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Places to Visit in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

We have recently returned from a holiday travelling through Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, two countries that we have long wanted to visit. We decided to take a fly-drive trip, flying in and then hiring a car so that we could have flexibility touring through these two beautiful countries.

Driving in Bosnia and Croatia

We flew into Dubrovnik in Croatia (as that worked best for our flights from the UK) and then hired a car at the airport. It’s always worth pre-booking the hire car. Driving in both countries is pretty easy – the roads are generally good (they are better in Croatia which has a more established tourism infrastructure) and, even better, usually free of traffic. Due to the mountainous nature of region dual carriageways were rare and the drives were leisurely but the scenery throughout each drive was spectacular. We kept to the speed limit – and be aware that there are speed cameras, particularly close to schools in towns – but were overtaken on quite a few occasions.

Border crossings were generally easy – we just needed to join the queue for cars and simply hand over our passports at the first check-in booth and then answer any questions as the next one, the customs booth. In Bosnia Herzegovina proof of Covid vaccination was needed (at the time of travelling). We had printed our Covid passes out so they were easily to hand but a mobile phone app would have been just as good. Our itinerary took us in and out of both countries. After an overnight stay in Mali Ston we headed into Bosnia Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s History

Bosnia Herzegovina has a long and complex history. Its location in the Balkans is often described as the crossroads between south and south-east Europe. Populated by south Slavic people it was annexed into the Ottoman Empire, who brought Islam to the area, in the middle of the 15th century. Hence the population comprises Serb (Orthodox Christians), Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) peoples. This is reflected in the multitude of churches and mosques that can be seen throughout the region.

Mostar is the main (in fact, the only) city in Herzegovina. (The northern region of the country is Bosnia, with Sarajevo as its capital, and Herzegovina is the south.) Mostar is located on the Neretva river, surely one of the world’s most beautiful rivers, with its crystal clear turquoise water. The city is most famous for the Stari Most bridge that crosses the river. It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed somewhere between 1566 and 1567.

It was the widest constructed arch in the world at the time at 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. The drop to the water is around 20 metres depending on the river level. The Ottomans were clever in that this was the only bridge spanning the river for several centuries – the word Mostar derives from ‘mostari’ – bridge keepers – so that the authorities could impose tolls on the traders who needed to cross as they moved their goods through the region. The bridge is flanked by two impressive towers.

Place to visit Mostar

Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire and then the annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in 1929 after World War 1. This became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, following World War 2. The region remained stable until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Following Slovenia and Croatia’s respective secessions from Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The outcome was in favour but, while most Bosnian Croats and Muslim Bosniaks had voted, the referendum had been boycotted most of the Bosnian Serbs, a significant proportion of the population. A series of events following this led to war breaking out between the different groups. It lasted until December 1995.

It is incredibly difficult to summarise – let alone truly understand – the complexities of the war but what is undeniable is how horrific it was. This was a war that happened during our lifetime – we remember from seeing news reports on the television at the time. We spoke to a number of local people – from all ethnicities – during our time in Bosnia Herzegovina and they told us about their experiences living through the war, notably the Siege of Sarajevo. Following the peace declaration, the government structure in Bosnia Herzegovina has become incredibly complex with representatives from each ethnic group holding positions of power. For example, the country has three presidents: a Bosniak, a Serb, and a Croat.

One of the consequences of the war for Mostar was the destruction of the Stari Most bridge in December 1993. It was not only considered to be a strategic bridge (the other bridges crossing the river in Mostar were also destroyed) but also a cultural icon. The bridge was rebuilt after the war using funding from a variety of sources and many different countries contributed to the fund. The aim was to reconstruct the bridge in identical style and using similar materials (some salvaged from the original bridge where possible). It was reopened in 2004.

Places to Visit in Mostar – A Walking Tour

When visiting a new city, particularly when we are touring and short on time, we enjoy taking a walking tour. There are usually lots of options available but we especially like the ‘free tours’ which are run by local guides (who will expect a tip at the end of the tour and absolutely deserve one) who can show you the main places to visit in Mostar, explain the history of the area and give some personal insight into the country. They are also the perfect people to recommend local food and restaurants.

We started at the Spanish Gymnasium, which is the first public school in Mostar (the word derives from the European term for high school rather than being an exercise centre). It’s about a 20 minute walk from the centre of the city and is a good meeting point as its orange colour is very easy to spot. It is a working school so entering the building isn’t possible.

The gymnasium is located next to the Zrinjevac City Park, which is a pretty park that has a rather unusual statue. We really weren’t expecting to see a life-sized (well, apparently it’s 4cm short of life-sized) statue of Bruce Lee. Apparently he was chosen as a symbol of diversity and couldn’t be perceived to have an affiliation with any of the local ethnicities, but rather represented “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice.”

places to visit Mostar

When walking around Mostar the scars of the war remain. We walked through the former financial district – many of the buildings are still shells. Our guide explained that while reconstruction work had taken place following the war, the capital Sarajevo had received more money to rebuild. There was still a lot of work that needed to be undertaken throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Walking across the Most Musula bridge we could see good views to the hills above. Although walking up to the summit would ensure a magnificent panorama of the city, the area sadly still contains land-mines.

We then headed towards the older part of the city. The Karadoz Bey Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the region and dates from the same year as the Stari Most bridge.

Karadoz Bey Mosque mostar

It is possible to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. It is located on a side street just away from the main street.

Outside is a fountain traditionally used for washing before entering the mosque to pray.

For visitors it costs 4 Euros to enter the mosque and a further 4 Euros to climb the minaret. Photos were allowed and, although we asked if they would like us to remove our shoes and cover our heads, we were told that it wasn’t necessary.

The interior of the mosque itself is quite compact and the climb to the top of the minaret was fairly claustrophobic.

However the view across the river to the bridge was spectacular. The balcony of the minaret was pretty narrow so we were lucky that there was only one other visitor there. You can also enter the small garden adjacent to the mosque for more river views.

Places to visit Mostar

Wandering through the old town, there are lots of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and can get crowded during the day. There are also a couple of museums in this area, The Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995 and also the Bridge Museum, which we were keen to visit, but sadly it was closed. There were reminders of the war as we walked through the streets.

Approaching Stari Most again we crossed the river over the old bridge. The steps can be quite slippery.

Places to visit Mostar

One thing that is very popular is watching locals who dive from the bridge into the crystal clear water below. You’ll see them hanging around at the top of the bridge, sitting on the top railing, and they will usually dive once they have raised enough money – normally in the region of 50 Euros – from tourists. You will be able to tell when they are ready to dive when either one of them dons a wetsuit or they start splashing themselves with cold water because the temperature of the river is extremely cold, especially in spring and early summer. We were some distance from the bridge, upriver, when we saw a diver preparing to go. Despite the camera being focussed and on full zoom, we only managed to capture the splash! There are diving competitions held in Mostar each year.

Places to visit Mostar

It’s worth noting that the bridge is a focal point for tourists and, because the city is only a couple of hours’ drive away from Croatia, it gets very busy during the late morning and afternoon as day trippers arrive in their coachloads. The surrounding streets and bazaars will be teeming with people. So staying overnight to explore the area and view the bridge when it’s less busy is definitely recommended.

Our walking tour concluded by another stone bridge – the Crooked Bridge – just a five minute walk away from Stari Most. It dates from 1558. It was strategically important because it allowed traffic to be controlled from the towers of the old bridge. This, too, is a reconstruction – sadly the original was destroyed during floods in 1999, but it was rebuilt in 2002.

Places to visit Mostar

Places to Visit in Mostar, Dining Out

There are loads of eateries offering tasty food in Mostar. The restaurants closest to the bridge, or those with a good view of it, are likely to be more expensive than those in the surrounding streets. Mostar was our first introduction to Bosnian cuisine. The national dish is considered to be cevapi – little meaty sausages/kebabs served inside a bread called somun which is a flatbread like pitta but has a really nice focaccia-like spongey texture. It’s served with chopped raw onions, which are quite sweet in flavour rather than being too pungent. You usually get a choice of a small portion (5 little sausages) or larger portion (10 little sausages). Many of the dishes we tried in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia were accompanied by ajvar, a condiment made from red peppers (it isn’t spicy).

There are plenty of sweet dishes on offer as well. Baklava is a familiar dessert, a sweet, filo-based pastry, filled with layers of nuts and a sweet syrup, popular across the region and the Middle East. We particularly enjoyed hurmasica, a pastry doused in lemon-flavoured sugar syrup. It comes in an oblong shape and is very sweet but really delicious with a nice gooey cake-like texture.

hurmasica dessert

And a meal wouldn’t be complete without a cup of incredibly strong, rich, sweet coffee. Coffee culture is very important in this part of the world.

Places to visit Mostar

There was also a very good craft beer emporium in Mostar,on Gojka Vukovica, close to the Crooked Bridge. It had a wide variety of local beers on offer, brewed in both Mostar and Sarajevo. We particularly enjoyed Marakuja, an American Pale Ale, Onano Maze, a rich porter, Darkness, a dry Irish Stout and Kukambera, a cucumber-infused lager which was really refreshing on a hot spring day.

And if you’re after something stronger, rakija is the local brandy made from fermented fruit. Its alcohol content can range from around 40% to 60%. It’s not uncommon for local people to make their own rakija. One of the guides we met told us that it was the cure for all ailments! What’s nice about it is that, even though the alcohol content is strong, you don’t just get a blast of booze, the flavours of the base fruit really do come through – it’s a pleasant tipple.

After dinner, when the day trippers have melted away, it’s lovely to wander through the city at night. The bridge and local buildings are lit up beautifully and Mostar becomes a much more peaceful place.

Places to visit Mostar
Places to visit Mostar

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RECIPE: Salmorejo

Andalusian Cold Tomato Soup

In Spain, cold soups are perfect for a hot summer’s day. Gazpacho is probably the most well known – a blend of fresh tomatoes and other vegetables, such as cucumber, peppers and garlic. Salmorejo is another cold soup, which also originated in Andalusia. We first tried it in a tapas restaurant when we visit Seville and absolutely loved it. It is a blend of tomatoes but has the addition of bread which thickens the soup. It’s a great soup that also helps to avoid food waste as it works really well if the bread is slightly stale.

In the UK tomatoes aren’t that great. Supermarkets often sell perfectly round, perfectly red tomatoes that basically taste of water. We go to our local market for our toms or grow our own. (And home grown always taste better.) What is great about Salmorejo is that even if the tomatoes are a bit insipid, the flavourings ensure that the dish will be delicious.

Our recipe for salmorejo is really easy to make but you will need a blender. This will serve four if part of a wider tapas meal/starter or two hungry people. Also, it’s the sort of soup that you can make first thing in the morning and let the flavours infuse during the day. It even tastes great after being in the fridge overnight.

INGREDIENTS

About 10 ripe tomatoes

3 slices of stale white bread

Clove of garlic (or another if you like garlic but we prefer subtle garlic here)

Good slosh of extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 boiled egg per 2 servings

Couple of slices of ham

METHOD

First of all the tomatoes need to be skinned. The easiest way to do this is to cut a cross at the end of the tomato (the opposite end to the stalk). It doesn’t need to be precise and it doesn’t matter if you cut into the tomato’s flesh -it’s all going to be blended anyway.

salmorejo recipe tomatoes

Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and let them sit in the water for a couple of minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of cold water.

tomatoes

Grab a corner where the slice was made and the skins should just peel away. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get all the skin off.

peeled tomato

Put the tomatoes in the blender and give them a quick whiz.

Then tear the bread slices and add those, along with the garlic, oil, salt and pepper.

ingredients in blender

Blend again until you have a smooth, thick soup.

recipe for salmorejo

Pour into a jug then put into the fridge and let the flavours infuse.

Serve into individual bowls and garnish with chopped boiled egg and/or chopped ham.

recipe for salmorejo

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RECIPE: Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Fried chicken is one of life’s great pleasures. And Japanese fried chicken karaage is no exception. In Japan, it is a tradition to eat fried chicken from KFC on Christmas Day before the traditional new year celebrations commence. However, we feel that JFC offers far superior fried chicken.

Always use chicken thigh meat. It has so much more flavour than breast meat and is guaranteed to be juicier and more succulent.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Making karaage isn’t difficult but it also isn’t a quick process. However the results are definitely worth taking the time to make the dish. The chicken absolutely needs to be marinated – this adds so much flavour. The word karaage refers to the cooking technique, that is frying the food in oil. You don’t need equipment such as a deep fat fryer – a frying pan will be just fine.

Recipe for Japanese fried chicken karaage:

INGREDIENTS

Serves 4

800g boneless chicken thigh (skin-on is fine), each thigh cut into 4 pieces

For the marinade

4 tbs soy sauce

1 tbs mirin (if you can’t get this, add a little more sake/wine and a tsp of sugar)

1 tbs cooking sake (or white wine if you can’t get that)

1 inch of ginger (finely grated)

1-2 cloves of garlic (finely grated) depending on how garlicky you like your food

For the coating

Potato starch. If you can’t get this, fine rice flour or even cornflour will be fine. (Icing sugar would not!) We didn’t have quite enough potato starch so mixed in a little rice flour. About a cup’s worth (275ml) – as much as you need to coat all the chicken.

For the cooking

Vegetable oil (enough to get about 1 cm depth of oil in your pan)

METHOD

Place the chicken thigh pieces in a bowl and add the soy sauce, mirin, sake, ginger and garlic. Mix well and leave to marinate for at least an hour.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Pour the oil into a frying pan until it’s about 1 cm deep. Heat up. The oil will be hot enough when you put a little flour into it and it sizzles.

When the chicken has had a chance to acquire those lovely flavours pour the potato starch into a bowl.

Take each piece of chicken, dip both sides in the flour, shake any excess off, and then carefully place in the oil.

Japanese Fried Chicken frying

Repeat for further pieces of chicken. Do not overfill the pan – this is a process whereby the chicken should be cooked in batches. We tend to use a clock method – put a piece of chicken at the top, then go round the pan putting further pieces in in a clockwise direction so we know which piece was put in first. Cook the chicken for 5-7 minutes, turning occasionally, until the pieces are golden brown.

Then remove from the oil and place on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil. You can transfer the chicken from the first batches into a heatproof bowl in the oven set on a low heat to keep them warm.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Start the next batch and repeat until all the chicken has been cooked.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Serve with Japanese mayo. It’s not at all healthy but it’s oh, so decadent and delicious! If you’re feeling more health conscious, shredded cabbage is a popular accompaniment.

Japanese Fried Chicken Karaage

Karaage chicken is also yummy cold the following day. It often features in bento boxes.

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Hiking In El Chaltén, Patagonia

When travelling in Argentinian Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park is an essential place to visit. While El Calafate is the focal town, with its stunningly beautiful lake and spectacular glaciers, such as the Perito Moreno glacier, nearby, the small town of El Chaltén is also well worth a visit. The main activity in the area is walking and enjoying the great outdoors, so whether you’re a manic mountaineer, a high-spirited hiker, a rapturous rambler or simply savour a serious stroll, El Chaltén has gorgeous scenery and walks available for all abilities. Here’s a guide to hiking in El Chaltén.

Getting To El Chaltén

El Chaltén is located around 220km north of El Calafate and it’s a three to four hour bus ride from there. Buses run several times a day from the bus station. It’s worth booking a ticket in advance, especially during busy seasons. The buses are large and comfortable. The journey is exceptionally pretty as it takes you through beautifully picturesque scenery.

When you arrive, the bus will actually stop at the tourist centre just outside the town so that you can get an orientation talk (available in English and Spanish and there’s no charge for this) and pick up a hiking map. Then it’s back onto the bus for about 2 minutes to cross the Fitz Roy river before arriving at the bus station where you disembark.

The town itself is small and very easy to get around on foot. There are plenty of accommodation options as well as a variety of restaurants and cafés to suit all budgets and, just up the road from the bus station, a craft beer emporium that offers a range of interesting beer – perfect for a post-hike tipple. There are also some outdoor equipment shops just in case you spontaneously decide to go climbing and have forgotten to bring your gear.

View of El Chalten

We stayed at the charming Hosteria Lago Viedma which is run by two lovely ladies. The home-cooked breakfast was the best we had in Argentina: freshly baked bread, eggs cooked to order and lovely home-made biscuits/cakes. They had loads of hiking advice and also kindly rearranged our bus tickets for us when it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to be on our side on the final day and we had a long wait before our bus was due to leave.

Weather the Weather Whatever the Weather – A Couple of Hikes in El Chaltén

Hiking in El Chaltén ranges from short and easy walks to some that are more challenging, and the map gives an indication of distance and difficulty. Not only do the B&Bs offer good hiking advice, they can often offer a packed lunch if you are planning to go out hiking all day. Empanadas (like pasties) are perfect – easy to carry, they will happily hold their shape inside your backpack and they taste delicious.

empanada

Beware the weather. It can be very changeable, indeed part of some hikes may be closed on particularly windy days. We recommend wearing layers of clothes as the wind can be really chilly but you warm up quickly if you’re on an energetic hike, so may want to discard layers as you go.

The information booklet at the visitor’s centre gives lots of information about all the hikes, including distance, time to reach the end and difficulty level.

You need to be a really experienced climber to climb the iconic Mount Fitz Roy but don’t panic – there are loads of amazing hikes, with varying levels of difficulty, even for the casual walker. There are lakes, waterfalls, spectacular views of mountain peaks and lots of other hikers to chat with along the way. The walks have signposts for the hike itself as well as viewing points and the trails are well maintained.

Laguna Torre hike is an easy-moderate hike where you can get fantastic views of the area, including a view of Mount Fitz Roy.

Hiking in El Chalten
Hiking in El Chalten

Sendero del Fitz Roy hike is a little more challenging. The starting point is at the north of the town; just walk along the main road until you see the sign.

Sendero del Fitz Roy hike

The first part of the hike climbs uphill then is relatively flat for several kilometres. It has lovely views of the mountains, lakes and glaciers all the way along. The very last section has a steep ascent and is not advisable if the weather, particularly the wind, is unfavourable. It’s around 10km each way and there are some alternative routes for the trip back so that you can see additional landscapes.

One of the loveliest things about walking in the area is that the water is absolutely pure. If you feel thirsty you can simply fill your water bottle directly from any of the streams and rivers that flow in abundance through the landscape. Cold, fresh, delicious water straight from the glacier/ground is a real treat.

Sendero del Fitz Roy hike

There is also plenty of wildlife to see – condors circling the sky or a common snipe.

After a 20km hike, food and beer is always welcome.

After Hiking in El Chaltén Patagonia – Eating and Drinking

There isn’t a huge amount to do in town after hiking in El Chaltén but there are a number of bars and restaurants offering decent food and there are a couple of places to have a pint – or three – of craft beer.

We enjoyed traditional Patagonian fare at El Muro, located on Avenida San Martin. It’s quite difficult to be vegetarian in Argentina as meat forms a large part of the diet. Indeed, we ate so much meat during our time there, we started craving salads. It’s also worth noting that many restaurants provide bread with your meal free of charge and we found that the food was so filling we just didn’t need to order any additional carbs. Patagonia is rightly famous for its lamb. Slow cooked over an open fire, it just melts in the mouth.

Essential Equipment for Hiking in El Chaltén

Where the serious climber will already have a special kit, there are a few items that, as enthusiastic casual walkers, we find to be indispensable. Walking shoes/hiking boots are an essential when walking in the area. We tend to wear our walking shoes on the flight so that we don’t have to pack them into our luggage, taking up valuable space.

The weather can be extremely changeable in El Chaltén. We always make sure we carry waterproofs with us when walking. Ponchos are really useful because you can chuck them on quickly and they provide good coverage. They can also easily fit over your backpack, which helps prevent that getting wet, and will squish to a small size to minimise packing. You can also use them as a ground sheet or to shelter from the sun, so they are really versatile.

We always try to avoid single-use plastics in order to be as environmentally-friendly as we can, but this can sometimes be difficult when travelling, especially if the water quality in the area you are visiting isn’t suitable to drink and we need to buy bottled water. Fortunately the tap water in Patagonia is totally safe to drink, so we took collapsible water bottles and filled them at our hosteria each day before setting out. Then we topped up the water from any of the streams that we walked by.

We always carry our own water bottles. At 1L capacity these contain a good amount of liquid and fold away when not in use so are perfect for minimising your packing. They can smell a teeny bit rubbery initially, but this will go after a good wash. For us, a nice, foldable reusable bottle is a travel essential.

We also recommend Merino wool clothing for those all-important layers for hiking. It’s a natural fibre and has excellent wicking capabilities which means it’s great for wearing if you build up a sweat. And because it’s natural you can actually wear the same clothes several days running without them smelling (we have tried this and can confirm they are brilliant), which also helps minimise the number of items you need to pack.

If you are traveling in the area and enjoy walking it is definitely worth considering spending a couple of days hiking in El Chaltén, Patagonia – the landscapes are wonderful and there are walks suitable for all abilities.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click the link and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no cost to you, which helps towards running this site.

Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum

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). 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.

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. The Ghibli Museum – Ticket System (jtbgmt.com) describes how to get tickets, you need to click on the link to select your country of origin.

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.

Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum

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.

Visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum

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.

Studio Ghibli Museum souvenirs

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.

Totoro toy

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.

Studio Ghibli Museum cafe

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.

If you are interested in the films of Studio Ghibli – and they are all amazing – here are some links:

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RECIPE – Kabocha Korroke – Pumpkin Croquettes

Kabocha is a type of squash, often called a Japanese pumpkin. It is small-medium in size (around 25-30cm diameter). Its flesh is bright orange which contrasts beautifully with its dark green skin. They are also pretty easy to grow. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that home-grown vegetables are always more delicious than shop bought ones.

This year we grew three of the beauties in our little garden and the very first thing we wanted to make once harvested, was ‘korroke’, a Japanese version of croquettes (the word is spelled in katakana, the phonetic alphabet used for words of international origin). It’s the sort of dish that you would find in a Japanese izakaya (a bar that sells alcohol and tasty snacks/small dishes). They are simple to make and utterly scrumptious. Here’s our recipe for Kabocha Korroke – Pumpkin Croquettes:

INGREDIENTS

1 kabocha pumpkin. If you can’t get a kabocha, other squash can be used. Pumpkin might be a bit too squishy but something like a butternut squash would work well.

1 egg (vegans can use corn starch mixed with warm water in an approximate ratio of 1:3)

50g (approx) Plain flour

50g (approx) Panko breadcrumbs

Pinch of salt

Oil for frying/spray oil for baking

Tonkatsu sauce to eat with (Brown sauce will work well if you can’t get tonkatsu)

METHOD

Cut the pumpkin in half and then into slices. Remove the seeds (we kept loads of seeds and dried them so that we can sow them next year).

Arrange the slices into a steaming bowl. We tend to use the Asian style bamboo baskets as they stack very nicely and can just sit on top of a saucepan of boiling/simmering water.

Steam for around 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft – a knife should easily sink into the flesh. (If you don’t have a steamer you can bake the pumpkin slices in the oven for around 40 minutes.)

Although the skin of the kabocha is edible, for the purposes of the korroke it is best to remove it. (You can treat yourself to pumpkin skin snacks – once they have cooled down a bit – while you continue the preparation.)

Add a pinch of salt and mash the pumpkin using a potato masher. It is possible to add other flavourings at this stage if you wish. Some recipes add sautéed onions, others lashings of butter, yet others include shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix). We just seasoned with the salt, which brings out the natural flavour of the kabocha, in this instance.

Form into patties.

Panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. They are crispy and super dry, usually made from white bread. You can buy panko in most supermarkets these days but ordinary breadcrumbs will be fine if you can’t find them. Set out three bowls. One for flour, one for an egg, lightly beaten, and one for the panko.

Dip each patty in the flour, then the egg, then the panko. This process can get a little messy (especially if you are a clumsy cook). Do not attempt to take photos using your phone if you have sticky fingers.

There are several options for cooking. Bear in mind that the pumpkin is already cooked so the korroke don’t need long. We’ve recently invested in an air fryer so thought we would use that. Just spray the patties with oil and cook at 190C for 4 minutes on each side. You can also bake them in the oven for about 8 minutes. Or you can fry them the old-fashioned way in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes on each side or until the panko are golden.

Then it’s time to scoff! Korroke are often served with tonkatsu sauce. This is a sweet and tangy sauce that perfectly complements the pumpkin. If you can’t find tonkatsu, brown sauce (the type you eat with a cooked breakfast) is a good substitution. Other accompaniments can include mayo or a soy based dipping sauce. Best served with a nice, cold beer. Or two.

Visit Quito, Ecuador – A Great Latitude

The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around the capital when you visit Quito.

Visit Quito

Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.

When you visit Quito, the Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.

Visit Quito

It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.

Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.

Visit Quito

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.

The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.

There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.

We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.

It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.

Visit Quito – City Tour

There are lots of city tours available when you visit Quito and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.

The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.

It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.

Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.

We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.

Pululahua Crater Quito

Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.

A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.

Visit Quito – Day Trips Further Out

There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.

Quilotoa Crater Lake

This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.

First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…

…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.

We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.

And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.

Cotopaxi volcano Quito

It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.

Bellavista Cloud Forest

We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.

It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.

Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in the area when you visit Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.

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Watch Sumo in Tokyo – Big In Japan

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

Watch sumo in Tokyo

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

Watch sumo in Tokyo

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

Watch sumo in Tokyo

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

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

Watch The Sumo in Tokyo – Tournament Schedule

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

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

Sumo wrestlers flags

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

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

Sumo arena

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

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

Watching The Sumo In Tokyo – Make A Day Of It

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

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

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

Sumo advertisers

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

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

Makunouchi wrestlers

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

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

Sumo Chanko Nabe Restaurant

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

sumo chanko nabe hot pot

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

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

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

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Hokkaido’s Red Crowned Crane ‘Eggs’

Hokkaido’s red crowned cranes reside on Japan’s northern – and second largest – island, are so famous that they feature on the country’s banknotes and as the logo for Japan Airlines. Half of the world’s population of these distinctive and beautiful birds, amongst the rarest cranes in the world, reside on the eastern part of the island. The cranes mate for life and are known for their ‘dancing’ together as part of their courtship ritual. Many red crowned cranes are migratory but the ones that reside in Hokkaido are resident all year round.

It isn’t always possible to see wild cranes – wildlife being wildlife can be somewhat elusive – but the Akan International Crane Sanctuary is located close to the town of Kushiro and offers the opportunity to see these marvellous birds up close. It can be enjoyed as part of a day trip visiting the beautiful countryside surrounding the town.

Kushiro is the last stop on the line. If you’re using your JR Pass and travelling from Sapporo, the train has a logo at the front that is highly appropriate.

Red crowned crane Hokkaido train

The sanctuary has information about its work which is mostly in Japanese but, like a lot of Japanese information, it uses plenty of graphics as well.

Akan International Crane Sanctuary

The cranes almost became extinct during the 20th century and remain on the endangered list. The centre acts as a feeding location for wild cranes and also has a number of captive cranes which are held in as natural an environment as possible making it possible to see the cranes all year round.

Hokkaido Red crowned cranes

If you want to see them dancing in the snow you need to visit in winter but be prepared for loads of tourists with very expensive cameras who are all vying to snap that elusive shot of the crane couples’ fascinating dances.

The birds are able to breed. It was rather lovely to see one of the newest arrivals.

Red crowned crane Hokkaido

HOKKAIDO RED CROWNED CRANES SOUVENIRS

And what point is there in a visit to a local tourist attraction to see Hokkaido red crowned cranes without indulging in some edible souvenirs? Made from local ingredients, you can buy ‘crane egg’ omiyage (souvenir gift), which come in presentation box.

Hokkaido Red crowned crane souvenir

Each cake is individually wrapped with a crane logo and, on opening up each wrapper the eggs don’t look as though they survived the journey home! However, any cracks in the shell caused by a slight crushing in our rucksacks as they endured a 24 hour journey home just added to their charm.

The egg’s shell is chocolate which coats hollow cake, and a soft smooth bean paste moulded into a sphere represents the yolk. The flavours are very subtle and not over-sweet. Our only complaint would be that they are much smaller than actual crane eggs and vanish in just three bites.

red crowned crane egg

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Cheesy Snacks on a Kyiv Walking Tour, Ukraine

Kyiv is a great city for a walking tour. Its size is such that it is possible to see many of the sites on foot but it also has a great public transportation system. The metro, like many underground subways constructed during the Soviet era, has beautifully ornate stations.

Arsenelna is the deepest underground station in the world. At 105m below ground level it has two escalators and it takes over 5 minutes to get to the surface from the platform.

A 10-15 minute walk from this station conveniently takes you to Pechersk Lavra, the oldest and most important church complex in Ukraine, originally founded as a cave complex in the 11th century. There are a number of churches and museums across an extensive site. You can visit the caves located below and explore the catacombs.

Also located in the complex, and totally unrelated to the religious buildings, are a number of museums connected with Ukrainian cultural history. Additionally, there is the remarkable micro-miniatures of Mykola Syadristy museum. The exhibition comprises a large number of micro artworks, so teeny that you have to view them through a magnifying glass.

Leaving Pechersk Lavra the walk then took us through the nearby Holodomor Memorial Park commemorating the famine which killed millions of Ukrainians at the hands of the Soviet Government in 1932-33 and is now considered to be a genocide.

Just across Poshtova Square is the Kyiv river port complex on the bank of the Dnieper river. The passenger terminal has typically Soviet architecture and the central turret is meant to represent the tower of a steamboat. This is a historic part of the city that also has a large number of shops and restaurants in the area. There’s also a funicular that will take you up the hillside to give a great view of the city and river.

Continuing the walk, heading northwards, there is a lot of interesting street art to enjoy…

…before climbing the hill to the churches of St Andrew and St Mark.

And on to St Sophia’s Cathedral with its beautiful bell tower.

The Golden Gate, a reconstruction, was the main gate of Kyiv’s 11th century fortifications. It was named, apparently, for the Golden Gate of Constantinople. This isn’t The Great Gate of Kyiv, made famous by Mussorgsky as the 10th and final movement of his Pictures at an Exhibition suite; that piece of music actually celebrates The Bogatyr Gates.

Gotta know when you are walking past the former KGB offices.

And finally, Independence Square, located on Khreshchatyk Street, the main street in Kyiv. This square is where Ukrainians have gathered for various rallies and political events over the years and is named for the Ukrainian Declaration of Independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union disbanded.

There was so much to see that the tour took around nine hours, including a generous stop for lunch, but mid-walk snacking seemed to be a very necessary part of the tour, so we popped into a supermarket beforehand. It’s always fun to explore shops that local people use for their everyday groceries to discover a plethora of new foodie offerings – whether they are staples or something more unusual. This particular shop offered a range of products including packets of dried cheese, which were not only intriguing but seemed to be ideal snacking material.

What was interesting was that these were not typically Ukrainian but cheeses that originated from other countries. Of course we purchased extra packs to bring home as souvenirs.

The Gouda looks like holey popcorn. Gouda is a very hard cheese, originally from Holland. This dried cheese retains its mature flavour but isn’t as crunchy as you would expect from its appearanace.

Mozzarella seems to be entirely the wrong sort of cheese to dehydrate. From Italy, it is best known for adorning pizzas because it melts in the most delightfully gooey, stringy way. The dried version looks a lot like the Gouda – holey and slightly crunchy. But the flavour is much more mellow. It’s tasty enough but somehow feels wrong!

Sulguni is a cheese from Georgia. Like Mozzarella, it’s a soft cheese, made in using a similar process and has similarly melty qualities but with more flavour than Mozzarella, which can sometimes taste a little bland. While the other dried cheeses were eminently scoffable, this one was in a whole different class. The pieces look like the sort of woodchips you would put on your garden to suppress weeds and as soon as you open the packet the smokey aroma assaults your nostrils. They are quite chewy and the taste doesn’t disappoint either – this is the one that would last an entire nine hour walking tour of Kiev as you would only need to eat a couple of pieces per hour. Smokey, salty and unbelievably intense, the flavour lingers for a very long time.