Slow Travel Through Hong Kong on the Electric Tram

 

 

Hong Kong is one of Asia’s fastest cities, a bustling metropolitan and a thriving economy with a population of 7 million people and a gross domestic product of 248.6 billion USD per year.

 

However, it’s still possible to slow down in this frenetic city that never sleeps. And one of the ways is to take a ride on the electric tram, one of Hong Kong’s oldest forms of public transport that stretches 30km along the northern coast of the island.

 

The electric tram, locally known as the ‘Ding Ding’ thanks to its ringing bell, began its operations in 1904 and is one of the world’s only double-decker tram systems remaining today. A ride on the vintage trams is a major tourist attraction for visitors, costing a flat fare of HKD2.30, making it one of the cheapest, cutest and slowest ways to sightsee in Hong Kong.

 

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The trams may be vintage, but they are decked out in modern advertising.

 

 

During my trip in July, I took the tram from Sheung Wan in the west all the way to Shau Kei Wan on the eastern side of the island. I went straight up to the top deck and secured my spot at the corner to ensure I had the best views of the city. I began my journey at about 7pm from Queens Road West and watched as the night fell and the lights came on, experiencing the city by night.

 

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On the top floor of the double-decker tram passing by Central

 

 

The route crosses the financial district, which is located around Central and Admiralty. The edifice with the big X is The Bank of China Building and it’s one of my favourite skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Many blockbusters have been filmed in Hong Kong thanks to its magnificent cityscape, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), Johnny English Reborn (2011) and the upcoming Transformers 4 to be released in 2014.

 

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The Bank of China Building at night in Admiralty

 

 

The electric tram also took a slow journey along Johnston Road in Wan Chai district. Here, the night markets come alive at about 8pm, with plenty of locals and tourists alike shopping for clothes, toys and electronics. Wan Chai is one of the older districts on the island, adding to the city’s character and authenticity.

 

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Busy night market off Johnston Road

 

 

Sights like these high rise residential buildings are common all across the city. I took this picture looking out of the tram window as we neared Tin Hau. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, and a factsheet by the Hong Kong government published in July 2013 stated that at mid-2012, there was an average of 6,620 persons per square kilometre in Hong Kong. Kwun Tong was the most densely populated district, with 56,200 persons per square kilometre.

 

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Densely-populated residential buildings in Tin Hau

 

 

Hong Kong epitomises a clash of Eastern and Western, modern and traditional. Alongside traditional Chinese food stores selling sliced barbeque pork are global retail chains like Forever21. This photo in Causeway Bay perfectly captures this unique fusion that makes Hong Kong so attractive.

 

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Forever 21 retail store in Causeway Bay

 

 

The tram journey ends in Shau Kei Wan, a residential suburb on the eastern coast of Hong Kong Island. Here it is almost 10pm and traditional businesses like pharmacies and opticians have closed, but the night has just begun for food proprietors as locals come out to eat with their families in restaurants and sidewalk canteens, also known as cha chan teng.

 

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Night time in Shau Kei Wan, a thriving residential area in the northeast of Hong Kong Island

 

 

About the author: Wan Phing is the Online Editor at AsiaRooms.com. Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, she has lived in Beijing, London, Benevento, Kuala Lumpur, Manchester and currently resides in Singapore. She loves travel, photography and discovering new trends.  Connect with her via email wanphing.lim [at] asiarooms.com, Twitter, and G+.

After Kyoto’s Temples, It’s Time to Shop and Eat

tengu Japanese masks for sale in kyoto

 

 

After several days of walking tours through 1100 years of history, Kyoto may have you “templed out”.  It’s a common syndrome that many travelers experience as they explore the Inca ruins of Peru and the gilded temples of Thailand.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact savvy travelers know that diversifying an itinerary is the best way to get the most out of a location without risking burnout.  Once you’ve ticked off the major sights on your list, it’s time for some shopping and eating.

 

tengu Japanese masks for sale in kyoto

What to buy in Kyoto? Tengu Masks to ward off evil!

Shopping In Kyoto

Just north of Heian Shrine on Marutamachi Street, the Kyoto Handicraft Center is a collective of stores offering a great spot to shop.  Whether you’re looking for pottery, fans, or dolls, the perfect souvenir awaits.  Demonstrations and exhibits are available for chronic window shoppers.  Many items are duty free so feel free to pick up an authentic kimono.

In two parallel markets between Shijo and Sanjo Streets, find that perfect keepsake to take home.  The first walkway, Teramachi Shopping Arcade has folding fans, sword shops, incense stalls and much more.  Head to Daishodo for authentic woodblock prints and books.  Or stop by Duty Free Kyoto and see the latest in Japanese electronics (on sale).  Paralleling its twin, Kyogoku Shopping Arcade boasts paper products, jean shops, and ice cream parlors.  But head for Chopstick Gallery MON for a real treat.  Over 2000 chopsticks are in stock from all over Japan in a variety of materials and finishes.  Kiyomizu ceramics and pottery are also available alongside bowls, chopstick holders, and other accessories. In bad weather, take refuge under these covered awnings.  Check email at an internet cafe.  Sing a song at a karaoke box. Or crowd your family into a hi-tech photo booth for some funny shots.

 

tajimi japan

Izakayas are great places to mingle with new Japanese friends.

Eating in Kyoto

For a crash course in Japanese cuisine, head to Nishiki Market.  Also known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, the long avenue sells everything from pickled daikon to dried fish and sushi.  The covered market is a photographer’s delight and a serial-snacker’s dream.  Taste the sweet and the savory sides of Japan.  Make friends with fishmongers whose families have worked these stalls for centuries.

 

Pontocho

At twilight, visit Kyoto’s traditional nightlife district.  Red lanterns beckon visitors down the narrow avenue.  Restaurants, teahouses, and bars crowd the street.  Sample the premium sake or try a skewer or two of yakitori, traditional grilled chicken.  If you are very lucky, you may catch the clip-clop of Geisha apprentices, called Maiko, on their way to see a client.  Their stunning kimono will draw you into the charm of the “Floating World.”

ramen soup

Tonkatsu Ramen

 

Izakaya, the Japanese Pub

In the covered arcades, hop between Japanese pubs called izakaya.  Picture menus make it easy to order sashimi, hotpots, dumplings and fried fish.  Beers come in small and large sizes and are meant to be shared.  Every izakaya is different.  Some offer squid ink pizza, others potato dumplings stuffed with cheese while many specialize in kimchi fried rice and omelets.  It’s a culinary tour on its own.  Head to either Teramachi or Kyogoku Shopping Arcades and pick a place with a crowd.  It’s always more fun that way.

Japanese fast food Gyudon

It’s fast food for the people!

market in kyoto

Grab some pickled veggies to go with your Kirin Ichiban beer!

Part 2: Visiting Kyoto along the Southern Waterfalls, Temples, and Park

house in kyoto

 

 

Flanked by Osaka, Kobe and Nara, Kyoto stands in its own spotlight. Anytime is perfect to visit this city cradled in the Yamshiro Valley.  But by far, the best season is autumn when Kyoto cloaks itself in the colors of turning leaves, when the weather is cooling, and summer tourists have retreated to their homes.  Throughout October and November, the leaves create a halo of warm saffron, amber, and crimson, transforming sites like the Path of Philosophy into a transcendental sojourn of the mind. Shrines, temples, and gardens take on the effervescent glow of nature.  Kyoto’s charm seeps into your bones and stays with you for a lifetime.  In the Land of the Rising Sun, this city remains an eternal beacon of culture and natural beauty.

duck in Japanese garden

Take a walk through history!

 

house in kyoto

The beauty of Kyoto is in its architecture

From Kyoto Station take Bus #100 or #206 about fifteen minutes to Kiyomizu-michi.  Follow the crowd to the massive orange gateway to Kiyomizu, the Temple of Pure Water.  Founded in 780 by the Otawa Waterfall, the temple perches like a colossal loft in the wooded hills and leans over the edge for an unrivaled view of the foliage, grounds, and city.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, this Buddhist complex was constructed without nails and houses the 1000-armed statute of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

Meander around the wooden promenade 13-meters above the hillside.  Look at the trees from above the canopy. Marvel at the architecture of the sprawling temple.  Go behind the hall and find the Jishu Shrine of Love.  At the base of the hall, you can visit the Otawa Waterfalls.  Cups are available here to taste the pure waters of the temple.  Three different streams offer cleansing for longevity, success, and love.  Remember: you can’t have it all.  So choose wisely!

Leaving Kiyomizu, exit to the right and walk along Sannen-zaka and Ninen-saka Roads.  On stone paved paths, you’ll see wooden houses, traditional shops, tea houses and cafes.  Follow the pleasant zigzags to find what many call “the most beautiful street” of Kyoto: Ishibei-koji.  The popular spot for movies and television dramas, this narrow cobblestone alley has elegant inns, restaurants, and shops.

bamboo forest in kyoto

peace and tranquility

 

If you’re claustrophic, skip the little lane and head to Maruyama Park.  Here, you’re near city center so you could head back for drinks or dinner or serious shopping.  But this little park has an adorable rock-lined pond and bridge to enjoy the colors of the season.  The carp and cranes are always ready for a tourists snapshot too.  Toward the back of the park, a small path leads you back into the trees and a small bamboo grove.  The park is perfect for picnics, short rests, or a few more pictures on your memory stick.

For Part 1, read on about visiting Kyoto via its famous Philosopher’s Path.

 

Part 1: Visiting Kyoto along the Philosopher’s Path

shrine in kyoto

 

 

Pass through the giant Torii gateway in Kyoto, Japan and you will transcend time into a world preserved against the ages.  More than an ancient city, Kyoto possesses the legendary flare of the samurai with all the accoutrements of a metropolis.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, this city boasts architecture dating back to the tenth century and a medieval beauty so rich that American Secretary of War Henry Stimson struck it from the short list of A-bomb targets.  Over 1100 years old, Kyoto has withstood war, natural disaster, and political intrigue.  To modern Japanese, Kyoto is the basin of culture and history; where emperors are enthroned, where geisha still clip-clop at twilight along cobblestone avenues, and where the clear waters of Kiyomizu may be the real life fountain of youth.

 

When traveling there, visitors should divide the city into five areas: the city center, northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest.  Each area is easily accessible via buses, subways, and trains.  Don’t worry about language barriers.  As you ride along, stops are posted on monitors and announced several times in English.  Several day passes are available and can be purchased at train stations and tourist offices.  Most likely, you enter the city through Kyoto Japan Rail (JR) Station with your rail pass, a great way to save money.  Similar to other cities, it is Kyoto’s commercial heart.  If it’s your first time here, make your way to the peripheral areas first where the historical sites will be crowned with fall foliage.

The Northeast or Higashiyama North.  Set foot on the Philosopher’s Path and walk along a canal under the thick canopy of fall hues.

shrine in kyoto

Visit Kyoto in any season

Eikan-do:  The Temple of the Maple Leaves

From Kyoto Station or the Keihan Sanyjo Station, take city bus #5 and get off at Nanzen-ji Eikando-michi.  Walk three minutes toward the mountain.  Eikan-do was founded in 855 by a Buddhist priest named Shinsho and in the 11th century the temple was renamed for a philanthropist priest named Eikan.  The grounds reach in all directions and boast architecture from several eras.  Gardens and ponds dot the landscape.  But take special note of the artwork.  Painstakingly restored, paintings include a massive collection of Amida Buddha images as well as dragons and phoenixes.  Inside the temple, view the statue of Buddha Glancing Backwards.  For a spectacular city view, climb up the mountainside through the trees.  A clearing up the path offers a outlook over Kyoto bathed in warm red and yellow foliage.   After sunset, the temple opens for night visits, a great opportunity to see the art and architecture in a more ethereal perspective.

Leaving the temple gates, take two rights and hug the tree lines to begin the Philosopher’s Path.  The stone path winds through several old neighborhoods.  To your left, the canal follows along while all around you maple trees encourage you further down the road.  Walking north, you can discover small temples and shrines as well as sojourn into cafes and shops.  The walk is only thirty minutes but take your time.  Have coffee, snap pictures, and enjoy the little discoveries of Kyoto.

 

Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion

The Philosopher’s Path brings you right to its high-hedged entry.  Approaching the complex, you walk between a maze of evergreens.  The corridor winds and becomes a portal back in time.  At the last turn, take a deep breath as everything unfolds at once: cobbled paths, spindly trees that point sideways, ponds, sand gardens, and of course the main temple.

In 1482, Shogun Ashikawa Yoshimasa built the estate as his retirement villa.  After his death, it was converted to a Zen temple.  Though never covered in silver, the temple which was once covered in shiny lacquer would catch moonlight and reflect it into the grounds in a silvery glow.  Overall, Ginkakuji maintains an aesthetic spell over the grounds.  Follow the path around to the Sea of Silver Sand where raked sand mimics the ebb and flow of the changing tide.  Sit at the steps of one of the minor buildings and watch the leaves and manicured trees bow in the breeze.  Or marvel at sand sculpture called the Moon Viewing Platform.  For a birdseye view of the grounds, head up the path behind the main building.  Through the trees, you can peer down to the lake and temple with Kyoto peeking out from behind.

 

Honen-in Temple

For a temple that is a little closer to nature head south from Ginkakuji to this mystical Buddhist temple.  Flush against the trees and secluded from the main paths, Honen-in has raked gardens, ponds, and stone statues as well as a gently sloping staircase where you can imagine centuries of monks passing over.  Here, the trees hang low almost pressing up against the dark buildings.  Here, you feel the season.  Colors sweep across the somber buildings making them more cheery but magical at the same time.

At the heart of Kyoto, Shijo-dori (Shijo Road) maintains the pulse of the city with its commercial buildings, nightlife, and dining.  Close by, the Kyoto Imperial Castle warrants a visit as well.  But head out to the periphery of the city—to the east or west and you will find the greatest and smallest treasures of this ancient capital.  Wander under the turning leaves along Tetsugaku-no-Michi (The Path of o).  Discover quiet temples and stone Buddha statues and end up at Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavillion).  Designed as a noble retreat, you enter the grounds by weaving along the walkway lined with tall hedges.  Just as you make one final dramatic turn, you step into an estate construct for royalty.  Paths bring you passed open pavilions, sand gardens, and trees with spindly branches pointing the way toward the ponds, the central temple, and up the mountain to the trees.  Come early when the air is fresh and the walkways unoccupied.

On Friday, read onto Part 2 about visiting Kyoto via its southern temples, waterfalls, and famed Maruyama Park.  If you’re really looking to round out your Japanese vacation consider: a sumo tournamet in Nagoya and viewing the cherry blossoms in Nagasaki.

The Fountain of Youth! It’s in Kyoto

Maruyrama Park

 

 

Ponce De Leon should have sailed to Japan for the Fountain of Youth.  As winter recedes and spring sweeps across the Land of the Rising Sun, thousands of Japanese head to Kyoto’s Kiyomizu, the Temple of Pure Water.  Founded in 780 at the Otawa Waterfalls, the temple is a goliath house of worship, perched majestically against the mountainside.  On the wooden promenade, lean over the edge for an unrivaled view of ancient Kyoto.  Inside the main hall, notice the architecture devoid of nails.  Then, follow the crowd past guardian dragons and a sacred gateway to where the falls spill over the rocks.  Cold from its high-peak source and crystal clear, the water flows down in three streams, offering cleansing for longevity, success, and love.  Queue up with retired businessmen, young brides, and anxious college students. Take a cup and drink—but choose one!  Tasting all three is considered greedy.

Maruyrama Park

stroll in the twilight at Maruyama Park

orange temple paint in kyoto

Hundreds of temples in Kyoto and each are different. Love the orange hue here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japanese crane on a rock

In Kyoto nature lives along side old temples

 

sumo wrestlers fighting in Japan

But Japan is more than peace and nature. Some of it is warrior fighting and thunderous applause!