12 Days in Asia

Over the holidays, my husband and I took the vacation of a lifetime to Asia. In 12 days, we visited Beijing, China; Kyoto, Japan; and Hong Kong. It was nothing short of incredible. Asia is a place we've both always wanted to visit, but when our good friend, Dora, took a 6-month assignment in Wuxi, China in August of 2012, we jumped at the chance to visit her part way through. The timing worked out perfectly for us to meet up with her right after the holidays and travel into the New Year. Dora's husband, Henry, left the week before and the four of us met up in Beijing, China where the adventure began.

As a photographer, graphic designer and blogger, traveling Asia was unbelievable! We came home with nearly 2500 photos, more stories than anyone is interested in hearing and memories for a lifetime. We’re still sorting, editing, scrapbooking and blabbing about it nearly two months later. However, you’d be here all day if I detailed each amazing place we visited and each fantastic meal we ate, so I’ll do my best to sum up each day with just a few highlights.

Beijing: Day 1
We began at the Ming Dynasty Tombs which included a walk down a portion of the Sacred Way, a more than 4-mile road lined with statues of animals and officials that guard the path to the Tombs. Next we made our way to one of my favorite places on the trip, a precarious section of the Great Wall of China. The Huanghuacheng Great Wall is a beautiful area that, presumably, offers magnificent views if you get up high enough to see them. Unfortunately, the very steep, rough stairs were covered in icy patches which, when combined with the snow, wind and cold that day, made for a very hazardous climb. Let’s just say I didn’t get very far before I turned back. Then we ended the day at a traditional Chinese family restaurant where I was confronted with one of the most blog-worth dishes of the entire trip: custard with snow frog ovaries. (Hey Molly, we’re not in Kansas anymore.)

Beijing: Day 2
The next morning, the temperatures weren’t giving us any breaks, and the wind had picked up to nearly 25 miles per hour. We started the day in Tiananmen Square and then headed into the Forbidden City.
That afternoon, we braved the cold again for a tour of the Temple of Heaven (breathtaking!) and ended the day at a fish head restaurant.

Beijing: Day 3
We started day three at the 2008 Beijing Olympic National Park, which included an inside/outside tour of the Water Cube and the Bird's Nest. We followed that with lunch and a tour of the Summer Palace and finished the evening with a tour of HuTong and more interesting food.

Day four was a travel day (from Beijing to Kyoto) and, more notably, New Year’s Eve. We managed to sneak out for some “conveyor belt” sushi and a dessert-y parfait before falling asleep well before midnight in our respective (tiny) rooms. Happy New Year!

Kyoto: Day 1
We kicked off the New Year with a bang and visited Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. When people ask me what my “favorite” part of the trip was, the Golden Pavilion is my answer. It probably helped that the temperature was 20+ degrees warmer than Beijing and the sun was finally shining, but Kinkakuji is hands down one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Glimmering across the pond, it was practically glowing!

Our next stop was the Rioan-ji Rock Garden. The grounds surrounding the actual rock garden were beautiful, but the rock garden itself was surprisingly small. I’ve since learned that Rioan-ji is considered to be one of the finest examples of zen gardening in all of Japan. Apparently I’m just not as in to rock gardens as I thought.

Kyoto: Day 2
On our second full day in Kyoto, we visited Nijo Castle and then spent several hours experiencing a traditional 14 course Kaiseki lunch. We followed that with a train ride to Kobe where we took a crazy-steep cable car up Mount Rokko to kill some time before our reservation for a genuine Kobe beef dinner. (Both were amazing!)

Our second full travel day was also, unfortunately for him, my husband’s birthday. But I was determined to celebrate somehow, and celebrate we did. We spent a good deal of the day in various airports, and flew from Osaka to Shanghai and then Shanghai to Hong Kong, but once we got to Hong Kong, we headed for the streets. Four hours and five meals later and we’d eaten everything from wonton noodles to baby oyster congee! Happy birthday, honey!

Hong Kong: Day 1
On our first full day in Hong Kong, we did the must-see touristy thing and rode the 25-minute Ngong  Ping crystal bottom, dangling from a wire high above the ground, cable car up to visit the Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. Then, we made our way back down the mountain for a relaxing, delicious seafood dinner. The tanks holding our various dinner choices were right at the front of the restaurant. Now THAT’S fresh!


Hong Kong: Day 2
After breakfast this second day, we made a beeline for the Peak Tram Ride, which is yet another steep, cable car experience. Thankfully, this one is on the ground. The Peak Tram takes you to, appropriately, The Peak, where we got some spectacular views of the city and the harbor.

If you hadn’t already heard (we hadn’t!), I’m here to tell you that Hong Kong is all about eating and shopping. There are a few historic things to do, but for the most part, that’s not the draw to this bustling city. So that’s how we rounded out our final full day of vacation: food, shopping and more food.

The trip home was pretty painless and, because of the time change, we left Hong Kong on January 6 in the afternoon and got back to Chicago on January 6 in the afternoon. It was back to work for both of us the next day like nothing had happened. It was totally surreal and Asia, once again, felt really far away. Which means there’s only one thing left to do…plan our return.