My Best “Only in Japan” Moments

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I may have an aversion to roller coasters and an irrational phobia of creepie crawlies but to say that I fear a culture shock is simply untrue. I was raised (for at least part of my childhood) in an Indian family on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. I went to an international school, where I would learn to pronounce names from all over the world even earlier than I could spell my own and a few years later with the same family by my side, I boarded a flight to London and never looked back. Now, I feel blessed to work in an occupation where every day, I see society around me for what it really is and not just the little bubble that I am part of.

sunset Miyajima Island Japan

Sunset at Miyajima Island, Japan

Different cultures rarely surprise me; they are the very essence of who I am.

Yet, somehow, Japan did.

Nara temples

Only in Japan

This was a nation that put the spring back in my step. It blew me away with its high-tech wizardry and timeless traditions. It enthralled me with its neon jungles and embraced me with its courteous bows. It stunned me with its daily newfound treasures and age-old temples and it propelled me to rise at dawn and sleep past midnight so my senses would stretch to the seams of intrigue with the most unfamiliar and the most curiously entertaining Only in Japan moments that I never expected to find.

Kabukitcho Tokyo

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The Dolce by Ferrero Rocher Pop Up in London

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Here in London, just about anything goes. You can dress like a glamazon or dress like you’ve just rolled out of bed; both will work and depending on the camps you mingle with and the part of the city you inhabit, one will seem decidedly inferior compared to the other. This is a city where you can find paintings in used chewing gum, spend an afternoon learning how to make doughnuts, become a whizz at ice sculpting or if, like me, you are rubbish at art, you can spend a freezing winter’s day at an ice sculpture festival instead.

In London, you’ll find a tour devoted to all things matcha (a Japanese green tea powder, which most of my friends and family have never even heard of let alone toured) and even a focused London walk specifically revolving around former serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

Ferrero Rocher chocolate gift boxes

Endless Ferrero Rocher Temptation

London is the place to look when you need something quirky and perfect for even the trickiest people to buy for (not mentioning any names Pumpkin), whose birthday we once spent competing on a London Underground Treasure Hunt and whose recent Christmas gift from me will soon see him playing pilot in a flight simulator. When a travel-addict has seen as much  of the world as he has, a girl must deploy some lateral thinking…

Covent Garden at Christmas

Covent Garden at Christmas – Views from the Ferrero Rocher Pop Up

Whatever your interests, there is something for just about everyone in London and no matter how niche, how specific and how bizarre a concept is, my guess is that if you can spread the word that it’s out there, you’ll find a few fanatics willing to cough up to enjoy it. The Crème Egg Pop Up Café that took place earlier in the year was a case in point. By the time I had come to hear of it, all the dates had fully sold out.

Ferrero Rocher Pop Up Store

I had learned my lesson once so I when I caught the chocolate hazelnut whiff of the Ferrero Rocher Pop Up, I didn’t even read the blurb before I started texting the fellow chocoholics in my life….or Ferrero-Rolics to be precise, as we divas who lust after these decadent, gold-encased rounds are an entity in our own right.

The Dolce by Ferrero Rocher Pop Up, Covent Garden

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Beating the January blues at Lumiere London Festival

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Every year, around this time in January, the general mood in the UK starts to plummet. Any evidence of ardently devoured mince pies has all but evaporated into the ether alongside the remnants of the festive-flavoured brandy creams once so strategically placed beside them. The reams of unread work emails that you shunned without guilt for a fortnight now adhere to your fingers like an unwelcome, lingering resin. And the glowing beams of Christmas lights that illuminated London’s skies throughout December have hibernated for the winter, leaving a darker, drearier backdrop for the New Year…or did they?

Westminster Abbey at night

Rainbow tones at Westminster Abbey

Lumiere London

Last year, when the glistening Yuletide bulbs in London vanished, they left a blank canvas for the likes of the Lumiere London Festival to stain the sky with brazen neon strokes, showing Londoners and visitors alike that there is more colour to January than the blues.

Lumiere London Regent Street

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My 10 Weirdest Travel Moments from 2016

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Well that year flew by in the blink of  an eye did it not?! And as so many fellow writers have alluded to over the last few months, that hasn’t always been for  the cheeriest reasons. From the tragic passing of some high-profile figures to the tragic and unfortunate rise to power of others, from the divisive politics of xenophobia to the senseless politics claiming innocent civilian lives – and that says nothing of the ups and downs we all go through in our own personal lives; if there is one thing that many of us have witnessed this year, it is that life is full of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Lake Inle sunset

Lake Inle, Myanmar, Dec 2016

In my line of work, I am reminded of that every day. Lives can change in an instant, they can be lost in an instant. I could fill this blog with heartbreaking true stories which exemplify that and I have learned, accordingly, to be grateful for each day and that if you are fortunate enough to be in a position to live out your dreams, then live them.

That’s the reason I travel the globe with such fervour and spend so much time with my family – because I have never yearned for suburban mansions or expensive cars, for business class flights or designer clothes, those indulgences failing to accelerate my heart rate. My pulse, instead, dances to the dream of urban life in my exhilarating and chaotic city, caring for the public as best as I can by day, spending time with ma famille in between and witnessing our incredible planet with my own eyes with any time left thereafter.

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Snapped without my knowledge in Patagonia 2014 (before the “here’s my hair” photo movement began…)

Who knows where the road may lead me in 2017 (Alaska, Colombia and India have been mentioned in passing?) Either way, I will cherish this year’s travels that took us to incandescent, flaming sunsets, postcard-esque panoramas, waters possessing the clarity of diamonds and destinations that showered our hair with fragrant petals dispersed from swaying cherry blossom trees.

10 of my Most Bizarre Travel Memories from 2016

 

There was, however, another side to our travels of 2016 and that was the one filled with slivers of weirdness, whimsy and bizarre twists. So, to make a change from my 15 highlights of 2015, my Bali to Chile in 2014 round-up and my 2013 travel summary, this year, I bring you my most bizarre, “huh?!?” moments and I’d love to hear your weird travel moments of the year too.

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A New Year’s Eve Stay at the Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly

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When your other half is summoned to work on New Year’s Eve, do you (a) accept long-time friend’s invitation to join a dinner party on the other side of London (b) accept lovely blogger friend’s suggestion to join more local house party (c) stay home alone in jim jams eating Nutella out of the jar (not something I would ever advocate by the way…) or (d) hop back to Mum and Dad’s for the kind of nostalgic creature comforts only found in the warmth of your favourite childhood surroundings.

New Years Day London

The New Year’s Day Parade, London

Ahead of the final moments of 2015, however, I went with (e), the less obvious choice which essentially involved me tagging along with Pumpkin whilst he headed to work.

Christmas Lights in London

Now before you label me a serious clinger, let me clarify that Pumpkin didn’t technically need to be at work; he simply had to be near it in case his services were required.  If his work ended up being quiet and I was off revelling elsewhere in town, then he would have had to see in the New Year alone (or may well have slept through it).

So, with purely selfless intentions you understand, I sacrificed all the other offers on the table to be by Pumpkin’s side. Needless to say, the prospect of checking into a luxury London hotel for the night had no bearing whatsoever on my decision 😀

London at Christmas

The Athenaeum Hotel, Piccadilly

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The Fairytale of New York at Christmas Time

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If I am not at home for Christmas, then there is only one place I would rather be and that, my festive friends, is New York City.

New York travel blog

Actually, who am I kidding? The truth is that I could (and do) proclaim the same any time of year, regardless of whether spring daffodils pepper my garden or whether the sturdy heel of my oh-so-unglamorous-but-ultra-comfy black boots trample the auburn fall foliage beneath with crispy aplomb.

Empire State Building blue lighting

Empire State of Christmas

Many of you may already be familiar with that (my love for New York I mean, not my ugly boots), since I have attested to it before many a time on this blog; but I myself remain puzzled as to where I acquired such an innate affection for a city I have never lived in and have been to just three times (four if you count a trip as a toddler).

New York Public Library Christmas Tree

New York Public Library

One can’t help but postulate whether in some former life, perhaps New York City was home, maybe it was the scene of an epic romance that I was privy to or perhaps the universe has plans to transport me there more permanently one day in this life… (wishful thinking but a girl can dream!)

NYC at Christmas travel guide

Christmas Light Displays in NYC

When I eventually win that Euro Millions jackpot or when NYC hotels come even within sniffing range of the term “affordable”, then I will make it an annual ritual to hop on board that trans-Atlantic flight. (For a great little Manhattan boutique hotel, check out my review of Cassa Times Square)

Cassa Hotel Times Square Lobby

Cassa Hotel Times Square

Until then though, I cherish the sporadic visits I make every few years, each time arriving on the streets of Manhattan with the kind of fresh-faced, enchanted glint in my eyes that would convince you I had never travelled outside my own house, let alone to the bright lights of the Big Apple.

New York at Christmas travel blog

New York City at Christmas Time

My previous visits to New York have always fallen in summer or autumn months and last year, just before we headed on board a Caribbean cruise in December, we took advantage of the timing to experience NYC at Christmas time. The Pogues & Kirsty McColl’s Fairytale in New York has long been  my favourite Christmas song (and not because it has New York in the title!) but I could never understand how a song that sounds so uplifting when it blares from the radio speakers could be filled with such grumpy undertones and words like “scumbag…maggot…cheap lousy…”

Christmas in New York City

At Christmas time though, the fairy tale of New York becomes a most apparent reality. The already heavily illuminated city becomes over-charged with shimmering shop displays and towering Christmas trees; ice rinks with picture-perfect backdrops that we know and love from countless Hollywood movies open up, where couples glide along hand in hand and children lurking beneath bobbled-woolly hats cart ahead of the parents tentatively grabbing the rails.

Christmas activities NYC

Bryant Park Ice Rink

Markets are brimming with jovial tradesman, who serve belly-warming snacks in quintessentially American-sized portions to keep visitors well-fuelled for the Arctic temperatures of a New York winter – or at least, that’s what normally happens but we lucked out by arriving during one of the warmest winter week’s in New York history!

Bryant Park Christmas Market New York

Bryant Park Winter Village

There are thousands of attractions in NYC even for the repeat visitor and 3 adult trips to NYC later, I have barely scratched the neon surface but for today’s post, I wanted to show you the sights and locations where I felt most festive and where the spirit of Christmas in New York City came most alive. I must thank Carolann and Cass, for the helpful insider tips they gave me before I went.

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The Hello Kitty Cafe in Seoul, South Korea

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I fear my gushy internal smile seeps to the surface when I reflect on the ways in which life with Pumpkin has skewed my tastes. Six years ago, the overlapping segment of our collective Venn diagram was barely a linear sliver but as the minutes ticked on, the country count toll rose and the experiences became increasingly memorable, our scrawny overlap ballooned like an expectant mother, as our interests and tastes meshed into an indecipherable, blurry cloud.

The influence we have had on each other is easily apparent to all those who know us well.

Hello Kitty cafe Seoul blog review

For starters, I now own a pair of hiking boots and he now understands the word, “amuse bouche.” He has slowed his gait after learning that my little legs struggle to keep up with his brisk pace and I have learned that travel is far more liberating when you don’t pack your hair straighteners. He has slowly come to love the uplifting, unwinding qualities of a beach break with no itinerary and I have surprised myself by volunteering to go on jungle walks in the pouring rain.

Ever since we met, he has worn his previously rarely-seen beaming smile (those are his parents’ words not me patting myself on the back here) and I have learned from him to live in the moment, on our own terms and that life can be much more of an adventure than any stereotypical societal mould would have us believe.

unique quirky cafes around the world

Even more moving though, is when Pumpkin’s tastes don’t overlap with mine – when he finds an activity I will love that he knows he will loathe that he not only agrees to participate in but actually proactively suggests. It is this form of selfless kindness that moves me the most and nothing exemplifies it better than when he accompanied me to the Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae Seoul earlier this year.

Hello Kitty Coffee Dessert Shop

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​Which is the Best Cinque Terre Village to stay in?

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I read many an article about Cinque Terre, Italy before I finally booked my visit and with each colourful clifftop photograph and each glimpse of the small boats cluttered along narrow harbours in the sunshine, my urge to visit heightened. I couldn’t quite grasp what was so special about Cinque Terre, the UNESCO listed cluster of little villages in the La Spezia region of Liguria – but I knew I wanted to be there to find out.

Cinque Terre Vernazza views

The most confusing part, though, was deciding where to stay because I simply wasn’t able to find a consensus. In a place so enchanting, it is not surprising that you develop an inherent bias and compelling affinity towards the village you based yourself in and here I am, aware of this, yet falling under the same spell.

Cinque Terre travel guide information

It is true that each village comes with its own sense of character and vibe, some miniature and sleepy, some more pulsatile and energised but in truth, it makes little difference which one you stay in since travelling between them is quick and easy – so how exactly do you go about choosing which Cinque Terre village is best to stay in?

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A Visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum

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I remember when I first heard of the city of Hiroshima. It was around my teenage puppy fat era that I went through circa fourteen years old. Several sequential high school history lessons focused on the US/Japanese relations around the time of World War Two. As one of the subjects I was most keen on and very much unlike her despairing physics counterpart, there was no real challenge for my history teacher in keeping me engaged.

bridge Hiroshima peace park

Indeed, I could have regurgitated more to you then about the intricacies of European history then than I could now. The passage of time has a way of grating away the crisper details of a once sponge-like adolescent brain. I still remember the tears that rolled, during one class, from the innocent eyes of a fellow classmate, whose heritage was part Japanese. The horror of the atrocities documented in our textbooks, the onus of having it confirmed verbally by a teacher who we respected unquestionably, was too much for her to contain.

It was for these reasons and my Dad’s insistence, bordering on assertion that I must not go to Japan without visiting Hiroshima that alongside Tokyo and Kyoto, it became one of the three essential cities firmly ingrained into an itinerary for a Japan trip that had not even been conceived at that stage let alone pinned down in time.

Hiroshima Peace Park Fountain

Nobody visits the memorial museum in Hiroshima without anticipating a level of emotional upset but nothing quite prepared me for the profound impact of visiting a city like this until I actually arrived in person. I chose to write about it partly to share my own reflections but mostly to fulfill a promise we made that day.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Upon stepping off the tram at the Peace Park stop, we crossed the road to find ourselves immediately inside the Hiroshima Peace Park grounds. With broad boulevards, spotlessly groomed lawns and bursts of spring blossoms, the very layout exuded a dignified tranquility. Benches were a-plenty and contrary to what I expected, it seemed there were just as many locals seated contentedly under the midday sun as there were tourists pointing lenses at the memorial statues.

gardens Hiroshima

The A-Bomb Dome (atomic bomb dome) as it has long been referred to, is perhaps the most visually striking preservation of the literal moment of impact when the bomb was dropped. In the aftermath of the bombing, the Genbaku Dome was the only remaining building still standing. The decision was made to maintain and preserve the original wreckage after initially dividing opinion among local citizens, some of whom were unsurprisingly wary of the heartbreaking memories it would evoke.

Hiroshima Dome Japan

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A Romantic Santorini Photo Shoot with Localgrapher

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Contrary to what popular blog press would have you believe, not all of us twenty or thirty something female bloggers ooze the self-confidence that is needed to routinely plaster our mug shots across the multitude of screens that increasingly exist in our daily lives. If you’ve chosen to immerse yourself in the world of travel blogging, you probably already veer towards the generous, big-boned end of the trigger-happy spectrum as far cameras are concerned; but it’s one thing feeling at ease whilst taking a photograph and quite another when you suddenly become the subject of one.

Santorini Photo Shoot Localgrapher

Let’s place this in a semi-autobiographical context by looking at my Instagram account for example. I’ve shared around 600 photos on this social media platform since I joined it a couple of years ago – only around six of them feature my face and absolutely none of them feature me with Pumpkin, despite the fact that nearly all my travels are with him.

Localgrapher Photo Shoot Blog Review

The Couples’ Holiday Photo Conundrum

I am sure many of you who travel with your significant other can relate to having hard drives full of photos that tell a story of “here’s me at…..” (insert landmark of your choice), swiftly followed by “here’s you at….” (insert same landmark).

If you want any photos together at said landmark, you are left with a collection of options as underwhelming as a sparse dessert menu you wish you’d never saved space for:

(1) Through a melange of mixed languages, ask the only random stranger who seems vaguely approachable but risk having your arm accidentally amputated in the photo and sigh five  minutes too late when you spot the missing peak of the Eiffel Tower.

(2) Deploy handheld selfie mode, which the world never intended for couples with a height discrepancy (and which yield such gigantic close-ups of your face that you will locate freckles on your nose that you hadn’t even realised existed).

Oia photography viewpoints

(3) Successfully capture photograph without bothering any strangers (on 8th attempt after half an hour spent on auto-mode camera set up with tripod. Great way to make the most of the money invested in flights and hotels. NOT.)

(4) Then there’s the scenario I simply refuse to entertain, which goes a little something like this: “here’s us at landmark in what appears to be a decent photo.”

Success finally?

Sadly not, as just hours before you Snapchatted that pic, an innocent passer-by had his eyes lopped out after walking into your intrusive eyesore (pun acknowledged) of a selfie stick.

(Disclaimer – no actual eyes were lopped out in the making of this blog post.)

Romantic Couples Photo Shoot Santorini

A Romantic Travel Photo Shoot in Santorini, Greece

Where does that leave you then, if you’re travelling as a couple or a group of loved ones and want some decent photos on an island as photogenic as, let’s say Santorini – a destination we visited just last week and whose immaculate scenery frankly upstages even the most beautiful members of the celebrity glitterati that step on it?

In a day and age where you can check your emails on a watch and be caught out in your PJs at 2pm on a Sunday (thanks Skype), surely, SURELY there is a better way to get some half respectable photos as a couple or as a group of family/friends on holiday?

Photo Shoot Oia Santorini

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