Japan

I found the cleanest place in the world I have ever seen, in July 2002… Japan. I toured the southern part and went back six years later, in 2008, to see the northern island of Hokkaido.

Asakusa
After landing at the Tokyo Narita International Airport, we started our tour in Asakusa, seeing a temple. It’s almost like, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nevertheless, Japanese temples are tranquil places, where beautiful cherry blossom trees flourish and the sound of flowing water is usually never far.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Tokyo
The capital of Japan is what you would imagine but so much better. It’s a high-tech mecca full of business people rushing around, but it’s not like New York City (no offense) — Tokyo is clean, and the people are ultra polite. The Ginza Tower, well, towers over one part of the city. And from our hotel room, we could see Mt. Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain and what I think is the world’s most beautiful mountain.

Yokohama
This pretty oasis of serenity is also Japan’s second largest city, where modern buildings line the skyline and young men (they could have been teenagers) await customers wanting a ride on a rickshaw.

vending machine in Toyohashi

vending machines in Toyohashi

Toyohashi
We took a bullet train from the Hamamachi train station to Toyohashi. Bullet trains are among the fastest in the world, screaming toward you like a white ghost while you wait on the loading platform. You shouldn’t stand too close to the track because the wind produced by the high-speed train is so strong, you might get blown over. The ride, though, was amazingly smooth. Everywhere we went, including in this city, I bought green tea ice cream: from vending machines, from ice cream stands, from cafes. I took full advantage of its widespread availability. We also visited the beautiful Kinkakuji Temple’s Golden Pavilion.

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kyoto
Models put on a fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center, where we saw seamstresses make kimonos, yukatas, and other Japanese clothing.

Osaka
Perhaps my favorite city in Japan, it’s home to the majestic Osaka Castle and Shinsaibashi Suji (a mile-long, outdoor shopping arcade), where I had my first Starbucks green tea frappuccino. I prayed that Starbucks would start selling it in the U.S., but I had to wait a couple of years before this delightful drink made its way to my home country. With several blocks of stores, I indulged in more than just green tea frappuccino; I had green tea, green tea ice cream, green tea frozen yogurt, and green tea slushie. I also fell in love with the Sony store — designed so much more high-tech and modern than computer/technology stores in the United States. Pachinko (a cross between pinball and slot machines) parlors were abundant in this shopping arcade, and there was no shortage of people playing the game. Funny enough, I felt like I stuck out in Japan, especially in Shinsaibashi Suji, because I have naturally black hair, whereas most Japanese young people dye their hair brown or even blond.

Shinsaibashi Suji

Shinsaibashi Suji

Nara
In Nara Deer Park, we got up close with graceful deer. And of course, we visited Nara Temple and Todaiji Temple.

Kobe
Kobe Tower at Kobe Port is an impressive red structure that’s a landmark among other uniquely designed buildings.

Read about my second trip to Japan, during which I traveled throughout Hokkaido, in an earlier blog entry.

Country #3 on my exhilarating journey through East Asia this summer…

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Island (foreground), Kowloon Peninsula (background) on HK Harbor

Hong Kong Island (foreground), Kowloon Peninsula (background) on HK Harbor

My favorite place in the world… and the biggest adrenaline rush

Jumbo Kingdom Restaurant on Hong Kong Island

Jumbo Kingdom Restaurant on Hong Kong Island

“Wow.” That was the first and only word out of my husband’s mouth, as he sat speechless after our airplane broke through the clouds, and before our eyes was the world’s most exciting commercial mecca, like a scene from Star Wars. I’ve been to Hong Kong eight times now, and it still leaves me awestruck every time. It’s no wonder parts of Batman: The Dark Knight were shot here — with Batman jumping off Hong Kong’s tallest building (top 10 in the world), the International Finance Centre. “Hong Kong” means “Fragrant Harbor” in Chinese. I’m not sure that captures the essence of my favorite place on Earth. Words don’t do it justice. Hong Kong (HK) is a place where you can’t fall asleep at night because you want to be out in the middle of all the excitement; where restaurants and stores stay open past midnight; where buses come in double-decker form because too many cars and taxis are on the streets; where some buildings are so tall and thin, you wonder how they stay standing; where thousands of watercraft compete for space on the harbor; where you have to walk fast if you don’t want to get trampled on the sidewalk; where women (and men, for that matter) are thin and fashionable (HK fashion is at least several months ahead of the U.S., so I got ahead before coming home); and where the subways (and subway stations) are clean and the escalators send you on a fast ride (there are more than 7 million people in HK after all, so they have to move people!). It’s a place that never sleeps.

Nathan Road in Kowloon

Nathan Road in Kowloon

As an S.A.R. (Special Administrative Region) of China, HK maintains a separate economy under the Mainland’s control. You used to hear mostly Cantonese spoken in the streets, but since the handover to China, you hear a lot more Mandarin, which is sad for someone like me, since Cantonese was my first (and favorite) language. But then again, HK is also very international — Europeans, Africans, and people from all across Asia love to live in Hong Kong — and that’s another thing that makes this place unique. There are so many taxis, there are three different colors: red taxis on HK Island and Kowloon Peninsula, blue on Lantau Island, and green in New Territories. I love everything about Hong Kong. The energy, bright lights, frantic pace, sharp-looking people, and table sharing. I cry every time I leave.

double-decker buses on Nathan Road

double-decker buses on Nathan Road

A journey back in time
My parents grew up in Hong Kong. My dad was born there. My mom moved there when she was just several months old. Before this trip I had never thought about doing this, but this time I felt a yearning in my heart to visit the place where my mom grew up. I think it means more to me now than when I was younger. We took a taxi on Kowloon Peninsula from the south end of Nathan Road to the north end. As we neared my mom’s old neighborhood, she recognized few familiar buildings. Most of the originals had been torn down and replaced with much taller structures, as Hong Kong outgrew its land space over the years. It was an emotional

Julie with her mom and husband off of Nathan Road

Julie with her mom and husband off of Nathan Road

experience for me to walk up to a condo high-rise that was now in place of my mom’s former home, which was only three stories tall decades ago. My mom’s eyes lit up as she told us how she would walk to elementary school and the nearby hospital where she took one of her brothers when he fell and hurt himself. There’s no better history lesson than witnessing changing times with your own eyes.

MUST-SEE

night view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

night view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

1. Victoria Peak. Take the Peak Tram to the top of the mountain that gives you a breathtaking view of what’s widely recognized as the world’s best night view: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula (attached to Mainland China), and Hong Kong Harbor. On Victoria Peak is a shopper and video gamer’s paradise. Tourists can find all their souvenirs. EA Games allowed people to try out their video games for free — unlimited play!
2. Symphony of Lights. This nightly show, after sunset, lights up the Hong Kong skyline with a laser and music show. It’s best seen from the Kowloon side on the Avenue of Stars (HK’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame), which pays tribute to such Cantonese stars as Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Michelle Yeoh.

Julie at a rainy, windy Symphony of Lights

Julie at a rainy, windy Symphony of Lights

3. Hong Kong International Airport. Rated the world’s best airport by Skytrax’s World Airport Survey seven of the past eight years, HK International Airport (HKIA) is a destination of its own, replete with great dim sum, classy shops, and sleek design, set on Lantau Island. I feel fortunate to have flown in and out of two of the world’s top three airports: HKIA and Seoul Incheon.
4. Repulse Bay. You’d think folks in Hong Kong are self-deprecating, with names like Repulse Bay and Junk Bay for beaches that are anything but repulsive or junky. They’re exquisite and sit alongside Hong Kong’s impressive mountains topped with high-rises that rise up to incredible heights.

Repulse Bay

Repulse Bay

5. Nathan Road. This super-busy street is the heart of Kowloon Peninsula and a popular destination for tourists and locals. You can find the best food, shopping, serene Kowloon Park, and places of worship. And foreigners shouldn’t worry; most people in HK speak English. After all, HK used to be under British rule. There’s something going on at literally all hours of the day and night. Hong Kong never sleeps.

delicious dinner at Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo in Tsim Sha Tsui Centre in Kowloon

delicious dinner at Shanghai Xiao Nan Guo in Tsim Sha Tsui Centre in Kowloon

Just one more place left on this East Asia vacation… Hong Kong’s glittering neighbor: Macau. If you like glitzy hotels and casinos along the sea, this is your next vacation spot. Come back next week!