Land of the Rising Fun

My biggest regret about Tokyo is that I'm not staying here longer. It's truly one of the capitals of the world in fashion, technology and just about anything else. It's as close as humanity could get to a perfect city. It's clean, people are friendly and polite, and there's even a crackdown on smoking to the point where its illegal on sidewalks except in very specifically assigned spots. My mom said that she is sometimes annoyed by everyone bowing all the time, but I think its pretty courteous and I could get used to it. Crime is also extremely low, and Tokyo citizens are so comfortable in their surroundings that most men leave their wallets practically hanging out of their back pockets without any fear of theft. (However, assassinations tend to happen here quite a bit, which I'll get to later.) We got up bright and early to watch the rising sun outside of our high-rise hotel window before getting on another tour bus for morning city tour. First stop: Tokyo Tower. Even my mom and I, who are both scared of heights, felt perfectly comfortable in Tokyo's tallest structure, as the observation deck is completely enclosed by windows. The city view was so crystal clear that we could see the snow-capped peak of Japan's highest mountain, Mt. Fuji (which I MUST go see next time in Japan. There will be a next time...)

mount-fuji-tokyo-tower

Then we drove through the Imperial Palace Gardens, where Emperor Akihito and his family live and he works everyday. However, the area was littered with Japanese journalists and heightened security because just the day before, the minister of welfare was stabbed to death by a lone assassin. Our guide didn't seem to convey the gravity of the situation in English, but it's all over the media here. Knives appear to be the weapon of choice in Japan, as I don't think citizens are allowed to own handguns. But then again, crime rates are still low.

After driving through several shopping districts, including an entire anime neighborhood that I didn't have time to visit on this trip, we went to Asakusa Kannon Temple & Nakamise Shopping Arcade, site of the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Crawling with worshippers and tourists alike on a bright yet chilly November morning, the area was a little overwhelming but definitely worth checking out. Afterwards we were supposed to go to some pearl showroom as every tour seems to have some kind of attraction selling you something, but the guide gave us the option of being dropped off in Ginza, which almost everyone took advantage of. 

When we arrived in Tokyo's shopping mecca of high-end department stores and designer labels, first and foremost, I had to find lunch. But that was a problem. While I mentioned before, there are places you can eat well and cheap in Tokyo. But would you ever find a place to eat cheap on Fifth Avenue...that was not a Subway or a Quiznos? Well you can't in Ginza either. Either the places we found were extremely expensive, business-lunch places, or they were American chains. And I refused to eat at a Subway in Tokyo. We eventually found a nice looking, affordable restaurant which had pictures and samples of meals outside the door, like most restaurants do here. As my mom says, its always best to eat where the locals eat, and this place was very traditional as we even had to take off our shoes before being seated. The lockers for our shoes were locked by large, square wooden keys. Incredible. 

But then when we looked at the menu, no more pictures. No more English. My mom and I stared at each other, unsure what to do. Then our waiter came by, who spoke a little English. My mom then tried to explain to him what we wanted, but the poor guy just looked completely lost in translation. He had that look on his face that I could almost see how hard his brain was working to understand us, sort of the same way I look when I'm trying to understand someone speaking a language I don't know. Finally my mom just said, "Ramen. Noodles. Chicken. Meat." Then our waiter nodded and smiled, and later came back with Chicken Teriyaki strips with Miso soup and sides of salad and white rice for both of us. I was very happy. 

Afterwards we walked around a bit and checked out the department stores. My mom told me she used to come here years ago (like 38 years ago. Again, pause and think about that.) on the weekends from Manila because she could get really cheap airfares. There was even a full-sized Printemps department store AND two Harrods stores (sized down into boutiques), which I've never seen outside of France and the United Kingdom, respectively. I also stopped in the Uniqlo (the Japanese version of Gap -- but BETTER), and I saw the cutest pair of dark blue plaid pants, but I didn't buy them. And now I really regret it and I can only hope that they have them at the SoHo location back in New York :/

To continue the tour of shopping districts in Tokyo, we headed for the trendy and hipster Harajuku District, which most Americans are familiar with now thanks to Gwen Stefani. They had the usual stuff I've seen on this trip: TopShop, Zara, and H&M, which must have just opened as the line was down the block and there were security guards everywhere. My mom remarked that the H&M bags were being carried around the neighborhoods like badges of honor. We walked around Harajuku Street, a series of back alleys like a lot of shopping streets in this western area of Tokyo, and most shops were tiny, expensive boutiques. My favorite, however, had to have been the second-hand American clothing store. I don't know where they get their stock. Tourists looking to dump their stuff before going home? International shipments from Salvation Army? Who knows.

harajuku-streetThen we made our way back east again to accomplish a goal I have had for years: to see every Disney park in the world. Don't ask why I have this goal. I'm not sure myself, but after I hit up Euro Disney in 2004, I figured I should just go all the way. Anyway, Tokyo Disneyland was my last target. After changing trains three times, we finally made it to Tokyo Disneyland. Disney sure gets people coming and going, as they actually charge a fee (250 yen) to take the shuttle from the JR Station to the park. Hong Kong didn't do that. Hmph. Anyway, we went this late in the day (already dark since sunset is around 4:30 p.m. right now) because at the foreign Disney parks, admission is cheaper after 6 p.m. by at least 50%. I don't know why they don't do this in the U.S. parks. I've never Disneyland park-goers look so good. EVERYONE dresses up here in Tokyo, everywhere they go. It's like New York and Paris, but then some. I brought my trenchcoat, but I even felt shabby with my Converse shoes. Very different from the usual sweatshirt and tennis shoes crowd in Anaheim. Not to mention the kids are all well-behaved here. No children screaming and throwing temper tantrums. Incredible.

After a few hours at the park, my mom and I were exhausted and decided to call it a day. The trip home was supposed to be pretty straight forward. Only one transfer. We couldn't even get that right. We were almost back at our station, when my mom asked if the one we were at was the right one. I said no, but then the lady next to me said it was "Iidabashi" (which was the station we were headed for). So my mom and I jumped for the door, but then the man in suit (well, every guy wears a suit here) who was standing in front of me said that it was not Iidabashi. I turned to stop my mom, but she was already on the platform. Then as I jumped to catch her, the doors shut in front of me. My mom and I stared at each other between the door windows, as we started to move away. I motioned for her to stay there, and I got off the train at the next stop (Iibadashi) and waited on the platform to go back. Then a young Japanese guy started talking to me (in Japanese), but I didn't know what he was saying. He was smiling and then said finally in English, "You want to go get something to eat?" And then I said, "No, I have to go find my mom." Poor thing must have thought it was a line, but it was true. Then the train came and I went back to the other station, collected my mom, and we went back to the hotel, stopping at the restaurant we went to the night before to get some yummy take-out.

Now I'm headed back to the United States, but with a few stops in California before back to New York. But I must, MUST, come back to Japan soon and explore Tokyo and the rest of the country soon. I am glad that I came now, however, and not 10 years ago, as I'd probably be headed back to America with a suitcase full of useless Sailor Moon souvenirs, which I actually didn't see any of...but there was no lack of Hello Kitty here...

*Thanks to my former fellow FC interns for suggesting this blog entry title previously.

City of the Future

Getting up on Sunday was harder than on Saturday, but at least I got to sleep in a little (to about 7 a.m.) After watching live updates of the Cal/OSU football game back home on ESPN GameCast, I decided it was time to leave the hotel and forget about the disappointing result. However, it was only 9:30 a.m., and no dim sum places were open yet. We headed back down to Tsim Sha Tsui to catch the Star Ferry to Central on Hong Kong Island and eat proper dim sum over there. After crossing the footbridge over Connaught Street Central, we found that walking through this part of the city is all on footbridges. It's like walking in a city over a city. One thing I found slightly surprising was that this was the congregation site of the overseas Filipino workers in Hong Kong, as they all gather here on Sundays and sort of "picnic" on along the bridges. I noticed other tourists found this sort of strange as they didn't stop staring, but my mom said they gather here together on their day off because they're more comfortable being around people from home. Plus, it helped when we kept getting lost because my mom asked a few of them for directions.

After stopping in the Marks & Spencer to check if they had strawberry trifles (NONE, but they had some other imported desserts which just didn't look as good), we headed for Stanley Street at got dim sum at Luk Yu, recommended to us by a local storeowner. After barbeque pork buns, chicken spring rolls and pan-fried dumplings, we were again stuffed. Then we stumbled upon something I've never seen before anywhere. We were going to walk up a hill in the Mid-Levels district, a trendy neighborhood with cuisines from all over the world and a SoHo of their own, my mom saw an escalator and insisted we take it since she was tired. This first escalator was flat, a sloped version of the moving walkways at airports. But then there was another one, and another one...and another one. It turns out it goes way up the mountain. We kept going for at least 20 minutes from one escalator to the next, zig-zagging up, but after awhile, my mom got tired of our adventure and said we should go back down. Unfortunately, there are only stairs going back down. 

mid-levels-escalatorsWe headed back for the Hong Kong MTR Subway Station for one attraction I needed to see here: Hong Kong Disneyland. Before you get all, "Wow, why are you bothering with Disneyland in Hong Kong when you're from California, blah, blah, blah," I need to see this as after HK Disney, the only park I have not been to is Tokyo Disneyland (which I will be going to in a few days...), and I want to see all of the ones in the world. (Don't judge me. We all have our oddities.) Well, I can tell you that Hong Kong Disneyland blows the American parks out of the water. Perhaps because its newer, but it's also calmer. First though, we had to take the subway there, which was extremely easy. The stations are easy to navigate, and both the stations and trains are immaculately clean. There's also a transparent fence between the platform and the train tracks to prevent anyone from falling in. We really need that in the United States.

Transferring to the Disney train line at Sunny Bay station was simple...and very hard to miss. All of the windows are shaped like Mickey Mouse. But it doesn't stop there. All of the handles on the ceiling are shaped like Mickey Mouse, and there are bronze statues of Disney characters all over the train. I was amazed to see so many people on the train, considering it was 3 p.m. in the afternoon already, and I was also surprised that most of the people going were older. When we stepped off the train, it was obvious we were in Disneyland from the usually glitz and "magical" signs everywhere, but there was something else strange about the landscape. I could swear that once I stepped off the train, I left Hong Kong and was not in Anaheim, but somewhere more like Palm Springs. Disneyland here isn't littered with screaming children. I speculated that many people come out here for leisurely walks in the promenade as there is a nice large park and pier outside of Disneyland. My mom also pointed out how much easier HK Disney is to get to, compared to the one in Orange County as that one is ONLY accessible by car. 

After awhile, my mom and I got tired and wandered into the Grand Salon of the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. I bought a bottle of Sprite and sat on a plush, Victorian-style green couch in the air-conditioned room for about 30 minutes. Too tired to walk back the MTR station, my mom tugged me over to the hotel shuttle, not really knowing where it was going, and we just hoped that would take us back to the station - which it did!

After making it back to Mong Kok station in Kowloon, I had to stop at Hui Lau Shan, a mango dessert chain that my friend Victoria recommended to me and I couldn't pass up. I got a mango-strawberry slushie, with a layer of fruit chunks at the top and yogurt and ice at the bottom, while my mom got something with mango and coconut. The busy streets of Mong Kok were irking my mom, as she was exhausted from walking and large crowds all day, so we walked back to the hotel. The only way to cap off the day was with more take-out food from the local restaurant since it was so good and cheap the day before.

Between the MTR and the Mid-Levels, it's obvious that Hong Kong is truly advanced and a model for cities around the world. It's a city of the future. Maybe being a day ahead really helps.

Shopper's Paradise

On Saturday morning, I was very reluctant to get up at 6 a.m. Although I've gotten used to waking up at 5 a.m. on this trip, this was the first night I've spent in a comfortable bed in over a week. But the idea of taking a piping hot shower for the first time in over a week was more enticing. Plus, I had to get rid of the cigarette smell that seems to loom over our room. After getting ready for the long day ahead, my mom and I got aboard a half-day city tour bus of Hong Kong Island. First stop: Victoria Peak. I'd say this was the attraction I wanted to see most, and we definitely lucked out on the weather. Picture perfect skies. Plus, it's 3 degrees Celsius cooler up there than down here. On the zig-zagging roads up, reminiscent of those on the Pacific Coast Highway, our lovely and very hilarious local guide, Vivian, gave us some info on Hong Kong, including the fact that 7 million people live here. High-rises are the architecture of choice here and land is extremely expensive. She said jokingly, that's why they're all so small. She made a lot of jokes referencing the petiteness of Chinese people compared to Westerners, which the bus full of Britons, Australians and Canadians (I think my mom and I were the only Americans as I didn't hear any other American accents...) just found adorable about her. Next stop: Aberdeen, where the local fishing village is and the home of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant (As Vivian noted, you've probably seen this place in any Jackie Chan movie.) Jackie is pretty popular around here, and we even saw his seaside home on the way to Repulse Bay, which looked like a small English castle. Repulse Bay, named after the HMS Repulse that used to be docked here, was gorgeous, with the first sandy beaches I've seen up close and not from a plane window this whole trip. Last stop, at this point on completely the other side of mountains of Hong Kong, was Stanley Market, a series of outdoor stalls selling everything from knick-knack souvenirs to local artwork, more knockoff designer handbags. I was sort of surprised at the lack of these bags, and Manila seems to be bursting at the seams with them, and I've heard from many people that Hong Kong is too. Although I didn't do much shopping in Hong Kong (only a package of nice wooden chopsticks and a small jade elephant for myself), HK is, as Vivian said, "a shopper's paradise," nearly everything here is tax-free. Only four goods are not: cars, gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol.

After getting back to our hotel in Kowloon, my mom and I quickly changed into more sophisticated attire and hurried down to the hotel shuttle for tea at The Peninsula Hotel. Tea is served in the decadent lobby of the grand old hotel between 2 and 7 p.m, and the dress code supposedly prohibits flip-flops and beach sandals. That didn't stop anyone, as I looked down the long line and most tourists were wearing said shoes or tennis shoes. It's a good thing we went at 2, considering we only waited about 30 to 45 minutes in line, and when I looked back as we were being seated, it was then already out the door (it's a long hallway). Over $400 HKD (~$50 USD) including 10% gratuity (that's the standard here), the tea-for-two selection was extremely worth the wait. If you go, I recommend getting the "Peninsula Blend." The lobby, once a site just where local Britons and many American ex-pats relaxed in colonial times, is now THE place to go when on holiday here. My mom noted that the lobby had been sized down, however, since her first visit here in 1964. (Pause, and think about that.) Now half of what used to be the full lobby of the hotel is ritzy, top-of-the-top stores like Cartier and Prada.

peninsula-tea

After tea, it was close to 4:30 p.m. and almost sunset, so we headed for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong. At $2.20 HKD ($0.28 USD), as my mom says, it's the best buy in Hong Kong. Much like I do when I'm on the Staten Island Ferry, I got off the boat and got right back on to head back to the other side. Not because I didn't want to see Hong Kong, but I wanted to take pictures of the sunset on Victoria Harbour (and I was really tired and wanted to go back to the hotel). After getting back to shore and walking around Nathan Road (the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Kowloon) we headed back to the hotel. After a full day of walking, we were exhausted and hungry. So we got take-out Chinese food at the restaurant two doors down from the hotel: Teresa Coffee Restaurant. I highly recommend this place as well if you ever stay at the Metropark. Not only was the food (chicken with cashews, pan-fried noodles and fried rice) all delicious, the portions were huge and we got all of it for $90 HKD ($11.60 USD).