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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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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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Overnight in Suzhou

After working out the train kinks (see lessons learned from Hangzhou post), we packed up our passports and headed out to Suzhou, a canal town 30 minutes on the fast train from Shanghai. There’s not a ton of stuff to do in Suzhou, but we lucked out with beautiful spring-like weather, so that makes everything good.  We toured around the old town, checked out the gardens, went to traditional tea houses along the canal, and climbed Tiger Hill. I loved the zen vibe of the gardens and appreciated the break from beeping car horns. A few shots….
Amazingly bright fresh-cut flowers

IMG_4496Peeking into one of the many gardensIMG_4578Overloading on teaIMG_4586Climbing up Tiger HillIMG_4662Loved the mini treesIMG_4663Picture perfect ChinaIMG_4656Leaning tower of China…except it looked straightIMG_4661Don’t go chasing waterfallsIMG_4655

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It’s More Fun in the Philippines

A great thing about China is the amount of public holidays they have. Within two weeks of being in Shanghai, offices shut down for a whole week to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival. I’ll take it.

We decided to go somewhere hot and landed on The Philippines! I never had it on my travel wish list, so I didn’t know what to expect. I did extensive research and learned there are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and not to expect amazing food….among other things. Thanks to Lonely Planet I weaved a simple itinerary together taking the advice to stay in one area if you have limited time because it’s a big country and so spread out.

We flew into Manila, which was only a two-hour flight from Shanghai, then hopped on a connecting flight to Cebu City. We spent a day in Cebu, then headed south on a ferry to the island of Bohol….more specifically Alona Beach on Panglao Island. The cultural aspect wasn’t exhilarating. Everyone spoke English, there wasn’t amazing street food like you would find in Thailand or China, and I found the streets looked exactly the same. BUT the Philippines blew me away with their gorgeous beaches. When the sun hit the beach, the water turned into the brightest aqua marine blue and the whitest of white sand was a spectacular compliment. It felt like walking through a postcard or one of those beach calendars that make you hate winter.

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To be fair about the food, we had excellent fresh fish BBQ along the beach, which was awesome.
October is a risky time to go because it’s the end of monsoon season, so the weather was a bit hit or miss. One minute we were raving about our postcard beach, the next minute a dark cloud rolled in and we found ourselves in a tiny one-man security booth trying to stay dry. That’s another thing – the people are very friendly. The security guard saw us scrambling for shelter in the rain and called us over to his hut. We were there for so long and ended talking about Bon Jovi and Metallica. No joke.

On the flip side to going in October, you’ll get good deals on hotels. We stayed in three great places – The Henry Hotel (in Cebu), Amorita Resort and Hennan Resort in Alona Beach.

Cute hotel room at The Henry…I LOVED the green wall
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One of the highlights was taking a day trip to Balicasag Island for snorkeling and Virgin Island for lounging, AND one of the craziest things I didn’t think I would ever do — we went swimming with whale sharks. I was the last one to get off the boat, but I eventually hopped in the water and trusted that these creatures really are the gentle giants they’re marketed as. They were massive, measuring nine meters in length! I just kept if you went to an aquarium, they wouldn’t let you get inside, but here we were chilling with the whale sharks. It was wild.

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IMG_4057PS – I’ve become an expert packer – we took this small suitcase (above) for the two of us for seven days. Craze.

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Weekend Trip To Hangzhou

Within a few days of being in Shanghai, we decided to be spontaneous and take a train ride to Hangzhou – a garden city also known as West Lake, just outside of Shanghai.  Although I love being spontaneous, I learned that we should have done a bit more research before venturing out…especially to a place where English is hardly used.

We got to the train station, waited in line forever to buy our tickets, only to discover that we needed our passports! We were travelling an hour away and not leaving the country, so we didn’t think it was necessary.

Back home for the passports.

Got back to the train station, expecting to get on the next train (they leave hourly), only to discover trains actually sell-out here, so we had to wait another two hours for the next available train.

Finally on the train!

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So we got to Hangzhou and thought we were going to hop in a taxi to go to our hotel, but every taxi we showed the address to refused us. We were about eight denials in before we decided to start walking. We walked. And walked. And walked. Big shout out to Google maps for leading the way. We eventually got a taxi to take us to our hotel. It was the most adorable little villa in the hills — in the most confusing, tiny, and winding roads. No wonder taxis didn’t want to take us!

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Luckily the hotel was a gem and the staff were SO helpful and accommodating. It was a small villa with only 10 rooms, but the staff treated it as a high end as a Ritz Carlton, which was impressive and so nice.

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We encountered a monsoon and so many little mess-ups over the two days, due to lack of research and translation issues, but we just had to laugh about it. We checked out the giant gardens and parks, rented a two seater bike, toured West Lake, tried crab on a stick, and ate at a great restaurant called The Grandmas.

Waiting for the monsoon to pass

IMG_3672Crab on a stick….it was delicious
IMG_3679Chic white chandelier at The Grandmas restaurant
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It was a great little getaway and a good first trip to realize we need to be better planners when visiting vastly different places. Toto: we’re not in Canada anymore.

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Travel: Thailand

I wanted to travel to Thailand for YEARS and it finally happened in January. I can safely say it was one of the best trips of my life. I visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta.
Bangkok was a hot and sweaty whirlwind. We walked around markets, visited temples, ate street food, and celebrated New Years Eve on Khao San Road.
From there, we went to Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai and stayed in the most gorgeous little place called Jasmine Hills. It was in the middle of rice fields and was a bit of a trek to get to the city, but it was glorious.
In Chiang Mai we did a full day cooking class at Asia Scenic, which was THE BEST. We learned how to make six different dishes and ate them all. We also went elephant trekking. It was astonishing to be up close and personal with the elephants, but a little creepy too. I was the timid one of the group (see video below).
Koh Lanta was absolute paradise in the south. We stayed at a great place, Andalay Boutique (highly recommend) where we rented scooters and toured the island. We found the most beautiful beaches with hardly anyone on them. The side-of-the-road food was so good I can’t even put into words. Sun, sand, beach, the best food ever. Perfection.

IMG_0059Tuk Tuk (cabbie) in Bangkok

IMG_0290Temple in Chiang Mai

IMG_0353Night market fun

IMG_0412Fake smile | petrified

Feeding the elephants
IMG_0512Cooking class at Asia Scenic
Chiang Mai cookingMade all of these dishes!
IMG_0952Amazing beach in Koh Lanta | heaven
IMG_1338Lucky Balloon send off
IMG_1146Black Moon party | fire show
IMG_1265Spa at Siri Lanta
IMG_1174Last look before leaving the island

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