Thursday, May 5, 2016

7 Secrets of Taiwan's Largest International Airport - Taoyuan International Airport

Coming to Taipei for the first time or have a layover? Most likely your first impression of Taiwan is Taoyuan International Airport (airport code TPE). The airport is located in Taoyuan, a city about an hour's drive away from Taipei, much like how Incheon is about an hour away from Seoul.

It's one of my favorite airports in the world not only because of its easy navigation and Hello Kitty terminal, but also because it has awesome facilities- all for free! Seriously, it's the little things in life, especially at the airport! Here are seven secrets of the Taoyuan International Airport that will make your layover more comfortable and fun. And the best part? It's all free.
  1. 24-Hour Showers
    Location: Terminal 1 first and second floor of arrivals, Terminal 2 first floor of arrivals and fourth floor of departures

    You can freshen up after a long flight to Taiwan with a shower in the airport. There is also a dressing area with hooks, mirrors, seats, and tables if you just want to change clothes.
  2. Daybeds
    Location: Terminal 2 third floor

    There is a row with 10 daybeds for you to lie flat and get some rest in. They also include a divider near the head to block light and peering eyes, giving you more privacy while you sleep.
  3. Movie Theater
    Location: Terminal 1 transfer area behind the China Airlines counter

    The area is a bit hard to find, but you will be rewarded with massage chairs and a movie. The movie schedule is erratic, but usually the movies are new releases.
  4. Massage Chairs
    Location: Terminal 2 near gate C and D3

    High quality OSIM massage chairs will give you at least 15 minutes of respite. They even blocked the area off with bamboo trees to reduce the airport traffic noise. Note that these spa chairs don't take money, only coins that you can get from the employees in stores nearby. 
  5. Gym
    Location: Terminal 2 third floor D1

    Feeling antsy after being cramped in a small chair for hours? Then visit the airport gym and loosen up those muscles. Rumors say the gym will expand to include a yoga and shower area.
  6. Drinking Water Machines (hot, warm, cold)
    Location: Outside bathrooms and throughout the airport

    Taiwan is all about being green, so if you have your own water bottle fill it up with filtered drinking water from the many drinking water machines located throughout the airport. 
  7. Day Trips to Taipei
    Location: Information desk inside and outside the terminal

    The Taiwan Tourism Board offers free day trips to Sanxia/Yingge or Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and Taipei 101 in Taipei. The information in the picture above is recent as of 8/31/2015. Ask someone at the information desk for more information. 

Just add this to the ever-growing list of why I <3 Taiwan. Find these airport secrets helpful? What other free thing would you like to have in an airport?

Source: Vida Orange

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Thoughts About Traveling Solo

My most recent trip to Japan was the first trip where I didn't have any familiar faces in the area to reconnect with. It was two (glorious) weeks bonding with me, myself, and I. They say how traveling alone is reflective, about rediscovering yourself, blah blah....I don't know if it's because I'm already so used to being alone that it was none of that. Yes, it's lonely, but not in the depressing way that you may think. It's more of an annoyance. No one to take a photo for you, no one to eat that minimum two people order meal with, no one to share your excitement with, that sort of thing.

But would I travel solo again? Hell yeah, in a heartbeat! I love being able to do whatever I want whenever I want. I will also say though that some places are better than others for solo trips, and Japan happens to be one of the places I deem to be extremely solo-friendly. Another situation I ran into often was the following:

Stranger: You're traveling alone?
Me: Yup!
Stranger: *looks at me incredulously* You're so brave/courageous!

I always feel like the above reaction to hearing a female traveling alone is weird and unsettling. If I were on a business trip alone would you say that? If I were a dude would you say that? Plus does it really take courage to travel solo? I don't think so, not any more courage than eating out in a restaurant alone or going to a social event alone. What you do need to travel solo is independence. You need to be able to do things and solve problems on your own. If independence isn't a skill you already possess, then you DEFINITELY need to try a solo getaway at least once. It will definitely be a special experience.

Before going to Japan I was pretty worn out from two months of nonstop traveling. I thought that the travel "bug" is gone for sure and that I've met my travel quota for this year and the next. But actually traveling is like a hobby for me. Yeah, you may get sick of it after being constantly exposed to it, but you still love it and look forward to planning your next itinerary and researching countries.

My Go-To Beef Noodle Soup 建宏牛肉麵 (Jian Hong Beef Noodle Soup)

Happened on this beef noodle soup gem thanks to the construction around MRT Beimen. Have been searching for a go-to beef noodle soup place for two years now and I've finally found the spot!

I found this place accidentally while walking to Ximen. It was packed with locals and seemed like a longtime establishment. Taking these indications as a good sign I went in to check it out.
The menu is very simple, and if it isn't obvious enough, not vegetarian friendly. Beef is the specialty here. You can order beef soup, beef soup with noodles or dumplings, and some side dishes. If you're more picky you can also order the mixed beef soup or noodles which will include a combination of different beef parts such as tendon. This is also the cheapest pricing I've seen yet in Taipei for this beef noodle soup, as it usually runs from $120-$200NT and upwards.

First, try to find a seat. Turnover is pretty fast, so if you can't find one just wait around for a bit and a spot should open up. Alternatively, they do offer takeout. Then place your order at the back of the restaurant. Remember to specify to the person taking your order if you want thick noodles! You can then help yourself to free lemon tea.
These are the condiments that are available on the table. Starting from the left is the typical pickled vegetables and white vinegar. The bucket filled with what looks like sweet potato mash is the magic oil. The beef noodle soup is still flavorful without it, but the extra grease adds to the aroma and flavor of the broth. The brown stuff is spicy seasoning for those who like an added heat. I love this system because you can personalize your bowl to your own tastes.
After waiting for about ten minutes our order came. The servers call out the orders and you raise your hand to indicate it's your order. Make sure to double check the noodles to verify it's your order. Pictured above is the small bowl for $80NT. Those with small stomachs will be full with just a small order. Note that free soup refills are also available. You just have to ask the staff. Below is the large bowl for $100NT.
Thick, homemade cut noodles- my favorite beef noodle soup pairing. As you can tell, they are also very generous with the beef and portions. You really can't beat this price or flavor. Jian Hong's beef noodle soup is the most traditional style. Just pure homemade beef stock simmered with traditional seasonings such as star anise added. Simple comfort food perfect for late drunken nights or on a rainy day. If you think the wait is too long, there are also several other similar beef noodle soup establishments nearby. I have yet to check them out, but they have been added to the "to-eat" list.
台北市西寧南路7號 (Near MRT Beimen)
(02) 2371-2747

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Celebrating The Lantern Festival with a Bang

The Lantern Festival celebrated each year on the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar marks the official end of Lunar New Year celebrations. Mainstream tradition is to eat mochi balls, look at lanterns, and guess riddles, but I decided to end the new year with a bang (pun intended) like this:
Though only a fraction of the size of the Beehive Fireworks Festival in Tainan, the Neihu "Night of Teasing the Earth God" event is still a lot of fun. The Earth God is paraded around in his sedan chair and shop owners load boxes of firecrackers on him and then light them up. It's a tradition that's supposed to bring prosperity to the owners.
The Earth God being paraded around in a sedan chair
Boxes of firecrackers prepared by shop owners

Because of the close proximity of the firecrackers, the surrounding crowd also gets to experience the firecrackers firsthand. It also symbolizes you getting a piece of the prosperity. I had never been that close to a firecracker before, so feeling the heat emitted from it was quite an experience!
Before coming I heard rumors of how dangerous the event is, but I actually found it to be a very safe and controlled environment. Police and firefighters monitor the entire event while parade staff look out for the safety of the crowd. Just remember to wear proper protection like a hat, face mask, and ear plugs. The rest of the parade also included other friends of the Earth God, drums, and a dragon. Residents also shoot fireworks to add to the festivities.
Friend of the Earth God, Third Prince

The Earth God

After the parade moved on we hung out in the back for a bit to pick up the firecracker remains and put them in a red envelope. This supposedly brings good luck for the new year.

If you're ever in Taiwan during the Lantern Festival I highly recommend attending this event as it's a unique cultural event that only happens once a year. I had a great time and it was a memorable experience for sure. Now that the Lantern Festival is over, let's not all monkey around. Wishing you a great year of the monkey!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Japan Solo // Osaka: In Closing, (r)-Amen

Get the title pun? Har har. I know, I'm so cheesy. No pun on pun intended =P I can't believe it's already the last stop on this trip. Osaka reminds me a lot of Tokyo; a big metropolitan city with crowded shopping districts where most activities revolve around eating or shopping. Having traveled pretty intensely for the past two weeks though, I don't mind this at all.

Namba Parks is the first place I go to after arriving, hoping to see some holiday cheer. The rooftop garden was a letdown and wasn't as spectacularly decorated as I'd hoped for. Got a great exercise from it though as I walked from my hotel (4km roundtrip!)
A bit of the city view, but not much. Most of the light decorations seem to be there year round, too. The area was small too. Seemed to be smaller than the sky garden in Kyoto.

Then the highlight of my Osaka trip: The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum! It's a 5-10 minute stroll from the station and just look out for the signs like the one below. Be careful of the 100 yen store that you pass....I went crazy since they had a lot of Sanrio merchandise (for only $1!)
The building was a lot more modern than I expected! I kept unconsciously associating this museum with Tadao Ando and the Momofuku restaurant in The highlight of this museum is that you can personalize your own cup ramen.
You pay 300 yen to buy the empty cup from the vending machine. Not as expensive as I predicted, and it meets my criteria for souvenirs (cheap, small or perishable, and personal) so I tried it out.
Then the most fun part: personalizing your cup. Channeled my inner artist and created this work of art. I think it's pretty good....I mean you can tell which places the drawings represent right?
Then you get to choose which ingredients you want added to your ramen and see how it is packaged.
Adding the cover to the cup and sealing it.Packaging the cup ramen in plastic wrap.
Then shrink wrapping the cup to complete the look. Note that it's recommended to eat the ramen within a month. And one last photo of the final product in its protective packaging. 
I ended up loving this museum. It's really interactive and I learned a lot about the innovation that went into a cup ramen. All the elements of its design from using the styrofoam cup to the shape of the cup and the shape of the ramen in the cup, it all required lots of trial and effort and creativity to make this iconic product.

Other than this museum, my time in Osaka was very chill and filled with shopping that I had held off on. At first I started this Japan trip very worn from having traveled so much already, but now that it's ending I feel sad and itching to plan another trip. The travel bug never goes away :)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Japan Solo // Kobe: Eating, Drinking, and Living the Life

Can't believe I'm nearing the end of my trip already! Kobe is my favorite city based on principle because my trip focused on eating and drinking. I was so pumped to try out the famous Kobe beef. People online recommended going to Steakland. Since it's conveniently located near Sannomiya station, that's where I headed.
I arrived at around 11:30 and there was already a line outside. The restaurant inside was full too. After waiting for 10 minutes a waiter came out and led us to another location that was around the corner into an alley marked by a drugstore.
Go to this location and you'll have a higher chance of being seated immediately. It's on 6F.

I got lucky and was seated in the very last seat (yay for traveling solo!) If you can't arrive by 11:30, I'd suggest coming at 1:00 when the first round of customers leave. Though I think half the reason why Steakland is so crowded is because service is very slow. There were only three teppanyaki chefs that I saw serving the entire restaurant. They would start from one end of the grill and go down the line. Service was not up to Japanese standards either.
I ordered the Kobe beef steak lunch. Since the other menu items didn't explicitly state Kobe beef, I assumed it was just normal teppanyaki. Kobe beef is already expensive for lunch. I can't imagine paying more than double the price for essentially the same thing except for dinner.
My cut of meat waiting to be cooked. Honestly I was very, very disappointed with the cut when I saw it. It didn't look very fresh (it has brown spots!) and seemed like a flank cut or something. Honestly I don't know much about cuts of meat, but it just felt very like very cheap quality for the price, though I know there are stringent standards for meat to be deemed Kobe beef quality.
The final product! It ended up being quite a bit of food to finish. Kobe beef has a distinctive taste that I can't say with certainty I liked. The fat tasted nothing like the fat of other steaks that I've had, perhaps because it was marbled and distributed throughout the entire piece of meat and not all gathered at the sides. This made for very, very soft and delicate meat that was easy to chew and buttery tasting. It felt like if the meat lingered in my mouth for long enough it would disintegrate and melt away. But it also had a unique taste, much like there's a unique taste to eating lamb.

The verdict? Worth trying out for a lunch, but I wouldn't recommend Steakland. Next time I'm in Japan I'd like to order Kobe beef again to get a better comparison. Based on online research that I've done, many Japanese locals deem Kobe beef to be overrated and instead prefer Matsusaka beef. Next time I'd also like to try that to compare the two.
After such a heavy meal it's time to digest and walk it off! Next stop is the Nunobiki waterfall, which is pretty famous in Japan. Since it's pretty famous I was excited about how big and grand it would be.

This was the scenery on the way to the waterfall. The path is well marked and easy to walk with some stairs along the way. It also seemed to be a popular hiking spot with locals as I ran into quite a few people on a weekday.
Pretty, but not big. Here are some more pictures of it more upstream.
I continue along the trail and also get glimpses of the ropeway heading to and from the Herbal Garden. It really is the perfect day for a hike. Beautiful weather and not too cold or hot.
Finally see the reservoir, indicating that I'm more than halfway to the Herb Garden.
On the last leg of the trail the path became unmarked. It was a bit scary since there was no one in sight and I wasn't sure if I was going in the right direction, but I just kept walking and finally saw the gate to the Herb Garden.
I think you have to pay to enter, but no one was checking tickets so I just went in. It's a pretty boring garden, but had a gorgeous view of the city.
After a long afternoon hike I wasn't about to attempt a descent on foot. Instead I took the ropeway and got a lovely view of the sunset. It truly is the little things in life that you learn to appreciate.
The next day I went to visit the Hyogo Museum. Ever since taking an introduction to architecture course, I developed an appreciating for buildings. This particular museum was designed by the famed Tadao Ando, whom I previously declared that I was sick of seeing (No more concrete!!). I went to see another one of his concrete masterpieces anyway.
Now I can rest in peace and say I've seen every single important Tadao Ando creation except the Church of Light in Osaka. The permanent collection in the museum wasn't terribly memorable, but I loved the one room that they dedicated to Tadao Ando. It had scaled replicas of his important works and detailed information of the conception and background of each project. The Ando Museum in Naoshima is similar except that museum focuses more on Ando's motivations in each project.
If you're an Ando fan you must visit the Hyogo Museum because the museum shop sells personally autographed copies of Ando's books. I couldn't justify buying one so I took a picture of his autograph instead as a memory. I love how he includes a sketch!
Had my Kobe beef, now it's time to do some drinking! Kobe is home to many sake breweries. I chose to visit Hakutsuru. 

The museum is free and was very informative about the sake brewing process. They had English on everything, short videos to show the process, and the actual tools that were used.
Sake is not my favorite type of alcohol, but the shop had free samples. Who would say no to free alcohol?! After tasting the samples though my opinion remains unchanged. Haha. I still bought some though. You can't visit a beer museum without drinking the beer, and so I couldn't leave empty handed! And with that, I'm leaving Kobe on a high note (pun intended).