Tag Archives: Park

Travel Guide: Tokyo

People love Tokyo. Rave about it. Spend days there and then return for another visit.

I have to admit, I don’t quite get it. I liked being in Tokyo because it’s just sort of cool to be in a city of 9.2 million people with the greater population totaling around 13 million. Unlike many other major cities, Tokyo is clean and it functions and people are so polite and helpful. It also, oddly, doesn’t feel crowded at all, perhaps because it sprawls. As a friend pointed out when I shared my lack of enthusiasm of Tokyo, the city is fascinating because there’s no other place like it.

Tokyo was the last stop on my Japan trip with my parents when they came to visit Singapore. We were based in Kyoto and Hiroshima before spending the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima and passed the enormous Mt. Fuji on the way. I was too enthralled with staring out the window to take out my camera; it rose up out of nowhere and then the landscape flattened out again. I’m using to seeing mountain ranges, not singular mountains. Really quite cool.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we had to navigate the metro to the hotel. I don’t know whether it’s better to say that I went the wrong way or that I lost Mum and Dad, but everyone arrived in the end. Tokyo’s metro is confusing because it’s comprised of multiple train systems that seem to overlap but tourist passes only work on some of them. Multiple train lines are located in the same stations so you really do need to know where you’re going and how to get there. If you’re not looking at the correct map, it’s really easy to get on the wrong train going in the correct direction. If this happens, your ticket won’t scan on the way out and you have to pay the ticket agent in cash. Not a big deal but best to avoid since you’ve paid for a pass anyway.

After reuniting, our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. I was definitely more interested in the walk through the trees than the shrine itself. It was nice to see grass and feel wide open space after a long train ride and an abrupt reintroduction to urban life.

From there we made our way to Harajuku to walk down Takeshita Street where there’s something for everyone as long as you’re open to it.

Takeshita Street felt like a place of relatively few rules or boundaries where kids could act like adults and adults could remember being kids. It was a fantastic place to look around and laugh at the juxtaposition of Tokyo business suits and teenagers wearing the height of Japanese fashion trends.

After some browsing in shops along the way, our last stop for the evening was Shibuya Crossing. Like everyone else, we crossed the street and then looked out the windows of the train station across the road.

In contrast to the lights and glamor of Shinjuku where we were staying we spent much of the next day in Asakusa, a neighborhood typical of traditional Tokyo.

We enjoyed looking at all the little shops and stalls but were not fond of the crowds leading to the temple. Senso-ji is a popular tourist attraction and was extremely busy on this Saturday morning. I was more than happy looking at the intricacies of the gates and leaving the temple itself to devotees.

The weather in Tokyo was the best we’d had so we took the opportunity to walk across the river on our way to the Tokyo Skytree. Much like travelling around Europe, it wasn’t hard to find. We headed for the tallest building and followed the signs as we got closer.

There are two options if you’re interested in the observation deck of the Skytree, which is the world’s tallest tower. You can take the lift up 350 meters and stop there or go all the way up to 450 meters. There’s a third option that is an open air guided tour complete with hard hats, but Mum vetoed that. The view from 450 meters was astounding enough.

It’s dizzying being up there, too! It’s really, really high!

We wandered around some more for the rest of the afternoon and then found Popeye, the bar that sells the greatest variety of beer in Tokyo and also brews its own. Their happy hour deal included a free appetiser with every beer ordered. Dinner, anyone?

To close the day, we looked down on Tokyo at night. The observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is free, open late, and 200 meters up. Pretty cool view from up there, too.

And then it was back to vibrant, bright Shinjuku for bed. I’d wanted to visit that neighborhood since I read my first Haruki Murakami novel and there we were. I don’t know if I’ll make much of an effort to come back to Tokyo, but I’d love to visit Japan again. There’s so much more see and experience. But then, that’s true of every place. Mum and Dad, thanks for joining me on this adventure! I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Upstate Hiking

My family has always loved hiking and we used to do a lot of state park camping when we were growing up. I have fond memories of weekends spent in Stony Brook, Watkins Glen, and Letchworth, all of which are just a couple hours’ drive from Rochester. Last summer, we spent a week in the Adirondacks hiking, boating, and spending time without cell phone service in beautiful scenery. This year, for the first time ever, we had a proper staycation in the Rochester area and spent the week doing a variety of Fun Family Activities, which ranged from hiking and wine tasting to board games and bar trivia. We chose Letchworth State Park for our hike because the park is huge and we knew it would be easy terrain for the dog.

I love the gorges at Letchworth . . .

 

. . . the trees . . .

 

. . . and everything that grows and lives along the trails. . . .

 

Pretty, right? I highly recommend a visit. Need a buddy? Happy to go with you if I’m in the area! If camping isn’t your thing, there’s the beautiful Glen Iris Inn in the park, too, and the best view of the gorge is just beyond.

But one hike was not enough, so my sister and I spent a day at her newest local find, Grimes Glen, which has now topped the list of my favorite Rochester area hikes. It’s also probably the most challenging hike I’ve done around here and perhaps the only hike that my sister and I have done just the two of us. And we had such a great time.

Grimes Glen is basically a walk up Grimes Creek that takes you in the creek itself . . .

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I sorely missed my Tevas, sitting unhelpfully outside the door of my apartment in Singapore.

. . . scaling ropes tethered to trees and rocks to get up the banks and waterfalls . . .

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. . . and picking your way through trees, waterways, and shale walls that basically become a playground!

 

There are three major waterfalls at Grimes Glen and we spent a few hours sitting on the ledge of the third fall. It was tricky to get to and we saw exactly three groups of people in the entire time we were there. The noise of the water echoed off the shale and our vantage point from the top of the waterfall let us see all the way to the bend in the creek. It was so unexpectedly private!

 

Once the sun reached the highest point in the sky, we were ready for a swim. I find counting to three very motivating and my sister was kind enough to indulge me until I was (briefly) completely submerged in the frigid water. I couldn’t bring myself to join her in the fall itself, though, not once I came up shrieking because of the cold. My last swimming in a waterfall experience was in Laos a couple years ago where it was much, much warmer!

And the privacy I mentioned? We climbed back up to our ledge and spent a few minutes topless to dry off, enjoying the sun after our dip. And why not, really?


Upstate New York may be older, emptier, and more downtrodden than I remembered, but it’s as beautiful as ever.

Go exploring. Spend some time outside; it’s lovely there.

Travel Guide: Brussels

Spring break this year took me to Europe with the excuse of seeing my brother who’s studying in London. After two nights in the Netherlands with days spent in both Leiden and The Hague, I started for Brussels on what should have been an easy journey of just under three hours with a change of trains in Rotterdam. Well then. For reasons that are still unclear to me but likely relate to the train strikes that are not entirely uncommon in Europe, the journey ended up being far more exciting (and only about an hour longer) than I’d expected.

It took about 20 minutes and two stations for the fun to begin. We were stopped for an abnormally long time in Den Haag HS before an announcement prompted grumbles, eye rolls, irritated looks, and a flurry of activity. I can make very little sense of Dutch, but I do understand the universal language of mass transit delays. We got off the cancelled train; I asked directions and took the next train to Rotterdam. This train was due to arrive about two minutes before my originally scheduled train to Brussels and those two minutes were surprisingly enough time to grab my backpack and change platforms. All was well and good on train number three until that train, too, stopped unexpectedly. This time, the announcement came in Dutch, French, and English so I was clued into what was happening by the second announcement. We were in Roosendaal, I found our later, and a conductor told me I had two options: I could take the train about to leave for Antwerp and then go to Brussels from there, or I could wait an hour and take a train directly to Brussels. The Antwerp train, he told me, would be faster. And Antwerp, as I learned from the Dutch lady who told me where we were, had a really pretty train station.

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In Antwerp, I again asked directions and finally got on the train to Brussels. Now that we were in Belgium, all announcements came in Dutch, French, and English and I was pleased that high school French left me able to understand and communicate what I needed to know and do. And after deciding not to take one train and listening again to announcements, I also learned that Bruxelles-Midi and Brussel-Zuid are the same station. Noted.

It took five trains and four hours but finally I was in Brussels! A few friends had told me to be careful there and that they had not felt safe, and I immediately understood why. Brussels is metropolitan and creative, gritty and unapologetic, with a metro system that has seen better days. There is very visible income inequality and poverty and all the social problems that come with it. Homelessness is hidden in Singapore and the small towns of Leiden and The Hague are not the places where that’s generally a problem. Brussels, however, was a different story. Brussels also has very large immigrant populations and significant racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and I know (though it’s upsetting to realize) that’s often intimidating to people. More than anything, Brussels reminded me of Manhattan and I had one of those moments where I missed it.

As in Leiden, I dropped my bag at my Airbnb and headed out. I stopped at the first pancake restaurant I saw to get my bearings. Everyone in Brussels speaks multiple languages, much like in Singapore, and it was a great opportunity to practice my French. With the exception of a bar I’d visit later on, planning for my time in Brussels amounted to zero but the day was warm and sunny and that’s all I needed.

 

Not too long after I started walking along the Mont des Arts, I heard music coming from a group of street performers. Ed Sheeran gets me every time so I sat down on the steps, ate some almonds, and just listened to them play. Brussels and I were going to get along quite well.

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I really enjoyed the street art that I passed throughout the day. I like seeing how the people of a city want their city to look and I am fascinated by the social norms around street art all over the world.

 

Europe is easy to explore because every city, even the most modern ones, have stunning churches that act both as something to do and a landmark on map. Brussels was no exception and I stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula when I accidentally found myself in front of it.

 

I followed signs to Brussels Park to see the Royal Palace . . .

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. . . and then more signs to the European Parliament, which was celebrating the life and work of early twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil. I read an anthology of her work a year ago, so that was cool and unexpected.

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I realized that I’d accidentally skipped a whole section of the city I’d wanted to see, which happens when you lack a plan, map, and cellular data, so I doubled back to visit Notre Dame du Sablon but decided not to go inside. One church was enough for the day.

 

When it started to drizzle, I took a seat on a bench in the park front of Egmont Palace, which is not a palace but a mansion, to figure out a plan . . .

 

. . . and realized that I was right near the Great Synagogue. My dad’s voice in my head led me in that direction and I asked the four Belgian soldiers at the heavy side door whether I was allowed in. You can knock, they told me, but we’ve been knocking and no one’s answering.

 

I took that as a no because I know that the Jewish community of Brussels is almost always on high alert. Instead, I kept walking and came across a World War I memorial that wasn’t on the maps posted around the city.

 

Just beyond the memorial was a pretty view that really captures Brussels for me. The picnicking couple had actually climbed over a fence to get to their spot and they weren’t the only ones. You’ve got to love a city with freethinkers like that.

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The only actual plan I had upon arriving in Brussels was to visit Delirium Café, a Mecca for beer lovers. Walking there took me past Belgian souvenir shops that made my mouth water . . .

 

. . . through the absolutely stunning Grand-Place (or Grote Markt), which is impossible to capture in still imagery and where I took photos for several groups of tourists . . .

 

. . . past the famous Manneken Pis . . .

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. . . and down more than one little alley lined with restaurants and shops and decorated with fancy street lights. But get there I did!

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I wandered through what is essentially an entire complex dedicated to good beverages and then found a seat at one of the many bars. I ordered a beer and some cheese and took out my journal and a book, planning to stay put for a couple hours. When the bartender brought back my change, I was too distracted by where I was and watching all the people to remember that euros, unlike Singapore dollars, come in two-dollar coins instead of notes. I ended up leaving a really big tip but became friends with the bartender as a result. And with a French medical student an hour later who asked me whether the wifi was working (it wasn’t) and to help him understand a word in the English medical textbook he was reading. The student nodded approvingly when the bartender asked what kind of beer I wanted to try next, brought over two bottles for me to choose from based on my requests (local and dark), and waved away my wallet when I asked to pay before getting up to leave yet another hour later.

It was raining hard when I stopped for Mexican food on the street where I was staying. One thing I noticed throughout my travels is how spoiled I’ve been in Singapore and New York where everything – grocery stores, convenience stores, full service restaurants – is open at all hours. Europe closes early and after 9pm, one cannot be picky.

The following morning, though, was bright and sunny. I was heading out to Ghent and Bruges for the day but I’d return to Brussels for the night. Brussels is a city I was happy to explore and would be glad to spend more time.

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