Tokyo, Japan: Worth Breaking My Travel Rule

Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Traditional Japanese dress exhibit in Edo-Tokyo Museum

It’s been about 8 years since my last visit to Japan.  I normally don’t like visiting the same place twice – it’s actually a travel rule of mine.  Why go to the same place, when there are so many places left in the world to discover?

Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan

Jason walking down one of Tokyo’s typical streets at night – aglow with neon signs from every angle.

But once we arrived in Japan, I was definitely happy that I broke that rule.  Besides, there were good reasons: 1) Jason had never been to Japan  2) Technically, I’m not visiting the same place twice.  I visited Nagoya and Kyoto in 2005 – this time we’ll be in Tokyo.  3) Japan is pretty awesome.

Some small examples of Japan’s awesomeness:

Efficiency

Soap, faucet, dryer - all in one (Tokyo, Japan)

Soap, faucet, dryer – all in one!

The Japanese know how to get things done – and done well.  Even small things like this public bathroom sink.  Soap dispenser on the left side, water faucet in the middle, and hand dryer on the right.  Just think of all the wasted steps we take from the sink to the hand dryer in Canada!

Ordering soba noodles (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

A soba noodle restaurant that allows you to order via a vending machine out front.

There are so many restaurants in Tokyo where you order through a vending machine up front, hand your order tickets to the chef, and voila! a quick and delicious bowl of noodles.  Right there, you’ve eliminated the need for a server and a cashier.  The cook doesn’t need to handle the money, so he can concentrate on quickly dishing out your lunch.  Genius!

Transportation

Tokyo's metro system (Tokyo, Japan)

One of Tokyo’s metro stations – safety gates and signs indicating when a train is arriving.

Safe, clean, fast, and expansive.  Tokyo’s metro system will get you almost anywhere, in no time flat, without any hassle.  Safety barriers at most stations will make sure you arrive in one piece.  It’s a little on the pricey side (minimum fare is about $1.70/ride compared to Seoul’s $0.90/ride but still nowhere near Toronto’s extortionate $3/ride) but you definitely get what you pay for (unlike the TTC in Toronto).

Courtesy

Even if YOU bumped into someone else on the subway, they will most likely bow and apologize.  And I thought Canadians overused “I’m sorry”.  Joking aside, it was a refreshing change to be around polite and courteous people after 3 months of being pushed out of the way in South America.

Snacks

Chip aisle in 7-11 store (Tokyo, Japan)

Chip aisle in a 7-11 store

Japan is the world leader of snacks.  The variety and volume is astounding.  I personally cannot get enough of chips and I can spend 10 minutes standing in front of the chip aisle just trying to select something new to try – wasabi-flavoured chips, seaweed puffs, ramen-flavoured crisps, shrimp crackers.  The world is my oyster. Oh! Oyster-flavoured chips are pretty delish too.

Details

Hair ties supplied with your ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

The perfect accompaniment to any ramen meal

I’ve been to my fair share of ramen noodle houses in Toronto.  And some of them are really good – rivaling some of the ones we’ve had here in Tokyo.  But I’ve never been to a ramen noodle house that provides hair ties.  No more strands of long hair falling into my face while I slurp up tasty, soupy ramen!

Jeanne and Dave had planned to spend 4 days in Tokyo, after our two weeks with family in Korea.  It would’ve been a nice, romantic way to end their 3 weeks of travel in Asia.  That is, until Jason and I decided to invite ourselves along at the last minute. 🙂

Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan

Checking out the local restaurant in our neighbourhood (Akasaka district)

We ended staying in a roomy apartment in the Akasaka district.  It’s a pretty great area: full of excellent restaurants and shops, right next to the entertainment district Roppongi, and close to several metro lines.

The awesome thing about travelling with Jeanne and Dave is that Dave is an excellent vacation planner.  Jason and I were not in the habit of planning since we’ve been travelling for so long and taking our time at each place we visited.  Usually, our planning goes like this: “So what do you want to do today?”

So it was pretty great to have Dave plan out our 4 days in Tokyo.  Four days isn’t a lot of time to see a city that’s larger than life, so planning our time there became a lot more important.

What’s a visit to Japan without taking in a Sumo wrestling match?

Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo (National Sumo stadium)

Checkin’ out the gun show Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo

The best seats in the house are on the bottom level.  This area is split into sections and Sumo fans sit on seat cushions directly on the floor.  They’re fairly big cushions so they’re not as uncomfortable as you’d think.  They also serve as ways for fans to express disappointment.  We were told by Jeanne’s friend who lives in Tokyo that when fans are unhappy with a ruling or outcome, they throw their seat cushion onto the ring/judge/wrestler.  Technically, it’s prohibited but people still do it anyway.

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

It was our first time at a Sumo match and we didn’t really know what to expect.  The only thing we knew about Sumo are the stereotypes of fat men pushing each other.  A Sumo tournament starts early in the afternoon with the more junior competitors vying for the sparse crowd’s attention.  It builds up over the next 4-5 hours until the top division of wrestlers make their appearance – with much fanfare.

Makuuchi division, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

The top wrestlers (makuuchi division) come out with huge fanfare for the final round of competitions of the night.

The top division (called makuuchi) are the best wrestlers of the country  and receive the most attention from the (now) packed arena.   The top of this group is the yokozuna.

A Makuuchi bout, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

Two wrestlers from the Makuuchi division about to square off.

The most exciting bout of the night (IMO) was that between the yokozuna and the wrestler who ranked just under him (ozeki).  You’ll have to view the video below to see what happens.  Let’s just say seat cushions flew.

Tokyo can be a pretty chaotic city.  With over 13 million people living in the Tokyo prefecture, some peace and quiet can be pretty hard to come by.  Luckily, Tokyo has its fair share of giant parks.  Once inside, it’s hard to imagine you’re still in Tokyo.  We visited Shinjuku Gyeon (or Shinjuku park) – one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks.  Inside, amongst forested areas,  there’s a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a sprawling English landscape garden, and a formal French garden.

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Dave and Jeanne posing in the traditional Japanese landscape garden

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Perfectly manicured trees next to the Taiwan Pavillion

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Lots of artists throughout the park trying to capture the tranquility on canvas

We also visited the Meiji Shrine (adjacent to another popular park – Yoyogi park).

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan (Shibuya district)

Entering the main area of the Meiji Shrine

Water basin in front of the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

It’s customary to wash your hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine. Apparently, there’s a very specific way to do it. But I don’t think any of us knew how to.

We were even lucky enough to see a traditional Shinto wedding procession.  It was beautiful to watch.

Traditional Shinto wedding, Meiji Shrine (Tokyo, Japan)

Traditional Shinto wedding processions. Very solemn and beautiful affair.

We followed that with some shopping time in popular shopping districts: Shibuya and Harajuku.  All the Harajuku girls must’ve been in school, I spotted only a few and I couldn’t take any pictures quick enough – they must’ve been rushing off to class.

Crowded shopping streets of Shibuya district (Tokyo, Japan)

Shopping in the very popular and crowded Shibuya district

Harajuku shopping district (Tokyo, Japan)

Where are the Harajuku girls??

Shibuya is also home to the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.  We settled into one of the window seats in Starbucks, which gives you a great birdseye view of the intersection.  It was kinda nuts.  During particularly busy crossings, it doesn’t even look like an intersection anymore – more like an outdoor concert!

Shibuya Crossing (Tokyo, Japan)

View of the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (Shibuya Crossing)

We wanted to visit the Tsukiji fish market one morning to have fresh sushi for breakfast.  Apparently, you can pick out fresh fish at the market and get one of the nearby food stalls to prepare it for your breakfast.  Sushi = breakfast of champions!

We went to sleep with visions of sushi dancing in our heads, but when we arrived at the fish market the next day, we were sadly greeted with an empty market.

Inside the Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Inside the Tsukiji fish market when it was closed. Only one lonely employee was doing some overtime to finish up some work…must have been goofing off the day before.

They were closed for a national holiday and we had to fly out of Tokyo later that day.  Our dreams of fresh sushi for breakfast were dashed!  We stood in the front of the fish market for awhile, lamenting our fate when a kind security guard noticed our sad little group.  He told us about a smaller market nearby that was still open.

Smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji. It was still packed with many stalls of delicious-looking seafood.

A little disappointed that Tsukiji was closed, but happy that we would still be able to have fresh fish for breakfast, we started whetting our appetite with free sashimi samples as we staked out a good breakfast restaurant.

Sashimi samples near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Some stalls even gave away free sashimi samples! yum! (or sketchy?)

We decided on this restarant pictured below (we really appreciated menus with pictures in Tokyo) and excitedly ordered four bowls of fresh sashimi over a bowl of rice.

A restaurant that served sashimi over rice near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Our breakfast restaurant that served fresh sashimi over rice.

Perfect bowls of fresh sashimi over a bed of rice arrived and as we dug in, no further words were exchanged until every bowl was licked clean.  It was everything we had hoped it would be…and more.

Sashimi over rice for breakfast (Tokyo, Japan)

A perfect bowl of sashimi over rice = breakfast of champions!

Even though Jason and I invited ourselves along to Tokyo, we DID spend a little time apart to give Jeanne and Dave some time alone (I’m sure Jeanne can only take her little brother for so long..haha)

Shinjuku Gyeon (Taiwan Pavillion) Tokyo, Japan

Little brother and big sister hamming it up in front of the Taiwan Pavillion in Shinjuku park

Jason and I checked out the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  It was really interesting to learn about the history of Tokyo and how it grew from the its origins as the little fishing village of Edo.

Traditional dress exhibit (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

Traditional dress exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Strolled along the Sumida river banks by moonlight.

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River (Tokyo, Japan)

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River

And ate a lot more ramen, soba, and sushi 🙂

Tempura and soba noodle soup (Tokyo, Japan)

Tempura and soba noodle soup

It was a quick and wonderful four days in Tokyo.  We would definitely want to come back one day.  I can’t wait to break my travel rule again.

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Eating: Korea (a.k.a. Seoul Food)

When we first arrived in South Korea, I posted a picture similar to the one below on Facebook, using the following caption:

  • Food in Asia: 17,285,531 points
  • Food in South America: 10 points
Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

My all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea (Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea)

It’s no secret that Jason and I were both very excited for the food in Asia.  I alluded to it previously, but there is simply no contest between the food we had over the last 3 months in South America and the food we’ve savoured in just the first two weeks in Asia.

Perhaps we’re a little biased (Korean food being the food Jason grew up on and it being one of my favourite cuisines), but we really did give South American food a fair chance to win us over.  Before we left on our travels, I had read a lot about South American food being less than stellar; but, since I pretty much love all food (e.g.. Ethiopian, Indian, Lebanese, Russian, Persian, Vietnamese, Greek, etc), I was really looking forward to proving all the critics wrong by falling in love with South American food.

Sure, there were a few ‘stand-outs’ – like food in Peru (specifically Lima and Arequipa) and Argentina (specifically Buenos Aires) –  but more often than not, South American food was a little boring (at best) or inedible (at worst).  I’m not kidding about it being inedible.  We had our worse restaurant experience of our lives at a restaurant near Iguazu Falls. When our respective dishes arrived at the table, we both took one bite, gingerly spat it out, and concluded that we couldn’t eat anymore of it.  We even told our server how bad the food was, but all he did was shrug, hand us our bill, and clear away our full plates.  It was a sad day.

While 1 out of 10 meals in South America were good, almost every single meal we’ve had in Asia so far has been excellent.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Okay, enough hatin’ on South American food.  Let’s proceed with lovin’ Korean food.

Korean BBQ

The first picture I posted above was taken at this amazing BBQ joint that Dave found after his meticulous research on where and what to eat in Seoul.  Located in the Mapo district, which has been referred to as barbeque heaven by other travel bloggers, it’s one of dozens upon dozens of grill houses in that area.  But it’s THE one to go to if you only go to just one.  (Note: there’s a picture of a cannon on the restaurant’s orange sign).

Korean BBQ grill house in Mapo district, Seoul, South Korea

Delicious porky, fatty, scrambled egg mixture with grilled pork. Without a doubt, my all-time favourite BBQ meal in Korea

This restaurant specializes in barbequing a specific cut of pork from around the diaphragm – lean and super flavourful.  A lot of the surrounding restaurants also offer this cut of pork, but this restaurant takes it to another (delicious) level.  On the domed grills that are used by a lot of BBQ restaurants, there’s a gutter around the edges that is normally just used to catch the rendered pork fat from the grilled meat.  This restaurant, however, pours scrambled eggs and places kimchi into these gutters, and once the rendered fat starts dripping in and the mixture cooks up, you scrape out delightful little spoonfuls of porky, fluffy, fatty, egg-y goodness.

It’s obvious that Koreans love their grilled meat.  We had several different types of barbeque while in Korea – one of the other notable barbeque meals was of a Jeju Island specialty: black pig.

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

BBQ black big (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Topokki (rice cake snack)

Topokki is a very popular Korean snack that is typically found at street vendors.  It’s usually made of soft rice cake, fish cake, spring onion, and gochujang – a savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment.  I’ve only ever had the simple version of topokki back in Canada, so imagine my surprise when I saw this fully-loaded version:

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood toppoki (before shot)

Along with the typical ingredients, boiled egg, seafood, ramen noodles, dumplings, sausages, cabbage, carrots, onions, and mushrooms also joined the party.  It looked so different that, at first, we thought the server had brought us the wrong dish and almost sent it back.  But after a few minutes of stewing over the stove on the table, it reduced down to something more famliar-looking but a million times more delicious than any topokki dish I had ever had.  I still dream about it and regret not making a repeat visit.

Seafood topokki (Topokki Alley, Seoul, South Korea)

Amazing seafood topokki (after shot)

Daeji Bulgogi & Ssam (Spicy Pork & Lettuce wrap)

Ssam (literally translates to ‘wrapped’) is used to describe many Korean dishes where a leafy vegetable (e.g. lettuce, perilla leaf, napa cabbage) is used to wrap a piece of meat (e.g. pork belly, marinated beef).  Korean meat dishes are already awesome in itself, but wrap it in a fresh, crunchy leaf of lettuce, and it takes on a whole new level of yum.  I can’t even count the number of meals we had in Korea that included ssam, but the meal pictured below was one of my favourites.  We had it in Jeju Island and it was spicy, porky perfection.  My personal favourite ssam combination (in order from bottom layer to top): lettuce leaf, parilla leaf, rice, gochujang, kimchi, marinated fiddleheads, marinated squid, a slice of shitake mushroom, and a piece of spicy pork.

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy pork & ssam (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Check out all the amazing banchan dishes

I think all the little dishes of banchan (which literally translates to mean ‘side dish’ in English) made all the difference…which brings me to my next food topic.

Banchan (small side dishes)

Banchan (Seoul, South Korea)

Delicious banchan

One of my favourite things about Korean meals are the little plates of banchan (side dishes) that are served with every meal.  It adds so many different types of flavours and textures to a relatively simple meal.  Typically, only one dish is the star (e.g. spicy pork) but when you add on 10 different types of banchan, then you have a full blown feast.  Sometimes, I can have just banchan with a bowl of rice and be totally satisfied.

Banchan (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood banchan on Jeju Island

Some of my favourite banchan dishes include:

  • kimchi (especially the cabbage, radish and cucumber kind)
  • miyeok muchim (marinated seaweed)
  • yeongeun jorim (marinated lotus flower root)
  • kongnamul (bean sprouts in sesame oil)
  • gosari (marinated fiddleheads)
  • shitake mushrooms
  • ojingeo (marinated squid)
  • dobu (marinated tofu)
  • takuan (sweet pickled yellow radish)
  • chapchae (glass noodles)
  • myeolchijeot (salted anchovies)

Seafood

Cooked octopus (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Interesting seafood on Jeju Island

The seafood in Korea is also amazing – especially at Jeju Island.  It’s also not for the faint of heart.  One interesting (and initially scary) seafood experience involved live abalone.

Aside from live clams in Greece, I had never eaten anything that still moved.  Also, clams in Greece were much easier to eat than abalone – they’re small so you can just quickly pop them in your mouth and gulp them down.  Abalone are pretty big and tough in texture – so you have to chew pretty thoroughly.

Live abalone (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Live abalone on Jeju Island (For the live-action version, click the video link above.

What’s more, the live abalone were very lively so it’s pretty difficult to psych yourself up enough to eat something that might grab onto your tongue and hang on for dear life.  After some back and forth, I popped one in my mouth.  Let’s just say it’s not my favourite raw seafood.  It’s chewy, a little crunchy, and kind of tough.  I’d much rather have them cooked.

We had more raw seafood (although nothing else moved) on Jeju Island.

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Korean sashimi (Jeju Island, South Korea).  Unfortunately, not as good as Japanese sashimi.

Korean sashimi is very fresh since it’s still swimming in tanks when we arrive at the restaurant; but not as good as Japanese sashimi.  I’ve watched a food show once explaining how Japanese sushi and sashimi are aged, which allows it to achieve its full, rich flavour and a softer texture.  Korean sashimi was a bit too fresh, so it was a bit chewy and not very flavourful.  That’s probably why it’s served with gochujang – the savoury and fermented, red chili and soy-based Korean condiment that’s commonly used in many Korean dishes.

Another great way to serve seafood in Korean dish is a seafood jjigae (or stew).  It starts off like this and is quite photogenic 😉

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (before shot)

After it reaches a boil and simmers for a few minutes, it combines into a tasty, spicy, super flavourful soup or stew.  It’s served with a bowl of rice (you can pour it over the rice or dip spoonfuls of rice into your bowl of stew) and is personally one of my favourite Korean seafood dishes.

Seafood jjigae (Seoul, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae (after shot)

This is another version we had on Jeju Island.  This one was crammed full of seafood – crayfish, crab, shrimp, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, clams – basically the whole ocean.

Seafood jjigae (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Seafood jjigae on Jeju Island

The fish dish below is a slightly different version.  The flavour is a lot more concentrated and it’s more of a sauce than stew.

Spicy fish & sauce (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Spicy fish & sauce on Jeju Island

Noodles

Noodles are probably my all-time favourite food – especially noodle soup.  Korea has so many different types of noodle dishes, it’s hard to narrow down just a few.

Jajangmyeon (Noodles with Black Bean sauce) is an old favourite of Jason’s.  It originated from China and is made from thick white wheat flour noodles (the best ones are handmade) and covered in a thick sauce that is made from a salty black soybean paste, diced pork and vegetables.  It’s a simple dish but oh-so-delicious!

Jajangmyeon (Seoul, South Korea)

Jajangmyeon in Seoul. It only cost CDN$2!!

Naengmyeon (Cold noodles in soup) is not very photogenic, but is a delicious, cool treat during the hot, steamy summers in Seoul.  Long, thin chewy noodles are served in a chilled, tangy broth with julienned cucumbers, slices of korean pear, and a boiled egg.  Optional condiments include spicy mustard and vinegar.

Naengmyeon (Suburbs of Seoul, South Korea)

Naengmyeon in the outskirts of Seoul

Bibim guksu (Cold mixed noodles)

It was REALLY hot in Korea, even during the autumn months, so we really enjoyed the cold dishes.  Another one of my favourites was the Bibim guksu (cold mixed noodles) we had on Jeju Island.  Thin wheat flour noodles are covered in a strong, spicy sauce made with red chili powder, gochujang, garlic, vinegar, and sugar – and sometimes a dash of sesame oil.

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Bibim guksu on Jeju Island

The best part is mixing it.  The restaurant supplied a plastic glove and Jason’s mom just dove right in – mixing up the sauce, noodles, and sliced vegetables by hand.  So so SO good!

Bibim guksu (Jeju Island, South Korea)

Mixing bibim guksu by hand 🙂

Kimbap (Seaweed rice roll)

Last but not least, the humble kimbap (seaweed rice roll).  I would describe it as the Korean sushi, although raw fish is not typically used as an ingredient.   Instead, various cooked meats, sweet egg or fish is used along with various cooked, fresh or picked vegetables.  It’s a personal favourite of mine and Jason makes an excellent version.

Kimbap (Seoul, South Korea)

The perfect snack – kimbap!

We’ve had kimbap many times in Canada but I really learned to appreciate the simple and delicious snack in Korea.  It’s perfect for those moments in between meals, when you need sometime to hold you over.  It’s also a pretty mobile dish, when wrapped up in foil like a burrito, so you can eat it while on the go (or getting your hair permed).  Versatile, simple, travel-sized, and tasty – the perfect snack.

Did I miss a favourite Korean dish of yours?  Leave a comment below or feel free to elaborate on any of the dishes I mentioned above.  I love chatting about food 🙂

Triple-date on Korea’s Honeymoon Island

Warning: Some (and by some, I mean two) explicit images below.  You’ve been warned.  Drag an Excel spreadsheet over your internet browser window if you’re at work. 

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

The eastern side of Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) on Jeju Island

Jason’s parents were so sweet to treat all of us to 4 days at a beautiful tropical island just south of Korea’s mainland: Jeju Island.  Known by locals as ‘Honeymoon Island’, it’s a popular Korean vacation spot and (as noted by its nickname) a popular honeymoon destination.  In fact, Jason’s parents came here for their honeymoon in the 70s.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

The exact same waterfalls that Jason’s parents took a picture in front of during their honeymoon 30 years ago.

Initially, this had all the ingredients for an awkward weekend – even my brother commented on how it was going to be awkward going on a triple-date/long weekend/couples getaway with my in-laws.  But I’ve enjoyed travelling with Jason’s parents before and love spending time with Jeanne and Dave, so I had no doubt that it would be a grand ol’ time.

Horseback riding, Jeju Island, South Korea

You know it’s gonna be a good time when they dress you up like this for horseback riding!

As we were waiting in the airport for our flight to Jeju Island (by the way, it’s considered an international flight even though Jeju Island is considered to be part of Korea), my mother-in-law (MIL) asked whether we would like to go horseback riding, trekking through a national park, climb a volcano crater, and visit a circus.

Jeju Circus World, Jeju Island, South Korea

A Chinese circus troupe called Circus World. Surprisingly impressive feats. I guess we were expecting just some clowns and flowers that squirt water

“Wow!” I exclaimed, “That sounds like an awesome, action-packed long weekend!”

“No,” my MIL replied, “That’s just on the first day”

Jeju Island, South Korea

Eight activities a day?!

And then it hit me: we were going on an Asian holiday tour.  I had been on one before 5 years ago when I visited my dad’s family in China so I had an idea of what we were in for.  For those who have been lucky enough to have never been on an Asian tour, let me break it down for you.  People of some Asian races (i.e. Korean, Chinese, Japanese) love maximizing the value of their money.  They typically perceive something to be of higher value if they get more of it.  So when it comes to holiday tours, the more activities you can cram into the allotted time-frame, the better the value.

Ecoland, Jeju Island, South Korea

The four of us hamming it up on Jeju Island

So thus began our whirlwind ‘Honeymoon Island’ vacation.  For 4 days, we woke up every morning at 7:30am to a packed itinerary.  On average, we would have 7-8 activities scheduled per day.  I have to admit, it was pretty exhausting.  It probably didn’t help that we had all originally envisioned a long weekend of relaxing and lazing about on the beach.

The southern coast of Jeju Island, South Korea

Not-so-relaxing beach time on Jeju Island

But once we shrugged our shoulders and decided to go along for the ride, it wasn’t all bad.  The entire island is is 75% cheesy tourist traps and 25% beautiful natural wonders.  And amongst the 30 individual activities/sights/events we enjoyed/endured, there were quite a few gems.

We started off slowly and visited an impressive botanical garden called “Spirited Garden”.  The bonsai trees were beautiful and we enjoyed the leisurely stroll through the peaceful garden grounds.

Bonsai Tree in Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

One of the many beautiful Bonsai Trees in the botanical garden

Spirited Garden, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We visited a beautiful little waterfall (Cheonjiyeon Falls) that Jason’s parents also visited over 30 years ago on their honeymoon.

Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Island, South Korea

What do you do on Honeymoon Island? Take couples pictures!

We checked out the eerie underground Manjanggul lava tubes.  Flowing rivers of lava carved out these massive caves.

Manjanggul lava tubes, Jeju Island, South Korea

Inside the lava tubes. Funny story: Jason’s uncle hid behind a rock, jumped out, and scared the pants off this random couple, thinking it was me and Jason.

Then things got a little kooky at (what we dubbed) “Randomland”.  There was an indoor ice sculpture exhibit and a whole bunch of 3D scenes that you can take a picture with.  We had a great time taking cheesy pictures and cracking up at the ridiculousness.

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Putting our acting skills to good use

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

Obviously, the acting abilities run in the family

Trick Art Museum (aka Randomland), Jeju Island, South Korea

I think I packed on a few pounds (and apparently, a few feet) after indulging in too much delicious Korean food.

After “Randomland”, things got even stranger.

When Jason and I first started our travels in June, my friend (who will remain unnamed) sent me a link (NSFW) and insisted we go there when we travelled to Korea.  It’s deceptively called Jeju Loveland.  It really should be called Jeju Sexland,  When my friend first told me about this place, I thought “Korea is pretty big – not sure if I’ll actually come across it”.  But when I found out that this outrageous theme park was actually on Jeju Island, I knew we had to add an extra activity onto the itinerary.

Jeanne was not so keen on the idea and who can blame her? It would be kinda weird going to a sex theme park with your parents.  Nonetheless,I somehow managed to get it onto the schedule.

Once we entered Jeju Loveland, this was the first thing we saw:

Jeju Loveland Jeju, South Korea

Welcome to Jeju Sexland Loveland!

Jeanne and Dave immediately bolted and disappeared into the park.  Soon after, Jason’s mom wandered off too.  So it was just Jason, my father-in-law (FIL), and I wandering through the very risque theme park.  The picture below is probably the only safe picture I can post here. If you want to see what else this park had to offer, you can click the link above. (Or here, if you don’t want to scroll up).  Seriously, this place was hilarious.

Jeju Loveland, Jeju, South Korea

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I’m not sure why such a racy theme park exists on Jeju Island.  Perhaps because it’s known as a honeymoon destination and the tourism board wants to get all the newlywed couples in the mood?

Even the island’s natural rock formations were in on it:

Jeju Island, South Korea

Phallic rock formations off the coast of Jeju

Speaking of natural rock formations, this one was one of the highlights of Jeju Island: Seongsan Ilchulbong (or Sunrise Peak).

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

In front of the volcanic tuff cone

Formed by volcanic activity, this tuff cone and crater are one of the few well-preserved specimens of its kind.  This site map gives you a sense of what it looks like from the air.

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And this is what it really looks like from the air (Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website)  Pretty impressive-looking, eh?

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju Island, South Korea

Aeriel view of Seongsan Ilchulbong.  Picture courtesy of Jeju World Natural Heritage website

It’s a short 20-minute climb to the top.  The views from the top weren’t too shabby either.

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northeast

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View of Jeanne, Dave and I at the top

Seongsan Ilchulbong, Jeju, South Korea

View from the top towards the northwest

It was a great way to end our trip.  Okay, who am I kidding?  We ended our trip with a massive Korean feast (of course).  On the menu: Jeju Black Pig.  Don’t ask…it’s a Jeju Island specialty.

Black pig, Jeju, South Korea

Jeju Black pig BBQ. Loved the vents that sucked out all the BBQ smells. Don’t you hate it when you leave a Korean BBQ restaurant and smell like you’ve been marinating in kalbi sauce?

Yes, we complained about the cheesiness, the ridiculousness, and the jam-packed schedule – but in the end, we had a lot of good ol’ family fun (sex theme park and all).  Thanks, mom and dad, for treating all of us to a wonderful time!

Seoul, Korea: Home is Where the Heart is

Front gates of Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace (Seoul, Korea)

Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace in Seoul, Korea

We are in Asia!!!

After 30-hours of flying, we finally arrived at our first stop of our travels in Asia: Seoul.  And yes, 30 hours of flying.  As my sister-in-law put it: “Can’t you fly around the world twice in 30 hours?!

Not only did we fly across the globe, but we crossed over from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, so perhaps that does count as flying around the world twice?

It’s been three months since we’ve seen a familiar face, so Jason and I were excited to travel with his parents, along with his sister (Jeanne) and her husband (Dave) for the next two weeks.

A huge platter of Topoki in Topoki Alley (Seoul, Korea)

Dave and Jeanne about to dive into a huge platter of Topoki (rice cake dish) in Topoki Alley

Jason’s aunt and uncle also happen to be in Korea and they were so sweet to pick us up at the airport.  It was a welcome change after 3 months of arriving in new places and having to figure out where to go and how to get there as soon as we arrived.

First meal in Korea with Jason's family

First meal in Korea with Jason’s aunt, uncle, sister and her husband.

We pretty much went straight to a Korean BBQ joint (I guess, they just call it BBQ there) close to the apartment we were staying at.  I’ll be writing a separate post about the food in Korea so I won’t go into too much detail now.  All you need to know is that we ate like we hadn’t eaten for the past 3 months.

Korean BBQ and banchan (little side dishes)

Korean BBQ and banchan (little side dishes)

Actually, after three months of South American food, it was as if we hadn’t really eaten in 3 months.  I know that comment may draw some negative responses but we really gave South American food a decent chance to win us over.  I’ll get into it more during my food post….I’m digressing.

Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon neighbourhood in Seoul

We even found a Canadian pub in our neighbourhood – Rocky Mountain Tavern! A little taste of home away from home

You know how they say, “Home is where the heart is?”  Well, for those two weeks, our hearts were in Korea.  And thanks to Dave’s persistence in tracking down a traditional Korean house (called a hanok), our hearts even got to stay in a pretty cool place in Seoul.

Traditional hanok in Seoul

Traditional hanok in Seoul

Inside the traditional hanok in Seoul

Inside the traditional hanok. There’s lot of room – 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms for just the 6 of us 🙂

We visited the popular neighbourhood of Insa-dong with Jeanne and Dave.  The main street of Insa-dong (called Insadong-gil) is a fascinating mixture of traditional and modern Korean culture.  I’ve read that 40% of Korea’s antique and art galleries are found here, along with the majority of traditional calligraphy and stationary shops.  Queen Elizabeth II even visited this street to peruse the traditional stationary items a few years back.

Insa-dong, Seoul, Korea

One of the calligraphy stores in Insa-dong

Mixed in with the traditional art shops are also some interesting food stalls and snack shops.

Dried seafood cart in Insa-dong, Seoul

A cart full of dried seafood – dried squid, fish, octopus. She roasts it to heat it up and you get a bag full of toasty dried seafood. So delicious! We had a lot of dried seafood in Korea – she served the best version.

Dragon's beard candy in Insa-dong, Seoul

Dragon’s beard candy – hand-pulled sugar mixture (1024 separate strands!). Originally created in China, but has spread to many other Asian countries. I first had this when I was 8 years old in Los Angeles. Still tastes just as good today 🙂

Funny-looking ice cream cone in Insa-dong

There was an ice cream shop that sold “funny-looking” ice cream cones. You can see it in this picture as he’s filling the cone. Dave and Jason shared the cone.  I have a picture of it, but you can use your own imagination.

We also spent an afternoon with Jason’s parents at the Gyeongbokgung Imperial Palace.  It’s the main and largest Imperial palace in Seoul, standing as a symbol of national sovereignty.

Inside the Gyeongbokgung palace front gates (Seoul, Korea)

Jason with his parents just inside the Gyeongbokgung palace front gates

Almost completely destroyed during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, work has been underway to restore it to its former glory since 1990.

The main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung palace (Seoul, Korea)

The main throne hall of Gyeongbokgung palace

Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung palace (Seoul, Korea)

Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung palace

There’s a beautiful garden and pond near the back of the palace grounds.  It was probably my favourite spot of the whole palace – so peaceful.  It actually reminded me a lot of the beautiful temples I saw in Kyoto, Japan a few years back.

Hyangwonjeong Pavilion on the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds

The beautiful pavilion on the palace grounds – a peaceful little oasis hidden near the back.

While the sights were pretty interesting in Seoul, the most unique experiences while in Seoul came from taking part in many of Jason’s family gatherings.

We met up with both his mom’s side and dad’s side of the family.  His dad’s side owns a large plot of land on the outskirts of Seoul.  It’s used for farming, food production, and as an occasional vacation home.

Jason's family land near Seoul, Korea

Jason’s family land near Seoul, Korea

There’s also a family burial plot where many important members (e.g. politicians, influential business leaders, etc) were laid to rest – dating back as far as the 1500s.  Once a year, the extended family gathers here to pay their respects.

Jason's family burial plot near Seoul, Korea

Jason’s family burial plot – dating back to 1500s

And of course, no family gathering is complete without a huge feast of Korean food.  (I guess, they just call it food there)

Korean seafood restaurant in Seoul, korea

A family feast to end the day. Leave your shoes at the door and have a seat on a cushion (if you’re lucky enough to score one). Little did we know, that we’d be having almost all our meals in Korea like this.

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I know I said that I’d write a separate post about food in Seoul. But food is so ingrained in Korean culture that it’s hard to write about Seoul and not add some reference to food 🙂 And yes, that’s a whole octupus in the saucepan.

The next day, we met with Jason’s mom’s side of the family.  We were lucky enough to visit during Chuseok (or the Harvest Moon Festival) celebration.  It’s basically the Korean Thanksgiving and one of the most important and festive holidays of the year.  During the Harvest Moon Festival, family comes together from far and wide to honour their ancestors and to share in a fantastic feast together.

Happy Chuseok!

Home-cooked Harvest Moon (or Chuseok) meal

Jason’s family went all out and made everything from scratch.  It’s not everyday you get a delicious, authentic home-cooked meal – especially when travelling for 6 months 😛

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Seoul, Korea)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Kimchi, Chapchae, dumplings, tempura)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Seoul, Korea)

Home-cooked meal for Chuseok (Banchan, rice cakes, kimchi radish)

After dinner, we all went out in search for some drinks (and more food…the eating never stops when you’re with family!)

Seoul, Korea

Sensory overload

Seoul, Korea

Did I ever mention that Jason gets his love of alcohol from his mom’s side of the family? 🙂

And of course, no family gathering is complete without some Karaoke!  Quintessential Korea = Dancing to Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style‘ during our Karaoke party in Korea.

Karaoke in Korea

Oppa Gangnam Style!

I love family.

Patagonia: At the End of the World (Part II)

Fitz Roy Mountain, Argentina Patagonia

The iconic Fitz Roy mountain in Argentina Patagonia

After a couple of days in El Calafate, Jason and I hopped on a 3-hour bus ride to the less-visited sister town, El Chaltén.  There are three bus companies that bring you from El Calafate to El Chaltén.  First, they stop at the tourist centre in El Chaltén and then at the town’s tiny bus terminal.

Bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The early-morning bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten

The sole reason for El Chaltén’s existence is tourism and even during high season, it’s a pretty isolated little town.  It’s the self-declared trekking capital of Argentina, and is the gateway to amazing climbing and trekking territory.  It provides fairly easy access to the famous Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy mountains.  Those who are familiar with the Patagonia clothing company might find the mountain range here familiar-looking – the highest peak in the company’s logo is Fitz Roy.

Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains (Argentina)

Cerro Fitz Roy (right of the center) and Cerro Torre (left of the center) mountains

One catch though: since we were visiting during the off-season (Argentina’s winter months), the town would likely be almost deserted.  We had read that most accommodations and restaurants would be closed for the season, so we were a little wary coming here.  However, the California couple we met at Perito Moreno Glacier gave us a great tip on where to stay since they had just come from El Chaltén.

El Chalten, Argentina

The little town of El Chalten

Upon arrival, we discovered that – in the whole town – there were two hostels and one restaurant that were still open. Their local market was also still open so we ended up spending the next four days making our own meals in the hostel’s well-equipped kitchen.

I loved our time there.  It was quiet, relaxed and peaceful.  The town was a charming little place full of smiling locals and, since it was off- season, almost no tourists.  We arrived on a brilliantly sunny day and the friendly guide at the town’s tourist centre made sure we understood how lucky we were – calm, sunny days were rare during the winter.  Many travellers who arrive here in the winter never even get to see the mountains because of the snow and clouds.

El Chalten covered in snow

With the exception of the two sunny days, El Chalten looked like this for the rest of our stay.

Unfortunately, I was trying to get over a pretty bad cold so we “wasted” the sunny day by staying indoors.  Luck was on our side though, because I got up the next morning (rested and feeling much better) and was greeted by another sunny day.  And we weren’t going to waste this one.

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

At the beginning of the Fitz Roy hike

Jason and I were getting pretty good at trekking, at this point.  But trekking through icy and snowy terrain was a little new to us.  Our trusted hiking shoes that got us through slippery rocky terrain in Cusco and dry, dusty desert in Arequipa were no match for ice-covered trails.  Luckily, only the beginning of the trail was icy since those trails remained in the shade for most of the day.  The terrain was pretty varied actually.  Some parts of the the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the trail which were mostly in the shade during the day were snowy or icy

And then other parts of the trail looked like this:

During our Fitz Roy hike

Parts of the hike which were in the sun for most of the day were dry. You can see the summit of Fitz Roy peaking peeking out in the distance

But no complaints when you get to soak in scenery that looks like this for most of the trek:

Patagonia scenery

Patagonia scenery

We had chosen the slightly shorter hike (3 hr), which took us to the nearby lake (lago Capri) and look-out point near Fitz Roy.  We arrived at the lake to find it completely frozen over and covered in a blanket of snow.  There were signs everywhere that warned us not to step on the frozen surface but there were footprints all over the lake, so it seemed pretty safe.  The view of Fitz Roy from the lake was magnificent.  Again, we were so lucky to have such amazing winter weather – couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

View of Fitz Roy on Lago Capri

Iconic Fitz Roy

The iconic jagged peaks of Fitz Roy

Hiking in Patagonia was an awesome experience – the scenery is unmatched by anything else we’ve seen in South America.

Fitz Roy, Argentina

One last look at Fitz Roy