We are not foodies. We don’t seek out the ‘of the moment’ restaurants or cooking trends. But we do love to eat, and to find small mom and pop places to spend our money. When we’re in travel mode, or bicycle touring, we eat out just about every night. And afternoon. Mornings too, if the hotel doesn’t have breakfast available. So that’s a lot of searching for and sitting down to meals.
Tteokbokki is chewy rice cakes cooked in a red, spicy broth. This version at a place called Hang Out in the charming Ikeseon-dong area, a maze of little streets with so many different shops and restaurants, was more of a beer snack meal than the smaller street vendor versions we saw later on. This version had Sundae sausage and cheese as well as the rice cakes.
After a visit to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the amazing museum complex designed by architect Zaha Hadid, which is well worth a visit, we went over to the Gwangjang Market to walk around and ogle the food on offer.
You know how people like to talk about getting out of your comfort zone? Food is a fast and easy way to do that. I don’t consider myself an adventurous eater, Rich is willing to try anything but I’m a lot more picky, or cautious. And, I don’t like seafood all that much. I’ll happily have sushi or sashimi, but most cooked seafood gets a pass when I’m choosing my meal. However, once we got bicycling on our trip from Seoul to Busan, I really did have to eat what we could get. Whether it be from the ubiquitous convenience stores, or at a restaurant.
Bike touring lets us see a country in detail, and forces us to figure out how to feed ourselves. Korean convenience stores are easy to find, and although I prefer Japanese convenience stores, we did well finding things that appealed to us.
So, how about when the food finding is not so easy. Or not so successful? Or you get to town kind of late and not much is open? Then it’s chicken and beer places. We had to resort to chicken and beer places twice, on long days. They are known as Chimaek. From chikin ‘fried chicken’, and maekju ‘beer’.
There was an evening when we pulled into town on our bikes, in Gumi, and planned on eating at the food court of a large grocery store chain, E-Mart. Food courts in Korea are good. We were looking forward to it. We checked in to our nice hotel, unpacked, showered, and strolled over with plenty of time for dinner. It was closed. There was a mysterious local holiday that no one but the management of the E-Mart seemed to know about, or care about. So, grumbling and hangry, we headed back to our hotel, and then spotted the sports team from the hotel lobby at a small place down the block and went in.
Once we reached Busan and were off the bikes and in a city it was easier to search out restaurants and plan ahead. While cycle touring you are often at the mercy of how far you were able to ride, and what time you get to town, and how much energy you have to find and walk to a restaurant. But with a few days to explore you can find what you actually want. Rich was happy to find that Korea has had a renaissance of craft beer brewing in the past decade or so.
Korean food is quite varied. Most people know Korean BBQ and bibimbap, but there is a lot more to discover.
We took the train from Busan to Seoul and stayed for a week in an apartment which meant we could cook our own meals. As much as we enjoy eating new foods, it gets stressful and tiring to find restaurants, translate menus, and constantly try to figure out what goes with what – does this go in here or do you dump this into there? Our first lunch in our apartment after a visit to the big E-Mart grocery store was grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our apartment in Seoul for our last week in Korea was out in a neighborhood. While at first glance during the walk from the Jungnang metro station it appeared to be a lot of tire shops, new apartment buildings, and little clothing stores, the small back streets proved to be full of restaurants and places to buy groceries. It was easy to wander around and pick a place a for dinner.
Seoul was fantastic for hiking, as we covered in the previous post, and it was also fantastic for simply walking into a restaurant and getting a delicious meal with very low stress or awkwardness. The owners were always nice and welcoming. They would help us out when we were obviously confused about how to proceed with our meal, and payment was always easy – just get up and walk to the cash register and tap your credit card. No tipping, and taxes already included. Another nice thing about walking up to pay is that you don’t feel guilty having left some of the little plates of pickled things. Our clean your plate mentality is hard to break.
Korea is famous for its barbecue. That’s the one thing most travelers might know about Korean food – barbecue. And the many barbecue restaurants are super popular with locals. It’s a fun thing to do with a group of family or friends. The ubiquitous restaurants are easy to spot with the ventilation hoods over the table grill. We decided on our last night eating out in Seoul to finally try a barbecue place. We’re not really big meat eaters, but thankfully as with any meal in Korea there’s no worry about getting plenty of veggies.
We had a great time in Korea. The people, the food, the biking, all of it exceeded our expectations. We are in San Francisco now, after a lovely family visit in Colorado, and we head back to France soon to pick up new touring bikes in Germany and then out for cycle touring!
I will miss the trees. We visited a lot of gardens and parks to see cherry blossoms, but the blooms aren’t the only attractions. The trees, the green moss, the water features. Although Japanese cities were not all blessed with a lot of parks or green space, those that exist are so well taken care of.
I’m going to miss the small streets, with restaurants and shops that cluster together, usually near a train station. Each city has its share of large arterial roads, with plenty of car traffic and sometimes intolerably long signal phases, leaving you standing for minutes waiting for a pedestrian walk signal. But, when you find the area of small streets the entire nature of that city changes. Narrow and mostly car free or very car light, the small streets give you an opportunity to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Within these fine grained streets, with corners hiding the next view, are the amazing small restaurants. I’ve mentioned the awkwardness of sliding open doors and facing a tiny space perhaps already packed with customers. It can be cringe inducing, but so rewarding to be able to eat at a restaurant that is run by people who focus on one thing. This type of food – we do this and we do it well. You will wait the required amount of time, you will likely be served on hand thrown ceramic plates, and the food will be exquisitely displayed.
If it’s possible to desperately miss something you only got to do twice then we will desperately miss the Yatai of Fukuoka. The Tenjin neighborhood has small food stands, Yatai, which set up each night to serve up food in a space half the size of the storage unit holding all of our possessions back in the US.
The number of Yatai was shrinking, but in the last few years they’ve enjoyed a new renaissance and there are about 150 now. In addition to dinner at one we spent a hilariously fun evening drinking at a Yatai bar. Everyone is friends at a Yatai bar which measures 10×8 feet.
What else will I miss about Japan? The safety. The ability for Japan to have nice things that people respect and take care of. Public restrooms which are clean and stocked with rolls of TP which are not stolen. And the quirky things. Things you see and go, oh yeah, that makes sense to have.
You will always feel you missed out on experiences and places when traveling. We immediately have a list for “next time”. It says a lot about a place that you want to come back, soon. Regret is a rear view mirror. So what do I regret about our time in Japan now that we’ve moved on?
This is when Rich and I say to each other “I used to do important things.” Recalling our previous professional lives where we earned money, and made multiple decisions a day that impacted people and projects. And we laugh at ourselves. Another regret? Hotels in Japan supply you with pajamas. Really. Instead of a robe you get pajamas or a button up nightgown contraption or a yakuta, a light cotton kimono. Somehow the pajama tops and bottoms fit both me and Rich, sometimes with pretty funny differences. Do I have a single photo, let alone a collection of photos? No. If you go to Japan learn from my mistake and take photos of yourself in the pajamas in your hotel rooms. And take a notebook to collect the stamps.
No regrets that we visited Japan. Such a lovely place with wonderful people. Goodbye Japan. Hello Korea.
We’ve been so thoroughly enjoying every day in Japan that we haven’t had much time or energy left to Blog. It’s a fantastic place to travel. But no place is perfect, and Japan has its weaknesses too, especially in the bike and pedestrian realm.
We’ve been travelling our preferred way by train, bus, ferry, streetcar, subway, and bike. With a lot of walking to the beach to explore and get to our lodging. We’ve been luxuriating in the clean, punctual, and extensive intercity train system. And the local public transit is always clean and reliable, if not always fast.
So here are a few transport observations. For you transport wonks and mega walkers, they may give you the same joy and a maybe bit of frustration if you visit.
1. JR Rail Pass- Unless you are going to only visit a few cities or rent a car, then it’s a no brainer to get one of these passes subsidized for tourists. We bought two three-week passes and planned our trip to max its benefit to a 4 week visit by setting the activation for the day we left Tokyo and expiring when we get to Fukuoaka, where we are spending our last 3 days. This way we were able to exchange our vouchers at off peak time at Shinjuku station and avoid the mob we saw at Narita airport trying to exchange them to use immediately from the Airport. We instead bought $20 local rail tickets to central Tokyo. It was then easy and cheap to get IC (tap) Transit cards to get around for a few subway and loop rail trips in Tokyo until leaving Tokyo for Kanazawa.
2. IC Card – Good for transit in most major cities. There are a dozen or so “brands” by region and they can mostly be used in other cities, although acceptance is a bit hit or miss outside the home zones. Don’t put too much on it initially, 5,000 yen ($40) is my recommendation, as you can always top it up but it’s hard to get a refund. You can also use them at many convenience stores.
3. Train Seat reservations – With your JR Pass, you can make free seat reservations for most higher speed trains (and Shinkansens). I found that I could get our choice if I booked at least 2 days prior to our next trip. You can do it at green JR Ticket machines in almost all JR stations. So I’d often get our seats for our next leg when we arrived to a city. If you book too early and want to change your trains later, you won’t be able to do it at a machine if the new journey overlaps with the old one. You will have to go to a JR ticket office which could take some time at busier times and stations. But, you can alway board in the unreserved cars, so no serious worries other than maybe sitting apart or standing for a bit.
4. Buses and Trams – they run on schedule (especially buses). You board at the back door and tap your IC card if available or if not, take a little paper ticket from a dispenser that indicates your boarding zone. You always pay at the front door as you leave, calculating your fare from the easy digital sign at the front. Put your stop ticket and fare in the box or machine. They can always make change. This also applies to some of the small independent (Non JR) local trains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straightforward (Especially with IC Card), but it seems pretty inefficient at crowded times as many people still pay cash fares. There is a flow from the back of the bus towards the front door, but it doesn’t match the ease and speed of a proof of payment system.
5. Walking – You will do a lot of walking in Japan which is mostly great, and wandering the alleys, hidden temple stairways, and quiet back streets is one of the great joys of Japan. One downside though is that the arterial traffic signal timings are long, so get ready to wait for for 2-3 minutes at some crossings. It’s very annoying, and really delays walking trips across town. The only time you see Japanese run is for crossings, as they know it’s a long wait if you miss the light.
Also, pedestrian crossings can be spread out on major arterials, with occasional overhead or underpass ped crossings in lieu of at grade crosswalks. It seems like a legacy of 1960s traffic engineering that continues in philosophy today, but stairwell underpasses are not good for an aging population.
So what about Jaywalking? A few people, especially in larger cities will jump a signal or cross midway, but 98% of Japanese wait until the light is fully green. As time has gone on in our travels here, we are getting less and less patient, and will cross at will when it makes sense and traffic is clear. We are surely going to incite a pedestrian revolt here!
6. Bikes: There are many more than you think, especially in flatter cities. But the bikes share most sidewalks and it’s all a bit chaotic, which could be solved by more on street protected lanes. Cyclists routinely cut corners and swerve across intersections and are an outlier to order on the streets. (Yeah cyclists!)
So my quick transport report card for Japan based on our scientific analysis:
Trains – A-….ok, amazing at a high level, but deductions for lack of App based e-tickets/seats please…and stringent bike policies keep it from A+
Buses: B+ Reliable; on schedule, and fair pricing but they get stuck at long traffic lights too, so can be slow in cities. And there are few express buses. BRT?
Walking: B- Wider sidewalks are needed in many places. Alleys and many quiet urban streets are very pleasant and low stress to walk, but many arterial sidewalks are a bit narrow or degraded by detectable rubber strips. I appreciate that these assist the vision impaired, but sidewalks are just not wide enough to accommodate them and side by side walking space. There seems to be a legacy of traffic lanes and road capacity. Giving more road cross section to peds, bikes and tram boarding is needed. Smart traffic signals could be used to mitigate lane reductions. Many heavy pedestrian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other larger cities have nice wide sidewalks in a new generation of streetscape designs, but many places still have a 1970s-1990s feel.
Cycling: C+ Quiet back streets and sidewalk cycleways do the trick, but more on street protected bikeways are needed everywhere
But enough nitpicking. As a traveler, the lack of personal safety concerns and good transport frees you up to focus on the unique culture, sights, and most of all, the food and friendly people. And oh man the food is SO good.
And it’s good value for most lodging and food, as long as you are willing to give up western norms and keep some distance from the tourist hot spots. The yen has weakened against most currencies over the past 5 years, so it’s a great time to travel here. Except in Tokyo, there are great 3 to 4 star Hotels in the $100-$125 range, and a bit more on the weekends, especially Saturday nights. And most include breakfast.
If you go for more modest 1-2 star hotels, then you can find many in the $70-$90 range. Remote or resort area hotels (often with Onsen or Rotemburo baths) are definitely higher in the $150-$300+, so will be a splurge if on a budget. It’s definitely better value than most of the US, and similar to Europe, although I think a bit cheaper overall. A few other lodging tips. Book some nice Ryokan or Onsen properties well in advance as they are lovely, but don’t do anything but go up in price or sell out. Small or exclusive places are not into last minute bargains.
And big western brand hotels in major cities here often 2-3x as expensive as local alternatives for a similar (or better) product. Avoid them, unless you only have a week and a surplus of loyalty points to burn. (For example, during the Sakura of late March, Marriott properties in Tokyo ranged from $600-$2000/night!). Big waste of money.
Another tip. Many western style rooms are cosy in Japan, at 120-180 sq ft, but if you book a twin instead of a “double”, the rooms are larger at 180-250 sq ft. They have two full or queen beds that can usually be pushed together. So you have a lot more space, often for just a bit more money. “Twins or Quads” seem to sell out first as locals know this too,
But as great as it is to travel here, it’s not all easy, as travel in Japan has its own breed of travel stress due to constant language and cultural nuances. And the country faces a battery of challenges, including rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and a location in an increasingly volatile region, just to name a few.
But we are judging against a high bar, as we are already talking about coming back to bike tour, renting an apartment for a month in Tokyo, or even a car tour to see more rural sights that are tough or impossible by public transit. If you do want to rent a car in Japan you will need an international driver’s license.
We are excited to head to South Korea next week, but first we are going to eat as much amazing food as we can in quirky and cosy settings, served by some of the most dedicated and friendly people in the world.
Somewhere around week two in Sri Lanka I announced that I missed abundance. It’s ironic since part of our decision to pack up our lives and travel was the desire to experience a less cluttered life. To have the freedom to shoulder our backpacks and go wherever we want. Well welcome to Japan, where abundance is always an option.
We made our first trip to Japan in 2007, before smart phones with translation apps. This time, we were ready for all Japanese menus. Our index fingers and thumbs were all warmed up for google camera translate. Uh huh. We bought SIM cards from a vending machine at Narita Airport but had not installed mine correctly yet, and Rich was using our US cell phone data sparingly until he got his new SIM installed. Well, long story short- the first restaurant we walked into we failed to navigate the confusing situation and quickly abandoned ship! Thankfully we found a small place with on screen ordering and settled in for our first meal.
The automation is fascinating to see. As with many countries Covid accelerated cashless payments and waitstaff free ordering, but in Japan you get a fun mix of traditional and modern.
A Sakura (cherry blossom) post will follow with many photos, but this is all about food. We were craving Japanese food for the past few weeks so we’re thrilled to walk and sightsee and eat. Our walking mileage has gone up sharply which helps with the eating. We took a train out from Tokyo to Koganei Park to visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. There was a festival going on despite the rain so we snacked our way through that.
With four nights in Tokyo we had a chance to try to get into a small neighborhood izakaya restaurant on Friday, and when it was full up, make a reservation for the next night. Another good travel hack, especially in places where you either have no local phone number or where calling is beyond challenging due to language barriers. Two folks working the small restaurant, no fancy automation here. We were grateful for our young server/owner’s help. We always find the further out from the heart of a tourist district the more patient and helpful the locals are.
After four nights in Tokyo, and a longer stay running into Sakura prohibitive pricing, we hopped on the trains to head to Kanazawa. Our JR Rail passes will be getting a work out this trip as the Japanese train system is beyond amazing.
Our first night in Kanazawa we struck out three times, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a closed waiting list, an unagi (eel) restaurant which was closed despite the hours listed showing it should be open, and another full up sushi restaurant all by 8 pm. We figured out it was spring break week for schools so things were quite crowded. We finally saw a small tempura stand restaurant and got two seats at the bar. Another kind and helpful waiter sat us, got us an English menu, and took care of us the entire meal. We had a great view of the chef working his tempura fryer with chopsticks and tongs.
So far no breakfast photos, you might be thinking to yourself. Well, we’ve been having hotel room or apartment breakfasts of Musilix and fruit and yogurt, but we did get out early for cherry blossom viewing and then had a second breakfast our first morning in Kanazawa. Cafe Tamon is a small easy to miss but for the help of a passerby who saw us looking in confusion at our phones, pancake specialty cafe.
Remember that conveyor belt sushi place with a closed waiting list at 7:40pm? We went back the next night at 6:40 and put our name on the list. About an hour later we were in! The nice thing about being the only tourists willing to figure out the drill, was that the host knew who we were – not one of many tourists: the only slightly confused looking non locals.
Conveyor belt sushi has had a hard time recently, apparently from a social media trend that has attention starved youngsters misbehaving and filming themselves. Insert eye roll here. I’m not sure if the screen ordering is a result of that stupid trend, but it worked out just fine for us.
Our third and final night in Kanazawa we were determined to try the unagi (eel) restaurant again. The Japanese name came through Google translate as eel welfare. We marched over at 6 this time and the lights were on! Yay! We went in and congratulated ourselves on being some of the first customers of the evening. One gentleman was just leaving, and another man came in and placed a to-go order. The sole proprietor sat us at the counter, gave us a menu and bustled about behind the counter. We got two draft beers and settled in.
Our eel man turned away a group of five Japanese, and then two western tourists. What is going on, we wondered? This is a frequent state for non Japanese speakers here. Confused but pressing on! When it came time to order all became clear – he only had two pieces of eel left. Ah ha! That’s why he had been closed two nights before- he closes when he sells out of eel. Two pieces of your best (only) eel, sir, and some tempura. So many times as a tourist a mystery remains a mystery, so we were happy to have this one solved.
It’s been a good start to our four weeks in Japan. We’ve honed our perception and empathy skills since our last visit here, and we know how quickly the world can change under your feet. (Poor conveyor belt sushi restaurants. ) We feel empowered by google translate, but a few key phrases in Japanese learned on line (link in our link page) quickly telegraph both our helplessness and our desire to be polite and thankful. There is so much more to experience and share, but for now itadakimasu! Let’s eat!
This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!
I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the food in Taipei, but I haven’t run out of food photos.
Ningxia Night Market was our next food stop after a day out of town. The amazing travel planner booked us into a hotel right across the street from an MRT station so it’s easy to get to downtown and the amazing night markets.
This city. Being presented with all new flavor profiles. And in a fairly easy to access way. Even speaking no Chinese we get fed thanks to the kindness of people and multicultural nature of Taipei.
For our final night we went back to the Raohe night market. We both wanted the pepper buns again, and I went in saying, right – done with taking photos. But as soon as we had something new and amazing I was back at it! And again, in good company. There were plenty of other people, locals and visitors, snapping pictures and rhapsodizing about the food. Not many western/non Asian visitors here. Taipei seems to be a slightly ignored Asian city by the western world travelers.
I had noticed a stand on our first visit selling pineapple buns filled with ice cream. We didn’t make it back to the stall the first night- I had reached my crowd limit – but on our second visit we made sure to leave time and room in our tummies. There is no pineapple involved in this bun, it’s a soft fluffy milk bun with a cookie like crumbly topping reminiscent of Dutch crunch rolls we get in SF. The top is cut to look like a pineapple.
With our bellies happy, and with a new love for this amazing City and its lovely residents, we move on. Rich is working on a post all about everything not food related that we did – and honest, we did more than eat!
So much amazing food. So many fun places to go to eat good food: shopping malls, night markets, little hidden restaurants in office building basements.
From our first meal we were captivated. We are so happy to be able to travel in Asia again. Taiwan only opened back up to tourists in October 2022 with no 14 day quarantine required. This is our first trip to Taiwan and yes, we are already talking about when we’ll come back. Hopefully for a bike tour. We mention that to everyone we chat with to get as many tips and recommendations as possible.
We’re walking and taking transit everywhere we go. Walk, museum, walk, snack. Walk, lunch, walk, bubble tea.
Taipei is justly famous for its night markets. We’ve gotten to four so far, and the mix of food and goods for sale, families, groups of youngsters, bright lights, and divine smells is intoxicating. Ok, I admit that when passing a stinky tofu stand the aroma is a bit overwhelming, but we did try the stinky tofu with lunch one day. Not bad. The taste is milder then the scent.
四兩刈包-台北創始總店/Si-liang Taiwanese Gua Bao, in the Zhongzheng District was our choice but many places make versions of this.
Taipei is also loaded with tea stands. Bubble tea. With boba. With jelly cubes. With any base tea or fruit juice you could hope for. Green tea, black tea, milk tea. Again, such patience from the staff. It’s nice to be in a place not overwhelmed with tourists. Type of tea, level of sweetness, quantity of ice. Be ready with those decisions.
Ok, another night market – this one really at night. And a Saturday night to boot! We expected crowds, and crowds there were. It was a bit overwhelming, but we dove in and immediately got in line for Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅). Don’t let the lines discourage you, they move quickly and the staff have this down to a science.
Saturday at the night market was crowded. But people here are good with crowds, very collaborative.
A note on all the masks, Taiwan lifted the outdoor mask mandate December 1st, 2022. Would you have guessed that from our photos? Probably not. People don’t seem all that eager to unmask outside yet. We mostly follow the crowds and mask when we’re in busy areas or in line for food, but when it’s just us walking around we go mask free.
We have so many more photos and experiences to share, but I’m going to wrap up this post with one last food.
Eating our way through the markets reminded us of our recent time in the Basque area of Spain, and wandering the towns eating pinxtos. Similar ease of ordering, point and gesture if you don’t speak the language, hand over money, thank you and step away.
So after a relatively quick recovery from Covid in Lisbon, we finally made it back to the United States! We rejoined a revised and somewhat compressed itinerary and still arrived JFK via TAP Airways new fuel efficient A330. (Ok for airplanes at least…)
When our house sit in Boston fell through due to the owners case of Covid (ironic yes), Cheryl worked her magic and found a last minute house sit in Brooklyn. So after a quick change of plans and one obligatory night in an overpriced chain hotel close to the airport in Queens, we were off to Brooklyn by Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).
The house sit was a bit of a challenge with two old cats, lots of medications, and tight quarters, but certainly a memorable experience and in a part of Brooklyn we have never explored, Park Slope. It also was just a block from 4 subway lines!
It was a magnificent fall weekend and the weather was perfect for strolling, not to mention all the Halloween decorations and costumes, although admittedly, it’s often hard to pick out costumes from just “Friday” in uber hip Brooklyn.
The walking in Brooklyn also felt invigorating after Lisbon’s lumpy limestones. We could once again stride briskly, with standard crosswalks, and short light cycles. The fall colors and crisp weather were so magnificent that Cheryl belted out in Prospect park that “New England is so beautiful this time of year”. Wait, we are NOT in New England!! This is New York!
After some of her doubts were quickly settled by Google, we strolled on, but I was reminded that I was married to a true West Coast woman. I would be reminded again when she couldn’t believe we had passed through some states in an hour or less. Wait, seriously just 15 minutes in New Hampshire?! And how do so many Dunkin’ Donuts survive?
After three days loaded with good friends, perfect bagels and NY pizza, we were off via subway and Metro North train to New Haven, CT where we could pick up a rental car right at the station. The car was by far the best solution for our ambitious and compressed schedule we had to visit all our friends and family over the next 8 days.
It was nice to be back in the U.S., as things felt familiar and interactions were clear. We sometimes forget that we are even in foreign countries anymore as foreignness is our new normal. And we immediately appreciated small things like ubiquitous ice (just try to find an ice machine in a European hotel.) faster paced restaurant service (tip please), and giant American salads (Yes, Elaine Benes you can have a really big salad)
As for the things we didn’t miss? Crazy political ads on the TV, giant tailgating pickup trucks, ignorance, and shockingly high prices compared to much of Europe. (Not necessarily in that order -;)
The cost of living surprises people when we mention it, as many generally assume that Europe must be more expensive than the US. First off, the strength of the US dollar is peaking, and second, many people take short trips to the most expensive (A-list) cities only in Europe, and so get a skewed view of costs in general.
There also seems to be fewer corporate entities taking profits in the food chain of capitalism in other countries. Groceries, lodging, eating out, and transportation (except gas and parking), are cheaper almost everywhere we have been in the past 15 months. We won’t even bring up health care as costs are incomparable and often an order of magnitude less in Europe. (i.e. podiatrist in Bilbao, Spain $40, US $400+). Whoops, I brought it up again. So perhaps the social safety net and low health costs trickles through businesses to keep costs a bit lower.
But we had a wonderful time on our big New England driving loop, and still managed to work in some lovely walks, and a day of cycling into Boston. We really enjoyed reconnecting with folks and the mountains, rivers, ponds, streams, and trees that seem to fill 99% of New England.
I vow to come back to New England (and maybe even New York) more frequently, as staying in touch with your roots is important, and the feeling I had walking the neighborhoods of my childhood was joy, satisfaction, and peace. They are forever etched in my mind. No matter where else we go in the world, and whatever we experience, these memories of place will not be replaced. Experiences build in layers and hopefully growth and perspective with them.
So today is Election Day and we are now headed to Chicago for more family and friends recharge. We have our fingers crossed that people don’t take for granted the 200+ years of work it took to create the civic institutions and foundations for prosperity that we have.
Our system is not perfect and always a work in progress. But the institutions of democracy are unique, precious, and tenuous. And despite participating in many conflicts from afar, we have been physically isolated from the worst impacts of them, just as we are again isolated from the Ukraine invasion. We don’t share a border with an invader, and haven’t been occupied. But this could change in a flash. And the enemy could come from within. We can feel the fear in Europe as the free world knows a stable United States is still key to world stability.
Bornholm Island was recommended by a friend as a lovely place to bike. So, on the ferry from Sassnitz, Germany to Ystad, Sweden we quickly made the decision to catch the Bornholm Island ferry from Ystad. We are very glad we made such a quick decision. That’s the joy of traveling the way we are, not much in the way of set plans, frequently making lodging reservations the day of. Sure, sometimes it bites us in the rear, but it also lets us be very flexible.
Rich made the smart decision to cycle counter clockwise so we would be on the sea side of the roadways and cycle tracks. We felt sorry for the folks driving their cars and camper-vans as we easily pulled over to admire views, and went off the cycle tracks to the footpaths to find quiet picnic spots. The cars and vans had to wait for a pull out which was not always in the best view spot.
Yes, there was wind. This is an island in the Baltic Sea, and you know when you circle an island you will have tailwinds and headwinds, but the lovely views will help distract you when it’s a headwind.
We headed to Allinge for our second night. A chat with two Danish ladies let us know that the annual People’s Meeting “Folkemødet” was starting the next day. Ah ha, said Rich, that’s why lodging was so booked up. Thankfully, the room Rich found was at a lovely hotel, the old travel hack of the least expensive room at a place with great amenities paid off again.
Riding the island felt as if a postcard view was presented at every turn. Windmills, cottages, coastline, and an historic castle.
Our final stretch of riding was around the northern part of the island and back to Rønne where the ferry docks. We rode what might be the steepest hills in Denmark, which did give us some amazing views, and through more historic fishing villages with old herring smoker chimneys. The smell of wild coastal roses will always remind me of Bornholm Island.
To the ferry, to Sweden, and on to more long summer days of cycle touring. Moving every night makes keeping up with our blog more challenging, so yes, we are behind on our updates! We stare at each other, exhausted after a long day riding and say “you gonna blog?” But we enjoy sharing our trip with everyone, and blogging helps us give structure to our experiences. Until next blog have a wonderful summer.
We have a rule when cycle touring that we don’t take a pastry break until 20k/12miles into our day of riding. And then it may take some kilometers to find the exact right spot to take a break. We try to stop at a bakery in the town where we slept, or the next town, so we hit the bakery when they have a good selection of treats and sandwiches. I usually fill my Kleen Kanteen thermos with tea, and we’re ready for our pastry break.
We could call it elevenses, with our American habit of adopting things from other cultures we have embraced the British elevenses, but we’re sometimes earlier than 11:00. Second breakfast also works to describe this break.
We take turns going into the bakeries and procuring food. One of us stays with the bikes and one braves the bakery. It can be stressful if it’s busy, but usually the women behind the counters are helpful and patient.
I think I found the name of it in a streusal cookbook by the checkout line at the grocery store: Streuseltaler, or Streuseltielchen.
Our mornings always start with the bakery and lunch discussion. Where to stop, when to stop. We always err on the side of stopping at the one in town unless there seems to be a better bakery up the road, and in Allinge on Bornholm Island we stopped in town which was very busy with Folkemødet 2022 starting.
Folkemødet, The People’s Meeting, in Allinge is Denmark’s festival about society’s opportunities and challenges. It made for a very busy town, Island actually, and was fun to see the set up and the people arriving. But, back to pastries, and elevenses.
Yes, there is more to cycle touring than eating yummy baked goods. There are hours of cycling, head winds, tail winds, the occasional mechanical issue and a small slow speed tumble – me. Too many pastries maybe? Only a small bruise. We’re now in Copenhagen for a week and will, for the first time, see a stage of the Tour de France. The first stage is in Copenhagen this year. We’re also excited to get our bikes tuned up for the first time in two years. The supply chain issues seems to have cleared up, and the shop we stopped by here in Copenhagen said, sure no problem, we can do it in a day. Music to our ears. More posts soon, with more riding.