A Walk Around: The Streets of Sheung Wan

Sheung Wan is an area i've grown really fond of recently. For a couple of months I was in Sheung Wan every Wednesday morning for work, with a delightful couple of hours to spare before I had to be in the next place. During this time I enjoyed walking around the area admiring the street art, quirky doorways and interesting, colourful buildings. Although Sheung Wan is in walkable distance of the finance district and chaos of central, it has a completely different, much more slow-paced vibe. It seamlessly blends old Hong Kong and new Hong Kong together. It is also home to multiple cute coffee shops, quirky restaurants and hipster bars, it really is a great spot to find yourself at any time of day.


Brunch: Tott's and Roof Terrace at The Excelsior

Brunching in Hong Kong is a big deal. Pretty much any restaurant or hotel worth their salt in HK will undoubtedly offer some kind of weekend all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch menu. It's the ultimate Sunday indulgence. Somehow, before now, I'd only been to one weekend brunch before, at Top Deck in Aberdeen. Which I very much enjoyed and would do again, however my brunch experience at Tott's last weekend really blew that one out of the water.

There was literally everything you could possibly desire to eat on a Sunday. Serving delicacies such as foie gras, oysters and Yorkshire pudding (one for the brits). They seemed to have a station for everything, there's a cheese station, an eggs benedict station, a roast dinner station, an oyster station, a Bloody Mary station, ALL the desserts at their dessert station, literally. I'm not the biggest dessert person as a rule, don't get me wrong, I love a cheesecake and an ice cream, but I'm usually by far a more savoury girl. The dessert station at Tott's was incredible though. (As you can see from my plate below). Basically, in terms of food, they have everything.

On top of all the excitement over food, they serve free-flow Veuve Clicquot for the duration, which they were very attentive in keeping topped up the whole time. Oh, and not to mention the expansive view of Kowloon in the background.

Apparently the Excelsior hotel is soon to be turned into a residential building, so I cannot recommend enough to go soon before it closes.

It's worth making a trip to the roof terrace to admire the view over Hong Kong Island while you're there, this view is particularly magical at night. The roof terrace has a fantastic buy-one-get-one-free happy hour from 5-8pm.

Why it's worth checking out the roof terrace, particularly at night (photo taken from HK Magazine)
If the food was too much of a distraction and you feel you didn't get your fill of champagne, why not head to the Armani bar in Central for their post brunch party like we did. $250 for free flow prosecco, belinis, bloody mary's etc from 4-7. It was a birthday celebration after all..

*if you pay with a HSBC card you get 20% off the brunch at Tott's bringing the grand total to $620 per person.


A Cycle Around: Tokyo

Before, whenever I thought of Japan, Tokyo in particular, I envisioned a bigger, busier version of Hong Kong. With bright, neon lights, and over 32 million people, if you count the outlying prefectures. However, Tokyo was quite the opposite to what I was expecting. It really was a pleasant surprise. Spacious, efficient, and I rarely saw big crowds. The air seemed remarkably fresh for such a big city too. I was amazed walking around and exploring this city, with a feeling of tranquility.

The first two days Christina, Rachael and I were together (I had taken an extra couple of days off so would be solo travelling for the last half of the trip). The three of us had booked into a nice hotel and spa in Chiba, quite a last minute booking, by the time we looked at booking hotels, there was little choice left. Sadly, being Hong Kong dwellers, we hadn't taken in to account the fact that other cities really are much bigger than Hong Kong. Chiba, it turns out, is quite a distance from anywhere you really want to be in Tokyo. Other than a few incredibly expensive taxis, we didn't let this set us back. Up we got at the crack of dawn on our first day and headed out for our pre-booked cycle tour.

Cycling through Tokyo was a fantastic experience, it is such a bicycle friendly city, there are cycle lanes everywhere. I felt like we saw most of the 'must see' sights of Tokyo in this one trip as well as some other lesser known ones. Cycling around all these sights with our tour guide, Noel, was so much more fun than traipsing around the city and battling with the typical crowds that such attractions draw. Here are some picture highlights of the tour, my personal (and actually all round) favourite was the final destination, Kyosumi gardens. Incredible beauty and tranquility right in the heart of the city. Check out Noel's webpage, Tokyo Cycling Tours, if you're planning a trip to Tokyo. We did the cultural and historical tour. When I return to Tokyo hopefully later in the year, I will definitely try out the waterfront tour.

Here are a few highlights:

The lotus flowers of Ueno Park. In cherry blossom season this lake is surrounded by pink cherry blossoms. In summer, the lotus flowers bloom and the lake is a sea of white. This stop was quite interesting as the other guy on our tour works in material engineering, apparently the big smart phone companies are currently working on the 'lotus effect'. Lotus flowers don't absorb water, the water just runs off the leaves or forms a pool, applying this technology to a smart phone would make the phone waterproof, water would just run off it.

This tree is located in Ueno Park, it is the original cherry blossom tree!

We went to a really lovely shinto shrine. Apparently this particular shrine is not on the usual tourist trail, so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves to enjoy the tranquility. We performed a traditional cleansing while we were here.

This style of gate appears at the entrance of all shinto shrines. There are many across Tokyo, and I would imagine all of Japan.

Apparently if you have any sickness or pain, rubbing this bull in the area where you are suffering will help to heal your ailment.

Ryogoku - just around the corner from the shinto temple. This is were you go to watch sumo wrestling in Tokyo, we were lucky enough to spot a couple of sumo wrestlers while we were here.

This last stop was my favourite of the whole tour. The Kiyosumi Teien traditional Japanese garden. Incredibly beautiful and tranquil, it was hard to believe we were in the middle of one of the worlds largest cities.

                                                                       Our tour group

According to Noel we cycled over 32km on this tour, although the roads are quite flat and undemanding, the after-burn had well and truly kicked in by time we were back at the hotel. As this was the girls only full night in Tokyo we wanted to make the most of it, Tokyo is known for its thriving bar/clubbing scene, so even though it was a Sunday, we forced ourselves out of bed post-cycle-nap, got dressed up and hit the bars of Tokyo. I was happy to find the drinks were quite a bit cheaper than HK and we met lots of lovely people out, both local and international. Needless to say the hangover was quite sizeable the next day!

After a slow morning, we pack up our belongings and headed into Tokyo, on today's agenda was shopping. One cannot come to Tokyo without heading to Harajuku to check out the notoriously outrageous fashion scene. I'm not normally one to make shopping a big part of a trip, however I was really impressed with the shopping in Tokyo, so many cool, boutique stores and very reasonably priced all round. I handed over a fair amount of yen during this afternoon! While shopping in Harajuku I was really struck by the European vibe of the streets, I found a lot of places around Tokyo in general had quite a European vibe actually.

Browsing the streets of Harajuku.


A Memorable Izakaya Experience

That evening I said farewell to the girls and headed off to my accommodation for my solo leg of the trip. For the remainder of  the trip I stayed in the Tokyo Origami Hostel, I felt so much more at home here than in the hotel. I'm such a backpacker at heart. I love the friendly, quirky hostels that can be found pretty much anywhere you go these days. This hostel was particularly excellent, very clean, excellent facilities and a fantastic view of the Sensoji temple and Tokyo tower from the top floor. The location was perfect too, located just behind the Sensoji temple, it was close to a number of interesting places to see, while itself being in quite a local area.

That night, I headed out for my first solo dinner. Around the quiet streets of the hostel were lots of neatly hidden izakaya's. At first I was a little bit nervous about entering one, when I peered into a couple it seemed more like a family gathering in a small living room than a place open to the public.

This was a particularly intriguing entrance to one nearby bar

Finally I did take the plunge, I don't know why I chose the one I did, but I just walked in. The mamasan and the middle aged Japanese men drinking inside did indeed looked very shocked to see me standing in the doorway. This reconfirmed my suspicions about this area being a local part of Asakuru. Nevertheless, they invited me in to sit down, by this point I knew there was no turning back.

Nobody really spoke much English, there was one older man who could speak enough for us to find out a little more about each other. With no offering of a menu, the incredibly graceful mamasan cooked me up an assortment of Japanese food, right in front of me. I have no idea what any of it was (it wasn't sushi or ramen) but it was fresh, delicious and like nothing I have ever tried before. Along with the food I was given a very generous portion of sake, naturally. Finally over the shock of seeing a young british girl in their local, they others started warming up to me. The older man who could speak a bit more English asked me what my favourite Japanese food is, I told him I liked ramen and sushi (very boring and predictable of me). Almost immediately after, the mamasan began making me a bowl of ramen, I was already full but of course I couldn't object. The ramen was, again, like no ramen I have had before, but it was undoubtedly the best ramen I have ever had. After this, I spoke a little more to the others, I tried to teach them some English phrases and in turn they tried to teach me some Japanese, little progress was made on either part but we got on companionably.

 Just as I was about to retire back to the hostel, the older man received a delivery. It turned out he had ordered some sushi for me, apparently it was from the best sushi place in town. Almost fit to burst after all the other wonderful Japanese dishes I had been presented with, again I felt like I had to eat it. The sushi was, again, fresh and delicious and they filled up my sake glass this time with the bars 'finest whiskey'. Despite having ate enough to feed the entire izakaya, I managed to finish nearly the whole box of sushi and the whiskey. More than ready for bed at this point I said my farewells and headed of to the hostel. It had been a long day, especially considering the brutal hangover I had started it off with.

This experience was truly special, it's moments like this that i'm sure will keep me burning to travel for the rest of my life. Being embraced so fully by people of another culture, and in spite of the language barrier having a laugh together and learning a little more about each other. This also reflected the amazing kindness and generosity I experienced all over Tokyo from the Japanese people, I think they truly have a special culture.

The izakaya from the outside