One day in Nikko

Nikko is a World Heritage Site near Tokyo. You can easily access Nikko by train from Tokyo. We decided to stay overnight in this charming little village in the evenly charming Nikko Turtle Inn.

Even though there are lots of sacred (and silent) places in Tokyo we were immediately drawn to the atmosphere in Nikko. While Japan’s capital is bubbling, alive and filled with salarymen this small town was a lot less sparkling albeit filled with tourists.

You won’t find a lively night scene in Nikko: most restaurants close early and only two grocery stores are open late. A welcome pause from hectic Tokyo.

We first visitied the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nikko including Tosho-gu and Rinno-ji. Rinno-ji temple was under construction while we visited and we must say that we were rather impressed by how these national monuments are being reconstructed. First they build some kind of warehouse around the temple. After building this factory-style warehouse restoration can start. Needless to say renovation works can last quite a while: Rinno-ji temple reconstruction will finish in 2020.


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Rinno-ji temple – reconstruction will finish in 2020


After visiting the restoration site we headed to Tosho-gu. It was extremely crowded at this site. It soon became clear some sort of event was taking place. People were lining up on the steps of Tosho-gu. We did as the locals did and lined up next to them. After a twenty minute wait a ceremony took place and we were happy to spot sumo wrestlers climbing the stairs in their traditional garnements.


Sumo

Sumo wrestlers in Nikko, near Tosho-gu


Tournament season ended before we arrived in Japan, so we didn’t see an actual match. We did see a traditional ceremony: the wrestlers were honoured by LOTS of men in suits.

After the ceremony we entered the temple. Truly beautiful, beautiful detail on the buildings and gates.


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Tosho-gu World Heritage Site


The sites are open to 4.30 PM (during high season). At noon the crowds were deafening. From 3.30 PM onwards the site was almost empty and so quiet it became eerie. Sun was setting, we seemed to be the only tourists in this ancient complex. If you’re visiting the complex: please stay ’till closing time to experience some sort of quiet you just can’t grasp when the tour buses are still parked nearby.

We watched the sun set over Shinkyo bridge.


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Shinkyo bridge in Nikko, Japan


Before leaving Nikko we hiked to the Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss. Despite the grandeur of the Nikko temples this will be the one thing I’ll always remember. On one side: the abyss. On the other side: one row of beautifully dressed buddha statues. On the road: two identically dressed Japanese youngster recording a dance video. Too mesmerized: we didn’t take any pictures of them nor did we film them. But whoa! What a sight. The scenery, the dance moves: perfect. Don’t fear though: even without dancers the scenery is astounding.


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Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss in Nikko, Japan


5 days in Tokyo

5 Days in Tokyo

In October we spent five days in Tokyo. I already told you about how I fell in love with Japan on the first day; now let me tell you the rest of our love story.

Let me introduce my Tokyo top tourist activities

Tsujiki Fish Market

I have a dual relationship with Tsujiki Fish Market. According to our Lonely Planet guide, Tripadvisor and other tourist reviews this place is a must-see. True. They also suggest visiting the tuna auction. That one appeared to be a big mistake.

The first time we went to Tsujiki Fish Market we got up at 2 A.M. (yes, at two o’clock in the MORNING). We hauled a cab and arrived at the site at approximately 3.30 A.M. With great ambition we walked toward the Fish Information Centre where you need to apply for the auction. Sadly, a guard told us the auction was sold out: ‘Sold out, come back tomorrow, 3 P.M.’

Sooo… the next day we got up at 1 A.M., grabbed a cab and arrived at about 2 A.M. Great news: we were the fourth and fifth to join the queue. After waiting for about another 3 and a half hours we got to see the tuna auction at 5.45 A.M.

So on a beautiful October morning I found myself looking at dead endangered fish and felt kind of sorry (and maybe also a bit guilty). This guilt trip only intensified when the majority of people in our group started taking selfies. With the dead tuna. To this day I still wonder about how many households have framed photographs of family members and dead tuna.

Luckily the sushi breakfast was awesome.


Selfies at tsujiki fish market

Selfies at Tsujiki Fish Market – tuna auction


Sushi Breakfast

Sushi breakfast near Tsujiki Fish Market


Kabuki

Let me be brief about this one: get food and drinks before attending a kabuki performance. Yes, every written guide recommends getting food, every reviewer tells you so… so listen! Don’t be as stupid as we were and grab yourself some food and drinks and bring them into the theatre. All the Japanese do it; only tourists seem to starve themselves to death during a four hour kabuki performance.

We watched kabuki in the Kabuki-za Theatre and rented an English audio guide. This theatre is highly recommended: friendly staff, great performances and a pretty good English translation.

A kabuki play lasts for about three-four hours. You can also opt for just one act, this will keep you entertained for about an hour.


Kabuki-za Theatre

Kabuki-za Theatre


Kabuki Dance featuring Bando Kotji with live music at Japan Society

Nishizaki Sakurako and Bando Kotji in “Yoshino Mountain”. Photo from Tokyo Times


Robot Restaurant

Only tourists here: best guilty pleasure I’ve ever had. We grabbed some food before heading to this joint since their food reviews appeared to be quite horrible. The show however was everything you can expect: weird robots dancing to weird music.

Afterwards you can dive into Shinjuku neighbourhood; nightlife is supposed to be great here. I shouldn’t know though since I was too busy trying to get into some tuna auction.


Robot Restaurant

Robot Restaurant


Meiji-Jingu

This is where I fell in love with Japan: beautiful traditional temple in the heart of one of the world’s biggest cities. We saw several traditional wedding processions and were absolutely in awe.


Traditional wedding at Meiji-Jingu

Traditional wedding at Meiji-Jingu


Senso-ji

Another place of worship and tradition in the big city. We watched a traditional procession of musicians. Or at least we thinks this is what we saw. We only just arrived in Japan and were too pussy to ask. There was also a priest involved if I’m not mistaken. Anyone who can give further detail on what his happening in the pic below: please enlighten me in the comment section of this blog.


Traditional musicians near Senso-ji

Traditional musicians near Senso-ji


Tokyo Sky Tree

The walk towards Tokyo Sky Tree was truly movie-esque. We walked on an empty street, straight to the tower. Before entering the Sky Tree we decided to eat at an icecream parlour. Just a normal activity, made slightly less normal when the personnel started singing a song to us. One song for each icecream ordered. Just a normal day in Japan.


View from Tokyo Sky Tree

View from Tokyo Sky Tree


Shibuya Crossing

Must see. I still wonder why this can work in Japan, but when shopping on Regent Street in London people keep walking into each other. I truly still wonder.


Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing


Ghibli Museum

I love Studio Ghibli movies and visiting the museum was one of my highlights. Walking into the museum is like walking into a Ghibli movie. The museum has a movie theatre playing different short movies. A must if you’re a Ghibli fan. Book in advance. WAAAAY in advance.


Ghibli Museum

Ghibli Museum


Mt Fuji

I opened with a love/hate relation and I end this list with one. Mt Fuji: so beautiful on all those postcards. The icon of a nation. I guess we made the mistake of joining a tourist tour that just wasn’t quite to our taste.

We arrived at Mt Fuji 5th station and looked at the mountain. Let me tell you a basic fact: the iconic mountain doesn’t always have snow on top. This seems logical, this IS logical, but before arriving I seemed to have forgotten about basic scientific principles. So yes, I truly was disappointed when the mountain was as brown as… well, you get the picture. What annoyed me even more were the busloads of tourists. You couldn’t walk 5 feet without running into someone.

Our tour continued to Mt Fuji 5 lakes. Whoa, things got even more out of hand. You couldn’t walk 3 feet without running into someone.

Don’t get me wrong: the lakes were gorgeous and apparently everyone had found out about this. We ended the day taking a look at the truly beautiful Shiraito Falls.


Red bean cakes - Fuji 5 Lakes

Red bean cakes – Fuji 5 Lakes


Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji – wooden prayer plaques

Top places to find street art in London

One of my favourite things to do (and see) in London is its street art. London has amazing street artists and a great artistic vibe. If you’re looking for a great experience and you want to go off the beaten track, make sure to include street art in your London schedule.

We took two great street art tours in London:

  • London Alternative Tour: We took the walking tour (in English) and had a great guide. The tour lasted about two hours and took us to all the highlights.
  • London Street Art Tour: We also opted for the English walking tour. This tour ended after about four hours (including a lunch break). The pace was a bit slower, we saw all the same highlights as in the London Alternative Tour and some other streets we hadn’t visited yet.

Both tours are a great option, depending on how much time you have to spare.

Not into tours? All tours booked up? Want to explore on your own?

Although we had so much fun during our tours, we saw the most amazing things when we went to explore to city on our own. Are you planning a visit to London? Visit Shoreditch / Hackney Wick to make the most of your visit. Make sure these streets are on your list:

  • Brick Lane
  • Redchurch Street
  • Hackney Road
  • Fashion Street
  • Rivington Street

Want to get to know some of the most famous street artists you can spot in London? Here are some of my favs:

  • ROA: Belgium’s first, graffiti artist from Ghent. Can be spotted in Hanbury Street, Chance street,…
  • Mobstr: Always funny or thoughtful. Can be spotted in Hanbury Street, Tabernacle street,…
  • Ben Wilson: Genius who turns chewing gum into little pieces of art. Can be spotted on Millenium Bridge and throughout London.
  • C215: France’s answer to Bansky. Can be spotted in Brick Lane, Blackall Street,…
  • CityZen Kane: 3D pieces which can be spotted in Brick Lane, Redchurch Street,…
  • Eine: His iconic font can be found in Middlesex Street, Old Street,…
  • Jimmy C: Make sure to spot his iconic pieces in Whitby Street.
  • Obey: Nowadays known as a clothing designer but also a great street artist. Can be spotted in Batemans Row.
  • Borondo: True art. Can be found alongside Regent’s Canal.
  • Phlegm: So pretty. Can be found in Rivington Street.
  • Pure Evil: Can be found throughout London and has his own gallery in Leonard Street.
  • Space Invaders: 80s back, in Brick Lane, City Road,…
  • Stik: KISS, Whitecross Street, Redchurch Street,…
  • and lots more

If you want to spot a Banksy, you can track his work on Google Maps. It tells you in which condition his street art is. Some of his work is preserved behind plexi glass, such as two pieces in a beer garden in Rivington Street. Always a save shot.

Interested in free (street) art galleries?

London: 10x off the beaten track

London is my absolute favourite European city. I like to visit at least twice a year, just to see what changed. I like to go by train (Eurostar) since I only live across the English channel. Arriving in St. Pancras: it gives me goosebumps every time.

I still have a lot of exploring to do, but I’ll sum up some of my favourite off the beaten track things to do/see. No Big Ben, Madame Tussauds or London Eye in this list.

  1. Alternative Walks London: I cannot stress this one enough. I talk about it with everyone I meet, regardless of their interest. A colleague recommended this tour in 2014 and we did the walking tour straight away. It took us to a less known neighbourhood and gave us the chance to get to know a ‘new’ side of London. We saw really amazing street art, the guide was friendly and entertaining and we discovered new restaurants and shops. We went back to the neighbourhood (near Spitalfields Market) in 2015 and were surprised by how much the neighbourhood (and street art) had already changed. The neighbourhood is definitely being upmarketed so if you’re planning on visiting: be quick. Sooner or later the neighbourhood will be a hipster hangout and the real underground vibe will probably shift to another neighbourhood.
  2. The Book of Mormon:  Okay… Visiting a musical in London isn’t really going off the beaten track, but this isn’t a musical like The Lion King or Mamma Mia. It’s created by the South Park team so you know you’ll be in for a great night. Great show, great actors and voices. Side note: If you do not like South Park humour, you should probably not visit.
  3. Greenwich: Most tourists don’t take the time to visit Greenwich, but you can easily go there by public transport. It’s a great escape from the busy London vibe. If it’s sunny you should jump on the train and go picnic on one of the lawns of Greenwich Park (near the world-famous Observatory).
  4. The O2 Arena: Also in Greenwich, but feel I must make this a new item. This concert hall isn’t only a concert hall but a whole artificial city. It used to house the amazing British Music Experience (which was unfortunately closed in April 2014). Even without the BME the O2 Arena is an experience in itself and chances are there’s a great show on while you’re in London. Not for the fainthearted though, the tribunes are steeeeep.
  5. Anthropologie: I must admit I am a sucker for this chain of clothing stores. Their shop on Regent Street has a beautiful hanging garden. You can dump your more conventional travel friends at Hamleys which is not far away. If you like a less crowded shopping experience there’s always the shop on Kings Road (and other shops I haven’t visited yet).
  6. The Comedy Store: If musicals aren’t your thing you can always catch a nice comedy show in London. We were recommended the Comedy Store and it truly was a great experience. In high season shows can be sold out, but there are lots of other comedy joints.
  7. Just walk: my best London experience was the time we just walked for hours. We didn’t enter any museums, churches or shops… we just walked. We went past all the well-known monuments and enjoyed them from a distance. No long queues, no noisy people and no rip-offs. Do wear appropriate footwear, since you ca easily walk for hours straight in this lovely city. We went past the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Parliament, Piccadilly Circus,… They’re all walking distance so no need for The Underground, just enjoy the view. You can also easily walk along the Thames!
  8. Highgate Cemetery: We visited the East and West Cemetery. You can only visit the West Cemetery by tour (worth it!). We had a really funny tour guide (in an appropriate way, since you’re still visiting a graveyard) and learnt a lot about the history of the cemetery and London in general. Better than Pere Lachaise (Paris) and Kerepesi Cemetery (Budapest).
  9. Huntarian Museum: Weird yet beautiful. A museum full of animals and human body parts, mostly preserved in jars. If you’re not a medical professional it does require some time to get used to seeing some of the abnormalities but in its core the museum just shows how beautiful nature can be.
  10. Kew Gardens: Not necessarily off the beaten track, but often left aside due to time restrictions. If you have time the gardens are worth the visit. If you don’t have time you should make time.

I’ll be visiting London again in July. We’ll probably (hopefully) visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum, but I’d love to hear about some other hidden gems if you know some!

Two (and a half) days in Dublin

In May 2015 we took a short term citytrip to Dublin. We stayed in Ireland’s capital for two and a half days and we truly made the most of it (or so we would like to believe).

When your time is limited you have to make choices. I’ll tell you about the choices we made and the opportunities we let go. Want some snapshots? You can find them on our Facebook page.

Day One – Top choices

  • Temple Bar Area in the morning: No noisy/drunken tourists for us, but beautiful street art and nice little streets to wander in.
  • Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Marsh’s Library: I especially loved the little library. Cute and much more quiet than the famous Old Library at Trinity College.
  • Kilmainham Gaol: Even though the most beautiful wing was closed when we were there, it was a really nice tour with a lovely guide and the people working there are some of the nicest people we’ve met in Ireland.
Day Two – Top choices
  • Trinity College: Take a guided tour. It’ll cost you an extra 2 EUR on your entry ticket but it’ll be worth it. Ask for the guide who looks like Harry Potter. After the guided tour you can visit the Old Library (with the Book of Kells) and the Long Room. It was extremely crowded when we were there, so we just glanced at the Book of Kells. The Long Room however was worth the mass hysteria.
  • Take a loooong walk: On our second day in Dublin we went to the outskirts and back by foot. Worth it! We saw teenagers jumping from buildings in the canal, we saw cute little streets and some nice street art.
  • Queen of Tarts: Some sugary go(o)d(d)(n)ess.
 
Day Three – Top Choices
  • The real highlight on this day: Viking Splash Tours! A fun way to explore the city with (adult) children. Become a Viking and roar at passing Kelts. Watch them toss their maps and learn some history of the city at the same time. Plus you get to wear a viking helmet.
  • Dublinia: a nice museum, especially if you have children. If you don’t: just act like one, it’s worthwhile. The museum is connected to Christ Church, you can buy a combi ticket and save some euros.