Author: Contemporary Wanderer

A Visiting Instructor in China exploring the world of beverage science. The rest of my time I'm traveling the world and blogging about it.

Chengdu, China

IMG_6043Even though I have lived in China for over three years now, I haven’t spent much time traveling around the country. Most holidays I travel outside of China to avoid the crowds. So in September 2018, I had a week off from teaching and I decided to travel to Chengdu.

Chengdu is located in the Sichuan province of China. The city is home to over 10 million people and the largest city in Sichuan.Chengdu is located in the fertile Sichuan Basin region. Today Chengdu has become one of the more popular destinations to visit in Western China due to the economy, culture, food, and major sites.

To get to Chengdu from Tianjin I had two options, fly or take a 10-hour bullet train. I ended up taking the train since it was less expensive, plus I thought would be a great opportunity to see the countryside. In reality, you don’t see much of the countryside on a bullet train since you are going up to 300 km/h. The train system in China is fantastic, but the ride was just way too long and took up too much time.

Chengdu is home to the famous giant panda, which was one of my main reasons I decided to visit Chengdu! As you may already know, the panda is considered China’s national treasure. This makes Chengdu a popular destination for both international and Chinese tourists.

I decided to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The goal of the Chengdu Research Base is to create a breeding facility to help repopulate the disappearing population of pandas in China. The focus is to help grow the population of pandas where they one day can be released into the wild. Additionally, the center emphasizes efforts on conservation, research, and education.

I purchased tickets to visit the Chengdu Research Base through Klook, a travel activity booking site from Hong Kong. It was really easy to purchase the tickets and then redeem right at the entrance through my phone. I highly recommend if you visit the Chengdu Research Base to go early in the day. Earlier in the day you have a better chance to see pandas and there will be fewer visitors. I enjoyed my time at the research base and would recommend this as a starting point into learning more about pandas when in Chengdu.

Like most of my trips, I also went on a food tour in Chengdu. Sichuan cuisine is very popular and the region has become a major food destination. UNESCO even declared Chengdu a city of gastronomy in 2011. The food tour I went on was the Chengdu Evening Food Tour by Tuk-Tuk with Lost Plate. Since this tour I’ve now been on two additional food tours in China, but the Chengdu tour was truly the best of the three.

During the tour, we tried a variety of local dishes including street snacks, dumplings, and Gong Bao chicken (Kung Pao chicken). In this tour, we could revisit any dishes we liked at each stop. Another nice feature was the use of tuk-tuks. The tour was able to cover more ground in Chengdu over a 3-hours with the use of a tuk-tuk. Plus, the tuk-tuk had a cooler of beer, water, and soda.

Besides the food tour and seeing the pandas, I also went to Leshan outside of Chengdu. I ended up going with a private tour, even though you could visit Leshan on your own. I ended up searching for a private guide through Tours by Locals. Daniel was the guide I connected with visiting the Leshan Giant Buddha. Daniel was very knowledgeable about Chengdu and the Sichuan province. During the tour, Daniel shared a lot of information about the region. The drive to Leshan took about 1 1/2 hours from Chengdu. The main reason to visit Leshan is to see the Leshan Giant Buddha.

The Leshan Giant Buddha was built between 713 to 803. Construction was started by a Chinese monk named Hai Tong. The purpose of building the statue was to calm the rough waters of the river that would often sink shipping vessels sailing in the area. During construction funding for the project was threatened, which caused Hai Tong to gouge out his eyes to show his piety for the project. Funding was provided once again and it took 90-years to complete the giant Budha. Now due to the massive construction of the Buddha and much of the stone being removed from the cliff, it is believed that the turbulent currents were altered to create a safe passage for sailing ships.

Today the Leshan Giant Buddha is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The statue is one of the tallest Buddha statues in the world and also one of the tallest pre-modern statues. When we first arrived, we went on a boat ride to see the Buddha from the water. Seeing the statue from the water really shows its size. After the boat ride, we then climbed the stairs to reach the top of the Buddha, which is carved into a mountain. The climb to the top is long and has a ton of stairs. Plus, there also are stairs down to the bottom of the statue.

After the tour, we headed back to Chengdu. While driving back we stopped at a tea shop where I could sample some local teas. Sichuan is China’s most important tea production region. Here I was able to try samples of multiple teas, including a lower and higher quality green tea. After the tea stop I had a much better appreciation of tea production, especially the harvest process.

Overall, I enjoyed my week exploring Chengdu. Chengdu has a lot of interesting sites to visit and great food.

Accommodation: Crowne Plaza Chengdu City Center

During my time in Chengdu, I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Chengdu City Center. First off the location is great and within walking distance to nearby dining areas and Chunxi Road (a pedestrian shopping street). The hotel was also helpful when needing to call a taxi, even when I was using DiDi.

My main issue during my stay was the air conditioning in my room. During my stay Chengdu was hot and humid, most days the temperature was over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Now even though it was hot, the hotel decided to turn off the air conditioning since it was September (basically a China thing). Most nights my room was hot (well over 24C when the AC was set for 16C). I brought this issue up 4 times to the front desk. It would be fixed for a few hours and then the room seemed to heat up again. The last evening a fan was sent to my room to help cool down the space. The fan helped a little but didn’t solve my complaint about the room being hot.

Due to the air conditioning issues, I wouldn’t stay at the hotel again. Even though the location was great, I felt the air conditioning issue was annoying. I would stay somewhere else if I was to visit Chengdu.

Tokyo, Japan

IMG_4322My final stop after staying in Kyoto was Tokyo. I again used the Shinkansen to reach Tokyo with my Japan Rail Pass. The train ride between Kyoto and Tokyo takes a couple hours through the country side and also passes Mt. Fuji.

During my time in Tokyo I stayed in the Shinjuku area. Shinjuku is home to the busiest railway station in the world. Surrounding the station you’ll find a variety of entertainment, shopping, restaurants, and businesses. A lot of the major Japanese department stores and camera shops are in the Shinjuku area. I had a lot of fun walking through some of the tech stores looking at camera equipment.

One thing I wanted to do in Tokyo was visit a cat café. Japan is well known for cat cafes and has really embraced cat culture. I visited Cat Café Calico Shinjuku since I could easily walk from my hotel. I’d never been to a cat café before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. This café wasn’t really a cafe, more just a large play room with cats. They sell food and beverage for consumption, but I passed once in the café.

Overall the cat café was an interesting experience but I wasn’t overly impressed. The cats were cute and most of them nice. You could buy food to feed the cats, which is the only time any cat will probably show interest. Without food the cats pretty much ignored most visitors. The cat café was a cute experience, but honestly I would try a different location next time.

While in Tokyo I also made sure to go on a food tour. I went with Ninja Food Tour on the Best of Izakaya tour. This tour was an introduction to Japanese pub food culture in Shinjuku. It was a really great food tour and introduced me to a variety of foods in Tokyo.

On the tour we went to 4 different eateries, including both a chicken and seafood restaurant. My favorite restaurant was the seafood restaurant where we tried 6 different dishes of food, included fresh fatty tuna. The tuna was probably some of the best I’ve tried to date. The tour wasn’t fast paced which made it nice to experience Shinjuku.

While on the tour I met two guys from Norway who suggested a steak restaurant to try in the area called Ikuta. The next day I decided to give the restaurant a try since I was looking to try Kobe beef. I’m glad they recommended it because the food was fantastic. The staff were friendly and helpful with explaining the menu.

Since I was eating on my own, I had to order all my plates individually instead of their meal options. For one person my meal cost around $100 USD. I ordered two different plates of Kobe beef, a salad, and a beer. Additionally, the restaurant provided a complimentary amuse bouche to start with. The meat was tender and flavorful, and truly was some of the best beef I’ve tried. For the quality level of the food, I think the price for the meal was worth it.

The last major point of interest for my trip to Tokyo was the Robot Restaurant. First off this isn’t really a restaurant, it is a theatrical show! There is dancing, fake robots, singing, crazy costumes, and lights.  I’d been wanting to go since I first saw Anthony Bourdain visited on his tv show years ago. It’s become really popular with tourists since then and is extremely gimmicky.

The show actually was fun to watch, though very loud and bright. This place is comical and definitely is a tourist trap. You see very few local people, if any. The show is weird and something fun to do in the evening. I would though stay away from any food or drink offerings. One tip is to buy your tickets online ahead of time, the price is reduced compared to buying at the ticket window.

Accommodation: Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku

During my time in Tokyo I stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. I had found the hotel through a couple recommendations on travel blogs. Overall, I thought the hotel itself was average. Nothing really jumped out at me about the property other than the location.

The location of the hotel was excellent though. The property is within walking distance from the station and hundreds of nearby restaurants and shops. Another great bonus with the location was the airport limousine. The airport limousine drops off and picks up directly at the hotel. This was really convenient the day I left Tokyo.

Kyoto, Japan

IMG_3188From Osaka I headed to Kyoto by Shinkansen. Shinkansen is Japan’s high-speed train system connecting most of the country. I found transportation in Japan to be easy to use and to navigate. During my time in Kyoto I utilized the Japan Rail Pass. The Japan Rail Pass gave me access to JR trains and transportation, which were convenient to most tourist sites in Kyoto.

My first day in Kyoto I tried to visit a sake brewery, which unfortunately wasn’t open at the time. From there I headed to Nishiki Market, a long narrow shopping street filled with small restaurants and shops. There were over 100 stalls in the market selling items related to food or cooking. One of my favorite shops I looked at was a knife store. The knives were all handmade in Japan, though I passed since I was using a carry-on for my trip.

The next day I decided to head to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. This was one of the few Sake experiences I could find in Kyoto that was actually open to the public. One thing Kyoto could do is embrace Sake tourism, especially in providing more education.

The entry fee to Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum was only 300 Yen. The ticket gave me entry, a free souvenir Sake bottle (with Sake), and a Sake tasting. The museum is self-guided and smaller, though it provides a lot of information about how Sake is produced and the history of Sake in Japan.

From the museum I next headed to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is a designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The castle was the residence of shogun Tokugawa Ieyas. The complex dates back to the early 1600s. Some of the buildings have been rebuilt due to damage from fires and storms.

The castle is surrounded by two moats, which provided protection to the palace and gardens. The complex at Nijo Castle is impressive. Much of the gardens are covered in cherry and plum trees. Nijo Castle is probably a great site to visit later in spring when the trees blossom.

On my final day in Kyoto I went to Fushimi-Inari. This shrine is dedicated to Inari (Shinto god of rice) and is considered the most important shrine to Inari. You’ll find many fox statues across the shrine, which are thought to be messengers for Inari. The earliest known structure at Fushimi-Inari predates Kyoto becoming the capital of Japan in 794.

In my opinion, Fushimi-Inari is probably the most recognized shrine in Japan due to the thousands of torii gates. The torii gates span a network of trails, which lead to the forest of Mount Inari. The further you walk along the trail, the less visitors you’ll encounter. The hike can take about 2 to 3 hours, but you can turn back before reaching the summit. Along the hike you’ll encounter small shrines and miniature torii gates.

My huge mistake with visiting Fushimi-Inari was not getting up early enough. I arrived about 10:00 AM and the site was filled with tourists. If visiting Fushimi-Inari, I highly recommend visiting the shrine around 8:00 AM. This will help with avoiding the main crowds.

In general, I found Kyoto to be packed with tourists. Part of the reason may have been due to Chinese New Year. I guestimate around 60% of the tourists I encountered in Kyoto were from China. If you travel in Asia during the beginning of the year, just be aware Chinese New Year may increase the number of tourists traveling.

Accommodation: Ibis Styles Kyoto Station

During my time in Kyoto I stayed at the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station. The hotel is located right across the street from Kyoto Station, which made it convenient to reach local transportation.

Hotel RoomBesides the location of the hotel, the price was good! Kyoto hotels are fairly expensive, yet Ibis was budget friendly and modern feeling. This was my first time staying at an Ibis property and I wouldn’t shy away from their properties in the future.

When arriving at the hotel, I was able to check-in a few hours early and was even given an upgrade. The room was small but easy to move around. The room even included a mini-refrigerator. The thing I liked the most about the property was the laundry room on the second floor. This was easy and convenient, plus made it nice not having to send out laundry to an expensive service.

 

Osaka, Japan

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Last year I decided to visit Japan for two weeks over Chinese New Year. I started my trip by spending 3 days in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. Osaka was a city I found easy to navigate and a great introduction to Japan.

The weather during the beginning of my trip was not the most cooperative. It ended up raining my first 2 days Osaka. I decided to check out the various shopping and food areas since most were covered or easy to dash between. One area I walked around was Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street. This street is well known for shops that sell kitchen and cooking utensils.

Besides exploring the shopping areas, I decided to take a food tour with Drink Osaka. This ended up being my favorite food tour in Japan, and possibly my favorite food tour in Asia. My tour ended up being just the guide (Rodney) and myself. Luckily, Drink Osaka didn’t cancel my tour since no one else booked for the evening I was there!

The tour explored the Dotonbori area of Osaka, which is home to hundreds and hundreds of bars and restaurants. I’ve never seen so many restaurants and bars in one area. Dotonobori is busy with locals and tourists trying the various foods and bars. During my tour I tried kushikatsu, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki. We also stopped at two local bars to sample sake and Japanese whisky.

Rodney then took me to a restaurant not included on the tour, where I had the opportunity to purchase and try fugu. Fugu (blowfish) is a poisonous fish and that should only be prepared by certified chefs. The restaurant had less than 10 seats and somewhere I never would have found on my own. Supposedly Jay-Z visited the same restaurant the year before during his visit to Osaka.

I tried fugu two different way. One version was roasted fugu in warm sake, known as Hirezake. The other was fugu served with soy sauce. I had the chance to try handmade tofu, which was some of the best tofu I’ve tried.

 

Accommodation: ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka

IMG_2906During my time in Osaka I stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka. The hotel is located in downtown Osaka and overlooks the nearby Dojima River and highway. There are multiple subway stations nearby and a free shuttle to Osaka Station.

The ANA Crowne Plaza Osaka was modern and recently updated before my stay. Upon check-in I was upgraded to a queen room with a view due to my IHG status. The room was the largest and most spacious I encountered during my trip to Japan. There was even a small sitting area that overlooked the Dojima River and highway. The only downside was the noise late one night from the nearby highway. The highway is popular with the infamous street racing that takes place in Osaka.