Our adventure-style Honeymoon in Japan

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Ishigaki Island

Judging from my previous travels it probably comes as no surprise that when deciding on our honeymoon destination, we were looking for something a bit different.

Unlike our round the world trip, this one wouldn’t be on a shoestring (thanks to our generous wedding guests!), so the only limit was our imagination! Well that, and the fact we wanted somewhere with good weather in late September, beaches, mountains, culture and great food. So rather a lot of criteria actually.
Luckily there was a country waiting for us to discover that matched our criteria perfectly. Welcome to Japan: the ultimate adventure holiday destination. 
In 3 weeks we explored ancient capitals, modern metropolis’, secluded mountain valleys and remote islands closer to Taiwan than mainland japan. It never felt rushed or stressful, it was in fact the easiest holiday I’ve ever been on. This is a country where everything just works, and the people go out of their way to make you feel welcome. A country as diverse as japan has something for everyone in every season, here are my best bits to get you started but you can of course get in touch if you’re looking for something different.

Tokyo

This is where most people start their holiday in Japan, but not everybody stays long enough to soak in the vast amount of diverse experiences it has to offer. It is a sprawling, mysterious metropolis full of numerous microcosyms just waiting to be explored. You could easily spend a whole week here, but if you don’t have that much time I recommend doing some research and prioritising areas to go to, spending half a day in each if you enough energy. As this post is about our trip in general i’ll just highlight some of the lesser known delights that we enjoyed:

Yoyogi Park and the surrounding Kawaii culture 

Walking into this park makes you feel like you’ve entered an enchanted forest, surrounded by ancient looming trees it’s a wonderful place to catch your breath after wandering the streets of neighbouring Shinjuku and Harajuku. I recommend checking out the Hedgehog Cafe nearby and wandering down Takeshita Street for a look into the cute kawaii culture.
Takeshita Street
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Ueno Park and old Tokyo

This is another lovely park, very different to Yoyogi but equally delightful. It’s a lot more lively and has some nice shrines and corners to explore. After a wander around we headed to old Tokyo to walk up snake street, a quiet, meandering street that shows a different side to the skyscrapers and dazzling lights you’re used to. There’s a nice blog about it here. There’s a few cute cafes and boutiques along the way (my favourite was Petticoat lane at the north end), we also stumbled upon a great market worth checking out for some rustic charm. More info on that here.
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Akihabara

I had no idea how much I would enjoy this neighbourhood, I thought the days of playing video games were long behind me. But here, it’s a fascinating and thrilling adventure each time you step into a game shop. There is a level for each type of game; fighting games, retro games, racing games and my personal favourite: music games. Guitar Hero is just the tip of the ice berg, who knew. I had as much fun playing as I did watching the rows of dedicated Japanese teenagers with their special gaming gloves and earphones moving their hands at lightening speed on level 25 whilst I struggled with level 3. Even if you’re not into gaming I strongly recommend having a wander around this neighbourhood and heading into one of the bigger game shops like Sega to try a game out, you never know what you might find!
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Matsumoto

What we did: After a few days in Tokyo we were ready for some chill out time in the mountains. Our first stop was Matsumoto, home to one of Japan’s oldest castles. You only need 1 full day to explore here, the castle is the main attraction with plenty of quiet streets and nice shops to explore in the city too.

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We decided to stay out of the town centre at a Ryokan (traditional Japanese spa hotel with an Onsen – thermal baths – and meals on site if ordered in advance) as after some searching we were able to find one on the bus route (number 31) to central Matsumoto making transport cheap and easy (to the town centre cost about 2200 Yen) We stayed in this lovely ryokan which had a gorgeous private bath in our room, a nice restaurant down the road (with everything in Japanese but a lovely lady willing to explain the whole menu to you!) and a bus stop outside that takes you to town and also to Kamikochi if you fancy some trekking.

TOP TIPS: Take one of the free guides at the castle. They are mostly retired people who want to improve their English and will not accept payment or tips under any circumstances. They seem to do it just for the love of their city and walking around with our lovely guide made the experience so much better for us because she was so sweet and giggly! I also had the best Kastu Curry of the trip (and my life!) near the castle at Katsu Gen Honten , it’s not to be missed.

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Kamikochi

What we did: We were keen on doing some trekking whilst in Japan but nothing too strenuous. Kamikochi offered the perfect opportunity, situated between Matsumoto and Takayama two mountain towns we wanted to visit. As the transport in Japan is so reliable, we decided to take an early bus to Kamikochi, take a walk down the river on a well trodden trekking route leaving our baggage at the bus station, and heading to our hotel afterwards. Our Ryokan was gorgeous and sleeping on the traditional Japanese beds was way more comfortable that I’d imagined, it made me want to get a futon when I came home!

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TOP TIPS: It’s not an easy area to navigate without a car but it is possible. All of the hotels around here are Ryokan so it’s possible to eat at your hotel though you need to book meals in advance. We took a taxi to our hotel but it’s possible to do using buses with a bit of planning. Don’t count on your hotels being able to speak English either!

Takayama

What we did: We completed our whirlwind tour of the mountains with Takayama, a more frequented destination famous for its cute wooden cottage lined streets fit for wandering through all afternoon. There’s also a lot of temples to visit on the outskirts which we enjoyed more than the famous streets as we found them to be a bit too touristy. We tried some delicious Hida Beef here and soaked in the mountain air before heading to Kyoto.

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Hida Chinese Noodles Bar
Hauntingly beautiful cemetery on the outskirts of town
Hauntingly beautiful cemetery on the outskirts of town

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TOP TIPS: In the mountains the bus is much cheaper and more convenient that the trains and doesn’t take much longer. Planning your route in advance will allow you to compare train and bus prices and times, and help you decide whether its actually worth getting one of the all access train passes everyone recommends. It actually would have worked out more expensive for us to do that, so don’t fall into the trap and check out whether its really worth the expense for your trip or not! Chances are, unless you’re doing 3+ major cities in a week, it’s probably not worth it…

Kyoto

This city is on many people’s bucket lists when they visit Japan, famed for its Geisha culture, ancient temples and beautiful temple gardens (best viewed in spring or autumn). It’s a huge city with pockets of ancient culture to explore, pick timings and destinations wisely though as it can get hugely crowded. We spent 3 days here getting lost in alleyways (where we were lucky enough to spot some real geishas!) exploring the old town and temples and eating the best Gyoza in the world. Our day trip to Nara was excellent too, feeding the resident deer was absolutely bizarre and the Todai-ji temple is the most impressive I have ever seen, for the sheer size and age of it.

View from the Kodaiji Temple
View from the Kodaiji Temple
Todai-ji Temple, Nara Frederik Rubensson, Flikr
Todai-ji Temple, Nara (Frederik Rubensson, Flikr)
Making friends in Nara
Making friends in Nara

TOP TIPS: No trip to Kyoto is complete without a wander through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Tenryu-ji Temple, but what made our trip out here even better was forking out a bit extra to visit the Okochi Sanso Gardens at the end of the Bamboo Grove. Because you have to pay to get, there are far less tourists, giving you the piece of calm you were craving but probably didn’t think you’d get considering the sheer number of tourists around you. We found ourselves in the most beautiful Zen Garden practising calligraphy on tatami mats, just the two of us and a welcomed respite from the Bamboo Grove I can tell you.

Okochi Sanso Gardens, courtesy of Appie Verschoor on Flikr
Okochi Sanso Gardens, courtesy of Appie Verschoor on Flikr

Okinawa

The mysterious and magical islands of Okinawa are famed all over the world for having a population that lives to the oldest ages possible. What’s the secret? Well they didn’t let us in on it but from what I could tell, this is a place with a seriously laid back vibe so far away from hustle and bustle with plenty of fresh fish to keep them healthy. Choosing which island to visit wasn’t easy, they all seem to have different characters and advantages. I could do a whole separate blog post about that, but suffice to say we chose Ishigaki Island for the best waters for snorkelling and it’s chilled out atmosphere. We chose is instead of Okinawa Island which seemed much more touristy (it has an American shopping mall and lots of western food, a legacy from WW2) and were not disappointed. Our first hotel was on a wild beach on the east side, not a soul in sight but no deck chairs either! Our second hotel was on thevwemt side and had a pool and a lovely beach so we were spoilt for choice.

west side
west side
East side
East side

TOP TIPS: We found it very hard to navigate without a car which we knew would be a risk but decided against renting one as we weren’t planning on leaving the pool or beach! I would however advise getting one as you will be able to visit so many gorgeous places. It’s very easy to do and you won’t get lost as there’s only one road around the island!

So there you have our whirlwind tour of Japan, there are so many places we didn’t manage to get to, it is a country full of possibilities. What’s more, its completely different according to the season. We can’t wait to visit again in spring for the cherry blossoms, and in winter to go skiing! As always, get in touch if you want help planning your trip 🙂

 

 

The Alternative Guide to Northern Vietnam

Going on holiday to a popular country always poses the same problem: wanting to see the very best sights the country has to offer whilst not feeling too much like a tourist on the same tourist trail as everyone else. Balancing these two desires can be somewhat of a nightmare and at times is unavoidable. This is certainly true of Vietnam, an incredibly popular country to visit with some striking attractions including Ha Long Bay, the rice terraces of Sapa and the enchanting historic town of Hoi An. However this is a also a country well versed in tourism which unfortunately can result in a lot of scams, overcrowded attractions and pushy agents. This should absolutely not deter you, this is one of my favourite countries with so much to offer, you just need to know how to handle it! That’s where I come in.

Visit Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Ha Long Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay by Adam Straney on Flikr
Bai Tu Long Bay by Adam Straney on Flikr

Whilst Ha Long Bay is beautiful, many agents will fail to mention that it’s often overcrowded with boats and has a real rubbish problem. You can still find unspoilt corners of this adventure playground if you go with the right agency, but I preferred Bai Tu Long Bay just next door. It’s much quieter, cleaner and very impressive despite the limestone karsts being slightly smaller.

Avoid Sapa and head to Pu Luong National Park

Pu Luong by Nguyen Vinh Quang on Flikr
Pu Luong by Nguyen Vinh Quang on Flikr

Sapa is a truly unique destination for the impressive rice terraces that cling to the mountainsides. However to visit in peace is unheard of. The local Hmong People are infamous for their pushiness and guilt trips and you must be prepared to be firm. Personally I decided against visiting here because of this well oiled tourism racket and the fact that in May it wasn’t the best time to see the rice terraces anyway. For a more peaceful experience of the rice terraces my first recommendation is actually India, on the roads leading the Himalayas from Rishikesh, a dazzling experience that surpasses that of Vietnam by miles. But as this is a post about Vietnam, I suggest heading for Pu Luong National Park, lower in altitude and less mountain clinging, but impressive all the same.

Stay in Tam Coc instead of Ninh Binh

Tam Coc by Tuan Mai on Flikr
Tam Coc by Tuan Mai on Flikr

Another popular place to visit in Northern Vietnam is Ninh Binh, known for it’s limestone karsts that lie amongst the rivers ad rice paddies nearby. Traditionally people stay in the closest town of Ninh Binh which certainly has a rustic charm to it if you take the time to cycle through the back streets. But if the real reason you’re here is to experience the natural wonders, stay in Tam Coc instead which boasts much more beautiful natural views and direct access to the network of caves and rivers you came here to explore. With no ATMs nearby we cycled to Ninh Binh one hot afternoon (you must know where to go to make this a gorgeous ride instead of a life threatening one down a motorway!) which we thoroughly enjoyed but without a doubt, the experience was far more magical because we woke up each morning surrounded by lush green jungles and bird songs.

Stay on the outskirts of Hoi An

The ancient town of Hoi An by Chris Hoare on Flikr
The ancient town of Hoi An by Chris Hoare on Flikr

This UNESCO World Heritage ancient town is stunning, but completely crowded most of the time. This should absolutely not deter you, although I usually despise tourist traps this place is an exception. It’s like a fairy tale it’s so beautiful! To get some respite from the madness though, I suggest staying on the outskirts of town half way between the old town and the beach. This of course makes it easier to get to the beach if you desire, but also gives you wonderful views of the surrounding rice terraces (if you pick the right hotel and room), and a lovely bike ride into town each day which takes you through some of the more authentic parts of town.

Hanoi

Hanoi by Adam Straney on Flikr
Hanoi by Adam Straney on Flikr

This will most likely be the start or finishing point of your journey, and is abundant in delicious food. If you want to create your own food tour here instead of doing an organised tour (which I highly recommend!), simply take some of my recommendations from this previous blog post and download a maps.me vietnam offline map to mark all the places you want to go. It’s an easy town to get around, if not a bit chaotic, just keep your wits about you and savour the wonderful tastes!

The 6 Best Places To Eat In Singapore

One of the main activities in Singapore is eating. I learned this on our first day when we arrived at our first Hawker Centre, completely bemused by the sheer amount of stalls serving up all kinds of dishes I wanted to try. A family sitting near by sensed my curiosity and asked us to sit down with them and try their breakfast. A sort of crispy pancake that you dip into sugar and coconut. Delicious. The old grandma in the corner started motioning with her walking stick for her daughter to go and buy us a plate, she willingly obliged and a lovely brunch ensued. We were quite taken aback by their hospitality, and ever so grateful for it. I’d like to pay it forward and tell you about the most wonderful eating experiences I had in Singapore so you may enjoy it as much as we did. Continue reading “The 6 Best Places To Eat In Singapore”

Getting off the Beaten Track in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

Courtesy of Kirk Gillock
Courtesy of Kirk Gillock

When we arrived in Thailand last year we were faced with the same problem many tourists find themselves faced with when planning a trip to Thailand. We wanted a relaxing beach to go to that wasn’t too far away from Bangkok, that wasn’t too touristy (you can cross Pattaya off your list straight away) and not too expensive (that cancels out Koh Samet too!) Where could we go?

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What The Guidebooks Don’t Tell You About Travelling in Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar in March was an interesting one. It was not a country I immediately fell in love with, nor do I love it wholly and completely like I do most other countries in south east Asia. The reasons for this will become clear throughout this article, but I wouldn’t want any of them to deter you from travelling there. Being prepared and planning your trip well will reward you with a unique experience that you’re sure to want to repeat, and learning from our mistakes and understanding the country a bit before you travel will certainly temper your expectations.

Continue reading “What The Guidebooks Don’t Tell You About Travelling in Myanmar”

Searching for Tranquility in Northern India

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No matter how much research or planning you do before your holiday to India, nothing can prepare you for the culture shock of arriving in Delhi. Having been on a relatively tranquil holiday to Goa and Kerala 5 years ago, I thought I was prepared for a bit of jostling and staring on our trip to Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, but this was another level. I had planned our two week trip to be a taster of the royal state, plenty of palaces and forts and vibrant towns bursting with colour and street food. But it wasn’t long before the bubble burst and we realised it wasn’t going to be as easy as we thought. The noise of the horns beeping was unbearable compared to the blissful beaches of Thailand we’d been sitting on 2 days before. I was stared at relentlessly and shocked numerous times on the first day by the beggars and dying cows in the road. I was going to have to make some serious changes to this trip if we were to enjoy it.

(All photos in this post are from our trip, and mostly credited to my partner, Mickael Augello)

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I travelled for 10 months in 21 countries, these were my top 10 moments

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This was not an easy list to compile, but a fun one. We had so many great times on our trip of a lifetime it’s hard to pick just 10, but these are the ones that brought tears to my eyes, made me feel free and made the times when it was difficult worth it. All photos were taken on our trip.

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3 Days in Hong Kong: what to eat, explore and do in the evening

Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront
Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront

It’s not much, but it’s enough to get a taste and a glimpse of this surprising country. Each of the three main islands, Hong Kong, Kowloon and Lantau, have their own distinct character and charm. A day on each is plenty, it’s a small country after all. But you don’t want to rush around or miss any of the numerous highlights on this short trip, so follow my guide for the best eats, sights and treats.

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3 Temple Experiences You Can’t Miss in Southeast Asia

Sunrise over the plains of Bagan
Sunrise over the plains of Bagan

Asia is a continent of wonder to me, having grown up in England, and despite visiting on holidays in the past I felt compelled to spend longer here to immerse myself in the many different cultures within. About a year ago my partner and I decided to quit our jobs in London to explore the world, determined to find the most beautiful and secluded spots that have to be seen to be believed. For four hot months we hopped around South East Asia soaking up as much culture as we could; eating delicious food, learning the language, and trying to understand the histories that made these countries great.

I love to research and find the highlights for the counties I visit before I get there, and it was clear that the first three countries on our itinerary, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, all had impressive ancient temples to explore. I’d heard great things about Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, and a few travellers who like to go off the beaten track had mentioned the wonders of Myanmar’s Temples of Bagan and Thailand’s Sukothai Archaeological Zone. I couldn’t wait to explore all three sites and see for myself what each place had to offer and which one I would love the most.

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Hanoi Street Food: What to eat and where to eat it

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Hanoi – Vietnam

Whilst not all of my favourite street food in Hanoi are served on the street, this shouldn’t deter you as I have high standards, and sometimes that involves sitting on an adult sized chair in a ventilated room.

If you’re a serious foodie, it’s worth downloading an offline map like maps.me and saving your favourite places that you want to visit so you can find them more easily.

This is also a good time to mention that if a restaurant becomes popular, a copy cat will eventually pop up next door. If in doubt, always go to the busy one that isn’t vying desperately for your business.

Here’s my top pick of delicious dishes to be found in Hanoi, and my favourite places to eat them:

Continue reading “Hanoi Street Food: What to eat and where to eat it”