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Big In Japan – A Day at the Sumo

The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).

The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.

There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.

The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.

The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.

Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the  Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.

There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!

Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.

Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.

The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.

On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.

Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.

You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.

One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.

When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.

The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.

The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.

And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.

If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.

And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight.  The first and final day’s events are also shown live.

If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.

Take a Drive on the Wild Side – Self-Drive Safari in Namibia

The Etosha safari park in northern Namibia is the country’s most famous national park and a popular tourist attraction. It’s well designed and has great wildlife viewing opportunities but the best thing about it is that you can take yourself on safari. Namibia is a fantastic country for a fly-drive holiday. The distances may be long but the roads are well made and largely empty. And the scenery is spectacular. It’s worth noting that some of the roads are gravel, so it’s worth packing a spare tyre, and that the petrol stations can be quite a distance apart. We travelled on the principle of topping up the tank every time we passed a petrol station, trying never to let the tank go below half-full.

The great thing about Etosha is that it is accessible for all types of car. We had hired a two-wheel drive saloon car – perfect for the pair of us – and encountered no difficulties at all, there was no need to have hired a 4WD. (Indeed we had been absolutely fine with the two-wheel drive throughout our journey in Namibia, even on the Skeleton Coast.) The roads are clearly marked and easy to navigate. There is plenty of parking around the waterholes, which are the best places for viewing wildlife.

The National Park is located in the vast Etosha pan, the largest salt pan in Africa.  Four of the ‘Big Five’ game animals – lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos (black and white) – live in the area. Etosha became a game reserve in March 1907 and a national park in 1967.

The word ‘Etosha’ means ‘great, white place’ in the language of the Ovambo tribe, which is entirely appropriate. The pan was a lake several thousand years ago. Angola’s Kuene river used to flow into the area but changed its course over the years, eventually flowing into the Atlantic. The result was that the lake dried up completely. However, there are a number of springs in the pan and lower lying areas fill with water during the rainy season. Indeed, if the wet season is particularly rainy the lake can re-form across Etosha, although these days it is fairly shallow and dries up again swiftly. If the area is flooded the chances of seeing wildlife can be reduced as they have no need to travel to the watering holes. Hence the best time to visit is during the dry winter season, from April to October.

On entry to the park you need to pay a fee per person and for the vehicle. and you will also need to show ID. Your passport will be fine to use for this purpose.

On entering the park, the first thing we had to do was stop… for a zebra crossing!

Although organised safaris are available, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the park at our own pace. The advantage of an organised tour is that the local rangers can communicate with each other via mobile phone to let each other groups know about particular sightings.

We found that when visiting a watering hole it was actually better to wait. A number of organised safari tours turned up to the watering hole, quickly established that there was no wildlife there, and moved on. But waiting turned out to offer a much more rewarding experience. Sitting in the car, looking out across the vast, vast pan, we saw what appeared to be some angular shapes appear on the horizon. We continued to watch. Slowly, a group of giraffe sauntered across the plain. It was such a pleasure to see them as a group.

Giraffe often appear to be somewhat ungainly but actually they were very graceful creatures. It was fascinating to see them part their legs, despite their long necks, in order to reach the water and have a long, cool drink.

We saw wildebeest having a rut.

An encounter between a young lion, an elephant and an impala. (The lion is in the background.)

The impala was very aware of the lion’s presence…

…but he made the best decision to saunter away.

Although the large mammals are the obvious attraction, it’s also great to discover some of the smaller animals, birds and flora.

Moringa ovalifolia is a succulent tree which looks very otherworldly, almost like it has been planted upside down.

And the park is abundant with zebra…

…impala

and gemsbok and springbok.

We also saw a ground squirrel, a marabou stork and a jackal.

There are a number of safety rules. Obviously stay in your vehicle and it’s advisable keep the windows closed when you’re out in the park. You are not allowed to drive at night, so make sure you leave enough time to get back to your rest camp. The speed limit is 60 km/h but it’s far better to drive at a leisurely pace – you have a greater chance of spotting wildlife if you’re not zooming around. Look for other vehicles that have stopped – there’s a good chance that someone has spotted some wildlife worth viewing.  

The area has a number of rest camps with all the facilities you might need. There are various levels of luxury in terms of accommodation. We were in self-catering accommodation in Okaukuejo Rest Camp.

It has a restaurant as well as shops where you can pick up food and other items. And, of course, the all-important petrol station. Our hut was clean and comfortable with a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen area and it also had a braai, an African barbeque. You can buy meat and charcoal in the local shops and it’s rather nice to relax with a few beers and a barbeque as the sun goes down.

The safari experience doesn’t end in the evening. The rest camps are located very close to (fenced off) watering holes that are floodlit at night so it is possible to wander out to the fence and watch the wildlife as they come to drink in the cooler evening. It was fantastic to be able to see endangered rhino enjoying both a drink and a bathe.

One thing that rounded off our experience happened on leaving the park just as we were checking out. Throughout our journey in Namibia, a number of people approached us, usually at park gates or local attractions, to ask whether we would be prepared to give their friends or colleagues a lift to the next town. We were quite surprised that a lot of people tended to refuse but were absolutely happy to do this – it was a fantastic opportunity to chat with local people on a long drive. At Etosha we were asked whether we could give one of the park rangers a ride to Otjiwarongo. We were delighted to be able to help. We had a brilliant chat with him and learned loads about the park. He was very interested to hear about the wildlife in our country. We don’t have anything nearly as exotic or large as elephants – we reckoned the largest animal in the UK is probably a red deer. And we had a laugh comparing Namibia’s enormous termite mounds with England’s teeny-tiny ant hills.

Developing a Business Plan: A Guide to Japanese Business Hotels

Japan has a reputation for being an expensive country to visit. And while it is possible to spend a lot of money on wonderful accommodation (as it is pretty much anywhere), there are plenty of places to stay that won’t break the bank.

Business hotels are a great way of finding relatively cheap accommodation, especially in cities. Many are located close to railway stations, so you don’t have to drag your luggage too far if you are travelling by public transport (easily the best way to tour around Japan, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass ). They are primarily designed for salarymen on business trips but are great for tourists too. There are loads of affordable hotels right in the centre of Tokyo; business hotels in other cities can be significantly cheaper.

You can reserve accommodation via the usual hotel booking sites but these days most hotels have an English language website where you can book direct. It’s worth noting that some hotels don’t release dates until quite close to the time of stay (between one and three months) so if you are super-organised and want to ensure you have your accommodation booked early the booking sites still offer a pretty good deal – and a guarantee that you can stay there. Indeed, some may offer free cancellation up to a few days before your stay so you could book up early and change your plans if you need to.

Business hotel rooms are small. There’s no escaping that fact. Think of all the estate agent euphemisms about describing tiny spaces: “small but perfectly formed”, “compact and bijou”, “cosy”… We’ve stayed in some rooms where you could barely swing a kitten, let alone a cat. Sometimes the hotels themselves are tiny. You might walk into a compact lobby that has just a front desk and an elevator to the floors above. But, the thing is, you’re in Japan! Why would you want to spend time in your hotel when there are amazing vibrant neon cities or charming towns to explore?

If the room is small then the bathroom is minuscule. It’s a pre-fabricated plastic shell. But everything you need is in there. Bath/shower, basin and… the toilet.

Japanese toilets are an experience in themselves. When you discover that your toilet has a control panel you know that your bathroom experience is going to be… interesting. Don’t worry, it’s fine, you can get away with answering the call of nature then simply pressing a button (look out for the kanji 大 (big) or 小 (small) to get the required level of flush) but if you’re feeling more adventurous bidet options are very common, so be prepared for a jet of warm water if you select the right option. Of course, the instructions may be in Japanese, in which case you might be taking pot luck. This kanji means stop: 止. Some toilets are sophisticated enough to have seat warmers or even make a sound of tinkling water to disguise those undesirable body sounds emitted while using the loo.

The bathroom will also contain a basket of useful toiletries which are free for your use. These include a toothbrush/toothpaste set, razor and shaving foam, a comb and other little items. So you really don’t have to worry if you forgot to pack your toothbrush!

Indeed Japanese business hotels manage to pack a huge amount of facilities into such a compact space. And they genuinely supply everything you need.

Most rooms will have a fridge. They are small but great for storing a beer or sake (or two) and, also, you might want to pick up a breakfast bento at the local konbini convenience store.

Most business hotels will supply disposable slippers (using outdoor shoes inside is usually a no-no in Japan) and sometimes there will be a yukata (light cotton kimono) for relaxing in.

There’s always a TV as well as a kettle and cups along with sachets of tea so that you can enjoy a hot beverage, if you can work out how to use the kettle (fill with water and press the buttons bearing in mind that one will probably dispense very hot water, if indeed you’ve managed to heat it).

One problem we have found is that it can be tricky to store your luggage. Some beds have enough space to push your luggage underneath and this works particularly well if you have squishable soft bags. Big, hard cases are not ideal, but there is a solution if you don’t need to have all your luggage with you all the time. You can forward luggage to another hotel via Takkyubin (described here) which is an amazingly efficient and great value service. We often found that keeping one ‘big bag’ (we always ensure that we have a mix of our clothes/undies for each of us in both bags rather than packing a separate bag per person – just in case luggage gets lost on the flight out) and forwarding the other onto another hotel means that you only need to worry about storing one bag in the room.

It’s not common for Japanese business hotels to offer a substantial breakfast and many won’t offer food at all. Some may have a small café area where you can pick up a tea or coffee, others may offer a basic breakfast – such as rice balls (onigiri) and a cup of green tea. There will almost certainly be vending machines so that you can purchase food (snacks or cup noodles) and drinks (soft drinks, canned coffee or beer). And you usually won’t be far from a convenience store (konbini) where you can buy pretty much anything you might need! We often pick up a bento (boxed meal) for breakfast – at a few hundred yen they are cheap and filling and can be stored in the room’s fridge. There’s usually a great variety to choose from.

Japanese business hotels are undoubtedly great value but it is also nice to experience other types of accommodation. Ryokan are traditional inns which often offer a suite of rooms with a tatami (reed) mat floor, futon and amazing breakfasts and dinners – it’s a real experience although, of course, they are usually more expensive.

Minshuku are Japanese B&Bs – usually family run, they also offer Japanese style accommodation. They are fun, friendly and often cheaper than ryokan. It is also possible to visit family homes in some areas. AirBnB has been increasingly popular as a choice of accommodation in Japan too. There are also cheap dorm rooms for backpackers and the famous capsule hotels, whereby you can sleep inside a tube for the night, all mod-cons provided, albeit within an incredibly compact space. It’s worth noting that the budget accommodation options are often sex-segregated. When we travel around Japan we tend to choose business hotels for the majority of our stays, in order to keep the budget low, and then treat ourselves to a few nights’ splurge at a ryokan.

Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain

Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country.

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.

The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.

The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.

You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down.  That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.

We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.

There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.

We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you. 

We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…

…some younger males…

…and a mother and child.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Exhausted but elated.

The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.

At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.

Temple of Heaven and Heavenly Tea in China

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

There are a number of tea houses just outside the park. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.

Messing About on the River: A House Boat in Kerala’s Backwaters

Kerala, the state in South-west India, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and it’s easy to understand why. Blessed with gorgeous landscapes, beaches and hill stations, it also has a rich cultural heritage and an amazing food scene, and it is easy to understand why the locals have named it ‘God’s Own Country’.

The backwaters of Kerala are a network of channels, rivers and lagoons that are located just inland from and running parallel to the Arabian Sea. Some of the lakes are connected naturally by rivers or by canals that have been constructed for that purpose. The water is brackish – freshwater meets the salty brine of the sea – and this gives the backwaters a very particular ecosystem.

One of the most pleasurable ways to explore the area is on a houseboat, known locally as a kettuvallam. These enormous boats, some of which can be multi-storey, were originally used to transport rice and spices to the port of Cochin, the regional capital.

The boats have wooden hulls and a thatched roof. ‘Kettu’ means ‘tied’ and ‘vallam’ is a boat. These boats are constructed from long planks of wood tied with knots of coir and then coated in a resin derived from cashew nut kernels. No nails are used at any stage. Although they were originally designed to be cargo ships they have been adapted for tourism and converted to proper houseboats complete with a living area, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The boats are available for hire for tourists to reside on, or they can be hired for a few hours at a time. It’s worth noting that boat hire isn’t cheap, especially compared with other prices in the region, but if you can afford it, it is definitely an experience worth undertaking.

Many houseboats are booked months in advance during the busy season and will follow a tour through the backwaters. If you aren’t visiting in the high season you might get lucky and find a boat that’s available to hire. We had been travelling down from Thekkady, arriving at Kumarakom at around 1pm. We managed to find a houseboat that was willing to take us on a four hour boat trip on the local lake and this price included lunch. The prices are for the hire of the boat and crew (normally a couple of people) so if you have a larger party the cost per person naturally reduces. You may find that if the boat is still available and hasn’t already found customers, it may be possible to negotiate a price.

The thing that is most striking about the houseboats is how spacious they are.

The living/dining area at the front has room for a dining table and plenty of seating space

The boat is steered from the front.

Then there is a long corridor from which there are large double bedrooms. Each bedroom has its own en-suite bathroom.

As with all areas in South India where food is served, there is a hand-washing area in the corridor.

Finally, the kitchen is located at the rear of the boat. Again, it is very spacious and has plenty of cooking facilities and storage space. Gas is provided by portable cannisters.

Lunch was already in the process of being prepared…

The journey took us from the boat’s mooring along the river and onto the wide Vembanad lake. The boats are motor driven but move at a slow pace which makes for a leisurely experience. It very much reflects the way of life in Kerala.

All along the shoreline it is possible to see fishing contraptions. They are formally known as shore operated lift nets, which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as they look. These are used at night to catch prawns and other small fish. They are designed on a cantilever which ensures that the net descends into the sea when someone walks along the main beam. The catch is then raised by the use of ropes. Some have lights which are used to attract the fish.

Lunch was typically Keralan – a spicy fish curry with fish fry accompanied by vegetable side dishes and rice. We were asked how spicy we liked our food and we asked for it to be spiced as local people liked it. Like many dishes in Kerala we found that the spices were used for flavour rather than heat.  And, of course, it was utterly delicious.

Munnar tea and a banana fritter were served for dessert.

We were visiting at the end of the Monsoon season so some rain was probably inevitable. But even a downpour couldn’t dampen spirits.

A lazy afternoon cruising the beautiful backwaters, with the addition of a delicious lunch, was a most refined way of spending an afternoon.

The Skye’s The Limit

The Isle of Skye is a popular destination in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It’s the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, located around 200 miles from Glasgow and it takes around 5-6 hours to drive there. There are some fantastic places to stop off along the way, though, either to stay for a night or two, or just to break up the drive for an hour or so.

If you are travelling from the mainland you can take a ferry ‘over the sea’ to Skye from Maillaig or drive to the Kyle of Lochalsh and cross the beautiful bridge.

Just before arriving at the Kyle of Lochalsh you can visit the 13th Century Eilean Donan castle located on a small islet just off the coast and accessible via a bridge.

Skye is much, much larger than you think it is. You really need a car to be able to explore it. The scenery is spectacular so take it slowly and enjoy a leisurely drive.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the villages marked on the map are very tiny, usually comprising just a few houses. Portree is the largest town on the island and would be a good central location to stay for a few days especially if you are exploring the northern attractions.

We stayed in Broadford which had some nice hotels and restaurants and was closer to the Skye bridge but further from some of the attractions. It meant quite a lot of driving each day, especially as roads on Skye can be slow. But then if the view from your bed looks like this, you really can’t complain.

Oh yes, our hotel had a Cornetto hotline – free ice-cream on demand – which is a policy that should be implemented in hotels across the world.

Skye has some fantastic scenery although it can get crowded as it is a popular destination. A lot of the roads near the main geographical attractions are single track and it’s worth knowing the convention for driving on these sort of roads: Single Track road advice – Skye Guides  Look ahead to see traffic that may be approaching and locate the next passing place. Only use the passing place to the left. If there is one on the right, wait on the correct side of the road and let the approaching car use the passing place. If you have just passed a passing place but you can see that it would be difficult for oncoming traffic to have to reverse their car in order to allow you to pass (for example, if they have to reverse up a hill or around a corner) do the decent thing and reverse up. Also, if you are driving more slowly than other traffic, it’s polite to move into a passing place and stop briefly so that other drivers can overtake you. Take your time. The scenery around you is guaranteed to be gorgeous so relax and enjoy the drive.

There are also loads of walking opportunities across the whole island. The car park for the Old Man of Storr was absolutely chocka so we skipped that.

There are car parks scattered along the road for much of the northern part of the island and they are mostly free but you have to pay to park at some of the more popular attractions. They are usually not very far from a fantastic view.

The Quiraing offers an amazing walk. Located right at the north of the island via a single track road the car park is located at the top of the hill. You can do a circular walk or just trek along the path and back. It’s absolutely manageable for the average walker but there are some sections where you may need to scramble. And the views are splendid.

Carrying on over the top of the hill from the Quairang takes you to Uig, which has a pleasant harbour and also the Skye Brewery which makes cracking beers. The beers on offer are broad in range but because it was a cold and windy day we opted for two of their darker varieties. (Which, of course, we imbibed later that evening as it was a long-ish drive back to the hotel.)

Skye Tarasgeir beer has a wonderfully complex flavour and you can really taste the peat on the malts. It’s light on the palate initially but the flavour develops and lingers on the finish. A fine quaffable beer.

As expected, Skye Black is a very dark. On first taste it feels like a porter. Roasted malts give bitterness but this is tempered by the addition of local heather honey which comes through subtly. It also has rolled oats and hops which add to the flavour to the beer. 

Close to Uig is the Fairy Glen, a delightful landscape.

Neist Point is a remote lighthouse located on a peninsular and again offers spectacular and dramatic views. It is possible to walk to the lighthouse (just park with all the other cars along the roadside).

Further south on the western coast, the Talisker Distillery offers tours but can get very busy. It’s the oldest and probably the best known whisky distillery on the island. It’s well worth booking a tour in advance if you’d like to visit. Even the shop had a half hour queue when we turned up.

On leaving Skye and heading back into the Scottish mainland there are some other interesting stop-off points.

We were generally blessed with uncharacteristically good weather for much of our trip to Scotland. Unfortunately on our way back from Skye the rain swept in and, while we went to the Five Sisters of Kintail viewpoint, reputed to be one of the finest views in Scotland, we didn’t experience it at its finest.

The Glenelg Brochs, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, are amazing dry stone constructions over 10m tall with a concentric design that provides an outer and an inner wall. They date back to the late Iron Age and are around 2000 years old.

They are something of a cross between and fort and a mightily impressive house. You are free to wander around them.

Incidentally, the little village of Glenelg has probably the coolest twinning on the planet.

‘Inca’ndescent with Joy at Visiting Machu Picchu

It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed.

There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna. You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including porters, make the trip each day. High season runs from April until October and it is usually worth booking well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.

An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. Again, it’s worth getting help with the transport arrangements and ticketing from a tour operator. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.

Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour. You need to have a ticket for entry to Machu Picchu and they are timed these days, showing the earliest time you are allowed to arrive, in order to control the crowds.

Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.

Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (note the amazing structures at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.

Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site and have made some assessments as to what many of the features were – probably – used for.

The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.

The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.

The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.

The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.

The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.

It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.

The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.

The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.

And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.

You’re allowed to wander all around Machu Picchu as long as you’re careful with the ruins (stewards will blow a whistle at tourists who touch the stones). The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.

Most visitors are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below, which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)

Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.

We climbed Huayna Picchu on our second day. It’s the mountain you see in the background of the classic shots of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up there each day, so we started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.

You have to sign in and out and you are not allowed to start your hike after 1pm.

It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.

There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.

Needless to say, the view was stunning.

A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.

There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.

You’re the Wine That I Want- The Maipo Valley in Chile

Less than an hour’s drive from the bustling capital Santiago is Chilean wine country. The Maipo valley is ideally located for growing vines – a combination of perfect soil, altitude and climate.

Concha y Toro is probably Chile’s most famous wine producer – its wines are exported all over the world. Their working vineyard isn’t available to visit, which is a shame, but just outside the village of Pirque they have a visitors’ centre whereby you can tour the grounds and cellars as well as visit a very big shop. There are tours available in English and Spanish which all have a set starting time.

The vineyard was established in 1883 by Chilean businessman Melchor Concha y Toro who recognised the potential for winemaking in Pirque. He procured French vines from Bordeaux and invested in the equipment needed to start producing wine on a grand scale.

You get to see the exterior of the family house, its gardens and a display areas showing the different grape varieties with commentary on how the grapes are cultivated.

Then it’s into the cool, cool cellars where you can see lots of barrels and a sound and light display.

There was a legend that in the early days of the winery, despite the cellars being locked, bottles of wine used to go missing overnight. The owners started a rumour that the devil lurked within the cellars. And since that rumour circulated, not a single bottle of wine ever went missing again.

You are given a tasting glass which you can keep. (If you are travelling to other destinations, stuff a t-shirt inside the bowl, wrap it around the whole glass, taking special care to protect the slender stem, place the whole lot gently back into its souvenir box and hope for the best – both of our glasses survived a further fortnight travelling around South America.) And receiving a glass means you get to taste a variety of the winery’s produce.

Originally grape varieties were brought over from Europe (Bordeaux) and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Carménère. The latter is very rare in Europe these days, having been pretty much destroyed by the dreaded phylloxera, a sap-sucking bug, so Chile is now the Carménère capital of the world. It’s a variety that we had never tried before. The wine we tasted was incredibly fruity, like raspberries and cherries with sour notes and a lingering finish.

As with all the grape varieties the vines are watered using only a teeny amount of water. Literally a few drops per day. This means that the plants work extra hard to produce fruit which leads to a higher yield and, of course, more wine.

The wines on offer for tasting included a smooth blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon, a mellow Carménère and a zingy Sauvignon Blanc.

We took full advantage of being in Chile to sample the local wine – it was massively cheaper than in the UK. Even visiting ordinary supermarkets to stock up on a tipple was definitely worthwhile – we could taste some really splendid wines for a fraction of the price that it would have cost in our home country.

The Golden Temple at Amritsar

Amritsar is located in the northwest of India, in the Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan. It’s a bustling city with plenty to see, including a number of temples, markets and interesting museums as well as the Jallianwala Bagh memorial park, a sobering place commemorating the horrific massacre of Indian citizens by British troops in 1919. A taxi or rickshaw ride will take you to the Wagah Border Crossing with Pakistan where hundreds of people from both countries witness the lowering of the flags at dusk… and have done since 1959. With hundreds of people waving flags, playing music and dancing, it is quite an event.

The city of Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru and is the spiritual home of the Sikh religion. It is also the home of the Golden Temple, or Harmandir Sahib. The Golden Temple is primarily the reason for visiting Amristar and it is open 24 hours a day to all.

It is advisable to dress modestly (shoulders and legs should be covered) and you will need to wear a head covering before entering the complex. We always tend pack scarves whenever we travel as they easily scrunch into the luggage and are very useful not only for visiting religious sites but also for sun protection, wrapping things up or any number of purposes. However, coverings are available outside the temple at very low cost if you forget to bring your own. You will need to remove your shoes and walk through a pool before entering the temple in order to wash your feet. Bags and shoes can be kept in the cloak room before entry to the temple. Photography is allowed in the outer parikrama (the walkway surrounding the sarovar – the holy pool) but not inside the temple itself.

The temple complex itself is the very definition of serene, a complete contrast to the bustling streets outside. It is possible to walk right the way around the sarovar, in a clockwise direction. It is believed that the holy water can have healing powers and there are defined areas for bathing, segregated for men and women.

There are two towers, the Ramgarhia Bunga, built in the 18th century designed to be watchtowers to look out for possible military raids on the temple.

The Akal Takht building is located in front of the sanctum. A takht is a seat of power in Sikhism and this is the primary takht and the centre of authority for Khalsa, the collective body of Sikhs across the world. Twice a day the Palki Sahib ceremony takes place. This is a ritual where the Guru Granth Sahib (central religious book) is taken from the Sri Akal Takht to the Golden Temple and returned at the end of the day.

And of course, there’s the remarkable and beautiful inner sanctum itself. This is a two storey building located on a causeway. The ground floor is constructed from marble with floral and animal motifs carved inside and the magnificent golden upper floor, with a dome said to represent an inverted lotus flower, that is apparently gilded with around 100kg of gold.

Inside, recitations from the Adi Granth (the first rendition of the Guru Granth Sahib) sacred scripture of Sikhism and a collection of nearly 6,000 hymns of the Sikh Gurus, are read throughout the day. An entire recitation takes around 48 hours. Pilgrims visit to hear the recitations and to receive blessings. There is usually a long queue to enter the inner sanctum.

One of the amazing things about the complex is the langar, its kitchen, one of the largest, if not the largest, community kitchens in the world. Each day the langar at the Golden Temple provides meals, free of charge, to some 100,000 people. Everyone is welcome, pilgrims and tourists, alike. The food served is simple and healthy – rice, roti (a bread), dal (lentils) and vegetables, along with a sweet dessert. Most of the staff are volunteers.

This video from the temple’s official website shows what an amazing operation the langar is.

We would have been very welcome to have enjoyed a meal at the Golden Temple’s langar but we felt that it was more appropriate that others should have priority. Sikh communities all over the world are well known for providing food on a voluntary basis to people in need, including in our home city.