I experienced some of the most fun and worst times during my trip abroad. We were constantly on the move, not spending more than 3 nights at one location. I've come to appreciate the meaning of "living out of your suitcase." Kudos to those of you who travel often for work; I know I would be in one foul mood all the time. For this trip, I was lucky to travel with my cousin(s), who not only put up with my slacker ways (last minute planning among my many offenses), but also had to constantly wait for me while I took pictures*. Thank you S and T!
First stop: Japan. This was easily my favorite of the whole trip. I had an idea of what to expect thanks to helpful suggestions by SS and katattack2000 prior to landing, but the culture, the people, and the food all blew me away. If asked to describe the Japanese in 3 words, I would say: efficient, clean, and welcoming. Those are some serious praise in my world :)
Cousin S and I landed in Osaka around dinnertime. We were sleepy, famished, and cold, so our first order of business was to eat some hot ramen. While walking to our hotel, we happened to pass by one with a short line and decided to give it a try. Of all places, this shop turned out to be Ippudo! We quickly devoured our $10 bowls of ramen, which were as good (if not better) than NYC's. I didn't see pork buns on the menu, but we did see many locals eating what looked to be a fried rice dish.
Another place worth mentioning is Yamamoto Menzo, an udon noodle shop. Like Ippudo, we came across it by accident. While walking around Kyoto, we saw long lines for two shops and randomly picked one to stand in (the other turned out to be for soba). Luck and patience paid off because their udon and broth were absolutely delicious. I've never been a fan of udon before (prefer thin noodles), but now I'm a convert.
Over the course of two days, we sampled plenty of other food from green tea items (mochi balls, cream puffs, cookies, drinks, etc) to street vendor dishes to local specialities (takoyaki, okonomiyaki). One thing I did regret was not having enough time to try out more ramen shops.
Enough about food, onto the sights! We toured a few temples/castle, strolled along Philosopher's Path (we apparently missed the beautiful foliage by a few weeks; cherry blossoms in the springtime is said to be a sight to see), got lost inside train stations and their underground malls (massive and clean with beautiful architecture), were impressed with how polite and friendly everyone was to foreigners (had no problem getting around solely knowing English), couldn't figure out how street numbering worked (one of the reasons we ended up eating at random places), and loved all the cute signs everywhere.
Lastly, the fashion. We stood out like the tourists we were among crowds of fashionable locals. Everyone was so put-together, both in personal grooming and style. I saw many guys in v-neck sweaters over a tie and dress shirt (even on weekends), while I saw most girls wearing skirts and boots (pants and ballet flats were quite rare). Trench coats (I lost count after awhile) were also quite popular with both genders.
My time in Japan was much too short-lived (it's already back on my list of places to visit again). It's definitely a place worth visiting sometime in your lifetime.
After a quick stop in Taiwan to meet up with my cousin T and her friend, we were off to our second destination, the Philippines. This was the one leg of the trip that I knew nothing about until we were boarding. We traveled with a tour group to Boracay, an island in the central part of the Philippines. If I was underdressed for Japan in only my sweatshirt and a thin jacket, I was severely overdressed for the Philippines because I left my swimsuit at home. D'oh! Never take planning or packing tips from me, that's for sure.
Our journey from Taipei to our Boracay hotel was quite a trek. Each mode of transportation became physically smaller and smaller with each leg of the trip. A 3 hour plane ride from Taipei to Kalibo airport -> an 1.5 hour tour bus ride through the countryside -> a short sail on a banana boat across islands -> a small van taking us to one end of the Boracay beach -> a "tricycle" (a scooter with an attached addon that seats 4-6) that took us to the other end of the beach.
Boracay is set up like the quintessential tourist getaway, with a stretch of sandy beach where the water is oh-so-blue on one side and hotels and stores on the other (palm trees were aplenty to provide shade). We ended up in two different hotels during our stay and lucked out with our own balcony overlooking the beach with one of them. You bet I spent a lot of time outside lounging and soaking up the sights and sounds.
The worst happened halfway into our trip when a few people from the tour group (including myself) got sick. We think it's probably the bacteria in the water/some sort of food poisoning. Oh my gosh, never have I felt so awful. The running joke was that people who didn't drink that night got sick and the ones who drank felt fine. Alcohol kills all! I joke because this didn't turn out to be the case later on. The tour guide and even my Filipino coworkers from home warned us to only drink bottled water. We did stick to that, but we also didn't pass up trying mango smoothies, other mixed drinks, and ice cream with shaved ice. Whatever the bug was, I'm certainly more wary now.
The majority of the time with the tour group was spent partaking in water activities, ie: fishing (I might've been the only one who didn't catch a fish, hahaha), snorkeling (quite fun once I stopped panicking and learned how to moderate my breathing), and banana/sail boat rides at sunset (what a view!)
What they say about island time is true. Everything felt slower; I felt more relaxed. Aside from being sick, I'm glad I had a chance to unwind and refuel because there was more traveling ahead. Next and final stop: Taiwan.
Upon arriving back in Taipei, we immediately turned around and took a high-speed train to Kaohsiung, a city in the southern tip of Taiwan. We stayed in the city and also ventured out into the countryside, both to visit various relatives. When we arrived back in Taipei, we did find time to visit an historical section of the city. That was about the extent of experiencing new things, so I really didn't take many pictures while in Taiwan.
Taiwan food is good, cheaper, and plentiful -- a foreigner's dream. I ate my share of noodles, ranging from beef noodle stew to cellophane (sadly, no ramen). I think there was one day where we ate noodles for all our meals, lol. I also couldn't get enough of my love of bubble tea and had a drink every day. Yes, I'm obsessed. $1-$1.50 gets you about 20 oz. What a deal. Din Tai Fung (thanks for the rec, SPG!) is famous and for good reason (lines didn't bother us, we went two days in a row). The soup dumplings were great, but my overall favorite item from this trip was their dessert taro buns. So, so good. Please, please, please open up a location on the East Coast so I don't have to shell out a plane ticket to eat there again!
There's quite a bit of Japanese influence in Taiwan. To me, the people are nowhere near as fashionable, but the food is quite good. For one meal, we ate tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlets and oysters) and even made our own sauce by grinding sesame (I'm not sure if that's the norm). It was neat. For another meal, we sat at the bar and watched the chef prepare all sorts of dishes (mainly sashimi) until we're full. This was my first sushi bar experience, so watching him cut the fish, using the torch, etc. was fascinating. My favorite from the meal was a fatty part of a bigger fish because the meat literally melted in my mouth. I've never tasted anything like it. Ok, I sound like a complete uncultured newbie in this paragraph, so correct me if I misused any terms :)
This trip was full of wonderful new experiences, amazing food, and I'm sad that it's now over. It's funny because I didn't feel all that excited before the trip. Oh how fickle am I. If you made it through this post, I hope you enjoyed it and thank you for letting me share!
*A few of the Philippines pictures thanks to my cousin T!