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Traveling Provence and Southern France in March

Traveling Provence and Southern France in March

My fellow friends and family looked at me in horror when I said my husband and I would travel to Provence and southern France in March 2022. When we bought the tickets to Paris in January 2022, the omicron virus was still raging in both the US and EU and the border situation was precarious. Regardless, we took a gamble on the tickets. It was our last chance to take a long vacation and go abroad (due to husband’s work duties), and we were itching to travel.

So why France, and Provence in particular? read more

The Best Winter Street Food in Asia? Sweet Potatoes

The Best Winter Street Food in Asia? Sweet Potatoes

There’s a certain Thanksgiving dish that, with one bite, takes me back to my favorite winter comfort food in Asia: sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are one of the most popular winter street foods throughout China, Japan, Korea, and basically any country in East Asia with temperatures that drops below freezing.

In the USA, we know the typical sweet potato dish at Thanksgiving as a diabetic’s worst nightmare: mashed yams sprinkled in brown sugar and baked with a blanket of marshmallows. In China and Japan, however, sweet potatoes are prepared au natural: just the potato, wrapped in foil or paper, and baked until soft and moist. read more

Escaping the Summer Crowds in North Cascades National Park

Escaping the Summer Crowds in North Cascades National Park

After a truly devastating year of loss and isolation, I was dying to go on a vacation and get away from it all. However, with a new job and little PTO under my belt, I was stuck taking time off during the most dreadful holiday weekend of the summer: Fourth of July. I knew the Utah, Wyoming and California National Parks were going to be oozing with humanity, and fighting for parking spots and waiting in long hiking lines sounded like my worst kind of vacation.

A quick google search soon had me scoping out North Cascades National Park in Washington state — one of America’s least visited National Parks with “only” 120,000 visitors per year (for comparison, Yellowstone gets 650,000 annual visitors). Turquoise lakes, majestic mountains, lush forests AND no tourists? This made North Cascades an easy sell to my husband and two close friends. Within minutes, we had plane tickets booked for a summer adventure that was (crossing fingers) relatively empty. read more

Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho: A Perfect Summer Roadtrip

The Sawtooth National Forest near the Sun River Valley in Idaho is a perfect summer getaway for those who live on the West Coast. Why go to Sawtooth National Forest, you may ask? Not only does it lack the massive crowds that most other national parks have, but it also offers equally stunning hikes and activities.

Skip to the four day itinerary at the bottom if you want to go straight to the logistics!

Never heard of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho? Me either.

My friend in Utah and I were looking for a nice halfway vacation in between Portland and Salt Lake City. When I opened google maps and scanned the geography, I saw that the Sawtooth National Forest was right smack dab between Oregon and Utah. read more

Top 5 Most Livable Cities in the World (Ruby Ronin’s Pick)

Top 5 Most Livable Cities in the World (Ruby Ronin’s Pick)

Whenever I travel to a new city, I explore the sights and take in the sounds with a lingering question in the back of my mind: could I live here?

When I was younger, cities like New York and Shanghai appealed to me for their sheer number of job opportunities, excitement, and cultural amenities. As I start to get older and think about what I truly want in a city, I tend to choose easy-going over exhilarating. In other words, I ask myself: Could I raise a family here?

Ranked below are my top five most favorite cities that I would easily relocate to if given the chance. I selected and ranked these cities according to six criteria: safety, convenience, culture, stability, comfort, and cost. read more

How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

How to Hike the Kumano Kodo in Japan – Nakahechi Trail

Almost three years ago I hiked the Kumano Kodo trail, one of Japan’s holy pilgrimages and only one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimages in the world. I wrote about my experience here, but I did not follow through on my promise to write a guide.

Three years ago it was extremely difficult for me to find a blog post that detailed an itinerary on how to do the most frequented trail (Nakahechi) on the Kumano Kodo. I spent hours researching and I guessed on so many items. Even with my Japanese skills, planning this trip was tough. read more

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Why Montreal is my Favorite City in Canada

Notre Dame Basilica

Many are surprised to learn that my husband is a Canadian citizen. Before his parents took the plunge and moved to the United States, they started the first chapter of their North American life in the frozen North of Canada. My husband waxed poetic about Canada like it was a lost paradise. Mary, he often told me, I will take you to Canada–the country of my childhood–and I will show you why I love it so.

Well, husband came through. I’ve not only visited Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver–but to my surprise, my husband proposed to me on the top of Mount Whistler in Whistler, Canada. Like husband predicted, I fell in love with Canada. From my point of view, Canada is basically a friendlier, cleaner, and more egalitarian version of the United States. read more

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

My First Weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana

A few weeks ago I went to New Orleans, Louisiana for the first time and enjoyed a blissful weekend there filled with historical sights, classic soul cooking, and most of all–jazz. (Travel tips at the bottom of post)

For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a jazz fan and never once considered the thought of going to New Orleans.  In fact, I took a “survey of jazz” class in undergrad mostly to 1. get an easy “A” and 2. catch up on lost sleep.  For most of my life, jazz was music to be played in the waiting room of a doctor’s office or in an elevator.

Then, I met Tohko.

Tohko is my Japanese soul sister.  She dragged me to live jam sessions in Shanghai where the jazz (and Tohko) literally swept me off my feet.  When I lived with her to escape my flea infestation, she would put on her favorite jazz tune, take me in her hand, and whisk me away to dance on the living room floor.  We toe tapped while we cut vegetables, listening to jazz as we cooked dinner.  When we cleaned the apartment, Louis Armstrong was blasting on her stereo.  I was an easy convert.

“Mary,” she pointed at me. “Me.  You.  We’re going to New Orleans.  We have to see jazz in its birthplace.  We just have to.”

Going to New Orleans never once crossed my mind until that moment–but after she uttered those words, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Then, I moved to Texas.

Welcome to New Orleans: A City of Many Cultures

As fate would have it, Tohko and her new boyfriend arranged a visit to New Orleans while I was living in Texas and graciously invited me to be the third wheel–I mean, be a lovely addition–to their New Orleans vacation.

And wow, New Orleans blew all my expectations out of the water.

New Orleans has a culture that is uniquely… New Orleans.  It’s a blend of cajun and creole, French and Spanish, American and Southern.  As the birth place of Jazz and Cajun culture, the city has a unique identity that is simply not found anywhere else in the world.  It’s the kind of place you can walk around and hear music wherever you go–the whimsical noise of a jazz trumpet seeps out of every doorway, every window.  Foots are tapping everywhere in some kind of rhythmic beat that has entranced the whole city.

The music in the air.  That charming European architecture. That sweet smell of beignets and sugar wafting from the center of the French Quarter.  The echoing laughter of tourists on vacation, the tack-tack-tack of the old trolley carrying visitors around the city on century old rails.

It’s magical.

The Best Part of New Orleans?  Bacchanal Wine

Bacchanal Wine Stage
Bacchanal Wine Stage

I could wax poetic about New Orleans architecture and jazz all day, but let’s go straight to my favorite part of New Orleans: this outdoor wine and jazz bar a stone throw away from the Mississippi, and far away from the French quarter.

Bacchanal Wine came highly recommended to me by all my friends (and even travel shows); and wow, it’s one of those places where you’ll have an enchanted evening no matter what you do.  It’s a no-frills house converted into a wine cellar selling some of the best pours you’ll ever have, with some simple southern fare to match.  While the wine and fish may be top notch, you’ll enjoy these delicacies sitting on a humble plastic lawn chair matched with a metal table in the outside courtyard, listening to some of the best jazz New Orleans has to offer on a make-shift wooden stage.

One of the best cooked fish I’ve had in my life….!!!

Like many places in the south, the Bacchanal Wine bar is as low-key and local as they come.  It was the kinda place one could frequent in a nice dress, a suit, jeans, or shorts and a t-shirt–and no one would feel it was out of place.  It was the ultimate hangout joint.

Tohko, her new boyfriend and I all ate delicious fish, drank a bottle of wine, and listened to live jazz until the stars twinkled above us.  It was one of those magical evenings that only New Orleans–and Bacchanal–could offer.  I can’t recommend this place enough.  Take a taxi/lyft, get out of the French Quarter, and spend a few hours here.  You won’t regret it.

And the Best Jazz Clubs?  The Spotted Cat and Fritzels Jazz Cafe

The Spotted Cat Music Club

It’s been a struggle for me to find half-decent jazz bar.  Since my return from Shanghai, most Jazz clubs I’ve visited are filled with half-assed bands ready to make a quick buck.  Others are a little too orchestrated and stiff for my tastes.

I will say with certainty: the jazz in New Orleans is the real deal.  They play the classics mixed in with their own creations, followed up by the passionate outburst of random jam sessions.  At these two venues in particular, the music ultimately captivated the audience in attendance.

The Spotted Cat feels like a jazz bar built for swing dance–and that’s because you’ll most likely spot some professional swing dancers twirling at the front near the stage.  It’s a popular joint with a mix of locals and tourists; with the real locals twirling and dipping and jiving and tapping in full swing-dance gear near the band.  The energy of the venue is infectious and, while it can be crowded and noisy, the music is still the star of the show.

Fritzel’s, on the other hand, is a more low-key joint where one can sit, have a beer, and enjoy the music.  Wooden benches line the stage (with plenty of room for standing when it’s crowded).  Although the bar has a low hum of conversation in the background, most of the audience is enchanted by the energy and class of the Fritzel Band.

“Come on down,” the lead sings sweetly in the microphone, taking a break from his trombone solo. “Come on down to New Orleans.”

 

The Real Deal: Preservation Hall. Unchanged since the 1940s.

And finally, if you’re a real jazz fan, you know you gotta fork over the

$20 to go to Preservation Hall, the supposed birth place of some of the most legendary jazz songs in history.  In summer it’s a sweltering shoebox of people, and in winter I hear it’s as cold as death–but for the jazz-dedicated, this is a must. read more

Tea Evoked Memories

Tea Evoked Memories

I recently read an article about a tea specialist and her new tea franchise in an airline magazine. While these kind of articles are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, there was one comment from the tea-master that jumped out of the page at me:

“Every cup of tea evokes a memory, a feeling, a connection to something from your past.”

I couldn’t help but think just how true this statement was, as I reflected on my favorite types of tea and how they are linked to a particular moment in my past:

Genmai-Cha 玄米茶

Whenever I drink Genmai-cha, all I can think about is Japan. The flavor is unique and difficult to describe–it’s earthy, but has a flowery and light finishing taste–like buckwheat, hay and dandelions combined.  After steeped, the tea turns the water a light yellow color, almost like a chrysanthemum flower.  It feels like the working man’s tea, the commoner’s tea, a tea that refreshes in both the summer and winter.

Genmaicha is a green tea with roasted, popped brown rice

I had just arrived in Japan the day before.  My senses were in overdrive as I took in the foreign surroundings.  I kneeled on a tatami floor and looked around my host-grandparent’s old, wooden home: paper sliding doors (shoji) opened up to a Japanese garden outside.  A wind-chime sang in the breeze.  The humidity was oppressive, and I could feel sweat rolling down my neck.  The grandma turned on a nearby fan that whizzed back and forth in an effort to cool the room.  My host grandma and grandpa sat across from me and smiled, speaking quickly and fluently, forgetting that I wasn’t Japanese.  My head was dizzy with culture shock and language comprehension, but I did my best and did what any guest would do: nod and smile.

Like a Japanese person, I picked up the small Japanese tea cup from the saucer with both hands, blew on it softly and sipped it gently without noise.  I had green and black tea in America–but I immediately knew this tea was something else.

“What name is this tea?” I asked in broken Japanese.

The grandma giggled, “genmai-cha.  Do you like it?  Hold on.”

She stood up, ran to the kitchen and returned with a pouch of tea for me.  I insisted it was unnecessary to give me a bag of tea, but she shoved the tea pouch in my hand with a smile.

Pu-Er Cha 普洱茶

http://aboutteas.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/puer-tea-1.jpg

Pu-Er Cha is a high-end tea grown exclusively in China’s Yunnan region.  Although it’s somewhat easy to find low-quality pu-er tea in the states, wheels of high-grade pu-er tea are only available in China and sell for hundreds of dollars.  Among all teas, pu-er is extremely unique in taste and almost resembles coffee in its bitterness and color.  When I crumble pu-er tea in my hands, I feel like I’m crumbling soil of the Earth.  It smells like trees, soil, dirt.  It’s an Earthy tea with a rich, bitter flavor.

daketang

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I had a sanctuary in Shanghai, and it was a teahouse called Da Ke Tang.  The building is from the roaring 20s of Shanghai’s heyday and is a mix of French architecture with Chinese decorations.  The teahouse is incredibly high-end, with a chandelier in the reception room and the sitting room itself covered in gold mirrors and finely crafted wooden tables.  Old Shanghai jazz music plays here, and women in qipaos (slim Chinese dresses) stand at the bar mixing and serving tea.

Booths lined the floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out into the teahouse’s gardens.  After being seated, the qipao server would place nuts, an ashtray and a menu for the customers.  Although the menu was 10 pages long, there was only one item served:

Pu-er.

Even writing this hurts, cause I miss that damn place so much.  My Shanghai friends and I would simply sit, drink pu-er, and talk for hours.  There were times we would sit in silence, hold our teacups, and stare around the room in amazement.  It was a place that could only be in Shanghai–a memory I could only make in that city.  I sometimes spent $30 on high-end pu-er there, but it was worth it.  The server would add pot after pot of water and we would talk the hours away until our tea became too diluted to continue.

Oolong Tea 乌龙茶

I think we all know what Oolong tea tastes like.  To me, it’s the quintessential tea of Asia.  No matter where you go in Asia, it’s fairly easy to find a cup of Oolong somewhere, somehow.

I often drank Oolong tea in Japan, and it tasted just as it looked: slightly bitter with a strong barley taste.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the tea in Japan (I much preferred Genmai-Cha), but in China that changed.  For some reason, Oolong tasted different no matter where I went in China–although the smell stayed the same.

After my former roommate booted me out of her apartment because I failed to find her a white husband, I had fully moved into what I deem the best apartment I ever had the rare luck of living in. I invited Z and Jenny, my new coworkers, to look at the apartment and decided to get dinner.

We had dinner at a Cantonese restaurant only a few feet away from my new apartment.  Jenny squealed in delight when she saw that they had gong-fu-cha (kung fu tea).

A ‘gong fu cha’ (kung fu tea) set

“That’s like… a real thing?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.  “I thought it was only made for those cheesy Hong Kong kung fu flicks.”

“Of course it is!” she laughed.  “It’s quite a show.  Do you want to order it?”

The server came out with a tray that held three extremely small cups of tea (no larger than my thumb) and a matching clay teapot.   As soon as he set the tray down, he began to flip the teapot around his hand, flip the tea cups up and down below at lightning speed—and all while pouring tea.  I wouldn’t call it an amazing show; but rather, a waste of perfectly good tea (he literally spilled it everywhere).

“The tea spilled everywhere!” I exclaimed.  “What a waste!”

Z laughed, “that’s how we pour tea in China, Mary.  It goes all over the place.”

With the smell of oolong all around us, I took one of those tiny teacups and took a shot.  “Well, douse me with another shot of Oolong!”

Irish & English Breakfast

I was never a fan of English Breakfast tea.  It’s too bitter, and putting milk and sugar in my tea weirded me out (call me an Asian tea traditionalist).

Yet when I went to Ireland, I drank the stuff like crazy.  Every morning our bed and breakfast hostess would ask if we wanted coffee or tea, and I would copy the locals and order tea.  There was something satisfying and comfortable about drinking a cup of slightly sweetened Irish Breakfast tea on a cold and crisp Irish morning.  The locals often served us ‘Barry’s Irish Tea’ and, as a result, I bought a few boxes to take home to America.

Now when I’m home and brew a cup of Barry’s, I add some sugar and cream and take a deep breath of the tea’s rich, black aroma.  When I close my eyes I instantly recall the rolling hills of Ireland and those peaceful Irish mornings.

What kind of memories do tea evoke for you?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

Is a Flexible and Remote Work Environment Really Better for us?

This post has nothing to do with China, Japan, or even travel.  It’s just about the monster that has taken over my life and kept me from writing in this blog: my job.

Despite relocating to Dallas for this job, the nature of my role allows me to have a mostly flexible and remote working environment.  I haven’t visited the Dallas office in over a month.  In fact, I work from home and on the road almost all the time.  Many envy me when I tell them I work from home, but whenever I hear their words of longing, I can’t help but think…

Is a flexible, or remote, working environment really better for us?

The Line Between Work and Personal Space Begin to Blur

I used to tell people that I loved work more than school because, unlike school, work didn’t give us ‘homework.’  As a graduate student, the worry of papers and homework always loomed over my head even after class ended.  I thought back to my work days when work ended at 5pm and didn’t follow me around.  It was great to clock out, go home, and not worry about the monster that was my job until the next day.

I’ll tell you now:

a flexible work schedule destroys that clear barrier between work and personal space. read more