Unforgettable Hong Kong (Day 1)

My one friend once told me, “There are only three great cities in the world: New York, London, and Hong Kong. Someday you will see for yourself.” I had my doubts, but once I moved to Japan I knew I had to go to Hong Kong to see if my friend was a soothsayer or if Hong Kong was overhyped. My friend certainly hit the nail on the head when it came to Hong Kong being one of the world’s “great cities.”

Before I travel, I often create expectations and conceptions about how places will be, how the people will be, and how enjoyable a certain location will be. Sometimes I am dissappointed and other times my expectations are completely destroyed as a destination outshines even my highest expectations. I must admit that Hong Kong destroyed all of my expectations and then some. My journey to Hong Kong with one of my close friends (and Macau in its own right) is an adventure I will never forget.

Things got off to an interesting start- a start that is only possible in Japan. Because public transportation in Japan shuts down between basically midnight and between five and 5:30AM, it was impossible to make it to the airport in time for checkin and security clearance prior to our 8:30AM departure to Hong Kong. The trip to Kobe would have taken too much time. As a result, my friend and I pulled and all-nighter on the cold, hard, wooden benches of Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. I will undoubtedly have to do this again because of the early nature of some of Japan’s international flights, but this is something to which I do not look forward, even in the slightest. We took advantage of the free rental blankets at the airport, made some new friends who were bound for Korea, and slept as best as we could for about four hours.  Once the terminal filled with people bound for Taiwan and South Korea, we were alive, awake, and ready to take on Hong Kong. Following a quick money exchange and an old school walk on the tarmac, we were onboard and ready to start our adventure in Hong Kong. I had to do the obligatory Richard Nixon wave and peace symbol before boarding. Image

Walking on the tarmac towards the Hong Kong-bound plane. © 2013 Erik Jacobserikabroad.com 

Four hours and one long nap later, we touched down in Hong Kong and it was so exhilarating to know I had finally arrived to one of my top travel destinations! Ever since I have been a child, I wanted to visit Hong Kong and I knew I was only a few minutes away from getting the coveted passport stamp to finally verify I had made it to the former British Colony! There was one catch- Hong Kong (and Macau) STOPPED issuing passport stamps in July! I was so disappointed when I passed through immigration and a flimsy card stating my permitted length of stay was stapled into my passport. One of my favorite things about travel is getting passport stamps and I was robbed of the Hong Kong stamp! The disappointment quickly faded as we headed towards our first destination of the whirlwind trip: Hong Kong’s famed Big Buddha. Image

Hong Kong International Airport. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Following a short and remarkably easy ride on Hong Kong’s MTR, my friend and I exited and “minded the gap” as we made our way toward the Big Buddha. After a stellar hour long wait in the serpentining lines, we made our way onto one of the crystal cable cars for the unforgettable ride going through Hong Kong’s rolling hills and lush forested areas en route to the Buddha. If I can make one recommendation here, you MUST pay a few more Hong Kong Dollars and get the crystal carriage cable car for two reasons: First, the line is much shorter than the standard carriage line. Secondly, you can see through the bottom of the carriage and view some winding trails through the mountains, several inlets, and various other cool spots during your ride. The view was amazing. Image

Cable cars. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After a trek through a heavily tourist area filled with nick-knacks, trinkets, and fake souvenirs, we had finally arrived at one of the most iconic images of all of Hong Kong: the staircase leading up to the 1996-built big Buddha statue. The view was completely breathtaking when you reach the bottom of this staircase. Unfortunately due to bad lighting with the sun directly behind Buddha, the photo cannot give this scene the justice it truly deserves.

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Even though this Buddha was only finished in 1996, the amount of tourists and locals alike at this site was incredible. Buddhists praying, Asian and Western tourists taking photos, and the Korean comedy group outside one of the shops along the route there stuck out the most to me. Of course a trip to this Buddha would not be complete without a photo posing just like the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

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Posing with big Buddha. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

After another breathtaking ride on the cable car (this time at sunset) and checking in at our hotel on Hong Kong Island, my friend and I began our journey to another one of Hong Kong’s must-see attractions: Victoria Peak.

I had always heard fables about Hong Kong being the shopping Mecca of East Asia but never truly gave those claims the credence they probably deserved. After having lived in Tokyo for a few months in early 2011 as a study abroad student, I though nowhere in Asia could possibly beat Tokyo when it came to glamorous stores, ritzy stores, or sheer opulence. I was resoundingly incorrect. The walk from our hotel to the famed Victoria Peak Tram took us through a shopping mall which hosted stores like: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Cartier, Gucci, and other top dollar stores, stores I had never seen before outside of a magazine or New York City. I was in awe at the wealth I had only started to see in Hong Kong. Things got even more interesting when we made our way to the tram.

I had never ridden a vehicle on such a steep incline in my whole life. Last summer, I attended language school in Oakland, California, and frequently went to San Francisco for sightseeing, eating Japanese cuisine, and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf. During that time, my friends and I took an obligatory ride on the outside of one of San Francisco’s cable cars. While those streets were steep, the Victoria Peak Tram took steepness to a whole new level. The tram ride felt like it was on more than a 45 degree angle for the entire ride up to the summit. As the car increased speed, the steepness also increased to the point where people were holding on for dear life as they attempted to stand in the cable car. I have added a photo from the inside of the car to give you an idea what this ride resembled. Image

Inside the Victoria Peak Tram. © Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com

Following this ride, we had finally arrived at Victoria Peak, although a clear view of the city was not yet available from the tram exit. Already only in our first few hours of our four day excursion to Hong Kong and Macau, I felt our trip had met its moment of truth. Ever since I saw the first photo of the nighttime view from Victoria Peak, I knew I had to go there. I had pumped up this view to be as good as the Grand Canyon, but in a different way. The lights, the buildings, and the view had to be breathtaking, didn’t they? On the ride up to the top, I had noticed that the Bank of China lights were off and I feared for the worst. I will let you be the judge of how the view was at Victoria Peak before I write any more. Image

Stunning Victoria Peak. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

As you can surely see from this photo, reaching the top of Victoria Peak and peering over the handrail was one of the happiest and most rewarding travel moments I had ever experienced. The view there was everything I had imagined, and then some. The glistening skyline off of Victoria Harbor, the twinkling lights in all directions, the cool wind coming across the viewing balcony, the messages on the International Commerce Centre, and the moving lights on the Bank of China Tower combined with some new friends I made (more on that in a later post) to make this a night I will never forget. While this world seemed expansive, I was also reminded that the world is such a small place. A friend of mine from Japan happened to be there at the exact same time with his parents! We said our hellos and continued onward with our evenings. Moments like that are just one more reason why I love to travel.

I even went ahead and purchased one of the commemorative photos they had for sale. Someday I will proudly hang that in my room alongside my photo atop Roppongi’s Mori Tower in Tokyo. Image

Me with Hong Kong and Kowloon in the background. © 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

While the next morning called for a 4:45 am wakeup to make our ferry to Hong Kong, that did not seem to matter at all during our first night in Hong Kong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Hong Kong could live up to the expectations I had built for the better part of 15 years. Happily, the city destroyed all of those expectations on the first night. From the rural and cultural Buddha to the urban and unforgettable Victoria Peak view, I had a feeling that the best of Hong Kong was yet to come. After a long walk back to our hotel, I settled down for a short night’s sleep.

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Why Macau is as Good as Hong Kong

For anyone who has never been to the two Special Administrative Regions in China, what I am about to say could sounds shocking to some. The same could also be said by those of you that have been to Hong Kong and Macau. I am going to say it anyway, though. I liked visiting Macau as much as I liked visiting Hong Kong last week. Both cities are great, but for very different reasons. The fusion of European and Chinese history and architecture, the different parts of the island and accompanying lifestyles, and the amazing photographic opportunities on the streets highlight some of the reasons why I loved my time in Macau. 

The whole day started off bright and early as my friend and I left our hotel in Hong Kong at 5:15 AM to start the walk from the Admiralty Station area to make it to Hong Kong – Macau Ferry Terminal in time for a customs check before our 7:00AM departure. The sun still had not risen and this offered a unique look over to Kowloon across Victoria Harbor. Image

After the most cursory of all security checks (literally presenting a passport and walking through a line without metal detector check or bag inspection), we were aboard the TurboJET ferry with an 8:15 arrival time in the former Portuguese colony. As the boat swayed at the dock in Hong Kong, I worried about sea sickness, but that fear did not come to fruition. Nearly as soon as we exited Victoria Harbor and began passing through the many smaller Hong Kong islands, the easy and smooth ocean lulled me to sleep. 

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After dealing with some pushy mainland Chinese at the immigration stop in Macau, we were through but there was one big problem: no currency exchange desks or information desks were open. It sure was weird to see Portuguese on a sign in Asia. I had read in several places that you could literally travel through all of Macau for free on casino busses, but we wanted to have a map to make sure we knew where we were going. After getting our map, we found out the worst-kept secret in Macau was true: you can travel virtually anywhere on the island, for free, on a casino shuttle bus. We boarded the shuttle bus to the Wynn to position ourselves for a morning and afternoon traversing the famous Portuguese parts of town. 

After a brief taste of the opulence and wealth that pervades Macau inside the shopping areas at the Wynn and on the casino floor, we began our walk around Nam Van Lake (past the Grand Lisboa) towards the government house to start our journey. Almost as soon as we arrived, I was enthralled with how well the Chinese had preserved the Portuguese and European architecture in Macau. Unlike Hong Kong, many of the older buildings from colonial rule were still in tact and vibrant. The colors on the administrative government building are something you will have to see to believe. I felt like I was somewhere in the middle of a Caribbean colony. It was odd to see a Chinese flag atop this building, but the colors were so vibrant.  Image

 

After a few more photos of the surrounding gardens and lotus pond, my friend and continued onward to the famous St.Lawrence Church where I witnessed something you could only find in Macau.

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Amidst the bustle of mopeds and motorcycles on every corner, a Catholic nun walked down the street with several other people. Here is a photo of that unforgettable moment.Image

You could never capture a moment like this in Hong Kong. The fusion of East and West was so evident outside of St. Lawrence Church. I loved watching the bicycles and motorcycles make the hard left turn in front of the church to continue down some more narrow streets where other bikes and pedestrians waited. Here is a shot of the area surrounding St. Lawrence Church. Image 

The sounds of a lively colonial city still emenated as we walked up the tiled slopes of this part of Macau with our sights set on finding Senado Square and then taking the famous walk through Macau to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately for us, we were sidetracked and encountered even more mosaic-covered plazas and beautiful churches along our meandering route. 

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There were more bikes along the way, too. Image

 

As we walked through more cobblestoned streets where Asian-style architecture was right next to European architecture, I fell more in love with Macau as I took each passing step. Originally my friend and I had planned this trip to Macau as a nice excursion to gamble a bit and check out the view from Macau Tower, but we quickly realized that we needed to spend an entire day making our way through the “other part” of the city, away from all of the glitz on the south side of the island. It was a great choice and one I will never regret. Over time, the number of tourists and other people picked up and we knew we were nearing the famed Senado Square in the heart of Macau’s Portuguese-influenced area. Just like that, the iconic mosaic-tiled square was upon us. As if it was a scene from a movie, we entered Senado Square as a band on the street played the song from the Star Wars cantina bar and here is what we saw. Everything from the teeming energy on the square to the architecture made me think I had been transported to Europe. It was impossible to believe that we were seated in China. I wished I had a time machine to go back to the mid-19th Century or the early 20th Century to see this location in its colonial heyday. Image 

Down on the square, my friend and I even ran into one of our friends who lives in Japan by mere coincidence. The world is such a small place. 

From Senado Square, my friend and I navigated through the quintessential Asian street market to make it up to St. Paul’s ruins. As bartering for a fresh Portuguese egg tart happened on the left, more negotiating over the price of famous pork happened on my right. A couple tried to push their newborn up the hill in a stiller, and I saw a Dairy Queen store and Nike outlet near the end of the passageway. This controlled chaos is one more reason why I loved this walk through old Macau. European streets were dominated by some of the best street food in all of Asia.

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As soon as this chaos broke, the reason why we began this journey appeared on the horizon: the ruins of the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral, destroyed by fire centuries ago. The scene was beautiful. An immaculately constructed Catholic facade sits atop several flights of stairs in the middle of the bustling Asian market. Behind it all, you can see the high rise buildings of new Macau. I only wished that I could have seen this church before its destruction. At that moment, the sun broke through the crowds and offered up an even better view of the ruins. At that moment, I was convinced that Macau would continue to be one of my favorite travel destinations– and a place I would want to see again in the future. As much as I loved Hong Kong, I did not encounter these types of cultural treasures during my two days walking the streets of China’s other Special Administrative Region.

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My friend and I did not stop there. We visited the fort adjacent to St. Paul’s to see another Portuguese legacy in this part of the city. The key component that helped the Portuguese stave off a Dutch invasion  in 1622, Fortaleza do Monte offered more stunning views of the Macanese skyline and helped emphasize the unique fusion of East and West, new and old, that Macau has to offer to even the historical novice or casual day traveler. 

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In between a stop at the Grand Lisboa and taking in a show at another casino, my friend and I also ventured to Taipa to see some more colonial sites and take the chance to sample some Macanese and Portuguese food on the streets. As well preserved as the Senado Square district was, I thought Taipa was even more well preserved. Whole blocks were painted to period colors. Colonial artwork and buildings dominated the landscape. There were even numerous Portuguese restaurants lining the streets. This type of neighborhood is another site you would not be able to find in Hong Kong because of the development and expansion the city saw since the change in economic policy in the 1970s. We even stumbled upon a Lusophonic festival in this part of the city.

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Of course a day in Macau is not complete without a trip to the Grand Lisboa to gamble and a trip to Taipa Island to see a show, but I wanted to focus this post on all of the unique historical sites that Macau has to offer, making it one of the most interesting and memorable places I have ever visited. Growing up close to Gettysburg, Washington, DC, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry, I have always had a deep appreciation for history and historical preservation. When I came to Macao, I expected much of Portuguese colonial legacy to be eliminated for a host of reasons, but I was pleasantly surprised to see much of it in tact, preserved for future generations to appreciate. Something about the cobblestone, the mosaics, the buildings, and prevalent appearance of Portuguese give the world’s most densely populated city a different vibe. This fusion of cultures, languages, foods, and architecture makes Macau a photogenic city with so many unique experiences around each corner. I loved Macau for very different reasons than why I loved Hong Kong, but it is a very worthwhile destination in the region. I went to Macau skeptical about how good of a place the island would be, but I left knowing it was an amazing experience that I will never forget.   I will put a post in the future about how nice the casinos and Macau Tower were, but this post is dedicated to why Macau is as good as Hong Kong and why any traveler to Hong Kong has to take at least a day trip to Macau if they have the time. It is an unforgettable destination. 

Sights and Sounds from Elementary School Sports Day

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in my Japanese junior high school’s sports day, or in Japanese, 体育会 (taiikukai). It was an unforgettable experience where I took part in the teachers relay against the ninth grade students, joined the teachers for a game of tug of war, and even participated in the traditional Japanese game called kibasen (騎馬戦) where four three people hoist another person above them and engage in mock horse battles. The sights and sounds from this day were remarkable, but my elementary school sports day was even more remarkable. 

On Satuday, I arrived at my school around 9:00AM for the start of my elementary school’s undokai (運動会)and quickly realized how it would be a much different affair than the junior high school sports day in several ways. First and foremost, the size of the crowd was much larger and the sports yard was much smaller than at the junior high school. The subsequent effect was a feeling of more energy and excitement packed into the school yard for all of the day’s festivities. The other main difference was that boys and girls participated in the same events and there was less of the segregation that was present in the junior high sports day. I observed this almost immediately when the elementary sports day started. 

Following an interesting and memorable march into the athletic field under different Western marching songs and the presentation of colors to the head principle at the school, the students took charge and the sports festival was underway. 

Each grade participated in different games and dances/activities that were highly scripted and extensively practiced for the last several weeks. For those of you that went to school in America, you know how lackadaisical people were about field day (if your school even had one), so I was so impressed by the intricacies of the dances and the techniques therein. The second graders did dances and all had different colored gloves. The third graders did a special set of paired dances with hoola-hoops. Fourth graders did synchronized dances with jump ropes and the fifth graders had an amazing synchronized dance to traditional Japanese music. The whole spectacle, much like the junior high school day, was very impressive. After watching both sports days, I wish we had a similar day in the United States. The kids took such great pride in their school, themselves, and their class. 

Sixth graders took part in kumitaiso (組体操), which consists of several calisthenic  exercises which eventually build up to human pyramids and human towers at the end of the event. It was impressive to watch sixth grade boys and girls form pyramids that were six or seven rows high! 

From there, several competitions amongst the students took place. Relay races, games played with throwing balls through hoops, and knocking over targets all were featured prominently. During this time of the day, I mingled with some of my junior high students who have siblings at the elementary school and also chatted with some of my coworkers. It was a great bonding and relationship building experience. 

The final event, and most memorable one for me, was a game in which the students rushed to pass a massive ball over their heads around the 200-meter track with the goal of seeing which team could rest it in place first at the end. Following several failed attempts (and one that almost led to one of the tents being flipped), the white team was able to put their ball into the final position and win the day’s last event. All of the kids were so excited; their screaming, yelling, and frantic jumping to make sure the ball never hit the ground was the highlight of elementary sports day for me. The below photo captures the excitement of the final game. 

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 Next on the horizon for both junior high and elementary school is the culture festival, happening towards the end of November. 

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A Night Above Kobe

Last evening, a friend and I decided to head to the famous Rainbow Bridge in Kobe, Japan, to see what city looks like from the mountain ridge north of the city. What we encountered was truly breathtaking, but the journey to get there was just as eventful. 

Walking from Sannomiya Station, we traversed through back alleys filled with small mopeds, motorcycles, children, and shops on the way to the top of the mountain. On our way, we passed a mosque, several shinto shrines and temples, and some great ramen shops. Whenever I think of Japan, it is these scenes that come to mind first. I always find it amazing how there is such a convergence of old and new in Japan. 

Here is how Kobe looked last night. It was beautiful. I still cannot believe I live here. Image

Reflecting on my South Korean Trip

Good evening. I have finally had a chance to gather my thoughts on this weekend’s Korean adventure for a proper post on the website!

As soon as three years ago, if someone would have told me that I would be atop the Seoul N Tower in South Korea, I would have called them crazy. If the same person had said I would be there with a friend I met in college as a member of the International Student Association, I would have said they were absolutely nuts! I truly believe moments like this are what make life worth living and make it worthwhile to take chances and grab every opportunity that you get whenever it presents itself.

The journey started on Saturday with a short flight from Osaka to Busan, South Korea. From there, I traversed through the city’s extensive metro network to the stop at Haeundae Beach, where my room was located. My first impressions of Korea were nearly exactly what I had expected and I was relieved. Many of my friends had been to Korea in the past, so it was nice that their advice and suggestions were accurate.

That afternoon, I spent some time on the beach, taking in some sun and photographing the elegant scene where the Busan skyline meets the beach. There is always something about the ocean that draws me in for an extended period of time. I stayed longer than I had hoped, but continued on throughout the evening in the general vicinity. I took photos of the traditional marketplace and sampled some Korean food along the evening walk. Image

The hustle and bustle of these crammed, narrow shopping streets is one of my favorite things about traveling, especially in Asia. Hearing the sounds of bartering, children running, and motorcycles serpentining through the crowd is something that everyone must experience once before they die. As night fell in Busan, I continued to Busan Tower to take in the city from above. I am always a sucker for night time city views, and Busan Tower did not disappoint!

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I then strolled through the International Film Festival area before heading back to my room for the evening. I had a ticket for the first train to Seoul on the KTX to meet my friend!

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After the fast, short, and cheap (thanks to the foreigner rail pass that Korea Railroad offers (http://www.korail.com/kr_pass.jsp), I was in Seoul by 10:00AM the following morning, where I met up with my friend for some traditional Korean breakfast and a tour of the city. It was amazing to meet one of my friends in a place so far and different than my university. Perhaps the most remarkable part about it is that she lives in Seoul, I live in Osaka, and we met in Seoul Station for a day out in her home city. We both remarked about how far away we were from Philadelphia.

From the moment I stepped outside of Seoul Station, I felt a vibe of energy and excitement that I have felt nowhere outside of the United States except for Tokyo. It was at that moment where I began to have a very strong affinity towards Seoul. The bustling of the cars, the chatter of pedestrians, and the street vendors everywhere truly makes the city so great. We walked to a palace in Korea and I was able to take in some of the sights and sounds of the more traditional aspects of Old Seoul. Image

There were even traditional guards at the entrance! Image

From there, we ate some more traditional Korean food and eventually ended up at Seoul N Tower following a short bus ride through the city. Image

I love panoramic views of cities and all the industry and majesty that accompanies them, so I took many, many photos of Seoul from above. The locks of love that cover the fence at the base of Seoul Tower were remarkable, but so was the view from the observation deck. I have not felt this high up in my entire life when it comes to viewing a city from above the skyline. Check out the amazing view from Seoul N Tower. Image

From there, it was off to the foreign district in Seoul, where we enjoyed some American drinks and appetizers to close out what was a remarkable day in Seoul. It was at that moment where we discussed our friendship in college, our travels, and what it was like to be meeting in Asia. It was also at that moment when I realized I was so happy that I joined the International Student Assocation at my school. Had I not taken a step outside the box to meet new people after I returned from my first trip to Japan, I never would have had the opportunity to meet so many people and make so many new friends who live abroad, especially in Asia. I never would have had a great tour guide and never would have been able to maneuver and get around in Seoul like I had done that day. It is something I hope to replicate with future trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and subsequent trips to Seoul. If anyone is interested in traveling, cultural exchange, or meeting new people, I strongly suggest you get involved in your university’s international exchange programs. It will change you for the better.

As our meal concluded, the reality hit that I would return to Busan for my flight out the next morning and my friend would return to Seoul for class in the morning. I took the KTX back through the night and arrived in Busan around 11:00PM. After frantically rushing to catch the last train, I returned to my room and went to sleep. I was fortunate enough to catch a glorious sunrise at the beach before heading back to the airport.Image

I had what I considered to be a tremendous weekend in Korea: sightseeing, rekindling friendships, and sampling great food along the way. There is something to be said when you have a friend showing you the way through one of the biggest and most modern cities on the planet. I look forward to returning to Korea someday.

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Until next time.