Shanghai, China

SOLITUDE IN SHANGHAI: Find flickers of tranquility in China’s largest city

Left to Right: The Bund; East Nanjing Road. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

The low morning sun hides behind the buildings huddled up to East Nanjing Road in Shanghai’s Huangpu district. A few blocks from the Bund, thousands flock to this pedestrian stroll to shop at its 600 trendy boutiques, businesses and Qing Dynasty-era department stores. But for now, it’s still slumbering. The massive façade of an Apple store hasn’t yet transformed into a glass birdcage for a captive audience. Instead, it’s the backdrop for a cadre of women dancing in formation. Like delicate birds, they flap their arms, snapping open and shut broad yellow-and-red fans that seem like plumage extending from their fingertips. This scene is a not-so-rare respite from the cacophony of China’s largest city.

Once flooded with trade in tea, silk and opium,  more than 4,000 years of history has shaped this port  city on the East China Sea. So too has the Huangpu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), carving this metropolis of  24 million people into two distinctive areas on its east and west banks.

Pudong (its name translates to “east bank”) lives up to its Instagram persona, its skyline spiked with high-altitude skyscrapers such as the spaceship-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower (its third sphere is actually called Space Capsule) and the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Center, a neo-futurist building that looks like a colossal bottle opener. Puxi, or “west bank,” is framed by the Bund, a one-kilometre-long riverside promenade lined with heritage buildings, including the 1929 art deco Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Left to Right: Roof lines of the Jade Temple juxtaposed with modern Shanghai; At the Jade Temple; Prayer beads. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

With its mega-tall towers and throngs, Shanghai often draws comparison to New York City. Or Paris, thanks to the trove of villas and wutong (plane) trees lining the streets in the former French Concession. But this not the US or Europe. Chinese culture and quiet can be found in Shanghai’s spiritual spots such as the Jade Buddha Temple in the Jing’An district. Here, peek inside the halls where worshippers kneeling on colourful cushions murmur prayers to gilded deities. Be sure to seek out the temple’s namesake 1.9-metre buddha; photography is prohibited, adding to the solitude.

Left to Right: Graffiti at M50; Shanghai Teahouse. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

To explore the modern, artful side of Shanghai, take a one-kilometre walk from the temple to the M50 creative park, tracing tea-stained Suzhou Creek. Formerly the Xinhe Cotton Mill, the revamped industrial space with graffitied walls is now a warren of ultra-cool artists’ studios, galleries and cafes. Chat with artisans as you snap up their fashionable handmade leather goods, jewellery and ceramics. After drinking in new Shanghai, head to Old Town, a cataclysm of cutting-edge and ancient where smoggy silhouettes of towers rise behind the winged eaves of wooden structures. Elbow past the crowds and climb the staircase to the Old Shanghai Teahouse, a 1930s throwback with the aura of an antiques shop. Settle in, sip tea (or beer) and devour juicy dumplings in this second-floor enclave while listening to the chirp of live music being performed. — Janet Gyenes

MORE: Check out meet-in-shanghai.net

Tokyo, Japan

TOKYO, Japan: serene + frenetic, old + new, day + night…

Left to Right: Imperial Palace; Tsukiji Fish Market; Sushi at Nadaman. Photo by Catherine Tse.

I arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in the heat of s ummer with my carry-on, hotel reservations and little else—no itinerary, no bucket list, no restaurant reservations. When a city has earned a reputation like Tokyo’s—efficient, safe, vibrant, cultural—it’s hardly a risk to go without set plans.

My first hotel is in Chiyoda, considered the political and spiritual heart of Tokyo. It’s home to the Imperial Palace, the Prime Minister’s official residence and landmarks such as Yasukuni Shrine. Chiyoda is also the location of Tokyo Station, a major rail and metro hub (including the Shinkansen high-speed trains) servicing over 3,000 trains each day. The metro and train systems form the backbone of Japan and everyone uses it to move around, making Chiyoda an excellent starting point.

It’s an easy subway ride from the airport and I feel like a local right away. With a transit pass (Pasmo or Suica) instead of individual tickets, it’s the most efficient way to move around Tokyo’s metro system (avoid rush hours unless you want to experience a Tokyo transit crush).

The Imperial Palace, where the royal family resides, is a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station. Its inner grounds are only accessible via tour so I just walk through the exterior parklands and along its moats to get a good sense of its grandeur. As the former site of the Edo Castle (dating back to 1457), it’s a stunning juxtaposition to the modern city surrounding it.

I take advantage of my jetlag and go to Tsukiji Fish Market early morning to watch the famous tuna auction. Lineups start forming at 3am for access inside the world’s largest fish and seafood market where massive tunafish and other seafood are auctioned off. Tuna is the prize item and can weigh several hundred kilograms. I walk amongst the wholesale dealers, who work swiftly with their long, thin knives and bandsaws to break down whole fish into clean, packaged portions. In the outer market, I find the much-hyped Sushi Dai, where lineups start forming at 3am. 3am. I keep going in search of other sushi spots…the farther out I go, the shorter the lineup and cheaper it gets.

Left to Right: Vintage obis at a market; Secret Ginza back-alley bar. Photo by Catherine Tse.

My next stay: Ginza for shopping and entertainment. Here, jetlag continues to serve me as Ginza by night opens up a labyrinth of back-alleys that are eclipsed during the day. Follow your ears down an alley and look for narrow doors leading to narrower staircases where at the top (or bottom) you’ll likely find a craft bar that locals would prefer to keep a secret. I did and promised not to tell…

Left to Right: Tokyo skyline ; Prada building; Meiji Shrine. Photo by Catherine Tse.

A not-so-secret neighbourhood for fashion mavens is Harajuku. Takeshita Street is impossible to miss, lined with cat cafés, bunny cafés (just what they sound like: cafés where you sit with furry patrons) and all the trendy costume-like clothing stores to make any young fashionista’s heart melt. But a few streets over is Omotesando, known as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées with all the designer labels that made my heart melt. The Prada building (designed by Herzog and de Meuron) is stunning with its scale-like concave glass tiles. And the Dior building (designed by SANNA) is best viewed at night when it comes lit from within, looking like a glorious ombre cake.

Nearby is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, Meiji Shrine, offering a sensory relief from frenetic Harajuku. Frequented by tourists and locals alike, it’s an ancient, wooded oasis that feels as if it could be from another time. I watch women dressed in traditional kimonos or yukatas (summer-weight kimonos) stroll the grounds and think of yin-yang. Tokyo is one of the few cities that seems to have successfully developed an elegant culture honouring its past while also leading into a bright future. Who needs an itinerary for that ride? — Catherine Tse

 For more, check out gotokyo.org/en/.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

AMSTERDAM, in the Netherlands, has a certain reputation (which is part of its charm) but it’s the bikes, art, beer…and ducks…that demand attention.

Left to Right: Poffertjes; Bikes and canals in abundance. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

The first lesson you learn when you set foot in Amsterdam: watch where you walk. There are 880,000 bicycles in this city (more bikes than people!), and it’s clear from the moment we step out of Centraal train station and see the crammed four-level bike park that cyclists rule here. Yet later on, gazing at an adorably tilted canal house, I miss the ‘ding’ of an oncoming bell and narrowly avoid being mowed down—by an entire family on a single bike; kids tucked behind handlebars and the day’s groceries on a wooden barrow up front. It’s all part of the Dutch capital’s charm.

Visitors can rent their own two-wheeled transport for touring (bikeisready.com). But it’s best to start on the water. Amsterdam is home to a 17th-century network of canals that ring the city centre, fanning to the outer boroughs. We orient with an hour-long cruise, putt-putting under arched bridges and among bobbing houseboats as a sonorous-but-informative guide points out the major ’hoods, plus landmarks like Golden Age gabled houses; Westerkerk, the city’s tallest church, and the 1655 Royal Palace. Then there’s Anne Frank House, where the young diarist lived in hiding 1942–1944; now a must-see museum (annefrank.org).

Clockwise: Rijksmuseum; Muscovy duck in Amstelpark; Lowlander beer sampling. Photos by Kirsten Rodenhizer.

Hopping off the boat, we turn to gallery hopping. The gothic-castle-like Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) houses thousands of works by Dutch masters, the most gawped-at being Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, Vermeer’s 1657 “The Milkmaid” and Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece “The Night Watch.” Our group snags a Night Watch study sheet and joins the clutch of tourists examining the 1642 painting for details that reveal the artist’s mastery of light, shadow and three-dimensional rendering.

Farther along the grassy Museumplein, or Museum Square, lie The Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk modern art museum. But Moco Museum,
a private gallery opened last year in a 1904 townhouse, offers a quirky counterpoint to the big institutions, showcasing what it calls “the rock stars of art.” The big draw these days is Banksy—90-plus pieces by the enigmatic UK street artist, including his famed “Girl with a Balloon” (until May 31; mocomuseum.com).

By now, stomachs are growling. Dutch delicacies like pickled raw herring and poffertjes, chubby mini-pancakes dusted with icing sugar, only get you so far. Fortunately, the city is a hot-pot of cuisine from around the world. Its Indonesian food scene—a byproduct of Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia—is feast-worthy. Tomorrow we’ll try a rijsttafel, or “rice table,” a Dutch-Indonesian spread of small plates and rice, at Sampurna (sampurna.com), near the flower market, or Restaurant Blauw (restaurantblauw.nl), west of Vondelpark.

But we’re headed to Amstelpark, a south-side oasis with meandering walking paths, willow-lined ponds, gardens and wandering Muscovy ducks. It’s also the site of Taste of Amsterdam, an annual food fest that brings a sea of food trucks and tasting tents, along with celebrity chefs, cooking classes and demos (June 2–5; en.tasteofamsterdam.com). We start by devouring organic salad wraps, then get straight to sipping: cold Batavia Dutch coffee and genever, a Dutch precursor to gin, from local distiller Hoog Houdt. Then it’s on to Lowlander Beer; brewed with botanicals like chamomile and coriander. We raise our cups, toast the day and promise to step carefully on the way home. — Kirsten Rodenhizer

For more, check out iamsterdam.com.