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Taipei - Taiwan

Taipei – Taiwan

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Formosa; The Beautiful Island

Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China (well better known as Taiwan), is the heart of one of the Four Tigers of Asia, together with South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. A fascinating overdeveloped city in an island with a very strong personality and heritage very much to the likes of South Korea and Japan, where everything is perfect, cared for and respected. Some of the most polite, educated and helpful people, and a place of contrasts where old traditions survive in the shadow of the countless new towers and districts being created.

It is nice to return for a second time here. Back in 2014 it was a trip from Manila as we were touring a little bit of the Philippines. Today is again a wider trip, coming from Hong Kong, then continuing into Malaysia. On both occasions the time spent here has been the same, 2 days and a half. While not a lot, it is enough to get a glimpse and enjoy most of the sights in the city however, the island has other wonderful cities and villages, nature and landmarks truly worth to explore, but unfortunately it will have to wait for another trip in the future.

As a little background history, Taiwan used to be known as Formosa, name given by the Portuguese meaning “beautiful”. It was part of the Spanish Empire for a short period of time however was never keen to deploy any army and settle nor build the infrastructure needed to protect it against other invaders such as the Dutch to whom it lost the colony. The Spanish colony only lasted from 1626 to 1642. Thereafter the Dutch and the Portuguese developed their settlements and claimed to their own for centuries. Wars and occupations did the rest until its modern history.

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Read more about the article Hong Kong – SAR
Hong Kong - SAR

Hong Kong – SAR

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Fragrant Harbour

A well deserved time to return to this fascinating city almost 7 years after the first time, and once again as part of a much wider trip across some Asian/Southeast Asian countries. It is still the fact that no matter how many times I come to this part of the world, that I enjoy more the more times I return especially with Southeast Asia as the favourite from everywhere I’ve been in the world.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, or let’s keep it short as everyone else in the world does, simply Hong Kong, while not a sovereign country itself, it enjoys its freedom of economy and people’s right as part of “One Country, Two Systems”. This was the deal agreed between the United Kingdom and China when the colony was handed over to China back in 1997. On a same note and same year, the nearby ex-Portuguese colony of Macau was handed over to China with the same principles in the agreement. Now to anyone’s eyes, it’s hard to say you are in “China”, especially if you’ve been to mainland China itself, not to mention there is not even need to apply for a visa in order to visit Hong Kong or Macau is you are a citizen from Europe and most of the Western World countries.

At almost 7.5 million inhabitants considering such a reduced space, it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. With not much space to even build, the sky is the limit they say. Towers, towers and more towers, with some latest additions becoming super tall skyscrapers with some truly icons designed by the top world class architects. It is out of question the city will impress any visitor for its incredible skyline. Merely built in just few years, aligning both banks of the impressive Victoria Harbour as if it was an avenue. However, not everything is as shiny as it might appear on a first look. Just behind such glorious skyscrapers of beautiful care for design, lies a maze of tiny streets with high-rises of awful taste and dubious designed communal blocks where millions of people live in tiny spaces. Nevertheless, even such constructions have become a sight on their own among the tourists looking to get great pictures, especially of the thousands of windows and air-con units on their never endingly high patios.


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Read more about the article Macau – SAR
Macau - SAR

Macau – SAR

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Las Vegas of Asia

As quite mandatory for the average tourist visiting Hong Kong for few days, a day trip to Macau is out of question. The second of such SAR, Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China under the same principle of “one country, two systems”, hence what you have here is a totally open region with a high level of self-administration where the politics of China are not affecting in regards of freedom of speech, gambling, political views, economics, education and more.

It was great to return after almost 7 years since the first and only time I’ve been here, hence a great chance for updating this guide which was as old as the year when I started with my travel blog project with briefly described and not so complete guides as what kept coming the years after. Considering I very much enjoy to return to several places after the years, there are not many “older” guides left awaiting to be appropriately updated.

Macau, a very small piece of land that once was one of the first European settlements in Asia, was also the last European colony to ever leave Asia back in 1999, becoming one of the most densely populated places in the world, topping an already over-crowded Hong Kong, however things are very different here. The space is really minimal, and even with the massive reclamation project that completely filled-up the space between the islands of Taipa and Coloane to form a bigger island, was still not enough considering the high demand and also knowing that the entire reclamation was given in full for the purpose of building the gigantic casinos and hotels the city is so well famous for. The yearly revenue from gambling is 7 times higher than the collection of Las Vegas. Can you imagine that? Now think twice again, how is it even possible to happen in such a small piece of land which you can walk side to side? Las Vegas is huge in the other hand, with plenty of space in the middle of the desert. (more…)

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Read more about the article Hiroshima and Itsukushima – Japan
Hiroshima - Japan

Hiroshima and Itsukushima – Japan

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First city in history destroyed by an atomic bomb

Coming to our last and farthest stop-over along this journey through Japan, we could not leave without visiting one of the most known places on earth, Hiroshima. Not because of a good cause though, but all the opposite, because of being the place of one of the world’s worst calamities humanity has ever committed: the atomic bomb that devastated the entire city and with it, the many thousands of innocent lives. This was the tip over point for the end of World War II. Such a fate was not alone, but similar happened in Nagasaki with the drop of a second atomic bomb. This later place farther southwest and in the island of Kumamoto was out of our plans and reach. Perhaps for another trip to Japan in the future, there are always so many reasons why to return, and among them, the many hundreds of islands and countless historical cities, villages and nature.

Coming from Kyoto, our previous main base is easy by bullet train, as I will further explain below under the transports section. This is starting to get so confusing that I am losing the sense of time and the days. It seems it was longer, however was just the previous day before coming to Hiroshima that we spent in Osaka, another of the main great cities and major gateway for reaching any place through Japan.

Do not expect a historic city with Hiroshima, as everyone knows, almost nothing was left standing after the atomic bomb, hence this is a completely new and modern city built from the ashes over the past 60 years, and to Japanese standards. This is, pretty much “ugly” blocks everywhere with dubious taste for architecture, however the neon lights and adverts all over the shopping and entertainment districts make its attraction. Of course over the past 10 years every new development have a better eye for taste in design so it is rapidly changing. However something really nice and for what every tourist come is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in the middle of the city (UNESCO listed), and the nearby and also UNESCO World Heritage Site listed Itsukushima Island, home to one of the most picturesque shrines of Japan. (more…)

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Osaka - Japan

Osaka – Japan

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The nation’s kitchen

Osaka, the second largest city in Japan during the day time, and third at night time, is only comparable to be second after Tokyo. A massive very modern agglomeration where a tourist should not be expecting to find old structures, ancient shrines, historical temples and overall, old Japan. Well, of course here and there you will come across some of these sites, but what you will come across at great scale is a thriving city day and night, a massive economic power in the country and huge in culture and the arts, entertainment and overall, food. This city has by nickname “the nation’s kitchen”, and that’s for a very well earned reason: its favourable location along the coast within easy access to the world and high quality ingredients, coupled with wealthy merchants and its people with somehow a keen desire for good and expensive products. For some, Osaka is the food capital of the world.

There is a phrase used to kindly describe its inhabitants with regards to their fame for food: “Residents of Osaka devour their food until they collapse”. I do believe with such an expression there is no further need to continue writing anything about food. It’s great everywhere as you will experience it, easy to find anywhere however it could be as “complicated” as is in Tokyo, where you need to prepay at machines where not even a sign in English exist, only images of the dish and of course the Japanese description, to then hand over the waiters the receipt. It’s really fun, believe me, and part of the emotion in not really knowing for sure what you’ve ordered until coming to your table!.

Like almost anywhere in Japan, World War II took its toll not only in loss of lives, but the lost of traditional architecture. Osaka was one of the worst, destruction here was on mass, hence why it is such modern today and very few historical places remain. Even the ones still standing are in majority reconstructions like the castle. Still, it’s an awesome city to visit, explore and enjoy, you can never be wrong at anywhere you are in Japan anyway. (more…)

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Read more about the article Himeji – Japan
Himeji - Japan

Himeji – Japan

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The White Heron Castle

On this second day trip from our base Kyoto, we visit another masterpiece of the truly old and once Imperial Japan, the ancient city of Himeji. This will be the last of the historical cities in trip trip, right after Nara and Horyu-ji we visited the day before, leaving for the last days another 2 of the modern and big cities: Osaka and Hiroshima, a last chance with deer in Itsukushima and returning to Tokyo for one more night and day to keep enjoying our time over there before the flights back to London. I must agree that after so many cities, we had enough of shrines and temples. Coming to this point it’s difficult to even distinguish any difference between them, or the ones in Nikko, Nara, Kyoto or who knows; however we did also know how important all the cities were and how valuable is the architecture, and after all, this is one of the major reasons why to come to Japan on a tour since not everything in the country is resumed just to it’s modern capital Tokyo and the major former imperial capital, Kyoto.

Himeji has a different sight other than shrines and temples. This is the most important and renown castle, the finest example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture. While the city badly suffered the raids from WWII and earlier, the 1923 Kanto earthquake, its castle miraculously remained standing still almost intact, therefore that this is the only of its kind, untouched for 400 years after its construction. However its history goes back to 1333 when a small fort was built on the hill, dismantled not long after to be rebuilt as the first permanent castle. Remodelled 2 centuries later, and few more times afterwards to become from 1618 what you mostly see today.

It is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and has been listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The good news are the proximity to Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto on the east, and Hiroshima on the west, lying along the main Tokaido Shinkansen bullet railway line and as such, making it extremely easy and straightforward for accessing and visiting. As second place, this can easily be a half day trip since there is not much more to see in the city; this could possibly mean it’s your chance to spend the other half of the day for Horyu-ji if you could not manage when visiting Nara, or otherwise spending more time in Osaka or Kyoto, or wherever is from where you came from. The better you organise yourself beforehand, the more time you will have for doing anything extra or simply enjoying longer the places you like. (more…)

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Read more about the article Nara and Horyuji – Japan
Nara - Japan

Nara and Horyuji – Japan

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One of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan

Nara, the first day trip from Kyoto, our second base in this Japanese tour after Tokyo and many other cities in between. A fascinating ancient city like no other in Japan, a close approach and feel on how the old and imperial Japan might have looked like with its many temples, shrines and constructions all around, where it seems time stood still. This is one of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan, from 710 to 794, and although very small, it is in the other hand a lengthily sightseeing time what it requires. I’ve also included in the title for this guide Horyu-ji, which is very near Nara and another of the masterpiece cities from old Japan; and while I am not sure if we would be having time to do both in the same day, I stick in creating the guide for both places. I know that if this would be me on my own doing this trip, or with some friends I know who are like me, then it would be definitely viable since we are very agile and speed things up, however, I will not consider doing this with my family this time, therefore time will tell if we can manage or not.

While reaching the important sights is easy, majority are just east from the train station, possibly your point of arrival into the city; you need to be prepared for long walks in between the temples and inside them. Some are really large, big complexes of buildings and structures immaculately preserved, spotless to perfection and care which in turn makes this city special. The only “downside” are the hordes of tourists with the same idea, visiting them of course. Notably in the early morning with the hundreds of tours arriving by bus, but getting quieter towards the afternoon. Yet again, careful with the afternoon. Remember you are in Japan and here the life starts very early, not later than 8.00am and everything is already opened, with closing times in between 16.30pm to 17.30pm, rarely later therefore plan your day accordingly. This is the same situation when you visit Kyoto or Nikko, to name the other major cities with plenty of sights but same timings.

An added joy in Nara are the deer in the wild. They have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. They generally come in the mornings and early afternoon in search for food, and they are totally used to humans. For a little money you can buy sika senbei (deer crackers) from the street vendors and feed them. Bear in mind you should not feed them with other food, and of course, let them be in peace. They are “sacred” animals and can lead you to prosecution for misbehaving. (more…)

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Read more about the article Kyoto – Japan
Kyoto - Japan

Kyoto – Japan

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Kyo, The Ancient City

Considered as the most beautiful and fascinating city in Japan, it is a must visit for anyone coming to the country. The old royal capital of Japan, a place where time stood still and never passed. The place where you can feel how old Japan used to be and at a great scale since this is a large city. I must say how lucky I am for returning once again after 5 years and for staying here much longer time than how this trip was done back in 2012 as a day trip from Tokyo , not staying overnight and really rushing as much as we could to visit as many temples and shrines as we could since there is a horrible downside anywhere in Japan you are: the closing hours of the sights, especially the temples, shrines, palaces and castles, rarely beyond just 17.00pm! When in Kyoto especially, you will need to plan your day to start as early as possible as it will end very early too. Simply concentrate in what has opening times to be done the first, and leave what is enjoying walking through the streets for afterwards as it’s for example, the district of Gion.

Although not a big city itself, the construction is much different to that in Tokyo. Here you will find small houses with few floors, small streets in quarters divided by the main avenues, and no compact at all; therefore and if you do not have much time to spare, be ready for taking the public transport more often than you though, or taxis since the public transport does not cover as much as anyone would like. The sights are very widespread through the city so it’s a long way in between. Unfortunately there are only 2 metro lines, the north-south and east to west, meeting at a station right in the heart of the city near the Imperial Palace.

This is a city of temples, shrines and palaces. One after another, with one larger than the other and so on. Each of the complexes is not just about a building itself, but many of them. Visiting each takes your time so calculate well in advance because of the early closing times. Majority of these places are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, however you do not need to go to every temple in the city, it would be pointless and will actually saturate you and make you very tired even bored of seeing very similar structures. That’s why it’s best to include in your list the “must-do’s” among other sights, and see how this goes and what’s your spare time if any for anything else. (more…)

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