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I Dream of Kyoto

I have a soft spot for the beauty that is Kyoto. This fairytale land is quiet, strikingly beautiful, and oh so clean. With it’s countless temples, lush scenery and colourful vistas, the city feels like one big amusement park, except much cooler than man-made scream coasters and cotton candy.

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It’s a tourist city that attracts outsiders as well as their own kind, the Japanese from all parts of the country flock to this amazing place. I ran into a lot of tourists from Italy, they were everywhere.

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To experience Japanese lifestyle and hospitality, I booked a traditional Ryokan guesthouse instead of a hotel. This is where you sleep on tatami matted floors. Spending four days in Tokyo prior and getting to know Japanese culture made me totally at ease for this sleeping on the ground business. As expected, it was very comfortable, quiet, and spotless.

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There’s so much to do and see in Kyoto. Some people do a day trip from Tokyo but I strongly suggest spending three or four full days. You will cheat yourself with just one day.

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Some of the places we visited included Fushimi Inari Shrine – an endless shrine of beautiful orange gates spread across a thick wooded mountain. The Golden Pavilion, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Philosopher’s Walk, Gion District – famous entertainment and geisha quarter and an unforgettable day trip to Kibune and Kurama-dera which included hiking in the mountains and an even more unforgettable onsen experience.

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I think about Kyoto with a warm heart. A must see for anyone visiting Japan.

A few more pics from the day trip to Kibune and Kurama-dera. LUSCIOUS!

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IMG_0355There’s a big waterfall along with restaurants perched on top of the water!
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IMG_0380The Best.

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Tokyo Memorable Moments

There were so many highlights in Tokyo, it’s tough to narrow it down to a few. Here are four that stand out the most:

RAMEN AT THIS PLACE
Talk about a taste bud EXPLOSION. And I’m not just saying that. Apologies I have no idea what it was called. A friend sent a text message pin and we found it through google maps (somewhere near Shibuya). My eyeballs grew a little larger with every bite of the most delicious spicy miso ramen that has ever graced my mouth. I savoured every sip not wanting the dish to end.
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PACHINKO ARCADE
This was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It looks similar to slots at a casino, but it’s more like an arcade. Gambling for cash is illegal in Japan but Pachinko balls won from games can be exchanged for tokens and prizes.  The place is insanely loud and they are serious about these games. It was most definitely a movie moment, I couldn’t get over it.

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TRADITIONAL WEDDING
My guide book said if you’re lucky when visiting Yoyogi park, you just must stumble upon a traditional wedding. Low and behold I did!! It was amazing and very serious. There were intense drums informing us that something was about to happen and the wedding procession walked through the court yard very slowly. I had no idea this is what they wore. I was blown away.

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TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
The Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in Japan and it’s wild. We arrived at 4 am to see the famous tuna auction. Yes you read that right. They do a huge auction every day for tuna. I thought getting there at that hour was ludicrous but guess what? It wasn’t early enough because we missed it! But we did get to see the men in action and zipping around in their little carts, all dressed the same in chinos and white rubber boots, looking stylish. We then lined up for sushi breakfast and waited for 3 hours! By 7:30 am the most amazing chefs served the freshest fish I’ve ever experienced, one little piece at a time. A truly unforgettable experience.

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My Thoughts On Japan

When I booked my trip to Japan, friends told me “Japan will blow your mind.” I didn’t understand how or why it was going to blow my mind, but I was excited to find out. Upon arriving in Tokyo, we found ourselves completely lost and unable to find our hotel. We stopped in a store and asked for directions. Without hesitation four people gathered around trying hard to figure it out and show us the right way. They were serious about helping and they smiled a lot. When I attempted to cross the street I stopped in my tracks to an oncoming car, but low and behold – the car stopped and waited for me to cross. It didn’t take very long to realize just how efficient, polite, proper, stylish, and cool the Japanese really are.

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In a city of 30 million people you would expect a lot of chaos, but there are rules and people follow them. One of the most shocking things is that you don’t see any garbage cans but yet the city is so clean that you wouldn’t flinch if you dropped an apple on the ground – you would pick it up and eat it.

Another interesting thing is the bewildering amount of very convenient convenience stores and vending machines! You want new underwear? Buy it at the 7-11. You need to pay a bill? you can do that too. You want healthy and delicious snacks stocked every hour on the hour? yep, no problem. Socks, Muji products, beer, cell phones, umbrellas. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. Convenience stores and vending machines are EVERYWHERE and they’re exciting.

JAP_39So many convenience stores I can’t explain. Family Mart was my favourite

IMG_0069Vending machine culture is HUGE. I loved the iced coffee

I really got that movie scene vibe with all the lights and people filling the intersection at the famous Shibuya crossing. When the scramble light comes on it’s like the flood gates open and people don’t stop appearing.

IMG_0076My pic doesn’t do justice, but check these out here

Tokyo is just so big that if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll miss all the good stuff. It’s a city filled with hidden gems and underground places. Luckily we had help from friends who lived there so we got to see a super cool side that we would have missed. My all time favourite neighbourhood was Nakameguro. I could have lived there.

IMG_0093Cool little shop in Nakameguro

In 10 days I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and that just grazed the surface of what this beautiful country has to offer. There’s so much more to see. Next up, I’ll share my highlights.

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Travel: Beautiful Yangshuo China

One of the greatest highlights of China was our trip to Yangshuo. I heard it was beautiful from friends and I checked out pictures online, but being there in person was an amazing breath of fresh air and the views are spectacular.

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If you’re thinking about going to China, Yangshuo should definitely be on your list. It’s a 2 hour flight from Shanghai and you need 3 or 4 days, no less. Here’s a bit of advice on how to navigate the area:

Fly into Guilin and take the ferry to Yangshuo (down the Li River). It’s a key highlight and takes about 4 hours. If you fly in at night, stay the night in Guilin and take the ferry the next morning.  The ferry only goes from Guilin to Yangshuo (not the reverse) so don’t miss it!

The town center of Yangshuo is kind of ugly, so you should stay in the country side. Two good places to stay are The Giggling Tree and Secret Garden. Both are very charming.

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This trip is all about making the most of your day outdoors, so I would pack workout clothes and good trainers. Get a map in advance – try printing online. We had a hard time finding a map…our B&B only had one so they couldn’t give it to us and we got a little lost.

Rent bikes and ride around the country side. Your hotel will tell you the route and you’ll see a lot of people on bikes. Take a bamboo boat ride along Yulong river – you’ll come across this on your bike ride. Splendid!

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The next day, take a local bus to Xingping (takes about 45 minutes). Walk around Old Street, hike up Laozhai hill, visit the fishing village (by boat or hike), or hike around the Li River. There’s a really good restaurant on Old Street called Warm Cafe – definitely worth it.

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Back in Yangshuo, if you’re into something different, there’s a live show called Impression SanjieLiu that takes place every night along the Li River. You have to buy tickets in advance and it’s great! It was kind of like watching an Olympic opening ceremonies.

Another friend suggested visiting the rice terraces in Longli but it’s 3 hours outside from Guilin (the other direction of Yangshuo), so you would need more time. It’s a day trip. We were there for 3 days and didn’t have time. This is where the fourth day would have been nice.

Overall the trip to Yangshuo gave me a whole new appreciation for China. I was so impressed with the vistas and the overall look and feel was unmatched by other experiences. Definitely worth the trek.

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Travel: Hong Kong

At long last I finally visited Hong Kong for a weekend! And what a wonderful weekend it was. It had been on my trip list for 10 years ever since my Dad went and told me I would love it. Hong Kong is amazing and truly lived up to my expectations. A very cool city filled with excitement, lots of shopping, beautiful vistas and good food. To me, it felt like a cross between New York, San Francisco and Vancouver.

New York for its bustling action, memorable taxis, and delicious restaurants. San Francisco because of the cool neon signs, and hilly city landscape. And Vancouver because it is mountainous and rains a lot.

Unfortunately it rained a whole lot during our three-day stay, but it didn’t put a damper on my love for the city. Truly a ‘must visit’ place for all the city lovers out there.

IMG_7682Hotel Indigo in Wanchai – a great place to stay

IMG_7683I loved this side street in SoHo, it looked like a movie set

IMG_7815Skyline view from the ferry

IMG_7706Ted’s Lookout…cool little corner in Wanchai

IMG_7712Pretty street in Wanchai. The streets in this area are called Sun, Moon, Ship and Star :)

IMG_7793Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road

HK streetsTypical street view with lots of outdoor stairs
JD in HKAt the top of Victoria Peak, so foggy we didn’t see the famous view. A reason to go back!

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Malaysia: Land of Food and Friendly

Over the Chinese New Year break we ventured out to Malaysia. It was a much-needed escape from the never-ending traffic noise and air pollution of Shanghai. I didn’t know much about Malaysia when we booked our flights, except that I tried a Malaysian dish in Australia some years ago and it was terrible. Beef Redang. Wasn’t a fan.

But we love to travel to a place of good food and we were told Malaysia would not disappoint. It most certainly did not disappoint and I realize that the restaurant in Australia was probably crap.

We started the trip with a big FAIL by missing our flight!!!! Despite being super organized with all hotels booked in advanced, everything printed, and an expert packing job, we arrived at the airport for our 1:30 flight only to realize, it left at 1:30 am! Worst!!!! What kind of flight leaves at that hour? Air Asia.

We bit the bullet and booked another flight (price not to be mentioned). After waiting in the airport all day, and getting delayed again, it was 4 am by the time we got to our hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Luckily our hotel was in a bustling part of the city, right near the famous outdoor food market Jalan Alor, and it was still going strong. We ate dinner…er breakfast at an amazing Tandoori place nearing 5 am. But who cares, vacation means no real schedule.

A few hours later we were off to Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s rich in history and heritage. We toured around by foot and admired the pretty buildings. At night we went to the Jonker Walk Night market. A long street selling food, trinkets, and more food.

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Our next stop was Georgetown in Penang, another UNESCO World Heritage site, but much bigger than Melaka. Penang is known as THE food capital of Malaysia, so it was here that we sampled all the dishes you’re supposed to try in Malaysia, including the strangest fruit we ever did eat – durian. We’re pretty open to trying new foods and liking them, but durian wasn’t one of them. It’s about the size of a melon but with a prickly outside. When you open it up inside, it looks like play-doh and smells like garbage. I watched DT eat it first and his face was priceless. I wish I filmed it. To give you an idea of the offensive smell, many hotels have signs banning durian be brought on their property. Keep in mind – it’s a fruit! Strange I know.

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Penang was really nice, it’s part historical, part brand-new city, and a short 30 minute bus ride brings you to the National Park and beaches.

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The last leg of the trip was spent on the island of Langkawi, the jewel of Kedah. It was beautiful and quaint and a perfect way to end the trip. There are a number of beautiful beaches, mountains, parks, and it’s so close to Thailand that you can do day trips there. Wild.

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One of the best things about Malaysia is how friendly the Malay people are. We loved them! Their accents are awesome, they smile a lot, they’re laid back, and just overall seem like a happy bunch. The weather was perfect every day and the food was so interesting with Indian and Thai influences.

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I highly recommend checking out Malaysia, and if you’re interested in doing the loop we did, we stayed at excellent places – The Yard Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Wei Far Guest House in Melaka, Glow Boutique Hotel in Georgetown, and La Pari Pari in Langkawi. All awesome, affordable, and highly recommended.

Dreaming of the beach now. My happy place, always and forever.

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Visting Shanghai – Survival Tips

We have some friends coming to visit soon (yay!), so I started thinking about the basic things one should know before visiting Shanghai. Things I wish I had known instead of finding out little by little. Here is my mini survival guide to help you navigate Shanghai.

LANGUAGE
There’s not a whole lot of English in Shanghai. Try to learn how to say, “I don’t speak Chinese” in Mandarin. I learned it from a podcast…after 200 tries. It’s very useful because locals will speak to you in Chinese and continue talking even if you give them a confused look and say, “I can’t speak Chinese” in English.

TAXIS
ZERO cab drivers speak English – you need to know where you’re going with the address in Chinese when you get in.

Cabs are super cheap.  A 35-minute ride from the airport to downtown will cost around 70 RMB ($12 CAD)

To hail a taxi you have to put your arm out and wave your hand up and down or they won’t stop. It’s kind of like an elementary school kid trying hard to get the teacher’s attention.

Make sure the taxi driver flips on the meter. They usually always do, but one time the driver didn’t and I pointed and said “meter” and he said “mayo” which means no, so I got out.
This looks like a photo from the 80s, but all the cabs really do look like this…
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TRAFFIC
Pedestrians are at the bottom of the food chain. Always be aware of your surroundings because cars, buses, motorbikes, and bikes come out of nowhere and they don’t obey traffic lights.

You probably don’t want to walk around with headphones on.

Watch out for the motorbikes. They drive the opposite way of traffic, as if they don’t count as a motorized vehicle…they even drive on sidewalks.

Tip: if you’re unsure or hesitant about crossing an intersection, walk close to a local. I do this a lot and I always wonder if they realize I’m using them as my bodyguard.

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FOOD & DRINK
You can’t drink the water. So don’t drink the water.

Street food is awesome (greasy yes, but delicious). If you want to try it but you’re a bit weary, just say “mayo row” – that’s not the right spelling but that’s how to say “no meat.”

Tipping anywhere is not common or expected.  Not at food stands, restaurants or even taxis.

Know how much street food should cost before getting in line. In some cases, street vendors will weigh your food and you can see the price on the scale, but more often they will tell you the price in Chinese with no scale, so you’re SOL if you don’t know how much to hand over. If you’re buying a few dumplings or pork buns, or street noodles, it shouldn’t cost you more than 5-8 RMB (86 cents – $1.37 CAD).

You’ll see black eggs everywhere, on street corners, vendor carts, and in every convenience store. I couldn’t even look at them until I learned that it’s just a hard-boiled egg cooked in tea and soy sauce. Nothing to be scared of.

Here is a great link to Shanghai’s best street foods.

This is a soup filled dumpling – a must try
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SHOPPING & MARKETS
Shanghai has a lot of ‘markets’ but they don’t look like the kind of markets you’re used to. They’re mainly indoors and in giant warehouses, spawning over several floors. We went to an eye wear market where you can buy glasses and sunglasses at great prices. After the fourth floor, we were exhausted, but we did find some great gems.

There’s also a fabric market, electronics market, bedding market, fashion and gifts market, antique market, cricket market, and even a marriage market! Elders set-up shop in People’s Square Park every Sunday in an attempt to play matchmaker.

There’s no point shopping at stores like Zara and H&M because there’s a 30% tax so everything is more expensive than back home.

There are a lot of great boutiques in the French Concession, where you can find some unique pieces, however they’re overpriced.

Bartering is definitely expected at markets and street vendors selling goods, (but you don’t barter in stores). Keep in mind that vendors often charge foreigners double the price, so hold your ground and barter low.
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PERSONAL SPACE
It doesn’t exist in situations like the metro or if you’re waiting in line for something. People will swoop in and cozy up right in front of you like it’s perfectly normal.

SMOKING
People smoke everywhere…inside restaurants and even inside office buildings. This is a negative for me, but I suppose this is a dream come true if you’re a smoker.
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WORLD WIDE WEB
A lot of websites are blocked, so you can’t get on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and others. The Internet in general is crazy slow. I can access those sites because I have a VPN but you won’t be able to get on normally.

WARDROBE
You can wear whatever you want in Shanghai – some people are stylish, but not entirely, especially now that it’s getting colder. Locals often walk around in head to toe PJ sets. True story.

If you’ve always had a burning desire to dress in a matching outfit with your boyfriend/girlfriend – this is your chance, as it’s quite common to see couples wearing matching jackets, hats, t-shirts, and shoes.

You should really dress for the weather and layer up.
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iPHONE
I highly recommend getting some kind of package to be able to use your phone…if you have an iPhone it will make things a lot easier. A few key apps to get:
XE (currency converter)
Google maps (it’s my savior)
Shanghai metro (for subway directions)
Shanghai Taxi (click on the ‘streets’ tab and enter the main street and cross street to create a taxi card to show to the driver). Addresses in Shanghai are all listed by cross streets
City Weekend is a great too

TOILET
Ladies be prepared for a lot of squat toilets in public places. It’s good to have travel size tissue in your purse.
Guys, it’s widely accepted to pee anywhere in public so have fun with that.

There you have it. My take on how to survive a visit to Shanghai. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line @julieduva or on facebook.com/sevendollarpants

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