Sunday, October 14, 2018

Japan and Taiwan Trip 2018

Kinkakuji in Kyoto; You can't tell, but it was actually as crowded as a NYC subway platform during rush hour all around me in the designated photo-taking area where I was taking this!

We had a wonderful time on our recent trip to Taiwan and Japan! K and I took off for a little more than two weeks total, with an extra two days added thanks to Typhoon Trami. We were in Taipei to visit my family for around three days, Tokyo for about five days, and the Kyoto and Osaka area for what turned out to be closer to nine days with the storm delay. Before I get started, a quick confession: Because we had family to show us around and pick restaurants in Taipei and close friends in Tokyo to help do the same, I have less in the way of practical suggestions for those places! 

Taiwan is always lovely, I regularly push for people who haven't been before to consider taking at least a quick trip there, maybe as an add-on to a larger trip elsewhere in East or Southeast Asia. It's generally a fairly affordable destination by US tourist standards, the food is tasty, it's an extremely friendly place, and I'm told by others that it's fairly easy to navigate with English only, particularly in Taipei. I've gone so many times over the years, and I tend to do the same things over and over. A few things I recommend in Taipei:
  • Chia Te to buy pineapple cakes for gifts, as they're the best of the bakeries I've tried. It's normally not too busy at random times on weekday mornings. This year, though, the line was way too long. Apparently, because it was almost mid-Autumn festival, the store had been really busy at all hours for quite some time (this was even discussed in a segment on the local news!), even though I don't think they make traditional moon cakes. They sell Chia Te pineapple cakes at many 7-11s though. We felt a little silly when we saw them at the 7-11 near our hotel after we'd already bought something else for our friends in Tokyo. 
  • Din Tai Fung - it's so good! I always make a point to drop by when I'm in Taipei. The lines can be daunting, but I think it's worth it. (Their soup dumplings have very delicate skins and consistently perfect proportions. It's a solid step above the best I've had here in NYC.) I tend to stick to the branch near Yongkang street (a well-oiled machine, they're quite accurate with estimated wait times, which can reach a peak of 120 minutes, but usually it maxes out at 90), which means we can browse in the neighborhood (lots of souvenir shops and restaurants!) while we wait our turn. 
  • Night markets are a must-do, of course. K and I have been to Raohe and Shilin together, and we want to branch out more next time. When I was younger and visiting with family, we used to go to Shida, and that was also fun. 
  • Taking the Maokong Gondola to visit the teahouses in Maokong makes for a nice change of pace from the rest of the city. They do shut down the gondola quite often due to weather conditions, however! 

Japan was a completely new destination for K. I'd been once before, but that trip was so brief that I didn't see much. One thing we noticed about both Tokyo and Kyoto: touring both cities requires so. much. walking. This is despite extremely robust public transit systems. (In particular, the Tokyo subway system, with JR trains added, boggles the mind in its complexity when compared with any other I've ever used.) Keep in mind that we're NYC dwellers, so we were already accustomed to walking a lot, almost every day. It was a bit of a shock! Our feet were sore every evening, even towards the end of our trip, when you'd think that we'd have gotten used to it. Packing-wise, I hadn't expected that I'd need to wear sneakers every day in Japan.

Some travel tips that were essential to us:
  • The Japan-Guide website gives excellent overviews of basically every tourist site we could think of. There are a good handful of places that are only open on limited days, or require advance bookings, so doing a fair bit of research when mapping out a general itinerary is definitely recommended. 
  • Be sure to plan out whether to get a pocket wifi or local sim card beforehand, and some advance booking may be required. We used JapanWifiBuddy, but I didn't do enough research to know if there were better deals available. 
  • Definitely install the HyperDia app on your phone (may require a licensing fee after 30 days, but it's initially free to download and use) to map out train and public transit routes throughout Japan. Google Maps will not be enough for that purpose. 
  • I'm a little bit embarrassed that I didn't think to do this, but I'm told that people appreciate when tourists come prepared to use a few simple phrases in Japanese (things like "excuse me" or "please" and "thank you" of course, and even "I don't speak Japanese", "how much?", and so on), and that it's very helpful. It's the first place I've ever been where, with only English and my rudimentary putonghua Chinese, I felt extremely... clunky and awkward getting around sometimes, like there was a major language barrier. (Because my particular combination of language skills takes me so far as a tourist in a other countries I've been to, I'm terribly inexperienced with navigating any kind of true language barrier.) 
  • Don Quijote or "Donki", a large discount store that sells absolutely everything, is awesome! People recommend buying Japanese snacks (including special KitKat flavors) there to bring home as gifts. You'll also be able to do all your Japanese cosmetic and skincare shopping there. They also sell groceries, clothes, designer luggage and even some handbags (including some well-priced Longchamp totes in the Dotonbori branch in Osaka)... Literally everything! 
  • Definitely carry a coin purse. I'd accumulated nearly $15 USD in coins just in my first two or three days. 
  • We were also able to use credit cards in a lot of places, by the way, Japan isn't as cash-reliant a society as some travel guides imply. Some places were American Express only, no Visa.

One thing I hadn't realized about Tokyo hotels was that some rooms that technically sleep two (particularly at hotels that likely see many business travelers) are so small that we would actually have been happy to pay more for a slightly bigger room. (Think of a room where one could almost touch every wall while sitting or standing on the bed, or there wasn't enough open floor space anywhere to open up a medium sized suitcase fully, so that both sides of the bag could lay flat on the ground.) Never before had K and I ever been particularly fussed about space in hotel rooms, even in Hong Kong where rooms are quite small (but not this small!). Not a big deal in the end, but something we would take into account next time.

Food in Japan is generally excellent, regardless of price. Famously, even the convenience store food* is delicious and varied, and it is no sad thing to turn to 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart for breakfast several days in a row. (See, for example, this video by Strictly Dumpling, one of my favorite travel and food Youtubers. The convenience stores in Taiwan are also great, but the ones in Japan really take the cake!) We had some absolutely delicious meals that were quite affordable (including conveyor belt sushi and yakitori) but also splurged on some fancy meals where one could see the quality of ingredients, the skill of the chefs, and how that justified the cost (including lunch at the ANA Intercontinental's teppanyaki restaurant). At the fancier restaurants, the prices can jump up dramatically for dinner, so trying to get a lunch reservation may be best.

*In terms of food and ingredient quality in Japan, I may still be thinking wistfully of the packaged hardboiled eggs from 7-11 I had for breakfast the morning we went to the airport. To get the same depth of flavor from eggs here in the US, I think I may have to go through some trial and error with buying the fanciest, most humanely-raised free-range organic eggs ever. 

We had so much fun in Japan that, immediately after our trip, I was already half-making plans for a next one, despite our limited opportunities and vacation time for taking longer trips (once a year, if we're lucky), and how there are so many other places in the world that we also still want to see. Things I may want to do next time include: Staying at a ryokan for a night, probably in Hakone; going to Kamakura and Nikko as part of a trip to Tokyo; and spending more time in Osaka. And that's just the things that occur to me immediately, without any extra research! It'll probably be at least a few years before we can concretely think about taking another trip to Japan, though.

Please follow the link below for more photos from Kyoto and Nara, and more detailed travel tips for the Kyoto area!

In the gardens at Tenryuji in Arashiyama, in the larger Kyoto area. 

Kyoto is a lovely city, with tons of temples and neighborhoods worth seeing. It's also a lot smaller and calmer than Tokyo (naturally!), so it was a nice change of pace that way. We were at least a few weeks too early for when autumn leaves would start changing color, and I found myself regretting that (though in practice, K and I would not have had any alternative times to travel this year). There are so many temples with lovely gardens, and the natural settings were already so beautiful that I could see how they'd be breathtaking (but also even more crowded, and hotels would be more expensive) during cherry blossom season or autumn leaf-viewing season.

We stayed at the Solaria Nishitetsu Kyoto Premier, a fairly new hotel, for around $206/night total. I really enjoyed it, the customer service is great, and the room was very comfortable (and also a comfortable size). It's in a great location, within easy walking distance of two different subway stops, including Sanjo, a larger train station that also had a convenient train to Osaka. I generally recommend staying in one of the neighborhoods near the Solaria Nishitetsu, as it's close to a lot of shopping and restaurants. It's a fairly comfortable walking distance to Nishiki Market, Teramachi Street (tons of restaurants and souvenir shops of all kinds), Pontocho, and a few big shopping centers, including ones with Muji, Uniqlo, and Loft (one of my favorite places to shop for cute stationery and they have some really fun home goods as well). It's also a slightly longer, but still doable, walk to Gion and the tourist sites near there.

Apparently, at Loft in Kyoto, only two people are famous enough to warrant the sale of calendars dedicated entirely to them: Yuzuru Hanyu, two-time Olympic figure skating gold medalist, and... Vladimir Putin. When it comes to those two individuals, you have several choices each.

It's helpful to use both the subways and local buses in Kyoto to see all the temples and other famous tourist sites, particularly the Route 100, 101, and 102 buses, which were created with sightseeing in mind, and have especially useful routes. (K and I relied solely on the subway during the first few days, but may have been able to travel more efficiently if we used the bus as well on those days.)

Although the neighborhoods I mentioned have tons of restaurants of all kinds, including ones that are frequented by foreign tourists, Japanese tourists, and locals alike, do note that there are also a large number of restaurants that seem to cater solely to foreign tourists. A few restaurants, particularly some in Pontocho, can also be a bit overpriced and feel a bit like... only foreign tourists would ever eat there. (And if a Pontocho restaurant has outdoor seating that faces the river, there will likely be an extra cover charge for those tables, and sometimes it's substantial!)

I confess I didn't keep careful track of which temples all of my photos were taken at. This should be from a corner of one of the famous ones in the Nara Park area. 

There are a few day trips that can easily be done from Kyoto. We highly recommend both Nara (home of the famous deer, who are not at all afraid of people, often stand still for tourists to pet them, and can also be a bit aggressive about getting fed) and Osaka. Most of the easily accessible tourist sites in Nara are clustered right around the main park, so it was easy to spend most of the morning and afternoon there and head back to Kyoto for dinner. We only spent a day in Osaka, mostly at Osaka Castle (the grounds are cool, but the inside of the castle is a small museum that gets very crowded - the exhibits are mainly about Hideyoshi Toyotomi) and in the Dotonbori area, which has tons of shopping and restaurants. We'd love to see more of Osaka next time, and spend more time exploring restaurants there!

I'll likely write at least one more post about my trip, focusing on the personal finance and spending side of things. We encountered some slightly unexpected events that made the trip a bit more expensive than initially expected, and we also ended up needing to do some shopping (alas, I felt like a terrible minimalist and trip planner!) because we didn't pack as well as we could for the weather and for all that walking. I might also put together a post about restaurants, though I think the best strategy in Japan, at least in busier neighborhoods, might just be to wander around and pick a place randomly whenever one gets hungry, anything that looks busy and serves a dish you're interested in. I might also write a post about the monkey park in Arashiyama (I enjoyed it! it also offers an excellent view over Kyoto) and the deer in Nara. 

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