Advertisements

Latest Posts

My Japanese Inscriptions: Tokyo

March/April 2018

Japan, a place that has long governed my list of places to see and experience and I finally did! It was one of those dream destinations that was always on my mind. Dreaming of Tokyo, I often imagined neon streets, an energetic buzz that leaves you mesmerized, and the overall excitement of being in such an interesting new world to get lost in. It is everything that I imagined it to be; home to the fascinating, unusual, and bizarre. I noticed how the smallest and most everyday things are subtly different and Japanese in their own way! Overall, a visit to Tokyo most certainly implies a world of discoveries and stimuli for all the senses.

20180506_223706

My first glance at Tokyo!

We landed in Japan during the winter times, and it was freezing cold. Once we arrived in Shiodome, Minato, a redeveloped district known for it’s modern architectural design, we let ourselves get a little lost on the way to our hotel and it was already a sensory overload for me.

I couldn’t wait to explore this treasure trove of encounters and experiences!

On the following morning, we explored the area and went into a small convenience store called “Family Mart” to grab something fun to eat (also known as a Konbini in Japanese).

There were all sorts of interesting-looking snacks, desserts, pastries and bento boxes – and all were labeled in Japanese so it was impossible to understand if only from a cute cartoon drawing on the package. The store had virtually everything you need, from thoughtfully packaged meals to sandwiches. And almost anything I picked up was delicious. We used the Google Translate Camera app to point at the packaging and it would give us a general idea of the content which was really helpful. However, the fun part was randomly picking up a variety of snacks and trying them out for surprise! These mini marts became one of my favorite stops throughout our trip and every time I walked into one I was wide-eyed at the variety of items to try.

Some snacks I tried were clam-flavored ramen and a kind of dried fish and seasoned calamari, and there was even kiri-flavored ice-cream! My favorite part of walking into any Japanese convenience store is their “Hot meal station” next to every cashier for a “grab & go” snack. The photo below shows some rice buns with different fillings and Tsukune, which are tender Japanese chicken meatball skewers glazed in delicious seasoning.

20180412_215524

A Japanese convenience store with a variety of snacks

In every district, I have jotted down my main observations and initial encounters in the area.

Tokyo is divided into several districts, each with their own unique character and charm. Our very first district was Asakusa, where we visited the sacred grounds of the Sensoji Temple.

Getting around Tokyo

It is no doubt that Tokyo’s metro system will get you to many places, but it’s a labyrinth of subway lines. We got lost a few times before eventually getting the hang of it (thanks to my husband who mastered it like a BOSS! Without him I would get stranded 🙂

Japanese people

One aspect of Japan that I found striking is the sheer respect and politeness of Japanese people. From the courteous taxi drivers in their immaculately clean vehicles (with automatic doors that open and close!) to the humble department store workers and businessmen at the subway, I was quite shocked at the amount of genuine hospitality. There were many instances throughout our stay that reinforced this.

One great example was at the metro station, we were seemingly lost and attempting to find the correct subway line. Usually when that happened we would turn to a local for help. This time we approached a business man and he pointed us to line “8”. When we reached, we waited for the metro to arrive and after about 10 minutes we see the man running to our direction apologizing profusely that he was mistaken and the right line was “7”. The fact that he took the time and effort to come back and tell us this left me astonished! Another example was similar except that we asked help from a young college student. He whipped out his phone to search for answers and it really looked like he sincerely wanted to help us. He even missed his train!

I also remember another endearing instance when we were about to get some drinks from a vending machine and my husband accidentally dropped a pile of coins. Children nearby rushed to pick up the coins and give them to us. Where in the world do you see this act of politeness? Respect and etiquette are at the core of Japan and embedded in their culture.

Nostalgia in Japan?

One look at Japan’s traditional culture, technology, innovation and art made me realize that the Japanese actually strive for perfection in everything, which makes it such an orderly and organized nation. There is also an air of nostalgia that I couldn’t point my finger on. It could be the old-school Japan, and I guess I would say that a sense of nostalgia is even reflected in their manga, invoking a longing for the good old days.

ASAKUSA DISTRICT

Asakusa is known for the oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo dating back to 645 AD. The path leading to the temple is also one of Japan’s oldest shopping streets called Nakamise Dori. When in Japan, I wasn’t really looking into touristed-out typical travel trinkets. I was more on the lookout for rare Japanese finds, be it handicrafts or only-in-japan traditional souvenirs.

20180505_214432_resized

Toy Capsules (Gachapon in Japanese)

Another one of my favorite things to do was scout the toy capsule machines all around Tokyo, which are itself a cultural phenomenon. Believe it or not, each area has different editions with unique collectibles. Exploring the various miniature works of art in plastic such as capsuled mini food models, anime characters, keychains, and toys is a really fun experience and addicting in a way too. These were quite nostalgic for me because I remember my favorite childhood video game Shenmue where the lead character wondered the streets of Yokosuka, Japan, collecting toy capsules.

Shenmue-Capsule-Machine1

20180505_213913_resized

20180312_115312

20180507_215651

20180529_212045

551 Horai is a popular Asian rice bun outlet

20180412_215652

A Japanese pickle store – Tsukemono

KIMONOS – THE TRADITIONAL GARMENT OF THE OLD EDO PERIOD

20180412_215725

Kimono rental shops are pretty much everywhere, and it’s always good to consider wearing an authentic kimono as you stroll the old streets of the Edo period. The intricacies that go into wearing one and the rainbow of choices that come in different patterns and colors was interesting to observe. One fact I learned from the lady working at a kimono rental shop was that you can “Level-up” your kimono gear, depending on the pattern and fabric that range from basic kimonos to more elaborate ones worn by Geishas or wedding ceremonies. All in all, dressing up in a kimono is an art by itself.

Owls (Fukuro) everywhere

One of the things I noticed was Japan’s obsession with owls, just like myself. I learned that there is some significance and meaning to owls in Japanese culture. Most if not all Japanese souvenir shops had owl trinkets, charms and owl figures almost as popular as Hello Kitty. Owls actually symbolize luck in Japan, and the word “Fukuro” for owls means “Good luck or fortune”.

20180312_121513                               Each colored owl symbolizes luck, protection or fortune

Sensoji Temple

20180506_221510_resized

20180506_221725_resized

Japan’s ancient Buddhist Temple is called Senso-ji, considered to be a very spiritual place in Tokyo. It was crowded when we reached, and masses of people surrounded a cauldron producing a cloud of billowing incense smoke that visitors were wafting over themselves. People light up incense sticks and place them in the giant urn to make a wish before entering the temple ahead.

20180506_222128

20180506_222040_resized

Also, before entering the temple there is a fountain of purity. The streams of water are meant to provide spiritual cleansing before moving forward.

20180506_222424

Once in the temple, there are consistent rattling sounds coming from over the temple from people shaking metal containers with hopes of receiving a good fortune. I picked up a box as well and once satisfied with the shaking, I turned it over and a wooden stick came out of a small slit at the bottom. There were some characters written on it with which you have to match on the drawer in front of you. After spotting the correct drawer, I was lead to open it and receive my  “Omikuji” (fortune). I deciphered it, and I turned out to get a good fortune! Normally, if you get a positive reading you take the fortune back home with you, if not, you tie it on to a “Omikuji tree” at the temple and leave it behind.

20180506_221828_resized

20180506_221640_resized

20180506_221609_resized

Japanese vending machines

20180506_221900

The Japanese have a strong affair with vending machines, and its no wonder as they really are a source of fascination due to the variety of items sold in them. They are very convenient and handy too, dispensing a range of cold and hot beverages with the cutest and most colorful packaging. My husband and I would always stop at one to grab ourselves a nice warm drink, he always got the hot coffee while I had tea with milk.

20180506_224155

20180313_163757_resized

The cutest bottle of water!

IMG_20180313_213146_267

Back to Shiodome, Minato

Pachinko Arcades: Gambling?

20180506_222938_resized

A craze that I found in almost every corner were Japanese arcades known as “Pachinkos”. When we entered one, it looked like a form of gambling and the majority playing were middle-aged men in suits fixated on the screens of their machines which were blaring and making incessant noise. It almost seemed like they were oblivious to their surroundings and focusing solely on the game in front of them. I tried to understand what they were playing exactly, but all I could make out were flashy colors and random balls, it mostly resembled a pinball game. Honestly, I couldn’t stay in one for more than 3 minutes as the sounds were overwhelmingly loud and unpleasant. I guess when you’re so into the game you kind of block out the noise overtime.

White surgical masks: Protection or a long-standing trend?

You might always wonder why the majority of Japanese, especially from Tokyo, wear white masks like just another clothing garment and at first it may seem puzzling. In reality it is a social etiquette, either to block viruses or allergies or prevent yourself from spreading them to others. I also learnt from one Japanese that it helps battle the “hay fever” season caused by a specific Japanese cedar tree, therefore donning a mask helps alleviate the symptoms. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if masks are actually considered a fashion statement in Japan as there are all kinds of styles and colors sold everywhere.

20180506_223008

Japanese Tea: A way of philosophy

Tea is a Japanese cultural activity and custom that involves a ceremonial preparation and presentation of the Japan’s favorite powdered “Matcha” green tea, and there’s a whole philosophy behind it that helps one enjoy their tea through a relaxing experience.  It’s less about the drink and more about the appreciation of the nature and art of making the tea. When we entered an old tea shop, there were a wide variety of tea leaves with premium being the highest quality. The man working there offered to prepare a sample for us with his ceremony utensils, and the whole preparation looked like a form of mastery representing harmony, purity, serenity and respect.

20180506_224003

The Imperial Palace

IMG_20180313_145343_338

The Imperial Palace

The Imperial palace is set amidst beautiful traditional Japanese gardens and is the place where the Emperor of Japan resides. It was especially stunning during the season of Cherry Blossoms which we were very luck to witness! The entire grounds gave us a feel of ancient legacy.

The Enchanting Sakura: Shades of Pink

20180507_220249

It’s a lovely sight to witness when gardens and parks are blanketed with blossoms of pale pink, baby pink, and deep pink hues. This is when we knew it was the onset of Spring in Japan. The Imperial Palace was amongst the best spots for cherry-blossom-viewing. I hadn’t known prior to traveling to Japan, that there is more than one type of Sakura tree. There are actually over 600. It was certainly a dream come true to be walking amidst their magical beauty and a great memory I’ll cherish!

20180313_145936_resized

A type of “Yellow Sakura”

Cherry blossoms are so iconic and loved all over the world, that the Japanese have an entire word for “looking at flowers” which is called “Hanami”. There are several “Hanami spots” throughout Japan to admire the blossoms.

20180507_220228_resized

Hanami picnics – an ancient tradition and national pasttime

20180507_220126_resized

20180507_220153_resized

20180506_224342_resized

20180506_224459

Sakura flavored treats are also very common, with sakura flavored Starbucks Pink Milk Lattes to sakura-layered white chocolate Mille Feuille and Sakura-infused tea.

Ginza District

20180313_203410_resized.jpg

Ginza is known as Shopping Heaven. You can find everything from high-end luxury brands for men’s and women’s fashion in multi-storied designer buildings to traditional Japanese goods ranging from stationary stores to expensive Japanese pottery shops.

20180507_195756_resized

Cutting-edge galleries

20180506_224841.jpg

Tokyo in general has a lively art scene, but in Ginza in particular there are a variety of arts, antiques, and crafts for display in galleries which make for great spots for inspiration.

20180506_224946_resized

20180507_195547

Japanese glazed porcelain dolls

20180316_175101

20180313_195846

The art of Japanese dolls

20180521_211542

Japanese Stationary: The 100-year stationary store

20180508_204537.jpg

If there’s another thing that Japan and I have in common, it’s our passion for stationary! In this digital age, I still go nostalgic for beautiful artful greeting cards and postcards. In Japan, there’s an entire century-old stationary store devoted just to stationary goods called Itoya. And of course, I went wild.

With over 7 floors, you can find your ideal ballpoint pen, make your very own customized notebook through a color, texture & thickness chart, home care goods, Japanese colored paper art works, and a whole floor dedicated to postcards, greeting cards and stickers. The stationary looks so cute, I wanted to get everything. Aside from the cuteness, Japanese stationary puts quality, design and functionality at the forefront.

20180602_201948_resized.jpg

20180602_201842_resized.jpg

A greeting card portraying the famous Sagano Railway in Japan.

The original Sheseido Cosmetics Building

20180316_174832_resized.jpg

Sheseido is huge in the beauty industry, and it’s personally one of my favorite Japanese cosmetic brands. That’s why spotting Ginza’s original Sheseido building of 9 floors got me excited! Starting with make up on the first floor followed by skincare on the second where I received a personalized beauty diagnostic. They have several stations devoted to various skincare needs, from anti-aging, moisturizing, serums and more. I also stopped by 2 more floors which had a hairdresser and photo make up studio. I stocked up on a lot of exclusive Japanese Sheseido make up and skincare after spending hours exploring their items which was a delightful experience 🙂

20180316_170935_resized_1.jpg

20180316_171001_resized.jpg

Only a street away is an another entire building dedicated to a Sheseido bakery known as Sheseido Parlour. This is a fact I hadn’t previously known about, which is that Sheseido has it’s own line of baking goods that come in beautifully-packed containers. One of the most well-known items is their signature Sheseido cheesecake which was popularized in Ginza itself.

20180316_180445_resized_1.jpg

20180316_180310_resized.jpg

20180316_180239.jpg

Japanese beauty gadgets

Japanese beauty tools are everywhere, from innovations meant to exercise your face muscles, to spooky-looking masks, breast gymnastics massagers, nose beauty lifts to knee brightening foams.

20180315_182625_resized

Sauna face mask. The mask is supposed to tense your muscles and make your face sweat, hence resulting in a slimmer face cut.

Aside from that, within every 3 meters of walking any street there are multiple drugstores with a dizzying number of beauty bottles, tonics, emulsions and packs at every corner. Skin conditioners, skin softening, deep cleansing are the main pillars of Japanese skincare regimes and they are known for their quality, effectivity and innovation.

I got to know a couple of traditional Japanese cosmetic brands as well, those of which use old Japanese beauty practices such as silkworm cocoons and the rich camellia oil for hair.

The Food Scene (My Favorite): Navigating Japan’s Food Wonders

20180529_220745.jpg

There’s hardly a corner in Tokyo that isn’t peppered with stalls, labels, posters and displays of food. I was mostly interested in eating like a local and trying out unusual things. We wondered the narrow streets of Ginza with a very wide range of restaurants. Japanese food is so diverse we wanted to have a bite of everything! There is much more to classic Japanese food than what we are used to having (like tempura, ramen, and sushi) as Japanese cuisine is steeped in culture and all about artistry. The Japanese make the most out of natural flavors and sparingly use any spices, fats, or red meats , therefore it is considered healthy and typical Japanese food tastes vastly different in texture and flavor when compared to other cuisines.

Initially we were on the lookout for a Yakitori Restaurant which serves traditional Japanese grilled skewers of meat and vegetables. However, we ended up in a different cozy restaurant by mistake which served Japanese “Shabu Shabu”. 

The Japanese “Fondue”: Shabu Shabu DIY cooking

20180519_233016.jpg

20180506_225143

Upon entering, we were seated on a high-chair table resembling a bar which was lined with boiling “hot pots” of soup. The chef then served us a fresh spread of raw vegetables and thinly sliced A5 grade Wagyu beef.

20180313_184125_resized_1.jpg

We were also given special utensils to make a sesame-based sauce for dipping. The fun part was being in total control of your ingredients once you start throwing them in to the steaming pot to cook.  When you drop in a slice of Wagyu it momentarily simmers and cooks within seconds before melting in your mouth. I loved this dining experience. It’s great for sharing, and it’s light and healthy.

20180522_124644.jpg

The chef demonstrating the Shabu Shabu for us

At first, the big spread of beef slices might come off as a large portion but it disappears before you even realize it. That’s how light it is! The guys seated next to us had those slices coming one after the other.

20180519_232934

20180313_184236_resized.jpg

Interviewed by Japanese TV

To our surprise, there was a camera crew present on sight at the restaurant as well. We stood out as foreigners and I guess they were intrigued by us. The interviewee and the cameraman approached us and asked if we wanted to participate in their show on Otaku TV by answering a couple of their questions about our Japanese dining experience as tourists. They  documented our dining experience and asked all kinds of questions ranging from how our food back in Kuwait compares, how we discovered Shabu Shabu, to what we enjoyed most about the whole experience. It was a very interested encounter! I’ve yet to receive the coverage from the TV station 🙂

20180313_190220_resized_1

Japanese plastic food models (Sampuru)

Looking so good you could eat them

Strolling the streets of Japan, we would often find menu displays of “dish replicas” at restaurants which actually look highly realistic and very interesting to look at.

20180507_203111_resized.jpg

They are so popular, that they come in keychains and have even turned into a fashion business with designs for accessories and phone cases!

20180324_183404_resized

20180324_183552_resized

20180324_183220_resized

20180610_201756

It’s a really interesting phenomenon unique to Japanese culture. The food models look like culinary art forms! The life-like replicas are actually not that far from reality, and the exquisite amount of details makes them perfect at giving you a very close idea of what your dish will look like. Picking out something to eat as we walk by a restaurant is like going through an art exhibition and there are actual craftsmen behind these models that paint and sculpture them to look as delicious as possible. Interestingly, plastic food models were invented by a Japanese man called Takizo Iwasaki in the 1800’s.

I can see why these cute-looking dishes and imitation of food aesthetics can turn into a collecting hobby as there is an enormous wide variety of them which are all tempting to have!

foodreplicas

Akiko Obata holds the Guiness record for the largest collection of food replicas! (taken from Google)

IMG_20180323_191235_706

Food illusions…

IMG_20180323_191242_423

img_20180323_191244_609.jpg

There are Sampuru workshops around too where tourists can sculpt and paint their very own plastic food dish and master the art of faking it. It’s practically like a real kitchen where every element keeps the aspect of its original, except for the taste!

20180528_231107

A Sampuru workshop for kids

20180505_213138.jpg

     A ramen vending machine at a restaurant

The Sweet sides of Japanese: Wagashi & Dango

20180316_175032

In Japan, if you’re craving something sweet you are most likely to indulge in typical Japanese desserts. One of these is called Wagashi made out of Mochi (rice pounded into paste). With each season comes different flavors. Since I was in the Sakura season, I tried the Sakura mochi which is a type of Wagashi. It’s definitely an acquired taste I would say. The glutinous rice ball is wrapped with a Sakura leaf which has a pickled taste to it, while the rice is chewy and sweet with a savory bean paste filling.

20180316_175043

Another type of Wagashi

Most of the desserts are really pretty and colorful to look at!

20180316_175136

20180506_221243_resized_1

Back to Shiodome, Minato

20180508_203352

Japan’s tiny futuristic cubes in Shimbashi (Nakagin)

20180313_201538

While on a night time stroll in Shimbashi district, I decided to take my husband to see the famous unusual capsule concrete structure known in Japan. It looked quite spooky at night and had somewhat of a decaying facade but very cool nevertheless! At first, we tried to access it and when we inquired the security guard about it we assumed we could just pass by inside and have a look but he mentioned it being an apartment complex. So, these capsules are actually residences and few people live in them. Some have turned into offices as well. It was built in the 1970’s and the 70’s interior remains the same and during that time it was marketed as living quarters. The cubes were designed in such a way that they were meant to be detached and replaced with new ones. People back then perceived the capsule building as an optimistic symbol of a Utopian sci-fi ideal. Sadly, what the structure used to represent has sadly been forgotten and now it stands as solely an icon of the past.

Japan’s Museum of Advertising

20180507_202941_resized

This museum was one of our many highlights and told us so much about the history of Japanese advertising. The very first thing that impressed me was the museum’s method of presenting and displaying the information, which was very engaging, catchy, and innovative.

20180507_202909_resized

20180314_113533_resized

20180314_115529

The first room featured decorative advertisements and actual artifacts of the Edo Period. The practice of handing out flyers and promoting business venues was already popular back then and overtime the museum shows how these marketing tools have adapted to changing times.

20180314_114355

Samples of old promotional flyers and posters from the Edo Period

You might think advertising wasn’t so advanced back then but the museum proves you otherwise. People in the past were actually very creative with their tools in order to visually attract customers to their shops, by using handcrafted shop signs to perfect the art of advertising.

20180507_200038

20180314_114441_resized

20180314_113905

Different types of ADs were like various forms of art

20180314_114532_resized

The very first AD for the famous Japanese cosmetics brand Sheseido

Then came a wonderful display giving insight into the newspaper period in Japan, followed by the major introduction of mass media such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines.

20180314_113703

A fascinating part of the museum was the 2000’s, which showed how items and products changed with society. Different ADs portrayed the evolution of societal ideologies as new technological platforms emerged. It also showed the way consumer culture and lifestyles evolved in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to the present 21st century. The whole museum is like one giant timeline. My favorite part was a large screen displaying ADs from the past to present. It really changes your perspective when you look at how advertising accelerated throughout the years.

20180507_203016

20180507_195943

20180314_115140_resized

20180314_115313

20180314_114746_resized

OWL CAFE (AKIFA FUKUROU): A CRAZE UNIQUE TO JAPAN

20180523_162136_resized

Owls…the mysterious creatures of the night featured in tales of magical realism. In literature and filmography, they are majestic creatures imbued with mystery. With their somewhat enchanting calls that echo through the night and charismatic faces, most cultures hail owls as symbols of wisdom, good luck and fortune. The Japanese word for owls is Fukurou, which literally translates to luck.my long-time favorite animal for as long as I can remember. As an owl collector (of figurines, trinkets, postcards, paintings and so on), I eventually found myself in an Owl Cafe!

20180314_150727

20180523_162102_resized_1

 Japan isn’t short of bizarrely-themed cafes. From Maid Cafés, the world’s first cat café and even hedgehog cafes, at the heart of Tokyo lies Japan’s popular Owl Café, Akiba Fukurou, which is home to 25 distinct species of owls. In the world’s most hi-tech metropolis at Akihabara street, I was about to re-connect with nature in the most unusual way. As an owl lover, this was going to be an immensely interesting and special one-of-a-kind experience.

Being as popular as they are, I was eager to successfully secure a spot at the café which meant an hour of up-close and personal time with these beautiful birds.

Before entering we were given a brief tutorial on owl-handling with an adorable introduction to the owl family tree. We entered a relaxed little mellow café with serene owls tethered on to long perches around the walls, some snoozing while others widely alert of their surroundings.

Each owl has a name and presumably a personality ranging from social, defensive, quiet, to moody. One of the rules cautioned to us was to remain as quiet as possible with no sudden movements, therefore everyone had to resort to whispering. We were told that we could gently pat them on the head or beaks with our pinkie fingers.

Utterly transfixed by the whole bizarre experience, it was time for everyone to select a favorite to hold and interact with. There are several baby owlets to much bigger and intimidating ones for every comfort level and every owl fan. I was particularly drawn to the white owls. Apparently the one I fancied had quite a bit of a defensive attitude, as told by the coach. Therefore, I took back my decision and picked another white one that was friendlier and relatively social. The coach gently took him off from the bar he was resting on and with his help carefully placed him on my arm. By that time I totally forgot that we were in a café and didn’t even end up ordering a drink! (couldn’t imagine holding an owl on one arm and a drink in my hand on the other).

20180314_144744

The Owl Cafe

20180314_145428_resized_1.jpg

20180507_211341

Screenshot_20180507-214539_Gallery

The beautiful owl I made friends with!

 

20180507_211404

20180507_214504

20180314_150604_resized

The whole encounter had a very calming effect, and I felt a special connection being so close to a beautiful and wild predator staring right at me with curiosity. It seemed so comfortable on my shoulder, that I was suddenly taken aback when it decided to pounce on top of my head and stay there! I tried not to think of it as much of a big deal and the coach asked if I was okay. With time, he said it would be better to take him away as it could get dangerous with those claws! Overall, I would go as far as saying it was a transcendent one-hour experience. As an owl fanatic, I can totally check this off my list now!

Dangerously good: Beard Papa’s cream puffs

20180507_204516.jpg

Whenever we entered the subway on the way to our next route, we always walked passed an irresistible aroma of vanilla and bakery. It was impossible not to lure you in. These are the fresh and creamy puffs made by “Beard Papa’s”. Our senses were automatically overwhelmed by the warm, sugary smell. My husband and I would instantly turn to each other with that look of “Are you craving one too?” I originally thought they are Japan-based but actually they are a bakery in New York and I think someone should bring the franchise to Kuwait for me to get my fix every now and then! The first ones we tried were the cookies & cream puffs. Light, flaky, crunchy and sweet on the outside, and creamy and luscious on the inside with whipped cream and custard fillings that overall tastes like a homemade creation.

20180314_131316_resized

20180314_131528_resized

AKIHABARA ELECTRIC TOWN:

THE GEEKY SIDE OF TOKYO

20180507_214730

The one district that we were overly excited to visit is the famed Akihabara, known for being a haven of games, electronics, gadgets, anime, manga and model kits. At first sight, the place feels overwhelming as your senses are assaulted in all directions from the colorful billboards emitting neon glows and Japanese pop flaring from screens on high-rise buildings. There’s certainly a lot to take in!

20180507_214913

There are numerous shops with Nintendo merchandise, I went crazy for Super Mario!

20180320_123724_resized

There are huge electronics stores such as Softmap and laox.

20180314_134928

One of our visits included a stop at Super Potato, known for retro video games and gadgets with unique vintage finds, it’s practically a candy shop for geeks offering vintage game cartridges with rows of retro consoles,  All in all, it’s the ultimate place to experience Geek culture at full force.

20180507_215135

20180507_215228_resized

On the way through Akihabara there are toy arcades at every stop, which became our newfound addiction in Japan. These are located in Game Centers, featuring “Crane machines” offering a chance to snag limited edition toys and figurines of well-known anime characters which make great souvenirs to take back home. To catch one, it’s surprisingly difficult but so satisfying when we finally did! (mostly with a generous and friendly helping hand from the staff working there!).

20180507_215530.jpg

One of the little things I fell in love with are also their model kits. These are small packaged house or stores that you need to assemble yourself. It takes some precision and persistence to finish the entire model but the results are simply amazing and satisfying and look great on a shelf!

20180601_135330_resized  20180601_135416_resized

20181216_184142-2

Maid Cafes 

If you are in Tokyo, you will inevitably stumble upon the famous Maid Cafes. As we strolled the streets of Akihabara, we were cheerfully greeted by a girl dressed in a maid costume. Full of energy, she guided us to the cafe upstairs where we were greeted by more waitresses dressed up as maids who jumped with enthusiasm once we entered.  Adopting child-like anime voices, cutesy gestures and overly girly behavior, the waitresses mostly spoke in Japanese and rarely a word of English. As we were seated, they handed us a menu of cute-looking desserts and bunny ears to wear. It really did feel like we were being served by characters from a manga comic! We chose to have some ice cream which was adorably decorated with playful designs and messages.

At the end, we were  asked to take a polaroid photo with the maids for memories, which is dated and signed by the maid.  However, in general no photos were allowed to be taken within the cafe. Overall it was a very unusual and funny experience. My husband and I couldn’t stop laughing the entire time and enjoyed it a lot!

20180314_141524 . 20180314_141457

Pablo’s CheeseCake: Japan’s cheesecake cult

20180314_164420_resized

Very popular in Japan are Pablo cheesecakes. These freshly prepared cheese tarts originated in Osaka and come in classic cheese, matcha flavor, chocolate and Sakura (and probably many more seasonal flavors). The first time we heard of them was online, as it seems that they actually went viral on social media. Once you take a bite, it’s gooey and creamy in the inside. There’s usually a long queue for these in every branch!

20180314_163247_resized

20180314_164406_resized

20180314_164601

Sightseeing with Mario Karts

Wishing to live the the real-life Mario Kart experience? Tokyo offers a private go-karting Mario-themed tour. We didn’t have an international driving license with us at the time otherwise we would have definitely tried the experience!

20180523_203527

Shinjuku District: The city that never sleeps

Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku’s Night Life District

20180315_230243_resized

Laser lights, electronic music, and a crazy robotic show. We ascended up the techni-colored psychedelic stairway and took our seats with our flashing light bulb juice.

20180507_220543_resized

20180315_230141

At the beginning, a dancing troupe made their grand entrance with drums, followed by complex choreographed dancing replete with giant robots and special effects all of which resembled a Japanese festival of robots.

20180315_213835_resized

I guess you could say it’s the Moulin Rouge of Japan. The cabaret-style show is themed around the future of technology, with performers dressed as robots and moving vehicles and large-scale robots move on stage using a remote control. The stage was pretty tight, which meant the machines were very close to the audience. It was a joyfully chaotic atmosphere of non-stop madness and entertainment! It was definitely a one-of-a-kind thrilling experience.

20180525_232142

20180525_232133_resized

20180525_232124

20180525_232117

20180529_212203.jpg

20180508_204104

Japanese Artisan Bakeries

During our time in Japan, we were in for an unexpected treat; Japanese pastries. The European-inspired baked goods actually made it to the land of rice and before visiting Japan, pastries wasn’t something that came to mind. Buying bread at bakeries in Japan comes in self-service style, and the array of offerings are really delicious. For breakfast, we loaded our trays with  choices of quiche, salmon and cream cheese tarts, custards puffs, to sausage rolls all freshly-made and packaged to enjoy on the go or during a quick trip in the metro.

20180316_124418_resized

20180316_124427

20180316_124403_resized

Ueno District

Ueno Zoo: The Oldest Zoo in Japan

Known for it’s giant beloved pandas and urban zoological park, Ueno Zoo dates back to 1880 and houses 2500 animals with 450 species. Actually, it was pouring rain when we got there!

20180528_214043_resized

20180528_214009

The most unusual animals for me were the gorillas and the elusive panda. When we reached the zoo, we immediately caught sight of a really long line queuing up to see a nursery of panda cubs. There was no way to get in line as you needed to purchase tickets in advance and they were already sold out. So we moved on to the section which houses the giant panda, brought all the way from China. Again, it was in a very far and glass-enclosed space that we hardly had a good look at it, also aside from the fact that others were also trying to catch a glimpse.

20180528_214150.jpg

20180316_134744_resized

Spirited away at the Ghibli Animation Museum : Hayao Miyazaki

japan-hayao-miyazaki-trees-spirited-away-bathroom-houses-spirit-ben-anime-house-cloud-ghibli-bath-ch-wallpaper-455520-620x350

Tickets to the museum are extremely limited and it was hard to get it. The museum is dedicated to the studio’s work and the beautiful world of Japanese animation.

ghibli

Ever since I watched Spirited Away and House of the Fireflies I instantly became a big fan of Ghibli Studios. It’s a wonderful work of art on imagination and storytelling and truly a treasured gem in cinematography. Anything Ghibli related I instantly bought as a souvenir! One of my favorite things is the paper theatre, which is a paper craft kit that recreates famous scenes of various characters by assembling together laser cut paper parts.

20180507_220329_resized

20180528_214501.jpg

Odaiba District: Tokyo’s artificial Island

20180317_134110.jpg

The man-made Island on Tokyo Bay houses many shopping malls and entertainment districts. I personally loved Odaiba, it was one my favorite districts which I found to have elements of futuristic, unique, and even strange.

One of the first things we noticed was a giant replica of New York’s Statue of Liberty overlooking the bay with a rainbow bridge sweeping across a view of Odaiba’s skyline.

20180317_140535-2

20180317_133049.jpg

The Shamisen

When we just arrived, there was a booth with a lady dressed in traditional Japanese attire teaching a little boy the Japanese guitar. As we stood there, the lady beckoned to us to try it too. In my hands, I held a 3 stringed instrument known as Shamisen which is a type of Japanese guitar. It is said to be heard in most traditional Japanese songs in Kabuki theaters and Geisha performances. Resembling a banjo, the strings are made of silk thread contributing to it’s unique sounds. It is actually quite easy to play once I got the hand of it. It takes a degree of good muscle memory and rhythm to get it right!

20180318_134318.jpg

20180317_132854.jpg

20180317_134110

Sega Joypolis: Tokyo’s largest indoor theme park

20180317_174734

One place to be completely immersed is Joypolis, a really fun entertainment district. With the latest Virtual Reality attractions where you can take down attacking zombies, indoor rides, to many more thrilling horror games. One of the aspects I enjoyed in this place most is traditional Japanese horror. Their culture is replete with horrors, and they have a library of ghost tales, monsters, and spirits to draw upon.

20180601_233130

The original Japanese Resident Evil experience.

20180317_171131
One of my favorite games: Ace Attorney

Miraikan: The National Museum of Emerging Science & Technology

20180507_225224

The geo-sphere is the symbol of the museum. Made up of LED screens, it displays the most updated state of the earth as it is seen from space in real-time. Only one of it’s kind in the world.

Miraikan is the place where we experienced Japan’s cutting-edge technology. There are over 200 exhibits that are overseen and designed by active scientists. Everywhere you look, people (including children) are focused and engaged. From issues faced by our planet Earth to solutions to better living, Miraikan is a source of scientific inspiration, excitement and exploration.

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 1.21.01 PM

You can ride this personal mobility device called the Uni-Cub by Honda. You can use it to move around the museum!

Robots: Our future

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 1.21.48 PM.png

The museum also has several showcases of android robots. One of them is an Otonaroid, which is a hybrid of a human and android! They are eerily life-like, and a real person is used a template to create them. She can move her eyes and blink, make eyebrow movements, sync her lips to audio, and replicate other human facial expressions. From their smooth silicon skin to eloquent articulations, some of these robots are even used to help customers at museums, shoppings malls and airports.

Japanese robotics expert, inventor, and professor in Osaka University at Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Hiroshi Ishiguro says he uses research on human interaction and data on what differentiates humans and robots by examining the question of “what is emotion, what is awareness, and what is thinking.”

screenshot_20180602-134452_video-player.jpg

20180318_120039

Thought-provoking questions by scientists

20180507_225335

A fascinating exhibition we enjoyed called “Odors fill the world”. It draws on the most recent research on our sense of smell. Visitors can actually smell a number of odors on display and learn about the mechanisms through which our noses capture scents. Odors range from stinky ones to much more pleasant ones.

20180507_225306.jpg

20180318_123745.jpg

The Space & Exploration section

20180318_123514_resized.jpg

Astronauts’ food

20180602_143542_resized

Time for lunch

After a fun and educational time, we walked to a nearby popular shopping mall called Aqua City to choose from a variety of restaurants (love this part!).

20180317_154130_resized.jpg

We sat at a traditional/modern restaurant overlooking Odaiba’s skyline and ordered some soba noodles with a side of soup and Japanese grilled skewers (Yakitori) with a grilled rice ball (Yaki Onigiri).

20180317_155619.jpg

20180317_155713

Bite-sized Yakitori of mushrooms, minced chicken, fish and meat.

Soba noodles a very a historic Japanese dish and the practice of making them is centuries old. Made from Buckwheat, they are high in nutrients and low on fat giving it a distinctive earthy flavor and can be eaten either hot or cold.

Yakitori are charcoal-grilled and one of the most popular ways to each them is from different parts of a chicken such as liver, heart, wings and breast which are brushed with a special sauce before grilled.

The Yaki Onigiri rice balls are a national snack favorite and it’s said to be found in every Japanese kid’s school lunchbox. This snack goes back to Samurai times, when the Samurai carried Onigiri balls in bamboo leaves. The fire adds a crisp to the rice creating a delicious crust!

20180317_134140.jpg

Gundam

A jaw-dropping experience was the life-sized Gundam statue, one of Odaiba’s biggest attractions. I was surprised at the sheer size of the full scale statue which stands at 18 meters tall.

20180317_181958.jpg

I think it would have been really cool if Gundam demonstrated some movements to make it look even more realistic! I am sure with Japan’s technology, they will eventually figure out how to get it to walk!

20180317_180915.jpg

On the Way to Toyota City Museum

20180317_185728.jpg

Part car showcase, part amusement center and part automobile museum, the place explores the various facets of Toyota’s automobile brand. The entire point of the center is to look, ride, and feel the cars.  I am not much of an automobile enthusiast, however I did enjoy the museum’s “History Garage” section displaying vintage cars from the 1950’s to 1970’s, chronicling Toyota’s past.

I liked the overall feel of the interior decor showcasing the selection of cars. It is a walk-through exhibition fashioned in a way to resemble the streets of a small town in 1950’s America with similar evocative settings. The smallest details were taken into consideration, with shop window displays of retro books and children’s toys, a vintage coke vending machine, and even a replica of an old Japanese home. It was interesting to notice all the detailing of the exhibition which added a lot of authenticity to the overall place.

20180317_200652

20180317_200553

An old Japanese home in the 1950’s

Another good morning in Odaiba

20180318_134330

20180318_132417.jpg

Tulip Time

Apart from the beautiful cherry blossom season that comes with Spring, there is another flower festival known in Odaiba that is a highly notable spring wonder. The promenade park becomes home to 20,000 planted tulips in full bloom. The flower beds are are really beautiful and I’ve never seen so many tulips in my life in one place!

I learned that Tulips are considered to be the luxury flower of Japan available only to the elite in the past.

20180318_132746_resized.jpg

Roppongi Hills District

20180508_203102

Street Art – A Giant Spider called Maman

20180508_203158

One of the best views from the deck of Mori Tower, offering a 360 vista of Tokyo.

20180318_173747_resized 20180318_173538_resized

From Mori Tower, we visited the Mori Art Museum, which focused on contemporary Asian and international art through innovative exhibitions of modern art.

20180508_2031311.jpg

20180508_203458

20180318_185714

A quick lunch

20180602_172656.jpg

20180319_123737_resized.jpg

Yokohama China Town

20180508_204220.jpg

If there was one word to assign to China Town, it would be FOOD. We did get the feeling like we had just wandered into China and the most fun part was browsing the expansive area of bright Chinese shops and temples tucked in between all the bustle.  Everywhere we looked there were steaming buns, dim sums and noodles!

20180319_162500

Most restaurants had a dizzying array of menu displays of with various styles of specialty Chinese cuisine.

20180508_204329.jpg

20180508_203915.jpg

20180508_204420

20180319_163653_resized.jpg

20180508_204239

20180508_204359.jpg

20180508_204043

20180508_204253

To Kyoto…Chapter 2

20180602_204834.jpg

Advertisements

My experience working in a hotel and why I loved it.

Everyday would feel like a vacation. These were my first thoughts when I first considered a career in the hospitality and tourism sector, especially in a beautiful resort situated on the coast of Kuwait’s Arabian Gulf Sea. I remember walking into the gorgeous lobby of the multinational world-class hotel and wondering what it would be like to actually work there — great atmosphere, great perks!

As a Kuwaiti female, it’s pretty uncommon if not common at all to work in a hotel in Kuwait. The tourism industry is not as advanced and progressive in the country making it an unpopular career choice. People also have this misconception that if you do work in a hotel then you’re either a receptionist, doorman or a housekeeping attendant which are all absolutely false assumptions and merely stereotypes.

Being in the PR & Marketing field, I was eager to start off my career promoting a hotel. If people were opting for the banks and oil companies, I was heading the opposite direction. The deciding factor mostly had to do with my interest in the trade itself and to avoid a mundane job that I would dread waking up to every day. After some persistence, I managed to land a position in the PR & Marketing department in Kuwait’s luxury resort and I was thrilled!

Knowing I had to sacrifice some of my work-life balance, I still willingly accepted the offer to start my journey in an industry completely new to me and I couldn’t wait to discover it.

First and foremost, working an 8-6 job wasn’t easy after all. Being a 24-hour based business, the long hours and a few quiet breaks between the rush all come with the package of working as a hotelier.

In hotel life, there is constantly something happening somewhere to someone at sometime, whether a colleague or a guest. It’s full of life, action, stories and involves a great deal of variety. It’s never-ending drama. I was always expecting the unexpected. At some point, it gets exhausting but almost in a good way.

There is so much that goes on behind-the-scenes. The beautiful surroundings, content guests, smiling staff and impeccable service are merely the surface of what really happens. There is more than meets the eyes. Everything extends far beyond what the customer sees. The amount of intricacies that go into effectively running the complex operations of a huge resort was challenging, but being part of each layer of communication to make something happen was rewarding and satisfying. To the guest, it’s merely like waving a magic wand!

There is always a new experience to promote; whether a product, service or event. Behind creating that perfect instagrammable 5-course set menu to upload on Instagram, for instance, there is a team of passionate culinary experts mastering the plating and presentation, keeping the food “alive on set” by stroking it with a brush of oil to maintain a “just-cooked” look, while service colleagues arrange the table and adjust the lighting at the venue and the restaurant manager ensures that everything else looks flawless. Over at housekeeping, the team add their own personal touches in the rooms ahead of a guest’s arrival, who is delighted to find an origami towel creation of an animal on their immaculately-tucked bed. Then somewhere on the beach there’s an energetic Zumba class or yoga session taking place, a romantic candle-lit dinner to impress, a team of chefs getting read to cook up tonight’s beachside barbecue, or an embassy prepping to celebrate their national day with festive activities.

The hotel is made up of a giant team all of which are interconnected in one way or the other in a chain reaction – if a detail goes wrong, everything else tumbles down. Ultimately, the goal is to serve up memorable moments to guests meticulously, be it an elaborate wedding, VIP arrangement, media welcoming, or celebrity hosting. Some of my colleagues are so dedicated with this, that I wonder how they are able to maintain their positive demeanor at all times even in the face of stress and chaos, which is something I myself have picked up on and got used to. Handling the image of every aspect of a hotel required being a perfectionist in every sense of the word to ensure that everything was up to the highest standard of luxury. Everything is detail-oriented.

As a PR & Marketing practitioner, I wasn’t dealing directly with guests the majority of the time. However, from time to time, I did face some of the dozens of guest interactions that took place on a daily basis, especially when it came to celebrity visits, media, and commercial photo-shooting. There’s ample of networking opportunities, as I got to meet with people from all walks of life. Hospitality simply thrives on interaction with all types of people.

Overtime, the hotel culture becomes part of you, a lifestyle. I befriended multi-cultural chefs, foreign journalists, local personalities and socialites and industry experts. There were a couple of times when I met well-known travelers visiting Kuwait for the first time to enjoy both the culture and hospitality and I was tasked with planning their entire itinerary in Kuwait along with a tour throughout the hotel, having a moment to act as an ambassador to my own country.

There are vast avenues to explore within the hospitality world. This meant that I could get as creative as I wanted in tackling unique challenges. I could tell the chef exactly what personalized pastry I envisioned to place in the rooms for the guest, which specific dinner set up I wanted for that sumptuous magazine photo shoot, which prestigious new publication to approach for an advertising campaign, which interesting local associations to partner with to add value to the brand, which influencers to collaborate with in creative aways to tell the story of the hotel experience, which top travel and hospitality publications to write for and much more. There was also the excitement of ongoing seasonal events throughout the year. And of course, being spoiled with the perks of traveling and experiencing the brand’s distinct properties in other countries, which have their own signature culturally-connected characters and it was interesting to observe the variety and differences in their type of services.

Even when I tried to unplug and de-focus from the chaotic and frenzied time at the hotel I simply couldn’t. If I wasn’t at the premises itself, I was engaging with our online guests on Facebook or Instagram, answering their inquiries and producing fresh content. There’s not a moment of calm. Each day is unique which kept my job stimulating at all times. All I can say now is that it was an eye-opening experience! As fun as it was, an industry so fast-paced and demanding of my time and energy eventually meant it really was time for me to take a breather.

I gathered all the experience I needed, and it was only a matter of time before I took that experience with me to new ventures. At the end of the day, being part of a hotel was indeed a unique encounter from which I gained new insights and perspectives.

The fun part of it all is that in between all these experiences and encounters, I constantly raised the bar in accelerating my own learning curve. I didn’t just grow professionally, but even personally by learning so much through a journey I had been crafting for myself along the way, and most importantly one that I had initiated and believed in pursuing. My family and loved ones always encourage me and provide me with remarkable support in anything I’m passionate about, no matter how much of that thing may be a departure from “the norm”. And I am so grateful for it!

 

My Portuguese Inscriptions: Sintra’s Royalty Retreat

Royal summer places, fairytale castles, and gardens made for romance. This is Sintra, Portugal. Mostly unheard of by travelers.

During our stay in Lisbon, we decided to take a day trip to the compelling town of Sintra.

In the majesty of this Shakespearean-like town, we were surrounded with romantic Portuguese architecture while making our way through ruins quilted in moss. The air of history and mystery echoed around us. Moreover, what makes it’s history fascinating is that it was purely a retreat for Portuguese royalty in the past!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nestled on top of Sintra Hills is the extravagant Palacio De Pena (Pena Palace). We had our fair share of ascending Portugal’s steep hills, so this time we decided to board a bus to take us to the hill on which one of Sintra’s dreamlike castles is perched.

I have sort of an obsession with castles. Maybe it has to do with being a symbol of the Middle Ages, a period of history for which I have a deep fascination. Perhaps it’s the romantic and fairy-tale aspect and because castles are replete with ancient legends. Their somewhat grimly silent walls carry a past filled with stories of adventure, tragedy, and romance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since 1995, the Pena Palace was placed under UNESCO World Heritage Site protection for it’s cultural and historical significance. The location dates back to the Middle Ages when a chapel was built to a local religious figure called Lady of Pena. Therefore the place represented mainly a religious site at the time.

Kings after kings built their own constructions on top of the area, including a monastery, which was then severely damaged and brought to ruins by the 1755 earthquake. The monastery was then transformed into Pena Palace and finally completed in 1854 by King Ferdinand II for his Queen Maria II as a romantic retreat. Many kings and queens that followed visited the palace as a summer getaway.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the outskirts of the palace, is something called a Wall Walk. It is from this path that one can enjoy the breathtaking  landscapes of Sintra and the countryside from all sides, and this is where I felt like a queen of my own castle!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Views of the Moorish Castle from the Wall Walk

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The National Palace of Sintra

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not to be confused with Pena Palace, the National Palace of Sintra is another royal residence recognized by it’s two white towering chimneys (Yes, actual chimneys!). Inside, the structure and decor is of Moorish roots. Because of it’s expansive history, the interior of the palace had undergone several renovations inspired by Moorish and Gothic influences.

Rooms dating back to the 1500’s range from the Arab Room, a personal bedchamber where the king slept, dining room, the Court of Arms room (holding the coats of arms of 74 Portuguese noble families with 18th-century tiled walls), a beautiful courtyard, and one of my favorites is the Grotto of the Baths, tiled with mythological ceramic art and scenes of nobility. We could even spot tiny opening (holes) in the walls of the tiles from which water jets criss-crossed the bath.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Grotto of Baths

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Up close are the visible holes from which streams of water emerged in to the bath

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Court of Arms Room

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWindow view from one of the rooms, looking on to a garden

Quinta De Regaleira

20181019_190116-2

This was personally my favorite royal residence of them all, because we entered the scene of a mystical fairytale set in Lord of the Rings or the likes of Romeo and Juliet. With hidden passages, spiral towers, and paths guarded by waterfalls and ambiguous statues, the property is actually an estate that was formerly owned by millionaire Antonio Augusto.

20181019_182711-2

Some exotic flora surrounding the property

The gardens of the palace are vast, and one could easily get lost amidst it’s secret corridors and network of tunnels. I can imagine being entirely alone with my husband there and just playing hide and seek all day long in it’s bewildering and tricky forested park. There was this one small tower in the garden that was directly from a scene in Romeo and Juliet, from where I stood looking down at my husband..We were at the heart of a romantic Shakespearean play.

IMG-20181019-WA0003

One of the main highlights of the palace is a mysterious Initiatic Well with a depth of some 28 meters. We were lead to the tunnel from below and climbed up the twisting stairs to reach the top of it.  Strangely enough, the well wasn’t used as a water source but rather, for secret ceremonies and rituals. It was more like an underground tower.

20181019_183316-2

The Initiatic Well

20181019_182439-2

20181019_184843

Even though our trip to Sintra was short, we thoroughly enjoyed the colorful palaces, extravagant mansions, and exotic gardens and overall mythical grounds of this beautiful town!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Portugal Inscriptions: Lisboa 2018

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Although neighbors, Portugal is an unusually different place than it’s adjacent popular buddy, Spain.

Even our tuk tuk tour guide, a young Portuguese man driving an auto rickshaw around town, said he could relate more to the Moroccan culture than to Germany, France, Italy or any part of Western Europe.

Seeing that Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe, oldest global empire as well as the oldest colonizing nation, it has plenty of beautiful historical hidden treasures to explore.

20181016_180139-01-2682406749-1540928267178.jpg

We started our journey with a taxi ride to the apartment loft that took us through narrow cobblestone streets in the heart of a historic area. The paths wind their way up a steep hill past old tiled buildings and the city’s timeworn charm. When we arrived at our exact street, it was so narrow and tight that I wondered how the driver was going to squeeze in with the car, but he managed to do it!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The building housing our loft was pretty old. It’s where life has carried on for centuries. Standing at the entrance, the rustic door slid open from the other end and we were greeted by the owner of the apartment, a cheery Portuguese woman named Clara. She helped us with our luggage up to the 4th floor and from there, gave us a quick guide of the rooms and a map of Lisbon, pinpointing its main hotspots and her personally recommended places to visit. Lisbon is also the city of 7 hills, our apartment being situated on one of them.

20181016_235829

Clara also spoke of Amália Rebordão, a Fadista singer of Portugal’s traditional Fado music dating back to the 1820’s, and how she popularized Fado worldwide. Clara mentioned that it makes herself and all Portuguese people proud of the way Amália had given Portugal a face and a voice in the outer world. Because Portugal is becoming more popularized as a destination, Fado music might be seen as an experience for tourists to go after in Fado Clubs like they would a Flamenco performance in Spain. However, the melancholic melodies of the genre are enjoyed for entertainment by locals in neighborhood pubs, cafes and restaurants at dinner theaters too. So it’s not necessarily a cliche activity that only tourists do, but a part of everyday local life.

We left our baggages in the apartment on spot and proceeded to go out and explore the region for the day. Walking around the city, we could already feel the six other hills in our calves because of it’s irregular urban cityscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Discovering the city, immediately the first thing we noticed are shops and mini marts dedicated to Portugal’s much-loved staple food: sardines. Before traveling to any place, I really like to get to know what a particular destination is known for and what locals love to eat and do.

There are two ways to have sardines. One, are the small ones in the tin cans which are eaten with a piece of bite-sized bread. Another way is to enjoy the bigger sardines that are cooked/grilled as any fish with their signature Piri Piri Chili oil and some lemon.

20181016_221212-2

20181016_213353-2

Cirque de Sardine, a touristy sardine shop. They all have years printed on the lids with an interesting fact about an event that happened during that year, which is an unusual souvenir to bring with you!

20181016_213242-2

20181016_213451-2

The shop is themed around a circus, with carousels and ferris wheels displaying cans of sardines. It would definitely catch anyone’s attention!

codfish.jpg

Portugal’s love for fish doesn’t stop at sardines. To talk about Portugal, is to talk about the Cod fish. I was expecting to find it everywhere around Lisbon, but the fish is not as popular as sardines due to it being regarded as a delicacy reserved for special occasions and family holidays, especially the buttery cod pâté. We visited a hip, contemporary Portuguese restaurant for a taste of traditional cuisine in an area called Praça do Comércio in downtown Baixa district. The famous square used to be home to a royal palace destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755.

20181016_222059-01

The Rua Augusta Arch in Praça do Comércio serves as a noble gateway to downtown Lisbon and a commemoration to the rebuilding of the town after the destruction caused by the earthquake.

IMG-20181103-WA0009

20181016_233101-2

So we sat a restaurant called “Ministerium”. It was already getting chilly around this time of year (October).

20181016_233233-2

My husband ordered the chicken wings doused in Portugal’s favorite condiment, the Piri Piri hot sauce. It’s really interesting to look back at the origins of such unexpected staples which in this case, go back to Portugal’s colonial history. Piri Piri is a type of chili that the Portuguese discovered when they conquered the world during their global voyage, specifically in the lush jungle of South America (Brazil) and Africa. The hot sauce is also obviously still used in Portugal’s former colonies in Africa and translates to “Chili Chili” in Swahili.

20181031_182731-2

Now, let’s talk about the cod! Unlike other types of fish, it has an unusual texture. We ordered one of the most traditional types of dishes you can ask for in Portugal: salted cod with potatoes. The cod itself is initially salted and then poached until it turns creamy and flaky, giving it that rich and distinct texture. As mentioned by one local, “you know you are eating good cod when it falls apart into slippery flakes.”

20181016_233348-2

Salted cod with potatoes and sautéed spinach. A simple dish but oh-so flavorful.

Of course, sardines and cod (or any other tinned fish) make the perfect Lisbon souvenir, as you are practically taking the flavor of the city and the country’s love for seafood home with you. The preserved fish comes in olive oil, tomato sauce, chickpeas and plenty of other marination and spices, and even better, the cans are wrapped in vintage-looking paper resembling an antique memento!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In most things in Portuguese shops, there is an old-school aesthetic evident everywhere. From the retro packaging of sardine tins to embroidered napkins and artisan soaps. The cupboard essential, a can of sardines, is not only loved for what’s inside but also for the art on the can itself with colorful retro designs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA20181017_131824-2IMG-20181103-WA0008

dollhospital-1.jpg

We arrived at Cais De Sodre to board a ferry to Belem District. Since we were in the area of Cais De Sodre, we happened to find the Time Out Market, also known as Mercado de Ribeira. The hip riverside food court, which used to be a very old fresh food market in Lisbon, is said to be a renovated culinary destination bringing the capital’s best chefs and most popular restaurants in town. There are various stalls displaying tempting food and communal tables in the center. We first surveyed the stalls around the food center, trying to decide what to settle down for!

20181017_132635

20181017_132502

There is also a small shop full of old-fashioned artisanal soaps, canned fish (of course!), and other vintage-looking souvenirs.

20181017_133506-2

Hand-drawn stenciled illustrations on retro journals.

belem.jpg

20181017_143445-2

Belem is one of the places that one should visit when in Lisbon. We retreated to Belem on a ferry boat along the Tagus river opening up to views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Christo Rei statue from afar as we crossed under the 25 de Abril Bridge Suspension Bridge. It is said that the Christo Rei was originally inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

IMG-20181103-WA0010

The Christo Rei statue and 25 de Abril Suspension Bridge as seen from our ferry

20181016_175938-2

As seen from the plane on our way to Lisbon!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Capturing that moment right under the bridge!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the most iconic monuments in Belem is the Belem Tower (Torre de Belém) representing the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the past. It was the main site and launch point from which Portuguese explorers departed on their voyage of discoveries. The tower also served to protect the Lisbon harbor.

20181017_154741-01

Inspired by Venetian and Moorish architecture, the tower was initially built on dry land in 1515. However, over 500 years the tide had risen.

20181017_154437-2

Over here where I sit, there is a visible slot of sand in front of me, which is completely submerged in water during high tides.

20181017_154818-01

People lining up to enter the tower

ship.jpg

Another unique monument in Belem pays homage to all the explorers of Portugal, which was around the time that the Portuguese began to colonize lands, although it doesn’t directly represent “colonialism” per se.

20181017_150834

In Lisbon, we didn’t stumble upon any museum that told a comprehensive or illustrative history of colonialism. When asked about this, one local told us, “Portugal was the earliest colonizer and we basically started the whole trend when establishing our dominions overseas in Africa for gold and diamonds, Brazil for their sugar cane, tobacco and cotton, and India (Goa) and China (Macau) for their exotic spices. What spurred our expansion was colonial wealth coming from valuable items such as cinnamon, which at the time was worth more than gold!” He continued, “We amassed such huge fortunes that it encouraged the Dutch and British to follow our footsteps. We were very rich, now Portugal is a poor country. Honestly, deep down, we do feel ashamed of this part of our history. But at the same time, proud of our strong past.”

20181017_145002-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20181017_145929

Statues of heroes on the monument who braved the uncharted waters during their discoveries (captains, navigators, cartographers)

After a good look at both monuments, we walked around Belem.

20181017_150902-2

An artistic installation

20181017_144029

This boy was fishing with his father.

20181017_151132-2

The red-brick lighthouse of Belem

20181017_161042-3428868865-1541273295937.jpg

This is the national monument for the fallen Portuguese soldiers of the Overseas War fought in colonial Africa. The memorial is in memory of the Portuguese military who lost their lives during the African’s nationalist movement for independence (1964-1971).

There are two soldiers on either side of the monument that change every 2 hours. In the center is an eternal flame.

20181017_140352-01

Sailing along the Tagus River

20181017_150318-2

20181017_150546

They say you can’t leave Belem without also trying their famed pastries. Before boarding the ferry back, we tried what is known as Pasteis de Belém, a custard pie. The confection of the Belem pastries was created in 1837 and the recipe remains exactly the same until this day. It is particularly from this place that only the masters of this pastry know the real, original family recipe!

20181017_162209

20181017_172232-2.jpg

graffiti.jpg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After leaving Belem, we visited the LX Factory. The LX factory is considered to be the place where hipsters go in Lisbon, as it’s filled with street art and creative expression integrated into old industrial buildings housing design shops and funky restaurants. The place, which is said to have been an 1800’s sewing factory, stretches under the 25 de Abril Bridge that I showed here previously in the post. The locals wanted to breathe new life in to the desolate area by turning the district into a vibrant spot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some of the street art around LX factory. Make sure to check out my photo series on Street Art in Lisbon, Portugal!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Having lunch at LX Burger

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

LX Factory is also home to  one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, a former printing space called Ler Davagar Bookstore. A variety of interesting books are stacked from floor to ceiling and I would have loved to spend hours there looking through each and every intriguing title!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Found this nice book that illustrated the symbols of Portugal

Some quirky shops…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

dollhospital.jpg

20181017_193645-2-1426843284-1541961903442.jpg

One of the most interesting and unusual places I was looking forward to is the world’s oldest surviving Doll Hospital, an antique repair shop for all dolls in need of fixing! For those who cherish dolls and have always been fond of playing with them, like myself (even until now!), this is where beloved dolls can go through a check up which determines whether they need; chipped paint? beautify and restore your doll. Is there a missing eye? leg? fingers? Your doll can get transplant. Or just a quick makeover (new dress?)

20181017_193928-2

Portuguese dolls

For over 200 years, the family-run business has had a curious trait for restoring antique dolls of sentimental value to its owners.

20181017_193810-2

20181017_193840-2

I love these doll collectibles!

20181017_193822

20181017_193937-2

20181017_234522-2

water

Wandering around Lisbon and wondering where to go next, we located the old Barbadinhos Pumping Station. The museum, also know as Museu Da Agua, introduced us to the once painstaking process of pumping the river and bringing drinking water to the residents of Lisbon. The museum is pretty small, which is why it’s never crowded and probably because not that many people even know about it. We were actually the only ones there at the time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The main attraction of the museum is its grandiose engine room, where 19th-century steam-powered pumping machines have been preserved in magnificent condition. I took a moment to imagine the complex process of which it took to get fresh water to the homes of people. The antiquated machines made the room look very steampunk. I would have loved to see the engines in action!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

tram.jpg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

AlFama and Mouraria are the raw historical hilltop districts of Lisbon. Mouraria comes from the Moorish influences of the medieval period and Alfama traces back to the Arabic word “Al Hamma” referring to baths and fountains.

We started by exploring the oldest district in Lisbon, AlFama, home to the soulful Fado singing and sardine-cooking taverns. The district holds the strongest roots in Portuguese culture and heritage. With a steep tangle of narrow streets, AlFama is a prized relic of the past that remained almost unaffected by the 1755 earthquake. The district is filled with surprises at every corner, with endearing cafes and local eateries that tingled our senses. You could feel the history all around you.

OI000030-01.jpg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

AlFama is amazingly photogenic!

dollhospital-2.jpg

As we wandered about in search for a car ride, we came across a tuk tuk driver, Pedro, who offered us a ride around Alfama, Mouraria, and Chiado, the noblest district in Lisbon. We thought, what better way to explore these districts even better than to hear some stories from the local himself?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pedro is the friendly Portuguese tuk tuk guide that I mentioned earlier in the beginning of my post. Through out the ride we exchanged cultural information about one another and we gained a lot of insight into the various aspects of Lisbon. It was fun getting to know the city through Pedro! We spoke about the Portuguese and Arabic language and I pointed out how difficult the Portuguese language actually sounds, and it mostly has to do with the pronunciations. Although Arabic and Portuguese sound vastly different, there are many words derived from Arabic such as Soap – Sabonete (Sabon in Arabic), azeitona – olive (zaytoon in Arabic) to name a few. What surprised me the most is that Portuguese is actually one of the most spoken languages after English!

20181017_123857-01-2

As we drove between the narrow streets of Mouraria, we observed the various buildings adorned in artistic ceramic tiles traditionally called Azulejos. Interestingly, the name of this art form comes from the Arabic language too and was originally introduced from Granada, Spain, which used to be a host to Arabic culture in the past. Some tiles are decorative with geometrical patterns while others portray mythological tales and historical imagery. The most common and oldest colors used for the tiles are white, blue and yellow.

As mentioned by Pedro, Azulejos are not only utilized for their decorative purpose, but also have a more practical function by helping control the temperature in rooms and protecting the buildings against heat. The close proximity of houses also provide shade and prevent overheating.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is one of my favorite photos taken in Lisbon. A cozy local restaurant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next, we stopped our tuk tuk next a church. “You have to see this place,” said Pedro. “It might look like an ordinary and humble-looking church from the outside and you might not even give it a second look. But inside, the bland facade hides a rich decorative interior.” Igreja de São Roque Church is reportedly one of the richest churches in Europe, meaning it’s of priceless value. The dazzling interior is adorned with marble, gold on top of gold, and sacred art pieces. He even mentioned that if any of the pieces are being transported, there is only that one designated person responsible who is allowed to even touch it. That’s how precious it is!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To absorb Lisbon from above, Pedro took us to a hilltop terrace overlooking the vistas of the city – Miradouro da Graça. From this height, we observed the medieval buildings that dot the horizon as all as Lisbon’s Castle. The amount of large trees surrounding the terrace shades the entire place making it the perfect place to relax.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Some scenes around Alfama and Mouraria…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After bidding farewell to Pedro, we took a short trip to Lisbon’s Aquarium although we weren’t really planning to but decided to go there anyway to have a look…

Untitled-1-1.jpg

The Oceanarium of the capital hosts marine habitats of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Antarctic. At the time of our visit there was a temporary exhibition by Takashi Amano,  a Japanese Aquascape creator who is also know as the Aqua Architect. With this lifetime project of his, he aimed at recreating tropical forests inside an aquarium to place emphasis on the preservation of sea life and its habitats. Amano did this through the practice of Ikebana, a Japanese gardening art form, and the concept Wabi-sabi which is a philosophy often described as appreciating the beauty in imperfection.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Takashi Amano’s creation. The place was filled with such serenity and otherworldliness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here are some photos of various marine creatures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There was also another small exhibition inside showcasing artwork made out of debris, waste and other pollution to shed light on protecting the marine environment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now one last meal in Lisbon…! 🙂

20181019_135940

We sat at a very local restaurant serving typical Portuguese lunch.

For pre-starters, a couple of various fish pâté (Sardine, tuna, salmon) and our main course was bean rice and cod fish cakes. Delicious!

See you next in Portugal, Sintra!

The city of fairytale palaces and castles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

The Untouched Island Life in Palawan, The Philippines🗺

Where do I begin? I have so much to say about The Philippines!

20180307_113644-2

Just pure paradise ❤️ 💜 💙

I hadn’t realized how huge of a country Philippines really is until I observed it from the sky. It’s an island with a thousand other islands within other islands. Palawan Island, for example, is an archipelagic province which itself is composed of roughly 1,780 islands and islets. One of these is our destination, Coron Island. A natural beauty of tropical paradise. It’s where island life doesn’t get anymore authentic than this. In fact, Palawan has been named “Best Island in the World” year after year by top travel publications, from Travel + Leisure to Destinations of the World magazines.

What I admired most is that the locals strive hard to maintain the islands, ensuring these pieces of paradise remain untouched and intact with the onslaught of tourists. And they most certainly are doing a fantastic job.

20180308_091326-2

We rested for the night in Manila after a long flight from Kuwait, first at the Conrad Hotel before continuing our long journey to Palawan, the land of secluded beaches and hidden lagoons.

20180307_072938-01

Hotel room views of Manila

20180306_133222-2

When we got ready for the adventurous trip that awaited us the next morning, we were driven to the take-off spot to board a small private seaplane called Air Juan with just two co-pilots and the both of us.

At first I was pretty nervous, as the ride itself was turbulent like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. But the notion of being drifted off to a secluded island out of the thousand other surrounding ones in the middle of nowhere was romantic. Watching the breath-taking views of the diverse formations of islands below in their various shades of azure, turquoise and cyan blue, tensions gradually melted away!

20180307_100329

20180307_110020SmartSelect_20180821-201851_Gallery

20180307_105939-2

Then appeared our first glimpse of the beautiful Coron Island, a narrow strip of land encircled by pristine waters and dotted with houses.

SmartSelect_20180821-202017_Video Player

SmartSelect_20180821-202044_Gallery

This shade of blue is out of this world!

20180821_202241-2

20180307_111217-3

After some time exploring the land and taking in its beauty, we began to plan our adventures!

20180308_081457-3

But first...some Pilipino breakfast!

To gear up for the day, we re-energized with a wholesome filipino-style breakfast that mostly relies on a symphony of sweet, tangy and sour flavors. We had some garlic fried rice with egg and a side of corned beef, delicious Pancit Canton noodles (which is their take on the Chinese Chow Mein), baby corn, and a popular Pinoy dish called Danggit, which is fish that is split open, salted, and dried under the sun, usually served with a vinegar dip. Typically, everything is eaten with steamed rice. Overall, I very much relished filipino cuisine. It’s a blend of both the East and West, mainly strongly influenced by the Spanish, American and Chinese.

Post-fueling ourselves with some tastiness, we were now ready to embark on our Island-hopping escapades! 🌴

20180307_113814-3

🏝 Tales of the Baraccuda Lake 🏝

On speedboat, we reached the fortress-like rocky cliffs guarding the elusive Baraccuda Lake. Doesn’t the name itself sound intimidating? Makes you think there is something mischievous and dark lurking there. We threw on our snorkeling gears and were guided by our tour diver to a tricky, narrow entrance of rocky paths and wooden ladders, eventually emerging onto a hidden emerald lagoon surrounded by limestone walls.

From there, we swam freely around the lake exploring its features as the tour guide told us it’s many tales. He mentioned that if we were lucky, we might have the chance to encounter the one resident after which the lake was named, said to be skulking in the shadows of the lake’s 35 meter cave – The razor-jawed Baraccuda fish.

20180308_102530-01

Peering down below, the water is brackish, making the bed of the lake almost disappear into oblivion. Suddenly, I see our professional diver cueing us to look down. And “luckily” there it was, THE BARACUDDA 🐟 , lurking curiously around us from a distance looking like a silver predatory torpedo. He told us that it’s usually pretty rare to spot one, as they mostly hang out in the 35-meter cave below.  Instantaneously, everything that I had read about this “mythical” shark-like fish came flooding to me, like that fact they they sometimes jump into people’s boats and can bite off a considerable chunk of human flesh in a lightening-fast ambush which only fueled my fear.  I felt at ease when the diver told us that they rarely bother humans and there’s no real reason to feel threatened. However, he did also mention with a slight smirk, that they appear when hungry and hunting for prey 😲 ….

Barracuda (Flickr)

Once taking the plunge into the waters, what’s interesting about the lake is its  thermocline. Barracuda Lake consists of layers of fresh and salt water, which makes this former volcanic crater home to one of the most unique eco-systems in the world. The water temperature is perfect. However, when the diver told us to slightly descend and pull our bodies down, that is when we felt a strange sensory experience. Because the fresh and salty water exist in harmony, our lower body hits the saline part where the temperature rises. As a result we found our upper bodies in the cold layer and the lower bodies in the hot area! What an unusual sensation I must say! The difference feels more extreme the deeper down you go.

Next: The Kayangan Lake and The Twin Lagoons

20180308_131524-2

A sight to behold on the way to Kayangan Lake

Navigating past it’s towering limestone formations, the Kayangan cove was surrounded by a couple of boats filled with people on Island-Hopping tours. Getting to Kayangan Lake required a long hike up the steep slope through a wooden stair way. Being the cleanest and clearest lake in the entire Philippines is owed to the Tagbanwa tribe that owns it. The oldest ethnic group in the country, the Tagbanwa of Coron Island are considered the Philippine’s original inhabitants and they take it as their utmost responsibility to protect and take care of their sacred ancestral domains. The tribe don’t allow their lands to fall into the hands of the government and their wishes to stay entitled to ownership are well-respected. Cleverly, they also collect entrance fees from the tourists visiting and keep the place as convenient as possible for the divers.

20180308_103600-2

Tourists swimming in Kayangan Lake

Descending back down from Kayangan, we approached our outrigger boat that was docked next to the huts of the indigenous tribes. We then seated next to a sheltered seating area in the village where we were served a sumptuous, fresh lunch of Pancit Canton and coconut water prepared by our boatman in a cottage perched over the waters. We mingled with the welcoming and friendly locals, recognizable by their dark skin and skinny short-stature. Some offered to sell their handicrafts and shellfish accessories.

20180308_122519-2

20180308_122122-3

Bathroom views!

It was then time to visit the Twin Lagoon. As the name implies, the lagoon consists of two bodies of water separated by a wall of karst. To get to the second, inner lagoon, our diver lead us to a hole that allowed us to swim to the other side. He mentioned that due to the low tide, we were able to pass through. The hole becomes completely submerged underwater once the high tide hits and apparently there is an alternative way to cross over.

20180308_095634-01

Coron Bay, where the Shipwrecks and Coral Gardens lie ☠️

It wasn’t until that day that I felt I conquered my fear of the deep. The deep, is another world worth to be seen.

We were taken to the Lusong Coral Garden, where an astounding stretch of multicolored- fish, anemones, and untouched corals flourished.  It was a surreal experience relaxing on the water’s surface, paddling away, as we looked down a motion picture of mother’s nature’s masterpiece; a vibrant underwater world beneath us teeming with thousands of diverse species. We passed walls and walls of never-ending corals, some of luminescent velvet, home to sea urchins and clown fish. There was such a big explosion of interesting sights at every turn that my husband took some photos and videos of the rich marine biodiversity for memories.

IMG-20180824-WA0008-2

Some of the best preserved Japanese WWII shipwrecks also exist at Coron Island. This was an amazing experience too. We were taken to the sight of the sunken Japanese vessels known as the Skeleton Shipwrecks. We mostly snorkeled our way there, some laid on the shallow end so staying upright even allowed us to feel the mossy vessel with our toes.  As we gazed under the surface, some divers were penetrating it’s interiors overgrown with corals.

IMG-20180824-WA0009-2

20180308_112301-2

No fish feeding, no littering, no stepping on the corals, no fishing

IMG-20180824-WA0006-2

IMG-20180824-WA0007-2

To Pass Island

20180310_124150-2-e1535134305916.jpg

On our third day, our final destination was Pass Island. After another snorkeling expedition, the Island served as a resting place. It is less visited, due to it’s lack of restaurants, accommodation, and infrastructure. It’s purely a paradise island limited to just a few bamboo huts. The island’s colors were so vivid, it was dreamlike. Powdery white sand, swaying palm trees, and translucent baby blue shores beckoned to us. Even venturing out meters into the sea, the water was still relatively shallow.

SmartSelect_20180824-222516_Gallery

20180403_225422-2

SmartSelect_20180824-222437_Gallery

20180310_120315-2

20180310_115530-2

A boat, van, and plane ride back home. 

We arrived back to our bungalow to make the most of our last night in Palawan, Coron Island. It was truly magical, even at night. The heavens unleashed their showers every now and then. The early morning that followed, the sun was just beginning to rise and stormy clouds headed our way. It was an immensely rocky boat ride as huge waves crashed against our boat. We were going into “Castaway” mode 😳.

I looked back at the island as we departed further away, the locals waving farewell. I felt an ache of sadness that we were leaving and saying goodbye…

20180403_224942

See you again soon Philippines!  🇵🇭 😊

 

 

My Japanese Inscriptions: Osaka

Another adventure awaited in Osaka City, characterized by it’s infinite places to eat! For this very reason, it’s widely known as the nation’s kitchen! Osakans pride themselves in their food. So this was a place we were ready to eat ’til we dropped as the stimulating sights and smells of unrecognizable treats surrounded us everywhere we went.

20180324_193649

First Stop…

The Museum of Housing and Living

Experiencing Osaka 200 years ago…

20180317_200553

An old traditional Japanese home

This was one of my favorite places in Osaka because it felt like we walked into history. The museum houses a real-life scale of an Edo period street scene, complete with 1850’s shops and people. The best part was that you could walk into different doors with an activity taking place, be it a puppet show, traditional game, doll shop or workshop of some kind.

SmartSelect_20180703-214940_Video Player

Shadow Games

SmartSelect_20180703-215008_Video Player

After trying my chances at the “Spin the Roulette” and winning, I was offered a box of cute toys to choose from 🙂

Weaving through the small corridors of this replica town and entering amazing make-believe homes to sample experiences of the past was light-heartening.

Moving further along the museum, there are glass-enclosed detailed models depicting the urban development of Osaka and its housing districts. Some models also displayed old barber shops and scenes of Osaka’s past, which stirs up feelings of nostalgia.

SmartSelect_20180703-215152_Video Player

A moving display of a district in Osaka that transitions 
from day to night

 20180324_143957

20180324_144211A model of an old Japanese barber shop

20180324_144220.jpg

20180324_144121

20180324_143309.jpg

Japanese masks used for theatre, festivals and rituals. Some are 
legendary creatures of Japanese folklore

20180324_143230.jpg

A display of Japanese dolls and old traditional toys

Osaka food!

When the mouth is lonely…(a saying in Osaka)

Osaka is filled with hidden eateries, bustling high-end dining scenes and street vendors. There was overwhelmingly so much to sample! One place that is well-known for this is the neon-lit Dotonbori district where we tasted the two famous Osaka dishes; Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki balls.

SmartSelect_20180716-155304_Gallery

The making of Takoyaki Balls

These delicate melt-in-your-mouth battered orbs of minced octopus with pickled ginger and onion are simply delicious. Fresh off the griddle, they are meant to be eaten hot and gulped down at lightning speed because of how soft, crispy and savory they are!

20180320_120523

Another signature dish is the Okonomiyaki, which is actually a Japanese version of the pancake that is pan-fried in batter with cabbage as the base and then topped with vegetables, meat or seafood. Usually the restaurants that serve these have a “grill it yourself” concept. They are equipped with an iron griddle on each table with a bowl of batter and some preferred ingredients which are then mixed together and dipped into the hot griddle and finally coated in toppings of choice.

20180324_151319_resized-2

Osaka lady selling signature Mochi sweets

Dotonbori Street

20180325_171829_resized.jpg

The famous Glico-Man. The icon of Osaka

Known for nightlife and entertainment, Dotonbori is a famous strip of restaurants and shops along the banks of its canal.

20180325_172815

20180325_171454-2

The highlight was Ebisu-Bashi bridge that overlooks the Glico Man, depicting a running sportsman in white gym clothes reminiscent of Japanese retro pop art. Lines of people stood on one side of the canal with their cameras for that perfect angle, holding their hands up, mimicking the sign. For years, this famous character popped up in my searches of Japan but I never took the time to understand the meaning and history of this symbolic billboard. Then I found out that Glico is the same company that makes one of my favorite snacks – Pocky! The packaging actually has the brand’s name on the corner of the box. What a connection! Glico started off in the 1919’s selling it’s first caramel sweets. The campaign for their caramels gave rise to the running man logo. Apparently, a selling point for their sweets was that they were only 15 kilo calories, which was the energy required to run 300m!

Further ahead the foodie strip, there’s a giant mechanical crab which obviously specializes in crab. This specialty is particularly savored during the winter times and is an extremely popular restaurant and go-to place to taste the flavors of sweet, soft crab meat.

SmartSelect_20180819-203135_Gallery

The Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium 

20180324_162120_resized

I love visiting aquariums. So visiting the largest one in Japan was so exciting!

The marine creatures featured here are exclusively inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”; the area surrounding the ocean in which most of the our earth’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur. We got a beautiful glimpse into life deep within the Pacific Ocean, which was an eye-opening experience and pretty otherworldly I must say.

SmartSelect_20180716-161544_Video Player

This form of "galactic" jelly fish is out of this world!

There was an impressive array of animals and I could spend an entire day just marveling at all those aquatic creatures, every time catching sight of a new and unusual one.

When we reached the central largest tank, it was teeming with marine life. From gigantic manta rays, sharks, fish sized bigger than me, and the star attraction of them all is the humongous whale shark.

SmartSelect_20180716-160408_Gallery

One of my favorite was also the Spider King Crab display. I was awe-struck at the sheer size of them!

20180324_171810_resized

20180324_171720_resized

SmartSelect_20180716-161507_Video Player

That monster!

SmartSelect_20180716-160639_Video Player

SmartSelect_20180716-160610_Video Player

Hi there little one!

SmartSelect_20180716-160728_Video Player

Woah!

The Tempozan Ferris wheel

Located directly nearby the aquarium is the Tempozan Ferris wheel, around which many street performances take place.

SmartSelect_20180716-155638_Gallery

20180324_161536_resized_2

20180324_161505_resized

Back to the hotel

20180324_194157_resized.jpg

20180324_193649-2

20180324_194140-2

Some sights around our area

A quick dinner in a classic Japanese restaurant

20180325_203337_resized

20180325_201951_resized

Osaka National Museum of Art

Right near by our hotel, we also discovered Osaka’s National Museum of Art. The next morning we walked there on foot. The eye-catching museum, whose architecture resembles an exoskeleton, focuses on contemporary art and hosts a variety of strange exhibits showcasing odd and minimalistic installations, performances, video art, paintings that explore various concepts and interpretations that challenge your thinking. Although pleasing and gripping to look at, I couldn’t make much sense of most of what was being displayed. However, it got me thinking, that it wasn’t so much about understanding what I was looking as much as what the object on display made me feel and that was the beauty of art.

20180325_114747

The museum didn’t allow any photos to be taken, as I was quickly spotted whipping out my camera only to be warned by a supervisor. As we observed the various works of art, we passed a lady working at the museum. She was standing up against a wall when suddenly turns around to face it and starts to chant, in an opera-like rhythm, a verse of some kind in Japanese. This would go on for about 3 minutes and then she’d pause and turn back around and continue the same cycle every 30 minutes or so. I am not sure what this performance meant but it did look very creepy.

20180325_1153331.jpg

An interesting excerpt at the entrance of the museum

The legendary Osaka Castle

20180325_142053_resized

Osaka Castle looking cinematic

Surrounded by the beautiful Osaka Castle Park, Osaka Castle is one of those famous landmarks that come to mind when one thinks of Japan. Although it had undergone many reconstructions since 1615, it is still an impressive historic sight that looks like an ancient splendor. Places and stories of historical heritage always give me chills! It was first built in the 1500’s by Samurai and warrior, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was also known to have financed the constructions and restorations of many of the temples that stand today in Kyoto.

54450g1

We thoroughly enjoyed strolling the grounds of the area with beautiful landscaped gardens of blooming Sakura trees. It was an extremely pleasant and breathtaking place.

20180325_155903_resized

20180415_220333_resized.jpg

Crossing over a bridge, we entered the castle’s walls. The castle, which now houses a museum of historic artifacts, had a huge queue. Once we gained access, we found that it was extremely crowded, almost to the point that we couldn’t take the time to enjoy the experience but rather skimmed through each floor and left. However, the peaceful walk through the park that followed was wonderful.

20180325_140836_resized

Universal Studios

20180326_112956_resized

Our last destination in Osaka was Universal Studios. I had already visited the one in Singapore, so I was eager to explore the Japanese version. We didn’t hop on that many thriller rides, in fact we mostly went to 4-D cinemas such as Sailor Moon and other anime-inspired attractions.

There was also a hyper-realistic Wizard’s World of Harry Potter™ which is vastly popular with the Japanese.

20180326_114456_resized

20180326_122902_resized

20180326_125653_resized.jpg

Universal Studios had an unusually strong obsession for the minions 
too!

So my Japanese series concludes here, and I truly had an amazing time in Japan. Writing this blog was a trip itself. It took me back to all the cherished memories, encounters and experiences that I will look back on with a big smile.

Farewell Osaka. Until next time!

My Japanese inscriptions: Kyoto

20180322_173016

After an interesting and serene ride on the bullet train with the sight of traditional Japanese homes shrouded in snow, we entered Japan’s capital of rich history and the birthplace of cultural traditions – Kyoto.

20180321_135924_resized-2