Asian Adventure – Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo

Over Thanksgiving Break, we decided to skip the turkey and head to Asia. We wanted to make the most of our trip overseas so we decided to try to leave Friday and spend the next 8 days traveling through 3 different countries – South Korea, China (Hong Kong), and Japan. We had planned to fly from Atlanta to Detroit and then make the afternoon flight out to Seoul. Unfortunately, there was a last minute plane change on the flight to Detroit and the aircraft that arrived in Atlanta was significantly smaller than planned. They had made a change due to weather and suddenly the flight was oversold. Instead of staying overnight in Detroit, we decided to fly to Boston, somewhere we both had been wanting to visit together.

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We made the most of our overnight stay in Boston – stopping in the shops in Quincy Market, walking through Boston Common and even making our way out to Chestnut Hill to visit Boston College. We spent the evening walking all over town, enjoying some delicious appetizers at a Irish pub (a must in Boston) and had a few drinks at a bar near BC. Boston College had some of the most beautiful architecture of any college campus I have ever been to, but the surrounding area was very quiet and I expected a bit more of nightlife around the campus. Boston was a great start to our trip, but we were ready to begin our Asian Adventure.

We flew from Boston to Detroit and had a layover – DTW was a great place to spend a few hours and I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful terminal. We barely made it on the flight out to Seoul since the flight was “Cargo-optimized” meaning standby passengers get last priority. As the gate agent called our names, we were terrified we would be facing disappointment, but we let out a huge sigh of relief when she handed us our boarding passes. We were finally on our way!

After enjoying our “capsules” in first class, which had huge television screens and so much space I could even sit with Cole in his capsule! We arrived well-rested in Seoul, but it was already late in the evening and pouring rain. We hopped on a bus, which is the preferred method of locals to travel to and from Incheon airport. Although it was quite difficult to determine which of the 50 buses we needed to be on and the ticket salesperson did not speak any English, by some miracle we made it on the right bus. It let us off at a stop near our hotel. The problem was that now we didn’t have any clue how to get from the bus stop to our hotel. Since it was pouring rain and we couldn’t read any street signs, we attempted to get a cab to take us to the hotel. However, even the cab driver couldn’t figure out what hotel we were talking about or understand the map we had printed out. We felt pretty helpless, but stumbled upon a police station where two nice policemen helped direct us to the street we needed to be on. We eventually made it to the Ibis Hotel – Ibis is a brand of Accor Hotels which started in France. They’re considered a budget hotel and definitely was one of the cheapest options, so we were a bit apprehensive on what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised, the hotel was very modern, clean and spacious rooms (at least for Asian standards). We stayed at the Ibis Insadong – Insadong is a neighborhood just North of downtown Seoul. It’s known for its markets, tea rooms, and art and just a couple miles from the heart of Seoul. By the time we arrived at our hotel Sunday evening, almost everything was closed, but we decided to wander around a bit and even stopped for some ramen for dinner.

The next morning we braved the rain and cold to see everything Seoul had to offer. We only had a day to explore since our flight to Hong Kong left late that evening. We explored all the highlights of the city which included Cheonggyecheon Stream, Gyeongbok Palace, Jongno Tower, Gangnam and many of Seoul’s shops and markets. I really liked visiting the Palace, which allowed you to dress up in the traditional Korean attire. My favorite part was eating a traditional Korean lunch. We found ourselves in the financial part of town at lunchtime and followed a group of professionals into a restaurant since we had no idea what we wanted. The place was packed with locals and we got special treatment being one of the only westerners in the restaurant. Once again, we copied the people next to us and just ordered by pointing at our neighbors and asking for the same meal. We had a hot pot, which we cooked our meat and vegetables in it. The chef came out to see if we enjoyed our meal and gave us a few extra sauces. Since he didn’t speak any English it was hard to show our appreciation for the delicious food, but considering we had nothing left by the time we were finished, I think we knew 🙂
Overall, we really enjoyed our trip to South Korea, but with the rain and cold, it made it a bit tough to enjoy exploring everything outside.

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We left late Monday evening and headed to Hong Kong. We traveled on a Korean Airlines Airbus 380, which is the largest airplane in the world. It is a double decker plane seating over 500 people! The plane ride was short and we arrived close to midnight. The Hong Kong airport opened in the late nineties when the previous airport was closed after notoriously being known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The Airport Express runs 24 hours a day with a train departing every 10 to 12 minutes. It gets you in the heart of Hong Kong in only 24 minutes and is definitely the most convenient mode of transportation into the city. My dad currently spends most of his time working out of Hong Kong so he met us at the airport and we traveled into the city together. We got to catch up a bit and get all the details on the must-sees of Hong Kong. If you plan on traveling to Hong Kong, the first thing you must do is buy an Octopus Card. The octopus card is a prep-paid card that is accepted everywhere from tourists stops to public transportation to convenient stores and even some casual restaurants. It is super convenient and much easier than worrying about cash all the time.

Our first full day of exploring Hong Kong started by walking around the area around our hotel (another chic Ibis hotel for an awesome price!) and walking along the elevated walkways in the business district of Hong Kong. We started off at the infamous Victoria Peak – this tourist spot offers an incredible view of the harbor and the endless skyscrapers on both Hong Kong side and Kowloon. Another cool feature of Victoria Peak is the tram that you can take up to the peak. It is the same path that was used years ago before an automated tram was established. It offers incredible views of Hong Kong and has some very steep hills which makes for a very fun ride, but get there early because the line can get pretty long. Once you arrive at Victoria Peak, skip all the tourist traps of stores and restaurants and head straight for the Viewing Terrace. It costs a few extra dollars, but the views are completely worth every penny. We spent a few hours just gazing at the panoramic view and taking it all in. They also offer headphones where you can learn more about the history of the city.

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After taking about two hundred photos we headed over to meet my dad for lunch at the IFC. The IFC is the tallest office building in the city and has this huge mall full of luxurious and upscale shops. We had one of the best lunches at St. Betty Restaurant with the most incredible view of the harbor. We walked around the mall a bit and also got to check out the office space my dad works out of in the IFC.

We then headed over to the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, which is the island located across the harbor. The best way to travel across the river is the famous Star Ferry – which has been operating since 1888. It is used mainly by locals traveling to and from downtown Hong Kong, but tourists also love to ride along for the experience and incredible views (plus it only costs $1 per person!). Once on the Kowloon side, we checked out some more tourist sites like the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade where the Hong Kong Walk off Fame is (picture Jackie Chan statues and the like 🙂 ). We then walked along the long stretch of the promenade soaking in the gorgeous view overlooking the harbor and endless skyscrapers and grabbed a bite to eat and some drinks at a restaurant right off the water. Afterwards, we walked around a few more local neighborhoods full of hole in the wall restaurants and lots of interesting smells 🙂

We then went back to the start of the promenade to see the “Symphony of Lights” show – every night at 8 pm (good weather permitting), there is a light show where most of the skyscrapers on the Hong Kong island participate and offer 15 minutes of an incredible show! We ended the night at the Ritz Carlton where we met my dad and his business partner for drinks at the highest bar in the world – Ozone. The views from the bar are incredible and they have a whole outdoor seating area (although the wind can get pretty extreme up there so you may have to take in the views from indoors like we did).

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We spent the next day trying to see the more local Hong Kong sites and get a better feel of the culture. Kowloon – ladies market, fish market, bird market, jade market, flower market and many other local sites. I loved Victoria Peak so much during the day that I wanted to head back at sunset and see the skyline light up. We spent another hour up there enjoying the view and taking another couple hundred photos 🙂

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After sunset, we took the longest escalator in the world over to SoHo. It is a series of connecting escalators that covers 2,600 feet. It wasn’t too exciting, but it is a convenient way to get up to the large hill in the city. Once we arrived in SoHo, it quickly became one of our favorites parts of the city. Dozens of restaurants lined the streets all with open air concepts with people spilling out onto the streets. The atmosphere was great and any choice of cuisine you wanted was available. We ended up choosing an adorable tiny Italian restaurant and had a delicious meal of pasta, pizza and wine.

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We wanted to spend the next day taking a ferry over to Macau (the Las Vegas of Asia), but had to leave to our final stop Tokyo the next morning due to flights. The flight left first thing in the morning so we had the whole day to explore Tokyo. The best way into the city is taking the train but it takes almost an hour to get into downtown.

We explored the financial district first and a few temples before heading over to the Shinjinku, which is the largest neighborhood in Tokyo. Tokyo is a huge city and very spread out so getting around to the different neighborhoods takes awhile on the metro. We went over to Tokyo City Hall and saw an incredible sunset with views of Mount Fuji. After the sun set, we were on a mission to find the best Teppanyaki grill (think Hibachi) in Shinjinku. The neighborhood is known for its shopping, restaurants, and tallest skyscrapers in Japan. We were recommended an authentic restaurant where we ate alongside locals and enjoyed some delicious steak. Overall, the food was similar to the hibachi restaurants back home, but slightly tweaked. For example, the “fried” rice was just rice with garlic and the vegetables served alongside the meal were a bit strange.

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After dinner, we explored the neighborhood a bit. There were an endless abundance of stores all light up in the brightest lights imaginable. Every street you turned down you stumbled upon more stores. The strangest part of the store fronts were the employees standing outside screaming into microphones yelling about the sales or something in very loud Japanese. To be honest, the incessant noise made it difficult to enjoy the sites, but I guess it contributes to the vibe of Tokyo. We headed over to Shibuya, which has one of the busiest train stations in Tokyo and is the fashion center of the city. The neighborhood is most famous for an intersection where traffic stops in all directions and people cross in every direction possible. It is definitely a site to see and we ended up sitting at a Starbucks overlooking the crossing soaking it all in.

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At the end of the day, we headed back to the airport to take the redeye from Tokyo to LAX. Unfortunately, we had a bit of a scare while trying to make it out. We were the last two people on the standby list and as we sat down, we saw a airport maintenance worker talking to some of the flight attendants. They came and asked us for our name and information and then said they would be back. Rumor was that the longer runway was closed and the plane was too heavy for it to take off on the other runway. The maintenance worker performed some calculations and somehow decided that they would allow the standbys to remain on the flight and take off. However, the pilot had to make a special maneuver in order to make sure the 767 could make it in the air before the runway ended. The pilot put the parking brake on, revved the engines and released the parking brake so we catapulted into the air and cleared the short runway. It was a bit scary but knew we were in good hands.

After spending 6 hours at LAX, we made it on the flight back to Atlanta, ending our Asian Adventure traveling to 3 different countries.

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