Kyoto, (Japan)

“Kyo”, “The Ancient City”, “City of History”

Considered as the most beautiful and fascinating city in Japan, it is a must visit for anyone coming to the country. The old royal capital of Japan, a place where time stood still and never passed. The place where you can feel how old Japan used to be and at a great scale since this is a large city. I must say how lucky I am for returning once again after 5 years and for staying here much longer time than how this trip was done back in 2012 as a day trip from Tokyo , not staying overnight and really rushing as much as we could to visit as many temples and shrines as we could since there is a horrible downside anywhere in Japan you are: the closing hours of the sights, especially the temples, shrines, palaces and castles, rarely beyond just 17.00pm! When in Kyoto especially, you will need to plan your day to start as early as possible as it will end very early too. Simply concentrate in what has opening times to be done the first, and leave what is enjoying walking through the streets for afterwards as it’s for example, the district of Gion.

Although not a big city itself, the construction is much different to that in Tokyo. Here you will find small houses with few floors, small streets in quarters divided by the main avenues, and no compact at all; therefore and if you do not have much time to spare, be ready for taking the public transport more often than you though, or taxis since the public transport does not cover as much as anyone would like. The sights are very widespread through the city so it’s a long way in between. Unfortunately there are only 2 metro lines, the north-south and east to west, meeting at a station right in the heart of the city near the Imperial Palace.

This is a city of temples, shrines and palaces. One after another, with one larger than the other and so on. Each of the complexes is not just about a building itself, but many of them. Visiting each takes your time so calculate well in advance because of the early closing times. Majority of these places are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, however you do not need to go to every temple in the city, it would be pointless and will actually saturate you and make you very tired even bored of seeing very similar structures. That’s why it’s best to include in your list the “must-do’s” among other sights, and see how this goes and what’s your spare time if any for anything else. Continue reading

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Yokohama, (Japan)

“The first port in Japan opened to the outside world at the end of the feudal Edo period”

Believe it or not, as possibly you have not even heard of this city before, it is the most populous in Japan, and also its municipality the largest in inhabitants, (Tokyo remains the largest city by metropolitan area inhabitants). However if you take a map, it is even hard to know and see where Tokyo ends and where Yokohama begins. All is a continuous maze of streets entirely built up, with Yokohama all along Tokyo Bay. The main and principal port in the country, a massive commercial hub of the Greater Tokyo Area. Now when you think about the very short history of the city and in what it has transformed itself in barely 150 years, that’s fascinating to see such an unstoppable growth, to the point of being even scary in the rise of population and building.

It was only June the 2nd 1859 when the Port of Yokohama officially opened to the foreign world marking the end of the feudal Edo period when Japan held a strong policy of national seclusion, having little contact with the outside world. In a matter of few years since then it quickly became the centre and main base for the trade, a truly international city where each district was home to different nationals, among them especially, the British and the Chinese. The city nowadays boats the largest Chinatown outside of mainland China, which is one of its major sights and tourist attractions.

Should you consider this city as part of your Japan tour? Two facts here, but it does basically translates to time. If this is what you have, then of course yes! Do not even hesitate. But secondly, treat this city as if it would be another district of Tokyo. You can easily consider it when preparing your plans for Tokyo because in half a day you could enjoy most of its sights. The port area and the Chinatown are the highlights, so yes, it’s a great idea to come because it’s a worthy trip. From our experience, although before coming to Japan I planned Yokohama as a half day trip, we ended up coming here from the early morning until late at night. We loved every bit, and did not expect to find so much to see and do. We did also stay for a nice dinner by the harbour with the thriving life, countless restaurants and bars, and the lights of the skyscrapers in the background. Continue reading

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Nikko, (Japan)

“Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō (kekkō meaning beautiful)”

Our second of the day trips from our base in Tokyo was for this incredible place, the first touch to the “real Japan”, although I’ve already known this when I went 5 years ago to Kyoto. Still in a way, much more secluded than the big metropolis, and completely surrounded by national parks and great scenery. It is everything combined, the beauty of the nature, the history of ancient constructions; shrines, temples and mausoleums and the people that makes this place one of the most remarkable landmarks in the entire Japan. Their people have a say for the city: Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō, (kekkō meaning beautiful, magnificent). They are right; see it for yourself and enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city.

Coming from “the big city”, Tokyo, 140 kilometres distance in between and where temperatures were at the maximum of the year, around 30 centigrade; here in Nikko it can all change quickly. Generally, slash it in half, usually around 15 to 20 max. Be prepared and know this beforehand, it can get quite chilly especially towards the afternoon and of course during the night. Also this is a high humidity region where rain is normal. Don’t get caught by surprise!. Yet bearing these facts, we were not impacted at all and in fact, we did struggle a little bit with the high temperatures and humidity. You’ve been warned anyway, please do check the weather in advance and keep a track with the daily fluctuations.

As for visiting the historic area, a day is well more than enough, hence why this is the perfect day trip from Tokyo, and if you were wondering, why the hordes of tourist buses coming for the day since the morning then disappearing later in the afternoon and almost no one by the evening. Perhaps if I could recommend a good tip, is getting some pre-packed food with you for your lunch. The reason is simple, once you are in the UNESCO area, within the 3 major shrines there is almost nothing to grab bearing the cafe at one of the museums, but gladly there are plenty of vending machines all over; still, heading back to the nearest area with some better choice is not straightforward but rather a great loss of time in having to do a back and forth. Continue reading

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Nagoya, (Japan)

“Chū (middle) + kyō (capital), the Middle Capital”, “Nagoyaka, meaning peaceful”

Our first destination from our main base in Tokyo, we come to one of the “newest” and thriving cities in Japan, Nagoya. A city almost entirely devastated during WWII, including its ancient castle that was being used as military barracks back in the time and reduced to rubble, then raised from the grounds to become the fourth largest city in Japan and one of the nation’s major economic centers, fast growing in every sense and not just in population but also in economy and industry home to some of the giants in automobile and railway with headquarters and production chains such as Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and the Shinkansen to name some; and a constantly rising tourist destination.

Although not a highlight for many tourists when visiting Japan, it is nevertheless a great day out whether you are coming from Tokyo or Kyoto. It’s merely an hour away in the Shinkansen bullet train train from any of these cities, and for anyone holding a Japan Railway Pass this route is included and you can benefit from the super high frequencies and comfort. With a day being enough for every sight, there is not really a need for any further time unless you are lucky enough of having plenty of days for touring and enjoying your time as you wish. However, for the average tourist either on their own or as part of a tour, a day is ideal. Prepare yourself for commuting by metro every now and then since distances are big once you are outside of the main core around the castle. After all, remember you are in a very large city when comparing it to European standards. Over 9 million inhabitants live in the metropolitan area.

So while this city is often bypassed by the tourists, it does really have its charm and beauty. Likewise Tokyo and Hiroshima, is very modern and new as we saw in part due to its past history of war. For us, it was a decision in between coming here or the area of Fujisan by the Mount Fuji, which in any case, you will see from the train window whenever you commute in the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line between Tokyo and the west (weather permitting). While it’s a great place for nature and landscapes, it’s also a difficult place to pre-plan because you never know what’s the weather going to be, but expect high chances of clouds to the point of almost not seeing the volcano.

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Tokyo, (Japan)

“Edo”, “Town for Otaku”, “Tō (east) and Kyō (capital)”, “The East Capital”

It’s been almost 5 years since the first and only only time I’ve been to Japan. It was October 2012 when we found great tickets on an odd open-jaw combination. London-RomeMoscow-Tokyo, and the return Tokyo-Moscow-London. Fun times back then, but a great joy in the overall trip. It was 8 of us, the very first time I was travelling with a greater group than 6 friends, but we survived and returned with the best experience possibly in our lives back in the days; and still, 5 years after and having visited 87 countries so far in the world, Japan ranks among the best top 5 in the list, no hesitation. In this occasion, 4 of us travelling, my family. My brother repeating with me, and my parents. We had spoken for a long now about when to go to Japan together, switched destinations all over many times; been to France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, China, South Korea… and finally Japan, including a stop-over in Doha to enjoy an entire day there and break the long journey; for me a returning place but for my family the first time in the Middle East.

Let’s start from the first experience: landing in Japan is landing in another world. Don’t expect the technology difference with the rest of the world is that big anymore, as contrary, they seem to be more old dated and fashioned in many ways. But their superb mentality, cleanliness, education and politeness will shock anyone. Not to mention the attention to detail and the perfect functionality of everything, like their transit systems, the busiest in the world, where everything just work without failures, on time, to the precision.

Tokyo will be for majority of the tourists coming to Japan, their main port of entry in the country, and so, the first place they will get to see. It is without any doubt, one of the most impressive and fascinating cities in the world, but not the place where to see the traditional and old Japan. For that, you will need to include in your tour some of the historical cities such as Nikko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara, Horyu-Ji, Himeji-Jo, Osaka and Hiroshima to name a few. All of these were in my plan, together with a visit to nearby Yokohama which you can treat as a “district” of massive Tokyo, although it is an entire different city.

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Tarangire and Ngorongoro, (Tanzania)

“The largest unbroken volcano crater in the world”, “The Garden of Eden”

If coming from incredible Zanzibar was already a top experience in life, coming for the first time to a safari this completes a fascinating trip to Tanzania. Not only a safari, but two. Two of the most spectacular safaris you can do in the world. However with great disappointment, we had to let it go the top safari in the plane, the Serengeti. This was unfortunately requiring for a longer stay and at least a 3 day safari. We did only count with 2 full days therefore that we had to make a decision. While Ngorongoro was out of question the MUST-DO, the second was more an option in what we wanted to see most. Tarangire would be our best bet. Why? Well, with Ngorongoro we knew we will see most of the animals and landscapes of truly Africa, but not so much elephant-wise, while for Tarangire, it is the park with the most elephants and the incredible huge baobab trees so, so characteristic of “real Africa”. Making this decision was quick. After all, the other option would have been Lake Manyara, also an spectacular national park by the huge lake. Costs were the same, including one or the other, that was not a problem not constrain.

For you to know, we are talking about an expensive business here. The entire trip to Tanzania is splashing money by the hundreds of $. You are squeezed from every side. Lucky for us, we found one of these flight error fare all the way to Zanzibar, so what we saved in the flights used it for getting the internal flights, the safaris and part of the hotels, otherwise this could have turned into a very expensive holiday considering we were not that many days altogether.

So switching our base in Zanzibar for that in Arusha was easy. It’s just an hour’s flight. To this point it all sounds easy, but it was not. We had to play with the flight times in order to maximize the time in Arusha for being able to arrive, spending the first night there and then have the following 2 full days free for both safari, returning to Arusha in the evening so having to stay overnight as the last flights leave for Zanzibar quite early in the afternoon, and then finally making the way back into Zanzibar the following morning. In our case, we needed the earlier flight possible to then enjoy Stone Town which we left for this very last day, before the early morning following day’s flight returning to Muscat and into London. Continue reading

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Zanzibar, (Tanzania)

“Persian Zang-bār: Black Coast”, “The Pearl of Africa”

Reaching our final destination (for now) after a flight tour through Europe and Oman, we finally touch down in Zanzibar. Our very first time in Tanzania, and actually, the first time in the “real Africa” as we’ve only been to Morocco, Tunis and Egypt. That has been a long way and too many hours to reach, however, it was actually in a very convenient and relaxed way first in Luxembourg City, then to Nancy for a day, continuing to Muscat via Munich where we had plenty of time to enjoy such a beautiful city, and now a very well deserved rest by some of the most paradisaical beaches in the world in a sumptuous resort. This would be, nevertheless, a grand arrival to such an impressive country where we will also explore some of the best safaris in the world: Tarangire and Ngorongoro; the city of Arusha, and although from the distance, the mighty Kilimanjaro.

Zanzibar is way more than an island, a small continent! You have everything in here, from the mountains to the sea, and the incredible forests and pure white sand beaches. And all within easy reach and short distances, with an impressive collection of architecture blending the colonial and traditional styles in its small and vibrant capital city, Stone Town.

We spent 3 days upon arrival in the island, where we were towards the north along the main beaches on the west, resting and enjoying the weather, the beaches and pools in the resort, and sightseeing in the afternoons around the surrounding nearby area and villages; and then a last day before our return flight for fully exploring Stone Town. Time-wise, it was perfect for us, although of course I would have welcomed to stay longer in such an impressive resort doing nothing else than chilling out; but our plans were for also experience for the first time in our lives a safari and getting closer to the “real Africa”. Continue reading

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Muscat, (Oman)

“Cryptus Portus (the Hidden Port)”, “Moscha Portus”

Continuing on our journey bound for Tanzania, this is our second intermediary stop after Luxembourg City and Nancy. Muscat it is then for the entire day since the very early morning until the very late at night departure on the next and final flight into Zanzibar. Although we knew this was not that much time for such a beautiful city, it did work great for us in being the first time in this incredible country, now looking forward to discover in full in the near future and not just its capital city, but the many historic villages and that incredible ochre landscapes of the mountains and the yellow of the desert amidst the blue of the Arabian Sea.

Muscat is in any case, a small city; “narrow” but very long, with a very small historic old town in a creek flanked in between the Portuguese forts among the bendy coast and the mountains. All is there to see and visit can be perfectly done in a day, and even less, but bear in mind a very important subject here: the heat. If you are coming between March and October, it is guaranteed to be over 30 degrees during the day. That sounds still OK, until you experience the over 40 degrees, very dry, June to August months. During the night it does not really drop much and remains stable at around 30, therefore if there is something I can strongly recommend you here is to rent a car. You cannot imagine how much you will appreciate this. Muscat, as opposed to what Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Kuwait are, it is still very laid back and living in the past. Public transports are only a bunch of buses, not even as efficient as the other neighboring countries’ capitals. There are no metro system nor air-conditioned bus stops. The heat simply feels like fire, and so it did in our stay making it quite uncomfortable if I am to be honest, even though we thankfully had a rental car.

Now, what at one hand is the down-side, in the other hand this translates in a very unique city. Forget the shiny skyscrapers and islands gained into the sea as for neighboring UAE or Qatar. Forget a “westernised” world and enjoy instead a truly unspoiled Arabian experience. Its architecture, its culture, the food, the people; our country number 86 and it was stunning and a wonder! Continue reading

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