Japan Nom Noms: What to eat in Japan?

Japan Nom Noms: What to eat in Japan?

Featured image: Sashimi bowl @ Tsukiji Fish Market. Photo credit: Aaron.

A few of my friends have been asking about food recommendations in Japan, so here is my list! Of note, I only travelled to Tokyo and Kyoto so this is based on my time in those two cities. Aaron has been on a few more trips to Japan than I have, so I have added some of his recommendations to my list as well. I also noted additional locations of the restaurants below.

*FYI: Click on the restaurant name for links to their official websites. Click on famous foodies’ names for links to videos documenting their experiences at the restaurant.

Meat

  • GyukatsuGyukatsu Motomura (Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka)
    • With only 8 seats in this restaurant (at least for the one we went to in Shibuya), there will most likely be a long line-up but it will be worth the wait. Here you can have some super tender, fatty pieces of beef, crusted with light breading, cooked to a perfect rare. You can self-sear to your liking on the hot stone and dip it in the seasoning of your choice. Read about our experience here.
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      Gyukatsu @ Gyukatsu Motomura. Photo credit: Aaron.
  • TonkatsuMaisen (Tokyo, Nagano, Osaka and more)
    • If you want to try tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlets), this bathhouse-turned restaurant is probably one of the most famous restaurants for this dish. They have a few locations in Tokyo but we went to their original location in Omotesando. Try their tonkatsu lunch combos for an authentic pork cutlet experience. I didn’t have the chance to try the famous cutlet sandwiches but I hear they are a must-have! This is on my list for my next trip! Read about our experience here.
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      TonkatsuMaisen
  • Yakiniku (BBQ) @ Han No Daidokoro (Tokyo) The wagyu beef here is truly excellent. Order the “special outside skirt” and be amazed by the fattiest piece beef. I suggest sitting at the bar for a great time. The trainee chef was so animated and passionate, and made sure we ate the raw beef sushi while it’s fresh. Read about our experience here.
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      Special outside skirt Kobe beef @ Han No Daidokoro
  • **Aaron’s picks:
    • WagyuTeppanyaki @ Misono (Kobe, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto)
      • Aaron went to the one in Osaka. This is where you will find high-end teppanyaki. Choose your own cut of beef and allow the chef to cook this in front of you on a large flat iron plate.
    • Wagyu beef @ Shima Steak Tokyo (Tokyo)This is where you can get the famous Wagyu steak sandwich at the end of your meal. Youtuber Mark Wiens loved it!

Sushi

  • Tsujiki Fish Market (Tokyo) Here, you can eat the fish from the source! We were so distracted by all the food, we actually missed visiting the actual market part as it was closed by the time we finished eating. Oops! There are few sit down restaurants with crazy waits but we just decided to try various things straight from the stalls and it was not only deliciously fresh but also very fun. I recommend the fatty blue tuna, the tomago (egg) on a stick and Aaron would recommend the uni (sea urchin. Warning: acquired taste – not for everyone!). At one point, there was even a fisherman who was serving tuna right from the fish itself! Talk about freshness! Read about our experience here.
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      Eating tuna straight from the source @ Tsukiji Fish Market
  • Uobei (Country-wide but not all of them have the “train sushi” system) I’d have to admit this is not where you’ll expect to get high quality sushi, but compared to Canadian standards it’s superior, especially for the low price tag. The reason I suggest this establishment is for its “train sushi” concept, which is unique. You can select sushi from a tablet and your selection will come on a train via a conveyor system. We went to the location in Shibuya and they had this but apparently some locations do not have the conveyor system so choose wisely! Hopefully they have the fatty blue fin tuna in stock when you visit. I was truly impressed! Read about our experience here.
  • **Aaron’s Pick:
    • Sushi bar Yasuda (Tokyo)
      • I haven’t been here yet but Aaron has and so has Anthony Bourdain! This is where you can get excellent quality omakase, where the chef serves you a meticulously orchestrated meal a piece at a time. Friendly reminder that you will need to book months in advance for this special experience. 

Ramen

  • Ippudo (Country-wide with international locations as well)
    • There are probably many amazing ramen places in Tokyo I have yet to try but based on the ones I have tried, I preferred Ippudo’s rich, flavourful tonkotsu broth. If you prefer a bit of spice, you can also try the spicy minced-meat ramen as well where you can choose your spice level to your liking. Read about our experience here.
  • Ichiran (Country-wide with international locations as well)
    • I did not actually eat here but I’ve had their ramen kits, which are quite excellent. This chain is definitely well-loved by Youtuber Mikey Chen and I trust him.
  • **Aaron’s pick:
    • Gogyo (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya)This is the restaurant that Aaron must go to as his first stop, every time he goes to Japan. It’s unique for its burnt miso ramen. I’m serious, you will see fire from the kitchen here. I’m not a huge fan of the burnt taste but if you like charred food, this just might be your cup of tea. Read about our experience here.

      Burnt miso ramen @ Gogyo
      Burnt miso ramen @ Gogyo

Gyoza

  • Sukemasa (Kyoto) Random find as a result of me not wanting to walk very far with sore feet but best gyoza I had in Japan. Cozy restaurant with simple gyoza meal sets. Order with my favourite yuzu soda and your meal is complete! Read about our experience here.

    Gyoza @ Sukemasa.
    Gyoza @ Sukemasa. Photo credit: Aaron.

Dessert

  • Cheese tarts @ Bake (Country-wide with international locations as well)
    • One will probably not be enough. Have a few of these creamy, cheesy tarts or get a whole box to-go!
Cheese tarts @ Bake
Cheese tarts @ Bake. Photo credit. Aaron.
  • Soft-serve ice-cream @ Cremia 
    • This is the creamiest and smoothiest soft-serve ice-cream I’ve ever had! You can find this at many malls while you’re in Japan.

      Cremia soft-serve
      Cremia soft-serve

I appreciate that Japan has a lot of good food and this list is not even close to being exhaustive but here are my humble suggestions. Feel free to comment below for more suggestions based on your own experiences! Happy eating!

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Top 7 must eats in Vancouver, Canada – 2017 edition

Top 7 must eats in Vancouver, Canada – 2017 edition

Featured image: Sho Ka Do Bento @ Raisu.

Those who know me would know that I have certain food cravings every time I return to Vancouver. The food scene in Ottawa is not bad if you know where to go, but the selection is definitely not as impressive as that in Vancouver, especially when it comes to Asian cuisine. Here are a few of the items I try to cross off my list whenever I’m back in Vancouver.

1. Sushi

Without a doubt, the number one food craving I always have is sushi! The number of sushi/Japanese restaurants is really astonishing. From the economical and humongous portions found at Samurai Sushi and Sushi California to the mid-range Sushi Aria to the upscale/tapas versions at Raisu/Kingyo/Miku/Suika/Guu, you can get good sushi at any budget. For those who really want a unique dining experience try Sushi Bar Maumi. It is an omakase style meal meaning you are sitting right at the bar with 9 other sushi lovers and the sushi is served piece by piece directly by the chef. The menu is pre-set. There are only 2 seatings per night, so you must make reservations. At the end of the meal, you can also order some more pieces a-la-carte. Be ready to spend $75+ per person, but it’s well worth it!

Mania roll @ Sushi Mania
Mania roll @ Sushi Mania
Deluxe seafood bowl @ Raisu
Deluxe seafood bowl @ Raisu. Photo credit: Aaron.

2. Xiao Long Bao (XLB)

If you hear people talking about XLB and have no idea what they’re taking about, let me explain. XLB (=xiao long bao 小籠包) is a soup dumpling, originating from Shanghai. The soup is first gelatinized and mixed in with the pork filling, and wrapped in a flour skin. The dumpling is then steamed in a (traditionally, bamboo) basket; hence the name, “little basket bun”. To eat, make sure to puncture a hole in the dumpling first and catch the hot, now-melted soup with a spoon. Make sure the soup has cooled down somewhat prior to drinking the soup, or else you will lose all sensations in your tongue for the rest of the week. You have been warned. I have had bad XLB in the past which were shrivelled up with minimal soup. That’s a bad sign. The texture of the skin is also another way to judge the quality of the dumpling. I prefer the ones with thinner skin which is not overly doughy and dry. The most popular chain is Dinesty. They have multiple locations located throughout Greater Vancouver. If in Richmond, you can try Top Shanghai Cuisine Restaurant or Shanghai River.

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XLB @ Dinesty. Photo credit: Aaron.
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Close up of XLB @ Dinesty (Look at that soup!)

3. Ramen

Another popular choice of food in Vancouver is ramen. Most have a simple menu with a limited number of broth options and a few side dishes/appies to choose from. This only means that they stay true to what they do best. If you are shopping along Robson close and Bidwell, you will find a cluster of these small ramen shops. Popular choices are Santouka (I like their tsukemen option, where you dip the noodles in a concentrated broth), Kintaro (known for their tonkatsu broth), Motomachi (known for their bamboo charcoal ramen) and Marutama (known for their chicken broth). Be prepared to wait in line during peak hours though! These get busy!

Tsukemen and gyoza @ Santouka
Tsukemen and gyoza @ Santouka

4. Beef noodle

Speaking of noodles, those who like tender pieces of beef swimming with egg/flour noodles in a flavourful umami-filled broth, should try the beef noodle houses here. My picks would be No 1 Beef Noodle on Willingdon Ave. and Wang’s Taiwan Beef Noodle on Granville St. I advise you bypass trying to find parking in the tiny lot of No 1 Beef Noodle and just park on the street. Otherwise, you may run the risk of someone double-parking behind your car.

Beef noodle @ No 1 Beef Noodle
Beef noodle @ No 1 Beef Noodle

5. Phnom Penh chicken wings

Alright, I have a confession to make. I was kinda late to jump on this bandwagon. I don’t know how I was not familiar with this place before I moved away from Vancouver. Thanks, “Bear Woman” for introducing me to this! The chicken wings here are apparently famous. These are so addictive that I know someone who needed to bring these with her even when she moved to another province to freeze so she can always have a taste of Vancouver wherever she was. Aaron describes it to have the Southeast Asian flavour, which is definitely appropriate as it reminds me of the chicken wings I’ve had in Malaysia. The batter is light and flavourful and the wings itself is juicy and tasty. The restaurant is super busy and they don’t take reservations except for huge groups (8+) so be patient if you want amazing chicken wings.

Chicken wings @ Phnom Penh
Chicken wings @ Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Aaron.

6. Korean food

I was trying really hard to think of a specific dish instead of using a whole category of “Korean food” but I couldn’t choose between all the deliciousness. The Korean food scene is pretty impressive here. The Korea Town of Vancouver is unofficially along North Road, close to Lougheed Mall, AKA Burquitlam. I’ve been to a few places here with Bear Woman (my personal food guide of Vancouver) and have never been once disappointed. For amazing kimbap (Korean sushi) you cannot just have one of, try Kimbap Cheong Uk. For some makgeolli (Korean rice wine) with nice authentic dishes, try Bukchigo Jangguchigo. If you are downtown, I would recommend Sura for a nicer dining experience or Dae-Ji for a quick no frills experience. If in Richmond, you must try Samsoonie Noodle & Rice for their bossam (sliced flavoured pork belly, that you can wrap in lettuce, cabbage or turnip, along with various side dishes such as kimchi, spicy radish, and raw garlic etc). Remember to pre-order a large and share it with some friends/family. You won’t regret. I promise. If you want just a nice boiling pot of budae jjigae, they have it at Chosun in Burnaby or Midam Cafe in Richmond.

Budae Jjigae @ Chosun Korean Restaurant
Budae jjigae @ Cho Sun

7. Asian desserts/Bubble tea

This is another one where I cannot choose between the various dessert options. Usually even if we’re stuffed after eating a delicious meal of one of the above, we still want to maximize our food adventure fun. We will usually choose amongst one of the following. The classic hang-out place after dinner would have to be a bubble tea shop. These have been around since the 2000’s and they’re still staying strong. These sweet and milky drinks originated in Taiwan but has been a worldwide sensation since then. I always preferred the original milk black or green tea with or without bubbles/pearls/tapoica balls depending on my mood. For those who don’t want a sugar shock to their system, I recommend you get it half-sweet. Those who are more adventurous can try the various flavours available. On this trip, I tried the Okinawa Pearl Tea with roasted brown sugar at ShareTea and I really enjoyed the roasted flavour. ChaTime is another popular chain that is pretty consistent. For a special treat, try the Earl Grey Milk Tea at Mr. Moustache in Marpole. (Note: They are currently closed for renovations). I have never had anything else like it! Another favourite of mine is the Korean bingsoo (shaved ice) at Snowy Village. I even dedicated a full post to this. While you’re there, try the fluffy croissant pastries with various hot fillings – the croissant taiyaki. 

Mango bingsoo @ My Frosty
Mango bingsoo @ My Frosty. Photo credit: Aaron.

And that brings us to the end of my list. If you’re interested in even more food recommendations in Vancouver, let me know! If you have other items you think should be on the list, comment below!

 

9 practical tips for travelling carry-on only

9 practical tips for travelling carry-on only

It’s been a while. Having to pack again recently inspired me to write this post. Whether you are packing for a 2-week or a 2-month trip, the principles are the same. Earlier this year, I had to pack for a 2.5 month trip across Asia for the 30+ degree celsius tropical climate of Thailand as well as the below-zero weather of South Korea. All I had with me was a carry-on suitcase as well as tiny backpack. Trust me. It’s possible. But first, why travel carry-on only?

  1. Save time – We were able to bypass so many long line-ups at the airport because we did not need to check in bags. Once you get off the plane, you are good to go. No need to wait around at the carousel for your bags.
  2. Save money – Most airlines charge for check in bags now. Sure, for long international flights, there may still be 1-2 free checked bags but this isn’t the case for most domestic flights and short-haul flights between nearby countries.
  3. Save you from missing your next flight – For those of you who are planning to explore many cities in one country or to choose a flight which has multiple transfers, travelling carry-on only will save you a lot of headache. Imagine having the added stress of waiting to pick up your bag to transfer onto a tight connecting flight. Or imagine losing your baggage in transit to Bangkok, when you’re leaving for Chiang Mai in 3 days. What if it doesn’t make it here on time?

If I’ve convinced you that this a good idea, please read on for my tips for travelling carry-on only.

  1. A trusty carry-on luggage

Those who have followed me on my Asia trip adventures might have remembered that my original suitcase was not too trusty. (See post here.) It actually ripped within the first 2 weeks of my trip. I managed to purchase a better one in Vietnam, which lasted me for the rest of the trip. Lesson learned. The suitcase should be sturdy enough to withstand a long journey with multiple stops but at the same time light enough for you to carry around. I considered using a backpack for my Asia trip but then I would need to carry two backpacks and my back would not be happy. If the luggage is light enough, then it should be easy to transport, even up and down stairs in subway stations and easily lifted into the overhead cabins. I find the clam-shelled ones to be more practical and helps with organization. I got a small hard-shelled one (similar to the one below) and Aaron had purchased a soft-shelled one from MEC (no longer sold) for quite a decent price right before we left.

Hard-shelled carry-on suitcase

2. A trusty “personal item”

Check the different airlines you are flying with for the weight and size limits. Some of the more discount airlines have very strict limitations. The 9kg backpack you were allowed to carry on in Canada might be overweight for the smaller airline in Vietnam. I used a tiny little backpack for my travels but found it was very annoying to, for example, have to take out my medications, toiletries, and sunglasses, etc. to get to the headphones I needed at the bottom of the pack. If possible, get one that has many compartments so you can access your belongings easily. I really liked the MEC packpack that Aaron got for the trip. It looked really compact. You can even wear it on the side and say it’s a laptop bag. It has a lot of compartments, including a nicely padded section just for your laptop.

3. Pack for 1 week

It doesn’t matter how long your trip is. Just pack as if you’re going on a 1-week trip. I.e. only pack enough underwear, socks, outfits etc. for 7 days. You can always do laundry. You’re always on the go, so no one will know you’re repeating outfits (except for your travel companion, who should not be judging. And if they are, you need to find yourself someone else to travel with).

4. Pack versatile clothing

Don’t pack those trendy yellow jeans that only matches that one white top. Pack items you can mix and match. That racer back tank top is not only for the hiking in Chiang Mai. Layer on a cardigan for the breezy evenings in Hanoi, and add on a scarf and toque for the snowy days in Seoul.

One thing I wish I had brought on my trip was a sarong. Not only can you use it as a cover-up on the beach, you can use it for modesty at temples as well as a scarf in colder cities, or maybe even a towel or a blanket, if needed! It is a great alternative to having to wear jeans when it’s hot and humid. (Read about my struggles in my Wat Pho post.)

And don’t forget about the tourist pants. What’s that you say? I’m talking about those thin, loose-fitting harem pants you see many backpackers and other casual travellers wearing nowadays. I know… I know… before you start judging that these will only make me stand out as a tourist, I’m sure I already have other features which make it obvious that I’m not a local. For example, my language, my mannerisms and the fact that I constantly have a confused look on my face while starting at Google Maps on my phone. In all seriousness, these pants are great for modesty in temples, just roaming the streets or even as PJs. For example, I did not want cause myself to have a heat stroke hiking in long pants in the mountains of Chiang Mai but I knew we were going to make stops at temples along the way and wanted to be respectful. I kept my tourist pants in my backpack and threw it over my shorts once we got to the temple grounds. Keep in mind these are not the best quality since mine had a big hole in it by the end of my trip but no complaints given I got it for only a few Canadian dollars from a market in Bali!

Tourist pants

5. Leave the bulky clothing at home

The best investment I made for this trip was probably my Columbia Women’s Mighty Lite Hooded Jacket. My biggest dilemma for this trip was how to stay warm in South Korea without having to lug around a huge winter jacket for the entire duration of my travels. My friend suggested I look into compressible jackets. (Thanks Vanessa!) It kept me warm and I was able to compress it down to the size of a thin sweater. It was amazing!


Compressible jacket

For those who are more risk-loving, you can purchase seasonal items en route so you don’t even have to carry it around with you. Aaron purchased this compressible winter jacket from Uniqlo while we were in Seoul.

6. Packing cubes and organizers

Organization is key when it comes to packing light. Packing cubes allowed me to create little dense packages of clothing. I rolled them up tightly and was surprised how much I can fit in each of these.


Packing Cubes

For bras, I put them in a little laundry bag and stuffed it with socks to keep the shape. This bag was handy to double as a laundry bag for delicates during the trip.


Bra laundry bag

If you have some items which seem to take up a lot of space, try compression bags. These are also great for packing away dirty clothes. These ones we got don’t require a vacuum to release the air. Just put your clothing in, zip it up to leave a small hole, push all the air out and then zip it all the way. Alternatively, just get some heavy duty ziplock bags!


Compression bags

7. Wrinkle-free

Try to avoid clothes that easily wrinkle. With all the rolling and compressing (see above), it’s best to bring clothing that is easy to care for. Leave that cute blouse at home. If you are presented with a few wrinkles, try to hang it in the bathroom while you shower. The steam can sometimes help to release some of the wrinkles.

8. Travel-size toiletries

If you are travelling carry-on only, you must adhere to the liquid rules. As such, it’s important to either shop at the travel size aisle for teeny tiny version of your favourite toiletries or just get some reusable toiletry bottles and fill them up with your products of choice! Be sure to test for leaking extensively though! Even if they spill or if you did not bring enough, that’s ok! Unless you are travelling to remote areas, chances are you can always just pick up some toiletries along the way (especially when travelling to countries known for their great skin care products – e.g. Korea and Japan).


Travel bottles

9. E-travel books

I purchased only 2 travel books for my 4-country trip. For the other 2 countries, I found that electronic resources actually handled the job quite well. I mostly relied on Mark Wien’s travel guides as well as the Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet Guides. Please refer to my previous post for a more in-depth review of some travel apps.

So those were the lessons learned from my travels. I would love to hear about any other suggestions you may have. Happy travels!

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*Special Civic Holiday Post* – Top 10 things to do in Ottawa this summer

It is not necessary to travel very far to enjoy the summer. There’s no need to wait until you’re on vacation to go hiking or to take that fun class or to go to the beach. You can have lots of fun just exploring your own city. And my city is Ottawa. Ottawa’s winters can be cold and long, so why not take advantage of the good weather when it’s actually here! The summer is more than half over, so I figured I should write this post before it’s too late.

So, here is my list of 10 things to do, in no particular order:

Check out a music festival

Whether it is Blues Fest, Folk Fest, West Fest or Jazz Fest, there seems to always be some music festival going on. Check out the line up and you can decide which ones you want to check out!

https://www.ottawatourism.ca/ottawa-insider/ottawas-summer-music-festivals/

Celebrate Canada Day

Of course, one of the biggest events every summer is July 1st, a huge celebration of Canada Day right in the country’s capital city. If you don’t mind crowds, then go ahead and try your luck downtown for some live performances all day long as well as fireworks at night. This year, we tried something a little different and spent most of our day at Dominion Day – a craft beer festival at the Experimental Farm and it was quite fun. I’m not sure if they will do this every year but it’s worth looking into. We enjoyed a few local beers, took a look at some farm animals, ate some good food, then only headed downtown later on for fireworks. Driving downtown is not a good idea. If you’re ok with surge prices, then Uber is an option. Otherwise, public transportation (free that day) is the way to go.

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Fireworks on Canada Day.

BBQ at Mooney’s Bay

Head over to Mooney’s Bay for a BBQ and then lie on the beach. If you’re still hungry, they have a burger shack with live music sometimes. If you have little ones, don’t forget to check out the super expensive new playground there.

Hiking in Gatineau Park

Gatineau park is merely at 30-minute drive away and here, you will find many different trails with varying difficulty. I enjoyed the King Mountain Trail’s view but I appreciated the Luskville Falls Trail for its more difficult ascent. Just remember to put on some sunscreen and drench yourself in insect repellent.

http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/hiking-and-walking

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View from King Mountain Trail. Photo credit: Aaron.

Water sports at Dows Lake

Alternatively, you can stay around town and head to Dows Lake for some stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking or pedal boating. You can also walk across the street after to check out the gardens.

http://www.dowslake.com/summer_rentals.php

Fireworks at the Casino du Lac-Leamy Sound of Light

If you are a fireworks fan, this is the show to watch out for. There are usually 5 nights of fireworks for your enjoyment and it’s happening right at the gorgeous Canadian Museum of History across the bridge. Get your tickets online and bring some folding chairs to enjoy the show!

http://www.feux.qc.ca/home/

Watch the Sound and Light Show on Parliament Hill

An annual tradition since the first year I moved to Ottawa, this show is visually impressive, using the Parliament Buildings as a backdrop. You can even pick up a few tidbits about the history of Canada!

https://www.ottawatourism.ca/member/sound-and-light-show-on-parliament-hill-northern-lights/

Take a free salsa class at City Hall

Did you know there are free salsa (/kizomba/bachata) classes every Wednesday from 6-7pm at City Hall? If you are lucky and there are no other events happening and the weather is nice, it will even be held outside! For those who want more, there is social dancing right after until 11pm! No experience is needed and the basic steps are taught again every week. They change up the DJ, instructors and dance styles every week!

https://www.facebook.com/OutdoorSalsaOtt/

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Salsa at City Hall.

Eat your heart out at a cultural/food festival

Ottawa is truly the city of festivals, especially when it comes to food. It feels like every weekend there is some kind of festival happening and sometimes they occur on the same weekend and requires you do to some festival-hopping. Whether it is Asian Fest, Greek Fest, Lebanese Festival, or the Japanese Natsu-Matsuri Festival, head out and enjoy some good food while learning something about another culture. Otherwise, you can always check out the always popular Rib Fest or Poutine Fest as well.

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Yakisoba (in a hot dog bun) at the Natsu-Matsuri. Interesting… Photo credit: Aaron.

Check out some Canada 150 events

Since it is Canada’s big 150 birthday, there have been quite a few special shows going on this year. The most impressive one, of course, was La Machine, which happened at the end of July. I heard people in the crowds saying they cannot wait to see this next year. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but my understanding is that this was truly once in a lifetime. I don’t think they will be coming back again 😦 #LaMachineWithdrawal. On to events you can still catch: Get a free ticket online and check out Kontinuum – another very unique experience, happening in the light rail station on Sparks Street until September 14, 2017.  Cirque Du Soleil, Volta, is happening August 3 – 27, 2017.  I still haven’t had the chance to see it, but I’ve seen pictures of the plant sculptures at MosaïCanada 150 at Jacques-Cartier Park which looks amazing. You can still catch it until October 15, 2017. Download the Ottawa 2017 app for more events you might be interested in.

http://www.ottawa2017.ca/ottawa-2017-app/

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La Machine. Best show ever.
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Kontinuum. Photo credit: Aaron.

Vancouver, BC, Canada: Top 5 Tourist Attractions

I recently came back to my hometown, Vancouver, BC, for a visit and coincidently, my relatives from out-of-town were visiting at the same time. While showing them around, I was able to be a tourist in my hometown for a few days, which allowed me to compile a list of top tourist attractions in Vancouver, BC.

1. Queen Elizabeth Park

If you like beautiful gardens and views of the city and want to make good use of your newly-purchased camera, this is the place to go. It is so picturesque that many people decide to hold their wedding ceremonies and snap their wedding photos here. If you enjoy tropical plants and birds, you should pay the Bloedel Conversatory a visit. Feeling hungry after all the walking around the park? Want to indulge in a nice meal while further embracing the view? Check out Seasons in the Park.

2. Stanley Park

This park is truly versatile and meant to be enjoyed by people of all ages. For those with children, there are waterparks, outdoor pools, and the Stanley Park Train. Those who love the outdoors and staying active can jog/skate/bike around the seawall while enjoying the beautiful coastline of Vancouver. Those who prefer to relax can lounge on the several beaches in the park. The park is situated right beside downtown so finding good food nearby is never a problem.

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The totem poles in Stanley Park.
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The view from Prospect Point in Stanley Park.

3. Downtown and surroundings

First time Vancouver visitors can probably spend a few days here. The waterfront is one of my favourite parts of Vancouver. Here, you can enjoy views of the water with the mountains as a backdrop. You can also see the huge cruise ships docking and the seaplanes taking off. It is also where our Olympic Cauldron is from hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics.  For my shopaholics, there is plenty of shopping either at Pacific Centre or along Robson Street. For those who like gorgeous architecture, you should head over to the Central Library, again a hot spot for wedding photos. For my hipster friends out there, you must check out Gastown with its various local coffee joints and eateries. For those looking for a more snazzy dining experience, head over to Yaletown. Mister is a hip liquid nitrogen ice-cream place to check out here. We were lucky enough to be here on their first year anniversary where all of their ice-cream are ONLY $5. You can deduce what their regular prices are.

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Central Public Library in downtown Vancouver.

4. Granville Island

Another popular tourist spot for first time Vancouver visitors, Granville Island is a great place for everyone to visit – especial lovers of local arts, crafts and food. There is a kids market for those with little ones. There is a local brewery on the island as well as a boutique Japanese Sake winery for some 19+ fun. Take a stroll along the public market to try some fresh produce and goods. Don’t forget to stop by Lee’s Donuts for some deliciously fresh donuts. I personally really enjoyed the honey-dipped one. If you get tired, there are plenty of benches on the island for you to sit and enjoy the street performances. Just watch your heads in case the seagulls decide to give you a little present.

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Enjoying a honey-dipped Lee’s Donut in Granville Island.

6. North Vancouver/Squamish

If you venture to this part of Greater Vancouver, you can visit the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge. If you want to opt for a similar experience without paying the exuberant prices, you can go to Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge instead. By heading further north, you can also visit Squamish. Depending on your preference, you can either hike up the Stawamus Chief or pay $40 to take the new Sea to Sky Gondola up and then do some light trails at the top while soaking in gorgeous views from the viewing platforms. The views from both are surreal but I would highly recommend the hike for a more rewarding experience. Check out my next post for more details about the hike itself.

These places are nice to visit at least once as important landmarks to check out but there are definitely other neighbourhoods that I frequent for food. Stay tuned for the food posts to come!

 

Top 5 Useful Apps While Traveling

Top 5 Useful Apps While Traveling

Featured Image: Screenshot from Google Maps.

With one of us being in the tech industry, we relied heavily on technology during our most recent Asia trip. We spent the extra money to get data or wifi almost as soon as we landed in order to make our lives easier. Some may say this is not a true adventure and/or it doesn’t allow us to truly experience exploring a new place, but to each their own. For those who appreciate the use of technology, I thought I would share the apps I found most useful during our recent Asia trip. Please note they are in no particular order. Also, I did not receive sponsorship from any of these companies, so I have no conflict of interest to report here.

1. TripAdvisor

Those who travel with their laptops can easily access TripAdvisor on their browser but for those who travel with only a mobile device, this app provides a better interface than using a mobile browser.

Pros

I found I used this most often to check out the top “things to do” in each city we went to. It also allowed me to select the most highly rated tours to sign up for. With its review function, I was able to see what I was getting myself into, compared to signing up for random tours at a local tour agency. For example, we had an excellent experiences during our cooking classes in Chiang Mai and Hanoi, which I attributed to the fact that we selected the classes with the highest ratings on TripAdvisor. This was also great for selecting hotels and spas as well.

Cons

On the other hand, I wouldn’t rely on this app for food recommendations. The reviews were not as useful and their list of restaurants was not as comprehensive as some other apps, which I will discuss below. I also tried booking hotels through this app, and it saved my booking on the app; however, it only showed mostly a static page with minimal booking details. I wish it linked back to the original hotel listing for me to get more information (e.g. amenities, reviews) about the hotel after I’ve already booked it and prior to checking in. I found myself having to go back to search for the hotel in a cumbersome way when they could’ve just easily linked it back with one quick click. Of note, Airbnb has a much nicer user interface with sleek design and allows you to link back to the original listing. The “directions” function is also limited as it only links to Apple Maps and doesn’t have an option to link to Google Maps, which I prefer.

2. Lonely Planet Guides

Although I downloaded this app prior to our trip, it wasn’t until the latter half of the trip that I started using this.

Pros

I appreciated how I was able to download the “City Guides” beforehand, which allowed me to browse even when I had no access to wifi or data. Compare this to TripAdvisor, which did have a “download” button, but I realized it gave me error messages when I try to scroll through their content. Not only is their photo quality and design more aesthetically pleasing than TripAdvisor, they also had better content relating to the information presented about the points of interest. TripAdvisor just took information straight from Wikipedia, which I found more dry and less relevant. I liked their “neighbourhoods” reviews to give me a quick overview of each area, so I can decide where I wanted to visit. This was particularly helpful in big cities like Korea and Japan. My favourite function of all was the “Near this Place” list at the end of each article. I am able to group top attractions and coffee shops/restaurants I want to visit to efficiently plan my days. I can bookmark places to the “My Favourites” tab to view everything on a map. That was how I realized that Tsukiji market is close to the Hama-Rikyu Onshi-Teien which also housed the Nakajimi no Ochaya teahouse. It is also how I found out about Chihira Junco and that she is located on the 3rd floor of Aqua City.

Cons

Compared to TripAdvisor, they only had a limited number of “City Guides”. It also does not have reviews, so the rankings of the listings are based on Lonely Planet itself. I preferred to get the perspectives from different travellers, especially those who recently visited for more up-to-date information. In addition, unlike TripAdvisor, it did not allow me to easily make reservations directly in the app for accommodations or activities. It did provide a link to the company’s website though to do the booking there. Again, I wouldn’t rely on the Lonely Planet Guides for their food recommendations. For that, I would rather use Foursquare, which I will talk about next.

3. Foursquare

As foodies, this was probably the most important app for us. Aside from reading/watching travel and food blogs/vlogs from our favourite bloggers and vloggers, this was our most used app to find good food.

Pros

The reviews are concise and tips are useful when deciding where and what to eat. This was were we found out about Pizza 4P’s, where I had some of the most amazing pizza I’ve ever had. I would never have considered trying pizza in Vietnam if it wasn’t for the amazing ratings. The photos are a good overview of what to eat even if there is no menu available online. You can also use these pictures to point to when they do not have an English menu. Previous customers usually also note down wifi passwords as a tip in the app, so you do not need to ask for it everywhere you go. This was super helpful when we were working in a coffeeshop. Aaron was also really into their sister app, Swarm, which allowed me to track all the places we’ve been to for blogging purposes.

Cons

I found this particularly useful when I am already at a location and looking for food to eat by using the “Nearby” ranking option. It is more difficult to use this to look for places that I plan to go to. This app’s usefulness really relies on it being popular in the location of choice. For example, we found more people used Foursquare in Vietnam and Japan, whereas, it was less popular in South Korea and Thailand. This lead us to many places that have closed down, as well as made us almost miss out on great places which had no reviews in the app.

4. Google Maps

With the advent of GPS equipped phones, one should in theory be able to locate anywhere they choose to go to.

Pros

I prefer Google Map’s interface over Apple Maps. It is more robust and provides more information on nearby attractions and restaurants. I sometimes find great places to see using the other apps mentioned above then save all my favourites onto my Google Maps, which gives me an overview of the city I am visiting and allows me to group my visits to several points of interest. I really appreciated it telling me how long it will take and how much it will cost to get somewhere by foot, public transportation and Uber. I can even book an Uber directly on the app! The bus/train route function, which has colour coding for different subway lines (see Featured Image), allows me to navigate the public transportation systems of a foreign city. For the points of interest itself, it provides reliable opening hours, for the most part, and well as some reviews, although not as extensive as TripAdvisor’s reviews. I particularly appreciate the graphs of the busiest times to visit the point of interest, based on historical and live data, so we can plan our visits and change our plans accordingly. This was how we were able to avoid a ridiculous line at T&K Seafood in Bangkok.

Cons

Google Maps has an offline function but this was not available for most of the places we visit this trip. From what I read, as long as there are non-alphabet characters used on the maps, the map cannot be downloaded offline. In addition, when searching for points of interest in Thailand and Japan, we found that just using the English name may lead us to the wrong location. It was much more reliable to use the actual Thai or Japanese characters to locate places. Of note, even the online version Google Maps is pretty useless in South Korea. The train routes were not available at all and the locating of points of interest is very unreliable. For hiking and more remote paths, Google Maps is again not too useful. We relied on Maps 3D Pro to keep us on track for our hiking trips. I also noticed that in a recent update, there are now multiple options when trying to save a point of interest (i.e. “favourites”, “want to go”, “starred places” or your own customized list). For my purposes, I preferred the simple star vs. no star before.

5. Google Translate

It was pretty much impossible for us to learn and be fluent in 4 new languages prior to our Asia trip, so we needed a way to communicate other than hand gestures. Here was where Google Translate came in handy.

Pros

The camera function available in Korean and Japanese was very helpful in understanding menus, labels and instruction sheets. This is a lot more effective than trying to write out the characters myself. It allowed us to translate specific characters as well as whole labels. When trying to search for one word translations, I feel more comfortable using this, as grammar is less of an issue when it comes to just a noun I want to use. In times of desperation, e.g. when talking to the employees at Def Dance in Seoul, it actually was able to allow me to have a reasonable conversation with others who did not speak English. There is also a mic function which I have not made too much use out of. Has anyone tried this? Let me know if it’s useful.

Cons

As someone who reads/writes another language (Chinese), I understand that Google Translate has its flaws and the translations can be comedic most of the time. Don’t rely on it being absolutely accurate. I.e. don’t make any business deals or do important negotiations based on this. The “live” camera function was not good. It often did not pick up on characters and display the translation properly. It was just floating psychedelic characters which made me nauseated. I also did not appreciate how there is a reminder for me to download this function every time I use the camera function. I knew I didn’t want this feature and was not interested in downloading it. I wish there was a way to stop this message from popping up!

So those are the apps I found most useful during my travels. Again, this is just my opinion. Let me know if you have any other apps you prefer or if there are any other functions of these apps that I have yet to discover!