Destination Asia: Of Dragons & Spice and Everything Nice – Nagasaki & Shanghai


As the main foreign trading port throughout the island nation’s history, and one of the cities destroyed by the atomic bomb during WWII, Nagasaki has plenty to see for a day trip. But since I love penguins, I decided to visit the somewhat obscure Penguin Aquarium before heading to the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park in the afternoon.

Humboldt Penguins waiting patiently for their swim.

Humboldt Penguins getting ready for their swim.

The Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium exhibits 8 of the 18 penguin species found world-wide. It pioneered the program ‘With Penguins on the Beach’ where its captive Humboldt penguins are able to swim in the ocean secured by fences and nets. It was fun to see them waddle out with their handlers to the beach and take their ‘constitutional’!

A local specialty noodle dish - Nagasaki Champon.

A local specialty – Nagasaki Champon.

Nagasaki Champon is a popular offering among restaurants in Chinatown. Since Japan is the land of ‘incredible inedibles’, the food replicas were ubiquitous at restaurant windows.

Of Chinese origin, the noodles were served with vegetables, shrimp, squid and scallops in a rich pork broth. The steaming bowl of ramen was definitely Delicious and Nutritious!

Fountain of Peace in Nagasaki Peace Park with Peace Statue in background

Fountain of Peace in Nagasaki Peace Park with Peace Statue in the distance.

The Park serves as a stark reminder of the city’s destruction by nuclear explosion with a museum, memorials, and statues. We toured the Nagasaki Bomb Museum, a somber testament to the death and suffering unleashed by the Fat Man on August 9, 1945.


To make the best use of our time, we decided to book a Shanghai Back Street Tour with a local guide to start our day. This provided us with insider tips on the best dumpling restaurant and street food in the ‘hood. Similar to Beijing, Shanghai’s historic hutongs are being demolished at an alarming clip. Our tour was a step back in time, a chance to see the historic alleyways before they become a historical footnote.

Along the way, we got some sweet roasted chestnuts and scrumptious jianbing (aka Chinese breakfast burrito!) with the help of our guide. We ate at a local restaurant popular for its xiaolong bao, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings, and avoided the long lines at trendy dumpling restaurants.

There was just enough time after lunch for a quick dash around Yuyuan, the exquisite Ming-era garden designated as a National Monument by the Chinese government, then it was time to head for the cruise shuttle and return to the port.

I didn’t have a chance to see the Bund’s Colonial architecture, ride the ferry for panoramic views of new and old Shanghai, or visit any of the quaint Water Towns nearby, but I know I’ll be back!

A hutong home growing gourds over its front door.

A hutong home growing gourds over its front door.

We visited some hutong homes with our guide to get up close and personal with their long time residents and experience this vernacular architecture firsthand.

Mirror and Scissors on window to coutner bad Feng Shui

When you have bad Feng Shui…

This house hung a mirror PLUS a pair of scissors to mitigate the bad feng shui of its location in the alley.

Hutong residents hang their laundry above the alley

Residents vie for ‘air space’ to hang and dry their clothes in public thoroughfares.

This reminded me of the laundry practices in Antibe’s Old Town which we visited the year prior. Maybe it’s the laundry, but somehow it looks less charming here…

The BEST jianbing (aka Chinese Breakfast Burrito) in Shanghai

The BEST jianbing in Shanghai!

Thanks to our guide, we got our crispy ‘Chinese Breakfast Burrito’ from the best jianbing stall in Shanghai. Different from other stands, this vendor has a turntable for making his crepes.

Batter is spread on the turntable, then eggs and a variety of toppings are added in succession. When the bottom crisps up, it is folded, and a special sauce of hoisin, red bean and chili paste are spread onto it. A piece of fried pastry is added last to give the characteristic crunch amidst the soft layers of the crepe. The jianbing is chopped into 2 halves and it’s good to go!

Closeup of layers of filling in a jianbing

Closeup of layers of filling in a jianbing

At about 50 cents each, jianbing is a filling and tasty made-to-order breakfast!

Yuyuan (Yu Garden) showcases elegant rockeries, ponds, pavilions, and towers.

The 5 acre Yuyuan (Yu Garden) showcases elegant rockeries, ponds, pavilions, and towers.

Yuyuan is renowned for its beauty as a classical Ming garden. However that also means it’s mobbed by group tours. Luckily I was able to snap some well timed shots of the pavilions and corridors.

Minority tribe silver jewelry

Minority tribe silver jewelry.

I love minority tribe costumes and saw this beautiful silver headdress and jewelry, probably of Miao origin, on display inside Yuyuan.

Plate of Stinky Tofu

The much maligned Stinky Tofu.

As we were leaving Yuyuan, I decided satisfy my hankering for stinky tofu. The deep fried fermented bean curd is crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. Common in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, it’s not as much an acquired taste (it tastes good), but you need to ignore its deadly smell. Suffice to say Andrew Zimmern of  Bizarre Foods flubbed it.

I love stinky tofu mainly for its accompanying sweet sauce but sadly, unlike the Hong Kong version, it only comes with chili sauce in China…

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