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Kyoto - Japan

Kyoto – Japan

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Kyo, The Ancient City

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. (more…)

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Read more about the article Yokohama – Japan
Yokohama - Japan

Yokohama – Japan

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First port in Japan opened to the outside world

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. (more…)

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Read more about the article Nikko – Japan
Nikko - Japan

Nikko – Japan

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Never say beautiful until you’ve seen Nikko

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. (more…)

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Read more about the article Nagoya – Japan
Nagoya - Japan

Nagoya – Japan

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The Middle Capital

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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Read more about the article Tokyo – Japan
Tokyo - Japan

Tokyo – Japan

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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 number of 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 another 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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Read more about the article Polonnaruwa – Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa - Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa – Sri Lanka

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The second most ancient of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms

With our Sri Lankan trip coming to an end, we spared our last day before returning to Colombo to visit yet again another former Imperial Capital. The best preserved of all the ones we’ve visited in this trip so far, and perhaps one of the most impressive due to the level of conservation and big size of its constructions. This is a huge archaeological complex built in a long north-south orientation, but easy and good enough for a day trip as majority of tourists do. From our base in Anuradhapura, it was another great and easy commute here; and as I’ve been commenting in the other travel guides for Sri Lanka, having a base in either Anuradhapura, Dambulla or Kandy to visit the central region of Sri Lanka would be your best choice.

Polonnaruwa is for many a stop-over en-route towards the east coast and the beaches of Trincomalee. For us, unfortunately, time was our downside and while we could have gone for barely a day and a half to Trincomalee, we decided to instead return to Colombo and be on the secure side, have a great hotel, a beautiful pool and enjoy our time without any further sightseeing nor rush, but just having a well deserved rest (and high level of luxury too since we stayed at the Galle Face Hotel).

Visiting the site is really easy and while there are many constructions, the key ones are mostly located all along the main path heading south to north of the complex. A day trip is really the best decision you can make to come here because other than the archaeological park, there is nothing else in the “new” city of Polonnaruwa. As usual in sites like this, I strongly recommend you to follow a visit like the one we did which you can see below and where I’ve marked the sites by numbers in a perfect order.

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Read more about the article Dambulla and Sigiriya – Sri Lanka
Sigiriya - Sri Lanka

Dambulla and Sigiriya – Sri Lanka

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Largest and best preserved cave temple of Sri Lanka

Our next destination after such a fascinating day before at the archaeological complexes of Anuradhapura came to be another unforgettable day in beautiful and unique Sri Lanka. With so much to see in every corner on this rather small country, and with a tight agenda with unfortunately limited days, my original research for this trip was going to be visiting all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which in turn are the must-do’s when in Sri Lanka. So with both the Cave Temple Complex of Dambulla and the ancient Citadel of Sigiriya this would be a perfect day, easy to manage in the same day since the sites are small and nearby each others, with Dambulla taking you around 2 hours to visit no more.

Sigiriya Citadel itself, although way bigger place, it does not take too much time either. The biggest “hassle” are the stairs to reach the top of the rock which if you do when the sun is at its highest (anytime between 10.00am through 16.00pm) that could be really a difficult experience. Of course this depends on the time of the year you are visiting, if in dry or monsoon season, or the seasons in between them. For us, and to anyone if I can suggest, the best planification you could do is visiting Dambulla the first in the morning, have lunch, and then continuing with Sigiriya in the afternoon towards the end of the day.

Be very cautious about the wasp nests! Yes, believe it or not there are many cases of wasp attacks in Sigiriya. Their nests are in the rock, towards the upper part and near the staircase leading to the top, you will see them hanging, near the wasp warning messages around the dangerous areas. You have to be quiet as you ascend and not going off the main path, yet many careless tourists do not follow this and can potentially trigger an attack. There are specially conceived cages you can take shelter if this happens, however, not at the top nor by the staircase which is the worst place you can be should this happen. Take plenty of repellent with you in any case, not just to protect from the wasps, but to prevent from the mosquitoes, noticeable by the gardens down below. (more…)

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Read more about the article Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka

Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka

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Third capital of the Kingdom of Rajarata

On our next move in this trip through Sri Lanka, we change the base from Colombo to the central/north province of the country at Anuradhapura where we will spend the remaining days of our tour visiting the beautiful ancient city itself, and the nearby other major important destinations Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa: all of which, the Golden Triangle as it is known. Very busy days ahead of us, however, not that fully loaded and saturating in visiting sight after sight non-stop, but instead quite chill and relaxing, enjoying the mix of nature with ancient capital cities, palaces and temples. Each of the ancient cities we would visit make up for around half of the day touring, giving you the rest of the day some free time except for when visiting both Dambulla and Sirigiya which you do in the same day.

In my original plans before gathering proper information about Sri Lanka and the places I wanted to include in this tour, I though flying between cities would be the easiest way (as is for example, in neighboring India). I was wrong. From Colombo, the only city we could have flown was Sigiriya from where you can make the perfect base and visit all of the other cities I’ve mentioned before. A very convenient flight? Yes, at just 30 minutes, but the cost? £175 for a one way ticket per person! That is actually insane and nonsense; so the options, pretty much as is for the entire country, are moving by train or bus. Super reliable and in truth, trains were the best way to travel and enjoy the country.

Anuradhapura is the ancient capital of many different kingdoms, and is really overwhelming. There are so many archaeological remains, some of these over 2000 years old that no wonder this is one of the key places in the country in what relates to history and culture. The entire “Old Town” which is the archaeological park itself has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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