Wandering in Japan

It was decided a month or two before our wedding, ‘why don’t we go to Japan?’.  Sure, new hubby and I both studied Japanese in school, we both were (still are) anime fans, we are familiar and greatly admire the trust culture and discipline that is the Japanese brand.  But I was still pleasantly surprised to learn that this country is both in our bucket list.  That’s it, then, our honeymoon (series, I might add) will start in Japan.

Blooms pictured in Ueno Park

Spring blooms

Hubby and I are both city people, but I have a frequent yearning for the outdoors and nature, and will probably survive if not love living in a farm given the chance.  We’re both foodies, and love to localize.  So we decided to stay mostly in Tokyo for food crawls and spend a day touring Mt. Fuji.

Long Walks in Shinjuku

On our first day we decided to check out the train systems, navigate the streets near the hotel — in the process, tried to practice our very rusty Japanese — and enjoy our first meal in Japan.  We weren’t disappointed; Tokyo IS a culinary heaven.  More details on our food stops here  😉

Harajuku Bargain Shopping

Takeshita

We didn’t expect it to still be very cold when we arrived (3-16 degrees Celsius) days before the cherry blossoms start to bloom.  We took this as an opportunity to explore and maybe score good finds in trendy Takeshita Street in Harajuku, said to be the hub of Tokyo Street Fashion.  I scored a pair of low-heeled boots for $4, some souvenirs good for family and colleagues for less than $5, an irresistible black coat for me and leather shoes for hubby.  At this point we knew it was time to go and resist temptation.

Now we heard and read from a lot of people that Japan and Tokyo in particular can be very expensive, and so we were both surprised to discover that it’s not, If you knew where to book and dine.  More on this in another post 😉

Gindaco

Shibuya Crossing aka The Scramble

The Scramble

Since Harajuku and Shinjuku are not so far apart, we just had to check out what the Scramble was about 😉

We can’t help but admire how the Japanese revere their elders, history and culture in the way they preserve and frequent shrines and museums.  Not only were there a lot of foreigners (us included) visiting the parks, shrines and museums, there were many locals visiting as well.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji2

Meiji

We devoted a day to explore the parks and museums near Ueno Park, the 1st public park of its kind in Japan.  It is surrounded by government museums (Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science, Shitamachi Museum), Ueno Zoo and Shrine and is a good viewing spot for cherry blossoms.

National Museum2

Tomb covers

Picture wall

National Museum

The next day, we booked a day tour to Mt. Fuji that included a trip to some nearby villages, 5th Station and some outlet stores.  Mt. Fuji is so majestic, my photos don’t do it justice…The country’s tallest peak, it’s commonly called Fuji-san, and is one of Japan’s 3 sacred/holy mountains.  It’s snow-capped about 5 months in a year and best time to hike or at least, most hikers visit from July to August.

Mt. Fuji

Mt Fuji

How ingenious!  Lava sugar and lava hotdog from a café in Fujisan World Heritage Center

Lava coffee and hotdog

Matcha Ceremony in one of the villages near Mt. Fuji

Matcha

We were so lucky to score free overnight stays in Grand Hyatt for the first 3 days of our time in Tokyo, after which we decided to check out Airbnbs nearby.  The law legalizing airbnb rentals in Japan will take effect in June 2018, but we heard there are more restrictions set by many local government compared to other countries.  So best to coordinate with your airbnb host prior to booking and book in advance.

Exploring Tokyo’s Korea Town in Shin-Okubo

Dak Galbi

On our last day, we explored Korea Town after packing up.  We had to check if our luggage can still be closed and not exceed our limit at this point 😉  I’m not very much into make up, but finding Japanese and Korean skincare products and even make up at 20-50% less than what I normally pay for it is such a delight!  Japan being an expensive city to visit is such a myth.  Just do your due diligence and plan your itinerary (loosely or not) to have some sort of guide while you’re there and check out travel blogs for tips.  Or you can always opt for tours to be on the safe side, but at a higher rate.

Overall, our stay in Japan was so refreshing, it provided us with the needed relaxation, interesting cultural experience and time together after all the wedding fun and excitement and, let’s face it, stress that came along with it.  All the good things you’ve probably seen in social media or heard from other people are true; the clean streets, great food, high tech toilets, respectful people, beautiful cities and countryside, and then some more.  It’s a place and culture you have to see and experience at least once in your life.  It’s becoming our favorite city so far, and maybe country, but check back with me in a year and we’ll see 😉

 

 

Wandering in Taipei

taipei museum

It was a spur-of-the-moment trip that turned out really well; a next visit becomes a must. Taipei turned out to be a gem; a very budget traveler-friendly, culture-rich, foodie paradise. One long weekend spent there would have been enough, but you’ll definitely go for more.

We were supposed to just visit Japan for the 1st time this year, but news of visa suspension in Taipei starting June and promo fares from different airlines for this destination got me curious and gave me itchy feet. So we booked a 3-day weekend trip around mid-July for my birthday. Unfortunately, the visa suspension was moved to September of this year while they’re working out the whole process. We still went anyway; applied for an e-visa online and got them in a couple of days. Kudos to Taiwan embassy for a quick and efficient visa application process.

While there, we tried AirBnB for the first time abroad after the first day at a hotel near the airport. As an AirBnB host myself, I fully support this community and was not disappointed. The listing we booked was a fully-equipped studio minus a kitchen, with basic essentials provided. Having a loosely set itinerary, we were lucky enough to find a room in a hotel the first night in Zhongzheng District, one of the recommended spots where many landmarks like National Museum, Library, Book street are walking distance to. Walking aimlessly, we saw and sampled food stops where the locals flocked; had traditional breakfast at an intersection near Chongqing South Road aka book street before checking out the museums, libraries, stores and parks. If you’re a fan of milk tea, lots of good shops abound and the drinks are really good (and cheap!).

taipei peace park

Taipei_museum2.jpg

After the morning stroll and breakfast, we checked out of the hotel to transfer to our Airbnb booking in Zhongshan district; It would have been easy with the train but we opted to get a cab first what with baggage and all, plus the place is relatively near so it won’t put a dent on our budget. Before hailing a taxi though, we tried if we can successfully ride the train armed with just waze and some guidance from several google searches. We stumbled upon a mall called SYNTREND and some IT shops nearby. Woah, were we tempted to buy some tech stuff. Turns out Taipei can be a good source for your tech/gadget/PC needs (NAS, Hard drive, VR, etc.) if you’re into those (like me!).

After exploring this trendy mall and IT hub, we sampled some snacks, more milk tea, juice tea and hailed a cab to rest a bit in our room before exploring the night markets. If you’re new to this, Nighxia night market is a good place to start; not as overwhelmingly large as Shilin yet food quality and variety is pretty good.

taipei_street2

The street food scene in Taipei is just amazing! At first I wondered why all my search results of Taipei including any other keyword i.e. culture, nature still bring up food recommendations. Will it not be a culture trip as well? But sampling the street food from almost anywhere and in night markets, I eventually understood; Taipei food game is so strong, you can’t mention it enough.

This almond tofu dessert is a light and refreshing treat.

taipei_street1

This peanut roll with ice cream is so flavorful. The peanut shavings are just right, but added with the flavored ice cream scoops and coriander, it becomes something strangely delightful.

taipei_street.jpg

We tried so much more like the giant deep fried seafood wontons, seafood/oyster omelette, fritters, mochi, skewers, we didn’t have room anymore for the other good stuff. We didn’t stuff ourselves silly, and somehow the food, though mostly fried, were not too heavy yet satisfying.

This Hello Kitty Kitchen/Café was a welcome surprise we stumbled into while finding our way around the city.

taipei_street4

By the 2nd day, we were feeling more comfortable, surprisingly settled in and adhering less to the just-in-case itinerary I drafted (I prefer to not be touristy and do as the locals do when I travel). We decided to revisit some places we saw on the first day and explore a bit more around them. I couldn’t help but admire the simplicity yet advancement I was seeing — most of the building were old yet functional in terms of architecture and interior; big commercial buildings coexist with small businesses/shops and do not seem to threaten the other’s existence; bikes, motorcycles abound and share the same roads and lanes with cars and other motorists (no dedicated bike lanes needed) and are highly safe, they can park without locking the wheels and some even leave their bags and helmets on their bikes.

taipei nights3

taipei nights2

Taipei’s transit system is probably one of the best I’ve tried; it was well-connected and user-friendly, you can reach any place in Taipei (haven’t explored outside the city) and even the airport by it. The city seems big but no wonder there were more people using bikes, motorcycles and the MRT than cars. They say this is a sign of advancement and I couldn’t agree more. The traffic volume (cars) seems more or less the same on the weekends and the weekday we were there.

Lastly, there was a modesty about the city, in the age, design and look of their buildings, the cars on the road, the prices of their products and the bustling food (especially street food) scene. There are not many western brands as well as the local businesses seem to thrive and are not ousted by big brands. It seems this is a city that is properly developed, not given in to over commercialization or gentrification. It maintains its cultural identity. Quiet revolutionary comes to mind.

taipei nights

Now before I geek out and overthink, I’ll just go back to vacation mode, enjoying a milktea.

taipei milktea

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