the narrow, winding streets of Tokyo at high speed in the light traffic. The taxi was equipped with a high resolution gps screen that appeared to display live street condition information.
Although there were quite a few locals dining there, Gonpachi seems to be oriented toward clueless tourists. When George Wacko Bush was in Tokyo he dined there, and if anybody is clueless, it’s him.
The restaurant is a two-story affair. We sat on the second floor, a mezzanine surrounding the food preparation area below. We removed our shoes and climbed into our booth which, like the rest of the restaurant, was constructed from very old wooden beams.
Down below, the restaurant was a lively space, filled with chefs grilling things on sticks, making tempura, and a wide variety of other traditional foods. Tapas style (it even said tapas on the menu), we tried a variety of things, and it was all tasty. Prices were very reasonable, less than $3 a skewer. The Louis Roederer Champagne was good, too, and a bargain at 8500 Yen.
A line of cabs waited out front, so it was easy to get back to the hotel.
Dani watched the New Year arrive on our room’s high definition flat panel TV. The New Year’s countdown involves Japanese pop music, and banging a giant gong. It seemed a little strange to welcome the New Year, knowing the Times Square Ball won’t drop until tomorrow afternoon at 2 pm!
For the Japanese, New Year’s is a time for leaving the old year behind, and starting fresh, so we’ll say “Sayonara” to 2006.
Monday, January 1, 2007
After a room service breakfast Linda and I set out to explore while Dani stayed in the room to do some writing. It continues cool, but the smog is encroaching, and our view of Mt. Fuji is history. We now realize how lucky we were.
Because of the holiday, the streets are almost deserted. This trip timing has worked out really well for us. Everything we’ve wanted to see or do has largely been available, but with one tenth the normal crowds.
We were expecting everything to be closed because of the holiday, but quite a few shops and many restaurants were open. We began by walking through the twisty little streets not far from the hotel. There were actually quite a few people in the electronic stores. It must be a madhouse on a normal day.
We walked through the train station to the east side, which is the true Shinjuku: a maze of shops, department stores, cinemas, love hotels (rented by the hour), restaurants, pachinko parlors and arcades. It goes on for about one square mile!
We wound our way through the streets for a couple of hours, looking for a restaurant with either an English menu or pictures of the food. Finally we selected a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. You sit at a counter and small plates of sushi travel past on a conveyor. You simply take what you want, and are charged by the number and color of plates in your pile at the end of the meal. No English required. A box of green powder proved to be tea (not wasabi, as we discovered the hard way) which we placed in mugs filled from the hot tap at each seat. The sushi was fresh and delicious, and ten plates of it came to only $15.
On the way back we walked past the Hilton and made a reservation for dinner at Twenty One, their French restaurant. It’s normally closed on Monday, but they are serving a set menu for the holiday. It seemed unpopular, and the Maitre d’ told us a reservation would be no problem, as the Japanese guests all wanted the traditional New Years menu served in the Japanese restaurant.
Dinner proved quite good, not exactly French cuisine, but certainly not Japanese either. Closer to what I’ve come to call new American cuisine: seared fois gras, braised short ribs, and so on. Prices were comparable to upscale prix fixe menus in the US.
As I headed to bed it was funny to realize that the Rose Parade won’t happen here until January 2nd.
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
We met our guide, Ms. Junko Matsuda (Jun), in the hotel lobby at 8 am. Ms. Matsuda is a lovely Japanese woman who has lived in Hawaii for a year and Kansas for five years. Her business, Jun’s Tokyo Discovery Tours, specializes in personal guided tours of Tokyo, but she also takes clients to other cities. Although she goes to Kyoto several times a year, this is the first time she has gone during the New Year’s, when many (many) Japanese journey there to visit the shrines.
We walked to Shinjuku Station and took the express train to Tokyo Station, where we transferred to the Shinkansen bullet train. This high speed train glides on welded rails at 276 km/hr, making the journey to Kyoto in two and a half hours. We had reserved seats in the ‘green’ section, which were very much like first class airline seats, but with one additional trick. Any pair of seats can be rotated 180 degrees to form a four-person grouping. Perfect.
Traveling through the low mountains that divide the east side of the main island of Japan from the west we passed through agricultural areas and saw snow- dusted fields of rice. Lines of snow hung on the tile roofs of the houses.
Arriving in Kyoto’s modern railway station we found the city crowded with Japanese visitors. We stood in a long but fast moving line, waiting for a taxi. There was a slight drizzle as we waited, but it stopped during the cab ride and didn’t return.
Each of our four taxi drivers during the day was obviously quite proud of their beautiful and historic city, and enthusiastically provided information along the way. Jun translated for us, and we enjoyed the driving almost as much as the places we visited.
Our first stop was at a Zen rock garden. Before visiting the garden we had lunch in a tatami room. This was our most authentic traditional Japanese experience of the trip, and I wondered if it was for tourists. I suppose the answer is both yes and no. Many Japanese use Western style furniture in their homes, so when visiting Kyoto they enjoy the traditional ways. But we saw almost no other westerners during our entire day, so this is clearly something they like to do.
Before entering the tatami room we placed our shoes in storage cubbys in the entryway.
We sat on woven tatami mats. Their standard size, one by two meters, is used to designate room size. For example, a bedroom might be a six tatami room.
In the center of the mat was a burner used to heat a large bowl filled with tofu cubes and vegetables. In addition, we were each served a small tray/table with a variety of tofu preparations, Japanese pickles and other tasty items. I had never had very good tofu in the States, so I was somewhat skeptical, but everything was tasty, and we all enjoyed the experience very much.
After lunch we strolled through the peaceful landscape of woods, skirting mirror-like ponds. A mossy carpet covered the ground beneath the trees.
At the Zen garden we again removed our shoes and donned slippers. Benches line one side, allowing visitors to sit and contemplate the fifteen stones surrounded by smooth-raked gravel. It might seem silly to a generation raised on video games, but I found it quite peaceful (except for the large crowd coming and going).
Our next stop was at the Golden Temple. This Buddhist shrine is a popular spot to visit when seeking luck for the new year. It was burnt by an obsessed monk in the 1950s, but has been reconstructed exactly as it was. Although not allowed to enter the temple, hundreds of pilgrims were making a procession around the site, and we joined the flow of traffic.
Visitors fanned incense from a brazier onto themselves for its good luck properties.
Along the path many small booths sold a variety of items. It is a fad in Japan to add “accessories” to cell phones. These small charms or souvenirs dangle in clumps from almost every teenage girl’s phone. They might be a Hello Kitty, a Disney character, or a traffic safety charm.
Dani bought one for scholastics, just to be on the safe side.
Fortunes were also for sale, printed on small scrolls. Not all are good. Jun helped Dani read hers, which was favorable.
Linda’s advised her not to volunteer for anything!
Another taxi drive found the streets of Kyoto approaching gridlock. We wove our way through back streets to Gion, the neighborhood described in Memoirs of a Geisha.
There are only about 100 geisha left in Kyoto. They entertain at private parties, at a cost of about $3000 an evening. Although we saw no geisha, many, many of the women were dressed in beautiful kimono to celebrate the new year.
Nearby we posed in front of a famous pagoda, and walked up a winding street lined with shops, many of them making and selling beautiful — but expensive — ceramics. The area is known for its art and literature, and this was evident in the beauty of both merchandise and neighborhood. Vendors stalls also sold homemade food items, and Jun bought us each a freshly made rice cracker wrapped in seaweed. Delicious, and very different than the bit sized rice crackers we are used to; this was more like a rice cake.
A final taxi ride of the day returned us to the station where we boarded our Shinkansen for Tokyo. Jun had purchased some origami paper at the station, and spent the train ride teaching Dani how to make cranes. It is a tradition to make 1000 cranes for various occasions, such as a sick loved one. Dani has about 997 to go.
We could have easily made the journey to Kyoto on our own, but without Jun’s help we would have seen very little and understood less. We are very indebted to her for her guidance and especially her friendly and fun attitude.
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
We decided to spend our final day in Japan visiting Tokyo DisneySea, a project we’ve heard a lot about, but didn’t really know much about. I always enjoy visiting places where our equipment is in use, trying to guess what is backstage. And indeed, we wouldn’t be going backstage, as none of Linda’s co-workers had been available to let us in, so we’d be going as paying guests.
Feeling fairly comfortable with the Tokyo rail lines, particularly with some new insights from Jun, we took the Chuo express train from Shinjuku to Tokyo station and then transferred (after what seemed like a mile walk) to the Keiyo line for the trip to Maihama Station. The total journey took less than an hour, and was very easy, even with almost no English signage. I wouldn’t have wanted to try it a few days ago, though!
At Maihama you take the Disney monorail to one of two theme parks or the resort complex. The monorail seems a bit less like a ride when you’ve just taken two similar systems to get to the park!
We were afraid Disney would be very crowded because of the holiday, but the parking lot was less than half full. That’s not to say there weren’t long lines — nearly every attraction involved a wait of 30 to 90 minutes. But the Japanese don’t seem to mind queues. There was even about a 30 minute queue to play redemption games!
Tokyo DisneySea is (as of this writing) the world’s most expensive theme park, and it shows. With a budget of over $2 billion, every detail is simply perfection. It’s hard to believe this park was done by the same people and at the same time as the low-budget Disney’s California Adventure.
We began our visit with lunch in the steamer that is docked in the American Waterfront section, dining on those American favorites grilled prawn sandwich, bouillabaisse and roast beef on graham. Those crazy Americans!
Then we ventured over to the park’s central feature, a giant volcano. A castle at the base housed interactive science exhibits themed to the era of the alchemists. Rooms were devoted to the Coriolis force, the rotation of planets, lenses, and a working copy of Leonardo’s flying machine. Really neat!
Inside the volcano’s caldera is the best themed area ever. A lagoon bubbles and froths, and occasionally holes open and water simply disappears into the abyss. A 20,000 Leagues sub is docked at one side. Overhead an earth boring machine hangs poised to drill into the mountain side. Steam oozes from crevices in the rock, and strange metallic noises echo around the rock faces. Everywhere there are strange, hand-wrought metal structures that look like something out of the computer game Myst.
Descending into a dark tunnel we entered a heavily-themed queue for Journey to the Center of the Earth. The wait was about an hour, but there was lots to look at. The ride vehicles are large earth borers that travel through a number of fanciful scenes before encountering a giant, highly articulated creature. The ride then accelerates rapidly, bursting out of the rim of the caldera for a moment before dropping back down into the caverns and unload. Very well done.
Next we wandered past the Mayan pyramid that houses Indiana Jones, and then spent some time shopping in the Arabian marketplace.
When our Fast Pass time came up, we returned to the caldera, now even neater with evening lighting, for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For this ride you enter a diving bell vehicle that seats two people at each of three large domed windows. Bubbles swirl as you submerge. (Actually the bubbles are trapped in the domed windows, and the ride remains dry, a real maintenance saver. It’s a superb illusion. )You encounter various undersea life and discover a lost city populated by strange creatures before “resurfacing. “
By 6 pm the cold air off of Tokyo bay was pretty chilly, but a new crowd of visitors was just arriving to take advantage of the after 6 pm rates. It was time for us to retrace our steps by monorail and train, back to the hotel. We rested for an hour, then headed upstairs to the New York Grill for our Tokyo farewell dinner. The restaurant is a stylish mix of metal and glass, with two-story-high glass walls on all sides. A jazz combo played old standards in the lounge on one side, their backdrop the solid glass wall and twinkling vista. The multi-course meal was tasty (and pricey), and the 360 degree view of Tokyo’s lights superb.
Thursday, January 4, 2007
Sitting by the window finishing this journal, I’m contemplating what a great trip this has been. We’ve crammed a lot into our six days in Tokyo. And as I look out at the city — just now gearing back up to its normal bustling level — I realize what a perfect time of year this was to come. We had a chance to explore without crowds, and the holiday didn’t interfere at all.
I really like Tokyo and its people, and definitely want to return for another visit.