Marfa rolls to its own beat and it takes a different kind of ride to be fly round these parts.
Fun Places to Visit When Exploring San Francisco – Tom & Priscilla
San Francisco was a whirlwind of a trip. A trip revolved around food to be exact. The annual Singapore Day happened to be in San Francisco this year (2016), with the biggest highlight being the delicious Singapore street food, with cooks and ingredients brought in directly from Singapore. Just for the food alone, we impulsively bought air tickets to visit.
This trip was short, really short. We arrived late Friday night in Oakland, and were up extra early on Saturday morning. Trying to pack in as many touristy stops as possible, we stopped by Fisherman’s Wharf, walked to the Marina District for breakfast at Seed + Salt (a little café serving up delicious gluten free, vegetarian, organic, local, etc. food), admired homes on Marina Boulevard, and took a stroll along the beachfront for the classic Golden Gate Bridge view. We underestimated how far the bridge was and soon realized there was not enough time to get to the bridge and walk across it. Next time!
As we left the beachfront, we found ourselves at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, lost in the beautiful pavilion and walkways, and watching the different birds in the lake.
Singapore Day in San Francisco
Finally, we peeled ourselves away from the touristy distractions, and started making our way to the Singapore Day event in the Dog Patch neighborhood. Knowing little about San Francisco, we were surprised to find the Dog Patch neighborhood to be industrial with huge decrepit warehouses. A little hard to believe a national level event was hiding in one of these grimy buildings, but we knew we were in the right place when we saw crowds of people heading in one direction. The event was indeed located in one of these massive abandoned looking warehouses, complete with broken windows and graffiti. The façade seemed scary, but the inside was simply a barebones large event space. Nothing fancy, just a large open space for big events.
Stepping inside, there were exhibitions on Singapore government initiatives, interactive games for children, performances from artists and even a mini National Day Parade. Priscilla bumped into old friends not seen in years, and together we immediately bee lined to the food area. The lines were extremely long, not surprising knowing that food had always been top priority for Singaporeans. We stood in line for as many booths as we could, managing to get Tom’s favorite stingray, roti prata and rojak before food ran out.
Foodie Tour of San Francisco California
We continued our jam-packed agenda to explore the city, which was still very much food focused. We made our way to the Mission District, and really loved the energy and many intriguing restaurants and shops. The one thing that struck us about San Francisco was the number of local, one location only stores. There weren’t big franchises and chains around every corner as in Chicago (e.g. Dunkin Donuts).
We stopped by Tartine Bakery, a quaint little bakery that was almost too quaint for how famous it was. Tom was a huge fan of their beautiful books describing the process of making high quality breads. So here we were, standing in the line that started at the counter inside, went out the door, and wrapped around the street corner. Tartine Bakery usually sold out of their breads and pastries well before closing time, but luckily there was still a good selection for us to choose from when we got to the front of the line. The pastries were well made and just lightly sweet, which really highlighted their strength in making quality dough, instead of masking sub par pastries with loads of sugar and other distractions.
Down the street, we found Bi-Rite Creamery. The line was intimidating, almost a couple blocks long. So instead, we went to a side window next to the store that offered a limited selection of ice cream but with no wait. We got a delicious basic ice cream sandwich – great treat on a beautiful sunny day!
We took a walk to the Lower Haight area, attempting to burn off the calories we ate all day to get ready for the next meals. Walking around San Francisco was more strenuous than expected, with steep hills that constantly challenged our stamina. Priscilla also brilliantly decided to wear “cute” shoes, and paid dearly with blisters and a limp.
As we huffed and puffed our way to Lower Haight, the buildings and stores got progressively older and more dilapidated. There still weren’t a proliferation of chain stores, just mom and pop stores that looked a little worn out. Our friend recommended Toronado, simply telling us we would find it cool. Standing outside the bar, we looked at each other skeptically – was this the right place? We checked the sign a couple times and reconfirmed our friend did say Toronado. From the outside, the bar seemed real dark, and the half door gave a glimpse of the bar’s dive-y vibes. We pushed each other through the door, sat down at the bar, stared at all the stickers and beer tap handles everywhere and observed the seemingly intimidating crowd (think leather jacket wearing biker types). It was not too busy, so the bartender took time to talk about the beers and why people are takings shots of bitters at the bar. Before we know it, we had one too many beers and the night was slipping away. Dive-y it might be, but it had a pretty solid selection of local beers, at least for us out of towners.
Mission District For Dinner
We headed back to the Mission district to pick out a dinner spot from amongst the many interesting options there and settled on Cha-Ya, a vegan/vegetarian Japanese restaurant that was simply and tastefully furnished. We stood at the door unsure if we had to find seats ourselves or wait to be shown a table. Gut feeling told us it was wrong to barge in and grab a table ourselves. We waited awkwardly until one of the ladies nodded at us, which we somehow correctly interpreted to head towards the table she was at.
Just like the décor, the food was simple yet delicious – vegan soba noodles in vegetable broth. It was a relaxing, down to earth dining experience.
Sunday Morning in the “Tenderloin”
On Sunday, we were up bright and early to join a friend at Hai Ky Mi Gia. We took a bus that dropped us off right where the fancy car dealerships were, but also noticed there was an unusual amount of trash everywhere. We shrugged it off as people partying too hard last night and not gave it much thought.
Hai Ky Mi Gia turned out to be a hole in the wall noodle shop typical of the classic Chinatown style. The shop had a variety of noodles to choose from, but the popular option was to have noodles with a braised duck leg. Delicious!
As we headed towards the nearest train station from Hai Ky Mi Gia, the trash situation we noticed earlier answered itself. We were actually in the Tenderloin neighborhood, where people were loitering, some yelling into their phones, others watching in amusement, and then others sitting or lying on the ground. A few who stood out were a completely naked man stumbling around, and another was staring intensely at us while chewing through a garbage bag full of bread. It was certainly shocking for the unprepared, but just as quickly as the area showed its true colors, we crossed a street and were in the thick of tourist land, full of chain hotels, bustling shops and trams. It was baffling how such poverty and decrepitude was hiding in plain sight.
Eat Real Fest – AWESOME Food Trucks and Artisanal Bites
We hopped on a train and headed straight to Oakland. Yet again, we were in for more food. It so happened to be Eat Real Festival this weekend, a large outdoor event with a mind-boggling number of vendors. The weather was beautiful and lots of people were out. It was a lively scene, right by the waterfront in Oakland.
Craving desserts, we headed straight to the FK Frozen Custard’s truck. They had an array of mouth watering exotic and adventurous flavors to choose from, like maple butter, Thai tea, chocolate barley tea, coffee mint mojito, etc. Despite all the amazing options, we went with plain vanilla custard, but redeemed ourselves by topping it off with a mini rum infused cupcake and drizzles of condensed milk.
There was so much amazing food and drinks with a focus on artisans from around the area. We wandered around, ogling the delicious treats that we want but just way too stuffed to take another bite.
Final Thoughts on Tom and Priscilla’s Trip to San Francisco
Just as soon as the trip started, the trip came to an end. We headed back to the airport after only about 36 hours of being in San Francisco. This was a rare treat of a trip, where we were constantly eating and each meal or snack we had was amazing and unique. It was also a rare treat in so many different ways; meeting up with friends, getting great Singapore food and visiting San Francisco for the first time.
San Francisco is likely the most vibrant city in the US at the moment. The city is surging with energy, with people out and about, active and busy. The food scene appears to be bursting at the seams with local and new upstarts, and plenty of diverse local businesses are around every corner waiting to be explored. San Francisco area is likely one of the wealthiest area in the country, with a prosperous tech industry that has attracted the most intelligent and ambitious young people to live here. We certainly enjoyed exploring the city and its food, and loved the energy of the city. We will definitely be back again!
San Francisco List of Destinations and Links
- Early morning exploration – golden gate bridge
- Seed + Salt – breakfast
- Singapore Day – Dogpatch neighborhood – giant abandoned warehouse
- Tartine Bakery
- Bi Rite Creamery
- Toronado – Haight Street
- Cha Ya – Japanese eatery for dinner
Dark, rainy and cold – that is not the usual description for San Diego, but unfortunately, that was how San Diego was for us. California ended its four-year drought with a rare rainy weather, meanwhile we decided to escape the Chicago winter, thinking we could use some warm weather in San Diego. So…there was no beach weather for us and we wore our sweaters and raincoats everyday.
Trying Airbnb for the first time, we picked a relatively cheap lodging in the Chula Vista area, about 10 minutes from the border with Mexico. The stay was surprisingly nice, and might actually be much better than hotels and for half the price at least. Our host left us snacks and drinks, and pretty much freedom to use most of her home. She worked in a hospital and left for work early in the morning, and was asleep by the time we got back. We went days without meeting her, and for a while, thought we would never get to meet her in person. There was this strange feeling we were pretending to be someone else, leading a parallel life. Finally, we caught up with her one early morning before she left for work and got to know her. How could a hotel beat the intimate experience and a chance to be immersed in the local life in a cute home in a random suburb?
What to do in San Diego – Visit the Farmer’s Market
Our first day in San Diego happened to be a Sunday, and we headed straight for Hillcrest Farmers Market. California’s farmers markets never fail to impress us, and this was no exception. The market had over 100 vendors, some were selling produce as expected, but a good number was selling prepared foods, and others were peddling artwork and artisanal cosmetics. There was definitely a lot more variety in vendors to explore compared to the typical Midwest farmers market. We tried exotically flavored sodas, some really good cured salami, a bunch of honey, amazing African barbeque, regular barbeque, fresh ceviche, and even a large cup of margarita. Along the way, finding random things like fossils. It took us all morning but was certainly well worth the time.
Liberty Station – Exploring San Diego California
Our next stop was Liberty Station. Liberty Station’s interesting layout was attributed to being previously a Naval training center in the 1920s, and parts of it still seemed to be a work in progress to bring in commercial activity. Some buildings were empty, while others were turned into art galleries or comic and tea stores. We found our way to Liberty Public Market, an indoor food hall, which had a selection of tasty looking eats. Besides the stores, the courtyards outside made for a pretty and leisurely stroll.
Awesome *&$#&^%$# Tacos Dude! Barrio Logan SD
Barrio Logan neighborhood was on our list for some amazing tacos at low prices. The neighborhood itself might seem a little sketchy and lifeless with decrepit and shuttered stores, but Salud! was a great reason to visit. The tacos were amazing, whether it was fish or pulled pork, with complex and tasty sauces, and the various salsa options were delicious even on their own. The restaurant had an edgy gritty vibe with a huge mural, car parts and a bike on the wall. The prices were also extremely reasonable, certainly a steal for how delicious the food was.
Not too afraid of the rundown-ness of Barrio Logan, we took a walk down the main street. Checked out a little coffee shop along the way, and ended up at Chicano Park, located under a freeway with colorful murals that had cultural and historical symbolism. We are not experts on the park’s history, but there seems to be good work done to document the place here.
A Walk on the Beach on Coronado Island
Crossing the Coronado Bridge that stretched across the bay, we arrived at Coronado Island, where a few locals told us it was the most fun place in town. Coronado Island was a little sliver of an island, where the navy occupied over half the land, while expensive mansions, a historic hotel, and a main street full of touristy fare filled the remaining space. Alas, the rain and cold gusty wind was too chilly for relaxing on the beach. We walked along the beach, found the historical Hotel del Coronado, and took a walk down the main street. Our exploration was brief.
Awesome Seafood at Mitch’s and Drinks in The Gaslamp
For dinner, we were craving fresh seafood and headed to Mitch’s. Mitch’s was a small, low key and bare bones eatery that served really affordable seafood. For a small place, they had a good selection of food options, from tacos to plain grilled fish to the regular breaded deep fried type of seafood. Most options feature local and fresh fish, not hard to believe seeing that the eatery was located on the edge of the pier, surrounded by active fishing boats. The seafood was so fresh and delicious, certainly a far cry from the options we were stuck with in the Midwest, which were mostly frozen imported fish that had lost its flavor in transport or lake trout if unfrozen. Mitch’s really reminded us of what we were missing living in the Midwest. The food was so delicious we actually had dinner there every night, cycling through the different options on the menu each night.
We headed to yet another touristy area, the Gaslamp Quarter. The district was the classic bar and restaurant area. It so happened to be Superbowl Sunday, and so, all the bars were full of rowdy football fans watching the game and guzzling beers. We were one of the few in the city and maybe country to ignore the game. As we wandered around, we found Café 21, a restaurant and bar bravely putting on live music to just three people who were clearly not watching the game. Perfect for us, we went in to check out the music. The music was actually quite good, performed by 2 guys from Argentina, and a lady who grew up in San Diego. The songs were lively yet laid-back, with the guys playing the guitar and the lady drumming. We chatted with the drumming lady in between breaks, and this enthusiastic lady was curious about our plans in San Diego. She nodded in approval as we gave her a quick rundown of places we were planning to visit, and added her suggestions like Balboa Park before she went back to performing. Besides the music, the drinks were also delightful. We treated ourselves to a sangria flight, which consisted of 6 little shot glasses of sangria each infused with different fruits and herbs. A great place to hide from the Superbowl crowd.
Hiking and Exploring outside of San Diego
The next day, our first stop was to get some coffee. We found a tiny little coffee shop called Industrial Grind, and it almost appeared to be a shanty. The coffee shop existed under corrugated metal roof sheets placed between two buildings, and a tarp out back provided shade for the seating area. It was certainly a cool little place with great coffee.
With an energy boost, we headed to Cabrillo National Monument. The national monument was situated high on a cliff in the Point Loma area, and supposedly a spot to see whales migrating. We started the hike at the bottom of the rocky cliff right by the Pacific Ocean, where the winds were gusting and rain was misting. We found some promising tide pools, but on closer inspection, there didn’t seem to be any thing else besides rocks and sand in them. In hindsight, we probably visited at high tide where waves were crashing onto the cliff, so the tide pools we thought we saw were simply puddles of water on cliff ledges.
The other part of the national monument was at the top of the cliff, where there was an old lighthouse and a statue of Cabrillo. There was not much to explore or hike up there, but it was a good spot to get a view of the entire city and beyond. Perhaps it was possible to see whales, but without binoculars, that was not quite feasible.
Our next stop was Torey Pines State Park, in the northern part of La Jolla. We were a little taken aback by what we thought was an expensive entrance fee for a state park, which perhaps hinted at the higher cost of living in California. We drove to the highest point in the park, and started our hike on a trail that would lead out to a beach. The hike was relatively easy, as the sandy ground was well cleared and there were stairs wherever needed. The landscape was sandy and almost desert like, with beautiful sandstone formation reminiscent of miniature mountains. Eventually the path led to a set of stairs that took us down to a beach surrounded by tall cliffs. Being a dark rainy day, the beach was completely deserted. It was a great day for finding solitude and for simply watching and listening to the waves.
La Jolla Cove Sea Lions & Gelato
After the hike, we headed back south to La Jolla Cove. The rain got heavier and we ducked into Bobboi, which had amazing gelatos of fun flavors like rose almond, and most of these flavors were made of organic and locally sourced ingredients. The cold and wet weather seemed to have kept people from doing anything in the city, so we were the only ones in the store, enjoying the rainy view and eating gelatos.
As the rain lightened up, we took a walk to find the famous seals and sea lions at the La Jolla Cove. Sure enough, a few of them were rolling around in the water, giving us tourists plenty of opportunities to take photos and videos of them. Along the rocky cliffs, many more seals and sea lions were asleep, undisturbed by people gawking at them. Somehow these animals continued to live in the area even as the city got built up and busy over time.
Day Trip to Anza Borrego – Hiking to The Oasis
Near the Desert Garden, we found a vibrant courtyard, which turned out to be the Spanish Village Art Center. Mosaic on the walls and colorful painted floor beckoned us. There were quite a number of studios in the village, and some of them were showrooms for a group of artists. Some were working studios where artists were painting right outside. We spent the rest of our time here, watching the artists and getting some little art pieces. Definitely a lot of interesting areas to explore!
San Diego was a good short escapade, even though the weather wasn’t quite as warm as we had expected. We could see why some people considered San Diego a sterile city, with its many clearly designated tourist areas like Gaslamp Quarters and Coronado Island. San Diego may lack the elusive spark for the city to be considered culturally complex, but considering the large military presence, the city still had pockets of authenticity and artisanship. If anything, there were certainly amazing food and friendly people in San Diego.
Singapore is an island that is also a city and a country at the Southeastern tip of continental Asia. The locals call it the “Red Dot” because it is so darn small… It sits close to the equator, ensuring a predictable 12-hour sunlight everyday of the year, and an amazingly humid tropical weather year round. This is where Priscilla grew up and on this trip, Tom the hapless husband, was about to discover his new extended family and a whole new culture.
Priscilla’s Journey Back Home to Singapore
Singapore was a place I wanted to escape, but now that I had left, I look forward to every chance I get to return. Growing up there, I ran out of what I considered to be fun things to do on the little island. I wanted to experience winter, be in the mountains, explore rural countryside, experience new cultures…the list goes on. And so, I took a gamble and left home for the other side of the world. In the first few years, I was absolutely exhilarated, full of wonder for the world outside. Never once did I feel homesick. But, as I visited Singapore every two years, each visit started to weigh on me. With each visit, my parents and grandparents seemed to age tremendously. My siblings had carved out new lives of their own that I wasn’t a part of. The many amazing friends, who had graciously kept in contact with me virtually, had exciting moments of their lives that I could not be present for, or that I simply could not spend time with in person.
It dawned on me that I was starting to get homesick. At the same time, Singapore seemingly matured and became a lot more cosmopolitan and sophisticated with each visit as well. The food scene blossomed, with many unique eateries offering local fusion to intricate Japanese desserts, and the many fine dining options readily available. The faces in the crowd appeared more diverse, with Europeans, and other Asian ethnic groups living in areas typically only inhabited by locals. The most obvious change was the many new and sparkling modern skyscrapers that dominated the downtown skyline today. Singapore had taken on a new big city personality.
For this trip, I took Tom on a touristy trail. We visited the Botanical Gardens to check out the vast collection of orchids; walked the Marina Bay area, known for the now iconic Marina Bay Sands casino hotel connected at the top by an infinity pool; hung out at Clarke Quay, the traditionally expat area full of bars and seafood restaurants; and strolled through the myriad of malls on Orchard Road, the biggest pastime my family and I shared. We did a lot of walking, exploring historical neighborhoods like Chinatown and Joo Chiat for the colonial style shophouses. And of course, eating local snacks and desserts that were on every corner. All super dangerous for the weak-willed – out goes the dietary concerns!
Food is an essential part of the local culture. The ubiquitous hawker centers, basically open-air but sheltered marketplaces for street foods and groceries, were part and parcel of my life growing up. I had often accompanied my Mom to get groceries, and while waiting for the groceries to be packaged up, we would grab food and chat about life. Naturally, Tom was dragged to all the hawker centers we loved. Since Tom was our guest of honor, we wasted no time to introduce him to local favorites ranging from Roti Prata to grilled stingray and chili crab.
So of course, Tom and I had a great time with family and friends. And, most valuable for me, was the chance to look at Singapore with a fresh pair of eyes and through Tom’s perspectives. There will certainly be many more trips to this city country and I can’t wait to see what other changes I will find next.
Travel with Tom to Singapore – Tom’s Eating and Cultural Journey Through Asia:
Off to Singapore for my first travel foray outside of the Great US of A to meet the new family members. I would have to say Singapore was a great way to ease into Asia travel for this Missouri boy as many of the signs are readable and the lifestyle is quite modern. Ok so at first you think, this is just another big city with some high rise buildings, but as we got on the ground and began exploring it proved to be truly a unique world all together.
Let’s just start with the weather. They have three types of weather, hot, HOT, and rainy and hot with nearly every day coming in around 85-90F. This sounds warm to Midwest folks, but not impressive, but it’s the relentless heat plus humidity plus extra strong sun that gives this place the uniquely warm feel. At night, it just slightly cools down to a balmy 81F. Singapore is located nearly on the equator so this is to be expected, but experiencing the general sweaty-ness 24/7 was an adjustment maybe because most people don’t really use AC!
The exotic trees and lush landscaping remind visitors that Singapore is a city that spawned out of a tropical jungle. It’s completely “normal” here to be walking down the sidewalk and see trees sprouting mangos, jackfruit, and durians. Don’t think about snagging one for your lunch though because people are quite protective of their fruits here. The fruits in Singapore were one of my favorite parts about visiting the tropics. The variety of exotic new flavors like durian or mangosteen and even the tastiness of old favorites like pineapples provide a regular reminder that you not in Illinois anymore.
What do you do when you want to have a little fun in Singapore? Eat of course! While getting to know my new family and learning about the place Priscilla grew up, we basically ate our way all the way across the island. The city may look ultra modern, but they have held tightly to their traditional food culture giving the local cuisine some of the most unique flavors in the world. The likelihood of finding a great place to eat seems so high here, even the so-called “fast” food of the hawker centers was complex and completely delicious. Even with about 2 weeks in Singapore for this trip, we were not able to exhaust the list of Priscilla’s favorite dishes.
Land is scarce in Singapore and thus, they are building UP and UP. The number of high-rise condo and HDB buildings under construction blew my mind. “You mean those 20 buildings in this one block (all 40-50 stories) are being built right now and will be open next year?!? AND there is a 3-5 year waiting list for an apartment?!? AND the apartment rent starts at $3-4K for a small place?!? Whoa…” When they build here, it is on a whole different level.
In between meals, we went out to explore the city to experience one of the favorite hobbies here, SHOPPING. It’s actually quite hard not to visit malls in Singapore because nearly every train station is located in some sort of mall. Above ground they have some ultra impressive buildings to house the top brands in the world, but below ground the mecca of shopping continues! The shopping extends layers and layers below the street level with a seemingly unending abyss of shops. My favorite thing about the underground mall world was the amazing food court. Even their malls have great food… America could definitely learn a thing or two about “fast” food.
The culture in Singapore is an interesting combo of Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian leading to not only a unique cuisine, but also an opportunity to experience a bit of life from each of the origins. The citizens of Singapore are proud to call themselves Singaporean, but it seems that they also hold tightly to the traditions of their homeland with a wholesome respect for their neighbors and their respective lifestyles. Then add a ton of businesspeople from every corner of the world, and viola you’ve got an awesome cosmopolitan city. I can’t wait to go back (not just for the Stingray…) to visit the family and see how this city continues to evolve!
The Journey to Japan
We had heard a lot about Japan, but knew nothing of it. Priscilla attempted to learn Japanese while in college, and growing up in Asia meant consuming a good amount of Japanese TV shows that were popular in the 90s. Besides that, she would say she did not know much about the culture. Tom, as always, loved the adventure and a chance to take a five-day long break before the next flight to Singapore (Japan was our long layover).
Japan wasted no time to show us how efficient and orderly they were. Courteous immigration officers stamped our passports with precision and high speed. At the Japan Rail office, we got our train passes within minutes despite the 20 plus people ahead of us. In the next two minutes, we were on the train platform, where the train was about to depart in five seconds. Told to stick to our seat assignments, we giggled and thought, “These Japanese take their rules too seriously.” But lo and behold, the train would split in half at some point, in which one half would go south, the other west. Once we knew, we scrambled with our clumsy suitcases, dragging them from car 16 to car 3. Thankfully, these trains were nothing like the Chicago L, where each car was separate and connected by a clunky cable. Going across these cars was more like walking down a really long hallway, all seamlessly connected like a tunnel, where glass doors separating each car whizzed open as you approached. We managed to make it to the right section and survived our first train ride.
Navigating the City with NO Street Names
A fun fact about Japan: there are no street names. Japanese addresses follow a complex system where they go from the largest area to the smallest area. If you are looking for a specific shop, the address will state what prefecture the shop is in, followed by the city, then the ward, then the district, then the number of the particular building. To make things fun, there are many exceptions to this rule. And to make things even more fun, Japan is full of little shops with tiny storefronts and no numbers on the buildings, hidden alleyways, and a foreign language. We knew it was inevitable we would be lost at some point, so we picked up some paper maps and hoped the old school method would help us (and also because we did not have wifi on our phones.)
Right away, the address system tested our wits. After narrowing down the correct district, which was an area of a few blocks, we wandered around the huge blocks trying to find our hotel. Unfortunately for us, this district consisted of a university, a large garden and many apartment buildings, and somewhere in there was our hotel. Eventually, we stumbled upon a lighted sign hidden behind a relatively large gym. At last, we made it.
Emboldened by our navigational success, we ventured out for dinner. We followed the map and walked to the next ward, attempting to find Tonki, a popular pork cutlet eatery. Again, we narrowed down the district and wandered around. Finally, in a dark alleyway, we came upon a set of wooden sliding doors with blue curtains but no indication of what was behind the door and no menus out front. Believing that the Japanese characters on the curtain read “Tonki,” we bravely slid the doors open. Waft of greasy pork chops hit us. Success! We found the right place again!
We walked in and found ourselves standing in a completely open kitchen, where diners sit around a low bar while chefs prepared food behind the bar. As we stood bewildered, a smiling elderly man behind the bar started speaking to us in Japanese. We awkwardly smiled at each other, unsure of what to do or say, until one of the diners explained that we were supposed to place our order with the elderly man, and then he would direct us to a spot at the bar. Since there were only two options on the menu, lean pork cutlets or fatty pork cutlets, we pointed and gestured for one of each type and successfully ordered without speaking. Even at a restaurant, the Japanese efficiency was on display. Every chef had only one task, whether it was slicing cabbage or serving rice, and they were fast. Our meal was served within seconds of getting a sit, and it was delicious. We devoured it within minutes.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Up early from jetlag, it was perfect timing to visit the renowned Tsukiji Fish Market. There is a “Tsukiji Fish Market Chicago” that imports seafood from THE Tsukiji directly. But surely, we came so far, shouldn’t we at least see the real Tsukiji? Especially the organized flurry of activities during the tuna auction? Alas, the wholesale area had moved and was now separate from the retail section. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time strolling around the shops and eateries, and checking out the little booths selling a variety of seafood and fried seafood cakes to artisanal knives. And Tom tried sea urchin for the first time, his verdict? Funky.
It was only 9am by the time we made our way to the Ginza area. Since most of the stores were closed, we wandered around aimlessly. We entered a part of the massive subterranean mall through a street level train station entrance, and attempted to find Jiro’s sushi restaurant. Despite marking the location of Jiro’s on our map, we never found it. Of course, Jiro’s was not open this early, we simply wanted to see the actual store in person. Failing to find Jiro’s, we went back to the street level and walked down the different side streets. We stumbled upon Antenna stores, which were stores representing specific regions of Japan, each carrying souvenirs and food unique to their regions. And then found Itoya, a large store specializing in stationery. Nerds like us spent the rest of the morning in Itoya.
Tokyo Ramen Street
We continued walking north from Ginza to find Tokyo Station, a massive train station with a mind-boggling number of trains that connected here. Don’t let that small European style building trick you – that was just the Tokyo Station Hotel. Once inside the station entrance, there were countless signs, and endless turns and hallways. The Tokyo Station, outside of the train platform area, was also a massive subterranean space, immense and filled with way too many dining options. Luckily for us, we were prepared! We were on a mission to locate Tokyo Ramen Street, a small section in the Tokyo Station with eight ramen restaurants that were supposedly the most famous in Tokyo. Once we were there, we randomly picked one restaurant, got in line and played with the ramen ticket machine, pushing buttons with pictures we believed were food we wanted. The machine printed a little train stub looking order that we handed to the waiter, and ramen was promptly served within two minutes. An amazingly fast and delicious dining experience – faster and tastier than fast food.
Bellies filled with noodles, we headed over to Asakusa ward. Senso-Ji temple was the main crowd-drawing attraction, being the oldest temple in Tokyo dating back to year 645 AD. Leading up to Senso-Ji was Nakamise-Dori, a short path with traditional shops selling various snacks and souvenirs. For us, the most exciting item at the shops was green tea ice cream. We wandered around the temple, observing what people were doing, and taking in all the red and gold detail.
Heading west from Senso-Ji was Kappabashi Dougu-Gai, a street dedicated only to kitchenware. If we ever found ourselves trying to start a restaurant, maybe a Japanese restaurant, we would be able to completely furnish our restaurant here. There were stores that specialized in Noren (curtains in front of doors), amazingly real but actually fake plastic food, myriad of porcelain plates and bowls of all shapes and sizes, and much more. There were so many intriguing stores, and hours went by in a flash. We were glad we had limited cash and luggage space, otherwise we would have bought way too many kitchen wares.
Dinner was at Sometaro, a rustic okonomiyaki place. The little wooden building was wedged between two nondescript concrete buildings, and the front of the restaurant was almost obscured by a tree and overgrown plants. Stepping inside, we removed our shoes, and sat down on the floor covered in straw mats at one of the low tables. Each of the tables came with a hot plate for people to make their okonomiyaki on. A staff helped us mixed the pancake batter together with the ingredients we picked, and put the mixture on the hot plate to cook. We just had to make sure we didn’t burn the pancake. Easy and fun experience!
Bullet Train to Kyoto
Kyoto was our side trip outside of Tokyo to see a different side of Japan, where Kyoto was the previous capital, and well known for preserving the traditions and culture of the old Japan. The city was about 290 miles away from Tokyo, and the best way to get there was via the famous bullet train, Shinkansen.
Still jetlagged, we arrived early to Shinagawa train station and were caught in the morning rush hour. The trains arrived one after another without a break, and an endless stream of silent men and women in black suits, white shirts and black suitcases poured out of each of these trains. The result was a constant roar of leather shoes clicking on the tiled floor, a river of black and white flowing towards the exit. What could demonstrate the density of Tokyo better than a scene like that? And yet Shinagawa was not the busiest train station in the city!
Navigating across the fast flowing river of black and white, we found the platform for the Shinkansen. One of the fun parts of the Shinkansen was the ekiben experience. Right before boarding the train, there were little kiosks that sold a variety of beautiful printed boxes that held intricately packed lunches, also known as ekiben, or train bento. We grabbed a couple, along with some interesting candies and drinks, and settled in for our journey. We set up our lunches, admiring the delicate little rows of rice and slices of meat and vegetables as we zoomed by the sprawling city-like suburbs of Tokyo that soon gave way to farmland and even caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji. The train ride was actually a sublime experience!
We were having such a good time that we were caught off guard when the train had quietly arrived at Kyoto. Stumbling out of the train, and finding our way out of the station, grey malls and noisy construction greeted us. Kyoto was not pretty right away. Wasting no time, we dropped our bags off at our hostel and headed towards downtown Kyoto, a 30-minute walk away.
Kyoto Downtown – Nishiki Market
It was immediately clear Kyoto was much different from Tokyo. Kyoto’s footprint was much smaller, and buildings were more spread out. The effect was a less chaotic, slower and almost folksy vibe. Nothing was too exciting on our walk towards downtown, and in fact, we passed some old buildings that looked like it was on the verge of being condemned.
Once at Shijo, the main downtown street, shops and tourists were everywhere. We headed towards Nishiki market, a traditional market place for Kyoto food. Most of the stores were peddling food products like pickled vegetables or seafood, and some souvenir and ceramic stores were peppered in there. There were certainly gems in there, such as a store we found specializing in sesame only, where they had a deliciously simple yet richly flavored sesame ice cream.
Gion and Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream!
We continued heading east, attempting to find the famous Gion area, known for traditional architecture and a chance to spot a geisha or two. Somehow we ended up on a wrong street and were confused by how quiet and ordinary the area looked. Realizing we were in the wrong place, we changed our route and stumbled upon a quiet little path by a river. Little narrow bridges connected both sides of the river, and dainty trees lined the path, while what looked like the back of people’s homes sat on both sides of the river. It was a lovely walk that ended in the Gion area, which was bustling with tourists and crowded stores.
The main Shijo street in the Gion area was filled with store after store of souvenirs and Kyoto sweets. The sweets especially, really showcased the fine art of Japanese packaging – intricate sweets delicately wrapped and nestled in exquisite boxes. The packaging was so well done it would be painful to tear it open.
Our main goal was to get to Tsujiri, famous for high quality matcha and amazing desserts. In particular, we were after the matcha parfaits. These parfaits were edible pieces of art – precise little cubes of matcha jello, fluffy matcha sponge cake, spherical balls of shiratama, and scoops of sweet red bean on top of vanilla and matcha ice cream, along with a shot of matcha tea and finally topped with perfectly piped matcha whipped cream. It might sound like sugar overload, but in reality, these parfaits were just gently sweet, allowing the flavors of each component to shine. We loved the parfaits so much we ate one everyday we were in Kyoto.
We had heard about a ramen place, Gogyo, which had a unique style of ramen. More precisely, the style was burned ramen. We found the quaint little restaurant in a quiet street off the main Shijo Dori, with an equally quaint wine bar next to it. Right in the front window of Gogyo, a chef was creating massive flames in a wok. We came thinking we were about to taste some burned noodles. Turned out, it wasn’t the noodles that was burned, it was the broth. Somehow the broth was burned in the wok, and the end result was a charred broth, dark and ominous. The broth certainly had a rich and slightly bitter taste, but still strangely tasty. Before the meal, there was also an extremely delicious un-charred broth that came with a small restaurant fee charge. Gogyo was a polished yet laid back restaurant to enjoy some noodles after all day of walking around.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Kyoto was surrounded by mountains, and not too far outside downtown in the northwest corner, Arashiyama bamboo grove was one of the most highly recommended places to visit. The bamboo grove was greatly touted as a scenic walk, with tall bamboos on both sides of the path creating the signature Japanese zen aura. It was also really easy to get to, with a direct train from Kyoto Station.
One thing we learned, the idea of “scenic” was highly subjective and dependent on where the observer was coming from. Spoiled by the diverse and breathtaking landscapes of North America, we realized what we thought was “scenic” was very much different from what someone who was coming from Asia’s concrete jungle would find “scenic.” So alas, for us, Arashiyama bamboo grove felt more like a small urban landscaped garden walk. But, we still enjoyed the walk, taking photos and breathing in the fresh mountain air. The bamboo groves would probably be best experienced with few people around, but unfortunately, being a top tourist destination ensured it would not be peaceful. There was a couple doing a wedding photo shoot, and the number of visitors increased by the busload every half hour. Literally. We escaped the groves just as we saw a new batch of tourists filing out of big tour buses, their guides corralling them into long lines of two by twos, ready to march into the bamboo groves. So be warned, this would not be as zen-like as the pictures you would find online.
The residential area surrounding the bamboo grove actually provided a rather interesting and peaceful experience for us. We found a quiet temple to explore, picked up mochi from a kind looking lady, and peered into cute little homes, before wandering down the main street with shops and restaurants on both sides.
We decided to get lunch at Yudofu Sagano, a restaurant that specialized in the tofu cuisine of the Arashiyama area Buddhist temples. The meal started with little dishes of various pickled vegetables and a soft-boiled egg, before progressing to heartier fare of rice and tempura, with the highlight being big chunks of tofu in a boiling clay pot of water. The final dish was a delicate dessert also made from tofu – a tofu that was thick in consistency, pudding like, with a little drop of sweet jam on top. It was a fascinating meal that introduced us to various types of tofu, and the simple yet sophisticated flavors from each dish.
Nijo jo and The Philosopher’s Path
On the way back to downtown Kyoto, we stopped at Nijo jo, a wooden castle surrounded by two concentric moats built in 1603. The castle was nicely preserved, and along with the landscaped gardens, it made for a fun leisurely walk with the added benefit of learning some history.
From Nijo jo, we took a train to the east side of Kyoto, and went on a walk through the temples. Kyoto was known for the many zen gardens hidden in these temples, but many of these temples appear to charge an entrance fee to enter the gardens. There were some highly recommended temple gardens to visit, but the names were confusing, so we mostly observed from the outside.
We walked down Tetsugaku-no-michi, Philosopher’s Path, which followed a winding river behind temples and homes. Along the way, there were a few friendly cats and a quaint shop or two offering some snacks. At the end of the path was the popular Ginkaku temple, and here, we splurged on tickets to visit the zen garden. It was not disappointing. The temple was surrounded by plenty of extremely well raked sand, an immaculately piled cone of sand, and some strategically placed rocks. Maybe it was a tourist trap, but we had to visit at least one zen garden after coming this far. Again, this would be much better experienced without throngs of tourists around.
Ponto Cho Alley and Gion
Back in downtown Kyoto, we were off to explore Ponto Cho alley. Ponto Cho alley was off the main street of Shijo Dori with all the malls and tourists, but once stepping into Ponto Cho, the atmosphere changed instantly. The alley was tight with traditional houses turned into restaurants with tiny storefronts cramped shoulder to shoulder, and it also seemed to be where all the tourists flocked to, where English could be heard in the crowd and even a few western cuisine restaurants could be spotted amongst the dining options. We wandered around, decided to avoid being the hapless tourist scammed by high prices and not-so-awesome food, and also because we did not do our homework on what was good here, we left and had dinner at 7-11 instead. 7-11 in Japan was nothing like those in the US. There were actually amazing food to be found, such as freshly made sushi and hand rolls with crisp seaweed brought in every morning, along with an assortment of surprisingly delicious basic sandwiches with breaded chicken or tuna salad. It was not too hard to cobble together a meal at 7-11, and certainly only cost a fraction of what we would have spent in Ponto Cho.
Last day in Kyoto, we were still jet lagged and up early. With hours before heading back to Tokyo, we took an early morning walk around Gion. The streets of the historic neighborhood were quiet, with an occasional one or two people rushing to their next destination. It was the perfect time to enjoy the sunrise, and observe the quaint wooden houses in peace.
With that, we headed back to Kyoto Station, grabbed some ekiben again, settled into our seats on the Shinkansen, and catapulted back to Tokyo.
Old Beans Coffee
First order of business back in Tokyo? Old beans at Chatei Hatou, an almost hidden coffee shop in the busy Shibuya area. Knowing how hard it could be to locate one little shop in Japan, we had prepared detailed directions on how to get there, such as “turn left while facing this,” “turn right after seeing that.” And so we successfully navigated to the quiet and steep street, and located the seemingly hidden door with an out of place awning recessed into the plain buildings on both sides, the “coffee” sign overwhelmed by the big and red signs of the restaurant next to it. Stepping inside, we were transported to a different world. It was dark and cigarette smoke swirled in the air. People were reading or chatting, sipping coffee while baristas in shirt and tie focused on coffee making. Wooden beat up looking furniture and shelves of mismatched porcelain wares lined the wall. Chatei Hatou felt like a speakeasy. We settled in a corner of the coffee shop, and ordered the famous old beans coffee, supposedly coffee beans that had been aged. The coffee took a while to prepare, and it came in a little espresso cup, which supposedly, the barista would pick based on his impression of the person. Tom, a self proclaimed coffee connoisseur who grinds his coffee everyday, declared that was the best coffee he had – “nice and strong, yet smooth.”
Harajuku and Shinjuku
Leaving Chatei Hatou, we began our walk from Shibuya to Harajuku, and to the well-known Takeshita Dori, a side street crammed with fashion boutiques. The area was busy, despite being a random afternoon on a weekday. We saw long lines at all of the brightly pink crepe stores that were about the size of a food truck, and caved, got ourselves a crepe. For once, the food was disappointing. The crepe certainly looked way more promising in the fake plastic version. Tossing the crepe out, we continued to wander around, observing the bold fashion statements on some of these people, and marveling at the effort that went into the getup.
We kept walking down the main busy street, passed quieter areas of nondescript buildings, and ended up in Shinjuku. In the older streets of Golden Gai where tiny little shop buildings were crammed into narrow alleyways, there were odd little bars that appeared too intimidating for us to venture into. These were really small and dark bars, where the ubiquitous salaryman would hide for drinks after work. Some were so small it could only seat three people, along with one bartender. There were also rickety narrow stairs to the second floor of these buildings but no indication of what was at the end. Since it was early, there weren’t too many people around, and the bartenders/owners of these bars were leisurely watching tv as they waited for their regulars to show up. Our shyness got the better of us that day, perhaps it was knowing that some of these bars were for regulars only, we passed on intruding these intimate spaces. Maybe next time!
Somehow, we lost our instructions on where to find delicious food in Shinjuku! We saw one after another, big tourist-centric looking restaurants, eventually gave up, and headed to Tokyo Ramen Street yet again. Ramen restaurant #2!
Last Day in Tokyo – Back to Tokyo Ramen Street!
On our last day in Tokyo, we put our suitcases in one of many conveniently located lockers at the train stations. Freed of our baggage, we once again headed to Tokyo Ramen Street. Yes, we were obsessed with ramen. One of the restaurants had a long line each time we were there, so we were planning to be one of the first people when it opened. And we made it in as the first 10! This ramen joint was a surprisingly stressful place to be in. Salaryman were their typical patrons, and they often appear to have a pressing mission on their hands, always seemingly in a rush. The moment we were seated, the ramen came to our table within 2 minutes, and even then, the waiter apologized for the wait. And then the clock started ticking. An unspoken competition began on who could finish their ramen first. Slurping sounds emanated from all corners, and before we even got to the third strand of noodle, the first salaryman stood up, ready to head out after finishing his ramen. Soon, the people who were seated at the same time we were had all left, while we barely finished half our noodles. Waiters were eyeing our bowls, indirectly putting pressure on us to speed up our eating. If anyone wanted to feel intense pressure to eat fast and finish the food, ramen places like this would be a great experience. Nonetheless, we tried our best to eat as fast as we could while enjoying the amazingly smooth and thick noodles in the rich broth.
That was our last ramen meal for this trip. With that, we picked up our suitcases and headed back to the airport on that amazing splitting train we came on.
Thoughts on Japan
On the surface level, Japan looks like a regular big city with many concrete buildings probably built in the 80s, while traditional temples and old style smaller shops and homes peppered in between hint of the old days. What makes Japan really interesting is the culture within. As we dive into the city, we unearth countless artisan and tiny mom and pop stores, selling anything from knives to noodles. Yet despite the seemingly entrepreneurial culture, there is the contrasting omnipresent stoic salaryman who inhabits the rigid and hierarchical corporate world. Tokyo is also extremely quiet, despite having the largest population size of any city in the world. There is no honking, no sirens, and no loud chatter – in fact, no chatter at all. There are places that appear strange and even scary to step into, like a dingy coffee shop, or a dark alleyway, but Japan appears to be mostly safe. The worst that happened was finding ourselves in a tiny store, confused, feeling awkward and unsure of what was the “right” thing to do, yet no locals even batted an eyelid. Japan did not charm us immediately, but it grew on us throughout our trip and even after, as we embrace the quirky culture. We will surely visit again for the strange experience that is so uniquely Japanese.
Bali Indonesia Adventure with Tom & Priscilla
Bali was a short getaway from the city of Singapore, where we escaped the concrete jungle for a little oasis of greenery on the Indian Ocean. It is one of thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, where it had for years, attracted a low-key group of tourists who came for the surf and unique Balinese culture.
Priscilla visited years ago with one of her good friends and had a blast – surfing in the morning, relaxing by the pool in the afternoon, and getting Balinese massages as the sun sets. The food scene was also pretty affordable and sophisticated to boot. Tom, being Tom, was simply coming along to explore. Priscilla’s family tagged along this time around.
We did the main tourist routines of visiting the Uluwatu Temple (watch out for the mischievous monkeys who will steal your glasses while you are not paying attention), checking out a Kopi Luwak plantation (coffee beans partially digested and defecated by the civet), catching a scenic view of the Twin Lakes, and browsing the endless silver jewelry in an area dedicated to the craft.
We went on a rafting adventure, learned surfing from one of the local surfers on Kuta Beach, and had an enjoyable spa and massage experience. And of course, simply being present in the lovely backdrop of rice fields, volcanoes, Balinese architecture, and local street scenery.
Noticeably, Bali had seen some changes in the last few years. The airport that greeted us was new and modern, the trendy area of Seminyak had a number of high end restaurants, boutiques and resorts, and the Australian tourists seemed to be replaced by a larger group of Chinese tourists. Bali appeared to be shedding the low-cost hippie image it used to project. As the saying goes, change is the only constant. No doubt, Bali is evolving.