A Solo Trip to Hong Kong, Macau, Korea, and Japan
01.10.2016 - 18.10.2016
Turning 30 was looming large, and with vacation days banked and an incredible YYZ Travel Deal posted for a trip to Hong Kong, and Japan I decided to spontaneously book. After reaching out to friends in various countries, I plotted out in detail where I'd stay in each city based on the vibe I predicted. In Hong Kong it was a Catholic lodge in Kowloon, a boutique hotel in Seoul, a traditional Japanese guesthouse (ryokan) in Kyoto, a hostel in Tokyo, and an international business hotel in Osaka.
Half excited, and half nervous I set off on September 30 for my 8:45 am flight to arrive the next day at 6:30 pm in Hong Kong. My first flight was to Chicago where I had a brief layover, before the transcontinental flight. Due to the short duration of the flight to Chicago I hadn't taken any motion sickness pills, which is unusual given my typical propensity for vomit to fly when I'm in the air. Of course, turbulence set in and I started to feel sick while in mid-conversation with the great guy sitting beside me. My instinct? Ask him to tell me stories based on the genre that I pick until we've landed and/or the turbulence has ended. In the middle of one his stories, the flight attendant comes on to announce that "This is an emergency..." and then the sound cuts out. Reassuring, right? On my second flight (to Hong Kong), another odd encounter occurred - a man decided to smoke a cigarette in the washroom beside me (which, apparently is a federally indictable offense).
Upon arrival in Hong Kong, my friend Camila kindly met me at the airport so we could take the bus to Kowloon where I was staying at the Caritas Bianchi Lodge. We went for dinner at Australian Dairy Company - the highlight was the red bean shake! My first impression of Hong Kong was that I felt like a giant... until I looked up at the buildings. The skyscrapers were huge! I really appreciated that nature still found a place, like on Lantau Island for example. You take the metro to Tung Chung station and then you can catch the Ngong Ping cable car to the island, which on a clear day would be a beautiful sight - instead, I rode through the horror movie "The Mist". Apart from the beautiful hikes around the island, and the beaches there are also historic and cultural sites like the Big Buddha which was built in 1989 of 202 pieces, and Po Lin Monastery (which had a delicious selection of vegetarian food like a plate of snacks for 30 HKD). I must say that for anyone, like me, who doesn't like gelatinous blobs... avoid mochi at all costs! Getting back to nature, what I particularly enjoyed was the Wisdom Garden where pillars had messages that told hikers to stay far from lust, and empty your minds.
Much to my surprise and delight, there's a South African restaurant in Lower Cheung Sha Beach called The Stoep so after a visit to Tai O (a fishing village on stilts) where I couldn't eat anything (no shellfish in my diet) I gorged on biltong and boerewors with Camila. The view from our dinner was of foreigners trying to shoo bulls who were digging deep into their picnic baskets on the beach. Bovine burglary at its finest!
The other natural area of Hong Kong that I particularly liked was Victoria Peak in Cetral on Hong Kong Island. Foolishly, I didn't want to wait the two hour line for the tram up the Peak so I hiked it (after being told it would only take about an hour). I hadn't eaten, and didn't have water on me yet I began the arduous climb (with breathing mask on - style is crucial). By the time I finally made it to the top, I resembled a lobster more than a human so I promptly took a few selfies and then took the tram back down. In any case, it's worth the climb (assuming you have water)! Central is also home to the Botanical Gardens, which have some friendly orangutans and other stars of The Jungle Book.
Another prominent area of Central is Lan Kwai Fong, home to Hong Kong's best nightlife although it is rivaled by Knutsford Terrace near the Chungking Mansions. Another highlight of the nightlife was a trip to the Happy Valley Race Track for the Wednesday races (for about $1 Canadian entry)! One area that made me uncomfortable at night was Wan Chai, home to stripclubs and "traditional" American pubs. My discomfort was eased by a trip to Victoria Harbour to watch the Symphony of Lights with my friend Camila and her family. We watched all of the skyscrapers light up across the water to the beat of some very funky music! The nights were made much better by the endless food and drinks. Camila's family and I went to Hui Lau Shan, a delicious mango dessert bar; while, with my friends Amanda, Natalie, and Sheila we went to a vegetarian restaurant and then a bubble tea place.
In terms of culture, some of the highlights for me were attending synagogue for the High Holidays and discovering tidbits about the Jewish community in Hong Kong; visiting the local markets like the Goldfish Market and the Ladies' Market; and the Hong Kong History Museum where I learned that Hong Kong was once a desert then it was covered with ice and when that melted it became its current geological formation.
From Hong Kong, it's an easy day trip to Macau. I would highly recommend not travelling there during a national Chinese holiday. I had never seen so many people crowded into such a tiny space... until I arrived in Tokyo. In any case, upon arrival in Macau I took a free shuttle to the Cotai strip where I arrived at the Venetian casino. I spent 10HKD in a slot machine, which I couldn't comprehend as I don't speak Cantonese or Mandarin so I promptly set off for the historical part of town (Largo do Senado). Unfortunately, the line for the shuttle was set to take over an hour and my patience was wearing thin in the 30 degree humid weather so I opted for a taxi instead. The line ended up being almost as long, and the cost quite a bit more than zero. By the time I got to town, I was ready to go back to Hong Kong. I promptly ate bacalao balls and then took a taxi to the ferry terminal where I caught an earlier ship home. I think the highlight of my trip to Macau was enjoying the curves of the sidewalk, when it was visible between the throng of tourists' toes.
When the time came to leave Hong Kong, I was already feeling sad to leave my friends but ready for the adventure to come in Japan. I had always been curious to explore Japan ever since I was a child and now was my chance. Upon arrival in Osaka I was immediately taken by how polite everyone was, and how shockingly expensive everything was - particularly transit. My suspicions were confirmed by a 90$ taxi ride one night in Tokyo for what should have been 5 subway stops, except that the subway there closes incredibly early and isn't supplemented by overnight buses or light rail transit. In any case, my quick trip to Osaka was jampacked with a trip to the human rights museum - Liberty Osaka; the Osaka Castle; Orange Street; and the Osaka Aquarium. For anyone who's interested in a trip to the human rights museum, keep in mind that Japanese is a requirement (as is an incredibly astute sense of direction). In fact, for anyone who's planning to visit Japan let me emphasize that English is not widely spoken, even in Tokyo. I had a very isolating trip there as a result of the lack of English, and the cultural norms - much to my surprise. Although my time was spent primarily by myself, I did visit a friend in Osaka. We spent a lovely evening wandering through Amerikamura and Dotombori picking up new friends along the way and exploring a variety of themed bars (including one with a massive penis statue). The lowpoint of the night came when we found out that the reptile themed bar had closed - I was looking forward to doing shots out of turtle shells.
The more sites I visited in Japan, the more curious I became about the gender dynamics and minority rights in Japan. When I visited Liberty Osaka I learned that fairly recent national polls indicated that roughly 50% of Japanese men strongly or somewhat agree that a woman's role is as housewife. I have no problem with women choosing to be housewives; however, I strongly believe in the freedom of choice. What surprised me most in the museum, actually, was the lack of information about Japan's colonial history. It's kind of a crucial cultural element of eastern Asia's history, and I'd argue it's pretty relevant to any discussion around human rights in the Japanese context. On a much lighter note, another cultural learning was that Japanese people (at least in the major cities) are extremely supportive of Halloween festivities. A visit to the aquarium resulted in multiple photoshoots initiated by staff there, and resulting in photoshopped images of me with my witchy penguin and dolphin friends celebrating Halloween.
In terms of food, I found some cheap eats in Japan, which was quite an important survival mechanism for my rapidly shrinking wallet. The first tip for anyone travelling through Japan is to swallow your pride and also some 711 food while you're at it - they have packaged meals that are tasty and timely. An alternative is to search for Torikizoku (a chain) where each plate costs 280 yen. I quickly came to learn whenever there was a Torikizoku in the vicinity so that I could grab a skewer of meat and continue on in whatever mission I had planned. My last cheap food tip is to stay at a place like the Dormy Inn Shinsaibashi where they offer free ramen (between the hours of 9 and 11 pm).
Kyoto is only about an hour away from Osaka, so it's very easy to commute between the two. One day I spent the morning wandering Osaka, including attending a spontaneous rock concert in Amerikamura and then afternoon exploring Japan's historic temples and shrines in Kyoto before listening to a folk concert from a back alley. The concert-goers' behaviour was a stark contrast to rock concerts I've attended in North America where they usually mosh and jump around; in Japan I saw some very good posture and some incredibly synchronized fist pumping. I much preferred the city of Kyoto to Osaka - it was beautiful, and calming. The gardens were all immaculate, and the people were incredibly polite (although that's a given in Japan). Some of my favourite sites were: Ishibe Koji Path, Yasak Pagoda, Kiyomizu-dera Temple Complex, Kodaiji Temple, and the Gion area. My favourite place of all was Ryokan Uemura where I stayed for the duration of my short trip to Kyoto.
If you ever find yourself in Kyoto in the evening, I'd suggest buying some fried chicken and beer and taking a seat beside the Pontocho River to listen to the whispers and enjoy the calm waters. Just don't enter a Pachenko afterwards because the sound is shocking; stock up on earplugs before you dare enter the premises. Another word of caution: if you ever choose to stay in a ryokan confirm the rules beforehand. I learned that mine had a 10 pm curfew, and came with a personalized grandmother. The owner must have been about 100 years old, and decided to tell me when to shower and also when to eat. She was lovely, so I smiled and gladly took her towels and kiwis before changing into my assigned kimono and slippers.
If one finds oneself with extra time in Kyoto and in need of a change of scenery, I'd recommend a day trip to Arashiyama. I went to visit old friends from Turkey, and in the process I discovered that there's a monkey park there. After saying goodbye to my friends, I stepped foot into planet of the monkeys where I befriended two Swiss men and walked through a bamboo forest with them. Although it didn't lead to an alternate universe, it certainly felt like it was other-worldly.
Speaking of other worlds, I flew to Korea after a never-ending trip from the ryokan in Kyoto to the airport in Osaka. Along the way, I felt incredibly ill and was oh-so-fortunately not helped in the slightest by anyone, except for the only two tourists in the vicinity who ended up carrying my luggage so that I didn't faint and have my contents revealed to the world. I was happy to finally arrive at the boutique hotel ShinShin in Seoul so that I could rest and recover as quickly as possible. My hotel was close to Namdaemun Market and Myeongdong - an excellent location. My time in Seoul was spent primarily exploring via bus, as I succombed to the ease of the hop-on-hop-off bus. I managed to relax beside Cheonggyecheon Stream briefly before visiting Deoksugung Palce which is surrounded by activists. I really wish I could speak the languages of the countries I'm visiting to really understand the cultures and the aesthetics in more depth. I found it easier to relate to people in Korea though, as there was more English spoken there. In Gwanghamun Square (near the statue of King Sejong who invented the Korean alphabet in 1400) I chatted with some police officers who talked to me about their duty to protect protestors even when they were anti-government. Becoming more and more curious about Korean culture and history I went to the National Museum of Contemporary History where I learned more about Japanese colonialism and the divisions between the north and south. They also had a special exhibit about Iran's relationship with Korea; and the American Peace Corps. There's history all over this city. Everywhere I went I learned about the Joseon Period, and all of the destruction that Koreans have endured over time. The Changdeokgung Palace was a highlight for me - I visited the Secret Gardens, which were absolutely stunning. The whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it's no wonder why.
In a more contemporary vein, I think the highlight of my trip to Seoul was the night I saw a Nanta show - it's a nonverbal cooking musical show. It's indescribable, but it's incredible. I was almost crying from laughter, especially at the audience participation. In terms of nightlife, the areas I explored were: Hongdae, which was a student area of Hongik University where I got kicked out of a bar for not being gay; and Gangnam, where I received a tour by a local Korean man who I met through Couchsurfing. An alternative form of nightlife is a trip to the Namsan Tower for a view of the city, and possibly a tasty drink from up high. Seeing the city at night is quite different to its daytime persona; it alternates between confident and sassy, and uptight business classy.
While in Korea I decided that I needed to go to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to better understand the tensions between north and south. The first stop on my daytrip was Imjingak, which was like a war and peace version of Disney World. There was a carousel ride, and all kinds of photo shoots. Apparently, people visit this site in honour of their homes and families left behind in North Korea. The guide provided very minimal information about the two countries, but I did hear from some participants that apparently there's a tension between older and younger South Koreans in terms of their desire for reunification - apparently many younger people feel that reunification would be costly and they're suspicious of the north. Another stop on our trip was the third infiltration tunnel where you can't take photos, but you can bump your head if you're over 5 feet tall. This tunnel was found in 1978, and it's one of four that have been discovered thus far. We also ended up at the Dora Observatory, where we took a look at the north namely the Gaesong Industrial Complex (and an artificial village) before going to the train station where I bought North Korean wine for $8. Our final stop was a frustrating visit to a ginseng factor, which was not advertised in the daytrip's outline. What was most infuriating was that we spent more time at this ginseng factory stop than we did at any of the other advertised stops. At the end of the day, I was glad to have seen the sites but a bit frustrated by the lack of insight provided by the guide.
There were aspects of Korean culture that I found baffling, and I wish I had friends to visit there who could have provided further insight. I couldn't comprehend why all of the homeless people that I saw were over the age of 65, or why plastic surgery is so omnipresent. Walking through Gangnam there's an area that's basically the Mecca for plastic surgery - you see people walking around covered in bandages, mainly around their eyes or noses. The aesthetic obsession is reflected in the soap operas: many of the stars share similar features, even if they're probably from fairly diverse backgrounds. Speaking of TV, the only times I saw anything on TV it was either a soap opera, or shows about dogs that are captured, killed and eaten. I left confused, and wishing I spoke Korean. I also left Korea truly admiring the courageous culture, and the amazing airport (which provided live entertainment, and also free arts and crafts).
After my time in Korea, I flew back to Tokyo for my final chapter. I had decided at the last minute to change my accommodation as the hotel rooms were so small that I became nervous about whether the hostel room was actually a broom closet. I stayed instead at the APA Hotel Sugamo Ekimae, where my hotel room was in fact about the size of a broom closet. I had expected people in Tokyo to speak more English, but that was not the case. Unfortunately, I hadn't purchased pocket WiFi so getting around was still challenging even in such a cosmopolitan metropolis. That being said, I managed to see quite a bit of the city. I spent three out of the four nights in Shinjuku, where I became utterly obsessed with Golden Gai - alleyways with the most adorable bars you'll ever see, many with a capacity of 10 people. They served the most important drinks in Japan: Sapporo beer, and Sake. Some of the bars were also very clear about which important clientele were allowed in, namely no foreigners. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised by the clearly exclusionary nature of some of the establishments, but it was really jarring to see signs clearly outlining who was allowed in and who wasn't. I kept thinking about other contexts where people would clearly state this behaviour as it is: discriminatory.
As it happens the area that I stayed in, Sugamo, is known as the Shinjuku for the elderly. It's a hub of hip replacement. Jizo-Dori is the main shopping street, where I decided to have breakfast every morning at the Takase restaurant in order to meet my needs of endless matcha lattes and tasty pastries. On my first day in Tokyo, I set off for Ueno Park which was opened in 1873 and could easily consume a full day with its museums, gardens, temples, and live entertainment. I devoted most of my time to the Tokyo Nation Museum, which was established in 1872 and cost about 620 yen plus the special entrance fee for the Hidden Buddha of Rakuyaji Temple Shiga. I started in the Toyokan Asian Gallery looking at pieces like calligraphy from China, buddhas from India and even a mummy from Egypt. They also had an educational space about Asian fortune telling where I learned about shagai Mongolian fortune telling using sheep ankle bones. I was told that I will succeed, if I try. Sounds fairly obvious, but I'll accept that over the other options involving broken bones and/or overly salty soups. I then went through the other galleries like Honkan which had a landscape by Takuku Aigi that really stood out to me. The special exhibit was definitely the highlight for me though; there were 20 statues including a 3 metre high seated buddha with 11 heads that featured a focus on compassion. The grounds of the park featured beautiful temples and also Shinobazu Pond, which was covered in marshlands and lotus flowers. I couldn't believe how massive the fish and plants were. Right near the park it's a fairly quick stroll to Ameyoko shopping area, which also has a huge Game Taito Station where I became absorbed in a drumming game right before having one of the best Turkish doners of my life. After my shopping expedition ended I wandered through the ceramics neighbourhood, sporadically making purchases, before arriving in Akasuka and Kaminarimon Gate. Sensoji Temple was built in 628, and was illuminated in beautiful lights that made it glow red. It inspired me to then see Tokyo in all its glory from the heights of the Tokyo Skytree (2080 feet tall). I looked down over the 39 million people in the city and stood stunned that so many people can live together peacefully, and in such an organized fashion. The Halloween obsession continued in Tokyo, and so I participated in a number of photoshoots there too.
The one area I went to at night, apart from Shinjuku, was Roppongi (the foreigners' district). Like Shinjuku, it was loaded with gentlemen's clubs which made me very uneasy. I wasn't comfortable with the dichotomy between extremely asexuality and consumerist sexuality. I spent my night hopping between bars, and costume karaoke with a new friend who I made off of couchsurfing. He was very open-minded and agreed to dress up like a ninja, while I dressed like Sailor Moon and we sang Aqua's Barbie Girl in between 80s ballads. The karaoke was far more fun than the bars where I was treated to the worst cut-eye I've ever experienced, and enough second hand smoke to require an oxygen mask.
Tokyo is an exceptionally crowded city, and Shibuya Crossing sees roughly 3 million people pass through it every single day. Harajuku was also fairly busy, and didn't really match my interests so I quickly left in search of serenity. I wandered through Yoyogi Park, which housed Meiji Jungu Shinto Shrine from the early 1900s. I saw a traditional Shinto wedding, and then left in search of Shinjuku's wondrous night scene. The best decision I made while in Tokyo was to visit the Robot Restaurant. It's unlike anything else I've ever seen in my life. There were small women with huge breast implants riding robotic dinosaurs who were breathing smoke, and sets devoted to Michael Jackson and the holiday of Halloween. The lyrics to the latter were: "Happy Halloween, Trick or Treat". There was also a Fern Gully backstory where cruel capitalists were trying to kill the earth and water, until Kung Fu Panda saved us all and then handed us lightsabers for no clear purpose. I was so hungry by the end of the show that I ate sushi for the first time in Japan, and it was delicious.
I did one daytrip from Tokyo: to Mt. Fuji. I went with the Japan Panoramic Tour (DOA), and the tour guide, Mario, was excellent. He spoke great English, and provided additional insights into what it's like living in Japan as a foreigner. Our first stop was Lake Kawaguchi-Ko, one of Fuji's five lakes. The bright red ragweed bushes were the most spectacular sight - I couldn't believe how vibrant they were. The mountain itself was stunning too, although it was obscured by clouds. We then continued to O Shino Hakkai (eight ponds), which also had some beautiful views of the mountain. Our next stop was Oshino Shinobi no Sato (ninja village) where I learned how to throw a ninja star and ate a delicious vegetarian curry. Along the way I befriended a 20 year old Swiss man, and a group of fun Australian men. Life is better when shared. These guys were all sweet and funny, which made the stops a lot more interesting. After visiting Mt. Fuji's fifth station, we set off for some sort of a French amusement park where we did a 4d ride through Fuji Airways at Fuji-Q. We were shuffled into a room where an announcement started playing about a golddigger seeking a doctor to marry, then a video came on all about aliens flying to Fuji and warning us that doppelgangers are actually dangerous clones. Then the faux CEO of Fuji Airways came on and informed us that our flight was about to take off. This is an excellent representation of modern Japan. I'm so glad I had people to share this experience with, and it also helped that they had a charger for the three hour drive back to Tokyo from Mt. Fuji. By the time we finally made it back to Tokyo, it was already dinnertime. Mitch, one of the Australians, and I ate conveyer belt sushi, skiied down a virtual hill, did some reconn for an escape room, visited a maid themed casino, and then ended up in Golden Gai drinking with a bartender named Fuji - it seemed like the whole day came full circle. A kind Irish couple joined us, and the four of us drank some delicious plum wine - it was the perfectly calm end to a very eventful trip.