Japan: Tokyo SkyTree & Disney Resort (Part 2)

The Oshiage subway stop led us right to Tokyo SkyTree Town! Located here is a mall of sorts with different attractions. In the center is the SkyTree itself, on different floors of the adjacent building are also an aquarium, a planetarium, shops, and restaurants! We took a look around and were shocked by how many fun attractions there were in this one place! We were decided on the SkyTree and walked right to the base of the observation tower to buy a ticket to the top. Along the way we also spotted a small, outdoor ice skating rink!

ImageTokyo SkyTree

The Tokyo SkyTree is a broadcasting, restaurant, and observation tower. At the height of 634 meters it is the tallest “tower” in the world! (“Tower” meaning not used for living or office work.) It is also the second largest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa. The line to buy tickets was quite long, in total we waited about 45 minutes. You are given a choice if you’d like to go to the observation deck at 350m or the one at 450m for an extra cost. We decided with 350m.

ImageAfter getting our ticket we were able to get right on an elevator 350 meters up to the observation tower. This floor can hold up to 2,000 people on a busy day. Lucky for us it wasn’t that crowded. On the right is a shadow of the tower on the ground below!

ImageFrom 350m you can see all of Tokyo and far in to the distance. Unfortunately it was quite cloudy so we couldn’t see Mt. Fuji. In the top right photo you can see a helicopter in the sky, quite tiny, and directly under it is the Disney Resort. To the right a bit is the Tower of Terror-esque ride and the huge volcano of DisneySea! The bottom left photo is a picture looking down through the glass floor of the SkyTree to the road beneath. Scary!

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After we walked around the whole deck we headed back down to the ground to check out the shops. First was the SkyTree Gift Shop. I was happy to find that they are capitalizing on the tower shaped water bottles just like Taipei101! And liquor bottles as well.

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We then headed out in to the more mall type area with a lot of shops. Our favorite was this toy/novelty shop. We found a lot of anime memorabilia and Chris picked up a keychain of one of his favorite characters, Luffy from One Piece, hanging on the SkyTree. There were all sorts of interesting things to look and laugh at, especially this advertisement for something we could not figure out (bottom, right).

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After enjoying the shops we headed down the escalator towards the food court area. Here were many kiosks and shops set up selling all sorts of delicious looking goodies. Lots of packaged fruits, artisan cookies, fresh fish, and bakeries like “Kobe Croquette.” Upon exiting the building you walk by an enormous map showing the world’s largest towers and their heights.

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On the bottom floor of SkyTree Town are many buses and shuttles to take you all around the city. Here is where we boarded a shuttle straight to the Disney Resort where we would be staying the the remainder of our time in Tokyo!

ImageOur journey to the water’s edge, where Disney is located, took about 45 minutes and we were able to see more city life as the sun set. One of my favorite places we saw was “SHIDAX Please!” Don’t know what kind of place that is!

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Tokyo Disneyland Resort

We were dropped off at the central entrance of Tokyo Disneyland where the buses and monorail shuttle visitors around the resort. From here we took the monorail to our accommodations at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel.

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Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel

And what a beautiful hotel it is! Here is the reception area. We arrived about 6pm and checked in. To our surprise we were upgraded to a suite on the 9th floor! We figured it was because many of the rooms were empty as it was the “slow” season.

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Here is our lovely room with an ocean view! Very spacious, separated bath & shower room, toilet with a bidet, a closet with robes and slippers, and lots of coffees and teas.

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Back downstairs is the dining area. There are a few restaurants located here. The brightly colored section is part of the all day buffet area. Look at the child buffet area! Probably not very efficient, but it is cute! On this floor is also a bridal shop (there is a chapel outside), a jewelry store, a Disney gift shop, a convenience store and a pharmacy.

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Here is the central hub for the hotel’s activities which include: Putt-putt golf, Swimming pool, Spa, Gym, and Table Tennis.

ImageLittle did we know that upstairs also held an ARCADE!

ImageAfter a few hours of looking around, grabbing some food and playing some games, we were more than ready to go to sleep! In the morning we awoke to a beautiful sunny day, perfect for visiting Tokyo Disneyland!

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Part 3: Tokyo Disneyland!

 

 

 

 

 

JAPAN! Our Chinese New Year Vacation (Part 1)

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With two weeks off from class, Chris and I had ample time to do more traveling. We decided to really make it worth our while and go to Japan. We booked cheap tickets on one of the cheapest airlines known to man, Scoot. We wanted to spend all two weeks there and be able to travel to all the tourist spots around the island but our budget wasn’t cut out for it so we settled on 6 days in Tokyo, which isn’t really settling of course.

We like to get the most out of our days, even if it means putting ourselves through a bit of torture: this time being a 3:30am wake up call and 6:30am flight in order to get an extra full day in Tokyo. All went smoothly in the early hours of the morning; no traffic, easy check-in, barely any lines at security, and once again we packed light with just a backpack each (plus a few layers of sweatshirts and jackets). We boarded the plane and spent the flight trying to catch a few zzz’s before landing in Tokyo. This was pretty much our only option because Scoot doesn’t have televisions in their planes but instead invite you to rent an iPad, or use your own device to stream a few tv shows or movies for a cost. The company also saves money by not providing food or drinks, except at an extra cost. It was no Cathay Pacific (my new saying).  To be honest it wasn’t a horrible flight, but you definitely get what you pay for (On the way back to Taiwan our plane was delayed and the flight attendants were lounging around the terminal and only got up once the ticket agent told them the plane was ready and to hurry up.) So fast forward a couple hours and we were looking out our window to see the beautiful snow-capped Mt. Fuji and the narrow beaches welcoming us.

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ARRIVAL

We arrived in Tokyo around 10:30am (3 hour flight plus an hour time difference) and began our adventure. First was figuring out how to get where we wanted to go. You can research these things all you want but when you are faced with something like this…

Image it can be a little overwhelming. We wanted to take the Narita Express to our first sightseeing stop at Shibuya Station. Against my better judgement Chris tried to figure out how to buy tickets on his own, mostly because I didn’t see the point while there is someone behind a counter whose job it is to help you do this. In the end I won and we bought tickets from the Ticket Office instead of the machine. For the record, Chris would’ve bought the correct tickets, but I just wanted to make sure!

The Narita Express connects the airport to many of the major urban train stations without transfers, that is why we decided to take this as opposed to the regular subway station.

Here’s Chris figuring it out.. and the ticket booth on the other side.

ImageHere we are boarding the space-age train.

ImageThe ride was extremely comfortable with a futuristic feel. Although the train wasn’t high-speed, the ride was noticeably smoother without the constant jiggling of normal trains. Halfway through the ride, a woman with a cart came down the aisle with food and drinks; it felt a bit like Hogwarts! Chris and I had some snacks and enjoyed the view. The landscape had a midwestern feel but the architecture of the buildings were distinctly Japanese. The ride showed us a glimpse of life on the outskirts of the bustling Tokyo metro.

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SHIBUYA

After about an hour we reached our destination! Shibuya is home to many famous attractions such as Shibuya Crossing, Center Gai, the Hachiko statue and more. After walking up from the train station, you are in the thick of it. People everywhere! To the left of the station exit/entrance is the famous statue of loyal Hachiko, the dog who waited for his master to come home every day from work and continued to do so even after his master’s death. (Hachi: A Dog’s Tale with Richard Gere is based on this true story.)

ImageRight ahead is Shibuya Crossing which you’ve probably seen in movies like Lost in Translation, Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and the infamous point zero of zombie infection in Resident Evil. Here vehicular traffic is stopped so people can cross the intersection in all directions at once.

ImageOnce you cross the street you are now in shopping central! Stores and boutiques line the pedestrian street of Center Gai. We were here about lunch time and it seemed like many people were just enjoying the afternoon, walking about.

ImageContinuing left from here is Love Hotel Hill, this area has a few “love hotels” which you can rent for a few hours of the day or night.

ImageThen off to Spain Slope, so called because it is reminiscent of a Spanish street scene, or so they say. (Pictured top middle) Also pictured are some interesting things we saw around the area.

ImageFrom here we took a right toward the eight story Tower Records, each floor dedicated to different genres of music. Inside was packed with anything and everything music, plus a cafe.

ImageAfter walking around for quite a while we had seen most of what Shibuya had to offer. We decided to head to our next stop across town, the Tokyo SkyTree.

TOKYO METRO

We walked back to Shibuya Station to consult the map and buy tickets for our next train ride. Here is the map. Needless to say it took us a bit to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go, then Chris bought the tickets from the machine.

ImageThe metro tickets are about as big as a fortune from a fortune cookie and you have to slip it into a turnstile to walk through on to the platform. You also need it to get off the train, so you can’t lose the tiny ticket! The train after lunch was quite empty, mostly men in suits with briefcases. It was as quiet as a library, too.

ImageAfter a lengthy trip across town we had reached our destination, the Tokyo SkyTree! More to come!

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Part 2: Tokyo SkyTree, Shopping, Tokyo Disneyland and Accommodations

To the Top: Taipei 101 (台北101)

Taipei 101, now the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is the beacon of Taipei. It can be seen from practically anywhere in the city, pointing you toward the city center. It is also one of the top tourist attractions in Taiwan.

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Chris decided to surprise me and make a Friday date night out of our visit. We took a 15 minute bus ride and got there in the early evening with enough time to see the sunset from the observation deck on the 89th floor! When we arrived it was extremely windy and that made me a little nervous about going to the top. (Not to worry though, the building is equipped with a 660-tonne steel pendulum that serves as a damper to offset the movement of the building in high winds! Picture soon.) One of the funniest things I noticed was how many people were trying to take a picture of the building from the base and to do this you basically have to lay on the ground. Notice the guy in the top right picture on the ground? He was just one of probably 10 people all around doing this, not to mention me a few minutes later. In front of the building is also Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE installation found around the globe.

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Taipei 101 is a functioning business building, except for the observation floors, but around the corner at the base is a large mall. We visited this same mall on New Year’s Eve before the fireworks. It was beautifully decorated in celebration of Chinese New Year and Taipei 101’s 10th birthday!

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On the fifth floor of the mall is ticket counter for the observation deck of Taipei 101. As you can see on the right, the mall is built right around one corner of Taipei 101, which is how you are able to enter. A ticket to the observation deck is 500NTD, about $15 US.  After we bought our two tickets to the top we had to wait for the number printed on our ticket to come up on the screen, informing us that we could now enter the line. That only took about 5 minutes, then we could enter the actual line for the elevators which took about another 30 minutes.

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As soon as you walk in to the line you are pretty much ambushed in front of a green screen, where they quickly take your photo which can be bought as a souvenir. Another great thing about these photos is that they are repeatedly shown on every tv screen, about every 20 feet of the line, so you can see yourself in all your goofy glory. One thing I didn’t get a picture of was the elevators to the top, which are amazing in themselves. (They hold the Guinness World Record for fastest elevator!) They travel at an astounding 55 feet per second, ushering visitors from the fifth floor to the 89th floor in just 37 seconds! Can you imagine all the ear popping?! It also holds about 25 people packed like sardines. Once we were at the top it was almost time for the sun to set! *Notice the sign on windows, bottom left* Yes, people clean the windows from the outside. Just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

ImageAs you enter the observatory you have the option of picking up a phone-like listening device that gives you a tour of sorts. Stationed along the circular deck are numbers, these number correspond to a snippet of information that you may listen to, all you have to do is type in the number on the phone’s keypad. Most of the numbers describe what you are looking at out of the window at that location, giving you an idea of what you may find there and any interesting facts. I learned a lot about Taipei that I had not known before.

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You can walk to the center of the 89th floor to find the massive wind damper which I described above. The picture, bottom left, really does not do it’s size justice… It is 18 feet in diameter! About this point, but out from the center is a gift shop where they sell all sorts of 101 inspired objects, one of my favorite being bottles of water.

ImageWe headed back to the windows in order to catch the last glimpse of sunlight before it went down behind the distant mountains. It sure was a gorgeous sight! I love the picture on the left because you can really tell how close we were to the corner, the metal part being part of the facade. There were some New Year themed installations around to celebrate and also a small cafe where Chris got some ice cream.

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From the warm 89th floor observation deck you are able to walk up to the 91st floor outside deck to get another view. We steeled ourselves for the wind and headed out. (We only lasted about 2 minutes.)

ImageHere’s one of my favorite pictures from the visit!

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We felt like we had soaked in all we could from the top and headed down towards the elevators. To our surprise the walk back was more like being in a museum. Here they display some of Taiwan’s most precious coral to both admire and purchase. They have elaborately carved scenes in coral, which I found completely amazing, and natural pieces like the bottom right, the world’s largest complete piece! Also they had beautiful and HUGE amethyst geodes! (How would you like to fit that in the house, Mom?)

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After walking through the sea of coral art we found the elevator line. It took about 20 minutes before we were able to catch one back down to the fifth floor. To continue our lovely night we grabbed dinner in the fancy food court and then took a look at some shops.

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At last we happened upon a cute cafe called Perfume Dance that specializes in desserts. We just knew we had to try out their famous toast tower, available in many flavors! Of course we picked the chocolate version, or as the menu called it “Black Gold.” It was a very interesting dessert: toasted cubes of white bread held together with custard and then topped with melted chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, and rum soaked cherries.

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 Chris and I had a lovely night out on the town, experiencing one of Taiwan’s most famous attractions!

Hong Kong Disneyland Part 2

ImageContinuing from Hong Kong Disneyland Part 1!

Fantasyland

Fantasyland is home to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Cinderella Carousel, Mad Hatter Tea Cups, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, “It’s a Small World,” Snow White Grotto, and The Golden Mickeys show.

ImageWe had lunch at ‘Festival of Foods’ which featured Chinese food, as seen below. As more people started showing up later in the day we realized the longest line for any ride we had seen was an hour at the Winnie the Pooh ride, apparently people really love Winnie the Pooh here! “It’s a Small World” was pretty much the same except they had an American portion which featured the Statue of Liberty, The Golden Gate bridge, Pocahontas, and Woody & Jessie from Toy Story. 

ImageThe Golden Mickeys, a show only performed at the Hong Kong location, was exciting as well. It is in the style of an awards ceremony with the famous Disney characters being nominated for awards based on their work in their films: heroism, bravery, romance, etc. My favorite thing about it was that they included the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Tarzan, characters which are cast to the wayside by most Disney shows. Each nominated character sings their most famous song from the movie in amazing costumes, plus extreme choreography and even acrobatics! (Tarzan) Of course Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald Duck show up and listening to them speak Cantonese in their cartoon voices was one of the highlights. I’m not a huge fan of these types of shows usually, but I was genuinely entertained with this one.

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Toy Story Land

Walking in to Toy Story Land I was completely in awe. The details here are astounding, as you will see in the pictures. But being in the center of it, it was hard to take it in all at once!  Here they have Toy Soldier Parachute Drop, Slinky Dog Spin and RC Racer rollercoaster, plus Jessie’s Snack Roundup (the only place in the entire park where they sell Churros).

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ImageMystic Point

Hong Kong Disneyland is home to the one and only Mystic Point. Mystic Manor is the big ride located here which takes the place of Haunted Mansion usually found in the other parks. Mystic Manor is now my favorite architectural build of any Disney park I have seen thus far. The idea behing the ride is this… Lord Henry Mystic (who lives in Mystic Manor with his pet monkey, Albert) is an archeologist of sorts who finds a magical music box. You ride a car through the house following Albert who opens the music box which makes every item come to life. Amazing theming and the musical score in the background is by Danny Elfman.

ImageMystic Point Freight Depot is supposed to be where all of Lord Mystic’s items come through to his house. They have a show here as well but we weren’t around to see it. To the right is the waiting line for Mystic Manor, bottom left is a trash can, and right is the sidewalk emblazoned with the land’s emblem.

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Walking inside the ride, there were many things to read and admire. Paintings lined the walls showing Lord Mystic’s acquisitions and other members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, a theme which started in Tokyo DisneySea. The story development was crazy for just one ride, located at this one location. Disney sure is dedicated!

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Here we are in the Mystic Manor Gift Shop, trying on more hats.

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This is the restaurant inside Mystic Point, continuing the immense detail.

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Grizzly Gulch

HK Disneyland’s answer to Frontierland, located here is Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars and Geyser Gulch (a water play area). To our surprise the Runaway Mine Cars was a pretty fast ride for a Disney “coaster.” We admired the beautifully constructed mountain and other Western style buildings in the area. We even got to listen to a folk band playing some “Home on the Range” and other classics.

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Christmas Tree Lighting & Fireworks

As I stated previously, many people showed up late in the day so by the time the night time festivities started it was packed just like the US Disney parks. We enjoyed the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony then headed to get a turkey leg for dinner. They are quite small, or probably “normal” sized, compared to US Disney’s enormous legs and come with a plastic glove for mess free eating. Before we knew it, it was time for fireworks, my favorite!

ImageDisney’s Hollywood Hotel

We were completely exhausted after the first day, which I’m sure you could imagine, so we headed right back to the hotel. Once we arrived though we were just as excited as entering the park. There were so many things to see and enjoy! For example they had a game room, cafe, fancy restaurant, and gift store so it was a while until we actually went to sleep.

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We awoke to a beautiful day, our view from the hotel is top left, and enjoyed our second day at the park.

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Then it was time to say goodbye! Until we meet again, Disney!

Weekend Trip to Hong Kong Disneyland! Part 1

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Chris and I figured since we have made it to the other side of the world we better take full advantage of it in all aspects: language, culture, food, and fun! Fun translating to THEME PARKS! We both love Disney and therefore decided to make a (probably, but I hope not) once in a lifetime trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. It was amazing.

Since we are in school we didn’t have much time to take off for this trip. Luckily after some research we found that HK Disneyland is small enough to be able to do everything in two days. Immediately we searched flights for an available weekend and to our surprise a wonderful airline, Cathay Pacific, had cheap flights to our destination. After our seats were paid for we reserved a room at Disney’s Hollywood Hotel, with the only room available being an ocean view room (oh darn). Before we knew it, the weekend had arrived and it was time to prepare! It was difficult getting to sleep knowing that in just a few hours we would be somewhere new again. Thankfully we eventually fell asleep but the 4am wake up call on Saturday was a bit too early for our liking. We took a cab from our place to the airport… 45 minutes, whizzed through security with just our backpacks, and then hopped right on to the 6am flight to Hong Kong. I’d never heard of Cathay Pacific before this trip and it is based in Hong Kong. It was one of the nicest airlines I’ve been on and had the most leg room! Plus they serve you a meal and drink, even on a 2 hour flight. High marks in my book! We arrived at the airport, went through customs (sadly they don’t stamp your passport in HK anymore, you get a receipt instead), and followed the signs leading to taxis. A friendly attendant asked us where we wanted to go, told a driver, and we were on our way. I took some pictures of the view from the cab, nice sky, huh? Just a hint of blue above the pollution. The hilly area surrounding the airport is lush, green, and beautiful but the sky really contrasts it and made me a bit sad.

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 We could tell we were getting closer by the classic Disney manicured lawns and topiaries leading the way in to the resort area. We arrived at the Hollywood Hotel, nestled in between the sea and the hills, to check in and pick up our tickets. It was about 8am when we got there and the park didn’t open til 10am so we took a look around the hotel. Man, was it gorgeous!

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Arriving at the Park

Around 9:15 we found the shuttle to the park and made our way over. When we arrived many people were taking pictures with the signs and a large fountain of Mickey riding a surf board on the spout of a whale. We walked closer and closer to the entrance realizing they were letting people in early! We made it!

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Main Street, USA

Then off to Main Street for a little breakfast. From here we could see that only the shops and restaurants on Main Street were open before 10am. There were barricades at the end of the street right before the castle that were taken away right at 10. Along with these delicious waffles, the stand offered turkey legs (about 1/3 the size of US Disney’s), hot dogs, corn on the cob, and fish balls in original and curry flavor, mmm!

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Of course next was the castle! It is similar to Disneyland’s castle as it is quite small and unassuming, especially against the hills in the background. We were there two days so I’ve combined pictures from both days from here on out. As you can tell,  Saturday (right, bottom) was clearer than Sunday. The pictures don’t do the landscape justice though. The lighting in these pictures from the smog kind of takes away from the “oohs and ahhs” of it all. But look at how many people are there! Ha! On the weekend nonetheless. We did find that more people showed up the later it got and by the fireworks show it was just as crowded as a typical night at Anaheim Disneyland.

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Hong Kong Disneyland is separated in to 7 different lands: Main Street, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, and Adventureland. Since HK Disneyland has many similar attractions to the US Disney Parks I will just post my favorite pictures from the common lands. I’ll go into further detail about the HK exclusive attractions: Mystic Point and Toy Story Land.

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Tomorrowland

Main Street has been covered so next up is Tomorrowland featuring: Space Mountain, Astro Blasters, Stitch Encounter, Orbitron and Autopia. Here is Chris stealing a planet and then being chased by Buzz, my favorite red leafed trees, a shot from Space Mountain of everyone holding up peace signs, and a cool space inspired wall of Stitch Encounter.

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Adventureland

Next we headed off to Adventureland, home to Jungle River Cruise, Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse and Tarzan’s Treehouse. Jungle River Cruise was quite entertaining. They offer it in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. You must choose which one as you are separated in to 3 lines. Once there are enough people in that line you board a boat and are guided through the jungle. Our guide was a laid back, young guy who spoke English quite well but with a very heavy accent so it was that much funnier when he would say lackadaisically  “Oh no, watch out…” or “Wave hello to the Mama and baby elephant!” Most of the jungle animals throughout the ride were animatronic and extremely lifelike.

Adventureland

 Next is the Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse which I would barely call an attraction (but it’s listed on the map as one) because it’s a 1 minute float to the real attraction of Tarzan’s Treehouse. Now that is a manmade beauty! As you climb up the enormous treehouse you are welcomed to Jane and Tarzan’s house by a page from Jane’s  notebook . The notebook is stationed at points along the way up, each page telling a part of Tarzan’s story with modeled scenes behind it. So many details to take in!

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Flights of Fantasy Parade

Then we walked back to Main Street in order to get a good spot to watch the parade. This parade has flying themed floats as you would probably guess. The band, dancers, acrobats (yes!), and floats were perfect. As in true Disney fashion, no money was spared in the designing and execution of this show. I loved every minute of it!

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We had a wonderful time watching and experiencing the “magic” just like this guy above. Out of the whole crowd I spotted him and just had to capture that perfect moment. Later at a hat stand I made Chris reenact the scene…

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Stay tuned for Part 2:  Fantasyland, Toy Story Land, Mystic Point, Grizzly Gulch, Christmas tree lighting and fireworks!

Merry Christmas from Taiwan! SOGO malls and Ximending

Merry Christmas or 聖誕快樂 (Shèngdàn kuàilè!) from Chris and I! We both hope you have had a wonderful holiday season filled with fun and food, just like us! Both of us miss our families very, very much but thankfully through the wonders of technology we were able to video chat with them and share in the festivities at home. I’ll run through our Christmas eve and Christmas celebrations.

ImageOn Christmas Eve my class decided to have a small party and bring snacks for all of us to share. I brought some wafer cookies and good ol’ Pizza flavored Pringles. My classmates brought all types of chocolates and candies and we had such a sugar rush. My classmate from France made his own crepes to share with us as well and they were delicious! It was fun talking to each other about how we all celebrate Christmas in our respective countries, then we learned Jingle Bells in Chinese! Christmas day is not a holiday in Taiwan so we still had class the next day and many other classes had their parties then. Chris’ class mixed with two others and had a pizza party where they each had a “performance” of a Christmas song in Chinese.

Chris and I decided to go and check out one of the largest shopping centers here in Taipei, the SOGO department stores. There are two separate building of the SOGO department store one is 9 stories the other 11 stories tall. Next to them is another shopping area called the Breeze Center with another 11 stories (the top two being a movie theater). They had very nice Christmas decorations set up and it did feel like being back in the US for a bit. (Bottom right picture is from the 11th floor)

ImageWe were in awe of the amount of items each floor held. The up and down escalators in the building run side by side through the center of each floor and each floor is an open plan with shops taking different portions. Many of the stores run together so it’s confusing to see where one ends and another begins.

ImageThe first and second floors however hold “Prestigious Boutiques” with their own shops, those being: Cartier, Burberry, Chanel, Hermes, Bvlgari, Piaget, Montblanc, Balenciaga, Coach, Armani, Marc Jacobs, Versace etc. We just looked around in amazement at those shops and felt very out of place in our sweaters and jeans.

ImageThere are also lovely elevator attendants who usher you on and off and say nice things and bow to you! The top floors had fancy restaurants and a giant zen garden! Plus a whole store for dog sweaters and accessories… That’s a good sign this place is for rich people.

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After we had visited each floor and realized we wouldn’t be buying anything there we headed to the Breeze Center which was a little more in our price range and style. Plus they had a movie theater and we hadn’t seen The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug yet. We decided to see it since we were there and chose the closest time, not noticing that one in “4D” (moving seats) would be showing an hour later 😦 I guess we will have to go back to try it out!

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After getting out of the theater about 3 hours later it was dark and all the pretty Christmas lights were on! My favorite was the Cartier Christmas tree set up in front of SOGO.

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Christmas Day!

Chris and I met up with friends at 5pm to go out for dinner and sightseeing in Ximending (literally translates to West Gate) or western side of Taipei. We took the most crowded bus I have been on yet, and the MRT to get there. Coming up from the MRT station it felt like walking right in to a smaller version of New York’s Times Square.

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ImageWe headed down the main entrance towards the restaurants and shops enjoying the Christmas lights and trees. Ximen was the first pedestrian zone in Taiwan and it was quite nice not having to walk through cars and scooters to get places.

ImageWe had dinner at Ay-Chung Flour Rice Noodle, one of the most famous noodle restaurants in Taipei. You know you are getting close when you can smell something delicious in the air and see a crowd of people eating from plastic bowls in the street. It was really strange seeing so many people eating soup standing up, but we soon were joining them. The noodles are served in a plastic bowl which you leave in a bucket to be washed when you are done. The meat used is tripe and it is tasty. You can add chili, garlic, or vinegar to your taste from a condiment stand set up on a pillar next to the counter. I didn’t add anything but Chris and our Korean friend added 3 and 4 scoops of chili respectively, to which a Taiwanese woman exclaimed “Wow! You are so brave!” They found it was quite a lot hotter than expected and both began sweating quite a bit.

ImageTo cool off we got some Matcha (Green Tea powder) ice cream.

ImageWe then walked a short distance to the Red House Theater building where contemporary artists have shops with their arts and crafts. The boutique shops had beautiful handcrafted jewelry, original art prints, t-shirts, and buttons etc. It was nice to see the variety of art in the Taiwan art scene. In one of my favorite shops, the artist specializes in making banana versions of celebrities, as seen below.. the Banana Bruce Lee t-shirt. (They also had “Banana Monroe””Banana Superman” and many other famous cartoon characters in banana form.)

ImageWe walked back to the main center, passing by the Times Square like center once again where a street performer had gathered a large crowd to watch him dance. (He did a very good robot and Gangam Style.) We walked back through the streets looking in the clothing stores and found a cheap store with a large selection. We went inside looking for some fun clothes and we were in luck!

ImageWe were all pretty tired and decided to head back home. Before we left we got a picture in front of the big Christmas tree in the square and once we were in the MRT station we found an even better picture spot. We asked a girl and her friend from mainland China to take our photo and then she wanted one with all of us! We were flattered and got some great pictures.

ImageWhat a wonderfully merry Christmas spent with great friends!

PS: We want to say thanks to the people who have given us a Christmas gift using PayPal! We appreciate your gift very much and will put it to good use to keep seeing more parts of this beautiful island!

Shilin Night Market: Shopping, Food, Fun! 士林夜市

Friday night we ventured to Shilin Night Market with some friends. Chris wanted to do some shopping and find some warmer clothes, I just wanted to soak it all in. We left our place at 6:30pm, took a bus to the MRT station at the Taipei Zoo, took the Brown Line to Da’an and then transfered onto the Red Line, north to Shilin. Since it was peak time on a Friday night the MRT was crowded, like sardines in a can, the exact opposite of our last trip. I’ve never been on public transportation so crowded before, everyone shoulder to shoulder holding on to the poles or the handles hanging from the ceiling for balance. Quite an interesting experience. Overall, it took about an hour to get the night market from our place. 

ImageLuckily we were being led by one of Chris’ classmates who knew what he was doing. He was able to guide us in the right direction on the MRT and also once we entered the market section. There were lots of people walking around when we got there and it only got busier as time went on. Everywhere we looked there was some sort of shop or stand, mainly clothes, shoes and accessories with some food vendors here and there. Walking more toward the center of the market is where the food vendors are stationed, along with the underground food court where stall after stall is selling something interesting and delicious.

First I’ll show you some of the retail shops we looked in… maybe 5 of the 200 available. The first place was about 3 people wide and 20 feet long with quite a lot of cool clothes. All the guys ended up buying something from here. I was just interested in looking at the cute whale cardigans and the American flag mustache shirts, and trying on Hello Kitty glasses.

ImageThe next place had pretty much any pattern of blazer you could want.. Everyone had fun trying things on here.

ImageMore shops…

ImageA few t-shirts at a stand and possibly the tiniest tattoo shop in existence.

ImageThere were also a few arcades and carnival games throughout.

ImageSome drink stands.

ImageGiant bowl of flavored Jello and a fruit juice stand.

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We headed underground to the Food Court to look around. Fried things, squids on sticks, glazed berries on sticks, boiled chickens… you name it, it was here.

ImageWe were hungry so we decided on fried buns filled with pepper steak. They were mouthwatering, with just the right amount of spice to make you need a drink. From the fruit juice stand we ordered a mango juice which was exactly like drinking a mango. Only whole fruits used there!

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Then on to spicy chicken feet (right) and stinky tofu! The whole food court area smelled of stinky tofu, which as you probably guessed isn’t the most pleasant aroma. Stinky tofu basically just smells like all the bad things you can imagine combined in to one entity. I wasn’t brave enough to try it this time, but I will before we leave, I promise. At the bottom there is a restaurant where they cook what you want on the hot surface in front of you and you eat it right from there.

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Back out in the fresh air, there are more food stands as well. Dumplings, Snails, cakes that taste like fortune cookies, and tāngyuán (a dessert soup with rice balls filled with sesame or red bean paste).

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At the end of the night Chris had bought two sweaters (one very Christmas-y) and a few t-shirts. I also bought a Christmas-y sweater and new pair of shoes that match my bag. We left at about 10:30pm and it was still going strong. The market stays open until 1 or 2am depending on the crowds. We were tired from all the walking and decided to head back to the MRT station just across the street. This is the view of the street as we were leaving, and the inside of the station (bottom left). The friends we went with are both in Chris’ class, from Korea and India.

ImageWe had an amazing night out, taking in the sights and (sometimes stinky) smells of the Shilin Night Market.

 

Off to Taiwan

We have safely arrived in Taiwan today, November 30th! As usual, we had quite a scramble when we set out yesterday from Hamilton. We cleaned and finished packing in two hours before we left and walked to the bus stop, and of course as soon as we stepped outside the weather changed and it began to drizzle. Thankfully it didn’t pour and we made it to the bus station quite dry with 2 hours to spare until our next bus to Auckland left. We headed to the mall to get lunch and Chris picked up a pair of comfy pants he had been debating whether or not to buy. At 2pm we got on the bus to Auckland which was full to capacity. On top of that the air conditioner was broken on a 70ish degree day. I’ve never heard so much complaining besides maybe at the DMV… Sheesh. Also there were no two seats together so Chris and I were separated and I ended up falling asleep next to a nice woman, I’m happy I didn’t end up leaning on her and just stuck with my typical head back, mouth open stance. We arrived in Auckland at 4:30 then took another shuttle to the airport. It sounds like a lot of shuffling around but I guess we are used to it now since we both agreed time was going by really fast. Finally we were at the airport and checked in our packs at the China Airlines counter! Going through security was quite interesting because we were able to use the electronic passport feature for the first time. You go to a kiosk and slide your passport in picture side down and after scanning it prints out a ticket. Then you walk over to automated gates which usher you up to a camera where you are instructed to insert your ticket and look straight ahead for the camera. Your picture is taken and I’m assuming it is compared to the passport photo which you scanned previously. Within 10 seconds you are either given a green checkmark to go through, or whatever the opposite may be. Chris and I looked at each other in amazement as the process involved no humans whatsoever. Both of us were thinking “The future is now!” and had thoughts of Minority Report. We waited another hour before we could board and enjoyed the lovely view of the water from the International Departures part of the airport. We also got a peek at the plane…

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Chris was pretty excited about having the window seat and that I had the middle seat so he wouldn’t have to be next to anyone. Unlucky for him, this is what he ended up getting. I had a good laugh, him not so much. Also pictured is our dinner during the 3 hour flight from Auckland to Brisbane: beef noodle and chicken rice (quite descriptive).

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This flight was at most 40% full. Whole rows were completely empty and everyone just got up to have more room for themselves. We ended up not even having a third person in the row so I had a whole empty chair next to me. During this flight I watched the first Hunger Games and Chris watched the new Wolverine movie. We arrived in Brisbane at 8:30pm (11:30pm for us NZ time) and had to get off while they refueled the plane before Taiwan. During this time we checked out some shops and bought ourselves Christmas gifts, I got a cute overnight bag and Chris got a new backpack and matching hat. The girl working at the register was obviously super bored and very talkative. We had an awkward one sided conversation while trying to get out of there for about 20 minutes. When we finally escaped we headed to the gate where a million people were lining up. We just took a seat and I got a few minutes to take some pictures.

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Then we were on the plane again! Only 9 hours to Taiwan! It was close to 1am NZ time when we took off but neither of us could sleep yet. I ended up watching Now You See Me and Beasts of the Southern Wild before passing out uncomfortably. Chris fell asleep but just barely, most of the time with a blanket over his head to block out the light. At 3am Taiwan time (5 hours behind Auckland) we were woken up for breakfast. We landed at 5:30am.

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We went through immigration and picked up our bags in under 45 minutes. Once we had everything we walked out to the pickup area where a man was waiting for us with our names on a sign. He loaded our stuff into the trunk of a swanky BMW for our 45 minute ride to the International House where we would be staying. We arrived and had a little confusion with our reservations, but I guess that is to be expected when traveling to a very foreign country. At last we had our keys and got to check out our rooms. (Bottom left is a view from the balcony)

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It was like moving in to the dorms all over again! We had a stack of sheets and pillows to make the bed and a toiletry bag with some of the essentials. The only thing missing were towels so we knew we would have to go out and pick some up. One thing we couldn’t figure out was how to turn the lights. There were switches but flipping them didn’t do anything. With some trial and error we found that this ‘nightlight’ as we thought was actually a card holder for our room key. The key has to be put in the slot in order for the power to work. This ensures that nothing is left on when you leave your room. The future is now!

Before moving on I’d like to zoom in on the toothpaste.

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That made me chuckle. In our exhausted state, we went out in search of breakfast and towels so we could finally shower. We ended up walking through the university, as it is less than 5 minutes away and I got some more photos. Our first purchase was boba milk tea, then we went to Watsons, a CVS equivalent to get towels and whatnot. Here’s an assortment of pictures! We also found a McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Subway very close by.

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Although we’ve only been here a little over 12 hours I am enjoying it immensely. So many new things to see and experience!