Rising Sun Highlights

Because I’m a somewhat sporadic publisher, I often omit huge swaths of travel experiences, only to have a friend ask, “Do you have info about that on Breweventures?”

I confess to being seriously remiss when it comes to adding to my blog in general, but especially when it comes to one of my favorite places on Earth– Japan. So, here are a few of my favorite things from past trips to a country that’s like engaging in two-way time travel– both future and past all at once. (S – this is especially for you.)

You know that part of “Blade Runner” right at the beginning, before everything looks seedy? That’s Tokyo. There are far too many cool things to do in Tokyo to list here: taking a boat ride from Hamarikyu Gardens to Asakusa, using the fortune sticks to divine your future at the temple there, eating an early morning tuna sashimi bowl at Tsukiji, and visiting weird pocket-sized bars (especially the fabulously friendly flamenco one) in the Golden Gai.

And that’s just the obvious stuff.

View of Mt. Fuji at sunset from the Grand Hyatt

For me, however, Tokyo is one of my favorite places in the world to swim indoors, specifically, at the pool in the Grand Hyatt. Guests staying at the hotel can have a swim every morning, noon, and night in the hotel’s pristine pool, replete with views of Fuji. Located in Shinjuku, you’re in the middle of Tokyo’s madding crowd but far above it. (Many of the rooms also have Fuji views.) The spa, particularly if you do a treatment or two before or after a long flight, represents that uniquely Japanese luxury vibe of perfectly balanced modernity and tranquility; the shiatsu here can definitely be a beating but it’s good for the soul.

Sleep, swim & spa:  Book your room or a spa visit here.

The spiritual heart of Japan, you can’t miss seeing Fuji. (Actually, you can: I visited in May once and couldn’t see it through the low clouds when I was right at the base of the mountain.) However, if you stay at the Hotel Kaneyamaen in Yamanashi, that doesn’t matter so much. This hotel has some of the most amazing Japanese gardens tucked behind its modern exterior. Even if you’re not that into gardens, you’ll be amazed. You should not miss the hotel’s wonderful onsen baths that overlook Fuji and are often mini-gardens in their own right. As if that’s not enough, on many nights, there are evening Taiko drum performances at the hotel which you can watch while wearing your yukata robe. The meals at the hotel are also fabulous, making this one place you truly don’t need or want to leave.

Get floral & float near Fuji: Visit the Kaneyamaen.  

bambooKyoto & Nara
Going to Japan without visiting Kyoto is like eating peanut butter without jelly. In fact (no offense to Tokyo), but Kyoto, Japan’s traditional heart, is the place where you should spend most of your time if you only have a week or so.

Be sure to check out a Kyoto event calendar before you go so you don’t miss the numerous events at temples, shrines, bamboo forests, and gardens. (Also be sure to visit the temple dedicated to your lunar birth year!) Kyoto is a great place to take a class in traditional arts or to take a private guided tour based on your interests; my mom and I took an ikebana class with a private guided garden tour which was an insightful and inspiring experience.

Cuisine that is truly gorgeous

Kyoto is THE place to indulge in a traditional ryokan experience, the traditional Japanese lodging where you get to sleep on a tatami mat and have a delicious, zillion course kaiseki meal brought to you in your private quarters. (Kyoto is also the gastronomic heart of Japan.) While there are many places to choose from, the Tamahan is a fantastic place to partake in the ryokan experience. Located in the heart of Gion (the geisha district), the Tamahan’s staff are wonderful, the chef gets ingredients from the market every day, and you can soak in your cedar tub after a hard day’s sightseeing (with a few lemons tossed in for good measure). My mom and I had a hard time leaving here after staying for almost a week

not so innocent
Not so innocent…

Nara, about 30 minutes by train from Kyoto, is where Buddhism started in Japan so this World Heritage location is definitely worth a look. Nara hosts some really impressive temples and giant Buddhas as well as sacred deer (who are actually cunning, dangerous little bastards – beware).

I once stayed in Nara for a few nights as I had a special tiger temple to visit for the Year of the Tiger, but unless you’re doing something like that, Nara is a bit sleepy in the evenings and much better for a day trip from Kyoto. I wouldn’t miss it, however, it’s fascinating.

Experience an amazing Kyoto ryokan: Here’s the Tamahan.
Read: The Tale of Genji (the world’s first novel, written by a woman too!) and of course, Memoirs of a Geisha

Gorilla sign - Osaka
Osaka, of course!

Don’t tell Tokyo, but Osaka is my favorite city in Japan. The people are much more laid back (probably because there’s a little more breathing room), there’s tons of great food and fun to be had, and most important, the city is home to the Hanshin Tigers, where I saw the best baseball game I have ever seen (keeping in mind I am a Cubs fan and consider a day game at Wrigley to be one of life’s best experiences.)

Marching band sections keep the crowd going, around 60,000 fans let off phallic ballons at the 7th inning stretch, the ballpark food is Japanese BBQ goodness, and the nice beer ladies serve pleasingly cold lager and never let you go dry.  I used Japanball.com to book tickets to the game, which were delivered to our hotel. Easy peasy for a truly unforgettable and very Japanese experience. Even if you don’t like baseball, you should not miss a game if you’re there for the season.

Book some Osaka baseball: Here’s the site. (They do tickets for other teams in other cities as well as sumo tickets too.)

For all sorts of useful Japan goodness: Many Japanese websites get a little bit lost in translation. Japanican.com is really helpful for hotel descriptions and other travel info in English.






So, where did the Wise Men go after?

Happy New Year!

January tends to weigh heavily on the mind, as far as months go. I’m pretty sure that even the Three Wise Men were heading back from Bethlehem thinking, “Now what? Is there anything else to see on the way home?” Or, at least I would have been saying that if I were one of the Magi.

Whether you’re seeking an escape due to the New Year blues or are just cheerily planning your year’s travels, I strongly urge you to consider the world’s Second Cities. My interest isn’t only because I’m originally from the Chicago area– America’s original Second City. While it’s great to throw coins in Rome’s Trevi Fountain or eat sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji, sometimes a country’s capital cities can be too crowded, too noisy, and just too overwhelming to really feel like you experienced the place.

While the places I’ve listed below may not technically qualify as their country’s true Second Cities (I think even Chicago is now third behind L.A.), they’re all amazing representations of the best of what their country and/or region has to offer. And yes, you should definitely visit Chicago!

Torre, Bologna, Italia
Street view & blue skies in Bologna

Bologna, Italy – This is the place where Italians go on foodie holidays, which tells you something about the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes known as “Bologna the Red” for its lovely terracotta-hued buildings and its political past, Bologna plays host to the oldest university in the West, a bevy of wonderful shops, a fantastic archaeology museum, cool cafe culture and great night life.

And did I mention the food? Mortadella, tagliatelle, tortellini– just to name a few. Of course, none of these have anything to do with the bastardized cousins you may be familiar with. Rubbery, bland “bologna” cannot be found in Bologna, thank God. Gloopy, non-distinctive “spaghetti bolognese” (or “spag bol” as the Brits call it) is also mercifully non-existent in this amazing, vibrant city. Rome – watch out!  Have a look at what’s on via the informative official visitors site.

Ghent, Belgium – In the interest of full disclosure, I generally have an aversion to Belgium; it has historically been one of my personal Low Countries. In Bruges, I got bed bugs and was accosted by a duo of louche, dwarf swingers. (NB: This happened well before the film, “In Bruges” forever connected the city and a dwarf as a a plot point.) I have also had numerous unpleasant interactions in Brussels. Essentially, I had almost given up on Belgium until I spent two days in Ghent. Like Bologna, Ghent is a historic university town, a status which keeps the beautifully preserved Medieval city from getting too museum-like. Ghent’s got beautiful canals, vibrant street life both day and night, and is peopled by funny, smart, down-to-earth Ghentians. (I’m not sure that this is the accurate name for those from Ghent, but all local people were careful to highlight that they were from Ghent, not from Belgium. Hmmm. Perhaps I’m not alone on this Belgium thing.) It’s a town full of music, culture and several restaurants featuring all-you-can-eat spareribs. For all that’s happening in one of Europe’s most delightful cities, check out Ghent’s robust visitor info.

Kilkenny, Ireland – Nearly 15 years ago, my husband and I got married in Kilkenny, after meeting in a youth

St. Canice's Cathedral - Kilkenny
St. Canice’s – One of Kilkenny’s very beautiful and very old churches

hostel a few years before that. Though this romantic association is admittedly personal, I can assure you that you will make your own pleasant memories when you visit Kilkenny. The fact that many Irish people choose it for their stag weekends, hen parties and other celebrations is a sign that there is extremely good craic to be had here. In addition to some of Ireland’s finest pubs and a Smithwick’s beer factory, Kilkenny also features amazing medieval architecture, a lovely well-restored castle, fine walks in and around the city, and some of the nicest people in Ireland– which is one of the nicest countries on Earth. While I love Dublin, I’d often fly straight into Kilkenny if I could. Kilkenny has a slew of festivals, including a foodie fest and the world’s first (and only?) comedy and economics festival, Kilkenomics, so definitely have a look at the official info to see what’s happening to plan your visit.

Osaka, Japan –  Tokyo is likely the world’s best-run city. It is beautiful, clean, easy to get around and full of people– the largest

Gorilla sign - Osaka
One of the many reasons to go ape for Osaka

metropolitan area in the world, in fact. Where other countries have chaos when 10,000 of their citizens attend a soccer match, Tokyo hums along with millions coursing into, across and out of the city every day. That being said, Tokyo can, at times, be overwhelming. The time you accidentally get on at rush hour and have to get shoved by the gloved train employee. The night you’re in the Golden Gao and realize that not every establishment welcomes “gaijin.” This is when it’s time to leave Tokyo and head straight for Osaka. The good people of Osaka are extremely friendly and the city features amazing food and nightlife, an awesome aquarium, a pretty impressive castle, and Japan’s best baseball team– the Hanshin Tigers.  Fore info on baseball in Osaka and more, have a look at my post on some Japan highlights.