Hong Kong: A Doorway Between UK and China

Hong Kong is very international. You can see people from all over the world running around, especially business men. As the country used to be a British colony the English influence is still strong. A lot of people speak English, there are double decker buses “London style” and the names of the streets are in both English and Chinese.

The city structure is peculiar. There are many above ground walkways to help traffic and help pedestrians cross different areas. A huge shopping mall stands between the downtown and the central station. It’s the shopper paradise with thousands of fancy shops, owned by the biggest international brands. If you prefer a more modest style, you can find local shops in the alleys and a more Chinese vibe. The city is built on different levels and there are many staircases around. This structure gives it more personality and reminded me of Lisbon. There are a lot of cool bars with open doors and tables facing the street that reminded me of Spain.

Po Hing Fong and Tai Ping Shan are two nice neighborhoods next to each other. You can take a stroll and look at vintage shops and art galleries. “Chachawan” is the perfect spot to grab a bite. It’s creative Thai kitchen with great flavors. If you sit at the counter you can admire the skills of the amazing cooks.

Hong Kong is famous for the beautiful skyline and you have different options to admire the panorama. You can take the Star Ferry and go to the other side of the bay (Tsim Sha Tsui). There is a promenade that offers a great view and takes you to the Hong Kong walk of fame and to the statue of Bruce Lee. The best panoramic point is “The Peak” on top of the hill that overlooks the city. The terrace opens at 10AM and the best time to arrive is right before opening time. There is no line to purchase the ticket for the tram and once you get to the top of the hill, you can admire the view from the balcony just below the building where the panoramic terrace is located. If you want to avoid lines don’t go at night.

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The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery was completed in the 1950s and it’s located on top of a hill in the Sha Tin district. From central station take the red metro, change at Mong Kok and take the green line until Kowloon, then take the light blue line until Sha Tin. The metro is fast and it will take you around 30min. When you arrive at the Sha Tin stop, you won’t find any signs for the monastery because not many tourists make their way there. Look around and you will see its red shape coming out of the green forest on top of the hill. Cross the freeway, pass the mall on the left side and you will see a small path and a sign for the monastery. As soon as you turn the corner you’ll see the Buddha statues path. The surprising thing is that once you get to the temple on top of the hill, you will see more statues and more shrines. Go up until you find a peaceful and purifying waterfall with a white Buddha statue.

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The best way to top off your day is enjoying a cocktail at the Sugar (Bar Deck) where you can admire the night skyline without tourists. It’s a bit pricey, but because it’s not centrally located, it’s less expensive than others. If you get there around 8PM on a weekday, you will get a prime spot on the terrace. We got two cocktails each and shared a pizza for a total of $80. This is not exactly backpackers style, but the view is stunning and the cocktails are amazing. “Victoria’s Secret” is probably the best cocktail I have ever had in my life (vodka, strawberry, pineapple and passion fruit). The best thing you can do to balance the expenses is eating at a cheap Mc Donald’s the day after and that’s what we did.

 

 

Taipei: An Interesting Mix of Two Cultures

Taipei was an interesting experience. It’s definitely not a common choice for Western tourists and you don’t see many around. We stayed at the RF Hotel, conveniently located in the Daan District (easy metro access). We booked a mini-double. The room was tiny, but a good compromise to stay in our budget. The hotel was clean and the staff super friendly. I recommend this hotel if you want to visit Taipei.

As we visited the city during the typhoon alert, we decided to look for shelter and entertainment at the Memorial Palace Museum. Many buses take you there from Shilin Station. The highlight of the museum is the collection of Tibetan Canons containing ancient teachings, commissioned by the Chinese Emperor.

The Taipei 101 is the 8th tallest building in the world and it offers a breathtaking view of the city from the Observatory at the top of the shopping mall. The best time to go is sunset. You will find tourists, but the space is big with many windows and there is also an open terrace on the highest floor.

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Night Markets are a must experience. Tonghua Night Market is conveniently located walking distance from the Taipei 101 so you can go right after admiring the sunset to grab something to eat and explore. We had fried chicken and fried squid (to stay safe), but the more adventurous palate won’t be disappointed. You can try the chicken feet, very typical dish in Taiwan. The market is plenty of strange things, like people getting a message with cleavers! Just take a walk and your mouth will open in awe.

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Taiwan is an independent country, but the Chinese culture is all around. We spoke with a couple of local friends to know more about the history and present situation of the relationship between Taiwan and China. It seems that there are different political views about Taiwan’s independence in the country, but overall for yourng people this discussion is not a priority. It’s also common that families are a mix between Chinese and Taiwanese natives so that creates a strong bond between the two realities.

Food specialties to try (adventurous palates aside) are: the Bubble Tea, a tea based drink with tapioca balls or fruit jellies. Din Tai Fung is an international dim-sum chain with locations in Asia and the U.S and it started in Taipei. The restaurant inside the Taipei 101 mall is popular, but you can always get your number and wait for your turn while shopping. Our local friends chose the menu for us, based on local specialties: drunken chicken in Shaoxig rice wine, pan-fried dumplings, fried rice with shredded pork, steamed poor dumplings (Xiao Long Bao style) and for dessert: mini-taro and sesame paste buns.

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Dodging Tourists in Kyoto

Kyoto was the old capital of Japan, and for this reason it’s on top of the list of cities to see in the country.

The first thing we wanted to see in Kyoto was the Bamboo Forest. We had seen photos and videos of huge crowds and it didn’t seem a good experience to us. We dreamed to walk in the forest and listen to the sound of nature. The only way we could transform this dream in reality was to set up our alarm clock at 5AM to be there at 7AM and avoid the tourits. It was worth it. There were just a couple of early birds, but everybody was really respectful and silent. If you are willing to wake up at 5AM you are definitely a traveler, not a tourist. If you spend one week or more in Kyoto I highly recommend to use this strategy for all the main attractions. It’s hard to wake up at 5AM every day so you might consider doing it every other day (maybe). We spent   3 nights in Kyoto so we had to make different choices based on the time we had available.

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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) is another top attraction. The view of the shimmering temple surrounded by the pond will make you forget about the hoards of people walking in every direction and taking selfies. Something unexpected and cute happened to us while we were visiting the temple and I would like to mention it. Some kids stopped us to do little surveys for school. They asked us where we were from and what we liked most about Japan. One of the groups was doing surveys and promoting world peace. We had to write a peace message on a paper. We had fun talking to these lovely students and taking photos with them. We were stopped twice by two different groups.

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Gion is the touristy district downtown, but if you wander in the small alleys you will find some peace and great spots to eat. Many places have the door closed and they seem dark. Just be brave and try to open (they are not closed). We found a small lovely place where we enjoyed a delicious lunch: Tempura Takasebune.

Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered the number one attraction in Japan. Inari means “rice” in Japanese and locals go to pray in this temple especially for a good harvest and family safety. The famous torii gates extend from the main shrine up to the top of the mountain. The gates have been donated by people and companies and the donations continue to date. The park is open 24 hours so I recommend once more to wake up early to be there at least at 7AM. Later it gets really busy. The only way to get away from tourists is to walk more than them. The majority of people will abandon the gates walk soon. If you want to do it all you have to save an entire day for this activity.

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Wandering the small alleys of Gion at night was my favorite activity. You will spot geishas if you’re lucky, we did see a couple entering a restaurant with some gentlemen. Geishas are entartainers specialized in ancient arts (dance, music and conversation). If you want to have a better idea of what a geisha is, you can watch the movie: “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It has a romance component for commercial purposes but it can give you an idea about this ancient profession and the photography is stunning.

In terms of culinary experience I highly recommend “Giro Giro.” They serve a set menu of typical japanese dishes. A little bit fancy and pricey but worth it if you want to immerse yourself in the food culture. You have to call a couple of days in advance and the price is $40 per person.

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Food Discoveries in Hiroshima

When we arrived in Hiroshima, we didn’t have any expectations. We wanted to visit the Peace Memorial Museum and Miyajima, like most tourists. What we discovered, while exploring the city, is a vibrant and interesting food scene.

The walk inside the Peace Memorial evokes many different emotions. I felt disgust for the war, sadness for the victims and hope for a better world. The museum takes the visitor into the day of the attack through photos, objects belonging to the victims and scientific explanations of the bomb’s structure and effects. It’s a powerful experience, but we should all go through it to understand the impact and commit as human beings to fight for a peaceful future.

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After the visit to the museum we decided to rest a bit and go out again to see the sunset at the Hiroshima Castle. We just wanted to take a quick peak at the castle (if you want to visit it consider that the last admission is at 5.30PM). My husband suggested that the shape of it could be beautiful in the crepuscular light and it was. We took a stroll in the park and took photos of the castle from different angles. The reflection of the shape in the moat gives you the chance to take amazing shots and that view was the perfect way to top off our day.

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As I mentioned we discovered that  the food in Hiroshima is delicious. Something you have to try it’s a local specialty called: Okonomiyaki. It’s a Japanese style pancake with a thin layer of batter, noodles, cabbage and other ingredients based on your personal choice. We also tried the Japanese style curry in a small alley at Kitchen Daddy and we loved it. My personal favorite experience was at a small noodles restaurant close to our Air bnb accommodation. The name is Karabu. They serve Tsukemen noodles: cold noodles with pork topped with seaweed or cabbage and a special soy based sauce on the side. Once you take the noodles with your chopsticks you have to dip them in the sauce and that’s how it’s done.

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The island of Miyajima is the other must see and the main reason why tourists visit Hiroshima. The light rail takes you directly to the ferry terminal from Hiroshima. The best time of the day to go is late afternoon to see the sunset, and also because by that time group tours are gone. The view of the torii gate standing in the water at sunset is perfect to top off your day. You can easily make your way back to Hiroshima later. The last ferry back is around 10PM.

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Live, Travel and Learn: Thoughts from the Road

Spending time on the road I realized important things related to the side effects of a round the world trip. I hope these tips can be useful to people that decided or will decide to travel long-term for the first time, and especially to those who will travel with their better half.

The first thing that I realized is the importance of preserving some kind of privacy for the couple. When you do a round the world trip, you have a budget that limits your freedom. Hostels in expensive countries, like Japan, are the cheapest option and they are great. You meet people from all over the world and you can have inspiring conversations and exchange tips. What you have to consider though, is that after a couple of days sleeping in a bunk bed you might lose intimacy with your partner. It’s important to remember that a couple needs some privacy. After three or four days in a hostel, I highly recommend to book an Air bnb for your next destination. The choice between hostel and Air bnb takes us to next consideration.

When I stay in a place just for a couple of days I tend to choose a hotel or an hostel because the check in process is faster and easier. When, instead, I stay in a place for more than four days I usually choose Air bnb. I like the idea of finding a home away from home, but the check in process depends on the host. Once you receive your booking confirmation you still have to write the owner of the place and figure out a way to meet to get the keys. Sometimes the process can be fast and easy, some other times it can be time consuming. I think that the best way to enjoy long-term travel is to choose between the two mentioned options and enjoy both.

When you travel you can be easily taken by the fear of missing out so you probably want to see as much as you can. My husband and I love walking, but most of the times our excitement makes us forget that our body needs some rest. During a round the world trip it’s important to remember that relaxing is a must. After a couple of full days running to explore, book one more night at your next destination and dedicate that day to laundry and personal space.

My husband and I planned this trip keeping the freedom to change our plans. We prepared a document with the must-see and do in all the countries and we decided to book each destination step by step. I think that is the best way to travel long-term because you never know what can happen on the road. It’s better to keep your options open until the last minute. My husband and I decided to chase the sun during this trip and choose the next destination based on the weekly forecast. We changed our itinerary in Japan based on this criteria and we waited to book the flight for the next destination. Unfortunately when we checked the prices to go to Taipei they had gone up and we had to change our plans once more to get the cheapest option. It’s never a good idea to leave between Friday and Sunday. We learned that freedom of choice while traveling is precious, but you also have to consider that flights need to be booked at least fifteen days before departure.

Live, travel and learn!

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Japan: Spiritual Sites and Serendipity

Summer is not the best time of the year to see Mt. Fuji. We personally love the heat so we are happy to be in Japan in September but you should know that your chances of seeing the mountain are reduced to a small 20 percent. From Tokyo make your way to Shinjuku Station and go to the ticket office with your Japan Railway Pass reservation to get the physical tickets. (book it at home and they will send you the reservation by mail). This pass gives you the chance to take all the JR trains (not valid for local trains) in Japan included the high speed Shinkansen. Take the train to Otsuki (JR) then you will pay for a local train to Mt. Fuji Station. There you’ll find a local bus that will take you to your final destination. There are five lakes that offer different views of Mt. Fuji. Lake Yamanakako is less touristy. We stayed at Guesthouse Hiragi. We had a private room with shared bathroom and the hosts were lovely. Wake up to see the sunrise and if you are lucky you’ll see Mt. Fuji. We weren’t lucky this time. The top was covered by the clouds but the sunrise was beautiful.

When you leave Mt. Fuji take the fast train Shinkansen (JR) from Mishima Station (bus will take you there from the lake). You can go directly to Kyoto or in our case Nara (local train from Kyoto). In Nara we stayed at Guesthouse Naramachi. It’s a basic accommodation with bunk beds (they also have private rooms if you want to spend a little more). There are set times for check in and the use of shower times and lobby. That’s the reason why the stay is cheap. Apart from that, the house is clean and the hosts are helpful.

A couple of friends recommended to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site Koyasan. It’s a monastic center for Esoteric Buddhism built 1,200 years ago. We decided to make our way there despite the long trip. From Nara you have to take 3 trains (JR to Takada or Oji then to Hashimoto and after that local train to Gokurakubashi Station). When you arrive a cable car will take you to Koyasan and a bus to the town center (at Hashimoto you can purchase ticket valid for train + cable + bus). The cemetery built in the forest is incredibly beautiful. You can take your time and wander until you reach Okunoin Kobadaishi Gobyo (sacred shrine – no photos). The spirituality of this place is palpable and your soul will find peace and relief. Curiosity: the graves are composed of five stones representing the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, space. The Danjo Garan Complex is another area of Koyasan worth visiting, the temples are impressive.

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Back to Nara, take your time to wander in Nara Park. You will see hundreds of deer populating the park. You can get really close and pet them. They don’t mind but please be respectful. Depending on how many days you have in Nara you can decide the areas you want to visit (there is a lot to see). There are 3 temples in the park (east side) and more temples plus the Palace Site on the west side of the city (take a bus). Not to miss: Todaiji Temple. It’s the biggest wooden building in the world and the statue of the buddha inside is majestic.

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Travel can bring you unexpected moments of Serendipity. We met another traveler, Max from Germany, on the way back from the Palace Site in Nara. We waited for the bus together and started to chat. Turns out that he has been studying in Japan and we were curious to know his opinion about the country. It was very interesting, for me especially, because he gave me more material for the travel socio-political book that I want to write about this trip. On the other side, when Max mentioned that he has a Japanese girlfriend, we started to talk about long distance relationships and I gave him a piece of advice, based on the difficult past experience with my husband (crazy storyi told in my first book: “2 Years 4 Months 2 Hours” on Amazon). Even though we spent one hour together the importance of the exchange we shared will stay will us for a longtime. This is also the beauty of travel: Serendipity.

Tokyo: City of Ordered Chaos

We soon discovered that the Tokyo metro system is a labyrinth. Luckily, Japanese people are ready to help. The majority of them don’t speak English, but the ones that do, will stop and ask if you need help when they see your lost gaze looking at the metro map. The Tokyo metro doesn’t run 24h so make sure you don’t arrive too late at night. We could get close to our hotel but then we had to abandon our metro adventure and get a taxi for around $30.

The name of our hotel is Horidome Villa (Ninyocho Station) and it is located in a quiet nice neighborhood away from touristy spots. The room was tiny but clean and the service was impeccable.

The first thing on our to-do list was the Senso-ji temple. It’s a FREE attraction listed in all the travel guides/blogs and we thought it was the best stop to start our trip into the Japanese culture. The temple is certainly pretty and the story behind is interesting, but there is not much to see. After the beautifully decorated entrance door, you walk a long avenue full of food and clothes stalls. Then you get to the shrine which is protected by a mesh net. The area is packed with tourists. We took a couple of photos and left. There is a cute little fortune game that you can do just outside the shrine. You’ll see it. I leave it as a surprise!

If you go to Japan in summer, make sure you stay hydrated because it’s really hot and humid. The fruity waters sold in the metro machines are the perfect way to get the liquid that your body needs and experience different flavors. My personal fav is peach water. It tastes like the real fruit and if you’re a peach fan like me you’ll love it! When it’s time to fill up your stomach the best way to enjoy local food and know what you eat is picking the restaurants that have a wax model of their food in a glass outside of the door. It’s a great way to showcase what they sell. Just take a couple of photos of your choices and show them to the waiter. We tried the experience close to the Senso-ji temple at Kamiya Bar (3rd floor) and we loved it!

The two towers Metropolitan Government Building has an observatory on the 45th floor. Also this attraction is FREE and you will avoid the expensive ticket and long line at the Sky Tree. After that you can take a stroll at Chuo Park. We topped off the day with a heart and stomach warming ramen bowl at Kaijin Ramen at Shinjuku Station. This is one of those tiny places where locals go.

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The Imperial Palace was another thing on our list. We just wanted to take a stroll in the gardens and we were hoping to take some photos of the palace from afar. We were looking for its majestic shape to come out from behind the trees, but we soon discovered that you can hardly see it (it’s surrounded by walls and a moat). The best view of the imperial complex is from the main gate (Hibiya metro station).

At Shibuya Crossing you will understand the meaning of the expression: “sea of people.” Shibuya is that huge and crowded intersection that they always show on tv when they talk about Tokyo. It’s really something! We stayed there for a good 15min to take photos, time-lapses and stare at the crowd and the giant talking billboards. I have never seen a crowd like that in my entire traveler’s life (Yes, I saw Piccadilly and Times Square). The thing that shocked me the most about Tokyo is that, despite the enormous crowds, the streets are clean and everybody acts politely, with respect. This unique way of living gives a sense of order to the chaos.

Lunch in the metro, stations and shopping malls is cheap and good (the best choice for on budget travelers). The food culture in Japan doesn’t care about the place where the food is sold. The magic word is fresh and healthy EVERYWHERE.

Last but not least, visit the Harajuku neighborhood. I didn’t find this in travel guides/blogs, I know about it because Gwen Stefani got inspired by the Harajuku girls style for her video and she was interviewed by Chelsea TV show about the experience. It’s a colorful and vibrant neighborhood, worth seeing.

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The final tip is about the metro: if you need to switch line exit from the ORANGE turnstile, otherwise you will have to purchase another ticket.

Travel as a socio-political commitment

When I self-published my first book I thought it was a one time shot. I didn’t want to become a writer. I just wanted to share the story that took me to the U.S. to inspire and empower people to follow their heart against all odds. Then something happened and the writer inside me woke up.

I started to go to events to meet expat women like me. I was looking for inspiration to build my career in the U.S. I had a Green Card but many of the women I met couldn’t work in the U.S because of the immigration laws. They were talented and they had quit their career in their country of origin to follow their husbands. I couldn’t believe the non-sense I was uncovering. No one talked about these issues and I felt it was my mission to do it. That’s when I started to think about a second book but it took me a while to develop the idea.

One day at en event I met a girl from Italy, Enrica Cavalli, also in the U.S. for love. We talked about the difficulties that expat women face to build a career in the U.S and I told her that I was thinking to write a book about the topic. She told me that she was a filmmaker and that she wanted to help me raise awareness with a documentary. When I realized that our work could be important and make a difference I considered for the first time the idea that I could become a writer.

One year passed by since I understood and accepted my life calling. I interviewed women with different types of Visas and situations and I did a research to understand the roots of the immigration system in the U.S. and its side effects.

The more I think about myself as a writer the more I see a socio-political writer. I’m not an academic, but for this reason, I have a language that can be more approachable to ordinary people. In the end, I asked myself: “Why do you want to be a non fiction writer?” and the answer was clear to me: “Create an impact and make a better world.”

Obviously I thought about writing a book about the round the world trip. There are so many travel books around. It seems that everybody wants to give you a lesson about what to do and what to see. They tell you at what time they woke up and what they had for breakfast. Don’t get me wrong, I think that you can find inspiration in every travel post and, as a matter of fact, really everywhere.

I personally like very simple and short travel guides like Nomadic Matt and when I write a travel post I try to be on point and avoid too many details about my personal experience. I knew that I wanted to write a different travel book and after much deliberation it hit me. I want to be a socio-political writer for everyone. I want to travel to take inspiration and bring it back home: from food habits to politics. This is my calling: travel as socio-political commitment.

Copenaghen: City of Balance

The first word that came to my mind while walking the streets of Copenaghen is Balance. As you probably know, the city won the title of happiest place in the world in the past. The streets are clean and there are thousands of bicycles leaning on walls or polls without a padlock. This detail clearly shows that there is no need to steal because people seem to have enough money to afford a satisfactory lifestyle. Wealth seems equally spread, there are just few homeless hanging out in front of shops. In the eyes of a tourist, this picture conveys a sense of safety and peace. When we travel we try to stay away from touristy spots, but it’s undeniable that when we visit a city for the first time, we will hit the landmarks.

We stayed in a hostel close to downtown, a bit removed from the busiest area. We chose a hostel because Copenaghen is quite expensive, a double in a hotel is around $150, not the best option for backpackers. The name is Hostel Globalhagen and it is situated walking distance from the metro stop Norreport. It is fairly clean and has a friendly atmosphere. We shared the room with six other people. No need to worry, if you’re not used to stay in hostels, the cost of living in the city sets the bar for the type of tourists. Poor people that want to steal don’t go to Copenaghen.

We were pleasantly surprised by the food. It’s flavorful and delicious. Here are a couple of restaurants that we loved during our stay:

Dinner: Gavlen. If you want to try something typical order the farm hyldeblomst (warm drink made with the elderberry flower).

Lunch: Maven

Dinner: Spitestedet Feed

After our experience with the the Danish kitchen I can say that the best is certainly fish, meat, crispy delicious fries and creative dips (eggs, mustard and spices).

The must-see attractions are:

Canals: Copenaghen is surrounded by water so make sure you take your time to wander around the canals without a specific plan. Just open your senses and let them guide you.

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The Little Mermaid: you will find hoards of tourists. It’s hard to find a spot to take a good close up but you can take a nice photo from the balcony above the statue.

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The Round Tower: the view is spectacular but get ready, the stairs to reach the top are steep and there are a ton of people going up and down. Take your time to walk and watch your step.

Christiania: an independent city inside a park. It’s the hippies area. As you enter you feel in another world: food trucks, loud music, graffiti and smoke. Yes, you can smoke marijuana because it’s a self-proclaimed neighborhood with independent rules. They kindly ask you not to take photos. Have fun but keep it for yourself. The government clearly knows what happens in Christiania, but you should respect their privacy.

The non super touristy attraction that we enjoyed the most is the Design Museum. Not everybody is interested in design so you can definitely find less people. We went because my husband is a designer and it was worth it. We discovered that the Danish art has been profoundly influenced by Japan. Danes took the Japanese minimalist approach and combined it with classicism. The result is a unique art that is recognized and appreciated internationally, especially in industrial design.

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