Tag Archives: Trees

Travel Guide: Kyoto and Around

April is cherry blossom season in Japan and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. April is also early spring, which means the weather is highly variable. Umbrellas and layers were key to feeling comfortable wandering around Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital beginning in the 8th century. It remained the seat of power in Japan for over a thousand years and historic monuments, shrines, and temples abound. Renting a kimono for the day is a common activity in Kyoto and it was fun to see people dressed up – almost like going back in time!

This was my first trip in Asia with both parents and it was a fully immersive experience. (Dad and I went to Thailand and Vietnam a few years ago when I first moved to Singapore.) We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto immediately after we landed and that made for a long day of travel; we were glad to finally be there!

We settled in and then went to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which was beautiful in the rain. The sound of the trees and smell of the earth was a lovely change from urban life in Singapore.

The next morning was sunny and we started early at Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine known for its red torii gates. Fushimi-Inari is guarded by foxes and statues of them are located around the mountain. It was a beautiful walk and felt other worldly, as though passing through each set of gates was a doorway to somewhere else.

The view on the way up was stunning, too.

My dad wanted to visit Tofukuji Temple because he’d read that it has beautiful gardens, which I’m sure it does once spring actually blooms. But trees were budding and the ground was covered in moss and that was good enough for me.

From there, we went to Nishiki Market, a covered arcade of streets selling all sorts of food products, clothing, and souvenirs. I was mostly interested in the food stalls and we returned a couple days later to explore further. It was so enjoyable to smell new smells, taste new tastes, and just look around. Markets are always a travel highlight for me because they bring so much life there in so many different forms.

We ended the day wandering through some lovely streets with little shops and visiting Kodaiji Temple. The gardens around the temple included a bamboo forest and an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, which was definitely the main attraction.

I really appreciate how Japanese gardens are sculpted and landscaped but not manicured. It makes them lovely in a very believable way.

Among the many nice elements of traveling in Japan is the convenience of trains. The Japan Rail pass allows foreign tourists access to most of Japan’s trains (like the Euro Rail Pass) and trains don’t require reservations. They are also very clean and extremely timely and comfortable!

Kyoto is an easy base for day trips and we took one out to Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle and one of very few that have remained intact. I was really glad that we opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and more than made up for the lack of signage.

From there, despite the chilling rain that had begun to fall, we got back on the train to visit Osaka where we hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Mum and I walked around the moat of Osaka Castle (Dad got a little lost or left behind – long story), occasionally putting up our umbrellas for the rain that alternated with patches of bright sunshine.

When it began to hail, however, we realized we needed another plan. After battling the driving rain and wind to get to the train station we returned to Kyoto and sheltered indoors to dry off. Not all plans work out and travel is an adventure, right?

Our last day in Kyoto was the nicest we’d had and I’m especially glad it was sunny because we went to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, and it was utterly stunning.

We walked to a pretty shrine surrounded by a garden of cherry blossoms and food stalls on our way back to the center of town . . .

. . . and then spent the rest of the morning in Nishiki Market where I took most of the photos above. From there, we visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which was informative as well as free! It was useful in explaining much of the handiwork we’d seen and some of Kyoto’s history, particularly in terms of the geisha culture that still exists in a much smaller form.

After dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, it was time for one more sleep before boarding an early train to Hiroshima.

We had experienced all kinds of weather, tried new food, visited beautiful places, and were excited for something new. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Christchurch

After a quick stop in Geraldine where we were told we’d find antique stores and cheese and after 2,500km of driving, my friend Sharon and I finally arrived at our last stop, Christchurch. We had the good fortune to meet the wonderful Rosie Mac, a nurse-turned-artist with a story that gave us reason to pause. She’s in the middle of a spectacular mural project and her work is beautiful – take a look! We spent a lot of time with Rosie during our time in Christchurch. She has the soul of one who gives and she gives so much – life, joy, wisdom. (Every so often I meet someone who makes me rethink my concept of the soul, which isn’t that well formed to begin with.) It was an apt place to conclude our journey through Aotearoa.

In addition to good company, Rosie also provided us with useful maps and local hints about what to do in Christchurch. She told us her story of the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath. Signs of the damage are visible everywhere; Christchurch has relatively few buildings and a great deal of construction. But there’s a wonderful sense of joie de vivre in Christchurch, too.

There’s art everywhere, which was fun to look at and adds a lot to the emptiness of downtown.

There are also really beautiful public parks in the middle of everything and we spent some time sitting in a wonderful playground with a waterpark, turf hills to climb, and so many things to run to, jump off, play on, scramble up, and slide down. People really seemed to care about taking the time to spend together, which is harder and harder to find.

We also really loved people watching (and eating!) at Little High Eatery, basically a fancy hawker center or what New York would call a food hall. Think mall food court with real restaurants. Something for everyone!

We spent our only full day in Christchurch walking as much of the city as possible which, because it’s not so large, is quite possible. We followed the Avon River to the Botanic Gardens where we visited the most amazing rose garden I’ve ever seen. The flowers all smelled so good!

Our walk along the river also took us to some interesting landmarks, including a monument to the firefighters who died on 9/11 in New York . . .

. . . and a Maori sculpture and the Bridge of Remembrance for World War I.

And then it was time to better understand the earthquake. There was a wall with names along the river and it was interesting because not all names were in English; they were written in the languages of the people they were meant to commemorate. I saw Hebrew and several Southeast Asian languages and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a memorial wall like that. And like nearly everything official that we saw in New Zealand, much of what was written in English was translated into Maori, too.

The 185 Empty Chairs memorial, however, was particularly moving. We had walked by it the night before and it was so simple and unadorned that we didn’t stop to see what it was. The artist statement made it that much more poignant and I appreciated it for its simplicity and emphasis on individuality. So many memorials make all victims the same and this one decidedly did not.

Finally, we went across the street from the 185 Empty Chairs to the site of the CTV building. A park had been built over the cracked, broken, uneven remnants of the foundation. That was moving, too, in the way that the 9/11 memorial in New York is moving. Life goes on and we remember. We remember and life goes on.

Afterwards, we walked down New Regent Street and enjoyed looking at the pastel buildings, coffee shops, and cocktail bars. It was very pretty and felt like it would have fit well in Napier, the North Island’s art deco city.

The next morning, thanks to another recommendation from Rosie, I headed to C1 Espresso for the best cup of coffee in the city before flying home to Singapore. C1 Espresso is built in the old post office and still contains some elements of the old building, like letterboxes repurposed to hold matchbox cars. There’s a secret door that is actually a bookshelf of Penguin Classics and instead of music, Harry Potter on tape was being played in the washroom. And if that wasn’t enough, the pneumatic tubes that would have delivered mail now deliver certain menu items straight to your table. Quirky and full of laughter, like much of Christchurch.

And then it was time to go. Three weeks in a magical fairyland and I cannot say enough good things about it. If you get the chance to go to New Zealand, go. Without question, it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been (Norway was in first place for 9 years) and I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel there.

Travel Guide: Queenstown and Milford Sound

As I wrote in my last post about our South Island road trip, this post comes out of order. My friend Sharon and I spent three nights in Queenstown, our longest stay of the whole trip, in the second week of our South Island travels. While we were farther away from Milford Sound than we’d realized (in the future I’d stay in Te Anau or even camp in Milford) we were glad to park the car across the road from our hostel and leave it there for a few days. As Sharon said, expertly guiding me into a parallel parking spot that I could only dream about without her, I deserved a break from all the driving. (And I did all the driving.)

After a brief stop in adorable Arrowtown for lunch, we drove up and down a few large hills and entered Queenstown. Somehow, it didn’t register to me that the “town” in Queenstown was literal – I was expecting a city for no other reason than I’d actually heard of Queenstown but it’s really small and very walkable. Quite a lovely place to be for a few days!

Queenstown is located right on the water and surrounded by mountains. I spent some time sitting under a tree looking out at Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake.

I also went on a very short walk up a hill just behind where we were staying (the YHA Queenstown Lakefront exceeded all expectations) and enjoyed breathing the air and listening to the wind.

Queenstown was the busiest place we’d stayed since Nelson and it was larger than Nelson, too. But even at its busiest, New Zealand is so sparsely populated that it didn’t feel crowded at all. Out of four million people across the country, only a million live on the South Island. There are about 1.6 million in Auckland and Christchurch, the next largest city, has about 380,000. So again, nothing feels crowded.

We met another friend who was also travelling in New Zealand at Atlas Beer Cafe, a wonderful bar that we frequented more than once. It was fun to catch up and hear about her trip. It was also fun to return to Atlas two nights later to find that the bartenders and servers remembered us! We treated our first night in Queenstown as our “going out night” and had a really fun time, including live Irish music. We accidentally went to one crowded bar and left after one drink – we’d gotten used to having space to ourselves. And besides, we had a hike to go on in the morning.

The next morning was hot and beautiful. We had a lovely brunch down by the water where a craft market was setting up. I love seeing what people make and do and create. You can learn so much about people by looking at the personal joys that are important to them and craft markets are a beautiful opportunity to talk to artists, which we did. (More on this in the Christchurch post!)

Our goal for the day was to hike Queenstown Hill, one of New Zealand’s iconic short walks. Queenstown is a starting point for some of the Great Walks, too, which I would absolutely love to do if I get the chance to go back. It would require packing and preparing very differently but like camping in Abel Tasman National Park, it’s an experience I’d love to have.

All that to say, I loved hiking Queenstown Hill. It was challenging in parts because it gets rocky and steep but the sun was shining and we met so many friendly people along the way. We experienced that on every hike and walk in New Zealand – everyone says hi as they pass.

And it was so, so beautiful at the top. The view down to Lake Wakatipu was stunning, but even more so the view towards the mountains. It stretched as far as the eye could see and the wind was incredible. Twice we actually had to sit down because of how it roared and swept up the dust all around. And then when the wind stopped, it grew so quiet and still and the world felt empty of life for just a moment.

As Sharon pointed out, we’d climbed plenty “Mount Something” while in New Zealand and this one, the most mountain-like of all, was called a hill. I guess that’s the only reasonable name to give it when it’s nestled among the Southern Alps, which are very real mountains.

We were happy for an early evening because we had an early morning and big day ahead of us – it was my birthday and we were going to Milford Sound! We had had beautiful weather and hoped the next day would be similar but, as luck would have it, it rained. Considering Fiordland National Park gets 200 days of rain per year, this shouldn’t have been surprising. We actually took an organized tour to Milford because Queenstown was four and a half hours away by car (again, this is why I’d stay in Te Anau or camp in Milford in the future). But the coach bus was really comfortable and we got lucky with seats right in the front. Greg, the driver, told us all about the flora and landscape and the drive passed really quickly. It also helped that we stopped twice to walk and look around. Just like Lisa at Franz Josef Glacier, Greg said we were lucky because the rain let us see the waterfalls and hear the roar of the water.

When we arrived at the boat terminal, the rain hadn’t let up at all. We’d really hoped to kayak and were promised that we’d still be able to go as long as it didn’t get any worse. As it happened, the fact that it was raining gave us the chance to make friends who we ended up spending the day with! Had it been nice enough to stand outside for the duration of the cruise, I definitely would have done so. Since it wasn’t, though, Sharon struck up a conversation with Michele and Alice from the US and UK, respectively, and invited them to share our table. They were looking forward to kayaking, too, and the four of us found much to talk about beyond what we’d experienced in New Zealand so far.

But as good as the company was, feeling the rain and the spray while looking out at Milford Sound was what took my breath away.

And we did get to kayak! Much to our relief, the kayak company had proper wet gear and this time, I gratefully accepted it. Appropriately donned in completely unflattering but very visible yellow, orange, and red, we headed out onto the water. It was a short guided tour just around the cove but the view looking up at the mountains from the water gave a real sense of how dynamic the landscape is. It was even relaxing to just bask in the rain and look at everything towering over us. It’s a beautiful world in all of its forms.

The sun came out on our drive back to Queenstown and I didn’t even mind. It felt like a totally different landscape because the mist dispersed and left the world looking fresh and clean and awake again. And I’m glad I got to see Fiordland like that, too.

Sharon told Michele and Alice that it was my birthday and they were only too happy to join us back at Atlas for flights of beer. I had vegetarian poutine, too! It was so enjoyable chatting with people who I actually felt like I clicked with, which is something I do love about travellers. Spending the day in a beautiful landscape in a beautiful world with lovely people by my side was the best birthday I could have hoped for. I am so lucky to be part of it all.

And the next day we were back on the road for the final stop of our South Island road trip. As promised, I’ll write about Christchurch in a separate post – coming soon!