A while ago, about a month ago now, it was Golden Week. Golden Week is one of three holiday periods in Japan, when it’s common for people to go away. The other ones are Obon which is for honouring your ancestors and going to the cemetery, and New Year where you make your resolutions and go to a shrine. Golden Week doesn’t have any spiritual significance: it’s just where a few national holidays happen to fall on the same week. Somehow, it’s rare for them all to fall on consecutive days – more often, there’ll be a gap, e.g. Monday off, Tuesday and Wednesday working days, and then Thursday and Friday will be holidays. In some workplaces you’re lucky enough to be able to take the full week off anyway. Most schools don’t.
The fact that there are more than 2 consecutive days off and it’s no longer cold means that most of Japan is travelling around doing whatever touristy, holiday-y things they can, so hotels and flights are at peak prices and full, and you probably won’t get a seat on the Shinkansen unless you reserve one*.
This all means it’s a bit hectic travelling during Golden Week and I wouldn’t recommend coming to Japan during that time unless there’s something on specifically at that time that you’re coming for, like Takayama Spring festival or something.
I was lucky enough to get out of Japan, escaping the Japanese crowds to have a holiday instead in the crowds of Honkers, a.k.a. Hong Kong.
To be honest, I don’t usually go for crowds and I’d rather have a holiday out in the sticks than in a big city, so I’d never really considered going to HK until I had a stopover there on the way back from Australia earlier this year. From the airport I could see mountains and wanted to go and have a closer look. They looked a beautiful hiking spot.
Then a friend asked what my plans were for Golden Week and if I wanted to get out of the country. Hong Kong, Vietnam and a couple more Asian countries were on the list of potentials, and one way or another we ended up going with Honkers. For me, hiking and food were the main attractions. We all also wanted simply to go to more places that we hadn’t been to before. The others had other reasons, too, like learning more about the Umbrella Revolution or other political/historical things – which I was also interested in but not to the point that it was a major attraction.
When we arrived, the transport was impressive. Getting to our accommodation was confusing because the recommended station exit was under construction, and being underslept at the time, I found the area a bit overwhelming. Tsim Sha Tsui, the area we were staying in Kowloon, was hot, busy, and dirty, and it took us longer than it probably should have to find the place. I blame our reliance on the Internet for the decline in – is it navigational skills, or organisational? Either way, in familiar territory, I’m used to being able to just aim for the area and when I seem to be getting close, look up the details on Google Maps. In unfamiliar territory I rely too much on GMaps and don’t get so much of a sense of orientation as with a paper map.
So I was hot and bothered, and my first thought upon getting to the air-conditioned hostel room and looking out the window onto the concrete jungle was ‘why did we come to this s###hole?’ I managed to refrain from mentioning this to my travel companion for about half an hour, by which time I was in a better mood and able to realise that by the time we’d had a few fun adventures it might not seem such an awful place. This was right, by the way. After a day in the city I was pretty much tearing my hair out, but after the next day hiking I was feeling much more positively disposed, and by the time we’d been there four days I had decided it was a great place.
Eating and drinking
Hong Kong was more hipster than I’d anticipated. As well as having lots of more stereotypically Asian-seeming poorer Chinese areas with cheap eateries, there were quite a few coffee shops with soy milk and flat whites** and the like.
On the recommendation of Lisa at Caffeine 86, we went to the Cupping Room, later remembered by my friends as the ‘Sipping Cup.’ At the Cupping Room I had some really good pasta and they served Australian-style all-day breakfast, you know, like smoked salmon and avocado with poached eggs for AUD22. There, too, though, the soy cappuccino was pretty average – maybe they’d had it curdle in the past so they were trying to fix the problem by putting very little coffee in it.
Back in TST, I’d decided to stop taking the risk of paying through the nose for mediocre soy cappuccinos and had an Americano with breakfast at N1 Coffee & Co. It was strong and tasted quite acidic – maybe I’d have been better with an espresso. Nice bagels.
So, many of the places made disappointing attempts at soy cappuccinos. But there was one place called the Coffee Academics, inside a shiny shopping centre full of ridiculously posh shops, that had the most delicious almond milk cappuccino I’ve ever had. It also had the first rose petal and strawberry jam that I’ve ever tasted, which I think I’ll never forget. It was served with what must have been clotted cream, which made me finally understand why some people think you should put cream on the scone before the jam.
This rose petal jam is one of the things Hong Kong is famous for, for which I assumed we could thank the English. But it turns out it’s actually originally a family heirloom of the pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental, who is originally from Switzerland. It was his mum’s recipe and he was on his way to Australia when he started working in Hong Kong more than 30 years ago, and is still there. The rose petal jam is famous as a souvenir and pretty expensive, and it seems only to be available to buy at the Mandarin Oriental cake shop. The Mandarin Oriental is a very expensive, fancy and popular place for high tea. We tried to go but it turns out they’re booked out a couple of weeks in advance. High tea, though, we did do at some other fancy place called AMMO.
We had bubble tea (or boba, if you like) a couple of times, which was pretty good, if about 3 times the size I wanted. You could choose the sweetness and amount of ice.
We also went to an upmarket rooftop bar with delicious and interesting cocktails, though the experience was marred for me by the pungent cigar smoke of the only white man in the place at the time, sitting behind me. Some other young white men in suits turned up after a while, one of whom had a southern English accent so posh I wanted to laugh. They didn’t do anything stinky, so I liked them.
I had yum cha, or dim sum if you prefer (though we were served tea every time) 3 times, the most disappointing of which was at the famous Michelin-starred chain restaurant Tim Ho Wan. The other two times were excellent, even though one of them was at Victoria Peak where if it was Australia you’d pay a huge amount for the view and the food would almost definitely be pretty mediocre.
I had congee only once, unfortunately – didn’t get around to it until the day before we left. It’s not much to look at but it tasted fantastic. My friend and I were also pretty excited to be eating at this place because were surrounded by Japanese people who had no idea that we knew they were Japanese or could understand any of what they said. The place must have been written up in a Japanese travel guide, and I think they must often have a lot of Japanese customers because the wait staff explained to the couple next to us in Japanese that the chopsticks were in a drawer under the table.
One night we had Lebanese food which was fantastic, though the service was pretty wanky. I think maybe travellers often go to that place looking for cheap kebabs not realising that if you sit down it’s a proper meal with proper prices. They were all right once they believed we knew what we were getting in for. The food was great.
Another night, when I was in a bad mood, we went to a kebab place. The other two really liked their kebabs. I was muttering darkly to myself inside my head about the likelihood of getting food poisoning from this place and didn’t enjoy the food. We also had some pretty ordinary noodles the first night, although they were cheap, and another night we had Peking duck, which though the duck itself was good, the pancake that came along with the duck, cucumber, spring onion and sauce was doughy and not enjoyable.
The last night we went to a place called Little Bao, which serves ‘bao burgers.’ You know the bready part of a steamed pork bun? If you’ve ever had yum cha in Australia, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a sweet, steamed bread. Well, they’d made a bread roll/burger bun of that, and then it had kind of Chinese fusion fillings. Mine was pork belly with something. It was sensational. We also had smoky eggplant salad and something else. The drinks we got were a bit too out there – I think a beer would have gone better with the burger. Anyway it was great.
The appeal of the food in Honkers seems to be due to its cultural diversity. Certainly most of what we ate in Hong Kong would be difficult, if not impossible to find in Hiroshima. Hiroshima has one Turkish restaurant which is nice, but just nowhere near the level of what we had at the Lebanese place in Honkers, which was across the road from another place that had more delicious Middle Eastern food. And egg tarts do not seem to exist in Western Japan, i.e. west of Osaka, let alone BBQ pork buns. Maybe in Osaka.
After hearing about an ex-housemate’s experience, I was prepared for people to be rude in Hong Kong, but actually, with the exception of the white man and his stinky cigar, it was completely fine. People were more direct than they are in Japan, and it’s definitely a different style of hospitality to what you get in Japan, but I guess not really different to Australia. I found it honest and refreshing, and I found that I felt more able to express myself than in Japan where I’m always worried about being watched, overheard and judged. My friend commented that I was making a lot more remarks about people’s appearance than I ever do in Japan. I guess Hong Kong just seemed a lot freer and accepting in many ways, and everyone was talking loudly, so I just didn’t care as much. In Japan I feel the pressure of being an ambassador for Gaikoku, as usually the only white person in the vicinity. In Hong Kong I didn’t care because not only were there more white people, there were people from all over Asia and Europe too, and half of them had tattoos or were showing midriff or bra straps, and there were quite a few people wearing hijab or other cultural garb.
Shop assistants spoke competent English without a hint of panic, routinely switching back to (what I assume was) Cantonese when the next local-looking customer came in. At all the touristy places I went to, I heard several different languages spoken, and nobody looked twice at me or my friends. At the end of a week of this, and let’s be honest, a week away from work, I felt a changed woman.
After the trip with its adventures and unavoidable ups and downs, coming back to work was pretty hard. I was mired in gloom for a week or two, which I think has more or less retreated for the moment – helped by friends and things to do on the weekends and occasional weeknights.
Speaking of mental health, actually, on the radio the other day I heard that Justin Heazlewood (the Bedroom Philosopher) has written a book about growing up with a mum who had schizophrenia. It’s called Get Up Mum. It sounded interesting and got me wondering if anyone would write and publish such a memoir in Japan, or if mental health is still too taboo. What do you think?
*The Shinkansen is always expensive. Most Shinkansens have non-reserved carriages, usually carriages 1-3, whose tickets are cheaper than for the rest of the train where you have allocated seating.
** Wiki reckons a flat white has a double espresso in it. Does it? It was news to me.