Category: places (page 1 of 18)

Tokyo take two

I’ve just got back from a second trip to Japan. We last went in 2009 (which I blogged about on its own little microsite, here) and have been itching to go back ever since. This time we just stayed in Tokyo, but the wonderful transport network means you can explore the sprawl of the city and further afield very easily, so still see quite a diversity of what Japan has to offer.



Having been before, we had a good idea of neighbourhoods to revisit and new places to check out. We stayed in Yoyogi, between Shinkjuku and Harajuku, and spent a fair bit of time in these areas. They are great areas for shopping, bars, eating and generally walking around, getting lost and finding fun stuff. Pictured above is taco rice, which I got a bit obsessed with hunting down and eating at any opportunity, and the Craftheads bar in Shibuya where Josh died and went to beer heaven.





Some more personal favourite areas from last time that we revisited: Kichijoji in the north-west, which has a lovely park (containing the Studio Ghibli museum, which we didn’t go back to and slightly regretted), lots of Buddhist vegetarian lunch spots, and a ladder of charming side streets where you’ll find boutiques selling clothing and ceramics and cute coffee shops. Yanaka, Tokyo’s old town to the north, is similarly charming with little shrines, more flowers, and plenty of coffee and soba shops to dip in and out of. We also revisited Akihabara, the electronics hub and home of the choicest range of videogame arcades, and of course the textile district, Nippori, for some fabric shopping.






A new area to us that we fell in love with was Shimokitazawa, a short metro journey west of Shinjuku. It’s a dream suburban neighbourhood filled with record and flower shops, izakayas, bars and coffee shops. A wonderful place to spend a day rambling round, and the evening in a little standing-only natural wine bar or ramen joint.









Further afield we spent a day in Ome, a couple of hours north-west of the city. We spent an enjoyable morning in its mountainous forestland, learning about wasabi cultivation on an Airbnb Experience, then afterwards took a stroll alongside the Tama River to Sawai, where the traditional Sawanoi sake brewery is located. We took a free tour of the brewery (in Japanese!) which included sampling their delicious sake and buying a couple of bottles to bring home. The on-site garden restaurant, specialising in tofu dishes, looked excellent too though we didn’t stop there to eat. It’s amazing that areas like this are included in the sprawling Tokyo metropolitan zone but feel like you’re a million miles away from the city. Tokyoites are very fortunate to have access to such stunning natural landscapes on their doorsteps: our Saturday train was full of hikers.









Finally, we spent our last full day in Kamakura, a coastal town on the south of Honshu (Japan’s main island). Again a quick train ride from Tokyo past Kawasaki and Yokohama, it’s an amazing base for exploring some of the oldest temples in Japan, including ones with beautiful Zen gardens, attached bamboo groves, tea houses and giant bronze buddhas. The town itself is gorgeous too with lots of cafes and craft shops. You can chug on a little further down to the beach, but we didn’t make it this time.

Just a few of the bits and bobs I brought home and cards/beermats I picked up in cool places. I also bought a bunch of T-shirts, ceramics and loads of cat-related stuff.

Quick links:
– Our Airbnb and hotel: we saved cash by staying in the little Airbnb most nights, then splashed out on a super-luxe hotel for the last two nights.
Google Map with specific places to check out in all these areas.
Instagram for more photos! (I carry my phone more than my camera now, hence the gaps in what these pics cover…)

If you have any questions about visiting Japan, feel free to ask. I think it’s such a great holiday destination as despite the language barrier it’s so easy to get around, the people are excellent, amazing food and drink, it’s just as clean and well-ordered as you’d expect and you can have such a diversity of experiences in a relatively short time.

Folk art in Valladolid

Our final stop in Mexico was a couple of days in the lovely central-Yucatán town of Valladolid. We didn’t intend to stop off here at all before we left the UK, but we realised it was a long trip back from Mérida to Cancun airport so decided to break up the journey. Ado bus and accommodation swiftly booked and we were ready to stop over.



I’m glad we did, because Valladolid is a really charming town. It’s much smaller than Mérida and hence much easier to negotiate by foot without getting overwhelmed by crowds or heat. Although it’s not overtly touristy we saw many more foreign visitors there, mainly because it’s used as a convenient stop-off point for visiting three of the most important Mayan ruin sites in the Yucatán: Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Ek Balam. We didn’t have time for any of those (and had already visited the ruins in Tulum plus on our previous trip to Oaxaca) so spent our time in the town itself.

Another bonus for Valladolid is it has a cenote right in the middle of town, Cenote Zaci, which we popped to as soon as we dropped our bags at our guesthouse. It was larger than the Sotuta de Peon cenote and semi-enclosed as opposed to a full-on cave. The water wasn’t quite as enticingly clear and was filled with slightly creepy sightless black fish. But it was nice to experience two quite different types of cenote, and we had some nice face-sized empanadas in the adjoining cafe.



After that we pottered around town. Shopping was much better than in Mérida or Tulum, with lots of sweet souvenir and food shops. Mayan ladies manned market stalls in the zocalo, selling textiles, painted ceramics and other handcrafts. There’s a particularly beautiful diagonal street leading from the centre to the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena; worth a walk although we didn’t go inside the convent.





The main municipal market was lovely to wander around too. It’s where Hartwood chefs travel to source their restaurant’s ingredients, and you can see why – all the bounty looked incredibly fresh and inviting. We stocked up on herbs, spices and hot sauce from the laid-back ladies on the stalls.

On the final morning, we were fortunate to walk by Casa do los Venados just as a tour was starting. It’s the amazing personal home and Mexican folk art collection of American John Venator. He’s built his collection from all over Mexico over the last fifty years, and then painstakingly restored this Valladolid townhouse over twenty to live in and house his treasures. After pressure from his friends he decided to open his casa to the public for morning tours, in exchange for a charitable donation from guests.








It was quite dazzling to walk around and see all this detailed, colourful, decorative art work in a truly living residence.



My favourite was the Frida suite, though it was harder than usual to pick my ‘what would I choose to take home’ game: the intricate Frida shrine, the mescal-swilling devils, the skully feast tableau in a shell-encrusted box?

Since I got back and gassed on about the trip, and shared a bunch of in-progress photos on Instagram, it’s really interesting to hear people say they have this preconception of Mexico as either a dusty backwater or a dangerous gangland. For me, I’ve now had two amazing holidays there and I absolutely adore it. It’s a huge country and there’s so much to see, buckets of ancient history and regional diversity, superb food and drink, endless nature and culture… frankly, now I’ve seen Casa de los Venados, I’m all but plotting premature retirement plans.

Flamingoes in Celestún

Mérida is close to the western edge of the Yucatán peninsula. If you head due west to the coast you reach Celestún, a biosphere reserve and wildlife refuge. We did a daytrip there the day after we arrived, via a driver that our hotel arranged.

The big draw for Celestún is to see the resident flamingo colony, who live and feed in the mix of fresh and salt water lagoons. On arriving in Celestún, the local fisherman transport you over the lagoon in their boats to the spot where the birds hang out.












We were not disappointed; we saw hundreds of the fellas swooping around, feeding on the pink krill visible below the surface of the water giving it a rosy tint. It was pretty amazing.


After that the boat took us through some mangroves; unlike in Sian Ka’an these ones looked gnarly and dead, and the wood had dyed the water an eerie shade of crimson after a recent period of poor weather. In Josh’s words, it looks like a place Harry Potter would have to go to hunt down a Horcrux.


Inside the forest is a freshwater spring where you can take a dip in the water. It’s pretty funky to swim in such a murky sepia-stained pool with loads of little black fish for company and the twisted mangrove roots to manoeuvre around. Josh didn’t fancy it but I never miss a chance to do something weird.


Afterwards we drove to the main town of Celestún for some lunch. There’s a fairly nice beach, though this side of the peninsula opens onto the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Caribbean so it’s not as crystal clear as Tulum. The town itself is quite sweet with the typical Mexican colours, market and central square to wander around.

Mérida, Mexico 

After a few days beach-bumming it up in Tulum, we caught the 3.5-hour long Ado bus to Mérida, the capital city of the Yucatán region.




Mérida definitely doesn’t feel like it’s geared up for a mass of visitors like Tulum and Oaxaca are. It’s not slick, brand new or heavily restored; instead it’s a little dusty, faded and slightly hard to acclimatise to (literally – it was also scorching hot!). On the streets and in the bars are mostly Mexican people: locals plus visitors from other part of Mexico who come for the Yucatánean food and weather. It took a couple of days to settle in and enjoy its charms.

We got quite disoriented on our first night, arriving just before dark and taking a stroll into downtown. We must have timed it perfectly for work kickout time on a Friday because the streets south of the zocalo (central square) were heaving, hectic and insanely loud, with the shops blasting out music and people trying to get around the traffic and each other. But if you escape the downtown area a few blocks either way you’re back on streets that feel much more chilled out and quiet, even semi-derelict. The city is a suburban sprawl of over 1 million people but it’s quite pleasant to walk around these quieter streets and reach the occasional park or square where the action congregates. The block layout and street numbering system make it simple to navigate, too!




Aside from a day trip to the coastal biosphere reserve of Celestún (about which more later) we mainly walked those blocks a lot, bumping into shops, restaurants and markets to dip into. It was especially nice to be there in the run-up to Christmas and see all the (amusingly-Western-influenced: a snowflake when they never get snow?!) illuminations, plus a lifesize nativity scene and brass bands playing carols.



On the Saturday night, Paseo de Montejo was home to a Christmas concert and street food and crafts market. Eating tamales and esquites while watching little kids sparkily dressed at Christmas trees doing a ballet show is a pretty charming way to spend an evening.




The best food we had was generally from the markets, although it was a bit tricky to find vegetarian options at times. Various pig parts made into dishes like cochinita pibil and chircharrones rule here, along with the local specialty sopa de lima, chicken soup. The main market is pretty huge and disorienting to navigate!







Two of the higher end restaurants we went to (Rosa sur 32 and Nectar) both attempt to blend Mexican food with European styles, and to be honest the combination just doesn’t work for me. If it ain’t broke, don’t mess! We had great nibbles and local brews at Hermana República, and tasty mezcal cocktails at La Negrita Cantina and Mezcaleria La Fundacion. There were other restaurants and cantinas we’d have liked to try, such as Apoala, Manjar Blanco, El Barrio and Pipiripau, but we didn’t have that long in town and some days it was simply too hot to raise much of an appetite.

We did a fair bit of hotel lounging to cool off and recharge between walking the dusty streets with the sun beating down. We stayed at Casa de las Palomas which was super pretty and quite a steal.






One day we took a trip to Sotuta de Peon, a hacienda and old sisal plantation and factory about an hour south of the city. It was a nice informative tour, containing some social and cultural history too. This hacienda stood in ruins from the 1950s, when sisal production was made obsolete with the invention of plastic, until the 1980s, when a German-Mexican man bought it from the original owners, the Peon family. He carefully rebuilt and refurnished the house in a period style, and painstakingly sourced and reassembled original machinery in order to open for tours and demonstrations. The hacienda still produces sisal on these machines on a small scale, which is sold to local craftspeople to make mats, baskets and souvenirs.





After seeing the house and production facility, we took a mule-driven railroad cart over the agave fields to one of the eight cenotes on the hacienda’s 500-hectare grounds. Cenotes are one of the Yucatán state’s unique natural features: they are underground sinkholes caused by a large meteor strike to the limestone rock, which has left cavernous pools and and tunnels all over the peninsula. Some lunatics even like to swim from cave to cave along the narrow underground channels. NOPE to that. It was a great experience to swim in this more staid cenote at any rate. The water is crystal clear, low-saline and refreshingly cool, like a luxurious natural swimming pool. Finally we had a very nice buffet lunch at the hacienda’s on-site restaurant before heading back to town.

Tulum, Mexico

We sloped off work a couple of weeks early this year and squished in a trip back to Mexico just before Christmas. Having been to Mexico in 2014, it’s actually the quickest we’ve returned to a country so soon after last visiting, other than USA. There’s something about it that got under our skin and made it quite addictive. Maybe it’s the tacos and hot sauce. Who knows.

We did go to a completely different area of the country this time: where previously we were in Mexico City and Oaxaca in the centre-south of the state, this time we flew into Cancun airport on the eastern Yucatan peninsula. By all accounts Cancun is not worth sticking around in, so we traveled immediately to Tulum for a few days, followed by time in the towns of Merida and Valladolid.

Tulum essentially comprises a tiny strip of downtown that’s set a little inland, and a huge stretch of hotels and restaurants along the Caribbean coastline, stretching about 10 miles top to bottom. We spent a bit of time exploring the town, which has some sweet tacquierias frequented by locals amongst the unattractive tourist shops and heavy roadworks, but mainly spent our time on the coast.



Its main draws are firstly the beautiful beaches. The entire coast is ridiculously pretty and pristinely clean. It’s the nicest ocean I’ve ever swum in: perfectly warm in temperature, crystal clear and not too choppy most of the time. Since it’s on the Caribbean Sea it definitely has Barbados vibes, but I think it’s even nicer – and much more affordable.

View from our hotel room’s porch

We mainly used the beach right outside our resort, which was a literal ten second walk from our room. The hotel we picked, the Alaya, was nice in a rustic, eco kind of way. The best part was definitely the beach proximity. Waking up to sunrise on the waves and having a pre-breakfast swim with pelicans swooping by is pretty special.


We went to a couple of beach spots further north too; this is Playa el Paraiso. Even though it looks overcast in these photos it was still over 30 degrees every day, and the clouds soon blew over into clear blue skies for the rest of the trip.


The other draw to Tulum is close proximity to a lot of Mayan ruins and natural wonders. Tulum’s own ruins are on the coast at the north of the town. They aren’t as spectacular or well-preserved as the Mitla or Monte Alban ruins we saw in Oaxaca, but the grounds are pleasant and it was fun to spot some iguanas hanging around.


We also took a daytrip with Mexico Kan Tours (who were great!) to a biosphere reserve and unesco heritage site called Sian Ka’an situated at the southern end of the coastal strip. Containing the remains of a Mayan village and palace dating from 300-800 AD, as well as jungle and mangrove marshes, it was an interesting and relaxing afternoon trip.


The best part of the excursion was taking a boat ride across a freshwater lake in the reserve then dipping into the water and floating along an old Mayan canalway lined with mangrove trees. There’s a natural current that pulls you gently but firmly along; it was quite a strange feeling to just bob along in a lifejacket without needing to paddle!



There’s some fantastic food in Tulum. The best meals for me were a toss-up between a beachside taco place and a much-hyped New-Yorker-owned place. Charly’s Vegan Tacos won for me on the pure novelty of being able to order whatever I wanted and not have to worry that it was some obscure offal disguised in hot sauce. They do vegan versions of classics taco fillings – seitan chicharrones and soy chorizo for example – along with lovely sides of beans and corn and a help-yourself homemade salsa station. It was so good I ordered another round for seconds and ruined my dinner appetite.




We reserved super-popular Hartwood as soon we we booked the trip. Its ethos, in keeping with Tulum’s general eco-conscious theme, is to run with as little power and waste as possible, so everything’s cooked in a big wood-fired oven. Apparently it barely used to cater for vegetarians at all but now has quite a few options, though fish and meat are the speciality. The tomato salad starter was in particular out of this world. I’ve never tasted anything like it! The salty cojita cheese, tart pink pickled onions and oregano-heavy vinaigrette made a plate of tomatoes really special. Josh’s 14-hour braised pork rib went down pretty well, too. Do book ahead as you won’t be able to walk in and get a table.

We really ran out of time to try every bar and restaurant that looked promising: if we had more time I would have also liked to try Safari, Kitchen Table, Cetli and Restaurare. FYI if you visit, it’s slightly annoying to actually get to some the restaurants because they are all set along an inland road which has no pavements, so it’s quite unpleasant, dusty and hot to walk along. You can hail a taxi but they vary wildly in price depending on if your driver likes fleecing gringos! It didn’t help that our hotel was pretty far south; if I was to go again I would stay further towards the crossroads to the town to be more in the middle of things.


However a lot of the restaurants and bars also open onto the beach, and you can wander nearly the entire strip from the beach side, which is much more pleasant. Our favourite place for cocktails was Playa Canuk next door to our hotel. They infuse their own mescal with various chillies and spices and serve it with homemade fruit purées. This habanero and blackberry concoction was delicious. Another favourite was Gitano, next door to Hartwood, who also cook in a wood-fired oven and make really great cocktails.

Like Barbados, nightfall comes early and suddenly at around 6.30pm, and because the town is not wired to the electric grid there is little outdoor lighting so it goes DARK-dark. It was pretty nice to have some relief from the heat of the day and gaze uninterrupted at the moon and stars over the sea.

Back soon with the next stop, Merida…

Hudson, NY

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Hudson, in upstate New York, has to be amongst the quirkiest places I’ve been to. We were supposed to have two days there as a little appendix to our latest trip to NYC, but someone (me) cocked up the dates so we actually spent a scant 24 hours there. We rolled off the Amtrak – catching a train from Penn station in itself an odd and disorienting experience – on a warm Monday into what felt like a little ghost town. It’s certainly the first train station I’ve been to where there are little standalone stools left on the tracks for you to step down onto, and you have to trip yourself and your luggage directly over the tracks to get to the charmingly tiny station.

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Luckily we warmed to it after a walk up and down the main drag, Warren Street. For such a small place (population under 7,000) it has a ton of interesting shops, in particularly interiors, antiques and very cool book and record stores. And a cat rescue centre with kitties dozing in the window = you have my heart forever.

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We stayed our single night at the Rivertown Lodge, a brand new and utterly charming (there’s that word again) and cosy little hotel at the top of Warren Street. The room was lovely, and my favourite part, other than the bikes and ping-pong table, was the communal pantry cupboard instead of minibar.

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We took the bikes on a late afternoon ride to the nearby Greenport Conservation Area. We were a bit early in the season to do some true autumnal leaf-peeping, but we did see some wild deer prancing in a meadow. Mexican Cokes from the gas station were our welcome post-ride reward.

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The town had woken up a little after we got back. I suspect it’s an entirely different story at high season and weekends, when it’s a retreat for a lot of NYCers. If you ever find yourself there, don’t miss Spotty Dog, Moto Coffee Machine, Oak Pizzeria, American Glory BBQ, and Bakar – and that was all we managed to sample in 24 hours! While I feel like we can put NYC to rest after 4 trips in as many years, I think we’ll definitely want to return to Hudson some day.

Sicilia

I’m mired in the hell of jury service this week (that’s a whole other post), but last week I was on holiday in Taormina, Sicily. Just going to close my eyes and pretend I’m back there…

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