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Danshui, Taiwan September 20, 2011

Posted by Dru in East Asia.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Danshui, Taiwan” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-Hu

Danshui is a small resort town north of central Taipei.  It’s roughly 40 minutes north by train on the Danshui line.  It is pretty easy to get to Danshui but it does take a bit of time.  It’s a nice day trip to get out of the city and enjoy the coast.  Spending an entire trip in only Taipei itself can be a little daunting as city life can get a little stressful.  Danshui is the opposite.  It is a relatively tranquil area where life seems to slow down.  Danshui is known as a place for couples and it’s more famous at night.  It is also famous for being the hot spring town of Taipei.

The first area people will explore from Danshui station is the waterfront.  There is a long coastal road that is lined with various little shops.  As you walk from the station you will see the mouth of the river as it begins to open up to the sea.  The road is pretty small and only local traffic uses it.  There are several shops with various amusement park style games such as basketball.  The entire waterfront is not complete as they were doing construction in many areas.  My guess is that they are trying to create a walkway from the station all the way to the Fisherman’s Wharf which is about 3km away from the station.  About 500m from the station is a small ferry pier which has ferries taking people across the river to “Bali” or up the river to the Fisherman’s Wharf.  I suggest taking the ferry to go up but we decided to walk so we could see more things.

About a third of the way to the Fisherman’s Wharf is an old fort called Fort San Domingo.  It was constructed by the Dutch but from what I was reading, it was controlled mostly by the Portuguese.  I could easily be wrong as there was little information in English.  The actual fort itself was pretty interesting.  It is built on a small hill and the fortifications were simple.  The main fort was a simple castle like structure that housed a few rooms.  Within the complex, there were a few other buildings, constructed of brick.  You can freely walk around the complex and enter the various buildings.  There is a lot of information in English but very little was of interest to me.  It was mostly historical and from my memory, little explained the nature of each room we visited.  When I visited, they also had a special exhibition on Canada which was a little nostalgic for me.  I’m sure they switch the exhibitions from time to time.  It wasn’t a big exhibition but large enough to give people a glimpse into Canada.

The other area of interest is the Fisherman’s Wharf.  It is located roughly 3km north of the station and it is a long walk.  I would highly recommend taking either a bus, the passenger ferry, or to rent a bicycle.  The entire wharf area is a big tourist trap.  It is popular among couples as it is a very romantic setting.  In the daytime, families are more prevalent, as are tourists.  It is more famous at night due to the lights.  The focal point of Fisherman’s Wharf is the Valentine Bridge.  It is a pastel pink bridge that is lit up at night and reminiscent of many other standard bridges in Eastern Asia.  While it is just a pedestrian bridge, it is fairly large for a pedestrian bridge.  You will see dozens of couples taking pictures in the area.  There are even several restaurants and bars on the main floor of the wharf for people to enjoy themselves.  If the noise is too much for you, it isn’t hard to walk a minute away and see an empty area.  It is a remote area of Danshui so other than the main central areas, there aren’t many people.

I mentioned that Danshui is a famous hot spring area of Taipei.  There are several hot spring hotels where you can relax and enjoy the hot spring water in your own hotel room.  From what I saw, there aren’t many onsen like bath houses.  Instead, they have expensive resort hotels with beautiful rooms and private baths.  If you have the time, I think it is a great place to visit.  Unfortunately I didn’t visit the resort hotels, but a friend of mine did.  She said the water was great and she enjoyed multiple baths during her one night stay.  From the pictures of the hotel, I think it was a great location and if I get a second chance to visit, I will probably try to stay a night or two in Danshui.

Danshui, Taiwan is part of a multi part series of my trip to Taiwan.  Please continue reading about  Taipei and Food in Taiwan.


Onsen (How to) July 20, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Onsen (How to)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-rG

Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring bath house.  They range in size from quaint little barrels located on a hill to grand modern style baths.  Japan is well known as being one of the most active areas in the world for volcanoes and earthquakes.  With all of this seismic activity, Japan is a hotbed for natural hot springs.  For a tourist, or even a resident foreigner, it’s very difficult to understand the feel of an onsen, or really understand why people do it.  It’s definitely a cultural identity for Japanese people.  When visiting Japan, I would recommend visiting an onsen, but if you are uncomfortable with the process, don’t be sad if you don’t go.  I don’t believe it is necessary to experience Japan, but if you are living in Japan, I would recommend trying to go to an onsen at least once.

When visiting an onsen, you have to understand the rules.  Once you know of all the rules, you can decide whether or not you wish to go to the onsen itself.  All onsen have the same rules, and it’s easy to forget what they are.  The first step to the onsen is to enter the building and take off your shoes.  Most of them have a small entrance with shoe boxes available.  If you wear shoes that are bigger than a size 12 (US), you might have trouble putting your shoes into the shoe lockers.  Don’t go with boots either as they will more than likely not have lockers for boots.  The next step is to pay for the onsen itself.  The prices range from 400-700 yen depending on the place.  I’d recommend bringing a small bath towel with you, and purchasing one at the onsen as well.  Towels are usually very cheap, roughly 100-300 yen each.  These are to be used inside the onsen itself.  Your towel can be used to dry off when you exit the onsen.

After you pay for everything, you can enter the bath area.  There is almost always a men’s and women’s section.  Men’s are usually easy to see as they have a blue curtain in the entrance, and the women’s section uses red or pink.  When you enter the private area, you will be in the locker room.  There is usually dozens of lockers where you can put all of your belongings.  Some onsen have baskets with small lockers for wallets and watches.  There is also a section for you to primp yourself after the bath, but I’ll get into that later.  The first challenge is to get naked.  My first time in the onsen, I was very shy.  I knew what was expected of me, so I stripped down pretty quickly and all was okay.  No one will look at you.  If you have long hair, make sure it’s tied UP.  This is especially important for women.  You can let it down as you shower, but try to keep it up all the time.  The basic rule is, if you can tie your hair up, do it.  From there, you can enter the actual onsen.

When you enter the onsen, it’s traditional to cover up your privates with a small towel.  If you buy a towel at the onsen, you can use this towel.  It’s not very thick, nor fluffy.  The sole purpose of this is to aide in the cleaning process, and to slightly cover up.  You don’t have to use it to cover up, but I do it either way.  The shower area is the first place to head to.  The shower area is very easy to spot.  There are several rows of “seats” and mirrors.  Each shower is pretty standard.  You are given a small area to sit.  Each shower has a mirror, small seat, bowl, soap, shampoo, a faucet, and a shower head.  The method to use the shower depends on the plumbing, but generally, there is a temperature switch on the left, flow for the shower on the right, and a button for the faucet in the middle.  Adjust the temperature and turn on the shower.  Rinse off the entire area with water before you begin.  Clean off the mirror, the soap, the faucet, and both bowl and seat before you sit down.  After this, you can finally take a seat.  Once seated, you can shower any way you like.  Some prefer to wash their hair first, and some prefer to use the towel as a way to scrub their body.  Once you have finished soaping up, you can use the faucet to pour hot water all over your body.  Place the bucket under the faucet and press the centre button.  There is no temperature setting for the faucet, so beware that the water will be hot.  Personally, I prefer to rinse with the shower head itself and use the faucet water to prepare myself for the onsen baths.  Think of it as a warming or preparatory rinse.  Once you have finished your shower, you should give everything in the shower area one final rinse, the same as when you entered, and put everything back where you found it.  You can then proceed to the baths.   Do note that many sites recommend you do a quick rinse, bathe, then shower with soap, and bathe again.  I have not seen this myself when I visited onsen.

How to bathe will depend on your own personal preference.  Whether you prefer to enter the hot bath first, and proceed to the cooler ones, or just enter one bath and finish is up to you.  Smaller onsen have only one or two baths.  Part of the fun is to just try each one.  As you enter the bath, do be aware that the water can be extremely hot, especially the baths inside.  Do not put your towel inside the water, and do not put your head under water.  These are not allowed and you may get a stern lecture on etiquette if you make a mistake.  With the towel, just fold it up into a small square and place it on your head.  You can always place it on the side, but most men will put it on their head.  If you head outside, you can also enjoy the outdoor bath which usually has either natural or concrete rocks that has a very calming effect.  If there is a sauna, do be aware that you will probably have to use your own foam seat if there is one provided.  They are usually located outside the sauna and you return it to the cleaning bin which should be next to it.

Once you have finished with the baths, you should either shower completely, or rinse off.  A quick trip to the shower area or utilizing a standing shower stall is effective.  I generally don’t enjoy the residue left on my skin by the onsen water, so I prefer to shower completely, but very quickly.  Some onsen and many websites recommend that you don’t rinse at all.   As I said, I personally don’t like the feel of the minerals left on my body, so I prefer to shower quickly.  I also suggest towelling off with the wet towel before entering the locker room.  Depending on the onsen, it may or may not be required, but it does make drying easier when you are finished.  After you exit the bathing area, you can get dressed and make use of the powder room area.  There is almost always an area set up with a counter, mirrors, and hair dryers.  If you go to an expensive onsen, there will be an array of facial creams and hand lotions that you can use.  There may even be some hair products.  Generally, you should bring your own stuff.  You can take as much time as you need to get ready, and it’s pretty simple and straight forward.  Afterwards, you can exit and enter the common area.  The common area is a place to relax after the bath.  There is usually a place to buy some food, but mainly for drinks.  Japanese people love to drink alcohol, especially beer, after a nice bath.  At night, don’t be surprised to see lots of people sitting in a tatami room enjoying a few beers and having a nice conversation.  You can also buy things such as milk, or ramune, a type of citrus soda.  If you are waiting for someone to come out of the onsen, you can enjoy a magazine, newspaper, or manga while you wait, but it will depend on the onsen itself.  There are also several gifts that you can buy, such as scrubbing blocks, soap, and other bathing products.  They are generally not cheap, but the quality is very good.

This is the basic onsen experience.  If you decide to go, do expect to spend at least an hour, maybe more at the onsen itself.  The bathing experience shouldn’t be more than 15-30 minutes.  Bathing in the onsen is not like bathing at home.  It’s part utilitarian and part relaxation.  The relaxation is party done outside in the common area.  Don’t be too afraid of going to an onsen, even if you are by yourself.  The only time to be worried is if you have tattoos.  Generally, tattoos are not allowed by patrons, but if it’s a small one, you could be okay.

Onsen Information:

Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onsen
Furano Tourism Authority (Guide to Furano Onsen and short instructions on how to use the onsen):  http://www.furano-kankou.com/english/onsen.htm
Japan Guide (Note:  I don’t agree with their instructions on how to use an onsen):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292.html
Japan Guide (Basic areas for Onsen):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2292_where.html
Onsen Japan (English guide to a few onsen):  http://www.onsenjapan.net/


Hakone (Part I) January 26, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Hakone (Part I)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-jd

Hakone is one of the most popular areas near Tokyo.  It’s a great place to head for a day trip and there are many things to do.  There are various places to visit, and the area itself is fairly vast.  It can take a lot of time to get around and do everything, so as a day trip, it can be a little tight.  I would recommend at least two days and one night, that way you can at least experience a ryokan or an onsen.  For those that don’t know, a ryokan is a traditional style Japanese Inn.  It’s similar to a bed and breakfast, with a twist.  Usually, your room is a typical tatami room with futons on the floor.  You are served a traditional dinner and breakfast, so this can be a little scary if you aren’t used to raw fish, rice, and sleeping on the floor in a room full of people.  There are several western friendly hotels in the area as well, and almost all of them feature an onsen.  Onsen are Japanese style natural hot spring baths.  It’s almost always separated into men and women, and the bathing rooms can be as detailed and large as a spa, or as small and simple as a large private bathroom.  It really depends on the hotel.  All in all, it’s a great experience, and something you can might want to try while visiting Japan.

When heading to Hakone, there are a couple of routes to take.  If you are lucky enough to have a JR Pass, taking the shinkansen to Odawara Station is probably the easiest way.  Otherwise, most people would take the Odakyu lines from Shinjuku.  Odakyu offers a two day Hakone Free Pass, which is great if you are spending two days there.  Otherwise, just go for single tickets.  There are tourist booths that have English speakers inside the station, so don’t worry too much about buying tickets.  The ticket machines also have English instructions.  Once at Odawara Station, you have to switch to the Hakone Tozan Train.  If you take the special express train, which costs more, you will probably go all the way to Hakone Yumato Station.  Otherwise, you’ll have to change at Odawara, and again at Hakone Yumato.  From Hakone Yumato, you will board the original Hakone Tozan train.  This is a small mountain line that makes its way slowly up the mountain.  It can be extremely beautiful in November with the beautiful autumn leaves, or even in the spring when the hydrangeas are in full bloom as both sides of the tracks are lined with trees.

The first stop on the way to Hakone should be at Chokoku no Mori.  This is the second to last stop on the line heading into Hakone.  This is the home of the Hakone Open Air Museum.  If you need instructions, you should call it the Chokoku no Mori museum as that’s the Japanese name.  This museum opened in 1969 and has over 70,000 square metres of open space.  It’s built into the side of the mountain and the museum itself is spectacular.  There are several permanent exhibits and also several rotating sculptures within the museum grounds.  Almost everything is interactive.  You can almost touch each sculpture.  There are some pieces of art where you can enter them, play on them, and of course contemplate the meaning of them.  If you love taking photos, this place is great and it’s easy to spend a couple hours here.  Be sure to bring a few snacks when you get hungry.  There is also a nice little foot bath where towels are just 100 yen each.  It can make a nice little souvenir, and the bath water isn’t bad.  Be sure to check out all of the buildings, and if you have kids, bring them too.  There are a few places where kids can just play for hours on end.  The only problem is the weather.  Try to go on a sunny day and you’ll be treated with a great experience.

If you head to the next station, Gora, you’ll be able to enjoy a nice little park, some places to eat, and an opportunity to do some glass blowing.  Do note that you must pay to enter the park.  This area itself isn’t that interesting.  The food can be delicious, and there are several souvenirs to buy, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to really look around.  The weather was terrible when I went.  I only had a chance to try one of the small local shops.  There is a delicious tonkatsu shop, breaded and deep fried chicken cutlets, made from black pigs.  It appears to be a specialty and there is always a lineup whenever I’m there.  It’s a little pricey, but it’s delicious.  Do note that the wait can be over 30 minutes to get in, especially if you have bad timing.  While Gora is a good place to stop and have lunch, you can always take the cable car that is connected to Gora Station and head up to Souzan.  Taking the cable car is a nice simple journey.  It isn’t very steep, but there are several stops along the way.  Unfortunately, there is almost nothing to do at the top of the cable car, aside from going to the gondola.

If you are making this a day trip, you might want to think about heading back at this time.  Thankfully, there are still things to see and do on the way back that had been missed on the trip out to Souzan.  Along the cable car route, there are various hotels and ryokans that you can visit and spend a night.  Otherwise, you should head back and take the Hakone Tozan, get off at Miyanoshita and you will be at the Fujiya Hotel.  While I have never visited this hotel, it is a famous hotel.  It is expensive but it offers a nice dining experience and a few other touristy treats.  There is a nice onsen inside and the area of Miyanoshita has various shops where you can buy Japanese style fine china.  If you head back to Hakone Yumoto, you can take a bus for 30 minutes and visit the Little Prince Museum in Hakone.  This is a museum based on the author of “The Little Prince”.  It’s a famous French book that Japanese people love.  The museum looks nice, but as with many things around Hakone, I didn’t have a chance to visit this museum.  It is fairly popular with Japanese tourists, and from the pictures, the museum itself looks beautiful.  If you have a two day free pass, it’s probably worth a quick visit.

This is part one of a two part series.  To continue reading, please head over to Part II.

Hakone Information:

Hakone (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5200.html
Hakone (Wikitravel):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Hakone
Hakone (Hakone Navi):  http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/
Odakyu Hakone Free Pass (Travel Information):  http://www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html
Hakone Open Air Museum:  http://www.hakone-oam.or.jp/english/index.html
Yunesson Spa:  http://www.yunessun.com/english/
Fujiya Hotel:  http://www.fujiyahotel.jp/english/index.html
The Little Prince Museum in Hakone: http://www.tbs.co.jp/l-prince/en/

Nikko (Part II) June 2, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Nikko (Part II)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-aV

After going to Rinnoji, it’s a short walk up a hill to reach Toshogu. Toshogu is the main attraction in Nikko. It is a large, fantastic, complex with intricate designs throughout. Upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll be greeted by the typical torii gate, but also a large pagoda. Rinnoji is a fairly traditional Japanese temple, simple. Toshogu is the polar opposite. The main pagoda has been likened to Chinese and Korean style temples. Lots of colour and various statues of animals adorn the rafters. This creates a very interesting style where people either love it or hate it. Many people have hated this because it isn’t “Japanese”, but that is a completely different argument altogether. However, upon entering the paid area of Toshogu, you’ll see a huge crowd of people gathering around a plain wooden building. It is very small compared to the surrounding buildings and it looks somewhat out of place. This is the famous Three Wise Monkeys (Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil) building. It is the most famous image of Nikko. Three Wise Monkeys are three monkeys, one covering his ears, one covering his mouth, and one covering his eyes. There are other carvings around the building featuring monkeys in other situations, but by far, the Three Wise Monkeys are the most popular. From here, you will see a few black and gold structures along with several carvings of various exotic animals.

There are several carvings of peacocks and some of elephants. Unfortunately, the elephants look nothing like an elephant, and several sculptures looked scary. Towards the back of the complex, you will see pretty much the same. There is a second area featuring the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, for which Toshogu was built. The cost to enter is expensive, so I never bothered to enter. There is another famous carving of a sleeping cat, but I didn’t feel it was worth the extra 800 Yen. The last place to visit within the shrine is Yakushido Hall. It is a small building which can have lots of people lining up to enter. Within the main room, there is a painting of a dragon on the ceiling. One of the priests/monks will give an explanation about the hall and how banging two sticks of wood in the right place will allow you to hear the dragon’s cry. He will demonstrate that if you away from the centre, the two sticks will sound like normal. However, when he bangs the sticks in the right location within the room, it will echo and resonate to sound like a dragon’s cry. It was a very interesting demonstration, but pictures and video aren’t allowed.

After visiting Toshogu, you can head over to Futarasan and Taiyuinbyo.  Taiyuinbyo is another mausoleum, but this time it was built for Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson.  It is smaller in scale, and it isn’t as busy as Toshogu.  It isn’t as spectacular, but just as intricate.  There are more Shinto gods guarding the area, and it’s location at the base of a mountain makes it very picturesque.  I personally enjoyed this shrine more than Toshogu, but I was let down a little as many things were undergoing renovations.  After visiting Toshogu, however, there isn’t much to say about these two shrines.  They are typical shrines without anything extremely new or interesting to talk about.

I would highly recommend that you rent a car when you go to Nikko. It is the easiest way to get to the distant locations, and you’ll have the freedom to head up to Lake Chuzenji. However, there are buses that head up and down the mountain to Lake Chuzenji, but you’ll be limited to when you can go. The road up to Lake Chuzenji is called Irohazaka. This road is famous among driving enthusiasts and street racers as it was featured in the anime/manga Initial D. The name is derived from the 48 hairpin corners that made up the original road. Iroha is the name of the 48 letters of the Japanese alphabet. Currently, there are two roads going to Lake Chuzenji. Both are one way. One heads up, the other down. Going up this road, there are two lanes. You’ll be able to see a few exotic cars and some motorcycles as they race uphill. Going downhill, there is only one lane, but you’ll see the same cars, only they’ll be going much slower than before. This road is also extremely famous in the autumn season as the leaves turn a bright red, orange, and yellow. It’s not uncommon for this road to be backed up, taking three or four times longer to travel than other season.

Lake Chuzenji itself isn’t that spectacular. Near the end of the uphill portion of Irohazaka, you can pay to take the gondola up to a lookout point. From here, you will be given beautiful views of Nikko, Lake Chuzenji, and Kegon Falls. Around the lake, you can do all of the normal things you would do at any lake. Swimming and taking a “swan boat” onto the water is popular. There are also many shops in the area that let you try Nikko’s famous food, tofu “skin”. Beware that during the winter months, most of the shops are closed due to the lack of visitors. The main attraction would have to be Kengon Falls. Standing at 98 metres tall, this waterfall is one of the tallest in Japan. Taking the elevator to the base of the waterfall is recommended as you may be able to see some Japanese mountain goats and you can have a better view of the falls. Note that in the winter months, it’s extremely cold, so dress warmly.

If you decide to spend a day or two in Nikko, hiking around Lake Chuzenji is very famous, and there are various hot springs in the area. Kinugawa is a famous hot spring resort town that is a short drive from Nikko. You may also be able to see a few monkeys running around. Beware that the monkeys can be aggressive, so keep a little distance and be aware of them if they are coming towards you.

Note:  This is part II of a II part series.  Please return to Part I for the first half of this post.


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