Category Archives: Travel

Down on the Bayou

Whilst in Louisiana, I’d definitely recommend taking a break from the frenetic music schedule and heading into the wetlands. We had a truly memorable morning kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou in Manchec Swamp. You can easily organise transport through various companies. Despite a mixed weather forecast (you can never trust the forecast in this State!), we were treated to stunning blue skies, which showed off the clear water, green algae, cypress and tupelo trees in all their glory. Two alligators were spotted, along with white egret, turtles and a blue heron. The number of photos will probably make you sympathetic to Paul’s claims he was doing most of the work!

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Festing In Place

After surviving fire, rain and even Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ Jazz Fest succumbed to the Covid-19 outbreak and was cancelled this year for the first time in its fifty-year history. A sad state of affairs. A great number of fans are, however, tuning into WWOZ (a fantastic non-profit, community-supported radio station in Louisiana), to listen to classic sets from the festival’s back catalogue in their gardens or living rooms. And some are going all out: dressing in signature garish Hawaiian shirts, barbecuing in hats and beads, baking beignets and cooking gumbo. Puts a smile back on your face!

It’s inevitably made me nostalgic for past Fests though. So I’ve dug out a few more photos (mostly my own, but with a few of the official ones thrown in). I’m listening to Trombone Shorty this morning and remembering jumping up-and-down excitedly to his closing set – after one too many frozen daiquiris – as the sun was going down over Tremé. Aaah…

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Pest and Buda

Returning to my archive to cover some trips that have been callously omitted. First off: the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Which I visited in 2012 with my dad. Remember 2012? When the world seemed bright and full of promise. London hosted the Olympics; the Mars Rover landed; the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee; a human* broke the sound barrier; Obama was re-elected…. Of course, some crap things happened too, but – on balance – a pretty good year!

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Anyhoo, late August 2012 saw us checking into a lovely hotel atop Castle Hill in historic Buda, on the west bank of the Danube. Now…I’ve discovered I can’t find my notebook from this holiday. So I won’t attempt to accurately recount the order in which we did things. And – possibly to most people’s relief – I can’t remember the names of any of the restaurants we frequented either. Although I do recall a very lovely goulash served in a hollowed out bread roll on the castle green. And the cake and pâtisseries from the famous New York Café on Erzsébet. The latter is lauded as one of – if not the – most elegant cafes in the world: a cavernous, ornate Italian renaissance building with stunning chandeliers, frescoes and marbled columns. A must, especially if you’re visiting the Jewish quarter in flatter Pest, a short walk across the Chain Bridge.

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Sticking with that area, then, a visit to Dohány Synagogue is well worth it. It’s the largest in Europe, with a capacity of over 3,000. A beautiful Moorish Revival structure, it’s the centre of Neolog Judaism. Not far away, I’d also recommend the Iparművészeti Múzeum – the Museum of Applied Arts, a stunning Art Nouveau building with bright green tiled roof and an interior comprising Islamic, Mogul and Hindu design. It’s full of interesting furniture, textiles and glass-works. There were also various manuscripts on display when we visited. Hungarian is a Uralic language, one of only a few non Indo-European languages in the world, and in the same family as Finnish and Estonian. So it was interesting to learn a little more about it.

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On one of our afternoons we also visited the City Park, packing our swimwear to spend a few hours at Széchenyi Baths. This is, I believe, the largest spa bath in Europe, with three large outdoor pools and numerous indoor medicinal baths. Built in 1913, the vivid-yellow Modern Renaissance building is fed by natural hot spring waters. In a city famed for its spas, dating back to the Roman settlers and expanded by the Turks in the 16-17th centuries, this is one of the most accessible and reasonably-priced spas, promoting a range of aqua therapies. It’s certainly a great way to chill out after a morning of heavy sight-seeing!

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On another day we found ourselves on Margitsziget (Isla Margarita), a pedestrianised haven in the middle of the Danube. The 2.5km long island contains the ruins of a convent, lovely gardens, an octagonal water tower hosting temporary exhibitions and some beautiful – and refreshing – fountains. It was an incredibly hot day when we visited, and we needed frequent stops for ice-cold drinks, ice-creams and slushies. I think on the same day we’d climbed the dome at Szent István Bazilika, to take in the views across the city. So had arrived at the park already exhausted. Szent István (St. Stephen) was the first King of Hungary, and his “incorruptible” right hand can be found in the church’s reliquary. Our trip actually coincided with St. Stephen’s Day (20th August), a national holiday celebrating the foundation of the Hungarian state. The streets were decorated; we saw an aerial show over the impressive Parliament Building; there were various craft fairs; and a huge firework display in the evening.

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The final two things I remember visiting in Pest were Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) and Vajdahunyad Castle. The former is a large crescent plaza with statues of the seven chieftains of the Magyars from the Byzantine Empire and a tall column atop which the Archangel Gabriel sits, holding the Hungarian holy crown. The latter is found on the edge of City Park and was built in the late 19th century as part of a Millennial Exhibition celebrating a thousand years since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin (i.e. the founding of Hungary). There’s a very pretty boating lake around the castle, and it’s particularly attractive at golden hour, just before the sunset.

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Back over the bridge in Buda, there’s plenty more to explore. The ancient capital sits proud, looking down on the river and the modern city beyond. It’s Old Town streets are full of colourful houses, boutiques, cafés and little galleries. Uri utea (Gentleman’s Street) is a particularly nice thoroughfare, but it’s worth a longer wander around the cobblestoned area. As well as strolling the Várkerület District, home of Buda Castle.

The castle was first built in the 13th century to provide protection from the Mongols. Today’s 18th century incarnation is a Baroque Palace complex, containing the National Library, Hungarian National Galley and Budapest History Museum. The whole area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My favourite part of the Palace was the enormous Mátyás kútja (Matthias Fountain), outside of which we caught the end of a classical concert on an evening stroll.

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The wider Buda area also boasts Mátyás-templom, an 11th century church that’s considered one of the most unique on the continent. A mixture of Neo-Gothic architecture with a healthy dose of Romanticism and Orientalism thrown in, the building was host to the coronations of Hungarian Kings for centuries. During it’s varied history, it was used as a mosque for 150 years by the Ottoman Turks, and later owned by Jesuits, Franciscans and Catholics. Stunning both in daytime and illuminated at night.

There are a couple of important statues nearby. Holy Trinity commemorates the people of Buda who died from two outbreaks of the Black Plague, which swept Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The statue itself was meant to protect the city, following the first outbreak, but when the pestilence returned they built it bigger in order to make doubly-certain next time. There’s a also a huge bronze statue of Szent István riding his horse.

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The latter is located within the absolutely glorious Halászbástya (the Fisherman’s Bastion). So named because the stretch of castle wall on which it’s built was said to be protected by the Guild of Fisherman in the middle ages. By far my favourite spot in the city: the Neo-Romanesque fairy-tale castle has multiple white turrets, arches and lookout terraces with panoramic views over the River Danube and across to the Parliament Building. It was from here that we watched the fireworks and I could have happily wiled away the hot afternoons reading on the Bastion’s walls.

Oooh, I just remember we also went on a boat trip down the river. Not sure how this fit into the schedule, but there you go. Basically, I’d heartily recommend a long weekend in this handsome city!

*I remembered (i.e. googled) that this was Felix Baumgartner. FYI.

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The Legacy of Little Boy

Day 12 of our trip to Honshu. We disembarked the bullet train late morning and made our way to the most conveniently-located of all our accommodation on the trip: Hotel Granvia, a soulless glass edifice attached to the Shinkansen Line at Hiroshima’s central station. We had (rightly, it turned out) prioritised ease and accessibility over interest, given it was only a two-night stay. It was also, I have to admit, quite nice to have the option of a “Western style” breakfast for a change. As much as I was loving rice porridge, mackerel, rose-hip jelly, onsen tamasgo and other delights, I’d started to crave a bacon butty.

Dropping our bags at reception, we made our way effortlessly to the Peace Memorial Park via the city’s efficient tram and train network. So far, so good. But there endeth our insouciance. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: it was a tough afternoon. As soon as you see the carcass of the A-Bomb Dome, a quiet, persistent forlornness descends and refuses to be shaken. Even on the sunniest of days. I walked through that park with legs of lead, taking in the dreadful certainty and enormity of man’s propensity for evil.

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The museum, though excellent, is overwhelming and too much to fully take in on one visit. And in the cavernous, subterranean Peace Hall, I allowed tears to come, given words would not. Only the crowds of children handing out small origami cranes allowed, finally, a sense of lightness to return. Although their poems and songs, recited at the Children’s Memorial at the direction of their teacher, left me choked up again. It’s a strange irony that the atomic bomb was nicknamed Little Boy, given the thousands of infants who died, either at the time or from leukaemia in the aftermath. The Memorial is a fitting dedication to the young victims of the atrocity, adorned with hundreds of brightly coloured and patterned cranes.

I was pretty ignorant of the significance of the crane before our visit. The Japanese refer to it as the “bird of happiness”; with its wings believed to carry souls to paradise. Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded a thousand origami cranes, your wish would come true. Sadako Sasaki – a young girl who died from radiation-induced cancer ten years after the bomb – famously set about making a thousand cranes from her hospital bed using medicine wrappings, the paper from other patients’ get-well presents, and anything else she could scrounge together. Accounts differ as to whether she completed the task or whether her school friends finished for her, posthumously. But the story has become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times.

A bath and nap were needed next, before a calming drink on the 22nd floor of the hotel. It was only then that I felt able to discuss what we’d seen and how it had made me feel. I’m not naïve enough to have expected to be unaffected by the experience, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a gut punch it would be. Luckily, I had Paul to help me shake off the day and ground myself back in the present. Helped enormously by a fantastic barbecue fish meal and delicious range of sakes at Guttsurian near the port, later that evening.

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Our second day was spent on Miyajima Island, part of the Setonaikai National Park, just a short ferry trip from the city. This is where you find the Giant “Floating” Torii Gate, which adorns many a postcard. Arriving at low tide, we were able to walk on the beach up to, and under, the colossal structure. Mightily impressive. But much more of a sight to behold in the evening, partially submerged by the sea. More on that later!

There’s so much more to Miyajima than the Gate, however, and if you fail to go up Mount Misen then you’re really missing out. Our trip up the mountain started at Daishō-in Temple in the foothills, where you are directed to climb the pagoda and pray at the shrine for an end to nuclear armament. As well as the usual halls and statues, the beautiful temple complex includes a cave filled with 88 icons representing the temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan’s fourth largest island). Another unusual feature is the row of spinning metal wheels inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures) that line the stairs of the temple. Guests are encouraged to turn the inscriptions as they walk up, which – it is said – has the same effect as reading them. So, without any knowledge of Japanese, you can benefit from the blessings that the reading of sutra is believed to bestow.

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Having stopped to buy an antique sake jug from a market stall, and a freshly-baked Momiji (a maple-leaf shaped sweet bean cake, popular on the island), we next continued up through Momijidani Park to the cable car station. The journey up the mountain proceeds in two stages, with the second cable ride really quite high (and not a little hairy). Disembarking at Shishi-iwa, we continued on foot to the summit. I’m struggling to recall now, but I think it was about a 20-30 minute walk. En route, we stopped at Reikado to see the “eternal flame” – disappointingly not the one made famous by The Bangles, but one supposedly ignited by Kobo Dashi over a millennia ago. It was from this original flame that the one in the Peace Park was set ablaze. For more on the legend of Kobo Dashi, see my separate blog post Monks, Spirits & Fire.

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Atop the Observation Deck at last, we marvelled at the stunning views from Misen’s peak…and took many a panoramic photo of the shewn boulders, tree canopy and surrounding islands. With the sun beating down, I distinctly remember scanning my surrounds and thinking what a lucky bugger I was!

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Rather than return by aerial tramway, we walked back via the Daisho route. There are about three or four different trails you can choose from for your descent – I can’t comment on the others, but Daisho was very pleasant. Mostly shaded woodland, the path also meanders past a lovely waterfall. About an hour into the otherwise solitary ~1.25hr stroll, we passed a succession of hardy souls making the ascent, each one asking (with hopeful anticipation) if they were nearly at the top. Struggling to hide their disappointment on learning they were far from the half-way mark, one (I would say rather sensible) woman glowered at her boyfriend and turned on her heel, heading in the direction of the cable car. On a hot day, I would definitely advise doing it our way around.

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Back at the base, we treated ourselves to a purple sweet potato ice-cream (nicer than it sounds) and a beer (or shochu cooler, in my case) from the local brewery, before visiting Itsukushima Shrine on the water’s edge. By now close to high tide, we navigated the creaking wooden walkways teetering on stilts, admiring the gorgeous views out to sea. Consisting of a main hall, prayer building and noh theatre stage (on which people gather at dusk to watch music, dance and dramatic performances), Itsukushima has been a holy site since the 12th century. Compared to many of the other temples and shrines, there’s not too much of interest to explore here. But the wow factor follows sunset.

After sating ourselves with a delicious soba okonomiyaki, we returned to see the shrine and “floating” torii illuminated and dozens of lanterns springing alight. Dangling our feet over the pier, we watched the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon and the scene gradually become more and more magical. Free-roaming sika deer meandered across the beach, stopping occasionally to steal a guidebook or nibble crackers; and I sighed deep contentment. A wonderful (near) end to our holiday.

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The Big Mikan

Landing at Haneda airport at 6am is a discombobulating experience. The airport was fairly quiet, neither of us had managed much sleep on the plane, everyone seemed to be wearing surgical face masks (and this was way before the current Covid-19 outbreak), and all the signs were confusing. Luckily, Paul was prepared. Adeptly navigating the building using a site map downloaded back in England, he sourced our pre-ordered portable wi-fi and JR passes with charm and easy. Whilst I groggily bumbled around, trying not to slow him down.

Joining early morning commuters on the monorail to Hamamatsucho, we somehow managed to change onto the Yamanote line and arrive in Shibuya without issue. So far, so good. Having expected to get hideously lost, I have to admit that the hubby’s preparation paid off. With several hours before we could check into our Air BnB, we left our luggage in lockers at the 109 Building (top tip!), posed for photos on the famous scramble crossing and picked up a pastry for breakfast.

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Feeling a little more alive, and a lot more amenable to Tokyo, we embarked on our first day of sight-seeing, heading away from the bustle of Shibuya and up to the calm serenity of Meiji Jingū Shrine. It was a really hot day and the route took us alongside and over large expanses of tarmac, but the slog was worth it. The impressive complex is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, and is a great introduction to the city. Walking under big, stone torii gates and past rows of kazaridaru (sake barrels) – serving as decorative displays honouring the gods – we found ourselves arriving at the shrine just as a wedding procession was passing through.

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Learning that you need to wash your hands, rinse your mouth and spit out before entering a shrine, and that bow-bow-clap-clap-bow (or ni-rei ni-hakusyu ichi-rei, in Japanese) is the appropriate order when showing gratitude to the gods, we felt duly set up for the rest of our trip! Having explored the buildings, we walked through the gardens and down to the koi pond, noting the requisite heron and turtles. See my Kyoto blog for a fuller explanation of their significance in Japanese lore.

After all that walking, we were hungry again, so walked down Omotesandō (a popular tree-lined shopping street) and tucked into grilled gyoza and miso cucumber at Harajuku Gyouzarou. And, for good measure, some kaarage chicken at Commune 2nd, a nearby street food yard (think Dinerama, if you’re a Londoner).

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Wandering the cable-strewn backstreets, we popped out at Takeshita Dōri – the teenage epicentre of Tokyo. I can’t quite describe how bonkers this street is: it’s full of candy-floss eating, selfie-posing princesses, mingling with platform-trainer-wearing punks and leather-attired goths, all of them eating bubble-gum pink ice-cream and disappearing into mysterious apartments advertising photo ops with litters of mameshiba puppies. Yeah, me neither! You can find some of my photos of the area at Nihon no seikatsu and in my food blog 29 Seasons of Tofu. It couldn’t be more different to the shrine we’d visited earlier, with it’s solemn, votive-wielding pilgrims. But that’s the beauty of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular: the ultra-modern and the ancient happily co-existing.

Needing a rest, we navigated back to the scramble crossing, picked up our luggage and attempted to find our Air BnB, which – with the aid of our protable wi-fi – we were assured was very close. Another tip for you: do not attempt to short-cut through the Mark City Building to reach…anywhere! After our fourth attempt at finding a top-floor exit and more trips up and down escalators than anyone needs in a lifetime, we finally emerged – sweaty and grouchy – vowing always to take the ‘long route’ from now on. Luckily, the flat really wasn’t far from that point, tucked away on Sakuragaokacho. Like most accommodation in Japan, it was TINY. But had a comfy bed, and that was all that mattered. We would stay in much more impressive home-stays and hotels on the rest of our trip, but had judged – correctly – that Tokyo wasn’t the place to bother. We hardly spent any time at all in the flat.

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In the evening, we explored the neighbourhood and ate amazing yakiniku (Japanese barbeque) at Han no Daidokoro Bettei. Again, I won’t repeat what’s in my food blog – so check that out for a full description and photos.

The next morning saw us in Tsukiji Market. What a fantastic place! It’s exactly what I wanted it to be: crowded, vast, smelly, colourful, rough-around-the-edges, and absolutely bursting with fantastic food stalls, offering delicacies I’d never tried before (and some I possibly won’t ever try again!). The fresh, grilled eel slathered in sticky soy was particularly good; as was the octopus and cabbage croquette, black pig dumpling, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette made in traditional tin skillets); scallops in miso; dried pond fish, nikuman (pork bun), tuna sashimi and matcha ice-cream. You need to be a little assertive, pointing clearly at what you’d like and thrusting money at the stallholders. Otherwise, you get shouted over by the hundreds of Japanese locals and tourists who are just as eager to try everything.

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It’s also worth exploring the inner market, where the tuna and other wholesale fish auctions take place each morning. You have to be there super-early to witness it in action – we didn’t make it this time – but it’s definitely worth popping into anyway, to catch the military wash-down and clean-up operation.

Close to the market are a couple of shrines worth poking your nose in and the beautiful Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien gardens. Like so many of the parks and gardens in Japan, I’d definitely like to return to see at its peak: with autumn foliage or adorned with cheery blossoms. Whilst generally green and lacking flora at this time of year, the Edo-period expanse was a welcome respite and the central pond, traditional tea-house and vantage points over nearby Ginza district were great.

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From Hama-rikyū, you can catch a waterbus to Asakusa. Cue Pitch Perfect jokes (you’ll know if you know). The trip up the river is interesting enough in itself, the boat passing by factories, high-rises and gleaming glass edifices – a bit like a trip on the Thames to Canary Wharf. But, it’s the destination that’s the killer: Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa. Completed in 645, it’s Tokyo’s oldest temple – a bright red, busy daily place of worship smack bang in the middle of a commercial district. Legend has it that two brothers “caught” a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, whilst fishing in the Sumida River; and even though they tossed the statue back, it kept returning to them. So the temple was built in honour of Kannon.

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You enter through Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate), proceed down Nakamise – a centuries’ old, 200 meter long shopping street – and reach the second gate, Hozomon, through which you find the main hall, shrine and five-storey pagoda. People flock here to ‘bathe’ in holy smoke from the massive incense burner (the jokoro), believed to heal wounds, and to give thanks to the goddess. I’d have liked to stay longer and see the complex illuminated at sunset, but it had already been a long day…

With aching legs, we made our way home to Shibuya, to shower and change for dinner. A very swish and tasty meal at Argile in Ginza (highlights being the crunchy red snapper with dashi and the barbary duck with shitake) was followed by digestifs at Bar Evans and Fire, and an obligatory Japanese whisky in Nonbei Yokocko (‘drinker’s alley’), at a bar so tiny only about three people could fit in at any one time.

Day three in the city, our last before heading off to Kyoto, was mainly spent taking in some modern art and culture in Roppongi. Admiring the stunning National Art Center, visiting a sensational exhibition of Japanese Architecture at the Mori Art Museum, and taking in ‘Tokyo City View’

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Later in the afternoon we visited the district of Daikanyama, often referred to as the Brooklyn of Tokyo: all cute coffee shops, micro-breweries, chocolate shops and various buildings featured in the Wallpaper guide. If I visit again, I’d choose to stay in this neighbourhood. Whilst there, we also popped into the Kyu Asakura House, a private ‘mansion’ residence built in the early 20th century, surrounded by a roji-style garden with sculpted bonsai, bright moss covered tree roots, stone lanterns, and colourful flowers and shrubs. Would certainly recommend a visit.

Our final evening was spent chasing the elusive perfect yakitori in Omoide-Yokocho (‘Memory Lane’), a maze of little alleys near Shinjuku station (officially the scariest in the world). Then drinking too much rum and whisky in JBS, a tiny bar run by a jazz, soul and blues vinyl enthusiast who doesn’t seem to speak a word of English (or chooses not to). An odd experience, since he seems to close the bar at whatever time he chooses, and admit or refuse people at whim. We were obviously deemed acceptable, but a backpacker who arrived 30 minutes later, and had clearly sought the place out, was turned away. Not complaining though: it adds to the secretive allure of the place. A great way to end our stay in the city.

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