asia

The top 5 things to do in Hanoi

Hanoi was a DREAM, you guys.  I loved it.  Of the cities I've visited in Asia, I think Hanoi might have been my favorite.  It's the ideal mix of gorgeous European architecture and the chaos of an Asian city.  It's small enough to explore on foot and cheap enough to avoid constant concern about blowing your budget.  (My budget is in a fight with Hong Kong.)

I spent four days in Hanoi with my trusted co-pilot and staff photographer Sadie (probably more of an intern as she is decidedly unpaid). We spent one day in Ha Long Bay, but otherwise basically ate and drank our way through the city.  Here are some of my favorite things we did.

Food Tour with Mark Lowerson - Mark is an Australian who has been living in Hanoi for over fifteen years.  With him we ate pho, several noodles dishes, a roasted banana tapioca dessert, a banh mi and some of the best spring rolls of our entire stay in Vietnam.  It was fascinating to get his perspective on the ex-pat experience in the city and how it has changed.  The tours are expensive, but I would recommend them above almost anything we did while in the city.

Noticeable French influence on these spring rolls:  the wrapper is super flaky and light, almost like a pastry.

Noticeable French influence on these spring rolls:  the wrapper is super flaky and light, almost like a pastry.

Hanoi Cooking Centre - Cooking classes are fast becoming one of my favorite ways to get to know a place. In this one, we made spring rolls, pho, bun cha, and a delicious fruit salad with coconut milk. We also got a tour of a nearby food market, which was fascinating. I, like lots of other people, am always hoping to make contact with a local when I'm visiting a new place, but it is always harder than I think it will be.  I find it is fairly rare to meet someone who speaks good English and is interested in talking to me, so the cooking instructor and tour guides I met on this were the best opportunity I had to ask locals about their lives in Hanoi. They were informative, open and very kind. They also let you drink as much beer or wine as you want during the cooking class, which felt like a very authentic cooking experience to me as that is typically how I operate in my own kitchen.

Looking out of the market across the lake.

Looking out of the market across the lake.

The Vietnamese Women's Museum - Because we were only in northern and central Vietnam, we didn't do much of anything related to the Vietnam War (also known as the American War). The only exception was the third floor of the Women's Museum in Hanoi, which was dedicated to the stories of women who were involved in the war.  Their letters and diaries describe, firsthand, the atrocities that they experienced and what it was like to specifically be a woman in the war.  It was a perspective I'd never heard before and I was fascinated. Get the audio tour, because it includes translated readings of these documents.  The whole museum is good, but we particularly enjoyed the third floor.

Coffee - Vietnamese coffee is DANG GOOD, y'all.  I'm working on some recipes to keep us cool and jittery (my ideal state) throughout the summer, but in the meantime you should probably start planning a coffee-centric trip to Hanoi.  I think of Vietnamese coffee as strong coffee served over ice and sweetened condensed milk, but that is only the beginning!  Hanoi is famous for egg coffee, which sounds weird but is SO GOOD.  It was invented in the 1940s during a milk shortage, and has become a total cultural icon, attracting locals and tourists side by side in a way that I've found is fairly rare. There's lots to do in Hanoi, but some of the most wonderful moments we had involved sitting in a street side cafe or by the window in a hidden upstairs spot, just removed enough from the chaos of the city to appreciate its beauty.  Some highlights were Cafe Dinh, Cafe Giang, and Oriberry Cafe (where you can buy single origin Vietnamese coffee) (I brought home approx. ten pounds).

Egg coffee from above.

Egg coffee from above.

Weekend Night Market/Party - Every weekend after about 7pm, most of the streets north of Hang Dao in the Old Quarter become pedestrian only and street performers and market stalls are set up.  It's a hilarious mix of family fun and people being wildly drunk.  Local families come out and wander the streets, or post up at one of the tiny outdoor tables and just watch the world go by.  With beer at approximately 50 cents a pint, it is basically required to be a good time.

Coffee menu.

Coffee menu.

A Complete Travel Guide to Hong Kong

Here it is!  By the time this post goes live, I'll have five days left in Asia and only two days left in Hong Kong.  I've loved this city and been pissed off by it and been delighted by it, and I'm so excited to share with you all my favorite things.  This post is a bit of a monster, but I've included technical tips, as well as lots of restaurants, activities and places to go.  If you're planning a trip and you still have questions, please let me know and I'll be sure to add more details that I've forgotten.

Places with stars are some of my favorite things that I really, extra recommend.  This guide doesn't include some of the things that many travel guides will say are must-dos, but I wanted to focus on the things that I really loved in the city.  All of these places are searchable in Google Maps unless otherwise noted.  I've given some directions but almost everything can be found on Google Maps.

Transport:

When you arrive to the airport, buy an Octopus card for HKDA$50 at one of the Airport Express counters that you'll pass on your way out of the baggage claim and customs. You can sell it back for HKD$43 at the end of your trip.  You can use your Octopus card for all transport (except taxis) and also to pay in a lot of restaurants, grocery stores and corner stores.  Very helpful!  If you put too much on it, you can get the money back when you sell the card back.

The easiest way to get to central Hong Kong is to take the Airport Express, which costs HKD$100.  You can also take the A21 bus.  I recommend looking up your lodging's address in Google Maps, which will give you very accurate directions.  

Where to Stay:

Obviously, this depends a lot on what you want from your trip.  Generally, I would recommend staying somewhere on Hong Kong Island very close to the MTR (metro).  Ideally, I would stay between San Ying Pun and Causeway Bay.  The map is below.

Hotels are kind of expensive, so if you're with a group the best value is Airbnb.  My friends got a reasonably nice apartment where four of us slept in 3 beds for $150 a night.  My mom got a lovely 2 bedroom apartment for about $180 a night.

The Island line is the blue line at the bottom.  Try to stay between Sai Ying Pun and Causeway Bay.

The Island line is the blue line at the bottom.  Try to stay between Sai Ying Pun and Causeway Bay.

Trendy Restaurants:

*Little Bao – One of Hong Kong’s hippest restaurants, serving modernized bao burgers.  Make sure to try to the dessert bao, which are fried and served with ice cream.  The wait is often an hour or two so go early, put your name down, and then find a bar nearby to wait.  Not good for large groups.

*Chino – Mexican-Japanese fusion and delicious tequila cocktails.  This has been one of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong because the staff is so friendly and the food is so surprising.  I recommend it for drinks and snacks.  Don’t miss the Katifi shrimp.  Try to sit at the bar so you can watch the kitchen and bar staff do their thing.

Katifi shrimp at Chino.

Katifi shrimp at Chino.

Yardbird – Another of HK’s hottest places.  Mostly known for Japanese Yakitori aka chicken skewers.  I liked the food here but found that ultimately it all tasted mostly like chicken, which got tiresome after a few rounds.  The wait here also tends to be long.

getting shwasty at Duddell's.

getting shwasty at Duddell's.

Duddell’s – Duddell’s is most well-known for their free flow brunch, where you pay a flat amount for unlimited champagne, cocktails, and dim sum.  It is pricy but we had a wonderful time drinking and stuffing ourselves for the full 4 hours.  If you’re looking to celebrate and treat yourself, this is the perfect place.

Ho Lee Fook – Ho Lee Fook is known for doing traditional Cantonese food with a modern twist, but I couldn’t help but feel I was simply paying a lot of extra money for the hipster appeal of the whole place while eating food I could have had if I’d simply gone to a traditional restaurant.  The food was good but the best (most famous) dishes are substantially more expensive than the rest of the menu, and the staff made me feel rushed and like they didn’t want me there.

Chachawan – Delicious, spicy Thai food.  If you like spicy food, go here.  The food was tasty but I found myself sweating a little too much to fully enjoy my meal.  Again, there’s some sense of paying for the hip-ness of the place, since you can get really good Thai food at other spots in the city.

Coffee/breakfast:

Winston’s – Good coffee in a tiny but airy space.  Right next to Sai Ying Pun MTR exit A1.  Limited seating.

*Teakha – Teakha kitchen is right next to HKU, so I spent a lot of time here. This is a tea shop that barely serves coffee, so that should tell you that it is pretty special.  I love the Sea Salt Yin Yang and the masala chai.  They also have the best western style cakes I’ve found in HK.  They also make homemade yogurt and granola which is one of my favorite breakfasts I’ve ever had.  (I usually hate granola and yogurt.)

the seal salt yin yang at Teakha Kitchen.

the seal salt yin yang at Teakha Kitchen.

Ethos – One of my favorite spots to do work near HKU.  Delicious, not too sweet mochas and really good snacks and music. Great seating.  There’s also a concept store next door where you can buy cool HK-made gifts and such.

The Cofftea Shop – a tiny hole in the wall in Kennedy Town.  I like to get an iced latte and a piece of banana bread here and then walk along the water in the morning.

The Cupping room – There are a couple of these around HK.  They’re well-known because the baristas have won some awards.  Good food and good coffee in convenient locations.

Tsui Wah – This is a HK chain where you can get lots of traditional stuff.  I like the milk tea and the toasted buns with butter and condensed milk for a ~light~ breakfast.

Dim Sum:

*Dim Dim Sum – This is my favorite dim sum in HK.  I recommend the fried shrimp rice rolls, the gluten rice in lotus leaf, the pineapple buns, and the shrimp stuffed eggplant.  Service is brisk but it is worth it.

unadulterated joy at Dim Dim Sum.

unadulterated joy at Dim Dim Sum.

Din Tai Fung – Din Tai Fung is a Taiwan-based chain but their soup dumplings are DANG GOOD.  I also really love their cucumber salad.

One Dim Sum – Many people argue this place is the best dim sum in Hong Kong.  I prefer Dim Dim Sum but my friend Amanda (a trusted dim sum connoisseur) recommends the gluten rice in lotus leaf, pork buns, vegetable dumplings and the vegetable shrimp dumplings.  All around, you can’t go wrong.

*Chau Kee – This place is well-known for a version of HK style French toast that they do which is stuffed with a tasty egg custard. They have lots of the dim sum classics, but I recommend the cucumber salad, the fried turnip cakes in XO sauce and the eggplant, which has a tasty ginger sauce on it.  All of these are dishes you won’t find anywhere else.

Tim Ho Wan – Tim Ho Wan is a well-known chain that is supposed to have invented the barbecued pork bun.  Stop by one of their outlets if you’re near one, but I don’t think it is worth going out of your way.

Asian:

Yuan is Here – Taiwanese street food served in a really cool environment.  There’s usually a line but it moves quickly.  The food is below the average HK price for a place this cool.

Unknown dumpling place in Wan Chai – I can’t tell you the name but if you click here you will be taken to a delicious restaurant with awesome steamed and fried dumplings, as well as spicy dan dan noodles and many more delights.

unknown dumpling place in Wan Chai is worth a visit.

unknown dumpling place in Wan Chai is worth a visit.

Indian Curry Express – This hole in the wall is right by HKU and is run by a charming Indian man.  This is the best chicken tikka masala I’ve had and the semi-on-the-street location makes for nice breezes and good people watching.

*North Viet Pho – A chain that has several outlets all over Hong Kong.  I like anything with the lemongrass pork chop, which might be the actual best piece of meat I’ve ever eaten.

Keung Kee Rice Stall – A great place to try out typical HK street food like rice rolls and gluten rice.  Yum city.

gluten rice and shu mai.

gluten rice and shu mai.

*****Cheung Hing Kee – This place is Michelin rated soup dumplings.  The original dumplings are my single favorite thing I’ve eaten in Hong Kong.  If you don’t go there when you’re in the city, you’re dead to me.

DRINKING

99 Bottles – This place is set up to compete with the habit of buying cheap liquor, beer or wine from 7-Eleven.  They have a good selection of draught beer as well as bottles of wine and beer.  You can drink them there or take them to go.

Ping Pong – This place is pricy but they have a really delicious selection of gin and tonics, which is exactly what you want after a day in the Hong Kong heat and humidity.  I’ve also been told that the name comes from the fact that the space used to be a ping pong stadium.

Eyebar – A beautiful view of Victoria Harbor and a good spot to watch the famous laser show.

FoxGlove – This is a super cool, speakeasy-style bar that is “hidden” in the back of a bespoke umbrella shop.  It is unclear to me whether or not the umbrella shop actually sells umbrellas during the day.  The drinks are expensive but delicious and strong and there’s often great live music.

Missy Ho – Great (pricy) cocktails in Kennedy Town.  Lots of classic cocktails with a spin.

Ozone – The highest bar in asia, worth a trip just to see the view and say you did it.

*IFC roof garden – On the top floor of the IFC mall, there’s a lovely outdoor space with tables and chairs a great view of the Kowloon side of the harbor.  There are bars and restaurants but you can bring your own food and alcohol and have non-house house party.

Quinary - If you want a show with you cocktail, snag a seat at the bar at Quinary and watch the bartenders mix up creative, modernist drinks with tricks like a cinnamon-smoke filled bag and roasted marshmallow shot.  Pricy but interesting.

Mahalo - Tiki bar!  Salsa dancing!  Pina Colada!  Need a say more?

Lilly and Bloom – Happy hour here runs from 5-9pm every weekday and 6-9pm on Saturday.  Your first drink is HKD$50, the second is HKD$25 and the third is HKD $5.

Posto Pubblico – Happy hour each weekday runs from 5-7pm with free flow prosecco, beer, wine and Italian snacks. Get here a little early to snag a table.

Little Creatures - This Australian-based brewery has good beer and is close to the water in Kennedy Town.  Don't go out of your way, but if you're in the area, it is worth a try.

Things to do

Hong Kong History Museum - I'm not a museum person and I loved this museum.  It is a huge, comprehensive history of Hong Kong spanning from the formation of the land mass to reunification in 1997.  I recommend skipping through the Prehistoric stuff and focussing on trying to understand the Opium wars and more modern history of the city, since that's what you'll hear about the most while you're in the city.  Plan for 3-6 hours. Free on Wednesdays.  Website here

*PMQ - PMQ is the former Police Married Quarters for the Hong Kong police force, which has since been converted into a sort of boutique mall and art space.  There are over 100 smalls stores with locally made ceramics, leather goods, clothes, food, jewelry and more.  This has been a favorite of many of my visitors. Website here.

Star Ferry - This is an HK classic, but for good reason.  On a clear-ish day or night, taking the Star Ferry from the Kowloon side to Central is truly a delight and will help give you a new perspective on this delightful city.

Cooked Food Centres – I have this in the non-food section because it doesn’t have to actually include eating.  All over the city there are cooked food centres, which usually have a few floors of uncooked food and then the top floors are small, street-food style restaurants.  Type cooked food center into your map app and there is likely to be one within a mile of you.

Mong Kok Markets – This includes the Temple Street Night Market, the Jade Market, the Ladies Market, the flower market and the bird market.  The ladies market is approximately 1 million stalls selling approximately 100 items, which is to say, they all essentially sell the same thing.  There are lots of trinkets, phone cases and ugly Asian wall hangings.  There are also a lot of knock offs. The jade market sells (mostly) fake jade, the temple street market is similar to the Ladies market and the other two are exactly what they sound like. They’re all worth a visit, especially because Mong Kok is one of the most densely populated areas of the world.

The Peak – The Peak is the highest peak on Hong Kong Island.  It is famous for the tram which takes you steeply up the hill, but the tram is pRiCeY and the line is usually long.  The Peak itself is a nice view of the city, but it is also a mall and a tourist trap so I recommend hiking to the top, seeing the view (not from the $$ observatory but just from one of the other decks) and then splitting a cab back down.

Things to Do Outside

Dragon's Back - This is another Hong Kong classic.  The trail goes along the ridge of the mountains and offers gorgeous views of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding islands.  Take the MTR Shau Kei Wan Station and go out Exit A to the bus terminus. Take big #bus 9 or the minibus with the sign to 'Shek O' next to the bus terminus. Get off at To Tei Wan, Shek O Road.  You can do the path as a loop or go all the way to the beach.  If you do the loop, it's about 2.5 hours.

Instagram Pier - I lived in Kennedy Town while I was in HK, and I walked on this pier almost every day.  Despite being an island, there aren't that many places where you can walk along the water in the main part of the city, so I enjoyed walking or sitting down here a lot.  I only found out that it's called Instagram pier about halfway through my stay.  I enjoy walking along here with a beer in between bar hopping in Kennedy Town.

Instagram Pier

Instagram Pier

Chi Lin Nunnery - A gorgeous complex of Buddhist temples and gardens. It's a little out of the way of the main part of the city, but so beautiful and gives a gorgeous contrast of nature and the city.

Repulse Bay - For an accessible beach from the city, take MTR to Ocean Park and then take the bus to Repulse Bay. There are lifeguards, lots of good restaurants and bars, and wide strip of beach.

Full- or Half-day activities:

Explore the Kowloon side - Get coffee and a light breakfast somewhere in HK island, go to TST and get dumplings for an early-ish lunch of dumplings at Cheung Hing Kee.  Buy them and go sit in Kowloon Park.  Then, walk to the Hong Kong History museum and spend the afternoon there.  Have an early dinner at One Dim Sum, then head to Eyebar before 8pm to watch the lightshow with a drink.  If you've still got energy, go check out the Temple Street Night Market.

*Lamma Island – From the central pier (follow the signs from Central MTR), catch the ferry to Lamma island (you’ll pay with your Octopus card).  Look for the pier with the sign that says Lamma Island, and take whichever boat is leaving sooner.  There are two ports but you can go to either for this).  There’s a 4km walking trail that connects them, and restaurants on either end.  This can be a full day if you go slow or a half day if you’re moving quickly.  The views are gorgeous and it’s a lovely escape from the city.  Bring swimsuit and towel if the day is nice, as the path goes through a beach.

view from the Lamma Island trail

view from the Lamma Island trail

*Sai Kung – Take the MTR to Hung Hau, then take minibus 101M to the Sai Kung Pier. There are tons of seafood restaurants in the area where you can choose what you want to eat from big glass tanks. If you opt for this, make sure to agree on the price before you order.  Another, cheaper, option is Thai food!  Just near the bus terminus, there’s a hole in the wall Thai restaurant called Sawasdee where you can eat a feast of Thai food before you head out into the ocean.  Look in the hallway type thing, right behind the 7-11 on the edge of the parking lot where the minibuses leave. Once you’ve eaten, walk to the pier and turn left, walking with the water on your right side until you hit the beach.  It’s about 10 minutes.  There are several shops on the beach that will rent you kayaks (HKD$100 per person for the whole day) and provide dry bags.  Bring water and snacks and paddle out 30-45 minutes to one of the less crowded beaches.  They’ll be visible from the beach where you rent your kayak.  Hang out there for a few hours, but head back in time to return your boat at 5.  Walk back towards town along the pier and head to Casa for cocktails and food.  Once you’ve eaten and drunk your fill, take the minibus back and head home.

boats in Sai Kung

boats in Sai Kung

Cheung Chau Island – From Central Pier number 5 (there’s a big sign that says Cheung Chau), take the ferry.  Fast ferry is slightly more expensive but worth it if you’re likely to get sick or if you’re in a hurry.  There are tons of restaurants near the pier, so see what catches your fancy.  If you want seafood, New Baccarat restaurant is supposed to be good, but make sure you agree on prices if something you order doesn’t have the amount marked. Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the island.  There’s a beach on the opposite side of the island from the pier, as well as several temples. There are plenty of sign and the island isn’t big enough to get too lost, so I recommend just wandering and letting your mood guide you.

Macau - The Vegas of Asia  – Take the earliest ferry you can get up for (for me that meant 11:30). Follow the signs from the Sheung Wan MTR station. It’s about HKD$300 for a roundtrip ticket.  Don’t forget to bring your passport.  The ferry can be nauseating, so bring medication if you tend to get seasick.  Macau is two islands made up of a few little towns, but you’ll land in Taipa. Take the free shuttle to the Venetian, and walk through the casino, then head to the old town for lunch at A Petisqueira (make a reservation), a Portuguese restaurant with large portions. Walk around the old town after lunch and taste pastries and maybe get some coffee at Fong Da Coffee.  Be sure to have an egg tart, since they were invented here. Then, take a taxi to the ruins of St. Paul.  Spend the rest of the afternoon at the history museum and wandering the small streets around St. Paul’s.  When you get tired or hungry, head to MacauSol, a charming wine bar with Portuguese wine and English cheese.  Being there is like sitting in your aunt’s living room.  Finally, take a cab back to the ferry terminal and head home.

I really only recommend Macau if you have a week or more in Hong Kong.  I was not blown away and I think there are more interesting things to do in the city.

 

Top Ten Food-centric Japan trip moments

Hi!  I just returned from a week in Japan, racing between Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.  We went, we ate, we almost never got to leave.  Japan is small, so I thought a week would feel like a lot of time, but I could have spent a lot more days in each city.  Here are my top ten experiences from our food-centric week in Japan.

1)  Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market is where the largest and most expensive tuna in the world are bought and sold.  Because we didn't want to get up at 3am and wait for hours in the freezing cold, we skipped the tuna auction but we did not skip the action!  We ate enormous fresh oysters, scallops in their shells, the fattiest tuna I've ever seen, plus grilled eel skewers and many more delights.  It was overwhelming in the best possible way, with so much to eat and see.  We spent probably 2 hours there but I could have entertained myself for many more.

Scroll through for a selection of market pictures.

2)    Sunset over Tokyo

Our first day was long, and we ended it with a visit to the 33rd floor of the Prince Hotel, where we drank expensive cocktails and watched the sun set behind Mt. Fuji.  We arrive at about 4:15, in time to watch the city slowly light up.  It was a clear day, so we could see pretty clearly about 60 miles west, making for an unbelievable view of Mt. Fuji and the sun.  My mom loves good views, so treating myself to a pricier cocktail or glass of wine as rent to enjoy a lovely view has become an important part of my travel plans, wherever I go.

3)    Dominique Ansel Bakery

Have you heard of the Cronut?  I assume you have because it is a croissant donut hybrid AKA delicious fried butter bread so anyone who hangs out around these parts of the Internet certainly has their ear to the ground in terms of donut innovation.  You might not realize that the Cronut is actually legally trademarked by Dominique Ansel, who is basically the baker of my generation.  He has a very important ability to invent delicious items that also go viral on social media.  I actually really recommend following him on Instagram.  We happened to be near the Tokyo branch of his bakery and stopped by to check it out.  I intended to haughtily be put off by the line and keep walking but all three of us were immediately sucked in and waited in line for 20 minutes in order to purchase approximately 8 pastries. (We had to get breakfast for the next day!) 

My favorite was the frozen s'more, which has a core of vanilla ice cream, surrounded by chocolate cookie crumbs, surrounded by marshmallow and then torched in front of you.  See my Instagram.

My mom liked the DKA, which is Ansel's version of a kouign amann.  It is similar to a croissant but lightly sweet, with a really satisfying caramelized outside. UGH. I'm hungry.

4)  Shin Udon

My mom has a video of me staring in the window of this restaurant and then turning around and exclaiming "This is my favorite thing we've done in Tokyo!"  Ramen gets the headlining spot in the Tokyo noodle scene, but there's also delicious udon and soba noodles. Udon noodles are thick and chewy, usually served in a lighter broth than ramen. These particular udon were made in front of us by a noodle man who kept flicking water at the window through which I was watching his every move.  We really bonded.

My mom had a bowl of very traditional udon, but I opted for a carbonara-style udon with tempura bacon and tons of black pepper and parmesan.  It's basically the combination of two of my very favorite things in the world - Italian pasta and Asian noodles.

TEMPURA BACON REPEAT TEMPURA BACON

TEMPURA BACON REPEAT TEMPURA BACON

5)  Flea Market at Tomioka Hachimangu

We went out to this flea market on a bit of a whim, but it ended up being a fun way to get an idea of what day-to-day life might be like for an average citizen of Tokyo.  The flea market surrounds a beautiful temple/shrine/religious sight, so there was a long line of people waiting to go in and pray the whole time we were walking around and shopping.  The market has everything from old old whaling photographs to small furniture and cool old kimono-like items.  I didn't buy much but I think seeing what kind of old stuff is floating around Japan is a fun way to understand the culture a bit more.

The flea market sellers were not supportive of my camera, so these photos are mostly from the shrine and surrounding area.

6)    Onsen in Hakone

Hakone is sort of between Kyoto and Tokyo, near the base of Mt. Fuji.  It's a resort town known for natural hot springs and really beautiful views.  We spent one blissful night at Hotel Okada, soaking in the hot springs, getting massages and eating a traditional Kaiseki-style meal, served in our room by a very stern older woman.  Kaiseki was something I really wanted to try in Japan - it's similar to a tasting menu, in that they serve lots of tiny dishes.  Because very few people spoke English, we didn't know what we were eating but it was really fun to taste everything and try to guess what was what.

7)    Fushimi inari-taisha in Kyoto

Kyoto was a very mixed bag.  We had some AirBnB mishaps, as well as a very uncomfortable tea ceremony.  I hadn't done much research about Kyoto before we arrived there, so I thought it was going to be a pretty small and very charming city.  It turned out to be a lot larger than I'd expected, and the charm was contained to certain areas which we did eventually find.  The cities main claim to fame is numerous temples that are still largely intact because Kyoto wasn't destroyed during World War II.

Fushimi Inari-taisha was my favorite of the temples we visited.  The day was so grey, so it felt like walking around in a world that had been photoshopped to make the orange torii (those orange gate-like things you see below) really pop out.

8)    Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

My favorite thing to do while traveling is go to food markets, which is why there are two on this list.  Nishiki Market is a lot smaller than Tsukiji in Tokyo, but it was a lot less crowded and a bit less overwhelming, so good for people who are maybe a bit intimidated by the intensity of Tsukiji.  There are more tourists at Nishiki than Tsukiji for that exact reason, but it was still so, so fun to spend an hour or so wandering through eating takoyaki (doughy octopus balls) and looking at all the beautifully laid out food.

9)    Shopping for Home goods, everywhere

Because the Japanese take food so seriously, they also take kitchen tools and accessories very seriously.  While in Japan, I bought a carbon steel kitchen knife, a set of beautiful ceramic bowls and several beautiful scraps of cloth that I intend to use as kitchen towels.  My mom bought a bamboo ice basket with copper accents, which delighted her.  I knew I wanted to buy a knife while in Japan, but I was surprised by the number of kitchen stores with really beautiful items all over the cities we visited.  Constant temptation mostly lost to the idea of carrying everything I wanted to buy in a 35L backpack, but if I went back I would bring a large hard-side suitcase and stock up. (Another reason I can't afford to return to Japan anytime soon.)

10)    Tsurugyu for Kobe Beef, Osaka

We spent one night in Osaka in order to be closer to the airport, which turned out to be a huge mistake - the trains were complicated and we ended up missing our flight and having to completely rebook.  Let's never speak of it.  That night in Osaka was almost worth the pain it ultimately caused because of the meal we had at Tsurugyu.  They serve Kobe beef at a significantly lower price than normal because it isn't certified - I found the recommendation here.  You cook the food yourself at the table, except the waitstaff is wonderful and basically does it for you.  I had a really good time being teased by our waiter for cooking things wrong.  Love connection.

Y'all, I'm gonna be straight with you.  I failed you because I mostly forgot to take pictures.  They brought out each order of meat in beautiful presentations - on banana leaves and gorgeous ceramic bowls with different dips for each one.  I was so focused on getting the food in my mouth that my camera felt really unimportant.  Guess you have to go to Japan.

my one and only precious photo from Tsurugyu.

my one and only precious photo from Tsurugyu.

And then we got stuck in the Osaka airport for one million hours, so don't be too jealous.