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The northern city of Hanoi is an essential place to visit on a trip to Vietnam. It’s a city we would describe as ‘shabby chic’ compared with the ‘bling’ of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) in the south. Hanoi has a long and interesting history and lots of fascinating sights. Many are located within a reasonable distance of each other, close to the old part of the city. Here are our suggestions for a one day Hanoi itinerary.
A Brief History of Hanoi
The location where the city now stands has been populated for around 5000 years, and was the capital of the Au Lac, the Vietnamese nation during the 3rd century BCE, but the area was conquered by the Han Dynasty and ruled by China for hundreds of years. In 939 the Vietnamese Ngo dynasty was founded when Ngo Quyen conquered the Chinese in the Battle of Bach Dang River. The last king of this dynasty, the sadistic Le Long Dinh died in 1009.
Power transferred to a palace guard chief called Ly Cong Uan who became Emperor Ly Thau To, founding emperor of Ly dynasty. He established a political centre in the north of the country, naming it Thang Long which means ‘ascending dragon’. Highly revered, he was the emperor who established an era of prosperity for the city. Thang Long was the capital of Vietnam until 1802 when the Nguyen dynasty moved the administration to Hue. In 1831 Thang Long was renamed Hanoi, which means ‘inside the rivers.’ Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1873 and they designated Hanoi to be the capital of the whole of French Indochina. The French abandoned Vietnam during World War 2.
Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist revolutionary party the Viet Minh, declared Vietnamese independence on the 2nd September 1945 and established Hanoi as the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, an independent country. The city endured turbulent times during the last half of the twentieth century – the French returned in 1946 so Ho Chi Minh led a guerilla war and defeated them in 1954 in the First Indochina War.
The Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War (although in Vietnam, local people refer to it as the American War) followed immediately and was fought from 1955 to 1975, eventually leading to the reunification of Vietnam. Since 1976 Hanoi has been the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Getting Around Hanoi
There are plenty of options for getting to Hanoi’s attractions. We stayed very close to the Old Quarter which was perfect for exploring the area. Most of the attractions mentioned here are within walking distance. Although beware, the very first thing that will strike you about Vietnam is the sheer number of scooters and motorcycles. They are everywhere!
The next thing that will strike you is – how do you cross the road? We have a helpful video guide in this post. Wandering around Hanoi is a pleasure in itself – an undeniable assault on the senses perhaps, but walking in this city is a great way to discover its marvellous nooks and crannies.
Alternatively, there are buses and taxis available for transportation.
One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Morning in The Ba Dinh District
Ho Chi Minh – The Father of the People
The morning started with a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, the final resting place of the highly revered Vietnam revolutionary leader. Inspired by Lenin’s tomb and other communist leaders, the body of Ho Chi Minh has been embalmed and lies in state, guarded at all times. It is possible to visit the grand marble construction and file past the body.
You will most likely need to queue to enter the mausoleum. Respectful dress is required (sleeveless shirts and shorts are not allowed) and you may need to leave your backpack in a locker. You are also expected to pass by the body in silence as a mark of respect. If you are visiting the mausoleum between the 4th of September and the 4th of November, the body will not be available for viewing because it goes to Russia for maintenance at this time.
Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh himself wanted to be cremated and have his ashes distributed through different regions of Vietnam. But the communist party wanted to celebrate and commemorate him, so the mausoleum was constructed in his honour. His wish seemed, to us, to be a much more humble approach.
Our next stop was the presidential palace and former residence of Ho Chi Minh.
Although Ho could have used the opulent presidential palace as a residence he chose to live somewhere much less ostentatious. The two room stilt house, set amidst a pretty garden with a carp pond, was his ostensible home from 1958 to 1969. A simple traditional building with minimal facilities. It’s possible to look through the windows to see how Ho lived.
It was fascinating to learn about Ho and quite easy to understand how he was – and still is – revered by the Vietnamese people in Hanoi.
One Pillar Pagoda
Just to the south of the complex is the One Pillar Pagoda (note this is open every morning but closed on Monday and Friday afternoons). It is a wooden pagoda built on a single stone pillar that sits in the middle of a serene lotus pond that is designed to give the appearance of a lotus flower emerging from the water. It is a Buddhist pagoda and was constructed in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai To apparently to celebrate the birth of a male heir.
The Temple of Literature
Moving south again, the morning concludes with a visit to the remarkable Temple of Literature. It was constructed in 1070 to honour philosopher Confucious and went on to become Hanoi’s first university in 1076, a prestigious seat of learning. It is another legacy of the Ly dynasty. Students learned mathematics, literature and calligraphy. Although it is no longer a university (and hasn’t been since 1779) it is a monument to education. Even today, Vietnamese students often visit the temple to receive blessings for their own studies.
A beautiful site to visit it has five courtyards.
In the centre is a pool, the well of heavenly clarity. It can be seen on the 100,000 dong note.
You will see many tortoises throughout the temple – these represent wisdom. There are multiple stelae onto which the names and birthplaces of graduates of the university (renowned for its incredibly difficult exams) are carved. The crane standing on top of a tortoise is a symbol of longevity.
Again, this is a site that is considered hugely culturally important so it is important to behave respectfully. There are even rules about not stroking the tortoises’ heads (quite right too!).
The street on the eastern road adjacent to the Temple of Literature has a large number of restaurants. There’s a great variety of local food here, perfect for stopping for lunch.
One Day Hanoi Itinerary – Afternoon In The Old Quarter
Just up the road from the Temple of Literature is the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts. If you like art, especially discovering local art, this is definitely a must-see attraction. It’s perfect for a leisurely after-lunch visit.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Visiting Hanoi’s old quarter, which lies around a kilometre to the east of the museum. Follow Trang Ti to reach Hoan Kiem Lake (also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword) and the Ngoc Son Temple.
Again, this is a hugely important historic area with a legend that dates back to the founding of Hanoi (as Thăng Long) by Emperor Ly Thai To. A giant golden turtle lived in this lake and gave the Emperor a magical sword which he used to defeat the Chinese occupiers. As soon as he had won the battle, Ly Thai To respectfully returned the sword to the turtle, who dived back into the lake in order to give it back to the gods. It’s very pleasant to walk around the lake.
The lake has an island where the Ngoc Son Temple, also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, is situated. It is accessible via a vermillion bridge.
It celebrates Van Xuong who was a revered scholar, La To, and General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongol invaders in the 13th century, a glorious victory.
A Cyclo Tour
An enjoyable way to explore the old town is via a cyclo tour. An hour’s tour takes in the atmosphere of Hanoi’s old quarter and is a relaxing way to end this busy day of sightseeing. You also get to experience the thrill of being on the road amidst all those scooters – an experience in itself.
The old quarter is comprised of 36 streets located within a square kilometre just north and west of the lake. The streets have been named for the artisans and craftspeople who traded specific merchandise in that street: bamboo street, silver street, decoration street and silk street to name a few.
Part of the tour can include a visit an ancient Vietnamese ‘long house’. One of the characteristics of the architecture in Hanoi is that the houses are very thin and tall. The width can be as short as just 2.5m, sometimes up to 5m. However, when you go inside the houses seem to stretch forever. This is because properties used to be taxed according to the amount of façade on the street, so they were constructed this way to minimise costs. This house had a lovely open feel to it thanks to its open balconies, despite the narrow width.
Evening in Hanoi
There are lots of places to eat in Hanoi, ranging from posh dining to street food. The old quarter is a perfect place to hang out in the evening. There is a night market right in the heart of the area. Another popular place is the Bia Hoy Corner which is frequented by both tourists and locals. Be prepared for plastic seats, street snacks, cheap beer and a chance to get chatting with new friends.
The Water Puppet Theatre is a popular attraction, and it’s worth making a booking. It’s located by the north side of Hoan Kiem Lake.
While this is a pretty intense itinerary, it is possible to make the most of a single day in Hanoi.
Just as there are differences between the culture of north and south Vietnam, the cuisine reflects this as well. Food from northern Vietnam is subtle with a balance of flavours, whereas southern dishes are often more spicy. And even though regional variations exist, pho can be found all over Vietnam and is the country’s national dish.
There’s No Business Like Pho Business
Pho is a noodle soup – soft rice noodles served in a warm, very slightly spicy, bone broth with thin slices of meat such as beef (pho bo) and chicken (pho ga). These are the traditional varieties of pho in Hanoi.
Pho is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. Its pronunciation is like the French word, feu (fire), which is appropriate because it’s thought that the name derives from the term ‘pot au feu’, or French beef stew. It’s so good that you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Or indeed breakfast, lunch and dinner if you feel so inclined. Yes, we did. In Vietnam it is primarily a breakfast dish – healthy and hearty – it truly sets you up for the day ahead.
The soup is meant to be drunk. Like Japanese ramen, the broth is absolutely key to the flavour. The best broths will have been simmered for hours. A beef stock will use the bones, a chicken stock often uses an entire chicken. Spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves may add a subtle heat in addition to flavour. The soup should be clear.
The noodles are soft but with a bit of bite. They are cooked separately inside a wire basket that is plunged into boiling water for a few minutes. These are then added to the serving bowl before the broth and meat are added.
One of the best things about pho is that you can flavour it to your own taste. Alongside each nourishing bowl of pho a plate containing all sorts of potential flavours and textures will be served. Want heat? Add chilli (the smaller the chilli, the hotter the spice). Like sour flavours? Squeeze in some lime juice.
Texture and crunch? Add beansprouts or green onion. More flavour? You’ll be offered a variety of aromatic herbs, commonly coriander, holy basil and mint which can be added in whichever ratio you desire.
But the key is making sure that you taste the broth before you start wading in with additional garnishes. And, while Vietnamese pho restaurants in other countries often offer sauces such as hoisin or chilli to add to the soup, it is unlikely that you would ever see this in Vietnam. It would be a shame to add sauce which detracts from the delicate flavour of the broth.
You eat pho using chopsticks to pick up the meat and noodles. There is usually a spoon available to sip the broth. Actually, it’s okay to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it. Slurping is fine. For British people who were brought up to believe that it’s rude to slurp your soup, it’s actually quite difficult to do this without spilling the broth or accidentally spluttering! A very positive side effect of consuming so much pho was that we were kept well hydrated in the warm, humid climate.
Bun Cha Ha Noi
Another typical dish from the northern region is Bun (noodles) Cha (grilled pork). It is a delicious combination of grilled pork slices and/or meatballs accompanied by rice noodles and herbs, in a spicy and flavoursome sauce. It is thought to have originated in Hanoi.
Bo La Lot
Another delicious dish is Bo La Lot – grilled beef balls wrapped in betel leaves. Served with a sweet and fragrant dipping sauce, these are juicy, full of flavour and make for a brilliant starter or snack.
One of the best garnishes is Vietnamese pickled garlic, a zingy condiment. We have a recipe for this – it’s great for accompanying Vietnamese food but really versatile for other dishes as well.
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Route Nationale Sept – the RN7 Madagascar – is one of the primary roads in the magical island that lies off the southeast coast of Africa. The road stretches from Madagascar’s capital city Antananarivo (also known by its more pronounceable name, Tana) to Toliara in the southwest of the country.
Madagascar is a very special place. The island separated from the mainland African continent 150 million years ago and, as a result, much of the wildlife evolved in a very different way. For example, the primates found in Madagascar are lemurs, not apes and monkeys. You won’t see any of the Big Five animals here but a lot of the flora and fauna is unique to the island and is absolutely fascinating.
The great thing about RN7 is that it covers a long distance – nearly 1000km – and winds its way through a variety of beautiful and diverse landscapes. There are several national parks located within a few kilometres of the road and these offer plenty of wildlife viewing as well as opportunities to explore the local culture.
We travelled Madagascar’s RN7 from Toliara to Tana, having caught a flight with Air Madagascar to Toliara after our arrival in Madagascar, but it’s perfectly possible to do this trip in reverse. This journey took seven days to complete but can easily be adapted to spend more or less time at particular locations depending on your interests. We recommend a ‘mora mora’ approach to the trip. ‘Mora mora’ means ‘slowly, slowly’ in Malagasy – take time to travel and time to explore – it’s a very rewarding journey.
The travel times quoted here are the driving times and do not include the stops taken to enjoy activities along the way.
Toliara is the major city in the Southwest of Madagascar. Located on the coast, Ifaty beach is perfect if you are after some seaside time.
Toliara to Isalo
240 km (~4 hours)
We started our long journey at Toliara and enjoyed our first stop at the Antsokay Arboretum. This arboretum contains over 900 plant species, largely categorised as spiny forest, due to the hot and dry climate of the region. These plants are characterised by their ability to survive harsh conditions.
Following the short botanical trail we saw numerous different types of plant.
These included a number of species of fascinating elongated octopus trees which have small leaves and spikes. Some of them can be relied upon as a compass – they grow facing south to try to get moisture from any fog in the region.
One of the best known species of tree in the region is the baobab, characterised by its huge trunk. This baobab was a teenager – only around 100 years old.
Some trees look like baobab but are fake. This one is known as an elephant’s foot.
Malagasy people have an amusing approach to their mothers-in-law. The plant on the left, with its sharp points is colloquially known as mother-in-law’s tongue. And this cactus is called a mother-in-law’s cushion.
And we met our first chameleon. This was a male. He can change colour within a minute.
Then it was back on the RN7 for a couple more hours. Our next stop was Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park which is located around 150 km from Toliara. This is a dry deciduous forest – a transition area between the dry forests and more humid regions of Madagascar.
We particularly enjoyed viewing the baobab trees in this park. These remarkable trees predate human beings and can live for up to 5000 years. Their ability to store water in the bulbous trunk means that they can survive dry seasons as well as forest fires. They can grow up to 30m high and the biggest can be 50m in circumference. They have branches that look like roots. There is a legend that the baobab told god that it was the most beautiful of all the trees. Its arrogance angered the deity so much that he picked it up, flipped it over and planted it back in the earth upside down.
At Zombitse-Vohibasia there is a twin female tree which was 800 years old and a male that was 900 years old. Their roots are relatively shallow but can extend up to 50m horizontally underground in order to provide support for the tree.
We also met our first lemurs. A nocturnal brown lemur who glared at us because he should have been asleep and a white sifaka.
Travelling further along the RN7 as we approached Isalo the scenery changed from flat, extensive plains to a more rocky landscape. No visit to the area would be complete without visiting the Isalo window at sunset and our timing was just perfect. The window is a rock formation with a convenient hole that faces west, perfect for viewing the beautiful sunset. The window is just off RN7 and very easy to reach from the road.
Isalo National Park
We spent the following day exploring Isalo national park. There are plenty of trails in the area, ranging from short hikes to a seven day trek. We chose the 14km trail. We met with our park ranger and drove to the start point.
The walk involved climbing up steps to view some dramatic ridges.
We saw tapia trees which had survived a catastrophic forest fire in the area. The views from the ridge were magnificent.
A walk along the relatively flat ridge led to a small waterfall with a pool where it was possible to enjoy a quick swim.
After a very pleasant dip in the pool, we walked along another flat section before climbing down the ridges. At the bottom, by the river, we discovered some white sifaka lemurs and ring-tailed lemurs.
One of the most wonderful things about Madagascar is the night sky. Don’t forget to look up at night. It is possible to see the most brilliant views of the Milky Way. If you’re from the northern hemisphere, the stars are very different. The photo below was taken with a cheap phone camera. We would never have been able to capture these stars in the light-polluted skies at home.
Isalo to Andringitra
210km (~2 hours on RN7 then ~1 hour for 20km on a very bumpy dirt road)
Another day on the road, we departed Isalo early in the morning. The RN7 has a landmark by the side of the road, a rock called the Lady Queen of Isalo. It is so distinctive that it appears on the 1000 Ariary banknote.
A little out of the way but definitely worth enjoying/enduring a ‘Madagascar massage’ along the extremely bumpy, rumbly dirt track, this area of outstanding beauty is a climbers’ paradise. Many professionals come to the area to climb the dramatic granite rock faces.
There are a couple of walks available for the less intrepid and we enjoyed both of these. A hike to the base of the ‘chameleon rock’ affords amazing views of the surrounding area when you reach the summit.
It’s about a 600m ascent and the view from the top of the ridge is spectacular.
And there’s also a lovely easy stroll through the fields and paddy fields to a natural swimming pool…
… and then through the forest, where you can see ring-tailed lemurs, and on to the local village. It was interesting to learn about the crops grown in the area and how the plants of the forest were used for medicinal and other practical purposes.
Andringitra to Ranomafana
350km (~5-6 hours)
This was another long drive day but we had a few stops on the way. The Anja Community Reserve, south of the district capital city of Ambalavao, is a community-run forest where local people were able to guide us and we could spot some of the local ring-tailed lemurs.
This would be the last place we would see the ring-tailed lemurs. Different species of lemur tend to live in specific parts of Madagascar. The ring-tailed lemurs have 14 black stripes and 14 white on their tails. They are fascinating to watch – lively and agile as they leap through the trees.
After a short drive to Ambalavao, the major city in the area, we arrived on zebu market day. Zebu are the livestock of the Bara tribe. They are cattle which have a distinctive hump, related to the species farmed by the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania. Zebu is a common meat eaten in Madagascar and the hump is considered to be a delicacy. People travel from miles around to buy zebu at the market. The bull in the picture on the right (below) was worth about 2.5million Arairy (about $500 US).
We also visited a paper-making facility of the Antemoro people. It’s very pretty flower-embedded paper.
Ranomafana National Park
The deciduous rainforest of Ranomafana marked another transition in geography.
It was dark when we arrived at Ranomafana but we had a night walk planned. Walking along the road (you are no longer allowed to walk inside the rainforest because it is really dark and people have fallen over tree roots in the past) it is possible to spot many different creatures, including chameleons (which don’t change colour at night), frogs and, if you are lucky, the shy nocturnal mouse lemur, the smallest of all the lemurs. (We didn’t get lucky here but we did later in our trip.) The chameleons were fascinating.
The blue-legged chameleon was particularly colourful.
The following day we visited the rainforest. The Ranomafana forest is huge, covering more than 41,600 hectares (161 square miles). It was established as a national park in 1991 and has a research centre. Scientists travel from all over the world to discover and learn about its flora and fauna.
It has seven diurnal species of lemur and four nocturnal. With our excellent guide, Chantal, aided by expert spotters, we were able to see four species of lemur, including the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur.
We also saw the golden bamboo lemur.
Red-fronted brown lemurs have incredibly expressive faces.
The red bellied lemurs were wonderful to watch, leaping through the trees.
Another creature that totally befuddled us was the brilliantly named satanic leaf-tailed gecko. Our spotter told us there was a gecko on a tree – could we see it? The answer, despite looking really carefully, was an emphatic “no, but there is a dead leaf.” We had to move around the tree to get a picture that actually looked like a gecko.
In the afternoon we visited a local vanilla plantation. Vanilla is not indigenous to Madagascar but originated in Mexico. However it is widely acknowledged by many chefs that Madagascan vanilla is amongst the best in the world. A huge amount of work goes into producing this sought after spice. The plants are hand-pollinated because the bee that pollinates vanilla in Mexico doesn’t exist in Madagascar. The temperature and humidity are important factors in growing the plant.
There are strict regulations on the production and harvesting of vanilla. Plants are marked so that each plant is assigned to its farmer and pods can only be harvested at a particular time of year. The Government monitors production. The pods are harvested then blanched in hot water for three minutes. They are then sun-dried over 10 days – the heat and humidity levels need to be just right.
We couldn’t visit and not buy some vanilla pods – and other spices such as cinnamon, wild pepper and wild ginger – to bring home as foodie souvenirs. We were advised to keep them in an airtight glass jar, although the pods apparently can also be frozen.
Ranomafana – Antsirabe
250km (~6-7 hours on bumpy road)
Another long drive day of driving with a couple of cultural stops.
We passed through the Betsileo region which is known for the wood carvings of the Zafimaniry people, acknowledged as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Zafimaniry community have a woodcraft heritage. Foresters and craftworkers have a highly skilled knowledge of the local wood and how to craft it. We visited a workshop where we could meet craftsmen who not only carved intricate and beautiful pieces from mahogany and rosewood, we also saw them make their own tools. Even to the extent of making the blade for a hand-pulled bandsaw.
The quality of the products is exceptional. There is a large shop and, while we sometimes get a bit annoyed by visiting a small workshop followed by a big shop, we couldn’t resist buying a number of these top-quality pieces.
We also enjoyed a Malagasy lunch with traditional dance and music.
Rice is a staple in Madagascar. We saw paddy fields all over the country. The Betsileo are farmers and are one of the wealthiest tribes in the country due to their impressive cultivation techniques.
We enjoyed red and white rice with zebu steak, tilapia fish with chilli and ginger spices, beans and belly pork cooked with cassava leaves.
Antsirabe – Antanananviro
150km (4-5 hours drive)
Antsirabe is the third largest city in Madagascar and is an important commercial centre. It’s also home to the brewery which makes the national brew Three Horses Beer or THB as it is affectionately known. It’s a light, refreshing pilsner and we enjoyed it many times during our trip.
We had a long drive ahead so only had a short time to explore Antsirabe. We visited a famous precious stones facility and learned about the minerals that can be found in Madagascar. It is famous for its sapphires. We bought a lovely piece of crystalline, a stone that can only be found in this country.
We also visited Independence Square, a long avenue which contains a park. It commemorates Madagascar’s independence from French colonialism. The monument represents every tribe within the country.
The RN7 then takes us to Madagascar’s sprawling capital, Antananarivo.
This trip along Madagascar’s RN7 took a week to complete. While we were in the country we also spent some days in the east, driving along RN2 to explore the rainforests in the highland regions. We’ll write about that another time…
Traveller Tips For Madagascar
What Is The Food Like?
We plan a much longer post on Malagasy food in the future but here’s a brief overview.
Firstly, most of the hotels we stayed in offered European food. We found this to be really disappointing as we always want to try the local fare. That said, many hotels were very happy for us to go off-menu at breakfast provided we ordered a Malagasy breakfast the night before. So we often enjoyed rice porridge with zebu steak or meatballs – a delicious, filling start to the day.
Malagasy people love rice. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in enormous portions. We have big appetites but had a standard portion of rice was too much for us, so we generally shared it between us.
Zebu is a popular meat. It tastes just like steak. Zebu hump is a delicacy – it’s meaty and slightly fatty but very soft. Zebu skewers with a nice cold THB beer are a perfect snack food.
The local tipple is rum. We would see distilleries along with RN7. Rhum Arrangé is a wonderful way of drinking it. This is a great jar of rum infused with different flavours – vanilla, coconut, lychee, tamarind, ginger, mixed fruit, local fruit such as tapia amongst many, many more. We did our best to try as many variations as possible.
How Do You Get Around?
We booked a tour with a local company who were excellent. They provided a 4WD and a wonderful driver-guide, Farley, who knew his way around the country. The roads in Madagascar can generally be described as awful. Think of the biggest pothole in your local street? That’s nothing compared with Madagascar – some of the potholes in the roads are like craters. This makes driving very slow and occasionally extremely bumpy. To make up for this scenery is wonderful. If the government could do one thing to make the country more accessible it would be to fix the roads.
It is possible to hire cars and the RN7 is probably the best road for a fly-drive trip if you want to drive yourself. That said, some of the national parks were located several kilometres from the main road and towns were extremely busy with all sorts of vehicles to drive around. We often love driving ourselves when we travel, but were very glad that we had a driver, who knew the roads well, on this trip.
Public transport is available if you are feeling hardcore. The buses are generally mini-buses that are usually bursting at the seams – luggage goes on top and people fit into the vehicle. The buses will be a lot slower than private cars.
The national airline Air Madagascar can transport you between major cities. It doesn’t have a great reputation for timeliness but it has a good safety record and we found the service to be fine. We recommend giving yourself a bit of leeway in terms of arranging connecting flights. We were extremely lucky that, when our international flight arrived 14 hours late, we managed to get an internal connection thanks to receiving lots of help from our tour company.
What is the Language of Madagascar?
Local people speak Malagasy, which is derived from a number of languages, and French, the language taught in schools. Most hotels and tourist attractions will have someone who can speak English.
Any attempt to speak Malagasy will be appreciated. These are the words we picked up.
Hello – salaam (salaama, salaame also work but don’t say salami!)
Thank you – misaotra
Slowly, slowly – mora mora (be careful, mola mola means crazy!)
Delicious – matsiro
Can I drink the water?
No, you will need to use bottled water. It is cheap to buy – around £3/$4US for 8 x 1.5L bottles and all towns will have a store that sells water. Some hotels do provide water. And the tour company we travelled with supplied us with 1.5L each per day. We also recommend brushing your teeth using bottled water.
How Do I Get Money?
Money was a bit of an issue in Madagascar. The unit of currency is the Malagasy Ariary. Cash is king and there were only a very few places where we could use credit cards. Even gift shops at tourist attractions are largely cash only. ATMs are available but only in large towns, so make sure you get enough cash to get by between towns.
There is a cashpoint at the airport and we recommend getting a reasonable amount of money on arrival, although even then there was a restriction on how much you can withdraw – it wasn’t enough for the entire trip. The notes dispensed will be 20,000 Ariary (around £3.50/$4.50 at May 2023). These are actually large denominations and we found it difficult to get change from a large notes when spending them in shops or restaurants. Hotels were quite helpful at changing these for smaller notes, but bear in mind that it’s worth getting hold of those smaller denomination notes if possible.
Is Tipping Expected?
We were expected to tip our guides and this was fine, we incorporated it into the cost of the trip. The going rate at the time of travel (May 2023) was 20,000 Ariary per person per day. What we didn’t quite expect was that, along with guides who took us through the national parks, spotters were also employed. These lovely people would run through the rainforests and national parks looking out for interesting wildlife and then phoning our guides to let us know where to find them. They were brilliant and thanks to these spotters we saw a lot of wildlife. So it’s worth planning extra cash for tipping the spotters as well.
Are There Any Health Considerations?
There aren’t many dangerous creatures in Madagascar but undoubtedly the mosquito is one of the most hazardous. Malaria is prevalent throughout the country. We used DEET jungle spray and slept under mosquito nets. Unfortunately we did get bitten because we are strawberry-flavoured to mosquitos who just love munching on us. Like Achilles’ vulnerable heel, just a little bit of flesh exposed to the elements and they were feasting on us – so we also took anti-malarial pills. We recommend speaking with your healthcare professional before travelling. And, obviously, take any prescription medicines you need.
Packing Essentials For A Madagascar Trip (aside from your usual clothes and things)
Good walking shoes or boots. We recommend wearing these on your flight just in case your main luggage doesn’t arrive.
Waterproofs – rainforests are called rainforests for a reason!
Swimming gear – there are hot springs and natural pools to go swimming in. (You could also bring a travel towel but our hotels were happy to lend us additional towels.)
Torch for night walks. A head torch is often useful as well. The power did go out briefly a couple of times in some of more remote regions.
Binoculars for viewing wildlife, especially if you are interested in birdwatching.
Camera with a good zoom lens and quick shutter speed to captures those leaping lemurs.
Sun protection – sun hat and suncream.
Usual medication and talk to your doctor about anti-malarial protection.
Jungle insect spray which contains at least 50% DEET.
Will I See Penguins in Madagascar?
No! While the Hollywood movie raised a lot of awareness about this magical country, you won’t find penguins in Madagascar. Neither will you find any of the Big Five game animals of Africa. But Madagascar’s wildlife is unique and emphatically worth travelling to see.
Everything Stops for Tea
Afternoon tea is a very British tradition. The British are, of course, well known for their love of tea.
Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.
Afternoon tea originated in the early 19th Century. It was a time when tea drinking was becoming extremely popular amongst all classes but this was also a time when people tended only to have two meals a day: breakfast and supper. Supper was usually taken around 8pm in the evening which meant that there was an awfully long gap between meals.
Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon tea. She had decided that the gap between breakfast and supper was just too long (who can help but agree?) and she would start feeling peckish mid-afternoon. She solved this problem in around 1840 by indulging in a cup of tea and a snack at around 4pm. The tea was generally accompanied by bread and butter and some cake. She invited her friends to join her and soon enough afternoon tea became highly popular amongst high society.
The elements comprising afternoon tea evolved over the years. Fortunately sandwiches had already been invented by the Earl of Sandwich, who had discovered the joys of putting something delicious between two slices of bread in 1762, so afternoon tea could accommodate this as a menu item as well.
Scone? Or Scone?
Scones are also considered to be an essential element of afternoon tea these days. These are traditionally sweet scones, eaten with jam and clotted cream. The scones are presented whole: they should be cut in half and the jam/cream or cream/jam combination applied copiously. Never reveal whether you put the jam or the cream onto the scone first to anyone from the West Country. Devon and Cornish folk have very different ideas about the order in which the scone should be adorned. We politely suggest that they taste wonderful either way.
As well as disputes about how to eat scones the English also disagree on how to pronounce the word – is it scone to rhyme with ‘gone’ or scone to rhyme with ‘stone’? We’re originally from the south of England so both use the former but have regular arguments with friends about the true pronunciation.
How To Enjoy Traditional Afternoon Tea
The quintessential afternoon tea comprises a selection of sandwiches, a couple of scones served with clotted cream and jam and a variety of miniature pastries, cakes or sweet treats. Served with a cup of tea. This might simply be an ordinary cuppa but it is more likely that you would be offered some speciality teas or herbal infusions. Coffee and hot chocolate are usually available for non-tea-drinkers. The more indulgent modern afternoon teas may also offer a tall glass of fizz; Champagne (preferably) or Prosecco to accompany the treats.
Etiquette suggests that you start with the savouries on the bottom tier. Scones should be eaten next, then finish with the sweet treats on the top tier.
This particular tea had four pastries each, including a fruity pannacotta and layered cake.
Almost a meal in itself, afternoon tea is refined and decadent.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Coombe Abbey Country Park
Coombe Abbey and Country Park is located a few kilometres outside Coventry city centre and is a delightful place to not only enjoy afternoon tea but also to spend time in the extensive 500 acre park, woodlands and gardens.
It’s possible to drive to Coombe Abbey. It takes around 15 minutes from Coventry city centre and parking fees are payable. It is a very popular place to visit at weekends and bank holidays, so sometimes the car park can be full. Alternatively you can catch the bus from Coventry’s central Pool Meadow bus station. The No 53 bus will get you there in about 40 minutes.
Coombe Abbey was originally a 12th-century Cistercian abbey that has now been converted into a hotel.
Afternoon tea is held in a lovely garden room, a light and airy space.
There are a variety of options available from traditional afternoon tea to savoury offerings. There is a wide variety of teas on offer – from great quality black tea to some more unusual options such as gin and tonic tea. If you’re feeling decadent, a glass of bubbly is also available.
The petit fours are beautifully made.
Prices range from £20 to £47 (July 2023) depending on the decadence of your choice of tea and whether you wish to indulge in fizz. The prices also vary depending on whether you are visiting during the week or at the weekend (weekend prices are higher). Afternoon teas at Coombe Abbey are very popular so booking is essential.
Other Things to Do In The Area
The grounds of the country park are delightful for walking in. There are several lakes and an extensive woodland to explore.
If you are feeling adventurous there is also a Go Ape facility where you can exercise your inner child and go climbing in the treetops and enjoy the exhilaration of zip wires and a tarzan swing! (Probably best to enjoy before taking afternoon tea!)
And if you’re still feeling hungry, Coombe Abbey offers mediaeval banquets in the evenings – great food and entertainment guaranteed.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall
Recently refurbished, St Mary’s Guildhall is one of the most important surviving guildhalls in the country, dating back to the 1340s.
Afternoon tea at Tales of Tea is served daily in St Mary’s undercroft, a delightful and historic setting.
On this occasion we enjoyed a savoury tea. Although afternoon tea is delightful we do sometimes find that by the time you have eaten the scones and the first of the petit fours there is a bit of a sugar overload.
The menu does vary regularly but we enjoyed sausage rolls, pork pies, haddock croquettes, mini quiches and cheese scones amongst other savoury delights
And just a little sweetness with an edible flowerpot filled with mousse and dark chocolate ‘soil’.
Tales of Tea is very popular so we recommend making a booking. Prices range from £25-£30 depending on whether you want a sweet or savoury tea. (July 2023) The undercroft becomes a fine dining restaurant in the evening.
Other Things to Do In The Area
St Mary’s Guildhall itself is definitely worth visiting so make sure you pop across the atrium from the undercroft.
It boasts the England’s oldest mediaeval tapestry, a remarkable work that was woven in its original place – it is over 500 years old.
A recent refurbishment has revealed a mediaeval kitchen now restored to its former glory.
The Guildhall is located next to the ruins of Coventry’s cathedral which itself has a fascinating history. St Michael’s cathedral was constructed in the 15th Century but destroyed in 1941 during the Coventry Blitz in World War 2.
A new cathedral was built alongside the ruins of the old. Both are very much living spaces – both for worship as well as art, music and cultural events that are held throughout the year.
The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery is a 2 minute walk away. It hosts multiple free art exhibitions several times a year and has a permanent exhibition space on the ground floor showcasing Coventry’s history.
Afternoon Tea in Coventry – Telegraph Hotel
Founded in 1891 as The Midland Daily Telegraph, but with a name change in 1941, The Coventry Evening Telegraph was the city’s first daily newspaper. In times gone by it was a tabloid paper located in a large building in the city centre which housed enormous printing presses. But times have changed and the printing presses are no longer needed, so staff have relocated to the Canal Basin in Coventry. The site was opened up to the public in 2017 and temporarily hosted local art exhibitions.
The building has now been converted into a hotel but the decor very much reflects its heritage. Afternoon tea is available. Currently on offer, afternoon tea for two people, with a glass of fizz costs £39.50 (July 2023).
The afternoon tea is more traditional but generous and delicious. The sweet treats included pistachio macarons, chocolate delice with yuzu gel, passion fruit tarts and a strawberry and elderflower cheesecake. The tea was so filling we had to ask for a box to take some scones home with us.
Other Things To Do In The Area
Coventry Transport Museum is around a two minute walk away. It’s a great museum to visit, even if you’re not particularly interested in cars. Coventry was once the city of motor manufacturing and the museum houses a huge number of vehicles from some of the earliest vehicles to land-speed-record breakers.
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Regular readers of this blog will know that we are absolutely in love with Japan. The land of the rising sun is beguiling, fascinating and loads of fun. It is a country where bright, vibrant, blaring neon cities contrast with the elegance of traditional castles, temples, pagodas and exquisite gardens. We first visited Japan over twenty years ago and have returned many, many times. Here’s our guide to planning a trip to Japan.
Most people will fly into Japan either to Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka). Both airports are located a fair distance from the cities they serve but it’s easy to pick up public transport options to reach the metropolis. There are train services that run regularly and also limousine buses, which can get you to the city centres very easily.
Japan’s public transportation system is fully integrated and highly efficient. If you are travelling for any length of time and especially travelling between cities, we recommend the Japan Rail Pass.(It’s not recommended if you are only staying in one city as it wouldn’t be cost-effective.) The JR Pass is valid on all Japan Rail services, including the shinkansen bullet train, with the exception of the super-fast Nozomi service. Don’t worry, the other bullet trains are still pretty damned fast! And they are the most amazing way to travel.
You can buy a pass that is valid for 7, 14, or 21 days. Also, the JR Pass allows you to book seats on the shinkansen for free. Just book your seats at any JR office at any station.
You need to order the pass before you travel. You will receive a voucher. This is then exchanged at a JR station for your pass. It is time-stamped and valid from the first day of use on the stamp. There is a ticket office at Narita airport where you can get your pass – just follow the signs for the trains. Be aware that there may be a queue as lots of other tourists will be wanting to do the same as soon as they get off the plane. If you don’t want to activate it straight away, that’s fine.
When using the pass you don’t need to go through the usual entry/exit barriers. Just show your pass to the station staff in the office located at one side of the barriers and they will wave you through.
If travelling by train you can plan your journey using the excellent hyperdia website. Note that there are some private railways in Japan, notably in more rural areas, and the JR Pass is not valid on these.
Bus services in Japan are reliable and reasonably comfortable. They are especially useful when travelling through the countryside.
Taxis are available in most cities but they are expensive. They all have automatic doors.
Car hire is also easy to arrange if you want to visit rural areas. There is really no need to hire a car if you are visiting cities.
There are a variety of options depending on your budget. You can book standard hotels via the usual booking sites.
We tend to stay in business hotels, especially in the cities, as they offer cheap accommodation, albeit in tiny rooms. You can see our post about business hotels. They are very small but they contain all the facilities you might need. And you’re in Japan – you don’t want to spend all your time in a hotel room!
However, it is also worth splurging for a night or two to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. These often comprise several rooms, all laid out with tatami (reed) mat flooring. Your bedding will be a futon laid out on the floor.
You may well be served your dinner in your room. At other establishments you will eat dinner in the restaurant and your futon will be laid out by the maid while you are dining.
Ryokan may be ensuite although sometimes these establishments will have shared facilities. Some have lovely baths and you may be offered a time slot for bathing.
Japan is still a largely cash-based society and, although ATMs have become more common over the years, are still not as widespread as you might think. We tend to take Japanese yen with us. And, while no destination is 100% safe, we have always felt comfortable carrying cash and have never had any problems while doing so.
Most hotels and increasing numbers of shops and restaurants accept credit cards these days.
You can also get IC cards – Passmo and Suica are popular ones in Tokyo – that you can all over the metropolitan area you are visiting. You can tap them to use public transport, such as the metro, and use them to buy some products as well. It is possible to charge them up by adding more cash at convenience stores (known as konbini), such as Family Mart, Lawson and 7-11, which can be found all over Japan.
Just be careful that they are valid within the area you are travelling. For example a card used in Tokyo and the surrounding area may not be accepted in the Kansai region.
Eating and Drinking
Dining when you can’t understand the writing on the menu can be a bit daunting. When we first visited Japan English menus didn’t exist but these days increasing numbers of restaurants offer menus in English, Chinese and Korean.
And many restaurants have picture menus or plastic models of the food in the window. They will also show the prices, sometimes in ordinary numerals but sometimes in Kanji (the Japanese writing system). If you get really stuck, take your server outside and point at what you want!
Food is eaten with chopsticks and occasionally a spoon. It is rare to find knives and forks, and restaurants are usually unable to supply them. Bring your own if needed, but, better, learn to use chopsticks – it isn’t that difficult!
Most people will know the Japanese foods sushi, sashimi and ramen noodles but the cuisine has so much for offer.
There are prices to suit all budgets, from noodles at a railway station stand, where you eat standing up, to the full-on kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine.
And, if you are travelling on the train, it’s essential to enjoy a bento box meal – a lunch box full of goodies. There are even regional variations of bento sold at railway stations, known as eki-ben.
Izakaya are Japanese style pubs where you can enjoy drinks as well as order a variety of dishes.They are a great way to spend an evening.
Beware the cover charge, known as otoshi or tsukidashi, which is basically a table charge. Some establishments will have a fixed charge for drinking and eating there. It’s usually a few hundred yen per person and its aim is to encourage you to stay at that establishment. If you get a small starter or plate of snacks just after you sit at your table, it’s not a freebie, you are likely to be charged for it. Some bars in Tokyo will indicate whether a cover charge applies but it’s not always clear.
Tipping is not expected nor required in Japanese restaurants or bars – which makes life very easy. Just pay the bill. We have had some instances where restaurant proprietors have run after us with 5 yen change!
Customs and Etiquette
When we first visited Japan we were worried that we would fail to follow etiquette and make terrible faux pas all the way around the country. In fact Japanese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and would not ostracise a visitor. But if you get the etiquette correct, your efforts are really appreciated.
As with travelling anywhere, it goes without saying that you should be polite and respectful. ‘Arigato’ means ‘thank you’ and ‘sumimasen’ means ‘excuse me’.
Absolute no-nos are wearing outdoor shoes inside. Always remove them before entering a home. Some restaurants may also request shoe removal and provide a locker for your shoes and some slippers that you can wear inside.
If you are using a shared bathroom at your accommodation bear in mind that your room slippers need to be changed for bathroom slippers. (Don’t forget to change them back when leaving the bathroom!)
If using a shared bath, for example at an onsen (hot spring resort), you should wash before getting into the bath so that you are clean before you start bathing. The bath is all about having a lovely, relaxing soak at the end of a day’s sightseeing.
If you are wearing a yukata (a cotton kimono) make sure that the left side of the material overlaps the right side- right over left is for dressing the dead.
Tattoos are still taboo in Japan because they are associated with yakuza (gangsters). If you plan to spend time in an onsen it is worth covering small tattoos with a sticking plaster. Be aware of tattoo polices, some accept people with tattoos, others may turn you away.
As mentioned above, you don’t tip in Japan. Unless you are staying at a high-end ryokan, where it is polite to leave a few hundred yen for the maid who will have laid out your bedding, although this isn’t compulsory. It is considered rude to hand people cash, so leave any tip in an envelope.
Handy Travelling Tips
If you are travelling on public transport and have a lot of luggage, it’s not the most comfortable way to travel, especially if you are lugging unwieldy cases. Instead you could use the Takkyubin service – a courier delivery service that will transfer your luggage to your next location (or beyond, hotels are usually happy to store your bags for a few days). Just ask for ‘Takkyubin’ at a hotel. The staff will be able to arrange it for you and take payment on your behalf. It’s a pretty cheap service and is extremely efficient. Our bags have travelled from one end of the country to the other overnight and we’ve just swanned up at the hotel with a daysack the following day and our luggage arrived ahear of us.
Useful hint: it’s helpful to have the address of your destination hotel written in Japanese – hotel staff will be happy to fill in the form for you. If you are using a booking service such as Booking.com, you can obtain a printout or use the app to find the address in the original language.
Another thing that you will notice about Japan is the sheer number of vending machines. It feels as though there is one on every corner. You can buy pretty much anything. Most are snacks and drinks machines, some will be able to sell hot beverages as well, and you can even buy beer. (We couldn’t imagine a full and working vending machine selling beer in the UK – it would get trashed in seconds!)
And you can drink the tap water in Japan, so make sure to bring a reusable water bottle with you.
Planning A Trip To Japan -Things to Do
Of course Japan offers all the usual attractions for tourists, such as museums, galleries, entertainment and shopping opportunities galore. But here are some quintessentially Japanese activities.
Kabuki is a form of Japanese highly stylised drama and it’s possible to visit the theatre in Ginza, Tokyo to see a play. When we visited we were given a leaflet which explained the plot for the play we were watching. The word kabuki is a combination of three characters which mean song (ka), dance (bu) and acting (ki) so you can expect all of these elements. All performers are male, even those playing female roles.
Another thing that surprised us is that there is an element of audience participation where viewers shout words of encouragement to their favourite actors. You can get tickets for a single act or a whole play.
If you’re a big kid and enjoy playing video games you’ll love the arcades in Japan. They can be found in any city. We can’t resist them – you can play all sorts of games from musical (drumming or dancing) to driving to betting on horse races. There are some where you can stand alongside a mannequin comedian and attempt to perform as a manzai (straight man, funny man comedy).
Just make sure you have a stash of 100 Yen coins.
Karaoke was invented in Japan and is now popular all over the world. The word derives from ‘kara’, meaning empty and ‘oke’ which is an abbreviation of ōkesutora (orchestra). In Japan you can visit karaoke establishments and hire a room for a set time period – just for you and your mates or travelling companions – thumb through the extensive book of songs (there will be loads in English) and sing your socks off. It’s great fun and there’s no need to worry about singing in front of strangers.
Big Echo is one of the most famous karaoke venues. You can also get a nomihodai – all you can drink – deal. There’s a phone where you can order drinks – although it would be helpful to be able to speak a bit of Japanese. The phone will also ring to let you know when you have 10 minutes before the room hire expires – the perfect time make Bohemian Rhapsody your final number!
Manga, Anime and Electronics
Japanese culture, particularly manga and anime, has become hugely popular all over the world and there are lots of opportunities to visit museums, such as the wonderful Studio Ghibli museum, and even museums located by some of the animation studios. There are some areas within certain cities which have hubs where you can go shopping for all the latest hi-tech gear or discover pop culture galore. Akihabara in Tokyo and DenDen town in Osaka offer loads of exciting places to explore for tech and culture fans alike.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is fascinating to watch. There are tournaments six times a year (three in Tokyo, alternating with ones in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka) You can spend a day at the sumo if your trip coincides with a basho.
The rules of sumo are very simple: Two wrestlers face each other in a ring and, at the signal of mutual consent to begin, the bout commences. A wrestler loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet.
You can read about our day at the sumo in this post. And if you can’t attend, you can often watch sumo wrestlers training at their stables.
Pachinko is definitely the loudest and possibly the most impenetrable activity we have ever done in Japan. It’s kind of like a vertical pinball machine where you pay for a bucket of silver balls, put them in the machine and turn the nob. Sometimes you might win a whole bunch of silver balls. You exchange these for a prize (which can be a bit bizarre, such as a box of razor blades!) which can then be swapped for cash in the booth outside the pachinko parlour.
This is gambling, which isn’t strictly legal in Japan, which is why you win a ‘prize’ rather than directly winning cash. The most we have ever spent is 1000 Yen (a few pounds) and, of course, we lost. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing but it was lots of fun anyway. Although our ears were ringing after leaving the room.
Because Japan is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire it is geothermally very active and has a lot of hot springs. And a country that has a lot of hot springs has a lot of hot spring resorts. Onsen are delightful places to relax and unwind, soaking in natural spring water. Some ryokan have their own onsen. A rotemburo is an outdoor onsen where you can relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. It’s worth knowing that some onsen are sex-segregated. We like bathing together, so tend to seek out private baths where we can relax together. Some of the ryokan we have stayed have a rotemburo which can be booked for a set time each evening.
The bath etiquette is that you undress in the changing area then have a shower/wash before you get into the bath. Make sure you have thoroughly rinsed off all soapy water. This means that you are clean before bathing and can just enjoy a lovely relaxing time in the warm water.
There are thousands of castles all over Japan. These impressive fortresses, constructed from stone and wood, were often strategically located along trade routes and were designed to provide strong defences. Many become the residences of feudal lords, known as daimyo,
Many Japanese castles are reconstructions, having been destroyed by fire and rebuilt over the centuries.
Some of the best castles are to be found at Matsumoto – the black crow castle…
Japanese gardens feature traditional designs that have their roots, if you will, in the country’s indigenous Shinto religion which recognises gods and spirits that are found in all things. Gardens often reflect the nature of the landscape and Japan’s distinctive seasons and use natural materials such as rocks, stones and water. Some gardens are very specialist, such as the zen gardens which comprise a minimalist landscape of rocks and stones.
Planning a Trip To Japan – Top Places to Visit
Here are a few suggestions for places to visit which will hopefully give you a flavour of what Japan has to offer as well whet your appetite for some local regional dishes.
Honshu – the main island
Japan’s capital city is a sprawling metropolis. There are so many places to explore and things to do you could spend your entire holiday here. Popular districts are Shinjuku, Shibuya (the place where young people hang out), Asakusa (a laid-back area with old-world feel which is home to the Senso-ji temple), Akihabara (the cool hi-tech area which has a lot of manga and anime stores as well as the Tokyo Anime Center) and Roppongi (the area where a lot of overseas residents and visitors reside or hang out).
We tend to stay in Shinjuku as it’s very central. There are all sorts of things to do, including foodie tours.
The Meiji shrine, dedicated to the deity of the Emperor Meiji is set in a lovely extensive park. It has a dramatic torii gate at its entrance.
Shibuya is the location of the famous road crossing – known as ‘The Scramble’ – and seen in many films and TV series where over 2000 people can cross in a single cycle of the pedestrian lights.
If you like the animations of Studio Ghibli, The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is a must-see but you do have to book in advance.
Odaiba is an entertainment hub on an artificial island set in Tokyo Bay. Cross the rainbow bridge to find all sorts of activities and shopping. And a monument that somehow seems familiar…
There are also plenty of day trips from Tokyo. Nikko is a historic city and the home of the Toshogu Shinto shrine.
A tour of the Fuji Five Lakes area is a possibility from Tokyo. You might get a glimpse of Japan’s iconic mountain (if the weather is clear!) and sail on a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko.
A few hours from Tokyo on the bullet train Kansai’s commercial capital is a neon paradise and a fantastic place for foodies. Head out to the dotonbori area for a range of amazing restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
Typical Osaka dishes include okonomiyaki (kind of a cross between an pancake and a pizza) and takoyaki – octopus balls in batter.
A tour of this ancient city offers lots of historic buildings, temples and pagodas to explore all set within a park. The highlight is Tōdai-ji which houses Daibutsu, a 15m-high bronze Buddha.
A fascinating and beautiful place, just watch out for the local deer who roam across the park – they are usually hungry!
Japan’s former capital doesn’t look the part initially but has some beautiful and important historic places to visit. Just look closely and you will find a temple almost everywhere. A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore the city. Amongst the many treasures, there are some must-see highlights:
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Ryoanji zen garden is a place for contemplation
And the Fushimi Inari shrine, a short train ride outside the main city, with its plethora of vermillion torii (temple gates) to wander through.
A city with an horrific history, Hiroshima has recovered to become a modern, cosmopolitan city. The Peace Park and museum give a balanced history of the atomic bombing and, while it is a difficult place to visit, is also a peaceful and contemplative place.
The Peace Park has a non-eternal flame which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been decommissioned.
Don’t forget to visit the island of Miyajima which is a short journey away. Tours are available from Hiroshima. You can see the iconic Torii gate in the sea, one of the top three iconic views of Japan.
If you enjoy hiking in splendid countryside, the Japan Alps are ideal. Kamikochi and Norikura Kogen are delightful places to visit.
And the gassho houses of rural Honshu offer a fascinating glimpse into traditional rural life. You can stay in a farmhouse in Ainokura.
Staying in a gassho you are likely to try the local produce – fresh river fish and mountain vegetables.
There are a number of tours available to visit these delightful villages.
Hokkaido – The Northern Island
The capital of Hokkaido is a laid back city. It has a snow festival every winter and you can view amazing snow sculptures in the extensive city park.
You can visit the Sapporo beer museum to learn about – and taste – some of Japan’s most famous beers.
A day trip from Sapporo to Yoichi is a great opportunity to try Japanese whiskey at the Nikka distillery – the area has a similar soil type and climate conditions to Scotland. There are freebie samples in the tasting hall too!
If you like seafood, particularly crab, head to Hakodate where you can enjoy crab for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice bowls are available for good prices at the market.
Kyushu – The Southern Island
Another city famous for its history Nagasaki was the port city through which Japan traded with the outside world during the Tokugawa shogunate between 1639 and 1859 period, when the rest of the country was effectively isolated.
A major shipbuilding centre, it was the target for the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan. Like Hiroshima, the city has recovered and also has a museum about the bombing, with a significant emphasis on the call to ban nuclear weapons.
Nagasaki is famous for its champon noodle dish, inspired by Chinese cuisine. The noodles are boiled in the soup and hence acquire some its rich flavour.
This is a lively city in the shadow of the very active Sakurajima volcano.
Sakurajima is still very active.
Kagoshima is famous for its kuro buta – black pork, from a specific breed of pig. The tonkotsu ramen, with its creamy umami broth and topped with pork slices, is sublime.
Sometimes described as the Las Vegas of Japan (it isn’t really), Beppu is a resort town well known for its onsen hot springs.
A place to relax and unwind, as well as to visit the “Hells” – thermal hot springs each of which has a specific theme.
A ferry ride away from Kagoshima this small island is a wonderful place to explore. It was the inspiration for the setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke anime.
The cuisine on Yakushima is fresh, local seafood and vegetables and is delicious.
The fourth largest of Japan’s major islands Shikoku offers an opportunity to experience a more rural Japan. It has a pilgrimage route, dedicated to the 9th-century monk Kukai, which comprises 88 Buddhist temples over a 1200km route.
Okinawa is an archipelago south of the main islands and offers a very different view of Japan. It’s sometimes known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’ and is off the beaten track. It has broad, sandy beaches and crystal clear water as well as a great natural beauty. It also has its own cuisine which offers a variety of dishes that are a contrast to mainland Japanese food.
Japan has so many other amazing places to visit, this post could have gone on for several more pages. Hopefully this has offered a taste of the many wonderful things Japan can offer. We can’t recommend a visit highly enough. We’re already planning our next trip…
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The remarkable temples of Angkor Wat are undoubtedly the main draw for visitors to Cambodia. Although there are many other places to visit in this wonderful country and its neighbours in South East Asia, the temples from the Khmer empire, lost to the jungle for centuries, are astonishing in their scale and construction. If you visit Angkor Wat we recommend spending at least three days in the region.
The nearest town to the main temple complex is Siem Reap, which is around 5.5 km from Angkor Wat and caters to the tourists that come to visit. There is a variety of accommodation from budget to luxury and there are loads of shops and restaurants, notably on ‘Pub Street’ where you can sample the local food. Our hotel was about 2km from the centre of Siem Reap and, while we walked back and forth most of the time, there were plentiful tuk-tuk drivers to transport us if we needed.
History of Angkor Wat
Angkor means ‘city’ and Wat means ‘temple’ – so Angkor Wat literally means ‘City Temple’. The temple complex is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
Angkor was the central city for the Khmer kings between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Khmer Empire was vast and one of the most sophisticated kingdoms in South East Asia. Many buildings and temples were constructed by the Khmers over the centuries. At the height of their civilisation, Angkor Wat was the biggest construction, built in the early 12th century at the behest of Suryavaram II as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The temple complex is said to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, with the surrounding walls and moats symbolising mountains and oceans. The walls are covered with bas-reliefs, stretching for almost one kilometre they tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire.
Angkor was sacked in 1177 and Jayavarman VII decided to build a new capital a short distance away, at Angkor Thom. This was, again, a religious complex, but this time a Buddhist temple. Angkor was sacked by the Thai people and then abandoned in the 15th Century, becoming a ‘lost’ city, a city of legends, to be ‘rediscovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. In 1908 restoration of the complex began. It ground to a halt during the 1970s during the political unrest during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and when work resumed in the 1980s extensive repairs were required. Angkor Wat became a UNESCO site in 1992 and restoration work has continued to this day.
Visiting Angkor Wat – Practicalities
You need to have a ticket in order to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. While it is possible to visit the main temple and Angkor Thom in a day, as both are located quite close to each other, we chose the 3 day ticket so that we could explore some of the other temples in the region. It is also worth finding a guide and transportation as many of the temples are located several kilometres apart. There are various options for getting a guide. We had one lined up prior to arriving in the nearby town of Siem Reap but you should be able to find a reputable, certified guide via your hotel. There will also be many guides around Siem Reap who will offer their services, which may or may not be reliable. And, of course, you can find online tours, which will usually have reviews, so you can check those out. The best guides will know when to visit the attractions in order to avoid the worst of the crowds, will be able to show you the ideal photo spots and, most importantly, will also have loads of information about the history of the sites.
If you don’t wish to have a guide you will still need transportation especially if you plan to visit some of the temples that are further away. Tuk-tuks are easy to find in Siem Reap and are a great way of getting around. You can negotiate a price with the driver.
You cannot get into Angkor or the surrounding temples without a ticket which you buy at the official ticketing centre. The tickets are non-transferable and will have your photo printed onto them. Click here for the latest info and prices.
You can get 1 day, 3 day or 7 day passes. They don’t have to be used on consecutive days. The 3 day pass can be used over the course of a week and the 7 day pass can be used over a month. We had a 3 day pass which enabled us to visit a number of the temples.
There is also a code of conduct for visitors, which are basically a matter of common courtesy:
Wear appropriate clothing (i.e. be respectful, very short shorts and sleeveless shirts are not suitable).
Do not touch the monuments.
Refrain from talking loudly.
Do not enter prohibited areas. These are clearly marked and are usually there for safety reasons.
Do not buy souvenirs from children – they should be in school.
Do not take photos of monks, unless you ask their permission. Also, do not touch monks. (But, honestly, why would you?)
Angkor Wat – The Main Attraction
Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is an essential activity. Unfortunately this is an essential activity for all visitors so it does get really crowded. There are two tips to make the sunrise visit easier.
The night before your visit, ask your hotel or hostel to prepare a packed breakfast for you or stock up on some food from any of the many stores in Siem Reap. Then set your alarm and get an early night. Try to get to the site as early as possible. The site will be open from 5am. (N.B. Most other sites are open from 7:30am so Angkor Wat is an exception.) If you are with a guide, they will often know the best spots from which to view the sunrise. It’s worth the wait as the darkness fades and anticipation mounts as the sun begins to appear.
Once the sun has risen and the assembled throng have sighed their admiration, most people will go back to their hotels for breakfast. If you have your breakfast with you, you can enjoy it whilst admiring the view before the temple itself opens and then be first – or at least amongst the first – in the queue to explore the complex properly. It made a huge difference to us – exploring the temple with only a few other people around.
As time goes by, it’s a possibility that increasing numbers of visitors will cotton on to this tactic so it’s always worth checking with the guides or your hotel to find out when is the best time to visit. And, having enjoyed a peaceful exploration of Angkor Wat, when we went into Angkor Thom the Bayon was swarming with visitors.
The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by a large moat.
The temple itself is located on a raised terrace with three galleries, each increasing in height, surrounding a central tower.
Each corner of the temple has a tower.
The temple façade is covered with beautiful and intricate bas-relief carvings, showing gods and figures from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, even depicting scenes from the Hindu texts the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. The carvings were created with the intention of viewing them in an anti-clockwise direction.
It is possible to enter the central tower. We were quite surprised to find images of Budhha inside, particularly as Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple.
Angkor Thom was our next stop. Located a couple of kilometres away from Angkor Wat, it was the final capital city of the Khmer Empire. Established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, it covers an area of 9km² and was the most enduring of all the sites. Jayavarman was a Buddhist so the temples at Angkor Thom were dedicated to Buddhism. Indeed, during the king’s reign the Khmer people converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.
Angkor Thom includes sights such as the South Gate, a wonderful way to enter the complex, with its grand – and quite grotesque – guardians of the bridge as you cross the moat.
The Bayon is a remarkable structure. It is covered with the stone heads of Bodhisattva Avilokiteshvara, smiling serenely and was the last great temple built at Angkor.
Moving into the Royal Enclosure, …the Terrace of Elephants was originally an extension of the palace of Phimeanakas and was the place from which Jayavarman VII could view his armies as they returned victorious.
The Terrace of the Leper King was built by Jayavarman VII but the name has an unusual derivation.
A sculpture found at the site was believed to have been created in the 15th century, had deteriorated and was covered in moss which gave the appearance of leprosy. There is also a link to the legend of King Yasovarman I who was believed to have suffered from leprosy.
Visiting Angkor Wat – Other Temples to Explore
While Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are the main attractions in the area there are so many other temples and buildings to visit.
A particular favourite of ours was Ta Prohm, just down the road from Angkor Thom.
It was another temple constructed at the behest of Jayavarman VII (the creator of Angkor Thom) in the late 12th century and was originally called Rajavcihara. Apparently designed for the king’s mother it was a lavish temple, once covered in pearls, precious stones and gold, and home to over 12,000 people. However it was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer empire and lost to the jungle for centuries.
The design of the temple is typically Khmer, with a concentric design of square or rectangular temples – the enclosing walls encasing an inner sanctum. But, unlike many of the other temples in the region, this hasn’t been cleared and restored and the trees of the jungle have remained, forming a beautiful symbiosis with the buildings.
The Khmer Temple of Shiva at Banteay Srei, dating back to the 11th century, is the Citadel of Women. It has some remarkable sandstone decorations, friezes and lintels which are some of the best preserved in the region.
Kbal Spean is a Hindu Pilgrimage site set deep in the jungle to the North East of Angkor. It actually pre-dates the Angkor Temples by around 200 years and is the oldest site in the region.
After hiking for around a kilometre through the jungle you reach the River of a Thousand Lingas, amazing sculptures that are actually located in the river bed.
The Roulos Group
And finally, the other temples we visited were the Roulos group which are older and date from the 9th and 10th centuries. They are located around 15km south-east of Siem Reap in the former city of Hariharalaya. King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer empire in 802 CE. His successor was his nephew, Indravarman I, who initiated the construction of the temples here.
Preah Ko was the first. The name means ‘sacred bull.’
Bakong was next and is considered to be the first Khmer temple mountain. It is the most impressive of the structures in this group. This was King Indravarman’s official temple. The pyramid has five levels and is surrounded by two towers on each of its sides.
The Lolei temples are grouped together. These are of a brick construction and represented King Yasovarman’s parents and grandparents. The taller towers are for his grandparents and the front towers are for the males in the family.
Après Sightseeing – Siem Reap
After all the sightseeing we would wander into Siem Reap. Pub Street is the place to find restaurants and bars in the evening – perfect for relaxing after a long day’s sightseeing. It is possible to visit markets, enjoy cookery courses and, of course, eat traditional Cambodian cuisine. This platter included spring roll, mango salad, fish amok (a fragrant curry), green curry, cha tu kuong (stir-fried water spinach) and steamed rice.
Although our primary purpose of the trip was to visit Angkor Wat, there are other activities in the area. Siem Reap is located close to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It’s a fascinating lake because it is part of the Mekong river system. The Mekong and surrounding catchment feeds it during the wet season and the lake’s water level will rise to around 11m. But during the dry season the lake feeds the Mekong and water levels can get as low as 1m before the rains arrive. It’s a lake where local people live and work and it’s possible to take a boat trip and visit some of the floating villages.
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We visited Osaka (pronounced O-saka rather than o-SAR-ka) on our very first trip to Japan many years ago. We had already spent time exploring Tokyo, Hakone and Kamakura and it was following an afternoon and evening in Osaka, exploring the neon arcades and playing video games, taking silly photos in the print club booths, riding the Hep 5 big wheel and singing our socks off in a karaoke bar (where you get a private booth rather than have to sing in front of complete strangers), that we realised that we had fallen in love with Japan. The following day we visited the Dotonbori area in the Namba district and discovered Osaka’s restaurants. We decided that Osaka was our favourite place in the world.
We’ve returned to Osaka many times over the years and we always make a beeline for Dotonbori. We’ve often stayed in business hotels close by. It’s a short walk away from the JR Namba Station Exit 14 (Yamatoji line), which is especially useful if you are using your JR Pass. Be aware that Namba is a big station. If you are arriving on the shinkansen (bullet train) you can get there from Shin-Osaka using the subway Midosuji line to Shinsaibashi Exit 4-B. (N.B. you can’t use your JR Pass on the subway.)
Osaka is known for being one of Japan’s centres of commerce, indeed there’s a phrase that many salarymen use as a greeting: ‘mokari makka’ which means ‘are you making money?’ The residents of Osaka speak Kansai Ben, the dialect of the region. It’s quite different to the Japanese we’ve learned in classes. For example, Osaka residents will say, ‘okini’ as thanks instead of ‘arigato’; although arigato will absolutely be understood you may well receive a big smile if you use ‘okini.’
Dotonbori means ‘Doton Canal’ and the history of the area goes back several hundred years to 1612 when Yasui Doton, a local merchant, started constructing a canal system in the area to link the Kizugawa river to the Umezu river. However, he was killed in 1615 during the Siege of Osaka and his cousins completed the canal project, naming it after Doton. Following completion, the area thrived, trade increased due to the better transportation along the canal and Dotonburi became an entertainment district, with theatres, teahouses and restaurants. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially for foodies!
The district is defined by street between the Dotonboribashi Bridge to Nipponbashi Bridge. Probably the most iconic image of the area is that of the Glico running man – and it’s essential to see him at night, brightly lit in neon. Glico is a sweet manufacturer established in 1922 and famous across Japan. They are probably best know for those delicious Pocky coated biscuit sticks.
Dotonbori is one street, but actually the surrounding streets are also full of excellent bars and restaurants. We’ve had some of our best nights out in Osaka by wandering into random bars in the area. Locals and tourists alike are very friendly and we’ve often just started chatting with people. There was one particularly memorable night when a pair of airline pilots decided to buy Jagermeister bombs (a Jagermeister shot inside a glass of Red Bull) for the denizens of the entire bar which resulted in a highly caffeinated boozy evening and us sleeping in so late that we missed much of a planned excursion to Kobe the following day!
The word ‘kuidaore’ means to go bankrupt by extravagant spending on food and Dotonbori would be a place where you could have a really good attempt at achieving this as it is chock full of excellent restaurants.
One thing to remember when visiting cities in Japan is to look up! In the UK most shops and restaurants are located at ground level but Japan is a country with high rise buildings. Very often shops and restaurants will be located on multiple levels within the same building. You will often see boards outside the building advertising various emporia: F1, F2 etc to go up, B1, B2 etc to go down. (N.B. floor levels in Japan match the American model where the ground floor is called the first floor, unlike in the UK where the ‘ground floor’ is at street level and the next floor up is the ‘first floor’.)
Essential Osaka Restaurants
Takoyaki – The Best Street Food
Takoyaki is quintessential Osaka street food. It comprises spherical octopus pieces in a batter which are cooked en masse in a griddle.
The takoyaki maker expertly and deftly turns each octopus ball by hand so that they are cooked evenly.
Served with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (which is similar to brown sauce) and bonito flakes (skipjack tuna flakes shaved to wafer thin slices – which are rich in umami and are often used to make Japanese dashi stock), which undulate gently in the heat of the takoyaki. You just have to wait a little while before scoffing because they will be extremely hot as soon as they come out of the griddle.
Okonomiyaki – As You Like It
Okonomiyaki, which translates as ‘as you like it’, is often described as a cross between a pancake and a pizza. It’s a cabbage based batter (but don’t let that put you off – it’s really delicious) with multiple fillings and toppings. Some establishments have a chef prepare the okonomiyaki, others will let you sit at the griddle and you can cook it yourself.
The basic batter mixture is prepared and cooked on the griddle.
Then you have a choice of toppings – meat and prawns are popular choices and veggie options, such as kimchi are also available.
The okonomiyaki will be garnished with a variety of yummy things, including mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (similar to takoyaki sauce/brown sauce), flakes of nori seaweed and those delightful undulating bonito flakes. Chilli sauce may also be available. The chef will embellish your okonomiyaki in the most delightful way. And of course, when the chef asks you what garnish you would like, the correct answer is EVERYTHING!
Fugu – Dare You Try Puffer Fish?
Fugu is the fish that has a formidable reputation – it’s the puffer fish, parts of which are deadly poison particularly the liver, the ovaries, eyes, and skin. The toxin basically paralyses you and you asphyxiate while still conscious. Not very nice at all.
But fugu is also a prized delicacy. The non-poisonous bits are fine to eat but absolutely can only be prepared by a licenced chef who has trained for several years. You can eat fugu all over Japan but it was at Zubora-ya, with its highly distinctive sign comprising a giant pufferfish lantern outside the restaurant, that we first tasted this fearsome fish.
We thoroughly enjoyed a set menu at Zubora-ya – sushi and sashimi is the conventional way to enjoy fugu. It has a mild flavour and a firm texture that is something like a cross between squid and monkfish. It was delicious. And we survived!
Sadly, Zubora-ya had to close during the pandemic and has not reopened.
Kani – Crab Heaven
Kani Doraku is another distinctive restaurant which has a model of a giant crab waving its pincers on the outside wall, beckoning you inside (well, that’s our interpretation!).
We have eaten here several times and always had a hugely enjoyable meal. Again, it’s a multi-storey building and, depending on how busy it is you may eat within the restaurant or be taken to a private room with tatami mat flooring and a telephone. The telephone was a bit daunting first time around but we picked up the phone and said, ‘kite kudasai,’ (please come here) and someone came along to take our order – which largely involved pointing at a picture menu. Even though it’s a large restaurant it’s very popular these days so it’s worth booking. There are actually multiple restaurants of this chain along Dotonbori, so check out the others if the first one you try is full. (The most popular is closest to the Glico Man.) The set menus aren’t cheap but they are good value and the food is utterly delicious.
We’ve enjoyed crab sushi and sashimi, crab chawan mushi (steamed egg custard), crab tempura and crab gratin with a clear soup and matcha ice cream for dessert. Utterly delicious.
Other Dotonbori Establishments
There are loads of other restaurants along Dotonbori and the surrounding area. Kuidaore was an enormous eight storey restaurant founded in 1949. It was recognisable by its iconic Kuidaore Taro Clown, a vaguely creepy mechanical drumming puppet at the entrance. Sadly it closed some years ago but the building was populated by different shops and restaurants in what’s now known as the Nakaza Cui-daore Building.
If you like ramen noodles (and who doesn’t?) there are three Kinryu restaurants along the street. Kinryu translates as ‘golden dragon’ and the restaurants can easily be found by their distinctive dragons on the hoardings above the shopfront.
And even the standard restaurants on Dotonbori, those without the amazing neon signs, are worth checking out. One of the great things about dining in Osaka – and indeed throughout Japan – is that you don’t need to speak or read Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English, Chinese or Korean menu and those that don’t will often have a picture menu or, better, realistic models of the food in the window, usually with prices. You can take a photo of your desired dish or even take your food server outside and point to the dish you want.
The models of the food are surprisingly realistic and many are made in Osaka. We managed to find a shop that sold them but they are hideously expensive, so we treated ourselves to a couple of sushi fridge magnets as a souvenir.
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A Guide to Fresh Wasabi
Did you know that a lot of the time the fiery, nose-wince-inducing, slightly-eye-watering wasabi that you eat with your sushi doesn’t actually contain much wasabi? The wasabi powders and pastes that you buy in the shops or which are used in many restaurants are usually a combination of mustard, horseradish, green food colouring and just a hint of wasabi, probably from the stem or leaves. Eating fresh wasabi is a completely different experience. And how hot is wasabi?
Growing Fresh Wasabi
Wasabi as a plant is similar to horseradish in that both belong to the Brassica family (which is quite a broad family as it also contains vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli and kale) and both have a fiery pungency but they are different species and offer very different flavours.
Horseradish is really easy to grow in the UK. It’s like a weed and grows rapidly in the wild. We regularly see horseradish growing by the roadside or in parks. (We would like to forage for it but although we could pick the leaves it’s against the law to dig up roots on land you don’t own.) It’s the long white root that provides the flavour. Wasabia Japonica’s flavour comes from its rhizome, which is kind of like a swollen stem.
Traditionally wasabi grows next to crystal clear gravelly mountain streams in rural Japan (a delightfully romantic image) but it is actually possible to grow wasabi in the UK (although our garden is significantly less romantic than a beautiful mountain region). Water grown wasabi is known as sawa- or mizu-wasabi, soil grown is known as hatake-wasabi.
Our soil grown wasabi needs a little love. It likes relatively cool conditions and much prefers the shade to the sunshine. We once had to move our wasabi into a sunny spot temporarily and it wilted like the Wicked Witch of the West. (It recovered 24 hours later when it was back in the shade.) It also needs to be well watered, although it doesn’t like to sit in water. A cool, rainy British summer is ideal. We grow it in pots close to the north facing wall of our house. It takes a while for the rhizome to grow – you need to be patient for a couple of years – but the result is worth it. The cat was very impressed with our attempts.
Eating Fresh Wasabi
The first time we ate fresh wasabi, it was a revelation. It did have that amazing familiar pungency but it also has a sweetness that you don’t expect. One of the advantages of growing wasabi is that the other parts of the plant are all edible: the lovely heart shaped leaves can be used as a garnish (and eaten), the stems chopped up like herbs and even the delicate flowers, which are especially good in a tempura. The other parts are much more mild and, while they impart flavour, don’t have the pungency of the rhizome.
How To Prepare Fresh Wasabi
Wasabi rhizomes can grow up to 100g in size, although some can be bigger. You would have to have a big sushi party to get through that amount but it is possible to store it.
The pungency of the wasabi fades when it is exposed to air, so it is best to grate it just before serving. There are various graters you can buy. Traditionally, a shark skin grater is used, although it is usually made from a type of ray. Purists prefer this, claiming that this is the one that ensures that the wasabi has the best creamy consistency and brings out the best flavour. But you can also get other types, including a metallic grater or, our preference, a ceramic grater.
Using a vegetable peeler, we just scrape off a small amount of the rhizome’s outer layer, up to the length we wish to grate, then grate the wasabi in a circular motion.
One useful little implement is a bamboo brush which you can use to gather up the grated wasabi. The stiff bristles are much more efficient at negotiating the grater’s bumps than our fingers. Gather the grated wasabi up into a nice little ball and serve. It’s worth grating slightly less than you think you will need – you can always grate more.
A fresh rhizome will store well in the fridge for a couple of weeks. We tend to keep it wrapped in damp kitchen paper and grate as much as we need. If we don’t get through an entire rhizome in that time, it tends to go a bit black, so the best thing to do is freeze it. The whole rhizome doesn’t freeze well but grated wasabi freezes brilliantly.
We tend to grate into portions and then store inside little plastic tubs – the sort you get sauces/dips in with a takeaway meal. Then we seal – in order to minimise exposure to the air and pop into the freezer. Take them out when you need them. The portions thaw in no time at all. Alternatively, you can wrap the grated wasabi into parcels of clingfilm.
So How Hot Is Wasabi?
Unlike chillies, which have the Scoville scale to measure their heat level, wasabi heat doesn’t really have a similar measurement system. The Scoville scale is based on dilution of the chemical capsaicin – how much water it takes before you can no longer detect the heat of the chilli. But wasabi is a root not a pepper and instead of releasing capsaicin, it contains allyl isothiocyanate, a compound which is also found in mustard, radish and horseradish. Its pungency is a result of its volatility – the gas it releases feels as though it goes straight up your nose rather than remaining on your tongue like the capsaicin of chilli.
People’s reactions to wasabi will differ quite widely. Some people can scoff the hottest of chillies but can’t take the heat of wasabi. But it is undoubtedly hot! Fresh wasabi has a milder pungency than the horseradish/mustard/green paste.
How To Eat Wasabi With Sushi
Wasabi and sushi go together like fish & chips, salt & pepper and gin & tonic. Wasabi was originally used with sushi in the Edo period in Japan and was thought not only to help mask any smells from the fish it was also considered to have properties that help prevent the growth of bacteria.
The best way to eat wasabi with sushi is to mix it with a small amount of soy sauce in a little dish. Never dip the rice part into the dish – the rice will soak up the soy sauce and all you’ll get is a mouthful of nose-wincing salt, losing the delicate flavour of the fish. Instead, turn the sushi upside down and dip the fish side into the sauce. (It’s absolutely fine to eat sushi with your fingers.) If you are having an omakase meal, where the chef prepares the sushi for you, it is likely that they will add exactly the correct amount of sauce and wasabi, so you won’t need to worry.
We love making chirashizushi – a bowl of seasoned rice with a layer of seafood atop – which we serve with our own fresh wasabi and garnished with the lovely heart-shaped wasabi leaves.
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Visiting in Tokyo in December is a great way of understanding Japanese New Year food and traditions, one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Japanese New Year Food –Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is a family time and one particular Japanese new year tradition is that people stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
Japanese New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Osechi-ryōri comprises lots of little dishes beautifully presented. Much of the food is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential Japanese new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. New year mochi is called kagami mochi and comprises two mochi balls one set on top of the other, with a tangerine on top.
Mochi may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is a popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is one of the Japanese new year food traditions is to present it in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
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It had long been an ambition to travel to Russia but the convoluted and lengthy visa process did put us off. It can take several weeks to apply and the authorities will need a vast quantity of information not only about you but also a fair bit of family history as well. The embassy is also likely to retain your passport for the time that the application is going through its processing. So we were delighted to discover that you can actually travel to Russia visa-free. You can’t stay for long – just three days – and the trip can best be described as full-on but, for us, it was a brilliant opportunity to see the highlights of this amazing country.
Rushin’ Around Russia
So, deep breath, this is the itinerary:
Fly to Helsinki – catch a tram to the port – board a ferry – sail overnight to St Petersburg – arrive St Petersburg – tour St Petersburg in morning – lunch – travel out to Summer Palace and tour Summer Palace and surround – drive back to St Petersburg – free time to explore and eat dinner – pick up to train station – overnight train to Moscow – arrive early morning Moscow – transport to hotel for breakfast – pick up for Moscow tour – tour Red Square and Moscow metro – lunch – tour Kremlin, back to hotel in afternoon for a quick shower – pick up in evening for train station – overnight train back to St Petersburg – breakfast in St Petersburg – explore St Petersburg until Hermitage opens – tour Hermitage and marvel at the art, realising you could actually spend days in there – pick up for ferry port – catch ferry – sail overnight to Helsinki – arrive Helsinki – tram to airport – fly home – collapse.
Visa-Free Travel Rules
The Russian Federation foreign visa-free conditions state that:
- You must arrive at the port of St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
- You must leave Russia from St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
- You must leave Russia within 72 hours. The clock starts ticking as soon as you cross border control.
- You must be a part of an organised travel group and follow the tour itinerary
- You must have a valid passport and be able to enter Finland after leaving Russia.
You have to travel with an approved agency. This meant that we would be joining a group tour, which is our least favourite way to travel, but it was something that we were prepared to do. As things turned out, however, Anglo-Russian relations weren’t particularly good at the time of travelling and a number of other guests decided to cancel. Amazingly, we got a private tour! And while politicians often have very public spats in the media, ordinary people are usually lovely and everyone we encountered on our trip to Russia was very friendly and helpful.
The trip was brilliantly designed. One thing to note is that your bed will be moving for four nights running – ferry, train, train, ferry. As someone who is prone to travel sickness, particularly seasickness, this was initially a concern but the Baltic sea was very calm and the boat was very large so there were no issues at all. There are several classes of ferry and train transport available from basic to luxurious – the cost varies accordingly.
Breaking the trip down…
Day One – Start at the Finnish: From Helsinki to St Petersburg
On arrival at Helsinki we caught a tram to the port and boarded the St. Peterline ferry Princess Anastasia. There was plenty to do on board and there was a reasonable choice of restaurants to dine in.
We decided to get a cheap cabin without a window view, mainly because it was an overnight journey so we were planning to be sleeping and didn’t really need a port-hole to look out of while it was dark. It comprised twin beds and a shower room – basic but perfectly functional. As we wandered to the dining room for a buffet breakfast the following morning we could see the ice floating along the river as we headed into port.
Day Two – A Day in St Petersburg
Instructions were issued for debarkation over the ship’s tannoy. We had been given visa-free arrival and departure cards, which we kept with our passports. We joined the queue for non-Russian visitors and eventually got through immigration.
We travelled in mid-April, ostensibly spring, but the weather was still pretty cold – it had risen from around -30⁰C during winter to around 0⁰C. However, St Petersburg’s river Neva was still frozen and not navigable. This meant that unfortunately we couldn’t undertake a planned boat trip, so the itinerary was shuffled around a bit. It was a disappointment not to be able to do this but it meant that we had more time at the Hermitage on day three.
First on the itinerary was a St Petersburg City tour and a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is effectively the birthplace of the city, its citadel. It is located on Zayachy Island (Hare Island), across the Neva River. You will see lots of hare sculptures around the island. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and built as a star fortress between 1706 and 1740. Curiously, while it was constructed secure Russia’s position on the River Neva, it was never used as a fortress and its cannons didn’t fire a single shot for over 200 years… until the 1917 Revolution.
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is a remarkable construction and the oldest church in St. Petersburg. It is home to the graves of nearly all of Russia’s rulers since Peter the Great. Of particular interest are those of the Romanov dynasty, the last of the Tsars.
The fortress was also a prison and it is possible to visit the cells and learn about its grim history. Its more famous inmates included Peter the Great’s son Alexei, Lenin’s brother Aleksandr Ulyanov and renowned writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Outside the walls of the fortress are the “polar bears” who sunbathe in sub-zero temperatures.
After a brief lunch we headed out of the city to Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin) located 25km away, to the south. We spent some time exploring the Catherine Palace which was named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great who ruled Russia after her husband’s death, for just two years. The original building, commissioned by Peter in 1717, was a modest construction. It was their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who decided that Tsarskoe Selo would be her primary summer residence and she commissioned the extravagant and opulent building.
The ballroom and Amber Room (the only place that photos are not allowed is the Amber Room) are astonishing in their magnificence and you can imagine the sheer decadence of life in the palace. We visited out of season and it’s worth noting that this is a very popular tourist attraction and there are often long queues in the summer.
We also visited the exterior of the Alexander Palace which was the residence of Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar, and his family. Its location outside St Petersburg meant that it was considered to be a safer residence than the Winter Palace in the heart of the city. However, it was the place where the family were initially held under house arrest immediately following the Russian Revolution before they were relocated to Tobolsk and eventually executed.
On our return to the City, we had a few hours in the evening to explore on our own and get a meal. Then we were picked up and taken to the railway station. As part of the tour our tickets had been pre-arranged and we were taken to the platform to ensure we caught the right train.
To contrast with our basic ferry cabin, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury on the train. We caught the 23:40 ‘Grand Express’. It has been described as hotel on wheels. Our cabin’s seating converted to almost a double bed width and also included a table where we could dine and had a private shower room and toilet. A TV was available too. Breakfast was included (pre-ordered as we checked into the train via the carriage’s steward) so that we could dine the following morning as we made our way into Moscow.
The ‘Grand Express’ train also has standard compartments carriages of 1st (2 berth) and 2nd (4 berth) class which are still very comfortable and somewhat cheaper. Some of the other cabins classes do not include breakfast but this is arranged on arrival in Moscow if needed.
Day Three – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Moscow
Our train pulled into Moscow Leningradskaya station at 08:30 the following morning, bang on time.
We were greeted and taken to a local hotel, the Katerina City Hotel Moscow, which had been booked for us for the day. This was a great idea. It meant that we could keep our luggage there and could also use the facilities. Breakfast is available if wanted. We were instructed to meet our guide for a city tour at 10am.
Our guide loved Moscow. She emphasised her passion for her city by declaring that, “St Petersburg is the head of Russia but Moscow is its heart.” With only a day in the city, the aim was to visit the major sites, so she bought us Metro tickets and we set off on a walking tour. Many of the stations on Moscow’s underground system are stunningly beautiful and, as we had a Metro pass to travel freely, we explored some of the more interesting stations. It’s not unreasonable to assert that some of these glorious stations are art galleries in themselves.
Then we made our way to Red Square. It is one of the world’s most iconic public spaces, bordered by the eastern red walls of the Kremlin, the colourful onion domes of St Basil’s cathedral and the megastore GUM.
It’s worth noting that Lenin’s tomb is not open on Fridays, so you need to take that into account when planning your trip if you wish to visit and see the preserved body of the founder of the Soviet Union.
St Basil’s Cathedral, aka the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, and officially Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, is so very, very beautiful and it was a special place to visit. Ivan the Terrible (who our guide insisted should have been named Ivan the Awesome) commissioned the building and it was constructed between 1555 and 1561.
We had imagined it to have a vast interior but in fact it comprises several chapels: eight chapels located around a central chapel. An additional chapel was built some years later over the grave of the Saint Vasily (Basil), a local saint who was highly revered. The Soviet Union had a policy of state atheism so the cathedral was secularised during this time and is now a museum, although Orthodox Christian services with prayers to St. Basil now take place on a weekly basis.
We also visited GUM, an enormous department store, and enjoyed its amazing architecture.
We had lunch at a restaurant a few streets away and enjoyed a warming bowl of borscht soup.
In the afternoon we visited the Kremlin. Security is tight and you will need to be prepared to have your bags checked and walk through a metal detector. If you are likely to set the alarm off (if you have metal limbs, for example), let your guide know – they will talk to the security guards and get you in via an alternative system.
The Kremlin (citadel) is fortified complex with Red Square to the east and the lovely Alexander gardens to the west. Inside its walls are five palaces and four cathedrals amongst other buildings such as the Grand Kremlin Palace that was formerly the Tsar’s Moscow residence, the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation and the State Kremlin Palace.
The State Kremlin Palace (also known as the Kremlin Palace of Congresses), was built inside the Kremlin between 1959–1961. It was commissioned by Nikita Khrushchev for the purpose of holding Communist Party meetings.
Two of the most popular attractions are a cannon that has never been fired in a war and a bell that has never been rung.
The Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world, is also made of bronze but developed a large destructive crack and its sound has never been heard.
The Tsar Cannon was cast in 1586 by Andrey Chokhov who was renowned for his work with bronze. It was never used in a war and is largely symbolic. (Although there is apparently some evidence to suggest that it has been fired once.)
Cathedral Square is the most beautiful area of the Kremlin; it’s surrounded by a number of buildings, including three cathedrals.
The Cathedral of the Dormition was where all the Tsars were crowned and is considered to be Moscow’s primary church. It was designed by Aristotele Fioravanti and completed in 1479.
The Cathedral of the Annunciation was completed in 1489 but was reconstructed over the years.
The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael was constructed later, in 1508.This contains the final resting places of most of the Muscovite monarchs from the 14th Century until Peter the Great moved the Russia’s capital to St Petersburg.
The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, located next to the Tsar Bell, reputedly marks the very heart of Moscow, the precise centre of the city. It is 81 metres high (it was the tallest building in Moscow until the Russian Revolution) and was completed in 1600. It was commissioned by by Grand Duke Ivan Kalita, the Grand Duke of Moscow from 1325.
Around the corner from Cathedral Square are further buildings, including the Arsenal and the Armoury buildings.
The latter is a museum which contains a plethora of objects from across Russia’s history. Of note is the collection of ten Fabergé eggs, the largest single collection of these jewelled Imperial eggs, Easter gifts from the Tsars to their wives and children. The eggs are astonishing in their design and intricacy and it was wonderful to be able to see them up close.
After our Moscow tour we went back to the hotel for a short time to relax and grab a bite to eat at a local café, before being picked up late evening to be taken to the station for our train ride.
Day Four – Return to St Petersburg
We caught the Grand Express overnight and arrived at St Petersburg the following morning.
We visited the Church of the Spilled Blood, an Orthodox church, adjacent to the Griboedov Canal, which was constructed during the reign of Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II, who was assassinated by anarchist conspirators on that very spot in 1881.
In order to construct the cathedral the canal needed to be narrowed so that the road that the Tsar had been driving on could be located inside the walls of the church.
Our final visit in St Petersburg was to the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most important art museums. It was a real treat to be able to spend time in this fascinating place.
Because we had missed the boat ride a couple of days earlier, we had more time to spend inside this most magnificent of buildings. It is, apparently, the world’s largest art museum by gallery space and contains over three million works of art from some of the world’s most renowned artists. It’s not an understatement to say that you could spend days exploring it. It had occurred to us that we could do another visa-free trip and just spend the entire 72 hours inside the Hermitage.
The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along the embankment of the Neva river, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian Tsars, commissioned by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. It was Empress Catherine the Great who initiated an art collection in 1764 after purchasing a number of paintings from Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. It seems as though what Catherine wanted, Catherine could purchase. The museum has been open to the public since 1852 and following the Revolution, the palace now houses works of art as well.
After a thoroughly wonderful few hours exploring the Hermitage the clock was ticking and our time in Russia was running out. We were whisked back to the port to board Princess Anastasia to return to Helsinki.
Day Five – Finnish Where We Started
We arrived in Helsinki early in the morning and found our way back into the city via the efficient tram system. There was a restaurant in town where we could grab a light bite for breakfast. Our flight timings were such that we didn’t have too much time in Helsinki so we headed back to the airport via the train link and flew home.
This trip was one of the most intensive we have ever undertaken. But travelling to Russia visa-free was a fantastic opportunity to visit this most remarkable of countries which has such a rich history and so many treasures to explore.
A Place of Awe and Wonder
The animations of Studio Ghibli, by founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and their protegees, are amongst the very best in the world. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli film we can’t emphasise enough quite how magical they are. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and films in general, the Studio Ghibli Museum is top of the list of places to see when visiting Tokyo.
A teenage witch, her hair ruffled by the wind, rides her mother’s broom through the open skies. A giant robot unleashes molten destruction on the soldiers who have awakened him from centuries of slumber. A city worker recalls her childhood growing up in the 1960s. The skies above Kōbe are filled with buzzing agents of death, raining down fire upon a terrified population. A burgeoning writer seeks inspiration from a quaint antiques shop. A travelling warrior becomes infatuated with a feral wolf-child in a land scarred by war. A group of young people discover love and loss during their turbulent high-school years. A girl’s parents are turned into slobbering pigs. A father turns superhero, if only for a moment, when he stands up to a local biker gang. Two elated girls soar through the air inside a grinning cat bus, its headlight eyes tracing yellow streaks in the sky above the forest.
Gods and monsters. Love and loss. Jubilation and despair. The horrors of war. Childhood wonder. The passion of life. Welcome to the heart-soaring, euphoric, whimsical, terrifying, compassionate and, above all else, emotional world of Studio Ghibli. The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the terms ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli makes films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Studio Ghibli Kamera Book.
It’s not possible to visit the studio itself. That’s just basically an office building. But Miyazaki and Takahata commissioned a museum dedicated to the art and technology of the animated form in 2001 and it is one of the most delightful museums we’ve ever visited.
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Getting Tickets
If you’re planning on visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you can’t just turn up. The museum is so popular that you have to pre-book your tickets and also arrive at a specified time. The process for getting tickets is a bit convoluted especially if you don’t live in Japan or have contacts there. So (deep breath)…
If you are Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson konbini (convenience stores) which can be found all over the country.. The tickets go on sale from 10:00am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month. So really you have to be in Japan for several weeks to stand a chance of getting any for yourself and they will sell quickly. The museum has a page which links to an online booking system.
If you can’t get tickets via the link there are other options. A number of travel agencies can get tourist tickets which you can purchase directly from them in your home country.
Other travel agencies often have staff in Japan who may be able to go to Lawson to get tickets on your behalf. But book early! We’ve used services such as these in the past and it has worked very well. However, over the years, demand has increased and many travel agencies may also want you to buy other services, for example, they may request that you purchase your Japan Rail Pass from them, or book a couple of nights’ accommodation in Tokyo. This is frustrating, especially if you have already made your plans or can purchase these items more cheaply elsewhere. For example, we always search for the best deal for our JR Passes and usually stay in Japanese Business Hotels which are cheap and comfortable (if small), especially in Tokyo because, frankly, when you’re in Tokyo you don’t really care too much about your accommodation as there’s so much fun to be had in the city.
The tickets state a specified date and time of entry and, as a result, you will need to arrive on time. The face value of the tickets is an extremely reasonable ¥1000 for those over 19 years of age, with lower costs for children. But there is likely to be a handling fee if you purchase your ticket from an agent.
On Arrival At The Ghibli Museum
The museum is located in Mitaka, on the Chūō Line. There are direct trains from central Tokyo and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one. It’s a short walk from the JR station. There is, however, a bus service which, for around ¥300 return, will take you directly to the museum. It’s easy to spot the bus stop.
On arrival, walking along Kichijoji Avenue, which is adjacent to Inokashira Park, at the entrance of the delightfully colourful building you are greeted by a giant Totoro, which is the best possible welcome anyone could want, before you walk around the building to the real entrance.
On arrival you exchange your voucher for a real ticket which has a film strip from a Ghibli animation inside. There is no time limit on your visit and the policy of limiting admissions means that the museum never feels crowded. You can wander freely through the building but you are requested not to take photos. This is actually a really good idea – it ensures that you enjoy the experience rather than try to record everything that you see. It also means that there are no (or at least minimal) spoilers from zillions of photos of the museum on the internet. If you wish, you can buy a book or a set of postcards of the museum from the shop – so that you have a memento.
Miyazaki’s principle for designing the museum was ‘Let’s lose our way, together’. It’s a brilliant philosophy. There is no set route around the building and there are all sorts of spiral staircases, internal bridges and nooks and crannies to explore – some at a low level, suited to children… or adult sized children who are prepared to crouch and wiggle into small spaces. Just go wherever your curiosity takes you.
The first room after the entrance contains a Ghibli-inspired history of cinema technology. Periodically the lights are dimmed and a flashing Totoro zoetrope starts up – it’s a magical display as characters from the film rotate around a central point illustrating about how animation can create the illusion of movement. (Be aware that this is a stroboscope effect if you are sensitive to flashing lights.) Amongst the other exhibits in the room is a delightful display of the Laputa robot surrounded by doves. It truly is a room of wonders.
Upstairs there are further rooms to explore. Some of these have permanent exhibitions – such as the life-sized cat bus (from My Neighbour Totoro). Adults be aware that you are only allowed to play inside cat bus if you are under eight years of age, something that we feel is most unfair. There are a couple of rooms which represents an animation studio so that you can understand the technicalities and process of animation from start to finish.
The studio also has a number of temporary exhibitions which often showcase the work of animators from around the world. Isao Takahata, in particular, did a lot to promote the work of film-makers from around the world. We have enjoyed exhibitions showing the works of Pixar studios (themselves huge Ghibli fans) and Michel Ocelot’s remarkable animations.
Don’t forget to follow the steps to the roof – there you will find the gentle giant robot and mysterious control cube from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. (It’s okay to take photos outside the museum’s main building.)
Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum – Exclusive Ghibli Films!
One of the biggest attractions about the museum is the opportunity to attend the screening of a short Ghibli film. You cannot see these anywhere else in the world and they are not available on DVD or on streaming services, they are totally exclusive to the museum. The films are around 20 minutes in length and there is a board outside the Saturn Theatre on the ground floor, indicating screening times. It’s worth getting to the waiting area a bit earlier than the start time to make sure you can get into the screening you wish to attend. (If you miss a screening there is plenty to keep you occupied until the next one.) We have been lucky to have visited the museum five times and have never seen the same film twice. You can buy picture books of the films as a memento.
Shop Till You Drop
When you’re visiting the Studio Ghibli museum you’ll be delighted to discover that there is a bookshop where you can buy books and DVDs related to the films
And there’s also a souvenir shop where all sorts of gorgeous and tempting merchandise can be purchased. If you are a fan of the films, pack an extra suitcase for all the goodies. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of souvenirs.
The bags are from the film Porco Rosso and are a souvenir in themselves.
It’s worth noting that Ghibli merchandise is also available throughout Japan. We managed to buy the biggest Totoro soft toy that we felt we could get onto a plane without having to buy an extra seat – bought at the very end of a long trip (which had involved lots of travelling on the shinkansen and it really wouldn’t have been practical to transport him all over Japan, gorgeous as he is) at a department store in Tokyo just before we headed out for the airport. And yes, we did get lots of funny looks from security guards at the airport, but Totoro has pride of place in our living room.
The design of the museum is so intricate and detailed, even outside the main building.
There is a café, The Straw Hat Cafe (featuring Mei’s hat from My Neighbour Totoro), adjacent to the museum which sells ice-cream, drinks and snacks.
It’s become something of a tradition for us to enjoy a hot-dog and a cold beer – yes, you can even enjoy a bottle of Nausicaä beer! – at the end of the exploration.
The Ghibli museum is emphatically one of the most wonderful places we have visited. It’s a triumph of imagination and design and is genuinely a place of wonders. Even if the process of obtaining tickets is somewhat convoluted, we can’t recommend this museum highly enough. We’d go again in an instant.
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