(Birth)Day in Kyoto, Japan [Part I]

25 Dec

Happy Holidays Friends!

Wishing you all health and happiness in 2013.

2013? I can’t believe how fast time has flown. Could it be that I’ve already lived in Korea for 2 years?! 헉!

And while we all begin to make plans for our big new year’s celebration (lie: I’m not planning on planning a thing), I thought it would be the perfect time to share how I celebrated my new year – of life – during my most delicious birthday ever.

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It all started one week before my birthday, when G and I were playing a romantical game of cards (Geriatric love, anyone?) and I was complaining about my self-induced pressure to host a party with no venue in mind.

By the way, I’m faced with this conundrum every year, which usually results in avoiding the birthday-thing altogether.  

G, having (undoubtedly) anticipated this annual conversation, smiled and whipped out a piece of paper saying, “Oh yea, I printed out the weather report for your birthday weekend, so we could figure out what we wanted to do- picnic, bbq…”

And then time stopped.

Because this I know for sure, G has NEVER, in his life, noticed the weather (nor planned a weekend in advance, but I’m not gunna go there).  This kid does what he wants, when he wants, rain or shine-  making this conversation entirely suspect.

I puzzled-ly took the paper from his hands and realized - HOLY SUSHI – G had printed out the weather report for KYOTO!

And that is how my surprise birthday weekend in Japan was unveiled.

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A few days later, G & I landed in Osaka and took the JR WEST train straight to Kyoto (approximately a 75 minute ride).

Quick tip #1: Travel to Kyoto is exceptionally easy as the train station is located right outside the airport.  Also, foreigners are able to buy discount tickets (Japan West Rail Pass) at the tourist information counter, as seen below.

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 Quick tip #2:  Make sure to stop by a 7-Eleven around the airport to pick up some water and Japanese snacks for the journey (ice cream waffle sandwich is our personal favorite).

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***

Kyoto, the former capital of Japan (quite possibly my favorite, non-homeland, country), exceeded my high expectations in every way.  The city is traditional with pops of new; quiet, but lively; inviting yet secretive; majestic and humble…

and all juxtapositions aside, it’s really just perfect.

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We hopped off the train, stashed our backpack in lockers, and immediately set off for our first destination – Nishiki market, Kyoto food mecca.

What?! With only 48 hours in Japan, one must seize all Japanese food intake opportunities.

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Nishiki Market is a narrow, indoor, food market that spans a delectable 5 blocks.  The market has over 100 tiny shops and restaurants selling local ingredients and specialized, ready-made food.

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I have no idea how long we spent eating our way through the market, but every second was delicious.

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To walk off the few (million) calories absorbed during our foodie-adventures, we headed to Gion, Kyoto’s famous Geisha district.  There, we purposely lost ourselves in the beautifully preserved streets, peeping into dimly-lit tea houses, and finding treasures as we explored.

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We were also lucky enough to spot a few Geishas, who hurriedly walked past the swarming, paparazzi-like tourists.

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At the East end of Gion’s main touristy-street, Shijō-dōri, we stumbled across the Yasaka Shrine.

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This was just the first of many religious places we stumbled upon in Kyoto- a city packed with over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.

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And as much as I can’t wait to tell you about all our religious & non-religious activity (sashimi and Asahi, anyone?!), I’m realizing now that this post has grown too long and I am about to miss my flight…

Part II in the works!

Vietnam, Sapa – Hiking and Rice and Everything Nice [Part III]

27 Oct

Our final day in Sapa was G’s favorite…

Mostly because he had finally met his match – the sweetest and feistiest H’mong girl who helped her mom lead us through the rice paddies fearlessly.

Our final day in Sapa was my least favorite…

Mostly because I had to hold-on for dear-life as we slipped and slide-d our way down the mountain.

(Frustration.)

Yes, indeed, to get down the muddy slopes of Sapa, I had to be fully supported (body, mind and soul) by a sweet old H’mong lady who was about 1/2 my size and had approximately 100 times my strength.

Don’t judge!

Each of us foreigners was equipped with a pint-sized support system…

This coupling happened to be my favorite:

Anyway, once we got the hang of mud-skiing, we were able to relax, look up, and start noticing the magical views around us.

We crossed over bridges…

Hiked through hidden valleys…

Learned how to die clothes using indigo leaves (thanks to Cou, our FANTASTIC tour guide for the day)…

Met some new friends…

Saw some more perfectly sculpted rice fields…

And finished it all off with some pho…

(and a smile)

Guess it wasn’t such a bad ending to our trip after all.

Vietnam, N & P – we love you! Thanks for a perfect vacation.

***

For more information about Sapa, including details about transportation, tour guide and accommodation, see earlier posts about our trip here: PART I and PART II

Vietnam, Sapa – Hiking and Rice and Everything Nice [Part II]

23 Oct

Hi friends!  

So sorry for the delay, but I’ve finally returned to Seoul after an intense few months of work + business tripping and I’m SO happy to be back to my bloggy world.  I’ve missed this.

Now, let’s go back to Vietnam.

***

Day 2 in Sapa, we awoke to a sunny skies and a lazy breakfast on the porch of Dat’s home.

 The morning was spent running around with Dat’s two cutie kids as we stuffed an obscene amount of banana pancakes into our tired bodies.

Overall, the home-stay was an extremely positive experience- we ate delicious local food, drank mysteriously powerful “Vietnamese happy juice,” slept quasi-comfortably on a mattress protected by mosquito netting,

and most importantly, had a great time with Dat’s family.

When we finally had our fill of pancakes and babysitting, we packed our bags and headed onward and upwards (seriously, the whole day felt like a long and humid incline) to the heights of Sapa’s rice feilds.

The photos really don’t do it justice – so you’ll just have to believe me – the views were utterly breathtaking (and not only because we were utterly out of breath).

We hiked over rice paddies and through small villages – meeting beautiful people and soaking up the sublime scenery along the way.

6 hours later, we (barely) reached the end of the hike, DRENCHED in sweat, exhausted, and ready for a long bath and a good meal (read: strong drink).

Luckily, we had booked a room at the AMAZING Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel for the night, which provided everything we wanted and more. (Do not forgo their watermelon cocktail – I am STILL dreaming about it.)

(Photo found here)

Dat kindly dropped us off at the hotel, pointed us in the direction of a magical shoe store that took our hiking boots from mudfest 2012…

to brand spanking new (for all of $2!!!!)…

and told us to expect a much easier hike tomorrow.

SPOILER ALERT: Lies, lies, lies!

(Note to self: When planning an itinerary with a tour guide, do not insist on doing the hardest hikes the area has to offer.  Dad – I blame you for this!)

Tune in this week for the grand finale of our Sapa adventures- where things get muddy(-er).

Vietnam, Sapa – Hiking and Rice and Everything Nice [Part I]

9 Aug

We left Hanoi on a midnight train to Lao Cai* (Okay, so the train actually left at 20:30…but when the two men are singing Journey, of which the midnight trains goes anywhere, and the two girls are singing Gladys Knight, of which the midnight train goes to Georgia, then 20:30 seems a little too specific),

and traveled overnight to find ourselves in the picturesque town of Sapa, located near the Chinese border.

Arriving in Sapa felt like entering a whole new world (“Don’t you dare close your eyes!”), especially after our day of beautiful-chaos in Hanoi.  Unlike the capital city, Sapa is quiet, tiny, and surrounded by rich, green mountains, etched with towering rice terraces.

Even more charming still, is Sapa’s beautiful population of ethnic minorities: the H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa and Xa Pho.

Locals may follow you around in hopes of selling handmade trinkets, so make sure to tell them kindly if you are not interested.

We stayed in town only long enough to meet our guide, Dat**, and after a quick breakfast, we were off on a hike to Dat’s home, where we would be staying our first night.

(Below, Dat weaving me a crown made of fern & walking besides G the giant)

(To break up the monotony of the incredible views, we had ourselves a contest to see who could look the worst in the photo below.  The fern tiaras gave us ladies a chance at victory, but thankfully the bucket hats and dopey smiles brought home the championship for the guys.)

Even though our hike lasted only 4 hours, I still managed to snap over 200 pictures.  It really took some willpower not to post them all.

We walked through ride paddies, crossed rivers…

not to mention, fought off rain with fashionable ponchos…

and when we finally reached Dat’s home, we were both exhausted and amazed by all the beauty we encountered…

…Aaaand then we lost power…

More adventures in Sapa – to be continued.

***

*We took the Sapaly Express train from Hanoi and bought first class tickets to ensure that we would get beds with padded mattresses.  The train booking was organized through Dat, our tour guide (see below for additional information).  Dat also made sure there was a car waiting for us at Lao Cai, to bring us to Sapa.

**If you are interested in a tailored tour of Sapa on a shoestring, contact Dat at datsapa@gmail.com.  Dat was reliable, responsive, and extremely kind.  He lead/organized a beautiful 3-day hiking tour of Sapa, which we all enjoyed tremendously. Staying at his house, Heavenly Homestay, was a fantastic experience and highly recommended.  (Although you shouldn’t go expecting the Ritz. Da.)

Vietnam, Hanoi – The True Concrete Jungle

27 Jul

Okay, so there is no smooth transition from Israel to Vietnam – just a sad little apology from me for not blogging for an entire month between trips.  So yes, I came back from Israel, soaked up a little Seoul, started my life as a Samsung employee, and headed straight back out into this big ol’ world.

And this is how we find ourselves in Hanoi…

Our trip to Vietnam started as a pretty typical question between friends – where should we meet?  So, when our chingoos (= amigos, in Korean) suggested Hanoi instead of coffee, we immediately signed up for the adventure.

The four of us landed in Hanoi not knowing what to expect, but we all instantly fell in love with the chaotic, humid mix of city, jungle, East & West.

Most of Hanoi’s central streets are lined with lush trees…

overflowing with noisy motorbikes…

and crowded with food vendors and hungry customers.

The old, dilapidated (yet rich) French colonial villas bring a surprising pop of color to the bustling avenues, which we explored sweat-ily for hours, finding artistic shops and delicious restaurants along the way.

One of my favorite discoveries was Madame Hien (15 Chan Cam, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi), an exquisite restaurant serving traditional Vietnamese food in a luxurious colonial estate.

We spent a full day in Hanoi, filling our tummies with good Vietnamese food and enjoying the unique energy of the city, but this was only the first leg of our journey.  Our next stop?

Sapa.

Memories of Israel – The Desert [Part II]

9 Jul

If you haven’t been to Israel before, I hope these posts of “Memories of Israel” spark your interest.  I have intentionally kept them wording-light and photo-rich, so please email me if you would like more details.

***

So, there we were…

looking out into infinity, as we stood at the edge of the Makhtesh.

What is a Makhtesh, you ask?  A Makhtesh is a rare geological land-form that looks a lot like a huge canyon, but is actually an erosion crater (as opposed to craters that were created by meteoric impacts).  There are only seven erosion craters in the entire world, five of them are situated in the Negev desert & the other two are found in the Sinai desert.

And as beautiful as the Makhtesh was during the day,

it was even more incredible at night.

Besides discovering the Makhtesh, the rest of our time in the desert was filled with awesome hikes,

surprising finds,

(Above: A tree, fighting for life, in the middle of nowhere

Below: Fossils of huge snails in the Makhtesh wall)

& lots of family bonding…

more accurately, A TON of family bonding, especially after the arrival of my sweet cousins, who came to join us for the last 2 days of the trip.

I could go on, and tell you the detailed stories of how, accidentally, the battery died in our uncle’s car or how I got so sun-burned that I could barely wear a t-shirt or how my brother got so sick that he had to rush back to Tel Aviv to see a doctor… but why ruin such a perfectly beautiful trip?  The only thing I remember clearly today, is how we had the best time in the most unlikely of places- the desert!

Memories of Israel – The Desert [Part I]

21 Jun

If you haven’t been to Israel before, I hope these posts of “Memories of Israel” spark your interest.  I have intentionally kept them wording-light and photo-rich, so please email me if you would like more details.

***

In my last couple of posts about Israel, you’ve followed me lazying around beaches, eateries & the like (as seen here & here), but thanks to my ever-young & adventurous parents, my vacation also included an awesome jeep trip to the beautiful, southern desert of Israel – the Negev.

Because it is impossible to go on this type of trip without a navigation and off-roading expert, we enlisted the help of tour-guide-extraordinaire, Avi Farjoun

& his exceptionally strong jeep.

(La familia…stuffed)

 Our 3-day desert trip followed the path of the spice & perfume trail of the ancient Nabateans, who, around 300 B.C, created an intricate trade route from southern Arabia, through the Negev, to the Mediterranean sea.

The Nabateans were masters of the desert thanks to their unrivaled ability to obtain and collect water in the arid terrain.

 Therefore, much of our trip was focused on discovering hidden irrigation channels and desert oases, thought to be used by the Nabateans.

 Unlike the Nabateans, however, once we found these watering holes, we’d usually stop for a picnic.

…Okay, back to the trip…

While following the spice trade route, we also visited Avdat, one of the most important camping grounds for Nabataean caravans (which was later taken over by the Romans).

We also did some beautiful hiking.

And then we reached this breathtaking view…

Which I promise to explain more about in my next deserty post.

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