Ho Chi Minh City – Intro

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Notre Dame

About 10 days after returning from my Jakarta trip, I was back on the road again. There was a great fare to Tokyo, but then another good fare to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) popped up. Although it cost more than the fare to Tokyo, I had never been to Vietnam and it was on my radar.

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People Watching

I didn’t know much about traveling to Vietnam, let alone that I needed a tourist visa. From the time I bought my ticket until my scheduled flight there were several changes to the tourist visa. If I would have known what was going to transpire, I probably would have delayed going to Vietnam until things got better.

At the time I purchased my ticket, you could gain entry via tourist for $25 for a one time entry. The US apparently changed their tourist visa policy towards Vietnam, and they likely changed their visa policy. Gone was the one time entry visa of $25, and introduced was a one year multi-entry visa for $135.

From what I read, there was a lot of pushback from tour operators in Vietnam as they knew this new policy would likely decrease tourism, and therefore their livelihood.

Days before I departed, they supposedly re-instituted the one time tourist visa of $25, but every visa service I saw was still offering only the multi-entry visa. Perhaps they were slow on implementing the change, as they were charging more for the mutli-entry visa than the one time visa entry.

If going to Vietnam, I suggest that you have all of your paperwork ready, including your visa entry letter, passport photos, and cash in USD. It will save you a lot of time. I used Vietnam Visa Pro and had no problems with them.

After deplaning, you must deal with your entry visa prior to heading to immigration unless you already have a multi-entry visa.

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New Buildings

Ho Chi Minh City seems to be a city undergoing a big change. It is a city mixed with old and new. Construction is abounding, and a metro system is being constructed, but probably won’t be finished for a few years.

I didn’t have the opportunity to explore the country outside of Ho Chi Minh City, but I guess that’s where the motivation comes in for having a multi-entry visa, LOL.

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Hokokuji Temple – Kamakura

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Hokokuji Temple

Hokokuji Temple is a Buddhist Temple in Kamakura. It is probably most famous for its bamboo garden.

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Torii Gate

Once you enter through the torii, there is a small narrow path leading you past some statues and a small bamboo water feature.

The temple and grounds are somewhat small.  There are small stone statues adorning the courtyard area in front of the temple.

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Courtyard

Past the temple is another smaller courtyard with a tree and a very small rock “garden”.

Beyond that, is Hokokuji most famous feature, the bamboo forest.

Through the thicket of bamboo lies a small tea house where, for a small fee, you can enjoy a glass a matcha while contemplating life and enjoying the view of the bamboo forest.

After leaving the tea house, the trail leads through more bamboo and onto another garden.

This garden peers out to three small caves, which are inaccessible to visitors.

The path then leads to a tranquil rock Zen garden.

Hokokuji is quite far away from Kamakura station, and the other main sites that I visited. It was somewhat disappointing in that I was expecting the bamboo forest and grounds to be a lot larger.

If not pressed for time however, I would recommend a visit as the grounds are very calming, relaxing and beautiful.

Matsubara-an – Kamakura, Japan

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Matsubara-an

Kamakura Matsubara-an is one of the more highly regarded restaurants in Kamakura. They also have a sister restaurant in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo.

The restaurant specializes in soba noodles, which are handmade daily. They are also known for their duck preparations as well dashimaki tamago.

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Zen Garden

The restaurant sits in a residential neighborhood and is on the smaller side. Upon entering the restaurant grounds, there is a small Zen garden surrounded by outdoor tables. As I did not sit in, or get a very good look at the interior, I cannot provide any comments. It does appear to be on the smaller side however.

At lunch, there are set menus, in addition to ordering from the menu.

I chose the Matsubara course, as I wanted to try as many dishes as possible.

The appetizer course consisted of sashimi, vegetables, fried eggplant, fried soba, duck, tofu and edamame, and a fried rice cake.

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Appetizer Course

The appetizers were beautifully and simply presented. The fried rice cake reminded me of savory mochi, as the exterior was nice and crisp, while the interior was nice and chewy. Instead of dipping it into kinako and sugar, this was sitting in a mild fish and shoyu sauce. The tofu was very soft and tender with a strong yet subtle soybean flavor. The duck breast was nicely medium rare with a slightly gamey flavor. The fried soba skin was very crisp with a slightly nutty flavor with a slightly salty miso paste. The eggplant was nice fried and not greasy. It had a nice strong eggplant flavor. The sashimi was marinated and sat atop a couple of potato slices and paired with a tomato and snap pea. Lastly, there was fried eel sitting atop a small salad. The eel had a crisp skin, and was rather mild in flavor.

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Duck

The next course was thickly sliced duck. The duck had plenty of seasoning, and reminded me of roasted port when first presented. The duck was slightly overcooked and a bit on the dry side. The seasoning added a punch of flavor while the lemon added brightness and acidity.

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Soba

The next course was the soba course. I chose the kake soba which is served in a hot soup. The soba noodles had a nice nuttiness and chew.

The soba was served with shaved green onion, freshly grated wasabi, and soy and mirin base. The soup was served in a separate kettle, which is flavored with bonito.

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Tempura

The next course was the tempura course, which consisted of shiso leaves, octopus, fish, squid, and shrimp. I paid the small upchare for the seafood tempura.

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Salt

Unlike the United States which serves tempura with a soy based sauce, tempura is paired with coarse salt in Japan.

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Dessert

Dessert consisted of a jelly made out of agar and was topped with azuki beans in a slightly sweet syrup.

Service was very good and attentive, as you would expect in Japan. The staff spoke decent English, much better than my Japanese, LOL.

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Blanket

Little things have been thought of as well, such as blankets at each seat to cover your legs in case you get cold. Little baskets are provided to store your purse or belongings.

Dining outside overlooking the Zen garden also made it a more peaceful and tranquil experience. I would highly recommend this restaurant when in Kamakura.

Hasedera Temple – Kamaura, Japan

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Hasedera Temple
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Hasedera Entrance

The Hasedera Temple in Kamakura is a large Buddhist Temple. From the outside, it doesn’t really look like much, but the grounds are expansive and impressive.

As you enter the grounds there is a small pond and garden.

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Chozuya

Next to the pond is the chozuya, where you wash your hands and mouth.

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Smiling Statues
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Smiling Statues

The temple grounds contain a lot of stairs, which are pretty steep at times. On the first level, are perhaps the most iconic statues of Hasedera, three little smiling statues.

Further down the path are more statues.

There is a small bamboo forest, along with a small Zen garden.

Temples are also located close to the Zen garden, which are very impressive.

There is a small torii gate, and there is also a small area for ema to be placed.

Once back down the stairs and to the right of the entrance, is a larger Zen garden, which is very beautiful and peaceful.

One of the most unique features of Hasedera is a cave that contains many figures.

After exiting the cave there is a larger area to place ema.

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Further down, there is a larger smiling statue like the smaller figures up on the hill.

I think Hasedera Temple is a definite must when visiting Kamakura. You can easily spend a few hours there, as time just seems to fly by when visiting.

Croquette Stand – Kamakura, Japan

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Croquette Stand

After my visit to Kotoku-in Temple in Kamakura, my original plan was to wait and eat lunch later, as I was planning to eat at one of the more highly regarded restaurants in Kamakura.

I was hungry, but didn’t want to have a real meal. After exiting Kotoku-in, the street leading up to the temple is filled with restaurants, snack places, and coffee shops, especially close to the temple.

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Partial Selection

There was a small croquette stand nearly across the street. There were a bunch of school kids in line to buy croquettes, so I figured it must be good, and it also wouldn’t fill me up too much.

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Pork & onion croquette

I opted the for pork & onion croquette, which was ¥200.

The croquette was light and crunchy on the outside, although just a tad on the oily side. The interior was a nice mix of potatoes, ground pork, and onions.

It was the perfect snack to hold me over until lunch.

Starbucks Kamakura Onarimachi – Kamakura, Japan

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Starbucks Kamakura Onarimachi

I know what you’re thinking. Why is a visit to Starbucks so special? Well, the Starbucks Kamakura Onarimachi used to be the home of Ryuichi Yokoyama, a cartoonist and manga artist. There are even works of his art hanging on the walls, but they do take some time to locate.

This Starbucks has lots of wood and glass, along with very high ceilings.

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Seating

The tables are fairly spread out, which is more of an anomaly these days.

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“Coffee Bar”
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“Coffee Bar”

There is also a “coffee bar” of sorts in the middle of the store, however nobody was working there during my visit. Perhaps when it is very crowded.

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Veranda/Deck

There is a large plate glass window in the back that overlooks the veranda/deck.

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Pool

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this Starbucks is the outdoor pool.

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Bathroom
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Bathroom

And as you would expect while in Japan, there is the famous “Japanese” toilet in the bathroom.

Crazy Layover at Haneda Airport – Tokyo

Following my flight from Jakarta, I had a layover in Tokyo for roughly 15 hours. Since my flight was landing at Haneda instead of Narita airport, I decided to do something different on my layover and go to Kamakura and Yokohoma instead of Tokyo. As I had another trip planned almost two weeks later that landed at Narita, I decided to do more exploring in Tokyo on that layover.

The following is the list of places I visited, and will have a more in-depth post about each:

1. Starbucks Kamakura Onarimachi
2. Zeniarai Benten Ugafuku Shrine
3. Kotokuin Temple – The Great Buddha
4. Random croquette stand
5. Hasedera
6. Kamakura Matsubara-an
7. Hokokuji Temple
8. Kikuya Bakery
9. Leonard’s Bakery
10. Rokurinsha – Haneda
11. ANA Lounge – Haneda airport

Here are a few pictures of my adventure.