Day Trip from Osaka, to Nara-shi

The travel itinerary I planned for myself included 4 nights and 3 full days in the city of Osaka, and the surrounding Kansai-area, the purchase of the Japan Rail’s “ICOCA & HARUKA” pass along with the 3 day Kansai Area rail pass – would allow me to venture outside of Osaka and Kyoto to other cities in the region, including my 3 planned stops: Himeji, Kobe, and Nara- as well as transportation from Kansai International Airport (KIX) to Kyoto to Osaka and return to the airport on the last day. The total price for all my transportation needs (trains, subways, and buses) was 4,060Yen for the ICOCA & HARUKA pass and 5,300Yen for the 3 day Kansai Area Rail pass for a 6 night, 7 day trip.

Whenever I travel around Asia, I am always fascinated with each city, each country’s historical and cultural heritages. While researching for a potential trip to Osaka, I stumbled upon this small city of Nara, which was once the capital city of Japan from 710AD – 794AD and still had many of its temples, shrines and ruins remaining or rebuilt in the case of Tōdai-ji. I knew I had to visit here to experience it myself and thus, was placed in one of the day trips I could take from Osaka. The train ride from Osaka Station was about 55 minutes and 35 minutes from Tennoji Station. I was met at Nara train station around 11am by my local guide who had experience guiding foreigners around the city’s main sights.

Just outside of Kōfuku-ji is this tranquil pond.
Just outside of Kōfuku-ji is this tranquil pond which I enjoyed its simplicity.

We set off on foot for a 10 minute walk to reach the first sight, Kōfuku-ji. Kōfuku-ji is a Buddhist temple that was once was one of the powerful Seven Great Temples in Japan and today is one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Another thing if you haven’t noticed is that I try to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage sites as possible when visiting the respective countries. When we arrived, I began spotting some deers just randomly walking, unaware of its importance in the city, which later I found out once we were wandering around Nara Park and near Tōdai-ji.

NaraKofuku

One of the main monuments in Kōfuku-ji is Gojū-no-tō- the five-story pagoda seen in the photo on the left and another monument is the Tōkondō seen on the right photo. Through its history, the temple had been burned down several times and rebuilt as a result. Inside the Tōkondō is a golden Buddha and an important cultural property, the Yakushi Nyorai.

From Kōfuku-ji, we started making our way towards Tōdai-ji, the Buddhist temple complex that was once was also one of the powerful Seven Great Temples in Japan and today is one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  But on the way there, we walked through Nara Park where I was overtaken by numerous numbers of deers everywhere. I made the decision to also buy some of the crackers they were selling to feed the deers, but that wasn’t the best idea as I was swarmed and stalked by deers right and left.

NaraTodaijiGates

Turns out in the city of Nara, deers are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roam the grounds and city freely- with my guide saying, the deer is more important than other humans, in comparison of a deer or a human being hit by a car. On the way to the main complex temple of Tōdai-ji, are two beautiful gates, the first being seen on the feature image at the top, Nandaimon, the Great Southern Gate, and the second being the gate in the image above. The lush green field was maybe some of the greenest lawns I have seen and there were many other tourists and students on field trips.

NaraTodaiji

The Great Buddha Hall (daibutsuden) building in the Tōdai-ji complex is perhaps the largest Buddhist temple I have ever seen as it does house the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world, called Vairocana, known in Japanese simply as Daibutsu (大仏).  The Buddha statue is 14.98 meters tall and weighs 500 tonnes. The latest reconstruction was done in 1709.

NaraTodaijiBuddha

Along with the large Buddha statues, a supporting post in the Daibutsuden has a hole said to be the same size as one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils. Legend has it that those who pass through it will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life. There happened to be a French couple who both successfully crawled through the tight gap.

After this was lunch and I was looking forward to try some traditional home-style Japanese food. We stopped by this small cafe/restaurant in Nara called Nico Style Cafe, tucked in one of the quiet streets lined with other small shops and buildings. The main choice in dishes was the chicken or fish or both options. I obviously had to choose both options which can be seen in the two small bowls on the right side. Served with side dishes of radishes, pickles, pumpkin, krill, and miso soup. The tastes from everything complimented my palette and was finished with a pomegranate (sakura) juice. Delicious!

NaraRestaurant

By the time we finished lunch, the sun continued intensifying as I made my way back to Nara Station to catch a train back towards Osaka Station where I would explore around the Umeda area near Osaka Station

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Sightseeing Japan’s White Fortress, Hakuro-jō in Himeji

As part of my holiday to Osaka for a week, I wanted to not only focus on only Osaka but instead the other surrounding cities in the Kansai area like Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Himeji. But why did I choose to include a stop in Himeji as well? What is so special or eye-catching that I should devote half a day and travel 1hr and 3mins by “special rapid train service” from Osaka Station. It was simple, perhaps the grandest white fortress of them all, the Hakuro-jō castle, the symbol of Japanese samurai and castle architecture from the past centuries. I remember seeing this in the movie Samurai and was amazed by its elegance, perched high up in contrast to the rest of the city. It even dates back to the year 1333 and is still well preserved to this date, with the latest restorations completed end of March 2015.

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It didn’t take long for me to catch a first glimpse of the white castle. Once I stepped outside of train station and following the large avenue that leads to the UNESCO World Heritage site. I quickly snapped a photo, albeit from a far distance and quickly sent it to my sister to signal my arrival to another special spot in Japanese history and its imperialist identity. It was maybe a short 15 minute walk or so from Himeji JR West station to the main gate of the site where a moat sits and two guards dressed in the old traditional guards’ uniforms were standing on guard.

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The day I was there in mid June was one of the hottest days and there were periodic announcements on the P.A system to remind guests to continue consuming lots of water and that there would be limits placed on the number of visitors allowed at the top of the castle- the keep. Getting up to the top of the Keep took maybe around an hour total, waiting in a relatively hot building as tourists and locals took turns going up each level of the keep until reaching the top, and again waiting to go back down. Remember shoes are not allowed to be worn inside the structure, and you will be given a plastic bag to carry your shoes in by staff.

HimejiKeepHero

The view from the top of the keep on the 6th level was quite nice, allowing a near panoramic view of the city below and parts of the castle complex as well. I really like the roofing tiling pastures and the use of dragons and birds perched on top on some of the roofing.

HimejiHero

After completing looking around the Himeji Castle complex, it was well worth the 1,000Yen admission cost and I explored further around the area which included a touristy area of souvenir shops and food shops as well. I decided to try a unagi rice burger which was 550Yen, and it did not turn out well. I didn’t enjoy it at all despite my love for unagi (grilled eel). I was considering to also visit the Koko-en Garden beside the Himeji Castle, but didn’t think it was worth its admission price (300Yen) and autumn season being the best time to view the fall foliage. Next stop on the way back to Osaka: Kobe (pronounced Ko-bay).

Seoul Palaces- Deoksu Palace

The Deoksu Palace served as the King’s residence through the past history of Korea from the 1500’s to the early 1900’s. The compound of the palace was some 3 times larger than it is today, encompassing the whole area around the present City Hall, Seoul Plaza and Jeong-dong area. Today, Deoksu Palace have revitalized several of the historic structure and nearby areas for locals and tourists to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of a palace within an urban city.

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The admission like the other palaces is really affordable and cheap 1000KRW which is less than $1 USD/CAD and is opened 09:00 – 21:00 and closed every Monday. There are also a number of tours conducted in different languages throughout the day and the palace is easily accessible by bus or the subway at City Hall Station (Line 1- exit 2, or Line 2- exit 12) across directly from Seoul City Hall.

DeoksugungHero1

Located within the complex are the many buildings like Daehamun, Junghwamun, Junghwa-jeon, Hamyeong-jeon, and Deokhong-jeon to name a few. More recently, there is a more of a western modern architecture at the Seokjo-jeon and the west wing on Seokjo-jeon; which was under revitalization when I first visited in 2012 but have since been revitalized now in 2015 and is used as a Art Museum. The columns resemble those found in Athens and displays modern luxury. Additionally, near the entrance is a garden featuring lush green foliage, trees, and sitting areas to relax and to enjoy the scenery.

DeoksugungHero3

By the time we finished exploring the palace complex it was time for the change of guard, similar to what they have at the other palaces in the city as well as other Asian cities I have visited. Like I’ve said, it’s always great just to witness such events and take in as much (Korean) culture while traveling, and I am truly amazed at the way in Korea preserves its long lasting history and culture through this day and beyond. Lastly, at the entrance, similar to Gwanghwamun Square, tourists and locals are welcomed to try on traditional hanbok clothing similar to those of emperors and kings of the past era which I didn’t pass up the chance to.

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Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia in 7 Days

It was a cold winter in Seoul, Korea this year and I had a little bit of time on my hand during the month of February 2015. I was really itching to travel somewhere, somewhere warmer than here. I also had some Aeroplan miles sitting around just waiting to be redeemed by me. I was at first planning to use them to redeem a one way flight to or from Seoul back to Canada. However, the difference between a round-trip reward flight within Aeroplan’s Asia 1 zone: (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam.) in Business and Economy class is only 10,000 miles- a 50% surcharge compared to the 200% increase for other routes. So it was a very good value for my miles. All this planning and booking process was done 48hrs before (like looking for accommodations and flight options), with the flight booked 36hrs in advance.

Asiana
Business class on OZ Asiana morning flight on Airbus 330-300

My Flights: Being based in Seoul, I had the option between two airports. Seoul Gimpo International Airport (GMP) and Incheon International Airport (ICN). Figuring my destination with the award booking was simple for Asia 1- Singapore!! Why Singapore? Well it’s the farthest destination and the opportunity to fly one of the world’s best airlines Singapore Airlines in business class was unbeatable. It’s strange, the flight award chart for Aeroplan, with Malaysia being Asia 2 and Singapore being Asia 1 despite Malaysia being closer to the rest and only a 45 minute flight separating the two. Maybe it is because SQ is part of the Star Alliance, what a bonus!

Aboard SQ Singapore Airlnes Business Class
Business Class on SQ Singapore Airlnes early evening flight on Boeing 777-300

The Incheon departures only had direct flights on either Asiana or Singapore Airlines and some connections in either Hong Kong or Bangkok or Beijing with other Star Alliance airlines. But when I searched up departures from Gimpo, I was given some very interesting routes, all 1 or 2 stops, mainly because Gimpo is used primarily for domestic with some international flights to nearby Asia cities in (China and Japan). Also, with Gimpo being closer to my home, the choice was simple to make in the end.

AirChina
Business Class on CA Air China evening flight on Boeing 737-800

My final reward booking included stopovers in both Tokyo, Japan and Beijing China and is as followed:
Depart: Wed Feb 11- GMP to HND to SIN [08:40-10:45] on OZ and [22:55-05:20+1] on SQ = 12 hour layover in Tokyo 🙂
Return: Tues Feb 17- SIN to PEK to GMP [16:55-23:00] on SQ and [18:50+1-21:45+1] on CA = 20 hour layover in Beijing too!
Total cost: 30,000 Aeroplan miles and $99.20 CAD

From L to R: Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Beijing
From Left to Right- Memorable sights from Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Beijing

At this point, it was one day in Tokyo, one day in Beijing, and six days in Singapore. Six days in Singapore seems too long for such a small city, and me wanting to visit another country I have yet to visit, it was either Indonesia or Malaysia or both. To minimize my costs, I used Air Asia- one of Asia’s low cost budget Air Carriers. Turns out, Malaysia was the cheapest since Kuala Lumpur is one of the hubs for Air Asia, so KL check, but still, there isn’t enough to see or do for that many days. My next decision was to decide another destination in Malaysia, narrowing it down to Penang and Langkawi. After researching for accommodations in both of those cities, I decided on Penang as it had the UNESCO Heritage site of the ancient city of Georgetown; whereas Langkawi is more of a natural beach resort.

AirAsia
Low Cost Carrier Economy Seat on AK Air Asia afternoon flight on Airbus 320-200

My final Air Asia booking that included Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia is as followed:
First Flight: Thurs Feb 12- SIN to KUL [08:45-10:00] on AK
Second Flight: Fri Feb 13- KUL to PEN [14:55-15:50] on AK
Third Flight: Sun Feb 15- PEN to SIN [11:55-13:20] on AK
Total cost:  $117.98 CAD


 
My Accommodations:
To be continued…

Seoul Palaces- Gyeongbok Palace

Gyeongbokgung, also known as ‘Gyeongbokgung Palace’ or ‘Gyeongbok Palace’, is a royal palace located in northern Seoul, South Korea. First constructed in 1394 and reconstructed in 1867, it was the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty.  The name of the palace, Gyeongbokgung, translates in English as “Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven.” The nearest subway station is Gyeongbokgung Station (Station #327 on Line 3) and the palace is also easily accessible by bus or on foot near Gwanghwamun Square.

Gyeongbokgung1

Upon arrival at the Gyeongbokgung Station you will see a wide array of historical Korean/Chinese prescripts as you exit the station and walk towards the palace, you are greeted by the Heungnyemun Gate and the National Palace Museum of Korea.  The Gwanghwamun Gate from the Joseon Dynasty is an iconic feature of Seoul and is at the northern tip of Gwanghwamun Square in the Sejong Belt area. It has gone through numerous reconstructions and restorations in its history, most recently in 2010.

GyeongbokgungExt

On my second visit to Gyeongbokgung, there was a music and dance ceremony performance on the weekend. I had two friends bring me to experience some first-hand Korean culture. Not surprising, the place was filled with people eager for the chance to experience the local culture of dance and music as replicated from the historical past of the country.

GyeongbokgungMusical

Personally, I thought the Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul was one of the most beautiful palaces I have been to. Inside its fortress walls lies a garden of tranquility that is nestled peacefully with the surroundings of hanok-styled buildings once occupied by the emperors, their family, and ofcourse the workers as well.  More on this in the future as I finally got to set foot inside the palace during the night-time visit and I was truly amazed by its beauty even more so.

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Quickly Across Southern South Korea

Quickly? As in one day for each city. Well not even one whole day valued at 24hours. Well that’s what happens when one of my closest friends came to visit me from Toronto on her way back home from the Philippines. She had a total of 5 full days in Korea and she wasn’t going to be satisfied with only spending all those days in Seoul alone. Jeju Island was a must stop, another added bonus was the Jinhae Cherry Blossoms Festival happening on the same week, and that resulted in an additional stop to the second largest city in Korea, Busan, as the stopping point between the two cities and Seoul. Despite it being in early April, the weather wasn’t all too great to be happy with. It was cold (about 10 – 13 degrees celcius) and windy at times and rainfall as well. The total time we saw the sun was maybe one hour max for the 3 days there. Needless to say, I will be visiting Jeju and Busan again once warmer and sunnier weather comes.

Transportation: We booked the flights during my visit back to Toronto, about 10 days in advance, and by that time, the saver deal flights were all sold out. After going through numerous airlines in Korea, especially the low cost carriers (Jin Air, Jeju Air, Air Busan) we decided to go with Jeju Air for our flights. We booked two one-way flights, Seoul Gimpo (GMP) to Jeju (CJU) and then Jeju (CJU) to Busan (PUS), each one about 1 hour in duration but both were delayed slightly. Returning home to Seoul, we choose the KTX option from Busan Station to Seoul Station in under 3 hours). We also got to rent a car in Jeju Island for the 24 hours there. Additionally, to reach Jinhae from Busan and back, we took the airport limo bus from Busan Airport to Jinhae and back to Busan Bus Terminal.

Flight: Jeju Air 09:40 – 10:55; GMP to CJU; 71,800KRW
Flight: Jeju Air 10:40 – 11:35; CJU to PUS; 25,700KRW
Express Bus: Busan Airport to Jinhae; 8,700KRW
Express Bus: Jinhae to Busan Express Bus Terminal; 5,100KRW
KTX: Busan to Seoul 16:00 – 18:40; 58,800KRW
Car Rental: AJ Rentacar; 23,500KRW for a Chevrolet Cruze (sub-compact)

Total Transportation Cost: 181,850KRW per person.

www.jejuair.net / www.ajrentacar.co.kr / www.letskorail.com

Accommodations: For this two night trip, with one night spent in Jeju and the other in Busan, we had to find sufficient and affordable place to stay. For Jeju, we used Booking.com since there were no international chains (SPG, IHG, Accor, etc) on Jeju island which I could get a discount with, mostly just Korean hotels or guesthouses. We decided on EJ Hotel in Jeju city, about 15 minutes drive from the airport with free on-site parking as well. There were also numerous restaurants around the hotel within 5 to 10 minutes walk. The only downside was the difficulty in looking for hotel whether by car or on foot.
EJHotel1 night stay in standard 1 double bed room: 70,000KRW

For Busan, I already had a budget hotel in mind and luckily the price for that hotel fit our budget well. It was the Ibis Budget Ambassador Busan Haeundae hotel. It was about 10minutes walk from the Haeundae Line 2 Subway station and about 3 minutes walk to the bus stop. We had the 2 single bed oceanview room and was satisfied with the quality of sleep, and the wifi/television options as well. The hotel seemed really new and clean upon entering it and the staff were friendly during check in. Couldn’t have asked for anything more, but it did lack food options in the evening. I guess the hotel restaurant was opened only for breakfast.
ibisbusan1
1 night stay in ocean-view 2 single beds room: 63,500KRW

Total Accommodations cost: 133,500KRW

Exploring Around Taipei City in 4 days

I was very fortunate to be able to book a four day, 3 night vacation to visit Taiwan.  Although it was my second time visiting the country, I was still excited to see it as a solo traveler instead of with a tour group.  I had about two months to plan this vacation so we were able to follow my usual trip planning procedures using Google Docs with my travel partner researching up the sites we wished to pay a visit.  We had some specific sites we wished to experience and visit: See as much of Taipei as possible, experience the Pinxi Sky Lantern Festival with a day trip along the Pinxi Line, Visit both Jinguashi and Jiufen, and lastly to enjoy hot springs in Yangmingshan Park.  I am happy to share this 4 day trip report with you and maybe will focus on some of the aspects of this trip in separate post in the future.

Our Flights:   Armed with Delta Skymiles and the new changes made January 1, 2015 regarding one-way tickets being bookable with the airline and its partners, it was great news for us.  Luckily, I had access to both of my mom’s and grandma’s Skymiles accounts with enough miles to book 1 one-way each for 17,500 miles + $12.39 tax aboard Korean Airlines  (I know it was not that great of a deal, but there’s nothing much I would have used the 18,500 miles on the account). Additionally, I also decided to use some of my Avios miles that I transferred from my American Express Gold Rewards card – 25,000 miles after $500 spend in the first 3 months; at a 1:1 transfer, I was able to secure a pair of business class tickets to Taipei Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) from Incheon International Airport (ICN) with Cathay Pacific on the outbound for 8,000 miles + $145.68 each.

CXlounge

Departing on a Business Class ticket with Cathay Pacific from ICN, we were able to access the Cathay Pacific Lounge. Although quite small and with limited options in food and drinks, it was a great way to relax a little before the flight.  There was some dim sum choices available, cup ramyun, fruits, yogurt etc for the morning. There were also some Apple computers to use but I felt the wifi in the lounge was a bit slow; especially in Korean speed standards.  Aboard the plane, we were both pretty full from the lounge food, but still opted for meal service.

flightmeal

The breakfast menu is as followed: To start: Juice selection, Fresh season fruit, Fruit Yogurt; Followed by: Baked cheese souffle with chicken sausage, streaky bacon, potato, mushroom and broccoli OR Stir-fried noodles with barbecued pork and mixed vegetables. We both chose the barbecued pork option with a Hong Kong style milk tea.  The seats were not the greatest, albeit it was their 772 regional plane, it offered near flat seats and the entertainment screen was smaller than both Asiana and Singapore Airlines Regional Business Class products.  Returning on a Economy Class ticket, we were lucky to have the third seat in our row empty and combined with the generous leg room in economy class aboard Korean Airlines, the flight was just as enjoyable and spacious. Another positive was the meal served, a choice of beef or spicy chicken, rice and bok choy, with salad, fruit cup, and bread.  They did run out of the beef option but I was satisfied with the chicken option and an extra fruit cup thanks to complaining to the cabin crew.

Depart: CX421 09:20-11:05; ICN to TPE; Business 16,000 Avios Miles + $291.36CAD

Return: KE694 19:15-22:45; TPE to ICN; Economy 35,000 Delta Miles + $24.78CAD

Total Cash: $316.14 for two passengers.

Our Hotel:  As I was responsible for the flights, it was my travel partner’s responsibility to find suitable accommodations in an accessible location close to MTR station and preferably by Taipei Main Station as well.  We decided on a quaint boutique hotel smack in the middle of Ximending District in Taipei, just one MTR stop away from Taipei Main Station, and where a lot of youth shopping and street food runs rampant.

ViaHotel

The hotel: VIA Hotel: Ximending– you can read my Tripadvisor review here.  We decided to choose this hotel based on its accessible location in Ximen Station (under 5 minutes walk away) and the nice pictures shown on the Booking.com website which showed a bath tub in the bathroom- the deluxe double room.  The bed was extremely comfy and both the bathroom and the room itself felt spacious enough for two people.  Our only concerns was being on the 2nd floor (same floor as reception) it can be loud outside the room in the morning and evening.

Total Costs for 3 nights: 9,368 TWD including service charge and taxes.

Day 1:

Taoyuan International Airport – Ximending Hotel (VIA Hotel) – Dim Sum at Golden Lion Restaurant 金獅大酒樓(金獅樓) – National Palace Museum 国立故宫博物院 – Shillin Night Market 士林夜市 – Longshan Temple 龍山寺 – Shaved Ice/Bingsu at Three Brother and Sister 三兄媒

AroundXimendingAround Ximen District

Golden Lion Restaurant (金獅大酒樓)
TaipeiDimsumAfter checking in to the VIA Hotel in the Ximending, I had researched ahead of time for a dim sum place close by and found this place: Golden Lion Restaurant. It was on the 9th floor inside a small mall building selling cell phones and other electronic accessories. We ordered 3 dishes as the time was near 3pm and we just wanted something in our stomach. We were not served any beverage (water or tea) but when we went to pay for the bill, they tried charging us for tea, which we complained and it was voided. The dim sum taste was above average, obviously not as good as those found in Hong Kong or even back home in Toronto, but it was still better than those in Korea. It is quite difficult to find the restaurant and the staff only speak Chinese Mandarin and there is an automatic 10% service charge.

Find it here:
金獅大酒樓
地址:台北市萬華區西寧南路36號10樓
電話:(02)2312-2675
營業時間:上午九點半至晚上九點半

National Palace Museum (国立故宫博物院)

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This was the second time I visited the National Palace Museum, albeit the first time it was only for a photo session in the exterior of the museum. Whereas this time, I was able to explore around the museum for around 2 hours and was generally impressed with the layout, exhibits, and the amount of artifacts on display. I was most intrigued with all the jade displays, especially the jadeite cabbage and the Buddhas. The museum also features numerous Chinese artifacts which I have seen similar ones from my time in Beijing. General admission is 250NTD, or 150NTD if you have an ISIC card for students.

Find it here:
Take the MRT Tamsui-Xinyi Line to the Shilin Station and take bus R30 (Red 30 – Low-floor bus) to the National Palace Museum. Other routes that will take you to and near the Museum plaza are buses 255, 304, 815 (Sanchung – NPM Line), Minibus 18 and Minibus 19.

Shilin Night Market (士林夜市)

ShillinAll1

The next stop after visiting the National Palace Museum until it was closing was to visit one of the well-known night markets that Taiwan offers: Shilin Night Market. The Shilin Night Market offers not only a variety of food options, but also some shopping and some carnival style games as well. But as this was around dinner time, the focus was on the street food. The night market is very easy to access from the Taipei Metro system at either Shilin Station or Jiantan Station, with the latter being closer.

My favourite choice of food was the flaming beef, particularly since it is rare to eat beef while in Korea. We also had some fried chicken, steamed stuffed buns, stinky tofu, fried milk, grilled mushrooms.

Find it here:
Take the MRT to Jiantan Station on the Tamsui-Xinyi Line 2 (Red Line).

Longshan Temple (龍山寺)
LongshanTempleOne of the sites we wanted to visit during our stay in Taipei was the Longshan Temple, which means Dragon Mountain Temple, and is a Buddhist temple but in recent years, it has some influence from Taoism as well. I really like the design and highly detailed of it, especially the dragons found around roofs of the buildings. Although it was raining at night during our visit, we had arrived 30 minutes before the closing time of 10pm and were fortunate to still be able to take some photography of it.

Find it here:
Take the MRT to Longshan Temple Station on Bannan Line 5 (Blue Line)

Three Brother and Sister (三兄媒)
TaipeiBingsuAnother thing on our list of things to eat was Bingsoo! Yes, there is bingsoo here in Korea, but we wanted to try the Taiwanese version of it, especially with mangos. We had found 3 franchises/stores that were well known including: Ice Monster, Smoothie House, and Three Brother and Sister. Staying in Ximending, we found the Three Brother and Sister location quite close to our hotel and tried two bingsoos, one mango with mango ice cream; and the other a mix of mango and strawberries. Both were fantastic and really delicious, albeit on the small size compared to Korea, but definitely much cheaper too.

Find it here:
Close to MTR Ximending exit 6 No 23, Hanzhong Street, Taipei City 台北市汉中街23号

Day 2:

Pinxi Line – Houtong Cat Village 侯硐 – Pinxi 平溪 – Shifen 十分 (Pinxi Sky Lantern Festival)

On the second day, our main mission was to visit the Pinxi line to see the Pinxi Sky Lantern Festival. After grabbing some street food from some stalls outside the hotel in Ximending, we begun our day starting from Taipei Main Station and taking a train to Ruifang Station (about 40 – 50 minutes) to transfer to the Pinxi line.  As expected, once we arrived at Ruifang station, that was where everyone disembarked to transfer to the Pinxi line. The Pinxi line is a single railway line, with only the stations splitting into two tracks. The line itself goes from Ruifang Station to Jingtong Station with frequency of one train per hour.

Houtong Cat Village (侯硐)

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The first stop on the Pinxi line from Ruifang Station was Houtong Station, also known as “Cat Village.” I am not much of a cat person myself, but thought the idea of seeing this would be interesting.  We had about 45 minutes to explore around it, snapping photos of the cute cat-themed shops, cats, and the natural scenery around. I got some cat shaped pineapple cake, which was just as delicious- they also offered blueberry and cranberry flavours too.

Find it Here:
From Taipei Main Station, take a northbound train (except Keelung-bound trains) towards Ruifang Station. Transfer to the Pingxi Line (平溪線) and alight at Houtong Station.

Pinxi 平溪 – Shifen 十分 (Pinxi Sky Lantern Festival)

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The next stop was Shifen Station on the Pinxi Line for the Sky Lantern Festival, one of the main reasons Taiwan was the choice for this holiday vacation. I had seen photographs of the lantern festival that takes place every year around February and March that shows hundreds of lanterns being launched into the dark night sky all at once, and thought sure, this should be on my bucket list of things to see around the world.

As per usual, the area around the station was packed with other tourists and locals all there for the same festival.  There were numerous shops, and stands with souvenir items, food items, and selling these huge sky lanterns where you can write your dreams based on love, fortune, health, and happiness, or anything else you would like to wish for. After exploring around a bit, we made our way to Pinxi station, thinking that’s where the Sky Lantern Festival would be take place, but once we arrived, it was near empty, so after a quick walk around the old streets of Pinxi, we boarded the train back to Shifen and to the action with a stage and larger crowds about a 15 minute walk from Shifen Station.

Find it Here:
From Taipei Main Station, take a northbound train (except Keelung-bound trains) towards Ruifang Station. Transfer to the Pingxi Line (平溪線) and alight at Shifen or Pinxi Station

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To see a quick 15 second video of the launching of hundreds of sky lanterns, click here: www.instagram.com/kevinyeungca/

Day 3:

The Red House 西門紅樓 – Lunch at Lin Tung Beef Noodles 林東芳牛肉麵 – Jinguashi 金瓜石 – Jiufen 九份 – Taipei Main Station 台北火車站

The Red House (西門紅樓)
RedHouseWe had seen this building everytime we were exiting or entering Ximen Station and it was on our list of places to see, so we stopped by for a bit to check the interior of Taiwan’s first opera theater. Opera as in Chinese soap opera musicals in traditional Chinese clothing. They had some information and displays inside the building and we were able to pick up some post cards from their gift shop.

Find it Here:
At Ximen Station Bannan Line 5 (Blue Line) Exit 1 or 6

Lin Tung Beef Noodles (林東芳牛肉麵)
TaipeiBeefNoodlesNext up was lunch before going to Jinguashi and Jiufen for our day trip. We found somewhere close to Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT Station and this was for one of Taiwan’s specialty cuisine, the beef noodles. I’ve had it before at the lounge in Beijing International Airport but this tasted much better. A bowl of noodles was very satisfying and filling. Additionally, there are many side dishes available, similar to that in Korea, however, these were not complimentary, but was about 30 TWD (about $1).

Find it Here:
Take the MTR to Zhongxiao Fuxing Station (Blue/Brown line), walk along Fuxing S. Road until you reach Bade Road, make a left there and the shop will be on your left after a couple of small streets

Jinguashi (金瓜石)
JinguashiThere wasn’t much to do at Jinguashi but she wanted to stop by here to check out the Gold museum located there. Unfortunately, once we alighted from the bus, it was pouring rain like a huge downpour. We had to purchase ponchos from a shop there and set about exploring the area with some sites such as old Taiwan house model, as well as the Gold Mining Museum where the world’s largest piece of gold is displayed. There’s a saying if you could lift it, you could take it home.

Find it Here:
Bus 1062 departs regularly for Jiufen and Jinguashi from Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT exit 1. Alternatively, take the train to Ruifang, then a bus just in front of the train station. Passengers might clear out at Jiufen, but all buses do continue up the mountain to Jinguashi.

Jiufen (九份)

Jiufen1

The main place for our day trip outside of Taipei was to visit the “Red Lantern” city- Jiufen, made famous by anime movie Spirited away. Once there, the alley ways seemed very familiar and it was then I realized I had already been here on my last visit to Taiwan (with a group tour) but that was during the day time. Once the sun had set, the lanterns were on beautifully. Unfortunately the rain had still not stopped yet and we were exploring the different shops and food stalls with umbrella in hand. After this time, I will remember Jiufen as the place we saw hundreds of people all carrying umbrellas through narrow alleyways and stairwells, albeit most of them were tourists too, mostly from Japan. While there, I tried some soup dumplings and a red bean porridge as well.

Day 4:

Hot Spring Chuan Tang 川湯 in Yangmingshan National Park 陽明山國家公園 – 8 Ways Dumplings near Taipei Main Station (八方雲集) – Taoyuan International Airport

Hot Spring Chuan Tang (川湯) in Yangmingshan National Park (陽明山國家公園)

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This hot spring place was in a secluded place inside Yangminshan National Park, but what a gem. The location was very beautiful with some cherry blossoms still blooming, Koi ponds, and the design of the buildings etc were all done tastefully. We had to purchase a food ticket for 800TWD which included the use of the hot springs for 45 minutes, and with that ticket we had to spend it on food and drinks from their restaurant and bar. We opted for a fried rice dish, and a hot plate of beef sirloin. I opted for a mango slush and she had a salmon sake hand roll to go with the meal. The hot spring itself was not as nice as their displayed photos, but was still relaxing especially after a rain-filled trip to Taiwan.

Hotspring2

Find it Here:
Take the subway to MTR Shipai (石牌) station exit1 -> Bus No.508, 535, 536 -> Get off at this stop (XING YI LU SAN 行義路三)

8 Ways Dumplings (Ba Fang Yun) near Taipei Main Station (八方雲集)
TaipeiDumplingsAnother can’t miss item is the dumplings, “xiao long baos”, most famously from Din Tai Fung, however, we were never near one so we had to settle for another place closeby to Taipei Main Station before catching the airport bus back to the airport. This place was really cheap, like $2 a dish with many choices of dumplings (steamed, fried, meat, veggie, etc). She smartly purchased some frozen ones to bring back home to Korea.

Find it Here:
八方雲集鍋貼水餃專賣店- No. 39號, Huaining St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City- About a 5-10 minute walk from Taipei Main Station

*Some of the photos in this blog taken by: @lovelynavi