Sunday, November 20, 2016

New Zealand (South Island)

We usually never travel during Thanksgiving, but this time it was different. I couldn't travel during Christmas and New year holidays due to work, so we had to pick someplace for Thanksgiving.
Now ever since we got back from Iceland, every one just compared Iceland to New Zealand and I had to see it with my own eyes to figure out how much similar or dissimilar it was. Plus, the tickets turned out to be surprisingly cheap and we didn't think twice before we booked them. So, we were off to New Zealand for Thanksgiving!

Our route in New Zealand South Island

Brief Itinerary

Day 1: Fly in to Queenstown. Drive to Fox Glacier
Day 2: Fox Glacier -> Franz Joseph Glacier -> Punakaiki -> Stay at Greymouth
Day 3: Greymouth -> Christchurch
Day 4: Christchurch -> Mount Cook -> Stay at Twizel
Day 5: Twizel -> Queenstown -> Te Anau
Day 6: Te Anau -> Milford Sound -> Queenstown
Day 7: Spend the day in Queenstown. Bungee Jump. Drive to Glenorchy.
Day 8: Fly out.
Maps link

Where to fly?

There are two major airports in South Island. Christchurch and Queenstown. Depending on what route you prefer to take, you can pick either of the two. For us, we flew Air New Zealand flying directly from San Francisco(SFO) to Auckland(AKL). We had a connecting flight to Queenstown(ZQN). The flight is short and pretty. Landing at Queenstown airport, which is a very small airport, is like landing in a small valley surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Some folks fly in to Christchurch and fly out of Queenstown or vice versa.

When to go?

Of course the seasons are reversed in southern hemisphere, so summer months are September- March. And since the tourist rush increases in December, we felt November would be ideal. A couple of days during our stay were very warm and pleasant, and other days were cool and breezy, but not unbearably cold. It was also a bit rainy, but very few quick showers.

Where to go?

South Island carries the reputation of being the prettier of the two islands, so I guess if you have less time on hand, you may want to first pick the south island. This island has the glaciers, the Mt. Cook and the famous Milford Sound. So, we decided to do a road trip around the South Island on this trip. North Island has the famous Tongariro National Park, Rotorua for the famous Hobbiton set and the Waitomo gloworm caves. But I guess we will see those the next time.

What we did?

Day 1

View of Queenstown from Crowne Range Pass
We landed at the Queenstown airport at around 10
am in the morning. We had been in a long long flight and definitely needed to freshen up before starting our long road trip. We were staying at Fox Glacier lodge for the night, so we inquired regarding some recreational/gym facilities around and just next to the airport was the Queenstown event center. So, we bought a day pass and were off to locker rooms for a refreshing hot shower. This was, well the first country we were travelling to, outside of India, where cricket has an ardent fan following. So, it was exciting to see the jerseys of various teams hanging around in the event center. After we were all fresh and ready to go, we saw a narrow passage with a sign "Cricket Ground"! It was a no brainer to check it out and we discovered this is the same Queenstown cricket ground that we have seen so many times on TV. A couple of pictures and poses later we headed out for lunch.
There are two very famous burger joints in Queenstown. First, Ferg burger and second, Devil's Burger. Ferg has long long queues, so we skipped this one and headed to Devil's burger. Awesome veggie burgers and fries. Must try! We then headed out to Fox Glacier and had many stop planned on our. First we drove through Arrowtown through Crown Range Pass. This a windy road which takes you a bit of uphill and is a perfect place for bird's eye view of Queenstown.
Emerald Pools
Further, we drove to Lake Wanaka and stopped by puzzles world. Trust me, I could spend an entire day here. I just love puzzles, but we only had a few hours :( So, after letting me fiddle around a bit with free puzzles lying on their tables, Sumit decided it was time to drive to Lake Wanaka. One of the many beautiful lakes in New Zealand. No pictures can do justice to this place. Perfect for an evening stroll, a jog, a swim or just sitting down and quietly taking in the sunset. After wandering about and a few pictures later, we stopped at a nearby coffee shop to grab some coffee and a grocery store for some munchy stuff.  
Driving further towards Haast Pass, we stopped at the Fantail falls, Thunderbird falls and the emerald blue pools. Blue pools were my favorite and involved a short hike. Weather was a bit cloudy and we did have a few quick showers, but the drive from Queenstown until Haast Pass was beautiful. We then drove from Haast Pass towards Fox Glacier. An average drive, I'd say, I find Pacific Coast highway, much prettier. Just Sayin! Anyhow, we reached Fox Glacier Lodge well in time to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant, Last Kitchen. Good food, big portions.
Our hotel manager recommended we go for the glow worm walk very close to the lodge. It was pitch dark and the walk was only about a quarter mile long, but it was scary as you had absolutely no clue what could be next to you. The glow worms were pretty, yes sure, but after seeing a few huge patches of glow worms, we figured it would be best to briskly walk out of there.

Day 2

Fox Glacier
Today we had to visit both the glaciers and then drive up to Greymouth which wasn't very far away. All the hotels and lodges have a printout of things to do/see with touristy map of both the Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph glacier townships. You can see them online here. These were super helpful. Today was the day of hikes. So we started off with a short drive to the Lake Matheson. There were a few glacier lookouts mentioned on the touristy map. We stopped there and took a few pictures. It was bright and sunny so we were lucky and got some good views. Then we drove up to Lake Matheson. There are various 2-4 mile hike options around the lake. At the other end of the lake, you get a full reflection of Mount Cook. It makes for a beautiful picture. Even though it was sunny, it was windy and the lake water had enough ripples to spoil the reflection.
Punakaiki rocks
From Lake Matheson, we headed straight to the base of Fox Glacier. It is a short mile long hike to the mouth of the glacier. Was rocky, so good sturdy shoes are a must. Lovely valley views up to the glacier and slight uphill closer to the glacier. Once we got back, we were super hungry and wanted to grab something to eat. We drove straight to the Franz Joseph Glacier township, which is much bigger and more populated than the Fox Glacier township. Here we ordered some spicy Thai food at SnakeBite cafe. Then we headed to the base of Franz Joseph glacier. This was comparatively a longer hike, about 3-4 miles. Since it was also quite an uneven surface, I opted to stay out and take care of my ankle and Sumit hikes all by himself up to the glacier. It is a much bigger glacier compared to Fox Glacier. Most of the touristy activities, like guided glacier hikes, glacier landings, happen here at the Franz Joseph, but we opted out of these as we had already done these in Alask and Iceland and were here mostly for the views. We also skipped the glacier water pools here.
Next up, was drive to Punakaiki. There are several smaller townships on your drive from Franz Joseph to Punakaiki, for instance, Shantytown has some activities for kinds and Hokataiki has a very famous glass factory. But, we skipped those and drove straight to Punakaiki. At Punakaiki, it is a short walk around the strange rock structure. But you see the force of water that has carved some blow holes in these rocks. Very pretty formations along the coast! Then we drove back to Greymouth. Views of this coastal drive were pretty and it was around sunset, so watching the sunset over Tasman sea was a surreal experience. I guess the coastal drive is pretty going North to South.
Once in Greymouth, the Indian tastebuds opted for dinner at Priya, an Indian cuisine restaurant. Then we were off for the night, staying at Gables.

Day 3

Arthur Pass National Park
Our goal today was to drive from Greymouth to Chrustchurch. It isn't a very long drive but is very very pretty. There is a famous Trans Alpine railroad that connects Christchurch and Greymouth. It takes about similar time as a car, but promises to offer better views and is decently expensive. Well, for the most part, the railway tracks were next to the highway, so I hope we got in most of the views on our drive.
Somewhere on our way to Christchurch
Starting from Greymouth, we walked around the market area, looking for breakfast and settled for tomato cheese sandwiches at Maggie's Kitchen,which, by the way are awesome everywhere in NZ. Next, we started our drive and it got a little foggy and misty. In the parts where it cleared up, we could see valleys and mountains, and imagine that had had it been clear, it would have been quite pretty. But, oh well, we kept going. Next, we stopped for a short hike at one of the places. Now I don't remember the name, but it was an impromptu decision and the trail heads were just by the roadside. It was about a 1 mile long walk in the woods, which took us to a bridge over the river and had clear views of the mountains around it.

Aftermath of 2010 earthquake - Christchurch
We drove further to Arthur Pass village and the weather started clearing up a bit. Here grabbed whatever veggie food options we could find the cafeteria and drove further to the Arthur pass. Now the views were exquisite with clear, sunny skies and mountains all around. This is why this drive is so famous! the views continued for about an hour before we entered some township close to Christchurch. Once we reached Christchurch, we head straight to King of Snakes Thai restaurant for some snacks and then to our AirBnB. 
After some rest, we headed back into the town. The famous church was in a real bad shape, after the 2010 Christchurch earthquake and was under repair. But you could clearly see the damage. Then we went to the famous cardboard church and couldn't figure out why it was famous. Then, after walking around a bit, we had dinner at MumbaiWala Cafe. Good Indian food, but little too much on the wallet. It was still day light and we realized that the NZ-Pakistan test had just ended the previous day in Christchurch. So, we decided to explore that option. It was interesting to see that the cricket ground was just next to a park, we no security and not gated entrance. We just walked around the ground and it was exciting to see the same ground you had seen on the TV so many times!
That was a day well spent.

Day 4

Drive to Mount Cook from lake Pukaki
We were up bright and early on Day 4 and were looking forward to our drive to Mount Cook. Our first stop was Lake Tekapo. I bright blue lake surrounded by mountains. The drive is exquisite with vast plains surrounded by snow capped mountains. The drive is beautiful and it only gets better as you get closer to Mt. Cook. At Lake Tekapo, we took our lunch break, found some cheese sandwiches as veggie options in the menu and a couple of pictures later, we headed out to Mount Cook.
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is about an hour or so long. As soon as the  Lake Pukaki becomes visible, the scenery just gets mind blowing. I have seen such turquoise blue lakes ever before. We actually went up and down the drive along Lake Pukaki a couple of times to take in the view. And to our benefit, it was bright and sunny and Mount Cook was so clearly visible, there was no chance you could miss it.

Hooker Valley Track
Our plan to reach the Mount Cook National Park and then hike the Hooker Valley track which takes you to a Hooker glacier lake just at the base of Mount Cook. It is a very popular track and provides great views at sunset. You can find more information on tracks in this park here. We started the hike and after about an hour, we could clearly see Mount Cook, but my ankle gave up and I decided to stop and take in the views till Sumit completed the rest of the hike and returned. There was a picnic bench right there, so was a good place for me to sit, relax and take pictures. Plus, I had full five bars on my phone, perfect time to take pictures and instantly share!
By the time we were done with the hike, it was getting dark, so we looked for some place to grab dinner, and settled for Poppies in Twizel. Good food. Then we headed straight ot our lodge for the night.

Day 5

Clay cliffs
Todays' goal was to drive to Te Anau via Lindis Valley. First we stopped for breakfast at a nearby restuarant and grabbed our daily meal of cheese sandwiches. Then we went to clay cliffs close by. Pretty, multi colored, multi layered cliffs just next to the main freeway. A few pictures later, we started driving towards Queenstown trhough Lindis Valley. This a beautiful vast valley, but to be able to appreciate the view, you must stop by at one of the view points and take in the view.
From here, we carried on to Queenstown for lunch. Today, we wanted to go to Ferg Burger, no matter how long the queues got. And so we did. And the burgers and big and delicious. After we stuffed ourselves, we wanted to pick up some fruits and yogurt and go meet our friend Balu, who incidentally was also in Queenstown and staying at a Youth Hostel. But he was sick and suffering from regular bouts of vomit and had fever. He later discovered her got dengue in Fiji. So, we met Balu, who looked weak and we were glad he was flying back to India the next day so as to recover well at home. Then, while crossing the road, I heard someone shout out, "Neha", and to my astonishment, it was school friend Mrinal. What are the odds! It was a quick meet up as she was on her way to the airport to get back to India. But it was so cool to run into someone in a foreign location.
Lindis Pass
Well now, we were headed straight to Te Anau. This was our stop over before heading to Milford Sound the next day. We reached our AirBnB well in time to rest, change and head out for dinner at Radcliffe before our gloworm cave tour. Well, in New Zealand, the Waitomo caves in the north island are much more popular, but if you are in south island and don't plan to go to the north, you make do with Te Anau. The tour was well planned and organized. We left on a boat to get to the mouth of caves. The guides were nice and sweet and the hike within the cave was well paved. It was cold and dark inside. The whole water system inside the cave was quite impressive. I had never imagined that water could flow within the caves like that.
Once we got back, we were tired enough to doze off almost immediately. South of Queenstown gets all cold and wet.

Day 6

We had our 12'o clock tour booked at Milford sound. So, we got pup and headed straight to Milford sound. It is a very pretty drive. You have tall snow capped and green hills along side the road. It was still drizzling so was wet and cold. The drive was however beautiful. It wasn't very foggy so even with the rains, the view was just worth the drive in the rains.
Milford Sound
Once we reached Milford sound, everything was very straightforward. Multiple tour operators run the cruise, but pretty much use the same route. It takes about a couple of hours on the boat. The boats get closer to the waterfalls, you spot seals and I have been told you see penguins too. But we didn't see any, and I think just for that, I might have to go back! We went with the Mitre Peak tours for our Milford sound cruise.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
Once the tour was over, we got something to eat at the cafeteria and headed back to Queenstown. As we got closer to Queenstown, the weather improved and it got sunny and bright. Once we reached Queenstown, we headed for a stroll in the main marketplace of Queenstown. Shopped for some souvenirs and decided to have Indian food for dinner at Tandoori Palace. At Tandoori Palace, the owner, looked very familiar and I kept thinking where have I met her, when it occurred to me, that she is the same lady I had seen in the Mumbaiwala restaurant in Christchurch. I happened to talk to her and she told me she often shuttles between the two cities to manage both the restaurants. What a coincidence.
Here is the video of hailstorm on our Milford sound cruise
Well, we were done for the day and it was time to doze off and prepare for our big bungee jump the next day.

Day 7

Bungy Jumping
The two of us almost couldn't sleep all night because we had looked atone the bungee jumping videos and were freaked out all night. We had booked Nevis bungee jump, which was the highest in New Zealand and if you look at one of the videos on YouTube, you will freak out too. So, the first thing I did was, call them in the morning and asked them to either cancel our booking, or to move it to Kawaru bridge jumping, which I thought being lesser height, would be less scary. Nevis is 234 ~ meters I guess and Kawaru bridge is 84~ meters. But no, they did not make any changes and spent 30 minutes conuselling me on how I would so proud once I was done. So, well, hesitatingly, we headed to their center in the downtown. From here we got on to the bus and went up to the canyon where Nevis jump happens. I was petrified, to say the least. And then, as it would happen, they announced that the winds are too strong today, so they advise to etiher wait for 4 hours or cancel the jump. My eyes lit up and I decided to downgrade to Kawaru bridge bungee jumping - where the first bungee jump happened in the world. It was as if God was listening to me. And then we were drive to the Kawaru bridge. Here even though I was freaking out again, it didn't look as scary as Nevis.

 I was on the platform before I could realise, with my feet tied, with the ropes in place and the guy said, jump before I count to three, or you go back and no jumping for you. I think I jumped on 2. I was flying, and my heart was thumping. I was just so relieved when I felt I was being pulled down to the boat. Whew. Done. Off the bucket list. Here, check out the video
Next up, grab a burger for lunch and then Sumit wanted to take a dip in the Lake Wakatipu. So, excited about our latest achievement, we headed to the lake, where Sumit took a short swim in the cold cold water and then after taking a shower we decided to drive up to Gelnorchy. A beautiful lake side drive all the way up to Gelnorchy took around an hour or so. Then, we headed back and hung out at a sports bar for a couple of hours before getting dinner at Bombay Palace. 
Our trip was over. It was time to head back to the hotel, pack up, watch some TV and then head out tomorrow. Queenstown is beeeutifullll! And so in south island. North Island, I will see you next time.

What more could we have done?

  • Abel Tasman National Park in the north is a very popular national park. You can plan a multi-day or a single day hike here. The camping sites have to be booke din advance and get filled out pretty quickly. You can also hike one way and take a boat-shuttle the other way. Nelson is the closest airport.
  • Instead of Milford Sound, you could visit Doubtful sound in the south, which is much less crowded, but takes more time to visit as it is further away from the land. People usually opt for an overnight cruise here.
  • There is a TransAlpine railroad option between Greymouth and Christchurch which is quite popular and decetly $$$. 
  • While in Christchurch, driving through Akaroa which is the coastal area, is also a popular day activity. People go for cruises and whale watching here
  • Driving from Fox Glacier to Greymouth, you have options of stopping at Shantytown and Hokataiki which is famous for its glass factory
  • Dunedin on the east dise is popular for penguins. But again this is seasonal, so  make sure you check before you go, especially if your only motivating factor to drive there is the penguins


We had to fill the visa forms online and submit our application. Then we mailed our passports to embassy in Washingtom DC. But, after we received our passports, we realised there were no stamps. So, we called the embassy and some helpline numbers only to figure out they don't put stamps on the passports anymore. They add your details to the database and all and you just have to carry a piece of paper they send over to you with all the details.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Japan (Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kamakura)

Its been three months since our Japan trip and finally, I get to write about our trip. No No, don't worry, none of the memories have faded away, they are all here on my desktop, on tiny post-its from keep. For our summer vacation, I had given Sumit a choice between China and Japan, secretly hoping he picks China, because Great Wall would complete my list of seven wonders. But well, Japan wouldn't be a bad choice either. He picked Japan and we were all set to explore this land of samurais and hunt for Hatori Honzo sword ;)
Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo. Tokyo sightseeing
Day 2: Tokyo -> Hiroshima. Hiroshima sightseeing
Day 3: Hiroshima -> Kyoto. Kyoto sightseeing
Day 4: Kyoto sightseeing. Kyoto -> Tokyo
Day 5: Kamakura half day trip, Tokyo sightseeing. Fly out

Where to fly

Either Kyoto or Tokyo, depending on what suits your itineray. Now when you fly in to Tokoyo, you can either fly to Narita Internationl airport (NRT) or Haneda International airport (HND). NRT is on the outskirts of the city it takes more than ahour to reach the city centre but there are plenty of flight options. HND is cloer to the city and takes about 30 minutes to get to the city centre. We were lucky to get good direct flight from SFO to HND. It is very conveniently located and connected very well by public transport to the city.

When to go

We were going in July and expected the temperatures to be high, but not that high. The humidity and heat was much like Delhi summers and it drained us. It wasn't the best season to visit Japan and I recommend you go either in early summer or early winters to avoid extreme weather.

Tokyo (Day 1)

We are here!
We arrived early in the morning at Haneda airport. We had to redeem our Japan Rail Pass coupons from one of the designated offices, but realised that the one at HND airport didn't open till 8 am. So, instead of waiting at the airport, we heade to our hotel in Tokyo, Tokyo Stay Ginza. The train ride itself got me excited! Yay!! Japan! Our hotel was newly renovated. The rooms were the smallest I have ever seen, but I am so mightly impressed as to how they had managed to fit in every damn thing in that space. You name it, you had it in the room. 
After we got ready, we headed straight to the Tokyo station to redeem our passes. It is a huge station and if you had fitbit on, you would have been happy to see the steps count that day. Also, for local trains in Tokyo there are two networks, the JR(Japan Rail) network was free to us but the stops were not conveniently located and the other network had many more stations, but we had to pay for the rides or we could get the daily pass from some locations. Stationery shops, BIC camera being one of them. So, we walked all the way (about a mile) to a shop only to discover that shop doesn't open until 10 am! Good Lord, I hope you are counting the number of steps with me. 
Anyhow, time to start our tourism. Yayy!  First stop: Senso Ji Temple. Beautiful temple. Exactly how I imagined it to be. Very royal. I liked the market streets leading up to the temple. Perfect place to wander by. And I was excited to find out that the Japanese used essence sticks (agarbatti) for offering prayers, like we do. Alright, next up, Ueno park. The next staion. We walked up to the park. It was a huge one and we decided to only walk up to the lotus pond. We walked around a bit, the heat and humidity was killing us and we decided to not walk much, but to head out for lunch. Before we left, we saw a group of friends playing some music and performing in the park. That was nice and we got some rest. Here I talked to two really old Japanese men, sitting on the bench. They were trying to guess which country I was from and then decided to ask me to figure out who won. We happened to talk and they told me how they love Indians' warm and loving nature and their spicy food.

Alright, hunger strikes, we are heading up to Priya, Indian restuarurant, close to our next stop of the day. After stuffing ourselves with some good Indian food and listening to Madhuri's songs on TV, we headed out to Shibuya. As soon as you step out of the station, you see the statue of Hachiko. And the crazy pedestriam crossing. Immediately, I realised the best place to get a shot would be the starbucks, second floor. But that was for later. First, we just wandered around here. You can easily get lost. It is like a shopping district located in the downtown. The most populous place I have been to, I guess, after Delhi. So many types of socks, so amazing. This place is like bustling with life. If you are still counting the steps, hang on, there is more to come. So, we finally went to starbucks for a cool drink in the darn hot weather and a good view of the crossing. I can't describe it, see the video. 

Next up, we headed to Harajuku, to see the Meji Shrine. Just so you know, if you planning to go to Kyoto, you are gonna see much more amazing shrines there, you may skip this by all means. We then decided to skip the Yoyogi gardens and headed straight to Shinjuku. It is less posh version of Shibuya. Looks the electronics shopping market area of Tokyo. There is a Robot restaurant where they have a robot show. It had good reviews on trip advisor, but we were in no modd to wait in the heat and headed to the mall to stay indoors and cool down a bit. After we recovered, we decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel. So, after a long walk back to our station (keep counting the steps) we took a train to our hotel. We relaxed for a while and found a public swimming pool close by. Well that was quite a bit of walk too, but the swim was super duper refreshing. Exactly what we needed.
Now for dinner, we thought of going to Dhaba, again highly recommended by our friend who had lived in Tokyo for a while. So, we decided to walk (don't stop counting the steps yet). It was upposed to close at 10, but we made it in time at 9:30 only to discover that in Japan restaurants stop taking orders 30 minutes before the closing time. Arggghhh!!! But there was Bistro right across the street and we went there to find salad as the only vegetarian option on the menu. So, we went to the food court of a mall next door only to find there was not even a singly veggie dish on the menu of any of the restaurants. By now we were so cranky that we decided to setlle for that damn salad. To be fair, it was quite good. And yes before I forget, Ginza is the most posh area I have ever seen. Big brnads, with vibrance of Vegas and elegance of Paris, this is is where you want to spend your evenings. Then, we headed back to our hotel to call it a day. And if you were counting, the steps for the day were close to 30,000.

Hiroshima (Day 2)

Ground zero
Good morning Japan!I am already mighty impressed by your punctuality, hospitality and cleanliness. Lets see what we got today. Given our schedule, we had to pick between a day trip to Mount Fuji or Hiroshima and for all the historical significance, we picked Hiroshima and we weren't planning on hiking Fuji anyway, so this made for a better choice. Early morning we were on our train to Hiroshima via Shin Osaka. When taking the Japan Rail, you can either get in to the coaches with pre assigned seating, or other coaches, where if crowded, you might not get a seat. So, we booked our seats for our trip to Hirsohima. It was a pretty empty coach and pretty clean too. The announcements were in Japanese and the only recognizable part of the sentence was the name of the city. The trains are on time. The little time we had during our stopover at Shin Osaka, we spent it hunting for veggie food. We only found cream sandwich that would fit our needs. 
Torri gate
Well, after we reached Hiroshima, we dropped out luggage at Hotel Granvia Hiroshima, which was conveniently located right outside the station and headed straight to Indian restaurant Roopali. It was a short walk and the food was good. Then we got back to our hotel and our room was ready to check in. There is this city bus that runs around the city and stops at famous tourist stops. Since we had the JR pass, we were covered. Our first stop was the peace memorial. It is a huge park with the ground zero, the actual site of bomb detonation that was the most significant here. It was truly horrifying to see it. The museum was worth a visit too. After we walked around a bit and had mango flavored ice cream, we decided to go to Miyajima shrine. Getting here could be tricky, so here is the best route description I found. It was totally the highlight of the day. The shrine, the pagoda temple, the deer roaming freely around on the island. And not to forget the Torii gate. We could see the water rising at the base of the gate from low tide to high tide. The whole trip to the island the beautiful red corridors makes this a must-do in Hiroshima. There were quick heavy showers and that made the weather pleasant. 
Miyajima shrine
For dinner, we wanted to try Okonomiyaki suggested by @Roopak and searched for a
restaurant that would serve us this traditional dish. Well, close to the train station, there was a Gaia building which had a food court on the top floor, so we just headed there. This food court specialized in Okonomiyaki, Well, there were these small shacks which has a grill for preparing them and stools arranged around the grill for you to see the preparation too. Super fun!! And Okonomiyaki was super tasty! After this, we headed to our hotel, we had an early morning train to Kyoto. 

Kyoto (Day 3)

We got on to our train to Kyoto. Impeccably clean trains and always on time. Once in Kyoto, we stepped out to walk to our hotel, Kyoto Tower hotel which was right outside the station and perfectly located. We checked in, freshened up and figured out the closest Indian restaurant. So, in Kyoto it felt that both bus and train are a good ways to commute. only issue being that the bus stops were written in Japanese inside the bus. So, we were constantly looking at google maps to figure out the bus number to board and using pattern matching to figure out the stop to get down at. Our lunch was at Ajanta, not a great Indian restaurant I'd say. There are better options for Indian food in Kyoto.
Pottery class
After we were refueled, we headed to Ginkaku-ji or Silver Pavilion. A cute little market leading up to it. The place itself didn't take long to walk around. Our plan was to walk down the "Philosopher's Walk" and visit all the shrines and temples along the path. It was a pretty little shaded walk with trees around. So, shade was a welcome relief in that weather. On our walk, I spotted a pottery shop, with pottery lessons! I walked in to see some tourists making pottery and I learnt that they would ship my bowl/cup back to states in a few weeks. I didn't think twice before grabbing a chair. Oh, it was fun and I was so excited when I received my rice bowl back at home a few weeks later. Perfect souvenir.
Kiyamizu dera temple
As we continued down the walk, we visited Nanzen-ji and Chion-in. By now, we were extremely tired of all the walking. So, we took a cab to Kiyamizu-dera Temple. It was full of tourists and bustling with activity. There were so many little shops to get to the temple. Men and women both dressed in traditional attire were headed to the temple. Loved this place for its hustle-bustle.
Fushima Inari shrine
Next up, we took a bus to Sanju-sangen-do, only to discover that it had closed like 2 minutes ago. Nevermind, we decided to take the train to Fujima Inari shrine. We missed the station and didn't realise till about twenty minutes and felt we were on the outskirts of the city. Oh boy! time to get off and take the train in the reverse direction. Well, when we got to the correct station, the shrine was right outside the train station. This shrine has a whole hike through the torri gates. Absolutely beautiful. This was my favorite place in Kyoto. Sumit was a bit tired so I walked around the hiking path for a while and then we both decided to head home. But before that, it was time to grab some dinner and we decided to go to Mughal. This day was once again full of walking around the city. So, before you visit Japan, make sure you got your pedometer with you.

Kyoto (Day 4)

Golden Pavilion
Day two in Kyoto. Today we were going to the temples and shrines on the outskirts. And we had figured out the previous day that buses would work better as the train stops were a little farther away. So, after gradding a quick coffeee and croissant from the neaby Starbucks, it was time for us to head to Tenryu-ji. It was so hot and humid that after walking around for 5-10 minutes, we just wanted to rest in the shade. Right outside Tenryu-ji was the bamboo garden. It is really pretty, but unlike the pictures you see online, it is super crowded, so you can't get that prefect shot. There is one long walkway that is lined with bamboos on both sides. The garden as such is on a huge area and you could walk around, but decided to skip it and headed to our next destination, Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion. Now, this was one of the prettiest temples I had seen. A perfect golden temple with a perfect reflection to complement it. This would be a must see.
Next up, we decided to head to Nijo castle only to find out it was closed on that day of the week. Ugh, so much effort in so much heat for what! So, we started looking for food sources and found this place Tadka for lunch. Sanjusangen-do temple with a 1000 warrior statues which we had missed the previous day. It wasn't surprising to see so many similarities in both buddist and hindu mythology. It didn't take long for us to go around, but pictures were prohibited.
Bamboo Garden
 A small restaurant inside a home. But this was the most authentic south indian food I had in Japan. So good, you would lick your fingers. I was so impressed that I asked if the chef was Indian. But it turned out the chef had actually trained in India for a year or so. You got to have food here if you are in Kyoto. Well, now that we were refueled, we headed out to our next stop, Sanjusongen-do. This was our last stop for the day before we headed to our hotels to pack up and head out to Kyoto station to board our trains to Tokyo. Kyoto had so much to see that you really can't do justice to this place in two days. Until, next time! 
When we got to Tokyo, we decided to visit the Tokyo Tower at night after dinner. This time we made it to Dhaba restuarant well in time. The food was really good. I didn't expect Indian restaurants in Japan to be so good. It was a pleasant surprise. We had dosas. And before I forget to take a note, we saw a drunkard the the train station. Like, really a Johnly Walker kind of drunkard. From here, we took a bus to Tokyo tower. Once we got our tickets, we headed to the observation deck. I am glad we did at night time because the views were just so beautiful. We spent some time strolling about on the two levels of the observation decks. Then we got down and Uber'd to our hotel.

Kamakura and Tokyo (Day 5)

Kamakura shrine
Sumit had declared the previous night that he was too tired to walk the next day and wanted to take it easy. So, I decided to take a solo day-trip to Kamakura. I got on the train for Kamakura. Once you get down at the station, everything is pretty well marked. You can get tickets for the local train at the ticket booth where they also have brochures for all the touristy stops. It was an easy walk to the giant Buddha statue(Kotoku-in) from the local train station. It wasn't just the statue, but whole set up that made you feel at peace. It was a very pleasant day which added to the experience after having spent 4 days in scorching sun. You could walk inside this hollow statue too. Once, I was done roaming around and taking pictures, I headed to the Hase-dera temple. Pretty fancy temple will gold plated statues and a beautiful view from the courtyard overlooking the beach. It was cloudy, but I hear that you get a  pretty clear view of Mount Fuji from here as well. I went to the beach for a short walk but wasn't very impressed and decided to get back to the Kamakura station.

There was a shrine very close by and it the walk was through wiggly streets flocked with shops on either sides. Pretty good day to walk around in general. Once here, I was happy to see the lanterns floating around and the flock of tourists. After spending a few minutes, I headed back to Tokyo. 

Sumit and I decided to have conveyer-belt sushi in Shibuya. Our meeting point- Hachiko. Then we walked around a bit, shopped around somewhat since we had the entire day to just do nothing. After we were done with Shibuya, we headed to Roppongi Hills. This is another posh area after Ginza, but is mostly for corporate offices. We went to Roppongi Tower to visit Google's Japan office since Sumit was carrying his badge. Pretty cool, eh? After grabbing some snacks, and walking around the area, we decided to have dinner at Green Asia. Average food, but a very posh area to hang out. Then we headed straight to our hotels, to check out and were on our way to the Haneda airport for our flight back home.

Arigato Japan! I am amazed at how traditional yet modern you are. How overly crowded, yet developed you are. How focused and friendly you are. I will be back for more.


  • Japan Rail Pass: You can only get those before you travel to Japan. You are eligible to travel only in certain trains using this pass. They are not the fastest, but are pretty good. And if you are taking for than 3 inter-city trips, this makes perfect sense. However, you might not be covered for local transport using these. More details
  • Pilgrimage hike: Next time we are in Japan, we plan to take this pilgrimage hike. This time we were just not up to it.
  • Don't forget to purchase the different flavors of kitkat here in Japan.
  • Itineraries:
  • What more to do in Tokyo:
    • Odaiba 
    • Imperial Palace
    • Fish market
  • Other day trips:
    • Nara: A day trip from Kyoto. Has more temples to visit.
    • Fuji: We wanted to visit Mount Fuji initially but figured that hiking at night to see the sunrise is the bext way to explore this option, but it seemed that it might still be covered in snow during first week of July so decided to give it a pass. See this.
    • Nikko: Two hours north of Tokyo

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Delhi, India (A day tour)

I had been to Delhi at least 50 times I think, but I had never been a tourist in this historic city! I mean, as a kid, sure, my parents had visited Qutub Minar and Red Fort with me, but I had no memories, whatsoever. So, this time around I was determined to go see all the touristy places on my list. I only had a day(and a few hours next day) to spare, but well, something is better than nothing. So, there I was. I was accompanied by my parents-in-law, sister-in-law and my 10 month old niece on first day and oh, how much fun it is to roam around with family! I will treasure these pictures with them forever! :)
PS: I think I did a good job with the pics from  my cell phone! \m/

Getting around

Car: We chose to hire a cab for a day. Having a car was super convenient since I was accompanied by my family. We did end up spending quite sometime in traffic, but we tried to avoid rush hour by starting at 10 am and getting home by 6 pm. Parking was an issue, but didn't hurt us much since our driver would drop us at the main entrance and then spend time looking for parking.

Metro: Delhi is very well connected by Metro. Especially the touristy spots have a conveniently located metro station close by. So, if you are keen on doing-it-yourself, this may be a good option.

Touristy places to visit

Rashtrapti Bhavan

Rsashtrapati Bhavan
Our first stop was Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can drive right up to the main entrance of the building but can't of course park here. Entry is strictly prohibited unless you have a visitor pass. We didn't. However, it makes for a good picture spot. Built by the British, it has such a modern yet classic architecture. Very impressive. Mughal gardens are well-manicured lawns located on the backside of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Our driver dropped us somewhere close to the entrance of these gardens and after thorough security check, we were let in. The gardens were very crowded and demanded a long walk. It took us a little less than an hour to walk the entire visitor path and head back out. Be ready for all the walking. 
Exporing Mughal gardens with family
 On a side note: One can visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan after taking permission on their website and submitting the required documents. On my list for next time!

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid's Courtyard
Next we drove to Jama Masjid. We were now getting in to narrow crooked old-Delhi roads. What fun! Driver dropped us off at the footsteps of the entrance. It is a courtyard with huge doors and beautiful corridors all around. We were here during the prayer time so we had to wait for the prayer to get over before we could go towards the corridors where prayers were begin offered. We just sat and relaxed. Lot of pigeons in the courtyard, so lot of photo-ops with them. And you could also get a very clear view of the red fort from the corridors. Beautiful, sunny and a good reminder of old Mughal architecture.

Red Fort

The iconic Red Fort
Very close to the Jama Masjid and hence, of course our next stop was Red Fort. Get your tickets from the ticket counter and head towards the main entrance. A beautiful Indian flag atop this fort welcomes you. Once you get past the narrow alley lined with many small shops, you are in the Red Fort courtyard. I would suggest grabbing a map and following a route as per your plan. May be getting a guide would have been a better idea. I was highly disappointed by the state-of-affairs here at Red Fort. A monument of such great historic importance and significance shoudl have been well maintained. Scores of people visit this place everyday and it doesn't make for a good impressions. However, after going around the area and taking a few picture of Diwan-e-Aam, Diwan-e-Khaas, etc. we head out.

Get a map before you explore!
I wanted to go see Agrasen ki Baoli as it makes for a terrific photo -op, but somehow skipped it. So yes, get a guide and don't be too hopeful.

Humayun's Tomb

Isa Khan's tomb
Next up was Humayun's Tomb. This was my favorite spot for the day. It has been well preserved and well taken care of. We walked up to the entrance, went upstairs, roamed around in corridors. The layout reminds you of Taj Mahal (both being tombs). Beautiful manicured lawns all around the tomb and lovely views of the densely populated city surrounding the area. On your way out, towards your left is another old tomb, which is Octagonal and was currently under restoration. This will be my pick for the day. 

India Gate

India Gate at night
I have roamed around India Gate with friends at night a few times while in Delhi during college days. This time too, it brought back old memories. Met up with cousins and friends for a long stroll here under the street lights. Plus, the snack-shops all around are the best bet for Delhi street food. If you go before 10 pm(I think), you can walk up to the Amar Jawan Jyoti in memory of all the soldiers lost in war.

Qutb Minar

While we were able to visit all the above spots during the first day, we left Qutb Minar for day #2. It is easily do-able the same day as well. For starters, weather was lovely. Cool and pleasant. The restoration has been very well done and this monument too, like Humayun's Tomb is very well maintained. Plenty of remains/ruins of other buildings in this area along with Qutub Minar. This was the best place for photo ops in my opinion and I had a good time. However, going up the tower isn't permitted, so that's a bummer, but the views, the remains of a courtyard with a corridor in front of the tower are surely worth a visit.

Being Touristy!
Qutb Minar

What more to see/do:

  • Roam around Connaught Place
  • Shop @ Dilli Haat
  • AkshardhamTemple
  • Lotus Temple
  • And many many more: Find a comprehensive guide here.