Stopover in Singapore

Ahh, Singapore. Returning to a place you’ve already been is severely under-rated: For the first time in 105 days, we stepped off a plane yesterday and knew exactly where to pee, where to go through immigration, how to find the public transportation (where we bypassed 50 people waiting in line to buy passes, because we still had our cards loaded from our last visit), which exit to take at the Tanjong Pagar stop, and which left and right turns to make to get us to our friends’ apartment. After we dropped our bags off, we made our way to a nearby mall, ordered two “duck rices” (that we’d been lusting over on our plane ride in), and stopped by the mall pharmacy to buy two bottles of contact solution (impossible to find anywhere in Vietnam) – all on autopilot! Do you know how good it feels not to think while on a mission to find shelter, food, and supplies?

We’re only here for 32 hours this go round; we board a flight tonight to Sydney, Australia. It’s been just enough time to watch a few DVDs, reorganize all of our gear from the past 3 months of traveling, and eat cheap rice dishes (and drink bubble teas) at the nearby hawker centers. We can’t think of a better way to spend Valentine’s Day. Seriously.

The last time we were here, we came for 12 days. Most of our time was spent resting and talking and laughing with our dear friends—Chris and George—our gracious hosts, who have been kind enough to open up their modern, sun-light filled apartment to us twice. In between sleeping and laundry loads, they gave us daily tours of the city and its varied neighborhoods. Today seemed like a great day to recount those highlights, but only in pictures with captions. We’ve got a flight to catch!

1. The Botanical Gardens

The 180-acre Botanic Garden complex is a pleasant escape from the mostly concrete-covered city. And… it’s free to visit!

Well, almost free. You do have to pay a few bucks if you want to see the National Orchid Garden, but it’s definitely worth it.

Patten in the lush Botanic Gardens at the height of his beardom.

Patten in the lush Botanic Gardens at the height of his beardom.

2. The Marina Bay Sands Building

By day, this ship-topped building is pretty darn cool.

But at night, it’s amazing! Every night at 8 and 9:30 pm, you can watch the place turn lots of pretty colors.

The best part about this hotel/casino though is the VIEW you get from the top.

If you buy a drink at the bar, you avoid the viewing-deck entrance fee…

Plus, a fancy cocktail always tastes better with a view.

Plus, a fancy cocktail always tastes better with a view.

3. The Peranakan Museum

The first Singaporeans were from China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. As they intermixed, the Peranakan culture was born. This museum is a must visit, if you want a better sense of the hard-to-grasp Singaporean peeps.

We loved these portraits of today’s Peranakans. The gallery is filled with about 50 or so of these giant images.

We also loved the china — pink, gold, and teal are the hallmark of Peranakan design. Grandma: These plates make me think of you!

4. The Architecture

Modern skyscrapers, Asian-Deco buildings, Chinese shophouses: One of our favorite activities in Singapore was simply walking around and appreciating mankind’s masonry:

For a better understanding of the city and all of its buildings (plus really cool models), visit the Singapore City Gallery.

5. Komala Vilas

For the best vegetarian Indian food ever, visit Komala Vilas. This place definitely makes our list for Top 5 meals of our ZINK year.

The dosa meal at Komala Vilas… and George’s stylish friendship bracelets.

An unbelievably creamy mango shake, not lassi. It must be made with full-fat ice cream.

6. Chewbacca

There is no cuter pup than this little fellow, and the ONLY place you can find him is in Sing.

Should you visit Vietnam during Tet? Yes!

If you Google “should I go to Vietnam for Tet,” you will get a resounding “no” in your search results: Travelers complain about expensive and hard-to-book transport, and locals warn about closed sites and restaurants. But “no” wasn’t a convenient answer for our traveling schedule, so we did what we never do: ignored collective wisdom (a first for two people so reliant on TripAdvisor and LP’s Thorn Tree) and booked our trip during Tet, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year.

The woman who gave me a chunk of Banh Chung, a boiled sticky rice sweet treat sold during Tet.

What luck! Sure, we may have paid a bit more on bus and plane tickets (and maybe our tips were a tad more generous at restaurants), but being in Vietnam during Tet has been wonderful.

Tet is “kind of like our Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and birthday wrapped into one,” said an American expat we met, who now lives here with his Vietnamese wife. “It is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam.” Embarrassingly, P and I knew very little about it before arriving, but over the course of our two weeks here, it’s been hard not to immerse and verse ourselves in all things Tet — we strike up convos with locals in restaurants and workers in our hotels, and find ourselves Wikipedia-ing things at night like… Bánh chưng, the omnipresent leaf-wrapped packages we see for sale everywhere. We learn this is filled with boiled sticky rice and mung bean paste, and as I eavesdrop on a family at the market eating this right out of the Dong leaf, they hand me a section of the stuff and say, “Happy New Year. Try!”

When we arrived in Saigon, the hustle and bustle of New Year’s preparations were just beginning — hotels were decorating their lobbies, city workers were constructing big horse-themed displays in parks and thoroughfare medians, and locals were scooping up new clothes, toys, and all kinds of goodies from the markets to take home to their families up North or in the Mekong Delta. Nearly 9 million people live in Saigon, but during Tet, there are only about 3 million who stay in the city. This mass exodus does mean flights, buses, and trains get booked early. We booked our travel 10 days out: late enough to miss the train option, but early enough to have our pick of the litter for planes and buses.

Kids posing next to a horse display in Nha Trang

When we got to the beach-side city Nha Trang, the final week of preparations were in full swing. Here, we watched as truckloads of flowers were brought into the city and lined up the sidewalks: huge chrysanthemum planters (usually purchased as a duo and displayed on both sides of one’s front door), kumquat trees (placed in the center of one’s front room to symbolize fertility and the hope for a fruitful year), fake cherry blossom trees with brightly colored tissue flowers (where elders will hang “lucky money,” or envelopes filled with small bills for family members to snatch off the tree and carry with them all year as a good luck charm), bonsai creations, and many other flowers like begonias, marigolds, and gladiolas. Flowers and flower planters literally blanketed every spot of sidewalk — which meant, in order to get from place to place, we had to walk on the street into oncoming motorbike traffic. Uncomfortable at first, this only got more harrowing in the days right before the New Year, as more and more people were buying plants and delivery boys were strapping these 50-pound pots onto their motorbikes, magically balancing them as they darted through traffic. What a show!

We arrived in Hoi-An just in time for the New Year. This old port town is full of Chinese temples and Japanese-style merchant houses, all painted in French-Colonial yellow. Strings of brightly colored lanterns dangle across the streets; shops are full of the city’s once-important exports (beautiful silks, colorful lanterns, porcelain, lacquer, and paper); and elegant restaurants and hip cafes abound. Hoi-An would be overwhelmingly charming without a huge celebration going on, but to be here during Tet — well, we just felt really lucky.

A man delivering a kumquat tree, a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness for the coming year. These are usually displayed in the living room.

Old Town Hoi-Ann, just before Tet

Sidewalks were jam packed with flowers. These huge mum pots are bought as a duo and displayed on each side of your front door.

Since the sidewalks were packed with flowers, we had to walk directly into traffic to get from place to place. Fun!

A man burns paper money as an offering to ancestors on New Year’s Eve; there were dozens of families doing this on the streets.

On New Year’s Eve (Jan 30), we watched as the thousands of flower pots gradually disappeared from the sidewalks. At 8 pm when we headed downtown, merchants were selling flowers at a fast clip (and likely rock-bottom prices). We heard they started giving them away for free at 10 or 11 pm, because at midnight, the sidewalks, the roads, and all floors MUST be spotless — if you “sweep” during Tet, you may sweep away all your good luck. During dinner at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant thus far (The Moon), we watched the chef and his sister prepare their offering table at the door, then we headed into the streets as nearly every head of home burned paper money in tin cans as offerings to their ancestors. The riverfront was packed with people — gorgeous silk displays lit the riverwalk, paper lanterns floated in the river, polka-like New Year’s music blasted from speakers, and motorbikes–so many motorbikes!–honked their horns in a frenzy to find a parking spot in time for… the fireworks.

Hours before the New Year, the streets are sweep perfectly clean.

Colorful silk displays decorated the riverfront

Year of the Horse!

A smoky, but beautiful fireworks show

At exactly midnight, the show began. It wasn’t quite the high-tech, long-running firework spectacular we’re now accustomed to in the US, but it was gorgeous. So many smiles, so much awe. When they ended, we headed back through the narrow streets. Every front door was open with an offering table set in the middle. Incense was lit on each table, and as we made our 15-minute walk home, we got to progressively see the offering process: First, they would pray behind the table. Then, they may toss out a bowl of rice on the street, followed by cups of tea or water. Then, many head to the Chinese temples to pray for success in the New Year: The temple we passed on the way back to our hotel was already packed with worshippers at 12:30 pm.

New Year’s Day is generally reserved for family gatherings. We biked into the countryside, where we spotted families sitting outside drinking beer, playing board games, or just talking. The next 3-4 days are spent welcoming friends or neighbors in the home, or making special outings with your family to temples and heritage sites. As we walked around Hoi-An and now as we meander through Hue, we realize Tet is also a time to don your brand new clothes: Women in scuff-free shoes, guys in crispy denim, and little girls in spot-free dresses abound.

The Tet holiday formally ends tomorrow. So far, we haven’t been overcharged for much and we haven’t had much trouble with holiday closures. We did miss out on seeing one old merchant home in Hoi-An, but… who cares about another lifeless site when you get to experience a colorful, loud, and magical celebration?

A man at his offering table, just after midnight

A family cruising about town in their new clothes

Visiting temples to pray for a successful 2014.

Two Weeks in Myanmar

It’s been exactly a month since our Burmese holiday began — we met up with another ZINK-ing couple, Maia and Dave, and worked our way south through the country: Mandalay >> Bagan >> Kalaw >> Inle Lake >> Yangon. (Links send you to our Flickr sets of each destination). After the two weeks we spent in Myanmar, we crashed with some of our best friends in Singapore; now we’re in Dalat, Vietnam, sipping frothy cappuccinos at a tiny little cafe and realizing just how negligent we’ve been with blogging. Sorry! The excuse? Myanmar is complicated and it’s been difficult to put our experience in words. But here goes it:

As our Air Asia flight descended into Mandalay, Myanmar, it was apparent, even from 10,000 feet, that we were landing into the past: no clear outlines of plots of land; no buildings, just pockets of habitation; no interstates, just curving dirt roads; a few glimmering stupas on hillsides; and a mist that blanketed much of the land. Throughout our two weeks here, we constantly voiced some version of “wow, it feels like we’re traveling back in time.” Sure, there were traces of modernity: a cellphone in the hands of our horse-cart driver, kids wearing Despicable Me-patterned fleece pajamas, and plastic wrappers from laundry detergent packs littered around watering holes and in rivers. But the lifestyle of so many of the people and the lack of public infrastructure like running water and paved roads (especially in Mandalay) was shocking to experience in person.  We’d never traveled anywhere that we felt so transported in place and time over and over and over again.

food.mandalay

Local curry dishes

As charming, enlightening, and generally awe-inspiring as it is to travel in the past, there were some side effects: e.g. a good case of Burma Belly that hit me first, then Patten, then Dave, then Maia. All of us were stomach sick in some form for the first week of our trip: mine was violent and fast, others had the lingering trots (and an occasional vomit sesh in the field). While stomach issues aren’t necessarily joyful, the worst part about getting sick in the early days of our trip was… our subsequent pussyfooting around anything and everything we put in our mouths. We became those stereotypical paranoid travelers who wiped our wet plates with tissues, only ordered vegetarian fried rice, drank Coke from the can, avoided anything described as “local” cuisine, and shuddered at street food that we’d all normally devour. I’m not convinced we were missing out on the world’s best cuisine – the cold goat curries and shrimp-pasted vegetables seen on most menus were not the most delicious concoctions – BUT there is nothing more sacrilegious to me than not experiencing a place through its food, which is exactly what we did in Myanmar.

So be it. Shit happens on the road. And we were super lucky to experience a lot of magic in Myanmar, even though none of it happened in our mouths. (Well, there was that phenomenal guacamole — of all things! — at The Moon Restaurant in Bagan). The highlights:

Watching the production process for gold leaf and applying it to the Buddha’s belly

In Theravada Buddhism, it’s believed that the more merit you build throughout your current life, the better your next life will be. Good deeds, like giving food to monks, earns you merit; buying gold leaf (and affixing said gold to sacred sites) earns you a lot of merit. Thus, locals will buy 2-square-inch sheets of gold leaf (for about $1/each), pay their respects at a temple or stupa, and affix the gold leaf on the sacred object – be it a Buddha belly or a giant rock. It’s a savings account… for their next life. Considering the 6-inch thick covering on the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, it’s no surprise that the Myanese spend more per capita on religion than any other Buddhist country.

We visited the Golden Rose factory/store in Mandalay where they make gold leaf, which requires a grueling amount of manual labor. You can read about the involved process here, but in short, teenage boys pound a tiny square of pure gold for 20 hours or so until they’ve created thousands of sheets of gold leaf: 1 ounce of gold can be pounded into 300 square feet. Concurrently, in a closet-like room away from the gold pounders, a woman pounds paper into tissue-thin sheets (the sound is deafening!), and in another neighboring room, more women fold the finished leaf between said paper and tie it into a little decorative sandwich. This happens all day long in dozens of shops in Mandalay; we just visited one. We bought a few sheets and took them with us to Mahamuni Temple, where Patten joined the other men and bought a bit of merit for Life #12, or whichever one comes next for him in the cycle. I’m not sure how he could possibly come back as anyone more wonderful… See, I just earned merit!

    

Patten (and a monk) applying gold leaf on the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay

*****

Biking around the temple fields of Bagan

Bagan is Myanmar’s moneyshot. You’ve seen the pics: thousands of ancient temples and stupas nearly floating in a misty, orange-colored field. It’s called the Ankor Wat of Myanmar; some have said it’s better.

We arrived in Bagan after an 11-hour peaceful float down the Irrawaddy with very high expectations. The first day, we took a taxi around the World Heritage Site, with stops at most of the popular temples. But riding in the back of a hot van on dirt roads and getting in/out of the van at touristy entrances with postcard hawkers was less than magical. We ended our first day fairly disappointed.

The next morning, Christmas Day in fact, we hopped on bikes and our perspective of the place 180’d. We zipped over narrow dusty lanes, through grassy fields, turning left or right depending on our mood and discovered ancient, empty, rarely visited stupas. Some were in ruin from a thousand years of weather and earthquakes; others had been repaired, and were still cared for, by locals or a monk that lived in a shack on the property. At sunset, we found a very tall temple, climbed up to the 3rd floor terrace, and watched as the fields turned a hazy pink, then purple, then blue.

Temple fields of Bagan

A Buddha we located in one of the many “hidden” temples in Bagan

Wall paintings inside a Bagan temple

Riding bikes through Bagan is the BEST way to experience the place. Do it!

Some locals actually live within the temple fields

Some locals actually live within the temple fields

Bagan at dusk

*****

Chewing betel nut

Three of the four of us were inexplicably drawn to trying betel nut. Something about the rotting, red-stained gums and teeth of the local men (and the blood-red drool they spit all over the road, temple floors, sidewalk, anything) really enticed some of us. And so it was that my three co-travelers spent sunset atop Mandalay Hill chewing the leaf-wrapped nut – the size of a monarch butterfly cocoon – spitting their soured, red saliva over the temple railing. Apparently, none of them got a “mild narcotic effect” but they were all giddy from laughing. Watch for yourself:

*****

Trekking in Kalaw

We’d wanted to take a four-day, 35-mile trek from the tiny mountain town of Kalaw to Inle Lake, overnighting along the way in the homes of local mountain dwellers. But with just 13 days in the country, we realized we didn’t quite have time for it – and figured we’d just arrange a day hike. After an overstuffed (passengers sitting in the aisle!), 7-hour bus ride over a harrowing mountain pass, we arrived in an icy Kalaw at 3 a.m. We slept in the next day, which meant all trekking guides were busy when we went in search of a guy to take us up the mountain. With some rough directions from a local trekking operator and Dave’s trusty Gaia GPS app (buy this!), we took to the hills ourselves.

Sharing the path with kids on their way home from school

We hiked up a small incline on wide trails, past mountain farms and huts – the views of the forested hills and open valleys soon visible from every angle. It was gorgeous and surprisingly relaxing for a 4-mile hike up a mountain. At the top, we ate a chapatti lunch (flat bread with a small bowl of curry) at The View Point restaurant: a tiny café run by a Nepalese guy, who lives on the property and grows the vegetables you eat, like the pumpkin in that day’s curry. He told us we could stay in his home for $5/night, which includes dinner and breakfast – a good deal if an amazing view and an authentic family stay outweighs your need for running water and a Western bed.

After lunch, we were invited to follow behind a trekking guide for a “prettier way down the mountain.” This prettier way seemed to be the local footpath from one mountain village to another: we were passed by dozens of schoolchildren on their way home, effortlessly skipping along the rocky, sometimes steep path in flip-flops. The trail took us through a jungle, over a reservoir, through rice paddies – and when we diverged from the group – into a meadow filled with golden flowers. I was a bit nervous as we descended through waist-high grass on a trail that “wasn’t exactly” on Dave’s app – especially since the topic of conversation had turned to snakes and the severity of their bites. But we prevailed and eventually made it back to our hotel before dark.

We passed through a few farms on the way up the mountain

Awesome vistas from the View Point Restaurant

*****

Cruising around Inle Lake in a private longboat

Sure, it was a little touristy, but this cigar-making studio was a fun stop

Two hours from Kalaw lies Inle Lake, a freshwater, very shallow lake set into a gorgeous mountain valley. We knew little about this place, but were wooed by the iconic pics: fisherman standing at the stern of their longboats in a mystical blue sunrise. We booked a private boat through a local tour operator – only $40 for 4 seats and 9 hours of cruising around the lake.  After careening through a bird refuge, we soon saw the famed fisherman: dozens of men with their tanned, muscular legs wrapped around their oars, steering their boats through reeds. As interesting as this was, the day only got better.

We soon came upon entire villages built over the water: hundreds of woven-bamboo huts on stilts. We watched countless women squatting at the foot of their front door – i.e. the lake – washing clothes in the water; some even bathing, modestly wrapped in colorful longyis. We watched old men rowing themselves to the local coffee shop; young children teasing each other on porches; fisherman home from an early morning catch sunning on their dock. We liked Bagan, but for us, Inle Lake was where the true magic of Myanmar surfaced. We’re scared for more tourists to arrive – today, the ratio of locals to tourists on the lake is so great that you feel you get a quick glimpse into the lives of others without disrupting the norm. Sure, there were a few frustrating repurcussions of tourism: the dressed-up fisherman who wanted us to pay him for a photo op and the tourist-only gift shops that have cropped up in a few villages. But these were just blips in an otherwise ridiculously authentic experience.

A fisherman on Inle Lake pulling in his catch at sunset.

One of many neighborhoods on Inle Lake

Cruising through the shallow lake on our longboat

*****

Visiting Shwedagon Pagoda on New Year’s Day

What better day to visit the holiest place in Myanmar than on the first day of the year? After a semi-wild, expat-fabulous New Year’s Eve at the 50th Street Bar in Yangon (where Maia and Patten carried the rest of us and the drivers home on a bicycle rickshaw — Exhibit A), we were eager for a relaxing day. So we cabbed to Shwedagon, paid the $8.50 entry fee, and spent the next few hours shuffling barefoot and clockwise along a tiled patio – in and out of sub-temples – all in the shadow of the gigantic, glittering golden stupa, plated in gold donated by the people. (The precedent was set by the 15th-century Mon Queen “gave her weight in gold” to Shwedagon). There were hundreds of locals milling about: some gathered around picnics; others were napping on the warm tile; all were dressed in their finest, silkiest, sparkliest clothes. After soaking in all that gold, we made way to a rooftop bar and sucked down our last Myanmar beer of the trip.

Sporting longyis on New Year's Day at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Sporting longyis on New Year’s Day at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Finely dressed locals paying their respects

Girl monks (not formally recognized in Myanmar) walking about the grounds

Local women dousing a buddha at Shwedagon

View for Shwedagon from  Sapphire Lounge

View for Shwedagon from Sapphire Lounge

*****

General thoughts on Myanmar

We’d talked about visiting Myanmar even before we’d made our big trip official: I’d been fascinated by the place since reading Burmese Days in a Colonialism class in college; Patten was drawn to the relatively un-touristed aspect of the country – now just starting to welcome in troves of tourists, who will either damage or enhance the place depending on the effectiveness of Myanmar’s tourism policy: a classic case study for sustainable tourism textbooks. We are both super happy we made Myanmar a stop on our ZINK Year, but this country isn’t for everyone.

It wasn’t an easy two weeks: There’s a good chance you’ll get sick (we sure did!); the hotels are shoddy and expensive (cleanliness standards are very different here vs. other SEA countries — you’ll pay $75/night for a Red Roof Inn quality room); the food isn’t euphoric; and it’s not particularly pleasant overlanding from one city to the next: miles upon miles in a tight bus on unpaved roads makes for a long night and a sore back. For me, it was emotionally draining too to have underfed kids asking for food (or trying you sell you postcards instead of studying at school) and watching a lot of people living in what we’d call squalor.

Should you go? We’d say yes, especially if you’ve already toured through other parts of Southeast Asia. Seeing Myanmar gives you so much insight as to what many other SEA countries looked like before modernization. Should you go during a ZINK Year? Maybe, though had we not been on such a tight budget, the getting to and fro would have been more enjoyable. Domestic flights are 10 times the cost of a bus, so it was hard for us to justify any jetsetting. An “execu-tour” — with a day or two in Yangon and a few in Inle Lake and Bagan, flying to each destination — is the way to go if you have the extra cash. We didn’t see any of the $150/night hotel rooms, but I have to imagine that they’re significantly better than budget options.

Plenty of people in the tourism industry had told us that we must visit Myanmar before it “gets too popular.” Perhaps. But sometimes arriving late to the game — especially if the tourism infrastructure has been developed well — proves for a more enjoyable holiday. And as “untouristed” as Myanmar is compared to its neighbors (they see ~600k tourists vs. the 14 million that arrive in Thailand each year), you won’t be a lone explorer. There are plenty of people just like you sticking out like sore thumbs. Also bothersome: There’s so much of a socioeconomic discrepancy between you and the locals that there’s very little social interaction in restaurants, hotels, or at tourist sites. A tourist here equals a “foreigner,” whereas in all the other countries we’ve visited, there’s a healthy number of domestic tourists sharing the same experience with you.

This is not to deter you from going. The Myanese are lovely, friendly people and their country is stunning. I think we went in expecting to absolutely adore the experience, and… well… it was complicated.

Thanks for reading. We’ll try to write a bit more often. 🙂

Koh Lanta, Thailand

Our 10 days of island life came and went as surely and smoothly as the ebb and flow of the cerulean ocean on the soft-sand beach just behind our bungalow. We rested, we ate, we basked in sunshine, we explored, we examined washed-up shells and coral, we laughed… We relaxed! The only thing better than a beach vacation is a beach vacation without the dread of going back to the real world. Damn, we are lucky.

A “typical day” in pictures:

bungalow

7 am: Wake up. Sit on bungalow porch and listen to the roosters.

pancake

8 am: Share a banana pancake breakfast at The Living Room

8:30 am: Take a quick dip after the occasional jog on the beach

9 am: Hop on a motorbike to explore the island

10 am: Hike down a small mountain to the almost deserted Ao Nui beach.

11 am: Explore another quiet beach — Khlong Khong

pattys

12 pm: Chat with the owners and eat awesome (if expensive) Thai food at Patty’s Secret Garden

1 pm: Stroll through Old Town Lanta

drinksjpg

2 pm: Cool off with frozen fruit shakes in shacks on the beach

3 pm: Swim inside of a limestone karst, through a cave with emerald-colored water, and onto a hidden beach.

3:30 pm: Sneak in a few more afternoon rays on the nearest beach

4 pm: Cruise through jungles on way back to hotel. Avoid hissing monkeys on road.

4:30 pm: Drop off dirty clothes to be laundered for $1

5 pm: Sip on a lemongrass margarita (or two) at Time For Lime’s happy hour

6 pm: Watch the sunset on Phra Ae (Long Beach)

… and the fishermen steer their longboats home for the day

mays

7 pm: Dine on anything for dinner at May’s Kitchen, the best and cheapest restaurant on Koh Lanta

8 pm: Order a mango sticky rice dessert at one of the restaurants on the beach

9 pm: Slip into our bungalow’s queen bed for night of deep sleep

Next day: Repeat

If Mickey Rourke were a beach…

…he’d be Patong. Let me explain.

You'll spot Mickey doppelgangers everywhere in Patong.

You’ll spot Mickey doppelgangers everywhere in Patong.

Following incredibly amazing, yet exhausting tours of Japan and Taiwan, it was time, time for rest. So we tabled our dumpling- and pork-bun fantasies of Hong Kong, and subbed in Thailand. For those of you with images of swaying palms, warm breezes, lonely white-sand beaches, and fruit cocktails you’d be right…well, eventually. Emily will cover that in the next post.

Once Thailand was determined, we chose Phuket as our first stop. Why? Phuket was easy to access, and supposedly had beautiful beaches, good food, and luxurious resorts, all at closeout prices. We booked a red-eye flight with AirAsia and a hotel for four nights in Patong Beach.

As soon as we boarded our connecting flight to Phuket, we knew we’d screwed up. Imagine a demographic blend of Sturgis moto-ralliers, Preakness infield partiers, and a couple of soccer hooligans – many of whom were already buzzed on our 6 am flight. But, good travelers roll with the punches, and that’s what we did.

After arriving in Phuket and catching a taxi to our resort in Patong Beach, we were told that we’d arrived a few hours too early to check in, so we dropped off our bags at the front desk and took off for the beach. What we saw was a city that stayed up partying hard till 5 am every night, waking up just enough long enough around noon to vomit on itself, and repeating for 30 years. Heaps of hot trash on the sidewalk, prostitutes giving me the eye, rip-off Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, and sign after sign advertising all-day English breakfasts…all set on a once pristine beach. Patong Beach represents everything I hate about poorly managed tourism.

On the bright side, there are a few highlights in the Patong area worth mentioning.

The Senses Resort: Our normal ritual for booking a hotel involves a lot of work. We pore over reviews on Agoda and TripAdvisor, careful to search for value (a formula involving cost, quality, location, and amenities, including the critically important wifi – this blog ain’t writing itself). And the resort that floated to the top in the case of Patong Beach was The Senses Resort. Located in the quiet hills behind Patong and built just last year, The Senses was a knock out – outfitted with large rooms, a soft bed, an infinity pool, and a nightly happy hour with strong pina coladas. After a few days in Patong we didn’t venture more than a few blocks from this place. I mean, why would you need to.

   

The Restaurant with No Name: Always in search of the best local bites, there’s a bit of tango played with hotel staff each time we move to a new city. We generally ask where they eat; confused, they try to send us to the town’s cheesiest TGI McFridays look alike. Then on night two or three, with enough harassment, the hotel staff realizes what we’re looking for and we hit gold. In Patong, we didn’t get a restaurant name (doubt it had one), but we did get rough directions (bottom of the hill, hang a left, first open air restaurant you see on your left without tourists). The fiery papaya salad, and grilled pork and mushroom soup were perfect, and hinted at the culinary wonderlands we’d experience outside of Patong.

Hotter than hell papaya salad

The Amanpuri: I hadn’t seen an ultra-luxury resort until visiting Aman Resorts’ Amangani property located near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was wowed. Set in picture-perfect locals with only 50 or so rooms, Aman Resorts – for me – is the pinnacle of hotel luxury. When we found out Aman’s first hotel, Amanpuri, was just a taxi ride away, we decided to pay them a visit. The hotel concierge was nice enough to take us on a tour of the place – black granite infinity pools, white-sand private beaches, plush cabanas on rocky outcrops, yachts just for guests, villas that come with a cook and butler, the latter of whom brought us ice-cold towels and water…on a silver tray with orchids. Let me make this clear: if we could swing $1000/night rooms, Em and I would split the rest of our days on earth living in all of Aman’s 24 resorts. (Aman Management, if you find this post via google alerts, I want to work for you, like forever, http://www.linkedin.com/in/pattenwood)

   

Ten Days in Taiwan

Mango shaved ice from Smoothie House

Taiwan wasn’t on our initial ZINK Year itinerary, but once we decided we should wait on the Philippines and realized how cheap flights were to Taipei, we found ourselves on a Scoot airlines flight over the East China Sea.

Within a few hours of being in Taiwan, it was clear we’d stumbled upon an undiscovered 75%-off sale: everything was significantly cheaper than Japan (of equal or greater quality) and there were practically no tourists. We began doing what one does in such a scenario, consuming voraciously: daily bubble teas for $1 each; platters of delicately folded dumplings filled with hot soup and pork meatballs for $2; mysterious night market concoctions like “large intestine filled with small intestine” for $1.50; giant bowls of beef noodle soup for $3; fried gyoza from a street vendor for $1; a volleyball-sized mango shaved ice with fresh fruit for $4 (pictured right); beef pho for $3/bowl; black sesame milkshakes for $1, etc. A few days of nonstop consumption + compounded exhaustion from 21 days of hardcore touring in Japan + a dingy hostel = a mini mental breakdown for me and a 103-degree fever for Patten. A day or two of marital drama ensued and then we were back to our hungry old selves, ready to take on more sites and more food. Some highlights:

Din Tai Fung

Just about every blog and book recommended that we visit the first, Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung. Now a global chain (with outposts everywhere in Asia and a few in LA), the original outpost was just a two-minute walk from our AirBnb apartment in Taipei, right next to the Dongmen MRT.

Even at odd hours, you’ll wait about 30 minutes for a seat. The host gives you a clipboard, pencil, and order sheet while you wait; you salivate at the picture menu pasted on the window, then jot down whatever looks best. When your number is called, you are whisked to the second or third floor, where an English-speaking waitress escorts you to a table and reviews your order sheet. She asks where you are from, how long you’ll be in Taiwan, what you plan to do while there – then she winks at Patten, comments on your plans, winks at Patten again, and pours you hot tea.

Soon, your food arrives via other servers: a plate of sautéed spinach, bubbling hot & sour soup (some of the best we’ve had), spicy-oil soaked wontons, and the famous xiaolongbao, steaming soup dumplings placed before you by a guy, whose sole responsibility seems to be delivering bao from the downstairs kitchen, where 20 men in sterile uniforms assemble and steam the buns. All of the food is good, excellent really, but you come for these dumplings. Famed for their 18 made-to-order folds, the bao should take a quick bath in your ginger/soy/vinegar sauce before you fit it in your mouth, where upon piercing the skin, it’ll explode with hot soup and a pork meatball surprise. It’s quite a special experience.

    

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National Palace Museum

That’s a walnut shell! (Pic from NPM’s website)

We’d read the National Palace Museum was the “best place to see Chinese art in the world.” Originally located in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the museum’s name (and its contents) were shipped  to Taiwan in 1933 for fear the Japanese would destroy China’s most valuable national treasures during its occupation of the city. Once the art arrived in Taiwan, it never quite made it back to the mainland. Clearly this museum was a must-see, but we weren’t exactly looking forward to a Louvre-like maze of pottery and amulets.

The museum owns nearly 700,000 artifacts, but luckily only displays a fraction of them, which means you can actually digest what you see; the curator’s well-written English descriptions (a rarity in Japan) also help add captivating context to the art. Before we knew it, we’d been wandering around for a few hours  — oohing and ahhing at tiny teacups and intricate china patterns — and were excited enough by what we saw to wait in a 15-minute line to see the “jade carvings and miniatures.” These were absolutely the highlight of the museum: a piece of jade carved into a head of lettuce, a tiny walnut shell whittled into a detailed ship (that you had to view through a magnifying glass), lattice-cut ivory shaped into intertwined spheres – work that took generations to create and seems humanly impossible. The Chinese must have invented the 3D printer 1000 years ago…

Set into the hills outside the city center, the building itself is pretty darn cool too.

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Taipei’s Coffee culture: Cappuccinos and milk teas

Is Taipei Asia’s answer to Portland? Hmmm… I haven’t been to Portland in 10 years, so that’s hard to say. But what we did discover was a city obsessed with quality coffee, served at a slew of hipster cafes with names like Bunny Listens to the Music, Yaboo Cafe, and flat white. While just about everything is cheaper in Taiwan, coffee is not: a creamy capp with froth art will cost you the equivalent of $6 USD. This does come with the  invitation to loiter in the café for a few hours and use their wifi and toilet (of the Western variety).

Most of these cafes also serve good food and even better milk teas – a pot of tea mixed with fresh milk (not the powdered stuff used in bubble teas) and a shot of flavoring – hazelnut is the best. I want a hazelnut milk tea every day for the rest of my life.

Hazelnut milk tea at Yaboo Cafe

The MRT

What a wonderful subway! The MRT is new, clean, cheap (65 cents a ride), never too crowded, always on time. There’s not a lot more to say here other than… this makes us true believers in public transit. We also loved the eco-friendly tokens you’d use to enter/exit vs. printed-on-paper tickets.

Taipei’s ultra clean and cheap underground train

Huashan Culture Park

Taipei is hip, but humble: one big reason we loved the city. It’s bursting with creative energy, but the people don’t give off the hipper-than-though artist vibe. Huashan Culture Park is the hub of this humble hip, a former factory complex now filled with various exhibits – some commercial (Nat Geo was there with a 125th anniversary show), some academic (a display of young architects who’d used plastic models to re-imagine the city of the future), some promotional (the tea region in Taiwan set up a temporary tea house, where you could taste their fancy teas for free and the tourism office of Matsu — an island off the coast of Taiwan — was sponsoring a tango concert). The crowd was mixed in age and style, from gauged-ear teenagers to stroller-toting moms – all types of people appreciating different forms of art. It felt real and natural; and like the locals, we couldn’t stop ourselves from milling around for several hours.

One of the buildings at the Huashan Culture Park; Inside we learned about Taiwanese tea

    

Taipei temples: Xingtian and Longshan

Visiting a temple in Japan is a rather passive experience – worshipers douse themselves in a little water, throw some money into the alter, and bow a few times. In Taiwan, a temple visit is a very active affair. We visited two of the city’s big temples: Each was packed with people delivering platters of fruit and bubble teas to their deity of choice, setting up ornate flower displays, burning incense sticks, chanting as they prayed…. The temples were buzzing with activity. We needed a guide to explain the importance of what was happening around us. Regardless, it was beautiful to watch.

Exterior of Xingtian temple in Taipei

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Taroko Gorge

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Walking through Swallow’s Grotto, where rocks frequently fall!

Thank you to every guidebook writer who put Taroko on the top of their must-see lists and my aunt Jenny who raved about it even before we decided to go to Taiwan – “It’s like Ogden Canyon except made of marble.” Without such endorsements, I don’t know if we would have made the three-hour train trek across the country from Taipei to Hualien – on Thanksgiving – but we did, and we’re incredibly thankful for that decision.

We decided to hire a private guide (Pei – highlighted next) to take us through the park. For $65 USD, we were picked up from our hotel, driven to the national park, and led to all the top views and walking paths. The park is truly breathtaking: Think limestone walls that look twice the height of Half Dome, covered in jungle-like foliage – their river beds rushing with aquamarine water, over and around gigantic marble boulders: some white, some a marbled tan/pink. Equally impressive are the tunnels carved into the canyon walls. The fact that 450 people died building these roads and tunnels seems less surprising when inside the park: this is sheer drop-off central (Dad — you would have loved it!) and falling rocks are a daily occurrence. Of course I wasn’t nervous as we walked with hardhats through Swallow’s Grotto, where only yesterday a few tourists “were injured by a few rocks.”

We made it through the park unscathed with so many pictures that just don’t seem to capture how truly amazing this place was in person. Taroko is one of many reasons to put Taiwan on the top of your travel list.

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Also included on our tour: a photography session in all the coolest spots

Emily is not at all scared of the drop-off right behind her…

Just outside the national park, where the mountains meet the ocean

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Pei

We met Pei (pronounced “pay”) when she picked us up for our tour of Taroko. She led us to all the insider spots in the park, including a temple on the mountain that she used to visit as a child.  It was here where she asked if we had our train booked for Sunday.

“No, not yet,” we said. “Is that okay?”

“It gets very busy on the weekends, but we’ll figure this out,” Pei said with a smile.

We soon learned that all trains had been booked for weeks, that no buses run between Hualien and Taipei, and that driving would be “way too dangerous.” Just the night before, we’d booked non-refundable flights to Thailand for Sunday night. We needed to get back.

Pei called a friend of hers that worked at our hotel (Hualien i-inn — awesome place) and told her our situation. We later learned that this friend spent several hours refreshing the train’s web page until two tickets opened up. It’s doubtful we would have gotten back to Taipei without Pei’s (or our hotel’s) help.

On our way home from our tour, Pei pulled over on the highway. “You like lemon drinks?” Before we could even answer, she was across the street inside a small shop. Thirty seconds later she was back in the car with three drinks, one for each of us. “I could drink one of these every day.” Yum. So could we. We were immediate believers in the amazingness of this super tart frozen lemonade and moreso in Pei: not only could she secure sold-out train tix, she was a foodie.

Next, she offered to take us to Hualien’s night market to taste some local specialties: triangles of barbequed blood sausage and beef-and-pepper coffin cake, essentially French toast filled with beef stew.

Hualien dumpling soup

“Are there any dumplings here?” we asked.

“For dumplings, we’re going into town.” With that, we were back in her car.

After pointing out her home, which is above a souvenir/sweets shop her mother owns, we made our way down the street to Ye Hsiang Shi Dian for what Pei called “the best soup dumplings in Hualien.” She was clearly not alone in her assessment: the walls were plastered with pictures of celebrity visitors including the Taiwanese prime minister and Ang Lee, who we learned was from Taiwan. Unlike the soup-filled dumplings at Din Tai Fung, these dumplings soak in broth – similar to what we’d call wonton soup. The subtle pork-and-green-onion flavor was wonderful and so was the $2-per-bowl price tag. We could do this nightly. After tasting various mochi, candied fruit, and aboriginal wine in her mother’s shop, we hopped in a cab home.

The next night I got a text: “Hi, Emily. It’s Pei. How’s everything? I have something for you, will bring to your hotel later. Will you be there or still out?”

Buddha head fruit

An hour later, she was at our hotel with armloads of goodies: black bean dessert soup, a cream-colored custard, and two types of Buddha-head fruit: soft green modular-things that split open with a little tug — inside you suck out sweet pear-textured fruit. The “pineapple” Buddha head was our favorite — a little tangier and firmer than the original. Pei also gave me two heating pads for my back, which was still aching after my slip down Misen mountain in Miyajima. We ate and laughed and discussed food at length.

Before she left, she asked what we were having for breakfast in the morning. “I think you must try something new,” she said, tilting her head up thoughtfully. Right when she seemed ready to give us instructions on how to get to another breakfast place, she offered: “I’ll bring breakfast to you.” We told her she shouldn’t, that she’d already been too kind, but she hurried off. “I’ll be here at 8 am.”

She arrived at 8 am with bags of food: hot noodle soup, a beef sandwich served in a flattened sesame bun, pork and pickled vegetable filled pastries, and two types of breakfast drinks: traditional warm soymilk and hot tea mixed with soymilk. This was the best breakfast we’d had in Taiwan – our only complaint was that we had to say goodbye to Pei, who escorted us to the train station and demanded to pull my luggage.

We liked Taiwan a lot before we arrived in Hualien; we loved the country after we met Pei, who according to stories we’ve heard from friends and travelers along the way, is representative of many Taiwanese: extremely generous, witty, and thoughtful.

Pei – thank you for everything, mostly for teaching us a valuable lesson in kindness, which we’ll try to “Pei back” to others on the road and to future visitors to the US. You made an indelible mark.

Japan Top 10

Japan_Tokyo (118)_ToiletHaving just squatted three times in the past few days to pee in a trough on the floor…Well, let’s just say I’m really starting to miss the Japanese toilets. These are wonderful places – spotlessly clean, stocked with toilet paper (that you can flush down the toilet), warm seats, colorful buttons that squirt hot water wherever you want… They’re really quite dreamy. I wanted to make toilets a Top 10 experience, but it wasn’t mutual: P’s potty rooms were nice, but hardly as advanced. So there. We’ve had our toilet talk and I freaking love the ones in Japan.

A few of the gardens (especially Okochi Sanso and Koraku-en) and Tsukiji fish market should also be on this list, but since they’ve already received coverage, we left them off. In fact, this list really could have had about 30 things listed, but we’re already two countries behind with this blog and this post is a good 20-minute read. (If pressed for time, skip to #2, where Patten makes a cameo as a writer on ZINK Year!)

If you’re feeling really ambitious and want a “play-by-play” rundown in pictures from Japan, you can browse our Flickr sets: Tokyo, Nikko, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, Koyasan, Kinosaki Onsen, Okayama, and Hiroshima/Miyajima.

Now, the list:

10. Afternoon trip to Nara

Japan_Nara (12)_Todai-jiWe read lots of mixed reviews about Nara, and most people we talked to didn’t seem to like it as much as other sites. Maybe it was the quiet afternoon or just our low expectations, but we really loved the place. The tame deer that wander around to eat out of your hands are pretty creepy… and smelly. Lots of deer = lots of poop. But they added an interesting charm. The star attraction, Todai-ji, is much better in person than it is in your art history textbook. The 50-foot-tall Buddha is incredible to behold; even more impressive though is his home: the 400-year-old wooden structure that surrounds him was the oldest wooden structure in the world until the late 1990s.

From Todai-ji, we walked around the grounds, passing open fields, Nara architecture (modern-looking slatted windows), windy paths, and good views. We ended at Isui-en, the garden we had completely to ourselves. If you’re staying in Kyoto, we definitely think Nara is worth the hour-long train trip.

Tip: We had a late start the day we visited – we didn’t actually get there until 1 pm or so. By the time we had lunch (Mellow Café – good wood-oven pizza!) and made our way to the Big Buddha, the masses of tourists had mostly dispersed.  (Most sites in Japan seem to quiet down significantly around 2-3 in the afternoon. By 4 pm, many are almost empty. Everything closes around 5 pm, so you have to time it right, but the late afternoon is significantly more pleasant than hitting a site at 11 am.)

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Todai-ji

View from one of the Nara subtemples

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9. Pork Tonkatsu at Kotaro: Takayama City, Japan

Crisp on the outside, moist and a little fatty inside, seasoned perfectly, especially when dipped in the vinegary sauce: Pork tonkatsu at its absolute best. This meal had Patten searching for a pork cutlet as good for the rest of our trip and he couldn’t find one remotely close.

We found Kotaro in our LP guidebook. It felt like a risky meal – we were the only customers – and we got a pretty strange (if cold) welcome from the husband/wife operators when we entered. But after we ordered our set meals, the orchestra began. She poured us tea, then prepared the pickled vegetable dishes; He breaded the pork, then fearlessly dropped it into a Dutch oven of bubbling oil. She warmed the miso soup on the small burner behind the counter; he flipped the pork with giant chopsticks, without emotion, almost meditatively, as if this was as ordinary and harmless as a yawn.  Their movements were coordinated; they communicated through grunts; and 10 minutes after we’d ordered, she placed the gorgeous set meals on the counter. We ate, loudly, as we do when we’ve found the perfect meal. She sat and watched the soundless TV in the corner; he tidied up his workspace, then poached some fish heads – supposedly supper for the two of them. It was as if this was the way they’d spent every Tuesday night for the past 30 years. Neither spoke much English. We paid our bill ($20 USD), then exited into the chilly night.

   

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8. DT Suzuki MuseumKanazawa, Japan

Lonely Planet fell over itself about this museum; I was intrigued enough to push Kanazawa as a pitstop. One of my favorite classes in college was “Buddhism” and I was pretty darn sure we studied this guy. It all came back to me when we arrived at what was one of the most appropriate, special, sophisticated museums either of us have seen.

The museum is comprised of three rooms: The Knowledge Space (where you learn about Suzuki, famed for introducing Zen thought to the Western world), The Learning Space (a minimalist library with Suzuki’s writings in many languages), and the Contemplative Space (a courtyard surrounded by a reflecting pool). We sat in the last space for a while, contemplating the awesome talent of Yoshio Taniguchi, who was somehow able to manifest philosophical thought into the physical structure of the museum: a reminder of just how special great architecture can be.

   

At the entrance of the third room, you could pick up paper copies of Suzuki’s famous quotes. Our favorite, now crumpled from riding in the pocket of my Eagle Creek purse:

“Power is always arrogant, self-assertive, and exclusive, whereas love is self-humiliating and all-comprehensive. Power represents destruction, even self-destruction, quite contrary to love’s creativeness. Love dies and lives again, while power kills and is killed.

It was Simone Weil, I understand, who defined power as a force which transforms a person into a thing. I would like to define love as a force that transforms a thing into a person.”

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7. Itaru Honten: Kanazawa, Japan

We’re glad we visited Japan first, mostly because we’d never consider a $70 meal now. And this was such an amazing experience. As we looked for this izakaya, we ran into Thomas, a friendly Dutch guy we met the night before at a bar in Takayama and who rode the same train as us to Kanazawa that morning. He was our first single-traveler friend, of many others we’d find along the way. We told him we’d likely be heading to Itaru at some point that night, so he milled around the area until we showed up. “Yes, I would like to join you for dinner,” he said, and we walked into the tiny, crowded Itaru.

We waited with hot tea and watched the action at the low bar: four men were actively preparing food, led by one – TDH (named so by me) — who was clearly directing the action. He wore a billowy gray shirt open to the bottom of his ribs, the sleeves tied with a red sash that tied around his shoulders. He smiled a lot and seemed to be solely responsible for slicing fish with his gigantic knife.  We were told we’d have an hour wait, but after tossing smiles at TDH, we were seated in 20 minutes… and he gave us free sake at the end of our meal. I like to think I orchestrated this.

Thomas and Patten got the 4500 yen set meals, a parade of snails, sashimi, shrimp toast, goey seaweed substance, hot custard soup, duck soup (famous in Kanazawa), and divine green-apple sorbet. I ordered a succulent fish collar and picked on Patten’s set meal. The food was excellent; the ambiance even better.

    

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6. Everything about Kyoto: Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is such a special place. We stayed in Gion, the heart of the geisha district and very close to all the famous temples and gardens. Our stay was way too short, but it left us wanting to return. We’ll skip words here and just share a few of our favorites images:

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Geisha on the streets of Gion

View from Kiyomizu-dera

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Beauty everywhere… even the walkways

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5. Japanese theatre: Gion Odori (Kyoto) and Kabuki-zo (Tokyo)

Japan_Kyoto (78)We unintentionally timed our trip to Kyoto just in time to catch a Gion Odori performance. This famous geisha show runs only 10 days of the year (Nov 1-10), and we luckily got tickets on the last day. For an hour, you watch beautiful geishas (maeko and gekoi) sashay about the stage, twirling umbrellas, opening/shutting/fluttering ornate fans, and repeatedly bowing to each other and the audience – all this while six ladies kneeling in a box at stage right play their shamisen (a three-string instrument) and sing what sounds like a mix of opera and Buddhist chanting. It was so calming, spellbinding, that I took a short doze until Patten whispered in my ear that “this is officially the most expensive nap you’ve ever taken.” Noted. I was wide awake for the grand finale: 20 or so beautifully garbed, white-face-painted ladies twirled their robes as tinfoil autumnal leaves fell from the sky.

Pictures were forbidden, but we did sneak in one and record a bit of audio:

The next theatre experience was kabuki in Tokyo with Yohei and his aunt, who played tour guide for us all day in the city. She whisked us to the Kabuki-za theatre in Ginza, and secured us last-minute seats to Act 5 of the 11-act Kanadehon Chushingura, a play about the famous 47 Ronin who famously committed suicide after avenging their master’s untimely death. The section we watched was relatively uneventful, though we did get a dose of seppuku at the end. (Seppuku = ritual suicide by disembowelment. Considered the most honorable way for samurai to die). Yes, nice and dramatic. Luckily, we rented an English headset for commentary throughout the play, without which we would have been thoroughly lost. Like Gion Odori, the story was narrated by singing, shamisen-playing men. A must-do if you’re in Tokyo.

The new Kabuki-za theater, opened March 2013

4. Soaking in Onsen: Kinosaki, Japan

Me, in a “colorful yukata.”

I’m squeamish enough in hotel bathrooms, let alone public bathhouses. But this trip is about experiencing new things and opening myself up to fears… so, we made Kinosaki Onsen – a town filled with onsen, the famed Japanese soaking houses – a requisite stop on our trip. We splurged on a room at a traditional ryokan, a Japanese guesthouse where you generally sleep on a futon atop a tatami floor. When we got to Morizuya, the host led us to a “special room with colorful  yukatas.” I got to pick my robe of choice, as well as a decorative flower barrette for my hair: essential garb for walking to/from the onsen.

An American woman staying at our hotel gave me a few tips before we headed out onto the cobblestone streets in our geta, wooden platform sandals: “Leave your sandals in the first locker right inside the door. When you’re inside the ladies locker room, take off all your clothes and cover yourself with the tiny towel. When you step into the bath house, fill the bucket with water and douse yourself before getting into the onsen,” she continued, “I was completely awkward with this the first time, so hopefully this helps!”

I did what she said, but missed her warning about the scalding water. I finally adjusted to the heat, making my way from group tub to shower to the rotemburo, an outdoor hot-tub set into rocks. Groups of naked ladies all chatted, laughed together, as I sat in the corners of the tubs trying to not be awkward. It wasn’t exactly the most peaceful experience for me. Patten, on the other hand, made fast friends with the men, who were excited to practice their English with him. And he’s always been better withstanding long stints in hot tubs. He left the first onsen ready to try another; I wanted to go to bed.

On the way to the onsen! Notice our sexy socks

3. IchEnSou Guesthouse: Kyoto, Japan

We were a little nervous going into our first “mixed dorm” sleeping situation, but IchEnSou was our best hotel experience in Japan. The house holds a maximum of 15 guests; it’s popular enough on TripAdvisor that it’s probably booked most of the time. Run by Yoshi, who spent years traveling himself (and fell in love with his guesthouse experiences in New Zealand), IchEnSou feels like your favorite dorm in college + your favorite coffee shop blended into one. The mixed dorm had seven beds – all bunks; the female dorm (which I stayed in the last night) is a traditional tatami room with four futons on the floor. The shared bathrooms are spotlessly clean – the wall tiles sparkled: I asked Yoshi if he’d just remodeled them. “No, we did it seven years ago. We just clean so much they stay in great condition.” The next day, I watched one of his workers inspect a towel that had just come from the laundry, speed-reading against each fiber to check for any kind of spot. A new class of clean in a clean-obsessed country.

The dorms are sparse, intentionally, so that everyone congregates in the main living room downstairs: a low-ceilinged Tabard Inn-like lobby with sultry Edith Piaf ballads on loop. Yoshi facilitates the guest’s fast friendships by taking us all out to a bar on our first night, which ensures that the vibe is perfect in this main room in the days to come: friends drinking Asahis from 7-11, recounting their sightseeing that day, making jokes, learning about each others’ cultures, talking about food – clearly, our kind of place.

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2. Koyasan — a post by Patten

Our bedroom at Shojoshin-in

Very little about our trip to Koyasan could be described as easy. Following three consecutive train connection screw-ups, a nearly forgotten piece of luggage (Emily left her suitcase on the train platform), and topped off by a hair-raising funicular, we’d arrived in Koyasan from Kyoto (albeit three hours later than planned) ready for what we imagined would be the highlight of Japan.

Part of the allure of Koyasan was the opportunity to get an insider’s look at the often private lives of Buddhist monks, so prior to leaving the States we arranged a night’s stay at Shojoshin Temple (built a staggering 1,150 years ago). Sure, the $190 night’s stay was hard to swallow at the time of booking, and even more so after the morning’s draining trip, but upon arrival a Shojoshin we knew hit on something special.

After being checked in by one of the resident monks we were led to our room. The sliding front door revealed tatami floors with the bare essentials including futon bedding, a kettle, and a gas heater (vital for the autumnal sub-freezing tempsLavish? No, but the setting was perfect for a bit of quiet introspection–just what the doctor ordered following two solid weeks of go-go-going.

There are a handful of attractions in Koyasan, but since we arrived a little later in the day than we planned, we focused on the big kahuna: the famous World Heritage Site, Okunoin. Okunoin is home to the mausoleum for Kobo Daishi (one Japan’s most well-known Buddhists), who has been waiting for the arrival of the Buddha of the Future since 835 AD. He’s joined by more than 200,000 souls — each with their own headstone or stupa — waiting patiently for the meeting.

Towering cedars line the one-mile path to Okunoin

Where's Emily?

Where’s Emily?

Ashes are kept inside these graves: 90% of Japan’s population is cremated

Most Jizu statues wear bibs, dressed by grieving parents who have lost children.

We wandered through the cemetery for hours in 40-degree weather, wearing every layer of clothing we had. Pockets of sunlight streamed through the tops of some of the oldest cedars in Japan, creating every shade of green on the moss-covered headstones.

Not the most comfortable of eating positions…

The stone stupas blended with the earth and tree trunks in every direction to create one of the most mysterious and magical scenes I’ve seen. Once we were at the top of the cemetery, we entered Okunoin temple: Inside we watched golden-robed monks, backlit by 10,000 lanterns, chant their way through their afternoon service.

We headed back to Shojoshin Temple just in time for one of the best meals we had in Japan: a vegetarian feast comprised of we-have-no-idea what. It was served on trays on the floor. There were a few other guests in the room but nobody talked. We ate in silence as well.

The next morning, we awoke to a bell: the signal to make our way to morning service. We all sat on the floor in a small temple, while two monks chanted and gonged for 50 minutes. Next, a breakfast spread similar in style to our dinner the night before. We were thankful for two vegetable-heavy meals, a rarity in Japan.

From here, we packed up our stuff and hopped on a bus for the funicular ride down the mystical mountain – leaving with a little more Buddha inside each of us.

The funicular ride down the mountain

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1. Yohei Suzuki

Girly whip-cream crepes in Harajuku

Travel is special in so many ways, but one of the all-time most wonderful things to do on the road is to connect with old friends. We wrote about our night with Shoko in our first post.

Next, we met up with Yohei, one of Patten’s friends from tourism school in Florida. Aside from making us laugh with his amazing sense of humor, Yohei served as our tour guide — he zipped us through the streets and sights of Yokohama, and along with his aunt, through the far busier streets of Tokyo, where we witnessed Caroline Kennedy making her way from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace in a carriage!; our concierge — he was integral in ordering us an Asus adapter and arranging with the Koyasan temple to have a left-behind iPhone mailed to his house;  and as our host — we had dinner at his parents’ home in Yokohama, where they showered us in food and gifts, and breakfast at his home south of Tokyo, where we feasted on one of the best breakfasts we had while in Japan and played with his adorable daughter Yui. Patten had talked about Yohei for years — now I know why. Such a fun kind guy! THANK YOU, Yohei!

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Dinner at Yohei’s parents’ home in Yokohama; Patten’s squeezing Yui

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Since we’re closing the ZINK Year coverage on Japan, we thought it may be nice to share a few tips for those of you who plan to visit, which we highly recommend. These are all things you can probably read in guidebooks, but we didn’t:

1. Bring slip-on shoes. You will take off your shoes to enter temples, homes, restaurants, hotels, you name it.

2. But they should not be sandals. I was the only person in Tokyo who was wearing open-toed sandals on November 2, 2013. Seriously. I became obsessed with looking at feet that day and there were NO bare toes.

3. Don’t expect Chase Sapphire rewards. Japan is a cash society and a very expensive one at that, which means you’ll be visiting the ATMs often. These, however, are hard to find. We had the best luck at 7-11, though many of their machines did not accept our debit card. Having cash on hand became a surprising challenge.

4. Pack dressy clothes. If you want to blend with locals, you’ll wear incredibly stylish business attire. If you just don’t want to call attention to your American slobbishness, then bring a pair of dark pants and a nice top or two. In our Icebreaker tech tees and light-wash denim, we felt like we were under-dressed 100% of the time.

5. Think twice about getting the Japan Rail Pass. Every book, blog, person will tell you to buy this pass, which gets you 7, 14, or 21 days of free train travel for a discounted rate. Yes, if you add up all the train fares of what you would have spent for your days of travel, you will see huge savings. But we think the pass forces you to travel in a way we probably wouldn’t recommend. We did enjoy seeing 14 cities in 21 days, but it really was too much. Better would be to focus on Kyoto and Tokyo, flying into one and out of the other. From each city, you can do quick day trips or overnight trips, riding on one of many affordable train lines. On the topic of trains…

6. Get to the platform 20 minutes early for unreserved cars. If you’re traveling during high season, there’s a good chance you’ll be standing during your train ride… unless you get there 20 min early. We luckily arrived early for our train to Nikko — after spending 2.5 hours watching standing tourists writhe in back-and-leg-ache misery, we continued our practice of arriving early.

7. Ask for directions continually. The Japanese are super helpful and will go out of their way to show you where places are located. The trains can get very confusing, but if you just ask someone “which train goes to Musashi-Kosugi,” they will tell you. We promise. We were good about asking for directions initially, but got a bit over confident by the end of our trip, which resulted in a few wrong trains. Not the end of the world, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

8. Bring gifts!!!! If you plan to meet up with friends or friends of friends, bring gifts with you. We brought a few trinkets/US candies with us, but wished we’d packed a lot more. (Yohei — We owe you a Rolex!).