Saint Petersburg: The Seat of the Russian Empire

So about a month ago (man, how often do I write blog posts about stuff I’ve done a month ago?) I embarked on trip to Europe. I just finished my master’s and so I wanted to make sure my grad trip was special.

Since I’ve already spent so much time in Asia, I decided that I wanted to go to Europe, a continent that I’ve only been to once and had a really big urge to go back to. So after months of deliberating of where to go and what to do, the day of my trip arrived. So I got to the airport and got on a plane to Russia.

The two largest countries in the world.

Yes, Russia. As a Canadian, Russia is not a very common tourist destination. It’s one of those countries that you hear a lot about (especially recently), but it’s also one of those countries that people don’t typically visit. For one, people don’t really know too much about it. Second, we require a visa to go and it’s honestly a pain to get, plus expensive. Third, well, it’s Russia.

Anyways, I wanted to go and since my girlfriend is Russian it makes sense for us to go together. So, we went. The first stop on the trip was to Saint Petersburg, which now has the distinction of being the most northern city I’ve been to in my life.

Prior to going there, I didn’t really know what to expect. Of course I know the Russian stereotypes and I’ve looked up some pictures online, but for the most part the city, and the country, was a mystery to me. So it was exciting because it was a chance to compare the real country to all the random internet memes and stereotypes that I’ve come to know.

Of course there’s McDonald’s in Russia.

You know how the first thing people say when you mention Russia is that it’s cold? Well, we went in the middle of July and man it was not hot. We may have been a bit unlucky with the weather but it was cloudy, rainy, and windy. Aside from one awesome day, the temperature was in the teens like the entire time we were there.

Weather aside, the city was awesome. It has all of those European elements that you would expect: the churches, the palaces, the squares, etc. But everything felt, bigger. The size of all the buildings were all huge, giving the city this grand atmosphere. It’s hard to explain, but you know that feeling when you see a tall building? It’s like that feeling, but in this case it’s because the building is long/wide.

A portion of the Winter Palace.

The Winter Palace is the best example of this. Man, that building is big. We didn’t go inside, but seeing it from the Palace Square or just from the waterfront is a spectacle in and of itself. The scale of the building, the colours, everything is just so ornate and impressive.

Speaking of ornate and impressive, you know the really famous church in the Red Square? The red one with the buildings that look like they’re tipped with ice cream. Well, Saint Petersburg actually has one of those too, it’s called the Church of the Savior on Blood. So not only does it have a really sick name, it turned out to be one of my favourite places in the city too. The city is fairly walkable and the church is near the historic core so you see it pretty often, and each time I saw it I was always impressed by how awesome the church looks.

The Church of the Savior on Blood.

We walked through the main street in the city, Nevsky Prospect, a bunch of times and it was really cool just walking down this street and just check out the random shops and buildings that were on it, but even cooler when every couple blocks you’d see a giant church or another impressive looking building. I highly recommend doing the walk down the street at least once, but make sure you take the subway too cause the subways in Saint Petersburg are pretty special, at least to me.

So I’ve heard a lot about the Russian subways before actually going to Russia, and Saint Petersburg did not disappoint. For one, it has one of the deepest systems in the world and so every station had this giant escalator you had to take in order to get to the platform. In fact, one of the stations, Admiralteyskaya, is so deep that they had to make two giant escalators because “it’s difficult to build elevators longer than 125 meters”. Not only were the elevators long, but they were also super fast too, which was a nice change of pace compared to the slow Korean escalators.

One long escalator.

Aside from the depth, the subways are also kinda neat. They were built during the Soviet era and honestly it looks like nothing has changed since then. The trains look like they were built in a different generation (cause they were), and some of the stops even have these metal doors that open up when the trains arrive.

But one of the neatest things about the subway stops are the decorations. Each of the platforms are uniquely decorated and it gives off such a nice atmosphere. It’s especially interesting because some of the older stations still have a lot of Soviet decorations so you’d be walking down to the platform and see a quote by Lenin or hammer and sickle imagery. It’s a bit surreal but really cool.

Subway station celebrating Russian and Soviet science.

Anyways, enough of the subways. Let’s talk about boats next.

Saint Petersburg is right off the Baltic Sea and there’s a lot of rivers flowing through the actual city itself, meaning that there’s a lot of bridges and boats. We actually took a canal boat tour which was kind of a nice way to see the city, but the more interesting thing is what happens at night.

Every night, the big bridges are raised so that the big boats can get through. So what you have are these giant bridges that are just open and large shipping boats and cruise ships just take turns going through. This is kinda neat to see, but it’s also interesting because it means if you live on the other side of the bridge, you aren’t getting back home for a while.

This was cool to see, but it wasn’t as cool as what I expected based on what I’ve heard. Regardless, it was interesting because since we went in the middle of summer, the sun doesn’t actually fully set. So you could be like us, outside at 3 am by the water looking at these giant boats pass by these raised bridges while you can still see sunlight. It’s a bit unreal.

Sunlight and big ships at 3 am.

The last thing I want to talk about is Peterhof Palace, another one of my favourite places in Saint Petersburg. This was built by Peter the Great as one of his many palaces, and honestly it’s really beautiful. We were really lucky because the day we went was literally the best weather we could’ve hoped for cause it was sunny and warm, making the palace look even more grand.

There are a ton of fountains and statues on the grounds and it’s actually like the perfect size so you can see a lot without having to actually walk that much. Perfect for a leisurely stroll. There’s a lot of cool things in there, but by far the coolest is the main fountain by the entrance, which honestly might be the most impressive fountain I’ve seen. For one, it was big. Second, it had a lot of golden statues decorating the fountain area. Third, right behind the fountain was another grand looking building which made the entire view just fantastic.

Beautiful fountain.

Honestly the entire palace was great. It was a bit strange there though because it didn’t really “feel like Russia”. It kinda felt you could take the entire palace grounds and throw it into any other European country like Germany and France and it would fit right in.

And I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things about Saint Petersburg. It’s a Russian city, but it was designed by an emperor who wanted to emulate other large European cities, making it a really unique city since it’s the most “European” Russian city. That said, it’s unique among European cities too because it definitely has it’s own twist which makes it different and stand out.

Overall, I had a really great time in Saint Petersburg. The entire city is very beautiful and it was so nice to walk around and check out everything. The only thing is that since the city was founded a couple hundred years ago, a lot of the historical elements are lost on me since my knowledge of Russian history is a bit lacking. Regardless, I learned a lot and would definitely go back. I know this might sound crazy but I kinda wanna go in the winter. I think it’ll look even more magical then.

Nara: The City with the Deer

So as part of that trip to Japan a month ago, I also had a chance to visit Nara. We technically stayed in Nara, but the prefecture and not the city. However we did take some time and go to the actual city to go sightseeing because it’s actually a sightseeing city in Japan.

For one main reason really: the deer. When people think of other cities in Japan, they think of these giant modern cities or these super traditional ones. Nara is like, I guess more on the traditional side, but the main thing people seem to take away from the city is that they have this giant park with a lot of deer in it.

Entrance of Nara Park featuring a bunch of deer.

So obviously we had to go. Now I’m no stranger to Japanese deer. Back in 2014 I went on a graduation trip to Japan and part of that was to Miyajima, which is in Hiroshima. They also had a bunch of deer there too. I’m no deer expert but they could even be the same deer cause they look the same.

Anyways, we went to Nara. First impression of the place was that it felt like a proper suburb. It made me think a tiny bit actually, because it seems like most places people go to when they travel are to big cities because well, they’re big cities, or to some small village in the middle of nowhere because they have this one thing that’s kinda neat.

Nara doesn’t really feel like that. It kinda has a similar atmosphere to where I live back home in Canada, except obviously it’s in Japan. It just has this big suburban city feel you know? Not too many cars on the road, some big buildings that don’t feel too clustered together, and just overall has this calm and peaceful atmosphere.

Nara Station, not super fancy but still kinda interesting.

It was a somewhat rainy day when we went so we were worried the deer weren’t even going to show up because they could just all be hiding from the rain. Luckily that wasn’t the case because the deer were there. It was kinda neat because one moment we were just walking and there were no deer, and then the next moment there they were, just a bunch of deer chilling and eating stuff.

They had some people selling “deer food” so that people could feed the deer. The deer were clearly expecting people to give them this food even though I have a hard time calling it food. It honestly looks like a wafer made of paper and some of my friends even ate some themselves and said it tasted like paper. Gross I know, but one of the people with me said it was so that they don’t gain weight, which makes sense I guess.

The deer were cool though. There were more than the ones at Miyajima and these were obviously very used to seeing humans and so they came straight up at you, especially if you had food.

Me trying to explain to a deer that I have no more food.

Aside from the deer there were some traditional temples and stuff you can check out in Nara Park. That’s also the park where the deer are so most people just end up staying there. It was nice. The temples that were there were kinda neat but the best part was the deer obviously.

The main temple that we went to see was Todaiji, which is a relatively big temple with three big Buddha statues inside. The statues were pretty neat but one of the more interesting things we saw in there was that they had a wooden pillar with a hole in it. Apparently if you could fit yourself through the hole you get your wish granted or something? It was weird but a lot of people lined up to do it. If there was less people I could’ve probably done it I think, but there was a lot of people.

Todaiji temple.

Aside from the park there was also this traditional street in between the park and the station that had a lot of souvenirs and other traditional things, like mochi. There was also this shopping arcade near there that was alright too. Like a less busy, smaller version of the ones you might find in Osaka.

Honestly we didn’t do too much in Nara but I figured it was worth it’s own post. Overall it was worth visiting I think. At least for what we saw and did a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto is definitely possible and recommended, but I think there’s probably more stuff to do too if you actually looked it up.

Osaka: The City of Signs

About a month ago I had the opportunity to go to Japan with my lab for a conference and workshop. The actual conference and workshop wasn’t very exciting, but the trip itself was fully funded and so hey, free trip to Japan.

For those of you that know me, you know that I love Japan. It’s probably one of my favourite countries to visit because so much of it appeals to me. So much of the media and snacks I consume on a daily basis are from Japan and growing up it’s had a pretty big influence on my life.

What made the trip even more exciting is that we were going to be staying at NAIST, a school in between Osaka and Nara, two cities that I’ve always wanted to visit but never had a chance to until then. So it was even better because I got to visit places I’ve never been before! This post is about Osaka and I’ll write another one about Nara hopefully within the week.

No other country in the world would have Mario greet you at the airport.

Anyways, Osaka has the second largest metropolitan area in Japan and so it’s a pretty big city with lots of people. It’s also located fairly centrally in Japan and closer to Korea than Tokyo, so a lot of people from Korea end up going to Osaka over Tokyo because it’s just closer and cheaper.

Now, I really like Tokyo so I was really curious to see how Osaka would be like. Osaka is definitely different but I have a hard time in putting the differences into words. The city itself has a different atmosphere to it. Tokyo is very cool and modern and Osaka is very similar too, but it just has more.. I dunno, warmth? It just feels more vibrant.

When you’re in restaurant and hangout areas like Shinsaibashi or Shinsekai the atmosphere is really nice. They have a lot of large 3D signs and decorations hanging over the restaurants and it just feels like every shop is trying to out-impressive their neighbours with their decorations. The result is just amazing cause you walk down the street and it just feels so comfy and interesting. Especially at night when the incandescent lights turn on and the streets are just awash with a yellowish glow.

Probably the most fancy looking restaurant.

Just walking around the city and checking out the store decorations and advertisements is already an experience in and of itself. In fact, one of Osaka’s most recognizable landmark is actually an advertisement. It’s a giant billboard of a dude running and honestly I have no idea why it became so iconic, but it’s pretty iconic.

In terms of other sightseeing, Osaka also has a lot of places to go. Aside from the Glico Man sign you also have Osaka Castle as one of the major sightseeing locations. It’s literally just a castle situated in the middle of a park in the city. The castle itself is alright. It’s nice to look at from the outside and at the top you have a pretty neat view of the city, but it’s nothing super spectacular in my opinion.

Osaka Castle, featuring a modern elevator.

The downtown area of Osaka is also quite nice. Of course, when you’re in downtown core it’s just glass and metal like any other big city, but it’s still very interesting to walk around. There’s a lot of cool malls and just neat looking buildings. I actually went and bought some stuff when I was there and it was also just an experience going shopping. For one, Japanese clothes are awesome. And second, it was definitely the first time where I went shopping in a building that had giant red whales hanging from the ceiling underneath a Ferris wheel. That was neat.

One of the highlights of downtown Osaka was the Umeda Sky Building. It’s a pretty interesting building by itself, but you can also go up it for a view of the city that’s much better than the one you can get at Osaka Castle. We were pretty lucky during our trip because it was supposed to rain but didn’t really rain that much. But the weather the day I went up the Sky Building was amazing and it made for such an awesome view of the city.

Awesome weather and an awesome view from the Umeda Sky Building.

However, I would say that Osaka doesn’t have too much to do from a purely traditional sightseeing point of view since there aren’t many “must go” places. Instead, it’s more about just going somewhere and walking around I guess. I find that Japan is pretty good for this in general, and it holds true for Osaka. There’s so many niches and subcultures and random things that you can just walk around the streets and find something new and interesting.

And of course part of that is discovering the awesome food and restaurants. I’m a pretty big fan of Japanese food in general, but Osaka is known for its food. Especially it’s street food. Meaning you have a lot of fried food and other types of snacks and it’s all just really good. Unhealthy, but good.

But man, being back in Japan and going to their convenience stores and supermarkets really reminded me of why Japan is awesome. Their snacks! Japanese snacks are honestly the toppest of tiers. They’re so good. One of the things that I really think Korea is lacking in is definitely the snack department. The snacks here just aren’t that good. But man, Japanese snacks are so good I wish I had access to it at all times.

Fried asparagus and fried pork with avocado and seaweed.

But of course, it’s Japan. Everything is (relatively) expensive. I honestly wouldn’t be able to live in a big city in Japan because I’d end up buying all the toys and clothes and have literally zero money. I was in Japan for a total of like 10 days and already had to restrain myself from buying all the things. Japan is just so awesome for stuff.

Overall, I recommend Osaka to pretty much anyone. It’s also situated in the heart of the Kansai area so you also have access to a bunch of different cities like Nara, Kobe, and Kyoto if you wanna travel around to other places too. I had a great time when I was in Osaka and I would definitely go back if I had the chance.