Memorial Day in Taroko National Park

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Juifen, A Magical Lantern Town

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Bikes, Bubble Tea, and Dumplings

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After a short visit to Wulai in the morning, we made it back to Taipei around noon, which meant we had plenty of time to explore the city some more. We decided it would be fun to give our feet a bit of a break and explore on bikes for the afternoon. Taipei has a great Ubike rental system where you can rent a bike from any doc and return it to another one. We ended up using them for about 4 hours and it only cost $2! We were near the Taipei University, so we took a little ride through the campus which turned out to be quite nice. We stopped to sample their outside cafeteria, where we ordered a huge fried chicken sandwich for a whopping $2! As we were eating a group of students came up to us and asked if they could ask us a few questions for a school project and even asked if I could give them a “free” hug as they snapped a picture.  It was a funny little encounter.

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Our main mission was to bike to Liuzhangli Cemetery. We had read that it was a massive graveyard that incorporates Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist’s tombs. Turns out this place was pretty hard to find, and everyone we asked had never heard of it. But thanks 3 different tourist maps and Mike’s amazing skills we found! The ride was incredibly steep and with only 3 gears it was a sweaty workout. At the top of the hill stands the White Terror Memorial, which is dedicated to those who died during Marital Law.

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White Terror Memorial

I had never even heard of this before, so Mike filled me in with the sad details of how for 38 years Taiwan was suppressed because of Political corruption. As soon as we got to the memorial the sky opened up and it started raining. We took shelter underneath the shrine while we watched a funeral procession with Monks. Luckily the weather cleared up 15 minutes later so we could resume the bike ride.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mountain of Graves

Biking uphill meant we were able to get a closer look at Taipei 101 which was once the worlds tallest building from 2001-2004. The building was designed to look like a bamboo shoot. Do you see the resemblance?

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Getting a closer look at Taipei 101

We made a pit stop to try some Bubble Tea, which is a trendy drink in America where you pay up to $5 for a cup, while in Taiwan it is a staple of their country and a mere $1. You can get any variety of tea that you want, milk tea, green tea, black tea, etc…hot or cold. The highlight of the drink is the squishy tapioca balls that they put in it. SO REFRESHING!

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Bubble, bubble, bubble Tea, Bubble Tea!

Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. As soon as we returned the bikes and headed into Taipei 101 to look around it started down pouring. I mean torrential typhoon like storm. We were so lucky that we made it inside right before the sky opened up! We decided to have a little meal at Din Tai Fung, which is a Michelin rated restaurant known for their famous dumplings. We were pretty satisfied with our dumpling selection and being that it was the first time I’d ever dined at a Michelin rated  restaurant I was pleased with our choice! They have a viewing area where you can watch teams of 8 cooks prepare the dumplings in an assembly like fashion. We were told by our waiter that they make 10,000 dumplings minimum on a slow night!!

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It was still raining cats and dogs so we needed to kill a couple of hours inside. AGAIN, luck was on our side because there was a movie theater inside Taipei 101, that even played ENGLISH movies! We easily walked right up to the ticket counter and bought 2 tickets to see the new Alice Through the Looking Glass movie and the movie started 15 minutes later! The only annoying part was half way through the movie I of course had to go to the bathroom and it turns out they lock the doors from the outside! I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the damn theater…so I just had to hold it till the end!

When the movie ended it was around 8pm and the rain had stopped, so we wandered over to the Shilin Night Market for some more street food and shopping. We weren’t totally thrilled with this market. It was very touristy, loud, and crowded. I did find some purple dragon fruit which is my all time favorite fruit, and impossible to find in the States, so that was deff. the highlight for me. Overall, our day was incredible and a bit spontaneous.🙂

Wulai, Taiwan

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We woke up to our first full day in Taipei, refreshed and eager to explore. Early mornings and evenings are the best time to be out and about because the temperature is actually reasonable. Taiwan is incredibly humid and 90% of the day we were covered in sweat. So we were excited to check out Wulai which is a small indigenous town about an hour outside of Taipei and in the mountains. We were hoping to cool off by doing a little swimming..which you will find out was a failed attempt.IMG_4766

The natural setting that Wulai sits in is gorgeous, lush green mountains, waterfalls, and a crazy teal blue river runner through the town. However, the town itself has seen better days. It’s pretty run down, with most things just simply not in business anymore.FullSizeRenderWe found ourselves walking along an abandoned railroad track up to Wulai Falls, which definitely added to the eerie feeling of the town. The town used to be home to the indigenous tribe of “The Atayal”. This particular tribe had a love of tattoos. When a baby was born they received a small tattoo and then every bday would receive a new one. Without these tattoos you were basically not allowed to partake in society. But, like most tribes in the west their customs and culture has become modernized.  After about a 35 minute walk uphill we made it to the “highlight” of the town. An 80 m high waterfall.

IMG_4762IMG_4761IMG_4759                                                              By this point we were pretty sticky and sweaty so we wanted to cool off in the refreshing looking river that ran through the town. Well just like everything else in the area the RIVER was closed too! The area was not very well maintained and the river looked a bit polluted, and all the “hiking” trails that led down to the river were blocked off. We asked a few locals and even paid a cab driver to bring us to a spot that was mentioned in our guide book, but it was all in vain. We were pretty disappointed! We took a look through the remainder of the town, which incorporated a beautiful temple and some pretty spectacular bridges. By this point it was around 11:30am. Our original plan was to hang out in Wulai all day but with everything being a bust be boarded the bus and headed back to Taipei to see what we could find in the city!

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Taipei, Taiwan

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Taipei, Taiwan

Earlier this month we took a few days to sneak off to Taiwan, which is a small island country southwest of Japan and in between Japan and China.

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Before our trip my knowledge of Taiwan was nonexistent so we were using our time not only for pleasure but for educational purposes too! We heard Taiwan was much cheaper than Japan and with our budget we figured we could get more bang for our buck in the neighboring country, so hey why not!? We booked our tickets through V-AIR , which is a budget airline out of Nagoya. For $150 RT per person we got nonstop airline tickets between  Nagoya and Taipei.Taking a bullet train from Nagoya to Tokyo RT costs $200 so already this was proving to be cheaper!

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During the flight the attendant came around with their V bear mascot and offered to let passengers take picture with it…you just got to love the weirdness of Asia! IMG_4670

We arrived to Taipei 3 hours later, and with the time change we gained an hour..yes! You can either take an 1.5 hour bus or a 35 minute taxi into the center of Taipei so for $30 be opted for the convenience of the Taxi. For the first 2 nights we booked ourselves a hostel at Sleepbox, which was in the Zhongzheng district. Upon arriving at customs the agent asked us questioningly “sleepbox? Is that a hotel”…being my smart ass self I had to stop myself from replying “No, it’s a box we are going to sleep in”! Now, I have to say our hostel was pretty cheap! For 2 nights for a private 2 bed AC’d room we only paid $60 total! The hostel itself was lacking in any sort of community or fun environment but we didn’t mind too much since we had each other to have fun with! * Note for 5 days I managed to pack everything in that small backpack!*IMG_4797

By this point it was around 3pm, so we headed out for the rest of the day to see what we could find in Taipei. Outside of our hostel was a pretty big bustling city.

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We made our way to to Longshan Temple  , which is one of Taiwan’s top religious centers. It’s a Buddhist temple that was founded in 1738 but due to natural disasters has had to be rebuilt a few times. When we arrived it was a pretty lively site, to see. There were many people there praying, chanting and worshiping. Due to the overcast day, you can’t see the magnificent colors and details of the temple in this picture, but it was one of the most intricately designed temples I’ve ever seen. This was also my first experience in seeing a temple with obvious Chinese influence. So much more colorful then the Japanese shrines. IMG_4675

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Outside of the temple is a street known as “Herb Alley”  which is full of Chinese medicinal herbs dried and fresh. If I had have a clue on what I was looking at maybe I would have bought something for some alignment down the line…but nevertheless it was cool to observe!

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One of the many stores in Herb Alley

Next up we headed to Huashan 1914 Creative Park which is a total Taipei hipster hangout. Go figure, it’s an old wine factory/warehouse that has been refurbished into new funky restaurants, shops, and art galleries. It was cool to see what Taipei’s entrepreneurs came up with. This could easily have been found in Denver.

By this point we were pretty thirsty for a beer so we found ourselves at Taipei Brewery, which is another old warehouse built in 1919 and was Taiwan’s first brewery.

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Taiwan’s signature beer

We found ourselves walking through some really bizarre markets, and streets. Being the capital of Taiwan with 2.6 million people in the city as of 2010 , it was definitely an interesting place. Some parts were progressive and new, and some were really old and dirty. I guess like any city. It definitely lacked the cleanliness and order that any city in Japan has though.

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A restaurant with a huge snake staring down its dinner of rats in front.

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There’s little street food carts everywhere

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Chinese influenced street art

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Just a random picture of city architecture.

As you can see up to this point we had done a whole lot of walking and not a lot of eating. But lucky for us Taiwan is famous for their night markets, which was a major attraction for us. WE LOVE NIGHT MARKETS! As you will see we spent 5 nights in Taiwan and we visited a different market every night! First up was the Raohe St. Night Market

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The exchange rate from Yen to Taiwan Dollar was in our favor. Basically 117 yen or $1 US dollar = 35 Taiwan Dollars. All the food at the night market was about 25-60 NTD which means we could feast on anything we wanted for under $2! SCORE!

Things we tried on our first night, was fried fish paste, fried shrimp balls, stinky tofu which is infamous and a must try even though it seriously smells so bad. And for dessert we had a treat that I am now forever addicted to! It’s a spring roll with shaved peanut brittle, sherbet ice cream, and cilantro all rolled up into a wrap! AMAZING!

In the market we came across a Wan-Lien stand, which is something I’ve always wanted try..it’s a threading technique that removes unwanted face hair. In the states it would set you back around $60-100 and here it only cost $7!!

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Somehow I managed to talk Mike into it to…it was like a cat was ferociously licking our face and pulling our hair off. It was not a comfortable feeling…but now our faces are nice and smooth!

Right outside the market was a beautiful temple so we took a peak in since it was quite enchanting looking.

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And thats a wrap of our first day in Taipei!

Tsumago-Magome Hike

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Tsumago-Magome Hike

Back in May we finally had the chance to put on the good ol’ hiking shoes again and headed to the Gifu prefecture to hike the Tsumago-Magome Trail which is in Kiso Valley. It had been on our hiking list for a while and then during Golden week our tour guide Masa recommended it too, so I knew it was a must do. Only 2 hours away from Nagoya by train and bus it was an easy all day adventure.

Back in the Edo period the Nakasendo trail was actually a postal road that people traveled between Kyoto and Tokyo on. Nowadays it’s a well preserved 8km hiking trail between the two towns. The day was a little cloudy which was great because it made for the perfect hiking weather.

We completely enjoyed our walk on the wild side. It’s always refreshing to get out of the city, even for just a couple of hours.

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Kanazawa the City of Gold

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Kanazawa the City of Gold

Last but not least on our Golden week Itinerary was the artsy coastal town of Kanazawa. Thanks to Japans efficient railway we were able to board a train from Kyoto zoomed 260 km northwest and arrived a mere 2.5 hours later!

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Boarding the train!

We checked into Hotel Trusty which was super fancy and our rooms had actual beds! The last 3 places we stayed in were traditional Japanese style beds, which means futons on the ground. NOT complaining…it was just nice to have a real bed for the next 3 nights! We were all pretty exhausted so we kind of just lounged and hung out before more exploring begin.

We decided to make appointments for much needed massages, and along the way we saw a store named Basile 28! How cool! Too bad the cheapest item was a $300 tshirt!IMG_4467

We decided to rent bikes one day to give our feet a rest. Kanazawa is surprisingly bike friendly, which made it easy for us to venture all the way to the Japan Sea! We guesstimated the trip to be around 8 km round trip. Unfortunately, the actual beach was FULL of trash. I had actually never seen such a sad and polluted looking beach before. The coast we were on wasn’t too far from China so maybe thats where all the trash washed up from. Either way we hope there is a program in place to clean it up!

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Along the bike path

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What a stud…

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We made it! 

Next stop was the Omi-Cho fish market, where you could sample pretty much any kind of seafood that you wanted! Mike and I chose to try an Oyster that cost us $8 and was ginormous! It wasn’t all that bed, if you like that kind of texture.Lou also found a giant Tuna head..poor thing didn’t have a good day!

No trip to Kanazawa is complete without a visit to the Kenrokuen Garden. Being that it is rated in the top 3 most beautiful Gardens in Japan, it didn’t disappoint!

Because Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaf, EVERYTHING in the town has gold leaf shavings on it. So of course I had to get myself an $8 gold leaf ice ream!

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We also visited a house where Geisha’s used to live! Even though Kanazawa is a modern city it also has a well preserved historical district known as the Chaya (Tea) district.

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Our 3 days in Kanazawa were lovely and relaxing. We gorged ourselves on amazing seafood, wandered into little artist boutiques and enjoyed our family time together. All together it was a successful Golden Week Vacation!

Mt. Koyasan

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Mt. Koyasan

Next stop on our Grand Golden week adventure was the spiritual town of Koyasan. Koyasan is a Buddhist town tucked away in the Koyasan mountain range not too far from Nara.  We rented a car to get there and with Mikes sweet driving skills we got there without any hiccups. I should mention that the road to Koyasan is not for the faint of heart. It is swirly, windy, and for those of week stomachs like myself; you’ll want to be prepared for a little car sickness!

We easily found our sleeping quarters for the night, which happened to be in a Buddhist Temple or a Shukubo. There were so many different temples to choose one but we some finally managed to pick Daienin  which was founded in 923!! Talk about ancient!

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The front of the temple

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Daienin

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One of the many rooms in the temple

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Hallways inside Daienin

The town of Koyasan is chalked full of Temples, shrines and other Buddhist artifacts. Since we were all basically clueless to the history and meaning behind everything we picked up audio guides at the local information shop. Even though the weather was a bit chilly that didn’t stop us from exploring the town and getting a history lesson.

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Part of the Kumano Kodo

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Beauty is everywhere

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Listening to our audio guide

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Just Mike and a local Buddhist Monk 

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This Monk looks like he is studying..but he’s actually on his phone!

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Entrance Guardians 

Staying in a Buddhist temple means that you have to eat your meals at a specific time! Since it was cold and drizzling outside we were all happy to put on our robes and head to dinner! If only we were at Hogwarts! Both dinner and breakfast were vegetarian  but the food was great and the portion sizes were just right!

Curfew was 9 pm but I’m pretty sure we were all in bed by 8pm that night because of how tired we were! (Thats right there’s A LOT of rules at these temples!)

The next morning refreshed from our 12 hours of sleep we headed to Okunoin Temple, which is by far the highlight of the town. There are over 200,000 moss covered tombs in this cemetery which is surrounded by ancient trees and basically a sacred forest. Some of the tombs date back to 900. It was more than surreal. At the end of the forest is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in the religious history of Japan. My pictures don’t even begin to do this place justice.

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Everywhere you look is another tomb

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Moss covered tombs

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Lou trying to hear the sounds of hell!

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Small bibs on statues represent children who have passed

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Important Monks doing Important things

 

Nara the City of Deer

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Nara the City of Deer

We spent a very full day in the little town of Nara, just 40 minutes outside of Kyoto. After we dropped off our luggage at the luxurious  Wakasa Bettei  we met our tour guide Chieko who is a volunteer with the Nara Guide Club. Throughout the day she showed us all of the main spots in Nara and did a wonderful job patiently explaining the history of this little town!

Isui-en Garden– A traditional Japanese Garden that was built in the 17th century. It has what is called a “borrowed” scenery feature because the garden incorporates the natural surroundings into it.

Todai-ji Temple: One of Japans most famous temples and Nara’s most popular. The Todaiji temple; the worlds largest wooden building holds a Buddha that is 15 meters tall!

Nara deer: Nara is famous for it’s 1200 deer that live and roam freely throughout the town. The town promotes feeding the deer and you can even buy deer cookies! We actually tried the deer cookies ourselves and they are mostly just oats. Some of the deer are really cute, and some are rude and greedy! One even dared to head butt my butt!

Kasuga Taisha and surroundings: We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the Grand Shrine area and marvelling at the beauty of everything.

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Deer temple

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Lanterns

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Calligraphy lesson

About mid afternoon we were ready for a a little Sake tasting!

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After our day with Chieko was finished we headed back to our Ryokan where we relaxed in the Onsen and prepared for our 8 course Kaiseki dinner. It was by far the most beautifully elaborate meal I have ever had. The dinner lasted 2.5 hours and at one point we even had a photo shoot. What a day!

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Kyoto Day 3

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We all somehow managed to get ourselves out the door at 8am for our last full day in Kyoto. There were 4 main things on our agenda for the day:

Kiyomizu-Dera Temple– By 8:30 am this place was already packed full of tour buses and tourists like ourselves. But I can see why people enjoy coming here. This temple is built up on a hill which offers fantastic views of the Kyoto valley in the distance. The temple is surrounded by a few pagodas and offers a lot of shaded areas which helps with the heat. The main draw here is 11 face 42 arm Kannon, who is the God of compassion.

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3 Tiered Pagoda

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Kiyomizu Dera

 

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I spy a Pagoda

**We ended up spending more time here then we thought mostly because the streets running up to most tourists places are packed full of souvenir shops. So of course I had to get my fill!**

From here we jumped in a taxi and went to Sanjusangendo but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures. However, this might have been all of our favorite places! It’s a temple with a 1001 Kannon’s inside..the biggest one has 1000 arms and 11 heads. The whole building is dimly lit with incense burning which adds to the spookiness of it! Go if you can!

Fushimi-Inari Shrine-  Up to this point in the trip we had mostly been visiting Buddhist temples. Fushimi was our first experience in a Shinto setting in Kyoto. Shinto is the indigenous religion in Japan. What makes Fushimi great is that there are over 3000 Torii gates that line a hiking path up to the top of a mount Inari  By the time we got to Fushimi it was swarming with people, and with the sun beating down we weren’t in the mood to hike to the top of the mountain. But it was definitely worth the visit.

After we had a much needed lunch we went to see a Geisha show! We were able to snag some tickets to a Pontocho Theater performance.  Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed Boo! Depending on what month you  visit Kyoto depends on what kind of performance is happening, if any! The Pontocho theater is located in the red light district of Kyoto..which is nothing like the red light district of Amsterdam don’t worry! I have to say it was cool to be in the same room as real live Geisha’s but given the fact that everything was in Japanese left us feeling a little clueless when it came to the story line. I can’t speak for Mikes Dad who fell asleep during the performance but I enjoyed it!