Category Archives: Hong Kong

To The Land of the Rising Sun

With my journey in Hong Kong over, I embarked on my next destination: Japan! But first I had to get to the airport.

I left my friends apartment in Tin Hau before 6am to hop on the MTR. Little did I know that I would have to wait for it to open and in that brief moment I saw the entrance gated off, I thought to myself “How the #%&* am I going to get to Central Station? Will I need to take a cab there? Do I go back to my friends apartment and wait?” Those questions and what felt like a million others flooded my brain as I walked toward another entrance. I was greeted by a locked gate there too, but this time I read the sign and saw that it opened in 10 minutes. This set my mind at ease and I was able to wait patiently, with my three bags, for the MTR to open and subsequently hop on the train and head to the airport. Once again, it was very simple to make my way through Hong Kong and to the airport which I had forgotten how spacious it was since I was rushing through trying to get my bags the last time I was there. It is beautifully constructed, with a ceiling that seemed to stretch forever and made me feel very small in comparison.

After a smooth check-in, a quick stop at a gift shop, and a bite to eat I was on my way to Japan. After sitting on flights for 15.5 & 13.5 hours this quick trip of less than five hours was nothing to me. Going to Japan had been a dream of mine ever since I was young and I owe it all to anime. I grew up watching shows like Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors, Cardcaptor Sakura, Gundam Wing, and DragonBall Z so this trip had been a long time coming. I knew it wouldn’t be anything like those shows, but being where they were created was what I had been wanting to do for quite some time.

After a friendly exchange with the airport security guard checking my bag, I mean this literally he was very nice and curious about what I there to see and do. I realize it was typical screening stuff but it did not feel like an interrogation (like the ones I’ve faced when re-entering the USA). I gathered my bags, looked around the baggage claim area and saw that I was one of the last ones left from my flight – which is what I like since I like to be last off the plane because I have to wait for my bags anyway so I might as well relax! I walked through the double doors and what was the first thing I saw? A poster of DragonBall Z characters and some Hayao Miyazaki characters, like Totoro, all welcoming me to Japan! How cool is that? Too cool, if you ask me. I determined it to be a great omen for the rest of my trip.

Once through the doors, I looked around to see how I was going to get to my hotel and eventually meet up with my friend who was flying in at the same time but at Narita, the other major airport on the other side of the city. I knew my final destination and the general way how to get there – or at least I thought I did. All of my research was done online but when I stood and looked up at the most complicated metro system I have ever seen, I froze. Luckily there was a nice female employee who asked where I was going and then directed me how to get there and what I needed to pay. I made my way through the turnstile and down to the platform for the Keikyu Line. Once the train arrived I hopped on and I looked up at the map – no English. Internally, I panicked but calmed myself because I knew the name of the station I needed.

I moved out of the way as passengers boarded and took their seats all the while I was doing two things: listening for my stop and taking in the Japanese urban scenery. It wasn’t until two stops before my final stop that I looked directly above me and saw a digital screen that flashed both Japanese AND English for the station name…Oh well. Sure enough, I made my transfer easily and found my way to my final destination: Tameike-sanno station in Akasaka. I found my exit and made my way to my hotel. I had used Google Maps to find my way, but nothing can prepare you for actually being there. I made my way through an alley and onto the street the hotel was on but I took a wrong turn and then had to find WiFi and pinpoint the hotel which was literally a block away.

Let me tell you, finally finding that hotel and being able to put my bags down felt AMAZING! I was sweating from carrying my bags and I just needed a rest. About an hour or so later, my friend arrived and we hit up the 7-Eleven for some late night/cheap eats. I grabbed a juice, some chips, and a microwaveable burger. I put my items on the counter and the cashier spoke to me in Japanese. I told her one of the few Japanese phrases I knew: “I don’t understand”, and shrugged. She then continued in Japanese but this time pointed to the microwave. I shook my head, since we had one back in our room, said “Arigato!” and we walked back to our hotel.

Back at the hotel, we went to the vending machine to see about the famed Japanese vending machines that carried beer – something unheard of in the USA. We were not disappointed:

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After eating, and drinking, we walked around the neighborhood a bit to give ourselves a better feel for our surroundings. Walking around we were treated to bright neon lights and a city brimming with life as tons of people were on the sidewalks making their way and the street was filled with cars. A truly amazing sight, and the beginning of an awesome journey.

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Come On Get Happy – Valley

Fun Fact About Me: I have seen horse racing on three continents.

The first being North America, where there is a race track not 10 minutes away from my house that I have been to a number of times. The second being in Brisbane, Australia, where I might have had too much fun and fell asleep somewhere on the grounds (I won’t divulge where) only to wake up and find that everyone, literally everyone, was exiting but I still saw the horses race…a few of them anyway. The third was in Hong Kong at Happy Valley Racecourse.

Happy Valley is a largely upscale neighborhood, which would explain the Maserati’s, Rolls Royce’s, and Lamborghini’s I saw rolling by – although this is Hong Kong and I saw more nice cars there than I have in my entire life living in Southern California: the place where everyone wants to be seen in a nice car (Sidebar: but I never got that sense in Hong Kong. They just seemed to be cars people drove around, used as status symbols but not in the flashy way I’ve seen back home.).

The Happy Valley Racecourse has races held nearly every Wednesday night during racing season and my friend currently living in Hong Kong thought that this would be a good way to end my visit. It’s an easy place to get to by either taxi, or you can walk from the Causeway Bay MTR station, but the preferred my preferred method is by Tram. It will be cramped and it may take a bit longer, but it’s all a part of the experience and it allows you to see the city in a new way.

Take the tram all the way to the Happy Valley Terminus and if you’re uncertain if you’ve reached the right place, take a look around and you’ll see the Racecourse right next to you and, most likely, the rest of the passengers will be getting off at this point as well. Or, when in doubt, just ask. The tram operator will be happy to let you know if you’ve reached your stop.

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The lights make this place seem more grand and exciting than just your normal racetrack. Walking up, I was taken aback at the box seats & luxury suites that arose from the grandstands. Then there was the music pumping through the speakers and even a fashion show! It was not something I was accustomed to seeing at racetracks, then again this was my first time in Asia so there were bound to be some new and exciting things. Across the open track the high rise apartments, that are no doubt expensive, caught my eye. The lights from the track illuminate the buildings closest to them, but as civilization expands outward the buildings seemingly get taller and their yellow lights shine in the black night like stars.

The Racecourse is a popular gathering spot for expats from the UK, Australia, the USA and who knows where else. I heard their accents as I walked by and I was amazed at how far some people have come from their home countries to live & work. I then learned of an acronym for a certain type of expat: FILTH – Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Is it true? I have no idea. I was only there for a few days, but the Brits I saw looked fairly successful…if I were solely judging them on their clothes and arm candy – which both indicated that they were successful – at least visually… I digress.

The races themselves were rather, well, pedestrian with the highlight being the brie & bacon hot dog I ate with my beer. Full disclosure: I don’t bet on sporting events. This dates back to Super Bowl XXXIV when I bet four of my friends $5 each that my Tennessee Titans would beat the St. Louis Rams. I was only out $20 but I learned the hard way of the pitfalls of betting on sports & gambling with your heart instead of your head and I vowed from that day on I wouldn’t bet on sports. Now I stick to the occasional blackjack and slot machine where I keep a limit. Anyway, not betting on the horses probably made the night less exciting but I kept my money and enjoyed the sights and sounds that Happy Valley had to offer.

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Seeing Stars

Out here in Los Angeles we have the famous ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ where the famous (Spielberg) and somewhat famous (David Spade) have stars placed in their honor on the famous stretch of sidewalk. I had done my research before heading to Hong Kong and learned about their own version, ‘Avenue of Stars’, and I knew that this would be a place I would like to visit.  Learning that the Avenue of Stars was where Hong Kong honored their stars, I was even more inclined to see who I could spot since off the top of my head I named Jackie Chan, Wong Kar Wai, and Bruce Lee.

It is very easy to get to, like most things in Hong Kong. Hop on the MTR and find your way to Tsim Sha Tsui and follow the signs toward ‘Avenue of Stars’. It’s that simple. By the time I made it out to ‘Avenue of the Stars’ I had become comfortable navigating the MTR and this was only after 5 days and I am coming from a city that is not known for its public transportation system so you don’t need to feel overwhelmed by the MTR because it’s quite simple to follow.

As I made my way past the various museums that lined the shore, I found the beginning of the ‘Avenue of Stars’. I looked down and saw a few names I vaguely recognized and a few that surprised me because I did not know they were from Hong Kong or were influential to the country’s artistic endeavors. I’ll be honest, I went there for the sole purpose of seeing Jackie Chan’s star and the Bruce Lee statue so I made my way, somewhat hastily, down the path until I saw a small group of people standing above a star and taking photos of and with it – I knew it was Jackie Chan’s.

I’ve always loved Jackie Chan’s movies. From the first time I saw ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ I knew this guy was awesome. That got me into ‘Supercop’, ‘Gen X Cops’, ‘Rumble in the Bronx’, his animated series – ‘Jackie Chan Adventures’ and then the ‘Rush Hour’ movies (but not the 3rd one, that was awful) and the ‘Shanghai Noon/Knights’ films.

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From there I could easily see the Bruce Lee statue which is exquisitely detailed with the muscles and veins popping out as if they were real.

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From there, I was pleasantly surprised to find some more names I recognized in Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh:

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Jet Li

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Michelle Yeoh

All in all this was a fun experience for the film geek in me because I grew up watching, and still watch, the films from these actors, actresses and directors. As I basked in the memory of their films, a ship with a recognizable shape floated in the distance and was getting larger with each passing second. I recognized it by its sails to be a Junk ship. I stood at the railing hoping to get a closer look at the famous vessel that has sailed these waters since the 2nd century CE. I was not disappointed.  Seeing this iconic ship was a great way to end my last day in Hong Kong.

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A Symphony of Lights

No trip to Hong Kong, and Kowloon for that matter, is complete without seeing A Symphony of Lights.

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Star Ferry

 

If you’re on the island of Hong Kong at 8pm you won’t be able to see much, other than flashing lights. Hop on the Star Ferry, which as it turns out is cheaper than the MTR at 2.50HK, and get off at Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST as one of my friends calls it) and follow the coast to the best viewing spot at Avenue of Stars. You can also take the MTR and get off at Tsim Sha Tsui and follow the same directions to Avenue of Stars. There are signs at the MTR exit to direct you and, most likely, there will be a lot of people going to the same place.

Get there early and pick a spot on the water’s edge and wait for the show to start. It’s a wonderfully choreographed display of lights and music on a grand scale. I won’t go into more detail about the show because it needs to be seen and experienced first hand as words cannot completely convey all that goes on. I will just leave you all with this photo from my experience.

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Swoon For Kowloon

Quick ask me to name someone from Kowloon Bay.

Answer: Cassandra from Wayne’s World. Yes she’s fictitious but that’s all I got.

Up until this point my journey in Hong Kong was limited to the islands except for that one trip I made to the Ozone Bar which is on the Kowloon Bay side, so I decided to find more things for me to see and do by venturing across the bay. Getting there is easy, I just hopped on the Tsuen Wan line and in a few short minutes I was across the bay and taking in a very different side of Hong Kong. I didn’t see the Aston Martin’s or Ferrari’s cruising around or see expats in suits talking about finance and other boring business stuff. I saw Hong Kong. And when I say that I mean I saw the version of Hong Kong I had in my mind before I arrived. Let me tell you, coming from a town in South Africa that is wide open and small at the same time this was a bit of a culture shock for me. But that did not stop me from exploring.

My journey began at the Mong Kok station because I was looking for a particular soccer jersey and I read about a few shops that might carry it in that area. I exited the station on the correct side and immediately I knew I was out of my depth as the signs – neon’s and banners alike – were large and covering the sky and the buildings seemed much closer together mainly because there were hundreds – if not thousands – of people on the streets all doing their shopping. My plan went out the window right there. I knew which direction I needed to go but could not find the soccer shops at all. I turned a corner and found myself in the middle of a street market. Watches, handbags, luggage, belts, shirts, dresses, magnets, scarves, and jewelery lined the walls of the 15-foot tall tents that lined the street. And when I say lined the walls, I mean from floor to ceiling a product was hanging to let the buyer know what they had. I saw a few TON of soccer jerseys but not the one I was searching for which is partially what I had expected but I was overwhelmed at the sheer volume of choices.

I walked up and down the street market, which felt like it took about about a mile of road but in actuality must have only been 1/4 mile, and glanced into each and every tent hoping to find something to buy but I had no idea what I was looking for and I came unprepared for this adventure as the cash in my wallet was low and I doubted any of these places accepted Visa.

As I wandered aimlessly up the street peeking into each and every shop I began to see the same items from earlier shops and I wondered what, if any, were the price differences from each shop. This thought left my mind as quickly as it entered because in typical John fashion I stumbled upon Ladies’ Street. Stumbled is a bit dramatic, I just kept walking in the same direction and happened upon it, but stumbled sounds more inspiring and spontaneous. As you can imagine the Ladies’ Street Market sells items geared toward women – but I checked it out anyway. I found nothing to buy. *Frowny Face*

After walking up and down the streets for what felt like hours searching for things to buy – and having no idea what I was looking for other than a soccer jersey – I decided to call it an afternoon and head back because there is only so much shopping I can do in one day, and I didn’t even shop.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

 

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