Category Archives: Asia

Tour Day Two! drinks, sweets, sushi

Tour Day Two! drinks, sweets, sushi
Tour Day Two! drinks, sweets, sushi

A caravan of taxis awaited at 5a.m. on Tuesday morning, bearing us away to the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market. The staff treated us to a presentation on the market’s hidden role at the center of the city’s food distribution. Farmers and fishermen arrive with their wares long before the city has woken up, where brokers and wholesalers bid to claim the meat and produce. They repackage and resell the goods to grocery stores and restaurants, who prepare and serve it to us.

We hung over the rails, marveling at the turret truck drivers zooming past and gasping at the speed of the auctions. The four tuna on sale today (a reduced number, due to rough seas) found their buyers in less than a minute.

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Food Tour Japan! sea & shell in Hokkaido

Food Tour Japan! sea & shell in Hokkaido
Food Tour Japan! sea & shell in Hokkaido

Little had I guessed the Lord would welcome me back to Japan within six months of saying my good-byes. This week I am beyond blessed to tour the agricultural powerhouses of Hokkaido and Tohoku, as a guest of the JFOODO tours: a government initiative to share Japan’s lesser-known cuisine with the world.

Alongside twenty other alumni of the JET program, I will zoom to nearly a dozen different locales over the next five days. Our mission? Sample fresh shellfish, tour whiskey distilleries, pair sushi with wine, practice chocolate-making, pick strawberries, and devour plate after plate of Japan’s best dishes. It’s the adventure of a lifetime, the journey of my dreams.

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Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan

Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan
Chrysanthemum: Two Days in Taiwan

The streets of Taipei churn with traffic, but through all the orderly channels absent in Hanoi. The fleets of motorbikes, halting at precisely delineated squares at intervals, marked a strange transition for me.

I realized I had been circling my way back to the heart of Japan — from the foreign territory of Thailand and Cambodia, to the more closely linked Vietnam, and now my island’s next door neighbor — teeing up for the flight to Tokyo and then homeward.

With just three nights to absorb Taiwan, I reluctantly relinquished hopes of traveling by rail to their jewel attraction, Sun Moon Lake. I would concentrate on all the fascinations its capital city had to offer.

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Strelitzia: Citadel Bike Tour

Strelitzia: Citadel Bike Tour
Strelitzia: Citadel Bike Tour

Emboldened by the triumph of my sunrise cycling tour around the temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I booked another for Hanoi.

My guide zoomed up mounted on a moped – the death traps I had sworn to avoid, no matter how temptingly my ride booking app dangled fare discounts. Beaming and buoyant, he flourished a spare helmet and waved me aboard. I gulped down my protests and bowed to courtesy before scruples.

I had insisted on a tour of the “countryside”, wishing for rice paddies without the two hour bus ride to accompany them. He obligingly escorted me through the thick of the Old Quarter traffic to the unfamiliar lands that lay just beyond.

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Lily: Touring Hanoi

Lily: Touring Hanoi
Lily: Touring Hanoi

After my day cruising Halong Bay, I opted to stick to the dense Old Quarter surrounding my hotel for a deeper dive into its chaotic energy.

On the packed streets of Hanoi, the traffic lights and crosswalks are there for decoration. Hordes of motor bikes swarm the roads; pedestrians must clamber over restaurant seating (plastic stools and tables) if they want to use the sidewalks. Walking three blocks exhausted me.

The higgledy-piggledy view from my hotel window encapsulated the hive of human activity.

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Rose: Halong Bay in Vietnam

Rose: Halong Bay in Vietnam
Rose: Halong Bay in Vietnam

I had doubted and dithered over whether to visit Vietnam, but travel guides represented it as such a fixture of southeast Asia tours that I booked a short stay in the capital city.

After the metropolitan sprawl of Bangkok, Hanoi startled me. It exuded character – a strange and fascinating blend of chaotic market and modern brilliance, embellished throughout with the remnants of colonial French architecture.

I arrived wide-eyed at my hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, where property has purportedly sold for $15,000 – per square meter.

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Jasmine: Siem Reap Excursions

Jasmine: Siem Reap Excursions
Jasmine: Siem Reap Excursions

The reception staff scolded me when I arrived in Siem Reap. “You booked your tours already?” she tutted. “That’s my job!”

Their recommendations graced my open days with a cultural extravaganza, high-flying adventure, and a culinary exhibition. For the outings I had pre-determined, the staff arranged all my transport departing and returning to the hotel. Truly, Golden Temple outdid themselves in surpassing all my expectations of what a hotel might offer their guests.

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Bodhi: Angkor-Wat in Cambodia

Bodhi: Angkor-Wat in Cambodia
Bodhi: Angkor-Wat in Cambodia

Last year I scanned countless Indochina tours, weighing the prices and musing over the itineraries. When Cambodia made the menu, I spotted the same key ingredients popping up: Angkor-Wat, Phare Circus, zip lines … but never all together in one recipe.

I settled on a simple solution: concoct my own tour.

The day after church and wandering in Bangkok, I chased this ambition to Siem Reap: a city with its own dedicated airport that welcomes visitors to the ancient temple complexes.

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Marigold: Solo in Bangkok

Marigold: Solo in Bangkok
Marigold: Solo in Bangkok

After the dearth of English-speaking churches on Japan’s remote southern islands, I determined to steer my Indochina circuit around Sunday services. Thus I dedicated the weekend after my Thailand tour to Christ Church Bangkok: a lofty Anglican establishment with a promising website. Once the 7:30am “traditional service” concluded, I would venture forth to sample more of the city’s attractions.

As soon as I parted from my guide in Kho Pha-Ngan, though, the logistics tangled. My cushy airport bus broke down on the highway, relegating us to a dusty half hour under an overpass before a van pulled up. I landed uneventfully in the capital, but then the route from the airport to my hotel cowed me with a labyrinth of transfers. I resorted to taxis – turned down a VIP service asking triple the going rate, passed on an opportunistic haggler just outside the official taxi stand, and at last entrusted myself to a driver with a meter and receipt book.

He deposited me on my hotel doorstep, where I discovered that the fare exceeded my supply of cash.

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Frangipangi: Koh Pha-Ngan Beaches

Frangipangi: Koh Pha-Ngan Beaches
Frangipangi: Koh Pha-Ngan Beaches

For the last half of our Thailand tour, we sank into the sand and sun of an outlying island: Pha-Ngan, where coconuts swayed overhead and the waves lapped the back doorstep of our beach houses.

The tour had arranged a relaxed collection of activities for us: massages on the beach, free afternoons, lazy mornings. Alive to the possibilities of a tropical retreat dedicated almost solely to tourism, I decided to charge the itinerary with a few optional excursions.

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Lotus: Khao Sok National Park

Lotus: Khao Sok National Park

We stumbled off the sleeper train and collapsed gratefully into mini-vans for the trek south to Surat Thani, where we would overnight in a sprawling nature reserve. “Just imagine Jurassic Park,” as our guide introduced us to the lush waters awaiting. A narrow-nosed craft sped us to our accommodation: floating bungalows!

We whiled away the afternoon kayaking, dipping in the bathtub-warm water, and sallying forth in vain hopes of spotting wild elephants. I hummed “Just Around the Riverbend” as I paddled a circuit around the aquatic hotel, awash with wonder at this magnificent world.

Orchid: Thailand Tour Begins

Orchid: Thailand Tour Begins
Orchid: Thailand Tour Begins

“What are the flowers for?”

“An offering to Buddha.”

Thus commenced the first activity of my adventure tour from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, a nine-day package aimed at twenty-somethings abroad in Asia for the first time. I had booked it partly from curiosity, partly to benefit from professional guidance in the wilds beyond Japan. The prospect of a restful trip had allured me, spiced with excursions I might have chosen for myself, without any of the logistical effort.

I hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic welcome to the religion of Thailand.

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Out about: Universal Studios and Hiroshima

Out about: Universal Studios and Hiroshima
Out about: Universal Studios and Hiroshima

Japan’s Disney parks (Land and Sea) had delighted me so much, I determined to visit Universal Studios before returning west for good. My hosts outdid themselves in arranging transportation and tickets for me – recommending a convenient bus route over the expensive, multi-transfer train; carving through the brambles of Japanese websites. I could have kissed them for gratitude.

On Wednesday morning, the younger sister and I embarked at 6am for three hours via the highway, eager for dinosaurs and wizards and “jet coasters,” as it’s said in Japanese. The mountains of Okayama fell away, then up sprang Osaka’s skyscrapers, as we rolled right to the theme park’s front gates.

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Four corners: Shikoku Garden

Four corners: Shikoku Garden
Four corners: Shikoku Garden

Of the foremost quartet of islands that make up Japan, I have visited three: Hanshu (Tokyo and Kyoto), Kyushu (Kagoshima and Fukuoka), and Hokkaido (snow festival!). Yesterday I tripped across the bay to Shikoku, the daintiest of the four.

The ocean liner train sailed over a mammoth suspension bridge, opening up vistas of intricate coastline and miniature islets. Just an hour’s journey landed me in Takamatsu, home of the Ritsurin Kouen – one of Japan’s loveliest and most historic gardens.

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Rolling hills: Okayama Family

Rolling hills: Okayama Family
Rolling hills: Okayama Family

A friend put me in touch with his friend here, whom he has only met remotely — and at last, after failing to synch up during my Kyoto trip in 2019, we arranged to meet.

She and her family rolled out the red carpet (and the sushi!) for me, gently folding me into their loving, erudite, serene domestic circle. A clan of academics, the mother met the father in graduate school as a visiting student from Taiwan. He still researches plant molecular biology. Now their elder daughter investigates Scottish missionaries in Asia, while the younger sculpts heteromorphic dogs as a professional ceramicist.

This weekend, they treated me to a cozy futon, Japanese cooking, and a tour of their hometown.

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