Friday, 3 April 2020

Japan Journeys: Osaka

Disclaimer: There is a currently a travel advisory issued against all non-essential travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Government of Canada and the State Department have advised all Canadians and Americans to avoid all non-essential travel due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, all major cruise lines have suspended operations around the world until mid-May. I am not promoting any travel during this time. Please do not travel. I am just sharing my past travels and continuing to work on my blog while we are all staying at home, practicing social distancing. If you are reading this, stay safe and healthy out there. Take care of yourself and each other. 

Aside from the low price of this sailing, the itinerary was the other reason why we chose this cruise. Japan was on my wish list for a long time, so this cruise would give me a taste of Japan. Our three ports of call were Osaka, Kobe and Yokohama.

Our first stop was Osaka. We had over twelve hours in Osaka but we also wanted to see Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto, so we booked a tour with Royal Caribbean. When you're travelling to an area that's far away from the port, we always recommend booking an excursion with the ship. By doing so, it is guaranteed that the ship will wait for you should the excursion run late. Our excursion left first thing upon arrival, which was around mid-morning. It took over three hours to get to Kyoto by bus.

Upon arrival in Kyoto, our tour group went straight to Fushimi Inari-taisha, Kyoto's most important Shinto shrine. It is best known for its thousands of vermilion torii shrine gates. The gates lead into Mount Inari, which is 233 metres above sea level. The challenging hike up the mountain takes about two hours. Fushimi Inari is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. There are also many fox statues across the shrine grounds, as they were thought to be Inari's messengers.

It was a particularly hot day in Kyoto (over 30°C), and it was extremely crowded. There were a lot of people at the shrine. The combination of crowds and heat didn't exactly make it a pleasant visit. The best time to visit would be first thing in the morning when the crowds are still light and the temperature is still mild. Of course, due to our constraints, we didn't have a choice in the matter. (Note: Fushimi Inari is opened 24 hours, and has no admission fee. It is lit up at night so visitors can see the trails.) My husband was a saint, and had a ton of patience taking photos of me in front of the torii gates. It was a difficult shot because there are always tourists walking by. We didn't have a lot of time at Fushimi Inari. Before we knew it, it was time to go. As with any excursions, there is a sell before you get back to the ship. In our case, we stopped at a high end Japanese craft shop. We were given some free time, but we weren't interested in purchasing any art. Instead, we walked down the block and stumbled upon a pharmacy, and stopped to buy some snacks.

Our excursion ended with a drop off back at our ship. Since we had such a long stop in Osaka, we decided to head back out to Dotonbori for dinner. From the port, we took a taxi to Dotonbori. Japanese taxis have a high rate. We paid a fairly expensive fare for a twenty minute ride. Dotonbori is a tourist area that runs along the Dotonbori canal in the Namba district. It is a popular area for shopping and eating. The area is lit up brightly at night, with prominent billboards that illuminate the streets. The best known billboard is the Glico display of a runner crossing a finishing line.

We went on our own mini food tour in Dotonburi, eating as much food as we possibly could within three hours. We stopped by the food stands along the canal and had freshly grilled scallops, takoyaki (not pictured), and melonpan. We also stopped in a ramen shop for a bowl of ramen. By then, we were stuffed. Getting around in Osaka was easy, and we felt safe in the area even though it was late at night. Our ship left at 1 in the morning, but we were back onboard well before midnight. We had a long day, and another one ahead of us! Next up: Kobe, Japan.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Quantum of... Solace

Disclaimer: There is a currently a travel advisory issued against all non-essential travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Government of Canada and the State Department have advised all Canadians and Americans to avoid all non-essential travel due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. In addition, all major cruise lines have suspended operations around the world until at least mid-April. I am not promoting any travel during this time. Please do not travel. I am just sharing my past travels and continuing to work on my blog while we are all practicing social distancing. If you are reading this, stay safe and healthy out there. Take care of yourself and each other. 

There are many places in China we wanted to visit but we only had two weeks, and with it being our first trip to China, we decided to take it easy. After our must-visits (Shanghai Disneyland and the Bund), we decided to set sail on a cruise. We chose a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise to Japan; it was our first time in Japan as well.

We didn't have high expectations for the cruise. We had heard a lot about cruises in Asia, both good and bad. It's important that you do your research carefully before you head on an Asian cruise. A cruise in Asia is entirely different than a cruise in the Caribbean. The cruise is catered to the Chinese. The culture on the ship is entirely different. I don't want to discourage anyone from going on an Asian cruise, but I do want to make people aware of the cultural differences. As I've previously mentioned, my husband and I were not as affected, as we come from an Asian dominated Canadian city, and we are ourselves are of Asian decent, so we were familiar with the cultural differences.

Transportation: It was a long trek from the heart of Shanghai to the port of Baoshan, at about 75 minutes, but the taxi was cheap at around $25 - $30.

Embarkation: Because we were Emerald members, we were able to embark quite early. We were so happy to be able to do so, because we walked by a line of at least a thousand people lining up (in the heat) to embark.

Ship: We had wanted to sail on the Quantum class at some point in our lives. They mostly sail in Asia so we were thrilled to get the chance to sail on it. The ship was still pretty new, and in good shape. The Quantum is the 7th largest ship in the world, but it didn't feel nearly as big as the Oasis, but not small like the Navigator. We had a cove balcony stateroom with plenty of cabin storage. On that note, I loved our cove balcony! It felt private and it was very quiet.

Crew: The crew spoke some English, many understood what we were saying but had trouble speaking. Our stateroom attendant was great. He cleaned our room quickly. We didn't see much of him, but when we asked for anything, he delivered.

Activities: There's a chance to give acrobatics a try at the SeaPlex. There are a lot of activities such as bumper cars (shown below), rock climbing, the North Star (for a fee; shown below in action), RipCord by iFly (skydiving at sea for a fee; shown below), and of course, the FlowRider and much, much more. Tip: Book the North Star as soon as you get on the ship, we made the mistake of not doing so and it booked up fast for the rest of the week! We were bummed about that.

Entertainment: The shows are in Mandarin, but were all very entertaining and wonderfully performed. We especially loved Starwater, a visual production with robotic light technology and human choreography. There is also the casino. My husband likes to gamble, but it closed early almost every night.

Food: Dynamic dining with no set dining times, no assigned seats, and no formal nights. It was chaotic. The Chinese line up super early to get in the dining room. There are two seatings, and both have long lines. On any given day, we would wait at least thirty minutes for a table. You get a different table and a different server every night, and the menu is largely a variety of different Chinese cuisine. We aren't familiar with Northern Chinese foods, and we did try some, but we weren't a fan. We enjoyed the Southern Chinese food because it was what we were used to at home. We didn't know there was a Western menu until Day 4. The buffet was great as well, although they mostly served the same foods during the week. It was typical for long lines at the buffet, and to wait in line for the buffet, only to have someone cut in in front of you to get food. A simple (but stern) "excuse me" may get the offender to tuck their tail in between their legs and scurry away, but not always. On our last night, we were invited to Chops Grille for complimentary dinner. It was a lovely break from the crowds and the meal was superb!

Disembarkation: We strolled off the ship and grabbed a taxi back into the city. There are a ton of taxis at the port, and only the Westerners take it. The locals all get picked up.

Ports: I saved the best for last. The ports were the whole reason why we wanted to go on this cruise. Japan was on my wish list for a long time, we didn't think we would be able to visit anytime soon so we decided on this cruise to get a taste of Japan. The ports of call were Osaka, Kobe and Yokohama. All are major cities and there were so many things to do at each one. I'll be getting into what we did at each port in more details in my next few posts!

Stay tuned!

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Shanghai Stories: Old City

The next day, we visited the Old City of Shanghai. The first attraction we visited was Yuyuan Garden. Yuyuan Garden is a classical Chinese garden. The garden has beautiful greenery with many grand stone sculptures, and classic Chinese architecture. There is a beautiful pond with koi fish in the middle of the garden. Koi fish attract good luck and fortune, which is why the Chinese hold such a high regard for these fishes. At the time of our entrance, the admission fee was 10 RMB. The garden is inside the bazaar. The bazaar is a maze but the garden is not hard to find as there are signs that lead you there.

One thing we missed at the Old City was afternoon tea at the Huxinting Teahouse. It is Shanghai's oldest teahouse, located by the Yuyuan Garden. If you plan to visit, I suggest making reservations ahead of time!

We also walked around the bazaar surrounding the temple and garden. The marketplace sold local souvenirs and snacks. We stopped by a well known dumpling store, Nanxiang Mantou Dian, to try out their xiaolongbaos. Shanghai's best known snack food is the xiaolongbao, or quite simply XLBs. These little dumplings are filled with hot soup and a pork filling; they are traditionally steamed in a bamboo basket. We also visited the City God Temple, with the admission price of 10 RMB.

After spending the whole day in the Old City, we decided to head to the Oriental Pearl Tower next. The Oriental Pearl Tower is located across from the Bund, on the other side of the Huangpu river. The tower had a revolving restaurant and an observation deck with a glass-bottomed skywalk for visitors. You can purchase different tour packages to visit the tower online or in person. We opted not to go inside as we didn't have much time. The tower is brightly lit in different LED sequences at night, so we spent some time watching the light show.

There are also several malls in the area, and Shanghai's flagship Disney store. We walked around the area and visited the Disney store, but soon found ourselves hungry. There weren't a whole lot of good food choices, and the restaurant (Din Tai Fung) we had wanted to go in the area had unfortunately closed down. We ended up grabbing something mediocre in the mall to fill our tummies.

Next up: a 7-day cruise to Japan!

Monday, 13 January 2020

Shanghai Stories: The Bund

After two fun-filled days in Shanghai Disneyland, we headed into the heart of Shanghai for two days.

Cabs are extremely inexpensive in Shanghai, and we found ourselves often taking the cab instead of the Metro in the interest of time. Although, the Metro was also very easy to use and extremely efficient.

We arrived to the Intercontinental early so we dropped off our luggage, and decided to explore the area. Intercontinental is located in the heart of Shanghai's financial district, about a 10 minute Metro ride from the Bund. Our hotel was farther away from the waterfront, but we had a better rate staying further away from the Bund. The hotel was also older, but the rooms had been renovated in the past few years. I really enjoyed their breakfast - we had fresh juice every morning! We were on one of the higher floors too, so we had a nice view of the area as well. We stopped for a quick lunch at Yang's, then headed to Tianzifang, a touristy shopping area in the French Concession area of Shanghai.

After some browsing and more eating, we made our way to Nanjing Road. Nanjing Road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world. The shopping area extends from People's Square to the Bund. We walked along the street until we finally reached the Bund.

We waited until after sunset so the city lights were bright. We spent around an hour at the Bund to take photographs. It takes quite a bit of patience and a little bit pushing to get to the waterfront. Here's what you see online vs. the reality of the crowds.

Afterwards, we had dinner at a restaurant near the Bund. It was a long wait, so we ended up having quite a late dinner. We walked back to Nanjing Road to catch the Metro back to our hotel, and grabbed dessert at McDonald's along the way. We had a slow day, but we needed it to ease ourselves back into the hustle and bustle of the fast paced city life.

Friday, 1 November 2019

First Stop: Shanghai Disneyland

It's always hard to review Disney. Each park is different and unique in their own way. I've never been disappointed by any of the Disney parks we've visited. I wasn't wowed by Shanghai Disneyland, but it is a fairly young park so I know there is a lot of potential.

One thing to note is, even though this is a Disney park, it is very much Chinese. A lot of North Americans experience culture shock when visiting China, and Disney is no exception. I am not going to sugarcoat it. There is a lot of line-cutting, pushing, and yelling. Generally, the locals will back off if you stand your ground. My husband and I were both born and raised in a multicultural city, where a lot of Chinese people live. We experience a lot of line-cutting, pushing, and yelling at home in general, so we weren't surprised by the culture and social norms in China.

Shanghai Disneyland is pretty massive. It's quite a walk around the park as the distance between lands are pretty far apart - plenty of room for expansion in the future. We spent two days in Shanghai Disneyland. It was more than enough time to ride every ride and try all the food. For guests who stay on Disney property, there is a separate entrance which is opened earlier. We didn't go early, but we did get in the park a lot faster due to shorter lines at this special entrance.

Shanghai Disneyland was nearing the end of their Spring-Easter Celebration, so a lot of decorations were still on display.

We got a lot done on Day 1 and it was a good thing we did. Our first ride was easy and calm. We rode Pirates, and we loved it. It's a very different ride and much more exciting than the snoozers in Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. We walked through the Garden of the Twelve Friends, a rest area where the Chinese zodiac are depicted by Disney characters, and watch the lively stage show ("Golden Fairytale Fanfare") in front of the castle. We walked through the Alice in Wonderland Maze and did a little window shopping. We lined up for Rex's Racer for a little over an hour, which was the longest line we experienced at the park. It was a short, but exhilarating ride! We enjoyed it. Next, we were on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which we had a FastPass for. We grabbed lunch afterwards. It was sunny and a lot warmer by this point, so we headed back to the castle for some pictures.

As we finished up our pictures, a parade - "Disney Color-Fest, A Street Party! - started. Perfect timing! Super catchy tunes too.

Tron was next, followed by more exploring and snacking, before we ended up at the "Once Upon a Time" Adventure in the castle. We had a quick dinner afterwards. After dinner, we rode Tron one more time, and Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue. We ended our night with the "Ignite the Dream" fireworks celebration.

We slowed down on Day 2 because the weather was a lot more extreme. It was over 30 degrees by noon, and it was hot. Shanghai Disneyland has very little shade. We saw two shows back to back just to seek out shade. All the shows and rides were in Mandarin. I had pretty much no idea what they were saying, but the Pirate of Caribbean show was pretty amazing. It's action-packed with great effects!

The Tarzan show was even better! I could not rave enough about this stage show. The acrobatic performers were amazing. It was like a mini Cirque du Soleil show!

We rode a lot of the same rides, with the exception of Peter Pan's Flight and Roaring Rapids. After lunch, we had to go back to hotel to cool off. We ended up eating in Disneytown for lunch and dinner. We weren't very interested in the food, but the park has a lot of interesting and delicious snacks. The pork fluff corn dog was really good, as was the tea drink in the Minnie Mouse souvenir cup. Unfortunately, the Mike Wazowski bun was pretty to look at, but it was super dry and hard.

Overall, we had a wonderful time in Shanghai Disneyland, and we would love to go back. They are already currently expanding with the first ever Zootopia-land. The park is young, so we're excited to see what they have planned!