Wednesday, 11 May 2016

A Short Break in Hong Kong

After exploring Taiwan and before travelling onwards to Japan Nick and I spent a long weekend in Hong Kong. It wasn't a city that had ever piqued my interest enough to book a trip there but it seemed like a somewhat logical stop between Taipei and Tokyo thanks to some cheap air mile flights so we decided to go for it.

We arrived bright and early and after catching the bus into town to our hotel in North Point we headed to our second stop, Manna Fast Slow Food. Manna are a healthy wrap, salad and juice spot located right in the swanky downtown area of Hong Kong. I was craving something carby and I'd heard great things about their wraps so it seemed like the perfect first stop. 

After perusing their menu for a few minutes, you can choose either a wrap or a salad with four fillings for HK$90 / £8 / $11.60, and wishing that the prices weren't so ridiculous when compared to Taiwan, I decided on a tofu and hummus wrap with avocado and rocket. When ordering you need to keep in mind that you can get any 4 toppings for your money, tofu, fries, hummus and falafel are in the same price bracket as lettuce, tomatoes, mint and sprouts!! That seems a little strange to me, who would choose sprouts instead of hummus when they cost the same?! I felt a little strange choosing rocket instead of fries but I thought that one salady item would make the wrap pretty great and I was right.

Despite all of my best plans I was not expecting Manna to have slathered a super spicy spread throughout my wrap so annoyingly, after one bite, I had to go and buy another one specifying that I didn't want any za'atar. This was especially frustrating as I'd googled Za'atar whilst waiting in line to double check that it wouldn't have chilli, I'd only eaten it a couple of times before and I couldn't remember! According to the internet Za'atar has thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt. No chilli! No paprika! Nothing that'll make my face break out in a rash and cause me to have intense stomach cramps and joint swelling for days or weeks on end. But this was so spicy that Nick could hardly eat his own wrap let alone mine as well so we figured it was worth spending the extra cash for me not to be allergic to my lunch! Once I had my non-spicy wrap in hand my hanger subsided and it was really freaking good, the flatbread itself was perfect and they were generous with all of the fillings. 

Our next stop was Green Common in Central because I'd heard a rumour that they had Miyoko's Kitchen cheeses in stock. Epic vegan cheese is kinda unheard of in Asia so there was no way that I was missing out on this splurge. At the airport whilst waiting for our flight to Hong Kong I perused my Vida Vegan Con Bazaar pictures desperately trying to remember what my favourite cheese was but alas they only had Sun-dried Tomato Garlic and Double Cream Chive (perhaps Loire Valley Fig doesn't travel so well?) so my decision was made. 

As I'm not a huge sun-dried tomato fan I went with the Classic Double Cream Chive and I was super pleased with my decision. It's so good! I was also excited to spot some Follow Your Heart Mozzarella shreds so we grabbed a bag of those as I had a pizza based plan in mind! We browsed around the rest of the store and were impressed with their wide range of imported American products, they had both Beyond Meat and Gardein, and they were all fairly reasonably priced given they they were imported from the US in cold storage. The prices of the British imports were wildly out of control through, they had Moo Free bars for the equivalent of £8 a bar so we left the chocolate on the shelf.

After our brief whirl around Green Common we stopped at Marks and Spencer's because well, we're Brit's in Hong Kong, we had to! After marvelling at the price of imported ready meals and margarine we grabbed a vegan baguette and some gelatine and beeswax free gummy sweets (vegan wine gums y'all!) and went on our way. Tiredness meant that it was time for one of my favourite travel activities - the bed picnic! 

The next day we were up bright and early and we decided that to offset the slightly ridiculous cost of food (compared with what we'd been spending in Asia up until this point) we'd ride the unbelievably cheap tram about the place for the day. It's a cool way to see some sights and if you get an upstairs window seat it's a little like taking one of those tourist busses.

After much walking, riding the escalators and popping into temples fuelled by anther Manna wrap we popped into our most local Loving Hut for dinner. The set dinner and lunch menus are pretty reasonably priced and you get rice, soup or tea and your choice of three mains for HK$48 / £4.30 / $6.20 . On our first trip we hit the jackpot with some barbecued chicken and on our second I had an amazing stewed tofu dish, braised aubergines, five spice mushrooms and a vegan egg.

I hadn't noticed this on day one but for HK$5 / 45p / 65¢ you can throw a vegan egg onto your meal! It was actually really good, very much like a non-dippy fried egg, the "yolk" and the "white" were different textures and I bet it would make an epic sandwich. I'm kinda regretting not getting a few of these to go and combining them with some M&S baguette and some Miyoko cheese for the ultimate filthy sandwich!

On our first smog-free day in the city we hopped onto the funicular and headed up Victoria Peak for some classic touristing. This was a classic HK experience in that when you get off of the tram you're in a mall and as you follow signs to the observation deck it becomes clear that you're headed towards an area where they're gonna charge you to look at the view! I can't tell you how many of these "stuck in a mall" experiences Nick and I had in the city, it began to get a little silly after a while. I'm not at all prone to getting lost but Hong Kong had me wanting to scream at Google Maps on more than a few occasions. Four stories up in the mall we made a quick turn around and started trying to find a way out - we were in luck with the third set of doors we tried and walked around to the free observation spot to the left of the mall. 

The view was gorgeous and were even able to enjoy it alone for five minutes before a tour group from a cruise ship arrived. They were actually quite cute and seemed to be having fun spotting their ship from the top of the peak! We soon got hungry though and as soon as I realised that the tram stop was close to Pure Veggie House I knew that we'd be getting our dim sum on. To say that I love dumplings would be a massive understatement, they're one of my favourite food groups, and dim sum is one of my favourite ways to dine. Nick and I had good dim sum in Taipei but this was a whole 'nother level. If the prices had been close to Taipei prices we'd have stayed there eating all afternoon. 

We ate gyoza, steamed buns, shumai, these little sweet flaky pastries and some big flat rice noodle things stuffed with mushrooms and greens. 

Both the shu mai and the gyoza were the best I've ever tasted and the steamed buns were delightful. Everything was basically perfect and I cannot recommend Pure Veggie House highly enough. It's on the pricy side hence the light ordering and the fact that we only dined there once but it's more than worth the visit. We walked down from the restaurant and then took a people watching break in Hong Kong Park. Like all of the parks we checked out in Hong Kong this isn't the place for kicking a ball around, it's more of a well manicured landscape garden than a park but it certainly seemed to be the place to head with the photographer you've hired for the day to take your family holiday snaps!

By that evening we were getting a little tired of city life and decided to take a day trip to Ping Shan to walk the heritage trail the next day. I was really glad that we did this, it was fun despite some of the attractions on the trail being things like an old well (a plaque where there was once a well!) but the more serene moments more than made up for them. 

Trail aside it was a great area to get to know as it seemed much more normal then the centre of the city which, I have to admit, I described on more than one occasion as an awful capitalist playground. Whilst we were walking the trail we saw school kids taking their lunch breaks, street vendors selling cheap eats and men heading to the mosque. Thanks to Happy Cow we also found Lotus Healthy Vegetarian a fantastic little restaurant where they serve up simple traditional dishes. The mock meats aren't vegan so stick to the tofu and vegetable dishes and you'll be good. I went with a really simple steamed aubergine and pumpkin dish with rice which was perfect. I adore aubergines and these were delightful.

The next day we did something completely different and headed to a yoga festival. For doughnuts. After getting lost in a mall and stuck on the wrong side of a highway for about 45 minutes we made it to the park where the little fest' was taking place. By the time we arrived (a little before lunch) there were only two doughnuts and a few cupcakes left - apparently yoga people get up early! 

If you've travelled half way across town to a yoga festival just for doughnuts then they'd better be good and thankfully Rebel Girl smashed my expectations outa the park. Their cupcakes were beyond decent but their doughnuts were uh-mazing. Chocolate with caramel can go either way for me, sometimes the caramel is just too much, but Rebel Girl got this spot on. If they'd had more I'd have spent hours lying in the park eating doughnuts! 

After getting our doughnut on (and finding our way back across than damned highway) we headed right across Kowloon to see a different side of the city. Mong Kok is Hong Kong's busiest district and the second most populated area on earth after the Dharavi Slums in Mumbai. Strangely whilst it did feel hella busy (it being a Saturday afternoon and all) it wasn't claustrophobic, the streets were teeming with people but the markets were fascinating enough that the crowds didn't bother me and because it wasn't that hot it was nowhere near as intense as the night markets I visited during Thailand's vegetarian festival last year.

After spending hours wandering around the streets soaking in the bustling markets and lively atmosphere we popped into Veggie Family for a spot of lunch. We were pretty hungry and the prices were really reasonable so we went big with our order and got an assorted mock meat plate to share.

That was obviously a fantastic decision, you can't go wrong with a mock meat plate and as soon as they put it down in-front of us I knew we'd made the right decision. The three types of seitan differed in both texture and flavour and I was very excited to see my favourite red pork taking centre stage. I love that stuff!

I don't remember the name of my main course but it was basically braised tofu with mushrooms and bok choy and it was beyond delicious. It was super saucy, the tofu was tender and the veggies were cooked perfectly. It stands out as a Hong Kong highlight for sure.

One of my other fave' spots in Kowloon was An Sin Vegetarian, another dim sum place that literally couldn't be more different than Pure Veggie House. There are no fancy table cloths or people refilling your tea here, this is hole-in-the-wall dining at it's best. There's a menu outside but of course we couldn't read it so after enquiring about eggs and milk we just pointed at the the things we wanted from the huge range of things we could eat.

I didn't get any pictures of the food I ate from An Sin because I mainly devoured their dim sum in the dark on the park bench opposite their shop like the classy lady that I am. We tried their perfectly greasy spring rolls, turnip cake, sesame balls, steamed pork buns, bean curd skin rolls and anything else that took our fancy. It was all amazing and so cheap, it didn't seem to matter how much food we were buying it always came to about HK$40 / £4 / $5

Lastly, we had to visit Pizza Express! Just in case you don't know Pizza Express are a UK based pizza chain with restaurants in practically every town. It was the place my family headed to celebrate every birthday or special occasion when I was a kid (and it's still the only place my dad and I ever meet up to eat!), it was the place my friends and I would go as students when we were feeling like pretending to be fancy and it was where Nick and I had many dates early on in our relationship - I think he just took me there so that I didn't realise that he pretty much only ate pizza! As well as the familiarity being hard to resist I'm a huge pizza fan and Pizza Express has always been good to vegans. They've had a well labelled allergen menu for years now, they let you bring your own cheese as long as it's in a sealed bag and they recently added a vegan pizza to the menu in their UK restaurants.

They actually have a vegetarian pizza on their menu in Hong Kong that's made with marinated Beyond Meat crumbles and that could totally be made vegan if you switched the cheese but alas, the chilli wasn't removable, so I just went with some of my favourite veggies - mushrooms, asparagus, olives and cherry tomatoes to top my pizza. It was delicious! I miss pizza a lot whilst I'm travelling in countries where it isn't easy to find. I'm kiiiinda fussy when it comes to pizza, I'm a-ok with cheeseless but the crust and sauce have to be reeeeally good for me to think that it's an acceptable option. Don't give me a cracker-like crust with a tiny smear of tomato puree and a couple of limp veggies and call it a pizza. The paring of a nostalgic UK pizza with one of my favourite American melty cheeses brought back tonnes of fond food memories. Getting to eat this halfway around the world was the perfect end to our long weekend in Hong Kong.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Vegan at Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland is going to be an interesting experience for those well versed in Disney parks as well as Disney newbies like Nick and I. The queueing is unlike any other theme park we've ever attended but if you go in with a plan you're sure to have a fun day. 

The first decision you need to make is which park to visit. There are two Tokyo parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. Both are conveniently located in the same place right by Maihama station but they're worlds apart when it comes to rides. After watching some helpful videos on the Disney website we ascertained that Tokyo Disney Sea is the park with the scariest rides and therefor wasn't for us! I prefer something more mellow, think Professor Burps Bubbleworks not the Flying Carpet. I can get down with little rollercoasters but I prefer not to go upside down and I don't like that feeling where you plummet towards the ground leaving your stomach a few meters above you and Nick can't deal with things that spin... it was at this point that we wondered whether we should really be going to a theme park at all but we wanted to give it a shot as we were doubtful that we'd ever end up at any of the other Disney parks.

Nick has less patience when it comes to queueing than I do (weird given that he is the more patient one in almost any other situation!) so he did a tonne of research and read a lot of blog posts about how to get the most out of a one day visit to Tokyo Disneyland and I'm going to share what we learnt with you.

My first tip is to check the crowd calendar. Tokyo is the most populated city on earth and the Disney parks are only a short ride on the metro from the centre meaning that it's busy, busy, busy all the time. We were there on a yellow day (76) and we saw queues of 200 minutes for the most popular rides at peak times. Japanese school holidays are of course at different time of year to those in the rest of the world so don't assume it'll be quiet aside from during the July - August summer holidays!

Tip number two, once you've decided on an appropriate day buy your tickets in advance. You can purchase tickets from booths at convenience stores if you can read Japanese but if not I'd recommend getting them from the Disney Store in Shibuya.

Tip number three! Arrive early. Not 9am early, 7am early. You want to be in the queue outside with your tickets in hand by 7:30am at the latest. Yes, this means that you'll probably have to get up at 5am. Yes, it's totally worth it. If you don't arrive early you'll miss out on all of the Fast Pass goodness and your day will be considerably less fun.

This moves us nicely to tip number four, make a plan. You don't want to be left standing staring at the map you downloaded a PDF of on your phone wondering where to go first when the gates have opened because you need to get on it fast. People run. Disney have people everywhere smiling at you and welcoming you to the park but also telling you to slow down and to stop running. You can get away with a very swift walk! Your plan may well be different depending on which rides you're most excited about but here's a rundown of what Nick and I did. Firstly we fast-walked to the Monsters Inc ride to get a FastPass.

This is tip five, utilise Fast Passes. With queues often hovering around the two hour mark you're going to want to use the fast passes. For those of you who are not familiar these passes mean that you can skip the queue to your chosen ride. Use them for the rides with the longest queue times to get the most out of them. To get a FastPass head to the FastPass booth located by your chosen ride, put your ticket under the scanner and take your pass. You get a one hour window to come back and ride and you can get your next FastPass after two hours or the start time of your current pass has passed, whatever comes first. We got our Monsters inc FastPass at 8:05 and our window was from 9:45 - 10:45. As soon as we had our passes in hand we fast-walked to Pooh's Hunny Hunt. It's vegan because Pooh is a bear and it's a-ok for him to eat honey!

This was one of our top choice rides and it was SO fun. The wait at that time of the morning was only 30 minutes which was pretty amazing when you compared it to the queue times later in the day. I won't ruin the surprise of what happens during the ride but the Tigger section was super cool! After ticking ride one of the day off of the list we headed to the Haunted Mansion for ride two because we still had an hour before we could get a new FastPass or ride the Monster's Inc ride. It was super spooky and they have some really cool special effects going on in there - it's a little different to the much loved and often mocked Haunted Mansion ride on Brighton Pier that's for sure. We had a few moments to spare after riding the Haunted Mansion to soak in some of the Disney magic as we wandered over to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to get our next FastPass. BTMR was a ride that we were both excited about and we knew the queues would be long so fast passing was the only option to save our sanity. On the way over we saw that the queue times for Splash Mountain were already over 140 minutes but thanks to our research we knew a sneaky tip to get around that! 

Tip six, utilise the single rider queue on Splash Mountain. If you go up to the FastPass queue for Splash Mountain and say "single rider" you'll be funnelled into a special queue designed to fill any empty seats left by groups of three or five or whatever. It does mean that you'll be riding with some new friends rather than the ones you came with but I'd rather do the that stand in an unnecessary queue! 

Moving on, with our new FastPass tickets safely secured in my jacket pocket we headed back to Tomorrowland to ride the Monsters Inc ride. It was another fun one and again seeing the queue made us glad that we'd had the foresight to FastPass it. This wall is just around the corner from the store and it's where every single group of Japanese kids visiting the park takes a group photo! 

They're all more adorable than us because the majority of Japanese kids visiting the park with their friends will have some kinda coordinated outfit going on. Maybe they'll just have co-ordinating minnie mouse bow headbands or matching three-eyed squeeze toy alien hats but you'll also see groups in full on matching outfits. It's seriously one of the most fun places to people watch ever

We rode a couple of the rides that we weren't super excited about after Monster's Inc because the queues were so short that it was worthwhile. It's a Small World is something I'd heard of - apparently the song's a big deal or something, it didn't feature in my childhood as far as I can remember but any ride involving a tiny boat is good with me! We also checked out Snow White's Adventure which we enjoyed more than we thought we would. After that we checked out Tom Sawyer Island and rode the super sedate Western River Railroad before grabbing our next FastPass for Star Tours. 

After our super fun ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad we wondered whether we could FastPass and go again because it was so much fun but passes for it had already closed. By this point our stomaches were growling and we decided that it was clearly time for a snack and a sit down. This moves us nicely onto tip number seven, if you're vegan take your own food. Tokyo Disney have a whole load of allergy guides on their website but none of them are overly helpful for vegans as meat and most fish products are not allergens. They also state that if you have allergies that cannot be met by the park's allergy menus that you can bring your own food. Our bags were searched at the entrance and we had no issues at all despite having bags that were clearly stuffed full of inari tofu, onigiri, Clif bars, bananas (bad choice btw), Happy Date bars, Chip Star crisps and chocolate. I've heard rumours that there's a vegan cheeseless pizza on the menu at the Pan Galactic Pizza Port in Tomorrowland and that Eastside Cafe in the World Bazaar has a vegan pasta dish. The pizza option is intriguing for sure, although I can't see anything about it on the online menu, but 2000¥ for slightly dubious pasta with tomato sauce? I'm good with my own snacks thanks! Now if you're bringing a picnic you're meant to eat at the designated picnic ares just outside the park but we decided that we'd just eat one snack at a time on a bench inside the park whilst people watching. I don't think that our munching on onigiri was ruining the magic for anyone!

My eighth and ninth tips are pretty simple but take a reusable water bottle and wear comfortable shoes. There are drinking water fountains all over the park. Drinks aren't that pricy compared to what you'd pay at a UK theme park but why pay for water when you can get it for free? The shoes part should be a given but I can see how a pair of red glitter heels might seem like a great part of your Disney co-ord! Before you choose your cutest shoes keep in mind that Nick and I walked 13.6 miles during our day at Disney and in anything other than my Sketchers I think my feet would have given up long before the park closed.

Our FastPass time for Star Tours wasn't until 4:40 so we had some more time to check out some of the smaller rides. We hopped onto the Jungle Cruise Wildlife Expedition, rode the slightly dull Mark Twain Riverboat and I had a ride on the carousel. We then grabbed our next FastPasses for Buzz Lightyear - by this time of day there were none left for any of the major rides so we were glad that we'd decided that Space Mountain would have been too scary for us anyway. Star Tours was by far the scariest ride of the day, it's a simulator but hoo-boy did that thing drop us all the way from outer space into the sea in a terrifyingly real fashion. I gripped onto my armrest for the duration of the ride and then leant on a wall outside feeling a little queasy for ten minutes afterwards!

After checking out the carousel one more time Nick and I headed to the Dream Lights Parade which was super fun to watch. Because this is Japan and everyone here is wonderfully polite people stayed seated so that you could still see even if you were in the third row. Also, the floats are humongous so you can't really miss 'em!

After the parade there was time for a quick twirl on Dumbo's Flying Elephants before catching the Once Upon a Time show where they light up the palace with all sorts of cool lazers and some kinda movie featuring princesses and stuff. There were fireworks at the end too which were cool and I definitely enjoyed the magical feeling of the show.

At this point it was time to squeeze in a few more rides before the park closed so we rode the Peter Pan Flight which was way more fun than we'd imagined it would be. We finally stood in the single rider line for Splash Mountain for a whole ten minutes before hopping into consecutive logs and riding the flume. It was without a doubt the best log flume I've ever been on, there were a couple of small drops as well as a larger one but there was plenty of time spent just bobbing around in the boat checking out the scenery which I enjoyed. Pinocchio's Daring Adventure was our second last ride of the day and I'd say that it's skippable unless you're a huge fan, we just chose it because there was no line! Lastly we had time to squeeze onto the last journey through the Haunted Mansion which was totally worth the second ride as I spotted some things I hadn't seen the first time around.

By this point we were beyond exhausted and totally happy to hop onto the train back towards Tokyo Station. We managed to do almost everything on our list, I never made it onto the Star Jets because the queue was never short enough to wait alone and it was too fast and spinny looking for Nick to even consider it. We also missed the Happiness on High fireworks but we felt that the firework display during the Once Upon a Time show was enough for one day so that seemed like a reasonable choice.

Overall I'd say that a visit to one of the Tokyo Disney parks would make a great day out for anyone with a love of kitsch visiting Tokyo for more than a week or big Disney fans who'll be in Tokyo for shorter periods of time. The rides were fun, especially Pooh's Hunny Hunt, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and Monster's Inc but the people watching was definitely my favourite part of the day.

I have a couple of questions for Disney fans! Firstly, do people co-ordnate outfits with their friends at any of the other parks? I feel like this must just be a Japanese thing as I see people co-ordinating with their friends all over the place here! Secondly, is popcorn a big deal at all Disney parks? At the Tokyo park we saw people carrying their own Disney popcorn buckets, presumably from previous visits, and as far as I can tell they're taken to get refilled at all of the fun flavoured popcorn stands around the park! I saw Monsters Inc buckets, Snowman buckets, Minnie Mouse bow shaped buckets. I even saw a triple layered pastel coloured popcorn bucket! Super kawaii!!