Thursday, March 2, 2017

10 Days in Kansai,Japan : Intro [Part 1]

Last year in April, I visited Kansai region for the second time. The first time I visited the Japan was almost 10 years ago with a guided tour. This time, I'm back on my own (with a friend), traveling through Kyoto, Otsu, Nara, Kobe, and Osaka for 10 days. I arrived at the end of the cherry blossom season and right before Japan's big holiday, Golden Week. Yes, it was intentional, I wanted to avoid the crowd of tourist coming to see the cherry blossom in the area and also avoid the crowd of locals traveling on their holiday.

About Kansai Region


Kansai Region is located to the southwest of Tokyo. It consist of 7 prefecture (equivalent of a district). The 4 biggest cities in the region are Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara. Kyoto was the old capital of Japan from 794 to 1868 until it was moved to Tokyo. Osaka is the second largest area second to Tokyo. Nara was Japan's first permanent capital, established in the year 710. Being the first permanent capital of Japan, many of Japan's oldest and largest temples can be found here. Kobe is one of Japan's top 10 largest cities. Kobe is a port city, among the first to be open to foreign traders in the 19th century (Source). Kansai Region is known for its well preserved nature. The region has more UNESCO World Heritage listing than any region in Japan.

Getting Around

There are many, I repeat MANY different kind of passes for your convenient travel in the Kansai region. will list the different passes you could purchase for travel in this region. However, I would have to say that getting these passes won't guarantee that you would save money. You would need a clear plan of your travel in the region and a lot of research on transportation in the area.

For instance,  I mostly stayed in Kyoto and Osaka during my travel, I did some research on public transportation in those two cities. I researched how to get around the cities and the available passes I could purchase. I have compiled some of the passes that would be of use during my travel below. Note that I did not use all of these passes.

Some of the tourist passes for Kyoto
Some of the tourist passes for Osaka

For getting to any of the 4 cities from the airport I recommend getting the Icoca Haruka Package 1-way ticket which comes with the train ticket from Kansai Airport to any of the 4 major cities and a ¥2000 yen loaded Icoca (Kansai area reloadable transportation card). This pass can be purchased from the JR office located at the train station across from the airport. Note that the price in the chart is for trips from Kansai airport (KIX) to Kyoto. Prices for other cities varies. More information on this pass can be found Here.

For those of you who plans to travel to multiple cities I recommend getting the Kansai-Thru pass. Depending on how many cities you are planning to visit you can either get the 2 day or the 3 day pass. The pass can be use on trains and buses in Kansai area. You could also use it as a discount to enter 350 major tourist attraction in the region. One good thing about this pass is you can use it on non-consecutive days. What do I mean by non-consecutive days? With most multiple day passes, once you activate it, it is valid for the number of days you purchase it (ie. 3-day pass, you activate it on Monday, it will be valid from Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday). However, with non-consecutive, lets say you bought the 3-day pass, you could choose which 3 days you want to active and use it (you can activate it on Monday, Wednesday, Friday). The pass can be purchased from inside the airport (after arrivals) or at the local tourist centers. I would only advice you to buy this pass when you have a clear plan of your visit, and that you plan to visit more than 1 city.

In Kyoto, I would recommend getting the Kyoto 1-Day bus pass. This can be purchased from the tourist center located in from of Kyoto train station. The bus system in Kyoto is well developed and major attractions can be reached by bus. Map of Kyoto bus here. The pass is worth getting if you plan to take the bus more than 3 times. The normal city bus ticket cost ¥230 per trip. However, there is a limit to the pass; the pass is not valid on rural buses and only valid on city bus routes within in the red line (refer to the bus map).
Kyoto Transportation System Full size

For Osaka, I recommend getting the 1-Day Enjoy Eco-Card. This card can be purchased from the subway station ticket machine. The pass cost ¥800 on weekday and ¥600 on weekends. You could use in on any of Osaka's 8 subway line and bus system for 1 day. Opposite of Kyoto, Osaka's major attraction can be reached through the subway. Subway fare depends the distance you will be traveling, fare ranges from ¥180 for zone 1 to ¥370 for zone 5. The subway map in the station will tell you how much your fare will be to get to your destination. Information on Osaka's transportation system is here.

In Kobe, there is a designated city bus that runs through all the major attraction in the city. The city bus has a tour-guide on board that give you information about each attractions. Individual ticket for each trip cost ¥260 and can be purchased from the tour-guide on the bus. The 1-day pass, which allows you unlimited trips on the bus for 1 day, cost ¥660. The pass is worth it if you plan to visit 3 or more stops on the map.

Kobe City bus route. full size

Finally, for those of you who plan to travel to the airport from Osaka, I recommend getting the "Kansai Airport Rapi:t" ticket. This is a ticket to or from Kansai Airport from Namba Train Station. This ticket can be purchased at Nankai Namba Service office (2F) for ¥1,130. Or you could also get the "Osaka City Subway to Kansai Int'l Airport" for ¥1,000. This ticket can be purchase from any ticket machine in Osaka.

Noting again that in order to make good use of these passes, you need a clear plan of each day you are traveling in the area. To make it simple, you have to out-smart these passes☺. Also these are passes I've found useful for my trip, this may vary according to your own trip.

đź’ˇNote: Some of the discount passes are not available for purchase inside Japan, or is more expensive when you purchase them here. Please check before you depart. 

đź’ˇ Tip: The Shinkansen is not needed if you are planning to travel in this region. There are plenty of local train connecting you to different cities in the area. 

❓Help: If you have further questions about transportation or planning, please leave me a question/message.

To be continue ... ⇢

Friday, February 24, 2017

[3 Night 3 Days] in Lisbon, Portugal Part. 3

Colorful house of Alfama District
Day 3

Today is my last full day in Lisbon. The last area we explored was the Alfama district, the oldest district in Lisbon. There are many important buildings in this district including: Lisbon Cathedral, Castelo de S. Jorge, National Panthenon, and St. Antony's Church. The district can be reached in 2 ways. One, taking tram 15E or the famous 28 tram. The other way is by your own will-power walking up the steep hill of the district. I took tram 15E from Paça Figueira square, located near Rossio Train Station, to Largo das Portas do Sol Station. Don't worry if you don't know where to get off, just get off at the station everyone else gets off.

đź’ˇTip: Start your day early, especially during the weekends. Tram 28 tends to be more popular than 15E. Both takes you to the same location.     
Alfama district panoramic view from Portas Do Sol
 After getting off the tram (15E) at the top of the hill, you will be struck with the amazing view of the Alfama district. There are two view points where you can capture the panoramic view of the district. Portas Do Sol and Miradouro de Santa Luzia, both with the same panoramic view in slightly different angle. I prefer Miradouro de Santa Luzia because there is a little balcony-like sitting area to enjoy the view.
Cute doors
Next we head up the hill toward Castelo de S. Jorge (St. Jorge Castle). The castle has been standing on the hill for more than 400 years. However, most of the castle has been restored during the 1920s, so not everything is original, but it's still charming. Entrance fee was €8.50 for adult. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go inside. I'll definitely comeback for it when I get a chance. In the castle you can get an even better panoramic view of Lisbon. 
One of the many alleys in the area
I walked around the area surrounding the castle. The castle is surrounded by many colorful houses. I could spend literally hours here admiring the houses here, especially the doors and decorations. Unlike other cities, houses here are painted in pastel tone color. Some houses were also decorated with colorful tiles. 

As you descent down from the top of the hill you will find Lisbon Cathedral. This is the oldest church in Lisbon. The church has gone through many reconstruction due to earthquakes that happen in Lisbon.
Praça do Comércio and King José Statue
Arco da Rua Augusta
Just about a 5 minute walk from the Cathedral, we reached the main plaza area, Praça do Comércio. In the past this plaza serves as the main trading plaza for merchants. In the middle of the plaza is the status of King José. Behind the status is the Arco da Rua Augusta arch. Pass the arch is the main shopping street of Lisbon. We moved our accommodation today to be close to the red metro line, which runs directly to the airport. Our plane was at 10:00am the next day.

Egg Tarts
Pastéis de Belém
Note: These are my personal opinion. I only tried 4 different bakery. 

1. Pastéis de Belém
2. Fábrica da Nata
3. Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata
4. Confeitaria Nacional

Pastéis de Belém
The egg tart here is the least sweet among the 4 places. It has a thick and crunchy outer crust. The inside custard has slightly firm texture. This bakery comes in first because of its not-too-sweet custard filling.
Fábrica da Nata
This bakery's egg tart has a thinner flaky crust compare to the above bakery, the custard is also slightly runnier. The crust here has a light salty taste which cuts down the sweetness of the custard.
Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata
This bakery adds cinnamon to their custard. The crust is similar to PastĂ©is de BelĂ©m, thick and crunchy. This bakery came in third because its was slightly too sweet for my taste but I really liked the cinnamon in the custard filling.
Confeitaria Nacional
This bakery's egg tart is the sweetest out of all the bakery on the list, hence it's 4th place.


Friday, February 10, 2017

[3 Night 3 Days] in Lisbon, Portugal Part. 2

Day 2

Today we're heading west toward the end of continental Europe. We're spending our day in Sintra and Cascais. We started off our morning trying another egg tart bakery. Manteigaria Fábrica de PastĂ©is de Nata. This place was recommended by a friend who has visited Lisbon before. We bought a total of 8 egg tarts (2 for each person) to take on our journey to Sintra. We actually missed the train and had an hour to spare. It was a 20 minute trip from Rossio Train Station.

Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata egg tarts
To get to the Sintra we had to take the Linha de Sintra line, which departs from Rossio Train Station. Because we plan to visit both Sintra and Cascais, we bought a one day ticket which include return train ticket from Lisbon to and from Sintra or Cascais, and unlimited ride on the local buses. The one-day ticket cost €15. You could also choose to purchase the train and bus ticket separately. Round trip train ticket to and from Sintra cost €4.30. Buses cost €5 per loop.
Rossio Train Station

Our train to Sintra
Places to see in Sintra includes:
1. Sintra National Palace
2. Mours Castle
3. Pena Palace
4. Quinta da Regaleira

Because we are also going to Cabo da Roca and Cascais we had to pick one out of the 4 to visit. After long deliberation and discussion we decided on Quinta da Regaleira. One because we think by the time we got to Sintra, the palaces would be filled with tourist. Second, after searching the 4 attraction, Quinta da Regaleira seem to be the most unique one. Unlike the other 3 attraction, Quinta da Regaleira is an estate located deep into the hills surround by lush green forest. Admission ticket cost €6. Map of the estate. From Sintra Train Station take bus 435 to get to the estate. We spend roughly 2 hours exploring the estate.
Initiatic Well. 27meters deep
 đź’ˇTip: I would recommend starting from the top of the well and go down the steps to explore the tunnel which leads to other parts of the estate. This will save your legs from walking up 27 meters. 
Garden view from the Main House

the Chapel

The Main House (theres a museum inside)

After finishing our round of the estate we got on bus 435 heading back to the train station to catch bus 403 to Cabo da Roca. The bus ride took us roughly one hour winding through narrow streets. Finally after many naps to get rid of car sick we arrived at the westernmost point of Europe. Because it has been raining, the coast was covered with fog (unfortunately). It was still neat that beyond the fog and the endless ocean is America, my home. And it was nice seeing the ocean again after 4 long months.

Foggy weather...
 Getting back onto bus 403 we head to Cascais. Our last stop was Pria da Rainha beach. I can see this town be filled with beach goer once the weather warms up. But because it was in January, the town seem quiet. We had dinner (seafood of course) and head back to Lisbon. We took the Linha de Cascais line which ends at Cais do SodrĂ© station. 
Empty Pria da Rainha. Because it was winter
Too fully explore Sintra and Cascais you would need to spend a night in one of these city.

To be continue...⇢ Part 3

Sunday, February 5, 2017

[3 Night 3 Days] in Lisbon, Portugal Part. 1

Right after our brutal 2 week exam period, me and my friend hop on a flight to Lisbon. My main motive for visiting Lisbon was for my initial love for egg tart (Pastel de Nata). We escaped the 3℃ (37℉) weather of Manchester, UK to the lovely 16℃ (60℉) winter in Lisbon.

Day 1

After getting through the airport we got ourselves a rechargeable transportation card and hop on the bus heading to city center. The airport was only about 6 miles from city center and it can be reached through either bus, city bus, or the metro. In our case, bus was the cheapest (€1.40) and the fastest (around 15 minutes). After finishing lunch we visited Miradouro de SĂŁopedro de Alcântara, one of the many view point in Lisbon. Here you can get a clear view of the whole city specially the Alfama Neighbourhood. 
We were greeted by a rainbow upon arrival at the view point

SĂŁo George Castle up on the hill surrounded by Alfama neighbourhood 
đź’ˇTip: For those planning to use public transportation to get around, I would recommend getting the rechargeable transportation card, which cost €.50 to purchase. This will save you time and money in the long run. With the rechargeable card, every public transportation mode in Lisbon (bus, metro, tram) will only cost €1.40 for a single journey. Without the rechargeable card metro will cost you €1.90, bus €1.80, and tram €2.90. 

Next we got on tram 15E and head for BelĂ©m. There, I had my first taste of the authentic Pastel de Nata (Portuguese egg tart). A little history of egg tart. They were invented by monks at the JerĂłminos Monastery back in the 18th century as a way to utilise left over egg yolks. During tough times, monk started selling these tarts at sugar refinery for extra income. As the monastery shuts down in 1834, they sold their recipe to PastĂ©ise de BelĂ©m. As PastĂ©ise de BelĂ©m opens their door in 1837, they were the first bakery to start selling these delicious tart. Hence my visit to PastĂ©ise de BelĂ©m. I will be describing and ranking each egg tart place later on. We were lucky enough to not have to wait in line and got a seat inside right away. 

đź’ˇTip: Get there early and avoid weekend (if possible). 
Pastel de Nata at PastĂ©ise de BelĂ©m: €1.05 each
Just a 5 minute to the left of the bakery, you will see a huge white structure. It's JerĂłminos Monastery. More information about the Monastery can me found Here. With blue skies in the back drop, the white exterior of the monastery shines as the sun hits. Admission cost €10 to enter the Monastery. Unfortunately, I did not get to explore the interior of the Monastery due to time crunch. But if I do come back to Lisbon one day, I would love to check it out.

JerĂłnimos Monastery
Close up detail 
đź’ˇTip: You can purchase admissions to the monastery and BelĂ©m Tower together which cost €12. 

Right across  JerĂłminos Monastery is the PadrĂŁo dos Descobrimentos (the Monument of Discoveries). History and information of the monument can be found here. In the background of the monument you might see what looks like the Golden Gate bridge. Its the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. As suspected, the architect who built the Golden Gate Bridge was also responsible for constructing the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. To me, who lived in the bay area for 4 years, it looks like a combination of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.  
PadrĂŁo dos Descobrimentos

PadrĂŁo dos Descobrimentos with Ponte 25 de Abril bridge in the back
A quick walk down the pier is our final and last stop on Day 1. BelĂ©m Tower. This defence tower was built between 1514 and 1520 during the reign of Manuel I. More info on the tower can be found here. I ran from the monument of Discoveries to the tower to get a picture of the tower before the sun sets. You could actually go up the tower, but by the time we got there it was already closed. 
BelĂ©m Tower and it's miniature replica
I would say including exploring the interior of JerĂłminos Monastery and BelĂ©m Tower, half day should be enough to see everything in the area.

đź’ˇTip: If you are visiting, like me, during the winter be aware of the random showers that comes down side-ways. I would recommend bringing a raincoat instead of an umbrella. However, because we came during their low-season, there weren't as much people around tourist spots. 

To be continue... ⇢ Part. 2