Category: Travel

A Woman, A Plan, a Canal, Panam — ow! — a!

Hello! I have emerged from the decade known as 2018. I:

completed my first half of grad school, became a redhead, spent a sweltering summer in Tokyo, remembered how awesome solo-travelling is after taking my first adventure-in-solitude in three years, got a tattoo, listened to lots of live music, visited many theme parks, wrote a lot of code, learned Japanese, cooked a lot, filled myself with incandescent rage at the state of the world, connected and reconnected with friends new and old, travelled to places that remind me just how simultaneously small and large the earth can be (internationally: Japan, Malta, China, Nepal, Panama and domestically: SoCal, Oregon, Florida, NY), and listened a lot more — particularly to myself.

Overall, 2018 has been a ride. Not necessarily a wild ride (though the year did have its moments), but one of those really long rides where you can gaze peacefully out the window with a bit of wind poking through.

Not bad, but like I said, 2018 was a decade.

In comparison: so far in 2019, I have managed to get through all the endings of Bandersnatch, fly from the East coast to the West, set a Goodreads challenge that I inevitably will not fulfill, annnnnd … that’s about it. I’m going to add “wrote a blog post! FINALLY!!!” to this list, because hey, if there’s anything I have failed to do, it’s cleaning out the hard drive on my poor laptop by uploading all my Panama content.

Untitled

PANAMA, YOU SAY? So, I might have mentioned six years ago that I hadn’t had a snowy Christmas since 2003. I’m neither happy nor sad to admit that this arbitrary but personal record still holds after fifteen years:
2018: Panama
2017: Dominican Republic
2016: Costa Rica
2015: Mauritius
2014: San Francisco/Ecuador
2013: New Zealand
2012: San Diego

Untitled
Brrr.

It wasn’t that I intended to pick a place where I would never have to see snow again (as a winter baby, I actually do enjoy fresh pow), but rather, somewhere that was not too far of a flight from New York was ideal for a Christmas-to-New-Year’s vacation. I had just barely emerged from a particularly hectic and busy semester, and Panama — with all its ease in planning and chilled-out vibes — seemed like a great place to unwind. For one, it’s very easy as an American tourist to visit, but it’s still something new. Panama is a 4 hour flight from New York, they use the US dollar, they use the same outlets, and they’re on EST. As the designated crossroads of the Americas, the country straddles both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and it’s the last mile before South America. Plus, Panama City is having a bit of a moment this year, as the city celebrates its 500th birthday in August!

The first half of the trip was spent in Panama City and the second half was spent in Boquete, a village in the Chiriqui province (on the Pacific side of Panama) that’s well known for its forested landscapes and outdoorsy scene. Panama City, on the other hand, has such strong Miami vibes that when I posted a photo of the Panamanian skyline on Instagram, everybody thought I was in Florida. There are high-rises and palm trees that hug the Panama Bay coastline (so much that Panama City has the fourth largest number of skyscrapers in the Americas), and the weather is sunny enough to justify multiple showers in the day but not oppressively humid enough to make you want to melt in an Alex-Mack-style puddle. However, unlike Miami, Panama City is home to its eponymous canal and its surrounding expanse of jungle. As in: I found a sloth in my first 24 hours in Panama.

Untitled

That little buddy was found in the Parque Natural Metropolitano, an actual jungle turned US military base turned park that is host to sloths, titi monkeys, and butterflies — should you know where to look. I clocked in an impressive number of steps on my Fitbit as I hauled my butt up the different trails that led to the lookout points.

Untitled

I also hiked up Cerro Ancon (Ancon Hill), which is Panama City’s highest point. The walk up is not strenuous by any means (I’m coming from San Francisco, so this isn’t my first rodeo with hills), but it definitely requires a good amount of water to stay hydrated under the sun. For a twenty-minute walk, I was rewarded with panoramic views of the city and its crown jewels, including this darn canal that everybody keeps talking about. In San Francisco, I can walk up a hill for twenty minutes and get completely ensconced in fog. What gives?

Untitled Untitled Untitled

Untitled

Speaking of, Christmas was spent actually crossing the Panama Canal! We took a boat tour via Canal & Bay Tours and cruised along the canal, which has scarcely changed since its inception over 100 years ago. While the ride was smooth sailing, we were flanked by tankers and cargo ships and enormous vessels as we drifted under the Bridge of Americas and into a series of three different locks. In order to be level with the sea, we had to sink down several meters, which equates to 26 million gallons of water, getting secured to 50-ft thick concrete walls, and being held back by 700-ton steel gates before the water levels were equal enough to proceed. Engineering is wild, man!

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

It’s amazing that these ships, in all their enormity, were able to pass through with nary a bump or scrape. That there’s some pretty tight steering.

Untitled

Since Panama is a largely Catholic nation, a good number of places were closed Sunday the 23rd, the 24th, and the 25th, which meant that the 26th was one of the few days we could visit the Biomuseo, a biodiversity museum with a Dr. Seussian architecture that can be attributed to none other than Frank Gehry.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

The museum was also the endpoint of an hourlong stroll along Cinta Costera, Panama’s pedestrian walkway that hugs the coast.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

We took in views of Casco Viejo (above), the old town neighborhood full of brightly painted Spanish colonial-style buildings, and stopped by the Mercado de Mariscos (the fish market), where vendors were selling their catches-of-the-day left and right.

Untitled Untitled

Untitled Untitled

And finally, the Panama City leg of our trip was capped off by a delicious meal at Maito, where we sampled a tasting menu that I’m still dreaming about, even to this day.

Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled Untitled

All in all, not a bad way to spend the silly season. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just so I’m not inundating the Internets and your eyes with 28348293 photos, the second leg of my trip (aka the more nature-y part in Boquete) will be featured in a forthcoming post. For now — happy 2019!

Yakushima: Shiratani Unsuikyo

In Japan, there’s a major holiday week called Obon (Golden Week) that falls smack-dab in the middle of August. Being the travel-crazy person I am, I wasn’t going to pass up a free week and stay put in Tokyo. I was originally torn between Okinawa and Yakushima, two islands famous in their own right, but in the end, my indecisive self had to make a decision before rising flight prices could. Also, I kept staring at photos of Yakushima’s forested landscapes and I knew I was a total goner. When you’re presented with photos

Untitled

such

Untitled

as

Untitled

these,

Untitled

how can you say no?

Spoiler: You can’t.

Let’s talk about Yakushima, though. Yakushima is a small island off the coast of Kyushu. It is famous for its ancient cedar forests, banyan trees, monkeys, and oranges. It has become so famous for its forests in particular that Hayao Miyazaki visited the ancient trees of Shiratani Unsuikyo and got inspired to make a movie that we know and love called Princess Mononoke. In fact, it has become so famous that a section of Shiratani Unsuikyo is colloquially known as the Mononoke Forest, because tons of travellers to Yakushima not-so-coincidentally happen to be Studio Ghibli trash (hi, it me) who would love nothing more than to experience the otherworldliness of these landscapes (hi again).

So it should be of little surprise that my first full day was spent hiking in Shiratani Unsuikyo. I went on a tour with YES! Yakushima, and Steve did a fantastic job of guiding us away from the throngs of tourists.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

The forest itself is — in a word — verdant. Moss is sprawled all over the trees, the rocks, everywhere. The trunks and branches have all but twisted with time, creating an organic web of curves across the ground. If you’re lucky enough, you can see the indigenous Yaku macaques among the green-brown-black color palette of the landscapes.

Untitled

Before we hit Mononoke Forest, Steve had warned us that it might be easy to miss, because it’s a relatively small section of the park, and there are less-crowded variants of the forest nearby. He did have a point, though, as it’s pretty missable when your view is shrouded by lots of tourists trying to take photos.

It doesn’t make the view any less stunning, though.

MISCELLANEA:

  • It rains a lot. Yakushima runs on a subtropical climate, which means that it can be completely sunny one minute and a torrential downpour the next, like some weather god is flicking a power switch for funsies. Even though the hiking itself isn’t very physically demanding, hiking gear is a must if you don’t want to turn the trails into a Slip ‘n Slide.
  • Go to the bathroom before you head out to the trail, because peeing in the bushes is not a thing people do in Japan, ya barbarians.
  • Mosquitoes aren’t a huge deal in this part of Yakushima, as they don’t tend to hang around the heavily waterfalled areas. You have no idea how relieved I was.

Hiroshima, Miyajima, Okunoshima

Three weekends ago, ya girl went to Hiroshima.

Untitled

Hiroshima had been on my Japan travel bucket list for several reasons, chief among them history, okonomiyaki, and bunnies, but squeezing in trips outside of Tokyo within a 2-day timeframe was a challenge like any other.

Saturday brought about too much rain for my flimsy $2 drugstore umbrella to handle. Between visiting Miyajima Island versus Okunoshima Island (Rabbit Island), the latter seemed like a better option in the rain.

Untitled
The train station at Tadanoumi — a far cry from the city life in Tokyo and Hiroshima

I took the Shinkansen from the Hiroshima station to Mihara, switched to the JR Kure line from Mihara to Tadanoumi, walked a few minutes to the terminal at Tadanoumi Port, and then boarded the ferry for a 15-minute boat ride to Okunoshima. If I choose not to include the amount of time waiting for the hourly trains during the transfers, it took a little over an hour. However, door-to-door, Iโ€™m looking at over two hours of long transfers and hoping that my phone and external battery would last me the better part of the day (thankfully, it did). But hey, I used to commute 90 minutes each way to-and-from work, so I should have been used to it, right?

Anyway, work may have given me many perks and benefits, but work has never graced me with the presence of hundreds of cute bunnies.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Okunoshima Island is a small island off the coast of Hiroshima that is host to hundreds of feral rabbits. (Mind you, these cuties are absolutely tame and the exact opposite of what feral implies.) The exact origin story of how the bunnies populated the island is shrouded in vagueness, but either way, bunnies have taken over Okunoshima so much so that one step onto the island and you will be approached by a colony of rabbits.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

After feeling peckish, I ventured back into Hiroshima before the sunset. Dinner that night was at Koshida, where they serve my favorite food: okonomiyaki.

Untitled

Okonomiyaki — besides having the incredibly distinct honor of being MY FAVORITE FOOD — is a savory pancake, often made of eggs, flour, cabbage, and meat, and topped liberally with bonito flakes, an okonomiyaki sauce not unlike Worcestershire sauce, seaweed flakes, and Japanese mayonnaise. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, however, is a slightly different beast, as:

(1) the ingredients are mixed
(2) there are more layers of cabbage that uncooked okonomiyaki resembles a literal cabbage patch
and
(3) they cook it with noodles

THEY. COOK IT. WITH. NOODLES. The only thing that could make a savory pancake even better? MORE CARBS!

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

It goes without saying that I scarfed this bad boy down within minutes.

While it may seem that my culinary adventures in Hiroshima would be over after having peaked at okonomiyaki, Hiroshima is actually rife with really good food options. The next day had a pretty decent weather forecast, so I finally made it to Miyajima Island, an island known for its forests, temples, and Great Torii Gate. While I witnessed and appreciated all three things, the first thing I did as soon as I got off the ferry was eat oysters.

Protip #1-#1.5: Hiroshima is well-known for their oysters. So much so that Glico makes Hiroshima-oyster-flavored Pretz, which is good, but Iโ€™d still recommend eating the real thing over the Pretzed-up version.

Protip #2: Kakiya grills some damn good oysters.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Hiroshima, or rather Miyajima Island, is known for momiji manju, a red bean cake shaped like a maple-leaf. In fact, these cute little cakes are so well known and synonymous with Hiroshima that the Kit-Kat regional flavor is a momiji manju.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

While tourists (and deer — see above) normally overpopulate the main street of Miyajima, the number of people dwindled by the time I hiked the upward ascent to Miyajimaโ€™s peaks. Youโ€™ll find that the island itself is a juxtaposition of verdant forest and the blue ocean tides that surround it, should you choose to venture ahigh.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

The rest of the day was a quiet afternoon spent at Hiroshimaโ€™s Peace Memorial Park. A sobering testament to the cityโ€™s past, the park is home to the two Peace Bridges, the Peace Memorial Museum, the Memorial Cenotaph, and the ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled