It’s a brand new year, and four weeks in, I find myself looking back at 2016. It was quite the whirlwind, and I’m reminded of just how lucky I am, especially when it comes to travelling.
This past November was a big month for me. Not only did I spend another birthday in Vegas, but I was also able to take a fortnight off from work to do some exploring with friends in Asia, specifically Hong Kong, Macau and Japan.
Admittedly, I was slightly worried about being the so-called “guide” for our trio in Hong Kong. When my friends suggested that I go with them because my family is from there and I’ve been several times before, I smiled and agreed. Yet, in the back of my mind, I was thinking I could totally disappoint them. Sure, I’d gone in the past, but I was no expert. My trips to Hong Kong were always oriented around plans with relatives, often leaving very little time to be an actual tourist. They trusted me though, so we forged ahead with putting together a holiday.
What I originally thought was going to be a break primarily situated in Hong Kong ended up including a mini trek across Japan. About eight months before we travelled, the YEG Deals website flagged a round trip flight from Edmonton to Tokyo for a fantastic price and we opted to go for it. This was much to my mother’s dismay. My mom kept telling me that we would have saved money had we booked connecting flights from the start or if we waited for a special on a direct flight to Hong Kong. It was too late to change the booking though and we were determined to make it work.
When November rolled around, I wouldn’t say we were exactly ready. Personally, I felt slightly discombobulated because, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t leaving for a holiday with any sort of itinerary in hand. We did pull it together enough to make sure we had accommodations in all of the cities where we’d be staying. We also found comparatively affordable connecting flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Hiroshima through discount airline HK Express before departing Edmonton. The three of us weren’t totally winging it, but this was unusual for me. I was out of my comfort zone with no clue as to what we were going to do on a day-to-day basis.
Thankfully, our trip happened to coincide with my parents’ holiday to Hong Kong, which means we had a good support system, if necessary. The day we flew into Hong Kong (dead tired from 30 straight hours of travel), they actually met up with us upon our arrival in Causeway Bay. My relatives were gracious enough to let us stay in an extra apartment that they own, and my parents were there to let us into the unit. Although we experienced a few hiccups on the first night of our stay, all issues were remedied by the following day. Our adventure had begun.
I have done a previous post (in photo format) about Hong Kong, so feel free to check that out in addition to what I have to say here. Also, I will say that I’m so pleased that I finally got a chance to explore this territory with minimal family obligations required. Being able to see the city from a different perspective with friends who have never been allowed us to take full advantage of what was on offer. We went at our own pace and it made me feel like this was truly a locale to visit (outside of the usual family reasons).
Accounting for all of the travel time between destinations, we really had to make the most of our days at each destination. Hong Kong was our initial stop, and aside from indulging in all of the food, we thought we’d take in some of the highlights.
Day 1 – Hong Kong
Day one consisted of a bus ride to the top of Victoria Peak where we got a panoramic view of the city below. We also rode the MTR (one of the best city train systems I know of) to the Kowloon side. There, we waited to see the nighttime laser light show that took place across the water. When it was over, we hoofed it to Dim Dim Sum Hong Kong in Jordan. Named one of the world’s 101 best eateries by Newsweek, we wouldn’t relent until we sought it out. Two words: soup dumplings.
Day 2 – Hong Kong
We began day two with dim sum at Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with locations worldwide. Two of their branches in Hong Kong, including the one in Causeway Bay, were awarded one Michelin star each. More expensive than the dim sum we ate the night before, it was absolutely worthy of our money. Again, the soup dumplings (Xiaolongbao) were the way to go, but I’d praise the wontons and buns, too. I also love that you can watch the staff in the kitchen. Through the windows, at the entrance to the eatery, we could see them making all the little dumplings and wontons by hand, so we knew the food was fresh!
When we had our fill, we worked our way to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery. Missing the sign directing us there, we wound up getting a little sidetracked. We spent some time climbing the steps of what looked to be a memorial before we gave up and went back down to level ground. That’s when we happened upon the correct entrance. As we scaled our way up the steep hillside on a particularly hot and muggy day, we took in all of the golden gods lining the trail. Eventually, we made it to the top! It’s a beautiful little space filled with colourful statues. Despite the somewhat challenging ascent and the vertigo inducing descent, this off-the-beaten-track spot is one to see.
Next, we stopped in Diamond Hill to check out the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden. This is actually one of my favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Located in Kowloon, it’s a surprising respite from the surrounding hustle and bustle just outside of the garden walls. The nunnery is also a quiet area that magically reverberates with the soul piercing sounds of chants from those who pray within.
Our second evening consisted of barhopping in Central. 001, a “secret” speakeasy with stylish décor and fancy cocktails, kicked off our plans. We then skipped to Brewdog, Tipping Point SoHo and Shack Tapazaka back in Causeway Bay.
Day 3 – Hong Kong
Day three was sort of a write off when it came to being a tourist. I had lunch with my family at the Crowne Plaza near our apartment, so we spent much of the morning wandering until about one o’clock when we split up for a few hours. When my friends and I reconnected, we chose to take the bus to Stanley Beach. It’s a tranquil site in Hong Kong with sights of the water and a number of restaurants. After we walked the pier and the boardwalk, we settled in for dinner and drinks at Beef & Liberty (suggested to us by the owners of Moonzen Brewery). For a burger joint, they did that type of food really well. The only downside was the slow service, so it’s a good thing we weren’t in a rush.
Day 4 – Macau
On the fourth day, we ventured to Macau on a TurboJET ferry. Now, most of the hotels in the coastal city offer free shuttles to and from the ferry terminal. It’s simply a matter of finding the right bus. To save a little money and allow ourselves two rooms for our one night stay, we opted to book at the Crowne Plaza. The accommodations are awesome – modern in both style and technology – and, built in 2014, the hotel itself is relatively new and affordable. Unfortunately, the shuttle doesn’t come by to pick up guests as often as some of the larger resorts and it’s also a little further away from the main attractions. In fact, the cabbie who dropped us off at the end of the evening gave me a talking to; he stated that it was too far and we shouldn’t have booked there. That’s just his opinion though. The location certainly isn’t that bad.
Regardless, we had a good time in Macau. Senado Square is an open gathering spot that constantly looks as if it’s filled by a giant mass of people. With its Portuguese origins, the architecture is colourful with intricate details, but it has become pretty commercial. From there, we followed the signage that led up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The façade of the old church made a nice backdrop for all of those who were taking selfies on the steps. I quite like the Fortress of Macau. The vantage points at the top of the building allow visitors a sprawling outlook over the city.
Since Macau is the Vegas of China, we also made a point of checking out the major hotels and casinos. That included the Grand Lisboa (I’ve stayed here previously), Wynn and MGM. Interestingly, most of the gamblers weren’t drinking or smoking; this was a total 180 from our observations in Las Vegas.
Dinner and drinks were had at Heart Bar. I had read about this location in a brewing magazine back at Brewdog in Hong Kong and it pretty much materialized in front of us. The pizzas were okay, but the cocktails were stellar and so was the bartender. He happened to be the one who seated us, and he had excellent recommendations. We completed our night by working off those calories as we searched for a way to get to the lighthouse on the peak (Guia Fortress). Venturing towards it, we finally found a route that led us to the structure. We weren’t able to enter it though, so when we were done, we worked our way back to the main part of town. Not ideal in the dark, but we ultimately made it to a more populated area without having to take any pitch black, narrow staircases down the hill.
Day 5 – Macau & Hong Kong
Our fifth day was scant in terms of sightseeing. We stopped at the Macau ferry terminal in the morning to book our tickets back to Hong Kong. Knowing we had some time to kill before our boat departed, we jumped onto the shuttle to the Venetian. It’s very similar to the resort in Vegas, so it was somewhat old hat for us. Although, I would argue that our lunch at North – specializing in northern Chinese and Sichuan cuisine – was a great way to end our time in Macau.
When we returned to Hong Kong, we dropped our bags off at the apartment and then we immediately set out for our most indulgent dinner on the trip. Tate Dining Room & Bar, run by Chef Vicky Lau, is another restaurant that has earned its Michelin star. At 980 HKD (approximately $170 CDN) for a 6-course meal – drinks not included – one has to be willing and ready to appreciate the flavours and the visuals. We loved it. From start to finish, this was a dinner that surprised and gratified us.
Day 6 – Hiroshima
The following morning we commenced our journey to Hiroshima, so it was chiefly a travel day. By the time we arrived at the Japanese airport and bused into the city, it was quite late. Another long day of travel exhausted us. Arriving in Hiroshima, we wanted to freshen up. Our apartment was easy enough to find and we had no problems getting into the place; however, it wasn’t exactly as advertised. Essentially a micro unit, this apartment was ideal for one person, two at the most. Advertising the place as able to accommodate three people was surely pushing it, but we managed. Otherwise, it was clean and well-appointed. We finished our evening with a satisfying supper at Orenokushikatsukuroda Hiroshimaminamiguchiekimaeten (what a mouthful) where we stuffed ourselves silly with a bunch of deep fried veggie, meat and cheese tempura battered skewers.
Day 7 – Hiroshima
Day seven marked a full week of vacation and our second day in Hiroshima. It actually brings up mixed feelings for me. My morning consisted of attempts to exchange my Hong Kong Dollars for Japanese Yen. I wasn’t able to find a nearby money exchange, and the first bank didn’t accept my cash. The second bank did, but at a hefty fee. Since I didn’t have the option to go elsewhere, I went ahead with the transaction.
When that was completed, we rode the train to Tadanoumi. From there, we caught a ferry that took us to Rabbit Island (Ōkunoshima). This was the single reason why Hiroshima was tacked onto our itinerary. My friend has a pet bunny and is basically obsessed with rabbits in general, so when she learned of the isle’s existence, there was no question we were going there. All-in-all, it was an enjoyable time. The bunnies that have somehow occupied the landmass (they’re apparently not the ones from the old labs that used to be there) are very friendly and will approach if there’s food. Indeed, they can be extremely excitable. One rabbit, found in a more secluded area, came up to me, and upon being fed, was so thrilled that it not only did a full 360 degree leap in the air, but while doing so, it also managed to pee itself at the same time. That urine struck me square in the right arm and leg. My jacket and jeans ended up moderately soaked. So, cute as these rabbits were, it ended up being a damper (pun intended) to the visit for me. Thankfully, my clothes dried quickly due to the windy conditions on the island and there was no stench. I was able to last the rest of the day without needing to detour for a change of clothes.
For me, the day was saved with a meal at this amazing little ramen shop called Ippeiya. We learned of the joint through a Google search, and wow. The scrumptious bowls served to us were absolutely worth the chilly walk. I’d even go as far as to say I’d fly back to Hiroshima just to have another helping of their curry ramen.
Day 8 – Hiroshima & Kyoto
Week two started with our last day in Hiroshima. Once we stored our luggage at the train station, we used our last few hours before departure to amble over to Hiroshima Castle, and, in fairly ominous fashion, we also took in the remaining ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Hiroshima Peace Memorial) and Peace Park. Oddly, this was a rather fitting place to be seeing as how, just the day before, we had witnessed the results of the U.S. Presidential election and Donald Trump’s victory. The location isn’t without its beauty though. I’m glad we stopped there to stand in the presence of history.
Once we had perused the whole park, we realized we had better hoof it back to the station. While we missed the bullet train for the hour we booked (they are super punctual), our seats were non-reserved, so we were able to catch the subsequent one without any penalty. Approximately three hours later, we were in Kyoto. Our Airbnb here was more than we expected, mainly in comparison to the accommodations in Hiroshima. This place was huge! It was an open concept apartment with six single beds, a big closet, full kitchen, a large shower room, separate toilet and in-suite laundry (desirable after the rabbit incident). The only difficulty we encountered was the terrible portable Wi-Fi. Other than that, we couldn’t have asked for more.
My one travel companion knew someone in Kyoto, so we got a hold of this friend who graciously took us out on the town. The three of us were dying for some kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, so he drove us to one where the majority of the plates are 100 yen each (roughly $1 CDN).
If I’m correct, the one we went to was called Muten Kura Sushi Kyotogaidaimae. It was amazing. Not only was there a constant stream of plates running by at table-level (although, we did see a very rare crash on the course, which stalled things), but there was also a second conveyor belt that was used specifically for dishes we ordered through the tablet. Whenever we had a craving for something that we didn’t roll by ready-made, all we had to do was press a few buttons and it’d be there in minutes. Plus, for every five plates returned through a slot at the far end of the table, a game would be triggered on the tablet, providing diners with a chance to win a prize from the machine located at the top of the conveyor shelf. We only got one toy after giving back about thirty plates, so the system may be rigged. That’s okay though. It was still a lot of fun, and everything was delicious and fresh.
Next, we were taken to Shogun-zuka Seiryu-den Temple where I attempted to snap dozens of photos of the temple, grounds, red maple trees (still in the midst of the transition from summer to fall) and city in the dark. Inside the temple is a replica painting of Aofudo (Blue Acala). Considered a masterpiece of Japanese Buddhist art, the actual piece is enshrined out of sight. The temple also has a huge observation deck that provides views of various Kyoto landmarks.
Our new Kyoto guide then led us to his friend’s bar, Loop Salon. There, we spent the rest of our evening imbibing on some refreshing cocktails (I NEED that bottle of FAUCHON Paris tea liqueur!), gin from the fairly new Kyoto Distillery and gyoza that we had delivered as a late night snack. A few hours passed and we determined that it was time to hit up a 7/11 before heading home.
Day 9 – Kyoto
When the four of us awoke in the morning, we didn’t have to go too far for food. Within a block from our apartment building, on either side, were several eateries. Failing to get a table at the first place we selected, ramen felt like an excellent second choice, so we opted to try Kobushi. With fish broths, we were taking a bit of a chance since my one friend is allergic to shellfish, but we managed okay having a local there to ask questions for us. The restaurant itself is tiny and all the table/counter space is shared. Rather than going with a soup ramen, I went for an oil-based dish instead. I appreciated trying a different take on this Japanese staple, and I’d undoubtedly eat it again.
Once we ate enough, we hopped on a bus that took us to the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinjaju-ji or Rokuon-ji). What a gorgeous and bright day to see this National Special Historic Site. The sunlight reflecting off of the pavilion and the water was picturesque. Following that, we rode another bus to the Ryōan-ji Temple. Known for its large rock formations in the Japanese Zen garden, I found this to be an interesting locale. Maybe I’m a little too restless for a place like the garden. Nevertheless, the land was lovely with its large pond, unusual landscaping and colour-changing trees. Our last stop on the historical tour was the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Regrettably, we got to the grounds a tad too late to make the last entrance.
With nothing more to see in the area, we went back to downtown Kyoto where we picked up some alcoholic beverages from a shop, cracked them open (yes, you can drink in public), and then perused the Nishiki Market. Basically a long, narrow alleyway filled with stalls and storefronts, it was a lot of fun to see all of the different trinkets and traditional Japanese food available for purchase. For supper, we went to Yamachan for maboroshi no tebasaki (deep-fried chicken wings). These were ridiculously delicious. Complete with instructions on how best to eat them, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender and these wings satisfied any salty cravings we may have had.
Dessert followed at Saryo Tsujiri Gion where we ordered fancy parfait glasses filled high with matcha flavoured ice cream, mochi, cake and whipped cream. We then investigated the maze-like streets, which led us to the Hokanji Temple and Yasaka-no-to-Pagoda. The structure was subtly lit against the backdrop of the dark sky, making for a striking image. We then returned to Loop Salon for a second low-key evening of drinks.
Day 10 – Kyoto
On day three in Kyoto, we ventured out as a trio and made our way to the train station where we had soba noodle set lunches at Kyoto Tagoto and dessert at Mister Donut. Afterwards, the train took us to Fushimi Inari Shrine where we climbed Mount Inari. It’s no Mount Fuji, but it was enough of a workout for me. The higher you go, the quieter it gets though. I’d say it’s definitely a worthwhile hike.
To-ji Temple was next on our list. There, we saw the pagoda and exhibits featuring Esoteric Buddhist art. Getting a chance to go inside the main floor of the pagoda to see the interior was neat. All of the detail was spectacular. Some of the larger statues are also very remarkable when seen close-up, especially the statue of Yakushi (circa 1603) found in the Kondo.
Done with the temple, we wandered to Kyoto Brewing Company where we had a few drinks on their makeshift patio. Complete with a food truck to feed the masses, it’s a cool venue to hangout for an hour or two.
Beers were followed by some shopping and sustenance at Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese BBQ restaurant. We tried everything from fondue chicken to beef tongue and pork belly to horse meat tartare. The flavours were delightful and the cuts of meat were easy to cook ourselves.
Now, I’m certain that our local friend picked Gyu-Kaku on purpose. Situated on the second story of a building, the main floor housed part of Club World. We’d heard stories of the latter throughout our holiday, so it seemed fitting to the guys that we should go. My girlfriend and I reluctantly went in with them. Although we had our reservations, it turned out to be a blast. The main space of the nightclub is much smaller than we expected, meaning it got cramped. But, the other room, where a different DJ was playing, had a lounge-like atmosphere that we appreciated for a good chunk of the evening. Festivities for our last day in Kyoto ended with the worst bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. Apparently, the food at this one shop only tastes okay if you’re drunk. I guess I didn’t get near that point because I couldn’t even eat it. Those noodles were just too undercooked.
Day 11 – Tokyo
Day 11 consisted mostly of travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo. When we arrived in Tokyo, our Airbnb in Shibuya wasn’t available for another couple of hours, so we hunkered down at Kawara Café & Kitchen for a late lunch. Once we were able to drop off all of our stuff at the apartment (also wonderful with a small kitchen, two beds in the living room, a separate bed room, full bathroom and laundry), we went back out to explore the neighbourhood.
To satiate ourselves, we combed the internet for sushi places and came across Uobei, another conveyor belt restaurant that is actually owned by the Genki Sushi chain. Rather than having plates that constantly make their rounds, diners are actually seated in rows where each line has their own belts. A tablet assigned to an individual is used to place orders of up to three items at a time, ensuring that every plate comes fresh from the kitchen. To avoid any wait, the belts are stack three high, so food can be delivered on multiple levels. Admittedly, the atmosphere does make one feel as if they’re part of a weird assembly line; however, it’s efficient. I also loved that the tablet had buttons that provided multiple options for each sushi order (i.e. no wasabi). Plus, it’s affordable.
Day 12 – Tokyo
A dozen days into the trip and it occurred to us that our vacation was coming to a quick end, so we packed it in on our last full day in Tokyo. We started off by seeking out the Good Town Doughnuts shop (I read about it in a Japanese magazine). Since we kind of ambled and popped into other stores along the way, by the time we got there, our snack ended up being our lunch. What a treat though. I’d say their fluffy pastries are the closest rival to Lucky’s Doughnuts (in Vancouver) that I’ve managed to find. Turns out I just had to travel half way around the world to do it.
Eating completed, we strolled to Harajuku (Takeshita-dori) where we did a bit of shopping. Towards the end of the area, we made a turn down a narrow street where I found a stall selling some clothing, including the now ubiquitous bomber jacket. Instead of a satin one, as seems to be very popular, I noticed one hanging there made using black velvet. Decorated with appliques of embroidered flowers and tiger heads, it was the best one I’d seen. I didn’t think it was my size, but the vendor had already pulled a mirror out, so I could see how it looked on me. It fit like a glove and I adored it. It was also a steal at about $60 CDN. That’s about half of what I would have paid at home for something similar and of the same quality. Looking at Wikipedia as I wrote this post, I learned that some of the stores in Harajuku are known as “antenna shops” where manufacturers provide prototypes as a way to test the market. That’s really cool because that means one can walk away a trendsetter and not even know it.
We continued our walk by heading to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower (Tocho) in Shinjuku. There, we were able to take the elevator up, free of charge, to one of the observation decks on the 45th floor. My friend said that on the other side of the block is where he remembered seeing the homeless cardboard housing, and that’s something I had wondered about. As a child, I had been to Tokyo, and I distinctly remember seeing dozens of large cardboard boxes lined up outside the train stations. Those were people’s homes. They probably still exist, but we never saw them during our holiday.
Ready to head back to Shibuya after a long day, our quest for a good spot to dine turned into our goal. It was raining out (the only time during our whole trip), so we didn’t go too far from our apartment. Yet, we still lucked out when we stumbled upon a dining room called Jibieno Hut (
I found the site by Google translating while in Tokyo, but it eludes me now; if you’d like the logo/Japanese name, email me for a photo. I found the website again!), specializing in wild game. Our night was completed with shopping at Loft department store and one last ice cream bar from 7/11.
Day 13 – Tokyo
The final day of our vacation crept up all too fast. We had to be out of our apartment pretty early, so we stored our luggage in lockers at Shibuya train station first thing in the morning. With our few remaining hours, we decided to take a look at what was on the other side of the building (not a whole lot). We did, however, get to use a vending machine that dispensed tickets, which we gave to the restaurant cook who then whipped up a fresh order of food for us. That was different. We don’t know how to read Japanese, so we relied on the photos. If there are no pictures and only text on the buttons, it’s a chance one has to take when making their selection.
I’m so happy to have had this experience. I know that my travel companions are people that I can get along with for a prolonged period of time and I made a new friend in Kyoto. My single disappointment is that my passport is only one “stamp” fuller as Hong Kong and Macau no longer issues them. Japan was the only place where I received a sticker. My one regret is that my boyfriend couldn’t join us this time. The upside is that I know I’ll be going on more adventures, so there will be more chances in the future.