Tag Archives: tourism

Eerie in the Cemetery

photo

Weekly photo challenge: capture something eerie.

Highgate Cemetery, pictured above, is eerie only inasmuch as urban legends and horror lore tell us it should be. This cemetery in North London features in more than its share of vampire movies, but in reality, it barely sends a shiver down the spine. Rather, tranquility abounds – once you get past the fact that you’re among graves and ghosts, it makes for a beautiful setting for a stroll.

It’s been on my list, so I decided to visit a couple of weekends ago, in the spirit of Halloween. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, crisp and sunny after a recent downpour, with the smell of wet leaves hanging in the air. The cemetery is a quick walk downhill from Highgate Village – the perfect way to work off the effects of the lavender cake at High Tea of Highgate.

DSC_0109

You have two options, depending on how much you want to spend/learn. If you’re looking for a more mindless, cheaper meander on your own, go for the East Cemetery – it’s £4 for entry and a map (this is where you can find Karl Marx’s grave, a main attraction for many visitors). The West Cemetery is a whopping £12 but includes a one-hour guided tour, as well as free entry into the East Cemetery.

(Skint) Cold War geek that I am, I opted for the East Cemetery, though I have heard the guided tour is very good. I set out on the hunt for Marx, genuinely afraid I might miss him in the sea of headstones. Turns out I had nothing to worry about – the communist section is very in-your-face!

IMG_1365

The rest of the cemetery is as atmospheric as any of London’s grand parks (and, let’s be honest, way more peaceful. No teenagers on school trips here! St James’s, I’m looking at you). It’s a great place to re-charge and catch a quiet moment alone with your thoughts. Though of course, depending on your opinion re: unearthly spirits, you may not be truly alone…

DSC_0129

Advertisement

Tea in the Village

IMG_1367

…that’s Highgate Village – definitely still a part of London, but brimming with so much small-town charm you’d be forgiven for forgetting where you are.

After Yumchaa, my second favorite place for tea, dessert and some quality reading material is High Tea of Highgate, a whimsical sipping nook on Highgate High Street (possibly the most redundantly-named of all high streets). Always cozy and usually busy, High Tea of Highgate has a neighborhood, vintagey feel. The menu consists of a variety of loose leaf tea and delightful treats – my favorite combination to date is the almond tea with the lavender and rosemary cake.

(Cake so good I got halfway through before remembering to take a picture)

(Cake so good I got halfway through before remembering to take a picture)

There’s an outdoor sitting area which is lovely for when the weather plays ball, and the ladies behind the counter are always super helpful. There are also adorable (though pricey) items for sale, like teapots, tartan blankets and ballet flats. The only bittersweet aspect of High Tea of Highgate is that the current owner is having to give up the teashop in favor of motherhood, but hopefully the next owner will pour as much love into it as she has!

IMG_1212IMG_1210

Tokyo – Heels, Everywhere

Fotor090812129

In an almost unbelievable feat (pardon the pun) of pedi-fashion dedication, heels were everywhere in Tokyo, despite the heat wave. It was just like the time in Moscow that, regardless of minus degree weather and a full on SNOWSTORM, the majority of women were in fur-lined stiletto boots. Gentlemen, I think we all know who is really the stronger sex here, based on sheer pain threshold (I’m not including myself in this. I wore heels on my first day of work and never since. Because I’m too young to trip and fall into a Tube tunnel!!)

Anyway, I remain in awe of these fashionistas, never fearing that in this weather their feet may get so sweaty as to just pop out of their strappy sandals. Not sure if foot-watching is a thing for most people, but observing the heels clacking along in Tokyo might just make it so.

Tokyo – The Sukiyabashi Jiro Experience

Masters at work

Masters at work

As far as culinary experiences go, I’ve peaked. Reached the summit. The only way from here is down. I might as well never eat sushi again. Because after Jiro, everything is just…not Jiro.

BACKTRACKING – we are sushi lovers (is their a stronger term than lovers? ‘Almost hysterical revellers’? You get the point). So when we booked our trip to Tokyo, Mike insisted that paying rent wasn’t important, and that we needed to get our sticky soy fingers on a reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro, of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame. I am not one to argue.

Generally you need to book weeks, if not months, in advance, and through a hotel concierge or someone who is Japanese. In a crazy turn of events, a reservation opened up a couple weeks before our trip, so we were IN, solidifying our concierge’s place on the Christmas card list for the next 50 years.

In much of what we had read, some people who visit Jiro’s restaurant are almost stressed out in advance of the experience, so we were a little antsy. Would we be able to find the restaurant, apparently camouflaged in a random hall of the metro station and the source of anxiety for many previous visitors? Would we get full halfway through and disrespect the master? Would Jiro judge me as an amateur if my rice fell apart?

The answer, in short, was yes, no and no. After a tip from CNN’s Jiro review, we took exit 6 out of Ginza station, and instead of turning left up the stairs to the street, you go straight through the unobtrusive glass doors in front of you and then take a left.

Fattiest of tunas

Fattiest of tunas

Once settled in your stool around the counter, your only job is to watch and eat. Jiro, his son Yoshikazu and their apprentices have the system down pat; the menu is fixed, mainly pieces of nigiri, so the whole thing takes under half an hour. But it is a glorious half an hour, filled with the most succulent, delightful, melt-in-your-mouth sushi you will have ever tasted. There’s no way to describe it other than to say we’ve just never tasted anything as brilliant as this. Not having the largest stomach, I was genuinely worried I wouldn’t be able to get through the entire meal – but trust me, it is designed to perfection, and you’ll feel wonderful afterwards (and even have enough room for dessert – fresh honeydew melon).

The infamous sea urchin

The infamous sea urchin

Finally, Jiro is not judging your eating habits, and rice falls apart all the time. He is busy doing what he loves: handling your sushi with care. The entire staff was as friendly as could be – my only wish was to be able to speak Japanese and/or hug Jiro. We settled for a picture, and then Jiro and Yoshikazu stood outside the restaurant waving until we had turned the corner. It was only then that we dissolved in squeals (and tears, because really, London sushi ain’t gonna cut it after that).

DSC_0328

!!!!

Tokyo – The time I could’ve met Chris Pine, but didn’t

An important point to note for background knowledge is that this particular morning, I was very, very tired. I’m not a morning person at the best of times, but after a jam-packed first day touring Tokyo in 30-degree humidity, and a second day getting up at 230 AM for the fish market, this morning found me bleary-eyed and wishing I was back under my duvet. Which might explain why, while descending to our hotel lobby, I didn’t pay much attention to the other occupants in the elevator. I also didn’t pay attention when we exited and my boyfriend asked, ‘Who was that guy with the Japanese security guard?? Wearing a hat?!’ My response was something like ‘I don’t care mmhhmrgg’.

Later in the day, upon returning to our hotel lobby, we saw the same Japanese security guard waiting outside the men’s washroom. Mike said, ‘Hey look there he is again! I wonder who it is!’ and I replied, ‘Don’t know don’t care mmhhmrgg’. Sweating and determined to reach our air-conditioned room, my journalistic/stalker instincts failed me for a second time.

Fast forward to that evening. It’s approaching midnight, and Mike and I are grabbing a drink in the hotel lounge. I wander over to the elevators to pop up to my room, joining a rather large group of Americans entering the lift before me. They turn to wave goodnight to someone standing in the hall – I glance over and think hey, it’s the Japanese security guard! Perhaps they’ve befriended him! Only then do I hear an oddly recognisable voice bidding them farewell: ‘Alright, thanks guys!! Have a good night!’ As the doors are closing, I see that the voice comes with a pair of blue eyes that launched a thousand girlish fan-screams. Standing there waving, as the elevator door shuts in my face, is Chris Pine.

I make a half-hearted attempt to fumble with my iphone but it’s too late – I am locked in a moving box with the group of Americans. I assume they’re an unrelated posse who happened to be quicker on the uptake than I and got a few words in with Captain Kirk himself and are now going to bed. Absently scanning their faces, I have the fleeting thought that the Jewish-looking man with the curly brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses looks kind of like someone I’ve seen before, but impeded by my disbelief at having missed Chris Pine three times that day, the thought flails and dies.

It’s only when I get back to my room when the penny drops. The Star Trek cast is in town for the movie premiere, and I was just in an elevator with JJ Abrams.

The chance to trap him in an enclosed space and MAKE him explain the Lost finale is one that will most likely never come again.

All this to say, I’m seriously considering becoming a coffee drinker.

Found this in Osaka. Not exactly the same...

Found this in Osaka. Not quite the same thing…

Tokyo – Tsukiji Fish Market

DSC_0173

The Tsukiji fish market is an Experience, with a capital ‘E’. Officially known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, it could alternatively be named THE SEAFOOD JACKPOT. This is where Tokyo’s restauranteurs come to wrangle over 450 kinds of fish that will later end up in front of salivating foodies, chopsticks poised in anticipation, all around the city.

The tuna auction that happens in the early hours of the morning is particularly legendary, and attracts sushi lovers from all corners of the globe (this was actually the only thing we did all trip where there were more foreigners in one place than Japanese. Probably because the locals are more sensible and put greater value on their sleep. Or because they’ve all already done it).

The thing with the Tsukiji tuna auction is that if you’re going to go, you have to commit. None of this strolling up at 430 AM, you stragglers!! I explain: there are two timed entrances every morning (except for Sundays and the occasional Wednesday). One is at 525 AM and the other at 550 AM, and only 60 people are admitted to each. So you’d think, grand total of 120 spaces for something that happens pretty much every day, couldn’t possibly be a line up EVERY morning. You would be wrong.

DSC_0181

We were pretty nervous (Mike suggested just registering to bid for a tuna as surefire way to get in), so we arrived at 315 AM, and glory be, there were only about 20 or so people in front of us. We were given super fashionable lime green vests and herded into one half of a waiting room. By 4 AM, the second half of the room was filled with blue vests, and that was that. Despairing Americans could be heard wailing outside, and a suave Italian man tried and failed to find someone to bribe for a vest (seriously, true story. Get there early!!)

DSC_0202

Eventually we were led into the auction area, where rows and rows of GIANT frozen tuna were laid out. We watched from the center of the room, attempting to avoid the liquid by our feet (water? fish juice? couldn’t be sure), as experts rolled and sniffed bits of tuna meat, assessing the quality and making their bids.

DSC_0221

The whole thing lasted less than half an hour, then it was out into the rest of the market, which was already bustling with workers and carts as the sun peaked over the horizon. The thing to do after the auction is sushi breakfast in the outer market (the inner fish market doesn’t actually open until 9 AM, if you really want to stick it out). A quick tip for breakfast – everything we had read recommended a place called Sushi Dai, so we got in line and managed to stay upright when we were informed it would be a 4 hour wait. An hour and a half in, starving, covered in sweat and unable to hide from the sun, we took the advice of a nice man who mentioned his family had just eaten at a place right beside Sushi Dai and it was great (that’s what he said outwardly. Inwardly he added, YOU FREAKS).

DSC_0233

We bit the bullet and ended up at the restaurant next door – I can’t tell you how it compares to Sushi Dai, but I can say with certainty it was pretty darn delicious. When we finished it was around 8 AM, and I was seriously weighing the pros and cons of curling up for a couple winks beside a giant cushiony tuna…

Tokyo – Highlights

As I mentioned in my last post (well, the one before the post where I got distracted by the sushi), on our first day in Tokyo we did a full day tour to hit some of the main attractions (and to stop me from screaming into my guidebook. Tokyo is pretty overwhelming at first!) Our guide was chock full of fun facts and we packed a lot into the day, so it was an excellent introduction to the city (and I really like to know what I’m looking at, which doesn’t always happen with general wandering).

photo-3photo-4

 

 

 

 

 

 



The Meiji Shrine (entrance above) is one of the big players on the Tokyo shrine scene. The Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, used to visit the area a lot; after the death of the Emperor in 1912, the Shinto shrine was built to commemorate the changes made under the Meiji Restoration (which played a big part in the modernisation of Japan). Fun fact: Hillary Clinton visited the shrine on her first official visit as Secretary of State. Wonder if she drank all the sake (barrels above – but they’re said to be ’empty’!)

DSC_0095

Imperial Palace East Garden

Ah, the Imperial Palace. This is allegedly where the current Emperor and his wife live, but like Mount Fuji, I wasn’t able to see it for myself, so I can’t verify its existence (kidding, kidding – it’s only open two days a year). We were allowed into the East Garden, which was glorious and boasted all the staples of a Japanese garden: ponds, tea house, footbridges, bonsai trees. It has a sort of regal peacefulness about it, and you forget you’re in a major city – though skyscrapers are clearly visible from most areas. Classic meeting of old and new.

DSC_0151DSC_0150

 

 

 

 



The Asakusa neighborhood is right off the Sumida River and has a fun, colorful vibe – it has a great market area where you can get touristy souvenirs and delicious treats. Mike is a huge red bean fan so we found some daifuku (rice cakes with sweet fillings). The main attraction is the Sensoji (or Asakusa Kannon) Temple, Tokyo’s oldest, and Buddhist this time. Most Japanese identify with both Buddhism and Shintoism, deriving different elements from either religion to make up a greater whole.

DSC_0242

My guidebook described Akihabara as ‘an attack on the senses’ – this is where anime and otaku reign supreme. You’ll find bright neon lights and rows and rows of electronic goods (and, of course, your choice of maid cafes). We happened to be there during the day but I’m told night-time is when all the action happens (and when all the manga-loving teenagers come out to play!)

DSC_0262

Harajuku – Gwen Stefani says it best. Fashion, shopping, pigtails, it’s all here, especially when school’s out and the Japanese girls are out in force. A mixin’ and a matchin’, you can find all sorts of dainty, feminine numbers (and yes, Hello Kitty is around, but when is she ever not in Tokyo?)

I know what you’re thinking – there’s not a lot of sushi on this page! Until tomorrow…

Genki in Japan

Hello Tokyo

Hello Tokyo

Most workplaces in London become utterly anaemic in August, haemorrhaging workers to summer holiday spots like France, Spain and the ever-popular Cornwall. Last August I was slow on the uptake and spent most of the month hanging out with the office tumbleweed, so this year I was determined to do as the British do and get outta town!

In the world of airmile savvy frequent travellers, there is something called a mini round-the-world (rtw) ticket that you can cash in your aeroplan points for. I’m still kind of fuzzy on what the rules are for your destination plans – you kind of need to speak treasure map-ese to plan a trip that’s ‘legal’ ie acceptable to the airline gods. Luckily, my travel partner is fluent in such speak, so after months of planning we came up with this year’s summer holiday – a whirlwind week in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, followed by a week of not moving on a beach in Phuket, Thailand.

The Japanese have a saying that they use when greeting friends they haven’t seen in awhile: ‘Are you genki?’ It basically means, ‘Are you energised and full of life?’ We definitely were on this trip – hard not to be, in such fascinating places!

Japan is a country that a surprising number of my friends have been to or lived in, but many people I mentioned the trip to still view it as an exotic and adventurous travel destination. On arrival in Tokyo, I was immediately struck by how modern the whole city was, and yet utterly foreign at the same time (this thought might be personified by the Japanese toilet. A winner with many male visitors as an object of fascination).

DSC_0019

As London, Japan was in full summer holiday mode, so the majority of tourists we spotted weren’t Westerners but Japanese coming to visit Tokyo from all over the country. We may have missed cherry blossom season, but let me tell you, the parasols were out in full bloom. It was a HOT one – 30 degrees anywhere but a beach is a bit much, even for the sun dweller in me. I still haven’t figured out how the Japanese women do it – pristine hair and clothing and not a drop of sweat visible to the naked eye. Meanwhile, I gave up on any semblance of fashion and embraced the bird’s nest number the humidity bequeathed to my coiffure.

Aside from the heatwave, Tokyo was a veritable playground of a metropolis, with fun fashions, gastronomic delights and imperial history bursting out at you from every corner. Overwhelming at first, the city has so many different areas with their own flavour and attractions (though you can bet your bottom the common thread throughout each is the neighbourhood shrine. SO MANY shrines). Our first full day, we opted to do a tour, just to get our bearings, which was absolutely worth it. I’ll share the highlights in my next post – until then, stay genki!

DSC_0002

Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece (‘It’s a lot smaller in real life…’)

Stones + henges

Stones + henges

A couple weekends back, I went to go see what I’ve been avoiding since moving to London – the most famous pile of rocks to ever grace a field.

To be fair, ‘avoiding’ is probably too strong a word. I just never felt the need, kind of like how I feel about the London Eye – suuuuper touristy, overpriced and overhyped. While I still haven’t gone up the London Eye and probably won’t, I’m ever so glad to say I was wrong about the rock pile. I think once in your life, especially on a sunny, summery day, Stonehenge is worth the trek…and in all weather, I truly do think it fits the ‘masterpiece’ bill of this week’s photo challenge!

The occasion was a friend visiting from Toronto, staying with my Canadian friend Laura who is finishing up her Master’s degree here in London. We booked rail tickets in advance to Salisbury, which ended up being around £20 for a return journey (not bad for a couple hours’ ride). Upon arriving at the station, we (and the hoards of tourists who had the same idea) thought it’d be best to pay another £20 to the tour group – this includes your coach bus ride to and from Stonehenge, your admission AND a handy line bypass (so worth it, not to mention we felt like prehistoric monument VIPs…when does one ever get to say that).

While I do have to say that it looks bigger in pictures, it was pretty cool to see the stones and the henges up close and personal. There’s an audio guide to accompany your circling of the site, telling you all about its mysterious history (no but SERIOUSLY, what was it meant to be?? sunworshipping temple? creepy burial ground? Merlin’s clubhouse?) I have to say, while bits and pieces have been pillaged or stolen (…really? no one noticed this happening?) it’s in remarkably good shape for being 5000 years old. It is so, so mindblowing to think of its history and sheer longevity…for this, I say, it’s an undisputed masterpiece to me.

Having said all that……

….can we all agree that a TRUE masterpiece is any jump pic that manages to capture all people in the air at the same time?? Seventh time’s a charm!!

IMG_1084