Climbing Mt. Apsan

It can be hard to get a workout in when you’re traveling. Between sightseeing, food tasting, experiencing new things and meeting new people, who has the time?!? For many, carving out an hour or two to exercise while on holiday isn’t realistic. They’re too busy adventuring and gallivanting to squeeze it in. But there are ways to explore AND burn calories simultaneously. During my last trip to Daegu, South Korea I did exactly that.

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Mt. Apsan is one of the most popular places to visit in Daegu. Visitors can enjoy swimming, practice archery or ride horses at facilities at the bottom of the mountain. Additionally, the panoramic views from the top are breathtaking. It makes the city seem so small and far away when it’s really quite big and very close. You can enjoy these views by taking a short (and reasonably priced – 9,500 Won roundtrip) cable car ride to the peak of Mt. Apsan or by climbing the mountain. Well… hiking it, really. Which is exactly what we did.

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Bright and early at six o’clock in the morning we started our journey from the hotel to the summit. Luckily, the walk to the base of Mt. Apsan from the hotel wasn’t very far. Just a brisk, mildly-inclined, 15-minute walk away (give or take five minutes). From bottom to the top, however, is a completely different story. There are a variety of walking routes you can take, depending on where you start and what your capabilities are.

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The path we took was shorter in distance but at a pretty steep incline. I was too focused on climbing to read the signs, but the trail was about 4 kilometers (from the hotel to the top) if my watch calculated correctly. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the apex (we stopped a couple of times to hydrate and catch our breath). The path we took crossed a couple of creeks and was lined with beautiful trees and greenery. At the top, there are a couple walking paths to different areas or you can just enjoy the observatory area. Where we ended up was visitor light. It was a more secluded area and felt far more serene. Also, we got there just after 07:30, and the cable car wasn’t running yet. That’s probably why it was much less crowded (we were the only ones there) and more peaceful. The hike down took us only about half of the time we spent going up.

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Climbing Mt. Apsan instead of catching the cable car to the top is a great way to experience nature, explore the terrain and get in some exercise while still seeing the sights. It takes little longer, but if you’re not super pressed for time you’ll really enjoy it. Just follow the signs that say Mt. Apsan, and you won’t get lost or be disappointed. The views are spectacular and the endorphins are worth it. Plus, you won’t feel guilty for ordering dessert later.  😜

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If you want to check out Mt. Apsan and have bad knees or another condition that prevents you from climbing to the summit (or simply don’t want to hike), the cable car takes only 15 minutes. It starts running at 10:00 and goes up every 15 minutes or so. The last ride up depends on the time of year you go. It varies between 18:00 (winter) and 18:30 (summer). The signs were all in Korean, but the cab driver told me you have to buy your ticket 30 minutes prior to the ride.

Whether you decide to climb to the top or ride to it, Mt. Apsan is definitely a must-see in Daegu!

Tokyo Tower Cherry Blossoms 🌸

The magic and splendor of cherry blossoms are long gone in Tokyo. But if you’re not ready for the season to be over just yet, there’s still a little time to enjoy the blooms (well… virtual ones at least). Tokyo Tower is hosting its City Light Fantasia – Evening Cherry Blossom Edition until May 6, 2018. This event is a limited-time projection mapping display that features little pink sakura gliding along the Tokyo night sky.

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There are three separate displays presented on the windows of the tower’s main deck. Each one faces a distinct part of the city. One side shows the tiny florets falling under the moonlit sky. The second exhibits lots of tiny colorful sakura at dusk. The last one includes photo spot facing the evening lights of Yokohama. The night I went, the tower was fairly crowded and capturing the beautiful displays proved difficult. I imagine it varies by day or the week and time of day.

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This was not my first visit to Tokyo Tower, but it was the first and only time I’ve gone during a presentation like this. If you’ve never been and want to see Tokyo’s beautiful skyline at night, this a great time for it. Two birds, one stone.

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I will admit, the first time I went to Tokyo Tower, I expected it to be bigger.  I guess I imagined it larger in my mind. But it is quite tall, and the views are stunning. The tower does have some construction going on right now on one side of it, so access is limited and certain areas are a little tight (the gift shop mostly). But if it’s your only chance to catch this display and visit the tower, it’s worth it. You can’t go to Tokyo and not visit Tokyo Tower.

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Hours & Prices:

The adult ticket price to the main deck is 900 Yen ($8.50). If you’re interested in accessing the top deck, which is a 250 meters high, it will run you 2,800 Yen ($26.50 or so). The top deck does not have any special exhibits at this time.

The City Light Fantasia starts at 19:00 and goes through 22:50 daily. The special presentation concludes May 6, 2018.

Never Summer in Niseko… Well Almost

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than snowboarding. While the idea of having your feet strapped to a waxy, slippery sheet of wood and gliding down a mountain, sometimes at very fast speeds, is terrifying or unimaginable to some, to me it’s enlivening.

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Japan has some of the best conditions for snowboarding that I’ve ever experienced. I wouldn’t call myself an expert; I haven’t been to all of the resorts in Japan. But I have been to quite a few and never felt disappointed. This year I went to Niseko in Hokkaido. I’d heard a lot about it; how it’s the prime place for skiers and boarders. So I just had to check it out. Luckily, the season is quite long, so making it to Niseko wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It starts in late November and goes through early May. And the area is quite big.

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We stayed in a small cabin just a short walk from the Grand Hirafu ski area. Niseko has four main ski locations (bases) with many accommodation options at each. We selected Hirafu because of the proximity from the cabin to the lifts and the amenities in the area. I wanted a cabin instead of a hotel for privacy and space, and the options and prices I found in Hirafu were fantastic. Our rental offered Wifi, light breakfast, instant coffee, and Netflix. 👌🏽 Plus, there are plenty of shops, bars and places to eat nearby, and the equipment rental locations are just steps from the lifts.

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I’d heard that the snow quality in Niseko is unlike any place else. Now having been, I can say it’s some of the best snow I’ve had the opportunity to risk my life on. 😂 It snowed every night (some days too), so the powder was always fresh and fluffy. Also, Niseko has plenty to offer skiers and boarders of all experience levels. There’s a plethora of courses, lifts, and off-piste options. The Hanazono Terrain Park  (located in Hirafu) has a dope halfpipe and a few kickers and rails for the real adventurers who are all about jumps and tricks. And for those who have never done it at all, there are several ski schools that can help you get started.

 

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Niseko is now one of my favorite snowboarding destinations. I only wish I had gone for more time so that I could really experience and enjoy all of the ski options and areas. Three days just wasn’t long enough! If I get the opportunity to go again, I’ll probably stay in a different location, maybe Niseko Village, just to mix it up. But I really enjoyed Hirafu, and absolutely recommend it.

 

 

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Another perk: everyone speaks English. I’ve been to many resorts in Japan, and I mostly have to point and Google Translate my way through things. But I didn’t have that problem in Niseko at all. Almost everyone I interacted with was a foreigner and the ones who weren’t spoke English. Everyone was friendly, the service was great, and I always got what I asked for. 😜

 

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Prices:

Lift tickets are little pricey, but they grant you access to all the four areas on the mountain (the equivalent of four pretty large resorts). And they get cheaper the longer you’re there. We were there for three days and I paid about $195 (19,800 Yen), which I think is reasonable for what you get. The lifts are open all day! They start running at 8:30 and you can come and go all day until 20:30. Night skiing is available at all four areas. I loved being able to sleep in and still get hours in on the slopes each day.

 

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Getting to Niseko:

Niseko isn’t exactly close to the airport. And depending on which one you fly into, will depend on how much it will cost and how long it will take. I flew into the Sapporo New Chitose Airport. It was less expensive, but most importantly, it’s closer to Niseko. From there, you can either rent a car, take the train, or hop on a bus. I chose the bus (click here for schedules). It’s easy and goes right from the terminal to the Hirafu Welcome Center (our hosts picked me up from there). The bus costs about $40 (4000 Yen), and it takes about two and a half hours. The train is a little cheaper but requires a couple of transfers and takes a little longer. I arrived at 22:00 and was already tired, so convenience was my priority.

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The Best Doughnuts in Tokyo

I won’t call myself a doughnut connoisseur, but I’m definitely an enthusiast. I LOVE doughnuts. All confections really. But there’s just something so comforting and satisfying about a perfectly made, fluffy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet doughnut.

Which is exactly what you’ll get at DUMBO Doughnuts and Coffee in Azabujuban, Tokyo! DUMBO Doughnuts is situated in a less touristy part of town, tucked between apartment buildings and smaller businesses. The shop is cute but pocket-sized. It seats only six or seven. When I went, every seat was occupied. But there’s a park just one minute away that you can sit at and enjoy your goodies.

The shop features about ten to twelve different doughnuts. I ordered the cheesecake doughnut and the limited edition Sakura white chocolate doughnut. The texture reminded me of the doughnuts from Dough in New York City. I expected the cheesecake one to be super rich and sugary, but it wasn’t. It was the right amount of sweet. The crackers on top were a little different, but interesting in a good way.

The coffee selection isn’t as extensive as Starbucks, but I don’t think it needs to be. DUMBO offers all the essentials. I really enjoyed the raspberry lemonade! It was sweet, tangy and fizzy. Perfect for the warm weather days.

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Bibimbap Bliss

The best place to get the best of anything is at the source. You want the best pasta? Go to Italy! You’re looking for the best pad thai? Visit Thailand! The best sushi? Duh, Japan! So it’s no surprise that the best bibimbap I’ve ever eaten, I had in Korea. What is surprising is that one of my favorite spots for it is a chain. 😮 I try to stay away from chains because I feel like mom-and-pop eateries usually have more authentic and more flavorful dishes. But that was definitely not the case here.

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I found Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon by accident. I was wandering the streets, taking pictures and shopping when I smelled it. The savory aroma of grilled beef wafted. So we went in. Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon is actually known for its cold noodles, but it was still a little cold out, and I wanted a hot meal. So I asked for the bibimbap and an order of mandoo (Korean dumplings).

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I love bibimbap. It’s a bowl of rice topped with veggies (some are seasoned and sauteed) an egg, and (usually) pepper paste. This dish has many variations and it’s rarely the same from place to place. The vegetables are sometimes different. Some places serve it in a hot stone bowl; some don’t. Some places serve it with a raw egg; some with it over easy. Some have meat; some don’t. This one came with a thinly sliced omelette and beef on the side.

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I really enjoyed this version of bibimbap. It was simple but flavorful, with great texture. The vegetables were fresh and tasty. The kimchi was spicy with a tiny bit of crunch. And the beef was really excellent (my favorite part). It was well-seasoned and tender, as beef should be. The mandoo was pretty good, too.

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There are more than 30 Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon restaurants throughout South Korea.  You can find one is most cities.  There are several in Seoul. Next time, if it’s warmer, I’ll try the cold noodles. 😉

Blossoms & Bubbly

Springtime in Japan is all about cherry blossoms. Tiny pink blooms sprout from trees sprinkled about in most streets, parks and neighborhoods in practically every town and city. Festivals and illuminations are plentiful, and in Tokyo Midtown they celebrate the season with an enchanting viewing of sakura trees and bottles of bubbly. Midtown Blossom features over 150 cherry blossom trees in the garden and throughout the grounds, some of which are lit up with brilliant bulbs in shades of pink and white after sunset. One of my favorite parts of the Midtown Blossom event is the Blossom Lounge, an outdoor watering hole that serves Chandon, beer, a handful cocktails and a small variety of unique sweets and snacks. The wine-flavored potato chips are super tasty.

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The park right next to the garden is a perfect place to picnic (or if you like me, take a nap). It’s also a great place to enjoy the season with kids, because there’s a playground for them to run wild in.

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You can find and enjoy cherry blossoms practically anywhere in Japan, but in Tokyo this really is one of the prettiest places to witness them. These little florets last only about a week and are already starting to fade. However, the lights and the booze at Midtown Blossom will be around April 15, 2018.

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In Full Bloom

Cherry blossom, or sakura, season is one of the most beautiful AND popular times of year in Japan. Delicate, baby pink petals float on trees all over the country, and cities celebrate their magic with festivals and illuminations. One of my favorite places in Tokyo to enjoy the splendor of these tiny florets is along the Meguro River. I shot this photo (and so many others) on the first day of the Naka-Meguro Sakura Festival (March 24, 2018). Several small bridges connect the streets throughout the course of the river, making them great spots to take pictures. The streets on both sides of the river are lined with brilliant pink and white lanterns and stalls selling sakura-themed foods and drinks (the sakura infused sparkling rose is AMAZING!). This year, the celebration goes through April 10, 2018.

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Tokyo Goes Green

Tokyo celebrates almost all countries and cultures around the world, and Ireland is no exception. Yesterday, the city revered St. Patrick and the Irish with a parade down Harajuku’s Otomesando Dori. Irish Network Japan, or INJ, started organizing this parade in 1992, and it’s been going strong ever since. Honestly, when we showed up it didn’t look like much (maybe we got there too early). But I was very pleasantly surprised. The parade featured dancers, twirlers, bands, and fans. And it was a lot of fun. People came covered head to toe in their best green attire and accessories and enthusiastically lined the street to watch, listen and wave to the parade participants. While not as extravagant as parades in New York and Boston, it was lively and entertaining. It wasn’t overly crowded and didn’t last all day (both big pluses in my book). All in all, a fantastic way to remember and honor the patron saint of Ireland. And then, go shopping after. 😀

For information on next year’s parade, check the INJ website.

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My Five Travel Must-haves

My packing list tends to vary by location and season. If there’s a beach or pool, I pack my bikini. If there are mountains and snow, I bring my gloves and a big coat. But there are a few things I never leave home without. My passport, medicines (headache and cold stuff) and sneakers go without saying, so I’m skipping those. But these five things I absolutely need!

1. Journal

I never travel anywhere without it. Ever. I typically don’t have time while I’m traveling to make full entries. But I use it to jot down notes, the names of places, lessons learned, itineraries, etc. I also tape ticket stubs, receipts and sometimes even napkins on the pages (yes, I’m sentimental like that). It helps me remember my adventures better. And it’s always fun to go back and read it after time has passed.

2. Headphones (and iPhone)

I never leave home without them; it doesn’t matter how far I’m going. Listening to music helps drown out noise during flights, but also I like to create soundtracks for my trips. I know. It’s a little weird. But songs and smells trigger my memory more than anything else, and I really love hearing a song and having it transport me to the places I’ve been and remind me of my adventures.

3. Camera(s)

Duh! The camera I take depends on where I am going, how I’m getting there, and how long my trip is going to be. Sometimes I take my GoPro. Others I take my Nikon. Or sometimes even my Pentax. I always have my phone, though (unless I lose it mid-trip–yes, it’s happened), and the camera on it is pretty decent. having a way to capture my travels is crucial.

4. Skincare (Gotta have it!)

First, sunscreen. I very rarely burn. But I never want to. So I always pack my sunscreen–especially the stuff for my face. I use Kiehl’s Super Fluid Daily UV Defense. It’s lightweight and has SPF 50. And my face stays burn free. Second, moisturizers. I find my skin gets really dry when I travel, especially when I go on long trips. So I always make sure I pack moisturizer for my face and body and eye cream (Keihl’s Rosa Artica face and eye cream and coconut oil for my body). I also pack a few moisture-mask sheets. This stuff keeps down skin irritation for me, and there’s nothing worse than going on vacations and feeling itchy, irritated or uncomfortable.

5. Rosebud Salve

Lastly, I can’t live without my Rosebud. It’s not just a must-have for travel; for me, it’s an everyday essential. It helps with dry skin, soothes burns, and even treats diaper rash. I mostly just use it as a lip balm, but I never leave home without it.